10 things to be careful about in Paris & how to overcome them

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Anyone who has done basic research or asked around about the romanticized city of Paris would know that travelling there is not a bed of roses. I am constantly antagonized into a love-hate relationship with this deeply beautiful city. The Paris syndrome is real. Although this post may seem like a fearmongering exercise, it is not to say that you shouldn't try travelling to Paris - it's safer to have tone down your expectations and don't get shocked by the truths of Paris. But somehow, it is also the reality of what Paris is like that makes me fall in love with it over again, in a different light (that's not necessarily glitter, Eiffel towers and french kisses in the rain). Here is my list of the 10 things to be careful about in Paris and what you can do to overcome them. You can then start enjoying Paris with these potential nasty encounters out of the way!



1. Pickpockets and robbers
While I haven't personally experienced this - thank goodness - I've heard plenty of horror stories about this. The trust you have in public safety in safer countries in Singapore should be recalibrated and treat every situation with care. There will be situations where you have to squeeze through throngs of crowds at attractions, this is the time when you have to be extra careful and keep your bag close to you.

How to avoid: Common sense comes into play - don't walk into dark alleys after night falls (which is about 9.30pm during the summer). It is also best to keep your valuables stored deep within your bag or better, within a hidden compartment. Never leave your belongings out of your reach and sight, not even in restaurants.


2. Racists (against Asians/ Blacks)
Black hair, yellow skinned? You will meet with racists, who appear in the form of either faux-friendliness or menacingly. They will attempt to communicate with "nihao" or "konichiwa", trying to catch your attention for absolutely no reason.

How to avoid: While they may not always be harmful, it would not be wise to return the greeting or react defensively in a foreign land even if you found it offensive. It's best to take the perceived language handicap to the next level and pretend you don't understand them at all, then walk away.


3. The confusing metro
The Paris metro map is so cluttered with stations that I have to squint at the maps. After establishing the route that is required, navigating around the actual stations is a pain because it involves so much walking, I wonder if walking from station to station on the ground level would be faster. Not only are there endless stretches of passageways to cover and staircases to climb, the stale air in the subway is unsettling and there will be stations that could show up unusable, unannounced.

How to avoid: Keep a digital metro map in your phone (save this file) to keep track of where you are in the system. Before you set off, write down which stations you want to navigate from and to, including the lines and the last station of the direction. Google for the current stations that are undergoing renovations so that you wouldn't have to spend time rerouting when met with a roadblock.


4. The fierce metro gates (at ticketing area)
To prevent people from boarding trains without valid tickets, the metro gates are very strict in the time limit and objects that can go through them. Do not attempt to squeeze yourself and your luggage through the gates altogether. At least one of them will get trapped, and they have very strong gripping power that will be difficult to dislodge from. What's worse is the lack of metro staff at most stations (except the main ones) so you will have to untangle yourself from the fix on your own.

How to avoid: If there is a bigger metro gate/door meant for luggages, use that. The metro gates spring open when you pull the ticket out from the machine, so time your exit accordingly. Be alert!



5. Travel tickets (ticket: carnet)
If you have plenty of money allocated for transporation, this would not be an issue. Transportation in Paris is expensive even though it is much more viable than walking. Each train ticket costs €1.33 even when you get a discount by buying the whole book of 10 tickets at €13.30. The same ticket is used for buses, regardless of distance but take note of the zones you are travelling into and out of. If you are travelling from CDG airport to the city centre (or back), each ticket costs €9.80. You can pay for it by coins or card, and not all stations are staffed with metro employees to accept notes. Do not try to cheat the system because you need the tickets to enter and exit the metro stations, failing to do so will cause you to be trapped inside or fined. Their metro gates are also very strict, trying to jump over and slide under any of the gates is impossible.

How to avoid: Plan your itinerary carefully to minimize the number of tickets you will need. Keep them carefully and separate the used ones from the unused ones. Always keep coins around to feed the machine because notes do not work. Alternatively, have a credit/debit card that works intentionally ready because there will be times that you don't have enough coins. Do note you will be subjected to unfavourable exchange rates.


6. Airbnb problems
Booking from the locals on the Internet always carry a risk and may require a little more effort as the addresses can be difficult to understand compared to hotels where you just have to memorise the road name and look out for the name.

How to avoid: Keep directions from the airport to your Airbnb location in your pocket and also an offline map of the area in your phone. The streets of Paris can be quite tricky to navigate because there are many small streets around. Remember to save alternate contact numbers as well in case of emergencies.


7. Conmen/ peddlers
They exist in extreme abundance especially at popular attractions near La Seine, Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum (not exhaustive list). The ones that I've encountered include: plea to donate to a charity organization (Tuileries Garden), selling roses (near restaurants), selling Eiffel tower key chains, street games (on the bridge of La Seine) and the photographer request (Montmarte). For the full list: click here.

How to avoid: They will appear but don't be afraid. They are usually quite mild-tempered and used to rejection. If they talk to you, use the language card and pretend you don't understand them. Smile and walk away. Do not be distracted by street games in which the performers will play with a few paper cups and hoodwink you into guessing which paper cup has a ball hidden in it. While the audience is absorbed in the game, their accomplice will pickpocket some unknowing tourists. This is particularly popular near the Eiffel Tower. Just be alert and you will be fine!


8. Staircases
Paris is a tourist-unfriendly city, and there will be a lot more staircases than you expect, especially within metro stations. If you have a knee problem or are travelling with kids/elderly, it could be challenging to bring them on a self-guided tour with a lot of metro navigation.

How to avoid: Even for able-bodied young people, it could be tiring because there are a lot of stairs to climb when changing lines and entering/exiting metro stations. With careful planning, you can minimize the metro experiences, but if you have too much things to carry (like baby prams/wheelchairs), it is simply inadvisable to tour Paris on your own. It will be better to join a tour group that provides bus transportation. Nevertheless, if you can, it will be an interesting learning experience about Paris's truths.


9. The Charles de Gaulle airport
This airport is notorious for several things including slow checking in processes, losing luggage and invasive pat-downs. Most international airlines will land/ transit at the CDG airport, so there is no way to avoid this airport unless you want to travel in and out of Paris by bus or train.

How to avoid: Allocate at least one to two hours of buffer time (on top of the required two hours pre-boarding time) in your itinerary when it comes to traveling to and settling check-in processes at this airport. Follow the check-in rules strictly especially on liquids. The metal detector is also particularly sensitive, so you might be subjected to pat-downs if you're wearing metallic items in your shoes/watches/accessories.


10. Language barrier
Most of the locals either do not speak English, or they will not go out of their way to speak it for you. This is especially so for the older generation of Parisians. They do not have any obligation to help you as well, so do not be frustrated. At many points in your journey, you will need to ask for some form of help to translate instructions. The French and the English are not on the best terms and often, they have a bit of animosity towards the English language. Keep calm and try this:

"Desole, parle vouz anglais?"
(Literal pronounciation: Deh-soh-leh, par-ley voo ong-leh)

Which means "Sorry, can you speak English?"

If they reply "non" it means no. Thank them with "merci" (Literal pronounciation: meh-see). If they can and are willing to help, they usually reply "yes, a little" or something along the lines. Proceed to ask them politely and thank them with "merci".

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That's all with the list of the ten things you have to pay attention to when travelling in Paris and how to deal with them as they come. I believe that Paris will be enjoyable if you are well-prepared with this knowledge in mind, and there are a lot of lovely things about the city that I can't wait to share in my next Paris travelogue!

Photography by Canon D550.

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11 comments

  1. As a fellow Singaporean who has lived in the States for many years, I find your article flawed.
    First, you suggested : "je suis, parle vous anglais" you are asking "I am, do you speak English?" Correct way should be "Parlez vous Anglais?" Not "parle vous" incorrect verb conjugation.

    We travelled to several European countries this summer and had absolutely no trouble with using only English. Almost everyone speaks English in most big city.

    Pickpockets are in every country. Use common sense while travelling. Don't flaunt your cash around, keep your purse near your body, avoid fanny packs or worse, a huge backpack in front of your body. That shouts tourist!!
    Stairs are everywhere. If my 70+ parents can do it, I think the younger generation should not complain about a flight of stairs.

    Common sense says that you treat someone with respect, you will get it back. That applies to anywhere, any country.

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    1. Hi Faith,

      Thanks for pointing out the error :) This article was written as a guideline after my traveling experience in Paris. I have not had the opportunity to travel to the other European countries yet, but from the number of people I've spoken to in Paris, most of the locals do not speak English. The only ones that could speak English were the staff working at tourist attractions, museums, metro staff and the younger generation of Parisians. Nevertheless, those who couldn't speak English were polite and friendly in turning me down.

      I also managed to visit London, and I would say that the number of stairs in the Paris metro is staggeringly much, much more than in London (not sure about other cities). For anyone travelling with a tight itinerary, with children or the elderly, energy level and physical difficulties should be taken into consideration.

      Cheers,
      Amie

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    2. I had the opportunity to check out your blog. Very impressive. Looks like you have done a bit of travelling. You must visit the US someday.

      I guess everyone has different versions of their experience. We absolutely did not have any difficulty with finding people, young and older, who could not speak any English. Yes, everyone we spoke to in major attractions all spoke English. Waiters in restaurants had no trouble with English either.

      I noticed that you read the "Fault in our Stars" book. My daughter and I also read the book, and visited Amsterdam before we saw the movie. Again, no trouble using English there either.

      Regarding all those stairs and walking in metros, I guess you have not been to New York City. I am surprised that you did not find the same experience in London. I have been on many subways in my time, namely NYC, Chicago, Rome, Cairo, HK, Taipei, LA, London, Beijing to name a few, and I do not find the Paris metros to be any harder than any other big city. I did find a few excellent offline apps for my phone and I used that to help guide me. That way, we also look like locals and not tourists pulling out a metro map.

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    3. I would definitely love to visit the US! :) Yes, I agree.. every city is evolving quickly and revisiting would bring about a whole new set of insights. I think Paris is trying to change their image to becoming more tourist-friendly, but much of the infrastructure still require time to change. There were clear instructions in London's metro stations as to which station is "stairs-free", or otherwise there would be a combination of escalators and stairs. I'm not sure if you had the chance to visit Singapore, but if you do/did, you probably would understand why Singaporeans are extremely pampered :P

      I love the book, and Amsterdam looks amazing from the movie!!! A pity I didn't have enough time/ money to travel to Netherlands, Germany, Italy, etc... next time... :)

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    4. Yes, have been back to Singapore twice and find that the subway system is not that much different than most major cities. Again, I guess I saw things quite differently than you did. It never occured to me to worry about stairs as they are everywhere in most every metro/subway/tube that i have been on and I also use them as a form of exercise, since I, also love to eat, particularly junk food.

      I want to reiterate that my family, even my husband who refused to visit Paris because he had the idea that Parisians are rude, had a wonderful time there. He has freely admitted that he was wrong and that he would absolutely visit Paris again.


      My husband was the one that said that if there was a city that "looked" dirty, it would not be Paris, but Amsterdam. We enjoyed the city, which was our 2nd time there, but felt that it had a grittier look than Paris. While in Amsterdam this time, I took my daighter to thr sights that were mentioned in the book. Anne Frank house, Vondel Park, ( not in the movie), Hotel Filosoof, and of course the canals. Did you know the bench they used in the movie was stolen/removed? City officials are not sure but think fans took it.

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    5. I don't really mind staircases too much back in Singapore because usually I am rushing from Point A to B to get home or work/school where I can sit down all I want... but while travelling I would prefer to save up more energy to enjoy more places =D

      Paris definitely has lovable characteristics, just not in the way I (or most people) imagined it to be, I guess!! I wrote a post on what I loved about this city here http://www.amiehu.com/2014/08/13-wonderful-things-about-paris.html ... I would want to return to explore the less-trodden paths as a slightly more experienced traveller :)

      Amsterdam looks quite clean in the movie, no?! But then again. Movies. Your daughter is really lucky :) Didn't know about the bench, so I googled about it.. looks like it is back!!

      http://time.com/2962811/the-fault-in-our-stars-amsterdam-bench/

      Wouldn't be surprised what popular culture does to regular facilities... The original 9 3/4 platform at King's Cross is now replaced by a photobooth, swarmed with tourists too...

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    6. Yes, we did the original platform 9 3/4 during my kids' first visit in 2007 when Harry Potter was not so crazy commercialized. We did King's Cross this year and wow, it is absolutely a money maker now. We did most of the London Harry Potter sights both years, including Oxford. We did visit the Warner Bros Studios in Watford this year. A lot of it looks like what we saw in Oxford. The props and costumes etc were very interesting, especially for us Harry Potter fans.

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    7. I wished I went earlier! :'( Not a hugeee Harry Potter fan but I followed all the movies quite fervently so all the scenes are familiar to me too~

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  2. It is always interesting to see how we are seen by visitors. I run photo tours in Paris and think I understand tourists better than my fellow parisians. They live in this city every day and it is difficult for them to imagine that for visitors, it may a once in a lifetime trip and it is thus important not to disappoint them.

    A few comments on the points you developed.

    2. Racists.
    If you have met young men who tried to established contact from a distance, speaking to you in a raw manner, they were probably trying to pick you up. This is a major annoyance for girls in Europe. A belgian student, Sofie Peeters made a movie about it showing what it is like merely walking in the streets in some neighbourhoods of Brussels (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xsi69g_sofie-peeters-femme-de-la-rue-bruxelles_news)

    3. The metro
    In Paris, walking is often faster than taking the metro. Some stations are so close to each other that you can see them from the quays.

    7. Conmen/peddlers
    I was in the Eiffel Tower area last Saturday and was amazed by the number of people there trying to get money from people by having them play the "bonneteau" game (English: Find the lady). Cops arrived but the guys fled so fast that they catched the wrong person.
    Also: do not buy water from street resellers. You don't know where the bottles have been stored!

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    1. Hello Paris photo tours!

      Thanks for leaving a comment :) Yes, while travelling in Paris, we were trying not to be too much of a nuisance to the locals but yet can't help doing "touristy" activities as well like fun jump shots and wow-ing at the Eiffel Tower... it often feels like it has been sitting on the travel bucket list for too long and finally, the time has come. :)

      I guess "racists" might be too strong a word to describe since they weren't exactly discriminating against us but just in a taunting and less respectful manner. I just watched the video.. it wasn't as bad as what this lady experienced, but possibly because I encountered the impolite situation in a less crowded street at night so it seemed scarier.

      We realized that the metro stations are really close to one another after a while.. having Google Maps in my phone helped a lot =D

      Oh my, I was so tempted to buy the bottled iced water because the summer days are so scorching hot. Aha. I didn't see the bonneteau game but the three cup monte games were really pervasive along the entire Pont d'lena bridge...

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  3. As an American living in Paris, your post is very true depiction of what most travelers may not expect in Paris. The expectations set by other visitors, blog posts, YouTube videos, etc. help unmask the perceptions of a loving city with the allure of fashion, great food, and its romantic language. I also work with a lot of French people and sometimes Parisians can cause an unnecessary stereotype about France just as Americans can in L.A., New York, or Chicago.

    I agree there are excessively more stairs to climb/descend in the Paris metros. Last week, I counted that I climb 10 "flights" of steps to switch from Bastille to another station. It wasn't a problem, but can only imagine if someone who has knee problems or gets lost... they will spend quite a bit of time climbing/descending steps to get to the next platform.

    I find Paris more PREJUDICE than racist. I feel their prejudices are similar to American racism. The difference is there aren't any laws protecting people from it as in America, so it happens and nothing can be done.

    The pickpocketing problem is one of the things I hate the most about Paris. I have to look at everyone as a potential thief - which caters to the prejudice issue.

    The second thing I hate is the trash, filth, urine/animal poop. Some of my Parisian French co-workers say it doesn't bother them... As an American, it's is viewed with utter disgust (although there are MANY cities in America that are dirty, but don't have endless miles of poop). The animal poop I think makes the problem worse. For a society of people to think its okay to have your pet defecate in the streets and not clean it up makes me wonder. People who urinate in the subways, spit all over the street, the endless cigarette butts and trash... UGH! I can't stand it.

    The personal hygiene is a subset of this - people who pick their nose in public, never cover their mouth when they cough, vomit in the metro when there are trash bins nearby... body odor, etc.

    One area you touched on was the Metros.... I will say, I was UTTERLY surprised how dirty and not well maintained the subways are.

    My Paris adventure will last a lifetime...

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