Monday, May 18, 2009

What You Should Know on Your First Trip to Paris

by Dr. Brian Cowlishaw, guest blogger

I know that for many of you, this will be your first trip to Paris, maybe even the first time you've left the country. I didn't go until I was in my thirties. So I thought it might be useful for me to share with you some things about Paris you probably don't want to learn the hard way.
1. Parisians mostly don't smile.
This is not because they're rude. In fact, they're wonderful, generous people. It's just not a cultural norm for them, as it is for us. They suspect that a stranger smiling at them wants to sell them something--or is stupid or insane. So if you can't help smiling at Parisians, try to do it without showing teeth.
2. You should always bookend a visit to a shop or a monetary transaction with "Bonjour" (until dinner time)/"Bon soir" (at or after dinner) and "Au revoir."
This is considered basic human politeness.
3. Parisian restaurants work differently than ours.
You don't:
--tip more than a small, token coin or two. Generally, gratuities are pre-added into the check.
--speak in loud English only. I'm sure none of you would do so, but it's not unheard of among Americans, and it's ugly to watch. If you don't speak French at all, that's fine--at least say "Bonjour" (or "Bon soir") and then point to things on the menu. Dr. Cowlishaw or I will help, too, if we're nearby.
--get ice in your drinks. As one otherwise unmemorable skit on Saturday Night Live put it, "Zere is no ice in Europe."
You do:
--eat anything on the menu. Some of the things on the menu may not sound appetizing, translated into English--notoriously, "escargots" (snails)--but trust me, no matter what they're cooking, the French make it delicious.
--take your time. In American restaurants, they sometimes bring you the check with the food. In Europe generally, you're expected to linger over a meal and enjoy it. Drink some wine. Drink some more. Have a coffee. Chat. Rest from all the walking.
--eat later than you might be used to. You can hardly even get seated before 7 p.m., so don't bother. Enjoy eating late.
4. Parisians are more private than Americans.
So speak softly to each other, leaning in--especially in Metro cars. You don't want to be the loud American the natives are rolling their eyes about. Manage cell phone conversations similarly, trying not to share them with everyone nearby.

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