An American in Paris: On French Etiquette, Faux-Pas, and Non-nons

Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

By Geoff Dennis

In researching the following piece, we asked several REAL French people if they had any gripes about visitors to their country. Most were surprised at the question and said they were happy when foreigners were interested enough in their country to pay it a visit. Perhaps Americans are more judgmental than the French!

Larry Winthrop was a bad tourist. At first glance, you’d say it was because of his terrific fashion sense: a night on the town called for a vibrant Hawaiian shirt, high-waisted khaki shorts (which he insisted would be stylish again come 2018), and an ultra-zoom Canon DSLR slung low across his substantial paunch. But it wasn’t Larry’s outward appearance that would get him into trouble. You see, Larry had planned a trip to Paris, and his obliviousness to any sort of French etiquette was about to land him in a real pot-au-feu.

Louvre, Paris

France, as the largest country in Western Europe, has about as much cultural diversity as any other place in the world. Breton fishermen sip strong cider at day’s end, Alsatians munch sausages in German-style half-timbered houses, and Provençal townsfolk present a hospitality that would be familiar to any American Southerner. At the heart of it all sits cosmopolitan Paris, a conglomerate of people and ideas. The city has garnered a reputation as a cold place for visitors, blighted by a nose-in-the-air population of businessmen and fashionistas. This persnickety persona is mostly unfounded, perpetuated by anecdotes from disgruntled tourists who experienced a bad waiter at some point. In reality, all you need is a little knowledge about the local customs, and Paris will be no more daunting for an American traveler than New York City. So read this brief tale of Larry Winthrop, and learn from his cultural missteps.

Du pain et des idees, Paris

Larry was a bit jetlagged as he stepped off the plane with his wife and two kids, but his excitement wouldn’t be stifled by mere sleepiness. He hailed a taxi outside the airport and headed into the city center to strike out on his first Parisian adventure. Food was first on the family’s list, and Larry had heard some really great things about the quality of French pastries.

“Hi there!” hollered Larry to the startled girl behind the pâtisserie’s counter. “We’re in the market for some of those croissants you got.” After composing herself, the girl quickly rolled her eyes as she asked how many Larry wanted. Gee whiz, she thought, I certainly wish that this poorly dressed man would first ask me whether or not I spoke English, or even attempt to order in French! That would indeed win my respect.

Oblivious to the silent critique and fueled by the tremendously buttery pastries, Larry and the family wandered their way through town, stopping every few seconds to snap a few shots of whoever and whatever. “Okay guys, spread out across the entire sidewalk so we can get a nice shot for the Christmas letter!” Gee whiz, thought everybody else on the sidewalk, I sure wish this goofy-looking family would allow us to walk on our own sidewalk. Unswayed by the thoughts of passers-by, the Winthrops went about their tourism, making it to the Louvre and snapping countless shots of the Mona Lisa to show their friends.

Tourists in Paris

The family’s next stop was Père Lachaise Cemetery, the peaceful resting place of a myriad of renowned figures, from Frédéric Chopin and Eugène Delacroix to Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. All of that excitement got the better of ol’ Larry. “Let’s sing something!” he blurted, jumping into a tuneless rendition of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” What a disrespectful clan of hooligans, thought the Parisians taking a quiet, contemplative walk through the cemetery. They should show more respect in a place like this.

Catacombs in Paris

Catacombs in Paris

After a joyful romp through Père Lachaise, the family was tired and hungry. They found a nice-looking neighborhood bistro and headed inside to grab a seat. The maître d’ reported that there would be, unfortunately, a fifteen-minute wait for a table. Larry’s face turned beet-red and his generous jowls began to quiver. “This is ludicrous!” he huffed. “They’ll surrender their entire country but not one of them’ll surrender a table?!?”

A deadly hush fell over the bistro. Forks clinked to the table and food-laden jaws fell with them. Larry’s comment set off a buzz of mental chatter around the room: I can’t believe he’d come to our country and then make such a comment, went some. That seems completely uncalled-for, thought others. The family, suddenly uncomfortable in the face of three dozen displeased stares, slowly backed their way out of the restaurant.

“I can’t wait to get home and complain about French people,” Larry muttered. “They’re so rude.”

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