Paris did not begin well. I didn’t make it out of the airport…. actually, I did and that was the problem. I was in the taxi line before I realized I had forgotten to pick up my suitcase. Years of traveling without checking a bag had habituated me to walking directly from the plane to the taxi line.
I doubled back to the passenger exit to be met by an intimidating “passage interdit” sign. Even my bad French told me that going through those doors would not be a good idea. Two heavily armed police officers came by – not for me- so I asked them, again in my really bad French, what to do. Something clicked because they took me by the hand (I think after they gave up giving me directions) and deposited me at Luggage Services. I explained my dilemma to the lady there, who waved me to another Luggage Services counter behind some walls. There, another lady told me in English to go to Post 1 and look for the short man with glasses before turning to her colleague and saying something in French. I am sure I heard “idiot”.
Making my way to Post 1, which is not as easy as it sounds as there are tons of posts at Charles de Gaulle airport, mostly with signs of some sort, I saw a man with glasses near the “passage interdit” door. For the record, he was about 5 foot 8 inches, which I wouldn’t describe as short. He greeted me by name and I asked him how he knew who I was. He said there was only one unclaimed bag and it had my name on it. We both chuckled, he led me to my bag and I left the airport again, this time with my suitcase.
My next challenge was entering the Airbnb suite I had booked. Normally, the Airbnb host is supposed to greet you, let you in and show you around. I had no such luck. When I emailed my host the time of arrival, he said he would be out of town for the weekend, but left the most convoluted instructions. They went something like this:
…the keys will be under the doormat. Use the longer key to unlock first using the locker second from above. Be careful it goes in the wrong way so to unlock you turn from left to right as if you wanted to lock! And then take the shorter key to push the door open by turning right to left. You will not use the upper and bottom locker. In any case, do not force with the keys you would break them…..
I had sweated my ability to perform this operation for a week, but thought I had better give it a try since I didn’t have much of an alternative. To my amazement (and with an extremely gentle turn to the right on the second of four locks), the door opened and I was in. Relief set in and was even more pronounced when I connected to the wifi. Mission accomplished!
My neighborhood in the 17th arrondissement is a 10 minute walk from Montmartre, but miles away from the tourist haunts. There is a bar/restaurant next door to my building and dozens more within a few blocks. Patisseries selling fresh baguettes abound, with colorful macarons in the windows and tempting tarts, strudels and croissants. Within 2 blocks of my place are 4 butchers, an oyster shop, 2 cheese stores, too many wine stores to count and at least one laundromat every 100 meters.
Aside from being well equipped with all the necessities, the striking feature of the neighborhood (and all of Paris) is the diversity. In stark contrast to the homogeneity of the Baltics and to a lesser extent, Sweden and Finland, Paris is multicoloured. Blacks, Arabs and Asians speaking perfect French; Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, the lady who cut my hair talking Arabic, the beggar in the metro station with the sign saying “Nous Somme Syrian refugees”. Multiculturalism is thriving here.
The myth of the rude Parisian was also quickly dispelled. When I tried to buy a SIM card for my phone from the non-English speaking telephone store clerk, he locked the store and walked me down the block to the Tabac to buy some minutes. The shelf stocker in the grocery store laughed when I resorted to Google Translate to ask where the flour (florine) was, but showed me its location, which, for some unfathamable reason, is beside the eggs in dairy. The counter clerk in the Bureau de Post (Post Office) walked me over to the machine to buy a stamp to send an envelope to Canada and punched in all the information sought by the machine (weight, air mail, etc.) when the machine kept asking me questions in French.
My local bar/restaurant is also very tolerant. The waiter and I have connected on my preferred order- a large glass of Chardonnay – which does not have the oaky taste so prevalent in Canada. Strangely, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc are not readily available and the only Pinot Gris I purchased from the store was quite sweet.
The single exception to the “be nice to tourists” attitude I generally encountered occurred in the most unexpected spot – the official tourism office. I expected to find one near the Arc de Triomphe, but couldn’t see one. Google Maps sent me to the nearby Official Tourism for the island of Mauritius which, while very pleasant, was totally useless in my queries. Finally, Google Maps directed to the official Paris Tourism office in the Place de Congress some 4 kilometres away. I later discovered a much closer one just outside the Louvre, but Google Maps is oblivious to it.
Back to the tourism office. After passing through the security post, a lady behind the counter beckoned me over. She said she spoke a bit of English – she was pretty fluent to me. I told her I had 5 questions:
1. How do I sign up for Velbo- the bike ride share in Paris? She looked at me as if I was from Mars then pointed to the “Information for residents” and suggested they could help (Correct answer-sign up on the internet and download the app).
2. How do I use the Metro? She looked at me again aghast. “How should I know? I do not use it. Go ask the person at the station.” I cannot believe that in however long she worked there not a single other person ever asked how to use the metro. Beside, it was another wrong answer. There is no person in the metro station. The correct answer is: Go to a machine, tap on the flag of the UK for English, and follow the very straightforward instructions.
3. Where do I go to deal with visa issues (as in immigration not credit cards). Another “ how the f*($&**should I know” totally useless response.
4. How do I recharge my SIM card for my phone? The third “how should I know” answer. Correct one is go to any Tabac, buy a card then dial the number on the back of the card and enter the code. Why I buy a SIM card at a carrier store but recharge it at a Tabac was never explained but at its face seems totally irrational.
5. Can I have a map of Paris? She actually got this right- sweeping her hand toward a large display of maps at the back. “Go there and get one. They are free.”
She was useless on 4 of 5 questions and seemed to begrudge me the time it took to respond to my queries. Nonetheless, she was the exception. Everyone else has been quite lovely.
And so went the better parts of my first week in Paris. Next up, the pitfalls of traveling with technology.