How I Turned a Work Trip to Paris into a Mini Vacation

July 16, 2015
france, france featured, gp
How I Turned a Work Trip to Paris into a Mini Vacation

When I was offered the chance to go on a work trip to Paris, I jumped on it faster than a plate of chocolate éclairs. As Audrey Hepburn said, “Paris is always a good idea” – and whether it’s for work or play, she was right.

The trick to making the most of sightseeing during work trips is – quite unlike my usual travel style – meticulous planning. This is not the time to run around and see an entire city, or to amble about getting lost. Not a precious second can be wasted. My plans post-work were quite simple: see the Eiffel Tower and after, eat as many delicious things as possible. Luckily, my colleague agreed.

The trick to making the most of sightseeing during work trips is – quite unlike my usual travel style – meticulous planning.

It was fall, and Paris was dressed for the occasion, bedecked in pretty auburn leaves and soft evening light. After we watched the sky turn pink behind the Eiffel Tower as the sun set, my colleague and I hurried off to find some food, eager not to waste a second of free time. It turns out that there aren’t many places to eat around the Eiffel Tower, so we ended up ignoring my own previous advice and wandering aimlessly around. After wasting about an hour walking around in a circle, still fairly near the Eiffel Tower, we panicked and just sat down at one of the first restaurants we saw, situated on a main road.

The place was a crowded, strictly-tourist affair, with red paint peeling off the walls, the menu written in eight different languages, and the waiters looking thoroughly unimpressed at our mere presence. We ordered a croque monsieur each with some fries, and were presented with the saddest-looking meal you can imagine. The fries drooped miserably on the plate next to the cold, soggy sandwich, and – the clearest indication we were in a tourist district – the waiter slammed down a bottle of ketchup between us, something usually unheard of in France. The wine was served warm, the service cold, and the prices were double what I expected. It was not exactly what I’d hoped.

Lesson Learned: avoid tourist districts for food.

You are never going to get the same quality of food, service or ambience in a heavily touristic area: sad but true. Don’t just give up and sit down somewhere in the main sightseeing areas because your feet are tired; try and walk just a little farther on, down into the side streets. Even a few blocks away from main locations, restaurant quality significantly improves – and you’ll get a more authentic experience. See the sights, admire the view, but move on when it comes to dinner. Your tastebuds will thank you for it.

***

The next night, determined not to make the same mistake again, I asked my hotel manager to recommend a place. I had ended up happily staying in a quiet, boutique hotel tucked away in a quiet district, not at all what I’d expected from business travel. The manager was a kind, elderly man who humoured my terrible French, and made a reservation on my behalf, scribbling the address down carefully on a piece of paper.

How I Turned a Work Trip to Paris into a Mini Vacation

The restaurant was a tiny, dark room a few blocks away in a mainly residential area, filled with local clientele and lit by candles stuck in empty wine bottles. The waiter’s front teeth were missing and he couldn’t speak any English, but he didn’t seem to mind our terrible French. He kept beaming at us as we ordered, nodding encouragingly and sloshing more wine into our glasses. We dined on steak and wine, and it was wonderful. When I ordered crème brulee for dessert, the waiter brought over two more for free, and I have absolutely no idea why. I tried to send them back, but he pushed them fervently towards me, nodding. Evidently, I look like a woman in need of three desserts.

Despite all of the heavy food, I practically floated back to the hotel. I couldn’t believe how different my experience had been from the night before. It was just what I wanted.

Lesson Learned: ask the locals.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t normally recommend asking hotel staff, as hotels often have partnerships with certain restaurants, and may try to steer you there for business rather than give you a genuine recommendation. However, do ask around when possible. Those who live in the city have the best idea of where is good to go, and will often point you in the direction of places you’d have never found yourself. The best-kept dining secrets are the ones held by locals.

***

The next morning, inspired by the food from the night before, I decided to stock up on French treats to take on the Eurostar back home. I romanticised the idea of it all, of shopping in a boulangerie and going home to sip French wine and eating real French bread on my couch. I ignored the fact I already had a large suitcase filled with work things to carry back, and promptly loaded myself with wine, macarons and a huge French baguette. This was already hard enough to juggle – but then I saw the cakes. By the Metro stop stood a bakery, its display filled with cakes every colour of the rainbow. I had to go in. I ordered some fresh chocolate éclairs and two lemon meringue pies to add to my stash, and they came wrapped in a dainty little fold-over cardboard box with a bow. “How cute!” I marvelled. How Parisian.

How I Turned a Work Trip to Paris into a Mini Vacation

My colleague (who did not buy any baked goods) raised her eyebrows.

“You can buy cakes at home, you know!” she commented. “But they won’t be real Parisian,” I countered.

Carrying said dainty little box in one hand, a baguette under one arm, a bag of wine and a suitcase, I attempted to take the stairs down to the Metro – and promptly got stuck in the ticket barrier. I wiggled uncomfortably out, taking care not to squash the cakes, before staggering down the stairs. Suddenly, this all seemed like a very bad idea. Trying not to fall down the stairs, avoiding the crowds of people streaming around me, pulling my suitcase behind me with a baguette flopping pathetically under my arm, and a ridiculous, flimsy box of cream cakes held as carefully as possible…it’s safe to say I didn’t look very Parisian.

After what felt like the tensest Metro ride of my life, I managed to arrive at the Eurostar station just about in one piece. I dragged my luggage through the terminal, only for the security guard to stop me. He needed to check the cake box as part of the safety procedure. He carefully unfolded the cardboard wrapping, peered into it, and then sealed it up at me, wrinkling his nose unimpressed as he returned them to me. I hopped onto the train, stowed my suitcase and had a look myself. The éclairs were now swimming in the lemon meringue pie, which had disintegrated into some giant mush.

Trying not to fall down the stairs, avoiding the crowds of people streaming around me, pulling my suitcase behind me with a baguette flopping pathetically under my arm, and a ridiculous, flimsy box of cream cakes held as carefully as possible…it’s safe to say I didn’t look very Parisian.

Four hours and two trains later, I arrived back home tired and frazzled, and handed my flatmate the collapsed baguette and lemony éclairs.

“Aw, thanks!” she said happily. “But you do realise you can buy these here?”

Lesson Learned: be in the moment.

With your travels, it’s always nice to bring things back home with you but, shockingly, these things do not include baked goods!  But in all seriousness, some things are perfect to take home to serve as travel memories, and others are better enjoyed in the moment. Food is admittedly not the best souvenir to take home – and truth be told, it’s never going to taste as good there. Sit in a café and savour a coffee and cake, go shopping at all of the local delis, have a picnic by the Seine with some fresh bread and cheese.  Enjoy all the delights of dining as part of your travel experience, but don’t try to drag it back with you, unless you want to deal with confusing restrictions at the airport and squashed, sad-looking goods at the bottom of your suitcase

And take my advice: leave the lemon meringue pie at home.

Have you turned a work trip to Paris into a vacation? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

How I Turned a Work Trip to Paris into a Mini Vacation photo credit: Hannah Wilson

About Alex Pendleton

Alex PendletonAlex Pendleton loves writing, exploring, baking and strong coffee. She has a permanent case of wanderlust, and is currently back in the UK planning her next adventure. She has traveled extensively, studied in the Czech Republic and worked in Germany and Italy.

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