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Quirky Parisian Things

If you've never been to Paris before, you've nevertheless no doubt heard all sorts of stories about the French. Many of them are true, most are not. The famous Parisian rudeness simply fails to materialize. You will find people to be no different than in any other big city, but where they do differ, it's normally on the HotBrassside of being a little nicer. Been to New York lately? Tried to ask for directions? In Paris, most people will actually stop and try to help you. Last night I was with some friends and we were looking for a restaurant we had heard of but to which we hadn't bothered to get exact directions. We approached a young woman on the street who not only stopped to help; she got out her Plan de Paris (see First Things First) to make sure we got precise directions, and she was very friendly and good natured about it. This is the kind of thing that happens way more often than not. Get over the idea that the French are rude and somehow uncivilized.

The thing is, unless you were born into it you will never completely understand this culture, which is what makes it so interesting and so fun. No matter how much time you spend here, you'll always find something that mystifies, angers, upsets, or simply completely bewilders you. And as long as you don't expect everything to be just what you pictured—and really, why would it be?—it'll be great. Expect everything to be different, including telephones, doorknobs, coffee, restaurants, governments, toothpicks, and table salt, and then you'll be all set to go. Still, there are some things about life in Paris that will either irritate you or mystify you.

I have been asked on a number of occasions whether Americans should fear—or at the very least worry about—traveling in France in this post-Iraq war world. Specifically, some Americans wonder whether increased anti-French feelings on the part of some U.S. politicians and/or citizens are mirrored by French anti-Americanism. In my experience: no—in fact, not at all. Most people I've spoken with are mystified and even hurt to learn Americans fear coming to France for fear of being aggressed by French people seeking revenge for U.S. anti-French feelings. This has been borne out in the press as well, and in a number of articles French folks, especially those in the tourist industries, have not only denied any such feelings, they've also pointed out that since the number of Americans coming to France has declined, they welcome those Americans who do come all the more. These people aren't crazy, folks: they know where their bread and butter comes from. In short, the people you're likely to encounter will pay little or no attention to you because of your nationality. You might well hear some complaints about U.S. foreign policy, but generally speaking French folks don't attribute to its citizens the actions of a government (their own included).

On the level of sheer irritation, just walk down a busy street, and people will run into you right and left. French people simply don't look where they're going, and they depend on other people not to bump into them. ComingAtYouThe trick here, actually, is a bit more subtle: people are aware if someone else is looking out, so if they see that you're looking at them, they'll assume you won't run into them, and that thus they are free to look at something more interesting. (Actually, if you think about it, this makes perfect sense.) So, what you need to do is never make eye contact with anyone who's approaching you within, say, 5-8 meters. Look abstractedly past them, and they will avoid you. It virtually always works. I don't know what happens to French people when they go to big American cities, but I bet they get pretty banged up and yelled at a lot.

Parisians not looking and coming right at you-->

You will also find that people stare at you a great deal, no matter how unremarkable you may be. Sit on the metro, and suddenly you'll find that someone either directly across from you or all the way across the car is simply staring directly at you, often for whole minutes on end. Even if you make a point of catching them in the act, they won't turn away in embarrassment, the way you might expect in the U.S. They'll just keep looking. Deal with it.

Related to the 'running into you on the street' phenomenon is the 'no one else exists' phenomenon that you'll find in a lot of public places. French people will stop to talk to someone they know wherever they happen to meet—and if this just happens to be in a doorway or at the bottom of a descending escalator, so what? The thing is, they won't even notice the throngs of people piling up on top of them as the escalator continues its inexorable march toward them, or the folks who can't make their way past them through the door. Oddly related to this, though, and equally irritating, is the fact that French people will not open doors unless absolutely necessary—say, in a fire. When you're exiting the metro there is generally a bank of exit doors, the way you might find in a large American department store. One door is very often propped open. No matter how many people might be trying to go in or out of the metro, each and every one of them will try to go through the one open door, and they'll wait to do it. No one will think to open another door. If you do so, however, streams of people will follow you. Lemmings must be French.

Paris is not a quiet city, so if a lot of ambient noise generally bothers you, you might find things trying here. There will certainly be some sort of construction, street cleaning, sewer draining, or whatnot outside your bedroom window at least 1 day every 3 or 4. In addition there's an incredibly loud helicopter that often hovers over the city for no Nanterreapparent reason every morning for about 15 minutes. The idea of noise pollution hasn't taken hold in France yet.

One of the biggest noise polluters you'll find is French television. It is actually appalling. If you don't have cable, you can only get 5 stations: 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. Only 5 is worth anything at all: it's the French-German co-production PBS-like channel that focuses on art and education, and they often have interesting broadcasts. One cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, say the same about the others. Except for the news, which is generally pretty good, they blare badly dubbed movies, soap operas, and silly cartoons most of the day, in addition to the odd game show (with emphasis on the 'odd'). You're probably not going to France to watch TV, though (and it's a good thing). Speaking of game shows, my favorite is called "Questions pour un champion," and these people don't mess around. The contestants know a lot of stuff about some really weird categories. My all-time favorite category on this show—and I swear I'm not making this up—was "diseases of the peritoneum."

MamboAnother thing you might not expect is the poor taste the French manifest toward rock music. Most of the music you'll hear blaring in clubs, out car windows (although, mercifully, you'll virtually never hear music booming out from cars as loud as what you hear in the US), in someone's apartment, etc., sounds as though it was chosen by a 15-year-old kid who's either depressed or setting out to party—the really sad part is, though, that this music is likely to be coming out of the sound system belonging to an adult. As a corollary to that, the French absolutely cannot dance. It's totally bizarre: SoireeBusgo to a club or anywhere where people are dancing, and you'll see this kind of strange knee-bending, hips-frozen, finger snapping dancing that you'd expect your uncle to engage in at your cousin's wedding. Frighteningly, the ability to dance actually decreases the more you move up the socio-economic scale in this city.

And then the ability to dance (or not) turns into something that I find really strange: the soirée bus. Soirée bus is exactly that: a bus that's supposed to be some kind of really hip party (in fact, I'd translate the name to something like "party bus." The bus has a DJ, music, a bathroom, drinks, disco lights (and I think an actual disco ball), but it's a bus. And it looks and moves like one. The people on it, though, don't seem to mind, and they'll bop and sway to the music the way they would in a club, all the while holding the chrome bar above their head as though they're on their way to work. It's really a trip. I can't ever tell when I see this thing if the people are really having a good time, or if they just feel compelled to act in a way that would suggest that they are. Either way, it's pretty weird.

Here's something no one will tell you: there are two kinds of croissant, and the one you want is called a Croissantcroissant au beurre. Ask for that specifically, or you'll get one that I doubt will match the image you have of what this treat should look, feel, and taste like. You have to ask for these in cafés, too. Generally speaking, the regular croissant has a tighter crescent shape (like the one in the photo); the croissant au beurre is more elongated. Don't forget to get a pain au chocolat, too (although not for breakfast; it's a good afternoon snack). Some American bakeries and grocery stores with pretensions sell these as "chocolate croissants," an idea as revolting as it is stupid. This is a pastry that consists of more or less the same pâte feuilletée (although ever so slightly sweetened) you find in a croissant, and it's got a few morsels of bittersweet chocolate in it. It's not sickeningly sweet, because there isn't that much chocolate in it—there's just exactly enough. I'm still trying to find the best one in the world, so we're taking nominations here. Send in your recommendations for the best pain au chocolat!

A new feature of the much under-appreciated French engineering is starting to appear (2003) in the form of high-speed people-moving conveyor belts. Yeah, we've all seen these things in airports that plod along at barely more than a normal walking pace. Well, now you better watch out! In the long (long!) metro connection at Montparnasse-Bienvenue, they've installed this thing that moves you so fast it'll make your hair stand straight out behind you (well, maybe not quite). How do you get on, you ask, without killing yourself? There's a sort of approach conveyor belt that you get on—and they warn you that you'd better hold on to the handrail, which you're insane not to do—and the thing gets you up to speed to the fast-moving belt. There's a de-acceleration belt at the end. It's totally cool—so cool, in fact, that after doing it the first time, I walked all the way around and did it again.

GalandeWhen you pay for something, don't be surprised if the person taking your money expects you to put it down, rather than taking it directly from your hand. Most places even have a sort of tray on the counter expressly for this purpose. You'll also get your change that way. Even if you're holding your hand out, the salesperson will likely put your money in the little tray. Who could blame them? No one knows where your hands have been. And speaking of change... Clerks in grocery stores (and other places, too) seem to think it's really hard to make change. If your bill comes to, say, 46 euros and 85 centimes, they'll ask you if you have the 85 centimes, even though it's insanely easier for someone to give you the 15 centimes necessary to round out to the nearest euro. They'd rather wait while you dig through your pockets or purse or whatever to come up with the right combination of coins. I once saw a particularly piquant change crisis in a large grocery store: a customer either didn't have or was unwilling to come up with the exact change combination that would please the cashier, and the latter just sat there smugly in front of her drawer full of money, refusing to make change. The line stalled for what had to be 10 minutes (I was in an adjacent line) at this test of will and nerves until finally the manager was called in. I never did get to see how it turned out. By the way, you bag your own groceries in grocery stores.

When you're in a theater and have to go by someone to get to your seat (say you're in the center, and they're on the aisle), always pass in front of them facing toward them—that is, away from the screen or the stage. It's very rude otherwise.

To be continued...


Readers Chime In...

The "French stare" has generated a fair amount of interest:

Carley has a different take on the "French stare." She writes: "There is no reason why anyone should have to put up with the irritating French stare. If you simply raise your eyebrows a bit and look back, they are more than likely to turn to someone else who is not looking. For the French the stare is a means of intimidation and control. When you make it obvious that you cannot be unnerved by their wandering eyes,the stares will cease. Though I have never actually done this, I have heard people say, 'tu veux ma photo?' (do you want my picture?)"

Arthur has this to say about the stare: "I used to ride the New York City subway very often, and I think that the only reason people think that there is a lot of staring on the Paris metro is that you are forced to sit facing somebody. I would think that if NYC installed seats like the ones in Paris, in little groups of four, people would involuntarily stare at each other as well. I have heard (not only from [Tom]) about the staring and people-watching tendencies of the French, and while I have noticed some occurrences, in my three weeks here so far (involving constant metro travel, I might add) I have not seen it to be really anything so extreme. People look at me on the metro sometimes, but if I look at them back, many of them do turn away. Of course, I usually catch them staring back at me, but I don't find it to be a big deal. Add your thoughts about the stare, or anything else. here.

Eric has this observation about the celebrated French "rudeness": "It's not so much a matter of a French quirk as cultural differences that many Americans don't understand, which leads to the idea that the French are rude. First is that the French are a somewhat more formal people than Americans. The easy familiarity and immediate use of first names that characterize Americans when they are dealing with relative strangers is seen by the French, at least the older ones, as crude and boorish. Americans, on the other hand see the formality and reserve of the French as rudeness or hauteur when nothing of the kind is intended. Second, the French are an intellectually lively and politically opinionated people. Talking religion or politics is something that most Americans' parents warned them against. In France it the national sport, and one they are very good at. I had the experience last spring (March 2006) of having a spirited argument with a Parisian about politics. A fellow American intruded telling me not to "act like an ugly American." The Parisian I was arguing with smiled and replied that, in his opinion, I was being very French. Mu own observation is if anyone is offended by the French opinion of American political leaders they would find, if they inquired, that they think just as badly of their own. The vigour and intelligence of debate in France is one of the reasons I love the French."


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Tom's Guide to Paris. Copyright 2014 by Thomas DiPiero. All rights reserved.