Friday, July 17, 2015

The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Paris, or, Fifty Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong

Yours truly outside the legendary
Lapin Agile cabaret in Montmartre
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[Note: this is a revised and updated version of an article originally published back in the fall of 2012. We're making a return trip to the City of Light this fall, so I felt it was time to revisit it. And besides, the blog where this originally appeared has since winked out of existence.]

Now that we're back from our first trip to the French capitol, I'd like to share some of what we learned—some of it from experience, some from our friend Eric who has been paying annual visits to the city for decades. These are not insider tips (it was our first trip, after all), but I think you'll find them useful.

Let's start with some general information.

Be Prepared: if your credit card company is anything like mine, they'll want to be notified of plans to use the card outside of the USA since their fraud-detection systems with otherwise flag those charges as possibly suspect. You'll probably want to contact the bank that issued your ATM card as well to make sure it will be accepted outside of the country and to find out what extra charges might apply for withdrawals made abroad.

Language: While it's a good idea to learn enough basic French to (say) read a menu, the fact is that most of the people you'll deal with in a city like Paris will be able to speak enough English to make communication relatively easy. Indeed, our experience was that most Parisians would rather try to deal with English than listen to a native Anglophone mangle French. And don't underestimate the value of sign language; that's how we managed to make a purchase at a fromagerie (cheese shop) where the owner spoke no English at all.

That said, if you want to tackle French, a good way to start is with Duolingo. Available as both a web site and mobile app, Duolingo makes learning a new language into a game, encouraging you to earn points (called "lingots") by studying daily, translating articles, and generally giving yourself some exposure to your new language on a regular basis. You should probably still do some vocabulary study in addition, but Duolingo will help you get over the "I don't know anything" hump.

Courtesy: If our experience is any indication, the legendary rudeness of Parisians is, like Thurber's unicorn, a mythological beast. I saw no evidence that Parisians were any more discourteous than residents of any other major world hub. We generally found that if we treated people with courtesy it was returned. Maybe some of this myth is due to a simple misunderstanding. When you enter a shop or other place of business in Paris, it's common practice to say "bonjour" before getting down to business. Not doing so is seen as rude.

Hector Guimard's original Art Nouveau entrance
of the Paris M├ętro in Abbesses station
Getting Around: Just about anywhere in Paris is easily reached via the Metro (subway) and/or bus and/or RER suburban rail system. Tickets for all three can be purchased singly or in bulk with either cash or credit card from terminals at just about any Metro station. Your best bet is a carnet—a packet of ten one-way tickets at a discount price. We went through several during our stay. And don't worry about leftover tickets; they don't expire, so you can use them the next time you're in town. For more information, check out the RATP web site.

Speaking of Metro stations, don't neglect the Plan du Quartier map, usually found at the platform. It'll show you where the various exits (sorties) lead—very useful for getting your bearings when you get topside. And, of course, large Metro system maps are posted at each station to assist in making transfers.

Plan to do a lot of walking in Paris. The streets of Paris teem with interesting sights, sounds, and (thanks to the many chocolatiers, patisseries, pistacheries, boulangeries, fromageries, and cafes) smells. Even if you're just trying to get from point A to point B, you'll find that (to quote an old advertising slogan) getting there is half the fun.

As for driving, don't even think about it. That's a sport strictly reserved for the natives. If you need to travel en voiture, seriously consider using the Uber app. Our friends used Uber extensively last fall and were very pleased with the service.
The Apartment: There are plenty of reasonable hotels in Paris, of course, but give serious consideration to renting an apartment instead, especially if you plan to stay for more than a day or two. The convenience of having your own kitchen and laundry facilities can't be overstated. Most neighborhoods will have a plethora of food and wine stores within easy walking distance (so not every meal has to be from a restaurant) and being able to wash your clothes means you can pack a lot less. There are plenty of places to be had at VRBO as well as Air BNB, along with many smaller operators such as Paris Perfect, Vacation in Paris, ParisBestLodge, RothRay, and Barclay International. Fodors has an old but still useful article on the subject.

The two-bedroom we shared with friends in the 6th Arrondissment (from RentalFrance, pictured) was a classic example. It was next door to a Carrefour supermarket and a wine shop, a block away from a pharmacie (drug store), and smack in the middle of a vast array of shops and restaurants of every possible variety. We had fresh baguettes and pastries every morning, as much reasonably priced wine as we could drink, and, with the exception of the pharmacie (see below), pretty much any consumer goods we needed.

In sickness and in health: While there are plenty of drugstores (easily distinguished by "green cross" signs) in Paris, the line of over-the-counter drugs differs considerably from those available in the USA, and your favorite remedy might not be available. My advice is to bring your preferred OTC medications with you. That includes items you might or might not need, like cold medicine. My attempts to locate a decent cough suppressant/expectorant were spectacularly unsuccessful, as were my wife's to locate an antihistamine/decongestant combo that did not include acetaminophen.

There's an app for that: If you have a smartphone, there are some incredibly useful (and cheap) apps that can add considerably to your Parisian experience. The one we used the most often was the TripAdvisor. It includes a downloadable Paris map along with a database of Metro stations, attractions, restaurants, and so on. Combine that with your phone's GPS capability and you have an invaluable navigation tool. At one point it enabled us to track down a nearly invisible restaurant (Le Petite Prince de Paris) tucked away at the end of a small pedestrian lane. TripAdvisor has downloadable maps for many major cities world-wide. Their SeatGuru app is also handy for picking the best airline seats, and GateGuru makes airline connections less painful.

Other useful offline mapping apps are PocketEarth for IOS and CityMaps2Go by Ulmon. Both include a database of attractions, hotels, public transport stops, and other useful information.

You'll also want an app (like Convert or Units Plus) that enables you to do money, volume and temperature conversion. The RATP app is useful for its zoomable Metro map; ditto MxData's Paris Metro app, which also includes a handy route planner.

Speaking of smartphones, if you plan to use your cell for voice calls you'll need to contact your carrier about adding a calling plan that will allow you to send or receive calls and text messages while abroad.

As for cellular data, you'll want to check with your wireless carrier about that as well.  My carrier (ATT), for example, has special international data and text packages that can be purchased on a per-month basis and which allow you to suck down a lot of megabytes for a modest amout of money.  Given how competitive the market is, there's a good chance your carrier will have one as well.  If not, you'll also want to disable cellular data and data roaming completely and confine your data use to Wi-Fi hotspots; without a special plan, international data rates are astonishingly high.

You might also want to invest in a VPN (Virtual Private Network) product like Hotspot Shield (a one-year subscription is only $12), Cloak, or TunnelBear that allows you to set up a secure connection to the Internet, thereby reducing the risk of your Facebook, Twitter, or email account being hijacked by someone using a "sniffer" program at a public Wi-Fi point.

Speaking of security: Like all major cities, Paris has a pickpocket and petty crime issue. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to avoid being scammed. Bonjour Paris has a good article on the subject. Europe for Visitors also has some practical suggestions, along with several other common tourist mistakes. The entire article is definitely worth a read. The most important things are to be aware of your surroundings and carry your valuables securely (zippered pockets are your friends).

The best way to spend your first afternoon
What to do on Day One: Let's face it, no matter how good the flight over to Paris is, you will almost certainly be jet lagged when you hit town. My recommendation? Don't plan on anything elaborate. Consider spending the afternoon on a cruise of the River Seine followed by a long, leisurely late lunch or early dinner. It's a great way to get a feel for the city and where some of the big tourist attractions are located, and doesn't take that long. We used Vendettes du Pont Neuf. They start at Pont Neuf, go all the way to just west of the Eiffel Tower, then swing around Ile Saint-Louis to return to the starting point.

Another option is Bateaux Mouches, which is a bigger operation with larger boats and (probably) more tourists. They leave from Pont Iena and cover much the same area. They're a bit more expensive (13.5 Euros vs. 10 Euros last time I checked) but it's not exactly a major investment either way.

Got any other suggestions? Leave me a comment.

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