"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Vous êtes d'ici? Tips on becoming a "local"

One of the most important aspects of living in Paris for me is to feel like I belong, to feel like I'm part of a community. I guess it doesn't matter whether it's a small town or a big city, a feeling of inclusion is important. Unless you're a hermit, who wants to be an outcast or for that matter rejected. I literally have had friends move to Paris, and expect it to be the same way in the U.S. and feel very isolated and dejected.  It's not that the French are unfriendly, it's just that the they are much more wary of strangers or foreigners. Just like in a small US town e.g., is cautious of foreigners that just moved into their town. Sure like any big city there's going to be the good, the bad and the ugly, and naturally we're going to try and align ourselves with the good whether it be in the US or in France.

If you want to take that giant leap and come live in Paris for an extended time, here's a few tips that I think might be helpful to connecting to your new community.

Quartier: Once you've decided to move to Paris, the most difficult decision you will make is  selecting a quartier (neighborhood) in an arrondissement (district) that meets your needs and wants, and basically where you want to live. Each quartier offers a different unique slice of Paris. For example, the 3eme (le Marais) is abuzz with lots of activity, very "bo-bo" (gentrified) and keeps up with trends and styles. So, if you're into the "scene" this is probably where you want to live.  Whereas on the other spectrum, the 16eme is known as the "Beverly Hills" of Paris so tends to be very residential and very conservative. Evenings there are very quiet.  The 18eme around the Sacré Coeur as well as the Bastille (11eme) is a younger area and they tend to have alot of activity at night and week-ends. The 13eme is Chinatown and can be bustling with activity day and night. We lived in the 18eme and 3eme before finally settling in the 15eme. The 15eme  tends to be more residential, and more "local" for every day Parisians. Each quartier is unique, so it pays to do some research.

I don't recommend living in one of the many suburbs, e.g., Neuilly sur Seine, otherwise known as "Sarko-ville", Boulougne, Issy,  or  Porte de Clichy, sure in some cases as in the latter, apartments will be cheaper, but for some reason, the suburbs are like a foreign country for most Parisians. And, in some cases suburbs like Colombes you'll need to take the RER trains, not only is it more expensive, but to be honest not many Parisians want to venture out to the "burbs" because it's such a hassle. I suppose this is also true in most cities like San Francisco.  Besides you want to try and live the Paris experience.

Lodging:  I bring this up, because to me it's equally important. Do you want to live in an apartment building full of vacation rentals, where it feels like a hotel? Do you want to live in an established building, where everyone who lives there are long timers? Do you want to live in an apartment building filled with people of diverse backgrounds? Or, do you want to live in a building where the occupants take pride and care in their building, or, do you want to be in an apartment building occupied primary by ex-pats? I actually have a friend wherein her apartment building is 90% filled with American ex-pats.  You have to decide what kind of building you want to live in. For that matter, if you don't want to get to know your neighbors and view your apartment as a sanctuary, then it shouldn't matter. Our building is great, we've gotten to know a few of our neighbors and have actually been invited to their homes. Note: whether you rent or buy, it really makes no difference. Up until a few years ago, it was not common practice for Parisians to buy their apartments. So, there is no stigma between renters and owners.

"Getting to know you, getting to know all about you"  Just like the song from the King and I implies, it's important to get to know a few of your neighbors, or for that matter your gardiennes (caretakers), if you have one.  When we first moved to our apartment, every time we saw our gardiennes,  a married couple, we always exchange pleasantries. And, sometimes when I baked cookies or a cake, I would bring them a little "care-package", it's very much appreciated.  It turns out, our gardiennes also like getting postcards, so we make it a point send a postcard whenever we're in the US. They will help you get settled into your apartment building, help with minor apartment fixes (e.g., leaking pipes), and when you're away you can ask them to keep an eye on your apartment, and even hold your mail. When we first moved into our building our swimming pool was always closed due to maintenance. I am convinced because the gardienne likes Jack, that they make a concerted effort to make sure our swimming pool is up and running,  because they know that Jack is an avid swimmer and likes to take a few laps every morning for exercise. Year-to-date, there have been very, very few days of closure for maintenance. In fact, whenever Jack runs into the gardienne, he always proudly tells him that, yep, it's running and he's taking care of it and asks about his swimming

Fête de voisin block party 15eme
Every year, there is a celebration called "Fête de voisins" which began in 1999 and usually held in May as a way for neighbors in e.g., the same building to meet and feel a part of the apartment "community." Sometimes it may entail several small apartment buildings to create a "block party". We went the first year, and it was basically a potluck, who knew they had potlucks in Paris. We met some neighbors and they couldn't have been more pleasant. This is a great way to connect. So, if you move into your apartment on or  before end of May, make sure you attend this social gathering. It's great networking.

Always exchange pleasantries with your neighbors. A bonjour (hello) when wandering around your apartment complex is always appreciated. If you are friendly with the neighbors, a "ça va?" (how are you?) is always good to ask. If you're very friendly with them, a kiss on each cheek is the norm, for both sexes.  Note: hugs are considered too intimate, just a peck on each check will do, and they always like exchanging hellos with questions about how they are before delving into a conversation.

If you care about what's happening in your building, another way of feeling connected and involved is to attend the "association" meetings.  If you're not an owner, you can't vote at on a pending decision, unless your landlord gave you the authority to do so,  but you can certainly get involved.

Local street market

Shop locally:  I can't stress this enough. We always, always go to the same boulangerie, pharmacy, fromagerie, neighborhood fast food places (e.g., fallafel), the street market, and even some of the boutiques. Granted we do go to Carrefour (similar to a big grocery store in US) for our big shopping, but like any large supermarket it's going to be impersonal, so we don't even bother trying to make a connection. However, for all the other small stores, we make an effort to get to know them.


Our boulangerie is on the same block as our apartment. Initially we thought, this woman/owner is going to be hard to crack, cause she never smiles and is so business like, not a very warm person.  Well Jack starting working his magic on her.  First he started with his pleasant bonjour, ça va? (hello, how are you?) than she started responding in kind, bien et vous (good and you). Then if Jack noticed she has a new hair do, he will comment that it's quite lovely etc., and when she goes on vacation Jack will always ask, where did you go? did you have fun? you look well rested.  The French love it when you're interested in them as a person, rather than just a store owner.  Today, when we pass her store, she will always, always greet us whether we buy something or not. Sometimes, if I order chouquettes (puff pastry balls), she'll give me extra. In fact, when we were away during our annual 3-month hajj to the U.S. she asked where we've been since she hadn't seen us.  We told her in the US, and she was generally curious what we did there, and how life was there.  Oh yeah, plus I bought a her a little souvenir.

When we started furnishing our apartment, we would frequent this little brick-a-brack store in our neighborhood. The owner was so taken with us being so friendly et.al., she would actually give us discounts on her store items. Our Fromagerie knows Jack loves brebis (sheep cheese), and if she's running low, will actually save some for Jack since he picks up a batch every Sunday at our local street market. Interestingly, even our Pharmacist know us, and typically French like to get their medication one-month a time, we like getting 3-months supply. They no longer ask us, they know that's what we're going to request.

There's a newspaper card and book store on our block. We've never bought anything there, but always, always say "bonjour" to the proprietor.  And, he always has a nice jolly smile whenever we walk by. Today, when we walk down the streets, we say hi to as many people we know as well as familiar faces on the streets, and always make time to chit-chat, it shows you care about them as a person and not just as a shop-keeper etc.

My point is that the French are suspicious of strangers and especially foreigners. I think this is natural. You have to make the effort to break the ice and be friendly and once you break that ice, they will bend over backwards for you.  I was very touched when my "knitting" lady (yarn store owner) gave me her book of sample yarns to keep, this is not common. The list goes on.

Les Petits Plats our favorite local restaurant
Restaurants/cafés: granted there are going to be alot of restaurants throughout your quartier, but if you have one or two that you really like and go often, let them know that it is your favorite restaurant, ask them if they remember you since you've been many times, and tell them you told all your friends about their restaurant. I also add, that we live e.g., right around the corner, so we're not just some tourist, but we live in the community. And, in some cases they like collecting their customer's business cards, so if you have one, leave it with them. Most of the time they remember us, 'cause how many people look like me?

If you like sitting at a café on a leisurely afternoon or for apéros early evening, always try to go to the same café. After awhile you will become a regular, just like Norm in "Cheers." Sometimes, you'll even run into your neighbors or regulars. Although not original, we are known as les Americains (the Americans), in our quartier. We view it as an endearment.

Summary:  You are in a foreign country. It's human nature for people to be leery of "strangers,"  which is more apparent in Paris than most cities. You need to make an effort to allay their fears by being friendly and non-threatening. Always make the first move, it shows that you want to make that effort. It does help to speak some French. And, if they know you're struggling with the French language, oftentimes they speak some English and will converse with you in English.  So, go out there, make some friends and be part of your community.

Ironically, you know you're local when tourists start annoying you!


  1. OH this was fun. I feel like I"ve been swept away to Paris for a few minutes. I'd love to be there long enough to have them know me! You're right R. The French aren't like ux but hell, if I want US I'll stay at home and yak it up with Bubba in the checkout line at Wal Mart.
    Vive la France.

    Remind me to tell you about the entire afternoon I spent hunting a cheap alarm clock in juin. Mon dieu!!


    PS Never heard of Carrefor!

  2. Hi Randy,

    Fantastic hints, I heard almost the exact same things as a goofball twenty someting Amercian skiier in Chamonix (when you could get 16 French Francs to a Dollar!!) Really all you have to do is be polite, something we have forgotten over here!

    Hope you have survived the Siberian winter in Soda Springs.

    Sincèrement, Bary et de Mari

  3. Hi Randy,

    Great blog and great post. My husband and I are moving to Paris in a month. We are very excited but I'm a little scared since my French is very limited. I'll try to follow your advice and, hopefully, as my French becomes better, I'll be able to chit-chat with the Parisians. What are your thoughts on the 17th arrondissement? We have an elder dog that is coming with us, and we thought that a park nearby would be a nice thing for him (and us :)).

    Best regards,

  4. Thank you Izabela for your kind words. I'm not that familiar with the 17eme, but I do know there are lots of fabulous places around there with many parks. You'll do fine, if you need any help or you and hubby would like to get together for coffee to ask "us" any questions that we've been through to help ease the transition, just email me.

    Curious, what brings you to Paris, is it temporary or long term?


  5. I'm finding your blog very helpful - have you got a blog about travelling round Paris? I lived there for a year once before and I had a travel card that I paid for on a monthly basis...I can't seem to see anything about it on the RATP website.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. This link explains the various passes used in France. Hope it's helpful... http://gofrance.about.com/cs/trains/a/railpass.htm