As much as the French and the Americans may love to insult each other (we’re fat, they hate to work, etc.) I believe that deep down, we each secretly harbor a deep appreciation for one another’s culture. Most of the French love to consume our music, our movies and our McDonalds; many Americans believe that the French produce the crème de la crème in all things luxury (after all, they are the only nation that can actually create ‘Champagne‘ and Chanel).
Regardless of our cultural similarities and differences, any American moving or even just traveling to France is obviously going to experience some degree of culture shock. Granted, this can sometimes be the good kind of culture shock, in an “oh-my-god-I-didn’t-know-cheese-could-taste-this-good” kind of way. But it can also be quite stressful.
So I decided to sketch out some words of advice that I wish I had heard before moving to Paris for the first time back in 2005. Most of these tips may seem obvious: but it honestly took me until my fourth time of living in France to develop a (mostly) zen approach to living abroad.
I hope that the below information can help any ‘type-A’ American survive (and possibly even enjoy) this European epicenter of wine, cheese, socialized medicine and strikes.
Bienvenue à Paris!
1. Patientez s’il vous plait. France is well known for many things. Efficiency is not one of them. But frankly, if you were really seeking out someplace that functioned like a well-oiled machine, wouldn’t you just move to Germany or Sweden? It may seem obvious, but the French way of doing things, whether it’s obtaining a visa or buying groceries, is very different than what we’re used to in the states.
(Cartoon:with thanks to VS Gopal)
Most businesses close for an hour or two during lunch. Very few stores are open on Sundays (even in Paris, although it’s easier here than in the rest of France.) You will wait in line. A lot. And the metro doesn’t stay open past 1:30am (yes, even on weekends.) And whatsmore sometimes things close without warning…
If you are moving to France, and planning to set up a life here, it will generally take you two to four weeks to settle all logistical issues, including getting your ATM card (which you basically need to survive in this country), your internet and your cell phone. It’s just how it is.
That being said…
2. Remember la joie de vivre! You’re living in the country that is known around the world for having the best versions of nearly all things that make life worth living: wine, bread, cheese, chocolate, pastries, art, music, fashion and 35 hour work weeks.
Who cares if you don’t have internet in your apartment within 24 hours (or three weeks) of moving in? So what if you need to visit the cell phone boutique five times before fully understanding that you need two forms of ID, proof of housing, a bank card, and that weird ‘RIB‘ thing everyone keeps talking about before getting your phone?
Go purchase some delectable macarons from Pierre Hermesand eat them in front of St. Sulpice .
Or go buy a 2€ bottle of wine and some out-of-this world cheese at any local market, and picnic on the Canal St. Martin. All logistics will fall into place soon enough.
Always remember that in this gorgeous city, you’re just a stone’s throw away from some adorably quaint, un-discovered street, or a stunning century-old monument.
As cliché as it sounds, you can’t forget to stop and smell the roses (which is literally quite feasible as there are gorgeous flower shops on practically every street corner!)
3. Parlez-vous français? If you’re American, you probably don’t. And that’s OK (as long as you are conversational in at least one other major international language, bien sûr.) But I would highly recommend at least trying to learn some basic survival words and key phrases before arriving in France.
Parisians often get a bad reputation for being rude. And plenty of them are. But I’ve met just as many rude people in New York and Washington D.C., and I don’t really find one city to be any more or less polite than the next.
Most people in the Parisian service industry are just sick and tired of Americans, or other English-speaking natives, walking into a restaurant, bar or store, and automatically speaking to the staff in English.
I guarantee you, even a small attempt at a “Bonjour” or “Merci” or “Désolez, je ne parle pas français!” can go a long way. You’ll actually find that a lot of French people enjoy practicing their English, and don’t mind speaking it. It’s the Anglo-Saxon arrogance that really gets on their nerves.
4. Gardez vos sous. Like major cities, Paris is expensive. As in, ‘New York expensive.’ That being said, there are some easy ways to save your money:
Food: As tempting as it is to stop by the closest épicerie (translation: mini grocery store), which are everywhere and tend to display their produce outside for all to see, they tend to jack up their prices, so it’s best to avoid them. You will save a lot of money, and get better quality produce, meat, fish, cheese, etc., at your local market (see below for additional details on this wonderful French tradition). Hitting up the Carrefour or Monoprix for basic necessities and dry goods is another cheap option.
Transport: This is not New York City, so don’t take cabs unless absolutely necessary (they’re also very difficult to find – this is not ‘Sex and the City’). The Paris metro and bus system are efficient and relatively cheap ways to get around the city. If you are under 26 and/or plan to live in Paris for an extended period of time, buy a carte imaginaire and you can pay about €32 a month for unlimited metro and bus use.
If biking is more your thing, take advantage of the Velib’ program, which allows you to pick up bikes at stations located throughout the city, and drop them back off within 24 hours. The first 30 minutes are always free, and you can purchase a one year subscription, which grants you unlimited use, for €29!
Booze: Who doesn’t love a country where wine is cheaper than soda and bottled water? Instead of shelling out €10 on a watered down mixed drink, go to your closest Monoprix and buy a bottle of wine, which can go as cheap as €2. And yes, it’s still pretty tasty.
You can also get a decent bottle of champagne (OK probably not technically from the region of Champagne, but sparkling nonetheless) for about €5. If you’re really craving beer, it’s best to buy it at a local super market as opposed to out at a bar.
Café: Everyone ‘must’ experience the French pastime of sitting outside one of the city’s many cafés and sipping a coffee while judging all the tourists and locals that pass by.
But instead of paying €4 for a café crème (aka a latte), get a regular espresso (café) or a noisette, which is basically coffee with milk. If you order and drink it at the bar, it’s even cheaper than sit-down service. Also, DO NOT go to Starbucks unless it’s an absolute emergency. They’re slowly becoming more and more popular in Paris, but come on guys — did you really fly over 3,000 miles to spend €5 on a non-fat, sugar-free hazelnut latte? Please.
5. Market to Market. I think one of the best parts about Paris is that it manages to maintain some of its older cultural traditions even in the 21st century. Possibly one of my favorite French traditions is that of the outdoor market – you get to experience a little bit of old-school French culture while living in a (relatively) modern city.
Every arrondissement in Paris has a semi-weekly outdoor market. It’s basically like an outdoor Whole Foods, but cheaper and with less yuppies. At these markets, you will find high-quality, affordable and local produce, meat, fish, cheese, and other delectable goodies. It’s just amazing. Check out this helpful website that breaks down the schedules and locations of all major traditional and specialty markets in Paris.
I hope the above information proves useful to anyone planning a trip (or a complete life move) to France.
There is so much more to cover on this topic, but hopefully these tips can act as a helpful starter kit to any future expats, based entirely on my experience!