Anyone who knows me, knows I have somewhat of a love, no, obsession with Paris. Evidently, as my brother has reminded me, this stems back to when I was a child wearing a beret and probably trying to speak with a French accent. I somehow always knew I would visit Paris one day and I even dreamed of living there. It’s true, you never forget your first trip to Paris.
“It was our first evening in Paris. The night was falling as we entered the metro. Rain was in the forecast, so I had our umbrella. We were on our way to a wine taste. A light drizzle met us as we exited the metro station. The sounds of the city and the glow of the streetlamps surrounded us. As we tried to get our bearings, he spotted a street vendor selling crepes. Huddled under our umbrella….sharing a warm crepe….Paris in the rain….I was in love.”
10 years later, numerous visits and a brief 6 months living in Paris, I am still in love.
Naturally, when you love something or someone, you tend to defend it/them at all cost. Before that first trip, I heard, “The Parisians are rude!”, “No one speaks English.”, “The city is filthy, they pee in the street.”, and so on. I always asked, “How do you know? Have you been?” To which I often heard, “Well, everyone says so.” My response, “Who is everyone?” So, it began, always defending my beloved Paris.
Having several years of high school and college French I figured, no problem. My first trip to Paris was before translation apps were popular so I had to depend on my minimal, poorly spoken French and an English/French dictionary. While it was true, that few people seemed to speak English, we managed. Were the people rude? Was it filthy? I honestly couldn’t tell you. It was my first visit, passing through for a few short days on our way to Venice. I didn’t care, I was in Paris, the city of my dreams and I was in love.
3 more trips after this one, including one to celebrate my 50th birthday with my girlfriend, Teri, and our significant others and one for a job interview, again with Teri. I knew the next time I packed my bags to come to Paris, it would be long term. Now, the others on the 25th anniversary of my 25th year, felt that some of these stereotypes were true, the Parisians were rude, no one speaks English and the city was dirty. True or not, I didn’t care, it was Paris in autumn. My most recent visit to Paris (spring 2019), had Teri beginning to change her view and my cousins, their first time, understanding my love affair with La Ville Lumiere, the City of Light. Named, both, because of its leading role during the Age of Enlightenment and more literally, being one of the first big European cities to use gas street lighting on a large scale.
So, why do many Americans assume the French are rude?
Finally fulfilling my dream, I moved to Paris in August of 2014. It’s very different when you live in a city versus being a tourist. Let me add that I had come to live in Paris for a job teaching English and I had enrolled at the University to study French. Long story short, my student visa was denied (no reason given), so, therefore, I couldn’t study or have a job. I made the choice to move to Paris and just live the café life. For the next 6 months, I wandered Paris, travelled to the countryside, went to Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland and Ireland. 6 months to wander, I was deeper in love.
Daily life in Paris was quite different from life in Warren, Ohio. I had no car to jump into and take off on a whim. I had my cozy little flat, the first in the 19th with a view of the Eiffel Tower from one window and Sacre Coeur from another and my second in the 18th, the heart of Montmartre. Without a job, it was life on a budget, which basically meant I wasn’t taking taxis to get around. I was depending on my 2 feet or the metro. I really felt like a Parisian when I got my Navigo card complete with photo. This was a card I renewed monthly for unlimited travel on public transportation. I wasn’t dining daily at fabulous restaurants but cooking in my home. This meant daily trips to the local market, the boucherie, the boulangerie or the patisserie and only purchasing what I could carry. I rarely went to a “supermarket” as a large fresh market for fruits and veggies was one metro stop away. I eventually bought a little trolley that enabled me to pick up a few more items in one trip. Other than my landlord (in the 19th) whose window I could look into from mine and who on occasion invited me over for a glass of champagne to enjoy the sunset, I knew no one.
So, are the Parisians rude? One thing I learned (even before living in Paris), a simple bonjour madame/monsieur, when entering a café, a shop, a boucherie, etc., is necessary and will make life a bit easier. Don’t forget a merci, au revoir (thank you, goodbye) or the less formal and if you are familiar with the person a merci, a bientot (thank you, see you soon) when leaving. I began to find my favorite shops and before long, even though as soon as I spoke everyone knew I was American, I was greeted with a warm smile. The meat cutter at my boucherie even became familiar with my favorite cuts of meat and was soon making recommendations. Other than the faces at my local shops, I still didn’t really know anyone, but not because people were unfriendly. This was because I spent my first months wandering all over the city, taking it all in. On weekends, I could travel outside of Paris, but still within Ile de France, with my Navigo card and visited small towns and villages. I was a kid in a candy store and I had to taste it all. Soon my time in the 19th was coming to an end. My landlord had told me he needed the flat for family that was coming.
I found a flat in the 18th, in the heart of Montmartre, which was my real love. Also, by this time, I had accumulated some “stuff”; a French press, herbs I was growing in my kitchen, a pasta maker, etc. “Stuff” (too much) I didn’t want to leave behind that had to accompany me on my move. How to move? I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask for help, so I moved over the course of a couple days by metro and finally taking the last load by taxi. Settled, in my favorite area of the city, I began a day to day life that was more routine. Many days I never left Montmartre. I again found all my favorite shops in the neighborhood and was soon being greeted as if they knew me. I was also stopping in the mornings at the same café for coffee and in the evenings for a glass of wine and an occasional meal.
I became friends with Julie, one of the servers and would hang out chatting with her. I met Samy, who worked at La Cigale and Freddy, who took me on outings to visit his friends in the countryside. Several others, I would meet for coffee, wine, a meal or just café hopping and strolling around Montmartre. Some spoke good English, some, not so much. My French was improving. I even had a companion I would meet at a café for French lessons, in exchange for English lessons. Some, I lost contact after I returned to the states.
Some, like Freddy, from Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole (a great restaurant near Notre Dame), I still visit when in Paris. My dear friend Julie moved to Bali and is the reason I first went there. She said I must come to visit her, so I did. Soon, I will be moving to Bali for a 3.5-month stay and teaching experience.
But it was during these outings I learned a thing or two that fed into the “Parisians are rude” attitude. First, I‘ve already addressed that a simple bonjour madame/monsieur is an ice breaker. It helped me then and after my most recent trip, I can honestly say, and I think Teri and my cousins would agree after the initial bonjour, many people switched to English. Many more than in past visits. Next, French waiters probably have the worst reputation for being rude. French waiters are considered professionals and don’t work for tips. That being said, they don’t buy into the American thought of the customer is always right. They don’t have a need to cater to your every whim because they aren’t working for tips. On the flip side of that coin, they aren’t working for tips so there isn’t the need to quickly turn over tables. You can sit for 30 minutes or 3 hours. They get paid the same wage no matter. Do also greet them with a smile and bonjour. Trust me, hearing you speak that one simple word, they will know you speak little or no French. Nearly every waiter we encountered on my most recent trip, when treated with respect (that initial bonjour) switched over to English and was quite charming. If it appears, I am speaking of French servers in the male gender, it is because most servers in Paris are men. I can only recall one female server at Le Relais de la Butte in Montmartre (conveniently located across from our hotel) being female and she was equally friendly.
The menu….as Americans, we often want to switch up the menu…exchange this for that, steamed not fried, Italian or ranch, dressing on the side….not only in Paris but all over Europe, this is a no-no and causes the rest of the world to view Americans as “difficult”. The dish comes as it is. Which reminds me of a second female server who thought Teri was asking to substitute an item for another when in fact she was asking for an additional item as a side. This did give the server a little attitude. However, by the end of the meal, she was smiling and all was right with the world.
You may think your waiter is ignoring you, when in fact he is respecting your privacy. He won’t constantly be over your shoulder asking if you need anything or is everything alright. Once he delivers your food, he will leave you alone to enjoy your company and your dining experience. They expect you to leisurely linger over your meal. Enjoy each bite and each sip….relaxing with your family and friends. If you need something, make eye contact and politely signal them over to your table. When you are finished with your meal, put your knife and fork together across your plate. This tells your waiter he can clear the table. Now, he will ask if you would like dessert or coffee. If you decline, this doesn’t mean he is going to bring your bill. They will leave you to relax and socialize, even if the restaurant is full. Teri even commented about feeling guilty taking so much time. We as Americans aren’t programmed to linger and enjoy our meals and time with others. It is one of the things I love about the European lifestyle. When you are ready to leave, make eye contact, make the scribble motion or say l’addition s’il vous plait (the bill please).
I hope this explains the misconception of rude waiters, although, as in every culture I’m sure there are some who are rude.
Although I never thought Paris was filthy, it is cleaner than I have ever seen it. Street art/graffiti is everywhere, but it is an accepted practice. I’ve only once witnessed anyone peeing in the streets. Although I will tell you, in some of the older buildings, there are still squatty potties, albeit few, they do exist. I’m not sure how, but I fall more in love with Paris every time I visit, and my heart is definitely in Montmartre. Next year, I will be moving to Poland. I am looking forward to once again embracing the European way of life and continuing the adventures of “Down the Rabbit Hole”.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Ernest Hemingway, “A Moveable Feast”