The Difference Between Visiting Paris, and Living in Paris

My wife and I had coffee with some American neighbors last weekend. The conversation ricocheted wildly between current events, where to find good Indian food, and the ins and outs of (them) raising two young children in Paris.

We shared knowing nods about how different the city is for tourists: it’s a dazzling, romantic, breathtaking, and heady mix of history, art, food, and culture. It’s borderline exotic, populated with residents who don’t seem to care about so many things, yet get so passionate about the strangest things, and expats or vagabonds who seem to have just arrived, just to check things out, to continue their careers, or to settle in with a new lover in a new city.

For those of us who live here, who are not Parisian and not even French–and there’s a difference between Parisians and the rest of the French–life is, of course, a very different thing.

More than one resident has come to this hard realization: just because you’re in love with Paris does not mean that Paris is in love with you. Paris does not care one ounce about you, and most of its residents don’t care about you, either.

As I’ve said in previous posts, the Parisians are civilized, genteel, attentive, and charming. They are also, many times, in their own little world, or flagrantly disinterested in anyone or anything else. I find it endlessly fascinating as I try to anticipate which of these–charming to disinterested–they will be during our next encounter. You. Just. Never. Know.

But for expats eager to arrive in Paris, find an apartment, and live the artist’s life or the writer’s life or the cafe life or whatever, beware. Everybody has something to do here. Everybody’s who’s smart, anyway. After 3 months of walking the streets, discovering the history, eating like a roman emperor, and haunting the museums, you will be ready to get busy doing something.

For me, it’s easy: I write. My wife and I are working on several projects, so we have things to do. Some retired expats here in our neighborhood are not so actively engaged, and the results are disheartening. They start drinking at 10 a.m. and finish whenever. They have nothing to talk about (which is important in cafe life.) And they’re miserable.

They thought that leaving the U.S. was going to give them a new lease on life. The problem is: they’re the same people in Paris that they were in the states.

And this is a key issue: travel can change your point of view, but actually living in another country for a period of time should change you. Demonstrably. Tangibly. Permanently. Otherwise, you’re not doing it right.

For me, I’m much less concerned about what other people think. I don’t take things as personally as I used to. I’m much more comfortable with confrontation. I listen more. I have a much more open mind. I feel much more creative. I have a global perspective.

These changes are nothing new: a lot of expats have probably had similar or identical feelings. And maybe I haven’t changed at all.

But things certainly feel different.

I’d be interested to hear a few comments, experiences, and insights into this phenomenon: living abroad. And how it’s impacted you, and people you know.

Thanks, looking forward to it.

  • BGT

12 thoughts on “The Difference Between Visiting Paris, and Living in Paris

  1. It’s not rare that the French are able to be charming and disinterested at the same time. They may express their “deep concern” when they happen to hear about one’s problems, but they merely do something to really help. They prefer to stay in their comfortable ‘coquilles’ and observe what happens next.

    1. Thanks, Valeria. Yes, Parisians can be charming, disinterested (flagrantly neutral) and uninterested (bored by it all) all at the same time. You’ve really noted something here. – BGT

  2. Well, the closest to living abroad for me was spending two weeks in London. It was a huge change from Minnesota, not entirely unwelcome. But as the saying goes–Wherever you are, there you’ll be. I loved living in a different city, a different culture, if only for a limited time.

  3. I have recently returned from my first visit to Paris and it was, indeed, a heady whirlwind of food, art and culture.
    As for being an expat, I moved to my in-laws town and feel that after 2 years I am still treated as the new comer, so I suspect that I will remain so for another 20.
    I have learnt independence of thought, resilience in holding onto my identity, patience when making friends yet being gently rebuffed and gratitude for being privileged enough to know it.

  4. Time spent living abroad (Norway in my case) provided me with a different view of US society. After a year away, I was suddenly able to perceive the favorable AND the less savory in ways that I had not before. While there is much good about the US, relative to much of the rest of the world, many of our priorities and attitudes are horribly out of step with regard to empathy, humaneness, and general quality of life.

    Now, as a middle-aged, college-level educator, I’ve noticed an interesting (???) trend among many of those undergrads lucky enough to spend a semester or year abroad “studying.” For too many, it’s 6-10 months of party time, hanging out, drinking, and the like with other young Americans without any of the sort of personal growth you describe. Listening to their accounts after the fact, there seems to be little interaction with the natives outside of classes/lectures and an unwillingness on the part of many to consider that maybe The United States does not have a monopoly on the best of everything.

    Invariably, Mom and Dad appear for a few weeks a couple of times during the academic year for everyone to travel together in a cocoon of hometown, which does not seem to promote part of what study abroad is intended to achieve, linguistic proficiency, cultural awareness and sensitivity, thinking on one’s feet, and becoming a capable adult. Quite a few young Americans can’t handle being responsible for themselves in another country and are home again after a few weeks, citing all sorts of external reasons for their crash and burn besides the most obvious. I’ve seen that a few times too.

    And sure, there might be classes in the target language with other non-natives, field trips, and maybe a temporary boyfriend or girlfriend to stave off loneliness, but there seems to be little interaction with the target culture and its people beyond the confines of the host institution. In view of this, and in light of what you mention about adult expats in your own post, it seems like time abroad and the terrific potential it can offer is nevertheless lost on a lot of people regardless of age and life stage.

    Not certain if people envision emulating people like Hemingway, Henry Miller, or Anais Nin on the left bank, or Diane Lane’s character in Under the Tuscan Sun, but once the initial romanticized wonder of living abroad wears off, daily life is rather different as you note. And I’m not really how much learning about oneself actually takes place for a lot of people beyond the usual cliches like “The people were really snooty and don’t like Americans,” or “There’s good bars there” (grammar error intended).

    As I might have mentioned in a recent previous comment, it strikes me that some people who venture overseas are are either looking for something that they could find if they really opened their eyes without journeying halfway around the globe. . . And/or they are running from something in themselves. Perhaps both. Of course, one’s problems do tend to catch up somewhere down the road even when we feel we have successfully evaded the issue(s) for the present. But trust me. Changing physical locations rarely solves things in the long term. The problems always find you in the end. Been there, done that in a younger, less informed life.

    Short answer, an extended period living abroad as a resident rather than a short term tourist can be an amazing, eye-opening, and life-changing experience, but it is not without its challenges and might not be the best choice for everyone. As my old mother, who lived in Mexico for 18 years recently observed, “How many times do you want to watch the spring breakers and other tourists cavort in the zocalo after the first year, or two of living there as a resident?”

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

  5. I spent 10 months in Salamanca for a junior abroad and it changed my life.
    I wanted to stay indoors and never go out except for class, but I made myself ask for ground beef at the butcher and order mussels at the cafe.
    I made myself talk to the other foreign students and through them started meeting Spaniards.
    I had more adventures in those ten months than I’ve had before or since.
    The folks there didn’t really care that I was American and we’re not going to kow tow to me or make anything easy. Most people did not speak English either so there was no escape from learning to communicate well in the language unless I chose to hang out with the rich American kids who spent years there and barely spoke Spanish. The girls dated Spanish Air Force students interested in practicing their good English.
    I learned to live life at a slower pace, that true friendship is rare and precious, that you must take chances to get what you want, and that every people has a distinct and marvelous worldview. I also learned the distinction between acquaintances and friends.
    I make it a point to befriend foreign cultural warriors are wherever I am because I always remember how slightly off-kilter it feels to live away from your native land. This has led to some wonderful friendships and entry into foreign worlds right here.

  6. I’ve never lived abroad, but spending 10 days in Italy was eye-opening. What truly struck us was the infrastructure that has been developed in Europe to alleviate traffic congestion both in and between countries. From high speed trains, to subway systems, to busses, we only had to rent a car for 2 days that we stayed in Sicily. It has made me much more aware of the benefits of public transportation.

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