A Mostly Accurate Guide of Overlooked and Irrelevant Details for First Time Visitors
From a small town in Midwest ‘Merica to Franceland, when I first arrived in Paris 9 years ago I was prepared for the notorious cultural differences I would inevitably encounter. I knew to tip only small change, eat with a fork and knife SIMULTANEOUSLY, not go out in public in anything that could be considered pajamas, and greet people with two intimate kisses on each cheek, etc. But what surprised me the most were the small details that no one really bothers to tell you about because they aren’t significantly important- despite how peculiar they seem to someone with humble origins who never had a passport until age 18.
What surprised you the most about your trip to Paris? Please share below in the comments!
- YES, EAT THE ENTIRE PIZZA
You might not be aware of this, but cuisine in France is no longer known exclusively for classics such as snails and macarons. I’ve eaten some of the best Italian food in my life in here, like the delicious pizzas from the popular chain Big Momma that rolled in like a big sexy meatball a few years ago. Pizza in Europe is like the adult sized equivalent to those cute personal pan pizzas you got by scamming Pizza Hut every month when you claimed to have read a book with your parents at night. ITS ALL YOURS! Yes its huge and you might not finish it, but as long as you’ve given up your fat American constant snacking habits you should be able to demolish an entire pizza while maintaining your dignity that you would have lost otherwise by trying to share a pizza. Warning: Don’t be surprised if the pizza arrives uncut. Use your damn fork and knife you unsophisticated sloth.
- MONTH AND DATE FORMAT
Even after eight years this one still throws me off. In France the day and the month are swapped, so February 01, 2022 is written as 01/02/2022. Also, days and months are not capitalized.
- DOCTOR VISIT STRIP TEASE
I had a physical exam with a gynecologist a few months after I arrived to Paris in 2013 and was horrified to discover that topless sunbathing and Moulin Rouge Cabaret dancers are not the French limit to public nudity; they get undressed in front of their doctor without shame too. Don’t bother looking around for a curtained corner or waiting for the doctor to step out, in socialized publicly funded health care, modesty is a luxury- not a right. No doctor has the patience for you to discreetly disrobe at your convenience, so put on your big boy/girl pants, and then immediately take them off. I’ve learned my lesson and avoid skinny jeans when I visit my doctor least he witness me struggle to remove them with only the aid of an unstable plastic chair back to hold onto. Warning: If you get a pap smear done, don’t be surprised if the doctor hands you back the tube of your cervical juice to send off to the lab yourself. Hey, at least its free!
- PAPER DIMENSIONS
Nothing is sacred, not even the size of sheet paper. A standard paper in France is A4 so slightly thinner and taller compared to the wider American Letter size. Of course this means nothing until you find yourself trying to stuff your Wisconsin birth certificate in a French sized plastic sleeve, much like how you stuff yourself in your jeans after living in France and gorging on baguettes at every meal.
- THE SHITTER
You are having lunch at a Parisian café and need to use the les toilettes (never ask to use the salle de bain, the server will wonder why you want to take a bath) however when you arrive at the bottom of the stairs in the basement, you discover there is a urinal and a door. You think to yourself, “am I in the men’s bathroom?” Nope, you are in the right place. Lack of space and installing a toilet in a cave dating from antiquity means most restrooms are minuscule and unisex. Don’t be surprised if you are forced to pass behind a man taking a piss as you head to the toilet door, this is France and French Men are comfortable peeing anywhere in the presence of anyone. PLOT TWIST If there is no toilet seat, SQUAT!
- MCDONALDS SERVES BEER
Before all you perfectly assimilated American Expats that have renounced classic nostalgic culinary delights like Oreos and Hamburger Helper come after me for even entertaining the suggestion that your compatriots need a reason to step into fast food purgatory of French McDo, can we all just unite over the fact that at least you can get a beer with your value meal? Can’t we find peace and solidarity in that? Also, because of stricter food safety laws, French McDonalds is just better.
- BEING OVERLY FRIENDLY
The French aren’t mean, you are just too nice. It’s true! Americans are super duper friendly to everyone, and you can always differentiate an American person from a French one because the American is just awkwardly smiling and showing off his impeccably straight white teeth and the French person is intently staring at nothing muttering to himself as he takes a drag from his cigarette. That being said, let’s not confuse friendliness with politeness. You must always say Bonjour anytime you greet anyone. A smile with eye contact won’t cut it, neither will saying excuse me. If you learn just one french word, this is it, and it will make or break your experience just about anywhere. I see this a lot in bars for some reason. Americans walk up to the bar and say “I’ll take a pint of beer please!” and don’t even realize the faux pas they are committing by not greeting the bartender with a bonjour first. I have a strong belief that the “Rude French Waiter” stereotype was created because too many smiling Americans got butt hurt after their hearty HELLOs! were met with a grunt and a frown from offended servers. Saying Bonjour isn’t just a polite greeting, its a way of asking permission to start an interaction and its probably the most important rule for foreigners visiting France.
- PUSH THE BUTTON
To enter or leave most Parisian buildings, you’ll need to push a button. On the outside of the door in the street, you’ll enter a code on a device called a DIGICODE that unlocks the door. To go back out, you’ll usually have to find a button or switch labeled PORTE. I calculated the number of buttons I press every day on average between building entrances and exits, elevators, buses, and even my bank- it came to 22.
- APARTMENT AND BANK CATCH 22
Renting an apartment is by far the most complicated hurdle to accomplish in Paris. Laws that favor tenant’s rights mean owners are extremely cautionary to who they rent to. Lack of apartment availability (thanks AirBnB) and affordable prices mean your dream of living in Picture Perfect Paris will be a nightmare to accomplish. If you can get around the standard pain in the ass requirements (like making 3x whatever the rent is, having a French job with a long term contract, and a French guarantor to back you up), good luck with the Catch 22 of not being able to open a French bank account without an address, and not being able to rent an apartment and obtain an address, without a bank account.
- SMALL TALK
It doesn’t really exist, especially not between strangers. If you get on a crowded metro during rush hour, you’ll be surprised by how quiet it is. The French don’t really interact with each other unless they have a reason to where Americans like to chat with anyone just for the hell of it, especially if you are in close proximity, like in an elevator. Other than saying BONJOUR, you aren’t expected to do anything else. So if some little old lady is standing underneath you with her head in your armpit because the Line 13 metro is packed asses to ankles at 6pm; don’t expect her to make small talk just because her head hairs are intertwined with your underarm ones.
- ACCIDENTAL CHARITABLE DONATIONS
You are first time Paris tourist living your own Emily in Paris experience as you promenade along the iconic Boulevard Saint Germain, pausing briefly to admire boutique windows and raising your nose to inhale the odor of freshly baked croissant when FLKJOEZINOPEIZFO!!!! you’ve tripped over something and look down to see an overturned flimsy plastic cup in the middle of the sidewalk with the aftermath of a copper and gold money tsunami spilled before you. What the hell? A person who appears to be homeless starts to yell at you for knocking over their donation cup, and you are compelled to not only help them pick up the change, but contribute to it for the trouble. By all means, add to it and fight to end poverty, but don’t feel like the world’s biggest jerk for falling for the same trick hundreds of other unsuspecting, distracted tourists do each day.
- PAPER OR PLASTIC
If you visit a local grocery store chain like Monoprix or Franprix, don’t expect anyone to bag your groceries. Think of it like Aldi (which exists here too), you are responsible for putting your own shit in your own bag Peasant. Yes the cashier will sit there and do nothing to help you, even if they have finished scanning. However, don’t let your nice American natural tendencies shake you up here. Take your time to load up your haul, the slower the better. You waited in line, now it is your turn to shine and bask in the glory of having earned it. PLOT TWIST if you arrive at the checkout with some lovely pesticide free apples and are scowled by the cashier, it’s probably because you forgot to weight them. Disguise your embarrassment with a sigh that says “well fine, its not like I am in a hurry anyways” and go retrieve the sticker from the digital scale located in some vague corner near the produce section. Also, be prepared to pay for a bag if you don’t have one.
- PRIORITE A DROIT
France has this asinine driving law no one seems to be able to make sense of that will keep you on your toes (and your foot on the brake) called Priority to the Right. What this means is that unless otherwise marked, anything coming at you from the right (cars, trucks, bikers, electric scooters, hover boards, motorbikes, horse cops) has the right of way to cut in front of you. Apparently this is done to control traffic, but I secretly think its just for population control. And here you thought driving in France was easy because they are on the same side of the road, ha!
- ALWAYS STAND TO THE RIGHT
To avoid being mowed down by grumpy Parisians in a hurry, always stand to the right of the escalator if you aren’t actively moving. This is especially true in the metro.
- COMMON VOCABULARY AND PRONUNCIATION
When referring to furniture, Armoire is a synonym for No Closet
Je suis chaude is not
“I”m hot”, its “I’m horny”
Ce n’est pas possible may be translated to “It’s impossible” but it really means “try harder”
“J’ai envie de toi” is not
“I’m envious of you” its “I’m horny for you”
The city of Reims (Champagne capital!) is pronounced RHANSE
When referring to an apartment location, walk up is synonym to No Elevator
Je suis excité is not “
I’m excited!” its “I’m horny”
- ODD FOOD SHAPES
Sometimes the grapes and radishes are oblong.
- DON’T BRING YOUR AMERICAN HAIR STYLING DEVICES
Even if you have an adapter or a transformer, DON’T DO IT. Electricity is a finicky bitch here so unless you want to break your blow dryer, blow a fuse in your 300 year old apartment, or melt your CHI straightener, don’t risk it.
- READ BETWEEN THE LINES
You don’t appreciate the clean spacing between the lines of a wide ruled notebook until you buy a traditional French cahier and are horrified to discover its full of tiny boxes and varying uneven lines.
- Lack of Garbage Disposals
There are none. NONE. I don’t have an explanation for this.
- Air Conditioning Disease
Many tourists visit Paris in summer expecting to stroll along Paris boulevards with an ice cold beverage and breezy summer apparel. What they find is that ice cubs are almost as non-existent as garbage disposals and proper air conditioned buildings are rare. Why? In general, the French strongly believe that the recirculated air from AC units will make you sick and they will prefer to suffer and possibly die from heat stroke rather than subject themselves to the glorious chilly air currents when its 100 degrees outside.
- Light Beer
If you are visiting France and have an urge to pound through a 30 pack of Natty Light, you’re out of luck. Bud Light, Busch Light, Miller Light, and any other low calorie beer that makes your butt leak – LIGHT isn’t available in beer form in France. Your closest option will be to ask for a blonde like 1664 or Kronenbourg. If you value your masculinity, always order a pint.
- Toilet Privacy
Toilets in France are like individual rooms compared to the more social typical American toilet stalls with their half inch opening between the frame and door. The Good? No echoing poop splash to reveal your defecation status in France! The Bad? No one to play battle shits with or to pass you toilet paper if your dispenser is empty.
- The Holy Trinity
As a culture, the French believe in three remedies 99 percent effective in resolving all problems. If bleach, mild painkillers, and orgasms can’t fix your problem, it was never a problem to begin with.
- L’eau de Javel
- No Dressing
Forget guns and freedom of speech; you know what makes America great? We have a million salad dressing choices. Ranch, French, Thousand Island, Cesear, the list goes on and on. You can even dictate WHERE you want your glob of Honey Mustard to go other than directly on the lettuce. Forget these forsaken liberties when you come to France- you have no say in the matter. You get whatever vinigrette comes with your greens, usually an oil based mix of vinegar and mustard. God help you if you ask for it on the side.
- Lack of Swingers
Get your mind outta the gutter, I don’t mean THOSE swingers. I’m referring to the swings you typically find at parks where children are required to pump their legs to gain momentum before gleefully soaring in the air and landing knee first on a pile of woodchips. However, like garbage disposals and root beer, finding a real swing in Paris is rare. Sure, the French have their own version of a swing, le balançoire– which is similar to how you would imagine a French version of the series Friends. The One Where Phoebe would be constantly chain smoking and participating in strikes that have nothing to do with her and despite graduating from the elite Sciences-Po Ross finds himself at the Pole Emploi fighting with civil servents every week. French Swings go through the motions, but lack authenticity- namely physical exertion since you basically just sit in a cage while being pushed back and forth by your parents. Oh, and did I mention you have to PAY for this privilege?