Issa is a 25-year old woman who has been living in Paris for six months. She is originally from Dublin, Ireland, and works as a live-out nanny (meaning that she doesn’t live with the family she looks after). She is also studying childcare at the Paris Institute of Childcare Training. We became friends after meeting in Hamburg, and sat down together recently to talk about all things French, from classic cuisine to culture shock, forming friendships and dealing with frustrating bureaucracy!
Hi Issa! Let’s start at the beginning. What made you decide to move to Paris?
It was pretty simple; I speak French, I have a background in French, and my boyfriend is French! So I said “Ok, Paris, why not?”. I’ve been learning it since I was thirteen, first at school in Dublin and then at university. I thought it was a good opportunity to refresh my language skills.
How did you go about finding a job and an apartment?
I got my job through a childcare agency called Le Repertoire de Gaspard. The recruitment process was straightforward. I just had to give them the paperwork needed (My CV, cover letter, police clearance, my references and stuff like that). They’ve been a pleasure to work with – the staff are friendly and supportive. There’s plenty of perks working for them like free French lessons, yoga and exercise classes. I would highly recommend working for them.
For the apartment I found it on Spot-a-home. It’s an app; people mostly use it when they’re not actually in the country, looking for a place to stay before they arrive. It’s like a virtual viewing of the room or the apartment. You get information from the landlord, house policies, and once you like what you see, you just have to send an application.
I’ve heard in Paris it’s very complicated in terms of paperwork. You need a folder of documents to apply for an apartment….
When you arrive in Paris, the first word you will learn is dossier. It means all the necessary documents. Usually the landlord will ask you for your contract, three most recent payslips and the last three rent receipts that you paid to your previous landlord. They can also ask you for a guarantor – one or two – and sometimes they’re very picky. They might say “We want a guarantor in France, or in Paris”. Or they want your guarantor to earn three times the amount of the rent. If you don’t have any contacts in Paris, that can be really difficult. You also need to show you have a work contract – they will usually favour the people who have a permanent contract. If you don’t have one, there’s a good chance that they will say no.
Ok so foreigners with no local contacts, freelancers and self-employed people are really at a disadvantage. Did you feel any resistance towards you as an applicant because you’re not French?
The process was OK – I didn’t feel I was discriminated against. Actually, a lot of people helped me to find an apartment. I joined some Facebook groups and asked if anyone knew about a spare room in the area I wanted to live in. My boyfriend also helped me search, although he doesn’t live with me in Paris – he’s from Périgord. Incidentally, the best pâtés in France are made in Périgord!
Good to know! Have the expat communities been supportive?
Yes, definitely! If you have any problems, you can easily search on the Facebook groups and see people have talked about this before. If it’s a new topic, you post it and the next thing you know, there are 10 or 15 people helping you out. I should point out that a lot of people forget to use the search option; they ask a question that can be answered by a quick Google search or has been asked many times before. Some of the expats who’ve been in the group for years can get a bit grumpy if they see the exact same questions, again and again.
When you moved over, did you experience any culture shock?
I was so excited to move and spent my first two weeks there with my boyfriend and sister. Then they left and it hit me. I’d moved to another country, far away from my family and boyfriend. There were a few tears!
What were some of the stereotypes you’d heard about Paris before moving there? Have you found any truth in them?
Well, a lot of people had told me “All Parisians are rude and snobby!”, but actually it’s not true. I’ve met so many nice people here. If you want to ask them something, please try to ask the question politely, as the French really appreciate politeness and good manners. Ask if they speak English in French: “Parlez-vous anglais?”. You need a little bit of French to start the conversation.
Taking the time and making the effort to learn a few basic, introductory phrases can make a real difference. You can find these on Google translate and any language learning app. If someone came up to me and said “Where is the train station?” I’d think they were very direct, not even saying “Excuse me” or “Could I ask you a question?”.
There have only been one or two encounters with rude people, and that’s it.
If you’re in a big capital city with millions of people, including tourists and locals, you are going to encounter people who are unfriendly, or are just having a bad day. Maybe it’s not a reflection on their personality, it’s how they are feeling that day.
I’ve actually picked up some good habits since moving here. I’ve found in other cities, people don’t always say ‘Pardon me’, or ‘Excuse me’ when they bump into someone. In Paris, we apologize it every single time. Now I do it all the time, even when I’m not in France.
Very polite! Another stereotype is that Parisian women are very fashionable and chic. Would you agree with that?
Yes, I’ve seen a lot of women wearing Chanel or Louis Vuitton bags. I feel like I’m one of the only women there who doesn’t have one!
Do you think it’s changed your fashion sense?
Yes, I dress way better now! Back in Hamburg, whenever I dressed well people assumed I had a date. My colleagues would say “You look so good today, what’s the occasion?”. I just wanted to look good for myself. In France, when you dress well, people appreciate it – they notice and tell you that you look good. I haven’t actually bought any new clothes since moving to Paris, but now I can finally embrace my inner fashionista! Presentation is important to the Parisians.
Another common stereotype is that French people can speak English but they don’t want to. Do you think that’s true?
In Paris they actually speak English! Both older and younger people. I’ve got lost a few times and at the start, my French was just not there. I was trying to refresh my French at the time, and I couldn’t say some things in French so I had to try in English. The people helping me were like “Oh yeah, I can speak English. No worries, I’ll help you out!”.
Things are changing with more internationalization and globalization. Maybe in the past some people were quite shy about and it became a stereotype, which is now outdated.
Exactly! Even my boyfriend’s parents, who are in their late fifties/sixties now, can understand me. Even though they can’t really talk in English, they still try. His dad actually has a notebook where he writes the word in English and in French as well. He’ll learn it so the next time he sees me in person, he can say more English words. Every six or seven weeks, the primary schools have a two-week break and I can use that time to visit my boyfriend and his family, or travel to a new city.
Lucky you! So how are things with the family you work for?
The family are really supportive – I’m lucky to have them. In this agency that I’m with, they really filter the families and child carers. They just want the best for both sides.
And how have things been socially? Have you gone to lots of expat events and joined groups?
Not really! When you come home at 8.30pm, you’re usually too tired. On a Friday or a Saturday, I’ll go out with friends. I’ve also started a language exchange with a few French girls. I get to go out in Paris and learn French at the same time, so it’s been fun. We do an hour in English then an hour in French. The last few tandems that we’ve had have been more in French, though. Good for me but not for them.
I think it’s quite difficult to get the balance right. You need to be quite strict, especially if one person is much better in a language than the other one. So how did you meet your tandem partners?
Through a language tandem exchange group on Facebook. I’ve also made friends through my childcare class. This course is designed for non-French people who want to have the childcare diploma. We’re a pretty good group and everyone has made friends in the class. There are so many nationalities; some are from Canada, Brazil, the Netherlands, the USA, Scotland, the Philippines, Mauritius, England, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Jamaica, the Bahamas. We talk to each other in English, but during the class, we really have to speak in French.
What are your tips for learning a foreign language?
First of all, you have to actually like the language in order to learn it quickly. If you don’t like it, you will struggle. You have to have an affinity to commit to studying the language. Learning French wasn’t a huge struggle for me, as I’ve studied it back then.
For learning a foreign language, I would suggest on watching Youtube videos first; there are lots of courses for all levels including beginners. Afterwards, if you feel that it’s the language for you, do a language course. Visit the country where it’s widely spoken. It’s better to stay in a country for a minimum of six months to really immerse yourself. You need to meet people, create a routine and integrate yourself. You can learn so much in six months. You can also get a French boyfriend or girlfriend – it’s like having a tutor you don’t have to pay!
Does your boyfriend correct you when you make mistakes in French?
Yes, he does. He knows I want to improve and to have a very high level of fluency, so he’s helping me out. He’s patient too. At some language schools, the teachers want their students to correct their own mistakes and to learn from it. I’m not patient enough for that! So my boyfriend explains to me why the grammar is like this or that, so I can self-correct with his help. It takes time to research your own mistakes and it can be frustrating. I’m the kind of person who thinks ‘Just tell me what’s wrong and I’ll fix it!’, I don’t want riddles or puzzles. French is very technical and I wasn’t expecting that. There are a lot of rules to follow, and exceptions. The grammar is complicated.
Yeah I’ve heard that. For me the pronunciation is too – I don’t know which letters are silent or not. I don’t feel confident that I’m saying the word correctly, am I pronouncing too many words or too few?
What do you do in your free time to develop your French?
I watch films dubbed in French or French films. For example, cartoons and animations like Shrek, Despicable Me. I write down new vocabulary in a notebook, but I don’t go over it often. Sometimes I read newspapers in French; it’s very difficult but I learn new words. I always have my translator with me, translating any words I don’t know. I go over the chapters I’ve learned on my childcare course and read newspapers to see what’s happening here in France. I don’t write in French (on email or Whatsapp), but my teacher corrects our essays and we have writing exercises in school. We have mock exams every few weeks.
That sounds tough! Another stereotype I’ve heard is that it’s difficult to make friends with local Parisians. Have you found that it’s difficult to infiltrate the close friendship groups?
Yeah I think that’s true. I’m not going out as much as I used to, so the only way you can infiltrate the group is to know a Parisian who will introduce you to their friends. I have a French friend who has been living in Paris for more than a year now. We originally met back in Dublin – he was my first language tandem partner! I’ve known him for five years and he’s introduced me to a few of his friends as well. That’s how I got to know other French people and socialise with them. In Paris I feel they are more open than in other cities. They wouldn’t tell you “Oh sorry, I have enough friends now. I can’t take on any more”. They are unlikely to talk to strangers, but if someone introduces a new friend and they click, then they will hang out and talk to them.
What do you enjoy most about living in Paris?
What I enjoy the most is I get to go to different attractions anytime I want. My favourite neighbourhood is the 7th arrondissement, the one with the Eiffel Tower. Whenever I am there, I always say to myself “Look at this! Look at the view! It’s so beautiful”, whether it’s sunny, raining or snowing outside. Whatever the weather, it’s always stunning. If you’re coming to Paris and want to take some great photos, there’s a really nice view of the Eiffel Tower and the River Seine. You can find it by standing between the Passy and Bir-Hakeim metro stations.
I also like that most of the museums are free entry, for European citizens who are 26 and under. Remember to bring your ID if you qualify.
I went to Paris once when I was under 26 and saved so much money that way! I only realised when the person at the ticket office asked how old I was and if I had ID. Every time I’ve been back since, I’ve been over 26 and have felt a bit put out, having to pay €10 here, €15 there. It does add up.
It does. Two weeks ago, I went to the Louvre. Oh my God, it was so big, I couldn’t finish it in two and a half hours. Luckily I’m in the position where I can go there multiple times. Another thing I really like is it only takes 1hr 30 to go to Disneyland Paris. I have the annual pass and have been three times since moving there. My sisters got the pass for me for my 25th birthday – they know I love Disney!
That’s such a nice present because it might be something you wouldn’t think to buy yourself! So, has Paris lived up to your expectations?
To be honest, I didn’t have any expectations. Paris has never been the kind of place I thought wanted to move to. I visited Paris with my family when I was a teenager, but I never thought that it was that romantic.
That’s probably a good thing because some people go there with this really romanticized image in their heads. I’ve read about the Paris syndrome – the disappointment of expecting Paris to be like something from a film, completely magical and extraordinary, then realising it’s just a regular city in many ways. It’s good you went there with a very open mind, no preconceptions.
How does the cost of living in Paris compare to back home, in Dublin?
I would say rent prices are the same. I pay €650 for a room, with a shared bathroom. I got a good deal because the flat is 55m² and I just have to share with one person. My housemate is from Uruguay but he’s fluent in French, so I get to practise with him.
With transport, I would say it depends. You can get a travel card called a pass navigo, which you pay for every month or every year. I pay €75 per month for all the five zones in Paris. Zone 1 is the immediate city and zones 2-5 are the suburbs. Versailles is in zone 4 and Charles de Gaulle airport is in zone 5.
While we’re talking about public transport, something tourists should know is that when you get your ticket in Paris, you need to write your first and last name on it, and the date. If you don’t do that, your ticket isn’t valid and if an inspector checks your ticket, they will fine you. Remember to keep your tickets for the whole journey!
I’ve heard it’s a €50 fine on the spot if you don’t have your ticket with you. In some countries, it’s fine to pass through the barriers, board the overground or underground train, then discard your ticket. However, in Paris you must keep hold of it for the duration of the journey.
I think it’s common sense, in a way, to keep your tickets with you until after you’ve left the station. There have been enough people burned by this ticket inspector situation that it is on Tripadvisor, on blogs and forums, so tourists can inform themselves before they arrive in France. When you are actually buying your ticket, there are different language options on the machines. If you have any problems, there is always a person in the station ticket office to answer your questions. They will also respond to you in English.
What about the supermarket shopping? How does that compare to Dublin?
I am living here as a single person, and I spend less than in Dublin or Hamburg. My friends and I just buy the cheapest food we can find. There are hypermarches (enormous supermarkets) and discount supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi there. The supermarkets always have sales on certain food so people just grab it and stock up. I used to eat a lot of meat in Germany but now I eat more fish, fruits and vegetables. One thing I miss from back home is good Asian food. I’ve tried sushi in Paris and wasn’t impressed!
What French food do you like the most and least?
I don’t eat much French food but I like what I’ve tried, especially the pastries, macarons and eclairs. It is not always easy to find a good boulangerie in Paris, you need to know where to look and do your research. I get recommendations from friends and trying boulangeries in different areas. The best I’ve found so far is called Le Moulin de la Vierge. I love baguettes… and French wine! I don’t like some of the vegetables, such as tinned green beans, and I’m not a fan of mushrooms.
I’ve noticed that lot of people don’t cook traditional French food nowadays. They eat quick, convenient meals. I think it’s quite sad; people say it’s the best cuisine in the world but from what I’ve seen, recipes are not being passed down from parents to children. I know quite a lot of French people in their 20’s who can’t cook classic dishes.
It’s a shame that the history and heritage of those meals isn’t being passed down. Although, it is understandable. Many traditional recipes look like they take time, care and precision and we’re all working long days, without much free time. Those meals are probably saved for special occasions.
So, is there anything you wish you’d known before moving over?
I wish I’d known about the administration system, how long the processes are and how difficult it can be. Getting your health insurance card can take up to nine months to a year. They have this thing called a mutuelle. You have to wait six months to apply for your mutuelle, after your regular health insurance card arrives. In France, you have to pay €25 per appointment, every time you visit the doctor. That covers administrative costs – you also have to pay for your prescriptions and treatment. With a regular health card, you can expect to get 70-80% of your expenses refunded. The mutuelle reimburses all of your medical costs.
Thanks very much, Issa, for telling us about your move to Paris and your experiences so far. I hope you continue to have a great time living there! If you enjoyed this interview, check out my other interviews with people living and working abroad.