Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Thoughts on Paris

Here are some highlights (and low-lights) of Paris that I thought deserved their own post. I still have a couple more posts worth of photos to share!

Good things:

My high school French from over 25 years ago served me pretty well. The girls enjoyed using the phrases that I taught them, such as "parlez vous anglais?" and "soixante-trois, s'il vous plait" (to reclaim our room key from the front desk). I was able to purchase our train passes even though the lady at the ticket window spoke even less English than I speak French. I was able to make out some things on signs, which was helpful in some instances. The directional signs in the subway were clear enough for a non-native to navigate, but a little bit of French sure helped! I found myself very grateful that I was finding my way in French and not something like Arabic or Chinese! One pastry shop lady who said she didn't speak any English accidentally taught me the perfect way to ask for something that you don't know what it's called - "(number) comme ça" while pointing at the item. Comme ça just means "like that". So if you can count to four or five and point, you can fake it pretty well! We also found that the shopkeepers would usually add up our purchases and then turn the calculator to face us, so that we didn't have to understand the spoken total. We only met a few people who said they didn't speak any English.

The front desk staff at our hotel was great. One woman in particular was very popular with my kids. She was originally from Australia and moved to France to go to school. She's now engaged to a French man she met in Ireland. The girls adored her. Katrina kept coming up with excuses to go to the front desk to ask questions. We were very well cared for by the hotel. They had a lot of wonderful suggestions for restaurants and sightseeing.

The big sightseeing spots in Paris are very much worth visiting. I don't care how many pictures you've seen of the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame. They're so much bigger and more impressive in person. And the museums were fabulous. We visited four, the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Musee l'Orangerie, and Pompidou Centre. The first three, in particular, were filled with one amazing well-known priceless work after another.

Not-so-good things:

Parisians seem very impatient to me. I was raised to avoid pushing and shoving and to respect others' personal space. The rules must be different in Paris, because I was constantly pushed aside. Sometimes it was simply due to people wanting to push through a gap that I considered too small to take. Other times it was not so innocent, like the time I hesitated in a subway station for maybe two seconds in order to read the directional signs. A woman shoved me aside hard with her arm, and looked back while yelling something in French that I couldn't understand. But her expression made it very clear that I was being cussed out. Another time, we were waiting for a train, and when it arrived, nobody inside the train opened the door (the Paris trains require someone to pull a lever to open the door - generally someone who wants off will open the door, and then after they get off the train, others will get on). Since nobody opened the door from inside, I pulled the lever and started to get on the train. The (young, able-bodied) man inside then decided to get off the train and yell at me for being in his way. I understood just enough of the French he was shouting to know that I was not, in his opinion, supposed to have opened the door.

We found that we were swindled by just a couple of euro on many, many transactions. Darrell and I are both fairly hard to cheat, I thought. But there were numerous times that we got taken. The cafe waiter who didn't bother to tell us that they were out of croissants, then didn't make any adjustments to the price of the breakfast to make up for the lack, even though the croissants were 2.60 euro each when purchased a la carte. The souvenir salesman who sold us an empty box for one daughter after making a big production of checking the other daughter's box. We did discover that one fairly quickly and went back and made him cough up the goods. I wanted to think it was an honest mistake (it happened on our first evening), but the events of the rest of the trip lead me to believe that it was intentional. These are just a couple of the incidents. There were several others. I don't like having to be on guard against stuff like this all the time, and it kind of spoiled the fun for me.

Paris sidewalks are ridiculously narrow. On some of the major streets, like the Champs Elysee, they're nice and wide. But on most streets, there's barely room for two people to pass. This often forces you to step into the street to pass someone, risking being run over. Drivers in Paris make it very clear when they think the pedestrians are in the wrong. They won't hit you (at least I don't think they will), but they're not afraid to get within mere inches of your toes if they think it's their turn. There are also hundreds and hundreds of motorbikes everywhere in Paris! The noise from the motorbikes makes our retarded rooster in Uxbridge (he crows all night long) seem quiet.

The prices in Paris are outrageous! We had thought London was expensive. Wow, not even close. The average prices for a simple sandwich lunch were 9-16 euro ($13.50-$24). Soft drinks with a meal? Forget it. A can of Diet Coke (called Coca-Cola Light in France) was 4 euro ($6)! We were able to find half-liter bottles at little grocery stores for under 2 euro each, so we satisfied our caffeine cravings that way. Getting restaurants to serve tap water (instead of overpriced bottled) was extremely difficult, and we had some who said yes to tap water and then magically "forgot" and brought out bottled instead. We didn't even consider wine or beer, as it was 6-12 euro ($9-$18) per drink! We were in Paris for three nights with two kids, and we dropped over 500 euro ($750), not including our hotel and Eurostar tickets. And we're not extravagant travelers! That's a couple of tourist things per day, subway rides, take-away pastries for breakfast, and simple lunches and dinners. I was happy to get back to the London prices. When we return to the U.S. next week, I'm sure the reverse price shock will be amazing. Maybe it will sustain me through the high-speed back to school shopping I'll have to do. Hope so.

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