Who are you?
Hello! My name is Yvonne Shao, and I am an American piano teacher-turned-writer. A couple of years ago we decided to travel around the world and then move to Paris.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
Because my husband can work remotely, we had thought of moving internationally for a few years.My husband had always thought of moving back to his hometown, Hong Kong, but I was not so enthusiastic about that. We had both visited and loved Paris, so we decided to move here instead!
When two of our three children went away to college, we decided it was time to make the move. We came here in time for our youngest son to start high school in Paris.
What challenges did you face during the move?
French bureaucracy is quite a challenge! The visa process was laborious, but if you can deal with paperwork like the IRS and American health insurance, you can handle the French consulat. It seems like everything takes longer than in the US, from getting an apartment to getting a library card.
The language barrier was also difficult. I studied French in high school and college, but didn’t speak it again until a couple of years ago when we hatched this plan to move to Paris. I took French classes at the Alliance Française back in California, and that helped a lot. My French isn’t good enough to do all my business dealings in French, but it is good enough to get things started. Because I am the primary French speaker in the family, I was responsible for getting our apartment set up and figuring out how to get around town. If I had studied French more before we got here, that would have helped.
Some Americans say the French are rude, but they have been helpful and kind to me. Just try to speak French, and they’ll meet you halfway!
How did you find somewhere to live?
My husband’s favorite TV show is House Hunters, so we googled the realtor based in Paris, Adrian Leeds. She and her assistant found us a lovely apartment.
Are there many other expats in your area?
There are many expats in Paris, but our neighborhood is quite French. The shopkeepers and our neighbors only speak French, so we are improving daily!
We attend the American Church in Paris, where there are people from about 40 different countries. They have concerts, refugee outreach programs, classes, and many other activities we’ve participated in. The primary language is English, but many other languages are spoken. We’ve made some good friends there.
Our son attends an American school, so we’ve met some expats there as well.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
Very good! There is a shopping street near our apartment called Rue de Levis, where there are butchers, cheesemongers, chocolatiers, shoe repair shops, hair dressers, fruit and vegetable sellers, you name it! Shopping for groceries is one of the highlights of my day.
I take pilates classes, and that’s been fun. At first, I could only understand half the commands–Bluh bluh bluh your legs, or Point your bluh bluh to the ceiling. Now I can understand almost everything!
We also have a French teacher who comes to our apartment. She gives my husband French lessons and helps me decipher our mail and bills when I get stuck. Sometimes we go on outings together and she takes us around Paris or helps me buy things for the apartment. I highly recommend hiring a personal French teacher.
What do you like about life where you are?
Paris is a beautiful city, so it’s a joy to go for a walk or run errands. I still have to do mundane things, but they seem easier because I have such a nice place to do them.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Like I said, French bureaucracy is astounding! We got our apartment in May, but our household goods didn’t arrive until August, and as of November our piano still hasn’t come. They say it needs a crane, and have sent two different moving companies to measure our window to be sure it will fit. I plan to start calling the moving company on a daily basis if it doesn’t show up soon!
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
Once we learned the importance of French greetings, all our interactions with the French got easier. In the US, you just smile at people or shake hands and then start talking, but in France, you say Bonjour, Madame, (or Monsieur or Mademoiselle), and if you know them you kiss them on both cheeks. It’s actually more of an air kiss if you don’t know them too well. When you leave, you say merci, (if applicable), au revoir, bon journée (have a good day). If you get used to doing the greetings right, all your French encounters will be much smoother!
What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
I love it! Most French food isn’t fancy, it’s just very well prepared. The markets are full of beautiful produce, bread, meat, and dairy products, and wine is cheap and delicious. It’s easy to eat healthy in restaurants or at home. The only thing I’ve tasted that I didn’t like was a sausage called andouillette, which is some kind of intestine sausage. It tasted like barnyard with overtones of interstate bathroom. Blech.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
We probably bit off more than we could chew, traveling for a year before moving to a different country. If I could do it over, I would keep our house in the US and rent it out. Having a US address would have made getting a French bank account easier, and given us a little more time to make the change.
I would advise anybody who’s thinking of moving to France to learn as much French as you can before you get here. Even though plenty of people speak English, you don’t really get into the culture if you don’t speak the language, and the French will view you as a tourist instead of a resident. Just start with some classes or an online course and do your best!
What are your plans for the future?
Our son just started high school, so we’ll stay in our current apartment for the next four years. After that, we’ll reevaluate our position and see what happens. We do love Paris, and the quality of life here is lovely. Maybe we’ll be lifers!
You can keep up to date with Yvonne's adventures on her blog, Escaping the Empty Nest.
Would you like to share your experience of life abroad with other readers? Answer the questions here to be featured in an interview!