I just came back from a 14-day tour of France by Cosmos Travel and a 6-day self guided tour of Paris. Below are some of my impressions and observations that will hopefully be helpful for intended travellers to France and to Paris in particular. In my later posts I will give more details of my travel experience there.
(Note: This Blog is only about Paris, the rest of France is covered in my new Blog here, My Tour de France with Cosmos.)
1. Top of the list is the legendary rude waiters at restaurants. So far in all my encounters with waiters in France and in Paris, I have not come across a single rude waiter. A few showed indifference but they were never rude. In fact many were quite friendly, hopefully not because they were expecting a big tip at the end of the meal. However, service is generally slow, more so in crowded places. This comes in all phases - taking your order, arrival of food, getting the bill and even getting the change. So do factor in some additional time for your sit-down meals.
2. The unfriendly French? All the French people that you deal with will inevitably greet you with a Bonjour (Hello or Good Morning) and if there is no response from you, YOU are rude and you will get a cold look. Once you reply with your own Bonjour (even pronounced wrongly), they do open up. Respect begets respect. So Bonjour is the magic word that open doors literally. The other useful words are merci (thank you), s'il vous plait (please), pardon (excuse me), oui (yes), non (no) and together with the universal sign language, you'll be able to get around Paris and France. I did. As my French tour guide pointed out, the French are proud but not arrogant. Some do speak to you in English after your opening Bonjour. In fact there were several instances where the locals came to my aid in using the Paris metro ticketing machines, finding my way in the monstrous Chatelet (or was it the Chatelet Les Halles?) metro station, giving me direction (in French, no less) when I looked lost over a map of Paris, and pointing out to me that taxis won't stop at a taxi stand near Bastille as I was waiting patiently there! Maybe being elderly with some white hair helps!
3. Public WC and toilets. The good news is that most of them are free and the bad news is that many are not properly maintained and they are literally few and far between. The French must have very strong bladders. For ladies it will mean a queue and a long wait at popular spots and this is one occasion where men are born lucky. Do not hope to use public toilets at Metro stations, I have not seen any sign for these in all the stations that I have been and they probably don't exist there. It is thus best to make use of the toilet in the restaurant where you eat before continuing your itinerary. Or just walk into one like you own the place as many eating places are not too happy to see non-paying customers using their facilities.
4. The Paris Metro. The indicators for Metro station entrances are not uniform - some a big M, some a stylish "Metro" and some an artful "Metropolitan" and some are not conspicuous and you may miss them from a distance. Unless you have very light luggage or very strong arms, don't plan to use the metro to move from the airport to you hotel if it involves any interchange. Few stations have escalators and some have steps that climbs up and down. Some are pretty steep. Also some lines are pretty congested during the morning and evening peak hours and difficult to get in with big luggage. Some lines are closed at certain stations (for maintenance or other reasons) so good to know ahead to plan your route accordingly. You can check at the RATP website. The best value is to get a carnet (book) of 10 tickets that will cost 12E instead of 1.7E for a single ticket. The "book" is a misnomer since it is just 10 separate tickets purchased at one go and it is best to get them from the ticketing machines since not all stations have a ticket counter. The newer machines have touch screen but the older ones uses a roller and buttons for selection and some accept coins only. You can select English instructions on all the machines.
5. Scams and pickpockets - There are many young girls carrying clipboard with forms asking for signatures; not sure if they are for some charity or for some signature campaign. Do not sign up for once you have signed, they will ask you for money. The ring trick (girl claiming she found a ring on the road and propose to sell it to you at a bargain) do happen as one of my fellow traveller in the Cosmos tour was approached while in Paris. I have seen the string bracelet trick and you should not offer your hand when someone asked for it or you will be literally tied up. According to our tour manager, Montmartre (where the Sacre Creur is located) is the top of the pickpocket area so be extra cautious while visiting this area.
6. African souvenir peddlers - They can be found at all the major tourist areas and may look intimidating but I found them harmless. They and just trying to earn a decent living by selling their wares (such as 5 mini-Eiffel Towers for 1E - great as gifts for friends, and Parisian scarf at much cheaper price than those sold at souvenir shops). They are never pushy or pester you for a sale and will move away if you say No. Some are very polite and may even wish you a good day. The pickpockets are probably those dressed smartly and the innocent looking ones so never judge a book by its cover.
7. Pedestrian crossing. There are two types, one with lights and those without i.e. the normal zebra crossing. Many of the green lights are dim and you may not even know that you can cross. If you are halfway across and the light turns red, you still have several seconds before it turns green for the cars so you can continue your crossing to the other end. I saw many Parisian crossing even though it is red for pedestrian as long as there are no oncoming cars; not sure if this is legal but while in Paris, do as the Parisian do. For the normal zebra crossing, you have to get onto it before any car will stops (generally the case) or you could be waiting for ages by the road side. Be brave as the drivers have very good breaking skills! (Warning: do at your our risk!).
8. Paris Museum Pass. If you intend to visit some of the top Paris museums and sights, do get the Paris Museum Pass. This will not only save you money if you do you maths correctly, it will definitely save you time as in many sights such as Versailles, Lourve and St Chapelle, you have to queue twice, once for the tickets and another time for the security check. And lines can get very l-o-o-o-o-g. By having the Paris Museum Pass, you will skip the ticket lines though you still have to queue for the security check but at least you have won half the battle. BTW, an easy place to get one is at the American Express office near the Granier Opera, just outside the Roissybus stop for CDG Airport. I got mine there after searching in vain for a tourist office around that area. No queue there and they speak English.
9. Tax Refund. During my flight back in the morning at CDG airport Terminal 1, there was a long queue at the Tax Refund counter (located at the departure level) to get your tax refund form stamped. After that, there was another queue at the cash refund counter; though the queue was shorter, the wait was even longer. Altogether, it took my wife almost 1 and a half hour to get her cash refund. Some have huge stacks of tax refund forms so do factor in this waiting time if at all you buy any Louis Vuitton, Longchamp, Gucci or whatever hand bags and items above 175E your missus or girlfriend favours. Paris is a shopping heaven for the ladies but hell for the men!
10. Essential items. During the few days I was in Paris, I have experience both good and bad weather and all the shades in between. There was beautiful sunshine, cloudy sky and also showers that come and go, all within the same day and some within minutes. Maybe I was unlucky or this was not the best time (late May and early June) for a Paris visit with maximum temperatures of low 20's Centigrade and mornings were chilly. (It was even raining in the supposedly sunny French Riviera when I was there!) Thus you should pack a rain coat or an umbrella to be prepared. The major sites in Paris look too close to be taking the Metro from one to another and not too far to walk on the map. But it can be a bit misleading and you'll end up walking quite a bit and it gets tiring towards the end of the day so a pair of comfortable walking shoes is essential.
The above are based on what I have experienced personally so it may or may not be applicable for everybody or in all instances but I hope it gives a general picture of Paris and will change some perceptions of the French. I survived for 6 days in Paris on my own (with my wife in tow) speaking very little French and as a typical tourist; so will you. Bon voyage!
(I will add some photos later to this post once I have sorted them out.)