When I lived in Texas and California, neighborhoods didn’t matter, except for the school district. I drove everywhere, from Target to the Olive Garden to the gym. Don’t judge me—you know you ate your weight in those breadsticks back in Tucson.
In Paris, it’s different. I don’t drive here, so I need groceries and restaurants and exercise to be right outside my front door. It has to be safe, and, because it’s Paris, I’d like it to be charming.
I moved recently, and I wanted all those things. My old quartier, near Metro Villiers in the 17th arrondissement, was perfect. I had a shopping street, rue de Lévis, that made me feel like Belle in the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast—Bonjour! Bonjour!—except I’m not jaded and cynical. (Seriously, she’s complaining about the same old bread? In France?).
That neighborhood saved me when I moved to France. I’m not the bravest expat in town. I moved here with long-dormant high school French, clueless about Gallic customs and manners. But the merchants on rue de Lévis made me feel like a native. They corrected my French (don’t say je suis chaud, because that means you’re horny; say j’ai chaud, my butcher told me). Always say Bonjour first, or they won’t wait on you, the fromager said.
Our relationships blossomed over the three years I lived there.
Once I forgot my bag of meat when I left the butcher. He saved it for me, and it became a running joke—N’oubliez pas votre sac! The fleuriste often threw in a free rose with my tulips. The vegetable lady gave me recipes. The fromager helped me build apéro platters that delighted my friends. My coiffeur waved at me when I passed his salon, sometimes coming outside to chat between clients.
Three years of living like that had an unexpected benefit during last year’s confinements: Those perky front-line workers made my life bearable. I couldn’t see friends or family in person, but a conversation with those real live humans in the shops became a lifeline to sanity. Eye contact and a smile had never been so valuable.
Then I moved.
I had to. After a divorce and a water leak that exploded the bathroom ceiling, I needed a fresh start.
I would have loved to stay in my cushy quartier, but I just couldn’t find a suitable apartment. Besides, I figured, I’m a grown-up, strong, independent woman who can speak French with relative ease now. I don’t need the kid-glove treatment every time I buy tomatoes.
I found a great apartment. A brief scan of the neighborhood showed me a nearby shopping street and an indoor market. I knew I could feed myself, even without the friendly cheese guy and the butcher who knows my name. So I started making my rounds, looking for the best prices, yummiest roast chicken, and freshest baguettes.
Then something started to happen. I began to love my new quartier.
Merchants began to recognize me, even though I had never said much more than Bonjour, deux cordons bleus, s’il vous plaît. They started to nod and wave when I passed their stands, and I’m pretty sure from their crinkly eyes that they were smiling under their masks. I asked about seasonal produce, what region the chèvre came from, and which wine goes with pork chops marinated in lemon sauce. I learned not to put my cut flowers in the sun. These people love their métier, and they began to get chatty, giving me recipes and tidbits.
The good feelings grew.
The vegetable guy threw in a couple of apples after I had paid.
I forgot my bag of fruit at the flower stand. Mince, I said, and I went back to get it. The stand was closed for lunch, but the fleuriste had left my bag in plain sight, with a note that said—save this bag for the lady who left it.
The butcher went a step further. I ordered a rôtisserie chicken, and he told me to pick it up at 5:30, to give me enough time to get home before the 6 p.m. curfew. However, when I went back, the mortified guy explained that the chicken was a big boy and needed 15 more minutes. Or 20. Then he offered to bring it to my apartment. He showed up at curfew, still in his long white apron, with my succulent chicken in a bag. We had a delicious dinner, sopping up the sauce with a baguette and toasting the butcher’s culinary skills and attentiveness.
It’s my neighborhood now.
I know the French are famous for being snobby and unapproachable. I know the bureaucracy makes you want to cry. I know people cut in line, old ladies give judgmental stares, and there’s dog poop everywhere.
But I also know that France has been very kind to this uprooted single cowgirl. Even with masks, distancing, and no cafés or restaurants whatsoever, I have made connections in this quartier, stumbling along with my adequate French and my Anglo-Saxon expectations. These people are just people, doing their jobs as best they can, getting along with their fellow humans.
Once again, France has my back.
- More stories from Yvonne: Expat Life: Paris Plumbing Adventure and Finding Love & an Apartment in Paris
- Here’s Where to Live in Paris: Find the Neighborhood that’s Right for You
- One more expat’s Parisian tale in Why I Moved to Paris During a Pandemic
Written by Yvonne Hazelton for HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Haven In for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long-term or buy in France or Italy? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates or click here. Looking to bring France home to you or to learn online or in person (when possible)? Check out new marketplace shop and experiences.