Cluster France

Requisite Eiffel Tower shot.

This will be taking things a bit out of chronological order, but I don't think I can write about my trip for very long without getting this out of the way: I didn't really like France that much.

It's not that the people were rude, which seems to be an unfair stereotype that Americans have about French people. Now, I might have stacked the deck in my favor by at least learning polite phrases and greetings in French (as well as "I don't understand" and "Do you speak English"), which I think people appreciated. But I found everyone I interacted with, whether they spoke English or not, to be quite polite. Polite, but not necessarily nice. There was none of that enthusiastic friendliness of the people in Greece, or even the kindly-under-a-reserved-shell demeanor of people in England, but they certainly weren't rude.

It wasn't that I had a difficult time getting around or communicating, either. Once I got enough change in euros to use in the machines, which were often only coins or cards (and I assumed the card readers were chip-and-pin only), I had no trouble switching the language to English and buying what I needed for the RER (a cross between suburban rail and D.C.'s Metro) and the Metro (subway). In fact, I'd been in Paris about three hours when I was at a ticket machine and the woman at the machine next to me started asking me questions in French. All I could say was "juh nuh com pruhn pah." What I really wanted to say is "I've been here for less than three hours and you speak French, therefore you should be better at this than me." But that was well beyond my French skills.

Paris Metro.

As for communicating, the longer I was there, the more comfortable I felt using my limited French, and I even picked up a few new words and phrases. The waitress at the cafe I ate at switched to flawless English when I asked her if she spoke it, but I think even if she hadn't, we could have muddled through. I do wish I had learned to count to 10 — I could remember a few numbers from the wee little middle school language class they did for us, but not all of them. Still, by holding up a number of fingers and saying the English word if I didn't know the French, I got what I needed across.

I saw some remarkable things there, so it wasn't that it was boring. I already blogged about the creepy but fantastic experience of walking the catacombs. I also saw Versailles, Notre Dame, and the Louvre, did a boat tour on the Seine, and saw an exhibit on the SS France in the maritime museum. And I also drank some fantastic wine (not exactly surprising), ate some brilliant baked goods, and had a piece of goat cheese that might be the best cheese I've ever eaten.

So where did France go wrong for me? Mostly, it was all of the tourists. When I played my favorite France game — tourist, or Parisian? — on the RER or Metro, I generally felt like the ratio was about half and half. Granted, I was visiting in May, but the ratio was not nearly the same when I played tourist, or Londoner? on the Tube. Somehow, London seemed better able to absorb its tourists.

Part of the problem was simply the number of tourists, combined with a healthy share of laissez-faire attitude from anyone working at any sort of tourist attraction. Take Versailles. Having heard that the ticket lines were ridiculous, I ordered my ticket online in advance. You were supposed to be able to print the ticket from a link in the confirmation email they sent. Except there was no link in the confirmation email. I emailed them asking what I was supposed to do, and they said to go to their Internet desk when I got to Versailles and they would print it for me.

So I get to Versailles, and go to the Internet desk, and there is no one there. Fuming, I got into the ticket line, and also on the phone to their Internet tickets number. Fortunately I did the latter, because the woman I talked to on the phone told me just to go to the entrance, and they would print the ticket for me there. Except you don't just go to the entrance at Versailles. You wait, in a line that snakes up and down the giant courtyard several times. After an hour of waiting in line, I got in to the entrance building and handed a man my Internet confirmation, and he did indeed print my ticket. I also saw that the line was pointlessly long — if they had more than two people taking tickets, and more than one x-ray machine for everyone's things, there would be no line.

Line at Versailles.

I waited in a pointless line at the catacombs, as well, this time for more like an hour and a half. There were signs posted that they could only allow 200 people down in the catacombs at one time, so they were letting very small groups in at a time. But simple math says that if it takes 45 minutes to go through the catacombs, and there are 200 people allowed down there at once, they should have put about 400 people through in the time I was waiting. Uh, not even close. And when I finally got down there, I can definitely tell you there were not 200 other people down there with me. I don't even think I saw ten other people. Live people, that is.

It wasn't just the lines, though. Any time you have that many tourists in one place, a certain number of them are going to be idiots, and when you combine that with a lack of enforcement of any sort of rules, you get people taking flash photography all over Versailles and the Louvre. Now, the signs at Versailles were not the most clear about what you could and couldn't take pictures of. But the signs at the Louvre were exceedingly clear, and done with images, so there should have been no language barrier. Yet there were people taking flash photos all over the place, especially of the Mona Lisa, and I never heard anyone tell them to stop. I can't even imagine the amount of damage all of those paintings get over the course of a year. A guard did tell me to put my camera away at the SS France exhibit at the marine museum, and while I really would have liked pictures of the France artifacts, I respected that at least somebody was enforcing something (albeit something terribly sign-posted). They need to transfer that guy to the Louvre.

Mona Lisa paparazzi.

And that was my other issue with France, especially Paris — it seems like a caricature of itself. All of those tourists, dutifully shuffling along with their flashes turned on, crowding in front of the Mona Lisa (a painting that just doesn't really do it for me), looking at a painting because it's the thing to do. The buskers that get on the Metro and RER trains and play "romantic" accordion music. It seems like a city that exists for tourists, a string of cliches and cafes. That might be why the people in Paris are polite, but not necessarily deep down kind. They seemed to have a sort of big city weariness, to be tired of dealing with too many tourists. I live near Washington D.C., and I get that.

Not my video. I feel obligated to give a busker money if I take a picture or video, and I did not want to give any of these guys money. But this gives an idea of what I'm talking about.

But I don't get that sense in London. Sure, it's a city with plenty of cliches, with its Routemaster buses and Big Ben and all that pomp and circumstance. But it's also a city where you see building cranes on the horizon, progress happening amongst the historical sites. It's a city where you can step out of a Tube station and hear three buskers who've taken the trouble to lug out amplifiers and a drum kit covering Cream. It's a diverse city, and a city where normal people take the Tube to work and to the pub after, spilling out into the street with their pints. It's rock and roll and pubs with real ale.

This is my video. Now THIS is busking.

In short, it's still my favorite city in the world. Sorry, Paris, you were no competition.

Some might say that I should go back, and give it more time to grow on me. But on my last morning there, with a late-morning Eurostar train back to London, I still hadn't seen Notre Dame, and I was debating whether to drop my luggage at the train station and squeeze it in. It would have been less stressful just to stay at the train station and stuff my face with croissant and pan au chocolat, but I realized that if I saw Notre Dame, I wouldn't ever feel like there was something I really wanted to see that I'd missed, like I had to go back someday.

So I dropped my stuff in a locker at the Gare du Nord and went to Notre Dame, and now I'm not sure if I'll ever be back to Paris. Not with the lure of London just two and a half hours away.

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