Of course there are always certain things that will speak of our origins, especially in those places which are teeming with culture. Anything can be either a sign of belonging or contrast, and it’s really hard to keep count of the things that scream ‘I’m a tourist’. Along with it, I wouldn’t blame anyone who believes it’s almost impossible to look like a genuine resident in France.
But with a little perseverance and attention to detail, you’ll discover that being one of them is not only about eating croissants and having La Tour Eiffel be seen from all your pictures. And even more important, part of thinking like a tourist in Paris is the idea that you’ll one day become one of them. Unless you really plan on spending here your next 20 years, I hardly doubt it. You should never underestimate the thing that they are very rich in culture and all kinds of social habits (such as kissing on the cheeks three times instead of two, which can make you feel a little light-headed after the four people you meet in less than 5 minutes).
What you visit
You definitely are a tourist if you’re part of the queue at the Musée du Louvre. Because while this museum is clearly a go-to even for the locals, the original painting is smaller than you’d expect and, when compared with all the other masterpieces displayed here, it fades in cultural meaning. And without learning this, you’re not only very far from looking like a local, but not remotely an avaragely informed tourist either.
Notre Dame de Paris is more famous than La Tour Eiffel itself. And while visiting it really is a must, try to go during the last months of autumn, it’s the best time of the year. There are very few tourists compared to the rest of the year, when it’s practically impossible to stare aimlessly at the stained glass windows because of the guy in line who keeps stepping on your shoe. The South Rose Window deserves your most special attention while you’re there. A special tip here would be to try and visit Notre Dame d’Amiens as well. It’s not even half as popular, but you’re going to be impressed not only by the architecture itself, but by the strong statement these two monuments make on the national religiosity for culture.
You see, just because there are more annual tourists visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral it doesn’t mean that there’s something on Earth that could possibly steal the thunder of La Tour Eiffel. The place is always abounding with people, who stay in a crowded mess for hours just to get to the top of the tower. This is one of the most overrated things about Paris. I am not going to say that it sucks and you wouldn’t actually like to have a full panorama of the city, but instead you should rather know that there are other places, less famous and therefore less crowded, where you can enjoy the same view. Plus, standing in 7 different lines to go at the top of this monument, be it the world’s most visited, can be a major turn off. Plus, the huge advantage of finding another gorgeous panorama is that Eiffel Tower is going to be one of the things you’ll see (this you can’t do when you’re standing on it).
For instance, go to Sacré Coeur. The basilica is worth visiting in itself, and being located on the top of Montmartre hill, it makes it the second highest point of the city. Or L’Arc de Triomphe which guards the city at the end of the Champs Élysées boulevard – and even though it’s only 50 meters high, it’s by far the best viewpoint of the city thanks to its position and it’s never as crowded as the tower. Special tip: It’s best to visit it at night for two main reasons: a) there’s really nobody waiting in line as opposed to during the day when you’ll find at least a couple of tourists and b) because the panorama is so lively with the city swarming with traffic lights of all sorts and you’ll be able to admire Paris from all points of the compass. Or Centre Pompidou – the city’s most wonderful art museum located on the 4th Arrondissement, Marais. While you can take interest in what it has to offer as a tourist (without having to look like one), you can enjoy the city panorama and never worry about booking a place in advance.
Les Champs Élysées. It’s rightfully a divine panorama that you’re going to admire from any point that you’ll choose, but if you’re tempted to walk it entirely just for the sake of feeling bohemian, you’re doing it wrong. And there are so many reasons why you shouldn’t to this, most of which aren’t even because you’ll look like a tourist (first-timer, even), but more practical. First, because this bohemian feeling is a dish served in coquette cafés, while reading Camus. And even if you’d like to take a walk, the most expensive real estate place on Earth isn’t necessarily the best option. Yes you can window-shop (at most), because everything’s overpriced; but there are other authentically gorgeous places all around the city where you can do all this and actually afford to buy a little souvenir.
What you do
For instance, speaking in English. As far as stereotypes go, what everybody knows about French people are really fond of their cultural background. And language. So there’s absolutely no excuse for speaking in English, especially if you’re very loud, unless you wish to make all the people within a distance of 100 meters give you the evil eye; and there’s more. If you thought speaking in English is bad, try mispronouncing French words. The only possible thing to make this situation worse would be apologizing in English afterwards. Try to learn a little conversational French (flawless pronunciation included) and everything’s going to be ok.
Thinking that people are nice. Well, good luck with this. The French people are very, very polite. But they’re cold and you shouldn’t expect people in Paris to be extraordinarily friendly with you. And if it happens, either you’re very lucky or they’re up to something. Yes, the Parisians are smug – but after just two or three days in the French capital you’ll understand why. With all this splendor at your feet it’s really hard not to take things for granted. Otherwise, whenever you’ll need something and ask for it, you’ll be trated with respect; but not with kindness and warmth, but cold, meaningless amiability. The sooner you get used to it, the more you’ll love the place.
And since we’re here, one of the musts when speaking basic, but fluent French is being able to spell your phone number coherently and fast enough whenever necessary – and one of the perks about being a local in France is that you’ll know that the proper way to say your number isn’t digit by digit as you’d think, but in pairs. And if it’s easier for numbers up to 70, saying 96 for instance is pretty counter-intuitive. Quatre-vingt-seize would best be translated literally as four times twenty and another sixteen, which makes it harder not to mess the pairs of numbers.
There are a lots of stereotypes that the foreigners attribute to the Parisians. For instance, you’d be tempted to believe that you’re one of them if you listen to the soundtrack of Le Destin d’Amelie Poulin or incline to think that they don’t have a specific accent. What most of us have learned as being literary French language in school is, in fact, the Parisian accent; it’s no biggie if you happen to go to Paris and find the French language the exact way you expected it to be spoken (except for way faster), but it does get more complicated in other regions because the differences in accents are pretty obvious even if you’re not a linguist.
If you’re short on money, it’s not just that you won’t be able to send postcards to your friends at home, but you’re going to starve as well. The food price (particularly fast food, supermarkets are decently priced) is way higher than you’re expect. And even when you know that you’d be spending more on food and you’ve made peace with this idea, you’re still going to have a shock every time you’ll buy a hamburger with French fries.
Taking a taxi. Well, I wouldn’t expect you to believe exactly what you see in movies, but mark this: if you ever associated the idea of romantic love stories with a happy end under the moonlight, delete the scene where it rains, she takes the taxi, he runs after her and they kiss. And not because I’m cynical and heartless, but because people here really prefer public transport over a cab at any time of the day. A special tip about wandering around when it comes to transportation would have to be to remember that there are four different rush-hours a day here – besides the classical morning and evening, a patented French concept is pause-déjeuner.
It means that from noon to 2 p.m. people actually go home and have a proper meal instead of grabbing fast-food from the bakery next to their offices – you’ll be surprised to find out that there’s an entire tradition around this habit – families do meet home for lunch at mid-day on a regular basis as opposed to just seeing each other at dinner. This is why you shouldn’t be confused if you happen to see your colleagues at work with different outfits in the morning and in the afternoon.
Going to famous cafés. While I am familiar with the idea of just wishing to spend a lovely afternoon listening to accordions and violins while sipping coffee from one of the most popular coffee places in Paris, the experience is overrated. And so is the clientèle. Again, opposed to what the stereotype says, they look nothing like you’d imagined watching Amélie.
Yet there are dozens of such places that you should avoid unless you’re looking for an overpriced average experience: Café de Flore or Les Deux Magots are just what pops to my head. The fact that Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir loved to spend time here has nothing to do with how you’ll experience these places today. They’re not necessarily awful, but you’re going to be disappointed to have unnecessarily expensive coffee and nothing else. Café des Deux Moulins had a fairly important role in the movie Amélie, but it’s just another place I don’t recommend visiting unless you’re both very rich and bored.
Taking time to see the details. And I don’t just mean photograph the architecture and move on. Instead of going from one popular monument to another in a hurry, just to wait on an endless queue and see it on a rush, what I recommend in Paris is trying to see it like an experience. Not a number of overly famous buildings, just anything but this.
It’s not even that romantic so say, neither it is so much of a strong statement, that Paris, just like the devil, lies in the little things. Everyone I know and has ever been to this city visited the cultural heritage making it famous, but very few came home impressed. Being so bohemian is what makes it a top destination and yet people tend to reinforce the stereotypes and do what they think Paris should be about, instead of having this experience the natural way. Once again, here’s the difference between a tourist and a traveler, the second one sees what he sees, not what he expects to. Live by this in Paris and you’re going to be a happy traveler.