Have you seen the film An American in Paris? It ends with a 17-minute ballet in which Gene Kelly dances through staged sets inspired by the artists Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Rousseau, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Maurice Utrillo. These streets are populated with people who remain still, as if they are sculptures, until he dances up to them and they come to life. A painter himself, Kelly’s character seems to be inspired by the arts and culture that are found everywhere in the streets of Paris. The music, composed by George Gershwin, is meant to evoke the feelings he had arriving in Paris. There is indeed an abundance of history and culture in the streets of Paris, which can make a great impression on someone arriving there from America.

Based on my own impressions, here are ten lessons I learned as someone arriving in Paris from America:

  1. If you speak nicely, with correct grammar and aesthetically pleasing pronunciation, the French will LOVE you. The French have a well-earned reputation for being very attached to their language and REALLY like it when a foreigner, especially an American, speaks it well. The affinity of the French for their own language is a distinctive characteristic, which can be contrasted with Americans’ tendency to take it for granted that everyone speaks English – and their version, no less. (Remember how Barack Obama was chided for pronouncing the word “divisive” with three short i’s, which is common in certain anglophone regions? Certain Americans from other regions were not having it.) France even has an academy that makes executive decisions about what is acceptable in French and what is not. The Académie Française makes sure that there is a French version of the word “sexting”, for example, so politicians like Anthony Weiner would have to master the six-syllable word “textopornographie” for the pastime that landed him in an FBI investigation, were he to express this in French.

  2. Polite forms of language are necessary. When speaking to people in restaurants, café’s, on the phone, in school, etc., you will need to use “vous” forms and the conditional mode when addressing people. People will be more likely to respond positively to you and you will have a speedier path to whatever it is you set out to accomplish. At the very least, it integrates you into French society and you will stick out less as a foreigner. That “ALORS, pour moi – deux croissants !” that you find in your French textbook is less charming and much less natural than addressing the Madame or Monsieur behind the bakery counter with a calm “Je prendrais deux croissants, s’il vous plaît”.

  3. When in restaurants, it is possible that you will have to flag down a server to bring you your bill after a meal. This can seem as futile as trying to get a cab in midtown Manhattan during rush hour, but this is just something you will have to be patient about. Perhaps don’t plan on having a quick bite right before a show. The French are not into quick bites anyway. The bright side of this situation is that you won’t feel, as in some American cities (New York), like the wait staff is escorting you to the door the minute your meal is finished, making the restaurant’s desire for high turnover really obvious, or, as in other American cities (San Francisco), snubbed by servers who just don’t feel like being there.

  4. While Paris has traditionally been a fashion center, the sartorial choices of the general population are not that adventurous. Many people feel that they need to wear what is “in” during a particular season, regardless of what might suit them, so if blue and brown are “in” one season, that is what people will wear and if everyone wears either a navy or black pea coat during the winter months ... you’ll just end up seeing a sea of people who all look alike.

  5. Ideas of hygiene differ from country to country and the French have a higher tolerance for litter and waste left in the street than, say, the Japanese, who learn to clean up after themselves in school. The French might have lower tolerance for piles of junk left in the street than Americans, who have adjusted to quite a large homeless population which does not have anywhere else to put their junk besides the street.

  6. Meal times are MEAL TIMES. This includes snacks, which come under the rubric of “goûter”, placed on the French gastronomic schedule in many textbooks, and with good reason. A “goûter” is not eaten on the bus or during your afternoon lecture, but seated at a table or perhaps on a park bench, and never during a concert at the Cité de la musique-Philharmonie de Paris. In the same vein, lunch does not mean scarfing a bag of chips on the metro and breakfast does not mean guzzling 8oz of diet coke in the morning. Likewise, students do not tend to eat in class, although bottles of water may appear on the desks of both students and professors.

    Meal times are very important to the French and I remember that when I arrived at the École normale supérieure to study in Paris for a year, there was a problem with activating the identification cards of the foreign students. Although immediate activation was not possible, our responsable made sure we could enter the ENS dining hall right away because “Il faut qu’ils mangent”.

  7. Staring is not considered rude. If you have a mixed ethnic background people will flat out ask you questions like “Pourquoi vous avez les yeux verts?” We all should have studied genetics, apparently.

    Stares will also occur for things considered completely normal in places like New York, such as running after a bus. Although the buses in Paris are more frequent, the New York rush still drives people to want to catch the specific one that is arriving now.

  8. The first answer is always “no”. Or “non”. Whether you are trying to enroll in classes or changing your designated seat at the Bibliothèque nationale, those in charge of helping you will not infrequently respond in the negative, saying that what you would like to do not only can’t be done but is in fact impossible: “Non, impossible”. But with a bit of perseverance, you can bring them around. Just keep talking, the way you would during a French oral exam, for which silence is deathly.

  9. Strikes are taken seriously. Things might stop running and you will just have to find a way to get where it is you are going. In the case of a student manif, you might not be able to get into the building where your class is being held and this means that class is cancelled, even if there is no centralized service that gives you alerts to what is going on every five minutes, as there is at American universities.

  10. The French are very protective of their workweek. The 35-hour workweek was adopted in France in 2000 and many people have half days on Mondays or entire Fridays off, so if you are looking for the secretary who can sign off on your class schedule, she might not be in that afternoon or that day and definitely not during her lunch hour, which is probably when you had time to go take care of this errand.

Life in Paris has its ups and downs as in any city, but arriving there from America does highlight certain characteristics. There are moments that are confounding and moments when you are walking down the street, inspired by the art, architecture, monuments, and long history that inspired Gene Kelly as he danced his way through the city. If you end up dancing on a street corner, some people might stare, but others might give you spare euros, and some might even join you, as in the ballet sequence of An American in Paris.