In the last month, my company started a project in Caen (pronounced “Caan”), 2 hours west of here in Normandy. I’ll write another blog about the work; this one is about relationships.
The relationship between people is extremely important in France, including in business. I suppose relationships are important in the US as well, but they do not get personal – there are conversations you’d have with a coworker who is also a friend and there are conversations that you should never have publicly at work, namely conversations about closely held beliefs: religion, politics, race relations, etc..
I went to Caen with a colleague, Christian from Bremen, Germany. We are working with and had lunch with Etienne, who was born and raised in Caen. Caen is about 20k from Omaha Beach, so at lunch Etienne asks both of us: “did you have relatives in the war.” We both answered “no”; I answered “no” because I know of no relatives in direct combat; my mom’s cousin died in North Africa and Bruce’s uncle Larry served in the war. I was completely surprised by the question, seeing as the war was 70 years ago. I’m finding out that it’s very much on the minds of the French.
It was the intent of the allies to take Caen 2 days after D-Day. It took almost two months. In the meantime, except for 2 churches and a castle, the city was flattened. I should point out here that in the last 100 years, Paris has been occupied and/or surrounded, but only “skirmishes” have taken place in the city – no shelling, no bombing. Into the 50s, Caen was rebuilt. Etienne, who was born in 1963 (another thing he shared; 2 years from me) was completely familiar with the history of Caen and its rebuilding.
The funny thing is, Etienne holds the on the American style of warfare responsible for the flattening of Caen, which was to remove all obstacles in order to get a clear shot. He says this to me only after knowing him for less than 2 business days. I didn’t take it as an insult – I don’t have the connection – the relationship – that Etienne does. I don’t live there; it was 70 years ago. Afterward, Christian told me that he’s glad it’s over and wants to move on.
A southerner, a westerner, a conservative, see things differently from me, just as a Frenchman, German, or Greek does here. Is that a conversation anyone wants to start at a US workplace?
P.S. Later that week, I bring this up on a park tour of Bois Bologne, Paris’ biggest park. In that park, in 1944, 35 resistance fighters were caught, tortured, the executed by the Nazis. We visited the memorial, including the bullet holes in the pine trees. All these “little” stories are known, discussed, and remembered by the French, and the Americans living in Paris.
There is a good reason why they should be discussed — we don’t want them to happen again. To accomplish that, relationships must be built. In the meantime, Andrea Merkel was in Greece last week getting called a Nazi (obviously untrue and unfortunate), but the EU wins the Nobel Peace Prize. See more: my company, battle for Caen, Merkel in Greece, the resistance, and Guy Moquet.