France: Paris travel notes


I visited Paris on business, spending some 5 days or so there.

Although I studied several years of French, languages, like many other things, suffer from atrophy by disuse. Therefore, my conversational skills were not that great.

French Woes

My woes started even before I touched the soil of France. When applying for the visa, the consular official in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) did not talk to me directly. He was talking to an Arabic speaking assistant, who then talked to me. The official understood everything I was saying in English and/or Arabic, but insisted on speaking ONLY FRENCH. This was rude to say the least, and did not leave a good impression. Well, he has a government job, I said to myself, and these jobs tend to attract no so savory people in most countries.

When I arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport in the North of the city. I had an address that I wanted to go to. And it said CEDEX so and so. I asked a French traveller about where CEDEX is, and in a really rude way, he laughed. Turns out that CEDEX means something like "P.O. Box" or "Zip Code". His manners were not that great.

Then, it was the turn of the immigration officers, a young looking woman. Again, although I spoke English, she insisted on replying only in French! This is starting to be a pattern here ...

I take a taxi to Massey, in the very south of the Parisian suburbs. It is a long drive. The taxi driver turns out to be a late thirties or early fourties Arab (Algerian or Moroccan perhaps). I try to talk in Arabic, but he cannot understand me, either because the accent is too skewed between the Egyptian dialect and his dialect, or that he does not know Arabic well in the first place. I did not have French cash to pay him, so I asked to stop at a bank and cash traveller cheques. He keeps grumbling and complaining in French, although the taxi meter is running while I do so! I cannot understand why this attitude is there!

Since I arrived on a weekend, I planned to go do some sight seeing. I buy some subway tickets to go to the city's center. I ride the RER train and I do not notice that I have to validate the ticket in a machine. The machines at this suburb is on the side, and not the more familiar pass through type.

Three people approach me, a middle aged woman, a middle aged man, and a younger woman. They ask to inspect my ticket, and put it in some sort of magnetic reader. Then they say something like "ne pas valide". I try to explain to them that I bought the ticket, this is my first time in Paris and on the RER, ...etc. I try to talk in French as much as I can, stuttering all the time. I switch to English often and get blank looks. After some 10 minutes of miscommunication, I ask the man : "Do you speak English?" and he surprisingly replies : "Yes!". You ****! And why are you leaving me to suffer trying to explain then! Do they take pleasure in seeing foreigners trying to speak broken French?

Even when I chose to go eat Couscous at a Moroccan restaurant, the attitude is cold, distant and rough, with no courtsey nor politeness whatsoever.

Possible Reasons

Some of that has to do with "the big city" thing. All big cities tend to put people under pressure and make them rude and rough in dealing with others. But, is there something about the French, or the Parisians and their demanding of others to speak their own language? I think there is at least some of that. The same attitude is present among the French speaking Canadians in Quebec. It must have something to do with their "siege mentality", thinking that their culture and language are shrinking, and going about to defend it in an overtly chauvinistic way, that often backfires. Arabs, for example, do not demand that visitors to their countries, be it business travellers or tourists, speak Arabic, and make fun or look down on those who don't.

Now to the Bright Side

Anyway, back to Paris ...

I had just 1.5 days for sight seeing, then it was off to work. So I decided to limit the scope of what I want to see somewhat.

Louvre Museum

I made my way to the Louvre Museum, and had barely enough time to see the Mesopotamian section, and the Islamic collection. No time for the Egyptian section, nor seeing the Mona Lisa. Like Egyptian museums and many European ones, the Louvre is packed with items, unlike the sparsity seen in American museums, where a handful of objects are enough to make a museum in their own rite. One sad thing is that all the labels and descriptions are in French only, with a sheet in the corner of the room giving an overview in other languages for the entire room. This is not helpful to those who do not know French and are eager to learn the details of the items on display, and again shows the Franco-centric world view of France.

Notre Dame

On the second day, I visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The architecture is magnificent. The cathedral is so huge. Reading a bit of history on it, I was amazed that it was the dream of the Bishop Maurice de Sully between 1163-1345 CE. A time when the average male life expectancy was in the thirties! Was there a better way to spend this money?

Under the cathedral, there is an archeological crypt with lots of interesting finds.

Institut de Monde Arabe

Then, I walked a bit to the East, downstream on the river Seine, and went to the Institut de Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute). This is a very interesting place to visit, if -- like me -- you are interested in history, culture, archeology, and art. It has lots of these things.

Other places

I also happened to pass by the Eglise de St. Eustache in Les Halles. I passed by another medieval monastery which I do not recall its name right now.

Yes, I did not make it to the Champs Elysee, nor to the Tour Eiffel, both famous landmarks synonymous with Paris. Of course this is sad, but that is all the time I had. Such is life.