Living Versus Visiting

It has always bothered me when I hear people claim a little too readily that they’ve “lived” in a foreign country. I knew a guy in San Diego who would refer to the time he “lived” in Colombia, when the truth was that he spent 11 weeks there on a work trip – hardly “living.” Or people sometimes ask me about the time when I “lived” in India. But I was only there for four months, and during the fourth I was traveling to a new city every other day. In my mind, I only accumulated three months that could conceivably count towards the claim of “living” in there, but they never felt like “living” to me. I was visiting at best.

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A view from the train as it arrives at the station near my office.

One of the things that surprised me most during my first few weeks in Paris was how quickly some things stopped feeling like vacation and started to feel routine or ordinary. As I said, when I was in India, nothing felt that way, even after three months – and despite the fact that I did essentially the same thing every week for the duration (on the weekdays, at least). So I had supposed that it would take at least that long for the novelty to wear off here in Paris. But it didn’t take three months; it didn’t even take a week. In fact, I was mildly shocked when, as my train pulled into the station near my office on the third day, my commute felt a little… well… ordinary, even boring. I am sure this was partially hastened by the fact that I’d taken the same train to the same station several times before moving here, when I’d visited my office for meetings (at the time it was my client’s office). And the fact that French and American cultures are less polarized than American and Indian cultures probably distorted the comparison a bit. But I knew these things weren’t enough to speed up the feeling by more than a week or two. Something else was at work.

I should point out that Paris in general didn’t feel ordinary on the third day – far from it, and in fact it still doesn’t. It was just my commute that felt ordinary, and a few other small things in the weeks that followed. In any case, my feeling of surprise got me thinking, and it wasn’t long before I realized what was going on…

I was surprised by the feeling because I’d always assumed that the distinction between “living in” and “visiting” a country was simply a matter of time. In other words, I’d always assumed that after spending sufficient time immersed in a new environment, its novelty would start to wear off, and you would begin to feel like a local. Around about that same time, you could also legitimately start to claim that you “lived” there, because the same comfort that made the place feel ordinary would start to make you behave like a true local – for whom the place is ordinary. Any less time, and you’d remain impressed with and distracted by the things unique to that place, and you would still sound pretentious claiming that you “lived” there. What that threshold was exactly, I didn’t know. Probably it was more than 4 months and certainly it was more than 11 weeks – but I assumed there was a threshold.

What I’ve realized very quickly, however, is that the distinction between living in a place and visiting it is less a function of how long you live in a place and more a function of how you live there. Parts of Paris felt ordinary to me, not because they lacked substance or grew stale quickly, but because they were immediately and primarily functional. This isn’t so surprising in and of itself, but the degree to which it is true was very surprising to me. That even a small part of an experience could feel “ordinary” after only three days, when I’d spent months in places that never lost felt that way – this was a shock. But it was exactly the kind of thing I hoped to learn by moving here.

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Place Charles de Gaulle

The traffic circle that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe, known as the Place Charles de Gaulle, ties together 12 twelve city streets. It goes without saying that it is a busy intersection. In fact, as anyone who has driven through it can attest, “busy” is an enormous understatement. The chaos inherent in combining so many streets is compounded by the fact that there are no real traffic controls in the circle – no lanes, lights or signs. Drivers enter the circle where they will, and simply do their best to find the fastest route to their desired point of exit.Place Charles de Gaulle

At the end of my first week here, I drove through the circle with my relocation agent. And when I commented on the lack of order, she explained how it is managed: if an accident occurs in the Place Charles de Gaulle, there is a unique precedent whereby the legal responsibility is shared equally among the drivers involved, regardless of who actually caused the accident. The resulting fear of liability forces drivers to be more defensive, and presumably, this is more effective than some highly-complex and expensive traffic control system.

I am not sure whether this was a pre-meditated (and quite clever) feat of “psychological traffic engineering,” or just the organic solution that has arisen while the city government continually procrastinated in dealing with the mayhem. I suspect the latter. But in any case it is an interesting phenomenon.

Descartes’ Grave

Meditationes_de_prima_philosophia_1941When I was a junior at Virginia Tech, I signed up for an Ancient Philosophy course. I had a lot of big questions at the time, and I suspected I might find some answers in the cobwebs and browned pages of old books – somewhere in the body of knowledge called “philosophy.” But while the class was fairly interesting and I learned some important things from it, ancient philosophy didn’t seem to speak to my questions – at least not directly.

Then one day, on a tangent, my professor mentioned René Descartes and his attempt to completely deconstruct and then systematically rebuild his own belief system. This seized my interest. I remember writing the name down on my notebook so that I could ask him for the book title after class: “Rennay de Carte.” After he graciously corrected my spelling, my professor pointed me in the direction of the Meditations on First Philosophy, which I read almost immediately. I was hooked on philosophy for the next several years.

Descartes’ mindset when he wrote his Meditations almost perfectly matched my own when I read them, so his words struck a strong chord. Ever since, he has been a benchmark figure for me – both in my understanding of the history of philosophy, and in my own intellectual development.

While my friend Charlie was studying in Rome, he would occasionally visit Paris. We were both reading a lot of philosophy at the time, and after one trip, he told me that he’d seen René Descartes’ grave. It was a fairly nondescript tomb, he said, in a church in the middle of the city. This seemed a little strange, because Descartes’ philosophy was recognized (even in his own time) as being contrary to Catholic theology. But regardless, I was impressed by the fact that some places are so rich in history that you can just stumble upon the graves of historical icons.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago.IMG_20130414_164445_111

I’d been in Paris for a couple weeks when I remembered the conversation with Charlie. I had a look online, and quickly discovered that the church Charlie was talking about was actually the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and it was only a few blocks from the hotel where I was staying. I walked by it every day on the way to and from the train. So the next day on my way home from work, I stopped by to see if I could find the tomb.

The church was open when I got there, but empty and dark inside. At first I couldn’t find it. I took a quick walk around the church, scanning all of the side chapels, and I even jumped a barrier to get into the area behind the altar – but no luck. I was looking for a horizontal stone tomb, or a steel plaque on the floor, or at least a sign that drew attention to it; but there was nothing of the kind.

Eventually I went back outside to get a signal on my phone, which I used to look it up on Wikipedia. I wondered if there were two churches with the same name, or if the tomb might be in a part of the church not open to the public. But the article confirmed that I was in the right place; so I went back in to have a closer look. This time I found it – behind the main altar, in a side-chapel, in the wall, between two other guys I’d never heard of.Descartes Grave

IMG_20130429_195530_888I didn’t do much more than stand in front of the inscription and think “wow, Descartes’ bones are behind that stone slab” for a couple minutes, but it was still satisfying to realize that one of the most famous philosophers’ remains were right there, in the same building as me, only a couple feet away.

I haven’t quite figured out why yet, but there is something that is deeply gratifying about getting physically close to important things in our lives – particularly ones that we’ve previously only heard of or read about, and even when there is nothing impressive to see. It is the same type of experience that people seek when they push through crowds or wait in long lines to catch a glimpse of a celebrity. Sure, celebrities are usually strong or good looking, but with all of the digital re-touching that goes on in the media these days, they look better in the magazines or movies than in person anyway. It isn’t the draw of their attractiveness that explains the crowd; it is being there, close to the real thing that attracts people.

Likewise with Descartes’ grave. There was nothing impressive about the site itself to keep me standing there more than a moment, but there was something about simply standing there, close to the real thing, that compelled me to investigate, seek out and visit that spot.

In any case, one of the coolest parts of the experience was that it took place in such nonchalant circumstances – that is, on my walk home from the train station after work. I didn’t even have to make a detour. It makes me wonder: if I found Descartes’ grave after only a few weeks, what else will I find in the coming year?

Starting Work

I started work on Monday, the day after I arrived. It was definitely a case of “hitting the ground running,” but I really didn’t need much more time to get settled, seeing as I was just staying in a hotel room for the first couple weeks.Office

My office is in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (still haven’t figured out why it is all hyphenated – anyone?), a suburb to the south west of Paris, very close to Versailles. In fact, I can see the palace from the train every day, though as the leaves fill in, the view is becoming slowly obscured. It is a 45 minute train ride each way from the center of Paris, but so far I have been using the time to study French or write these posts.

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Eni has been advertising recently in Paris.

I am contracting for a company called Saipem, one of the largest EPIC (engineering, procurement, installation and commissioning) companies in the offshore oil and gas industry. We have tens of thousands of employees worldwide, but here in Paris there are about 2,600. Why is an oil and gas company located in Paris? I am not completely sure of the reason, but I assume that because France lacked and major oil fields that would have otherwise located their energy hub, it defaulted to the only major city, Paris. It helps, of course, that Total, BP, and other energy companies are also located here. Saipem is public, but 43 % of its shares are held by Eni, the Italian energy company, so we share the logo and have a lot of Italian management.

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This is my building, one of two that Saipem occupy in the same business park. The other is to the left, out of sight. It is double the size, though all of the engineering is in my building.

The office itself is very nice and modern, but not very unique. One nice thing is that all of the desks are very close to large windows, so there is a lot of natural light all the time and a decent view. The office is only about a 5 minute walk from the train station, in a small, modern, planned neighborhood. There are a few other office buildings, a park and several apartment buildings.

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The lobby at the office. I took this when I first arrived on my first day, while I was waiting to be escorted to my desk.

Although Saipem is nominally Italian, it is a very international company – as are many in the offshore industry. Because of this, the working language is English, though French is used almost as frequently, if not more so, and every once in a while the Italians will break into their native tongue. Over the course of four weeks I have overheard two or three Americans talking in the hallways, but I have yet to meet any; so it’s safe to say that we are a negligible minority. I’ve met plenty of British, a couple Australians, a lot of Nigerians other west-Africans, and then there are the guys in my group.

I am working in a newly formed group, Subsea Umbilicals and Controls, which includes integrity monitoring and subsea instrumentation – my areas of “expertise.” There are six of us in the group, and it is managed by a guy that I’ve actually known and worked with for a few years now, as he was Saipem’s representative to BMT, my previous company, on one of my projects.

The group consists of two French full-time employees who have been with Saipem for several years, and then four contractors: myself, James, Waunderson and Andreas. The four of us are all in our late twenties or early thirties, all new to Saipem, all new to Paris, and all new to France since the beginning of the year.

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Waunderson took this picture from his desk. I am in the middle, Andreas in on the left and James is on the right.

James is a 28-year-old Englishman from Newcastle. He is huge: at least 6’4” tall, and looks like he lives in the gym. He is constantly drinking protein shakes and using obscure Geordie slang: “Mate, the 6th is good craic – got loads of mint bars and restaurants. This weekend is going to be absolutely men’al.”

Waunderson is a 27-year-old Brazilian. I don’t know what it is about Brazilians, but I have never met one I’ve disliked. They always have this infectuous amiability and relaxed disposition about them. Waunderson embodies his national character to the utmost: he has a great sense of humor, and one of his favorite English expressions is “Why not?”

Andreas is a 33-year-old Russian, but he has been living in Germany for a while – long enough that everyone introduces him as “from Germany.” He isn’t overly fond of this. He is always really excited about something, and (like most Russian-speakers I’ve met) he isn’t too keen on the use of articles. So a typical statement from Andreas sounds something like this: “OK, who wants to do hundred push-ups before lunch?” or “Maaaaan, so last night, I found new a sound system on internet, with biiig subwoofer. In the shop down the street from my house, 400 euro. Online, only 300 euro. That’s good deal.”

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Andreas, doing push-ups.

All of us have about 5 – 8 years of experience in subsea oil and gas engineering; so in addition to being in a similar life-situation, we are all at about the same point in our careers. And we all sit in the same 4-desk cluster, only a few feet away from each other. I suspect that the French employees nearby are starting to get tired of our occasionally boisterous English conversations, but I also suspect that they’re going to have to put up with them for a while. I really couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to be thrown in with.

I will be working on a Nigerian project for Total for the next year or so. I will be supervising the technical side of the procurement of the systems that I was doing the engineering for at my last company. I will be writing the system specifications, evaluating bids, and reviewing the vendors’ designs and technical work once we start the job. It will also mean traveling to the vendor’s facilities a few times during the project, and then working onshore and offshore with their engineers when we go to Nigeria for the final testing and installation. We haven’t selected a vendor yet, but one of the three is my old company, BMT, in California. Another is PULSE, one of the companies that I interviewed with in Houston before taking the job here in Paris. The third is a French company, Cybernetix (now part of Technip), which is located in Marseille. So however it turns out, it should be interesting.

First Day

I have been in Paris now for exactly one month, and I’ve been badly negligent in documenting my experiences here – mostly because I have been extremely busy getting settled at work and at home. But I’ve been (thankfully) prodded by a few people to start writing, so I am going to do my best to recollect the last few weeks before they fade from my memory…IMG_20130414_181523_003a

On the day I arrived, the weather was absolutely beautiful. I was told afterwards that it was actually the first “real” spring day after what had been an unusually long and cold winter. As I rode in the taxi from Charles de Gaulle airport down into the heart of the city, I could almost feel the “Spring energy”: everywhere you looked there were people out walking around, eating lunch at the outdoor cafes, sitting by the fountains or on the steps of monuments, and lounging in the sun along the banks of the Seine. The city was alive. I’d arrived to Paris at its best.

I had been to Paris several times before, but always on short trips – either for business meetings, or else on vacation with my family while growing up (we lived in the UK for three years, and sometimes took weekend trips to France). But because these trips were always so brief or busy, I hadn’t seen much more than a typical tourist does the first time they visit – Notre Dame, The Eiffel Tower, a boat ride on the river, etc. So while the general look of the city wasn’t new to me, many of the sights I found myself flying past in the taxi were – and they were impressive ones. I rode past the church of Saint Augustin and La Madeleine, through Place de la Concorde – where the most infamous be-headings of the revolution took place and the Luxor Obelisk now stands – across the Seine and past all kinds of other famous buildings, until finally we reached the narrow, winding streets of the 6th Arrondissement, where my hotel was located.

I was exhausted after the long, overnight flight from DC, and I actually had to be at work early the next morning, so I really wanted to get some rest. But it felt almost blasphemous to take a nap with the city surrounding me. So I dropped off my four big duffel bags in the room (only two at a time fit in the hotel elevator – and that was without me), freshened up, then went out for a quick walk. I hadn’t gone more than 50 yards down my hotel’s street before I found myself suddenly loomed over by the towers of Saint Sulpice – the second largest church in Paris after Notre Dame, recently made famous again by it’s role in The Da Vinci Code.

It was the first of many such surprises. In fact, the “quick walk” ended up lasting a solid two hours, prolonged again and again by new sights around each corner, and an amazement at the thought “this is where I live now.” If I’m accused of sounding cliche I can only plead guilty, because if any single impression characterized my arrival here, it was a realization that the biggest cliche about Paris is absolutely true: it really is an incredibly beautiful city.

More Pictureshttps://picasaweb.google.com/104158199159964308047/ParisFirstDays

Introduction

When I lived in San Diego, I used to meet foreigners regularly – in bars, at the beach, through friends, etc. Some of them were just passing through on a tour of California, but others were there for a year or more, studying English at one of San Diego’s several language schools. Most of them were Europeans. I made friends with some of the guys and dated a few of the girls, so I had plenty of opportunity to observe their experiences living in a new country. I envied the romance and vitality that so obviously surrounded their experience of the simplest things: going to normal bars, hanging out on normal beaches, visiting normal cities, and meeting normal people. There was a constant excitement about their lives.

Some might have interpreted their zeal for the mundane as evidence for the “Europeans live better” fallacy, but I knew better. I’d felt the same way before myself, several years earlier, when I spent four months in India. I knew that their engagement was a direct result of their inexperience of the culture surrounding them. I knew how intoxicating it could be to step into a new world and be forced to re-learn everything you took for granted, and I missed that feeling.

Some people thrive on repetition, habit, routine – tradition. They love to soak in experiences relived, relationships maintained and places revisited. We all know people like this: your friend who always wants to eat at the same restaurant, your sister who wants to vacation in the same place every year, or your spouse who insists on keeping the family established in one city – maybe even in one house. These people find a deep satisfaction in watching the world (and themselves) change relative to some constant set of activities, people or locations. These traditions or routines – rituals, even – serve as benchmarks against which they measure the progress of their lives, and they understandably develop a deep attachment to them.

I am not one of these people. I prefer experiencing the world by moving through it rather than watching it move around me. I feel most engaged when I am navigating new territory, be it geographical, social, intellectual or otherwise. Repetition switches me off. Novelty, exploration, discovery – these are what motivated me to move away from a great job in a great city. And it was the same hunger for new experiences that pushed me through months of frustrating employment negotiations and visa processing in order to get a job outside the United States. San Diego was a great place, but it had one incorrigible flaw: it was only one place. My job there was great too – arguably perfect; but as I told my boss when I explained why I was leaving, at some point “new” became more important to me than “better” and I knew it was time to move on.

I arrived in Paris three days ago. I have a new job with a large engineering company, and almost no idea where my life will go from here.