By popular request, I will guest-blog a little about the work I came to do here. Not much because I only just started, but we’ll see how it goes.
I started on a rainy morning nine days ago. My first appointment was with a person from HR who, I had been told before, doesn’t speak a word of English. That turned out not to be the case, his English was fine, and my French was only needed to read my contract before signing it. I got most of it, except for the long section about keeping secrets secret and something about being thrown in prison if I act against the interests of the Nation (capital N in the original). Can’t be that important.
I work at CEA, you see, the French government’s regulatory/research/something organization for everything having to do with nuclear and (since about five years or so) alternative energy. Unsurprisingly, I will not be building nuclear reactors; there is a lot of research being done here in all kinds of general areas, and my lab is concerned with ensuring the security of software. I will be involved in a project funded by the French national research agency on making sure programs don’t leak confidential information; think a mobile phone app that has access to both your photos and to the Internet, but you don’t want it to upload all your photos somewhere without your knowledge. We will do that kind of thing, except for airplanes. Or at least, that is presumably the reason why Airbus is involved in the project.
Anyway, the work environment is very friendly and university-like. This includes the infrastructure (we had a blackout in my first week) and the equipment (the first laptop I got didn’t work), but also the internal bureaucracy. The people are very nice, and there is a lot of time for socializing: There is a collective coffee break after 9 o’clock as people trickle in in the morning and another one after lunch. My group, being good public servants, goes for lunch about 11:45. The cafeteria is nice so far with an interesting selection; we always have something meaty, a fish of the day, pizza, salads, and vegetables that have been boiled beyond recognition. There is also a choice of desserts, fresh fruit, and yes, cheese. Lunch is subsidized by CEA according to a complex system, which means that we pay with our ID badges, except for me, because so far my badge is not recognized by the system. So I have a card for visitors that pays for my lunch, that’s not bad either. Coffee is free in our building, by the way; so is tea, but the tea drinkers mostly aren’t happy about the selection and tend to bring their own.
In the breaks, people mostly speak French because it is known that I have some basic knowledge. I understand some things; I could mostly follow the conversation on dragon-powered steam engines in the Game of Thrones universe, but I only got the very basics of the discussion of space elevators based on the paternoster principle. (Turns out French people don’t know paternosters!) My French is slowly getting a little better, but more work is needed in that area. When my arrival dust has settled, I will apparently get a weekly French lesson at the lab. In the next few months, three or four other post-docs will also trickle in, and some of them are rumored not to speak any French at all, so we will see how things develop.
What little time is not spent on lunch and coffee breaks mostly goes to vacations. Like almost everything else in France, this area, too, is more complicated than it should be, but the upshot is that I have five weeks of proper vacation every year and what amounts to an additional five weeks of another type of vacation: Since the official work week in France is 35 hours but we actually work 40 hours, I get half a day of free time saved up per week. Or something.
So this is what will keep me occupied for the next 18 months, after which I intend to see what the French retirement system can do for me.