One Keystroke at a Time | Laurie Lesser

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 2.01.05 PM

“Join the typing pool and see the world,” Sandy, the assistant head of the UNESCO “document production team,” used to say. Back in the days before home computers were ubiquitous, and executives – male and female alike – all had secretaries, the ability to type fast and accurately was in great demand. And could even be considered glamorous.

My first job out of college, armed with a major in romance languages, was as a secretary at a French bank on Wall Street. I stayed there long enough to get a Christmas bonus that would help me live out my dream – to live in Paris for six months, maybe a year. (I’d done my semester abroad in Aix-en-Provence. During that time I’d spent Easter week in Spain and another week off in Rome. But I only passed briefly through Paris and was determined to go back as a “working girl,” not a student.)

When I first arrived in Paris, barely a year out of college, the skill that was most sought-after (next to taking care of bratty kids as a fille au pair, which did not appeal to me at all) was typing. Since the year I went off to college with my brand new portable (manual) Smith Corona, the technology had progressed to the IBM Selectric, with its changeable fonts (“golf balls”) and correction ribbons that felt downright revolutionary. Almost immediately, I made friends with some French-to-English translators who dictated their translations into recording machines and needed someone quick (and cheap) to transcribe them.  They paid in cash and didn’t ask for working papers. I was working in Paris!

I also made an appointment to take the typing test at UNESCO, the large UN agency housed under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in the seventh arrondissement that always needed good, fast typists and, at the time, didn’t require work permits. Within days, I had a two-week assignment on the high-profile Commission on The New World Information Order (Gabriel Garcia Marquez was one of the members), helping them prepare for an upcoming conference in Sweden. My contract was extended a couple of times and, eight weeks after arriving in Paris, I was on the plane to Stockholm, ready to help with conference registration and type up documents, as needed. I stayed in a top hotel, drank cocktails and flirted with diplomats and journalists from all over the world, and returned to Paris with more cash in my pocket than I’d had when I’d first arrived.

I’d found my niche.

I’d also found myself a boyfriend, Greg, a British journalist with a motorcycle, who loved to travel. He was based on the English Desk of Agence France-Presse in Paris, but his freelance specialty, one that called for a lot of travel on his time off, was the Caribbean. My first trip to a developing country, in 1979, was to Port-au-Prince. We took public transportation up to Cap Haitien, along with the chickens and goats being taken to market, and stayed in small guest houses in small towns around the country. In addition to Haiti, his self-selected freelance “beat” included those newly independent islands of the English-speaking Caribbean.  I went along on these trips, as often as I could, thanks to the short-term assignments at UNESCO I continued to work on, knowing there would always be more where those came from.

But my traveling was not all because of a guy who liked to – and needed to – travel. A year after the Stockholm conference, the UNESCO Commission was meeting in Acapulco. My boss, a kindly though slightly lecherous Serbian, shook his head sadly when I asked if he was sending me, explaining that he really couldn’t justify the expense. “But,” he said, throwing out a dare, “if you find a really cheap ticket to Mexico City, we’ll see what we can do.” That night, I scoured the cut-rate travel agencies that peppered the streets of the Latin Quarter in those pre-Internet days and came up with a fare equivalent to about $300 – less than a flight home to New York would have cost. I went to Acapulco. We worked hard during the day, and often late into the night – but our hotel (and our breakfasts) were on the beach, and I stayed on a few days after the meeting to see Mexico.

Two years into my Paris adventure, I decided to come back to the States for a little perspective, to see whether I thought this fairy tale life, where everything was just falling into place so perfectly, could be sustainable in a real world. I also needed to decide whether I’d fallen in love with a place, a lifestyle, or a man – an important question for a young woman about to consider moving abroad for the rest of her life. After working three months at the United Nations – as a secretary in the legal department, deadly boring work that was only redeemed by the access to the inner halls of the UN Secretariat – I found what I thought to be my absolute ideal perfect job – H.R. assistant at the Air France New York office! Within months I found myself flying to Paris for the weekend. I’d head for the airport Friday after work, catch an overnight flight to Paris, be picked up at CDG by my motorbike knight, spend the weekend eating, drinking, and doing whatever else young lovers do in Paris, and catch the Sunday afternoon flight back to JFK. The pay was low but the benefits were priceless. Many of my colleagues in New York were French, and stuck with the low salaries and stingy vacation policy so they wouldn’t miss family events – or opening nights at the theater back home – or the chance to pick up fresh croissants from Paris for a brunch in New York (or bring fresh bagels to a weekend fête in Paris). For them, the travel benefits made it worth it. But not for me. Maybe I was too young to imagine a lifetime of a poor-paying job. Or maybe I already knew there were other ways to see the world.

Greg and I married while I was still in New York, still at Air France. United Airlines gave us a free ticket to Hawaii for our honeymoon – reciprocal benefit arrangements – and I relocated to Paris over a period of months, one weekend trip at a time, until I decided to give up the Air France job for good, hoping for something as good or better in Europe.

At first, I went back to taking short-term assignments at UNESCO – call them “temp jobs” or call it freelancing – so that I’d be free to take off whenever Greg – by then my husband – had an interesting trip to go on. Together, we created a plan for having work that fed our travel habits, either by sending us or giving the time off to travel as we pleased. I of course, preferred the latter.

Through my UNESCO connections, my name was passed to other international organizations that organized conferences in Paris or abroad. I went to Kuala Lumpur twice for the Group of 77, an organization of developing countries first created in 1974 – once for a preparatory meeting with presidential chiefs of staff and top advisors, and a few weeks later for the summit itself. Traveling alongside the translators and précis writers, we conference typists had identical first class tickets and lodgings and were paid only slightly less for our considerably less demanding jobs. My main assets were good spelling and grammar, the stamina needed to work long hours, and a healthy sense of humor. Knowing that we were working late into the night on documents that would be discussed by heads of states – and the world’s media – the next day, was a major motivator. After Malaysia, there was a G-77 trip to Jakarta. (It was there that I saw Fidel Castro, in the lobby in between meetings, gently reprimanding – was he flirting with her, we all wondered? – one of the conference organizers to calm down.) We were paid in cash for those three days of work, and a bunch of us took our money and spent the next few days on Bali, spending about $2 a night for a bungalow by the sea in Ubud.

My best experience with conference typing was probably one of the shortest. Just before Japan was to host the G7 Summit in Tokyo (Russia was not yet a member), I was recommended to the French delegation as the typist for the English translator. President Mitterrand’s personal interpreter called me, and asked me, in English: “So, do you know one end of a typewriter from another?” (I came well recommended). When I laughed, which he took to be an affirmative answer, he followed with “Are you free on such and such dates?” I jumped at the opportunity to travel with the French delegation – socialist Mitterrand was “cohabitating” with a conservative Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, much like a Democratic president and Republican Congress – even before I learned that I’d be flying in a specially chartered Concorde behind the president. The security check seemed (to me) very cursory.  I dropped my bags off at the Presidential Palace, the Elysées, a day before the flight, and met my fellow flightmates at the Salon d’honneur at Charles DeGaulle airport. During the stopover at Novosibirsk, airport workers were snapping our pictures and invited us to a reception of vodka and caviar canapés (what else?). Out of the three-day conference, I worked for about three hours on the last day, typing out the English version of the French delegation’s one-page press release. And, I was well paid for my trouble – with a check bearing the words Présidence de la République in the upper left-hand corner.

* * *

Times have changed. The boyfriend-turned-husband is now an ex. The Concorde is retired, on permanent display somewhere outside of Paris at Le Bourget airport. Today, everyone can type and voice recognition software has done away with the need for transcription. Work permits – and even visitors’ visas – abroad have gotten much harder to get. Real security concerns loom over our heads. At the international development organization in DC where I now work, I see the young staff, recent graduates, travel around the world on a moment’s notice to gather intelligence or open or close out projects, while the older professionals have built up a body of expertise that gets them sent around the world to put out fires – or at least advise on them. Surprisingly, I don’t envy them. In the 10 years since I moved back to the States, I’ve concentrated more on discovering this country, reconnecting with old friends or spending time with family – all on my own time (and my own dime). The world has changed and so have I.

Or have I? My uncontrollable itch to travel may have subsided, but I doubt it’s been cured. When a good friend mentioned that he’d be at his house in Goa next Christmas, I felt a pang, remembering that I’ve had an open invitation to that house for years. This might be the last chance I get before he sells it, and all the memories of mutual friends and parties that I’ve missed that are contained within in the house disappear. I have a full-time job now, with limited vacation days, and burdensome, pesky responsibilities, like my rent, to pay for. “You know how much I’d love to go,” I told him. “No way,” I told myself.

The next morning I found myself online “just looking” at flights and by evening I’d found something that was if not affordable then at least within the realm considering. I remembered what I’d learned back in my Air France days – there are jobs that pay for your travel, with conditions, and jobs that allow you to pay for your own, on your own terms.  But new times have brought new opportunities. Work is more portable now; we send emails with attachments to our colleagues in the next cubicle and await their edits by return email. My present job may not require travel, but very often, I find that the work travels well. Why not bring my laptop with me and work remotely for a few hours a day? I asked myself.

So, I still look to a keyboard to save me. This time the “portable” refers not to its lightness and transportability, but to the way it connects with the working world. As long as there’s a source of electricity, and at least intermittent access to the Internet, I can continue to work from wherever I am, and continue to see the world. One keystroke at a time.

Born in New York City, Laurie Lesser now lives in Washington, DC, where she works in international development. She lived in Paris from 1978 to 2004. She recently received her MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Laurie’s work has appeared in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and the Quivering Pen, among other print and online publications.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s