A Toil of Two Cities

I studied this pile and more for months leading up to our trip!


There is some old wisdom, probably dating back to before The Working Stiff was born, and that goes something like this:

“Go to Paris in August. All the Parisians are out of town on vacation.  You’ll have the place to yourself!”

Yeah, right.

After our recent trip to Europe – 5 nights in London followed by 8 in Paris – I now know that is some old wisdom that needs to be shoved deep into the circular file!

It was really crowded in both cities, at least in and around most of the bigger tourist attractions.  I can’t say that I noticed the “locals on vacation” thing in London, but there was plenty of evidence of that in Paris.  We did see many shops and restaurants closed.  Many of them would have a sign on the door indicating that they were closed for their annual holiday.  July this to August that.  So it is absolutely true that many thousands of Parisians would have been out of town on holiday.
However…… you still have the two million visitors from Germany, Spain, Italy, China, India, etc., etc.  Oh – and the US of course, though my perception was that we were in the minority.

Even though Mrs. Working Stiff has always called me The Planner, the part of my plan concerning when to go could have used some work!  The warm weather was nice, and meant that we didn’t have to carry as much clothing as we might have in the cold months.  People who know us know that we both like clothes. We planned and over-planned what to wear on this trip, being determined not to be sloppy tourists.  The Mrs. had a birthday during our stay in Paris, and I know that she carefully planned a nice outfit for that day.

What we learned right away though, for both London and Paris, was that almost nobody was dressed very nicely.  That may sound harsh, and I don’t mean to say that everyone was a slob.  What I mean to say is that the vision of everyone in London or Paris (particularly Paris), going to some effort and being fashionably dressed… ah… forget about it.  We certainly saw nicely dressed people, many of course being locals dressed for work.  Also, I hope that if we had gone to some of the really ritzy places, like, well, The Ritz, or to the upper tier of hotels and restaurants, I have no doubt that we would have seen plenty of natty dressers.  Out on the streets though, for the most part, it was just like any big American city.  Lots of baggy shorts, over-sized and gaudy t-shirts, and plenty of that Lulu wear or whatever that terrible stuff is.  When we think of Paris and its legendary elegance, the reality was somewhat deflating.

I mention all this in the context of my trip scheduling because I had thought that an advantage to going in high summer was that you simply needed to take less clothes.  Having now been there in August, I would modify that to plan to just take less clothes anyway – whenever – because almost nobody dresses up.  If we were to plan another trip, I would absolutely vote for going in October or November when families with kids mostly have to stay home.  You would have more locals in town, but vastly less tourists.  I would take one quality jacket, like a brown leather bomber probably, two pairs of jeans and an assortment of shirts.  I would be well covered, no pun intended.

Back to the crowds, I fully understand that we were part of that, so I’m not knocking anyone, but definitely October or November for our next time!

In both London and Paris, there were a number of intended activities and sites that, due to crowds, we either crossed off the list, or touched on briefly before one of us said “let’s get outta here”!

In London we came out of the Westminster tube stop intending to stroll across the iconic bridge and enjoy the view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament – but it was so Times Square-crowded that we snapped a few quick pics of the Big Ben tower and high-tailed it!

In Paris, at the Musee de l’Orangie (home to Monet’s huge Water Lilies canvasses), the crowds made it claustrophobic and un-enjoyable for us, so we left after a few minutes.  Rent Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” for a better flavor of the place.

We had both had a visit to the famous and eerie Catacombs at the top of our list, but the line even to get in was easily two or three hours.  And no bathrooms!  I’m too old for that.  Maybe a rainy Wednesday in October for the next attempt.

Our Paris apartment was literally three blocks from the Cathedral of Notre Dame, certainly one of the most glorious and recognizable structures ever built by mankind. The whole area was crowded all day and all night, but at night, when the cathedral was closed, there were always various groups of break dancers yelling and performing for the crowds, along with other types of street performers blasting their boom boxes and trying to make a buck.  Now, I’m about as religious as Satan – less so in fact, but come on now!  Is nothing sacred?  Do you have to do that right here, next to this magnificent piece of human history?  The word inappropriate comes to mind.

None of this means that we did not have a great time overall, but we would avoid the summer crowds in the future.  Mrs. Working Stiff has said numerous times that she wants to find an old European city that has not yet become polluted by the crowds.  Well, can’t hurt to dream!

Within a week or so I’ll write more about some practical matters, such as transportation, money, using credit cards, what we ate, etc.

These Rick Steves books are the only ones that we actually carried with us.

The photo at the top of this entry shows the pile of guidebooks that I studied for months in preparation for our trip. Some of them are outdated and will now be tossed, but a few were recently purchased.  The only two that we actually carried with us were the two small Rick Steves books.  I like Rick Steves and have enjoyed watching his TV shows when I come across them.  I think he is a bit of a geek but that’s okay.  He does a good job of cutting through the fluff and giving good practical information and ideas.  Both books come with a decent map that you can detach and stick in a pocket.  Each of those maps had a smaller metro map incorporated into it.  I recommend his books if you happen to be planning a trip.  Here are links to them on Amazon:

Rick Steves Pocket London

Rick Steves Pocket Paris


Have a good week – more soon –

The Working Stiff

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