Saturday, May 8, 2010

Notes from a Week in Paris

I just got back from a lovely week in Paris with my wife - it was a rejuvenating and much required holiday for both of us. Work has been crazy, for her especially. Paris was wonderful and more than lived up to my expectations. We rented a tiny little studio in Le Marais (~120 sq ft, fully equipped including a washer - extremely efficient use of space!) Spending the entire week gave us enough time to explore sights, sounds and tastes of Paris without too much of a rush.

There are lots of books and blogs about visiting Paris and things to do/see. We used a bunch of resources - advice from friends, Lonely Planet's excellent iPhone app, the very insightful Secrets of Paris website with lots of tips on what to see and do and Paris By Train for everything related to using Paris' excellent rail network. However, there were some things I hadn't read about or was surprised by:
  1. Cafés, brasseries and boulangeries/patisseries often have different prices for take away (emporter), eating inside (sallé) and terrace dining. Most cafés/brasseries offer set menus (Formulae) and chef's recommendations which change daily (menu and price). They are almost always much more cost effective than ordering a-la-carté.

  2. The French are very proper. You greet business owners when you enter their store/café and thank/greet them before you leave. Sprawling across lush, green lawns in the several Parisian parks (Jardins) or putting your feet up on empty train seats is frowned upon. You sit in chairs provided in the Jardins and sit up straight in trains.

  3. Freshly squeezed orange juice (jus d'orange pressé) is extremely popular. You'll find orange juice machines pretty much everywhere (including Starbucks), but it's best to find a green-grocer/fruit vendor and get a half-litre jar of fresh squeezed juice each morning. Fruit vendors are everywhere.

  4. By default, coffee means espresso. A cappuccino/café-au-lait at most Cafés is expensive (between 4-8 EUR) and isn't that great (for a Seattlelite, at least). A mocha at Starbucks is EUR 4.50. Little créperies or street cafés have better deals for coffee that tastes identical (1-2 EUR). Or, hit up a McCafé. A 'mocha' is called a 'chocochino' and isn't commonly available.

  5. Sit-down créperies are totally not worth the price/experience. Get a crépe from a street vendor/corner shop and sit in a park or a street bench. The more exotic crépes (savory & sweet) are only available in nicer establishments, obviously.

  6. Wine/liquor is available in grocery stores (supermachés). Supermachés open around 8:30am and shut around 8:30pm. You are expected to bag your own groceries. For late-night grocery runs, there's usually a little-store-that-sells-most-things every few blocks which stays open late (2am)

  7. Bars have later Happy Hours than in the US. Happy Hour generally runs from 6pm to 9-10pm. Folks eat dinner late (most restaurants stay open until 11pm).

  8. Time is specified using 24 hour notation. "What time do you shut?" is answered with "23 hours". Most people don't understand am/pm.

  9. Take binoculars to fully appreciate the amazing art/architecture details.

  10. Use the 'Vélib' shared bike service. Vélib stations are everywhere, the roads and drivers are biker-friendly and it is the cheapest and most convenient way to get between locations in the city. Buy a map-book that has streets sorted by districts (arrondissements) and also has metro/Vélib stations marked.

  11. It is not common for crémeries/gelaterias to offer tastes.

  12. On the metro, or just walking around, you'll see a significant number of people going home (presumably) with one or more fresh baguettes from the bakery. For some reason almost all of these people are men. Join the crowd - fresh baguettes are the only way to go. Bread is baked fresh twice a day (if not continuously).

  13. When you pay cash, check the change you get back. Parisians are either terrible at math or prone to short-changing customers. I routinely got back incorrect change, on average twice a day.

  14. Before you go to a specific place (café, boulangerie, museum, grocery store, monument) on a Saturday/Sunday/Monday check before you head out. Almost every establishment is closed on at least one or more of these days.

  15. Strange, English speaking 'beggar women' holding hand-written post cards will randomly approach you at monuments/museums and ask "Speak English?". I didn't quite figure out what the scam was (I never answered "Yes") but this is most certainly some sort of scam.

  16. Comté tastes awesome, and is the most popular cheese. Camembert is a close second. Get cheese fresh from your neighborhood fromagerie.

  17. If you decide to cook at home, chances are good that you'll find an Italian store nearby selling freshly prepared pastas and raviolis that you can cook at home, in addition to a large number of other Italian foods (including freshly prepared Tiramisu).

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