1) Parisians haven’t ever heard of casual wear. Old, young, thin, fat, man, woman, and child, they will all make you feel underdressed. Even early on a Sunday morning (early in France is 10am) they are perfectly made up, coiffed and wearing a fashionable outfit. Forget grubby toddlers, they’ve got on designer skinny corduroy, a button down, and a sweater tied over their shoulders. Yoga pants at the market? You’d best be sure that they match your sweater, scarf, jewelry, and adorable sneakers; and you’d better have just come from yoga not just be out schlepping about. But don’t let that intimidate you, everyone genuinely seems to be dressing so nicely for them not so that they can judge you. But that said also don’t head off to The Louvre in shiny track pants and a football tee shirt; you’ll easily be spotted as a tourist and make a more attractive target for scammers and pickpockets.
2) Bring comfortable shoes. You’re going to spend a lot of time walking. Even though the Metro is a convenient and economical way to get places, you will be going up and down stairs to get to it as well as frequently walking a significant distance underground to make connections to other lines. However, for short distances (and honestly to really SEE the city properly), you’ll want to do a lot of walking on surface streets. There is a ton of really cool architecture, quaint shops, and people watching to be seen for free just by being out and about. A walk of about a mile from our rented flat in Passy (16th Arrodissement) brought me unexpectedly to my favorite spot in Paris; the steps of Musée L’Homme where the tourist busses let out and you can eavesdrop on people seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Their excitement is contagious and reminds you how lucky you are to be in such a beautiful city.
3) Eating is expensive. I know, “duh”, right? We actually ate nearly every meal at home (an advantage of staying in a flat rather that a hotel), but even so groceries add up. I shopped mostly at Monoprix and Franprix which are American style supermarkets for two reasons 1) the idea of toting a baby in and out of a half dozen shops sounds like torture 2) my French is terrible and single item shops require far more speaking. Because we had The Cap’n we bought A LOT of milk at 2€ or so a liter. Other frequent buys were cereal at 4€ a box, chicken at 6€/kg, dried pasta at 2€ a bag, and yogurt at 2€/4 cartons. While the food was more expensive, it also tasted much fresher. And yes, fresher = better. No doubt this was partially because the tiny kitchen and half sized fridge meant I shopped every other day or so, but also because there seemed to be fewer ingredients in our food which means less chemicals and a better taste. You have to get pretty creative when you’ve only got two burners and a microwave, but we did pretty well. By eating mostly at home we were able to occasionally enjoy delicious treats like hot chocolate at Angelina on Rue Di Rivoli without feeling too guilty about the expense.
4) You’re not in Kansas anymore. You’re going to run in to people who are from probably a dozen completely different locales before noon each day. That can mean major culture shock or a great chance for people watching. Don’t allow yourself to be the negative ambassador from our own culture. Some examples: Smoking is way more prevalent in France. In the US, not so much. Don’t be a dick about people smoking around you, you’re not in the US. People take their dogs everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Even inside restaurants to eat with them. Hijabs are way more common all over Europe. Don’t stare. Accept. Smile. Move on. Etc, ad naseum.
5) Bring an extra camera battery and an extra memory card. You’re about to take so many pictures you’ll wonder aloud how people got on in the days before digital photography. Everywhere you look, from the clips to hold open a shutter to the cornice stone of a building right on down to the graffiti is snap-worthy. While you’re packing extra things, don’t forget to bring a few heavy duty gallon Ziplock bags. Not even kidding.
6) Language isn’t the issue you think it is. Don’t panic about not being up on the vernacular of every language. Just get used to smiling like a simpleton while miming what you need. This is one if the things I was most worried about. The French, and especially Parisians, have a terrible reputation as snobs about language. People told me at great length horror stories about the time they were here and couldn’t speak French and how mean people were about it. Maybe times have changed, or maybe like stories of childbirth, people like to embellish, but either way I haven’t found my lack of fluency to be prohibitive. Learn a few keys phrases like “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, “do you speak English”, and “I don’t know” and then be prepared to either badly pronounce something from a phrase book or do like me and show the poor shop-girl what you’ve just typed in to Google Translate. Failing that, pantomime and interpretive dance is useful. I used mime work to convey a need for runny nose medicine for a toddler to great hilarity and success. The more touristy the area (Champs d’Élysées and Disneyland for example) the higher the likelihood of finding an English (or Spanish, or Japanese) speaker to assist you. American and British shops like Starbucks and H&M also seem to staff heavily with English speakers, so if you feel self conscious, go there for a bit of a rest from struggling to remember the words you need.
7) You simply cannot see The Louvre in a single day. Further, running through the museum snapping selfies with Venus and Mona isn’t going to cut it and you’re just going to be annoying. Plan to spend at least two days wandering through the various wings so that you have time to really LOOK at stuff. Don’t just stop there, either. Paris is lousy with museums and all of them are awesome. I wasn’t overjoyed at the thought of a trip to the Army museum, but they had an entire wing on military fashion (in addition to the exhibit about Musketeers we’d gone to see) that was absolutely stunning. There are very good reasons you used to have to buy an officers commission! Also, don’t be afraid to go on a weekend day. We were pleasantly surprised by the lack of crowd on a Saturday morning throughout much of the museum (bonus: no school groups!).
8) You’re going to need to suck it in. You’re not in Texas anymore, kittens. The lift in our 1900’s era building is about 3′ x 1 1/2′. Our suitcases barely fit and to get Mighty, the Cap’n, a bag, a stroller, and me all up to our flat on the seventh floor required three elevator trips. And that elevator? It just didn’t always work, either. Store aisles are tighter, hallways more narrow, and sidewalks sometimes mean you have to walk single file. Don’t even get me started on the size of our bathroom; I’ve been in Port-o-Lets that were roomier. People of size and those not fond of tight spaces or being touched by strangers may find themselves in frequent uncomfortable settings. But if you’re prepared to say “Pardon!” with a French accent and deal with being sat on (yes, literally) by a stranger on the Metro, you’ll be fine.
9) Walk along The Seine. It may be cliche, but it is worth it. Walk along the path in the center, walk along the banks, walk the bridges, and walk the sidewalks top side. Stop and see the replica of The Statue of Liberty, browse the book sellers, buy a painting, eat bread, and leave a lock with your initials clasped to the railing before tossing your keys over the side. Check out the stone and metal work unique to each bridge then sit and listen to buskers while trying not to get robbed. Just kidding. Mostly. The warnings about tourist centric crime are heed-worthy. There have been at least a half dozen attempts on our pockets that we were aware of, and we witnessed cops chase down a trio of girls who were using “portrait sketching” as a way to draw crowds to lift from on a bridge.
10) Get lost. Make a list of your must-sees, but don’t over schedule. There is something to be said for seeing All The Things, but don’t over do it. Leave time in your itinerary for eating ice cream at the base of Eiffel Tower or for a walk through any of the public gardens or for a nap. Take a Hop On bus tour, but don’t believe you’ve seen it all just because you drove past it. Wander down side streets. See what everyone is queued up for. Read the memorial plaques. Stop for a snack. People watch. Find your favorite spot and go there at least three times. Don’t panic about not seeing every single sight memorialized on a postcard, just plan a second trip!
11) No matter how long your trip is, it won’t be long enough.