Wednesday, October 31, 2012

the casual vacancy

Reading this after the first rush of reviews had come out, I was prepared not to like it. I heard it called "dull" and "overlong" and "crude" and, of course, there were too many comparisons to Harry Potter. In a way, I'm glad I read all those reviews because they set my expectations low. If the author hadn't been J.K. Rowling, I probably would have taken it off my to-read list. But thankfully, I didn't. And I really did enjoy this book.

The story centers on the town of Pagford, England, where Barry Fairbrother has just died (of natural causes, nothing fishy here). Barry was a member of the town council so his death has created a "casual vacancy" that sets the town in a frenzy. Who will take his empty seat? It's an important election because the council is debating the fate of the Fields, a local council estate filled with poverty (as well as drugs, prostitution, etc.). Some families want to disassociate with the Fields and let nearby city Yarvil take responsibility for it and its rehabilitation clinic, Bellchapel. Others (like the late Barry Fairbrother) are pro-Fields and believe Fields residents can improve their lives with Pagford's influence (Barry is an example of this—he was born in the Fields). This drama draws in a lot of different people around town—current council members, potential council members, Barry's family and friends, citizens of the Fields, the teenage children of all these people, etc.—and the tension begins to build when anonymous postings on the council website attack various adults in town for their wrongdoings. 

The vast number of main characters can be hard to keep straight at first. I would definitely recommend making some notes as you go along (I stuck post-its inside the back cover). But once you're midway through, you'll be surprised how well you know them all. There are 20 that I would consider integral (Howard & Shirley Mollison, Miles & Samantha Mollison, Barry & Mary Fairbrother, Colin & Tessa Walls, Fats Walls, Simon & Ruth Price, Andrew Price, Gavin Hughes & Kay Bawden, Gaia Bawden, Terri Weedon, Krystal Weedon, Robbie Weedon, Parminder Jawanda, and Sukhvinder Jawanda). And really, they are all interesting and important. I'd like to say that if I were the editor I would cut some, but thinking of it I can't decide who is extraneous. I found them all intriguing, even though they ALL made mistakes and were not very good people. 

The teenagers were particularly well-drawn, I think, which is understandable given Rowling's experience. I had a hard time identifying with the adults in the story, but I understood and forgave the actions of most of the teenagers. They were all suffering and their actions were obviously the result of troubled homes.

The slow build-up to a boiling point, utilizing the council website and election, was very well done. Despite it being 500 pages long, I was never bored and finished it easily within a week. 

So why didn't I love it? It's just hard to like a book like this. So much bad stuff is happening (ranging from plain old rudeness to abuse, rape, neglect, etc.) and nearly all the characters are unhappy. It's not a book that I can read and say I loved. That said though, Rowling could have made the story far more depressing if she'd wanted. There are bits she skips over and the descriptions are not very elaborate or affecting. If you do like this sort of negative atmosphere when reading, I would recommend The House of Sand and Fog (by Andre Dubus III) and Plainsong (by Kent Haruf), which are also built around a community of troubled characters and bad situations. Personally, I liked The Casual Vacancy more than those two, probably because it's not as depressing.

I'm so glad that Rowling has continued her writing career post-Harry and chose to do something unexpected. Here's hoping she writes another!

TITLE: The Casual Vacancy
AUTHOR: JK Rowling
PUBLICATION DATE: 27 September 2012
DATE FINISHED: 30 October 2012
VERDICT: 3/5 stars. Enjoyed it as much as you can enjoy a depressing book. :)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

ttt: kick-ass heroines

This week's Top Ten Tuesday on the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Kick-Ass Heroines. This was a rough one for me (the books I read just don't lend themselves well to "kick-ass" characters), but I'm pretty pleased with my final choices.

The most kick-ass of the bunch. Don't mess with Lisbeth. She'll get you back.

Top Ten Kick-Ass Heroines

1. Lisbeth Salander (The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson)

2. Hermione Granger (The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling)

3. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins)

4. Coraline (Coraline by Neil Gaiman)

5. Offred (The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood)

6. Beatrice Lacey (Wideacre by Philippa Gregory), who might not count as a heroine . . .

7. Angela McCourt (Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt)

8. Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

9. Sara Crewe (A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

10. Nancy Drew (The Nancy Drew Series under the collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene)

Monday, October 29, 2012


When my last Top Ten Tuesday was posted late, I mentioned that it was due to a very busy week. One part of that busy week was stressful and work-related, but the other part, happily, was a vacation! A mini vacation (Thursday-Sunday), but a vacation nonetheless. Where did I go?


Although I've lived in the Midwest my whole life, I'd never had the pleasure of a visit to Chicago. But faced with the idea of a travel-less year (and in the wake of a travel-full study abroad semester), Chicago looked like the perfect place to mark off my travel wish list. It's nearby, affordable, and perfect for a fun weekend trip!

My boyfriend and I got there by train, which I would highly recommend if your state is adjacent to Illinois. We used Amtrak and paid only $50 each for a roundtrip ticket. Compare that to the cost of gas money and paying for a parking space and it's a fantastic deal. The journey was a bit longer than it would have been driving, but since neither of us were at the wheel, we were free to do whatever we wanted on the way (reading, sleeping, homework, games, snacks, etc.). And because the seats are a bit bigger (and have more leg room) than your average airplane seat, taking a nap on the way is very do-able (and depending on the time of your trip, might be a good idea). 

Halloween decorations along the Magnificent Mile.
On our first full day, we headed to the Magnificent Mile, a stretch of Michigan Avenue filled with shopping and restaurants. If you're here with girlfriends, this is definitely the place to go. And if you're here with a boy, drag him along anyway :) There are all kinds of shops (Apple, Lego, Nike), so he won't be bored. 

Some of my favorites: H&M, Forever 21, Topshop, The American Girl Doll Store, Zara, Apple.

Of course we couldn't go to Chicago and not try some deep dish pizza. If you haven't had it before, it's almost like a pie: deep, stuffed, and very filling. I expected not to like itthinking it would be too over the top and heavybut it was delicious and my favorite meal we had in Chicago. 

So if you're looking for some great deep dish, head to Exchequer's (I have no idea how to pronounce that, by the way) on South Wabash. The pizza is fantastic, and if you don't believe me, listen to the Chicago Tribune (they named it #1 deep dish in Chicago) and Roger Ebert (he gave it 4 stars). The fillings are plentiful, the cheese is gooey and scrumptious, and the price is great. We got a 10" with half sausage/mushroom and half chicken/onions for $13 and it was more than enough food.

One must-see Chicago landmark is the sculpture Cloud Gate, more commonly known as The Bean. Found in beautiful Millennium Park, the Bean was designed by Anish Kapoor (an Indian-born British artist) and constructed between 2004 and 2006. It's a really fun sculpture and I love how it reflects back the city skyline. It isn't just something to look at; it interacts with its audience and surroundings. 

And of course, due to its mirror-like surface, it's perfect for taking self-portraits.

Another popular attraction is Navy Pier. Unfortunately, on the night we stopped by, it was raining and all the crowds had gathered inside. If you go on a nicer night, there are lots of things to do (I've heard) like ride the ferris wheel or other carnival rides, go the IMAX theater or Shakespeare theater, visit the Stained Glass Museum, or the Children's Museum. And of course, there are a lot of restaurants. The next time I'm in Chicago, I'll have to stop by again and give it another chance. Due to the rain, we didn't stay very long.

The Conservatory.
I did, however, love Lincoln Park. It's a bit further north than the bulk of activity in the city, but definitely worth the walk. Bigger than Millennium Park and further removed from the city traffic, it was  a lovely place to escape the hustle and bustle. Plus, there is a free zoo, a free conservatory, and lots of open space for picnicking or playing a game of football or frisbee (if that's your thing). 

And to get to Lincoln Park, walk along Lake Michigan. The view of the skyline is great. Plus, you get to look out at the boats, lighthouse, and might even get to see an otter! (I'm not sure if they're common, but we saw one and it was adorable).

The view from the Hancock Building.
Another must-see is the view from the Hancock Building. If you're under 21 or traveling with someone who is, you can go up to the Observatory Deck (which costs around $15, I think). But if you are 21, I urge you to take advantage of the Signature Room on the 95th floor. The view is just as great and there's no ticket cost. However, you must buy a drink once you're up there (no freeloaders!). The drinks are very expensive ($14-20), but wouldn't you rather pay for a drink+view than just a view? My drink (called in Pears in Paris) was delicious, but cost a hefty $15. The view was totally worth it though.

To be fair, I have to mention a downside of the Signature Room too. This is how it works:

You wait in line to get up to the lounge and then once you're there, you wait in a little line again to be seated. If you're lucky, you'll get a seat alongside a window. If you're even luckier, you'll get a seat on the best side of the building. If you're not so lucky, you'll be seated in the center, where the view is obscured by other people's tables. However, everyone is free to walk around, so you can always wander to the windows and take some pictures. Plus, if you're a woman, take advantage of the view from the bathroom. Strange, I know, but the bathroom is along a window on the best side of the building. Women are always taking pictures in here, so join in on the fun. It's a fantastic view.

We, by the way, were very thankful to be on the second-best side of the building, seated along the window. It was fantastic.

In Millennium Park.

It was a wonderful weekend and I can't wait to go back someday. There's so much more to see than I've mentioned here. If you have any questions, feel free to send me an e-mail or leave a comment below.

Have you ever been to Chicago? What was your favorite part?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

nonfiction lessons #3- on writing well

On Writing Well, I am pleased to say, is written very well. Zinsser knows what he's talking about and he doesn't waste time with unnecessary elaborations. The book focuses primarily on nonfiction, but nearly all the chapters are applicable to writing fiction as well. 

He begins with the basics (Simplicity, Clutter, Style, Audience, Words, Usage), dips into methods (Unity, Leads, Endings), gives further tips for different types of nonfiction writing (Interviews, Travel Writing, Memoirs, Science Writing, Business Writing, Sports Writing, Critics, Columnists, Humor), and ends with some more general ideas (Voice, Fear/Confidence, the Final Product, Decisions, Editors). I skipped a few that I wasn't interested inI have no desire to write a memoir and highly doubt I will ever write about sportsbut I'm sure those sections were just as useful and polished as the rest.

I really enjoyed it. Just a very clean, effective, helpful book about writing.


1. “Don’t start a sentence with ‘however’—it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with ‘however’—by that time it has lost its howeverness.”

2. “Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with ‘but.’ If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start.”

3. On whether to use 'that' or 'which' in situations where both are technically correct: Always use ‘that’ unless it makes your meaning ambiguous. Notice that in carefully edited magazines, such as The New Yorker, ‘that’ is by far the predominant usage. I mention this because it is still widely believed—a residue from school and college—that ‘which’ is more correct, more acceptable, more literary. It’s not. In most situations, ‘that’ is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.”

4. “Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read . . . Newspaper paragraphs should only be two or three sentences long; newspaper type is set in a narrow width, and the inches quickly add up . . . But don’t go berserk. A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long.”

5. “Writers have to jump-start themselves at the moment of performance, no less than actors and dancers and painters and musicians. There are some writers who sweep us along so strongly in the current of their energy—Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, William F. Buckley, Jr., Hunter Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers—that we assume that when they go to work the words just flow. Nobody thinks of the effort they made every morning to turn on the switch.”

TITLE: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
AUTHOR: William Zinsser
PUBLICATION DATE: 1976 originally (30th anniversary edition with updated material- May 2006)
DATE FINISHED: 25 October 2012
VERDICT: 4/5 stars

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ttt: books to get in the halloween spirit

This week's Top Ten Tuesday on the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Books to Get in the Halloween Spirit. I've been busy this week (I'll explain why in a few days), so this is coming a day late. Normally I'd just skip TTT if I couldn't make it on Tuesday, but since it's October and Halloween is just one week away, I didn't want to pass up such a perfect topic.

Note: I apologize for not reading (and thus, not including) any "real" horror novels.

Top Ten Books to Get in the Halloween Spirit

1. The Little Stranger (by Sarah Waters). A very eerie, slow-moving story about a haunted house. A village doctor in England in the 1940s befriends a family living in a decaying mansion. This book isn't for everyone and it's not my favorite book by Waters, but it's definitely creepy.

2. Affinity (by Sarah Waters). Another by Sarah Waters, but with an entirely different feel. There aren't any big scares, just a lingering creepiness because the story centers on Selina, an imprisoned medium in Victorian England. Our narrator, a middle class young woman doing charity work at the prison, befriends Selina and finds herself bewitched by the seemingly innocent girl.

3. The Séance (by John Harwood). Centers on a mysterious mansion that has housed several strange deaths in Victorian England. A woman hearing voices, a fake medium, a decaying body, a man obsessed with lightning. Although not satisfying plot-wise, it's very dark and Gothically creepy.

4. Gone Girl (by Gillian Flynn). Although a summer blockbuster book, Gone Girl is definitely worthy of a Halloween recommendation. It begins with the disappearance of Amy on her anniversary. Her husband, of course, is the suspect. The novel features murder, a psychopath, and a truly horrifying marriage.

5. The Secret History (by Donna Tartt). This novel begins with the murder of Bunny, a college boy, by his close group of friends. But these are no ordinary college kids. We learn what led to Bunny's murder, how they go about it, and the aftermath. A very chilling, dark read.

6. Rebecca (by Daphne du Maurier). A classic. The unnamed narrator quickly marries Maxim de Winter, whose previous wife Rebecca died very recently. She soon feels as though their house, Manderley, is haunted by Rebecca's presence.

7. Geek Love (by Katherine Dunn). Extremely strange, but also very, very good. The story centers on a circus family, which includes a boy with flippers for limbs, siamese twins, and an albino hunchback. The cult that forms around the Aquaboy is incredibly disturbing and looks at how people perceive beauty vs. freakishness. Unlike anything you'll ever read. 

8. Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban (by J.K. Rowling). Not so scary, but it had to be included! Witches and wizards, an escaped lunatic, a dark and ominous dog, Dementors, a werewolf, and so much more. Plus, this is the book that introduces some of the best characters in the series: Lupin and Sirius.

9. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (by Robert Louis Stevenson). A classic needing no explanation. Also, it's very quick, so you can get your fright fix within a day or two.

10. Coraline (by Neil Gaiman). Quick but creepy, and a tad too dark for young children. The movie's great too!

* (bonus pick!) The Book of Lost Things (by John Connolly). The Crooked Man is too great of a villain not to be included. He's disgusting and horrifying and definitely nightmare-inducing. This book has the feel of a children's story, but some of the images and situation are very mature and frightening. You have been warned!


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

after you'd gone

This is my third Maggie O'Farrell book and I'm still completely charmed. I love her style, her slow reveals, and the way she trusts her reader to understand the story without clearly spelling it out. 

This story revolves around a girl named Alice. It begins with Alice being hit by a car, though we don't know if this was an accident or attempted suicide. Earlier that day, she had taken a spontaneous trip from London to Edinburgh to visit her family, but then hopped back on the train within minutes after seeing something shocking in the bathroom mirror of the train station. For the rest of the story, Alice is in a coma. We meet her through many, many flashbacks to her childhood, teen years, and adulthood. The most important story in her life is her relationship with John, who (at the time of the car accident) is no longer in her life. We also meet Alice's family: her parents, sisters, and grandmother. Several important flashbacks involve the earlier lives of the mother and grandmother. Family secrets, etc. I don't want to give too much away.

Like the two other O'Farrell books I've read (The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine), After You'd Gone is written in a non-linear, multiple-POV structure. I'll admit that a small part of me would like to see her use a different format, but at the same time, she does this very well. Instead of relying on cheap tricks, she keeps readers interested by constantly making them think. You don't always know where in the timeline of the story you are or what has happened to lead to this point, so you're constantly piecing the story together. This is something O'Farrell excels at, so I can understand why she has used the structure so many times. 

I enjoyed this story quite a bit, though I never felt I really knew Alice. The pieces of her we're given conflict a bit and I could never get a firm grasp on her personality. Especially where boys are concerned. She seems to have some mysterious charm (unpresented by O'Farrell) that makes boys not just fall in love with her, but become obsessively infatuated. It didn't make sense. I also had a hard time understanding the main conflict in Alice's relationship with John, and the end of their relationship just didn't sit well with me. It didn't feel natural (though I understand what O'Farrell was going for).

Really enjoyed this. I will definitely be moving on to O'Farrell's other books soon. 

TITLE: After You'd Gone
AUTHOR: Maggie O'Farrell
DATE FINISHED: 14 October 2012
VERDICT: 3/5 stars. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

the "look" challenge

Last week, Shannon from Isle of Books tagged me in The "Look" Challenge
The "Look" Challenge is for bloggers who are also writers. It is a way to let others sneak a peek at your work. Here’s how it works. You search your manuscript for the word “look” and copy the surrounding paragraphs into a post to let other bloggers read. Then you tag five blogger/writers to invite them to the challenge.
Sounds like fun, right? It gives you a quick glimpse into a manuscript without asking the author to reveal the entire plot. 
It was also interesting to see how many times the word "look" already appears in my story. A lot more than I thought! So I cut the number in half and then cut that in half again, and here's what I was left with. I limited how many paragraphs to reveal because I didn't want to give away important plot points. 
But without further ado, here are my (rough draft!) excerpts. They are all from my WIP, a novel.
- 1 -

In the alley, in the dark, in rubber shoes and knitted socks, in the back, in the shadows. Under the overhang, under an umbrella, under the morning’s first probing light. With his eternally cold hands, with her sweater falling off her shoulders, with whispers, with guilt, with only a quick look between their kitchen windows. They meet there a few nights a week, usually not for long, and occasionally their eyes meet as they wash dishes in the morning, and they risk a scolding as they meet in the damp, dirty, useless strip of land between their buildings.

- 2 -

“I’ve made a mess of it, haven’t I?”
He looks down and she’s staring at him, worrying. He doesn’t remember what she was doing or when he stopped paying attention. “Of course not,” he says. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh never mind.”
“Don’t do that. C’mon. C’mon now, Ellen.” He strokes her hair. It feels unnatural, like petting a dog. “What is it?”

- 3 -

She went downstairs, to the sitting room outside the ladies’ restroom, and sank into one of the plush velvet chaises. Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine how the play might at all improve over the next half of the show. She hoped one brother would die at least. Or even better, perhaps one of the brothers would kill the other. While she was deciding which brother ought to die in order to save the show (she was leaning in favor of the fair-headed one), she heard the sound of footsteps above her. 
Thinking it must surely be intermission, she sprung up from her chair and went upstairs only to find the little corridor empty but for a lone figure. She didn’t look at him closely and was about to walk past, thinking she might circle the main lobby a few times while waiting for everyone else, when he turned and saw her and smiled—his teeth just a flash of lightness in the dark theater. 
“Miss Dandridge,” he said, nodding, and she knew him instantly by his voice.
“Mr. Reinhardt.” She stepped closer, still playing with the hem of her sleeve.
“Enjoying the show?” he asked.
“Not exactly.”
Wesley nodded. “I think they ought to do off with the blond brother.”

- 4 -

“Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?”
Nicholas was looking toward the fireplace. His eyes met Aurelia’s. “You don’t hear it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. The wind?”
“It’s not windy today. Listen.”
“Isn’t it? I suppose I haven’t been out yet today. Perhaps I’ll go for a walk later in the park with Lara. Have you—”
“Just listen,” he murmured.
As Aurelia worked on her embroidery—she was stitching Wesley’s initials onto a handkerchief—she listened closely. She heard a bird’s wings as it flew past the window. She heard the soft thud of Nicholas’s hand as he gripped the arm of his chair. She heard an intake of breath. When she looked up again after finishing a stitch, Nicholas was staring at her.
“I’ve heard it all afternoon,” he said.
“Heard what?”
He shook his head like he was trying to shake water out of ears, and it was then that Wesley arrived.

- - - - -

I don't know many writer-bloggers, so if there are any others reading, please let me know and feel free to complete the challenge as well! I would like to tag:
1. Aubrey of Write, Aubrey, Write.
2. Laura of The Scarlet Letter.
3. Julie of The Read Room.

Monday, October 15, 2012

allons-y à paris! or, renee's guide to paris

View from Notre Dame, 2008.

View from Notre Dame, 2012.

As I mentioned in my guide to Italy, this time last year I was traveling through Italy and to Paris on a 10-day Fall Break with my boyfriend. After visiting Rome, Florence, and Venice, we flew to France and spent four days in beautiful Paris. I had previously traveled to Paris in the Spring of 2008 with my mom and sister, so I knew the places to go and the things to eat and say. I was able to revisit the places I loved the first time around, while also exploring some great attractions I'd missed the first time around, like Place des Vosges and Père Lachaise Cemetery. I truly love Paris and someday, I'd love to go back for a third trip.

This blog began as a travel journal and I hope to include more travel in the future, but today, in honor of the 1-year mark since I went to Paris, I thought I'd do a little guide for anyone going to Paris or planning to go to Paris or even just dreaming of Paris. And if you're dreaming of London instead, hold on. I'll get to you in December.

So here it is . . . 

*French speakers, please excuse any forgotten accent marks or misspelled words. 
It's been years since I studied the French language and I apologize!*


(on a student's budget)

A French supermarket.

The French are known for their fantastique cuisine. Even kids know that French food is special thanks to a little rat named Ratatouille. Unlike Italy's pizzas and pastas though, the names of French food are not familiar to most Americans. So if you're in France and want some great, traditional food, here are some things I insist you try:

  • Croque Monsieur (The best ham and cheese sandwich you'll ever have. The cheese is creamy, delicious gruyère, and you'll find it piled inside as well as broiled on top). 
  • Quiche Lorraine (If you haven't had quiche before, it's sort of like an egg/cheese pie. Quiche Lorraine is made with bacon or ham, gruyère cheese, eggs, cream, and pie crust).
  • Boeuf Bourguignon (The best beef stew you'll ever have. It's a hearty peasant dish made with beef braised in red wine and combined with onions, mushrooms, and other vegetables and herbs).
  • Coq Au Vin (Similar to Boeuf Bourguignon, this is a peasant dish made with chicken braised in red wine and combined with onions, mushrooms, and other vegetables and herbs). 
  • Tarte (In bakeries, you'll always see tartes or tartelettes. My favorites are framboises a.k.a. raspberries and fraises a.k.a. strawberries. These little desserts are made with a buttery pastry, cream/custard, and fruit).
  • Crêpes (Hopefully you've already had a crêpe before. If not, it is similar to a very thin pancake. But unlike pancakes, crêpes are filled with toppings, usually rolled or folded, and can be made savory or sweet. Sweet fillings include strawberries, bananas, nutella, cream, sugar, cinnamon, etc. Savory fillings include proteins, mushrooms, vegetables, sauces, etc. Both are delicious!). 
  • Vin (Wine. Whatever type you prefer. I'm no expert. The French love their wine and, like their food, are known for it. At many restaurants, water is so expensive, the price is comparable to wine, so why not have a glass?).
  • Orangina (A popular, brand-name beverage that tastes like a combination of orange juice and orange soda. Yum!).
  • Soupe à l'Oignon (Real French onion soup! Covered in cheese and bits of baguette). 
  • Salade Verte (A green salad. This often comes along with your main dish at restaurants. It's a simple salad, but delicious. Lettuce and a wonderful dressing with hints of dijon mustard). 
  • Baguette (Suitable for every meal. Cheap and delicious. Possibly my favorite French food!). 
If you want more options, I would also recommend pain au chocolat (a chocolate filled pastry), chocolat (chocolate), la glace (ice cream), and brie (a creamy cheese). They also, strangely, have very good hot dogs. They taste more sausage-like than their American counterparts, come in a baguette, and are usually covered in gruyère cheese.

Paris is an expensive city, but you don't have to spend a lot to eat well. My suggestion is to eat a small breakfast and lunch (a baguette, a croque monsieur on the go, etc.) and then sit down at a café or restaurant for dinner. If you've got a little extra, go for a prix fixe meal (fixed price). You choose a multi-course dinner from a predetermined selection of dishes.

A few more things to remember:

1. Never rush your meal. The chef/waiter will not appreciate it and you will appear rude. Meals are meant to be savored and chefs take their time to make each item.

2. Try to speak a little French if you can. The waiter will really appreciate your effort (see my section on language below for some helpful phrases).

3. Don't expect the waiter to hover over you like American waiters/waitresses do. They only come by your table when necessary. If you need your check, have a question, etc. you will probably have to wave him down. And don't be offended if he isn't cheerful or bubbly. That's more of an American thing. Waiters in France take their jobs very seriously. Appreciate how discreet, knowledgeable, and patient they are. If you didn't know, French waiters go to school to become waiters. They are highly trained and proud of their profession. Also, because the service charge is added to your bill automatically, they will not grovel for a tip. It's refreshing, really, to not have your waiter bugging you in their attempt to make a good impression in an effort to improve their tip.

Pictures: croque monsieur and quiche lorraine (top left), boeuf bourguignon (top right), tarte aux framboises (middle left), croque monsieur (middle right), croque monsieur and quiche lorraine (bottom left), pastries and sweets (bottom right). 


If you're outside Europe, search around for the best flight. Students can get discounts at Student Universe.

To get in and out of France, we flew using Easyjet. If you're not familiar with it, Easyjet is a discount European airline like RyanAir and others. The prices are low (we flew to Paris from Venice for $80), but that means you're restricted on certain things like luggage and travel dates. It's very worth it as long as you read the rules beforehand. These airlines are very strict on weight/size limits (for luggage, not passengers) and I don't know if it's possible to exchange/refund your tickets. Just be very aware and realize that you can't squeeze something by these companies. You will get fined.

My sister and I analyzing a Métro map.


Paris is a big city, so I wouldn't recommend walking everywhere. The Metro is the best way to cheaply and easily make your way around the city. Since we're big walkers, we usually used the Metro 2-3 times a day. Often that would happen at the beginning and end of the day when we needed to get to and from our hostel in Montmarte (an area in Northern Paris).

If you only want to use the Metro a couple of times your entire trip, buy single tickets. These cost about 1.70E.

If you will use the Metro a couple of times per day, you might want to buy a carnet (pronounced car-nay). A carnet gives you 10 tickets for a discounted price, 12.50E.

If you plan to use the Metro more than a couple times a day and would also like access to the bus, you might want to invest in a Metro+Bus pass. The price depends on the number of days you will be using it and the number of zones you would like to travel within.

Enjoying some wine and Orangina beneath the Eiffel Tower.


Paris is filled with amazing museums, churches, monuments, and parks. Here are my favorites:

  • The Eiffel Tower (If you have time, go more than once. On this latest trip, we stopped at the Eiffel Tower once every day. Bring a picnic or a bottle of wine. Find a spot in the grass. Shoo away the men selling keychains. And if it's dark, watch the tower sparkle). 
  • Louvre (It is the world's most visited art museum, so you can be sure it's worth your visit. Plus, if you're younger than 26, it's free on Friday nights from 6-9:45 PM. Beware though: it is HUGE. Figure out which paintings you want to see and head to those first because it would probably take days to see everything in the museum. Some of my favorites include: Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Liberty Leading the People, The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine on December 2, 1804, Une Odalisque, and The Oath of the Horatii).
  • Sacre Coeur and Montmartre (This white church is perched upon the butte Montmarte, the highest point in Paris. It is free to visit the church and afterward, you can walk around Montmarte. There are cafés, artists painting and selling their work, and nightclubs like the famous Moulin Rouge. Try to picture what the district was like back when amazing artists like Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent Van Gogh were wandering the streets).
  • Notre Dame (You may know it from the novel by Victor Hugo or the Disney animated movie, but if you're in Paris, you must see this very old church in person. Inside, admire the gothic architecture. Outside, pay the small fee to walk up the spiral staircase and emerge at the bell tower. You'll be right alongside the gargoyles and have an amazing, picture perfect view of Paris. See the photos at the top of this post for evidence!). 
  • Shakespeare & Co. (Near Notre Dame, this English language bookstore is incredibly cute and charming. Filled from top to bottom with books, it's definitely worth a visit). 
  • Galeries Lafayettes (If you want to go shopping indoors and you're very wealthy, this is the mall for you. But even if you're not wealthy, head on in. It's huge and the architecture is gorgeous. Plus, if you go up to the top floor, you get another great view of Paris). 
  • Hôtel de Ville (This is an administration building, so you won't want to go inside, but just stop by on your way somewhere else. The architecture is pure Parisian and very beautiful). 
  • l'Arc de Triomphe and Champs Élysées (This monument honors French soldiers of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and is very iconic to Paris. It stands at the end of Champs Élysées, a long street filled with both expensive and casual stores. If you want a great walk, start at the Tuileries Gardens, pass Place de la Concorde, walk down Champs Elysees, and end with the l'Arc de Triomphe). 
  • Place des Vosges (The oldest planned square in Paris. The architecture, again, is lovely and the square is green and popular. Kids are playing, couples picnicking, teens gathering, etc. A great spot to take a break and rest your legs). 

Me at the Louvre.


Since this is a student's budget guide, of course I'm going to recommend you stay in a hostel. There are a lot of different sites available for booking hostels. We used and for all our searching and booking. Both sites have reviews, which are invaluable when you're searching for cheap accommodations. Try to stay in hostels with ratings above 70% if possible. The most important aspects of finding a place to stay are safety, location, cleanliness, and cost. Most hostels don't offer free WI-FI or breakfasts or even towels. And even if they do, be weary. Sometimes the hostel doesn't honor what's promised on its website.

Know that the cost on these sites is almost always per person. Even if it says Double Room for 30E, they want you each to pay the 30E.

If you want the cheapest room, you will either have to travel with a bunch of friends and book a private room together (the more people, the cheaper the room) or room with strangers. Private solo rooms obviously cost the most. If you do stay with strangers, wear your wallet on you at night and lock up your luggage (with personal locks, lockers provided in the hostel, or both). You can't be too safe.

French flowers.


If you have time, consider a day trip to Versailles. Lavish and covered in gold finishings and gaudy decor, it is amazing to see in person. If you're there at the right time of year, the gardens will be green and flowering and there are amazing fountain shows and festivities. But no matter what time of year you go, you can explore the entire grounds of Versailles, including Petit Trianon and Grand Trianon, smaller and more country-like houses on the property (where Marie-Antoinette went to escape her busy palace life!). Versailles is just a short trip from Paris by train (less than an hour, I believe).

If you'd like a guided tour and love bicycling, I would highly recommend Fat Tire Bike Tours. You bike to the town market, pick up food for a picnic, bike through the grounds, lunch at Grand Trianon, and then bike on to Versailles.



In order to fly with Easyjet, we had to adhere to the luggage guidelines. Thus, I traveled with only my little backpack. It is the size of your average schoolkid's backpack, not a big traveler's pack. As a girl who sometimes brings an entire suitcase with me on a weekend trip, I was not excited to pack for 10 days in one little backpack, but it all worked out in the end. 

Here's what I packed for 10 days in Italy/Paris in October (temperatures ranged from 40-80 degrees Fahrenheit):

I wore to the airport:
- Jeans
- Regular T-Shirt (This would come in handy later. Remember, most hostels don't have towels . . .)
- Keds
- Light Jacket
- Light Scarf

I packed:
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 pair of black tights
- 1 black cardigan
- 3 simple, form-fitting tees
- 1 long-sleeve, casual, floral dress
- Underwear and socks
- 1 pair of black flats
- Camera (with extra battery and battery charger)
- Toiletries (all 3oz. or less to adhere to airport security guidelines)
- Makeup (just the basics: mascara, eyeliner, eyelash curler, powder)
- Glasses
- Umbrella
- Folder with all our flight/train information, directions, notes, etc.

Due to Easyjet's restrictions, I was not allowed to carry my purse onto the plane (it had to be stuffed into my backpack), so room was left for that. I also tried to leave some room for souvenirs. If you do buy a lot on your travels and can't fit everything back into your suitcase, remember you can always layer-up on the plane!

My main advice is to check the weather beforehand. If you need a big coat, you can always wear it onto the plane to save space. Also, the cliché advice that is oh so true: wear comfortable shoes.

If you want to fit in with the Parisians, consider packing dark skinny jeans, boots, and a scarf.

Place des Vosges


All that said, people enjoy experiencing cities in different ways. Ask yourself: how do you want to spend your time? If you don't care about seeing everyday Parisian life, then just head to the tourist spots. If you want lots of time for certain attractions and museums, maybe you don't have time to wander there on foot. Also ask yourself: how do you want to spend your money? If you're on a limited budget, you might have to make sacrifices. Do you want to spend money on public transportation? On museums? On attractions? On shopping? On food? 

And make sure your travel buddies agree on these time/money preferences. That's the quickest way to get into fights mid-travel. It's also an easy way to end up disappointed with your trip. Or so I've heard! Luckily, my travel mate and I agreed that we wanted to spend time wandering, limit the museums, and see (if not explore) all the big sites. And as for money, we spent ours on clean hostels with good locations and food. Very little went to museums/attractions. 

My sister (right) and I at a café in Montmartre. 


A little effort goes a long way. Although you can easily get around speaking English, natives will really appreciate it if you try to speak some French. Here are some good words and phrases to know.

Inside Galeries Lafayette.


Attractions and museums are wonderful, but the best moments, I think, are when you can just sit back and enjoy where you are. Sitting beneath the Eiffel Tower with a bottle of wine. Grabbing a baguette for a picnic in the park. Looking out at Paris from Montmartre. You can absorb everything the architecture, the food, the smells, the language, the viewswithout the hustle, bustle, and hurry that comes with tourist attractions.

Picnicking beneath the Eiffel Tower.

UPDATE: I would like to add two more quick tips!

First, beware of pickpockets! They have elaborate schemes to trick or embarrass you into giving away your money. And hold tight to your purses and cameras, especially in heavily trafficked areas. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and Sacre Coeur are the worst (in my opinion).

Second, use the bathroom anytime you see one. It sounds silly, but when you're wandering around a foreign city, it often happens that you're not near a public bathroom when you need to go. Luckily, Paris does have more free public bathrooms than your average urban space. Unfortunately, they take a long time and often have lines.

I hope you enjoyed this little guide. If you want to see my original post about Paris, head here.

Have you ever been to Paris? Have any tips to add? What was your favorite part of your trip?

What's your dream travel destination?

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