If you fly across the world for only a week, and feel jet lagged for three days, you’ve lost half your trip. So when I travel across time zones, I make a big effort to avoid it — and I’m usually able to feel pretty much jet-lag-free on my first full day in the new time zone. This time around, I tried tricks like fasting during the hours when I’d be sleeping in Europe. But the main key, for me, to avoiding jet lag is this:
Don’t let yourself nap on the first day.
Spend that first day outside as much as possible, doing low-focus, easy activities. Don’t schedule anything in particular, but don’t sit around your lodging, and try to stay awake until at least 7 p.m. That’s what I did on my first day in Paris.
This is a long, detailed post, so here’s the TL;DR: On my first day in Paris, I successfully took public transit to my HomeExchange, then spent the day walking around outside and shopping. It was lovely, and I was flooded with memories of how it felt to be a student here 30 years ago.
The long version:
I landed in Paris on a gray morning at around 7 a.m. Although I’d now had two nights of not much sleep, I felt OK, probably because of excitement.
At Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, I easily followed the signs to the machines selling RER tickets. I knew I was supposed to take RER B toward Chatelet-Les Halles.
There was a staff member circulating to help anyone who got stumped by the machines. I was able to use ApplePay to buy an 11.40 Euro ticket to Paris. (This was a relief, because on a previous trip to Europe a few years pre-pandemic, I’d been unable to use an airport ticket machine that required a chip-and-PIN card. A couple days before leaving the US, I’d called my credit card company to ask them to assign me a PIN. They told me I’d been assigned a PIN back when I got the credit card, and since I didn’t know what it was, I could change it by mail, which would take a week or so. No time! But not to worry. Turns out, no machine in Paris ever asked me for a PIN, and I successfully used ApplePay for nearly everything.)
I waited for awhile on an outdoor platform with a crowd, most of us rolling suitcases, and boarded the train to Paris. All the seats were full and people were standing, but it wasn’t a squash. I got a seat and put my backpack on top of my suitcase, which allowed me to put my head down and rest my eyes. No sleeping!
A lot of the journey is underground, but we emerged a few times to see Parisian suburbs. A lot are kind of dreary looking, but I saw some houses that looked medievel, which was neat. The man across from me asked me if this train stopped at Gare du Nord, and although I wasn’t sure, I was thrilled that I had been mistaken for a local right away. This despite the fact that my look after a 9-hour flight was more like “cat that accidentally went through the dryer” than “Parisian chic.”
I got off at Chatelet-Les Halles, in the middle of Paris. It was easy to exit with my suitcase now that the crowd on the train had thinned when we stopped at Gare du Nord (note to train dude: yes, this train is stopping at Gare du Nord). I had forgotten what a crazy maze that station is! It’s the major nexus between the RER and the Metro sistem, and there are direction signs everywhere — this line, that line, exit here, exit there.
I had an appointment at 12:15 to meet my HomeExchange hostess at the apartment where I’d be staying in the Place d’Italie neighborhood, a little south of center. I could have simply transfered and continued directly to that neighborhood without paying another fare, but since I had lived around here as a student, and I had a couple hours to kill, I decided to exit and find a cafe for my first morning coffee and croissant.
But I ran into a challenge: I couldn’t get out of the RER gate to exit. This made me laugh inwardly, because the same thing had happened to me 30 years ago, when I was a student in Paris. I had first arrived by taking this same line from the airport, to Cite Universitaire where I stayed for the first few weeks. At that time, I had bought the RER ticket and fed it into the machine to enter, just like today — but I hadn’t noticed that the machine gives you your ticket back, and that you’re supposed to carry it with you. To get out, you’re supposed to feed the ticket into the exit gate. Back then, I put my ticket in the machine, left it there, and got on the train. When I got to the exit, hauling two full-size suitcases (the old kind that flop over constantly) and a with my full year’s worth of stuff, I was trapped in the station. A nice man on his way home from work helped me get through the turnstyle, helping me lift my suitcases over, then letting me follow him through on his ticket. Nowadays, the turnstyles are really full height doors, so that trick wouldn’t have worked.
This time around, I had my ticket in hand — but when I put it in the machine to exit, I got an error message: “Ticket illisible.” Ticket unreadable. This should not have happened. I had a ticket of the correct value. I walked to a different exit and tried again on the machine there. No luck.
Unlike 30 years ago, Paris transit stations now have “help buttons,” with speakers. I pushed the button near the exit and got a pre-recorded message which I didn’t really understand. Then I looked up and noticed that one of the exit gates was open. Had it just opened for me because I pushed the help button? Or was that one just stuck open? I’m not sure. I also have no idea why my ticket wouldn’t read in the first place. I didn’t put it next to a credit card or a magnet or anything in my pocket on the ride. Anyway, I was free to go, so I went.
I emerged from the station into a windy, cold rain. Since there was no sheltered area around the top of the escalator, I U-turned right back onto the down escalator. Downstairs, in the shopping mall area of the station, I put on and went back up.
Les Halles has been redone since I lived here 30 years ago, but I recognized the place immediately. There was Au Pied de Cochon, I restaurant I used to walk by and feel jealous of all the happy people eating there, because I couldn’t afford to go to restaurants. Right next to it, l’Eglise St. Eustache, with scaffolding up one side. And, something that really brought back memories, this head sculpture.
I used to walk by that poor bodyless dude just about every day! Apparently the sculpture is called “Ecoute,” or “Listen,” and was made in 1986 by Henri Miller. That means it was only seven years old when I lived in th neighborhood. At that time, of course, there was no internet, so I never knew that.
There were plenty of cafes in the neighborhood to choose from as I walked around in the waning rain, my little suitcase bumping along the cobblestones. But as I passed one cafe, then another and another, a familiar feeling filled me: Overwhelming bashfulness. The cafes were small, and my bag took up too much space. I didn’t feel ready to chat with a barman. So instead of going in anywhere, despite my growing hunger and need for caffeine, I kept walking.
I walked down a street I thought might branch off into my old street, Rue Tiquetonne. It wasn’t the right road, but I ended up at the Metro Etienne Marcel, and saw L’Escargot, where my brother Ken and our friend Matt and I, along with my local friend and student Nicolas, had eaten Easter lunch after attending mass at Notre Dame, back in 1994. The big golden snail still stood on top, but the place looked smaller than I’d remembered.
I thought I’d better get some Euros. I found one ATM that said it would charge me a 5 Euro fee, so I canceled my transaction and went to another one, which didn’t charge a fee. I took out 80 Euros, hoping that would be enough for the week since I’d mostly be using credit, I hoped.
I circled back to Les Halles and saw a Monoprix — a great Target-type store that has groceries, clothes and anything else you might need. This one had a cantine, a little cafe with pastries that looked just as beautiful as any patisserie. I decided to just get my croissant and cafe there, and put off being brave enough to enter a real cafe until later. At the register, I asked for un croissant et un cafe creme, delighted that I still knew how to order in French. But it turned out to be more complicated than that. I could buy a croissant at the counter, but for my coffee, the lady explained, I had to go to that machine over there, and I needed to put a 2 Euro coin in it. Glad I had gotten cash, I paid for the croissant with one of my 20 Euro bills, and took the change to go get the coffee. The croissant and the coffee were both passable.
It was now time to go meet the owner of my HomeExchange studio, so I returned to Les Halles station and tried to use one of the paper tickets I’d brought with me. Someone gave me a dozen of them on a Facebook free stuff group! Unfortunately, the ticket didn’t work. I waited in line at the ticket office for quite some time, to ask whether these older tickets, which were not marked with an expiration date, should still work or what. After all the people before me had been waited on but one, and after the ticket lady talked to the guy in front of me for quite awhile, she leaned her head over and informed me that she’d be closing the window for a few minutes, after this guy. There was no one behind me. I sighed and just went to buy a one-trip ticket. This was the France I remembered.
The long line had put me behind schedule for meeting Sylvie, the apartment owner, at 12:15. I took the Metro to her neighborhood, but by the time I got to her place, where she was waiting out front, it was maybe 12:25. She was very nice, and was glad I understood French. The door to the apartment was right next to the corner of Rue de Tolbiac and Avenue de Choissy, between a Tabac and what looked like a French cafe, but with some delicious smells of Asian food coming from it. Sylvie showed me how to use her electronic keyfob to gain entry to the front door. From there we walked through an open air hallway with mailboxes, through a cute little courtyard, through a second locked door, past the backdoor to the neighboring restaurant, and up two winding flights of pretty wooden stairs, the edges worn down soft with age. We said bonjour to the lady who was cleaning the stairway area.
The apartment door was one of those old ones with a single metal knob in the middle. It had no turning knob — you turned the key and then pushed it open. The inside of the door was reinforced with metal. She showed me how the couch folded out into a bed, pointed out where she kept supplies and which drawer was empty for me, and then rushed off to teach. If I had realized she’d be meeting me on her lunch break, I would have been prompter. I forgot to give her the chocolate chip cookies I’d baked for her.
The apartment was wonderful! It was small — a galley kitchen and a long room, just as wide as the queen-sized sofa sleeper. It had three tall windows looking down on the Avenue de Choisy. At the opposite end from the couch there was a TV and a small table with four chairs. It had some nice built-in storage, and I completely coveted it. If I understood my hostess correctly, she lived here alone during the workweek, and commuted home somewhere outside of Paris on weekends.
Alone in the apartment, I was quite grateful to turn on the heaters against the rainy day and take a hot shower. Afterwards I made a coffee with Sylvie’s Nespresso machine, pulled out the bed, and was very tempted to slip under the blankets and take a nap. It was around 1 p.m. in France, or 5 a.m. at home. But what is the first rule of avoiding jet lag? No napping! I did allow myself to lie down and check my messages and charge my phone, but then I forced myself to get up and dressed.
My first order of business was lunch. Since we were in Chinatown and my hostess had mentioned great Vietnamese noodles in the area, I walked around the corner to Pho 13 on the Ave. de Choissy. The restaurant was perfect to help me get over my shyness — the staff was uninterested in me but kind, and the other patrons were involved in their own conversations. I slurped pho, watched the rain fall outside, and read my guidebook. I hadn’t expected my first real meal in Paris to be pho, but it was soothing and just right after all the travel.
I couldn’t eat all the pho, so I asked the staff to make me a takeout box. I spoke in French, which was clearly their second language as well as mine. They may have been able to speak English, too, I suppose, but I did’t try, because I was too excited to be speaking French. I brought the leftovers upstairs to my fridge, resisted the pull of the unfolded bed (should have left it in couch mode!), and set back out to grocery shop. Instead of Google mapping the local Monoprix, I decided to wander until I found a store.
(Yes, apparently McDonalds is selling veggie fries in Paris. I didn’t get the chance to try them.)
I ended up at Place d’Italie — which like a lot of Places in today’s Paris is a big traffic circle, with a deserted grassy area and a statue in the middle. I never figured out how one could get inside that plaza, but I assume there were stairs from the Metro or something that would take you under the busy road. I went inside the huge mall there, browsed some stores, and bought some adorable candy for the kids’ Easter baskets. Easter candy in France is different from in the US, I learned. Yes, they have chocolate eggs and bunnies, but they also have chocolate chickens. And chocolate fish! Fish because, Jesus, I guess? I also found a chocolate video game controller and a chocolate cell phone.
The mall had a Carrefour, a store similar to Monoprix. I wandered the aisles, sleepy but excited, and threw into my cart things I remembered, and things that just looked good: A small carton of mushroom soup, two kinds of cheese, some pate, some creme caramel desserts, Bonne Maman brand yogurt, butter, hummus, and — my favorite — eggplant “caviar” and beet mousse with chevre. Some delicious looking olives, one of Nutmeg’s favorite snacks. She’d be joining me the next day. I discovered to my surprise that they had not just a wine section but also a liquor section, and bought a pretty reasonable bottle of scotch. This was just about the perfect amount of stuff to carry home on foot, so I did. It wasn’t raining any more. I noticed a lot of intriguing looking Asian restaurants, a second hand store, an Asian grocery store, a park with a playground, and just lots of everyday French life. I decided I really liked this neighborhood.
Once I put my groceries away, I was still in danger of crawling into bed and going to sleep. It was only about 5 p.m. So out I went again, this time to just walk.
I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to walk west to Les Catacombes, so I’d know the way for when Hazel and I visited the next day, or north to the Seine. I ended up going with the Seine. I saw an interesting fast food restaurant called O’Tacos, which sold some little hand pie thing that did not look like a taco to me. According to the sign on the restaurant, these are “original French tacos.” OK! They also offered this amazing bowl:
French fries, Boursin cheese, raclette (another kind of cheese) bacon-smoked beef, cordon bleu and carmelised onions! Um, wow? I very much wanted to eat this bowl of crazy, fatty ingredients, but I was still too full from the pho.
The sun actually came out briefly. I was enjoying myself, just reading all the signs, overhearing conversations, and and checking out shops. I went into a bookstore and learned that Colleen Hoover is translated into French. Lucky French readers!
The Tours Duo, above, certainly caught my eye as something unfamiliar from my 1990s stay in Paris. For good reason: They were just completed last year. Throughout the week, whenever I took in an elevated view of Paris, the taller one with the tilted box on top would help me pick out the eastern neighborhood where I was staying.
I also visited a pharmacie. I found it less intimidating than I’d remembered from my student days. Back then, I’d stepped into my local pharmacie once or twice, looking for ibuprofen or something, but the proprietress would always pointedly greet me and start asking questions, and I’d end up leaving without buying anything because I was too embarrassed or I didn’t understand what she was asking. Either these places have changed, or that particular pharmacie was just too quiet, giving the proprietress too much time to interrogate foreign students. This time around, I browsed the shelves for a long time without anyone asking me anything. I bought a big tube of Biafine, which I’d read is great for sunburns or other minor skin irritation. I also found some clinical-looking hand lotion. I have really dry, sensitive skin, and I can usually only use Neutrogena Norwegian Formula. I was hoping maybe I could find something even better over here.
Found the Seine! It was just over a mile walk from my apartment. I ended up crossing the river at the National Library of France, or the Biblioteque Francois-Mitterrand, a place I had never heard of. Of course, Mitterrand was still president when I was a student here, so I’m sure the national library wasn’t named after him back then.
I walked along the Rive Droite (the north side of the Seine) for short while, and watched some men working. This far from the center of Paris, the river had a more maritime feel, with no bouqinists (book sellers) or tourists. Then I crossed back, stopping on the bridge to take photos of tiny Notre-Dame in the distance. You can just see it in the above photo, beyond the arches of the Pont de Bercy in the foreground.
On the way home, I came to a boulangerie (bakerey) with a line. It was almost 7 p.m. Glad they were still open, I joined the line to buy a demi baguette. I woudln’t have remembered that half a baguette was a thing, except that they had a sign for it. Not a regular baguette sliced in half, but a cute mini baguette.
When I got back to my street, I noticed this Yunnanese restaurant. Even living in the SF Bay Area, I never remember seeing a restaurant specializing in Yunnan cuisine, so I was keen to try it one night. I’m pretty sad that I never got around to it! I will have to go back to this neighborhood again someday!
Back in my apartment, I enjoyed my baguette with a little cheese, a little creamed beet, a little eggplant caviar, my leftover pho, and some of the rose my hostess had left in the frige for me. While I ate, it was fun to look down on the street, busy with people visiting all the Asian restaurants as well as the French cafes.
It was dark out, and at least 8 p.m. I had successfully stayed awake for my whole first day. Gratefully, I closed the electric shutters and allowed myself to crash, hard. My hips and legs were sore from all the walking, but it was a good sore. My hostess had provided me with earplugs to shut out any noise from the Avenue de Choissy right outside my window, but I didn’t really need them. I was so tired the traffic could have gone right through my room without waking me.