Almost every year some official campaign urges Parisians to be friendly to tourists. At one time, posters of smiling Parisians were hung up around town. Other campaigns have urged Parisians to show tourists around, or even to put up visitors in their own apartments. The Parisian response is usually disappointing.
Visitors continue to leave the world’s most visited city saying they liked everything except the people. In a poll this year by the website TripAdvisor, American travellers voted Parisians by far the unfriendliest hosts in Europe. Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret speaks for generations of jilted visitors when she admits, “Actually, Cliff, I’ve always rather hated Paris.”
We have lived in Paris for over a decade between us. We won’t pretend that beneath the grumpy misanthropic Parisian exterior there lurks a heart of gold. More often, there lurks a grumpy misanthrope.
However, visitors do habitually misunderstand Parisians. For instance, they are not simply rude. Often, the sneering waiter is observing a complex etiquette, and if the visitor makes a few simple adjustments, they will become nicer. So for the benefit of international relations, here is a user’s guide to Parisians.
Learn their codes
When Parisians are rude to visitors, it is often because they think the visitor has been rude. This city has an old-fashioned etiquette, and unlucky tourists trample it with both white-sneakered feet.
Starting from babyhood, Parisians are expected to dress, speak and behave perfectly. This impossible task makes them uptight, and smirking at others who slip up makes them feel better. Foreigners are an easy target: they don’t know the rules and are therefore bound to say, wear and do the wrong things.
A few basic rules will diminish Parisian rudeness by about 40 per cent. Before saying anything else, say, “Bonjour”. When the French finance minister Christine Lagarde recently appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, she cut through his opening storm of questions with a, “Bonjour, first of all.” Stunned, Stewart replied in Spanish: “Hola.”
If a conversation ensues, don’t speak loudly, smile or use superlatives – all these are the marks of simpletons. On departing, always say goodbye. Yes, always: after an attacker held up a friend of ours at gunpoint in the lift of her apartment near Bastille, he left saying, “Bonne soirée”.
Don’t go around in sports kit, T-shirts with large logos or baseball caps. We did recently see a suspiciously French-looking gentleman wearing a cap on the metro, but on closer inspection he turned out to be mentally disturbed.
On the other hand, don’t spend six hours dressing. Parisians aim to look effortlessly flawless. And don’t attempt flabby exposed midriffs or pushed-up cleavages (especially not if you are a man). Parisian women wear clothes that actually suit their body shape, age and style.
Only in one field of Parisian endeavour do no rules apply: driving.
Remember: the server doesn’t want your money – he wants his dignity
An American friend recently tried to buy a newspaper at a Parisian kiosk. The stallholder, ignoring his outstretched hand with money, continued calmly putting his stock in order. “Why?” our friend asked later. “Doesn’t he want my money?”
No. He couldn’t care less. A Parisian shopworker or waiter has a mighty disregard for the turnover of the establishment he works in, and for the functioning of its Kafkaesque system. He isn’t “serving” a “customer”. He is an individual interacting with an individual. What’s at stake is what each can get out of the interaction – respect, power, or drama to pass the time.
Part of what is going on here is that the Parisian labour market is inflexible. You need exactly the right qualifications for exactly the right job, because employers here rarely understand the idea of transferable skills. That leaves lots of overqualified Parisians doing menial jobs they loathe.
Furthermore, inside every Parisian shopworker lurks a revolutionary who cannot be bought. It’s useful to remember that the quintessential Parisian form of group expression is the demonstration. You find the same sullen service in other countries where capitalism hasn’t always been the leading ideology, such as the former USSR or Castro’s Cuba.
The Paris Tourism Agency says that about 20 per cent of people working in this city depend directly or indirectly on the tourist economy. But to Parisians, that’s no reason to prostrate themselves before visitors. “The customer is always right,” sounds to them rather like the Italian fascist adage, “Mussolini is always right.”
That’s why it’s counterproductive to try to hurry a Parisian waiter. He is not your boy. His ethos says: the more they try to rush me, the more time I will take. If you treat the waiter as an equal – asking his advice on the wines, for instance – he might treat you as an equal, too.
Imagine 2.5m grumpy people packed into the tiny space inside the périphérique ring road, living on top of each other on creaking 19th-century parquet floors. Inevitably, the biggest Parisian pest is the grumbling neighbour. The biggest Parisian mistake one of us ever made was to buy a bottle of port to placate a grumbling neighbour. He took it as a surrender, like handing over the Alsace-Lorraine.
You get respect here by standing up for yourself. The very common Parisian “non” should never be confused with the less ambiguous English “no”. In Paris, “non” means, “Let’s see what you’re made of”. The more emphasis someone can place on a negative response, the more satisfying it seems to be. One of us once asked if there were any scarves in a shop in the Galeries Lafayette. The response was a 180-degree slow-motion shake of the head, accompanied by “Du tout, du tout, du tout,” which roughly translates as, “Not at all in any way, no chance, never”. But after a spot of arguing, as if by magic the scarves were produced.
Persist with dignity, and when necessary with aggression. In Paris, you never let anybody beat you.
It’s not because they’re anti-American
In the highest-grossing French film ever, the comedy Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis, a postmaster is told that as a punishment for a transgression he is to be transferred from idyllic Provençe to a terrible place.
The postmaster buries his head in his hands and moans, “Paris!”
His boss shakes his head sorrowfully: “Worse than Paris”.
The postmaster looks up, incredulous: “Worse than Paris?”
Parisians are grumpy to everyone, even each other. If they are mean to you, it’s not because you are a foreigner. It’s because you don’t know how to behave.
Escape tourist Paris
Tourist Paris is essentially a façade designed to punish people who transgress Parisian etiquette. Horrible waiters in waistcoats slam down €10 bottles of bad orange juice. They know they could hang the tourists upside down and flay them, and people would still be back next year.
But hidden beside tourist Paris is another city: the Paris of neighbourhoods. Most people there don’t have hearts of gold. They won’t be instantly chummy. Why should they behave like your long-lost brother when you’ve only just sat down in their restaurant? However, they do want customers to come back. Go to the same neighbourhood café every day, even if you’re only here for a long weekend. Once you have established some mutual respect – you like their café, they think your taste in cafés is excellent – they will soften up. Then Paris becomes really rather bearable.
Pauline Harris is a writer based in Paris; Simon Kuper is the FT’s sports columnist
Parks both baroque and postmodern
Hardly any visitors make it to the 19th arrondissement, and so its marvellous parks and canals are excellent places to escape “tourist Paris” for “neighbourhood Paris”.
In the north-eastern corner of the city proper, this is such a junior arrondissement that it was only annexed to Paris in 1860. It remains rather rundown. However, it has some of the city’s best outdoor spaces, free of sneering waistcoated waiters. Here you can find much of the design and art that characterise Paris, updated for this century, but with little of central Paris’s haughty attitude.
It was Napoleon III who decided to turn a disused quarry and rubbish dump into the Buttes-Chaumont park. Baron Haussmann, Paris’s great architect, brought the project to fruition in the 1860s. Abandoning the clean lines of the rest of his Paris, here Haussmann let it all hang out. The result is a baroque fairytale, a setting for Hansel and Gretel. On top of a big rock in a lake stands a ‘Petit Temple’ (pictured). There are English gardens, Asian trees, grottos, and waterfalls with stalactites – artificial, like so much else in the park. Children watch puppet shows and ride tiny horses, and everyone sprawls in the grass, freed from the rules that govern so strictly the rest of Paris.
Just a short walk away is the biggest park in the city, the Parc de la Villette. Created only in 1982, with advice from the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, Villette is a modern (or postmodern) cultural complex. Parisians sit in the grass listening to concerts, or take their perfectly disciplined kids to the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, reputedly Europe’s biggest science museum.
Then you can picnic along one of the canals that dissect the 19th. Bar Ourcq is a friendly, bohemian place where you can borrow boules or deckchairs and get takeaway beers to drink by the water.
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, entrance 1 rue Botzaris; Parc de la Villette, main entrance 211, avenue Jean Jaurès, tel: +33 1 40 03 75 75; Bar Ourcq, 68, Quai de la Loire, tel: +33 1 42 40 12 26
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