Je ne suis aucune Madame

This post is dedicated to Alina.

Once upon a time, The Poetess and I were flying together on a plane of the defunct Malev Airlines, and, since talking to people when I fly keeps me from barfing and since I was in a shitty mood (I think), I decided to pester her about something completely innocuous like the shaking off of dead skin flakes. During this time, of course, I was gracefully picking my teeth for something stuck in there at breakfast (speedy departure; don’t judge!). One of the conclusions of that conversation was that neither of us is a true lady. We came up with examples and decided we do not fit the criteria.

Last week, for the first time in my life, someone referred to me as Mrs. [insert last name here] and it startled me; and, naturally, with me being the lady that I am (after a little wine), the most mature thing I could do at that time was to send a collective message to colleagues and students, to make it clear that Mrs. [last name] is my mother. Oh, la classe!

No, it wasn’t the first time in my life actually, but it was the first time someone referred to me that way in Romanian, which made it even scarier. Not even telemarketers have done that, because they are stupidly instructed to call people Miss/Mrs./Mr. + first name because some idiot decided it doesn’t sound as childish as it actually does and that it creates a connection  (it doesn’t). In the report my boss drafted after that awful meeting I told you about here, I am referred to as Ms. [last name] which was also not as scary. I like this title, it’s very convenient, and I use it very often, too. Unfortunately, Romanian does not have an equivalent for this handy feminist concoction, so we are stuck with resorting to Mrs. (if we are polite) or with the ever-ridiculous question “So are you a Mrs. or a Miss?” (if we are sleazy jerks).

Why did I bring all of this up? Well because one of the things I have been trying hard to get used to since I started working in Brussels (and occasionally Strasbourg), is being called Madame about twenty times a day. “Bonjour, Madame”, “Oui, Madame”, “Du thé ou du café, Madame?”, “Merci, Madame”, “Bonne journée, Madame!”, ya know, the usual. I just can’t…

I wish I had a scientific explanation for my aversion towards this word, but as you may have noticed I don’t have scientific explanations for anything much. The result of my training, I think; most interpreters know a little bit about everything, but few have in-depth knowledge about a particular subject. Anyway, the first, most obvious reason that I could think of was the cultural difference. In Romania (at least in Transylvania), it is rare that people address each other just by saying Mr/Mrs/Sir/Madam without anything before or after, anything like a title, a last name, that person’s occupation or even an adjective or a pronoun to show affection or consideration. It just sounds BAD! Don’t get me wrong, I have heard it used, but never by well-educated people, and whenever I hear some chav saying “Doamnă” (Mrs/Missus/Madam/lady) without attaching the vocative to anything, I just shudder. It’s like using “Mister” or “Missus” the way children sometimes do in English.

Now “Domnișoară” (Miss) is very often used without any concern for the fact that it is rude, condescending and reeks of unwanted familiarity, but that’s the kind of society I live in. I have never heard anyone complain about this so far, so is it all in my head? Well, the Romanian code of good manners doesn’t say much on the subject. The polite forms of address almost always include a name or a profession after the title, but apparently it is also considered acceptable to address someone with a simple “Domnule/Doamnă” followed by nothing, in the case of strangers.

What do I do? Nothing. I just don’t use any titles at all when talking to someone I don’t know, ever, in any language. I actively encourage my students to not address me using the politeness pronoun and I ask people to call me by my first name. Can this all be explained through a mere cultural difference? Probably not. It is also true that us Transylvanians are less formal than the rest of Romania, at least from what I’ve seen, but surely interpreters should find it easy to move past cultural differences, no? I mean, I haven’t heard of my Spanish colleagues having any issues with being called “Monsieur” or “Madame” in Belgium or France, even though Spain is the least formal country I’ve ever been to.

The truth is I am afraid of formality. Though I’m fairly reserved in my relationships with people, I don’t think I’ve ever gone past college in this respect. For one thing, I went from struggling student to well-off globetrotter in a pretty short span of time, and, for the next, I’m afraid of getting old. When did I have to start dealing with grown-up stuff anyway? Who are all these people in airports, and restaurants, and conference venues, talking to me like I’m an adult? I guess, then, that it is also a form of regression that I may sink into, as a way of seeking shelter from the responsibilities of my new life, as well as a way to cope with the gap between a culture that respects neither women nor children and an ultra-formal, yet egalitarian one that I haven’t quite managed to understand yet.

Yeah, that, and the fact that I am no Madam, I am not a lady. Ladies do not yell or curse or gossip or say inappropriate things; they don’t get angry and start bashing people, even if those people are chavs or sleazy jerks or idiot bosses. Ladies get what they want by using tact and charm, not by going in head-first with the “my way or the highway” attitude. Ladies let shit slide sometimes, because they know it’s not worth the hassle. Ladies are decent even to people who don’t deserve it. I can only aspire to that.

Things I’ve Been Getting Used to

Do you know that expression “if you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen”? I’ve always used it in one form or another, but I now find that it is a bit conceited. Of course! It always is when it starts to apply to you.

So if we start from the premises that the kitchen is a hot place, but it pays well to be there, there will be quite a lot of people willing to take a lot of sh… excuse me, heat! Nobody prepares you for the kitchen though, you just go in, find the ingredients (Oh, you thought you had them?! Silly little thing!), start cooking, screw up, figure out what’s missing, burn the food, under-cook it, and, eventually, do a half-decent job.

I’ve been working in Brussels almost every week for a little over a year now and progress has been slow, but steady. I had very few chances of working on the private market until I became accredited as an interpreter with the institutions so I guess it’s safe to say that I went up two levels in difficulty very shortly and abruptly after graduation. When you start working on the market after the master’s programme you feel as if you’ve never learned interpreting in your life and that feeling settles in again very quickly after you start to work for the institutions. I have lost count of the times in my life when I felt I didn’t know anything about anything… to build on that nothing and then move up another level and start from scratch again. It is my new normal 🙂
So here are a few of the things I’ve been getting used to since working in Brussels:

1. Commuting

The “new booths” still get flown in mostly (with the notable exception of the Polish booth, but that’s an entirely different story), so us, Easterners, the Baltics and also the Scandinavians, I believe, who are not staff, mostly fly into Brussels and still get a fair amount of work. There has been a rising trend of “deserters” (people who moved to Brussels) whose ranks I am thinking of joining. Of course you get more work if they don’t have to pay for your travelling and accommodation costs, what with everyone there complaining how expensive interpreters are (we’re not; interpreting costs are hardly 1% of the EU budget).

Luckily, I’ve had a constant flow of work, which means I travel quite frequently. For every contract I have, I can count in two inactive days just travelling or recovering. The thing is starting to take its toll on me. Commuting is really quite exhausting, and even in the time I have to myself I am mostly useless, as I just wanna sleep all the time. I’m late paying the bills, late with my taxes, my place is a mess, manis, pedis, haircuts, hair-dyes, dentist appointments, gym hours, hobbies, lunches with friends and visits to the parents’ get postponed to infinity. Add this to the back pain and the random diet and you have yourself a pretty serious pro for moving to Brussels. I’ll get back to this point someday.

2. Working with new people in the booth

On the market I had worked only with people I knew, mostly former master’s colleagues and/or friends. Upside: great atmosphere in the booth, you create a dynamic very easily, you read each other’s signals, you are able to prepare together before the event, and there’s the inevitable get-together afterwards (or during; yeah, during too). The downside? Working with people who are as inexperienced as you are tends to keep you revolving within the same patterns, greatly needed advice is hard to come by, as are tips and tricks, not to mention, as a newbie, you need to steal smarts from someone who has them (or more of them than you do, anyway).

Alas, gone are the days when the masters took in apprentices. The market in Romania is pretty much full. When I was working on the private market, I would get one gig a month (counting volunteer work and “go-interpret-for-free-because-the-rector-said-so gigs), and I was one of the lucky ones. However, with the opportunity to learn from better and more experienced interpreters comes a downside. Not knowing people leads to unnecessary self-consciousness and tension. You are (probably unintentionally) excluded from conversation, it takes a long time to connect with colleagues you only see once every few months, and that leads to… let’s call them misunderstandings: those awkward moments when you don’t know whether you should take over or hand over the mic (that is some delicate shit!), not knowing how the things you say or do will be interpreted, getting snappy replies for harmless remarks (“The French delegate is speaking!” “So, can’t you wait until I sit down?!”).

This makes performance more difficult than it already is. You end up excluding yourself from conversation when all the gossip starts to pour in (and who gossips about others, gossips about you, you can be sure). Many colleagues are reluctant to giving feedback and hardly ever listen in when it’s not their shift (or don’t appear to anyway). Basically my strategy is watch/listen and learn, do tons of research (which is never enough, anyway) and wait for the day when I’m fully equipped for whatever a meeting can throw at me. In all honesty, though, it would be mean of me to say that I don’t get advice and answers when I ask for them. Many colleagues are also nice and helpful, but essentially this is a lonely job. When the only context you ever see people in is a box, that makes it difficult to make a genuine connection. That’s why I like missions and working at the CJEU, they give you the chance to get to know people outside of the box too.

(Someday, I’ll be sorry I wrote that…)

3. Working with your teachers

As if I didn’t have enough reasons to be self-conscious in the booth. When I work with them, I always get the feeling, they’re still… my teachers and they listen critically to everything I say and I’m sorry to say that makes me under-perform. They’re kind enough to leave their teachery ways at the airport when they fly in, but paranoia knows no reason; it takes the obvious and flushes it down the toilet, so I just imagine they’re only pretending not to be horrified at the things I say.

4. Working with men

Does this sound weird? I’m sure it is. I’m generally confident around men, but for some stupid reason, it makes me nervous to have to work with/around them. In my master’s programme, we were an all-girls group and we had only one male teacher. His opinion of course mattered most to us, probably for the same stupid reason that I find it difficult to overlook male presence in the booth. It may also be habit (as I had never worked with men before) or the rare bird factor (still a very female-dominated profession) or some Freudian quirk in the back of my head (oddly enough, the presence of gay men does not affect me as much). I’ll get my head shrunk and get back to you on this.

5. The 46 official languages of the EU

This one is so vast, it deserves a post of its own, if I ever bother to write anything so boring. The main difference between the private market and the institutions, I think, is the fact that, on the market, people talk in more concrete terms and play less with words. Administrative lingo revels in ambiguity and political correctness. When specialists at a conference talk about agriculture and the CAP reform for instance, they know first-hand how legislation affects the field, what farmers can and cannot do, how the animals live, how parcels are divided and they consequently speak in very concrete terms. Not so when it comes to government officials and public servants describing essentially the same things, but in a manner that is extremely far removed from reality, either in very general terms or in very specific legal technicalities the end of which are very difficult to envisage for an ordinary person (i.e. me). Whenever I prepare for a meeting, I always get the impression that the institutions have somehow come up with a parallel language for each of the official languages of the EU and it’s the interpreters’ job to decrypt the message. I don’t have a research strategy that helps me get everything and more experienced colleagues tell me it will be three or four more years until I almost fully understand what in the world those people are talking about. When I get there, I’ll write a post about it.

These are just some of the things I’ve been struggling with over the last year or so. I’m not dead yet 🙂

Part 2 and maybe 3 to come…