friendship

10 things you need to know before your trip to Paris.

How difficult can it be? Making the most of a year in Paris should be the easiest thing you have ever done – you’ll simply swan around soaking up the beauty and art. And then after a few months you find yourself alone in a café, wishing you could meet up with one of your friends, tired of the endless grand monuments, longing for a place to lie on the grass, wishing someone, somewhere would recognise you.

You recall what you did this morning – put the washing on, cleaned the stove, did some writing, did the shopping. It’s pretty much like life back home, but it’s cold and grey and you’re treated like a tourist in every shop you go into. You feel shut out. You can’t tell anyone because you would sound like the most ungrateful person on the planet and so you email and Facebook how fabulous it all is.

This is how I spent my year living in Paris.

But it can be fabulous – it just requires a bit of work. After spending a year living in Paris, here’s what I learned about getting the most out Paris.

1. It’s obvious but before you go, learn or brush up your French.

Waiters in tourist cafes speak some English, but you are not a tourist, you are living in Paris, voila, you need to speak French. There are many courses available in Australia, from informal rendezvous through Meet-Up, to classes at Alliance Francaise. Start as early as possible, so that you have a few workable French sentences by the time you arrive. Even the attempt to speak French will be warmly welcomed.

2. Also before you go, dip into French culture.

Read French writers, watch French films – the French are very knowledgeable about their films - study French art, architecture, cuisine, listen to French music. You haven’t got time for all of that? Focus on the area that you already love – for me it was literature (Balzac, Zola, De Beauvoir, Colette, Modiano, just for starters) so that by the time I arrived I could see Paris with the rich texture that literature gives the world.

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3. Once you are there, watch French television.

That’s right – watch telly, especially the news. It’s good practice for listening to French and you are up to date with the favourite French topic of conversation – politics. And watch quiz shows, they are great practice because questions are repeated and sometimes printed up on the screen as well. And sports shows – you will know how to say ‘Allez les Bleus’ (Go the Blues) and understand what the French might be talking about on the Metro on a Monday morning.

4. Shop in your small, local boulangerie, fromagerie, pharmacie, marché.

Go to the supermarket for a year and no-one will know you, go to the same small shop or market stall each time and after three visits you will be a local. I went to same boulangerie for my baguettes for a year, and even now I am greeted as if I am a beloved cousin from ‘Australie’. But you must remember to greet every shop-keeper as you walk in. If you don’t, you will be treated as a rude visitor, ignored or disdained. Say Bonjour Madame or Mademoiselle (under 30 approximately) or Monsieur . And it’s not just for politeness; a greeting opens up the possibility of conversation, even it’s just chat about the weather, it affirms you are sharing the same world with the locals, that you are one of them.

" I went to same boulangerie for my baguettes for a year."

5. Use Pariscope.

The ‘what’s on’ magazine which comes out every Wednesday to see what exhibitions and concerts are on. It’s available at any newsagent or kiosk for 50 centimes. Especially on Sundays there are many free concerts, mostly in churches and mostly classical music. It means you can participate in the rich artistic and musical culture of Paris even if your budget is tight. Visit monuments and galleries by all means, but do it during the week and out-of-season, otherwise you will be lining up with everyone else. And do it when you feel like looking at grandeur or art, not because you need to tick off your list.

6. Find a conversation exchange partner.

Someone you can meet in a café every week and practice your French then swap while they practice their English - and hopefully become friends. Try www.conversationexchange.com to find an exchange partner. I met with three women each week and we ended up going shopping, visiting galleries and going to plays together.

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7. Remember nature.

When you need trees, grass, open space, Paris has hundreds of parks; the carefully sculpted Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens, the wild expanses of the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne and dozens of small ones where you can sit quietly with other Parisiens enjoying the peace. If you have children, nearly all these parks have children’s playgrounds where you can sit with other parents and chat while your children play and pick up French quicker than you ever will.

"When you need trees, grass, open space, Paris has hundreds of parks."

8. Walk and ride bikes in different quartiers – the best way to get to know Paris.

The free Velib bikes are scattered all over the city, usually only a few hundred metres apart and are easy to ride from one quartier to the next. There are plenty of bike paths and Parisien drivers are much more respectful of bike riders than Australian drivers, riding is one of the national sports after all. Riding in Paris not only enables you to see the city close up, it gives a sense of mastery – especially when tourists take photos of you zipping along, thinking that you are a vrai Parisien.

9. Go elsewhere.

Take advantage of the fact that London, Barcelona, Prague are only a couple of hours away. Pack an overnight bag and go to another country for the weekend. Or simply go to the country as Parisiens do; spend a few days in a coastal village in Brittany or a hill town in Provence.

Lavender fields in Provence.
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10. Finally, enrol in a course –– anything but a French class.

In a French class in Paris, of course there are no Parisiens and everyone speaks French badly. Enrol in a drawing class or singing or yoga or whatever interests you and you will find not only native French speakers but like-minded friends. I enrolled in a choir and sang every Thursday night, then one week I couldn’t go. The next week everyone welcomed me back - it was the first time in Paris I had the experience of people noticing if I turned up or not – it meant I was beginning to belong.

And that’s the secret of getting the most out of Paris, or anywhere really; after a while we all tire of looking, of skating on the surface, and we have to find ways to connect, to get under the skin, to belong. To be part of Paris ourselves.

   Patti Miller is the author of Ransacking Paris published this year by UQP, $29.95.
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