Hear from a real Emily in Paris and an expat in Italy before making that move abroad.
By Shannon McHugh
Lockdown restrictions are subject to change but when it comes to Christmas TV, escapism still rules. While others argue whether The Holiday is actually a Christmas film or not, one thing’s for sure, these ‘run away from your life’ titles are a staple part of fuelling our lust for a life abroad.
A little over a month ago, Netflix’s Emily in Paris rocked the internet with the same model.
Emily is a twenty-something marketing executive from Chicago who unexpectedly lands her dream job in Paris when her company acquires a French luxury marketing company. “Emily’s new life in Paris is filled with intoxicating adventures and surprising challenges”.
“There’s this image of Paris that just looks like a dream, like it’s too good to be true”
Arguably the original Emily in Paris, Mandy works in fashion, has a TikTok following of around 25k and studies business at university in the city.
When asked her opinion on Emily in Paris and the character’s lack of interest in learning the language, she says: “I think if you’re very rich, that gives you the freedom of not having to learn the language, but I think if you realistically want to stay here in the long run, it’s so important to be able to speak French.”
It sounds like “A little ‘bonjour’ goes a long way” is only applicable if you have the funds to support a lavish lifestyle. However, the show forgets to tackle the obvious challenges facing many an expat today. Language barriers, loneliness and currently, lockdown.
The importance of Language
Mandy, made the decision to move to Paris whilst in her first year of studying French in Trinity College Dublin.
Her course of study had a heavy emphasis on grammar, literature and culture modules were taught from a very ‘outside perspective.’ “I really just wanted to put myself into the experience, to be able to actually live it and learn from it.”
Niamh, an English language teacher based in Bologna, Italy, had a similar epiphany. She felt that her time spent in University wasn’t allowing her to fully experience the Italian language and culture. ”It was this strange environment where you were supposed to be learning this foreign language, in a room where one person speaks Italian surrounded by everyone else who speaks English.” She says: “You’re trying to focus on a board with grammar and trying to speak to each other but then, you leave the classroom and you’re surrounded by English again.”
With a minimum knowledge of the language, like Emily, they packed their bags and set off on their romantic adventure abroad, and was it everything they imagined it would be?
“Absolutely not.” Niamh was just 16 years old when she had her first taste of Italy. “You have this romantic idea of what living in the Mediterranean is going to be like, sunshine, sitting on the balcony drinking wine, it’s going be really laid back and relaxed. No, it’s not.”
A crucial element brushed off in TV and film is just how difficult some foreign bureaucratic processes can be. Italy is notorious for having a disorganised and inefficient system. A plethora of documentation is required to obtain necessary documents like visas, stay residences and work permits. “You have to jump through a lot of hoops” and not all the official information explaining how to obtain this documentation is readily available.
Mandy describes trying to find her first apartment in France as a ‘hellish’ experience. Many agencies turned her down due to her inability to provide the relevant documentation such as French payslips and French bank account statements.
They told her that if the currency of her payslips was different to France, they would not accept it. Bearing in mind, Ireland is part of the European Union and does in fact use euro. “Then it was ‘Oh well, if it’s (a payslip) from a different country, we can’t accept it.”
This is yet another reason why Mandy implores hopefuls wanting to move to Paris to learn French. “All this bureaucracy you have to go through, it’s horrendous in your own language but when it’s in a foreign language you can get so bogged down. It’s very, very stressful.”
Love and Loneliness
However, some romantic ideals do seem to seep into reality, particularly, in Mandy’s case. When she first moved to Paris, she didn’t know anyone and found herself saying yes to every opportunity in a bid to make connections. Going on dates with French guys, heading to bars with friends, chatting to the locals in cafes. Ultimately, all these experiences attributed to her language learning and she even met her boyfriend very early on at one of these events.
This yearning for a sense of community was also a driving factor for Niamh and her decision to move abroad. On her first visit to Italy, she recounts how everyone was so friendly and accommodating, “I had this naive interpretation that everybody was going to be like that. I thought, ‘shit, if I move to Italy, I’m going to make friends right, left and centre, this is going to be great.”
However, Niamh admits, it was not as widespread as she first believed. “I’ve been treated like the ‘straniera idiota’”, which means ‘stupid foreigner’, “even though I can understand everything they’re saying.”
Even something as simple as talking about cartoons you watched as a child can leave you feeling isolated, like an ‘outsider.’
“No matter how long you live in a place, there are moments where you do realise, ‘I’m not from here’.”
Following the release of Emily in Paris, many French critics were outraged at the show, claiming “no cliché is spared, not even the weakest.”
However, it seems that the French can also be complicit in cultural ignorance and stereotyping other foreign nationals.
“Everybody thinks I’m British.”, and on the other hand, Mandy admits to going to a bar with friends can often lead to an almost accusatory reaction of “but you’re Irish” if she decides she doesn’t want to drink alcohol.
No one enjoys being stereotyped, but it is another thing to diminish someone’s cultural identity.
Many people have trouble understanding the difference between Ireland and the UK due to the fact that the countries share a lot of similarities. However, those with a knowledge of this distinct shared history and relationship know that such an assumption can be a perilous one to make.
The grass is always greener…
Through the lens of TikTok and Instagram, Mandy seems to live the idealised life abroad that we all crave, however, she says: “I can make a video or take a photo of myself but I’m not really going to be showing much of my thoughts or my personality.”
The pandemic has affected many of us in some way, but countries like France and Italy have been subject to severe lockdown restrictions and high cases of Covid-19 and fatality rates.
A lot of Italy’s economy relies on tourism and this year has left the country in a very precarious state. Suddenly, Italy doesn’t seem as laid back as we see on TV and movies.
While France has relaxed its national lockdown in the run up to Christmas, life is still a far cry from the antics of Emily in Paris.
As Mandy says, this pandemic, “it builds walls between people”, both physical and mental. Travel restrictions that can lead to being cooped up indoors alone, unable to see family and friends for months on end.
Our lives have been thrown upside down, it’s okay to want change, adventure and escapism, but at the end of the day, the grass isn’t always greener in the Mediterranean.
The thought of running away from our lives will always be romantic but the reality is, it can be lonely and difficult. However, in true romcom fashion, you’ll never know unless you try, and remember, it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that matters.