Practical Comparisons: France 1971 vs. 2017

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National Geographic Traveler’s Map of France

While cleaning out my grandmother’s home, my mom found a 1971 copy of National Geographic Traveler’s Map of France.  Both Andrew and I eagerly unfolded the yellowed map to see what National Geographic recommended to tourists in 1971. We were impressed to see that we could have taken most of their advice for which monuments to visit, though most practical information is sadly outdated.  Check out a list of comparisons below:

Under the “Hints for the Traveler” section, NG advises that a “valid passport [is] required; visas [are] needed for stays of more than three months.”  Even with the advent of the European Union and Schengen zone, this remains true.  US passport holders visiting France and other Schengen countries can stay within the bounds of this area for 90 days, before they either need to leave the Schengen zone, or hold the required visa to travel, study or work for an extended period.

 

The currency exchange information lists 1 franc as equal to 18 cents U.S.  Clearly, this has drastically changed since 1971, as France introduced euro banknotes into circulation on January 1, 2002.  I have no understanding of the buying power a franc represented (1 franc = 1 baguette? 1 coffee? 1 piece of candy?), but I would have liked to experience France pre-Euro, as currency can be a meaningful indicator of cultural identity.  As of June 27, 2017, Google Finance reports that 1 Euro is equivalent to 1.13 USD.  This should be encouraging dollar holding travelers to Europe, as in recent memory the dollar has been (de)valued to as high as 1.40 USD for 1 Euro, which is a depressing and expensive to the visitor earning a dollar-based salary to any Euro country.  Exchanging money in 1971 probably involved a more direct transaction.  Now, we recommend taking a debit card, and withdrawing money directly from your US bank account at a local ATM in France directly in Euros.  This allows you to avoid any unnecessary fees at your local branch in the US, and gives you the best exchange rate.  Don’t use the airport or train station currency exchange booths; these are truly a rip-off!  Another suggestion is to use a credit card for larger purchases, but be sure to pack a credit card that charges no foreign transaction fees.  We use a Capital One card, both in the US and abroad.

Under the “Shopping and Sightseeing” category, NG states that most shops are closed on Monday, which we found to still be accurate in Tours and the surrounding region.  Small shops and local restaurants shuttered their windows for a day off on the first day of the week, which overall had a sleepy, post-weekend sluggishness feel to it.

NG confidently assures the monolingual American that “English [is] understood at most hotels, shops, and restaurants in the larger cities.” While I’m sure this is true, venture out into the provincial capitals and smaller towns, and English is not as “on demand” as one might expect, even in 2017.  The French willingly engage in their language, too, given they sense your effort is honest, and more or less competent.

My favorite section, “Hotels,” lists the price for various categories of accommodation. The average rate for “big-city luxury hotels:  about $20 a day for a single; $35 double (without meals).  Some inexpensive hotels offer rooms for as little as $5, without private bath.” Assuredly, there are no upscale accommodations available in Paris for such a deal in 2017!  Since I have no experience with “luxury hotels” in France, let’s compare an “inexpensive” stay in 1971 with one in 2017.  In December 2009, a friend and I spent a week in Paris, and sojourned at the Hotel du Commerce in the 5th arrondissement, which I’ll use as our point for comparison.  This hotel offers a fabulous location at a budget price (walk to Notre Dame!  explore Rue du Moffetard!).  While not fancy (the shower was at the foot of the bed, spraying water into the floor, the toilet at the other end of the creaky hall, our room up 5 flights of stairs, like sleeping in Gryffindor Tower, but no fire for the winter cold), it was, and still is, affordable.  In fact, I’d stay here again, and recommend this albergue to a friend!  A stay amounts to around $70 a night for 2 people in a full bed, with a shared toilet, even in 2017.  So, a $70 room cost 59 euro in 2009, and supposedly $5 in 1971.  All indicators point toward booking a flight to Paris, right now, with such a reasonably priced establishments available.

Another option for lodging when traveling in the countryside and through smaller towns is to book a Chambre de Hote or a Gite for a larger party.  Both offer a unique cultural experience, normally breakfast is included at the Chambre de Hote, for an outstanding price / quality ratio.  Outrageous by today’s standards, NG informs young adventurers that youth hostels cost only $1 a night in France, with a three night limit.  This chain of Auberges de Jeunesse in Paris advertises a night in dorm in Montmarte for 19 euros a person.  While 20x the amount quoted in 1971, still doable for the modern day budget conscious voyager.

Other memorable pieces of information from the 1971 Traveler’s Map of France include the advice to travel by bike – “the ultimate in inexpensive travel.  For short excursions, bikes rent for about $1.00 per day.”  No longer true as we rented bikes for 15 euros a day, but thoroughly endorse a day by bike experience.  Our pedal along the Cher River counts as a highlight from our recent trip, and continues to be a popular pastime among the French.

Also enviable was the cost of a “top-flight restaurant meal including wine and service: $20.” Blessedly service is still included (one of our favorite parts about dining out in France – the price listed is really what you pay, no 15-20% tip to be added at the end), but a nice meal out for lunch in Tours with a glass of wine cost between $55 and $70 dollars for 2.  While more expensive than Spain, considering the cost of a three-course meal with alcohol in the US (astronomical!), we thought the price quite fair.

Later this week I plan to post about the sightseeing recommendations provided by NG in 1971, which gave surprisingly similar itinerary suggestions to the one we followed in 2017.  That must mean either NG is forward-thinking, Andrew has an old soul and loves the traditional spots, or else the tourist attractions in France remain largely unchanged.

Do you have any practical information for tourists to France in 2017?  Am I totally wrong about the prices listed above?  Do you have insider’s advice to someone booking accommodations, transportation, or restaurant reservations for an upcoming trip?

Cultural Observations from France

As when visiting any country, one’s experience is improved by observing certain cultural customs.  Below are a few norms (definitely not an exhaustive or authoritative list) to follow that will smooth your path to successful interactions with French people:

  1. Always use the “vous” form (formal “you”) address when speaking with a server, store clerk, grocery check-out worker, and basically anyone you don’t know, but with whom you’d like to have a mutually beneficial interaction. Merci and s’il vous plait don’t hurt either!

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    Town of Amboise
  2. Make sure to greet those working when entering any type of store.  It is not the job of the store clerk to greet you, and it is considered rude not to say “Bonjour!” especially since most places of business are smaller than the ones we frequent in the US.  Ignoring the one person working in the store becomes painfully obvious when the store is a shoe box, so when in doubt, just say hello. Say goodbye too, even if you decided not to purchase anything at the store you visited.

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    Chateau Amboise
  3. You can always window shop if you aren’t in a buying mood.  Lingering outside a store front display is normal in France (and Spain).
  4. Holler “Hello” and “Goodbye” when you enter and leave the host family’s home. This lets everyone know who is where, avoiding any unwanted surprises, and it shows respect for those staying at home as you traipse in and out.
  5. Try to speak French in your daily interactions!  We were pleasantly surprised to find that most everyone would respond to us in French, and were willing to let us practice, even if we made gargantuan blunders.  It could be that Tours is a small town with more limited tourism, so English isn’t quite as widespread as it might be in Paris or another large city.  And, if someone does switch to English, that’s okay too!  People are generally flattered if you notice their English, and comment on how well they speak.  This is another way to open the door to a friendly exchange.  I used to feel insulted that someone would switch on me to English (it happens all the time in Germany!), but now I realize it isn’t generally done in arrogance, rather for the sake of efficiency, or because they’d like to try out their language skills.  I’d rather have a positive interaction than feel slighted, too, and the power to make a conversation uplifting ultimately depends on me. IMG_3017.JPG
  6. Cars have the right of way in France!  We’d been surprised by how fast cars sped by the zebra crosswalks in downtown Tours, and kept commenting to each other on how drivers weren’t nearly as thoughtful of pedestrians as in Spain or Germany.  Well, turns out, they don’t have to be!  I’m sure we made quite a few French motorists upset by barreling out onto the crosswalk without a second consideration!  After asking our host “mére” what the protocol was, we understood the uncomfortable feeling we’d had, even if we didn’t agree with the law.  We began to stop at the curb before each crosswalk, waiting patiently for oncoming vehicles to pass.  Though some drivers didn’t slow down, just as many stopped out of courtesy for the pedestrian.
  7. Dressing “chic” is appreciated, but not a prerequisite to success.  While packing I panicked!  How could I dress as effortlessly as the French?  How could I keep my blackheads to a minimum when I was sharing a bathroom with Andrew and another German student from the school?  What was I going to do with my hair without access to my beloved heat wands to curl, straighten and flatten? (Just fyi, the converter that ConAir markets that will “regulate” the voltage for your hair tools doesn’t stand up to a flat iron that heats to 450 degrees Fahrenheit or your Dyson hair dryer – thank me later for saving your preciously expensive styling machines). Turns out, in Tours at least, people aren’t as “chic” as I expected.  Hair stands up in the wrong places, a natural wave is expected, and as for clothing, anything goes.  There really was no defined dress code.  I way over-packed in fear that I’d have to have a solid rotation of clothes to keep up, but in reality, I could have packed much more reasonably.  Not that I minded having lots of options, since half the battle of a good attitude in the morning can be feeling good about how you look.

These are a few insights we picked up on while in France!  Anything important you’ve noticed while traveling abroad that would improve our interactions in the wide world for the future?  Anything you think we should add to this list?