The View From Silicon Allee

PARIS--On the plane to Paris the guy next to me asked the dreaded question: "So what do you do?"

My initial thought was to respond: "Well, during the year I am a student. Right now, I do nothing, but soon I'll be starting an internship, which means I will learn to fetch coffee and how far 'casual Fridays' can be pushed. But all that does not matter since I will be in France and what I will really be doing is improving my French, promoting intercultural dialogue and capitalizing on a legalized drinking age of 16."

What I really say is, "I am working for a start-up online supermarket."

"Ah," he says, "good for you."

You don't need a summer job. All you need is a soundbyte. You, however, deserve the real deal. I am essentially at the whim of my supervisor. For example, she told me that my first week should be spent getting to know all the ins and outs of the age-old online supermarket industry. On Monday, I toured the warehouse. Tuesday, I pack products in the dry goods section. Wednesday, packing in the fresh foods section. Thursday I tackle frozen goods. Friday I help deliver. (I guess that Friday will be really casual.)

She also dispels the popular myth that the French don't work hard. The 35 hour work week is a dream for every single person at my company. And while it is true that they eat long lunches (an hour at an Italian restaurant) they make up for it by tacking an extra hour onto the end. When I timidly ask whether 9-to-7 are appropriate working hours, she replies, "Sure, for the first few weeks until we can find more for you to do." Such is the life of the unpaid summer intern.

On the first day, of course, I get lost at some point during the hour-long commute (in buses that are not air conditioned). Despite leaving a half hour early, I arrive 30 minutes late and sweaty. Huffing up the stairs I promise never to complain about the Leverett-Science Center walk again. I find my supervisor who obligingly shows me to everyone who works at the office. I learn zero names. After touring the various rooms she shows me "my computer." Visions of e-mail dance through my head. I start to hope. Two minutes after I sit down, she sends me downstairs to the dry goods section.

Kareem shows me how to fill out an order. He is very proud of the company and tells me that he joined on February 14, the day the company started. I congratulate him on being its oldest employee, making him blush. My stint with manual labor does not last long. I am sent back upstairs to my keeper's dismay. "Deja! (Already!)" she cries incredulously. "I don't think he had room for me on the team," I reply.