Saturday, January 17, 2009

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

First stop, Charles de Gaulle Airport...or Orly Airport if you prefer. Paris has two international airports to choose from; though I have always flown into and out of CDG. Since Paris is one of the most toured cities in the world, CDG is always hopping. If you plan on arriving on a French holiday
(and there are many here) it may be less so, but don't ever count on an empty airport. On my latest excursion, I arrived on New Year's Day and there were a at least thirty people ahead of me in line at customs. The good news was that the line went quickly and I only had to wait for maybe ten minutes max including my time spent with the customs officer.

CDG is fairly easy to navigate, especially considering its size. If you do get lost there are plenty of people who speak English. The French are proud of their language and it is recommended to learn a few basic words like 's'il vous plaît' (prounounced see-voo-play) and 'merci' (mare-see). Another good phrase to know is 'Do you speak English?' 'Parlez-vous anglais, s'il vous plaît?' (par-lay voo-zahn-glay see-voo-play?) If you treat the French with respect by attempting to use their language, they will be more than helpful to you.

From the airport, you can take a cab, rent a car or take the train into Paris proper. Cabs are pricey, but they get you door to door. Depending on how much luggage you have, it is the easiest way to go. Typical prices are 50-80 euros from CDG. Make certain to ask the driver driver beforehand what his estimated quote would be. Just say, 'C'est combien a Paris?' (say cohm-bee-on ah paw-ree?)

For the more daring soul you can rent a car. You just need your American license. However, it is strongly recommended that you have an International license. If you plan to move here, you are required to obtain a French license after one years time. A driver must be 18 to drive here. So, for all you 16 and 17 year-olds who have your license from home, you are out of luck here. Mom and Dad will have to do the driving for you.

In France, drivers drive on the same side of the road as we do at home. Thankfully, it's not like in the U.K. where you are trying to remember to be on the wrong side of the road, while managing the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car. That's the good news. What may be a little more intimidating for an American driver is that Europe is a lot older than the states and the buildings therefore are a lot closer together. That means the roads are smaller. Cars fill the roads and drivers here drive unbelievably fast, which can be a bit daunting. Just take a deep breath and go for it.

Speaking of fast driving, while crossing the street, pay attention AT ALL TIMES. Just because the little man is green for you, doesn't mean cars won't be running you down. I haven't quite figured out why everyone seems to go in all directions at the same time, but drivers still will cross your path while your pedestrian light is green. So, please do yourself a favor and be vigilant about your surroundings while crossing the street.

If you do decide to drive I would recommend to get a small small small car...Did I say small? Remember the roads are much smaller than at home and parking in any metropolitan city isn't exactly easy. Without a doubt, Peugots can be easily found here and are the quintessentially small car.

Just a reminder that all signs are in metric, which should not be too much of an issue since your car will be metric, as well. Something to also note is that the street signs are typically posted on the side of corner buildings—usually anyway, but not always. Because of this it is not as easy to calculate cross streets to figure out where you are, but with a little patience you can manage.

Next stop for today are the trains. You can certainly take the train from the airport into the city. You may have to transfer one or more times and considering you will have to go up and down a few stairs, you may not want this option if you have a lot of luggage to contend with. However, for the budget conscious traveler, this is definitely the way to go.

Once you are in Paris and your luggage is safely tucked in the hotel, Le Metro is an easy way to travel through the city. There are maps all over the place. In fact, even Parisians carry a map booklet around with them. This will include the metro map, as well. If maps aren't your thing or you are simply not prepared, just go the the information desk at the station. If you do have a map, then various routes will be marked by different colors, making it easy to decipher which on you will need. At both ends of the line it will list a letter or number. That will be the train route. You also look at the end of the line to see what the last stop is called in order to know the direction you want. Follow the signs in the station with the letter/number AND the direction and voila, your train will arrive momentarily.

And unless you are traveling late at night, trains arrive every couple of minutes or so. In fact, I have never waited longer than 3 minutes. THREE minutes! It always amuses me when I see someone rushing to make the train only to become irritated when they don't make it. There will be another one lickety split. By the time you whip out your newspaper to kill time the next train will be there. So, there is no need in wasting energy in becoming upset. Our public transportation system could learn a thing or two from the French.

When you are on the train and your station comes up, please take note that most trains to do not open their doors automatically. Look for either the button or pull up the handle and the doors will open for you.

Some stations are easy to get through without buying a ticket. I caution you not to try this, however, as there are police officers who randomly ride the trains and check tickets. It is also good to know that they are checking to see if the current date is stamped on the ticket. When you put your ticket in a gate to enter the station, the gate will date stamp your ticket. However, for the stations that do not have a gate there is a little orange box to put your ticket in which will stamp the date on it. One way or the other, you MUST stamp your ticket before getting on the train. One does not want to deal with an officer screaming at you in a language you do not understand for breaking the rules; not to mention the fact you will have to pay a pretty hefty fine which could have easily been avoided.

Trains outside of Paris can be a little trickier. While it's easy to get into Paris from an outside train, getting back takes a little bit of education. At Gare du Nord for example, you will find an old fashioned black screen that posts the upcoming trains. Again you will want to look at the final destination to figure out if that is your train. However, for certain cities there are several trains that may have the same final destination, but they all take different routes: which means they may not go through the town that you want. The best way to go is to ask the information desk for your city, what platform (voie) and the time of the train. If you have these three pieces of information you should be okay. Take it from someone who has had to come back to Paris to get to the right train, it is just easier to ask.

Of course, the best mode of transportation while in Paris proper is your own two feet. Traveling by foot really allows you to discover the pure essence of any new city. Who knows what you will find? Maybe you will see a concert violinist playing. You might discover the most beautiful floral arrangements at a florist. Perhaps a pâtisserie (bakery) will offer a wildly decadent dessert that would be nearly impossible to find its equal at home. Besides, walking gives you the exercise you need to walk off the extra calories you will be eating while you are here. No wonder the French are thin...they walk everywhere!

Vive la France !

Thank you for reading and bonne journée!