The joy of being a tourist anywhere is that the stimulation is constant and you get to lose your innocence all over again. You re-enter the child’s world of discovery, observation and fascination. And this begins with your very first moment in the new country. At the airport, even. Okay, let’s back up a few days. To the day you arrived in Paris.
You just got off that big jet. Another transatlantic flight. It’s early morning in the French capital, but you’re still back in that surrealist non-night between continents. You’re happy to be here but you feel like hell. Your feet are swollen, your eyes itch, your mouth tastes like day-after champagne and TWA in-flight blankets. The echo of those cute French school-kids who sang “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” at the back of the plane all night long still throbs in your head, and you want to ring necks. Where’s Avignon anyway? And what’s happening under that bridge?
You wait around the baggage carrousel, next to one marked Antananarivo and another for Houston and Mexico City, for your red duffel bag and black Samsonite, wondering where the heck Antananarivo is anyway. Six returning Parisians obsessively fire up cigarettes in your face and your dirty looks are met with utter indifference. “Hey, wait just one minute, buddy,” you proclaim as some Parisian in thin white socks and loafers with tassels pushes in front of you to grab his Louis Vuitton knock-off. There is such a thing as manners, guy!
You move toward the door marked “Douanes” and glide through the green side, “Rien à Déclarer”/Nothing to Declare. Don’t make eye contact with the customs inspectors and don’t slow down. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself trying to prove why you don’t have the receipt for your Sony Handycam and swearing that you’re not going to sell it. “But monsieur, where is the facture?” “I told you already I don’t travel with receipts.” They’ll never believe you when you tell them how much you paid for the thing – a third of the price here – and you won’t believe it when you learn that everything is sky high.
You move out into the bustle of the waiting crowd, huddled there to greet the exotic passengers of the Air Afrique flight from Dakar. Where’s that, you wonder. Senegal. Africa. Racial mix is nothing to you – you live in a large American city — but real Africans from Africa, that’s a first.
A strong, good waft of expresso coffee reaches your nose. Ah, France. French Roast. A country famous for the coffee it does not produce. Then why all the cafés? We’ll get to that later.
It’s early morning. Stretch. Breathe in some of those good Parisian diesel fumes. It’s summertime, and you’re in France. Pinch yourself, the Eiffel Tower is merely a short taxi ride away. The Louvre awaits you. The Seine beckons. “I want a real croissant,” your stomach shouts.
Moving toward the exit you spot an alarming scene. Oh, don’t mind them, all those goofy-looking guys in dark blue uniforms with bulletproof jackets and semi-automatic weapons. They don’t bite. And they rarely shoot those things. Of course, they’re never around when the bombs go off, and they’re always present when you’re saying good-bye to your girlfriend Agnès or rushing off to catch the TGV to Nice. Ignore them, they’re nowhere as threatening as the squads that pull you over in the street or the “controllers” who corner you in the Métro. Now, get focused; we’re going into town to find your hotel and get some lunch.
The ride into town isn’t far, and if you’re not too tired or loaded down with luggage you can take the RER suburban subway that’ll carry you into the center of Paris for under $8. If not, be prepared to shell out a minimum of $40 or more like $50. (You’ll soon see that almost anything you do in Paris will cost a couple a cool forty bucks, everything from eating a pizza to seeing a movie.) You’ll be asked to pay extra for your baggage and the fact that you’re originating at the airport. If the driver is in a pissy mood, give him the benefit of the doubt; chances are he’s just spent three hours in line waiting for the fare. There are no free roving taxis and once he’s in line there no backing out. It’s like that here. Since we’re talking about taxis, if you happen to call for one during your Paris stay, don’t be alarmed if the meter already has 30F on it by the time you climb in. The local practice is to start the meter the moment the driver gets called, no matter where he is. Yes, it’s like that here. Don’t overtip. An extra 10F from the airport is fine. We’ll talk about tipping a bit more later.
Voilà. Your hotel. Don’t expect your room to be ready before noon. Don’t expect free coffee in the lobby. Don’t expect an apology. Don’t expect anything. Just drop your bags and step out for that croissant and a little stroll. One of the great pleasures of the first day is to be able to go into a boulangerie and ask for croissants. My brother-in-law on his first day in Paris got all psyched up, practicing under his breath right up to the counter. “Est ce que je peux avoir deux croissants s’il vous plaît?” Perfectly executed, he smiled, pleased with his performance. “Au beurre ou ordinaire?” the young woman replied, sending a monkey wrench into his non-existent French. Panic. Well, I just want a regular good ol croissant, so “ordinaire” should do the trick he thought, regretting to this day that he blew his first chance to order the better, pure butter croissants. Made with margarine, the croissants ordinaires cost 50 centimes less. If you really want to feel like you belong, memorize and repeat quickly: “Une baguette s’il vous plaît, pas trop cuite, coupée en deux.” Have 4F ready, don’t fumble over your coins, don’t ask for a napkin or piece of paper to hold your bread, and don’t flinch if the boulangère scratches her psoriasis and dips her hands into the cash register before handing over your naked baguette. No one in the history of this country has ever gotten sick from careless bread handlers.
Step into a sidewalk café and sit with your back to the glass façade so as to be able to watch. If you’re really money conscious do not order orange juice or Coke. The bottles are microscopic and the cost will rile you. Order un café and a glass of water. Americans tend to order café au lait at all hours, while true Parisians only order the milky version for breakfast. If you’re in a chichi part of town, which could be lots of places today, and you’re in a large café, and you’re located on one of the wide boulevards, and your’re sitting outside, be prepared to spend as much as 40F for your coffee. Yup, that’s $8. But, as I’ve been telling folks for years, don’t think of this as an overpriced coffee, think of this as rent. Spend a good hour or two, sitting, talking, reading the paper, watching people, writing postcards, etc., and the price becomes downright reasonable. No one will chase you out when you reach the bottom of the cup, although the waiter will probably ask you to pay before you’re ready to leave. He’ll give the little cash register tape a little rip and leave the paper on the table. This means you’ve paid. Note: the same coffee is cheaper when you sit inside, and even cheaper yet when you stand at the zinc bar. Don’t tip, but you can leave one or more of the “petite monnaie,” yellow centimes coins as a gesture of goodwill.
Your hotel room is now ready. Paris hotel rooms are almost always small, so don’t feel slighted if you can barely squeeze between the end of your bed and the armoire. You haven’t come to Paris to stay in your room. The real Paris is in the streets, and there is no better time to experience les rues de Paris than the summer.
If you get lost, don’t hesitate to ask a cop for directions. Simply take your time. Say bonjour first, and give him a long moment to salute you and greet you invitingly with Monsieur or Madame. Then repeat the name of the street you’re looking for. He’ll have no idea where it is or won’t understand your pitiful accent; he’ll throw up his shoulders and purse his lips a bit, but if you give him a fair chance, he’ll be extremely polite. And in France that’s what matters: respect for the form. So remember if you say hi to someone you don’t know in Paris and they don’t answer you it’s not because they’re not friendly – it’s simply because they don’t know you!
Enjoy your visit and take lots of pictures, just don’t develop them here. It’ll be $40, remember.
David Applefield is the author of Paris Inside Out and the publisher of the Paris-Anglophone directory and Web site (www.paris-anglo.com).