Let’s Face It, We’re all Tourists.
Nicole, Spring 2024, Paris
January 19, 2024

A Guide on Understanding Perspective While Studying in Paris.

A View of Paris from Tour Montparnasse

I’ve officially been living in Paris for a week and in that time I’ve had to unlearn a lot. Coming from New York City to Paris may not seem like much of a change in environment except for the obvious language difference. But I’ve experienced extreme culture shock in the few days of being here.

This past week I’ve quickly adapted to a lot. And yet, the hardest thing for me has been admitting my “tourist” status.

In living and studying in New York City, I’ve learned to grow a hatred for tourists that crowd the city and have grown a keen eye for spotting them. I’ve never thought about being in the opposite position. Maybe it’s because the French love to admittedly stare at you, but I’ve never felt more like a tourist in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a tourist before. But knowing that I’ll be living here has me not wanting to put that label on myself.

Photo of Me Holding a Glass of Champagne with a View of the Eiffel Tower

This week I’ve learned to finally accept it. I am a tourist. We all are. You’re a tourist whether you chose to believe it or not, whether you’re planning to live here long term or not. And that’s okay!

Now why was that so hard? Because tourists outwardly don’t understand social standards and stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not one to draw attention to myself and I’m not really a fan of the French staring at me like I’m the new act at the circus.

As a tourist, it’s sort of your duty to learn a bit about the place you’re visiting. If you don’t you’re a bad tourist. To help you out, I’ve created a list of DOs and DONTs for all “tourists” to be aware of when living abroad in Paris:

Let’s start with the DONTS:

Don’t Smile! (Without a Reason to)
This was a hard one to unlearn because I smile at everyone. It’s sort of embedded in American culture to be friendly to strangers. This week I’ve learned that Americans are weirdly friendly, sometimes almost in a fake way. We smile at strangers and the people serving us. The French don’t do that. If you smile at someone on the street in Paris they’ll probably give you a weird look. The French usually reserve their smiles for people they’re close to, like friends and family. They have a reason behind their smile. Just be more aware of when you use yours.

Don’t Talk so Loud in Public!
I’ve learned this week that Americans are really loud compared to the French, almost yelling when conversing with people right next to them. The French are private and courteous, keeping their voices low so only the people in the conversation can hear. So even if you think you’re talking at a normal volume at a restaurant, just take it down one more notch. It’ll prevent you from sticking out like a sore thumb.

Probably an Obvious One: Don’t Tip at a Restaurant, Unless You Really Enjoyed the Service!
What you see on the menu is what you pay for. As Americans, we’ve been instilled this idea that we have to add a 15-18% tip on top of the charge for the meal. In Europe, waiters/tresses get paid a living wage and don’t rely on tips to survive. Sales tax and service are already included in the price. So only tip if you really enjoyed the service, or secretly have a crush on the waiter/tress. And even then, don’t give more than 10%.

That Being Said, Don’t be Rude, the Server is Always Right!
You know the saying, the customer is always right? Well it’s the opposite here in Paris. Don’t yell at the waiter/tress if something didn’t go the way you wanted it. Even if you’re a Karen and ask for the manager, they’ll usually side with their employees. This is especially true if you’re American and don’t speak a word of French. Just admit your loss and move on.

Attentionez Le Pickpocket!!
This one has been heavily engrained into every study abroad orientation I’ve been to and is a constant reminder through the metro intercoms and signage. But I guess it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? Just be really attentive and have an arm around your bag. I tend to hold my phone close to me so I know I have it.

Now for the fun stuff! DO:

Stop and Take that Photo!
Yes, people will probably know you’re a tourist and that’s okay. But do you really want to regret taking it because some people looked at you weird?

Photo I took of the Eiffel Tower from the Sacre-Coeur

Learn the Basics of the Language.
If you’ve never learned a word of French before, it’s your time to start. The French value respect and are more likely to help you if you approach them with a polite “Bonjour” (Good morning) or “Bonsoir” (Good evening). They’ll probably catch on from your accent that you’re American and help you from there.

If not, here’s a great phrase to learn that’s been coined as the “Ten Magic Words” by Polly Pat, a journalist who wrote a book about French etiquette called “French or Foe?” (Highly recommend reading it!) The phrase goes…”Excusez-moi de vous déranger, monsieur/madame, mais j’ai un problème.” (Excuse me for disturbing you, Mister/Misses, but I have a problem). Saying this phrase establishes the necessary respect and politeness, giving you an easier way in to receive help.

Though Parisians know English pretty well, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to greet them in their language. Other good words to know are “Oui” (Yes), “Non” (No), “Merci” (Thank you), “S’il vous plait” (please/if you please), “L’addition’ (the check), “Au Revoir” (Goodbye), and “Bon Journee/Soiree” (Have a good day/evening).

Get to Know the Neighborhood You’re Staying in
When you move in, spend a day or two getting to know the area a bit more. Walk around the street you live on and get a fresh baguette at the local boulangerie, or a coffee at a local coffee shop down the street instead of the Starbucks. It’s important to start setting up relationships with the people of your community. Not only will it help with the loneliness that comes with being far from home, but it actually might get you better service too.

Photo of a Street in Paris

Do the Touristy Attractions!
Like I said before, you are a tourist! So live your best tourist life! It’ll help you to understand more about the city and the different arrondissements. You’ll learn more about how the city works, the history of it, and places to avoid. Plus, you might end up finding some niche spots in the process that’ll become some of your favorites!

A Photo of Me Looking Like a Tourist, Wearing a Beret in Front of the Sacre-Coeur.

And My Favorite: Wear that beret!
Yes, you’ll definitely look like a tourist and probably get stares from locals. But it’s so cute! Don’t let other people define your experience for you.

All in all, do what you want! But just be mindful of your foreignness. Take time to get to know the city you’re living in through understanding the social etiquette, participating in the culture, appreciating French art, and getting to know the language a bit. Yes, we’re all tourists, but we’re also temporary members of the community. Remember to show courtesy and respect.
And lastly, have fun!!

Written by: Nicole, Spring 2024 Paris student from Parsons School of Design

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