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Outside the Embassy compound : staging a one-man show at the French lycée in Vienna

Erik Colombeau - Vienne, Autriche - 6 juin 2014



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During the weekly Heads of department meeting, the principal of the French Lycée in Vienna appealed to us as follows : “Before handing over, I would like to tell you that we will soon organize a “Careers Day” to provide upper secondary education students with vocational information and guidance. If some of you would volunteer to come and present your occupations to our students, I should be most grateful.”
At the end of the meeting, I decided to be such a volunteer.

« We want you ! »

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs often calls on the skills and experience of its staff, whether to give lessons, to welcome a colleague on intensive training in a department before taking up a very first post abroad, to sit on an examining board (to correct exam papers and conduct orals) or to coach someone who has successfully passed a competitive examination for the Ministry. This is a form of more or less indirect mutual help among colleagues, of transmission of knowledge which I support and take part in whenever I can.

The call for volunteers by the French Lycée in Vienna therefore appealed to me. The idea of leaving routine behind for a while and meeting unusual interlocutors was very attractive. The more fleeting idea that I might arouse vocations or, at any rate, be able to provide practical information about what working in an embassy really involves, was possibly even more motivating. And the mere fact that I was able to explain that pyramids of Ferrero chocolates were most definitely not served on silver-plated trays at receptions hosted by the ambassador convinced me once and for all that I was on the right track. I was, to a small extent, helping to expose a misrepresentation of History with a capital H.

A One man show

So that, one fine day, I found myself facing several classes of lycée students attending a lecture by three speakers on economics and management, namely a company manager, the deputy head of a communication department and myself in my capacity as an Embassy Secretary-General (which name is more telling for an audience outside the French Foreign Ministry – and more glamorous, I must admit, than “Head of the joint management department” which remains obscure even within the Ministry.

To captivate an audience, especially one of lycée students, is quite a challenge and, as I got hold of the microphone, standing before an audience of dozens of teenagers to perform a 40-minute one-man show, deep down I paid tribute to the teachers (and to the French humorist and actress Florence Foresti) who must accomplish this miracle on a daily basis. That said, students were receptive and interested, although I did have to resort to little rhetorical/humorous stratagems in order to unobtrusively bring back into the fold a number of them hooked to a smartphone or too busy thinking up jibes directed at fellow students in the row behind.

How to captivate an audience of lycée students

I was, I must say, pleasantly surprised by their ability to listen as I described my job and professions at the Ministry in general. Several students even asked interesting questions during question time which led to a lively debate.

They gave some indications about current concerns of young people : “You said that you were also in charge of real estate. Why is the building of the French Institute of Vienna being sold ?” asked a student who was obviously well informed about local topical issues. “Do you have to change countries every three or four years ?” asked another in a half-anxious, half-impressed tone. “How much do you earn ?” asked another directly. I replied very frankly to all of them, as I have long thought that frankness is most certainly what the world of adults owes young people.

An infinite spectrum of possibilities

So, standing there, microphone in hand, which reminded me of my previous life in Tokyo and nights spent in karaokes, for an instant I felt like singing them "Honesty is such a lonely word" (you can’t go wrong). But for youths today, Billie Joel is somewhat prehistoric, so I changed my mind and told them I had brochures for them (most of which were taken) and of course suggested they visit the Ministry website (especially the two smartphone “addicts” sitting in the back).

In the tramcar on my way back to the Embassy from the French Lycée, I again thought about the almost endless possibilities open to those students. With time, my possibilities had necessarily become fewer, but, in the end, a career with the French Foreign Ministry still provides quite a few, including that of meeting lycée students.



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