When visiting Paris, there are many cultural differences, the knowledge of which can help ensure a more enjoyable stay. I recommend buying phrase books and dictionaries. Also, the best language learning tool I found is the Dr. Pimsleur lessons available on CD or tape or MP3 from iTunes.com.
The French are a very polite society. The majority of the reputation they have for being rude can be traced back to these cultural differences. They actually think that Americans are more rude than anyone, so obviously there is a misunderstanding taking place. Americans try to make up for their lack of knowledge in french politesse by smiling a lot, but that is akin to smiling at a wild animal who takes it as an invitation to attack. Imagine someone being blatantly rude to you and smiling the entire time. This is how we come across in that culture.
So here are some guidelines to the french rules of conduct. First, when a person enters a cafe, bar, restaurant, shop, or any other place of business, the person first pauses to locate the shopkeeper or an employee and makes eye contact and says ‘Bonjour’ (or, after 6pm ‘Bonsoir’). Then they go about their business. This sign of respect is repeated when they leave as well. At the door, the person pauses, turns and makes eye contact again, and says ‘merci, au revoir’. These steps will show the shopkeeper or waiter that you understand their culture and are willing to adapt. In France there is no class system. In the French Revolution in the 18th century, they beheaded the aristocrats. Because of this the waiters and shopkeepers are as respected as the doctors and celebrities. The say excuse me (excusez moi), pardon me (pardonez moi), please (sil vous plait), and thank you (merci) quite often out of respect for each other. Also, they never say “I want” (‘je veux) but rather “I would like” (je voudrais). I was told that only the king says “I want” and the last king was beheaded, so no one says it.
Most restaurants have their menu printed in English. Because there are so many different languages represented in Paris, the waiter cannot automatically know that you need an english menu, so politely ask. Also, one of the biggest pet peeves for french waiters is when an American (other cultures don’t do this, except maybe the british) walk in and start speaking english. The french have no reason to speak english, so when Americans start speaking quickly and then get upset at not being understood, the french quite rightly will feel a little put-off. The way to do it is to slowly ask if they have an english menu. If you are feeling brave, ask for it in french by saying “excuse moi, avez vous une carte l’anglais?” Then, when ordering, ask if the waiter speaks english. They may say no right away, but that is usually attributed to their not being comfortable with their level of english. If you have a smile in your eyes and show your respect for them, they will usually come up with enough stilted english to help you understand the menu.
EATING IN RESTAURANTS
The dining experience in France is another cultural difference. A cafe does not always server food. Every restaurant or cafe will have their menu posted next to the front door. Look on the menu before entering to see if the food is something you would like (it is beyond rude to wait until after you are seated and reading the menu to then get up and leave). The hours of food service should be posted on that menu by the door as well. Often the cafes don’t serve food between 2pm and 5pm, but you can always find one that does. Keep in mind that the french word ‘entree’ is an appetizer. For our ‘entree’, the main course, the menu will say ‘Plat’. The order in which food is ordered is also different.
The traditional french meal begins with a drink order. Usually this is red wine, even at lunch time. They take their food and wine very seriously, and feel that mixing coca cola with a meal ruins the taste buds and makes the meal unpalatable. Generally the red wine is a house wine, cheaper than anything else on the menu, and is better than the most expensive wine in America. Order the small glass. Trust me. You will want to work your way slowly to the carafe of wine. Also, it is perfectly reasonable to ask for water, but they usually won’t bring it if you don’t ask. To do this, you say “Une carafe d’eau, sil vous plait?” Next you order you main meal. Feel free to ask the waiter’s opinion or for clarification. When ordering, keep an american/french dictionary next to you, preferably one geared towards the menus. It makes a huge difference.
Some of the french specialties include Confit du Canard (fatty duck leg) (yummy!!!), pave du entrecote (cheap steak), and pave du saumon (roast salmon). Generally if you order a salad, the dressing will be predetermined. They do not ask you what dressing you would like. After the main course is finished, they will ask if you would like dessert. Go for it. The french are all about living well. They believe cheese is good for you because it has calcium. Since they live long healthy lives, I think they are on to something. After dessert, it is time for an espresso. The waiter will ask if you would like a cafe. This is espresso. If you order a cafe creme, it is usually much more expensive and I found that espresso tasted better.
The american way of dining, where we are given so many choices, is not relevant in Paris. The dishes are prepared very specifically by the chef, and it is considered an insult to try and customize your dish. I have found that eating meals the way the chef determines is best has taught me so much about how different flavors can be combined. And the first time you order a steak and red wine and combine the two flavors in your mouth, you will understand.
PAYING THE CHECK
The most important thing to know in a french restaurant is that they consider it extremely rude to bring the check to the table before the customer asks for it. As you can imagine, this creates many uncomfortable moments for americans who sit there waiting and waiting and thinking the waiter is being rude. In fact, it is just the opposite. To ask for the check, make eye contact with the waiter or raise your hand slightly for him to come to the table, and say “L’addition, sil vous plait?” pronouncing l’addition like “la dissyon”. When tipping, remember that most waiters are very highly paid and get a percentage of the check automatically. It may be uncomfortable for you at first, but only leave 5% tip and that will be a high compliment to them. Most french will leave a few coins, maybe 40 cents. France is a cafe culture. You can go and sit at a cafe for hours over one espresso. The chairs at the cafe are all facing out because people watching is a great past time.
If you don’t already have transportation lined up from the airport, you can take the RER (subway for the larger Paris region) from the airport into the city center. Look for the ticket agent and tell them you need to go to city center. They will usually be helpful about telling you which stop is closest to your hotel. Remember you will need your ticket (billet) to get out of the RER as well. Depending on where your hotel is, you can get off on the Saint Michel or Chatelet stop and connect to the metro that would take you closest to your hotel or get a cab from that stop. Keep in mind there are many many stairs in the train and subway stops, so pack lightly. The RER and Metro from the airport to city center will costs about 7 euros each person. A taxi will be about 40 or 50 euros total.
The subway is a great way to get around town, although walking is still ideal. In winter, though, walking may be too cold. To take the subway, look for a sign saying ‘Metro’. The metro lines are very convenient and you can get around the city very quickly once you get the hang of it. A metro map can be found at http://www.paris.org/Metro/gifs/metro01.map.jpg and one of the first things you should do, when checking in to your hotel, in look on the brochure stand for a Galleries Lafayette brochure (white with red letters) which is actually a great walking map of Paris with the metro map on the back. The buses and subways are all clean and are the prefered method of transportation for people from all walks of life. They run until 12:30am. Taxis are not too expensive either, and you usually tip them about 10%.
Paris is broken up into 20 districts (called arrondisments) starting at number 1 in the middle of town and spiraling out to 20 on the outskirts. These also correspond with the postal code. For instance, if your hotel is in postal code 75008 you are staying in the 8th arrondisment. If youa re staying in a single digit arrondisment (1 – 9) you will be able to walk most places in town. Some of the places to visit are the Musee du Louvre (allow two days and try to go on a weekday), the Musee d’Orsay (beautiful old building – used to be the train station), and my personal favorite, Musee Cluny which is the museum of the middle ages. Don’t waste your time with tourist traps like Moulin Rouge, which is in the seediest neighborhood in town and doesn’t really give you the feel of old Paris like it promises.
At night, the buildings along the Seine are lit up, and you can walk along the river the get lost in the beauty of the buildings. On the left bank (Latin Quarter), you will also have a wide selection of bars and restaurants until about 2:00am since that is the biggest tourist area. Every hour between dusk and 1:00am the Eiffel Tower will begin twinkling for ten minutes. Also, at night, if you get turned around and can’t figure out which direction you are going, look for the rotating spotlight from the top of the Eiffel Tower and you can usually figure out your general location.
Paris is an extremely safe city. They cannot conceive of the violence to which Americans have become accustomed. This means that you can walk around the city day and night without directions and feel quite safe. The worst crime there, and a very prevalent crime, is pickpocketing. Keep your cash and credit cards in an inside pocket, or wrap a wide rubberband around your wallet. Pickpockets cannot pull a wallet out of a pocket if there is a rubberband because of the friction against the cloth.
- Luxembourg Gardens (there is a great internet cafe on St. michael across from the gardens that has american keyboards)
- Musee Cluny (on St. Michael and St. Germain in the middle of the Latin Quarter)
- Jardins du Tuileries (Large gardens leading up to the Louvre)
- L’Opera (Garniers, not Bastille) (do the English-speaking tour)
- Musee D’Orsay
For lunch, Le Circle (across the street from Luxembourg Gardens)
For these next two restaurants, follow these directions: (take the metro to La Madeleine, follow the Rue Tronchet exit, turn down Rue Tronchet to the next little street and take a left)
- Cafe Sud (more upscale southern french food with a lovely restaurant manager named Bruno)
- Chez Papa (Less expensive, more traditional southwestern french food)