"My character Jane Maraconi de la Rochefoucauld is Italian American, lives in the 19th arrondissement near the Communist Party Headquarters, is married to a composer and has a son -- all like me. But the story of what happens to Jane and her family is an invention, entirely. I wanted to paint a picture of Belleville, the colorful neighborhood I’ve lived in for the past 16 years. " (AM, Sep 2011)
What is your name, age and how long have you lived in Paris?
My name is Anne Marsella. I am 47 years-old and have been in Paris for 22 years.
How many children do you have, what are their names and when/where were they born?
I have a son named Blaise who is now eight and was born in Paris.
Why did you decide to move to France?
I came to Paris to pursue my graduate studies in French literature and feminist theory. I did a Masters degree at the University of Paris, enrolled in the doctoral program, but wrote a collection of short stories instead of a thesis. The collection was published in New York and won a literary prize. I decided to stay on and write fiction. The doctorate never got written, I’m afraid.
You are author of The Baby of Belleville. Could you explain what the book is about and why you wrote it?
The Baby of Belleville is my third novel and fourth book and like its preceding narratives is set in Paris. I began writing it when my son was a year old and it was my attempt to reconcile the demands of the caring arts (ie motherhood) with those of the literary arts – an impossible task of course but I did manage to write a novel! In my past two books I’ve taken popular literature forms, such as chick lit or mom lit, and subverted them so that they explore the multiple layers of female experience. I want to show that even the common, seemingly banal experiences of women (ie breastfeeding, applying make up, shopping, going to the grocers etc.) are worthy of art. I am not afraid to write about unsexy or taboo topics. On the contrary, I feel compelled to give voice to experiences and ideas often deemed “unworthy” or “lesser” because they are associated with women.
Does the book reflect your experience of living in Paris?
I think it does. My character Jane Maraconi de la Rochefoucauld is Italian American, lives in the 19th arrondissement near the Communist Party Headquarters, is married to a composer and has a son -- all like me. But the story of what happens to Jane and her family is an invention, entirely. I wanted to paint a picture of Belleville, the colorful neighborhood I’ve lived in for the past 16 years. Historically and even today it is inhabited by immigrants and the working class (though there are more and more “bobos” – bourgeois bohemians as they’re known), and it has always been a bastion of the Left, politically. Basically it is a friendly neighborhood, alive and vibrant. For an artist it is ideal, for there are lots of cracks into which her imagination can slip, unlike the more polished parts of Paris…
For those who don`t know, can you describe what Paris is like?
Well, Paris seems big but it’s actually made up of clusters of neighborhoods that feel more like villages. It’s a city that loves its art, values elegance and beauty and you can see instances of sublimation pretty much everywhere, from the grating that skirts the trunks of trees to the gothic heights of Notre Dame. This is strange to say, but it feels more feminine than London or New York; there is a grace and gentleness to it which its Anglo-Saxon homologues lack.
How well integrated would you say you and your children are?
Very well integrated, I think. My husband is French, I now have French nationality and speak the language perfectly. Sometimes I feel more French than American! Other times my Americanness asserts itself – especially around matters like punctuality and cleanliness it seems. Though I am not a fanatic about either!
What language do you speak to your children?
I’ve always spoken to my son in English.
Do you feel you need to speak French to be fully integrated in the area?
It’s very important to speak the language, I feel, or at least to make the effort to learn it if you come over not knowing any. You can get by with your English, but you’ll never integrate unless you know French and the customs here.
Do you feel having children has helped you to integrate? Definitely! We’ve become good friends with lots of other families in the neighborhood. Parenting creates bonds and it is great to have a community in a big city.
How welcoming were the locals when you moved to Paris?
When I first came to France I was 20 years-old and landed in Aix-en-Provence, in the South, were I found it excruciatingly difficult to meet locals. Largely this was due to my low level of French and my terror of speaking it. But some of the first friends I made were Corsican and they were very kind to me. At the university I met lots of other foreigners – Brazilians, Algerians, Australians etc.-- and made French friends too. It can definitely be difficult to meet locals, but I find that friendship runs deeply here once established.
How would you describe a typical local?
Impetuous, passionate, impatient, given to complaining and poeticizing.
Do your children go to school and if so how do you rate it? After a horrendous experience at a so-called alternative “bi-lingual” school last year, we’ve put our son in a small Catholic School above the Buttes Chaumont park. He is thriving, learning and happy. The school costs next to nothing and it’s simply great. In France, many of the Catholic Schools are “sous contrat” which means that they hire teachers from the pool of the Education Nationale. Because they receive federal funding, they can’t make religious education (ie Catechism) mandatory. Sometimes they can be an excellent option. In our case, we feel we’ve found the best kept secret in the 19th.
Are there any particular family restaurants, activities for kids or shops you can recommend in Paris? The best place of all is the Cafezoide, at 92 bis quai de la Loire in the 19th. The woman who runs it is a cross between Niki St. Phalle and Mother Teresa – she feeds the neighborhood for next to nothing (delicious lunch of 2 euros!). She pitches her spot as a café for children and serves up a diabolical cocktail of activities, games, festivals and forums for children and grown-ups alike: classes in Mexican dance, music, “bricolage,” hip-hop, French conversation for foreigners, and film-making to lectures in naturopathy and “ateliers de partage,” (the French equivalent of Show and Tell?).
What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of being a parent from the International Community living in Paris? If you are bilingual, the advantage is that you speak two languages and inhabit two ways of thinking of being. This in itself expands your horizons and enriches your life, fundamentally. On the other hand you lose touch with what is going on back home – in my case, the U.S. – and begin to feel alienated when you return. More and more the United States seems like a foreign country to me. It’s familiar, of course, but very strange.
Can you ever imagine moving back home?
Perhaps one day, if ever an extremely good job offer came my way. Otherwise, France is definitely my home.