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Un Conte des Deux Expos 08/04/2010

Posted by brendan in Bienvenue à la Semaine de Fonctionnement, La Vie en Paris.
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Crime et Châtiment

Most museums are closed Mondays. When I was given clearance to a sneak preview of Musée d’Orsay’s latest exhibition Crime & Châtiment I was nervous about walking with actual journalists and art critics, listening to a press liaison who was one question away from realizing I didn’t speak French.

After strolling along the perimeter of what was once a train station I walked into a neat queue of people. Grey and slightly bowed, all were clutching some glossy invitation in their gloved hands. At the back of the line I listened while confused tourists were told the museum was closed and that this was a special preview. Then the old ladies at the back of the line would look to see if I was getting the message.

Two people stood outside the revolving doors glancing at people’s invitations. I aimed for the woman, distrustful of the man’s mustache. My horrible French distracted her from keeping tabs on the 70-year-olds filing in. Do I have an invitation? No, it was e-mailed to me. You don’t have an invitation? It was e-mailed to me. A passing 70-year-old repeated ‘e-mail’ with a little nod, and I nodded as well. If you don’t have an invitation you can’t come in, I’m sorry.

I asked for the press liaison but the press liaison was currently engaged inside dealing with all of the press who had received invitations. Noting that the slowly moving line still had a ways to go I asked if I could come back in half an hour, would the press liaison be available then? When it became clear I wasn’t going to leave the woman babbled something foreign at me and the mustache disappeared inside to talk on his walkie-talkie.

For the next several minutes I wasn’t sure if I was standing here because the mustache was finding someone for me to talk to or not. The woman managed to ignore me while I stood two feet from her face. She eventually apologized and babbled some more French. I told her I understood and that it was her job. However, getting inside was mine.

Musée d'Orsay

The mustache returned and did not appear to see me. 70-year-olds shuffled through the revolving doors. Two new museum staffers arrived with walkie-talkies, had a brief and distracted conversation with the woman I had been staring at and then stood off to the side babbling foreign into their devices. One finally had the presence of mind to indicate by international hand gesture that I was to wait, and looked sympathetic.

Three more museum staffers appeared, all carrying walkie-talkies. At the same time a group of twenty Italian highschool students descended on the line and began arguing with everyone is extremely loud and heavily accented French. A piece of paper was waved, claims that people had called ahead to confirm this very special trip were made, the museum staff apologized and refused the school group entry.

Surrounded by a pack of bored Italian teenagers, angry chaperones and seven members of the Musée d’Orsay staff all carrying walkie-talkies I became the center of attention. Do you have an invitation? No, I was sent an invitation by e-mail. So you don’t have an invitation then? No, it was e-mailed to me. Who do you write for? I write for Vingt Magazine, on the internet. Do you have a press card? No, I’m sorry but I don’t. Eventually it dawned on someone that I might not be proficient in the language, so the youngest member of the museum staff with her clipboard and braces asked me in English if I had an invitation. It was e-mailed to me. Oh, okay, and she told everyone exactly what I had been saying this entire time.

I was allowed to walk through the revolving door. Inside there was a press table filled with informational packets, friendly press liaison officers, and a clipboard to sign up for future events news. I signed up.

Musée du Quai Branly

Musée Quai Branly looks like a Star Wars prop left alongside the Seine. Clusters of people were basking in the brilliant spring sunshine throughout the grounds. I wound my way towards the entrance, feeling removed from Paris and enjoying the sense of displacement provided by a meager stretch of ground shrubs and Jean Nouvel’s towering glass wall.

Then into the modernist foyer, noting the bored looking ticket taker and a couple girls working the information counter. No press office, and I had a name scribbled in my notebook to ask after. The bored looking ticket taker seemed resigned to his function, implying a powerlessness which included not being able to help me. I walked over to the info counter where neither attendant was standing behind the English sign.

Bonjour! I asked after the press contact, and then showed how it was spelled when my accent thwarted any attempts at communication. There was hurried discussion over who this person could be, then a dawning. Oh yes, they told me in English, you want to go to the offices. Leave the compound, wander down the street, walk into some random doorway denoted by one of many flags flying in the neighborhood, and start babbling your fractured French there.

Which is exactly what I did. The girl behind reception immediately started speaking English and looked at my notebook and asked me to write down the name of the magazine I worked for. On the phone she parlez’d some rapid fire foreign before handing it over. The woman on the other line babbled some French at me, eliciting an immediate apology and we switched to English.

Who am I? I explained who I was and what magazine I was writing for and that I had been told to ask for her specifically. She seemed a little puzzled and told me she wasn’t able to see me now, but please put the receptionist back on the line. Additional French and the phone hit the cradle and I was asked for my press card. I don’t have a press card. Oh. I have an ID, I offered. Ah yes, that will do just fine, thanks. So I handed over my expired California ID and was given a Visitor badge in return. And with that I walked past the bored looking ticket taker and wandered the exhibition, trying to avoid the group of highschool students being led around by a docent.



1. crowhouse - 14/04/2010

haven’t you written this post before? am i experiencing deja vu? shouldn’t you perhaps learn the exact phrases you need for such occasions since they seem to happen to you so often?

ok, smartassing over. really i’m in awe of your persistence.

blaark - 16/04/2010

Are you saying that I’ve moved halfway around the world only to discover I’m still boring? If it was as simple as learning a few key phrases and sticking to them I wouldn’t be the simpleton I am. In addition to challenging it’s also nice to be able to converse with people who can’t understand me as opposed to rote repetition of phrases which will not be understood. Otherwise I may as well just have these key phrases pinned to my lapel.

2. Sab - 18/04/2010

I hesitated quite a while before posting the following comment, not wanting you to take it the wrong way or get off on the wrong foot.

However, I reckon your approach and sense of humour will be able to deal with it and maybe even stimulate an interesting response. The French have pissed me off too sometimes. But not that often. Here’s my sans-preamble message: (cheers)

A very interesting posting in the well-worn vein (however you wear them) of the non-Froggie having his/her/its first encounter with life in Gallicland.

I enjoyed the article, but be careful because the ‘gently-mocking-the-French-whilst-visiting-them’ angle has been done many times before, and for those of us who have been here for many years, by choice, we start asking ourselves… well why doesn’t he just go home where things are exactly the same as they always have been, and he won’t have so many things to whinge about.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated your writing, but there was that underlying feeling of, yeah, but… 😉

Thanks for the comment on my photo blog, by the way – appreciated.

3. blaark - 18/04/2010

If anyone should be hesitating it’s me. My real rant wasn’t directed at the French, although the organizational skills lurking in these museums leaves much to be desired. The problem is the fact that my job is to get into places and understand things that I have trouble getting into and understanding because I’m inadequately prepared to deal with French. Unintentionally inverting the thrust of my ramblings does not suggest my continuing attempts at self-reliance through writing will eventually succeed.

But I guess the hesitating should have happened before moving here.

It’s true that ridiculing the adopted land is a well worn rut of travel-tinted writing. I’m not really trying to rely on mocking anyone (save Italians) for how they appear to be, but I am interested in trying to understand situations and observed customs and share the insights or lack thereof.

And while I may struggle and get frustrated I feel two points should be made clear. Firstly, I admire the overwhelming attitude that shit jobs are shit jobs and fuck the customer for making it worse. Secondly, there’s no way I would be taken seriously trying to get into a museum where I come from, so I’m actually better off here.

Enjoy your photos and the places you lurk. Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

4. Sab - 19/04/2010

No problem. Oh yeah, I remember now what really worried me about your story: never actually knowing for sure if you had printed out this famous Internet booking/reservation/invitation and were frustratedly waving it under their turned up noses, or if you were just trying to convince them empty-handed that they should let you into the holy chapel.

The French, I think without risking accusations of xenophobia because they all agree… ‘love’ red tape. Humour them!


blaark - 20/04/2010

It’s no fun having printed evidence of legitimacy to wave under noses. But honestly I don’t handle the arrangements, I just get told the where and the when and wing it from there.

Red tape keeps the employment numbers stable. While I feel I’m getting pretty good arguing with people about why I’m allowed free entry my French is nowhere near good enough to not humor them a little.

5. Andrea - 19/04/2010

Oh how I long to come visit you and the beautiful place you inhabit. I am hoping your move goes well. Love from us here

blaark - 20/04/2010

I can just see the sheer terror on your face as Fro tries to take control of the situation, arguing in circles and obfuscating the facts. But in French, so he’s in charge.

The move is moving, but is not moved. Love from me here, until you there come here.

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