When Rosecrans Baldwin, the author of Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, took a copywriting job at a French advertising agency and relocated from Brooklyn to the 3rd arrondissement, he imagined a life of baguettes, croissants, and other fine carbohydrates. The reality of expat living in Paris, he soon learned, was a little bit more complicated.
1. There’s an actual psychological disorder called Paris syndrome. It occurs when a tourist arrives in Paris and is so distressed to find the city does not meet his or her romantic expectations that it causes a breakdown. It strikes about a dozen people each year. Japanese visitors are particularly susceptible, possibly due to the über-romantic image that Paris holds in Japan. The Japanese embassy once repatriated several sufferers with a doctor or nurse aboard the plane.
2. Parisian doctors work from home. Not all of them, of course, but the physician I saw did. It’s unsettling to walk through a doctor’s living room, past her children’s things, to reach an examination room full of medical equipment. She also answered her own phone and could always see me within a few hours. At the time, I wondered if she was really a doctor.
3. McDonalds is perceived by lots of people to be a wholesome restaurant. But the French still eat their takeout in classic French style: over several courses. Lots of my French co-workers would get takeout from there nearly every day. A few chicken nuggets to start. Then a burger, possibly two burgers -un Big Tasty or un Royal Deluxe- plus fries and perhaps a beer. This was followed up by a small house salad, then dessert (no French meal is complete without dessert). All of this was consumed over the course of 45 minutes, with plenty of time for casual conversation.
4. The French are very polite, especially to one another. When a person boards an elevator in a Parisian office suite, it’s customary to greet everyone on board with a friendly “Bonjour!” and to have that greeting returned. Then the group may discuss the weather. When someone exits on the next floor, they’ll say “Au revoir” or “Bon journée,” and their good wishes will be returned. I told a French colleague that this simply doesn’t happen in the United States. She replied, ”This is because Americans are very cold.”
5. Almost every Parisian I knew -white, black, Chinese- earnestly loved “Toxic” by Britney Spears. This was in 2007, four years after the song’s release. I’d walk into a Paris party, and at some point “Toxic” would play, and even the wallflowers would get dancing. Other expats confirmed this finding. I imagine at some point the phenomena will cease, but until then, that song is in the running for Parisians’ favorite American import.
6. France basically invented the internet in the 1980s. They called it Minitel, short for Médium Interactif Numérisation d’Information Téléphonique (“interactive medium by digitalizing telephone information”), and it was like an online service transmitted over telephone lines, accessible through a squat, homely little computer. People could chat, shop, and even book train reservations -but only in France. By 1999, 25 million people were using it, making it sort of a French version of Prodigy or early AOL. But then it was outgunned by the World Wide Web, and by 2012, when it was officially shut down, it was only being used by farmers, the elderly, and some small businesses.
(Image credit: David Pye)
7. Other Europeans consider French coffee to be quite abysmal. An Italian colleague said she didn’t even consider French coffee to be related to espresso. For this reason, Nespresso machines are very popular.
8. There is a French chain of grocery stores that sells frozen food, and nothing else. It’s called Picard, and the food is of high quality and is decently priced. Shoppers push their carts through aisles of waist-high freezers stuffed with delicacies. Scallops, foie gras, tagliatelle with white truffles, a capon prepared with hazelnuts and apricots, accompanied by a sauce of reduced Gewürztraminer. Maybe someday, Americans will be able to reheat their food as well as the French.
(Image credit: Flickr user Robyn Lee)
9. Renting an unfurnished apartment in Paris means supplying your own refrigerator, oven, and stove. Many expats hear this news when they arrive and say, incredulously, Quoi?
10. In Paris, residents are required to assemble un dossier, an official file, for pretty much everything. Metro passes. Tennis court permits. Residency cards. Usually, head shots are required, and the instructions in the photo booth are quite clear that smiling is discouraged -pas de sourire, visage dégagé (“no smiling, no expression”). This gets to an elemental fact about living in the French capital -that unless a tourist is both madly sentimental and Japanese, visiting Paris is mostly about light, beauty, and fun with berets. But living in Paris is different. Living in Paris is tres serieux and nothing to smile about, merci beaucoup.
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