The worst thing about being a tourist in Paris is feeling like one.
No matter how proud you are to be an American, you'd still rather sashay down the Parisian boulevards feeling you possess a touch of that uniquely French je ne sais whatever.
And here's how. You may not be able to tie your neck scarf quite right or style your hair that jaunty Parisian way, but you can feel 92 percent French with one simple move: Rent an apartment.
I've been going to Paris regularly since I was a penniless, backpacking college student, and I've stayed in a variety of hotel rooms. I've loved a few, especially the ones that were up some winding narrow stairway, barely big enough for a saggy bed and a bidet, with the toilet down the hall and pigeons harrumphing on the window ledge.
But I'm past the age when discomfort in the pursuit of the authentic seems romantic. A grown-up wants some convenience with the native charm, and while there are hotels that offer both, an apartment's even better.
There are thousands of apartments for vacation rental in Paris these days, but for several years, I've stuck with the same one, which I've rented through Chez Vous, based in Sausalito, Calif. A friend recommended the company to me, and I've recommended it to a couple of friends who also liked it.
It works like this: On the Chez Vous Web site ( www.chezvous.com), you find an apartment that suits you, reserve it and pay in advance in dollars; they do not accept credit cards.
As long as you don't, say, chew up the sheets or demolish the dinner plates, you'll get your deposit back.
When you arrive in Paris, a local Chez Vous representative meets you outside your apartment. The first time I rented, my greeter was an English-speaking Frenchman. Another time it was a Scottish woman.
Your greeter shows you everything you need to know to feel "chez vous"--that's French for "at home"--and chances are that the first thing you'll need to know is the door code.
I love a French door code the way some tourists love proper croissants. Nothing makes you feel more Parisian than walking up to a pair of grand varnished wooden doors next to the sidewalk, punching the buttons on a metal pad, hearing that uniquely French buzz and click, then stepping into a 19th Century courtyard hidden from the street.
The greeter then shows you the secrets of your apartment. In mine, that meant how to squeeze a suitcase into the tiny elevator, how to operate the washer-dryer in the tiny galley kitchen, how to use the tiny shower in the tiny bathroom, how to collect messages from the telephone, how to navigate the TV remote and how to call the Chez Vous office if you forget any of the above.
And then you're on your own. A real Parisian.
My little apartment is on the top floor of a residential building a short walk from the Luxembourg Gardens. I say "my" and "is" because I've rented it several times, with other people and on my own, and I don't care who's been there the other 51 weeks of the year and left those dreadful paperbacks.
When I'm there, the little bedroom under the eaves is mine. The sofa, the silverware, the radio are mine. The small but airy living room with the two sets of French doors that overlook the slate rooftops, all mine.
If it were really mine, I'd replace the mattresses and ditch the kitschy posters on the wall, but the beds are passable, and I can endure the painted doe-eyed children as long as I can gaze at night out to the Sacre Coeur cathedral twinkling on a hill.
One advantage to renting a Paris apartment is the money you can save by cooking, and in my repeated visits to my apartment I've enjoyed cooking. Exactly once.
A few times, however, I have gone downstairs and within a block found a patisserie, an epicerie, a wine store and a quickie market, then brought food back to spread out on the pretty wooden dining table.
Parisians live close to each other and on busy streets, so apartments, like hotel rooms, can be noisy.
But my living room overlooks a quiet inner courtyard, and the small, double-paned windows in the bedroom block out almost all the street noise.
When I started renting an apartment, it was unquestionably a better financial deal than a hotel for someone who wanted a little space and planned to stay a week.
In the past year, as the dollar's value has dropped, the price of my apartment has gone up uncomfortably, from $280 a year ago to $380 now. But there are still decent apartment deals to be had, especially with a resurgent dollar, and there's simply no better way to experience life in Paris, as long as you don't forget the door code.
To learn more about Paris rentals