By Matt Gulizia – ISA Senior Site Specialist and Geographic Oversight Manager, Europe
Paris is a city that has captivated the masses for centuries, and for good reason. Every twist and turn you take through the city gives you something new and interesting to explore. I now find that when I studied abroad in Paris as an undergraduate student, I didn’t take full advantage of everything the city had to offer. I loved my experience, of course, but it was only when I recently spent a month living and working in Paris in our ISA office that I truly started tapping into the full potential of the city. Below are some tips I want our students to know to help them uncover the charms of the City of Light, based on what I learned on my recent visit:
Become a “regular” somewhere:
The first morning I went to a corner café for an espresso and a croissant, the woman working at the counter seemed completely disinterested with the fact that I was standing there waiting to order, and she hurried me along. Contrary to what we might be inclined to think, it’s not that she was a rude or uncaring person, it’s simply important for visitors to understand that the French value genuine and lasting relationships, rather than having people enter and exit their lives for brief periods of time.
I returned to this same café most days of the week from that point, and after a short time, the woman and many of the café’s patrons would welcome me with a warm greeting and good conversation. They opened themselves up to me once they found that I wasn’t just passing through, never to be seen again. When I was a student in Paris many years ago, I would very rarely frequent the same establishment twice, thinking that I needed to explore as much variety as I possibly could. If you want to meet locals and really feel rooted in the city, my strong recommendation is to find your favorite café, boulangerie, restaurant, dance hall, boutique, etc. and become a regular there. Your whole world within Paris will undoubtedly expand if you do so!
Ask for advice/opinions from locals:
When I first studied abroad in Paris, I was too nervous to speak to locals unless completely necessary (I admittedly have a pretty terrible sense of direction, so I often found myself asking people how to get from point A to point B; that’s about as far as my conversational skills went). Because of this, I ended up not straying from the most common tourist attractions and my comfort zone with my free time. When I was in the city recently, I did the exact opposite. I would ask the server in a restaurant what his/her favorite item on the menu was, I would ask my Parisian coworkers which museums they frequented the most, and if I hit it off well with locals during my travels, I would ask their opinions about various topics as they organically came up in conversation (like their favorite French films or music).
I found the French to be more open and conversational than ever before on my last trip; in fact, when I was chatting with the sweetest tour guide I’ve ever met at the Musée Rodin, she told me she has noticed a marked shift toward this sense of “ouverture” over the years as well. On separate occasions during this trip, I asked two Parisians if they liked living in Paris or if it ever gets stale. One told me “Paris est dans mon sein” (Paris is in my blood) and the other said something like “Paris est mon seul et unique véritable amour” (Paris is my one true love). To me, this is a testament to the fact that no matter how long you live in Paris, you can uncover things that captivate you or make you feel like you are a part of something greater. These are the people you want to get advice from! Your French professor, host family, the people you meet at the establishments you frequent (see above!), and any other locals you encounter can help you discover all of the hidden gems in the city that you will never find in a guide book.
It’s how I knew to go to the Canal St. Martin for an apéro, the Promenade Plantée for a stroll through lush gardens in the middle of the city, and the Rue Mouffetard for a great market on the weekend. Paris is not really about pristine elegance and sophistication. It’s incredibly multifaceted and can be gritty, raw, and even beautifully weathered in certain places. When I’m there I always find myself thinking to myself, “this is a place where they really understand how to fully live – how to be authentic and passionate in everything they do”. My hope is that our students experience this same feeling while in Paris, and these bits of advice are great places to start.