My first months in Paris…
Christine, a former expat in Paris, talks about her first months in the City of Lights, about her initial excitement at living in Paris, the period of disillusionment that followed, and how she finally made peace with the city and felt at home.
Paris – the name alone has a certain ring to it. Nearly everybody in the whole world associates something with life in Paris, everyone has a certain image of the city in their head: it could be a romantic walk on the banks of the river Seine, a stylish Mademoiselle clad in Gautier or Givenchy, a moustached charmeur with a beret on his head, an easel under one arm and a baguette under the other, or something completely different.
For me, the image of Paris I nurtured in my dreams was characterized by Josephine Baker doing the Charleston at the Folies Bergère in the 1920s on the one hand, and by the Paris of the Swinging Sixties on the other. I liked to think of Paris as an exciting city full of students, artists, musicians, poets and intellectuals speaking in a beautiful language and living in lofts, with some world-famous sights strewn in for good balance.
Well, in a way, Paris is of course all that – it lives on and cultivates its myths and thus ensures they live on. When you first come to live in Paris, you may be overly excited, enthusiastic and totally overwhelmed by the city and its myths. A few weeks into your stay in Paris, however, and the honeymoon period will invariably have come to an end. You’ll still be overwhelmed by the flood of impressions, but these impressions are likely to be dominated by throngs of people everywhere, a long and exhausting flat hunt, endless hours queuing for public administration services, a time-consuming commute to work, dog droppings on the pavement and all the other downsides of life in a big city. Paris, despite its magic, is no different.
When I think back to my time in Paris, I remember three distinct phases I went through when settling in: The first month or so was just pure excitement. Even the most ordinary things filled me with joy at living in this buzzing city. Walking down a road in my neighborhood nibbling on a fresh baguette, sitting in the launderette waiting for my clothes to be ready while watching people walk past, or buying a bottle of red wine for dinner were opportunities for soaking up the Parisian atmosphere and made me feel part of something big.
This couldn’t last long, of course. Soon I started to feel weary. The daily grind set in. Buying groceries at a local shop was no longer an adventure, but a simple necessity again. Travelling to work on a packed metro every morning, the constant noise levels in the city, the tourists, all that started to wear down on me. All of a sudden, I felt lost. Once the initial excitement had died down, I realized that in fact I hadn’t really become a part of the “City of Lights”. Quite on the contrary, I felt like a stranger for the first time since my arrival. Local life didn’t seem to open up to me; Paris didn’t let me in, so to speak. I didn’t want to hang out in tourist hot spots, but I lacked the inside knowledge and instincts of a true local when it came to picking venues for my nights out or destinations for my weekend excursions. At that point, walking down the street in my neighborhood no longer made me feel exuberant, but quite depressed.
This phase didn’t last forever either, of course. With the help of neighbors, colleagues, and friends, I soon discovered Paris for a second time. This time, my approach to the city was more composed and down-to-earth. I wasn’t wearing rose-tinted glasses anymore like at the very beginning of my stay in Paris, and I wasn’t painting it black anymore either. Paris had simply become my home, with all its wonders and all its woes.
Although Christine’s experience is very symptomatic of what it is like to move abroad and come to a new city, there are things expats can do to make that transition easier. Social networks specifically aimed at expats, such as InterNations, help expats through the difficult first months abroad by providing valuable information and opportunities for networking and meeting other expats and locals at regular off-line get-togethers.