An American's First Trip to France

In June 2004 I had the opportunity to visit France for the first time. I learned a few things that I would like to share with other American’s making their first trip to that country.

Note that this report is in no way intended to be a complete (or incomplete) guide to France. There are plenty of books on that subject. I will attempt to provide the reader with everyday information that I did not find in any guidebook I read. Also, lots of guidebooks make recommendations that don’t hold water in reality. I’ll try to explain what differences I noticed between what I expected and what I found.

I will occasionally share a bit of wisdom in the form of a rule.

Rule#1: Never pass up the chance to go to the bathroom.

Trip Overview
My party of four took an airplane from the Los Angeles airport (LAX) to London’s Heathrow. After two days in London, we traveled to Paris via train and the Chunnel, a below ground (and therefore below ocean) tunnel between Britain and France.

Visiting London first is a good idea if you have very little experience traveling abroad. English customs, food, and language are quite similar to America so the culture shock is minimal. Speaking of culture shock, I don’t recommend attempting to drive while in London 😉

We spent five days in Paris seeing as many sites as we could. I discuss locations below in a section.

Rule#2: When wandering a big city, always carry a detailed street map. Pay whatever cost is necessary to obtain one if you can’t find a free one at a nearby department of tourism.

From Paris, we drove to the south of France, making a pair of stops in Provence. In the south, we visited St. Tropez, Nice, Cannes and Marseille. Finally we returned to Paris via bullet train.

We left Paris back to America by way of Fort ??, Texas as our port of entry for U.S. customs.

Now, let’s talk about the details.

Most of France speaks some English. It’s a requirement for most kids beginning in grade school. Don’t think its because they love English! It’s just that most European countries are discovering that it’s easier to learn English than to learn French, German, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Russian, and a host of other languages from smaller countries. Speaking English allows these countries to conduct business.

However, a traveler should make every attempt to learn the local language if they wish to be treated with a modicum of respect. After all, they had to sit through years of your language. You recall how boring you thought language was in high school and you probably only had to two years! Why not show them some respect by learning a few words and phrases while visiting their fine country?

Besides, there’s only a five words you absolutely need to know, especially around the big cities. The further into the country you go, the better it is to know more French.

Use these five in every conversation and you will do okay (not great, but okay).

1. Good day / Good evening Bonjour / Bonsoir (Bone Jhoor / Bone Swaa)
Begin every conversation with one of these two, even if you are just asking for directions.

2. Please Sil vous plit (See Voo Play)
End every question and desire with this.

3. Thank you Merci (Mere See)
Overuse this. Some French may tire of you. But they won’t be able to call you rude 😉

4. Goodbye Aurevoir (Ahve Wa)
End every conversation with this.

The French don’t respect fat people even though many French people are fat. It’s probably some cultural holdover from the Renaissance. So expect odd looks in the big cities if you are severely overweight. The French that are not fat smoke like chimneys, which is probably how they stay thin. With the exception of some public transportation, churches and museums, smoking is allowed, dare I say encouraged, in France. If you are a non-smoker I guarantee that when you go out to eat, someone will light up just as your main course arrives and all the smoke will blow right to you. Live with it. This is France, not America. Don’t ask them to put it out. Some French are sensitive to nonsmokers and may put out their butts if they sense you are uncomfortable. Just don’t hold your breath (get it?)

The French lack of deodorant use is well documented. All I will say is that you should avoid summer subways during rush hour.

Getting Around
Sunday mornings are great times to travel by any means. Traffic in any form is usually very light.

Taxis charge a little extra for travelers with lots of baggage. Be prepared to pay a couple of extra Euro per bag in addition to the meter if you have luggage.

When in Paris, a boat ride along the Seine, day or night, is required. Just don’t take the Batobus. It’s advertised as a boat taxi and its always crowded, uncomfortable and unpleasant. The windows are so high you get no breeze off the river. Find another boat.

Subways (Metro)
The Metro is easy, efficient, considerably safe, and the best bang for the buck in my opinion. If you will be in the city awhile, buy a multi-use pass. All stations have an automated ticket machine you can buy from. Most have an English language option. For those you who prefer a more human touch, most Metro stations have a live person behind the counter too. Both options take Euros or credit card.

France’s non-bullet rail system is confusing and for me was frustrating. The trains all have names like Mona and Nick instead of numbers or destinations. Many trains go to common stations but terminate at different points. Be sure you’re on the right train! You need the RER to get to Versailles unless you plan to take an expensive taxi ride. Be patient. If you don’t read French well, forget about the automated ticket machine and go straight to the human for assistance.

The TGV is France’s bullet train. Very smooth. The train from Marseille to Paris took two hours. Good for those who prefer to avoid airports.

This train connects Britain and London. The whole trip is three hours. For those of you with a fear of being underground (and underwater), the Chunnel time is a mere 20 minutes.

My first experience driving in France was Paris during rush hour in a rain storm. Hopefully yours will be simpler! France’s road rules are similar to that of the U.S. Paris was no too different than New York. Here are some tips that will make it easier on you.

• YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS. Especially in big cities, pedestrians sometimes have no fear of stepping right out into traffic. They have the right-of-way! Look out for them.

• RIGHT HAS PRIORITY. The car to the right has priority over you. Watch out for cars pulling out in intersections! In roundabouts, always try to stay to the right so YOU have priority.

• STOP ON THE RED LIGHT. In the U.S., the traffic light is usually across the street from where we stop. In France, you stop where the light is. Sometimes the light is on your left side or right side, not above you.

• RED LIGHT WITH “+” SIGNS. These lights are the backside of the light for traffic coming the opposite direction so you know when they have a red light.

• NO RIGHT TURN ON RED! Unlike the U.S., you cannot make a right turn at a red light after coming to a stop. The one exception is if the stop light is blinking yellow, which indicates its okay at that light only.

• OBEY THE SPEED LIMIT! France has discovered the money-making opportunities of the traffic camera. They use it to catch speeders. Don’t think that you are free from the law in a rental car. They will bill the rental company who will bill you.

• STAY LEFT ON SPEEDWAYS. On most inter-city speedways (highways), the fast lane is seldom used. When it is used, its only for passing. Do not cruise in the fast lane!

• SPEEDWAYS ARE TOLL ROADS. Bring lots of change. Almost all speedways are toll roads. Most tollbooths are manned and take paper money. Some tollbooths take credit cards.

Parking on the streets is fun if you are an expert at parallel parking. Most on-street parking is metered. Look for a shared meter nearby. Like the U.S., you pay the amount for the length of time you want to stay. The meter will spit out a ticket you must put on your dashboard.

Most attractions have nearby parking garages designated with a P. Parking in a garage is a little different than the States. When you go in, you get a ticket. KEEP THIS TICKET ON YOU. Unlike the U.S., you don’t pay at the gate when you leave. Most garages require you validate your ticket at a “CASSIE” (Cashier) before leaving. Most cassie’s are automated vending machines that take coins and credit cards (and usually paper money). Most are also far from the exit gate so keep your ticket on you and look for a cassie before you go back to your car.

Gas stations
Since most speedways are tollways, the gas stations are just off the speedway. No need to leave! Gas stations are generally very clean and usually do not charge for the use of the toilet. Many have small diners. Pumping gas is old school style: Pump your gas then pay the attendant.

Gazole (Gas-Oil) is diesel fuel.

Car rental
Note that most rental cars companies will give you a manual transmission. Automatics cost more and you must specifically request one.

Older hotels may not have elevators. Be prepared for lots of stairs. I recommend any hotel within one mile of the Eiffel Tower, but especially the Hotel Amelie and the Hotel Reve Amadaeus. The surrounding neighborhoods are safe and interesting enough to walk in day or night.

Why go to France if you don’t plan to eat? The food is fantastic! Some tips:

• Water “with gas” is carbonated water. Waiters will often ask if you want water with gas or without.

• Don’t tip a lot! Most places will add some gratuity in (especially when they realize you are a tourist). 1-3 euros for every 50 f the bill is more than enough if you liked the service.

• Forget about fast food. Who goes to France to eat fast food?! McDonalds is grudgingly popular. There’s the occasional KFC. There’s a chain called “Quick” Burger (which looks nasty). Not much else.

• Forget ham and eggs for breakfast (and sometimes cereal for that matter). The French like croissant, butter, jam and coffee. Also the occasional yogurt or fruit juice. Expect a light breakfast at hotels that offer it. Some restaurants offer “English style breakfast”, which is what you might have been expecting.

• Plan your mealtimes! Patisseries (pastry bakeries) are usually open during what Americans would consider “normal” hours. Most restaurants and brasseries (bars) don’t open until 10am and close around 3pm until 7pm for dinner. They stay open until about 11pm or midnight. If you get hunger pangs after lunch and miles of museum hiking, your options may be limited until dinner. Get used to baguette sandwiches.

• American “French fries” (or freedom fries if you’re a patriot), are called “frites” (pronounced “fritz”)

• I heard a rumor France had good Vietnamese food. I never got the chance to try. I found only two Vietnamese restaurants and both were closed. Thai and Chinese food were popular. Quality was okay, but not the best or most authentic I’ve ever had.

• The French are not big on spicy food.

• My wife is lactose intolerant. However, she had no problem eating French butter, cream, yogurt and even milk. Your results may vary!

• My wife gets headaches when she drinks red wine. However, she had no problem with every French wine we tried. Again, your results may vary.

• If you get the chance, enjoy a home-cooked Provencial meal. If you want to see how French country folk eat, no restaurant compares. Many chateaus will serve a home-style meal. Don’t pass it up!

The Sites
In this section, I will provide some tips on the major sites we visited.

Nice, St. Tropez
If you have ever been to Southern California beaches or Miami, Florida, then you will be very comfortable in all of Southern France, but especially the coastal area between Nice and St. Tropez. In fact, being from Southern California and not being a sun worshipper, I was almost bored. Surfers and spongers leave your boards at home: This part of the Mediterranean is not known for big waves.

Rhone Valley
The chateaus here are like bed and breakfasts. I highly recommend taking a dinner at the chateau, don’t try to eat out! To me, this is France.

Marseilleians must forgive me, but your city reminds me of the ugly parts of New York. Every available square inch of flat surface is covered in graffiti. With millennia of art in France, you would think they would import more promising art forms! Unless you know someone in Marseille this is not the place to get lost. Watch your pockets too. But your heart is set on seeing the Chateau D’if you saw in “The Count of Monte Cristo”! Here’s how I would do it:

1. From Paris (or your current location), take a very early morning TGV to Marseille. This will drop you off at the Gare Saint Charles train station. (2 hours)
2. From the Gare St. Charles station, take the Metro to Vieux Port. (7 minutes)
3. Right outside the stairs of Vieux Port metro will be the boat to Château D’if. The boat ride takes about 1.5 hours. After the trip, get the heck out of Marseille!

FYI: The airport is 25 minutes outside of the city.

Paris is so big, that I decided to break the city up by attraction.

Immense. Don’t rush it. Spend at least a day here. Plan the top 5 or 10 things you want to see because you’ll never see it all.

Napoleon’s tomb is here. There is also an excellent but less advertised museum of the army that shows WWII from the French’s point of view. Give yourself 2-3 hours.

Arc De Triomphe
400 stairs to the top with no breaks. The view is excellent. Get there when it opens to avoid the long lines. If you like shops and restaurants there’s plenty to see along the street towards the obelisk.

Notre Dame
Wonderful stained glass. Another 500 stairs to the top. Worth every step. They only let small groups of people to the top at a time so the lines get long.

Sacre Couer
This church sits atop the only hill in Paris. This is where they filmed the “follow the arrows” scene in “Amelie”. Just below is Montmartre, which is walking distance to the Moulin Rouge.

That’s everything I could braindump in this short time. I hope you find this information useful.

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