Because from what I have read, in order to prepare myself for the terrifying leap into a local workshop, there are very few Blog writers out there who ever get to do a proper job in France. All they ever seem to talk about is how to start a conversation by the water-cooler, and which is the best restaurant for lunch.
If you are a regular person and manage to get a job at all, because you got chatting with a local manager at the Tabac, or someone at the Pole Emploi knows someone who knows someone else, then there are real rules of behavior that you need to know about. Rule number one, don’t rely on lists of rules, but do get your language hat on toute-suite…
Virginie was lucky enough to get a job working for the local authority for a couple of months over the Summer. During this time she met a Director of a metal workshop who agreed to see me for interview. I got the job and started in early September. The first day was a little messy and they kept me busy but slightly apart. No-one spoke to me.
On day two I arrived at the beginning of the early shift slightly dazed. I am no stranger to early starts, but I usually know what to expect. Today was incredibly hard. The metal just kept coming. It felt unrelenting. It dug into my arms and I was bruised and bloodied by the end of the shift. I discovered it was time for change-over when the new team arrived and began to shake the hand of everyone already in the workshop. When they started to shake my hand I realized my first faux-pas of the week. I did not greet anyone formally when I came in this morning.
On Wednesday morning I made sure to find out everyone and shake their hand. I had not noticed yet that I was the last man in the door, but it was five minutes before the start of the shift. Everyone was already there, drinking coffee, talking shop, bantering. At coffee break I was working with Henri. He was the first to introduce himself and he tried a few words in English. Another man engaged me in conversation in French in the break room. He has worked here for forty years, ‘it’s something to do,’ he explains, ‘easy for me, more complicated for you in French.’
Thursday comes and goes. Everyone is happier as they can see the weekend approaching. On Friday I finally discover two of my colleagues names. Frank and Frederick, I have been calling them Obelix and Asterix in my head in a human bid to label and classify. There is also the dwarf from Game of Thrones here, and a Confederate Lieutenant.
The workshop culture seems to translate quite well. I don’t suppose there are many great differences wherever you go, whether you are in Europe or America, Africa or Asia, a group of men doing repetitive work on a production line will find similar ways to make the time pass. There are two tribes in this factory and they call out to each other in false-threatening manner, shouting insults and challenges and otherwise seeking to dominate.
I found the local patois difficult until Obelix admitted that he wasn’t actually speaking French, but simply chanting the name of the coffee machine that sits in the corner of the break room.
What have I learned? Arrive early, at least fifteen minutes early so you can get a coffee and a chat in. Shake everyone’s hand, you will get bonjour, salut, ca-va, comment-allez vous and bruh. There will be at least one Anglophile who will enjoy practicing on you with a good-morning or a how-are-you. Smile rarely, and only when something is properly funny. Nobody trusts a smiler over here.
Don’t expect introductions or long chats about house prices or family stuff. You may not get to know the names of many of your colleagues. Prenoms are personal. ‘How long have you worked here’ is a safe starter as is ‘will it rain tomorrow’. The French are private people and their reticence is simply their respect for your privacy. I worked with one man for five weeks. It got to the point where I had begun to think maybe he was clinically anti-social, but then he shared a joke with me and I realized he had simply been taking his time.
In a few short weeks I have gone from ‘this is going to kill me’ to ‘this is okay’, which is nice, and I am a few steps forward on this particular journey. Virginie celebrated when I told her that the workshop foreman offered me a jammy biscuit at break time on Friday. It was a sign of acceptance.
Was that five things? There will be more. There are still things I have to learn. I will discover them in time and share them with you. Bon courage à tous…