One of the reasons it is fascinating to visit Paris is that you get to visit another culture. The culture is rich with a history that is much longer than that of the United States. It includes ancient settlers, kings and queens, emperors, revolutionaries, monarchists, rebellions and finally a democracy. The history and culture of Paris is one of the major draws. Without it, there would be no magnificent architecture, incredible gardens, medieval alleyways or Christian temples that dot the landscape. With that long history comes some responsibility on the part of the guest in the city to understand and appreciate the culture. These are a few observances on the culture that you will encounter in Paris.
Begin with Bonjour and End with Merci
Can you imagine if someone came into your work place or started talking to you on the street in another language? You would probably think, “What is with this nut?” and walk away without saying anything. Add to that the expectation of the person approaching you at work or on the street that you should speak their language! Wouldn’t you be indignant? That is how Parisians feel when Americans visit and insist on blurting out English with no courtesy.
Many times, Parisians know enough English to respond to you, but they would appreciate a little respect for their culture. So, be a good American visitor. Show some respect for the French and their culture – especially since their culture is much older than yours. Follow the etiquette of the country and say, “Bonjour,” when entering a shop, greeting the host or waiter at a restaurant, asking a person on the street for directions, buying a ticket to a museum or just as a matter of being polite to a passerby. The Parisians will appreciate it and you may be surprised by a friendly smile.
Then, after saying, “Bonjour,” make an attempt to speak in French. Just the attempt will most likely have the Parisian person speaking in English to you immediately. This is for two reasons. One, because Parisians find it extremely rude to expect them to speak English and they will appreciate you trying. And, two, they do not want to have their sensitive ears assaulted by your butchery of the French language. Seriously! This is not a joke. Also, don’t forget to say, “merci, au revoir” when leaving a shop or store!!!
Europeans, including Parisians, use the 24-hour clock. You will see opening times using the 24-hour clock timing. Also, when making a restaurant reservation, you will need to use the time in the evening on a 24-hour clock. For an 8:00pm reservation, you will need to brush up on your French numbers and ask for 20:00.
At sit down restaurants, payment for service – the tip – is included in the bill that is presented to you for payment. You will see it on your receipt as “Service Compris.” An extra tip is not expected. But, if you had particularly good service, leave a Euro or two for the waiter. Think in the range of 1-2 Euros for each 20 Euros of the check.
If you pay with a credit card, most likely you cannot add the tip onto the credit card payment like we do in the United States. That means you will have to dig in your pocket for some coins if you appreciate the service. At more expensive restaurants, consider a 5 or 10 Euro note depending on the final bill and the service you received. And, like in the United States, if you make a big mess or have messy children, tip accordingly. At a café, you can round up the cents. Say the bill for coffee is 1.80 Euros, you may round up to 2 Euros when you pay. For a taxi driver, you could give a Euro or two if you like. You do not have to.
Once, my parents and I took a cab to the Musée d’Orsay. Rather than a direct route, I asked the driver to take us around the Place Vendôme, the Madeline Church and the Place de la Concorde on the way. Of course, immediate grumbling and refusals by the driver – exactly what I expected. But, he started off in the direction that I requested, and then, he was pointing out sights, driving slowly, making sure we saw everything, being proud of his city and really being a generous Parisian. He was great, so I gave him a nice tip.
Doorman who gets a taxi for you, a Euro. Bellman who takes your luggage to your room, a Euro or two per bag. Attendants at coat check or bathroom facilities, a Euro or 2. Tour guides – if the tour is free, be a generous tipper to the guide. It is up to you if you had to pay a lot for a tour to a company (not the individual giving the tour). You may weigh the quality of the guide and your enjoyment when thinking of tipping.
How to Make Payment
No matter if you are in a souvenir shop, in line for a ticket, at the boulangerie or at a fancy restaurant, the person collecting the money will put your bill on a small tray. To pay, place your money or credit card on the tray. Generally, the French will not put a bill or receipt in your hand and they will not accept payment in their hand. Place your payment on the tray and your receipt will be returned on the tray. At a restaurant, if you are paying with a credit or debit card, the waiter will bring the machine to the table to process the credit card.
Have Small Bills to Pay with Cash
For some reason, the French are exasperated if you pay with a 20 Euro note or higher. They may have a register full of bills and coins, but it does not matter to them. A large note causes consternation that you cannot fathom. Rather than have to deal with eye rolls and loud sighs and demands for smaller bills, try to only have 5s and 10s and maybe a few 20s. Your hotel can probably provide change. Beware using a 50 or a 100 – do so at the risk of being refused and dealing with a French person speaking louder than normal to you – IN FRENCH. And, you will not understand. No matter what transpires, the French will win. Get small bills.
Ordering at Restaurants and Cafés
Order straight from the menu presented. Do not order something on the side, do not ask for substitutions, the waiter will think you are from the moon and will not accommodate you. Then you will be mad and think you are getting terrible service and it spirals out of control from there.
European service is the absolute best. Do not expect bubbly waiters who are introducing themselves to you before taking your order. The waiter will arrange the table, provide menus, return for the order and you should be prepared. Order a carafe d’eau (kah-raf doe) if you are fine with Parisian water – it is always good, and free. Or order bottled water with gas (bubbles) or without gas (still). The waiter will generally take your drink and food order all at one time, so be ready. Address your waiter as Monsieur (mushsure) or Madame (mah-dahm) (unless the woman tells you she is “Madamoiselle” (mah-dahm-mwohzelle). Do not call a waiter, “garçon” under any circumstances.
Tables will be close. Much closer than you can imagine possible. Then, when you return home, you may wonder why our tables are so far apart?? In any restaurant setting, most likely the French will keep to themselves and speak in a volume that will not disturb your dining experience. You do the same.
Time to Eat?
Stop in at a bakery to pick up a sandwich pretty much anytime. But, for a sit down meal, only expect service at appropriate meal times: lunch from Noon until 2:00 p.m. and dinner from 7:00-10:00 p.m.