Thursday, August 28, 2014

Black Paris Profiles™ II: Elizabeth Milovidov - Part 1

I first met Elizabeth Milovidov in March 2013, when she attended the Discover Paris! Big Bang Boom Bloggers' Meet-up and Tweeps' Tweet-up. She stole the show that evening by winning the prize for naming the "Guess the Fesses" mystery sculpture contest that we hosted.

That evening, I learned that Elizabeth is an attorney and that she has a passion for children's rights and Internet safety for kids. Little did I know how deep that passion ran!

Fast forward to summer 2014, when Elizabeth graciously consented to be interviewed for a Black Paris Profile™. I'm pleased to present her fascinating story to you here. Part 1 addresses how she came to Paris and established a full and successful life here.


Elizabeth Milovidov
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Milovidov

After graduating from UCLA in 1988, Elizabeth Milovidov and a girlfriend strapped on their backpacks and hit Europe for two months. The trip was a definite eye-opener - full of history, cultural exchange and dreams. Though they visited several European capitals, Paris was the number one place on Elizabeth's list and in her heart.

It was Elizabeth's first trip out of the United States. She and her friend visited England, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg before arriving in France. She was enamored with Paris from the start:

We had planned the trip so that we would spend my summer birthday in Paris and we did. Champagne and nibbles on a picnic blanket under the Eiffel Tower. It really was amazing!

My inspiration for visiting Paris was the Paris lifestyle. The stereotypical ideals of Paris: chic women, stylish cafés and bistrots, coupled with the historical realities of how Black Americans like Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Richard Wright and James Baldwin were received in Paris, provided a wonderful backdrop to my idea of one day living in Paris.

After completing her law degree and going to work in a San Francisco law firm in 1991, Elizabeth came up with a simple plan to relocate to the City of Light. She sent resumes from her San Francisco home base in an attempt to integrate into a French law firm. There were no takers. She then realized then that the best way to get her foot in the door was to be physically present so that she could knock on doors. And she saw that the quickest way to do so was to become a student and obtain student visa allowing her to stay in France. At that time, she already had 3 degrees under her belt and to her parents' dismay, she was quite happy to add two more (MBA and MA in International Trade). She baptized her idea "The Student Plan."

After her first year in Paris (1995), Elizabeth realized that she was getting nowhere. She could not speak French and did not know French law. She had all the right language books, but she wasn’t making a serious effort to speak. So after 10 months of frustration, she went to the American Church in Paris and looked at the housing boards.

American Church in Paris
© Discover Paris!

She found a French student roommate and immediately moved in with her. Her life changed dramatically as she began living a French experience and no longer exclusively hung out with international students. It was a defining moment.

She spent a summer at the Sorbonne taking intensive French lessons, 5 hours a day 5 hours a week. Those lessons, plus the interaction with her roommate, provided an intermediate level of French that facilitated being hired at a French company. Her French is now fluent.

To anchor her future here, Elizabeth put ego aside, rolled up her sleeves, and taught English and babysitting to earn money while attending an English-language MBA program. Some of the people that she met years ago while giving English conversation lessons are remain good friends today. She still advises new arrivals in Paris to offer conversation courses or even simple conversation exchanges as a way to meet interesting people and earn pocket change while doing so.

After having lived in Paris for 19 years, Elizabeth still believes that moving here was the best decision she could have made. When she looks back on that first, fateful trip to Europe, she fondly remembers her visit to French-speaking Belgium. She says that though she found the Belgians to be quite welcoming and Brussels to be historically impressive, her heart was still drawn to Paris. Ironically, she now does consulting work in Brussels and marvels at how the European train system allows her to live in one country, while working in another.

When Elizabeth finally landed her first position, she found that the French corporate world is a very different environment than what she expected:

When I started working in my San Francisco law firm, the first week and even the first day were filled with welcoming activities: lunches, happy hour drinks and so forth. When I started working at my first French company (a subsidiary of a large American company no less), I was surprised at my welcome. Everyone treated me with courtesy of course, but I ate lunch alone for the first several weeks and needless to say, Happy hour was out. It was over two years before I was invited to a colleague’s home.

But none of this is a criticism of the French! It is but a mere illustration of how things can be different. In France and in the French corporate environment, you have to prove yourself, you have to endure, you have to realize that things are done differently - not wrongly, but differently. You are not instantly welcomed "just because," you are welcomed over time and after substantial contribution.

Oh and by the way, I am still friends with my French colleagues from that first corporate experience in 1997. It may have taken a while to create the links of friendship, but once they exist, they are strong bonds.

Because she believes that expatriates need a stronger support system than do locals, Elizabeth has created several networks in Paris. She joined Message for her children (play dates with other Americans) and found herself drawn to Message Entrepreneurs and other subgroups. She has a network of African-American women network, a Child Rights network, and even a professor network. With the exception of Message, none of them are “official” - rather, they are groupings of like-minded individuals around a particular subject. The bottom line is that they all serve to support.

Elizabeth's favorite place in Paris is...

the Eiffel Tower!

Eiffel Tower
© Discover Paris!

I have lived here 19 years and I love so many things in Paris. I wish I could name some little hidden gem tucked away on a cobblestone street, but honestly my favorite place is still the Eiffel Tower. When I first arrived in Paris, I lived in the 15th arrondissement within a 15-minute walk to the Eiffel Tower and I could never get enough of seeing the symbol of Paris. Every time I see the Eiffel Tower, it reminds me of that young attorney who dared to dream big enough.

Elizabeth is married to a Russian citizen and has two sons who were born in France. They are growing up just like any other young boys in Paris, but Elizabeth wants them to grow up being aware of their tri-cultural origin as well:

I try to ensure that have a normal life in Paris, with a blend of my American culture, their father's Russian culture and of course their native country of Paris. It can be a challenge, since they are enrolled in a French bilingual school and I do not always understand the system. But I try to make sure that they have play dates in all three of their languages, while overseeing their education.

Tough stuff, I am not kidding you. Give me the good ol' PhD days anytime. Being an American with children in the French educational system can be another one of those challenges that I mentioned earlier. Different, not wrong, but different.

I just asked my boys what they like to do in Paris and they responded "Disneyland, Playmobil park, Centre Pompidou and the trampolines in the Jardin de Tuilieres." But that's today. If we ask them tomorrow, I'm sure it will be something else. Which is exactly the beauty of Paris and raising children here.

Part 2 of this Black Paris Profile™ features Elizabeth's professional life in Paris.


Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

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1 comment:

dmaxIII said...

I have never met Elizabeth,however I have known her father, since before she was born. I am so happy to have been able to read this article about her life in Europe, Paris, in particular. Her dad would always swell pride,whenever speaking of her. I, understand his pride and I salute Elizabeth's prolific accomplishments.
David L. Maxwell