Sion Dayson, an American in Paris. I’m a writer originally from New York and North Carolina.
Unlike a lot of expats here, I had never dreamed of living in Paris. I spoke Spanish, longed for warm weather, and didn’t display any Francophile tendencies.
So wouldn’t you know it? I fell in love with the City of Light one cold, rainy November. I was in Europe for a work conference and had a layover in Paris. Three days of exploring and the city worked its magic. I couldn’t shake the place.
I planned a month-long holiday for the following April. Yes, like that famous song “April in Paris” – wasn’t I just setting myself up for love? And it happened: a gorgeous Frenchman, the coup de foudre (‘lightning bolt,’ as the French say). I never believed that sort of thing possible before.Only one thing: neither of us spoke the other’s language. No more than the basics. It didn’t stop us, though. We spent the rest of my holiday together.
As I was leaving I wanted to tell him I loved him, but it seemed crazy. How could I when we’d only just met? Could barely speak to each other? I cried when we said goodbye at the airport. Five minutes later my cell phone beeped; I was still standing in the security line. Je t’aime, read his message. I love you.
Well that was it. Upon my return to New York I realized it was one of those moments in life when I just had to leap. After giving notice to my job, a few months of intensive French classes, and trying to come to terms with leaving the city I adored, I got back on a plane (in September 2006) and have been here ever since.
What challenges did you face during the move?
Looking at the move on paper, it shouldn’t have worked: I barely spoke the language, I didn’t have a job, and I moved in with someone whom I had spent less than three weeks with.
Though funnily enough, really feeling the deeper challenges came later. In the beginning everything was so new and exciting (plus I was in love!) that even the mishaps were simply an adventure. It was only when it dawned on me that everything in my life had changed that I began to feel the full weight.
The language was (and continues to be) one of the biggest hurdles – it’s exhausting suddenly living in another language. Adjusting to a different culture is also challenging, especially as the French aren’t very forgiving of foreigners. While New York welcomes big and bold personalities, Paris is more discreet and I felt my personality didn’t fit in with my new surroundings. My loud laugh was met with stares, my accent ridiculed.
The bureaucracy also lives up to its stereotype – frustrating.
Can you tell us something about your property?
At first I moved into my Frenchman’s tiny studio apartment – too small for two people, but a good test of our relationship (if you can live in one room with someone for over a year and a half, you’re probably compatible!)
Once I got a full-time job (as a content writer for Expedia) we had enough money for a bigger place. But finding one – wow, there’s another frustrating process!
Because it’s so difficult for landlords to evict tenants once you’re in, they require a ton of paperwork up front. Apartment visits saw us standing in lines a hundred deep, everyone clutching their dossiers (files).
A friend suggested that we put up our own ad on PAP.fr (Particulier à Particulier – it’s a site where landlords advertise their properties directly with no agency fees) rather than competing with everyone at those group visits. It worked. A landlord who liked our profile contacted us and we liked the apartment: a one bedroom, plus a parking space and a basement storage unit. After a 22m2 apartment, it felt like the lap of luxury.
Now that I’m working at home, I would love another room as my office. But it was so hard to find this place that I don’t think we’re ready to go back out there yet.
What is the property market like at the moment?
I honestly don’t know. It seems as tough as ever. No matter what’s happening with the economy three things always seem to stay the same in Paris: prices are expensive, the apartments are small, and the competition stiff. I’ve never known anyone who easily found what they wanted or needed. Luck counts for a lot.
Are you employed or self-employed? What challenges did you face in either finding employment or running your own business?
I’m currently making the transition from a full-time salaried writing position to freelancing. I’m pitching articles and features as well as offering copywriting services to help businesses and individuals with any of their writing needs – whether that be brochure copy, text for their website, or company newsletters. Going from a stable position to self-employment is scary, but definitely thrilling. (I usually think if something scares me, it’s probably worth trying. Push through the fear!)
Both finding employment and being self-employed are challenging in France. Not speaking the language obviously put up a huge roadblock at first.
You have to look for creative solutions. It can feel like options are limited (and in certain respects they are), but this also means there is room for innovation – and for creating your own opportunities.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Yes, many, and I am grateful for that. When I first moved here, I didn’t want to socialize only with expats – I wanted French friends, too. Easier said than done. French society is more formal and it takes longer to build relationships.
Once I took the pressure off myself of having to only ‘hang with the locals’, things opened up. The expat community is great for support and resources and it’s always nice to bounce ideas off of people who are in the same situation. My blog, paris (im)perfect is also putting me in touch with a lot of expats. I married a Frenchman (and have French in-laws!) so that’s certainly local enough for me.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
The more you establish local routines the better. Go to the same bakery every day, buy from the same stalls at the market, make your corner café your mainstay. It’s by showing that you’re also local that you gain acceptance.
I don’t want to harp on about the Parisian attitude toward foreigners, but in my experience it has felt rather closed off. Perhaps it was coming straight from New York where diversity is just a given (people of all stripes and colors, all languages and nations) that made the change so difficult, but Paris feels more provincial than I ever would have expected.
I have experienced the height of both rudeness and hospitality here. Interesting contradictions. Being an outsider accounts for many of my experiences, but it’s probably like anywhere: up and down. There are hard days and others where you fall in love with the place all over again.
What do you like about life where you are?
I love that I don’t have to worry about health care, that I live in a society that takes care of its citizens. We’re ideally located, too. Paris is a great launching pad for traveling and I love exploring Europe.
The beauty of the city still gets to me, but its hidden side intrigues me most. The offbeat places where most tourists don’t go.
And how lucky am I that such simple pleasures are part of my daily life? Fresh bread, hot chocolate, fruit and vegetable markets. They’d be hard to give up.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
The ocean is vast. I miss my friends and family back home and the energy I derived from New York. I appreciate the enjoyment of life here (eating, drinking, socializing), but it sometimes seems to be at the expense of ambition. The entrepreneurial spirit lags way behind; I miss being surrounded by people with purpose and projects. I’m getting more in touch with the creative community here and I definitely find those qualities in them. But overall I don’t feel the same drive and passion as I felt back home. For all their ‘revolutionary’ gusto, the French actually play it quite safe.
The slew of gray, rainy days and the grim faces on the metro – that can also get to me. Even though joie de vivre is a French term, you wouldn’t always know it!
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Pack your sense of humor and patience. Stay true to who you are. Don’t be afraid to seek the help and advice of others. Remember Paris is not a romantic fantasyland, but a real place. Learn French – it’s difficult, but keep plugging away (and don’t take anything too personally if you get remarks). Be prepared for disappointments, as well as joy.
What are your plans for the future?
I look forward to furthering my writing career and making a viable go of it freelancing. I also want to spend time on my creative work – maybe not a “great American novel” or anything, but I’m certainly aiming for a book someday. Traveling is also important to me and I hope to take more trips. This may all sound a bit idealistic, but I moved here on a dream and it’s worked out so far.