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How Hard Can Expat Integration Be? Focus: Living in Paris

Yesterday we began a new mini-series of articles illustrating how integration abroad can be a challenging experience for all expats – no matter where in the world they live, no matter how long they’ve been an expat for, and no matter whether they speak the local language or not!

If you’re thinking of moving abroad it’s important to know that you may face bumps in the road and hurdles as you inevitably progress towards complete integration – otherwise you may falsely believe it’s all going to be plain sailing.  What’s more, if you’re already living abroad, hopefully it’s in some way nice to know that you’re not alone if you too have faced the odd hiccup in terms of settling in and settling down.

Any relocation brings with it challenges, but often it’s the most unexpected thing which can throw you off course.  We want you to know that you’re really not alone in facing these obstacles – all expats have to go through it, and hopefully it’s ultimately an enriching experience or at least one you can look back on and laugh at!  Today we’re going to hear from an expat living in Paris who thought all was going swimmingly until one day everything seemed to conspire against her!

Integration is all about adaptation, and no matter how prepared you are to learn and accept and perhaps even change, sometimes events occur to challenge your perception of your new nation.  At worst these will have you questioning your decision to relocate, and at best they will make you aware that it’s not always so easy being a stranger in a strange land!

As today’s story will hopefully highlight, no matter how open you are to your new nation, sometimes it can bite you!  But don’t be put off by negatives, learn from them if you can – or at least avoid them in the future – and as an expat you need to be a bit street savvy and aware that you are slightly vulnerable because of your naivety about your new nation.

Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road in Paris

I moved to Paris with my partner eleven years ago – we were both freelancers and he’d been offered an exceptionally well paying contract which meant I could accompany him, and not worry about work for a few months while I established our new lives as Parisians!

The entire scenario seemed impossibly idyllic and even romantic and so I thought nothing about handing in my notice, packing up and following him across the Channel.  Neither of us spoke French (other than GCSE French!) but we didn’t think it mattered because Paris is, after all, an international capital city.  What’s more, my partner was going to be working for an American company…so we were certain we’d get by and learn the language as we went.

Initially we moved into an apart-hotel to give me time to pound the streets and find a suitable rental property – but within a week we were already climbing the walls and the pressure was really on me to find a flat somewhere – anywhere!  Fortunately the concierge spoke excellent English and offered to help me.

As expats everywhere will know, when you’re first abroad you think everyone can potentially be your friend, and anyone who goes out of their way to be nice to you must be truly lovely.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the first people to approach you and go out of their way to help you are usually weirdoes!  Anyway, I was yet to learn that lesson…so I truly believed the concierge was going to help me.

I arranged to meet him that afternoon and he was going to show me an apartment owned by a friend of his that was available for rent immediately.  He didn’t have a car and so simply assumed I’d drive.  My partner and I had driven to Paris with all out essential belongings packed to the roof of our car, but since then our British, right hand drive vehicle had sat in the apart-hotel’s car park going nowhere – I mean, have you ever tried driving in Paris?

I didn’t feel as though I was in a position to argue however, so went and got the keys and attempted to follow the sporadic instructions being fired off at me by the concierge, who was at the same time seemingly very distracted and stressed out that we were going to be very late to meet his friend because my driving was so slow and so bad.

I don’t think I have ever been so afraid in my life!  Here I was, on the wrong side of the car (for France), driving on the wrong side of the road (for a Brit), in a city where the traffic is notoriously bad and famed for happily side swiping anything that gets in its way, and to top it all I was certainly lost!  I was sweating, I wanted to cry, I was certain that my partner would kill me if I brought the car back dented or scratched, and the stress coming from my passenger was so palpable that I was absorbing it too!

We eventually managed to get to our destination in an exceptionally seedy part of Paris, and God knows how but I managed to reverse park into an impossible space.  All I knew was that it would be a miracle if I could get my car back out of it again!

Needless to say the apartment was not suitable, the neighbourhood was just too threatening and I now had to backtrack and get out of signing a rental agreement there and then!  The concierge was putting pressure on me, and so I did what no independent woman ever wants to do – I claimed I’d have to ask my partner’s permission before I could make a decision!!!

With that the concierge’s attitude towards me changed!  He was not impressed at all and he left me to find my own way back to the hotel!  I got into the sanctuary of my car, attempted to calm myself down, endeavoured to back out of the space I’d crammed the car into and nearly got annihilated by a massive van coming the other way!  The horn honking seemed to go on for about half an hour as I desperately tried to manoeuvre the car out of the space, but all of a sudden I was so confused I couldn’t even work out which way to go and what side of the road I was supposed to be on – I mean, was this even a one way street?

In the end I was so upset I got out of the car, abandoned it on the street and practically ran away!  I made it back to the hotel thanks to the Metro and then had to explain everything to my partner when he got back from work.  Fortunately he found it hilarious – even the bit where we took a taxi to try and find our car!  He even found it funny that all the hotel staff now saw me as a very ditsy incapable woman, and went to him with any queries they had.

The good news is that we found an apartment a week later – a sublet from a colleague of my partner’s, and since then we really haven’t looked back.  I think my over-enthusiasm for our relocation to Paris prevented me from applying any common sense to the situation.  I wasn’t prepared for how hard integration was going to be – and the worst part was definitely not speaking French.

After we moved into our apartment we started French lessons together, and two months later I found permanent employment and was fortunate enough to have a very patient boss.  With her gentle language teaching on the job I advanced quickly – even so, I’d say it still took me about 5 years to become fully fluent in French.

My advice to all would-be expats out there is that the first people you meet do tend to be some of the least desirables!  Be a bit more streetwise and savvy than I was – and even reserved – when making approaches to people for help, and never drive in Paris!  To this day I still take the Metro and never, ever drive anywhere – even though we even have a ‘proper’ French car with the steering wheel on the left side and plenty of dents and scratches in the wing.

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