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Alain & Elisabeth Bojarski: Bridging cultural differences to make America their home

April is asparagus month in France and, according to Alain Bojarksi, French cooks would never drown freshly cooked spears in ice water as is commonly done in the U.S. In fact, French families often have special dishware expressly for preparing asparagus. Alain should know—he hails from Argenteuil, a rural suburb of Paris well-known for its long history of growing asparagus.

Over the years, Alain and his wife, Elisabeth, have grappled with cultural contrasts between France and the U.S., whether selecting appropriate topics for dinner conversation, navigating local laws, estate planning and even the proper way to prepare asparagus. While some have been small differences, others have been quite significant, yet the couple has embraced these peculiarities and laugh freely about their moments difficiles since moving to the United States nearly 30 years ago.

Different upbringings

Alain was raised in Argenteuil, a lush green city along the banks of the Seine that is famously depicted in paintings by Monet, Renoir and other famous artists. He comes from a small family with just one brother. Elisabeth, one of seven siblings, was born in Cahors, an ancient town in southwestern France that is popular for its Roman ruins.

Despite dissimilar childhoods, Alain and Elisabeth were both excellent students and attended elite universities in Paris. All French students take a standardized exam for placement. “If you do well that day, and you are at the top of the list, you can choose where you want to go to college. If not, you might not have a choice,” Alain explained. He and Elisabeth both fared well, so Alain attended CentralSupélec and studied electrical engineering, while Elisabeth was across town at Hautes Etudes Commerciales where she studied business and finance. The two met by chance at choir rehearsal in Paris.

“We had a common friend, a Jesuit priest who started a new choir, much like the community choir in Carlisle,” explained Alain. “There were about 70 members, most of whom were recent college graduates. We met on a Monday night, and the following weekend the choir had a full weekend of rehearsals, so we had many chances to talk.”

As they got to know each other, Alain learned that Elisabeth had spent three months in the U.S. as part of a school trip. “I was very happy to have had that experience,” said Elisabeth. “We went to a number of cities and lived with families. For me it was a very big opening, something totally different.” Elisabeth was determined to go back to the U.S. someday.

Alain, too, wanted to go to the U.S. to pursue a Master’s Degree. “After just five days together we discovered we had this common interest, and knew we both wanted to come to the U.S.,” Alain said. “We wanted to discover the world,” Elisabeth continued. “We traveled to different places in France and abroad after we were married, but it was always in our minds to have this experience, this life.”

The Bojarskis were married in 1976. Alain worked in telecommunications as an engineer for seven years, and has four patents to his credit. Elisabeth worked in Paris at the same time as an economist for a large insurance company. It was Elisabeth who encouraged Alain to consider a career move, and with her support he took a new position with Schlumberger Ltd. in business development and marketing.

After just a few years, Alain became a general manager at Schlumberger, and when he was offered a two-year assignment in the U.S., he and Elisabeth jumped at the opportunity. The couple was about to turn 40 years old at the time, and now had three sons to consider, but it had always been their dream to live in the U.S., and this was the time to go. Alain says “When we came to the USA in 1992, I had a work visa sponsored by my employer but Elisabeth had only a resident visa. Then we applied for a Green Card and the whole family got it in 1997. This is when Elisabeth could start working in the US.”

Learning the ropes

Since Alain’s new company was headquartered in Billerica, the Bojarskis looked for a place to live with a quality school system, and decided to rent a home in Carlisle. Moving to the U.S. was initially isolating and frustrating for Elisabeth. “She always worked in France,” explained Alain, “but when we came here, she had no visa, so could not. It was a big transition.”

“The big problem when we arrived was that we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” said Elisabeth. “The laws were very different. Mentalities were completely different. First it was health insurance. People told me to be careful of health insurance in the U.S.. We didn’t understand that, because in France health care was automatic, everybody had the same coverage and payment was deducted from our salary. We had such a big choice to make and didn’t know what to pick. Something so easy was now very complicated.”

Retirement plans and life insurance proved to be equally confusing. “In France, money is taken from your check and invested for you, you have no choice,” said Alain. “The deduction depends on your salary and after you retire, you get a pension from the government. Here, when we were asked how much we wanted to put into a 401K and where did we want to invest it, we had no idea.”

“When we were shopping for life insurance, an agent came to our home,” Alain recalled. “We had lived here for five or six years but were still not U.S. citizens. The agent asked if we had a trust, and I said no. He then told me that if I passed away, the IRS would go after my estate because, as a foreigner, Elisabeth could go back to France without paying any taxes. We hired an estate lawyer right away.”

Settling the children into life in a foreign country

While Alain and Elisabeth were resolute in their desire to move to the U.S., their sons were not. At ages 14, ten and six, the boys were entrenched in the French education system. “We have been tough parents,” said Elisabeth. We told them, ‘OK, it’s either stay here or follow our dream.’ We knew it would be difficult, but we thought they may gain something by doing it. We had to do what we wanted to do.”

Olivier, the oldest son, had learned some English in school but took accelerated classes before the family moved overseas. Florent, only ten, had no English training so his transition was more difficult. “Our little one [Emeric] was six, so for him there were fewer problems,” Elisabeth recalled.

Since Alain’s position was temporary, the couple decided to send the boys to American schools, but continue French schooling after hours. Olivier went to CCHS and the younger boys to the Carlisle Public School.

“School in France is completely different,” explained Elisabeth. “If you go to the U.S., you have to continue to follow the French curriculum or students will have no equivalent when they come back.” French school was taught remotely by mail, where the boys received lessons weekly, then mailed back their work to be reviewed by professors in France. Alain and Elisabeth assumed roles as teachers, Alain helping with math and science while Elisabeth tutored in French and world history. “When you have to teach your own kids, relationships can be a little difficult,” Elisabeth laughed. “I taught business school before we left France, but this was very different.

Unexpected changes

After two years in Carlisle, instead of returning to France, Alain was transferred to Atlanta. “Our kids loved Atlanta,” said Alain. “We were not doing the French school anymore, and the boys got involved with sports teams. We decided then that we loved the States and wanted to stay in the U.S.”

Olivier applied and was accepted to Georgia Tech early, at age 16. Elisabeth recalled that the couple was not prepared for the American college admissions process, or for the hefty price tag. “A big problem was the cost of the university, because we never planned for that,” explained Elisabeth. “In France, college is free, and these amounts were huge.” Alain added that the process felt much more cumbersome than the French testing system, with so many applications, transcripts and letters of recommendations to manage.

After four years in Atlanta, Alain was faced with another move when the company transferred him to Silicon Valley. Coincidentally, Schlumberger bought a company in Concord at the same time, so asked Alain to come back to New England instead. “After we spent a number of weeks convincing the boys to move to California, one day I came home and said, ‘yes we are moving, but how about moving back to Carlisle?’”

Managing different approaches to teaching

Over the years, Elisabeth had the opportunity to teach in France and the U.S. She recalled that when meeting with parents, she always started with positive comments, then talked about how a student might improve. “Even an A+ student has room to improve—it leads to progress if you can compete with yourself.”

Alain said they noticed a distinct difference in the American teaching style. “In the U.S., teachers often tell students that they have done a great job. Everything is so positive. In France, if your work is not perfect, the teacher does not hesitate to point out exactly what you missed.” Elisabeth said that attitudes in France can be more negative than in the U.S., with greater emphasis on what may be going wrong than what is going well.

Elisabeth continued, “I remember having visits with teachers here who told me everything was so great, but when the following year wasn’t very good, I didn’t know what to think. I was not happy about that.” Elisabeth believes that praise should be balanced, but appreciates that students are taught from a more positive perspective. “Students learn unlimitedness in landscape and mentality because you are taught that you can do whatever you want, you have no limits. It’s this idea I enjoy a lot.”

Elisabeth also had some awkward discussions with her boys about American expressions. “I went to a conference at school and they said it was important to tell your child, ‘I love you.’ But in France, this is the language of lovers. I had to go home and tell the boys, ‘I cannot tell you I love you. You are boys, I’m not going to say that to you. In French, ‘I love you’ has a romantic meaning, not between parents and children. Children should feel love because of how you take care of them.”

Bridging the cultural divide

Alain and Elisabeth believe it is important to learn the culture of the countries they visit so they do not misinterpret attitudes or customs, or behave in offending ways. Mistakes can create stereotypes on both sides.

Elisabeth said, “In France, you stay with your husband all of the time when you are at a party. Usually everyone sits down to dinner together and talks as couples. Here, when we are invited to parties, we notice that the men go to the basement and the women go elsewhere. Many times we didn’t know what to do. Alain didn’t know about sports, and my English was bad, so we met on the stairs in between because we didn’t know where to go.”

Alain recalled that, “People would talk to us like we knew things that happened in the U.S. 20 years ago. They would ask if I remembered I Love Lucy, but I had no clue what they were talking about. I might have said the Golden Girls were a new singing group! Now it’s the reverse—when we go to France and our friends talk about popular singers, we don’t know who they are since we have become somewhat disconnected.”

Alain and Elisabeth tried to help their boys transition from France to the U.S. with no bias about differences in culture. “We talked regularly with our sons about the struggles they had in assimilating to American culture. Yes, it was difficult, but we don’t regret anything. They are happy because they had the opportunity to pursue what they wanted to do. While the boys would probably have been successful in the French system, we are not sure they would have been as happy.”

Getting involved in their community

Since retiring, Alain has renewed his childhood love of music, and worked for several years as an organist and member of the American Guild of Organists (AGO). “I bought [an] organ for home and joined the AGO, found a teacher from Juilliard for lessons, and took a job in a church.” Alain retired from the church last year after Easter, when his grandchildren complained that he was at work while they were visiting from Montreal.

Alain has volunteered at Gleason Library and was a member of the Long Term Caps committee before answering a call in the Mosquito for openings on the Carlisle Cultural Council. “I wanted to be involved and give back to the community,” said Alain. “Over the past three years the Cultural Council has been more active, organizing community events like open mic night, the virtual art showcase, and participating at Old Home Day.”

Elisabeth taught French for a number of years in Groton and Billerica public schools. As an aside, she noted that Alain actually became a citizen first. When they applied in the aftermath of 9/11, Elisabeth’s hyphenated name, Elisabeth Bojarski-Depeyrot, raised a red flag with the FBI so they held her application. Alain recalled that the immigration officer told her to “be nice to your husband” until her application was approved.

Since retiring, Elisabeth has also gotten involved with town organizations, most notably the Council on Aging. “For me it’s important to feel connected in the community. I began practicing reiki in Carlisle more than ten years ago after I trained to become a reiki master. The French translation of reiki means therapeutic rest, and reiki practitioners believe that people who rest recover much more quickly from illness.” Angela Smith asked Elisabeth to work with COA members, and prior to COVID Elisabeth was seeing eight clients each month. Angela later asked Elisabeth to join the COA board, which she said has been challenging this year given COVID restrictions and Angela’s retirement.

Reflections on citizenship and stereotypes

“We are thankful to have dual citizenship because we feel part of both sides” said Alain. “When we got our American citizenship, they clearly told us to keep our native language because the U.S. needs different languages. For our kids, speaking multiple languages is normal. One of our granddaughters knows four languages and she is only four years old.”

If there is something the U.S. can learn from France, it might be to simplify. Alain noted that U.S. bureaucracy causes health care, tax, education and even election systems to be more complicated, and feels the consumer is not as well protected. “In France, it takes ten minutes to fill out your tax return because it comes prefilled with all of your information,” he said. Both Alain and Elisabeth believe the U.S. could provide a better basic safety net for all citizens. “We want our neighbors to be happy. We are all together, we are all connected,” said Elisabeth. They agree that the world has gotten smaller over the past 30 years, and both countries now have a better understanding and respect for how they are different.

Elisabeth said that while the French have a stereotype of not being nice to Americans, they are not necessarily nice to each other, either. Elisabeth said that, “Some people may find it arrogant when American tourists do not speak French. French are expected to speak English when they come to America, so they expect the same in return.”

Alain added that, “In the U.S. we love this idea of openness, unlimitedness, the possibility that you can pick the career you want and easily change direction. There is a generally positive attitude and enthusiasm for many things.” The Bojarskis clearly embody this positive mindset and continue to look forward with robust joie de vivre to all that lies ahead.

Printed in the Carlisle Mosquito on March 18, 2021.

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