hello blog — living in paris


urban geography

Paris is not a big city. It’s the bit in the middle of what everyone outside France thinks of as Paris. It’s that overall conglomeration, Paris and its concrete handmaidens, the banlieue, the council estates, the suburbs, that has the population of 12 million–ish.

Paris itself is organised into arrondissements. They’re like boroughs, but they’re numbered, not named. People refer to them by their numbers. The first four are in the centre of the city, on the right bank. The next batch surround these central four, including some across the river—and so on. There’s twenty in all. Each has its own character. After a while in the city, you’ll find your own favourites.


inside the metro

paris metro

The metro is brilliant, so long as you’re in Paris proper. Nowhere is more than a few hundred yards from a metro station, so much so that directions usually start with go to such–and–such metro station, take exit thingy, and turn down rue de wotsit. They’ll finish with an entrance code; almost every place to live, which will be a block of flats for anyone but the incredibly rich, has a common entrance system with a code you tap in to open the door.

The main problem with the metro is that it’s so good everyone uses it. It’s often absolutely packed. But you put up with it; it’s very very good!

That overcrowdedness is why the French built a second metro. It’s called the RER, it’s lower level, high speed, & really plain old trains. It’s really a bit of a buzz, going deep underground, to find this humungous station regularly fed by very long double decker trains. Then you realise the station is old and manky, and it’s even more impressive; Paris has had these deep level underground lines for 40 years.

The buses are good, the trams fine, the taxis don’t overcharge, Paris public transport is basically excellent. The only let down are the occasional strikes, which, like British strikes of old, are mostly toothless bluster, except on the apparently militant RER B, the line that goes to the main airports.


montmartre flats

accommodation

Paris flats are so titchy the smallest ones really do have no room for anything more than a bed, a shower, and somewhere to cook. 20 metres square is not uncommon; that’s not much bigger than the normal British living room.

They’re also very very pricey. If you can find a furnished flat for under a grand a month, you’re lucky if you can sleep lying down. The agency fees work out at about 10% of the annual rent, unless you have the very good fortune to find a flat directly.

If you’re staying any length of time, you’ll really need to register with the authorities. Weirdly, French officialdom seems to be built on the strange presumption that nothing exists beyond the borders of France. For example, to register with the authorities, you need an address. To prove you have that address, you need an electricity bill from there. To get the electricity bill, you need a flat (and electricity to be billed for). To get a flat, you need to be registered with the authorities. The way to break this bonkers Catch 22 is to borrow a friend’s address, and register with the authorities that way. They’ll accept a letter from that friend confirming you live there, even though they know very well you don’t.

There are a lot of tourist flats about, and if you’re not able to commit to the city for the long term, these are worthwhile. The agency fees are calculated on the time you spend there, and work out about the same for long term let. If you organise yourself, you can stay in a few of them and get a feel for many areas of the city. I did that, and found myself particularly liking the 11th and the 18th.

If you’re not fairly loaded, the only way you’ll get to live in Paris is as a student, or if you find a friend. You’ll have to like that friend a lot because the flats are so small you’ll be living in their hair a lot of the time.


social

social life

If you’re new to the city, and speak more than just French, a good way to get to know other people is to go along to a language conversation club. You get practice talking in your second language(s), and you in turn help others practise your mothertongue(s). Since the whole idea is to talk, there’s no difficulty in starting conversations with complete strangers. It’s a great way to meet people, and a good way to get tips on how to survive the city. Google club polyglotte and you’ll find some alternatives.

Paris has a reputation for love, and I think one of the reasons is the politeness of the locals. Yes, politeness, despite the French reputation for rudeness. It’s politeness in a slightly different form, though. If you see someone somewhere where it’s not very crowded, such as a common apartment building corridor, it’s very rude indeed not to say bonjour, or bonsoir in the evening. Both words effectively mean hello.

If you say bonjour to someone, you look at them. And, if you’re very lucky, they’re hot & your eyes catch. And in a place like a block of flats, you’re likely to bump into them again. So say bonjour, it’s polite, and in your interest. Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it, probably quite wrongly.

Don’t forget, though, you say hello to everyone, not just those people you find hot, so that’s the little old ladies, workmen, my mate Dave, everyone.


inside the metro

arts & farts

Once upon a time, the left bank by the river might have been the artistic centre of the city, but now it’s where shops graze on tourists. Many of the poets I know live in on the right bank, near the 18th, the neighbouring 9th, or the 11th. Many poetry events take place in the 11th, so if that’s your thing, find somewhere within a mile or so Belleville metro and you won’t go far wrong.

The city is rich in cultural life, in all forms. The official institutions are brilliant, and have to be seen. Fortunately for the skinflint amongst us, all museums are free on the first Sunday of each month.

But don’t overlook the private events. By some fluke—well, knowing one of the performers—I discovered there’s a rich culture of private jazz parties. You see and here contemporary jazz performed in private apartments. These are small, and fascinating, well worth getting along to.

There’s a rich poetic life too. The anglophone poetry scene is performed in pubs and bars, usually; the norm for the countries across the channel. The French poetry scene is far more effete; people go along to posh settings dressed in posh clothes and listen respectfully. I hope it’s not just my background that makes me much prefer the more relaxed anglophone world.


inside the metro

learning the language

Do it. If you’re living there and don’t learn the local language, and you’ve got no good reason like mental incapacity, you’re a lazy useless arsehole.

But you don’t need to be fluent before you get here. Many people speak English, but, the French being French, like you to show the effort to speak their language, before switching to English. I’d guess about 30% speak reasonably good English, including almost all in jobs that may require speaking to tourists.

But if you want to settle here, you have to learn French. You’re going to have enough problems dealing with the bureaucracy as it is, without adding language difficulties.


montmartre restaurant

the food reputation

You come to France, you eat the food, you find it tastes better but you really don’t understand why it’s got quite such a reputation. After a while, you find a couple of favourite restaurants you tend to keep visiting.

Then you leave France, and you realise what you’ve lost. They sneaked up on you, and put good food down you, and you slowly got used to it. And now, having left the place, you discover just how awful everything else is. Is cuisine X really cooked in engine oil? Nope, but there's an edge of something nasty you didn’t notice before you moved to France.

The bread is gorgeous, and you can't find anything anywhere near as good once you leave. Don’t try, find some local speciality and put up with it. And if you've moved to somewhere like the UK or Ireland, learn how to make your own: even the best bakeries don’t compare to the average Parisian, despite being twice the price. I don't know why British bread is so bad, but it is.


eating out

eating out

Don’t presume that all restaurants are great. They’re not. Chefs, like any other profession, have their share of lazy useless arseholes, just as some managers are idiots on pogo sticks. But, here, the lazy useless arseholes soon get chucked out, or the business closes. This is quite different to the UK, where most people don’t actually know the difference. It was there that I once got taken somewhere because it had ‘superb food’—superb my arse, the buggers microwaved their pastry. Never, never, would that happen in France, unless the manager flounced about on a pogo stick.

Presuming you don’t find a restaurant with pogo stick holes in the floor, and presuming you don’t have a dietary restriction, you shouldn’t have a problem with the food. However, Paris is difficult if you like crap: it can be found, but you have to search it out. There are international chain restaurants, mostly for tourists who are too scared to try something better, and the badly educated.

You have to take your time when eating out; the food is prepared for you when you order it. It’s not taken out the tin and chucked in the microwave, it’s actually cooked. Being British, I initially found this experience extraordinary and bizarre, especially the idea of having to wait for more than a minute for the food to appear. Brits, and people from other countries with crap restaurants, you just have to put up with the consequences of being presented with edible food. It’s for your benefit, really! It took me time, I’ll admit.

Tipping is not generous. The service charge is included in the bill, by law. That’s why the norm for tipping is to round up to the nearest euro, or 50 centimes if you’re skinflint like me. Having said that, if the staff have gone out of their way to make your experience good, you can and should say thank you.

The law also requires all restaurants to offer a jug of tap water for free (une carafe d’eau). The locals almost always take it. Mineral water is a way of taking extra money off tourists. Well, that’s not quite true. Although Paris municipal water is perfectly fine, mineral water usually tastes better.

Be warned, though, if you go to a tourist trap location, the surrounding restaurants are more likely to contain scammers who’ve got themselves jobs as waiters. If your accent isn’t French, you’re more likely to be a target. If you can avoid it, don’t pay with large notes, and make sure you get your change. If you pay by plastic, don’t let your card out of sight. I suspect this warning applies to most tourist traps across the world.


eating out

being vegetarian

It’s not so difficult being veggie here, but you have to do a bit of work. About a third of the restaurants serve veggie dishes. Italian restaurants are common, and Indians are pretty popular too (and, contrary to the usual, if you like spicy food, forget the Indian, go Italian). If you stick to French bistros and cafés, then you’ll probably end up eating a lot of crudité—although if you eat cheese or eggs, you’ll be fine. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a place where the chef sees you as a challenge, and you’ll get something strange and wonderful.

All the same, if you can, make your own food. Although the supermarkets are ok for stocking up, by far the best thing to do is find a local market, and buy your fresh stuff there. Make sure you know how to find good veg, and you’ll find ace veg, etc.. You have to get there early in the morning. To get the best, think 7am.


inside the metro

telephones

When coming to France from most other EU countries, do NOT cancel your existing mobile phone arrangement. If you don’t spend a great deal of time a day on the phone, it’ll probably work out cheaper to keep and use your existing number, despite the extra international charges. French phones are damned expensive.

For example, if you buy some credit from the French mobile phone company SFR, and you don’t use it all within a fortnight, they will steal the balance. They did this to me, and so did their competitors. I bought a USB mobile key from Orange, that was advertised as unlimited. It turns out that unlimited means limited to 1G a month, and then they surcharge. The key was eventually stolen with my laptop, but they wouldn’t supply a replacement. When I tried to cancel the key, the shop staff told me I had to use a specific phone number to do so, a number that was never never answered. I ended up having my bank block the direct debit. In the UK, this abuse would result in the directors being locked up and the companies closed down. The French mobile phone companies are criminal.

You may have wondered why French unions are always on strike, but having seen the French mobile companies behave, and presuming this is pretty normal for companies, I don’t wonder why at all.

Indeed, the fact that the mobile phone companies behave this way convinces me that the French political system is corrupt. I can’t see any other way the legislators would have permitted, and still continue to permit, the companies to behave this way, unless there’s graft involved.


inside the metro

medical bits

Be careful when visiting chemists or pharmacies here. There are basically two kinds, those that want to sell you something to will improve your health and relieve you of your money in the process, and those that want to relieve you of your money but have no interest in your health. The latter kind put words on their windows like homeopathy, or some derivation. They are conmen. They are common. To be fair on the French, similar conmen operate similar scams in many other countries. Just be careful.

Don't let this abuse put off the French medical system. The genuine medical guys have a good record, as a comparison of the WHO figures shows. Even if you’re in the French social security system, you ought to buy extra health insurance (from a mutual), because the rates the state pays and the rates the medical people charge often aren’t at all the same. Brits will be shocked that there is no queuing, no appointments, you just turn up. There’s no shortage of good professionals here.


inside the metro

conclusion

If you get the chance to go to Paris, do so. The problems are annoying, but no more. The city’s brilliant, an ace place to live. Jump on the opportunity if it jumps at out you.