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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mass Tourism: Why Do We Visit What We Visit?

On tour, I usually begin by doing some small talk with the customers. Occasionally this method will allow us to form some common bond, whether through birth place or interests. During my interrogations, I almost always ask "What will you be doing while you are in Paris?" Almost everyone says the exact same thing: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Louvre, etc. A few of these things deserve the attention, whether or not you are a fan of artwork or gothic architecture and the like. There are some, however, that make me wonder why they are such a "must see".

For example, many tourists want to go to the Moulin Rouge. A lot of people actually spend an outrageous amount and go through with it. When I meet someone that happens to be visiting the world-renown cabaret, I ask if they have ever been to a cabaret before. Far more often than not, they say no. I ask if this would be something that would interest them in their hometown, and once again, the answer is usually negative. Alas, if you would never attend a musical cabaret in New York, Sydney, London, or wherever you come from, why in the hell would you do it in Paris?

The answer is simple. People want to be able to tell other people that they saw it. They won't be able to comment too much on the service, nor the show itself, but they can at least check that off their list.

When people go on trips, it is fairly rare that they come into a city without a general idea of what they are going to see and do. If it is their first time in a city, they are going to have to get that advice from somewhere else, meaning either a tour book or a friend, who either got their information from another person or a tour book themselves. Thus, most visit the same monuments as their predecessors. In addition, by doing so, they establish a link with those predecessors, and can say "Hey I've been there, too". For example, with the Mona Lisa, almost every tourist that has been to Paris has seen it. People go because her fame has grown exponentially through time, and they, the visitors to Paris, would like to judge it themselves. Rarely do people visit her to admire da Vinci's masterful brushstrokes which seem to be non-existent upon his subject's face. Rather, people seem pretty disappointed. The comment I hear most often is "I thought she would be bigger." You would think with so much disillusionment that people would stop spending so much valuable time going to see it, but it still gets more visitors than any other painting in Paris, perhaps even the entire world. I'm not in total disagreement with the judgement that La Joconde's fame seems to be disproportionate with its size and intricate detail (look at paintings by Meissonier for the latter), as the Louvre has literally thousands of other equally impressive paintings. Nonetheless, people will run by every other painting in the Italian wing to visit the Mona Lisa, pretty much because it is usually the only work whose existence they were aware of before their visit.

I wish I could say that I have not been guilty of coming into a trip with a sort of checklist of things to see and do, but like most others, I have come into trips with some suggestions to see certain museums and monuments, even if I really didn't give a damn about the collections within. When Julie and I visited a friend in Madrid in October 2008, I came up with a rough list of things I wanted to see. Aside from visiting Plaza Mayor and El Retiro, I felt that we should try to see at least two of these three museums: Museo del Prado, Reina-Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza. Many of the most famous "must-see paintings" in these musems I had never heard of, but felt as a visitor to Madrid, that I was obligated to try and see them.

The first night there, as so many do on a Saturday night in Madrid, we went out and partied until 4 or 5am. Around noon on Sunday, we went to a market, shopped for food to make for lunch, and ate a great meal. By this point, I was already figuring that we could probably only do one museum now, but instead, we decided to sit on the balcony and listen to our friend play the guitar for an hour or two. It was during this time that I realized how much I preferred relaxing and absorbing the culture and my surroundings to standing in line at museum after museum. To sum up the wise words of our host,"Whenever I travel, I prefer to tell my hosts 'Show me your life!' ". After that experience in Madrid, I understood what he meant and why he saw this as the way to travel.

So, if I was to give advice to those visiting Paris, probably the most important thing I could say is to try not schedule too much. If you run around to 3 or 4 museums in a day, chances are that you won't really get a feel for Paris, and will probably be quite exhausted and stressed by the end of the day. Of course, you should probably see the Eiffel Tower, but that doesn't mean you have to wait in line for four hours to go up the elevator. The Moulin Rouge will probably not convince an avid football fan to get season tickets to their hometown cabaret. Take some time for yourself. Go sit for two hours at a café over one cup of expresso. Go lounge in a park with a bottle of wine and a baguette and fall asleep under a tree. Just go for a walk, meandering aimlessly until you stumble upon a good bistro or beautiful courtyard. If you find a good balance between seeing a couple of those "must-sees" and taking time to get a feel for your surroundings, I guarantee that you will have a much more satisfying vacation than one spent vacantly oggling every painting and sculpture in Paris.

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, July 23, 2010

Tips to Eating Well at Restaurants in Paris

Two of the most common questions that I receive at work are these: "Do you really live in Paris?" and second, "Where could we find a good place to eat?" The first is completely ridiculous as I obviously fly into work from St Louis every morning just so I can give you, the tourist, a whirlwind tour of the city.

The second question, however, is one of the most difficult to answer, and not because I haven't eaten at any good restaurants. Rather, it's just that there are so many of them, for me to single out one or two "typical" French restaurants could be scanning a dictionary and picking my favorite one or two words.

First, for clarification, there really isn't such thing as a typical French restaurant. Because France has so many regions that produce different types of food products and beverages, a restaurant from one region will almost always be completely different than a restaurant from the region next to it. Paris itself is not very inventive in terms of cuisine; most of the famous French foods that one associates with Paris were stolen from another region in France. Boeuf Bourguignon is from Burgundy, French Fries are probably Belgian in origin (though some French claim they invented it, the Belgian ones are better in my opinion), most of the duck dishes come from the Southwest, and Fondue comes from the Alps. The Parisians are lucky in that people immigrated from so many regions and brought their foods with them. The whole concept of the restaurant was invented in Paris, and with a wealth of foods to choose from thanks to their inhabitants from all over France, one could not have picked a better place to start serving food for enjoyment in addition to serving it for survival.

There are really two things to remember when looking for a restaurant in Paris. Though, I might say these are more of things to avoid when looking for a restaurant in this city.

First, avoid restaurants where the server is standing outside trying to beg you to come into their establishment. This is a bad indicator since that means that their meals do not speak for themselves, and that they need to harass every passerby and tell them that they need to eat at their restaurant. The Rue de la Huchette just off of the Place St. Michel is notorious for this kind of restaurant. Occasionally, it is entertaining to watch some of the stupid stuff that the waiters will do to get your attention in the streets, such as break plates at your feet and then tell you that you can do the same in their restaurant.

Second, avoid the restaurants where the menu is in any other language than French or English. Almost every restaurant in Paris has their menu in both since they assume that most tourists can read and speak at least a little of one or the other. However, if you start seeing the menu in Russian, Japanese, Urdu, or Greek, you should run like hell. This means that this restaurant cannot get local clients to eat there, so they need to start manipulating the tourists that come from countries where English and French are not really spoken, and especially from those that have different alphabets from the Latin Alphabet that I am using in this article. The only exception would be a pizza restaurant, as those are more or less the same at 95% of pizza restaurants in the city, and they will from time to time have menus in four or five languages.

Another hint is to be weary of the restaurants included in backpacker guides or general guide books. The one example that really stands out to me is Le Refuge des Fondus in Montmartre. How this place gets good reviews and gets so much hype absolutely baffles me. I have eaten here twice. The first time I got piss drunk, ran into a friend from university who happened to be sitting at the other bench in the restaurant, and had a great time, though I remember nothing good about the food. The longer I lived here, the more I realized what a tourist trap this restaurant can be. All of the people eating in the restaurant are anglophones. Usually they are backpackers. They serve wine in baby bottles for 2 euros, which is very inexpensive, but the wine is the cheapest, most hangover-inducing wine that one can imagine.

The second time I visited, I had already been living here for almost two years. I had pretty much been avoiding the place, but I saw a good opportunity to hang out with some good friends. After we sat down, I went to the restroom, and along the way, I saw that the food being served came in bulk from Leader Price, which is the cheapest grocery store in town. Not exactly gourmet food, but whatever, I shop there from time to time. I just think it is a little absurd to pay 15 euros to eat it in a restaurant. When the fondue came out, you could tell that it had not been cooked long enough as the wine hadn't really evaporated. Basically it tasted like someone dumped half a bottle of shit white wine on melted cheese, and voila, fondue. Even this didn't bug me that much. When we were finishing the meal, the owner tried to take the unfinished baby bottle from Julie's hands and while doing so, said "Give me that, you slut." I don't think he realized that she is French. Julie lost it and was damn near close to throwing a chair through the window by the time we left. She stood outside the restaurant for a few minutes and warned all of the customers not to eat there, and instead go to a restaurant across the street which happens to be one of my favorites in all of Paris, Le Potager du Père Thierry, which had no line at all. People just kind of laughed off the advice. I mean, after all, they serve wine in a baby bottle! Imagine that!

In closing, use your own judgement in choosing a restaurant in Paris. Don't let the plate throwers and the baby bottles of wine fool you. If the menu looks good, the customers look happy (and non-touristy), then it's probably a good bet. Good luck and bon app!

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, July 12, 2010

Weather in Paris

When dealing with a lack of subject material in conversation, apparently the subject most often brought up is the weather. I am in complete agreement with this. Normally, I end up talking about the weather with three quarters of my clients on tour. It's not just that we can't think of anything to talk about, it's something we all experience, unless living inside an air conditioned bubble. We all have different reactions and preferences, and thus discussing how the weather affects every one of us can give a little insight into our counterpart's psyche, and perhaps establish more of a bond.

Paris is fortunate enough to be blessed with four seasons, and each one of them different. Personally, September is my favorite month out here, as the hot summer days of July and August are fading into the background, the massive summer throngs of tourists start to return to their normal lives at home, and the flowers, as they are replanted at the end of summer, begin to bloom once more, giving the impression of a second spring season.

In this article, I will discuss summer and winter in Paris, as spring and fall are both fairly temperate and similar to what many in North America and Europe imagine of those two seasons.

Paris Summer

Though Paris is quite far North, it can get hot out here. To give an idea of its location, Paris is fairly even latitudinally with Vancouver, Winnipeg, and north central Ontario and Québec in Canada. It is one of the northernmost capital cities in the world. But that does not exclude it from getting pretty warm.

In 2008, Paris had just 20 days over the summer that exceeded temperatures of 25 C (77 F). In 2009, we had 40. So far in 2010 (counting today), we have had 22 days that have been at least this warm, and at least half of those have been above 30 C (86 F).

Considering where I grew up in St. Louis, MO. these temperatures do not sound that bad at all by comparison. The weather there in summertime is akin to walking through a swamp inside of an oven. But fortunately for those in the United States, air conditioning is never too far away. If one steps outside for an hour or two, most can return inside to cool off with assistance from central air or an AC unit.

For the most part, that option does not exist in France. Aside from hotels, almost no one has air conditioning. There are a couple of reasons why. First, even though it can be oppressively hot in the daytime, it normally cools down at night, making it a little easier to sleep. Second, many houses or apartments have windows on two opposing sides of the building, which allow crosswinds to pass though and work more or less as a natural fan for the apartment. However, if it is really hot at night as well, you have to find ways to put up with it. Personally, I haven't used anything more than a tiny blanket to sleep in the last month. Many nights I sleep with no covers at all. A wet rag has helped a lot in cooling me off when necessary.

Though it does get quite hot in July and August in Paris, normally it is a very dry heat. When temperatures soar near 30 C, we start to see percentages of humidity drop down somewhere between 25 and 35%, and occasionally even lower. This is about the same as I experienced when I lived in Colorado at more than 6,200 feet (1,900 meters) elevation. This allows the shade to be very refreshing on a hot day.

Paris Winter

Paris winters are perhaps some of the most oppressive that I have ever experienced. Temperature-wise, it does not get that cold. Rarely does the temperature plummet below 0 C (32 F). Snow is a rare sight in the city, though last winter was unusual in the fact that it probably snowed 10-12 times. The snow almost never sticks, as the ground temperature is too warm, and when it does, it barely lasts through the day.

Henry Miller, who wrote quite possibly the best book on life in Paris, and one of my favorite books all time, gives a perfect description of what the weather is like in Paris over the winter:

A foul, damp cold against which there is no protection
except a strong spirit. They say America is a country of extremes, and it
is true that the thermometer registers degrees of cold which are practically
unheard of here; but the cold of a Paris winter is a cold unknown to
America, it is psychological, an inner as well as an outer cold. If it never
freezes here it never thaws either. Just as the people protect themselves
against the invasion of their privacy, by their high walls, their bolts and
shutters, their growling, evil-tongued, slatternly concierges, so they have
learned to protect themselves against the cold and heat of a bracing,
vigorous climate. They have fortified themselves: protection is the
keyword. Protection and security. In order that they may rot in comfort. On
a damp winter's night it is not necessary to look at the map to discover the
latitude of Paris. It is a northern city, an outpost erected over a swamp
filled in with skulls and bones. Along the boulevards there is a cold
electrical imitation of heat. Tout Va Bien in ultraviolet rays that
make the clients of the Dupont chain cafes look like gangrened cadavers.
Tout Via Bien! That's the motto that nourishes the forlorn beggars
who walk up and down all night under the drizzle of the violet rays.
Wherever there are lights there is a little heat. One gets warm from
watching the fat, secure bastards down their grogs, their steaming black

When I first moved to Paris in February 2008, I would look at the weather and try to dress myself appropriately for the conditions. However, I found that I was almost always underdressed. My rule now is whatever I think that I should wear outside, add an extra layer. It has not been unusual for me to wear a sweatshirt, a heavy sweater, and a wool jacket when the temperature is still above freezing.

Whenever visiting Paris, make sure to pack accordingly. While you think it might be hot in July, there might be a day where the temperatures dip down to 10 C (50 F) or even lower, and there might be a fluke day in the winter time where shorts and t-shirts are suddenly more appropriate than a winter coat. In sum, expect anything, and perhaps everything.

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, July 5, 2010

La Grippe A

It has been close to a month since I have written anything, and if you happen to be an avid reader of this blog, I offer my most sincere apologies. Work has been quite chaotic lately and I haven't felt all too much like writing on the few hours that I have off. But, I've been getting an itch to put down some more thoughts and I have a little bit of time to talk about them tonight.

So...does anyone remember swine flu? I know it was a huge blown out of proportion mess back in the United States. Like the U.S., France also took many precautions to make sure that its citizens were informed about the potential dangers of the H1N1 virus, or as it was referred to in France, La Grippe A. Seemingly every commercial break this past winter mentioned ways to protect one's self against the potentially deadly strain, whether it was wash hands frequently or to go receive a vaccination. More people seemed to be getting vaccinations than the previous winter- across the street from our office was a vaccination center, and while the line was non-existent the previous winter, there were days in the 2009-2010 winter where the line stretched around the block. Nicolas Sarkozy, the president, even suggested banning the importation of pork, though once it was proved that this would solve nothing, he rescinded his suggestion.

Probably the most interesting thing that came out of this were the suggestions in many of the workplaces in France. The government put up signs in many companies and public places that said to avoid close contact with others. This included shaking hands with people, and especially kissing them.

The last suggestion was where the state seemingly crossed a line. In France, when meeting a friend, you will always exchange either a handshake or kisses with your counterpart. If you are a guy, you kiss a girl and shake hands with a guy, though with close friends and relatives guys will kiss guys. If you are a girl, you kiss everybody. If you are in a workplace setting, handshakes are usually exchanged, regardless of sex. This system is significantly simpler than the one that I know in the U.S. I'm never sure what to do as I feel odd hugging a girl every time I see her, or fumbling around trying to figure which kind of handshake/fist-pound/high five combination I am going to get when I am meeting a friend of a friend.

The bisou is nothing short of a God-given right in France, it's like the right to fresh bread or protest anytime that they feel like it. The state telling people not to kiss their friends and their colleagues was utterly laughable.

Did people listen to the advice? Of course not. People made jokes about it. After everyone made rounds to kiss everyone at work or at a party, I heard people comment "well I guess we're all going to die now." Everyone laughed, and maybe one or two of them actually got the virus. Fortunately, nobody I know died from it, so they were allowed to scoff at the fact that they had cheated death and blew kisses in his face.

The state will have to try a lot harder to keep people from greeting each other with kisses in France. Perhaps instituting a fine would be the right step, though that seems to be making matters worse with the new Burqa propostion here in France. That in itself is worthy of an entry, but I will save that for later.

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