Managing Paris Expectations

Pont des Arts, Paris

Winter, despite representing a painstakingly long, often melancholic and forceful entry into the new year, means a blank canvas of travel lays before us. To cure the post-holiday blues, we immediately begin thinking about our next getaway or at least dreaming about one. For many, a first, second or twentieth Paris adventure is on the horizon but with it arises a few concerns.

How much French do I need to know? Will it rain everyday? Will the French be rude (yes, that question still comes up)? Can I get around by foot? Enthusiasm for a foreign destination can quickly dissolve if certain travel fears aren't placated before take-off but I think it's necessary to go a step further. When people tell me they felt disappointed by their experience in Paris, I try to get a sense for what they had imagined. Often, disproportionate expectations are at the source of the problem. The reality is, the city is imperfect and unable to entertain the idealized fantasies most of us are guilty of having.

In an effort to control feelings of disappointment, it's important to manage expectations. For Paris, keep these things in mind:

| The Welcome
A reader contacted me recently for advice in anticipation of her three-month trip to France. She asked whether it was crucial she speak French or if she would be able to coast by her English. To receive the respect, courtesy and attention from any French person, a linguistic effort must be made. The welcome you receive will be dependent on your attempts, no matter how basic your level of understanding. Even though the French might end up resorting to English after watching you struggle to piece together a coherent sentence, they'll be flattered you tried.

One caveat: make sure bonjour is one of the words you employ. I can't guarantee that the often-embellished, grumpy French disposition won't cross your path at some point, but being able to communicate with them is a good place to start. {Tip: I used Babbel.com to study Italian and it's an excellent, inexpensive tool}

Antique toys and knickknacks, rue de Bretagne

| The Shopping 
With mainstream, global brands opening outposts all over the capital and French brands finally heading Stateside, there remain few defining characteristics to help us distinguish between being in Paris and being in, say, New York or San Francisco. The only difference between a Gap in Paris and a Gap at home is a higher price tag and more subdued color palette. A disappointing realization for those who thought Paris was home to the world's finest shopping.

But there are still treasures to be found, especially when it comes to antiques, vintage threads and comestibles.   To find them, you'll need to dodge the storefronts you recognize from home and dig deeper. The more you shed the guidebook and allow yourself to get lost in the city, the more likely you will happen upon the good stuff (read: get off the Champs-Elysées).  My friend Anne has some great recommendations in the trendy 9th arrondissement which you can find HERE.

| Le Métro 
Lauded as one of the most efficient subway systems in the world, the Paris métro is over 100 years old and services around 1.4 billion travelers a year. Most stations have signs indicating train intervals and colorful seats for waiting.  Metro strikes notwithstanding, the system deserves its praise for efficiency and regular refurbishments. But as a first-time Paris visitor (or worse, a first-time urban traveler), the métro immediately offends the senses. Layers of filth, grime and miscellaneous liquids line every crevasse while the thick stench of urine, sweat and sulfur (coupled with the occasional whiff of butter) salutes you at every corridor. Unpleasant and ubiquitous.

The unsullied subway in Beijing and Shanghai that I discovered on my recent trip left me imagining how many travelers must be deterred by the Paris métro, regardless of its navigability and ease. While it even repulses locals who spend hours upon hours of their lives underground, its practicality trumps all shortcomings. Besides, it gives the city gritty character. Just don't expect the beauty from above ground to be translated below.

Le Grand Colbert

| The Food 
The Paris food scene has been in a state of crisis for the last few years, trying desperately to salvage a wavering culinary image, and has undoubtedly left a few mouths unsatisfied. Food can make or break a travel experience for me so I understand how it feels to spend weeks scouring guidebooks and magazines for tips on where to eat only to be dismayed by mediocrity.

It goes without saying that restaurants that look and feel like tourist traps probably are and should be avoided (and are likely guilty of using industrial ingredients and relying on ready-made meals - more on that here). But even some of the most hyped, highly recommended places can disappoint. It's a question of anticipating some of the most mind-blowing meals of your life and some of the most shrug-worthy. I find that blogs and articles written by locals are some of the most reliable resources and can lead to some outstanding, under-the-radar eats. For some of my favorite places, click here.

To summarize, if you expect Paris to be an exact manifestation of the idealized fairy-tales you've concocted in your head, you're going to get burned. Keep your lofty imaginations in check, do your research and your visit will be time well-spent.

How do you manage your expectations when you travel? What, if anything, has disappointed you about Paris? 

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