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Last Updated: June 18, 2023
The first time I came to Paris was in 2009 as an undergraduate student. I spent a semester here studying French at la Sorbonne. It was my sophomore year, my first time living abroad, and the biggest trip to date that I had taken by myself. After dreaming about Paris for years, I was ready to experience it in real life. To say I was excited is an understatement.
As we all know, things are rarely what they look like in the movies or in romanticized novels. We learn so much more about the world around us when we experience things first hand. Here are some everyday things that surprised me about Paris when I first arrived. These aren’t necessarily culture shocks, just things that stood out to me in my initial observations.
1. Paris is walkable.
Sure, Paris is the capital of France. For a city, she certainly is densely populated and large, but don’t let these facts misguide you. Paris is surprisingly walkable.
In the beginning, I took the metro way more than I probably needed to. My point of comparison was New York City where one metro stop can be a lengthy walk; not so much the case in Paris where the stops are markedly closer together. Some stops are less than a 5-minute walk from each other. As you can imagine, it’s sometimes quicker to go by foot than to wait for the next train.
As I started walking around more, I always carried this cool little book with me called Paris par arrondissement. Gifted to me by my childhood best friend’s parents before my departure, it was an absolutely indispensable item at this time. It had all the streets indexed and the closest metro stops marked. Am I dating myself here…?
2. Most apartment buildings open with a code.
Just about every apartment building is outfitted with an electronic panel where you punch in a code that releases the door lock. If there is a second door to pass through, there might be a second access code needed.
I hate memorizing numbers, but I did marvel at this technology when I first witnessed it. Our last apartment even had a fob to open the door. You could, alternatively, punch in a code if you didn’t have the fob on you or if someone came to visit. It’s perfectly normal to give your door code to a friend or the delivery person so that they can enter the building.
3. Everything is so small.
Relatively speaking, of course! And I’m not just talking about the portion sizes in France.
Paris has some peculiarities, such as coffin-like elevators, winding staircases, and closets passing for apartments. Of course, some of these things, like small grocery stores, come with the territory of any large city. Since I didn’t grow up in the city, it has taken me some time to get used to this aspect of city life.
4. Restaurant bathrooms are often downstairs.
More often than not, I’ve noticed that the bathrooms in Parisian restaurants and cafés can be found down a winding staircase. There is only so much space, so you fit things where you have to, I guess! On more than one occasion, it has felt like I’m going somewhere that is off-limits to the public, but so far, it’s always worked out.
5. There is a wide variety of architecture.
I had a very clear vision of what Paris was supposed to look like: imposing Haussmannian architecture, white and neutral tones everywhere, wrought iron balconies, gray roofs, and not a speck of graffiti. It’s what you see in all the movies, and it seems to be all that’s shown in Emily in Paris.
In reality, not all buildings have the same architecture. There are a variety of architectural designs depending on the neighborhood. Additionally, you can find street art throughout Paris which is not something that I originally associated with the City of Light at all.
6. Dirt and grime are unavoidable.
As pretty as Paris is, she is also quite dirty. And she smells like she could use some more deodorant. Between the dog poop and the trash strewn on the sidewalks, you can see why a regular power washing is necessary. I’m sure you’ve seen the street cleaners passing by. Have you noticed that the gutters frequently flow with water? This is a cleaning measure to keep the filth moving along, but it only does so much. The portrayal of Paris in movies did not prepare me for any of this!
7. From Connecticut to Paris, the days feel longer.
The sun seems to set so late here. It disturbed me at first, but now I love the longer days! In the summer, the sun doesn’t set until 10PM. Maybe that’s why happy hour in France runs for so much longer!
On the other hand, the sun also gets up later which is a nice segue into my next point.
8. Paris wakes up late.
For being a major city, not to mention the capital of France, I expected stores to open earlier. Unlike NYC, Paris goes to sleep every night and tends to sleep in, especially on the weekends. Most stores, even during the week, don’t open until 9 or 10AM. Things are completely closed on Sunday or may only open in the morning, so you can’t leave all your errands until Sunday like you can in the United States. Many businesses, like banks, close down for an hour or two during lunch. I’ve learned the hard way to check business hours in advance in order to avoid disappointments!
If you plan on going out at night and using public transportation, you need to keep an eye on the time. The metro actually stops running, with the last train arriving at the terminus around 1:15 in the morning on weekdays (2:15 on Fridays/Saturdays). The system doesn’t start back up again until 5:30AM. There is a night bus, but I haven’t taken that since my college days. It tends to attract a certain crowd.
9. Dogs are not allowed in most parks.
There are green spaces throughout the city: parks, gardens, and benches surrounded by trees. In many of these places, you are not allowed to walk on the grass which I find to be quite disappointing! Check the signs before you set up your picnic, and don’t even think about bringing in your furry four-legged friends! They aren’t allowed to enter most of the parks.
To be honest, given how unreliable Parisians are at picking up after their pets, I’m not mad about dogs being banned from public parks. There are a handful of dog parks around the city, but they leave a lot to be desired.
10. Condom vending machines are a thing.
You can find condom vending machines outside of some pharmacies and in many metro stations. Over time, I’ve seen fewer and fewer of these dispensers outside of pharmacies. It seems a lot of them have been taken down recently, but in 2009, they were everywhere.
It seems an odd choice to have condom dispensers outdoors given the fluctuation in weather and the subsequent effect on the reliability of this birth control method. Additionally, I’m not sure how often the dispensers are refilled. 10/10 would not recommend.
11. It is hard to practice French in Paris.
When I first came here as an undergraduate student, I had minimal confidence in my spoken French. It didn’t help that the instant I made a mistake, Parisians would begin speaking in English. This crushed the little confidence I had and discouraged me from wanting to try.
My program did not provide opportunities to meet French people, and I ended up spending all of my time with fellow Americans who were also studying in my program. Yep, you guessed it—we spent that whole semester speaking in English. This was not what I expected of my study abroad experience.
Paris is full of immigrants and it is really easy to get away with never practicing French. If French is not naturally infused into your life through work or school, you can find yourself going the whole day without saying a word of French until you go to the bakery for a pain au chocolat. Opportunities do exist, of course, but you might have to seek them out (and you’re not going to get better at speaking in French unless you speak in French!)
12. Baguettes are cheap!
To be honest, I was expecting everything to be super expensive and while life here in Paris can be costly, I find that the quality is often better for the price that you pay. I don’t buy a fresh baguette every day, as even at 1 euro a pop, that cost can add up, but it is an affordable yet high quality thing to buy.
13. Paris is not any scarier than other big cities.
As I had never really spent time in a city by myself before, I was anxious about coming to Paris for the first time. I was cautioned to carry my passport around all the time and to use a money belt under my clothes to avoid getting pickpocketed. Hearing these recommendations, I was initially (overly) concerned about safety.
At some point, I recognized that I was comfortable here, and it’s not any scarier than other big cities. There are pickpockets and scam artists, of course, and you do need to be cautious and aware of your surroundings, especially as a tourist, but I feel safe here about 97% of the time.
What surprised you the first time you came to Paris? Did you make any of the same observations as me?