As France gears up to commemorate its independence on Bastille Day, its capital recently celebrated something of a somewhat different ilk. On July 9, the City of Light was asked by the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau to play nice with the other bratty children of foreign countries. This was done by creating a festival to honor tourists, in hopes that residents will be more welcoming to visitors, which will in turn inspire visitors to see the city as a kinder place.
Activities for the day included tourist welcome points, where bracelets and travel information were handed out. Banners and brochures with helpful reminders for residents such as “I will take the time to give information to visitors,” and for visitors “I will experience the Parisian lifestyle” were distributed at major sites by people wearing shirts that read Paris est á vous, or “Paris is yours.”
Although the campaign is geared toward residents and visitors alike, it seems a little heavy handed—almost like an angry parent giving its child a swift spanking.
The Times Online began its coverage with an anecdote about a woman asking for directions to the nearest Starbucks (in English, mind you) to a French street vendor. This heart-warming tale was meant to exemplify the shameful treatment she received when the man replied (in French) that he had no idea, even though he knew perfectly well that the nearest Starbucks was a mere 50 meters away. The nerve of that Frenchman is just too much for any tourist to handle. Or is it?
It’s not that I don’t empathize with the lost tourist asking for directions. I was once that same woman wandering the streets of Paris, relying on the kindness of locals. The major difference (beside the fact that I wasn’t asking for a chain coffee shop in the city of cafes), is that I asked for help in a fumbling, sometimes charming, most of the time awkward, rendition of the French language. I didn’t expect Paris to get on its hands and knees and roll out the American flag for me.
It’s true that the French can be rude, but show me an American who hasn’t cursed at massive crowds of tourists, or the American who remains polite when expected, not asked, to speak another language.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a world where people help out their fellow human, but it’s silly to think that it can only happen on one end. We must learn to respect each other’s cultures. I think the U.S. may be due for its own festival of ways to behave when traveling in other countries. First lesson: Learn the basic phrases that show you don’t expect everyone to speak your language.
And always remember, you’re a guest, so act like one.