It’s been a year now since my wife and I relocated to Paris. Given our relatively simple life here, I’d be hard pressed to label myself an ‘expert’ in the ‘expat’ experience. Still, I do have some wisdom to share for anyone who’s considering relocating and living here for more than 3 months. Entire books have been written about this subject, so inevitably my blog post addressing La Vie Parisienne will fall short. Still, if you’re contemplating a year (or more) abroad, here are some things you’ll do well to know and consider:
The Visa: If you’re an American citizen who’s not going to marry a French or EU citizen, you’ll need to apply for a Long Stay Visitor visa from the French consulate in your city or area. The form is a simple, two page document that applies to those who want to visit France for more than 3 months, usually up to one year.
I would discourage anyone thinking they can just come over and hang out. Illegal immigration has become a crisis in several European countries, and none of them smile upon Americans flaunting the law. Overstaying your 90 day visa-free limit is a good way to get 86’d from France, or the entire EU. Full disclosure: my wife and I lived in Italy for six months without a visa. We thought we were being discreet, sort of clever, and flying under the radar. We were not: Italian authorities knew we were living in the country and did not have a visa. We were only left in peace because, we found out later, we had unknowingly made friends with influential Italians who protected us. We were lucky, and I am grateful. Don’t bet on this non-plan plan. Pay a couple hundred bucks and get a visa.
The basic questions the French consulate asks are as follows: do you have emergency travel insurance? If you’re injured or become ill, they don’t want you taxing their healthcare system. Do you have a place already rented in France? This requires a previous visit to nail this down. Don’t rent a place just by looking at pictures on the internet. Any reputable rental agency will most likely demand to meet you in person. And do you have enough money to live in France for the duration of your stay? Make a budget.
The consulate is not specific about their definition of ‘how much is enough‘ but I have spoken with Americans who’ve been denied a long stay visa because they simply didn’t have enough money in the bank and/or enough passive/investment/permanent income. (You can’t work or start a business legally in France on a long stay visitor visa.) So, you don’t have to be rich, but you do need to be financially independent in order to make the clear this hurdle and enjoy your adventure. Send me an email if you have specific questions about this, and I’ll share details privately.
You’ll assemble a considerable amount of documents for your application, (marriage certificate, passports, bank statements, apartment lease, etc.) then make an appointment at your local French consulate. Have your proverbial poo-poo together when you go in for your appointment. Be punctual. Dress nicely. The French are polite, but they do not suffer (disorganized) fools gladly. If you’re financially sound, have your documents in order, and have your lease signed for the place you’re going to live while in France, you’re most likely good to go. But follow the consulate’s online instructions to the letter.
The Apartment: finding a safe, clean, comfortable apartment to rent in Paris can be tricky. Parisian rental agencies often view Americans looking for apartment rentals as easy prey. We were shown some god-awful places no larger than a walk-in closet and told the rent was going to be 1800 euros a month. Plus utilities. (No small consideration.) If something seems ridiculous, regardless of where it is, it’s ridiculous. Feel free to spin on your heel and walk away.
I would discourage anyone from buying an apartment in Paris until you’ve lived here for a year. Learn the landscape, learn the culture. Like any place that is not home, there are some things that will drive you crazy. If you can handle them, and the price of real estate here, only then is it time to retain an attorney who’ll guide you through the byzantine process.
Advice: deal with established rental agencies only. They should have an office you can walk into. No craigslist. No handwritten ads posted on a door at the local market. If you can, avoid those who do only vacation rentals, as they will ask a premium rate and the utility bill (electricity) will be calculated in the landlord’s favor. They will ask for the same financial documents as the French consulate: proof of income and cash on hand. They don’t care about stock portfolios. Cash. Cash. Cash. Rents in Paris are, obviously, not cheap, but I know people in New York and Los Angeles who pay more and get a lot less for what we’re paying here in the 4th arrondissement for a furnished apartment.
More Advice: limit your apartment search to the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 7th arrondissements. (Full disclosure: I can be a snob about some things. This is one of them.) You’re moving to Paris. You want to feel like you’re in Paris. Living in the arrondissements farther afield can feel and look like any other city in the world, only the people all speak French. The 16th arrondissement is lovely, but it is so far removed from many museums and other attractions that it’s a hike to do anything but see the Eiffel Tower. So stick with my go-to arrondissements. You’ll be glad you did.
Still More Advice: Become proficient in searching for apartments online in French. Google translate is your friend. You’ll pick up the phrases, terms, and short-hand quickly. Know that you’re going to probably be living in a space much smaller than what you lived in when you lived in the states. The flinch-inducing rental rate will reflect these factors: the desirability of the arrondissement, the size of the apartment (square meters and number of rooms) and the quality of the building (does it have an elevator?). You may find a great apartment, but if it’s in a dicey area that you don’t feel comfortable in at night, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
The neighborhood around your apartment and within your arrondissement will be your world: it will be where you shop, drink coffee, get to know your neighbors, and make your life. Choose wisely. The quality of your building will often determine how energy efficient your apartment is, and how expensive your utility bills are. The nicer the building, the fewer Airbnb units that bring in loud tourists. I know: I sound like a snob, and I am. I came here to live among Parisians and residents of Paris.
Clothing: many people have the vision of Parisians as being the most fashionable people in the world. Some are very stylish, to be sure. Most are dressing for usually cold and often wet weather in which they have to walk, cycle, or take public transportation. You will be, most likely, doing the same, as having a car in Paris is not an idea. You’ll walk everywhere, take the metro sometimes, and love it almost all the time. So you’ll dress with function and comfort in mind.
To this end, I suggest looking at a three-quarter length hooded coat, a model something like The North Face sells, a full length wool top coat, or a lined London Fog trench coat. Black or navy will serve you best, color-wise, as you won’t stand out as a foreigner. A collection of colorful cotton, silk, wool, and cashmere scarves will be your style statement, if you require one, and keep your neck warm. They are available everywhere, on street corners and boutiques, from 5 euros to 500.
Wool sweaters, wool or corduroy pants, with ankle boots or serious leather, water-resistant walking shoes will serve you well whether you’re a man or a woman (think Mephisto walking shoes). Adidas sneakers are ubiquitous in the city, so feel free to strap a pair on and hit the streets with a pair of jeans, sweater, and jacket. A hooded coat, wool fedora, or the iconic beret will keep your bean warm and dry in this unpredictable weather. New York Yankees baseball caps are worn by Frenchmen who wouldn’t know Mickey Mantle from Mickey Mouse. I counter with a Boston Red Sox cap purchased at Fenway park by a friend a year and a half ago and given to me as a going away gift. Still, it’s only good in the spring and summer, when the chill gives way to warmish temperatures.
Alright…I’ll cover other topics in a coming post. Merci….