Since childhood, history books and pop culture have filled our minds with descriptions and images of the wondrous spectacle that is Paris. The “City of Light” that houses some of the greatest works of art, architecture, fashion and culinary genius the world has ever seen. For those of us who have never had the opportunity to take a trip across the pond, Paris has only been the location of our fantasies — filled with red wine, cobblestone pathways and love affairs.
However, when you take your first steps onto the streets of Paris you need to realize something: you are not from Paris, nor are you from Europe, therefore it’s almost guaranteed you will commit one or two social faux pas and reveal yourself to be the inexperienced American you are. How do I know this? I was that American.
1. Beware the Bodily Fluids
Even in the dead of winter in Paris there is one thing you will notice about the subways: their undeniable stench of human urine. The initial impact of it is quite shocking. You unload yourself from the ICE train that brought you to this wondrous city, get your first taste of Parisian chaos at the train station and then descend into the subways where the smell contorts your face into a look of surprised repugnance. Do yourself a favor and don’t try to multi-task by walking and looking at the subway map at the same time. The last thing you want is tripping up the stairs and falling into something that has a 50/50 chance of being water or pee.
2. Accept Your Bad Hair Day
If your daily beauty routine requires a hair dryer, straightener, curling wand or all of the above, you might want to invest in a jumbo-sized bottle of dry shampoo and value pack of hair ties. Your beloved hair tools will not fit in the electric outlets you’ll find in Europe. While some hotels do provide hair dryers that sync with the outlets, there is also the issue of lower electricity wattage that, compared to what we’re accustomed to, can feel much like a breeze on a warm summer’s day and take a decade to dry your hair completely. With that being said, learn to do a killer messy ponytail or invest in some fabulous winter hats.
3. You Have to Pay to Pee
That’s right, you literally need to pay money to use most public restrooms. For those with small bladders and smaller bank accounts, congratulations, you’re officially in Hell. This is one reason why it is always important to have a coin purse with you whenever you go out in public. The last thing you need is to be doing the pee dance while arguing desperately with a French bathroom attendant who doesn’t have the time or patience for your ignorance concerning proper French bathroom etiquette.
4. Practice Your Resting Bitch Face
Yay! You’re in Paris! Oh look, the Eiffel Tower! Smile! My first croissant! Yes! Oh wow, a real FRENCH poodle (run up to pet it smiling). Stop. No. People will literally think you’re a crazy person.. Yes, you’re a tourist but you don’t have to be THAT tourist. According to the French bartender who was pouring my second (or was it third?) glass of red wine, a dead giveaway that proves you are a tourist is the incessant grin that never seems to escape your face. If the woman in the city’s most prized piece of artwork, the Mona Lisa, isn’t smiling, what makes you think it’s normal that you should? With that said, those who suffer from chronic resting bitch face (myself included) can rejoice: there is a place for you in this world, and it’s called Paris.
5. French Fries aren’t French
Nor were “freedom fries” free, as was the discovery after the greasy treat’s name was briefly changed in the early 2000’s after a political disagreement between France and the US, but that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is that you do your foodie research prior to visiting arguably the best place to eat food in the world. French fries are not French, they’re actually Belgian; however, you can still buy French fries in France. Know how to pronounce things like Bordeaux and duck confit and for the love of god when ordering steak tartar do not say “medium well” after. It’s served raw and everyone knows it except you.
6. Leave Your Sweatpants at Home
Paris is not the place to wear your white Reeboks, sports team hoodie or athletic shorts. While it’s acceptable to go out in public dressed like you rolled out of bed in other places, in Paris you’re better off leaving the house looking put together. It doesn’t matter if you’re going shopping at the Avenue des Champs-Élysées or having a glass of wine near the Eiffel Tower, if you’re leaving your hotel room you better look fabulous if you don’t want to get dirty looks. While visiting the Notre Dame, it was impossibly easy for me to pick out the one American in the place from their tennis shoes, fanny pack and baseball cap. It’s not a good look when the five-year-old sitting next to you on the subway has better fashion sense than you do.
7. Wind Speeds Matter on the Eiffel Tower
The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower I couldn’t help but marvel at its sheer immensity and beauty. Much like dipping pizza in ranch dressing or the first season of Grey’s Anatomy, seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time is either surprisingly mundane or it changes your life forever. However, there is a difference between looking at it from afar and taking a trip to the top of it. On our way up I was anticipating a glorious view of the city from one of the greatest manmade structures in the world. What I did not anticipate was the 50 mph winds at the top, which made the structure sway whenever a gust hit. Cue major panic attack and a 20-minute wait in line to get the hell back down. While I safely made it off the Eiffel Tower that day, my dignity did not.
8. Be Faster Than the Subway Doors
During my time in Paris, my travel companions and I played a game in the subways called “We Can Catch It.” This meant that every time we saw the train we needed to catch was about to pull away, we would run after it and hop on just before the alarm signaled and the doors closed. One particular night on our way to a classy part of town, dressed in our classiest evening attire, we saw from the top of the stairs that the train we needed to catch was already loading the last of its passengers. When one of us yelled “NO WAY,” another hollered “WE CAN MAKE IT!” and darted towards the train, leaping down the stairs two at a time. We were still sprinting as the alarm sounded, and the doors began to close just as we were about to jump on. Fun fact: subway doors in Paris are not like elevator doors in the U.S. — they do not open back up if something obstructs their path. The result was a thunderous impact between us and the doors, and the horrified looks of Parisian faces which quickly turned to mild distaste after they saw how hard we were laughing. Ugh. Americans.