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Travel notes

Time to go!

Time to go!

I am not a travel expert by any stretch of the imagination, but over the last couple years I’ve been able to pick up some odds and ends about travel. Please feel free to comment and add your own advice!

1. If the café’s sign reads “French typical brasserie” it is not “typical.” It’s “touristy” and thus probably overpriced. Skip it, and pick one that’s a little farther off the beaten path. It will be undoubtedly less expensive, and the food and drinks will be better and probably more generous.

2. Don’t ever wear white tennis shoes to anything in Europe unless it’s a marathon (exercise) or sailing (and even then maybe not). I know they’re comfortable; I know you’re planning on doing a lot of walking. but most Europeans would rather shoot puppies than wear white tennis shoes. I’m not saying you need to dress just like the inhabitants of the country you’re visiting, but it’s always smart to blend in. This way you are less likely to attract pickpockets.

Then what shoes should you wear?

I’m glad you asked. For women, ballerine or Mary Jane shoes (which I talk about in this post) work well, but both sexes can wear Converse tennis shoes (which are wildly popular throughout Europe) or a comfortable pair of leather shoes.

Ladies can wear shoes like these.

Ladies could wear shoes like these.

Bring sandals if it’s warm, but Parisians have a strange fondness for gravel in their gardens, and if you’re planning to visit those, I would skip the sandals at least for that day.

Whatever pair you pick, make sure you can handle a full day’s walking in them before you wear them to Europe. You won’t want to be slowed down by your footwear!

3. You will never be able to visit the Louvre in one day, much less 2 hours. I would say that this is sad, but really, it’s just a testament to how much amazing artwork there is out there. Instead of speed walking through each exhibit, pick one or two that you are genuinely interested in, and spend the whole time there. Some of my favorites include Arts de l’Islam (“Islam Art”) and Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romains (“Greek Etruscan and Roman Antiquities”).

This philosophy really goes for the entirety of Paris. The city is just too big to see all of it in one trip. I’ve been here three months (for a total of over one year already counting previous stays), and I still have not finished even a quarter of the things I’d eventually like to do here. The important thing is making sure you do that one thing you won’t be satisfied without. Don’t sweat the details.

4. Don’t carry a giant tourist map. Those maps are horribly difficult to understand, cumbersome and just plain silly. Instead, the minute you get to Paris, go to a news kiosk. (You can find these on nearly any central Parisian street. They’re usually dark green or gray and hung with newspapers and magazines.) At this kiosk, ask the vendor for a plan de Paris. Mine is red and cost me six euros (and you can see it in the photo below). It’s a little booklet with several maps of different arrondissements in Paris. You can find your street using the index of streets, then flip to the corresponding page and look in the corresponding square. (Moleskin also carries a City Book which has similar maps and can be found in the U.S., but this will be more expensive.)

There are two advantages to these little booklets, apart from being easier to use than a conventional tourist map. One is that they include every single street in Paris down to the tiny one where all you’ll find is trash and scruffy-looking cats. The plans also show nearby métro stops so that you’ll know which lines to take to get to your street. It would be nearly impossible for most regular maps to include this level of detail.

Reason number two is that these are the same books that actual Parisians use to get around the city when they’re looking for someplace they don’t usually go. Two in one bonus: You appear less touristy and you get a cool souvenir to take back home. You can even mark the pages where you stayed or ate during our visit to show friends.

Two trusty guides while in Paris

Two trusty guides while in Paris

5. FOR FRENCH SPEAKERS ONLY: While you’re at that kiosk, you should also pick up l’Officiel des spectacles (shown above). This is a pamphlet that comes out once a week and lists nearly everything going on in the city. It includes theater, movies, museum expositions, festivals and, oh, everything. Bonus: It will only cost you 35 centimes. This is therefore possibly the best and cheapest guide book you could ever pick out for yourself. It also includes addresses, prices, times and dates when things will be closed (or open).

6. FOR NON-FRENCH SPEAKERS: It is true that if you try, you can get along in Paris without knowing much French. As most people will tell you, the main thing is to try and use what French you do have rather than assuming that everyone else knows English. This will show that you mean well, and hopefully endear you to the French person to whom you are speaking.

That said, there will still be moments when you will want ever-so-much just to order a ham sandwich without being handed tuna salad or a random quiche. For moments like this, I believe it’s important to bring a pocket dictionary or phrase book. You don’t have to know entire sentences, but when someone asks what type of sandwich, just knowing jambon (“ham”) will really help things along. You can get small phrasebooks from your local bookshop before you go. I used a little blue one the first time I came to Paris.

7. In my opinion at least, it is not worth it to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower (or Tour Eiffel). I’m not saying you shouldn’t see it. Go see it — in fact, picnic on the Champs de Mars (right next to the Tour) during the evening. The atmosphere is amazing, and you’ll never forget the Tour as it lights up and dazzles on the stroke of the hour.

Frankly, though, the wait to get to the top is ridiculous, and the view at the top is the same one you’ll find in nearly any tall building. Instead, you could go to the top of the Centre Georges Pompidou or the Notre Dame. Both afford a good view, and meanwhile you can see an exhibit or admire the gargoyles (respectively).

8. If you’re in a busy spot, and someone says, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” the answer is always NO. Or rather, NON (the French way). Generally these people are not lost tourists who need directions or help. They are trying to scam you, sell you something or steal from you.

Please understand when I say this that I’m not speaking about all people you’ll run into. There will undoubtedly be lost tourists trying to find someone for directions. That’s why, in the summer months, there are workers stationed in every metro stop and near most tourist sites to help these lost sheep. People looking for directions have all the help they will need, so they shouldn’t have to ask you. So feel no remorse in just saying, “Non.” Otherwise, you might wind up less a few 20-euro bills wondering what just happened.

9. Don’t come during August — if you can help it. This is considered tourist season in Paris, so during this month nearly all locals leave for other cities, and most of the shops close. Never fear; if you must come during tourist season, most of the shops around St. Michel and other popular areas will be open, and you’ll be able to go to the museums. The thing you’ll be missing is that authentic Parisian flavor that the city has during other periods of the year. If you can make it during any other month, try to take advantage, and go then.

10. Travel light. This means packing clothes that all go together, and maybe switching out a few extra clothes for packets of travel Tide (which saves space and allows you to wear things multiple times). Don’t forget to pack for different weather situations, though. Even in summer, a light jacket is a must, and if you have a reliable umbrella, I’d bring that along too (unless you want to buy one). But if you plan to buy one, spring for an umbrella that costs at least 20 euros — cheap ones bend within days, and you’ll likely wind up with something that looks more like a dying bat than an umbrella.

11. Make time to make fun. Sometimes people get so caught up visiting a place that they forget to stop and enjoy it. It’s better to miss one or two of the things you had planned and really enjoy what you do see. You won’t remember what you missed — but you will remember how you felt during the trip. Cut yourself some slack, and have fun!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Cathy Darnell permalink
    August 19, 2009 5:02 am

    So helpful! The picnic by the Eiffel Tower is a MUST!! With dozens of roses, if possible. Such a great atmosphere–everyone should experience watching the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower! A memory I will never forget!!

    • katedarnell permalink
      August 19, 2009 9:51 am

      I definitely agree!

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