To wrap up the France trip I’ve compiled some of the notes and tips I scattered through my France blog. I hope they’re useful. It’s mostly things I learned along the way – sometimes the hard way or just things I think may be useful!
THE LOVELY APERITIF– The French aren’t in a hurry to eat and usually start dinner with an aperitif – something light and refreshing to put you in the mood for good food. It may be as simple as dry white wine or champagne or something with more flair like Campari or Lillet. Take your time when you dine out in France, unlike the North American culture it’s not a race to turn over the table!
THE BIZ, BIZOU, OR BISOU – the kiss, kiss, that the French do so well. When you meet a friend or even an acquaintance on the street, at work, or at a party, you do the biz. In Paris it’s on each cheek, in the south it’s on each cheek then another on the opposite cheek – kiss, kiss, kiss. It’s quite nice actually.
CUPPA JOE The French make great coffee, I just don’t get why they only give you a spoonful, in an teeny tiny cup, and charge you 3 bucks for it. You can go with the flow or find a Starbucks, or horrors- a McCafe, they aren’t plentiful but when you need that morning cup of joe…… If none can be found you can ask for a cafe American which is a somewhat larger cup, half filled, or if you ask for a cafe crème, you get something close to a filled cup but it’s not as hot. Sigh.
WHAT’S UP TODAY –Before you leave in the morning plan out your day. Don’t overdue, this is especially true when traveling solo because everything is on you and its exhausting. If you feel overwhelmed take a break one day and just relax, you’ll thank yourself later.
GETTING AROUND OR GETTING LOST. A GPS can be a big help. A car rental may come with one installed (later more expensive models) or you can rent one, but they charge about as much as you would pay to buy one! Packing your own is the way to go but make sure you’ve downloaded the European maps and they’re up to date. It’s great to be spontaneous and wander off the path if something looks interesting but you’d better know your way back. If you aren’t bringing a GPS print area maps before you go. Having a paper map or France doesn’t give you enough detail of the smaller areas – packing a map book of France is too heavy and you’re carrying around more than you need.
DRIVING- I was very nervous about driving, especially a manual shift car by myself in an unfamiliar area but did it and feel good about it! If it ended up being impossible I could have returned the car and chalked it up as a lesson learned, but it was just fine. Do I wish I had a car and driver to chauffeur me around – hell yes! But alas….
JUST ME AND MYSELF – traveling solo my biggest worry was that I might be lonely. Being in a big city its harder (but not impossible) to strike up conversations because everyone is busy and it’s harder to meet people. I find small cities and towns are more laid back and people are more open to conversation. Make a point of talking to people and you’ll be surprised at the response, 9 times out of 10 it will start a conversation. Ask where they’re from, people want to talk. When eating out try to find a table beside someone who looks like they might speak English then after a few minutes ask a question or make a comment and see if they are open to a conversation. It never hurts to ask and you’re leaving it up to them to either pick up the conversation or not. Most people are curious and social – and besides they’ve been traveling with their companion and are likely looking for more topics of conversation.
METRO – Depending on how long you’ll be in Paris and if you plan to go to Montmarte and Versailles for instance, you might want to look into a metro pass. The first time you use it you have to activate it (there are information desks at the metro stations and they can help you. After that you can use the ticket for all your Metro rides within the number of days you bought and the zones – zone 1-3 is all you need to get around central Paris. You can use the ticket to go to Versailles but have to buy a ticket to come back (at this time it’s €1.60 per ride). If you’ll be going to place outside central Paris you need zone 1-6. You can get Paris Metro and Museum Passes from Rail Europe, they also do train tickets and passes and other tours. I had good luck with them and actually talked to a very helpful person. Yes, some companies still have real people, and even smart, helpful ones.
SIESTA- Lunch time, never assume a store, shop, museum, or office will be open midday. Many things close for at least an hour so employees can have lunch. Very civilized and nice – but annoying when you’re used to everything being open practically all the time. When it comes to Sunday, forget it. Go enjoy a day off, many businesses will be closed.
MUSEUMS – the museums are not open 7 days a week so check to see what day they are closed or you may be disappointed. Plan your museum visits around closing days!
A Paris Museum Pass is a good deal if you plan to visit even 3-4 museums (Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, Versailles, Rodin, etc) the pass covers over 60 museums so you can’t go wrong. Not only is your entry fee covered but you can go to the short line – a big deal when it comes to the Louvre for instance. You can get the museum pass through several companies – like Rail Europe or Viator and have it mailed to you before departure or delivered to your hotel when you get there.
Musee D’Orsay – eat before you go, the restaurant is not large and gets busy. We actually bought a sandwich from the vendor on the musee plaza, sat on the steps and listened to some street musicians. Much better than waiting in line for a table in the museum restaurant or coffee shop.
Louvre – decide what you want to see before you go. The Louvre is huge and would takes days to see it all. You can only do so much in a visit. Typically 4 hours is the limit – after that you’re in sensory overload! You can take pictures in the museum but if your flash goes off you’ll be reminded by the many museum watchers in an instant. Needless to say wear good shoes and carry as little as you can. There are bathrooms sprinkled throughout and marked on the map.
There are places to eat in the lower level and shops and food court in the Louvre Carrousel. You have the enter the Carrousel from across the street beside the Arc de Carrousel. That’s where the inverted Pyramid is found, as well as some upscale (not tourist junk) shops and a good food court.Be security conscious, keep your wallet and handbag safe, there are some pretty clever pickpockets watching for opportunities – especially where people gather – like the Mona Lisa. Make sure you go see the area designated for the history of the Louvre and medieval Louvre. Very interesting.
PACKING – This is so crucial! I’m traveling light this trip with only a carry-on and backpack purse. Dragging around a large suitecase – or god forbid two – is impossible when you’re traveling from place to place. Some stations don’t have elevators or escalators – or they may be out of service. Getting on a train requires you to manage your luggage quickly, and once on the train you have to find space for your luggage.
PARKING! – Be sure to note where you park your car. Take a picture of the street and street sign. Otherwise you may be wandering around for a while and you’re doing enough walking!
PICTURES – When traveling solo ask strangers to take your picture (just chose a person who won’t run off with your camera!) I don’t think of this enough and have few pictures of myself in these wonderful places. Very often it’s a good way to meet people as well.
RESTAURANTS – the French don’t hurry through a meal and you have to ask for the bill when you’re ready for it. Normally they will not bring the bill without being asked for it. I’ve seen Americans upset and feeling ignored when they are ready for the bill and its not being delivered!
SAFETY – You hear about pickpockets all the time but when you actually see it its horrible. In this case it was 2-3 guys working as a tag team, one drops his ticket and pretends its under the target’s foot. While the target’s distracted another guy swipes the wallet, extracts the cash, and drops the wallet just as the door opens. They exit before the target even realizes he’s been robbed, they blend in with the crowd and are gone. They are practiced, fast, and ruthless. The average person doesn’t feel a thing and is no match for the thieves. Beware it happens all the time and they get away with it.
Safety in your hotel or flat. Lock up goes without saying but a handy tool for anyone to bring is a door stop. One of those little rubber things you wedge under the door. Very hard to get past that.
Another handy tool is a whistle – keep it handy and if you feel unsafe either in your room or on the street – blow it like you mean it.
SIESTA- Lunch time, never assume a store, shop, museum or office will be open midday. Many things close for at least an hour so employees can have lunch. Very civilized and nice – but annoying when you’re used to everything being open practically all the time. When it comes to Sunday, forget it. Go enjoy a day off, many businesses will be closed.
SHOES- There are comfortable shoes out there without looking like a dork. Find them! Good thick soles, good support, and traction.
TRAIN TRAVEL – Get to the station early so you can scope out the situation. You must validate your ticket at a machine (takes a while to figure out what you’re doing – or to ask someone) or you can check out the lines at the ticket counter and talk to a real person. They usually post the track about 20 minutes prior but scope out where the tracks are, and how they’re marked. If you have an assigned car and seat check your ticket, there’s a chart at the track that tells you where to stand on the track for your car. There’s no time to walk, you only have time to get on the train before it takes off. Standing at the right place on the track is essential! When you book ask for the seat you prefer – aisle or window, single or double, facing front or back. You may not get it but you can ask. Seat direction can be important if you get car sick facing the opposite direction.
WINE – House wine is cheap and it’s usually very good. I had very good luck this time just ordering the house wine, they were excellent. If you’re more discerning, or out for a special occasion ask the waiter or sommelier for a recommendation.
GET TO KNOW THE LOCALS Its not easy to get to know the locals when you don’t speak the language. The Paris greeter program is a great way to meet a local
The Paris greeter website is a great idea if you are interested in seeing the local (not tourist) Paris. You just sign up in advance on the website and give them a choice or 1-3 days you would like a tour and they match you with a local who is free that day. You set up a meeting and he/she shows you the neighborhood they live in. There is no charge but you can make a donation to the website.