Four Myths about Paris and Parisians

The founder of Lonely Planet guidebooks espouses a philosophy that through travel, the world can become a more peaceful place. It’s true. I can no longer count the times stereotypes have been completely shattered when I go to a new country. The Polish, for example, don’t need ten people and a ladder to screw in a light bulb. Likewise, the Mexicans aren’t shiftless, sombrero-wearers who use donkeys to get from one bar to the next. Other times, however, a stereotype can confirm a preconceived image we had before going to a country: many Italians really do speak with their hands. And it’s a fact that Germans drink a lot of beer. Similarly, the first time I was in Paris, in the early-’90s, I remember seeing designer-clad women walking down the Champs Elysees holding perfectly groomed toy poodles on a leash. I left France, having only spent 24 hours there with this image remaining in my mind.

Ten years later, I moved to Paris. After scraping for as much information as I could about my adopted new home, I kept coming across similar themes: Parisians are rude, they won’t help you if you’re American and/or speak butchered French, etc. But after a few weeks in Paris it was clear to me: we’ve been misinformed about the City of Light and its inhabitants. Here’s how:

Myth #1: Parisians are rude.
Verdict: False.

The number of friendly people I encountered in the first two weeks of living in Paris far outweighs the number of uncouth. Big cities are chaotic places and no matter where you are you’re going to encounter rudeness. San Francisco and Prague, two cities that I spent a combined seven years in, are far more hostile places than Paris.

If you come to France and don’t make an attempt to speak the language, you’re going to get treated poorly. But if receiving courtesy and respect from your savage hosts hovers on the lower rungs of your priority totem pole, the exchange I witnessed one day between a wealthy, middle-aged American couple and a butcher will not surprise you. The American man asked the butcher if he spoke English – in English! No Parlez-vous Anglais? I enjoyed watching the butcher stare at them for a long five seconds before slowly shaking his head no, almost as if he were shaming them. In response, the American man just screamed his order at the butcher in English. Somehow this worked. He got his sausage. But the damage was done: the butcher probably went home that night and strangled his effigy of Ronald Reagan again. If you went around the United States and asked people in Erdu if they spoke Erdu, how many responses would you get that differ from the exchange above? Answer: unless you hit the jackpot and find an Erdu speaker, exactly zero. Peace through tourism will not come unless tourists stop thinking that they only need to show up in a country and everything else will be handed to them on a silver platter (after, of course, screaming in your native language.)

Myth#2: If you don’t speak perfect French or have a perfect French accent, the Parisians will pretend to not understand you.

Verdict: False.

I took a one-week intensive course before moving to Paris. I don’t speak perfectly. In fact, I can barely order my food in a restaurant. Still, no one feigned ignorance, pretending that I’m actually speaking Swiss German. Take an encounter I had in a department store one day translated into English:

Me: Excuse me, have you stuff for the skin of the face that I wear to clean at the morning and at the night?

Shop Assistant: Face soap?

Me: Yes!

Shop Assistant: Right this way, sir.

Myth #3: The French hate Americans.

Verdict: False

The French seem intrinsically opposed to any foreign policy the Americans initiate. Even September 11 was debated here. A book published in France while I was living there argued that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., were just a hoax by the Bush administration. As silly as it may sound, it was a best seller. After hearing about this I imagined having this kind of encounter in Paris:

French Person: Where do you come from?

Me: America

French Person: Oh, so you are Americain. You probably zink zat zee September 11 really happened, don’t you? DON’T YOU?!

The French and Americans are both extremely proud and nationalistic. We may butt heads occasionally, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like us or will treat you worse just because of the name of the country on your passport. (But if you tell them one more time, “We saved your ass in the war,” things may take a turn for the worse.)

When I first arrived to live in Paris and people would ask where I was from, my response was Prague (since I had just lived there for a few years and am still familiar with the language-besides who in France is really going to test me). But the response I got every time was, “oh…” So I changed my answer to San Francisco and it often led to a warm smile and further conversation (not necessarily about San Francisco).

Myth #4: The French carry baguettes.

Verdict: True

On the cover of my French grammar book, there’s a photo of a woman carrying a bundle of baguettes. Its kitschy appeal made me laugh. Then I went to France and saw people actually walking around with baguettes, as if they were contractually obligated. The French love their bread – and so do I. It’s great. But it’s more than just tasty. It really is a symbol of French pride. During a French presidential campaign while I was in there, far-right candidate Jean Marie Le Pen, laid down a bouquet of flowers in front of a statue of Joan of Arc in Paris. His supporters were behind him holding up baguettes to show their pride and solidarity. This made me wonder: what food item would Americans hold up? Hot Dogs? Apple Pies? Cans of Coca Cola?

Whatever the case, on your next trip to Paris try to let go of any preconceived notions of the locals and you just might learn something new.

Because as my good friend, Andrew Evans, National Geographic’s Digital Nomad, recently said: “A good traveler is one who constantly discovers that he or she is wrong about a given destination.”

[photo via Flickr, courtesy of Antoaneta]