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Monday, March 28, 2011


Last year, my girlfriend (I guess in the spirit of this article, my domestic partner) and I were PACSed. PACS is a term that is used with increasing frequency here in France, but probably means little or nothing to someone from outside the country.

PACS stands for Pacte Civil de Solidarité; essentially, a domestic partnership. It was originally created in France to give rights and benefits to homosexual couples, and then eventually heterosexual couples started doing it as well. I have even heard of roommates getting PACSed so that they can acquire a visa (I'll explain how in a second).

To be PACSed, a couple has to prove that they are in good standing, that they live together (providing an electric bill or a joint bank account statement, for example), and they intend to stay that way. Though this did not happen to us, some of the forms we read said we need to find proof that we had been together for two years, just to show that we were serious. PACS was perfect for us, as it gives me almost all of the benefits of being a French citizen, without having a hasty marriage. Most importantly, it allows me to obtain a visa, which I am allowed to renew each year as long as we stay together.

As I was saying, I have heard of roommates doing this before. Let's say a French guy and another foreigner, guy or girl, live together. They like hanging out, but they aren't dating, nor do they plan on it. To keep the foreigner in the country, the roommates can decide to get PACSed, basically proving that they are together, which will allow the foreigner to renew or obtain a visa. As they don't ask couples to prove that they love each other physically, this can be relatively painless.

Our "ceremony" was pretty uneventful. We traveled out to a sub prefecture, dressed in t-shirts and shorts as it was warm that day. At the desk, we were asked to present our ID's, and to verify that all the information on our papers were correct. After signing the paperwork, they handed us a copy of the papers we had signed, and that was it. As the ceremony itself was so administrative and unremarkable, it is easy to forget sometimes that we are legally bound to each other. Apparently they even put my name on Julie's birth certificate (though we have yet to see this).

PACS seems to be viewed as a preliminary step towards marriage these days. We've known a couple of friends that were PACSed, engaged, and then married, in that order. We had a few friends ask us when we were going to have our party to celebrate our union, which seemed funny to us because we didn't realize it was that big of a deal. In one of my many meetings with the French State regarding the creation of my company, as they were going over my personal information, they asked "OK, so you are married?" I laughed and told them no, my girlfriend and I are PACSed. To my surprise, she continued to fill out on my forms that I was married and said "Yeah, well, it's pretty much the same thing."

If you happen to be dating someone that is French and want to stay in France, or move to France, getting PACSed is a relatively simple way to do so. However, like pretty much everything in France, it requires an a lot of paperwork, and from what I have heard from other friends in different prefectures, not every prefecture has the same requirements for being PACSed. While the process was fairly easy for us, I have had friends dealing with mind boggling stupidity courtesy of their prefecture, putting them in real life catch-22's where obtaining their domestic partnership status was technically impossible, no matter which route they took per suggestion from the official.

Unfortunately, PACS is not recognized outside of France, so when Julie and I happen to leave the country, we are just boyfriend and girlfriend, and don't receive the same benefits as we enjoy here. At least in France, we are pacsou and pacsette.

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

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Where Are You From?

When I have given tours over the last three plus years, one of the first questions that I ask my clients is "where are you from?" Once I find out, I try and think of something I know about that place, or someone I know from there, or maybe even some tidbit that has been in the news lately pertaining to their locale. Occasionally, we are able to make some connection, which can make things a lot more interesting when some common bond is established. Over the last few years, some truly bizarre connections have been made on my tours. For example, I met one lady who grew up in the same small town in rural West Virginia as my mother, and went to the same school, though she was a year older than her and I don't think they knew each other. I've met people that went to the same small college as I did in Colorado. I've met people who grew up in the same town as me, and on one occasion, as soon as I mentioned that I was from St. Louis, somebody in a large group suddenly recognized me from high school. These are just a few examples, as this seems to happen fairly often over here in Paris.

Establishing connections is a field in which Americans seem to excel. As soon as we meet somebody, if a good feeling between them exists, they might even tell some intimate details of their life to someone they just met an hour before. In finding out where someone is from and a little about them, one might find out that they possess similar interests, or perhaps they might work in the same field, or vacation in the same places. It seems to me that a majority of the jobs found in the U.S. today are found by having some sort of connection with someone who is working or has worked for a company, or has a family member or good friend that is in the certain field of interest. It was how I moved to Paris in the first place.

When I took a tour with my former company in 2005, after the guide had explained the first stop, he happened to ask me that question: "Where are you from?". I told him, and it turned out that he happened to be from Missouri as well. We talked off and on about Missouri throughout the tour, and by then end, I mentioned (half-jokingly), "Maybe I'll see you over here as a guide." He immediately told me about how to get a job here, and a little more than two years later, I was back in Paris, working as a tour guide for the same company.

In the U.S., connections seem to mean everything. Connections certainly get you places in other parts of the world as well. However, in France, connections are much harder to establish.

Last year, I returned to the U.S. for a job interview, and was stuck for a few extra days because of the volcanic ash floating over parts of Europe. I flew to Saint Louis while I was waiting, since I had no idea when I would be so close to home again. On my first day back, I returned to the airport to try and work on my plane ticket to return to Paris. As I was standing in line at the American Airlines ticket counter, I noticed that the lady standing in front of me was speaking in French on her cell phone, and it sounded like she was trying to go back to Paris herself. I was thrilled since outside of French class in high school, I had only heard French being spoken maybe once or twice in Saint Louis, and now I could speak it well enough to actually have a conversation with her in line! I was almost shaking with excitement to get the chance to speak with her.

Finally we were standing close enough where I could be heard, and I asked in French if she was trying to head back to Paris. Turns out she indeed was trying to get back after being stuck for close to a week already. I told her that I was trying to go back as well, and being American and wanting to get more familiar and talk about Paris, I told her that I lived in the 15ème. She became noticeably uncomfortable by my telling her in which arrondissement I live. Fortunately, the two people standing behind her also happened to be French, and cut into the conversation and saved the uncomfortable silence I had created by crossing into forbidden territory.

Example two: Julie and I were in Boston, watching my brother play a hockey game at Boston University. I went to order a bottle of water at the concession stand, and judging by the name tag and the vendor's accent, I asked her in French if she happened to be French. It turns out she was French. I was so excited about this, I called to Julie to come over and meet her, so they could maybe talk together. Julie seemed very timid about it, and when I turned to look, the vendor seemed uncomfortable as well. Neither one would ask details about the other, so I decided to tell the girl about where we have lived there. It turned out that the girl had lived a block or two away from Julie's old apartment. Afterwards, I thought the coincidence was crazy that this could happen in Boston. Julie and the vendor, however, seemed happy that the encounter was over.

Example three: When I first went to Auvergne in central France, I was taken to a bar owned by Julie's cousin. In the bar, there were maybe 15-20 people, who most likely were all cousins of Julie as well (this seems to happen a lot in small towns in France, and a lot of times, the people aren't even sure if they are related or not). We did our rounds and said hello to everyone in the bar. As I shook everyone's hand or kissed them on the cheek, I told them my name. Not one of them told me their name in return. Finally by the 10th person, somebody told me "You don't have to tell us your name." Slightly embarrassed, I continued greeting the rest of the patrons of the bar in silence.

Example four: I have been getting my hair cut in Paris by the same guy for the past two years. Every time I come in, he seems really excited to see me as he is trying to teach himself English, and in a part of Paris where few English speakers venture, he doesn't get much of an opportunity. He always shakes my hand, greets me warmly, and then, as he cuts my hair, we talk about things since the last time we saw each other, and give each other pointers in French and English. I like him so much, I sent an email to my old colleagues and told them about him, and that he would love to practice English with whoever wanted an inexpensive but good haircut.

A couple of people did ask me about him, and asked me his name and how to find him.

I had no idea. In the two years I have known him, neither of us has thought to introduce ourselves.

This doesn't mean that we don't get along or aren't friendly. However, in France there seems to be more protection about intruding into someone's private life. For example, almost all apartments have shutters that close over the windows, which can make apartments pitch black even in the middle of the day. Houses in the countryside have fences and stone walls that surround their gardens or property. In France, younger people are more likely to introduce themselves by name when greeting someone than the older population might be, but it is not necessary awkward if you don't show much interest in getting to know someone. As a result, it appears connections are less likely to occur when meeting someone for the first time in France compared to many English speaking countries. Whereas in the United States, when introduced to someone we almost feel obliged to ask for more details regarding someone's hometown or occupation, occasionally to the point of superficiality. Contrastingly, the French don't feel the pressure to ask certain questions that almost seem obligatory to ask in other parts of the world.

In speaking with a few French people about how we get jobs and find friends like this in the U.S., many times I've been told that things like that just don't happen here. With this knowledge, it is a little easier to see why.

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

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Decline in Standards in Restaurants in Paris?

A few weeks back, a friend of mine sent me the story below, which asks if restaurants are starting to cut corners here in Paris, which is leading to lower quality food in Parisian restaurants:

I thought this to be an interesting argument, and especially pertinent since I have recently started a culinary tour company here in Paris. One of my goals is to show the opposite of this claim, that if you know what to look for here, the food industry in Paris is perfectly fine and in many cases, getting better.

First, why might there be an argument that restaurant standards are not as high as they once were in France? The argument I seem to hear quite often is that the cost of business here is going up, so owners need to cut back on costs, and in some cases, spend less money on the acquisition of food for their kitchen. Whether or not costs for restaurant owners have indeed increased is a question for which I don't know the answer, but it seems to be cited fairly often, not just in the restaurant industry but in regards to life in general in France.

As in many cities that receive a lot of tourists, there are those that own restaurants that know they can get away with serving food and drink of lesser quality. In Paris, many tourists have never eaten real French food, so they might head to a restaurant that is mediocre in quality (and perhaps a rip-off price-wise as well), and if they try to complain about the food, the restaurant and waiters can suddenly pretend that they do not speak English. The Rue de la Huchette in the Latin Quarter is well known for having many restaurants of this caliber. Unfortunately, the vast majority of restaurants in Paris that are of this sub-standard quality happen to be situated close to the big tourist attractions (Notre Dame, the Louvre and Eiffel Tower to an extent, Sacré Coeur). If these happen to be the only places that a certain tourist visits on their trip to Paris, then there is a good chance that they won't be eating the best of what Paris has to offer.

Fortunately for those that inhabit or visit Paris, you do not have to be stuck eating in the tourist traps. Good food does exist here, and people do stick to their principles about using whatever is good and standing behind their product. For example, when I first got my company running, I was working with one of my restaurants on what to serve my clients for my tour. Initially, I suggested the idea of having just one small menu item being brought out, so that we wouldn't be too full from just one restaurant. The owner disagreed, saying that it would hurt the reputation of her restaurant by doing so. I was confused by her rationale and asked why, if her food was good, would serving it alone hurt her reputation?

She said that in France, all meals must be served with the proper accompagnements. For example, if she was to serve a meat dish, it would have to be served with a vegetable and some sort of starch, such as potatoes or pasta on the side. If she was to move away from doing this, word would get around that she was moving away from tradition, and would hurt her business with her regular clients. I thought that was a damn good response.

What made me even happier was that she said that the menu changed each week, based on what they find at the Marché de Rungis (the Paris area's biggest market). If they were not happy with the quality of a certain fruit, vegetable, or meat, then they have no obligation to use it. Thus, they create their menu each week based on what is fresh and what looks good.

While this may seem a rarity in today's culture, this type of food preparation is gaining popularity in Paris. Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations on the Travel Channel in the U.S., hosted his 100th episode in Paris, where he was shown from restaurant to restaurant, finding that cooks are getting away from fancier haute cuisine and getting back to using very simple ingredients and simple recipes to make some outstanding food. Many cooks are taking more time to select their products each day (some even go as far as to run across the street to get food items from the markets just after the customer has ordered), making sure that their food is fresh. Another finding is that several cooks are getting away from working at more exclusive restaurants to open places that are more approachable, and much more affordable. I have found as well that many of the most popular and most difficult to reserve restaurants in Paris are surprisingly affordable.

I have cited this in a previous blog, but it is worth noting again. If you want to avoid the touristy restaurants of Paris, there are two things to look for. First avoid the places where the menu is in more than French and English. Second, avoid the restaurants where someone is standing outside begging you to come in and eat, or where the food is displayed under plastic wrap in the window. People that have traveled around Europe might have noticed similar tactics in more touristy areas of Brussels, Rome, Venice, and Prague, among many others.

Hopefully I've shown that one can eat very well in Paris, and as long as you know what to avoid, finding a good meal at a reasonable price is fairly easy.

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