Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Stereotype-Busting in Paris

I just returned home from a long-dreamed-of trip to France and will tell you more than you want to know about it. For starters, though, I must puncture a stereotype.

The French are supposed to be aloof, disdainful of tourists, and unwilling to dampen their popped collars with sweat by helping clueless visitors. If those stereotypes are true, how do you explain the following?

We arrived in Paris on a rainy Tuesday evening and headed for a nearby café. At the end of our meal, Hubs paid the bill and fumbled to leave a tip. Our charming, red-headed server wagged her index finger. "En France, non," she said.

I struggled to buy a carnet of ten Metro tickets from a machine with my debit card, but it was rejected with the phrase "carte muette." In other words, the card didn't speak to the machine. Hubs tried his credit card and got the same response. My daughters fished in their wallets for the twelve euros needed for the machine, Alas, we didn't have enough coins for a carnet of ten tickets. Enter a Frenchman on his way to work and short on time. He offered to give us four Metro tickets. (Each one is worth roughly $1.25.) We thanked him profusely but said we couldn't accept such a gift. He then offered to buy us the carnet with his credit card if we paid him back with cash. Ah bon?! The Frenchman, named Alex, used his card, handed us the Metro tickets, accepted the equivalent cash, and told us his sister now lived in Nashville. "We must help one another," he said before dashing down the Metro station's steps to catch his train.

Travel writer Rick Steves touts the cheap thrill of sightseeing in Paris via bus #69, a public bus that travels from a stop not far from the Eiffel Tower to arrondissement 20, passing a bucket load of important monuments and sights. I insisted we take the bus. Hubs and daughters didn't see the point, but went along with me. We boarded some distance from the bus's start, but there were seats free at the back, and Hubs and I headed for them. My daughters, who were balancing shopping bags from H&M (wherever in the world they find themselves, they make a beeline for H&M), preferred to stand in the middle of the bus for what they thought would be a short ride. The journey turned out to be long, twisty, with many stops. The girls eventually got seats but gave them up repeatedly as older women boarded with bulging grocery bags.

Daughters directed a couple of murderous glares at me, but I ignored them as well as Hubs' squirming. What can I say? Bus #69 represented the kind of slice-of-life sight-seeing I like best. If my family couldn't appreciate it, tant pis.

We disembarked at the end of the line, walked through a neighborhood park, and then Hubs and daughters went off together in search of a café. I strolled to a bus stop where I consulted the route map. Evilly, I considered putting us on an even longer bus route back into the center of the city, but as I plotted, an older woman came up beside me and offered to help me find my way. I told her I wasn't lost, just confused, and pointed to my family now halfway down the block. We exchanged a handful of sentences before I realized she had understood the source of my confusion and was standing with me in solidarity—mother beside mother.

Now tell me: what stereotypes have you punctured in your travels?


Lark Howard said...

Sounds like a fun time! I've had wonderful experiences with the French, too, Pat. Over the years we've made many good friends while traveling in France.

My sister, husband and I sublet an apartment in Paris one July, and got quite friendly with the locals who helped us through a series of mishaps including a train wreck and the cap on my husband's front tooth popping off. One night a friend of some French friends threw a lovely party for us at her penthouse in the Marais during which other guests invited us to several social events including the Rolling Stones' post-concert tour wind-up party. We were amazed at how lovely everyone was!

LynNerdKelley said...

Oh, what an awesome experience, Pat. And going with your family makes it even more awesome. Can't wait to hear more about your trip. I've never been out of the U.S., except to Tijuana when I was a teen! However, one time in Hawaii, my mom and I were lost in Chinatown on Oahu, and no one wanted to talk to us. I learned that they don't like tourists, unless they ran a store and depended on tourists, then they were friendly and happy to help. Yes, I'm still naive. Tsk! Tsk!

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

No one offered to throw a party for us, Lark, but people charmed us left and right. (That is not a veiled reference to the upcoming French run-off election.)

Yesterday, I was almost inert with post-vacation blues--the downshide to a memorable trip. I'm doing better today but wish I were in France.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...
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Jennette Marie Powell said...

So cool that you posted this today, Pat! I'm going to France for a week this summer with my daughter's choir. I've been before - when I was in high school. Then, too, we were told that French people didn't like Americans, and would snub us, but not a single person did. I think it helped that we at least *tried* to speak their language! I'm going to have to check out that Bus #69 when we go!

Jane Myers Perrine said...

When we went to Ireland, we got on a 3rd class instead of a 1st class bus--it was wonderful! We got to met real people.

Glad you have fun!

Nancy Kay Bowden said...

Hi, Pat! I'm so glad you had a dream-come-true of a trip. I would follow Rick Steves' recommendations anywhere. I'm a big fan! You made me want to book a flight to Paris NOW!

I've only been to Paris once--pre-Rick Steves and just for a weekend, in winter, with three small children, an American stroller and the train system on strike. The buses weren't running.

While I loved the scenery, I came away with mixed feelings about Parisians. We were shunned by some taxi drivers and dumped on a corner by one--I mean dropped off--in a strange location instead of at the address we gave him. We spent a very long hour lost in the dark on cobblestones, with me in heels, trying to find the restaurant. One sleeping child over a shoulder and two others tap dancing--they needed to go to the bathroom! People on the street were not nice at all. I don't think they liked children.

We lived outside London for three years, and our children became experienced travelers and wonderful ambassadors on later trips to Moscow, Rome and Greece.

I have to say, once we found the restaurant in Paris and the owner greeted us with hugs and kisses,handed me a rose and a bottomless glass of wine, I liked Parisians a whole lot better. And the meal was fabulous.

Looking back, I can only imagine how Paris saw me, a harried, unchic, young AMERICAN mom with tots. Cute, well-behaved tots, but tots.It was my first time in a non-English speaking country, and I don't speak French.

Your post makes me want to travel right now... to Paris... and try again... hmmm... we're empty nesters next year.... and we're celebrating a big annniversary...

It still kills me that we actually ate one meal at a McDonalds... because of the kids. :)Pommes frites. (I think.) :)

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Lynn, In my response to you, I left out an important word. Here's what I should have said:

I'm naive, too, Lynn, and it's fair to say that many of the people who made us feel most welcomed stood to benefit financially, but I NEVER had the feeling I was being manipulated. One man--who was selling crepes and waffles from a stand near the Eiffel Tower--seemed too good to be true. He mimed for all the customers, stroked my hand, and piroutted like a ballerina when I asked for Coca Cola Leger. Who knew I should have said Coco Cola Light? The thing is, I watched him treat young French mothers the same way.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

I envy you your trip this summer, and your efforts to speak French will earn you respect. Oh, boy, I'm excited for you.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Your bus trip in Ireland sounds great, Jane. Damn, now I'm missing Ireland, too.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

If you book that trip, I'll send you the details of the apartment we rented--on a cobblestone street.

Funny you mentioned strollers, because Ted and I looked in shop windows in Paris and were stunned at the prices for fancy strollers. When our kids were little, we used umbrella-type strollers. In retrospect, they were flimsy but so lightweight. In Paris I watched a young dad heave a substantial stroller (holding a baby) onto a cramped bus. His stroller/carriage must have displaced three people. I was later told Parisians with babies take the bus because it's too hard with baby gear to manage the steps up from and down to the Metro.

Paris neighborhoods have different vibes, and you might have found yourself in one with few kids. Then again, when I was a young mom, I mentally apologized for my kids when I had no reason to do so. Bringing well-behaved kids into an adult environment is not a crime.

My daughters brought heels to Paris but didn't wear them once--those cobblestones are tricky.

Congrats on your upcoming anniversary. Want to borrow my Rick Steves book?

Ginger Calem said...

In all the times I've been in France, twice to Paris, I've found everyone to be lovely and fun. What I found to be true was that how a tourist is treated depends on their own attitude more than the locals. ;)

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

"What I found to be true was that how a tourist is treated depends on their own attitude more than the locals."

You said it best, Ginger!

Coleen Patrick said...

Sounds like you had fun Pat! You've got me thinking about my travels. We stopped in Paris for one day and it was a whirlwind running around so we didn't interact with any locals. Come to think of it we were probably the stereotypical Americans :)

Karen McFarland said...

Tant pis, LOL Pat!

Viva Paris!!!!

I love all things France! My husband and I have had the privilege of visiting that beautiful country several times in the past with the most wonderful experiences. Great food, great wine, great scenery and great people. I don't know why people think that the french are snobby or aloof. We have had nothing but kind, generous and obliging experiences when traveling with the french. Such nice people.

H&S shopping? LOL Pat. That's hilarious. I am so glad you had a wonderful time. It's one that you won't soon forget! We missed you!

Sheila Seabrook said...

I'd love to go to Europe, Pat. What a great time you must've had soaking up that local flavor. Will we see a book set in Paris? :)

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Don't dare apologize for running around and making the most of a day in Paris, Coleen. I enjoyed seeing all the wide-eyed--and frazzled-- backpackers. Once upon a time, I was one of them.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Missed you, too, Karen!

Oui, I love France--and everyone we encountered was kind to us. My daughters, who had never been there before, insisted I write a post debunking the myth that the French are rude.

I believe there's now an H&M in Dallas, a 4.5 hour drive from Houston. My daughters have felt deprived for a long time. In other retail news: Houston is getting Trader Joe's. Grocery shopping will be a little more exciting around here.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

I'd have to do a lot more on-site research to turn out a book set in Paris. Sheila, and my travel budget's tapped out. Oh, but you sparked an idea I want to run with. Merci, Sheila!

Patricia Kay said...

I loved this account of the bus ride, etc., Pat. I found the people in Paris to be lovely, too. No matter where we went or who we asked questions of, as long as we tried to speak at least a few words of French, the people responded in a friendly and helpful way. I was charmed by both Paris and the French. But, as you know, Provence is the place that stole my heart. I'd go back in a heartbeat.

Eden Mabee said...

While I'm coming in very late to the show, I had to jump in and say... Most everywhere I've been (Paris, London, Cardiff, Milan, Montreal, and most of the East Coast US), I've generally found most people are wonderful and kind and welcoming. NYC is, despite its reputation, a very friendly place. And the closest I cam to feeling uncomfortably "outsiderish" was in the Amsterdam, where the rumors would have suggested people love tourists.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

It's always fun to get dirty looks from our kids, isn't it, Pat. Seriously, I LOVED that bus ride and think the Paris neighborhood of my heart might be the 20th arrondissement.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

You are never too late for this show, Eden. I suspect we get back what we project, so I'm not surprised you've had good experiences. Now I'm trying to figure out the heck happened in Amsterdam.