To continue my thought from the previous blog post…
So you’ve made your budget, done a reconnaissance trip to Paris to locate an apartment, purchased your travel insurance (World Nomads has been great for us) and locked your visa from the French consulate.
You arrive in Paris, are given the keys to your new place, and now begin the process of settling in. As I said, your arrondissement and the neighborhood within it are going to be your world. You’ll hope and skip from museum to cafe to statue to boutique your first couple of months, intoxicated by all there is to see and do in this capital city. Enjoy.
Soon enough, however, you’re going to develop a routine. You’ll buy groceries, find a cafe that resonates with you (surprisingly this is quite important), and navigate the waters of getting a bank account and probably getting French phone number for your mobile phone.
Banking: there are a few banks who welcome (and I use that term loosely) American customers. It’s important that you find a place to bank, as your utility bill and phone bill will be drafted from your French bank account each month. Your landlord will probably want to have rent wired directly from your bank to the rental agency each month. You can pull cash out of an ATM each month and deposit in the bank account of the agency or landlord, but it’s cumbersome and those little foreign transaction fees add up.
If you have $100,000 to deposit, many institutions in the city will be happy to speak with you. HSBC and Credit Agricole both have English speaking staff. Several UK banks have branches in Paris. We bank at Credit Agricole and are happy with their services. In addition to banking, they also provide renters insurance, which is required by most landlords. (The cost is a very reasonable 9 euros a month.)
Note some differences in the culture of banking: French bankers are very different than American bankers. First, if you deposit $10.000 in an American bank and a week later walk into the bank and say, Hey, I want my money, all of it, right now, you can probably get it, right then and there in cash. Not so in France. You can get about 1,000 euros a day in cash, and they’ll probably ask you what you’re going to do with the money. Ironically, as private, discreet, and nonjudgmental as the French are with their personal lives and the lives of others, they are incredibly nosy about what you’re doing with your own money. American bankers may tell you about their gall bladder surgery ten minutes after meeting you, but what you do with your own money is your business. Ironies abound, especially overseas.
So my advice is to keep working capital only in a French bank. Keep your nest egg elsewhere. And know that cash transactions at retail establishments are limited. I think Americans can spend 10,000 euros on a single cash transaction in France. For French citizens, it’s limited to 1000 euros.
Debit and credit cards are used for buying everything from groceries to Cartier watches. Use an American credit or debit card with no foreign transaction fees. American Express is great, but it’s not accepted everywhere. Don’t tax clerks with 50 euro notes for small purchases. They don’t keep large amounts of cash in the register like they do in the states. Getting close to exact change is greatly appreciated.
It’s important to have a conversation with your American bank and explain that you’ll be living overseas for awhile. Depending on the institution and your relationship with them, they may offer to provide some services not on the menu to you as a courtesy. Advise your credit card companies that you’re going to be living overseas. They’ll make a security note in their files to monitor possibly fraudulent activity.
Mobile phone service: we use Free France, or France Free, mobile service for 20 euros per month per line. We can make unlimited calls to all of Europe and the USA free of charge. Hard to beat. Orange is another company. They draft on your bank account each month and send an invoice via email.
Food. The food in France is better than it is in the United States. I’m not bashing the Home Team, and I’m not just talking about the dishes prepared in restaurants. I’m talking about fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, bread, and fish that you purchase at sidewalk stalls and in grocery stores. Restrictions on chemicals and preservatives in food are serious and seriously enforced in France. It’s a point of pride.
You’ll buy fresh, probably pay a little more, but you’ll definitely enjoy the food more and feel better in the long run. You will, as surely as night follows day, become addicted to the bread. You will worship the fresh cup of coffee your barista makes each morning in your cafe, which is served in a ceramic cup, not a paper cup. Desserts will kill you, and you will be happy to die on a regular basis. You will be caught saying Ohmygod with a mouthful of deliciousness, as I do on a regular basis. Artisan cheese will nearly bankrupt you, and you will pay happily. Accept these truths. You are only human, but Paris is a divine city.
Expensive Things: Paris can be unreasonably and irrationally expensive for certain things. It’s good to know what they are and try to avoid them or mitigate the damage. Dry cleaners are positively criminal in their prices. 6 euros is not unusual to launder and press a man’s dress shirt. Do your own laundry, hang it up to dry (most apartments have a washer; not many have a dryer), iron what you need to, and save your cash.
Taxis are deadly to any size budget. Rides within the city can be 20 euros a pop, and you’re sitting in standstill traffic half the time. From the city center to Charles de Gaulle airport in a taxi is 55 euros at present. Or you can take the train for 10 euros per person right into the terminal. Learn to pack an umbrella, wear sturdy shoes, and be ready to walk.
I don’t know anything about taking the metro, but everyone I know who uses it really likes it. I do have a Batobus pass which allows me to ride a slow boat up and down the Seine, all year long, for 30 euros. Handy when I visit the acupuncturist whose office is in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, 4 miles away, but useless right now as the Seine is flooding.
Museum tickets can be 15 to 20 euros per person per visit. Annual passes to visit as often as you like run in the 70 euro range for the Musee d’Orsay. Pay once, enjoy often, and save money…and note that the annual pass also allows you to bring a guest free of charge.
Tours can be pricey. A better bet is to search online, buy a guide book, ask a local, and explore on your own.
Bargains: vintage stores in the Marais district that sell clothing by the kilo are fun and a great place to augment your wardrobe for not much money. Like-new and new shirts, coats, and blouses are on sale all the time. University students on a budget and aging aristocrats on a lark bump elbows for good deals. I am delighted to report that I have found a reliable source for quality oxford cloth button down shirts (mostly Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers) that are brand new…for 20 euros each, feeding a shirt addiction that is already out of control. Paris is nothing if not an enabler. Charvet awaits…
For women, the Galerie Vivienne houses a women’s vintage store offering top-quality–and by that I mean the very best in style and craftsmanship–at not cheap but very fair prices. (The name of the place escapes me.) Many French retailers have absolutely no reservations about charging heart-stopping prices for their goods. Conversely, many French women–from waitresses to grandes dames–have no reservations about exploring vintage clothing stores and finding great deals in the process. Join them, and have a coffee at the Bistro Vivienne next door afterward with the money you saved.
For adding elegant, one-of-a-kind, and timeless touches to your apartment’s probably sparse furnishings, visit the Marche aux Puces Saint Ouen flea market in the 18th arrondissement. It’s not centrally located, but it’s huge, with 3,000 vendors covering 7 hectares, selling rugs, lamps, art, furniture, and whatever else you can think of.
The India market in the Passage Brady in the 10th arrondissement is a great place to purchase vegetables, fruits, beans, and rice. It’s full of fresh produce, friendly people, and a fun experience. Prices can be half of what you’ll pay at stands in the Marais. All you have to do is make the walk.
Lastly, let me suggest taking a moment. Loiter on a side street. Sip coffee at a cafe and act like you’re reading Le Monde. Stop on a bridge. Watch swans glide along the rippling river. Let your thoughts wander. It’s priceless, and it’s free.
I’m sure I’ve omitted some obvious, helpful, and wonderful things about Paris. Feel free to add.