Netflix’s Emily In Paris is the new romantic TV series about a 20-something American woman moving to the city of lights. Here, one writer recalls the three months she spent trying – and failing – to “live the dream” in the French capital.
I was laying invisible eggs and clucking around a makeshift pen in the living room, pretending to be a chicken with the six-year-old boy I’d been looking after since I’d arrived in Paris three months earlier. It had become clear that I wasn’t living the French dream I’d come in search of.
Why wasn’t I in a cafe pouting my red-stained lips while waiting for romance to “begin again” à la Taylor Swift? What about the wild nights that F. Scott Fitzgerald promised? Why did I have such a round head, incapable of pulling off an Amélie French bob? How the hell did I get here?
I was 26 years old. Earlier in the year, I’d decided I was bored of my content life in Edinburgh and ready to fulfil a lifelong dream of mine: live in Paris for a year. I envisioned finding the love of my life in an art gallery, gorging on butter-soaked foods every night and just generally being very, very cool. That struggling artist in Montmartre? Sure, I’d be their modern muse.
I stocked up on Breton tops, tried (and failed) to learn how to roll a cigarette and gave a fervent performance of Zou Bisou Bisou at my leaving do. I was ready to go. There were just a few slight problems: I only had a few hundred pounds in the bank, my French was terrible (despite valiant attempts at night school) and I didn’t know anybody in France.
To ease myself in, I spent a couple of months working on an English speaking campsite in northern France (that’s another story, never to be told) then headed to Paris to be an au pair. I had visions of being a Maria von Trappe/Jane Birkin hybrid – a cool but respected nanny by day, and the city’s latest It girl by night.
On arrival, it was everything I’d dreamed it to be. The family was French perfection. “They’ll take me in and teach me their ways,” I gushed internally, “And in return, I’ll look after them in my practically perfect Mary Poppins manner. ” I stayed in a studio apartment near to their family home. The lack of oven meant I was pretty limited in what I could recreate from Rachel Khoo’s My Little Paris Kitchen – but I was in Paris, nothing else mattered!
I was living the dream and my fringe was hanging in a very Françoise Hardy way. As I sipped a glass of vin rouge and enjoyed a view of the Eiffel Tower from my patio, I didn’t know that my Parisian bubble was about to pop.
It started with food (of course it did).
It turned out I was living with one of Paris’s healthiest families. Instead of butter-drenched beans and cracking crème brûlées, mealtimes at the weekend country house usually consisted of quiche, brown rice and a large selection of yoghurts. On one memorable Saturday night, it was scrambled egg and tomatoes – sans fresh, crusty bread – for dinner. During the week, my paltry €75 weekly wage meant I was eating a peasant’s diet 24/7.
I felt like a very hungry Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables for most of the time. But what did that matter? I was in Paris!
I then started to struggle with the dynamics.
Yes, I understood I was there to do a job. But I had to bite my tongue when I was shown the “preferred” way of washing up. I nearly choked on my scrambled egg when (male) family members put their finished plates next to my placemat while I was still eating my dinner. I was often left to clean up the pee of the dog and an incontinent, blind cat. And I guess it’s just a lot to look after two small children for up to 12 hours at a time on weekends. And let’s not get started on the number of times I had to “laugh off” the little boy trying to get me in trouble with lies.
Perhaps I just wasn’t a very good au pair, but I persevered and started to focus on my life outside of work. After all, I was in Paris!
I wanted to make friends in Paris: the hip university students, the liberal movers and shakers, the beautiful men, the international expats – they were all surely out to play? I ended up meeting British au pairs who were still in their teens and even arranged a rendezvous that no one turned up to.
I did, however, manage to bag a date with a Parisian man I got talking to after asking for directions. He even worked at Disneyland! “This is it,” I thought, “I really am Taylor Swift in the Begin Again video.” Alas, after a scenic but tepid date, he was the least Parisian bloke in the arrondissement and I just didn’t fancy him one bit.
The language school that I enrolled in and spent the majority of my “salary” on was my final hope of making this dream happen. I WAS IN PARIS, FFS.
I, perhaps over-confidently, applied for the second-level beginners class. A minute into my enrollment test, the admissions officer told me – with a smirk – I’d have to start from the bottom class. When my tutor asked us to introduce ourselves, I put on my very best Carla Bruni accent. The tutor laughing about how “so obviously British” I sounded was not the standing ovation I had hoped for.
I thought a collective hatred for the smug tutors could gain me friends at language school. But the only language we had in common was French and, let’s face it, we could barely order a cheese baguette between us.
I definitely wasn’t living the dream in Paris.
Don’t get me wrong, I have many beautiful memories from my three months in Paris.
One of my favourite things to do on my days off was to simply people-watch: at the parks, in the museums, during nighttime runs around the glittering Eiffel Tower. But I realised I was watching people living the life I didn’t have the means to make a reality for myself. I was skint, working a job that made me feel worthless, lonely and completely lost.
It was time to admit this way of living wouldn’t work for another nine months. I missed the UK, my friends and my family. I found myself dreaming of getting back into a nondescript office, watching trash TV with flatmates and having an oven to stick a frozen pizza in. I wanted to earn money again, to live independently, to get on with my career I’d put on hold and perhaps taken for granted.
I got on the Eurostar, waved au revoir to Paris and ended up on my friend’s doorstep with a broken suitcase in Bermondsey. When she opened the door, we both burst out laughing. I had £50 in my bank account, a couch to sleep on and a job interview the next day.
The Paris dream was over, but the London one was just about to begin.