If you’re an expat, there’s a chance you’re like me and have a love-hate relationship with expat groups on Facebook. Yes, you get tons of great tips and ideas for where to eat, how to not get arrested, doctors who have mercy on non-French speakers, etc. But, the price of such compatriotism is dealing with dumb questions. And yes, there is such a thing as a dumb question, and in expat Facebook groups, the dumb questions are the ones asking why things aren’t like they are at home. One I saw recently that chafed me was “why don’t the French eat a proper breakfast?” which usually comes more from Brits than Yanks.
Proper is of course, a relative term, because to me, the French have a far more proper breakfast than I had as an American. As a 9-6er with a commute, my breakfast was a coffee and a scream session at other cars on the 110 South. This would be a crime in France, where breakfast AKA petit dejeuner is a ritual that is necessary in order to get out and greet the day.
For the uninitiated, French brekkie is more of a moment in the day than it is a gastronomique experience. As with so many things in France, it can only be done in one way: some type of bread, most likely a baguette with butter and/or jam (confiture), potentially a croissant, coffee or tea, and a very tiny juice. Walk from cafe to cafe in search of more, you won’t find it. If you’re in a tourist zone, you can find some cheese omelette options, but they won’t be egg mountains filled with ham and peppers, saddled with hashbrowns and two strips of bacon. In fact, now that I’ve been here for a few months, I’ve kind of forgotten what else people used to eat for breakfast–cereal, oatmeal, overnight oats (I’m from LA), a breakfast sandwich maybe? More like whatever I can grab as I run to my car, if even that.
So in a way, the French do have a proper breakfast, it’s just not warm or fried or meaty, but they are extremely dedicated to it in all its bready glory. Running late? Doesn’t matter, they will still eat their petit dej. Have nothing in the frigo to even eat? No worries, they will find something to gnaw on; you can spread jam on almost anything if you’re desperate enough.
It’s understandable for a Brit to want more, as they’re as dedicated to a specific breakfast style as the French are, albeit a much meatier, beanier, warmer style. But when you go to a new country, it’s probably safe to expect that they do meals differently just as they speak differently and dress differently and greet differently. Maybe that’s what is irksome about the “where do I get a real breakfast in Paris?” question; it assumes there’s one way to do a thing, and if you start with that nonsense you’re going to get real pissed real quick. The irony is not lost on me that in this foreign land, there actually is one way to eat breakfast.
However, huge disclaimer that weekends are another thing altogether where a brunch style straight from America reigns supreme. That’s when three course, hollandaise-christened, syrup-drenched, egg-topped extremes are reached, if you’re savvy enough to have made a reservation, mind you. Then you can get your sausage and potatoes. But Lundi a Vendredi, it’s just bread and jam and if you’re hungry, you’ll eat it.
When we began planning our move to Paris, my husband and I were all about that minimalist life. We were going to unburden ourselves of so much random stuff we had accumulated having lived in the same city–in my case–since birth. We were going to keep things simple, be less materialistic, spend less, pick up and go where we want, when we want. We felt smugly weightless, relative to the LA versions of ourselves anyway.
1/3 of our earthly shit went to friends and Goodwill. 1/3 of it, mostly my antiques and random old stuff I couldn’t let go of (if you’ve ever sent me a holiday card, it might be included in this category), we sent to Make Space, a service I highly recommend. The final 1/3 was going to come with us to Paris, first into a truck, then onto a boat, then onto another truck, then to an apartment we didn’t yet have. This was mostly my clothes, cooking stuff, books and records we deemed essential, and decorative pieces I liked enough to bring. Oh, and a couch, coffee table, and two chairs, because we were going to have to buy those anyway so if we’re shipping stuff, why not go for it.
I am not known for being an optimistic person. I had a friend in 8th grade who deemed me a pessimistic optimist at best, which I suppose is a more nuanced way to say I am a realist and reality kind of sucks, doesn’t it? That said, I had some kind of psychic hunch, maybe a naive hope that our boxes would arrive NO LATER than two months from the time we saw the moving truck drive away. It was September 16, and I was even a little bit nervous that the movers might arrive in Paris while I was back in LA for Thanksgiving. This is an actual thing that I worried about.
We packed only clothes, a few toiletries, four plastic plates, two tin mugs, and a camping knife to hold us over until our boxes arrived. It was 100 degrees in LA in September, but we packed some winter options because Paris is cold. I packed LA winter clothes because I only know LA winters. I packed the backless black mules I lived in back in LA, as well as some rattan mules that went with every outfit. I packed high heeled boots that were a mainstay for me the previous winter. I took a few sweaters out of my suitcase because it was getting heavy, and I could live without them for two months. I was a fool.
Fall hit Paris two days after we arrived. I realized all the trends the girls my age were wearing were composed of articles of clothing I owned that were now on a boat, so I pledged not to buy anything. By the end of October, I had to break my resolution because it was already low-forties and none of my jackets had seen 50F before. I held out on buying more than one coat though, because of my feeling that the container would arrive by mid-November.
Then on November 1 I received an email from a clerk in Holland that said our stuff had left New York ten days earlier. I’d assumed it was already being offloaded in Rotterdam, but no, it had been sitting back in the US as the seasons changed in Paris. Quick mental math of ocean travel + customs + truck to Paris + bureaucracy meant we would not have our things until the end of winter. I just wanted a jacket. Maybe some books. A proper spatula. Some more scarf options.
I went back to LA for Thanksgiving, and the irony of traveling from LA to Paris, back to LA before any of my things arrived was not lost. It was such a joy to have extra blankets, more than one coffee mug, scented candles at my disposal. To be honest, it was a joy to find joy in such simple things. There’s probably a lesson in here about appreciation, family being all we need in life, but I’ll tell you there is also a lesson about how much a good a ladle is worth.
Two months crawled by with very few updates, so it was only natural to assume the container would arrive while we were out of town for Christmas, because that’s just how the universe works; it messes with us. The next mental milestone was the four month mark, so I just assumed for the sake of comedy that anniversary would come and go without a word from the shippers. A friend told us his stuff was gone for four months and he had to hassle the moving company for an update on his shipment, which had been lost. Clearly we were in for the same lot.
As soon as I reconciled myself to this sad reality, we of course received an email that our things could be delivered in three days if we were available. Hell yes, we were available. One mover carried up all of our boxes, one by one, and in just three hours, it was done. We had salad bowls and full-sized towels and sheets.
I’m whining, because I whine, but honestly at worst it was just a bit uncomfortable and cold. I had two sweaters that were adequate for the weather, and now I’m wearing a black mock-neck sweater in all photos of me from the first four months we were in Paris. We dried off with hand towels because I wasn’t going to spend full price on bath towels when we had four in the container. We used one camping knife for everything. We ate salad from a pan. People are dying of that Coronavirus in China, so I won’t complain at length for the amusing inconvenience that is moving internationally, just provide some level-setting of expectations and tips. The situation was a pebble in our shoe, inconvenient but livable.
Having lived through this mild quarter-year annoyance, I’ve compiled a list of EXACTLY what you should bring with you should you be moving long distance and waiting for your belongings to arrive. Some are self explanatory, others not so much, so I will elucidate:
Clothes/Jackets: you do you, but bring less than you think you need and be realistic about weather. You won’t regret only bringing neutral colors, and you’ll be the smartest person in the room if you only bring black
Shoes: Again, be realistic about weather and bring less than you think you need
Bags: Again, you do you but don’t forget shopping bags since plastic bags are illegal everywhere and you’re going to hate buying a new reusables when you have 28 of them packed in your moving boxes
Skincare and meds: You’re also going to hate spending money on this stuff which is likely packed in a box that says “bathroom” on the side. And your skin will freak out as soon as you move
Plastic or tin plate, cup, mug, and one set of utensils per person to hold you over until your stuff arrives
Pillow cases: will you be shuffling between Airbnbs for weeks when you arrive? Is that pillow you’re using actually clean?
Corkscrew, scissors, screwdriver: or just bring a single Swiss Army Knife or a multi-tool. You won’t regret it
Hot sauce: if you’re moving to Europe or to a place that does not typically use a lot of hot sauce, bring hot sauce
I’m just going to deal in absolutes here: if you live in Paris, you’re going to walk down the street with a baguette tucked under your arm or into your bag. You are. It sounds idealic or like a French stereotype, but it’s just a fact of nature. The earth is round, gravity is a thing, and in Paris everyone is constantly eating, on their way to eat, carrying, or buying bread.
There are boulangeries or boulangerie/patisserie combo packs on every corner, every block, of Paris, rarely more than 20 yards apart. They all look very much the same: they rarely have unique names, and their signs always simply say “boulangerie.” They boast a glass case with some sweets and croissant,s a back wall with assorted tasty breads, and a cash register. Some spots are also cafes and there will be an old local having an espresso in the corner.
At first, as an American, it’s a little intimidating to get in there and obtain that grain. You assume there’s some kind of code or process that you don’t know about because we don’t have little walk-in bakeries on every corner back at home. What are the rules? What do you order? How do you pay? Does the person at the register hate me? All good questions.
Here’s what I know so far: Always begin by saying hello, aka “bonjour.” If you didn’t say bonjour, then yes, the shop keeper does hate you. Always order the baguette traditionelle/tradition (I’ll explain this later). It’s going to cost 1 euro, maybe 1,20, so put your coins down in the little tray. Some boulangeries have a litte coin machine you put your money into and correct change pops out, it’s cool. Say thank you. Walk away and enjoy a few bites before you get home, that’s allowed. Repeat every 1.5 days until you die.
Nex question: which boulangerie do you even go to? How do you know if one is good? Because of the sheer volume of boulangeries and lack of any differentiating qualities, I was immediately overwhelmed by my options. I needed to know as soon as possible which was the best and why–tough to figure out when there are so many of them everywhere you go and they all charge about the same price. Luckily, because of the sheer amount of baguettes we’ve been eating, there has been plenty of opportunity to try as many spots as possible. I’d like to be able to report that there’s a huge range of flavor, texture, value across the different locations, but there isn’t. It’s convenient to teach yourself to like the bread from whatever boulangerie is nearest your apartment.
The most important thing to know is the bit about ordering a baguette “traditionelle” or “tradition.” This is because (*sToRyTiMe*), back in 1993, the PRIME MINISTER created this special bread category to protect bakers from the bread industrial complex. The decree stated for bread to be lawfully “traditionelle,” it has to have never been frozen, be baked on the premises, can’t contain ascorbic acid or additives (duh), and must pretty much just be salt, flour, and water. The result is a crackly exterior that is firm but not hard, a spongey, soft interior unlike the airy and uninspiring inards of the cheaper baguette ordinaire.
One thing you’ll quickly realize about bread is that you’re always running out of bread. Because of the no additives thing, it only lasts about a day, which is about as long as it takes for two people to eat it. For this reason, you pretty much need to grab another round every time you are on your way home. If you don’t, you’ll end up without bread at 7pm when the boulangerie is sold out of traditionelle and you’ll have to end up gnawing on a baguette ordinaire. Do this a few times, and you learn to take the extra thirty seconds to buy a damn baguette on the way home.
The boulangeries don’t just bake in the morning either, they fire up some fresh ones all day long, so if you don’t make it in time for the morning batch, don’t worry. We’ve begun to notice that they bake a fresh batch in the evening so that they have plenty of stock for folks buying them on their walk home.
As promised, I’m more about feels than facts, so if you want some much more helpful bread literature, I found this article on Frenchly super helpful: A Guide To French Bakeries.
Everyone warned us about how hard it is to get an apartment in Paris. Friends told us about their experiences, all my Paris Expat Facebook groups held horror stories of people searching for three months and no one would accept their “dossier.” Maybe I’m more arrogantly American than I thought–maybe it’s not even an American thing and I’m just arrogant–but I assumed all of these people were just being whimps. How could renting an apartment, in a city full of apartments, be harder than buying a house in LA’s competitive market? I assumed that if we just worked harder than everyone else, showed up earlier, put all of our assets out there, everything would be fine. Because, America.
What at first feels like a broken system is actually a system that constrains itself in order to help a segment of people who need the most help. This is a generous way of saying it’s well-intentioned yet fucked. Cliff’s Notes version of the system: Paris law makes it very difficult to evict someone for non-payment, therefore when owners are renting their properties out, they have to be EXTREMELY cautious about who they rent to, and want to guarantee not just that you have money, but that you’ll continue to be getting money consistently without issue.
For some reason, the agencies who exist to find renters have chosen some really weird criteria to judge this consistency, criteria that is hard to meet as an expat. You have to have a French salary, not a salary from any company not based in France. You have to have had this salary for a while–many won’t even consider you if you’ve just started a job or haven’t been in the job for four months. Some won’t even look at you if you haven’t had your job for at least a year! I am an American freelance consultant whose clients are also American, so in the eyes of French rental agencies, I am a vagrant. My husband was just beginning his job, so he appeared unstable to them. I own a house, we both have sizable savings, zero debt, and impecable credit: none of this even registers as valuable in this situation.
The result is, you’re not looking for an apartment, you’re looking for an agency or property owner kind enough or logical enough to take a risk on a risk-free couple. Before we knew this, we were hoofing it all across town to view apartments to see if we liked them. No one cares if we liked them, the real question was if the agents liked us. Many of these viewing appointments would be crowded with five, ten, twenty, thirty other candidates, many of whom we learned maybe made less money than us but had stronger “dossiers” because they had French salaries. I had not felt this powerless since I was 22 making tupence a month from wheover would grace me with employment,
This feeling of powerlessness was especially strong because Sim and I were used to the American way. If you need something, if you want to do something, if you forget something, if you’re uncomfortable, if you want an easy solution, you can always just throw money at it. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but it’s nice to know it’s an available option once hard work and grit have been exhausted. Here, there was nothing to throw money at; we offered to pay months and months of rent up front, the agents were unmoved.
In a fit of crushing disappointment outside the Centre Pompidou, we got hopeless and greedy and called an agency that helps expats secure apartments in Paris. We didn’t need help finding a spot, we needed their connections with the renting agents to help us actually be considered. We needed them to be our bulldog and make shit happen. Our agent was that, but not in the manner I was accustomed to with American agents. She was speedy, efficient, communicative, all good things. But she would also frequently and elaborately communicate how hard it was to find an apartment for us, how weak our dossier was, how limited the market was right now. The whole situation was hard, and she made it look hard–none of the pleasant reassurances that everything would be fine that I want from a professional. She also wanted us to compromise on our wishlist more than I expected. Apparently the reach of our wishlist exceeded the grasp of our dossier. Not our actual finances, just our dossier.
Crappy system and offputting customer service styles aside, everything worked out once we got our agent. We had to compromise a lot, which I suppose builds character or something. We’re in a truly great neighborhood, it’s just not the one we wanted. We also wanted a two-bedroom so we could host guests, but had to settle on a roomy one-bedroom. Not a big deal. The place has all the charm of a 19th century building, but has been updated by the owner which I’m super grateful for. Giant kitchen with more storage than my house in LA–probably the biggest kitchen in all of Paris, to be honest. We had to get a furnished place (there’s less competition for these), which is fine because we don’t have much furniture coming from LA. But the couch it came with is huge and ugly, and I need to figure out a way to get rid of it before our beautiful and tastefully-sized couch arrives.
For those in a similar situation: this is an expensive route to take, and we did a cost-benefit analysis over several months to decide if it was a sane route. It turned out it would be just as expensive for us to keep trying to get a place on our own if the search lasted an additional two weeks, so essentially we were paying to guarantee an end to the search before our Airbnb bill got any bigger. And honestly, our agent was lovely, there’s just less value placed on kissing the client’s ass here, which is probably for the best.
Americans romanticize the idea of French food and French leisure, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m not guilty of doing the same. There is a thrill to sitting and savoring an aesthetically pleasing meal at an aesthetically pleasing cafe in an aesthetically pleasing outfit that somehow feels even more thrilling as it flies in the face of American efficiency and utility. Plus, the fact that the French aren’t even trying to be so chill makes it all the more cool. As an American and diagnosed anxious, I have no such chill.
The first few times I had lunch or dinner with my husband’s friends or family, the novelty of the slow pace, many courses, and bottomless stomachs were simultaneously adorable and enviable. Because my husband is legit French, he never told me about how it would be when I arrived at a friend’s house for lunch–this was all normal to him. This made it all the more fun to discover, hour by hour, just how much savoring these people are capable of. Let me walk you through it.
I arrived at my first French meal at about 1pm in a cute Venice neighborhood in LA. (Unrelated, and don’t ask me to explain why, but many French expats in LA live in Venice.) I define this as a French lunch not because of the cuisine, but because the hosts and most guests were French, therefore the style of the lunch was the same. To be honest, I don’t remember what we ate–that’s not the point anyway.
Upon arrival, nothing is in process, but no one is rushing to begin. Everyone is fully focused on converations and sipping on G&Ts. This continued for quite some time, until one person reminded the group of our reason for the assembly–eating–and that we should get started. Instead of the hosts now falling over themselves to set table, grill protein, make a salad all on their own while guests sat around guesting, everyone in attendance just began executing tasks. Because there are very singular ways to do things in France (more to come on this in a future post), no one has to ask “how do you want the dressing made?” or “should the bread be grilled?” or “do you want this on the table?” They all just know the proper way to make vinegarette and which utencils are used for which course.
Not being in the know, I kind of put around where possible, make mistakes like putting the cheese out too soon, fail to give everyone a butter knife, etc. I’ve learned to fake it better since then, and find I am good at clearing the table after the meal as this is a universal task. After about 25 minutes of frenzied effort from everyone in the house, boom, the meal is totally done being prepared and we all sit down. Very slowly. Once everyone has taken a seat, no one began to eat for a few minutes more, until all conversations wound down. They all sat and acted like there wasn’t food in front of their faces. Maybe they didn’t notice and that’s why they’re all skinny. I usually drink a full glass of water waiting for everyone to sit down because my stomach is gnawing at itself but I can’t start until someone says “bon app.”
The passing begins the same way it does in the US, everyone takes food and kind of waits for everyone to be done serving before they begin eating. Something I love is how much food the French take–they really go for it, the women too. They make enough food to really get down, they have seconds, they keep making you have seconds because wasting food is a sin and leftover culture is not really a thing. Also, you can’t signal too loudly that you’re off carbs or watching your waistline with the French–it’s gauche to show too much effort in any task. If you’re dieting or working out or staying late at work, it doesn’t mean you’re a martyr we’re all in awe of, it means you must NEED to put in that extra effort and wow what a schmuck you are. I love this rule. Eat the damn ravioli.
I remember distinctly that this meal was the first time that I ate too much of the main because I had no idea of how many courses would follow. They kept urging me to eat so I ate to capacity, assuming I’d be in my car driving back across town in twenty minutes. Nope. Next comes an approximately fifteen minute talking hiatus where the host kind of picks at their plate and finishes their story and I as an American have to stare at the bookshelf because I have no idea what anyone was saying. Then someone grabs the cheese: there will always be three cheeses, and don’t you dare slice them first because you will do it wrong and everyone will judge you. All guests eat a ton more bread and I have to find room in my stomach to sample this cheese which was naturally the best cheese I’ve ever had while in LA. I recall one Frenchman saying “this will be so good in two weeks” and I’m shocked at that dairy timeline.
If you think you’re done because it’s now 2:30 and you’re stuffed, you’re wrong. Next, everyone poured another drink, and all adults went out and had a cigarette. This was freaking amazing to me, it was just so damn novel. Certainly cigarettes must mean the meal has come to a close and we’re all moving on from food to smoke? No, just another break. Next comes the dessert, which in this case was Cuban pastries because that’s what my boyfriend and I brought. I thought we brought enough, but the five French in attendance demolished them so quickly, I felt a bit embarassed. There was less of a break after the dessert, but the next stage of course was coffee, usually made painstakingly with a French press, poured into thick ceramic cups, no cream or sugar offered because they all knew how one another drank it. Note to the reader: sometimes before coffee there will also be a fruit course, and during coffee there might be chocolate passed around. The main takeaway should be not to eat too much of the main course.
Once everything is eaten and all plates are put into the dishwasher, everyone has to sit and talk for another half an hour to be polite. I always begin complaining that I’m tired during the coffee to hopefully signal to my now husband that I’m going to explode if I don’t get some introvert time on my own soon, not that this ever speeds up our exit.
I’m sure you can tell from my snark that this style was novel at first, glorious even, but can be maddening if you just want a quick bite so you can get to bed after a long day or you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into. At my wedding, the Americans who did not read the FAQ were dumbfounded when we sat for four hours at the table as three huge courses crept past us by very slow staff. If you have all the time in the world and know what’s coming, it’s a refreshing way to have a meal that makes you rethink the speed with which we do everything in the US. If you’re jetlagged and want to go home, maybe feign illness and stop by McDo.