We both grew up in Delaware — a state so small some people have never heard of it — and have been friends for decades. Were there any early indicators that we would one day be candidates for seeing the elephant? Well, we were both outsiders in high school — nerdy, maladjusted. You and I had a children's birthday party business, so we were more likely to be putting on puppet shows in clown suits than hanging out at the mall. But that didn’t necessarily destine us for international adventure. My family went to Canada on vacation — that was about it. And my mother had taught French, but for that very reason I rebelled against studying it. I wanted to do something different so tried Latin.
What made you change your mind? I took a French course in 10th grade and realized that I loved it. Maybe it was easy because of studying Latin first.
You've been to France countless times for prolonged visits, but have you ever really made a home there? My longest stay in France was the nine months I spent teaching English at the University of Bordeaux when I was a grad student. But even though I've never been an expat like you or others featured in this blog, I've been immersed in French culture for years. Now I live in Washington where I teach college-level French and travel to France at least twice a year. I also have French citizenship.
What motivated you to become officially Gallic? Marriage at the time, and now speeding through the EU line at immigration! And if you travel a lot, it's helpful to have a non-American passport, just in case we’re at war and hated by the rest of the world...
You’re immersed in French culture, as you say, but you don't seem all that attached to the country. I have an intellectual and emotional attachment to the language, but not so much to France itself. Years ago, my first serious relationship was in France, but with an Algerian — interestingly, I chose to be with someone who was also an outsider. Then later, I knew I wanted to marry someone who speaks French as the language is so important to me, but I didn't necessarily want to live in the country.
Is it fair to say that something has kept you from giving yourself over to France — from seeing the elephant in its entirety, wrinkles and all? Yes, I think I prefer making frequent travels, so that I can keep up with changes in the language and culture, rather than actually living in a place. That way I can also avoid the Rip Van Winkle syndrome when coming back to the U.S.
Would you live in France now if the opportunity arose? No, if I were to live somewhere else, it would be French-speaking West Africa. It's more interesting, and, paradoxically, I feel more comfortable with the people even though I am more of an outsider than in Europe.
Tell me more about your interest in Africa. When did it start? I was teaching French at Johns Hopkins SAIS where a number of my students were in African Studies or were Africans themselves. I tutored a student from Kenya, who got me interested in studying some Swahili. Again, it was language that first drew me in, though not French. Post-SAIS, I have worked for Cohen & Woods, a consulting firm which has done a lot of work in French-speaking African countries.
How many African countries have you visited? Six — one English-speaking, Zimbabwe; and the other five French- or Arabic-speaking: Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, and Senegal.
Where have you stayed the longest? In Dakar, Senegal's capital city, for a month.
Is Senegal your favorite? No, I prefer Burkina Faso — maybe because it's more like Delaware! The Senegalese remind me of New Yorkers: they tend to be more aggressive, hustlers. Whereas the Burkinabè are calmer, less in your face. I feel more comfortable there.
Babar the Elephant books for me and my brother as kids. Later, I started collecting Babar stuff: original watercolors, posters, books, stuffed animals... I love the illustrations and the old French cursive in the books.
Can you tell me any Blind Man's Tales — stories that demonstrate the differences among American, European, and African perspectives? An obvious one is the way they respond to the news that a prominent person is having an affair. At President Mitterand's funeral, his wife and his long-term mistress stood side-by-side at the grave, accompanied by their respective children. That would never happen here with American puritanism. Many Africans, even if they are Christians, accept and practice polygamy — traditional culture trumps imported religion. I have a Burkinabè friend who has 64 siblings because his father has I-don't-know-how-many wives. And of course Europeans and Africans were united in their ridicule for our attitude during the Clinton-Monica period.
Africa is a mystery to most Americans, though perhaps the World Cup will help to dispel that. What is the biggest cultural gap? Americans will open up to total strangers, whereas Africans are often extremely private. I have a Burkinabè friend who told me she had a boyfriend — but didn’t want me to tell her sister, even though the two of them are close. I know other African families where several sisters sleep in the same bed but will not undress in front of each other. Americans are puritanical, but Africans have more taboos.
Do you have any Treasured White Elephants — something useless or bizarre that you've collected from your travels that you're attached to nonetheless? I've been collecting traditional cooking utensils from West Africa. One of them, a kind of primitive whisk, is hanging on my kitchen wall. A Senegalese broom — a bunch of straw tied together with a bit of dress fabric — does a better job on the kitchen floor than our industrial ones.
Bastille Day but no American flag on the 4th. And a Québecois flag went out on June 24th for la Saint-Jean.
Lastly, let's talk food. If you had to design a menu for the summer season consisting of a favorite dish from America, France, and Africa, what would it be? Grilled capitaine (fish) kebabs from Africa, with spicy sauce on the side. A French puy lentil salad with garlicky vinaigrette. And my mom's sour cherry pie for dessert. She uses Crisco (yes, it still exists!) so I avoid the crust, but the filling is wonderful!