Travel and Living Notes Paris
Avoiding Costly Mistakes Eating Out in Paris
After eating out a few teams, I had a few 'price shocks', and realized I'd better learn how the 'system' works. I asked a local 'pro' in eating out reasonably and here were some things I learned:
LA CARTE: This is what Americans call 'the menu' usually. It features all of the items you would order 'A LA CARTE' (item by item); ordering this way is almost sure to be expensive.
LE MENU (also called 'LA FORMULE' sometimes)
Warning! LE MENU is NOT the 'menu' in the U.S. meaning! It is a fixed price package, such as entree + plat + dessert (entree is the first course--not to be confused with the English 'entree'), the 'plat' is the second course, 'dessert' is what it looks like). It is the best deal by far to order this way.
LE MENU can sometimes be found outside on the restaurant/brasserie window, or on an 'ardoise' (chalkboard/plaque) out front. It can also be found on LA CARTE somewhere (sometimes fairly well-hidden), or on a separate piece of paper stuck in LA CARTE.
Sometimes you see LE MENU outside on the ARDOISE or window and then you go inside and there is no 'MENU' visible or available inside so you have to politely insist on getting 'LE MENU'.You might have to say "j'ai vu un joli menu de 13 euros a l'entree qui me plait...mais je ne trouve pas ce menu ici...'
You must (politely) get 'LE MENU' at all costs, otherwise you'll be ordering A LA CARTE and potentially be paying more than twice the regular price! My local 'expert' does inform me though that some restaurants do not offer a LE MENU option for dinner. But you should still ask about it anyway because sometimes there is LE MENU but they don't want to give it to you.
Confusing things about 'LE MENU':
EN SUS (or EN PLUS): Means that a drink is separate from the meal! This is usually the case.
SALADS: Assume that you must pay extra. Sometimes the plats and entrees are sloppily written on the chalkboard outside and the salads are featured on the same board. I once had to double-check before ordering a meal and found out that the salads were in fact separate and involved an extra cost. Otherwise I might have ordered the salad thinking it was one of the entrees...
LA CARTE also applies to drinks (beers, wines and coffee, for example) It may be on a separate CARTE from the food CARTE. You might have to ask for it if not made available to you.
Generally the cheapest drink on LA CARTE is 'expresso' or 'express'. This is equivalent to a very small coffee. You would ask for 'un express' si vous plait. Although I've heard people order 'un cafe', I think that asking for a CAFE can be tricky, because it could be interpreted as a big 'CAFE AU LAIT', or perhaps a 'CAFE GRAND', which are much more expensive. A 'CAFE RALLONGE' would be a bit closer to the U.S.-style size coffees, but the price is going to be higher than an 'express'.
AU COMPTOIR (the counter): If you order at the counter/bar, you pay less, but you must STAY there! If you are seated, you pay a higher price. For example: 'Un express' (a small coffee) at the counter might be 1.1 Euros or 1.5 euros. Seated, expect to pay between 2.20 to 2.5 euros.
SEATED: You are allowed to spend hours seated there once you have ordered something. You pay for the privilege though.
LAW: The law stipulates that the posted prices (on windows, ardoise) etc must not differ from what was charged. BE sure to double-check what you are charged.
TIMING: Lunchtime (MIDI) is generally the cheapest time to order. If you order past a certain time in the evening, you may be expected to pay a surcharge (say past 10 or 11 pm, not sure).
WATER: Be very careful about 'EAU DE SOURCE' or 'PERRIER' type drinks. These can be outrageously expensive.
You must ask for 'une carafe d'eau du robinet' or 'un verre d'eau ordinaire' or 'un verre d'eau du robinet.' to be clear that you just want plain water (from the faucet).
WINE: Usually you are forced to order separately from LE MENU, but some rare great deals can be found where it is included in LE MENU.
If you order wine and are drinking alone, it's best to go for the smallest glass available. If there are two of you, a PICHOT is a fair deal.
BREAD: The bread, if served in a restaurant, is never supposed to be an extra charge. Even if you have to ask for some. However, if you are concerned, you can always double check by asking if there is an extra charge for the bread (extra=EN PLUS).
TIPPING CUSTOMS: In restaurants. The tip is included in the price of the meal, so an American-style tip is not expected (although I'm sure the serveur wouldn't mind having something extra!).In cafes. If you're at the counter and order a coffee, for example, you might want to leave a tip of say 20 centimes or so. Some people might leave their change on their counter, or their table (if seated).
This is just what I remembered from my 'crash course' so the list isn't complete, but it provides hopefully some protection from astronomical bills!
How to Pick A Restaurant Without Recommendations?
I was curious about how to pick 'good' restaurants when you don't have any prior recommendations (the best, of course is to have a recommendation from someone who knows the restaurant or area, but if not, here were some tips I got).
One thing to watch for are whether the restaurant has a MENU or not. Without a MENU there may be little price control, especially if you are out with friends. At least with the MENU, you have an upper limit of sorts.
general feeling of the place, whether it seems clean, how the staff
greet you, the 'ambiance', the clarity of the CARTE and MENU are all
important. I find the way some MENUs are written to be very unclear,
and tend to avoid such places. Once, for example the chalkboard outside
(announcing the PLATS DU JOUR and the MENUs) had salads listed there
too. I assumed that the salads would be the ENTREE as part of the MENU.
But no, when I actually had to check with the owner, he said that the
salads were separate (EN PLUS in French). If I hadn't asked, it is likely that I would have chosen one of the salads thinking it was an ENTREE as part of the MENU, and
they would have charged me extra! Sloppy writing on the boards outside
is a red flag for me.
Another thing that I am always wary of is the labelling of the prices outside. If the chalkboard outside doesn't show any prices, I'm immediately on alert for a possible 'trick' later on. And be sure to watch for those 'plus' signs after the choices of PLATS. (such as +3.50) That means you pay extra for those particular PLATs if you order them, even if they are part of the MENU.
One warning on the ENTREEs: Some ENTREEs are simply nothing special (such as a few slices of sausage), and you end up paying more than you should have, even if you had ordered as part of LE MENU. But if you're not a 'regular' or a 'native' it might be hard to be familiar with all of the ENTREEs, so there is possibly some 'trial and error' unless the person you are with knows what's a good ENTREE and not.
One 'plus' is if the restaurant includes coffee in with the MENU. Even better is if you get both coffee and wine with the MENU!
Keeping Transportation Costs to a Minimum!
One of those unexpected costs is travelling throughout the city. The metro (subway), train or bus tickets can really add up!
One simple idea, with of course potential limitations, is to walk. It surprised me how many places I could go to by walking.
To prepare for walking a lot, you need a few things:
Good walking shoes (or running shoes). If you have to buy an expensive
pair to visit the city, then it might not make your transportation cost
savings worth it. If you plan on being in town for a longer stay as
some extended vacationers do, then it may very well be worth it.
2. Some pre-conditioning (I tried to get some walking exercise before coming to visit the city).
3. A map of the city that you can easily draw on (or access to Google maps on your Blackberry or a GPS unit).
4. A compass. I was amazed how many places I could get to by following the general direction the compass pointed me to. For example, if I'm at the Pantheon and I want to go to Notre Dame, I looked at the map to determine that the general direction is North. My compass points me north, and I move in that direction. Of course, it's not exact, but it can get you in the right area, and can be really helpful when your lost!
was able to get around traveling distances that I did not originally
think possible. While it takes time, taking the metro may not be that
much longer when you consider the time getting to the metro, exiting
the metro and getting to the location, plus the waiting time for the
The video featured above is one commute that I was delighted to have discovered, allowing me to enjoy several landmarks while getting in shape and saving some money in transportation costs!
The best deal I found for a combination of walking and taking the subway/Paris train system over the long-term seemed to be getting the 10-ticket package (a 'carnet' of 10 tickets).
Poll: Saving Money While Traveling
What do you do to save money during travel?See results without voting
Food Shopping to Cut Paris Travel & Living Costs
f you're spending a little longer time in Paris, shopping for food in actual stores can cut down on costs. Right now I'm spending about 150 Euros/month on food and drink. A good 30 euros of that is for bread (baguettes), but that's by choice, as explained below. There may be better deals out there, of course, and I'm always looking! These prices are as of Fall 2009. By the time you see this, the prices may have doubled with inflation!
The supermarkets nearest to where I have been temporarily located (the 5th and 18th districts) are: Franprix (seems to have lots of locations from my experience)
G20 (also referred to as 'Stoprix' --similar to Franprix).
Carrefour (a very wide selection, but the lines at the cash register are long!)
Huit a Huit (a bit smaller than the others)
Monoprix (but not all Monoprix stores are supermarkets).
There are obviously many more such stores, these are just the ones I have tended to come across the most.
The 'meat shop' (charcuterie), the bakery (boulangerie), the cheese shop (fromagerie), etc. I have been warned that they are more expensive, but some argue in favor of the higher quality.
Buying on the Cheap
My main focus is to buy cheap items with some hope of nutritive value. Some say I have lost some weight, but no-one says I look unhealthy, so I assume that my diet is ok. Plus, I have no stomach problems or 'gas' as I often get in the U.S. when I eat a supposedly 'healthy' diet.
I tend to favor the 'generic' brands such as Grand Jury, Winny, Leader Price, Le Prix Gagnant, but I make exceptions for certain products.
The winning Stores for me:
I have been fairly satisfied with FranPrix and tend to shop there more. Service is ok.
When I lived close to a G20, I was pretty happy with the prices, but not the service. I go to Huit a Huit (and less at Monoprix) usually for only a single product: Salmon (discussed more below). However, Huit a Huit can be a good 'back-up' if needed for some other items, and I prefer it for a few things (see below).
The neighborhood baker for bread (see below).
The butcher for roasted chicken (rarely).
CEREALS AND GRAINS
A French acquaintance told me he just buys sandwich bread at the supermarket because it's cheaper. He may be right, but I do make an exception here. I really have to have my baguette (a long loaf of bread) every day at the neighborhood 'boulanger' (the baker). A single 'baguette' typically sells from 0.85 to 1.20 Euros per loaf. I watch closely the size and length before I buy, because some places play games with the size, from day to day charging the same price for a thinner or shorter loaf. A favorite trick to shorting you of bread is 'thinning out' the middle, or having long thin tips. Some places seem to have day-old bread for sale, and I've been stuck a few times with rock-hard baguettes that I had to steam to soften up!
MEAT AND FISH
Chicken. I make one occasional exception for meat. I occasionally buy those roasted chickens you see on a grill outside a meat shop, if the price is right. I have seen the small ones sold for between 6 and 8 Euros. However, when I go to the supermarket, I find the same size (roughly), cooked & smoked (called 'poulet cuit, fume'), for about 1/2 the price, so I usually end up preferring the supermarket variety, which if they are smoked, seem ok.
Fish. I limit my fish diet to mostly tuna and salmon.
I buy tuna in cans, but usually the generic variety such as "Le Prix Gagnant" in the medium size can marked as 1/2 size, net drained weight is 280 grams at about 1.75 Euros
(the smaller tuna cans -1/4- I use up too quickly).
I buy a certain brand of salmon (Saumon Fume Atlantique-Atlantic smoked salmon) that sells for about 3.09 to 3.20 euros per pack for 200 grams. It's the best value I can find, but I only seem to find this deal at the following markets as noted above: "Huit a Huit" and "Monoprix" (at one of their stores on the Boulevard Saint Michel). I rarely might buy a can of sardines.
Dry Sausage (Saucisses seche), generic brand "Leader Price" is 2.86 Euros. I buy one of these sausages that don't even need refrigeration, and can slice off little pieces as snacks or to put on bread or to add to my 'stews.' Useful,lasts a while and doesn't spoil.
Assuming that the following adds protein to my diet, I try to eat beans and nut-based foods such as:
Nutella. I buy the 750 gram size. I stay with the brand name Nestle.
Peanut Butter. Beurre de cacahuetes, Nicaragua. Brand: Ethiquable, 350 gram size. (can't find any other size for this brand)
Haricots Blancs Prepares a la tomate (white beans prepared with tomato), brand Leader Price. 500 grams net drained weight.Price: .81 Euros. I alternate with "Haricots Blancs prepares' same size and brand.Price: .88 Euros.
Lentils. Lentilles prepares, brand: Leader Price. 500 grams net drained weight.Price: 0.73 euros.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
I admit, I don't buy fruit much if ever, except unless you count jam.
Jam. Since my stomach doesn't like any jams with seeds in them, I stick with marmalade, rhubarb jam, and there was one more I forgot that looked like cherries, but were cheap.
I stay away from the 'gelees' which are like watery preserves.
My preferred brand: Bonne maman
Confiture Bonne Maman: Flavor "Rhubarbe" (370 grams) 1.49 euros
Marmelade Bonne Maman: Flavor "Oranges Ameres"(370 grams) 1.27 euros.
I have on occasion bought marmalade with the "Andros" generic brand name, but didn't find the taste or value to be worth it.
I tried a 'compote' to taste the difference with 'confiture' (jam), as it is cheaper than jam by quantity. The rhubarbe was a bit too tart for me, but I might try another flavor next time.
After the urging of a certain A. Negre to eat more apples, I did find bags of small apples for 1.99 euros which seemed reasonable.The tiny tag said "SA Rouquette et Fils" and the apples were referred to as "Pomme Royal Gala Tenroy." Net weight 1.5 Kg, with 13 small apples inside. They tasted fine, but I had to watch for bruised apples before purchasing.
I buy most of my veggies either frozen or canned.
I've had success with the generic brand Leader Price with two frozen veggie items:
1. Legumes Cuisinees a la chinoises (chinese veggies), net weight 900 grams. Lasts me a while. Price: 3.19 euros.
2. "Legumes Champetres Cuisines', net weight 900 grams. This features several types of veggies including broccoli and bell peppers and also lasts quite a while. Price: 2.88 euros. (There was a variation of this frozen veggie type called 'Poelee Champetre' selling for 2.45 at Huit a Huit but not consistently stocked any more. Don't recall the size).
Peas. Petis Pois a l'etuvee, extra fins. Brand Leader Price, net drained weight 500 grams. Price: 1.11 euros.
Carrots. brand Leader Price, net drained weight 500 grams. Price: 1.04 euros.
Potatoes. Pommes de Terres, brand Leader Price, net drained weight 500 grams. Price 1.05 euros.
Olives. I found what I think is good value with a brand "St Jean", title of product is "Olives Vertes Denoyautees" (pitted green olives), net drained weight of 320 grams. Price 1.52 euros.
I buy cheese. My favorite is Emmental cheese in the 500 gram size (about 3.6 Euros). I do not buy milk.
I used to buy soy milk at one organic foods store (produits biologiques) that was reasonably priced at about 1.25 to 1.5 euros, but I can't find that soy milk elsewhere, and the store is far away. I also forgot the name of the brand and variety, too.
Mustard. Moutarde de Dijon (Dijon Mustard). Generic brand "Le Prix Gagnant' jar of mustard 370 grams. 0.57 euros.
Mayonnaise. Generic "Grand Jury" brand,bottle of 450 ml, called "Mayonnaise Tournesol a la moutarde de Dijon". Price: 2.21 euros. I don't like it much though, and just prefer to use straight dijon mustard instead of mayonnaise wherever possible.
Cocoa. I get Nestle's 'Nesquick' in the 450 Gram size, 2.33 Euros. Lasts me quite a while.
Coffee. I find coffee expensive, so I have settled for chicory. I buy the generic brand "Le Prix Gagnant" Chicore Cafe 200 gram jar for a little over 1 Euro and it lasts a while, but doesn't taste as good as Nescafe 'Special Filtre Arabicas', 100 grams for 3.59 Euros, which I recently tried for comparison.
Water ('Eau de Source'). I buy bottled water in the 1.5 liter size and find it to be reasonable in price at only 20 to 22 centimes per bottle. Chantereine is one brand I see a lot.
I avoid 'eau petillante' (sparkling water, or carbonated water drinks) because they seem overpriced to me.
Coca Cola. The cheapest way to buy without having to buy too much at once given my limited thirst level is in the 1.5 liter plastic bottles. I rarely see them selling for less than 1.48 euros (one exception was 1.38 at Mono Prix).
Beer. A generic brand, Konigsbacher, 500 ml 4.6% alcohol by volume seems like the best bargain, if the taste doesn't bother you. Only 67 centimes. Under a Euro isn't too bad. Since I don't drink enough, I don't buy six-packs or twelve-packs which could be cheaper on volume basis, perhaps.
For comparison purposes:
Bavaria beer (500 ml) 8.6% alcohol is 1.36 euros.
Kronenburg Red (500 ml) 5.0% alcohol is 1.24 euros.
Wine. I don't buy wine unless to share with others, but some prices are under 3 Euros (quality unknown...!). I did find one Bergerac wine for 3.10 Euros that my French 'wine connaisseurs' said was good. One simple tip I was given to try to locate a fairly good wine would be to look for 'mis en bouteille a la propriete' or 'mis en bouteille au chateau' (bottled at the property, bottled at the chateau). If you can find the word 'recoltant' on the top of bottle (not 'negociant'), it means that the producer of the wine bottled it which is also supposedly a sign of higher quality. If in doubt, ask an expert!
I found at G20 (but nowhere else) a nice muesli pack for about 2 euros which lasts a long time and contained oats, nuts, raisins. It was filling too. The generic brand name was "Winny".
MORE FROZEN FOODS:
Wanting a little more variety in my diet, I had success with a Grand Jury brand frozen pizza bought at 'Huit a Huit' for only 2.37 Euros, Pizza Royale style. It really was quite good and sizable, too. There are other types too (seafood, etc.) so I might try those too.
I noticed a supermarket that specializes in frozen foods called 'Picard' and while I haven't shopped there yet, there were some frozen pizzas there for less than 3 Euros.
The above gives you an idea of the ingredients and their cost. Now, what do I do with them every day for dinner?
Pretty much make stews by using a little of everything each day:
Day 1. Frozen veggies type 1+beans+peas+potatoes+tuna
Day 2. Frozen veggies type 2+carrots+lentils+dried sausage
Day 3. Frozen veggies type 1+beans+carrots+peas+chicken
Day 4. Canned veggies, salmon and cheese on bread, or salmon cooked in with the veggies, throw in some beans, other too.
Rest of Week: Repeat, or switch around with a lunch (see below). Also see the 'eating out' option below at McDonald's or the frozen pizza option!
Sometimes when I can't stand the routine any more I do try an alternative 'eating out' option that I think is reasonable: Fast Food. I know that in Paris going to McDonald's sounds un-French, but the hamburgers are only one euro (you have to order it separate). So for 2 euros you can have a hamburger and small fries (I sometimes get cravings for French fries). If I have coke at home, I drink that and I'm set for dinner at just 2 euros!
As noted above, I've added the occasional frozen pizza to my diet, as well. The quality was not bad, and the price reasonable.
Lunches are something like:
Days 1-3 Usually salmon or sausage or tuna fish (tuna mixed with mustard or mayonnaise) on bread + cheese.
Day 4-5: Peanut butter, or peanut butter + nutella on bread.
Rest of week: Repeat.
I usually have nutella on bread for dessert and snacks.
Breakfast. Jam (or 'compote') on toast, with my 'blend' of hot drink (hot water mixed with nesquik and chicory, or sometimes just one or the other). I recently tried a Nescafe 'Special Filtre Arabicas', 100 grams for 3.59 Euros and the taste was an improvement over the chicory!
Comments--Shopping for Food 1 comment
How Much Would You Be Willing to Tip a Performer?See results without voting
Tipping Street Performers and Such
In the more 'touristy' areas of Paris, such as Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur Basilica areas, you'll see quite a few street performers either playing instruments, doing a little act, or something else creative. Some really talented musicians hop on the subway cars to play a quick tune.
At first when I saw or heard a good performance, I would usually not have any coins on hand to tip, and regretted it later. So my idea was to start carrying coins: 5, 10, or 20 centimes ready in my pocket to be able to quickly tip a performer I liked. It didn't cost me much, but think about how they would be helped if more people did the same.
For example, say on average 1000 people a day pass by this person, and assume that just 10% of these people (100 people) followed this idea. If those 100 people tip the performer only 5 centimes, this is 5 euros per day extra for the performer. With 5 euros a day, you can eat (see my article on food shopping in Paris for about 5 euros a day). So now they have their food paid with that small extra effort on our part.
Next, suppose that those 100 people decided to give 20 centimes to a particularly good performer instead of 5 centimes. Still not super expensive.That is now an 15 extra euros a day. With that additional amount,the performer could theoretically pay roughly 1/2 the rent on a small apartment perhaps sharing with someone.
There you have it, for only 20 centimes per day, the performer can live and eat in Paris. Obviously this is a super simplification (10% of the passersby adopting this method, the peak season traffic, performing every day of the month, etc.), but just to give an idea what a little preparation of coins in our pockets could do! And it's a way to keep the streets alive with the sound of music and neat performances!
Some street 'performances' are a little less appealing to me such as the performer(s) who target(s) people at a restaurant or cafe with outdoor seats. I get the impression that some customers get irritated that they are 'captive customers' of the performer. It seems like it would be better if the performer were to perform somewhere nearby, but not directly focusing on the customers of the restaurant or cafe. That way the customers wouldn't feel pressured and could come by to tip after the meal. This may of course be a less profitable strategy for the performers...
While thinking about tipping, various street vendors come to mind, as well:
1.The 'string dudes.' These gentlemen, who usually congregated at the bottom steps of the park below the Sacre Coeur Basilica and the Funiculaire can approach you nicely or fairly aggressively, depending. The typical situation is where a friendly man comes up and starts tying colored strings to your finger, chatting and creating a bracelet. He then pulls out his wallet to show you a bill to indicate that he'll give you change for your 'contribution' for the bracelet, which you are now wearing. It looks like they try to get 5 euros, but they'll settle for one euro otherwise. They tend to target younger couples and females. It seems that more often than not, people come away with a bad feeling about the 'transaction', and many plain angry.Once I saw a park official standing there in full view of this who did nothing. Maybe since it's perceived to be a harmless activity, it is not too strictly controlled.
2. The portrait artists in the Montmartre area. The portrait artists seated in the spaces in the Place du Tertre mostly charge between 30 and 40 euros, with possible room for negotiation.
I was shocked to be told that the 'mobile' portrait artists --those who are not strictly located in stalls in the Place du Tertre are not 'authorized' to be practicing at all. I feel strongly that the arts are to be encouraged, so my shock was that a simple system hasn't been devised to help them practice their trade in some reasonable way. I was also surprised because I automatically assume that if one is 'authorized' or 'licensed' that there would be less of an issue with quality control. Not so. There's a real variation in the work of the stall artists: Some are very good, some are remarkably good, and others, let's just say, don't leave the customers very happy. However, the artists in the stalls probably have less latitude to be sneaky about price.
I assume that most of the 'mobile' portrait artists are clear about the price they will charge. But not all. I saw one family get taken by a particularly clever 'itinerant' portrait artist who did some cartoon drawings of their kids without mentioning price, then charged them 60 euros which seemed incredibly expensive for what he did. The couple did not look very happy after this experience.Not the best way to go home with memories of Paris. I try to avoid such problems by immediately asking the price up front, before you agree to do anything. The dishonest sellers will always try to avoid talking price.
3. The 'mini eiffel tower key chain' vendors. These individuals can be found in most major tourist traffic locations. Their price is usually clearly posted at 1 euro for 3 small key chains, and seem like a good deal if the items are the same as those you buy at the shops usually for several times more. Obviously the nearby tourists shops don't like them. There are periodic 'raids' of these people by the police, and I once saw a poor fellow's inventory get confiscated. He followed the police officers around for a while hoping to get his stuff back. I don't know whether he did or not. I asked the police why they do this and they said that it's against the law -- you're supposed to buy the keychains in the stores. I asked them who they think supports the laws against street vendors. No answer.
4. The drink vendors. The drinks can either be bottled water or sometimes soft drinks or beer. The initial price is usually high (say 2 euros or more), but can be negotiated down.
I hesitate with buying items with easily twistable caps because if the cap is loose (meaning an old bottle was simply filled with water, for example), I'm never sure what the refund policy will be...The vendor just might accuse me of having opened it then lying that it was already opened!
There are also those who prefer to earn their living by straight begging, or to lower their living expenses by finding 'alternative housing.'
Around the Jardin des Tuileries occasionally there are some female beggars who ask if you speak English, then aggressively ask for money. I asked a park police officer about them and he said that many of them are victims of the mafia in their home countries and must earn a certain amount of money each day or they (or other family members back home) will be punished.
On the subway you have a woman carrying a baby who makes an announcement to the subway car passengers asking for a donation to help with her child-raising. I recall seeing one of the woman handing over a baby to another colleague outside the subway station--a possible 'shift change'?
Beggars or homeless non-beggars can be found near various strategic locations such as bank ATM machines, food establishments, churches and mosques, street corners or sometimes right in the middle of the sidewalk blocking the way. Some have small dogs with them, others are holding a baby. Some spots look like they are well 'lived in' and are pretty much permanent establishments, including one nice fellow who always has his Quechua tent pitched right on a narrow sidewalk; to get by him you have to walk into the street.
Some homeless have found some pretty 'cozy' spots in less-travelled areas or under bridges, living in tents or cardboard boxes covered with blue tarps as protection. Some small communities have outdoor 'living rooms' with couches, coffee tables and tables. Although I couldn't be sure, it's possible that to save money, some workers at bakeries or restaurants resort to this with the tacit approval of their employer (since housing is so expensive). Some store employees may also live in vans parked around the area, as well.
One scene I found hard to forget was a beggar with a cup sprawled out on the sidewalk in front of a McDonald's entrance. He spotted a passer-by who was carrying a bottle of Jack Daniels and got the fellow to pour him a glass in his beggar's cup. He finished the entire cup in a single gulp, then demanded more. Meanwhile, two young American fellows came up behind him and asked him what he was drinking, and he just grimaced and yelled F--- Y---. It was hard not to wonder what any donations people might give him would be spent on...
How Long to be in Paris?
If you are considering the possibility of extending your stay to 'get to know' the town, here are some thoughts.
The first question I had was what period of time at the minimum would I want to be in Paris, so as to get a feel for the town. My answer was about 3 weeks. However, that's really the minimum. Better would be from 1 to 3 months if possible. My 'ideal' would be 3 months if I can arrange it. Longer is better in my mind especially if you are in a different time zone (not Europe) because the jet lag can sometimes take several days to recover from, so it's harder to enjoy yourself during that time. Plus, in the days prior to your departure, you are usually rushing to get ready, so that's also harder to enjoy. So automatically you have to subtract about a week for those parts of your trip or stay. Therefore, a 3 week stay would have a 2 week 'window of enjoyment'. During that 2 week period you would have time to see some of the sights at least superficially, and experience a little of the 'daily life' of the city.
The next point is lodging. The better deals can be had if there is a way to extend your stay a bit. To give you an example, here's some possible costs based on my experience during summer 2009 for a fully-furnished studio or small apartment in Paris:
Hotel (3 days): 350 Euros (for 3 days --expensive)
Vacation Rental (1 week): 400-500 Euros (not cheap, but better)
Vacation Rental (1 month): 1200-1500 Euros (still better)
Vacation Rental (2 months): 1200 or so per month
Vacation Rental (3 months): 1000 or so per month
Obviously there is plenty of variation depending on the location in town, the features of the rental, the season, and so on. But the key point here is that you can probably save, at least on a weekly rate basis, by staying longer.
In addition to having the place furnished, some features I really like to have are an internet connection, and if possible at least a washing machine (a dryer I can do without if I have space to hang up my stuff). But washers/dryers are not always available.
Lastly, one concern people might have is that if they rent something for a while in Paris, they won't be able to visit other parts of France (or Europe). But this is not necessarily the case. I have taken short side trips, and I have a 'home base' to return to. Since Paris is quite central with good access, it's pretty convenient to 'come-and-go' as you wish.
Finding Short-Term Lodging in Paris
If you have decided that 'yes', I want to spend a fairly extended time in Paris, then deciding when is important. If you are at all able to avoid the peak season of July-August, that can help reduce your costs. Since many Parisians want to leave town during that time, there is some supply out there if you get an early start on reserving.
There are numerous websites that deal with that very subject (under 'vacation rentals paris' or something like that) and you can refer to their listings for something that might interest you. For some reason, a lot of what's listed seems to be really expensive, and the agency requirements in terms of deposits and up-front money can be a tough go, especially if your currency is depreciating against the Euro! I tried Craigslist once and it is the preferred advertising method of a trusted person I know, but personally I had a bad experience with a Craigslist offer for an apartment. The 'owner' (who later turned out not to be) gave us the impression we would secure the apartment upon our arrival in Paris. But when we arrived it turned out that she doing a sort of 'open house' for many people and she would 'get back to us' soon. Craiglist has a method for 'flagging' ads, so keep that in mind to help out other people. This was just my experience, so I don't want to generalize about the reliability of such Craigslist postings.
There is another information source with the tourism office of many French cities and towns that lists short-term rentals. The information is usually only in French, it is quite time-consuming to go through, and you don't know necessarily if there is availability any more since it's a list that may or may not be updated frequently. Therefore, you may need to make a lot of calls and/or send out quite a few e-mails. I have had success with this approach, but knowing French made it a lot easier, if not essential.
A Closer Look at Paris Hotels
If you're not able to, or interested in staying in Paris for a week or more, then it's worth taking a closer look at hotels. Prices vary considerably according to the season, location and luxury factor. Generally you'll be paying more per night in July and August during the peak tourist season. Here's an example of my experience for comparison purposes. I was looking for a hotel for a few nights in June, and focused on 3 hotels in the 5th district of Paris, which is centrally located and an area of town I prefer. One was the Hotel Saint Christophe (rue Lacepede), the other was Best Western (rue Monge), and the third was the Hotel des Grands Hommes (place du Pantheon). I should note that I could have had a better price with Best Western had I reserved by internet, saving about 10 Euros. However, you have to be careful, because once I factored in the cost of the breakfast (which I usually like to have at the hotel), the price was much closer. On the internet it wasn't clear whether the breakfast was included or not in the price quoted. At the time I was prepared to reserve, it turned out that the two hotels were close in price in the 130-140 Euro range including breakfast, with the Hotel Saint Christophe coming in a bit cheaper. The Hotel des Grands Hommes was about 20 Euros more expensive coming in at about 150-160, but here is an example where the increase in price seemed worth it. The hotel is right next to the Pantheon, one of Paris' major monuments, is beautifully kept and decorated relative to the others, and has a 'bronze star' with Hotels Preference, a rating and reservation service for luxury and boutique hotels. The only reason why I didn't go with the Hotel des Grands Hommes that time was because I needed 3 nights and they were out of my price range for the 2nd and 3rd night. Notes: I have stayed at the Hotel des Grands Hommes since then and I think it qualifies as a luxury hotel and love the location. Also, since I ended up not choosing the Best Western, I can't say for sure how good my experience would have been, but should note that the internet price they offered with breakfast (but since I wasn't sure of my plans I decided against reserving too far in advance) was the cheapest at that time.
Taking Classes in Paris for Short-Termers
At one point I thought I would look into taking some classes (art, language) during my short stay. I started with the friendly-sounding "centre d'animation' (something like activity center) run by the city of Paris. Lots of different courses are offered, and branches can be found throughout the city.
I also contacted a local non-profit organization that offers courses, for comparison purposes.
I was in for a shock. What I thought would be an easy affair turned out to be a real hurdle!
For example, I asked whether I could take a 'cours d'essai' (basically observe a class) before enrolling so as to get an idea of the teaching methods and whether I liked the class. O was told that I would have to enroll first then observe the class. If I didn't like the class, then I could drop afterwards. I pointed out that this seemed a little excessive from a paperwork standpoint, and I was told with a smile, "That's the French bureaucracy for you!"
Another big hurdle is that even if you can only attend classes for a few months (for the short-timers), you are expected to pay the full annual fee, which can be as much as 500 euros. Then, prior to your departure, they will attempt to refund you the unused semester (or trimester). Therefore it is possible to give them two checks, first for the period you will be attending, and the second (in an envelope) for the period you will not be attending, and then they will give the second envelope back to you prior to your departure. However, one clerk told me that she couldn't be sure they wouldn't cash the second check 'by mistake' because things like that can happen! Keep in mind that this assumes you have some kind of checking account. If not, my understanding is the banks won't issue you a cashier's check unless you have an account. The clerk told me that the first payment could possibly be made with cash, but the second (in the envelope) would need to be in the form of a check. It was never made clear to me how you could arrange for payment if you don't have checks! And of course, they don't take credit cards.
If you get passed the previous hurdles, then you also have the problem of income qualification. If you wish to pay full rate, then there is probably no extra paperwork, so that's good.
But if your income is lower, you are potentially eligible for a reduced rate. While this of course is a welcome feature of their pricing system, it too comes with a price! You must produce income tax documents and other documentation to prove your previous year's income. That may be a bit much for someone taking only a month or two of classes!
And a final hurdle is 'proving' that in fact you will be returning to your home country (or wherever you are going overseas) so that they can refund your second check when the time comes to leave. That involves giving them a copy of the airplane (or other) ticket, a signed declaration, and perhaps other paperwork.
After all of that, my head was spinning so hard I decided to give 'taking some classes' a second thought.
My guess is that some smaller private operators might be a little more flexible to deal with, so that might be my next step. In the meantime time is flying and I might end up teaching myself!
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Health Care in France: What's the Price Tag?
Socialized health care in France is probably generally considered to be a success. I recall a fairly recent study by the World Health Organization placing France at Number 1 in an international survey of the quality of health care. France's health care system was also the subject of discussion in the Michael Moore film, Sicko, and is pointed to as a model for the socialization of U.S. health care. I would guess that few would disagree with the quality of the health care.
However, once when my daughter asked me about the benefits of socializing health care in the U.S., I got to thinking. First, I remembered a scene in the movie Sicko where Michael Moore asks a French couple what their major expenses are, and the woman says in French what Michael Moore interprets to mean 'fish' -- he then promptly rushes to the fridge to look for fish which is presumably expensive in France. Although I haven't gotten total agreement on what she really said, I'm beginning to suspect that she might have said 'fisc' which means taxes. If so, then a question is not whether socialized health care is good or not, but how much it's going to cost us?
Based on this clue, I tried to figure how much someone would need to pay to get the quality health care we're talking about. The answer I get is complicated, because a lot of government-provided services are bundled together in one big bill, and you can't really 'pick and choose' and say 'I want this I don't want that.' Therefore, if you want healthcare, you pay for everything, and the general consensus I'm getting is that about half of your income will be required. Half. When I explained this to my daughter, she was stunned beyond belief. Especially when I explained that to insure our family in the U.S. (under the present system late 2009) the price tag is about $250 per month (which would be about 10% of the income of a family making $2500/month, which is not 'rich' by most standards).
Curious whether there might be a cheaper alternative to the French government plan somewhere, I inquired with an insurance company in Paris to find out if a person could get some form of health insurance outside the government system. Unless I misunderstood something, it seemed quite clear that the answer was no. No alternative.
Obviously there are lots of intricacies involved in making meaningful comparisons of health care systems, but nevertheless exploring the price tag as well as what alternatives are available to people seems important.
I asked a local who deals with poor immigrants what happens if someone doesn't have any income. She said there is another government program that will provide you with benefits in such a case, but it involves a lot of paperwork and as a recipient you are closely monitored so as to avoid fraud and abuse.
An American acquaintance whose wife is French said that it's practically a full-time job to qualify for all the government benefits you are potentially entitled to, but once you're qualified, the income is nice, and if you're unemployed and need health care, France is a good place to be. Referring to this system of socialization, a French acquaintance joked that the result is that about half the country is on welfare (i.e. receiving some kind of benefits), and the other half is paying for it!
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