My trusty American Heritage Dictionary says that an "intricacy" is something having many complexly arranged elements, elaborate, and even solvable or comprehensible, but with painstaking effort. That describes working and living in Paris to a tee.
Thousands of Americans of all ages come here every year in the hopes of a job, career, new friends -- in short, a new life. Paris is very séduisant (seductive), so if you come here on vacation once or twice, it's easy to get hooked. Beauty, culture, cuisine, language, style, art, literature, history, romance, architecture...it's all here for the asking, as long as you're willing to pay the price.
I know Paris red tape. I've been through it, over it, around it, under it, on top of it, behind it, and in the middle of it, and somehow I have survived to tell the tale.
To start, by law you are expected to have a long-stay visa if you plan on staying more than three months (carte de séjour). Entering the country as a tourist is not a "visa." You must apply for your long-stay visa long before you come to France (from a French consulate). Immigration laws and procedures are quite complex and we recommend that you consult with the consulate, a professional before proceeding to fully understand what kind of visa you should be applying for, if at all.
Obtaining The Right To Be In France
Thousands of Americans are living in France without a visa. The process to acquire a carte de séjour is long, tedious, and extremely bureaucratic. From the outset, you will spend hours waiting to be seen by a fonctionnaire (civil servant), whose only real authority is over your right to be here. Be sweet - these powerful folk could determine your residence here, or lack thereof, in a matter of moments.
Learning la Langue Française
It makes a big difference if you can speak French, at least a little. More and more French people speak reasonably good English, but you can never really be a part of France without a certain level of the language. You can enrol in a language school or take private lessons or immersion courses to get up to speed. The French-English Conversation Group I co-host (Parler Parlor, http://www.parlerparlor.com/) is a great way to practice, but its tough to start speaking without a basis in grammar and a moderate level of vocabulary. Don't assume that three months in a good crash course of French is going to turn you into a fluent speaker. Unless you are 9 years-old with a brain like a sponge, it will take years to learn this language well. And besides, who wants to spend all their time in Paris in a classroom suffering over the subjonctif? My advice is to relax, take courses or lessons at an easy pace, and let osmosis do the rest, while you enjoy every minute of your new life in France.
Adjusting To The French Way
While finding a job or creating a new career for yourself in France is the ultimate challenge (especially without working papers!), adapting to the cultural climate is something that could take you an entire lifetime. You might be fooled into thinking that we and the French are much alike, but I can assure you, in every aspect of life the French have a different perspective -- a perspective that changes their behavior patterns tremendously from ours.
This is the subject of many books on France, particularly the two (which have become bibles for many) written by Polly Platt: French or Foe? and Savoir Flair: 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French. She writes: "French people are different. Wonderfully different and differently wonderful. The trick is in knowing what the differences are." Another I highly recommend is Ruth Mastron and Gilles Asselin's Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French. Going beyond the obvious, this bilingual and bicultural author team explores what lies behind what we see: the assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, values and patterns of thought of both cultures.
Both Polly and Ruth have spoken at Living in France Conferences I've hosted and have both educated and delighted our audiences. Don't take for granted how important their advice is, because if taken, will lead you to a clear understanding and ultimate success in your new life in this country.
After ten years of studiously experimenting with their advice and having been the subject of one of Polly's tales about the French customer service (or lack of), I can honestly say I have finally crossed the cultural divide and now manage to maneuver very successfully within the system.
I've learned not to smile at just anything or anyone. I've learned to say bonjour, au revoir, merci, and s'il vous plâit every 10 seconds, deserving or not. I've learned to flirt and use charm with every waiter or sales person to get what I'm after.
I've learned to apologize humbly before asking any question and knowing that if I don't ask the right question, I won't get the right answer. I've learned to cross the streets on the red at a slow pace, wear skirts in the middle of winter, and have my coffee last as a separate course. I've learned that you don't have to trade one thing for another, but that you can have it all and enjoy it without guilt, like a cheese course before a crème brulée, or five weeks of paid vacation all taken at one time (usually in August). And most importantly, I've learned that life is for living, here and now, and that money doesn't have anything to do with quality of life. It's attitude that matters, especially here in France.
Finding A Home In Paris
If you're planning to make a move to Paris in the future, and it affords you lots of time, then consider owning your own apartment in Paris. Prices in Paris are appreciating more than 13% every year. Smart investors are purchasing apartments they can enjoy from time to time while they're here and rent to vacationers when they're not. These apartments prepare them for future nests when they make the permanent move. A property search professional can greatly assist here to slash through the web of real estate agencies that are all vying for your hard-earned euros (there is no Multiple Listing Service in France to make your search simple and easy).
If your move is just a test run, then renting a furnished apartment for several months or even for a few years can be very practical. Leave the bulk of your belongings in storage at "home" while you get the lay of the land in your new Parisian home. There are lots of agencies, Web sites and publications to help you find the perfect completely equipped pied-à-terre.
Meeting The Challenges
If you are thinking of working and living in this country, try to break down the challenges you're facing into what, who, how, and why you need to know:
What to know: the language, how to meet people, the culture, the culture, the culture.
Who to know: experts in their fields, people who have been through it, people who make things happen, supportive friends (not only the French, but all nationalities).
How to know: study, read, network, volunteer, ask questions, ask questions, ask questions.
Why to know: because knowledge is power.
Excerpted from "One American Shares The Secrets Of Navigating la vie Française" in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 66.