Paris! Should I stay or should I go?
When we announced we were moving to Paris, responses from friends fell into two camps:
Non-French friends: “Wow! That’s amazing. What an opportunity for the kids. Your kids will be bilingual. The museums, the galleries, the cafes. The wine, the cheese, the shops” – you get the gist.
French friends: “Why? Paris is awful, why do you think we live in London.? Parisians are so cold. You will never make friends there. The schooling is tough. Are you sure you want to go?”
We didn’t listen to our French friends, and eleven months ago we arrived in Paris. We’re here for my husband’s work, dragging along two, kicking and screaming kids aged 10 and 8. I’ve assumed the role of trailing spouse, given up my job, possibly my career to take up the position of stay-at-home-mum.
A new life, in a new city, in a new country, I need to get out there, meet people, make friends. How hard can that be? I’m from London where people don’t look you in the eye, push past you on buses, trains, in the street and if you’re lucky they might just grunt a greeting.
How not to make friends in Paris
My strategy involved running. I love running. Back in London, I had been a member of a couple of running clubs, both eager to welcome new members, regardless of ability, or what language they spoke. I’ve made life-long friends through running.
Eventually abandoned in the Tuileries, it hit me, wallop! I’m alone. Welcome to Paris.
I found a women’s group, and during my first week here I pitched up on the night. Everyone was at least 10 years younger, perfectly groomed, sleek and svelte. I was dishevelled having grabbed what I could from the bottom of a moving crate. I instantly felt like an old, frumpy middle-aged mum, and my non-existent French rendered me mute.
No-one greeted me, no-one spoke to me. I made out which was the group at my level and tagged along when they set off. They were fast! And when I was lagging behind, no-one made sure I could keep up. Eventually abandoned in the Tuileries, it hit me, wallop! I’m alone. Welcome to Paris.
We hate school
And another thing my French friends were right about: schools.
We had a false start with our first: though it was bi-lingual, with lots of international kids who spoke English, my kids hated it. (We’re self-funding so the big international schools are out for us.)
They hated learning in French. They hated learning verbs and the teachers were mean (just stricter than in London) and the endless list of verbs to conjugate and learn in all those tenses.
I knew things weren’t going great when the first words they learnt were: “C’est lui, ce n’etait pas moi, punir”.
We came from a positive school culture where achievements were celebrated, with star of the week certificates issued to boost self-esteem. By contrast, our new French school was cold, impersonal and little contact with the teacher.
Getting the kids to school was traumatic. Our mornings started with tears and tantrums, our nights ended with tears and tantrums. After three months, nothing had improved; I was worn down and at my wits’ end.
What should I do? Home-school? Go back to the UK and work full-time and manage the kids on my own? Divorce my husband, take the money and run?
A chance meeting with an expat mum at a cookery class led me to our current school. With smaller classes, a really fun English teacher, a more nurturing philosophy and where you get to talk to the teachers. After the first day, my kids tumbled out: “Mummy – school was fun!’ So with the kids starting to enjoy Paris, it’s now just me.
Shut up. Stop complaining. You’re in Paris!
But why am I not living the expat dream? If someone tells you you’re moving to Paris for two years – you’ve hit the jackpot, right? Why am I not hanging out in museums, wandering along the streets of the Marais, sipping coffees in cute corner cafes, nibbling macrons, doing my weekly shop at the Grand Epicerie?
The reality is that being away from friends and family is challenging and isolating. Being a stay-at-home-mum in Paris, is no different to London: cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, school runs, homework, ferrying kids to activities, helping kids to make friends, as well as learning French. Oh and the bureaucracy, don’t get me started on that!
Signing my kids up for the Centre de Loisir for the summer has been a feat of endurance. I wanted to be organised, start early to get my facile famille account ready for inscription day. But no. Can’t do that. Got to wait until inscription day and then get my account, but only after I get a whole bunch of documents signed, sealed and delivered.
So started the crazy rush to the Marie for the Carnet Sante, the Caisse des Ecoles – for tariff (only open two hours a day) and for this I need birth certificates, husband’s tax return, and letter of attestation, utility bill, rent invoices, then to the GP for medical certificates and get Carnet Sante filled in, signed, stamped and dated.
For chrissake the kids are only going to summer camp! But somehow, it’s happened, they are enrolled and I have that mysterious facile famille account . Air punch!
And this summer the kids went, they loved it, made friends, improved their French, and they are now correcting me!
“I love Paris, and Paris will love me.”
I will enjoy Paris!
So this is it. I can’t return to the UK having not enjoyed Paris. My new mantra is “I love Paris, and Paris will love me.” I have to change my attitude, and maybe drink more wine.
So what if I’m jobless, who cares?
I have gone from managing large-scale, complex change programmes involving thousands of employees, to managing the crisis of running out of Weetabix and heaven forbid, sugar!
But, the time out here is giving me the chance to spend more time with my kids. We adopted our kids, and we’ve missed a lot of their firsts: first words, first walk, first tooth. The few years we will spend here will make up for that.
On a mission to make friends
My life is now in Paris, I haven’t forgotten my UK friends, but to cope with being here I need to establish a new friendship network.
I’ve been on an onslaught: joining facebook groups, meet ups, accepting invites to book groups, coffee dates, picnics, a champagne night out and most recently the Mama Loves Paris spa day. I may have ‘desperate mum wants new friends’ scrawled on my forehead, but it’s working and I’ve started to forge new friendships.
I want to get to know the French
My secret weapon is Lucius, a gorgeous, ball of golden fur. After 18 years of nagging, my husband finally relented. The move to Paris tipped the balance and we adopted a Labrador cross. He is cute, and can melt the heart of any hardened Parisian.
Taking Lucius out on walks gives me a chance to brush up on my French, I have fine-tuned my puppy small talk. People stop me in the street to strike up a conversation. Even the frosty, French neighbour, who can carry four bags of shopping, drag a poussette, while smoking a cigarette and simultaneously walk her Yorkie, has made an effort to muster up a few words to me.
Never in a million years would I have attended a Dance Like Beyonce class – I did here! I’ve re-discovered a love of painting thanks to the Paint Parties Paris. I’ve dabbled in some French cookery, and I have made a commitment to improve my non-existent French, taking classes at WICE. I do French conversation classes hanging out with retired French women and expats, they’re a blast! I’ve joined a French classics book club. When would I ever get the chance to dive into Moliere, Zola, Diderot?
“the real Paris has grown on me, it’s working its charm”
Were my French friends right?
When we arrived I would have said yes, and boy was I tempted to get on the Eurostar and flee back to London.
But the real Paris has grown on me, it’s working its charm, and I am slowly – falling for Paris: it’s laid back attitude, the fact I can see sky not skyscrapers, Sunday is a day for the family, and of course the bread, cheese, wine and macarons.
I’m in awe of you mamas
Parenting is a tough gig, I’ve heard it said it’s the toughest job you love. And parenting in a foreign country wow – that’s even harder. Moving to Paris wîth the family has been one the hardest things I have ever done. Whether you’re a Mama here for love, work or whatever else, I am in awe. Because you are awesome, amazing and – when the going gets tough you gals just keep going!
Ranji Thangiah is a Brit and has been living in Paris for eleven months, she blogs regularly at Tootingmama.com.
Thank you Ranji for sharing this honest and heartfelt post, it is so appreciated, Mama! MLP totally gets it! You can follow Ranji on Twitter @tootingmama
Please show your support for Ranji’s post with a like and even better, a comment! Have you ever felt like this?
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