1. It’s okay to not be fluent in French but knowing a few basics will get you far.
I am terrible at French. Between Gala and guidebooks, I was able to pick up the absolute necessities including Bonjour (Good morning / good day), Salut (Hello), Merci (thank you), Au revoir (goodbye), and most importantly, Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?). What I quickly realized is that if you are friendly and make an effort to greet the French in their native language, then follow up with Parlez-vous anglais?, most citizens will quickly gather that you’re an American and switch over to speaking English.
2. The old stereotype that the French are rude and unhelpful is not necessarily true.
Before visiting France, I was warned by other Americans that the French might be off-putting. I was prepared for the worst but found the exact opposite to be true. People in the street stopped and assisted us with directions. Shopkeepers smiled and were more than helpful. Waiters took the time to answer our questions about items on the menu. I can honestly say that I didn’t have a single negative experience.
I think that our experience was directly related to the image that we projected: we dressed up, were polite, tried to address everyone in French and demonstrated an overall appreciation of the French culture. If you show up in khaki shorts and dirty sneakers, are loud and obnoxious and don’t make any effort to speak French, you probably will be met by cold, sneering attitudes. And really, you’d have only yourself to blame.
3. If you want to blend in, dress simply and wear mostly black.
I had an image of how the French would dress and well….I was wrong. I arrived in Paris sporting my Rick Owens jacket, Wolford Bondage tights and sky-high wedges only to realize that the French are much more conservative. Perhaps I would be dressed to blend in if it was 2050. Parisians are much better put together than Americans overall, yet never come across as gaudy or too done up. They are chic in a classic, understated way. Wardrobes I saw on the street and in the shops were mostly black and gray with the occasional burst of red.
4. It is not usually acceptable to eat on the street.
In America, we are used to eating on the go. Time is money and wasted time is considered the bane of our existence. In Paris, the pace of life is much slower. Food and coffee are meant to be enjoyed. Always take the time to sit down at a café whenever possible and avoid stuffing your face in public. There is a wave of change slowly rippling through French society though, most notably through the influx of Starbucks. As is customary in America, coffee is prepared in to-go cups.
Note: sometimes, avoiding eating in public just isn’t possible. When Gala and I got sandwiches to go at a café one day, there were 20+ empty tables yet they were all reserved. In the end, we were forced to sit in a doorway in an alley to eat lunch. Not so classy.
Planning to travel to Paris is just like anywhere else: keep an open mind, be aware of your surroundings, avoid being too picky, greet Parisians in their native language and show a willingness to adapt. It’s really quite easy to acclimate and to have an amazing time, you just have to be willing. Au revoir and happy travels!