Everything You'll Wish You Knew Before Going To Paris, Courtesy Of A Local Guy Who's Been Around The Globe
Vive La France!
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” I wish I could write like Hunter Thompson, but I can’t, so you will just have to put up with it. I like to travel. It’s fun and you learn a lot. In fact, I had this sort of life rule that you really shouldn’t go more than two years without leaving your home country and seeing something different. Fortunately, not being a wealthy sort, I have a job which allows me to do that pretty regularly. Now, Patty J asked me to tell you about a trip to France that I recently took and some thoughts about it, so here goes…
Let me start by saying, I don’t speak French. I used to be ok at Chinese and my English is passable. But my French, C’estaffreux (It’s awful.). Now, I love France. They have great food, great wine, great cafes, beautiful countryside, and great people. “Quoi?”, you say, I always heard French people were rude? That’s a good one. So, let’s start with the whole “rude” thing: 1) Americans are very rude when abroad. Not everyone, but you know who I mean. The first problem Americans have is they assume everyone can and will speak English because, you know, Murica and all that. Strike one. In France, with the exception of tourist stuff, you won’t find a lot of people who speak much English, but you can manage just fine. Imagine a French family with two crying children walking into a busy fast food restaurant in Times Square and being unable to speak a word of English. You want to see rude, well you will see it pretty fast. I have never found French people to be rude at all (but I am not that sensitive either). Have I seen a snooty waiter or two, yep, but I have seen a couple in NYC as well. Have I seen a waitress roll her eyes when someone orders a dessert wine with dinner, that too, but also in the US.
The secret of success wherever you go is simple - Learn to say “Please” (Si Vous Plait), “Thank You” (Merci), “Hello” (Bonjour or after dark, Bon Soir), the check (L’addition s’il vous plait.), and the bathroom (Ou sont les toilettes?). Say “Merci” a lot, it’s fun. Say “Bonjour” a lot, it’s also fun. Everywhere I have ever been, just the fact that you tried a little bit helps. When you walk in and say (in a Foghorn Leghorn voice), “I say, I say, get us a table and some that French wine Giscard,” they tend to be rude. I would be too. Fast food is rude. I mean everywhere. In fact, it always seems less rude since saying “wattayawant” in French (Qu’est-ce que vous voulez ?), it sounds nicer than in English. So, if you will just use Google Translate or a guidebook (Let me say Google again.), you can learn just a few polite phrases, and everything will be better. But…
As to the rude stuff, well Paris is a big city, it’s been a city since about 53 BC. And, just like all big cities, people are busy, hurried, and trying to get where they want to be. That means cabbies blow the horn and make nasty gestures, you get yelled at if you are jay walking in traffic, and if you stop people on the street and try to ask them where the Eiffel tower is, they may not help you. (Let me say Google...again.) A lot like New York or Atlanta, people don’t care about you, they just want to get on with it. Americans always imagine themselves as these paragons of virtue and politeness, but big cities are big cities, don’t expect people on the street to invite you home for dinner (and if they do, I would probably skip it).
In Paris, there are many ways to move around the giant city. The Metro, which is mostly clean and mostly safe, is cheap. You buy tickets from a machine (Buy 10 at a time since not every station has a machine that works.) and put them in the turnstile just like you do in NYC or Boston. You can even buy a permanent loaded card if you like. But the best part of the modern age, make sure you have a data plan on your phone and Google Maps will take you anywhere you want on the subway (or anything else) in Paris, easily. You can also Über, that works pretty well but the traffic is terrible. I get upset with Über as well because they do that “surge pricing” thing where they triple the price just as you are supposed to get in the car. You can drive. I would strongly advise against driving unless you are a seasoned Boston type driver because the rules are vague and a lot like Boston at rush hour if everyone was really aggressive (Yes, I said that.). I have done it, but it can be challenging unless you have a navigator. If you do drive, appoint someone navigator and have them use the Google Maps, GPS or Waze (I liked Waze.). If you want to leave Paris, there are high speed trains from several big train stations around Paris that will take you to London, Frankfurt, or just about anywhere in Europe cheaply and rapidly. And you can drive, once you are out of Paris, it’s kind of nice. (Don’t speed.)
A Quick Tech Interlude
Since I keep talking about Google Maps...smart phones are a must these days. In the old days, we had Michelin maps and guidebooks but wow, using Google Maps to get around is the best. So, a couple of things: 1) Ensure your phone has an international plan and that the plan includes your home data use. On my ATT phone, we have to pay 10$ a day and we get the same unlimited data that we have in the States in France. If you don’t have access to this, you may want to figure out some way to use data while you are in France. Otherwise, data is outlandishly expensive and Google Maps will cost you a bundle. 2) If you don’t have a data plan in France, either get a local phone (It will still be cheaper.) or turn your data off and buy a map/guidebook. 3) Use your phone for translations. Google Translate will give you words and even phrases if you need them. If they can’t understand you, show them the screen. Works great but you need data. 4) Put all your known destinations in your Google Map before you leave, and it will make things faster and simpler. Especially when you are tired and hot.
I am not a good tourist. I always travel with the idea that I will likely be here again (even if I don’t think I will). I just can’t enjoy the grinding 7am to midnight approach to try and see everything you’ve ever heard of in a day or two. If that is your thing, you have my admiration. I usually use Viator.com to book tours and if you want to see a lot, get a bus tour and have them take you all around. The “skip the line” tours are a must - unless you really enjoy standing in the broiling sun for hours and hours waiting. The skip the line lines are a lot shorter.
Recently, my daughter went with me to Paris and we went on a Skip the Line guided tour of the Catacombs (which were really cool both in temperature and content) and a Skip the Line dinner at the Eiffel Tower. We rode the subway to all these events and in the process found out the Gay Pride Parade was happening, so we went to that as well. That’s my kind of fun. Paris is hot, and you have to walk a lot, so take comfortable shoes. We averaged walking about 5 miles every day we were there just getting around. When my daughter is with me, we try to plan one 2-3 hour thing every day to see (I know, but I’ll be back.), and then we just wander around, find a place for lunch, have some Hugo Spritz in the café, drink a lot of espresso, relax in the hot afternoon, and then go to dinner. If you want to do the hardcore grind, I think the tours are best since it’s all handled, but if you just pick something to do each day and try to dedicate some time to sitting in the park, you will have a better time, better memories, and really get into the nature of the place. I mean, eat some pastry. You just walked two miles. One of my favorite tricks is to go into a pâtisserie and just order what the person in front of me ordered. Just watch what they pay, so you don’t order 3 dozen lemon tarts. (Note, I didn’t manage to eat them all but they sure were good.)
My biggest tip is:“Do things you like, not things you think you should do.” I see those shambling crowds at the Louvre waiting hours to stand at the back of a sweaty mob to take a picture of the Mona Lisa. Why? If you really want to see the Mona Lisa, can’t you just look at it online and actually be close enough to see it? Do you know anything about the Mona Lisa? I don’t. I went to the Pompidou to see Dali’s before, because I love Dali and Rothko. But the Mona Lisa, it’s iconic, but I don’t really know anything about it. Versailles is amazing but shuffling through scorching hot rooms listening to tales of French history can be tedious. Well, if you like French history, it’s awesome, but if you don’t know Lafayette from Louis XIV, well ok, if you must, at least do it quickly and get Skip The Line.
Instead, we went to the free public gardens in the back and rented a tandem bike and rode around the canal that Louis XIV had built for the view. Had coffee and water, walked around and looked at the fountains, ice cream, what all the locals were doing. I know, I know, there are some things you just have to do, so book a Skip The Line guided tour on Viator, and see what you want to see, not what you are “expected” to see.
Your bank will likely allow you to withdraw funds in foreign currency (if it’s a big national bank). That means you get the best rate right here at home instead of some kiosk (Tabernac! Quebec only). Today, you still need cash, but almost everyone takes credit cards. If you use Über, you don’t need cab fare, and if you use hotels and Airbnb, that is all paid as well. So, don’t take a huge amount of cash unless you are going out of Paris where credit cards may not be as welcome. However, your credit card must have a chip to be usable in Europe. Ask the company about it if you aren’t sure. Also, bd sure and have all the numbers for your credit card and the company, so you can call if you lose it.
Now you’re talking. The French countryside is amazing. There are villages, cities, you name it, just like anywhere else - only they have great restaurants and squares. We had to go and do a presentation in Nancy which is in Loraine/Alsace. Nancy is a laid back medieval city with no tourists. So, we rented an Airbnb that was lovely, rode the bus (Thanks Google Maps!) down to the University, and the Place Stanislas (big town square), and hung out. They have a light show every night at 2230 that is local and fun. Everyone comes down, has some drinks, and watches the lights. It’s impressive and fun. Great food, great wine, and it’s only a 1 hour and 50 minute train ride at 200 mph from Paris.
We have had great experiences with Airbnb and get to stay in apartments. Now, we go cheap, so some of them are not five-star hotels. In fact, some of them are not two-star hotels, but they are cheap, and you get to see residential areas as well. I love it, but you may not, so if you want a five-star hotel, book one.
Remember, in France there is no air conditioning except at hotels. So, if you want air conditioning, either make sure your rental has it (good luck) or you will have to stay in a hotel. For me, staying in the Marriott, well, I could have done that at home. So, we love the apartments. That said, there are usually no elevators and when they say 2nd floor in Europe it means 3rd floor (The ground floor is 0.). These are also usually narrow stairs with weird treads, so if you can’t/don’t want to carry your bags up the stairs, maybe consider a nice hotel.
One other thing, bathrooms. Well, as it has always been, there is one thing Americans do really well. Bathrooms. Now, in Europe the toilet part is called the WC and in France the toilette. If you ask for the bathroom, they think you want a shower. There are some public toilets in Paris and they are really weird. You have to pay, and they are often what are called “bomb sight” toilets (look it up). Much like NYC, there are not often toilets in shops or bodegas. Restaurants usually have them but for customers only. In apartments and hotels, you mostly just have normal toilets now instead of all the weird exotic stuff they used to have. Bidets have disappeared, even in the posh motel we had to stay in one night, but may still be found somewhere, they are nice. The two buttons on the toilet tank are small flush and big flush, you get the idea.
And then there are the showers. I will never understand showers. Often showers have half doors (think only have the entrance), and may or may not have a curtain. If you ever figure out how not to make a mess with a half door shower without a shower curtain, let me know. But at least they have them. When I first started going to Europe, it was hard to find a room with a toilet, let alone a shower. Today, that also seems to have vanished.
Our Favorite Things
We really enjoyed eating crepes for dessert every night after dinner, visiting the carnival at the Place de la Concorde and riding the Ferris wheel (It’s cool to see the Eiffel tower and the Louvre in the background while you do something mundane.), having croque madame’s and Hugo Spritz in a café, riding a tandem bike through the gardens of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI, sitting in the Place Stanislas for the Son et Lumiere or just having dinner and wine and talking to my almost grown up daughter. Priceless.
I have been to France many times, I loved sharing it with my daughter. I have never seen everything there is to see or even some of the main things, but I have never come home and thought, “Wow, I wouldn’t want to go there again.” But you must be calm, flexible, open minded, and ready to adapt. Say “merci” and “bonjour” whenever you can. It’s different but that’s the fun. You may see someone peeing in public, you may eat something you never tried, you may have your flights cancelled, your reservation may be for the wrong month, it’s an adventure. That’s the point. Make your memory sitting in the café enjoying the wine and talking, not standing in some sweaty line to see something you don’t know anything about. But that’s just me. Besides, you can see that next time.
Be sure and check out SecureDigitalLife.com (#71) for travel tips from Russ; there are other episodes about travel and vpn use too. (Try #2 as well.)
More About Doug White
Doug White is the Chair of Cybersecurity and Networking programs at Roger Williams University. He has worked in the technology industry for many years and specializes in networking, disaster, forensics, and security. He has been paid to break into buildings, talk tech people out of their usernames and passwords, steal money, and figure out horrible scenarios like “What if a rabid shark swarm was caught up in a tornado while a core meltdown occurred? Could we still watch Netflix?” Doug has a PhD in Computer Information Systems and Quantitative Analysis from the University of Arkansas, is a Certified Computer Examiner, A Cisco Certified Network Administrator, A Certified Information Systems Security Professional, and a licensed private investigator.