As I prepare to come back to New York for a long visit before returning to Paris in the fall, I thought it might be fun to share some of the many idiosyncrasies and observations I have discovered since being here; the ones you don’t find out about in a travel article or a guidebook. Truth be told, I started keeping this list months ago as I noticed and experienced them and funnily enough, some of them now seem so “old hat”! Like, obviously you have to bring your own bag to the supermarket and press a button to make the door unlock! I guess once you settle in somewhere, the new becomes “just the way it is.” Still, for those who have either never been to Paris, or have, but focused on the traditional tourist circuit, these tidbits of everyday life may be enlightening—and come in handy when trying to fit in like a local.
Doors don’t automatically open on the metro.
If it’s your stop, and you’re getting off, you’ve got to push a button (or lift up a wee little lever) to open the doors. Whether the intention is to be energy-efficient, who knows? But it certainly keeps you alert and at the ready to pop up when it’s your stop.
Speaking of the metro, there is no A/C.
There’s not much more to say other than it blows. Or, rather, doesn’t blow—any circulation or air onto the sweaty, smelly crowds. Tip: Sit in the center area with the four seats facing each other as the open windows above will at least waft some dirty tunnel air your way.
Back to doors, those in residential buildings require you to enter codes and push buttons when entering and exiting.
Sometimes, it’s just that simple. Your friend gives you his or her code and voila! You’re in and can head up to the apartment on your own from there. On the way out, there’s often a little sign that says “porte” alerting you that this is the button to push to unlock the door. Other times, your friend may have forgotten to mention that the door code’s been changed or there isn’t a sign, or there is, but the door is so large (many were created to be able to fit horse and carriages) and has weird doorknobs and handles and old locks that you stand there pushing and pulling and turning until someone comes along to assist…and does it in a second.
The hallway lights in buildings also require a button.
Once you find it, it’ll give you about 45 seconds to get where you need to go with the assistance of light. Otherwise, you’re on your own, Prince of Darkness. I applaud this energy-saving tactic, but when navigating myself down narrow staircases I often feel like I’m racing against the clock, lest I have to scramble in the dark to decipher between the light button and a person’s buzzer. I think I accidentally rang my neighbor a good five times when I first moved in. Not necessarily a great first impression. Had I come armed with banana bread, that would’ve been another story.
There’s rarely a mention of “le sac” (a bag) when you’re checking out at the grocery and they will charge you if you need one.
Yet another conservative measure! When checking out, you’re always expected to bring your own bag or pay for one. A lot of supermarkets in the states have begun to adopt this method, but they still ask you if you’d like one. Here, you’re just reminded of your forgetfulness when you’re left with a receipt and a pile of food. Not to mention the next person’s goods piling up with yours, which brings me to…
There is never one line at the supermarket, but ONLY one line at the boulangerie/boucherie/fromagerie/marché.
When I was living in London, I learned that queuing is a big deal. There is ONE line that everyone stands at, and then no matter the number of box office windows or ATMs or bartenders at the bar, you go when there’s no one left in front of you. In Paris, that’s really only the case with speciality food shops like the boulangerie, fromagerie, etc. Otherwise, there are several lines, all the time, especially at the supermarket. Say there are four cashiers open: You go to the one with the shortest line and start piling your things on the conveyer as soon as there’s a sliver of space. Just a sliver! Even if there’s no divider! If you’re close enough to the cashier, you can drop your stuff. And you better be prepared to pack up when you’re handed your facture (receipt) because the next person’s items are coming your way down the conveyer before you’ve got your change and bagged your courgette.
EVERYTHING is eaten with a fork and knife.
Including a hamburger. AND les frites. Also, bananas! The weirdest thing I ate with a fork and knife so far was ribs. That’s right, ribs. Thankfully, they were more the fall-off-the-bone type as opposed to the gets-stuck-in-your-teeth-type. It was still odd. The only exception is when you’re picnic-ing, in which case not only aren’t there knives or forks, but likely no napkins, plates or any other ordinary utensils that follow a code of decorum.
The only thing people eat while en route is a baguette or le sandwich.
Not an apple. Not a granola bar. Even ice cream cones are even a sit-and-lick adventure. I appreciate the idea of savoring one’s food without, say, rushing to get from A to B while just shoving nourishment down one’s face. But, well, sometimes you are just rushing from A to B and need to shove nourishment down your face. And that’s when people look at you and think: American.
You must, absolutely must, say hello and goodbye upon entering or exiting a shop/restaurant/your apartment building, etc.
It’s just how it is. And, quite frankly, it’s nice. Until you accidentally forget because, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just so tiring to be that polite. Or, maybe they’re busy when you enter and therefore you didn’t catch their eye and so there’s a delay and you skip it. Seems weird to say “bonjour” when you’ve been milling about for 10 minutes, right? Wrong. This is when the French fangs come out. One time, while browsing an essential oils store for natural remedies (evidently a big thing in Paris), I needed some help finding something. I said, “Excusez moi, s’il vous plait…” and began asking my question. The woman interrupted me and started speaking over me by saying, “Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour.” I had forgotten the first greeting. Seriously???? At least I said PLEASE!
The city pretty much shuts down on Sunday, Monday, half of December and January and all of August.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating because it’s trés important. Thinking about shopping for a birthday present at Galeries Lafayette this weekend? Do it on Samedi (Saturday). Want to make a soup, but forget bouillon? You’re shit up a creek if it’s Dimanche (Sunday). Want to eat at the hottest new restaurant in the Marais? I hope you made your reservation a week ago—for Wednesday. Interested in visiting the sweet town of Amboise or wine tasting in the Loire after New Year’s? Not a great idea. While the Christmas season or late August may be high time for tourists to descend upon the city, this is when the locals shut down for weeks on end. Forget being choosey about your boulangerie. You’re lucky if you can find any baguettes or croissants worth the calories. More power to them! It may be inconvenient at times, but the French take their personal time off seriously. This is a clear “work to live” society and, quite frankly, it’s commendable.
The Paris Goodbye is like the Jewish Goodbye.
One time, I went to a dinner party at someone’s house. Aside from the fact that it was called for 8p.m. and we were served dinner at 10p.m., once all the trifles had been licked clean and the wine polished off, there we sat, around the table, our eyes rolling into our sockets, carrying on with conversation after conversation lest one of us suggest (gasp!) leaving. By this point, it was just after midnight. It was raining and another bottle hadn’t been opened. Don’t get me wrong: the company was lovely and the food divine, but didn’t the hosts want to go to bed?! I know I did! Eventually, someone else mentioned leaving, and I was all, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to get going too.’ I hate being a copycat, but I just couldn’t be the leader on this one. David Leibovitz wrote a hilarious blog post on the subject that encapsulates it way better than I can.
Road rules don’t apply to bikers.
When I first started using Vélib, the city’s bike share system, I was hesitant because, well, I didn’t know where I was going 100 percent of the time and I didn’t want to end up smushed into the crevices of the cobblestone streets. But mostly, I was very confused about the city’s signs and bike lanes. On one-way streets, I’d see designated bike lanes going the opposite way. And then on other streets, there weren’t any bike lines at all. I also wasn’t familiar with the word “sauf” yet, which means “except.” Essentially, there are signs all over the city that say “sauf” with a little picture of a bike, letting you know that no other vehicles can drive down this street except bikes. Because road rules don’t apply to bikers. Maybe it’s because so many streets start going in one direction and change to the opposite a couple hundred feet down the road, but being able to dart down any ‘ole street—either with or against traffic—certainly makes navigating the city easier. So long as the Velib station you’re at actually has an available, working bike. That’s a whole other blog post.
Pigeons exist here. Too many of them.
I am aware these flying pests exist in many places, but they’re particularly plentiful here in Paris. In fact, they remind me of New York. Thing is, I hate them there and I hate them here. They’re still as dumb and slow and menacing and I swear one of these days we’re going to collide and neither of us are going to like it.
Smokers exist here. Too many of them.
Again, I am aware people still smoke in various places around the world. But it still seems to be “cool” here in Paris. Oddly enough this also makes me think of New York, but more so in regards to how far the city has come as a result of the smoking ban. People who have been in Paris since their ban took affect claim it’s gotten way better. But to me, it appears everyone still smokes. So if you want to enjoy steak frites or a glass of wine on a terrace the day you washed your hair and think maybe you’ll walk away not smelling like an ashtray and having to rewash it again, well, you’re out of luck.
Alors (So)! there you have it:
Paris, through my eyes, which have seen all sorts of crazy beautiful (and just crazy) things these past few months, like a French film about a deaf family and a woman peeing on the stairs of my metro station.
Paris through my mouth, which has fallen in love with Beaufort cheese and overdosed on foie gras.
Paris through my nose, which has smelled the sweet scent of a just-out-of-the-oven baguettes and then some odd mixture of cherries and bleach in the metro.
And finally, Paris through my soul, which channeled the light in something new and foreign and embraced the heck out of it. So far, si bon.