An American in Paris: Diplomacy in the era of Freedom Fries

National Assembly building The National Assembly building in Paris. (Puneet Kakkar photo)

Practicing on the taxi driver, feeling U.S. pride, and starting the French resolution

I've only been in Paris for three days, yet already I feel like I've been so well situated that it's been a week. I arrived on Monday after 24 hours of gruesome flying time, transferring flights, and being woken up continuously for meals. Arriving at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris was surreal, because —as obvious as this may sound — everything was in French, from baggage claim directions to customs signs. Of course they would be in French, but this is the first time I have had to deal with it. Before, when I was part of a tourist group, the tour guide or chaperone took care of where to go. Either way, the arrival was the first test of my adaptation skills: could I successfully use my French to command a taxi to take me to my apartment?

Success. The cabbie was interesting — as with many people in France, politics was a PASSIONATE matter for him. Before telling the taxi driver that I was an intern for the U.S. embassy, I wanted to find out his opinions about U.S.-French relations. Surprisingly, he was not as hostile as I thought he would be. Rather, he cared more about domestic French politics and the future of his career. (Note: currently the country is undergoing major reforms of pension, education, and other social programs.) The big deal, nevertheless, was about George Bush's arrival in France on May 31 for the G-8 summit in Evian, France.

As I reached my housing and checked in at the embassy for security clearance and identification, it finally hit me that I will be in another country for three months. Not as a student or a tourist, but as an employee, and a representative of the United States of America. Gazing on the U.S. embassy and even seeing American flags and symbols around Paris was already giving me feelings of pride and happiness — which was weird, because I normally don't respond to those icons with such zeal in the States. Maybe because they're normally a given. I guess it's true that pride in your nation significantly heightens in another country.

The embassy in Paris is huge. There are so many operations that run out of it. I have never known how an embassy functions, but from what I gathered on Friday, it does a lot more than just passport/visa services or diplomatic missions — there are also commerce, culture, and defense programs on the premises. I am assigned to the "Political" section of the embassy, where I and with other foreign service officers will focus on U.S.-French relations. In light of recent tense U.S.-French relations, the current war on terror, and events in the Mideast, I can already tell that this summer will be busy and rewarding.

The other interns in this program come from different U.S. universities and all seem diverse, intelligent, and interesting. So far I've had a lot of fun learning more about others and hanging out in France. For instance, yesterday, a group of us went to Versailles. Instead of taking the normal tour of the palace and seeing all the rooms, we decided to enjoy and explore the gardens in depth as well as the city itself, to see former houses where the Queen and King held "peasant parties" to inflate their egos. It was definitely a different experience than when I was last there three years ago.

This actually brings me to the one difficulty I see myself having this summer: getting to speak French enough. I'm in France, but it's easy to get away with only English. Some people in the group have no training in French and have had no problem whatsoever getting by, as many of the French people here speak great English. Almost everyone in the embassy speaks English, and of course, all the interns as well — so I'm having difficulty getting to practice and perfect my French, which is both a poison and a comfort. My goal for first week of real work and my first full week of being in Paris is to try to speak more French, less English.

I start my first day of work tomorrow and I am more than excited. I plan to proudly don my UC Berkeley tie and see where it takes me. GO BEARS!

— Puneet