Ah, gay Paris. The city of light and love, beauty around every corner you turn.
… Well, why that is true some of the time, Paris can also be a city of bizarre social paradigms, loneliness, overpriced lattes, and a whole lot of bureaucracy. Having lived in Paris for almost six months, I feel I am somewhat qualified to make the following observations about the subtleties in the differences of Parisian and Australian culture (in some cases not so subtle). It’s not all accordions and croissants, after all. So, if you’re considering relocating or simply holidaying in the beautiful French capital, there are some things* you should know.
*This is by no means an extensive list…
- Your hair will be in a constant state of oiliness from the pollution as well as smelling like other people’s cigarette smoke.
I wash my hair at least every second day in Paris and dry shampoo is my new best friend. I can recall many times when I have washed my hair in the morning, feeling fresh and ready to start the day, only to walk outside of my apartment block and straight into someone else’s smoke cloud. It gives a lovely odour of stale cigarettes for the rest of the day.
- You will be asked your “origin” every time you speak to someone new in French.
Speaking French with an accent, or making some slight mistakes, often ignites the curiosity inside every Parisian. “What’s your origin?” they will ask, which by the way is a fairly normal question in French. And while it’s nice that people want to learn more about me or are just indulging in curiosity, all I really want to do is just buy this nail polish, finish this conversation with the sales assistant and get the hell out of Sephora.
- Strange men will approach you on the street and ask you out… without even asking your name.
Dating culture is fascinating, isn’t it? And while in Paris it’s still seen as a bit out of the blue to ask someone on a date in the street, it’s happened to me about five times in four months. Yet during my whole life living in Australia, I don’t think it happened once.
- The world of French manchester won’t make any sense.
A place where quilt cover sets don’t come with the standard pillowcase dimensions… where that practical and familiar 73 x 48 cm of comfort is nowhere to be seen. Instead, you’re stuck with 65 x 65 cm of often flat and impractical pillow. And the humble flat sheet? What on Earth is that? ‘Tis the French way to simply have a fitted sheet to sleep on and a quilt on top. Now, maybe this is making things too simple, but I believe that with a flat sheet, you can free yourself of excess heat that a quilt gives during summer, and provide extra warmth in the winter. Not to mention, you don’t have to wash your quilt cover as often if you wash only the flat sheet.
- The once simple task of picking up a bottle of wine at the supermarket will become a very overwhelming experience.
But… what are all these varieties? Why does the wine section take up half the space in this tiny convenience store that’s barely bigger than my bedroom? And why is the wine so cheap, does it mean it’s bad? The answer to the last question is no, probably not. But I will never know the answer to the former two. Qui sait…
- Finding reasonable accommodation is a lot harder than you think. Like, a lot.
I could perhaps dedicate an entire essay to this topic alone, but I will try to keep the rant to a minimum. Unless you are very rich, finding an apartment that is actually inside Paris, doesn’t have a shower in the kitchen (or a shared toilet in the hallway), is at least 14 square meters and has a proper window can be a real challenge. After five months in the city, I still haven’t found a permanent place to live. The rental and even flat sharing market is so competitive that landlords can charge what they want and stretch the laws when it comes to deposits, guarantors and the rent itself. I believe it’s because once someone successfully makes it into an apartment, there are rules that make it so hard for the landlord to get them out when they don’t pay their rent. Which brings me to my next point…
- The French love their bureaucracy.
Oh, you want to set up a bank account? Well first of all, you need to book an appointment with a consultant (and wait half a lifetime on the phone to do so), then if you’ve only just arrived in Paris and are staying with a friend, you need that friend’s photo ID, a copy of a bill addressed to them and their signature on an attestation form. Not to mention a stack of documents on your behalf. Then in about a week or so, the bank will mail you login details for internet banking, then about two weeks after that you should receive your actual bank card in the mail. If you want to change your address? You again need the aforementioned documents but this time you need to mail them to the bank even though it’s right down the road.
Oh, you need a Carte Vitale? All you need is every document you’ve ever had in your entire life and about 12 months to wait for the card to arrive.
- Making friends with other expats will be so much easier than befriending Parisians.
I’m not quite sure why this is, but it’s true in my personal experience. It takes time for Parisians to open up to new people and build trust. Having said this, I imagine (and am told by my students) that once you finally do become friends with a local, the friendship is very strong. There are so many internationals living in Paris, who connect with each other through Meetup groups, forums, and other organisations. It makes sense — we are all new to the city and are looking for people with whom to share new experiences. Not to mention the language barrier can often be an obstacle…
- Good bread will become something you take for granted.
While visiting family in the UK, a standard lunch is a good ol’ ham/cheese/tomato sandwich. But once you’ve become accustomed to the crusty fresh Parisian baguette, the sandwich isn’t going to taste as good as you’d expected. You don’t mean to be a bread snob, but it’s not your fault if the humble Tesco roll suddenly loses all appeal.