A lot of people back home still don't believe I actually live in Paris even though it's been three long years for me. The inquiries usually catch me off guard... "Daisy, do you really live in Paris? What have you been doing the past few years?"
If you're already an expat and are reading this post, you know exactly what it's like to live abroad. It is a multifaceted experience... kind of like a gemstone... shining in many parts, dull or dark in others. For those who aren't as experienced, here are the range of emotions you'll be feeling:
- Excitement, overwhelming feeling of adventure
- Culture shock, good and annoying
- Culture shock, wonderful and horrible
- Immigration woes
- Little triumphs
- Great disappointments
- The decision to stay or leave
- Staying longterm and being proud of your achievements
I wouldn't say it's exactly like the stages of grief, but it often feels like it. France is a difficult country to immigrate to and it's not for the faint of heart. It's easier to come here when you're a young student. Even then, it's a continuous battle with paperwork and an array of visas.
This post is not to discourage you, but inspire you if you have a dream of coming to France. I won't lie to you-- it's hard and you'll cry a lot. But in the end, if you do fall in love with this country and want to stay, it's worth it. France is so beautiful and her culture is rich. Finding your niche here will take a while. You'll need a lot of patience and determination. In this post, I will tell you how to begin your journey and what they usually don't tell you when you first arrive here!
Do Tons of Research on France and French Culture
Before coming to France, I did one year of French classes (as well as worked one-on-one with a brilliant French tutor) and bought a whole library collection about French culture and etiquette. While real life experience will teach you way more than these books, it helped me to understand complex situations, even though they were often pas juste. A good book that lays out French culture is French or Foe? It's an old book and perhaps a bit outdated, but it still holds true to much of current French attitudes and cultural practices.
Most importantly, study the phrases that will help you survive daily life or at least get you to your accommodations on the day you arrive. I loved Lonely Planet's Phrasal book... it has helped me conquer so many situations. If you can't get the pronunciation right, you can simply point out the phrase to a non-English speaking French person. Another good resource is IElanguages and I always recommend Forvo.com if you're not sure about pronunciation.
Duolingo is great too, but if you don't already have some knowledge of the language, it's not really a good way to begin learning French. And forget Rosetta Stone... unless you want to tell your taxi driver that your balloon is green, don't buy into that program.
Another good source of information is the Reddit subreddit r/Paris. Make sure to use the search option and look through the forums if you can't find an answer you're looking for. Lots of people go into that community and ask the same questions over and over again without simply searching first... and that's not something Parisians like to deal with (or anyone for that matter). I think that's fair to say, tu vois?
Find a Place to Live Without High Expectations
Once you've got your visa, you'll need to find a place to live. Paris is terribly wretched when it comes to trying to find your own apartment. It is the second most expensive place to live in (Singapore being #1), and the French have a lot of bureaucracy in place that indirectly deters immigrants from settling down. Not only that, but there is a lot of discrimination with landlords not wanting to rent to non-French, non-salaried, fresh arrivals to Paris.
My advice is to rent an AirBnB or stay at a hotel for a month before making solid arrangements. Pictures in ads can be deceiving and you could potentially get ripped off. Do not use Craigslist in Paris... French people don't use it because it's full of scams. Once you're here, there will be better options for you and you can see places in person (and not be surprised that your bedroom is actually a living room or that the bathroom is in the kitchen!). Also, Parisian apartments are tiny. You'll have to be smart about space. Ikea (pronounced "EE-KEE-YAH") will be your best friend here (and that expedition will have to be a separate post on its own!). Don't take your 200 pairs of high heels either... you won't have the space to fit them in your closet or the balance for walking in them on cobblestones.
I wouldn't try to attempt to rent longterm at first, especially if you're not established here. Usually, landlords require you to already have a bank account, phone number, and proof of financial means (usually a French salaried job). And if you don't speak any French, just forget it for now.
If you're young or a student, I would try:
- To live with a roommate (Appartager.com is the best website to connect with potential roommates or look at the longterm living forums at Couchsurfing.com).
- Look for "service contre logement" or English tutoring/babysitting in exchange for a chambre de bonne (a tiny little maid's room above apartments). A good place to search for this is Le Bon Coin, the real French Craigslist.
- Try to live at one of the student residences (like Cité Universitaire).
If you're a couple or older, I would suggest getting a furnished apartment through agencies that cater to expats and foreigners. My friends like to use Paris Attitude.
Get a French Phone Number Without Getting Ripped Off
Once you start to get settled, you'll realize how much you'll be going in circles. You can't get a bank account without a phone number, residence, and proof of financial status (student, employed, or self-employed), and you can't get a phone contract without a bank account. Luckily, you can get a pay as you go phone service until you get that special bank account and apply for a better phone contract. If you already have a phone, make sure it's unlocked and go to any carriers that offer pay as you go services. I recommend Orange, even if it's more expensive than the others. I never had any issues with them and they had great service. I don't recommend SFR for short-term service as they ripped me off hardcore last time (30 euros for 3 days! Blah!).
After getting your bank account, you can consider other phone companies like Free or Bouygues. Most French people prefer "sans forfait" or no contract, paying monthly and being able to stop their service at any time. This is different from the pre-paid service as your bill will automatically deduct from your bank account; you'll also have better internet and other features like free international calling.
Apply Again and Again for That Darn French Bank Account
This is one of the hardest things to do in France. I tried to get a bank account twice on my own until Petit Copain came to the rescue and helped me get one. If you're fluent in French, have a French job, and a residence in place, there shouldn't be much of a problem. If you're not, you may want to enlist the help of a French person! Also, make an appointment or rendez-vous in advance. You can't just walk into a French bank and get an account :P
In general, French administration/financial institutions do not like the self-employed because your salary is unpredictable every month. This fears of instability is particularly strong right now, as the economy keeps diving down while unemployment rises. You can still get a bank account as a self-employed person but your business must be registered in France. The bank sometimes puts a red flag on your file too :(
Unlike the U.S., where checking is mostly free, France charges you a monthly amount for your banking. It's usually somewhere between 6-12 euros a month, depending on the type of account and the amount you wish to withdraw every month.
I personally use BNP and they're just okay. Students like to go to the French Post Office or La Banque Postale for banking (yep, the Post Office does banking!) as it's cheap. Sometimes other banks will offer free accounts for students. I'm not too sure which ones currently have student discounts/free accounts, so I highly recommend joining Facebook groups for students in Paris or TAPIF teachers (Teaching Assistance Program in France). The r/paris group on Reddit can be helpful for this as well.
Make Friends with the Locals
Actually, I don't know what's harder... making friends with the French or getting French bank/phone accounts. It's not to say French people are unpleasant or mean (maybe just Parisians), but it's a very different culture. In the U.S., you can easily make friends-- even best friends overnight. Here in France, this isn't really the case.
The French make longterm friends from school and stick to their own cliques. They rarely expand their friends circle. If they do happen to take an interest in you as a potential friend, you'll be an acquaintance for a while. Sometimes you won't be called a friend until a year or so, depending on how much you see each other. As for best friends, that will take even more time. Not every French person is like this, but many are. To many of the French who haven't lived abroad, Americans are overly friendly and this can be seen as suspicious or fake. Take our American customer service for example... no cashier at a store really cares how your day went, but they pretend they do. Building friendships in France takes time and they're serious about it. Invest in your friendships, be sincere about it, and you will make French friends.
What is even more striking is that you can become friendly with your regular butcher, baker, or pharmacist. It's not really good to always "shop around" but instead stick to someone regular that you build a relationship with, even though it will always be a vendor and client arrangement. I really like this part of the culture because I love my pharmacist and I adore my vegetable and fruit vendor. They are okay with my awkward French and like to practice with me!
Have a Solid Group of American Expat Friends
While it's good to have French friends and immerse yourself into the culture and language, you also need a home base. While I do have other anglophone friends from Australia and the UK who are amazing, sometimes I need to just hang out with my fellow countrymen. Don't not make friends with other anglophones... their perspectives on living in Paris/France is just as important as yours. They will be your allies too. And sometimes you'll prefer them over Americans!
The hardest part of deciding to live in another country for the rest of your life is to leave behind the friends and family you had back home. It's important to visit home as much as possible, but you can't always be there. Another hard thing is that people come and go here in Paris... rarely do I meet other Americans that want to live in France for more than a year. It makes having strong, enduring friendships difficult. Find anglophone events to go to (like Shakespeare & Co.'s talks and writing workshops, or activities at the American Church... you don't have to be religious to do events) and gather your tribe. They'll be there when you're homesick or lonely because of cultural differences. I highly stress this part for your survival and happiness in France.
Enjoy Your Life and Take Time to Admire Your New Home
Even though you have to deal with piles of paperwork, the bureaucracy run-around, and pushy Parisians in the Metro, there's nothing that can't win you over than the beauty of this city and country. If you're lucky enough to have a good job here in Paris, you get 5 weeks of paid vacation. There's also universal healthcare and lots of other benefits too (note: PAY YOUR FRENCH TAXES!! THANK THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT EVEN THOUGH THEY MAKE YOU CRY SOMETIMES!). Leisure and taking time to enjoy life is a very important part of French culture... Americans just work way too hard with barely 14 days of vacation. Again, the French don't exactly have it easy and they work just as hard as we do. But they encourage a better, healthier lifestyle and always fight for better rights for their citizens. As much as strikes can undo the city for a day, it's an extremely inspiring feat that often makes changes in the government.
Don't be self-conscious about always being seen as a tourist. I enjoy it more than saying I'm a local. I like to look at my other home with new eyes every chance I get. I'm open to all the good experiences offered to me. Maybe I'll always be a stranger in a strange land. Maybe I'll never truly be accepted here. Yet I've never been happier to be in Paris, my City of Light. I have made amazing friends here and I also have the love of my life. While I'm still job searching for a better position, I make an okay living. But that's not just the best parts of my life... looking outside my window and seeing the ancient city and all her people... there's no words for that.
And that is all I have to say for now. Until next time! À bientôt!