SOME TRUTHS ABOUT PARIS
How does one answer the most common travel question: “Where is your favourite place?”. I assume the person expects a tantalising answer that will fill them with wanderlust. Perhaps a locale accessible only by taking three flights, a bus ride, and chartering a fishing boat. I am afraid I must be a disappointment in that regard.
The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay, I heard the laughter of her heart in every street café. – Oscar Hammerstein II
To many, my favourite place may be considered cliché or even mundane. Paris is a city I fall more in love with every time I have the opportunity to visit. From sitting at my leisure outside a café in the Quartier Latin, to perusing art from the historical grand masters, to ambling along the shores of the Seine from Tour Eiffel to the spires of Notre Dame. Paris captivated me like no other city. Even the occasional smell of stale piss hasn’t stopped me from loving it.
I have been fortunate enough to visit Paris on three separate occasions, during three different seasons, and it was almost as I imagined it would be. Almost. Here are some destroyed myths and revealed truths from my times in Paris.
MYTH: PEOPLE IN PARIS ARE RUDE AND UNFRIENDLY
I have witnessed visitors affecting a fake French accent, mockingly mispronouncing words, and laughing about language comparisons. They then expressed surprise when the local French waiters treated them poorly. I earnestly believe in a simple travel rule: act like a dickhead and eventually you’ll be treated like one.
Service staff in Paris take their jobs seriously, and they are very good at them. They may lack the grovelling and ass kissing often seen in some countries yet they excel in other areas, such as remembering what you ordered and choosing the perfect wine.
MYTH: IF YOU CANNOT SPEAK FRENCH, THEY WILL NOT TALK TO YOU
The national language in France is obviously French. While many will take English as a second language through school, they may not be comfortable speaking English. However, by ingratiating yourself slightly, and making an honest attempt to learn a few words of French, the locals will be very receptive.
In restaurants around the centre of Paris, the waiters will usually speak English and have English menus. Again, a simple bonjour will be appreciated. It isn’t difficult to cross a language barrier with a good natured smile.
MYTH: SNAILS AND FROGS LEGS; THE FOOD IS WEIRD
First one must define ‘weird’. If you consider red curry chicken from the local Thai shop an exotic option, then menus in Paris may tingle your weirdometer. However, be not afraid! You can easily avoid escargot (snails) or cuisse de grenouilles (frogs legs) , though I recommend trying them. Perhaps not the foie gras. Force feeding geese with corn may make their livers delicious, but it cannot be a pleasant process for the animals.
As with most countries shopping at a supermarket provides better value than eating in restaurants, which can put a dent in your wallet. I also believe a trip to Paris wouldn’t be complete without a picnic on the Champ de Mars; freshly baked bread from Boulangerie Poilâne and cheese from Barthélémy. You will not be disappointed. Try get to Boulangerie Poilâne around 11am and wait for the fresh bread.
TRUTH: THERE ARE A LOT OF STREET HAWKERS
Without question, the Eiffel Tower is a terrible shape for a keyring. A small model in a pack is inviting being poked in the back every time you put it on. I detest selfie sticks, though I own one for my GoPro. Nor do I need a green laser powerful enough to etch the outline of a penis on distant cars.
I have absolutely no use for any of the junk the hawkers are selling, yet in moments of compassion I find myself buying something. I then silently curse myself for the tiny influence I have had on sustaining such an annoying practise. My weak argument is they’re not selling things on the roadside to take a break from counting their piles of cash back at the château they call home.
Though equally as annoying, some hawkers have their uses. Case in point, those selling bottles of wine on the Champ de Mars. I occasionally will pay a little extra if I don’t have to fetch it myself, but putting up with the endless babble ruins any romance about this setting. A man could be down on one knee with a diamond ring, and someone with a plastic bag of wine bottles will be there asking if they want something to drink.
A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life. -Thomas Jefferson
TRUTH: THE QUEUES ARE BAD
High season tourists may stand in queues for several hours. Even during low season there are queues to enter the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay. Luckily there are alternatives to spending your vacation trying to stop an old lady sidling around you like she’s ignorant of your existence, or focusing death stares on the couple at the front whose four friends just turned up and joined them.
The queues aren’t usually for tickets; the queues are for security. However, there is usually a separate queue for holders of a ticket or a Paris Pass. The Paris Pass can potentially save you a lot of queuing time, however it pays to do some research to know if it is right for you. Here is an excellent breakdown of the Paris Pass.
It is worth noting, some tickets cannot be purchase online on the day of entry. I am a fan of arriving late, seeing a queue, then purchasing tickets or checking in online while congratulating myself on ‘hacking the system’.
MIXED: PARIS IS EXPENSIVE
While it may not compare to Vietnam or Bolivia, it is possible to visit Paris on a budget. There is cheap accommodation and food available that doesn’t include hostels or ramen with tinned tuna. It does require some preparation and good timing. Paris is filled with small apartments and studios, with balconies looking out over quaint courtyards and city scenes. I find the entire experience, even climbing six flights of spiral staircase after too much wine, extremely satisfying.
During the low or fringe season, you can find apartments for less than AUD$30 a day. The public transport system in Paris is easy to navigate, so following these routes is a great way to add convenience. Though supermarkets are the best way to minimise your food bill, you do not have to pay top dollar to eat amazing French food in Paris.
For the budget conscious, free activities are aplenty in Paris, from monuments and fountains to gardens and parks. Unfortunately, if you wish to visit museums and some monuments, the costs can skyrocket. The Paris Pass can help save money but only if used wisely. Remember to enjoy some time idly wandering the streets. Even in the rain, Paris is beautiful.
MYTH: FASHION IS EVERYTHING IN PARIS
I find myself lacking enthusiasm for fashion. I prefer a pack full of practicality than a suitcase full of fashion. Merino t-shirts and jeans are my staples. My idea of dressing up means adding a sports jacket to my merino t-shirt and jeans.
I never felt uncomfortable in Paris, though I have never tried to wine and dine my way through Paris’ elite. I must admit to noticing the standard of dress for the average person in Paris is somewhat higher than that found in New Zealand and most of Australia, but when you can get into most places in a singlet and jandals, why would you wear anything else?
MIXED: THERE IS DOG POO EVERYWHERE
A lot of Parisians own dogs. The apartments in Paris are not the kind you let your dog shit inside of, no matter how cute it is. Daily walks mean daily doses of pavement poop, and much of it doesn’t get cleaned up.
More memorable is the mess left by humans. The smell of stale piss around the Louvre or piles of poo on the stairs to the Seine leaves a lasting impression. On a slightly more positive note, it does remind starry-eyed visitors Paris is still a city full of average people.
Luckily Paris has cracked down. Fines are being issued for littering, public defecation, and not scooping up after your canine companion. Keep this in mind if you find yourself too lazy to take away your rubbish after a picnic.
MYTH: PARIS IS UNSAFE
There are dangerous areas in any city. It is in one’s best interest to be cautious, especially at night. Practising situational awareness can help identify risks and avoid them. For example, avoid walking through dark alleys at night talking about your lottery winnings.
Paris has been the focus of a number of terrorism incidents in recent years. This has had an impact. There is an increased police and military presence. Serious men watch over tourist hot spots; armed to the teeth, they can appear imposing. They will usually insist people move if they are loitering for no apparent reason, which means fewer people ruining photos or trying to sell you something. They are there to ensure your safety, and they’re doing good work.
I cannot remember a time when I have felt unsafe in Paris.
MYTH: THERE ARE MIMES IN PARIS
I have seen many Parisian stereotypes. Parisians riding bicycles with baguettes in their baskets. People wear berets, cravats, and striped shirts. I have seen men arguing loudly in French over cigarettes and coffee until one exclaimed “Sacre Bleu!”. I have heard someone say “Oh la la”, which isn’t used as a sexy idiom as in other places. Unfortunately I have yet to see a mime in Paris. I am rather pleases as they’re a little weird.
MYTH: PARIS IS SO CLICHÉ
You take that back right now! I’ll admit to being a small town boy from the Land of the Kiwi, but Paris is amazing. I look forward to my next visit. It still continues to be so much of what I expect and yet pleasantly surprise me as well.