10½ Things to Know Before Visiting Paris
This past week, the podcast episode I recorded with Corey Garvey of Settled Afar went live. You can listen to it here. In his podcast series, Corey, a native New Yorker who is now living in London, interviews others who have made big jumps in their lives.
We spoke about how and why I started Souks du Monde, and he also asked me some thought-provoking questions about my experiences living outside of the U.S. I told him about some of the things I miss most about the states (If there’s one thing we Americans can be grateful for it’s our customer service. This concept is largely lacking in Europe in my opinion!), and it got me thinking about what I have loved and haven’t loved about moving my life to another continent.
When I was teaching, one of my favorite units that I did with my French 1 classes was about the city of Paris, where we went beyond learning about the famous monuments and museums or the foods and drinks you can find. We researched how to be a polite tourist while there; i.e. things that French people see as rude and how to avoid getting the cold shoulder while in Paris (Rule #1: Always say Bonjour, Hello, or Bonsoir, Good evening, when you enter a small shop, restaurant, hotel, etc., before you ask for help, or as you pass someone in your building or elevator). We would also explore some cultural differences that you might encounter on a trip to Paris. I always shared with my students some funny anecdotes highlighting my adventures in culture shock during the years I lived in the City of Lights.
While spending more time in Paris in the past two years, new things always happen that make me want to add to my list of experiences. I’m sharing them here today, maybe to quench some wanderlust, or maybe to prepare you for your next trip to the City of Love. These observances, some of which I find baffling, and some of which are actually funny quirks, come with a lot of humor. I do, after all, keep going back to this city that has a large part of my heart.
1. Lunch Break
In Paris, and perhaps more so in the rest of France, their lunch break really can last 1.5-2 hours. The French value a work-life balance, as is built into their 35-hour workweek and five weeks of paid vacation, and lunchtime is no exception. It’s not uncommon to see people in business attire gathered around a bistro table with a bottle of wine and a spread of food. Likewise, it’s not surprising for stores and businesses to be closed during the noon hour.
To me, this reality makes a lot of sense. It allows for a break in the day around an aspect of life (mealtime) which means so much to the French. Sharing food is a way of gathering, and there's no exception to co-workers who do so while getting to know each other and sharing ideas outside of a work setting.
2. The Gallic Shrug
An American friend’s husband who recently accepted a position in a bank in France had to go through cultural training at his work, and one of the things the workshop covered was the Gallic Shrug. When my friend explained to me this topic that came up in the class, I finally understood that there was a name and meaning to something that I had witnessed so many times in France.
It can go like this: You’re at a party and a conversation gets heated. Both sides express fully and completely their argument with examples, counter-examples, and references to support their position. This can go on and on for hours. Then, it ends abruptly with one or both of the sides offering a shrug, usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and an unpleasant, horse-like noise that comes out of pouting lips. This gesture signifies something along the lines of “Oh well. Sh*t happens” or “Not my problem.” You might also come across it in a variety of other contexts where it may mean “Deal with it yourself,” or “I can’t be bothered to care.” The other party might respond with a verbal “Bof” or just move on to another topic as if the conversation didn't even take place.
Stick this gesture in your arsenal along with a few words in phrases on your next trip to Paris, as it can come in handy in many, many situations.
3. Mind the Merde
Despite the great efforts the city has taken to keep the streets and sidewalks clean, one cannot visit the city by foot without christening their shoes with the dog poo that will inevitably be in your pathway. I’ve been told that those Frenchies who don’t pick up after their pets claim that it’s their right as taxpayers to have the streetcleaners pick up after their dogs. So many of my Parisian friends are adamant about leaving your shoes at the door, and I’m certain that this bleak reality about dog owners’ habits is the reason why.
I have noticed a huge decrease in sidewalk dog doo since 2007 when I lived in Paris, but unfortunately, you’ve still got to be on your guard as a pedestrian!
4. Public Park rules
This one confuses me to no end, and I haven’t come across any good reasons as to why it happens, given that green spaces are at such a premium in the city. Parisian parks love their rules. Don’t sit on this grass. No balls or sports with balls (frisbees apparently count as balls) in certain parks (I’ve yet to figure out which ones). Parks are closed sometimes during some change in the weather. Parks can be closed on certain days. They are also closed at night.
One evening last summer we were walking on a small street and there happened to be a huge number of teenagers sitting along the curb. We couldn’t figure out why they were hanging out on that particular street until we passed the closed basketball courts and skate park. These kids were apparently kicked out of the park, in the middle of summer, while the sun was still high in the sky, because of the park’s rules. I don’t get it.
5. Fizzy water is king
I got my first introduction to sparkling water early in my first year in Paris while at a dinner party. The host kept busy ensuring that our wine and sparkling water glasses stayed full. You’ll often see Parisians carrying their cases of Perrier home from the grocery store. The French love their sparkling water, eau petillante, so much that the city has water fountains equipped for Parisians to get their fill for free. I have to admit that I love coming across a bubbly water fountain, especially when my water bottle is just about empty. Here is a map of where the fountains are around the city.
6. Public Toilets
Another first for me when I visited France was the uncomfortable public toilets I came across (when I could find them). Turkish toilets (the ones with a hole in the ground that you have to squat over, then jump off of when you flush) and toilets sans seats seem to be popular varieties for public bathrooms. That being said, in Paris, and especially near parks, you can find pod-style public bathrooms. These sanisettes self-clean after every use and are free to use, and they are a godsend when you're in a bind.
Here’s more complete info on what to expect in French bathrooms.
7. Expect Protests
You’ve surely heard about the frequent protests that take place in France. You might even have had them interrupt your travel, perhaps during a strike by airline pilots or rail employees.
This past winter, France encountered the largest nation-wide strike it had seen in decades. Workers took to the streets to demonstrate their objections with the government’s plans to change the pension plan, as holiday travel was interrupted, traffic was at a standstill for weeks, and people resolved to work from home.
Protests are something so engrained in the French psyche, and happen so regularly, that the average French person will meet them with a nonchalant Gallic shrug (see point 2), rather than let one interfere with their daily life. Take it from me, there is a 90% chance that you will come across someone striking while you are traveling in France. So, do yourself a favor and expect that there will be protests. In the rare event that one doesn’t get in your way, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
8. Rules of the road
Coming from New York and fully understanding and appreciating “Don’t block the box,” even though I never took a seat behind the steering wheel in the city, my dreams were fully shattered as a pedestrian witnessing my first Parisian traffic jam. As far as I can tell, “the box” doesn’t exist in Paris. It’s totally common to witness cars roll right into the intersection with no place to go forward as the light turns yellow. Blocking the pedestrian walkway is normal, as is blocking the whole intersection for oncoming cars to join the road. As a pedestrian, it’s important to be a bit on the defensive when crossing a street. As a taxi rider in traffic, this anomaly is simply maddening unless you're lucky enough to have snagged a Formula1 racing driver as your chauffeur.
9. Customer service
If you ever find yourself on the phone with a call center, or simply speaking to the person behind the counter at the airport or your hotel, keep in mind how Parisians work when they have the pleasure of serving you.
After you explain your desperate situation (missed flight, lost baggage, a problem with wifi… whatever it may be), be prepared for the most likely response you’ll get: “No there’s nothing I can do.” Know that this is normal. You’ll always get a no at first, but don’t give up. Explain your situation again, all the while feeding their ego, with something along the lines of: “I know this is a difficult situation that will be nearly impossible to solve, but I am just hoping that there might be something you can help with.” Slowly but surely your “no” response will evolve to a “maybe,” then “I’ll see if there’s something I can do,” and finally a positive response with the solution you suggested from the get-go.
A truly patient person will (usually) always get the desired result when dealing with customer service in France, even if it takes hours to get there.
10. Power trip
From what I have witnessed, people in positions of power in France, especially those who work with the public, take their position very seriously (sometimes too seriously). They will always rise to the occasion to demonstrate that they are in a position of power when given the opportunity. Life Pro Tip: Let them get away with it. A few specific instances come to mind.
Once we were going to a hospital to visit a family member. All of the entrance doors were locked until we finally made our way around the building to one that was open. When we entered, one of the attendants came to sternly explain to us that we had entered the wrong door and that we could not be helped here (see point 9). She then proceeded to ask what we were looking for and showed us to the elevator to get us where we were going (see point 9).
Another time, while at the Musée D’Orsay, we timed our visit to get the tail end of lunchtime at the beautiful restaurant in the Tea Room of the museum. We got there twenty minutes before the last seatings. At the entrance, there was a pedestal with a sign that had the opening hours. Since we could read that they were still seating people for twenty minutes, we walked around the sign to the hostess. She told us that we were not to go around the sign and that they were not seating any more guests… all as she was walking us to our table and setting our menus down at our place. I could hardly control my laughter.
10½. Paris is always a good idea
Despite its sometimes peculiar behaviors, there’s no other place that’s quite like Paris. I will never get tired of the infinite local stores and specialty shops all over the city. Someone once told me that you can find anything in Paris. They haven’t been proved wrong yet.
With the local shops and stores come the neighborhood baker or the food merchant that you get to know as you become a regular, whose opinion you depend on and value. As an added bonus to befriending your local food vendors, there’s nothing quite like finding an extra choux pastry or a few surprise figs when you get home and open your shopping bag.
I’ve come to appreciate craftsmanship as the Parisians do, whether it’s vising the local shoe repair for a new sole or picking up an impeccably arranged bouquet.
After living in New York, where a glass of wine can go for $18, dining in Paris never ceases to shock me, in the best way. A night out that would have cost $100 in New York might come to $30-40 in Paris, where a great bottle of wine can set you back $12, and a prix-fixe menu with three courses might cost $20-30. And tax and tips are always included, so you don’t have to break out your calculator at the end of the meal to add on an extra 20%.
It’s pretty cool to walk around a city so packed full of art and history. Taking a stroll through Paris truly does feel like walking in a museum.
Regardless of the years I’ve lived in Paris and the countless trips I’ve made back, somehow there is always a new street or neighborhood to explore or restaurant to try. It’s the city that keeps calling you back time and time again.
I hope that you've been able to find some fun in my adventures in Paris and that they will help you to love and appreciate the city in preparation for the next time you get to visit! If you'd like to read more about some of my favorites in Paris, I've put together a virtual tour that you can take from your couch. Read about it here. I also wrote about my insider tips for the best Paris antique and flea markets here, and traveling to the French Alps here.
What cultural quirks have you encountered while traveling, while in Paris or elsewhere? How did you react and what did you learn from the situation? Let me know in the comments below!
Thank you for reading and sharing!