The first twenty four hours in a foreign country is a steep learning curve, and I have learned to never judge a place until you’ve spent more than a day there. Given a bit of time, you will learn how to get around, what to eat, what to say and do, etc. That being said, part of motivation for Voyager Sans Peur is getting others to travel, so I’ll attempt to write a “logistics” page for each location we visit. This is of course based off personal experience, so like everything on the internet, take it with a grain of salt! Despite our best intentions, we found out a lot of this the hard way, so if I can make this even a bit easier for anyone else, I’ll be glad.
Navigating the Public Transit System
At first glance, the Paris transit system can be complicated and confusing. You’re not wrong – it is. But public transportation is a well-oiled and well-used machine, and well worth the small amount of time it takes to figure it out. Having suffered through the DC metro system for years, I am constantly impressed with the fact that the Paris trains are on frequent, on time, and functional. A sad standard I have developed.
In terms of navigating, the Paris train system works just like any other I’ve seen. The train lines will be listed by what their end stop is, so you can determine if you’re going in the right direction. Metro stations can be veritable underground mazes, and sometimes if feels like they need five more signs per square meter at least, but if you follow the right color and direction you need, you should be all set. Once on the train, be wary of pickpockets (like all of Paris – seriously, it happens), and if the train door doesn’t open at your stop and you need to get off, press the button to open the doors manually.
I highly recommend CityMapper, a free app available for Android and iOS. It’s far more detailed than Google Maps, and has surprisingly up-to-date information on train and bus arrivals. It’ll guide you through a mixed buses, trains, and walking for any trip. It’s available for more and more major cities each month, so give it a try!
What pass do I need?
Paris and the surrounding areas are separated into zones, with Zone 1 as central Paris and Zone 5 encompassing nearby towns and villages. If you’re going to visit Paris for a number of days, then usually a Paris Carte Visite is suggested, either one that covers zones 1-3 or 1-5. This gives you access to any train or bus, and you can hop on and off any method of transport with ease during your stay. You also choose what length of a pass you need, be it 1, 3, or 5 days. Naturally, the combinations of zones and days will change the cost, and if you’re not planning on using the bus, metro, or RER much (not sure why, they’re the best way to get around!) you can by single tickets or a pack of T+ tickets, the latter of which being good for any ride within zone 1. Any of these are available for purchases at ticket booths in train stations, with the added bonus of an English option.
However, if you’re staying in Paris for a week or more, then a lesser known option is the Pass Navigo Decouverte (PND). This is definitely the way to go. These passes are good Monday to Sunday, and are good for any method of transport in any zone (there are also month options available). The best part? They’re only 22 euros. Absurdly cheaper than any other option. I suspect it’s lesser known because there are one or two hoops to jump through to get one. You need a passport-like photo along with 5 euros to buy the card itself, but once obtained, you can renew it each week as needed. Even the photo part is easy, as there are photo booths in almost any main Paris train station. It costs about 5 euros for five photos, and you can keep the rest for passport renewal or what have you. Photos in hand, find a ticket seller with RATP on the window, hand them the photos and ask for a PND for “une semaine” (week). These are sold starting the Thursday prior for the next week, though obviously it’s a better deal if you get it early in the week. Usually ticket sellers will understand if you hand them photos and ask for a pass, and they’ll cut out and paste the picture to a new card and have you write your name on it. Whenever you need to renew it, you can just go to automated Navigo booths. Some ticket sellers may insist it’s for French residents only, but that’s for the Pass Navigo, not the Pass Navigo Decouverte. Stand firm, and have the website on your phone to back you up if need be!
We learned all this the hard way. Departing from the airport, I got us tickets to “Paris”, not knowing these would only work from the airport to Zone 1. When we arrived at our train stop to see our host and stuck our ticket in the exit turnstiles, we were met with angry red x’s and gates that failed to open. This station was in zone 3, and the tickets I got didn’t work for it. I tried to explain this to our host over WhatsApp, the messaging system used quite commonly overseas, and she responded “just follow someone through”. Ever the rule follower, I was stunned. Sneak in behind someone? That’s not allowed! We’ll get caught! Be thrown in prison! Rot in the Bastille, 1788 style! As these thoughts raced through my head, I watched six people push through the gates. We soon learned that hopping turnstiles, pushing through exit gates, and boarding buses from the back were extremely common. Although technically illegal, many locals risk it, not wanting to pay or simply not being bothered to go to the front of the bus to buzz their pass. I don’t recommend following this local custom, however common it may be. After this incident, I furiously researched transit passes in Paris to determine what the best pass would be, leading us to the PND.
Clayton and I thoroughly enjoyed our Passes. They saved us so much money, and hopping on and off whatever transport got us places quickest was worth any amount of trouble it took to get the pass. They even were good to get us to Provins on a larger train line, as Provins is in zone 5. To compare, that round trip is 22 euros in and of itself without a PND. It also feels really cool to “ding” your pass just by passing it over the purple circle at turnstiles rather than sticking in paper tickets. Hey, anything to make me look like a little less of a tourist!
Food and Wine
Already we are enamored with the quality of the food this side of the Atlantic. In France, of course there are the typical supermarkets, but most Parisians shop for groceries at multiple stores – fromagerie for cheese, boulangerie for bread, charcuterie for meats, etc. The produce stands and stores are symphonies of color, and fruit and vegetables never looked so good. I particularly enjoy when a vendor cuts open a sample of the fruit to show the color of the fruit meat for sale. It’s as succulent as it looks. The flavor of the food is rich and deep – I’m not sure if it’s the freshness, lack of preservatives and processing, or rose colored glasses I wear, but enjoying food is now an activity in and of itself. Although food can be expensive, putting picnics together is still cheaper than eating out. As always, fresh bread is amazingly affordable, and a daily baguette is the norm. We soon joined the legions of Parisians carrying our fresh produce, cheese, and naked baguette on the trains home during rush hour. If you are going to go food shopping in France, make sure to bring your own reusable bag, as they don’t provide bags (or if they do, it’s with a small fee).
Every now and then, it is of course a treat to eat out. There are multiple restaurant on each block in the center of the city – essentially one on each corner and then some. They look so enticing, with tables and chairs spilling out onto the street year-round. People watching is definitely a pastime, and most chairs face directly towards the street. Lunches are generally cheaper than dinners, and we looked out for each cafe’s “formule”, which would include two or three courses (and some also threw in a glass of wine!).
In theory you can just sit at an open table, but I like to catch the eye of the waiter. One thing to keep in mind is that meals are not a quick affair – the idea of scarfing down food and leaving is not a prevalent one in France (for that, you’re better of getting à emporter, or “to go”, rather than eating sur place). Waiters typically will wait for a sign from you that you are ready to order. If you’re getting water, ask for a “carafe d’eau”, as that will be a free pitcher of water brought to your table rather than mineral or bottled water, which costs money. Following the meal, you ask for “l’addition”, or the check. Waiters typically won’t constantly check up on your table, asking how things are, or bringing you the check when you look done. They consider that rude, as it would be rushing you, and meals take time. They’re to be enjoyed. So when you are done, subtly catch the waiter’s eye, and they’ll get the message. Waiters in France are really, really good at what they do. They didn’t forget about you. Tips are not done either – waiters are paid well, and that’s included in the price you’re already paying. As an American, I often feel bad for not tipping, but I suggest resisting the urge. There are concerns that tip culture will seep into France, particularly in tourist areas, and people are very against it.
Vive le Vin!
Finally, and famously, is the wine culture. Wine makes a regular appearance at lunch and dinner, though never too strong so as to mar the flavor of the meal. Wine shops are as common as any other food vendor, and the experts behind the counter will gladly tell you which wine will go with the meal you’re planning, and offer you a chilled bottle of the one you want if you’re planning on opening it soon. It is permissible to drink wine in public, but some parks prohibit it, so watch out for the signs. And yes, it’s delicious.
The Customer is Not Always Right (even if they are)
In the United States, the common saying is “the customer is always right”. As consumers, we expect a certain level of service from those we are buying from. Even in the depths of bureaucratic red tape (thinking of you, DMV), know our rights and fight for them. This is not always the cast in France. Employees will shut service windows despite lines of people waiting when it is time for lunch. Waiters won’t budge on substitutions. And as Clayton and I witnessed first hand, sometimes it just depends on who you get at a desk. Our first attempt at getting a PND ended poorly. The man behind the window said it was for residents only, which I tried to explain wasn’t the case. He said he’d allow me but not Clayton (I had my French ID card), but he didn’t have any blank cards that day. The next day, website page proving us right and pictures printed in hand, we went up to the ticket seller determined. Seeing the pictures, however, she guessed we wanted Pass Navigo Decouverte’s before we even opened our mouths, and the rest was history. Sometimes if just depends on who you get.