Though the American tourist population is not by any stretch of the imagination the most detested group that comes to the Champs-Elysees, the Eiffel tower, or Notre Dame, there is a certain something about pretending to be Parisian that will really change the way you experience the city. As a New York native, I always took special care to walk a little faster or demand my coffee a little more loudly when in touristy areas just to prove that I was, in fact, a local. Here are a few ways you can assert your Parisian flare — you might even save a few Euros, too!
1. The Coffee
There are few things Parisians care more about than coffee. Coffee is almost always social unless, like me today, you have some work to do and want to people watch and sip on some espresso in the process. The first rule of coffee in Paris is that you always want a simple “café,” not a “café crème” or “café au lait.” Why? It’s the French way. A true French person would rarely order a café crème, unless a pain au chocolat or other pastry accompanied it. From what I’ve experienced in Paris, the simple café — to be clear, it’s espresso, not coffee — is the way to go. If you want to drink coffee the way Parisians do, the simpler the better. But don’t worry — almost all café in a café will come with a little cookie, usually a speculoos. You definitely get the most for your money.
Another tip — if you want coffee to go (yes, the café espresso can be taken to go, in a very mini solo cup) just walk up to the bar in a brasserie or café and ask for “un café a emporter.” And don’t forget your best French accent.
2. The Language
So you’ve made it to Paris, you’ve settled into your AirBNB or hotel, and now all you need is to eat. In a French restaurant — look for brasseries and cafes in lesser-known areas for the best prices — you will probably be able to decipher most of the restaurant without help. My go-to lunch option is a croque-monsieur (grilled cheese on crack, if crack was ham and extra-extra-extra cheese), whereas in the evenings I opt for the steak-frites (exactly what it sounds like — steak and French fries). But when it comes to ordering, things are not so simple. Even if you’ve never taken a French class in your life, you probably know the few token phrases that will carry you through your trip. If you don’t, that’s okay — I’ve listed them below. But before you learn those, let’s discuss the accent.
A) The Accent
Like any language, a key part of speaking French is mastering — or trying to master — the revered French accent. There are two things that make French people happy when interacting foreigners: if they try to speak French, and if they try to use a proper accent. Believe it or not, French is very difficult to understand if your accent isn’t right. So though it may illicit a few laughs from your family if you try to speak French with an American accent, you will just render the French very frustrated. Speaking with a French accent is just what you think it is — think of the most ridiculous French stereotype, speak like them, and you’re halfway there.
I highly recommend watching a few French — sorry, Parisian — movies before coming to Paris. Even if you don’t understand them, it will give you a good model for speaking with a French accent. The reason I say Parisian movie instead of French movie is because if you model your accent after a movie from the north or south of France, you will adopt the French version of a deep southern American accent. Any American can empathize with trying to understand someone from a different part of the States — it’s hell. Save yourself and your new French friends some trouble and avoid this accent altogether. Since arriving in Paris, I noticed a significant improvement in my French after I started watching every episode of Sex and the City for the 40th time in French. If you watch a show you know really well, you could also even pick up a few slang phrases in the process.
B) The Words
Here are a few of the most helpful French phrases, and how to use them when they count.
- “Bonjour” — hello. Most important when entering a shop, when your server comes to your table for the first time, or when you reach the top of the queue in the grocery store. The French don’t start any conversation without saying hello. If you try to skip right to ordering your café, you will be added to the league of rude Americans.
- “Merci” — thank you. Tack on a “beaucoup” (pronounced bow-coo) to express extra gratitude. This one is useful at the end of any transaction or helpful interaction.
- “Je cherche” — I’m looking for. Are you lost? Do you need something in the grocery store, like peanut butter, that you can’t find? You won’t ever find the peanut butter — it simply doesn’t exist in France — but if you say “Je cherche le beurre du cacaouette” you’ll have a better chance. Walk up to a friendly looking French pedestrian, throw a “Bonjour Madame” in front of your question, and you just might find what you’re looking for.
- “Bonsoir” — good evening. Used when entering a restaurant or starting any other conversation at night. Not to be confused with “bonne soiree,” which means “have a good night” and should be used with ending a conversation.
- “Ca va” — in the question form, How are you? Or in response form, I’m okay/it’s okay. An incredibly useful phrase when you’re being harassed by the men selling beer and cigarettes outside the major monuments. Say “Ca va” in your best, most assertive French accent, and they will move on.
- “L’addition” — the check in a restaurant. Preceded by “Puis j’avoir,” you will probably get your check relatively soon. But be aware — French servers are in no rush, because they assume you’re not in a rush either. Eating in france is the quintessential gastronomic experience. If you want a quick bite to eat, opt for Panini and crepe stands, which line all major streets. You should ideally budget two to three hours for a meal in a restaurant.
- “Le ticket” — a metro ticket or the receipt in a store. Not to be confused with “le billet,” a word used for theater, intercity train or plane tickets.
3. The Tourist Traps (literally and figuratively)
Paris is in many ways a typical European city. This means that people will try to scam you in every way possible if they hear you speaking English, or any foreign language. It is very important to educate yourself on the most common tourist scams before coming to Europe. One that is very popular in France is the “deaf girl petition.” There are groups of young women who will ask you, through mime, to sign a petition for deaf people. It seems harmless, but once you’ve signed your name, they demand aggressively for large sums of money, insisting that you promised to give it to them when you signed. If you pay attention, you will see groups of these young women talking at full volume to one another when they think no one is listening. They are not deaf, and are just trying to take your money. Another similar scam is bracelets. Young people will start to tie a bracelet around your wrist without your consent and then demand that you pay for it. This will usually cost you five or ten euros on a good day — on a bad day, when you’re arguing with the bracelet seller, one of their friends will pickpocket you.
For this reason, when wandering around a major tourist destination like the courtyard of the Louvre or the love bridge (Pont des Arts), be hyper self-aware. But don’t be afraid to visit these major must-sees! Walking quickly and with a purpose, waving your hand and saying “ca va” when approached with fend off any potential threats. Look French, and they will give up.