Paris and I have been in a complicated relationship for almost five years now, but lately I feel like we’re doing better, that we’re finally on an even keel and we might just make it.
Whenever I tell people in England that I live in Paris they immediately gush about how romantic it must be and how lucky I am.
And they’re right.
Paris is a beauty, although, much like the most popular girl in school, she’s also kind of a bitch. For most expats I know (and non Parisians for that matter), the relationship they have with the city of love is a turbulent. It’s love hate. Because, while she presents herself well on the surface, once you get to know her, the ugly truths come out. The constant noise, rude and non-existent customer service, exorbitant rent, the beggars, the thieves and the dog poo all start to rub the shine off of her bows and buckles and, at the end of the day, everything swirls into a dirty Seine-like grey.
Each day, as I whizz across the city from client to client, I see the best of Paris and the worst of Paris. For me, much like a long term relationship, you learn to live with the bugbears because the good times far outshine the ‘dog crap you just walked into your clients home because you lifted your eyes briefly from surveying the pavement’ moments. In any given day I can be infatuated with the beauty of it all one minute or angrily cursing my life choices the next.
I think where I struggled in the first few years of our time together was down to my own state of mind. When I arrived in Paris I was having a hard time. Coupled with the language barrier (why hadn’t I tried harder in French class?) and the fact that I had never had that American dream of living in the city of love, I struggled with the enormity of the adjustment that comes with a sudden change of culture.
I was a dancer when I first arrived. A Parisian showgirl. I was just about at the top of the glitz and glamour ladder and yet, it rarely felt that way. Things worsened as the contract ended and I was released from my expat bubble of giggly, sociable, mainly English girls. The other dancers mostly returned home to the UK to pursue their dance careers but I was at the end of mine and I was staying, for love. The reality set in that I wasn’t going home. In fact, I was home. In France. How did that happen?!
Alone and now unemployed with only basic level French but high level anxiety, I struggled to understand the French system and fought to make ends meet, eventually succumbing to the personal shame of borrowing money from my Dad.
I felt socially isolated and lost. For me, living in Paris felt like a punishment. Just buying a baguette was a mental ordeal and I left each establishment more shame-faced and downtrodden than the last. Once vibrant and chatty, I became the sullen, silent girl of every gathering. I didn't know how to express my personality without language and I didn't know what was going on most of the time. I'd lost my natural confidence and it scared me.
It was just such a different world. My first apartment was the size of a rabbit hutch and didn't have a washing machine so I educated myself with amusement on how to use the laundrette (just like on Eastenders). I subsequently learned that I should not go to the laundrette late at night, alone in a dodgy area, after being offered cash for sex from a grubby little man who tried to steal my underwear. I also learned that you can live in just about any sized space if you need to and, whilst you might pay the same rent as a large one bedroom apartment in outer London and you may well have wifi, you may not be eligible for heating, seating or basic security.
Nevertheless, I forged on and, painfully slowly and with the support of my man, I built a world around me. I learned more of the language, retrained as a PT and started a new business and career. Finally things started to look up.
What I’ve since come to realise is that how you view a place comes from within. People often remark ‘oh I hate New York’ or ‘I love New York’ but it’s really based on their own experiences and state of mind at the time of being there. Paris has always been, and will always be, Paris. She has her good sides and her bad, much like any other city, but the fact that she’s been so sugar coated to begin with makes the bitterness of reality so much harder to swallow for a lot of people. She is, like most of us, far from perfect.
For me, what’s changed everything about living here has been community. Expat community. Feeling less alone in the daily challenges that living in a foreign country brings makes everything more bearable and allows me to see Paris afresh again.
I started my business with the intention of helping people with their fitness and self-confidence. Little did I know that I was actually building a tribe who would in turn, support me just as much. A tribe I could bitch about the hard days to, a tribe who knows how it feels to speak your best French only to get a pained expression in reply. People who shop in Marks and Spencer’s because it reminds them of home and know that accidentally ordering ‘un baguette’ means you will never be able to show your face in that boulangerie again. For me it started with inviting people for coffee chats after Squad on Saturdays and has since blossomed into breaks away and nights out together, strong friendships and awesome girls holidays. Community is everything when you move away from home and whilst I wish I’d know that to begin with, I feel extremely proud of now having created this one for myself. It’s brimming with like-minded, strong women who have chosen the path less travelled. Without them, Paris is cold and dirty and mean. With them the incredible beauty of it all shines though and each day is a blessing, no longer just a struggle to survive because I no longer feel alone.
I’ve actively chosen not to live a life of ‘metro, boulot, dodo’, instead using this new opportunity of a fresh start to restructure my life in a way that keeps me seeing the positive side of life. Now I ride home on my Paris city velib’ along the Seine, listening to jazz and marveling at the architecture and all the places I’ve yet to discover still. I give as good as I get to the grumpy checkout girls and I side step the dog poo choosing not to dwell on the little turds that life often presents us with. I feel truly lucky to be here, living the life that so many all over the world would love to live and I plan on making the most of all there is to offer for as long as I’m here.
If I had advice for anyone moving to Paris it would be to join a group of people with interests similar to yours as soon as you arrive. There are so many out there- you’re nowhere near as alone as you think. Find your tribe a.s.a.p. so you’re not doing a Carrie Bradshaw feeling excluded and standing outside the bistro miserably looking in at a happy world with big ‘poor me’ eyes. Integration is key but more importantly in the early days so is support, friendship and a sense of belonging. You won’t find it in the Parisian welcome pack though, you have to be brave, reach out for it and grab it for yourself.
For me, building a community has brought the romance back to our relationship. And now? Paris and I couldn’t be happier!
Ideas for groups to help you integrate into Paris life :
Expatriate magazine/ Anglo Info
Expats in Paris facebook groups- there are many!
Our group classes!