MANNA Mamma: Zeva Bellel
I met Zeva at a dinner party hosted by a mutual NYC friend towards the end of my first attempt at living in Paris. Zeva was literally the life—or really the laugh—of the party! She had this exciting energy and a laugh that was loud and contagious. Everyone around her that evening seemed to be catching her vibes. I was utterly fascinated by her. I immediately loved her and was secretly plotting how to become friends with her. At that moment she was walking the path I wanted and I needed to know how she had made it happen. Love and life in Paris. Lucky for me we did become friends and Zeva is someone I enjoy meeting up with when I need advice and a dose of joy. Sounds cheesy but she always makes me smile and I pretty much blood suck her for advice. (Her laugh is amazing I am not exaggerating!) She speaks impressive French, is full of information and most importantly she is incredibly helpful and generous about sharing. Lucky for me Zeva is a contributing writer for MANNA and wrote a very popular article for our launch. There is no better person to be our next MANNA Mamma—a woman who can share her story and tips for a successful motherhood abroad experience. Enjoy! xx, Ajiri
Name: Zeva Bellel
Expat From: New York City
Maman To: Zachary 4 years old and a bun in the oven
Profession: Marketing Director at YELP France
Time in Paris: 16 years
What brought you to Paris?
Since I was a little girl in Brooklyn I fantasized about one day living in Paris. I majored in Art History and minored in French in college in order to spend my junior year in Paris, but that wasn’t enough to shake the bug. A few years after graduation I was living in NYC, had a job, my family nearby, four cats, and I was in a relationship, but I wasn’t happy. I realized that if I didn’t chase my dreams at that time then I never would. I had a friend in Paris who told me I could stay on her couch for however long I needed, so I gathered up all of the courage and savings I had, closed down my NYC life, and got on a plane with a giant suitcase and a whole lotta tissues since I was a total bumbling mess of tears on that flight. That was 16 years ago. Every year on my Parisversary I invite my friend Jessica (she still lives here) to dinner to thank her for helping me make that move.
Visiting Paris is a dream for most, but as you know a romantic weekend and making your life here are not the same. How long did it take you to adjust to life in Paris and what about speaking French? What were/are some of your biggest challenges?
I really wanted my Paris experience to be as authentic as possible. I wanted to speak French fluently, make French friends, and work in a French environment. The whole nine yards. I think that mindset helped me overcome a lot of the struggles (and there are TONS) to make you feel like this place can be yours.
One thing I did was go out of my way to socialize with as many French people as possible even if it was super hard and awkward. There were more parties with me smiling silently in a corner than I’d like to remember, but eventually, I was able to develop my own personality in French, one that was maybe not identical to my New York one, but one that resembled who I was at that moment. When you don’t know all of the cultural references and you can’t say everything you want to say exactly as you would in your native language, you stick to what’s most vital and work it out from there. I actually found the language limitations liberating in a way. I had to construct my identity using the basics, figure out who I really was without all of the super self-referential social and cultural codes that I was lugging around from years spent in the same place with similar types of people my whole life.
But it wasn’t a walk in the park, I really worked at it—I took French classes at the Alliance Francaise, went to the movies all of the time to see those classic cryptic French films, carried notepads filled with vocabulary words and new idioms I learned, and even got a job working at a magazine where I was the one who answered the inbound calls, all in French.
I have a very vivid memory around two years into my life in Paris when I felt as if the plugs had come out of my ears and I could suddenly hear what was happening around me. It was as if all of that white noise in the background (other conversations, the metro announcements, the radio banter) crystalized and I actually understood what was being said. It was a great feeling!
Tell us the funniest/weirdest thing that has happened to you in Paris. What is your lost in translation moment?
I have so many crazy, incredible memories of the early years, especially when I was working as a journalist, which was by far the best way to possibly get to know France, meet interesting people, see and taste insanely incredible things. Not a lost in translation moment, but more of a “wow, holy shit I can’t believe I’m doing this” moment was when I was flown to Monaco by Monocle magazine to interview Alain Ducasse at his Michelin-starred restaurant for a piece called My Last Meal. Over the span of three hours, I shared a multi-course lunch with him at his private chef’s table as he told me everything about his life, his love of food, and why he would be eating what we were eating if it was his last meal on earth. I was so worried I’d screw up the recording I had four devices going at the same time. It took me a week to transcribe the whole thing from French into English and whittle it down into a readable piece.
What do you love most about living in Paris?
I still can’t get over the beauty of this city and how many hidden gems there are to be discovered. I love to walk wherever I’m going and take new routes to my destination whenever I can. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t notice something unusual about the city, a new shop, a different sidestreet, a strange storefront, a cool building, and of course the fashion style of the Parisians is just insane ! There’s more eye candy here than in any other city without a doubt.
You live in the 10th, which is a pretty popular hood these days. What do you love most about your quartier? And tell us your favorite spot in the area?
Living along the canal is unbeatable, from my window we see boats coming and going and we can hear the din of the water streaming from the canal locks. It’s a little slice of nature in the city. But beyond the proximity to the water, the neighborhood has a ton of quirky, personality-filled places that have become part of my Paris DNA. If I had to chose three addresses that represented me the best, they would definitely be Bob’s Juice Bar, because Marc the owner is a genius and super-cool guy who was the first to really inject Paris with a bit of authentic NYC; Procopio Angelo, the best Italian restaurant in Paris and my all-purpose canteen; and the Marché du Château D’Eau, which while not one of the most beautiful or famous Parisian markets, is a real neighborhood market with an amazing selection of stands, including my butcher who has supplied me with turkeys for every Thanksgiving I’ve celebrated here.
“Paris is a moveable feast,” as Hemingway wrote, so if you ever left Paris what is something you would take away with you?
Paris has taught me to fight for what I want, find creative solutions to challenges, and never accept “no” at face value (since you’ll hear it all of the time). There are many shades of “no”, you need to find out how dark the “no” being tossed at you is and then figure out how to lighten it up.
3 tips and tricks for survival here?
Use “s’il vous plait” to get a waiter’s attention, but “bonjour” when you go into a shop or asking anyone for help.
Never arrive on time to a dinner party, on time is too early. And never show up empty-handed.
Get in good with your building’s concierge/guardian if you have one, they run the show.
3 things you miss about The States?
Real Sunday brunch, not this fancy stuff here they try to pass off as brunch.
Quality service with a smile.
Positivity and that inimitable go-get-em attitude.
3 of your favorite things to do with your son in Paris?
Hanging with him along the canal on a sunny day with some sandwiches and sitting and chatting while people, boat, and duck watching.
Going on weekend outings to the you-pick farms around the city and coming home with buckets of fresh produce.
Taking a walk, bus ride, or drive to one of the many amazing parks (our favorite is Bois de Vincennes), packing a lunch and some toys and just making an afternoon of it.
ON CAREER & PERSONAL LIFE
Many women who move to Paris for love, give up their careers or are forced to start all over and feel “lost” trying to figure out how to jump-start their career. Also if you arrive after university with the “Paris dream” you can quickly find yourself a bit discouraged about finding a job or getting on the right career path. Did you ever feel lost here and more specifically how did you get on the right path?
I guess I’m lucky that I never felt totally lost or discouraged that I wanted to throw in the towel and head home. I always wanted to make it work, so that is what I did. I had to reinvent myself several times professionally and take a bunch of leaps that weren’t always so easy. Over the 16 years I’ve lived here, I’ve done everything from freelance writing and fashion styling to market research and location scouting. Sometimes I made 3000€ a month, sometimes 30€. When you’re an expat you don’t have the luxury of controlling your path. You have to adapt, try things out, string together a collection of experiences that over time start to make sense. What is hard is recognizing the appeal of the adventure as it’s happening, since you’re always searching for something more concrete and stable. But when I think back to all of the things that I did to make it here, I realize that it’s the crazy, bumpy, not-always-easy journey that has made me the person I am today, and I wouldn’t trade that in for anything in the world.
How did you move from freelance writing to becoming the Community & Marketing Manager at YELP? What do you love most about your job?
A couple of years before I was recruited by Yelp I made one of the scariest decisions of my life: I quit my position as a full-time journalist with a publication that I been with for over two years without having any idea of what I would do next. Since high school I had always had a job, so leaving something stable was a huge change for me. Over the next few months I had all sorts of ideas, including writing a very special travel guide to hidden addresses in Paris. I wrote a book proposal, and actually had an agent in NYC who started to shop it around, and then the 2008 stock market crashed and the idea of finding a publisher for a luxury armchair travel guide to Paris was an absurdity. I thought about stowing it away for another day but a friend of mine encouraged me to adapt it into a blog and so I launched Paris By Appointment. Over the next year I poured ever ounce of myself into the project, interviewed dozens and dozens of unknown Parisian artisans, and developed a really nice community of readers, some press followed, and that’s how I was discovered by Yelp! In 2010 Yelp recruited me to launch the platform in France and develop and lead a team of community managers throughout the country to gather curious, passionate folks together to build the best guides to their city. To say that I hit the jackpot is an understatement as I can pour all of my journalistic discoveries into one place, and help other people who are just as excited about sharing what they love about their cities to do the same. What’s best about it is that I know that what my team works hard to do impacts so many people in a positive way, whether it’s finding a fabulous romantic dinner spot, a hair salon, or a place to get your shoes repaired, the guides we’re building help improve people’s everyday lives.
Outside of work, what activities or hobbies bring you joy?
The kitchen is my sanctuary. I would spend all day in there if I didn’t love hitting the market and shopping for ingredients just as much. But I’ve also recently started knitting to try to keep me away from my digital devices in the evening, and I’ve been really loving that as well. I committed to a 30-day challenge to finish a scarf and was clocking one hour a night to move the project along and finished just in the nick of time. Other hobbies include lip-singing jam sessions with my two musical prodigies, my husband and my four-year-old Dave Grohl-obsessed kid; making vision boards with magazine clippings, a fantastic free-your-mind exercise that I began after learning about it from one of Grace Bonney’s Designsponge podcasts; and binge-reading behavioral science books because I’m totally fascinated with figuring out what makes people tick.
France is ranked high as a great country to have a baby. How did you find pregnancy in Paris?
I wouldn’t know what it’s like anywhere else but being pregnant here has been really great because there are so many services available to you and support from the government to get certain check-ups and tests done before and throughout your pregnancy. It was hard for us to conceive both my first child and the bun that I currently have in the oven but the doctors and treatments we got here were top-notch and a sliver of what I imagine things would have cost in the US. Can you believe that when you have fertility issues in France the doctor alerts the government so that you can receive 100% reimbursement for your treatments? The fact that the government wants to help you conceive despite your issues and throws itself behind you is really remarkable. When I tell my family and friends about that in the US, they can’t believe it.
How do you feel about raising your son away from your home country? Any challenges or deep emotions about raising him here?
I have been living in France now for 16 years and my husband is French, so I always expected that if we had kids we’d raise them here for a good portion of time. Even though my son’s been getting a traditional French education, which based on what we’ve seen so far has been very rigorous and effective but not necessarily the most joyous and care-free, my husband and I do our best to bring a good amount of ridiculousness and fun to his world and encourage him to not take things too seriously, and to believe in big, bold impossible things. What I really want him to experience, since it was so critical to me growing up, was the sense that your unique view of the world counts just as much as anyone else’s, and that you can really do anything you set your mind to. It’s an American educational underpinning, and I want him to experience that in a fundamental way. Beyond schools and such, it really, really sucks not having close family and friends be part of his day-to-day world. The fact that we all miss out on that close contact, the family reunions and vacations and weekends at grandma’s, not to mention having that additional help during school breaks and date nights, etc, is a huge price to pay for living overseas. Skype is great, but it’s nothing like the real thing.
What is the best part about raising kids in Paris? What do you love most about being a mom in Paris?
Despite it being a large city, Paris still seems quaint to me. There are parks of all sizes scattered through the city and everything is just a 20-minute bus ride away, so having access to open space as well as a multitude of cultural things to do is part of the appeal of raising kids here. Since it’s such a pedestrian city too we’re always running into friends in our neighborhood for spontaneous meet-ups with our kids, which takes a lot of the programming out of parenting. But I think my favorite tradition of all is the after-school goûter and the line-up for croissants and pains au chocolate at the bakery by every kid in the hood. I’m so envious that my kids gets to grow up with that kind of tradition!
3 lessons you learned while pregnant that you can Pay it Forward/Manna it Forward?
No one will give up a seat for you or offer to let you pass to the front of the line, so just ask for what you want, no-one will refuse you. Just a few weeks ago, at six months pregnant I got my family into the front of the Chenonceau Palace queue, by just marching up to the front and speaking with the guard. We saved hours waiting, and it was nothing short of victory.
Sign up for la creche while you’re still pregnant and attend the municipal meetings to meet the city hall officers that oversee selection, they like tenacity. And if you don’t get a spot right away (which you won’t) you need to get in their faces every couple of months. When it comes to getting a prized creche spot it’s either nepotism or unbridled insistence, but the combination of the two is ideal.
Take the free birthing-prep classes that the government pays for. We had a lovely woman come to our house with all sorts of props to prepare my husband and me for the D-day, showing us what to do to alleviate discomfort in our own space, how long to wait before going to the clinic, what to eat beforehand, etc. That course really took a lot of stress out of that crazy day!
3 things motherhood has taught you?
It’s easier to go through life when you’re no longer the center of your world.
You can get a shit load done in three minutes.
The longer the haul the better when you’re flying solo.
3 children’s products or brands that you couldn’t live without?
Avent storage cups for baby food and snacks on the go.
Baby Gap has been awesome for sturdy, stylish, comfy basics for our boy. And their easy shipping/return policy has been a life saver.
3 products or brands that you couldn’t live without?
Embryolisse lait-creme concentré, my go-to moisturizer, cleanser, night cream, especially handy for travel.
Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse, my after-shower dry oil moisturizer with an enchanting scent that always makes me feel fabulous.
By Terry lipsticks for their super long-tasting, eye-popping shades that brighten up your face no matter how little sleep you’ve had.