American-Parisian Elaine Sciolino has spent much of her career writing love letters to the City of Lights. An accomplished author and a former Paris Bureau chief for the New York Times, Elaine has spent many years chronicling French culture, life and politics for both French and American audiences. Her ability to translate concepts across cultures has earned her the chevalier of the Legion of Honor for fostering Franco-American friendship, and she is seen as a valuable American ally to France. On this episode of the #FrancoFiles Podcast, we listened to this master storyteller and true Francophile recount her tale of her time in Paris.
Andrea Fort 0:10
From the Embassy of France in United States, this is FrancoFiles, a podcast where we explore the unique relationship between France and the US. My name is Andrea and I will be your host. arriving with a suitcase of travels, stories, awards and journalism at its finest. We have the immense opportunity to host Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief and contributing writer for The New York Times, distinguished author of numerous bestsellers, and who we can officially consider as one of our top Francophiles of all time, we can attest to that, as Elaine is a recipient of the French Legion of Honor recognized in 2011, for her special contribution to the friendship between France and the United States. Elaine, thank you for coming on. As a guest on Francophiles, we're happy to have you, I'm going to be honest with you, I have a million questions, but we'll probably have to let you go. At some point.
Elaine Sciolino 1:11
I'm yours, Andrea, this is really fun here in Paris, where we're facing curfew in a short while, I'm delighted to be active and be invited on your shows.
Andrea Fort 1:22
Well, thank you Elaine. And I did want to start with your current location. So Paris, can you tell us about your connection to the city, then and and now?
Elaine Sciolino 1:32
I've been to Paris, living here twice. I came the first time in my 20s and lived here just for two years, but spent nine months of it in Iran because I ended up covering the Iranian Revolution thanks to the French and the fact that Ruhollah Khomeini arrived at Paris and went back with him. So on his plane, so I never really appreciated France. I came back to Paris in 2002 with my husband and my two daughters, and I've been here ever since.
Andrea Fort 2:02
So besides living in Paris now for what has been 20 years, do you have any Francophile origins? Do you consider yourself a Francophile?
Elaine Sciolino 2:11
Well, of course, I'm a Francophile, but I'm of 100% Sicilian descent. So I have that, oh, I do have a little bit of French blood in me because my mother's last name was lamere. And they changed it to marry to make it more Sicilian and Italian sounding because, you know, the Normans invaded Sicily, and the family probably up was originally French. So I guess I could say I'm an honorary French woman.
Andrea Fort 2:37
So are you are you now a French speaker or your Italian speaker as well?
Elaine Sciolino 2:41
Well, I speak both French and Italian you have to speak French if you're going to beat Paris purity for the New York Times, although I didn't really study French very much in school. But you know, when I arrived here as Paris spirit Chief, the week after I came, I had to interview president Chuck Schrock about the run up to the American led war in Iraq. So I had to be good enough to interview a French president.
Andrea Fort 3:06
Yeah, absolutely. And how long were you a Paris bureau chief for the New York Times?
Elaine Sciolino 3:11
I was bureau chief for six years. And then I became investigative correspondent and culture correspondent as well. And so I did everything from write stories about the first petite plot of spring to investigations of Iran's nuclear program and terrorism.
Andrea Fort 3:29
Okay, that's quite a range of topics, I'd say.
Elaine Sciolino 3:31
Well, you know, if you're a foreign correspondent, you have to be able to do everything. You have to be able to cover a terrorist attack by day and then wash up and go to a dinner with an ambassador at night.
Andrea Fort 3:43
Absolutely. So for the last 20 years, you've had a wide array of experiences and you know, professional rondae booze and what I want to know is, what are you doing today? What are you dedicating yourself to now?
Elaine Sciolino 3:57
Well, it's sort of a mix because we're in an artificial period here in Paris, the restaurants are closed, the cafes are closed, the museums are closed. So many of the normal daily pleasures of life are not available to us. But I live in the 9e arrondisement, which is somewhere between the Opéra and Montmartre, and I live right near the edge of the rue des martyrs, which is zone artisanale, and I have the most extraordinary food stores right at my doorstep. So the great pleasure of my daily life since I can't go to a museum and look at beautiful art and I cannot go to a cafe is to go out and talk to all of the food merchants and decide what am I going to have for dinner tonight?
Andrea Fort 4:46
That sounds like a really great adventure to have.
Elaine Sciolino 4:48
Yes. Well, last night we had also buco and tonight I'm just going to grill some salmon that I just got from after having a five minute conversation with the the fishmonger about what was The best fish of the day.
Andrea Fort 5:01
So besides discovering, you know, what's on the menu, you know, in France, what I want to know is also your experience as an American living in Paris?
Elaine Sciolino 5:11
Well, that's a question I've asked a lot. And I have to say, Andrea, even though I've lived here for, well, almost 20 years, I still feel very, very American. And if you say, what are my roots, I mean, my roots are my Italian roots. And I love to tell people that I am an e su limi, class, yo, that I am a product of immigration. I, I would never pretend to be be French, even though there's that wonderful quotation by a character in a 19th century play, in which the character says every man has two countries, his own and France, I love France, Paris feels like call and I, my husband, I have made it home. But I keep my Americaness here, as well.
Andrea Fort 6:02
And, you know, it's interesting to note that the books that you have written and well, being in Paris, the titles alone, they really speak to your intrigue and knowledge of the French society and the history, I mean, I can tell that you've spent time there, but you've also studied it on a profound level, you know, if I can, you know, read off your three titles, for example, your latest publication 2019, the Seine, the river that made Paris, then in 2015, the only street in Paris, life on the rue des martyrs, as you mentioned, and in 2012, la séduction: how the French play the game of life. So I wonder, you know, after this research and your ongoing study of the French Way, what have been the takeaways of this, this anthropological experience?
Elaine Sciolino 6:45
Well, the key for me came when I was writing my book, looking at France through the prism of seduction, and I realized that France is governed the good France because there's the bad France, there's bad things about France, too, but by by seduction, and what I mean by seduction is the partage, the sharing the ability to engage in a conversation, whether it's in the board room, or the bedroom, or the negotiating table, or over a meal, and it's the embrace of the process, and a willingness to listen. And when I say that engaging in the process, I mean, literally, if I go to the butcher, I have to be willing to stand behind the the old lady in front of me, who's discussing the two lamb chops that she's going to buy for dinner, and whether they're going to be sauté or grilled? And are they for tonight or tomorrow? And what kind of a cut does she want. And if I get impatient in the American way, I'm doomed. I'm lost, you know, I've had to learn to throw myself into the game of being embraced by the French and embracing every thing about the French Way. And that helped me with my last two books. Because once you learn to listen, and you learned that it's not all about the getting the job done and meeting the deadline, but it's enjoying the voyage along the way, that life becomes much more pleasurable, and it's something that I have taken with me into my, you know, into my professional life. I teach young, young people journalism often and, and I try to encourage them to just learn to step back and to enjoy the seductive process.
Andrea Fort 8:38
Absolutely. Imean, that's, that sounds like really important advice to give to a young journalist. What other kinds of things would you say about what the journalist like processes today and something that you would maybe advice? You know, we have a lot of digital interactions today. But you've been in the field for a very long time. Is there something that you would you would say about that?
Elaine Sciolino 9:00
Well, I became a journalist in the days when journalism was a profession where you could easily get a full time job with health insurance and a pension and some kind of job security. Now, I did start at Newsweek magazine, way back when I was had just turned 21, at a time when the women of Newsweek sued the magazine for discrimination and I actually benefited from that lawsuit and was catapulted into a job as a summer intern and then a correspondent in the Chicago bureau of Newsweek magazine and then catapulted A few years after that into being a foreign correspondent in Paris. That whole era is God, you know, that era of being able to work easily for a big news magazine or newspaper and have the kind of jobs clarity that we all want to have, or we want our children to have. So I tell young people, and I've told this to my two daughters have a dream and have a skill. You know, if you want to be a journalist, absolutely follow your dream. But don't necessarily assume that you will get a full time staff job someplace. So make sure you have a skill on the side, make sure your videographer or your swim coach or your tutor, or you, you know, you know how to skydive, whatever, but find a way to pay the bills, if you can't just live by your writing.
Andrea Fort 10:35
Yes, that's wise advice. And, you know, I did want to talk about also your skills in you know, you're you're a contributing writer, you've worked for the New York Times, you know, was writing books, something that you always wanted to do was, it may be a product of the research you would have been doing?
Elaine Sciolino 10:49
Like the first book I wrote was a book on Iraq. It was a quickie book on Iraq, that was written in five months with two children under the age of two, it was the stupidest thing I ever did in my entire life. I do not recommend that. So that was just something that I did. Because somebody called me up one day and said, Gee, do you want to write this book? My all my four other books, though, have all been works of passion. You know, I wrote a book on Iran, because I had spent on an off going to Iran for 20 years. And it was just something I felt I wanted to do. The last three books have been done, since I left the staff of the New York Times, you know, at one point, I transitioned out of working as a full time correspondent for The New York Times into becoming a contract writer for The New York Times and writing books. And that balance at this stage of my life has has worked for me.
Andrea Fort 11:41
And can you tell me a bit more about your your latest book, so the sun the river that made Paris?
Elaine Sciolino 11:46
Well, it's so funny, because all of a sudden, it's getting another life, it was published in late 2019. And it came out in paperback at Les Paul. And I was blessed because I was able to go on a two month book tour, and I went to 50 different events over two months and had a blast all over the country in person. And then, you know, the books done fine and everything. And now all of a sudden, because of confinement. There's this whole new interest in the book again, because people are longing to have Paris and France in their lives. And they can't come to Paris and France from the United States. And and so I bring the most romantic river in the world to them. And I've been doing some some events recently and, and giving some talks and it's really fun, because it is fun to talk about the romance of a river and and to share my wonderful experiences and discoveries with the you know, the cod poop lake with the American public. So I'm there you know, any book club, anybody who wants to invite me, I'm there I do a great slideshow and we have a lot of fun.
Andrea Fort 12:58
So I'm curious. Have people been calling you and lane in Paris? I mean, it's just so close to the to the actual title of the series. And should we be expecting a primetime Netflix series about your your life anytime soon?
Elaine Sciolino 13:12
Oh, that is so funny. You know, everybody was trashing Emily in Paris. I really thought it was a lot of fun, I must say. And you know, Emily in Paris in real life is the same age as my daughter's. I wish she ridiculous. Yeah, she was completely ridiculous. But some of it rang true because she had such a gumption. And you know, every day she was put down by her boss, who in real life, by the way, is a wonderful person Sylvie, the woman who plays Sylvie and I did a profile of her for the New York Times. But yeah, what I left to be made rich and famous with a series about me I think that would be absolutely fabulous. And it'll have to be though, you know, kind of like the Golden Girls kind of thing. And you know, older woman tries to project her seductive side but not in a cheesy way because she's just so much fun. And I want Maryland Meryl Streep to play me but she's going to have to be brunette, but she's already been brunette in heartburn when she played opposite Jack Nicholson and she already played an Italian in the Bridges of Madison County. So Meryl, yeah, I want I want to be made famous by you. Great, terrific.
Andrea Fort 14:20
So you've heard it Meryl Streep, if you're listening. This is your next assignment.
Elaine Sciolino 14:24
Yeah. And Darren Star, you know, who was the creator of Emily in Paris? You want to do we landed Paris? I'm here.
Andrea Fort 14:33
Well, I'll be looking forward to that. And you know, we're talking about Paris. But obviously, you know, you have the entire France that you've probably explored by now. What are your favorite topics to write about when you're traveling? What are your favorite spots?
Elaine Sciolino 14:46
I discovered along the way, that it was a lot more fun to write about food than it was to write about Iran's nuclear program or terrorism. And I come from a family of food decent way I learned how to cook by from my grandfather who used to cook in the basement of our house because the actual kitchen on the on the regular floor would, you didn't want to smell up the kit the real kitchen. So he had a second kitchen in the basement. And then my father was the owner of a small Italian food store in Niagara Falls. And I used to have to work there sometimes on weekends. And we never had that much money, but we ate very well. And I really learned a lot about food growing up. And so suddenly, along the way, I was offered to buy the New York Times for a couple of years, a one month column, a letter from Paris to write about anything I wanted, in terms of food. And I just had a blast and I went all over the country writing about everything from French meatball contests, to where to discover saffron growing in the south of France, to French caviar and French sturgeon raising too high to make sure you aren't. Take it for a ride when you buy truffles from the wrong person at the marchais on a Saturday morning, there was nothing that gave me more joy than writing a great story about food.
Andrea Fort 16:13
Yeah, that sounds absolutely delicious, tempting and fun to write about. Yeah, I can't imagine a better way to journey across France.
Elaine Sciolino 16:23
Well, and and if I may address it, sometimes your best ideas come from one unexpected story. And the idea to do the book had the route a buy tear came from a story I wrote for the New York Times about the drama on the street, when the streets main fish market closed. And it brought together everybody on the street, there was a petition to get another fish market in there. And the mayor of our rondi small went out to the coyotes, wholesale fish market at five o'clock in the morning to sweet talk the fish mongers and it it became a story for the New York Times that everybody in the neighborhood liked. And I thought you know what? I'm having so much fun with this, I'm going to turn it into a book.
Andrea Fort 17:14
And I want to know, you know, with with all these writings under your belt, I want to know what the definition of success means to you about your career because it is so rich, you know, for you, when is it that you felt that your career had taken off?
Elaine Sciolino 17:32
Well, you're asking two different questions. The definition of success is very personal. And I have learned along the way that basically success is having balance. And I could not imagine my life without having a husband and children. Because if I were just a crazed, 24 seven, news reporter, I would be a miserable human being. And that's what I tell young people as well is to somehow try to create lies for your yourselves that that have a rich balance. Now if I look at my career, and I say okay, was there a turning point where I felt, I have confronted or embrace the story of my life, it literally was getting on the plane in Paris with Ayatollah Khomeini. And flying on the Chartered Air France flight to Iran. When he made his revolution, there had been a plan by the Iranian Air Force to blow up the plane. There were 140 journalists on that plane, and we were his first hostages in a way and the plane landed safely. And suddenly there I was in Tehran, witnessing a revolution as it unfolded. You know, having studied the French Revolution in a doctoral program at NYU many, many years ago.
Andrea Fort 19:06
Yeah. And with Iran, I mean, what is your relationship to Iran now? Are you still covering? What are you doing today?
Elaine Sciolino 19:12
Several years ago, the New York Times started a wonderful program called times journeys, and I led six trips to Iran with American tourists, and I had a blast. And they had a blast, too, because I was giving lectures on these wonderful two week tours where we traveled all over the country. And I could share all of my experiences with Iran. What happened when the administration of Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord, which had been negotiated with the other members of the UN Security Council and Germany and the Iranians? Iran basically shut us down and it became impossible to continue this initiative and it's been very, very difficult for American journalists to get back into Iran. And so I haven't been to Iran for probably about three years. I'll go back, though. I mean, I look, you know, I've been arrested in Iran. I've been expelled from Iran. I was banned for 10 years. And I went back and now I'll go back.
Andrea Fort 20:19
No, you will. So, you know, and I wanted to also touch on your your award winning journey. Specifically, I would like to talk about the Legion, the Legion of Honor that you received from France, which is France's highest Order of Merit. What was that experience? Like? You know, what was experienced when you receive news about it? And at the ceremony? What do you think?
Elaine Sciolino 20:43
Well, I got a letter from the Quai d'Orsay saying, I had been given the I was going to be decorated chevalier of Legion of Honor. And I called her put it by friends. And I said, this is a joke, right? Somebody is playing a really, really mean joke on me. Well, it wasn't a joke. And so my friend, Gerard Araud, who retired as the French ambassador to Washington after he had been ambassador to the UN, as well said to me, Elaine, I will give you I will decorate you With you With the Legion of Honor. And you can have a big party at my fancy Park Avenue apartment in New York and invite 200 people. So I invited 192 people that was more than who came to my wedding. And we had, you know, the most extraordinary time I had a very beautiful dress that I actually had made by a seamstress in the neighborhood. And when she had her pins the battle on my dress, I said in my speech that this was like winning the Oscar and the Césars and the Pulitzer all wrapped into one. It doesn't get any better than that life.
Andrea Fort 21:52
And what about today? What are you doing with your genre? Now? What are you doing with your metal,
Elaine Sciolino 21:58
I have to tell you, just today I had an appointment with a curator at the loof and Chris, we didn't meet in the loop because the loop is closed. But I wore a blazer with my little latio donor red ribbon on it because I want to show, you know, I belong, you know, I belong to France. I'm an American, but I respect you. And you have honored me with this wonderful award. And I know that some people say it's kind of you know, goes to where your Legion of Honor medal, but I wear it with pride.
Andrea Fort 22:30
Oh, that's nice to hear. So we're talking about Paris, and I said something in your biography that really stuck out to me. So in 2019, you join the executive committee of Reporters Without Borders, which is an international agency in Paris, that's aimed to promote Freedom of Information and of the press. So what prompted your decision to join the Reporters Without Borders and in the executive community?
Elaine Sciolino 22:57
Well, I was honored that that I was asked to join one of their committees and then honored again, to be asked to join the Executive Committee, which is a small decision making committee, I did it because there comes a time in life where you need to give back. And I thought, this is a way that I can share my knowledge by experience, my travels in countries where I was put into difficulty as a journalist, and it's a French based organization. So I thought as an American, I can bring a different perspective. And so it enriches me much more than what I can contribute to that. I mean, I really get a lot out of doing this beneful this volunteer work.
Andrea Fort 23:42
And what do you think about your experience as a woman as well in the field?
Elaine Sciolino 23:48
Women journalists, on the whole are finally getting the respect that they deserve? I mean, even in extremely difficult countries, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, you see, women working as journalists, foreign correspondents, war correspondents. It's difficult. It's challenging, but it's extremely different from when I first started out in, in journalism, as a as a fact checker at Newsweek magazine where all the men had positions of being the writers and all the the women were there. Were there handmaidens.
Andrea Fort 24:28
And can I ask as well, you know, did you have role models? You know, as you were started off in journalism, did you do you have anybody you looked up to professionally?
Elaine Sciolino 24:38
It's interesting. You asked that question. I had one mentor, I'll say, when I was based in the Chicago bureau of Newsweek magazine, it was a guy was a man, and he had been a newspaper reporter. And he really believed in bringing along his reporters he never let us handed copy. That was bad. He also Always reviewed it. And in some of his life lessons, stay with me today. I mean, simple things like, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. Or in those days, you didn't get buy lights for from very much at Newsweek magazine. And he would say to you, your paycheck is your byline. And, you know, I just learned that the spirit of the team, and it's what I loved about youth week, and it's why I stayed with a newsmagazine before I went to the New York Times, which is very individualistic, and works much less. On the team basis, I loved the idea of working together and creating a great journalistic project through through synergy.
Andrea Fort 25:43
Because of the changes you've witnessed in journalism over time, I want to know what tools as a journalist would you have used today that you may not have had before? And then, you know, what methods do you wish could be brought back today?
Elaine Sciolino 25:59
Well, in terms of tools, I'm gonna sound like a giant dinosaur. But I grew up in the era where you had to use a telex to move your copy, that meant you either had to sweet talk the telecom operator in the fancy hotel you were staying in, and maybe bring him a gift, it was always a he, and have that person punched the tape that was then transmitted to the other side of the world. And if you were lucky, it would get there. Sometimes you were in places where you could not move your copy by telex, when I still remember when the fax machine came in, and suddenly we could send copy by by fax, if we could get a telephone line. This transformed our lives. But journalists today have it so easy in terms of communication. I mean, I've worked through everything from telex, fax machines, then couplers that you would use on your phone lines in strange countries, you know, everywhere from Ukraine to China to try to get your copy out satellite phones that weighed a ton. And you'd have to go to the roof of the hotel to try to, to get a satellite in transmit copy. You know, today, in most places you can, you can work with it with a cell phone, it is absolutely extraordinary how much easier it is to work as a journalist anywhere in the world. On the other hand, we have all gotten used to the fact that everyone in the world is a journalist. And we, we no longer just because you work for the New York Times or The Washington Post or an American network, it doesn't mean that you have any standing because any young person with a social media account can write just as good copy. And it's also led to a transformation in the way we get our news and what we consider news. I grew up in the era and was trained in the era where you never wrote your personal opinion in any of your copy. And now it's the opposite. One is encouraged through social media, to to do what I call be first journalism. And I hope that we can create some kind of a balance where we can tell our stories without always starting the story with the word AI.
Andrea Fort 28:23
Yes, well, thank you lane for this insightful conversation and speaking to us about your life, your achievements and your career. I'm looking forward to reading your latest book. And who knows maybe I'll be watching in Atlanta and Paris series played by Meryl Streep
Elaine Sciolino 28:40
Absolutely or what you know, Patti LuPone is really good. I mean, she's, she's Italian and she's great and, and she sings better than Meryl Streep. And we could also put it on the set you know, if we want to put it you know what a houseboat on the city can be elaina the said we've got all sorts of possibilities here. So I'm waiting Darren star, I'm waiting for your call.
Andrea Fort 29:00
Well thank you Elaine, it's been wonderful speaking with you. Thank you so much.
Elaine Sciolino 29:01
Anytime, I'm yours. Take care.
Andrea Fort 29:02
As always, thank you for listening to Francophiles. If you've enjoyed this episode, subscribe and review us and make sure to drop us a comment about what makes you a Francophile. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at Francophilespod and visit our website for more information. to indulge in more stories about French American culture, check out our partner cons Emery magazine. Stay tuned Francophiles, and until next time, à bientôt.