So you’re going to France, and you have literally no idea about France. Here’s what I have learned.
You are going to France for the first time.
You have made both a wonderful and terrible decision.
I fucked up the first time I was there. Well, wait, the second. I was born there, in Verdun actually, but I was swept away from this amazing country — its food, scenery, history, architecture, art, mountains, coasts, wines and vineyards — away to America, by these American people with poor decisioning skills. We’ll call them “parents.”
But in many ways I recovered to not fuck up nearly so badly the third and fourth fifth and sixth and seventh times.
The fact is, Americans are awful. You are probably awful. I am awful.
Nearly every American who has come before you has already painted you as a tasteless, poorly-dressed unappreciative churl who has come to civilization (aka, “Paris”) to splash some money around, ruin the view with your selfie stick and generally smile too much, laugh too hard and be far too loud. You are, they’re sure, the kind of person who thinks Paris should be exactly like the Disney World version. You are that ugly cowboy on the world’s political stage. They hate you for that.
As a result, their first inclination would be to not waste the good wine, the good foie or the good service on you, and more often than not, they’d be right.
The fact is, while tourism makes up a great deal of the French economy, the average Frenchman (mostly) believes life would be far better if the Americans stayed home. And the Germans.
Your only hope you have of being treated decently, perhaps even well or even astonishingly well is to quickly dispel their prejudice of your horribleness.
That doesn’t mean you have to try to be French (which will never work anyway — they’ve had centuries to perfect that). You have to be you, but you have to understand that the French are different (and often far better people), than you and I.
Here’s the thing.
The French secretly love America. Really love it. They love our movies. They love our cars. Our jeans, if not how we wear them. They love our music most of all. And if you respect what is important to the French, they will love you. Really, they will.
The easiest way to illustrate all this, is via shopping.
All tourists shop, you will shop. So this is where to begin.
A shop is just plain different there. You don’t just walk in, look at things and walk out. That’s rude, and there’s a reason: my take is that, here in the US, we consider “a store” to be the customer’s domain first. In France, and maybe Europe all up, it’s the shopkeepers’ domain — almost an extension of their homes. You’re in their space, it’s polite to acknowledge that.
Make eye contact with the shopkeep, and say “bonjour.”
Conceptually, you are politely alerting the shopkeeper to your presence in their domain. That goes for museums, restaurants and some other public places too. You address the person when you walk in — they will know you’re an American immediately because of your shoes (more on that later) and how predictably poorly you and I say “Bonjour” (or Bonsoir [evening] after 6pm) (but don’t say “Bon Nuit” as that’s a bit like saying “bedtime!!”).
The French shopkeep will almost certainly reply “good afternoon” or even “whatup dude?” in English, unless you are far away from major cities — Parisians deal with a lot of English speakers. But they really do appreciate it when you don’t treat them like it’s Epcot.
This, I think, is the #1 way to not be treated like Ze American Swine in Paris — I really believe this is the root of the reason most Americans think the French are rude, as those Americans have not done this simplest bit of research on how not to be horrible. So they seem horrible, and they get the cold shoulder. After all, remember, Paris doesn’t need us there, so making us think they are awful if we are awful simply plays into their hand.
And on your way out, it’s “Bonne Journée (kinda like bahn joorNAY ). Your terrible French is still appreciated for the effort, even after you’ve almost certainly conducted all your business in English. That’s essentially “Have a nice day” without the absolute douchiness of the English version.
Yep, shit closes. Paris is not quite the same as the rest of France in this regard, but generally, especially in places like Avingnon or Arles, Reims or Troyes, everyone has a proper lunch, so shops close from 12ish to 2 or 3. This is so they can eat and/or have sex. Think I’m joking? Listen near open windows after midday.
When is lunch? Again, in Paris it’s slightly less of an issue than in the countryside, but, unless it’s a Service Non-Stop Brasserie, in France, lunch is at 12:30. Not 12:00, not 1:45. Fucking TWELVE THIRTY. And do not freak if lunch takes a ninety minutes or more. Dining is an event — holy crap, this might be the best thing you eat in your life, so you should treat it that way too. If you must eat quickly, that’s what the awesome carts and ham sandwiches are for. It ain’t Gigot D’agneau, but it’s still gonna be one hell of a ham sandwich. Jambon.
How to tell if the place you are thinking of eating at is actually a shithole: If you see a place with pictures of the food on a menu board out front, or worse, pictures AND English descriptions, avoid it. This is the clearest advice I can give you. You didn’t fly halfway around the planet for food cooked by a Portuguese prison chef. Happily, the iPhone and an international data plan is your friend, and the most of the time Paris is reliably Paris. It’s just the touristy places on the Champs Elysees or Boulevard Saint-Germain that really can genuinely suck. Dinner, less regimented timing-wise, is often later than non-coastal Americans eat. But you’re jetlagged anyway, right?
Ping me if you don’t (but want to) understand French prix fixe menus. It’s the best way to appreciate the way the French want their food appreciated and in the correct order. Wine pairings? Better still. Le Christine. Au Bon Accueil. The somewhat scarily located Ribouldingue near Shakespeare and Company and the oldest tree in Paris — that’s one that’s not in the books, but it’s great. Little places that are just stupid good, made more affordable on the prix fixe side.
Ice: You won’t get it. Why bother. There’s really no reason for it, it’s not like its 112° there. What the hell are you ordering a Coke for? Drink Rose if it’s hot. And don’t worry, in Paris no one thinks you’re drinking evil white zinfandel. Unless you’re wearing white Nikes. (I’ll get there.)
Never address anyone as Garçon. You weren’t going to, right? Don’t. Ever. It’s rude and horrible and you deserve to get your ass kicked. In fact, do, and I hope you do.
The Check: If you say “check sir” you might get a confused stare. “l’addition s’il vous plait?” (laddi-shi-on see voo play? — okay you’re getting it) Then when you get it, say Merci. Actually, say (See Voo Play) and (Mair-cee) as often as possible. It’s respectful. In America, please and thank you are lingual conventions we’ve made the behaviorally quaint language of hanging with grandma; there, it’s proof you weren’t brought up with farm animals.
Tipping: You almost certainly have read that they don’t tip the way we do in the USA (20% unless you got food poisoning, as part of the card transaction) — but they do tip, generally tip separately from the check, 3 to 10 euros on the tray with the signed receipt, depending on how expensive your meal is. So unless your meal is awful, and it won’t be, unless you eat at any place with pictures of the food outside the restaurant, have some small money with you. Just don’t give them the real small money by mistake (euro cents). Happily euro coins are more sensibly designed than francs were, so not so tough. You’re maybe thinking “ hey, turnabout is fair play, right? They stiffed all our servers at F1, right?” Well, maybe. But then we don’t have $2 coins and the little tray. And F1 Fans are a little like sending Philadelphia Eagles fans overseas. Okay. That was mean.
Combien? Speaking of cash, it’s not a bad time to be in Paris. The euro costs a buck-10ish — as close to 1-to-1 as it’s ever been. Rather than keep fussing with a calculator, just remember, right this minute it feels like you’re just paying California sales tax. Not bad. Sucked more when a buck only bought you 47 euro cents. Thank you, euro crisis. Still, I remember the Franc. Them was the days….
You look great. But Shorts? I wouldn’t. US Corporate Unironically Worn Logoed Tees? Never. Try not to wear your Nikes …anywhere. Wearing big fat American athletic shoes when you are not actually working out is considered … well, kinda rude. Really horrible. I know, it’s a walking city and all, right? But that’s what they think. Baseball hats will tend to get you ignored too, depending on your age and disposition. Big cameras around your neck and (do I really have to say it?) Fanny packs should get you expelled from any country, but particularly France.
Don’t use my volume: I’m a singer and a presenter. I have my normal (annoyingly loud) voice, my indoor voice, and my France voice. Here in America I guffaw and bellow like the best of ’em cuz it’s my damn country and imma taking my freedom back with stupid electrical cigarettes and Jack Daniels n shit. Woot. But American loudness is particularly frowned upon the moment you set foot on the jetway at Charles De Gaulle — even I take it down several notches when I’m in the country.
Stuff I would do on your day off maybe instead of the obvious:
This is the only supertouristy thing I’ll recommend. But get a pass and take the bateau-bus instead of cabs. Unless you are in a hurry. Or walk. You’re just across the Seine from nearly everything. But the bateaubus is a beautiful way to see Paris if it’s a lovely day. Supertouristy. Worth the shame of it.
Go to the Cluny instead of the Louvre. Or the Musee D’Orsay. The Louve takes time, far more than a day in my opinion. Plus, the French HATE people who speed-walk and selfie their ways through their beloved cultural sites. And the Cluny is amazing, small, and in a badass part of Paris. If, however you DO go to the Louvre, yes, crane your neck over the crowds to see the fucking overhyped da Vinci painting, remembering she was really only famous because an idiot patriotic Italian stole it, thought he was repatriating it, gave it back by mistake to French officials, who didn’t press charges because he was such a moron they knew he didn’t really it any harm…. BUT see The Raft of the Medusa by Gericault. It’s a real turning point in art history that you don’t normally hear about.
Luxembourg Gardens instead of the Place de Concorde. It’s beautiful. Reflective. Calm. And smells great. All unlike Concorde (though, there is high-end shopping north of there, including the Rue Carnot Chanel).
Place Victor Hugo instead of Boulevard Saint-Germain. There’s a café there called Les Debats that we love. And it’s truly in the heart of real, actual Paris — not fannypack Paris, with real work-a-day boucheries, boulangeries and patisseries nearby. In an alternate life, this is our hood.
OH NO. THEY’VE REMOVED the thousands of lover’s locks on the Pont Des Arts bridge. Well, shit. I guess it’s only fair. The bridge was going to collapse from the weight of all that love.
Oh well, Pont neuf’s cool too as bridges go. Or head to ile de la cite, which is the little city within the city that happens to be where Notre Dame is. So who am I to talk smack. Shit, do both. I love Notre Dame and I’m the opposite of catholic. Just get there early, the lines grow quick.
So am I a Frenxpert? I certainly don’t know anything like everything. But knowing little bits like this helped me discover that Parisians are actually the most welcoming, lovely, warm and helpful people on earth. Which I didn’t know when I went back in the late 90s.
I’ll tell you one more story. At the end of our stay in the South of France, Carre and I had to get up stupid-early (like 2:30 am) to catch the 6 am Avignon TGV to Paris. At the time, they were just finishing the new TGV Sun Stations on the edge of town, but the Rental Car Return (Location de Voitures) was still in the old mid-city rail station. The plan had been explained to us that you return the car there and a shuttle bus would arrive to whisk you the 6–7 kilometres out to the new TGV station. So we did, and waited at the shuttle stop.
And waited. And watched the rats-the-size-of-chihuahuas climb the Medieval walls. And began to worry. Soon a young Frenchman queued up behind us (Relief! Someone else is counting on the shuttle).
(But still no shuttle.)
We all began looking at our watches. And after 10 minutes we heard him exclaim, “Merde!!! C’est dimanche! (Literally, “Shit, It’s Sunday.”) The Navette would not be coming.
“Nous devrons utiliser ma voiture pour prendre le train ! Nous devons nous dépêcher. Aimeriez-vous faire un tour?” (Or at least that’s what Google Translate thinks he said.)
Well, shit, fuck, piss — yes, we would very much like a ride, if it’s no trouble, Merci…
And so we hurried to his car — a tiny Fiat Punto, one of the most popular and terrible cars in all of Europe. But just now, it looked to us like a limo. He helped us heap our copius bagages de vacance into the tiny boot and back seat of his car and packed me in back and Carre in the passenger seat. Started the sewing machine the Punto uses for an engine and we sped off, as only a Frenchman can, on the deserted early morning streets of a medieval city. I suspect we didn’t go slower than 70 the whole way, and on the straightaways, much faster, all the way having lovely conversation as we gave his upholstery the death grip.
When we arrived, we were relieved beyond measure. I offered him 50 euros for his trouble, but he refused. “vous feriez la même chose pour moi en Amérique !”
But would we have? Would we rescue a foreign person with poor English in the middle of Downtown LA at 5 am? Would we really drive him to LAX? I’m not sure. But again and again, the French have been amazing, wonderful and hospitable to us. They’ve invited us into their homes. They’ve shared the last of their homemade Tapenade (though, the man’s wife was not amused about that part when she arrived home from London) and been lifesavers again and again.
When we flew on the first plane back out to France after the 9/11 air-traffic shutdown, they were unbelievably warm and welcoming. We drove through the countyside and saw several places where they’d dug out ancient 48-star American flags from the war and hung them over the ancient stone walls in solidarity. The French do love Americans.
It’s just that it’s tough love.