5 Questions about Paris – Beginner’s Edition

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There is not much to say about Paris that has not already been covered elsewhere.  The city has been a muse for the masters of  literature and the arts for centuries so it is understandable that the Paris of the 21st Century has been adequately cataloged by the millions of tourists who visit it each year.  Occasionally, an actual Parisian is able to pull himself away from his pichet of Brouilly and his burning Gauloises to write a few meaningful sentences about the city.  You, the first time traveler, should consult as many differing viewpoints on Paris as possible because Paris is a different city for everyone.

It is almost with a sense of shame that I admit I have had the good fortunate to have visited Paris no less than ten times in the last six or seven years; some visits lasting over a full month.  It is possible to immerse oneself in the Parisian lifestyle over a long weekend but I would not recommend such an ephemeral trip.  A week is a fine amount of time to spend in Paris – two weeks is better and a month, if possible, could alter the course of one’s life.  Be warned, Paris does not owe you, the tourist, the romanticized version of itself as portrayed in literature and film.  Paris is an airport inside a museum inside a theme park – tourists will be shuffling from line to line with expressions of bewilderment and exhaustion.  It is your responsibility to experience the city in a way that suits your sensibilities.

Where should I stay in Paris?

You should pitch a tent outside Trocadero and camp in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.  

If the police do not appreciate your free spirit and politely ask you to move along, you’re going to have to find a hotel.  It should come as no surprise that the hotels in Paris range from something resembling a Guatemalan prison cell to a palatial room that could make the royal family blush.  Assuming your budget falls somewhere in between a Guatemalan prisoner and the Queen, there are literally thousands of hotel options for you inside Paris proper.

Your initial focus should not be on hotels, your initial focus should be on neighborhoods.  Paris has 20 arrondissements (think of them as large neighborhoods) from which to choose.  Each arrondissement has its own culture and comes with its own set of attractions for tourists.  Generally speaking, the farther away you get from the center of Paris, using the Louvre as our marker, the higher chance the neighborhood is going to have a “working class” element.  There are exceptions to this rule, but considering the fact that this is your first time in Paris you are going to want to stay within a relatively small range of arrondissements.

The truth is, no one can give broad advice on where to stay in Paris if they do not know your personality.  My wife and I prefer to stay in the 5th or 6th but that’s because we enjoy spending our time in cafes and bars.  If you have a pristine liver and a desire to shop for expensive clothing, you might not find the Paris you’re looking for in the 5th or 6th.  It’s hard to go wrong with the 1st but it’s going to be pricey.  Less expensive hotels can be had in the Marais, Bastille and the Latin Quarter.

My personal recommendation is Hotel St. Jacques on Rue des Ecoles in the 5th.  Relatively speaking the rooms are inexpensive and well maintained.  The hotel is about a five minute walk from Notre Dame and there is no shortage of cafes and bars in the neighborhood.

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Must I spend all my time in museums?

Art enthusiasts must love Paris.  I’m not an art enthusiast but I do know that Paris seems to have more art than just about anywhere else on the planet.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to many of the museums in Paris.  The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay are the two most accessible museums in the city and both of these should be on the lists of first time visitors.

Unfortunately, I have a tendency to come away from museums with a general feeling of disappointment.  It’s not that I am disappointed in the exhibits, those are typically beyond reproach, I am disappointed in myself for not being more interested.  

The Louvre, the most publicized museum in the world, was a crowded mess of tourists and confusing maps when I visited.  Musee d’Orsay is considerably more open and less stressful than Louvre but lacks the “greatest hits” factor that rustles the jimmies of people who enjoy fine art – or at least pretend to enjoy it.

The answer is simple – you should not spend all of your time in museums, unless of course that is why you are visiting Paris.  I’m being hyperbolic, it would be impossible for anyone to literally spend all of his time in a museum, but I stand by the principle.  Should you go to the Louvre?  Yes, but do not force yourself to spend all day there if you genuinely are not into it.  There is simply too much to do in Paris to waste your time trying to conform to the rules of responsible tourism.

One last piece of advice:  museums are a fantastic way to spend your time in Paris if the weather is poor.  If it is raining, or snowing for that matter, you might as well pick up some culture while you wait for the storm to pass.

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Should I go to the top of the Eiffel Tower?

Nope.

Where and what should I eat?

Good question but the culinary range of Paris cannot be addressed here.  You should seek expert counsel prior to your arrival in Paris as the dining scene is constantly changing.  Of course, there are some culinary highlights that should not be missed while you’re in town.

If possible, eat outside.  Al fresco dining, while not unique to Paris, is a quintessential Parisian experience.   The seating process can be the most intimidating part of dining in Paris if you don’t speak French (more on the language barrier in a moment).  Generally, if you see an open seat in a cafe, feel free to walk in and have a seat.  The grab a seat method applies to both inside and outside tables, provided you are at a cafe.  Restaurants will typically have someone working the door to greet you.  Depending on the popularity of the restaurant, do not be surprised if you are turned away without reservations and definitely do not take it personally.

A solid Parisian lunch is a bottle of wine, eight cigarettes and a goat cheese salad.  If you don’t like goat cheese salad, get a sandwich with an egg on it.  In reality, cafe lunches are about people watching.  You will often pay a premium for a good view and cafes in highly trafficked areas are notorious for serving subpar food.  You are likely to face one or two impromptu meals due to the spontaneous nature of the city.  When faced with the unknown, stick to simple dishes or try to figure out what the rest of the people in the place are eating.  

Personal recommendation:  For an authentic Parisian dining experience, try Chez Paul on Rue de Charone.  You will need reservations and a basic understanding of French food vocabulary but don’ let that scare you off.  Try the escargots and chateaubriand.  If beef isn’t your thing, order the pave du porc.  Sorry vegetarians, I’m afraid you won’t have much luck here.

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Do I need to learn French before visiting Paris?

It can’t hurt.  If you are anything like me, the prospect of learning an entire language is too overwhelming.  Even with a satisfactory command of the language, most Parisians are not going to mistake you for a local.  You will, however, be in their good graces for taking the time and effort required to learn the local method of communication.  

The most obvious area of focus should be the vocabulary of restaurants and bars as this is where you will experience direct encounters with the language most often.  Many restaurants and cafes will not provide English menus and it is often a bad sign if they do.  Familiarize yourself with the main proteins and study menus available online before you arrive.  Since you are going to be planning at least some of your meals in advance, check restaurant websites for menus – Paris has recently embraced the Internet culture and now has an ample footprint online.

Language anxiety in Paris is often a product of irrational fear.  The Parisians do not have the best reputation for hospitality, especially where foreigners are concerned.  Americans hold a special place of contempt in the hearts of many in the city, but this is not the norm.  Parisians will appreciate your feeble attempt to speak the language and will likely attempt to converse with you in the native tongue.  The nature of Parisians is not much different than the residents of most large cities from around the world; generally well intentioned with a short patience.  You’re not going to receive Charleston hospitality and you certainly should not expect it.

In the future I hope to provide a more experiential approach to tourism and Paris.  For all of its sights, the experience of Paris does not rest on statues and monuments.  The value of Paris is the environment it provides to its people and the ways in which we transform after a visit.  Also, wine and cigarettes.

 

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