Interview: Terrance Gelenter – Bon Vivant, Par Hasard
..Author, tour guide, film buff, foodie, Terrance Gelenter has lead a life more colorful than most!
… from his unusual upbringing to his recent Parisian escapades, Terrence has collected his favorite anecdotes from a life well-lived into the book, ‘From Bagels to Brioches: Paris Par Hasard‘.
I sat down with the author to discuss his views, his experiences and, most importantly, his ‘vie française’.
Let’s start at the beginning. The book is about you, your life and your experiences. You moved around a lot as a child. Do you think all of this nomadic living set you up somehow to be an expat? To live a life abroad?
I think there’s no question that it has. Because if you go into the book, you see that I started out, literally in my mother’s womb in Casablanca, got into this small town outside of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, coal-mining country, and then, at the age of eight went to New York and suddenly became a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.
Yeah, I learned how to land on my feet at all times, and how to absorb what was going on around me, and to assimilate inter-culturally into the circumstances where I was living. So, in a sense, I don’t want to say I became a survivor, but a thriver. I was able to absorb and very quickly learn about that.
I think it also was a part of my professional career, as I went from the wholesale garment industry, into the wholesale jewelry industry, into the advertising business, into the Hispanic media business, where my facility with Spanish through my ex-wife came in. And I was constantly able to reinvent myself.
There’s no doubt in my mind that that went back to my roots.
What first compelled you to come to Paris, in particular?
My grandmother, actually. You’ve read the book, so she figures quite prominently.
To a certain degree. But it was 1974 when I came. I was 27 years old. I’d obviously read ‘A Moveable Feast’ and perhaps even more moving to me was a book by John Glassco called ‘Memoirs of Montparnasse’, which has recently be re-published, about his experiences as an 18 to19 year-old boy in Paris and which I find to be richer, more textured, more vital than Hemingway’s book, which is polished prose by a great writer. This has all of that youthful exuberance.
And so, at that point, I felt I had to come to Paris before I died. I was going to be 27, at that time. I had enough money in the bank to come and still be able to pay the rent when I went home.
And at the time, my sister was living in Israel where all of my mother’s family were, having left Morocco between ’59 and ’61, after France had relinquished the protectorate and given freedom to the Moroccans. It was not a comfortable place for Jews to live and they, along with about 200,000 others, left, many going to Israel.
So, I was there prior to coming to Paris. I had to have a new experience. And, I did. I did all the touristy things that we all do.
What did your grandmother tell you Paris was going to be like?
Well, she didn’t necessarily tell me what it was going to be like, but she and my grandfather had said to me, “Paris: most civilized place in the world. If I were you, I’d leave tomorrow.” And I was the favorite grandchild. They weren’t trying to get rid of me.
So, I think they understood. I think that it was very powerful for them. It was their first trip to Paris and they loved it and, having some understanding of me, and my intellectual interests, I think they knew intuitively that it would be a place that would work for me.
So, you found that they were right?
What was it that finally made you move here and make Paris your permanent home?
Well, at one level my friends got tired of hearing me tell them, “Gee, I wish I were in Paris,” and I got tired of complaining about it, as well.
But, it comes back to what I said when I was 27, only now I was 60. I didn’t want to die or turn 70 and say, “I wish I’d lived in Paris.” And in a very positive way, what it is, is I feel very much at home, chez moi, here, and a little bit étranger in America. Not that I can’t do America. I am an American. I don’t turn my back on America, but I think if you’re lucky enough in life to find a place that fits, that works….
I don’t have to edit myself. I can flirt with everyone here. It’s not a terrible thing to do. It doesn’t necessarily have any endgame to it. It’s just the pure joy and fun of doing it, and in America we’ve become very censorious. We can’t, we really can’t be ourselves and I find that, for me and my personality, this works. I’m celebrated here. I can be myself.
Do you think that’s the biggest difference between living in America and living here?
That’s one of the biggest differences. I think the French understand how to live in the moment, understand – the title of my book is “Par Hasard” – things happen serendipitously. You take that chance. It’s not necessarily a risk. It’s an opportunity.
You also meet people at a different level. You’re sitting at a café talking to someone, hopefully in French, that you’ve never met before and you may never see again, and you may talk about…. Somebody will walk by and she reminds you of Arletty in ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ from 1945, and your neighbor appreciates that comment, and now you have a half hour discussion of French movies, and that’s it. He never finds out what you do for a living, how much money you make, what real estate you own, I mean, all the indices that, sadly, in America have come to be the lynch points of every kind of conversation. Here, you actually engage people at that moment, and you may never see them again, but it’s a beautiful moment.
What are some of the larger challenges you face living here as an expat?
Outside of making a living?
For me, I have not really faced a lot of those kinds of hurdles. My language skills, although my girlfriend corrects me all the time because we don’t really have a reflexive “je me suis levé ce matin,” certain errors I make continually that I have to remind myself about. But my French is good enough and my vocabulary is rich enough and extensive enough that I can talk to people on virtually any subject. And since I’m passionate about the music, the film, the food, the culture, it’s very easy to…. (We are interrupted by one of Terrance’s friends.)
I think a lot of the challenges that a lot of people face don’t happen for me because I start with that linguistic connection and that very rich understanding of their culture, of their writers and I can have lots of conversations with people. I don’t have to worry about navigating a menu.
As you know, it is an issue dealing with telecommunications in this town because the word ‘customer service’ is oxymoronic, but apart from that the challenges are really, really minimal.
And I find that quotidian life is so rich and unexpected and lubricated that I get more smiles from people, children, adults. I don’t only flirt with women.
There’s something … Elaine Sciolino from the New York Times has a book coming out called “La Seduction,” and seduction in this country isn’t purely sexual. It’s the way a child will seduce you. The way a charming older woman will seduce you. The way that politicians will seduce other politicians, not in a Clintonian way, but in the sense of making people want to be a part of what you do.
You mentioned film. You have an obvious love of films, especially films set in Paris. How do you think those films have shaped your view of Paris?
Well, I think first of all, if you grew up in America when I did, film shapes everything you do. I don’t think any man in America has ever approached a woman without having seen a film to give him some guidelines.
Certainly my father’s generation, in the ’40s, when Paul Henreid lights the two cigarettes in ‘Now, Voyager’ and then sticks one in Bette Davis’ mouth, this was going on all over America at that time. Unfortunately, cigarettes are bad for you, but they’re a great prop for an actor and a great way to engage a woman in conversation.
So, I think that to begin with that we are influenced and shaped. We’re a culture that is very cinematic to begin with. And then when you look at Paris, it’s the physical beauty. You go back and look at a film like ‘Pépé le Moko‘ in the Casbah, dreaming of coming to France, as Jean Gabin begins to rattle off the names of the metro stops, ‘Blanche, Nouvelle, Bonne Nouvelle‘. The nostalgia is extraordinary.
You go back and watch the classic ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’. You see the Paris of the 1840s and the mime, the mimicry of Jean-Louis Barrault.
And the contemporary things. You look at ‘Breathless’, Godard’s film, where Jean Seberg is selling The Herald Tribune on the street and, within that film Jean-Paul Belmondo is emulating Humphrey Bogart, so there’s something about that. That was the, ‘50s here in Paris. That great sense of the first rebellion, the aftermath of the war, and the existentialists.
So, they’re ingrained. You know, the music that comes out of the film. Paris is magic. The imagery is magical and it sticks in our brain forever.
Your book is very expressive and you describe yourself as a natural performer…
As a natural performer?
Well, I guess that’s true. My ex-wife calls me “The Showman.”
How do the Parisians react to your joie de vivre?
Well, very favorably. It goes back to what I said before. I think they see me as quirky, in a very fun kind of way. In ways that we don’t do in America, so yeah it’s easy for me to engage them. I can talk to them about a lot of different things and the French love to talk. At times I wonder how they make babies, because they never shut up. They talk and talk and talk. Conversation is basically extended foreplay. I don’t think there’s anything they love better than talking.
What would you say to someone who was thinking about picking up and moving to Paris?
That’s a difficult question to answer because it really depends on the someone. I had begun, through my newsletter, to carve out some kind of a business model early on, so when I got here I wasn’t completely lost. If you’re here with an American company or a foreign company that brings you over, that’s the best way to go because at least you land, you’re comfortable, and you have stable income. It’s difficult if you don’t.
On the other hand, you take a calculated risk. Someone who didn’t speak French, who didn’t have necessarily a particularly marketable skill, who decided to come, it would be very difficult.
I would say, if it’s really burning inside of you, almost like an actor who has to be on the stage, then do it. If you’re young enough, you can fall on your face and go back, and it’s not a problem. Even if you’re my age, if it’s something you really feel you have to do, then do it. At some level, you’ll make it happen.
Thank you, Terrance. It was great speaking with you!
You can buy Terrance’s book right here in the My French Life boutique however if you would prefer a signed copy Terrance has generously offered to ship a signed copy of his book “Paris Par Hasard: From Bagels to Brioches” to anyone to whom the book is not readily available for 20€, all inclusive. For more information, contact Terrance Gelenter through his site, Paris Through Expatriate Eyes … And here is the link to enable you to view a video book reading and to listen to some fabulous interviews. Whilst you are there you will get to read numerous book reviews … here is a sample …
“Like Paris itself, this compact book is filled with secret streets and splendid boulevards, legend and lore, the present and the past, along with passionate talk at cafe tables, the breeze off a great river, the charm of bookstores, the majesty of galleries and museums, and, of course, the most important of all human emotions: delight. It’s like an evening with M. Gelenter himself, walking, dining, laughing, learning.“–Pete Hamill
“Fans and friends of Terrance will not be surprised (or maybe they will) at this breezy and charming memoir, and those who don’t know him will enjoy making a new friend.”–Diane Johnson, Le Divorce