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A trip to Paris may seem like a distant dream these days, what with the financial crisis pushing us all to hoard our pennies and think small. But consider this: the euro/dollar exchange rate, which had reached astronomical levels last year, has finally come down, and Parisian hoteliers and restaurant owners who dearly miss their American clientele are making efforts to keep prices reasonable. With a little bit of insider information, travelers can discover the affordable side of the French capital, while still enjoying its many pleasures. After all, there's a reason people dream about Paris -- aside from its famous museums, Belle Epoque architecture, historic monuments, and cultural riches. It is a multi-cultural, multi-faceted city with an certain je ne sais quoi that has been known to cause sentimental types to burst into song. Go ahead, sing a little.

1. There may not be such a thing as a free lunch, but in Paris, it comes close. Restaurants regularly offer astounding deals at lunch time, as in the same place that will charge €35 and up for dinner will offer a two- or three-course lunch for €15-20. If you are willing to do as the French do, that is, tank up on calories at lunch and go easy on dinner, you can cut your food budget in half. Come to think of it, who needs a restaurant? If you really want to save, and the weather permits, duck into a boulangerie, or bakery, and take advantage of the widespread lunch deal wherein you can get a hefty sandwich on fresh bread, a canned drink, and a yummy dessert for between 6.50-7.50€. Then you need simply choose a bench in one of the many delightful parks, gardens, or squares and enjoy.

2. The permanent collections of the city's many municipal museums are all free. This means you can soak up the history of Paris at the Musée Carnavalet, check out the Asian art at the Musée Cernuchi, and see the master's inkwell and original manuscripts at the Maison de Victor Hugo without spending a Euro cent. Other municipal museums include: Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Maison de Balzac, Musée Bourdelle, Musée Cognac-Jay, Musée Zadkine, and the Petit Palais. Even the big national museums like the Louvre, the Orsay, and Quai Branley are free on the first Sunday of each month, though the crowds on these days can be daunting.

3. Parisians are obsessed with comic books. You many not see many sitting around looking them, but I tell you, there are few Parisians who do not have a hidden stash of comic books at home. Bandes desinées, or BDs for short, are a national obsession, and Paris is home to some of the best specialized bookstores in the country. We're not talking super heroes here, but mostly large format, hardbound graphic novels on subjects ranging from humor, to spy stories, to historic epics, to rock-and-roll biographies. Autobiography and "photo" journalism are not unknown either. The BD epicenter seems to be located in the 5th arrondissement, around the cluster of shops that make up the überstore Album (67 blvd. St-Germain; www.album.fr), but for a real taste of BD madness, take a stroll down nearby rue Dante (Métro Cluny La Sorbonne) where you'll find vintage comics, a BD art gallery, mangas, rare BDs, figurines, posters, etc.

4. Every arrondissement has at least one municipal pool, open to one and all for only €3. To burn off those croissants, or just to relax and refresh, take a dip one of the city's many fine pools. Ranging from Olympic-sized mammoths like the Piscine Suzanne Berlioux in the underground Forum des Halles (an exception at €4) in the 1st arrondissement, to the Art Deco Piscine Pontoise in the 5th, Parisian pools are clean and tidy and often offer late night hours or little extras like solariums, kiddie pools, or gym equipment. For hours and info, visit the city's website

5. North American tourists can use the city's almost-free bike rental program, Velib', if they have the right kind of credit card. Yes, you too can toodle around the city on one of those groovy looking bikes if you have an Amex Card with a chip in it. But don't despair if you don't or if you just can't get the dang automated stand to work. Velib' (www.velib.fr) has had a dazzling effect on the city's cycling consciousness and not only are there bike rental outfits where you can get your gear, but there are more and more bike lanes, as well as people on bikes. While it takes a certain amount of courage to brave Parisian traffic on two wheels (a helmet will make you at least feel safer), once you do you'll be thrilled to cruise down Blvd. Saint Michel and over to the Marais in a matter of minutes.

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