What “Emily in Paris” gets right about American expat life in Europe

Photo by Charles Loyer on Unsplash

Much like the rest of the world, I have watched “Emily in Paris,” the hot new show on Netflix about an American woman who moves to Paris for a new job. It’s getting absolutely scorched by reviews, but there’s clearly a big audience for it: the show is even ranked #3 here in Switzerland.

My theory is that since many people had to cancel their trips to Europe this year, they’re experiencing serious wanderlust and craving a taste of Paris — even if it feels more like a sugary, Disney-fied version of the real Paris. And I think that’s okay. I go to France every 1-2 months, and even I felt a rush of nostalgia watching it. The Eiffel Tower! The bakeries! The crowds of tourists walking around without masks, in the Before Times! For a brief moment, the world felt safe again.

It’s funny. When I first saw the trailer, I was prepared to hate the show. It seemed completely boring and unrealistic. But a few episodes in, something weird happened. I started to feel glimmers of familiarity. Small, subtle things were rising to the surface. I never expected to have anything in common with Emily — after all, I am not white, nor do I live in Paris — yet here I was, seeing bits and pieces of my experiences in her.

So here are some loose thoughts.

First of all, it’s not great that Emily can’t speak French, but it’s not like she can change that in a month or even a year.

Both within and outside of the show, Emily is heavily criticized for moving to France and not bothering to speak the local language. But as someone who moved to Geneva with very little French knowledge and had to learn from scratch, I’ve found that it’s actually super hard to become proficient in French.

I attended structured French class twice a week for three semesters, have weekly 1:1 conversation practice with my Swiss teacher, and watch the Swiss French news for 20 minutes every night. That effort combined – over the course of a year – has gotten me to a low B1. Just enough to function in daily life, but not much else.

Realistically, even if she studies every day, Emily is probably never going to reach a level where she can comfortably work in French like a native speaker. By the time you pass age 13 or so, that window of seamless language acquisition is just closed for most people. It would take years for her to get to a place where her coworkers can conduct meetings with her in French instead of English.

And we do see her trying! We see her taking French classes, and we notice her French vocabulary gradually improving over time. That’s more effort than most expats I know here in Geneva have put in. There are people who have lived here for years without any command of French beyond ordering at a restaurant. I hear gripes about these types of people all the time.

Back in the States, whenever I met a Spanish speaker who was clearly struggling with English, I would switch to Spanish to help make the conversation easier for them. Now that I’m in those same shoes, I always appreciate it when French and German speakers do the same thing for me. Let’s not be assholes and judge people for putting in an imperfect effort. Come on.

Doubling down on one’s American identity when living abroad is definitely a thing and not as weird as it seems.

There are several scenes where someone starts speaking French to Emily, and she has to be like, “Oh, doi, sorry, I’m the American.” Or people would ask her, “Why do you work at this French company?” and she’s like, “I’m bringing the American perspective.”

I can see why this seems obnoxious to people — you’re living in Europe, why do you think anyone cares that you’re American? — but it’s actually something I also did quite frequently I first moved to Switzerland, and it’s not necessarily because we’re narcissists who think we’re better than everyone else. There are two main reasons for doing this.

First, we want to signal that we’re the outsider, we don’t always know how things work, and to please be a little more patient with us if we don’t know something or commit a faux pas. I’m not talking about the more obvious things, like “greet someone with bonjour before you ask them if they can speak English.” I’m talking about miscellaneous day-to-day stuff like:

  • How some European apartments have a switch for hot water in the hallway outside the bathroom, and if you don’t know about this, you’ll be stuck taking cold showers
  • How Europeans will greet you by kissing you on both cheeks (or three kisses, in the case of the Swiss) even though you barely know them and completely tense up while they violate your personal space
  • How most European banks will refuse to take you on as a client because you’re American and they can’t be bothered to comply with the U.S. government’s heavy reporting requirements
  • How you have to pay parts of your monthly salary towards unemployment, but if you lose your job, you get kicked out of Europe immediately and won’t get to see a penny of that unemployment money (OK, I’m getting too dark)

And second, sometimes that American perspective does come in handy. The U.S. isn’t a perfect country by any means, but I think we are truly lightyears ahead of any other nation when it comes to celebrating and acknowledging people of color, as well as having honest conversations about privilege, institutionalized racism, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

I recently wrapped up a work project with the help of a firm based in London, and they reached out to me afterwards for feedback on the process. Since it was a phone conversation, I decided to be more candid. I told them that while they had a single person of color on their team, I felt that this person was barely included in the project and was almost never given a speaking role in the many client presentations, despite being featured prominently in their original proposal to us (I had asked specifically as part of the RFP process for vendors to disclose any commitments or approach to ensuring DEI within their organizations). It was tokenism in action.

A few days later, they reached out to me again, asking if I could elaborate on this point. I did, typing up a very long but kind and courteous email. What I could have asked, but didn’t, was, “London is almost 40% BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic). Why doesn’t your firm reflect the demographics of the city you operate in?” I wanted to keep the email a safe space for them, to not be perceived as the Angry Asian Person. Of course, I never received a response.

If it weren’t for my American perspective, my team never would have thought to include this question about DEI commitments into our RFPs. We’re currently also hiring for someone to work on gender, and I also successfully lobbied for us to amend the job description so that the ideal candidate had to also have a background in intersectionality and working with marginalized communities. I recognize I’m painting with broad strokes, but this is the type of stuff that Europeans simply do not think about, and are not ready to confront. Western Europeans aren’t even ready to acknowledge that they’re racist towards Eastern Europeans. At least in the States, we’re starting to have this conversation, and it’s becoming more culturally accepted to question the norm.

Americans just have a different way of communicating, and it makes us stick out like a sore thumb.

There’s a scene where Emily is meeting with her French coworkers for the first time. She starts introducing herself, and one of them interrupts her. “Excuse me,” he says incredulously, “but why are you shouting?”

That made me laugh because it’s so true. Americans are LOUD! We are also easily excitable and use big, exaggerated words to express our feelings. I’ve heard from more than one European that they’ve found Americans to be misleading in our communication styles. A client might say, I love it. Looks perfect. Absolutely fantastic. And then — except I want you to literally change everything.

It’s definitely easier to make friends in the States. You can strike up conversations with people anywhere, and it’s not frowned upon. I was once sitting at a bus stop in DC with an elderly Black man. Within minutes, we were chatting about what it was like for him growing up in this neighborhood and how it’s changed with gentrification. It’s socially acceptable to speak to someone as though you already know them, without the need for introductions or the investment of time into cultivating a relationship.

I literally just experienced this cultural clash tonight, when I visited an apartment that I was interested in taking over. The tenant was a German guy who was very nice but not at all talkative. While looking around, I decided to introduce a conversation topic.

Me: “I think we actually know some people in common.”

The guy just looked at me.

Me: “My friend sent me your listing from a friend of hers, [name].”

The guy nodded.

Me: “…… so, do you know [name]?”

“Yes,” he said.

Me: “Well, [name] really vouched for you. She said that you’re a very honest person.”

He chuckled.

Dead silence again. Clearly the German guy was comfortable with awkward silences, and I was not. If he had been American, the conversation would likely have gone this way: Oh yeah, [name]? Of course, she’s a good friend. So how do you know her? That’s cool. And where do you work? Oh, I know a couple of people there. Do you know so-and-so? Yeah, we go way back. And it’s not that we’re trying to make lifelong friends through small talk. It just that friendliness seems to be the default — something that requires little to no effort as well.

This is getting pretty long, so I’ll stop here. I mean, of course, objectively, this show isn’t good. But it did make me think, and I saw myself in Emily’s struggles to order a pain au chocolat at the bakery without knowing what gender to assign to the bread. So I suppose this is just a small, feeble attempt at defending “Emily in Paris”.

Bisous,

Summer in Geneva

6 comments

  1. Everything about this post was amazing omg you are a FANTASTIC writer. I don’t think I’ll watch the show because I get really annoyed by Americans abroad type content (unless it’s someone like you or a program like Fulbright), but I looooved and really related to this blog post… especially “why are you shouting” hahahah I get that from my American friends too 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really thought this show over romanticized the entire concept of expat life and moving abroad however reading your blog post clarified many points for me and made me see it in a whole new light. I mean overall, it was a bit silly (how did she become an influencer overnight) but now. I can understand what she meant by bringing ‘the American perspective’. Oh and yes Americans are loud haha. My best friend is from the USA and even she laughs about it because often- we live in Qatar- we can hear American expats a mile away whereas other nationalities are just so quiet!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The show definitely is very exaggerated LOL but it’s hard not to project one’s personal experiences onto it, given the lack of media representation when it comes to expat life in general. If only they had spent time crafting a story that accurately portrayed what it’s like to live as a less privileged immigrant….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting post – I have so many comments swirling around my mind, don’t know where to start, but that just means you did a good job writing something interesting 🙂 First of all, I didn’t like Emily in Paris, but it was because of her fashion choices (too much!) and the influencer thing. But I agree with you that she made an effort with the language and French isn’t easy. Plus the French don’t make it easy, they pretend they don’t understand if you look a bit different. Completely unlike Italians you are so helpful and impressed when a foreigner tries to speak Italian.
    It was interesting reading about your cultural notes, and some of them I recognized. But I can also tell you’re American from the way you are treating Europe as a nation and generalising about “Europeans”. 🙂 Europe has 50 individual countries which all have their own identities, unique cultures and, mostly, languages. I can also tell you haven’t visited the Nordic countries, because we truly are lightyears ahead when it comes to equality, human rights, having open conversation about issues, etc. People trust the government and the police are good guys. University education is free of charge, and so everyone is well-educated. However, what I dislike about this region (besides the godawful weather!) is that lack of socialising, which you mentioned. I wish we could all chat to each other comfortably and make friends easily. That’s an enormous pet peeve of mine!!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Summer - Train to TBD Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s