Episode 001: France with Mark Repasky

Lavender field in Provence, France

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in Paris, France? American expat Mark Repasky explains “the American Yes and the French No” and shares what it’s like to live in one of the  most visited cities in the world as well as navigating visas, “french rudeness” and other cultural collisions.

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[00:06] The “American yes” and the “French no”
[02:39] Taking the leap
03:35 Navigating visas, PACS for domestic partnership
[04:26] Difficulty of obtaining a work visa
[04:52] Proving financial sustainability
[05:34] Securing a place to live via the French bank account waltz
[06:56] Proof of residence courtesy EDF bill
[07:37] The importance of having YOUR name on the EDF bill
[09:30] Securing a job
[10:00] Getting out of Paris
[10:30] No place feels like home
[11:07] Feeling out of place
[12:27] Thoughts on learning language
15:25 NBC Nightly News Special Report with Lester Holt
[15:50] Terrorist attacks and French resilience
16:03 music: Si tu n′étais pas là performed by Fréhel, published 1935
18:04 US Healthcare ranking
[18:23] Health care and social programs
19:45 Tourism figures. Rude Parisians? Do You Speak Touriste?
[22:45] What’s the deal with not accepting 20 Euro bills in the south of France?
[23:33] Normalization of little oddities
[24:00] The art of the queue
27:15 Book: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
[27:55] Things missed about the US
[29:05] Things missed about France
[30:21] The effect of having moved to France
[31:00] Preparation for getting a haircut
[31:30] Parting advice for those wanting to move to another country

NOTE: This episode features the story of one individual’s experience. Experiences of a country and its culture will obviously vary from person to person and it is important to do your own research from a multitude of sources. In addition, immigration rules and regulations are subject to change at a moment’s notice–always check with a country’s official embassy for the latest updates.


Complete guide to French Visa types
French Consulate offices in US
How to get US-France dual citizenship


Want to learn French? I highly recommend Alliance Francaise USA. It’s a live classroom and it’s a little intimidating at first because it is mostly immersive except for questions, but you get used to it after the first class. I have found this to be THE best way to really train your EAR, which is a HUGE part of learning a language.

In addition, I’ve used a few different online courses to supplement my live classes. Check out FrenchPod101. I listen to their podcast on my iphone so I can practice speaking when I’m walking the dog, or doing mundane chores. Here’s why I think it’s great: on their website you get online videos, worksheets, tests, and vocabulary with pronunciation and spelling. The podcast is entertaining as it’s not same old dull “Hello, call a taxi please.” It features conversations in english and french between a french woman, a french man, and an american man that is fluent in french. They are in their 20s or 30s so the conversation is lively and fun. It’s WAAAY more conversational, entertaining and practical. You get the social aspect of the conversation noting different cultural customs.

Here’s another online language course I am currently trying out. Rocket French. It has audio lessons, vocabulary with audio and text. I’m a visual learner so it helps me to SEE the text to understand the pronunciation and vice versa. It also has a voice recorder which can check your pronunciation. So far, I’m liking it– it’s pretty comprehensive. I think it’s helpful to have supplemental learning to see what works best for you. It also has a free trial to test drive.

And for simply overall word memorization and vocabulary building I use the free program at DuoLingo.com


Check out the Expat Sandwich Spotify playlist for a curated selection of 60s and 70s French pop.

Expat Sandwich Spotify Playlist France Pop 60s and 70s

and….LOVE LOVE this recent musical discovery:

Les Vilains Chicots website


If you haven’t tried or heard of La Beurre Bordier, check out this video of France’s most famous hand crafted butter.


Marty Walker:  You’re listening to the very first episode of Expat Sandwich. I’m Marty Walker.

Mark Repasky: There’s like the American Yes and then there’s the French No. And the American Yes– Whenever anybody asks as sort of a yes or no question we always want to say yes. You know if somebody says “oh, I don’t have anything smaller than a 20 is that ok?” we tend to say yes. In France, it’s completely the opposite. They have what’s called the French no. So even if it’s OK they’re going to say no. And somebody told me that you have to get them to say no three times and then they’ll change it to a yes.

Marty Walker: At the time of this recording, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Hours before the election results were called, Canada’s immigration website crashed due to a massive surge in web traffic. Americans on both sides are trying to figure out how to move forward in a deeply divided country. But it’s not just Americans thinking about moving. British citizens are wondering how Brexit will play out for them, while millions of Syrians have fled their war torn country to seek peace in another land. At the same time the threat of terrorism is causing countries across the globe to tighten their borders. So it’s always good to have a plan B, right? Many of us are thinking about this a little more in depth, you know, how hard would it be to live in another country. Well there’s a ton of information about visas and immigration policy out on the internet. But that’s not what we’re really about. Expat Sandwich is where cultures collide. You’ll hear personal stories from folks that have taken the leap, for whatever reasons– school, job, politics– even a new spouse. They share their stories on the best, the weirdest, and the worst of living abroad.

Mark Repasky: So I’m Mark Repasky. I’m an expat. I’ve been living in Paris for the past four and a half years now.

Mark Repasky:  I wasn’t somebody who went to study abroad in college so I feel like I had always been missing that sort of experience.

Mark Repasky: Four years ago my partner had been studying in France and we got to the point where we needed to decide whether he was going to come back to the States or whether we were going to try to make it go for it abroad. And my career at the time, I was working in journalism. I was a television reporter and kind of thought well if I ever want to do this now is the time. So I kind of said “all right, I’m going to go for it.” And if if nothing else kind of live here and then go back to the States and kind of get our careers going. But as things turned out I ended up getting a contract here for a long term position and we kind of stayed.

Marty Walker:  It turns out there are a lot of types of visas.

Mark Repasky: You know a lot of people come over here, their job brings them over here. Matt’s case was a little bit different because he came over as a student and got a student visa and then was hired by a French company and his company sort of helped him through the whole visa process. I came over on a student visa and then we ended up doing what’s called PACS which was a domestic partnership over here so that I could then attach myself to Matt’s visa.

Mark Repasky: Living abroad you hear all of these different experiences and especially in France. You know people coming over in different ways you can get a visa to live here but that doesn’t necessarily give you working rights and you can also sort of get a visa with working rights. But that’s a little more difficult because of the job market here. Unemployment is so high here they’re very reluctant to give working rights to somebody that’s not a French national. They’re afraid you’re going to ask to be put on the Social Security system over here having never worked. But if you can show that you have enough money in savings to be sort of self-sustainable, they’ll be much more lenient with letting you in. What that won’t do though is give you working rights or give you the opportunity to come in here and find a job.

Marty Walker:  You know, it’s almost impressive how difficult they make moving here. It’s like some never ending waltz.

Mark Repasky:  There are the rentals, like even the long term rentals are geared towards people that are going to be staying here for a shorter time, you know maybe like a couple of months or a year. But if you’re actually looking to rent an apartment you need to have a French bank account. And that’s difficult because in order to get a French bank account, you need to have a French job, and in order to get a French job you need to have a French address.

Mark Repasky: So it’s kind of like this cycle that you need to have one piece but you can’t get that piece unless you have the others. It’s kind of a game in a way that you have to play. One exception to that is if you know somebody who has a French bank account they can recommend you to a bank and then you can get a bank account that way.

Marty Walker: So you know how in the U.S. when a company or institution ask for proof of address? You can give them a recent bank statement or a credit card statement– almost any kind of bill and you’re good to go–no questions asked right. Well in France, uh, not so much.

Mark Repasky: Here in France, you need to have an EDF bill, which is the gas and electric company. So that is the only thing that they accept as a certified proof of address, even if you have your residency card that has your address on it. They won’t accept that as a proof of address, they’ll say oh we need to have your EDF bill.

Marty Walker:  So if you’re a student or you find yourself in a roommate situation, Mark has this insanely valuable piece of advice for you.

Mark Repasky: And so if you’re just kind of moving over here and you decide “oh I’m going to get a get a room with somebody that’s already over here– rent a room for a long term” and you start thinking “OK now I sort of want to establish residency here.” And your name’s not on that gas bill– not on the EDF bill, all of your time here has been in vain because they’re not going to recognize that you are resident here because your name wasn’t on the gas bill. And that’s something that happens with a lot of students– people that come over here for three months to study abroad and say “oh you know what afterwards I want to live in Paris. It should be pretty easy since I already have the visa and I’ve been established here.” But France wouldn’t necessarily recognize that they’ve been in France all that time unless they have that piece of paper.

Marty Walker: You know how sometimes the really big things in life turn out to be not so big or you know not as glamorous as we had thought. Reality tends to have this funny way of colliding with imagination.

Mark Repasky:  Some of the things I thought initially would be– you know, that I would learn the language quickly, that I would be able to get a job, and that I would be able to sort of integrate into French life.

Mark Repasky: And none of those three things happened the way that I thought they would. You know, I think the language thing –language takes time it’s kind of a work of art learning the language. Every year I feel like my French is getting better and better but it’s still not where I thought it would be. It’s still not that great.

Mark Repasky: Getting getting a job was sort of another challenge you know. Originally I was looking for jobs in journalism. And those are tough to come by especially full time jobs in a country where you don’t speak the language. And I thought there would be opportunities here. But there weren’t so I ended up looking for another line of work, and that’s how I ended up working in travel and tourism industry leading bike trips and hiking trips around France and Europe. I’ve always said I don’t know if I would have stayed in Paris as long as I have if it wasn’t for being able to get out of Paris and get into the French countryside and just other parts of Europe, because as much as I like Paris there’s something about having the proximity to explore all of these other amazing places that really, for me, it makes living here totally worthwhile.

Mark Repasky:  One of the challenges I feel as an expat is that you sort of lose a sense of home. France doesn’t feel like home. But when I go back to the States that doesn’t quite feel like home either. And it’s a real eye opening experience in one way but it’s also kind of–it’s a challenge because you feel like both places are a part of you. If that makes sense. One of the other things I was thinking about was just it can be difficult being an expat and it ties in to the same thing because when you’re living in a foreign country, you still sometimes feel out of place. And one of the ways that I see that now, even being over here for four and a half years, is when you’re meeting friends. It’s difficult to make friends with the locals. Or to have those types of friendships that you would have if you were French. There’s just sort of a cultural barrie–you can still have friendships but it’s not the same thing. Making friends with expats is great but it’s also a challenge because of the expat life. A lot of times people are moving around. They’ll be here for a kind of a set period. So if your time frame here doesn’t line up with theirs, you might only be in the same city or that proximity for a short period of time.

Mark Repasky:  One of my best friends who is French who I met here is somebody that I do a language exchange with and we spend 30 minutes talking in French and 30 minutes talking in English every week. And over a couple of years we’ve sort of developed this friendship but it’s been based on the desire to help each other with language. When you’re starting out, when you’re learning a language the first time, when I was learning French I think the classroom really helped. I sort of just needed to build up my vocabulary, I needed to learn how to conjugate verbs. But when you are having a conversation with somebody that’s when you’re really sort of putting all of that stuff you learned in the classroom into real practice and you know I had a big problem I think just with with confidence when it came to French. I was afraid of saying something wrong so I wouldn’t say something. And that took probably at least 18 months to two years to kind of break through and say “Okay, I know my French isn’t perfect I know it’s not anywhere near perfect but if I want to get better I need to start–just talking. And if people correct me or if they say they can’t understand me then I’ll just have to get through that. And when you have that sort of confidence in that–when you change and you just allow yourself to speak, you sort of open up the possibility of getting better. I think going out into less metropolitan areas in France, like the countryside or into parts of Provence or into parts of Brittany/Normandy where I was forced to use French a little bit more than I was in Paris was really helpful. In Paris, people speak English or they have some English. So they’re more-they’ll use their English more readily. Whereas when you go out into the country, people don’t speak English as as much or they might not have any sort of English background. I’m just trying to think when I started coming over here eight years ago, like nothing, nothing at all was in English. It’s becoming much more common especially with sort of the next generation,like Millennials. I think they grew up learning English in school and they sort of recognized it as a more international language because if you come over here from Italy you’re using English. You know, if you come over here from the Netherlands, you’re using English. It’s sort of the language that connects all of Europe as well so it’s not just an American thing. It’s really sort of the international thing.

NBC Audio: We’re coming on the air to tell you about a situation unfolding right now in Paris where there have been a number of apparent attacks. Police are calling them incidents involving (fade) .

Marty Walker:  France has tragically become the target for numerous terrorist attacks over the last couple of years. I asked Mark to weigh in on how terrorism is affecting French society as well as his own security.

Mark Repasky: [00:15:47] You know, my chances of being involved in a mass shooting in the States are probably higher than being involved in a terrorist attack here in France.

Mark Repasky:  I think what’s happening in France right now is kind of scary. But I think,you know I’ve really been impressed by sort of the resilience of the French when stuff like this happens– how they’re able to kind of get back to daily life and how after the attacks in November, there was this whole movement to go back out on the terraces. And they tried to close Paris down the next night and Parisians said –no, like we’re not going to let this affect the way that we live our lives we’re going to go back out on the terraces and show these people that we’re not afraid or that we’re not scared. And I really sort of admire that resilience to be able to do that so quickly. And the same thing happened the previous January after the Charlie Hebdo attacks when there was this Je Suis Charlie movement. When I was talking with Parisians about that or just talking with my friends, there was kind of the sense like Charlie Hebdo was not a magazine that people particularly agreed with or were in line with or respected, but it was this idea of the freedom to express yourself- the freedom of speech that they felt came under attack in that January attack. And there was the Je Suis Charlie movement just saying–you know this might not be what we agree with. We don’t agree with what the magazine has done or the types of cartoons that they publish. But it’s bigger than that. And we’re going to be with them and be in solidarity with them because of a larger ideal or larger concept.

Marty Walker: If you’re like most Americans you’re acutely aware that the health care system is badly broken according to a recent article in Time magazine, the U.S. ranks worst among 11 wealthy nations in terms of efficiency, equity and outcomes, despite having the world’s most expensive health care system.

Mark Repasky:  I mean I have to say, man it’s nice to have health care and not worry about it and not worry about medical procedures or being bankrupted by an accident or an illness. You know, I’ve had really good experiences with the French health care system. There are really good social programs here. And I think that there is an idea in France that everybody sort of deserves a certain quality of life. A little bit earlier I was talking about how I didn’t necessarily recognize the differences between kind of French culture and American culture. And one of the things that I don’t think I fully recognized was still how socialist France is when it comes to ideas like social services and making sure that there’s education for all and that education is affordable and health care for all and that that health care is affordable. And I– you see both ends of it here. You see that it makes it really hard for businesses to add jobs because of the requirements. But you also see that French citizens have this quality of life and they don’t have to worry about things that we worry about in the States.

Marty Walker:  Not surprising, Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world. In fact, Paris’ Office of Tourism reported 36.5 million tourists came to the city of light in 2016. As Americans of a certain age, we’ve all heard the stories about the rude French waiter. So much so that it has just become cliche. But it’s interesting to note that recently in 2013, the Paris Tourist Board and Chamber of Commerce launched a citywide campaign to educate Parisian businesses. It’s called “Do You Speak Touriste?” It’s designed for those in the service sector so they can better understand foreigner’s customs and expectations. There’s a brochure which is entertaining and enlightening in understanding how Parisians view foreigners. For example, Americans are described as “enthusiastic and demanding and eat dinner earlier and much faster.” The Chinese are considered serial shoppers while Spaniards eat absurdly late. I asked Mark to provide more context and insight around the reputation of rudeness.

Mark Repasky: If somebody asks me about “oh do you think Parisians are rude.” My first response will typically be– well, not any more than New Yorkers. And it’s just something, I think, when you live in a large city that is so heavily populated and the population concentration is so high, you sort of create your own space and you lose some of those common everyday pleasantries, like, looking people in the eye or you know, saying saying hi or hello. And you become a little more abrasive maybe. And I think that has more to do with it than Parisians being rude. One thing that I’ve noticed living over here now is something that I really like. And it’s how the French are very polite and where I notice it is when you’re getting on a bus, you have to say bonjour or hello to the bus driver when you put your ticket in. There’s no way getting around it. Or when you’re paying at a cash register, you know it’s not just saying oh thanks– you really have to say thank you or have a nice day or goodbye–there’s sort of these extra pleasantries that they really expect from people. And you know that may be part of it too– as Americans or just foreigners people might not recognize that. And if you don’t do some of those common pleasantries you might get a rude look or something and maybe that plays into that idea.

Marty Walker: Last summer when I was hiking with Mark in the south of France, I kept getting into this odd issue. Every time I wanted to buy something small, like a Coke or a pack of Band-Aids, I’d hand the cashier at €20 bill. And they’d shake their head and ask for a smaller bill or change. The onus would be on me. I either had to find a bank to make change or buy much more from the shopkeeper so they would take my bill or scrounge it up from my friends which never worked because they were hoarding their small bills and change for the very same reason.

Mark Repasky: I don’t know– isn’t that– of course like what do the ATMs give you? They give you 50 euro. You’re lucky if you can get 20.

Mark Repasky: When you move over here, those little things that you notice all the time when you first come– they slowly start to become normal. There’s like this normalization period where, because I remember that was the same same type of thing. I was super reluctant or to pay with like a large bill and I was really nervous about you know are they are they going to take my 20 for 4 Euro sandwich. And now, now I don’t even think about it. France falls, it sort of falls like between Southern Europe like Italy, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to board a plane in Italy but it can be a really chaotic experience. I hate to generalize or I don’t want to be seen as being somebody who has all these stereotypes, but there’s like no line and it’s just kind of a blob that moves. And then to the north. you know in England and even the Scandinavian countries and in Germany of course, there’s like this very precise line and idea of order. And France kind of falls somewhere in the middle. And I remember when I first moved here. If you’re not paying attention when you’re in a line people will notice and they’ll cut in front of you. So one of the things I learned at the beginning was you always have to be paying attention in line. And then you kind of have to stick close to the person in front of you and you’re probably if somebody is going to cut you off or cut you in line it’s probably going to be like a little old French woman. And how do you handle that? Like what are you supposed to do, right? Like are you supposed to be like “no, go to the back of the line” or do you just kind of let her do it? It’s a very confusing thing for other cultures I think.

Mark Repasky:  It’s like being at a bar you’re trying to get the bartender attention and you you know there’s kind of a sense of line or order but there’s also not really and you just have to be hyper aware of, I was here before that person. I still worry a lot at a French market,when it’s really crowded and people would just kind of go up to the counter and sometimes there’s not a good sense of line or order. So you kind of have to mentally take note of who came in front of you and who came behind you. And if somebody starts to kind of cut in front of you and try to get service before, you because, that’s pretty common– they’ll do that. You have to defend yourself like “no, I was here first.” Nine times out of 10 they’ll totally be like “Okay yeah, no problem. You were here first. Okay.”

Marty Walker: You know, I’m always interested to know what books expats are reading. Some read history or historical novels to get a better sense or understanding of culture and place, while others are finding comfort in reading fiction, which can serve as a needed respite from the daily struggles of being a foreigner.

Mark Repasky:  I just downloaded a book I’ve been trying to read forever is All the Light You Cannot See. It’s a book that takes place in Saint-Malo, which is in Brittany during World War II. And it’s something that as I’ve worked in Brittany and have had guests come to Saint-Malo, they have all said “oh, have you read this have you read this have this read that have you read this and I keep having to say no. So I finally downloaded it and that’s what I’m starting right now.

Marty Walker:  When expats are asked what they miss the most about their native country, it often comes down to three things: Food, family and the ease of daily living.

Mark Repasky:  It’s funny, like the things that you miss. We subscribed to French Vanity Fair a couple of years ago but it’s just not the same. I mean it’s in French so it just takes so much longer to read. When I came over here in 2012, anytime I went back to the States my suitcase would be full of all of these things that I would bring back. And usually it would be like toothpaste and deodorant and English magazines stuff from Trader Joe’s and, now, I’ve either found the French equivalent or I don’t even care. There are very few things that I would say I really miss. The biggest one is probably Mexican food though. Like the first thing I usually do when I land in the States is go get Mexican food.

Marty Walker: I asked Mark what he would miss if he had to leave France and move back to the United States.

Mark Repasky: Oh my gosh. The bread. The pastries. And I know that sounds cliche but just having fresh bread around the corner or the baguettes. The food would definitely be a big big part of it. The cheese. The fish. The wine. Definitely all those things.

Mark Repasky: France one of the things I have learned about it is that it is just incredibly different in each region. I don’t know if I was expecting that but it’s one of the things I really love. Or one of the reasons I really love exploring France is to see both those differences and you see it kind of in the food, you see it in the culture. You see it in the buildings but it’s a pretty incredible country that way.

Marty Walker: [00:30:05] One of the byproducts of leaving your native country is that it seems to accelerate personal growth. It’s something that’s difficult to explain to people who have never traveled or who’ve never left their native country for long periods of time.

Mark Repasky: It’s made me a more adaptable person for sure. And to be able to not worry about the small things. I think it’s given me a sense of how to how to be in the moment and live in the moment better. It’s sort of broken me out of a routine and sort of a day to day life and having to struggle everyday especially when you’re new. I remember how exhausting that was to kind of wake up and be in an unfamiliar place, and, something as trivial as going to get a haircut became a challenge that I had to spend the entire week thinking about– “oh do I have the vocabulary, like do I have to make an appointment, what sort of place am I going to go to? How am I going to find the right person?” And then just going in and doing it. But, when you’re done, then you have this sense of accomplishment that is, it’s pretty amazing.

Marty Walker: And for those of you who are thinking about making the leap, Mark leaves us with a little bit of advice.

Mark Repasky: I think it’s really difficult to have the experience that you think you’re going to have. There’s always going to be surprises along the way. And the best way is just to kind of take them as they come and figure out how to deal with them. You know, do your planning but also be prepared for things to go in a different direction or not as expected. And that’s part of the challenge. But it’s also part of the fun of living in a different culture, living where things are less familiar.

Marty Walker: That’s going to wrap it up for us. Check out the show notes on our website at expatsandwich.com.

Marty Walker: I’d like to thank everyone that has helped out with the initial launch of our Patreon campaign so far. You can show your appreciation by supporting the show and making a small donation at Patreon. You can donate as little as two dollars a month or a million dollars a month. It is totally up to you. A special thanks to Louise Walker, Tim Hurst, Jay Shinn and @HonorableHusband. Thanks for your generous support. And if you have a minute we’d love it if you can leave us a short review on iTunes. That’s how you can give us a boost in the iTunes rankings so more people can discover us. And as always many many thanks for listening. We really appreciate you.

Expat Sandwich is produced by Marty Walker.