Wow! You all sent me so many messages about Emily in Paris; it’s clear that life in Paris from an expat’s perspective is a huge topic of interest. I guess I take for granted the knowns and unknowns of tackling life here, so this is a good reminder that you all are eager to know more about what it’s really like to live in Paris.
There is a lot to unpack from the 10-episode Netflix series, so this will be a non-exhaustive list that I may even come back and add to from time to time as I’m reminded of things addressed in the show that I forgot to write about. I didn’t take any notes while I was watching, so this is all purely from memory.
I will say that some of this is written with a side commentary from my husband, a lifelong Parisian. He, himself, makes constant comments like “that’s so French” about daily experiences here, and often points out attitudes of what he calls French laziness when we hear “ce n’est pas mon job” (it’s not my job). So before anyone freaks that I agree with some of the representations of Frenchies, know that I have someone by my side who has been observing Parisian behavior far longer than I have.
Before we get started, perhaps I should share the perspective I’m working from, in case you don’t know my story. I began learning French in kindergarten and enjoyed it from Day 1. Throughout my schooling, I always wanted to do my French homework first and hated doing some of the other subjects. I just love language. Thus, I was always a serious French student throughout school and eventually did a high school exchange with French kids who came to the States and stayed with us a month before we flew to France. We did a whirlwind trip through Paris then went to Marseille where we lived in families for two weeks, attended French lycée (high school), and explored the Provence region. After that, I couldn’t wait to return to France, which I did during a semester abroad in Dijon a few years later. I graduated with a double degree in International Business and French and, not surprisingly, my love for France, the French language, and the culture continued to grow through all this. I eventually set my sights on living here. I joined an official government program to teach English to French kids, but that didn’t work out so I pivoted and found an internship in an American company in Paris. This began many years of movement to and from France (and eventually the Netherlands – of course there was a boy involved at a certain point). A year later I did an MBA program here in Paris and all these years later I’m now married to a Frenchman. So in my own very roundabout way I am living my own French dream. Thank goodness it has been fulfilling because it has been a rough road at many points over the years!
Without further ado, let’s get started chatting about Emily in no particular order…
A lot of people have been commenting on how she could never afford her wardrobe on the salary a young marketing professional makes. We don’t know anything about her background, so sure, let’s assume she can afford the clothes. Thing is, no one in Paris dresses like that. If you do, you stand out like a sore thumb. I remember when I was first in school here I had a grass green puffer jacket that got constant commentary from people. I swear I was the only one in the city that winter with a non-neutral colored coat.
In Paris and probably many other cities, you can’t dress in a mini skirt and not get constantly cat-called on the street, inappropriately touched in the metro, or accosted by men. Fashionable or not, mini dresses and skirts every day here would invite constant attention.
Her running clothes
Emily has typical (of what you see in the U.S.) cute fitted running clothes that are completely appropriate and not revealing, but I myself do not feel comfortable running – or even walking down the street – in such fitted clothing in Paris. There are simply too many men who make comments or stare.
While I do see fitted clothing like hers in gyms here, I almost never see such fashionable and tight clothes on girls and women who are exercising outside by themselves.
Where to even start on this topic?! I had to laugh out loud when the agent who greeted Emily at her apartment called it a chambre de bonne (maid’s room). I have had probably a dozen apartments in Paris, almost every one I rented as a single person. Unless I was willing to pay upwards of 1400€/ month, I was in a studio – or worse – a chambre de bonne. I had a non-chambre de bonne that has gone down in history as my least favorite apartment (studio) I have ever had. Conveniently located in Pigalle near all the sex shops, I lived in a studio where one could use the toilet, rinse a body part in the shower, and cook dinner on the “stove” all at once. Did I mention the floor was not flat and the whole building was probably a massive fire hazard? The owner was also a chauvinistic jerk. Gosh, I was so glad when my lease was up in that place! Luckily, I just located a photo of this exact scene so you can see. Want to rent it?
Chambres de bonne exist in nearly every old building in Paris. If you look up and see a pitched roof and a dormer, you can assume that’s a chambre de bonne. I’ve been running through allll the apartments I have had in 15 years in Paris, and I think I’ve only had one chambre de bonne. Now, let’s be clear. The next level up – what you can get for 200-300€ more per month than that is not that much bigger. (See studio above.)
A near-certain feature of a chambre de bonne is a “clic clac”, or a bed that you have to unfold. It’s practically unheard of to have a full bed, a full kitchen, and a table to sit at. Don’t even think about having another piece of furniture, like a comfy chair!
Thinking about all my old apartments, I had to try to find a few photos for you all. I did dig up a few from a place I lived in St. Germain des Prés for a month. It was always the plan to stay such a short time, and I don’t think I could have survived in there much longer than that. You’ll notice there’s a toilet, but no one was allowed to do anything beyond “number 1” including put toilet paper in that toilet due to the old plumbing system. We had to go into the hallway to the shared Turkish toilet (if you don’t know what that is, have a Google) for anything else. This was a shared toilet with the other “maids” on the floor. Looks just like Emily’s apartment, doesn’t it?
The best thing and perhaps the only truly good thing about living in a chambre de bonne is the view. Because they’re the top floor, they often have some incredible views.
Parisian apartment buildings often (but not always) have a man or woman who handles things like cleaning common spaces, shining door handles, taking out the trash, and receiving deliveries when people are away. This job is not to be confused with a doorman, who in my observation takes great pride in his work and is basically paid to be friendly and accommodating.
Of course, it’s impossible to make a generalization about every gardien/ne, but the faces and the attitude of Emily’s made me laugh. The “it’s not my job” attitude is pervasive in France, and is often accompanied by a notable satisfaction with oneself that he/she has power over you (like she did with calling for help re: the shower) and you can’t do anything about it.
Sending back food/ “correcting” a chef
This is a no no in France. I could bore you with so many examples of how I have tried to tweak an order in a French restaurant to get something that I eat (in short, not a lot of French food) since the menu had nothing for me. Want your sauce on the side? You don’t like tomatoes, but you’d love some extra cucumbers? Honestly, I don’t even ask anymore. The wait staff doesn’t have the authority to say a definitive yes and the chef will be annoyed and say “ce n’est pas possible”, as if there aren’t a few extra pieces of cucumber back in the kitchen. Emily’s willingness to insist upon her food preparation ignores this easy-to-notice cultural sensitivity and perpetuates the idea that Americans always demand things to be done their way.
Yep, it really is ubiquitous. Not enough dog parks or parks that allow dogs the grass? That could be the problem.
As you may recall, Emily meets her friend Mindy in the Palais Royal garden. A quick detection of an accent and they’re basically immediate besties. Is this realistic? Actually, more than you might think. To this day, especially right now when there are very few tourists, my ears perk up when I hear a North American accent. Many friendships have begun just by chatting up someone as Mindy did Emily. In the sometimes-lonely world that is navigating life in a foreign country, hearing a familiar accent can be music to one’s ears and can indeed lead to connections and friendships.
Okay, this one isn’t a big deal and I get that they did it for artistic reasons, but there are a lot of examples of the characters just popping here and there (seemingly on foot) when the neighborhoods they’re in are nowhere near each other.
When Gabriel proposes they pop up to Montmartre at 3am for a crêpe my husband and I had to laugh. First, there’s no place to get a crêpe in Montmartre at that hour, and it would have taken them at least 20 min to get there. He’s a chef! Why don’t they go to his very nice apartment with a huge kitchen or to his restaurant where he can make her one?
If the show gets a second season, I’d really love to see them address the métro situation. It’s not clear if Emily gets from her apartment near the Panthéon to work near the Palais Royal via métro or taxi, but based on the distance and the shoes she wears we can assume it’s not on foot! If she’s Ubering/taking taxis everywhere let’s talk about how much that is costing. The only reasonable mode of transportation is public transportation (bus would be doable, perhaps), but that has become such an unpleasant way to get around (pickpockets, smells, filth), it’s hard to believe she would take it.
No bureaucracy? I wish!
When I first arrived in Paris to stay for an extended period of time, I came as a student. Prior to my arrival, I had gotten some sort of temporary visa or pre-approval (it was over a decade ago – I don’t remember what they give you!), but once I had arrived in France, I had to go declare myself at the préfecture. I’m pretty sure you have to do this no matter what visa you’re given prior to arriving. The préfecture was an experience in itself. You go to (what was for me) a faraway neighborhood at the crack of dawn because they don’t take appointments and you usually have to wait over an hour before you even step inside the door. As I looked at the other students around me – some of whom didn’t speak much French – I felt so lucky. It’s a known fact that citizens of certain countries get their visas more easily (the U.S. being one of them). This was in 2007, so you can imagine that technology has improved the process, but only slightly. My recent experience leads me to believe that it’s been the closures of 2020 that have made the government rethink the process of procuring a visa here. I’ve heard absolute horror stories about getting appointments and it’s a near-guarantee that you won’t have everything they want on the first try (never mind that you adhered strictly to the list!), so you’ll have to be back. Somehow – so far – my own experiences have gone relatively smoothly.
Oh la la, les hommes français! So the first season of Emily in Paris definitely focuses on some of those stereotypes that frankly are centuries-old. The idea that your Frenchman has a mistress is a real fear of many a foreign girl I know here. There’s a relaxed attitude toward relationships that I don’t understand and can be very unsettling for people who view relationships as strictly monogamous. I’m not saying this attitude is universal, but there’s a level of acceptance here that I never knew anywhere else I’ve lived.
The flirtatious over-sexed vibe from men here is a real thing, especially from men who are 50+. There seems to be a sexual undertone in every interaction with one. I have several friends who are 10 or so years older than me who tell me they’ve just had to accept that their husbands ogle other women, but that doesn’t mean they act on their attraction. This takes quite a lot of adjusting for American women I’ve noticed. I dated a Dutch guy for a long time, and Dutch men act opposite to this. They ignore women, and it’s often the women that do the approaching. Younger French men aren’t as presumptuous as their older counterparts but they do seem less afraid of rejection than American men.
Here’s an example of a typical conversation that 85% of my foreign friends here have experienced:
Frenchman: “Bonjour, vous êtes ravissante!” (You are very beautiful.)
Uninterested woman: “I don’t speak French./ Thank you.” Continues walking.
Frenchman, following her: “Where are you from? I love your accent. Would you like to get a drink with me?”
Woman: “No, thank you. I have a boyfriend.”
Frenchman, still clueless, hasn’t accepted you’re out of his league: “Oh, but he is not here.” Smiles wryly.
Woman feeling uncomfortable with the implication and that this has gone on so long: “No, merci.” Hurries off toward a crowd, pretends to get on her phone.
The American smile
Ugh. I still get so fed up with smoking and smokers here. I’d like to see Emily walk through a wall of smoke when entering her workplace or have a coughing fit when sitting at a café. That would be more accurate that the co-worker smoking in the office. It’s been 14 years since I worked in a French office, but I do know that it seems a good number of my co-workers were smokers back in the day, but they never did so inside the building that I recall. Despite a 2007 law preventing smoking in many public places, it’s still pervasive and I find smokers have a ton of rights and luxuries here that I find frustrating and hypocritical of the government.
Unfortunately, smokers still rule Parisian terrasses and for those sensitive to it like I am, it can really ruin a meal or a good café people-watching session. 😉
How about how easy it is for her Emily to grow her Instagram account? Those first-try snaps that we never see her engage with after the fact? Those posts would get lost in the abyss of content that Instagram has become, not serve as reasons for her to get invitations to fancy events with executives and drool-worthy goodie bags. Yes, these events exist, and some precisely in the way portrayed in the show, but anyone who has tried to grow a following on Instagram probably resents this completely inaccurate depiction of Insta-fame.
Unfortunately, this seems to be how some people who dream of living in Paris imagine life here to be. Just throw on a beret and get pics of yourself in front of every Instafamous location you’ve bookmarked over the last years. You’re sure to go viral because god knows no one else has thought of that shot.
Many of the comments I have read more from French people than Americans is how clean Paris looks in the show. There is nothing unsightly on the streets. No ugly full trash bins, no overly crowded streets, no protesters, no beggars. It’s all pretty picture perfect. Just look at the square where she lives and the one where she works; they’re always perfectly pristine.
The American/ foreigner coming in to the workplace
I have lived this, although not as the person who was coming to make the changes. I was part of the team, not to Americanize the company, but well, kind of I suppose! I was part of the team that came to Paris just after the acquisition of a French company and was charged with teaching English to the French team. No doubt about it, they had some understandable adjusting to do to the new American ways. I remember after a certain time hearing about the new implementation of peer reviews. Oh la la, there was such pushback on this! People hated the idea of anyone judging the jobs they were doing, especially their peers! In the U.S., this is useful for a variety of reasons but also serves as a little reminder your job is not necessarily secure and that you need to stay on your game. In France, pretending a job is on the line over these reviews is completely useless, as it’s very difficult and expensive to fire people here.
In general, it surprised me how completely naïve they made Emily in her workplace. Her being so unshakably enthusiastic is simply not believable when the whole office seems to be resentful of her presence. We found a lot of the workplace situations to be unrealistic and an embarrassing representation of both French and American people.
Sylvie, the female French boss
Having said that, my husband contends that Sylvie is a great and very accurate character. She rarely smiles and always seems a bit put out by every situation. Emily is far too upbeat and enthusiastic for Syvlie and she wishes Emily would just go away. At the same time, she’s pretty and fashionable and has that French woman confidence that many women around the world have been trying to replicate for decades.
Another workplace observation he made was that it’s completely un-French to be happy at work. Content, maybe, but happy, no. I have to say I agree with this. The French are not attached to their jobs like Americans can be and seem proud to keep their jobs as something they do but not something that is an identifying factor about them.
Les petites morts
Just going to touch on (no pun intended) this one quickly… Emily’s French friend Camille calls orgasms “les petites morts” and yet no French person I’ve quizzed about this has ever heard them called that. Don’t go around asking French men for une petite mort! 😂
** Update! One of my friends asked her French husband about this reference and he had heard them called that and said “c’est poétique”. So, I guess only the truly cultured knew that reference. 😜
Adjusting to life abroad is much more challenging
One thing I have struggled with for years when presenting my story to you all on social media is just how much to share. People like me make their livings selling the idea that life in Paris is dreamy and beautiful, but the truth is it’s not. Not all the time. I don’t even know if I would agree that it’s more glamorous than life anywhere else. The truth is, sometimes – a lot of the time – life here feels really tough. I’d say the number one thing that makes me sometimes want to return to the U.S. is that I feel life is just easier there. I’m not saying I want to or that I will but it’s easy to take for granted the ease of life when you don’t have to think about the process of things every single day. Throw in a different language and a different mentality about life, and you’ll quickly understand that life in another country is not always as dreamy as people make it seem.
I know this show is just for entertainment, but I would really like to see more accurate portrayals of life in another country. That has just as much potential to be entertaining. Where are the moments where Emily struggles with frustration, doubt, boredom, and loneliness? It looks like cute clothes, attractive men, and runs along the Seine work as cure-alls, but that hasn’t been my experience.
Emily never seems to fret over whether she made the right decision to leave her life and come try a year in Paris. We never see her never curl up in a ball and cry or call home begging someone to come visit. Her break up is a total non-event in her life, but are we to believe it’s just because she has her choice of men clamoring to get in her pants? I wish they would give Emily more depth and more accurate feelings of what it really feels like to be alone in any new place, but especially a foreign one. Living in the Netherlands with a boyfriend or living in Paris with plenty of friends around me and now with a husband here, I still contend that life abroad can feel excruciatingly lonely. This is precisely why you see so many expats get so close; they understand one another’s plight.
Life in another country is so much more challenging that the show portrays but also much more satisfying. The struggles of it – even if you don’t have to do some of the most challenging pieces of the process like applying for a visa or finding your own apartment – are what make the process that much more fulfilling and enriching. Unfortunately Emily experiences very few setbacks or anything that really shakes her like a real move to a new culture does. I’ve experienced severe culture shock many times over the years in France, the Netherlands, and even my own home country of the U.S. I suspect it’ll never stop and frankly, that’s part of why I like living abroad. I am constantly forced to question why I think the way I do, why my country does things the way it does, why I feel my way is right or wrong, and why I still tend to seek people who are from my home culture or who speak my mother tongue. I am an analyzer at my core, and I like to analyze myself as much as I do anyone else. My life abroad has forced me to do just that.
Of course, Emily in Paris doesn’t claim to be a 100% accurate. I enjoyed it because it was so close to home and I had a good laugh at some of the inaccuracies and an even bigger laugh at the things the writers picked up on that require a deep understanding of a foreigner’s life here. After all that has happened and is still happening this year, I found the show a nice respite. And I hope there’s a Season 2 so we can see have a few more laughs and fun analyzing the ridiculousness of the show.
Let me know your thoughts on the show and of course what you think about my take on it. I’m looking forward to reading your comments. 😄