Saturday, March 28, 2009

Back From Paris - Some Observations

We had a blast visiting the city of light this past week. I was excited during the days leading up to the trip, but honestly nothing could compare to the sheer amount of awesome it was to actually be in the city when we finally arrived.

Despite my worst fears, the flight out went flawless. Due to buying and confirming our tickets online, we were able to skip the check-in line at JFK and get our boarding passes from the kiosk. And I've never been more impressed by an airline than I am with Air France. Originally we were going to go on American Airlines, who had an identical flight time and price point as Air France. But then the price suddenly sky-rocketed on the day I was going to purchase the tickets, and so I went with AF instead.

And what a difference, I must say! I've been on AA too many times to count at this point, and honestly that airliner has gone downhill. They cut corners on the food, the amenities, and even the quality of their in-flight service. Air France, on the other hand, was aces in all these regards. The food was like a gourmet 5-course meal (no joke), their plane was brand new and state of the art -- each of us had our own tv screen and headphones (for free) with a huge selection of movies, shows, and games to choose from. And the flight attendants were so gracious and helpful -- and all for less than the ticket of the comparative American Airlines. How the hell is that even possible?

The attendants were all bilingual in French and English, though I didn't pass up the opportunity to start putting my limited French to use immediately. It went over well, with the FAs getting quite a kick out of my effort. But the key was that they understood me, at least, and this made me feel a LOT better. By the time we landed at CDG airport, I was definitely more confident in my French ability, despite not knowing more that the most basic of basics. The cabbie was nice and understood me immediately when I asked him in French to take us to the address of our hotel, which I had written down on a piece of paper for him to read. So cool! :)

Anyway, I'm in the process of uploading all my pics and videos. When they're ready, I'll provide the links, so check this blog (or my Facebook page) for updates on that front. In the meantime, rather than detail every single step of this trip (which would be way too tedious to write, not to mention boring to read), I'll leave you with some general observations:

1) The myth of the rude French (or, in this case, the rude Parisien) is just that: a myth. From our waiters down to the cashier at the local market, not once did I experience any rudeness from the local population. Where I think the stereotype comes from is the fact that Parisiens are every bit the city dweller as my fellow New Yorkers. Meaning: they're not so much rude as indifferent. Which is not to say they are not very friendly. When you walk into a shop, you greet the proprietress with a "bon jour, madame" and she replies back with a smile and a "bon jour, monsieur" and then she leaves you alone until you're ready to make a purchase, or if you have any questions about a particular item. This is how it is in NYC. No one bends over backwards or fawns over you. This is not Disney world; it's a living breathing city. No one *has* to cater to your whim here. You get back only as much kindness as you put forth. Except, in Paris, I would say the French were even more gracious than a New Yorker would be if the situation was reversed. Certainly they were very indulgent with me and my horrible attempts at French.

2) The metro system is the way to travel in Paris. We walked roughly 8 - 10 miles a day (no exaggeration -- I measured it on a map), but at the same time we took the metro A LOT to revisit some places we had already seen by foot. And I'm in awe of their system. So much cleaner, smoother, and sensible than NYC's. The signs are easy to read (even though there's no translation), and each platform has a digital schedule board that lets you see how far back your next train is, and how long it will take for it to arrive. Why can't New York be as efficient? The longest ride we had on the metro (which included two transfers) was 35 mins. And this was to get from one end of the city to the complete opposite end. In NYC, this would take 1:30 hours. Of course, NYC is a lot bigger than Paris. Still, the Paris metro gets an A++ in my book. We got very comfortable using it even after just the second day in town. Aside from airport transfers to and fro, we only ever hailed a cabbie once while in the city. The rest of the time we either walked or took "le metro" to get to all the sights. I highly recommend this course of action for all visitors.

3) There is nothing more cooler than walking past Notre Dame at midnight with ABSOLUTELY NO ONE ELSE AROUND! No tourists, no locals, not even a stray dog. Just me and this magnificent cathedral alongside me as I strolled back to the district where we were staying. (I like to take walks by myself in the middle of the night, btw)

4) A little bit of French gets you a long way. Even though a lot more people speak, or at least understand, English than you realize in Paris, I had made it a rule to only speak French as much as I possibly could while there. And the locals were extremely appreciative of this. It's funny seeing the look of first surprise on the waiter's face, followed by obvious appreciation at the effort. I don't know if this translated to a better service for us, though, as I got the impression that our service would have been impeccable and professional regardless. But I'd like to think it helped. The most useful line of dialogue I got by with, which I'd cobbled together from three separate phrases I had learned from my audio CD, was this: "Excusze-moi . . . pouvez-vous m'aider, s'il vous plait? Je ne parle pas tres bien francais. Parlez-vous anglais?" (trans: "Excuse me . . . can you help me, please? I don't speak French very well. Do you speak English?") It's a mouthful, but opened so many avenues of discussion for me whereas a normal inquiry in English would be met with a look of puzzlement, if not downright annoyance, despite the listener fully understanding English.

5) Parisiens hate skyscrapers. Seriously, almost no buildings are taller than 8 or 10 stories in the city. Turns out that a law was passed to prohibit high-rises from being erected within city boundaries so as to preserve Paris's unique vistas and historical ambiance. And amen to that rule! Seriously, Paris is so charming and romantic the way it is. I cannot imagine the travesty that would ensue should this rule ever be reversed. To my knowledge, only la tour Eiffel and Montparnasse Tower (Paris's only and last attempt at a modern skyscraper) are the exceptions to this rule.

6) Certain laws that are staples here in America seem strangely absent in Paris. For one, there does not appear to be a seat belt law. Drivers wear them at whim, or not. All scooter and motorcycle drivers wear helmets, though, but bike cyclists do not. Also, there are no leash laws from what I could see. Dogs are allowed to roam freely down the sidewalks or in the parks. Owners leash them at their own discretion. They also do not curb their dogs, apparently. Lastly, I'm pretty sure their are no prohibitions against talking on your cell phone while driving. To be fair, most drivers seemed to favor hands free sets as a matter of course, anyway, but there were a few who did not.

7) I don't know what the deal is with this, but not one cashier ever handed me my change by hand. All change (whether cash or coin) is immediately placed in a small tray on the counter, requiring the customer to scoop up his own change. Yet, by contrast, all cashiers want you to place the money directly in their hands when you pay them. Strange.

8) The French have a serious, serious love affair with bread. And, honestly, I don't blame them! I was never a big bread eater here in the states. But we had a boulangerie (French word that roughly means bakery) directly across from our hotel, and I would be remiss if I didn't add that I visited this establishment every single morning for breakfast. Sometimes lunch, too. What did I order the most? Croissants and baguettes, of course. But I also discovered the main ingredient of every French breakfast it seems -- pain au chocolat! Seriously people, you have not tasted heaven until you've had a freshly baked chocolate roll. Pain au chocolat was the most popular item being ordered every morning by both locals and tourists alike, and like everything else in a boulangerie, they're baked fresh on the premises. Seriously, I was told it's French law. A boulangerie cannot obtain a license until it is determined that the bread is baked ON THE PREMISES! How f'n awesome is that? And again, why can't New York adopt this law? I've tasted many a croissant here in NYC, and never EVER has one tasted even one-tenth as good as an *average* croissant from an *average* boulangerie in Paris. Someone needs to look into this.

9) Paris is truly a diverse city in every sense of the word. But the greatest indicator of this can be found by studying the high school students who congregate in large groups through the streets and metro once school is out. Whereas here in NYC where integrated schools still have cliques forming neatly down racial lines, in Paris everyone truly seems homogenized. Blacks, whites, asians, and indians all mix freely together in their groups. They all speak the same local dialect (no French form of "ebonics", from what I could discern) and there was no ostracizing of the more "ethnic" classmates even in groups where whites outnumbered them 10 to 1. Again, we have diversity here in NYC, but not like this. Not as frictionless as this, I mean. Try as I might, I could not discern even a hint of racism. And this applies to the entire city, where blacks of means mingle freely with whites of means, all going about their business as equals. I'm doing a terrible job of describing this adequately. You have to see it for yourself.

10) It is not possible to walk down a street in Paris -- any street -- and NOT be surrounded by history. Honestly, Paris is full of so many of the world's best and most diverse museums . . . but the biggest museum is the city itself! My jaw dropped so many times turning the corner of what I assumed would be just an average side street, that I think I developed lock-jaw at one point! One such example: across the bridge from where we stayed, on the right bank in the Marais district, is a little side street I stumbled down on my own called St. Paul's. Turns out this is the main "thoroughfare" of St Paul's village, a charming, mostly cobble-stoned, area lined with dozens of antique shops and tiny restaurants. I felt like I had stepped back in time three centuries! This experience was repeated often throughout our wanderings. I felt so spoiled after just a day of so many awesome and uniquely Parisian experiences such as this.

11) Related to the previous item, nothing at all can prepare you for the culture shock of realizing that you are actually -- for really and truly -- in Paris! When we arrived at our hotel on the Ile St. Louis (a quaint, historic island in the middle of the Seine only a stone's throw from Notre Dame cathedral), our fist reaction was to just collapse on the bed and sleep. But I couldn't! Lisa took a nap, whereas I immediately took to roaming. I went down a tiny side street outside our hotel, turned the corner, and found myself in the middle of the Pont Tournelle -- a bridge with a direct and majestic view of the famous "flying buttresses" of Notre Dame itself. This quickly became my favorite spot in all of Paris, and I would visit it constantly. But on that day, in that first moment, it all struck me at once that I was finally here! I was in Paris. This was what I had been dreaming of for weeks on end. If I was one for weeping foolishly, I would have burst out into tears at that moment. But of course I played it cool and just leaned against the bridge and soaked it all in. I must have stood there for a good 30 minutes, not moving but simply staring. Luckily, I did have the presence of mind to snag a passerby and implore her to take the below picture. And, trust me, while it might not look like it, I'm sure . . . deep down inside I am BEAMING! :)


Captain Hook said...

Sounds like you had an absolutely fabulous time! Can't wait to hear more.

Kim Kasch said...

Welcome back home! I loved Paris and enjoy all of Europe but I am always so HAPPY to be back home.

Ashe Hunt said...

Guess I'ma have to make that trip soon, myself.

David Batista said...

I was thinking we both need to go there together. I'm dying to go back anyway! I wanted to do this evening bike tour, but Lisa doesn't know how to ride. This way I'd have someone to come along with me!

They also offer a late night group roller blade tour, which you would get a kick out of.

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