Get Away To France: “Hopping Around”
France is a first-world country with an integrated system of high-speed trains, subways, and cobblestone avenues. However, those systems most easily accessible to tourists become choke points of loud foreigners that make the evacuation of the Titanic look organized. In order to avoid all this, resist the groupthink and venture past the most familiar sounding words in the Métro. Don’t get us wrong—the Métro is excellent, if hectic—but there are some insider tips that make French transportation tolerable. We’ll tell you how the actual French get around, whether from their afternoon coffee in St-Germain to a concert at Bastille, or from George V on the Champs-Élysées to Biarritz for the weekend.
To begin with, the ability to speak French is eminently helpful. Service is faster, people are nicer, and you will get from point A to point B that much faster. Most important, you’ll be that much surer that you are, indeed, supposed to get off at the next stop. Or was it the last one? Putain, you already stamped your ticket. Time to start talking to the conducteur. See? Speaking French is useful.
Stepping onto the Métro (Métropolitain, Paris’s subway system) or the bus in Paris is actually what Rousseau had in mind when explaining the contrat social. You sit quietly, you mind your own business, you don’t talk on the phone (or even surreptitiously whisper that you’ll call back later), and reach your stop with the utmost civility and disaffected nonchalance. Look bored, but superior. Don’t forget, the doors often won’t open automatically; when you need to get off, press the button on the door as the train pulls into the station.
Savvy Parisians will often pass on the Métro for the swifter RER (Réseau Express Régional, Paris’s system of commuter rail and urban subway lines), provided the schedule aligns properly and strikes haven’t shut down the system. Luxembourg to Gare du Nord in 3 quick stops? Pas de problème. Don’t fall asleep, though, as you’ll be out in the ’burbs before you know it. Hopefully you’ll wind up in Versailles.
It’s hard to mention transportation in Europe without discussing the intercity train system. The trope is overused; exhausted, even. Nevertheless, we’d certainly be remiss if we skipped it. First off, familiarize yourself with the ticket-buying process at the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer français, the national railway company) station. This will cut down on the time you look like a homeless backpacker waiting at the gare. This is one of the only occasions in French society when you will wait in an orderly line. Forget about the old woman shoving and cutting past you, claiming that she has priority—here, she does. Wait your turn, approach the counter, and simply say your destination, followed by “aller simple” (one way) or “aller retour” (round trip). Show whatever ID card you have and get your ticket. It’s the best place to break out your rudimentary French, since you need only say a few words. On nearly all inter-city trains you will have to validate this ticket in a machine on the platform before boarding. If you don’t, they can fine you for plotting to use that ticket a second time. Almost all SNCF Trains will check your ticket. This is not always the case on regional trains. Let’s Go is not recommending traveling without a ticket from that beach party in Juan-les-Pins back to your studio in Cannes at 4:30am wearing nothing but a hula skirt and backpack full of Kronenbourgs, a task our researchers have proudly accomplished. Should you choose to do so, however, sit still—the rustling of your hula skirt is disturbing the other passengers.
Tired of the train already? The sounds of the SNCF bells haunt your dreams. You want freedom: the open road. Time for a car. Go for it. That is, if you have the money to blow paying pricey tolls and exorbitant rental fees. Driving a car in France can be one seriously expensive endeavor. Getting a permit is very strictly controlled, and the scrutiny doesn’t stop when you get a license. Forget about having a beer and driving home. A BAC of .05 will get you thrown in jail. But for a long-term stay, buying a scooter (assuming it comes with the proper documents and you have a license) for intra- or inter-city transport is, according to our researchers, the most liberating mode of transportation. French people ask you for directions, because of course, a guy on a scooter knows what he’s doing. Look how confident he is! Conquer the roads, weave between cars, and park wherever you can find a good piece of sidewalk. Keep in mind, if you choose to split cars but don’t do it fast enough, you will be tailgated by other car-splitting scooters. So watch out, stay safe, and enjoy the ride.
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