Can you imagine how wonderful it would be to live in Paris, the City of Light? Do you see yourself shopping each morning in the open-air markets? Having a quiet café on the sidewalk terrace of your favorite bistro? How about spending your whole weekend visiting museums and strolling through the gardens? For many people, this is an unrealized dream. Especially for those who’ve actually moved to Paris.
The expatriate community, specifically the English-speaking one, seems to get larger every day. More and more people are relocating here, lured to a city by the words and images of their favorite artists and writers who once lived here. And that Paris, the one that mystifies and fascinates us, still exists somewhere, in a place and time where we can calm down and let it sink into us. Unfortunately, the average Anglophone expat, used to the high-speed chase of life back home, has found that living in Paris can be the worst way to enjoy the city. Most Parisians, even the expats, live their lives similar to the lives of anyone in a large city. “Metro, boulot, dodo,” a popular French saying, illustrates the ‘commute, work, sleep’ routine that traps many of the world’s city dwellers. Paris’s beauty and culture is easily ignored when one is stuck in traffic on the motorway. People are passing over the outdoor markets to shop in the cramped and fluorescent lit supermarkets, either because it’s closer, it’s cold outside, or because it’s just faster. Residents also tend to stay away from any places that might be crawling with tourists and the tacky shops that follow them. Trips to museum exhibits and monuments tend to occur less than most of us will admit. For the expats, it’s not hard to forget why we moved here. How many of us spend more time watching English cable channels or playing around on the computer than in the café terraces just below? How many of us only see the sights when our friends come to visit for a week? And how much time do we spend simply trying to survive in this city? Therein lies the culprit.
Living in Paris as an expat can be more difficult than it looks. Cultural and language differences aside, there are secrets to getting through the French system, of getting things you need, and of being treated like a human being. The French have had their whole lives to discover these secrets, and even they struggle at times. And when you’re an expat, once you become a law-abiding and heavily-taxed member of the French society, you may start feeling those twinges of rage that come about when things don’t go as smoothly as hoped. Imagine you have finally wrangled your way into an exclusive and expensive club, only to find that once you’re in, you still have to beg the bartender to serve you a $20 cup of warm tap water. Paris is the City of Hoops and Forms. The former you jump through, and you’re always missing the right one of the latter. It’s not easy to be blinded to the exhilarating sights of Paris’s monuments when your eyes are focused on the pavement looking out for dog droppings.
As a student in 1995, during one of the worst transportation strikes in Paris, I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time. I had just arrived in the city and needed to register for my classes at the University of Paris. One of my classes was up in the north side of the city, and with the metro on strike, I waited in the growing bus lines. Hot and crowded, I was lucky enough to be squashed in next to the window, and as I cursed the metro strikers (not knowing then that the busses were soon following), I saw the top of the Eiffel Tower peeking out above the buildings. Years later, I still prefer to take the bus than the smelly metro. I like to look up at the buildings, to see the flowers on the terraces, the people poking their heads out of windows, the amazing diversity of the architecture. I always feel a bit calmer when I get off, even if I know I have to fight my way down the crowded pavements of Rue de Rivoli to get to Marks and Spencer’s. Which brings me to another facet of expat life: the search for home away from home.
There exists in Paris, restaurants, bars, cafés, shops and services that are ‘foreign’ to the French, and home for us. An Irish pub that shows Sky Football matches, the American food shop where you can buy Jello mix and root beer, and the Australian restaurant where you can eat kangaroo filet and drink some great Australian wines. There are a dozen English-language bookstores, even an American Library, the English and American Churches, a chain of bagel shops, and even English theatre. The longer you’re in Paris, the more you’ll find that those things you can ‘only get at home’, can be found tucked away in a corner of Paris. Watch for future articles highlighting the best new finds.
So, Paris. Great for tourists, tough for the expats. This site offers the best advice and links possible for living in Paris, collected over the years from other expats who have not only survived in this city, but still enjoy it as well. It will be updated weekly, and is open to suggestions or questions about expat survival. My goal is to help all expats discover the little pleasures of the city, to overcome the barriers to the French system, and to reveal the shopping, eating, and entertainment secrets that the native residents closely guard. Ambitious tourists could also glean some useful tips from this page, just don’t expect any hotel listings. Yes, living in Paris may be a challenge, but one that many have, and always will, gladly accept in order to stay in this strange and wonderful city.
Update: October 2019
Originally published in September 1999, this article introduced the Secrets of Paris, one of the many “topics” on the Suite101.com platform that hosted the first 78 articles I wrote between 1999 and 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’m publishing them all here, one by one, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris. Although I veered off heavily into the “hotel reviews” land of travel writing for visitors for many years, in reading this two decades later I’m actually surprised at how little of it I would change (okay, no “kangaroo filets” either). Enjoy the nostalgia trip!
You can also learn all about the early days and evolution of the Secrets of Paris over the past two decades in my essay, “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris”