After you get over the initial excitement of actually living in Paris, there’s a second emotion that overcomes you.
Living in Paris is hard.
Not only is there a language barrier, but you always feel like you don’t quite understand what it takes to get things done around here.
Whenever you talk to someone in your French university or in a government office, you just leave feeling confused about what you’re supposed to do. You have no idea how French people live like this.
They’re used to it, is all.
Living in Paris – or anywhere in France – is not all crêpes and fromage blanc. Even if you’re pretty sure you understand what’s going on, the fact is that you’re not only speaking a different language from the people around you, you’re also speaking different cultural expectations. It can be frustrating not to know what to expect, or when, or why.
Here are five skills I learned in Paris, that you’ll need to learn if you want to really understand the French:
Nothing in France happens immediately.
Although things are slowly changing, a lot of things in France are still done on paper and then transferred to a computer. Class registration is paper-based, with department secretaries verifying maximum enrollments. Appointments are still made with real people, and things get done when they get done, and not before.
The French have no patience for impatience.
Take the Préfecture. Now, in some departements, like Paris, you can actually make an appointment to renew your carte de séjour online. But in Seine-Saint-Denis, where they don’t WANT all of us undesirables to renew our cards, you have to go to the Préfecture in person and wait in line.
The line starts at 3 AM, or earlier.
People have made a business of showing up early and then trying to sell their spots to late arrivals.
If you get there at 6:30, like I usually do, you don’t get up to the counter until almost 4 PM.
If you forget a document, tough luck. You have to come back tomorrow.
I swear they create this system on purpose, to frustrate the mostly North and West African and Chinese immigrants who live in Seine Saint Denis and discourage them from staying. It doesn’t work.
It’s often been said that France has terrible customer service, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I’d definitely say that it’s not anywhere near what we’re used to in Anglophone countries. (Bureaucracy, yes. See above).
A few weeks ago, a neighbor’s kid threw a toy out of the window that landed on our skylight, breaking a hole into the corner. Now, I’ve tried to call the insurance company several times, but since it was and almost everyone’s on vacation, every time I call, I’ve been kept on hold for a few minutes (All of our representatives are currently assisting other callers. Please stay on the line until someone is available…) only to have the line hang up on me after 8 minutes on hold.
Fortunately, I have unlimited calling on my cell phone and it’s not a paid customer service number (of which there are plenty in France), but it’s just another example of how you have to be super-persistent to get anything done in this country, especially during vacation time.
At some point, if you want to get anything done, you have to realize that it will probably take at least a few tries to get the right person on the phone who can do what you’re asking.
In France, everything is small. Desserts are small. Candy is small. A large coke from McDonald’s would be a small one in the U.S. And even the people are relatively small.
While there are fat and obese people here (like there are everywhere) they’re the exception, not the rule.
And the secret to how the French stay so small is moderation.
You won’t see kids gulping down free refills on soda in France, because free refills only exist at Ikea. And for most of the French people I’ve met, drinking a Coke is like eating a candy bar: a rare treat, rather than a daily occurrence.
French plates are smaller than their American counterparts, and while there may be several courses to a meal, each course is small and properly spaced out.
Moderation seems to extend to other aspects of life in France as well. Work is done in moderation, as the French seem to have internalized that taking frequent breaks results in better productivity. While French workers have one of the shortest workweeks in the world, at 35 hours, they’re also among the most productive workers in the world. And if you work too quickly, or are too motivated / ambitious, or don’t take enough breaks, or don’t take hour-long lunches, you’ll quickly alienate your French coworkers.
But for all the talk about how French women don’t get fat, many of them certainly don’t worry about their figures.
You’ll never hear these words come out of a French woman’s mouth: “Oh, I really shouldn’t have this macaron, because I had that square of chocolate earlier today and I didn’t run this morning.”
She’ll either eat it, or she won’t. And if she does eat it, she’s going to enjoy it.
French women don’t seem to have the same guilt associated with food as Americans do. A French woman finds no need to justify eating a cookie or an ice cream cone to herself or to anyone around her. She’ll eat one macaron instead of 3, or have just one scoop of ice cream, but she won’t hem and haw about whether it’s a good idea.
She’ll just do it.
I admire this in French women. Finding a proper balance between indulging yourself and having a moderate, balanced diet, can be hard work, and it’s something we can all learn.
OK, I admit it. I was already really stubborn before I moved to Paris.
But refusing to give up until you get what you want is a really important trait to have when you live in a country where rules are for everyone else. I wrote this post about how I used extreme stubbornness when dealing with the Préfecture in Paris to get my visa renewed before I left France one summer.
But unless you’re French, you have to be really stubborn to adapt to living in France.
Here, nobody is going to hold your hand and help you get shit done.
In fact, even if you are French, you have to learn stubbornness relatively early. The reason so many kids fail out during their first years of college is that they go from a highly regulated environment to one in which they have absolutely no idea what they’re supposed to be doing, or how they can succeed. The ones that get through a License in a French university are the stubborn ones.
The trick is to learn to be stubborn while being polite. I haven’t necessarily mastered this yet. But you’ll go a lot farther in France if you can insist on getting what you want while keeping your cool, using formal language (that takes years to master) and keeping the righteous Parisian attitude of “Mais c’est pas normal.”