May 21, 2015

Scoop Part Deux

Pray for Us...or for me when I start writing for French newspapers
(Self-promotion: Check out my latest published article detailing WWII commemorations in Burgundy in the link to the right...)

When you are sitting in a café at 10:00am in France with your spouse, enjoying a morning espresso, you really shouldn't answer your phone when it rings with a number you don't recognize. It is just so American to be so available all the time. A lot of French people seem to live by a few simple rules:

  1. Never respond to emails
  2. If you want to nap, unplug (landline) or turn off your phone
  3. Ignore voicemails
  4. Assure people to their face that you will follow up promptly. Then don't.
But, alas, I have that Stars and Stripes gene, so I keep answering calls, responding to electronic mails, and having my coffee time interrupted. It was the agency chief calling with my first assignment.

Before diving into the details of the task, let's take a bird's-eye view of the situation, pretending to be the agency chief (A man I enjoy and like tremendously).

"OK, I have a new local correspondent in Arnay-le-Duc. He has no journalistic experience whatsoever. He is not from the town, the region, or even the country. He is American. Recently, I made him write in French with a pen to see if he could actually string consecutive words together in a grammatically correct fashion. He has no network in the area, no favors to call in, and no track record."

All of this is factually accurate, and noted without shame or judgment. If I were the agency chief, I would find a real softball first assignment for this foreigner, something like a photo of sand drawings by school children with a caption or a short piece about the ladies who meet weekly to weave baskets at the social center. An assignment that no one could butcher, that had no sensitivity, something innocuous. In other words, easy.

The chief had other ideas. "Mark," he started, his tone all business. "Are you available for a story?"

Well, sure. This is what I signed up for correct? I grabbed a pen and stepped outside.

"The former mayor of Magnien died. They are burying him today at 2:00pm. We received a draft obituary from the town, but we are missing a few important details like the dates of his service, what his major accomplishments were, etc. Call the current mayor and ask for these details, write up a new obituary, and send it to me by noon, OK? If you can't contact the mayor, you'll have to call the family. Au revoir."

I stood on the café terrace and blinked a few times, trying to absorb some of this information. A little ball of tension crept into my throat, and I went to tell my wife that I was going to be busy for the next couple of hours. 

Arriving home, I called the mayor. No answer at town hall, which is fairly normal for French local government. "There except when you need us." I called my mayor and asked him for the Magnien mayor's cell phone. I left a voicemail. It was now 10:45, 75 minutes from deadline. Sweat, sweat, sweat.

I went to the French white pages website and searched for the departed's last name. Four hits in the town of Magnien came up. Hurriedly, I googled them all, wondering if they were blood relatives of the deceased or merely similarly named. Eventually, I settled on what looked to be a son. The last thing I wanted was to get the grieving widow three hours before the funeral. 

On the third ring, the son answered. I explained, in nervous accented French, who I was and why I was calling. My nerves were for naught. As has happened on thousands of occasions during my time in France, he proved to be reliably human. Though he was obviously saddened by his father's passing, he was honored that the local paper wanted to write a worthy obituary and he was grateful to me for calling. (I noticed a trill of excitement inside my head...though I was nervous, the people I called on behalf of the newspaper were nervous, too...and flattered to be in the paper. Could it be that after a year of being helpless in this society, I might actually have a little power?) He gave me a few details that were missing, and told me stories of his dad's involvement in youth sports, his efforts to renovate and rebuild important infrastructure in town, and how he was always available to the residents of his community, day or night, as he considered it an honor to serve. Even though death was bringing these two strangers into contact, the conversation was life-affirming. I thanked him profusely and hung up to type up my notes and send to the paper.

At noon, I was done, my first foray into local journalism complete. The brief piece ran the next day, and I was a published local press correspondent in France. I hoped the family would like what I wrote...and that my next assignment would be the annual meeting of the cycling club.

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