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A Jayhawk in Paris*

At 1 picture = 1000 words, 98% of what I have to say is in these four photo galleries (30-50 photographs each).

Paris churches, Paris museums, the Montparnasse district, out walking in the city

We owe the distinctive look of Paris' beautiful wide boulevards to the 19th century "architect- destroyer" of Paris, Haussmann. His first priority was "to disencumber large buildings, palaces and barracks in such a way as to make them more pleasing to the eye and afford easier access on days of celebration and a simplified defense in time of riot," and second, to demolish the narrow, filthy medieval alleyways with their associated public health risks. Ask your travel agent about a Paris celebration/riot days package.

Going to Paris? By all means, read more than one travel guide first. In my experience they are all written with a somewhat different audience in mind, and none of them may correspond exactly to you. Two very different guides that I enjoyed were the Time Out Book of Paris Walks (Penguin, 1999), a collection of 23 personal essays based on walking tours--Michael Palin's chapter on Hemingway's Paris and Marie Darrieussecq's irreverent tour of the Luxembourg Garden's statuary were especially memorable for me--and Paris for Families by Larry Lain (Interlink, 1999). This is a very practical book about making Paris a family vacation destination where everybody has a good time, and it has a lot of good advice. Some books that were not written as travel guides may also be useful. Adam Gopnik's "Paris Journal" series, which ran irregularly in the New Yorker magainze for a few years, is highly entertaining and informative. His collected columns are now out in book form, under the title "Paris to the Moon." (His piece about having a baby, French style, is especially memorable, funny, and sweet.) Also consider reading some fiction as a way of understanding what Paris is like for an American. I highly recommend Diane Johnson's novels "Le Divorce" and "Le Mariage," which came out in 1997 and 2000.

Do as much reading as you can but don't just follow the book--make your own choices about your itinerary, including spur of the moment ones.  Be prepared to ask for simple things in French, and don't forget to say bonjour and au revoir (just blurting out your request will be perceived as rude), but in my experience, Paris is getting noticeably more English tolerant.  It's a big city, so it should not be surprising that it contains some snooty people; what may be more surprising are the number of people who are helpful and who spontaneously offer directions, recommendations, or advice.

A few of my own suggestions, based on five visits in ten years, about
Lodging:  No guidebook surveys more than a fraction of Paris' 2,000 hotels; most are small, with smallish rooms, and tiny elevators (though none of these things are necessarily problems).  The hotels recommended in popular guidebooks may sell out quite early.  But the hotel down the street may be just as nice as the one in the guidebook.  The France Hotel Guide website or other online guides give much more comprehensive listings.  I would recommend choosing the district you would like to stay in first, based on its convenience or appeal to you, then look at the choices in your price range in that area.  (I have stayed in both the Latin Quarter and Montparnasse, and loved both.)  There is typically room for negotiation in room rates. Although the Metro goes practically everywhere, and you are never very far from a station, it may save you travel time to be near the intersection of multiple lines or close to an RER station if business or pleasure takes you out of the city center.  The hotel breakfasts are sometimes dismissed in travel guides as overpriced compared to a cafe, but they are convenient, and they are good.  If you aren't confident in your ability to reserve a room over the telephone, sending the hotel a fax in English may work better--the ones I have dealt with have always responded promptly.
Dining:  Until recently, restaurants that posted menus in English were more or less guaranteed to be tourist traps.  Now a much wider range of places offer multilingual menus, have some servers who speak English, and some provide good and affordable food on those terms!  If you are on good terms with the desk clerk(s) at your hotel, they can provide very valuable suggestions about local places. Resist the temptation to go in places that are faux American, because you think the food will be something you are familiar with; it will only look familiar, and taste unfamiliar. French Tex-Mex leads the list of foods to avoid--the "tacos" contain roast meat without any identifiable seasoning. (Joe Allen's, at Les Halles, is genuine American food for the truly homesick.) Pizza may be a good choice, but look over the ingredients carefully if you don't like strong flavored cheeses. French Chinese food can alternatively be described as having subtler, milder flavors, or being blander, than American Chinese.
Transit:  RATP passes are very convenient and will probably save you money. Many guidebooks recommend against the "Paris Visite" passes, recommending the "Carte Orange" instead.  But if your stay is less than a week, and/or you don't come at the beginning of a week, the "Visite" passes may be a good value as well.  The passes can be purchased for 1, 2, 3, or 5 days for varying zones (zone 5 includes the airports and Versailles). The pass also includes discounts on other attractions (the Tour Montparnasse, for example) which may make them an even better value, if you are interested in the discounted attractions. 

*I guess the Jayhawk in Paris would be me, since Footix, the Jayhawk-like figure available for purchase everywhere in Paris in January 1998, was the official mascot of the World Cup. Any resemblance to the Jayhawk is purely accidental, as determined in a French court of law.

Footix vs. Jayhawk: separated at birth?

Paris links:

2/27/2005 §

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