In this week's Bonjour Paris article, Down the Rabbit Hole and Back Again, I was inspired by my recent visit to London and seeing the Alice in Wonderland windows, particularly the one where Alice is about to plunge into the rabbit hole and enter a free-fall. It seemed an appropriate metaphor, now that I'm about to shift into the long-term plan of being in Paris, not on vacation but for a year or perhaps indefinitely.
One of the perks of living in Paris is that you’re centrally located for easy travel to other exciting cities in Europe, and train travel makes everything accessible. On a recent weekend in London via the Eurostar, I came across the shop windows at Fortnum and Mason (gourmet foodies extraordinaire!) depicting scenes from Alice in Wonderland, which happens to be one of my favorite books. And when I looked at the first window where Alice is about to fall down the rabbit hole, it suddenly occurred to me: that’s precisely how I’ve felt during the past five weeks since coming to Paris! There is nothing like deciding to go to a place where your language skills are at a 4th-grade level to make you feel like you’re in free-fall, plummeting into a strange new world where nothing is what it seems and where you don’t know the rules.
As I’m writing this, I am in the midst of preparing to leave my temporary housing in Vincennes for a month back in the States before returning to live in a long-term furnished rental in the 15th, and there’s much to do. I have just returned from carting one huge suitcase and six boxes across the city to my future apartment, where the owners have generously offered to let me store my things until I return in January. I got lucky with this moving chore, in that a friend of a friend was available to come with his small van and help me for a small fee. We set up the appointment a week ago but I hadn’t heard back from him as of early this morning, and I was on the verge of having to get a taxi when I realized I didn’t even know how to do that in French! How would I explain that I needed a larger taxi and a driver who would be willing to help me with the boxes? I had one hand on the Pages Jaune and the other on my French-English dictionary when the phone rang, and it was Sebastien asking for directions to come and pick me up. Saved by the bell!
I am well aware that my transition into Paris life has thus far been made easier by having had access to several Paris “veterans”: people who’ve been here for years, speak the language, know their way around, and are willing to extend themselves to the new kid on the block. When I envisioned moving to Paris, I knew it wouldn’t be easy and I also knew there were many obstacles I couldn’t foresee. And my first five weeks have been relatively problem-free other than the early technology issues I had with my Internet phone service.
But being in London was a reminder of how stressful the language barriers can be when living abroad. London was actually a very welcome and stress-free break from having to communicate in French (badly), and where the people I was visiting planned everything and all I had to do was follow the leader. As a single woman who is used to doing everything for herself, it was a refreshing change to sit back and let someone else take care of everything, and all I had to do was follow the leader and enjoy the view. (Note to self: must do more of this!) And being able to speak freely and know that I would understand others when spoken to made it all the more effortless. I did have a good laugh at my own expense though, when on two occasions I found myself responding automatically to waiters in French: “Oui, c’est tout!”
Now that I’m back in Paris and preparing to head home for the holidays, in the back of my mind I know that it won’t be so easy from here on in, this living-in-France thing. Sure, I’ll have people I can call upon for help if I get in a jam or need to do something I can’t seem to do on my own.
But I won’t be thinking short-term any more; I’m going to be here for a very long time. And with that comes a host of new challenges to be met, including:
- Figuring out how to get a cell phone and getting the cheapest plan possible. I wasn’t going to get one at all but it turns out so many people in France use cell phones as their ONLY phones and it costs them extra to call land-line numbers, so unless you also have a cell phone they are often unwilling to call you or be called by you because of the extra expense involved. And they look at you like you have two heads: “Quoi? You don’t have a cell phone?” Take note: most standard American cell phones do NOT work here because the technology is incompatible; check with your phone carrier to see if they can upgrade you to something that will work at home and abroad.
- Finding a new internist and see about transferring my prescription medication; do they even make the same drugs here that I take back home, and if not what is the impact of switching to another comparable medication? Prescription drugs are not universal so if you are taking something that you can ONLY get in your home country, consult with your physician about whether there are comparable foreign drugs you can take if you need to, and if not plan to stock up before you go and bring a new written prescription from your doctor for emergencies. Bear in mind that customs officials in all countries usually frown upon shipping prescription drugs across their borders and you may run into problems if you plan to have a family member send you additional medications through the mail.
- Opening a bank account. I have no idea how this works in France, but I do know that unlike in American you just don’t walk in and walk out 20 minutes later with your new check-book in hand. There’s a whole banking PROCESS in France that involves as much annoying paperwork as possible and you don’t necessarily get same-day service. Banking in France is a whole new area I need to study up on before I come back and I will probably end up taking someone along as a translator when I set up my local account. At least I have a lease with my name and the address so I can prove I have a residence. If you’re planning to live in France without a French bank account, while it is easy to use plastic to get cash (French ATM machines recognize our American banking network and codes) and to shop in stores, just know you are looking at a lot of international service fees from your own bank for using your card abroad. It all adds up.
These are just the scenarios that are coming to mind now; who knows what else is lurking out there that will have me wanting to tear my hair out, or get on the next plane out of here? It’s all one big question mark.
But at the end of THIS rabbit hole, there is more than a Mad Hatter and a smug Cheshire cat; there is more than me feeling like an anxious White Rabbit because I’m perpetually “late for a very important date”, unable to accurately plan my door-to-door travel time in a busy city.
The prize at the end of the free-fall into the unknown is the possibility of being able to look back at what I’ve accomplished (and survived) with complete satisfaction and a new level of confidence.
Because if I can do this and come out stronger – not to mention more fluent in French – then I will truly know I can do anything.