Editor’s note: We love when writers share their personal experiences of making Paris their home on the blog. The expat experience is full of trials and errors, risks and rewards, and often the payoff is not at all what we expect. As expats, we take what we can get and accept beauty and life lessons whenever and wherever we find them. This post combines the uniqueness of each of our experiences moving to a new place with some universals that come with the adventure that is living abroad.
Moving to Paris after many years as an expat in London, I expected my first few weeks in France to be smooth and uneventful. Paris, and its joie de vivre, had seduced me in ways London had not quite managed. It was nearby and somewhat of an old friend, as I had visited many times. With an elegant apartment lined up for my French partner and me, I was excited to embark upon my new life.
As an introverted freelance musician still getting to grips with the language, I knew might easily find myself without a niche, so I planned my first steps carefully. After renovating our apartment, I would unpack and decorate. We would proudly show off our chic home over the holidays, and then, I would studiously enroll in the Sorbonne’s French course. With a better command of the language, I would confidently embark upon building my life in Paris. The city’s charming pockets would soon become familiar to me, as I frequented its many quaint markets and independent shops.
As the Yiddish saying goes, “We plan, God laughs.”
In reality, renovations ran over by several weeks. Thanksgiving dinner was greasy takeout in a hotel room. The apartment was finally completed in time to unpack before Christmas, but right after moving in, I suffered a medical emergency. I practiced my French frantically calling doctors to schedule urgent treatment over the holidays. Instead of sparkling Christmas decorations highlighting the splendor of our Haussmann apartment, I spent the holidays recuperating amidst dusty boxes, while my partner miserably battled the flu. I didn’t venture much farther than the vicinity of our rough-around-the-edges neighborhood near Gare du Nord. I missed the registration deadline for the Sorbonne’s French course, and it was a few weeks before I felt well enough to receive visitors. Not quite the auspicious start I had envisioned.
But the hiccups of those first few weeks had silver linings that made me appreciate my new city in ways I didn’t expect.
I had yet to obtain my French social security and was fearful of the cost of private treatment. Luckily, I found myself at the American Hospital, receiving excellent care at reasonable prices.
Despite their reputation for being impossibly rude, the French people I encountered were gracious and helpful—from shopkeepers to nurses, pharmacists and doctors. At the hospital I mistook my French doctor’s reserve for coldness and insensitivity. As I scratched the surface, I realized in his own quiet way, he was, in fact, expressing deep compassion.
Spending time mainly within the vicinity of our quartier, I fell in love with my new neighborhood—one that less adventurous Parisians might avoid. As an American from a mixed ethnic background living in Europe, the question “where is home?” has long been without an answer. At my Parisian doorstep, I may have found it—a neighborhood (like me) that is a true fusion of cultures: marrying the quintessentially French (Haussmann architecture, brasseries, boulangeries) with the Asian subcontinent (riotous colors and sounds, exotic produce, the fragrance of aromatic spices).
Thanks to the bumpiness of these few weeks, I’ve seen Paris from a different angle. It is early days, but the unexpected richness gleaned from these experiences makes me hopeful of the journey to come.