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Paris Idiosyncrasies

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. Not that you’d ever willingly want to, but 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.

The Pizza Slingin’ Big Momma Team is comprised of 100% authentic Italian Stallions, make sure you check out their tossing skills !

  • 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!

Oh you want a paper modesty gown do ya??

  • 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!

Typical toilet with no toilet seat

  • 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.

Better, but also more expensive

  • 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.

American
French

  • 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.

DON’T TALK TO ME

  • 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.

French Pronunciation Tip- if it ends in an X you don’t pronounce it. Monoprix (the French equivalent to a poor man’s Target) like “mono-prie”

  • 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!

The Yellow Car will just whip out from the right because THEY CAN

  • 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.

Typical American wide lined notebook paper
One example of how notebook paper is lined in France

  • 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.

I find that the AC vs NO AC debate with French is one of the most interesting cultural perspectives

  • 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.

  1. L’eau de Javel
  2. Dolipram
  3. Sex
ile de la cité, Maps

La Rue Neuve Notre Dame

When tourists go to see Notre Dame Cathedral it’s likely they miss a few sneaky details.. (for good reason, right? HEY KIDS LOOK UP ITS NOTRE DAME!) hidden right below their feet! If you were to be in front of ND prior to 1870, it would have appeared very different from what you see today.

Photo by Max Avans on Pexels.com

For starters, the parvis AKA the huge open area where everyone gathers to take pictures or wait in a massively winding line back when the cathedral was accessible before the BFF (Big Fucking Fire) DID NOT EXIST. You could never really see ND until you were right up against it because the area in front of ND was a Medieval Real Estate Hot Commodity.

Turgot Map from 1739. Notice La Rue Neuve N.D. in the center, then the Parvis N.D. Do you see the lack of public space?

Back in the day of our medieval forefathers, panoramic city views were a privilege, not a right. Besides, who has time to complain about lack of open public space when everyone was too preoccupied with managing typical day to day concerns; like STDs, figuring out what time it was, and how to seek revenge on your asshole landlord when you lived in a constant state of poverty and poor health. Good times!

How Notre Dame would have appeared from the La Rue Neuve Notre Dame. Computerized Image from Muséosphere – Mairie de Paris.

Like the Champs Elysees or Boulevard Saint Germain des Prés today, the Rue Neuve Notre Dame was the main drag here in medieval Paris, dominating the landscape around the cathedral from the time it was built in about 1136 until city planner Haussmann leveled this area in the 19th century. Another long-standing building, the Hospital of Found Children (or Lost Children if you are a cup half empty kind of person) was eliminated with it, thus creating the open space we see today.

Another view from a painting by Edward Gaertner 1826

However, you can still see traces of this former street in the cobblestones below, where the location of the Rue is highlighted with a different stone as well as a discreet marker. I absolutely love to point this out to tourists with their necks angled up. Their delight to look beneath their feet at this hidden in plain sight detail tickles me every time.

Compare these two images of the Rue Neuve Notre Dame

AND THERE’S MORE! You can even view the foundations of the 28 buildings that once lined this street below in my favorite Paris museum you probably never knew, the Crypte Archéologique. (click text for link, or see my post about this hidden gem of a museum in the link below)

Did you know about this detail or are you learning of it for the first time? Please comment below!

ile de la cité, Maps

The First Human Photographed

The Real FIRST Photo of a Human?

First of all.. Can I just say how much my mind is blown when I read into little historical details? I lost myself over two hours hunting through online archives of Louis Daguerre, the Father of Modern Photography- and I’m thoroughly tickled.

Here is allegedly the FIRST photo of not one but TWO humans, and how perfect is it that the first outdoor picture in Paris also is on the city’s oldest bridge, The Pont Neuf? Can you spot the people?

Sprawled out on the steps leading up to the famous statue of King Henry IV appears to be a couple dry humping but is more likely maintenance workers taking a break after working on the statue. (If you look extra close you can see the shadows of their PBR Tall Boys)

Spotted! We see you

How can you tell?

Their work bench and tools are behind them and upon closer inspection, they aren’t wearing skirts. (Damn You Patriarchy) But there’s more magic! Comparing this photo shot by Daguerre and partner Joseph Fordos to the same location (and the same building!) shot in modern times by photographer JR- is just mesmerizing.

Photo by JR

You can see the coupole of the Bibliothèque Mazarine on the left, and the Grande Gallerie of the Louvre on the right. The original 9 arched metallic Pont des Arts rises almost alien-like in the distance; the one we know today was built in the 1980s.

Is anyone else geeking out that this photo is from nearly 200 years ago?? It’s like Inception Style Photography.

We can almost see the eyes of people that might have seen the French Revolution which happened only 50 some years prior, with their eyes! (Unlikely yes, but lets take it back another level to their parents’ eyes! Or their grandparents! Ok ok I’m reactivating my totem before my imagination traps me into 18th century France)

While there are controversies regarding the validity of the date, (it’s current home at the Musée des Arts et Metiers dates it from 1836-1839) based upon its reference in letters written by Daguerre in January 1838- recent studies agree its very likely this “photo” was done before the famous Boulevard du Temple one in spring of 1838.

MIND BLOWN

ile de la cité, Maps

The Paris Morgue

Before The Big Fire, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was one of the most visited landmarks in Europe and about 13 MILLION people come annually to see this gothic wonder. Since it’s first stone was laid over 800 years ago, Our Lady has been a beacon in the city of lights to Parisians, pilgrims, and tourists from all over the world.

Imagine you are a visitor to Paris in the 19th century looking in your travel guide (yes travel guides have been around longer than Rick Steves) at the ile de la cité. Chances are the first recommendation wouldn’t be ND, but rather the other, even more popular attraction in the area… The Morgue.

No visit to the Morgue would be complete without a postcard!

Listed as a MUST SEE next to the Eiffel Tower and Catacombs, the morgue was described by Hughes Leroux in 1888 as “a part of every conscientious provincial’s first visit to the capital”.

To give you an idea of its popularity, the Eiffel Tower today receives about 20,000 visitors per day. In the 19th century the Morgue received as many as 40,000. We all know our Victorian predecessors were a rather morbid bunch (“oh poor Granny kicked the bucket last night? Quick Edmond, throw her in her rocking chair and force her eyes open so we can get a photo op before the rigamortus sets in!”) but this macabre tourist attraction might be excessively ghoulish.

Originally situated on the Quai du Marché Neuf, a larger and more modern Morgue was built in 1864 in the backyard of Notre Dame on the Quai de l’Archevêché. Although the morgue was built for the intended purposes of identifying and embalming bodies (most of which were fished out of the Seine, which conveniently flowed just a few meters away) it was literally advertised as being a sort of grim spectator sport.

Morgue interior in 1845

Similar to visiting an oddity at a Carnival like a bearded lady or conjoined twins, up to 50 people at a time would pass through the entry and gaze at the cold, naked bodies laid out on marble slabs behind a window of glass.

Anyone and ANYTHING (yes that detached leg might look familiar to someone) that needed to be identified was displayed at the Paris Morgue. Thick velvety curtains were hung at either end of the display room so workers could discreetly change bodies on a regular basis, and then dramatically open the curtains like a stage show.

Spectators would gawk and gossip over the remains; murder victims and young women drew the most crowds. Jersey Shore wasn’t a source of entertainment in the 1800’s, but to get your fix of reality entertainment, you could come to the morgue when the police arranged a special “confrontation” between a murder suspect and his victim! Our wholesome American author Mark Twain was even known to be a regular visitor of the Paris morgue.

Strangely enough, the Morgue wasn’t just a place for tourists. It was a social place to see and be seen; with men, women, and children from all social classes passing through its doors regularly in the name of civic duty, sometimes stopping to have a chat with neighbors outside to gossip over the most recent finds, maybe even buying cookies or gingerbread from various venders near the opening to snack on before entering.

Emile Zola described the morgue in his book Raquin from 1867 as “The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.”

The morgue was eventually closed in 1907 due to “morality concerns” and this was good timing given the horrors that would soon come from WWI and II.

You may wonder how people not far off from us today, (maybe even some of you Boomers knew them as your parents or grandparents) could entertain themselves in such a horrid way, but its important to note this was during a time when executions were still public and death was much more a part of daily life. Besides, you were probably keen to check out The Body Worlds exhibit when that took the modern world by storm weren’t you?

Today, the building is gone, and a there is a simple park with a Holocaust Memorial in its place.

ile de la cité, Maps

The Lost Heads of Notre Dame

Today I want to share with you one of my most precious Paris discoveries, the kind of tale that just blows my mind continually, and makes me want to cover all the other secrets undoubtedly hidden, LITERALLY, in the streets of Paris.

Photo by Tove Liu on Pexels.com

I hope I am not boring you with Notre Dame hidden gems, but you can’t deny that this 856 year old behemoth of a historical landmark has more drama than one of those paperback romance novels from the 80’s with a bare-chested Fabio deflowering a graciously bosomed Dame in his arms on the cover.

In one of the greatest archeological discoveries (in my humble amateur non-archeologist opinion) of the 20th century, was the random unearthing of 21 stone heads and other fragmented sculptures during the renovation of The French Bank of Foreign Trade, which was located in the Hotel Moreau in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.

Let’s go back to the time of the French Revolution..

The Cathedral in 1845

By order of the Convention of Paris in 1793 (the new government which took the place of the head-less Louis XVI and French Monarchy) all images of tyranny and superstition were to be eradicated. It started off innocently enough; streets and squares were renamed (Place Louis XV became the infamous Place de la Revolution, where King Louis XV’s grandson King Louis XVI would be decapitated) and statues like that of King Henry IV that sat next to the Pont Neuf were discarded.

Everyone going BANANAS at the Place de la Revolution

Unfortunately for French History and Culture, in the ensuing witch hunt of anything resembling royalty, the French people got a little too carried away with their mad frenzy to bring all the power to the people, and made a few mistakes by destroying their heritage (hmm this seems to be a popular theme). Notably, on October 23, 1793 some asshole stood in front of Notre Dame cathedral and pointed to the 28 statues gracing the three portals and shouted “hey, guys!! Check it out! See those Royal-ish statues way the hell up there? Those are FRENCH KINGS! Let’s mutilate them, and push them off the edge!!” and everyone was like “Hell yeah!” and voila, bye-bye 630 year old relics of gothic architecture.

In their haste, they had mistaken the Gallery of the Kings of Juda as French Kings, and these limestone statues were pushed off the Cathedral and discarded. Reconstructed and added to the cathedral during the 19th century, (and who assume their position today) the original heads were assumed to have been thrown in the river Seine.

Or not. PLOT TWIST!

Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Lakanal, a weathly Parisian lawyer bought the heads of the statues in 1796 (apparently, they were just piled up in a nearby street for three years until people started complaining) and used them as a sort of foundation for the mansion/hotel particulier he was building on the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. A devout Catholic and knowing the real significance of the statues (but wanting to be discreet, because no one wanted to appear to have sympathy for the royalty during the French Revolution, duh), he followed the rules of “destroying” religious relics and buried each 3.5 meter head with respect, all interred in a line and facing the same direction.

He died not long after his home was finished and like many other significant historical artifacts, the heads were forgotten.. but not forever! Some 180 years later, in spring of 1977- construction workers were enlarging the basement at the French Bank of Foreign Trade, and they unearthed 21 heads (the other 7 are still missing).

Where the heads were uncovered..

In another remarkable twist of fate, the President of this very bank, Francois Giscard d’Estaing, who was the cousin and good friend of the French President (of the 5th Republic) in 1977, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing- was very knowledgeable in archeology and suspected immediately that the heads found in the foundations of his bank were the original Kings of Juda. With the help of other archeologists and historians, Francois proved himself right, especially when the heads were discovered to carry the same traces of paint used to decorate Notre Dame when it was first built! (Did you know Notre Dame Cathedral used to be COLORFUL? IS YOUR MIND BLOWN?!)

The heads were excavated, and put on display at the Cluny Museum, not far from their original home, where they remain today. And to wrap this up with a BANG, let’s appreciate the randomness of the unearthing of these statues. As Francois Giscard said himself, “Its an extraordinary coincidence that I should be the one to find them. I can only hope that the cousin of the French president of the 5th Republic can repair the misfortune caused by the President of the 1st Republic!”

The original heads at the Cluny Museum

I’m genuinely curious how many of my followers knew about this; its really one of the best, yet widely unknown “secrets” in Paris in my opinion! Please comment below!