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Journalistes en Europe

By Caitlin Kelly


Bumping into my landlord's ex-girlfriend was one of those random events that ends up changing one's life. It was January 1982 and she'd just applied for a fellowship program, "Journalists in Europe", offering eight months' residence in Paris and travel all over Europe, expenses paid by the EEC or its member countries. Frustrated and bored after four years' freelancing in Toronto, I applied without hesitation.

No one I knew had heard of it. Someone said Robert Sarner, now editor of the English-language monthly Passion in Paris, had participated. "It's great," he wrote laconically.

Philippe Viannay, 65-year-old cofounder of Le Matin and Le Nouvel Observateur, started "Journalists in Europe" in 1973. His dream was to teach journalists from around the world about Europe by offering them the chance to live and work there. He managed to convince cronies in the governments of the EEC Ten to fund the project, with annual scholarships worth $9,000 available to anyone who needed one.

Applicants must be between 25 and 35 years old, have a university degree, competency in English and French (used interchangeably) and four years' experience in the media. Freelancers are especially welcome for their ability to place stories from Europe with a number of outlets.

All one is asked in exchange for the return air fare to Paris and a $500 monthly scholarship is to write one article for each of the four issues of Europ, the program magazine produced by group volunteers.

Fellowship candidates, between 28 and 32 each year, are selected by a nine-country European committee through a complex quota system of region, race, age, sex and background. In our year, 1982-3, there were 13 women and 15 men, including eight North Americans and one African. This year's group of 32 participants includes six Africans, five North Americans. Only seven are women.

Although separate committees at Columbia in New York and in the U.K. conduct personal interviews, most of us were accepted on-paper based on job history, aspirations, tearsheets and references. The European selection committee, composed of former and current journalists, had to divine the essential — could we work alone in any European country yet thrive in a group atmosphere combining elements of newsroom, therapy group and kindergarten?

Our activities from October to June were a mixture of seminars on European defence, media and economics, independent travel assignments and group trips: to the Loire Valley for three days' orientation, a week in Munich and a final week in Siena to evaluate the program. Our "editor", who lacked any real assigning power, was Armando, a Chilean journalist who'd been a JE in 1973 and who'd stayed in Paris.

Our relationship to him was ill-defined and sometimes frustrating. For example, we needed his permission to make long-distance calls. He oversaw two huge file cabinets of contacts collected by former JE's, a network throughout Europe. Novices as many of us were to working independently in Europe, the file was, for some, a lifeline.

We were an intriguing collection of personalities, skills and experience. A 25-year-old German freelancer who'd worked as a stringer from Brazil. A 32-year-old freelancer from New Orleans who'd never had a job in his life — but had produced two books, a film, and had won a string of fellowships. A 33-year-old British freelancer with an obsession for Graham Greene; she'd once hopped a plane to Tel Aviv from London in the (vain) hope of an interview.

Freelancers! For once we were non-competing and equally at sea. It turned out editors paid poorly and reluctantly all over the world. But Canada's rates were astonishingly high to the Frenchman, who'd had to call Paris at his own expense from Bahrain over unpaid fees.

Some of the Europeans knew Europe intimately, and ended up travelling to Israel, Egypt, Turkey, even Japan. But for the North Americans, Indians and Orientals, Europe and its institutions — EEC, OECD, UNESCO, NATO — were another language to learn. We were used to being competent, plugged in, producing fast, tight copy to deadline. At home we had networks, press clubs, inside sources. No longer. Like cub reporters on Day One, we had to begin again. (And for those from radio, it was even harder.) We knew no one and, more importantly, no one knew us. Within and without our group we'd have to recreate our personal and professional success, carve a new niche in a different society and culture, far from family, friends and colleagues. It wasn't easy.

What no application form could foresee was how co-operative each journalist would be. Although we'd been chosen to contribute to a group, some with the best skills — editing, writing or surviving government flackery in four new languages — were unwilling to share them, too busy sightseeing, freelancing or cementing personal contacts.

And it was, as predicted, the exchanges amongst ourselves which proved most rewarding.
During our first week in Paris we had to tell the group about our work and national media. North Americans used to pull-out food sections in newspapers learned that photos of food are taboo in the press of Bangladesh. "We don't write about banquets or dinners," said Roushan, a small softspoken reporter for his government news agency. "Too many people don't eat."

The two Brazilians, print journalists from Rio, said self-censorship was second-nature, re-inforced by sporadic newsroom visits by police. The African, from Togo's Ministry of Tourism, wasn't surprised most of us couldn't locate his tiny country on the wall map. For him government and press were indivisible; questions of credibility and censorship were unanswerable.

Everyone wanted to hear the Chinese. Bai, 35, spoke textbook French from his two-year Algerian stint. A foreign specialist with the China News Agency in Peking, he'd left his wife and small daughter to come to Paris; like 28-year-old Wen from the People's Daily, he'd been chosen by the government. Both knew they were under our scrutiny (and who else's?) and our probing questions were often deflected into more harmless areas. Later on they would admit their shock at Europe's rampant materialism and neglect of the poor and elderly. The beggars in the Metro were as overwhelming to them as the dog-eat-dog world of unplanned capitalist economies.

A common bond was our 2800-franc scholarship, in a city of 10-franc tea and 40-franc dry-cleaners. It was hard for those used to taxi chits, expense account lunches and disposable income, yet the Indian and Roushan managed to send home money.

Some of us moved into student residences to economise, no bargain as the one house phone was often broken, we couldn't type freely, send telexes or simply relax in privacy.
Our refuge was the Centre de formation des journalistes (CFJ), France's top (of five) journalism school, of which JE founder Viannay is co-director. Our work space was two large sky-lit rooms with big tables, wall maps and files full of European documentation. Each of us had a small locker and 28 of us shared eight manual typewriters, four telephones, one frequently-broken photocopier and a colour television. There were five daily English-language papers, one French and one Italian. The CFJ library had dozens of other papers, magazines and a gift subscription from The Globe and Mail I requested — our only source of regular Canadian news.

Adjusting to noisy, congested, polluted, impatient, aggressive Paris was tough, especially for those from rural homes or quieter cultures. Those with poor French faced surly postal and bank clerks and endless bureaucrats unarmed. Breakfast was espresso and a croissant, eaten standing up at a bar; dinner started at eight, when restaurants began serving.

Suddenly I needed six cards: my monthly Metropass (only $22), my scholarship-holder's card, carte de sejour, student residence card, cafeteria card for Agence France-Presse, and CFJ student card.

Yet, we had a collective identity crisis. Were we students with no income or professional clout? Honored government guests? On sabbatical leave? Our title was the untranslatable "stagiare", and locked us out of press conferences. Press attachés put us on hold.

We were not formally introduced — de rigeur in France — to any working journalists. Those of us working for major organizations seethed at the stonewalling and unaccustomed delays caused by our initially-poor French, the bureaucracy or our indeterminate status.

We were there to learn — everything we could. To read a newspaper, to dodge pickpockets, to book hotels, travel and interviews all over the Continent — and off it. We were to write four articles: on economics, politics, society and culture. Europe was our playground. For my first piece, on society, I compared squatters in Paris, London and Amsterdam. A dead story, utterly unsaleable, but a long-held curiosity. I satisfied it all expenses paid.

Others wrote on Spanish autonomy, Turkish emancipation, France's dairy industry, Swiss civil defense. A Quebecois radio reporter wrote on glass sculpting in Czechoslovakia. A Japanese city reporter explored Rome's urban development. One Brazilian wrote on British cinema, another on Poles' daily life — squeaking through on a tourist's visa. Life became pre-enquête, mid-enquête or post-enquête, heading off again every three weeks on our own or with the group.

We developed new skills and new markets. One woman from a rural Massachusetts weekly interviewed Cypriot women about their husbands lost at war, and sold the results to The Times of London. An Irish broadcaster whose five languages didn't include Portuguese travelled to several tiny villages to interview, in Portuguese, women whose husbands work abroad. A British radio freelancer who'd never written for print sold work to the Manchester Guardian and New Scientist.

We learned our limits, and how to surpass them. One American reporter, normally the essence of cool, threw up daily at a four-day French conference. But caught and tear-gassed in a riot, she filed copy as usual. We got sick, faced hostile border guards and missed connections alone. There were no editors or colleagues to fall back on, and maybe a credit card for those of us with bank balances still intact. We were welcomed as press in Scandinavia with access to free press centres, and thrown off trains in East Germany. We learned to travel light and cheaply.

We had $250 for travel expenses and $35 per diems for each trip. One woman took six overnight trains in Spain to economise. One man took up the Dutch government's offer to pay his way and sent the CFJ funds home.

But we revelled in a plethora of press, a new and awesome challenge. French papers — 13 dailies in Paris alone — bristled with unfamiliar initials: RATP, IVG, PDC, CFDT. I welcomed the break from American-centred news and knew I could find a range of opinion within three British papers I'd never find in Toronto. Europe's press, polarized and political, mocked our North American efforts at objectivity. We read Le Monde, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Mail to know what the right thought; L'Humanité, Le Matin, Liberation and the Manchester Guardian for a view from the left.

The public was equally jaundiced. While researching a piece on a missile base planned for Sicily, I interviewed Italian peace activists, NATO officials, fellow journalists, union organizers and politicians. Everyone's first question: "What party does your paper represent?" My bias and opinions were assumed before I opened my notebook.

We learned how little we knew of Europe, of journalism, of each other and ourselves. A woman who covered New York City politics for Newsday and was a Nieman Fellowship finalist, proved surprisingly frail and helpless, moving seven times in eight months. The Cairo-based New York Times stringer who'd covered Sadat's assassination had never heard of René Levesque. Indian news, Anil insisted, was far more than bride-burnings, flood and famine. With enormous disparities in our professional abilities, survival skills and cultural backgrounds, nothing could be taken for granted.

The cultural and social baggage we'd brought along weighed heavily. "In my country" quickly became a cliché, whether defending plumbing or elections. The men from India, China, Japan, Togo and Bangladesh had left their wives and children behind but often seemed to expect assistance from the women JE's, a feisty and uncompromising group.

After six months of friction Koffi, the Togolese, finally exploded during one of our rare informal group discussions. "Why do you people never shake my hand when I say hello? What's your hurry?" What we saw as efficiency he saw as rudeness.

We were all foreigners in Paris, the capital of xenophobia, but being Canadian was a lesson in humility. I and my two Anglophone compatriots were constantly taken for Americans. No one saw any difference. Many Europeans I met perceived Canada mainly as Quebec, the rest an amorphous — and bilingual — mass, indistinguishable from the United States.

Within the group our English sometimes set us apart, especially when producing Europ, our quarterly magazine. Nine of us had volunteered to work together for free choosing a format, paper, cover, typefaces, doing copy-editing and layout. The committee — one American, three Canadians, a German, two Brazilians and a New Zealander (only three men!) — had to reconcile its own ideas but also those of the three editors working with us: Arlette Marchal of L'Express, Hans-Jurgen Tkocz, a German stringer, and Jonathan Fenby of The Economist. We planned out every issue in long meetings, deciding the order of the 28 articles by consensus. No one had final say.

Producing the magazine provoked arguments over each other's French, English, layout and editing skills. Some people could barely write in English, others in French. Since no one was being paid, professional courtesy or tolerance went out the window as we shuffled the worst manuscripts back and forth in desperation. The 72-page end product was the result of as much frustration as diplomacy. But for a freelancer used to isolation and self-reliance, the interdependence was a challenge. And we saw the results before us within weeks, not six months later surrounded by someone else's art direction, advertisements and philosophy.

The most exhilarating constant, growing as we relaxed, was the sharing within the group. We posted published work on a common bulletin board, spurring congratulations and story ideas more than competition. As we each headed off on enquêtes others, unasked, filled our lockers with phone numbers, clippings and brochures.

As I readied to leave for Sicily, Fabrizio and Lucio, the two Italian freelancers, sat me down over lunch and gave their opposing views of NATO policy. Fabrizio, a defence expert, explained cruise missiles.

We passed along our growing knowledge — a good Paris hairdresser, a cheap Bonn hotel, a helpful Swedish bureaucrat — fostering a novel synergism in a group accustomed to scrums, scoops and cut-throat competition. Freed from deadline pressure, office politics and the fast track we were able to explore our personal and professional ambitions and motivations.

Roma, the BBC freelancer, was by July the features editor of a broadcast magazine; Jean-Baptiste, the defence writer from New Zealand, was in Munich learning German; Olivier, the French freelancer, was a staff announcer at Radio France International.

We had the time and distance, from work, family and friends to ponder long-puzzling questions and reflect on our own backgrounds. Over dinner Yasuro and Hideo explained their version of Japan's economic miracle. Bai, over drinks in Munich, asked me intently why do North Americans live together instead of marrying? Wen wondered why no one talked on the Metro. Anil missed the tea-sellers of New Delhi.

Alliances formed. Joanna and Joanna, the British freelancer and Canadian wire service reporter, went off to the Vatican on assignment. They returned disappointed by their stories, but thoroughly blessed. Claes, a reticent Swedish general reporter, accompanied Lucio, an impatient economics writer, to Israel. When a rock throwing incident during a bus ride landed Lucio in hospital, Claes was at his side.

The international media mafia was beginning. Brendan Murphy, an American JE from 1981-82 who'd stayed in Paris, offered me his beat as stringer for The Miami Herald while he wrote a book. I introduced Roma to CBC, a new radio market. Roma got Roushan wire service work in London. Olivier helped Mila, the Brazilian, find work at Radio France and polished Fabrizio's pieces for the prestigious Le Monde Diplomatique.

It all wound down with a week near Siena, the whole group staying at an ancient convent in the Tuscan hills. We saw the sights then spent a day evaluating, discussing and criticising the program with Armando, Viannay and the editors. We'd needed more phones, a telex, better help finding housing. What was our status? We resented our isolation from the working world blocks away — at Le Figaro, AFP, Reuters. Why had all the experts who came to speak been male, often retired friends of Viannay?

In the evenings we went into Siena and walked the cobbled streets. We stood in front of the 12th-century marbled cathedral and Wen asked me if Canada has anything similar. Humbled again.

On June 3, the final day in Paris, the committee that had chosen us came to hear our impressions. I tried to explain, for the umpteenth time, why Canadians aren't merely polite Americans. Roushan and Anil said they'd never seen so much wealth — or so much unhappiness. And Wen managed to quote Hemingway and get away with it, bringing some of us to tears as he said he'd never forget being young and in Paris. I doubt he will.

Who could?

Published in Sources Winter 83/84


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