Cool Stuff in Paris. By Manning Leonard Krull.

Monday, June 29, 2015

How to beat the heat in Paris

Paris is usually mercifully mild in summertime (see my article about the weather in Paris) but once every few years you get a real scorcher. Mark in Kansas City writes:

[...] I thought you would be a great person to ask about Paris in the heat. My wife and I will arrive this coming Wednesday, and it appears that it is going to be extremely hot this coming week. Do you have any tips, or place to go for a little refuge from the heat?

The apartment we rented on Île Saint-Louis is not air conditioned, and we’re getting a little concered about the full enjoyment of our trip. Any advice you can give me as far as restaurants, museums, bar, or anything else would be greatly appreciated. [...]

Great question! The French really don't do AC for the most part. It can be brutal on those unusually hot summer days, which only come every few years. Fortunately most summers in Paris never got as hot as NYC (where I am now), but it sounds like you've hit one of the unusually hot weeks. I'm not surprised your apartment doesn't have AC; I don't think I've ever been in a Parisian apartment that does. If they don't have a fan, you might want to consider buying one as soon as you get there. Darty or Monoprix are two good places to buy one. BHV is a good option too, and pretty close to where you're staying, but probably the most expensive of the three.

This might sound silly, but my number one tip for wandering around Paris on a very hot day is popping into every supermarket you see and cooling off for five minutes. It's the one place that's guaranteed to be nice and cool inside (or, at the very least, the dairy aisle is). Keep an eye out for supermarket chains like G-20, Champion, Franprix, and Leader Price. Also, Monoprix is a big store that's all over the place, and some of them have a supermarket inside, while others don't. Worth a shot.

Beware, a lot of snack and fast food places have bottled drinks in a refrigerator thing, but they're barely cold! The French just don't do unnaturally cold the way we Americans do. Make sure to touch and see if a drink is cold enough for you before you buy it. Supermarkets are a better bet for this. (And you can't go wrong with a beer at a café; that'll be nice and cold.) I'm sure you've heard the stereotype that French restaurants don't have ice cubes, and this is usually true.

A lot of restaurants have a sign on the window that says "salle climatisée," meaning air-conditioned dining room. These are often not true! If you want to confirm before being seated, I do this trick all the time where I go into a restaurant alone and pretend I'm looking for someone. "Bonjour. Je cherche ma famille." ("je shersh ma fa-mee"; I'm looking for my family.) I usually do this just to see if a place is noisy/crowded/terrible, but it'd work for checking for AC as well.

I suspect most museums do not have air conditioning. And even movie theaters are often not air-conditioned! Or they've only got the AC on a tiny bit; they're never cold like in the US. They're often downright hot inside if the weather outside is hot.

Île Saint-Louis is a fantastic place to stay! I'm jealous! The island is tiny but there are two great gelato places there that might help you cool off. My favorite is Bertillon, and my fiancée's favorite is Amorino (Amorino is actually a chain with many locations around Paris).

It just occurred to me, I'm sure the catacombs are nice and cool this time of year!

One nice thing about hot weather in Paris, it almost always cools off a lot at night. So whereas we get nasty hot humid nights in many parts of the US, Paris usually gets much cooler, even to the point where you'd want long sleeves at night. I can't promise it'll definitely cool off at night, but I hope this is the case for your stay!

I hope some of that helps! Good luck and have a great trip!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Happy Smurfday

Spotted in the window of a stamps-and-other-collectibles shop, somewhere in the 9th arrondissement.

I also just posted a couple other fun sights around Paris, this creepy baby doll head display at Tombées du Camion, and a neat ape head in the window of Makillages.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Air France blew it for my return flight too.

(See my last post, Annoying Air France online check-in/booking experience.)

While I was in France I got an email about my return trip, offering an upgrade at a decent price. I clicked the link to upgrade, which took me to the appropriate page of their website. I entered my credit card info and clicked submit, and...... got an error! Again! It was a totally different error this time; very different looking page from the last time.

I poked around on the site and tried to see if I'd successfully paid and gotten my seat upgrade; it was impossible to confirm. However, this time I was able to see pending charges in my account on my bank's website for this upgrade, so I was relatively sure it had gone through.

I should've called Air France, but after all the hassle last time I just wasn't willing to. Last time I was at home before my trip with plenty of time to kill, and this time I was in Paris on a mini-vacation and had a busy schedule of enjoyable things and no time to waste on more nonsense like this.

The morning of my flight, I received an automated email from Air France confirming my flight! Great! However, I still couldn't check in on their website; I'd enter my info and it would tell me I couldn't check in online. I decided to simply go to the airport very early and deal with all of this.

I got to the airport three hours ahead of my flight time and tried the check-in machine. It said it couldn't check me in and that I'd have to proceed to the counter. I waited in line at the counter, and then the young lady who helped me stared at her screen with a confused/nervous look for a long time, and then she called over a colleague who did the same thing with her for a few minutes. Finally they told me I had to go to another counter, which they pointed out across the way. Another line to wait in.

To get to that counter I had to pass through a gate with a sign that said "passengers with boarding passes only." I didn't have my boarding pass yet, since I couldn't check in, so the lady at this gate wouldn't let me through. I explained that the other two ladies had told me I needed to get my problem resolved at the counter beyond the gate, but this lady (understandably) told me that I could not go through without a boarding pass. Fine, so what SHOULD I do? She told me to go to another counter, which she pointed out nearby. Another line to wait in.

At the third counter, another lady helped me, went through all the same steps, stared at her screen looking confused/scared, and then told me she needed to take my passport and go speak to someone else. I told her no problem. This lady and the other three Air France employees I dealt with at CDG so far were all extremely polite and kind, but they really didn't seem very confident about what they were doing.

A few minutes later this most recent lady came back with a fifth lady, and they looked at the computer together, and finally solved whatever the problem was and printed out my boarding pass. The upgrade that I had tried to pay for on the site actually did go through, so that was a relief.

All of this, with waiting in various lines and talking to five different employees at three different stations, took almost an hour.

I used to consider Air France a fantastic airline. The first dozen or so times I flew with them they really stood out as being very competent and professional; head and shoulders above the rest. They were more expensive than the other options, but their service was without a doubt much better. But something's changed. Now, the last half dozen or so times I've flown with them, I've run into these kinds of problems way too often. Their prices are still higher than their competitors (and getting higher all the time), but now they're just as much of a disorganized mess as the rest of them.

Fortunately my actual flights were fine. It's all the hassle and run-around and wasted time leading up to the flights that are an absolute disaster.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Annoying Air France online check-in/booking experience

Please see update below; looks good for now.

I just had a frustrating experience with Air France. I always blog about these things because I think it's important that there's a record of these situations so other customers can be aware of them and reference them, and so the companies themselves can be aware and (hopefully) work on improving things.

It's the day of my flight and I wanted to check in online and upgrade my seat if possible. I located the online check-in for Air France in English. (By the way, Google is always the best way to find an online check-in; way easier than trying to navigate any airline's website.) I entered my flight info and saw the economy seat I'd purchased; so far so good! I clicked "Change seat," and luckily there were some business class seats available! Cool! I chose one and proceeded to the payment area of the page.

I entered my credit card info. Upon clicking the submit button, the site displayed an error! Gah! It said there was a problem and that I needed to contact Air France asap. Did I get my seat? Did they take my money? No idea.

In the error message, "Contact Air France" was a link. I clicked this link and got another dumb error; it looked like the Contact page tried to load in a very small frame on the page I was currently on; it was unreadable and broken-looking.

I then dug around on the site for a contact number. Found one; a French number; no US number available (not a big deal!).

Before I called, I wondered if I may have received an email about the error; this might even confirm if I'd successfully paid or not. I checked and found that I DID have an email, which was in English, fortunately. It told me, again, I needed to contact Air France asap. No other info. The email had a contact link in it, which I clicked.

... And the contact page it linked me to was all in French. There was an English option at the top of the page, but when I clicked that it went to the homepage of the site in English; not the contact page!

Okay, but there was a Contact link at the top of the English version of the site.

On this Contact page, there was, again, only a French phone number available. I actually had to refer to my own article about how to call a French phone number from the US in order to call! Ha!

I called and got the options for French or English. My French is good but not perfect, so I chose English. For important transactions like this I don't want to add the risk of doing it in another language.

I listened to the same song on repeat for fifteen minutes, then a lady answered... in French! I started off with (in French) "Hello! Excuse me, my French is not great!" expecting she'd switch to English right away. Instead, she replied, in French, "My English isn't great either, so we'll work it out together." Her tone was extremely friendly and I was sure we'd be fine (and we were) but still, I chose the English option; what if I didn't speak French at all? I'd be pretty screwed. In the end we did the whole conversation in French, and it was no problem, but c'mon. I dreaded the thought that we might get stuck and she'd have to put me on hold and transfer me to someone else who spoke English. Fortunately we got through it in French just fine. I really like using my French, but throughout this whole process I kept thinking, man, imagine if I spoke no French at all. This all would've been really difficult.

The lady was extremely helpful and luckily she was able to confirm for me that I had, in fact, successfully changed my seat to business class and I had successfully paid. Weirdly, the seat I ended up with was not the one I chose -- I chose 8A and I now have 10A; it's the same exact kind of seat, so no problem; just weird! But even with this shaky confirmation, I'm sure you can imagine how I feel: I honestly have no confidence that is all correct and that I really truly did get my seat and successfully pay. Everything about the whole experience was so disorganized it inspired no confidence whatsoever. I'll be very curious to see how it all works out when I get to the airport; it's all too easy to imagine that, in fact, something went wrong and the lady was mistaken and I totally don't have the upgraded seat; I seriously wouldn't even be surprised if it turns out they did take my money but didn't upgrade my seat. But I'm cautiously optimistic that everything's fine.

So, to recap:
- Error when I tried to pay for an upgrade.
- Error when I clicked "contact us."
- Email in English linked to contact page in French.
- I called and chose the English option; got a lady who didn't speak English.
- Sounds like I probably got my seat, but after all that I just have no idea.

These kind of frustrating experiences are all too common; I'm sure anyone reading this has dealt with this kind of thing from countless big companies. It sucks. I make websites for a living so the online parts of this problem are particularly annoying for me. We all pay so much for these services -- and flight prices have been skyrocketing these last few years. We deserve better.

Fingers crossed for this flight! I'll post an update when I find out if I got that seat or not. It could seriously mean the difference between getting some decent sleep and arriving in Paris feeling great, or getting no sleep at all and feeling like crap my first day back. We'll see!

Update: Only a few minutes after I tweeted a link to this blog post, Air France has reached out to me on Twitter to tell me they're looking into this. Neat! I love social media; in my experience it's always the most direct and efficient way to get help from big companies. The official channels (telephone, contact forms on websites) are always slow and confusing and frustrating. The people running social media for big companies somehow manage to get things done. Possibly related, or possibly not, I tried to go through the online check-in again to see what would come up, and my seat is now listed as 10A, so it looks like I'm all set. Boarding pass arrived in my inbox showing same; looks good.

- Manning

Friday, May 1, 2015

Voleur du plan du Métro

Your French lesson for the day:

"Appelez la police! Ce monsieur est en train de voler le plan du Métro!"

Call the police! This man is stealing the Métro map!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Métronome; Voltaire and the Bastille

Here's another funny bit from Métronome by Lorànt Deutsch. From his chapter about the Bastille neighborhood and the history of the Bastille itself; it's the second and third paragraphs there...

Here's my clumsy but fairly direct translation...

Voltaire, author of a pamphlet that was found [by the authorities] to be displeasing, was imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months in 1717. Upon his release, he received from Philippe d'Orléans, regent of the kingdom, a pension of a thousand écus [i.e. crowns]...

"— I thank His Highness for this, which he certainly intends to take care of my nourishment, but I pray instead that he no longer take care of my lodging," he replied.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

La bise

(I originally wrote this post for another forum in response to a neat article called Kissing business acquaintances -- X, XXX or XXXXX?, but I figured it might be interesting for readers here. See my article about basic etiquette in Paris for more.)

La bise

I have a lot of thoughts about this! Mostly for non-business situations, as my whole life in France has been mostly very informal; I worked at home and never held an office job, but I'd visit different offices, meet with the occasional client, and hang out with various professional types. In my experience colleagues would only do the two kisses with people they worked with a long time and were very friendly with. (This is called "la bise," by the way. "Faire la bise" is to greet one another with these kisses on the cheek.) For most professional situations, it's a handshake. Anyway, the bise is fascinating, especially in non-work situtations...

Friday, April 24, 2015

Where does the name of Pont-Neuf come from?

There's a bridge over the Seine in central Paris called Pont-Neuf, and I've always wondered about its name. "Pont" is French for bridge, and "neuf," strangely, can mean either the number nine or "new." Is this the new bridge, or the ninth bridge? Or something else entirely? For all I know there was an important French guy named Neuf and they named it after him.

Anyhow, I'm in the middle of reading (very slowly) Métronome by Lorànt Deutsch; it's a fascinating history of Paris that goes from Métro stop to Métro stop and spans a few thousand years. Interestingly, he addresses the name of Pont-Neuf! Let me translate the last paragraph there for ya...

"Our four current bridges are reconstructions from the 19th century, and be aware that Pont-Neuf, finished in 1607, is not the ninth bridge in Paris but the fifth, and it's not the newest but the oldest, you follow?"

Uh, maybe I don't follow; I still don't know why it's called Pont-Neuf! However, I just thought to try Wikipedia, and it's confirmed: the neuf means new, as it was the newest bridge at the time it was built. Whoa, wait a second, isn't every bridge the newest one at the time it was built? Oh man, now I'm even more confused...

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