Expat Comforts

10 April 2012

Schwartz's Deli

During the first couple of years as an expat in Paris, waves of homesickness and leaden spirits were frequent and initially made worse by too many trips stateside. When things were good it was because Paris generously fueled my resolve to make the city my permanent home but a number of recurring expat roadblocks meant that she dispirited as quickly as she inspired.

Six years later and it’s the reverse scenario that causes unease. The U.S. will forever be a source of travel excitement and adventure but not where I want to spend my everyday -a decision made even easier by these halcyon days of globalization which have brought countless Anglo imports to the capital. The meteoric rise of the cupcake, the arrival of legitimate Mexican food and the growing availability of treasured foreign food products- all are part of the city’s current reality and represent a far more familiar landscape for American expats than the uncomfortable unknown it fostered in years past.

The beginning is often turbulent for expats but if you can persevere and identify a set of comforts, weathering the inevitable highs and lows will become a welcome challenge. Here are a few of mine:

| Familiar faces 
Not only do I exchange pleasantries with locals in my neighborhood when I run into them at our favorite local café but I’ve reached the point where I’ve also come into contact with enough people I’d like to avoid. Avoiding acquaintances in the supermarket is universal and a sign, at least to me, of home.

le boulanger

| Becoming a regular 
I don’t frequent enough of one café for servers to anticipate my order but they do acknowledge who I am and welcome me warmly. Whether at the bakery, my favorite hangout, the local bookseller or cheesemonger, this sense of community and overall chumminess uplifts in the face of fleeting twinges of homesickness.

| American friends 
It took me six years to build the (small) handful of French friendships I have today. The first two years were rough – it didn’t matter how good my French was even then, I had yet  to develop the mannerisms (in this case, Parisian) that would make them feel like they could bring me into their group. It wasn’t until I began interning that I made a couple of close French friends and even then, there was always an invisible barrier. We can see each other this much, but not THIS much. These aren’t the kinds of friends I’ll ever really feel comfortable calling on in a bind or just to chat over the phone. The language isn’t the issue nor is my level of integration – the dynamic between us just isn’t the same. You just can’t shoot the breeze the way you can with other Americans.

Fortunately, Paris is brimming with American expats and I’ve forged a number of tight friendships, both in likely and unlikely places (grad school vs. twitter). Most of these relationships require very little effort to nurture and involve getting together more than once every two months. We just get each other.

Le Camion Qui Fume burger

| Burgers
Forgive me for perpetuating French stereotypes about the American diet but it’s hard to stop myself from squealing with joy that there are burgers in Paris no longer of ill repute. No need to feel ashamed, they’re as worthy as any other sandwich. I’ve talked about this in-depth here, herehere, and here but it should be said that I keep going back for more not because I grew up eating them regularly (I didn’t) and therefore need them (I don’t) but because no matter how you frame it, there’s nothing that lifts the spirits quite like comfort food. This is my version of eating Ben and Jerry’s from the tub.

Vegetarian tacos at Candelaria

| Tacos and Tostadas 
Unlike my friends hailing from the west coast, I didn’t grow up eating tacos, tostadas, or anything remotely Mexican. I’ve discovered my fondness for these wildly delicious specialties thanks to El Nopal, El Guacamole and Candelaria and have grown to associate them with home. They’re as exciting and novel for me as for Parisians and, according to said west coast friends, as authentic as this city is going to see. Bring on the pico de gallo.

Cappuccino at Coutume Café

| Coffee shops to sip, read and lounge 
Coffee shop culture isn’t the same as Parisian café culture. In my former American life, I spent hours ensconced in giant leather armchairs, alternating between chai lattés and cappuccinos and reading until I was kindly asked to leave. Third spaces that offered warmth, companionship and quality beverages were both a source of studious inspiration and calm, particularly when I needed it most. I can sit and people-watch for hours at a Paris café but with acrid coffee and churlish waiters, they just don’t hug like a coffee shop can. But the shift is underway, here. Coutume, Kooka Boora, Telescope and, my favorite, Merci’s used books café are all suitable contenders with knowledgeable (smiling!) baristas and sating snacks. All that’s missing are the bottomless armchairs.

| Philadelphia {cream cheese}
When I told friends from home that I’d be hosting a live show on Facebook every Friday in March with 2 top chefs for Philadelphia France, they laughed and said “who eats that?!” I do. And it’s the moment you don’t have easy access to something that it becomes unbelievably appealing. Fortunately, it’s no longer necessary to pay 6-8€ for the imported stuff, the brand is now widely distributed throughout Europe. (if you’re curious, the videos are available here). 

 What would land on your list?