I think there’s a fundamental difference between going somewhere and being somewhere. As a tourist, the lens with which you view a city for the first time is most commonly from a landmark perspective. A map, a marker and a list of to-dos.
I was intent on being in Paris. I woke at 4 am, after what was a surprisingly unbroken sleep. The jet lag was (so far) not much of an issue. Opening the curtains of my room, I saw the dark sky outside and the city still asleep. There’s a meditative stillness at that time of the day. My internal thermostat runs hot, so I always set the temperature of my room on the cool side. On this crisp morning, it makes getting out of bed less enticing. I fight the urge to crawl back into the warmth offered by the crisp linen sheets, and instead unpack. I gather my shirts and head downstairs to use the iron in the basement.
Doing my best to ask for the iron in French, I spend the next five minutes in the warm stone-walled basement of this small but beautiful old hotel, waiting for the iron to warm up. Nothing happens. I check the power. It’s on. The iron is dialled up to linen hot. The powerpoint is on, but unlike this hotel, no heat is emanating.
I walk up to reception and ask Pierre (his real name) if they have another iron I can use. He raises an eyebrow and shakes his head. “Non.” “You can pay for laundry service. Will be ready tomorrow” and returns to his newspaper. I make a mental note to buy an iron on my way home that night and return to my room, creased shirts in hand.
Plan B. I run a shower, shave, throw on a T shirt and resort to my fall-back shirt-pressing method — steam. I hang my shirts on hangers I borrowed from the basement, let the hot water run for a minute, then hang them in the small steamy bathroom. Now I wait. I check my watch — it’s 5am. Still the city sleeps outside my window, the occasional car the only noise I hear.
I fire up the laptop and do some work.
A while later I throw on a jacket, grab my bag, launch Spotify and stroll out of my hotel, past Pierre who mumbles ‘bon journé’ without looking up from his paper. The sun is up, and the Boulangerie on the corner opposite the Hotel Elysées-Opéra is open. The pastries and breads look like they have all been perfectly crafted — because they have. Immaculate golden pastries topped with bright fruit and finished with flawless glaze, flaky croissants, bright yellow tarts with gold leaf. My powers of self-restraint are tested as I order a single croissant and head back out into the crisp morning air holding the still-warm pastry.
It’s a 15 minute walk to the bureau in Rue de Cambacérès, but I have an hour, so I wander. The city is alive now. The sidewalks are busy, but not crowded as Parisians make their way to wherever it is that they are going. I keep having to remind myself to walk on the right side, but beside this, I feel entirely at home as I walk to work. The sense of excitement I was expecting is still yet to arrive — perhaps it won’t. Happiness, by The Foreign Exchange plays as the sun matches the musical notes, dancing off the golden rooftop statues, and golden faces of morning in the 8th.
I turn the corner of Rue de Rome and approach the square near the Saint Lazare Station. A woman strides confidently past me, dressed immaculately in an ash coloured wool jacket and bright orange scarf. She has a vibrant green folio in one hand, and a cigarette in the other. She does not seem at all out of place, but then again I think she’d look at home on the cover of Vogue. I keep walking and notice more and more elegance. Parisian women are striking in their fashion, beauty, and confidence. This isn’t so much an observation as a statement of fact.
I arrive at our head office at Rue de Cambacérès and face a large, red pair of doors. There’s a button and I press it and wait for the click of the door being unlocked. Nothing. It’s 8:30, surely the place is teeming with activity.
Mais non. No answer. I wait for a few minutes, hoping to follow someone with a pass card into the building, but no one arrives. I stare up at the blue sky, an early arrival of spring. The immaculately maintained sandstone façade of the building stares back down at me. Eventually someone arrives and I shadow them in, and take a seat at reception, waiting for a familiar face to arrive.
At 9:10 am, Vincent arrives, and with a warm smile, greets me. We talk about my flight, the jetlag, and how on his trip to Sydney last year, he only made it to 3pm before needing a sleep. The CEO walks me through the new office space and points strategically to a very comfortable sofa in the workshop — “when you need rest, just come and sleep here. Please feel free to cancel your afternoon meetings”. Vincent excuses himself as he has an early meeting. It’s 9:30am. “I see you for lunch” he says.
The next smile I see is attached to an American accent, and belongs to Kelsey. We’ve spoken on the phone, via email, and in late night Skype workshops, so when I see her arrive, it’s like seeing a friend for the first time in a while. She’s full of enthusiasm, smart as all hell, and so genuinely nice it’s easy to instantly feel like this is where I’ve been working for years. You know that awkwardness you get the first time you meet a colleague, or someone who you’ve had professional contact with but never stood in the same room with? Well there’s none of that here.
We catch the lift up to the second floor and she shows me to the desk next to hers. Then in walks Anthony. When I first joined the company in Sydney, he came over to help on a few projects and we got to collaborate on some really cool stuff. Besides being a very talented UX designer with serious UI skills, he’s also an extremely nice guy. He welcomes me with a huge smile and hug — this place is starting to feel more and more like home.
No sooner have I sat down than Sophie arrives. Sophie is Kelsey’s colleague and has also been my regular contact in Paris. Her smile is so brilliant and immediate that I wonder if it’s for someone behind me. It’s not, and she proves it with a kiss on each cheek and a warm welcome. Her accent is a silky blend of British and French, and she’s that mix of elegance and confidence I mentioned earlier, and just like Kelsey, she’s intelligent as well as smart. For a second I feel really intimidated.
But only for a second. This is quickly replaced by the excitement of being here to create something great with this team.
The next one to arrive is my counterpart Florian, the Creative Director of the Paris office, and Gaelle, the Senior Art Director. They are both full of enthusiasm and talent. Florian is the cool side of creative, minus the arrogance and attitude. He’s exactly what a CD should be — collaborative, supportive, and focussed on great work. Gaelle is not only a skilled AD, but also a photographer with a great eye. Hers is the strongest French accent so far, and the most magnetic.
It’s going to be a great week working with this team.
Later that day at lunch with the CEO, he asks me how I’m feeling, and whether I feel like I need to cancel my appointments for the afternoon. I get the feeling that this has become competitive. I retarget my objective for the day: smash Vincent’s record at all costs. Must stay awake.