Sandrine Pauwels

N: Could you please explain your story a little – how is it that you speak French, why do you live here and work here..? Perhaps to begin, where were you born?

S: I’m a Parisian. I come from Paris. I spent part of my childhood in Paris and part in Portugal also because my parents were expatriates for their work. So I came back to Paris, I left when I was three and came back when I was twelve and thereafter, I always lived in Paris. I did my studies in Paris. I worked in Paris.

I was trained as a documentalist. I worked at the commission of documents of the stock exchange. A bit like the ICC here. The organization that controls the stock exchange. So I married and had a husband and a son.

My husband had lived in the US and we started to export to the US a product of French decorations. We decided to move to the US to develop this business in fact.

I came to NC in 87 because I had a friend who lived here and I was a student so doing some travel.

When we decided where to go, we decided in the end on Raleigh. Yes, I live in Raleigh, not Durham. So yes, we arrived with our two young children.

N: When was this?

S: It was in June 1999.  It’s been a while now! And so we arrived, thinking we perhaps wouldn’t stay long, that perhaps not much happens here! And in the end, we’re still here! And so my husband developed his business. He imports to the US bench tops of enameled lava. It’s lava which comes from the volcanoes in France and it’s enameled with different colors. And then sold throughout the US. He’s responsible for the whole American market.

So me, I didn’t work, I looked after the children. Until the month of September last year, when I started to work for Helen Solterer at the Centre for Francophone studies here at Duke.

N: And in doing your work as a documentalist, were you at a library as well or more in the stock exchange?

S: No, not a library, really a centre of documentation for people doing research on the law of the bourse, research on society, it was our responsibility to create documents for lawyers, for people doing studies on society. It’s not open to the public, it’s really more integrated as a business.

T: What are the obstacles that you’ve encountered in American culture?

S: It’s complicated. In my experience, as a Frenchperson you have the impression that you know American culture. So when you say you’re going to live there, it’s not like saying that you’re going to live in India, China or Africa where you’d think “Oh! That’s completely different, I don’t know what I’m going into!”
But in fact, when you arrive, you realise you don’t know much at all.
And especially, I think, because we weren’t going to New York or a large well-known city. We arrived in the south of the US in a small city. Relative to Paris, it is very small, and things are very different in fact.
The way people function… At the beginning, going to the supermarket, was very different… So in fact, every day, you have the experience of saying “I thought I knew but in fact I don’t know.” And that, it’s very interesting in fact, it’s very interesting. You might think that it’s not very exotic coming to the US, not very different. But in fact it is, there are many things to learn.

N: And they’re perhaps things that you don’t hear about in the rest of the world?

S: Exactly, it’s daily life in fact. Also the relationships between people. Many things.

N: This is very linked to our studies, the francophone community in North Carolina… Is there much of a french community?

S: I can answer this well because in fact, it’s me that keeps the list of French in Raleigh and the Triangle. And also Carey because there are growing numbers in Carey. More Raleigh and Carey, not so much Durham and Chapel Hill.

I don’t know the exact figures but there are quite a few francophones. And numbers are growing. A lot of businesses that bring them in. The Canadian francophones as well, there are quite a few of them too. And they’re quite diverse in fact. All sorts of people, careers and ages. Quite a few came to work for IBM. And there are those who retire in North Carolina.

T: Do you think it was easier for your children?

S: Yes, my elder son was 5 and my daughter was 9 months old. He went to an American school and it was very easy for him in fact. He speaks very well English, much better than me!

N: So effectively, your children are quite American?!

S: It’s not that simple, not that simple! Because they’re really of double culture. We always speak French together. We never speak English together. Because all of us have French as our maternal language. However, it’s interesting, they speak English together, because that’s the language of their studies at school.

Also, we have TV5, I’ve tried a lot to maintain French in our family. And they speak French well.

N: Do they have French friends?

S: No. Well, yes, some. There is a small French community. There are some of the same age.

My daughter has one francophone friend with whom she’s very close.

My son, his very good friends, they left when they were about ten so he has far fewer francophone friends.

N: Do you still feel connected to the French working world? For example, with his business, your husband must have to do negotiations in France, have strong connections in France?

S: Yes, because though his business is independent, he must buy from France. he must have connections… he has to go over there, make visits, have meetings, so yes, the link is still quite strong.

T: Do your children take French classes at school?

S: So no, that’s a bit complicated. Do you know CNED? It’s a French organization under the Ministry of Education that proposes French classes as if you went to school in France but by correspondence… They’re for students who are sick and can no longer go to school or for gypsies, people who travel who can’t attend a fixed school. Or for expatriates who have no French school to attend. For my son, just for French, not maths or the other subjects, we did this until about sixth grade… And after, he could do no more… which I understand! For my daughter, we did it a little but I taught her to read and write myself in fact.

And in fact, the problem is that the level of my children is too high to take High School level French so in the end, I made a deal with my son for him to do AP French in his last year of school and in fact, he tricked me, he made up a story and never did it!

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