Yes, the outfits are are garish and as improbable as ever. No, nobody in their right mind in Paris, whether they are French, American, or otherwise, would wear electric green, knee-high hooker boots to breakfast, a top with shoulders about a metre wide, hot pants with their arse hanging out, or platform heels in the Provence countryside.
But despite this fashion cringe fest, what is truly bothering me is deeper. Perhaps, for me personally, life changing.
It’s that behind all the loud colours, the curated backdrops, and the cute adventures, is…. nothing. A great, big, vapid nothingness.
Yes, there is a limit to how much rich, self-obsessed characters living in a selective and highly romanticised version of Paris can amuse. But this feels bigger than just that.
What actually hits home for me about Emily in Paris
Is it possible that in this romanticised universe, where all anyone seems to worry about is their outfits, the latest gossip, if they will get laid, and where they’ll go for dinner… there is some darker truth at play?
While the world of Emily in Paris is ridiculous, and not at all what Paris is like for most people, barring, well, rich foreigners creating a curated fantasyland of the city? I can’t honestly say that this selfish way of navigating the world is that off mark for Parisians.
And I say this as someone who has lived here eight years. I know that if I dare raise this with French people, that I constantly observe that there is a certain selfishness at the heart of the way lives are lived here in Paris, I meet with cries of protest. I am generalising! how dare I say such a thing!
And yet what I also know about these very Parisians…
And yet I also know that these very people rolling their eyes at me and feigning being offended is that they are the very same people telling me to ‘relax’ when I worry about the state of the world. That ‘life is about the present’, that I must ‘profite!’ (profit, a.k.a., think of my own pleasure).
And in truth, they are, like many here, living a life that rotates around their own needs. They have cheated on their partners (or are single but having an affair with someone married), wouldn’t volunteer (too depressing! I don’t have time for it!), don’t give to charity (I pay enough taxes as is!), don’t really know their neighbours or want to, are obsessed with their favourite addresses (as in, restaurants), and prioritise only their pleasure and their health and that of their family.
Look, they are also nice people. I am not saying anyone is a ‘bad’ person. I’m not saying this is everyone in Paris. But it’s a common way of existing. And I’ve seen this self-based approach seep all over my life, too.
Selfishness and one’s own enjoyment as the holy grail is indeed a way of life here. It’s blatantly encouraged.
It’s not a modern conundrum, it’s part of the historical beating heart of France. This is the country that was the decadent stomping ground for wealthy Europeans wanting wild parties (just go to the Loire and learn what went down at some of the chateaux there in the 1500s). It’s the place that created Versailles, the most extravagant court that Europe ever knew.
My informal survey on people living in Paris
I conducted an informal psychological study over the course of several years, that began as a joke but became a bit of an obsession.
It started when I asked my then French boyfriend, who was well-educated, and seemingly decent, what mattered most to him. “My health!” he said without a jot of hesitation. “Then the health of my family, and a good life.”
I thought he misunderstood and asked again. “No, I mean what really matters. The things that deeply concern you,” I clarified.
And he slowly repeated the exact same things as if suddenly I no longer understood French. When I explained I thought he’d say, I dunno…. world peace? Saving the environment? Ending needless cruelty to animals? He just ‘pffted’ me in that French way, and told me I was being an American (knowing full well how I felt about such a comment given I grew up in England and Canada, thanks).
I was a bit stunned and started to ask the question of every French person I met. Every taxi driver, person at a networking event, friend, acquaintance, whoever it was. I asked. What mattered most to them?
My then boyfriend turned out to not be an asshole (well, not on account of this, at least) but just Parisian. Did even one person out of over a good hundred say, world peace? Nope. Saving the environment? One. One person. And the rest? “My health, my family”. Me, me, me. If I pushed for something more, trying to get a more altruistic version, it would veer into… “Nice times with friends? Travel!” I was flabbergasted by the consistency. Their focus was only on their own experience.
It’s a cultural phenomenon, a value and perspective that is integrated from childhood, not a personal fault.
But, ultimately, it’s exhausting.
Pretty on the outside, rotten on the inside…
After eight years here I feel lately like a rot has set in inside of me. I see how I, too, now put myself first. How I haven’t volunteered in ages, despite best intentions, as I am always distracted by doing things, by the pretty life here. I notice how much I long for conversations about the fate of the world, on how we can be better citizens, but hesitate to speak up incase I get the infamous eye roll and am told to ‘relax’.
It’s not that Parisians don’t discuss the bigger picture. Many do moan about the environment… but from the angle of whether France will survive. Or politics…. French politics, or global politics along the lines of how France can survive. How we can protect ourselves…. Me, me, me. I’ve never heard someone suddenly tell me they worry about, say, if our own Western greed is destroying the lives of others elsewhere, in less wealthy countries.
The loneliness that plagues the expat community in Paris
The one thing I constantly see expats discussing both in person and online is loneliness. I get it. I’ve lived in many countries. I usually easily make a social circle, and even I found it difficult here. I wonder if the reason Paris is such a terribly lonely place, compared to so many of the other cities around the world I have lived in, is this vapidity that Emily in Paris has made so clear to me.
When we prioritise ourselves, our pleasure, when we put our own petty interests before everything else? It feels good in the moment, but it does not lead to any sense of lasting connection. Or to feeling part of a bigger picture.
I mean, be honest. How many times during these three seasons of Emily in Paris have you secretly wondered, “How can she actually think these people are her friends?”.
I think of the countless other expats who will now arrive, starry eyed, sure their life will now be a blur or cafes, restaurants, cabarets, and cute outfits. Another incoming wave of those those seeking surface pleasures. And many of them will end up like all the expat girls in the online groups I’m in. Depressed, lonely, and disappointed.
So what has Emily in Paris taught me?
So sitting here, at the end of a year full of war, environmental crises, crashing economies, and floods and famine in third world countries that were already suffering terribly, I don’t feel good. I feel tired and depressed watching the smoke show called Emily and Paris. I quite honestly want to turn it off, but I’d vowed to write about it. Not knowing that it would feel so darned… wrong.
And deep down I realise something with growing certainty. I don’t want to live here forever.
Paris is like a pleasant snooze. It’s pretty and relaxing, but at the cost of living always slightly hypnotised, hopping from one pretty thing to the next, not realising each step is taking you farther and father away from your true greatness.
And for me, personally? I am no longer willing to pay this extremely high price.