These days, my husband Lief Simon and I can be found between Paris and Waterford, having exchanged our Georgian country home in County Waterford for a small apartment there near our Irish office. Our plan is to commute between the two cities, trying hard not to get our wires crossed and leave the kids unattended in one or the other.
We've wanted an apartment in Paris for years, and after a thoroughly enjoyable experience of apartment shopping--climbing centuries-old staircases, pushing open weighty doors with mammoth brass knockers, lingering in courtyards with tulip beds and trimmed box hedges...comparing neighborhoods, buildings, number of rooms, the noise (from the street) factor, the elevator (or lack thereof) factor, and, perhaps most important to me, the authenticity factor--we found an apartment that will accommodate our family of four for a year... and that thereafter will serve as a good rental.
Making a move like this can get complicated. Transferring your life overseas is a grand adventure... and a logistical challenge. Our move from Ireland to Paris is no different.
Except that we've had help. We never could have organized all this on our own. Even with the support we enjoy on the ground from our Local Office staff in Paris, we're still struggling to pull all the necessary details together. And we're reminded why we've been working for the past several years to build the IL Local Office network. The world is alive with opportunity and adventure...but, oh, the challenges involved with trying to navigate the possibilities on your own. You'd sooner stay home. But, please, don't. Don't let the red tape of it all interfere with the chance to do anything you're dreaming of doing.
Instead, let us help. And let me start by offering you a few tips for easing into a new life in the City of Light.
On the technical front
- Internet account access
It's imperative that you automate as many things as possible--particularly any bills in the US. One service I've found helpful is Chase Online Plus, which keeps track of all your accounts, investments, and even email addresses on one page. It's free, provided you have at least one account through Chase.
- Cash and credit
Many credit cards and even debit cards charge hidden fees or percentage points for international transactions. That's why I suggest withdrawing as much as possible using your ATM or debit card and then spending mostly cash. BNP Paribas is the only bank that allows you to withdraw up to 800 Euro at a time.
- French banking
Getting a French bank account is a bit of a challenge. You can't just walk into a bank and apply for one in 10 minutes, like you could in the States, particularly if you're not a permanent French resident. Your best bet is a friend's referral to his banker--or better yet, applying at the same bank where you have a mortgage.
- Contact with home
Make sure you get a cell phone that works internationally and is labeled as 'tri-band.' As long as you're in France, incoming calls--even those from overseas--are free for you. Family and friends can contact you at low international rates and you pay nothing for the call.
When you're settling in
- Choosing an area
Whether you buy or rent in Paris, the choice of your quartier (neighborhood) is key. Although Paris is composed of 20 arrondissements (districts), there are countless subcultures in the city... and the feel of a neighborhood can change from one street to the next.
Before choosing a quartier, walk around during the day and in the evening. Do you feel safe? Are you close to a market, a pharmacy, a park? What is the area like on a Sunday, the quietest day of the week?
Since Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, you also may encounter tourists en masse depending on the area you choose. This invigorates some and bothers others--but no matter what environment you prefer, there's a place in Paris just for you.
- Keeping it simple
As I've said before, when it comes to your household goods, move as little as possible. You can find nearly everything you need here, and filling your new home with flea market finds and chic boutique splurges is part of the fun.
But you should bring all the bed linens and towels you can fit in your luggage. These items are extremely expensive in France and mostly lower quality (and smaller!) than you'll find in an American department store. If you're attached to your fluffy bath sheet or want a spa-quality bathrobe, bring it with you.
If you can time your move, try to come in early January or early July during the biannual sales. Everything, even designer sofas and good artwork, is on sale all over Paris. This is the ideal time to furnish a new apartment.
Engaging with your new home
- Learn French
This is the most important piece of advice I can possibly give you. If you don't speak any French, take classes to learn some. If you already speak some French, take classes to learn some more. While Paris can be enjoyed on the surface with a vocabulary of about 10 words, living here and living well requires comfort with the language.
And speaking French will earn you new friends. IL staffers in Paris say that most of their French friendships started with a conversation about why they speak fluent French... which turned into coffee, then dinner, then invitations to birthday parties and evenings out to meet their friends. None of this would be possible without a command, albeit imperfect, of their language.
- Read up
And while you're learning the finer points of the past subjunctive tense, do some reading to learn about Paris--and if you're interested, French culture, history, geography, and philosophy. Your French friends will have studied these topics in depth during their schooling and will make discrete references to them during ordinary conversation. A good base of knowledge will keep you in the loop.
In addition to Polly Platt's classic cultural study French or Foe, one book I recently read and enjoyed was The Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. It's an excellent overview of the history of the city from the Roman era to the present and an entertaining read.
- Get to know the BHV
The BHV, or le Bazar de l'Hotel de Ville, is centrally located on rue de Rivoli across from the Paris City Hall. It houses seven stories of everything you could need or want--from hammers and bicycles to swimsuits and blenders. As you settle in to Paris life, you'll find your own neighborhood stores and secret addresses--but in the meantime, go to the BHV and they will certainly have what you're looking for.
- Pick up a copy of the FUSAC
The FUSAC is a free magazine published in English and full of classified ads. It advertises apartments, used furniture, jobs, lessons... you name it, it's in there. You can find a copy at most expat hangouts in the city, including Irish bars and New York-esque bagel shops.
- Become a regular
To feel like you really live in Paris, you need to become a regular in a handful of places. Pick a boulangerie with bread you like and get your baguettes there without exception. Find a café with a good atmosphere close to home and go there on a regular basis. Sit at the same table every time.
And once you discover a reasonably priced restaurant with a good wine list and reliable daily specials, make it your home away from home and introduce it to out-of-towners and friends. Nothing will make you feel more at home than the first time your waiter looks at you with recognition, substituting a formal and impersonal "Bonjour" with "Ah, bonjour, ça va?" and a smile.
My final piece of advice cannot be overemphasized. Talk. Talk to as many people as you can who've gone before you. Talk to expats living elsewhere... and French friends... and especially Parisian transplants.
Hear about their personal experiences, their struggles, their stories of plumbing problems and French faux pas and especially their private victories... and then go about the entertaining business of accumulating your own.