Date of Trip: January 2001
Forget the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre; what’s Paris really like?
Considering a trip to Paris this year? Well what do you already know about the French? Let’s see! They wear berets, ride bicycles and carry baguettes under their arms; they don’t wash, they’re rude and unhelpful — they refuse to facilitate life for tourists by pretending they don’t speak English-, and to top it all: they pout in that oh-so-French manner. On a more positive note, they’re the world’s greatest lovers; they sit around on cafe terraces talking philosophy whilst sucking on unfiltered Gitanes; every day they regale themselves on five-course gourmet meals washed down with a Bordeaux grand-cru; French women couldn’t get fat even if they tried and they all dress so elegantly that a walk down the Champs Elysees is akin to having a front-row seat at a Karl Lagerfeld fashion parade. All of these stereotypes are true to a small degree and greatly exaggerated to a large degree. Apart, that is, from the not-washing one, which is utter nonsense : a fear of cholera in the 1700’s made powdering preferable to washing, a habit which quickly became fashionable throughout Europe, yet the French still bear the brunt.
As someone who makes a living from teaching English in France I can assure you, here and now, that many French people either speak no English at all, or else speak it only as well as you, dear reader, speak their language. And as for those who do speak English, they do NOT resent using it; on the contrary they thrive on it, relishing the opportunity to put into practice what they have laboured and agonised over for years at school. What they do resent however, is the tourist who automatically assumes that everyone should speak English and who, finding himself not understood, simply ups the volume: it should be noted here that non-native English-speaking tourists are just as guilty of this faux-pas as are the Anglo-Saxons. A little ‘Parlez-vous anglais?’ therefore will get you a long way in France; after all they would have liked their language to have become the world’s Lingua Franca, so let’s not rub it in. You might be surprised at the number of English expressions that have been integrated into the French language. Colleagues will wish each other a ‘bon weekend’ on Friday evening, then go to ‘le parking’ to fetch the car, but not before double checking ‘le planning’ to make sure they haven’t forgotten ‘un meeting’. Ladies have appointments at the hair-dresser’s for ‘un brushing’ and on the way there they just might pop into ‘le pressing’ to have a dress dry-cleaned. While we are all familiar with rendez-vous, fiance, cuisine, coup d’etat, creche etc and may feel confident enough to throw the odd Frenchism into our conversation : “What a lovely soiree”; it felt like a dejà vu”, we should beware, however, of assuming that French people will understand everything we say. If you ask for an en-suite bedroom at your hotel they will have absolutely no idea in the whole wide world what you are talking about. A waiter will wonder why an American tourist wants his dessert ‘to be fashionable’ when he asks for ‘Apple Pie à la mode’: a perfectly reasonable request back in Kansas. Tell them your house is located in a charming Cul-de-Sac and they will put their hands to their mouths and giggle hysterically as they conjure up images of a house located in a ‘bag’s ass’ (and I don’t mean the animal!). Restaurant menus are almost always translated into English -mass-tourism oblige, though sometimes you might be better trying to get your head round the original. ‘The special of the Chief’ or ‘The House’s Wine’ are manageable, but what about Crudites (Mixed Salad) translated as ‘Raw Vegetables’, Oeuf-dur (Egg Mayonnaise) becomes ‘Hard Egg’, and ‘pommes vapeur’ (steamed potatoes) might disappear before your very eyes as ‘Vapourised Potatoes’. As for Coq au Vin, well! I’ll leave that to your imagination. Then of course there’s the problem of ‘Les Toilettes’. Why it is always stated in the plural is somewhat of a mystery given that ‘they’ usually consist of ONE mind-bogglingly, minuscule cabinette located at the bottom of a perilous, twisting and extremely narrow spiral stairwell. And to add insult to injury (not to mention to the smell), you are sometimes expected to have a coin at hand to open the door into this cesspool. Then, once inside, there is the further shock of finding a hole in the ground with a filthy chain for the flush which invariably overflows rinsing your shoes in a peculiar mixture of water, urine and whatever else you’d like to imagine.
Parisians are not rude, they just have a different idea of what constitutes politeness. We Anglo-Saxons (a term the continentals use to speak collectively of all English-speaking people) expect waiters, sales assistants, bar staff, etc. to be friendly and helpful, we take it for granted. Parisians don’t; they may even see such behaviour as unnecessarily hypocritical. Parisian waiters will take your order, serve the right dish to the right person and even remember who exactly ordered the rare steak and who (quelle horreur!) asked for the well done one. However, they will not engage in chit-chat, will not merrily go through the menu recommending things, nor will they be patient of modifications or changes to set dishes. No matter how sweetly and charmingly you point out that you’d rather have Gratin Dauphinois with your salmon instead of the proposed green beans, you will not be made to feel that pandering to your every whim is this waiter’s sole raison d’etre. Your wish is most definitely not his command. If you smile at strangers in Paris you could be taken for an imbecile or, worse still, hauled up before the police for sexual indecency. People do not smile unless they’re eyeing each other up in a night club or, better yet, already in bed together. In Anglo-Saxon countries, when we are jostled on a train or a bus thus causing us to accidentally bump into our neighbour, we smile graciously and say ‘Sorry!’ without asking ourselves if we really have anything to be sorry for -I once mechanically apologised to a pole that I had walked into. In the Paris metro the person who says ‘Pardon!’ is basically saying : ‘That was MY fault’, he is admitting to his culpability for the crime and therefore will be rewarded with a ‘harrumph’ accompanied by a Gallic pout of the best sort; needless to say no eye contact, much less a smile, will be encountered throughout this disagreeable scene. It took me years to cotton on to this little social dance but, having learned the hard way, now when the metro pushes me up against Mademoiselle Belle, I superbly look away and pretend nothing has happened. No apology from me, no pout from her, we’re all happy. On the other hand, holding doors open for people in Paris is sacrosanct. This polite gesture can even become a source of irritation: returning home from a hard day’s work, arms laden with briefcase and shopping bags, you notice that someone, 200 metres ahead, is holding the metro exit door open for you. So now, instead of trudging along at the snail’s pace your burdensome load requires, you feel you have to quicken your step and trot up to the door so as not to seem ungrateful; then just as you are panting a wheezy ‘merci’ you realise that 200 metres behind you someone else is hurrying along and so now it becomes your turn to play the gatekeeper.
But don’t let all this put you off. I’ve been living and working in Paris for over twenty-five years and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Paris is as exciting as it is beautiful, wandering aimlessly through its wide, elegant boulevards and its narrow, cobblestone streets is an experience few other cities can offer on such a varied scale. It has more monuments and museums than any other city in the world and despite the proliferation of McDonalds and Starbucks there is still an abundance of wonderful, traditional Parisian brasseries and bistros on every street corner offering reasonably priced haute cuisine, fine wine and atmosphere -notwithstanding the grumpy, efficient waiters and the adventurous toilettes.