There’s a difference that you notice if you move to Paris rather than visit. Don’t get me wrong: we love France and all things French – the cultural heritage, food, architecture and cafés. The way of life twinkles from afar. But honestly, uprooting to put down stakes in France requires a specific set of facial muscles to grin and bear it. These are my top eight things you may hate more than love.
1.“But I just said that in French”
Did you think you speak okay French, until you couldn’t make yourself understood? France isn’t like the Netherlands or Scandinavia, where English is every adult’s second first language. Yet, you’d think you just spoke Finnish from the reactions. Whatever you learned gets you precisely nowhere. For the first 5 years of my marriage (after 4 years of school French and living in Paris for 2 years), my mother-in-law kept asking my husband to translate my French into real French. (He refused. Awkward all round.) They don’t mean to be impolite; it’s just they’ve never heard our version of their words or such appalling grammar.
2. Good luck with the administration
Bureaucracy. *Facepalm* From obtaining your carte de séjour, to exchanging a driver’s license, to registering kids for school lunch, approach every task armed with every document you possess plus photocopies because their copier machine never works. Try to bond with the disgruntled desk clerk over an invisible common enemy. And don’t think bringing a child along will gain you sympathy – unless your child speaks better French than you do, in which case, let them do all the talking.
3. Who will be your friends?
Bad news, it’s hard to make friends with French women. Or French men – unless you’re dating them, then it’s pretty easy, but it’s not the same girlfriend-to-gossip-with friendship you might be after. Sitting around with a bottle of wine cackling like schoolgirls isn’t really done. French people make all their best friends in pre-school so after the age of 5 newcomers are treated with suspicion. And French women don’t drink like other nationalities… ahem. Your best bet is to find a French person who has spent a lot of time abroad.
4. Radar for dog poop
When I arrived in Paris, it was so bad you couldn’t glance into a shop window because you needed your eyes on the next gloop, pile, or (worse) smear of feces left by slacker Parisians who thought cleaning up after their dog wasn’t cool. Nowadays, the 80€ fines for not scooping have had an effect and sidewalks are much cleaner. But, you still have to keep an eye out.
5. Grit-Your-Teeth Customer Service
If I had a euro for every time I’ve suffered lousy attitudes in cafés or on the phone to a company… They just don’t get it. The only workaround is either become a regular at the café with the jerks (so you better love their coffee) or out-zen the company’s ineptitude by ringing daily or going into the store until they deal with the problem. This wastes many, many hours of your life but the eventual win feels 1,001 times bigger than it would anywhere else.
6. Procure Personal Space
Paris is a big city with some crazy driving, etc. My husband helped me integrate with this great unspoken rule: “You have to impose yourself.” It’s completely uncivilized, yet necessary. At the wheel, merge forcibly or be crashed into. When crossing the zebra with a green man, march confidently while staring that driver in the eyes as he decides if he should wait for you to cross or not (legally they can drive if they have space, even when you have right of way).
During rush hour on the métro, maneuver until you can grasp the hold pole. Get in lines and don’t let people slide in front of you. Yes, this is all dog-eat-dog but it’s a rule; break this rule and the French flip their lids.
7. Work hard to find a job
Sadly, your hard-earned qualifications from abroad may mean little in la belle France. I first came to Paris for a job, but it wasn’t a job that translated into other work once I left and I found myself running in mid-air and having to restart on a whole new, less-prestigious “career track” as an executive assistant! So much for those five years of post-grad study. My advice is to absorb all the career advice you can from the interwebs rather than Pôle Emploi and work on your network.
8. Their systems are very different
School, work, hospitals – you name the institution – it will operate differently than back home, wherever home is for you. You can’t “beat” the systems so the best way to cope is to navigate with the least stress. Practise your ppffffffftttts, your Gallic shrugs, and your eyebrow raise – you will need them. Find an interpreter to help decipher the subtleties. Remember there are good and bad sides to every system.
And if in despair, share your experiences with the wider world – *wink wink* such as here on INSPIRELLE. What love-hate moments have you had?