“The thing is, Adam, time travel is like visiting Paris. You can’t just read the guide book. You’ve got to throw yourself in, eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers – or is that just me?”
This is what the Doctor (of ‘Who’ fame) says of travel in that diva of tourist destinations, the French capital. And despite my 6 years’ of French study, it was just about all I had to go on when I visited Paris in November 2011. Since I can’t be the only one for whom this is the case, I’m sorry to say that not all the advice here is good. Sure, you should eat the food. The alternative is well, starving to death. But as for the other bits, I’m going to give the good Doctor a few much-needed corrections:
1. Do read the guidebook. It mentions things like the fact that you can get into the Louvre without being jostled and groped by huge crowds of tourists if you get there early: a tip we didn’t believe could possibly work, but strangely it did, and maybe that’s because all the others foolishly did not look into the Lonely Planet section at the bookshop. Yes, the guidebook tricks sometimes actually work. Yes, I know it’s incredible. But I swear it’s true.
Your guidebook will also be a treasure trove of vocabulary – not the “the pen of my aunt is sadly beneath the porcelain monkey” sort, but the kind that even I needed help with: what’s the word for “bill”? To my shame, I with all my education, I had to ask a cute waiter for help with that one. There are worse fates, but why be stuck without the phrase for “Where is the bathroom?” in a cafe full of monolingual locals?
2. You can actually get away without using so much as a single wrong verb by speaking English, which most of the waiters, showgirls and similar understand. This helps to avoid being charged double, too – if they get wind that you’re English-speaking, shop people will nearly always say numbers in English even if the rest of the conversation is in French. That said, you do get points for trying to use the language, as long as you don’t mind being corrected occasionally.
3. Never hold back a question. Parisians have a reputation for being nasty and condescending to visitors, but some clever person on their tourist and trade board has worked out that that reputation is keeping tourists and their pots of money away and now there’s a general policy of friendliness. In any case, the snubs aren’t personal, and awesome things can happen when you ask a question. My personal favorite was having the location of the bathroom sung to me when I asked a waiter.
Here are a few imperatives of my own, not perhaps as catchy as the Doctor’s but helpful Paris travel tips:
1. Be polite. You know “Bonjour” and “Merci” unless you’ve spent your life under a supernaturally big rock. It’s definitely worth following the advice of fashion writer, Maggie Alderson and using them whenever you respectively enter and leave a store. It’s also quite acceptable to pop them in at the start or end of a query in English (you get points; see above), as in “Bonjour, I’m lost, where the hell am I?”
Other helpful niceties include:
– “Bonne Matin / Soirée“, meaning “Good morning” or “Good evening” for good parting shots,
– if it’s midday or afternoon you can settle for “Merci“,
– on a Sunday, “Bonne Dimanche“.
2. Keep an eye out for concert posters. There is this wonderful practice in Paris of having regular classical music concerts in the major churches – a side-effect of the secularisation of French society. I recommend any in the Sainte-Chapelle, which you’ll need your guidebook (again!!) to find because it’s in a courtyard of a government building. Make sure you visit during the day at least. Give the ground floor a good long look. Then go upstairs. It’ll knock your socks off.
Though tickets for concerts come at a predictably bloodsuckery price, the experience is a treasure. And you can usually pick up a student rate. Regarding picking up, while you might not end up kissing a complete stranger at the end of the evening, these concerts would make for a very classy date indeed.
3. Use your money wisely. It isn’t worth saving money by getting accommodation far from central Paris and then spending all your time avoiding the long walk and the bus system. This is the mistake typically made by visitors who go to Paris and stay in Montmartre. For some idea of the Sydney equivalent, that’s like visiting Sydney and staying near Taronga Zoo: you’re near a small portion of the tourist sights, but the action is far away. Paris is helpfully arranged into Arrondissements meaning small numbered sections that spiral outwards from the central island where Notre Dame is, the heart of the sightseeing action. Anything after the eighth arrondissement is going to need a bus ride to get you around; anything up to the sixth will save you an agonizing walk. As for taxis: if you can get one when you need it, particularly at night, you’re doing better than me.
*3. Put aside half a day for the Jardin des Tuilleries. This is the big formal park in front of the Louvre. As well as views galore, it’s the haunt of real, local Parisians. There are public chairs all over the place, so take a book, buy a pastry from the cart, and relax to soak up the atmosphere. The Jardin isn’t a tourist sight or landmark, but it’s the most Parisian experience you’ll find, and completely for free. If you’re feeling a bit of posh-er, go to one of the four restaurants in the Jardin for a Crème Brûlée. You’ll never eat one of the cheap knock-off versions in Australian cafes again, but that’s a small price to pay for ambrosia. Yes, I agree with the Doctor on this one point: you’ve just got to eat the food.”