City of Light

Howdy dear folks, from a somewhat slushy early Saturday afternoon in the City of Light. Since I promised executive summaries, here it is — even though I think I want this entry as a whole to be a bit more expressive, really:
–Administrator training at MSF HQ in Paris is more than half over, with five solid days behind me, the weekend off, and a group train trip to Bordeaux tomorrow for the last four days of class.
–Confirmation came Thursday afternoon that I am definitely on for the China post (but putting it so bluntly takes away from the experience, so I suggest reading on) and will most likely head out around the 24th or so of March, from Paris.

Now for the more fun parts…let us, as we say in what I’m learning is “MSF speak,” look at the “context on the ground.” Many friends commented in the last few weeks before I left that “you must be SO excited.” To be honest, I was generally far too busy — more or less from December right through pretty much the end of class yesterday — to FEEL the excitement. I knew it was there, lurking beneath the focus, but I was absorbed in what I knew I had to accomplish. Please note, they were things I was proud to be accomplishing — this was not the heavy busy-ness of obligation, but the proud busy-ness of responsibilities I’d chosen and wanted to complete with integrity.

As you probably know, the reason for being in Oberlin was principally to become the driving force behind a booklet presenting Shansi’s 100-year history of educational, social and cultural exchanges between Asia and the U.S. through illustrations with a narrative thread that discussed themes and events. Once I got word from MSF NY that I would likely be doing what I am, in fact, now doing — that is, leaving Oberlin easily a month earlier than I’d really thought I would — I went into overdrive. In the course of 16 days, we took the booklet from nonexistant, to a 24-page very solid first draft, designed in a 4/c mockup format that looked AWESOME. I have rarely felt more proud than when the designer brought in his first design. I’d written the entire text in about three days (lots of late nights, etc.), and was delighted it held together as well as it did. Anyway — so then we had our committee meeting (Friday and Saturday, February 25 and 26), at which I chaired my last subcommittee meetings (at least until I’m back in the U.S.), and then literally when the meeting ended, a week ago, I hopped in Laura’s car for the drive to Cleveland airport and on via Chicago and Heathrow to Paris de Gaulle. Boom. Just like that.

So my first excitement — the first chance it really had to break through — was that first afternoon in Paris: landed in time to have most of a sunny late afternoon for wandering from my hotel on the northeastern edge of the Marais, down past Place de la Bastille, and along the Seine, where they shut the traffic down on Sunday afternoons so folks can promenade along the riverfront. It was great…and I was reminded — twenty four years after I last visited it — how truly gorgeous this city is. But remember: MSF had been very careful to make sure I understood that my actual placement in the China post would depend on how well things went with the training to start the next day…in French…about bookkeeping and human resource policy…with what I imagined would be a bunch of very high-powered French people snickering at my feeble attempts to express myself.

First three days of class: very intense, very focused. LOTS of HR policy and even philosophy in fact. A major focus for MSF right now is how to develop the “national staff” — meaning staff of the country in which the project is happening — so that they can become stable long-term staff members of the organization at the coordination and country-management level and beyond. Understand that the classic model for MSF has been a coordination and management team of expatriates with developed-world training and experience (all of them on short-term assignments of usually a year or less), working with and training national or local staff at each project site. In the past two years or so, MSF France (at least — perhaps other operational sections as well) has placed increasing emphasis on long-term retention and training of a strong corps of local staff in each country where they work. Naturally, for an organization run out of Paris and whose lines of reporting usually come through an international developed-world corps of expats working three to twelve-month contracts…there are many aspects to be sorted out to accomplish these goals!

That was the first three days, and on Wednesday morning I sort of hit my low point. I’d seen the HR officer in charge of the China projects on Tuesday afternoon to ask some questions about timing for appointments to complete my vaccination series, and to get the pre-departure health checks and tests…and she’d been quite noncommittal, a la “but you understand that if you don’t go to China then we wouldn’t really be needing the vaccinations, of course” variety. Again, understand how MSF-F works: these guys are the experts at true emergencies, and within the MSF family, France is known also as the bare-bones folks who devote the highest chunk of resources directly to project stuff. So when it comes to expat volunteers like myself…especially first mission expats…we sort of have to let ourselves float freely until all the stars align right: staff (both expat and national) in the field agreeing on when the replacement needs to happen and what kind of person they want; more importantly, in the case of administrative jobs, both HR and Finance here in Paris agreeing on what the key parameters for selecting a replacement are, then combing through the pool of all possible available candidates coming in from offices all over the world, to see if there might be someone slightly stronger in a key area than me for this specific post, even if that would mean delaying a bit before filling the spot, and if so where would they send me instead — i.e., what other project or country is crying out right now for someone with my apparent skill set. You get the drift. And I knew all this — but it is a little hard when you’ve packed your bags, said goodbye, and mentally prepared…to remember that until you are on the plane, nothing is really definite with MSF-F! (And that still applies, really — I mean, I sort of know it’ll happen…but they might decide they need me somewhere else even more, still.)

So Wednesday morning the jet lag, the culture lag, the accumulation of so much work and so many changes, and no yoga or tennis or workout in a week or more, combined to bring me pretty far down — I was just frustrated and trying to stay focused in class, and to really understand all that was being said and to be appropriately responsive. I did manage to let go, and remind myself that none of this really matters — that I’ll find the right path for myself, and that the process really is more important than the outcome…but I did still spend some time wondering what I’d do if I got sent back to the U.S.! 🙂 By Thursday morning things were going better, and we were getting into very hands-on stuff: indeed, after spending most of the first three days getting presentations and discussing HR policy, and reading and making comments on forms and so on…between Thursday and Friday, I learned two new software programs: both in French, one to track history and salary and payroll information on national staff (brand new, version 0.7 — not even beta yet!); and one (all day yesterday) for all the bookkeeping and accounting that I’ll be doing in the job. This was fun — I suppose only a geek like me could be thrilled at learning exciting French words like “pointage” (double-checking, as in bank statement against check book) or “lettrage” (backing up, as in checking receipts for expenses). And having spent my professional career AROUND accountants without ever being one, it’s kind of fine to learn how great some of the computer tools are — the system (custom made) that MSF has is pretty darn cool. Can’t wait to start using it — and the scary part is in pretty much exactly one month, I’ll be starting to close the March books, in China, on a project I will know precious little about at that time.

Thursday afternoon at lunch, my HRO (HR officer) told me that in fact China looked about 98% — apparently three folks needed to sign off: the HR director (VERY impressive) in charge of national staff policy and direction and the HR officer tracking the pool of administrators internationally, with both of whom I worked closely the first four days; and the head of finance for all of MSF-F, with whom I will work closely in Bordeux apparently. During the afternoon session on Thursday, my HRO came and showed me a contract packet for me — something which apparently tells me that I have the green light now. So. As of that moment I felt able to start really planning, and here’s what we’ve got: Thursday we come back from Bordeaux and I will head to London immediately with high hopes of good times with many friends there (Tracy and family; Peter; Howard and Gene, others if around); Monday I’ll head to Hamburg (anyone with thoughts on cheap and fast transit London to HH, let me know: looks like I might have to fly to Cologne then train to HH to keep time and fare reasonable); and by Sunday, March 20 I’m due back in Paris, to get final medical stuff done and be briefed for the mission starting on Monday the 21st. I think I’ll probably go to Amsterdam the last couple days before coming to Paris, just because I’ve never been and this might be a good time to do it, plus perhaps I can see a friend in Den Haag as well.

OK, that’s a lot of detail and I apologize if it’s too much. I feel so liberated, and as of the end of class yesterday I truly am feeling excited and outrageously blessed — walking from Place de la Bastille (my hotel, and MSF, are both nearby there) down to Jardins de Luxembourg (I’m in an internet cafe close to La Sorbonne right now) today, I kept grinning and repeating to myself “man, life sure is great.” 🙂 I mean, after all: true, I’m working hard, and true, I’m giving up my developed world salary and perks and lifestyle. But let’s put things in context: this is my first-ever international trip on someone else’s tab (MSF paid for the flights and the hotel, plus $15 a day toward food while the course is on — of course the intra-Europe travel and expenses are fully on me); and right now, since we actually don’t have class on the weekend — which I thought we would, but enfin…on est Francais — I’ve got a weekend free in Paris, with a (decent) hotel paid by MSF, and the chance to go where I will – Versailles, Giverny, Chartres…still making up my mind for both today and tomorrow. Then tomorrow, MSF takes me by train to Bordeaux. Oh, and last night I had one of the most wonderful meals of my life in the non-smoking room(!) at cafe de l’industrie, with one of my classmates, a lovely woman from Montreal who may be off to Liberia shortly. The others in my class are another young American (Belgian dual citizen and strong French), a young woman from Burundi who’s worked with MSF-F in Burundi for several years and is being trained to take on full admin responsibilities in another country, as MSF-F reduces operations in Burundi; and then two Parisians, a man with Ernst and Young background and a woman who’s worked with some other NGO’s in Africa. They’re all wonderful and I really love the vibe in the class…and my French is getting pretty darn good. 🙂

OK. I think that’s it. I’ve taken some photos here in Paris but don’t yet know how to download them from my brand new digital camera, so stay tuned. I’ll try to load some before I leave Europe.

Wow. Hope I’ve not bored you too badly. Please drop some comments on here…you gotta register, I think, but I think it’s easy. And I love to read from you here. Much love! Be well! Wish me luck…. 🙂

PB

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