Arriving in Paris

By Rick Steves

I'm taking the night train into Paris. Happy to have slept deeply and thankful to still be comfortably wrapped in my money belt, the commotion of a big-city arrival racks me out of bed. Jumping from the top of a triple bunk onto still-sleepy legs is a leap of faith. But Paris is coming. The first sight of the Eiffel Tower proves it. Window down, I wash my face in the noisy wind, searching for that exclamation point heralding the approach of Europe's greatest city. Voila! Merci, Monsieur Eiffel!

Tumbling out of my train car, it seems everyone but me knows exactly where they're going and how to get there. Locals do one thing upon arrival: leave the station neighborhood toute de suite. Paris' many stations all feel about the same: big and filled with people who either need a shower or want my money. Budget travelers with business to do are in the lion's den of tourist rip-offs. Every transaction here is designed to get you while you're green. In spite of the neon welcomes and "yes please!" English, nothing feels anything but desperate for your money.

Those driving a car into Paris are greeted differently, but no more warmly. The easy autoroute squirts you unceremoniously from auto-pilot to auto-insanity. Like referees at a sporting event, traffic cops are stationed where the main boulevards empty onto the ten-lane circle around the Arc de Triomphe. They indifferently let in bursts of eager cars with a lazy wave. All of Paris seems to tumble into this whirlpool. Otherwise sedate tour-bus drivers become daredevils. Egged on by applause from their suddenly bloodthirsty groups, they cut off six lanes at once as they charge to the inner lane.

As if to make up for an excess of manners in the rest of its culture, Parisian traffic is anarchy. Throughout Paris, green lanes — a quaint attempt to establish bike lanes — blink from under the traffic. Later on this same day of my arrival, a woman grazes my van, gives me a not-quite-apologetic "we'll never be able to establish who's at fault" look and drives on.