Over the years, I’ve learned some things that might be helpful to a Paris new-comer. I hope they are, anyway…
The French are by and large, a polite people, so go with the flow. Always (and I do mean always!) start a conversation with a greeting: “Bonjour Monsieur/Madam/Mademoiselle” (whichever is appropriate, or you can just go with “Bonjour”). Start your conversation with “Bonjour,” then give the other person a couple seconds to respond with a “Bonjour” (which they will do), then say what you want to say. This exchange of “Bonjours” establishes a bond of sorts, and is very important.
France in general and Paris particularly has many small shops, where there may be just the owner and maybe an employee or two. These people believe that their store is like their home, and when you enter their store, you’re entering their home. So say “Bonjour” when you enter. When you order something or ask for something, always do it with a “S’il vous plait.” Then, when you leave, say “Au revoir” and, if you’ve received any help at all, “Merci, au revoir.” I guarantee you that this seems like a small thing, but is not; it’s a big deal. I have seen merchants get ornery with people coming into their store, looking around and leaving without a word, and I once had a cooler-than-expected transaction in a boulangerie in which I’d shopped every other day for a month (and so was well-known there) and realized later that in my rush, I had not started with “Bonjour.” I have little doubt that was why I noticed a less-friendlier interaction.
Don’t just leap into English, thinking everyone will understand. In Paris, it’s likely that someone will speak some English, but you will have a better interaction if you start, after “bonjour” of course, with “Je regrette, je ne parle pas la Français” (pronounced “je regret, je parl pas la francais.” Yes, that’s right, despite what you learned in high-school French, the “ne” negation is seldom used in spoken French). Starting this way, the person to whom you’re talking will likely launch into English, but appreciate that you didn’t. I cringe seeing Americans not even trying to say hello, good-bye, please and thank-you.
In larger stores or supermarkets, you won’t say anything when you enter because there’s no one there to say it to. But when you reach the cashier or if you interact with any employee, start with a “Bonjour” and leave with a “Merci, au revoir.” Always. Always!
The Snooty French
There remains a stereotype of the “snooty” French person, but I kind of doubt that this stereotype was ever true and it certainly is not now. In the total of 14-16 months that we’ve spent in France, we have run into one – count ’em: one – snarky French person, a waiter who “didn’t understand” when I ordered the salad special of the day. Follow the polite rules and you will have no problem. Learn a few phrases – Bonjour, au revoir, s’il vous plait, de rien, merci – and you are unlikely to have any problems. We have found the French to be warm and friendly. You will, too.
I have a problem
If you do, indeed, have a problem that someone can help you solve, you always start the conversation with: “Bonjour (Monsieur or Madam or Mademoiselle). J’ai un problem.” (That’s pronounced Jhay an problem – kind of a soft ‘j’). We have heard and seen that French people really want to help solve a problem, and this phrase seems to trigger that urge in them. We ran into a problem once (a credit card left the day before in a café in a museum) and I started the explanation with “Bonjour, monsieur. J’ai un problem.” By the time we retrieved our credit card, half a dozen people had gotten involved, and all wanted to help, and all were happy when the card was found and returned to us.
The first couple trips I made to Paris I enjoyed myself less than I could have, because I was always worried about the next meal, which would, of course, be the meal at which I made an utter fool of myself or spent the entire food budget of the vacation. About the third trip, I realized that, even in fancy restaurants, I wasn’t going to be singled out and embarrassed. I relaxed and everything became better.
About that time I also realized that Paris has many informal ways to have a meal that are fun, inexpensive and relaxing. Every boulangerie in the city has excellent sandwiches; our favorite lunch is to buy a couple sandwiches, a couple desserts and go sit on the banks of the Seine. The creperies offer a lunch or dinner crepe, a dessert crepe and a bowl of cider (slightly alcoholic) for eight or nine Euros. These places are very informal and relaxed. Salon de Té’s often have excellent light lunches and dinners; we know one that offers a crepe with smoked salmon and havarti cheese. We have eaten there at least once each trip.
My point is, you don’t have to spend your retirement stash on each meal in Paris; there are excellent value-for-money ways to eat in a real Parisian style and not be bug-eyed at la addition. And you don’t have to fear the experience – you’ll be fine.
Not too much to explain here. Paris is an eminently walkable city and you can only feel the real Paris if you walk it. Our favorite walk is anywhere along the Seine at night, particularly around the quais of Ile de la Cité and Ile St. Louis; when we stayed on Ile St. Louis we did that walk every night and we still find a way to do it when we’re there. In 2013, the city opened up two long areas of the river for walking and watching the traffic on the river; the are wonderful walks. So walk, walk, walk; you won’t believe how much you will absorb. And look up! Paris is a city of beautiful buildings; you’ll see them only if you look up.