Let me tell you about my first trip to Paris. It was April of 2011 – April in Paris. 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 few weeks, and would I like to go with him? So I married him. In Paris.
I always knew my heart belonged in France (who else do you know that cries watching the Tour de France?).
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 is all those things and more. For me, anyway.
Like Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia, I went to Paris expecting everyone and everything to be wonderful, and so I imbued it as such. And so it was.
For example, on our first night in Paris we decided to stop at a cafe for a drink. Seeing a free table and not wanting to be the “ugly American” just plopping myself down, I asked the waiter if the table was available. He asked me (imagine your best Parisian accent here) “What is your name?” I told him my name, and he “wrote” an imaginary “Kelley” on the table with his finger. “It is yours,” he said. My heart melted.
Topping it all off, having my then-boyfriend-now-husband yell “I love this woman” on the streets of Paris at 1:00 in the morning didn’t hurt either.
Now if you want to go to Paris and just be an American tourist, fine, I’m not judging. But if you want to be French in Paris, there are a few things you should know.
First, don’t look like a tourist, especially not an American tourist.
French women look “put together”, neither over or under done. Clothing flatters the body and is always casually, quietly classy. You don’t have to dress to the nines (that would be overdressed, something a Parisian would not do), but plan on wearing 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.
It is a great compliment to me when, at shops and restaurants, I am 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 is for me the highest form of flattery. My next objective … to be able to respond appropriately.
Next, there’s a certain protocol of manners, so don’t be inadvertently rude. I had always been warned “the French are terribly rude – especially Parisians.” Soooo not true!
Manners are a huge part of the social convention in France and certain niceties are expected. In America, we think nothing of walking up to the coffee counter and blurting “I’ll have a double blah blah with extra wooha.” In Paris (or anywhere in France, or in most civilized cultures … just sayin’) you would first greet the person you are speaking to (bonjour, bonsoir). This would be followed by your request (s’il vous plait), not demand, for what you would like. It’s nice to do that here in America too – it might be the first kind words the person has had all day.
Likewise when shopping in a boutique, always pleasantly greet the shopkeeper before presuming to rummage through their stuff. After all, it’s their stuff and you are a visitor.
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. Never again.
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, and laugh at yourself if you get it wrong.
We were at a rather elegant restaurant on the Left Bank, and ordered an amazing seafood platter of oysters and shrimp and everything you could image – and an interesting dish in the middle of something that looked like a cross between a shrimp and a bug. I didn’t have a clue what to do with it. 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 picked door number 3 – I asked our beautiful, impeccably dressed, 5’10” and slender as a zipper hostess, in very bad French, “How do I eat this?” She proceeded to reach into our platter with her beautifully manicured fingers 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 just 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. After all, I am one. But there’s always more to be learned and, in the words of Milton Berle, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. And thus I became So Freaking French.