Paris, June 18 — Oh the myths about the City of Light. We all know that the French are rude, especially the waiters in the restaurants. And, of course, the French do not like Americans.
Then there is the matter of how to dress when you arrive as a tourist in France. Jeans definitely are out, as are shorts, tees, and fanny packs. You do not want to look like a tourist. You should seek to blend in and look French.
Some of that stuff is true, much of it is nonsense.
Arriving here a week ago with spouse Barbara, daughter Amy, and granddaughter Elena, I was looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the city that so many people consider the center of the world. Barbara and I had been here 15 years ago and were eager to see what had changed. It was also a wonderful opportunity for Amy to see Paris again and a chance to introduce Elena, 17 and entering the University of Wisconsin in the fall.
Hearing the same old stories about French rudeness, we were pleasantly surprised to find again that the myths were not true.
This time the Parisians have been more than friendly, they have gone out of their way to be helpful. For example, on the Metro (the excellent subway system), a young person will inevitably offer you his or her seat when things get crowded. There are posters urging Parisians to surrender their seats to older people or the handicapped, and the young folks eagerly comply. The offers do not exactly bolster you delusion that you look 25 years young than you are, but having a seat on the Metro sure beats getting tossed around while standing.
Myth #2—Unfriendly Waiters
My observation is that most cafes are short-staffed by American standards, and the waiters must hustle to get the food to your table on time. They do not have time to chat you up. Only once did we run into a waiter who seemed impatient with us, and that may have been a misperception. Most of the restaurants near the Seine and the Louvre in the Latin Quarter welcome American tourists, whether or not they speak French. But attempts to speak the language earn you a broader smile. Occasionally you run into waiters (only once did we have a waitress) who will joke around with you a la Americaine, but that happens mostly in the touristy areas.
Myth #3—No jeans in Paris
We have friends who love France and indulge in elite, exclusive, and expensive journeys to Paris. I doubt that they ever ride the Metro with the common folk; they take taxis and limos everywhere. I also am certain that they get into the Louvre and the other sights after hours for private guided tours. These friends would never, ever wear jeans in France. Such attire would offend a real Frenchwoman’s sense of style, they believe.
How sad. Jeans are everywhere, and not only on Sorbonne students in the Latin Quarter where we stayed, so close to everything. Adults of all ages wear jeans, and, I might add, wear them well. It helps that the French women are slender, as you have so often heard. Admittedly, we did not seem to see as many jeans last time here.
To be sure, French women do “dress up” for work and other occasions, and when we see them on their way to work during the rush hour, they display a sense of style and taste that is the envy of women everywhere. For one thing, their choices create a subtle impression of style. Loudness, gaudiness, blatant sexiness seem to be exceptions. Colorful scarves worn with subdued colors add just the right touch. Enough on that subject: my travelling companions shut me up fast when I dare expound on female styles. They apparently have not heard of freedom of speech.
So much for the myths.
Some of the truisms you hear about Paris are in fact just that — true. Hotels rooms, both this trip and the last, are incredibly small. The shower in our room is about the size of a tall refrigerator. Ever try to turn around while standing in a fridge? Of course we chose this ancient hotel because it was in the heart of where we wanted to stay, close to all we wanted to see.
One more thought: it’s probably true that you should avoid shorts and fanny packs. Those items seem to shove your tourist status in your hosts’ face. But as for trying not to be spotted as a tourist, forget it. As soon as you open your mouth you will be caught. Either you do not speak French or your grammar or accent will betray you. Be who you are: an American who likes Paris.
The French take great pride in their culinary creations, and rightfully so. However, after a lifetime of American cooking I find it difficult to eat so “fancy” night after night. Most of all, I miss the American coffee. That’s why I find myself writing this blog at the Starbucks on Boulevard St. Michel. Imagine a full cup of brewed coffee instead of a tiny espresso or espresso mixed with hot water. I note that the Starbucks here does not need my business; Parisians stand in lines to buy what Starbucks sells.
Well, at least I didn’t eat at the McDonald’s down the street.