Sous Les Toits: Paris - the good, bad and 'je ne sais quoi'
After moving to Paris without a plan, Naomi celebrates her 'Paris-versary' by listing the good, the bad and the 'je ne sais quoi' points of living in the French capital.
Four years ago today, a newly graduated 23-year-old of University of Liverpool’s Modern Languages department jumped on a Eurostar to Paris – without a job or an apartment – hoping to make it her home and her future. Four years later she’s still here.
Looking back objectively, it now seems absolutely crazy. But at the time it didn’t feel crazy, it just felt right.
When you graduate from university, life is not necessarily filled with opportunities, as I previously thought during most of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. In your last year at university, lecturers start telling you about these fantastical places called 'careers fairs' where apparently all of the UK’s top employers are just waiting to hand you a job. I do not know of one single person who got a job as a result of a careers fair. This fairy tale, that the adult world is just waiting to welcome you with open arms, is reinforced by your academic superiors, but the cold, hard reality is that post-university life is filled with uncertainties.
Not many people know exactly what job they’d like to do and can set about trying to achieve the necessity to pick something. Most of us just end up wandering around, degree in hand, mumbling, “Eerrr, good job please? I’ve got a degree now so I was told I wouldn’t have to do a rubbish one.”
I was one such wanderer. Nothing in my life was certain once the comforting structure of the academic world had been torn away. There were just two things I knew for sure:
- I didn’t want to live in Reading (where I’m from).
- I was happiest in Paris.
So actually moving to Paris was really the only logical choice at the time. It made sense to me.
Have I ever regretted it? Honestly, there have been moments, yes. It hasn’t been easy and there have absolutely been bad days when living in a foreign country and doing everything in a foreign language just seemed like too much effort and I just wanted to pack up and go 'home'. But, unsurprisingly, making a new country your home takes time and today France, and particularly Paris, is my home as much as England.To mark the occasion of my four year Paris-versary I’ve had a good think about what I’ve learnt from the last four years and made a list of the good, the bad and the je ne sais quoiof my Paris experience so far.
- I can speak French properly! Not just in the way I thought I could speak French at university, but actual French-people-French, with all the slang 'n' stuff. I can even effectively insult people.
- I kissed a frog, well more than one if we’re keeping count, but only one very important one that I have kept. I now have a lovely cross-cultural relationship (that in no way resorts to stereotypes) with the Frog.
- I get to discover the real Paris. I know it’s a cliché but there is always something new to discover in Paris. The arrondissements have such different characters that each time you get to know a new neighbourhood in the city you feel like you uncover another facet of Paris’ personality.
- Having lived in towns that were fine but never really inspired much curiosity in me, it is a joy to live in a place that really exhilarates me. Whether it’s taking advantage of the multitude of free open-air concerts and film festivals that run throughout the summer months, or simply turning a corner and coming across a new bar or restaurant to try, Paris is full of hidden treasures and surprises.
- I can take a certain pride in being able to share my city with visitors from England and showing them the side of Paris that most tourists wouldn’t see on their own.
- You become more open-minded. Being exposed to and immersed in a new culture does naturally open your mind to different ways of living.
- Being an expat in a big city means you naturally find yourself drawn towards other foreigners, and not necessarily from your own native country. This does have the downside of making a lot of 'transitional friends' – people that come to Paris to live and work for a year or two and then move on. However, the upside is that you end up with this great network of friends that crosses countries, even continents. There are a good number of trips I would never have made had it not been for foreign friends I made in Paris and subsequently visited in their native countries. Furthermore, as these friends are often keen on travelling they end up popping back to Paris for a quick trip, or you end up meeting in another country for an impromptu expat catch-up. I have made some truly wonderful friends here and although many of them may have moved away, we remain in touch and we would never have met were it not for Paris.
- My rather English brand of humour does not always translate. While I can express what I’d like to say, the art of banter (if it indeed exists in France) is still beyond my grasp. All too often I’ll make a joke and find my audience staring uncomprehendingly and un-laughing back at me, and I’ll realise they have taken what I’ve said at face value and not understood the sarcastic undertone which would have been crystal clear to anyone British.
- I get homesick. It can be a double-edged sword loving two countries and thinking of both of them as your home. It’s still hard to say goodbye when I’ve been back in England for a few days.
- Sometimes I feel foreign in England and slightly outdated. If people talk about TV shows I can’t join in and despite buying a Heat magazine each time I go back (essential Eurostar reading!), I don’t always recognise the latest celebrities.
The Je ne sais quoi (or things that still puzzle me)
- Why do French people always make a little exclamation that sounds like 'hup' when they bend down to retrieve something they have just dropped?
- Why do I do this too now?!
All in all, I’m glad I stuck it out. There are days when Paris can really annoy me; the metro, the terrible customer service, the assumptions people make when they hear a foreign accent. But after some time when things begin to work out, you get to know how the city works, you make some good friends and you realise how much you’ve gained from all your experiences. You realise you wouldn’t change it for the world and you continue your love affair with Paris.
Happy Paris-versary to me!
In 2008 Naomi hopped on the Eurostar and arrived in Paris without an apartment, a job, or any concrete plan other than to speak French, drink wine, and be happy. Her Parisian life has taken her from a 7th-floor garret in the 1st arrondissement to the quieter streets of the 15th, and finally to the Canal banks of la Villette. Along the way she’s learned to love stinky cheese, how to argue like a Parisian and the correct use of the French sounds, 'bah,' 'bof' and 'hop.' In her blog she explores the good, the bad and the 'je ne sais quoi' of Parisian life.
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