Five (or More) Signs You’ve Landed in Paris

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Paris started off with a “warm” welcome by the French border control police.

Feng, Mark and I queued in the “non-EU passport holders” line—I travel with my Canadian passport—and when our turn came, the three of us walked up to the booth and I presented the documents.

“Not him. He can wait in line,” the border officer said in French, pointing to Feng.

“But it’s my husband, we’re travelling as a family!” I protested, also in French.

“Good for you, I don’t care.”

Feng shrugged. I was seething with anger. Seriously, what the fuck?

Since nothing says “welcome to France” like a long series of inefficient and disorganized queues, we lined up to pick up our backpacks, then to buy RER (express train) tickets. Of course, the SNCF vending machine only takes coins and the change machine was broken—Parisian logic.

Deep down, I’m pretty sure Paris-CDG Airport is managed by a disgruntled French person who hates tourists and tries to discourage them from landing in France’s busiest airport.

We took the RER B, then transferred to the métro, transferred to another line and walked to the hotel.

“Good to know we should be safe,” Feng pointed out when we discovered it was right in front of a—

“Hôtel de police? The police is staying at the hotel?”

“That’s French for ‘police station’”, I explained.

The guys decided to nap, I decided to go out. I usually take a shower as soon as possible to get rid of the “eau de voyage” but I was that dirty, I rationalized, and Paris is—may as well just enjoy the afternoon. I washed up a bit and went out.

I had missions, plural. I needed to buy a French SIM card, a sandwich for dinner and possibly some French Aspirin because I had a headache. I don’t know Paris that well, it had been a while since our last trip, but I was pretty sure I could find Montparnasse train station—the tall Montparnasse Tower would help if needed.

I walked a couple of blocks in what I figured should be the right direction and it suddenly it hit me.

I was in France. I was in Paris. I was in this other world of mine I know well, but exhausted and still very Canadian, this world looked…

It looked so French.

I felt like I was in one of these “now the character is in France” movies. Everything around me was a complete cliché—small Renault cars, stylish women, old buildings…

Here are a few other oh-so-French things I noted:

So many independent pharmacies with their unmissable green neon signs! French love their little remedies and cheap over-the-counter drugs. And by the way, pharmacies don’t sell chips, lottery tickets and candy bars around here—people just buy, you know, drugs, cosmetics and skincare products.

There are entire streets of Chinese “traiteurs,” the French twist on Chinese food—generic and often tasteless French-Chinese cuisine like fried rice with eggs and green peas sold by weight or by portion size, quickly warmed up in a microwave if you eat in. Feng isn’t a big fan of them—“Chinese food is supposed to be fresh and made to order!” “Japanese” restaurants—usually Chinese owned, yes, I can hear you speaking Mandarin…—also seem popular in Paris.

“Oh, people eating, drinking, chatting and enjoying life, how refreshing!” I thought walking by cafés and restaurants. Then I checked my watch—wait, is there anyone working in France on a Monday afternoon at 3 p.m.? Apparently not. Ah bon.

On a related note, I saw plenty of small businesses closed. Damn French epicureans! “On holiday from July 1 to July 31,” a handwritten sign informs customers. “Off until August.” “See you back in September!” Coming from the land of “a three-day weekend counts as a vacation,” this reminder that it’s normal to take (paid) time off made me smile.

I love small reminders that show how North Americans and Europeans understand time differently. “Founded in 2012,” “proudly serving customers since 1965” signs say in Canada. Oh yeah? How about “founded in 1821”? Look at the old blue plate on some buildings, “gaz à tous les étages.” In the 19th century, it was proudly displayed on buildings equipped to deliver gas to all floors. It was a new luxury because the alternative was to use coal or wood to cook.

I came back to the hotel without a phone SIM card, a sandwich or Aspirin but I had fun rediscovering France alone for a few hours.

And it was time for another mission…

Les Invalides, Paris

Les Invalides, Paris

Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris

Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris

4e arrondissement, Paris

4e arrondissement, Paris

In the métro, Paris

In the métro, Paris

Station Vaugirard, Paris

Station Vaugirard, Paris

Eating chouquettes in Montmartre, Paris

Eating chouquettes in Montmartre, Paris

Bakery in front of the Louvre, Paris

Bakery in front of the Louvre, Paris

Station Saint-Michel, Paris

Station Saint-Michel, Paris

Rue du Commerce, Paris

Rue du Commerce, Paris


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


    • I always notice how fresh food is. Like bread, most French buy some bread every day and expect it fresh, there’s no “best by” date on it unlike in Canada!

  1. Welcome to Europe! Like Paris, half of the Dutch is on vacation in the month of July/August. I made some phone calls this week to some institutions and was told to call back end of August because the whole department is closed/ employees are on leave. But the plus side is that it is really handy for employees with kids because we get to take time off during school holidays.
    Enjoy Paris and the heatwave:-))

    • I think most Europeans have the same attitude towards (paid) vacation time–there’s no shame in taking it! I can’t understand why taking time off is culturally frown upon in Canada and in the US.

  2. My family was stressed out for the tax refund when they came visit me early this month.
    When they left England to come to Nantes, they were told they can only do the tax refund on their purchases in England when they leave EU. So I told them I would help them when we do the Nantes (EU) to Geneva (non EU) flight. They bought some stuffs in France expecting to get tax refund in Nantes Airport.

    Unfortunately, the gate for the flight Nantes-Geneva was before the passort control zone, and the refund machine was placed after the passport control. I went to the passport control to ask how I can use the machine since we are leaving EU, the officers just said NO YOU CAN’T DO IT, without any explanation. I went to ask around, someone let me went back to the departure hall to ask the information counter. The answer : you could probably do it at Geneva, or go to Embassy of France in Geneva. We went to the gate again, I tried to go to the passport control to ask again, but the officers were yelling at me and asked me to leave immediately. I just feel that, if France was telling tourists they can get tax refund, they should have made it easier for the process. And yelling doesn’t solve anything.

    • Ugh, that sucks!

      I never understood the tax refund scheme and I’ve never tried it (would I even be eligible? Probably not). Most likely, they had no idea how to proceed and didn’t want to do it. Still, you’d expect staff to be trained and polite/patient toward tourists.

      Was you family eventually able to do it in Geneva?

  3. Is it nice to be at “home?”
    I mean, you left your original country for decades. And in some extent you are in a place where people speak the same language.

    • It does feel comfortable sometimes because some aspects of life are more instinctive to me. I used to miss speaking French (or rather, I used to miss expressing myself properly!) but I don’t anymore because I’m as comfortable in English as in French.

  4. Yes they got the tax refund in Geneva after a lot of hassle and stress. They first needed to go to the French custom to get a stamp on their tax refund form, then go to the Switzerland side to ask for the tax refund. Only people with a boarding pass could go through these places so I didn’t go with them. They told me the French custom officers were not friendly at all, and were laughing at their Malaysian broken English.

    Any non EU resident who makes a purchase of at least 175€ inside a single shop in France could enjoy the tax refund. Basically you don’t have to pay the 20% TVA but with handling fees you could only get back around 12% (instead of 20%). Make sure the shop provides you with a tax refund form. My sister bought an Ipone in England, the shop promised tax refund but didn’t provide any form so they didn’t get any at the end. It was their last day in England, when she understood that she needed a form, she was already in France. They called the shop and the sale person said they needed to go back there in order to get the form.

    • Wow, sounds like a straightforward process (the way you explained it makes sense to me) that isn’t handled well. It sucks! I wonder if there’s a similar tax refund scheme in Canada and if it’s handled better. Absolutely no one should laugh at tourists or make them helpless :-/

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