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5 mistakes visitors must avoid in Paris, France!

Article by Alex Wagner

ï’§ Mistake #1: Being insulted by a so-called rude FrenchmanWhenever a swearing Englishman excuses himself with a “Pardon my French”, I can’t help but chuckle. The biggest stereotype about the French here in Paris – their legendary rudeness – is also the most inaccurate, because the French are actually friendly and helpful. That said, there are cultural differences that can lead some to perceive the French as rude. Even during a short stay, you will get accustomed to their particularities.The key is simply to understand these differences and make a small effort to integrate during your hotel or apartment stay. See, if you stay in Paris without learning anything at all about Paris customs and social behaviour, then you will tend to behave in a way that the Parisians perceive as extremely rude, and they will simply reflect that rudeness back at you, while you’ll have no idea where it’s coming from. This might be one reason to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel – to integrate better into local life.Here are some simple pointers:ï’§ Walking up to a Frenchman and speaking English right off the bat, under the assumption that English is spoken by everyone on Earth, is seen as rude and inconsiderate in Paris. Always attempt to speak at least a little token French. Simply saying “Bonjour! Parlez-vous Anglais?” (Pronounced bon-jouh, pah-lay vooz ahn-glay). It simply means, “Hello, do you speak English?” and it makes a huge difference. Many French, who would otherwise ignore you and walk away, will suddenly speak fluent English if you just show a token effort at trying their language.ï’§ Be sure to greet strangers (a simple “bonjour” is fine) before launching into other requests. In France, it is considered rude to just walk up and start talking like one does in America for example.ï’§ Hush! The French are a somewhat low-key and hushed people, tending to talk softly – their voices don’t carry in the streets, on the Metro, or even when they’re sitting at the next table. Americans in particular tend to be far louder, speaking at a level as if oblivious to their neighbours or surroundings. This kind of extrovert behaviour is seen as very obnoxious by the French, so best make an effort to blend in by keeping your voice low. This is also true with respect to your Paris apartment neighbours (if you rent short term rather than stay in a hotel). Please respect their peace and quiet.ï’§ Americans and some other Anglo-Saxon cultures are very friendly when it comes to personal space. A Frenchman on the other hand likes about 1 meter of space between him and the person he’s talking to, otherwise he or she might perceive you as an invasive presence. Just stand back a little more than you might naturally.ï’§ The French don’t quite have the enthusiasm of Americans, and are more reserved. A Frenchman is far less likely than an American to break into a wide toothy grin each time they meet someone new. Furthermore, their service culture is far less extrovert, with no “Hi, how can I help you today?” or “Have a nice day!” extroversion. Don’t think locals don’t like you or are being rude; they’re just more subdued in the short term.ï’§ The more you know about (and imitate) french customs, the more you will be integrated and the less likely it is that you will be perceived as rude. Now that you know that the French are generally only rude when they reflect back perceived rudeness, you’ll find that a bit of education and knowledge will generally make the “rude French” vanish, replaced by a smiling, helpful and understanding people. Your Paris hotel or apartment stay will only be more pleasant as a result.

Oh, there is an exception to the rule: French waiters really are mostly rude, and no amount of social skill on your behalf will get past that. Even their fellow compatriots think they’re rude. Best to just reframe their rudeness as a quirky local charm and smile at it. That’s what I do!

ï’§ Mistake #2: Making a hash of your restaurant mealEveryone knows that Paris is a great city for foodies, with a large choice of good restaurants in every Paris district wherever your apartment or hotel is. Less people know why this is so. It’s a combination of 3 factors: 1) the French love their food and it is even an important topic of conversation for them, 2) space being at a premium, Parisians typically live in small Paris apartments and don’t have dining rooms in their apartments to entertain, 3) despite often living in very basic non-descript apartment interiors – they don’t entertain at home, so don’t view this as important – Parisians do like to go out and be seen in nice surroundings, showing them in a good light. This out-of-apartments culture means there are a huge number of good restaurants in Paris for you to enjoy within 5 mins walk of your apartment or hotel. Take advantage, but also take care not to mess your meal up by observing a few cultural tips.

ï’§ Don’t go too early: A Parisian will never have diner before 8pm, so going before then means that the restaurant will be devoid of atmosphere, which is a shame. If you can wait for 9pm then that’s better still, and best is perhaps to have a pre-dinner “apéro” in your apartment before going out. If it’s any comfort, the Spanish have diner much later still…ï’§ Don’t order A la carte: unless you’ve got your eye on something specific, it’s advisable to go for the fixed-price menu. These menus, grouping together starter and main course, or main course and desert, or all three, offer great value for money and usually have much of the best things included, so you won’t be missing out either. The exception would be the “tourist menus” offered by some eateries you’ll find close to your apartment or hotel (short term Paris apartment rentals are in areas popular with tourists after all). If you see the word tourist, simply walk away as the food will be bland and the prices high. ï’§ Don’t order aperitif: nobody orders “kir” anymore (refreshing white wine with a dash of cassis) and this aperitif has become distinctly unfashionable. In fact, Parisians don’t usually go for an apéro at the restaurant, preferring instead to have a pre-dinner drink at the apartment or in a nearby café, perhaps on a terrace, before heading to the restaurant. So when the waiter asks, “Vous desirez un apéritif?”, you certainly shouldn’t feel obligated to say, “Bien sûr!”, especially since a round of four will set you back at least 25€. Just decline politely with a “Non merci”.ï’§ Don’t fish for scallops: the trick is to know that scallops are “Coquilles Saint Jacques”, or “Noix de Saint Jacques” when presented without their shells (even though there are no “noix” (nuts) in them!). So don’t fall into the trap of ordering “Escalopes”, or you’ll be presented with a few thin pieces of leathery veal (not bad in chewy-meat kind of way, but not the dewy salty spray of sea that you’re seeking).ï’§ Don’t ask for butter: French butter, especially salted butter, is a real treat (keep some in your apartment fridge). Unfortunately however, you won’t find it served with bread, except in some upscale restaurants. This is because bread is there as an accompaniment to a meal, not as a starter. That’s why, if you can, you shouldn’t even touch the bread before your meal arrives. When you do eat your bread, don’t yank a bit off with your teeth; instead tear off a bite-sized piece and put it in your mouth. It’s a question of table etiquette here in Paris.ï’§ Don’t turn off the tap: although some find it hard to believe, the tap water in Paris is fine to drink and is actually quite nice. So it’s not worth lugging bottles up to your apartment, because the apartment taps are a good source of water. Bottled water is really just a waste of money and resources. It’s actually pretty cool (it shows confidence) to ask for a “carafe d’eau” (don’t say “eau du robinet” (tap water), which sounds weird), so don’t be intimidated into ordering mineral water (by law, if you ask for tap water they have to give it to you), and don’t believe the waiter will think you’re a cheapskate either, as you can be sure he orders tap water when he goes out!ï’§ Don’t avoid rosé: for reasons that escape me, many Paris visitors think it’s downscale to drink rosé. On the contrary, most rosé is pretty good and it’s a fashionable drink, especially so in the summer at aperitif (before dinner drinks). So you can order rosé with impunity and not feel like a cheapskate. Better still, plop an ice cube in your glass or carafe and sip gently.ï’§ Don’t mix up your salads: watch out – if you order a hamburger that the menu claims comes accompanied by “salade”, then don’t expect more than a token leaf of lettuce on the side of the plate, as a garnish. If you want a simple green salad with your meat, then you’ll want to ask for a “salade verte” as a side order. On the other hand if you want a proper salad as a stand alone meal, then opt for a qualified salad, like “salade Parisienne”, “salade du chef”, etc. These have all sorts of wonderful things in them and make a fine meal.ï’§ Don’t get star struck: Home to many Michelin-starred restaurants, Paris is a gourmet’s paradise. There is probably one within 10 mins walk of your apartment or hotel. But a lot of pomp and circumstance-not to mention sky-high prices-accompany most of these traditional fine-dining establishments. Does the idea of half a dozen waiters hovering buzzard like around your table sound appealing? Or how about spending as much on dinner as you did on your plane ticket or apartment rental? No, I didn’t think so. There is a more savvy and fashionable alternative: recently, several Michelin-starred chefs have abandoned the rigid confines of haute-cuisine restaurants to open convivial bistros that serve up simpler (yet still outstanding) meals. And the locals are just crazy about them. Yves Camdeborde’s pioneering Le Comptoir du Relais, in the 6th district next to Odéon metro, is so popular that it can be hard to get a table. But once you’re tucking into Camdeborde’s famous foie gras terrine for a fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere, you’ll understand why the place is booked months in advance for dinner. If you can’t get in at dinner, then arrive by 11:45 am for lunch (reservations are not accepted, so it’s first come, first served).ï’§ Don’t rush your meals: What’s the rush? Aren’t you on a gentle vacation? If you are American, it might be a culture shock to eat a meal at a French restaurant. You won’t find any “to go” signs, for a start, as fast food really goes against the French style. If your waiter doesn’t rush over to bring you your check the moment you eat your last bite (he or she probably won’t because they don’t want you to feel rushed), don’t be surprised. Enjoy a little more conversation, sips of wine and, if you’re at a cafe, people-watching. Your stay might be short but your meals should be long!

ï’§ Mistake #3: Dressing like a touristIt’s somehow uncool to be readily identifiable as a tourist, isn’t it? Nowhere is this more the case than Paris, a city of natural sartorial grace and beauty. During your apartment or hotel stay, better to be associated with the effortless style of the Parisian, rather than just an outside observer of it. Here’s how.ï’§ Don’t dress too casually: While the Parisians are increasingly wearing clothes like jeans and sneakers (particularly the young French), their casual dress is still dressier than American casual dress. You will blend in with the French more if you go with something casual but elegant. Don’t bring 10 suitcases up to your apartment though; there is no need.ï’§ Don’t think casual means ugly: Many Parisians wear jeans and a T-shirt. That doesn’t mean they’re not well dressed however… Best is to watch and learn from a café terrace in central Paris. You’ll notice that the jeans are dark (pale blue jeans are so unfashionable it’s not even funny), close and straight cut (baggy jeans are a no-no). T-shirts are close cut too, which doesn’t mean too small. Each sleeve should have room for only the one arm and should not go more than half-way down to the elbow. If your T-shirt got scrumpled in your suitcase, then iron it (there is an iron in every apartment rental). Avoid mad motifs or clever-clever punch lines, unless you want to look like a student. The best T-shirts are close cut, with no or sober graphics, in a uniform neutral colour (navy blue, white, black, or a sophisticated grey or kaki). If you prefer more elaborate graphics, then you can opt for a vintage style, with deliberately faded colours and motifs. Très cool!ï’§ Don’t underestimate black: It’s not boring or sinister, it’s just plain stylish. Wearing black clothes means you eliminate the easy mistake of messing up the colour and looking like a brash and garish tourist. All you need take care of is the cut (close fitting, not XXL!). Whenever I see what is obviously a flashy-coloured tourist, I always wonder “wow, that guy would look so much better in a pair of dark jeans and a close-cut black turtleneck jumper!”.ï’§ Don’t wear sports-type trainers (sneakers): Leave your gleaming white running shoes in your apartment. Especially ones with space-age synthetic fabrics and upturned tips. There is simply no excuse for wearing these around Paris. I’m not suggesting that you walk for 8 hours a day in stiff leather shoes, but there is such a thing as an urban trainer. These are typically not gleaming white, don’t have technical fabrics, don’t have clever-clever (bouncy) lower souls, and never ever have the turned-up tip at the front. The general rule for trainers would be: if they would be weird on a runner at a stadium, then they’re probably ok. A safe bet is to go with something vintage looking. Have a look round sports shoe shops in the Marais, and if you’re still lost, just wear classic fabric Converse trainers. You’ll see lots of these treading the Paris cobbles.ï’§ Don’t wear shorts: Even on sweltering summer days, Parisians don’t wear shorts. Wear a pair of thin light beige cotton trousers that let the breeze through, and you’ll be fine. Wearing shorts will instantly mark you out as a tourist, unless you can pull off a Ralph Lauren kind of chic sports look, without trying too hard. If you have to wear shorts, please don’t wear any shoes that take socks with them…ï’§ Don’t overdress: Even Parisian style isn’t really about dressing to the nines; the French are quite casual these days-they’ve just mastered the art of the clean, coordinated look. Like I said above, black is always a good bet (or dark grey, if you really want to go nuts!); accessorize with a single bold scarf, hat, or jewel (but, please, not all three at once); and make sure things fit the way they should (no sagging or squeezing). Complete your outfit with a fitted jacket and the best shoes in your apartment closet. The final effect should look utterly effortless. If you’re a lady going out for a dressy evening, go for the fashion icon that is the little black dress. Avoid bright colours, unless you want to look like you’ve just been teleported from Sydney.ï’§ Don’t wear a waist “banana”: I don’t even know what these are called, but the French dismissively call them bananas, in reference to their waist-hugging shape. Sure, I understand that you’ve got essentials to carry around for the whole day. If you’re a woman, enjoy a stylish handbag. If you’re a man, either use an over-the-shoulder satchel (no smaller than A4 however, or you’ll look like a civil servant from the 1970’s), or a hand-held vintage sports bag.

ï’§ Mistake #4: Shopping or dining on the Champs ElyséesIt’s true, Paris’ Champs-Elysées is perhaps the most beautiful avenue in the world and walking along it is most definitely a good idea, don’t get me wrong. That said, it’s a subtle place to understand. See, although this avenue used to be a symbol of Paris chic, the Champs (as locals simply call it) hasn’t been fashionable for decades now (Parisians certainly don’t aspire to live there anymore). It is currently overrun with global chain stores, movie multiplexes and a smattering of flagship stores for automobiles and luxury brands.You’ll find yourself dodging throngs of teens as you trudge past McDonald’s and Sephora, wondering what in God’s name all the fuss is about. Some of those youths will be tracksuit-wearing yobs too (called “racaille” in French, they’ll leave you alone… unless you call them that!), who ride in from the suburbs by RER to the convenient Etoile station that, along with the Arc de Triomphe, marks the top of the avenue (we have apartments around there, as the sidestreets are chic). And whatever you do, don’t succumb to thirst or hunger on this strip: the cafés prey on tourists, and a local wouldn’t be caught dead in one. If you must have a drink or snack, then grab something to go, preferably from the Monoprix supermarket at number 52, or pop back to your apartment. It’s the only socially acceptable place to spend any money at all on the Champs Elysées.So where should you spend your money instead? Be it clothes or meals, you won’t go far wrong if you stick to the Marais (4th and 3rd) or Saint Germain (6th). For fresh produce and more meals, I’d add the 7th, around rue Cler. Most of our Paris apartments are in these areas.

ï’§ Mistake #5: Wasting time at the Eiffel TowerIn 2009, 6.6 million people visited the Eiffel Tower and, like lemmings, embarked on the laborious task of reaching the top. After trudging through one labyrinthine line for tickets and re-queuing for the cattle car-like elevators, you’ll start to lose faith in the whole endeavour. And just when you think the ordeal is over, there are the lines to get back to terra firma. All that, only to realize that if you’re experiencing a view from the tower, you can’t actually enjoy the view of it-which is too bad, since it’s the defining feature of the Paris skyline! So, a big waste of time all round.Instead, enjoy dinner with a view of the Eiffel Tower. I recommend two magical options, that won’t unduly break the bank.Les Ombres (the shadows) is the rooftop restaurant of the Musée du Quai Branly. The restaurant’s glass latticework ceiling makes the most of its tall neighbour by enabling diners to feast their eyes on the tower in its gorgeous entirety while dining on French classics. The view is at its most magical at night, when the tower glows ethereally and bursts into a glamorous sparkle every hour. At dinner, main courses start at about 25€. Café de l’Homme is integrated in the Musée de l’Homme above the fountains of Trocadéro square. Book in advance and ask for a table on the terrace, with a good view (a couple of tables are lacking the view). Main courses start from about 20€., some of our Paris apartments are around here, as it’s a nice area to stay, dominated by views of the Eiffel tower.

ï’§ Bonus survival tip: Avoid getting mown down by a lunatic driver!Although I’ve heard that both Greek and Indian drivers are even worse, you still need to adapt carefully to the Paris urban jungle of cars, motorbikes, scooters and bicycles. Here are some tips to stay out of harm’s way and survive your Paris apartment stay:ï’§ When a zebra crossing is accompanied by traffic lights: you can only cross when the little man symbol is green. When the man is red, this means that priority is given to cars, regardless of the zebra crossing on the road. Should you attempt to cross when the little man is red, expect the French driver to put you back in place by honking vehemently and even speeding up!ï’§ When a zebra crossing is stand-alone: without traffic lights, this means that as a pedestrian, you always have priority. Beware however, as this rule is a bit theoretical and if a Paris driver can barge through anyway, then he will. The trick is to take a single first step out into the traffic, being prepared to stop and back-track, but looking like you’re going to continue confidently to the other side, pretending not to look out for cars. Because if a French driver thinks you’re going to cross and haven’t seen him, then he’ll stop. But if he reads you as hesitant, or sees you looking out for cars, then the Paris driver will simply drive on through without stopping, safe in the knowledge that you’ve seen him and won’t attempt a bones vs. metal confrontation!ï’§ When crossing a street without any zebra crossings: simply be careful, look both ways, and give way to cars. If your crossing forces a Parisian to even lift off the accelerator, then you’ll probably get some Gallic arm-waving gesticulation. Parisians are seemingly always late for something, and don’t like to be slowed down.ï’§ Watch out for rogue Vélibs: the Velib (a condensed Vélo Libre, or Freedom Cycle) is a world-class urban bicycle system, whereby you pay a small subscription (day, week or year) for the privilege of grabbing a bicycle, riding it, and dropping it off within 30 mins. Remember that during your short stay in a hotel or apartment rental it is a good idea to get a weekly pass. It’s very convenient, as the pick-up/drop-off stations are every 300m, all over the city (one near your apartment for sure). You’ll see a lot of these rather smart looking khaki bicycles riding through the city streets. I mention them here because the Velib cyclists are notorious rule breakers: you’ll see them regularly taking one-way streets the wrong way and cruising through red lights without showing the slightest concern. Don’t expect them to slow down and let you cross the road, either. Watch out. Unfortunately, most internationals are denied the pleasure of joining the mayhem, as you need a credit card with a microchip (like all French ones) to get a subscription from the automated units at each pick-up/drop-off station.ï’§ If you visit the Arc de Triomphe: please, whatever you do, DO NOT attempt to cross on foot the Place de l’Etoile that surrounds the monument. There are special tunnels built to access the monument and these are obligatory. Crossing on foot, among the crazy car chaos, means the certainty of coming away petrified at the very least and the distinct possibility of being run over. You’ve been warned…ï’§ What’s up with Place de l’Etoile anyway? The motoring on Place de l’Etoile is almost a tourist sight in and of itself. For full effect, you’ll want to be passing through in a taxi. In this little lawless enclave, insurance companies actually have a gentleman’s agreement that whenever there is an accident, then the responsibility is automatically split 50/50, whatever the circumstances (only in France…). Driving onto Place de l’Etoile is a heroic show of aggressive machismo, where the game consists of arriving full bore, seemingly out control (but secretly ready to screech to a halt at any second), pretending not to see other cars. Make eye contact and you’ve lost, because the other driver will know that you’ve seen him and that you won’t risk a crash, so he won’t let you through. But if you just discreetly register him in your peripheral vision, while pretending not to actually see him, then you win the bluff, and can drive on through safe in the knowledge that the other driver will have to give way if he wants to avoid a crash. You know what? Paris driving schools are actually forbidden from taking their students to this no-rules land, and this is a unique situation. Place de l’Etoile is a strange planet, but you get used to it quite quickly and in reality it’s more amusing than actually dangerous (I drive a car and I used to live just a stone’s throw from l’Etoile, so I would know – never even got a scratch!).

Wrapping it up:I’m not sure why exactly people (myself included) don’t like to be seen as tourists in Paris, but they certainly don’t. Perhaps it has something to do with our deep-seated desire to fit in. Try approaching a stranger anywhere and opening with “Tell me, are you a tourist?” and just watch their dismayed expression at this subtle put-down, that implies that they don’t fit in to the scene. When the scene in question is as archetypically trendy as Paris, the desire to fit in is all the more understandable. Plus, playing the Parisian during your apartment stay is just a good fun and games, like a bit of theatrical role playing. It’s the perfect extension to staying in an authentic Paris apartment and it’ll make your time in Paris all the more memorable.My motivation in writing this report for you goes beyond simply helping you fit in during your apartment stay. I also want to make your stay in Paris (be it a hotel or apartment rental) more enjoyable and better value too. By adapting to local culture, you’ll go with the flow rather than awkwardly swimming upstream.I want your Paris stay to be a happy vacation, not a cultural battle. Take heed of these 10 key points and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying the Paris apartment stay of your dreams!

About the Author

As a short-term Paris apartment rental agency, A la carte Paris has accommodated several thousand English-speaking Paris visitors, for weekly stays over the last 10 years. This accumulated experience of rentals and insider knowledge of Paris means you learn what mistakes get made and how to avoid them

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