By Lautaro Grinspan
Author at the American Embassy in Paris
There are few things more frustrating than seeing someone more than three times your age pull away from you in a foot race.
I speak from experience.
After beating me, the conquering Alain, a spry 60-year-old with age-defying bazookas for calves, punctuated his victory with playful jibes. I know French, but it was my first week back in Paris and I was rusty. Clever, face-saving comebacks weren’t coming to mind fast enough. Not that I was in a state to say much of anything. With eyes closed, anybody hearing my panting and wheezing would have thought The Biggest Loser was on.
It was a cold January day. I was wearing gloves, a hat, a pair of tights under my gym shorts, and a pained look on my face.
That was my first time joining the Embassy Running Club.
It also wasn’t my last. Despite both my terrible initiation and my well-documented lack of discipline, I joined the ERC (nobody called it that) every time it met, on Thursdays and Tuesdays, for the remainder of my co-op at the embassy. So many things about it fascinated me. These were:
1) The feeling of transgression I was never able to shake off
ERC runs took place right smack in the middle of the workday. Around noon, runners left their desks, gathered at the embassy locker rooms to change and spilled past heavily armed security guards and onto the Champs-Elysées. Runs weren’t brief either: the minimum distance covered was ten kilometers. Factoring in the time to shower and get dressed upon returning, we easily were away for at least two hours.
Coming from the U.S., that seemed like borderline criminal activity.
But what would be heresy back in the American work culture was normal behavior in France, yet another instance of the storied French work-life balance flexing its muscles.
2) The people
The running club was free of the departmental divisions and hierarchical structures of normal embassy life. In attendance were local French staffers, lifelong American diplomats, and co-ops like yours truly. It was a good occasion to mingle on the move.
American diplomats talked about previous tours in Iraq, Qatar, Bolivia, Indonesia etc. Local French staffers shared their thoughts on France’s ongoing presidential election back then, a topic mostly off-limits at work.
If you think that I, coming off a kick-to-the-groin of a campaign season in the U.S., would have leapt into the Seine rather than take part in more election talks, you’d be wrong. Discussing the French race for président was actually glorious. Issues were the focus of discussion. A bad performance in a presidential debate actually led to a loss of votes. Zero candidates seemed to have an itchy Twitter finger. When a batch of hacked emails was released days before the election, French media didn’t magnify the impact of the hack with continuous coverage. At the end of the day, the candidate with most votes won. Everything seemed to make an astounding amount of sense there.
3) The sights
Perfected over the course of decades, the ERC trail was a work of art, a clever trajectory threading through some of Paris’ most picturesque places. We ran on the banks of the Seine, passing under baroque bridges and whizzing by the temptation of crepe stands. We trekked uphill to reach the Trocadéro. Up there, the people I ran with didn’t bother turning their heads for the direct view of the Eiffel Tower, but I felt I had to, every single time. We ran past the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, the Louvre and all of the dumbfounding art hosted therein. We ran along the Tuileries garden where, on nice days, workers from nearby offices gathered for picnics. We ran on the Pont Bir-Hakeim (also known as “that bridge from Inception”) to reach the Parisian statue of liberty. “La petite soeur de celle de New York,” said a fellow runner. “The little sister of the New York statue.”
Expectedly, immense groups of camera-wielding tourists were an recurring obstacle. Probably, my sweat-drenched face is immortalized in photo albums the world over.
During an international co-op, it can be easy to lose sight of where you are, among the bustle, the routine, the daily stresses of work. For me, that was never an issue. Our run was a reinvigorating reminder of where I was. And how lucky I was.
PS: Let the record show that, by the end of my co-op experience, I was finally able to eclipse Alain and the rest of the group. I could try to sound good and virtuous and say I felt sorry to put such distance between us, but you’d know I was lying. When asked about my biggest achievements while on co-op, can I mention physically besting a 60-year-old man?