Introduction to Paris – Paris, France

Introduction to Paris
Paris, France

City of lights, hotbed of revolution, home of unfriendly people and stinky cheeses: Paris defies easy description. The city was first settled on what is now the Île de la Cité by a group of gauls called the Parisii.

Paris is divided into a series of arrondissements organized in a spiral snail-shell pattern. The picture available here shows the division of Paris into arrondissements.

As you can see, the arrondissements are numbered. Each arrondissement has its own particular personality and Parisians use the numbers as shorthand. “He lives in the 16th” wouldn’t simply mean that he lives in section #16 of the city, but that he lives in the Passy neighborhood, home to sumptuous houses and remnants of France’s aristocracy.

A quick glance at a map of Paris shows mazes of tiny streets divided by wide avenues radiating from a few circular hubs. Napoleon III created these large boulevards in 1853 to guard against civil disruption. Soldiers could block in angry crowds by lining the boulevards. Today, angry crowds most often proceed down the large boulevards…

The large avenues are useful for the lost tourist: if you lose your way in a warren of small streets, just try to walk straight in one direction. You’ll soon find yourself at a large avenue or plaza that is easily identifiable on your map.

If you will be spending more than just a few days in Paris, consider purchasing a copy of Plan de Paris par arrondissement (Map of Paris by Arrondissement). This palm-sized maroon booklet lists every street in Paris and has detailed maps of every inch of the city. Even if you have a hard time using it, it can still be useful to hand to friendly-looking Parisians when asking for directions. Every native Parisian owns a Paris par arrondissement, so you’ll hardly look like a rube while consulting one.

The metro is a fast, economical way to get around Paris. Most address listings include the nearest metro stop, and maps near the station exit will help you find your destination.

The metro stops running at midnight, however, so if you are lingering over a crème brûlée or out at the discothèque, you have two options. By far the most romantic is to walk back to your lodging. Paris, with the exception of some outlying areas and Châtelet, is on the whole a safe city at night. And nothing compares to a night walk along the Seine illuminated by the Notre Dame and the occasional boat. Of course, as in any large city, it is still important to be vigilant. Avoid rowdy groups of people and be sure no one is following you.

If you are staying too far away to walk back, taxis are abundant. The surest place to find them is at the larger places (such as Bastille). You’ll see taxi stands along the edge of the traffic circle. There is no surefire way not to be burned by a Parisian taxi driver, especially if you are new to the city and do not speak French, but I find that being polite and respectful is a good way to avoid being swindled. Also, try to learn the name and pronunciation of your hotel or hostel as well as the name of the street where you are staying. While this may not save you from being taken advantage of, at least the taxi driver will have enough information to get you home.

Many visitors to Paris are put off by the perceived unfriendliness of the inhabitants. I’m not going to try to tell you that Parisians are the most welcoming bunch, but there are certain ways you can behave that will elicit a softer side.

First, acknowledge that, like in any large city, people are always in a hurry. That means that the man at the panini stand does not have ten minutes to translate the contents of each sandwich to you; people can get a bit brusque if they feel that time is being wasted.

Second, a little French – even bad French – goes a long way. Paris is the world’s most popular tourist destination and, while Parisians are aware that tourists are the lynchpin of their economy, sometimes they resent tourists who treat them like English-speaking employees of Disneyland on the Seine. Even faltering attempts to speak French are usually met with indulgence.

Third, always acknowledge a shopkeeper when you enter their store. This sounds like a small thing, but in France it is quite impolite to walk into a store without greeting the person behind the counter. In America this is not the case, so often Americans create bad feelings before they’ve even opened their mouths. A simple Bonjour Madame/Monsieur will suffice to make the shopkeeper feel as though they have been acknowledged.

Even if you are aware of these things, you may still encounter someone who is less than civil to you. Let it roll off you: you have encountered someone who woke up on the wrong side of bed or had a fight with his mistress and is taking it out on a defenseless tourist. If you are polite and respectful, there is no reason to believe that the person’s impoliteness has anything to do with you.

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