Growing up, my family referred to the always smiling and always generous Jean-Yves Boulard as “the bread man.” I have fond memories of stepping into his bakery, begging my parents to let me have an extra sticky bun and choosing which baguette we would eat at dinner.
Now a college student, I was delighted to sit down with him and learn about his experience coming from France to the United States. We discussed French perceptions of America, his life-long love for learning, and the complexity of navigating different languages and discovering subconscious taboos when migrating to a new country. Truly a fascinating man of many talents, Jean-Yves described his story to me as having three threads; his professional path from teacher to baker, the switch from his native culture and language to a host one, and the story of his relationship starting in one country and language and deepening in another, all which “intertwine, reverberate, and influence one another.” What struck me most was when he remarked that “the fascinating aspect of the succession is that I could not have been a baker without having read all the philosophy and literature I did” prior.
Jean-Yves was raised in Normandy, France, a city that is “known to many Americans because of D-Day.” His father was a chemical engineer and his mother was a teacher, both placing a heavy priority upon the importance of education throughout Jean-Yves’ life. He has many fond memories of his childhood, particularly with a group of young girls he would play with, remarking that “we would go bicycling to the ocean for nearly twenty miles. We were nuts. We would organize huge games of tag in the courtyard together. It was truly awesome.”
Jean-Yves also told me about another less fond childhood memory taking place in sixth grade. “For whatever reason, I wanted to smoke. I had never smoked, but I wanted to smoke. So one morning, I stopped at the tobacco shop and bought some cigarettes. And of course, where would I smoke other than the bathroom in school? So I did, and I got caught. It was really dramatic.”
Jean-Yves ultimately ended up coming to the United States because he met the lovely Tamara Whited at the University of Rouen while studying together. Jean-Yves recalled that he was intrigued by Tamara “because she was American, and she did not look like an American,” and because “she was actually interesting.” He remarked that he usually could usually identify an American because “they are loud.” I found this amusing, and begrudgingly admitted that as an American, I can attest to having this sometimes-annoying trait.
After her year studying abroad in Rouen, Tamara went back to the United States to continue her education and Jean-Yves became a teacher. While dealing with his first “really rough” years as a teacher, Jean-Yves and Tamara wrote back and forth for four years, as friends. Jean-Yves remarked that “she was my American friend to whom I could send whatever. My moods, poems, mixtapes of French songs I liked. That sort of stuff. Ultimately she was my escape.”
Eventually their friendship changed into a romance, and Tamara went back to France several times to visit. Jean-Yves told me about how when Tamara met his parents, his father was particularly “reluctant” to support the relationship. He explained to me that he came from “a socialist family,” and to his parents, “America is not exactly the ‘dream land.’” Many people in France, including Jean-Yves, had started to think that America was “a rotten country.” He explained to me that “in the 80’s-90’s, the reputation of the US, thanks to documentaries and books, started to tarnish. More and more French people discovered that in America, ‘the dream land’ is really an illusion.” Prior to the second half of the 20th century, Jean-Yves’ “dad had good memories of Americans because of WWII. He remembered American soldiers throwing candy and so on.” However, “he built a kind of animosity against Americans for the arrogance that played out in the professional world he worked in,” and the world’s politics. Jean-Yves and I discussed that the aggressive competitiveness of Americans, ingrained in us from early on in our education, is a trait that is not always welcomed abroad and often found to be somewhat repulsive. Again, Jean-Yves caused me to self-reflect, and I acknowledged that I am truly very “American” through my competitive nature and inability to admit whenever I am incorrect.
Perhaps the most interesting part of our conversation was when Jean-Yves discussed coming to the United States to live with Tamara before they were married, and the culture shock he experienced when their relationship continued in English instead of French.
Reflecting on this part of his life, Jean-Yves said that “when Tammy and I met, we met in France in French. We spoke French and our relationship was in French.” While speaking English in America, “suddenly I discovered Tammy in English, and she was not the same person. Of course she was not, because she was not in France being the American. The Tammy I met in the United States was a different person.”
He recalled that at first, “when I moved to the US, for a while we did not know how to interact with each other because saying ‘je t’aime’ is different from saying ‘I love you.” Whenever directly translating French into English “it doesn’t sound right.” He continued by saying that “you have to relearn all of your emotions in a different language because it’s not the same. It doesn’t sound right, and it’s not you. I had to learn how to feel things in English to the point that now I can’t say ‘je t’aime’ to Tammy because it doesn’t sound good, it doesn’t sound right, and it doesn’t sound just.”
Additionally, he expressed how continuing to advance his English language education in the United States “was very frustrating because I have a certain accuracy in French, and when I want to say the same thing in English, I don’t have the words!” He explained to me how “you speak with building blocks, and then you are trivialized because that’s not exactly what you mean.” However, always looking on the bright side, he expressed that at first in English, “the words, the building blocks of expression, were not as loaded with memory, good or bad. Therefore, I saw an opportunity to explore in a new language the aspects of reality or personality that I had not yet explored.” Jean-Yves gave the example of discovering his taboo regarding money. He grew up with a very socialist Christian background where money was not discussed. However, when coming to America, he realized that Americans love to talk about money. I reflected upon this, acknowledging that an initial conversation with Americans usually starts with “Hello, how are you? Where are you from? And what do you do?” I admit, Americans are entirely obsessed with our capitalistic tendencies and financial competition. Coming to the United States, Jean-Yves said that “suddenly I entered a culture where the vocabulary and culture is all about money. You realize you have taboos, and I hadn’t realized I had any.”
After 40 years involved in education and obtaining degrees in both France and the United States, Jean-Yves started the Six Hand Bakery in Indiana, Pennsylvania. At first, he was working at Reeger’s Farm and baking from his home. He described how during this time he was “discovering how much I loved working with my hands. And you see, when I look at it, I see the trajectory.” In addition to education, “there is a whole aspect of my life, which I witnessed but never engaged with, which is my dad’s part, the engineer.” After reflecting some more, he stated that “the baking comes as rediscovering my dad’s side” and serves as a way he has reestablished his connection to France. Interestingly enough, Jean-Yves didn’t bake bread in France before coming to the United States! This was something he learned once he arrived in Indiana, PA. He laughed when I was surprised by his response, saying that “you don’t bake bread in France. You buy it.”
In addition to enjoying hand-making various breads and pastries, Jean-Yves cited that he loved working at his bakery because he was able to engage with “more locals” in Indiana. Beforehand, his social circle had been limited to the faculty of IUP (due to Tamara’s job as a professor), so he was happy to engage with more people from Indiana through his bakery.
Moving forward, Jean-Yves and I discussed the impact that COVID-19 has been having on our own thoughts and actions, both social and political.” He said that, “it’s an interesting crisis because who are the people who die? The people in prison, the elderly in senior care, the people with pre-existing conditions, and the people who live in settlements so dense that they can’t escape being near people. So, the poor.” Jean-Yves expressed that he hoped the silver lining for this crisis would be that it is “an opportunity for us to see how stretched and unequal is the world that we’ve built here in America.” What struck me most about his analysis of the American response to COVID was his interpretation of the rights that we Americans have glorified and gilded as the inalienable framework to our free country. He explained that as Americans, “You have the right not to pay for health care, not to pay for retirement, not to have insurance, you have so many rights. But at the same time, when you earn so little money that you can’t save money for these things, where is your choice? Where are your rights?” In order for there to be trust in the government from the citizens, “the government has to provide these things.” There is great contradiction in democracy. However, during a political time when tensions and divisions are on the rise, we as a nation need to recognize our flaws and faults, and constructively correct them. You can love your country while still critiquing her. In addition to introspection, perhaps we should look to other countries, swallow our American pride, and think about how we as a country can provide the “inalienable rights” guaranteed in our Constitution to truly every American, regardless of social class or economic background.
My discussion with Jean-Yves prompted me to reflect upon my own path as a language learner, and recognize that each language I have learned has its own unique expressions and colloquialisms that I cannot directly translate into English, but still internalize the meaning of. Saying “until class tomorrow, inshallah” in Arabic does not have the same connotation as the direct translation in English, “until class tomorrow, God willing.” In English, we do not say “God willing” as much as Arabic speakers say “inshallah,” so the emotional impact of this sentence fragment changes with the language. In addition, saying “Te amo siempre mi amor” does not have the same romantic sentiment for me if I were to directly translate it to English saying, “I love you forever, my love.” In English, this just sentence sounds painfully cliché.
The alliterations, complexities, and even the taboos in each language gives their speakers a unique gateway to explore different parts of themselves and their surroundings. Instead of accepting that we live in a society where those who don’t speak fluent English are often frowned upon, we need to fight for the creation of an inclusive society where the importance of new eyes in different languages analyzing the United States is welcomed. The beauty of America is our multiplicity of backgrounds. Even in the small town of Indiana, PA, we all enjoy a variety of restaurants and bakeries provided to us by those who have migrated to the United States from across the world. I believe that the willingness to learn from and embrace our multicultural society is what will provide us with many solutions to our fracturing and polarizing political system and help the United States progress forward into a more accepting and tolerant country.