Five Things I Learned In Paris

1. It’s always tourist season. Even in late November/early December, don’t think you’ll be the only person vacationing in Paris. The most visited city in the world is still popular in the off-season, especially with Japanese tourists — we saw scads of them near the tour bus entrance of the Galeries Lafayette department store, or standing in line at the Eiffel Tower (on a foggy, overcast day, no less!). And then there’s Montmartre, home of the basilica of Sacre Coeur and some of the most stunning views in town. I can’t even imagine what this place must be like during the summer. We wandered past at least a half dozen guys playing shell games, a bunch of African men offering to create yarn bracelets, and vendors selling miniature Eiffel Towers. I’m a little sorry we missed seeing Maison Tristan Tzara — the famed Dadaist is a character in my favorite play, Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” — but on the whole, now that I’ve seen the basilica, I think I’ll make a point of avoiding Montmartre in the future… or, at least, the main streets.

View from Sacre Coeur. I love the “Internet” graffiti.

2. French Women Don’t Get Fat. Why? Stairs. I lost weight in Paris, despite a steady diet of French pastries, cheese and wine. Probably that’s because I don’t think I have ever gone up and down as many stairs as I did during my stay. We get used to escalators in our teeny-tiny little BART stations, but in the huge, sprawling Paris Metro stations, you often have to walk for what seems like miles if you’re changing from one train line to another, and the stairs! Up and down, up and down. Here’s a tip for you: if you see a bunch of Parisians waiting for an elevator, they probably know what they’re doing. I chugged on ahead at the Abbesses station, not realizing that it was one of the deepest in the system. I was exhausted when I finally made it to the top.

Stairs to Sacre Coeur. Luckily, you can opt to take the funicular instead.

Not sure if you can tell from the photo, but there’s a health club located right above this McDonald’s, so you can work out after finishing your Royale With Cheese.

3. The Louvre isn’t the only museum in town. Every day, I tried to psych myself up for going to the Louvre… and I never made it. Of course, I’m an avid museumgoer who has never set foot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art on all my trips to New York. There’s just something about huge museums that intimidates me. Still, we saw plenty of great art at the spectacular Musée d’Orsay, Monet’s Water Lilies at the Orangerie (you may remember the scene set in the museum in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”), and the breathtaking La Dame à la licorne tapestries at the Cluny. We found the museums to be much less crowded during the morning hours. Who knows, maybe next time I’ll feel ready to tackle the Louvre — when it opens at 9 AM, of course.

“Love locks” on the Pont de l’Archevêché.

4. French people aren’t rude. For some reason, I had this anxiety over possibly having to deal with American-hatin’ French folk. Well, guess what? I didn’t have one single bad encounter. The key is just to make a good faith effort at speaking a little French, even if it’s only a friendly “Bonjour!” when you enter a shop or restaurant (a must!). Yes, my high school French is abysmal, but I got by. I’d strongly encourage anyone visiting Paris to try to learn some basic French first; here in the Bay Area, the Alliance Française offers a fun-sounding beginners’ class called “French for Travelers.”

Christmas market along the Champs-Elysées. For some reason, churros seem to be for sale everywhere in Paris.

5. Cafés and laptops don’t seem to mix. The ubiquitous French sidewalk café — outdoor seating is available even in cold weather, due to heat lamps — is a place to eat, drink, chat with friends, even use your mobile phone… but in a week and a half, I saw a grand total of one person sitting at a café typing away at a laptop. A tip: if you’re a nonsmoker, stay indoors; the outside tables seem to be the domain of the smokers.

A painting of Café de Flore that I spotted at a gallery on the Île Saint-Louis. Café de Flore, located on the boulevard Saint-Germain on the Left Bank, is a historic café and a great place to spend a couple of hours… provided you don’t mind paying the equivalent of $9-10 for a hot chocolate or cup of coffee. But what the heck, you’re on vacation.

Did you know that the names of 72 French scientists and engineers are engraved on the Eiffel Tower? Click here to see a close-up, or here for a full list of names.

5 thoughts on “Five Things I Learned In Paris”

  1. Sounds like you covered a lot. The thing about large museums is that you pick one small area. I don’t anyone has seen the entire Louvre. Montmartre is a terrific place to walk. Next time I recommend a self guided walking tour. Lots to see besides Sacre Coeur, which as you mentioned has some of the best views in town. There are also numerous small museums so covering everything in one trip is impossible. there is lots to leave for return visits.

  2. We went to Paris for Christmas several years and I have to second everything you said. The Orsay is just gorgeous and much less intimidating than the Louvre.

    Merry Christmas!

  3. Thank you for your well-written accounts. I often visited the Louvre as a student Living in Paris in the early 80s, when, as hard as it is to believe these days, one could be nearly alone in a gallery on a winter morning! My last few visits there were not enjoyable… the crowds. I had a similar experience at Montmartre as well. My favorite museums are the Musée Rodin, and like you, the Orangerie. Great picture of the names engraved on the Eiffel Tower. I was looking for an image of a particular name, and voilà! Clear and crisp! I hope it’s okay with you that I used your photo.

  4. Mary, you are welcome to use the photo. And I have been back to Paris twice since I wrote this in 2011, most recently in December of last year. I did make it to the Louvre on my second visit.

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