“Paris is not going to conform to your expectations”
What I can tell you about Paris is that it’s not an easy place to live on a scant budget. I spent nearly a year in Paris studying French part-time and working as an au-pair, and there is a certain love-hate relationship you develop with the city. Paris is not going to conform to your expectations, it is imperfect on its own terms, at times grungy, but worth-it for those moments of élan when you’re flying down a street at 1am on a bicycle with the whole city to yourself.
“You can keep your kitsch romantic ideas of it”
The Eiffel Tower/crêpe by Notre Dame/ Disneyland experience is another version of the city, but what I’m getting at is that quelque chose that makes the locals determine they could never think of living anywhere else.
Paris is quite likable for its insouciance. You can keep your kitsch romantic ideas of it, and your beret. It is what is and if you don’t like it you can jump in the Seine though really it couldn’t care to give more than a shrug. Here are 10 insider tips to get the most out of your time in this fantastic, albeit capricious city.
Featured Image above courtesy of Belleville Brulerie
1. Don’t miss Jim’s Sunday Dinners
Jim Haynes has lived as an expat in Paris nearly as long as Gertrude Stein did. Originally from Louisiana and a pivotal figure in the underground 60’s cultural revolution in London, he helped develop the Edinburgh fringe festival. He has held Sunday night dinners at his house in Paris for over 30 years, even Germaine Greer and Yoko Ono have come to dinner. The best part is that everyone is welcome. Just let Jim know you’re coming a day or two in advance and take 20 to 30 euros along to contribute (wine, food and excellent conversation await). This is a wonderful authentic experience you can have even without being able to speak French.
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2. Don’t order your coffee at the counter in a Tabac or Brasserie
Courtesy of Belleville Brulerie Facebook
You may feel ever so suave leaning on the counter, ordering a standing coffee so you don’t pay the extra euro to sit down, in fact you’re so hard core with your 5 o’clock shadow and cologne de chain-smoke I’m surprised no one’s mistaken you for Jean-Luc Godard. In the past few years coffee culture has arrived and in this case gentrification is not a bad thing. Though admittedly no one can look as good with espresso in hand as a Frenchman, the quality of the coffee has historically been a low point and with the weak rand you don’t want to spend R60 on a bad beverage. When in Paris try any of the modern cafés popping up around the 10th, 11th, 19th and 4th arrondissements. Many of them stock high-quality coffee from Belleville Brûlerie (see video below). Favourites include Holybelly, the Broken Arm and Ten Belles.
3. Pizza and beer on the Canal St Martin
Courtesy of Out and About in Paris on Gallery Hip
Right near where Amélie skimmed stones by the Canal St Martin, that is where you should join young Parisians having a beer and just hanging out in summer with their feet suspended over the green canal water. This is the best place to order a pizza from Pink Flamingo. They hand you a bright pink balloon when you place your order, then as soon as your pizza is hot out the oven, thin and crispy, they bring it to wherever you’re sitting along the canal. 67 Rue Bichat, 75010 Paris, +33 1 42 02 31 704.
Courtesy of GuildofMerriment
4. Attend the Monday Reading at Shakespeare & Company
Courtesy of Shakespeare & Company
This English book shop a skip away from Notre Dame is always packed with tourists, however definitely make a point of stopping by at 7pm on a Monday to listen to whichever celebrated writer is reading that week (it’s free just make sure to arrive early to grab a seat). Recent highlights include Zadie Smith. 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris, France, +33 1 43 25 40 93.
5. Lazy Sunday in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Belleville
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
On a sunny Sunday in spring and summer it feels like the whole of Paris shows up to picnic and laze on the green slopes of Parc des Buttes Chaumont near Belleville (remember the triplets of Belleville). 1 Rue Botzaris, 75019 Paris, France, +33 1 48 03 83 10.
6. Tango Dancers by the Seine
The greatest thing about hanging out on the banks of the Seine after work in the Paris summer, is how impromptu everything feels. People come here to play music, dance, drink and spend time with friends. Join in the tango or find a patch of bank and kick back with a glass of wine and take it all in.
7. Get cheap theatre tickes to the Comédie-Française
Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
This depends entirely on how much French and theatre you can digest in an evening, if the answer is lots then a visit to the Comédie-Française is not to be missed. Founded on August 8, 1680 by Louis XIV, the state theatre is the bastion of French culture. You can buy tickets for as little as $5 from the booth outside if you go an hour before the performance. 1 Place Colette, 75001 Paris, France +33 825 10 16 80
8. Mexican Wresting at La Lucha Libre
A hybrid of Mexican and Sumo wrestling in a dive bar in Paris, sounds crazy, but is actually pretty good fun and makes for a good story. It costs 5€ to enter the wrestling and make sure to sign up as soon as you arrive as places sell out quickly, however the wrestling in Sumo suits only starts at 10pm. 10 Rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève, 75005 Paris 5e arrondissement, France, +33 1 43 29 59 86.
9. Skip the queues at Versailles and rent a boat in the Bois de Boulogne instead
Courtesy of Paris Digest
Versailles is a confection for the eyes but not always worth the ridiculous queues at peak season. Rather do as the locals do and visit the Bois de Boulogne park near the Arc de Triomphe in the 16th. It is two and a half times the size of Central Park and hosts swans and small islands which you can row to on the large rowing boats for hire. Another alternative if you are set on Versailles, is to selectively visit Marie Antoinette’s farm house instead of the main palace.
10. If you INSIST on visiting the Left Bank then head to Café La Palette
Courtesy of Café La Palette
Sadly the days of the interesting and lively literary left bank are no more. It is now mostly just upmarket boutiques and touristy cafés. If you are intent on spending time in this area I recommend the cheese board at Café La Palette, a beautifully decorated bohemian-inspired café.
To save money when eating out in Paris try to only eat out at lunch as dinner tends to be much pricier. Also choose the “formule” option, which is a set menu. Often you can choose two courses instead of three for the formule, either starter and main, or main and dessert. Order “une carafe d’eau” which is a carafe of free tap water, to ensure the waiter does not bring you hideously expensive bottled water with your meal.
Courtesy of Café La Palette
Courtesy of Café La Palette
Some extraneous facts about Paris
- Most of the bridges in Paris (with the exception of Pont Neuf) used to have houses built on them in the Middle Ages though many collapsed and had to be rebuilt.
- King Louis XIV is said to have only bathed twice in his lifetime.
- La Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche (the street of the cat that fishes) is the narrowest street in Paris at a mere 1.80m wide for the whole of its 29m length. You can find it in the 5th arrondissement.
Courtesy of Wikipedia
Where to Stay
Consider renting an apartment on airbnb in the more peripheral arrondissements like the 19th, 11th and 18th (Paris is divided into 20 mini-quarters, all with subtly differing characters). It’s easy to walk, bike or use the metro.
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Pleasantries go a long way. Remember to greet the salesperson when you enter a shop or patisserie, a simple “Bonjour Madame” (Hello Ma’am) or “Bonjour Monsieur” (Hello Sir) will certainly make asking for what you want, with limited French, infinitely easier and more pleasant. People on the whole do not smile as much as they do in South Africa or the US, this doesn’t mean the people are not kind or friendly, it’s just very understated and reserved.
At some point you may be shouted at by an irate Parisian, especially if you stand on the wrong side of the escalator (keep right, pass left) so pay attention in the metro- people have places to be (it’s like New York in that way). Every year there are reported cases of Japanese and Chinese tourists succumbing to “Paris Syndrome”, a transient psychiatric state brought on when the romantic idea of Paris is destroyed by a visit to the capital and an encounter with the grittier reality (people spitting on the subway platform or being pickpocketed by obnoxious teens with clipboards in the Tuileries Garden). Paris has its problems just be on alert for pickpockets in the metro and in tourist hot spots.
Use the Vélib’ bikes dotted around the city which you can rent for short 30 minute intervals for free. Short-term users can go to the terminal at a Vélib’ station, follow on-screen instructions (available in English), input their credit card details (a 1 day ticket costs 1,70 €, a 7 day ticket costs 8€ or buy a ticket online), select a bike and enter their bike number, then wait for the green light and signal and take their bike. Just be aware that at peak rush hour times a single bike left at a Vélib’ station could indicate that it may be very squeaky or have a wobbly wheel (Vélib’ technicians repair the bikes as often as possible).
When you enter the metro you will see a vending machine where you can choose the English language option and buy metro tickets with Euro notes. Alternatively approach a kiosk if there is one (there are always open kiosks in the larger stations). A single ticket costs 1.70€ and allows unlimited travel and transfer within the Metro for up to 90 minutes, I recommend buying a pack of 10 per day if you are doing a lot of sight-seeing. Operating hours are from 05:30 – 00:30 Monday to Friday and 05:30 – 02:15 Saturday and Sunday and the Nights before holidays. For a more in depth overview about zones and the difference between the RER and metro lines go here.
Snap Shots à Paris: