Paris Survival Guide: Pretending You’re Not a Tourist

March 25, 2015
Paris Survival Guide: Pretending You're Not a Tourist

I cherish the time that I’ve gotten to spend in magical Paris, so far it’s been six months and counting. However, there are many things that I observe tourists doing that now irritate me and make me cringe, especially because I was probably doing similar things when I first came to France.

So without further ado, here is my Paris Survival Guide, or How To Stay Safe And Not Piss Everyone Off While Living in Paris.

Paris Survival Guide: Pretending You’re Not a Tourist

1. Always have an umbrella

Honestly, this is probably my best tip for living in Paris. It rains here. A lot. Usually unexpectedly as well. You should always be prepared for rain, so wear shoes over which you are not going to cry if they get soaked. Keep a little umbrella in your bag to salvage your hair, or to just keep yourself from being wet and cold. If you forgot one, there are H&Ms all over the city that sell cheap ones for 6€. Not great quality, but they’ll do the trick.

2. Make the effort to say little things in French

The only time you can get away with walking into an establishment and shyly mumbling “Hello” back at the person who greeted you with a “Bonjour” is if you are young, cute, and a girl. Even then, it’s a toss-up. Responding immediately in English just lets the person in the shop know that you’re not French. Especially if your interactions will be brief, try to at least make the effort to speak a bit of heavily-accented French.

A simple “Bonjour” upon walking in, and a “Merci, au revoir” upon leaving will do. Make the effort. Don’t be that girl.

You will likely be treated with much more respect if the conversation gets too complicated and you are forced to say “Sorry, I don’t really speak French. Parlez-vous un petit peu d’anglais? Do you speak a little bit of English?

A simple “Bonjour” upon walking in, and a “Merci, au revoir” upon leaving will do. Make the effort. Don’t be that girl.

3. Speaking louder doesn’t help

Along the same vein, if someone doesn’t speak English at all, speaking it to them but at a higher volume is not going to help them understand you better. If I had a euro for every time I heard someone with an American or English accent nearly shouting at a French person in English, and then resuming their conversation with the person next to them in English at a completely normal volume, I would be able to travel a lot more around here.

One of my favorite examples of this was the British family I sat next to at a cafe while in the French Alps with my host family over the holidays.

The lady was loud to begin with, but spoke even more loudly (and far too quickly) to the poor French woman trying to take their order. When she came to me, there was visible relief on her face as I placed my order in my own accented French, driving it even further home that point #2 is really important, especially in a touristy city like Paris.

Most service people do speak enough English to do their jobs, but your service will likely be better if you make the effort to use the little French you know.

4. Step out of the way

People in Paris seem to walk around in their own little dream worlds. In the States, or at least where I’m from, everyone sticks to the right side of the sidewalk and generally tries not to bother other people passing them. Not so in Paris, where people walk the streets not quite aimlessly but not exactly with purpose either.

It’s going to be up to you to maneuver around them, because otherwise you’re going to  end up running into someone who just couldn’t be bothered to move a foot to the left in order to let you pass. Especially if you’re in a hurry, this is imperative. That’s just how it is here. Be cautious and move on.

5. Figure out where you’re going, because if you have to ask for directions, they will have to be in French

Unless you happen to run into me on the street (like the dozens of people who for some reason have deemed me responsible-looking enough to know where things are in the city), you are not likely to find someone who is going to give you directions in English willingly and without looking like they think they’re doing you a massive favor.

If you fall into the category of people from #2 and #3 who don’t speak French very well, you will have a hard time asking for directions. Much, much easier is to just figure out where you’re going first. If you’re using a smartphone, look up directions, and take screenshots of them so you have an exact address and route to where you are going.

6. Beware of pickpockets

I’ll never forget my first almost-pickpocket experience. I was 14 and had just stepped off the train from London with my mother when a woman approached me and asked if I spoke English.

Then she held out a little piece of paper for me to read. Not really sure what was going on, I looked at it, but before I could say anything my mother yanked me and my bags away, saying “No” to the woman. She explained to me that what had almost just happened was a common pickpocket strategy.

Since then, I’ve never been a victim myself, but I’ve learned a thing or two about which warning signs to look for.

Since then, I’ve never been a victim myself, but I’ve learned a thing or two about which warning signs to look for.

The Paris metro, while a beautiful and convenient thing, can also be one of the biggest hassles. Probably the worst thing about the metro are the pickpockets, but if you know which lines they usually target, you can take extra precautions to avoid becoming a victim. Generally, if a metro-line passes through several major attractions, it is going to be a hotbed for pickpockets. Always keep a hand on the top of your belongings.

7. Know where the nearest metro station is

If you’re a visitor to Paris, you no doubt you have a long list of things you want to do and see. This pointer is for you: it is extremely important for you to be close to a source of transportation in order to maximize efficiency for traveling around the city.

Now, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to do this all by black car, then ignore this, or if you’re determined to see all of Paris by bike using Velib (this could be a bad idea- see #1), more power to you, but for most of us plebeians, the metro will just have to do.

When seeking out accommodation, find one that is close to a metro stop. No matter whether or not you’re trying to experience Paris like a Parisian by staying further out from the center of the city, renting an Airbnb apartment and cooking all your own meals, or staying in a hostel, you will always be grateful that your metro stop is just a two minute walk away.

Paris Survival Guide: Pretending You’re Not a Tourist

8. Don’t make eye contact

If you don’t want to be bothered by someone, or want to appear French and disinterested, avoid eye contact. Whereas in the States this only works part of the time, here it’s pretty much a surefire way to get someone to leave you alone, because being too pushy is simply not the French way.

I’ve found I have significantly fewer problems here with men and street harassment than I did in the States.

You’re more likely to get approached if you make eye contact, so if you’re tired and just want to go home, keep your gaze straight ahead and your headphones in your ears (just not too loud- this is not the time to become like the Parisians in #4).

Paris Survival Guide: Pretending You're Not a Tourist

9. Trust your instincts

One night, I was walking home from my host family’s, alone on a nearly empty street. A guy who didn’t look much older than me was coming towards me and signaled me to stop. I took out one headphone and said “Oui?” thinking that he must be lost and looking for directions.

He sheepishly proceeded to tell me that he knew that this was a weird question, but he was on his way to meet his girlfriend, so did I have any gum or mints? I burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all, handed him two pieces, and told him to have fun. That interaction could have ended a lot differently had I gotten a weird or creepy vibe from him as I would have just breezed past him with my headphones, but something told me he was okay.

When you’re young, especially female, living in a big city and walking around alone at night, your instincts become your most powerful defense mechanism. Certain areas of the city are more unsafe than others,  but when you’re just visiting sometimes it can be hard to get a feel right away for which areas those are.

Depending on the time of day the feeling of security you may have had can disappear in an instant. If that happens, hail a cab or do something to get out of a situation that makes you uncomfortable. Always trust your instincts.

Paris Survival Guide: Pretending You’re Not a Tourist

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Paris Survival Guide: Pretending You’re Not a Tourist photos by Unsplash and pixabay.

About Emily Jackson

Currently working as an au pair in Paris, France, Emily loves to take photos, sing, and drink French wine. She spent four months in Geneva, Switzerland during university studying international relations, so when she didn’t want to go to grad school directly following graduation, going back to Europe seemed like the best option. Follow her travel adventures on her blog or on Instagram.

One thought on “Paris Survival Guide: Pretending You’re Not a Tourist

  1. March 25, 2015

    Great post! I think it’s especially useful for people who are about to live in Paris. Always handy to have a guide like this 🙂

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