Un-job: French Unemployment Therapy

There’s really only one way to describe what happened when my six-month contract with the American University of Paris ended and my stint on the dole began. A miracle. A sparkly, astonishing miracle that was more shocking to me than the concept of eating a horse. Because no matter what anybody tells you, French people eat horses. They do. I have even tasted horse milk. And the word to describe that experience is odd.

What happened when I lost my job was even more foreign than what happened when I took my test results to the gastrointestinal specialist and came out with a prescription to “eat more blood sausage.” It is true. Losing your job in France is more foreign than a doctor telling you to eat more sausage and weirder than drinking what comes out of a horse’s teat (I am seriously grossing myself out here, what was I thinking that day at the Grand Epicerie? Oh, that’s right, I was half-drunk on all the free champagne samples. That is a thing, and far be it from me to resist, even when free champagne leads to paying for horse milk.)

When you lose your job in France, things get strange. There’s the unnerving fact that you still have excellent health coverage, mysteriously adequate monthly pay, and spookily free access to every museum in France. And what better way to use your highly suspicious unemployed time than bypassing the hell known as the Mona Lisa and heading straight to that secluded and quiet spot with the Grecian everyday wares?

As an unemployed visitor, you have the leisure to consider the workmanship of the golden earrings a real dead person wore thousands of years ago. You can admire the beautifully molded makeup flasks and the ornate tweezers and you might even think to yourself that, hey, jobs can be cool, jobs can make things that are not only mesmerizing but functional, and you can decide what you really need is to become a craftsman.

Nobody has told you that in a few short weeks you will be working another service job as the receptionist at a rural hotel–toujours avec la banane ! For a moment, you are suspended in time with the Grecian everydays, and maybe something sparks, maybe there’s something you save for later.

And later turns out to be the miracle of Unemployment Therapy.* Now, I’m not sure if I lucked out or if this is standard in the French unemployment arsenal. But I do know that my time in unemployment therapy was decidedly not what I expected (much like horse milk).

It was unexpected because once upon a time I taught English in French grade schools, whereby I discovered the French method of education, better known as childhood purgatory. When I talk to my French friends about the scandal of primary school in their country, they kind of shrug and are all, “Yeah, that’s what happens.” But because countries, like people, are full of contradictions, these French schools also taught poetry (as in English-Mathematics-Science-Poetry) and when I showed up to Unemployment Therapy class expecting to be harangued and humiliated like an underdeveloped nine-year-old, I was instead met with salvation.

That first class, when they asked who I would rather be if I could be anyone else and I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather be than myself so I said, “Jesus, because then I will know if I’m really going to live forever,” my teacher and fellow unemployment students embraced me like a true example of French fraternité. They did not agree with or understand me, but we were all in this together. We were a peculiar bunch, thrown together by the forces of happenstance, racism, poor road conditions.

There was the bleeding-heart pet lover who had fifteen cats, five dogs, a flock of birds, hamsters, and who went around every Saturday night feeding the strays. There was the snappily-dressed eighteen-year-old whose life’s dream was to be a barman. The ex-couture seamstress who dropped out after three weeks, claiming illness. The man with eyes that wandered away from each other, who had lost his job as a life-assistant to Alzheimer’s patients. A woman with tribal scars and an unyielding desire to become a secretary.

Every single one of us, with the exception of the barman and the seamstress, cried at some point. We made grown-up collages, we learned more than we ever wanted to about the long-lasting effects of marriage on one’s career, we were a roomful of dreams deferred. We knew that the hopeful secretary would probably be better off as a fitness instructor and that the woman who owned fifteen cats should probably do something with animals. The life-assistant worried us all with an aggressive ailment that progressed throughout our sessions. My peers kindly confirmed that I am an oddball who would be much better off outdoors, far from civilization, by herself. Which is why I now work at a hotel, as a receptionist.

There is no place more airless than unemployment, and we had been given a weekly forum to air ourselves out, as it were. Is it possible to make a government-regulated aid system feel human? It seemed it was. But what I wanted to know was why the hell it was happening in France, land of traumatized schoolchildren and endless bureaucratic regulation? I mean, you can’t even apply for a bus pass in this country without being made to feel inadequate. But then again, France is also the land of the beautiful exception. Just look at Brigitte Bardot.

When our classes ended, I’d discovered my life purpose (miracles!) and accepted that job at a French hotel (miracles?). And I also discovered that, much like the concept of fraternité, even easily defensible ideas can crack under close inspection. I left Unemployment Therapy certain that my fellow students and I would soon get together for coffee to compare employment notes, that I would visit the secretary so she could teach me how to make maafe, that I would help the cat lady feed her cats. You do what you can to squeeze the life from a moment, to make it last. But, like all sparkly miracles, the moment was defined by a serendipitous combination of junctures, personalities, wishes. Just like I must accept that I will never be Jesus, I also must accept that all things come to an end. Including unemployment.

*author’s term–I think the class itself was called “Economic Re-insertion Group Orientation Project” or something else that the class itself did not in any way resemble, much like a model car kit does not resemble a group of hippies sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya and eating s’mores.

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