Going to Paris in October. What should I know?
June 10, 2008 4:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm spending 4 days in Paris. I've never been to France, and I speak no French. This was a spur of the moment plane ticket purchase. But I don't want to be an unnecessarily annoying tourist.

Should I try learning to speak some French? Will anyone understand me if I speak English? How might I unwittingly offend someone? Any other tips for a clueless American in France? (Besides, you know, trying to become less clueless between now and October.)

Finally if anyone has any fun Paris suggestions re: where to stay, good eats, etc. Those would be very welcome too!
posted by eric1200 to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (34 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I speak some French (though I wouldn't say I speak it well) and my experience in Paris was that any time I spoke French I was answered in English.
posted by sanko at 4:49 PM on June 10, 2008

My French is terrible, but when I was there I found that just trying to speak in my (probably unintelligible) French made me much more popular than when I didn't. Most people in Paris, at least those you'll be interacting with, speak some English, and will likely switch into it automatically when they detect your accent, but just that extra effort on your part will make the difference between being that American who automatically assumes the rest of the world speaks your language, and being a helpless child who nonetheless is trying to respect the difference in languages.
As for suggestions, see this previous comment for my recommendation (the whole thread is pretty good).
And enjoy - Paris is amazing, and I found that if you're polite and kind, most people will be to you too. The rude Parisian stereotype is just that.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:53 PM on June 10, 2008

Yes, you should. Most Parisians will appreciate any attempt you make to communicate in French, then they will usually switch to English. It wouldn't hurt to learn hello/goodbye/how much/thank you etc, and it will make your trip far more pleasurable. Contrary to popular belief they are very friendly, especially if you make an effort. I have witnessed first hand tourists bellowing demands in English, and the French, probably more than any other nation, do not like it.
posted by fire&wings at 4:57 PM on June 10, 2008

..and if you check the Paris tag you will get some fantastic advice about what to see and where to eat. Enjoy it!
posted by fire&wings at 5:00 PM on June 10, 2008

I speak almost no French (I studied Spanish in school.) I'm seconding you're a kitty!. Just make an effort to at least greet people with a pleasant "Bon jour" and a smile and then apologize for being a typical American who doesn't speak more than one language, as many in Europe do.
I found this approach resulted in many pleasant interactions with the French. Enjoy yourself. My only other advice is to eat lots of chocolate croissants first thing in the morning. This is far more important than getting your French right. Trust me.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 5:00 PM on June 10, 2008

My experience is that you will be treated better if you're not obviously a tourist. Parisians dress much better than Americans even when they're going grocery shopping. If you dress at least business casual you will be treated with more respect and you won't stand out. I barely saw anyone in jeans or sneakers when I was there.

Everyone I encountered spoke at least enough English for their job. You probably won't be striking up conversations about philosophy with random cafe patrons. You will be dealing with waiters, hotel staff, etc., and they speak English. But try to learn some French. I tell people that the most important French word is SORTIE, which means "exit," and if you don't know it, you will get lost in the Metro stations.

I've stayed at Hotel Castex and loved it every time. The staff is very friendly and upon my second visit (2 years later!) immediately remembered me and welcomed me. It's close to a Metro station and in a very interesting, walkable area. Plus it's fairly inexpensive by Paris standards.

I have more to add but I'm leaving work now so it will have to keep.
posted by desjardins at 5:02 PM on June 10, 2008

Do as the French do. Have mayonnaise with your pommes frites; drink Sauterne with your canard à l'orange; order coffee after dessert.
You'll come home with a broader mind and palate.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:25 PM on June 10, 2008

Don't bother. I really hate it when tourists ask me questions and take it as a given that I speak English, but there's really no need to butcher my language to impress me. Just open every conversation by asking whether they speak English (unless you're at the tourist office or something like that, people there might actually take that question as an insult).
posted by snownoid at 5:26 PM on June 10, 2008

I agree with desjardins about the dress code. I walked around for a day dressed what I considered "fancy" for a nice dinner later on with some cousins. I was asked for directions twice and everyone spoke to me first in French rather than English. More recently in Metz I had a similar experience -- parents were in jeans and sneakers, I was in more business casual wear with leather shoes, and despite the fact that I was walking with them, I was always spoken to first in French and they were always spoken to first in English.

Hint: if you're on your own but want someone to take a picture of you with your camera, look for the people wearing shorts. They're probably Americans. Most applicable at tourist locations like the Arc de Triomphe.

Enjoy Paris! It's awesome. It's incredibly easy to get around (both in terms of transportation and navigation, and I say this as someone who always gets lost) and there's tons to do. I totally recommend the Musee D'Orsay and, if you want to splurge on a very very expensive dinner, the Restaurant Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower. That might have been the best food I've ever had in my life. However, the random little cafes are most excellent as well. Try a pastis at the Deux Magots ... perfect drink for a hot summer day and at a historic location, no less...
posted by olinerd at 5:28 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was in Paris last month butchering the language left and right. I didn't assume anyone spoke english, but pretty much everyone I spoke to responded to me in either very simple french with lots of hand gestures or english.
posted by Julnyes at 5:30 PM on June 10, 2008

Learn to count and understand the number system for asking prices. That is usually the most comforting knowledge you will need in any language that you have a short time to work with. Beyond that, Paris is a world city, they can deal with you, they have seen far worse in their time than a visitor who isn't french speaking. Incidentally - the Chinese food in Belleville is some of the best I have ever had (and I am comparing it to New York and San Franciscos China towns...) and cheap....
posted by zaelic at 5:36 PM on June 10, 2008

Yes, you should learn a bare minimum of basic French to be polite. Learn to say the French equivalents of:
Hello - Bonjour
Goodbye - Au revoir
Please - S'il vous plait
Thank you - Merci
"I would like..." - Je voudrais
"Where is the toilet?"- Ou sont les toilettes?
"Do you speak English?" - Parlez-vous Anglais?
Excuse me - Excuse moi
Mister - Monsieur
Ma'am - Madame

There are obviously other things you should learn, but everyone should go armed with at least these phrases.

None of these phrases sound the way you would read them in English. The BBC has a great, free online French introductory course. One section of the course has the very basic things you'll need on your trip. You can also download some basic phrases as MP3 files to listen to on your iPod. Probably eight of ten people you'll need to speak with will know enough English to communicate with you. As I said, learning a little French is more a matter of politeness than necessity.

Other tips:
* The first floor of a hotel in France is the floor ABOVE street level, or what would be considered the second floor in the US. Keep this in mind when trying to find your room.
* Elevators will either be EXTREMELY small or non-existent, so pack light.
* When you enter a shop, it is considered polite to greet the shopkeeper with a "Bonjour Monsieur" or "Bonjour Madame"
* You won't need a car in Paris. The Metro will get you anywhere you need to go quickly and cheaply. You won't have any problem understanding or using the system. (The RER can sometimes be confusing).

Paris is magnificent. I'm sure you'll have a great time.
posted by cnc at 5:39 PM on June 10, 2008

four days? unless you are some sort of language genius you are not going to learn enough French in four days to do much more than say hello and transact some currency. It's a great thing to do, but most people you meet will still need to speak English with you if there is to be any communication. Chill. Learn it for the next trip though, it is a lovely language.
posted by caddis at 6:14 PM on June 10, 2008

OK, so in addition to being challenged in French, I appear to be challenged in English. If you have time, it is a great thing to do and there are numerous crash courses to get you to enough proficiency to meet and greet, purchase, and perhaps even comprehend directions, with just a few weeks of decent study. Bon voyage.
posted by caddis at 6:19 PM on June 10, 2008

French is easy. You've got until October, you could learn quite a lot of "tourist" French and the grammatical and vocabulary basics to make your visit immensely more pleasurable . . . so do it! But when there are gaps in your knowledge or comprehension, you'll find plenty of English speakers. Read up on how to get around and figure out in advance what you'd like to see and do. Don't bother trying to leave the city with only four days, though!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:24 PM on June 10, 2008

Once you do find a place to stay (shouldn't be hard, hostels are a dime a dozen), identify the nearest bakery and the nearest grocery store.

Restaurants are incredibly expensive in France, but you really don't notice it when you're having fresh croissant in the morning and cheese and fresh baguette for lunch everyday.
posted by pmv at 6:50 PM on June 10, 2008

I've been to Paris three times between teen and adulthood. I spoke a solid enough high school French to be understood and to go beyond basic communication. That took the edge off for me.

My favorite places/things to do in the city (and there are so many) in no particular order:
Les Invalides (it was such a quiet thrill to watch viellards playing petanque on the lawn outside)
the Rodin sculpture garden
riding a bateau mouche at night
eating at The Tavern of the Recruiting Sargent (apparently my accent fooled them enough to seat us in the back with the locals instead of with the tourists - much nicer)

A lot of the big touristy things weren't so much for me. I spent part of an afternoon sitting at a cafe that was on place de l'etoile nursing a citron presse and a small baguette, watching the traffic and the people. At that point, I was a junior in high school and had studied French and French culture for 5 years. Seeing and experiencing it was awesome.
posted by plinth at 7:14 PM on June 10, 2008

Restaurants are incredibly expensive in France Paris
posted by zippy at 7:20 PM on June 10, 2008

I spent a week in the 5th arrondissement, at Hotel Vendome St.-Germain (8, rue d'Arras) and liked it very much. Hotel rooms in Paris are quite small and can be stuffy. This one was, a little, but the life around the hotel is delightful. There is very little English spoken at the desk, but one guy is fluent.

Why you -really- want to learn to speak French: there's a market very near the hotel on the Rue Monge. The food at the market is wonderful. Markets are all over the city and if you have any bit of a gastronome in you they will be irresistible. I also loved the restaurant right across from the hotel; if they are still recommending it I suspect you'll find a few very small tables, a chalkboard listing the menu and entrees (this gets crossed out line by line as they sell out of the best stuff) and a really wonderful staff.

Dining in France: try to find a "menu" (set dinner) that you like. It is always going to be a lot less expensive than ordering the same things a la carte and you will get a chance to try some things that might surprise you. Any longevity in a restaurant in Paris means the food's going to be at least commensurate in quality with the cost, since the bad ones get driven out of business and the good ones' prices rise as the traffic will bear it.

Paris is about the most accessible city I can think of. You are never more than about 600m from a Metro stop and once you are in the Metro system you can get within, well, about 600m from anyplace you want to go within Paris.

Your wardrobe should tend towards black if you want to fit in. No legible clothing, no shorts, no jeans unless you're of college age, no sneakers. T-shirts are a grey area; wearing a shirt with a collar is better.
posted by jet_silver at 7:35 PM on June 10, 2008

You've got plenty of time to learn a few phrases, which is all you'll probably need for such a short stay. Pick up some language CDs from the library so you can get the pronunciation down.

Then buy a short tourist phrase-book and read it, and tab the pages you think might be useful. This you can bring with you for reference, and if you can't pronounce stuff then you can just point!
posted by GardenGal at 7:53 PM on June 10, 2008

Oh, heck. I take half my university courses in French, but my accent is terrible, and they still spoke to me in English. ("Non, s'il-vous-plaît, en français!!" "...Vraiment?") You'll be fine. You can get by very easily with only basic, I-have-memorized-these-phrases-before-leaving French.

Paris is the only place I have never gotten disoriented, and I'm famous for temporarily having 'where the f--- am I' moments. And if you do get lost in touristy areas, the best suggestion is to follow the crowd. If you're not in a tourist area, you can get by with basic French; for pronunciations of common tourist phrases, click here (and don't miss the Accommodation, Food and Drink, etc. tabs).

That said, my number one tip is do not eat at the Champs-Élysées. It is a money drain, and that's with the foreknowledge that Parisian restaurants tend to cost too much.

If you do dress like a tourist, and have never been to Europe before, the sudden onslaught of gypsy girls with postcards written in English ("Please help my mother died in the Balkans of leukomia [sic] I need money I have no home please help...") will be hard to adjust to, as they are everywhere I went when I was in Paris, visiting the touristy areas. It's also very sad (although not because of leukemia, given that 10-20 girls will trawl the Eiffel tower with the same story), so it's best if you know about it ahead of time.

CNC's point is good: you're expected to greet people when you enter a room, pass them in a hallway, anything. It was very unexpected.

I'd suggest you try to wear nice clothing, to fit in. I didn't, but then again, I simply didn't care if everyone knew I was a tourist. I was just trying to see the city as quickly as I could.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:55 PM on June 10, 2008

Oh, yeah: if you have any allergies, or foods you absolutely loathe, memorize the dang word. A lot of people forget about this. "Est-ce que ce plat est fait avec ______?" (Eh-se ke se plah eh feh avek ____ is the best rough approximation I can think of. Inaccurate, but more accurate than one's gut anglophone instinct would be).
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:03 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh. that sentence is 'Is this dish made with _____'; best used while pointing at a menu.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:03 PM on June 10, 2008

Rather than spending time reading all of our responses, start spending your spare time practicing basic grammer. It is amazing what a little basic courtesy can get you. Learn ten words in French and you will be amply rewarded by the interactions you have.
posted by arnicae at 9:00 PM on June 10, 2008

Oops, I misread the question - I thought you were leaving for France in four days, not having four days in France in October. My bad. I'll revise my feedback - see if you can get into a basic french class at your local community college. Your fledling french will stand you in good stead once you arrive in France!
posted by arnicae at 9:01 PM on June 10, 2008

Well.. don't have extremely loud conversations in English on crowded buses/trains. It's not about the language, it's the volume, if your normal conversation is considerably louder than everyone else's, that can be annoying. I think also as an American I was so accustomed to taking up a lot of space, Paris is very crowded so be considerate of others where you walk, when you're on a packed Metro.

I think what is good to know, when you walk in a small shop, it's generally polite to say "bonjour" to the salesperson, and "merci" when you leave. If you're at a nice shop (any kind) or at a restaurant, the staff will know their trade and can help you, ask what on the menu is recommended, ask what is good if you're buying food at a market or looking for something in a store. Also I notice we Americans tend to just go in stores and wander for no reason, but that's not so much done in Paris, one goes in a store looking for something. Though you could easily just browse at a big department store (Bon Marche is worth a visit, there is also Printemps Haussmann). I would really not advise going to have a meal at a restaurant directly in a heavily touristed/super busy area like right on the Champs-Elysees or around Chatelet-les Halles, most are not good...

At a bakery, the little tray at the cashier's is to put the money in so the two of you don't have to exchange it hand to hand. Money in general is not a nice thing to talk about IMHO so I would avoid publicly fretting over prices of goods.

And hey, who cares if you look super American. Light colored jeans, baggy jeans, white running shoes, shorts = American, for sure. But so what, that is fine. Just be polite and considerate, there will be no problem (and if someone has a problem, that is THEIR problem, not yours). :)
posted by citron at 9:03 PM on June 10, 2008

I'm a parisian, although i don't live there anymore.
The main problem people have against american tourists is not that they dress bad or that they don't speak french.
The main problem is with tourists that act like they own the place.
That's not how it works in france, it's a tit for tat culture. You treat people like crap they're going to treat you like crap. There's no such thing as being polite with a rude customer because it's part of your job.
That's why you greet people properly and you just don't brush them off once you're done.
In general parisians let their mood affects their work, they don't try to hide the fact that they're bored or pissed off on the job.
To the american eye that's the most unprofessional behavior and i guess it accounts for a lot in the rude parisian stereotype.

Now for restaurants, a good rule of thumb is to not go to restaurants with big english signs on them, those are for tourists and they suck.
posted by SageLeVoid at 9:33 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do not wear shorts, if the train is silent, then do not be the loud english speaker in the train. Do not stand on the street talking loudly in english. Dress down and not loud. Say excuse me and please. Do not speak to the person helping you as if the person is a retard that hardly understands english. Be a bit nervous when asking, don't be brash and overconfident. Ask for recommendations without forcing your own what-you-read down their throats. And finally, don't talk about America all the time.
posted by ChabonJabon at 1:18 AM on June 11, 2008

I stayed at this hotel last year, found it very pleasant with decent character, reasonable price. South of the main tourist parts of the city but 200 yards from the metro, on the line for the city centre.
posted by biffa at 2:16 AM on June 11, 2008

Do whatever the heck you like. Wear shorts. Speak English. Go crazy. The French won't pay that much attention to you, and if they do, they will either like you that you are visiting or feel insulted depending on their attitude toward foreigners. Like here, but, you know, more frenchy.

1. Make sure you see the Rodin museum. Make sure you go into the house part of the museum, upstairs, and spend a little time with the Romeo and Juliet sculpture.
2. Make sure you go to the top of the Arch of Triumph. It's a climb that gives you a sense of triumph.
3. If you like Magritte, then I suggest you take a night train to Brussels and visit his home. A fantastic museum, and while you are in Belgium you can pick up some of the best chocolate in the world, Corne Port Royal.
posted by ewkpates at 4:30 AM on June 11, 2008

I meant this hotel.
posted by biffa at 6:36 AM on June 11, 2008

I've been France several times, and have (with a few exceptions) found the people to be very friendly and helpful. I don't speak a lick of French, but I always say "Bonjour" with a smile before I ask if they speak English. I think assuming they speak English or that they somehow should is incredibly presumptuous. I also make an effort to keep my voice down in public - many Americans seem obnoxious because of how loudly they speak. If you make just a small effort to acknowledge their niceties, you'll be fine. Paris is awesome -- enjoy it!!!
posted by walla at 7:36 AM on June 11, 2008

Ahem. Been TO France, obviously.
posted by walla at 7:37 AM on June 11, 2008

One major difference in restaurant service - after you've been served the main entree, the waitstaff just generally leaves you alone. They don't come back and ask if everything's OK, if you need anything else, if you're all finished with that plate. It's nice not to be pressured, but if you're in a hurry, you have to pretty much tackle someone to get your check.

I've found that retailers generally have a hands-off policy too. They will ask you once if you need help, if at all, and if you're just looking, say "je regarde" and they won't pester you again. If you intend to buy clothes, read up on European sizes first. If you're a bigger person, good luck finding anything that fits. As a petite woman, Paris is heaven for me, but I can't imagine how a women's size 14 US finds any clothes there. Oh, and good luck finding any women's underwear that's not a thong or tanga.
posted by desjardins at 4:03 PM on June 12, 2008

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