French Blog

An American in Paris

My first trip to Paris was in April of 2011.  Finding myself unexpectedly single, I went on a date with a charming and handsome man. On that first date, he told me he had to go to Paris on business in a couple of weeks, and would I like to go with him?  So I married him. In Paris.

I had imagined Paris as a magical city, full of mystery and art and joie de vivre. A place where even the most mundane event was like a scene from a movie. Where people look wonderful (or at least interesting) all of the time. Where eating bread didn’t make you fat and getting caught in the rain didn’t make you look like a drowned rat.  And guess what — I was right and it absolutely is.

But if you want to be French in Paris, there are some rules.

The first rule is; don’t look like a tourist, especially not an American tourist.

Now if you want to go and just be an American tourist, fine, I’m not judging. But if you want to “be more French” … just sayin’.

French women look “put together”, neither over or under done. Clothing flatters the body and is casually, quietly classy. Wear your “good school clothes,” not the American idea of casual (i.e., pajama bottoms or yoga pants pretending to be pants). Flat shoes are often worn because Parisians do a lot of walking, but never gym shoes (which belong in the gym) or flip-flops (which belong at the beach). No backpacks riding on your back like little mutant hitch-hikers, and no cameras dangling from your neck.

My greatest accomplishment (and compliment) on my most recent trip to Paris was that, at every shop and restaurant I went into, I was spoken to in French. Everyone working in public venues in Paris speaks at least some if not fluent English, and will address you in English if you are obviously American (and bring you catsup with every meal, for some ungodly reason).  To be assumed French was for me the highest form of flattery. My objective for the next trip … to be able to respond appropriately.

Next, don’t be rude. I had always been warned “the French are terribly rude – especially Parisians.”  SO not true!

Like Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia, I went to Paris expecting everyone and everything to be wonderful and so imbued it. And so it was.

Manners are a huge part of the social convention in France. In America, we think nothing of walking up to the coffee counter and blurting “I’ll have a double blah blah with extra wooha.” Sorry but this is called being a rude American.  In Paris (as in most civilized cultures) you would first greet the person you are speaking to (bon jour, bon soir). This would be followed by your request (s’il vous plait), not demand, for what you would like.

I learned what it meant to be a rude American on my first trip to Tokyo. I’d been out for a run and stopped into the ever-ubiquitous Starbucks just down the block from my hotel; and ordered my usual warm beverage. They were quite busy so I sat at a table and waited. After a few minutes, one of the employees walked toward me with a very small cup of something that clearly was not my order. Somewhat annoyed, I started to insist that this was not the drink I ordered, when he politely said to me “No, this is for your wait.”  Ok, me, the nicest person I know, was a rude American. No more.

Lastly, don’t be intimidated and don’t take yourself too seriously. Yes, everything is different – the food, the people, the culture. But it is, after all, their country. So when in Rome … or Paris … simply ask questions and be willing to experience and embrace the difference.

We were at a rather elegant restaurant on the Left Bank, and ordered an amazing seafood platter which included an interesting dish of something that looked like a cross between a shrimp and a bug. Couple of ways I could have gone with this – I could have been critical that they would serve such strange food. I could have just left the little creatures to have died in vain. Instead, I asked our beautiful and impeccably dressed hostess, in very bad French, “How do I eat this?” She proceeded to reach into our platter and remove a little shrimp-bug and showed me how to detach its little exoskeleton. And the little morsels were quite delicious. Still not sure what it was.

There is a big, beautiful world waiting outside of your comfort zone. Just be amused with yourself if you do or say something silly. And be ok with it if others are amused too.

I certainly have no disdain for Americans or the American way of life. But there’s always more to be learned and if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

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