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wikitravel: scratching below the surface of Paris

One of the joys of travelling to a foreign country is getting to know the people who actually live there, work there, or have made a life there. This is not always as easy to do as one might wish, either because in a big city like Paris (as in most big cities) it can be hard to connect due to its pace and sheer size, but also because in France - and even more so in the large cities - the French are simply not in the habit of opening up to others. Even the way they live tends to cut them off from other people: in Paris, most people live in apartments totally cut off from the street which are often further barracaded behind huge communal doors equipped with intercodes, guards, etc. Even balconies are fairly rare and are never used in the 'public' manner one might find in, say, southern Italy where the denizons wave and call out, dine, and hang their laundry; in Paris a balcony may have a few plants used more as a further blocade than anything else. Of course, still less does one find street level gardens where one might peek in and even start a conversation or ask a direction as one might do in San Francisco or even parts of London. One can go to a cafe, or course, but even there a 'wall' is often built; one might very well have a pleasant exchange but it will be superficial, and you will certainly never be invited to the acquaintance's home. The French do not even invite each other to visit their homes unless they are family or very good friends; a business dinner invariably takes place in a restaurant.

There are certainly other factors: one may not speak French - itself a language that can create 'distance' through the use of 'vous' or the 'impersonal'- or the weather may not be conducive to lingering outside. And yet, other nationalities seem more ready to push through these barriers - in my own travels I have often been invited 'back home' in places as diverse as Barcelona, Capri, London, Dublin, Istanbul, Copenhagen, and certainly in the United States, even when I have not spoken the native tongue.

One good way to break through the barrier is to stay at a bed and breakfast (B&B, chambre d'hote) rather than in a hotel. Chosen wisely, a b&b will offer an experience of 'living' in the country and offer a glimpse into everyday life right down to the family meal ritual, the newest rose winner at the famous Courson plant expo (the French 'Chelsea') planted near the front door, or even an egg from a long-forgotten race of French hen from the family's chicken coop. If you are lucky, you can literally plunge into at least some aspects of French life only an hour off your flight from New York or London and attain a level of intimacy certainly denied your confreres/consoeurs at the local Hyatt or even that rather old small hotel on a side street in the 13th arrondissement of Paris.

It is true that there are not all that many true b&bs actually in Paris; many are in fact small, or not so small, hotels, others are actually empty apartments where your only intimate experience of the 'real' life in France is how to get the toilet to flush, or it may simply be Pierre's old bedroom (filled with the detritus of his lycee days) that his parents, both gone all day trying to earn enough to afford both their Paris apartment and their weekend house in Normandy, have decided to 'let out' on the principle that, well, the room is now empty (and God forbid that a centimeter of precious Parisian apartment space should not pay its way) and that, after all, Madame has only to heat an 'industrial' croissant or baguette in the morning for the guest as she rushes off in a waft of Opium on her way to the metro at 7 am.

This is not to say that a more satisfying b&b experience does not exist, either in Paris or in the rest of France - far from it. But make sure you do a bit of research before making your choice so that you end up neither in Pierre's old bed nor (perhaps worse?) in one of the million 'gites' run by the hordes of fleeing Brits who may themselves be living in a British 'ghetto' (especially in Brittany and the south of France), do not speak French, do not know France, are not involved in the local life but who certainly know cheaper land values, cheaper wine, and better weather when they see it and hope that letting out (in this case) Jeremy's old bed will allow them to continue to enjoy la bonne vie.

What to look for and how to find it? You want a place that is run by someone who does this out of a love for people and hospitality - and normally that conviviality will shine through on their website (your most likely bet). This is not a business people go into to get rich and nor should it be just a way to bring in a few euros after the kids leave. Indeed, because (done properly)it requires real hard work behind the scenes, an attention to detail, and great trust on the part of the owner to open his/her home the only real reason to do it is from a love of people and a pride in revealing the France not normally experienced by a casual tourist. France, like all of Europe, is a nation of immigrants who form the fabric of the land (look at Sarkozy, for example) so one needn't shy away from a non-French run b&b but choose someplace where the owner speaks the language - already a good indicator of involvement in France and a commitment to life there.

If Paris is on your agenda - and it should be - do not restrict yourself to staying in the city center. Some of the reasons are discussed above. But there are other reasons: by staying just outside the city center you may well find a pace of life that allows you to enter more intimately and more quickly into the 'French experience'. The rates may well be cheaper and you will certainly get more value for your money; there will be space, clean air, hopefully quiet at night, and amenities Paris cannot provide (gardens, parking, clean sidewalks, space for all the family together, access to recreational facilities, a fireplace, a small town center that is safe and 'open' where you can meet the locals, and those very 'peeks' over the garden wall only dreamt of in Paris itself. As for transportation, this is the other interesting part: it can very often be quicker to go from the suburbs of Paris to, say, the Louvre, than to get there from Pierre's old bedroom several metro transfers away, and you will quite possibly arrive there more rested, with more cash in your pocket, and after having had a charming conversation with your hostess who has given you real ideas of what to see on you first trip (afer all, you know about the Eiffel tower already!) and quite possibly enough breakfast that you will only need a snack before her dinner recommendations start to seem appealing.

Again,where to look? There are a lot of good websites which, of course, tend to be more up to date than published guidebooks. Try typing in 'b&b paris area' or 'b&b Ile de France', possibly adding descriptives such as 'garden b&b','near golf', 'family friendly', 'near Versailles', 'near Giverny', or 'Yvelines'(birthplace of Louis XIV and home of Emile Zola, Dumas, Empress Josephine, and the Impressionists); some good general sites include,,,, not to mention 'non-commercial' sites in which independent reviewers write in about their own experiences (, - especially good for helping women get the most out of their trips abroad).

Go with a curious attitude and a willingness to forego peanut butter or marmite and you will find that even without speaking the language, your openness and the warm welcome and advice of your b&b host(ess) will enable you to enter into a part of France that the French normally reserve for themselves, la vraie bonne vie!