Sunday, August 30, 2009


(Title taken from hardcopy of FT Weekend 29-30 August 2009- have to credit my employers!)
It is a common complaint that France, particularly Paris, would be great if not for the French. I personally have not had difficulty with them (except once --well, more than--which I will discuss later) and I have a few very good friends who are French. Of course, when I tell my husband about their travails, health complaints, problems, etc. the Limey would say, "Of course their problems have to be huge and dramatic. They are FRENCH!"

I always thought that the French were rude to people who didn't at least try to speak their language. They are, after all, from streetcleaners to senators, extremely proud of their language. (Segolene Royal supposedly did not win voters with what they thought was her poor command of French)
However, that does not seem to be the case. One French friend said, "The waiters are all rude even to the French but that's only in tourist restaurants." Below is a feature from this weekend's Financial Times that hits the nail on the Empire chaise lounge and explains EXACTLY why everyone has a problem with the French. It isn't them. It's YOU! (italics are my comments)

A user’s guide to understanding Parisians
By Pauline Harris and Simon Kuper
Published: August 29 2009 02:15 Last updated: August 29 2009 02:15

Almost every year some official campaign urges Parisians to be friendly to ­tourists. At one time, posters of smiling Parisians were hung up around town. Other campaigns have urged Parisians to show tourists around, or even to put up visitors in their own apartments. The Parisian response is usually disappointing.
Visitors continue to leave the world’s most visited city saying they liked everything except the people. In a poll this year by the website TripAdvisor, American travellers voted Parisians by far the unfriendliest hosts in Europe. Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret speaks for generations of jilted visitors when she admits, “Actually, Cliff, I’ve always rather hated Paris.”
We have lived in Paris for over a decade between us. We won’t pretend that beneath the grumpy misanthropic Parisian exterior there lurks a heart of gold. More often, there lurks a grumpy misanthrope.
However, visitors do habitually misunderstand Parisians. For instance, they are not simply rude. Often, the sneering waiter is observing a complex etiquette, and if the visitor makes a few simple adjustments, they will become nicer. So for the benefit of international relations, here is a user’s guide to Parisians.

Learn their codes
When Parisians are rude to visitors, it is often because they think the visitor has been rude. This city has an old-fashioned etiquette, and unlucky tourists trample it with both white-sneakered feet.
Starting from babyhood, Parisians are expected to dress, speak and behave ­perfectly. This impossible task makes them uptight, and smirking at others who slip up makes them feel better. Foreigners are an easy target: they don’t know the rules and are therefore bound to say, wear and do the wrong things.
A few basic rules will diminish Parisian rudeness by about 40 per cent. Before ­saying anything else, say, “Bonjour” . When the French finance minister Christine Lagarde recently appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show , she cut through his opening storm of questions with a, ­“Bonjour, first of all.” Stunned, Stewart replied in Spanish: “Hola.”
(I managed this practice of saying 'Bonjour' not because I read it in some French tourist etiquette book but because I just mimicked what I saw. What was the ultra-chic Christine Lagarde doing with Jon Stewart who can't even knot his tie flush onto his collar stand? She has to be the chic-est politician. Far chicer than Carla Bruni or Michelle Obama...Wide band black and white diamond rings (Chaumet??), diamond starfish on her jacket shoulder (Boucheron? Cartier?) , great haircut, fab suits, perfect white shirts....Makes Tim Geithner look like her PA. That might happen soon as France is coming out of the recession faster than the US)
If a conversation ensues, don’t speak loudly, smile or use superlatives – all these are the marks of simpletons. On departing, always say goodbye. Yes, always: after an attacker held up a friend of ours at gunpoint in the lift of her apartment near Bastille, he left saying, “Bonne soirée”.
Don’t go around in sports kit, T-shirts with large logos or baseball caps. We did recently see a suspiciously French-looking gentleman wearing a cap on the metro, but on closer inspection he turned out to be mentally disturbed. (I HATE this Hollywood-director-NYer on the weekend American look!!)
On the other hand, don’t spend six hours dressing. Parisians aim to look effortlessly flawless. And don’t attempt flabby exposed midriffs or pushed-up cleavages (especially not if you are a man). Parisian women wear clothes that actually suit their body shape, age and style. (Like Christine Lagarde)
Only in one field of Parisian endeavour do no rules apply: driving.

Remember: the server doesn’t want your money – he wants his dignity
An American friend recently tried to buy a newspaper at a Parisian kiosk. The stallholder, ignoring his outstretched hand with money, continued calmly putting his stock in order. “Why?” our friend asked later. “Doesn’t he want my money?”
(This is the SAME issue I STILL have with the baker. I'm beginning to think it's not me, it's the wheat that has fermented in her nasal passages)
No. He couldn’t care less. A Parisian shopworker or waiter has a mighty disregard for the turnover of the establishment he works in, and for the functioning of its Kafkaesque system. He isn’t “serving” a “customer”. He is an individual interacting with an individual. What’s at stake is what each can get out of the interaction – respect, power, or drama to pass the time.
Part of what is going on here is that the Parisian labour market is inflexible. You need exactly the right qualifications for exactly the right job, because employers here rarely understand the idea of transferable skills. That leaves lots of overqualified Parisians doing menial jobs they loathe.
Furthermore, inside every Parisian shopworker lurks a revolutionary who cannot be bought. It’s useful to remember that the quintessential Parisian form of group expression is the demonstration. You find the same sullen service in other countries where capitalism hasn’t always been the leading ideology, such as the former USSR or Castro’s Cuba.
The Paris Tourism Agency says that about 20 per cent of people working in this city depend directly or indirectly on the tourist economy. But to Parisians, that’s no reason to prostrate themselves before visitors. “The customer is always right,” sounds to them rather like the Italian ­fascist adage, “Mussolini is always right.”
That’s why it’s counterproductive to try to hurry a Parisian waiter. He is not your boy. His ethos says: the more they try to rush me, the more time I will take. If you treat the waiter as an equal – asking his advice on the wines, for instance – he might treat you as an equal, too.
(I made this mistake when I was furnishing our chalet in France. I walked into an upholstery and linen store with a list--of course!!---and handed this list over to the shopkeeper and started rattling on. Needless to say she showed no desire to serve me until her daughter showed up. Luckily, she worked in London and undertsood the uncouth ways of l'etranger. We have been very good friends since and she has answered questions I have like : 1) "Why do French shops close for 3 hours in the middle of the day? Do they sleep like the Spaniards or lay their towels on the beach loungers like the Germans?" For single proprietorships like their family business, she explained to me, they use that time to do admin, open deliveries, re-stock, etc..which they can't do while attending to customers; 2) Why don't the stores just display everything for me to pick and choose? See above entry and also it is to weed out looky-loos who will not buy, waste their time and might even end up stealing!)
Bully back
Imagine 2.5m grumpy people packed into the tiny space inside the périphérique ring road, living on top of each other on creaking 19th-century parquet floors. Inevitably, the biggest Parisian pest is the grumbling neighbour. The biggest Parisian mistake one of us ever made was to buy a bottle of port to placate a grumbling neighbour. He took it as a surrender, like handing over the Alsace-Lorraine.
You get respect here by standing up for yourself. The very common Parisian “non” should never be confused with the less ambiguous English “no”. In Paris, “non” means, “Let’s see what you’re made of”. The more emphasis someone can place on a negative response, the more satisfying it seems to be. One of us once asked if there were any scarves in a shop in the Galeries Lafayette. The response was a 180-degree slow-motion shake of the head, accompanied by “Du tout, du tout, du tout,” which roughly translates as, “Not at all in any way, no chance, never”. But after a spot of arguing, as if by magic the scarves were produced.
Persist with dignity, and when necessary with aggression. In Paris, you never let anybody beat you.
(This is probably why the baker bullies me into giving her exact change. I should fight but I never do. I only simper, "Oh..I'll just take those last two sad eclairs with half the chocolate rubbed off and I'll go back to the car for your change..." )
It’s not because they’re anti-American
In the highest-grossing French film ever, the comedy Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis, a postmaster is told that as a punishment for a transgression he is to be transferred from idyllic Provençe to a terrible place.
The postmaster buries his head in his hands and moans, “Paris!”
His boss shakes his head sorrowfully: “Worse than Paris”.
The postmaster looks up, incredulous: “Worse than Paris?”
Parisians are grumpy to everyone, even each other. If they are mean to you, it’s not because you are a foreigner. It’s because you don’t know how to behave.

Escape tourist Paris
Tourist Paris is essentially a façade designed to punish people who transgress Parisian etiquette. Horrible waiters in waistcoats slam down €10 bottles of bad orange juice. They know they could hang the tourists upside down and flay them, and people would still be back next year.
But hidden beside tourist Paris is another city: the Paris of neighbourhoods. Most people there don’t have hearts of gold. They won’t be instantly chummy. Why should they behave like your long-lost brother when you’ve only just sat down in their restaurant? However, they do want customers to come back. Go to the same neighbourhood café every day, even if you’re only here for a long weekend. Once you have established some mutual respect – you like their café, they think your taste in cafés is excellent – they will soften up. Then Paris becomes really rather bearable.
(This goes for Italy, too! We will have to go back to when Napoleon looted Rome to even BEGIN to tell you about their 10 euro coffees!! They're probably just taking it out on us.)

Pauline Harris is a writer based in Paris; Simon Kuper is the FT’s sports columnist


mussolini said...

i'm a pinoy who has no interest in paris, and i'm quite sure this makes me a rarity. i love the south of france and the people there - but paris? no, thanks.

paris to me means long-lines-tickets-to-everything (ala disneyland), overpriced food, dirty metro/subway system, and (probably) fake paintings (would you really display the genuine article and let people take pictures left and right?). it's overrated.


I nearly had a chance to visit this very historical and beautiful city. But sadly, I didn't have enough time as I merely came by ship.

Maybe someday I may be able to.