My trip this past spring break to Paris was my first time visiting Europe, and it was full of exciting and thought-provoking moments. This was also my first time as an illiterate foreigner in another country, although I had a friend who could speak French and translate for me so the language barrier wasn’t too bad. Prior to this trip, my perception of Europe was mostly formed from reading the BBC, so it was really interesting to see for myself what a European city was like. In this post, I want to outline some observations and thoughts of Paris that I had during my trip - including some comparisons with NYC, a city which I’ve visited numerous times.
Paris is a remarkably diverse city. There’s many people of African and Middle-Eastern descent, due to France’s proximity to North Africa and Central Asia. Consequently, there’s a much larger selection of food from those regions in Paris, with many Turkish and Iranian restaurants scattered throughout the city (compared to New York’s ever-present halal food trucks, which seem to be more of an Indian/middle-eastern mix). There’s fewer south and east Asians in Paris than in NYC, but there were still many Asian restaurants (especially sushi) scattered all over the city. Some Chinese restaurants even had staff that greeted me in Chinese instead of French, which is a little surprising.
Another surprising thing was how many people knew English. In both Paris and Marseille, whenever I gave them a blank look, employees at shops and restaurants would immediately switch to English. Interestingly, there were also a lot of credit card readers which would switch to English as the display language once it read my American credit card, and this would prompt the cashier to switch to English as well. This was a pleasant surprise, because I don’t know any French besides “oui”, “merci”, “baguette”, and “fromage” (athough after this trip, we can add “gare” and “canard” and a whole raft of cognates to this ever-expanding vocabuary).
Despite Paris’s reputation for being really expensive, I found that things were not more expensive than in NYC or at Cornell. The lack of tipping and sales tax meant that meals were actually cheaper than in the US - the prices in Euros at restaurants in Paris were similar to the prices in USD at restaurants in the US, but not having 8+% tax and 18% tip more than makes up for the exchange rate.
The Paris metro is excellent. I spent very little money on transportation across Paris during this trip - beyond the €28 metro card, the only other times I spent money were for one taxi ride before I got the metro card, and one Uber ride early in the morning before the trains started running. Everywhere that I went, including my friend’s apartment and the university she studies at, was within 10 minutes of a metro station. My only complaint would be the confusing design of some of the larger metro stations where there were a lot of narrow staircases and passageways, which was surprising since I had never seen anything like it in the NYC subway. Despite the supposedly good social safety net in France, there were still a lot of beggars both on the streets and on the metro just like in NYC.
The entire train system in France was just as excellent as the metro. Thanks to the TGV trains, I was able to go on a day trip to Marseille - all the way on the southern coast of France, but only 3 hours by train from Paris(!) for only €50(!!). This trip would have taken 8 hours by car, and a day trip to somewhere similarly far (SF to LA, for example) would have been completely unthinkable in the US due to the (abysmal passenger rail system) . The only effort to build something similar over here is the California high speed rail, which has been plagued with funding issues and construction delays. The government has faced increasing calls for cancellation despite having spent billions of dollars on the project. Even if the full route were completed, the cost would not be as competitive with plane tickets due to the reluctance for the state to heaviy subsidize train tickets (in France, government subsidizes approximately half of the cost of each ticket).
A final note is that vending machines in France were far superior to anything I had seen before. Vending machines that made hot drinks were a common sight, including a machine that sold 50 cent hot chocolate at my friend’s university. Such a machine is desperately needed at Cornell, given the cold weather and overpriced vending machines here ($4 juice, anyone?).