My fellow bloggers at Paris Attitude have put together a helpful list of tips for travelers to Paris, from what you can and can’t do if you’re traveling with a pet to key words and phrases to say while shopping ,dining and just wandering the streets of the City of Light.
Check it out. There’s some great information here.
But there are a few other tips that Americans should keep in mind so that: 1) We don’t perpetuate the stereotype of arrogant tourists; and 2) We won’t find our Parisian waiters, shop clerks and fellow pedestrians to be rude when they respond to our … well … ignorance of their culture.
Tip no. 1: Paris businesses, including restaurants and shops, are considered private, not public, spaces. When you enter, think of it as akin to entering someone’s home. Warmly greet the cashier/waiter/maitre d’ with a bonjour (or bonsoir if it’s after dark). And be sure to say au revoir when you leave. These simple hellos and goodbyes go a long, long way.
Tip no. 2: Parisians don’t rifle through clothing racks or pick up ever item they’re considering purchasing — or just have an interest in further checking out. Parisian shopkeepers will — and do — cut us some slack in this area, particularly in souvenir shops or in touristy areas. But in general, if you need to dig through a stack of sweatshirts to find your size or grab items off a high shelf to look at, ask the shopkeeper to give you a hand. They’re more than happy to help. Even if you want to just look more closely at something and it’s not easily accessible, turn to the shopkeeper. They’ll appreciate it.
Tip no. 3: Do not expect your waiter/shopkeeper/hotel desk clerk etc. to engage in lengthy chit-chat with you. Sure, they’ll answer your questions and provide advice when asked. But in France, long conversations — particularly about issues not related to why you are in that particular business — are reserved primarily for close friends and family members. Many Americans consider it rude when we try to interact more intimately with Parisians and they rebuff us. It’s really that they simply are uncomfortable with the more personal interactions Americans are accustomed to with those who are serving/waiting on us. Of course, this rule is not hard and fast. I’ve had some fantastic conversations with the owner of one of my favorite French restaurants (48 Condorcet) and even a convivial French woman who made that bistro her nightly haunt — along with her four dogs! (I learned, for example, that they both love San Diego, but hate my place of residence, Los Angeles. LOL.) And many bars and nightclubs are much more geared toward mixing and mingling. One just needs to go with the flow. If the waiter/shopkeeper/next-table-over diner seems businesslike, then don’t expect lots of chit-chat. If they seem inclined to talk more — particularly if they attempt to engage you in conversation — then by all means jump in.
Tip no. 4: This is a big one, because I think it’s where most Americans run into problems. At home, when we dine out, we’re used to the waiter/waitress checking up on us several times throughout the meal, refilling drinks without us asking, dropping the check off when it seems we’re close to finishing and rushing our food out of the kitchen to us as quickly as possible. These simply do not happen in France. It is considering the height of rudeness for a waiter to interrupt your meal or your conversations with your fellow diners. If you need something, make eye contact with your waiter and signal with a simple, monsieur it it’s a waiter or a madame if it’s a waitress. (Never, ever call a waiter garcon. It’s condescending, and quite literally the equivalent of calling him “boy.”) Your server will come right over and take care of what you need. This goes for refills of drinks, bread, more wine, even if you decide at the last minute to order dessert or coffee.
Tip no. 5: This also has to do with restaurants: You will never be served your main plate while you’re still working on your appetizer. (A note here: The French call appetizers entrees and the main dish the plat. We call the main dish the “entree,” so there can be some confusion here.) The waiter/waitress will do his/her best to time the main dish to come as close as possible to the time you’ve wrapped up your appetizer, but the truth is some restaurants don’t even begin to prepare your next course until you’ve finished your current dish. This can result in a lag between courses. You are NOT being victimized because you’re Americans; this is perfectly normal. The French, unless eating at a fast food joint, also don’t rush their meals, so the slower pace of delivery is considered respectful. Don’t freak out — your food is coming. And, really, aren’t you happy to get something prepared specifically when you’re ready for it as opposed to, say, heated in a microwave and dumped on your table while you’re just two bites into the previous course?
Tip no. 6: More on the restaurant: Your waiter will never give you your check without you asking for it. At cafes, particularly outside tables, your waiter may slip the check under an ashtray on the table when he delivers your drink/food. Pay it when you’re ready. But at bistros, brasseries and restaurants, you must ask for your check. The notion here is that the French never rush you out of a restaurant, even if you’re done eating. You can stay and enjoy coffee, wine and conversation with your fellow diners until your heart’s content, and no one will rush you out the door so they can fill your table. With that in mind, the waiter will only give you your check when you’re ready to leave. Since he’s not a mind-reader, you must indicate to him that you are ready to head out by asking for the check. Simply get his/her attention and say, l’addition, s’il vous plait (the check, please). And you’ll have your bill in a minute or two.
Tip no. 7: There are no free refills of anything at French eateries, except tap water — and you need to ask for a carafe d’eau when ordering your drinks to get a bottle that will fill several glasses. So when you go to that cafe and you want a second cup of cafe creme, you’ll pay for it. Ditto for sodas, which are already enormously expensive to order when dining out (around $5 for a glass half the size you’d get at a typical U.S. restaurant). You’re not getting fleeced because you’re Americans; everyone pays for every beverage.
Tip no. 8: This is probably the most helpful hint I have to give. Never walk up to anyone in Paris and start speaking to them in English. Yes, it’s true that virtually everyone in the city speaks English, and most quite fluently. And 9 times out of 10 you’ll get an English-language reply to your French-language question or comment. But it is considered rude in France … actually, it’s rude EVERYWHERE … to expect every person you meet to be able to speak your language, especially when you’re in THEIR country. Now, you don’t need to rush out and get Rosetta Stone if you’re planning a trip to the City of Light. Just learn a few key French phrases to introduce yourself and ask for basic things; Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, where are the toilets (trust me, you’ll be using this one a lot), the check please, how much does this cost and maybe some shopping-related terms if you plan to spend a lot of time in the boutiques. But the most important phases of all to learn are: Parlez-vous Anglais? (Do you speak English?) and Je ne parle pas Francais (I don’t speak French). If you need help from someone, walk up to them, say Excusez-moi monsieur/madame (Excuse me, sir/ma’am). When you’ve got their attention, offer up a cheery bonjour and then ask them — in French — if they speak English. Most will appreciate the French-language introduction, and warmly respond in English to you. If they don’t speak English or respond with some indecipherable French phrase, simply smile and say OK, merci. Au revoir. (You’ll be surprised how much “OK” is used in France.) And please, when you’re done getting the help you need, respond with a big smile and offer up a hearty merci (or, if you want to express deep thanks, say merci beaucoup or merci bien). Don’t thank them in English — thank them in their language. They’ll very much appreciate that your parting words are in Francais.
Really, it’s not much effort to learn a few French phrases and to show the most basic understanding of French culture. And when you do, you’ll not only help dispel that myth of the overbearing American tourist, but you’ll be treated so well by the Parisians you interact with that you’ll be amazed anyone could ever consider them rude!