Taking Stock: 12 Months in Paris – the Good, the Bad & the Ugly


Facebook’s “On This Day in 2010” box has been really interesting to watch over the last week or so as it’s counted down my last few days living in Perth leading up to moving to Paris, and the beginning of my time on the ground here.  It’ll be even more interesting to watch over the coming couple of months as the honeymoon came to a close and the reality of this place set in.  Now, it’s no secret that I’m not such a fan of dear old Paris, so if you’re looking for words like “magical,” “mysterious,” “romantic,” or “je ne sais quoi,” go find a tourist blog.  But I wasn’t a huge fan of Perth either.  My distaste’s taken a different shape for each town though, and they’ve helped put each other into perspective, and between the places I’ve lived and the new places I’ve visited, I’ve grown a fresh view on a few bits and pieces.  Still, I’ll be upbeat but honest.  I’m trying to make the good plentiful and the bad scathing enough to take some lessons away from.

I thought this one year marker was as good a time as any to take stock of my first adult foray into living overseas – the good, the bad, the ugly, and in my next post, the things I’ve learned, the perspective I’ve gained, and the ridiculous & hilarious things that have helped to break the many moments of tension.

The Good

Number One?  Not speaking English all the time.  Challenging, mind-opening, fascinating, at times incredibly frustrating, and barrels of fun.  I’ve raised the bar on what I’d count as bilingual since I moved here.  I’d call myself close to fluent, but I don’t think I’ll ever get to what I now call bilingual, given that I don’t work in French and only socialise in it a tiny bit.

While the food scene was nowhere near the level that comfy laurel of a reputation would have us believe, the basics are absolute gems.  Until I moved here the vast majority of my wine familiarity was from Australia and New Zealand.  Being more of a red drinker, I was pretty well versed in big, robust, heavy flavours, and associated the lighter, fruitier stuff with the kind of sweet wine I wouldn’t touch with my worst enemy’s goon bag.  Exposure to French wine helped me rewrite a few of those little rules of thumb, and come to appreciate some mellower, lighter flavours.  Hell, I’ve even grown a whole new approach to rosé – that which before I came here I had condemned to the same culinary purgatory as apricot chicken and prawn cocktails – that sad misguided spectre of the 1970s that refuses to be exorcised.  Add to that the fact that an amazing bottle can be had for this side of 15€, and there should be a tannin-stained toothy smile spreading across your face.

While I’m on the topic of booze… nobody here cares, and nobody makes a big deal of it.  I can count on one hand the instances of self-destructive drunkenness I’ve seen, and I lose count every time I try to work out how many places will sell me a beer within a 5 minute walk from home.  Alcohol is not taboo, but being a drunken ass is.

Les boulangeries.  Beautiful fresh bread in small portions several times a day, with unsettlingly good pastries and cakes and savoury stuff as well?  This is a large part of why I expected to go Jabba the Hutt when we moved here.  But more on that later.  Early on, we figured out that the locals weren’t really buying baguettes, which are pretty run of the mill, and nothing you couldn’t lay your hands on pretty much anywhere.  They were walking out with shorter, crustier, more irregular-looking sticks of baked joy, so once my French ear tuned up a little, I dropped some eaves.  “Une tradi s’il vous plait,” they’d say with the kind of abrupt tone usually reserved for speaking to a stapler that’s proving difficult to load.  Baguettes de Tradition are lovely stretchy but not too stretchy, crusty but not too crusty, fresh, light tasting bread.  Dead simple, and when you go past the boulangerie to buy one just after 4pm and they’re still warm… Oh, did I mention they only cost about a Euro?

Walking everywhere & not owning transport has been a real lifestyle change.  I’m keeping as much of this up as possible, wherever I live.  It’s kept Han Solo off my living room wall.

Rare steak.  Chocolate mousse.  Pattes d’Ours.  Confit de Canard.  Feuilleté.  Rillettes.  Crème Brûlée.  White cherries.  Fresh bakery baguette sandwiches at lunchtime.  Dimanche au Marais.  Alain Clerardin.  1664.  Gràves & Saint-Emilion.  The speed & coverage of the Métro.  Great cheese, dirt cheap (hello Président.)  Acces d’Internet illimitée.  Making a dude in St. Germain des Près crap bricks with nothing more than a filthy look when he flicked his cigarette butt & hit me on the hand.  Proximity to other cool places.  Availability of jamón serrano.  Dogs chilling in cafés.

The Bad

Restaurant menu variety.  I barely need to look at the menu anymore.  Coupla kinds of steak, maybe a tartare or two, confit de canard, a stack of different salads, and maybe a cheeseburger to feed the GDP (that’s tourists from the US, y’all.).  Standard is pretty consistently high, but goddamn is it that hard to try something a little different?

Almost blanket criminal failure at making Chinese food outside of Chinatown.  Two exceptions.  Les Pâtes Vivantes (a very regular hangout – home of the spiciest thing I’ve ever eaten), and Happy Nouilles.  Both do incredible hand-pulled noodles.  So good.

There is no music scene here.  I know this wouldn’t bother a lot of people, and I know there are some bands around (if you’ve got an ear for indie rock, check out Holstenwall, even if it is a MySpace link) but if even your touring venues have to kick the punters out by 11pm so they can make room for the discothèque… that’s a recipe for a soulless place in my books.  It’s almost like anything with a creative artistic inclination realises that it has some mighty laurels to rest on, so takes the same approach as this guy.

Everyone seems to really like Shakira here.  If I was a citizen I’d worry about the state of my country.  That said, Pink did a frickin’ concert season in my homeland, so I may not actually be able to talk.

Nothing happens in a hurry.  Especially walking anywhere in public.  Since living here I’ve decided to make a sequel to that old basketball movie White Men Can’t Jump called “Frenchmen Can’t Walk in a Straight Line and Stick to One Side of the Footpath.”  It’s not a product of the rudeness that usually tars their reputation (try learning to say more than “parlez Anglais?” and you might get a more generous persona, touristes.), it looks more like being completely unaware of anything or anyone around them.  Infuriating.

The pretty rampant sexism.  While DSK was holed up in NYC as his maidrape charges got picked to pieces, the press turned out a pretty impressive Poor Benny on him.  No, a rich old bastard raping a member of hotel housekeeping staff is not “Une Tragédie Française,” it’s a grim-ass crime.

The coffee.  The prevalence of frozen and semi-prepared food.  Dog poo EVERYWHERE.  Cigarettes.  The Métro when it’s busy.  The RER anytime.  Lights on taxis.  Service.  Réaumur Sebastopol.  Gare du Nord.  Châtelet.  Pigalle after dark.  Grey skies.  Humidity.  Mobile data reliability.  Reliance on authority.

The Ugly

My mind keeps coming back to the Shakira thing.  Seriously.  She was dressed like Yo-Landi Vi$$er in her concert posters.

I’m going to keep this one brief.  All you get is the list.

Underhanded street crime & the complete absence of patrol police.  Hobos with a new puppy every spring.  Scammers.  Having to act like a bitch and a thug to get people to cooperate.  Exorbitant bank fees.  The pervasive smell of urine.  Foie gras.  The way kids are treated in the education system.  The culture of everyone for themselves behind a wafer-thin veneer of good manners.  The fact that everybody stopped reading after the first word in “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” (The national motto: Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood).  Obsession with rights in ignorance of responsibility.  Acceptance of paternalistic screwovers if it’s France-badged.  Centre Pompidou.


I think that’s the rant done, hope you enjoyed it.  Next post’ll be a little more introspective and forward-thinking.

By | 2017-01-23T15:02:47+00:00 September 13th, 2011|Blog|4 Comments

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  1. Chris Tait December 2, 2011 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    In terms of the Comparison between Perth and Paris it’s like this Perth is to Paris as Alice springs is to Hobart worlds apart yet similar Hobart and the Alice have a 100 odd page phone book with half as manny names in it Paris has the Eifel tower Perths got the bell tower when it comes to wine chalk n cheese mate of course Paris will have better wine from an agricultural perspective the country around Paris has some of the best soil for growing grapes not the sand heat that comes from Australia. When I think of Paris I think love romance just the French language is sexy if I could speak French which I did try to learn you could walk up to an Aussie tell him or her where to get off and too me it sounds like asking for the ride of your life what more could you want anyways enough nonsencicle rubbish from me feel free to put in grammar and punctuation into what I wrote here as I didnt have such a great teacher that you became aurevior or what ever and adieu
    Cheers Mr Birch

  2. Kerry January 6, 2012 at 4:07 am - Reply

    I’m planning a year in France so this was interesting reading. I also happen to live in Perth. Things to think about, thanks

    • Joel Birch January 6, 2012 at 7:16 am - Reply

      Yeah… consider it REALLY carefully. Paris is not a place built to be lived in. Immeasurably visitable, but a nasty, soulless little wound of a town. It’s like the Royal Show with better cafés & nicer architecture, only the carnies hate your guts, and everyone else’s.

      Bear in mind, this post was written with my tiny handful of Parisian friends in mind as an audience. The sugar coating on it will put you in a diabetic coma.

  3. Alison Armstrong April 21, 2012 at 11:54 am - Reply

    I need to write an article like this about living in Switzerland. I had a very similar experience with restaurant menus- very predictable… mind you I had just moved from Singapore. (You definitely need to visit Singapore for the food.)
    Loved your paragraph about wine, I may have to steal your line about wine that you wouldn’t touch with your worst enemy’s goon bag. And my mum still makes apricot chicken and prawn cocktails!

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