[1]I feel like a child crawling into places that used to be locked. But instead of a kitchen cabinet, I’ve got a whole continent to explore. As I stand on the balcony of what is home for eight weeks, looking out on the tree-lined Boulevard Beranger, I can see Citroen cars and Vespa scooters go by beneath my third floor apartment. A sophisticated woman sashays forward, armed with a Printemps bag in both her hands. Another woman crosses the street pushing a stroller topped with two freshly-baked baguettes. A well-dressed older man strolls confidently down Beranger with a bottle of Vouvray wine.
It’s dinner time. I hear the shifting of pots and pans and smell dinner. My Madame calls: “Melissa, nous mangeons maintenant!” It’s just the beginning of my time in France. Every day was a trip in Tours, the city on the Loire Valley where I learned about French culture. But so many of the adventures I had were during my travels to Barcelona, Girona, Paris and Strasbourg. Join me as I revist two of these places and I’ll give you a few travel tips that I picked up along the way.
10 a.m. Friday: Tours, France [2]
It’s an extemporaneous move on my part. I decide Friday morning that I want to spend the weekend in Paris. I convince my partner-in-crime, Jessica, to go along with the adventure and after a few haphazard preparations, we’re off.
Friday afternoon: Gare Montparnasse, Paris, France.
Montparnasse is crowded. It’s big. It’s Paris. And we’re overwhelmed. We circle the outside of the station until finding a cab. The cabbie swerves us through the congested streets as I periodically check the meter and daydream about finding a Pierre or Claude to sweep me off my feet in one of the cafes we pass. Suddenly we stop at Red. Oui, the famed Red Light District, mes amis. My jaw plummets to the floor faster than a penny dropped from atop the Eiffel Tower. The street is littered with knocking shops, something the British call sex shops. Suddenly the chorus of Ludacris’ “Get Back” starts playing in my head. “Ah! We are in the Red Light District!!” But this is my reality.
Perhaps we should go back to my first encounter with The Atlanta Frochot Hotel. The artifice directly across from our hotel catches my eye. Full and upright in its glory is “The Dirty Dick.” What are we doing here? You can see the panic in my face. Jessica looks at me. I look at her and we start laughing. We’re standing with our baggage in the middle of the Red Light District. Thank goodness for Jessica – I would have been completely lost in both the figurative and literal sense of the word. I’ve always been horrendous with directions.
Tip 1: Find a travel partner that compliments you.
Your travel companion can make or break a trip. Through our travels, Jessica and I began to read each other’s moods and finish each other’s sentences. What you don’t want is a travel companion who will be just another piece of luggage.
My first question to the V-neck sweater-wearing desk receptionist is, “Ummm, do you think it’s safe here for two young women?” He responds in French that drips with an English accent.
“Never once in my twenty years have I seen a prostitute in this hotel. I work nights to save my marriage. To have a successful marriage, I’ve found that you should never sleep with your wife. This one time my wife and I were banging away…” Arête. Stop. His name was Bryan. My encounter with Bryan helps to form my next tip:
Tip 2: Laugh at the bizarre; you’ll have more crazy stories to tell.
“So when the kids are around we have to try to be quiet. She usu’lly holds on to the headboard while we’re bangin’. This one p’ticular time, we were on the bed in our unfinished room. There were open ‘lectrical sockets on either side of the bed. All the sudden, her face LIT up. I thought, ‘I must be doing something right!’ I had hit the point of no return when I realized that she was being ‘lectricuted! I didn’t stop. I don’t think she’s forgave me ‘til this day.”
Every time we entered the tiny hotel lobby, Bryan greeted us like this: “You know what I learned about marriage? Never sleep with your wife.” The greeting was always followed up by a different story.
On the way back from Paris…
[3]Tip 3: Things will go wrong. Laugh when they do.
Brrrring. Brrrring. Brrring. Could that ringer be any louder? Jessica picked up the phone and hung it up, but it continued to ring incessantly. All I hear are mumbled words and then Jessica jumps out of bed.
“Melissa, they said it’s 12:15 and we’re past check out.”
“How could it be? I put in a wake-up call and our train leaves in a half hour.” I dress hurriedly and head downstairs since we only paid for a single room with a bed that could fit the two of us, sleeping head to toe. The concierge forgot to put in our wake-up call, but apologized and called a cab for us. We were told at the station that we wouldn’t have to pay for a new ticket, but did have to pay an extra charge. We wait in Car 18 to pay. No one comes around. We’re not checked so we sit on the floor end for the hour-and-fifteen minute ride. At least we got back and didn’t have to pay for another ticket.
Tip 4: When reserving hostels online, it’s easier to split up the nights you’re paying rather than split it down the middle.
I booked the hostels for the first three nights in Barcelona through www.hostels.com and www.hostelworld.com, but I made the mistake of booking the hostels with both of our credit cards and sent the information to only my e-mail address. We arrived at our first hostel in Barcelona swimming in sweat, tired from traveling and irritated by the humidity.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” the desk receptionist assures us. “There’s an extra bedroom at our sister hostel.” The obviously illegal dwelling we’re offered is tucked away behind a linen closet. We have to travel outside, up a rickety staircase past more maid quarters, through a doorway held daintily shut by a small wire. The room in its entirety had two twin beds, a broken fan, and no other source of ventilation.
“If we die in here, no one would know,” I proclaim. “Thanks for the optimism,” Jessica retorts. We survive the extreme heat by sleeping in the buff. I wake up the following morning to take a shower downstairs and open the wire clasp to get out. It falls off. I return to a not-so-pleased friend. “Why did you leave the door open?! The maids came in while you were gone!” [4]
Tip 5: When you ride the train in France, don’t forget to compostez your billets.
You may think you can just hop on any train and take free rides wherever you want. You are probably right. But in case you decide to uphold some sort of moral standard, don’t miss the little machine on the train platform where you punch your tickets. Don’t be a fool like me and put your ticket in the wrong end. The first time I had to punch a ticket, I held up a line of commuters, and all eyes rolled in my direction. Look at your ticket before you get in line to punch it. There is an arrow that shows you where it should be punched.
Tip 6: Buy a youth pass if you’re going to be backpacking Europe or traveling around a lot.
You will pay a lot for the pass, but once you have it, it will feel like you’re spending nothing when you go to buy tickets. If you want to buy a rail pass online, you have to buy your tickets at home or have someone at home buy them for you with your driver’s license. There are a variety of options in which you can choose from with a number of countries you plan on visiting, all divided into zones. For instance, Luxembourg and Belgium would be in the ‘BENELUX’ zone. You must also buy the pass according to how many days you plan on traveling. Check out these sites for more information: www.sncf.com and www.raileurope.com. You should get to the station early because the trains are always on time, unlike the CATA buses we so lovingly wait around for. Also, you can watch the cool changing train schedule signs they have. Maybe I’m just easily amused.
Tip 7: In France, there are people, not a line.
How does the French sense of the term individual affect you? I would say that more Americans then French and more Japanese than Americans, for instance, respect the line. In most cases, more Americans than French respect the line, while Japanese are even more courteous than in our country. The French think it’s all right to cut in line, so get ready to stand your ground. On the shuttle to the airport, we were all pressed for time because the first bus driver refused to take us all to the airport. A whole group of business people tried to push us out of the way. They knew where they were going and we didn’t. We might have missed our train if it weren’t for a couple nice folks that let us get ahead.
Tip 8: Watch for pickpockets.
Don’t carry your passport with you unless you have to. If you have to, put it somewhere safe. Keep items you take out close to you at all times, especially in big crowds. You may have dressed as a gypsy for Halloween, but are there actual gypsies? Yes. Some of the kids on my study abroad trip were at the Eiffel Tower when someone asked if they wanted a bracelet. Before they could answer the hooligans tied string around their arms and demanded money. Street surveys are usually hoaxes so that they can steal your money. Think about it. You’re concentrating on filling out some survey while they rob you blind from behind. First, I would highly recommend wearing a money belt. Unlike the notoriously goofy-looking fanny pack (hey, our mothers may have worn them in the 80s, but they are so not cool), you wear this under your clothes. They’re inconspicuous. I also liked to carry a purse just to be tricky.
Tip 9: Watch out for French men…and boys.
While the French men are quite forward (at least with foreigners), I thought this story about French boys is certainly the most interesting. I was sitting in Park Prebonds in Tours one Sunday afternoon with two friends. There is nothing open on Sunday so we would go and relax in the park. We’re soaking in the beauty of the perfectly groomed park and conversing when these pre-teen boys start circling us on their bikes while shouting repeatedly: “Yes, yes, you come with us.” Yes, little boys, we definitely want to ride on your bikes. We’re not responsive so they try to catch our attention by doing pop-a-wheelies. Finally they ride away mumbling, “Lesbians.”
Tip 10: Every foreign man wants a foreigner. As my French host mom would say, soyez sage, or be wise.
Yes, we want to believe in women’s liberation. Unfortunately, it still is dangerous for a girl to be walking alone at night. One of the girls on my trip was walking home by herself one night and was chased. Another was just about to enter the gate to her host family’s house when a man pulled down her skirt. The man tried to get through the gate, but she successfully locked him out. She was unharmed, but needless to say, shaken up. In the most direct of precautions and tips, just be safe.
Tip 11: A is for…
Real absinthe is only legal in Amsterdam, but the faux absinthe I tasted in France was vile. It tasted like black liquorice, and it seemed that most everyone who had a little in addition to drinking a decent amount of alcohol got sick the next day. Avoiding absinthe is probably the best idea yet.
Tip 12: Another word on safety: D is for Drouges…
Get to know the laws of the place you’re going to. The last thing you want is to end up in jail wherever you are. U.S. laws don’t apply out of the country, so you’re basically on your own. Nobody wants the Interpol on their tail (and no, I’m not talking about the New York-based band.)
Tip 13: Dress classy. Dress French.
Don’t wear short skirts in France. Shorts are also a no-no. Tank tops are fine. I took fashion cues from the French and now I’m all about accessories. Scarves are the classic French touch to every outfit. My favorite chain store in France was Zara. Printemps and les Galeries Lafayette are worth a look, but are generally more expensive than the other stores. Pim’ke carries lots of T-shirts with slogans in English. While plenty Europeans know English, the translation doesn’t always work exactly or the wearer doesn’t understand what it says. I saw a German boy wearing a shirt that said, “I heart my weiner.” I also saw girls in Spain that looked about 12-years-old wearing matching T-shirts that said, “Buy me another drink, you’re still not cute.” Men are much more fashion forward in France. There are more stores exclusively for men like Celio. Men in Europe are masculine enough to wear man purses and capris.
Tip 14: The best time for shopping in France is from the end of July to August. That’s when the soldes, or sales start.
The rest of the year, prices are ridiculous, especially since the euro is worth more than the dollar. I loved the shopping in Spain. The clothing there was more colorful and fun than the French styles. It was also much cheaper. Sfera is a great deprtment store in Barcelona. Custo is the stop for brand-name mavens. Blanco was my favorite store because they had very trendy clothing at great prices.
Tip 15: When in Rome/When in France, Il faut manger francais![5]
The French love to use this expression. FYI: The French don’t understand the expression, “When in Rome.” They say, “When in France…” The French are extremely proud of their gastronomy, and with good reason. Are you a peanut butter and jelly kind of person? Leave that jar of Smuckers behind. While in France, I learned to love the cheese (not all of them but that’s okay), the wines (Alsacian-grown Riesling was my favorite,) I savored crème brulee, delighted in duck, nibbled on quiche, munched on a croque monsieur, grew fond of fondue, enjoyed escargot, sliced into saucisson, introduced my palate to pate, snacked on galettes and sipped on cafe au lait.
FYI: the French don’t snack. The French meal is a gathering event. Snacks are more for kids in France. The traditional French meal commences with an aperitif, usually a kir which is wine and blacurrant liquor followed by the entree. The entree in France is our appetizer. Then you have the main dish, and then cheese and to complete the meal. I was often served raspberries or strawberries in white cheese for dessert. White cheese is more like a crème than actual cheese. In Spain, I went crazy over seafood paella, and tapas, a meal composed of small dishes that you pick out as if you were ordering sushi. The dishes can be tuna, chips, olives, and other small items that comprise a satisfying and sometimes surprisingly inexpensive meal. I liked tapas because I always seem to look longingly at a friend’s dish when I go out to eat. I like to try it all, and with tapas, it’s possible. The French eat late by our standards, but the Spaniards eat even later. This late mealtime is practical for the weather because the Spaniards eat starting around 9 p.m., when the sun starts to set.
Tip 16: L’addition s’il vous plait/La cuenta por favor/Check please.
Europeans like to relax rather than rush during their meal. The service is different as well. In France, the tip was included with every meal. You must also make sure to ask for the check.
A word on wine. When in France, see how wine is made and go for a wine tasting. I went to Vouvray, but there are countless places where you can learn about the art of winemaking. In general, there are white wines, brut (the bubbly), vin sec, vin douce (sweet wine), dry wine, red wines, and pink wines. There is so much to learn about wine. I loved that you could buy a good bottle of wine for $10 or less. Over there, wine is a way of life.
Tip 17: Take some time to soak up the local color.
You don’t have to sightsee to really get to know a city. The way I really got to know a city was by getting coffee, going to a local bar, or watching a bocce ball tournament- not going to all the tourist attractions. If you hop between tourist attractions, you’ll miss out on the city and will just be exhausted. Balance your trip so that you have enough time to do both sightseeing and relaxing. During my week in Barcelona, I had enough time to see many of the attractions, but I also relaxed plenty.
Tip 18: The Truth about Hooking-Up abroad.
Époque Karaoke Bar, Paris
I see him from across the room. He’s completely gorgeous. He has short brown hair, sparkling brown eyes, a slim, but toned body, and confident stance. I think, “Wow, if only I could get a guy like that.” I continue my conversation with Jessica, but occasionally glance over and am surprised to catch his eye once or twice. The atmosphere is great; I’m already drunk from the bottle of wine we drank beforehand and the bottle of champagne we drank in the restaurant. We went out for a ritzy dinner at Roman Bistro, where we told the waitress that it was my birthday so she wouldn’t think we were drunkards. Every time she came to the table and said “bonne anniversaire,” we laughed. Back to the bar. I’m walking back from the DJ stand past him. To my surprise, he stops me and starts speaking to me in French. After we figure out where we’re both from, we speak in English. His name is Orly. He’s a firefighter from England. Score. Set your limits beforehand.
More people seem to be inclined to let loose on vacation, and that can be “a good thing.” But just like Martha Stewart’s naughty behavior, yours can get you into trouble too. Use your intuition, and always let your friends know where you are.
Speaking of letting people know who you are…
Tip #19: Just pretend you’re Canadian, eh?
Anti-Americanism was rife in France. The anti-American sentiment was pretty much ubiquitous. Every French person I came into contact with thought that Lance Armstrong was drugged. I can’t even count the number of times I was harassed for being American. I had a much easier time when I said I was Canadian.
I’m sitting in Spanish class. My TA plays Manu Chao’s “Me Gustas Tu” and I practically jump out of my seat because the song sounds so familiar. It’s like de-chao-vu! The song followed me back through tourist shops in Barcelona and back to sitting on my bed in Tours listening to my stereo. I didn’t like everything in France and Spain. However, I was able to sift through aspects of their way of life that spoke to me and I can retain those aspects. I can’t wait to go back to Europe, but for now, like one vendor at the market across the street from me used to say: il faut profiter! Just like he said his goods were going fast, life moves fast. Profit from all you can.

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