There are always perplexing aspects of foreign behaviour you have to accept and adapt to when travelling. Whether it’s asking for steak in a Parisian restaurant or rushing to catch the last metro, Parisian traits can sometimes be confusing, though always charming of course!
Parisians are renowned for rarely waiting for the green man before crossing the road, making a blasé dash between vehicles with their briefcase in hand. But you’ll also notice that cars rarely seem to wait either and blaze through red lights more often than you may be used to, so be attentive!
The terrasse set-up of cafés in Paris tend to line chairs next to each other facing the street, so if you’re just walking by, you’ll have to get used to being gawked at. Parisians often say this unique set-up stems from their romantic nature – sitting next to someone allows for more affection, unlike sitting opposite someone with a table in the way. Others say it’s because Parisians like to judge…
Instead of shaking hands, waving a hello or hugging, you’ll see French people say hello to friends by leaning forward and touching cheeks, making a light kissing sound. This act of greeting is known as faire la bise and has a whole set of social codes attached – codes you’ll only discover when you see it live in action. For example, if you’re being introduced to a group of French people, you’re expected to go round everybody giving a cheek-kiss no matter how big the group is, or you’ll appear impolite.
It’s fine to sit alone in cafés, in fact, it’s authentically Parisian, so don’t feel self-conscious about it. Sitting alone and poring over a good book accompanied by a cup of coffee is a fairly common sight in Paris. After all, this is the city of existential philosophers, writers, artists and thought-changing minds including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who all needed their downtime alone.
It may look surprising, but fully-grown adults in their heels and suits using tiny metal scooters to get to and from work is neither as uncommon nor as uncool as it sounds. In fact, it’s practical, especially in the Metro where you can zoom down the long-winded corridors when changing metro lines.
Everyone knows it rains a lot in Paris, but you only really realise how heavy it can be when you get caught in one of its deluges. You can learn the French idiom Il pleut des cordes (it rains ropes) for a poetically accurate take on the force of Parisian rainfall, falling endlessly like ropes.
Parisians often insist that the city’s plumbing system is too polluted to drink from, so a lot of people will never drink from the tap. They’ll prefer to stock up on bottled mineral water, which you can find very cheaply in convenience stores.
Roller-blades aren’t a thing of the past in Paris, you’ll see them everywhere. So you’d be perfectly fine to ditch the open-topped tour buses and discover historic monuments such as The Louvre, The Moulin Rouge, and the L’Arc de Troimphe at super-sonic speed from the comfort of your very own roller-wheels if you so desire.
As the waiter asks: Quelle cuisson, votre steak? you should adjust your preferences accordingly – French cuisine tends to cook meat lighter than you might anticipate. Technically, bleu is extraordinarily rare steak, saignant is rare steak, à point is perfectly cooked and bien cuit is well done. However, in France, bien cuit will actually be served as a medium-to-well-done with a bit of pink inside. If this is what you’re after, you should ask for très bien cuit to be on the safe side.
If you’re asking for coffee in French for the first time, you’re likely to end up with a tiny cup of strong black coffee. It’s served differently in France, and with milk only when you ask for it. The simple word café refers to black coffee, coming under a whole host of names including un petit café, un café simple, un café noir, un petit noir, un café express, or un express. Many visitors prefer a large cup of filtered, relatively weak coffee, in which case you should ask for un café américain or un café filtre.
If you want the taste but not the strength of espresso, you can order un café allongé and they’ll give you an espresso in a large cup that you can then dilute with hot water.
The French love their cheese, and Paris is the capital of cuisine. Not only will you often see a starter on Parisian menus consisting entirely of a baked camembert, you’ll also find main courses overflowing with cheese. One delicacy is Raclette which is a cheese fondue accompanied by bread and meat to dip in the sauce. There may even be a cheese milkshake in Paris somewhere, who knows?!
This fabulously silly French art still happens on the streets of Paris – it’s not just a myth from movies. Sacré-Coeur has become a hotspot for some of the city’s most talented street artists. Climb the 222 stairs to the top and you’ll be treated not only to the most breathtaking view of Paris, spreading right across the city, but also to football tricksters and amusing mime artists reaping chaos with local traffic below.
Parisian newspaper kiosque-holders are very protective over their printed goods – newspapers are an endangered art after all. While it may be fine to flick through pages of your favourite magazines on sale at home, French holders here tend to get a little narky, so don’t touch the magazines before you’ve parted with your centimes.
The Paris region experienced the longest and most intense pollution spike in a decade last year (December 2016) according to air-quality monitoring company Airparif. But the authorities are keen on combatting this issue, offering public transport free to everybody as soon as the spike is too high. In the meantime, it makes for a very atmospheric photo opportunity.
You’ll hear it on the Metro, you’ll hear it on the streets – there’s no instrument more iconic than the accordion, so your ears will soon adapt to the idea of living on the film set of the famous French film Amélie.