It was winter. I was living in Paris and I was broke. Again.
At the time, I was taking French language courses during the week and wanted to find a small side-job. Most jobs for foreign women living in France are childcare-related and I had no professional experience in childcare or teaching.
As much as I needed a job, I wasn’t willing to lie about my qualifications, then have Karma brutally respond by fixing me up with a screaming pair of toddler twins, a crying baby, and two very nonchalant, very bourgeoisie French parents.
Moreover, without specific certifications, my search for English tutoring gigs with adults seemed impossible.
I had reached the end of my rope when one expat article suggested that English speakers should stop by the American Church’s bulletin board. It was my last resort.
I had walked from my apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine to find the church. It takes under an hour by foot—walking around Arc de Triomphe, through a part of Champs-Elysées, cutting through Avenue George V, reaching the Seine—but crossing the Pont d’Alma and spotting the church sitting on the Left Bank, amidst the wintry grey of Paris, gave me a flicker of hope.*
The bulletin board was simple and straightforward. Amid the expected posts for qualified childcare professionals or roommates, I found only one posting that interested me:
Employment Offers—(Offres d’Emploi) February 1, 2018
I need to improve my English for professional purpose. I’m searching for someone with an American accent for conversation and translation. A little knowledge of management vocabulary would be appreciated, as well as computer usage. I’m living close to metro *** ###### Paris. My Phone: ####
The one thing that held me back from calling the phone number right away was the “management vocabulary” portion. I hesitated because was afraid that I wasn’t qualified enough. I did take business courses in college and did constantly read articles and books related to management because of my digital marketing expertise.
… Pourquoi-pas? Why not?
So I called. The phone rang a few times. I wanted to hang up. Someone answered. Shit.
“Bonjour.” A man, he sounded older. Like, my grandfather older. He introduced himself as Pierre**. I responded with a few cumbersome French sentences. Pierre didn’t sound convinced, but we decided to give it a try and set a date and time to meet.
Pierre asked if we could meet at his apartment. My “Stranger Danger” alarm set off in my head. I suggested meeting at a café in his neighborhood, but he said that he had his setup at his apartment. I reluctantly agreed.
On the day of Pierre’s first session, I made sure to tell my boyfriend and a close friend in Paris where I was. I think I sent text messages that were along the lines of “If you don’t hear from me by 16h, something went wrong and I’m probably dead.”
Thankfully, I would later find that all of my “Stranger Danger” precautions were quite irrational. Highly irrational.
The First Session
It turns out Pierre lived in the 16th arrondissement, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Paris. I was further comforted by the fact that the boulangerie by the metro was a sister location of my boulangerie in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Another small sign of hope.
Despite the positive signs, I was still slightly nervous about entering Pierre’s apartment. I didn’t want to be alone with a someone I didn’t know.
Fast-forward a few minutes after knocking on the door, I found myself sitting in Pierre’s living room with not only Pierre but also his wife, Marion**.
We introduced ourselves over hot tea and fresh Paris Brest pastries from the bakery down the street. I sipped my tea and stared at the lines of book spines and DVDs on the shelves to help set aside my nerves—there were mostly French editions of American novels or movies.
I didn’t really know how to eat the Paris Brest gracefully in front of company, so I watched Pierre and Marion for proper etiquette. Marion ate with her hands—very neatly—while Pierre gently used his dessert spoon. Not wanting to make an error, I followed Pierre’s lead.
Looking around their living room, there three desks with computers and papers all over them— it was clear that they both worked from their apartment.
Pierre and Marion were patient as I struggled over some French words. It felt more like I was visiting French-speaking relatives than a formal English lesson.
Pierre and Marion were a kind couple who truly complemented each other. Pierre is a proud Breton who would much rather live in the countryside than in Paris, while Marion is a full-fledged Parisienne. Pierre was soft-spoken, Marion was more vivacious in her expression. I would come to enjoy hearing Marion quietly swearing from her desk across the room as she worked.
We finished our tea time together, then Pierre and I went over to his desk to begin our session.
Pierre now switched from speaking in French to English. He explained that he was a senior production planner for an international tech company. When the American-based company opened up in France, Pierre was responsible for reconfiguring the software specifically for the French work hours. Now, he travels all over the world to help large corporations plan their systems and trains their employees to manage their system.
Pierre already understood and spoke English, however, he rarely practiced speaking English at home. He said that he had several trips where he needed to present in English, so he wanted us to go over his script together, then I would help correct his pronunciation and change sentences for clarity.
The script was already professionally translated from French to English, but my job was to help give a more practical human translation.
We would continue to meet 1-2 times a week for two hours per session. Our meetings always started with tea time and pastries, then we would review several pages of Pierre’s script—he would read a page, I would give him my suggestions on how to improve, and repeat the cycle.
It actually turned out well that my French fluency wasn’t perfect, because it forced Pierre to practice explaining his work in English as he would to his clients. We would break out GoogleTranslate every once in a while to translate words lost in translation.
After a few sessions, Pierre insisted on switching from the formal “vous” to familiar “tu.” Maybe Pierre decided to “tutoyer” because he thought it would be easier for me to communicate in French, but I hope it was because we were able to establish a pleasant connection through a combination of broken Franglais with a few laughs along the way.
For our last sessions together, Pierre wanted to practice reading the State of the Union (SOTU) addresses given by President Barack Obama. Pierre said that he liked the way Mr. Obama spoke because he was very clear and easy to understand.
Studying the SOTU transcript made sense—the SOTU’s discussion of government, economy and social issues had many relevant terms for Pierre’s business vocabulary.
We followed our normal routine of reading-revision, but then I found myself also translating American ideologies, explaining both sides of the political aisle, articulating Whys and Hows of hot-button issues like gun control, student debt, and racism in America.
It hurt to explain to Pierre how many of the promises in Mr. Obama’s SOTU addresses have been abandoned, corrupted or forgotten in the current American administration. It surprised me how emotional I became as Pierre read Obama’s discourse of economic and social progress.
Pierre and I also went over Trump’s first SOTU address. It was short, pithy, and empty compared to the SOTUs. I may have startled Pierre with the way I had insisted on pointing out Trump’s contradictions and subtext on what “Making America Great Again” really means.
Those final sessions with Pierre showed me that I was more patriotic than I thought. That I had to leave America to discover how American I truly am. Or, perhaps not just American, but how firm I am in the belief that all people should have the right to access basic needs of clean water, healthy food, and shelter; the belief that all people should have equal opportunity to pursue an education or better their lives in a lawful, respectful way; the belief that all people should have the right to be heard and the right to enter public spaces without fear of being shot and killed. These have been points of reflection that have stayed with me long after Pierre and I ended our time together.
I have wanted to write about my time with Pierre for months but found it difficult to put my political views out there in such a hostile world. Then I found recently found a quote while scrolling on Facebook.
Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. – Elie Wiesel
There are plenty of voices out there. I’ve been hearing a lot of negative ones, lately. It’s only a matter of time before those negative voices find themselves pointed in my direction—a Millennial non-white, (technically) immigrant woman with liberal social views.
Oh, wait. They’ve been coming at me all along.
Time to stand up and not take it anymore.
*I am not an active worshipper by any means—my relationship with God is quite complicated—but once in a while, I will concede that some happenings are unexplainable.