Paris is like that really beautiful man you just spotted at the end of the bar. Expertly ensembled, coiffed to perfection, sculpted as if he were the god of a Gucci campaign . . . he gleams. Just one little problem: you are as noticeable to him as the gum stuck under the bar stool.
Paris knows this. It’s the apex of urban life and makes my hometown look like the pimply-faced band geek I used to be. I suspect the rest of France secretly despises Paris, fully aware that the other cities represent the proverbial ugly sister.
It’s amazing to be surrounded by the elegance of a city that’s in bloom, and at times I want to throw my hands in the air and sing “La Vie en Rose.”
The downside to all this beauty is the standard it sets. You can’t bum around in your pj’s in Paris. If you dare take a stroll in your workout shoes, be ready for some odd looks. Looks that in no uncertain terms inform you that you’re below the bar. You’re not even level with the ground on which that bar is perched. Oh, no. You’re sunk deep in the layers beneath the Earth’s crust, swimming in a molten fashion hell, and you should probably be set aflame for your faux pas.
There are only two real ways to avoid feeling like you have a third nipple growing out of your forehead. Either you raise your fashion awareness and start to dress up . . . or you smile.
Since I never got the style gene, I grin at the people who choose to judge me by my lack of label. Paris is a great place to discover your own style and learn to be comfortable in whatever shoes you slip into, be they cross-trainers or YSL.
I’m surprised to admit that the frigidity of the city’s residents appeals to me most of the time. I enjoy the effortless anonymity of people watching without having to endure someone’s obnoxious interrogation. “Paname” knows how to leave you alone, and believe it or not, it’s actually a spectacular place to explore solo.
Unfortunately, the city’s impersonal nature does not suit most Americans, and the degree of I-don’t-give-a-shit-ed-ness can surprise even the most seasoned voyager. America is a nation of question askers. A troop of loud, grinning cross-examiners. We want to know who the hell you are! And if you don’t tell us, well, the bug is stuck even farther up your keister than we first suspected.
Tip: visit the city as if it were a crotchety old man. P.S. You are its 10-year-old grandchild. Also, Paris has a perpetual headache. It’s tired of your incessant yammering, and you’re big enough to get your own damn glass of chocolate milk.
Prepare well and fend for yourself as much as possible. Learn to savor the city on your own, and, I assure you, the ride will have fewer bumps.
Another thing you can do is explore the neighborhood. Find a wine shop and make the caviste your biggest fan. Adopt a marché (one of the open-air markets the French are famous for), and don’t be afraid to chat with a few vendors the next time you go back. If you look in the right places, the Parisians will surprise you with their kindness.
Ever see a 25-year-old jovially swinging on the arm of her 55-ish sugar daddy and think, “What could they possibly have in common? They’re both within 25 years of a diaper-wearing phase.”
Living in a place with this much history can be intimidating. It takes strength to admit one is not as smart, experienced or educated as someone else. (Paris can’t wait to remind you, should you ever forget.) Coming to this city means that you have to be open to the idea that your home might not be the greatest place on the planet. But there are advantages to this. Not only will you learn loads, but your eventual, unavoidable humiliation at the hands of your French friends will yield a humbler version of yourself. It’s good to see the world as wide. It’s even better to consider other viewpoints and accept that sometimes wisdom comes from experience you may lack.
Here’s a challenge: try to figure out everything that is going on in the city for just one month. Call me when your brain melts out your ears.
This city is an activity vortex—everything gets sucked into it eventually. Nothing escapes. From extreme sports to knitting, there’s an event for everyone. I remember trying to “do” Paris at 19. I dragged my friend to about nine monuments in one day. By the end of it my feet wanted to slap me. Needless to say, I don’t recommend this.
Trying to do everything you’d like to would require cloning, or some breach of the laws of physics. I hate learning about something I’ve missed. It’s like arriving at the train quais just as the doors are closing, except the destination will implode, never to be found again. And all the people on the other side of the doors are sticking their tongues out at me. Four-letter words are the only consolation, because the “planning” is ever-changing.
The good news is that you can never really say “I’m bored.” The moment you even think about uttering those blasphemous words, someone will call, an email will tell you about something to do that very night or checking a few websites will turn up a memorable plan for the evening.
There are so many great sites out there that I can’t name them all, but I have blogged about some of them. So when you’re in doubt, you can start here. There are also the yearly events you can count on, like Fashion Week in early March, and the numerous film and music festivals. Even if you pace yourself, you may still be exhausted at the end of your trip. But with help from these sites you’ll pass out with a big fat smile on your lips.
Being an expat means that you’ve got to accept something pretty tough: your family and friends are going to take a geographical BB pellet to the testicles. It sucks. Bad. Paris can’t share you with the whole world, and a little puddle called the Atlantic can make keeping in touch rough on us Americans.
Even harder yet is adapting to the city and your new life. I moved here when I was already pretty comfy in my sneakers. I had a life back home that included good friends, close family ties, an apartment I really liked and a job I absolutely loved. But I couldn’t keep all that and have Paris too; in the end, love and Paris won me over.
But technological advancements are making this adjustment easier with each passing year. I want to kiss the inventors of Skype. With tongue. They may even get to third base if they keep going at this rate.
Then there’s the expat network. Paris is teeming with enough English-speaking expats to make your eyes bulge. These people are organized, interesting and ready to meet you, so don’t hesitate to be a joiner.
A simple Google search for “Paris expatriate” will give you some options, like the Expat Blog, and even Meetup.com. Or you can contact associations, like the American Women’s Group (AWG). There’s even going to be an expat expo in Paris in February 2011! Twitter and bloggers are your best bet for making new acquaintances. The people are out there—you just have to find them!
Paris is incredible, but it’s not perfect. As with any relationship, you take the good with the bad. Despite the hardships of a trip that takes you out of your habitat, follow my advice and your love story with Paris will have a happy ending.
Shannon grew up in Wisconsin. Then she moved to Paris and turned into a poop-humor-loving, frog-teasing toddler all over again. Well, maybe she was always like that, but it’s definitely gotten worse. Read more about her regression at JNSQ.