“The national characteristics… the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness of good living and the passionate individualism. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistro.” -Lawrence Durrell
To dream of coming to Paris, wandering the streets surrounded by beauty, food and love is the vision that dances in minds of virgin travelers to the City of Light. Such a dream, while containing aspects of the truth, are the romanticized version that Hollywood and endless other sources have depicted. The sky is bluer, the love felt deeper, the food (well, it’s true about the food, I must say) and the magical tingle must unquestionably occur simply by stepping on the terra firma of Paris.
Reality – without preparation, without knowledge, without flexibility, patience and a willingness to be present and open minded, a trip to Paris could lead to what has been labeled in Japan as “Paris Syndrome”. The Japanese embassy in Paris handles approximately 10-12 such cases in which the starry eyed Japanese tourist is in such a state of shock due to disappointment when expectations aren’t met that they must be transported home with nurse accompaniment. Now, that’s a small number considering in 2012 over 29 million people visited Paris, but I’m willing to wager that many more people experience a certain level of shock when their expectations don’t measure up to the reality.
Why does this happen? Is Paris not as grand as it has been presented? I would argue that it is far grander than one can imagine, but again, proper preparation must be followed prior to arrival at Charles de Gaulle.
I can remember thirteen years ago arriving in Paris with next to no grasp of the French language. I immediately wanted to be whisked back to the states and was too intimidated to dine in the many French cafes and bistros, let alone attempt the Metro. When I returned last year, the experience was far different, as I came with basic conversational language skills, an idea of what I wanted to see, but still far too little preparation. Which brings me to my current trip in which I have become enamored. Why? How was I able to cure the small nibble of the Paris Syndrome bug? Well, let me explain what I have discovered as well as insights from fellow expats living or having had lived in the city.
1. Language Skills
While I must share that compared to thirteen years ago, far more shop keepers, locals and those of the younger generation are more apt and willing to speak English with those who stutter with their attempts at French, it is still very helpful to know how to read basic directions and converse in a simple conversational manner (thank you, how much, where, which way, etc). Either take a French class with your local Alliance de Francais (most major cities around the world have their own chapter), purchase Rosetta Stone (it’s what I did as I live in a rural area), or hire a tutor (college towns especially will have this option available). Begin as soon as possible.
2. Bring Adapters and Converters
Ignorantly, on my first trip to France, I did not bring either which left me to air dry my hair each day and thank goodness the internet wasn’t as big of a life necessity as it is today. As the lesson was quickly learned, I now travel with this adapter from Walkabout Solutions and this converter for my hair dryer. Something to also note, if for some reason you don’t have an adapter for the three prong US cords, don’t worry. The third prong is the grounding peg – which means you don’t need to have a hole for it to go when you’re in a bind. Simply plug the two prongs into the adapter and you’ll be fine.
3. Become Friends with the Metro
Based on horror stories from those who traveled briefly or didn’t grow up or live with regular subway transportation, I was fearful of going “under ground”. And when your French is far from superb, that can help nudge you into not making the attempt.
What I’ve discovered is that the Metro is actually the easiest place to navigate if you know very little French at all because it’s just matching up words and colors and following arrows. Also, I find it a calm respite after walking along the busy streets during the hot weather Paris enjoys in the summer.
While I will be going over in detail later this week how to master the Metro, I will begin by stating that acquiring a Metro map is a must (I picked up this one), download Visit Paris by Metro app (it can be used offline and is free), keep your bag tucked close (pick pocketers take advantage of those who look lost or are unsuspecting – although I’ve never had any problems) and be aware of your surroundings. You’ll be fine. Also, purchase 10 billets (tickets) or a 1, 3, or 5 day Paris pass so all you have to do is slip your ticket into the turnstile and be on your merry way.
Note, the ticket stations are inside the metro just as you descend the stairs, and they do accept credit cards.
4. Create an Itinerary, but be Flexible
“Coming [to Paris] has been a wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.” -Augustus Saint-Gaudens
It is key to create a list of places you want to visit and then look up the days and hours they are open. Each museum, shop, boulangerie, etc keeps very unique hours. For example, the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, a favorite boulangerie of my is closed Saturday and Sunday, and often on Mondays you’ll find certain businesses closed. Do your homework, plan your schedule around their schedule as you are visiting their culture, not imposing your culture upon them.
5. Accept Jet Lag Fatigue and Frustration
We forget that we are not infallible, and if you’re like me, traveling for more than 17 hours, when you arrive and it’s mid-day, so some reason you think you’ll be fine. While you should remain awake and go to bed on Paris time, if you do, accept that your emotions, your energy and your perceptions may be a bit skewed. It takes me about two days to get into a regular rhythm, but the key is not to let your mind take the upper hand. If nothing else, such travel is a wonderful reminder of how valuable and necessary quality sleep is for the mind to function at its optimal level.
6. What to Skip
“A final reminder. Whenever you are in Paris at twilight in the early summer, return to the Seine and watch the evening sky close slowly on a last strand of daylight fading quietly, like a sigh.” -Kate Simon
I mentioned in this post that the best part of the day to enjoy the city in the summer without excessive tourists is in the morning, and knowing this will allow you to see the beauty of the city without as much editing. What I have discovered is that if I’m going to skip any part of the day and choose to take a nap or work at my apartment rental it is in the afternoon (the hottest part of any day is 3-5 in the afternoon, so it helps you avoid sun burn and heat exhaustion). After resting up, heading out for a lovely evening is absolutely divine, and you’re more apt to enjoy it without the extra unnecessary stressors.
7. You’re Never Alone
“Paris is a place in which we can forget ourselves, reinvent, expunge the dead weight of our past.” -Michael Simkins
As someone who travels alone frequently, Paris is a dream for dining solo anytime of the day. Pick a seat at one of the endless cafes or bistros and gaze out onto the street watching passersby. In the morning, I love the quiet time of sipping my thé (tea), nibbling on a chocolate croissant and planning my day. On Saturday, I chose to have petit dejeuner at Poilâne and delighted in the elderly man (dressed impeccable in a blazer, hat and trousers) who also was dining alone. The conversation with the wait staff is also delightful in the morning as fewer people are about and the day has just begun.
8. Sign up for a day tour
“The whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music… it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in everything.” -James Thurber
The best way to connect with people if you don’t know the city well is to take a tour which will provide context, ideas, directions and a tour guide who speaks your language and can answer any questions. If you love food, I highly recommend Paris by Mouth as they offer different tours around the city focusing on your preference of food.
9. Be Open and Present
“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life.” -Thomas Jefferson
While you should come with an itinerary, as the day moves along, allow it to take you where it will. If you are a avid photographer, allow your camera and events that catch your eye to dictate your plans. Allow meals to continue as long as the conversation warrants. If you are tired, go take a nap. If you are full of energy, take the Metro to another destination you’ve been curious about. And trust me, inspiration is everywhere if only you choose to look. Let go expectations and absorb all that you are seeing, hearing and feeling.
10. Eliminate the Stress
There are certain aspects of travel that are stressful, and for me the biggest worry is finding my apartment rental with all of my luggage in tow upon arrival and getting to the airport in time for departure. Because I know that these are two stresses I have, I’ve chosen to eliminate them as best as I can. Scheduling a taxi that is waiting for you at the gate when you arrive (with your name on a sign) and picking you up at your hotel or rental to take you to the airport is money well spent. Eco Cab is who I have used in Paris and have had great success (for arrivals especially, purchase the flight delay insurance as well).
Pinpoint what stresses you out the most when you travel, and do what you can to eliminate them.
11. Let Go of Expectations (Yours & Those Left Behind)
“People wonder why so many writers come to live in Paris. I’ve been living ten years in Paris and the answer seems simple to me: because it’s the best place to pick ideas. Just like Italy, Spain… or Iran are the best places to pick saffron. If you want to pick opium poppies you go to Burma or South-East Asia. And if you want to pick novel ideas, you go to Paris.” -Roman Payne
Upon learning that I am going to Paris, a handful of people give unsolicited advice which I always listen to. After all, you never know when they are going to suggest something that is exactly what you’re interested and many of the places I have discovered are from people who have traveled to this wonderful destination.
On the other hand, while Paris is full of sites to see, it’s also a city to exist in. What I mean is that because the way of life in France is something that I am drawn to, I simply want to go about a daily routine that the Parisian culture is known for – fresh baguettes and other bread in the morning, shopping the local, fresh markets throughout the week, dining at length with wine and exquisite fare in the afternoon and evening and wandering around allowing inspiration to come forth. Do what you love on your next trip to Paris and let the world’s expectations fall by the wayside. You’ll return from your travels far more content.
While we all have expectations of Paris, don’t expect to fall in love any more than you would expect to fall in love on any other given day in any other city. The trip will be what you make it, so when things don’t go as plan, relax, take a very deep breath, perhaps get some sleep and start fresh in the morning (or evening) with a destination in mind and be malleable.
~Let the discussion begin! I am eager to hear from fellow travelers to Paris. What have you learned through your journey and experiences? Share in the comments below or on Facebook.