What I Wish I’d Known Before Moving To Paris
Louvre Museum, France
Photo by Gloria Villa on Unsplash

What I Wish I’d Known Before Moving To Paris

Madison James October 9, 2022

Paris – the city of romance, culture, and incredible pastries. Whether you’re taking a gap year or thinking of travelling as part of your degree, Paris is one of the most popular destinations in Europe for students. And no wonder – if you can stomach the living expenses, your Instagram stories will be second to none.

Although I’ve been to Paris before, living there for an extended period of time is a different experience entirely – not to mention that my memories of travelling abroad seem rather cloudy after the events of the last two years. In the hope of guiding others who are planning to make the same journey, here are some things to think about before you leave, from misguided preconceptions you may have, to how to behave like a true Parisian.

#NotAllParisians are cold and rude

Having been here for a month, I’ve encountered Parisians that are lovely and a (much smaller amount) that are unfriendly. While it is never useful to lump the entire population of a city into the same box, there is always a reason why a certain stereotype exists. For a start, just as those in the English countryside may hold negative opinions about Londoners, inhabitants of more rural areas in France carry those same stereotypes about Parisians.

In most cases, as with any bustling metropolitan city, life is fast-paced and many people out and about may seem dismissive when they are impatient to get somewhere. Paris is also expecting to welcome 33 million tourists this year, packed into a city that is 15-times smaller than London. So, it is understandable that a native Parisian might find it annoying to encounter a clueless tourist everywhere they go.

Even as someone who lives in a largely residential and non-touristic area of Paris, I am always surprised to hear English being spoken in the street almost every day. Speaking some basic French, even if your accent is bad or you are immediately given a response in English, is something that you should always make an effort to do.

Photo by Léonard Cotte on Unsplash

Eating at a restaurant is a minefield

Eating at a restaurant in Paris is a bit of a minefield, and there are so many opportunities to make a faux pas, that the “rude waiter” stereotype is completely unsurprising. For example, just a few days ago a couple of my friends and I ordered some sharing boards at a restaurant. The waiter’s shock makes sense to me now, having later discovered that everyone is expected to order a main meal each.

Taxi drivers seemed surprised that I would tip and, true to my waitress roots, I would often be the only one at a restaurant table mentioning or giving a tip. Fearing that I’d made a fool of myself and that it was actually a cultural taboo, a Google search revealed that, while polite, tipping is not a pre-requisite when you go out to eat, especially when a service charge is included the majority of time.

Finally, the most life-altering discovery of all – it’s actually a faux pas to order a “café au lait”, except when you’re eating breakfast. Good luck with finding out how to actually ask for a basic coffee with milk, though – it doesn’t seem to exist outside of Starbucks.

Although I’ve survived all of these encounters, a bit of research before I arrived about the different types of Parisian eateries (Bistros, Brasseries, Restaurants and Cafés), as well as the etiquette in each of them, would have gone a long way.

See also: Where To Get The TikTok Famous Paris Hot Chocolate

Photo by Nil Castellví on Unsplash

French bureaucracy is the worst

My university warned me a little about French bureaucracy, but I was not prepared for the sheer extent of how difficult it is to simply navigate life in France. In my first week, I nervously travelled to the nearest phone shop and spent an hour trying to negotiate an Internet contract, only to find out that they needed a specific document from my bank, called an RIB, before I could pay them. This document includes all of the same numbers provided by a UK bank, but they are arranged in an official-looking way.

If you are studying, good luck with navigating the French university system. Not only did I have to create my timetable myself, but I had to do it all in person, at the secrétariat of three different departments, in French. The whole process took no less than three weeks to finalise.

The important thing to remember is that no matter how difficult things seem, there will always be a way to sort everything out or someone that will be willing to help you. If nothing else, you’ll get plenty of French practice out of it.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

The tiny cultural differences that no one tells you about

Coming across all of the almost imperceptible cultural differences between the UK and France is both interesting and anxiety-inducing in equal measure. The fact that failing to say “bonjour” to many people you come across, whether that is someone in your building or a shopkeeper, is seen as unforgivably rude takes a while to get used to.

Additionally, the Parisian tendency to stare for long periods of time was something that I was completely clueless about. When I am speaking English in public, I have come to accept that I’ve brought the staring on myself, especially when I am with my American friends who are quite loud. However, even when I’m minding my own business on the Métro or in a shop, a stranger staring me down is not a rare occurrence.

A conversation with another exchange student from London proved that I am not alone in this experience, and I came to the realisation that expertly avoiding eye contact with everyone in public lest you be seen as a creep (quelle horreur) is perhaps not a natural instinct abroad. In fact, when researching cultural stereotypes specific to Brits, sometimes one of the first to appear is our hatred of staring. Who knew?

See also: Why Emily In Paris Makes Us Want To Study Abroad

Photo by Marloes Hilckmann on Unsplash

After considering every possible reason for this behaviour, including that I’ve somehow been clocked as a foreigner without saying a word, I have decided to not read too much into it. Along with having to open the Métro doors myself and preparing to fight for my life every time I want to get on (no one waits for passengers to get off first), it’s just another thing that I have had to get used to in Paris.

Countless articles online will advise you of the “right way” to fit in in Paris, which can end up making you more nervous. It is important to avoid overthinking, especially as most people are more concerned about their own lives than whatever faux pas it is that you are making anyway. So, relax, stay open-minded, and don’t forget to romanticise your life in Paris at every opportunity.

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I am a French and Politics student at the University of Bristol. Apart from politics and current affairs, I have a strong passion for music – when I’m not writing, you can find me at a gig or creating another hundred Spotify playlists. I’m always looking to bring issues that are relevant to young people to light through my writing.