AA, 37, invites me into her house in Johns Creek, Georgia, on the day of our meeting where there’s a Carrom board to the wall in the living room. The living room and the adjacent dining room have a sparse yet cozy European feel to it owing to the fact that AA’s family is French. She talks about the importance of cooking, and eating socially in the French society and the types of cheese she still buys from France instead of at the local American grocery store. She also talks about the need to talk openly about physical abuse. Here’s the transcript of my face to face interview with her.
Heart: Tell me about yourself.
AA: (Smiles) We’re a French family. Arrived in the US 3 years ago and lived in California for 2 years before moving to Atlanta. When we arrived we didn’t speak English at all. Our kids spent 2 years in a French American school and so their transition was not so complicated.
Heart: French American school? Wow. So did you do your research before you moved here?
AA: Yeah, we visited California 6 months before moving. Our company proposed to us that we should go and visit America before we moved here. In Bay Area, there’re a lot of French schools. Its easy to choose. The girls also visited the schools with us and decided which school they preferred to go to. So, we decided on a school in Sunnyvale. We were worried when we came here, but our girls have done great.
It’s complicated for my older daughter who is 12 to move, because we have moved every 2 years these past few years. So, we promised her that we’ll stop moving. So she can stay somewhere and have some friends for a long time. When I was young, in my childhood, I spent all my time in one place. I still have my friends from my childhood. I didn’t move from Southwest France, Toulouse, until I went to Paris for my studies. That was the first time I moved.
Heart: Oh wow. Yeah, but your daughter will be a global citizen.
AA: Yeah. I would love that. That she can imagine life all around the world.
Heart: Where’s Toulouse?
AA: Toulouse is a town close to Spain. So there is a lot of Spanish influence. Its a very small town, everything shuts down at 5 or 6pm. And people spend time together in the evenings, its great.
Heart: Did your parents work?
AA: Yeah, they did. My mom is a Math teacher, first in High school. Then she upgraded herself and she teaches Math to students of Grad school now. Like Engineering school. Its a very difficult school, lot of people want to go there, but they don’t get in.
Heart: Does she have her own company or does she work for someone?
AA: In France, all teachers are employed by the government. Its called the “Functionar”. So once you’re a teacher in France, you’ll have a job with the government all your life. Its great. Its an official special status of the employees, the Functionar. Lot of people are like that, when you work for the administration or a big public company, you’re a Functionar.
My father was also a Functionar, but he was into engineering, he worked with equipment, environment and agriculture.
Heart: Nice. You’re mom was good in math, did she expect you to become a math teacher too?
AA: My big brother did that job for me. (Laughs) My big brother was good at school and he’s now a researcher. He works in Edinburgh University in Scotland. He’s a great researcher. My mom’s very proud.
My parents are very picky that I’m an artist. I was always dreaming, I was in my clouds when I was a child. They proposed to me that I do some dance, and I wanted to become a dancer when I was young. I did a lot of dance in the “Conservatoire”, but I had some health problems, so I had to stop. I was 15 then. But my parents didn’t push me, because they knew I won’t become good at Engineering and they knew I wanted to become an artist.
Heart: I guess since you’re French, you’ve to become an artist. I’m kidding. (Laughs)
AA: (Laughs) No, in France if you say, you want to become an artist, they say, “Oh no, you should do something else.”
Heart: Its the same in India too, its very difficult for people to understand there’s value in the Arts.
AA: But here (America) its very different. My older daughter wants to be a writer, she loves to write, she writes a lot, she reads a lot. She likes that. I think its more easy for her to become a writer here, in France to become a writer is so complicated. People don’t want to help you. They’ll tell you, “You can’t.”
Heart: I think that’s what America is all about, the freedom of expressing yourself. There’s a reason why in 2016, all the Nobel Prize winners from America were immigrants. Imagine that they could do something they couldn’t do in their own countries.
AA: It was the same with my husband’s parents for the first 10 years, and only now they’ve realized that I’m doing something real. That its my life. When I first told them that I wanted to be a photographer, they told me, “No, no, you’ve to do something else better. Find something real to do.” But now, they realize that’s what I want to do and I won’t change it. Its me.
I’m very lucky because my husband has a very good job, we’re doing quite well and I can do what I want without worrying about the money. I can take time for my daughters. So, that’s great, its good for me. I hope to do more. I’m doing a new project now, we’ve to see how that goes.
Heart: What are you doing now?
AA: When I was in France, I had a company. I used to take pictures of creative people, like artists for their portfolios. You can be an actor, or you can be an architect. If you’re a creator you can be my customer.
When I came to the US, I didn’t speak English, I had to learn the language, and I had to think about what I wanted to do. When I had my company, I wanted to take pictures of still life too, but I didn’t have the time then. So, I thought, “Now, I can work on it.” I just opened my new photography website. I’m working on what I would like to take pictures on.
Heart: So, its all still life photography now?
AA: Nature, mostly nature, around nature. I like to work using texture and light in nature. I like taking pictures of wood with the texture showing as if you can almost touch it. They feel like real life.
Heart: Wow. Absolutely. There’re so many parks around here, have you explored them?
AA: When we were in California, we did a lot of hiking. We walked a lot. Its a lot of inspiration. And I wanted to talk about the environmental problem in California. It doesn’t rain a lot in California. Its mostly desert. So, I took some pictures around flowers and water just to change the idea of people of what they are missing when there’s no water. When there’s no water, there’re no flowers. I wanted to take pictures in relation to water, so I looked for subjects for my photographs.
I found this distressed wood that’s been in water for a long time. Its been in the sea all this while. I found these pieces when I would go hiking, and I would take pictures of them to show how they live as trees, and then they fall and spend time in the water. And now they’re dry. So, I want to show its relationship with water.
AA: Yeah, that’s my first work. Now I’m thinking of my next project.
Heart: I think Art should be able to convey a message, and I think you’re doing the right thing. Great.
AA: When I danced as a child, we would try to convey a message. It was emotion that I wanted to convey. Now, its not only emotion, a picture can convey emotion, but I think it should be more than a picture.
Heart: Sure, it can carry a meaning. Does your passion consume you, like some days, you feel like there’s not enough time?
AA: I’m an insomniac, so I am lying there in bed thinking of what I can work on. I think about it all the time. But, its good, its living with something.
Heart: Yeah, writing can do that to me. I understand.
AA: With the kids, you want to work with an alarm clock. I have to set my time for a few hours before the kids come home, sometimes its not enough. But, I think its a good deal because when I was young, my parents worked so much and we were four kids. And they didn’t have a lot of time for me, my brothers and sister. So, I don’t want to do that to my kids. I want to spend all my time with them as much as possible, because they’ll grow up so quickly. So, I try to be present with them and give them my attention.
I think its really important. I missed out on it in my childhood. So, …
Heart: Tell me about your parents.
AA: My parents are divorced.
Heart: Sorry, is it too difficult to talk?
AA: No, its not. I think some subjects are quite difficult to talk but when you witness such things, you’ve to talk about them, so you can help other people who are in the same situation.
My father was very violent with my mother. And, the day she decided to go away, she was very scared, because it was a question of life and death. I’m so proud that she had the force to tell herself, “I can’t bear it anymore. I don’t want to be scared anymore. I want to live. I don’t want to live where the next hit will be my end.” And, I’m very proud of her. And its something I’m not ashamed of. Because she did something that was right for her and for us.
Heart: Is he a happy man now, your father?
AA: No, I don’t think so. I think now he has found someone else and he has found some peace. But, my father is very smart and he finds it very difficult to find someone with whom he can have a chat. Because, each time he wants to talk about something that’s important for him, there’s no one who can understand. And its very complicated for him. I think its his fight, that he’s alone in his mind. He can’t talk all these intelligent ideas with anyone.
Heart: He’s sort of the tormented genius in a way.
AA: Now, he’s in peace. He’s not very happy, because he had tried and tried to have conversations with people who didn’t understand him. But now he doesn’t try, he knows he’s alone in his mind. He has some friends, but he has learned to stop searching for someone who can understand him.
He has his kids, and we are far, we live all around the world. He doesn’t have a lot of friends. So he doesn’t have a lot of people to share his ideas. Its complicated.
So, yeah, the divorce was a big shock for all of us. But, at the time their marriage was ending, we were calling our father Dictator. He would go, “Do this, do that.” If we didn’t do what he wanted us to do, he would hit us. And we wanted to stop that. The only one way was for my mom to leave him and stop that. It was a great decision. Because, now when I go and talk, I tell people, “Don’t hit your kids, its not good.”
When I was young, I met this woman who was abused, and I had tried to talk to her. And she just wanted to talk and express how she felt. I don’t know if she was able to solve her problems, but I think its important to talk about these things. Behind closed doors, we don’t know what happens. And what people don’t want to see, they don’t see. When we were getting hit, I would have loved for someone to knock on our door and tell him, “Don’t hit them.” But, that never happened. And I want to be the one to say that its OK to talk about such things.
Heart: This is one of the reasons why we need to tell one another our stories. No one’s talking anymore. I’m sorry, its hard not to get emotional about your story.
AA: Sorry, I’m trying to be honest.
Heart: No, you’ve to talk. Especially, someone like you who’s raising girls. If we don’t tell our girls, they don’t know what is normal and not in the way a man is treating them.
AA: But the good thing is, it happened. We were kids, my brother, my sister and I and my younger brother was a baby. We took care of each other and we turned out good in life. We are very close and we help each other. My big brother is in Scotland. My younger sister is in Madagascar. She’s a midwife [uses Google Translate to find the word] she helps moms have babies. So after the baby is born, she has to make sure the baby is doing well. She has a lot of contacts and has a great job. Its an important job, you know bringing a baby into this world and everything. And now she is having her own baby, so its great.
Heart: That’s great.
AA: She’s living what she helped to prepare. So, my younger brother lives in Shanghai. Just one or two years ago, he started his cooking company. He also imports French products and he does events in companies. He organizes all these tasting events where he makes oysters, caviar and all that. Its a new thing for him because earlier he was into engineering but he didn’t like to be working from behind a desk. He wanted to have a chance to meet people and share French cooking. So, he’s doing that.
Heart: Wow, that’s amazing.
AA: All my brothers and sisters are doing something really important. They are doing something while sharing what they have, their talents.
Heart: I can see this being a movie. I get all credit because I wrote it.
Heart: So, food, what do you like to eat? Do you cook, do you like to cook?
AA: All the time. French people cook a lot and so I continue that here. When we have friends over, they just buy something from the store and come. And its very difficult for me to understand what food is in America. (Smiles) In France, we don’t go to the restaurant or a fast food place too often. And especially in Paris, because its so expensive, so you’ll have to cook. You’ve to. You’ve to buy some basic foods, fruits and prepare it.
Heart: What’s your favorite food?
AA: Everything. Because everything can be good if you cook it well.
Heart: True. (Laughs)
AA: I like cheese. I miss cheese so much.
Heart: Is the “French” cheese that we buy here really French?
AA: Um, not really. I don’t buy the cheese here anymore, except the basic mozzarella and Parmigiano. Once in a while, I order some cheese from France.
Heart: No way. (Laughs)
AA: Here they don’t have good cheese at all. (I ask her to write down the names of the cheese she orders from Normandy and the mountains of France.)
AA: It’s very interesting to me, because since I arrived in the US, I have been asking a lot of questions about food and nobody seems to be interested in knowing where their food comes from. They’re not interested in a lot of produce, but I like to touch and feel the fruits and the vegetables, I like to have contact with my food.
And I like to prepare meals, and I like to know what exactly is in my meals and how I prepared it. Here, a lot of people don’t seem to look at that. They don’t like to know that. But since I have come to the US, I consider food differently.
Heart: If you want to follow the food you consume back to its roots, it’s really difficult. Especially in America, it’s gotten really complicated to find that information out. I don’t even know if what I’m eating and what I’m feeding my children is even real food sometimes. Have you heard of the concept of factory farming? If you watch those food documentaries about factory farming, it’s very difficult to eat meat again.
AA: I know about cow farms where there’s little space for cows, and there’s no grass, nothing. Its very strange. We don’t like that. That’s why we go for organic and use more produce rather than meat. Also, we are Catholic and each year during Lent, I try to give up a new thing. And this year, I tried to not eat meat. I tried to learn how to live without meat. And we ate a lot of new produce, and now we use those in our new foods. Its very interesting.
Last year, I tried to buy only basic foods from the store. I did not buy any processed foods. Except for yogurt, because I don’t know how to make yogurt. (Laughs) I make my own bread, everything, all the way. It was crazy, a lot of cooking, but I loved it so much.
Heart: You know I try to stick to the horse shoe in a super market when I’m shopping.
AA: Horse shoe?
Heart: So, when you’re shopping in a big grocery store, it’s best to stick to the periphery of the store, shop along the walls that form the horse shoe where all the fresh produce and foods are available. The rest of the store in the middle is all processed foods. Everything there has added sugars and is heavily processed.
Heart: Yeah, but looks like you’re already doing it.
AA: It’s interesting because my girls want to eat some “French food”, that’s what I call it, (Laughs), and we bought a lot of American produce and the girls cooked. Two weeks ago, they cooked. They cooked something each day this summer. They made appetizers, desserts. Its crazy because all these years, its been “Can I eat this candy, can I eat this?” And now she’s like, “Can I cook?”
Heart: Their uncle in China will be so proud of them.
AA: Yeah, he loves good food. (Laughs) Its interesting especially with [redacted] because she talks to her friends about food and she tells me “My friends don’t really care about eating healthy food. They want happy food.” They don’t care now, they are OK now, but they might not be OK later. She understands that its not all about being happy with your food, its what you must be eating to stay healthy.
Around February, she became very uncomfortable with French foods because at school, she didn’t want to tell her friends she eats different foods. So at that time, she asked me, “Can we change and eat American food? Can I have some pizza?” (Laughs) Yeah, I said, “Fine.” But she later changed to, “OK, its good to have salad than pizza.”
But when they want pizza, I make it at home. I put the cheese, tomato sauce and I cook it from scratch.
Heart: Wow, I bow to you.
AA: (Laughs) You just have to learn how to do it. Last year when we were not doing processed foods, and I wanted to eat pasta, I made pasta from scratch. Last year for Lent, I made everything from scratch. If I wanted to eat something, I had to prepare it.
Heart: Oh my God. (Laughs)
AA: Its crazy, but its very interesting. Because now I know what’s pasta. And its easy to make a pizza. By the time you order your pizza and its delivered in half an hour, my pizza is ready.
AA: Its great because you realize you don’t really lose time when you cook.
Heart: Nowadays, I don’t know who is eating real food. Forget cooking real food. Kids are getting fed from cans these days. Wow.
AA: In France, they are still following rules around food, like eating 5 vegetables and fruits each day. I think people are more concerned about what they eat than here. Here, I think its normal to eat some icecream at 10’o clock in the morning. In France, that’s not normal. Its still kind of old school thinking. Lunch or dinner, you try to eat together as a family, especially dinner. Each day, at the dinner table, we eat together and spend time together. We appreciate the meal. That’s one big difference I think.
Also, we have different parts in the dinner. Here we have one meal and that’s OK. There, we have an appetizer, we can have some salads, cheese, desserts, and of course the meal. After the dinner, you can have some herbal tea. So, you can have a very long dinner or very short one depending on what you want to eat. But, there are different parts of a meal.
Heart: It all just sounds so beautiful. I want to get everybody together for dinner every night. The kids usually eat first and we eat later. But most times, I am on a different schedule than my husband. I don’t see why we can’t do what you do.
AA: Yeah. Anytime, we explain to anyone here that we all eat together every evening, they say, “Wow, how can you do that?” It’s very different with us, to eat is to eat together. For example, we had an election in France this past Sunday, and we had gone out. After we came back, we wanted to see the results, so we talked to the kids if they wanted to eat while we watched the news or if they wanted to eat with us after we watched the results. “No, we want to eat with you!” and they waited for us to watch the news and afterwards, “Let’s eat together.” They don’t want to eat alone, they want to eat with us.
I think its very important in France, because its social to eat. You can’t eat lunch together because you’re working or you’re in school. And people stop working at 8pm, and they don’t want to just come home and eat quickly and go to bed. That’s the only time they can be together. We take it very seriously.
AA: If you have a big French meal, you can spend all day, eating and talking. So, its great. During Christmas, we went to France, we had a big dinner with my uncles, my grandpa, my mom, my brothers and sister. We were around 15 people. And we spent all afternoon we spent eating, sharing and talking because we don’t have time to be around all of them that much. Its important for us to “We’re here now, its important that we all stay together and spend as much time as possible together.”
Heart: I’ve learnt so much from what you’re talking about. What else can you give your family and your children other than memories?
AA: I think around here, Americans eat around 5:30 (pm). We eat around 7pm. We eat later than most Americans. We finish our kids activities, its complicated to be together at 6pm, so it might be easy to eat together later. Because it can be the end of the day thing.
Heart: Is there a quote that you like that has stayed with you?
AA: Yeah. Its a latin one. Carpe Diem. Most French people like this, because if today is a bad day, you have tomorrow. Just keep going.
Heart: Sure. That’s a good one. So, about that food habits thing, eating icecream at 10am, I see that India is also doing that now. I see India changing every year, the waist lines are getting bigger and the major source of entertainment for young people seems to be eating out any time of the day and night and that’s them “having a good time.”
AA: I see that in France too now, but not in a way that they are eating less, but they’re cooking less. I think its mostly in Paris, because I spent my last 15 years in Paris. And there you don’t have time, you’re running everywhere. And if you want to cook, it takes a little bit of time, you need an extra hour to cook and eat in leisure. You have to take your time. And if you’re so busy all the day, more and more people cook less.
I’m lucky because my grandmother cooked a lot. Actually my grandfather cooked a lot too. My mom cooked all the time when I was young. We practically never went to a restaurant or a fast food while growing up. Its crazy to see all that change now with little kids.
Heart: Yeah. Do you believe in God? Are you spiritual?
AA: Yeah. I’m Catholic, all my family is Catholic. We went through Catholicism when we were young. But, when my mom left my dad, the priest at our church went to tell her “We were very glad to have you in the church all these years, now I would prefer you not to come to the church because we are not comfortable with you anymore.” And so she stopped going to the church, because she’s a very sensitive person. And that was a very sensitive topic for her too.
I continued going to the church after that for one more year, but I couldn’t support their ideas around what happened with my mom anymore after that. “They didn’t support her and asked her to hide what happened to her. Wow.”
Heart: What year was this?
AA: Um, 1992, 1993. They didn’t understand what she had gone through. She could still go to the church, but she had to hide what happened to her. It was completely crazy. After that I realized that it was not God who’s at fault. Its the people who created religion and who decided for God. That’s why I stopped going to the church. (Her daughters come and ask her if they can start cooking. She laughs and tells them later.)
When I first met my husband he also didn’t go to church. But, we are quite connected on what we believe. We understand what our faith is and for our girls, we don’t decide what they should follow. We don’t push them, but they decided that they’re going to do Catholicism. Its OK, if I have to go to the church sometimes, my daughter knows my story. So, she knows that I’m not to comfortable going to the church. Because, when you say, Peace and all these beautiful words in church, and you’re not kind to people who need help, it makes me very uncomfortable. I’m not able to forgive, I think I’m immature.
Heart: Oh, you’re not the one who’s immature. And as you said, who are they to come between you or your mom and God.
AA: There are a lot of good things about Catholic religion, there’re a lot of good parables and stories that tell us good things. They tell us what is good and what is bad. And I learned to think of it this way. That you’re free to do what you want to do. But you can choose to do something good. You’re free to choose, so choose to do good. And I like this sort of thinking. So, my faith is to be kind, to be good, to be concerned about others. To do the best I can do. So, yeah, that’s my spiritual path.
Note: Before you rate this episode, please consider if you would’ve been so open and authentic about your own life. Earlier episodes available at The Anonymous Manifesto™.