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.
We have exactly one month before we move. To calibrate the changes in myself that may or may not be coming based on this intentional French displacement, I’m jotting down some strongly held opinions I’ve developed of France from my current, extremely American perspective. The goal is to better track where I am now vs. where I’m heading, and where I end up in terms of Frenchness. It’s a calibration exercise.
The first thing I’ll tackle is something that Americans don’t seem to know is completely different in other western countries: the French wedding. My calibration can also serve as your initiation, as I haven’t seen much documentation on what these affairs are like, and they are really something.
When I attended my first French wedding in 2015, I myself had no idea it would be any different from an American wedding. My French husband was then my French boyfriend, and he hadn’t been to many weddings in either country, so he didn’t think to counsel me on what to expect. It was almost better this way, as with every passing hour I was able to be shocked by another surprising difference.
Let’s calibrate further by establishing what comprises an American wedding. Every wedding I’d ever gone to was 5pm to 10pm, sappy and uncomfortable ceremony, an all too brief cocktail hour where you have to practically tackle a waiter to get a sad and soggy canape, open bar, rushed dinner, father-daughter dance, 1.5 hours of dancing, get out or you’ll be charged extra. I make them sound rushed and awful, and they usually are, but they do have some strong suits. There is usually a degree of personalization in all of the details: the vows are personal, the decor is personal, the songs are personal. The briefness does allow you to get on with your life versus give up your entire weekend to someone else’s marriage. And at least in LA, you are allowed to wear black without anyone thinking it’s odd.
Imagine my surprise then when my first French wedding began at noon at the Mairie, the mayor’s office, where dozens of friends and family crammed into one tiny room for an hour-long civil ceremony. I had no idea what was going on. Sometimes this happens the day before the wedding so it can be split into two events–ideal if you always wanted to have a more casual city hall wedding look in addition to a traditional wedding dress. Next, we all walked to a spectacular chapel, probably over five hundred years old, for the full Catholic mass. I almost gell asleep from the jet lag, and the full Catholic mass in French. Were the bride and/or groom religious? It doesn’t matter, this is just what you do in France, you do a Catholic ceremony in an old church. I have a theory that no one ever thought to NOT do this, but that’s part and parcel of a much larger theory of Frenchness (maybe just a generalization) that I hope to work toward establishing in the coming months. By the way, in the wedding timeline, post-mass it will be around 5pm.
Then there is the party. We all drive to a Chateau for cocktail hour. This sounds very chic and photogenic to a 27-year-old going to a wedding in France because she’s dating a French guy, and it is. But I’ve also come to learn that Cheateax are like the wineries or country clubs of Europe–they’re where events are held because there a lof of them and they have the white chairs and tables. At the cocktail hour, no one is in a rush, which is the most startling difference from an American anything. Champagne is poured and passed, plenty of it, you don’t have to drink quickly to get your fill–there is enough and you will be cocktailing for at least two hours. As an American you feel like you’re waiting for the next thing to happen–speeches, dinner, a dance–but nothing does, and no one else seems to mind. You eat the Iberian ham because it’s there and such an unusual and exciting addition to the menu for an American, but quite common among apps for the French.
There will always be a flash mob somewhere in the cocktail hours. It will have been organized by the bride or groom’s best friends. It will be coreographed to a somewhat recent (within the last five years) pop song, but not one necessarily about love. I have born witness to a “Shake It Off” (Taylor Swift) flashmob and a “Hot N Cold” (Katy Perry) flashmob with extremely ornate choreography despite the fact that these songs are (hopefully) the antithesis of the mood of a couple who took vows three hours prior. Every last guest at the wedding will participate in the flash mob. They will have been practicing for at least two weeks. They might have practiced as a group the day before.
No earlier than 8pm you will slowly, very slowly, make your way to your seat for dinner. I sound like a person who talks in absolutes, because I am, but I don’t want to say you will with full certainty sit at circular tables. I will say I am 98% certain you will sit at circular tables and there will be a mason jar involved in some way. This is a decoration trend that hit the US with a vengeance in 2010, but relented somewhat by 2015. In France, it stuck in a way that made it very difficult for me to find non-jar vessels to hold flowers and candles for my 2018 nuptials and I’m still bitter about it. If I sounds judgy about the jars, it’s only to show you I am trying to be an unbiased observer, because as bad as the jars are is how good the food is.
If there’s anything to not like about the French wedding, the food makes up for it in every way. By 9pm you’ll begin an at least three course meal that will very likely contain great bread, cheese, a duck breast or steak, a good amount of fois gras, some type of amazingly prepared vegetable or salad, and a plated dessert instead of a dry and hastily cut piece of cake. It will be served over three hours, with plenty of time to talk with your table-mates as well as the bride and groom, who in this arrangement, actually have time to interface with their guests. Two types of wine remain on the table for you to pour yourself so you’re not at the mercy of an underpaid and bitter waiter to keep you glass filled.
Throughout the dinner there will be “animations,” or a mix of slide shows, dances, speeches, other stunts that can either strengthen the fun of the wedding or totally undermine it depending on how good the wedding party is at execution. American weddings have these, but because we are always in such a rush, they are played WHILE we eat. This is something I gravely missed at my own wedding where the dinner went past midnight because our french friends refused to play the video, sing the song, do the thing while people were eating, as it’s considered rude. They’re probably right, it is rude, but it just feels so odd when you’re used to finishing dinner in 45 minutes or less. It might just feel odd because you’re an American who does not speak French, and you have no idea what’s going on in the speeches or videos and you’re curious why there’s no open bar.
At around 11pm or midnight, dancing will begin, and this, surprisingly, is very much the same as in the US. I kept track at three weddings, and on average, there were no more than five songs played that I had never heard before. HOWEVER, there are songs that are considered to be universal “no-go’s” stateside (well at least in blue states), that for some reason are “fuck yeahs!” in France. The main culprit in this is Cotton-Eyed Joe. I heard it at a few French weddings and was shocked to see dozens of guests squeal with glee and run to the floor to begin line dancing when this ghastly “song” came on. In a moment of weakness, I did not put this song on my “no-go” list for the DJ at my wedding, as I thought that there was no way he’d ever play it once he saw that our playlist was comprised of actual good music. I thought it couldn’t happen to me. Then as I was talking to friends at 1am on the day of my own wedding, I heard it blast from the speakers and began to march over to the DJ booth to ask him A. who the hell he thought he was and B. to change the song, until I saw 50% of our guests lining up with total enthusiasm to dance to that atrocity. So instead I just apologized to all of the Americans. I think the point I’m making is that the music is the same but, like mason jars, some trends didn’t fade away in due time.
At about 2am, a table is brought out with hard alocohol, snacks, the leftover cheese, maybe sandwiches. You’d think things would be winding down, but instead it’s time to replenish yourself so you can make it to 5am. That’s right, this shit goes from the early afternoon until the next morning, every wedding, and it’s awesome. Somehow the next three hours pass in only a few minutes, because you’re just dancing and drinking and snacking and wondering why American weddings aren’t like this. With the exception of Cotton-Eyed Joe and the mason jars.
If you think it’s over at the end of the night, you’re wrong, because there is a brunch on site the next day. I still do not fully understand this tradition; sometimes the guests return to help clean up, sometimes it’s just a brunch, I’m not really sure how they know to come or not. We had no brunch but folks still showed up to help clean and my in-laws provided breakfast. I slept through this, not knowing the tradition, which turned out to be extremely poor form. Maybe this is a tradition I’ll understand better as I become more initiated.