For years, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have come to Olivier Knox — a Frenchman turned Chief Washington Correspondent for Yahoo News — for advice about Paris. Yahoo Travel may have already briefed you on how to not look like an idiot in Paris, but some lessons are worth learning twice.
Here’s his tricks that even the best-prepared Americans should brush up on:
Restaurant reservations: make them when you can.
Don’t go to Paris in August. Everyone is on vacation, restaurants are closed, the city is steaming, and you will be, too, when you realize all you’re missing out on.
Paris is a big city. Big-city rules apply. Making eye contact with strangers, smiling at them, saying “Hello” is not encouraged in Paris any more than it is encouraged in New York City. If you’re a woman and you smile at a man, he will assume that you are… courting. And that’s the charitable interpretation. BUT, there’s one big caveat…
Say hello to store clerks. When you walk into that boulangerie to buy the éclairs that you and your kids will devour on one of the green benches in the Jardin du Luxembourg, don’t order immediately. First, greet the person behind the register. “Bonjour Monsieur” or “Bonjour Madame” or even a “Good morning sir/ma’am” establishes that you are a polite American familiar with the local culture and not like that one hyena who refused to put out his cigar in a church until someone asked him in English (Yup. True story). If there’s a crowd, they may prompt you with an “et pour Monsieur/Madame.” But the French think it’s rude to define personal interaction solely on the basis of a financial transaction.
Let your guard down. Your visit to Paris shouldn’t feature any sparring with garçons in cafés, or waiters, or cab drivers. The vast majority of folks in the tourism industry speak English, many of them shockingly well. The younger folks are a lot friendlier to Americans — and Americans have generally learned to be better tourists.
Baguettes to go at a boulangerie. (Photo: Franck Vervial/Flickr)
Sweatshirts are okay — sometimes. The French have grown more comfortable with more comfortable clothes, but there are still some unspoken rules. Don’t worry about your college sweatshirt if you’re just sightseeing. French youth wear them too, though they are often fictional institutions (my all-time favorite was “High School University,” complete with fake official seal).
Who wears short shorts? Nobody. In general, they’re dicey. If you’re visiting a church, wear pants, please. In fact, pants in general. Shorts amount to carrying a sign that says “Bawnjur, we’re tourists.” Short shorts are an absolute no. Tank tops? Non. Sneakers? Fine for sightseeing. But nicer restaurants will have a dress code. Find out before you go.
It’s generally true that you can sit indefinitely at a café table, or in a restaurant. But once you ask for the check, you’ve announced that you are leaving. Leave. Don’t forget that there are two kinds of restaurants: “Service compris” (tip included) and “service non-compris” (tip not included).
Jardins du Trocadéro (Photo: Gregory Bastien/Flickr)
Get to major tourist attractions before they open. Study schedules carefully — some attractions stay open late one night per week, when the crowds are often smaller.
Forget the view from the Eiffel Tower. You’re going to the Eiffel Tower. And you’re going to go up, maybe to the first floor, maybe to the top. No, don’t bother denying it. You will. But do me a favor: See Paris from the top of Notre Dame. Or the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Both of those sights are much less tall, and therefore give you a much more detailed view of the city — one in which les parisiens aren’t ants crawling across a map.
If you’re up for a day trip that isn’t Versailles, check out Chartres Cathedral. Just make sure you sign up for a guided tour by Malcolm Miller. It’s been a while since I did that, but the last time I did Miller was still wowing tourists with his unorthox approach. (He’s been guiding there since 1958.) Rather than spend, say, 40 minutes in a race around the church, Miller will focus on the main window. Or one of the doors. Or the nave. Yes, he’ll still give you the history of the place, but you will also get an in-depth, expert talk full of rich detail.
Place des Vosges is where it’s at. It doesn’t require a ton of time (and it’s close to the hopping Bastille neighborhood), but it’s utterly gorgeous. Good place for a romantic photo of the two of you…or a shot of the kids pretending to duel.
Place des Vosges in the morning. (Photo: Ivo Jansch/Flickr)
BEFORE YOU GO
Does your bank have a French lover? If it doesn’t have its own international branches, any domestic banks have reciprocity agreements. For example, Bank of America has a deal with Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP Paribas). That means you can make cash withdrawals at BNP ATMs without paying an out-of-network fee. This is frequently much more convenient than relying on currency exchange services, and the rates can be better than those on your credit card. It also means you won’t feel compelled to carry a large sum of cash.
Book your transport tickets. Familiarize yourself with the Paris transit authority (RATP) and French national train service (SNCF). Some tickets and passes are less expensive if you buy them from the U.S.
(Photo: Trey Ratcliffe/Flickr)
Connecting from the airport into Paris can be a toxic blend of expensive and inconvenient. Cabs are pricey. The commuter train isn’t the most relaxing experience after a trans-Atlantic flight. Luckily, there’s another way: Les Cars Air France, a bus service that runs from each of the major Paris airports into the city proper. Depending on where your hotel is, these can be wonderfully practical — and you can buy your tickets online from the US.
Consider double-decker buses. Seriously. If the weather is nice, The Green Line can take you to many of your “must-see” sites. It’s a hop-off, hop-on deal, which makes it very convenient, and while travel guides inevitably describe Paris as a “walking city,” this is a less exhausting alternative. But shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone — especially not my French friends.
Save that cab money. Another important RATP asset: The Noctilien, night-time buses that are much (that’s MUCH) cheaper than cabs.
ASKING FOR HELP/DIRECTIONS
If your French is solid, learn this phrase: “Excusez-moi de vous déranger, Monsieur/Madame, mais j’ai un problème.” Parisiens like to feel important and authoritative, and most will stop to help.
If you speak French like a Spanish cow (“comme une vache espagnole”) then go with English. Pick someone who looks 45 or under to maximize your odds of fluency in English.
Olivier Knox is Chief Washington Correspondent for Yahoo News. He grew up in Middlebury, VT, and Paris, France, where he was once asked by a Catholic priest to confront an American tourist who refused to put out his cigar in church until he was asked in English.
The Author, covering an April 2007 visit to Iraq by Vice President Cheney. (Photo: Olivier Knox)