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C'est La Vie
Suzy Gershman
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INTRODUCTION

Suzy Gershman has seen—and shopped—the world, but her heart belongs to Paris. C'est la Vie is her funny, frank memoir of starting over, living abroad, and negotiating the often perplexing cultural divide that proves there is more than an ocean separating France and the U.S.

Leaving Connecticut after her husband's unexpected demise, Gershman decides to honor their shared dream of moving to France and living in the City of Light. With just enough French under her belt, the author of the bestselling Born to Shop books immediately sets out to create an authentic Parisian lifestyle: finding and furnishing an apartment, situating herself in a social whirl of journalists and chefs, improving her French, and mending her grieving heart.

As Gershman wrestles with the daily dilemmas of furniture delivery, broken fax machines, and dinner party etiquette, she also reflects upon the philosophical differences that underlie the highly contrasting American and French ways of life. The longer she is in Paris, the more she loves it—not just the city itself but the intensity of expatriate life and the joy of redefining herself in middle age. Still, as a foreigner, she can never be truly French and even the most famous shopper in the world has her cultural stumbles. As a newly transplanted American, she struggles with a flood of French paperwork and the puzzling rituals of Old World manners. As a mother, she struggles with guilt over her son's misgivings about her relocation to Paris.

She never, however, loses her enthusiasm for the French lifestyle. She is impressed with the socialized health system, the liberated sexuality, and the crusty baguettes. Soon she develops a close group of girlfriends and begins an affair with a sophisticated older man. Yet Gershman doesn't forget that she is Super Shopper Suzy and fills the book with helpful tips: the where, how much, and when of French shopping that only the locals know. She solves the mysteries of French cooking and spills the secrets of that je ne sais quoi that all Frenchwomen have.

As her first year comes to a close, Gershman finds happiness in blending the best of her old and new lives, enjoying the unique perspective that being an American in Paris brings.

 

ABOUT SUZY GERSHMAN

Suzy Gershman, author of Frommer's Born to Shop book series, has also been a travel-shopping columnist for Travel and Leisure as well as Travel Holiday. She has appeared on Oprah, CNN, the Today show, and Good Morning America and has been featured in People, USA Today, Family Circle, McCall's, and the International Herald Tribune.


 

AN INTERVIEW WITH SUZY GERSHMAN

There is a rich tradition of the American abroad in nonfiction literature, reaching from Mark Twain to Peter Mayle. Did you have any of these authors in mind while working on C'est la Vie? Were there any works of fiction that influenced you?

I tried to write a novel about twenty years ago and realized at that time that I simply can't do fiction. So as much as I adore fiction, I don't think it influences me very much. Diane Johnson gave me a lot of support in this book and Stephen King told me things about keeping the narrative going, but these were boosts from personal connections, not from novels.

What I did that helped the most was keep a journal—not a "Dear Diary" kind of thing, but a series of notes on everything—every funny thing a French person said or did, every emotion I had no matter how light or dark, every subject I thought I'd like to write about at some time in the future. I didn't use all these notes, but they formed the backbone of the story, just as an outline might have worked up a story for a novelist.

Born to Shop really taught me my voice in terms of my own personality and the marriage of information with confession, so C'est la Vie is much like Born to Shop—if we were seated at lunch this is what I'd tell you—but has more stuff from the heart, because of the subject matter.

I happen to be very sensitive on the Peter Mayle issue. While I admire Mr. Mayle enormously (and I know about those Wee Willy Winkle books!), I really don't like comparisons with his work—I don't like when people say I will be the next Martha Stewart or the next Peter Mayle or the next Erma Bombeck…I plan to be the next Suzy Gershman, or simply the best Suzy Gershman I can be.

As the author of the highly successful Born To Shop series, you have a lot of writing experience. But C'est la Vie is unlike your other work in that it is entirely about you. Why did you choose to write a memoir in the first place? Did you find the level of honesty involved difficult to maintain? How did your family and friends react to their depiction in the book?

The first book I ever wrote was called Instant Parent, and was my experiences as a stepmother to an eight-year-old girl. So I have done memoir before. When I turned in that manuscript, some twenty-five years ago, the editor said, "My God, there are things in here I don't think you should say…you shouldn't admit to!"

I insisted on keeping those parts in the book, because they were not only my truths, but I really believe that when I dare to say something important, it will be something you also thought, but were afraid to voice because it may be socially unacceptable.

I used the same principles with C'est la Vie. And in truth, I have a very confessional personality. Also, you have to remember that I worked for Time magazine—I am trained to tell you more details than you ever wanted to know.

My father is eighty-six-years-old—I was worried about him reading the book because of the parts about adultery and vibrators…but he told me he can't remember if he read it or not. Isn't that perfect?! His wife, Yvette, was upset about a comment that referred to her, but we've turned it into a small joke…furthermore, whether she's upset or not, I stand by the truth of what I wrote. Sometimes truth is more important than someone's superficial feelings, because it will reach out to many other people.

Your son Aaron's reservations about France figure prominently in the book and affect you deeply. Has this difference of opinion been reconciled? What advice do you have for women who find themselves in a conflict between their children's needs and their own?

I worked very hard—and spent a bit of money—to get Aaron to fall in love with France. It took a long time and a lot of airline tickets. He cannot feel the way I do about France because it simply doesn't interest him in the same way; perhaps he will in time—maybe after I pass on and he inherits property here. But the point wasn't to make him a Francophile; it was to make him comfortable with my being here.

We did hit a turning point after Aaron and his girlfriend Jenny lived in the house in Provence for six months once they graduated from college. They have also gone to work with me on Born to Shop, so that has made us closer and Aaron has come to accept Europe more. In our case, I was lucky. Aaron has relaxed, accepted the situation and come to embrace it.

Also, I think it's important to remember that this particular triangle was me, Aaron, and France—not another man, which I think would have made things much harder.

As for advice for other women, I think that there are questions about the age of the child first and then the needs of both. The history of motherhood is written in sacrifice for our children. In my case, my son was twenty when his father died and I felt that I was in a personal life/death situation—a dead mother is no use to anyone. We were both old enough to start to cope on our own, so I pressed forward—perhaps selfishly.

Paris is a city "where older women were visually enjoyed—even by younger men." The French not only have a respect for aging, they have a healthy appreciation for sex; together, these enlightened views are clearly a boost to your self-esteem. How do you think these attitudes developed? Why doesn't the U.S. have a similar way of thinking?

One look at the Clinton mess with Miss Monica and you can only laugh—somehow the U.S. became puritanical in the case of sex—or never emerged from the 1630s when the Puritans arrived. While I adore the U.S. and have great pride in being an American, some things in American thinking just stump me. For the most part, it is a country that wastes much and often shows superficial values in a public face. People are reluctant to let their true selves show through. They talk about sex but don't seem to approve of sex, or sexuality. Middle-aged women are invisible. It's as if human nature has been wrapped up in a Tupperware container.

In setting up your new home, you encounter a number of colorful characters—landlords, repairmen, salesclerks, and more—with mixed results. Which personality stands out most clearly in your memory, and for what reason? Which interaction do you think best sums up your experience during that first year in Paris?

Now that I am out of my apartment on rue de Prony—the one I wrote about in the book—I realize how much freer I feel; that there were many negative interactions that happened to be bad luck. I couldn't know it at the time, but I was really hindered by the team at Prony—my tyrannical landlord, the unhelpful concierge, etc. My new apartment—which I own—isn't as large or glam, but the concierge is fabulous and I am not being cheated by a proprietor who is out for every Euro. I think I suffered from the slings and arrows that attack any "foreign fish" in a strange country and I am happy to have learned the system and grown up. On the other hand, the way I learned is that so many people were wonderful to me—from the boy at the corner news kiosk to the chimney sweep to my hairdresser and total strangers. The kindness gave me the strength to carry on and form a community here.

You have a diverse group of girlfriends in France and you credit them with helping you handle many practical and emotional issues. What role does each woman have in your life today? What is your contribution to the group?

Les Girls are still tight—things change as they always do—Sandrine is temporarily on assignment in Mexico; Karen has spent more time in the U.S. because her aging mother hasn't been well, etc. Claire and Pascale-Agnes are still here for me, and provide help and support that is much needed and appreciated. I also make an effort to meet new people, not to get trapped in a single group, or only to know Americans or expats. Among my new friends are the people from whom I bought this apartment—and they do not speak English.

I'm not sure of my role in the group, except that I try to provide energy and dinner. One of the first things I learned as a widow is that as a grown-up, I don't want people telling me how to run my life, even after a tragedy like my husband's death. I want people to give me hugs and be there for me. I want them to listen, not to talk. I have stopped telling other people how to run their lives as a result; whatever someone says to me, I try to find an honest way of responding with support and care. Even if I think they are nuts.

You've included a lot of practical household information in the book. Did you have an ideal reader in mind when selecting which advice to share?

I think of my reader as another form of myself; she is my friend and I have to be honest with both of us—her and me. She is Everywoman. I can't fake it and I can't say, "yeah, I'm great" when in fact my heart is breaking or I am up against universal feelings that I think should be shared.

My Born to Shop reader likes information when it's well explained and useful, so I wanted to include the nitty gritty that would be useful to someone setting out to make this change. C'est la Vie is meant to sit on many levels of the mind—the story of starting over, the story of friends and community and then the actual information for moving to France. In terms of what to share, it's my nature to tell you everything—way too much. Often my editor had to write in the margins, "yawn." If I had my way, this book would have been a gaggle of side bars, boxes, recipes, foot notes, tangential stories teamed with perhaps the chorus line from the Folies Bergere.

"In Paris, unlike in many other cities, architecture is more than beauty. Its strength lies…in the emotional grip it has on people." You write that the history of France has been distilled into its architecture and this gives the city its distinctive character. Are you still overwhelmed by the architecture of Paris, or have you become a jaded local? Are there any buildings or monuments that affect you in particular?

There are so many times in a week—often several in a day—when I look around me and say, "I live here!" and it's more with awe than with glee. For me, it's a healing experience to sit on the bus and look out the window. Sometimes I question deep down if I made the right decision to move to France, I feel sorry for myself for not having a place in the U.S. that really feels like home. Then I walk through a street market, or I sip hot chocolate at a café, or I eavesdrop on a metro and I realize that Paris has not only a healing nature to it, but a sense of the cozy that I have never felt in the U.S., except maybe in Aspen or Santa Fe. You are never alone in Paris, which is something I cannot say about New York.

You end C'est la Vie with a wealth of beginnings: a new year, a new home, and a new man. Can you update your readers on your current life in France? What is your next writing project?

I am writing the sequel to C'est la Vie, which is named Merci, Madame. It's also a story with several levels of content and context—buying my house in Provence and renovating it and the story of a man I met in Provence, who seemed rather perfect for me…except he is handicapped and is also French. When he asked me to marry him, I had to make some serious decisions. The French cultural differences are enormous…and I had to decide if I could take on the responsibilities of a handicapped man at this time in my life. I happily nursed my husband through hell because he deserved every ounce of my love, attention and care…but we had twenty-five years of history. To start off with a stranger who is handicapped is a different situation, especially since I was not over the moon in love with him. In fact, I told my French friend that I wasn't madly in love with him. He said, "Acch! You talk like a teenaged girl! What do you think love is at our age?" Merci, Madame explores that very question.


 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Suzy's love and conviction are apparent from the very first page, when she writes, "I always knew that one day I would live in France. This was not a dream on my part, but a fact of life." Do you have an emotional tie to a country other than your own? Where does it stem from? How does it manifest itself?
     
  2. Many people choose to move to a new city or country in order to reinvent themselves. What is it about relocation that makes personal change easier? How, if at all, is your personality tied to your environment? How does being out of your comfort zone reveal hidden parts of your character?
     
  3. Suzy deals with her grief over Mike's death through radical change, leaving behind the familiar routines and reminders of their shared life. Yet, she doesn't completely leave Mike in the past. How does she bring his memory into her life in Paris? In what ways does she move beyond him?
     
  4. C'est la Vie is written in a very casual, conversational manner. Do you feel you know Suzy well after reading this book? What was your initial impression of her? How, if at all, did that impression change?
     
  5. As an experienced shopper and traveler, Suzy has both an eye for detail and an open mind. How do these traits serve her in her adjustment to life in Paris? How do her experiences with Born to Shop help her during the book? How do they fail?
     
  6. Suzy lists many useful points on the process of moving to and living in Paris as an American, including everything from manners to measurement conversions. How did the inclusion of these hints affect the story? How did they affect your understanding of the characters?
     
  7. In France, the Napoleonic system governs everything from banking to real estate, and is set up—in theory—to "protect the little guy," but it often creates bureaucratic deadlock. What is Suzy's experience with this system? What are the attitudes of various locals and expatriates? Which rules are followed and which are ignored?
     
  8. Suzy writes, "No matter how much cultural savvy you gain, a foreigner will never be French, so it was far more fun to mix it all up." How does she create a blend of both American and French cultures in her new life? Is this mix always successful?
     
  9. "Motherhood, thy name is guilt." Suzy and her son, Aaron, have different attitudes towards Paris. What are they? How does Suzy try to help Aaron adjust to her living in Paris? How does she handle her guilt over leaving him behind in the U.S.? Do you believe she did the right thing?
     
  10. Suzy deals with cultural misconceptions from both sides of the Atlantic, answering to those about the French, and those about Americans. Which cultural stereotypes did this book debunk for you? Which, if any, did it confirm? What opinions did you have about France before this book? Have those opinions changed?