On Intercultural Communication, French War Brides and More: Interview with Author Hilary Kaiser

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On Intercultural Communication, French War Brides and More: Interview with Author Hilary Kaiser
Hilary Kaiser was born in New York, and raised in the San Francisco Bay area of California, but she has lived mainly in Paris for many years. As an associate professor at the University of Paris, she taught English, American civilization, and intercultural communication and management. Now retired, she is involved in storytelling, playwriting, and spending time with her grandchildren. She is the author of French War Brides: Mademoiselle & the American Soldier and WWII Voices: American GI’s and the French Women Who Married Them, and will be speaking on this topic at Adrian Leeds’ Après Midi meet up on January 9. Kaiser recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions in this exclusive interview for Bonjour Paris. When did you first come to Paris, what brought you here, and what made you stay? I first came to Paris in the early 60s with my parents and younger brother. My father was working for the Department of Commerce at the U.S. Embassy on a three-year assignment, and we lived in an apartment building belonging to the Embassy. Following graduation from the American School of Paris, I went off to study in New York and then in Dublin, Ireland, but my dream was to return to Paris on my own and not to live in an American “bubble.” I was able to do this in 1967-68, when I worked for a year in an advertising agency and shared an apartment with a French woman who didn’t speak any English. Returning to the U.S. in August 1968 aboard a student ship, the S.S. Aurelia, I met a French engineering student, a Fulbright scholar who was on his way to Pasadena to get a Master’s degree at Caltech. Since I was off to San Francisco to continue my studies, we decided to meet up again a few months later. The rest is history. We returned to Paris a year later, got married and had three sons, all of whom have dual French and American citizenship, just as I do. I was married for 28 years, but am now divorced. Two of my sons, their French wives, and my four Franco-American grandchildren, live in the Paris suburbs, so even though I go back regularly to the San Francisco Bay Area, my permanent home is in Paris. This is because I want to be near my grandchildren, who are still very young, and also because Paris has been my home, off and on, for more than 40 years.  You’ve recently published a new edition of your book, “French War Brides: Mademoiselle and the American Soldier.” How did you come to be interested in this topic? And what is the most interesting thing you learned in the course of researching and writing your book? When I first moved to Paris with my parents, our concierge told us a story about how she had had a relationship with a GI and had had a child by him. I later wrote a short story at college about that. Then in 1992 or so, I was collecting oral histories of U.S. veterans in France, many of whom were married to French women. This sparked my interest in the subject of war brides, and I later interviewed two of these women. My first real interview of a French war bride, though, was of the mother of an American friend living in Paris, who was visiting from Kentucky. There are several interesting things I learned while researching my book and doing the interviews. First, there were about as many French war brides of U.S. soldiers after WWI as after WWII, and the brides of WWI often paved the way to assimilation for their younger counterparts. Another interesting aspect of my book was learning about the difficulties the brides faced settling in America, and how their experiences were practically the mirror image of those of us who married Frenchmen and moved to France later on. You were on the faculty at the University of Paris, where you taught Intercultural Communication and Management, and your website describes you as, among other things, a cross-cultural trainer.  What does that mean, and what kind of work do you do in this regard? What does this area cover, and what was your academic area of expertise? Ironically, I have a BA in French from an American university and a Master’s and PhD in American studies from the University of Paris. I taught English and American civilization here in France, both at the secondary and college levels, before getting into the field of intercultural communication. I do not have a degree in the field, but I attended the Summer Institute of Intercultural Communication in Portland, Oregon, for two summers in a row and took part in many workshops and seminars on the subject, mostly through SIETAR. Because I was teaching French business students, my university was delighted when I suggested offering a course in intercultural communication and management: this was about 20 years ago, and the subject was new at the time. Nowadays, it’s taught in many master’s programs in French universities and business schools. I retired from teaching about 10 years ago, but I still work from time to time as an independent trainer for several relocation firms having corporate clients. As trainers, we provide cultural orientation, country and region-specific information, and coaching, to expatriate employees and their families. My particular field of expertise is living and working in both France and the U.S. What do you think is the most difficult thing for Americans to understand about the French, and for…

Lead photo credit : Place de la Concorde, with the American Embassy visible at the far left, in 1968. Photo: Roger W/ Flickr

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and she writes frequently on France for a variety of publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for the education abroad program of Queens College of the City University of New York; classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and Writing from the Heart workshop/retreats in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region (l’Aube).


  • Carole Marissael
    2019-08-23 00:41:55
    Carole Marissael
    My mom is very alert and healthy for her age of 98. She married my dad, a WW II soldier in 1945. Their story is so romantic. During the Liberation in Paris, my mom, was riding on her bicycle on the Champs-Élysée, next to an army truck of gorgeous American soldiers, when one of those soldiers, called out to her in French to hang onto the truck to go take a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. Although quite dangerous, my mom hung onto the American truck, and now I have that photo of my mom in front of the Eiffel Tower in the middle of a bunch of American soldiers. All the soldiers gave my mom chocolates and soaps, and all wanted a kiss, but only my dad got a kiss. Then a beautiful romance began. The rest of the incredible story is pure romance. After my parents married in Paris, my mom came to the US pregnant of me on a war bride ship, and then to Hollywood. That is when the cultural shock began. I am sure my parents story would make a great novel or movie. My cellphone is 562-230-0595, if the rest of this story may be of interest. Et grâce à ma mère, je parle toujours bien le français.


  • Hilary Kaiser
    2018-01-08 13:39:25
    Hilary Kaiser
    Thank you for your very personal comment, Elizabeth. About half of my sample divorced, but most of them stayed on in the U.S. for various reasons. They made new lives for themselves, often remarrying, going back to school or getting jobs, such as teaching French. It's too bad I didn't interview your mother!


  • Elizabeth Owen
    2018-01-05 11:30:51
    Elizabeth Owen
    Very interesting interview! I will definitely get Hilary's books as my mother was a French WWII bride. She did well in marrying an American officer who later became a general. However, many Frenchwomen who came to the US with their GI husbands did not fare as well. They were frequently rejected by the husband's family and many ended up being divorced and some returned to France.