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.

  • You're viewed as really dedicated to a company, but when I showed my CV to one lady in Edinburgh, she commented that I must not have liked that job so well, since I was only there for a year. I was dumbfounded. LOL

  • But how wonderful that you’ve done this!

    I can definitely sympathize with your comment on your personality in French. When I just came to the US more than a decade ago, I too marbled at how I had become this “dumb, uninteresting mute.” My name in my native language and my name grossly mispronounced by the Americans seemed to represent two very different people. It was quite a traumatic experience. (I guess it’s fair to say I’m still struggling with the language and culture in the US, but the truth is that I had never been at home in Korea either.)

  • Baronne Nadine de Rothschild

    You always have a choice. A choice to make. A choice to react... or not. A choice to "see" beauty or the worse things in life. Some psy will say there is a "victim" acting that make the same people always be in trouble.... Everywhere they will be in trouble. Maybe it's not Paris, maybe it's you. Maybe it's the way you act and the way YOU see things. The most important things to do when you travel abroad, is to learn patience. Learn the culture. Learn people. Do you think it's easy to go/live in Japan? No. There is a "strong" culture there... You need to "change" yourself to adapt. If you don't want to change your personality, which is totally understandable, you need to stay in your "family", your area, your country. Then everything is easy.
    Anything else is complicated, we call that LIFE.

    Spanish are lazy, Americans are speaking too loud and they know everything on everything, Africans are slow and they like music a lot, Japanese are "cold", French are distant, how many "clichés" do you want more? Why France is the first destination for English people for retreat and for buying houses in the South of France? (and they "mix" perfectly with French people...)

    That's a lot of questions (and maybe the answers are into the questions..) we need to think about it before giving definitely an opinion on a such big subject.

  • This is fascinating to read. I just went through a very similar experience in Scotland. Well, similar in that I (mostly) knew the language before I got there ;) but the culture and the people have such different values and a different way, not only of looking at life, but specifically at job applicants. And being American, so much is assumed about you before you even open your mouth.

    The job market in LA is that if you stay in one place for over 6 months, you're viewed as really dedicated to a company, but when I showed my CV to one lady in Edinburgh, she commented that I must not have liked that job so well, since I was only there for a year. I was dumbfounded. LOL

    I had to do the same thing, too-- look at my expenses and realize that what I would make would not cover what I would have to pay and that I was burning though my savings. That phone call to the airline nearly broke my heart, because I had wanted to go out there for 10 years, and was finally there ... and I failed.

    This was all two years ago for me, and to be honest, it's still a little raw. I guess it's just sort of comforting to know that I'm not the only one who went through this. :)

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your story.

  • interesting on the LA stuff. I agree. People are fine here... you just gotta get past that "LA front."

    i was sort of amazed reading your post about your experience in Paris. i look forward to the other parts... the good stuff as well !

blog comments powered by Disqus