Earlier this year, I decided to move to Paris. I decided to move here for a number of different reasons, many of which are hard to enumerate.
I had lived in Washington, DC for over 15 years. I had an amazing life – good jobs, wonderful friends, traveling whenever I wanted to – but I was at a stalemate. Despite having everything that one could want, I was frustrated – professionally and personally – and wanted a challenge. I wanted to expand my mind. I wanted to learn something new.
I needed some time off to think. After spending years exploring different possibilities, I couldn’t quite see where the path ahead of me led, or whether there was even a path. I had talked about taking 3 months off, getting an around the world ticket, and traveling the world. Picking the most random and exotic places I could think of and just going. As wonderfully romantic that idea was, I couldn’t quite bring myself to book the ticket and couldn’t figure out why. Something about it sounded too frivolous. Like I wouldn’t be able to make something of it. Sidebar: Given the fact that Madagascar was on the list of “random places to visit,” clearly this ended up being the right decision as it would have been really unfortunate to have caught the Bubonic Plague while embracing life.
Now I know what you are thinking, “So, you decided to totally up and move instead?” Well, yes. I figured if I sank myself into another life, another culture, then I would really get something both personally and professionally out of it.
We live in a world that is more and more international with each passing day. The transatlantic “conversation” occurring between Washington, DC, Brussels and the various European capitals is increasingly important to the world I was coming from – namely, the world of technology policy. After having spent over a decade and a half in Washington, DC, I figured I really needed to sink myself into the European world to understand the dynamics of the decisions they were making.
Most importantly, I fell in love with a Parisian. I know, I know. How cliche can you be?But, it’s true. He became my rationalization to make an otherwise wholly irrational decision. I had never known a love like the one I found with this man and I wanted to explore it and see where it took me. I figured, “well, even if it doesn’t end up working out, I will explore a world of emotions I have never known before.”
Now, let me just say that I’ve always been one of those people who have been able to get pretty much anything done in a matter of days. So, when I decided earlier this year to move to Paris to be with the man who I believe to be the love of my life, I thought “surely I won’t need longer than a couple of weeks to settle in and then I’ll get to finding my career”. Well, all I have to say is moving to Paris is hard….and the French are even harder.
Why, you ask?
Well, I will go through just a short list of reasons (most of which I expect to be recurring themes in this adventure I have decided to recount publicly)….
First, let’s take the language thing….well, it’s a lot bigger barrier than you can ever imagine. No matter how many people speak English these days (and there are WAY more people in Paris who speak English than ever before) and no matter how much you try / how high your comprehension, conducting core activities….like say finding an interim flat, banking, talking to the cable operator because your WiFi is out, trying to tell someone that your dishwasher is leaking an enormous amount of water (all of which I experienced in the first week in my French flat)…when your French boyfriend is off at work is extremely difficult to truly communicate through broken French / English discourse.
Second, there’s the whole, “making friends in your late 30s” thing…. I have had several other expat friends of mine recount to me the difficulty of this obstacle (for those of you who decide not to move to a foreign country after the age of say a college student, the best thing I can compare this to is “mom-friend dating” – at least from what I understand from my mom-friends, smile). I was always extremely empathetic when I heard them recount the story of being lonely in a new land and in a new job (I’ll get to that one later), especially since I was lucky enough to have extremely good friends in Washington, DC. Well, I never knew just how lonely it was until going through this and how much you crave social and understanding from other humans when you are having a down day (say, because you couldn’t communicate the fact that your kitchen floor is filling up with water). That feeling is only further compounded by the fact that you can’t even communicate to total strangers. So, in an environment (say work travel) when you might normally just go down to the hotel bar to shoot the proverbial shit with someone to satisfy that itch for bullshit and ridiculous story recounting, the fact that you can’t speak the language throws up an almost unsurmountable barrier and you just sit there shyly smiling at people (which I am positive just makes you look incredibly creepy to others).
Third, there is the whole “cultural norm” thing…. Ok, this one may not seem as obvious. Every culture has its idiosyncrasies, right? Obviously. But by in large we navigate them, right? Absolutely…..when you are there only for a few days. That’s because the locals overlook the fact that you are totally breaking their rules and shrug you off as “at least trying” when you are there for a few hours / days. However, when you move someplace and begin really interacting with people on a day to day basis, you have got to learn their norms, their way of doing things, etc. It’s this way anywhere you go but especially with the French. They are an extremely proud and extremely proper culture by nature. I know we have all read that the “French are rude.” It’s not that they are rude, it’s that they don’t appreciate when you don’t respect their way of doing things and will show you the same respect that they feel you have shown them. Now, this is when having “the Parisian” with me has helped. He has helped me navigate different levels of protocol for different levels of engagement, be it “how to treat a waiter” (basically like dirt, otherwise the waiter won’t respect you and will overcharge you) or “how to eat your meal….with family, with friends, in front of potential business partners.” The French have all these subtle cues, which I find both simultaneously fascinating and daunting. Think “interpersonal conjugation”….
There are many many many more reasons why this process is hard but, well, that’s what this whole website going to be about. I had every intention of starting this when I was first on the ground in Paris but (for many of the reasons explained above), I am only now wrapping my head around what to write about (yes, as I finish my 4th week in Europe)….
And that is….I am using this to share my experiences…my tips….the tips other share with me…about Paris, about being an expat, about moving a political / strategic career to Europe, and (likely more times than not) about the totally ridiculous experiences that happen to you as an expat stumbling my way into a new life. So, with that, I hope you enjoy whatever comes in the future days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years (woah, can’t even really think that far yet)….