Moving to France in the best of times can be a daunting experience. Opening the right bank account, finding an affordable, livable apartment in a suitable neighborhood or settling your children into a good school are decisions that cannot wait. If you don’t yet master the simplest French conversation, expect some misunderstandings over what a French person is telling or selling you and your family.
Now imagine moving to Paris during the Covid pandemic. Many administrative offices are no longer walk-in, a French-speaking person answers every one of your telephone calls and the curfew restrictions means much of what makes the City of Light sparkle is shut down. You’ll have to visit Paris museums online, drink café to-go and savor French cuisine by take-out or delivery for a while.
Even seasoned expats admit it takes a lot of patience, perseverance and appreciation of the French culture and system to live here. It also helps to have a French helping hand to get things done.
Meet Delphine Brière, founder of My Paris Touch, who untangles the French knots for you. She sees herself as a greeter to one of the world’s most exciting and complicated cities. INSPIRELLE asked Delphine just what makes Paris so challenging. A bicultural entrepreneur, she shares the keys that open French doors to get you settled in, build a new social circle or start a business here.
What gave you this idea that expats needed help in settling into Paris with My Paris Touch?
Paris is a popular tourism spot and a particularly cinematographic city. And often people have a glamorous but distorted vision of it as they usually come during summer and only see the chicest neighborhoods. But to come to live here is a whole different thing, as one needs to know the codes of French and Parisian culture, which are quite different from the Anglo-Saxon ones.
The other big hurdle is the French bureaucracy and administration, which remains necessary but can make your life very difficult and stressful. I also think that arriving in a country that you don’t really know and not knowing how to speak the language can really be extremely painful and demoralizing. Therefore, having a trusted person to guide you, to give you little tips and advice, will save you precious time as it decreases the mental load. It can really change your experience and your move into this new life.
Tell us why you want to help expats settle into France?
A few years ago, I created a blog on Paris where I gave some ideas, tips for cultural outings, for restaurants etc.. and my entourage welcomed this project with great enthusiasm. As for me, it was a way to be creative and to stimulate myself intellectually.
I became a “greeter.” I volunteered to show my neighborhood to visiting foreign tourists, and once again, I was pleasantly surprised by the very positive feedback I received for my visits and advice. I adore sharing my love for the city and each time that I came across expats that weren’t fond of Paris, that found it difficult to integrate, it saddened me.
For me, it was so obvious that the city of Paris has a lot to offer but I admit that it may not be as cosmopolitan as it seems and perhaps a guide is necessary. Therefore, by creating MyParisTouch, I really want to give key advice to facilitate settling into Paris and make this experience of Parisian life a success.
Just what kind of services do you offer?
To differentiate myself from relocation agencies, I offer customized services.
My approach is also more global, and includes going beyond the classic services of the apartment search, administrative support and the search for schools. Expats dropped into a new country also need a social and cultural component to create a new social life. New friendships can be developed with like-minded people or with new French contacts. I enjoy helping expats find leisure family activities or organizing vacations to discover France.
And if necessary, I offer support for the spouse to find a new job or an activity. Should the re-invention or transformation be successful, I can help them become an “auto-entrepreneur” – a self-employed worker – as they get their new venture off the ground. The administrative bureaucracy necessary to set up a business here may be overwhelming to many so this is where My Paris Touch comes in by simplifying the procedures and putting them in contact with the best service providers.
What are the most serious concerns from someone moving to Paris? Language, bureaucracy, schools, lodging?
It’s difficult to classify but I think that the search for an apartment combined with bureaucratic problems are really at the top of the list. To find an apartment you have to open a bank account and that’s where the administrative hassles begin.
For the schools, you have to start far in advance, although in Paris, the offer is quite large and varied. As for learning French, I think that it quickly becomes essential. I know many expats who do not speak French and who have been living for years in Paris, but it’s a pity because they miss out on a lot of things. Life quickly becomes more complex for the slightest medical appointment or to call a plumber. Even if more and more French people are getting by in English, if you don’t know the basics of the language, you will still encounter some difficulties in everyday life.
Many of us hear clichés about the French before taking the plunge to move to France – they can be rude or cold, terribly bureaucratic and not open to interaction. True or false, and what do you say to people?
Behind each “cliché”, there is a small part of truth, but everything is a question of perspective. Friction can come from a lack of knowledge about cultural differences. There are some basic things to know, such as the famous “bonjour” when you enter a store. It is important to understand how much this simple greeting matters. Creating a close relationship with your butcher or baker may seem strange at first, but engaging in small pleasantries makes your life a lot easier and on top of that you will probably get one or two more chouquettes or even your favorite piece of meat kept aside for you if you make an effort.
A lot of people consider the French rude and for others, they are too polite! The magical words that each child is expected to know from an early age are: “bonjour Monsieur” or “bonjour Madame”, “s’il vous plaît” and “merci”. It’s the basis of French education. The child will not receive his goûter, or snack, without saying “s’il vous plaît”, please.
As for the bureaucracy, even the French complain about it and we have had to deal with it as well. Luckily, things are changing at this level thanks to online services. Very soon you will get into the habit of keeping a copy of all official documents and you will learn how to file!
Is it harder to move to Paris during the pandemic and confinement?
Yes, without a doubt, because you are missing out on what makes the spice of Parisian life, its very rich cultural life, its savoir vivre with its many restaurants, cafés, and terraces where Parisians like to spend hours enjoying conversation and simple pleasures. It is definitely harder to have social interaction right now, especially if you are not yet well versed in social codes. That said, as the weather is turning nicer, you can take the opportunity to walk and discover the city, venturing into neighborhoods other than your own.
Otherwise, the public and municipal services are working rather well at the moment, merchants are happy to welcome you and many restaurants are very resourceful in offering take-out. The administration is still quite back-logged, however, and we have just seen the obvious consequences with the slow rollout of the Covid vaccine launch.
The Netflix series Emily in Paris describes the adventures of a young American who moves to Paris and deals with the cultural differences at work and in daily life? Have your clients shared similar stories with you about coping with the changes?
I think that at one time or another, an English-speaking expat will end up experiencing a “misunderstanding” caused by his cultural difference. But I admit that the examples used in the TV series were very extreme and so cliché. As I said previously, if you want your interactions to go well, you will have to be open-minded and accept a different approach. The French tend to take themselves seriously, but if you show a sense of humor, they will probably be charmed and open up more easily.
Keep in mind, the French have a tendency to dislike when someone invades their territory. As we love to feel special, someone having a competitive attitude will threaten us. Therefore a French person may openly revolt by pushing back, and the clichés about the “arrogant” French will become reality. For example, the French pride themselves on their relationship with food and the culture of eating well, so criticism of French cuisine remain taboo. The fact that I can be very shocked by some negative reactions shows how French I am.
What’s your advice to someone considering moving to France today?
I probably shouldn’t say this for the survival of my business, but it would perhaps be more reasonable to wait a bit to see more clearly how the pandemic is being managed.
Make a list of places you would like to live, gather the essential criteria for your wellbeing.
Most importantly, prepare your administration documents; file them and make copies, even the things that don’t seem important could be essential in France. For example, a birth certificate – if you don’t already have one order one now, it only takes a few weeks. In France, you will discover that an electrical or telephone bill is your best identity paper to prove you truly live here!