The Thing About France is a podcast where cultural figures explore the fascinating and complicated relationship between France and America.
45:33Eight years ago, an American writer named Pamela Druckerman emerged on the national and international scene wearing a beret –– somewhat ironically –– and wielding a radical theory of child-rearing. Radical, that is, to Americans, it was completely normal to the French. She’d written a best-selling book that you’ve probably heard of, called Bringing Up Bébé. In it, she revealed the French method of raising well-behaved, sociable children. French babies, she explained, slept soundly through the night, even when they were only a few months old. French kids ate Camembert without complaint; and when French adults were having conversations, their kids didn’t interrupt. She thought this might be one reason why French parents seem so much less stressed out than American parents. She discovered these mysterious differences at first hand, in Paris, while raising her own kids. Before she moved to Paris in 2002, Pamela was a globetrotter, living and working in Miami, Jerusalem, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo. While many know Pamela from her best-seller, her writing career has spanned subjects including infidelity around the world, Latin American politics, and the experience of being a 40-something in Paris. I spoke to Pamela over Zoom about life around the world, how she found love in Brazil, and translating French parenting secrets for an American audience.
33:33Hearing from Graydon reminded me of the good old days of New York publishing and magazine life—his decadent parties at the Puck building were absolutely unforgettable, equipped with mountains of pâté, all-girl swing bands, and filled with women in Madonna-style bubble dresses. Once co-founder of the satirical Spy Magazine and editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, Graydon has escaped New York for the Cote d’Azur, where he has been staying with his family and surrounded by an international crowd of friends and acquaintances. Currently writing a memoir that he anticipates will be both “illuminating” and “slightly mortifying,” the editor is also working on his weekly digital publication, “Air Mail", and loves seeing his team on Zoom every Friday evening for the office’s Happy Hour tradition. I spoke to Graydon over Zoom about why he loves newsstands, how he imagines Cannes becoming a drive-in film festival, and why he stays off of social media altogether.
35:29I knew about William Middleton from the biography—or double biography, rather—he wrote of the great French-Texan art collectors, Dominique and John de Menil. When we got to talking, I realized that we have more in common than I thought: turns out we are both from the American southwest and ended up working for publications in New York and Paris. William first moved to Paris in 1990 as a writer for an American design magazine. Throughout his decade in France, he moved from design to fashion and from le Marais to Pigalle, throwing decadent parties for the likes of Karl Lagerfeld. William found his way back to France in May 2019, moving into an apartment in the 7th arrondissement on the same street where his muse, Dominique de Menil, grew up. I spoke to William over Zoom about his experience of battling COVID-19 while in France; the power of connection; and aesthetics in both Paris and New York.
40:12I first met Lauren Collins about fifteen years ago, when we were both working at The New Yorker. I noticed her immediately—The New Yorker can be a quiet place, but she was friendly and effervescent—she even asked me out for drinks! But she was also very focused. She radiated energy––like a blonde, Tasmanian devil, but much more charming and polite. (She grew up in the south, in Wilmington, North Carolina—that may explain it.) In 2010, The New Yorker sent Lauren––who was by then a staff writer––to live and write in London. She met a Frenchman there, Olivier, who would become her husband. She moved to Geneva for him—and then she made an even bigger sacrifice: she started to learn French. Her book about that, When in French: Love in a Second Language, was named one of The New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2016. Soon, she moved to Paris, where she still lives today with her husband and her two little children, writing about current events and the enigmas of language, culture and identity that she runs into every day across the Atlantic. I talked with Lauren in May, over Zoom, about life in Paris under “le confinement,” which is what the French call lockdown—and about the mysteries of Frenchness that she's still decoding.
Thomas Chatterton Williams
43:42Thomas Chatterton Williams, the extraordinary expat writer, cultural critic, and James Baldwin scholar, has lived in Paris for a decade. Thomas grew up in the U.S. surrounded by books and liberal ideals — but in the 90s, he turned his focus to expressing his identity through hip-hop, and rejected erudition as inauthentic. In his 2010 book, Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture, he explains that it wasn’t until he started studying at Georgetown that he began looking for a broader definition of an authentic life. I spoke to Thomas in June, and we talked about his new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race; and about Heidegger, Hegel, and the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted this summer in New York, Paris, London, and across the world, after the police killing of George Floyd. Lately, Thomas has been doing Baldwin duty –– writing essays from his desk in France for the New York Times, the Guardian and Harpers, on the pandemic, the protests, philosophy and identity. I asked him to tell me more…
John von Sothen
39:46John von Sothen is an American magazine writer based in Paris, where he’s lived since 2002. He dabbles a little in French TV and comedy, too. When I started talking to him for this podcast, I forgot that I’d never met him before. That’s because last year John wrote a memoir that was so hilarious, so warm, and so personal that I felt as if we’d known each other for ages, though we’d never even been in the same room. Luckily, he’s American, not French, so I don’t think my informality shocked him! His book was called Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French. In it he lays out the mysterious rules of French social behavior, which he’s decoded during his years in France first by breaking them, then by learning to roll with them.
27:19One steaming hot July morning, our team piled into a car to the Hamptons, in Long Island. No, we weren’t going to the beach, or to someone’s luxurious mansion––even better––we were headed to The Watermill Center, an arts Mecca created by legendary theater director Bob Wilson. The Center is a buzzing, symbiotic hive where artists not only harness the tools to reach creative bliss but pitch in with natural cooking and upkeep of the verdant grounds. Our tour brought us to Bob’s apartment, decorated with unique sculptures from all over the world, past his extra large bed with pristine white sheets, and into a gorgeous veranda, where we recorded this episode. We spoke about André Malraux, experimental theater, and France’s cultural policy.
27:38At the French Embassy we have an award called the Arts and Letters Award, where we effectively “Knight” people for their contributions to French culture. When author Rick Moody was next up to receive it, we knew we had to organize a podcast episode to get his take on France. In characteristic French extravagance, we ended up organizing a marathon evening that included an award ceremony, a podcast recording, and even a conversation at our bookstore, Albertine. That afternoon, Rick strolled into my office in his signature hat and radiating positive energy. The conversation centered on French theory, the American reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the benefits of creative constraints in writing.
29:57Katherine Fleming, provost of NYU, is living proof of the merits of international exchange. She’s one of the leaders of the academic world in the United States, and her humor, which is as sharp as her intelligence, defies all stereotypes about academia. She feels equally at home in Greece and in France, and she has supported many of the French Embassy’s initiatives to encourage exchange between American and French universities. We spoke about the big payoffs that studying abroad can have, despite the risks; about how being a waitress in Greece had a direct influence on her professional trajectory; the cost of tuition in American and France; and her childhood experience on a farm in France.
24:24The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has hosted some of the most amazing French performances on both sides of the Atlantic, from Les Fêtes Vénitiennes by Les Arts Florissants to mesmerizing contemporary circus. The man behind all of these incredible productions is Joe Melillo. As Executive Producer Emeritus at BAM, Joe has been a pillar of the New York performing arts scene for the past 30 years, as well as a daring presenter of new talents. One sweltering morning in July, Joe and Bénédicte met and discussed the Avignon Theater Festival in France, the most innovative French artists he has presented to American audiences, and one unforgettable musical performance at Versailles.