Thursday, 3 July 2014

L'Herbe Sera Plus Verte Qu....

At the end of last week, in reading the news, my attention was drawn to an internet site called "Quora."  The site is a sort of "Ask Jeeves," quasi-wiki web page where people are allowed to post questions to various topics, which are then answered by other users.  The quality of the answers - indeed, the quality of the questions themselves - is highly variable.

The "nice" thing about the site is that it is, ostensibly at least, not anonymous.  People are asked to register using a real name and real e-mail address.  The checking is not exactly on the same level as people interviewing to bein the CIA, buy one presumes at least some of the participants are honest, and the result is that the discussions tend to be more civil than the typical internet food-fight.

I came across a question this morning that was interesting, and for our family, timely.

"What are good reasons that an American should not move to Europe?" (emphasis mine)

In a few weeks, it will be exactly a year since we moved to Paris.  For the most part, the move has been a positive one, though of course not exclusively.  Thus, it's one that I feel is more or less right up my street.

Now, I am not sure if the questioner is sincere, or if the question is a rhetorical one serving as a sort of stalking horse to provoke "what's the matter with Kansas" sorts of anti-American comments.  Judging from some of the comments that followed about McDonald's, McMansions, and McHealthcare, the invitation was taken by some even if that was not the intent.

As a person living in Paris, I am not going to make judgment or value comments such as "Americans love money," or "Europeans have real culture" or "The US is worse than a middle-eastern caliphate because of crazy, racist Christians who are more or less the Taleban," which in the end are not really measurable and are freighted with bias, if we are being honest.

To avoid coming off as a whinge, I would say that my family and I love living in France, and are happy to have made the choice to come here.  The experiences are indeed different from what we had in the US (I lived most of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, and spent the past five years living just outside New York City).  The pace of life is different; the type of housing is different.  Attitudes of the people are different.  Some of the differences are positive for us (I really like not having to drive, as we do not own a car, and take advantage of things like "Auto'lib" - something I guess similar to ZipCar in the US).  Some of the changes are negative (having your child get sick on a Saturday night and not being able to easily get access to acetaminophen because Monoprix is not Safeway, and thus not open after 8, and OTC meds are only available in pharmacies anyway).

To try to answer the question presuming that the questioner was seriously considering a move and not just looking to generate "the US is full of fat, religious troglodydes" 'answers', I would offer the following opinion:

  1. People who do not have a reasonable command of the local language are going to have a very, very difficult time living.  Being a tourist in a city for a month is a long-shot difference from living there.  When our hot water tank failed, for example, getting a plumber to come and fix it would have been, at the least, difficult in English.  Remember: shopkeepers along the Champs-Elysees can speak sufficient English.  The guy who comes to repair a leak will not.

  2. As others stated, one must be prepared to face difficulties "connecting" with the local people.  One key difference between Americans and French - in my experience - is that casual friendships are not common in France. People do not make small talk on the trains, in the lobby, or on the street.

    Living in Paris means, almost surely, that you will live in a flat with many neighbours, and they will already have a full set of existing friends and very likely, family.  You will not be invited to parties or to dinner until you become real friends with them, which takes a lot of time.  One odd thing - if someone has a party in your building, you likely will get a note - it's not an invitation, but merely a pre-emptory warning that there may be noise.

    This is not to say the French are unfriendly - they just have different standards and rules around how you become friends.  Americans may - likely they will - find this shocking.

  3. The rules of etiquette are very different, and you surely will run into at least one uncomfortable situation.  There are certain behaviours in the country you move that the locals will just 'understand' intrinsically.  At some point, you will violate one of these and get 'corrected.'

  4. Rules - some of which that will make zero sense to you - will be enforced as if they were articles of faith handed to Moses on stone tablets by God and not just rules in a book promulgated by a bureaucrat selon le loi de 19 Décembre 1968.  In the US, someone at the post office or in a local park may be willing to 'look the other way' if you are 30 seconds late or an application is not perfect.  In France, civil servants observe the letter of the law, irrespective of the spirit.

    An intro to anyone moving to France will include procuring a Titre de Sejour (essentially, permission to live in France), for which you will need to submit forms and photos.  Do not make a typo on the form, make certain to use black and not blue ink, and whatever you do, make sure the photograph is *exactly* what the regulations call for.  My wife's application at first was rejected - a delay of weeks and weeks - because she was smiling in the picture.  The Préfecture de Police in Paris rejected the initial two applications because they decided the photos were not precisely to the law.

    To put this reality into an analogue most Americans can understand, imagine how the experience when travelling at an airport.  One must submit to the exercise of shoe removal, belt removal, being asked if you packed your own luggage, and (my personal favourite - an incident that actually happened to me) having to put two tiny plastic bottles of shampoo (carried on) into ziploc bags because the rules said that they liquids needed to be in ziplic containers according to the TSA, as if plastic bags somehow act as a shield should the liquids ignite.

  5. Culture shock.  There are, as others aptly said, many things to be said for life in Europe compared to the US.  One need not venture onto the rhetorical thin ice of the pros and cons of food or art or lifestyle.  But it's simply true that things are different here, and if you are not ready to deal frankly with the fact that you will HAVE to adapt, and not the other way around, then that is the best argument IMHO not to come.
Quora is, thus far, an interesting forum with manifold topics.  I recommend it.

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