This Londoner arrived in Paris in 2001, on her own and knowing not a soul. Now she’s literally a Paris expert.
Alison Culliford felt like running away. Maybe with the circus?
London had been wearing her down and she wanted to make a change although she was actually thinking about New York. “But I didn’t find myself comfortable in New York at all. The minute I landed in Paris I knew it was here,” said Alison Culliford.
The attraction? The quirkiness.
Those who like to write off Paris as a ‘museum’ don’t easily find that quality in the City of Light. But in 2001, all it took was one trip to the Romanès Cirque Tsigane, which she visited one night on a lark, and Culliford knew that Paris she’d found a city with the “bohemian spirit” she was looking for.
Now she’s an official Paris expert as the author to the latest addition to the library of Paris guidebooks: ‘Paris Night + Day’. Published by San Francisco-based Pulse Guides, the Night + Day books are aimed at people who don’t want to waste their maybe limited vacation time making mistakes. They aren’t intended to be comprehensive, but selective. And very personal; each one is the reflection of an individual author’s tastes and judgment.
The person behind the Paris guide is freelance writer and book translator Alison Culliford.
Sure enough, as her author’s bio indicates, her Paris is a city where everyone seems to have just stepped out of a taxi even if they really got there by dodging Parisian traffic on their bike. (And this reporter can confirm that, as her bio says, Culliford does get around on a bike, even in the rain.)
Her Paris is not necessarily populated by well-healed multinational execs nor necessarily by the tortured souls of the avant-garde, but by those seeking a bit of adventure combined with a lot of style.
“I love the spontaneity of Paris. You can start an evening in one environment and end up at a party at someone’s house that you never met before. That seems to happen a lot more here than it did in London,” said Culliford.
The one-woman concierge service
So, how does one go from being just another new arrival to being a one-woman concierge service?
Well, it helps if you walk right off the plane into a “dream job” working for Time Out Paris as Culliford did, quite by happenstance.
“Being a Time Out journalist you are the person everyone wants to know, with access to free tickets, expenses paid, restaurant reviews and a ‘finger on the pulse’,” said Culliford who worked for Time Out for three years before the print publication closed down in 2004. “In the end this became rather a burden as people were giving out my telephone number to their friends for restaurant and clubbing recommendations.”
Now Alison can just tell these callers to buy her book, or to wait for another title she’s working on for scheduled release this summer ‘Paris: Instructions for Use’ modelled after a popular Venice guide of the same name.
Bridging the gap
But even with her Time Out access to the latest and greatest of Paris nightlife and the built-in network of expat colleagues and friends that came with it, Culliford acknowledges that there was an adjustment process, especially after she decided the point had come to break out of her expat network and hang out with more French people.
“It did take quite a long time to have a French circle of friends here. Initially it was the language problem. Also I found it very hard work. I felt for a long time like the oddity, like I’d been invited because they were curious about me,” confessed Culliford. “Now I don’t feel any different than the people I’m with, I really feel part of the group. The part that I’m English isn’t a factor to them now.”
What made the difference? Language skills certainly, but Culliford also attributes it to a certain “frankness” from her French acquaintances that she now at first found off-putting. She describes one French woman who is now a loyal and helpful friend:
“Initially I found her too bossy. She’d be constantly saying ‘you ought to do something about your hair. Really you ought to consider getting your bras from such and such a shop.’ And I thought, Oh really?! But then it finally clicked, that this is a way of showing your affection for someone, for showing friendship,” recalled Culliford.
What’s more, Culliford discovered, is that it works both ways; Culliford suggested a re-looking to this friend and, far from being offended, she took it as a compliment.
Tips on integration from a Paris expert
Now, six years down the road, Culliford says her life in Paris ‘seems so easy’. But she does remember the logistical difficulties she faced after first arriving. The trick, she says, is to try to look beyond all this knowing that these things sort themselves out after a while.
“Something that puts me off a lot from expat groups is the sort of sitting around whinging about the difficulties of finding an apartment. If you choose to come here you have to look on the bright side, think why you came here,” said Culliford. “Because there are those problems, things to get you down. But I think it’s much more fun to try and ride the wave and make the most of coming here.”
Plus, there are techniques that can help you get off to a good start.
Alison Culliford’s Tips for New Arrivals
1. Get a good haircut. I have found a brushing makes all the difference in whether shop assistants treat you like dirt or as a valued customer!
2. Move to an area with lots of local commercants and a market, where you will soon be enjoying banter and feel like you belong in the community.
3. Do things at the same time every day: swimming pool, shopping, dropping in for a coffee. French people tend to keep to a schedule themselves and to ‘warm up’ only after they’ve seen a new person a few times in the same context. But after the third time they see you in the next lane at the swimming pool, don’t be surprised if that’s when they start saying Bonjour.
4. Take private French lessons; your teacher will be able to advise you on all sorts of things as you learn the language and, possibly, to help you write business letters in French. (Remember that, while Americans and Brits are much more used to picking up the phone, French people are used to sorting out customer service issues with letters. You need someone to help you write these well if you someday want to ask for your money back!)
5. Join a class with French people. The Cours municipal d’adultes organised by the Mairie de Paris has a wonderful selection.
6. Follow up any overtures at friendship. I made the mistake of always waiting for others to make the first move. Speaking French after a hard day’s work can be exhausting and it’s so much easier to hang out with anglophones, but it will become effortless if you persevere. You have to treat a French friendship as a project and you will reap what you sow.
7. Get medical stuff sorted out straight away to avoid being caught out when you actually get ill.
8. Understand that non is just the beginning of a negotiation.
9. Learn to be frank. Our natural tendency to be diplomatic and avoid conflict is only seen as hypocrisy.
10. Befriend the concierge and/or neighbours. Initial hostility soon melts away if you stop to talk often enough. If you own your own flat, show an interest in the copropriété, which can help cement good relations.
11. Remember why you came here in the first place and hold onto that dream.
Photo credit: firstname.lastname@example.org (Paris).