Change affects everyone in different ways but often induces immediate comparison of the new and the old for all. Four months ago I moved to Paris from London and I started my blog as a means of documenting these comparisons in terms of work, higher education, quality of life, customs and norms, the political system, class, race and relations, and other key indices that form the complex make up of a society and create the distinct cultures that differentiate them. What I will continue to stress, my first and very simple but most telling conclusion is such that it’s one thing to ‘know’ about a culture, and another to actually live in it.
What I ‘knew’ of Paris before I arrived, partly derived from whimsical, romanticised, fairytale-esque portrayals in film and literature, as had been reinforced during the course of my French studies degree. The charm, passion and intellectualism of Paris’s character became attributes that I aspired to and I optimistically decided that after a year in its company they would radiate from my own. I had yearned for the character of the city and I had distinguished it from that of the people, for the rest of what I ‘knew’ of French culture by way of the people was their crude yet heartbreakingly accurate stereotype. Paris is a beautiful city littered with some unsavoury attitudes and this contrast has created for me a rollercoaster first semester with extreme highs and extreme lows. I will share with you a few experiences.
Similarly to the UK, France’s black population account for 3% of the country’s total population, and though far from being dispelled in the UK, the issues of race and ethnicity remain far more taboo and contentious south of the Channel. From the 17th to 20th century, the French empire had expanded over territories in North and Central Africa, Canada and North America, the Caribbean Islands, India and countries in South East Asia and Oceania. Sadly, the resistance of some in France to rid of the prevailing attitudes of its colonial era are manifested by the overt display of some racist and accepted tendencies.
I’d been advised that I’d never get a job for a role involving some sort of customer service because for a country with such a strong sense of national identity, the combination of being black and being British meant that French clients would distrust me. Campaigns had been erected under President Nicolas Sarkozy, 2007-2012, for companies to introduce ethnic monitoring (though truthfully I believe the expected outcome seems dubious), and others in favour of blurring out names on CVs and job applications. The two remain to be effectuated.
The same difficulties, the doubt and suspicion applied when searching for apartments and flat shares, even when I was practically ready to throw my rent money at potential landlords and future flatmates. I’d also been unfairly accused of shoplifting from my local supermarket, and been scorned and shouted at that I should be so grateful that France had welcomed me here upon refusal to give an old perverted Frenchmen my telephone number. Cheers mate.
Furthermore, as detailed in ‘The Grown-Up Child’, I had struggled to adapt to university in Paris. With the yearly fees averaging around a mere 180Euros for an undergraduate degree and 250Euros for a masters course, whilst pockets remain full, the learning resources are somewhat scarce. My university is short-staffed, the once dreaded PowerPoint slides I now miss and long for, and with no textbooks and incoherent, half in English, half in (poor) French notes, I fought to show my teachers that my grades were not a valid reflection of my academic ability nor my character, hard work being one of my strongest personal values. They say there’s a first time for everything – two modules, failed.
On a lighter note, Paris boasts a variety of restaurants in which it is possible to eat well and avoid prices that are too dear. Paris is also bakeries and patisseries galore! Bread baskets are served with every meal, a croissant is typically favoured over a bowl of cereal in the morning and with up to 400 types of cheese and 8 billion bottles of wine produced in France each year, it has been one of my biggest conundrums that Parisian women manage to stay so thin. Well, it seems that in Paris, you can always count on the aide of a good-willed stranger to keep tabs on your waistline! I’d been sarcastically told ‘bon appetit’ every time I’d eaten in public (when it was just fruit! *mostly) and I’d been warned I’d get fat by a passerby at the park eating my sandwich on my lunch break. Landlords have also been known to suggest to tenants to perhaps ‘lose a bit of weight’ before move in day.
Though I could list them endlessly, in spite of some unanticipated, uncomfortable, troubling, perplexing and just plain weird episodes, there have conversely been an array of opportunities in Paris and better times.
Whilst he is now considered to be hugely unpopular, 2012 saw the election of left-wing President François Hollande and the reverse of France into a socialist state. France retains its position as the second most taxed country in Europe, after Belgium. The theory would suggest that the higher the tax revenue, the more money available to be invested in public services and infrastructure, therefore enabling France’s citizens to enjoy a higher standard of education, healthcare, transportation, social care etc.
Transport in Paris is excellent. The Metro, the Paris underground is quicker, cheaper and has a much denser network than its London counterpart, the Tube. High-speed trains, the TGV run from city to city in France as well as cross country to Belgium, Amsterdam, Germany, Italy and Spain to name a few. The buildings and streets are prettier and well looked after, and the wealth reallocation by the French government is such that even relatively short-staying, non-French citizens can benefit, for example, applying for CAF/APL can grant you with approximately 200Euros a month towards Paris’s sky high rent prices. I’ve since found my new apartment.
The main purpose of my year abroad in Paris was to learn another language and thus far, my French has significantly improved. I had faced an incredibly rough start, though I have learnt that to adapt means to lose your pre-judgements, expectations and anticipations and delve into new experiences with an open mind. I have enjoyed France’s arts culture, been inspired by it to connect with an old hobby of mine, writing, visited the sites, taken lots of photographs, I’ve made some new friends and become even closer with old ones, and I can only hope that my good fortune continues on into the New Year!
See Paris in Pictures for this month’s photo update