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