When we first moved to Paris, I did a few posts about all the stuff we went through to move here. I thought it would be interesting or helpful to people thinking about doing something similar.
Before writing about our experiences again, I wanted to give it some time to sink in and really be able to reflect back on what we’ve been through and what I think about it. Well, as we’re sadly just about to leave, it’s probably about time. Here are some final thoughts on being a French family for the last 11 months or so.
First of All
I want to start this off by saying that this has been a truly amazing year.
I’m going to go into some negative stuff (as well as some positive stuff) because those things are interesting to me, but overall I’ve loved our stay in Paris. The neighbors and friends we’ve made have been just amazing. The French people we’ve met have been some of the nicest and most welcoming I’ve ever known. The tech community here has been nothing but kind to me and excited that I’m here. My daughter sings little songs in French to herself when she thinks we’re not listening and it’s adorable. My French has gone from absolutely zero to being able to understand and say a fair amount. I know Paris, one of the most amazing and beautiful cities in the world, pretty well now. It’s been one of the greatest years of my life, for so many reasons. I couldn’t possibly recommend trying it more.
Now, on to the fun stuff.
On being an immigrant
By far the hardest thing about moving to France has been being an immigrant. You are in a new place and you don’t know anybody nor do you know the language, customs or habits of life. Not only is that difficult on you, since new things can be stressful — you’re rarely comfortable outside your house since nothing is familiar — but the real hard thing is that it can feel like almost nobody really wants you here.
From the perspective of the average person you have to interact with, you’re hard to communicate with, you’re probably a little stressed out and you’re frustrated at stuff. If you’re a cab driver or bank teller or waiter, I’m sure you would prefer to have a customer who speaks your language instead of someone you have to gesture to. As an immigrant, you’re highly aware of this and it’s embarrassing. Don’t get me wrong, most of the people we’ve interacted with in Paris have been exceedingly kind and helpful, but as the person constantly putting people a little more out of their way than normal, you’re aware of it.
The people who are not kind nor helpful, however, is the government of the place you just moved to. I assume this is true everywhere — I can’t imagine that the immigration offices of the United States are shining beacons of comfort and inclusion — but it’s certainly true of France.
Within 3 months of landing in the country, you are required to get a residency stamp to validate your long stay visa. This requires you to send in paperwork, get an appointment and go in for a health check. The main issue is that in Paris it takes about 3 months to get your appointment after sending the paperwork in, which means if you don’t do it immediately upon landing there is likely to be some period of immigration awkwardness if you try to leave the country. The rules and procedures are incredibly confusing and only exist on their website in French. If you call them up, they will only speak to you in French. When you get there, all of the instructions and literature are only available in French. Only one of the 8 people I had to interact with on my appointment day could (or would) speak any English to me. Calling the customer service line to try to make sure I was doing things correctly ended in abject failure. (“Vous parlez anglais?” “No” “Umm, OK... [click]”). Remember that this is the immigration office.
The problem for us was that they messed up the appointments and accidentally sent me two appointments for Scott and none for my wife Jessica. So since I couldn’t clarify the issue due to language barriers, we showed up with just the one paper assuming the appointment was for us both. Although her appointment was in fact scheduled for that day, since we didn’t have the appointment paper for her (because they never sent it), she was sent away. This means she had a period of months where she had no valid visa because we had to reschedule the appointment from scratch using only horribly Google-translated emails to their department. This means she couldn’t leave the country during that time because it was likely she would not be allowed to re-enter.
The appointment itself was also humbling and embarrassing. You have to sit in a series of rooms with nobody explaining anything in English and people get visibly frustrated with you when you don’t do what they’re apparently asking you to in rapid French. There is a chest x-ray you have to do where you are shuffled into a private room, asked to undress from the waist up, sit there without your clothes on for a while, then walk half naked into another room with two people in it to take your x-ray, then back again to re-dress. My wife was not super happy about that part.
Now, very interestingly to me, this is not what happens when you are sponsored on a work visa. I’m on a long stay visitor visa since GitHub didn’t at the time have an office in France. Some American friends we met through my kid’s school had none of this experience because his company handled everything for them. No x-ray, no immigration office shenanigans, no OFII humiliation that you don’t speak the local language perfectly yet. Even though technically I’m probably the perfect immigrant — someone who is paid from a US company and just spends all his money here — I felt like a dirty shitty immigrant who was being barely tolerated, probably only allowed to stay here due to a technicality.
My experience in the grand scheme of things was not that bad. Compared to almost every other immigration experience, we probably had it near the easiest. It was really just uncomfortable and embarrassing. It just subtly made me feel that I was not wanted here during a confusing process. However, I happen to personally have the means to leave at any time — I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have to go through all of this when you have few other options. To be immigrating because you have to immigrate. I’ve always had sympathy for immigrants to the US, but from now on I’ll have a bit more empathy as well. It is not easy, even when it’s relatively easy.
Speaking of the importance of learning French if you want to move to France for a bit, it might be of interest how I’ve gotten along in learning another language at the ripe old age of 35.
I have tried just about every possible language learning method there is over the last year, most of them for months at a time. I had a 100 day streak on DuoLingo at one point, doing about 30–60 minutes a day. I listened to nearly 4 full seasons of Coffee Break French, which is probably hundreds of hours of audio content. I took about a month of in-person courses (3 hours a day, 3 days a week) at Alliance Française, a globally renowned French language learning school. I had about 30 hours of (expensive) in-person private tutoring with a local French tutor. I took about 20 hours of private Skype lessons through tutors found on iTalki. Plus, I lived in Paris — going to restaurants, buying groceries, getting haircuts, reading the Metro newspaper, etc.
Here is what I have learned. If you want to learn a new language, there is exactly one method to do so quickly and efficiently — private Skype tutoring.
In my opinion, DuoLingo (or any of it’s automated brethren such as Rosetta Stone, Babbel, LiveMocha, etc) is almost totally useless in a practical sense, at least by itself. It may help you to read a bit, you may get some vocabulary to sink in, but it’s not a natural way to learn language and most of it goes in one eye and out the other (or something like that). Months of it will not help you to actually hear the words when spoken by a native speaker, and you will certainly have no practical ability to produce the language.
The Coffee Break French podcast is excellent for understanding real-life spoken French, but obviously not helpful for producing understandable spoken French. It also unnecessarily gets a bit into the weeds on grammar points. If you want the biggest bang out of it, just listen to the dialogue episodes over and over again.
In-person classes, even at prestigious (and expensive) schools like Alliance Française, are helpful but slow. You rarely actually speak to the teacher in a way where you’re corrected. Most of your dialog is with fellow students who are probably worse at the target language than you are. Plus it’s incredibly expensive in time and money.
The absolute best and fastest way to learn a language in a way where you can land in a country and both understand and speak it effectively is one on one tutoring with a native speaker. The cheapest and most efficient way to do that is with Skype. With Skype (or online video chat in general), you have no commute time, no awkward in-person formalities, you can continue classes even when you travel, you are constantly speaking and are being personally and helpfully corrected, and there is a chat window so the tutor can type out stuff they’re saying or you can type answers (which is really helpful in French where stuff doesn’t always sound the same as it’s written). You can get professional language teachers for as little as $10/hour in some languages. That means that for $200, you can take an hour lesson 5 times a week, every day of a month. That plus an hour of homework a day will get you really, really far in even one month. Probably farther than 3 months of an expensive group class. Certainly farther than a year of DuoLingo or Rosetta Stone.
I found great teachers on iTalki, but there is also Lingoda and LiveLingua which look promising. They all have free trial classes, which is a great way to get over the weirdness you might feel in doing an online private class like this. Benny, the guy who runs the great Fluent in 3 Months blog, who has learned a number of languages to fluency, came to essentially the same conclusion. He reviews the iTalki website here, which is a great read.
I think I’m turning Japanese
I’m testing out my theory over the next few months. While I’m still doing French lessons and want to continue to improve, I’m cutting way back on them and am going to start over from scratch with Japanese. GitHub has started really expanding into Japan and I would love to be able to speak some Japanese the next time I go there.
So, I’ve signed up for classes on LiveLingua and am planning on taking them for 1 hour a day, 5 days a week for the next 3 months to see how far I get, starting at the end of July. My hypothesis is that I’ll be better at spoken Japanese by November than I am in spoken French now, even after a year of fairly regular study and living in France. It will cost me about $1500 total for those 3 months of study, but if I’m right it will be way cheaper and way less of my time than getting to the same language proficiency through any other method.
Look for my follow-up post in November.
Tips for Visiting Paris
Finally, I thought it would be nice to share some of the random things we’ve learned about living in Paris. About every month or so someone lets me know they’re visiting Paris and asks for advice on where to eat or what to do and I write a slightly different email every time. I figured it would be good to summarize the stuff I liked doing and the places I liked eating at the most so the next time you’re visiting you can take advantage if you want.
Food in France
We’ve eaten at dozens of restaurants in Paris since we’ve moved here. Everything from a 3-star Michelin place (L’Epicure at Le Bristol) to the great family run restaurant down the street. I’ll give you my 3 favorite places in a bit, but first I’ll give you the resource I used to find all 3 of them. Teach a man to fish and whatnot.
The Paris by Mouth blog has been the most amazing resource for dining and drinking in Paris by far. It lists great places by arrondisment and I don’t think there is a single place I’ve been to off that list that wasn’t really great. It also has great lists of wine bars and haute cuisine places. If in doubt, just check this list to find amazing places close to you.
Sometimes it’s hard to find a place off that list — many are closed on Sundays, most of them require reservations at least a day in advance, which means calling them and trying to speak in French occasionally, some of them can’t take large parties, etc. My fallback on these occasions is the Yelp of Paris, La Fourchette. You can search by group size and times they are open and make reservations online. You can also rank by rating and pretty much everything I’ve booked via this site has been really good as well.
There you have it. Now, just for fun, I’ll share some of my personal favorite places to eat in Paris.
The first is Les Papilles. It’s a wine store and small restaurant near the Luxembourg gardens that is my favorite place to take visiting guests. They have no menu, they just bring you a few courses of great French food and you choose a bottle of wine off the wall.
It’s charming and delicious and fun, I adore this place.
The next is Verjus, in the 1st arrondissement, near the Louvre. It’s more upscale and expensive, but not ridiculous. The food is amazing and it has an adorable wine bar downstairs.
The last is a place called Aux Anysetiers du Roy on the Ile St. Louis (a few blocks from the Notre Dame on the smaller island). The clientele is almost exclusively touristy, but we love it. The cassoulet is my favorite and the bathroom upstairs is amazing. I’m not kidding, you have to go to the bathroom when you go here.
I’ll also throw in Dans les Landes, a tapas place in the 5th. I had a frustrating experience with one really rude waitress there once where she didn’t want to seat me because I didn’t speak French, but everyone else there has been great and the food is great (and pretty different).
Wine in France
Of course, food in France is great, but when you visit Paris you really want to have some great wine, right? Well, fortunately there are some great wine bars here, but unfortunately French wine can be really confusing, especially to Americans.
In America, wines are generally labeled by varietal, the name of the grape. So you would generally know that you like a Chardonnay or a Pinot Noir or a Cabernet Sauvignon. In France you will almost never see the name of a grape on a bottle of wine. Instead everything is labeled by “appellation” or region. Each of these regions has rules about what they can grow and how, so if you know you like a Pinot Noir, you have to know that that grape is normally (and almost exclusively) grown in Burgandy, so you have to look for a Burgundy red wine. Of course, it doesn’t generally say “Burgundy” on the label either, so you have to know that “Mercurey” is a region in Burgundy and look for that.
I knew absolutely nothing about wine when I moved to Paris and in my time here I’ve become somewhat obsessed with it. I’ve taken a series of increasingly serious wine classes resulting in just having completed the WSET Level III advanced certification in Wines and Spirits and contemplating enrolling in the Level IV Diploma classes (more on this adventure in another post).
However, you don’t need to do that to appreciate and enjoy French wine. What I would suggest is to take a basic tasting class though. You’ll learn a ton, you’ll drink good wine and you’ll have fun. If you think Bordeaux is a grape, take a wine class here.
I highly recommend the Tour de France wine tasting at the O Chateau wine bar in the 1st. It’s fun, it’s in English, the wines are great, you learn a lot about French wine and they assume you’re an absolute beginner. It’s also a beautiful spot.
I’ve taken a couple of groups of friends and family here and it’s always been super fun.
As you get better at wine, they also have a huge by the glass selection and serve down to 3cl portions so you can taste a bunch of different wines relatively cheaply.
If you’re into tasting different wines, my other recommendation is Wine Touch. It’s a little place by the Pompidou centre in the 4th that gives you a smart card and a glass and you walk around and self-serve from a bunch of machines filled with French wines, grouped by region. At the end you pay for whatever you poured. It’s a fun way to taste several different wines without being intimidated by a server, if that’s not your thing.
Finally, my favorite place to buy wine is a small place on Ile St. Louis run by a slightly crazy Frenchman who deals only in organic and bio wines at L’Etiquette on 10 Rue Jean du Bellay. Everything I’ve bought there has been really good, but that may just be because I really like bio wines.
Tips for Living in Paris
I shared a number of tips and tricks useful for living in Paris as an American family in a previous post. These were things we learned a few months in, like getting a French bank account or SIM cards for our phones. Well, in the next 8 months we learned a few more things that might be helpful.
Paris Health Care
The first is getting health care. If you get sick in Paris it can be difficult and intimidating to go to a doctor. They’re not easy to find, they don’t work long hours and they often don’t speak English well (or at least the other people in their office don’t, making appointments quite difficult). Our expat health care had a directory, but we only ever went once. It wasn’t real bad, but it wasn’t a great experience either, plus it would take a while to get an appointment and it was way across town.
What we ended up using for the majority of our health issues while in Paris was the SOS Doctor service. It’s a 24/7 house call doctor service operating throughout Paris. If you feel sick or need something you can call them at 01 47 07 77 77, the service speaks English and all the doctors speak English, they’ll arrive in an hour or so and it’s something like €40–60 per visit.
Now, for French health care, that’s insanely expensive. France operates off of sort of a universal Medicare system, so all doctors visits are regulated at like €22, I think. For French citizens, most of that is automatically covered by the state as well. However, for most Americans, being totally used to the developed world’s worst possible health care system, paying $50 to see a doctor even with insurance isn’t considered ridiculous — I think typical copays are around $30; if you went to the doctor without insurance it would probably be around $200. So for us, paying €50 for a doctor to come to our home in an hour, any time of the day or night and speak English has been a dream. You could go to the French doctor a 30 minute Metro ride away for free (because expat insurance covers 100% of everything because everything is reasonable here), but when you get the winter gastroenteritis from holding on to the Metro pole like everyone eventually does, you’ll be throwing your €50 at these guys.
Finally, God help you if you need a pharmacy at 1am on any day, there is like 1 of them open in all of Paris. On holidays it’s even worse. My advice is to go through this list the day you arrive, find the 24 hour one closest to you and write down the number and address and make a dry run. If you ever need something in the middle of the night (for your kid or some emergency), call them first to make sure they’re actually open. We had a pretty horrible night of me being really sick and Jess making useless Uber rides to closed pharmacies that said they would be open online. I’m not kidding — the night in question was a holiday Sunday and there were literally probably 3 pharmacies open in the entire city of Paris.
Global Food in France
Although the food in Paris is amazing, it is in fact very French. If you’re American you will probably eventually want something else. Living in San Francisco for a long time, this was particularly difficult on us. Mexican food here is very rare and generally pretty bad. Sushi is ubiquitous and almost without exception totally horrible. Imagine mediocre sushi you would get from the local grocery store in nearly every single sushi place in Paris.
For Mexican food, you’ll pretty much only be able to find tacos that are any good. There is Candelaria, which is great not only because they have really good carnitas tacos, but there is a sort of speakeasy in the back that is a hip little bar.
There is also El Nopal, up in the 10th, which has great tacos but no seating, so you have to go there on a nice day. We went there on a cold, rainy day not understanding the situation and it was really sad.
If you want to get some American groceries, you have a couple of options. A lot of stuff will be in the local grocery stores, but some things are pretty hard to find. Salsa, pancake mix, maple syrup, cheddar cheese, popcorn, oatmeal — there are a couple of things that you might want that can be difficult to find.
For these things, Jess and I generally go to a ridiculous store called the Grand Epicerie in the 7th. The Epicerie is insane — it’s like a crazy upscale, even more expensive version of Whole Foods. It has a whole fois gras counter, tons of fresh produce and fish, a huge wine cave downstairs, a really good bakery, an enormous cheese selection and a great little cafe to get a glass of champagne in. It also has an aisle of American foods if you’re looking to get any of that hard to find stuff. The Posted in Paris blog has a few other American groceries in town, though I haven’t been to either.
Media in France
Speaking of missing American things, after some time you might also be looking to watch American movies or television. A few quick tips for you that took us a bit of time to figure out.
If you want to watch a movie, you’re in luck, because basically every movie that everyone on the planet watches is an American movie. We pretty much have a massive stranglehold over the entire cinema industry. Even though there actually is a French cinema ecosystem, of course made most famous by the blockbuster movie “Taken” (just kidding, though that is a French production company), at least half of the movies playing in France (and almost everywhere else in Europe) are Hollywood movies. The trick to going to the movies in France is to look for the letters “VO” for version originale, or VOstF for Version Originale sous-titrée en Français, meaning that it’s in English and subtitled in French. If you look for that when buying tickets, the movie will be in English. The opposite is VF, meaning it’s dubbed into French.
On the other hand, if you want to watch American television shows, even on services that you paid for in the states and may continue to pay for, such as Netflix or even Apple iTunes, you have a slightly larger issue. This is because everyone is fucking stupid. Everything you try to watch legally has regions and borders and ridiculous rules that somehow apply when you’re living in the US but not when you’re visiting France and vice versa. So, in order to keep watching my Netflix shows I use a program called TunnelBear which routes my internet traffic through a US server. If you’re smart, you’ll just pirate everything so you don’t have to put up with all of this bullshit, but I like buying my content, even though the companies I pay for it make it as difficult as possible to use their shit.
Kids in Paris
Finally, a few tips on having a kid in Paris. There are actually a ton of really fun things for kids to do in Paris, from great parks and zoos to some really amazing museums. Here are some of my daughter’s favorite things.
In the summer, there is a fun little hidden park/playground right by the Grand Epicerie called Compagnie des Filles de la Charité Saint Vincent de Paul. There are a lot of expats and also French families that go hang out there when it’s sunny. Lots of pickup soccer games and champagne picnics in the sun. It’s a great way to meet other families with kids and for your little one to run around with other kids.
There is also a great playground in the Jardin de Luxumbourg. It costs like €2 to get in, but it’s huge and has a ton of awesome stuff to do.
Right outside of it is a little merry-go round where they give the kids these little sticks and each go-round they can try to skewer a metal ring. I’ve never been so jealous of being too big for a ride.
There is also a cool big pond in the middle of the Jardin de Luxumbourg, right in front of the Senate building, where you can rent little sail boats and push them around with sticks. Some good old fashioned 18th century style children's entertainment.
There is also a pretty great and fairly new zoo at the southeast edge of the city. It has a big park right outside of it that is really great and has a great big playground as well.
As far as museums go, there are a few good kids ones, but they’re mostly in French. If you can’t speak French they’re not quite as fun. Jo likes pretty much everything in the Jardin des Plantes, which includes a small zoo, the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution and the rather ridiculous Galeries d’Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie, which is basically a museum designed 100 years ago and frozen in time.
If you go there, make sure to head on over to the Cafe De La Grande Mosquée and have a tea. You can just sit down in the courtyard and a guy walks around with sweet tea for like €2 each. If you want, you can take a walk around the inside of the Grande Mosquée as well, it’s really beautiful.
Finally, if you want to go to the Louvre and you have a kid, my advice would be to get a copy of “Discover the Louvre” at the gift shop for them. There’s a bunch of cool little games and things for them to look for, it gives them stuff to do as you walk around.
One of the most difficult things to figure out for us was babysitters. There are a few babysitting sites (in French) if you want to go through a bunch of profiles and hire someone randomly, but Jessica and I weren’t super happy with that. In the end we went the more expensive option of using a referral site called Complete Paris. It was a one time €50 fee and they sent us resumes and we picked someone who ended up being really great. I really wish we had done this earlier, because the €50 wasn’t very much compared to the number of times we’ve used her to watch Jo. Since then, Jess and I have actually been able to go out on dates and whatnot.
One More Thing
If you’re still with me after this entire post, then you’re a champ and you deserve something special. I have two snippets of fun insider Parisian information for you.
The Best Free View in Paris
First of all, I’ll tell you about the best free view in Paris. There are no lines, it’s free, it’s a beautiful view and you can have a glass of wine while you’re there.
It’s the roof deck of the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, right behind the Opera building. It’s one of the oldest department stores in the world and has an amazing dome inside. Go check out the dome and then go up all the escalators until you get to the very top of the building. There is a big deck with some cafe vendors and a great view. You can see just about everything in Paris from here.
While you’re there, you should probably also pop over to the Opera building, because it’s beautiful and also rarely has a line.
The Secret Entrance to the Louvre
The second special Parisian nugget of information is the secret entrance to the Lourve. It’s not secret so much as just nobody knows about it. On the street in between the Seine river and the south (Denon) wing of the Lourve there is an entrance that is rarely used called the Porte des Lions.
It’s pretty easy to spot because there are two huge green lion statues flanking both sides of the gate. Just walk halfway through the tunnel there and there is a glass door. It always looks like an employee entrance or something, but you can just walk in and buy a ticket. I’ve been through this entrance probably 5 times now and I’ve never seen anyone in line there, even when there are literally hundreds of people in line at the Pyramid entrance.
It’s also pretty easy to beeline it from there to the Mona Lisa and the Venus di Milo, which are both also in the Denon wing.
That’s it for now. I hope this has been helpful if you’re planning on visiting or living in Paris.
We’re actually moving back to the US here in a few days, so this is my last week being a Parisian. Overall, I think this has been a hell of a fun adventure. I didn’t learn as much French as I thought I would, nor did my daughter, but it doesn’t really matter. We had a grand adventure, we got to travel all over Europe, I learned a lot about remote work and I have a vastly different viewpoint on so many things having lived somewhere very different — all of these things helped us grow and made our lives more interesting.
If you’re interested in moving abroad, especially to Paris, let me know. I think it was worth it and I think the world would be a better place if more people were able to do this sort of thing — live in someone else’s world for a short time.