Moving to Paris, part 1: Before You Begin

A lot has been written, in print and in the blogosphere, about moving to the City of Light. Much is said about the joys of living in an iconic capital of a beautiful country where the natives speak an unfathomably elegant language. Almost as much has been written, especially in blogs, about the inevitable frustration that are part & parcel of  living here. Such posts are a treasure trove of salvation and inspiration.

This post is neither.

It’s more like a high-level checklist, liberally doused with practical links & tips, as well as a few very subjective opinions. Stay tuned for Moving to Paris, part 2: Installation Procedures.

1. Do a reality check. For many, moving to Paris might seem like the proverbial dream-come-true. While there are certainly the pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moments that come with living in an iconic city, living abroad is not for everyone. The Paris you experience on vacation is very different from the one you experience as a local who must, for example, find a plumber on a rainy Sunday in November when your sole bathroom has flooded & you have two house-guests. 

Buy a copy of Working & Living in France. Read blogs on expat life. Read books written by people who moved to Paris. At this point, you probably won’t actually believe what they say about the frustrations, but they’re still a good source of laughs and some new French vocab.

Some good blog posts:

My favourite books on moving to Paris:
  • The Sweet Life in Paris. Pastry chef and blogger extraordinaire David Lebovitz writes about his own move to Paris.
  • A Year in the Merde. Fiction, and decidedly more satirical than Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, the main character still can see beyond the merde to appreciate his adopted city.
  • Paris to the Moon. A collection of personal & professional essays by the New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik, written during the five years he lived here with his young family.
  • Paris was Ours. A collection of stories of being an expat in Paris, whether as students, wounded divorcée, single mother without a fixed address, political refugee, or a corporate transfer.
  • French or Foe? Practical advice on how to deal with cultural differences, by an American who moved to Paris in 1967 and 20 years later started a business providing cross-cultural training.

2. Contact your local French embassy about getting the necessary visas. Let the paperwork begin! Consider it training for once you’re in France.

3. Book temporary accommodation. Plan to stay in it for at least 2 months, 3 would be even better. Having a semi-permanent address in France is critical for getting a bank account, which in turn is critical for getting a longer-term apartment.

4. Learn French, especially if you are a complete beginner. You will be so busy settling once arrived that chances are you will have little time to take lessons, unless your employer provides them at your workplace. Even so, don’t expect to actually understand what people are saying when you first arrive. French use of the liaison, (the phrasing that links several separate words) and the speed with which Parisians’ usually speak causes deer-in-headlights paralysis, followed by panicked retreat into the linguistic safety of English.

That being said, learning French is still essential because it will help enormously in understanding the words around you – street signs, store signs, ads, newspaper headlines. You’ll be amazed at what you took for granted in your native lingo. And the French really will appreciate your efforts to speak their beloved language, and generally will respond with a lot more warmth than if you started off in English (one exception: Parisians under 30, who upon hearing your anglo-accent will be thrilled to switch right away to English, which is very trendy these days).

About.com provides great suggestions for learning or perfecting French.

5. Think about where you want to live.  If you have kids or dogs, you might want to consider living outside Paris, for better access to green space or to bilingual schools. Parents should also read the above-mentioned French or Foe to learn about the French school system, as it is waaaay different from anglo-saxon schools.

Expatica article: Where in Paris should you live?

And somewhat related, MESSAGE is a non-profit that provides support for English-speaking parents in France, including info on schooling.

6. Decide whether you want to move your furniture with you. For fixed-term stays, up to 3 years, it may be more bother than it’s worth. It’s much easier to find a furnished apartment than a non-furnished one. Keep in mind as well you’ll need to pay to ship your stuff  back home, unless this is covered by your company.

Another hindrance with furniture is it can limit which apartments you can rent. We shipped over most of worldly goods, including a wide couch that was too wide to carry up a typical Parisian stairwell. That in itself is not a big issue, as movers generally use portable exterior elevators to move furniture in through the windows. But we did have to make sure the apartment we rented had windows wide enough to fit our couch, which ruled out one charming 6th floor apartment built under the roof with, alas, gable windows. (Yeah….perhaps I was unreasonably attached to this couch. But at least its girth and good construction makes for a very comfortable guest bed. And ultimately, I prefer the apartment we ended up with).

7. Consider getting a relocation agent. We had one as part of my husband’s relocation package, and she was invaluable in getting us bank accounts within our first week of arriving, an apartment (eventually) in a very good location, an interest-free loan for the guarantee for the apartment (Solendi Loca-Pass), an account for electricity & gas, and explained the process for getting French state health coverage (la carte vitale). Obviously, this comes at a fee.

If you speak good French, are a whiz at logistics, do not get flustered or defeated easily, and have lots of time, it’s certainly do-able solo. But if you can afford it and do not want to start hating your new country before you’ve even moved in, I recommend getting an agent to help. It’s best to find one by word of mouth or by asking on expat forums.

Coming soonMoving to Paris, part 2: Installation Procedures.

Does anybody else have tips on moving to Paris?