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Paris may be a moveable feast, but it’s no picnic

Ernest Hemingway wrote that you carry memories of Paris with you as a moveable feast. But a moveable feast can bring on ants, thunderstorms, food poisoning, and other realities.  Living in the French capital is sometimes that kind of difficult picnic.

All this walking kills your feet. Tourists walk for hours a day. Even if you take the metro, you have to walk up stairs, down stairs, and through metro passageways: the metro doesn’t cut out the walking. Even if you take regular walks at home, there’s nothing like walking all day. If you’ve brought stylish heels, your feet will die. Bring flat heeled, rubber-soled shoes with a good tread. Rest throughout the day on bus rides, benches, or in cafes.

There are gray Velib’ bikes for rent, but they’re just for French people. You have to have a certain chip in your credit card to operate the rental bike kiosks. As of this writing, American cards don’t have them.

Watch out for scammers, pickpockets, beggars, and weirdos. From gypsies asking, “Do you speak English?” before presenting their sob story to men “finding” gold rings and asking you to buy them, there are lots of scams aimed at tourists. At Sacre Couer, African men put string bracelets on your wrist and then demand money. Others may try to sell you wine at the Eiffel Tower. There are homeless people camped out in sleeping bags in doorways, and regular beggars sit with their dogs and an old Starbucks cup for your spare change.

It’s hard to orient yourself. You might think you could see the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre hill, or the Montparnasse skyscraper from everywhere, but you can’t. You can only see the Seine and its bridges from right up close. Most buildings here are made from the same color stone, and so often look exactly the same. Bring a compass.

A baguette is hot, crusty, and crummy nutrition. Though this long, skinny loaf is a symbol of France, this white bread is not really good for you. Consuming too many of these hard crusted carb loads can scratch up your mouth and palette.

Strikes happen. As I write this, a strike by Air France cabin crews is in its fourth day. A visitor can arrive via a free train ride from the airport (an act of good will by the transport iministry) but then have great trouble finding a way out of the station without a ticket.

There are too many dogs. Parisians own 200,000 dogs said one article. I see big dogs, tiny dogs, and mostly dogs that have no business belonging to people who live in tiny apartments. You see dogs in restaurants, grocery stores, and in swanky hotels. There’s a hefty fine for leaving behind your dog’s droppings, but most owners I’ve seen ignore that threat.

Too many people smoke. It’s quite rare to get asked if you want a smoking or non-smoking section in a restaurant, even though there’s a law requiring non-smoking areas. I was only asked at fancy Fouquet’s and in a small cafe in Chartres. About 40 percent of Frenchmen smoke (compared to about 21% in the U.S.), and smoking causes a third of all cancers here. A law prohibits smoking in workplaces, airports, the metro, and rail stations, but this seems widely ignored. Smoking is simply the norm in France. Disgusting cigarette butts everywhere. Jean Nicot–the French ambassador who brought tobacco into France in 1550 claiming its medicinal purposes–lent his name to its addictive ingredient.

The air is terribly polluted. Emissions from gasoline pollute the Parisian sky about as much as coal fires did during the 1880s. On the positive side, French President Nicholas Szarkozy hosted a green summit this week in Paris with Al Gore. Szarkozy is trying to improve France with a freeze on construction of new airports and roads.

The streets and sidewalks are filthy. Dogs pee, people spit and throw down cigarette butts, and trash is everywhere. The green-uniformed janitorial crews struggle to clean up. I wish I could just say don’t look down, but you need to mind the dog poop.

You can’t live in the past. A tourist may be here to see Impressionist paintings and Jean-Paul Sartre’s watering holes, but modern problems will very likely intrude. This week marks the second anniveersary of riots involving the burning of cars and public buildings in Clichy-sous-Bois, an eastern suburb 10 miles from the center of Paris. The unrest then spread to housing projects in various parts of France, and a state of emergency was declared on November 8, later getting extended to three months. The riots were triggered by the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, Muslim teenagers who were returning home to break the Ramadan fast. They hid from pursuing police in a power substation and were accidentally electrocuted.

Paris is a wonderful, historic, romantic place. As you plan your moveable feast here, be realistic and prepared.

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