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Sunday, October 7, 2012

An Overview of Paris from an American Point-Of-View

Photograph taken by B.C. Matthews from atop the Notre Dame

Ah, Paris. What can I say about Paris that hasn't already been said? J'taime. L'amour. Voila! Ah, PARIS!

Like many tourists in Paris, I found myself quickly relying on that useless year of French I took back in college. Falling back on phrases I only vaguely recalled, but which came back to me with astonishing swiftness, I used phrases like: "Je voudrais une carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait," and "Je voudrais un carte, I mean, un plan of uh…Paris de métro, uh...s'il vous plait," in addition to things like, "Uh, crap how the hell do I buy that five-day metro ticket? Um, un billet pour le cinq de jour, s'il vous plait." Pretty soon, my cohorts of travel and I were frequently saying "non, merci" and a lot of "pardon."

I know it's a travel stereotype to say that the French refuse to speak English. I found that wasn't quite true. The Parisians I met were mostly reluctant to speak English yes, but after my many French language faux-pas and struggles to come up with the correct word for things, they would either speak slower to me and repeat things, or would meet me halfway with their own smattering of English. I found that just immediately speaking English garnered mildly annoyed looks, whereas if you at least attempted to struggle along in French as best you could they were more likely to work with you. After all, France is their country, and I believe that you should at least attempt to speak a tiny bit of the language of wherever you're at (though it was a surprise to me to learn half of the Swiss speak Swiss-French and the other half Swiss-German. Oy.)

Another travel stereotype is the rude French waiter. Really, the Parisians have a vastly different mode of eating out, which is so far off from the American norm that you have to adjust your expectations when eating out. Americans are used to wait staff that will wait on you hand-and-foot, appearing every few minutes to check and make sure you are their center of the universe, their special little snow-flake who is as happy as a snowflake can be. Americans are used to waiters who earn their living on tips. Service with a fake smile.

Not so for Parisians. Locals take their time eating. They are there to hang out and talk, hang out and read, to do more than eat and dash off to the next thing. Food is an experience, and one not rushed. I can only imagine that the American waiter would seem incredibly annoying to the French, who I noticed liked to be left alone for the most part—perhaps for hours. Which is why if you need the bill, you have to hunt down your waiter and ask for one (I found this out the hard way— L'addition, s'il vous plait).

Speaking of food…Paris is Foodie heaven. Dearest readers, I do not say things lightly about food, so when I say some of the cheapest meals I had in Paris were the best of my life, I'm not exaggerating. Or at least not much. Dinner one night was a baguette from a patisserie (aka wondrous pastry shop) with double-cream Brie and a type of Swiss cheese. I'm not exaggerating either when I say that the baguette was still warm when we brought it back to eat, or that down one street on our way to the Métro we passed easily four patisseries every morning, in addition to boulangeries (aka wondrous bread stores). Croissants were the norm for breakfast for me, also still warm, buttery and flaky, and occasionally full of melted chocolate in the center (if I remembered to ask for avec chocolat).

Stalls along the street were filled with fresh produce, and even the supermarket (small by American standards) had a fantastic array of lettuces, mushrooms I'd never seen in person, tomatoes that tasted like I'd harvested them at their ripest peak straight from the vine, and two whole aisles devoted to cheese. Three times in my five days there I passed by Farmer's Markets with everything from rotisserie chicken, to delectable little fresh lingonberries, and again mushrooms and cheeses I'd never seen before.

Photo taken and cakes eaten by B.C. Matthews
Cakes. Cakes. Cakes. It's an art, and one that Parisians are adept at. One of the best cakes I've ever eaten was from a cake shop called, Le gâteau Battu. I had to look it up but I think it translates to The Beaten Cake, or more likely along the lines of The Defeated Cake (someone help me if your French is better). The tiny-tiny cake cost 3€, but it was a delectable strawberry flavor, combined with lemony cream, and a hint of lemony meringue, with lingonberries on top for that slightly cranberry-esque hint of sour. The flavors were delicately balanced to perfection. Not one flavor was overwhelming, but always a surprise.  

It's true that Parisians have a deep and abiding passion for the best food they can get. J'taime Paris for that.

As for the people...like in any large city you'll get a large variety of personality types. I ran across a nice business man taking time out of his busy morning commute to help me with buying metro tickets, using his smattering of English and my smattering of French to get it right.

We stayed in an apartment in Paris that was mostly filled with older people. I couldn't count the number of bent over older ladies with canes, trucking their way happily down the street, moving with a speed and purpose that astonished me (I also frequently saw them gnawing happily on a baguette in the morning). Likewise those same ladies cheerfully said "Bonjour!" to us in the morning, and just as cheerfully said "Bonsoir!" to us in the evening, which seemed to start around 5pm or so. I noticed that it seemed like the farther away from the tourist traps you got, and those people working in the tourist traps, the friendlier people seemed.

Ah, you might think I'm done talking about Paris, but alas, I'm not. Up next is my view on all of the big touristy things. Or as one tourist guide on the Seine River Tour said in English, " 'Ere iz ze blah blah blah Eiffel Tower. Look iz sparkly."

Not kidding. That's a direct quote.

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