Journal Intime: Let it be now

  I just finished an interesting assignment. It all began, as most things do in France, with a relationship. I’m in the process of refocusing my career on intercultural-communication training, as well as writing and editing in English. Naturally, I have alerted all my friends! Years ago, one of my girlfriends took a Spanish class. During that time she became friends with some of the people in the class, including a woman who was married to Michel. Michel now produces museum installations. A few weeks ago Michel sent an email to my friend asking if she could help him out with his current project for the Musée de Cherbourg. It seems that the new Queen Mary II will be calling on the port of Cherbourg. In the past, Cherbourg was the point of departure for many of the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. Michel and his partner were hired by the museum to create and produce an exhibit on immigration, in the former gare maritime or harbor station. Part of that exhibit will consist of excerpts of audiotaped interviews with former immigrants, done in the late 80s and early 90s by the National Park Service for the Ellis Island Museum. The exhibit will open on April 13 in the baggage hall of Cherbourg harbor station and will consist of a sound and light show where spectators can view a parade of boats that have sailed from Cherbourg, among them the ships that carried almost 35 million emigrants to Ellis Island. Michel needed help to listen to and select juicy portions from about 30 cassettes he had just received from Ellis Island. Luckily my friend was not interested in the job—so she recommended me. In fact, it was Michel’s partner, Patrick, whom I would deal with. An interview was duly scheduled for 11am at a production facility in the 15th arrondissement. It’s rather far from where I live, so I took care to arrive on time. I arrived, and waited, and waited. Finally at 11:30, I asked at the front desk to confirm with Patrick about the interview. They didn’t know who Patrick was! Fortunately, they did know the woman who had scheduled the appointment. Then, it turned out that Patrick had completely forgotten about our interview. I was told that he would be there in “about 20 minutes.” Since this was already 30 minutes late, and I knew that “20 minutes” in French time could well be 30 or 45, I realized that I simply could not wait, but could certainly schedule another appointment later on. On my way home, “ring, ring” went my little old cell phone. It was Patrick himself, and it turned out that his studio is located is in the 18th arrondissement, a mere two métro stations from where I live. So we rescheduled the appointment for later that afternoon at his office– in a building that you could mistake for an abandoned warehouse. The windows were barred, and the building itself was faced with old brick and tiles. Near the roof was a huge sign, “AMB Menuiserie Générale” (general carpentry). But once up the stairs, I found myself in a large, airy workroom. Patrick and I proceeded to have a great interview, and I was given my first batch of tapes. I must say that being recommended by friends has distinct advantages. First of all, I was completely trusted and immediately put on the honor system. Since I was to listen to the tapes at home on my own audiocassette machine, I was simply to record the hours and then let them know. No supervision, no hassle, no checking up– believe me, this is very motivating! I knew from my conversation with Patrick that I had to look for emotional, engaging stories that would hook the audience. Imagine my surprise as I started listening to the tapes. These people were a bunch of tough cookies! “Things were not working where we were, so we decided to get out,” or “If I had stayed I would have been stuck taking care of my father, I wasn’t having any of that, so I left.” Again and again I listened to emotional, dramatic stories told with a detached objectivity that would have made any scientist proud. I repeatedly heard stories of families that had been separated, sometimes for years. In one case, a young family was on a visit to Hungary just before World War I. Because of the insecurity in Europe at that time, the parents returned to the United States, leaving their son with relatives. The mother came back to pick up her son—eleven years later! And there was no question of the young boy’s “expressing his personality.” Parents were the boss! They ordered, and the kids followed the orders. I did manage to find juicy portions, although the “juice” comes from the images described rather than from the emotions expressed. It was actually rather amusing to listen to some of the interviewers—our generation—who tried to lead their interviewee into emotional territory: “Didn’t this make you feel scared and anxious?” But the interviewees were having none of it! “No. I didn’t think about that,” or whatever. I realized I related to their stories on several levels. One, my own parents were immigrants from Europe to the U.S. in the late 30s, although they did not pass through Ellis Island. Now I have repeated the pattern by emigrating back to Europe. Here I am living in France, a country that I love, but where, at times, I do not completely understand every word that is spoken to me. It was my dream since early adolescence to live in France. After I accomplished that dream—after the initial honeymoon period was over—I lived through a period where I felt completely uprooted. It took a few years to re-connect and integrate into “me,” something French, mixed up with all my other identities. So I could relate to the immigrants’ experiences. They knew that, when you are willing to risk everything to create a new life, you cannot allow yourself the false luxury of wallowing in emotion. It’s now or never. Let it be now. Jeanne Feldman is a business communication specialist working with French executives who need to communicate internationally and with English-speaking expatriates who need to integrate into French life professionally and personally. She also writes and edits newsletters and websites (in English)s. Her website is: Jeanne has also written a…
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