Paris, France: A Few Things You Didn't Know
When you travel it's easy to get bogged down in the preparations, lists, and the slew of travel-specific and travel-size products companies are hoping you'll drop a few bucks on in your quest to cover every possibility. Before you know it, you've lost sight of what you really should be taking and are bogged down in questions like 'is Normandy sunny enough in July that I'll need sunscreen?' and 'do I have to reserve tickets to go up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe?' (The answers are sometimes and no, respectively.) Here's a few things you probably don't know about Paris that might help you re-focus on your dream trip, and stop obsessing about TSA guidelines.
#1: Cigarette-Smoking, Baguette-Bearing Stereotypes
It's difficult to escape the popular image Americans have of the French people, one consisting of black-and-white horizontal-striped shirts, neck scarves, berets, wine, cigarettes, and baguettes. And there are people in Paris who dress like that; they're called tourists.
The three things that the French actually do live up to in the list above are ironically the same three things those four tourists have forgotten to include in their photo-shoot: wine, baguettes, and cigarettes. Wine is drunk a little more commonly than in the U.S., edging out beer as the French alcohol of choice, but in the more tourist-y areas and many of the restaurants a selection of both is on offer. Baguettes are a staple of the French diet. The way the population smokes, you'd think cigarettes were, too. If you have asthma that is triggered by smoke inhalation or other tobacco product-related breathing problems, you'll probably experience some small irritation in the more crowded outdoor venues- luckily most indoor areas prohibit smoking.
#2: Is That A Road, Or An Alley?
This is a question we in America rarely have to ask ourselves; alleys are... well, they're alleys. They have trash cans in them. Back yards that open to them. Vegetables planted/rotting alongside the road. You know- alleys. But in Paris, a city that has been around a LOT longer than anything in America, every available inch of space has long since been used and the result is some six-lane thoroughfares and some roads that would barely pass as a moderately roomy walking path on our side of the Atlantic.
Study the picture above. Study it closely. Your Hummer would not fit in there. If your Hummer were cut in half, it still would not fit in there. In the States, where nearly every road is wide enough for a semi and even our garbage trucks are built like tanks, it's hard to remember that the whole world isn't built the same, and easy to scoff at the golf-cart sized smart cars the Europeans zip around in, never mind the mopeds and scooters. But you know what WOULD fit in this incredibly narrow road?
A golf cart. That's what.
#3: Paper Towels, Wherefore Art Thou?
It's becoming increasingly common in the United States; restrooms eschewing the old-fashioned paper towel dispenser in favor of noisy hot-air blowers that never seem to properly dry your hands. You are stuck with two choices: hit the button again, and stand there wringing your hands like you've suddenly developed a minor case of hypothermia, or give up, wipe your hands on your pants, and accept that they're probably not clean anymore.
The good news is that public restrooms (or 'water closets', as they're often referred to in France) have been free by law in Paris since 2006. For those of you who have never done the I-gotta-pee jig while searching for twenty euros in change, I can promise you that this is VERY good news. The bad news is that the loss in revenue means smaller stalls, tighter sinks and no paper towels. Ever. At all. Adding hand sanitizer, baby wipes, or even a small package of Kleenex to your travel list may cost you another couple dollars that you could have spent on a beret, but will ultimately give you a little peace of mind.
#4: When Potato Chips Become An Adventure
In America, potato chip options have increased from boring old salt 'n obesity to barbecue, sour cream and onion, cheddar, ranch, sour cream and cheddar, even pizza-flavored. Chances are you'd never touch a pizza-flavored potato chip unless it was literally the only snack available. Even the little bag of dry airline peanuts would be better. Well, how do you feel about pickle?
But wait, there's more! If you're not feeling particularly pickle-inclined while staring at a Parisian vending machine, it's a good chance your choices also include ketchup, bologna, and chicken and thyme flavors. And no amount of recommendations are going to help, either; I'm quite partial to chicken and thyme, but everyone else I was traveling with strongly disliked the samples I passed out.
#5: Pepsi-Drinkers, Beware
While we may not be able to beat the French when it comes to potato chip flavor selections, we are the clear winners in the soda arena. Mountain Dew alone comes out with three new flavors annually, created and voted on by fans across the country who care to become members of the 'Dew Nation'. But why not extend the Nation and allow anyone, anywhere in the world to vote on their favorite mixture of corn syrup, carbonation, and food-coloring? Simple- Mountain Dew barely exists outside America. If you want a soda, you'll be ordering a Coke.
I've spent a lot of time in Paris and in France in general, and I've only seen a Pepsi once. Ever. It was bought from a street vendor by an American tourist, and both the buyer and the seller had the same shifty look during the transaction that most people would associate with drug deals and post-pubescent fans of Sailor Moon. But although Coke is the only soda available in the whole country, only the vending machines offer a variety. The restaurants sell Coke. Not Diet Coke. Not Vanilla Coke. Not Vanilla-Cherry-Diet-Sugar Free Coke. Just plain Coke.
#6: Coffee, Deconstructed
Americans like to accessorize, and we extend that even to our condiments. Do you know how many different kinds of sweetener we've created? Me neither, and I have the feeling that's because they've grown too numerous to be counted by the casual article-writer. If you like Hazelnut/Cream/Vanilla/Low Fat sweetener, congratulations! That exists! But if you're addicted to one particular brand or flavor and you're spending more than a few days in France... good luck.
In Paris, they put cream in their coffee, too, the only difference is that theirs has recently been squeezed out of an actual cow. The sugar comes in cubes. If someone tells you there's a packet of Sweet 'N Low anywhere in the country, don't listen- it's a lie. It's always a lie.