Seen from Paris, blog about Paris

You thought Parisians are witty, arrogant, bitching about everything and anything, obsessed with food and culture, and always up for discussion? Well... you're perfectly right! And you're on the right page to check it out.

Mon Dieu! Parisians are nice, smiling and helpful! What happened to the arrogant Parisians?

Most foreign travelers come to Paris expecting Parisians to be rude and arrogant, and return with a totally different vision of the City of Light’s locals… What happened?

If there is a famous and global cliché about Parisians, it’s definitely their distant, almost rude persona that has been noticed all around the planet. How many visitors where not warned by their friends about how unpleasant and not helpful Parisians are? About how impossible it is to find a local speaking English and willing to do so with a random tourist? But it seems that over time, that cliché doesn’t hold any longer…

It’s true that some major cultural differences still exist. The respect of vie privée, for instance, is much stronger in Paris than it is in the US, and while a joyful « how are you doing today? » is at least expected in any shop over the Atlantic ocean, it is considered a total intrusion in Paris, where the first answer you’d like to give would be « mind your own business ». Another big difference is service. While in most foreign countries, service is to be added to the bill, in France a nice 15% is already included, which makes it easy to pay at the end of the meal, but offers few control over the quality of service itself. And for that matter, nice or not nice, the waiter gets the same wage, so one can easily understand that smiling can be an option. All of this has not changed. Or has it?

Because more and more, clerks, waitresses and shopkeepers tend to be nicer and helpful. Especially to foreign tourists. The time when the Harry’s Bar was giving phonetic advises to its foreign visitors in order for them to tell the address in French to the cabdriver (Sank Roo Doe Noo for 5 rue d’Aunou) because no cabdriver would make the effort to try to understand them in English seems to be very far away. So how could we explain this change in attitude and mentality, going from the capital of self-sufficiency and haughtiness to a heartwarming welcoming city?

One of the most obvious explanation is the development of tourism. Back in the 50s, visitors in Paris where an epiphenomenon, and the Eiffel Tower was not even profitable. But today, with the Mass Tourism revolution, Paris host around 28 millions visitors every year, being the number 1 destination for both leisure and business tourism. Such a huge new market cannot be ignored, as it directly or indirectly feeds one Parisian out of 10. So you can no longer look down at an eccentric American or a crazy Russian as you could back in the old days when nobody cared about tourism. Au contraire, you want them to be happy, to spend their money, to tell there friends and to come back soon. And that policy has been working just right in the past decades…

But there is also a huge cultural feature that will never speak its name, but is deeply present everywhere. That is that Parisians finally understood that they were no longer the center of the world. (Or not in the same way than before…) Paris, and France, 50 years ago, was the capital of a huge colonial Empire and an even greater cultural Empire. Countries that were never conquered by France wanted to speak French -like Romania, which still is a member of the Francophone summit, while the élite of any country, from Venezuela to Russia, spoke fluent French. This was the consequences of the old times, when French was the international language by essence. But this is over, and Parisians know it. It’s true, the International Mail System is still supposed to be in French, and French is used in all the UN administration. But English won the case, being a much simpler language. No gender, no conjugation, and spoken as a mother tongue by hundreds of million people worldwide, English was designed to beat French. Well it’s true, Clémenceau used to say: English is only ill-spoken French. Maybe, but everybody speaks it nowadays, since we moved from an era of complexity and diplomacy where the French periphrases were well suited for, to an era of simplicity and efficiency which is definitely an English language feature.

So if 50 years ago every Parisian would expect the foreign travelers to be well educated and wealthy -remember there was no mass tourism- and to speak a fluent French, today Parisians know that they are the one that need to be able to speak English for a better stay of the visitors. In the meantime, there are generations of middle-class travelers who bumped into Parisians surprised -and shocked- that they didn’t speak French. Which greatly participated in creating that long-lasting image of the obnoxious Parisian.

Now visitors bitch about another thing: Since mass tourism became a better educated tourism, looking deeper in local cultures and trying to fit in the visited place, a lot of foreign tourists try to risk a little French. And they get disappointed because Parisians always come back to them in English. Darn tourists! Never satisfied…

A few things will never change, however. First Paris is a big city, and just like any big city -New York, LA, Cairo or Bangkok- locals do not really take the time to be overly nice, and a certain anonymity is preferred. And second, it does remain very difficult to make friends with Parisians. If every Parisian will make an effort for you to have a good experience and get around easily and pleased, they will never make the effort to speak English to you all night long in a bar if they are with other Parisians friends. Which sometimes can be quite awkward…

And don’t get too excited also. It’s true that Parisians are nicer, and less pretentious. But we still know that most of you think you can find a Burgundy merlot, that Marie-Antoinette was Napoléon’s wife and that it’s ok to eat a choucroute with a coke at 6pm for dinner… We just won’t give you a bad look anymore, but we won’t think less!

So we are definitely less rude, but deep down, we do remain very arrogant… héhé