In Paris, losing your head comes with the territory—quite literally in the case of Saint-Denis and the 40,000 guillotined during the French Revolution. More recently, the city’s psychological impact on foreign visitors has earned it its very own syndrome. So, if you’re staying here a while, follow these ten pieces of practical and philosophical advice for maintaining your sanity.
Firstly, €73 for a month of unlimited, five-zone travel is one of the best deals you’ll find in Paris. If you were to rely on single tickets for just one return journey a day, you’d end up spending €116. Once you’ve got your pass and praised yourself for being so economical, use it as much as possible and on every form of transport going. Paris’ bus and tram systems are just as developed, cleaner, and less crowded than the metro. And not if but when you find yourself squeezed into the train carriage like the last sock in an overloaded tumble dryer, remember how little it’s costing you for the privilege.
Using the local language as much as you can is part and parcel of living in a foreign country but there are a few additions to this general rule to bear in mind in Paris. Simply translating your English thoughts into French doesn’t quite cut the mustard etiquette-wise. Instead, imagine you’ve stepped into a period drama, in which everyone communicates in a manner you’d usually reserve for encounters with minor royalty. Naturally, among friends Parisians are just as crude and slang-prone as the rest of us, but this mental exercise will stand you in good stead for day-to-day situations. Also, if there’s one area of your vocabulary to focus on, it’s food. You have no idea for how long a simple salad can be discussed here.
As well as helping you to rapidly improve your French language skills, knowing what’s going on in the city where you live is a great way to feel like a part of the action. Obviously, you’ll want to keep abreast of what’s going on back home, but developing a second news-brain for Paris will also give you a lot more to talk about with your colleagues, neighbors, friends, and strangers at the tabac. In particular, absorb the names of as many French politicians as possible and band these about liberally in conversation. It’s a sure sign to cynical observers that you’re one expat with your finger on the pulse.
Life in Paris can very quickly turn from a baguette-twirling, wine-swirling, Eiffel Tower-ogling dream into a nightmare of isolation, in which you stress-eat a dozen traditions and sink two bottles of Sauvignon every night alone in your sixth-floor attic studio. Getting out there is especially important in the first few weeks so think about making joining a local sports club or association a priority. Meetup is also an extremely useful tool for finding people with similar interests outside of work or school. If this all feels a little formal, you can always try hanging out in bars—but you know what they say about folks you meet there… and it ain’t good.
Speaking of hanging out in bars, you can expect to find yourself doing a lot more curbside drinking than you would do normally, whether in squares outside sleek cafés or along the wonderfully grungy Canal Saint-Martin. But, be warned, an increased regularity in your alcohol intake and the tendency for it to go off-piste are not invitations for you to get excessively tipsy, rowdy, stumbly, or in any other way incapacitated. Sure, you’ll see drunk people in the streets of Paris but, generally, wandering about drunk is frowned upon. So, drink in moderation, order a (normally free) carafe of water with your drinks and keep it tight.
Now, the waiter who brings you those cocktails and that life (and reputation)-saving carafe of water will most likely give you the old stink eye and make you feel like gutter scum no matter how good a job you’re doing of keeping your voice down and eyes in focus. However, once in a while you’ll encounter outstanding customer service in a bar, café, or restaurant and, when you do, bask momentarily in its glory and tip generously as a reward. If we want to make these few exceptions the norm and the cliché of snooty Parisian waitstaff a thing of the past, then we who have seen the light have a responsibility to provide a strong economic incentive.
One thing that outsiders, even with all the best intentions, are not going to change is the entire administrative system of a country. Whether it’s filing your taxes, reclaiming medical expenses, or scheduling a simple meeting with one of the many branches of the French bureaucracy, you should anticipate that your way of doing things—the patently obvious, completely natural, nothing-else-makes-any-bleeding-sense way—is not going to remotely resemble what’s expected of you. Just relax, go with it, wait in the ridiculously long line of resigned-looking people, and accept the fact that this is the trade-off for all that cheese, wine, and extraordinary bread.
No, not to spot dropped pennies or anything of artistic or architectural interest, simply to avoid stepping in an almighty pile of dog poo. No matter how many bins or plastic baggies are provided, some people point blank refuse to pick up after their canine friends here, to the extent that these messes are the one element that binds all of Paris’ neighborhoods—east or west, rich or poor, trendy or passé—together.
Not indefinitely, unless you really can’t handle what it’s throwing at you, but for a long weekend or even an afternoon from time to time. Why? Well, first of all, there’s much more to France than its capital. There are hundreds of big cities, medieval towns, and remote villages to discover that are easily reachable by train. Even if you can’t afford a holiday, your monthly Navigo which you so wisely purchased will get you on the RER or the regional lettered trains to nature reserves and departmental country parks for a bit of fresh air and mental recuperation. Plus, once you return, you’ll appreciate Paris’ better qualities (museums, restaurants, awe-inspiring architecture) all the more.
Even if you follow all of the tips above to a T, you will occasionally feel homesick. Don’t worry, it happens to the most grownuppiest of grownups. For Brits, one place that provides immediate relief from its symptoms (limitless exasperation at all things French and inexplicable weepiness) is Marks & Spencer. Just go and stare at the cashmere sweaters for middle-aged ladies and egg and cress sandwiches until you feel better. The American equivalent is probably the Thanksgiving store, which stocks all the States’ gastronomic delicacies that you can’t normally get your hands on. If you’re from anywhere else, follow the general principle: find a shop, restaurant, bar that reminds you of home and seek refuge there until you feel ready again for all of Paris’ wonders and woes.