When you come to Paris and you want a job, an apartment, or a date, the best place to look is FUSAC, which is available in print and online. After living in Paris for over ten years (and no longer in need of a job, apartment or date), I still pick up FUSAC every month to check out the gorgeous photos and book reviews. Today, I feel very lucky to interview Lisa Vanden Bos, one of the founders of the magazine. Like me, she spends time in Paris and Montana. Here, we talk about the challenges and rewards of working in France.
What brought you to Paris? What keeps you here?
I came for love… my not-yet-husband John had set up here, he was starting a business on a wing and a prayer or more literally a bicycle and friend’s computer, an idea he named FUSAC (France-USA Contacts originally). I stay because Paris is where we have our livelihood. In January 2012 FUSAC is celebrating 500 issues and 25 years! There are now 3 delivery vans and half a dozen computers. I’ve been in Paris all of my adult life. Not quite French, but no longer really American either.
What books are on your nightstand?
Ride with me Marriah Montana by Ivan Doig & I was a Dancer by Jacques d’Amboise.
How did you decide to start FUSAC?
John had been back and forth between Paris and the US for quite a number of years. While in Paris he taught English and sought odd jobs. Finding housing was always an issue too. Back then you either posted a note with those little tear-off fringe tabs that had your phone number at the boulangerie or on the pell-mell American Church or American Center bulletin boards. He always thought there could be a better system. In 1988 he read an article about a man who created a baseball magazine using a new technology called desktop publishing. DTP allowed the every man to be able to layout pages, something that was previously cost prohibitive for a start-up because it had to be done by typesetters at print shops. The idea of improving on the cluttered bulletin boards joined the new technology and so he created FUSAC. I joined him at issue 10 in January 1989.
What have been some of the challenges and rewards of FUSAC?
The challenges have always been people and rigidity in the French system. People, either clients or staff, come with all their baggage and do not always have the same focus and way of working as you do. For a while we had trouble finding staff that were competent. We had to teach them to use a keyboard and a fax. That of course is no longer an issue, but at the time it meant a lot of time spent training. The other two C’s of hiring people are Character and Chemistry. As young employers we weren’t so good at analysing these two points during interviews, but after more than 200 employees we’ve gotten better at it. The three C’s also apply to clients, not that you choose your clients, but you sure appreciate the one that have the 3 C’s.
The rigidity of the 3-6-9 leases in France and the French labor laws has always been hard to work with too. Neither gives a small business much flexibility to change personnel or location.
The rewards are the satisfaction of creating each new issue. A myriad of details goes into each one and some come together more easily than others, but in the long run each gives the satisfaction of producing a magazine that is very well liked and has helped a lot of people get by in Paris. When my mother meets someone while on a trip overseas, in a New Zealand sandwich shop for example, who knows FUSAC she and we are thrilled. FUSAC is very important in its niche and is still the go-to source for bilingual jobs and housing in this internet age. We’re a little bit famous as Mr & Mrs FUSAC! The feedback we’ve had over the years about the Speak Easy puzzle in each issue inspired us to create 2 books.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Speak Easy book of idiomatic expressions? Idioms and subtler points of the language are what really makes someone integrated rather than simply speaking French.
You’ve hit the nail on the head (pile dans le mille). Through FUSAC we have had years of contact with people wishing to become bilingual French-English. Becoming bilingual is a long road that requires attending classes to learn grammar, language structure and vocabulary, but even after years of classroom learning and having mastered these three pillars we are not still really bilingual. When I first came to Paris I had 4 years of high school French and 4 in college and I felt that even though I could conjugate my verbs I couldn’t have a flowing conversation. Language needs depth and color which come with idiomatic expressions. Because these expressions express what is familiar, they are central to everyday language. They are the cultural part of a language. Without knowledge of idiomatic expressions the speaker cannot become completely integrated. To help the FUSAC readers towards their bilingual goal we have published Speak Easy puzzles in each issue of the magazine. The purpose of these games is the translation and the transposition (because they don’t easily translate) of idiomatic expressions between French and English. The reader chooses the French word or expression to match the English equivalent. For example in English we say “don’t count your chickens before they are hatched” but in French the chicken is transformed into a bear. The French expression is “Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ourse avant de l’avoir tuée” (literally you should not sell the skin of the bear before having killed it). In English we say “It’s all Greek to me”, but in French the Chinese are the baffling ones (C’est du chinois). By playing the games we learn idiomatic expressions which allow us to integrate cultural references to our language in a playful way. The recently published Speak Easy Puzzles book is a second collection of 68 puzzles with themes to make remembering the expressions easier. The new book is richly illustrated with original watercolors. I can’t say I’ve mastered watercolor, but after starting from zero 3 years ago I’m quite tickled to have been able to produce the book – that was the goal. Now I can just paint for the fun of it (pour me distraire).
A personal favorite is the puzzle using dessert expressions which is illustrated with a slice of cherry pie. The French expression of “That takes the cake” is “C’est le pompon de la pomponnette” is fun to pronounce. The first book in 2007 sold out like hotcakes (s’est vendu comme des petits pains), we hope this one does too!
What is the best advice you have received?
The best advice was the three C’s of hiring people: Competency can be taught, but Character and Chemistry are part of personality and can’t be changed. If a person doesn’t gel with the boss or the group right away it won’t work.
What advice would you give to someone interested in starting their own business?
Start small. Don’t grow too quickly or spontaneously. For example don’t increase office space until you are absolutely on top of each other and sure that your business is moving forward to sustain paying the new rent for 3-6-9 years that you will be committed to.
Issues 500, 501, 502… learning pastels and hopefully more books perhaps on language, Paris and our favorite playground Yellowstone National Park. Hiking? History? We’ll see.