French Impressions: Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans on the richness of experiencing other cultures firsthand
12 Wednesday Sep 2012
Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans has lived and worked on three continents. She was born in Transylvania (a Hungarian-speaking province of Romania) and educated in Israel where she graduated from the Hebrew University School of Law. Following her studies, Eva moved: first to Tokyo, where she worked and started a family, and then settled in New York. For over twenty years Eva practiced law at some of the largest law firms in New York, specializing in securities law and structured finance and served as In-House Counsel with U.S. and French financial institutions before pursuing a career as a writer. Her work is eclectic and includes articles, essays, restaurant reviews, poetry and fiction. Eva, a mother of two daughters, currently resides with her husband in Paris where she is working on her first novel.
AWP: How have your global academic and professional experiences changed you? How would you describe your life in each of these countries?
EI: Overall, I would say that these experiences have rendered me a well-rounded and more open person. People tend to believe their way of doing things is the ultimate correct way, and that others are either strange or utterly wrong, but once one has the opportunity to witness these differences first hand, such definitive truths and categorizations are put into perspective. One realizes that the differences between us are mostly a superficial veneer and that there is more than one ultimate way to live, educate one’s children, work, dress, cook, etc.
It is important not to over-emphasize and to willingly accept these differences between us. For me, there is no distinction between “us” and “them” regardless of one’s respective race, nationality, religion or culture happens to be (though gender may play a role in dividing us—not necessarily a negative variance). And I have learned to appreciate and celebrate this richness of our backgrounds.
While one has to be wary of stigmatization on the individual level, countries—even ones as diverse as the U.S.—do have certain general characteristics and my life in each of these places did pose different challenges and joys. That, of course, had to do just as greatly with the varying stages of my own life—childhood and growing up as a young adult in Israel (layered with the gap between the home and outside cultures), as a young wife and mother in Tokyo, a professional and working mother in New York, and currently at a more mature stage in France.
AWP: What sparked your interest in other cultures?
EI: I suspect one is born with this almost urge to travel and experience other ways of life. Perhaps it has to do with the “wondering Jew” gene. It is a mix of feeling at the same time at home everywhere and nowhere. Being one with, learning and familiarizing myself with, and falling in love with any culture I happen to live in and yet always remaining an outsider, examining with an objective eye, gives one an advantageous point of view, which I cherish.
AWP: From living in other countries, what was the most surprising thing you witnessed?
EI: The difference between the ways certain cultures are perceived and the way they truly are. As one example, the meekness and subservient nature we associate with Japanese women contrasts with the steely strength many of them actually demonstrate in real life, once you get to know them better. Those myths and perceptions are not necessarily what we observe upon the actual encounter or once we dig a bit deeper. Yet, some do hold.
AWP: You are working on your first novel. What made you want to write? Why is now the right time?
EI: I have always valued writing and, even as a child, aspired to be a writer. Then, life started, and practical considerations, such as pursuing a profession that enables one to make a living, to support oneself and one’s family, took over. But that was not necessarily a negative. Very few people have much to say to and about the world at twenty-five or even thirty. I believe maturity is a requirement for a certain substance in writing and, at this point, approaching (or perhaps even having reached—though I hate to admit it) middle age, I felt the fountain bursting to flow.
Moving to France, having my legal career on the back burner due to the financial crisis, provided more practical incentives. But, on a deeper level, I felt that the richness of my experiences merits sharing those with others and at this stage in my life I earned the right to do what I enjoy rather than just preparing for the future.
My first novel deals with, among other things, this junction in a woman’s life—reaching a certain age and taking account of one’s life, reflecting upon the choices we’ve made and, ultimately, getting comfortable with them. And the farewells we experience as we age—farewells to first marriages, our children’s innocent years, some of our dreams and hopes, and the focal point of the book—farewell to our aging mothers, inevitably becoming more and more feeble and finally succumbing to the inevitable. In the process they take with them part of us. But they also stay within us. It’s a very complicated and complex goodbye to say. As I went through that process myself, I felt a need to share and discuss those conflicting emotions and come to terms with the pain with other women.
AWP: What is it about France and women?
EI: As I mentioned above, appearances do not always reflect reality. Perceptions deceive. The myth of the French woman—well put together without even trying, coquettish kitten, excellent cook, disciplined mother—and the real flesh and blood person quite often don’t even bear a resemblance. I am hoping to write more extensively and to clarify this dissonance, dispel the myth, in the future. Myths are a heavy burden to live up to and I believe the French woman deserves to be liberated from some of them.
AWP: Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French and reactionary pragmatist regarding women, said in a letter written in 1795: A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris for six months. In what way does Napoléon’s statement hold true with your experience living in Paris? How is Napoléon’s statement understood by women of today?
EI: I assume he was referring to the extent a woman’s beauty and savvy could influence her future and empower her. I believe that statement is outdated. Not only did Paris cease to be the center where all corridors of power meet, but women, in the centuries that have passed since, have acquired the ability to influence the course of their own, as well as others’, lives in broad daylight and not only via backstage manipulation. I do hope most modern women reject and dismiss such a statement today.
AWP: Describe your “Paris.”
EI: My Paris is the little specialty food stores, the vendors greeting you with flirtatious conversation, the markets. Unfortunately, my Paris is also the haughty administrators and the often rude sales persons at the mobile phone and electronics stores—but we try to forget about that.
AWP: Some expatriates are predisposed, each in their own way, toward other countries: through fantasy, family or a cultural context. Some may have already held a piece of their narrative. How was that the same for you?
EI: I always had an almost mystical interest in the Far East and Asia. A certain connection. I can’t possibly explain why. France was not on the radar screen, but I clearly recall that after a past, particularly heartbreaking, affair, I was recommending to myself a romantic French lover as medicine. Well, I certainly got my dose!
AWP: Do you think the new technologies make a true study or living abroad experience obsolete?
EI: Certainly not. It is true that the first time I arrived in New York I felt as if I had already been there—the numerous movies making it as familiar to someone in Mumbai as to someone in Marrakesh. However, that is only the surface. In order to benefit from a true experience—finding strange food in the supermarket, learning the polite manner for holding your fork (or chopstick), accepting others—one has to live elsewhere.
AWP: What do you think today’s women and men living or studying abroad bring to other countries?
EI: They trigger the curiosity of the locals to learn more about their guests’ cultures and, perhaps, in turn, participate in such exchanges themselves. They bring what used to be completely separate worlds into contact. The results are always fascinating—from a shared dinner to mixed marriages and beautiful children—it starts a chain reaction.
AWP: Several of our contributors have lived abroad or have worked in France, Francophone countries and countries around the world. Many followers are preparing to study or live abroad. What would you say to them?
EI: Jump in. You can’t imagine with your current intellectual and emotional tools what new experiences will come your way. Don’t be afraid—even the negative experiences in life enrich us (as a matter of fact, those are often the most valuable)—embrace adventure.
AWP: Your passion for cultures different from your own is extraordinary. What’s next?
EI: Who knows? The unpredictability is what makes it all such fun…
AWP: In your youth, what did you imagine your adult life would hold? What influenced this vision?
EI: I expected travel and embarking on new adventures. I was politically and socially engaged from a very young age, so I also imagined having more influence, political and other, but that part did not materialize.
AWP: Name the single book and movie, works of art and music, fashion or cuisine that has inspired you. Tell us why.
EI: It would make no sense for me to spell out a single book or movie, work of art, etc. What influences one as a teenager is different than later in life—there is an age-appropriate evolution. But all that input contributes to fashion one’s taste and beliefs. At this point in my life, I am fascinated by everything modern, even avant-garde; molecular cuisine, Schönberg in music, MoMA PS1. The old bores me.
AWP: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it?
EI: It is a book about the recent advancements in genetics, which are fascinating and I highly recommend it. It gives us laymen a glimpse into the potential changes to practically every aspect of our lives and society. And it opens a window to appreciate the great genius of the human mind—when it is put into good use—the ability to analyze itself.
AWP: Was being stylish important to you growing up? Is it now?
EI: I don’t remember it being that important to me growing up, but I may have forgotten. Style, dress, are important for me as a form of self-expression. I feel as if it’s a dress-up game where I can play different characters depending on my mood and stage in life. It is also a form of wearable art. Buying a dress or shoes is like collecting art—it’s collecting beauty.
AWP: How do you define style or fashion?
EI: Style or fashion is a form of presenting oneself to the outside world. Saying: “this is how I’d like you to see me and what I’d like you to think of me.” It’s a personal statement that we wear on ourselves and reveals more information, faster and often more honestly than words.
AWP: Tell me about your cooking and eating habits and traditions.
EI: My cooking habits are breaking with tradition. Or, rather, mixing up traditions, but in a respectful way to each of the components. I adore exploring new dishes and enjoy creative cooking where I am surprised by what appears on my plate and the texture in my mouth. I can pretty much eat anything.
AWP: What was your most memorable meal to date?
EI: My most memorable meal occurred in San Sebastian at one of the new molecular chefs’ restaurant. Nothing looked conventional and once the food reached my mouth it tasted quite different than expected. I was totally blown away. Another unforgettable experience occurred in a hot spring in Japan where the inn’s kitchen produced the most beautiful plates imaginable.
AWP: What is in your refrigerator right now?
EI: I basically keep at all times ingredients to cook Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Israeli, Russian, French meals and many more. I have some hummus, Lebanese green cracked wheat cooked with okra, Labaneh (Lebanese yogurt)—both in the form of balls and plain, Japanese eel, edamame, herring in oil and in cream, green beans in sesame oil, leftover steak, monk fish liver (ankimo), boudin noir, goose fat, Norwegian fish eggs’ spread, smoked salmon, salmon roe, wasabi, Italian pasta sauce, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, frozen vodka and pastis. I can go on and on—my fridge is always full to the brim.
ART OF LIVING
AWP: If you were at a dinner party, what question would you be asked?
EI: When I read this question to my husband he answered for me that, if in France, it would be: “would you like to sleep with me?” I certainly hope that I am still at a stage in my life that the question may come up from time to time—even if just theoretically.
AWP: Tell us something we don’t now about the cities you’ve lived in—their style, food, culture or travel.
EI: When visiting certain quartiers in Tokyo and seeing only men among the restaurant patrons, I am not sure people are aware that the wives are not “kept” at home behind closed doors. They usually would be reluctant to accompany their husbands on a business dinner because of their own preference to stay in the comfort of their home rather than bother entertaining business colleagues who rather bore them. The couple’s social life is so separate that when a woman or man is invited to a wedding (other than that of a family member) they often go alone, without their spouse. Coming from a Western culture, I found that rather surprising and difficult to adjust to.
For those who acquire their knowledge about Israel through the media, it may come as a surprise to find out that Tel Aviv is considered one of the Gay capitals of the world—the vibrant night life and liberal attitudes being a magnet to many. And on a recent visit, my daughter and I were astonished to find the ultra-religious suburbs teeming with activity, young people promenading on the street or sitting in cafés—at 2:00 a.m. One is hard-pressed to find an open café in the center of Paris at that time of the night. Those ultra-orthodox seem to have more active social lives than the socialites of New York. Again, beware of pre-conceived ideas.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, l’Américaine, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the myth of the unsophisticated and pathetically naïve American where book after book and article after article there is the lament of the hopeless quest of the American woman to resemble her French counterpart.
French women do get wrinkles, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the super French myth of the coquettish French nymph—her “je ne sais quoi”—in her ballerina shoes, hair effortlessly tied in a messy chignon blowing in the wind, large sunglasses over her naked, no make-up, nevertheless beautiful eyes, and she then continues to define how we are all measured by it.
Anti-service: The customer is always wrong, by Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans. We tend to hang onto myths and sterotypes: the Japaneses wife, the Jewish mother and the most humbling experience the French server, writes Eva. Her secret weapon to easily maneuver through French electronics stores, mobile phone operators, even municipality administrators is…
Vive La Femme: In defense of cross-cultural appreciation, by Kristin Wood finds Francophiles around the world divided about Paul Rudnick’s piece entitled “Vive La France” in the New Yorker magazine. As is often the case with satire, there is a layer of truth to the matter that is rather unsettling. Including comments from readers worldwide. (French)
The Veuve Barbe-Nicole Clicquot and other Widowed women entrepreneurs, by Philippa Campsie who tells about the fast track to business independence—or indeed, any kind of independence—two hundred years ago or so, for many women, seems to have been widowhood. The story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, better known as Veuve (Widow) Clicquot; a story that also happened to Louise Pommery, Lily Bollinger, and Mathilde Laurent-Perrier, and a few others.
Automobile road rallies in France: Women in the drivers seat (Camille du Gast Crespin, Michèle Mouton and Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, Moroccan desert), by Barbara Redmond who writes about the women who compete in a nine-day, off-road adventure in the sandy dunes of the Moroccan desert. And “Coeur des Gazelles,” the money generated from the race to help finance doctors providing medical care for people in the remote areas of Morocco.
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2012 Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.