First, welcome to OS interview-style. I found your blogpage in September and have enjoyed your Paris perspective since then. So let's get to it Alysa...
1. Where did you grow up and where is home for you here in the States?
Answer: Until I was 10 years old, I lived in a northern New Jersey suburb, in a big yellow house. The best thing about it was the back yard: we had a slope up one side that was covered in trees and bushes that had branches of yellow flowers. My sister and I used to play out there with our Barbies, usually pretending they were pioneers on their way west (Barbie’s hot pink car was imagined into a covered wagon). Those are some of the best moments I’ve ever spent outdoors.
Our street was a pretty suburban one, filled with families, so that was cool, too – we always had other people to play with. Through divorce, jobs, school, and general preference, my family and my dearest friends have moved around a lot. My childhood house is just a memory, as is the house where I spent my teenage years near Atlanta, Georgia. So, today, “home” when I come to the States, is wherever I can be with the people I love.
2. After setting your sights on France at 14 years old, tell us... how did you come to find your way from the City That Never Sleeps, to the City of Lights?
Answer: When I finished high school, I’d planned and hoped to live for a year on almost nothing in Paris. I wasn’t able to try this but as a consolation prize (and a very, very nice one), my dad gave me a trip around Europe, and I was able to spend a few days in Paris.
I used my college’s Study Abroad program as a way to stay in Paris for an academic year. After that, I had to go home and finish school. A friend told me about a cultural exchange program where you can teach English in French schools. I spent a year doing that, did very well and enjoyed the job, but it wasn't something that could be renewed.
Back to the States to figure things out. I finally got a year-long tourist visa (not allowed to work, etc). I made money as I could, then I met my boyfriend, and after a year and a half of living together, we decided to get PACS’ed*, out of love and also necessity; this allows me to stay and work here.
Believe it or not, that’s the short version of my struggle to stay in Paris. I want to tell anyone who dreams of coming to live here, that it is possible, but that you have to think of it as a game, a very difficult one, but one that you can win. Don’t give up.
ME: so this PACS thing... are you PACS'd to a Frenchman? how did you meet?
Alysa: My boyfriend is indeed a Frenchman. He and I met because one of the times I returned to France, I was getting over a horrible, horrible break-up and feeling lonely and wanting distraction. I have some great friends here, but not many of them are big movie fans so I posted an ad on Craigslist Paris to meet people to go to movies with - absolutely on a "friends only" basis - and met up with a French guy to see Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette."
We started talking and I realized we had a lot of things in common - including our love of books - he collected 17th century books. After the movie he suggested we walk over to the nearby Conciergerie where Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned (which is exactly what I would have done), and I knew we'd be great friends. We weren't looking for romance and I thought he was way too handsome to pay attention to me. After a few more movies together, well,...the rest is history.
ME: Falling in love in Paris is one of my dreams, congrats on covering that one for me!
*see Alysa's post on what this means here
3. You've mentioned you're a history buff. In your first post you took us on your visit to La Somme, a British-German battleground, and mentioned Verdun and Normandy as well. 'Bring Boots' is one of my favorite posts on OS...
Answer: History has always been a very vivid thing for me. The other day, for example, I was reading a brief, fictional account of the Triangle Company fire in New York in the early 1900’s. I felt so stunned and shocked, it was as though I was there. In France I’ve found a population and culture that, to a large extent, has a very long memory. In the post you reference, “Bring Boots,” I was amazed at how the people of the Somme region still remember and respect what happened there during World War I.
We were able to go into farmer’s fields and find debris, weapons, active grenades and bombs, and even human remains from the First World War. In America, there’s fascinating history but unfortunately so much of its physical presence has disappeared. A great example is New York. It’s almost impossible to imagine what it looked like, say, a hundred and fifty years ago. But a city like Paris, while it does have its modern and contemporary parts, is sort of like a time capsule. You can even see Gallo-Roman ruins here.
4. Given the vast difference in the comparative histories of the United States and that of France, does it seem surprising that the French have a reputed dismissive attitude toward America and how does that relate to your life as an American in Paris?
Answer: I think that a lot of the “dismissive attitude” the French have, is mostly a misinterpretation. Basically, you have to think of the average French person as one of the popular kids in school. Deep down, they’re decent, funny, and capable of great kindness, but peer pressure keeps them cold and judgmental on the surface. French culture is one that strives for perfection.
One of the examples of this that most astonishes me, is their relationship to language. One day, I was talking to a homeless person, and he corrected my use of a verb. This guy is without food or shelter, and he’s still paying attention to the precision of his native tongue.
When French people speak another language in front of their co-workers or friends, they will inevitably be made fun of, because the others know they have an accent – even if the accent is very slight. Basically, I think the reason they’re not warm and fuzzy is that they’re afraid to make mistakes.
When you go to the north of France, the people are fun and warm, very merry. I think this might be because they’ve been influenced by other cultures, especially Flemish and English. As an American, it helps that I’m able to speak the language. I also try never to be aloof like they are – I let my American “friendliness”, which we’re known and sometimes ridiculed for here, come through. A lot of the French people I know find it very soothing. I feel sorry for them, that this kind of attitude isn’t something they allow themselves to have.
5. We've followed some of the information concerning strikes and the recent burqa ban. Can you share with us how politics are affecting every day life in France these days?
Answer: The burqa situation has long been controversial. My boyfriend, for example, is horrified by the fact that women can dress that way in public – not through any kind of religious prejudice, but because like all French people, he’s had it ingrained since an early age that everyone is equal and must try to be uniform. Plus, separation of church and state is taken very seriously here.
For me, personally, it’s hard because while I don’t like what the burqa stands for, my American culture makes me cool with anything anyone wants to wear for their beliefs. So far, I haven’t personally witnessed anything but tolerance followed by muttered remarks when we’ve come across women in burqas, but I heard the other day that a burqa-clad woman was forcibly removed from a courthouse.
I wrote about the upcoming strikes in a post this past Monday. As you’re reading this, I may or may not be suffering the people’s reasonable reaction to the changing (and somewhat unfair) French retirement legislation. If the electric company disregards the law, I might be without electricity. I don’t like being without my creature comforts but I support the strike.
6. The French are fashionable. What's the newest item in your wardrobe?
Answer: Ooh – now here’s a question I love! I am a clothes horse – but only cheap clothes. I love to look around and find bargains. The newest item in my wardrobe is a really, really cute blue purse that I fell in love with in Rome. It was being sold by a street vendor, and the color caught my eye.
We had a lot to do and see, but I had to stop. The guy told us it cost 40 euros, which was too much for me. But we managed to negotiate it to 15 euros. I think it’s adorable, and the color makes me happy. Bonus: The other day, I got the supreme compliment when one of my students, whom I consider the quintessential fashionable Parisienne, caught sight of my bag and praised me for my good taste.
7. You've told us about your beloved bottines - little boots - and said you'd like to be wearing a dress patterned after one made in the 1890's. Do you think you might have liked living in another time?
Answer: I would love to have lived in Paris during the Belle-Époque but you have to be practical. Even though this was such a beautiful era, so full of amazing developments in literature, the arts, science, technology, etc., however, civil rights, medicine, hygiene, etc, weren’t really where I’d like them to be. So I guess I’d have to say living in the present is better – though of course it’s not perfect, either.
8. When you look up from the computer right now, what do you see?
Answer: Two small reproduction Belle-Époque posters. One is an advertisement for swordfighting competitions during the Exposition Universelle of 1900. It’s special to us because it’s a combination of some of our passions: my boyfriend’s for swords (he’s a collector of real Napoleonic-era sabers) and mine for the Belle-Époque. My boyfriend’s father once remarked that the woman on the poster, who has short brown hair and is wearing a feminized version of a fencing outfit, looks like me. It’s kind of true.
9. Describe your favorite dinner spot and the meal you wouldn't mind ordering over and over.
Answer: Tough question. I love so many kinds of foods.
In New York, it would probably have to be Amore’s Pizza on 14th St. and 4th Ave, right off Union Square Park. Not so much for ambiance, but the pizza and garlic knots are just….words fail me. For the ambiance, Crif Dogs, at 113 St. Marks Place.
In Paris at the moment, it’s probably Il Pinocchio, a little Italian place we discovered near the Gambetta Metro station. The food is an excellent quality, their mozzarella di bufala is the best I’ve ever tasted, and they serve almond Marsala wine, my favorite alcoholic beverage, with an ice cube in it if you ask – perfect for hot, un-air conditioned evenings.
If I have to pick a French food place, though, I’d say Chez Gladine, a small, traditional bistrot in the Butte aux Cailles neighborhood that serves delicious southwestern French cuisine for unbelievably low prices. The place is always crowded but the ambiance is so warm and friendly, and since many of the tables are long, communal affairs, you never know who you’ll sit next to.
ME: Have you found yourself next to someone famous at a communal table?
Alysa: Not at Chez Gladine, but when I was a movie critic in New York, I got to do round table interviews with some very cool people. My favorites were the writer of "Napoleon Dynamite," and Robbie Coltrane - aka Hagrid in the "Harry Potter" movies!
Now Alysa, for part II of this question...Surprise! We're all coming for dinner ~ What are you serving and how will you present it? (We place an inordinate amount of attention on food around here in case you hadn't noticed).
Answer: Oh dear…I’m not much of a cook.
ME: Really? Would you ever think of attending one of the famed Paris cooking schools?
Alysa: I enjoy cooking, but it's not a passion. If I went to school for something here, I'd prefer to go for fashion. I'd love to learn how to sew properly. Mostly so I could make my own clothes. My boyfriend is a genius and taught himself to sew - he's currently making a pair of Napoleonic-era replica pants - he even made his own buttons. When he's not doing stuff like that, he sometimes will make me skirts or help me add details to clothes I buy. I'd like to be able to do that but I'm very clumsy, so I don't know if I'd be very successful.
Back to the meal though, after getting over my petrifying fear of the amazing chefs and knowledgeable foodies of OS, I guess I’d probably make macaroni and meatballs using recipes that have been in my mother’s family for countless generations to make the sauce (or “gravy” to us metro New York Italians) and meatballs. I’ve been told this I do this meal really well, and I always have requests to make it again, so I guess that’s probably a safe bet. We’d have fresh baguettes from the excellent boulangerie across the street.
For an aperitif, we’d have started with different kinds of olives and almond marsala to drink. To drink with dinner, you’d have a choice of Paris’ delicious tap water and/or a good red wine (chosen by my boyfriend, since I hate unflavored wine).
ME: Is Paris water that good, or that bad?
Alysa: I'm a big tap water drinker and I have to say Paris water is the best I've had, along with New York tap water. Worst, if you're interested, is New Jersey. I can't drink it.
For dessert, the most important part of the meal, I’d get an assortment of pastries from the bakery where I got the baguette. They have a little almond cake that’s fabulous, a moelleux au chocolat that’s so flavorful, and heavenly éclairs, Operas, and fruit tarts. Oh…I’m getting hungry. I wonder if they’re still open now?
After dinner, we’d digest by doing some karaoke – our computer is set up for it and we have a professional-looking microphone.
ME: Yeowzer. Are you a good singer?
Alysa: I am awful at singing but I love to do it. My karaoke strength is my moxie - since I know I'm awful, I don't take it seriously and I'm fearless. The best song in my repertoire is "My Immortal" by Evanescence.
10. If you could live in any part of the city at all, which arrondissment would you find yourself in and why?
Answer: I think each arrondissement has its pro’s and cons. The 7th is gorgeous, but it’s so expensive. You know if you wanted to just run out and buy some eggs, that would be a lot pricier than, say, in the 12th arrondissement. The latter has some pretty, older sections and also more newly developed areas like Bercy, which seems like a pleasant place to live. I also like the arrondissement where we are now – we have a diverse population, and lots of inexpensive grocery stores and specialty shops, among other advantages.
ME: What arrondisement are you living in?
Alysa: ...I'd prefer to keep that a secret!
11. What jobs have you had in your life so far and can you tell us about the work you are presently engaged in?
Answer: Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to be a writer. But of course, that hasn’t worked out financially. So I’ve tried to do jobs that incorporate my love of language and stories, and I continue to write stories, novels, and, now, OS posts on the side. Here’s a list of the jobs I’ve had: tutor, movie critic, freelance translator, tour guide, English teacher in French public schools, pet-sitter, secretary. Today, I work as an English teacher in French businesses. I enjoy it.
12. How is your e-zine, Beguile, different in content and purpose from blogs here on OS?
Answer: The major difference is that it’s not a blog (or a huge conglomeration of blogs), but a literary ezine. New issues come out every two or three months or so.
In a typical issue, you’ll mostly find fiction, poetry, and visual art. We do accept, and have featured, essays and non-fiction writing, though.
I work with a team of readers from around the English-speaking world. We look at each submission and vote on it. That way, I’ll never fall into the trap of featuring a writer or artist simply because I know him/her.
There are so many talented people here on OS, and I hope that those of you who are reading this will consider submitting. And whatever the case, even if you’d just like a good read, please come visit us: www.beguilezine.blogspot.com.
13. Here's the bonus round question, Alysa...
a. Red or white?
b. Up or down?
c. In or out?
d. Top or bottom?
Answers: a. Red or white? For wine, Marsala. I don’t like normal wines, red or white. For colors in general, it depends on my mood.
b. Up or down? Up for attitude, down for noise when I’m trying to sleep.
c. In or out? Out for when it comes to being conventional. Wait – is this a Katy Perry song?
d. Top or bottom? Top.
Well, thanks Alysa and should you find yourself in Florida looking for a beach, PM me - I'd love to sidewalk shop together and I have some sewing I could use a hand with ~ Merci!