Spring is settling in nicely in Paris… We’ve already had days perfect for picnicking along the Seine. And I’m (finally) starting to settle in too. A new apartment means a few administrative tasks have been taken care of, or are at least in the process of being taken care of.
On the one hand, it’s been about seven months since I left Perth, and I do miss my life there. But on the other, it feels like my life here is only just coming together. There are times when the big city is just so chiant that I want to transport myself to a sunny spot on the sand of Mullaloo Beach.
Take the day I took these photos, for example. I’d planned on enjoying a stroll around the city on my day off, but it didn’t take long for me to feel “over it” after walking past someone vomiting on the footpath at 10 o’ clock in the morning, being grabbed on the arm by a man on the street who said something in an eastern European language I didn’t understand, and an encounter with a homeless and obviously mentally ill man who was mumbling incoherently and flicked an elastic band on my arm. En plus, I was feeling a bit down after having my wallet stolen in the metro the weekend before because – let’s face it – Paris isn’t that enjoyable when you don’t have any money.
However, I still appreciate all the lovely (and simple) things about this city. There’s no shortage of great exhibitions, live music, good food, and sometimes all you really need is a baguette, some friends, maybe a bottle of wine, and a square of grass in one of the many beautiful parks.
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.
It had been a while since my last aimless stroll around the city. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily routine… But, having a three-day weekend, I resolved to inject a little culture back into my life. Visiting the Musée d’Orsay for the first time, admiring the Parisian architecture, and rediscovering the Palais Royal. Yes, it’s no secret it’s very well-loved by locals and tourists alike, but it’s with good reason. It remains a calm retreat in the centre of the buzzing city, the perfect place to take une petite pause, read a book, indulge in a patisserie, or simply do nothing. And on this particular day, cold and rainy outside, the garden was empty save for an elegantly dressed woman, perched on a bench and reading a book, an old man sitting by the fountain with only his thoughts, two young men on their lunch break and many people just passing through.
It’s already half-way through January and I haven’t even had a chance to publish a blog post about all the “new year, new me” nonsense. Not that I was ever going to do that.
I will say, though, that it is a nice feeling to think about the year ahead in such a curious, beautiful and intoxicating city. The promise of opportunities, lessons learnt, the chance for a myriad of people to enter my life and change my perspective. So many stories yet to be written — the ones you tell the grandkids and the ones you keep all to yourself, their significance amplified by secrecy.
While it’s not a resolution per se, I’m reminded of the importance of living in the moment… and knowing exactly what that means.
I’m going to be honest and admit I’m not so sure I can survive winter in the northern hemisphere. It has been a cold start to November, and despite having Welsh made-for-arctic-temperatures blood, it has sent a jolt through my weak Australian-raised body.
But, I have to say, if I am going to endure a relentless winter, there’s no better place to be than Paris. After two months of seeing the yellow leaves gather at the base of trees lining the picturesque boulevards, I almost don’t mind that they will be bare for the next three months. Perhaps it’s the novelty, but there’s something romantic about being in a big city like Paris during the winter. Drawing the curtains in the morning to see locals out on the street as they come back from their morning trip to the boulangerie, fresh baguettes under their arms and faces protected from the frosty air by scarves. By night, people gather at the brasserie on the corner, laughing over a meal inside or rugged up on the heated terrace, drinking red wine and, of course, smoking cigarettes. It’s a time to explore museums, read a book in a hidden café, or shop for Christmas presents in the extravagantly decorated department stores.
OK, it’s almost definitely a fantasy conjured up by the part of me that takes Christmas movies too seriously and is a sucker for a Parisian cliché.
I think Paris is most beautiful during “golden hour”—that time of day when the sun is setting and the light filters through the trees, bounces off water and casts a warm glow over the entire city.
Only now as we go further in November, this time of day is becoming earlier and earlier, and the sun is seen less and less as grey clouds start to monopolise the sky. And we can’t have light without shadow.
Paris is a beautiful city but when it comes to setting up a life here it’s not always a walk in Le Jardin des Tuileries. It’s very easy to develop an inexplicable resentment for the sheer bureaucracy that makes the smallest tasks such as changing my address with the bank a lengthy and document-heavy process. And yes, there are people in this city who will show others no compassion and will not be open to letting new people into their friendship circle. It’s understandable—Parisians constantly have people asking them for something, whether it’s money or a cigarette. Parisians are almost desensitised to seeing that homeless couple on the street and the worse-for-wear looking man on the métro who walks up and down the carriage telling his story for the fifteenth time today.
I know I’m lucky. Sometimes it takes a sunset walk through the park to realise it, and sometimes it takes something else.
Autumn has brought crisp wind and morning mist, but there is also a sense of change in the air. The sound of crackling leaves underfoot is a reminder of the end of one season and beginning of another. Amidst a frenzied apartment search, I wonder where the time has gone; October is almost over. While Paris is such a beautiful city to while away the days, sat reading a book in a park or café, it is almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in the rush that grips the city. One example is the métro — a particularly fascinating phenomenon — where people are squeezed into a tube sometimes suffocatingly humid and warm with body heat. A tide of movement either pulls them on or off the train; it’s a constant current.
And so, yet to really settle in this city, I am trying to balance the administration and day-to-day demands with time to breathe and write blog posts in cosy Australian-inspired cafés. At least there’s good coffee to keep me going.
The days are getting shorter in Paris and the temperature has taken a sudden dive, but the light is still beautiful. When you’re struggling to find a place to live and truly settle into a big new city, you have to appreciate things like romantic pastel sunsets.
And to show how far I’m willing to go to capture these moments, shortly before taking this picture I climbed all the stairs leading to the Sacre-Coeur right after leg day at the gym. Safe to say I’m paying for it today.
Taking a French attitude today and asking “why not?”
Today was gloriously sunny and 29 degrees — perfect for reading in the Jardin du Luxembourg after a delicious chicken and salad baguette. I think a glass of rosé is the only way to finish off the day.
Speaking of rosé, it’s also the colour of my chest after spending the whole day in the sun wearing a scoop neck T-shirt. And yes, I have been raised under the Australian sun…