I have now been living in France for 2 months, and things have started to settle down.
Most importantly I’ve gotten out of the crappy “apart-hotel” which they stuck me in for the first 6 weeks or so. I suppose it served its purpose, but it was basically a low-grade hotel room with a fridge and a sink in the corner, and a hole in the carpet. Two days before I checked out I noticed a large wet patch in the carpet near the door, which the next tenant would no doubt squelch his way through. The place was jammed packed with Arabic-speaking folk, who appeared to be living 10 to a room, wandered between floors in pajamas and slippers, all seemed to know each other, and clogged the lifts with shopping trolleys full of all manner of strange produce. I don’t know what on earth they were all doing living in a hotel, but they didn’t look wealthy (these weren’t millionaire Gulf Arabs). The hotel was served by two lifts, one of which broke down for a week of my stay leaving us with only one, and that was also used by the cleaning staff. Even though it was a convenient 5 minute walk from the office, and infinitely better than the appalling Eko Hotel which I stayed in for 3 months in Nigeria, the initial period of staying in an apartment hotel when mobilising is something you are always glad to get over with.
We are given a budget within which to find an apartment, with the option of topping it up with your own cash if you want. Up until the beginning of 2014 the budget for a single person or a couple was woefully inadequate, probably due to the people who select and administer the budgets not themselves being users of the expatriate housing system (and you can extrapolate that particular problem across any number of dysfunctional departments in a major oil company, and beyond). But somebody saw sense and I was lucky enough to get a slightly higher budget than my colleagues who’d arrived earlier, and it was easily adequate. You have a choice when you arrive in Paris, either to live in a tiny, older flat towards the centre of town near the nice cafes, bars, etc. which make Paris life so enjoyable; or you can live further out with the advantages of a larger, more modern place closer to work but in an area which lacks the vibe and liveliness of the arrondissements. I chose the latter, wanting to avoid a commute to work (and the inevitable public transport strikes which are a French national pastime) and wanting a spare bedroom for visitors and enough space to store the junk I have accumulated over years of expat life. Also, the budget doesn’t really allow you to live in places like St. Germain, you have to compromise and live in Neuilly which is very nice but neither in the middle of Paris nor far enough out to be cheap.
As such, I chose a very nice apartment in the suburb of Puteaux, which technically isn’t really Paris as it lies just over the Seine from Neuilly, but is a commune in the western suburbs situated 5 miles or so from the city centre. The main attraction of living in Puteaux is that it is a 10 minute walk from my office in La Défense, the huge purpose-built business district which lies partly in Puteaux (it is the taxes from La Défense which makes Puteaux one of the richest communes in France). From what I’ve seen so far, it is smart, well-maintained, and has a handful of bars, restaurants, and shops but obviously lacks the atmosphere of downtown Paris. However, with the metro station only a 5 minute walk from my apartment and the RER 10 minutes away, getting to the city centre is pretty easy (although getting home after 1am might prove to be a challenge). Another great feature of the apartment is the underground car park (finding a parking space in Paris is like finding a faithful male politician in the same city), and a cellar which consist of a large cupboard about the size of a passenger lift in which to store things like empty suitcases, skis, boxes, etc. which frees up a lot of space in the apartment itself. It’s a great idea, one that is common in France but unheard of in the UK for reasons I cannot fathom.
I’m not so sure how much I’ll be visiting Paris city centre, as I am no stranger to Paris having been here numerous times both for work and on holiday, and I’ve done most of the major attractions. I am far more interested in visiting the many, many places 1-2 hour’s drive from Paris and for this purpose I bought myself a German car of the type which immediately identifies the driver as the most obnoxious asshole on the road. One of the things I missed when living in Dubai, Sakhalin, Thailand, and Nigeria is being able to take weekends away in other places and my wife and I had a wonderful time in Germany in 2012 just driving from one town to the next. There is a lifetime of things to do and see in France, most of it within reach of a long weekend either by train or by car, and I see us doing this more than nights out in Paris (although I’m sure there’ll be a few of them as well). We have gathered all the paperwork for my wife’s visa, and hopefully she’ll apply late this week and be here the weekend after next. As the wife of an EU citizen she is entitled to residency here on the same basis as me, which is a clear advantage to me personally of Britain being in the EU. That said, Norwegians enjoy the same advantages, as do the Swiss.
Of course, such excursions around France are weather dependent, and we were lucky enough to get a burst of warm, springtime weather this past weekend which was a welcome break from the miserable, pissing rain that’s been a constant since I arrived. As such, I was able to throw open the windows to the street and the gardens behind in a very Parisian manner.
As commentator John B pointed out, the French don’t do as much cooking as we think they do (preferring to buy ready-made stuff from traiteurs and pâtisseries, or eat out). This is the case particularly in Paris and one of the main complaints from the expats who come here is that the kitchens in the apartments are generally crap, and a lot of the time there is no proper oven. Good quality ovens just don’t seem to be a feature in Parisian kitchens, and although I was fortunate enough to get a reasonable one installed in my place, some of my colleagues have nothing more substantial than an electric grill/microwave combined. And if Parisians don’t cook there is no need to provide much space for storing things like pots and pans, and so I had to go to Ikea and buy a narrow table with drawers and shelves underneath for 155 Euros before I got the kitchen how I wanted it, i.e. functional.
Ikea in France is like Ikea everywhere: a version of hell. In kitting out my place I had to endure two visits, one on a Saturday when half of France was there with their kids. The queues at the checkouts were a disorganised shambles, which I’ve found is often the case in Paris. I’ve been into a few supermarkets, DIY stores, and homeware places like Ikea and each time found the checkouts to be understaffed or poorly laid out or both. The supermarkets here fall some way short of their British counterparts, for whatever reason. The levels of cleanliness leave a lot to be desired (but then again, what is clean in Paris?) and the supermarkets inexplicably close on a Sunday afternoon, even the enormous ones in the shopping centres. That leaves you having to find the smaller, independent ones which appear to be operated by north African or Lebanese families whose elder sons do everything from stack the shelves to man the tills dressed as if they’ve just been to a football match. I was in one of these yesterday, and found myself in a queue with a French chap at the head who was complaining that some sausages he’d bought were (probably) 2 cents more expensive than they were advertised in the local paper. The only two members of staff on duty spent five minutes reading the paper, going back to the shelf where he’d found the item, then discussing stuff amongst the three of them before any progress was made. In the meantime a queue the size of a Nigerian airport line had formed, with nobody seeming to care. Admittedly this was in one of the independent shops, but it’s hard to imagine this level of ineptitude happening in the UK, and even the bigger supermarkets don’t manage their logistics as well as the likes of Tesco or Sainsbury’s.
The French adopt a peculiar habit when grocery shopping. Carrier bags are either free and useless, or useful and 5 cents a go, and so the French have taken to bringing shopping bags with them or using the personal shopping trolleys that my grandma used to use in the UK and have long since disappeared over there. What’s more, the supermarkets don’t seem to mind their customers merrily filling up their own bags with stuff, emptying it at the checkout counter, and then packing it all away again. In the UK stuffing items into your own bags in a shop is generally known as “shoplifting”, but there is enough trust and honesty in France that it appears to work. I’d not recommend exporting this practice to Manchester or Lagos, though.
The other thing I’ve noticed is how much processed and frozen food the French eat compared to what the British are led to believe they do. We are constantly told that the French diet is much healthier thanks to the widespread availability of fresh meat and produce at the local farmers’ markets which the French use instead of the ghastly supermarkets favoured by us Brits. Except it’s bollocks. Yes, there are farmer’s markets in every town and district, but supermarkets are also everywhere and they are chock-a-block with French. And yes, the supermarkets also sell the meat, fruit, and vegetables that can be found in the local markets (I’ve not compared the prices yet) so there is obviously a demand. The supermarkets feature row upon row of food in jars, packets, tins, and plastic exactly the same as you see in the UK (only with less choice). Just around the corner from my apartment is a shop which sells only frozen foods, and in there you can find all the stuff you’d find in a British supermarket – pizzas, burgers, vegetables, chips, etc.
So it’s clearly not the case that the French shun supermarkets in favour of farmers’ markets, but that they simply use them both. And the reason for this is probably less a matter of difference in shopping tastes between British and French than an approach by the local municipalities towards fucking over the population in the interests of boosting revenues. I noticed when I was in Germany that the small towns had thriving high streets but – crucially – free or very cheap parking. Try finding that in the UK. I’d also be prepared to bet that the venue for the local French markets are owned by the municipality and made available either for free or at very cheap rates to the merchants, and free or cheap parking can be found fairly easily nearby. Having nosed around one or two of these markets I’d also be prepared to bet that the regulations they have to abide by are somewhat lighter, or at least less enthusiastically enforced, in France than in the UK.
I’m not saying that either system is better, but I’ve always thought the argument that supermarkets kill British high streets to be weak: they were shite even in the days before supermarkets arrived, and the local businesses failed to adapt and the inept local councils failed to appreciate that fleecing drivers with parking charges would drive customers away from the town centres. So it appears that the difference between the French and British systems of grocery retailing aren’t as different as the right-on lefties of Islington would have you believe: the British have world-class supermarkets in fierce competition but not much else, whilst the French have decent local markets and supermarkets which are merely adequate. I’ve yet to decide where I’ll do most of my shopping, but I expect it’ll be a mixture of both as the French do.
One of the things which I am looking forward to doing in France is seeing how much of the vaunted French culture as imagined by Guardian readers is actually true. I’ve already discovered that a downside to having the government doing everything for you is a population who doesn’t see the need to pick up their own dog shit.