"I’d say my children are more integrated than I am. They are, of course, French citizens and attend French schools and spend time with my French in-laws. Meanwhile, I have built a nice life here and have a wonderful community of mostly Anglo friends, but I still feel very much like a foreigner and suspect I always will. I check the NY Times over LeMonde most days . That said, I feel like this is where I belong right now. I work in English, too, so I’m sure that doesn’t help. I do have French friends, but I tend to speak English with them more than French" (JHB, Sep 2011)
What is your name, age and how long have you lived in Paris?
Jill Hamilton-Brice, 42, I’ve lived in France 5+ years and in Paris for 4+ years.
Why did you decide to move there?
My husband was getting an MBA at INSEAD in Fontainebleau so planned to move back to France from NYC for a year. I always wanted to live in France, so I joined him for that year. Importantly, I was 5 months pregnant when I moved here.
What nationality are you and your partner?
I am American, my husband is French.
How many children do you have, what are their names and when were they born?
I have 2 children: Camille (2006), Roman (2008).
Do you work and if so what do you do?
Yep, I work as a Branding Consultant, helping clients to develop powerful brands at the product, franchise and corporate level.
I also serve as VP Public Relations for a non-profit organization for English speaking families living in Île de France called MESSAGE.
What was your experience of relocating to Paris with your children?
I moved to Paris when I was 5 months pregnant with my daughter. I felt that I was taking on two great life changes at once which somehow made it all the more exciting and harrowing! The transition was difficult at times, but it felt best when I left any expectations behind. I believed I was only moving here for a year, so I had only a few suitcases, filled with mostly maternity and baby clothes. We had rented out our apartment in NYC fully furnished in the expectation that we’d move right back into it! I’m sure the feeling of it being a temporary move helped buffer any anxiety, but it also meant that it took me longer to feel committed to living in France and to making this feel like home.
How well integrated would you say you and your children are?
I’d say my children are more integrated than I am. They are, of course, French citizens and attend French schools and spend time with my French in-laws. Meanwhile, I have built a nice life here and have a wonderful community of mostly Anglo friends, but I still feel very much like a foreigner and suspect I always will. I check the NY Times over LeMonde most days . That said, I feel like this is where I belong right now. I work in English, too, so I’m sure that doesn’t help. I do have French friends, but I tend to speak English with them more than French.
What language do you speak to your children?
I speak only English to them, and my husband speaks exclusively French to them. We are very committed to the idea of one parent:one language. The children respond very well to this. Our “family language” is English.
Do you rent or own a property and how did you find the renting/buying process?
We own our apartment. The process did not feel particularly onerous (any more so than in the States), except that we needed to use the specialized role of a Notaire instead of a Real Estate Lawyer. The fees are higher here.
Do you think it is essential for someone to speak French when relocating to Paris?
No. Clearly, the more you speak French the easier it is to navigate the system and to integrate culturally. My French wasn’t (and isn’t!) terribly strong, and it definitely helped that my husband speaks it, but there are also a lot of Anglo-based services that can provide support. A willingness to try to learn French goes a long way, too.
How welcoming have the Parisians been towards you and your family?
I’d say as a whole they’ve been fairly welcoming to my family and me; many people are intrigued that my children are bilingual and are gracious towards me.
I’d also add, however, that Parisians aren’t particularly inviting as a whole. At first I took this personally but as I looked around (at the school, the parks, etc) I could see that many people stick to themselves and don’t readily engage with “strangers” (even the ones they see every day in the community). There is a sort of taboo or rule about telling your name and asking somebody’s name- even after multiple interactions- that I still haven’t quite mastered! However, my Parisian friends are some of the loveliest, warmest people I’ve ever encountered. I think this is a big cultural difference- the French are slower to warm-up than Americans, but they are very sincere upon doing so.
How would you describe a typical Parisian?
Stylish. Self-assured. Change resistant. Principled.
What school(s)/nursery(ies) do your children go to?
Both my children attend Charles Perrault Ecole Maternelle in Levallois Perret. Last year, my son spent 2 days per week at the Jardins Decouvertes (a form of nursery school expressly for 2-3 year olds).
Why did you choose this school/these schools and are you happy with your choice?
These are the local schools in our neighborhood (access to good schools was one of the reasons we chose the neighborhood); I also heard good things from others. Yes, we’re happy with our choice and feel privileged to have them in the system.
Are there any services, activities for kids, day-trips for kids, family-friendly restaurants or kids’ shops you’d like to recommend?
I’d highly recommend MESSAGE, a full parenting resource for English speaking parents living in Ile de France. A great way to get practical information, advice, support, and meet people: www.messageparis.org. I’d also highly recommend Sugar Daze, authentic American custom-made cupcakes (and cakes!) www.sugardaze.com.
What is your impression of childcare and education where you live?
So far we’ve been mostly very happy with the access and opportunities to both childcare and education. I would have appreciated more feedback along the way, for example, on how my children do at school (no news is good news, I suppose). Little doubt that I have some cultural biases that influence my beliefs, but I have greater pedagogical concerns about French education, as my children get older (versus at their age now). I think that while the American system can stand to be more rigorous, the French system is too traditional and teacher (as authority) centric, and is rather unnecessarily punitive. The French don’t necessarily consider learning to be “fun” and while fun isn’t the only objective, I think it’s an important aspect of education.
What do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of being a parent from the International Community living in Paris? Is there anything you think would improve children’s lives where you live?
Paris is one of the greatest cities in the world and I love the many children’s activities, parks and museums. I think that the city is fairly easy to navigate with children (not a lot of high chairs, I suppose, but it’s easy to travel with children on buses and the metro). There are carousels all over, and it is such a rich multi-cultural environment to be in. The International Community in many ways feels like a “built in” network because so many others have experienced similar things and are very quick to help or identify with you. It’s nice to be able to pick the best of both worlds- traditions from home and new experiences from France.
A disadvantage can be that you can become rather insular, and only communicate or engage within the safe environment of the International Community. You risk not truly experiencing Parisian culture. For me, it’s also unsettling to continuously think about how much longer we will stay here and if/when we will “go back”. If you focus on going back, it can become more difficult to engage and invest in relationships because you’re constantly thinking you’re going to leave soon. It’s also hard to see the new friends you’ve made here leave to go back to their native countries.
What advice would you give for anyone having a baby or thinking of relocating to Paris with children?
If you plan to give birth in a hospital setting, expect to have a midwife (called a sage femme) deliver your baby- who you may or may not have ever met before. I had very positive experiences with both my babies’ births, but I was shocked to learn that the doctor who follows your pregnancy does not deliver your baby!
Expect unsolicited advice on how to raise your children from complete strangers. Smile, nod and move on.
Try to live as complete a life as you can, act as if this IS your home, even if you know you might go back to your native country soon.
Join an organization where you can meet people in a similar life stage as you to help with the transition, and to cultivate native traditions.
What couldn’t you live without in Paris?
The open-air markets! The metro. Green spaces. Access to beautiful things- art, architecture, food...
What could you live without in Paris?
Let’s see… the cashiers who don’t help you bag your groceries but sit and watch you as the line piles up behind you. Oh, and the infringement on my body space. Parisians stand too close! ;)