Advice For Americans in Paris: A Brief Guide For Visiting Yanks
If you are an American, about to visit Paris for the first time and are looking for advice on where to stay and how to get tourist discounts and a card for the Metro you won't find it here. This hub is about what makes the French tick and why we Yanks have so much trouble understanding them. I'm hoping that a bit of cultural understanding will enhance your trip and make your visit a memory you will treasure.
I hasten to admit that my credentials for helping you understand the French, let alone helping them understand you, are sketchy. I am relying totally on a year spent living and studying in Paris back in the dear departed days of my youth, good friends made then and kept over the years, many subsequent visits to a country and a city I love and my own opinions and observations.
I am also drawing upon a lifetime of trying to explain the French in the United States to puzzled Americans recently returned from Paris. I am always astonished when people don't like the place, but some Americans are not happy there. They find Parisians hostile and the city unfriendly. I am absolutely baffled by this and hope to put things right.
Of course, the French have their own unflattering ideas about Americans and their own stereotypes of us. We are crude, wasteful and totally unaware of the important rhythms of life that make it worth living. They see us as children or savages-- or maybe both. Either way we are unforgivably brutish, but in true French fashion, they are more than willing to forgive us, and to even find our childish ways rather charming, because, after all( drum roll please) they are French.
French vs. American View of Life
The French are not like us at all in how they view life and that is where the misunderstanding starts. While we Americans invented the assembly line and mass production, not to mention the culture of suburban materialism, the French are champions of the hand made, the individual, the unique and special. They are also quite snobbish in spite of total devotion to Liberté, égalité, fraternité . They invented the term "nouveau riche" which tells you something about how they feel about unrefined people who drive big cars and throw their money around not to mention simple minded Americans who drink instant coffee and put cheese in the refrigerator.
The American dream is about everyone living better through mass production. It is about the acquisition of " stuff" i.e. a house, a car, a huge wardrobe. The size and quantity of " stuff" is what matters, quality is secondary. The opposite is true in France. In France quality trumps quantity every time. In French restaurants presentation is as important as taste. There are numerous courses and portions are elegant and small. Dining is a time honored religion and the procession of courses and combinations of food and wine a kind of liturgy. Do not ever, under any circumstances ask for a " doggie bag" in even the simplest French restaurant. Taking food home from a restaurant would be like taking communion home from church.
No self respecting French person longs to live in a mass produced, cookie cutter suburban house, no matter how nice it is, or wear mass produced clothes and eat the same fast food as his suburban neighbors. What could be more vulgar? Parisians in particular, revel in being themselves and in doing everything-- absolutely everything- with personal style. This is the big secret and the key to the French character. You can do anything you want in France, as long as you do it with style. How you do something matters much more in Paris than what you do. Keep that in mind and the French will love you no matter what you do.
This goes double for good manners. Paris drivers may try to run you down as you cross a busy street, but the purchase of a baguette from the local bakery is a ritual ballet of politeness with all the bowing and scraping of the court of Louis XIV. Every customer is greeted, and it is hello " madame" or " monsieur" and when the purchase is completed, everyone says thank you and goodbye in a very civilized way. Keep this model in mind for all interactions in Paris, no matter how small and insignificant. The politeness is part of the ritual and makes life much more enjoyable, and besides when in Rome and all that. The Paris bakery experience is the total opposite of taking a number in a crowded American bakery, where the server yells out " next" and you are " number52" not an individual human being buying bread.
Rules for Eating in a Paris Outdoor Cafe
Tips for Americans on Dining and Doing in Paris
Now that you know the basic difference between French and American culture that makes all the difference, you are ready to leave that hotel room and go out on the town. No city in the world beats Paris for museums, theaters, shops, and tourist venues and no city in the world is more beautiful when traversed on foot. You need to walk around Paris to get the real smell, feel and vibrant energy of the city.Paris is a city that was made for walking.One of the best things to do in Paris is to just walk around-- there are wonderful surprises around every corner-- shops, outdoor markets, gardens, and the famous sidewalk cafes where you can sit as long as you like for the price of a cup of coffee and watch the world go by.
You can easily get by not speaking French. Most people in public places have at least a few words of English. In a pinch, simple sign language and the French words "s'il vous plait" and " merci" will get you a long way when you are asking directions or buying a newspaper. Like all big cities, Paris has a polyglot population and as English is now the lingua franca of the world, the French are increasingly used to non French speakers ( though they are not happy about it, I must admit)
A Word About Dining in Paris
While you can get something to eat at almost any time of day in Paris, nobody eats dinner before seven and eight is a more usual hour. It's wise to go with the flow and also wise to make a reservation and to remember that dinner is a ritual in a country where many people still go home for lunch and spend an hour over a relaxing meal at mid-day. So leave yourself plenty of time to enjoy your meal. Many restaurants offer a " menu" which is essentially a daily special consisting of three courses for a fixed price. These are often a very good deal. By the way, just so you don't get confused, the word " menu" in French does not mean the same thing as it does in America. In France, the menu or bill of fare is called " la carte" and the word " menu" refers to the daily special. Of course there are fast food places and you can probably get an omelet or a sandwich at a cafe at almost any time of day so if you must eat out of sync with the locals, it can be done.
The coffee is the last course and will be what you think of as espresso, unless you ask for cafe au lait or " un creme" which is coffee with milk and much more like typical American coffee. You probably know that in Paris, you don't have to tip in restaurants. When the bill is presented there is usually a charge for " service" -- that's your tip. There is often another for your " couvert" which is for the table setting, so what would be a tip in an American restaurant is already taken care of. It works out rather well.
Doing in Paris
Accommodations in Paris range from posh hotels to student hostels and everything in between. Depending on your age and pocketbook, you will be booked into someplace appropriate. You should know that Paris is an old city and that there are buildings still in use that have housed people since the Middle Ages-- so it is wise not to get huffy about the plumbing. Old is good in Paris and has a certain charm to be sure. In many old buildings where there is an ornate old elevator, it is customary to take the elevator up and to walk down the stairs. And I'm not even going to mention and make a joke about the bidet in the bathroom. It's just plumbing.
Whatever your reason for going to Paris, you can find lots of information on the web specific to your interests and pocketbook. What I hope to give you with this article, is a general idea of French culture and Parisian point of view. Armed with an open mind and the flexibility to embrace new experiences you will find the French way of life delightful and the city of Paris a magical place. You will return with wonderful memories and perhaps even a desire to incorporate some of the French point of view into your American existance.