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First trip to Paris / Europe

I'm planning a trip to Paris either mid-May or late Sept/early October for approximately 8 days. The LAST thing I want to do is be an ugly American. Any advice on manners / etiquette, dressing appropriately but comfortably (male, 42, traveling alone), best (quiet) places to stay (I was considering Hotel Luxembourg Observatoire in the latin quarter)? I am most interested in conversing w/ residents, but speak no French (trying to learn some phrases before I go) - are they generally receptive, or would they find this intrusive? ANY insight or suggestions you could share would be most appreciated for a first time visitor. Just trying to make the most of my experience.

Posted by
51 posts

Jim,
I would say that the fact that you are aware of "the ugly american" puts you in a good position. Trust me, you will see them, and not just Americans either. Ugly travellers in general.

Absolutely you are doing the right thing by learning some key French phrases. Is it essential? No. Will it be appreciated? Yes, definitely.

Keep in mind that politeness, maybe more over the top then many would be used to, is considered normal and routine. When entering a shop, you will be well served to greet the shopkeeper (or whomever is behind the counter) with a "Bonjour Madame/ Monsieur" and an "Merci, Au revoir" when you leave. Also when addressing anyone older than yourself, in a higher position than yours etc use "vous" rather than "tu" which means "you". If you are not totally sure which one to use, go with "vous".

In general, if you are self aware, respectful and polite you will do well. Paris is an amazing city, my personal favorite. I am sure you will find it enchanting.

Posted by
15670 posts

Jim...learning some French is a good idea. If you start off speaking a little French, many Parisians will be willing to "practice their English with you." They at least want you to try their language.

The Latin Quarter can be very busy. Your hotel is on Blvd. St. Michel...the main street of the area. You might want to look for something in the 7th Arrodissment--not necessarily Rue Cler. It's a mixture of residential and hotel.

As far as dressing goes, dress like you would in a major city in the U.S.

In general, I found the Parisians no different than New Yorkers....and I am a native New Yorker. (Or Was).

Posted by
12040 posts

One of the best ways to avoid the ugly American label is to speak at a lower volume than you would at home. Europeans generally converse much more quietly than we do, particularly in restaurants.

Posted by
2030 posts

Jim, you sound like a thoughtful person who wants to enjoy Paris, but also blend in a little and not stick out too much with your American ways. I suggest you read one or all of the following books, to get a little insight into the French psyche.
"French or Foe" by Polly Plat. "60 Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong" by Nadeau & Barlow.
"Talk to the Snail" by Stephen Clarke.
I found each of these books to be very informative, humorous and entertaining. Fun reads. Also, learn as much French as you can -- you can still converse with them in English though!

Posted by
425 posts

all previous posts are giving great advice. one thing i would add is that September is high season for conferences in Paris, so book your hotel early. as in other parts of Europe, beware of pickpockets and be sure to wear a money belt.

Posted by
239 posts

Hi Jim--Tom is absolutely right. Many of us seem to worry about how we dress, but it's our loudness that really makes us stick out. Maybe it's because our country is so spread out and Europeans are used to living in closer quarters, but as a rule, they talk softly. You'll HEAR the "ugly Americans" when you are there; you can't miss them in the trains, metro, restaurants and museums. In Paris you'll find that people are more reserved and formal than most Americans--as others have said, make sure you use your "please" and "thank you's." It must be very tiresome to live in a city constantly overun with tourists, so be polite and learn a few French phrases. Learning numbers 1-20 and then 10s up to 100 is especially helpful if you plan to spend any money. I always remember that I am the guest and try to act accordingly. You'll see the tourists who think Paris is their private "Euro-disney" and are (loudly) ticked off that they can't get a decent iced-tea.

Posted by
1806 posts

The funniest thing I've ever read about someone's experience around Ugly Americans in Paris was written by David Sedaris. Get a copy of "Me Talk Pretty One Day" and read the chapter "Picka-Pocketoni" for a lesson on how NOT to behave.

Posted by
800 posts

Jim-really good advice given to you so far. One thing though is don't take it personally if you are trying to speak with locals and you don't get an enthusiastic response. Paris is a wonderful city and I find that I have enjoyed it more each time I've visited. But the truth is that it is a big city with busy people. Don't get me wrong - they will be very polite - but you are just one of the many many foreigners that visit. I have had a "friendlier" response to our desire to converse when I have been outside the bigger cities - in any country, including the ones where they speak English!

Also, not to get too much into the what to wear thing, but since you asked- on our recent trip to Strasbourg to visit our daughter, she asked that I help her dad pack. The biggest no was his white running shoes, followed by his usual colorful tropical shirts. Plain clothing was best in her opinion - not that anyone would have been rude to him, but she did want to show him off to her friends!

Posted by
6 posts

I can't thank everyone enough for their comments. It's already put me much more at ease about my trip, and cleared up some confusing issues (tu and vous, for example).
Most appreciatively,
Jim

Posted by
261 posts

When entering a French store say "Bonjour, good day." That's a subtle way to tell the clerk that you don't speak French. Also ask, "Parlez-vous Anglais?" The standard answer is, "A little." Most French, especially in Paris, speak pretty good English, they don't want to admit it. The further out you go, the less English they speak. I think someone else pointed this out. In my European trips, I've noticed that generally Europeans dress better than Americans. The Americans are the ones in jeans and sneakers.

Posted by
8293 posts

Most people in Paris probably speak a little English (I'm not even sure of that) which would be a lot more than the number of people in Maryland who speak a little French, but most assuredly, MOST people in Paris do not speak "pretty good English", but anyone who does is very pleased to to admit it and will gladly help you in English.

Posted by
800 posts

Norma - gee, I took the "don't want to admit it" line as meaning they are modest about their ability to speak English. I found this with many of my daughter's friends a few weeks ago in Strasbourg. They would say they speak "a little English" meaning they did not feel as comfortable in English as one of their other languages (and they all seemed to speak at least 3!). But when they actually spoke, their English was VERY good - or at least, so much better than my pathetic French. My daughter told me that they all appreciated our attempting to speak in French as that was the common language that they had between them.

Posted by
818 posts

Jim - I suggest taking a walking tour or museum tour. Paris Walks has some good ones. Print out their schedule anbd take it with you. We also set up a greeter with www.parisgreeters.com and this was really fun. We had a super nice woman who showed us her neighborhood and it was a good experience. In Feb we stayed at Hotel Leveque and the people at the front desk were all nice and let us practice our french on them. My husband also kept a scrap of paper which he'd jot down new phrases he learned and would ask for help sounding things out. Most waiters/bartenders were totally receptive and helped him out.

Dress and etiquette - as a fellow New Jerseyian I am sure you have supurb etiquette!

Don't wear your Yankee jacket. Dress nice. I am always not bringing my nicest clothes on vacation - in case anything happens to them. But what's the point in that? It's more fun to dress nicely (I think). Etiquette - as others I am sure said always say "Bonjour" and smile when you enter anywhere

Posted by
6 posts

bronwen - You must be a mind reader - one of the things I was most hoping to do is meet a Parisian to just learn about what life is like there, so I was very happy to learn of Paris Greeters. I thought this might be quite difficult as I didn't want to impose or intrude on anyone, and I had no clue how to go about it. This may be a good option. And no worries on the Yankee jacket. If I wear a 'jacket', I'll be sure it's a blazer! Thanks.

Posted by
335 posts

Jim, I hope you fall in love with Paris, as I have. I'm looking forward to my 4th trip in early June (just started going 3 years ago, travelling with a small group of friends). All the comments so far are on target, especially the ones about learning a little of the language and being extremely polite. I tried several language CD sets (Pimsleur and another Berlitz set) but found the 1-CD Berlitz Rush Hour French CD the most helpful. It's only an hour long, gives several scenarios and some responses are sung (which helped me remember them!) I listen to it multiple times before each trip. If you like museums, be sure to get the Museum Pass (2,4,& 6 day versions available). Even if it doesn't save you a lot of money, it's worth it because you get to go to the front of the (sometimes very long)lines! Since it's your first visit, do see the "required" things, but also leave lots of time to wander and discover. Read Rick's Paris book - And have LOTS of fun!

Posted by
102 posts

Do not know if things have changed since I used to spend a couple of months a year in Paris but those days I saw Americans struggling to speak French at the desk of the hotel and the lady at the desk did not help at all even though I knew that she spoke perfect English.

Posted by
9436 posts

Kaarina, I grew up in Paris, we moved there in 1961 and I have been going back often ever since and even lived there again as an adult. What you describe is not typical at all. Maybe that person was just a nasty woman, maybe she was having a bad day, but that is not typical behavior. There are mean people everywhere, Paris is no exception, but I've run into more mean people here in the US than I have in all my time spent in Paris. I just don't want Jim to get the impression that many Parisians are unkind, they're not. In fact, most are delightful.

Posted by
160 posts

I've been to Paris twice, alone, at the ages of 36 and 40. Both times I've been treated very well - indeed, out of all the cities I've been to in Europe, Parisians have been the kindest to me.

I would definitely learn a bit of the language. Try Elisabeth Smith's "One-Day French" program. It's on one CD, and she teaches 50 words and some helpful phrases - more than enough for any traveler, over topics such as asking directions, ordering food, and shopping. It even comes with a cheat sheet you can take along.

The French like it when you try to speak their lingo, although they'll most likely switch to English right away.

As for dress - well, on my 2nd visit I bought a pair of jeans at the Gap and Mephisto shoes at the Rue Cler shoe store, and with a dark collared shirt I fit right in. Indeed, a couple of times folks started speaking to me in conversational French until I shrugged my shoulders and started speaking English.

Anyway, lots of good advice here. Have fun!

Posted by
270 posts

I think that by being willing to learn some phrases, you will avoid the UA epithet. Are there websites where people can get together to practise their languages. I've seen ads at or near language schools here in Vancouver.

I've noticed all over Europe, people in tourist and service industries speak English but, as someone pointed out, not as well as their own language so they are modest. I have had the experience of chatting (haltingly) with a trainee judge in the Metro in French and when I tried to switch to English because I was struggling, he said "non" because I must practise. Same thing happened in a shop in Venice with my one year of university Italian.

By the way, if a tourist here asked me if I spoke French or Italian, I would say "un peu" or "un poco" -- not being modest but being slightly ashamed that I am a uniglot.

Posted by
49 posts

"I am most interested in conversing w/ residents, but speak no French (trying to learn some phrases before I go) - are they generally receptive, or would they find this intrusive?"

The French don't often apeak very good English. It's not that thay don't want to, they just can't.
(And now when I've said that, you'll meet 20 nice Frech that speak very good english..) They're not trying to be rude.. they just don't really follow you. Of course there are (young) people who speak english, but not everyone.

Posted by
11507 posts

Assume if you are treated badly by anyone that they are just having a bad day,, not that it is in anyway your fault,,AS LONG AS, you conduct yourself politely , use your manners, speak softly and say please , thank you , hello and goodbye!!

Posted by
9436 posts

Pat, Well said! I totally agree with you. It also bugs me when an American has an unpleasant experience with a French person, and they then believe "ALL French people are rude."

Posted by
61 posts

Example: woman travelling alone, nice restaurant - I was seated near another US couple, a French couple, and a bunch of ugly touri accents... hereafter "UT."

Same waiter for us all. He was visibly pleased by my efforts to order dinner in French - nearly 40 yrs since last French classes... He was cordial with the other US couple as well as his countrymen. The UT were LOUD, rude and pushy, and the waiter was giving the perfect illustration of rude. I was seriously rooting for the waiter - they deserved everything he gave them.

When done with my meal, I was given a huge hug by the waiter, who had treated me like a QUEEN! It takes so little to have a wonderful trip, and I encourage you to follow your very obvious good intentions! Have a ball.

Posted by
263 posts

Jim,
We stayed at the Hotel Luxembourg Observatoire twice, and really enjoyed it. Yes, it is on a busy street, the rooms are small, and there are probably cheaper places to stay. But it is near the Luxembourg Gardens, there are bus and metro stops within the block, a couple of cafes and inexpensive restaurants in the neighborhood and a helpful staff. There are also a couple of markets, where we would buy lunch and take it to the park and eat while people watching. We also tried to blend in, and in all honesty my French is nonexistent. However, we never met a rude person...quite the opposite....and I can't wait to go back. Enjoy your stay...and sail the little boats in the garden if you get a chance!

Posted by
11507 posts

"the last thing I want to be is an Ugly American"

People who worry about that are never " Ugly Tourists" .. its the ones who never ask about cultural differences and etiquette that are usaully the " ugly" ones.