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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Read this before going to Paris—you'll thank me later!

In the summer of 2016, I was arriving in Paris less than a week after the Bastille Day terror attack in Cannes. Before I left, I was having dinner with a group of well-traveled friends and a woman asked me, "Why would you want to go to Paris?"

"No one has ever asked that question. Ever," I responded with a little laugh. 

But I understood her concern. The world has changed considerably in the past few years and I've sadly realized that some places I've loved visiting in the past — like Israel and Turkey — may be off limits for the foreseeable future. But Paris?

I was in New York when the planes flew into the Twin Towers, living just a mile away and working many mornings at a nearby building. But I never for a minute thought of leaving New York afterwards. Nor was I afraid to go sit outside at the cafe across the street the next day. The November 2015 attacks in Paris were very different. These were random attacks on civilians, out for a pleasant evening to kick off the weekend. I was up very late that night, I couldn't go to bed until I knew all my friends in Paris were accounted for and safe at home. But I have to admit, I never considered not going to Paris seven months later. I did, however, plan on avoiding crowds and big events (like the final day of the Tour de France). I did notice a much larger and more visible police presence and security checks at every public building. I'm okay with that, though I did see graffiti that "Paris est un etat policier" - "Paris is a police state." 

I'm not naive but I refuse to live my life in fear. I am also in no way a security expert so my advice has nothing to do with staying safe from a terrorist attack. Instead, they are some simple safeguards that might help you avoid getting pickpocketed, stranded late at night, shut out of favorite restaurants, or under or over-dressed for the weather.

Things to keep in mind:

Skip the Champs des Elysees – Yes, go see the Arc de Triomphe, there's a great view of the city from the top. But the Champs des Elysee is very touristy, there's not much to see besides the big box stores you’d find in the States. The cafes aren't very good, but are very expensive. And pickpockets abound, which leads us to:

Be on the alert for scam artists --  Sadly, the Roma gypsies have a terrible reputation for scams and theft, yet with the influx of immigrants into France, you'll find that scam artists come in all ages and ethnicities. Do not be taken in. You'll find scammers wherever you find lots of tourists, particularly tourists distracted by taking photos, such as on the Champs de Mars by the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, les jardins de Tuilleries, the pedestrian bridge near the Musee D'Orsay, outside the Louvre.  Be especially vigilant.  They are very persistent and will get your wallet in a second.  

typical scam – a stranger will “find” a gold ring on the sidewalk and ask if it’s yours. If you respond, they will encourage you to just take it and then ask you for money for it.  Just say “NON!” very forcefully and keep going. (Generally if you are speaking French, you won't be bothered.)  

Another scam -- young teenage girls will ask you to sign a petition. Meanwhile they’re reaching under the clipboard and pickpocketing you – again, say NON!  Be careful at ATMs, they’re known to film you entering your password on their cell phones. Moments later they'll steal your wallet and now have access to your bank account.

Of course, the three-cup and a ball scam still is prevalent in Paris. Walk away.

In fact, if a stranger approaches you and asks if you speak English, your best response, is "Non, allez en." (No, go away.) If you say yes, these scammers will not leave you alone.

Near the steps up to Sacre Coeur, you may be approached by dark-skinned men who want to tie a free string bracelet around your wrist or finger ("for luck!"). Should you accept, they will then aggressively hound you for money. Same goes if you're given a free flower "for the pretty lady."

Alarmingly, the latest trend in scamming tourists seems to be gangs of very young children who accost picnickers in the parks, asking for money while they look for belongings they might be about to steal while you're distracted. They can be very aggressive. Be stern, you're not being rude – they’re seriously trying to rob you. Just forcefully say “NON, NON, et NON!”

Don't be fooled by homeless beggars with sleeping puppies, kittens or small children, Sadly, these pets and kids have usually been drugged to keep them quiet and passive.

Look at maps at cafes or inside shops, not on the street, as you don’t want to look lost. Better still, download your destination on Google maps before you leave your hotel, then you can just look at your phone, even if you don't have wifi. Always look like you know where you're going, even if you don't!

Oh! And change that baggage tag on your suitcase to just your name and cell phone number. If your luggage gets lost, no use telling thieves that your house is empty while you're on vacation.

Don't carry a backpack  – first off, they identify you as a tourist and second they are too easy to get into, especially in crowded, tourist sites. You won't see Parisians wearing backpacks.  Instead, I carry a shoulder bag I can put under my arm or a cross-body style bag. Don't put your bag over the back of your chair or on a stool when you're at an outdoor cafe. Be aware of your bag when you're shopping, especially in department stores. And limit what you carry. 

Clean out your wallet. Before you go, put away any credit cards you won't need while you're in Paris. If you're pickpocketed, you don't want to have to call your department store cards long distance to cancel them. American Express is accepted at more places but you'll still need to carry a MasterCard or VISA. You can also use most ATM cards overseas so no need to carry lots of cash. Take advantage of zippered compartments in your bag to stash a credit card and some cash just in case your wallet gets pickpocketed. Unless you're planning on shopping, leave your passport in the vault in your hotel room. You'll only need it if you're going to fill out forms for VAT tax. Before you go, take a photo of your passport, print out a copy to leave with someone stateside, keep a second copy with your travel documents.  Bring a copy of your prescriptions, too, including your eyeglass prescription.   

Take the Metro -- The Paris subways are generally clean and safe, but just be aware of your belongings, particularly in stations with lots of connections. Be very careful on escalators in crowded stations. Also, unlike in New York City, the Paris subways don't run 24 hours a day. Monday through Friday, the hours are 5:30am to 12:30am. Saturday and Sunday they keep running until 2:15 am.  If you find yourself out late at night, use Uber or take a taxi. Remember, taxis will rarely pick you up on the street. Either go to a taxi stand or ask the restaurant maitre d' to call a cab for you. 

I love Paris in the ...__ – I’ve now traveled to Paris in every season, though I spend most of my time there in the summer.  Autumn is lovely, but can be quite chilly and it does get dark by late afternoon. Most cafes have outside heaters but if you want the great people-watching, go in September/early October. 

Springtime in Paris is the indeed the stuff that inspires songwriters. Chestnut trees in blossom, love in the air. Also sometimes rain. Cold, wet rain. Think Seattle when it comes to packing -- layers you can add or subtract, portable umbrellas, comfy walking shoes that can get wet.

Winter is tricky.  I went to Paris for a few days a week or so before Christmas and it was magical seeing the avenues with their holiday lights, especially on the big department stores, Galleries Lafayette and Printemps.  However, if you’re traveling to see eye-popping holiday displays, go to New York. More spectacular and frankly, more interesting holiday street markets (but that’s another guidebook…).  And forget about Christmas in Paris. It’s very much a family holiday so many places, including restaurants, are closed.  Scarce staff at hotels. Instead, go for New Year’s Eve when the city explodes like a well-shaken bottle of champagne. Plus then you can hit the January “soldes” – the twice-annual sales!

So I’m going to concentrate on SUMMER.  Yes, it’s going to be busy with tourists and if that really bugs you, try to go in May or September. In June,  try to be there on June 21, the first official day of summer, for Fete de la Musique, a nationwide music festival. All concerts are free to the public and all the musicians perform for free, so you can imagine, the big venues are packed. However, there is literally music on every corner. Much is provided by the “Faites de la Musique” – amateurs who are “making music,” be it jazz, opera, reggae or rap, you’ll hear it all!

In July, Paris celebrates Bastille Day on July 14 with a big military parade and later that night, a spectacular fireworks display over the Eiffel Tower. It is a public holiday so many things are closed and public transportation may run on a limited schedule.  I arrived in Paris on Bastille Day one year, with plans to have dinner with my French family and then go watch the fireworks. It took two naps that day, but I was able to stay awake until 1:00 am to enjoy the celebration. For you see…

…the other great thing about Paris in the summer time is that it stays light until almost 11:00 p.m.  So you find yourself sitting down to dinner in an outdoor café around 9:00 and not drifting off to sleep until the wee hours. But that’s okay, because even if you sleep late the next morning, you still have a good twelve hours of daylight to explore the city! This holds especially true in June and July, by August it is getting darker around 9:30.

Skip August. Don’t go. Like much of western Europe, close to 85% of Parisians flee the city for month-long vacations in late July and almost all of August. Shops and cafes close up, even news kiosks. The corner bakery, some museums, even. The big tourist attractions like the Louvre, the Champs d’Elysee, and popular cafes like Le Flore and Café Deux Magots stay open, but you will really miss out on a lot of smaller, more authentic places that truly make Paris a magical place.

Paris when it sizzles. Literally. It can get very hot. Very hot. And few places, including theaters and museums, are air-conditioned.  For some reason, the French have not embraced that marvelous creation called the ice cube so even if you ask for your “Coca-Cola Light” with ice, you’ll be served an unopened warm can and a small glass with maybe four dice-sized cubes.  Although I am all for embracing local culture, I gave in and brought my own ice cube tray, one of those rubber ones, that I’ve left in my friends’ apartment. Because when I come home late, hot and sweaty and covered in that fine limestone dust, I want a very cold Coca Cola Light avec limon et glace!

Join a Fan Club. When I first met Carole, the matriarch of my French family (who I connected with through Twitter, of all things!), she presented me with several small “cadeaux” or gifts. One of which was a pretty paper folding fan, the kind that Scarlett O’ Hara might snap open at a barbeque with an “I declare, Mister Wilkes, you do go on!” I thanked her graciously, but with what must have been a rather confused look. THAT FAN SAVED MY LIFE! Waiting in line at L’Orangerie, during intermission at the Opera Ballet, reading a menu at a café in Place des Vosges. I took it everywhere, it was as indispensible as my wallet and camera. (It has also traveled with me to every warm weather destination from Spain to Israel to Mexico!) Almost every souvenir stand sells them – snap one up to use immediately then keep your eye out for one that better suits your taste. It takes up absolutely no room in your bag and you will thank me later. De rien.

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