Monday, May 31, 2010

Drug abuse

Ah, early summer in Paris. The trees are green, the flowers are blooming, the sun is (occasionally) shining and it is time at last to give those winter clothes that I cannot bear to look at another minute to the Children of Madagascar. Away with the heater, away with the sub-arctic-strength comforter—warm weather is just around the corner!

However, there is that one last hurdle standing between me and the long-awaited summer months: allergy season. From the first to the last day of June, I am an absolute mess of allergy rage. I don’t know which pollen is the culprit, but every year it happens like clockwork. And every year entire forests disappear because of my pathological Kleenex consumption.

Now, considering that Paris has a number of corner pharmacies sufficient to reassure even the most resolute hypochondriacs, one would THINK that I could get my hands on an over-the-counter anti-histamine with relative ease. Mais non! The French may pop medication like skittles, but if you ask me, it is flat-out wimpy medication. As a friend of mine once said, giving French anti-allergy pills to someone like me is like giving sugar to a coke head.

But this year is going to be different. This year I had the foresight to stock up on good ol’ American allergy relief pills while home for Christmas. Yay! And so, on the eve of another Paris June, I look unflinchingly upon all that new greenery sending billowing clouds of pollen my way and say, bring it on.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Working 9 to 5

People often ask me about the differences between the French workplace and the American one. At this, I generally laugh and say that I have no idea, since my entire professional life thus far has been spent in Paris. I was reminded of this fact again yesterday, when a former university classmate of mine, who has recently taken a job in Paris, made the remark that “working in France is ... different.” I think she meant “different” in the same sense as, “Wow, your new hairstyle is ... different.” As in, she is less than enthusiastic about it. I find this interesting, as I have often wondered where I would be today had I never moved to Europe and instead gone to work for an American company (or more likely taken an underpaid but spiritually fulfilling position in an art museum. But who can say?).

I suppose the French workplace must be quite different from the American one, simply by virtue of the fact that there are so many differences in general between the two cultures. Prior to finding my current position in a design agency, I worked for an art gallery, a publishing house/medical conference organizer and a wine brand. Each experience left me thinking that I must have an insanity magnet hidden somewhere in my body, as the sheer quantity of absurdity that went on in each workplace was enough to warrant an entire book (note that). Of course, I never thought that said insanity could possibly have anything to do with the company’s origins, but after typing “mental health in France” into Google, I perhaps should have.

However, I am ill-placed to compare respective degrees of mental stability in the office, for like I said, I have acquired basically zero true professional experience in the US (notwithstanding various campus jobs, internships and summer gigs involving potpourri and dried fruit wreaths, which while fulfilling in their own way, do not count). What I am fairly sure of is that the working hours, the paid vacation and the whole sexual harassment thing are three major differences between the two countries that I can name without needing to have worked in both.

Working hours: depending on the contract, the average French person is supposed to work either 35 hours per week, or 35+ in return for paid overtime and/or extra holidays. Some of us somehow have neither, but it’s illegal and—actually, let’s not go there. Compare this with the 46 hours worked on average in the United States.

Paid vacation: the French get five weeks or more. That is a biiiiiiig plus about working here. Biiiiiig. I shant rub it in more than that.

As for sexual harassment, what an American would consider questionable to flat-out unacceptable remarks, language and physical contact are all perfectly normal to the French, as far as my experience is concerned. I’ve witnessed innumerable examples, in all kinds of companies and circumstances, and it never seems to shock anybody (not even me—I’ve been here too long). Moreover, disapproving remarks along the lines of, “You could go to prison for that in the States” only receive laughter and snide remarks involving the word “Puritans.” Trust me, I know.

So in conclusion, I don’t think the differences are significant. Salaries on average are lower in France than in the US, but French social benefits are so much higher that the difference in pay is pretty much accounted for (so when my heart stops beating after receiving my income tax, at least my stay at the hospital will be free!). The vacation is wonderful, the hours are decent and an admiring male eye isn’t systematically grounds for offense (is he hot?). Maybe I will one day discover what it is to work for an American company and see first-hand all the differences that I have thus far ignored. But considering my plans to become independently wealthy within the next 5 years and never work for anyone ever again, I think it’s a moot point.