OWD #2: Vanished in Guadalajara
July 8th, 2020
Here's the full transcript. You can also find it with synced audio here. If you'd like to correct any errors in the transcript, let me know and I'll give you access!
Devon (00:12): Hello and welcome to the second episode of Order Without Design. I'm Devon and, in this series, I get to talk about cities with the most interesting couple I know, Alain and Marie-Agnes Bertaud. The Bertauds have lived in diverse cities around the world, ranging from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Bangkok, Thailand, and New York City to Oran, Algeria. They raised three children while living this nomadic lifestyle. For this episode, I was excited to dig into their role as parents, how it shaped their experience in cities, and what it was like to raise children in such an unconventional way. So with that, let's get started.
Devon (00:52): I live in San Francisco, a city which famously has more dogs than children. Why do you think that is?
Alain (00:59): Well, I think it's a question of generation. Probably, many women now, educated women, want to have a career and they postpone having children. They consider that it's a bit incompatible. We believe it's compatible, but it's just a question of choice. And a dog, I believe, is a substitute for a child for some time or maybe forever.
Alain (01:24): I will add that, in a way, I think it's very much related to the type of comfort and consumption you expect. When we moved from Paris to New York with a small child, we didn't have an apartment in New York. We didn't know anything about the housing market in New York. We found quickly that we could afford only one room, a studio, basically. We felt it was okay. I think it would be completely unacceptable to most American families to be living with one child in a studio.
Alain (01:56): I think also, if I remember well, that corresponds to the definition of a slum for UN Habitat. Three persons in a room, I think, is the limit. So it's a question of expectation. And to us, frankly, we never thought that living in Manhattan in a studio with a child was a hardship. We found it fun. We adapted to it. Sometimes, the child was crying when we wanted to study. There were times like that. This could happen, but we adapted to it. We could not afford a babysitter at the beginning until Marie-Agnes found some work. So when we went to parties or dinner, we would bring our child with us. We had a small stroller where we could bring the stroller in a bus or in the subway.
Alain (02:41): So it's a question of expectation, of what you expect in terms of comfort. I think that many American parents and mostly European now, Western European, think that if you have a child you need at least a two-bedroom apartment and, without that, it's impossible to have. It's, of course, not true. And again, having lived in a lot of countries with much lower income, we can see that people can survive very well in different conditions. So it's a question of expectation, of consumption, and a trade off between having a child and consuming more or less housing.
Devon (03:16): Right. You mentioned that most Americans would've found your living conditions unacceptable when you first moved to New York. What accounts for this difference?
Alain (03:24): It's true. There's something about Americans have a love for space, where the Europeans have a love for amenities in a city, being close to amenities. I think Americans have a love for space. Maybe, I don't know, the myth of the frontier or something like that. There's something about space. And indeed, there is plenty of space in America compared to Europe, but for instance when we moved, we bought a condominium when we were in Washington, then when we came back from Haiti. So we had two children at the time. And we look at the market and we found an apartment which had one bedroom and then we bought that and we had two children at the time. So basically, we had each child in one bedroom and then we will have our bed in the living room, in fact.
Alain (04:09): And the people in the condominium criticized that saying, "Well, you are overusing the apartment." They were not worried about expense in water or things like that. They thought it was, I would say, even slightly immoral. They asked us, "But they are two different sexes. Do they sleep in the same room?" or something like that. I mean, there's something, may I dare to say, puritanical about that. So they thought it was ... And then they changed the condominium rule saying that people with two children could not live in the one-bedroom apartment. So there is something, again, what is expected, what is correct.
Devon (04:47): Wow. Yeah. A sense of, "It's just not right. They're just not supposed to live that way."
Alain (04:51): That's right. And it was not either that we could not afford it. First, it was a choice. It gave us, by spending relatively little on an apartment, it gave us a lot of financial freedom. Whatever you spend on housing is not spent on other things or is not saved. It allowed us to save a lot of money, in a way and have a lot of financial freedom in terms of looking for a job. I think this was very, very precious to us.
Devon (05:21): Yeah. My boyfriend and I have made the same choice. People are always shocked to hear that we live in a one-room apartment together, despite the fact that we could afford better, but yeah. We travel a fair bit. It doesn't really make sense to spend a lot of money on an apartment that you're going to only be in for two thirds of the year. And we like going out and spending time in cafes and stuff. So it works pretty well, but it's just a choice.
Alain (05:44): It's a choice, yeah. It's a choice and people should tolerate the same as we have to tolerate that some people like to have large gardens. That's fine, that's fine, but the problem is when you impose some of your values on someone else.
Devon (05:57): When the condominium put those additional rules in place, how did you guys respond? What did you do?
Alain (06:01): Oh, we didn't do anything because we were grandfathered. They even told us that it was not directed against us, but that they felt that it was not right.
Marie-Agnes (06:12): It was to prevent others from doing that.
Devon (06:14): What other countries have similar norms to America in terms of this desire for space?
Alain (06:18): Countries that have a lot of land, like Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, which have extremely large reserves of land, and probably they have a taste for larger apartments. If you look at the size of housing, internationally, Australia, New Zealand, and Canadian and American are the ones who are outliers in terms of consumption per person of floor space. But they're also a very wealthy nations, but there is no doubt that, if you live in France or, say, in Holland, your apartment will have to be a little smaller.
Devon (06:51): My guess is that, because in America there's sort of almost always an option to just move a little farther out and there will be a place where the land is very cheap and you still have some access to metropolitan regions, whereas somewhere like the Netherlands is almost entirely built up. So it's not really even an option, except for in the most extreme cases.
Alain (07:10): Right, yeah. And so, you make a trade off here. It was, again, your social life and the use of amenities and space. For instance, where we live now, here in in New Jersey, we have very few amenities. We have some pretty good restaurants around, but that's about it. So it's kind of the access is limited compared to if we were living in the city. So it's a tradeoff we have made now in our old age to have very quiet night, to go to New York twice a week and enjoy the amenities, but in a certain way, it's a tradeoff we have made later in life, not when we had children. By the way, you know that, in France, I'm not completely sure if it's still true now, but people who have children live in the city, in Paris, for instance. They will live in the city, itself. And it's only when they retire that they go to the suburb because they feel that they are not going to go out to a theater or something when they are old.
Alain (08:05): There was even these kind of people making fun about suburbs being for retired people, in "pavilion de banlieue" with retired people who are just watering their flowers every morning because they have nothing else to do. So it's a complete opposite of Americans who usually, as soon as they have children, they tend to move to the suburbs.
Devon (08:25): Yeah. Speaking to a lot of my friends who tend to really like cities and they love living in San Francisco or New York with places with lots of amenities. They'll say, "Yes, I love the city, but when it's time to raise children, I, of course, will move out to the suburbs." So it's interesting to hear that change. Do you think that this is a function of difference of amenities in Paris, say, versus San Francisco? Is Paris a better place to raise children than San Francisco or New York?
Alain (08:52): Well, it depends what you expect. We never had teenage children in Paris when we were living there. We had just a small baby, but our French friends had teenagers and were living in the center of Paris. We had a very good friend living in Le Marais. The advantage for them is that, as soon as they were 10, 12 years old, those children were completely independent. They will go to library, museum, movies, or meet some friends and take the subway. They had roller skates. I remember, also, they will go around the city in roller skates. They were 12 years old. This was considered to be normal. I think Americans would have been very, very uneasy about that. That's a bit difference of culture.
Alain (09:32): The idea in France that, as soon as your children are teenagers, you have to drive them around to their judo lesson or their music lesson or their practice of soccer, it's completely unknown. You don't do that. The children are supposed to be independent. When I was brought up in Marseilles, I would go to the Boy Scout, for instance. I would go on my own. I would walk half an hour to go to where they were and something like that and we would take the tramway to go to picnic or something. The parents were absolutely not being the taxi for the children. It never happened.
Devon (10:09): Right. Yeah. And that means the children are more independent, but the parents are more independent, as well.
Alain (10:14): Exactly, yes. I mean, of course, I've been brought up that way, so it's normal. I think, especially living in the suburbs now, I think the life of the parents, when the children are teenagers, is really ... I think it's terrible. I mean, probably they get some reward of watching their kids play soccer or tennis or whatever, but I don't know. I think they are too much the slave of their children and I don't think it's that good for the children either because they are entirely also dependent on their parents, but I don't know. Those are just different cultures.
Devon (10:49): I imagine features of the city really depend on how safe and how comfortable and how practical it is for children to have flexibility to wander around. And you two have lived in a lot of different cities with children. How did your experience in places like Bangkok versus Port-au-Prince versus New York City vary in terms of you feeling comfortable letting your children wander around and have a lot of independence?
Marie-Agnes (11:14): And for entertaining, the children entertained themselves because they were surrounded in a safe place with other children about the same age. Even when we were in Thailand, our child Yann was, at that time 12, 14 years old. We would let him stay with Thai children on the beach. And for one week, he will be living in a Thai family, very poor family, but we knew that he was safe. We knew the family. We knew the children and it was a good advantage for our son to be independent for one week, like in a camp, but surrounded by nice people and he loves windsurfing and the people who are around him were windsurfers. So he started very quickly to be a very strong windsurfer guy in Thailand because the wind is perfect and the temperature of the water is perfect. So we can surf any time during the year.
Devon (12:16): Were your children free to wander around, independently, around Bangkok and go from place to place and take themselves to school?
Alain (12:23): Sometimes, they would go in the street, but in the neighborhood streets and buy street food for us by themselves. In Bangkok, you have a lot of street food, people selling food in the street, but they did not go outside the neighborhoods. Certainly not, no.
Devon (12:37): In which city did you feel like your children were most safe?
Alain (12:40): Everywhere, yes. Even in El Salvador, at the time ... Now, El Salvador is very unsafe, but at the time, they were a little older. They were 10 and eight. They would go around the neighborhood by themselves, by the way. They had schoolmates, which were within, I would say, one thousand yards from our house and they would go by themselves and then come back.
Marie-Agnes (13:01): They would go to the swimming pool of the hotel. It was about three blocks from our place, and they went by themselves.
Alain (13:09): And at the time, there was no telephone that we could use. I mean, the telephones were already in the house, but let's say, we were not exceptional. That was the normal thing to do. Their schoolmates in El Salvador, they were all Salvadorian, by the way. There were practically no foreigners in El Salvador in the school. And so the parents found that completely normal.
Devon (13:28): What was a time that they got in trouble?
Marie-Agnes (13:31): Yann was very independent and he was early working because he was windsurfing and he realized that we couldn't buy him, every six months, a new sail or a new board. So he worked, at the age of 16, he worked in a surf shop next door and he was getting all the material he could test and play with. And Veronique was more going to friend's place and I will drive, if I was available. If not, she will take the subway and go to the friend's place. But Marion was born later, when the children were eight and 10. She was maybe less mobile than the oldest one because the oldest had been brought up in so many countries. When Marion, born in El Salvador, when she was at the age of three, we moved to Thailand. And in Thailand, next to the office, we had a kindergarten where she went and she learned Thai, all the good manners. And she will be very polite and very respecting of adults, as the Thai children are. And we found that she was quite obedient and no problem when they get teenager.
Devon (15:04): Were there any moments where you were anxious for their safety?
Alain (15:08): I can remember only one time where we were really worried. We were traveling with a Volkswagen camper in Mexico and Yann, at the time, was three years old and Veronique was close to one. I think Yann was three years old. And so we were in a restaurant in the center of Guadalajara, in the center of the city, and we had parked the car about five or six blocks from there. All the waiters were very attentive to the children because it was two blonde children. They were taking them to the kitchen, giving them tortilla, whatever, fruits. And so we didn't pay too much attention to them. And then, when we left and paid our bill and we left, suddenly, our son was missing. Nobody knew where he was. We assumed he was in the kitchen, as he has been several times with the waiters. And then they told, "No, we haven't seen him." And we found that he had left the restaurant by himself.
Alain (16:04): And suddenly, then, we really panicked because we were in the center of the city with rough traffic. And so Marie-Agnes went on one side, I went on the other asking, "Did you see a blonde child, three years old, walking around by himself?" And so, as it was a little uncommon at the time, Yann was very blonde. His hairs were nearly white. So people noticed him in Mexico and they said, "Yes, he went this way." And eventually, we found him. He had walked five blocks. That means he crossed the street by himself several times and he was waiting for us next to the car. That was the only time where, really, we panicked about our children and we wished things were different.
Devon (16:47): How long did it take for you to find him back at the car?
Alain (16:50): Oh, maybe 20, 25 minutes because we were looking a bit everywhere.
Marie-Agnes (16:54): And we were ready to go to the police station.
Alain (16:58): Police station. Yeah, yeah.
Marie-Agnes (16:59): We thought maybe he has been kidnapped or something.
Alain (17:02): Again, at the time, Mexico was not as violent as it is now, but still, a three-year-old kid in the middle of the traffic, imagine downtown Guadalajara, the traffic is pretty, pretty... and it's not very disciplined. So you really panic about that, what can happen.
Devon (17:23): Did he explain why he'd decided to leave?
Alain (17:25): He's very independent and he has always liked cars. And for him, the car was really the thing that he was interested in and he thought he was bored in the restaurant probably and he thought the car, if he could get ... but not get into the car, of course, because it was locked. Because we were moving for three months in this Volkswagen camper. So for him, that was his house and he liked it because he liked everything which is mechanical and technological. He likes cars.
Marie-Agnes (17:52): And still, he likes cars. And I think he's like Alain and I. He has a very good sense of orientation and very early, at the age of three, he remembered exactly where the car was and taking the initiative just to walk back to the car. At three years old, few children have this idea about direction.
Devon (18:15): Right.
Alain (18:17): And the idea of leaving the restaurant where his parents were and just go by himself. Again, it shows a sense of independence.
Devon (18:25): You mentioned before that your youngest child studied, in Thailand, Thai manners and went to a Thai school?
Marie-Agnes (18:32): Yeah. She was only two and a half years old when we moved to Thailand. And both we were working in this outfit, the Housing Authority in Thailand. It's a government business. Very, very large office. And the government company had a kindergarten just next to the office. So we would drop Marion to the kindergarten and, the first month, we get the report from the kindergarten all written in Thai and we couldn't read the report, so we asked a colleague of ours to make a translation weekly about what was in the report. So she starts to do the translation verbally and then stop. Then I saw that there were two pages and she stopped after some time. And I said, "What about the other page?" And she said, "Well, I'm very embarrassed." I said, "No, no, just tell us." And the other page was saying that Marion has a tendency at the time of the break to go quickly to the swing and mobilize the swing for herself and not to let the other children use the swing.
Marie-Agnes (19:43): And that was not a good manner for the Thai. You have to share. You have to let the others take the swing. And so she would push the other children and go to the swing immediately. They were also complaining about her not respecting carefully the rules. And the rules were, at the beginning, she didn't know the rules, the rules were to bow to the teacher, take your shoes off when you enter the classroom and put the shoes all well aligned and she would not do that. So she learned very quickly. After the second month, the report was very positive and very nice.
Alain (20:24): Yeah. And especially, what was amazing was that, after, when she would come home, she would keep those manners. For instance, the way she would curtsy to us before asking something or, in the morning, she will have exactly mimicked the Thai way, which is extremely respectful with adults, always having graceful gestures. Also, every gesture to take something or to receive something is rehearsed, a bit like a ballet, in a way. You have certain gestures. You have to put your finger in a certain way and not another. If not, it's impolite. Never show the back of your feet, for instance. There are a lot of rules like that, which are extremely intricate, but that the children learn very early. And I suppose it's not a burden for them because it's become a reflex.
Alain (21:08): But as soon as she left the school, after, when she came back, she became a normal American child again. She would not curtsy to us in the morning or something like that. When we were in Yemen, Yann, our son, he was already three to five and he started learning school, but our neighbors, we had a neighbor who was the CIA station chief and his wife was a schoolteacher and she was British. And he has two daughters who were about the age of my son. The wife of this guy would take Yann and there was a school of, let's say, three children. And he learned English that way, the first time.
Alain (21:47): But for Veronique, she was younger, so it was a little more difficult. The last year we were there, when Veronique was four years old, then we wanted her to meet some kids her age. So the only solution was to put her, in fact, in a koranic school. Normally, girls in Yemen will not go to school, except koranic school. So we put her there in this koranic school. So she learned Arabic that way and also, unfortunately, she copied the manners of the kids. And one of the things Yemeni children did at the time, like their adults, was spitting all the time. So you have this little blonde girl, three years old, suddenly racking her throat and spitting. That was just opposite of the Thai manners. So we had to explain here saying, "Well, no, you should not spit all the time."
Devon (22:43): Has she kept any of those habits? Not necessarily the spitting, but anything else, if you were to meet her as an adult today? She behaves differently than an American or a French girl would?
Alain (22:53): I think children try to imitate their environment and mostly the environment of their peer, to do what their peers do. So as soon as she comes to America, she wants to be an American kid. Yann, for instance, my son, when he was a teenager, always had a baseball cap and he would absolutely refuse to even taste wine or things like that. He wanted to look American. When he was 18, he would start drinking beer out of his six pack and absolutely not touching wine or anything like that because he thought it was un-American. And by the way, when he went to California, then people say, "Oh, you are French. You must know about wine," and then he finds people who were knowledgeable about wine and, suddenly, he realizes that he has to learn about wine, too, just, I guess, to mix with the Californians. It was different from Maryland, so he abandoned his six pack there.
Devon (23:43): They're very shaped by their environment, it sounds like.
Alain (23:45): And their peers. When we came back to the States, they were a little ashamed of our accents. They were embarrassed by our accent. For instance, if we would go to a restaurant, even a fast food or something when they were 15 or something, they would say, "Let us order because the waiter will not understand you because of your accent." And they were embarrassed that, in front of other people, they would be with those adults who do not speak English with an American accent.
Devon (24:13): Do your children have an American accent?
Alain (24:15): Yes. I mean, they are better at English than French, but their French is completely fluent, but sometimes it's a domestic language, although they study French at school. But let's say, they are much more fluent in English. Actually, if we discuss politics or something a little difficult, we will switch to English with them because it's easier for them, but not for day-to-day conversation. Then we'll stick to French.
Devon (27:59): What factors do transportation planners need to take into account to serve children and families?
Alain (28:05): Well, certainly, the safety of transport is very important. So the design of subway stations or bus stations are important, but it's really the attitude of the public, in general, toward the child, whether they will be protected. The design has to do something. Again, the design of a bus stop or a subway station is important, too, so that it will be safe for children including, by the way, in Asian subway stations, usually the subway platform is completely protected when the train is not here. There are doors which open only when the train is here. So again, a child cannot be pushed or fall on the track. So that's already, for instance, a feature which I encourage children for taking the subway and being safe.
Alain (28:54): But say, you could see in Paris ... I suppose it's still true now, but when we were living in Paris, kids of eight or nine taking the subway by themselves and, at the time, the platform was not protected and they knew about it. And I assume also there that the passengers who were waiting, if they see a kid alone, will make sure that the kid doesn't go too close from the edge of the platform.
Devon (29:18): If I told you we had to put your three children in a city to live alone while they were growing up, just for, let's say, a month, the three of them were to move there together with no parents, no grandparents around, what city do you think that they would be safest in and that they would be able to get around the most easily?
Marie-Agnes (29:34): Thailand may be the best because people in Thailand are very, very protective of the children. They respect and the people are very concerned and all the time ready to help you. And if we were to leave them alone, I would not have have to ask in the neighborhood or the person who was working for us, she was not sleeping in our house. She was just coming for the day, but she would have agreed, for sure, to take the children and I would have even been accommodating her children if she was to sleep in our house so they could have an adult. This woman was very, very beautiful concerning cleanness and education. She would be very careful that they never get in trouble.
Alain (30:28): And very polite. The Thai are extremely polite at every level of society. There is not a politeness which is kind of upper class and then middle class and then, let's say, poorer class, they all have the same standards of politeness so that it makes relationships between social classes very, very easy. Compare it to India, for instance, where the level of politeness is not the same, depending on the social class. The people of upper class have often a contempt for the lower class and they show it in their manners. They are impolite, literally, with the people who work for them. So that's, again, a difficult thing to accept when you live there. But in Thailand, what we absolutely loved was these very elaborate manners were exactly the same at every level of society.
Alain (31:16): By the way, I found that in Southeast Asia, in general, I found the same thing in Indonesia or Vietnam, but especially Indonesia that people are extremely polite with each other. It doesn't mean that they cannot be exploitative or something like that. Yes, they could be, but at least they don't humiliate people who are in the lower, let's say, grade of society. That, I think, is very, very positive. In India, sometimes you see people humiliating other people because they can do it. And it's extremely, I think, disheartening. So that's, again, those culture differences.
Devon (31:53): Why do you think there are those cultural differences? Why do you see that behavior in some places, but not necessarily in others?
Alain (32:00): Because in a way, say, if you compare India and Thailand, well, Thailand is a Buddhist country. It's not Hindu, but the culture in Thailand is very, in many ways, came from India. The characters they use to write Thai are, in fact, derived from Sanskrit, or their folklore ideas they use Ramayana all the time in their stories and things like that. So it's all coming from India, except that they do not have caste. And in India, the caste system was really the structure of society and it's still there now. What's interesting in India that, when they became independent, they banned caste, but at the same time, they established very quickly a system of affirmative action for castes.
Devon (34:09): Why is it less strong in the cities?
Alain (34:11): Because I think that some people of lower caste has made it well. And so wealth attenuates this a bit, but not completely. Also, if you are trading, if you have a restaurant and half of your clients are lower caste, probably you have to treat them equally if you want to keep their patronage. So I think that it attenuates, but it's much more extreme in villages. In villages, still now in India, the lower castes often have no access to the water faucets, to the wells that the others castes use. There are certain restaurants where they cannot even go to eat.
Devon (34:51): Wow. I guess, in the city, there's more opportunity for people to be mobile and interact with different types of people.
Devon (37:27): It's a very clever way to generally do well in your career, is to find things that you don't mind doing as much as some other people mind doing, and make that your strength and just go for it. And you can become really good at it because you have less competition.
Alain (37:41): Yeah. That's interesting you say that, yes. One day, I got a fantastic job with the UN after I left Haiti. I was working for a consulting firm in Washington before we went to El Salvador and I was asked to go to Bhutan. That was in '75. And with Marie-Agnes for a month, to look at building materials in Bhutan, whether those building materials could be used for modern housing. So it was a perfect assignment. Imagine going around Bhutan for one month, looking at building temples, people were like ... So it was perfect.
Alain (38:16): So when I came back and I had a debriefing in New York at the UN about my mission in Bhutan. And I told them, "Gee, I really like this assignment. This is wonderful. I'm glad you remembered I was an architect and have a very strong interest in local building material." And they told me, "Ah, yes, that's right, but we didn't select you because of that, frankly. We looked at our roster of consultants and we thought, 'What consultant will accept to go to a country which has no hotels?' And everybody said, 'Bertaud would do that,'" because of my stay in Yemen. I never complained in Yemen about living conditions. And they knew I was ... In Yemen, I would go to small village some time, towns were there were no hotels, obviously, and things like that and I never complained.
Alain (39:04): So in a way, I had this reputation of being ready to do things that others will not do and it gave me a comparative advantage, but for me, it was fun.
Devon (39:13): Absolutely.
Alain (39:15): And of course, the stay in Bhutan was fantastically comfortable because, in fact, the Bhutanese have a system in the monastery which are, in fact, the monasteries are also part of the administrative structure. So they have a guesthouse for the civil servants who travels through Bhutan because there aren't hotels. So they stay in the monasteries in special rooms for guests and they are extremely well-treated. The food is excellent and things like that. So it's not a hotel in the traditional way, but it's very comfortable and extremely beautiful. You have a room which is painted with frescoes, which have been done in the maybe 15th century or something like that. What can you ask more?
Devon (39:55): That sounds even better than a hotel and more interesting, to boot.
Alain (39:58): Yeah, yeah. It was certainly better and you are right on the spot and you can attend the religious service, too. Any time when you hear some music, you go there and it was a fantastic thing. But for them, they thought most people will not go because there were no hotels. There was no modern hotels.
Devon (40:17): Yeah. I work for GitHub, which is a software company, and a big part of my job as a product manager here is talking to a lot of developers and a lot of software engineers and programmers and going all around the world and traveling and also doing some press and, basically, having a lot of conversations with interesting people all over the world. And this is great. This is exactly what I want to be doing and I love doing that, but I recently had a conversation with someone on my team who was like, "Oh, thank goodness you do that. I can't believe you put up with it, but thank you for taking one for the team." And I realized that some people just don't want to do that. Some people don't want to go travel all the time, be in a different bed every week, and some people are more introverted. So it's really great to be able to find something that's a comparative advantage for you where not only are you willing to put up with it, but you are excited to do it.
Alain (41:04): Yeah. That's right. Absolutely, absolutely. Yes.
Marie-Agnes (41:07): And in Bhutan, I had the chance to cook for ... We were stuck in a very mountainous place. Then there was a huge storm and the road was washed out and we couldn't pass. The car was stuck there and there was a little kind of tea shop that was serving tea and some little things. And they had a farm on this place and the lady was there with just some eggs. And I said, "Can I do an omelet with the eggs?" But she didn't understand what I was asking, but she let me use the eggs and the grease and we had an omelet with all the people who were there and we were very happy to be warm and nice. And then the schoolteacher was there, in this place, and after all, there were no hotels. And the schoolteacher, "Okay, maybe the road will not be reestablished before tomorrow. Maybe you would like to come in the school and sleep there." So we slept on the floor in a school.
Alain (42:13): Yeah. That was really wonderful. That was one of the best trips we had, actually.
Devon (42:17): That sounds like a great adventure. Yeah. You understand the place from a much better perspective. I mean, I could imagine staying in a hotel could actually really hinder your understanding of a city because the people who live there don't live in hotels. And so you end up actually missing a lot of the perspective of what it's actually like to live there. So if you're trying to provide advice for how to improve the city as far as residents, it really makes more sense to live in a context ... or in the schoolhouse where the children go and so that you can see it from that view.
Alain (42:46): Yes. That's a difficult thing sometimes. It's true. The hotel is a little haven of efficiency and tends to lose contact with reality... I remember, in Dhaka ... for instance, in Bangladesh, we were going to this place... it was a hotel run by Japanese. It was absolutely superb and, as soon as you enter, everything works well, everything is perfect, but you tend to forget then the difficulties of other people who are living in the rest of the city. It's a tiny little part of the city. And it's true, this is a problem. So that's why sometimes you are obliged to stay there in a big city because of communication. You have to work late at night, so the electricity should be in and things like that, but you have to escape. For instance, take your meals outside the hotel as much as possible. At least go to a local restaurant or something and walk.
Alain (43:41): For me, in my job, our job is to walk around the city everywhere, all the time. You don't spend your time at the hotel, except when you have to sleep or write your report or something like that.
Devon (43:52): Right. So both of you worked during very much of the time that you had children, you were raising your children, but it sounds like you both had a lot of freedom and ability to get your jobs done and you brought them around with you instead of just sort of following their schedule. By contrast, I feel like, here in America, I see that a lot of parents will put their children's schedule first. They'll pack that schedule, but because the children can't get around, the parents, usually the mother, ends up driving them from place to place. And their life kind of gets taken over by children. And so this question is sort of self-motivated because I personally would like to have children one day, but I also love the work that I do. And honestly, I don't just want to be sitting in piano lessons all the time. What advice would you have for me and for other people who would potentially want to be parents and try to live more of a life of freedom and flexibility with their children and not having it quite so much taken over by the lifestyle?
Marie-Agnes (44:51): I believe, if you have enough money to keep your job and raise a family, you have to have some help. And we've been lucky because going to developing countries, getting someone to live with you or be coming to help you during the time you are in the office is a very, very necessity because if you are all the time obliged to do all the parents that ... I see my daughter. She has a professional life, but at the beginning, that was a problem with her husband. He has been raised with a mother who was a teacher, the husband and the father was a postman, and they had a very comfortable life. And the children, because she was a teacher, so she has the same time, when the children were on vacation, she was on vacation.
Marie-Agnes (45:49): When you have a very demanding job like you or us, you cannot be all the time driving the children to the sport or to the piano lesson. And we make the choice, really, at the beginning. I was working in New York and then I was also working at the city planning commission. And my salary ... I have a babysitter. I would drop my children at her home, and my salary was split between me and her. And I knew that my son would be well taken care of because this woman had a child. And on my way to the subway, I would drop the child and taking the child back home when I was done with my work. And it was a perfect arrangement. And we have beautiful moment with this woman and her husband. We were very close friends after all and we would do picnic on the weekend together with the children and doing all sort of activity when we were not at work.
Alain (46:58): When we were in New York and Marie-Agnes started working, she didn't have a very high salary. Nor did I, by the way, but she was ready to spend half of her salary on babysitting for our child, at the time. And it was worth it, in a way. A kind of priority, in a way. Again, living in a very small apartment, in one-room apartment, but having a babysitter every day that you pay well. It's just a tradeoff and I think it's worth it. I mean, for Marie-Agnes, it was certainly worth it and for me, too, in a way, to have a wife who is also in the world professionally. We were not in the same department, not working in the same department, but it was interesting, at the end of the day, to discuss about things we have done other than if she has been confined to just taking care of the child and doing some shopping and things like that.
Alain (47:52): It's good for the children, by the way, too, with other adults with authority which are different from their parents. I think that's very good also. It's a good habit, that they aren't necessarily always only with their parents.
Devon (48:06): Yeah. What you were saying about both you and Marie-Agnes having work experience that you can come home and share is definitely an experience that I've had with Sebastian, where I feel like it's an experience I've had with my boyfriend, which is he has made me much better at my job because he has very interesting thoughts from the work he does, which is sort of tangential. He works also as a software engineer. And at least, in theory, I think I've helped him with his work, as well, just by being able to share that. I also really liked your phrasing, Marie-Agnes, that you split the salary with the babysitter. I think most people phrase it as, "We paid the babysitter," as sort of a separate thing, but it's cool for you to be framing that way because it shows how the woman who took care of your children enabled you to then go out and have more flexibility. And so she's really enabling you to go do what you want as opposed to it just being sort of a service that you're paying for.
Devon (48:57): A friend of mine recently brought his three year old to visit her grandfather in Chicago for the first time. And when they came back, he said, "Every time we bring her to a new place, it feels like she makes a step function in cognitive development." Your children traveled at a young age much more than, really, any other children that I know. I'm curious, how did this affect their development, relative to their peers? Is there anything that they understood at a younger age than most other children because they'd lived in all of these different countries?
Marie-Agnes (49:25): They understand the poverty of place. When we were in India, for example, they saw that some people were very poor... Even the rich, the children were invited to go to the swimming pool and the swimming pool was not what they were expecting. The children saw the swimming pool as we can see in France or the US and the swimming pool was just a basin with green algae floating and they didn't dare to put their feet in the water because they saw that it was not a swimming pool. But they see the difference between the way people live and the way we were living. Even so, we were working in this place, we all the time be in a comfortable apartment or houses with a lot of facility, but they could see the other children, very poor children, were asking for food or begging.
Marie-Agnes (50:24): And I remember, when we were in Mumbai and we were in the Taj Mahal Hotel, and we went out visit, just out in the street. And Veronique was only 10 years old and she was scared to see the children at the gate of the hotel without arms or legs and begging. She was horrified by seeing a child be without an arm or without a leg and that was maybe shocking for her, but certainly, it gave them the feeling that we were rich and the poor people were ... But Veronique, when we were living in Washington, DC, she went to the French school. And for lunchtime, normally the parents will give a lunchbox for lunch. And Veronique had her lunchbox going to the French school, but in the French school, you had the children from embassies, from African Embassy, particularly, where at lunchtime, the driver of the embassy will bring for the children a warm lunch because the driver was supposed to care also for the children.
Marie-Agnes (51:43): And Veronique asked us, "Are we poor?" And we said, "Why do you say that?" And she said, "But we don't have a driver to bring me the lunch at school." She was about 12 years old, 10 or 12 years old, when she asked this question. That surprised us, thinking that because we didn't have a driver, we were poor.
Alain (52:09): That shows that, in fact, they had forgotten the lesson that they had seen when they were younger. When we were in Yemen or even in Thailand or even in El Salvador, they saw very poor people and they were struck by it. They talked about how privileged we were. But as soon as we were in Washington, again, it was their peers they compared with, not with what they have learned before. And so they thought that, compared to their peers, they were poor.
Devon (52:38): What a breadth of experience, seeing everything from children begging on the street to children getting a hot lunch from their driver. You end up getting a much broader cross section of life than if you end up living in just one place.
Alain (52:51): Yes, yes. Exactly. Yes.
Devon (52:54): Well, this was a really fun conversation. Marie-Agnes, Alain, thank you very much.
Alain (52:59): Thank you.
Marie-Agnes (52:59): Thank you, Devon.
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