Interview with David, 33, from the USA 🇺🇸

Interview with David

David: My name is David, I’m 33 and I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan, USA, and I’ve been in France now for 7 years consecutively. Prior to that, I did an exchange during university in Orléans, which is in the centre of France. After 1 semester there I fell in love with life in France.

Urban Index: How long was this semester?

David: Three months. It depends which semester you do. It could be three, four months, but it was three months for me, in 2010. 

I had never really actually planned on coming to France, it was more like I knew I wanted to be in Europe. I was taking French classes at university when I offered to be a host family for an exchange student and he was really cool. He said I should do the exchange in the summer, so I did that and it was the best summer of my life. Then, three years later, I applied to a program called TAPIF Teaching Assistance Program in France.

This program is really nice for young professionals and university students looking to get an experience because it requires a little bit more work than just coming as a student when university helps with the visas and all that. Teaching Assistance is sponsored by the French government, so the French education system. They take care of organising the visa and paying for it. So in 2013, I came to officially live in France for a year. 

Urban Index: So the first time you came for the exchange program in Orléans. Was all of the admin then also taken care of by the university?

David: It was a bit unique because I was only staying for three months. I didn’t need a visa because the US passport allows you to stay in Europe for three months straight without having to leave the country . I do know people who came as students and there was a visa process because they were staying for a full year, but the university would walk them through that process.

Urban Index: Did the university put you in student halls or did you have to find your own place to live?

David: Accommodation was part of the arrangement. We either had the choice of staying in student housing or we could stay with a host family. I chose to stay with a host family  so that I could be better integrated and have that experience. 

Urban Index: You regret your decision after or was it the good decision to make?

David: I would say there are pros and cons for me: it was really good because it got me out of my comfort zone and made me see really how American I was. From simple things like not having air conditioning in the summer to how much water I consumed , you know, they would look at me like I was crazy. They would have to say that when you’re taking a shower, maybe don’t take as long and keep the water running the entire time.

Urban Index: What other things like that can you remember?

David: Shorter showers, or that if you’re not in the room, turn the lights off. Little things like that, that I never thought about . It was great for my French and to see how French families live and they were instructed by the universities to really give the French experience, from real French breakfast to having a goûter, telling me at four o’clock you have what’s called goûter, a snack – very important! 

Urban Index: When you came back in 2013 you said that the university helped you with some of the admin?

David: No, I came to do a TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France) which is a program for the US & Canada, if you’re from the UK it’s run by the British Council. You go ahead and apply, explaining why you want to be a teaching assistant, if you get chosen you’ll be teaching English in a school. They say it’s 20 hours, but you only work 12 hours per week. You’re assisting the English teachers to give them a real experience, as we are usually younger and speak to a native level. We are closer in age to the high school students as we just graduated.

The process with that is they give you different regions to choose from, so you can’t choose a city like Nice or Bordeaux. Amazingly enough, a lot of people, especially those who’ve not travelled, choose Paris, but Paris is one of the most difficult places to succeed in and it has the highest rate of people leaving because they don’t expect the housing to be so competitive and they get lost in the crowd. 

The program is just long enough to where you get to live in France and work, but it’s not long enough to truly be integrated  so I ended up being in a very small city near Orléans called Blois, which still had about 30,000 people and it was awesome for me. At first I felt it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it was awesome because I ended up being better, integrated and meeting a lot of French people and actually using my French, whereas in Paris, you don’t have to use French.

With the Tapif you have the choice of around three regions, then they place you and closer to the date they tell you which city you will be in. You usually get placed with your teacher, who if they are good, will take you under their wing. They’re supposed to be there to welcome you, pick you up from the airport or at least tell you how to get to the city. Sometimes they organise dinners with the teachers and above that there also are other teaching assistants, so you’re not completely alone.

The Visa process is that once you’re accepted, you go to your nearest consulate and everything is paid for by the government. Depending where you’re applying from in the US, sometimes it can take 9 months and other times 12 months. This allows you to work in France. Under normal conditions, you’re not allowed to transfer this visa. If you find a job while you’re in France, you do have to go back to your home country and apply for a new working visa, not the one for Tapif. Technically your visa is not transferable, but there are always exceptions, nothing in France is black and white.

Urban Index: I’m assuming you benefited from that?

David: I did indeed.

After that year in Orléans I thought I had it all out of my system and went back to the US and started working for the Quebec branch of New Balance

Urban Index: Still using your French?

David: Yes, which helped me realise I had a long ways to go to use businessFrench, so I decided I also wanted to do a master’s degree, but not in education. I was also over 25  so there are a limited number of program slots for people that age range in public universities in France. I re-enlisted for the same program and it just so happened that I was placed in the Paris region this time.  I had a friend who had an extra bedroom, so I didn’t have to worry about finding a place of my own. I started looking for programs and eventually went to a private school. So again, I went through the same visa process and I ended up only working 12 hours a week.

Urban Index: That’s amazing.

David: Yeah, only 12 hours a week. It wasn’t very well paid, I think you’re paid like 900 after taxes, so barely surviving. You need money saved up before that. I found a part-time job teaching English 8 hours a week, and they really liked me, so they offered me a part-time job for 20 – 25 hours after I finished my contract for the teaching program. 

I went to the prefecture multiple times, and each time they told me, no, no, no. One day I went and I stumbled upon somebody who was in a good mood on the right day. I must have been wearing the right colour shirt and I did bring a French friend, she must have said something right. We asked for a change of status. The administrator looked at my passport, looked at me, and asked “you have a CDI?” Then he said “Okay, well, you know, I guess you’re already working so we can make an exception. You’re within your rights. I see that you transferred from eight hours and now you want to work 25 hours. It qualifies for the financial minimum to be here and for the visa.” and stamped my form. I got lucky, that is definitely not the standard.

Urban Index: So before you met the guy who approved you, you’d actually been to the office multiple times before to try to get the same request through. And every time they said, no, you were resilient and you went back. Persistence, it’s very French.

David: Yes, but I would also say the process is changing. I’ve noticed even now, when I go for renewals, that it’s not as easy to just do a walk-in appointment.  It depends where you’re at. If you’re in an area with large numbers of immigrants, it’s gonna be a much more rigid process. They are going to be less understanding. If you’re in a smaller area, maybe it’s easier. I happened to luck out. I also know now, that post COVID, many things have moved online, but their online system isn’t necessarily up to par.

Urban Index: Okay, so you’re now in Paris, you have your paperwork sorted. You’re living in your own place. Tell me about going from your friend’s place to getting your own place.

David: That was a long journey too. I think what’s most important for that process is getting financially stable, to become financially stable means you have a secure job, but it also means your visa. So let’s talk about my visa process.

I managed to get this first visa set, which is good for one year and it is directly associated and tied to your company who sponsors you. Your employer has to agree to pay. I think it’s like one month’s tax to have you, and they have to justify why you deserve this job versus a French national.

Urban Index: Is this for any foreigner or is this specific for overseas foreigners?

David: This is for non-EU foreigners. The hierarchy basically is French national, European citizen, non-EU citizen. A lot of companies don’t want to hire someone without a visa, however you can’t get a visa without a promesse d’embauche which is a written confirmation that you have received a job offer in France, the “intent to hire”.

It’s kind of what comes first, the chicken or the egg. Yes. Once you do get the agreement from the company, they write a letter of motivation on why they need your skills. It could be that you’re handling a certain market but you’re headquartered in France or maybe you have exceptional work talent, something along those lines. After I managed to get that, I had to stay at my company for one year, at least to remain valid in France. Once that year was up, I renewed it for a second year  and then you’re supposed to stay a bit of time after you can’t just leave the company .

After that first year visa, you get a four year visa . And once you have that visa, you’re free to move around. Although you need to have a CDI for the 4-year visa. And then once you’re done with that, you get 10 years. Dialling back, the first step was having the 1-year visa and I had to sacrifice a lot. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but fortunately there’s something called CAF. It’s a government body which subsidises your living, so they give you free money.

Urban Index: And you didn’t have an issue getting that despite being a foreigner.

David: No, there are certain people who would like to change that though

Urban Index: Yeah gotcha.

David: Yeah. I was able to benefit from that and that really helped,  especially as I was paying for my studies in a private company  but despite all that, even though I was completely, completely, completely broke during that time, I felt okay because I knew that I had healthcare which is like the worst thing in the US.

Urban Index: That was through work, right?

David: Oh, no, I’m talking about social healthcare. I did have a Mutuelle or insurance plan,  but what I mean is that in the US, one of your biggest fears is like, what happens to me if I get sick? What happens to me ifI have to go to the hospital  and I go into debt, even if you’re in the middle of your masters. Well, you now have $30,000 in debt for your masters. Plus you have medical expenses here. I at least knew that if something happened to me, my bare necessities were met. I could eat, I could even manage a go on holiday a couple times a year. Nothing fancy, but good enough.It  allowed me to become more stable the longer I was there. Even though I worked for some crazy startups, I was able to be more financially independent  and get my own place after some time.

Urban Index: So yeah, it’s a process.

David: Yeah.

Urban Index: Now that you were stable, what was going through your head? Like, I’m gonna make this my new home. I’m gonna build a life here or was it like there’s so much world to see?

David: To see? Honestly, my initial idea was, well, as long as the visa works out, if I can renew it and it’s good, I’ll stay here. And then you get to the point where yes, you of course miss your family,  your friends, you’re still a foreigner, but it becomes home. You feel more grounded? And I think at my age too, I wanted stability. You build your life, you make friends, you get used to things. There’s things that you like, little quirks that you end up loving. For me it’s actually just having to switch languages, even if I’m not perfect. It’s getting to use that. You see your perspective changing and you realise that what you grew up with, it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different.  You gain a new perspective. 

Urban Index: Tell me how you made friends because that’s something that’s very challenging for a lot of people who come to a new country. Where did you find friends? How did you build relationships with them? How did you immerse yourself into the Parisian life?

David: I think one of the biggest things was working in the startup scene, working in startups that had very diverse people with similar stories, even if they, come from vastly different cultures. There are also French people who have lived abroad. They empathised with me and they were eager to take me under the wing. There are other foreigners from all over the world who share the same things. Like “yeah, I miss my family too”. “Oh, I don’t get to celebrate this, but I would love to celebrate this holiday with somebody”. “Do you wanna join” and things like that. I guess it was a bit easier for me because I did have friends already, but I think just getting involved, you’re already out of your comfort zone, so why not go the extra mile? There are plenty of Anglophone people if it’s a language barrier you’re worried about, there’s plenty of Spanish-speaking or Anglophone groups on Facebook, MeetUp is a goldmine for clubs. Just search for a cycling club in Paris and you’re gonna find something. I was involved for a while with community-style initiatives like the American church of Paris to do breakfast for the homeless and you meet people there. The more jobs I changed, the bigger my social network got. 

Urban Index: What would you say is the percentage of French people among your friends today?

David: I would say it’s about 50-50, but even my local French friends have a story behind them. They’re not 100% pure French that can trace their lineage to the aristocrats. But everybody is either Francophone and maybe they’re half Spanish or half something else. I would say my core group of friends areFrench with others being French plus. At work I would say it’s quite international. I think I have a healthy mix. 

Urban Index: You said that you worked at a bunch of crazy startups. Once you had finished with the work that got you set up in France, how did you go about finding a job?

David: Oh, you know, that was weird too. I actually didn’t know where to look. It sounds so silly now that I look back, like if you just type in Google ‘looking for a job’ it should pop up. I had a friend who was really passionate, she was teaching on the side and she linked me up with the company, I started as a teacher for them and I really liked their pedagogy. I proposed they should market more what they do and began community management, for them when I realised I knew nothing. That’s when I started my masters for digital marketing communication.

David: When I got to school, I started asking more questions, I found other job opportunities that could be interesting. I came across Welcome to the Jungle  which is great website, especially for both younger and experienced people alike. There are all kinds of jobs and there are plenty of eclectic international companies or companies that want to become more international who offer great opportunities. If you’re younger and you’re not worried about pay and you’re eager to put in the hours for the experience, I think there’s a lot of great startups there. If you don’t exactly have the background they’re looking for, it allows you to still get in touch. I think France is still pretty traditional, like if you study business in college and university, you should do business until you die. Whereas this is what makes the startup scene quite cool, because they’re looking for people with diverse backgrounds and not necessarily a straight and narrow path. If you work hard, you get promoted and you can then maybe branch out. 

Urban Index: French culture: tell me what for you was the most surprising and what stood out to you?You already mentioned some from your host family.

David: Different eating habits: I come from a snacking culture and that’s not really existent here, but I would say the biggest shock was when I finally moved, it wasn’t the culture or the language, it was actually being a suburbanite from the US and moving to a big city . I think I would’ve had more or less the same shock and difficulties adapting to public transportation had it been Paris or Chicago mm-hmm

Urban Index: I was gonna ask about public transportation

David: It was, you know, adapting to actually being around people all the time. You’re always surrounded. That was the biggest thing for me. But really on the French side, I would say there are things in the beginning that you notice. You criticise, you mock and then slowly they just seep into your personality.  Like asking loads of questions and being overly analytical. Never really saying you’re right, but saying things like “oh, well you have a point, but…” and then always asking a question. There’s so many little things, like yesterday I was eating a baked camembert and I was just thinking this is so simple, but I would never get this in the US. This is so good. A simple delight. 

I think that a common misconception about French culture in the US is that there’s a 35 hour work week and that’s it. This might be true for a lot of companies, but I definitely worked 50, 60 hours some weeks. There also are perks. I think France has a work hard play hard culture. And when you’re truly off, you’re disconnected, as when you’re on vacation.

Urban Index: The right to disconnect is a French law regarding the ability of people to disconnect from work and primarily not to engage in work-related electronic communications such as e-mails or messages during non-work hours. You’re truly off. 

So for the people from the US who are thinking about coming to France, but they’re not convinced yet for various reasons, what would you tell them?

David: It depends where you’re at in your life. If you’re a student, I’d say take the leap because it’s a time where you do have the support from your university, from your peers, your family, and when you arrive here, you’ll be with people and you’re more adaptable and flexible in your twenties. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for young talent. Knowing French is not obligatory, but it definitely helps. Refusing to learn the language will hinder you in the long run. I would say, prepare, think about just having the base of the language and don’t think that one morning you’re just gonna get on a plane and come to Paris. It’s not like a movie. Definitely do your research. 

Urban Index: Emily’s from Chicago as well, isn’t she?

David: Yeah, unless you are that 0.1% people who are just completely lucky, it doesn’t work like that. Do your research on how to get visas. It’s not impossible. And actually there are a lot of startups, a lot of companies. If you are in business development or if you’re an IT engineer, there’s a lot of opportunity. I actually have a friend like that, while I went through all this struggle to survive and whatever, my friend from Detroit is a software engineer. It basically was Emily in Paris for him, got hired, got a great salary, they paid for his visa. They walked him through everything. They took care of the legal fees.

Urban Index: They bought him all those Chanel bags.

David: Yeah. But I would say that you should have some French because it can be difficult in a traditional French company.. Even if people speak English, everything will be done in French.  If you’re in a startup they’ll want English, but maybe their level of English isn’t great.  Having basic knowledge is going to help, I would say either way, prepare, join forums, ask questions and be aware of people looking to make a buck off of you.

Urban Index: Have you ever been ripped off?

David: I have not because I’ve been fortunate to have French people who have helped me. There are points of desperation where you’re willing to feed into what you think is the scheme. For example, now that you’re allowed to book online for appointments at the prefecture to pick up your visa, there are people who built online robots that take all the appointments and then they sell these appointments. It says very clearly on the administrative website to not pay for an appointment, but there are still many people falling for this scam. The government is working to combat this, but don’t fall into this trap. People end up paying for the meeting but the appointment is not actually reserved in their name. The other thing is there are a lot of “consultancy companies” out there that say that they can take care of the process for you. That’s not true unless they can help you with the process. But if they can say, “I guarantee you visa”, it’s 100% a scam. Guaranteeing visas is not possible, getting a visa is a case by case situation. Others overcharge for basic things, like those student relocation services. They’ll rip you off.

Urban Index: I knew some of them in London, it was awful what they did.

David: Yes, there’s a lot of things like that. Always ask questions before paying high fees for services. If you’re a well-to-do foreigner who obviously has a good job, they’re gonna know that fees are higher elsewhere than here and they’re going to make a lot of money off of you.  I would just always double check that, but the difficulty is that you don’t know what questions to ask to avoid these situations. It’s hard. All the information is out there, but it’s all over the place. There’s no central place to find it all.

Urban Index: Last question:  which are your favourite places in Paris? 

David: My favourite place I would say is so cheesy, but I love Montmartre even though it’s super touristy there, it still has this really great charm. Um, I love Île Saint Louis near Notre Dame. Even though again, it’s in a very touristy sector. There are a lot of French people there. There’s some really great hidden gems. There’s so many great quarters. There are some places that are more aesthetically beautiful for the architecture in the 17th like the Hausmannian buildings, but for great food, I think the 18th is awesome, the Marais is also great.

I would say Montmartre overall for everything because I love the Sacre Coeur, there’s good restaurants there, it’s nostalgic, it’s gorgeous. And then I also just love (it’s very specific) on Pont Neuf, there’s this little Place Dauphine,  and there’s a few reasons: it’s by the river, you have a view on the Eiffel Tower plus there’s this little area with like Petanque courts and little cafes and bookstores and somehow the buildings black out all the noise. Near there is also my favourite pub called The Highlander and it’s very Harry Potter. You have this bridge and you go through it. I would say that is my overall favourite place in Paris. 

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