Paris: once a mere fable to my child brain. Seen through the lens of Disney illustrations and grand musicals set centuries before. Paris was surrounded by a magic that seemed untouchable.
Then I turned 23 and, by some dumb luck, made the best connection of my life. Thanks to one woman, I flew to break the illusion that was my perspective of the French capital.
I’ve since spent two years within Paris’ city limits. I can say with authority that the city is as enchanting as it appears on film. In the same breath I can also assert that the magic is not all-encompassing.
The spirit that lives here emanates from every inch of Paris. The triumphs and horrors share the streets and alleyways. To walk amongst them is akin to taking a trip through time. It is unlike anything you would find back in the States.
With that said, the culture that exists here is not so far off from what you know as an outsider.
Assimilation was pretty easy. The trick is to keep an open mind to the social rituals present here.
If you want to make a good impression, allow me to share with you tried and true secrets of my own. Use these and you will blend effortlessly with the locals.
Always Start in French
A good lesson when coming to France is one in humble approach.
Parisians are not fond of outsiders. A nice gesture when beginning an interaction with a local is always to begin in French. Even with no experience in the tongue, an easy relent is the classic “Parlez-vous anglais?” (Do you speak English?)
Trust me when I say this is the perfect primer for any interaction with the French. Never dive directly into English. Even though most French people have some knowledge of the language, like the Americans insisting all visitors speak English, the idea is the same in Paris.
You will save yourself many a frustrated interactions if you use this simple hack.
Notice how I did not use the overarching term “well” here. By no means do you need to wander the streets of Paris in your Sunday best. The French capital is indeed also the fashion capital but the dress code is not too glamorous.
In truth, to dress in modest garb is ideal for this city. Parisians rarely show off their wealth. They stick to clean silhouettes smart for navigating the city. Paris is a street built for the pedestrian so the best accessory is a good pair of walking shoes.
You can find a comfortable pair of shoes that are both chic and ideal for going the distance. Thank god streetwear is trendy now, eh?
Silence is a Virtue
No need to broadcast your voice for the five strangers that walk beside you. You’ll find that many Parisians walk with their eyes fixed either ahead of them or on the cobblestone below. They speak in hushed tones or at a reasonable level with their walking companions.
It’s easy to pick out the foreigners as many of them speak in volumes that overshadow the norm. Let the calm energy of the city dictate your own level of auditory contribution and you’ll be golden.
If ever you need to ask for help, don the face of someone in need and do your best to make eye contact first. Parisians that are receptive to it will most certainly stop to help you. Leave the ones that want nothing to do with anyone alone.
Prepare for Protests
Every weekend, every weekday, someone will be marching down some street in Paris. The city loves a good manifestation and no date on the calendar is safe.
Steer clear of major protest hubs on the weekends (especially Saturdays). These points include Bastille, Champs-Elysees and Republique. Unless you love a good adrenaline rush, exploring other parts of the city on Saturday.
It’s a unique piece of Parisian culture, this regular protest schedule. I enjoy stumbling upon them when I do. Enjoy it as well because chances are, unless you live in a college town, you don’t see these spectacles too often.
There you go, a definitive guide to your first few days in Paris. I promise the first two tips will save you a lot of headaches. Parisians are lovely people if you respect them.
Stick around in Paris long enough and the culture may affect you as much as the history and architecture do.