image of Elbeuf and surroundings thanks to bordabord.com
image of Elbeuf thanks to Landry Lechevre
The simple stone exterior of the building just before the Pont de Guynemer in Elbeuf hides a chic bureau des architectes. I know so because I went there yesterday.
Several months ago a friend in the school playground had handed me a piece of paper with the web address of the ‘Ordre des Architectes’ in France. I have procrastinated for quite some time, and finally one evening last week I took a look. Why the procrastination? Well it all comes down to a case of ‘self-registration’ of disability!
After my post on the availability of Tiers Temps, I have had a few comments expressing disappointment that it is necessary to register oneself as handicapped in order to gain any benefits. However, if I self analyse, I can only come up with one diagnosis – that fundamantally, in the absence of fluency, I, and anyone else in the same position are indeed handicapped and opportunities in the working world are limited. My view is that one has to be honest about ones limitations and do whatever one can to overcome them.
And so it was with that in mind that I placed an advertisment on the ‘annonces’ section of the website – for a ‘handicapped’ Architecte Anglais, never imagining that anything would come of it! I did of course divulge that my handicap was linguistic. Two days later I received two replies to my advertisement, one of which, having forwarded my CV, resulted in an entretien, or interview.
I have had four interviews in France. My first and second as part of a group for mundane unskilled work, and all that I couldn’t understand (essentially everything – it was early days) was conveniently provided on a flip-chart. The hardest part of the interview had been the phone conversations before hand trying to decipher the addresses. My third interview was for a job that I had already pretty well decided I didn’t want. I was asked to meet the prospective employer at a garden centre in Rouen where I was being interviewed to be their Normandy representative for stock supplies for all garden centres in Normandy. The employer was half an hour late, and without a word of explanation, proceeded into a half hour interview of which I understood nothing at all thanks to the interviewer’s incredibly ‘thick’ accent and ability to merge all words together at such a break-neck speed that each sentence came out in a meaningless jumble of words. I was relieved to withdraw from the post, and he was most likely relieved not to have me on the team.
There was a 50/50 chance that my linguistic ability was going to let me down this time, and ever conscious of the excruciating garden centre interview, I kept realistic as to my chances of success, leaving the preparation of my portfolio to absolutely the last minute with a blasé esprit of nonchalence that would have left my husband (if he’d been there) in a complete state of shock. Such lackadaisical approach backfired of course when I turned a page during the interview to reveal an upside down photo!
The architects bureau was a fabulous example of turn of the century french architecture; decorative mouldings, parquet, panelling and superb marble fireplaces beautifully modernised and offset with modern furnishings and chalky traditional paint colours. Where interior and exterior design was concerned – jackpot!
Preliminaries over, I found the director clear, informative, frank and interested in fresh ideas and directions. Things have moved on since my last days in a practice (other than my own) – for one thing, half of the architects were women and the bureau youthful. The director found the idea of a portfolio very unusual, the french have ‘le book’, which is an individual bound representation of all their work. A ‘must’ for the future!
So what had I advertised for? This is the reality. Getting a foot in the door of a professional enterprise in France is nigh on impossible, the French mistrust the qualifications of other nationalities and rely heavily on contacts, kudos of universities – or rather the superior ‘grandes ècoles ‘, as well as merit. What one forgets in moving overseas is that the the same profession has a different game-plan, rules and method and without knowing what it is, a foreign professional is at a severe disadvantage in addition to the linguistic handicap. I requested a ‘Stage de Decouverte’ – essentially an unpaid entry into the architecture profession, the value of which will be unknown until I start – because yes, thankfully I was sufficiently competent to appear lucid and comunicative in an interview situation and the director was prepared to give me an opportunity. So what is my salary – ‘CPD’ training in communication and vocabulary, in french architectural building regulations, and in french ‘informatique’ (Computer Aided Design systems) and of course the ever vital methodology. The future? The bureau has an opening for an architect and i’ll have a foot in the door.
If I make it, it cannot fail to be another window into French life.
If not, at least I can leave all those French women architects knowing that English women architects have great taste in handbags…..
‘C’est mignon’ they said all gathering round – who cares about the portfolio!