Relocating Overseas: How Finding a Community and Staying Grounded Will Help You Thrive in Expat Life

Relocating Overseas: How Finding a Community and Staying Grounded Will Help You Thrive in Expat Life

The sun is out in Paris today, for the most part. While many places in Europe are getting snow showers at this time of year, Parisians dig out thinner scarves and head outside, chasing vitamin D. Park benches are hot real estate every April, especially now that café terraces have fallen victim to the pandemic. In this city, we like to live outdoors.

Not wanting to miss out on the sunny action, I take the metro in the afternoon to South Pigalle, ten stops from my home office. Walking to the café for to-go lunch, I see the hills of Montmartre and white domes of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in the distance, bright against the pale blue sky. 

When spring comes to Paris, the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise,” I recall the words of Henry Miller, as I hurry towards the only empty bench on the little square. Miller was a 20th century American writer who lived in Paris in the 1930s and wrote “Tropic of Cancer” here, which the quote comes from. Years later, the city still attracts writers and dreamers. 

***

It was somewhere around here, in the 9th arrondissement, that I fell hard for Paris a decade ago. Long before I could call myself a parisienne, long before I found a job as a content writer for a French tech company. It may not sound bohemian or romantic (sorry to disappoint), but it pays the bills. Living here doesn’t come cheap, yet you couldn’t tell by watching movies set in Paris and dreaming of working from a café in the Latin Quarter. 

That’s not to say you should fear the move – to Paris or elsewhere – only that you should take time to prepare for relocation. Knowing what to expect before you go will help you avoid disappointments later. No-one hands out how-to instructions for new expats at the airport, though I wish they did. 

When I came to Paris in the spring of 2016, I spoke basic French and knew three people in the city. I didn’t have connections that could help me land a job or an expat community to answer administrative questions. My support system – friends and family – were miles away. I was on my own, for the first time ever. 

During the course of the move, I was reading “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” by David Downie, American journalist based in Paris for over three decades. One paragraph at the beginning of the book struck a chord, “The place called Paris is at once the city of literature and film, misty lenses, and the leftover tang of Jean-Paul Sartre’s cigarettes clinging to the mirrored walls of a Saint-Germain-des-Prés café. It’s also the city where I and more than two million others pay taxes, re-heel shoes, and shop for cabbages or cleaning fluids.” 

These words stuck with me, even as I pinched myself that I was now a resident of Paris. With my head still in the clouds, I had to get real about the dull, but unavoidable aspects of expat life.

***

My first weeks in Paris were spent house-sitting for a friend of a friend, which is to say the living arrangement was temporary. Concerned, one of my three local friends kept saying I should get serious about apartment hunting. He was right, but the how-to-do-it puzzle was for me to solve. 

A couple of months later, I invited the friend to a celebratory dinner at my new place. But had I found a community of people who could share step-by-step advice any time I asked, I would have gotten an apartment earlier. The entire moving abroad checklist would have been finished faster too. 

Here’s the short list of the things I had to take care of, in between strolling around Paris and sipping wine in outdoor cafés: 

Applying for a social security number, which is needed in France to get public health insurance and a primary care physician; 

Finding an accountant to help navigate the French and American tax systems and inter-country agreements. (Did you know that American citizens are taxed based on citizenship, not place of residence? You could live on the moon and still file with the IRS.);

Opening a bank account (unless you’re signing up with an online bank, which wasn’t a go-to option a few years back, you need to schedule a meeting with a banker in a branch nearest to your home and show your apartment lease or proof of residency dated no longer than three months earlier, otherwise you will need to go back);

Getting a French phone number (maybe subconsciously I wanted to hold on to my Chicago area code, but mobile plans in France are much cheaper, as it turns out); 

Getting the coveted CDI contract (i.e. a full-time job with private health insurance and five weeks of paid vacation, this being France where work-life balance is a thing). 

Since I also hold an EU passport, the list does not include the lengthy and costly process of applying for work permits, which is something my US-born friends have to deal with.

The red tape is one thing, though. Having a knowledgeable and supportive community would have also made it easier to learn the local culture. The French debate? Nobody warned me! 

It took me months of what I viewed as fierce and unnecessary arguments with French friends – especially one of those people I knew coming to Paris – to understand that this is the way locals socialize and exchange opinions among good friends. They were welcoming me to their fold, while I thought my “foreign” opinions were being disrespected. Oops…  

***

Five years after moving to Paris, I still like to come to the 9th, the neighborhood where my connection to the city began. When people ask why I left America and settled in France, I reply that Paris was too strong of a force to resist. I still feel it when I go for a walk at lunch or on the weekend, even when I complain about high taxes and metro strikes. Like other Parisians. 

Pola Henderson is a Paris-based writer and communications manager.

For Apto by Pola Henderson
Jetting Around Media
pola@jettingaround.com 

April 14, 2021

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