How to blend in…

I wrote something about tourists on the bus a blog or two ago.  A reader thanked me for the tip and said she’s begun a list of what not to do.

Let me say at the start that I am proud to be an American (yes, even in the midst of this insane election year when all my French friends quiz me…and EVERYONE in England asked me about Trump!).

But since I started serious traveling in Europe in 2007, my goal has always been to not look like an American.  For a couple reasons – one is to avoid the scammers.  Or thieves.  (In 2008 I almost lost a valuable bag on the RER train to Paris from Charles De Gaulle… I probably was targeted because I had bags and looked dead tired after an overnight 12 hour flight – but still.)  There doesn’t seem to be as many beggars or scam acts these past two years as in the past – someone would stop in front of you and reach down and seem to pick up a ring and would then try to engage you in conversation that they had found your ring…  On the train, the guy’s partner kept pointing to a coin on the floor that he had planted to make you think it was yours – and then your eyes left your bags.  It only takes a second, trust me.  Another ploy uses lots of young kids – teens – with clip boards who want you to sign a petition.  One time a group of them started to surround me in front of the Pompidou.  A French woman saw me and called to me to get away from them.  Yes, I knew!  I do think she gave me the push I needed to start shouting at them myself – mostly Non Non!  And they did leave me alone.  I have learned that you do not need – you SHOULD not be concerned about being polite.  These people are out to distract you to steal something.  So if you blend in with the French public, there is less chance.

Mostly it is about what you wear.  My own rules for European dressing are Black, Black, and More Black.  Including shoes.  Now that I am here for longer periods of time, I see more color. But black is still a good bet.  It used to be that only Americans or Eastern Europeans seemed to wear sneakers.  That’s definitely changing.  Baskets are more popular – yup, that’s the term for sneakers… basketball shoes…

Shorts were a no-no in the city but I see more and more tourists from all over wearing shorts in the summer.  And it has certainly been hot here lately.  And those cute French teens are in short shorts.

Jeans weren’t that common before but I see them more often.  Dress is more formal here and even more formal than in London.  And while in the states I can go to the grocery in my sweats and workout shoes. NEVER EVER in Paris

I keep my clothing palette in subdued black and navy blue.  I use my extensive scarf collection for the touch of color.  And when I am back in the States, I wear every jewel tone I can find!

Sucsuiplitlie….. sensitivity, touchiness – that’s what a French friend used to describe waiters.  I wasn’t sensitive enough to the waiter one day and I received a mini-lecture, well more of a warning, from my friend.  So funny, he made it sound as if I had to grovel to the waiter.  And he is the one who tried to explain that it was rude to automatically fill a water glass…  and that only the giver of the meal could say Bon Appetit …   And of course, there was my other French friend who castigated me for saying Merci too often.  My head is going to explode.

Volume – Americans speak much more loudly than the French.

Tipping – pretty much not done. Some places indicate Service Compris on the bill – tips included.  My friends who leave a tip usually limit it to between 5 and 10%.  No, it’s not rude.  Waiters here are paid more and consider themselves professionals – a tip is a bit of an insult.  I think a waiter who gets insulted should rethink the gift of extra money – so what if the American doesn’t get it – here’s some money for a drink.  And actually, a tip is a pourboire  in French which means for drink.  But at the places I go to frequently and where I get to know the waiters, I do leave a tip.

For a purse or bags – fanny packs are dead give ways for tourists.  I always wear my bag across my shoulder – actually less for fear of it being pulled off my shoulder than to distribute the weight and save my back.  Funny – the most common backpack is Eastpak.  I see them all over France.  Sure, use a backpack but do be sure it’s not easy to open and don’t carry your expensive stuff back there.  I have never had a problem on the metro. But it can get crowded.  And at museums, especially Versailles, they will often announce in several languages that pickpockets are at work.

Going into a shop – you must look the clerk or owner in the eye and say Bon Jour.  S/he will reply.  And when you leave, make sure you say merci au revoir.

“La politesse” reigns supreme! Any conversation, any questions, always start with Bon Jour…  pardonnez moi, excusez moi…  You have to take that brief moment to be respectful.  I still forget this from time to time when I am in a rush and frantic and want to know a direction.  Inevitably, the response is… Bonjour madame.  Like hey lady where are your manners?  So I take a deep breath and say, bonjour, excusez moi.  J’ai un question s’il vous plait.

And greeting people –  I know the cheek kissing freaks some people out.  You are not required to Faire le bise.  French often shake hands.  But if you do le bise, it’s a light kiss… more an air kiss…   touching your cheek to the other’s.  I find in Paris most people start to the right – then to the left.  Here’s it’s normally two kisses.  In other parts of France, it’s three, four or even five!  Let the other person guide you.  And in the Netherlands, it’s always 3.  My American friends have all adopted les bises so we do it when we meet.  At this point, it feels normal to me – it did take a few months, I must admit.  For amusement, check out this map.

But no, never hug!  Last year when I was saying good bye to friends that I had seen each week for 2 or 3 hours and we’ve have very personal conversations and we call each other friends….  We did Les Bises and then I said, ok, time for an American hug.  LOL  It turned out to be the most uncomfortable moment!  The person stood there with arms held straight down the sides, rigid.  Wanting it to be over with.  Ok, not doing that again ever!

Eating in public used to be a no-no but I see it more often.  Well, maybe not often.  Once a month perhaps.  And it offends me now.  Not when I get back to California, however.

And OMG don’t put your feet on the empty seat across from you in a metro.  A friend told me about that today – he had seen an American family – the young adults did that.  He was absolutely horrified!

Ask for the restroom and they don’t have a clue.  Les Toilette or perhaps WC which has made its way over from Britain.  And don’t be surprised if the men and women share the washbasin facilities.  Or if there’s urinal there with just a swinging half saloon type door in front of it and the guy’s back in full view.  Sometimes in a French toilette I think of the controversies in the US and just roll my eyes.

Of course, you have bread with a meal.  But it goes right on the table.  Don’t look for a bread plate.

Promptness.  Not a big deal here.

And when you start a conversation with a French person, don’t ask about career or kids.  That’s considered too personal.  However, I admit that I do it all the time.  I have too much HR interviewer in my DNA.  So I just realize that I am stepping into a dangerous territory and hope that I have developed enough goodwill that they will excuse it as my American-ness.

Lastly, you can buy them at all the tourist stores, but I have never seen a French woman or man in a beret.


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