Photo: Shutterstock/Ross Helen

19 Things Americans Learn When They Come to Paris

by Brenna Daldorph Dec 10, 2014
1. The Champs-Élysées is actually like a big, outdoor mall.

Like many people, I had a shimmering vision of the famed street when I arrived in Paris three years ago. Then I found out only chain stores can afford the rent and there are off-putting hoards of tourists and teenagers.

2. Everyone wants to hang out with you…to practice their English.

Like in other big world cities, young people are American culture fiends. So you’re going to have to fight if you want to learn French.

3. You get really weird looks if you ask a cashier how their day is going.

In Paris, you only really get to say “ça va?” to people you know well.

4. Forget accessible metros and escalators. You are on your own for getting that massive suitcase up those looming, multiple flights of stairs.

That said, sometimes the most unlikely people will stop and help you. It really does restore your faith in humanity and Parisians.

5. The only artists in the Sacré-Coeur part of Montmartre are the guys drawing overpriced caricatures…and the pickpockets.

And, dang, those pickpockets are good. One of them once stole my change purse from my bag as I turned my head to look at the price of bananas at a market. True artistry.

6. Every Parisian has been to New York at least once and would love to recount in detail everything they did during their trip there.

Even if, like me, you come from Kansas and know nothing about New York.

7. Shops don’t have bathrooms. And restaurants don’t let you use them. So you’d better memorize the location of every Starbucks and McDonald’s around…or get really good at running in brasseries.

Hint: If you are attempting a pee-and-run strategy, walk into a brasserie and head directly for the stairs, as most bathrooms are downstairs.

8. Your French is starting to get peppered with a lot of verlan slang, which has now transformed from edgy street talk into just plain old Parisian talk.

That creepy guy isn’t louche, he’s chelou. You’re not going to chopper that sexy girl at the bar, you’re going to pécho her!

9. Charles de Gaulle is the most never-ending airport in the world, and you’ve had to walk so far you’ve almost missed your flight.

A close second for the most never-ending experience in Paris is the RER B from the city to the airport. This journey makes you want to die. Especially when the train stops for fifteen minutes in a Parisian banlieue and no one has any idea what is going on. And then it does the same thing at the next stop.

10. In Paris, M&Ms means the peanut ones.

Tracking down the plain ones is a lot harder.

11. Line 13 is the worst metro line ever.

But at least it has automatic guards in some places. A lot of the metros have no guardrails, which sounds like a recipe for a lawsuit. Consequently, you stand very, very far back and watch for people who look like they might shove someone.

12. Everything that you want to do — wire money, get a phone, open a bank account — requires a dossier including enough paperwork to wipe out a significant chunk of the Amazon rainforest.

And what other country has a RIB anyway?

13. Paris is actually pretty small for a world city.

You can walk everywhere — it takes less than two hours to get from one side of the city to the other, and that’s including the odd pit-stop for coffee (provided there are no strikes / protests / terrifyingly enthusiastic sales shoppers in your path).

14. Everything closes early because eating dinner is more important than anything else.

Whatever errands you need to get done, do them on your lunch break or not at all. Then again, some offices also rank lunch pretty highly and will close during lunch time. And everything is closed on Sunday, too. So you might just have to take a day off to get to the post office, bank, or any kind of bureaucracy-related office. Just make sure it isn’t a public holiday when you go.

15. It’s really hard to tell when to transition from bonjour to bonsoir

When night falls at 4pm in the winter, which one do you say? No idea but guaranteed that the person you are talking to you will respond using the word you didn’t use, just to let you know that you got it wrong.

16. If you want to go shopping at Galeries Lafayette / Printemps / anywhere near Opéra, you learn to get there when it opens, especially during the holidays.

While holiday window displays are beautiful, the hoards of tourists and bona-fide Parisians shopping ‘til they drop are not beautiful and are actually very aggressive. Climbing over what is essentially a brawl to get to the only pair of jeans in your size isn’t as much fun as it probably looks.

17. Most cafés and restaurants still don’t have wifi. Sorry.

And if they do, it often doesn’t work. Once again, sorry.

18. French people adore English gerunds.

Example: Le “parking” (parking lot), le “footing” (jogging), le “jogging” (sweatsuit), le “brushing” (blow dry), le “timing” (timing, as in good timing), le “feeling” (feeling, as in good feeling), etc.

19. Waiting in line outside for three hours just to get your carte de séjour is the worst ever.

Now, why not strike up a conversation with the Moroccan woman with three kids in front of you or the man behind you who is from Congo-Brazzaville and who desperately needs papers to get a job here? And, in case you forgot, you’ll remember how lucky you are to be an American in Paris.

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