How Being An Expat Made Me Uniquely Adapted to Our Current Mandated Confinement

Every morning for two weeks now, I wake up and have to pause to recall where I am, why, and if this is–as a wise child after the dentist once inquired–real life . I’m not in my own bed, I’m at my in-law’s house in the French countryside. I’m here because we got out of the city before Macron made confinement mandatory–we wanted to spend our quarantine with a big yard, not in our tiny Paris apartment. I don’t know how long I’m here for. But I’m not annoyed at this, because it could be worse. So I go get some coffee.

It’s a very disorienting situation, especially so because our collective reality shifted so fast, major changes upheaving everything day by day. On Wednesday, March 11, I was planning to fly to LA that weekend. On Thursday, March 12, I woke up to find Trump had banned travel from Europe, but I could still get into the US as I’m American. By Friday, March 13, I’d resigned myself to staying in France because it seemed too dangerous to travel through two international airports, and California would be under quarantine soon anyway. Saturday we shopped for more provisions. Sunday we heard a rumor that confinement would soon be mandatory. Monday we drove seven hours to Bazus, a tiny villiage in the Southwest of France where we can go on long walks and not see another (potentially infected) soul.

My home state of California followed a similar pattern, just four or five days after, so my family and peers there are feeling a similar type of disorientation, made worse by sudden and total isolation.

Traffic outside Paris
It was a little chaotic getting out of Paris ahead of Macron’s announcement on Monday, March 16.

While I’m worried and stressed–especially with Trump seemingly mis-leading the US over a cliff into ruin–I must say that I think I might be less disoriented and lonely than many people I talk to. My friends are experiencing anxiety just by virtue of being stuck at home and not having many human interactions. This type of anxiety has been the last six months of my life having picked up and moved to France without an apartment or job waiting (well, my husband had a job, I planned to and do consult on marketing). Us lonely and floating expats are vulnerable to stress that comes from a worldwide epidemic, but less so to the uncomfortable cure of social isolation. Expats are already dealing with multiple layers of isolation, cocentric, nested bell jars that have helped us to perfect our loneliness, a skill that wasn’t important until about two weeks ago.

When we decided to move, I knew the hardest thing to face would be the isolation. I was ready to get rid of the rest of my life: sick of my corporate jobs, my desk, my commute, having money but too much depression to enjoy it, getting chubby in my middle from all the sitting, waiting five days every week to live for two. But the friends and time I spent with them were what I knew I would miss most, and would be the most difficult to recreate. And I was right.

The expat life is a double-walled isolation as you are in a city where you know no one, and potentially don’t know the language either. I know a little French, but not enough to connect fully with people I encounter everyday. I made one good friend while here, and we’ve bonded mostly around the fact that we are English speakers, and that the French are not very generous with non-French speakers.

house in the countryside of Toulouse
Our quarantine headquarters. Much larger than our tiny Paris apartment

I added one more wall of isolation because I’m an overachiever: I freelance and I work from home. I initially had a really nice coworking space, but the French transportation strike made it impossible to get to, and I also got tired of spending the money on a nice chair and view. So my days are already spent working from home, and then if I go out, I don’t know anyone and I couldn’t talk to them if I did.

Then there’s the time difference. We had a big goodbye party when we left LA and at one point I counted that at least 70 people passed through our house that night. I assume at least a few of those people like me. But they are nine hours behind Central European Time. When I think to call them after lunch, it’s still the middle of the night for them. When it’s evening for me, they’re still at work. I could try harder to call them, but I’m worried I’m bothering them. So the people I do know and love actually exist, but are in a reality that is nine hours behind mine, making me even more removed from them.

Every once in a while, this level of isolation really gets me down and I have a little cry and wonder why we did this. But then I remember how much I hated my last job and how good baguettes and free healthcare are and I chill out again. And that’s been my life for six months.

But now. But now! Things are exactly the same except I’m in a big house in the countryside with five other people, instead of a 450 sq ft apartment alone for most of the day. And everyone I know is also stuck working from home, too. And they’re all climbing the walls like caged animals and I’m like “this is my life, welcome.” Except for the whole pandemic thing. That’s a whole other matter…

I don’t really have any tips for getting over the isolation blues, even after taking a 6-month masterclass on solitude before this pandemic. I took an actual class on happiness as part of my MBA, and the main takeaway was that human contact just plain makes us happy, there’s no way around it. So except for video calls, we’re all kind of screwed. But only temporarily screwed! This isolation won’t last forever… unless you were already an introvert, or an expat who doesn’t know the language and works from home.

What’s The Deal With French Breakfast AKA Petit Dej AKA Petit Déjeuner

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.

Literally my breakfast today. Not pictured: croissants.

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.

McDo even has a breakfast formule in keeping with French tradition, to which one might add a McMuffin.

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.

Waiting Four Months For My Boxes To Arrive to Paris From Los Angeles: I Lived 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.

The plastic plates that we brought to our partially furnished apartment got us through several months.

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
  •  Patience, lol

For Us Americans: What Is This Paris Transportation Strike, AKA La Greve

I used to keep diaries growing up and would fail to write in them for extended periods of time, then I’d come back and say, as if my diary was sentient, “sorry it’s been like two years, I was super busy with school. I still don’t have a boyfriend.” That kind of just happened with my posts here. Sorry it’s been 20-ish days, I got really busy with work, had an extreme allergy to my apartment, took a trip back to LA, then landed on December 5, the first day of the strikes in Paris.

Right now, I have a limited, outsider’s awareness of what the current strike is about, but plenty of knowledge of its effects. I’m going to write a biased, only slightly researched account of the whole thing to deliver an American in Paris’s perspective, and if I’m wrong on the facts, oh well because perception is reality.

The Backstory

It’s hard to fully understand the gravity of the strike and transportation shut down because the French are pretty blasé about them, some of them even accepting it as part of life like the weather. Leading up to December 5th, anytime someone talked about the strike at dinners or parties, they’d shrug and essentially say “yeah that’s really gonna suck” while I pried for more details of how bad it would suck, and why it was even happening. The only explanations I was able to get offhand were that the Metro workers were all striking, something to do with pension reform, which needs to happen, but they deserve to strike, it’s their way to show their opinion–all spoken as if they were reading tomorrow’s forecast. My French teacher said he supported them because the French have to be united in these moments, otherwise we’ll just be like America, and I guess he has a point. I didn’t google for more answers until I was at my wit’s end, because I’m selfish.

When I finally did hit up the google, I learned basically that the French pension system is bizarrely complex, too complex for a non-French to wrap their head around, and Macron’s reelection is hinging on whether or not he reforms the system and ends this strike. Macron and team are trying to consolidate 40-something pension codes into one, which would standardize all systems at the expense of many special allowances some unions, like metro and rail workers, enjoyed, like early retirement. That’s really all any of us need to know if we can’t vote and aren’t RATP employees.

What’s the Real Situation With Airports?

The first day of La Greve, I was flying back from LA. My flight was cancelled, then replaced by another flight at the exact same time for some reason. The van I hired to take me to Paris (because the RER and Metro weren’t running) decided not to wait for me, so I yelled at them and took an expensive taxi; not the end of the world. I thought I was going to have to drag my suitcase down the highway to get back. The first few days weren’t bad because lots of folks worked from home. The real shit hit the fan on Monday, December 9. Since then, I’ve heard folks taking three hours to get to the airport due to so many cars being on the road. So yes, getting to your flight is possible, just hard and expensive.

Saint Placide Metro Stop
Crowds at the Saint Placide Metro Stop

90% of Metros Out of Service

The reason Paris can get away with being so small is because it’s dense AF, and if any type of matter that needs to move here isn’t able to in due course, it creates epic bottlenecks. This is true of humans, waste, trains, cars, dust, bikes, mail–there’s literally no room for anything to fall behind pace. So with 90% of metros and busses closed, nothing works.

As a result, I saw some things. I saw intersections with cars woven together like giant latticework. Empty rack after empty rack of Velib bikes save for one with the wheel dangling from its maimed frame. Seasoned bikers (they’re the ones with helmets, not riding Velib) crash into inattentive pedestrians or impatient vans. People screaming at each other as they try to squish themselves onto an already full metro car on the 4 which is still running every few days. A girl riding a Lime between two busses who might have just gotten herself a nomination for the Darwin Awards.

I started classes at L’Alliance Francaise at the start of the strike, which is clear across town from my apartment. I thought I’d take a nice relaxing bus ride since the 4 line was closed, and gave myself two hours to get down to the 6th just in case. The bus was crammed full at 11:30 am, and Ieven saw a woman onboard crying because she was so squished, meanwhile the driver was a human shrug. I biked part of the way, walked part of the way, and it was fine as long as this thing ends soon.

35 Days In

Once we passed the one month mark, this became the longest transportation strike in French history. Right now we’re at day 35 and the constant inconvenience has become a manageable, throbbing pain as compared to the excrutiating spiles of the first few weeks. I’ve just accepted it begrudgingly until I see something really stupid like an ambulance that can’t even get to where it needs to be all so that a very small percentage of the population can maintain a special exception in their pension plans. At moments like that I get salty, but otherwise, I just keep accepting the inconvenience one day at a time, slowly becoming like everyone else around here.

And So…

I think the reason my friends here are so blase about the whole thing is because maybe strikes here aren’t like a fact of life, they actually just are a fact. If you want to attempt a system that represents everyon’s best interest, these things have to happen. Also, like many things in Paris, all your normal activities are still possible, just hard.

A Guide To Holding A Baguette While You Walk Around Paris

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.

This particular baguette had some seeds and such on it. I’m not sure how I happened to order this one since my French is bad/nonexistent, but it was delicious anyway.

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.

The crispy exterior of the baguette tradition.

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.

Paris Is Having a White Sneaker MOMENT

Within about 20 minutes of arriving in Paris, I became hyper aware not only of the French girl uniform (story tk tk tk), but of her uniform shoe: the white sneaker. I’m not using literally figuratively when I say literally everyone, their baby, and their mom is wearing white tennis shoes of some sort. Dudes too, this trend is for everyone.

Stan Smith Adidas were a huge deal in LA about five years ago–like if you didn’t have a pair then who the heck even were you. I wanted to be cool so I skipped Stan Smith’s for a pair of Marks & Spencer’s that were “designed” by Alexa Chung, but it was the same aesthetic: low top, white puffy leather, white laces, chill round toe that looked simultaneously preppy and casual. I didn’t hang out enough in Paris over the last few years to know if they’re still riding that same initial shoe wave, or if the wave broke later here and I arrived at the beach right in the middle of it. Ocean metaphor.

I stalked some people while at a cafe in the 1st.

The models you see the most are the Stan Smiths, vintage-inspired Reeboks, and a new round of Adidas that are designed to look like vintage-inspired Reeboks. This combination is especially true of the millennials and anyone a little older, maybe a hip GenX-er. They wear them with jeans, with trousers, with dresses, with skirts. Somehow it always looks good, no wonder it’s such a thing. For GenZ and Millennials trying to hold on to their youth, it’s a mix of these shoes, but also more of a Spice Girls, Fila, even Skechers type of sneaker: all big and clunky, giving off Sailor Moon vibes. Still all-white.

It’s one thing to see a fair amount of kids doing something and feeling like you have a trend coming on. The sheer proliferation of this white shoe thing is a goddamn epidemic here, and I’m curious to know why.

One theory I have is comfort. People in Paris walk a lot. It’s the thing they do most after or during carrying baguettes. You have to walk everywhere, or walk to the Metro to then take that everywhere, so there isn’t much high heel-wearing, sadly. Boots are great, but it’s not winter yet and they’re still not as comfortable as tennis shoes, so why not just make tennis shoes on-trend for everyone’s sake?

My other theory is that it’s part and parcel of an overall homogeneity we keep noticing in Paris. It is a very diverse and eclectic city, but it seems like trends in food, wardrobe, hair, decor are somewhat narrow. They’re not bad trends, there just isn’t much deviation from them. OR, to be totally fair and bare witness to my geographic bias: maybe there is just less deviation than there is in LA. It’s too soon to tell, and I may be talking out of my ass, but I keep getting the sense that people in Paris aren’t trying to be trend-setting supernovas of individuality quite as much as they tend to be in LA. I always thought this was a stereotype of how the world viewed Los Angeles, but maybe it’s true, and I’m just not used to a city with quite so much chill. So everyone wears white shoes.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad I brought my white Feiyue high tops that are actually martial arts shoes, and my white Onitsuka Tigers, but I’m sad that my Reeboks and Adidas are in a container somewhere in the Atlantic, to be delivered in the near future. Hopefully the trend hasn’t waned by then.

French Grocery Musings: Boxed Sandwiches

Back in the day, I used to write very elaborate reviews of the absolute worst frozen food I could find at the Albertsons on Hilhurst in Los Feliz. I was bored, I wanted the diversion and attention on Tumblr. I also made them a little allegorical and hid messages to my enemies in them. Again, bored.

The minute I walked into a French grocery store, I knew I was going to be resurrecting this weird hobby. Except not about frozen food necessarily, but about food we don’t have in the US, food that I probably woudn’t buy in seriousnes and in health for my husband and I, but that I wanted to try for the heck of it. Maybe I’ll review restaurants as well, but honestly, there’s enough food snobs out there, never enough food slobs.

So with that context in mind so that you don’t think I’m totally insane, here’s my very serious review of a boxed sandwich.

You can tell from his paintings and writing that William Blake was no slave to OCD. He could rhyme “eye” with “symmetry” and then walk away and not lose sleep over it. Even though the previous couplet rhymes PERFECTLY, he was okay to just let that one dangle like that. I haven’t forgiven him.

What first gave away his anti-OCD for me was that he described the Tyger (henceforth referred to as “tiger” because it’s 2019) as having “fearful symmetry.” As in:

What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Great line, still fucking love that line because of English major stuff. OoooOO who would dare to gaze upon or depict the terrifying symmetry of a tiger–oh wait, I know, William Blake would because he just did. Then he did it again when he painted the tiger. But, I contest that there is nothing fearful about symmetry. Symmetry is order, and order relaxes me because I am the control freak that William Blake apparently is not.

It’s this (not fearful) symmetry that has always drawn me to perfect little pre-made, boxed sandwiches. A rectangle is cut with machine precision into two identical triangles, then put side by side into a triangular box, the exact same shape but a tiny bit bigger, then sealed. I’ll tell you who else dared to frame up some symmetry, Monoprix did when they boxed up a ham and emmental sandwich, so calm down William Blake. Framed, glorious symmetry.

Not so fearful symmetry.

I know what you’re thinking, they sell boxed sandwiches in the US at 7-11 and various shady vending machines. But those aren’t the same. Those sandwiches may in fact be fearful, quite possibly also inedible. But the ones sold here at that heaven of heavens that is Monoprix are actually good. The bread (wheat mind you!) was soft and fresh, without that post-refrigerator crispiness we all hate. The ham was ham, and ham in France is by default better than ham in the US, don’t even start with me, it’s true. Plus, it was made with a slice of emmental, not questionable American cheddar. It had a little mayo on there too to add some saltiness, but not enough to remind you that you’re eating mayo. It kind of tasted exactly like if I had made the sandwich myself, but I didn’t have to dirty a knife or create crumbs, which also suits my dislike of disorder.

Maybe it’s the Monoprix setting or the slightly nicer packaging, but I also didn’t feel like a drug dealer eating this sandwich, and I kind of always thought I’d feel like a drug dealer if I ate a boxed sandwich from 7-11 in the US. I don’t know how to put that in terms of flavor, but it’s helpful information to know if you’re considering taking the boxed sandwich ride for yourself.

What I enjoyed most about it, because I am not William Blake, was the chance to get to eat two identical, neatly arranged triangles, framed in another triangle, what order, what art.

How to Find an Apartment in Paris (And Also Discover That You Love Capitalism)

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.

Long line of young professionals trying to view an apartment on their lunch breaks, somewhere in the 19th.

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.

A cute but poorly maintained apartment we saw. The stairs and hallway looked like they needed to be exorcised. Good storage though.

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,

At least thirty interested parties lined up through hallways, down the stairs, out the door, and down the street for one apartment. We waited an hour and barely peaked in.

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.

Our very nice apartment in the 18th. It’s honestly great and I’m just being a baby about the whole thing.

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.

Pre-Move Bias: French Meals

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.

A dinner I made when we were in Annecy.

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.

Our typical Monday night dinner.

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.

There’s a VIP Option When You Apply For Your French Visa

You have to know a thing or two about the French to make it through the visa process without losing your shit. That could be an alternative title to this entry. I’m now somewhat initiated to the ways of the French bureaucracy after the paperwork scavenger hunt that was required to get married in Bazus last year. Hoping these callouses will last long enough so I can hold it together once we move.

I will say, the online experience was actually extremely quick, clean, friendly, and clear–none of these adjectives typically describe a French experience be it a security line or a dinner. After some googling of things like “how do I even get a French visa,” the French visa website will direct you to a third party handler who facilitates the visa appointments for the Embassy, VFS Global. This was a cinch, perhaps because VFS has cornered this niche market and is doing this for several countries. Make an appointment, VFS tells you what to bring, boom. Privatization isn’t always bad.

I knew better than to believe that the simplicity of these initial steps would be a predictor of the ease of the rest of the process. I knew better but I believed it anyway. But of course once I physically got to the VFS Global office things started to get… FRENCH AF.

I arrive at a weird, boring, midcentury building on Wilshire near the Flynt building that I’ve probably driven by at least 200 times. It’s not the French Consulat which my husband visits for his visa, it’s the home of this third party handler. FYI, they only have valet so park around the corner if you don’t want to get shived for $12. The tiny VFS Global offices are on the fifth floor, where I was searched by security, then sat in a room that’s set up like a tiny but much less depressing DMV office: windows at the front, rows of seats, myriad signs with directions, French tourism posters.

For some reason there is a VIP waiting area that is behind a glass partition, almost half the size of the whole waiting area, without anyone sitting in it. The room is decorated like a tacky Americna living room with a couch, coffee table, and television. As I stared at it, grasping to comprehend its existence, I was thankful that I didn’t have to sit in there and signal to the rest of the room that I self-identified as a VIP.

Anyway, my turn came and I gave the dude that spoke English all of my documents, which I knew would be sufficient because I followed the instructions from the French Consulat and VFS Global. However, I was informed that the copy of our French marriage certificate that I’d brought was too old–it was less than a year old, but it needed to be less than three months old. Of course, none of the instructions specified how fresh these docs had to be, one would assume they just had to be real. Nope, I have learned that the French have a thing for super fresh docs: when we got married last year I had to procure a NEW birth certificate for myself as the one I had from 2006 somehow might not reflect new information about the date and location of my birth. Whatever, I told him I’d send a fresh certificate.

Nearby I overheard a woman asking how she was supposed to complete the online visa application with the address of where she’d be staying in Paris if she needed a visa to secure a place to stay in Paris. This is classic French bureaucracy, and the only way around it is to fudge a little, put your Airbnb address even if you’re only staying there for a few days, and cross your fingers. This is essentially what the Visa dude told her. The bureaucracy famously moves at a snails pace, and is greased by these small fudges, otherwise nothing would get done. To this day I feel like someone is going to realize we didn’t provide the right paperwork to get married, but most likely no one even cared.

For anyone reading because they actually want to learn about the visa process, the next step is you go into a tiny white room, give them your finger prints and take a photo. I made the mistake of wearing a bun that day, so now on my visa I look like a 12 year old boy. When I left the little white room, someone was sitting in the VIP area.

As expected, I got an email from the French Embassy stating additional documents were required. I needed to send a copy of my Livret de Famille (family book), and a copy of our marriage license that was less than TWO months old–VFS Global had told me THREE months. See, this is why people talk mess on French bureaucracy. Also I had provided the copy of my Livret de Famille at the appointment, but because of the certificate situation of 2018, I just kept my mouth shut and sent another copy. Grease the system with fudge. My husband’s family had to mail a fresh copy of our marriage license to prove we hadn’t gotten a divorce within eleven months of marriage. My passport was returned to me with visa about two weeks later.

See, I told you it wasn’t that bad, especially not if the system has beat you up in the past. But as an American, getting conflicting info from the powers that be is maddening–what is reality if the system isn’t in agreement. But now, I know you just kind of split the difference, smile at the visa dude, don’t argue about the conflicting info, and it all turns out okay.