I just returned from a week-long vacation in Paris, France. Some comments:
ON THE EXCHANGE RATE
The current exchange rate is something like 1.57 dollars to a euro, but the actual rate is much worse, due to the extra basis points various currency exchanges tack on. In addition, everything is more expensive in Paris, so things were about double the cost when all was said and done. A croque monsieur at a cafe went for anywhere between 8 and 10 euro. This is for toast with some ham and cheese. That's $20. For toast. Granted, the presentation was (usually) pretty good, but still, it adds up.
The only thing that is a compelling value is wine. Even with the bad rate, I was drinking at about half the cost I would in the States.
ON MY APPEARANCE
I was in Paris almost three years ago, and apparently I was a very conspicuous tourist. We would walk into a cafe, and they would start speaking English right away, without even hearing us speak (we speak with a pretty decent accent, incidentally). I later told a friend about this, and he said they knew we were Americans from the way were dressed. I was in a black shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. He told me that the French don't wear sneakers.
So this time, I brought a nice pair of brown leather Pikolinos, but I was still in a black shirt and jeans (but this time gray jeans), and wouldn't you know it but several French people mistook me for one of their own!!!? I was asked for directions numerous times, some woman asked me for a light in French, and people in general spoke to me more often in French when I entered stores or cafes. What's going on? Was it my Pikolinos? Or am I developing a confidence with age that makes me seem more French?
Incidentally, I also have a theory that I am better looking in France than I am in the States, due to a difference in average height and general standards of male beauty. Perhaps what passes for "mugger-ish looking" in the States is actually sexy in France. Could be those Pikolinos, though.
ON MY CLOSE SHAVE WITH DEATH
On some of the boulevards of Paris, you'll see two sets of pedestrian walk signs, one all the way on the other side of the street and one at the divider (if there is one). The problem with this set-up is that the one on the other side of the street always turns green before the one closest to you. I guess this so people stranded in the middle of the street can get a head start on crossing, but really, I think it's designed to get people like me (read: unlikely to catch on to counter-intuitive street crossing mechanisms) killed.
Anyway, as if you haven't guessed by now, I ignored the closest walk sign, which was red, and saw the green one across the street, and took a step into the street. My mother-in-law, Kelli, stuck an arm in front of me, and a speeding bus whooshed right by me. Bree thought that if not for her mom, I would be a goner, and I guess she's right. I think that there's a good chance the bus was going so fast that I would not have made it in front of the bus before it got to me, and would have probably bounced off the side of it, sustaining serious, but not mortal, injuries. Still, it would have made for a helluva last day in France.
Bree later told me that when someone saves your life, he or she becomes responsible for you for the rest of your life. That doesn't make much sense to me, because you would think the custom would be for the saved person to repay the favor, instead of making the rescuer pay a greater burden than if she had just let that person die. That makes for a poor incentive to play the good Samaritan. But I don't make the rules.
ON LA DEFENSE
On the morning the girls wanted to go shopping, I decided to hop on the #1 Yellow line metro to La Defense, the bundle of skyscrapers on the western edge of the city. I walked out of the station and was in the middle of a concrete business park surrounded by very attractive, futuristic architecture (it kind of reminded me of EPCOT).
Being from Chicago, I was not blown away with the skyscrapers in general, but I did very much appreciate the Grande Arche. The building is essentially a large white cube, hollowed out in the middle. I walked up to it and took a couple pictures. I wanted to get myself in at least one, so I held the camera towards me at arms length while standing in front of the Arche. But I don't do this very often, so it wasn't a very good photo (lots of head, little background). I realized there was a timer on my camera, so I placed in on the nearest bench, facing the monument, and jumped in front of it. The angle was bad, since the bench was so low, and those pictures were a disappointment as well.
Just as I was setting my camera up for a third trial of this timed-photo technique, an older couple walked up to me and asked me, in French, if I wanted them to take my photo. I responded with a very excited "Oui, merci beaucoup!!" and told them un moment while I adjusted the settings on my camera. The man asked me, "vous-etes Francais?"("are you French?"). I laughed, and said "non, non, je suis un touriste." He asked, "D'ou?" ("from where?") and I said "Je suis un américain."
He laughed, looked at his wife, and said "Good, then we can speak English!" It turned out that not only were they Americans, but they had both lived in the Chicago area years ago. We chatted, I took a picture of the both of them in front of the Arche, and we parted ways. A quick, amusing confirmation that it is indeed a small world.
ON ART MUSEUMS
The Orsay is much more interesting than the Louvre, with several famous works, including great Monet and Van Gogh collections (and Whistler's Mother-- an American fave). In addition, the building, which is an old train terminal, is very striking. If you go there remember to visit the top floor, which is where all the best stuff is. You can also catch a very picturesque view of the Sacre Coeur from behind the glass clock facade.
The Louvre is essentially filled with lots of Renaissance masterpieces that are beautiful, but all about the same three subjects: (1) chubby baby Jesuses, (2) John the Baptist's head on a plate, and (3) the Crucifixion. It gets a little old. And the Mona Lisa -- it's OK, I suppose. But nothing special.
The garden of Versailles (which is free to enter) is impressive, but the actual palace is disappointing. A minor art collection is contained in several multicolored rooms, and the standard tour includes some royal apartments that are sparsely decorated. The palace itself is a large building with ornate ceilings and grand staircases, but it's not that exciting if you've seen other royal apartments. The standard tour at Schönbrunn (the consensus #2 palace, outside of Vienna, where the Habsburgs lived) is more interesting, in my opinion.
Other notes: Don't miss Les Halles and L'Eglise Saint-Eustache, and make sure to take a walk down the main drag of Île Saint-Louis (just to the east of Notre Dame). Good places to relax include the Luxembourg gardens (near the Sorbonne) and the Place Des Vosges (in the Marais).