Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mr Stephan Justtellhimthat

My life as a receptionist vacillates between being a comedy and tragedy. One moment we are all laughing and the next moment I want to crawl under my desk and hide.

When I speak French I prefer to do so face to face, so I can look at your lips and read your facial expression and use hand gestures when my words fail. Of course, all of these methods are unavailable when speaking on the phone.

Unfortunately the vast majority of my job is answering the phone. I have to find out who it is, where they are calling from and who they would like to speak to. Then I make sure so and so is available then I transfer the call or take a message as the case maybe. We have no answering machines so all messages are hand written by moi. If speaking French over the phone is the hardest part, then the second hardest part is having to write in French and a close third is having to listen to someone spell out a word or give you a phone number in French. In French i sounds like e and e sounds like i and g sounds like j and j sounds like g and é sounds like a. If that isn't challenging enough, the French failed to come up with a word for seventy and ninety. So if your phone number is 01 93 88 75 60, it would sound like this "zero one, eighty plus thirteen, eighty eight, sixty plus fifteen, sixty" by the second plus 15 my brain has turned to mashed potatoes and that person better hope their number is already in this person's rolodex.

Most callers enjoy my accent; I think I am even starting to have a small following of people who save their calls until the afternoon just so they can speak to me. People have told me that they feel like they are traveling to some exotic land when they have to call us now. Others are less entertained, and several are flat out rude, assuming that I am either hard of hearing or stupid as opposed to foreign and fun.

In the hip design world of Paris lots of English words are used. This trend both helps and hurts my cause. Our company has an English name so when picking up the phone I muster up my most clear and American accent while saying our name, then move in to a smooth and sultry bonjour in hopes of announcing my American origins but communicating to the person that I do speak French well. However, on the other end of things, I have a terrible time understanding Frenchafied English words and am often left at a complete loss.

Last week a couple of young guys came in the agency for a meeting with the boss. I ask for his name and where he works before I call down the boss. He tells me something that sounds like Starrr Tracks....knowing that we work with tv shows and movie stars I think ok this guy is an agent or a pr person for some actor so Star Track seems like a legitimate name. Before I call the boss I wanted to be tippy sure so I repeat is back to him and he says, "Non non c'est StarTrek". "Ohhhhh" I say, "of course you said Star Treck! With the stars and the rockets and Spock!" assuming he worked in special effects, I say "Great company name. Love it.". Since he was standing in front of me I supplement my new understanding with pantomime, as I pointed to the stars and transformed my ear in to Spock's pointy lobe with my fingers. I am laughing and having fun and he looks lost and a little disturbed. I stop. "What? Quoi?" I say as I lower my arms. "No no no", he says while grabbing a post-it he wrote down the name of his company, "Start Rec. You know like on your VCR remote?". Wow. I would have never guessed that, not in a million years and not with all the hand gestures in the world.

Another recent incident involved a phone conversation. A man calls asking to speak to François. I ask for his name, he replies Stephan, I then ask for him for his full name. He is in a hurry, I can tell because he is talking so quickly, and he says, "It's Stephan Justtellhimthat" or for my francophone it sounded like this "C'est Stephan de Louisa". I say, "Ok Stephan Justtellhimthat, I'll see if François is available." Stephan then bursts out laughing, he is laughing so hard he can barely speak. After a few seconds he says, "Oh la la, no no no sweetheart, I said my name is Stephan just tell him that!". Terribly embarrassed, I laugh a little with him and quickly transfer the call. A few seconds later I hear a burst of laughter coming from the editing department where François sits as I am sure he is getting the full story from Stephan.

Lordy. There will without a doubt be more stories like this share with you all soon.


Kristin said...

I love your stories Mary! Thank you for letting us live vicariously through you :)

barb said...

Oh god, Mary. So frickin cutely nerve-wracking!

clotilde said...

Laughed out loud reading this, so vividly I share your pain -- only in reverse. I find it super hard to understand it when English speakers spell words, and announce figures or numbers. I always need to repeat the sequence slowly in my head, trying to make sense of it, and usually end up having them repeat it.