Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Moved to Paris…
There are so many things I wish I had known before moving to Paris.
This past weekend, even after eleven years, I found myself complaining to my French friends (who likely didn’t appreciate it, at all) about some of the same things that either haven’t changed, worsened or I simply can’t get used to. There is no doubt, that in many ways I have “crossed over” to see things from the French point of view, but the cultural differences can be so acute, and in so many situations, impossible to overcome.
On the train back to Paris from the Côte d’Azur Monday, I had time to reflect on these ideas and compiled a list of 17 things I wish I had known before I moved to Paris. The first one that came to mind was the first thing you traditionally think of doing when moving to another country — getting a visa. Being an American, where we follow the laws the way we are supposed to and telling a lie is worse than murder (thank you, George Washington), we applied for a “carte de séjour” knowing we would be staying more than 90 days, as the law says we should.
Oh, if I only knew then what I know now! I might not have been so quick to blindly follow the law. We half-heartedly joke at the French idea of truth: “There is the law. And there is the reality.” This is one cultural difference I’ve learned to cross, because if you don’t, and continue to blindly follow the law, you’ll forever fall into the deep French pits.
The most difficult cultural difference to overcome has been our idea of customer service where the “customer is king” to the French idea where the seller is “doing you a favor.” While it has changed drastically over the years as American-style retailing has infiltrated the French landscape (Starbucks, Gap, McDonalds, etc.), it can still be a challenge. I’ve learned never to expect to be able to return/refund any purchase without a major hassle, but I still fail to see the point of telling the customer, “No.” Just this past week, I actually had the owner of a small shop tell me that not only did she not know the price of the dinnerware she had on display, but that I must call her later that day to ask — she would not bother to call ME! I walked out thinking, “Yeah, right. Ha! You just lost that sale, babes.”
Perhaps the most fun cultural difference to cross is the use of flirtation to get what you want. American women (and I suppose, me, too), are taught that flirtation is a form of sexual harassment and therefore unacceptable behavior (even though it works). Here, it’s absolutely necessary and quite honestly, expected. Usually it’s me flirting with the waiter to get good service, but last night I had the opposite and quite pleasant situation. Upon entering the restaurant, the waiter made a point to compliment me on my very ordinary black beret (mostly worn by Americans and out-of-style French), to which I was surprised and amused. It started the whole evening off very right for both of us, and so the little game should.
And the hardest thing to give up? Those out-of-style bérets that give me away as an American.
A la prochaine…
Editor, Parler Paris
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P.S. While both my computer and my brain were plugged in and the TGV was slipping down the smooth tracks to Paris, I jotted down the 17 Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Moved to Paris to the tune of 10 typed pages and turned it into a “report” that readers could learn from. You can have it, too — it’s FREE with a two-year subscription to French Pr
operty Insider all this month (a savings of 20%, too!).
P.P.S. Read Jean Taquet’s March 1st Q’s and A’s at /parlerparis/practicalanswers.html