Who wouldn’t want to live in Paris?

I wanted it so badly that I jumped at the first chance the opportunity presented itself to me: a semester exchange at Sciences Po, one of the prestigious grandes ecoles. I found out that I was accepted for the study abroad program a year in advance and this allowed me ample time to bubble with anticipation and excitement until I was practically jumping up and down in my seat on the plane in my eagerness to get there faster.

Photo: Flickr.com/Wayne Shipley

It turns out however, that even Paris isn’t flawless. For potential sojourners to the City of Love, beware of the following things, which could greatly disappoint you, but hopefully won’t mar your experience too irreversibly.

1. Smoking

If you come from a country or city where smoking has been banned virtually everywhere, Paris provides you with a rude awakening. If you’re unlucky, like I was in this case, you step out of the airport to place your first step onto French soil, beaming like a school kid, inhale a deep gulp of “European air,” and subsequently start choking. Not because of thick smog but because there are a few French people you hadn’t noticed, crowded outside the doors, puffing away on their cigarettes despite the cold January air. Although it’s banned to smoke indoors in public spaces, you will encounter smokers outside most buildings and on all café patios in Paris.

2. Parisian charm – or lack thereof

Parisians are famous for their nonexistent hospitality, which is a common point of complaint amongst tourists. However, note that the rudeness associated with the Parisian experience is really only referring to Parisians, not the French in general. Most of the French people I met in Paris came from different parts of France and they were lovely. If Paris really is the most visited city in the world, then it’s hardly surprising that locals behave slightly abruptly to the hoards of tourists and visitors who clog up the streets and public transport system every day. Just remember the golden rule – Parisians react much better to those who address them in French!

3. Not quite always the City of Love

Upon arriving in Paris one of the first pieces of advice I received from fellow female exchange students was to beware of “creepy French men”. How odd, I had thought. Surely I’d just arrived in the renowned city of amour and romance. I was looking forward to an experience fitting of such a description. I soon found out however, that Paris isn’t without its share of petty criminals and general weirdos who appear to be more prevalent in the metro than any other place, and who can make traveling alone at night a rather unpleasant and sometimes dangerous experience. Paris does not have a skyrocketing crime rate and none of the unpleasant encounters I had with male strangers ever resulted in a situation where I felt in serious danger. Nevertheless, I would advise you to keep the romantic-lovey-ooh-la-la fantasizing to a minimum before arriving and to keep a level head while here.

4. Chanel No. 6 – whiff of Montparnasse

I wish I could say that the prevalent smell I associate most closely with Paris is the warm aroma of a boulangerie early in the morning, or the scent of expensive perfume on (what seemed like) every French woman as she breezed past. Unfortunately I can’t, because I lived near the Montparnasse metro station and had to take it most mornings to get to my classes. There resided a heavy homeless man at the top of the stairs in the crossing between Line 12 and Line 6, who carried such a strong stench of urine and sweat and grime, that the first few times my eyes almost watered when I rounded the bend to where he slept. In the future I learned to hold my breath when I neared the spot. To put it lightly, the Parisian metro has a very particular and memorable smell which leaves a lasting imprint on one’s memory. You’ve been warned.

5. Get a room

It was when an older couple, at least in their 60s, started full on making out on the seats in front of me on the metro that I understood the sheer extent of acceptable PDA in Paris. Don’t be surprised to find couples from early teens to retirees smooching in parks, in restaurants, on public transport and pretty much anywhere that isn’t home. This didn’t irk me in particular, but as one friend of mine observed, this behavior might shed light on a huge problem in Paris that affects everyone: space. Paris is very beautiful, but it’s also very small. Perhaps these couples, especially the younger ones, simply don’t have anywhere to “get a room?” And who can blame them when you consider the rent issue in Paris. If excessive PDA won’t bother you, then the housing situation will drive you nuts. The reality is that finding a place to live that is affordable, doesn’t require you to share a bed with anyone and is within Paris is a nightmarish affair which will test your French to its limits and require a bureaucratic extravaganza like you never thought possible. Indeed, you will be lucky to find a room all to yourself.
These disappointments could potentially put a damper on your whole Parisian experience. But if you fall in love with the city, like I did, you will look back at them with a heartfelt fondness. An occasionally smelly metro is a small price to pay when put into perspective: you get to live in Paris!