For many people, this is an anxious time to travel to a foreign country. However, I was in Paris for ten days over the Christmas/New Year's holiday, and I'm so happy that anxiety didn't keep me home. (Often it keeps me from just going into the next room.) Traveling forces us to see things in a refreshingly different perspective. It's healthy to be in the minority once in a while. It may be somewhat humbling, but, unlike the rich foods, you can't have too much humility.
If you're someone who's panicky about world travel right now, you might benefit from some things I learned on my trip:
If you don't smoke, start now. You might as well. You're going to be inhaling an enormous amount of tar and nicotine over there. It's not just the "City of Lights." It's also the "City of Lighting Up." Forget about "Smoking" and "Non Smoking" sections. Apparently, they have areas that are designated as "Smoking Required." After dinner one night, while my wife was waiting for her coffee, I went outside the restaurant to not have a cigarette.
All Smoking All The Time is just something you'll have to put up with. It's worth it because of all the other wonderful things, like the great artwork. My favorite work of art was the city itself. Every neighborhood, every street, every building seemed to be the result of talented people with amazing taste. Of course, they have museums, too, but they were really crowded. Limit yourself to one museum per day. That's about all your eyes and feet will be able to take. After being in Paris about a week, my big question was why did all those wonderful artists have to paint so many pictures? Three or four each would've been fine.
The food is fantastic. Keep in mind that this is a country that considers bakers national heroes. And don't worry about rude waiters. We didn't run into one until our third day. (Or else, we just didn't understand what they were saying for the first two days).
That brings us to language. Even if you only know a little French, use it. The French will appreciate it. My wife and I both took French in school, and we had a few refresher classes before the trip. However, to be honest, our French didn't sound much like the French the Parisians spoke. I soon realized that if we had something private to say that we didn't want them to understand, the best thing for us to do was to say it in French.
They have a reputation for not being nice to Americans. I didn't find this to be true, and you probably won't either if you remember that you are a guest in their country. If they give you a weird look because you don't know the word for "spoon" or because you mispronounce "salade nicoise," think about how you react to a foreign visitor who speaks botched English or doesn't understand the nuances of baseball or a Reuben sandwich. Also, I suggest trying to avoid phrases like, "How much is that in real money?" or "I know you can speak English, so stop pretending," or "We really saved your butts in World War II, didn't we?"
They have a different culture, but it's a culture worth appreciating. They must have brilliant scientists because they have come up with a substance harder than diamond — their toilet paper. But how can you not love the French? They have a lingerie shop at the airport!
One postscript: it's a very child-friendly city and culture. Unless you really want to have a good time, there's no reason to leave your small children at home. And if you have a baby, don't even bother bringing any pacifiers. Just do what the French do — stick a cigarette in its mouth.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.