Edith de Belleville on Guiding, Paris Cafés and French Women in History

Edith de Belleville on Guiding, Paris Cafés and French Women in History

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Edith de Belleville at the Café le Vieux Belleville. Photo by Reg Crowder

Edith de Belleville was born and raised in Paris in the Belleville section of the city. She studied law at the Sorbonne University, where she earned a post-graduate degree in labor law; she has practiced law in Paris for more than 25 years. At 50 years of age she decided to go back to school to become a licensed tour guide so that she could share her passion for Paris with others. Now she divides her time between her law firm and the museums of Paris and the surrounding area. Edith is also the author of “Belles et Rebelles : à l’ombre des grandes Parisiennes.” She will be the guest speaker at Adrian Leeds’s Après Midi meet-up on November 12. She recently took the time to answer Janet Hulstrand’s questions about her life and work in this interview.

Janet: First, I’m curious about the path that took you from being a lawyer to being a licensed tour guide in Paris. When and why did you decide to make this career change?

Edith: It’s a long story. My husband was half Canadian and wanted to raise our two sons in Canada because he said there is more sport and nature in a Canadian education than in Paris. I could not agree more. (I love Canada!) But in Toronto I could not practice law. So I had the idea to become a French teacher, as studying French is compulsory in Canada. So at 40 years old I had my degree in teaching French as a second language. But we never ended up living in Toronto (which maybe was better because I could not imagine myself with high-heeled shoes in the Canadian snow!) But I wanted to use my new degree in Paris, so, eight years ago I created a meet-up group, La Vie Parisienne.

Belleville, Paris. Image credit: Flickr, Céline Harrand, public domain

My goal was to organize visits of the streets of Paris in English, to find foreign students for my French class. I found zero students, but I liked very much doing the guided visits. The members of my group encouraged me to do more visits. So this gave me the idea to get the degree to be a licensed tour guide. Et voilà!

Janet: How does one become a licensed tour guide in France? How much training is required?

Edith: To be a licensed tour guide you have to earn the license of professional guide in a French university. I did it in two years, taking evening classes at the Université of Marne La Vallée, as I was working as a lawyer during the  day. You are first selected according your profile: you need to speak two other languages fluently (for me it’s English and Spanish). Then you take the classes. I have to say, the classes were excellent. I learned a lot with this degree! French history, art history, the history of Paris, the history of French literature, geography, English, even theater and marketing. You also learn how to guide disabled people.

I thought my classmates would be only French students. But not at all. Seventy per cent of the students were foreigners from all over the world: Vietnam, Brazil, Russia, Estonia, Thailand, Italy, Ukraine, and Japan. I was really impressed by those students because it’s one thing to know French, but it’s another thing to learn by heart a poem by Clément Marot, a famous 16th century French poet, when you come from Thailand or Estonia! I was moved to realize how these foreigners loved and knew so much about French culture. As my history teacher said to us at our graduation, Now, you are the Ambassadors of Paris. And indeed, this is how I feel. I’m thinking of asking for a diplomatic passport from the French minister of foreign affairs.

Janet: When you have earned the title of licensed tour guide, what does it allow you to do?

Versailles, Paris. Image credit: Unsplash,tony_cm__

Edith: Article L221-1 of the French tourism code stipulates (I’m sorry to be a bit boring and technical about this, but I am also a lawyer after all…) that only licensed tour guides are authorized to do guided visits in museums and inside the historical monuments. The list of historical monuments is very long, but for example it includes the palace and gardens at Versailles, and Notre-Dame. I love Marie-Antoinette but before I was not able to do guided visits where she used to live, because I was not a licensed tour guide. But now I’m allowed to do my guided visit of le Petit Trianon and the hamlet of my favorite queen. My dream came true!

Janet: I’ve just started reading your book, “Belles et Rebelles: à l’ombre des grandes Parisiennes,” and I love it. What inspired you to write this book?

Edith: Thanks for loving my book! Again it’s a long story. When I created my meet-up group, I did mostly guided walks about inspirational French women. I believe that French women of the 21st century are the heiresses of great French women from the past. I think I’m one of the first guides in Paris to create guided walks in English about French women in history. Plus, I strongly believe that the myth of the French woman that sells so well in the U.S. has a historical and cultural basis.

You cannot understand why “French women don’t get fat, French women don’t sleep alone, French women have two lipsticks and a lover, French women are Madame Chic, French women don’t have face lifts…” (I am referring to real American book titles here) if you don’t know the story of inspirational French women from the past. French women are the daughters of the glamorous Coco Chanel but also of Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist. After I was doing the tours for a while, I met an Australian journalist, Ollia George, who works as producer at Radio France Internationale. She invited me to do a radio show about influential French women. And that gave me the idea for my book.

Chanel wearing a sailor’s jersey and trousers, 1928. Image credit: Wikipedia, public domain

But the more research I did about these great women, the more I wanted to learn how they did it. Which tools did they use to succeed in life? How did Josephine de Beauharnais assert herself with a husband (Napoléon) who was not exactly very feminist nor very nice. How do you seduce the most glorious king in the world for 14 years when you are surrounded by younger, slimmer, and sexier women who want to take your place? (That was Madame de Montespan with Louis XIV). How can you be the first international star if you are a skinny redhead, when the fashion is for plump, blonde women? (That was Sarah Bernhardt). My book explains how I see these great Parisiennes as my coaches, and they can be yours also. I’m like Joan of Arc, I hear their voices. When I have a problem in life, I call on them, and they give me the solution. I know this sounds a bit weird, but it’s true. Their stories help guide me.

Janet: How did you choose the women to feature in your book? And will there be an English-language edition?

Edith: I chose women I could identify with myself. They had to be rebels, they had to be Parisian, and they had to be glamorous. I hope there will be an English edition. A lot of people have asked about it. If anyone knows of an English-language publisher who would be interested, I hope they will contact me !

Janet: You did not include Simone de Beauvoir as one of the women featured in Belles et Rebelles: but you did a wonderful job of explaining who she was in a podcast I heard recently. What do you think people should know about Simone de Beauvoir and her work?

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre attended the ceremony of 6th Anniversary of Founding of Communist China in Beijing on 1 October 1955 in Tiananmen square. Image credit: Wikipedia, public domain

Edith: I didn’t include any women from the 20th century. It’s a chronological book, and it ends with la Belle Epoque. Maybe Simone de Beauvoir and Coco Chanel will be in another book. Simone de Beauvoir had a complex personality: she did a lot to emancipate French women with her book The Second Sex, which was published in 1949. But her life was not exactly a reflection of what she wrote.

Janet: I’ve also enjoyed the column you are writing for Save the Paris Café. Do you have a favorite café in Paris, and if so which one is it? 

Edith: Yes, I do. It is Le Select in Montparnasse. It has been there since 1927. It’s where Hemingway used to have his breakfast. A chapter in The Sun Also Rises takes place there. You can even still drink a sun also rises cocktail. I have a little obsession for the 1920s in Paris. And I confess…I fancy Hemingway, the good-looking American bad boy who is also literary.

Ernest Hemingway, July 1918, American Red Cross Hospital, Milan, Italy. Image credit: Wikipedia, public domain

Janet: What do you love most about Paris?

Edith: What I like about Paris is the history. Paris is a living history book. The name of a street you don’t know the history of, or a humble church can teach you new things every day. Living in Paris is like being the heroine of a novel: your life is more glamorous just by being in a gorgeous city like Paris. If your eyes are open, even buying a kilo of carrots in a street market can be an adventure.

Janet: Do you have a favorite thing to do, or place to be in Paris?

Edith: My favorite thing to do in Paris? Oh, that’s not easy to say, you know….just sitting in a café and doing nothing. Just watching the people, looking at the buildings, feeling the light, listening the city’s sounds and the conversation of my neighbors, engaging in small talk with the waiter to complain about something. (Like most Parisians, I like to complain.)

Janet: Do you have a favorite tour that you give?  

Edith: Any tour about one of my beautiful rebels is my favorite, of course. But there is another tour I like very much, and it’s new: it is about Jewish heritage in Paris. It’s a very special tour for me, and it took me time to be able to do it because in it I share the story of my family. (Both of my parents are survivors of the Shoah.) To be honest, I was reluctant to do it because I did not want in any way to commercialize my family’s grief. But my two sons said to me, Mummy if you don’t tell about it, who will?” I was also pretty sure that nobody would be interested, but I was wrong about that. And I’m very proud, because this year I was even invited to teach Jewish heritage in Paris at the university, for future licensed tour guides.

Paris’ cafe culture calls for a cafe on every corner. Image credit: Flickr, joanne clifford

Janet: Do you have a piece of advice for someone coming to Paris for the first time? What should they be sure to see or do? 

Edith: My first advice is don’t try to do too much. Paris is a like a woman: you can’t be seduced by this elegant, old-fashioned woman by doing too much the first time you meet her. Try having a cultural experience in the morning (you are in Paris, after all…) Then in the afternoon, just walk around the city, or sit in a café or a restaurant. Do like Charles Baudelaire, the poet who invented the concept of being a flâneur. He used to stroll around without a goal, just writing poems in his head about Paris.

Janet: What do you hope the people you take on guided tours in and around Paris will take back home with them when they leave? 

Edith: I always tell my clients to enjoy the present moment and not think too much about the future. To allow themselves the time for pleasure. We live in a modern world where we think we always have to do something, and we think we have to be super busy. I think it’s a mistake. You learn more about yourself when you allow yourself to have little simple pleasures, like eating a good chocolate, or having fun with your girlfriends at a café. Pleasure is an important concept in France: I hope visitors to Paris will bring this French art of living back home with them.

Edith de Belleville. Photo credit: Ted Belton

Janet: Do you have a favorite book about Paris? Maybe one in French, and one in English?

Edith: I liked very much Bohème by Dan Franck. It’s about the artists in the Roaring Twenties in Montparnasse (more of my little obsession for the 1920s in Paris). You can find it in English too.

Janet: I understand that you are now working on your next book, and that it is going to be a memoir. What is the story you will tell in this book?

Edith: The word memoir makes me think I’m 101 years old! But, yes. It’s about the life of a Parisian woman (me) who is a lawyer, a French teacher, a tour guide, a mother, and a writer. A woman who is in love, then in tears; who is first happy, then dumped, then lost, then happy again. But I don’t write only about myself. I also talk about my Parisian friends, acquaintances, boyfriends, and even some enemies, who are part of my Parisian life. People like Louis XIV, Voltaire, Marie-Antoinette, Bobby Brown, Marivaux, Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Hemingway, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, the man who wanted to be the next mayor of Paris, Marcel Proust, Bette Midler, Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Napoléon are all included. Not a bad list, don’t you think?

Find Edith’s book at a French bookstore or on Amazon below:

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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).

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