Monday, March 19, 2007

Closing out Paris

This trip has been nearly non-stop with activities and meetings. It's been fun, illuminating, enlightening and draining. But I'm meeting such interesting people and learning so much that I fall into bed happily exhausted each night.

Our last night in Paris, I met with Marie-Claude Peyrache, President of European Professional Women's Network-Paris (PWN) and former director of Communication at France Telecom. Their mission is to work women's progress in the business world.

I'm very interested in professional and leadership development for women and communities of color, so I found PWN online before I left and asked to meet Ms. Peyrache or someone from the organization. The group began as a way for professional women in Europe to build the kind of networks that can help them blossom professionally, develop leadership skills, and build confidence in their ability to join and succeed in the executive ranks.

Ms. Peyrache said women in Europe have only started to really move up into the professional ranks in large numbers in the past 10 years. The organization has chapters in most of the major cities in Europe, except in Germany: there is still more pressure on women there to stay home with young children rather than entering the job market outside the home. I would later learn this is very different from Denmark, where 80% of women work! But the Danes also have a very strong benefit system that provides a year of paid maternity leave, similar availability for men, and low-cost, subsidized childcare. The result is a society with strong support for families and work/life balance, plus very low unemployment among native Danes. Hear that U.S. lawmakers?

We had a very good meeting and she provided some good tips for growing your membership, providing networking opportunities, and assisting with professional development and mentoring that I'll be taking back to the Seattle Urban League Young Professionals, a professional development and social service organization with which I've been involved for the past couple years.

The highlight of the Paris stay came that evening when I joined GMF fellows Chad from DC and Carrie, a museum administrator from Chicago at the home of Cyril, a former European German Marshall Fellow for dinner.

He and his family lived in the suburbs of Paris, which are much more diverse than the area around our hotel. His wife would later explain that she'd intentionally moved to that area because she felt their former neighborhood had been too homogenous and she really wanted to be aroundm, and have her kids experience life with, a variety of people.

They welcomed us into their home and plied us with delicious appetizers, food and drink for several hours. On a work/school night, no less! Cultural lesson of the day: Europeans generally entertain for several hours. This would be echoed in Copenhagen where our coordinator explained that people usually come for appetizers, drinks and dinner around 7 or 8pm and don't leave until after 11pm but before 12am on weeknights. On weekends, there's no set ending time. I loved it!

At Cyril and Caroline's, we met their sons (who were adorable and smart), and listened to great jazz music while getting acquainted over wine (juice for me, as usual), bread, cheese and olives. We eventually moved over to the dining room where they ramped up the gastronomic pleasure level even more with scallops and oysters in a delicious butter sauce (perfect for sopping up with the bread), followed by roasted lamb and fingerling potatoes. Then there was a cheese course, and we wrapped up with ice cream and sorbet.

As if that weren't enough for a wonderful evening, they were all very interesting individuals and talked very candidly about French life, politics, the issue of immigration and integration of ethnic minorities (Caroline volunteers as a tutor for immigrant women to help them learn French and become more self-sufficient), and work/life challenges and options.

It was simply a wonderful evening and made me long to do more entertaining back home in Seattle. Rather than just waiting for the mega-holiday dinners, I plan to host more small dinner gatherings. With our fast-paced lives in the U.S., it's the only way I'm going to get to enjoy friends on a more regular basis.

Additional take-away from this experience: entertaining is not about volume or intricacy of food or whether everything is Martha Stewart-perfect, it's about spending time, building relationship and sharing time, food and home with someone simply because being in their presence is enjoyable. I'll try to keep that in mind as I return to the busy life back home.