Du pain sur la planche

Bread on my cutting board

Take a bite of my favourite loaf. It’s soft and dense, still warm from the oven, fragrant with rye and walnuts. Delicious, right? Then why is having ‘du pain sur la planche’ equated with having a lot of work?

Perhaps it is because the baker – le boulanger – has his work cut out for him. Kneading and rolling, at the ovens before dawn, the baker on every corner must have fresh baguettes and épis and pains de campagnes ready early each morning.

It seems the expression, ‘avoir du pain sur la planche’, has morphed over the years. At first, having bread on one’s board meant wealth. That was back in the day when the bread was made to last a long time. Then, sometime in the last century, the meaning changed. Perhaps because people began to buy their bread fresh each day. And the skinny, white baguette, delicious just out of the oven, is stale soon after.

I’ve had plenty of bread on my board so to speak for the past several months. As a freelancer that can be a double-edged sword. You are grateful for the work coming in but you never know where the next job will come from, so you really need to be thinking ahead, networking and taking care of finding new clients. That is the part of the freelance life I enjoy the least.

But I need to do it to keep the bread coming in.

Come to think of it, equating bread with work makes perfect sense. You can’t have one without the other. To have a lot on your plate, as we say in English, isn’t so different.

Sometimes lately it all feels so overwhelming. Here in France we are in a phase where there is so much to do, at every level of society. It seems that everything is such a mess. People are out protesting in the streets each week. Beyond our borders is no better. Even the weather has gone crazy.

Yet the birds are back singing and signs of spring are unmistakable. Each day the baker manages to turn out little marvels like this loaf.

For that, I am grateful.

Et toi?

 

AZERTY vs QWERTY

In high school I made a random choice that changed my life: I took a typing class. At the time it seemed like a backup plan. I had no desire to become a secretary, and in those days, typing was almost exclusively the role of admin staff. Still, I loved to write and dreamed of doing it on a typewriter – maybe one day even a Selectric.

So I learned to touch type, an incredibly liberating skill that means you don’t need to look at the keys to know what you’re typing. As technology evolved through electric typewriters to word processors and the computer keyboard, I continued to enjoy my ability to whip off words at lightning speed compared to colleagues who had to hunt and peck for the keys.

Until I moved to France. And discovered the horrors of the AZERTY keyboard.

AZERTY describes the top line of keys on a typewriter or keyboard. In the English world we use QWERTY. Germans use QWERTZ. But it doesn’t stop at the top line. A whole lot of things like the period key (full stop), numbers and essential letters (notably, the ‘m’) are not where they’re supposed to be.

The first time I showed up for work in France and discovered I was expected to type on an AZERTY keyboard, my heart fell. How could I possibly do a decent job if I was spending the entire day looking for the comma? Certain signs were unfindable, and accents I had no use for in English kept dropping in for unwanted visits.

Finally I became somewhat functional in AZERTY, meaning that in a pinch I could navigate around to find the essential keys without wasting too much time. Then I went to work in the German-speaking world and had to do it all over again on QWERTZ, which while seemingly closer was far worse, perhaps because of the confused state of my brain at that point.

Eventually technology evolved again and it became a relatively quick  fix to change the keyboard configuration in software. This saved my soul but became the bane of any IT guy who stopped by to work on my computer. Those guys never know how to touch type, and it drove them crazy that the keys did not match the hardware.

There has been talk recently in the French-speaking world of changing the AZERTY keyboard, which is not particularly efficient for rapid touch typing. At first I thought this meant aligning it with QWERTY, but no. Quelle idée! Rather, optimizing it to accommodate commonly used things like the ‘@’ sign.

I have no idea how keyboards in Asian languages work. Typing for non-natives must be a nightmare. Maybe some smart techie type could invent a virtual keyboard that is just a hologram of sorts. Users’ choice of how they want to configure that.

My preferred keyboard is the Canadian CSA version of QWERTY, which also offers all of the accents needed to type proper French.

Do you touch type or use the hunt-and-peck method?

Mot de passe

Anonymous hacker groupThe French term for password, ‘mot de passe’, is a bit of a no-brainer for English natives, one of those all-too-rare, word-for-word translations that feels like a gift when you learn a language.

It’s a different story when it comes to your PIN for banking and credit cards. There is a very good reason why the French call this ‘le code secret’ and not code pine, as I have been known to say. Which is how I discovered that ‘pine’ is slang for penis.

If only there was a mot de passe for language itself. Imagine that you could log in to your adopted tongue and start speaking, even thinking like a native. Quel bonheur!

When you think of all the words you need to know to master a second language, an estimate that ranges from 300 to 2,000, it is daunting. Certainly after thirty years of speaking French, I must have acquired almost that many. But I think it was easier than the challenge of staying on top of all of the various user ID’s and passwords that are required just to stay afloat online these days.

It doesn’t matter whether your native tongue is English, French or Swahili, when it comes to covering our accesses and keeping our identities secure, we are all in the same boat. That boat is dangerously overcrowded, has multiple leaks and is listing seriously starboard, Captain!

I first experienced password hell when I started working in the corporate world here in France. You needed to sign in to your workstation every day. Then you needed another password for your email, and another for the intranet. VPN and various services quickly multiplied both at work and at home, along with the number of passwords you needed to use them.

I remember my boss back in the day, a 90’s dress-for-success businesswoman with a blonde flip, joking about how she just used her husband’s first name for everything. We all followed suit. In fact, you could have probably hacked into most French women’s bank accounts with nothing more than the first name of their spouse and children.

Then some techno-terrorist in Corporate Security changed the rules. A password must contain at least eight letters and two numbers or symbols. You must keep it secret and not store it on paper or anywhere in written form. You must change it for each different site or service you use, and update it from time to time. Or risk giving away your personal identity and financial details to the entire internet. Woe to any fool who uses the same password on more than one site! Hackers are lurking just behind your keyboard.

Despite the fear of having one’s bank details misappropriated, the French took quickly to shopping and other online transactions. As an avid consumer of English books and imported delicacies such as crunchy peanut butter, I for one rejoiced at the advent of Amazon and never looked back. While my compatriots wail about the death of the store, I have gotten to know all of the delivery people near and far: Chronopost, Colissimo, UPS…they all beat a path to my door. Sure beats schlepping multiple klicks to the nearest store only to find they don’t have what I want.

One of the reasons I shop on Amazon is that they never ask for my password. Any new vendor means you have to create an account, add payment details and learn another mot de passe.

Now we have a password for just about everything, including a code for the gate to enter our residence and the alarm that guards us against marauding intruders. For the phone, the internet, the TV, not yet for the toaster.

I have a secret system for my passwords. Obviously I cannot divulge it here, but it involves variations on a mnemonic theme. As my memory is far from perfect, my back-up is a rather low-tech file that lists all of my various logins and passwords. Hackers would have a field day if they found it.

Et toi? How do you manage all this password malarkey?

Liste rouge

Hotline_orange

The phone rang yesterday just as I was getting ready to go out.

“Allô?” I answered automatically, without checking the caller ID. Too late I saw that it said ‘privé’, a sure sign that someone was going to annoy me with a sales pitch.

And he did.

“Bonjour Madame. Blah blah blah – important information about your electricity bill – yada yada yada – produce your own solar powered energy – blah blah blah….”

I let him run on, too polite to cut him off, too tired to nicely interject. When he paused for breath, I asked, rather bluntly: “Vous appelez qui s’il vous plaît? On est liste rouge.” ‘Liste rouge’ being the magic words in French for unlisted phone number, or ex-directory.

“Uhh…Madame Fayard?” he replied.

I have been haunted by the ghost of Madame Fayard ever since we moved here three years ago. Regularly, despite the fact that we pay for the privilege of an unlisted number, I get calls from salespeople desperately seeking the dear lady. Clearly France Telecom waited all of five minutes before recycling the number after she moved away. Or left this world.

“Ce n’est pas le bon numéro,” I announced, curtly advising him that there was no such dame at this number and I would be most grateful if he would remove it from whatever outdated list he was calling from.

Undaunted, the brave fellow pushed on with his narrative. It really didn’t matter, he said, because the information he had was very important and could certainly be of interest to me…

Canadian I may be but my politesse wears thin in the presence of telemarketers.

I cut his spiel short, explaining that the whole point of having an unlisted number was to not have to listen to such information, however interesting. He had the good grace to chuckle at this and hang up.

No matter who is calling these days, I don’t do well with telephones. I’m not sure why this is, other than the fact that I am deaf in one ear, dislike being interrupted and struggle to make myself understood in French. Maybe it’s because I spent half of my youth with a phone growing out of my ear.

Back in the prehistoric days before the internet, I used to spend hours on the phone. Way before technological innovations like call waiting and voicemail, my teenaged marathon phone sessions sometimes went on all night. I didn’t have a phone in my room but there was one in the hall with a very long cord that just reached to the bed. People trying to call our house got the busy signal so long they assumed the phone was off the hook. I remember the parents pounding on my bedroom door in fury: “Get off the phone before I have to get it surgically removed!”

“I have to go,” I’d say with regret to the tragically bored girlfriend or amorous fellow on the other end.

When I first began working in the corporate world in France, I had to use the phone professionally. I was terrified of either cutting off an important caller or not understanding what the person on the other end was saying. Somehow I managed to get my employer to send me on a training course to Paris to learn the proper use of the telephone. This involved role-playing on fake phones while parroting a lot of phrases like ‘Patientez, s’il vous plaît’ (please hold) or ‘Puis-je demander qui est en ligne?’ (May I ask who’s calling?).

Now my main connection to work is an iPhone 6 with unlimited calling capacity. I rarely use it to talk to people, however, and it’s probably just as well. Let’s just say that you don’t want to be around me when it rings. I’m not able to walk and chew gum at the same time, so multitasking is not a strong point. First I have to find the bloody thing somewhere in a pocket or a bag, a challenge when you can’t tell what direction sounds are coming from (oh the joys of single-sided hearing!), make sure my glasses are on so that I can see who it is, figure out what button to press to take the call. By then it has usually gone to voice mail.

As for my home phone, it almost never rings. May Madame Fayard rest in peace.

How do you feel about the telephone? Do you still have a land line or are you entirely mobile?

 

Le travail c’est la santé

Henri-Salvador-Le-Travail-C-est-La-SanteIt occurred to me the other day that I will probably never retire. Quoi!? I can hear the cries of outrage echoing across France.

The French have a love-hate relationship with work. They spend a good part of their adult lives seeking it, and once they get it, spend the rest of their careers plotting how to retire early. They work very intensely for short bursts, then take long holidays to recover. What saves them is knowing it will all be done and dusted at 62.

Retirement with full benefits is a hard-earned right in France. I won’t go into how the system works here – c’est compliqué. Suffice it to say that like most pension plans, the whole thing will go bust unless the French agree to raise the retirement age. It’s been all over the news lately as the unions negotiate with the powers-that-be over incentives to get people to work for more years.

As I began working in France late in the game, I will likely never qualify for much of a pension. I am trying to max my retirement savings but, realistically, I am destined to become one of those very, very senior consultants.

And guess what? I’m fine with that. I happen to believe that work keeps you happy and healthy. It’s all about doing what you enjoy and getting that work-life balance thing right.

Working as a freelance writer has its ups and downs but at least it is not a physically challenging job like window washer, or as mind-numbingly boring as bean counter. Hopefully it will enable me to stay gainfully self-employed until they roll me away from my computer, hunched and decrepit as I hunt and peck for the keys with fading eyesight.

I had to put my writing career on hold when first we moved here. Back in those pre-social media days, there just wasn’t the demand in provincial France for English copywriting. Over the years I worked at different jobs: teaching English (which I loathed), as an independent translator (which helped my French enormously), translator-speaker at Euronews (I got to use my dulcet voice), executive assistant in the corporate world (I lied and said I’d be happy to serve coffee in between translating emails). Eventually I worked my way back into communications and am now happily building my freelance writing business.

Throughout my career, I’ve jumped back and forth between full-time and freelance work styles. There are benefits to both but at this stage of my life, the advantages of being able to work from home most days outweigh the attraction of daily interactions with a team and a month of paid vacation.

Henri Salvador figured out the secret of youth early in his career. Oddly enough, the bossa nova crooner came to fame in France with this silly song, a far cry from the relaxed, sensual tones of his later recordings.

Contrary to the song’s title, the lyrics parody those who work hard, and advocate a life of leisure activities like pétanque. Here they are if you’re interested:

Le travail c’est la santé
Rien faire c’est la conserver
Les prisonniers du boulot
N’font pas de vieux os.

Ces gens qui cour’nt au grand galop
En auto, métro ou vélo
Vont-ils voir un film rigolo ?
Mais non, ils vont à leur boulot

Le travail c’est la santé
Rien faire c’est la conserver
Les prisonniers du boulot
N’font pas de vieux os.

Ils boss’nt onze mois pour les vacances
Et sont crevés quand elles commencent
Un mois plus tard, ils sont costauds
Mais faut reprendre le boulot

Dire qu’il y a des gens en pagaille
Qui courent sans cesse après le travail
Moi le travail me court après
Il n’est pas près de m’rattraper.

Maint’nant dans le plus p’tit village
Les gens travaillent comme des sauvages
Pour se payer tout le confort
Quand ils l’ont, eh bien, ils sont morts.

Homm’s d’affaires et meneurs de foule
Travaill’nt à en perdre la boule
Et meur’nt d’une maladie d’cœur
C’est très rare chez les pétanqueurs !

How do you feel about retirement? Do you work to live or live to work?