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Down & Out in Paris

le Metro
Regular lurkers on this blog will know that I'm an Australian marooned in Paris. I've been here six years. So I think I know I little bit about the place. This article from The Sydney Morning Herald's Travel Section caught my eye. And as usual they are touting the place as one of the most expensive cities on Earth - the 12th to be exact. What a load of crap. Yes, like any big city, you can spend a fortune here. But you can also do it on the smell of the proverbial oily rag.

Here's what they said and what I say.

"The beautiful City of Light is not cheap, ranking 12th on the world list of expensive cities, but there is so much to see and do for nothing that it could be classed as a bargain.

Sure, the view from the Eiffel Tower is going to cost plenty but the view from the city's highest point, at the Sacre Coeur, will cost nothing. And it won't cost anything to wander around the artists' shops in the cute Place du Tertre in Montmartre, or to absorb some of the sleaze in the Pigalle district."

I've never been up the Awful Tower. Isn't that shocking? It's only a twenty minute walk away, too. I can't stand crowds and/or tourists and you get both in spades at the Tower. But one day I'll do it. Probably have dinner in the one Michelin Star Jules Verne Restaurant on the Second Stage or the Altitude95 on the First ("reminiscent of an airship moored above Paris").231239-328879-thumbnail.jpg

Yes, the view from Sacre Coeur at Montmartre is pretty good. But again, the place is swamped with dopey tourists. I suppose it's worth a visit but wild horses wouldn't get me to "cute" Place de Tertre again with its so-called "artists". This is hardcore schmucksville. Avoid it like the plague. Unless, of course, you go for being led like a lamb to the slaughter to the impasto canvases of Montmartre street scenes. Or clowns and girls with big eyes done in a faux Bernard Buffet style. And the "sleaze" of Pigalle is nothing you haven't already seen in Kings Cross, Sydney. Except with a French accent. It's wall-to-wall pickpockets, junkies, touts and thieves. Oh yeah...forget Moulin Rouge, too - it's just another tourist trap.

"Markets are an endless source of fascination and bargains - try the Bastilles Aligre, where North African traders hawk cheap produce."

And rob you blind if you let them. There's markets happening every day all over Paris. The more "colourful" ones are in the outer arrondissements like the 18/19/20th where there's a large immigrant population.

"If you want to take an antique home, the Marche aux Puces is a gathering of a dozen mini-markets, said to be the world's largest antiques bazaar."

"The world's largest flea-market" I think you'll find it's known as. You'll get Helen Kellered there, too, if you don't watch it. And, again, the place is full of dodgies and pickpockets. You're better off going to the much smaller and closer weekend flea-market at Porte de Vanves - "Marché aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves". There's plenty of real bargains without the aggro of the other (known here as "Clignancourt" from the district it's in).

"Paris on a budget used to mean dodgy hotels with strange, scary smells and strange, scary guests. The guests either died (perhaps that's what the smell was) or moved on and now the general standard of budget hotel is at least as high as London. Breakfast is not usually included."

Depends. Lots of budget hotels throw in a breakfast of expresso coffee and baguette. The plumbing might be a bit ordinary and sometimes the shower and loo will be down the hall. Try getting a single or double room at a backpackers. That can be a better deal than a "budget" hotel. The "Star" rating system here is weird, too. The difference between a Two Star and Three Star hotel can just be the provision of a TV in the room, in some cases. I've stayed at some perfectly fine Two Stars. The other tip is to Google "Paris apartments" like my mate Michael Davies did and there's plenty of choice. He scored a terrific little apartment in the chic 7th Arrondisement for about the same price as a 3 star hotel. It was above a decent boulangerie and had bars, shops, restaurants, banks in the immediate vicinity. And was opposite a Metro station as well. To top it off it had just been renovated and absolutely everything was brand-new. Email me if you want the details.

"If you're happy to drag your luggage up three flights of stairs you might be rewarded with a fine view and a low tariff. And if you can pick your time, pick August. Most of Paris has moved to the Riviera at this time; apart from the depths of winter, this is the quietest part of the year."

August? High summer? You'd have to be out of your mind to come here in August. It's stinking fucking HOT and the air-pollution from cars and factory emissions is a real problem - especially if you're asthmatic. Yeah "most of Paris has moved to the Riviera" - they know better. It also means that a lot of bars, cafes, restaurants and shops are closed for the duration as well. Pick April/early May - this time of year. Perfect spring weather - not too hot, not too cold. And the hoards haven't arrived yet.

"Eat in side-street restaurants, but pick the menu touristique only if you're really desperate. Better to buy a fresh baguette and some saucisson and make your own or visit a traiteur - a kind of butcher-takeaway restaurant - and invest in a plastic fork."

Stupid advice. Side-street restaurants are often disastrous. Why would you pick "menu touristique"? Do like the locals and select the "Formule" with the "plat du jour" - look for the blackboard menu outside. In Paris it's usually €10-12. For that you'll get a main course with dessert and coffee. Can be pretty good. Stick to what they do best - Salads, tartes, quiche, "Steak Frites" (steak, fries, salad), Lasagne, Veal, Chicken or even "Moules Frites" - mussels with fries. All the classic dishes. Onion soup and baguette is cheap and filling. Avoid "traiteurs" - they're pricey. Instead, get thee to the Boulangerie and buy the staff of life - a baguette will only cost from €.70-1.10 and you can get cheese, ham, wine etcetera from the "Supermarché" (supermarket) for the same price you pay at home. Except the wine might be cheaper. By the way, Chinese food is pretty ordinary here. And expensive. But you might be lucky and come across a Thai or Cambodian stall in one of the street markets. Lebanese is also "patchy" and expensive here. If you plan on bar-hopping or clubbing, expect to pay anything from €5-10 for a beer. Makes for an expensive night. Alternatively, €3.30 will buy you a six-pack of stubbies at the Supermarket and you can sit by the river and someone's sure to be strumming a guitar.

Pont des Arts
"Master the Metro - it's easy and cheap. Buy an orange card for unlimited travel for about $20; you'll need a photo ID (which you can get from photo booths in Metros and post-offices). Don't use taxis unless you must. Walk as much as you can; the city centre is compact and fascinating and the Seine is wonderful and free."

Yeah, the Metro is the business but watch out for pickpockets - gypsy kids target tourists for "dipping" - one stages a diversion and the others swarm the victim. Happens all the time. Avoid sitting on the platform seats - that's where the "clochards" - the bums sleep and piss. None of my guidebooks mentions it but the buses and trams are a great way to see the city - with NO TOURISTS. Yeah it seems to be just locals that use them. Same ticket as the Metro. You get on at the front of the bus, validate your ticket in the machine and move to the rear. Get off at the back door. Avoid peak hours when they are often horribly crowded (ditto the Metro). Try the Line 42 bus from Gare du Nord. For the price of a Metro ticket it'll take you through the heart of Paris - from the Right Bank and across la Seine to the Left bank. Brilliant. And no stupid loud-mouthed Yanks oohing and aahing in your ear. Just the locals and sometimes their lapdogs.

The other day I got the RER C (one of the suburban trains) to Issy Val de Seine and took the tram to Muerton sur Seine (spelling?) and walked up the hill past beautiful turreted houses and well-kept gardens to a quiet little village ten minutes up the hill. Great view of houseboats and working barges on the Seine and the Eiffel Tower and the city in the distance. The tram was new, clean and almost empty. You can use a Metro ticket. That tram line follows the river right around to La Defense where the shiny new glass highrise office blocks are. You can get a Metro back to the centre of Paris. And once again - not a tourist in sight.

And what's this about "don't use taxis"? More misinformation. I use them now and again and they're a bloody sight better than Sydney cabs. They seem to be late-model Mercedes Benz and Peugeot for the most part and they are clean, well-maintained and often sport GPS. I dare say there are some rude taxi-drivers and rip-offs but I haven't come across one yet. It costs me about €15 to get home from the middle of town - about $25. But who's complaining when it's two-thirty in the morning and the last Metro left two hours ago? And if there's three of you - what's the problem? I say "three" because sometimes the cabbie won't let anyone ride in the front. You work it out. I can't.

Guinguette Auvergnate
And how's this? You know the famous Renoir painting "Luncheon of the Boating Party"? You can go to a place somewhat like it on the Seine - 18 kilometres South-East of Paris. It's only a 20 minute train ride on the RER D line from Gare de Lyon. Guinguette Auvergnate it's called (pronounced "Gung-gette") and it's open for lunch every day except Monday and for dinner Friday and Saturday. With dancing on the second and fourth Friday of every month after 8pm and on the second Sunday of the Month from midday. The "Formule" menu offers traditional French family dishes from €18 - €45. Noto Bene: no jeans and no trainers.

"Tipping: Not usual in restaurants as they often slug you 15 per cent service charge. Small change is fine."

Tipping not usual in restaurants!!!Bulltwang. That's a surefire way of getting the famous Gallic snarl of disdain. YOU MUST tip. Even if it's just a few Euro. Tipping is a way of life here. Like the States, service people are on minimum wage (about AU$1700 a month) and they rely on tips to boost their earnings. Tip the cabbie. Tip the barman. Tip the waiter. Tip the guy that holds the door of the post-office open if you want to. Always carry some shrapnel in your pocket. You'll see lots of beggars in the street here, too. From all over Europe. The Parisians tolerate them and give a few cents (like 10 or 20 cent coins). It's not gonna kill you to sling a few coins their way. "There but for the Grace of God go I" and all that.

I reckon you could wander around Paris all day and only spend €5 if you really wanted to. Including food and transportation. €10 is probably more like it. But even that's a cheap day when you're travelling. Isn't it?

Up Your Date: tomorrow night I go to see Australian muso Mick Hart play in a little cellar bar just off the Pantheon - "Pomme d'Eve" (Eve's Apple). Ben Harper has given Mick a big wrap. Mick has also supported Jeff Buckley, Sting, Bob Dylan etc etc but has never broken into the Big Time. Yet. He's been doing the Festival circuit around Europe and has quite a following. The silly prick might even end up sleeping on our "nite'n'day". Last time he was here we had him for dinner and he plugged in Cécile's electric guitar and let rip. Don't know whether we could get away with it in this ritzy neighbourhood. We'll see.231239-328456-thumbnail.jpg

...Charlie's parents will be featured in "Good Housekeeping" magazine shortly.

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Reader Comments (16)

I think you just about summed it all up.

The other thing that people forget is that as far as the food goes you get very good value for money in as much as the quality of the food is fantastic. I didn't have a dud meal the whole time I was there.
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Davies
and how cheap is it just to get a baguette and munch on that for a few hours!!

loved the article Mal. You will see that i just posted some photos from Paris on my Flickr page for you. theyre not that good and im sure youve seen enough photos of paris - but i thought id get them up anyway.
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterhex
Loved it Mal - I didn't have any of those issues in Paris. MrB and I always had the menu du jour - although trying to get a translation of 'lapin' turned out quite amusing...
Unlike the parents-in-law who insisted on eating in a Korean restaurant??? Didn't trust the french places. WTF?
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteractonb
Like Michel D. says, the food is good. The French are fussy about food - it's a national obsession - food & sex. Not a bad combo. I put on 10 kilos when I came here - hooking into les gateaux.
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMal
mex, where is the link to your flickr page and blog?
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMal
in my head... although you can get there from Wendys.
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterhex
D'accord. I've had a bit of response to this quick dribble about Paris. It was that lightweight Sydney Morning Herald article that got me going.

BIG TIP: When you come to Gay Paree you must know at least a few words of frog and a few phrases. It makes all the difference. Yes the French speak some English but they prefer their own beautiful language. The trick is for you, the visitor, to do them the courtesy of "having a go". Doesn't matter if you mangle it. In fact that's expected. But you must learn "Bonjour" "Merci" "Au Revoir" "Bonne Journée" etc. But the MAGIC WORDS are...and these are the keys to the kingdom..."Excusez-moi de vous deranger, Monsieur (Madame)" - "Excuse me for bothering you, Sir". Learn how to say that. If you know nothing else at least get this phrase right. NO French person will walk away or ignore you when they hear this extremely polite saying. You can go into English afterwards but if you lead with this you get instant "street cred" ("how does he know that?" they'll be thinking).

"Excusez-moi de vous deranger, Monsieur, mais je suis perdu" or "je cherche" or "pouvez-vous m'aider, s'il vous plait?" - "Excuse me for bothering you Sir but I'm lost" or "I'm looking for" or "can you help me, please?" MAGIC WORDS. I guarantee you that the French will be all over you trying to help after they hear you say this.

And don't forget wherever you are to say "Bonjour" and "Au revoir" (comes out like "Orv wah"). Try and remember to add "Monsieur" or "Madame" at the same time.

The French are rude and arrogant? No they're not. They are very polite and proud. More so than we are. They are also formal. Comes from hundreds of years of Formal (courtly) behaviour. You NEVER presume to use a person's first name - always "Monsieur, Madame or Mademoiselle", no matter who they are - even the clochards and the street-sweepers. The French CAN be rude (and Parisians more so than provincials) if you don't know the codes. Remember - this is the Number One Tourism destination in the world - 80 Million tourists a year! And if you're just another dumb bastard yelling English into their face...
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMal
The first night I was in Paris, my daughter and I were struggling with our bags out of the Metro and a man stopped and held the doors open for us, when he walked away up the stairs it was obvious he was crippled. On the way up the stairs a very old woman stopped and helped a young mother carry her pram up the stairs.

My daughter turned around and said "I thought the French were supposed to be rude - no-one would be so helpful in Sydney".

You will get the occasional wanker but tell me somewhere you don't.
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael D
A good tip given to me by Mal - If you are interested in food go to a restaurant called La Commerce on the Rue de Commerce (I think) in the 15th - not far from the Three Ducks

Established in the 30s and no tourists there.
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMichael D
I never experienced anyone being rude to me in Paris - but I do suggest you even attempt to speak a few words of French.

With my sad schoolgirl Quebecois French, mostly I got a response in English, but if you persevere, life is good....
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWCS
yes, the tablets are doing me well.. :)
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDeRex
Having been brought up on a diet of racist Frog-hating English humour, I had been expecting the French to be rude, arrogant etc. I loved them! And France in general! Big Surprise (!) I loved the answer to our 'parlais vous Anglais' was always 'un petit' and then perfect English would follow... I loved that even my pathetic attempts at speaking French were appreciated. MrB did not love that, although he was the one who had studied French at school (I did Japanese & German), no French person ever actually understood him - I would repeat whatever he had said, in a slightly less Ocker accent, and everything would be sweet... Poor MrB and his Shire-boy accent...
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteractonb
Fair dinkum? Strewth! Fucking frogs - you'd think they'd learn the Queen's English. After all, we saved their arses in two World Wars, you know.
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMal
Mal - my first couple of trips to France were Dover-Calais booze runs. Eastbourne was only about 90 mins from Dover. My God! The stereotype is pretty convincing when you see the dopey poms and their minivans full of booze and fags, eating their moules, wearing their football shirts, swearing loudly and refusing to acknowledge they were in a different country. They treated it as if France was one big Off Licence.
May 2, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteractonb
I cringe when I see that. Saw enough of them in Dieppe. It's your Pommy working classes, innit.
May 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMal
Your Chavs...
May 3, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteractonb

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