Life in Paris: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

So far, I’ve always found myself ‘accidentally’ living in the cities I’ve come to call home. That’s part of nomadic life, I suppose. Every now and then I fall in love with a place enough to stay for just a little longer than I’d initially planned, just another week or so… and then suddenly, a year has passed, I have a full-time job and I’ve sussed out where to buy a glass of wine for €3, which supermarkets offer the best gluten-free range and how to navigate the metro system like a pro.

My love story with Paris is perhaps particularly special, however. While London, Rome, and Prague were all love-at-first-sight, ‘this is my home now’ moments of spontaneity, I think I loved Paris long before I ever visited, ten years ago during a backpacking trip. I always loved the Paris presented to the world; baguettes and berets and red lipstick and perfectly pedicured poodles, all of which I do witness on a daily basis, though I will add that 80% of the berets in Paris adorn the heads of tourists (only the truest of Parisians can pull off the irony of wearing a beret). I can’t pinpoint when exactly my childhood love affair with Paris began, but it’s the only city I’ve ever earmarked as my one-day-home. And, after resisting for as long as I could, afraid that Paris would somehow manage to convince me to settle down forever, I found myself living here. Paris got me good, what can I say.

Of course, as with all relationships, the honeymoon doesn’t last forever, and a year in Paris has taught me all about its beautiful underbelly, the real Paris, unknown to tourists, as well as its more dodgy, dirty and infuriating sides. But that’s real love, right there; the ability to see the good, bad, and ugly, and still adore this beautiful, messy, crazy city.

The Good:

  • Beautiful Architecture
    • Paris as we know it; Haussman architecture and art deco bistros. Galleries as beautiful as the art they hold. Monuments and sculptures. There’s a reason why Paris is famous worldwide as one of the most beautiful – if not the most beautiful – city in the world. Every corner of Paris is teeming with charm and history, as though frozen in another era.
  • Culture & Art
    • Paris doesn’t particularly ‘specialise’, when it comes to culture. Dozens of art galleries and museums are scattered across the city, including the Louvre, Musée D’Orsay, and Musée de l’Orangerie. There are dozens of both chain and independent cinemas, especially on the left bank, whereas Montparnasse is a hotspot for theatre. Jazz music has held a special place within Paris’ cultural scene during the past century, and there are plenty of decades-old Jazz bars which are as much of a hotspot as when they first opened their doors. Literature and philosophy are two subjects taken seriously in Paris, and it’s typical to see Parisians reading a book in Jardin du Luxembourg at weekends, and debating Nietzsche over a glass of wine on a bar terrace in the evening. Furthermore, literary and art tours are common, especially in Montmartre and Montparnasse, given that countless artists and writers, including Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and James Joyce have all called Paris home in the past.
  • French Food & Coffee
    • Croissants! Baguettes! Macarons! The stereotypes of French cuisine seem to consist of three dishes; frogs legs, snails, and croissants, but there is a reason why French food is considered to be some of the best in the world. And Paris is enough of an international city that you can find almost any cuisine somewhere, for those evenings when you fancy a change. Coffee is also something taken very seriously in Paris, and every street seems to include at least a handful of excellent cafes, as though a compulsory requirement!
  • Walkability
    • Having moved to Paris from London (via six months of travel in between), Paris seems, to me, to be much smaller, and much more pedestrian-friendly. I’ve been known to walk from my apartment on the left bank, in 6e, as far as Parc Villette in the far north, in 19e, and back home again, quite comfortably. And with wheeled vehicles banned from using pavements, including bikes, scooters, and those bizarre unicycle things, walking around Paris is much safer.
  • Free* Healthcare
    • I’ve been lucky enough not to have needed much treatment for ailments/injuries since moving to Paris *touches wood frantically*, but I’ve seen friends visit doctors, specialists, and hospitals for everything from dental work, eye tests to physio for an injured ankle, and I can say that free isn’t a guarantee. However, French healthcare works on a pay-back system, in which you pay for your treatment upfront, and receive a percentage back. The percentage depends on the treatment, but averages between 70-100% for medical fees.
  • Free/Cheap Education
    • France has long enjoyed a reputation for having one of the best education systems in the world, with a nationally set curriculum and high academic standards. Education is compulsory between the ages of six and sixteen, though preschool is a common option and over half of 18-21-year-olds in France are in higher education. State education is free, and there is Allocation de rentrée scolaire (ARS); a means-tested grant available to help parents with the cost of schooling for children aged six to 18. As for university, tuition fees vary drastically depending on whether you attend a public university, where you can complete a bachelor’s degree for just a few hundred euros per year, or a private university, where you can expect to pay up to €7000pa. Prices also vary depending on your nationality and country of residence. EEA and permanent residents of the EEA can expect to pay lower fees, or even study for free, whereas other international students from outside of the EEA can expect to pay upwards of £2770pa for a bachelor’s degree. More information regarding studying at university in France can be found here.
  • Job Security
    • Once you have found and secured a job in Paris (or anywhere in France) and made it through your trial period, it is a challenge for an employer to fire their staff, and many laws are on the side of the employee.
  • Terrace Culture
    • It’s not just a Parisian cliche to sit on the terrace of a chic bistro, cafe or bar and watch the world go by, it’s actually very common, almost mandatory social etiquette to socialist with friends over a glass of good wine, complaining about all the things that drive you mad about Paris. Parisians brunch together, lunch together, get coffee together. Often I wonder when Parisians have time to work at all.
  • Green Space
    • With beautiful parks such as Jardin du Luxembourg, Jardin des Tuileries and Jardin des Plants, Paris is full of beautiful parks and gardens, many of which are open from sunrise until sunset, and house an interesting array of sports clubs, theatres, bandstands with regular performances, and even, in Jardin du Luxembourg, a beekeeping school. 
  • The Expat Community
    • As I discuss below, meeting French people in Paris can be tough, but on the flip side, the ex-pat community in Paris is one of the most diverse and welcoming of anywhere I’ve been. Brits and Americans especially flock to the city of lights looking for the remnants of the roaring twenties, or to follow the footsteps of the Beat Generation’s antics in the fifties. Artists and creatives come to Paris from all over the world, drawn by that certain something (je ne sais quoi) that’s so enticing about Paris. Websites such as MeetUp and various ex-pat Facebook groups make it easy to find anything from English-taught dance classes to Language exchange groups to sports clubs, making it incredibly easy to meet and befriend fellow ex-pats.
  • It’s Paris!

The Bad:

  • Making New Friends
    • In the above, I spoke of the thriving ex-pat community in Paris, but when it comes to befriending locals, Paris is a tough one. Parisians are a reserved bunch (which I think adds mistakenly to their reputation for being rude) and can seem a little ‘cliquey’. Unless you’re someone who can easily strike up a conversation with anyone (and fluency in French no doubt would help), Parisians can be a tough nut to crack.
  • Finding an Apartment
    • The French love bureaucracy, and so setting up life in Paris, unless you have found a job with an employer willing to help you, can be tough. Firstly, if you’ve arrived in Paris without a secured job awaiting you, there is the classic catch-22 of not being able to rent an apartment without a job, and you can’t get a job without an address. You have to act fast, as places are snapped up almost as soon as they are advertised, and it’s also typical to require a guarantor, and most agencies will only accept a French guarantor. However, there are certain websites such as GuarantMe which can help those of you lacking a suitable guarantor (which included me). Otherwise, it’s common to first sub-let an apartment (these are often advertised via word of mouth or on relevant Facebook groups) or to stay with and use a friend’s address, if you happen to know someone already living here.
  • Opening a Bank Account
    • Banking in France is weird. It’s a much more old-fashioned system, and things often seem chaotic and slow. In my experience, I tried first opening a bank account in a high street bank, recommended to me by my employer, before settling instead on an account with Transferwise, an online, international bank. Frankly, I found the French banking system too tedious, especially for someone brand new to France. Every request requires a letter to be sent, and often even the most simple of tasks are slow to happen. Beginning the process of opening an account consisted of a face-to-face meeting with who was to be my ‘personal banker’; I would email them personally in regards to anything. For me, things fell flat with the amount of proof of residency and employment required. I opened a bank account during what was both my first week at a new job, and my first week in my new apartment, and so I hadn’t yet received a bill with my name on it. Therefore I could open an account, but didn’t qualify to receive a bank card. I had to go into my particular bank branch with ID every time I wanted to withdraw money from my account. Additionally, I had to pay a standard fee of €2.50 per month for the privilege of having a standard bank account; something which, as a Brit, I found bizarre. Add to that the hard-pushed attempts to sell me insurance, and various other ‘add-ons’ for an extra cost. Oh, and I never did qualify for receiving a bank card. Since then I’ve advised every newly arrived ex-pat in Paris to go straight to Transferwise.
  • Finding A Job
    • Again, that old catch-22 of first an address to get a job, but not being able to secure an apartment without employment. I spent several months searching for an apartment in order to get a job, or a job in order to find an apartment, and I found that it was eventually easier to find first a place to live. Like myself, many young ex-pats, new to Paris rent first a room in a flatshare or a sublet studio apartment. Find a flatmate, landlord, or friend willing to sign an attestation d’hébergement (a certificate of accommodation); essentially, find someone willing to declare you to be their flatmate, whether you are on the tenancy agreement or not. Otherwise, while the job market is competitive, as in every big city, I found that word-of-mouth is the best way to go about finding a job. Ex-pats are all in the same boat, after all.
  • Presenteeism at Work
    • France is famous for its 35-hour workweek, something which many Brits and Americans dream of longingly. But, how much of a reality is it, really? Despite the 35-hour workweek, workdays tend to run long here, considering that the average lunchtime is 90 minutes (and lunch is not included in during those 35 hours), as lunch is a very important part of the day here, and one which is to be savoured. In fact, it is illegal to eat while sitting at one’s desk in France, apparently. Furthermore, despite the 35-hour workweek, France statistically has amongst the highest levels of presenteeism in Europe, meaning that it is highly encouraged, if not expected, to work overtime.
  • Strikes
    • While I’m fully supportive of people standing up for what they believe in, to demand improvements to society and voice their opinions, the day-to-day reality of the seemingly constant strikes and protests can be a little grating. Just recently, in fact, Paris saw one of the largest strikes ____, with the metro halting almost entirely throughout all of January and much of December. Life continues despite metro strikes, and so get used to getting up extra early to make time for long walks to and from work, whatever the weather. Rental bikes suddenly become gold dust and Uber prices hike up to the extortionate.
  • Weather
    • As a Brit, I personally wouldn’t consider Paris’ weather as in any way bad. It’s always a few degrees warmer and a few millimeters of rainwater dryer than my hometown, after all, but for anyone for whom a healthy tan is a staple look, this probably isn’t the city for you. Since moving here, my foundation shade has dropped from ‘Snow White Ivory’ to ‘Edward in Twilight during a long winter’, but personally, I’m fine with that, as long as I get a little sun now and then. On the flip side, summer here can be glorious – or sweltering, depending on how you look at it – with temperatures last summer reaching record levels (*cough* global warming *cough*).
  • Cost of Living
    • As with most capital cities, living costs in Paris are steep, from food bills to energy bills, and for rent, you can expect to pay a minimum of €650 per month for a small studio apartment or a room in a flatshare. You can expect to pay nearer to €1000-1200 per month if you want your apartment to resemble an apartment, as opposed to a cupboard. Food in the supermarket is something which I noticed to be much higher than in the UK, and there are also less ‘bargain’ stores or brands as I’ve seen in other countries. But then, quality is important here; people expect their purchases to last the test of time, and it’s more common to invest in quality items than something which is more affordable at the moment, but which will need replacing within six months.
  • Small Apartments
    • Speaking of apartments, it’s pretty common to pay a huge chunk of your earnings each month to live in an apartment roughly the size of a shoebox. There are certain laws and regulations in place to protect tenants, such as a law stating that residential space cannot be smaller than 9 square metres, but there are definitely smaller apartments circulating via word of mouth, and rental spaces aren’t cheap. You can expect to pay at least €450, if not closer to €5-550 per month for a 9sqm apartment. I’ve commonly seen people paying €550-650pm for a room in a flatshare.
  • Rude Parisians (?)
    • Are Parisians really so rude? Personally I find this stereotype undeserved, as I’ve met only as many people whom I would describe as rude as I have in any country. Language is something which the French hold a lot of pride in, and I have noticed that they will always comment on any mistake, no matter how small, or even just an obvious accent, which can be as irritating as it is helpful
  • Smoking
    • Smoking is still common here in Paris, and it is legal to smoke in most public spaces. People watching on cafe terraces is a wonderful, picturesque Parisian activity, but you have to accept that you’re almost guaranteed to be breathing in someone else’s cigarette smoke.
  • Gluten-Free Paris
    • Even in the 18 months that I’ve been here, I’ve seen a difference in options available for celiacs and those with food intolerances, with new GF-friendly cafes popping up constantly, and existing businesses tweaking their menus to broaden their options. I’ll be writing a post soon on my top gluten-free recommendations for Paris!
  • Dog Poo
    • Some stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, and I can confirm that Parisians don’t clean up after their dogs (not all Parisians, of course… there are plenty of responsible dog owners scooping the poop).
  • A Whiff of Pee…
    • Another pungent Parisian stereotype; the ever-present pong of pee, particularly along the banks of the Seine, during the height of Summer. Yep. Grim.

The Ugly:

  • Pickpockets & Scams
    • Scams are common here, such as the ‘clipboard’ scams; pickpockets conceal their sticky fingers by waving clipboards in the faces of tourists, encouraging them to sign and donate money for a nonexistent deaf/mute charity. I see this particular scam every day in Paris, especially around tourist attractions. It can be quite intimidating, as the pickpockets work in gangs, but I find that a firm ‘non’, refusing to make eye contact and refusing to break your stride generally works. Act as though you belong in Paris, as it’s tourists they target.
  • The Dreaded Dossier
    • The dossier is the overall reason why the practicalities of securing an apartment and opening a bank account are so difficult. People arrive to apartment viewings with three-inch-thick dossiers containing every tax report, payslip, bill, rental receipt, employment, and tenancy contract, references, and lord knows what else. Renting in Paris is a competitive industry, with apartments often being let the same day that they are advertised, and if your dossier is inadequate, you won’t stand a chance, frankly.
  • Pollution
    • As with all major cities, Paris does have a pollution problem. Within the past decade, pollution levels have risen sharply, but the French government is beginning to take action with new measures, and with the ever-increasing awareness of environmentalism and the need to reverse climate change, there is still hope. This is a good website for checking daily pollution levels.
  • Red Tape & Bureaucracy
    • The bane of everyone’s existence in France, whether ex-pat or local alike (though I’d argue more so for the former, given the language barrier, lack of familiarity regarding the system and requirements to ‘set up’ more in order to settle into the country), France’s bureaucracy systems, in every sector, seems to be unnecessarily complex and poorly organised.

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