This is the first in a weekly series that will extend until the end of June. It will chronicle my travels in Europe and the interesting things I come upon or wish someone had told me before I left. The first five installments will focus mostly on Paris.
Paris is gorgeous. And like most gorgeous things, it costs a pretty penny to stay there. One of the first nasty shocks I got was how bad the exchange rate was. When I left last week it was around a $1.45 to a euro, which doesn’t sound like much but will add up real quick.
The second big financial shock I had was how much food cost at the supermarket. Six eggs for three euros? Eleven for a kilo of asparagus? How was I going to eat on a student budget like that? The answer was street markets and baguettes. Street markets don’t happen everywhere or even everyday but they can be tracked down pretty easily online. And they are worth it. About half the price of Carrefour supermarkets and twice as fresh, they offer a dizzying assortment of delicious food from veggies to meats to cheeses to pasta. If you time it right you can get everything you need for the week without killing your bank account. Some even have flea market type stalls attached, selling an assortment of clothes and other items.
Although you can buy bread at the market as well, it is unnecessary and frankly a bad idea to try to stock up a week worth’s in one go. Baguettes are available at local bakeries, which are literally on nearly every corner. They’re about as long as your arm, are delicious, fluffy on the inside, crusty on the outside, and cost less than a euro. I am currently subsisting on them. Of course, nearly half of the meals I have been eating have involved bread. Also, if you can’t find a street market, skip the Carrefour and visit markets with ‘prix’ at the end of the name [ie. Monoprix or Franprix] as they are still much cheaper, and just as good. Also there are dedicated frozen food markets that are cheaper than normal food that are worth checking out. They can be kind of sneaky so keep an eye out for a snowflake logo and the name Picard.
The third financial shock of my week was the moneychanger. Having only arrived with a hundred euros and a credit card that wasn’t guaranteed to work [I’ll get back to that] in my pocket, I was anxious to change some of the dollars I had brought along with me. So, being slightly naïve, I ducked into one of the alcoves that served as the place’s storefront. The lady was very nice and accommodating of my spotty French, so it wasn’t until I looked at my receipt that I realized what had happened. They had deducted nearly 13% from the money I had given them. Since I had given them a little over a hundred dollars that amounted to over twenty euros! Suffice to say I was not happy. However, a couple days later I found a better solution: ATMs. Sounds obvious I know, but I had been warned all about the horrendous fees they charged for pulling cash out. Luckily, I found BNP Paribas. Though a French bank, it is partnered with several banks around the world including Barkley’s, Bank of America, and surprisingly enough, my little credit union. So when I pulled money from their ATM all I got was a ninety-two cent conversion fee. Since I pulled out a hundred euros, it’s a fee I’m not terribly broken up about.
Back to my credit card, though Visa says it works all over the world, it’s not completely true. European cards have a special microchip that American cards don’t have. So if the machine or store slides your card, it’ll probably work, but if you have to stick it all the way in it won’t work. Though, at the BNP ATM I used it did work, so most likely ATMs will still work.
A couple quick odd facts about euros:
1. The paper money rips really easily. Pulling it too quickly out of your pocket can have disastrous effects on your average five euro bill. Conversely, people have no problem with taking taped up money.
2. The coins are important! Coming from the land of useless pennies and dimes, that can be strange but in Europe it its perfectly acceptable and not at all out of the ordinary to pay entirely in coins. Provided of course, the purchase isn’t too expensive. Coins go up to two euros and thus are actually worth a significant amount of money. Also, the French love exact change, so keep your coins in an easily accessible pocket or coin purse. There’s a special kind of mortification involved in digging through your pockets and finding everything but the change you need while an impatient elderly Frenchwoman stares you down. And the look she will give you if you give up and pull out a fifty to pay for a four euro purchase will haunt you all the way home. But just don’t make your money too accessible; pickpockets abound, especially on the Metro and in tourist spots.
Tip of the week: Say ‘Bonjour’ [or Bonsoir if it’s evening] will endear you to whoever you’re dealing with, even if you can’t speak much French beyond that. I’ve been told that the French don’t smile, they say ‘Bonjour’ instead. So far that seems to hold true.
Until next week, Au revoir!