Let’s face it: Paris can be intimidating.
The people have a reputation for being as rude as they are stylish, the city is famed for being dirty as well as beautiful, and French is a difficult language to speak flawlessly. (According to rumor, the French won’t be too happy about helping you out when you get stuck, either.)
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Paris and I’ve found that almost none of these negative stereotypes about Parisians or their beautiful city are true. Almost everyone I’ve met in Paris has been unfailingly kind, nice, and complimentary. (There was one surly lady at a museum reception desk, but we won’t talk about her.)
Parisians have gone out of their way to help me practice my French, given me directions on the street, and told me about all the best places to have a delicious meal, grab an amazing cocktail, and go for a walk.
I want to give you the tricks and tips I’ve learned along the way so you can have as amazing a time as I always do in the City of Light. Think of this miniature culture guide as your introduction to how to do Paris like a local. (And maybe befriend some locals along the way!)
#1: The Importance of Bonjour
This first thing is the most important piece of knowledge you need to know when traveling in Paris. It will guarantee that every encounter you have with a Parisian will get off on the right foot. Ready for it?
At every single place you walk into – even if no one is looking at you, even if no one is paying attention to you, even if it looks like the place is empty – you must say “Bonjour!” immediately. You will say this all day every day to everyone you run into, from your neighbor to the proprietress of the pharmacy to the boulanger.
“Bonjour” is always required to begin any interaction with another person. If you don’t start with “Bonjour,” the French will assume you were “mal élevé” – badly brought up. Little children are required to begin every interaction with “bonjour” from the time they can speak. If a toddler can do it, so can you!
Side note: Learn to say this word properly. It’s hard for people who speak English to grasp the French “r” sound at first – we have no equivalent sound in our own language, so it’ll take a little effort. Devote some time to this – I promise it’ll pay off! Here’s a video with the English and then the French pronunciation so you can practice.
#2: Be Polite
End every interaction you have with “Merci, bonne journee!” This is the French equivalent of “Thank you, have a good day!”
#3: No Queues
The French don’t believe in lines. Everyone cuts in front of each other constantly and no one complains. Don’t be surprised if the back of someone’s head suddenly materializes in front of you.
#4: Crossing the Street
Cross when the street is clear – waiting for the light will earn you some strange looks.
#5: Saturday Night, Every Night
Happy hour is from about 5PM to midnight every day. Everywhere is always packed like it’s Saturday night, even in the middle of the week. Don’t be afraid to throw a few discrete elbows in the crowd – you’ll probably need to do some shoving to order your drink or get a table.
#6: Ubiquitous Smoking
Everyone smokes. Everyone. If you go out with cigarettes, expect to be constantly asked for either one of your cigarettes or a light.
#7: French First
Most people speak English, but they will be far nicer and generally more wonderful if you try to speak French (or at least start with “Bonjour” and then try to speak French).
If you’re a woman, you will be stared at. By everyone. Constantly. This is not considered rude.
#9: Whistle While You Walk
Parisian men are constantly whistling. Not at you and not for any particular reason – just whistling to themselves all the time. Once I realized it wasn’t directed at me, I found it charming.
Parisian men will hit on you (if you’re a woman) one way or another. In my experience, they will either make what is bordering on an uncomfortable amount of eye contact, or they will accost you in the street and try to get your number. There is no in between.
#11. Pharmacy Dos & Don’ts
Pharmacies (ubiquitous, marked with a big green cross) are mostly for skin care and medication, not bits and bobs like our CVS/Walgreens/etc. If you need something like a hair straightener or other toiletries, try BHV or Darty’s instead.
#12: Velib at Your Peril
The Parisians have a bikeshare program called “Velib.” If you’re prepared to deal with the complete insanity that is French driving and road conditions, then use it!
I personally prefer the metro – efficient, clean, and far less dangerous. (I ruined many a baguette, punnet of fruit, and bottle of wine trying to bike from one place to the other instead of just taking the metro. Learn from my mistakes and save your strawberries.)
I’ll be putting together another guide on how to dine out in Paris without embarrassing yourself and some of my favorite bars, restaurants, and parks in the city soon, but in the meantime:
What else would you like to know about Paris? Tell me in the comments!
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