Saturday, February 02, 2008

My interview with Elisabeth

Neil has a thing going, where one blogger interviews another, the second interviews the third, and a great human chain is created. I was lucky enough to get to interview Elisabeth, a very interesting and intelligent person, and with Delaware ties to boot. So here goes:


What an interesting CV you have. Your choice of college majors intrigues me. Why political science? Are you a political activist, or would you describe yourself as an observer?

I actually started my post-secondary studies in France, by attending the Classes PrÈparatoires aux Grandes …coles, at the LycÈe Faidherbe in Lille, for two years. There, my major was English. I was not particularly great at it – my aural/oral skills were abysmal – but I was in love with the language and with American popular culture which, in retrospect, I barely knew. The atmosphere in the Classes PrÈparatoires aux Grandes …coles, especially during my second year there, was rotten to the core – things were way too competitive – and I went into a state of pretty deep depression (and having a depressive boyfriend did not help either.) I did not do terribly well during that second year, and that’s when I decided to go spend a year in the U.S.A. I basically never went back to school in France after that, except that, after my one year in the U.S., my father “forced” me to attend a nine-month, government-sponsored program, during which I was trained as a bilingual secretary (to this day, I am still a bit resentful that he made me do this, but I did acquire decent typing skills.)

In August 1975, I married an American whom I had met during my year in the U.S. He was a French teacher at a catholic high school in Wilmington, Delaware. I wanted to go back to school and get a B.A. very badly and, at first, I thought that I would major in French, so that I could teach that language at the high school level (and I did take a few French literature classes at the University of Delaware.) But my husband vehemently opposed that idea. He thought that I would not be able to find a job and that, if I did, I would not be happy with it. He would always tell me: “You do not want to teach high school.”

I began developing an interest in political science, and thought that, perhaps, I’d like to go to law school someday. It was the late 1970’s, and everyone was going to law school. I declared a major in political science and economics, but dropped the economics major after a bad experience with a totally inept professor in the economics department at the University of Delaware, and after I realized that I hated accounting, and would have to take two semesters of accounting to fulfill a requirement for the economics major. I did finish the B.A. in political science, though, by going to school part-time for the most part (I did go to school full-time for just one year), and graduated from the University of Delaware, Summa Cum Laude, in June, 1982.

I never went to law school. I started working as a translator and coordinator of translation services at The Franklin Mint (headquartered in Wawa, PA, between Wilmington, DE, and Philadelphia), and remained, in various capacities, with that company until August, 1988. In the meantime, my husband had started a PhD in applied linguistics at the University of Delaware, and we did not have any money to pay for law school for me. I am very glad that those plans never materialized, because I think that I would have been incredibly unhappy as a lawyer (there is not a single attorney that I have ever met whom I have liked, in fact, I have found every lawyer that I have ever met insufferable.)
To answer the second part of your question, no, I am not a political activist by any means and, frankly, I do feel a tad guilty about that, but there is really no time for political activism in my life. I follow U.S. politics very closely, and French politics a bit more loosely (but enough to know what’s going on.) I faithfully watch Meet the Press, and This Week with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday mornings, and I have followed attentively most of the presidential debates. I am a heart-bleeding liberal and, since I became a U.S. citizen in 1993, I have always voted democrat. Even though I really like both Obama and Clinton, I am a tad more inclined to support Hillary than Barack – I think it has more to do with the fact that I have liked and admired her for a very long time, and that I feel a bit less connected to him. But I would basically be happy with either as the democratic nominee. I despise John McCain, and it scares the hell out of me that he might end up being the republican nominee, and I would not be one bit happy if he were to win the 2008 presidential election (I am a tad scared of Mitt Romney as well, but my belief is that, if Romney gets nominated, we have a greater chance of ending up with a democrat as president.)

By the way, I avoid like the plague discussing politics on my blog, because this type of discussion only brings out the worst in people in the blogosphere. But I have great admiration for those who do, and one of my favorite blogs to read is Major Conflict (http://majorconflict.blogspot.com/). I occasionally discuss some social issues, but not terribly often.

Interestingly, about four years ago, I made an attempt at becoming involved with the democratic party in my little town (which is overwhelmingly republican.) I thought that this would help me meet townies who were not connected to the university where I teach. This proved to be a bust, because the people involved in the democratic party in my town form a tight-knit clique that was not really into opening itself to newcomers (it does not help that I usually find myself being a little shy among people whom I do not know.) I am not sure that I will ever try this again.

You describe your childhood as a series of moves. Would you say your
childhood was a happy one?

This is a very tough question to answer honestly, because I think that one always romanticizes one’s past – either to paint it much darker, or much rosier than it really was.

I frankly believe that my childhood, although not thoroughly unhappy, was not exactly a very happy one, and here are the reasons why:
- My father was a depressive hypochondriac, who was extremely controlling, and spent his entire life trying to prove himself (why he was that way is another story, which I cannot really tell here.) He would sometime get into fits of rage that were very scary. He was never physically abusive to my mother or to my brother and me, but I could probably claim that he was mentally abusive to us at times.
- My mother was morally rigid (my father’s oldest brother, who was a catholic bishop, claimed that there was a Jansenist streak in her family!), incredibly strict, and I spent my entire childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood being afraid of her (I still have lots of issues dealing with her – she is now 86, and I am 55!). She was never physically abusive to my brother and me either, but it seems that she took some sort of evil pleasure in torturing us mentally. I often think that I ended up settling permanently in the U.S. to escape my parents.
- My parents put me in boarding school when I was nine years old. I remained at that school until I was 12. This was one of the most painful experiences of my entire life. I realize that they did this because, at the time, we lived in a small town where there was no good school, but, after they moved back to a more urban area, they immediately took my brother out of boarding school, while I stayed at my boarding school for another two years.
- I always felt that my parents could not care less about my future – what did it matter, since I was going to get married to a man who would support me financially! – and that they were only preoccupied with my brother’s. Remember my father thinking that the best I could ever achieve, career-wise, was becoming a bilingual secretary. Hell, I wanted to be the boss!
- My parents always complained about monetary issues. My brother and I were told, throughout our entire childhood and adolescence, that we were “poor.” But, frankly, we never lacked for anything. We did not live in the lap of luxury but things were fine.

But my childhood and adolescence also had an extremely happy side, and here are the reasons why:
- My brother and I were close in age (he is 14 months older than me) and very tight, and I am still incredibly grateful that I got to grow up close to such an exceptional human being – he is amazingly smart, funny, creative, and he has a very good heart. Being so close to him helped take the edge off from having such crazy parents. We also always had great fun together.
- If there is one childhood/adolescence memory that I cherish, it is that of our yearly, one-month vacation in Talloires, a resort on lake Annecy, in the Alps. My uncle was the bishop of Annecy, and he let us stay at his “country” house (not anything luxurious by any means, but a very cool place nevertheless.) That’s the only way that my family could afford this yearly vacation. It was amazing. One of my dreams is to take my daughter to Annecy someday, just because that place holds so many great memories for me, and also because, to me, it is the most beautiful place on earth.
- We always ate superbly well, especially during those years when my father worked as a chef. I still miss some of the wonderful dishes that he would prepare.
- I had some amazing relatives who, I always felt, were connected to me much better than my parents ever were: My godmother, who was my mother’s cousin, was an amazing lady who taught me to appreciate the arts. My uncle Jean (the bishop) loved me to death, and always let me know that he did, and my uncle Michel (another one of my father’s siblings), who was a Christian Brother and a great intellect, always let me know that I had the capacity and ability to become anything that I ever wanted to be. I did not see those folks very often, because they lived at some distance from us, but I cherished every single moment that I was able to spend with them.

I know you are a devotee of museums. Is music important to you, and if so,
what sort do you like?

Music does matter a great deal to me. Actually, I have written in my blog before that music is the only art form that can bring tears to my eyes, or chills down my spine.

I wish that I could state here that I am a real connoisseur and aficionado of classical music (as you are, Miriam), but I am not, and I am extremely ashamed of this. In fact, a fairly short-term goal of mine is to build a solid, basic classical music collection, and to educate myself about classical music (going a bit beyond that music appreciation class that I took in college, back in 1979!). I would especially like to become more knowledgeable about opera, because I am quite fond of opera, and I have an unbounded admiration for those who have a great operatic voice.

So – what kind of music do I like? Well, when I was 11, I heard the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and that was the start of my life-long love affair with rock & roll. In my adolescence, I became a huge fan of the Beatles, as well as of the Rolling Stones (although I could not care less about anything that they put out after 1975 or so.) There were many other “classic rock” bands that I liked a lot. Later on, I became a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, who I still think is the best live rock performer in the world.

In the late 1970’s, I discovered The Clash, Elvis Costello, and The Talking Heads, all within a very brief time-span. I am still a huge fan of Elvis Costello (whom I have seen in concert twice within the past three years – he is phenomenal, much better in his fifties than he ever was in his twenties) and of David Byrne (who was the lead singer of The Talking Heads) who, I also think, is phenomenal live. I also adore Patti Smith, whom I finally got to see in concert this past summer – she is one hell of a cool woman!

I am also connected to current “indie” music and, to name only a few, at this very moment, I like to listen to The New Pornographers, The National, Belle and Sebastian, Feist, the Decemberists, and M. Ward.

Of course, I also like French music. My idol is a French singer named BÈnabar, because he writes great, well-crafted, and incredibly clever songs.

I am also quite fond of World music, especially north African and African music. My favorite African musician is, by far, Salif Keita.

I do not care much for jazz – I am not turned off by it, but it’s not my favorite kind of music. American rap leaves me cold, but I kind of like French rap.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

By far, hanging out with my boyfriend (who, unfortunately, moved away today to start a dream job in another city, located about six hours away from where I live, on February 4) and with my daughter or with my friends. I also like to travel, something that I have started doing more and more since I landed the university teaching job that I have now. I also enjoy reading (I recently went on a kick, reading a bunch of books having to do with food), and watching good movies.

What was the best day in your life, so far?

I have written about that day in my blog before (unfortunately, I can’t remember the exact date when I wrote about it), it was probably the day of my 16th birthday.
Other days that could qualify:
The day I defended my doctoral dissertation (I think that it was November 1999.)
The day that I found out that I had ranked first among the candidates for promotion to the rank of Associate Professor at my school (it was in April, 2006.)
I do feel a bit guilty that I did not answer: “The day my daughter was born.” Yes, it was a happy day, that’s for sure, but giving birth is nothing fun, so I cannot claim that September 12, 1986, was the “best” day in my life. But, and by far, it was the most important day in my life.

What would you secretly like to do, if you dared?

This is a tough one, because I am not a daring person, by any means. I will answer this: Driving cross-country – only because I suffer from an acute case of driving phobia, especially when it comes to driving on highways. This is my own shameful secret (only a handful of my friends know about it), and I would love to be able to overcome this phobia some day.

Why did you start blogging, and what did you want to accomplish? Has your
blog changed emphasis as you went along? (Mine did.)

I have written about this a number of times over the past three and a half years or so since I started my blog, because, every so often, I question the usefulness of blogging. I started totally by accident. I am on FLTEACH, a list-serve for foreign language teachers and, sometime in June, 2004, someone on that list-serve mentioned something about blogs. I was pretty much unaware of what blogs were at the time – except that I knew that my daughter and many of her high school friends had a LiveJournal (which, by the way, I did not know was a blog.) I was intrigued, looked at the blog that this person had created, and decided to start a personal blog.

I was not really sure what I wanted to accomplish with it, except perhaps to keep a record of events in my daily life, and of issues and matters that made me tick. I had never really kept a journal (for fear, when I was a teenager, that my mother would find it and read it – she was always snooping in my personal belongings, but I think that snooping in their kids’ stuff is something that all mothers do), except during the year that I had spent in the U.S., back in 1973-74 (that journal was destroyed, but I would pretty much use a lot of its content in the weekly letters that I sent to my family during that year and I believe that my mother still has those letters – I will ask them next time I visit her.) The whole idea of keeping some sort of an online journal intrigued me.

One important function that I see my blog fulfilling is that of being a link between me and my relatives and friends who live far away from me. I know that they read my blog faithfully, and appreciate the fact that I keep it. This is the #1 reason why I continue blogging. I can also say that I have met some cool folks through blogging, and that the few faithful readers that I have keep me going.

I cannot really say that my blog has changed emphasis since I started it. My posts alternate among accounts of my daily life (I make a concerted effort of writing about such mundanities regularly, if only to keep a record of what’s been going on in my life), brief “essays” about issues that matter to me or about quirky things in life. I occasionally write reviews of books, CDs, or movies. I have written a number of long posts about my childhood, my youth, my past, and my relatives. I do write about highly personal matters, but the core of my private life remains very private – I would find it repulsive to write about my bedroom antics, for example - that is nobody’s business but mine and, to boot, my daughter reads my blog. I think that, through blogging about my past and my life concerns, I have been able to cast a light on a number of things, and to understand myself better.

Maybe, because of one very nasty experience that I had with an individual who took pleasure in insulting me on my blog and in the comment section of another person’s blog (which I promptly stopped reading), I have stopped entirely writing negative things about anyone else’s blog (that “feud” had started with a post I had written in reaction to an entry this guy had written, in which he expounded, in a derogatory tone of voice, on the classic stereotype of the prevalence of body odor among the French.) Let’s say that I stay away from any sort of controversial topic much more than I did when I first started my blog.

What's your favorite foreign country? And why?

I would have to say France, if only because it is my native country, and there are so many things about it that I still miss immensely. (interviewer note: Me, too.)

Frankly, I have not traveled to very many foreign countries, and I hope to remedy this in the years to come. I went to Turkey last spring, and fell in love with that country and its people. I would return to Istanbul at the drop of a hat – it is a magnificent and incredibly vibrant city, and I like it as much as I love Paris. I saw my trip to Istanbul as my very first baby step into the “exotic,” and I definitely want more. I am considering going to Morocco this coming spring, and plan on going to Thailand within the next couple of years (I hope that my not-so-ex-husband, who has traveled to that country many times and adores it, will be my guide.)

Which would you rather do--listen to your favorite music alone, or take a walk with a friend?

This is a really tough choice, because I am a bit of a loner – in that sense that I am not a naturally social person, and I relish my “alone” time. So, as much as I love my boyfriend and my friends, I would answer that I would rather listen to my favorite music alone than taking a walk with a friend. But to be honest, not by much, and I think that my decision to do one or the other would depend on my mood at the moment when I would have to make that choice.

Beer or wine? Or neither?

Beer, by all means. I come for northern France, the land of beer.

What would you like to improve about yourself?

The way I dress, I think – I’d like to be more stylish and to wear skirts (on any given day, I always wear pants, and I find that fairly pathetic) and sexier clothes.
I also need to lose about 10 to 15 pounds, and to reconnect with the concept of physical fitness.

What do you most value about yourself?

Probably the fact that I am a very nice and easygoing individual, and that I am incredibly tolerant of others (except of assholes and of people who are homophobic or racist.)

What would your ideal friend be like?

It would be someone who can provide sound advice without passing harsh judgments on me, someone who is a great listener and whom I can trust and count on 100%. It would have to be someone with whom I can have a special bond, a great deal of complicity, and with whom I could feel very comfortable and laugh a lot. I am lucky to count a few friends who fit that bill. Only one of them lives close to me, though, and that would be my very dear friend, Mary-Jo.

Many thanks, Elisabeth. I enjoyed your answers very much--they were thoughtful and entertaining, and I plan to add you to my blogroll and keep up with your blog in the future.

2 comments:

Elisabeth said...

Thank you so much, Miriam, for such a fun interview. I had a great time answering your questions. I will probably post this interview on my blog in a couple of days.

You are also now on my blogroll. BTW, I love that post from yesterday. What the hell was that all about anyway?!!?

miriam said...

It was a joke, I guess.