I recently revisited Paris to celebrate, among other things, my study abroad year a decade ago–making it a great (if rather intense) 10-year reunion of a kind.
As expected, it didn’t take long to notice the ways in which some things have changed in this time frame.
5 ways Paris has changed in 10 years:
1. French people now like, if not WANT, to speak English!
One of the first things to say to contextualize my experience 10 years ago is none other than: Bush administration. In light of 9/11 and the US government’s involvement in the Middle East, Americans were easy targets for practically everything that was deemed wrong in foreign policy (if not the world in general). As such, speaking (American) English was an instant giveaway, and could sometimes draw judgmental looks and/or behavior from some. Of course that’s not to say that French people didn’t ‘like’ to speak English then, or can’t differentiate between a government’s actions and its citizens, but it was just all too easy for the political angle to come to the fore. For the most part, there was also general awareness that, as anywhere else, US residents vary, and as such may only reflect a part of the population. With that said, since most of the students studying abroad were there to learn the language, they would try hard to speak in French, which sometimes felt rather expected from the French–as in; we’re not gonna go out of our way to help these Americans kinda vibe–to give an example.
As such, ten years later we were quite surprised to see most people much more playful and wanting to speak English! In the few times my friends would try to take up their broken French, it all too easily shifted to English with no problem. Another instance that comes to mind is when we were just walking around looking for a place, talking to each other in English, when someone overheard us and asked us (in English) if we needed help finding our destination. This was simply unheard of, if not nearly impossible, a decade ago. (It’s also no secret that American culture has, and will continue to, influence the world; France included.)
2. France (or is it Paris mostly?) has gone high(er) tech!
One of the main jokes has always been that going to France–if not Europe in general–is a bit like stepping back into the Middle Ages. And one of these reasons is–or perhaps was–none other than technology. If I recall correctly, the American cell phones a decade ago were already becoming more advanced while the options in Paris were quite basic and limited. This time around it was common to see iPhones (or iPhone-like devices) in heavy use.
What also surprised us was the fact that many places require chip-enabled credit cards (and won’t accept those who aren’t), but the most unexpected was seeing electric cars charging at public charging stations!
3. ‘Doggy bags’ are now a thing
As per my friend’s awesome recommendation to dinner at Chez Gladines (a complete MUST!!), our large, delicious Basque food portions soon hinted that we may not be able to finish all our plates. (I will gladly note that I tried my friends’ dishes and they were all freakin’ delicieux!!) Being that in the past we were generally aware that taking leftovers wasn’t always a possibility, we would usually attempt to finish as much as we could on the spot. However, there was no need to worry on that front, and really I would imagine that it would only benefit any restaurant to provide that rather obvious option.
4. Withdrawing cash at BNP is no longer charge-free
This is obviously not directly linked to French people, but was frustrating nonetheless since I wasn’t given clear information, despite having called the bank prior to my travel. When I studied there, there was this awesome convenient perk of being able to withdraw cash from your Bank of America account at BNP Paribas ATMs (being that BoA and BNP are international partners); the amount which would obviously come out as Euros. There was NO FEE whatsoever; all that would happen was that you’d enter in the Euro amount requested, and later on you’d see that amount reflected in dollars in your account according to the rate exchange at time of transaction. That was it!
This time around, I was charged a 3% fee; which was either a conversion fee or an international transaction fee; I don’t really care about which it is, all I know is that it was 3%, which infuriated me after having been told there would be ‘no charge for using the card.’ Thankfully my friend alerted me to this early on and I switched to some other payment method for the rest of my time there. As such, in the future I will not be using BoA for international travel, especially when there are other fee-free payment options.
5. Extreme weather variance: super cold, and then stuffy-humid, and then wet weather in May – June
Again this is likely a global thing–and obviously not the fault of the French–but it stands out as part of the change in that travel experience. What I will definitely say I that NEVER in all my life thought I’d be in Paris wearing a wool jacket in late May and early June!! The weather changes were just all over the place; the morning I arrived it was freezing cold, then eventually warmed up, reminding us of Paris’ humidity (I had forgotten that, ugh!), and then it was a good 2-3 days of on and off rain! (The latter of which even caused some flooding and, by consequence, the shutting down of the Louvre! Thankfully we’d gone in time before this happened.) I mean my goodness! Needless to say I was ‘California dreaming’ to assume it would’ve started warming up by then and be shorts-and-skirts-and-summer-dresses weather, because it definitely was not. If and when I do go back, I will want to go later in the year to experience warmer, hopefully less chaotic weather.
In contrast, there are also things we were reminded haven’t changed much over the years.
5 ways Paris hasn’t changed in 10 years:
1. High… & low prices
Paris is an expensive city, or rather, can be expensive depending on what you intend to do. As with any other trip, it’s ideal to plan ahead for organization and to determine your budget. In any case, it’s also true that there are plenty of affordable ways to enjoy the city. Some examples include: open air food markets, delicious gyros that abound throughout the city, cheap wine at virtually all grocery markets, etc. A great resource to consult for tips on that–and practically everything else–is GoParis!
Bonus that as an author / writer and therefore perpetual book lover, I also enjoyed the numerous bookshops filled with books at bargain 1-3€ prices! (My favorite being the St. Michel / Notre Dame area 🙂 )
2. French indifference
While rarely personal, it could still be annoying to occasionally witness that renown French indifferent attitude. This could range from borderline rude speaking to nearly being walked into, to downright refusal to take responsibility for making an error (such as giving my friend the wrong order of ice cream when she’d clearly stated what she wanted). Pas cool!
3. Convenience, unexpected windfalls, communication skills
Being in Paris may remind Americans that many things are conveniently available here, and which may not be the case there (and by extension, make us feel both proud and frustrated at the French difference). I would not call Paris a place where things are made ‘convenient’ for you; you just have to deal with what’s available (and perhaps in some ways linked to that French indifference stated above^). Of course, there are both pros and cons to that. It may not be the end of the world to forego some things we’ve grown used to, but in other cases it may just feel silly that some aspects are still lacking.
For instance, the Paris metro is notoriously known for its stairs, and you may not be able to find escalators and/or elevators… and if you do, they may not work. Trying to fit your suitcases in those tiny stalls to exit / enter stations may be another hassle. So while the Metro is an overall convenient option to affordably travel through Paris, depending on your situation–but especially if hauling many suitcases–you may want to explore other options when going to and from the Charles de Gaulle airport.
Another thing about Paris (which again, is hardly limited to that place, but for some reason feels more prominent there) is that you can plan things out, but unexpected windfalls are all too common. One way to deal with that is to have back-up plans, and/or just engage your sense of spontaneity. For sure it can be frustrating though; especially if you’d planned to do something specific after a 10-year absence!
But by far, the most frustrating factor has to be the lack of effective communication. Despite the global implementation of internet use and cell phones, we’ve surely all witnessed by now that it doesn’t necessarily translate to enhanced communication, and Paris traveling is no exception to that. For whatever reason(s), many French people seem to have a problem returning text messages, even when you have some kind of upcoming appointment with them. To say that it’s frustrating and unprofessional is an understatement, particularly when coming from someone from whom you’re renting a place for your stay. This was a concerning issue for both my friends and I, with each of our Airbnb reservations; mine with an alarming cancellation literally minutes before I was leaving to the airport to catch my flight there! Thankfully (all thanks to higher guidance, no doubt!) I had kept info on hand and was able to bounce back fast–all the while solidifying my ambivalence about Airbnb in the process. But even though my friends’ Airbnb experience ended up working out for them, neither of us would really recommend it for Paris stays in the future. It may be that the combination of Airbnb’s own questionable policies mixed with those less than ideal elements of French behavior can lead to unnecessary chaos. All I know is that there was just way too much stress involved in simply trying to confirm a booking you’d made months in advance, in obvious hopes of avoiding such drama.
In the interest of looking at things positively, one aspect to this slowed communication is that lack of response may not necessarily indicate a problem… just like effective communication doesn’t necessarily guarantee something won’t come up; which is also what happened with my original, first Airbnb booking. (The Airbnb booking that was cancelled minutes before I left to airport was my 2nd one… it’s like I’m being given signs or something! LOL). If at all possible, go with a more trusted route!
^My friend’s favorite meme on the situation LOL
4. Charged atmosphere
It goes without saying that it’s heartbreaking to see the attacks that have recently happened in Paris, as well as in my native Brussels, and throughout the world in general. A decade ago we, as varied study abroad students, all observed, and were quite surprised by the intensity of living in Paris (something which also prompted my writing a dark short story based on some of these experiences), but the charged atmosphere was even more palpable this time around. While potential scam activity is still present at most tourist sites (read more on that here and here), the most alarming was sighting confrontational individuals individuals trying to pick fights, which unfortunately may not make the visibly increased French police presence feel so out of place.
Another heartbreaking factor was seeing so many homeless families (many of which may be part of the Roma community, also here) in virtually all areas of Paris, something which wasn’t nearly as prominent a decade ago.
One thing we tried to do in lieu of wasting: when we had extra food and/or materials, we made a point to find a family or individual to give it to.
5. It’s a freakin’ beautiful city
A twenty-something and thirty-something see the world differently (at least you’d hope!), and one thing I’ve grown to appreciate much more is what a beautiful place Paris really is. Not that I didn’t “see” it before; but it just didn’t affect me in the same way. I’ve since fallen in love with different eras and authors of French literature as well as studied much more about the place and the world in general; all elements which affect the way you perceive the world and absorb experiences.
With its long history, there are so many ways in which that lingering beauty is reflected, and I’m thankful to have been able to enjoy it and see the value in it in ways I haven’t before. While living abroad and visiting are totally different things (note to self: being a tourist is exhausting!), traveling has the potential to change you in different ways, and perhaps we each create our own unique versions of beauty as part of the experience.
As with anything in life, focusing on its positive aspects will enhance the travel experience, while staying alert to the potentially unexpected realities.
Given all the life-changing aspects of studying abroad (which of course includes all the non-Paris events that also happened), I’m happy to say that despite my enduring view that too many things about French culture are romanticized, Paris will always hold a special place in my heart–as it surely does for countless others.