That would be me.

I’m recently back – if not still fully recovered – from the first-ever Festival International de Harpe-Guitare in France.  Invited to participate, I took it as an opportunity to explore as much of France as I could squeeze into an 11-day vacation.  This would be my first trip ever to the country, and I’d be traveling alone, as Jaci stayed home (having taken her own trip to the Netherlands in February in conjunction with her work at Paramount, not to mention her mom).

My plan was to immediately go on to a 2-1/2-day side trip to Genoa to see my special friend Franco Ghisalberti, his family and friends.  Then I’d come back and do Paris for 4-1/2 days, before renting a car and heading to the Festival for the weekend, finishing up with two final days of driving adventures.

So much for the plan.

I am now an expert (and happy to consult) on what not to do when traveling to France, and have learned many expensive and aggravating lessons on what to do and prepare for.   Here is just a quick basic list.  Remember that this is specifically for the completely ignorant, first-time, English-speaking-only tourist to Paris.  My pain is your gain.

(PS: Apologies to my French friends: Of course, I am not speaking about you, nor will my humor translate very well!)

Gregg’s Guidebook:

  1. Learn to speak, read and hear French.  If this is impossible (it is), travel with friends or a group to help translate this beautiful, albeit inexplicable, language.  It turns out that every vowel is pronounced like a completely different vowel.  The more syllables and arbitrary letters a word has, the more they are ignored.  When they tell you to go to Terminal “J,” go to G.  For Information, which they explain is under the “E” sign, look for a capital I.  Etc.  It’s fun!
  2. They will treat you better and be much more helpful if you at least attempt to use some basic French, like “bonjour” and “merci.”  Unless you sound like me, in which case they will just beat you up.  Asking “Do you speak English?!” in English seems to cut to the chase.
  3. If you have a connecting flight at the Charles de Gaulle airport or are flying out of there, give yourself several hours leeway in between or beforehand to find your terminal.  Come to think of it, this might not be enough.  Don’t be fooled by helpful, English-speaking attendants.  As you search for your destination, you must ask several of them at each wrong terminal and line you are sent to before you reach your goal.   Travel light and be prepared to run through a solid mass of humanity, all in your same predicament.  Think Hunger Games, but with less arrows.  The duration and stress will be about the same.
  4. There are many ways to get from the airport to your hotel.  Cabs are by no means the cheapest, but are fairly idiot-proof.  If using cabs, show them the name and address.  Do not even attempt to say it.
  5. Get a phone that works over there – and not just in random, isolated wormholes in time and space.  Apparently, the iPhone 5 is not it (Europe-ready rental, my eye…).   Any given phone service may work in one infinitesimal location but not another, while a different service is vice versa.  This may require significant research.  Learn how to find and create that strange “+” for dialing European numbers and how many 0’s to add or subtract within the endless sequence.  Actually, have everyone you might ever possibly wish to speak to call you upon arrival – then you can just hit “Reply.”
  6. Using the hotel Internet?  If you’re computer savvy, get savvier.  A few months before your trip, Google: “Images: French computer keyboard.”  Print this out, study it and practice with it, or you will only be typing things like “dqar jqci>>> he;p ne I hqve lozt ny pqssport//?*4”
  7. PS: That horrifically sweet stench that has culminated in finally setting your nose hair alight is military-grade room “freshener.”  Look around for a square black “mystery box” with a small orifice in the top.  Follow its electrical cord and unplug it.  Your eyes should stop watering in roughly 5-10 minutes.
  8. Don’t let your friends talk you into pre-paying for tours/packages/museum passes/etc in advance.  You will waste substantial funds paying multiple times for many of the same things.  Of the 75 must-see museums you will have free entry to, you will have time to get to one (and it’s a big one).  Just get what you need there, when and if you need it.
  9. Some of these activities may be dictated by the weather.  For an up-to-date weather report, turn off your iPhone app and stick your head out the window.  If it’s cloudy or rainy, it’ll be fine by the time you reach the lobby. If it appears sunny, take an umbrella.
  10. Oh, yes – whatever you do, don’t inadvertently let your travel agent book your intense 2-day Paris Pass to begin on May 1 (a Wednesday, in this case).  As a tremendous practical joke, France (along with much of Europe) has made this a national holiday and closes everything.  Hilarious.
  11. The iPhone compass app can be quite handy as you emerge from infinite underground Metro stations, spinning in place and wondering “where the hell am I?”  Also obtain a street map book with larger-than-microscopic street names that you can actually read.  Your phone’s GPS can be a wonderful directional aide, but see # 5.  Resist the urge to hurl it against a 19th, or perhaps, 17th, century wall.
  12. By the way, that same compass may inexplicably work backwards when driving (I suspect interference from Peugot’s secret hybrid car technology).  Do not believe it.  Always trust Brigitte (for that is what I named her), the eloquent, British voice of the car’s navigation system and new love of my life.
  13. Do you smoke?  Secondhand or otherwise, you will.  If a concern, the incessant discarded butts and other litter probably won’t help take your mind off it.
  14. If you enjoy robust, flavorful red wines, drink the beer.  If you like great beer, learn to like Heineken.
  15. The food is nothing to write home about either.

I’m thinking the above may be so useful that the France Tourism Bureau might want to include it in their brochure, what do you think?

OK, so did I like anything about Paris or France?  Of course.  Much is awesome, inspiring, or lovely.  As were most of the people.  I just got off to an unfortunate start (see the last half of my Forum post, written “real time,” if you’re curious).  Oh, and I forgot the final point:

16.   Take your wife next time.  She is much better at this stuff than you, ya big whiner.

Next: The Adventure Begins!