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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Pace Yourself When Eating

As France may be the gastronomic capital of the world, one could imagine that I have eaten well here. Compared to the way I used to eat in the United States, I eat like royalty here. I actually believe that I eat more food here than I do back the United States, yet I have lost weight.

If you come to France and have the chance to eat with some French people, my best advice is this: Take your time.

When I was visiting Julie's cousins in Auvergne in February of last year, we got up around 10 am and had a glass of orange juice a piece. I was pretty hungry and asked if they had anything to eat for breakfast, and they told me that I should wait, that we'd eat lunch around 1pm. For someone like me that is used to eating every couple of hours, this is not easy, but I had to respect them. We went out shopping for baby clothes and I had to try my hardest from sneaking clementines out of the trunk of their car.

Around 1pm, I was getting so hungry that I was shaking. We sat down to the table and started off with a little appetizer, which I devoured in a few seconds' time. After that came the quiche. Everyone was handed a huge slice and once again I made haste to make sure it didn't escape from my plate. I was ignorant enough to think that would be all before the cheese and dessert. Of course I was wrong.

Just after, Sylvie brought out a boudin noir, which is a very heavy blood sausage. For me, it is very tasty for the first few bites or so, but once I'm about halfway through, it is pretty hard to finish. I was handed a massive helping of this. I made it about three quarters of the way through before I felt like food was escaping my stomach and now finding storage in other organs throughout my body that had more space. What was embarrassing was that I was probably the only one out of ten people, including kids, that was too full to finish. And then the cheese course was brought out. When we finished, a fruit basket was set on the table, and I proceeded to spend the next two hours trying to eat one clementine. Everyone else was pretty full, but no one seemed to feel it more than I did. They thought something must be wrong with me, since Americans are supposed to be gluttons and eat way too much. They heard I was starving, so why couldn't I finish everything?

The answer? It's about the pace of eating.

Last year, the Economist magazine came out with a graph measuring the "Simple Pleasures in Life". Part of it measured the average amount of time a citizen of a given country spends eating, and the other axis measured the amount of time spent sleeping. On average, France is number one in the world in both categories. The French average a little less than nine hours of sleep and close to two and a half hours eating and drinking each day! Americans on the contrary spend just over one hour a day eating and drinking, though sleeping just a little less than the French.

When I was in high school back in Saint Louis, we were allotted 27 minutes for lunch each day. That is essentially enough time to eat all of your food, throw away the wrappers and trash, and go back to class. Considering I ate off campus most of the time, that meant we had to make a dash for Burger King, Subway, or Lion's Choice, eat in about five minutes time, and come back to class. Even then we were usually late, which encourages us to eat faster.

Furthermore, in American restaurants, everything can seem rushed. Waiters will ask you repeatedly how your meal is going, if you are close to finished, if you are finished, if you need a check, and so on. I somewhat went through reverse culture shock the first time that I came home after a year abroad to find that I was paying my check within 25 minutes of arriving to have a leisurely brunch.

In France, still to this date, French kids have two hour lunch breaks. This allows them to go home, prepare lunch or eat lunch with the whole family, take the time to digest, and head back to class feeling relaxed and satisfied. Unfortunately, two issues make this unnecessary at times. A lot of times, school is too far away for kids or teachers to return home, so after taking their time for lunch in the cafeteria, they still have to sit around until class begins again. The second issue is that fast food restaurants are becoming more popular, which is further defeating the purpose of the two hour lunch.

The long lunches can apply to cafés and bistros as well. When you pay to sit at a restaurant, you are paying for your table as well. You own it until you decide to leave. The waiter will only come over when it looks like the people at the table are ready to leave (leaning back in their chairs, not talking, getting their wallets out). A couple of times, I've even gone to sleep in a café without anyone bothering me, since I had at least ordered something to eat.

What I have noticed is that when one tends to eat quickly, one can eat a great proportion of food and still be hungry. However, there is a lapse between the time that your stomach senses that it is full and the time it takes to send the signal to your brain that you have eaten too much. Often times, people who eat quickly will eat a lot, but then will feel sick to their stomachs as a result of eating too much too quickly.

The French, however, probably eat more food in one sitting than most Americans do. However, when one takes their time to eat, becoming full is not a sudden impulse that stops people from eating. It becomes gradual, like rolling up to a stop sign while applying light pressure on the brake. After you start to become full, the French will usually have a cheese course, which is supposed to help with digestion. After that, there may or may not be a fruit or dessert course, which is usually something light that takes the taste of a heavy meal away.

In addition to pacing oneself during a meal, eating a large meal once a day helps a person resist the urge to snack or eat smaller meals throughout the day. The French believe that the reason why Americans have such a comparatively high rate of obesity is because we tend to eat several smaller meals. When one partakes in one of these marathon French meals like the one discussed above, it becomes difficult to want to eat at all the rest of the day. Just a couple of weeks ago, I ate a long lunch with Julie and her father. I didn't eat another meal until the next day at lunch time, aside from a small salad I made for dinner. This was one of many times since I have lived here that I have been too full to eat for close to a day after a heavy meal. So while the French can eat more food in one sitting, the Americans seem to eat more food over the course of an entire day.

In sum, if you find yourself in France, take your time when you eat. Your food isn't going anywhere.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Foreigners in Paris

On paper, Paris is a French city. One can't drag Paris across a map to China, Vietnam, nor Algeria, no matter how hard one tries. On any given day, however, one can walk out their door and feel like they are in Haiti, Sri Lanka, or West Africa, among many other places.

Paris, like New York or San Francisco, is full of ethnic communities. The southern half of the 13ème, the suburbs to the south of it, and also the Belleville neighborhood contain at least 50,000 Chinese, Laotian, and Vietnamese nationals, where you are just as likely to see signs written in a Chinese Language as you are French. Up in the northern quadrant of Paris and its surrounding suburbs, one can find a North African (mainly Algerian) population of at least one million. When Algeria won its qualifying match for the World Cup in late 2009, thousands of people spilled out onto the street next to ours to celebrate. It was the next closest thing to being in Algeria itself. Just a couple of blocks east near Château Rouge, one can walk through the West African and Haitian markets that spill out out of the shops into the streets. Between the La Chapelle metro and Gare du Nord in the 10ème, there is a large community from the Indian subcontinent where one can easily find a Tamil-language newspaper or a shop selling traditional Indian dresses. When walking in either of the neighborhoods, one gets the impression of being transported somewhere else.

The above mentioned should give you the idea that Paris has a very large immigrant population. The city of Paris itself contains around 2.1 million people, which doesn't sound that large. The suburbs, however, contain somewhere between another 7 to 12 million. The reason there is such a gap in these numbers is mainly because the French government has no idea how many immigrants are actually living in the Paris metropolitan area. Most of the immigrants do have legal paperwork to keep them here in France, nonetheless there still is a large illegal immigrant population in Paris and its surrounding banlieues.

France is not the most difficult country for a foreigner to enter. It might be one of the easiest. France shares a border with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Andorra, and Spain. There are no border patrols waiting at each entry point into France (Switzerland is an exception). It's about as easy as crossing from Missouri to Illinois. For example, if someone wanted to enter France from Morocco, all one would have to do is cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain by ferry, perhaps flash their passport, and catch a bus or train to France from there. Once in the European Union, it is rare when one will be hassled for their papers.

Sometimes, illegal immigrants enter the country and do very little to hide their status. There was a tent community in the port city of Calais, which is the crossing point to head over to the United Kingdom, that contained close to 800 migrants, mostly Afghani, that only recently has received attention from authorities. The camps came into existence in the Calais area around 2002 and were torn down on September 22, 2009. The occupants were arrested and were to be offered 2,000 euros for returning to their country of origin, though they will also be offered the chance for asylum here in France as well (Daily Mail, Sept 22, 2009).

From personal experience, I do not carry my French identity card with me, nor do I carry my passport. I think the only time I've ever been asked for my card was in the emergency room when I had to get some stitches for my lip in December 2009. Even though I did not have it, no one really seemed to care.

Even more impressive is crossing by plane. When I came over as a student in 2005, I had to fill out a questionnaire regarding my trip and my whereabouts during my trip, among other things, and I was to turn it in to a border patrol officer when I would pass through customs. I could not find a pen, so I decided to ask when I stepped off the plane. I asked the border patrol officer in pidgin French for a pen, and he just waved me through, basically telling me not to worry about it. When I came back in 2008, France had stopped giving out the questionnaire to planes arriving from the United States entirely. On one of my crossings from the United States, I handed over my passport, the officer looked at the back of the passport (which is blank), and handed it back to me without even opening my passport, let alone even asking from which country I came. I don't know if the treatment would have been the same had I been flying in from Africa, but it is certainly less intensive than what I've gone through in the United States.

As I have shown in my previous two blogs, getting a visa in this country can be exceedingly difficult. If one does not have a job nor family, nor has enrolled themselves in a university in France, it is next to impossible to obtain. That's why some people just skip the whole process and just work in the black. Our old plumber, who in reality fixed just about everything, came from Tunisia a few years back. He's told us he would love to go back home at some point, but as he doesn't have any working papers in France, this would send up a red flag as he crosses back into Tunisia, which could block him from coming back into France. Alas, he just stays in France, and seems pretty content with that.

If you have ever visited Paris, you have probably seen the African guys that sell Eiffel Towers and other merchandise near the real Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. For the most part, these guys do not have a permit to sell merchandise in these spots, and furthermore, probably do not have working papers. At the Louvre in particular, there are at least half a dozen of these guys a day selling their wares, spread out on a blanket. On this blanket, there is usually a piece of string that is attached to all four corners and creates an x in the middle. If there happens to be a police officer coming, all they have to do is grab the x, which cinches the bag shut, and run off into the bushes. The police usually arrive around the same time everyday, and most times I see them come by way of a slowly trotting horse, which gives the illegal vendors plenty of time to run away. There's usually someone watching for the police just in case they come by surprise. Once the cops have done their sweep, the vendors open up their bags, spread out their merchandise, and go back to doing exactly what they were ten minutes before.

Not everyone that escapes to Paris from their homeland is able to find a job. In the banlieues to the north of the city, the unemployment rate is staggeringly high, in some cases close to 50% for young males. Crime is rampant and in some cases, the police just avoid it and leave it to the gangs to sort things out themselves. The schools are in poor shape, and even if some get through an education in one of the schools in this area, they will be hard pressed to find a steady job. On the other hand, one can make hundreds of euros a day selling drugs, which is more than they could probably ever make in a legitimate occupation. It makes for some difficult decisions.

As a whole, people don't really seem to be bothered by the immigrant population in Paris, whether legal or illegal. However, there exists a political party called the Front Nationale, headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen, which claims to be working for "France for the French". Le Pen constantly rails on how the foreigners ruin everything in France and ruin what makes this country great. Surprisingly, he made it to the final round of voting for President in the year 2002, where he was easily defeated by Jacques Chirac. The main reason it seems he made it that far is because many people who did not want Chirac as president as a whole didn't really seem excited about any of the other candidates, so they voted for Le Pen because he seemed the least likely to win. When it was announced that he was second in voting in the first of two rounds, the French seemed embarrassed, as his only real supporters seem to be paranoid geriatrics and xenophobes.

This could only be considered an introduction to the plethora of issues surrounding the immigrants, both legal and illegal, in the Paris metropolitan area. I will try to break down some other issues on the matter in further entries. If you happen to have any comments, suggestions, or things you would like to know, let me know and I will do my best to provide a solid response. Thanks for reading.

Both photos come from the day when Algeria qualified for the World Cup in Fall 2009.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dream Big vs. Quit Dreaming

If you grew up in the United States, you've probably been told these phrases time and time again throughout your life:

"You can do anything you set your mind to"
"When there's a will, there's a way"
"If you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything" (I think I heard this one on the Simpsons of all places).

This seems to sum up why the United States is viewed as the land of opportunity to many outsiders, because we are taught at a young age to dream big and pursue those dreams, no matter how outlandish they may seem, nor how many obstacles we may face. If a youngster in the U.S. says he wants to be an astronaut, then he is more likely to be encouraged than ridiculed.

There are some huge benefits to this way of thinking. The United States has a very high rate of ingenuity per capita, the second highest in the world behind Japan and significantly higher than the rate of France. Even with the economic crisis, people in the U.S. are equipped with the ability to change their ways of thinking and as a result, many (but by no means all) have created new jobs or found jobs in fields completely different from their previous occupation.

Another benefit that arises out of the American system is the ability to have a second chance. I can't count how many times someone has quit what they are doing to take a chance to follow their passion. My boss quit his well paid job in an accounting firm to start a bike tour company, which a decade later has become successful beyond imagination. Another friend of mine's father quit his job as a financial planner to open a restaurant, which did so well that he was able to open a second one. I could go on and on with these stories. Many seem to question, yet secretly admire the people who stop everything to pursue a long sought after dream.

The great thing is that higher education in the United States is more accessible than most anywhere in the world. If you decide to get through high school, even if your grades are poor, you can still get a college degree. Mind that degrees from certain colleges can hold greater weight than others, but the opportunities still exist. If you don't have enough money to attend college, if you work hard enough in school, you might be able to earn scholarships, which are plentiful, or one could attend a community college, where prices for tuition are significantly cheaper than a four year university. If you are 18 or 45, single or married, white or black, rich or poor, almost everyone that finishes high school can move on to the university level.

Something I did not realize until traveling abroad is that this mindset is not taught universally. Admittedly, there are many countries where opportunities such as those above really are impossible. It would be asinine for me to say that the chances for one to succeed financially or to achieve their aspirations are the same in Somalia or Afghanistan as they are in the U.S. But I do feel that I can safely say that citizens in both France and the United States have a fairly equal shot, given the right mindset, to follow one's dreams. However, the mindset is an important factor. Though there are exceptions, this mindset is a rarity in France.

In France, the system seems to want to avoid disappointment and encourage settling for something a little more realistic. If one tells their mother that they want to be an astronaut, they will probably hear "That's probably not going to happen." It seems that from a young age, people are taught to avoid too high of hopes so that when they are older, they seem less disappointed when they finally settle upon a profession. It's taught that it is a better idea to play it safe. I've met numerous highly intelligent people that are working at positions far below their potential, but still quasi-complacent because they feel lucky enough to at least have a job. The American ideal of dreaming big is almost laughable.

As I never attended school in France, I can't beat on and on about the education system, I can only go by what I am told and what I see. On the contrary, I can relate about the way of thinking that it seems to teach.

From personal experience, I remember when I first started dating Julie, she was working as a hostess in a company where she made minimum wage answering telephones for 6 hours a day. It was mind-numbing work and she loathed it, but it brought in a paycheck. I asked her if she thought about getting a different job, and she reacted by telling me, "I've dreamed of that, but then what will I do?" I told her that maybe it was time to take a chance and perhaps get into some work that she would like. The way she reacted provided evidence that she no longer thought she was crazy for wanting to leave her job to take the leap to find something more pleasant for a job. After a week of reflection, she turned in her letter of resignation and she suddenly saw the world in a completely different light. A month later she was dancing on the back of a truck down the Champs-Elysées promoting a DJ competition. Many of her former colleagues thought seemed to look at her as if she lost her mind for giving up a steady paying job to take a risk like this. Her parents were more vocal about expressing their concern. It wasn't the best paying job by any means, but as she loves dancing, she was far happier than she had been with her work in the previous years.

One year ago, Julie and I were back in the U.S., and I was contemplating attending law school for the fall of 2009. If I was going to be moving back to the U.S. to do studies, we'd have to find a way for her to come back as well, but neither of us were ready for marriage. Around the corner from my house is Webster University, which has a fairly reputable dance program. Why not give it a shot?

Julie couldn't even believe that this was an option. She was almost 26, and had never attended college in France. Was it possible to do it in the United States?

She spent some time practicing with the dance program, and filled out most of her application, and took the English as a Foreign Language exam (TOEFL). Julie speaks English very well, but I even had my doubts about how she could do it at a University level. Without even studying for the test, she received a high enough score to qualify to attend any public university in the United States. We were both shocked that she did so well. For me, that wasn't the only reason.

How is it, that in her home country, she was told that she was not destined to attend college, while in the United States, which contains 37 of the top 50 universities in the world (Academic Ranking of World Universities, 2009), she could actually attain a four year degree? It makes little sense to me.

To reiterate, I am no expert on the French education system, and far from it. I'm just writing down my observations about what ideas it seems to promote and how I see a marked contrast in the way those in the United States are raised. In addition, I am not saying that every American takes a chance and goes for some dream job, and far from it. There are plenty who hate their jobs, but will stick to them anyway because they have the obligation to bring in some income. My personal opinion is that people in the United States are more willing to take chances to reach their dream than here in France, where taking a risk while you have a paycheck can be considered foolish and unrealistic.

But maybe my experience is different than others. If you think so, let me know.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Finding a Place to Call Home (Apartment Search)

If you're going to live in Paris, you have to find yourself a place to live. This can either be really simple or back-breakingly complicated.

The French system of finding a place to live can drag out for months. In order to view an apartment, you need essentially every paper or document that you have ever received in your life. This is an exaggeration of course, but sometimes, it doesn't seem that far from the truth. Usually, you will need to find your last three paychecks, tax records, photocopy of your identity card, and two or more garants (people that can send you money if you find yourself running low.) In addition, each person that acts as a garant needs to create a dossier that includes their last three paychecks, a photocopy of their identity card, and their gas/electric bill, their tax forms (for the house and for revenue). Oh yeah, don't even think of getting an apartment without a job (unless you are a student it is a little easier.) That's already a lot, and I'm probably forgetting some stuff too.

There's a skit online where there is a young couple that has been searching for an apartment for the past 18 months, and they arrive at a place that is overpriced but they decide to take it anyway. The landlord asks for all of the paperwork, and it still isn't enough. He needs to make sure they couple is in good health, so he asks for documentation of their cholesterol levels, EKGs, and even gives a breast and rectal exam. Then, for the wellbeing of the neighbors, he needs to make sure that the girl in the couple doesn't make too much noise when they fornicate, so he has to try with her just to verify. After this is all done, he says he'll call them back eventually. I watched this with some friends who feel that that though it is a parody, it highlights how ridiculous this system can be. Here's the link:

I'm always amazed when I talk to some friends here that are looking for apartments about how long it takes them. It's not unusual to spend a couple of months with this process, and I even know some that have spent as long as six months without finding a place.

On the other hand, the employees in the company I am with, who rarely speak French nor are aware of the French system of apartment shopping, tend to find places within a week of moving here. How is that possible? What do the Americans know that the French don't? It's all about the way you look.

I was talking with my old landlord a couple of weeks ago, and he told me that he prefers to have foreign apartment dwellers because they don't care about not having all this paperwork drawn up. As long as he gets the money every month, he doesn't give a damn how you actually earned/found/stole it. Plus there are laws that protect the renter which can be a pain for landlords. In one instance, he tried to kick some people out of his apartment, and spent months dealing with paperwork and red tape before he could actually get them out of his apartment. One source (Julie) even says that it is illegal to kick renters out of the apartments during the winter months, barring extreme circumstances.

So anyway, let me give some on ideas on how to go about this whole process.

1. Pros and Cons of Searching Online

There are some great sites for looking for apartments online, and that even list their ads in English. On sites such as Craigslist, PAP, and Fusac, one can find a ridiculous listing of apartments, which makes one wonder how the hell people cannot find apartments in this city.

Occasionally, one can find a good, reasonably priced apartment on Craigslist, but on the whole I advise against using it. The reason why is that as it is a very popular site in the United States for looking for apartments, many Americans tend to look there first. As a result, a lot of landlords will put up prices for apartments that are much higher than what they are really worth, because they assume that if craigslist is the first place that the reader looked, then they won't know that they are paying too much. When I first moved here, I went to one of these apartments. It was 750 (maybe more) euros a month for a one bedroom place near Père Lachaise, the famed cemetery in the 20ème. I arrived and walked into the place. There were about 5 other guys looking at this place, and all of them happened to be American, or at least English speaking. This apartment was ridiculously small, and looked as if a storage space had been converted into this apartment. What made me laugh the most was the bed- I am no giant, but if I was to lay my head on the pillow, I could have bent my knees over the front of my bed and rested my feet on the floor. I almost laughed as hard at the douche bag of a landlord who wore a leather jacket, slicked back black hair and a Bluetooth. The other apartment I looked at on craigslist ended up being some scam where the girl asked me to pay for lawyer's fees to draft a contract for the apartment while her father was in Nigeria.

The other sites I mentioned such as PAP and Fusac are great as well, but you really need to be prepared to call a lot of people before you find a place. The thing is since the listing is online, people don't have to move their lazy asses beyond their beds to sit and call or send a mass email to everyone with an apartment. The problem with that is that if you are looking at a listing from the day before, that place is probably already gone. So if using these sites, be diligent and be ready to call a lot of people.

If you happen to speak any French, a great site for this is The prices on here are legit, and about as low as you'll find online. However, you might have to prepare your stack of documents for this as a lot of these people seek those that have all the guarantees and documentation.

2. Get Out and Look

Probably one of the best places to look for a place if you don't want to deal with the draconian French apartment hunting system is through the American Church in Paris. Every morning, they post notices for employment and housing, and because people actually have to get up, go to the church, then stand there and look at the bulletin board, far fewer people actually see these, thus giving you a better chance of snagging one of these places. I called two apartments here, actually looked at both of them, and chose one for 500 euros a month, which is not cheap but reasonable.

When you look here, as well as on the other English speaking sites, you deal with landlords that don't want to go through the French system either, because it is a hassle for them, too. Not only that, they get taxed for renting out their apartment, so they'd rather just draft a brief little contract with you that basically keeps you from screwing each other over and just tell the government that they are letting a friend stay there or that they are living there themselves. These people also tend to include electricity, internet, tv, and maybe even telephone with the price.

In my personal opinion, I feel that if you are paying more than 700 for a one bedroom place, or 550 if you have a roommate, you are probably getting ripped off and could do better. Of course there are exceptions, and it depends where in Paris you happen to be living. Once again, as with bars, the further you get away from the center the better. In addition, the west side of Paris (16ème, 17ème, 15ème in parts) is also very pricey. Sometimes you can get lucky and find a cheap place in the middle of an expensive quarter, but this is more an exception rather than a rule.

Happy hunting and I hope if you decide to look for an apartment in this city, that your search goes better than the young couple in the video above.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Traveling Cheap from Paris

Paris is an amazing city. There are days when I walk out my door and go down the street to get a baguette and it suddenly hits me that I actually live here, let alone for the past two years. But there are days when the city and the work schedule, among other things, can get to you and you need to escape the city to breathe in the country air, or lay on the beach, or just get plastered in another country. Fortunately, travel from Paris can be very cheap.

In the last two years, I have visited at least 11 other countries, and taken at least 40 trips outside of the region, not counting visiting my girlfriend's family an hour away at least a dozen times. To do that, it sounds like one would need a large income. On the contrary, there are months where I make less than 1000 euros, before tax. My apartment alone costs 500 per month for my half. Yet I still have spare money in my account, and can afford to get out of town every couple of weeks. I'll show you how.

1. Get a Train Discount Card

If you are under 26, you are eligible to get a Carte 12-25 for traveling by rail from France. You don't have to have a French identity card nor visa, all you have to do is show up at the SNCF ticket office nearest you (they are everywhere in Paris), bring a mugshot of yourself (photo booths can be found in many of the metro and train stations in the city) and pay 49 euros for a one year subscription. This almost automatically entitles you to up to 50% off of train tickets in France, as well anywhere else that French trains travel. After 2 uses, this card is already worth every bit of the 49 euros paid. Travel to places like Lyon, Marseille, Brest, and Biarritz become much more realistic for a quick weekend getaway.

2. Check out some of the deals on the SNCF website

A couple of times this year, Julie and I wanted to get out of town for a day, but we really didn't have any ideas of where exactly to go. We really were wanting to get out to the beach. On the SNCF website (), after researching numerous towns along the coast in Normandie and Picardie, I saw that it was 27 euros roundtrip to a little town called Fécamp, with the Carte 12-25. I instantly bought the tickets, and two days later, Julie and I caught the morning train out to the coast. Including those train tickets, we spent somewhere around 50 euros a person that day, which included eating at a couple of restaurants, and stopping for a drink or two when we got tired of laying on the beach and walking along the cliffs. The next weekend, we did almost the exact same thing- Mers-les-Bains for 28 euros round trip. In two trips combined, we spent what some people spend on dinner in Paris. Hopefully this is getting you excited.

3. Skyscanner and Low Cost Airlines

Over the past three months, I have flown to Budapest, Rome, and Helsinki for 43, 47, and 59 euros, respectively. I did not get lucky and win any sort of lottery, nor was this some sort of promotion. I just knew where to look.

A couple of years ago, a friend alerted me to when we talked about meeting up in Italy. Since then, I look at this site almost daily. What is amazing about it is that it allows you to search for an entire month, or even year. Even better, is that you do not even have to pick a destination. For example. one can simply enter from Paris to Everywhere for 2010. Upon clicking search, you will find, in order from cheapest to most expensive, all of the locations that you could visit. This is great if you haven't done much traveling here and have a long list of places to visit, as it is very easy to find somewhere cheap and interesting to see.

In addition, you can also pick which dates you would like to travel, and then see where the cheapest airfare can take you to during the given dates. In June 2008, I had four days off and after running the search for my dates, I found that Kraków was only 50-something euros roundtrip. I had heard it is a spectacular city, though it wasn't on my radar until that point. We went and it was one of my favorite trips I've had since living here.

Almost all of the cheap flights I have done in the last two years have been through easyJet. The great thing about easyJet is that not only are their flights very reasonable, they also fly out of Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, the two main airports in the city. A lot of times, discount airlines fly to very out of the way airports, which can make the trip a huge hassle. Which leads me to my next point.

Ryanair can be very, very tempting since a lot of their flights are ridiculously cheap. But with that cheap price, Ryanair is going to make you work for their flight. From Paris, Ryanair flies from Paris-Beauvais airport. Don't let the name fool you, it is not at all Paris, nor is it even in the same region of France as Paris. There is a bus that leaves for the airport three hours before flights, which costs 13 or 14 euros. In addition, a lot of the Ryanair flights are at odd hours, so you might have to catch a 3am bus to get to the airport, which is around a 90 minute drive from the city. In essence, I feel it is much more worth it to take a flight from Orly or CDG using Easyjet, Veuling, and others, rather than save a few euros to work your ass off to and screw up your biological clock to make a flight, where you might have to do the same thing when you arrive at your destination as well.

4. Call Up Some Old Friends

On many of my trips, I have gone to visit some friends of mine or Julie's. Some of them we didn't even know that well, but became good friends as a result of our visiting them. I have visited a kid I worked with briefly in San Diego who at the time lived in Belgium, a friend of mine from Kindergarten whom I had not seen in 19 years, and also a friend of mine's old roommate whom he lived with in Oakland but was at the time living in Madrid. Not only does this give you a chance to have a free place to stay, but it allows you to see what life is really like in these cities, through someone that lives there and knows it well. It's great way to experience the city in way that most tourists can't, eating, drinking, and meandering the way that the locals do! I've made some very good friends as a result of instances like these.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Friday, February 19, 2010

Eating and Drinking Cheap in Paris (Part 2)

A couple of days ago, I spent a lot of time explaining the ways that I have found to eat and drink in Paris. Actually, I spent a lot more time working on the food. This time around, I'll get to explaining inexpensive ways I've found to drink in the City of Light.

1. Drinking at a Friend's House is Almost Always Cheaper Than a Bar

If you've ever gone out in Paris, you've probably noticed that a pint of beer, at on average 6 euros, is about what one would pay for lunch, or even dinner in a restaurant in the US. There's no doubt about it, drinking can be very expensive. Even if prices were slightly higher, people would still pay the price to enjoy an adult beverage.

However, if you pay a visit to the grocery store (Franprix, Carrefour Market, G20, Leader Price, Lidl, even Monoprix), you'll notice that the prices for alcohol are comparatively cheap. You can buy a good six pack of beer for less than 4 euros! Furthermore, if you want a good strong Belgian Beer, like Duvel or Chimay for example, you can still expect to pay 1/4 of what you would pay in a bar.

Now a fascinating much do you think the average French person spends on a bottle of wine? I ask this question on my tours all of the time, and people never get it right. You ready? Around 3 euros. It's not because the French are cheap and drink vinegar. It's just that wine is plentiful and you don't have to pay a marked up price to pay for transportation costs across borders and oceans. My first year and a half or so, I only spent more than 3.50 euro on a bottle of wine if it was a special occasion. My taste in wine wasn't very developed, why should I spend more money on a wine that I wouldn't appreciate properly? I've stopped being as stingy, but even then I usually stay in the 4-6 euro range. And even that isn't expensive, especially considering the quality.

So instead of rushing straight to the bar, head to a friend's apartment. This has numerous benefits;

-As already discussed, it is cheaper.

-You can actually hear what people are saying. A lot of times at the bars, you have to yell over people just to be heard. And even then, it takes some effort. Start out at home where you can sit down and have a decent (or indecent) conversation with your friends. By the time that everyone is drunk enough that everyone starts trying to talk over each other and people stop listening to what the others are saying, then you can go to the bar and at least pretend that you can't hear them talking.

-If you smoke, you can smoke inside. I personally do not smoke, but everyone here does, and they'll probably tell you that they prefer to sit cozily in their apartments when they smoke, rather than step outside and brave the elements every time that you need some nicotine.

-You can choose the music. You can play DJ and actually hear what you want to hear, rather than listen to "Living on a Prayer" or "Like a Virgin" ten times over the course of the night. I hope I didn't offend you if that is what you want to hear.

2. Happy Hours Are a Good Deal

Pretty much no matter where you come from, happy hours (which are also called happy hours in French, though on rare occasions a bar will translate it literally to Heures Joyeuse) are cheaper. I guess that is why they are happy. It's always worth the trouble to ask, if not posted outside, if a bar has a happy hour, and what the specials are, because chances are you'll pay half of what you do at night. A lot of times, the deals will be something like a pint for the price of a demi(half pint), or 2 euros off a pint, or buy one get one free. If you are staying for more than one drink, make sure you know when happy hour ends so that you don't buy your drink 30 seconds afterwards and have to pay more money.

3. If You Are Going to Go Out at Night, at Least Know Where To Do It

Just like most major cities, Paris has quarters that tend to be more expensive than others. This absolutely applies to bars. One should not go out in the 16ème arrondissement, around the Champs-Élysées, anywhere else in the 8ème, basically anywhere that looks expensive should be avoided. I know that's pretty much common sense, but hey, just a reminder.

Fortunately, there are places that are always reasonable. One of me favorite is around Rue de Clignancourt in the 18ème. A couple of the bars there charge no more than 3.40 euro a pint, which is just absurdly cheap for this city. Not only that, the people are cool and there's a good ambience. One of them even gives away free all you can eat couscous on Friday and Saturday nights!

Another good one is around the Latin Quarter, in particular near the Place Contrascarpe. Upon first glance, you'd get the impression that this could be an expensive area, which it very well can be. But if you dig a little deeper, like on Rue Descartes, Rue LaPlace, even parts of Rue Mouffetard, one can find really good deals on beer. It's very close to the Sorbonne, and lots of students like to go out there. It's really one of the few places in Paris where there seems to be any competition in terms of prices for drinking.

Other quarters worth mentioning- the 20ème arrondissement, the 19ème, the 13ème (in parts)...imagine Point Zero in front of Notre-Dame being a money sucking vortex, and essentially the further one gets away from it, the cheaper the prices.

Hopefully I have provided some helpful advice on how to save money and on eating and drinking. This way, you can save more money in order to blow it all on more eating and drinking. You don't have to be rich to be a glutton or a drunk in Paris, you just have to do your research.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Eating and Drinking Cheap in Paris (Part 1)

Without a doubt, Paris is an expensive city. For instance, a pint of beer seems to average between 5 and 6 euros (about $8 at the moment), and a plate in a restaurant is close to 15 euros for a main course. By comparison, one pays only about 2/3 of the price in other big cities in France, like Lille, Strasbourg, Lyon, and once out of the cities, even less than that.

Paris charges ridiculous prices more or less because it can. A lot of people come to Paris for a once in a lifetime trip and come ready to shell out whatever is necessary to have the real Parisian experience. Just because the prices are high doesn't mean someone from the US, Australia, etc. will refrain from eating out; they came this far, they might as well do it.

In reality, not a lot of Parisians eat out all that often. It's not because they don't want to, it's just because it's unreasonable. Minimum wage (le SMIC) in France is 1347.73 euros a month, before taxes (which in this case is about 22%). With payments for rent, cell phone, internet, and the rest, people can't go drop 50 euros on a meal for two all that often.

So here is how we can get by here in Paris, starting with the food.

1. Markets are a Lifesaver

No matter where you are in Paris, no matter what day (except Monday), there is a market nearby. They usually start early in the morning (7ish) and go into the early afternoon. I could be wrong, but I believe I heard once that there has to be a market operating within a kilometer radius 6 days a week throughout the city of Paris, and I would not doubt if this was true. Going early guarantees getting the best produce/meat/cheese, but going after noon will allow you to get the best prices.

When I lived in Montmartre, I always looked forward to hitting the markets on my days off. Usually I'd take a big cloth bag and a pocket full of coins and head up to the market on Boulevard Ornano at Métro Simplon. The deals to be had were cheap, no matter what your standards were be. In most occasions, I could get a kilo of vegetables for 1 euro. And usually if you ask for a number amount, the vendors will round up, especially in the afternoon, as they have to get rid of their produce. For example, if you ask for 6 clementines, they might just give you 11. You ask how much, and half the time they'll just make up some reasonable price, even though it's less than what they say on the little chalkboards with the price listings. I had similar luck at Barbès, where I spent maybe 3 euros, and had to have three big bags to carry home all of the food that was, in some cases, literally thrown at me.

Part of the fun with the markets is that the people that staff them are joyous and love making conversation. I remember a friend telling me he walked by one day and heard a vendor scream out "Ladies and Gentlemen! I have big news! I...have the best the world!" Whether or not that is true, people were certainly interested. Another time when I was buying some sausage, the vendor asked if I wanted some potatoes too. I told him I had them at home, He then replied "Oh but mine are better." It almost worked, except that I had used up all of my change.

2. Grocery Store Prices Vary

Since I have moved back to the 15th arrondissement, I have been reminded about how expensive grocery stores can be down here. In the 18th, I probably spent a few less euros every single time I went to the store. This even goes with supermarkets that are the same company; Carrefour market is much cheaper in the 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements than it is in the more central arrondissements of Paris.

Probably the biggest variance in this regard would have to be with the butchers, fromageries, and occasionally the bakers. For instance, one evening when I was buying a chicken on Rue des Abbesses in Montmartre, the butcher told me that he saw some for sale in the 16th arrondissement for close to 60 euros! I don't know what made this chicken so special, but I guarantee it wasn't worth that much. On the contrary, at Barbès, the best tasting poulet rôti that I've had since living here costs only 5 euros.

3. Cook at Home!

I think you can tell that the subject matter of the last two point implies that I eat more at home than I do out at restaurants. The great thing is that you can make most of the things that you eat in restaurants at home, and most likely with similar quality!

A lot of the best French foods are ones that can be made very simply. For example, if one looks at a lot of the foods from Savoie, close to the alps, one finds that a lot of the recipes involve potatoes, lardons (little pieces of bacon) or other cuts of meat, and melted cheese from the region. A lot of other dishes, like Blanquette de Veau or Boeuf Bourguignon are chunks of low cost meat simmered in wine or broth with herbs and served with some starch to soak it up, like potatoes, pasta, or rice. All you really have to do is throw everything in a pot and cover it for at least a couple of hours until you can cut the meat with a fork. Ratatouille? Take a bunch of vegetables, throw them all in a pot for 2 hours with olive oil and Herbes de Provence, and eat it whenever it looks good to you.

4. Picnics!

What better city in which to share a picnic than Paris? Just run up to the baker, get a couple baguettes (less than 2 euros), run across to the grocery store, pick up some fruit, cheese, sausage (5-8 euros), a bottle of wine (3-4 euros for something drinkable, though occasionally one can find decent wines at less than 3 euros), and you have a feast for 2-3 people for 3-4 euros a person! I made an effort to do this a couple of times a week last spring and summer, not only for saving money on eating out and effort on cooking, but because there are so many open spaces filled with other picnickers doing the same thing. Some great spots for this include the Champ de Mars, Pont des Arts, Parc Monceau, though my three favorites are the Canal St. Martin, Parc des Buttes Chaumont, and anywhere along the water around the Île de la Cité and the Île St. Louis, in no particular order.

5. If You Are Going to Eat Out, Do it at Lunch Time

As I said, eating out isn't cheap, but it can be reasonable from time to time. The cheapest options are buying sandwiches from the bakers, and these are usually around 4 euros. They're big enough to keep you full for a while. Sandwich Grecs at kebab shops are cheap and filling, but then you have to realize that you just ate 2000 calories in one go and you have no idea what part of what animal you just ate, though they are supposed to be cow and lamb parts.

Cafés offer great lunch deals where one can get an appetizer, main dish, and/or dessert for a fraction of what they would sell for at dinnertime. On the Île St-Louis, there are numerous little cafes on the main street which offer deals like this between 10-12 euros. The island is normally one of the more expensive spots in the city, but you can get a lot of the same things at lunch that you would at dinner for much cheaper.

One more little helper is that it is sometimes cheaper to eat at the bar than at a table. When you eat at restaurants, you are paying to rent your table as well for as long as you like, and some places will charge you for it. At the bar, you can still get a stool and pay a little less for your meal.

Tomorrow I'll talk more on how to get cheap drinks in Paris. It isn't easy, but it is doable.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Beginnings of Learning French

Often times I have heard that you cannot learn a foreign language unless you are completely surrounded by it, more or less living abroad. There is a lot of truth to that.

Before I came to France, I had studied French for two years in middle school, all four years of high school, and the equivalent of one year in college. I thought that my French was pretty good. When I came to France for the second time in 2005, I felt like it was really coming along, but now I realize that my only interaction with French was ordering food in a restaurant or a beer at a bar. Otherwise I was speaking English with my friends from class. I remember my proudest moment was understanding when a guy asked me where the post office was, and I said I didn't know.

Between 2006 and 2008, I did very little to practice my French. I actually thought in it from time to time as a sort of mental exercise, but even then it wasn't that often. When I arrived in February 2008, I realized that my French wasn't that good at all. I could read it and write it ok, but my speaking ability was fairly limited outside of finding ways to get food and agreeing or disagreeing in a very basic conversation. A lot of times if I had to get something done where I had to speak in French, I'd plan out my conversation two or three responses in advance. Nearly every time, however, the person would throw something at me that I didn't expect, and so I'd more or less stare like an animal caught in the headlights of an oncoming car until the person would have to speak to me in English.

To combat this issue, I started taking classes at Alliance Française, which is an organization which promotes French language and culture throughout the world. What sounded promising was that people were coming from all over the world, and that the only language that we would have in common was French, thus we would have to speak it. I started taking the class two nights a week, 2 hours a time, and I signed up for 6 weeks of class.

The first time I attended class, I was intimidated because not only had the students already been in class together for 6 weeks before this, they also seemed to speak much better than I did. People came from all over the world- Uganda, Italy, Brazil, Turkey, Serbia, etc., and the only people that happened to have trouble were the three Americans in the class. It was then that I realized how far behind we are in the US with foreign languages. As we don't have other languages encroaching on English in the US (with the exception of Spanish in certain parts, I don't think Quebecois French nor Native American Languages are really a threat), we don't really have a need for learning another one.

The thing in the class though is that we didn't really happen to be learning anything that would be all that helpful in everyday conversation. I remember the second to last time I went to class, I had one of those awkward situations where I made eye contact with the teacher just before she was about to call on someone. I cursed myself for having looked up as I heard the professor call my name seconds later. I came up in front of the class next to the overhead projector. She pulled a sheet of paper off of the projector and told me to explain what I saw. There were pictures of cheeses. I pointed out that I thought one was brie, one was probably camembert. After that, I said that I had no idea what to say. She just told me to sit down and that was good enough.

I remember the next time I was on my way to class, I was thinking to myself about how I really didn't want to go, and that I felt like this kind of a waste of time. I had been in France for probably a month, and yet I didn't really feel like I was getting anywhere with my French. Then I remembered something; I'm dating a French girl. Why don't I just go and talk to her? I was supposed to come over to hang out after class, but I decided I'd surprise her and show up a little early. I hopped off the metro just before my class and got back on the metro going the other direction.

I arrived at her door and said to her (in French I think) "Do not let me speak English for the next two hours." She was pretty amused and took me in to the kitchen, where she was making dinner. She asked me how my day was, and I responded back with "Today I will went to work..." and so on like that. I literally felt like ripping my hair out. But even after two hours of this, I felt a lot better. I could actually put together sentences a little more smoothly. So I continued doing this a couple of times a week instead of attending class, and after a while, I started speaking in French with Julie outside of our "class".

One of the biggest things that helped me when I got here was just listening to people. I really had to strain myself to do it. If I didn't give my complete attention I would lose track of the conversation and then become lazy and space out. There were some occasions where I would actually start nodding off because of the mental exertion that was required for me to understand what was going on. What was good about listening is that often enough I start hearing some words repeatedly, which led to me looking these words up, which then led to them sticking in my brain and eventually using them myself.

It was hard for me to notice if I was progressing or not, but I do remember a time where I finally seemed to have a decent command of the language. It was July 2008 and I was in my first apartment, where I lived with a family of a mother and three kids. I was sitting in the kitchen looking at photos of my recent trip to Kraków, when the mother came home. She yelled out in the house to her kids, but as I was the only one home, I responded back. She came in and sat down with me, and we looked through my photos and talked about whatever came across our minds for the next hour. Before that, I don't think I had said more than 3 or 4 words to her in French. She was shocked as well, because she didn't know I spoke any French at all.

This was a big turning point because it was then that I realized that I was no longer afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are going to happen. I still make them all the time. But once one overcomes the fear of screwing up, then one can build upon their base and really start to become fluent in a foreign language.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at