I am well-versed in the variations on “I am going to Paris, can you recommend…?” Mostly people want to know which places to eat, shop, or see. Well, if you have never been to Paris, by all means sign up at your hotel for one of the efficient highlight bus tours and check off the top ten must-sees in a morning or day. But that’s not really visiting or experiencing Paris to me. So, with that in mind, here are some behaviors and insights that I offer to get by and make the most of a visit to the City of Light.
1. Practice saying hello, which is “bonjour” in French, no matter who you are dealing with. It is the custom. Walk into any shop and say “Bonjour.” Without this magical word, you won’t be treated as nicely. Add “merci” (thanks) and “au revoir” (good-bye) to your vocabulary, too, for good effect. Anyone can learn these three words, and if you have a little background in French, you might gain a good effect by saying, “Je m’excuse de vous déranger” (Excuse me, I don’t want to bother you). Bureaucrats like that … and France is a country of bureaucrats both little and big. These little words have real power. If you are meeting people you know, or who know people you know, be prepared to do the bisous, one air kiss on each cheek.
2. Two essentials you must have when visiting Paris are a small umbrella almost all the time and good walking shoes all the time. Paris is a great, great city for walking — perhaps the best — so be prepared to discover and experience it by foot. When you are heading to a distant destination and want to take a taxi, remember that you do not hail taxis like in New York; you go to a taxi station. At major corner intersections you can usually find a sign with taxis waiting. They head there when empty. Lots of taxis are also on radio call, and you can call (or have your hotel call for you) to get picked up, though you will see when you get into the taxi that you have already been charged for the distance to your pick-up. Paris has a very good bus system, but it is a slow method of transport (though an okay means of street-seeing); and the city’s once-great subway system is now just-okay. At least it is quiet compared with New York, as the métro car wheels are rubber, not metal.
3. Dial down the noise levels you create. Be discreet in public places, at least as far as voice and noise levels are concerned. (But kissing is okay, and plenty of it — another French paradox! — even in public places like in a train, restaurant, or the terrace of a café.) In public places, though, French people, do not care to hear neighboring conversation or loud laughter, whereas Anglo Saxons tend to speak and laugh loudly. Creating “noise” (including phone rings) is particularly rude in an upscale restaurant where every table aims to maintain a sense of privacy and intimacy. Sure, people pick up a line of conversation here and there, but it is unintentional. Also, as un-American as it might be, please don’t talk to diners at the next table, as respect for privacy is high. People will respond as a courtesy, but they don’t like it. Take no offense; it’s cultural.
4. Many restaurants now start serving dinner reluctantly at 7:30 p.m. or earlier, but most French don’t come in until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. Many French restaurants that are not eyeing foreign visitors do not accept reservations before 8:30 p.m. So, if you want to experience dining in Paris among Parisians, have a late lunch so you can hold out for dinner à la française. When in Rome