Life as a Paris Expat

When Charles Dickens wrote the line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he must have been living abroad. In fact, there’s a strong chance he was working in Paris as an au pair.

Over the past year I’ve learned that expat life certainly has its ups and downs, which somehow feel stronger than the vicissitudes of life back home. When things go wrong, it’s extra frustrating- the French post lost your box of summer clothes, you can’t figure out how to unlock your phone and your banker doesn’t speak a word of English (who, ironically, is the one person in France who wants to speak to you in French). And all the while your family’s across the ocean and it can take a long time to set up a network of friends and acquaintances.

Life abroad can get frustrating and lonely very quickly. (And in those moments, god bless Gchat.)

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But the highs are also so much higher. Everything’s new and exciting. What is commonplace to a local, (take for example, going to the bakery each day for a baguette), to you is quaint and so French.

But as always in life, the people are ultimately more important than the place. What I love most about living abroad is the other expats you meet: funny, fascinating individuals from all over the world who are always game for another shot of gin. Who share the same philosophies about life and youth and adventure, and pushing yourself to live live live as much as possible. They’re people with stories more compelling than mine could ever be: engineers and foreign diplomats and journalists working overseas, born in Seoul but raised in Warsaw and London. They’re bankers who dropped everything to be pastry chefs, midwestern girls with big dreams who just wanted to soak up Paris. They get me. I get them.

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In darker moments I feel insecure about my choices, especially in comparison to others back home. I don’t have a steady career or a boyfriend or a lease. (And I definitely don’t have a baby.) And what’s worse? I don’t want any of those things just yet. For now, I just want to be free. I want to drink buckets in the streets of Bangkok and slurp oysters fresh from the French Atlantic. I want to look back and regret nothing. I want to be old and wrinkled and realize that even though I made mistakes in life, I can say, “You know what, I lived.” I may have traipsed around the rues of Paris in states unfit for public eyes and told a French boy to “embrasse-moi” in the middle of the road, but damn it, I lived.

Sometimes I find it strange that while I have no money, but I’ve never been happier in my life. My future’s shaky but I don’t really care. I just want to see and roam and drink and soak up all of the life around me. Because you’re only young once- and sadly, this age is so, so short.

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On most days, I find myself smiling without noticing. I spend most days doing nothing much at all: writing, reading, practicing my baby French and cooking classic French grandmother recipes. I check out new art exhibitions, I write my newspaper column, I drink sangria in backyards. I sip noisettes in cafés as I writes lists for everything I want my life to be.

Which isn’t to say I’m sick of being the help, and frankly my job drives me absolutely insane on certain occasions. (Living where you work and working 6 days a week? Not so fun.)

My next plan is to go to Asia, as you may have read. I have a one-way ticket booked to Hong Kong and I’ll come home when I run out of money. Beyond that, I have no idea where life will take me. That thrills and scares me at the same time, because I have a fear that Chicago will suck me back in and I will go back to my happy but deeply ordinary life. Ideally I would keep living abroad as an expat, learning about the world one metropolis at a time.

I hope this post doesn’t come off as arrogant- it has taken me a long time to get to this point (let’s just say the winter was very long). But for what it’s worth, I’m loving life in Paris and will be sorry to take the next step.

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

57 thoughts on “Life as a Paris Expat”

  1. I don’t think this post sounds arrogant at all! You are pursuing what you love and are happy doing it, despite not having and making boat loads of money. Experiences are worth far more than money, and I never want to have to look back and say I regretted not doing something because of a lease, reluctant girlfriend, or most of all fear. If you couldn’t tell, those are some things trying to hold me back from making my jump to teach abroad in Spain for at least a year. I need to go though, and maybe someday I will return to my nice, comfortable life in the Midwest. Right now, I want those extreme highs and lows you speak of. You do too, and I think everyone who does should seek them out. Whether it’s travel, going back to school, starting a business, or writing a book, I say go for it. It’s these people who change the world and are always seeking more from life. I have a good feeling you will be continuing your travels in some fashion even after Asia.

    • Mike thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I totally agree- experiences are worth far more than money. And I think it’s great that you’re going to Spain despite some things holding you back- you always have to think of yourself and your dreams, otherwise you’ll end up resentful of your life (my theory anyway.) And yes, I probably will keep traveling- though honestly I should probably slow down a bit, ha!

  2. I love reading your posts… I am 61 years old. I married at 20 and had my first baby at 23. I love my husband and my life but I do wish I had traveled more before settling down. I was way to frightened to venture out on my own at your age. I am travelling now but it is different when you are young. The years fly by while you are having fun so get out there and live! You will not regret all that you are learning! :)

    • Thanks, Connie! And yes, I will probably settle down someday so I know it’s best to travel when I’m young and have few responsibilities. I guess travel is always amazing though so I hope I’ll enjoy it at any age :)

  3. Charles Dickens must have been an expat (and I had no idea he was once an au pair?!)

    You’re right – the highs are HIGH and the lows, very low but even now (and I’m *ahem* a few years older than you) I wouldn’t change it. Enjoy it while we can – the ride always comes to an end at some point!

    • Haha I was kidding about the au pair thing, that would’ve been funny though! And yes, I know that I won’t be doing this forever so I’m trying to enjoy this to my fullest ability :)

  4. Being an au pair is definitely a roller coaster! Dealing with the rules in someone else’s house, and then enforcing those on the children who aren’t even yours (even if you don’t agree with the rules)… but frolicking around Paris only brings delight upon delight. Living in Europe is so different from Asia… but both have their unique charm. So excited to hear what the traveling life holds for you! :D

    • Ah that’s so true, it’s really hard to enforce rules you don’t necessarily agree with as you know. And thanks, I hope you’ll be following along, I love reading your comments :)

  5. I’ll be living in South Korea come September — if you’re still exploring Asia then, you’re more than welcome to visit!

  6. Great post, Ashley! I’m so glad you enjoyed living abroad this much! I loved meeting you while you were in Europe and I can’t wait to hear all about your next adventures!

  7. So, we’re basically the same person: not “successful” according to American standards but much happier than most people who follow that life path, have a passion for travel and languages but not sure what comes next (aaaaaa!), and we’re foodies, too :P

    Looking forward to hearing about your travels in the future! I like your down-to-earth treatment of the places you visit, that you don’t make your life look too ~MaGiCaL~ as we expats can sometimes give that impression. Keep on writing!! :)

    • Haha we do seem to have a ton in common, Trevor! And yeah, don’t worry, my life will probably never appeal too glamorous… I make way too many mistakes for it to look like that :) As you know expat life can get messy, but overall it’s amazing.

  8. Great post! I also spent some time in Paris and can relate to most of what you’ve written, especially the highs and lows. I didn’t even make it through the trial week working at a hot dog stand near the Eiffel Tower – a low that I can now laugh at. I then had some of the best times of my life working with great people at a souvenir shop on Rue de Rivoli and later at an investment bank. How things can change! I hope you have a great time in Asia!

  9. I absolutely love this post! It makes me feel more confident in my decision to be an au pair as I’m a midwestern girl who just graduated college and was offered a full-time job, but chose to live my dream in Paris. Thank you also for answering my questions via email!

    Gabrielle

    • No worries, Gabrielle, glad I was able to help. I think it’s important to follow your dreams, otherwise you spend the rest of your life wondering “What If”, which is no way to live!

  10. That was a beautiful post, Ashley! Just keep on doing what you’re loving and keep true to yourself! I know that there are always people who will think and act as if they know how one should live their life, but for every person like that there are so many more people out there who support you in what you doing, whether that’s backpacking in Asia, aupairing in Paris or something else.

    In the end, you’re the one living your life and you’re making all the right choices for yourself and I’m sure you’ll look back at these days one day with a smile on your face and not regretting anything! I’m already excited to see your adventures in Asia (I’m planning to go next year myself!) and until then, I hope you will enjoy the rest of your stay in beautiful Paris! :)

    xx
    Melanie

  11. This is a wonderful post Ashley! I definitely agree that the highs and lows as an expat seem to be a lot bigger than at home, but it’s so worth it. Not meeting the “standard” definition of success means nothing – it’s better to have a life of “oh wells” and “f&#$ yeahs” than a life of “what ifs”!

    • I definitely have moments like that when I wonder if I’m behind in comparison to my peers. But honestly I think a lot of people wish they could do what we’re doing- and I seriously doubt either of us will regret the amazing times we’re having in Europe! :)

  12. You only live once, right – so why not live it to the max! Although I am traveling more now, I wish I would have taken advantage of the early 20’s when I had less responsibilities and could have explored more. I guess I’ve got some catching up to do!

    • It’s never too late! :) And honestly sometimes I wonder if I’ll regret not starting my career sooner- after all, I will be 23 or 24 when I get my first job after college- less than ideal!

  13. I once read that expat life is full of the highest highs and the lowest lows, so it’s always intense. After living abroad, I think that’s definitely true.

    Meeting other expats is so cool, like you said. It’s nice to meet people who are so driven to go for their big goals. Everyone has a story!

  14. What a wonderful and honest blog – thank you! I have lived in France for + 8 yrs and it is tricky. Enjoy it all :-)

  15. I think that this post is quite possibly the best I’ve read in a while. It affirms what all us EXPATS feel and … well, thank you.

  16. This post has rang too true for me, just discovered your blog & have already fallen in love! :) I also au paired in Paris & am now off to Ireland at the age of 21 to au pair again, 2 years later. I tried the settling down thing back in Canada & it just isn’t making me happy. Looking forward to reading more & can’t wait to hear about your Asia trip! xxx

    • Thanks so much, Jacquie! I wonder as well if I’ll be able to settle down the states… it might be hard to be content in a place that’s so familiar. Congrats on going to Ireland, you’re going to love it!

  17. i know im a little late! This didn’t sound arrogant at all! Maybe, it’s because you are actually living the life that I am working for right now- or trying to at least! I had the idea of moving, and continuing school, (i have an AA) and starting my career. And then I don’t even know how I ended up finding a blog about being an au pair and foreign travel, which is something I have always wanted to do. I think it was a sign that I actually don’t have to live that life everyone else is, and it is possible to go and explore. Thank you so much for doing what YOU want- and inspiring others (me) while you are at it! :)

  18. This made me smile a lot. I recently wrote something similar about awesome, inspiring expats and travellers, so totally get where you’re coming from. I’m already an English teacher in Korea but now want to move to Paris and eat all the cheese.

  19. Your blog has just become my favourite read, ever! I’m 23 years old from Malaysia and I have to say you’re an inspiration, I wish to be like you! Its been my dream ever since I can remember to do exactly what you’re doing and have done (be an au pair in Paris, couchsurfing in Greece). I’ve read almost all your posts and am so inspired. I hope to achieve it as soon as I graduate in June. I have so many questions to ask you about how I can get started. Thank you for sharing all this with us! :)

  20. I love this post. I’ve been abroad 4 years and it is so refreshing to hear that other people are going through the same thing as I am. I’m definitely glad I found this blog so I can check in with people who have had similar experiences. You’re definitely not alone!

  21. OMG! MerciMerciMerci! This made me feel soooooo much better about spontaneously deciding to move my life to France. I’ve pretty much have the same outlook on life – especially the whole not-having-a-proper career/boyfriend/”prospects”-but-happy way of life. I found out today that my supposed job in Lille fell through and the company I’ll work for can only offer me a job in Paris! Oh yeah, I moving in 2 weeks. 2 weeks and now I have get my head around Paris. PARIS. *PanicMode* Don’t get me wrong I love Paris (I was there in February) but the idea of living in a city that hectic for a year kinda scares me. I hear horror stories about Paris; how finding la colocation is so stressful; the cost of living is cray-expensive and how as a young 22 year old, you get propostioned by French guys on a daily basic. I mean, I don’t even know how I’ll handle that…

    I can speak French but I’m so rusty but I suppose that’s something. I’ve moved around since I was 4 but never to a non-English speaking country.

    You calmed me down a little bit. So the pro’s outway the con’s yeah? Meeting new like-minded people isn’t so difficult in bustling city? Paris won’t eat me alive??

    I’m thinking of starting a blog of my own to vent about my adventures – good and bad. I’ll definitely check out more of your blog though! Keep doing what you’re doing. Regrette-rien. :)

    • Don’t worry- French guys really aren’t that bad (nothing compared to Italians) and you’re going to love living in Paris. Paris will not eat you alive- I was fine and I lived an hour and a half from central Paris! Regrette-rien !

  22. I know this is an old post so I’m not sure that you’ll even see this message! But I am considering becoming an au pair and I was wondering how you met all of your friends and if it was easy to make so many! Did you use a Facebook group of au pairs in paris or something else?

  23. I just discovered your blog and think it’s fantastic. My partner and I didn’t leave the UK to travel until we were 29 and I wish we’d left earlier and worked abroad like you, rather than spending so much time ‘building our careers’ and saving money in London. Saying that, there’s no right or wrong way to travel and as long as you feel that everyday happiness you describe, you’re doing something right. Hold onto that feeling :)

    • Thanks, Amy, that’s really sweet of you to say! And I agree – travel is wonderful at any age. Now I’m in the building my career phase of life and I have to say I wish I had worried less when I was younger and just enjoyed my travels!

  24. Hi Ashley, I was wondering if you could give me advice about getting your visa for France. I’m currently trying to do a “workaway” in France but am confused about the visa process. Any information would be helpful, thanks – Emily

  25. Hi Ashley! I love your blog; I’m a Canadian living in Switzerland and had a lot of the same issues, especially with frustration and loneliness! I get to Paris pretty regularly on business. I try to meet people using this site, which gives loads of great dating advice specific to Paris. It also gives good venues to take a date.

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