I spent my first night in Paris eating duck with frites and drinking a glass of cote du rhone in a chic little bistro.
When asked how I spent my first night in Paris as a new international traveler, that is the expected response, right? While it is correct, it isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds.
And You May Find Yourself in Another Part of the World ….
The full story is that I spent my first hours in Paris on the edge of an anxiety attack and frantically running to the closest Apple store before it closed after realizing that my laptop charger was plugged into the wall back in my old flat in Davis Square… in Massachusetts.
Nearly $100 later, I had a new charger and I was back at the tiny 15m² flat that I would call my home for the next 10 days. How tiny is 15m² exactly? 160 square feet of tiny. Smaller than the average hotel room. With the excitement of the evening over, I began unpacking and after using the bathroom, I experienced my first clueless WTF moment.
I spent a very long five minutes trying to figure out how to flush the toilet.
You don’t consider that toilets outside of the United States may speak their own unique language, only that the people will.
After finally figuring out where the flushing mechanism was (spoiler, it was a plate on the wall), getting unpacked, and sitting on the edge of the bed long enough to exhale, I quickly realized that I was starving. And this is how I then found myself 3 blocks away, eating duck breast, frites, and drinking a cote du rhone on my first night in Paris, France.
Well …. How Did I Get Here?
How did I end up in Paris though? I’ve lived all over the U.S. yet I’ve never been to Europe. Worse yet, I was a 42 year typical American whose only travels “outside” my country were to Canada. After the loss of a young friend in a tragic accident, an old friend’s dire medical diagnosis, and a series of personal moments that made me question whether I was merely alive or truly living, I decided that I needed a change of scenery. It is important to note that I didn’t choose to do this trip because of the U.S. elections. I had planned it prior, regardless of the winner. In light of the results however, this trip has taken on an interesting subtext for me as a U.S. born traveler.
Once in a Lifetime
I decided that I would travel through Europe for a year. Europe felt more approachable than Asia, Africa, or the Latin American countries. Particularly for a first time female international traveler who was doing most of the trip solo. I chose Paris as my first stop because it felt familiar and safe. It’s trite, but movies have made Paris feel like a long lost cousin with recognizable features. It felt moderately easy for a female traveler who doesn’t speak any other languages. Sure, I know a few words in French from films, working in restaurant kitchens, and being a non pretentious foodie.
With my menu French and basic greetings, I was pretty sure that I could navigate a menu and get around. Even if no one spoke to me. Luckily, most people did. Surprisingly they did so with a friendly enthusiasm that people might have you believe doesn’t exist. This friendliness was especially true if I showed enthusiasm for their dogs, which everyone seemed to have. By affirming their belief that their dog was the cutest in Paris, I was their favorite tourist. It isn’t hard for me to dote on a dog, anyone who knows me, knows this simple truth.
Generally speaking then, Paris wasn’t rude. I was warned before hand and happily found it to be as untrue as the belief that all New Yorkers are rude. We aren’t and neither are the Parisians. Well, minus the one pretentious hair stylist who refused to speak English to me or cut my hair. Yet, did this had anything to do with being French or everything to do with being a self righteous snob?
Beyond these thoughts, what were my immediate observations as a first time traveler? The surprising and not so surprising things that stood out to me? Below is my list of 11 observations from my first weeks in Paris:
My Earliest Observations as a First Time International Traveler
- The average Parisian is thinner than the average American. Healthier is debatable, due to the next observation, but they were definitely thinner.
- Parisians smoke a lot. Even in the most brutal of weather, outdoor tables at cafes overflowed as people sat with friends sharing coffee, food, wine …. and cigarettes.
- Finding a table inside a restaurant was usually easy, because everyone was outside!
- Croissants and baguettes reign supreme in Paris. Some of the best in the world being baked within the city. See my Weekend Guide to Paris and find out where!
- However, bad croissants and baguettes DO exist in the city and they feel all the more insulting when you come across them.
- There will be meals that disappoint, but there will be meals that are transformative experiences. Avoid the restaurants catering to tourists and you should be fine.
- By trying to speak a few words of French and apologizing for my bad French, the majority of people were happy to speak English with me. Often I found that it wasn’t that they were being elitist by not wanting to speak English. Many of them felt self conscious about their English and were embarrassed. I reassured them that it was great, and it often was. It helped to remind them that my French was worse than their English.
- Dogs were welcomed almost everywhere, always at outside cafes and often in small shops. Everywhere I looked was an adorable Parisian pupper or shop dog.
- The French postal system is both wonderful and a major pain in the ass.
- Google Translate is your best friend when traveling in a foreign land. This is particularly true if you need help navigating signs or forms.
- Nothing changes when your feet hit foreign soil and nothing transformative happens just because you left your “native land”. Change and transformation takes time and discomfort.
- Jetlag is a very real thing and it can and does sometimes take up to a week to get over it.
…. Same As It Ever Was
With a nod to David Byrne, I had many a moment walking around Paris feeling a surreal mix of sameness yet wonderment. While nothing felt different and while the world hadn’t changed, I understood that just by stepping foot off that plane, I had begun to change. While I didn’t know the route my journey would take, what I did know was this ….
No matter how prepared you think you are, you will not be nearly as prepared as you need to be and you WILL forget something AND you will also probably accidentally bring two of something. Just breathe and solve the problem. Cry about it later …. because you might. I did.
Sometimes a journey is as much about unearthing THE question, as it is about finding any answers.