When I stepped off the plan in Charles de Gaulle, ready to spend my New Year’s right, everything was great. I navigated the airport, collected my bags, and purchased my metro ticket. Everything was still great.
I followed signs to the platform, boarded the train, and carefully listened to the beautifully French voice announcing stops. I rode all the way to the 13th arrondissement. Upon leaving the train and making my way up the many stairs of the metro tunnels, I arrived on the streets of Paris.
Everything was no longer great.
Don’t get my wrong; this is no reflection on the city. I was immediately taken by the cobbled streets, the bustle of impossibly chic Parisians, and the elegant hotel fronts. Problem was, I had no idea which of the many, many beautiful hotel was mine. And my phone was dead. And I didn’t write the address down. I know, I know — rookie mistake. My supposed-to-be-perfect trip was off to a rough start.
Luckily, with the help of a very kind doorman, a little wandering, and some broken French left over from high school, I managed to find my lodging. I went upstairs long enough to put down my bag and add a layer of clothes (Paris is cold in December, in case you didn’t know) before heading out to get lost again.
This time, I took a map and a backup battery for my phone, but I kept them tucked in my pocket until I was ready. Making my way through Paris with few real destinations was peaceful, despite my similarly stressful arrival.
While I rang in the New Year under the Arc de Triomphe with Portuguese friends I made, I learned about myself and my travel preferences. Hopefully you can benefit from my time in Paris as much as I did.
Recharge When and Where You Can
The entire fiasco of finding my hotel could have been avoided if my phone had been charged. For whatever reason, I thought it would be fine to skip charging it in the airport because I could just plug it in on the plane. Only my seat didn’t have the expected charging ports. Whoops.
From that time on, I kept a backup battery in my handbag. Whenever I took a break in my hotel room, I immediately plugged in both my battery and my phone. I didn’t have to worry about being separated from my information again.
Recharging isn’t limited to electronics, though. Skipping across multiple time zones and immersing yourself in a new culture with only a baseline knowledge of the language is mentally exhausting. It’s also completely and totally worth it; you just have to take care of yourself along the way.
Make sure you give yourself adequate time to recover from jet lag. Landing in the morning means that you can try to sleep on the plane, have a fabulously caffeine-fueled first day, and pass out in bed after all the excitement. It’s much easier to keep yourself up than it is to force your body to sleep. If you do have to try to sleep before you’re ready, stick to any routines you normally go through, or try incorporating natural sleep promoters like relaxing yoga or a carb-happy dinner.
Chances are, you’ll be walking more than average on your trip. The best part about Paris is that there’s always a nearby cafe to stop into and rest your feet. Espresso and croissants kept me going in between meals and sometimes, it was nice to just thaw and watch the foot traffic.
Try Everything — Not Just the Food
Paris certainly has a reputation for its food and wine, and not without cause. You can’t very well have regions like Bordeaux and Champagne without word getting out. Nothing that I tasted while I was there disappointed me, from presentation to taste. But the feeling of the city goes beyond indulgent dishes and charming patisseries.
Parisians have a reputation for being aloof, or even rude, though I found that far from the truth. While the population as a whole tends to smile less to those they don’t know, the culture is affectionate among friends, and the sense of joy is noticeable. Even if you’re not in the inner fold, the people of Paris are kind and welcoming — as long as you try.
Always try to speak the language, even if you only get as far as an introduction and a semi-functional food order (order your wine first — it might help). While I was there, the waitstaff was more than patient with my French, and would switch to English as needed to fill in the blanks. Overall, as long as I made an effort, the conversation flowed and the energy was positive.
As long as you’re speaking the language (even brokenly) and eating the food, you may as well go all in. Find a vineyard to drink wine at — don’t just settle for the patios in the city. Go, respectfully, into churches that aren’t set up as tourist spots. Shop in local boutiques, try on clothes, and become a chameleon in chic, stylish hats and scarves. Skip the tourist attractions for local favorites. Pretend your vacation is a movie montage — what will the highlights look like? Go find them.
Get Lost, but Not Too Often
You have to strike a balance. Wandering aimlessly about a new city may leave you feeling unfulfilled. It’s not a universal rule that proceeding planless will automatically reveal what you want to see. The world is not a crystal ball.
Through my wanderings, I did see some amazing things. I found a small, underrated Catholic church that outdid Sacre Couer, in my opinion. I enjoyed the solemnity and sat in the quiet for some time before moving on. I stumbled upon a cemetery with beautiful turn-of-the-century graves and a friendly neighborhood cat that wound between them, asking for pets and distributing leg rubs.
I also missed out on some things I really wanted to see. In an effort to leave my vacation relaxed, I didn’t buy tickets for many things ahead of time. I missed out on seeing a true French cabaret show and had to settle for pictures in front of Les Folies Bergeres and Le Moulin Rouge. I never had dinner on the Seine — reservations were booked out because I was there over New Years. I had planned to see the catacombs and the pantheon, but ran into scheduling trouble because I didn’t research holiday hours.
When my plans fell through, I simply improvised — there were a couple of afternoons where I got on the metro and got off wherever it seemed like most people were going. I waited in line at a busy brasserie because I wasn’t rushing, and the results were far from disappointing. I found food that I know I’ll taste again when I return someday.
Above All Else, Go
When I plan my vacations in the future, there will definitely be more actual planning, albeit strategically. I still won’t plan meals. Wandering into restaurants or getting recommendations from locals (even if they don’t tell me the city’s best-kept secrets) is still my favorite way to dine. And while I will never be a traveler who has every minute planned, I will seek a balance between unscheduled afternoons reserved for wandering and researched outings to alleviate the fear of missing out.
My traveling style may not be everyone’s — some people might get anxiety not knowing what they’re doing in a foreign city where they don’t speak the language. I dread carrying an itinerary and barely want to commit to scheduled museum tours.
Must Read: Tips for Travelling With Anxiety Disorder
No matter what your personality requires, the soul demands travel. If you hear the mountains calling, or want to hear the sound of heels clicking on cobblestones, you must go. Travel opens the mind and feeds the soul in a way nothing else can.
Stepping off my train with no idea where I was sleeping or how to find it was terrifying. But in the same breath, I was exhilarated by the city, and I learned things about myself in the days that followed. Sleep when you can, always charge your phone, try everything twice, and find some adventure. I fell in love with Paris, and I’ll be back.
About the Author
Alyssa is a happy Pacific Northwester with a background in Communication and Management. She enjoys writing about communication strategies, healthcare, and travel, and is always up for a good debate. As an avid traveler, she always has her next trip in the works and loves the energy of new adventures in new places. When she’s at home, if she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably cooking something delicious or waltzing around a ballroom. You can follow Alyssa in her travels at @arobinsonwrites.
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