International Studies & Programs

A l’Etranger

A l’Etranger 

By: Jack Weyhrich

For my essay, I have chosen the French title “A l’Etranger,” which translates to the word “abroad” in English. In French, however, it has a greater connotation, one that I think better represents my experience. The word étranger is means both strange and foreign in English, and so the common French expression à l’étranger more precisely translates to: in the strange/foreign (land). I had been to France twice before, and I had already been acquainted with Paris, but this summer, living and working in the city on my own, my ten weeks felt very strange and foreign. So much of what I experienced was different than what I was expecting after my previous visits. At times, the city seemed beautiful in ways I never before imagined; in other moments, I felt lonely and alienated in a culture so different from my own. My time working in Paris had its highs and lows, but I learned to adapt to it all. For the first time in my life I was a stranger, and I know that has re-shaped the person that I am today.

While I living in Paris had challenges of its own, my time in France was really defined by my work experience. The French workplace is incredibly different from the American workplace. Even in Paris, the cultural center of Europe and the financial hub of France, the pace and organization of work culture is often at odds with the American approach to productivity. The work week is 35 hours, lunch breaks are long and always honored, and everyone uses all of their guaranteed six weeks of vacation each year. Knowing that, I think many Americans would assume that the French are very unproductive. In my experience, however, this is seldom the case. As I learned, the French take more breaks than Americans, both during the workday for coffee breaks and throughout the year for long vacations. When they resume their work, however, they pursue it with great intensity, and they always work for perfection.

One of the greatest personal and cultural lessons that I learned there is that of independence.
In the French workplace, independence and autonomy are valued far more than in the American workplace. The effect of this is so strong that when I started my first day of work, I was given a desk and an email account, but no instruction whatsoever. This made my first few hours in a foreign workplace feel even more unfamiliar. I had been warned this would happen, and that I would need to reach out to my co-workers to find things to work on. The challenge then, for Americans, is navigating the ambiguity of a much more fluid work environment.

My first day was rough. Two hours in, my boss arrived, and for about five minutes he introduced me to another intern that I could work with. Aside from one brief meeting a few weeks later, that was the last time he interacted with me directly. I was completely on my own, but it’s the same way for most French workers. In the French workplace, it’s the responsibility of the employees to find meaningful work for themselves. The upper management provides only a general vision, and everyone else is expected to work somewhat independently toward that goal. The task-based style of the US workplace would be viewed as overbearing and far too rigid by French standards. It took me a few days to get accustomed to this format, but it forced me to interact with a lot of my co-workers early on to find ways to pitch in. That ended up being a great way to get to know everyone and to feel comfortable in my new work environment, especially since I had to communicate entirely in French. After the first week, I had projects coming to me from a lot of people. Some days were slow, and other days I had four people needing me to work on different things all at once, but that kept the work from being too mundane. Although I know that the American workplace won’t likely be like this, I learned to appreciate the flexibility and independence that come with working in this way. I feel that my bosses really respected my ability to handle important things without being micro-managed or constantly evaluated. That said, I feel much more confident now, knowing that I can adapt to new styles of management and new working environments.

Being able to apply what I have learned in class, and understanding the types of careers that will allow me to do that, are both important goals to me. With my degree in French, there is no question that I was able apply what I have learned at MSU – I spoke the language there practically all day, every day. To me, any career in which I can speak French would be related to that discipline. More directly, however, my translation work fits closely with the type of job that one might imagine for a French major. While I have already had some translating experience, it was interesting to translate and edit more business-oriented documents, as I did several times during my internship.

Today, I have a far better understanding of business practices in France than I had before that summer. I had some ideas of what working there might be like, but the concrete experiences that I had showed me so much more. I now feel very confident that I could work in a European business setting. Personally, I would like to see myself working in a liaison role between American and European firms at some point in my future career.

I also developed greater independence outside of work. I lived on campus last year as a freshman, so living on my own in a sprawling foreign city afforded me a far greater amount of independence. I was wholly responsible for my own well-being, and aside from going to work and finishing my online course through MSU, I could spend my time however I wanted. Living in such a pedestrian-friendly city and having access to a robust metro and bus system, all of Paris and its metropolitan area was available to me. I visited a few suburbs jogged through many of Paris’s impressive parks and gardens, and I didn’t forget to visit Paris’s world-renowned restaurants and fresh markets. I also had the great luck of making some lasting friendships with some of the students who lived near me. One was a French film student whom I visited in Chinon at the end of my trip, and another was a Swiss-German, whom I plan to visit later this year. The experience of living on my own, cooking for myself and solving problems in a French-language city, prepared me as much for independence in the real world as any of my experiences at work.

Overall, my internship provided what I had hoped it would provide. I learned to navigate a foreign business culture and experience life from the perspective of a European for a few months. I missed home more than I expected; but I met great people in Paris, and that made it easier. I became very independent, living like any typical European young adult might live after graduation. The experience was challenging at times, but that is what helped to make it such a formative few months. This program and my internship placement have afforded me so many opportunities, not only in my professional development, but in my personal development as well. I gained far more in these past few months than I could have if I didn’t take the risk to work in another country for the summer.