Do's and Don'ts When Visiting Paris, France
Tips to take the hassle out of your trip, and to help you avoid inadvertent "Ugly American Syndrome".
1. Do Learn Some French Phrases, Don't Stress About Using Them - Most Parisians in the tourists areas speak some English. However, when in France, learn some polite French phrases to "break the ice." You only need to learn five key phrases, and you'll be surprised by the effect that they'll have.
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- Bonjour - Hello. Always followed by the formal (by US standards) Monsieur (male), Madame (female), Mademoiselle (young female)
- Au Revoir - Goodbye
- S'il vous plait - please
- Merci - Thank you
- Je ne parle pas francais. En anglais, s'il vous plait - I don't speak French. In English, please?
After asking politely if they speak English, most Parisians will say "une peu" (a little) and begin speaking English to you. A little effort on your part to learn a few phrases goes a long way to bridge the communication gap.
Also, don't stress if they answer "non" (No). Smile and use the international language of hand motions. You'll be amazed how much can be conveyed with body language and "drawing in the air".
2. Do Shop in Paris, Don't Forget to Say "Bonjour Madame" and "Au Revoir" - Unlike the US where "business is business", the French view their shops as an extension of their homes. You would not enter a stranger's house without saying "Hello" and "Goodbye", so remember to do so when in Paris.
Along the same lines, you would not go into a stranger's house and begin touching their stuff. In Parisian clothes boutiques, this is also often the case. When entering a store, a sales person asks to help you find a size or a color, let them pick it out of the pile for you. Don't dig through a stack of sweaters to find your size.
3. Do Order in Cafés, Don't Complain About How Long it Takes to Receive Your Order - In America, we grab our coffee and go. In Paris, part of the pleasure in drinking a warm, caffeinated beverage is the relaxing experience of savoring the drink, talking to friends, and "people watching". Cultural critics were wondering if the French would "take to the streets with their drinks" when Starbucks opened in Paris. The French, like Americans, love Starbucks - their stores are packed, but you won't see any "To Go" cups. For the French, the social aspect of lingering over a coffee is the point.
Since getting coffee in a rush isn't a priority, you'll notice that service is slower than in the US. There are less wait staff working more tables. And, unlike the ubiquitous"20-something" servers in the US, you'll notice many servers in Paris aren't actually "spring chickens". They've worked in the same cafés for decades. If you're in a rush, do what the locals do and order a café at the bar. You will save a few euros and you'll be "in and out" in no time.
4. Do Express Your Opinion, Don't be Surprised When the "Customer Isn't Always Right" - In France, there isn't the rapid pace of job churn in the retail/service industries that there is in the US. People are paid a living wage, and stay in the same profession throughout their lives. If you're a frequent visitor to Paris, you'll notice the same waiters in cafés, the same desk clerks at the hotel, the same salesgirl at your favorite boutique.
Parisians consider themselves to be experts at their jobs, and if they consider a customer's viewpoint as "off-base", they consider it their duty to correct them. The customer is not always right. So, if you want to call a cab, and the doorman states that it is probably better to take the métro at that time of day, take his advice. And, if you ask for your food to be prepared differently than the chef recommends, expect a dissertation on why the flavor of the lamb is so much better medium rare than well done. And, don't take it personally. It's not about you being an American. It's about the Parisians being French.
5. Do Ride the Metro, Don't Throw Out Your Ticket - Hold onto your purple ticket until you exit the station. The Metro Police occasionally stand at the exits, and using hand-held scanners, inspect every exiting ticket. If you don't have your ticket, you will be asked to pay a 35€ fine on the spot.
6. Do Visit the Eiffel Tower via the Trocadéro Metro Stop, Don't Use the Bir Hakeim Station - Most tour books advise getting to the Eiffel Tower via the Bir Hakeim métro stop. Technically, this is the closest stop, but exit at the Trocadéro station directly across the Seine instead. Walk across the grounds of the Palais de Challot, and marvel at the view of the Eiffel Tower framed by reflecting pools and dancing fountains (see picture on left). Cross the Seine on the Pont D'Iena and be amazed at how imposing the Eiffel Tower is when you are up close.
7. Do Order a Drink, Don't Expect Ice - Expecting a tall, iced Diet Coke? Forget-About-It -Parisians don't add ice to their drinks. Instead, of complaining and demanding ice, which the café won't have, enjoy the fact that the chilled drink is poured at your table by the waiter in an elegant glass, complete with a lemon twist. Where does that happen in the US?
8. Do Shop Early at the Department Stores, Don't Go in the Afternoon - In the afternoons, tours that spend the mornings sightseeing at museums, disgorge their customers in the Grand Magasins district. Literally, hundreds of tourists spill out of buses and into the Printemps or the Galeries Lafayette. It's hard to walk through the crowds, let alone shop. Get to the stores at opening (10:00am), and be enjoying a café creme at 2:00pm when the crowds arrive.
9. Do Explore the City, Don't Take a Cab - Walk or take the métro. Paris is a compact city, about 6 miles across, and no building in Paris is more than a few hundred yards from a Metro stop. In Paris, cabs are expensive - you pay by distance and the amount of time in the cab. So, if you're stuck in a traffic jam with the meter running, the cost of a short trip can be astronomical!
If you wish to take a cab, remember these two tips. If you call a taxi, the meter begins running when the cab leaves the station. Thus, you'll already have some money on the meter when the cab picks you up. Second, it is very difficult to hail a cab on the street. Cabs can only pick up at a taxi stand (stands are marked by a "T" on most Parisian street maps). Occasionally, you can grab a cab if someone is exiting, but don't count on it. Instead, wait at a taxi stand. The stands with the most traffic are those adjacent to métro stops.
10. Do Ride the Métro at Night, Don't Depend on It Running Until Dawn - Before planning a night on the town, check when the last MÈtro departs your station. The Métro stops running between 12:40am and 1:20am on weekdays and an hour later on weekends. Trains are staggered between these time frames. Which means if you jump on a train and need to transfer, you might be stuck between stations. Hint: if you see a throng of people, including little, old ladies, sprinting towards the Métro, it's the last train before quitting time.
If you are going out late and depending on the Métro to get back to your hotel, check the chart in the Métro which shows the last train departure/connection times. If you miss your train, other late-night travel options include taking the Noctambus, taking a cab, or hiking it.
11. Do Sightsee, Don't be Paranoid about Pickpockets - You can have your wallet or purse stolen in a small town just as quickly in a big city so use reasonable measures to protect your hard earned funds. We find that if you are aware of your surroundings wearing a money belt isn't necessary. Instead, carry what you need, leave excess cash and valuables in a hotel safe, and use your common sense when wandering around tourist hot spots. Women should wear a purse with the shoulder strap draped diagonally across your body. If in a highly trafficked area with a lot of jostling, pull the purse towards your abdomen and hold it across the front zipper. Men should carry their wallets in an inside front pocket.
Author: Cheryl Montgomery