It wasn’t the first time an American ventured to Paris with high hopes and romantic dreams. The poetic longing for the world’s most romantic, picturesque city brought more aspiring individuals to its door before than me. Nearly a year and a half ago, I left the City of Light for Asia and nostalgia sets in from time to time, coming in strong waves and hitting so hard I can feel it in the pit of my stomach. Thinking of what Paris did for me when I needed it most leaves me feeling grateful and awestruck. The epitome of fashion, cuisine, history, and language was far too tempting for me to turn my back on, too vivid in my mind from past visits as a tourist.
This is my story of faking it and making it in Paris. My mother taught me that expression, that in life we face situations we’re not fully equipped for, and sometimes counterfeit confidence helps us rise to the challenge. That was the attitude I took with me to France and still hold onto today. Moving across the ocean is a daunting task no matter who you are, but I want to talk about how sometimes one step at a time is the best and only way to tackle any city, foreign or not. With no real idea or plan of how to make it in the big bad city, I did what she told me to do and pursued my dream like it was rightfully mine. I landed in October 2011 with no real clue of what would happen long-term, but knew I had no other choice than to try. It was the first time in my life I felt called to be somewhere to do something. Some critics said I lacked the resources needed to tackle a foreign country head on: money, language and a realistic plan. I didn’t care; I felt ready with my limited French and my wide-eyed American optimism.
More travelers flock to this city than any other place in the world and there’s a good reason for that. Paris is the crème de la crème of trip destinations, and like a moth to the flame, it was too late to turn back. Wanderlust had overwhelmed me and wouldn’t subside until I listened. I left two months after I started dreaming and the rest as they say, is history.
So, off I went. When my initial plan of teaching English fell through epically, life had a funny way of working out and showing me it had other plans…better plans. And that’s when creativity kicked in. That’s when fate, luck, or a divine hand steered my path straight. Looking back, the transatlantic move was pivotal and soul saving. I was brought alive from the encumbrance of a breakup and the real-world sting of graduation. It was my first tangible whole-hearted risk-taking with passion, without reservation. I knew I’d either sink or swim and that didn’t scare me, because what better way to fail than to “fail” in Paris? Worst case scenario, I would have lived three months in France. Looking back, Paris helped me see beauty in the growing pains of being a twenty-something with a dream bigger than her means. I realized Europe didn’t have to symbolize running away from Texas, but could stand for starting over and making something amazing out of nothing.
Graduated and nowhere to go
What people don’t tell you when you’re approaching graduation is that finding a job isn’t a magic carpet ride. It’s stressful, disheartening, and as was the case with me, pretty disappointing with the boring prospect of falling into the rat race of life staring me right in the face. Months passed by, my reserves were running low, and I could hear France calling my name. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but I knew my gut was telling me something. Could I really just leave everything behind and go for it? Could I take on another culture, really adapt and recreate my life? I had studied abroad before but knew this was something completely different. This was the real world with no pre-selected group of Americans to ease me into the transition.
Few people can turn away from the awe that Paris inspires. I know I couldn’t. The velvety sound of French-speaking Parisians perched atop their favorite café terrace sipping espresso and smoking the hours away intrigued me. How could one culture be so endlessly cool? I wanted to be like them, I coveted their poise and nonchalant sophistication. How effortless it all seemed in Paris. It was in the fall of 2011 that I had to decide: Where would I go? How would I make my love and need for Europe become a reality? What did I know about Paris? Determined to trick the locals into letting me live there and even better, thriving there, was my only aspiration. I became obsessed and that gut feeling was relentless.
I say that I chose Paris, but from a very young age Paris chose me. From the age of ten, the taste of French culture and attitude permeated my Texan life, where it was only normal to eat croissants every morning, eat foiegras even if it wasn’t Christmas, and watch French movies with subtitles. My stepfather, a Frenchman from Lille, introduced me to rich, life-changing cuisine, the European mentality and a non-chalantness that lingered in my mind long after the divorce broke our ties. My teenage years served as the breeding ground for an appetite of otherness I couldn’t quite shake. I chased that gut feeling and it left me restless at night and curious in the mornings. I was culturally confused in the best way possible, identifying with my Mexican roots in Texas, yet yearning for Europe in my day-to-day. I craved the European lifestyle that seemed full of finesse and truth, lacking the sugar-coated notions of America. With a longing to explore that facet of a life that could be, in me germinated the want to leave Texas behind.
With my ticket in hand and a healthy dose of hope, I set off to meet my step-uncle Sebastien at his beautiful apartment on Rue Malesherbes while I figured everything out. His hospitality saved me when everything else was unsure. His neighborhood was classic Paris: stunning, refined and definitely for more affluent families. It was the beginning of winter and I loved wearing real winter attire as I explored the neighborhood: jackets, high-heel boots and scarves not just for decoration. Unfortunately, after about 3 weeks in the city, my plans fell through massively and getting certified to teach English was no longer a viable option. I had to think quick – I couldn’t overstay my welcome and I couldn’t return home just yet.
How I faked it? I started apartment hunting day in and day out like my life depended on it. Voilà! Within one week, I found two roommates, (one Polish and one French), offering a bed in a living room to rent out for €350 a month in the posh Porte Maillot area not too far from my step-uncle. No papers needed, no questions asked. With my life in one big suitcase and a backpack, the taxi unloaded me to a beautiful building situated above a Chinese restaurant and steps away from a bakery. The conflicting smells of soy sauce and fresh bread are what I remember most vividly and welcomed me home every day. It was here on Boulevard Gouvion-Saint-Cyr (in the 17th arrondissement) that I began my Parisian life in style:
I took pleasure in the small things when I moved into my new place. My “room” was the living room of a small apartment, with only a curtain to separate my bed from the TV area – but hey – I was going in the right direction. During the day, I’d get all dressed up and warm to scope out grocery stores, the best bakeries, and I rode the metro to random stops and explored until my feet felt like they would fall off. All of this I considered an exhilarating pastime and knew that someday the novelty would wear off and enjoyed it while I could. I was alone in the beginning and it was doable, but certainly hard at times. Luckily, I’ve never been scared of doing things on my own, since being comfortable with your own company is a necessity in a new city with almost no friends or family to rely on. After two weeks of being in Paris, I wasn’t going to not celebrate my birthday. Off I went to celebrate my 22nd toute seule at La Zuppiera, celebrating not only my birthday, but the beginning of my adult life and the assertion of my independence.
How I faked it? I used that time while sitting alone at the fancy dinner to take the time to p-a-u-s-e. I was on the cusp of change and savored my delicious meal and one of the last times I’d ever be truly alone with me and only me. The feeling of sitting at the world’s doorstep, and having a blank slate for the taking ignited my fervor for discovering why I’d been so drawn to Europe. I had control of my happiness and knew this for the first time in my adult life. One month later, it was holiday season and my first Christmas season away from home. My family sent me gifts, and I opened them on Christmas day, dancing to jazz all alone in my apartment fighting the urge to feel lonely. Around lunch, I got lucky with an invite from a co-worker to a French Christmas feast at her place. My first friend. Things started to fall into place that winter. So yes, the beginning was great and flustering all at once, but surviving it alone let me know I had the confidence I needed to make it and succeed.
So, I was moving to the land of abundant baguette, cheese, pastries, cigarette smoking, and yes – French – the language I never studied because I figured it would be useless to me. Before I moved, I enrolled in private French lessons with a man from Craigslist whose parents were Swiss. As sketchy as it could’ve been, it wasn’t. We met once a week at the Whole Foods cafeteria and there began my determination to learn the beautiful, complicated language that is French. With my textbook bigger than a phone book, I went back to being a student those months. My progress was slow and steady, but my satisfaction came from deciphering a language I never thought I could. The challenge was actually using it…in France. Buying my daily baguette at the neighborhood boulangerie flustered me. Ah, the beautifully difficult French ‘r’. This letter proved to be sufficiently frustrating for my American mouth to form and before I knew it my bashful cheeks were intense hues of ruby-red. My accent usually always prompted a curious, “Vous venez d’òu?” I came to know two reactions in my quotidien: the unamused judgmental face or the let-me-switch-to-English-to-make-it-easier-on-you smile. Either way, I got the biggest adrenaline rush from speaking, ordering my meal or communicating with someone who mistook me for being French. The words rolled off so nicely, like tiny gold flakes. I still don’t think there’s a more beautiful language.
TIPS: It’s understood you’ll have to speak French when you move to France, right? Of course, it’s so easy and tempting to meet English-speaking expats and stay in your comfort bubble, but try not to lean only on this! Yes, study as much as you want/can, but the only way to progress is to SPEAK. Start early and push yourself; nothing feels better than hearing your own progress. In my experience: Google Translate was my good friend in the beginning when communicating with French friends or anticipating interactions while out and about. I carried verb cheat sheets with me and studied when I stopped for coffee. How I faked it? My slight exaggeration of fluency helped me land my first interview in ALL French. Not only was it my first real-world interview, but the office overlooked the Eiffel Tower, I mean how could I remember French at a time like this? I kept my confidence up while understanding maybe 60% of what my boss said (the epitome of fake it ’till you make it!). Luckily, I landed the job and in what was the most rewarding part of living in Paris, continued to learn French in the office. Squeaking by with only English is a poor way to experience Paris, and a sure way to annoy Parisians. Even though it’s an international city, knowing French is essential to your success in the capital, especially if you want to work.
The best way to get your foot in the door
So many people I know (including myself) went the student visa route which allows you to work a total of 964 total hours per year and grants you the quickest visa to get movin’. Of course, it’s in your best interest to attend class daily, but I stopped going towards the end due to my working hours and nothing really happened. Each teacher is different on their attendance policy. Also, some employers I met didn’t care about the hours-per-year restraint and allowed me to work full-time. Going to class is a great way to meet people from different countries and from different walks of life. FYI: Purchasing international health insurance is necessary to enroll in most schools.
Here are some language schools in Paris that qualify for student visas along with websites that make learning French fun and easy:
http://www.campuslangues.com – This is the French language school I enrolled in to get a student visa. Important: you have to be in the US first to apply and complete the process in person at the French embassy. It only took 2 weeks and I was off to France!
http://www.alliancefr.org– Another language school option some of my friends used.
French Language Learning Sites:
Paris isn’t exactly the best city to be single in for two reasons: The French love being in relationships, and everyone has someone. This hilarious French blogger describes the relationship city so well. Secondly, Paris is naturally so picturesque and charming that being single there can be painful in the best possible way. The glimmering lights, the historical sites, beautifully lined boulevards, and cozy cafes – all of it makes for a great place to love or to find it. On the heels of a terrible breakup, the last thing I really had on my mind was falling in love and being in a relationship. In my mind, Paris would allow me male-free independence I hadn’t had in years. I needed to be alone and I knew that being wrapped up in a city so known for its romantic food, architecture, streets, and people could put me back on the mend and keep me busy. I found that in the end, I fell in love with the city itself and developed the love for myself just by living there. After two months, I realized I was in love, in love with it all. With time, its personality stood out clearer to me and I fell for both the good and bad sides of the city.
How it all worked out: After three months of being in Paris, through a chance encounter I wasn’t expecting, I met my Belgian fiancé who surprised me in ways I didn’t know possible. I didn’t believe I’d find love so soon and certainly not when I stopped looking. We’ve now been together for 2 years 8 months, have lived in 3 countries together and are happier than ever. I’m a very lucky woman to have met him when I did – to be able to see the world with him like we do – and our how-we-met story isn’t too shabby either.
They say it’s all about who you know. In my experience, this is one of the truest clichés of all time and certainly applied to me finding work overseas. Obviously, the internet was my best friend in the beginning of the job hunt. I used sites like Fusac and Internations to scan opportunities that were friendly for English-speaking expats. As much as I knew the internet was essential, I figured old-fashioned showing up with an eager face couldn’t hurt. So, I did like any other American job hunter in Paris should and would do; I dressed the best I could, rehearsed my French lines so they wouldn’t sound accidental and faked it all the way.
Walking down the narrow and stylish boutique-lined streets of the Marais, I remember being nervous but knew I needed to muster up the courage to walk into one of the shops eventually. After all, the greatest test of my success for moving to Paris depended on my employment (or lack thereof). After growing up in the restaurant business, it only seemed natural my first job in Paris would be at a restaurant. I got a lead on a restaurant in the Marais with an American concept, so there I went, fidgeting with my straightened hair with each corner I turned. I was on my way to meet the eccentric owner of a small Vegan, New York City themed restaurant. The boss was an eccentric figure with retro glasses, a fur coat and a chain of the Brooklyn bridge gleaming around his neck. This ladies and gentlemen was the first person to hire me. The understanding was sous la table and I got to take home a nice wad of cash after most shifts. I was getting somewhere, and since it was a New York restaurant, perfect French wasn’t expected of me and the boss thought it was even part of my and the restaurant’s charme. Working at this restaurant single-handedly opened the doors for my other gigs in food and writing in Paris.
How I faked it? Young, willing and foolishly brave is the best combination to take on your job dreams. Sure, there are strict rules for working and living in Paris as a foreigner, but that doesn’t mean exceptions can’t happen. A tourist visa grants you three months to do what you please. I used that time to scope out my options and when I went back to Texas I secured my student visa. By thrusting myself out there, even while knowing I didn’t have the proper visa at the time, I stumbled into the right situation and was a given a job at the right time by the right people. It was through that quirky New York-style deli that I met a friend who connected me to the first real desk job of my life at QOOQ.
Fashionable and frustrating at times, I grappled with my love-hate relationship with the city I really loved. Reality and idealization collided, leaving me dispirited, yet unable to leave. Where was the Paris out of the movies? The weather with its endless gloom, cold and wetness is a real mood dampener; people (in general) are less than pleasant, and yes it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. Many days I found myself asking: Where is the dreamy, fluffy, pink feeling I came to know in the beginning? In actuality, living the Parisian dream didn’t mean perching atop my favorite coffee shop all day, because eventually, I needed to work. It meant taking jobs babysitting crazy kids, bartending and working in restaurants to make connections. But no matter how bad the day, or how lonely I felt when homesickness came over me, sitting outside with the backdrop of the most scenic and charming streets in the world took the edge off. I came to know the postcard-perfect places better than I ever dreamed, with the reality of my dreams sitting in front of me and perched at every corner saying “you’ve arrived.” The romantic nostalgia will forever be etched in my mind and the dazzle that activated in me every day was undeniable. Each place lays deep in my consciousness – the sidewalks I strolled, the faces I’ve seen. They sit there waiting to remind me of how vast this world is and how much can happen in one year. I think of all the different places I’ve been with the one common denominator: it’s the same me wandering the streets of different countries that are nothing alike and yet every bit alike because I made them mine.
Bon Voyage and as the French say, Bon Courage:
Yes, France is infamous for its slow administration and red tape, but I’ve experienced first hand that things do eventually get done! You just have to persevere on all fronts. Be patient and play by the rules if you want to have a long, legal life in France. Scratch that – be patient in all facets of settling into Parisian life. It’s a beautiful country and the city is enchanting as movies would have you believe and as frustrating as you let it be. You might even discover along the way that faking it becomes making it and that your courage is real. We all have it in us to do what we’re called to do, whatever city it may be. The rest falls into place as you’re in motion, pursuing your dreams. I really believe that.
If you have any questions regarding living in Paris, feel free to email me.