“Paris is always a good idea,” as Audrey Hepburn tried to persuade Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film “Sabrina.” He was less convinced but for most of us, living in Paris is a dream. A dream that can feel impossible to achieve – but it can come true.
Officially, some 31,000 Americans are registered as living in France, with officially around half of those calling Paris home, according to The Local France. Realistically, that number is roughly tenfold that, once you add students, short-term workers and people not registered with the embassy.
Paris has always been a draw for the creative set, from Ernest Hemingway to the Fitzgeralds, Ezra Pound to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. But is it all la vie en rose as the Netflix hit “Emily in Paris” tries to convince us? Having lived in Paris myself from 2015 to 2020, I have to admit that Emily hasn’t got it all that wrong.
Despite the fact that Paris ranks in top 10 lists of the most expensive cities to live in – and can be a focus of intense and sometimes violent protests, as was the case in June and July 2023 – I never lost my rose-tinted glasses.
Most residents don’t have a wardrobe of designer clothes, but I fell in love with the city every time I stepped out of the front door – even if I had to step over uncollected garbage or dodge rioters on the way to the Metro, which was probably boarded up anyway. Regardless of the hysteria-inducing bureaucracy, the demonstrations and the constant strikes, Paris is beautiful. Lingering on a café terrace with a glass of wine is a perfect lifestyle, and there’s no doubting the romance in the air.
So, how did all these people living the proverbial dream in the City of Light get there? Let’s meet some American immigrants who are still loving every minute of life in Paris.
Kasia Dietz, handbag designer
It was an Italian who brought Dietz from New York City to Paris in 2009. Leaving her yoga class, she met her husband-to-be, who just so happened to live in Paris. Already a Polish (and therefore European Union) passport-holder, Dietz had easy entry into France, and then received her residency by marrying her Italian.
Despite being in love in the City of Love, moving wasn’t easy, she explains:
“With over a decade of experience as a print producer in NYC’s fast-paced advertising industry, I thought it wouldn’t be a problem finding work in Paris, Dietz says.
“My job hunt proved otherwise. With no experience in Paris and no connections, no one would hire me. Unable to find even temporary work, I started writing a blog to feel more connected to my new life. Along with writing, which was always a passion, I decided to follow my dreams of designing.
“This is when I launched Kasia Dietz handbags. I couldn’t initially find a local manufacturer, so I bought a sewing machine and made my own samples.”
But success came, and Dietz even premiered a collection at Le Bon Marché, the high-end department store on Paris’ fashionable Left Bank.
Having grown up in the Hamptons, Dietz misses the East Coast sunshine when the typically Parisian grisaille, a seasonal grayness of skies, descends.
“I love how culturally rich Paris is, with an endless array of museums, restaurants, cafes and hidden gems to discover around every cobbled corner. But winter months can be tough when there’s a lack of sunlight and the locals appear more dour,” she says. “Some days I miss the lightness and ‘can-do attitude’ Americans possess but I choose to surround myself with a global mix of positive people in Paris, French included.”
Dr Monique Y. Wells, nonprofit founder and tour operator
From Houston, Texas, Wells first visited Paris in 1989 as part of a European trip with her college sorority sisters. While there, she’d got the feeling that she would return one day – and three years later she was offered a job as a pathologist for a Paris-based pharmaceutical company. That meant visas for both Wells and her husband.
“My husband and I renewed our residency cards without assistance for the first five years that we were in Paris. After five years of legal residency, we became eligible for French citizenship and decided to apply.”
She later set up her own consulting business in pre-clinical safety and started a tour business, “Discover Paris!” In 2018 she rebranded it Entrée to Black Paris, looking specifically at the city’s African American history.
Today, she runs the tour business as well as providing preclinical safety training and mentoring through her US non-profit, the Wells International Foundation.
“I began my journey as a travel professional focused solely on African American history in Paris – not because the city ‘lacked’ something, but because I wanted to learn something and share what I learned with African American travelers,” she says, adding that the tours and activities feature the “history, culture and contemporary life of the larger African diaspora in Paris.”
“While our clients are largely African American, over the past few years we have had increasing numbers of White Americans, White French, and White and Black Europeans from other countries engaging our services,” she adds.
Her years in Paris have also opened her eyes to the French approach to Black people.
“Blackness is filled with nuance – from the way you view yourself to the way others view you,” she says. “For me, the most interesting aspect of this is watching French people who encounter me for the first time and hear me speak French try to figure out ‘where I’m from.’ At first, I didn’t understand the significance of this.
“But as time went on, I learned the reason this was important to them – consciously or unconsciously, they want to know where I’m from to know how to treat me. This is radically different from what Black people experience in the US. And for some African Americans, it can be disorienting.”
Preston Mohr, sommelier
Born and raised outside of Minneapolis, Mohr first came to Paris as a study-abroad student in 2003 and has lived here for the better part of the last 20 years. But his Parisian dream started long before that.
“I told my mother when I was seven that I was moving to Paris, despite having no connections to France,” he says. “Maybe I had lived here in a past life? It was the determination and dream of seven-year old Preston that made me focus on my goal of moving to France.”
Immigrating to France is never easy and the bureaucracy can be torturous, but Mohr says that there are always ways. His path started with a student visa, followed by one for teaching, allowing him to work part-time. He was then sponsored by the French American Chamber of Commerce, giving him time to stay for 18 more months and build his life in Paris.
As you’ll imagine from his visa process, he’s held many different jobs to make that Parisian life. After working as an English language assistant in a public high school, he enjoyed an internship at La Fondation Yves Saint Laurent (just a few offices away from the late designer), and even worked briefly as the personal secretary to movie star Olivia de Havilland.
He was a housekeeper for a serviced apartments agency, and cleaned toilets, among other things. “I think this varied experience has given me great perspective and understanding of Paris,” he says. But his work in the tourism and hospitality sector (he ran Paris by Glass tours from 2012 to 2020) would lay the groundwork for his future in wine.
He recalls: “For the last 12 years, I have been working in various aspects of the wine industry. I worked for many years as a wine educator, teaching and instructing a primarily foreign clientele on the wines, foods and their traditions in France.” He’s now director of sales & marketing for the Wine Scholar Guild which provides specialized certification programs for wine professionals and serious enthusiasts.
For an American, setting out to become a sommelier in France is quite an ambitious undertaking.
“It definitely wasn’t easy in the beginning but things have really changed in the last 10 or so years,” he says. “When I was getting my start in the industry, I was definitely one of very few foreigners trying to make a name for themselves. Today, Paris is quickly becoming a true international wine city, very open to change and outside influence.
And, being a gay man, he also appreciates that same open Parisian attitude to being who you are.
“Paris has had a storied past of being a refuge for outsiders. I think most people move to Paris to live an enhanced version of their previous life. All of the senses are heightened here, and one can truly escape in the anonymity of this huge, foreign metropolis,” he says.
“Paris is a place where you can dream, be who you are, and be constantly inspired to live a beautiful life.”
Lindsey Tramuta, author
For Tramuta, swapping Philadelphia for Paris wasn’t so much following a dream as a natural progression. Having studied French from the age of 12, at 21, she crossed the Atlantic to study there. A student visa allowed her to stay until she met and married her French husband, becoming a naturalized citizen in 2014.
Working as a journalist reporting on the changing city for various international publications, she eventually progressed to writing books about the city and its people. “I wanted to document the evolution and argue that it’s because of the mix of old and new that the Paris of today is so special and dynamic,” she says. “The New Paris” was published in 2017 to great success, spurring Tramuta onto the next project.
“Once ‘The New Paris’ came out, I had the opportunity to meet even more individuals shaping the city, such as Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and one of those encounters triggered the idea for ‘The New Parisienne,’” she says, referring to her second book.
“If I tried to debunk stereotypes in the first book, the second is an attempt to upend tired and reductive narratives about the city’s most fetishized resident: its Parisiennes.”
So many famous authors, if mostly novelists, have been inspired by Paris. Tramuta feels part of the endless creativity surging through the city: “It’s special to be part of a legacy, not only of writers in Paris but of American writers in Paris. It truly is the city that inspires endlessly, both positively and negatively. There is always something to discover, explore, and share with readers. And as writers, we are fortunate to live in a place that reveres the written word and where readers are eager to engage with writers in bookshops and other forums.”
The culture shock that affects many emigrants from the US to Europe never really hit Tramuta. “Honestly, since I came at a young age and never left, I essentially became an adult in Paris and adapted to the lifestyle and way of being very quickly,” she says.
“If I recall any culture shock in those early days, it was the general acceptance with a lack of convenience and customer service. But the longer I’m here, the more I have normalized those aspects of life and business. Because I never perceived the US to be the default or ‘right’ way of operating, I overcame the tendency to endlessly compare the US to France.”
Sylvia Sabes, writer and photographer
Sabes, from San Francisco, followed a childhood dream of moving to Paris, but it took a few attempts. “I spent my first summer here in 1982 when I was 16 years old. It was with friends of the family, and I was left to discover the city on my own.”
She returned at age 20 to study for a year at the Sorbonne University, but then went back to the States.
“I didn’t know how to [move back to Paris] on my own, so I married a man with a French passport, had kids and only moved when my husband’s company finally transferred him here,” she says.
Finding work in her field – she’d been an advertising creative director – was a little more complicated. “The French have a hard time with people who reinvent themselves professionally,” she says. “But a headhunter was desperately looking for somebody who could do some copywriting for an agency, and I said sure. I don’t wear make-up but somehow have a gift for communicating with women who love it, so I did a lot of work for L’Oreal. It was great. I got to write scripts for Jane Fonda and Eva Longoria. I even directed a reading with Andie McDowell. [But I was] earning a quarter of what I’d earned in the US.”
Other than copywriting, Sabes freelances as a writer and photographer for international magazines and is the Paris “curator” for Luxe City Guides. She also writes guidebooks for private banks who want personalized gifts for their clients. She wrote a novel during the pandemic, which she’s currently looking for an agent for. Of course, it’s set in Paris.
But France has also brought racism her way. “I’m Jewish, but not at all religious,” she says. “Living in California, it was a non-issue, but here even the people closest to me are very aware of me being different. Also, living in California, thanks to political correctness, I never heard antisemitic comments – no matter what people thought, they kept those thoughts private. They’re less inhibited about that in France, so I hear more antisemitism – even from people who’d be shocked to learn their beliefs are antisemitic.”
Richard Nahem, tour guide
A chef and caterer in New York, where he was born and raised, Richard Nahem gave up a successful but stressful career in 2005.
“I was a private caterer and had a niche business catering photo shoots for major fashion and lifestyle magazines including Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. I fed Whitney Houston, Madonna, Joan Rivers and Cindy Crawford. But I was burnt out from being in the kitchen for 21 years and was looking to do something new,” he says.
Having fallen in love with the city over many previous visits, he decided to take the plunge. Nahem doesn’t reveal the exact way he moved through the tortuous immigration process, but he arrived in Paris on a tourist visa and soon had a carte de sejour (residence permit). Don’t get too excited – American passport-holders wanting residency cannot generally do this.
Friends and family immediately started visiting.
“I would meet them and stroll through my neighborhood, the Marais, sharing all the cool boutiques, restaurants, cafes, specialty food shops, beautiful architecture and hidden streets,” he says.
“I also gave them advice about practical things, like tipping and service. After doing it about 15 times, my entrepreneurial light bulb went off, and I thought, maybe I can do the same thing with strangers – show them places they may not find on their own, but privately with a group of six people or fewer. I posted my website in February 2007 and 10 days later, someone booked a tour. It’s been going strong ever since.” His Eye Prefer Paris tours show visitors a Paris that usually only locals get to discover.
Many visitors rave about the slower pace of life in Paris – but that relaxed way of life can grate on new locals with a list of chores to tick off.
“Simple errands, which usually take an hour or two, can take a half a day sometimes,” says Nahem. “I wasn’t prepared for the slower pace of life after living in New York all my life. I just don’t understand why simple transactions take so long. Why does the ticket seller at the museum have to chat with each client for 10 minutes, when all I want to do is get my ticket and enter the museum?”