Adventures in Paris

By Frank Woods, Travel Writer

More years ago than I would like to remember, my wife and I sold all our belongings, cleaned out our bank account and moved to Paris, France. In those days I was an artist, full of dreams of becoming a modern day Picasso… and like Picasso, I wanted to live the life of an artist in one of the most beautiful and inspiring cities in the world. Well, we did live there for about two years… until our money ran out and we were forced to return to the States. And in the years to follow I had a successful career as a fine artist, gallery owner, actor, writer, journalist and raconteur… eventually ending up here in La La Land – my art career now on a back burner to other ventures. But one thing still remained unchanged as when I was young. My love affair with that most enchanting of mistresses… Paris, France.

I try to travel to France whenever time and money allows, in fact, five times in the last three and a half years. This last trip included time in Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo for New Year’s eve, and then, of course, Paris. Now, I should warn you. This article, and others to come, will be not so much common place travel articles, but rather (hopefully) inspiring descriptions of how to strike out on your own in this wonderful city, experiencing things close up instead of through the glass of a tourist bus window (at the end of each article will be, I hope, some useful travel tips as well). And I want to encourage you to step away from the typical tourist treks, take a deep breath, and like the character in the recent Woody Allen movie “Midnight in Paris,” experience this incredible city by simply walking… before or after midnight.

You may not meet Hemingway, Scott and Zelda or Picasso in person, but you most definitely will feel their presence when you take the time to hold hands with Paris rather than wave at it from a passing bus. So, let’s start our adventure at the beginning, and probably the toughest part of the journey. Your arrival in Paris. Most of us will arrive in Paris for the first time through an airport, probably Charles de Gaulle. Or perhaps on the train from London (Eurostar) or some other part of Europe. Now, if this is your first visit, you probably should take a taxi or a shuttle van to where you’re staying. This is especially true if you have done what most people do when they first go overseas – pack everything, including the kitchen sink. If you have done this, trying to get to your hotel could be very difficult by any other way.

Adventures in Paris
Adventures in Paris

Just go to your hotel and crash. But if you packed intelligently, have some energy left and can easily carry your luggage on your own… then try something different. Take the train and/or Metro to your hotel. At the end of this article are some tips on purchasing train and/or Metro tickets to where you are staying. This will be your first chance to experience the exhilaration of doing something on your own in this exciting city. Although some parts of the train trip to the center of Paris go through some typical big-city urban blight, once inside the “Périphérique” (the freeway loop that surrounds the older, inner city of Paris) you will be transported back in time when Kings and Queens and Little Emperors once ruled. Whether striking out on your own or taking a shuttle, before arriving, learn a few simple words in French.

The most important words are: “Excusez-moi” (excuse me), “S’il vous plait” (please… pronounced “civil play”), “Bonjour” (hello), and “Merci” (thank you). Yes, instead of everything you might have heard, the French are actually a very polite people, and a few polite words from you when you need help will go a long way. 1) — And please don’t bark at them “Hey buddy!” or “Hey sport!”… which I heard Americans actually saying on my last visit. Rudeness is not a good way to ensure anything but the same in return. So, you have arrived and can’t wait to strike out on your own to explore this great city. Get ready, and until next time… it’s going to be an incredible journey!

TRAVEL TIPS: I won’t try to repeat all the things listed in the thousands of websites giving advice on travel to France, but here are a few of the most important for new arrivals:

  1. European credit cards have a special computer chip in them that ours don’t. Many ticket machines will not accept our cards, although on my most recent visit the RER machines at Charles de Gaulle airport accepted my Visa card. Europeans like coins and you need to get used to them. They’re good to have if you need to use any kind of ticket or vending machine. The machines at the airport, and many other locations, don’t take paper money.
  2. DON”T use money exchanges to buy Euros. You will be robbed blind! The best way to exchange money is to use the ATMs you will find throughout Europe. You will get the best exchange rate possible and be charged the minimum of fees. However, since there is a single transaction charge each time you withdraw money, try to get a large enough amount each time. Before starting your trip, buy a minimum amount of Euros from your bank for your arrival (most banks sell Euros… check with your bank to see which branch close to you does so).
  3. When arriving at Charles de Gaulle (and you opt for the train to Paris) the RER B is the train to take. This goes to the Gare du Nord train station – a good central point to catch the Paris Metro to your final destination (be careful of staying in the area around the Gare du Nord… for the most part, not a nice area – and I know this by experience).
  4. If you want to take the bus from the airport, the “Roissybus” goes to the Opera Garnier in central Paris and costs 8.40 Euros (you can then take either a taxi or the Metro to your final destination from there). Also, Air France operates a bus service costing about 12 Euros (two destinations… Arch of Triumph or the Montparnasse train station)
  5. When arriving by train in Paris and striking out on your own, the Paris Metro (subway) can usually take you very close to your hotel. There are various options for buying tickets and passes, but upon arriving I initially buy a “carnet”… 10 tickets (the price for a carnet is discounted over a single ticket, most recently 1.70 Euros per single ticket or 12.50 Euros for a carnet). Ask for “un billet” (un bill-yea) for one ticket or “un carnet” (un car-nay) for 10. Oh, and don’t forget to say “s’il vous plait” if buying your tickets from a live person at the ticket window (le guichet).
  6. Be careful if you have a lot of luggage. France does not have the accessibility laws the U.S. has and you might be going up and down stairs at times. This is not something you want to do if you overpacked and have a hard time lifting your suitcases.
  7. In the confusion of arriving, watch out for pickpockets! The more confused and disorganized you look, the more you become a target. And this is good advice for any city you travel to.

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