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

Rollerbladers Some of the 12,000 who rollerbladed in support of AIDs research. (Puneet Kakkar photo)

THE DISPATCHES: Puneet Kakkar
A glimpse of diplomacy in action, thinking about the Thinker, and rollerblading for a good cause

Some of my friends who have read my journals believe that all I do here is play, and wonder why I sleep in until about 2 p.m. on weekends.

The simple answer is, I don't just play, I work. The internship with the State Department is becoming a better and better experience as days go by. While it feels like I have a midterm every day the amount I read reminds me so much of school, because not only is it in French, but it deals with political and economic issues it's nevertheless an enjoyable, big part of my day. I usually stroll in about 9 (unless I have a lot due by 9:30, when I'll come in an hour earlier), read some of the newspapers for press reviews, and then work on projects. Currently I am working on labor and human rights issues in France, from recent reforms in asylum laws to the changing labor conditions.

Recently, I accompanied a Political Officer to a meeting with a representative of the French government regarding U.S. foreign policy and reports on human trafficking. I was assigned to take notes and report the essential points of the meeting back to the embassy and to the State Department in D.C. It was great seeing how the U.S. conducts foreign policy at the micro level, and how diplomacy is truly achieved. The gruesome part of this was writing the cable about the meeting, as the government uses a different language than everyday English. In political terms I have to be cautious about using "said" instead of "expressed," and I am learning how to put things in more effective, succinct ways. One cable required more than ten revisions.

Immersion diversions

Writing this journal in English, reading newspapers in French at work, and ordering food at an Indian restaurant in Paris in Hindi has shown me that living abroad definitely offers unique experiences with language.

What has piqued my interest the most is the balance between English and French. While most of the conversation at the U.S. Embassy is in English between office staff and personnel, between Washington, D.C. and Paris, or even between embassies the actual content of my work is in French. I set out for Paris looking for a great way to improve my French language skills, but I must admit, it's been slow.

Still, it's getting there. I end up reading about three to four hours in French every day, whether it's laws, speeches, government documents, or newspapers. I also communicate in French with political and economic analysts, and sit in on meetings conducted in French. The challenging part is to understand accurately I must avoid errors when translating the subject matter to English, so that I don't spur false reactions.

But outside work, I use my French when in the city, and it's worked well so far. My language skills have helped in small instances, such as getting dry cleaning done, ordering food, getting refunds on clothes, and seeing movies. There is definitely room for improvement, such as how to communicate with angry people who are yelling at me at three miles per minute about sitting on their papers on a Metro seat, with tech support for computer problems in the embassy, or asking about how I can transfer images from my digital camera to a CD.

Paris finally

In my first three weeks here, all I did was see every tourist monument. The top of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, a walking tour of Paris, the Montemartre Cathedral all were checked off my list in the first two or three weeks. Now I'm enjoying the true sights of the city, and enjoying the true culture that France has.

In the past week, I've been getting out into the less tourist-frequented part of the city, and becoming a more "cultured" individual. I have visited some of the more low-key museums that appeal more to locals than tourists. For instance, on Saturday I went to the Musee Rodin, a quaint, house-style museum with sculptures by Rodin and Camille Claudel. The awesome part of this tour was that I wasn't pressed for time: I spent a good three hours learning more about Rodin's style, what he tried to express through art and the depth of his sculpting, and the progression and development of themes among his works.

In the Musee Rodin garden, there are a number of sculptures (including The Thinker). The garden made me think about the many other art-rich areas, like parks, gardens, and museums, that there are in France, and how much this country appreciates art and beauty. In Los Angeles, or Berkeley (go figure), it seems as if any space of land is sold for commercial or residential purposes. In Paris, I've noticed many of these parks are preserved for hundreds of years and kept beautiful. I've learned that it's a trade-off, nevertheless, as many residential units here don't have the privilege of private gardens like many in the States do.

Another local event I participated in was an AIDS Rollerblading "tour" of Paris. Joining 12,000 other people in the movement against "SIDA" (AIDS in French), I rollerbladed for THREE AND A HALF hours around Paris. Police escorts shut down the roads and accompanied the mass of rollerbladers. A random note: while cobblestone roads are viewing pleasure to the standard American, since we don't have any, they are not comfortable for the standard rollerblader. They hurt. Tremendously. But it was worth it, because not only did I rollerblade for a good cause in another country, but also had a great long workout in great weather. I am actually planning on buying my own rollerblades and taking weekly rolls throughout the city every weekend ... to my knowledge, as of July 15, the banks of the river (the pathways) are shut down to cars and open to walkers, bikers and rollerbladers only.

Also, along with the other embassy interns, my goal is to see French plays and shows weekly. As with the art exhibits, for which students only have to pay about $3, prices are very friendly, as the government believes that youth should be exposed to this at an early age. I'm definitely going to take advantage of it!

—Puneet