The Un-Transformation of Paris

Expat life won’t change you, but it will remind you who you are.

When my family moved to Paris from Silicon Valley six months ago, I had a vision of how our lives here would play out. While I never imagined some sort of impressionist-hued interlude, I did expect some minor transformations:

  • I would cook in my blue le Creuset pot so often it would develop a charmingly used look.
  • I would wander a new neighborhood every week, in flats, suddenly unconcerned about my low center of gravity.
  • I would learn to buy fish from the poissonnier, who would be gorgeous, fluent in English, and between the ages of 39 and 57: old enough to find me charming, yet young enough to find me mysterious.
  • It would be less European Vacation, more Midnight in Paris.
  • My husband would learn to enjoy a slow stroll through a museum instead of the 15 minute seen-that-now-where’s-the-hot-chocolate approach.
  • I would learn to carry only a tiny purse, the way the Parisian women do, and everything would magically fit into it, including my notebook, in which I would jot down all the amazing ideas I needed to remember later, all of which would eventually make it into my magnum opus.

Alas, these are the lies aspiring expats tell ourselves. Then we move across the globe, and we discover the truth. In case you or someone you hold dear is considering giving up the creature comforts (trees, ocean air, functioning clothes dryers) of America (specifically, California) to fly across the world and set up house, internet services, work, and school in another city (let’s say…Paris), here are a few things you should know:

Moving to another country will not magically transform you. You will still be exactly who you are, only more confused and less certain that you would be different, if only you lived somewhere else.

You will not suddenly become a great cook, a fearless dinner party host, or a snappy dresser who wears pantyhose instead of tights in the dead of winter.

You will not suddenly get manicures every two weeks and haircuts every two months.

You will not suddenly begin poaching eggs the right way, the patient way, without a microwave and one of those silicone poaching pods.

You will not suddenly become the kind of parent who is able to convince your teenager there is a good reason to learn French (on account of you living in France and everyone speaking, you know, French).

You will not suddenly understand gendered nouns or accept without question or debate that pantyhose are masculine but a USB stick is feminine.

fish at Batignolles market
fish at Batignolles farmers market in Paris

You will not develop a more intimate relationship with your proteins before you cook them. If anything, you’ll buy fewer raw chickens, more pre-cooked ones. You won’t start pointing to the fish heads on ice at the farmer’s market and telling the poissonnier, who is neither gorgeous nor within your target age range nor particularly charmed by you, “I’ll take that one,” (however it is you say that in French.) A fish head is still a fish head, and it still creeps you out.

You won’t start dry-brushing your thighs every evening, sipping espresso at a cafe every morning, or wearing sexy, uncomfortable lingerie during the daytime when no one will see it. You still have to work, you still want to work, and work still requires a whole pot of coffee and comfortable underwear.

You won’t suddenly prefer leek soup to Raisin Bran for a late-night snack. You won’t suddenly give up late-night snacks, or all snacks, even though adults in Paris do not snack, and neither do the children, which is perhaps why the children seem so pale and listless.

You won’t suddenly stop pouring yourself a glass of wine every evening before dinner or start actually finishing your glass of wine. You will still love the first sip and the ritual and you will still misplace your wine glass only minutes after you poured it. This is bad for your resveratrol levels but good for your liver.

Just because your apartment is tiny compared to everywhere you’ve lived as an adult doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly keep it spotless or that you will hire a regular housekeeper. A housekeeper in Paris, just like a housekeeper in America, means you have to a)clean for the housekeeper, b)leave the house, and c)tell the housekeeper what to do. You have never felt comfortable telling other adults what to do. This includes your husband, who will still refuse to wear a coat in the icy chill of a Paris winter because “eventually I’ll warm up.” (And he will, because he has at his core a thermostat that never runs cold).

You will not suddenly want to leave the house every day. You will not suddenly think that going out is a more pleasant experience than staying in, or that plays are more fun than movies. Plays in America, even very good ones, occasionally made you zone out. Plays in Paris make you zone out even more, because they are in French.

You will not suddenly start calling movies “films” or prefer biopics about Victorian-era royalty to revenge plots starring Mark Wahlberg.

You will not suddenly prefer skinny men with scarves and pointy shoes to Mark Wahlberg. You will be reminded, every day, walking the streets of Paris, which are filled with striking women and narrow men, that you married your husband in large part for his broad shoulders, his masculine jaw, and his baritone voice, and you can’t wait for him to get home, because after a day in Paris, what you need more than anything is to lean into the sturdy, unshakable, well-heated wall of him.

You will realize that life in Paris is neither European Vacation nor Midnight in Paris, but rather a mishmash of movies and television shows that each member of your family experiences separately and has to explain to everyone else over dinner: The Bureau for your husband, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for your son (only without the choreographed street dances, the fringed leather jackets, or the day off), and, for you, a very long movie you once saw on Lifetime, with zero commercial breaks, the title of which you can’t remember.

You will tell yourself, each day, that you muddled through another day in Paris, and that you kept one promise to yourself: to do something new every day. You will count this as a small accomplishment.

You will accept that a single day in Paris is and always will be more challenging than an entire month of days in California. California made you soft, which is part of the reason you decided to “challenge yourself” and move to Paris.

Most days, you will not succumb to melancholy, even though Paris is at its essence a melancholy city, beset by construction, motorcyclists who defy all traffic laws, and smoke. You won’t be filled with a new sense of joie de vivre, but will in fact come to appreciate the natural joie de vivre of California.

In Paris, where smiles are hard to come by, self-deprecating humor is viewed with suspicion, and the air is redolent with smoke and tear gas, you will miss the music and the liveliness, the glorious weirdness, of California streets. In this city of homogeneity, where everyone seems to be going out of their way not to stand out, where even the protestors all wear the same yellow vests, you will miss bad taste and blue hair, ill-advised tattoos and macrame sweaters, leather chaps and glitter manicures and Doc Martens, loud socks and louder boom boxes. You will miss the soup of life, the salt and spice of it, the strange, mixed-up, messy, surprising, unpredictable, varied miasma that is America.

Everything about you that made you begin sentences with “I really should…” for the last fifteen years will remain true about you when you live in Paris. The defining difference will be that you are so exhausted from trying to get through your days in a foreign language that you will no longer waste (much) time and energy on self-criticism.

You will be who you are, who you have always been, and you will spend less time vowing to do better tomorrow. You will accept that you are doing your best, or at least some version of it. Removed from the must-get-things-done-must-be-amazing-must-be-organic-must-buy-low-and-sell-high-must-rebalance-the-IRA-must-be-the-ideal-wife-and-mother-and-career-woman culture of America, you’ll be a little less hard on yourself. You’ll stop going to bed thinking, “I really should be harder on myself.” In a culture where a major brand of toilet paper is named “Okay” and where even the internet company doesn’t have working wi-fi, you will realize that you might be good enough already, you might already be “okay.”


Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two award-winning story collections. A native of Mobile, Alabama, and a longtime resident of Northern California, she currently lives in Paris.