Sunday, March 26, 2006

The terror of language

It is one thing to chat about cheese in the fromagerie and a totally different experience to comfort a distraught employee in an alien tongue. After six months, my French is adequate for everyday transactions but pitiful for true communication.

I had a situation this week where an important and respected employee was very unhappy. As I am in theory responsible for the overall well-being of the troops, I realized that the time had come for my first adult conversation in French.

Reviewing my humble French vocabulary, I hurriedly wrote down key phrases on a cheat sheet for my upcoming conversation. Words like désolé, confiance and jugement suddenly had a barbaric sound and near-complete lack of meaning.

In the conversation that followed, I felt very much like the wizard of Oz poking at a vast array of buttons and levers in the foolish hope that some combination of noises would create the desired response in the listener. The words I had in my heart seemed to have no connection with the noises coming out of my mouth.

And that was when the magic happened. Despite the inadequacy of the words, or maybe because of them, I suddenly realized that everything I was attempting to say so inarticulately had nonetheless been both communicated and understood.

Just the act of trying to be comforting in such a difficult situation had more eloquent than any words I could have come up with. Our confidence in words is misplaced. As always, it is the actions that speak more loudly.

- chris

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

The French work culture – a couscous goodbye

The US and France have one unfortunate thing in common right now: they are both adept reinforcing their negative stereotypes around the globe. For the US, this means sticking to the unrelenting "bad cop" routine - for France, this means endless photo opps featuring riot police facing down poorly behaved citizens.

Working in a French company is a marvelous window into French culture that you don't get reading the USA Today. Despite the American stereotypes about an atrophied French work ethic, the 30 people at my software company in la defense work as hard as any Silicon Valley startup: in at 9am, out after 7pm. In a US company, we usually calculate 220 productive days per year per employee. In France, with it famous penchant for long holidays, this number is still 210 productive days per employee per year!

As befits a culture with a much longer history than our scant 200-year American odyssey, there are many charming refinements in the French approach to work. For example, when you arrive at work, the custom is to shake hands. Every hand! This means the first five minutes or so at work is a slow ramble down the hallways of the company pressing the flesh and exchanging quick greetings.

Not only are the greetings more leisurely and refined, so are the partings. For example, the ex-CEO of our company still comes to work regularly and has been very helpful in transitioning to his successor. In France, the personal relationships extend past the busines relationships - my experience in the US is that the personal relationships are usually subordinate to the business relationships.

As another example, one of our sales reps is leaving to start another business with her husband. By way of farewell, she brought a couscous dinner for the entire company, complete with wine. This being a true French meal (my children’s favorite “French” food is couscous), the wines included a sweet aperitif wine meant to be drunk before couscous and a more mainstream wine for drinking with couscous. When was the last time a departing employee bought you and the rest of the company dinner?


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Planning the perfect French weekend in the perfect French club

Here’s a head-scratcher: what would constitute the perfect weekend in France? Over the last six months we have wrestled with this question and finally come up with an answer (or at least a proposition we plan to test) – an over-the-top wine and food trip to Burgundy.

To mastermind our perfect French weekend we tapped the talents of Alexandre Lazareff, a master sommelier and overall funny guy who hosts monthly wine tastings here in Paris that we have been attending over the last six months. He also happens to own a small vineyard in Burgundy and writes wine reviews for Le Figaro, so he is the right man for this kind of delicate mission.

To plan our bold expedition, Alexandre and I got together at his club, modestly named the Automobile Club de France. I should have been warned by the fact that it sits next to the swank Hotel Crillon on the Place de Concord. Nonetheless, I showed up in business casual, expecting to see a place with lots of maps on hand and maybe some tips on how to change tires on busy French freeways.

Instead, I found myself in an exquisite gentlemen’s club straight out of the 18th century. At the entrance, I was politely but firmly issued a roomy coat and tattered tie to conform to the club’s equally 18th century dress code. Upstairs was a dining room with 30 foot ceilings looking out onto the vast Place de Concord.

Over cocktails and peanuts we talked over the details of our April weekend in Burgundy: four wine tastings at local chateaus paired with four gourmet meals, each with their own wine tastings. These tastings will explore Burgundy versus Bordeaux wines; new world versus old world Pinot Noirs; grand vin de Burgundy; and terroirs of Burgundy.

Along the way we will slog over the terrain of Burgundy and visit local markets. Probably the biggest difference between California and French wines is the emphasis that the French put on the relationship between the region and the wine – all lumped into the complex term terroir.

Terroir means everything from the soil to the micro-climate to the culture to the locally produced foods for a particular region. In California, you might know that the wines from the Howell Mountain region of Napa are particularly good, but nobody spends too much time talking about why that is – terroir in California is more a matter of branding than education.


Saturday, March 04, 2006

French Coffee – Puncturing the Myth

As someone who has always felt that "French Roast" was the epitome of fine coffee and that the "French Press" was the epitome of fine coffee making, I came to France with high hopes for their coffee industry. I think it’s only fair to set the record straight and report that French coffee is not what we Americans think it is.

Despite looking hard, I have yet to find anything remotely approaching what we call French Roast coffee beans here. Nor have I ever seen a French press used in any French restaurant.

Despite the high quality of almost every other French food item, when it comes to coffee, the French punt. Even very high end stores like Hediard have pathetic light brown coffee – asking for something darker only produces a kind of incredulous stare (although asking the lackluster staff in a Hediard store ANY question produces a very similar response.) There is only one store in our arrondisement that roasts its own coffee beans, and its efforts are pretty puny compared to fanatics like Blue Bottle Coffee in the Bay Area.

In France, coffee means espresso, ordered as a “petit café.” What you will get then is an espresso that tastes ok as long as you’ve never been to Italy, where barristas are only slightly behind the Virgin Mary in cultural reverence. If you order anything other than a petit café, all bets are off. For example, a “grand café” may be a double expresso or just a single with lots of water. The amounts and temperature of the milk served in any coffee/milk variation tend to be even more extreme.

At work, that most revered engine of American commerce, the coffee maker, has no place in the French enterprise. Instead, they have sort of coffee dispenser monstrosities that make single servings, each one in its own plastic cup with its own plastic stirring spoon. My proposal to re-energize the French economy would be to reintroduce French Roast and the French Press into the French workplace and watch the productivity soar!