The “Life in” series provides readers a window into daily life in different places around the world by sharing the stories of women living abroad.
Emma Fivek spent a year in France between high school and college, where she found a version of herself she did not know existed and a love for life in France that keeps drawing her back. Last year, Emma took a job in Paris in order to move back to France.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Yes. So I’m from State College, Pennsylvania, which is where Penn State is. I went to Penn State for college, and then, I somehow landed in consulting in D.C., and now I work in investment banking in Paris.
So I’m kind of just exploring professionally at the moment and trying to see what I really enjoy doing and where I want to direct myself next.
Did you move to Paris for the banking job or did you find a banking job in order to move to Paris?
I found the job to move to Paris.
I did a gap year in a different part of France when I was 18 and 19. It was basically an extra year of high school. Then after college, I moved to Paris to do this eight-month teaching-assistant program where you teach English at a French high school. And then I thought, “Okay, you have to get a real job now.” So I moved to D.C. and had a really good job in consulting that I love. and I love the area. But I really wanted to come back to Paris.
A friend I’d made during my teaching stint in Paris, told me about this job in banking for a company that hires Americans. I interviewed for the position while vacationing in Paris, but was thinking, “Please don't let me get it, because I don’t want to have to make the decision to move!” Then I got it. And so here I am.
So this is your third time living in France. What first drew you there?
The nickname of the area where I grew up is Happy Valley. On Friday nights you go to the high school football game, and then Saturday it’s all about college football. It was the quintessential American college town experience. So, I grew up with this strong sense of being an American and being proud to be American and not really questioning the country or considering other ways of life at all.
When I went to France, I had this realization, “Oh, my gosh, there’s this whole other world out here!” Getting to live with a different family and go through a whole different school system and the challenge of making friends in a new place and learning a new language and everything like it just made me see a whole different way of life.
It’s not terribly different. But there are subtle things and differently weighted values that made me reconsider how we do things at home in the United States and what we value. For one thing I don’t really like football!
So I think I found a version of myself while I was in France that I didn’t know existed.
You had a lot of experience of France when you moved there this time, but has there been anything about life in Paris that has surprised you?
I think one thing that has surprised me is that salaries in France are much lower than in the United States. There are many reasons for that. It’s a completely different system: health care, social security, and the taxes are all different. But if you don’t know that and you’re negotiating a salary, it’s like, “You want to pay me what?” I had to let go of my American thinking and what I’m used to in the United States and realize, this is normal for France.
The other thing that’s been an adjustment is housing. Housing in D.C. was also very hard to find and expensive. But the system here is so different and complex.
What were some of the harder things for you to get used to in French culture?
In the winter in Paris, the sun doesn’t come up until like 9:30. In the northeast of the United States, we go through those same cycles as well. But it’s more extreme here. That was definitely hard on me. When I first started my job, it was the end of January, and it was dark all the time. And I was like, what is this?
I think French work culture is also different. I don’t want to generalize, but I’ve found work is much more hierarchical here. I came from a young, only 10-year-old company that was very forward thinking in terms of organizational structure. You could work from home whenever you wanted as long as you got your work done, stuff like that. Here, it’s very hierarchical; you have to be in the office.
Also, French people can get permanent jobs, which basically makes it very hard for you to be fired. But then people tend to stay in jobs that they don’t really like because they have that security. Whereas as Americans, we basically have no job security. And so we don’t understand when people complain all the time about their jobs. Because we think, “Well, just go get a new job.” So that’s also been a bit shocking and frustrating.
Could you say a little bit more about how the work culture is more hierarchical or the general culture more formal?
The language is more formal, for one. For example, there are two forms of “you” in French. One is informal and one is formal. And which “you” you use in speaking with a person depends on the relationship you have with them. So, with my direct boss, I use the informal one (tu), but with the CEO of the company, I use the formal one (vous) and so does everyone else, even if they’ve known him for almost 30 years.
There are other ways in which the culture is more formal. If I’m home in the United States I could literally go to the grocery store in my pajamas and no one would care; they might not even notice. But in France that’s just not something you do. Another example: I have to cancel my gym membership and have to send a formal letter to the gym explaining, “I would like to please cancel my gym membership. And here is why.” It can’t be as simple as just cancelling it online. Everything administrative is extremely formal.
What are some of the aspects of life in Paris that you like the most?
I love walking everywhere. The last time I lived in Paris, within three months I lost 10 pounds without even trying because you just walk so much here every single day.
I just feel so enchanted by the beauty of the city. Some people might find it boring to live in a city that has a pretty uniform architectural style. But I think it’s so beautiful, and to me, it never gets old.
The other thing that I love is that it’s so lively. In Paris, basically anywhere you go, unless it’s a really rich neighborhood, there’s stuff going on at all hours of the day. And even this summer when there weren’t really tourists here, there were still people always out doing things. I just love the liveliness of it.
Are there any other differences between American and French culture that have stood out to you?
One that has been particularly interesting in my life is the obsession in France that you have to know what you want to do professionally by the time you’re 18. For somebody like me, who’s going to be twenty-eight soon and is still kind of figuring it out, French people don’t get that. Because their system is very much geared towards picking a track, and going to school for that, maybe getting your masters, and then you go to the workforce. And then you don’t really deviate too much. Of course, there are some people that do whatever they want.
But I think in the United States we’re much more tolerant of people doing different things and finding their own way or having major shifts or, for example, pursuing a major for two years and suddenly realizing, “Oh, this is actually not at all what I want to do.” There’s flexibility in our culture for that. That just doesn’t exist as much here. So that’s the big thing that comes to mind.
You moved to Paris last January, shortly before COVID-19 became a global pandemic. What has that experience been like in Paris?
I think the lockdown here started March 16, and it was very strict. You had to work from home if you could. For any sort of non-necessary activity, including exercise, you could only go out for an hour a day and you could only go within one kilometer of your living area. And you had to carry a pass with you that said, where you lived, what time you left, and what you were doing out and about. At one point, for running, for example, you could only go before 10:00 a.m. or after 7:00 p.m., which just meant everyone was out at those times.
Because France was worse before the United States really got bad, I was calling my family and basically yelling at them, “This is coming for you to! Stop doing stupid things.” It’s been hard to be here and have all my family back home. But ultimately, I’m glad I stayed.
If somebody had one weekend in Paris, what are three things you would recommend they do there?
My answer depends on whether it’s their first time to Paris or they’ve been before and have already done the major tourist destinations. I think if it’s your first time to Paris, as clichéd as it is, it’s worth going to see some of the touristy things because that’s what people know Paris by.
If it’s their first time to Paris, I would say you definitely have to see the Eiffel tower, preferably at night when it’s sparkling. You don’t necessarily have to climb it because there are other ways to see the city. But you have to see it, which is pretty easy to do. Seeing it sparkle at night never gets old, no matter how many times you see it. Second, go up to the Sacré-Coeur church. Even without paying to go to the top of the dome, there’s a pretty good view of all of Paris, which is really fun. And then right next to the church is the Artist Square, which is very touristy, but still cool. Third, just walk along the Seine. Walking is such a huge part of Paris, and, by walking along the Seine, you get to see so much.
If it’s not your first time to Paris, I’d recommend exploring the 17th and 18th arrondissements. Particularly behind the Sacré-Coeur, it’s a place where most tourists don’t go because it’s not well known. I live in a neighborhood in the 17th arrondissement, and there are a lot of cool places to eat and bars. And there are real Parisians out and about living life.
Second, visit the Rue Mouffetard and Rue des Martyrs. Rue Mouffetard is in the fifth district. It is a really cute, cobblestone pedestrian street with a lot of different shops in the fifth district. It’s also one of the oldest streets in Paris, and Hemingway writes about. Rue des Martyrs in the ninth district is similar, but it’s in a completely different neighborhood.
Third, go to the Place des Vosges in the Marais, and have a picnic. It’s the oldest planned square in Paris, dating back to the early seventeenth century