Being an expat in Paris makes a whole lot more sense when you realise that it’s just adolescence all over again: that you spend half your time trying to be accepted into social circles, and the other half trying to understand how life works.
That you feel everything more strongly than you used to, but often can’t communicate your emotions.
That you get frustrated a lot.
That you compare yourself to everyone around you, constantly reassessing your level of integration.
That you’re learning so fast that sometimes your head aches just with the pressure of existing.
That it’s deeply uncool to be too enthusiastic about your life.
That sometimes you want so desperately to wear the wrong things, eat the wrong things, say the wrong things, but that the weight of expectations – your own, those of the people at home, those of the people around you – can be hard to bear.
That most of the expectations are all in your head.
That you crave acceptance.
That you spend a lot of time wondering if you should have a boyfriend yet, and (secretly) what on earth you’d do if you got one.
That you’ll make friends, eventually, and they almost certainly won’t be the friends you imagined making (they’ll be so much better).
That you might, without necessarily realising it, be having the time of your life.
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People come to Paris for love or money. Almost every expat you meet was drawn here by a job or a lover, and if they’ve been here for more than six months – more than the unwritten but precisely allotted honeymoon period – they have settled into a complicated relationship with the city that ranges from polite hostility to outspoken loathing.
It’s hard to say for sure why this is. People often cite the hardness of Paris, the fact that even after 20 years you’ll still be a foreigner, the perceived rudeness of its inhabitants, the pollution and the horns and the six months of winter.
I wonder if it’s also the discomfort of finding out a mythical city is just, after all, a city; that nowhere is actually as magical as the Paris of books and films. That living here is, unavoidably, much the way I imagine moving in with Tom Hardy would be: a series of shattered illusions in which the perfect object of my affections is revealed to be flawed and complex and very real.
Maybe, too, it’s just a reaction to the string of enthusiastic newcomers who turn up, for a month or three, weak-kneed with love for the city and a return ticket to take them back, admiration undented, to where they came from, leaving the true expats with jobs that frustrate them and lovers who leave the toilet seat up and a city that costs them a fortune and then begs for more.
People like to ask, what brought you to Paris? And I invariably say, bread, and wait for them to laugh, or to stare at me in confusion.
I’m yet to meet another expat who shares my origin story, which is perhaps also why I’m yet to meet another expat whose relationship with Paris is quite like mine. I came for love, yes, but not for a person: I came for the language, for the smell of the air in winter, for the colour of buildings and the shapes of leaves.
I came because I fell in love with a country, a long time ago, and absence really did make the heart grow fonder, until at last I had to follow it across the world. I did not come for Paris – if anything, I was deeply suspicious of it – and it is only from being here, living admidst its capricious, challenging, varied reality, that I have fallen in love with it.
People come to Paris for the love of the place all the time. Wide-eyed backpackers and well-heeled retirees and sleep-deprived honeymooners and everyone in between, they come here because it calls to them and they embrace it for two weeks and bid it a lingering farewell, promising to come back.
But they are not expats. Coming is one thing; staying is entirely another. When you’re thirty, if you’re an expat in Paris, odds are you’re here for a person or a paycheque.
I’m more than six months in, now. There are complicated French documents with my name on them and I can complain about the Paris housing market with the poetic rancour of a long-term resident. And as the heady summer of my honeymoon period gives way to the bright winter of reality, I’m learning there are peculiar benefits to being in love with a place.
I am the only person I know to be here entirely on their own terms. If they came for a lover, their relationship with Paris is uneasy; she is the cold, elegant third wheel in their affair. If they came for a job, she is their office.
Perhaps they left things behind they did not wish to. Undoubtedly, they hold Paris responsible for the awkward teenage growing pains of their expatriation. This is why, when asked why I’m here, my response almost always elicits surprise.
I came to France, I say, because I wanted to. And I fell in love with Paris after I arrived.
And when your love is a city, life is easier. Just going outside – being surrounded by her – lifts my spirits. Every meal, every exhibition, every Sunday walk is a date.
I knew her – her moodiness, her flaws, the way she looks first thing in the morning – from the start. I chose to stay.
I do not need to fear that Paris will fall out of love with me, because she has never loved, and will never love me, and for once that is okay. I with my deeply uncool enthusiasm and she with her luminous disinterest in my existence: ours is an unconventional but functional love.
Our love will end, of course, as all loves do. Perhaps I’ll read this in a year with bitter eyes and laugh at my naivety as I vow never to return. Perhaps we’ll part with mutual affection a decade from now. Perhaps I’ll be torn from her tomorrow, unwilling and unready.
But she makes me happy, and for now that is enough.