The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Even in Paris, expats can’t escape former lives: A celebration of displaced novelist Corine Gantz

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Ever wanted to escape to Paris in the springtime? Today you can do so, as it were, in the company of the très très charmante Corine Gantz. Originally from the City of Light but now living near the City of Angels, Mme Gantz has just released her debut novel about a group of American women who try to start afresh in Paris. She has kindly agreed to respond to our questions and comments. 

The Displaced Nation has been examining the “gothic” side of expat life over the past couple of weeks. Thus it may seem odd that today we have chosen to celebrate a book that takes place in La Ville-Lumière (“The City of Light” or “The Illuminated City”) by an author who lives near the City of Angels.

Hidden in Paris coverBut looks can be deceiving — and the cover of Corine Gantz’s debut novel, Hidden in Paris, is quite a cunning ruse. It shows a Parisian balcony with French doors reflecting the Eiffel Tower, and a flower box bursting with hot-pink geraniums. What could possible be amiss within such a picture-perfect setting, you may wonder? Plenty, it turns out.

But before we get into that, let’s begin our fête in honor of Mme Gantz and her book. To put ourselves in the proper mood, we have prepared a special cocktail, a French 75. We’ve also gone all out with our canapés. There’s a savory gougère, brie en croûte, duck rillettes, chilled asparagus with mustard sauce, a Puy lentil salad — and, in honor of Mme Gantz, her family favorite, taramasalata on toast (see her father’s recipe below).

Okay, seats, please! Our honored guest has agreed to kick off the festivities by answering a few questions from The Displaced Nation team. After that, the floor is yours, dear reader.

Corine GantzYour new novel, Hidden in Paris, may not tell a gothic tale per se, but we think it relates to our theme because it centers on three women who are running away from their lives. Is that a fair assessment?
People who say they love to be scared amuse me. They have a fascination with horror flicks, they read vampire books, they ride roller coasters. Yet they might be the same people who walk great circles around a pile of bills or make every effort to avoid a difficult phone call. What can be scarier than real life?

I think there is a limit to what we can handle, and at some point the tendency is to want to run way, literally or figuratively. In Hidden in Paris three strangers — all American women — have reached the point of terminal discomfort, when tackling real issues feels more terrifying than running away abroad.

Lola is running away from her husband, Althea from an eating disorder, and Annie, although she pretends to be the most high functioning member of the group, is hiding the biggest secret of all. (Just to add some spice, there is also a male character, Lucas, who is hiding his love for Annie.)

People often fantasize that “elsewhere” — particularly Paris because of the attached notion of romance — will solve their problems, or at least make the problems go away for a while. Well, we long-term expats know better. Moving to another country brings great logistical changes to one’s life, which can distract you into thinking you’ve left your pathos behind, when, in fact, you’ve brought it along in your suitcase. Wherever you go, you bring your own personal gothic tale with you.

In the case of these three female characters, the disruptions to their routines, along with new encounters, bring them to the tipping point toward change.

The thing is, as in real life, my characters fight the change they need kicking and screaming, which makes for fun story telling.

Food is another obsession of ours at The Displaced Nation. We detect from reading an excerpt from Hidden in Paris that it also plays a big role in your book.
You detect correctly. For me, writing a novel is a barely disguised way for me to talk about food — the novel being a vehicle for food just as grilled toast is a vehicle for foie gras.

I grew up in France on my mother’s terrific cooking. But she is the type of cook who wants no help in the kitchen, so at age 23 I arrived in the United States never having cooked an egg. I was terribly homesick and depressed and needed to “taste home” again — so had no choice but to teach myself how to cook. The saving grace was that I had a copy of a recipe book filled with my mother’s recipes, so I proceeded to recreate the food, and jolly myself out of my depression. Cooking gave my life a purpose: it became my creative outlet.

I think the preparation of food can be extremely healing, meaningful and joyful. Food is, after all, the soul and spirit of a home. I enjoy cooking as much as I enjoy eating, and when I’m not doing one or the other I’m telling stories where food turns out to be one of the principal characters.

You are a Française who has been “displaced” to the Los Angeles area for a couple of decades, where you live with your American husband and two sons. Does your novel echo that experience?
Had I landed on an alien planet I doubt I would have been any more confused and out of place.  I understood none of the codes, none of the cultural references, of Los Angeles. I could not understand people or express myself — and I resented them for that.

Writing sprouted from this: the frustrated need for self-expression and communication. Like my protagonist, Annie, I had to figure out how to function, and I would be lying to say I functioned well. Also like Annie, I resisted my country of adoption for years. I did not have both feet in it. A part of me felt in limbo: I was standing by for my eventual return to my home country.

Twenty years later I don’t even feel French anymore, but no one here lets me forget I’m not American either. Americans seem fascinated with my Frenchness, as though it defines me. For example, it’s often about how I say things rather than what I say. Yesterday I was saying to a friend: “On the envelope my husband gave me for mother’s day there was a…” She interrupted and said: “Could you repeat that?” I repeated and she fell into peals of laughter: “I just love how you said the word ‘envelope’!”

In Hidden in Paris, I wanted to transpose my experience and reverse it. I wanted to bring American women to France and see how well they coped with that set of codes and cultural idiosyncrasies. That’s only fair, don’t you think? I’m a little miffed to report that they are a more adaptable than I was.

You have a popular blog, Hidden in France, where you’ve been entertaining Francophiles and others with stories of the writing life, décor, food, family, travel and all things French. In fact, The Displaced Nation has featured one of your posts — about the time you fell into your swimming pool when the first day of spring brought heavy rains to the LA area. Tell us, has your blog had an influence on your writing? Also, why have you chosen the trope “hidden in”?
The blog has everything to do with my writing. Before the blog, I was a closet writer, ashamed that my English was too imperfect. The blog gave me a sense of just how forgiving and supportive readers were. I have readers now, and I have fans! Had I based my self-worth as a writer on agent rejections, I would have changed my hobby to fly-fishing. Readers are what make someone a writer.

The word “hidden” is significant only in the sense that I was hiding for years behind an alias as a blogger, and I just recently came out as writer for the world to see (speaking of fear…).

When it came time to settle on a title for the book, it felt natural to give it the same title as the blog — but I decided against it because there was already a memoir by that name. So Hidden in France became Hidden in Paris.

Finally, The Displaced Nation supports a fictional character, Libby, who is about to move from London to Boston with her husband. Do you have any advice for her?
Well, how about if I let my own fictional character, Annie — who moved from Boston to Paris to follow her own husband twelve years ago — speak to Libby directly:

Don’t do it, Libby! Kidding! Well I would suggest you have more babies, some siblings for your son, Jack, and fast. They will keep you busy and busy is the name of the game: no time to think! And if you decide against having more babies, then take on a hobby (such as cooking and eating) to keep your sanity without demanding that your husband become your everything for companionship, friendship and intellectual stimulation.

Don’t be like me in other words. Don’t forget that the man has a job and he is tired at the end of the day and nobody needs a needy wife. (Sorry for the harsh words, Libby, but this is the truth.)

You could also take a run-down house and remodel it. I did. You will have no skin left on your fingers but lifting bags of concrete makes for pretty shapely biceps. The remodeling might bring you to financial ruin but if that becomes the case, you will always have eating, which you can become very good at.

Without further ado, let’s pour the champagne for a toast to Corine Gantz. Tchin-tchin! And now, patient reader, it’s your turn. Questions, please, for this très gentille debut novelist… If you want to check out her book a little more, go to her author’s site, and to buy it, go to her Amazon page.

Taramasalata on toast — Corine Gantz’s family recipe
You will need:

  • one packet of smoked cod roe (seriously, can you even find this in the US?)
  • 8 tablespoons safflower oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice.

Mix fish roe and lemon juice, then slowly beat with a fork and add the oil as you would do to make mayonnaise.Spread thinly on toasts and serve with very good champagne, et voilà! Très festif.

Images: Hidden in Paris cover, artwork by Robin Pickens; author’s photo.

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12 responses to “Even in Paris, expats can’t escape former lives: A celebration of displaced novelist Corine Gantz

  1. Corine Gantz May 14, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you for the interview! I have to laugh at the picture: Me, badly photoshopped into a Paris background by my 12 year old. I think I was at a Bar mitzvah that day and I liked myself in the photo (a rare feat.) There are about 20 friends surrounding me in the original picture. I hope they don’t see this and take offense:)

  2. larasterling May 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I can really identify with how difficult it is for Europeans to adapt to Los Angeles — and vice-versa. I am from L.A. originally. When I moved to Spain, at first it didn’t seem so different. There wasn’t the major culture shock of traveling to a country with such a different culture. Spain is part of Western Europe, part of the “First World” after all. I spoke the language…

    But, wow, once you try to fit into the country, living there… I am sure it would have been the same in any other part of Europe. There were many small nuances I didn’t understand, beginning with how people waited in line. In the U.S., people form a line. Simple enough. In Spain, you enter the post office, and ask, “Who’s last?” Someone sitting in a chair — nowhere near the end of the line — will say, “Me.” It’s understood that you’re after that person and then you just go and hang out wherever to wait. Okay, didn’t understand that at all, and I really infuriated some people at first. Even dining with other Europeans while in Spain– with Germans and the Brits… I had to learn to keep my voice down and not ask too many questions, in my very effusive So Cal American way. I came off as so “gauche” and “dumb American.” And, yes, no one ever let me forget I was American. I was often not called by my name, but was identified as “la americana.” It’s tough to try to fit into a foreign country. There are benefits as there are drawbacks…

    –Lara
    http://www.yourplotthickens.com

  3. Corine Gantz May 14, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Lara: Traveling is wonderful but it gives people the wrong idea about what it might be like to actually move to another country. As much as you love your country of adoption, it is jarring and difficult until you finally understand the nuances of interactions, and that takes years. But on the other hand you become special in a way that you were never before. In our country of birth, you and I are just women among so many. In our adopted countries, you’re ‘La Americana’ and I’m a ‘Real Life French Person’, here to confirm or crush people’s assumptions about French people . And while we try hard to fit in, they adore us for how exotic we are.

  4. ML Awanohara May 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Hi, Corine. Thank you again for agreeing to engage with us and for giving us the bonus of your family recipe for taramasalata on toast!

    I have a question, and I just now realized it’s the same one I posed to Shireen Jilla when we were featuring her debut novel, Exiled, on The Displaced Nation one week ago. I asked her, why do all the psychos tend to be women in your portrayal of expat life in Manhattan?

    And I just now realized that in Hidden in Paris, too, it’s the women (mostly) who are hiding things and hoping to escape deep-seated issues by starting again in a new place. Is that coincidence, do you think? Or are we women prone to such escapist fantasies? I haven’t read your novel yet (I hope to do so soon!), but perhaps the women are dreaming (if only at a subconscious level) they will meet a knight in shining armor who will “rescue” them from their former lives and problems?

  5. Corine Gantz May 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Finding a knight in shining armor is the last thing on my characters’ list of preoccupations. In fact two of them are actively running away from men. They are taking brave steps toward autonomy and self discovery minus a man. My characters go from a place of vulnerability and weakness to a place of strength, and it is only through hard work, change and the braving of fears that they end up saving themselves.
    Now of course my own fantasy was to give each of them the ‘right’ partner in life, but first I made sure they deserved that partner. They had to go through their own personal Heros’ Journey, like big girls!

    • ML Awanohara May 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      Well, I’m glad to hear that your characters aren’t suffering from the Cinderella fantasy. They are American women, after all! (Says the American with some pride…) You know, the more I hear about it, the more your book reminds me of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s classic work, The Enchanted April, which was also made into a wonderful film. Similar to you, Elizabeth Von Arnim (nee Mary Annette Beauchamp, nicknamed “May”) was displaced. She was born to an English family in Australia, spent her formative years in England, and then married a count twice her age and lived with him on his family estate in Pomerania, on the south shore of the Baltic Sea. (After he died, she moved to Switzerland and married Bertrand Russell’s brother. She ended her days in Charleston, South Carolina!)

      The Enchanted April centers on four Englishwomen who choose to displace themselves to a medieval castle in Portofino, Italy, in hopes of finding some solitude and having a pleasant holiday. But Von Arnim gives them more than that: they are reintroduced to their true natures and reacquainted with joy — the capacity for which sometimes disappears with adulthood, especially when you’re a woman burdened with the “caring for everyone” role.

      Do you know this book, and if so, was it an influence? And are there any other works of fiction that inspired you?

  6. Corine Gantz May 14, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    I love the movie enchanted April but I did not know it was an originally a book. I saw the movie when it came out (I just looked it up on IMDB and it was produced in 1992) so years before i began writing Hidden in Paris. If it did influence me it was unconscious. Maybe I was trying to recreate a certain ‘enchanting’ scenario. It’s interesting how the mind works. The house where the novel takes place felt like a complete creation until i visited a cousin at her place and discovered I had in fact visited her house many, many years ago, forgotten all about it, and then proceeded to recreate it in my novel.

    You make a great point. The responsibility of caring for everyone, emotionally and physically is so huge that all we women can do sometimes is dream of a break we will never get. But the fantasy is delicious in of itself. And yes, we forget about joy too, as we are so busy, and this is where fiction can fill a few voids and also remind us of important truths.

  7. K Allison May 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    Hi Corine
    So good to have you with us, and thank you for the recipe for taramasalata. It used to be a regular item in my English fridge, but I rarely see it in Connecticut. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, the main ingredient may be hard to find!

    I identify with so much of what you said. Yes, I’m one of those people reading Stephen King while avoiding the dark part of the basement where the fuse box is. And if only I had a dollar for every time someone’s asked me to repeat myself because they’ve been listening to my accent, not my words…

    Your advice to Libby was spot on, although I’m not sure how she will take the idea of more children. Between you and me, it’s a bone of contention for her and Oliver. Myself, I can’t wait to see how Oliver survives with only Libby as his companion at home, without his mother constantly adding her piece to their marriage. Libby will love it; I suspect Oliver will not.

    A question – I have a French friend who has lived in English speaking countries for about 15 years, and she says she sometimes forgets words in her native language. Have you experienced this, and if so, how does it make you feel? You say you don’t feel French any more, but would this bring home how ‘unFrench’ you were rather too forcefully?

    And finally …I had an Amazon gift certificate for Mother’s Day, and am so pleased to see ‘Hidden in Paris’ is available for the Kindle🙂

  8. Corine Gantz May 15, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    When I go to France I often feel like one of those people in SciFi films who get ‘frozen’, only to awaken 20 years later, dazed and confused. Who are those new faces in the news and pop culture? And worst of all, what in the world happened to the faces of famous actor and actresses I still picture 20 years younger? And what does that say about my own aging? Basically it’s the same with language. I am frozen in time. My French vocabulary stopped growing in 1988, so I struggle with the vocabulary of technology. How do you pronounce ipad in French, and how do you translate words such as internet, software, and all things invented after I left. So my French is peppered with English words pronounced ‘à L’ Américaine.’ My mother admonishes me for this, but I’m fortunate to have friends who are also long term French expatriates and we have created our little lingo and say funny things such as ‘Je vais te laisser savoir’ for ‘I will let you know’, for example, which is a literal translation that sounds very cryptic to French people. We love our American idioms, I guess, and can’t live without them.

    It was fun to play along for me too! I hope you enjoy reading Hidden in Paris.

  9. Veronique Martin-Place May 15, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Bonjour Corine,
    I must say I can’t wait to read your book. This is exactly the kind of I wish to read : the reverse of what I have experienced in a way (Expat american in Paris).

    I really find myself in what you say in your interview. I am always the French woman in Chicago: in the way I dress, in the way I do my food shopping (by foot and with a real basket), and of course in my cooking … even if I think I am rather well integrated in the US society (my children attend an American school, I have American friends).

    But I don’t really want to change it. I just take things from my host-country and keep what identifies me as a French. An example? Starbucks coffee and French baguette. The best! So it is true I will never be an American (and I don’t wish it), but in France I feel very different, too. I think this the same thing for all expats, wherever they come from.

    I also enjoyed a lot your advice to Libby. Being an expat spouse, I really like the fact that I can set my own goals. Being an expat can also be a chance in a life time to reorient your life (professionally, personally) because you are different in your host-country, because you don’t fit in. Being an expat is all about reinventing oneself and can be a wonderful experience and adventure.

    A bientot sur la toile,
    Veronique

  10. Corine Gantz May 15, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Salut Véronique, fellow French woman on a sabbatical from France🙂
    I think that if you have the soul of an adventurer it must be easier to be open minded about other countries and cultures. Because I’m only adventurous in my writing life, I was too busy feeling sorry for myself and comparing, comparing, always comparing. A whole lot of ‘expats’ have not really chosen to leave their country behind (I’m thinking of the wives and husbands who are forced into the situation) and those people often cannot work so they remain mostly confused and home sick after the short honeymoon period of discovery. It’s hard to truly make a life in a strange place. They need all the help they can get to make sense of things. For me, real integration did not start until I had children. Looking back on it I feel so blessed, so incredibly lucky that my life took me where it did, but I also feel lucky that I was guaranteed roots, which I crave. I would not have done well hopping from one country to another as you do (just from what I gather from your website.)

  11. Amber May 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    Salut Corine,

    I very much enjoyed reading this interview and would love to include your new novel to my library. I find it fascinating that you choose to focus your novel on the reverse expat experience to that of your own. Coincidently, I am an American woman (from California actually) living in Paris for the past 4 years. Although I arrived to complete a master’s program (which I put off for almost a decade), my true motivation was to settle with my french husband who I originally met while living in New York. When you say:

    “Had I landed on an alien planet I doubt I would have been any more confused and out of place.”

    Honestly, that statement speaks entirely to my own experience. Although our paths have been reversed, I feel that my “Americanness” defines me in this city. Interestingly enough, I actually find cuisine to add to a sense of marginalization, as opposed to a comfort, due to stereotypes here surrounding Americans lacking a sophisticated palate. I love french cuisine, as well as other offerings from various countries (including my own), but I find often new friends or acquaintances assume that, as an American, I consume hamburgers for 3 meals a day and, therefore, am unable to appreciate a nice foie gras on toasted bread with a glass of Sauternes (my husband’s favorite).

    However, despite all the frustrations and misunderstandings, I believe these are encounters all expats experience in one form or another when moving their lives outside their country of origin. Furthermore, I would not exchange this experience of living in Paris for any other. This beautiful city has given me insight far beyond any I would have imagined. As I mentioned before, it has only been 4 years and we do not yet have children – although we are expecting our first child in November. Therefore, I’m sure I have much more to learn both about my new home as well as myself.

    While I do have dreams of one day moving with my family to California, at the moment I’m relishing all the joys Paris has to offer and learning from the challenges. Again, I very much look forward to reading your book. I’m sure it will help to me to reflect on my own story.

    Merci bien !

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