If anything, I have been wonderfully spoiled by all the places I have visited. There are little facets in each of the different countries that I wholly adore, and I always wonder if I can find a single place in the world that has all of these benefits. In Paris, it’s the food. Always, amazing food. The change is noticeable the minute you arrive. Even in the train station. The French, and Parisians in particular, love to eat well. And they do.
But, Parisian manners are not so simple. I think I’d leave them out of my imaginary, utopian place. It’s not all bad–just not easy. There’s a complex set of codes to navigating Parisian etiquette. And, they’re not written down. Nor are they followed by all Parisians. Saying bonjour at every encounter, peppered with lots of merci’s, will break through much of the Parisian, often snooty, façade.
We had some successes and failures. Here’s an assorted list.
I walked up to the counter at the museum café, and asked for the coffee I’d paid for, but forgotten to collect.
“That’s because it’s for after lunch”, the cashier said.
When I thanked her, and reiterated I paid for a café crème, she said, “We don’t have any cream. You may have an espresso.” Which I did.
While waiting at the post office, to send home the heavy boxes we were struggling to hold, a man walked directly in front of us, and took his place in the front of the line. As we’d already been in Paris a week and learned some of the ropes, Dreamboat walked around him, and began conversing with the cashier. The man apologized, smiled, and fell in behind.
Little boys here, just like little boys in a mountain village in Spain, a dusty road in Guinea, or an indoor field in Seattle, love to play soccer. You don’t have to be good, or speak the language, to be welcomed into their games.
Lots of people speak English in Paris. Often they’re happy to practice their language skills, especially if you or the children have made an effort to communicate in French. Sometimes, if their table is only an inch away in the crowded restaurant, and your seven-year-old has just asked about penises and vaginas, they will giggle and smirk and snort their coffee, while staring straight ahead.
Even if you’ve selected a table out of the way (so as not to overly burden the wait staff), and have made sure to order a dish and beverage for every member of the family (so as not to offend or short-change the establishment), you may not have a variation on a listed menu item. Even if the item is listed as part of another menu item. It is not possible. Not even for an extra charge.
“Ce n’est pas fait”, (it isn’t done).
When in the middle of a grocery store, and the cashier looks over, and thinks your stroller is facing the wrong way, they will leave their till (and line of waiting customers) and come over to move the baby, you, and offending stroller, to face a different direction.
If your child runs wild (like a Cirque du Soleil clown sent out to work up the crowd) in a stately, walled, garden, no-one will notice. Unless he tries to leave through the gate, then all the adults will whip their heads in his direction, jump to attention, and rush to his rescue. All while glaring at his incompetent, albeit fashionably dressed, maman.
Street vendors gather around the outskirts of the Saint-Ouen flea market, to ply potential buyers with knock-off belts, bags, and other items. It’s best to avoid looking in their direction, to avoid any pushy, aggressive behavior. If you don’t have Dreamboat along to simply say, in his deep, gravelly voice,
“I believe the lady said ‘No’.”
Then there’s no more hassle. None.
Only a sweet “Merci” while they quietly back away.
Sitting in a sidewalk café, sipping coffee, really does make one feel more chic and intelligent, at least until the coffee is gone. And, if the wait staff is rude, it just makes the experience feel that much more authentic.