Andrea Knežević has a story and resumé that would be impressive for someone twice her age. The 30-year-old Bosnian grew up during the Balkan War, became a journalist after earning her Political Sciences degree and moved to Paris four years ago—where she got married, had her son Luka and launched a kids’ clothing line in quick succession. A polyglot who speaks five languages (“My French, lets say, is coming to be fluent!”), Andrea continues her journalism work as an EU project consultant, championing young female activists in Muslim countries. She’s passionate about giving back: Part of the proceeds from sales of her Luka & CO collection is earmarked for Bosnian children’s charities.
Andrea is an unstoppable force, but with some stalker-ish persistence, I was able to slow her down enough to get her thoughts on motherhood, expat life and seemingly having it all.
The Balkan War started when you were seven years old. How do you think that experience informs your expat life in Paris?
After the war, people didn’t have anything left. You really have to work hard in Sarajevo. But with that hard work comes a lot of experience. By the time I arrived in France at the age of 26, I had already been a reporter for the Bosnian TV1 news channel for 5 years and was about to become an editor. No one quits at that point! But I said, “Okay, I’m going to make a change. Now is my chance.” At first, it was really hard sitting at home and doing nothing in Paris. I didn’t marry my French husband so he would support me. But I got lucky. It was the presidential election here in France and TV1 asked me to continue reporting. So it was perfect. I was able to keep working in my chosen field, which I know doesn’t happen for a lot of expats.
What are some of the biggest cultural differences you’ve noticed living in France?
It’s different! [Laughs] When you come from the Balkan countries, like Americans, we work hard. Here, my husband has six-week holidays. There are always days off. He has two-hour lunches! So for me, the culture shock was laziness. Maybe they’re not lazy for European people, but the French are a phlegmatic people. They are very tranquil. I feel they need more action in their lives! Look, we’e sitting in a coffee shop and they are whisper-talking.
In my country, we are allowed to talk a lot and loudly. Americans are the same. It’s a lot of shock at first, but there are good things, too!
Within a year, you’d moved, married and gotten pregnant. That’s fast!
Luka wasn’t planned. I’d always imagined being a mother someday, but I wanted to build my career first. That was my dream. My husband had his company and work and I was stuck at home pregnant with my stomach sticking out like this. I could barely move. But when Luka was born, everything fell into place. I got a job as a consultant for a firm in London. He was three months old and everything still hurt, but I said I’m doing it and it’s going to be fine.
What do you do for the consulting firm?
The company works with the European Union government on various projects, usually in a social field like refugees, women empowerment, etc. I’m working as a journalist. It takes a lot of time. It’s traveling consistently, but I enjoy doing it. I find candidates, interview them and write a report. It takes a lot of time. It’s traveling consistently, but I like doing it. Right now, we are working with Eastern European women in political positions in mostly Muslim countries. They are activists who, in ten years, can have higher positions in government. It’s a difficult project because in countries like Egypt and Lebanon, it’s hard to even imagine a woman being in such a high position. But there are so many young girls willing to be active and pushing for such things. It’s amazing to interview them. It’s a two-year project after which all the interviews will be compiled and given to the government of whichever EU country has asked for it.
How do you juggle all the traveling with having an 18-month-old? How do you manage the logistics?
Luka stays home and my mom has come a few times to help. My sister lives here, so she helps, too. Plus there’s the nanny. My husband comes home from work and everything is already done. He just gets to sleep with Luka. Of course, there are moments when the nanny can’t stay, my mother isn’t here and my husband has to make arrangements. It can become complicated, but I don’t plan to quit my job. We manage it. I do what I need to do. No choice.
What’s the longest you’ve been away from Luka? And how do you deal with it?
As a mom, it’s hard to be away for five or six days. It’s hard to leave him. I feel like I miss a lot of small things with Luka. But my husband works on Saturdays and this is Luka day. I don’t need help that day. It’s just me and him. Before I leave on a trip, I make sure everything is prepared. I think the boys might be better without me because they can finally relax! “Yeah she’s gone. We can do whatever we want!”
What is your typical morning routine? First thing you do in the morning? Last thing you do at night?
I wake up between 6 and 7 am. I get Luka ready first thing, whether it’s my husband or the nanny taking him to the crèche. He has his bottle while I shower—and whatever else I can squeeze in fifteen minutes! Then I wait for my husband to come down and I finish getting ready. Everyone is out by 8-8:30 and that’s when my day really starts. But first, I have my coffee. The house can burn down, but I will have my coffee.
I usually work on the consulting projects until noon. The afternoon is all about Luka & Co. I feel like I don’t have enough hours in a day. Luka comes home around 6-6:30pm. I only have an hour with him. I give him dinner, he takes a bath and is in bed by 7:30pm.
I go to bed around 10 or 11 pm. I watch a movie and fall asleep. I never finish the movie because I’m just dead. I’m exhausted all day. Luka wakes up during the night, so I try to get to bed early. He’s up every two or three hours. Sometimes, I just bring him in our bed so I can sleep.
How and when do you relax?
(This was the one question that made Andrea pause.) I love to read. I don’t find too much time but when I travel, I can read two books in two days. I usually have morning meetings but then I have all afternoon to myself. I also love to go out—at least once a week with the girls.
Thursday night is girls’ night. I do it for myself. I don’t want to be the angry mom sitting at home.
Do you and your husband find time for romance with such a hectic life and a baby?
My husband doesn’t work Mondays, so that’s our day while Luka is at nursery. We also go out a lot together, but not like before. Now we have Luka. We have to organize everything around the baby.
What’s the most valuable advice you can give, whether it’s about being a woman or a mother or life in general?
Financial independence. It kills everything when you don’t have it. In France, it’s okay because women work. But back home, my friends are 90% stay-at-home moms. Their marriages are falling apart. They are not being themselves.
If you are going be at SAHM, do it with pleasure. But if not, try to find something for yourself. It makes you a better woman, better wife, better mom. It’s hard to find a balance.
What do you miss most about Bosnia?
The people. They are friendly, relaxed and polite. I miss my friends. Whenever I go back, they make me feel at home. Perhaps because after the war, people didn’t have so much so they share. And what’s left is the humor. You never feel alone there. In Paris, if you are alone, you stay alone. And the food! I always get fat there!
What do you love about Paris?
Paris is good. It offers you a lot of opportunities—career, financial, social. You have the whole world in Paris. Whatever you want to do in your life, you can do it here. And I love the expat community here. Without them, I could not survive. I don’t have French friends, but I don’t feel like I need them. I made my world here with my expat people. I’m comfortable with them. I have a French husband and son. That’s enough French for me.
How do you share your Bosnian culture with Luka? Do you visit Bosnia often?
I go back once or twice a year. Always in the summer. At home, everyone except my husband talks to Luka in Bosnian. I read him the books and let him watch the cartoons from my childhood. When my mom comes, she makes a lot of Bosnian food.”
Images courtesy of Andrea Knežević
Find out more about Andrea’s clothing line, Luka & CO, and a special giveaway just for LES LOLOS readers!