Saturday, December 31, 2011

Paris: there's an app for that!

At this time last year I was planning my third business trip to Paris within a five month period. Prior to this fortuitous run, I had only been to Paris once for a very brief overnight trip from Brussels in the mid 80's. My sister, Linda, was living in Belgium at the time and had a business meeting in Paris so I was happy to tag along. That trip was what I like to call my first date with Paris, and it was love at first sight, so when my employer acquired a company in France last year I was thrilled to be a part of the integration team.  In fact, I may have been the first person to volunteer to train our new colleagues.

I flew out a few days early to squeeze in a little pleasure and stayed with my friend Laurie, who lives in the 7th arrondissement just minutes from the Eiffel Tower. It's a fabulous location and hard to pass up for a hotel out near my office in the suburbs.  So why not to commute to work each day and spend all my free time in the city?  How difficult could that be?

Paris is known for its efficient transportation systems and Laurie was teaching me the ins and outs of the buses, Metro and RER trains. My philosophy is that if you can read a map, then you can take a train. They pretty much work the same everywhere in the world. You find your destination, map out your route, board heading in the right direction, and get off at your desired stop.

My first morning commute was a smashing success. Laurie and I walked to the station, she helped me purchase my tickets from the kiosk, checked that I was headed in the right direction, and down the stairs I went to wait for my train. An hour later I was standing outside the Evry station waiting for a colleague to pick me up. The only problem was that I was standing on the wrong side of the station. We finally connected by phone and I was able to navigate to the front of the station (which actually looked like a train station) instead of the back entrance where I had been standing in the freezing February cold. Did I mention my mastery of the French language is practically non-existent? Well it is and the farther you get from the city, the fewer people you'll find that speak English. I knew I should have cracked open that Rosetta Stone, but wait it gets better.

At the end of the day my colleague dropped me back at station and I boarded my train for what should have been an hour's ride back to the city. My route had one transfer, which I'd easily managed on the trip down, so I didn't anticipate any problems going back. I hopped off the train in Juvisy (transfer point) and walked with the crowd (boy, was I feeling like a real commuter now) through the tunnel and up to the other side to wait for my connecting train. It was strangely quiet when I reached the top of the stairs, in fact there wasn't another living soul on the platform. I looked at the sign overhead and even with my limited French I knew that my train was cancelled and there wasn't another one coming in the foreseeable future, so it was back down the stairs where a very nice bilingual woman confirmed that I needed to get back on the green line and head to Gare de Lyon station. From there I could take the #63 bus back to Laurie's apartment. Ok, I could handle this, plus there's an app for that. (Full disclosure: I actually called Laurie to get instructions on the route and where to find the bus at the train station. That's what Parisian friends are for, non?)

I found the buses and easily located #63, so it appeared the commuting gods were on my side. I ran right up to it and tried to board. The driver (who didn't speak English) was pointing further down the road which I eventually figured out was the boarding location. He was sitting in the 'holding area' where they wait until their departure time and there's absolutely no chance of boarding there. So I stood within sight of the bus in the freezing cold. Twenty minutes later I was settled in my seat and heading to Laurie's. As we traveled through the 6th and then into the 7th arrrondissement I was seeing buildings and sites that were familiar so I was feeling pretty confident. I rang the bell for my stop and walked up to the front of the bus and stood just behind the driver waiting to disembark. Once stopped, I stood there for what seem like an eternity waiting for him to open the door. There was one person waiting to board, but nobody moved. Suddenly it felt like all eyes were upon me. What could possibly be wrong? I had the correct stop, so why wouldn't the driver open the door? Finally, the driver turned and looked at me and said that I needed to disembark from the side door. Did I suddenly become fluent in French? Non, but his hand gestures were pretty effective and I also recalled that I hadn't seen anyone exit a bus in Paris from the front like they do in New York, so I turned, held my head high and took the long walk to the back exit. I'm pretty sure that driver was happy to see me leave, and I was happy to see Le Tour Eiffel, again. Home, sweet home...

Day two: The train down to Evry and a cab ride back to Paris

I took the train down to Evry and successfully exited in the front of the station this time. We had a business dinner that evening so I would forgo the train and take a cab back to the city. We dined at Accor Academie, the training hotel for the Accor Hospitality Group in France. This academie provides chefs and other hotel staff with the opportunity to train for positions in Accor hotels across France. Our chef that evening was well on his way to a promising career. It was a delightful evening of good food, good wine and excellent company.

One of my colleagues booked cabs for those of us that were heading back to the city. A few kilometers into the ride, I noticed that the meter was racking up the euros at an astonishing pace.  Remembering that not all cabs in Paris, in fact hardly any, accept credit cards I was pretty sure the 50 euros in my wallet wouldn't get me even close to my destination. Okay, relax, no worries, I'll just check to be sure that the driver accepts credit cards. I leaned over and in my best French accent I asked, "Parlez-vous, Anglaise?" He responded, "Non". Time to pull out those trusty French apps that I downloaded:

I went right to the Talking French Phrasebook app as I recalled it had those frequently asked questions every traveler needs to survive in a foreign land. Bingo! So again,  in my best French accent, I asked:

Answer: "Non".  Rats, not the answer I was hoping for. The upside, though, is that he was very accommodating, which was truly a blessing because as we were approaching the city the fee on the meter was way past the euros I had in my wallet. So it was sink or swim and being the eternal optimist that I am I could manage this little bump in the road, so I asked:

My best French accent was lost on this delightful man so he pulled over and read the sentence I had completely mangled. He immediately nodded his head, checked his own iPhone, and took me to the closet ATM machine where I withdrew another 100 euros to cover the 120 euro cab fare. Yes, I over tipped like a good American and even managed to tear the 20 euro bill that I gave him in half as I pulled it out of my wallet. He laughed and said he would reparer it. I wished him a bonsoir (which I thought might actually be possible once I'd exited his cab) and delivered my most heart-felt merci beaucoup, to date.  So, yes there were a few tense moments, but with the right attitude, a kind and willing Frenchman, and a few good apps almost anything's possible in the City of Light.

My Paris Travel Apps:
RER (Train, Bus and Metro schedules)
Metro Paris Subway
Talking French Phrasebook
Paris Maps (offline version to use without an internet connection)
Aéroports de Paris

Additional posts about Paris apps that you might find useful and enjoyable:
David Lebovitz - Paris Apps
Paris iPhone Apps for Travel, Language Learning, & Fun

So what's your stretch goal for 2012?  Mine, well I think we all know...

Bonne année et bonne santé

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