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Parisian culture is stereotyped worldwide. Everyone arrives in Paris for the first time with a vision of how this classic city will look and feel. Everyone thinks they know a little about Paris and the typical Parisian. But you might be surprised by what you don’t know about Parisian culture.
1. Parisian Culture: La Politesse (Politeness)
Parisians are all about politeness. But people in Paris have a reputation for being rude. Especially the café waiters. What an oxymoron.
A conversation at the Marché des Enfants Rouges got me thinking about this.
The man behind the cheese counter called out, “Bonjour” and we started chatting.
It was an August day in 2020 when Paris was devoid of tourists and the majority of Parisians were on holiday. The normal hustle and bustle and lineups were nowhere to be seen.
“It’s just politesse,” he explained .”So often I call out Bonjour and the Americans and English look at me and hold on a little tighter to their purses. They think I want to sell them something or convince them to buy something. It’s just French politesse.”
Sometimes when I launch into a conversation, I forget to start with Bonjour and note right away when the response begins with “Bonjour, Madame.”
In Paris, and in the rest of France, start with “Bonjour.” It goes a long way with the people of Paris.
2. Walking Like A Typical Parisian
I am reminded constantly that I am North American. I stride. Sauntering does not come naturally. Every day in Paris as I stride down a narrow street, I come right up behind a couple with no way to pass. It’s a bit like tailgating.
I look around, try to figure out how to pass and often I am stuck. There is a bit of traffic coming the other way, pedestrian or otherwise.
Here’s how it goes. In my tailgating position, inhaling the perfume of the Parisian in front of me, I grin and consciously slow myself down. “Alison,” I say to myself, “remember the generous pace of life in France?” I smile. I gear down. My steps shorten. I breathe differently.
My French friends laugh when I tell them that I think Parisians don’t walk fast. It’s not that I am in a hurry. But my North American pace is light years faster than the typical Parisian. Even in the most stressed and pressurized culture in the country, I move faster. Is it my long legs or my Canadian conditioning?
The art of strolling or walking aimlessly is to flâner. It’s a way of being that all the French know and one that I aspire to emulate naturally. I’m still learning to slow down!
3. The Undeniable Aroma of Urine
Paris smells of pee. It is true. Not always and not everywhere. But the possibility of smelling urine on a walk is guaranteed.
There are pissoirs in the streets. Big grey plastic urinals. Men step up and presto. No door.
There are also bathrooms that have a door and lock. The red light signals it is in use. Sometimes there is even a lineup. I have never entered one!
As I walk the Seine most days, the tunnels have an overpowering stench of urine. Is it from the men living in tents or late-night carousers relieving themselves?
But the Parisian culture? Every day I see a man peeing, often two, behind a tree, around a corner, along a pathway. Everyday. No exceptions.
I’ve even walked past a woman squatting between two cars. She was most apologetic.
It doesn’t offend me.
It’s just that Paris smells of pee. It’s a fact of life here. Luckily if you can visit in May, the scent of roses and wisteria blooming everywhere overpowers the natural human smell.
4. Parisian Culture: Jay Walking
Just stand at any street corner and watch. The typical Parisian crosses the instant there is a break in traffic. They dodge between trucks, cars, motorcycles and scooters and successfully carry on their way.
Look left. Look right. Watch out for bikes. Pick your path and cross.
The ultimate in Parisian culture.
5. Parisians Love Their Dogs
Parisians love their dogs. They walk them along sidewalks and let them run in some of the parks. But. The typical Parisian fails miserably at picking up after their dog, even though there is a 68€ fine for not doing so.
As you gaze up at glorious architecture, watch where you’re stepping. This is nothing new. People say that the problem is better than it once was.
I say there is room for improvement.
But in Paris, c’est la vie!
Keep an eye open. It’s the real deal.
6. Parisian Culture: Closed 12 – 14h
Living in Paris, the designated rarely missed lunch hour (déjeuner) from 12 – 14 still catches me by surprise.
Don’t ever think of popping into a cafe at noon for a coffee, North American style, when the tables are set for lunch. I made this mistake once in Paris and paid a king’s ransom for my watery coffee.
There are many businesses closed from 12- 14. I have been caught multiple times showing up at, for example, the Post Office, to find the doors locked. Right. It’s the sacred lunch hour. Ahem, hours.
Mark 12 – 14 on your daily calendar and give déjeuner a try. Stroll up to a bistro, select one of the fixed menus and settle in for a long lunch. Don’t forget to put your bread on the table, not on the plate and to have a glass of red wine with your cheese, after the main.
This is Parisian culture (French culture) at its best. A hum of conviviality. A murmur of “mmm” as the dishes are savoured (the French actually do this). And the clink of wine or water glasses.
I am fascinated by this aspect of Parisian culture for many reasons, the first being that I ate a salad at my desk or during lunch-hour meetings for years. I’ve spoken to many Parisians who tell me that often in the two-hour break, they will eat with their co-workers and then shop a little. And of course, they work longer in the evening because of the lunch break.
I am new to déjeuner. I found a friend to lunch with regularly and was immediately swept up by this Latin laid-back lifestyle. What’s not to like about a delectable experience midday? Bon appetit!
7. Is This For Real? The French Stare
I’m not sure if Parisian men have wandered into the 21st century yet. Most of them look the part of the modern man. Bare ankles peeking out between coloured slim pants and snappy leather shoes. A jaunty scarf. Dashing good looks.
But. They. Stare.
I’m not talking about a mere glance.
I’m talking smouldering.
Not all Parisian men excel at this. But when you pass one with a staring affliction, you’ll know. I did a little sample test one day. Wearing a nice summer dress. Which men would stare? Hopefully none.
I was damn near undressed with a set of eyes. It was not the first time. Nor the last.
I’ve watched men completely turn around in their chairs and stare at a pair of young women as they passed by. Subtle? The complete opposite. It’s a regular occurrence, a way of life.
The thing is, the French men are not afraid to lock into a stare with you. Eye for an eye. I am afraid I might give one of them the finger one day soon.
Perhaps it’s their Latin blood. Is it part of the Parisian culture? Do the French stare more than the Italians?
8. Parisian Culture: Wear Baskets
I finally learned the word for runners. It’s “baskets.” And the Parisians wear baskets all the time. White ones. Who knew there were so many varieties of white runners? When you’re packing for Paris and planning on some long walking days, pack your runners. It won’t be your runners that mark you as a tourist or ex-pat. Fashion-wise… white runners were the rage in the spring and summer of 2020 and 2021.
9. Parisians Love To Protest
Parisians are known for their passion and love for their city, culture, and beliefs. One way they demonstrate this is through the art of protesting and rallying. Whether it’s to show solidarity with a cause or to voice their dissatisfaction with government policies, Parisians take to the streets with enthusiasm and determination. The history of Parisian demonstrations dates back centuries, making it an integral part of the city’s identity.
In 2023, this has been evident week after week with protests against the Government’s pension reform. Although making worldwide news with the violence, it is a small proportion of French that are destructive and violent.
10. Parisian Culture: “Can You Make Mayonnaise?”
You know the French are known for their gastronomy. Simply put, the French are known for their food and known to love their food. Lunch and dinner are verbs. Conversations centre around food and politics. It’s part of the social fabric. It’s integral to their culture and life.
More than once, I’ve been asked if I have ever made mayonnaise. Mayonnaise. I’ve made florentines. German chocolate cake. Even a French buche de Noël. But the question is, “Can you make mayonnaise?”
I smile and answer. “Yes.” I don’t readily admit that it was decades ago. And that I can’t remember if the eggs were at room temperature. Did I hand whisk the eggs? Did I use the feed tube on the food processor to drizzle in the olive oil?
I mean a good old jar of Hellman’s Mayonnaise does the trick. Right?
Clearly not by French standards. Does it put me in good standing as someone that can cook? After five years as a nomad, I wouldn’t say that I could even lay my hands on a mayonnaise recipe but I can whip up moules marinières.
Perhaps when I settle down again, the first creation in my kitchen will be a small batch of mayonnaise.
11. Parisian Culture: Sundays Are For Family
I’ve been a guest on Sundays where déjeuner is a feast. I asked, politely of course, if it was normal. Is there always an apéro, multiple courses taking several hours to enjoy on Sundays?
Without skipping a beat, the answer was, “Mais, oui!”
If you are visiting Paris remember this. Markets close Sunday by 1 or 2 pm. And in department stores, such as Monoprix, there are no cashiers, simply self-checkout and the wine aisles are closed off. Don’t leave your grocery shopping for Sunday afternoon. Many smaller boutiques are closed.
12. Garbage Pick Up in Paris But Forget Composting
It’s quite something. I think there is garbage pick-up every day. Or close to it. Recycling too.
But… what about composting Paris? Coming from Canada where every major city has curbside compost pick up it seems archaic in an international city that there is no compost pick up.
I know there are rooftop gardens in Paris and community gardens. Perhaps it is here that some Parisians are composting. I know my friends who live outside of Paris all compost. There may even be a trick for composting in apartments. But as a foreigner, I am missing something.
Chime in and let me know how Parisians compost.
13. Eat A Baguette Like the French
It’s classic. The Parisians carry their baguettes under their arm and in their bicycle baskets. Whenever someone leaves the boulangerie with six baguettes, I am always curious who is coming for lunch.
A law passed in 1993 allows only four ingredients: flour, water, leavening and salt. How on earth do they taste so good? And how can one boulangerie make a baguette better than another?
The baguette or la baguette traditionnelle is a staple of French cuisine. It is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just remember, the one golden rule, the French never put their piece of baguette on a plate.
14. Parisian Culture Is The Café Culture
The wicker chairs. The round tables. The heat lamps (soon to be banned). The familiar greeting, be it just a nod, of the waiter at your corner café. Standing at the counter ( pre-COVID-19) with all the regulars. Cafés in Paris are an experience to inhale slowly. To take note. To feel.
Sit at a café and people watch, read the paper or write in your journal. Maybe start writing your book.
In Paris, it is possible to get take-out coffee but not at the regular Parisian cafés. You’ll have to find a coffee shop, which are popping up in Paris, or a Starbucks. But here’s the thing. The Canadian culture of walking through life with a coffee cup in hand just doesn’t exist in Paris.
Settle into a Parisian café chair. Pick up your pen or chat with a friend and drink your coffee from a china cup.
15. People In Paris And The Tutoyer
How is your French? The minute I open my mouth I am a dead giveaway for a foreigner. Try as I might to improve my accent and my intonation, the French can tell immediately that I come from afar. Usually, they think England but I’ve also been taken for Dutch and Belgian.
But it’s not just the accent that is the giveaway! If you have ever conjugated a French verb, there is the you (tu) that is singular and used in familiar settings and the you (vous) that is plural and a form of politeness used for the elderly and people you don’t know.
F A I L… !
An afternoon at Giverny, a lady passed by wearing the exact same sandals as me. I stopped and said to her “Oh, you have great taste!” I used “tu” as if talking to a friend.
It’s not until my French friends go into peals of laughter that I remember how important it is to use “vous.” But I always forget!
I’m still learning and catch myself all the time “tutuoyer” ing people – using “tu” instead of “vous.”
I’ve asked around. I don’t think the French take great offence to this but if your goal is to speak French properly take note of your skill at using “vous!”
16. Is Paris Becoming The Next Amsterdam?
Before the confinement, there was a very long transit strike and Parisians who had not had the habit of cycling to work started pedalling. It was faster than walking.
After confinement, the mayor of Paris, along with a financial gift of 50 Euros to get an old bike up and running, promised more bike lanes in the city. Partly to reduce the numbers of people taking the Métro. Streets like the famous Rue de Rivoli are filled with bicycles on the lanes that previously were jammed with cars and taxis. The sound of honking has been replaced by the whir of wheels and bells. It’s quite something.
As more streets fill with cycling and pedestrian lanes, take the current trial period alongside Canal Saint-Martin, it is great fun as a foreigner to observe Parisians astride their steed!
High heels. Berets. Dogs in baskets. Helmets. No helmets. Children being doubled to school or daycare. Uber Eats deliveries. Skirts flapping. Baskets, of all colours. And of course, baguettes peeking out here and there.
Just be sure if you plan to join the cyclists that you lock your bike up. Paris is well known for its bicycle thefts.
These are the first 16 things about Parisian culture. There are many more anecdotes to share, one of which is that I love being called “Madame.”
“Pardon, Madame.” “Merci, Madame.”
It’s so much more personal than a plain Sorry or Thank you…
What slice of Parisian culture attracts you the most? Chime in and let me know what you have observed.
Until next time,
More Travel Info…
Come and experience Paris for yourself and see what unique behaviours you notice about the Parisians! No matter whether it is your first visit or your fiftieth, you’re sure to notice something new!
If you love that village feel in Paris these areas might interest you:
Montmartre, much like Ile Saint- Louis, feels like a small village. This post on Montmartre leads you to the most popular sites as well as some lesser-known places on the hill.
La Butte aux Cailles, tucked away in the 13th arrondissement, is another place in Paris that has retained its village-like charm. My article on La Butte aux Cailles will lead you to discover some of the area and its visually enticing street art.
Canal Saint-Martin is another place full of small restaurants, boutiques and plenty of character. Stroll the bridges of the canal under the chestnut trees and feel like a true Parisian. All the details on this “bobo” district are in this article on Canal Saint-Martin.
Le Marais is one of the oldest areas of Paris. Once marshland, it is hopping with boutiques, cafés, gorgeous old mansions and museums. Read my full guide to le Marais and also insider Marais tips from a local.
If you are looking for food suggestions, read about where to find the best croissants in Paris. There are also plenty of café suggestions for the Marais area in this post: Tips from a Local. And if you are exploring the area around Canal Saint-Martin, here are the best places to stop for a bite or to find the fixings for a picnic.
Travelling to Paris alone? This article on navigating Paris alone is full of tips and tricks for the solo traveller.
This page has all my articles on Paris that will help you plan out your trip, including day trips from Paris. I hope you subscribed to my newsletter to get my free download – An Amazing 2-day Itinerary in Paris.
If you are going further afield in France, make sure to check out my page on France.