Isabelle Risacher Moogalian is a bicultural coach helping expats adjust to their new lives in Paris. Her own life aboard a peniche on the Seine seemed idyllic with American-born Mark Moogalian, until they became victims of an attempted terrorist attack on a Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015.
Seconds after Mark wrenched the automatic weapon from the hands of the attacker, he was shot in the back as he tried to get away. The bullet pierced his body and shot through his neck. It was the sharp sound of the gunshot that alerted other passengers to intervene, thus preventing a massacre aboard the train. Six months after the thwarted attack, Isabelle Risacher Moogalian talks to INSPIRELLE about the importance of moving forward with their lives, especially after the November 2015 Paris attacks.
Isabelle, how are you and Mark doing today after what you experienced on the train from Amsterdam to Paris last summer?
We are doing a lot better! Mark is healing; his left arm and left hand are better; and he has started playing the guitar again, even though he was told it will take another two years before he has fully recovered. We are also healing psychologically. November’s horrible events have been a challenge but, overall, the whole experience has brought us closer together and made us stronger.
For the first two weeks, the public did not know that your husband, Mark, was the first to confront the train attacker and stop him at the front of your train wagon. How did he remain an unknown hero?
At the beginning things were very confusing, and since Mark was in the hospital in serious condition he was not able to tell his story. There were few direct witnesses to what happened because the passengers in car 12 could not see what was happening on the other side of the glass door. And, after Mark warned people to leave, there was practically no one left on our side of the car aside from myself and maybe two or three other passengers.
Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler were sitting several rows from us and became aware of the situation when they heard the shot that wounded Mark. They had no idea he had been shot with a 9mm-Luger after taking the actual AK-M from the terrorist! The event happened in two “stages” but the protagonists of each stage did not see or know what the others had done before or after them. Also, the backs of the seats in the Thalys train are very high and offer little visibility.
I decided to give interviews to tell Mark’s story after the newspapers, television and the press conference at the American Embassy presented Mark as a “passenger injured by a stray bullet”. I could not accept that! He nearly lost his life saving others.
We learned in the New Year that Mark will receive the Legion of Honor for his heroic act. What would you say is the quality in your husband that prompted him to react so courageously in face of danger?
Instinct! He did not think about it. He reacted right away because I was sitting right there by the door. He instantly thought I would be the first victim; he wanted to protect me. He warned me and the nearby passengers very calmly. He did something somewhat similar back in 2009 when a man was drowning in the Seine river. It was in February, very early in the morning, cold, and still dark outside. When Mark saw the drowning man, he immediately called the “brigade fluviale” (river police) and they came in time to save him. He did not think twice.
What has helped you to get on with your life?
Being thankful to be both be alive and together! The fact that we were very lucky during the shooting. Lucky that Damien and Mark did what they did, which led to the terrorist being disarmed. Mark did not know the terrorist had another weapon – a 9mm Luger – and then Spencer, Alek and Anthony (and later two other men) coming to the rescue when they heard the gun shot. Mark was down, and the gunman was retrieving his AK-M.
Lives were saved, Mark survived his gunshot wound, and we now have a connection with Spencer, who saved his life. This connection will always be there. The difficult side of the event won’t go away either. But it has brought us closer together as a couple, and as two people sharing a very strong, life-changing, question-raising experience.
You are a singer, communicator and teacher. Why did you become a bicultural coach?
Being a singer, a communications consultant and a teacher have a lot in common: creativity, intuition, discipline, structure, love of other people and of art, language and communicating with means other than language. My 30-year professional life has been rich and diverse, including different experiences, but they all have one thing in common: they are dedicated to customer service, whether working in large corporations (Disney, Benetton), smaller companies (communications and web agencies), or with individual clients, and I think becoming a professional coach sums up all my experiences, both professional and personal. Also, I have created my own business in the US and in France, and I am a people person, a good listener, I am energetic and a problem-solver, and I like the challenges of change.
I spent 10 years in the US and I married an American citizen, which gives me perspective about my own culture (I was born and raised in France), and I know how it feels to be an expat. Today, I consider myself to be bicultural and my coaching is intercultural. Getting to know another culture, with its differences from your own, makes it easier to live and work in that culture.
Why do you think some people are so surprised at the cultural differences when moving to France?
I think we imagine, just because both countries are western countries, that the differences will be minor. But let’s not forget France is a Latin country! And there are influences from other European countries that make our regions so different from one another. The East is influenced by Germany and Switzerland, West by the Celtic culture, South East is closer to the Mediterranean countries, especially Italy, and South West has more of a Spanish influence. Of course, it is not quite that simple! France is culturally very complex, and it takes time to understand its diversity. In some situations, the French and American cultures can have opposite approaches!
How do you help international people understand the nuances and differences of the French culture and mentality?
By presenting them, discussing them. The idea is not to compare but just to see things for what they are. The more you understand about a culture, the better you accept differences without judgement, without taking things personally, overcoming possible mental blocks. It will help you integrate harmoniously without losing your own identity. The same way you get to know a person. Your cultural differences greatly participate in making you who you are, and they can become real assets if you know how to “present” them and use them to your advantage.
You’re French born and married to an American “expat” in France. Should mixed couples also be aware of how cultural differences can influence their marital relationships?
Yes! No doubt about that. The same way we can have misunderstandings at work and in society in general, there can be some misunderstandings in the microcosm of a close relationship because of cultural differences. It is important to identify them so you don’t take them personally. This allows you to better appreciate your significant other’s behaviors and reactions. As with any relationship, communicating is key. Sometimes, French and American cultural differences complement each other quite well!
As someone who was an expat living in America for 10 years, what do you think is the best way to integrate into a new country?
Go for it! Jump in! Be curious, open-minded, observe, discover, participate, and don’t be afraid of the language barrier. There are so many things we communicate on the non-verbal level; be like a child who has discovered a new playground.
There is an advantage to being an outsider – it gives you an edge. People tend to be more lenient and forgiving – even if you think your French is horrible (I can also help with that) – because you are “exotic” to them, and that allows you more latitude to be who you want to be. It is a unique experience that can set you free!
Paris suffered horrible attacks again in November 2015. Has your way of life changed?
I was very much affected by the events that took place in November. I really felt for the victims, it echoed my own experience. And even though I felt sad, angry, more stressed going out or taking public transportation, my life has been exactly the same. I have not really changed anything: I still go to work, I go out to see my friends, go shopping, etcetera. Changing anything would mean the terrorists have won.
Many people ask these days if Paris is safe. What do you tell them?
Paris is as safe as any major city in Europe. Unfortunately, we have entered an unstable and difficult era where some people think terror and murder is the answer. But as long as we stick together, as long as we have solidarity, as long as we keep loving each other, caring about each other and remain open, as long as peace is our goal, then we are safe.