We actually met our first Parisian on the first day of our trip, in Iceland. Terra and I were wielding our enormous backpacks, and for some reason the bus driver wanted us to try to fit them on top of our laps in tiny bus seats versus putting them underneath the bus in the luggage compartment. Poor Terra was trying to manage the pack and the pack was winning; the pack started sliding over towards the guy next to her, who said in a very calm voice with a clear French accent, “Excuse me you are squishing me against the side of the bus.”
The squishing-method turned out to be a great way to make a new friend. We learned that he was from Paris and we excitedly told him we’d be staying in Belleville for almost a month. Except that we said “Belle-ville” in such an overtly American way that he had no idea what we were actually saying. It took several attempts at pronunciation, three spellings, and five minutes total for him to come to an understanding of what we were saying.
That conversation really should have been an indication that we would have A LOT to learn when we started roaming the streets of Belleville (as well as greater Paris). Here is an accounting of some of the main challenges we’ve encountered as well as what we’ve learned over the first few days in Paris.
By the way, the motorcycles in the foreground of this image highlight one of the main discoveries – rules of the road don’t seem to apply to motorcycles; they are everywhere (including sidewalks)!
Challenge – Credit card is declined twice and we have no French words to try and negotiate the conversation.
Discovery – Understanding begins to dawn on us that Belleville is not a tourist area and many people don’t speak English. That understanding is followed by the thought, “Why didn’t we learn more French!?!”
Challenge – Spent most of the day trying to get our Navigo (transportation) pass – see previous blog post.
Discovery – One of the most beautiful parks we’ve ever seen is 2 blocks from our apartment.
Challenge – Making it downtown Paris with our Navigo passes for the first time! Making it back after dark was even more of a challenge.
Discovery – The French are taking the terrorist threat very seriously, as just walking around downtown you see armored police with machine guns cocked and ready (which in and of itself is odd in Europe) usually walking around in groups of 3. It’s a little disconcerting as it serves as a constant reminder of the threat, but on the other hand it seems to be about as secure of a place as they can possibly make it.
Challenge – First time I was able to go out on my own and successfully navigate my complex bakery order (well, if you consider two (‘deux’) croissants and one (‘un’) almond croissant tricky). In general, though, we are starting to feel more comfortable in the neighborhood, and even have had a few nods of recognition!
I had to walk several blocks to find this bakery, which highlights another challenge – somewhere between 30 and 50% of the stores seem to be closed for the entire month of August. Parisians really flee Paris during the month of August!
Discovery – Walking tours are the way to go when getting oriented to a city like Paris. Not only did we learn a ton from the 3 tours in two days around 1) Notre Dame, 2) the Saint Germaine neighborhood, and 3) Montmartre, we also made some great friends and went out to eat with a number of folks representing India, the Netherlands, France, and the United States. (If any of you read this please comment so I can get your email addresses!)
We had great tour guides including our new pal Quentin, an illustrator with a great little website that showcases his work.
I do want to point out 2 sub-discoveries from this experience. 1) I’d read this before, but as in the US, people throughout Europe and the world are dealing with their own xenophobic political movements which are feeding off the fear and uncertainty of our times, and 2) the US apparently doesn’t own the corner on bad karaoke singing.
Challenge – I’m so proud of myself because I have the correct bus line and route from the Eiffel Tower to the Latin Quarter figured out. Small problem, the bus is going the wrong direction and the route terminates about 300 yards from where it picked us up. And the bus driver just watched us get on… The good news was that the mis-adventure allowed us to get a much better view of the Eiffel Tower.
Discovery – The entire restaurant scene, from entering to eating to exiting, is different here (and that’s ok). You do yourself no favors if you are in a rush, so we are learning to just take it slow…I mean, really slow.
Our friend Quentin said that a lot of guidebooks have done Parisian waiters a disservice by indicating that a tip is never expected in Paris. According to him, while it’s true that mediocre or bad service doesn’t generally yield a tip, Parisian waiters who do a good job do appreciate a small tip as a token of gratitude.
Challenge – The heat. Oh my goodness it’s been hot here for the last several days. And there aren’t really a lot of places that we’re aware of to escape it. Parisians are so hot that they have set up their own pretend beaches on the River Seine called Paris Plages.
We managed to jump from shady spot to shady spot for most of the day, and still got about 15,000 steps in (which is around our daily average at this point).
Discovery – A great brewery in Belleville on the Canal St Martin called Paname Brewing Company. Such a great atmosphere, good beers, good food, and a great escape from the heat!
That, my friends, is what we’ve learned in the first week or so here in Belleville. Initially we didn’t know how much we’d like Belleville, but I have to say it’s really growing on us. The cats are another thing that are growing on us (and us on them). Merthin and Souan are so fun to have around – hopefully I’ll be able to capture that more in future blogs.
Below are some more pictures of our adventures over the last few days.