You’re excited because you’re finally going to France for the first time—congratulations! But then your mind starts asking questions like, “What should I wear?”; “What should I do?”; “Is it safe to be out at night?”; “Do they speak English?” Relax; once you do some proper planning and expectations setting, your trip to France will be magnifique, and you’ll start planning your return trip even before your feet leave French soil!
Unless you’re going to be in France for a full month (quite rare for a first-time visit), you’ll want to spend most of your time in the City of Lights. This marvelous crossroads-of-the-world city is a better introduction to French life than most videos you’ll ever see. Of course, you’ll want to go to the major sights: Louvre; Eiffel Tower; Notre Dame Cathedral. The best daytime view is from the tower at Sacre-Couer, at the highest point in the city. At night, the boat ride along the Seine River is a must-see spectacle; you can even have dinner on some of the boats.
Art galleries and museums are ever-abundant in Paris. You could spend a month in the Louvre, but don’t do that; hire a guide, or take a half-day tour, and then use your pass to get back in the next afternoon when you have a free hour. The Orsay Museum, a converted railroad station is delightful, as is Monet’s Orangerie. There are smaller ones dedicated to Delacroix, Rodin, Picasso (my favorite) and others; plus there’s a Perfume Museum, a Jewish Art & History Museum—you get the point; there’s lots to see in Paris.
Since you’re going to be in Paris for most of your stay, the Metro (subway) is the easiest way to get around town. You’re never more than a 10-minute walk from a stop, and the trains run about 18 hours a day. You’ll find that you can even take the Metro to a train station (Gare) for your day-trip to Versailles, Normandy, or wherever you want to go. Your best value is to buy a carnet (book) of tickets, and only buy them from the Metro stations; never buy tickets from someone offering you a “good deal.”
As with most major tourist spots, you’ll want to protect your personal belongings on the Metro (and everywhere, of course) and in the stations. If you’re flying into Charles De Gaulle airport, you can take the train from the airport to Gare du Nord (literally, Train Station of the North), and then board the Metro to your lodging in Paris. Just ask your hotelier which Metro line and station you want to transfer to inside Gare du Nord.
One of the best ways to create instant rapport with someone in another country is to speak some words in their language, rather than expecting that they will speak yours. Learning a few basic words and phrases is fun to do, and it also lets the French know that you care about them and their culture.
Start with a few everyday words and phrases, and then expand as your comfort level increases; pronunciation is a bit tricky, so practice with a friend or your traveling partner: Merci (Thank you); S’il vous plait (Please); Bonjour (Good morning); Oui (Yes); Non (No); Ou est (Where is). Purchase and carry with you a small phrase book, and don’t be afraid to refer to it, and even point out words in it if you’re having a communication issue.
You’ll find that the French like to get outdoors, go for walks, and sit in the parks and in the cafes. Even the smallest villages have gathering places where the locals will sip a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and you’ll be welcomed to join in. Point to your phrase book, and they’ll know you’re an American, but speak as much French as you can. While you’re “with the locals,” try some of the local cuisine, whether it’s crepes at a sidewalk café, escargot in a sit-down restaurant, or the local beer or wine that’s being served with the local cheese. It’s all good, even though it’s not what you’re used to having. But give it a try, and enjoy life!
One of the most exciting days on my first trip to France was to force myself to speak only French for one full day. I was traveling alone, so it did make it easier since I didn’t have to talk with myself. But I greeted everyone in French; I ordered my meals and asked for the bill in French; it was rather painless. And I could tell that they appreciated my efforts.
One of the nice things about the big hotel chains is that they have hotels all over the world. You can find American-based hotels all over France, but do really want to spend your time being surrounded by Americans? If so, then why not just rent a hotel room in your own downtown?
Be a little adventurous and stay someplace “different.” Several European hotel chains to consider are Mercure and Ibis. Both have locations across France. You can also do a search on hotels or Bed & Breakfast lodgings in the areas where you’ll be. These hoteliers might not speak as fluent English as at the Marriott, but I’m confident that your stay will be more pleasurable, and your experiences will be more genuine.
The best way to learn a language is to speak it. The locals will know you’re not French; that’s okay. By attempting to speak some of their language, you’ll see them open up more to you, and they’ll extend the arm of hospitality as if you’re a longtime friend.
Besides your hotel or B&B, the safest place to try your new speaking skills is in the restaurant. If the waiter can’t understand what you are saying, you can always point to the picture and smile. Or say, S’il vous plait while you open your phrase book and find exactly what you’re trying to say and how to pronounce it. You’re only going to get better by practicing.
You’ve already spent a fair amount of money on the airfare (or cruise) just to get to France; don’t tighten up the purse strings now. Look at your spending as an investment in your travel experiences and enjoyment. This doesn’t mean you have to go crazy and buy everything you see, but if the room with a spectacular view costs a little bit more per night, then go for it. The elevator ride up the Eiffel Tower isn’t included in the Paris Museum Pass, so go ahead and spend the 12 Euros and go all the way to the top.
One place you can save a few dollars, however, is when you exchange Dollars for Euros. Your hotel might change them for you, but ask what their rate is; a B&B is less likely to be able to do the exchange for you. Walk to a bank, or an American Express exchange location; Amex gives a better rate plus no fee if you have your Amex card with you.
There are always going to be some people who will try to discourage your trip to France. “They’re rude” some people will say. Others will tell you how their trip-of-a-lifetime was ruined by the cold and “I don’t speak any English” waiter they encountered during their special anniversary dinner. Don’t listen to those people; they’re secretly jealous that you’re going instead of them. If France were such an awful place to visit, why would over 75 million people a year go there?” It has topped the most-visited country list for the past three years, and I don’t see what could change that.
It’s easy to get caught up in hustle and bustle of your trip. There is a lot to do before you go, and you might ask yourself, “Is this really worth it?” Yes, it is worth it. You are going to have the most marvelous time because you took your phrase book, and you weren’t afraid to speak French. One of the most surprising things is that you’ll find yourself automatically saying Merci instead of “Thank you.”
If the majority of your time is going to be in the smaller cities, you will be able to participate in many of the local activities, especially the open air markets on the weekend. Sample the breads, the cheeses, and the wines. Try out your French; it does come a little easier after the first glass of wine.
Traveling to France for the first time can be intimidating, but only if you listen to the negatives (and they’re mostly unfounded). Your proper planning and being mentally set for a great time will combine into the trip-of-a-lifetime experience for you. Being able to fit in with the locals, and speak some of their language will boost your confidence in being a seasoned traveler. Congratulations, and Bon Voyage!
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