France’s version of the Job Centre is called Pôle Emploi. It’s pronounced ‘poll ump-LAH’, or something like that. It seems to change every time a French person says it. It certainly changes every time I say it.
“Where is this Pool Implode building anyway?” I asked Jeanne one pretty autumnal morning as we hurried along Strasbourg’s leafy suburbs.
“Should be around here somewhere.”
This, coming from Jeanne, is absolutely meaningless. Jeanne and I each have our strengths and weaknesses you see; we each bring different things to the relationship. One thing Jeanne categorically does not bring to the table, however, is a sense of direction. She’s creative and stylish with a great knack for design, she’s clued up on politics and she’s witty – but my god. I’ve seen her get disorientated in a well-lit cul-de-sac.
Fortunately, when setting off for our appointment that morning we’d allowed ourselves a generous chunk of time for getting lost, missing connections, and general fannying about. When we finally spotted the sign for the Pôle Emploi building in the distance – ironically located on a street named Rue de Job – my heart leapt into my throat.
“Fuck Jeanne, fuck. Shit twat bastard wank. Arse. I can’t speak French. I cannot speak French. Ican’tspeakFrenchwhatamIgoingtodoJeannefuckhelpme.”
“Hey, calm down,” she cooed. “You’ll be fine.”
“I will absolutely not be fine. I know exactly what will happen: I will sit in there and wait for my appointment, and somebody will come out and say ‘Monsieur Dan-ee-ell Ack-ett?’ to which I’ll reply ‘Oui, c’est moi’ and then they’ll say ‘Ah, bonjour Monsieur Ack-ett, ca va?’ and I’ll say ‘oui, ca va merci’ and then they’ll assume I speak proper French and the next sentence will be, like ‘blaglalgalgagalalgglallaalaaa’ and I’ll have to say ‘Uhh je ne comprends pas’ and I’ll look like a tit in front of an entire wing of the French government. GAH.”
Jeanne had zoned out by this point and simply looked up from her phone and patted my shoulder reassuringly. We entered the job office, past a smoking youth in trackies standing by the entrance, and to my horror a man in a surgical mask walked up to me with a clipboard.
“Bonjour,” he smiled.
I know that word. Right. I can do this.
“Bonjour,” I replied, in a terrified voice that sounded as though I’d just chugged a lungful of helium.
“Blalagllagllalaal rendezvous?” said the man.
Well, I’d not a clue what he’d said, but context and logic and the one word I’d recognised indicated he was asking whether I had an appointment.
“Oui, a neuf heures. Daniel Hackett.”
“Tres bien. Blalaglalagllalalaglalala.”
I nodded sagely and went to sit down, figuring that if this was not what he meant he could always follow me and shoo me away.
Fifteen minutes passed. I watched individuals and families of all shapes and sizes arrive, discuss their appointments in elegant French, and head into booths with their representatives, sharing jokes and laughing all the way. Every now and then Jeanne would catch my eye, and would do her best to make a reassuring expression over her facemask. Then my name was called – ‘Monsieur Ack-ett, s’il vous plait?’ – and I sighed internally.
“Oui, je suis ici.”
It was a fresh-faced girl in a stylish blazer and a pair of white Converse that matched my own. I felt a little better at the sight of her; in my head I’d been preparing for a severe old man with bushy eyebrows and big meaty fists.
“Bonjour!” she sang as I rose to my feet.
“Bonjour,” I whispered in reply.
“Ca va?” she asked, as we began to make our way out of the waiting area.
“Oui, ca va. Et toi?” I replied, hoping vaguely to at least keep the pleasantries going until we were out of earshot of the waiting room with all the French families and French staff and French receptionists and French cleaners.
“Ca va,” she replied cheerily, coming suddenly to a stop in the centre of the room. “Et ballgahgalg parlez ahglagaghgff long?”
Alright, so I understood the word ‘parlez’ which is ‘speak’, and I thought I heard ‘long’ which I think just means ‘long’. So – maybe she’s asking me how long I’ve been speaking French?
“Uh… six mois?” I replied.
She paused, frowning in confusion.
“Er, non, pardon monsieur – baghagalala parlez bahaglalg long?”
I could feel the eyes on me, I could sense Jeanne desperate to jump in beside me yet hesitating in the hope I might suddenly click. Nope. Not a snowballs’ chance in hell. All the blood in my skull had relocated to my cheeks, and one thousand hours of Duolingo had vanished from my brain with a ‘puff’ so violent that I’m sure it would have been audible to anybody sitting close by.
“Je… je ne comprends pas,” I admitted, defeated.
“Which language do you speak,” said the girl.
“Oh,” I replied, drooping. “English.”
“Okay. Follow me now please.”
I mooched after her up a wooden staircase, willing my head to simply burst and end this humiliation. At least in her office we’d have some privacy, and I could gargle my way through the interview in my fractured French without an audience. Then we rounded the corner and I saw the ‘booths’ upstairs were separated only by little dividers, and that the room was very much open plan. I blinked. Well of course.
“Agaglafafhfalfh fhfff aafhfhf chaise,” said the smiley girl as we neared her desk.
Chaise means chair. I sat in a chair.
“Non, sit in the other chair, s’il vous plait.”
“Ah yes, of course.”
Jeanne sat beside me in the spare seat and we began the interview. The girl – she had no name badge and never introduced herself (or if she did it went soaring wayyy over my head) so unfortunately I must refer to her only as ‘the girl’ – fired up her computer and requested the printout of my CV we’d been told to bring. Jeanne’s parents printer hadn’t done a wonderful job on it unfortunately, and the CV I’m usually rather proud of had come out pixelated and blurry and I cringed as I watched it exchange hands. The girl took it from Jeanne and scanned the document.
“Pas mal!” she smiled – ‘not bad’.
Jeanne helped me rewrite my CV when I arrived here. Realistically, the only jobs I’ll be able to do here are bar work, cafes, restaurants, or manual labour in factories or wherever. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect, and it was a bit of a bummer deleting all the copywriting positions from my CV and replacing them with things like ‘Chip Shop Boy – Wetherby Whaler – 6 Month’s Experience – Nicknamed ‘Slow Dan’ by the Frying Staff’. However, I could always find a quirky French bar and make friends with the locals. It needn’t be a slog, I told myself.
“Hmm,” said the nice lady, reading my profile on the computer. “Et blagiwiwoo travaille vooligawieloo preferee?”
This could only have meant which kind of job would I prefer to do. I could probably have managed to answer in a full sentence, but I panicked.
“Peut etre dans un bar, ou un café, ou un restaurant,” I added, determined to show her I wasn’t entirely an imbecile.
“Bien. Hmm. Franchement, je pense que blagalalalala balgalalalloolooloo awowowowow eeeeeeee McDonalds.”
Hang on a second. Hang ON a second.
“Er, je comprends pas,” I whispered.
“I think that, er, for now, with the Cov-eed, the best thing is not a bar work. I think that, with your level of French and the current situation with France, the best option would be to working somewhere like, ah, McDonalds. Okay?”
I was suddenly very happy to be wearing a facemask, because I felt my expression melt. The muscles in my brow and in my cheeks lost all their elasticity, and my facial features sunk like a chocolate Santa left on a radiator. McDonalds. Mc-fucking-Donalds. It’s not that I’m looking down on that sort of work or the people who do it… it’s just that I did all of that thirteen years ago. I did my time in the trenches. I got abused by horrible customers and even worse bosses, I got paid a pittance, I sweated and washed dishes and came home late at night stinking and covered in crap. And I built my career, striving every day, to elevate myself to a point where I’d never have to do that again.
The smiley girl was still talking, but all I could hear was a high-pitched ring. My eyes had glazed over, and I could feel Jeanne looking at me.
“Monsieur?” asked the girl suddenly, and my eyes snapped up to find her looking at me expectantly.
“Now I will read the terms of your agreement with Pôle Emploi. D’accord?”
“Oui,” I murmured, “d’accord.”
For the next thirty minutes the girl reeled through page after page of paperwork, pausing every now and then to look at me. During these pauses I figured I was supposed to say something, so I took the safest bet and offered ‘oui’ each time. 90% of the time it was the right choice, and when it wasn’t she’d simply frown a little and I’d hurriedly say ‘ah – non’ and then she’d continue reading.
When we reached the end of our appointment, she stood up and left Jeanne and I for a moment to print something. When we were alone, Jeanne leaned over.
“You don’t have to work in McDonalds if you don’t want to.”
“You don’t! Just tell her!”
“Dan, please just try it. It’ll be okay, I promise you. She’s coming back now.”
The girl sat down, and I decided to give it one last try. I waded into the fog of my sorrow, grabbed my remaining French by the collar and dragged it up to the forefront of my mind. Come on you fucker. We’re not going down that easily.
“Er, excusez moi?” I asked.
“Si possible, je pense que mon travail prefere est un ensiegnant d’anglais.”
The smiley girl looked taken aback.
“Ah, oui. C’est possible! Peut etre vous voulez etre ensiegnant d’anglais domicile?”
“Oui, je pense que ce sera parfait avec mon experience ecrivain.” It wasn’t an elegant sentence, but I stumbled through it to the end.
“Tres bien!” said the girl, turning back to her computer.
In a flash she wheeled back through my application, deleting parts and filling them in with the new information, and I felt my chest deflate as I watched her backspace through the word ‘McDonalds’. To finish the interview she gave me some tips on finding work in my new chosen field, and gave me a few pointers on improving my CV for French recruiters. We stood up and bumped elbows, and she wished me luck on my journey. She showed us out of the building, and once we’d stepped back out into the crisp morning air, I turned to Jeanne with a grin.
“I’m gunna be a fuckin’ English teacher!”