Posted: 16 Sep 2004
Let me make one thing clear: the French have no idea what bacon is.
That aside, though, they pretty much do everything right. However, it is a foreign land, so I've compiled some tips that might help the wayward U.S. traveler abroad. Read on!
Now, this will be most striking especially to those residents of places like Massachusetts and California -- you can smoke everywhere. You heard me. Indoor and outdoor restaurants and cafes, hotels and lobbies, and more. As such, you smokers can rejoice and you non-smokers can toughen up and deal with some sassy French guy blowing a cloud in your face while you're pretending to enjoy Camembert.
Along those lines, you can take your dog anywhere, too. In a restaurant, on the subway, you name it. More than once I found myself playing with a random dog at my feet while waiting for the next course of my meal. At one place, a rather fancy-assed place in fact, a party got up to leave their table and from under the table emerged this gigantic dog, possibly a Newfoundland, that'd been lying under there quietly the entire time. It blew my mind. No leashes, either. I don't think they believe in them over there. Dogs just roam, y'know, wherever, and eventually meet up with their owners at the end of the day.
Oh, and while I'm on the subject of the subway (or as they call it, le Metro) they've taken subway performance to the next level. Not only are there routinely 4- to 6-piece ensembles in the station tunnels pumping out jaunty tunes on accordions, woodwinds, and the like, but there are musicians on the trains themselves. The first one I noticed was a chick with an honest-to-god karaoke rig, belting out tunes in some mix of French and English. It passed for blasé overhead muzak until I caught her off-tune and realized that this was originating not from speakers above, but from this chick with a microphone and amp standing at one of the doors. I immediately hoped that it was some state-sponsored program and that I'd hear confusing renditions of that song from Titanic all week, but it wasn't to be. I did see a teenaged guy with an accordion, though, and another dude with a guitar and amp.
Back to smoking for a second. Have you ever seen a Canadian or European pack of cigarettes? For those who don't know, in the U.S., we have these little warnings in fine print on one of the narrow sides -- "SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy." Your mileage may vary, of course. Over there, though, they don't fuck around. There's one I liked, and it showed up right on the front of the pack: "Fumer tue." Translated, it pretty much means "Smoking will kill you." Keep in mind that this isn't some small side-panel thing, either. It takes up half of the front panel of the pack. There's a slightly more verbose one on the back, too, though the ones I saw slip my mind at the moment. That said, though, friggin' everybody smokes. You've probably heard this before, but it's true. Everybody smokes. It's like it's some tax they have to pay. Some tasty, smooth tax. Or something.
Speaking of tax, there's this motherfucker called the VAT in the U.S. or, over there, t.v.a. In English, it translates to Value-Added Tax. I don't entirely know what it's for, but it's added to everything. Goods, services, food, drinks, you name it. It's added to everything, I swear it. And it's, like, 12-20%. I don't know what it is, but it's absolutely stupid. And don't try to get refunds on any of it at the airport before you leave, either, because it's fucking impossible. I'll sum it up for you: you'll arrive at the airport, check your bags in and get boarding passes, and then go see these guys with guns who tell you that you need (a) receipts for everything you're claiming, (b) the goods themselves (which are most likely packed in your checked baggage, now gone), and (c) forms from each retailer that you've filled out for the specific items. To avoid anger and annoyance, just pretend you don't see that t.v.a. compris line on every receipt and that shit is just a little more expensive in France.
OK, on to a better subject. This next one will be hard to wrap your head around, but try to follow me. All the women between the ages of sixteen and forty (give or take a couple years on either side) are hot. I'm not really exaggerating here, either. More often than not, I'd be sitting at a sidewalk table at a brasserie on the corner of some intersection in Paris and waves of attractive girls would just stroll on by as though there was a Hot Chick Convention a mere block away but they'd all lost their maps of the city. French women also seem to love tank tops. On top of that, though, they love thintank tops and lacy bras easily visible underneath. Or no bras at all. And that armpit hair thing? Purely stereotype. Seriously, though, Paris is a city of beautiful women. It's like a giant collective of all the girls that come out on Tank Top Day (you know what I'm talking about).
There are no fat Parisians, either. Only fat tourists.
Thus ends my first set of tips for the haphazard American traveler! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more specific articles on driving and on the cuisine.