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Updated 14 May 2010

Heather Markel - Culture Transition SpecialistHeather Markel is a Culture Transition Specialist, helping expats, professionals, and trailing spouses to learn to feel at home anywhere in the world. Though she's a New York Native and current resident, she's had more than a small dose of travel bug, and is readily sharing her knowledge to help others transition culturally after relocating.  She's had the pleasure of living, working, and studying in France, England, Switzerland, Italy and Washington, DC, as well as the fortune to travel much of the world and experience culture transition first-hand. 

About Heather

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: New York City (Manhattan!)

Q: Where are you living now?

A: Manhattan

Q: How long you have you lived here?

A: I lived in Paris for one year

Q: Did you move with a spouse/ children?

A:  No

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A: At the time, I worked for a major French telecommunications company and moved to Paris for a marketing position in one of our Paris offices.

About Paris

Q: What do you enjoy most about living in Paris, how’s the quality of life?

A: Though it takes some adjustment, what I enjoy most is how much focus there is on experiencing life outside the office. Your life is not defined by your work; instead there is a lot of focus on friends and family. The pace of life is less hectic than I am used to in New York.  Somehow, being in Paris also brings out my artistic side – I feel like painting everything I see, even though I cannot paint!  Also, it’s almost impossible to find a bad meal in Paris – everything you eat feels amazingly nourishing, and no matter how much foie gras and rich sauce I eat, I seem to lose weight. 

I also love walking and Paris is a very walkable city that feels safe in most areas, which is important as a woman.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?

A: There were a few downsides. First, if you’re a young, single woman and attempt to sit on a park bench by yourself and enjoy some alone time, you may find yourself “accosted” by a man wanting to talk to you. If you attempt to tell him to go away, or ignore him, he may be very unhappy with you. 

The advice I received from fellow French female colleagues was to accept the behaviour, which I found difficult. This led me to miss home a bit, where I knew I could enjoy moments of peace without being disturbed. 

Also, being a single woman in Paris seemed taboo. In New York, where I’m from, being a single woman is considered normal and acceptable. In Paris, there were times I felt like an outcast for being single.

In terms of the language – I speak it fluently, and did when I moved to Paris.  Even so, when I got together with a large number of French peers, I often felt I couldn’t keep up with the conversation – great learning(!) but a little overwhelming until I caught up on all the expressions and slang.

Q: Is Paris safe?

A: Mostly, yes, of course it depends on how late you’re out and where you are!

About living in Paris

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Paris as an expat?

A: I found Paris a great place to live as an expat. It’s extremely easy to get around, and there are a lot of other Americans living there, as well as other expats from other countries. The American Church in Paris is a huge centre for Americans to congregate and meet other people from home, and the FUSAC (a magazine) makes it very easy to connect with others from home as well.

I lived in the 5th arrondissement, which is wonderful, and very central, I also like the 6th and 7th, as well as the Marais (4th arrondissement) – however, all of these are a bit more touristy and expensive. Nowadays, I find areas like the 15th more residential in nature.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Paris?

A: Depends where you stay. I am not a fan of the sort of “maid’s rooms” that we stayed in as students, or the apartments where your bathroom doubles as the kitchen, and the toilet to your apartment is located outside, by the stairwell, requiring a key to enter – really awful in the middle of the night! I’ve never seen an apartment like these in the US.  (Maybe I haven’t been looking for them either.)

Apart from that, apartments are either rather spacious, or range from bizarre to creative layouts. There’s something about the French apartment – it has a very interesting old but creative feel to it. I find many apartments to have a very comfortable spaciousness about them, and decent closet space.

One note – I had some roaches in my apartment. I asked my concierge (in fluent French) if the building had an exterminator. She informed me, in French, that “this building does not have roaches.” That was the end of that.

Also, if your apartment building has an elevator, it is usually TINY, and you may have to endure physically touching a neighbour you don’t know.

Q: What’s the cost of living in Paris compared to New York City? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: Coffee is expensive! Depends on how you’re being paid – if you’re being paid in dollars, you’ll obviously lose out on the euro conversion, at least for now, which makes basically everything expensive. Apart from coffee, sometimes water is expensive.  Clothing is also expensive, and you don’t get nearly the same quality of clothing as you do in the States.  

Tea, such as at Mariage Freres (one of my favourite tea stores!) is excruciatingly expensive; loose tea can be a much better value than teabags.

The weekly markets offer fairly decent value for produce – fruits, vegetables, even cheese, can be found for a better value than in the supermarkets.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A:  Locals are a blend of many cultures in Paris. I mixed with both Parisians (mostly from work, or who were introduced to me by people from work) and Americans. The Mairies (town halls) offer a fantastic selection of courses that are affordable and a great way to meet people from different countries – you can’t pass this up! Enrolment is typically in September or October each year.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?

A: I found meeting people fairly easy, but forming deeper relationships with French people was hard because they considered me “temporary”, and not worth getting to know too well. Most of the time I would be invited out by my main friend, and meet their friends, but I wouldn’t later be invited to socialize by my friend’s friend. Luckily, those classes through the Marie helped me to meet wonderful new friends, and, as I mentioned, The American Church in Paris is an excellent resource for meeting fellow Americans.

About working in Paris

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?

A:  My company in the US helped me get paperwork. It took 7 months, and was very frustrating, time-consuming, and just when you thought you were all done, they came up with more forms and information they needed from you.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A:  In my experience, working for a French company in Paris, I felt a little bit at a disadvantage. If you’re an aspiring career woman, you may hit a wall.  It seems like major career advancement is easier for a man than a woman.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?

A: Yes.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?

A:  Be open to new experiences!  It’s funny – French women have this bizarre sense of style – things that would never work in America because, for example, they do not match, somehow work on the French woman.  Embrace what’s around you instead of constantly comparing everything to home.  Be curious about your environment rather than critical, and find all the outlets you can to meet people and discover your new environment!

~ interviewed May 2010

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