That’s exactly how I felt 15 years ago, when I came here for a semester… and ended up putting down roots. Countless joys and disappointments later, I’ve learned some precious lessons and discovered the secret to feeling at home in Paris.
It’s quite simple. All you need to do is follow 3 ground rules that form an open sesame to the heart of Paris. They are helpful even if you’re envisioning just a weekend visit to promenade down the Champs-Elysées and climb the Eiffel Tour.
But they become vital if you plan on staying in Paris anywhere between 3 weeks and a lifetime, and would like to immerse yourself in this city, soak up its smells and tastes, feel its pulse and touch its soul.
Ground Rule # 1: Appearances matter in Paris. A lot. Make sure yours doesn’t scream, “I’m a Foreign Dork. Despise me!”
a. Wear elegant clothes, shoes and accessories
They don’t have to be expensive. You’re telling Parisians about your good taste, not the size of your pocketbook.
So go ahead and ditch that fanny pack and those hideous Velcro sandals… unless you’re into men who pair shorts with longs socks and said Velcro sandals. They’re a dying breed in Paris, but if you’re lucky you can find them among Pétanque players in parks.
Parisian women dress coquettishly but conservatively. When they show off their tanned legs, they cover the cleavage; when they don a strapless top, they pair it with pants. If you go out wearing a micro-skirt / crop top combo, you’ll attract attention, all right. But you’ll repel the kind of Frenchman who’d want to show you other sights than his bedroom.
Ground Rule # 2: Show respect to waiters and shopkeepers
In cafés and restaurants, NEVER snap your fingers and shout “Garçon!” to attract the attention of a waiter. Doing so may have been OK in Maupassant’s day, but it’s a definite no-no today. Remember: an aggravated waiter can do some depraved things to your drink and food. That is, if he ever deigns to take your order.
It’s safe to call servers Monsieur or Madame. S’il vous plait and a raised hand work too.
Ground Rule # 3: Communicate with tact and patience
Don’t smile at random passersby. They’ll think you’re crazy. Do smile at people you’ve seen more than once in your neighborhood. Do say bonjour to someone you run into regularly in your local café or convenience store. If the person greets you back, try commenting on the weather or cracking a joke.
Provided you don’t look like a foreign dork (see # 1.a above), you may get a friendly reply or a chuckle, which may lead to a chat, a helpful tip or an invitation to a neighbors’ picnic.