How difficult can it be? Making the most of a year in Paris should be the easiest thing you have ever done – you’ll simply swan around soaking up the beauty and art. And then after a few months you find yourself alone in a café, wishing you could meet up with one of your friends, tired of the endless grand monuments, longing for a place to lie on the grass, wishing someone, somewhere would recognise you.
You recall what you did this morning – put the washing on, cleaned the stove, did some writing, did the shopping. It’s pretty much like life back home, but it’s cold and grey and you’re treated like a tourist in every shop you go into. You feel shut out. You can’t tell anyone because you would sound like the most ungrateful person on the planet and so you email and Facebook how fabulous it all is.
But it can be fabulous – it just requires a bit of work. After spending a year living in Paris, here’s what I learned about getting the most out Paris.
1. It’s obvious but before you go, learn or brush up your French.
Waiters in tourist cafes speak some English, but you are not a tourist, you are living in Paris, voila, you need to speak French. There are many courses available in Australia, from informal rendezvous through Meet-Up, to classes at Alliance Francaise. Start as early as possible, so that you have a few workable French sentences by the time you arrive. Even the attempt to speak French will be warmly welcomed.
2. Also before you go, dip into French culture.
Read French writers, watch French films – the French are very knowledgeable about their films - study French art, architecture, cuisine, listen to French music. You haven’t got time for all of that? Focus on the area that you already love – for me it was literature (Balzac, Zola, De Beauvoir, Colette, Modiano, just for starters) so that by the time I arrived I could see Paris with the rich texture that literature gives the world.
3. Once you are there, watch French television.
That’s right – watch telly, especially the news. It’s good practice for listening to French and you are up to date with the favourite French topic of conversation – politics. And watch quiz shows, they are great practice because questions are repeated and sometimes printed up on the screen as well. And sports shows – you will know how to say ‘Allez les Bleus’ (Go the Blues) and understand what the French might be talking about on the Metro on a Monday morning.
4. Shop in your small, local boulangerie, fromagerie, pharmacie, marché.
Go to the supermarket for a year and no-one will know you, go to the same small shop or market stall each time and after three visits you will be a local. I went to same boulangerie for my baguettes for a year, and even now I am greeted as if I am a beloved cousin from ‘Australie’. But you must remember to greet every shop-keeper as you walk in. If you don’t, you will be treated as a rude visitor, ignored or disdained. Say Bonjour Madame or Mademoiselle (under 30 approximately) or Monsieur . And it’s not just for politeness; a greeting opens up the possibility of conversation, even it’s just chat about the weather, it affirms you are sharing the same world with the locals, that you are one of them.