Almost 13 years ago, I traveled to London and Paris to visit a friend who was living abroad at the time. With all the time that has gone by, I have kept distinct first impressions of London and Paris in my mind from the first time around. Paris was white, beautiful and immaculate. London was rainy, bitter cold and not at all pretty.
Before I left for the trip, I was so certain my impressions of the city would be the same. Maybe it’s time or maybe it’s maturity and a broader awareness of culture, but my impressions have changed almost completely.
Unlike my first impression of Paris, my first impression of London was pretty awful. I literally did not enjoy my first trip there whatsoever. This time around was (almost) completely different. It still rained more than I would like, but the other surprises far outweighed the negatives.
1. It is so clean. Seriously, I hardly saw any trash anywhere. Their tube stations are immaculate. I’m used to the dirty New York subways, and the trains in London are completely different. There is no trash, no bad smells, and no grimy subway tunnels or cars. I actually enjoyed riding the tube in London. 2. Everyone was so friendly. My friend laughed at me when I told her this, but I just was surprised by how friendly and nice everyone was. Again, when I think big city, I think of New York. London does not have that gritty, aggressive vibe that New York has. It has a nicer, friendlier, warmer vibe, but still high energy like New York. 3. The Food is pretty darn good. Everyone says English food is horrible, but I don’t agree. Almost everything I ate was very good. I especially love the fish and chips and I also had this awesome vegetarian cauliflower tart at a nearby pub. A local London cafe served me the best latte I’ve ever drank. 4. The money is damn confusing. I felt like such an idiot when I would be checking out at a café and had absolutely no idea how to come up with correct change. WTF UK, why do you have 8 coins? And they don’t even make sense. Why is that heptagon one so giant but only worth 20 pence?
Paris is still beautiful and white, but I wouldn’t call it immaculate. The hidden hallways of the metro stations often smelled like pee. The architecture still blew me away, and it was so amazing to run into a gorgeous palace or historical building nearly every time I looked up. But there were a lot of things about the city and the culture that I didn’t expect.
1. Everyone smokes (or so it seems). By day two of the trip, my throat was literally sore from all the second-hand smoke. It is very difficult to sit in one of the many outdoor cafes without clouds of smoke billowing over you. As you walk down the street, the same thing. All the smoking actually made me appreciate the U.S. for our strict policies on smoking. 2. Bonjour and merci go a long way. It may seem very obvious that trying to speak the culture’s language is very important. 13 years ago, I am certain I made no such attempts to speak French. This time around, I learned some basic phrases to, well, be polite! All you really need to know is bonjour and merci. Don’t just expect French people to speak English, at least make the efforts of saying hello and thank you. I had read that French people find it extremely rude if you don’t say hello before starting a conversation. I was really good about this expect for one time, I just asked for the toilet without saying bonjour first. The man literally looked at me with a wide-eyed blank stare, so I quickly started again with “bonjour, where is the toilet?” He quickly recovered and pointed me in the right direction. Before you ask a question or for directions, always say bonjour. Basically, any time you interact with anyone, always start with bonjour (or bonsoir if it’s evening).
3. French people get a bad rap. Seriously, they are very nice and friendly if you just give them a second. They may not be outwardly warm and welcoming like I experienced in Ireland, but once you start a conversation with them, they will be happy to help and hold a conversation with you. I received several good recommendations from speaking with French locals. You just need to put in a little effort to break through their seemingly indifferent façade.
4. They make the best French fries. Yeah, we all know where they got their name, but seriously, I’ve never had a fry anywhere near as good as the ones I ate in Paris. I have no idea how they make them so tasty, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the strange half-circle shape. I can’t even describe it, but they were just so ridiculously good. I would put them up there as one of the best things I’ve ever ate. Oh, and the éclair was damned good too—nothing at all like American eclairs, so much better. I’m drooling just thinking about it.
Overall, I had a really fabulous trip and I felt like I learned a lot about both cultures. The best part about the experience was realizing how much my perspective on the world has changed over the last 13 years. I also realized I would love to live abroad at some point. Hopefully we will have the opportunity.