10 tips for the Paris Débutante
1. Dress like a Parisien(ne) to avoid stares
The days that you rolled up to university in your jogging bottoms and a huge tee are over if you want to fit in in Paris. The dress code is the epitome of “less is more”. My statement outfit of matching as many colours as possible stood out like a sore thumb in the chic Paris. In Paris the clothing reflects the weather. In winter there were grey and dark clouds of coats and in summer there were sudden flashes of colour in an arrangement of black. Unfortunately this effortless chic that they pull off is something that I honestly believe they were born with. If you can, please tell me how, since I'm still figuring it out.
2. Don't rely on the métro
When I first arrived in Paris I oriented myself by the use of the métro map and barely saw daylight. Little did I know, Paris is a lot smaller than I originally thought. Sure the métro was invented for convenient transport and regardless of the smells of pee and body odour it is by far the quickest and safest way to go for the geographically challenged. If you have yet to see the daylight and eau de Paris, then use one of the following modes of transport:
Navigo is like Paris's Oyster Card. If you don't have a contract with your apartment you will have to pay €5 for the benefit of unlimited travel on bus/tram/rer/métro and have a photo of yourself handy. These are all available at every kiosk. This is just one of the reasons to avoid dodgy landlords, as if you have a proper contract you can head over to the RATP club where they will take your photo there and then and give you a free Navigo. Furthermore, if you lose your card it will only cost you €8 and they will replenish your monthly/weekly top up. The price depend on which zone you live in and you can either buy zones 1-2 (central Paris) or extend by each zone which, unsurprisingly, gets more expensive each time. If you buy a monthly pass you have dézonage on weekends which means that even if you only buy zones 1 and 2 you can still go to Versailles or Disney for free (or anywhere in zones 3-5).
If you're a student you can get a half price Navigo. Due to having a rough and hugely disorganised start to my year I could have applied for one but my friend did and she needed to set up a French bank account, send off her student certificate, her EHIC card, and the list went on.
If you fear for your life at the sound of city traffic you can take a deep breath. The city is adapted to stifle your fear; Vélib' is a self-service bike system available 24 hours a day, all year round, and there are cycle paths and routes to help you avoid being run over. If you, like my coloc (room mate), feel more secure with a helmet then you can purchase one at any Décathalon or Sports shop. The Vélib' Passion for 14-26 year olds costs only €29 per year for unlimited use, as well as 45 minutes free on each journey.
If you want to rely on someone else's sense of direction but still want to see the Paris sights, the bus is your best bet! The buses run all night (but on limited service) as Noctilienne and the stations are Gare de l'Est and Châtelet, but there are few places that they don't go to.
My Mexican Coloc came from Mexico City and to her Paris will always seem tiny. This meant that she used to see all of Paris as being walkable. When you have family and friends who visit but don't have unlimited public transport you find that every tourist hotspot from Bastille, Notre Dame, Hôtel de Ville, Pompidou Centre, Châtelet, the Louvre, Tuilerie Gardens, Concorde, the Palaces, The Assemblée Nationale, Madeleine and Champs-Elysées can all fit in one day's walking.
3. Become your own secretary
If you thought you could walk into Paris and be handed an apartment, a SIM card and your Erasmus grant in cash, I hate to break it to you but you have a mountain of paperwork to work through. Everyone has different forms for different things so the only advice I can give you is: Keep Yourself Organised. The best thing I ever did was get myself a diary and organise my paperwork in a folder. Even then I had my phone cut off because I didn't send the online company a written contract and didn't send them a bank statement when they had all my bank details already. Be prepared to locate every piece of paper that's ever been handed to you. My friends even had to get their birth certificate translated for CAF.
[Photo of Rue Mouffetard by Wally Gobetz]
4. Book yourself a hotel before you get there
Sounds pretty basic advice and pretty logical but I was in temporary accommodation for five weeks and still had to stay in a youth hostel for 2 more weeks. This wasn't through lack of looking and I saw roughly 2 apartments per day for 3 weeks but it was more that I wasn't lucky enough to find the right one until I found the right room mate. So, heads up: if you are coming in September, especially, then book yourself a hotel and don't be like my room mate who thought 5 days would be enough. Be prepared for the worst and you'll be happily surprised.
5. Get creative with space
After searching around Paris I realised one thing that apartments all have in common: they are tiny. In my apartment I share the bedroom/dining room/living room/study with my coloc. We have bookshelves that double as dividers, foldable beds that are seats, a spare mattress by our fridge and our wardrobe is in the corridor. We have lamps on every surface since we don't have a ceiling light and under tables we have suitcases. Yet we have one of the biggest apartments out of my friends and they have even thrown parties here before. Also on our walls we have pictures of outside strategically placed to remind ourselves at deadline time that we do live in Paris. Handy trick for those who will be studying too.
6. Learn to love baguettes
At first you will find this very easy and understand why inflation is measured in baguette prices, but after the first two weeks of only eating baguettes it can get tiresome. What I miss from home is the choice of food and an oven. The only friend I know who has an oven that's not masquerading as a microwave lives just outside of it. If it wasn't for the limited space in my box kitchen I would have believed there was a fear of fire or of boulangeries going out of business.
In the UK we can be lazy with food, as Jamie Oliver keeps telling us, but I miss not having to think about food before I leave to avoid having baguettes. There are no Prêt à Mangers, or small independent fast food places and, due to globalisation, if I'm caught off guard I go to the nearest McDonalds instead. However I do recommend going to Saint Michel for cheap food and if you're in a rush you'll have to learn to love baguettes, kebabs, paninis and crêpes.
7. Stop being a technophobe
I arrived in Paris with a five-year old laptop, a bag full of notebooks, a borrowed tablet and a smartphone. All the technology I had with me was either borrowed from my techno genius father or given to me as a present. So my advice is to embrace the technology. I used my kindle to read PDF uni work, my tablet to download TV shows, my smart phone to stop getting lost, and my laptop became my life. One essential app I recommend downloading is one from RATP where you can find how to get home or to meet friends when you've forgotten your pocket sized metro map. Also, if you took my advice and purchased a Vélib' ticket but can't find the next station - there's an app for that.
I know you're in Paris because you've found yourself an internship or you are studying, but to experience as much as you can fit in a year you have to explore. You have to explore the city, and get lost to discover hidden trinkets that only locals would know. Go to the free exhibits, look on Paris.fr for all the goings-on and join in with as many activities and events as possible.
Once you've explored Paris, it's time to see the rest of it. You could easily stay in Paris for your whole semester - or year - abroad, and I only left myself in the last months. To avoid being an isolationist Parisian you should see what France has to offer too, even simply to see how expensive Paris really is.
[Photo by Raffaella]
9. Join a club or association
The best decision I made was to join a sports team. My French improved tremendously and I made some amazing friends who would listen even if I couldn't figure out what to say. Nothing says community like joining a society or association. All the language and social barriers are gone and you are part of something, which is the best way to be part of the city.
Paris, for me, was a place to drink wine and eat cheese - like in the rest of France, but with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Yet when a glass of wine in a bar is the same price as bottle in the shop you tend to not go to the bar. I have drunk many more beers in parks, quays, streets and apartments than I have in bars. I have also realised that Happy Hour is always happy when you can get alcohol for the same price as back home (half Parisian price). I have also drunk less alcohol this year than I probably did last Freshers' Week as it's so expensive, but also there's not the same necessity to get drunk here.
I hope you take my words of advice on board, since these are the things I wish someone had told me before I got here, and learning them yourself is always the hard way.