Interview: Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan – from Lille to the USA
Welcome to the ‘MyFrenchLife™ Member Interview Series’ – interviews with savvy Francophiles from all around the world capturing their passion secrets and tips, all about their favourite places in France, from Paris to Provence.
- As you read these interviews you’ll become immersed in the individual member’s ‘French Life’.
- Learn why France is so special in their eyes & how they came to be so passionate about France.
- Discover so much more about France in the process and
- also you’ll personally benefit from the tips & discoveries these savvy Francophile frequent travellers generously share.
Introducing Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan
France is in my DNA, and I love Her dearly – so yes, there is such a thing as a born Francophile!
“No expat is ever complete.
It is my deepest regret never to have truly lived in France as an adult. Not knowing what that would be like – although I kind of know about it through my French friends and family members who live there.
I was born in northern France, in the suburbs of Lille, where I lived until 1975 when I married an American – then a high school French teacher – whom I had met during a year in the USA in 1973-74.
At 23, I was quite young and starting a new life in a foreign country proved to be one of the most difficult things that I have ever done in my entire life. At the time, travel to, and communication with France was costly, and keeping abreast of things happening in my native country was rather difficult, and that was painful. I was homesick.
Still, I adjusted to life in the USA, completed a bachelor’s degree in political science, and had a career in business for some fourteen years, but I had always aspired to be a teacher. My husband got a job that led us to move to Pittsburgh with our daughter, who was then three years old. It is then that I decided to get a doctoral degree in French literature. By then, e-mail was already allowing me to keep in touch with my French brother (my mother refused to learn how to use a computer), and soon the internet made it much easier to remain connected with all things French.
After 2003, when my teaching position at a State University in Western Pennsylvania became secure, I was finally able to return to France every spring or summer. Of course, the main purpose was first and foremost to visit my family – but I would always make sure to include a brief stay in Paris during each of those stays in France.
I also felt very privileged to take my students to France on three occasions, and it was wonderful to witness their discovery of its beauty.
During the first one of those trips, I saw more of France than I had seen in my entire life! In May-June 2014, I directed the University of Pittsburgh six-week Summer Study Abroad Program in Nantes, and did it again every spring until last year.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 led to the cancellation of this program in 2020.
There is nothing better for me that opening young minds to France’s rich cultural heritage, and to all things French.
Let me begin with Paris
My Godmother, who was my mother’s cousin, was raised in Paris – more specifically on the Ile Saint-Louis. A most interesting lady, for sure. One of her best childhood friends was Odette Joyeux, a famous French actress (married for some ten years to actor Pierre Brasseur, and the mother of actor Claude Brasseur – whose own Godfather was no other than Ernest Hemingway!), so you can imagine the stories she had to tell!
By the time I was a young child, she had moved to the suburbs but still worked in the city. I remember visiting her with my parents and my brother when I was no older than six or seven years old – my most vivid memory of those trips to Paris was definitely the Métro, which I loved riding.
This is when it was still on steel wheels and really clanky.
When my brother and I were in our mid-teens and had a week’s vacation, we were allowed to go and spend a few days at my Godmother’s place.
What a treat it was to be so grown-up that we could take the train from Lille to Paris by ourselves!
My Godmother, who most likely never finished secondary school, was incredibly erudite and a great art lover. Since she was at work during the day, she would discuss with us our itinerary for the next day at dinner time. If we were going to go to the Louvre, she would ask us “what section of the museum will you go and see?” And, let’s say, if she gently led us to pick “17th and 18th-century paintings,” then she would take out a huge artbook and show us works that we would be seeing. Then, each evening, she would debrief our visit, asking us what we had seen, and what we thought about those works of art.
To this day, I still owe a lot of my knowledge and love of great art to her!
My brother, who loved science, would drag me to the Palais de la Découverte. Even though I was not overly fond of science, I was still fascinated by what I saw there. When my Godmother was not at work, she would take us to places – I was absolutely amazed by her incredible knowledge of the Paris Métro system! She led us on long walks – pointing out important places, such as the Bateau Lavoir, giving us a little history lesson in the process. I remember how she hated the Pompidou Center – “an abomination of modern architecture in Le Marais, such a historical district!”
My love of Paris is steeped in nostalgia
My first husband and I spent a few days in Paris after we were married. We were on a tight budget, but still had a great time, and explored the Père Lachaise cemetery in depth. When we returned to Paris, in 1984, this time things were not as tight financially, and we enjoyed ourselves a great deal. We even had a private tour of the Musée de la Mode et du Costume, and went to a play at the Théâtre du Rond-Point, where we saw the legendary Jean-Louis Barrault perform in a play by Victor Hugo.
After the play, we ate at the theater’s restaurant, and seated nearby were Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, which was just fantastic!
Each spring/summer when back in Paris, I always stayed in or close to the Latin Quarter – at first I was always careful not to spend too much money, so I ate a lot of jambon-beurre or pâté sandwiches!
My favorite activities were to just indulge in my inner flâneuse and stroll the streets, visit bookstores, and nurse a beer at an outdoor café while people-watching.
In 2011 and 2012, I rented an apartment on rue Mouffetard which used to be one of my Godmother’s favorite streets in Paris.
At times, I met my brother and his wife in Paris. They are very fond of going on guided tours. Tours are not really my cup of tea but, with them, I have enjoyed a few wonderful tours of areas that I would never have been able to discover on my own.
Overall, I have been to Paris more times than I can count. Still, I have yet to explore quite a few places.
Do I have a French persona?
I truly believe that any person who ends up becoming bilingual and bicultural has a bit of a split personality.
There is no way that I am the same person when I am in the United States or in France.
I once kept a blog in which I once wrote an entry in which I formulated the theory that my French linguistic and mental maturity levels were forever stuck at my age when I left France for good. Of course, that is most likely not true, but I am not as confident dealing with French adults as I am dealing with American ones – although I do quite well with my French relatives and friends. This is not so much a language issue as a cultural one: Having lived in the USA for the past 45 years of my life, I am more ‘American’ than ‘French’.
In France, I feel more relaxed than in the USA, but this may be because I am on vacation when I am there (except, of course, when I am directing the Study Abroad Program in Nantes.)
The French tend to value their leisure/private time much more than Americans do and, to them, eating is not only an art but a social event.
I love being able to joke in French with my relatives and friends, and it is wonderful that I can share with them some cultural references that I just cannot share with Americans who are close to me, even my own husband. I do not think that it is very difficult to become close to French people – true, some have a shell that is tough to crack, but I have made a couple of excellent friends in Nantes, with no problem at all.
Let’s talk more about what I love in Paris
There are a few things that I like to do when I am in Paris:
- I love going to museums. Orsay remains one of my favorites. I keep track of special exhibits that are on when I am there, at Orsay, the Louvre, or the Musée du Luxembourg. Another favorite is the Musée Gustave Moreau, a small gem in the 9th arrondissement. I discovered Moreau when I read “À Rebours” (“Against Nature”) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, the late 19th-century novelist and art critic about whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation. I can only urge everyone to visit this museum!
- Cemeteries are special to me, and my favorite is not Père Lachaise, but the Montparnasse cemetery, because my aunt is buried there, but also Huysmans, Baudelaire, Sartre and Beauvoir, Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, and many others. If visiting Père Lachaise you need to take a guided tour to truly enjoy it, and Bertrand Beyern is my favorite guide (very knowledgeable and incredibly funny! His tours are only in French, though.)
- I always go to Sainte-Chapelle when in Paris. Its stained glass windows never cease to take my breath away!
- Open-air markets are wonderful!
- I love the covered passages, but I strongly advise taking a guided tour of those, because some are a bit tough to find.
- Finally – Versailles; but not just Versailles. More specifically, Marie-Antoinette’s farm. This site is tied to another memory: I spent a whole Sunday afternoon there with my parents and my Godmother, whom we had visited for my 16th birthday. I fell in love with the place, and have returned there a few times, including a few years ago, when I went there on a guided tour led by an old secondary school friend who has been a Paris tour guide for close to 45 years.
- And yes, Monoprix. For food items, or for clothing or other items.
A few of my favorite areas of Paris:
I definitely prefer the Latin Quarter, because it is so lively and, well, I love its many bookstores. The Luxembourg Garden is a lovely place to stroll in, or where to sit and read a book. I have stayed in that area many times when I was in Paris.
I also love the Canal Saint-Martin area.
Recently, I have stayed a few times at the Résidence Capitaine Paoli in the 10th arrondissement, which is not far from the Canal. This hotel is nothing special, but it is wonderful, very clean, reasonably priced, and its staff is wonderful. Each room I have had there has been spacious, as was its adjoining bathroom.
The immediate neighborhood in which this hotel is located is a bit ‘funky’ – maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is also close to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and La Villette.
Favorite walks in Paris:
- I love walking along the Canal Saint-Martin, up to La Villette. Not a very long walk, but very nice.
- La Coulée Verte, of course, which you enter near Opéra Bastille, and it will take you to the Bois de Vincennes.
- I often take students on a walk that takes us from Notre-Dame to the Paris City Hall, then down to the rue de Rivoli to the entrance to the Sully Hôtel and Place des Vosges.
I also like showing them the Opéra Garnier and then take them to the Galleries Lafayette and the Printemps Haussmann to admire their amazing stained glass cupolas.
3 significant French cities in my life
Lille is the most significant as it is my hometown.
Northern France is often ignored by American tourists, and unappreciated by most French folks who do not know the region – watch the French comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis to get an idea of what I am talking about.
Lille’s old Flemish architecture is just stunning, and the old part of the city has been wonderfully restored.
Lille is a vibrant city with a very rich cultural life – its art museum is deemed the best one outside of Paris. The Musée de la Piscine – located in what used to be an indoor swimming pool in nearby Roubaix is just stunning.
Local restaurants offer a variety of regional dishes – from moules-frites to carbonades flamandes and potjevleesch (a jellied meat pot)
Annecy in the Alps, has also significant in my life.
My uncle was the catholic bishop of that city from 1962 to 1983 and had a modest ‘country residence’ in a small hamlet located above Talloires, a posh resort on the Annecy lake.
My family spent a month in that house every summer from 1964 to 1970.
To me, Annecy is paradise on earth and also a place steeped in nostalgia. Downtown Annecy is quaint and plain lovely, with the Thiou river flowing through its center, bestowing onto the city the moniker of ‘Venice of the Alps’ – in the summer, there are flowers everywhere.
I used to love going to its big outdoor market once a week with my parents or having cheese fondue at a local restaurant.
Once a week, we also went on a road trip – be it to Chamonix or the Bourget Lake – the cleanest in France. We’d always have lavish picnics on those excursions – at the time my father was a chef, and we’d eat like royalty on the side of the road!
There is a bit of everything for everybody in Annecy: water sports in the lake, hiking in the mountains, or just, heck, walking in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau!
The third is Nantes, where, for the past six years, I have directed a six-week summer study abroad for the University of Pittsburgh.
I had never visited Nantes before May 2014, and I immediately fell in love with the city and its people.
It is a fairly large city (the sixth largest one in France, with more than 300,000 inhabitants), but cozy enough so that you feel at home within just a few days.
Nantes is a very historical city, strongly tied to Brittany, although it is not part of that French province, which quite a few of its citizens find quite unfair. It’s Château des Ducs de Bretagne is a wonderful site and museum, and les Machines de l’île is the home of the famous grand éléphant –as well as of other amazing large mechanical moving creatures.
In Nantes, I made a few wonderful friends, whom I am always eager to see every spring! (Unfortunately, not in 2020…).
Favorite places to eat
Tough to say, because I never really eat at well-known restaurants.
- However, I should mention Le Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon, because of its lavish art nouveau décor. The food is also delicious. I had lunch there with a friend only once, but it sure was memorable.
- The restaurant Polidor in the 6th arrondissement is also a legendary place, where I have eaten twice. It opened in 1845, and was actually featured in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” The food, typical of a good French brasserie fare, is excellent, and you’ll probably sit at a long table with a checkered tablecloth.
- Le Bouillon Racine is also a place with an amazing art nouveau décor. The “bouillon” is the ancestor of the brasserie; bouillons were simple, cheap restaurants at the turn of the century. I have never eaten, but I have had a drink with a friend there. I definitely want to try this place next time I am in Paris.
I have a few favorite places in Lille:
Le Jardin du cloître, the restaurant of the Couvent des Minimes hotel. Because it is located in a 17th-century convent, it is definitely a magnificent place. The food is quite wonderful. Address: 17, quai du Wault, Lille
Le Barbier qui fume, in the historic Vieux-Lille. A small, rustic restaurant, specializing in wood-smoked meat. A beautiful place, that serves exquisite food – if you like charcuterie and meat, that is. Address: 69, rue de la Monnaie, Lille – watch out, there is another location, not nearly as cool as this one!)
You do not want to miss having tea, lunch, or dinner at the magnificent restaurant La Cigale. Classified a historical monument, it features a superb Art Nouveau décor. It is a wonderful brasserie that serves great food!
My best purchases ever…
I would say that my best purchases have been four food-related prints that we got framed and that now hang in our dining room.
– I bought two at a bouquiniste shop along the Seine in Paris.
– Another one, I purchased at the Tour Saint-Jean museum (Le Vin au Moyen Âge), and
– the fourth was bought at the Louvre, it is the poster of a 2017 special Vermeer exhibition, featuring The Milkmaid.
Friends have provided my best memories
My most memorable experiences in Paris/France are pretty much all connected with friends.
- Back in 2009 or so, I reconnected with my old secondary school friend, Dominique, who is a Paris tour guide.
– We met for a drink, I do not remember where, but it was memorable.
– The next year, we met for lunch.
– The following year, her husband started to join us.
We have met for dinner every year, except in 2017, when my friend and her husband were out of town while I was there.
- I have a very good American friend who loves Paris, and actually now lives there for part of each year.
– We always get together when we are both in Paris, have a nice meal, go to an exhibit, stroll around the Luxembourg garden, and have a wonderful time.
– I also travelled with her to Beaune, in Burgundy.
– My sole purpose for going to Beaune was to see its famous Hospices. Of course, there were also great wines involved!
- In May 2015, an American friend visited me while I was in Nantes. She was able to accompany my student group and me on our excursion to Chenonceau and Amboise, and we spent a weekend on the beautiful île de Ré, where we took a long bike ride that we were sure would kill us! But we got to see the famous donkeys in striped pajama pants!
- I made a couple of good American friends through my blog around 2005.
– One of them is an American expat married to a Frenchman, who has been living in France for probably 30 years.
– The other one lived in France for 10 years, was married to a Frenchman, divorced, and returned to the U.S.
– In 2010 or so, we were able to have dinner together in Paris! It was awesome.
I have since seen each of those ladies again twice, but separately.
- In May 2016, a couple who are great friends of ours visited me when I was in Nantes.
– The husband was attending a conference there, but I got a chance to take them around the city.
– We also went on a little road trip to the Loire Valley, visiting the châteaux of Villandry, Chenonceau, and Chambord.
– We also stumbled into the yearly Vitiloire, the yearly festival of Loire Valley wines in Tours.
Other notable experiences
I would say that going to Giverny – and it took me years to do so – was a truly memorable experience. On a sunny June day in 2012, I went there alone and I was blown away by the beauty of the gardens and of Monet’s house (oh, that kitchen!!!).
A couple of unexpected surprises:
- I went to an exhibition on Dalida (the iconic singer) at the Palais Galliera (Musée de la Mode), which I realized was on because I had purchased an issue of ‘Pariscope’. It was phenomenal, and extremely well done – you could actually watch videoclips of Dalida’s appearances on French TV while standing next to the outfits she had worn on those shows. I even bought a poster for an American friend who is absolutely obsessed with Dalida!
- I had intended to go to some museum (I can’t recall which), but bought a Pariscope, and noticed that there was an exhibit on Aardman Animations at the Musée d’Art Ludique, a little known Paris museum. Now, this has nothing to do with French art. Aardman is the British company that created Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, produced the movie Chicken Run, etc. Being a big fan of their work, I dashed to that show, which was amazing, featuring an impressive number of their creations and models.
And, of course, I cannot forget going to see the July 14th fireworks at the Eiffel Tower in 2017. In spite of the endless wait to get through the security check, and the huge crowds, the display was beyond phenomenal and remains something that I will never forget. It did help that I had booked a room at a hotel located just a block from the Champ de Mars.
- Learn French, especially if you are planning on relocating to France. I am often floored to meet American expats who have lived in France for years and barely speak any French. I know that it is easier said than done, but it is very doable. There are a lot of opportunities to learn French, anywhere you may be.
- If you are in Paris for the first time (or even if you’ve been there before), buy a little map book ‘Paris Pratique par arrondissement‘ is one. It is very inexpensive, and I use mine all the time.
- When visiting Paris, purchase the latest issue of ‘Pariscope’ – which provides up-to-date information on museums, exhibits, plays, and movies, as well as on all guided tours available on any given week. It does not even cost one Euro.
- If you are going to travel by train quite a bit while in France, and are over 60 years old, you may want to consider purchasing a Carte Avantage Senior. It costs 49 € and pretty much pays for itself after a couple of trips.
- If you are an American, visiting the D-Day landing sites and the American cemetery in Normandy is an absolute must! You will be moved to tears.
And some final thoughts about the future
Even though my doctoral dissertation focused on the representation of temporality in the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans (it was published as a book titled ‘Beyond the Paradox of the Nostalgic Modernist: Temporality in the Works of J.-K.Huysmans‘), I devoted most of my later research on French popular culture and presented a number of papers at conferences on various topics related to French popular music, cinema, and literature.
For years, I have had the idea of working on a book on transatlantic expats – i.e. French folks who moved permanently or semi-permanently to the United States, and vice-versa American folks who moved to France. I need to find people who fit that description and would be willing to be interviewed by me for this project. The only issue is that I am not totally clear yet how this would unfold. I think that I need to find out if some themes would emerge from those interviews.
Another idea is to write a book on the representation of France (and the French) in memoirs of American expats who live in France. At this point in time, I am more inclined to proceed with this second project. I already own quite a few such memoirs. I just need to acquire many more!
Is returning to France a possibility… mmm
Finally, I never thought that I would ever consider returning to France to live there permanently. But I am so depressed by the current political climate in the USA that I have been increasingly contemplating that notion (the U.S. health care system also leaves a lot to be desired…).
Of course, I am well aware that the process would be very arduous. Also, I have not discussed this idea with my husband. He does love France but does not speak French at all, and I am not sure whether or not he would go along with moving to France permanently.”
Thank you, Elisabeth, I found it fascinating to find out more about your French ties and really appreciate your generous lists of tips and recommendations. You are an inspiration to many.
What is your ‘French life’ dream? Have you spent time in Lille, Nantes or Annecy? Do you have any tips to add to Elisabeth’s? Please join the conversation in the comments section below.
Image credits all Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan
And Elisabeth was a regular contributor to this magazine. Here you’ll find many really interesting articles.
You can read more MyFrenchLife member interviews of inspiring Francophiles:
1. Keith Van Sickle
2. Ray Johnstone
3. Henrie Richer
4. Janet Hulstrand
5. Virginia Jones
6. Gina Hunt
7. Jane S. Gabin
8. Susan Kiernan-Lewis
9. Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan – this one