Aparna Floren was a young business student when she first landed in France 26 years ago. Gabrielle Qvist is a mother of three from Sweden who followed her husband to Paris in 2009. Both women thought the city of light would be a magical passage in their lives; but the attraction was so strong, both settled down to raise families in a new environment.
When the two met during an after-school pickup, it was a true friendship at first sight. They were in a similar life stage experiencing a major move to a new country, raising a family in a foreign environment and searching for a suitable new job. The two women collaborated to create Move Me To Paris in 2018, an expat concierge service.
Based on first-hand experience, they help new families overcome the toughest challenges of finding a new home, tackling French bureaucracy, and understanding cultural differences so they can enjoy their new life in France. INSPIRELLE met up with Aparna and Gabrielle to learn more about what they tell people who dream of moving to Paris.
Aparna and Gabrielle, can you share with us why you moved to Paris and what your personal experience was like settling down in France?
Gabrielle: I moved to Paris from Sweden with my husband and three small children as an expat in 2009. My husband got placed in Paris by the company he worked for and we decided to take the leap to move abroad. We wanted to give ourselves and our children an international experience and to allow our children the chance to learn French. We were supposed to stay a maximum of five years — we have now been here for 14 years.
When we first arrived, everything was very complicated and took a lot of time and effort to arrange. Coming from Sweden was maybe extra difficult since things in Sweden are very efficient and well organized. For example, one thing I thought was very difficult and that I wasn’t used to was that in Sweden everything is kind of organized for you. When it is time to go to the dentist, the dentist will send you a reminder. If you need to take an x-ray the doctor will tell you where to go; and it is always in the same place as where the doctor is. Everything is linked and digitized and easy to access. In school, all the material is provided by the school so you only need to give your child a backpack and show up.
In France, it was completely different. Here you must remember all the appointments and vaccines you need to buy separately and take to the appointment yourself; no one reminds you. If you need an x-ray or a blood test, you need to find out where to go by yourself. And, for school, it’s your job to buy all the materials for your child. This for me was very different.
Aparna: I moved to Paris from India as a student at ISG, an Ecole de Commerce (business school), to finish my BBA. I met my future husband, who is also Swedish, at this school and then carried on to do an MBA at ESLSCA, another Ecole de Commerce. We both loved living in Paris, so we decided to make it our home — and we are still here 26 years later. Coming to Paris as a student is a completely carefree experience as opposed to moving with a family. I had only myself to think of.
I didn’t speak a word of French when I came to France, so even simple tasks, such as buying stamps, were a challenge. Luckily, people were generally very nice and helpful and I settled in quickly. I realize now that I got lucky in finding an apartment with the help of an acquaintance. Although I encountered the same administrative hurdles as our clients do now (and still do), it didn’t take away the pleasure of living here. As a foreigner, I believe you need to make some effort to understand and adapt to your host country’s culture. It is also important that you travel with an open mind, a positive attitude, and take any experience, positive or negative, as an adventure.
How did the two of you meet and decide to create “Move Me to Paris”?
Gabrielle: We met our kids at an after-school activity. We stood outside waiting for our children to finish and started talking. After being friends for a while, Aparna mentioned she had been thinking for many years about starting a business to help foreigners/expats who struggled with the language and in their everyday life. So, we decided to start an expat concierge service business in 2018 to help the expat community.
As our business grew we got more and more relocation requests; and, during the first lockdown of COVID-19, we decided to redefine our business model. We became a full-blown relocation company and have since then helped numerous families move to the Paris area and settle in.
What, in your opinion, is the hardest aspect about moving to Paris?
One of the hardest aspects for many foreigners is understanding the very brutal and complicated rental market in France. There are many obstacles you have to overcome before you’re able to rent an apartment or house in France.
Does it get any easier once you are settled into a home here?
Once you have secured the living situation and gotten all the administrative tasks in place, such as electricity and internet contracts, most people start enjoying living in one of the most fabulous cities in the world. Somehow, tedious bureaucracy, unpleasant officials and unnecessarily complicated procedures for everything are tolerable because life in Paris offers other qualities that are hard to beat.
How do language and cultural differences affect the “move to Paris” experience?
If you move to France without knowing a word of French, it can be hard since most French people find it rude if you don’t at least try to speak the language before you switch to English. If you go to restaurants, museums or do shopping in the touristy parts of Paris you will most likely get by without speaking French. But, when you have to deal with electricians, your building manager, hairdressers or butchers you will most likely need to speak some French to be able to cope since they probably don’t speak English. So yes, learning the French language is important in France.
Cultural differences are of course also something you need to consider when moving to Paris or anywhere in France. It is always good to read a little about living in France before you move so that you don’t feel too alienated or make some big faux pas. For example, in France, you can live next to your neighbor for 20 years and even socialize and not know what he or she does for a living. You don’t talk about your job in your spare time! You never talk about money; and if you are invited for dinner at 8pm, you never arrive exactly on time and NEVER early.
French bureaucracy has a nasty reputation for being tedious and slow. Would you agree? Do you have any tips on how to smooth the process of paperwork?
We do agree, unfortunately! The government authorities are trying to improve and make processes more accessible and flexible through, for example, digitalization but, unfortunately, they often do not succeed. Many websites do not work, and it is often impossible to get hold of staff to ask questions.
Our main tip is to be prepared and be patient. Prepare all the documents they ask for, or that you imagine they could ask for, and make copies of everything. You also have to be prepared for things to take a very long time. Unfortunately, whether processes work smoothly or not is often about who you happen to get as an administrator.
From your experience, how important is a smooth move for a family with children?
In our opinion, a smooth move for a family is crucial for making the stay in a new country a positive experience. If everything is chaotic and connected with a lot of problems, the first impression of your new home country will not be good and might add a lot of unnecessary stress in an already stressful situation. If the relocation process is smooth we believe the rest of the stay tends to also be a more positive experience and the acclimatization for everyone in the family easier.
What do you tell people who dream of moving to Paris?
We tell them that it is one thing to visit Paris as a tourist and just experience the city on vacation, but a whole other story to actually live here.
We have many clients who have decided to take a year off work or work remotely and realize their dream of living in Paris. However, that is easier said than done, since if you do not come to work in a French company with a French CDI, renting an apartment becomes very challenging.
It doesn’t matter if you have millions of euros in your bank account in another country. You need to show that you have a steady income in France, otherwise noone will rent you an apartment.
We also tell them that although a lot of things may seem to be complicated — especially if you are from a non-European country — not to be scared off. We always find a solution and, in the end, it will be a fantastic, amazing and life-changing experience, because France is a wonderful place to live in.