When I moved to France six years ago, I was a fish out of water. My little-used high school French had been displaced by German and Chinese, and I had only ever been to France for two short trips. I was startled by the abruptness of the Parisians, by their staring and impatience and their overtly quizzical looks. Gradually, though, I caught on. Here’s what I learned:
Nuts and Bolts
Speak French. Oh, you don’t speak French? Well, get started! Go ahead and speak 100% of the French you know in every interaction with French people. If you want to get decent customer service and win the respect of les Parisiens, you’d better parler français. This is not Portugal, where the locals are friendly, and the vibe is relaxed. This is Paris, where they’re guarding the peak civilization they’ve worked so hard to attain, and you’ll get much further with neighbors, waitors, clerks, and the general public if you speak French.
Paperwork. French bureaucracy is brutal. It’s an archaic system, full of actual pieces of paper and signing things with a pen and writing checks. Getting an apartment is a Herculean task, because there is no credit reporting in France and you have to scrabble together your entire financial history. Updating my yearly residence card is the bête noir of my time in France, assembling a dossier of my birth certificate, bank statements, health and family info, tax returns, proof of address, work situation, then hauling it all down to the Prefecture and praying to get a nice fonctionnaire who doesn’t laugh and send me home for more.
Bring all your paperwork from your home country, get yourself a reliable printer, and thank sweet baby Jesus that wine is plentiful and cheap here. It’s the trade-off.
Healthcare. I was astonished by the excellent French healthcare system. It’s efficient, user-friendly, dirt cheap, and accessible. House calls are a thing. Birth control is free. You can pay your pharmacy bill with pocket change. Vive la France!
Slow down. I moved to Paris from the chill California suburbs, but I still had to learn to slow down in Paris. Meals take longer, both at home and in restaurants, with multiple courses. People eat, pause, talk, refill wine glasses, linger. Servers leave you alone. When you meet a friend for coffee or a drink, you can sit there chatting long after your drinks are drunk. Or, you can sit there alone, lost in thought and watch the world go by.
Get your style going. Parisiens are exacting about personal style, shooting judgy glances if you look too schlumpy. They have a natural, sophisticated look, their clothing almost uniform in its chic-ness. So, if you want to get grudging respect instead of open scorn, know yourself, know your style, and carry yourself with pride.
Invest in a few wardrobe basics. Clothing is very practical in Paris, and I needed things I didn’t have in California. Cross-body bag for keeping my goodies close in crowds. Lots of sneakers. A raincoat with a hood. A long coat for winter. Scarves. So many scarves. The bright side? There’s no place like Paris to go shopping.
Eat less. The French just eat less than Americans. Smaller portions, no snacks. You’ll get used to it.
The Fun Stuff
Flirt. Stop clutching your pearls, I’m not suggesting anything immoral. From a puritanical American viewpoint, the French flirt like crazy. Compliments, smiles, conversations, all have a seductive air. It doesn’t mean he wants to take you home–they just consider it friendly.
When I first moved to France, I thought every waiter was into me. He’d look deep into my eyes, purse his lips into a tiny little smile, lean in, and murmur, Vous voulez autre chose? Do you want anything else? Yes sir, I thought. I want you to pull up a chair and sit for a spell. When the fromager rang up my total and I said it was perfect, he said, non, madame, c’est vous qui êtes parfait. It’s you that is perfect. I waltzed home humming and swinging my paper bag full of cheese. My coiffeur makes me blush regularly, with his sparkling conversation and scandalous flattery. Bless him, he’s doing God’s work.
So relax. If somebody wants to hit on you, he’ll make it clear. But if it’s the baker, it’s just all in good fun.
Date. If you’re ready to mingle, France is the place to do it. My information is purely anecdotal, not data-driven, but for my expat friends and me, in France more people respond to dating apps. They schedule a date instead of chatting interminably. If the first rencontre goes well and there’s going to be another one, you’re probably dating. The French are couplers, and they have game. Allons-y!
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Written by Yvonne Hazelton for HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Plum Guide and our Marketplace for fabulous vacation rentals 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? Check out our marketplace shop and experiences.