Parisian postcard, 2013

August 28th, 2013
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Those of you contemplating a trip to the City of Light ™ may benefit from these few words. My family and I spent eight days there last month and have a few experiences worth sharing.

All indications are that Paris, as a tourist destination, is more popular than ever. This suggests that people are weighing the cultural experience against the shall-we-say challenges, and deciding to visit.

It’s worth stating off the top that all the cultural advantages are still present, as they were decades ago. And they now pick up after their dogs – making navigation of the irregular sidewalks a lot easier. Smoking is also banned from the inside of restaurants, so those wanting to relive the ambience of the old Paris need only sit outside.

The best way to describe Paris today is that it’s over-taxed, and not the kind of tax that sent Gerard Depardieu into the arms of Putin either. No, there are simply too many tourists, at least in the high season, for the infrastructure.

Like many trips to la ville lumiere, it starts and ends with the Louvre. To say the venerable museum is overrun is an understatement. Imagine the healthy crowds of yore with a large new Asian contingent added, plus all those eastern Europeans once held back by the Iron Curtain. Could one be nostalgic for the Iron Curtain?

The crowds themselves could be managed. As in Florence, the tours only visit about five spots in the museum. Rooms with say, the Dutch Masters, are basically empty. The problem is in the room with the porcelain fixtures.

As in many cities, museums are one of the few reliable places one can find digestive refuge. In Paris, unless you want to use a street-side johnny, this is especially true. The loos in the Louvre are just not up to the traffic. Our visit showed, in the Men’s, three of five stalls out-of-order and no soap. The Ladies’ had the usual endless, serpentine line-up; cleanliness was not reported. One alternativeto this overcorwding has been tried in China, but may not be catching on.

Another crowd scene occurred at the Versailles train station. The Chateau closes at the same time every day.  Several thousand visitors, like us, neglect to buy return tickets back to town. That means that, every day, hundreds/thousands of tourists need to use the same three ticket machines – or line up at the one wicket – all at the same time. What happens when one machine is out-of-order (sound familiar?) and another only takes coins. Think “Fall of Saigon”.

One solution, as implemented by the state-owned regional railway, is to put two well-meaning summer interns in the packed station to “assist” travellers. Poor kids. At least with their limited English, they didn’t understand half the expletives hurled their way.

One other solution? MORE TICKET MACHINES THAT WORK. Another one? How about more ticket sellers at the peak time? Don’t hold your breath for either of those.

And one last bouquet to French customer service. Margaret Wente describes how a female Parisian Maitre’D dressed down an American customer, telling him “I’m not a servant”. That attitude perhaps explains why it’s so difficult to get “service”.

Wente says that the French feel themselves equal to everyone else and readily inform you when they have taken offence. Well, that doesn’t quite describe how we were treated in the well-known Angelina Teahouse.

The young lady who waited on us in fact made one thing quite clear. Namely, that your average twenty-something French cafe waitress is in fact superior to her somewhat-educated, polite Anglophone customers. But rest assured, the Parisians are much kinder to tourists now than they were before.

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By John Weissenberger