Here are a few tips to help you make the cultural transition as easy as crème brulée:
*First, learn these words: MERCI, mair-see, (thank you) and S’IL VOUS PLAIT, see-voo-play (please). You are already on your way to becoming a savvy and respectful traveler!
*The BONJOUR rule: Every time you enter a shop, you should address the patron with “Bonjour Madame” or “Bonjour Monsieur”; failing to do so is considered rude. After 6 PM you can use “Bonsoir” (good evening), and when you leave the store, say “Merci Madame” or “Merci Monsieur”.
*There is a common misconception that Parisians are rude and that the French hate America: THIS IS NOT TRUE. Sure, you may get bumped on the Metro or your waiter may not be the bubbly Bennigan’s variety, but remember that Paris is a big city with different cultural norms. Older Parisians have a great respect for the American effort from World War II, and the young like Big Macs, blue jeans, and Hollywood films probably more than you! Approach them on an individual basis and you will find that they are open, nice, and willing to talk to you with their broken English, or ‘Franglish’. A smile and a polite ‘bonjour’ go a long way.
*Parisians love dogs and smoking, and you can expect to find them in cafés and restaurants all over the city. This is just part of the more relaxed attitude in France which also accounts for girlie magazines on display at newsstands, children drinking wine with their meals (don’t worry, it’s watered down), and tiny Renaults parked anywhere there might be sidewalk space available. Just smile, think ‘C’est la vie’, and have another coffee or glass of wine.
*Paris is a relatively safe city; the biggest hazards are pickpockets at hot tourist sites (like Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower) and on the Metro (particularly line #1 and the RER B coming from Charles de Gaulle airport). Keep an eye on your belongings at crowded places, don’t carry your wallet in your back pocket, and you should not have any problems. Tap water is safe to drink in Paris, though the chlorine taste may lead you to bottled water which is readily available everywhere. France has higher standards than the U.S. when it comes to regulations on food and drink, so don’t hesitate to try every dish you can, even steak tartare, which translates to raw chunks of steak meat rolled in egg yolk and parsley.
*Eating in Paris is an art. Relish every course and each sip of wine like the French do, and don’t expect to finish a meal in a restaurant in less than an hour and a half, and often two or three hours. The waiter will not usually bring your bill until you ask for it (bringing it early would be rude); to ask for it just say “L’addition, s’il vous plaît”, or make a scribble in the air with your hand. Never call a waiter ‘garçon’; instead say ‘Monsieur’. The tip is included in the bill at restaurants in France, but rounding up the bill a couple of euro is appreciated if the service was excellent.
*Other tipping guidelines: Tip taxi drivers 10-15% of the fare, hotel maids one or two euro per day, porters one euro per bag, and washroom attendants 50 centimes. Often you don’t have a choice on the restrooms and must have a coin just to open the door, so save yourself the trouble and keep small change on hand. There are also public, self-cleaning toilets on the streets (marked toilettes) which cost 40 centimes and have a hand-washing station and tissues. If you do find yourself in a bind, museums and McDonalds both have clean, free restrooms.
REMEMBER: When in doubt, smile, say BONJOUR, and think: C’EST LA VIE!