Category Archives: workplace

France workplace

Avoid doing business with ENSAM

As described in the post “Getting paid in France,” I had some trouble getting reimbursed for a conference. The situation is still ongoing.

As part of this conference registration, I had received a discount for becoming a member of IEEE. This is common, and universities always refund such a fee as long as it reduces their total bill. ENSAM promised to do the same.

However, when the money came (after the year of waiting described previously), it was short. ENSAM had failed to reimburse me for the IEEE membership fee. I contacted the secretary, and nothing happened for a long time. Eventually, I contacted the secretary again, and she told me there was nothing she could do and referred me to the finance office in Paris. I wrote them an email in French, explaining the situation. After months with no response, I wrote an angry English email. This time I got a reply from somebody saying it had been escalated and that she would handle the matter. I never heard back so I wrote her another email a month later and got no response. It’s been 7 months now.

There is good work going on at ENSAM, but they are a joke on the international stage if they can’t even pay their bills. It’s no wonder France isn’t competitive. I would be very careful about accepting any position at ENSAM.

France workplace

Getting paid in France

The French rarely care about getting paid. Of course their culture is set up around limited store hours and low pay in favor of extreme amounts of vacation. This we know. But they don’t even really understand why one would care about things like getting paid on time. While the situation may be bad in normal French life, it is mind-blowing in the university system.

Story #1

I first started my French post-doc in August. Normally pay comes by direct deposit at the end of the month. I waited until the end of October to receive any money. I had just moved from Germany so I ran out. Tiffany had to send me money from Germany and the professor I worked for loaned me some. Of course I had some money back in the US, but I wasn’t prepared to go months without pay. And, from my perspective (which I’d argue is correct), why should I? I was in a contractual relationship with an organization to do some work in exchange for pay. But apparently this is normal. It’s incredible.

Story #2

I was employed by two organizations during my time in the French lab. One was the university, Arts et Métiers ParisTech (ENSAM), and one was a somewhat private association (I don’t really understand the organizational structure), ARTS. The association has an absolutely terrible human resources department. They don’t respond to emails unless they want to argue with you. I stopped responding to theirs as well though, out of principle, so at least that worked out alright. But ARTS was comparatively really fast at paying out travel reimbursements. ARTS can get it done in about one month (which is still not great compared to the American 1–2 weeks) while ENSAM routinely takes anywhere from 4 to 6 months. Which account the money comes from depended on various circumstances (as is typical even in American universities). If I was lucky, it would be ARTS. If not, it was ENSAM.

I went to a conference last March down in Arles (south of France, not far from the sea), which was to be paid by ENSAM. My colleague and I registered a couple months in advance, as presenters usually must register and pay by a certain date to confirm they will show up. That date came and went, as ENSAM had still not paid the bill. Though it was an international conference, because it was held in France I guess the organizers understood the type of incompetence in French universities. Our secretary contacted them and arranged a deal wherein we had to submit personal checks for the registration fee but they wouldn’t be cashed. We finally got our checks back a couple months after the conference, because ENSAM had finally paid the bill (after the conference was done!). This is existential stuff if you are a university who wants to publish papers and be respected internationally. You might not get such friendly treatment if you call some American conference organizers and tell them you can’t pay until two months after the conference. Note that when I say “can’t pay,” I really mean “can’t be bothered to pay.”

Now it’s November, but this fiasco is still going. Though the conference has been paid for, ENSAM still hasn’t reimbursed me for my travel expenses. My colleague got reimbursed back in July, so the secretary (after much prodding, because in France they are used to this) contacted some people to find out what happened. It turns out that I had accidentally had the hotel invoice made out to the ARTS address instead of ENSAM. Though this makes basically no difference to anybody rational, it completely stopped the process for ENSAM. They weren’t going to even bother telling me about the problem or proceed with paying me for the other expenses, which were numerous. They apparently assumed that the problem of my 500+ Euros would simply go away if they ignored it. The secretary asked the hotel to issue a new invoice and now the process is moving again, allegedly, but it’s been two more months and I still haven’t seen my money.

Quality of life is impacted

I say all that French vacation is great, but time is wasted on this stuff and I can’t exactly go on vacation without any money. I don’t like the stress of dealing with people who don’t uphold their end of contracts. I don’t think ENSAM deserves to be a world-class university, because it doesn’t behave like one.

France wine workplace

Cutting grapes during the Vendange

My experience with the vendange (or grape harvest) was a little different than Eric’s experience, detailed here. I was out in the field cutting grapes from the vines each day, and, boy, it is hard work to do day after day! The cutting part of the vendange is pretty straightforward: cutting, passing the bucket to be emptied into crates, and cutting some more. Though physically demanding, I found it kind of meditative to be outside and face-to-face with the vines for so long each day.

Most importantly, participating in the vendange really gave me a new appreciation for wine, and something to remember and reflect on whenever I enjoy a glass of wine in the future. My new-found appreciation comes from two somewhat contradictory things I learned about the winemaking process. On one hand, if you know the grapes have been handpicked, you can appreciate the physical effort that goes into the production of wine. On the other hand, once you see how simple it is to do the initial processing, you can understand why this beverage has been around for millennia. So, this is what I will be thinking about in a year or so when I finally get to enjoy the 2015 vintage from Domaine Charton-Vachet.

Eric carrying crates of grapes.

 

For those interested in the minutiae of the cutting process, below are the nitty-gritty details:

First, after we congregated at the domaine in the morning, we would head out to the field. The more knowledgeable members of the crew decided how many rows we would pick at a time. Sometimes it was 9 or 10, other times it was only 3 or 4, depending both on how much area was left to pick, how much time we had, and the number of people we had cutting. Usually we went with a one person per row method, but it varied. Then they decided who would be assigned to each row, usually putting the bigger or more experienced people in the rows with crates. This seemed to be because the stronger people could help empty the buckets easier and the more experienced people could both do this and easily keep up with the pace. Then we started cutting! When we would near the end of a section of rows, those who finished first would step over to unfinished rows and help out. It made it seem like a team race where the pace of everyone else pushes you to perform as quickly as possible and your teammates help you over the finish line if needed.

The cutting method is basically to brush/tear away leaves blocking your view, and then cut the grapes off the vine as well and as quickly as you can manage with a pair of small garden clippers. Most of the time the grapes were easy to spot and cut off the vine, but sometimes clumps of grapes were tangled together or in the wires supporting the vines. After cutting away all the obvious clusters of grapes, I would give the plant a good final scan and maybe brush the leaves once more just to check for any hidden clusters before moving on to the next plant. Sometimes clumps of grapes get overlooked, so one way we dealt with this was to scan the rows as we walked back down them after finishing a section. Sometimes whole vines would be missed if two or more people were working the same row and they weren’t conscientious — you really don’t want that to happen, but people weren’t always very predictable in where they started and ended a section of cutting.

The vines themselves were quite variable in terms of the number of grapes they produced. Some had 15 clusters of grapes and others had only one. The size or the quantity of vegetation didn’t always predict how many grapes a vine produced. The Chardonnay plants were quite hardy and easily stood up to tearing away leaves. The Pinot Noir plants seemed more delicate and fragile, but the grapes stood out so well on those vines that you didn’t need to rip away too many leaves. We also picked some Gamay, and those vines were more scraggly than any of the others.

 

Eric standing with some Pinot Noir grapes.

 

The thing that makes being a cutter hard work is that grapes on typical Burgundian vines are usually about 1 to 1.5 feet off the ground (30 to 45 cm). This requires the cutter to bend over, lunge, kneel down on one or both knees, squat, or sit. None of these positions are very ideal to repeatedly perform at a quick pace over the course of a full day of grape harvesting. Bending over is hard on your back and could contribute to a bit of acid reflux after the morning snack or the 4-course french lunch provided by the domaine. Constantly lunging really works the leg muscles. Kneeling and squatting are hard on the knees, and with kneeling you also have to deal with avoiding all the rocks in the field. Sitting might be seem comfortable, but sitting is also problematic due to mud and prickly plant life growing alongside the grapes. Thus, the reality is that you do some combination of all of these positions over the course of a day.

For me, at the end of the first day my knees hurt a bit and my abs were surprisingly sore. Leg muscle and back pain seemed to only last so long as I was actually cutting in stances requiring use of those body parts. The next morning though, I could barely kneel; my knees were so sore after a night’s rest. This is how it continued for the remaining days. After an hour of cutting each morning, my knees would loosen up a bit so that kneeling and squatting were possible, but they would stiffen up again during the lunch break. Ultimately though I just started to tune the pain out by the end of each day, focusing instead on finishing the next row of vines.

For the uninitiated, four days of vendange is certainly enough to get the complete experience and to come away with a few battle scars. I highly recommend doing it if you have the opportunity, an interest in wine, and you aren’t one to shy away from character-building work.

 

 

France visa wine workplace

Vendange in Burgundy

Every year at the beginning of September is when all of the Burgundy wine producers harvest their grapes. Many seasonal workers are hired, some for money and some for fun. As Tiffany and I both still have valid work permits, we decided to do it this year. It is a very unique situation for Americans to be able to experience a vendange in Burgundy, as most cannot legally work for money.

Four days in the fields

Our friend Didier, who runs Domaine Charton-Vachet, is a relatively small producer, so he hired us for just four days. Many of these gigs go for longer and often the workers will finish working at one domaine and move on to another. For example, one couple that we were working with also planned to go up to Champagne for their harvest (where they apparently pay by weight). For us, four days was a sufficient glimpse into the life of a vendanger.
 

Day 1

We arrived at the domaine in Saint-Vallerin (a small village in the Montagny appellation) at 7:30 on Thursday morning. Two days prior, we had presented copies of our work permits and birth certificates, so when we arrived on Thursday there were some contracts (contrat à durée déterminée, or CDD) waiting for our signatures.

(Sorry for the cell-phone quality photos. It wasn’t really possible to lug the DSLR around.)

Tiffany getting ready to harvest some grapes in Saint-Vallerin.

At about 8AM, we went out to the field, which was directly across the street and contained only Chardonnay (Montagny village appellation). Didier gave us some very brief instructions and we were off. The process was very simple. First we tore some leaves off to get a better view of the grapes and then we cut them using some small clippers. In this area the pickers place the grapes in relatively small buckets, which are then frequently dumped into larger crates placed in the rows. We picked for almost two hours, until it was time for our morning snack break which included saucisson (French sausage), cheese, pâté, bread, and some chocolate bars.

After the snack, Didier assigned rows to most people, but he skipped me! He then said I was coming with him. It turned out I had gotten lucky. Probably because I was one of the larger workers and Didier likely assumed I’d be interested in seeing some things, I was assigned the task (with another, very experienced guy) of delivering empty crates to the pickers, carrying the full crates (into which the pickers had dumped their buckets), and loading the truck and trailer (behind a small tractor). I say this was lucky because it was probably easier on my back than bending down in the rows and also I experienced a lot more. Driving back and forth to the winery, I got to see the whole process. It probably wouldn’t have been so lucky for somebody Tiffany’s size, however, given that we were carrying two crates on our backs and sometimes one in our hands at the same time.

When lunchtime came, I learned one of the downsides of this assignment. When the rest of the workers went to lunch (a four-course meal), we had to process all of the grapes they had picked in the morning, meaning we ate later. These white grapes had to go through one machine to remove the stems and another to crush them. My task was menial, because obviously the guy who had been doing it for 16 years and the domaine owner knew what they were doing. I was instructed to hold the hose going from the destemmer to the crusher and ensure that it never went into the crusher, otherwise very bad things would happen. This was a fairly high-exertion task, because I didn’t know the optimal strategy, but it was straightforward. I was just glad to be in the winery observing the process.

The afternoon followed the same basic process. Deliver empty crates, pickup full crates, and bring them back to the winery. The picking finished around 18:30 and then I experienced the other downside of my job. I had to stay later too, because we had to process all of the grapes from the afternoon. We (because Tiffany and I drove together) ended up getting out of there at maybe 20:00.
 

Day 2

On Friday morning, we showed up at about 7:45 to have some coffee before heading out at about 8:00. This time, we went to a plot near the village of Montagny. These grapes were Montagny 1er Cru Les Jardins (Chardonnay).

Truck in the vineyards near Montagny.

The day progressed similarly to Thursday, but one interesting thing is we took a ride over to deliver a small truckload of grapes to the coop in Buxy. We aren’t big fans of that place anymore, but it is where I got started with my Burgundy wine tasting two years ago. Last year Tiffany and I went over there during the harvest to look at the line of tractors and trucks dropping off loads, so it was neat to be in the line this year.

The way the coop works is farmers sign a contract to deliver some or all of their grapes from a given plot to the cave, and then they are paid by weight. This means that the farmers don’t need to have their own equipment (crusher, destemmer, tanks, etc.) but it also means that there is an averaging effect. In fact, I believe that these grapes from the Les Jardins climat that we dropped off are likely bound to end up in a more generic bottle labelled simply “Montagny 1er Cru” whereas the stuff that Didier produces himself will have the label “Montagny 1er Cru Les Jardins,” which is more specific to the plot of land. The wine that comes out of the cave will often be decent, but it’s rare to find really good stuff there. If a producer really cares about producing quality wine, he’ll have his own equipment and take ownership over the whole process. If a farmer just wants to profit on farming grapes, the coop is a better choice.

I again stayed late to help out in the winery, just helping to unload the palettes and perform the menial hose-holding task for the crushing. We didn’t leave until about 22:00 that night.
 

Day 3

On Saturday, we arrived at about 7:50AM. You can probably see how the sleeping hours were becoming scarce at this point. This time, we went to another plot just downhill from Les Jardins. This was the normal Montagny village appellation. The picking was done in time for (I believe a slightly late) lunch, but of course I stayed a couple hours extra to help finish up with unloading and processing the grapes. We left at about 17:00.
 

Day 4

Sunday was an early morning because we had to drive up to Nuits-Saint-Georges. We all met in Saint-Vallerin at around 6:30AM. We then took three cars to our destination, where we were met by a refrigerated truck. Because the logistics were quite different than the previous days, I spent most of the day picking. The majority of the day was spent on Pinot noir (Nuits-Saint-Georges village), but towards the end we also picked some Gamay. I’m not sure the appellation on that Gamay. It may just be “Burgundy” because I think the village appellation is probably reserved for Pinot noir, but then I’m not sure if the Burgundy name can be on something that is pure Gamay. I guess those grapes were being picked for another guy, so I’m not really sure how that all works. (EDIT: I’ve been told these bottles can be labeled “Coteaux Bourguignons.”)

Refrigerated truck in the vineyards near Nuits-Saint-George.

I didn’t get as much experience picking as Tiffany did, but to me the Chardonnay and Pinot noir plants seemed quite similar. The Gamay seemed similar also, but maybe a little more difficult to access the grapes. The grapes seemed to be closer to the vines, but this could be purely anecdotal.

For lunch on Sunday, we had a picnic on a palette. Otherwise, the normal schedule with the morning break and then the lunch break was pretty much the same as before. I was asked to help load some crates onto a palette for the refrigerated truck towards the end of the day and then I helped deliver some empty crates, before going back to picking. We finished picking at around 17:30 and were back in Saint-Vallerin at around 18:30. After the refrigerated truck arrived, we unloaded it and processed the grapes. This is easier for the Pinot noir, as they don’t need crushed. They simply got dumped into the destemmer and from there they went straight to the tank. A couple hours later, we began a dinner with sausages and plenty of wine (though I was driving and already exhausted, so I didn’t benefit much from that).

Recovery

I was getting more and more stiff and sore each of the four days, but interestingly I wasn’t really that sore the next day after 11 hours of sleep. However, my skin has been reacting pretty badly all over my body and particularly on my hands. I get eczema sometimes, but this is the worst I’ve ever had. It’s interesting that I had no skin problems during the harvest itself, aside from a few scrapes, but a day later this became a real problem. Today is the fourth day of rest after the harvest and my skin was bad enough that I went to the doctor. It seems I likely encountered some plant that I was allergic to and this triggered a reaction all over.

flat France law workplace

French fire safety

It is no secret that the French culture embraces regulations. Illusory or not, they love the feeling of controlling the world around them with policies, procedures, and assignment of responsibility. These regulations slow down all activities in France and, in many ways, hurt France’s standing in the world. Of course tradeoffs exist, so we should be careful not to conclude that they are a bad thing in all cases.

What astounds me is that, even with all of this government intervention, common-sense safety regulations really don’t exist. In some cases, this seems like a good thing. It is liberating to not be protected from myself at every turn. But here they don’t even have basic safety features in flats and workplaces.

Take my workplace, for example, where there is a single usable fire exit (UPDATE: See below). The building is not particularly small. It is quite modern, and fire exits do exist all over the place, but they are all locked or barricaded in various ways. The only way out is the front door, and many parts of the building will likely be quite cut off from this exit in case of a fire. I don’t know what French law actually says about this situation, but such an American lab would be inspected and shut down promptly. It is true that some codes in the US are ridiculous, but I’d go so far as to say that the effective lack of fire codes here is stupid. One would think that a responsible employer would solve the problem, but I guess this lack of action illustrates the need for workplace safety regulations and enforcement.

The situation at home and around town is more complex. There are a lot of old buildings in France, including much of the housing. For this reason, it is undoubtedly difficult to implement safety rules across the board. That said, there are some things that are just silly. Last month, though we already had one, a law went into effect that finally mandated smoke detectors in rental housing. This is shocking to me, given that this has been regulated in pretty much every American town for decades. I don’t know the laws in the rest of Europe, but there was also no smoke detector in my flat in Germany. The silliness also extends to the construction domain, with almost every door in France swinging inward. Even worse, many doors require a key to exit. In our flat, for example, we must manually unlock the door to the actual flat and then also the one downstairs to exit to the street. If we don’t have our key on us, we’ll be trapped. I’m not just arguing for the value of regulations. I also believe that responsible landlords and architects should solve these things voluntarily, and it astounds me that they largely haven’t.

Imagine living in a place where right turns on red are universally outlawed but the fire exits are chained shut. It’s mind boggling.

UPDATE: I’ve been told (for unrelated reasons) that there is a second exit that does work in our lab. As far as I know, there is still no alternate exit from the large room with the VR equipment, which has 3 out of 4 exits locked, but is the most likely place for a fire.