What I’ve Learned About Paris (So Far)
Jessica, Paris, Fall 2018
September 20, 2018

Paris, as you may know, is perhaps the perfect city for one of my favorite pastimes: People-watching. The (literal) thousands of cafes, with outdoor tables facing the city streets, make it all too easy to stare at strangers as they stroll to and fro. Within these first two weeks of my Paris adventure, I have invented a game to make people-watching all the more amusing, which I call: “Spot the Tourist.”

A stunning view of Paris behind me at Montmatre

It’s not very difficult to do. They’re usually the ones with the “deer in headlights” expressions on their faces (I should know – I looked the same way when I first arrived), staring blankly at the metro maps and making absolutely no sense of them. Another telltale sign? A Starbucks coffee cup. I would bet a significant amount of money that anyone carrying around a Starbucks cup – or any take-away beverage, really – is a tourist. I learned very quickly that Parisians don’t believe in rushing anything, especially when that something involves eating and drinking. The true Parisian way to have your morning coffee is to sit down, order un petit dejeuner, and take the proper time to enjoy your meal. This differs greatly from The American Way, where everything must be done as fast and efficiently as humanly possible. In fact, the longer I live here, the more I realize just how unique Paris is. The world simply spins differently. So far, here are some of the unique quirks that I’ve learned about the City of Light:

People-watching at Cafe du Bistrot in the 12th arrondissement

Parisians take bread SUPER seriously.
There’s a reason why 70% of French people buy locally-made fresh bread. Forget processed sandwich slices – French bread is practically an art form. You can smell the fresh croissants, baguettes, chausson aux pommes, long before you see the actual boulangerie. There’s actually a French Bread Law that outlines exactly how bread must be made. For example, a baguette MUST weigh 250-300 grams and be 55-65 centimeters long. If you’re looking for some terrific bread, skip the supermarket and head to a boulangerie.

Actually, skip the supermarket altogether.
Boulangeries, boucheries, poissoneries, patisseries, and fromageries line the streets of Paris. There’s even a massive open market a mere five-minute walk from my apartment, where I can buy anything ranging from tomatoes to an entire pig head (yes, that is an actual thing I saw in the open market). These places have some of the freshest, most flavorful produce, cheeses, meats, fish, and so much more. Parisians would much rather buy their weekly groceries at these specialty stores and markets than from a grocery store.

Daily bread selection at a local boulangerie

Acknowledging anyone else’s existence on the metro is a major faux pas.
Parisians are not unfriendly by any means, but you shouldn’t expect to become best friends with the person sitting next to you on the metro bus. Another “Spot the Tourist” giveaway sign: Speaking loudly and obnoxiously on the metro. Parisians are usually either resting, listening to music, or reading a book. They’re looking for a little peace and quiet during their commute, and no one wants to be the tourist annoying all the locals. My advice? Keep quiet on the metro, and avoid eye contact whenever possible.

Dining is a totally different experience.
People from the US have certain expectations when they go out to eat: Complementary iced water. Fast, zealous service. Massive portion sizes. Throw away all these expectations at a Parisian restaurant. Water is roughly 4 to 5 euro (and will not come with ice, as my roommate loves to complain about). The waiters actually make a living wage in France, and therefore don’t need to be at your beck and call for a good tip. Also, remember, it’s Paris, so everything moves slower. The portion sizes are noticeably smaller than in the USA, but they also expect you to completely finish your meal. A chef once looked completely shocked after hearing my friend utter, “J’ai fini,” while her plate was still mostly full. The French take their food very seriously, and not finishing your meal can be seen as an insult to the chef.

An assortment of flowers at the open market near my apartment

I am still so early into my study abroad experience here in Paris, and yet I notice something new about this world I’ve found myself in every single day. Paris is certainly a quirky place, and yet I believe its quirks make it all the more beautiful.

Jessica is a fall 2018 SAI Paris student from Penn State University.

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SAI is dedicated to providing academic and cultural learning experiences abroad that enhance global awareness, professional development and social responsibility. We concentrate our programs in Europe, with a focus on in-depth learning of individual European countries and their unique global role in the geopolitical economy, humanities, and in the arts.