Archive for May 18th, 2011

May 18, 2011

5 reasons why Paris isn’t so great

Quai Canal Saint Martin in Paris

You'd look away too if you just polished off all those bottles. Canal Saint Martin is a popular spot to hang out and drink in public in Paris. (Julia Pelish Photo)

PARIS — In the travel world it’s blasphemy to suggest Paris isn’t all that. For many people this is the most beautiful city in the world as well as the centre of all things great in cuisine and culture. After my recent stay and, having the fortune to visit some great cities in the past year or so, I found it fell short in some big ways. So, here goes: Five reasons why Paris isn’t as great as people say. [Write in with your disapproval – or agreement.]

Mediocre quality of service. In no other country do we excuse underwhelming performance as much as we do in France, particularly Paris. “Oh, it’s just the French,” is what so many people say when they’ve encountered a surly worker at a Metro information booth or a waiter who spends more time texting on his phone than refilling your water glass. You also run into shopkeepers who seem bothered that you spend a few minutes perusing their selections rather than ordering quickly and letting them go back to their game of Angry Birds. Of course, you’ve got some terrific service and hospitality workers. The Hotel Athenee, where I stayed for seven nights, was terrific and the staff were extremely friendly and helpful. Overall, though, the city’s service industry could use some shine.

The racism is boorish. Several expat Canadians who I met in Paris said the racism is so over the top it’s shocking. They tell me TV commentators are blatantly insulting to people of different races, especially blacks. Some say they end up having to back out of conversations that become too uncomfortable because of the racist language. Paris wants to be thought of as the epitome of cultural sophistication and civility, but you can’t do that when you still have the mentality of a 19th-century colonialist.

The Louvre is disappointing. As one patron of the Louvre told me, “You have an entire floor where you see one painting after another of the same thing painted by an Italian. It’s one version of Madonna and Child, next to another painting of Madonna and Child.” A little hyperbolic, but there’s some truth to the criticism. There is a sameness to some of the wings of the Louvre and there is also the annoyances: The crowds make you just want to get out of there; there aren’t enough washrooms; the food choices are few and they’re weak. And, yes, the Mona Lisa is a disappointment. That’s not to say seeing Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo isn’t a magnificent experience you must have for yourself. It’s just that as far as great museums go, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Met in New York offer more satisfying visits than the Louvre.

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The food could be better. A lot of it’s really great. And you can get good food at all price points (more on that in a later article). The “but” here is this: There’s a sameness to the cuisine. You’re going to have difficulty finding great sushi or Indian or Chinese, and as a visitor that’s okay. You’re here to enjoy French food the way the French do it. In this era of globalization, though, there’s got to be some adaptability. It’s happening, but slowly (more on that later too). Of the meals I ate in Paris the best by far was a home-cooked one, made by my friend Anil Murthy. Delicious shrimp biryani, butter chicken with only a pinch of butter (he swears) and homemade raita. Anil’s a damn good cook, so the Paris restaurants shouldn’t be ashamed!

Chez Janou in Paris

Chez Janou is a popular spot in the Marais district of Paris. (Julia Pelish Photo)

The price. In terms of cost, Paris is like London: very expensive. You don’t realize how much so until you leave it. I broke up my stay in Paris with four days in Vienna, where I found the cost of everything from wine and food to clothes to be deeply discounted, in some cases at half the price as in Paris. For travelers, cost is always at the top of mind, and the premium you have to pay in Paris may make you want to look for an alternative.

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