I’ve always enjoyed Franglais where such common place French expressions as Moi Aussi translate as I am an Australian. Homme d’affairs became a man with many mistresses which if you met the majority of our French partners in the early 1990s seemed eminently possible. There was a Gallic charm and poise to them that belied wherever they sat in the hierarchy. They didn’t have to work at being superior, they just knew they were in the same way frogs know they are royal. It probably explains why both have this kissing fixation.
A visit to the French offices always left the London visitor wondering how they managed to have bigger rooms, better coffee, deeper carpets and cooler clothes. Passing through passport control at Charles de Gaulle the British business man was enveloped in a sense of instinctual inadequacy. They did things their way while paying lip service to the collective ideals of we Anglo Saxons.
They wouldn’t be told. When in 1991 or 92, with our collective belts being tightened as we sought our way out of the recession that bit after the 1987 crash, Paris was told that the budget for that year’s partners conference had to be cut by 30 percent, their reaction was a shrug. Not a good sign.
‘No, we really mean it.’
Both shoulders up and down.
The eyebrows joined in.
‘Or we will move it… to Belgium…’
Really not a good sign. When the itinerary came out a few days before we were to travel, those who knew Paris groaned. Revenge was going to be painful.
We went to Montparnasse. If you’ve not been, don’t. It’s a way to the south of Paris and makes Croydon seem chic. Le Tour Montparnasse isn’t nondescript…. it’s perfectly possible to describe it. Imagine a conference centre set in a building which Ridley Scott dismissed as too dystopian for Blade Runner.
We all arrived by coach, hustled inside in case the locals – a class of zombiedroods – were feeling peckish and told if we wanted to wander outside… don’t. Some of us did and found the Stygian gloom and Byzantine complications of the subway passages so complex that trying to find the correct exit on the Peripherique appeared like a doodle in comparison.
That first night we dined in, huddled around a buffet that reminded me of a school dinner, circa 1973. I don’t drink wine but those that do testified to its ability to alter the genetic makeup of their stomachs.
We were allocated rooms together, an unheard of imposition. I shared with a part hippo who snored the bass lines of several arias from some Teutonic opera.
Bleary eyed we drank the coffee, remarking that it had both the texture and smell of the oil we used to drain from our car sumps back when we were students. At least it packed a punch. Time for the first session.
Ours was in the real estate group to sketch out some marketing strategy. All the representatives of the offices were there except… no Parisians. We gave them five minutes, speculating that even they had had their gastric juices corrupted by the emetic effects of the food. In they strolled, looking… fresh. One, Benoit, put a large bag of chocolate croissants on the table while the other Pascal ushered in a trolley with what smelt like real coffee.
They had no right to look so good. Someone inquired how they managed it.
Both adopted mock serious expressions. One offered, ‘We always take the strictures of management seriously.’
The other nodded, bien suring for all he was worth.
‘We had a meeting and decided this was the cheapest option. But of course we wanted to ensure we cut out all unnecessary costs, so…’
Was that a grin? A smirk? Pay back for Waterloo, Agincourt et al?
‘… we agreed we needed to show leadership. We have forsaken the chance to break bread here by staying at home throughout. We even agreed we would eat at home too. Management will be so pleased.’
Perfidious Albion? we have nothing on those guys. They have class…