Exploring Paris

August 1st, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

Rachelle and I have been in Paris for a few days now. So far we’ve mostly been exploring the city, so we haven’t been to any museums yet. Since we have about 10 more days here, we still have a good bit of time left.

Getting to Paris

We had a direct flight from Las Vegas, which only took 9.5 hours of flight time. Overall it wasn’t bad. Since we flew through the night, most people zoned out and slept for much of it.

For a few hours during the flight, I had Rachelle sleeping on one shoulder and a French teenager falling asleep on my other shoulder. I guess I must have been emanating that human pillow vibe. :)

We requested vegan meals when booking the flight, but the airline applied a fairly creative interpretation of “vegan”, offering us salmon with potato salad for dinner and then a croissant, blueberry muffin, and yogurt for breakfast. Fortunately we came well prepared with our own food, so we had plenty to eat. I’m accustomed to airlines’ general incompetence when it comes to serving up meals without animal products — they usually get it wrong. The stewardess seemed quite confused that salmon didn’t qualify as a vegetarian. She even tried to offer it to us more than once, as if we must be mistaken. How could I have forgotten that salmon is a vegetable? ;)

I think someone could make a great career of being a vegan consultant to airlines; in my experience airline staff tend to be so out of touch when it comes to veg meals that even a small improvement in their education would make a difference. Surely they can at least be taught that fish isn’t something you serve to passengers who request a vegan meal. In the meantime, I’ll continue to play it safe and bring my own food. I really can’t recall the last time I requested a vegan meal and actually got one that was all vegan. In fact, I wonder if they got it right even once… possibly not.

After arriving at CDG airport shortly after 4pm on Friday, we breezed through customs. I swear that was the simplest customs I’ve even been through. The guy didn’t utter one word. I just handed him my passport, he stamped it and gave it back to me, and I was on my way. It took all of 5-10 seconds.

After getting our bags (which took considerably longer than going through customs), we took the RER B train to Châtelet Les Halles, which is a short walk from where we’re staying.

Getting off at this station, which is apparently one of the busiest since it’s a major hub, was quite an experience. It was packed with people rushing about. I thought to myself, Is this Paris or New York City?

Despite the fact that our host gave us detailed directions and even drew us a map of where to go, we still got lost and went out a different exit from the station than what he recommended. It took us a while to get our bearings and figure out which way to go. I could read the signs, but none of them seemed to point towards what we were looking for.

Eventually we made it to the small apartment where we’re staying, which is just a few blocks from the Louvre (near St. Honoré and Rue du Louvre). Our host was very friendly and gave us a map and some tourism tips as well, including telling us about a lesser known entrance to the Louvre where we can avoid the lines.

Our apartment is very compact, with the bedroom ceiling just 2″ taller than I am. Even Rachelle can touch the ceiling without standing on her toes, and she’s 5’2″. We’ll keep an eye out for Frodo.

Adjusting to Paris

After we settled into our temporary Parisian home, we set out on foot to find some vegan food. Thanks to Happy Cow, it’s fairly easy to find good vegan eats in pretty much any city.

Navigating Paris was pretty confusing at first. For starters, my 2-year old Droid phone is little more than a brick in Paris, but I knew that would happen before I got here. My phone only works with North American networks. I can use it with WiFi, but otherwise it can’t get a connection. That said, I don’t think I’d want to pay the $20.40 per MB that Verizon said it would cost for data access in Paris, not when my average usage is 5MB per day. So all I use my Droid phone for here is as a camera.

Initially I couldn’t figure out which streets were which because they aren’t labeled. Or at least I thought that was the case. I saw street signs on metal poles, but they didn’t show the street names. Instead they pointed the way to various locations, buildings, attractions, etc. Fortunately Rachelle noticed that the street signs were on small, dark blue placards on the sides of buildings at intersections. Once we figured that out, navigating the streets became a lot easier.

Even so, the signs are fairly small and hard to read from a distance, especially if you don’t already know what streets are coming up. I’m accustomed to Las Vegas’ very easy-to-read green and white street signs that hang over every street. Sometimes you can’t even see the signs from the street. Yesterday we couldn’t read one because the cafe in front of it had a large awning that blocked the view of the street sign. You’d have to be 10-feet tall to read it.

Also, unlike the gridlike street systems of major U.S. cities that I’m used to, Paris’ street layout looks like it was designed by a crazy person. Streets run in all sorts of different directions in what seems to be a hub-and-spoke pattern with lots of different hubs, such as the Arc de Triomphe interesection or La Place de la Bastille, where about a dozen streets intersect all at one roundabout.

In some ways this makes navigation more complicated, but in other ways it’s actually easier. If you want to go from any point A to any point B in the city, you may be able to find a fairly direct route by taking some diagonal street, but good luck with the navigation if you’re new to the city.

Random Observations

So far Paris feels like a combination of Las Vegas and New York City. It has that Vegas-style party atmosphere at night, with people staggering home drunk along the streets on weekend evenings. But during the day, there are lots of people rushing about, seemingly in a hurry to get somewhere and projecting an aloof “I’m in my own space” energy.

I expected the city would smell much nicer than it actually does — like fresh-baked baguettes or flowers or something like that. But I’m gradually getting used to its often pungent blend of urine and tobacco. I’ve seen 3 people urinating on public buildings here so far, as if it’s just a fine thing to do when there’s no bathroom handy.

Yesterday Rachelle and I had a nice picnic in the park near the Eiffel Tower (Champs de Mars). But whenever the wind picked up, there was a strong scent of urine in the air. I guess the people who live here get used to it, but odor-wise it’s probably the foulest urban area I’ve been to… even worse than NYC or downtown L.A. That surprised me.

I’ve really enjoyed walking around Paris. In fact, my feet are sore from all the walking. But it’s such a scenic place that it’s difficult not to keep going for hours. There are lots of beautiful parks with tree-lined walkways, and even many of the apartment buildings command a pause to observe their finer details.

On Sunday we spent most of the day walking around with our friend Sylvain (whom I first met at CGW #1 in 2009). He lives in Montpelier but is in Paris for a conference this week. We walked around Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, and many other parts of the city. He also showed us how to use the Metro, which was a quick way to get around town.

Even with his iPhone to navigate us, getting around from place to place outside of the touristy areas was still a bit challenging, even when we had a clear destination in mind. When you’re at at intersection where lots of streets intersect at odd angles, it takes a while to figure out which one to follow, especially when you can’t readily see the street names.

Vélib’

One cool thing about Paris is Vélib. This is an inexpensive and abundant city-sponsored bike rental, similar to Bixi in Montreal. Vélib stations are all over the city — hundreds of them with tens of thousands of bikes available. We see people riding them every day.

To use Vélib for up to 30 minutes at a time is free with reasonable rates beyond that, but you have to get a one-day pass for 1.70€ or a weekly pass for 8€. Rachelle and I would love to use it and tried to do so yesterday, but the machine refused to accept any of my credit cards. I don’t know why since I’ve had no trouble using credit cards elsewhere in Paris, and I even let my credit card company know in advance that I’d be here. It would be nice to try the bikes if we could figure out how to procure a couple of them. The machines don’t take cash.

On Vélib’s English-language website, it says to ride bikes on the left side of the road. That didn’t sound right to me since the cars drive on the right side of the road here, as in the USA. I checked their French website, and sure enough, it tells people to ride bikes on the right. Not a good translation error to make!

In the meantime we’ve been using our feet and the Metro to get around town.

Practicing French

I’ve been practicing my French a little here, but not much. Most of the service people seem to speak English, at least in the touristy areas, so it hasn’t been difficult to get along.

After dinner on Sunday, Sylvain and Rachelle encouraged (more accurately — cajoled and prodded) me into going to the counter to ask for our check. I did so (in French), and the woman behind the counter apologetically told me (in English) that she didn’t speak French. I laughed and said, “Neither do I!” Turns out she was from North Carolina.

I told Rachelle and Sylvain that I seem to be good at manifesting English speakers, so why bother trying to speak French? :)

At first I thought that being in France would be a fun opportunity to practice speaking French again. I took 3 years of French in high school and placed well in the National French Contest, but that was more than 20 years ago, and I was far from fluent. In practice, however, it seems to be more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve forgotten so much of the vocabulary that even forming fairly basic sentences takes a lot of mental effort.

If I was going to learn the language to any real degree, I’d have made a concerted effort of it, beginning well before my visit to France, or I’d have committed to a longer trip to learn it immersion style. Trying to speak French casually here and there was fun for a few hours, but now it just seems like a tedious distraction that I shouldn’t fuss over. I like exploring Paris, but I didn’t come here to try to reload French in a couple weeks, just so I can forget it again afterwards. I’d rather focus on being present to what I’m seeing and hearing… and not worry so much about trying to learn the language. I may want to learn other languages down the road, but this isn’t the trip for that.

Paris Meet-up

We will probably do a Paris meet-up at some point, with Sunday being the most likely option. We’re still looking for a good meet-up spot, preferrably somewhere near the Louvre so we can check it out in advance… and somewhere near a Metro station so people can get to it easily.

Meet-up attendance varies widely (sometimes a dozen people, one time as many as 40), I think a public location is best as opposed to something like a cafe. It’s best to have a location where people can move around and mingle easily if they so desire.

Check the blog for the meet-up details later this week. I’ll try to give at least 48 hours notice if we can manage it. There’s potentially some rain coming up, so we want to do our best to avoid scheduling a meetup during a downpour.

Today we’re going to see Notre Dame, one of the museums, and a play tonight.



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