Michael: je parle américain
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Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Paris, etc.
My name is Michael Bell, and I’m a former attorney turned student and blogger living in the suburbs of Paris. I’m originally from a small town in South Carolina, in the U.S., but I spent years living in Washington before moving to France in 2010. Earlier this year, I got certified to teach English to adults, but I’m still searching for that elusive teaching position. That’s why I spend my time improving my French and writing for je parle américain!
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I decided to start blogging about my expat experiences in June 2011. At the time, I had just finished my first year of French classes at the Sorbonne, I was searching for a job, and I was dealing with the headache of renewing my residency permit. I desperately needed a hobby to clear my head… and je parle américain was born! Since then, my blog has grown into an eclectic journal of my observations about life in France, all from the perspective of an American expatriate who happens to be a huge history nerd and lover of French pastry.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
Here are a few of my favorite blog posts:
- About the inefficiency of French bureaucracy: “But … I Can’t Even Read the Owner’s Manual!”
- About history: “Cinco de Mayo … or, Telling Napoléon III to Step Off”
- About language: “How much French do you speak?
- About those little cultural differences: “What is it with the French and Peanut Butter?”, “I’ll have a Martini, s’il vous plait.”, “The Top Ten Things I’ve Learned While Living in France”
Tell us about the ways your new life in Paris differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
I didn’t suffer too much culture shock when I moved to France in 2010 because I had already spent a great deal of time here. Nevertheless, there are still little things that pop up from time to time that impress me, infuriate me, or simply make me scratch my head. Adjusting to French food was a challenge; I’m a vegetarian, and it’s not always easy to find a vegetarian dish that isn’t also heavy in carbs and smothered in cheese, but I’ve found a few good spots.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Paris? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
Because I spent a lot of time visiting France before moving here in 2010, I pretty much knew what to expect. I can’t really think of anything I would have done differently before coming.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
In America, when we greet each other, we shake hands, we wave, and sometimes we hug. Rarely — in my experience — do we ever greet each other with little pecks on the cheeks. Coming to France, I knew that these “bisous” were a pretty standard way of greeting people. What I hadn’t mastered was that they’re standard for friends and family. Well, one evening, I was out in Paris with my boyfriend and his friends, and we came across one of their acquaintances on the sidewalk … and I just walked up and kissed him on his cheeks. Everyone chuckled at my bêtise because I was being so charmingly American! Lesson #3061: Don’t kiss strangers on the cheeks when you meet them for the very first time.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Paris?
- French bureaucracy is bigger and stronger than you. As I once wrote on je parle américain, “It might not be a well-oiled machine, but French bureaucracy is a machine. You can’t speed it up, you can’t slow it down, you can’t change the gears. You can’t even understand the owner’s manual. You just have to learn to go with it … wherever it takes you.”
- Learn the Parisian art of nonchalance. Life in Paris — like life in any big city — can be frantic and stressful. Parisians have learned to deal with it by just not caring. Don’t get upset at inefficiency, dirty sidewalks, or rude service in restaurants. It won’t get you anything but high blood pressure. Just do that “air-puffing-through-your-lips” thing the French always do, and go on your way.
- Look around you and soak it up. Paris is an amazing city full of history and culture. If you’re not looking for it, though, you can end up walking right past some fascinating historical landmarks. But don’t get so enthralled by what you’re looking at that you end up stepping on some pooch’s calling card … they’re everywhere here!
How is the expat community in Paris? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
To be honest, I don’t spend much time hanging out with other Americans here. Almost all of my close friends are French (whom I met through my French husband) or expats from other countries (whom I met through my French classes). I have met some other Americans through my blog, as well as through the Facebook group “Americans in Paris. There are also plenty of American-oriented establishments in Paris (like bars, restaurants, and cafés) where an American is practically guaranteed to run into a fellow expat.
How would you summarize your expat life in Paris in a single, catchy sentence?
Trying my best to immigrate and integrate … and getting fat off croissants while doing it!