Being a Lowly Tourist in a Pretentious Paris: How to Thrive in the City of Light

There is a "je ne sais quoi" in moving to a new city, one as magnificent and idyllic as Paris, and discovering it on your own, not through what you think you should do because people say you MUST go the Louvre.
07/08/2014 02:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Everyone should see the world and travel, is what all the inspirational, this-will-change-your-life articles say. You see the world, meet interesting people, and really open your eyes, your mind, and your heart. I listened to all that fluff and moved to France to write, landing in Paris about two months ago, fancying myself like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and humming La Vie en Rose as I waltzed through the airport. Yes, waltzed, because I imagined the French would elegantly do so.


But soon I learned one crucial lesson: for a culture as nationalistic, conservative, and inward as the French (for an amusing ethnology on French culture I recommend 60 Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong), in a city like Paris, invaded by tourists year round, the welcome was a tad cold, to say the least. Maybe it's the fact that my broken French is more annoying than endearing? I wasn't expecting a red carpet roll out or anything (although that would have been nice) but at restaurants, cafes, and shops, I often felt a tad unwelcome. Thinking that perhaps it was just me and my ego, I did some research on Paris' economy.

Despite being the most visited city in the world for tourism, Paris likes to pretend she doesn't need you. After all, Paris is the capital of fashion, a force in advertising, and has 25 of the Fortune 500 companies headquartered within, second only to Tokyo. But nonetheless we arrive with a notion that as tourists, we deserve some sort of deference if not welcome, because we are spending money. Even the governments bends over backward to encourage a more friendlier Paris for visitors, going so far as to employ smile ambassadors at popular sites. But the Parisians believe the city would be just fine without all the gawkers crowding the metros, slowing down traffic, butchering the poetic French tongue by not knowing the difference between 'u' and 'ou' (don't even ask).
So while I reluctantly acknowledged my lowly status as a tourist, I still vowed to make this city mine. The key was to remain open, have absolutely zero expectations, make every effort to integrate into local culture and customs, and be prepared to accept anything and everything. With that being said, here are 10 tips I've learned if you plan on spending time in the City of Light.

1. If you want to order a regular cup of coffee, it's called a 'long black filtre.' If you just say 'un cafᅢᄅ sil-vous-plait' you will get what I lovingly refer to as a 'coffee for ants', aka an espresso.


2. Speaking of coffee, unless you hit up a Starbucks (Starbucks? what you doing here!?), good luck finding a coffee to go. The French simply do not take their food/drink to go. You must sit your butt down at the sidewalk cafᅢᄅ or one of the many parks, and enjoy your food/drink like a normal human.

3. There is no such thing as dating in France. You meet, stare intensely into each other's eyes, and once you kiss, there's pretty much no one else allowed in the picture. French men are not 'too cool' to tell you how much they like you (take note, all you indecisive American playas!)

4. Perhaps, like myself, you don't want to get caught up with throngs of tourists (side note: pot, meet kettle). Fear not, mes amis, there are some fun, unique ways of discovering the famous city landmarks without the crowds. Movie buff? Try a tour like Set in Paris, which takes you to famous Parisian spots from your favorite films, or a creepy, underground, gothic catacomb tour where you'll really feel like you're back in time.

5. If a Parisian invites you to something, anything, you go. I don't care if you are sick, dying, have a work call later, have to have your mom wire you money, you go. This is a rare opportunity to let you into their world, and turning anything down takes you off the list forever. So go -for coffee, for drinks, for a concert, for a movie you wont be able to understand - just do it.

6. There is life outside of the capital. While Paris may be the Regina George of France, like, so popular and pretty, if you'd rather chill with Cady Heron, head up north to the boho rustic city of Lille.

7. You can never go wrong with black, always carry a scarf, and god forbid you try to look fit and run errands in your yoga pants and Nike frees. Nobody is interested in your healthy lifestyle, because everyone here smokes, drinks wine everyday, and loves red meat.

8. Parisians drink with almost every meal, and you will often see children as young as 12 having a glass of wine with dinner. But they don't drink to get drunk (then why??! I also wondered). They drink respectably, so if you order a round of shots, expect to be a little judged.

9. Artists are embraced in Paris, and as such, there is no shortage of music, festivals, and cultural events for you to soak in (and many of the are free!) Grab some friends, some rose, a baguette, charcuterie, and blanket, most events are in picnic like settings.


10. At the end of the day, if the city wears you down, because she is a complex thing of beauty, just grab a chair at the corner cafᅢᄅ and say "je voudrais un verre du vin, s'il vous plait" (I would like a glass of wine please). I promise you will feel better...

There is a "je ne sais quoi" in moving to a new city, one as magnificent and idyllic as Paris, and discovering it on your own, not through what you think you should do because people say you MUST go the Louvre. It took a while, but I eventually felt the magic I was seeking when I moved here, a feeling of excitement, of timelessness, of knowing that at one point in time these same shimmering lights and ancient sculptures inspired another artist to create his masterpiece. So get lost in the streets and end up in neighborhoods such as the latin quarter, which is my favorite. It is the Disneyland of Paris, the picturesque, the old, and full of history. The streets are narrow and quiet, the ivy climbs up the wall and old folks walk around and pop into every shop to say good afternoon and see how people's days are going. Yes, cross one street too far and you are in tourist hell, but so what? Let them. Let them come and stare with stars in their eyes at the Notre Dame, at the river Seine, at the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Paris is a dream for everyone.