It was the autumn of 1982. I had decided that year that it was time for me to go home. Back to the U.S., I mean. I had been living in Paris for three years, working part-time as a teacher and as the resident director of a small American college's study abroad program in Paris. I was 33 years old and I was starting to think I needed to find a "real" job, start a career, and start paying into a retirement system so that I'd have something to live on when I got older.
The harbor and small port town of Carteret, in Normandy, where J.L owned a house.
I had always thought I would like to live in Washington DC. I had friends there, and had spent time there with them. Chicago was tempting too — I had spent five years as a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Urbana, teaching and working toward my PhD in French linguistics. But Washington had a more international feel than Chicago, not to mention a milder climate. It was also much closer to North Carolina, where I was born, had grown up, and gone to college. My whole family lived in North Carolina.
I wasn't sure what kind of career I might manage to create for myself. In August 1982, I rented a apartment in Arlington, Virginia, and set about looking for opportunities. After having spent six or seven years of my life living and working in France, I hoped I could find a job that would involve French language skills. Walt and I had become friends in Paris, and soon he moved to Washington too.
From the beach in Carteret, and in this photo, you can see the Isle of Jersey on the horizon.
Sometime in October, an old North Carolina friend of mine who had been living and working in DC for about 10 years phoned me and said she had just seen an ad in the Washington Post for a French-language translator position. She and I had studied French together and even spent six months on a study abroad program in Aix en Provence in 1970. You should apply, she told me. So I did.
The person who was trying to hire a translator was, it turned out, CHM's old friend J.L., the head of the French translation unit at the U.S. Information Agency. CHM had been living in the DC area for nearly 15 years, having moved there from Paris at about the same time I first came to France as a student. He was working as a translator at USIA too. J.L. and her husband, who was a childhood friend of CHM's, had been living and working in DC for 30 years or so. I didn't know either of them at that point, of course. I'm writing this because CHM told me yesterday that J.L passed away this week.
In 1982, there was a test to take for that translation job. J.L. gave me an American news article to translate, put me in a quiet room, and let me have a go at it. That was that. Weeks went by and I heard nothing. I'm not even sure I actually met J.L in person during that time; somebody else administered the test, I think. Time was passing, and Christmas was coming. I was still unemployed, but Walt had found a job.
I stayed in this hotel/restaurant Carteret in 2004, and again with Walt in 2005.
One day between Christmas and New Year's Day, I was at home in my apartment when the phone rang. It was a Frenchman named CHM calling, out of the blue. He explained to me that his friend and colleague J.L. had asked him to take a look at a translation I had done as part of a job application and to give her his opinion of my skills. He asked me to come to the USIA offices on Pennsylvania Avenue and talk to him about a position he himself was trying to fill.
I did so in January 1983. CHM was the editor of the French-language edition of magazine that USIA published for distribution in Africa. CHM's assistant editor, a Frenchwoman, had retired and gone off to live in — guess where — North Carolina. CHM needed a new assistant, and he asked me to come work with him as a contractor, on a trial basis. If it worked out, he would try to get me hired on a permanent basis, either as an editorial assistant or as his assistant editor.
Well, it obviously worked out. I was hired as a translator, though I actually never really translated anything. CHM farmed out English-language texts to various francophone translators around the DC area, and then we turned the draft translations into publishable material by comparing them to the original English texts and making sure they were accurate. My French was good enough for me to be able to tell CHM when I thought the French translation was off the mark, not conveying the meaning of the English original. We would spend hours trying to figure out how to re-word and polish up the translations. Plus, we had all the work of entering the French texts into the computer, formatting them, and proof-reading, which I could also help with.
After about two years, everything changed again. USIA decided to move the magazine's editorial offices to Paris — but not us. I was transferred to the agency's press service for African affairs, where I worked not as a translator but as a reporter, writer, and editor. J.L., whom of course I had met by then, was still the head of the service's translation section. I think she and her translators were happy to have on staff an American who spoke and wrote pretty good French and could help them with language and translation questions.
I was enjoying my new "career" — it turned out that J.L. had never actually been authorized to hire a translator back in 1982 when I was a candidate. It was just luck that CHM had been consulting with her during the hiring process and happened to need somebody with my skills to join his staff. Le hasard fait parfois bien les choses...
In 1986, Walt and I moved to California. That's another long story. I started over again, searching for another career. I ended up working as an editor and manager of a computer magazine, and then moved to work as an editor and manager in a series of software companies. CHM and I stayed in touch, partly because he had California connections too and frequently came to the U.S. West Coast for vacations.
In January 1992, Walt and I came to France to spend some time in Paris, Normandy, and Brittany. We drove up to Cherbourg because I wanted to go see the nearby town of Carteret. The reason for that had to do with historical connections — I was born and raised in Carteret County, North Carolina, and vaguely knew how it had come to be named after a town in France. That year, CHM came to Paris while we were there, and I told him about our Normandy excursion.
Wow, he said, that's a coincidence. Our friend J.L. owns a house in Carteret. It was her grandparents' house, and she spends her summer vacations there. Years later, after CHM had retired from his position at USIA — he had become the head French translator there when J.L. retired — and he started visiting J.L. in Carteret during his summers in France. In 1998, I flew to Paris and drove up there and spent a few days with CHM and J.L., touring around the area. I went back to Carteret several times after Walt and I moved to France in 2003, and I also saw J.L. in Paris many times over the years.
I'm including a few photos I took in Carteret in 2004, before I started blogging. R.I.P., J.L.
J.L.'s house in Carteret, where she spent many summers