PARIS — Many Canadians are living the dream of spending extended time in the City of Light — some have even made it their permanent home. They offered me an insider’s view of Paris — from how to get the best meals at the best prices to what it’s really like to live here — and you’ll read about their thoughts on this site and in the Toronto Star’s Travel section in the next couple of months. For now, here are some of the best travel tips I received from those expats while spending time with some of them during this visit that I am wrapping up.
Food: The travel tip you’re most likely to take advantage of is this one from Dave Holmes: “When you go to a bistro, order the special of the day. You’re probably not going to go wrong. That’s what they’ve bought fresh that day and you can count on it being good.” Otherwise, he says, you might get something the restaurant has in the freezer that they just re-heat. Dave and his wife, Sarah, moved from Vancouver a couple of years ago and, being foodies, have enjoyed Parisian cuisine. They count a meal at Le Chateaubriand — recently named the top restaurant in France and the ninth best in the world by Restaurant Magazine — as their most memorable in Paris.
Gems you may not have heard of: Yvonne Martin, an interior designer from Toronto, introduced me to O’Neil, believed to be the first microbrewery in Paris. “Sometimes I just need a beer,” she says, and O’Neil serves four kinds — blonde, blanche, brune and amber. You’re sure to find one you like. The blanche was terrific. We didn’t try the food; Yvonne says it is only so-so. O’Neil is on the Left Bank, near the Latin Quarter. Other recommendations include the scene on Canal Saint Martin, walking Buttes-Chaumont Parc and living it up in the Marais. (More on those spots in the future.)
Coping with a new home: Mel Dark, a copywriter from Toronto, says the real joy of this city comes “when you discover the real Paris, not the touristy Paris.” She says to get to know the real Paris, you have to accept its deficiencies, which include long waits for government services. “It’s just not Toronto, where things are efficient. I can go in to get my health card and I’ve got it after 20 minutes. That just doesn’t happen here.”
Dealing with health care: If you plan to move here for an extended stay, take note of what Canadians living in Paris say about the medical care. Apparently, it isn’t the ingenious system portrayed in Michael Moore’s “Sicko.” Melissa Lavaux, a wonderfully talented musician who’s been in Paris for more than two years, says, “Michael Moore made that movie and it was so wrong.” Lavaux says there’s a lot of running around to get prescriptions — including for vaccinations — filled and the two-tier, public-private system creates an uncomfortable relationship with the doctor. “It feels cold, like a business transaction,” she says of having to give money directly to her physician.
Taking the subway: Lavaux says, “When I first moved here I was always 30 minutes late for everything.” Turns out, I was 30 minutes late for my meeting with her, so she might have just been being kind. But she did say through trial and error she devised this breakdown of how to get around on the Metro: count on two minutes between stops, four minutes waiting time on the platform, five minutes if you need to transfer between stations and two or three minutes just to stop and figure out where you’re going. Paris has a terrific subway and bus system, and in many ways it will be your best friend when you visit. Buy a book of tickets (10 for 12 euros, or about $15) and also don’t discard them; you may need them to exit the station or to transfer to another train, if that train runs on one of the suburban commuter lines.
Getting along with Parisians: Always say “bonjour” or “bon soir” when entering an establishment. “It’s like you’re going into their home and they think it’s rude if you don’t say hello,” Dave Holmes says. Dave also says Parisians have an instinctive distrust of strangers and one way to break through that barrier is to let them in on something personal about you. “I went to the butcher and told him I was making a dinner for four. He immediately asked me who was coming and we got into a conversation and then he pointed me to a guy who he knew had fresh carrots that day. If I had just gone in there and ordered a cut of meat, I would’ve just been on my way.” Dave says Parisians, contrary to their stereotype, do want to be helpful. Tourists just need to understand how to relate to them.
Feeling Canadian: The Great Canadian Pub, a block away from Notre Dame and across the street from the Seine River, is a favourite gathering spot for anglophones. You can get barbecued wings and catch up on the hockey scores.
I’ll have some of my own travel tips for this city in coming days. Along with a look at why Paris — gasp! — may not be all the travel media makes it out to be.
[Thanks to Julia for the pics!]