Notes from an American in Paris
Maryalicia Post shares some hard-earned tips for visitors to the French capital
What do Gene Kelly and I have in common? Singing? Dancing? No, and not a cheeky grin either. He and I were each An American in Paris. In his case it was for two hours in the famous film; in mine it was for six years in real life. In that time I made a few observations that might be helpful to anyone planning a visit. I realise they are only my conclusions seen through the lens of my personal experience, but if they’re of any use to you – you’re welcome.
1) The French are ‘serious’… by which I don’t mean they are reluctant to laugh. I mean shop attendants, waiters, bus conductors et al seem to have a more professional approach to their job than you might find elsewhere and expect to be treated with due courtesy. On going into any shop greet the staff with ‘bonjour’. (If there are other customers include them with a smile). In a bakery, for example, do not rush in and snap ‘one croissant’. Start with Bonjour and end with Merci.
2) You can’t go wrong if you wait to be shown where to sit, even in an informal cafe. If in any doubt, just stand and look bewildered; someone will point you to a seat, and you’re off to a good start.
3) Don’t feel rebuffed if sales attendants ignore you. In most cases the custom is for them to be available when/if you want help and to stay away until addressed. And, nothing personal, but a French waiter is not automatically your new friend. A smile may not be on the menu.
4) Expect your appearance to be checked out by both men and women in public places like the Metro. Parisians go to some trouble to look their best and assume you do too; being invisible is not the goal.
5) In general, don’t go looking for examples of ‘how rude the French are’. Don’t construe a runny omelette, bloody lamb or smelly cheese as indifference. Au contraire. It’s the way ‘they’ like it and they assume any reasonable person would as well. Make a polite request for a change if necessary.
6) Use whatever French you have. I got used to asking a question in French which would be answered patiently in English, leading to my next question in French, also answered in English… a kind of bilingual duet. When the answer comes in French, buy yourself a drink.
7) If you can’t walk to your destination even in your most comfortable shoes (which you should bring for this very purpose), take the Metro. The best reason for taking the Metro is to avoid taking a taxi. Here’s a useful Metro guide.
8) Are there really rude people in Paris? Oh yes, and they all drive. If you take a taxi you may well find yourself up close and personal with a very rude person indeed. He or she may pretend not to know where you want to go – I always write out the destination and show it in advance – or will bury you under an avalanche of explanations in French as to why he or she is approaching the city via Versailles. Meanwhile, the meter runs on. I pre-book a car to meet me at the airport as this scam seems endemic at CDG. However, if you must, well, c’est la vie. Here’s a good guide to taking a taxi in Paris.
Bon voyage and merci.