Inside Spendesk 18 min read

C’est la vie! True stories of expat life in Paris

Dominique Farrar

Has a lockdown-induced Netflix binge led you to daydream of a new life in Paris, à la Emily

We don’t blame you. The architecture! The cafe culture! The stylish people! The butter-laden pastries! Life in Paris looks like one big Instagram-able fête, doesn't it?  

As a French-born company with a melting pot of nationalities on our team, we wanted to set the record straight on what it’s really like to live & work in Paris (when you’re not French). 

With a little help from our resident expat Spendeskers — who hail from 20 different countries —  and our friends from the French startup world, we’ve rounded up 9 true stories of navigating a new life in the City of Light… as (not) seen on TV. 

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1. Kristen, Marketing Operations @ Spendesk

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Moved to Paris in January 2020

How did you end up in Paris?

It’s been quite a journey… French degree, studied abroad in Paris, then found a French tech company with an office in San Francisco. The quarterly trips to Paris and annual kick-offs at the château hooked me.

Later, a former colleague, referred me into Spendesk and the rest is history.

What was your biggest surprise about living & working in Paris? 

Brunch is simply gluttonous. In California, a weekend routine includes gym, then brunch. Do not try this in France. You’ll start with numerous viennoiseries, at least 2 beverages (one might be alcoholic), then your main course, and dessert will still be an option after that, if you’re still hungry (spoiler alert: you’re not).

Which French cliché is actually true? 

It's impossible to impress a French person. Everything is “pas mal” (not bad), but if you’ve done really well, you might get a “pas mal du tout” (not bad at all). See alternatives: plutôt pas mal (mostly not bad), pas trop mal (not too bad). 

Besides friends & fam, what do you miss most about Los Angeles? 

Peaceful trips to the farmers markets where you can learn about the nectar from which the bees made that honey or where they foraged for those chanterelles in the Malibu hills. In Paris, get ready for shouting vendors, long queues for organic vegetables, and being rushed by merchants to select your fruit.

What's the one thing everyone should experience when in Paris? 

A simple, yet sublime pleasure: walking along the Seine at night.

Do you have a favorite or most useful word in French? 

Most confounding: chaud. “T’es chaud?” “c’est chaud”... wasn’t that Paris Hilton’s catchphrase? Maybe I’m dating myself. Also, “c’est pas faux”.

2. Joei, Content Director @ 360Learning 

Hometown: Hong Kong
Moved to Paris in 2014

How did you end up in Paris? 

I came as a tourist for a summer and fell in love with (and in) the city. I thought I’d only do a gap year but ended up staying and living here. 

What was your biggest surprise about living & working in Paris?

The social security system: how much tax we have to pay, how much you get paid when you’re out of a job, and how much people rely on the government in general.

Hong Kong is a very capitalist society with low social security. Everyone’s responsible for their own finances, retirement, and livelihood. So this was a real culture shock for me. 

Which French cliché is actually true?

We take a lot of time off. 5 weeks minimum, and then most people have 10 extra days off (called RTT, for réduction du temps de travail), sometimes more. The French are great at work-life balance (but that doesn’t mean that they’re lazy!).

Do you have a most embarrassing 'cultural assimilation' story you can share?

For over a year, my insurance company spelled my name “Goei” on all my documents because the whole process was done over the phone, and the French “J” and “G” sounds are super similar. I was too shy to call back and change it (and wasn’t sure they would understand my French!). 

Besides friends & fam, what do you miss most about Hong Kong?
Convenience stores like 7-Eleven and dessert places that open late into the night!

Also administrative efficiency: getting things done, and having clear instructions on what paperwork is needed. I'm used to doing everything online and not having to go somewhere physically just to ask a question.

What's the one thing everyone should experience when in Paris?

Drive or cycle through the roundabout at Arc de Triomphe.

Your favorite or most useful word in French?

Bof - it’s like ‘meh’ in English. Use it when you feel lazy, unmotivated, or think something is so-so. Add a shrug when you say it. It makes you sound very French! 

“What did you think of the last Christopher Nolan movie?”

“Do you want to go for a drink tonight?”

3. Rafael, Customer Success Manager @ Spendesk

Hometown: Mexico City 
Moved to Paris in: 2014 

How did you end up in Paris? 

Like many expats living in France, I first got here through an exchange program in Lyon in 2014 (such a beautiful city). Back then I learned French, and got to travel a lot. And I also found love. After going back to Mexico City and living for a whole year with my partner (whom I met in Paris), we moved together to France. Now it’s been more than 4 years, and I've pursued a master’s degree program and worked in three different companies.

What was your biggest surprise about living & working in Paris? 

On a professional level I was surprised about how innovative the start-up world in Paris is (compared for example to the architecture of the city, which remains the same). On a more personal level I was amazed by living in such a multicultural city - something less common in Latin America - and by the hectic way of life with people going fast everywhere at all times.

Which French cliché is actually true? 

Going to the boulangerie to get good bread, and drinking wine. We love our French peers for offering the world those two products!

Besides friends & fam, what do you miss most about home? 

Saying food would be a big cliché, and you can actually find good Mexican restaurants in Paris (ask me for my secret hot spots). I would say people being warm and friendly on a more regular basis is what I miss the most.

Back in Mexico, you can actually chat with pretty much anyone, anytime, without it being "weird." I think Paris has a hectic rhythm of life, and people don't take enough time to get to know each other. 

What's the one thing everyone should experience when in Paris? 

Walking around the whole city is just great. Paris is by far one of the most beautiful cities in the world (not as perfect as pictured in Emily in Paris), and full of history, art, beautiful architecture, restaurants, art galleries, and markets.

Look around on foot, and you’ll be amazed by everything you’ll discover. I really advise Place Saint-Sulpice and its surroundings. 

Your favorite or most useful word in French?  

“Dépaysement” (a change of scenery) - I think this word expresses really well how you live once you start anew in a different country or city. In my case it was in Paris, and I am really happy about this decision!   

4. Chiara, Brand Content and Community manager @ TOTEM

Hometown: Palermo, Sicily 

How did you end up in Paris?

I was studying for my master’s degree in translation and interpreting in Milan. I wanted to change, leave my comfort zone, and experience new career paths so I applied for the Erasmus+ program.

I found an internship position in Paris as account manager for an email marketing SME, and that’s how the adventure started!  

What was your biggest surprise about living & working in Paris?

Paris is no “easy choice.” You love it or you hate it. You adapt or you succumb.

On a positive note, Paris is a real melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, and I love it. Milan was a pretty cosmopolitan city, but Paris is on another level! 

From a professional point of view, Paris is super vibrant and stimulating. You can actually be what you want, reinvent yourself, and you have so many opportunities! 

Which French cliché is actually true?

French people are effortlessly “cool.” And I am not only talking about young generations. French people have this “art de vivre à la française” which is contagious. You want to be like these free-spirited, modern philosophers, that have an opinion about everything but don’t care about what other people think.

And I mean, they know how to have fun and live their life “à pleine dent !”

Besides friends & fam, what do you miss most about Sicily?

A real Italian Sunday lunch. A 6-course meal with friends or family that lasts an entire afternoon! 

And Italian television. It’s such a concentration of Italian pop culture, tradition and nostalgia. I am not saying it is an intellectually enriching experience but it brings people together, usually over dinner. 

What's the one thing everyone should experience when in Paris?

A night out with a group of Parisians. Partying is a serious matter. In Paris even a beer is never just a beer - it's an occasion to talk about politics, environment, economics, tech, personal development, create new connections, and have incredible encounters. 

It’s the pretext to live to its fullest, to leave your comfort zone, to mingle, to create new opportunities and most importantly to dive into this amazing foreign culture. 

Your favorite or most useful word in French?

“Truc” (a thing). It’s just amazing. You can use this simple word for EVERYTHING, and the most magical part is that they’ll know exactly what you are referring to! 

5. Patrick, Content Lead at Spendesk

Hometown: Wellington, New Zealand
In Paris since: 2014

Tell us about how you ended up in Paris?

We moved here when my partner got a job at the OECD, which has headquarters in the city. She told me at the time that she was applying for an extreme long shot, and asked if, in the very unlikely case that she got it, would we move together?

She had a few interviews, and even had to fly to Paris for one of them, but then we didn’t hear anything for months. Then, out of the blue in March 2014, they told her she had the job. And we arrived here the next month.  

What was your biggest surprise about living & working in Paris?

The first big surprise was that I did actually have transferable work experience I trained as a lawyer in New Zealand, but there is virtually no way for me to work as one in France.

But I’d worked in content on websites for the government in Wellington. And, as it turns out, there are a real range of roles available to people who can write (in English) for websites here. 

The other big surprise was the vibrancy of the startup scene here, and how easy it was to fit in. I got lucky to find my first role interning for a small website with a great team. I learned a lot there, and immediately got another job in a great Paris startup. From there, I’ve been able to work full-time or as a contractor at dozens of local companies, all with similar needs.

So if you can crack the door open as an expat here, you’ll find a huge range of options. 

Besides friends & fam, what do you miss most about New Zealand?

Wellington is a “city,” but far smaller than Paris. Occasionally I feel like I want to be out of a big city and closer to nature, and be able to explore a little more.

But I get the exact same feeling (in reverse) when I’m back in Wellington. It feels very small and I miss the Paris vibe. 

What's the one thing everyone should experience when in Paris?

I think just walking around is the best thing you can do in Paris. I would encourage people to avoid the metro as much as possible (even though the metro is great too!), and try to walk from sight to sight.

Unless they’re commuting, Parisians move at this great pace - they stop to look at things, talk with shopkeepers, and enjoy being out of their apartments. If you spend three hours walking around the city, you see dancing, eating, drinking, smoking (!), chatting, and it feels like everyone is in the moment. 

Your favorite or most useful word in French?

My favourite word is “saperlipopette,” which is not useful at all! It’s basically an old-timey curse word that’s not offensive at all. Like saying “darn!” or “blast!” Nobody says it, but I think it’s great.

6. Sandra, Head of Content & Partnerships @ Mention

Hometown: Vancouver, Canada
In Paris since:  July 2015

Tell us about how you ended up in Paris?

Moved for love, stayed for life! I met my partner by pure chance in a bar in Paris the first time I travelled to Europe. After one and a half years of trying to manage a long distance relationship which included countless Skype conversations, many, many, long-haul flights, and hundreds of hours spent on administrative tasks, we decided I was the one who would bite the bullet and move.

After five years here, I have a family, a life, and as much as I complain about living here, I couldn’t imagine calling anywhere else home.  

What was your biggest surprise about living & working in Paris? 

That the integration was so much harder than I imagined. Whether it was learning the language, finding a job, making friends, or even doing simple administrative tasks - nothing came easily. But once you’re able to overcome these challenges, it’s very rewarding to live here. 

For a foreigner like me who has lived in cities with very contrasting vibes and cultures - Vancouver, Tokyo, and Taipei - I found Paris in a sense really ‘slaps you in the face’. But if you could handle this ‘rude awakening’ and work past it then you’re golden. 

Which French cliché is actually true? 

That they do take long lunches. But I can’t see a negative side of this cliché? Why wouldn’t you want to actually sit down and be able to chew your food properly at a restaurant instead of wolfing down a sandwich in front of your computer? Of course, no one actually takes two hour lunch breaks here every single day.

It depends on ‘what’ you eat too. If you’re at a proper French restaurant, you’ll probably want to have an appetizer and a dessert as a part of the standard ‘lunch set menu,’ and that naturally will extend the length of your meal.

Do you have a most embarrassing 'cultural assimilation' story you can share?

Too many that happen on a daily basis. They mostly involve me mispronouncing or confusing similar sounding French words with each other such as: ‘Rue de boulets’ (cannon street) and ‘Rue de boulettes’ (meatballs street), ‘sale’ (dirty) and ‘salé’ (salty), or ‘cou’ (neck) and ‘cul’ (butt), etc. I’m sure you can imagine the varying degrees of embarrassment.

Besides friends & fam, what do you miss most about home?

The gorgeous nature and abundance of greenery in Vancouver. The over-the-top friendly customer service. The ease of striking up small talk with anyone in any kind of situation. And Tim Hortons. 

What's the one thing everyone should experience when in Paris?

Host a dinner à la Français. Meaning nothing is prepared until your guests arrive. The ingredients are there but you drink and entertain simultaneously while you prepare the dinner.

It takes the stress off of having everything perfectly prepared before your guests arrive and it’s quite relaxing.

Your favorite or most useful word in French? 

It’s actually a series of three words: ‘du coup’, ‘bref’, and ‘alors’. They don’t actually mean much as they are used like how we use ‘you know,’ ‘like’, and, ‘so’ in English but you can essentially have entire conversations with a French person if you just occasionally insert other words in between those.

7. Erleta, Strategic Partnerships Manager @ Spendesk 

Hometown: Leicester, UK
In Paris since: May 2017

Tell us about how you ended up in Paris? 

I was living and studying in London for university from the age of 18, and was encouraged to take part in the Erasmus programme by my sister. My first option was Nice, and it was there that I met my ex-boyfriend who ultimately asked me to move to Paris after I finished my final year back in London and so I did.

I enjoyed my life, work and friends so much that moving back even after we broke up was never came to my mind.

What was your biggest surprise about living & working in Paris?

My favourite surprise about working in France is all of the employee benefits! Average days of holiday are higher, there are a lot more bank holidays on top of that too, lunch breaks are longer, and your lunch is also subsidised by the company which just blew my mind!

Do you have a most embarrassing 'cultural assimilation' story you can share?

Oh there are many. But one that doesn’t get old is almost kissing friends of friends on the lips because I never know which cheek to start with for the ‘bisous’. When you aren't used to greeting people by giving them a kiss on each cheek, it can give you a slight sense of anxiety every time you have to do it. So when you do actually go for it and have this awkward exchange / almost peck on the lips, you never feel like you have made a great impression.

What's the one thing everyone should experience when in Paris?

A simple summer evening with friends by the Seine. I think you really feel the essence of Paris when you're enjoying your surroundings having a relaxed evening with friends in the heart of the city - surrounded by hundreds of people doing the same thing.

The sightseeing is fun, but to really feel and enjoy the culture is to immerse in it and live as the locals do.

Your favorite or most useful word in French?

"Bahh ouiiii!" (of course!), "génial" (cool), and "dégueulasse !" (disgusting).

8. Benjamin, Freelance Growth Marketer, Kactus

Hometown: San Francisco, CA
In Paris since: May 2015

How did you end up in Paris?

After studying abroad at University of Sydney, I decided post-university was a perfect transition period to enjoy being abroad. I wanted to learn another language and live in a city with a growing tech ecosystem so I ended up in Paris. I wasn't sure how long I would stay. That was 5 years ago already and I don't see myself leaving anytime soon!

Which French cliché is actually true?

Everyone smokes. I still remember laughing to myself after a dinner party with a French family where grandparent, child and grandchild enjoyed a smoke together. If you did that in America, your guests' jaws would drop.

Do you have a most embarrassing 'cultural assimilation' story you can share?

For the first year or two I couldn't speak French very well. Hairdressers rarely speak English. Each haircut I got the first year was different because they had no idea what I was saying.

Besides friends & fam, what do you miss most about California?

Eating while walking. And good sandwiches. The bread and products in France are the best in the world. I'm still confused why the French can't assemble a good sandwich.

What's the one thing everyone should experience when in Paris?

Summer days enjoying an apéro in a Park or on the Seine when it's light out until 10:30pm.

Your favorite or most useful word in French? "Kif !" This is a slang word that means ‘to enjoy something extremely, or to be in a state of bliss’. There is not an equivalent in English and I often miss being able to use it when speaking with a non-French speaker.

9. Alfie, Head of US Sales, Spendesk

Hometown: North London, England
In Paris since: August 2017

Tell us about how you ended up in Paris? 

I was working at Bloomberg between 2014-2017 where I met my now wife - we actually sat next to each other at work. We decided that we no longer wanted to work in a large corporation and decided to hunt for some ambitious startups.

She’s also French, and I had a thirst to learn the language and live abroad. So, we packed our bags and flew across the Channel. 3 years later, I was still there. 

What was your biggest surprise about living & working in Paris? 

How amazing the culture is. Everything about France is amazing, the food is incredible (I should know - I put on a few lbs!), the art is beautiful, the buildings are magnificent, the history is rich. It’s just a great country to experience. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

Do you have a most embarrassing 'cultural assimilation' story you can share? 

Oh my gosh, I have many embarrassing stories as a result of learning French that are probably best kept offline! But for those expats learning French, they’ll understand why saying “I have neck ache” can often get some funny looks.

Besides friends & fam, what do you miss most about Britain? 

I kind of miss how overly ‘polite” English people can be. It’s rare that someone has held open a door for me in public in France. 

What's the one thing everyone should experience when in Paris? 

The food, and especially their fresh bread and pastries!

Your favorite or most useful word in French? 

I’m not sure about how useful it is, but I love this phrase “petit à petit l'oiseau fait son nid” - it means. “little by little, the bird makes its nest” - the French just have a way of making everything sound so sophisticated!

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Dominique Farrar

Dominique Farrar is Head of Brand & Communications at Spendesk. Originally from San Francisco, Dom spent her early career building brand communities for tech companies large and small, before moving to Paris and taking her favorite job ever at Spendesk.