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Living in Paris, France

In a City it is Essential to Learn About Your Village

Our family has lived in China, Australia, and France. In each instance, we depended on the kindness of strangers, serendipity, and planning. In China and Australia, we had young children, so their needs often took precedence. Through them, their schools, their new friends, and our colleagues, we created a social life and support system not unlike that sought by immigrants to the United States.

More recently in Paris, we didn’t have the benefit of ready access to a social life through children. We might have acquired a dog. But instead we got lucky.

Planning turned out to be key, but not quite in the way I expected. It’s hard to remember, but in 1996 it was very difficult to find anything online about living in China, or even Australia. In 2004, by contrast, the information on the Internet about moving to Paris provided endless entertainment and instruction.

For a 10-month stay, it is important to think of your move as permanent. We met some expats who were in Paris for only a 3-year stay, and still hadn’t figured out how to buy cheap train tickets. Then there were others who were inviting every sympathetic person they met to bi-weekly dinner parties.

In a large city like Paris, it is essential to learn about your village. Before we arrived, I assumed I should find one café where everyone would know my name. This, however, was in direct conflict with my desire to try every café in Paris. So I didn’t settle on a single café, but I did shop at the Monoprix on Boulevard Sebastopol, and the small man at the register began to recognize me and I went only to his register. Soon he was telling me about his holiday plans, and I was explaining why supermarket workers in the United States didn’t have as generous vacation time. On my last shopping trip I said I was “quitting Paris,” as they say, and he gave me a small nylon shopping bag as a souvenir.

Even without a single café, the village was still important, so we regularly went to our district office to pick up information about special local events. If we had been smart, we would have always gone to the same bank, the same post office, the same street market stalls, and eventually we might have gone to one restaurant more than once, like the Clown Bar, for instance. But we wanted to explore Paris, after all.

Language was key, but it wasn’t easy. We arrived with some French—enough to shop and eat and read the simplest newspapers. But when, at 2 a.m., we had to engage in a telephone conversation about a disturbance in the apartment with the Syndic, the building co-op, or find a package that la Poste had lost, we had some difficulty communicating.

We had different strategies as a couple. My husband bravely and brazenly spoke French at every opportunity. I took classes and joined conversation groups.

This is where one thing led to another. Online I had found an annual event where newcomers could learn about the city. There I met two French women who ran an organization, Accueil Feminin. They didn’t have a Web presence, but I signed a piece of paper, and Michelle welcomed me into her home for tea every two weeks, along with a dozen women from around the world. We had only one language in common, so it had to be French.

I took another class at a place called WICE, and joined a 2-way drop-in group for conversation, where we spoke English 45 minutes and French 45 minutes. There I met many Parisians who were keen to learn English. And I discovered a multi-national walking group meeting every week to walk for six hours in the forests around Paris. We walked rain or shine, and learned the word mud in several languages.

For More Info

WICE, www.wice-paris.org, is a non-profit Anglophone association that provides cultural and educational programs and services for the international community in Paris.

Let Them Talk is one of several programs that organize gatherings for conversation: www.letthemtalk.com.

Langue Onze is one of many small language schools, particularly recommended for those seeking immersion in French: www.langueonzeparis.com.

Americans in Paris: an Anecdotal Street Guide, by Brian Morton, tells who lived where, among the many Americans who have resided in Paris.

The Clown Bar is a restaurant near the Cirque d’Hiver (the Winter Circus), where performers gather before or after a performance, along with local people and tourists: 114 rue Amelot, 11th arr.