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Advice For Americans in Paris: A Brief Guide For Visiting Yanks

Updated on November 10, 2014
The Eiffel Tower, iconic symbol of Paris
The Eiffel Tower, iconic symbol of Paris | Source

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.

A typical Paris bakery
A typical Paris bakery | Source

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.


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    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      5 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hi Danielle and thank you so much for your kind words and I'm on my way over to look at your blog now..... I know I love the subject matter and will find it interesting :-) The world is full of people who find Paris the most beautiful city in the world and France the most interesting of countries.... where the rudeness thing came from I will never know.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Such a good article, really enjoyed reading it :) I'm a Paris blogger ( and I have a lot of American (also Dutch) people that ask me why Parisians are so rude? It makes me frustraded cause if you are being polite and try to speak your best French, they are very kind and helpful. You can't force the French to speak English without asking, it's their country. I would be irritated too if someone ask me a question in a language I don't understand before asking me if I speak it. That's just disrespectful. I'm glad people like you take the time to write interesting articles like this about the French culture, it isn't so hard to understand ;)

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      7 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thank you Debby for such a nice comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub and I hope your daughter likes it too:-) Good to see you.

    • Debby Bruck profile image

      Debby Bruck 

      7 years ago

      Hi Roberta - What a well organized and informative article about visiting France. Wish I had read it a few days ago! My daughter just arrived home from her European hostel trip. She bumped up against some of the French attitude; and they probably caught a bit of the 'American.' I'm sending this to her so she can learn the tips about ordering and eating food at a restaurant. Blessings, Debby

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks, Pamela99-- I hope you do get to Paris one of these days. I think you would really enjoy it and thanks for taking the time to read, comment and vote up-- much appreciated

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I really enjoyed this article. I would love to travel to Paris and it is certainly helpful to understand a bit about their culture. I'm sure this information would make any trip more pleasant and I have always heard that the French are snobbish. I love the new view I know have thanks to you. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks once again, Suzette, for a wonderful comment. You are too kind and I'm so glad you agree with me about French culture and that you liked this hub.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      8 years ago from Taos, NM

      Wonderful, wonderful article! I have been to Paris and France and I love the French people. If you embrace their culture and try to speak the language, they are so friendly and helpful and kind. I have never had a bad experience in France. Everything you write is so true. How fortunate you are to have lived in Paris! What a treat!

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks Alocsin for stopping by. I read the Hub you wrote about Paris and thought it absolutely awesome. Paris is an amazing city, isn't it?

    • alocsin profile image

      Aurelio Locsin 

      8 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Having just been in Paris a few months ago, I can verify that what you say is true. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      OMG Jamagenie-- how did I miss your wonderful comment two days ago--pardonnez-moi-- I hope you do get to Paris one of these days. You will love it, I promise.

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks Steph-- just wait a few years till the children are up and out and life calms down a bit. Paris will still be there waiting for you both and knowing you, you will be walking( if not running) for miles through its wonderful streets.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Marshall 

      8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Loved this - oh, how I wish we could escape to Paris! I've been there twice before I was married, and would love to go back with my husband one day. Rated up and thumbs up, etc.

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Now I know you need to take a trip to Paris, Beth-- your comment is right on the money! You really are going to love it there.

      The French not only eat better than we do, they walk more-- especially in Paris which is a walker's paradise.

    • Beth Godwin profile image

      Beth Godwin 

      8 years ago

      CR, Actually you would probably lose weight in Paris. They appreciate quality in their food ,not quanity, like us yanks. LOL I bet there are no "all you can eat" cattle troughs in Paris! The book "Why French Women don't get fat" was written by a French woman who gained about 20 plus pounds when she was living in the US and how she lost the weight living the French way once she returned to Paris. Course, they have more fresh markets and bakerys at their disposal compared to south Ga! LOL I have always wanted to visit Versailles. Louis IV, was such an interesting person .

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hello Beth and Rookie-- you should both go to Paris, no doubt about it and thank you for stopping in here on your way and leaving such nice comments-- much appreciated:-)

    • CR Rookwood profile image

      Pamela Hutson 

      8 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Oh I want to go! I mean, now! Sounds wonderful. I'd have to lose 20 pounds first though. Maybe 30--so I can gain 10 eating French food very slowly. ;)

    • Beth Godwin profile image

      Beth Godwin 

      8 years ago

      I really enjoyed this hub. I have always wanted to go to Paris and this hub made me want to go all the more. I should fit in quite well as I love old, unique and unusual, everything. LOL No cookie cutter houses or fashions for me. I read the book "Why French Women don't get fat" and fell in love with the culture. Thanks for the interesting read!

    • ladeda profile image


      8 years ago

      Paris is absolutely one of my favorite cities! I studied and lived in the south of France for several months, and agree with everything you've touched on in this Hub. I think understanding the culture you're about to visit is sometimes even more important than learning about the city itself. Being polite and knowing a small handful of words in French goes a long way. Thanks for sharing this!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      As you know, I've been slowly working up to actually *wanting* to go to France and specifically Paris. This extremely well-written and informative hub widens the crack in the brick wall that used to be my objections to ever visiting a place whose residents don't particularly like Americans. Thanks to this hub, I now have a MUCH better understanding of WHY. Thanks!

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hello everybody-- how nice to find all your comments here!

      Hi Sherri--I know, Americans carry on about how the French are anti- American all the time. I really don't get it but never mind. Glad you like this and you should definitely go back to Paris soon.

      Cyber Shelley-- sounds like a good plan. I love it and I bet it still works Thanks for sharing it

      sandrabusby-- thank you for the kind words--you definitely made my day and thank YOU for sharing:-)

      KT you definitely should go to Paris and take that good 'ole boy husband of yours along for the ride. He will love it and the French will love him. They have a passion for the American frontier and cowboys a which I suspect your hubby will bring to mind just by being a big American male. I've run into French tourists in Missouri, Kansas and Arizona having a ball and finding the American west wildly exotic --although the concept of " chicken fried steak" kind of blows their little gastronomic minds-- but that is another hub for another day. Go ahead-- go to France and don't plan too much, just do it. You'll love it.

    • KT Banks profile image

      KT Banks 

      8 years ago from Texas

      Thank you for writing this. I've always had a desire to go to France, that has now turned into a longing that is almost physical. I just feel as if I SHOULD be there. I don't know why I haven't made it happen yet. I went to Denmark on business once, and dearly loved it.

      My husband is a big ole' American man (6'3", 210 lbs, jock), that never sees any reason to leave the greatest country on earth, and I love him madly. I guess that explains why I don't try harder to actually plan a trip to Paris, but the longing is still strong... :)

    • sandrabusby profile image

      Sandra Busby 

      8 years ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

      Roble2, I have never read a more enjoyable, more accurate, or more useful piece on how to enjoy Paris. Thanks for SHARING.

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 

      8 years ago

      Robie2, Tres bien et merci beaucoup! Definitely a wonderful 'expose of the enchanting French', who are marvellous to anyone who doesn't speak English.

      Try the following: If you can speak a little of another language, start off with that, and when they look at you blankly, ask if they speak English and then carry on speaking slowly in English. Usually the most pompous of Frenchmen, becomes human. Ha Ha it used to work - not sure if it still applies! Voted up and Interesting!

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      I was in Paris only once, in 1970, when French anti-Americanism was reported to be at its all-time high. Because of this supposed country-wide attitude, my travel companions and I decided to end our stay in Europe by taking only two overnights in Paris and then flying out of Orly. What a sad mistake! We were ready for rudeness, which never happened, not even once. I think you get what you bring to an experience...we were polite, interested, undemanding, and unassuming (we had backpacks and worn-out sandals--not much to flaunt!) and approached everyone we met with a smile. To this day, I'm so sorry we didn't plan to stay longer.

      Wonderful hub, Robie, as always. You had me recalling the beauty of that long-ago visit and also chuckling at your portrayal of how the French and the Americans see each other. Up and awesome!

    • robie2 profile imageAUTHOR

      Roberta Kyle 

      8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Well mercy buttercups yerownself,housewife. You are not going to have any trouble with the language and you will have a wonderful time--no-- the French respect for cheese borders on worship-- cheese is a living breathing organism and needs to ripen and be eaten at room temperature. I don't know-- maybe they store it long term in the fridge-- but I have never seen it in a french refrigerator--ever and it is always served room temp and as a separate course. No pasturized slices of velveeta in Paris for sure LOL

      Thanks for reading and commenting and bon voyage:-)

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      8 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Mon Dieu! Tres, tres bien! J'adore la Franciase et j'attend allez. lol Je parle un pue la Francais - mais tres mal!

      I loved your review of France and I have been dreaming of going there since college:)

      They don't put cheese in the fridge? lol


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