The adage the Irish guy provided in London, that cities are the same everywhere was mostly true of our experience in Paris, at least in all the big name areas flocked by tourists. Naturally, those places are thronged by crowds and suffer from the usual crazy prices, like ten dollar cappuccino, as well as gaudy merchandise aimed at parting you with your money in exchange for crap. The Eiffel Tower, for instance, is just annoying and, unlike the Louvre, doesn’t actually seem to serve a purpose. The Monmarte, Latin Quarter, Rue de Rivoli, and Champs Elysse are likewise pests.
Like in most great cities, it’s the Paris neighborhoods that are great, and the people you occasionally get to know. A traveler from England asked what’s the point if you don’t go to the famous places, and I said the point is being in the place and being improved by it. Finding the Zara store or getting yet one more lousy photo of Notre Dame isn’t going to accomplish that.
Our host Dragos from Romania, who I like to call “the might of Carpathia and scourge of Moldavia”, because it sounds cool, is the definitive gentleman scholar, and we adored him. He introduced us to our favorite Parisian things. In the top three things we like about Paris so far’ it’s 1. him and his great apartment, 2. Being local: the French Italians we hung out with at a neighborhood bakery just off the Opera as well as the real neighborhood cafes (like 077 Restaurant and Le Bellerive, both in Crimee) (not the ones in Monmarte and the Latin Quarter) and the halal people at our favorite corner with it’s bar and outdoor tables, L’Avenue, next to Dufour on the Avenue de Flandre, and 3. some of what was inside the Louvre (I am interested in the artifacts more than the art), tho again the outside is tourist hell. I also like getting Cuban cigars for less than three euro. Anyway, the neighborhoods are our Paris. We preferred hanging out in Crimee on the Avenue de Flandres. For us, it was Paris.
Speaking of the Euro, it’s delightfully humbling to find that, in living in the US, we live in a poorer country. Not only do we not have decent healthcare and transportation’ on the whole, but on top of that the dollar just isn’t worth much in Europe, and even less in the UK. It’s not that Europe is expensive, unless one insists on getting the same things preferred in the American ‘heartland’, like McDonalds all the time, or whole quarts of soda at one sitting. But at a normal European pace, it’s quite affordable. It’s just that we are under developed economically. So, you need 33% more dollars to match the Euro, and maybe 60-70% more pounds sterling. And while paid less, we consume more and waste more. I asked a bartender about the small espresso cups that seem to last most of an evening for people sitting outside and smoking at a pub. The French are very talkative and social, and they sit out in droves chatting through the evening. He said yes, “one coffee and six cigarettes”. That’s a great expression, and is the norm for such an evening.
Paris is an international city. There’s a huge population of Chinese, Jews, Halal people (which is my own term and more accurate than Arabic and I think more culturally accurate than just saying Muslim), people from all African countries (and I like the fact that they aren’t trying to wear caucasian hair – they feel comfortable in who they are – Most don’t walk in slow motion, worried what everyone thinks of them and trying to pretend to be accomplished thugs. They’re just people, not cliches.) Paris is practically the home of welcome and tolerance, whether you’re gay, transvestite, of any ethnic origin, with only one caveat: the Parisians will respect your culture if you respect theirs, and the icon of French culture is the language. You have to learn French. Do that, and you can be anyone at all. This isn’t widely understood in the US, I think, which is a young country. Other places preserve their culture through key designated artifacts. In Korea, the list includes certain dog breeds for instance. In Ireland, the law requires Gaelic on signs and license plates. In France, there are laws declaring what is French language and what isn’t, conserving it in contrast with Morroccan French, Canadian French, etc. It is a conservative methodology. The language itself is a treasure.
Some advice if you go to Europe. Whenever possible: Take the train. Yeah, yeah you can get cheap flights via skyscanner, but you can get cheap train tickets to Paris from London on Eurostar and, for a lot of the rest of Western Europe from bahn.de. The airports are typically an hour out and an hour in, adding 2hrs additional time and additional travel expense, often by trains that aren’t covered by your metro transportation card and cost a lot more, and you have to be there two hours early instead of forty minutes early, meaning all told, if you fly in the middle of the day, your whole day is shot. If in the early morning, you have even more expensive transport options – mainly taxi or express bus, and you have lost sleep to make up. Then there are the ugly baggage rules, more burdensome security, and general discomfort, as well as smaller seats for travel. It’s just not worth it to save thirty pounds or forty euro or fifty dollars. Plus, with the train, you can get up and move around, hang out in the lounge and socialize (it’s not that expensive) and there are no seat belts and plenty of toilets, which are bigger than plane toilets. It’s just better in every conceivable way. For thirty extra Euro, you can also go first class, scoring a meal and more leg room. There are delays, just like flights. When we went to Paris, we left on time on the train but actual travel time was extended forty minutes to replace stolen cables. Still, it didn’t compare with a two and a one hour delay on United that hosed our first and most important day in London. Our train to Manheim from Paris was right on schedule. Take the trains and save your brains. And by our accounting, it’s cheaper. The one from Mannheim to Berlin was ten minutes late, because of an August a/c malfunction on the one ahead of us.
The waiters and other stereotypes: In the main tourist areas, waiters are abrupt, and they’ll take your bread away if it looks like you’re done with it. But I wouldn’t call it rude’ which is a cultural judgment. It isn’t this way in the neighborhoods. Shopkeepers too, who have to put up with the typical tourist, especially from the US, are abrupt. One can hardly blame them. You can spot the Americans immediately. They’re more needy, more demanding, want more of everything, and want it as soon as possible. I found myself doing a few things I didn’t admire when I realized it just didn’t fit, but mostly tried to keep a low key. One of the Americans on the train from Manheim to Berlin, for example, was raving loudly about the air conditioning not being low enough, suggesting it was an attempt to sell drinks. Still, you can spot us by the relatively vast quantity of our consumption. In the neighborhoods, anyway, when you keep going back to a place or three, it’s like anywhere – they are kind and appreciative. And we found people friendly and welcoming.
The food, coffee, bakeries: French food can be considered heavy if a) you eat the cliche food every day – croissants and quiche, steak tartare and creme caramel (who can do that?) and b) if you maintain a sedentary or slow moving lifestyle. If you walk a lot, as the Europeans do, or bike, and you eat light breakfast, and often a supper of some cheeses and ham and maybe some pickles, and slowly sip a coffee, you’ll do fine. A glass of wine, a glass of beer, and a cup of coffee are all relatively small.
The clothes, fashion: it’s just not true that ordinary French people walk around in Dior and other high priced fashions. Most people don’t even know anyone who wears Dior, and would think of it as clothing for meeting heads of state. Discount stores abound, like anywhere, and the French don’t look particularly more stylish, on the whole, than say people in Chicago, though they typically are more fit.
Eurotrash: I think this is a made up American term, and I didn’t really experience this. If the word refers to the European version of people who live in trailer communities with their common law brides, watching cousins who married beat eat other up on a morning talk show, I just didn’t see it or anything close, and we did get around.
Transportation was great. It’s Europe. Good subway and bus networks are pretty much the same everywhere. In this, Paris is like London, New York, and Seoul. Fast, efficient movement from any part of the city to any other, usually avoiding traffic.
Fruits and vegetables: again, it’s Europe. Great, fresh stuff was everywhere. Near us, in Crimee, was a great outdoor market operating twice a week, across from the canal, and of course there were plenty of indoor shops offering great produce.
The water was more calcified than in Ireland, so not as good for the skin and hair, and we used water softening tablets in the washer. But it was quite good to drink. We ordered tap water most of the time, rather than still water (bottled).
Places: The Ouen market at Clignancort was just OK for us, because we’re not interested in antiques. Camden in London was more our style, being more diverse. I did get a hair cut and some wheeled duffels on either side of the market from the ordinary outdoor vendors, though. The place of execution, where the Guillotine used to be, was traumatic for me. I don’t like it. I do not consider the Revolution to be a great moment in human history. Quite the contrary, I consider a time of ritual sacrifice to a philosophical deity I despise. If you read Fire in the Minds of Men and LeBon’s The Crowd, you get a very different set of information than those glossy tour guides that pass as American textbooks. I needed to get away from the place that inspired generations of children to chant kiddie songs about Madame Guillotine, complete with sound effects. The sports store at the Opera is worth your time if you need shoes, hiking socks, or gear. The blisters taught me a lesson about which shoes to wear and reminded me of the value of good wool hiking socks for ordinary city trekking.
For our last twenty four hours, we ate at our favorite restaurants in Crimee, and sat outside our favorite pub there in the afternoons and evenings, sipping cafe au lait glas which you may still have to explain, even if it sounds obvious. Iced coffee is lovely in Paris, but not common outside of tourist zones. Oh, and I bought a whole box of Cubans for 62 Euro. Why not?
Lastly, the stark contrast between our luxurious travel (first class ticket, Cuban cigars, nice brasseries, coffee after coffee) and the condition of the homeless of Paris has given me pause. I have more thinking to do on this matter. One of my goals in life is to make enough money that I can give most of it away. I am not there yet, but I hope to be. In the meantime, I have some new adjustments to make, when I figure them out, as I did when I started involvement with Global Giving, Kiva, and Network for Good. I need to benefit ethically, and to become more elevated morally, by associating and identifying with a “lower class of people”. Figuring out the exact method may take some time. A lot of the homeless I saw, incidentally, were clearly in bad straits, but didn’t even ask for money, and did not appear to be drunks or junkies. I want to research a bit to see what Paris is doing to improve their situation, and then also what I can do.