Talking Travel and France with NPR journalist Eleanor Beardsley

On a recent sunny winter day, I stopped in a café in Boucicaut, in the heart of Paris’s 15th arrondissiment for a drink with Eleanor Beardsley. As NPR’s Paris based correspondent, much of our European news comes from via Mrs. Beardsley. Though you may not recognize her name, her voice permeates the airwaves of Morning Edition, Marketplace and The World, reporting on issues from the perennial transportation strikes to the recent marriage of Nicolas Sarközy.

Her work has taken her across Europe, from UN work in Kosovo to coverage of the recent terrorist bombings in London to World War I battlegrounds in the French countryside. Through her work she’s become a seasoned traveler and expatriate living in Parisian Society.

To listen to our conversation, click the play button below:

Or you can read a transcript after the jump.

Grant: So after living here for as many years as you’ve been, does Charles De Gaulle [airport] ever get less obnoxious?

Eleanor Beardsley
: I almost always end up taking a taxi, and if its not at peak time its okay — for like 40 Euros. But if I’m alone, what I usually find is the best way is the Roissy Bus. This bus circles around the terminal and basically you come out where you have your bags — it will pick you up and it lets you off at several points in Paris. I haven’t taken the RER in a long time; the RER will be quicker because it’s the train, but I think getting to it with your bags can sometimes be a hassle. I just get my bags, come out front, it does a whole tour of the airport, it’ll pick you up and it’ll take you to Opéra, or Charles De Gaulle [Etoille], the Arc de Triomphe — anywhere you really need to go, and then from there either I take the subway or I just catch a cab, it’s 8 Euros.

G: Do you find that you’re on assignment much for NPR then?

EB: Yeah, I mean I travel around France quite a bit — I mean since I had the baby less — but actually I just went to Kosovo for NPR, I’ve been there a few times. I went to London when there were the bombings; I’ve been to the Netherlands. There have been a lot of stories within France — I’ve gone to a lot of different places, Arles in the South, Normandy, Burgundy and all kinds of different places. Basically I can propose a story anywhere in France and I’ll go. They have other reporters around Europe, so I wouldn’t do a story in Italy, for example – and then they have somebody in Germany. So usually I propose around France, but then I have gone to Kosovo because I used to live there so I know it a bit.

G: So they’re pretty liberal with the stories you propose?

EB: Oh yeah, I think Americans might love or hate France, but they never get sick of it. I have way too much work – I can’t even do all the stories there are. They really like me to get out of Paris. I should get out of Paris more than I do actually, but there’s always a lot going on in Paris too.

[a brief conversation about hot chocolate ensues as the waiter stops by]

G: Do you have a favorite spot in France so far?

EB: I keep discovering great places because every region is just great for different reasons. I mean, France is just a treasure trove of little restaurants, little villages, cafes — it just never ends. Lately I really love Normandy, I love Honfleur, its a little teeny village — port town — it’s absolutely stunning, and then I love Trouville up on the coast, and then just driving along through all of these beautiful Norman towns, and of course you have all of the D-Day stuff up there and Bayeux is a beautiful town and its a ten minute drive from the D-Day beaches where there is still the landing gear on the beaches. It’s Arromanches in particular with all the landing gear and the fake harbor that they put up. I think that’s just incredible – to have oysters, to sit and look at the beaches…..

On the World War I stuff, up in Battle of the Somme, where they’re still finding munitions from the first world war, and it was incredible – all the huge battlefields are up there. The trenches are still there, that was the Western front and some places the farmers have plowed over them but in a lot of places they’re left and they’re just these scars deep in the grass that has grown over them.

G: What about in the world – any special places?

EB: I want to go back to Croatia, and I want to go to Malta. I did a story in Corsica once; I love Corsica, it’s a fabulous place. And of course there’s the whole world out there.

G: You’re not planning on moving back to the States then?

EB: The thing is, I got the gig for NPR from here and I’m not on staff in Washington. I could apply for a job, but I’m kind of enjoying the freedom here. My husband has two sons who are thirteen and fifteen and they’re in school, so it’s probably not good for me to move right now. But I really love Europe, and you’re close, you can do a lot here, so for the time being I’m very happy staying.

G: We get a lot of our French media from you, and from reading the Times and Post– there are a couple other roaming writers in the area – David Sedaris comes to mind, I guess — I often wondered if you and he sit around at night drinking port and engineering the American perspective on French society.

EB: I would love to meet David Sedaris because I teach this little journalism class – just English for these French journalism students – and I’ll often xerox a chapter of his book “Me Talk Pretty One Day” — just a short funny one I love that’s called “Make it a Double” where he talks about the difficulty of learning the French language, and it’s so funny. He’s got to be a great great person, but no I’ve never met him.

G: So you’re freelancing or a foreign correspondent for NPR?

EB: They go to me for everything, there are other people that do spots – it doesn’t mean that you own France or anything – but I know everyone in the shows and I work regularly. This weekend I had two pieces and they called me when [Sarkozy] got married and they said we need a piece.

G: Oh yeah, that was yesterday. How do you construct something like that?

EB: Actually it’s quite interesting. You have to be ready for it — like I was rea
dy for this story for a long time so had gone on the web and had gotten [Carla Bruni’s] song – she had a hit album in France in 2003 with a really famous song. So I had that ready. He had this press conference a couple of weeks ago where he said “Carla and I, we don’t want to hide, we don’t want to lie”. I already did a story on that but of course I had that sound bite.

And you’ve got — let’s say, yesterday, the mayor of a district of Paris that wed them gave an interview on the radio, so I got that. And then you just put in some TV sound of him talking about it. Then I went out on the street and talked to somebody, so you’ve got the streets of Paris sound with the scooter coming by, then the woman out there saying “Oh, if it’s true love”, you know. So you kind of construct it like that, with a series of things from TV and, radio, with the song, with the woman on the street. It was a quick thing.

G: So did you just engineer it at home?

EB: My office is actually in my apartment. You have to write the script and say how its going to be — fade up sound of this, fade under that, you know, you have to do everything. Then you just send the sound files and they actually mix it together in Washington, but I send them all the elements and the script which is like the directions. Actually radio is very labor intensive.

G: You did a lot of coverage for the election. Any fond memories of that coverage?

EB: Well, I would just go to these rallies and [Sarkozy] was just incredible. I mean, I would go to Segolene Royal’s rallies and I was like “Oh my God, this woman is a disaster!”. I just was so struck by how incredibly good he was. He could just work up a crowd — he could just talk about any subject — he was inspirational. I mean, I was like, ready to vote for him. I don’t vote in France, but he was so good. It was no comparison. It was just no comparison. So there was a lot of excitement when he won and I can understand that, but it’s true since then….

G: There have been struggles, right?

EB: It’s like when every leader comes in – Bill Clinton came in and look what happened, that took a long time. Yeah he came in the economy’s not good and then people said “Wait, what is this private life stuff?”. Although they’re very interested, they’re like, “What’s he doing, what about the state of France?”

G: And all that reform he was supposed to make?

EB: He actually did pass a lot of reforms and he’s only been in eight months, so there will be some things going on. It’s just the economy in the world stinks, so that’s not his fault. I think him getting married sort of is going to settle this a little bit, calm him down a little bit, calm the whole rumor mill, and he’ll be able to get on with thing.

G: You probably would have voted for Sarkozy then?

EB: You just can’t help it, when you go out and you listen to Siglund Royale and she just had the most waffling ideas, I was like “Oh my God, this is going to be the most disorganized country if she gets in”. As a foreigner you see the things in France that are great compared to your country, and then you see the things that are unbelievably… not great.

Actually I think perfect country is something between France and the US. They have so many great things here but it’s true that there are too many people taking advantage of the system and I just think that with her that would have gotten worse and he was dead on. He didn’t really have any competition because she wasn’t ready, she just wasn’t together. He’s been practicing for that for they say thirty years — and you can tell. There’s not one topic he couldn’t just immediately….

G: So you’ve adapted pretty well to the Parisians pretty well, even coming from Kosovo. I know that Serbia isn’t necessarily in the stone age, but it’s probably a very different environment.

EB: That was totally different. [Puts her hot chocolate down, pauses] There, I was working with the United Nations. It was this incredible environment of people from all over the world working for this common goal. Even there was no power or electricity or water half of the time, work was really exciting, it was a challenging environment, you always had friends and people to do stuff with and go out to eat.

Actually when I came to Paris, that was kind of a shock because this was real life. That wasn’t real life. And this was a real city – I came to Paris at 39 years old – people are married, people are already in their lives and don’t just go out and make a bunch of friends. From that point of view in the beginning it wasn’t easy getting set up. I wasn’t working with NPR – I didn’t have a job at all – I started at the Sorbonne taking French classes. It wasn’t easy, I have to say, in the beginning, but things really fell into place. Kind of like a puzzle, bit by bit.

G: How did you get into NPR then?

EB: Well I loved NPR, and I was working for the World. I did pieces from Kosovo for them and I knew the NPR correspondent Nick Spicer. We had lunch, he was such a nice guy and he totally encouraged me. Then I ran into him in 2004. We were both at this German grave site because he was doing this piece for the World and he was with NPR and he was like “Hey I’m leaving, do you want me to recommend you” and I was like “Yeah!”. He did, and I just started working immediately. I was kind of already up and going. For me it was incredible to be doing stuff from Paris. [NPR] said “We’ll see how it goes and see how you work” and I never stopped… and I went to went to Washington and signed a contract.

G: So is it true then that Carl Kasell has actually been dead for ten years and is just kept animated by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop?

EB: [Chuckles] Probably. You know, its kind of funny, I know my certain people that I work with at NPR, but I’m so far really from the whole real NPR scene, which is kind of good sometimes, but kind of bad because I feel out of it. And I’ve just recently gotten a radio that works on wi-fi, so everywhere in my house I can listen to the shows, which has really been good because I wasn’t keeping up like I should have.

G: Thanks for meeting with me