The first time I went to Paris, I acted like an ignorant American. Yes, my husband and I were jet-lagged on our first night’s dinner at a much-anticipated restaurant renowned for its duck. Exhausted, we struggled to remain awake waiting for our dishes to arrive. Dubiously my husband examined the sliced meat on his plate: rare, very rare. He was convinced that the waiter had run out of duck and substituted steak instead. He’d never seen, or eaten, rare duck before.
“Tell the waiter this is not duck—it’s steak,” he urged me. The only phrase he knew in French was “Où est les toilettes?”
I doubted that my Berlitz phrase book would help, so in textbook French I tried to convey to our waiter that he’d brought my husband the meat of a cow rather than a canard. The waiter glared at us with an expression clear in any language: we were deranged. Even the weariest travelers should have known better. We were the last customers of the evening, and my husband ate that duck—believing, with every bite, that it was steak.
Years later, after many subsequent trips to Paris and throughout the countryside, we laughed about our foolish mistake. We learned to avoid the cliché “ugly American” symbols—Don’t speak loudly, don’t demand things as if you’re entitled—but there are other nuanced ways to behave like the French and avoid faux pas: like not requesting butter for bread at dinner and breaking off bits of baguette with your hand rather than biting into a slice.
“America is my country and Paris is my hometown,” wrote Gertrude Stein. Here is a guide to acting like a Parisian in your temporary hometown away from home:
Dites Bonjour Monsieur ou Bonjour Madame
Every time you enter a store or anyplace else you have human contact. Just to make sure, I even greeted dogs I passed on the street this way, as Parisians view their dogs with higher regard than their children. Never just bonjour seulement, but always followed by a Monsieur ou Madame. Since no one in France can agree on exactly when bonsoir (“good evening”) begins, you’re safe with bonjour any time of day. It’s actually quite civilized the way the French always greet each other politely and allegedly warmly. Don’t concern yourself with what they’re actually thinking behind the façade; when in France say Bonjour Monsieur as the French do. You’ll be greeted back and treated with respect—at least on the surface. Impressed by the civility, my teenage daughter suggested we try this back in NYC. Bonne chance.
Don’t Eat Breakfast
It’s fine to go to a café for a café crème (never a cappuccino), but you’ll stand out as an American if you order croissants or pain au chocolate for le petit dejeuner. On my most recent trip to Paris, while my daughter slept in, I was a regular at a café around the corner from our apartment where the same dozen men congregated daily at the bar after 9 AM, drinking un express or three, in no rush to go to work. Real French don’t eat viennoiseries for breakfast. They consume caffeine and cigarettes, and sometimes beer. I hungrily watched those baskets of pastries remain untouched at my local café each morning, and afterwards snuck across the street to an award-winning boulangerie to bring back pastries for my family for breakfast, as if I were hiding a compulsive eating disorder. Only in France are Academy Awards given to baguette and croissant bakers, but when you see how thin everyone is, you realize why: no breakfast.
Know Your Métro Rules and Etiquette
Do not sit on the fold-down seats when the car is packed—standing up in these areas provides more room for commuters during rush hour, and you will be stared at contemptuously if you sit smugly among the crowd. Open the handle to the exit door before the train stops at the station—waiting for a full stop screams American, and costs Parisians a few seconds of precious time before rushing out the doors. Never throw your Métro ticket away before your final destination; as wise as we thought we were, we were accosted by a “gang” of burly guys in yellow uniforms who demanded 25 euros on the spot because of the one time my daughter had mistakenly thrown out her ticket. Finally, never—jamais!—eat snacks on the metro—not even gum. Eating is a “religious experience” in France, and le Métro is not a church.
Do Not Complain About The Cigarette Smoke Or The Dogs
Parisians are touchy about not being able to smoke inside restaurants anymore, but in sidewalk cafés, chain smoking is omnipresent and de rigueur. If you can’t take the smoke, get out of the café—or out of France totally. You can seclude yourself inside the café on a lovely evening, smoke free and all alone. But your passport might be revoked if you lean over to the next table and say, “Would you mind blowing smoke the other direction?” Or even worse, if you contemptuously wave your neighbor’s smoke away. And don’t be alarmed by that mysterious tongue licking your leg under the table; it’s your neighbor’s dog. Canines hang out in restaurants and travel on the Métro. It’s unwise to point, stare, or take photos of dogs in people places. In Paris, dogs behave better than humans; in fact, they may be humans.
Wear Fashionable But Uncomfortable Shoes and Long Pants
—Even in the Heat of Summer
Parisians dress up to go to the local Monoprix for a six-pack of Evian. Running shoes belong only in the gym, or jogging on the banks of the Seine, although I couldn’t figure out how runners traveled to and from their jogging routes as the only sneakers I ever saw on the street were hipster versions on handsome young men. Women wear sundresses in summer, but are never seen in shorts. Perhaps this is why there are so many perfume stores.
Don’t Overtip Waiters and Other Ways to Avoid Being Blantantly Tagged as An American
Everything is service compris, and the French know you don’t have to tip at all, but many Americans still feel pressured to leave too much extra money. It’s acceptable to leave some small change in euros, but don’t overdo it.
And while we’re at the table, never call your waiter garçon (re-read “Dites Bonjour Monsieur”), refrain from ordering meat anything but rare (you may avoid bleu if you want it cooked at all), and make your best effort to order in French. Sometimes wait staff will respond back in English, which used to feel like an insult but nowadays seems less snide and more helpful. In a Spanish tapas restaurant, with a particularly foreign menu, my nearly fluent daughter tried to navigate her way around indecipherable ham selections from the black-footed pigs of Spain, until finally the waitress helped us with British-inflected suggestions. “I always give people a chance to practice their French,” she said, “and then I intervene to speed things up.”
And at a legendary brasserie, when my daughter told a particularly aloof waiter with a severe handlebar mustache that she wanted the andouillette, thinking it was sausage, he vehemently shook his head and pointed to his stomach, pantomiming that it was tripe. She said, “Merci Monsieur,” and ordered the chicken instead.
Don’t Read Your Kindle in Public or Walk While Texting On Your Phone
The Parisians are remarkably disconnected. Bound books abound everywhere—from the Jardin du Luxembourg to buses on the Boulevard St. Germain. In fact, book sales have risen 6.5%, whereas they’ve declined in the U.S., and e-books are not nearly as popular as here. There are 2500 bookstores in France, many funded with grants. On the Métro and in parks, Parisians read and revere books.
Your cell phone might be more interesting than the smog or graffiti in your home city, but remember what it was like to savor the moment? The French still know this intuitively. Without staring at your cell phone while strolling, you’ll see a work of art worthy of a painting at every corner in this magnificent city. Don’t miss a view.
Avoid the Tourists
You really can’t—especially in high season. Seventy million visitors a year! But museum lines are often shorter at lunchtime or an hour before closing, and some of the best viewing times are in the evenings. The Louvre is not the only musée in town. Check out smaller, less congested gems like L’Orangerie. And if you want to eat with your “fellow” Parisians, never book dinner before 21 heures (that’s 9 PM for you Americans).
Rent An Apartment Rather Than a Hotel Room
Savvy travelers know it can be cheaper and more comfortable—especially with a family. And even if you can’t live year round in the city of lights, you can pretend you do for a week or two. Stock yaourt and fraises and Bordier butter in your fridge; bring home a fresh baguette after having a café crème in the café where they know you after a few days, and have breakfast “at home” before venturing out for the day…pretending not to be a tourist.
Photo by fspugna