Paris Dispatch #7: One Year
Everyone told me the first year in Paris is both the most exciting and most challenging. And no matter how much you try, things will never turn out how you expected. Having lived it myself now, I can say for certain that advice was right.
One year ago today I stepped off a plane from NYC into my new life in Paris. Have I landed where I thought I would? Not exactly — I’m not as far along as I would like to be in some areas, but in others I’ve outdone even my admittedly overblown expectations.
It’s been un minute since the last Paris Dispatch. The truth is once everything ceases to be new, the day-to-day minutia of life is less exhilarating than when you first arrive and even going to the grocery store feels like an adventure. And adjusting to that is part of the process too.
But last night was one of those evenings that makes all the difficult aspects of starting a new life in Paris more than worth it. My husband surprised me with a boat tour on the Seine organized by Château de Pommard, a beautiful winery in Burgundy that we had visited with friends last July.
Château de Pommard set up the event to celebrate the release of its 2014-2015 wines, and I took a moment while cruising past the most iconic sights of Paris to toast my husband and myself for all the hard work put in over the last year.
I think back to when I used to not recognize any streets or metro stations, know where to buy groceries, have any friends of my own, was scared to ride a bike in the city, thought I’d never be able to get a job. It almost feels like I was a different person on June 6th, 2017.
This past year I celebrated my first birthday as a Paris resident. I paid taxes in two countries. I overcame difficult situations at work, with friends, in my marriage, with myself, with Paris. I didn’t succeed in everything I wanted to, but I’ve come a long way. And I have earned a little wisdom I’d like to share.
10 Lessons learned from year one in France
- Learning French is not a passive activity. People who tell you you’ll pick up French so much by just living around it are wrong. You will a little, but real learning requires putting in the work, conjugating those verbs, making WordReference your best friend and setting up time to use French in the real world beyond buying baguettes. I’m lucky to have a French husband with a social life that forces me into dinners, conferences, and other events. If you don’t you will have to be more proactive. There are so many Americans here who only hang out with English speakers and go to English events. I don’t blame them, it is uncomfortable to feel over your head in French, but being cozy in an English environment won’t help you improve your language skills.
- It’s okay to change your plan, your idea of success, and even yourself to adapt to France. The goals you set out when you arrive won’t all happen. You may have to revise your idea of what kind of job you will take, the language milestones you had planned, or your tastes and even personality may change to fit into the new culture you’re a part of. That’s all okay.
- Be kind to yourself. Especially early on, I was very hard on myself and told myself I didn’t “deserve treats” until my language skills improved, or I found a full-time job, or any other number of goals I set for myself. But I soon learned that being that hard on yourself only harms your progress. Take that girls trip in another country, take a full day to give your brain a vacation from French, go to Starbucks and get that giant pumpkin-spiced latte if you miss it. This shit is hard, you deserve treats.
- It’s more than just the language. Adjusting to French culture and connecting with people is harder than overcoming language skills. You’ll find that the way you broke the ice with people in America doesn’t work here. That people don’t respond the way you expect in conversations. That your normal office behavior doesn’t fit in. This can be disorienting and frustrating, but is something only trial and error can correct.
- Don’t be ashamed of who you are. Early on I was often embarrassed of my English and being American. Not because I think there is anything wrong with America, but because I felt like an interloper and French people were going to be upset by my very existence in their country. But even here in Paris where people are considered less friendly than in the rest of France (something I dispute), I have had very few incidents where people got upset or irritated by my language skills.
- Expect more visitors than you think. Americans are already the number one nationality to visit Paris, and now that you live here, there is even more of a reason to come visit.
- Expat depression is a real thing. It is okay if the life you imagined as a fairy tale in reality has you sobbing uncontrollably on a semi-regular basis. We’ve all been there. Here are some tips to help.
- It’s okay to go home and savor it. You’re not cheating on France if you go back to the U.S. and go full American. I appreciated Thanksgiving so much this past year as an opportunity to relish the American activities I missed — stuffing myself silly with pumpkin pie and narrating every minute of the Macy’s parade was even sweeter than ever.
- Making friends is more exhausting than you think. You will tell your story a million times. You will go on a ton of “friend first dates” that don’t pan out. People you thought you connected with won’t return your emails. It is a difficult process, but try to put yourself out there as much as possible for the first six months. Then take a step back and try to just focus on cultivating a couple of friendships you think could become meaningful.
- Moments of magic happen — if you make them. If you are sitting in your apartment waiting for Paris to show you how lively and wonderful it can be, sorry it’s never going to happen. You don’t have to spend a million dollars or have a ton of connections. Some of my most “magical” Paris moments have occurred while just walking home when the sunset lights up the sky and I realize how goshdarn beautiful this city is. But you have to get out there and go to events, make plans, meet people and take advantage of what is here to make your own magic.
As challenging as the first year was, I’ve been warned the second can be even more so. Without the shimmery distraction of everything being new all the time, the reality of true integration and adjustment can be painful to manage. But looking back on the trials and triumphs of the past 365 days, I know that I can endure more than I thought to get to the best stuff.
So here’s to year two, starting today.
Until next time mes amis, xoxo