Reflections from a Month of Living in Paris

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Before September, my experiences in Paris included sleeping in super-luxurious, five-star hotels and decadent dining in internationally acclaimed restaurants. Luggage rarely touched my hand and black cars with dark tinted windows chauffeured me to my next destination. I suppose it’s technically my reality since I’m actually experiencing it. However, that is not my real life, nor is it for most Parisians.

By partnering with an apartment rental company, I wanted to experience Paris as a local rather than the pampered guest of a palace hotel. There would be no concierge to help me find a market, nor would there be maid service to bring fresh towels. No, I would have to figure out the washing machine instructions in French and where to buy limes, which surprisingly isn’t as simple as it sounds, all on my lonesome. Absent would be the driver, instead I’d navigate the metro or walk.

Paris France 2

I’ve proclaimed Paris to be my favorite city in the world. How could it not be given the lovely people I’ve met, coupled with my extraordinary opportunities? But, had I put the city on a pedestal simply because of the royal treatment I’d previously received? I’ve coveted the idea of living in Paris since first visiting, and I felt like a month in an apartment would give me a small taste of what it’s like to live in the world’s #1 tourist destination. Although it’s not nearly as glamorous as a luxury hotel, I crazily yearned for this sort of experience.

I’ve stayed in Parisian apartments on two previous occasions, but those were shorter trips—two to five nights. This was the first time I would completely unpack my bags. Clothes were hung; shoes found their temporary home; and toiletries were laid out in the bathroom cabinet. For someone who’s on the road most of the time, this was a strange feeling, one in which I relished.

Not only could I fill my closet, but also a refrigerator and pantry. One of the benefits of an apartment, after all, is the ability to cook and chill wine sans ice bucket. Oddly enough, I’d missed trips to the grocery store in the sort of way that big-city transplants miss driving. What seems like a mundane chore and necessary evil to some is most often appreciated only after absent from one’s life. Not that buying milk felt as liberating as a spur-of-the-moment road trip to Versailles, but knowing that I would be in a place long enough to finish the quart of milk was.

Paris France Vespas

It’s interesting how quickly we acclimate to new surroundings. What was once foreign soon becomes our new normal. With my apartment window open, I could hear the rise and fall of my building’s small dumpsters. I could set my watch to tape ripping as boxes from the bridal shop below were prepared for the morning UPS pick-up. Chimes from the nearby clock tower rang out from dawn to dusk with precision timing. On Sunday mornings, the silence was deafening. These sounds, along with the buzz of Vespas and squeaking of metro brakes, became the soundtrack of my September in Paris. It’s a spectacular song that rivals any by Serge Gainsbourg.

Because I speak no French, conversations in restaurants, the metro, and on the street became white noise. I couldn’t understand what was being said, so essentially they were ignored. Instead, I focused on the visuals of the city, particularly my Bonne Nouvelle neighborhood. My street was littered with furriers, milliners, and sushi restaurants. I could see the famous Rex Theater from the entrance of my building, along with the familiar sights of McDonald’s and Starbucks {which I loathed}.

With two lines and multiple entrances, I quickly learned to navigate my neighborhood’s stations and dread the 108 steps needed to exit Grands Boulevard. I knew what time employees at the nearby PNB Paribas took their smoke, coffee, and lunch breaks. On trips to the grocery store, I walked past the same homeless man in the exact same spot, but only on weekdays. I suppose even the French homeless need the weekends to recharge their batteries. I developed a sense of community, despite not knowing a single other person’s name.

Paris France Sunset1

This little area of Paris’ 9th arrondissement became my home, if only for a little while. I had a key—an actual key—rather than a plastic, computer-coded card. I had a regular sandwich place where I was recognized. The grocery store clerks knew me well enough to know that merci and au revoir were essentially the only words I could utter in French. Not being able to properly communicate is a humbling experience, but in my case, familiarity bred compassion rather than contempt.

Life is not all rosy in Paris, just like every other place in the world. It’s not like there is some cocoon that envelops this gorgeous city and protects the people in it from heartbreak or hunger. One look at those in the metro station and that image is abolished. A smile is often taken for flirtation and actual communication amongst strangers is a rarity. It’s frustrating, especially for someone who grew up south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where grins and pleasantries are exchanged even between mortal enemies.

For a non-Parisian, living in the city is like playing checkers, yet never given a set of rules. From afar the game seems simple and even enjoyable, but taking a seat at the table is another story. Customs and communication are foreign and easily misunderstood. Navigating the red and black board can be maddening, filled with wrong moves and missteps. It’s a strategic game, one that requires intensive observation and study in order to become successful.

Carousel1

In the past four weeks I feel like I’ve acclimated a bit to the Parisian way of life. Don’t get me wrong, it still pains me to walk by a real estate office and see a studio selling for 350,000 euro. However, now a lunch bill for one person totaling 30 euro doesn’t seem that bad. I’ll still give up my seat on the metro for the elderly, offer directions to lost tourists, and help mothers with strollers down the stairs. I’d like to think that my manners and character transcend geography.

About an hour before checking out of the apartment, I gathered the contents of my refrigerator into a Monoprix plastic bag. Just like countless times before, I took the exact same path up rue du Faubourg Poissonniere. I found the homeless man who lived near my building. From ten paces away, I noticed that he had a bag of grapes and a paper container of fresh McDonald’s fries in his lap. Only eating one fry at a time, he continued to look down. Wearing my leopard-print loafers, I stood above him and offered the bag of ham, butter, and jelly, as well as two euros to buy bread. His eyes were icy-blue and his voice sincere– “Merci beaucoup, mademoiselle. Merci beaucoup.”

I’d walked past this man at least fifty times in the last month. I couldn’t tell you his eye color, yet he probably could have described every single pair of shoes I’d brought to Paris, along with so many others that regularly walk the same route. It was then that I realized I would miss quite a bit about my new-found home—the dinging of the clock, squeaking of the dumpster lid, and even the man sitting quietly on the corner with a McDonald’s coffee cup filled with a few euros.

So, living in Paris isn’t some sort of fairy tale where Bordeaux wine flows from the faucet and accordions provide the perfect Parisian ambiance for a stroll in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Instead, my September in Paris turned out to be a microcosm of real life. I had some extreme highs, filled with opportunities I could’ve never imagined. I was befriended by several sincere people and reconnected with others that I’d met on previous trips to Paris. There were also a few disappointments.

That’s just life.

Paris France 1

Despite all the complexities, this September in Paris made me love this city more than I could ever imagine. It wasn’t exactly the month I thought it would be, but if everything went according to plan then life would be disgustingly mundane. Can you imagine? I’ll take that unexpected curve above a straight highway any day. Living in such a manner is nothing if not invigorating, though it’s certainly not for those seeking the path of least resistance.

So, do I still covet living in Paris?

Abso-freakin-lutely!

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27 Comments
  • Danielle
    October 4, 2014

    I’m so sad I had a bad first impression of Paris when I went. Your pictures and your story make it seem so beautiful, the way I expected it to be. I need to go back and give it another chance since we rushed in all the ‘touristy’ things into two and a half days. Hope your enjoying the endless amount of wine in Bordeaux!

    • Leah Walker
      October 13, 2014

      I’ve done some of the tourist things, but by far the best is just wandering. Give Paris another chance. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

  • Monty
    October 4, 2014

    Well done. I have lived in over 20 city’s for a month or more. 6 for more than 3 months. Paris is on the top of my list. Waiting till I have a lady to join me. Thinking 3 months. Being older and retired helps. You and your blog is most like me. I have a old girlfriend back in the states that I want her to read your blog. Just maybe. My last few trips I stayed at the George now I want to see the real paris.. One again it’s a very good read thanks. Keep traveling.

    • Leah Walker
      October 13, 2014

      Ohhh…keep me updated. I’d love to know if you take your lady to Paris.

  • Jenna
    October 5, 2014

    So glad you had this experience. This is the way I used to travel (I still spend a month in Brazil every year, but when I was younger, I would stay in a city for a few weeks–London for a month+, Florence for 3 weeks two different times, etc.). I miss the freedom I had in my early 20s to stay in places for extended periods of time and to get to know those wonderful European cities well. However, like your stay in Paris, mine were not perfect either, but that made me grow more.

    • Leah Walker
      October 13, 2014

      I am a big believer in quality over quantity. I’d rather spend an extended time in one place than hop from one to another for the sake of seeing it. As I get older, the more and more I think this way. I think you and I are kindred spirits in that regard.

  • What a wonderful read! I love hearing about how your experiences this time living like a Parisian resident differed from your time there before in swanky hotels etc and how you bonded with the community, neighbourhood and locals despite the language barrier. Despite being in London, I’ve actually only been to Paris once and it was more than ten years ago and I struggled with the language a lot despite knowing some basic French – I’d love to travel there again and see if with time and maturity, I have a new perspective on it 🙂

    • Leah Walker
      October 13, 2014

      Please give Paris another shot. The fact that you’re just a short distance away in London should be added incentive. Let me know how it goes!

  • Fuschia
    October 7, 2014

    How wonderful spending a month living in Paris, and seeing the city through the eyes of a resident rather than just a weekend tripper! There are bound to be positives and disappointments just like living anywhere, I think that this adds to the experience of life! I spent a year living in Central Italy, then three months in Southern Italy and can definitely relate to how some things are as you imagine, and others are completely different. The first time I lived in Italy I had so many expectations, then the second time I tried to approach it with a clear mind, however that wasn’t always possible!

    • Leah Walker
      October 13, 2014

      I imagine Italy provides its own set of challenges, but what a wonderful experience!

  • Chantelle
    October 10, 2014

    What a wonderful piece of writing! While I know Paris well myself, you really helped to bring it “alive” in a way I don’t think I could. It’s always fascinating in a location as diverse as Paris to see the individuals elements that stand out to each individual. It’s one of the things I love most about Paris; just how everyone can find something they love about the city if they’re willing to explore enough.

    • Leah Walker
      October 13, 2014

      Thank you so much. I’m often befuddled when someone says he doesn’t enjoy Paris. There’s certainly something for everyone.

  • Sand In My Suitcase
    October 10, 2014

    Wouldn’t that be nice to actually live in a city like Paris (like a local for a bit)! That’s our dream. To unpack, learn the language, shop and cook local foods, maybe volunteer a bit – to really soak up the culture. One day!

    • Leah Walker
      October 13, 2014

      Unpacking is a luxury I’ve come to appreciate. It’s even sweeter in Paris. I hope you get to do it one day, too.

  • Janelle Kay
    May 6, 2015

    Thanks for sharing about your month in Paris. I have a dream of spending a month in Paris!

  • Jeremy B
    May 19, 2015

    Beautifully written Leah. I like that you included the realities of Paris with the romanticism. When I first visited Paris over a decade ago, it was during a low point in my life. I loved Paris but it could be a very lonely place for many of the reasons you mentioned. Like a beauty queen on the stage, Paris has its flaws and imperfections behind its good looks and makeup.

  • Dee
    October 18, 2016

    Where would be a good place to start looking to rent an apt for a month? Thank you

  • May Robinson
    December 29, 2016

    I’ll be traveling to Paris for two months this summer. Do you have any tips on packing, navigating the metro, or what type of weather to expect?

  • WALT Collins
    January 14, 2017

    On my way in Avril for a month with an apartment near the Place de Voeges. I am a young 71 and look forward to painting, food, drink and many walks along with the ‘lost generation’. Enjoyed your blog and hope to realize a wonderful yet tasking experience. Not much left on my ‘bucket list’ as I have done war, backpacked around the world, flown around the world in a light plane, etc.
    Hope to make a plan for the grandkids in a few years! Caio!

    • Leah Walker
      January 15, 2017

      What a wonderful time you’ll have. Sounds like you’ve seen plenty of things in your young 71 years, but there’s nothing like a month in Paris. I’m actually now on year two, and it all began with that September. Enjoy!

  • Rachel
    April 20, 2017

    So, I really want to stay in paris for a month next year. I’m trying to find a place to stay, trying to figure out the cost (food, entertainment, transportation etc.) Could you give me any advice? Plus, this will be my first time going out of the country all by myself.

  • Barby
    October 14, 2017

    I love this. I’m planning on spending the summer in Paris and taking some courses meanwhile. I won’t be going for work but just for the experience that you so beautifully wrote about. I was just researching the Internet and came across your post. Thank you so much for the insight and inspiration.

  • Lise Rigault
    December 11, 2017

    Hi Leah, I really enjoyed reading about your experience, as I am just doing the same as you at the moment. I have rented a nice big studio, well equipped, and very well heated, opposite the metro, for four winter months. I like to be in an area of easy access to many places. I have made a list of all the places I wanted to go to, and discovered many lovely ones, away from the touristy areas. I shop locally, cook sometimes and eat out as well. Like you, I enjoy just wandering around, at the moment admiring all the Christmas decorations. I used to live in London, and also in Paris before that when I was young, but then my tastes were quite different, and it was back in the sixties. I am almost half way through my stay, and already fret about it coming to an end.

  • Stephanie Burbank
    June 11, 2018

    I loved reading this post. As I just sent in my deposit for a month long rental, (my 50th birthday present) I’m eager to hear about experiences from people who have done the same. I’ve been to Paris many many times and it’s my favorite city in the world. I’m just amazed at the bad experiences out there… but we can’t have everyone loving it, can we? :).

    I’m very interested in your experience at taking a seat at a cafe. My husband and I just can’t figure out exactly what to do and when. We try to catch a waiters eye and saying “bonjour”, but it seems like at times we don’t have it right. Can you offer some insight on this?

    Thank you!

    • Leah Walker
      June 13, 2018

      No, absolutely can’t have everyone loving Paris! Wonderful news about your upcoming trip, and happy birthday to you! As for the cafe, avoid the spots with flatwear, unless you’re eating. Be persistent, but not too bossy. Bonjour and eye contact is a good first step, then keep making eye contact, and raise your hand slightly with a little wave. Maybe that second layer of effort will work. Enjoy your month!

  • connie
    August 15, 2019

    I just booked a month in paris for next september!!! reading your blog, which just happened upon, has affirmed my decision making!

    thank you!

    • Leah Walker
      September 9, 2019

      Wonderful! I hope you enjoy your month in Paris.

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