Focus

“the lost hotels of paris”

Ginsberg came to my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets it right even that much.
– 
Jack Gilbert

The first time I read that last line, I thought it said, what right have we to get even that much right.

I.

The narrative detail of my last post, on Madrid, prevented me from summarizing my feelings about the place. But then I did not realize I had to begin and conclude my time in Madrid in one post! The city grew on me slowly – though I tired a little of the food – and I had a fantastically upbeat second weekend in the city, because the other person who was recruited from my recruitment session returned from his first project in South Africa, and we had a bit of a gallivant around Madrid. He regaled me from his work stories, including his night(s?) out at strip clubs, which made me chuckle. Another highlight of this weekend was, maybe predictably, dinner at a Chinese buffet! After a week of tapas and smoked meats and bread, it was like coming home. Or something.

The sun was an important factor in my buoyant mood the ten days I was there, of course, as did the very functional, 24/7 gym in my hotel. I am beginning to understand how significant these little things can be for my well-being.

II.

As the title may suggest, I write now from Paris. It is a city whose modern mythology I thought I’d grown out of, frankly. I was ungrateful enough to suppress an inward moan when I was officially told my designation, a day before my flight from Madrid to Paris. I had had fleeting thoughts of Amsterdam, a city I’d promised D I’d visit numerable times, or more far-flung (and difficult, for various reasons) but therefore exciting countries like South Africa, Puerto Rico, even Thailand.

Nearly a month in, and I have rediscovered the beauty of Paris, no longer the celebrity of its tourist glitz but the elegance of its domesticity. A boon of the job I had not considered before is the access it gives me to the lives this city holds. I have seen more of Paris than I ever will unless I live here for a decade and several jobs. We have had a dozen meetings, each in a different location (though usually with a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower). I went to a meeting in the Montparnasse tower and a hospital touted as the best cancer centre in Europe. There was a meeting the week before at the other side of Paris and we took my director’s car on the péripherique, where we drove past Paris’ helipad and aerospace industry, and then into the Paris HQ of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Their management office had a playroom, glass-walled, with a sleeping couch, in the middle. Very alternative. Last week, we went to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health for a meeting with the director of the French Social Security, located surprisingly near Chinatown. It is a good way to see Paris, the one in which people actually live and work.

I’ve also hit my first major milestone, which is actually conducting the interview; prior to this, I had been taking notes of all the meetings studiously. It must be said, however, that the CEO I interviewed was garrulous to a fault and he spoke for 45 minutes on my introductory question, which meant I only managed to ask him about three questions in total in what turned out to be a two-hour meeting. But I’m counting it as a pass anyway! My first meeting as a salesperson will happen this Friday, so that will be another milestone checked.

I’m sure I won’t appreciate this nearly as much as I should until I move on to other jobs that are lacking in this regard. Even so, I relish the decent quality of life I have here, with the lack of a commute time (I wake up 15 minutes before work, 30 minutes if there is a morning meeting and I need to be properly dressed), a convenient kitchen for meals (more often than not, I cook lunch), easy and company-reimbursed metro access (station is 2 minutes away) and enough work flexibility (I can work standing up at the fireplace mantle, conveniently placed at laptop-compatible height!). The location is lovely as well – 10 minutes from the Arc de Triomphe and a massive … forested area (calling it a park seems insulting – it’s 846 hectares or 8.5 km square!!) called Bois de Boulogne. It is incredibly nice to go running in (though I do a tiny 5 km loop) and I inevitably pass about a million dogs, which never fails to make me smile.

The work itself is varied enough, and sufficiently balanced between the routine and the interesting. There are hours of drudgery when I make phone calls to French PAs to chase up on our interview requests, always prefaced by an faux-cheery bonjour and an awkward vous parlez anglais?. The bright side is that French receptionists and PAs are usually nicer in English (maybe because they don’t have the vocabulary to be dismissive and curt?). But the meetings themselves are usually fascinating and informative (except when we meet with actual corporate types from Big Pharma), and doing research for them isn’t really a chore at all. Very unexpectedly, the interviews are very faintly reminiscent of Oxford tutorials, though it feels a sacrilege to say that. But we go into these interviews with maybe a day’s research (probably the most familiar aspect …), though it must be said my director has significant pharmaceutical experience, and the interviewee enlightens us on his (unfortunately, we have only met one female interviewee) experience of and answers to the big questions he faces daily. Given that I knew nothing about the pharmaceutical, healthcare or life sciences industries before this, every bit of information can feel like a revelation.

This sense of wonderment is all facilitated by the fact that we’re still in the preliminary stages of the project, which means we are still meeting with experts in different areas to get a sense of the industry – important because France, I have been told, is one of the most sophisticated healthcare market in the world. There are a lot of complex sociopolitical and medicoeconomic issues surrounding the French healthcare system, which naturally affects the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries. It didn’t take long for me to realize how little I know about medicine and the healthcare system (anywhere!) in general, and how much that reflects my privilege, in terms of both having always been generally healthy and also covered by my parents’ insurance (I assume).

But I am still in the process of thinking about all that.

III.

If it is inaccurate to say I have not dwelt on Oxford and the end of university much, I guess I could say the start of Oxford passed by with little fanfare from me. I suppose one might consider my existence here in Paris a rather quiet one so far, though I am on the phone daily and I meet a new person (if only in a fleeting, professional sense) almost once a day. I have attended two conferences. Within limits, it is also nice to have two other people for company at work, though we are not friends.

There have been scattered social events here, but my use of the word ‘event’ rather reveals my feelings towards them. Sure, there is the initial hit of social adrenaline when I meet new people, but mostly it culminates in the acute awareness that I have just met new people for the sake of doing so. Nevertheless, friendship is a lottery one has to keep buying tickets for, I guess.

In any case, it is difficult to feel lonely when I work 9 to 7, sometimes 8, and then there’s dinner to cook, groceries to shop, exercise to do, books to read, the future to worry about, and people to Skype most week(end)s. Every step out my door, every breath of fresh air, still feels painfully new, exploratory – though, of course, the best time I’ve had here was last weekend, when I had someone to share Paris with.

In my leisurely read of Steinbeck’s travel memoir (Travels with Charley), a line stuck out: There seemed to be no cure for loneliness save only being alone, though many have said it before in many variations before him.

IV.

Another poem, similarly themed, from Jack Gilbert:

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
Get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
– The forgotten dialect of the heart

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