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26 Redundant in Paris (mid February 1991 to April 1992)                           

During the Kawas project, we had loaned our small single bedroom apartment less than 40m² to Kate, a student at college and daughter of our friends Sheila and David. We could not move into it until she vacated it and returned to stay with her parents just on the outskirts of Paris. We thus went first to Cubby’s parents home in Langeland for a long weekend.

Later in Paris I faced an unsympathetic SB manager who had not received my earlier Fax from India informing of my return. He considered that I had failed on my last two projects without bothering to debrief me or asking me to give him a written report. As no other work was available I was made redundant and given three months notice – which I did not have to work out.

There was really no arguing that my last two projects had been less than successful. With hindsight I saw I had stayed too long in a company where my career was not advancing. I had travelled rather overmuch, was at a disadvantage not speaking French and not fully understanding the nuances of their culture. I had become tense and had been undiplomatic in my relations with Alstom’s manager at Kawas - I should have accommodated his inadequacies – one of my characteristics which despite this experience, I did not fully correct in the future.

For many French employees of about 55 years of age redundancy in a period of recession was effectively enforced retirement. The same would apply to me, unless against the odds, I could obtain a new position. Fortunately the length of my service with SB (about 10 years) entitled me to a statutory ‘handshake’ of many months salary sufficient to cover son Benjamin’s expenses at university in Cape Town. As I had contributed to the compulsory unemployment insurance fund I also qualified for a monthly sum for 14 months until I found a job. We had no rental to pay as we owned our apartment and with sufficient funds coming in monthly we could live carefully in Paris without using our savings.

The unemployment insurance agency required me to actively search for a job and to keep copies of all letters etc attesting to this – but they never inspected them. I needed either a typewriter or a computer and bought a second hand Apple II GS computer from someone who was upgrading to ‘Mac’. This ‘graphics and sound’ computer had a ‘windows’ type operating system with pull down menus. It was easy for me, a computer illiterate, to use in comparison with the Microsoft Dos computers of that era. These had not yet adopted ‘windows’ and could only be operated if one remembered a series of keyboard commands by rote – something I was disinclined to do but which secretaries and others easily mastered.

The only thing really different to the Microsoft Windows type computer I now use 13 years later is that the programme for the software had to be loaded on each time and my output had to be saved to floppy discs – there was no hard disc space for storing these. The other significant development since then has been the Internet not yet available. Using this ‘new’ computer tool, as a glorified typewriter, I began my barrage of applications to prospective employers[1].

I scoured advertisements in United Kingdom and French newspapers and technical journals as well as visiting a French employment Bureau specialising in jobs for expatriates abroad. I telephoned people I knew in France but nothing seemed to be available. It was almost 20 years since I had last worked in Britain and 10 years since I had worked in South Africa - I had lost contact with possible employers in those countries – networking had not been my strong point. Responses to my applications made or unsolicited letters written were often not forthcoming. After each letter sent I felt buoyed up but gradual felt resigned when responses did not materialise – my box file of applications grew thicker. For many of the applications I would slightly alter my CV emphasising experience or skills which I thought would interest the particular employer – fortunately a computer made this simple to do. I also produced a French version of my CV.

We pondered what the alternatives were if I did not receive any job offers before my unemployment benefit expired. Other than my considerable construction experience, I seemed to have no experience in other fields and little innate talent. Cubby had more possible talents than me being able to paint and draw, sew and cook - but was reluctant to consider gambling on any independent enterprise for the moment. We were reluctant to contemplate running a sandwich bar, a newsagent, a rural post office, or a bed and breakfast establishment - all activities which we felt we could manage but did not find inspiring.

Cubby embarked on a correspondence course on freelance writing and I belatedly started taking French lessons to improve employment prospects. We had both grown up in a period of relatively good job security and lacked job flexibility - younger people in a more insecure world seemed to adjust to more readily. Cubby with much of her family now in Europe did not wish to return to South Africa where employment prospects in civil engineering in any case did not appear rosy – the country just before and after the fall of Apartheid had been in recession as far as construction was concerned.

My French course was at les Halles and I travelled on the efficient metro system. The metro system had a standard charge for a single ticket no matter what the distance travelled within the Paris area itself. It seemed good value compared to the London tubes where each journey is priced separately. It was also possible to buy a ‘carnet’ (a bunch of 10 tickets) in advance and this cut down queuing at ticket offices. But it paid me to purchase a monthly season ticket (Carte d’Orange) giving unlimited use within a geographical area with no limit on the number of journeys made in any day. Travel by metro was rapid with the main inconvenience being the crush at rush hours and sometimes interminable walks through underground linking tunnels changing from one line to another. One got to know the area around each station – little islands within Paris but not generally how they connected to one another. The variety of different peoples on the metro demonstrated that Paris was indeed now a multi-ethnic city.

At the ‘school’ there were about 15 pupils in my class – diverse foreigners much younger than me – competing for the tutor’s attention and generally faster to react than me to different learning methods. Most were spending time before starting university or work and had time to get to know and enjoy Paris. My progress was slow and after finishing this course I found a ‘one to one’ teacher and started making better progress.

Although travel on the metro was easy, we often walked to destinations. We needed exercise and this way we could really get to know the town. Many attractive stone built buildings, often with the dates of construction and the architect’s names, lined the streets. There were height restrictions to buildings in some areas seldom more than 5 stories high. Often, like our apartment, they did not have lifts forcing us to climb up and down flights of stairs daily – good exercise. New buildings replacing existing older ones usually had to retain the original facades and these had to be carefully propped up while demolition and then rebuilding was done behind.

Some of the older buildings showed signs of settlement with cracks and lintels over doors and windows out of level. Our own apartment had timber windows out of square and had been progressively planed to allow them to close. The floors were sloped about 15cm in about 4meters. Construction of metro lines and underground parking garages possibly had caused some of this movement over the years and some grouting had been done below our building foundations in an attempt to arrest this.

The joy of Paris was that people still lived in the city and few areas had been totally abandoned to office areas deserted at night and over weekends. Tourists seemed to be about both in summer and in the depth of winter, and boats and barges were always plying on the Seine. There were plenty of restaurants some cheap but where food and drink was of a good standard - we occasionally ate out (something we hesitate to do now in provincial England some14 years later as food is often overpriced and indifferent with service being mediocre).

Our apartment in rue Claude Pouillet was just around the corner from rue de Levy a traditional market street with fresh produce from all parts of France and the world. We did not have to keep cupboards and refrigerator full but could daily buy, cook and eat what we fancied – we used a supermarket, a near by MonoPrix for some staple items. About once a month we would go to the 13th arrondissment where many Chinese and other Asian people lived, mostly in new high-rise blocks somewhat reminiscent of Hong Kong. There were large supermarkets where produce seemed to be flown in almost daily from the east and we could nostalgically buy foods we had eaten in South East Asia.

We walked south across Paris, crossing the Seine at Pont Alexandre III towards the British Councils buildings near des Invalides where was a reading room and a lending library. We later heard the library had stopped lending books in 2002 to cut costs and now only dealt in information technology – rather short sighted we thought. On the way back on warm summer days, we stopped nearby the church Madeleine and bought cooling ice cream cones from a stall. On Sunday mornings we walked to the Anglican Church St Michaels in rue d’Aguesseau just off rue du Faubourg St. Honore not far from the President’s Elysees Palace and the British Embassy. I would leave Cubby at the service and then go down rue St Honore looking at paintings in art shops then on to the Champs Elysees seeing the world pass by.

We also visited parks. In Jardin du Luxembourg on the left bank we watched model boats being sailed, enthusiasts playing impromptu games of chess, and people in hired chairs sunning themselves. In Parc de Monceau near our apartment we were diverted from the beauty of it’s trees and flowers by irritating park attendants moving people off the grass – sitting or lying on this by the hoi-poloi was not allowed in Democratic France - ‘Pelouse Indicte’ signs abounded. We watched colourfully dressed children on roller blades and skates doing circuits on an open-air rink. Older men, retired or unemployed and often puffing pungent ‘bleu’ cigarettes[2], gathered together at gravel rinks in most parks playing boulles – a game not requiring immaculate lawns - differences in terrain and surface affecting the distances rolled and exercised their skills. One park particularly appealing to us was just south west of Paris – a tiny Japanese garden with artistic vistas, sounds of running water with red maples and yellow and green bamboo.

We found that people in public service had changed from our earliest days in France, they now seemed to be younger and were polite to foreigners in post offices and elsewhere – the surly dragons we had encountered when we first visited had disappeared. Many younger French people now appeared keen to exercise their English.

Brief visit to the south by TGV - dining with Cubby's cousin Mette at their house in Mormorion

Cubby’s father Aage visited us in summer 1991, he had cared for his wife Mercia increasingly affected by both Alhzeimers and loss of sight for almost twenty years and needed a break. Dorte, Cubby’s sister, had arranged for her to stay in an old peoples home during this period.

During his visit he slept on the sofa-bed in the lounge which we folded down each night. Aage and Cubby decided to see the Mona Lisa and went to the Louvre where Aage after popping a precautionary nitro-glycerin heart pill against angina suddenly collapsed and was speedily attended to by ‘Sapier Pompiers’ (Firemen / paramedics) and taken to hospital for a check up and then discharged.

On his return to Langeland, Mercia became increasingly difficult for him to manage and she was admitted to hospital in Rodkubing for observation. There she, apparently disturbed by strange surroundings, tried to get out of her high bed but fell and fractured her hip. She did not recover – Cubby went up for her funeral alone as I, ever hopeful, anticipated a positive response to a job application.

Christmas eve dinner 1991 with Aage in our Paris apartment

Later that year Aage joined us for Christmas, but unfortunately caught flu and spent some time in bed. Paris had an efficient system of Doctors on call coming out at any hour to attend patients as long as one paid – Aage later recovered some of the costs from the Danish health system. None the less we enjoyed Christmas dinner eating oysters as was a French custom.

In the year I attended three interviews in Britain, travelling by coach (piggy backed on rail through the Channel Tunnel) was the cheapest as expenses were invariably not refunded. The last of these resulted in a job offer in Uganda (still recovering from the aftermath of Edi Amin) but this came about three months after the interview and just after I had received my only other job offer and accepted it. The job offer I finally received resulted from earlier personal contact. I wrote to a Swiss Engineering Consultant who had visited the Koeberg site from Europe about 12 years earlier and with whom I had enthusiastically discussed the construction methods for large Turbine Generator Tables he had designed. He generously recommended me to the Swiss / Swedish company ABB who asked me to see them in Baden for interview – they had a project coming up in the UK. This was somewhat ironical - I had written to them earlier without response.

I went to work initially in Baden – the intention was that I would spend several weeks there becoming familiar with the organisation and the project, but after barely a week their English organisation called for me to go to the combined cycle gas power plant site in Deeside in Wales not far from the ancient Roman town of Chester in England. Preliminary works and piling were starting and needed to be supervised.

[1] I also as a diversion started writing my memoirs on this machine from memory, but when I returned to this about 10 years later found I could not open the disks – my new computer ran on a different software system. So using printed hardcopies as a prompt and Cubby’s letters to her parents given back to her since then, I started rewriting from scratch.

[2] Apparently the tobacco for these cigarettes was a government concession and it was not clear to us how this was reconciled with affects on health.

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