Episode 2 of 2: Becoming French?
[Read Episode 1: Follow your Heart]
Why did start learning French?
When I was little, I remember desperately wanting to learn French. A friend of mine at primary school was half French – and could speak French fluently. When I was about six, I just thought it was so amazing and thought if she could do it, I could too! My parents gave me a “Learn French” book for children with lots of illustrations labeled with French words. I became really obsessed with that. Then I went on to study French at school and university.
The first time I came to France was with my mother – I must have been about 7 or 8. We were on holiday on the south coast of England. My mother knew how obsessed I was with France, particularly speaking French, so we took a boat to Cherbourg. And I was desperate to send a postcard, even though we were only there for the day. So I asked my Mum to buy some and some stamps even though she couldn’t speak a word of French. “Deux postes, s’il vous plaît.” she said in a very English accent, and everyone laughed. We looked it up afterwards and realized poste means post-office, not stamp. She still tells that story.
How would you describe your French language skills now?
I presumed my French would be up to scratch when I arrived, because I studied it to degree level. But although I could read Simone de Beauvoir fine, it’s funny how a degree in French doesn’t really equip you to speak it here. I said to my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, that we would only speak French from then on. I immersed myself in my first job, I just rocked up and I didn’t understand about 90 per cent of what was going on. I had clients, phone calls, meetings. It was a pretty awful experience, but a life-affirming one (what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger). I remember getting the metro home at 10pm from work, thinking I have no idea what’s going on, but I love learning French and no matter how tough today was, I still learnt French, and they can’t take that away from me. A couple of months later, I was good to go. My friends were all French and I immersed myself in a French-speaking world. That said, even now my written French is far from perfect – French is a very complicated language!
I hear of people getting trapped in the expat community. What was your experience?
When I first came here, my friends were all French. The thing about expat communities is they are often quite artificial; the reason you spend time together is you speak the same language, not because you have anything else in common. I didn’t really have a great deal of expat friends until about two years ago, when I started my blog and Tweeting. But I still find it really relieving to sit down and speak English. Before that, I did have a small group of American and Canadian friends with whom I used to play poker (we used to work together, play poker on a Thursday night and turn up to work on Friday a little worse for wear). It’s a very different experience if you just hang out with expats – you’re not really immersed in Parisian life – and I can imagine you can get trapped in that, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if that’s what you want.
The other thing is the work environment here is very different to that of London, for example. In London, when the work day is finished, it’s like “Let’s all go for a drink”, but in my experience that isn’t so common here.
I think the key to really get into Paris life is to find a French lover! Many of my friends I made through my husband. Otherwise, you just have to persevere. I think also it was easier to make friends when you’re younger. I think from my experience it is harder to make friends in Paris than other cities I’ve lived in, because Parisians are less open to making friends with people they don’t know. Even at university in Paris it wasn’t as easy as it is in the UK to make friends.
I hear from a number of expats that they feel they need to make a lot of sacrifices to live in Paris, for example the high cost of living and the difficulties of getting good employment for expats. What is your perspective?
That’s not my experience at all. There are great social benefits in this country – fantastic health care for a start. And just on a day-to-day scale, the quality of life, for me, is much better here that it is in London. You eat better – meal times and food are sacred – and you work your hours and have a better work life balance.
If you were able to replay any part of your life since you moved to Paris, is there anything you would do differently?
Well I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, since I’ve started doing what I love doing, I see Paris and the world differently. I guess if I could go back, I would be more confident. I would’ve taken control a bit more, and not been so timid – I would have piped up more in meetings.
You launched “I Heart Paris” in 2009. Why a blog?
Blogs are so easy to do. It takes two minutes to set up. I felt like I had things to say, tips to share about how to best enjoy Paris and I was taking photos. I just wanted to share that with people. I didn’t have any grand ideas.
It’s more about what’s happening.
It happened very organically, I just wrote down a few things one day, and then the next day a few more. Then, I thought maybe I should do something more constructive with it, and really tried to make it more informative and structured; like what’s new, what’s interesting, what’s topical, what’s seasonal…you know, what’s happening in Paris now. I wanted to share my knowledge.
It’s for anyone interested in culture, in what’s going on. Readers tend to be in their 20s and 30s. It’s a subjective opinion, but it’s not anecdotal or emotional. Hopefully, it resonates with some people!
I think people source travel information online more now. Traditional guide books can be a victim of their own success. For example, a few years ago, I went to Rome with my husband with a Time Out Guide. These guides are great but too many people buy them – you’d rock up to a restaurant, only to find it would be full of tourists all with the same guide book on the table in front of them. And printed guide books are written eighteen months to two years before they go to print so they are immediately out of date by the time they hit the shelves. Printed guides are a slow way of communicating. I think they’re completely defunct now.
I find out about a lot of things through word of mouth, Facebook, press releases, news sources and just walking around being nosy.
I want to expand the blog into a proper website, with a range of services. I want it to be easier to navigate. I know where each post is and I can navigate round the blog to find what I’m looking for but with a blog being linear and the tags, it’s not always easy for other people to find what they’re after. So watch this space for a revamped I Heart Paris soon!
Images of Paris: Copyright Kim Laidlaw Adrey.