I LOVE Paris! I was introduced to the French language in elementary school and instantly fell in love. I began dreaming of the moment that I would get to see the Eiffel Tower and sit at a corner café watching the Parisians go about their day. I was so obsessed that I decorated my bedroom with every Eiffel Tower, fleur de lys, and French thing I could find. In high school I even had a collection of berets that I wore every time we had a hat day. I took on the nickname “Frenchie”, and now that I’m older I’ve thought about getting an Eiffel Tower tattoo—if I could just get past the fear of how much I think it will hurt.
All of that is to paint the picture of how years and years of daydreaming built up Paris as a magical place filled with beauty and wonder, basically my grown up Disneyworld. In 2013 I started putting money in a savings account to go on my dream trip. By October of that year I had enough to book the flight for March 2014; not tourist season and not winter, so I knew it would be just right. Believe it or not, after 18 days in Paris it did live up to my expectations. I saw magic and beauty everywhere I went. It was ingrained in every building, every metro stop, and every French person I encountered. I felt like I was at home, and I could literally feel the love floating in the air of the “City of Love”.
Now fast forward to October 2016… I’m reading a travel blog and they mention Paris Syndrome. Any mention of France and you have my attention, so I looked it up to find this definition:
I was surprised that there is a whole syndrome named after Paris thanks to people having their expectations crushed in some way. I thought for a moment and realized I wasn’t that surprised after all. When I returned to work after my trip to Paris, our regular FedEx delivery man brought a package in. He asked how my trip was because his wife and daughter were there at the same time as me and they hated it. He listed many reasons why they didn’t like Paris: the air pollution, the attitude of the people, the food, everything is expensive, too touristy, etc. I disagreed with everything he listed but he couldn’t understand why. Well, I couldn’t understand how his family didn’t see the magic in all of those things! This taught me an important lesson that no matter where I travel, the experience I have of a place is reflective of my attitude around it. You can easily find a million things wrong with your dream destination or even at home for that matter. I alone am responsible for seeing the good through all the bad because no place is absolutely perfect; it is what you make of it.
I want every traveler to be able to see the magic wherever they go, so here are some examples of what I did to ensure that Paris lived up to my expectations. It really came down to focusing more on the good than the bad, and finding the ‘silver lining’ in things that could be negative. If you do this, you will find it very hard to be disappointed by any destination.
Bad: Air pollution was high when I was in Paris. Many people complained of the smog and air quality, although I didn’t personally notice it.
Good: Before I get to the silver lining, I want to be clear that I am not celebrating pollution or saying it’s a good thing. However, I’ve lived in Phoenix and LA, both places with poor air quality pretty much year round. Phoenix thanks to all the dust and monsoons that come with living in the desert, and LA thanks to general big city pollution. So the air pollution in Paris was not even noticeable to me, but if I was coming from a place with cleaner air, I’m sure it would be different. Now the good… All public transportation was FREE for four days (to promote people not adding to the air pollution by driving their cars). This was spectacular news for a mindful traveler like myself! My partner and I took every form of public transportation all over the city, completely free, for all four days. I checked so many things off my must-see list by taking advantage of the free metro and the city bus. We even took the RER from Charles De Gaulle Airport into the city for free, which saved around 20 Euro a piece!
Bad: French people are rude.
Good: I find this to just be a common misunderstanding of cultural differences. If you understand the culture and the reasons they act a certain way or have specific expectations, then you won’t see it as rude. The French actually have a very high level of formality and politeness, which is made obvious as people excuse themselves at even the slightest bump into you. My favorite example of this is when I boarded a crowded metro train near the Eiffel Tower. A group of teenagers rushed to catch the train and in all the excitement were laughing and talking very loud. Soon after the doors closed, there was a collective shush coming from several of the French adults throughout the train car. The teens actually got quiet, so quiet you could probably hear Ratatouille if he was squeaking under one of the seats! I have never in my life heard a group of teenagers shushed in public and they actually comply without rebuttal. But, that is France! I find it to be a refreshing change of pace from culture in America. So, get with the culture and you’ll have an amazing experience. By the way, my travel partner and I never came across any rude Parisians, but it could have been because we had permanent smiles on our faces 24/7 too.
Bad: French people are smug and don’t like Americans.
Good: The stereotypical American according to TV and movies creates an expectation that we all are loud, unaccepting of cultural differences, and think that the USA is the greatest. I wouldn’t like the stereotypical American either! My partner and I did get plenty of looks and stares, especially on the metro. However, having some compassion and understanding for the locals goes a long way. I smiled and said “Bonjour” to so many Parisians that I actually ended up having a few lovely conversations. Once I broke the ice by acknowledging their culture and language, they knew I didn’t fit the stereotype and brought their guard down. The French always appreciated that I made an effort to speak their language, and at the very least I would get a bonjour back with a slight smile peeping through the tough, chic exterior that many Parisians put off.
Bad: Paris is filled with tourists.
Good: You don’t just get French culture when you come to Paris. It is filled with fascinating people from all over the world! What better time to expand your horizons than say standing in line for the Eiffel Tower? I met a sweet couple from Finland while in line and talked about their favorite spots to travel to. I Couchsurfed with a native Parisian in the 12th arrondissement and met a fellow Couchsurfer from India who lives in Barcelona; he made a delicious Indian meal for all of us to share, and gave us tons of tips on visiting Barcelona. I went out one night with another Couchsurfing host and made friends with people from England and America. (For more on my Parisian Couchsurfing adventures, check out this post.) Having a snack outside the Musée de l’Orangerie, we met an adorable elderly couple from America using the same guidebook as me. *Shoutout to Rick Steves!* You can connect with so many different people in a city like Paris. Also, the tourists double as great encouragement and inspiration to do some things off the beaten path that aren’t so touristy.
Bad: Customer service is poor.
Good: Take this as an opportunity to slow down and be clear on what you want. I hear about this in regards to restaurants especially, but it is again just a cultural difference to get used to. In America dinner is typically a small piece of an evening out, or it is a rushed affair with fast food or meals in front of the TV or computer. In France, dinner is THE activity. They eat slow, savor the meal, have lively conversation, sip their wine, and enjoy each other’s company. This creates a culture of servers and restaurant staff who are in no hurry to get rid of you or feel like they are rushing you with constant service. I take this as a lovely encouragement to slow down, take my time with the menu, really enjoy the food, and best of all to people watch! You’re on vacation, it doesn’t hurt to relax and have a nice slow meal.
Bad: Everything is so expensive.
Good: You get to be creative and find fun ways to make mindful money choices. There are so many free things to do, ways to save money, and discounts for sightseeing activities. I totaled all of my expenses at the end of my trip (flight, transportation, lodging, food, sightseeing, and souvenirs) and I did Paris on $60 per day, which is a lot less than what most guidebooks and websites will tell you is possible. I ate what I wanted, stayed at hotels, and did all the sightseeing I could dream of. How? I was creative and mindful in my purchases. Instead of eating at sit-down restaurants for every meal, I ate delicious sandwiches, quiches, and some of the best crêpes of my life from small bakeries, sandwich shops, and crêpe stands. This gave me the freedom to buy any food I saw and wanted to try while still spending a relatively small amount of money on food, especially compared to restaurant prices. One of my favorite food finds was a place called Anticafé, where you pay an hourly rate for how long you stay and can eat and drink as much as you want while using their wifi, books, and board games. I bought souvenirs in the less touristy part of town to get better prices. I didn’t pay to go on any guided tours, and instead used my handy-dandy Rick Steves guidebook to do some self-guided walking tours of the city. (You can take that a step further and download his free app without needing to purchase a book!) I continued saving on sightseeing costs and got a cheaper ticket to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower in exchange for taking the stairs to the first two levels—an experience that I’ll never forget! I did my research ahead of time and saved money by purchasing a Paris Museum Pass in lieu of paying per visit fees at each place; as well as buying a week long metro pass that saved me money on individual metro tickets, which really add up after a while. Also, some of the coolest sights to see in Paris are free!! It’s free to go in Notre Dame, see the city parks (I love Parc Monceau and the Jardin du Luxembourg), sit at the top of Montmartre outside Sacré-Coeur and watch the sunset, browse the Place Louis Lépine flower market, walk the Champs-Élysées, and visit the city's many beautifully ornate churches. (For more on how I find free things, check out this post!) Finally to make the most of my lodging budget, I did a 50/50 mix of Couchsurfing and staying at a quaint, family-owned hotel that had great prices and an excellent location. I paid only 30 Euro per night for a simple room because I split it with my partner. The room had a wash basin, bed, chair, wardrobe, and a window overlooking the hotel courtyard. The only concession was that the bathroom was down the hall and the shower was coin-operated giving you five minutes of water per coin. I could have paid 20 Euro for a bed in a dorm at a hostel, but I chose to pay 10 Euro more for the luxury of staying in a beautiful hotel with my own private bedroom. All it takes is a little research, and suddenly you’ve stretched your money to do double what everyone says is possible.
I had heard pretty much every bad thing anyone had to say about Paris, and knew that going into my trip. I refused to believe any of it and kept an open mind. That really is the key to enjoying anything. If you don’t have an open mind, you will typically find exactly what you brought there in terms of attitude. The truth is though that no matter where you go in the world, you get to make your own truth! Just because somebody else had a certain experience of a place doesn’t mean you will too. Whether you are in your hometown or in your paradise, it is what you make of it.