Life in Paris as a non-tourist
The very first reaction I received from friends and family members when I informed them of coming to Paris to work for ATTAC- France was often, “oh that’s so great, I’m so jealous that you’ll be in Paris!” Paris, of course, is one of the most popular cities in the world, and for good reasons. There is the grandiose view of the Eiffel Tower that welcomes you as you arrive into the city. Everything is elegant on Champs Elysees, and the world class museums and monuments are countless to visit, not to mention the great food and wine. I’ve been to Paris as a visitor many times, and I love what the city has to offer. However, starting a new life here is a completely different story. I have also been in France before as a student for six months. Even that wasn’t the same.
This time it’s for real. It has been two months since I’ve been here and I’ve past that honey-moon stage. I need to learn to live in Paris as a Parisian. I have already learned many lessons in practical day-to-day life, and I look forward to many more to come in the next eight months.
I would like to share some of my thoughts and observations so far about this city. Despite the stereotype of the French being bureaucratic and inefficient, I have found many things to be surprisingly progressive and informative. The city of Paris has an amazing website (www.paris.fr), where all sorts of information is available for residents, such as laws, citizen’s rights, genealogy, location of swimming pools, libraries, free museums, etc. It took me a while to discover that there are at least 2 libraries in each of Paris’ 18 districts. Applying for a library card was surprisingly easy; all you need is your ID. This was probably the least bureaucratic process I went to in France.
Despite the rumors of the inefficient health system in France, I also had a good experience. I have had Achilles tendonitis for weeks. I kept avoiding going to the doctor because I thought it would take many days to get an appointment, not to mention very expensive. When the pain got worse, I had no choice. I called the doctor next to my office, and they told me to go in without an appointment. Maybe I was lucky, but I waited for about 5 minutes, and the doctor quickly gave me a prescription. The doctor’s visit cost 23 Euros, while the medications cost 7 Euros.
Let me be honest, Paris is a dirty city. People litter (despite the fact that there is a trash bin every 5 steps) and they do not pick up after their pets. I really have to watch my steps when I’m walking. However, cleaning cars come every single morning to spray and sweep the streets clean. The city also does an excellent job to preserve the cleanliness of its many parks. Public restrooms set up on the streets used to cost money. But now it’s free, plus, after each usage, it automatically cleans itself for the courtesy of the next user.
The infrastructure of Paris keeps up to date as well. For example, despite how small the Parisian roads are, there is a lane designated for bikers. In addition to the practical metro and bus system, there is the option of renting bikes and electric cars. On almost every block, one can find what is called “Velolib” in which bikes can be rented and parked all with a simple swipe of a card for a subscription. Recently, on December 5th, a similar rental system was set up with cars that run on 100% electricity. After almost three weeks, the “Autolib” program has been a grand success. The French are also conscious of their energy usage. Even in the oldest buildings, the lights are timed. You enter, press the button to turn it on, and it will automatically shut off after a few minutes.
I did, however, find myself scrambling in the dark a few times.
Yet, the bureaucracy and red-tape still exist. My first encounter involves opening up a bank account and getting a credit card. In France, many automated machines only take their local credit card, called “carte bleue”, therefore it’s more practical to have one. The process for a foreigner is even more rigid. To open a bank account, I went to the bank and set up an appointment for the next day. There are many steps and paperwork involved: passport, visa, contract, my letter of invitation to work here, and proof of residence with an original utilities bill. And they had many restrictions on the type of credit card I could get. Even the simplest type of credit card has a fee of 3 Euros a month. Duration of time to open a bank account: one hour and fifteen minutes.
My worst experience so far was getting the residency card: For some odd reason, the French government requires people with a long-term visa to also apply for a residence card within three months of arrival in France. The French Office in Taipei didn’t tell me the process once I arrived in France, therefore I had to scramble for information on my own. I found out later that I had to go to the local Prefecture and not the Immigration Office. It was freezing cold the day that I went, and there was already a long line upon my arrival. People kept walking out, but they would only let in 3 or 4 people every half hour. It was rather a degrading experience. It was a line of foreigners waiting outside the Prefecture in a very nice area of town. People who pass buy would give us looks. I waited for close to three hours. I considered myself lucky that I got in before their lunch break. Turns out I have to go back, because I need to have my original birth certificate approved that it’s legal, and translated into French. I will also need an original copy of a utilities bill. The bureaucratic battle continues, and I have to return for another long wait in line.
Starting a life in a new country is a challenge, even if you thought you knew the country and its culture rather well. You can never really know how things work unless you go through the process yourself. There are unexpected things that occur, and it’s never easy in a different language. But I feel like this is a learning process in addition to the work that we do here. Every occurrence is an opportunity to learn, and when I return to Taiwan, I will be different because of my experience here in Paris.