My Best Failure: Paris 1996

From my window Reading a friend’s post on a recent failure and lessons learned reminded me of my best failure, living in Paris after college.

I got in a program that would give me a work Visa in France for 5 years. I’d studied French for years so felt well-armed. After a month of successful home & work searches, I realized that Paris was not for me.

Realizing it was the wrong decision was huge. I was hell-bent on making it work and finally insights piled up- about myself, and the city, and the poor relationship- and I finally faced the truth. I would be miserable here.

Why did Paris suck? I had worked all summer at this horrible south bay company to make money for this adventure- and I still remember how much I’d saved, $3,500, which was not the recommended amount ($6,000). I’d lived so cheaply in Portland I thought I could do it, and I did find some amazing deals, including my 18F/night foyer. I found that after living in 3 different hostels prior and moving every night. If you’ve ever done that, you know how awful it is. What I didn’t take into consideration that living in Portland was easy because I had good friends, did rewarding work, and otherwise was satisfied, that I could skimp on the lifestyle.


Looking for a place to live and a place to work has got to be one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, no wonder I was constantly depressed. None of the job opportunities were half as good as what I’d get stateside. Also, I started to sense a couple of things:
– Parisians hate Americans, mostly because the Franc was so devalued (5-6F per dollar then)
– Taking jobs as a foreignor brings up a certain kind of hate in a country
– French schooling orients job applicants to a specialty early on, so being “well-rounded” or having a lot of collateral skills isnt’ necessarily what employers want.
notre dame
There were funny aspects- handwriting analysis done during an interview, or those unsmiling photos you have to include with your resume. By the end of a solid two weeks looking I had three options lined up; children’s museum, teacher’s assistant, and customer support technician. All solid jobs. As my “paris” (actually seattlan) boyfriend, who was blatantly jealous at my work/living situation asked, why are you miserable?

I think I can hazard a guess now, so much later after the event.
aloha hostel buddies
What I enjoy about my life is largely to do with language and humor. I enjoy reading funny stuff, interacting with people with humor and interest. In another language, I still had 1-2 years if I was lucky, improving my idiomatic & colloquial French to get there. So my life was full of reading bad tabloids and having rudimentary conversations with people. My French personality- as people saw me in France- was a dumb, uninteresting mute. I also wasn’t entertained by people and saw them as flat caricatures, too. It was hard to find depth in people when you rarely found out anything about them of interest, or had any interesting conversations. I didn’t think I could last through the time I needed to become witty & well-read. I underestimated how important that was to me. Having been on the other side, I feel a lot of empathy for people learning English and know there are hidden depths to their personality that language (at their level) can’t communicate. Diane Johnson in her book “Le Divorce” covers this really well- as one of her main characters does become mute until her French is good enough to participate fully.

Because my French was so high school, I ended up befriending other French-learners, or just those that were sympathetic, having French as a second language: local shop owners, my foyer housecleaner, and cafe workers. They were all from Africa or the Middle East, and man, they had nothing nice to say about the French. Racism was a constant topic. The second-class citizen issue that rose up with the car fires and riots was all too apparent to me back in ’95. These other anecdotes contributed to my anti-Parisian feelings:
Anecdote 1: I was accused of breaking into my own bank account by Credit Lyonnais teller. They make you sign a million times to access your account, and even then they weren’t satisifed. I mean, they take handwriting analysis way too seriously.

Anecdote 2: I was cat-called constantly- and not because I was hot, but because I was obviously not French (American=lusty loose girl). Near my first hostel in the 13th arrondisement, I was cat called to so hard a guy fell out of his chair. In front of me, a block, was a beautiful Parisian woman in a tight skirt and heels, and she didn’t get any attention. Me? Backpack & jeans. w00t!

Anecdote 3: Paris has that penned in feeling. Some locals who- through my brother- gave me some insight into life as a native, were so excited to get out to go rock climing, but sat in 3 hours traffic trying to come back. They were noshing on salsa & tortilla chips like it was the newest thing. Oh yes- and seeing grunge shirts all the rage in the boutiques near the Left Bank was hilarious too, as was the rap music pounding from the shops. Rap? Grunge?

Anecdote 4: One pivotal moment (of them all!) that sent me back into California’s warm arms… on the way to a job interview and my feet were killing me so I was wearing tennis shoes with my skirt & shirt combination. I was feeling low and staring out the window of the metro. I am about 1 foot taller than all French women, and at that time a normal size, around 12. The entire ride I was yelled at by a man in his 60s who was sitting next to a woman of the same age. She wasn’t engaging me, but he was “talking to her” about Americans, the way girls dress, how ugly tennis shoes are, how ugly and big Americans are, etc. in French. That’s when you really wished you didn’t understand French.

But the final tipping point was… finances. Talk about learning about yourself through your failures. I did not want to live in credit card debt. Just the prospect of it scared the bejesus out of me. I remember the fateful afternoon I did my accounts, in that cute foyer on Boulevard St. Germian. On an envelope I listed my paycheck minus taxes, my expenses, and projected it out 5 years. I was already more than halfway working through my savings, and wouldn’t be able to pay it off in – well- past the 5 years working here. I couldn’t imagine getting paid more as a foreigner, and new with interest rates, it would accumulate well past my control. I did the math again. Then I got my phone card and went outside to use the public phone booth- I even remember waiting for another guy to finish- and called my airline to schedule the return trip.

Phase 2 of Parisian visit: Being a tourist.