A fireside chat with prominent French-American journalist Stanislas Berteloot to hear his answer to his own signature question: “What does America mean to you?”
If you are a regular RIVIERA BUZZ reader, you’ve come across the name Stanislas Berteloot on several occasions. In September 2019, the former Fleet Street journalist wrote a great piece about his daughter’s involvement in climate change (also published in French in WeDemain). More recently, he shared some of his podcast episodes with our readers. He is a well-respected contributor across many different platforms other than this magazine with a reputation for asking hard questions about some of the burning issues of our current society. And he is a French-American expat who has spent large portions of his life on either side of the Pond.
In his podcast “Back in America” , Stan signs off of each episode with a trademark question to his guests: “What does America mean to you?”, weaving a multidimensional fabric of what makes America, America. Today, we are turning the tables to interview the interviewer and find out what makes Stan, Stan.
But first an introduction to a man who wears many hats with equal grace: Journalist, marketing expert, social media personality, community activist, trailing spouse, father of three. He is decidedly an early and enthusiastic adopter of all things technology and social media. So podcasting comes naturally to the eternally-youthful fifty-something.
If his podcast is a pivotal piece in Stan’s career, it’s because he knows America from the inside out. He is more than an expat, he is a “serial transatlantic relocator” who has moved across the Big Pond not once but twice. He lived there as a high school and university student, savouring the heady flair the progressive, enterprising United States of the 1980s and 1990s offered. He then returned to France for a long while, and finally came back in 2016, now in his late forties and with a family in tow, only to find a country in turmoil.
This second relocation has provided the basis for “Back in America”. The title alone gives away the whole plot in one short quip. Through his European lens, Stan examines the contemporary American values, culture, and identity that make up the varied and surprising image of this vast and diverse country. Naturally, there are cultural discrepancies from his European standpoint – but that’s just the point. Although presented in an easygoing way, this is not the kind of chipper podcast intended for mass consumption and casual background noise, but targets those who are interested in thoughtful discussion and various different voices.
Since its creation in 2019, the podcast has positioned itself as the connective tissue between the many complex layers that make up American society. Layers that are often frayed around the edges from having been buried for so long but that have recently begun to come to the surface. Tensions are running high. Young people feel shortchanged. A highly divisive political climate, increased discrimination, and much greater readiness for violence have done a lot of damage.
A mix of prominent guests and “regular Joes” gladly take the time to sit with him for half an hour to share their opinions. While virtually all of Stan’s guests are Americans, talking about topics close to their hearts, the podcast is also highly educational for Europeans. “In Europe, people often think they know America, and that it’s quite similar to Europe, but that is really not the case. You need to understand the social fabric. You need to grasp the values of this country to understand what makes America, America,” Stan explains.
Listening to him, you quickly grasp that this man is a trained journalist, not another wannabe-influencer cashing in on a social media trend. Stan, the “foreigner”, has a unique understanding and love for his adopted country but he does not pussyfoot around hot topics like racial violence, the Constitution, the right to bear arms, work culture, immigration, capitalism, the pandemic and its impact on small businesses, the arts, toxic masculinity, and gender equality in today’s society… he tackles them head-on. He does so with lots of charm and a delightful French accent which cushions many an inconvenient truth. But the shoe fits also on the other foot: “As an American, this podcast has exposed me to new ideas,” says Missy Grimes, a listener from a small town in Maryland. “Back in America has challenged what I took for granted so far.” So, without further ado, let’s meet Stanislas Berteloot:
Stan, give us a nutshell version of who you are
I was born in Nantes, France, and currently live in Princeton, NJ, USA with my wife Chantal. We have three daughters. Our older ones, Zoe (age 21) and Violette (18) are already off to university, our youngest girl Hermeline (15) is still at home. Our dogs Eddy and Khoda complete the family.
I had lived in the States a first time in my youth – the 1980s and early 1990. Then I went back to France and spent over 20 years in Paris before returning to the U.S. in 2016. The contrast between then and now was extraordinary. That’s what I wanted to explore in greater detail. Was it me who had changed, or the country?
What first piqued your interest in the USA and how did you discover the country?
It goes back to my family and how I grew up. I am the youngest of seven kids, and born 13 years after no. 6. Because of the big age gap I always saw my older siblings coming from or going on a trip. Their travels inspired me to explore the world myself as soon as I could. Then, when I was a teen in the 1980s, American culture got its hook into me with all the Americana that were coming to France… from Mickey D to music, movies, sports, and fashion.
My parents, who were pretty easygoing, encouraged me to do a first student exchange with Detroit when I was 14, and with Toledo a year later. And when the opportunity came up later to do a High School year in Iowa, I jumped at the chance. It was a life-changing experience. Everything was so much easier there, and the exchange with the teachers was way more interactive than in France. I just loved it. I had an amazing time.
Even when coming back to France after that High School year, I was already determined to return to the States for my studies, and took a job at a restaurant to save money. As soon as I could, I enrolled at the University of Maryland for a B.A. in journalism and a minor in political science. I had the great good fortune to be staying at a house in the Dupont Circle of Washington, DC in exchange for dogsitting and handyman work around the house. Life was awesome! Sadly, all good things must come to an end… after graduation, French military service was calling, so I reluctantly went back to France. Luckily I had the chance to do it at the communications department of the Ministry of Defense in Paris.
How did you launch your career in journalism?
While in Paris, I met Chantal and then hung up my American dreams and shifted my priorities to building a career and starting a family. I was keen on working as a journalist, and got an internship with the Wall Street Journal in Brussels. And from then on, I was on my way. After WSJ, I literally banged on the doors of Reuters in London’s Fleet Street on Christmas Eve, and refused to leave until the HR lady came down and grumblingly accepted my CV – which led to a yearlong job as a researcher for the graphic department. Persistence pays, I learned.
Among my pieces from that time that had the biggest impact was my story published during my internship at the Wall Street Journal about EquiLibre, a for-profit humanitarian organisation… a total contradiction to the normal non-profit model and a piece in the French La Libération newspaper about Sealand, a rogue “independent nation” the size of a football pitch based on a rock off of the English coast.
But then you swapped your media career for a job in corporate communications. Why?
Yes, I did. My wife was building her own career, and we had started a family. So once I realized that corporate PR paid much better than newspapers, I put out a job search post on the internet which in the mid 1990s was still in its infancy. A French-American tech company saw it and hired me. It was a great opportunity and the kickoff to a good 20 years in corporate marketing and communications with several high-profile companies, and always in an international context. But I also kept up activities, like blogging for my local community, because in my heart of hearts, I never really wanted to quit journalism altogether.
So that brings us to the mid 2010s. Then what happened?
Chantal, who by now was a director of HR for a multinational pharma company, got a great offer to transfer to the U.S. While I secretly jumped with joy we had to consider of course the pluses and minuses of such a major relocation on our adolescent daughters. But we all agreed it was well worth it, and we arrived in Princeton, New Jersey, in August 2016. It just so happened to be the months running up to the presidential election, with Hillary Clinton facing Donald Trump. Well, we all know how that panned out.
After so many years as a director in a stable corporate environment, this move was a big change for me. I had to literally reinvent myself. It was also very important to me to support Chantal’s career so I automatically took on more of the family “duties”. We have always been very fluid in the distribution of our responsibilities. Once here, I started working as a marketing and communications consultant which allowed me more flexibility and presence for my kids.
What is Princeton like?
Princeton is a great place – it’s small but very cosmopolitan because of its university and the headquarters of large multinational companies. So in that respect it’s a micro cosmos of the USA really. This teaches kids values for life. At the same time it’s an island for intellectuals and liberals, and a safe place to raise a family. What struck me was how many professional expat women there were, with a husband and family trailing in tow – the reversal of the cliché of the career-minded husband followed by a dutiful wife.
How did it feel for you to finally Be ”Back in America”? How was the America you found different from the one you had left over 20 years earlier?
It was very difficult. We found a country that due to immense challenges in the preceding decade – the 9/11 terrorist attack, the 2008 financial crisis – was politically already highly divided, and many people had abandoned “The American Dream”. A few months after our arrival Trump was elected president, and then we really had the feeling that the country was heading toward a cliff. It was hard for our kids to adapt, they missed their friends and life back home. But after a while everyone settled in.
As time went by, I realized how many homeless people, and those who couldn’t afford to buy food there really were, even in my nice and affluent town of Princeton. Social inequality had always been a problem in the States but the Trump administration compounded it. A much ruder tone between people, gratuitous violence, blatant racism, a disregard for environmental issues, an increase in physical and mental health problems – none of these are unique to the USA but Trump and his policies really brought them into focus and divided the country in haves and have-nots, in black and white, in “good” (his supporters) and “bad” (all others.)
Did these problems motivate you to fight against them in some way?
Yes, they did. They inspired two major things:
For one, I have always been interested in social justice and in helping the less fortunate ones. So I got involved in a charity called Share my Meals. It is a non-profit organization run by volunteers that aims to alleviate hunger and food waste in the Princeton area. We work with local entities seeking to curb the environmental impact of food waste by providing their excess inventory to people in need. Our organization connects these two realities and creates a positive outcome for our community and our environment.
Not even the pandemic could stop us. In 2020, thanks to the amazing support of four partner restaurants, our team of 40 motivated volunteers, and more than 300 generous donors, we have been able to deliver more than 36,000 healthy meals directly to the home of the 105 families enrolled in our program. Due to our increased workload we now also offer a Community Inclusion Program aiming to incorporate in our daily operations the talents and skills of people from the community who have lost their jobs. The blog I write for the website gives an insight into our day-to-day work.
And then, the way the U.S. had developed socially, also inspired my podcast. I really wanted to understand some of the things that are total mysteries to us Europeans. Why are people so hell-bent on bearing arms? Why can races not co-exist in equality? Why is war almost revered while we in Europe fear it more than anything? Is America really more gender-equal than the Old Continent? All these puzzling complexities… or in a nutshell, what does it mean to be American, what makes up the American identity, and what does America mean to her citizens?
Of all the topics, and your impressive list of high-profile guests, which of your podcast guests or episodes is your personal favourite one?
I am really privileged to have had some amazing top-echelon interviewees like Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the widow of Rep. Elijah Cummings and an up and coming star in the Democratic Party herself. But I enjoy just as much speaking to the so-called “little guy”. My eclectic list features, among many others, a druid, a survivor of traumatic abuse, and young people like Josh Wagner, a 2020 election pollworker (and a “Back in America” intern, by the way.) They all have amazing and important stories to share.
But if I do have to pick a favourite, I’ll see your one and raise you two:
The first one was my conversation with John Lam on being the son of poor Vietnamese immigrants who became the principal dancer at the Boston Ballet, came out as gay, married his partner, and is raising two children with him. A fascinating success story against the odds, “made in America”.
The other incredible story I did a series of interviews on was that of Enslaved, The Lost History of the Transatlatic Slave Trade. The wildly successful EPIX / BBC docuseries follows Samuel L. Jackson’s search for his African ancestors, and travels across the globe to sites of slave ships to uncover what these sunken graveyards can reveal about life onboard. I had the privilege to talk to three researchers involved in investigating the secrets of the sunken past: British marine archaeologist Dr. Sean Kingsley, and Black divers Kinga Philipps and Kramer Wimberley.
In your personal opinion, what is better in America than in Europe?
Americans are very individualistic and place great importance on self-sufficiency. The U.S. is really a land of opportunities for everyone. Forget about class. It is a meritocracy in which you can make it based not on who you know but how hard you are willing to work. You form communities and stick with them. It is that mentality that made them successfully cross this enormous country in quest of new frontiers. And it is the same quality that early immigrants brought with them. Work, sacrifice, and you’ll go places in this nation of communities.
It also doesn’t really matter what ethnic or national background you have. It is perfectly fine to be Chinese-American, Polish-American, Irish-American, Indian-American… whatever. You can proudly celebrate the traditions of your heritage, or even live in your own community without ever even speaking English, as long as you are willing to identify with the prized values of the federation.
The exception to the rule applies to African-Americans. They are the victims of a brutal history of 400 years which has never been properly addressed, and Black persons still have not found their true place in the fabric America is stitched from. America, which as a nation is only 245 years old, has a short-term memory and is not much interested in “looking back” – that’s where the problem lies.
Making it on your own is fine as long as everything goes well. But when there are disasters like economic crises or the current pandemic, or even a personal misfortune like loss of employment or a major health issue, there are very few safety nets that catch you when you fall.
And where does Europe fare better in comparison?
The difference is the the “society versus community” thinking: While in the States you rely on your own personal network, Europe believes you cannot function well as an individual alone, you need the support of society, and the solidarity of an entire people fighting for a common cause. Things like health insurance, unemployment benefits, assistance for the needy, access to education for all, or social and workers’ rights are important values that have been hard fought for by society.
Europe also places much more importance on education, history, and culture. I am aware that in a way that creates a class system but Europe, as a whole, also does take better care of the socially weaker ones. Take for example mental health care which is increasingly becoming an issue. Europe has had good resources in place for decades whereas America is only just beginning its open debate.
How is America doing at this time, shortly after the inauguration of President Joe Biden?
I have noticed some improvement already. The tone he sets – less confrontational, more conciliatory – is beginning to trickle down to the people. I don’t think the country will find back to its optimistic, forward-thinking, and benevolent mood of 20 or 30 years ago. But I do hope that people learn to respect each other again, a bit better at least.
And do you see your own future in the U.S.?
I still love America and have no personal regrets even if as a parent you always ask yourself of course if you did the right thing for your children. But I think we did. It was an eye-opening and life-changing experience for them, like it was for me when I was their age and first came to America. I am not sure though if we will spend the rest of our lives here, we are, after all the typical upwardly mobile family and always open to new and exciting opportunities.
And finally, Stan, tell us, what does America mean to you?
America to me is like a dream that doesn’t quite become reality. It’s a place that allowed me to become who I am today and to that I will always be grateful. Yet it is a nation of hypocrites, coming across as direct yet rarely speaking their mind; a so-called melting pot that actually manufacture separate communities living next to each other, not together. It is a place of frustrations where everything seems possible and yet where so many people are left out.
And last but not least: how can our readers follow you?
I would love to “meet” them on one or several of my social media platforms. Feel free to engage with me!
Thank you for this insightful interview, Stan Berteloot!
All photos courtesy Stanislas Berteloot except photo of Princeton By Djkeddie – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0; photo of homeless Veteran on Boston streets by Matthew Woitunski – Own work, CC BY 3.0; photo of Dragon in Chinatown NYC Lunar New Year by Patrick Kwan from New York City, USA, CC BY 2.0; photo of Gilet Jaune by Thomon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0