Friday, July 10, 2009

Those White Athletic Shoes

It's the height of tourist season and Paris is thick with visitors -- long lines at the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, confused people on the subway, and land office business for the souvenir sellers. France is after all the world's number one tourist destination. The global financial crisis may have put a dent in Americans' travel plans but air fares these days are looking pretty good. And with Bush no longer in the White House, it's a particularly good time to be an American in Paris.

A lot of the folks who dish out advice to American tourists keep coming back to the same old admonition: leave the white athletic shoes at home; they're a dead give away that you're American.

Frankly, I don't get it. While it's true that you won't find the French (or the Germans or Italians for that matter) seeing the sights in white sneakers, I'm not really sure what difference it makes. First of all, for standard sightseeing, comfortable shoes are absolutely essential and if you already have the white tennies, there's no need to go out and buy a different pair for your trip. And second, and more importantly, Parisians will know you're American without even looking at your shoes. You can dress in black, wrap a scarf around your neck, and not say a word and they still know. My husband, who is over 6 feet, towers above most Frenchmen. No wonder people never think he's one of them.

Honestly, being taken for a native may be a compliment but it shouldn't be the goal of your vacation. In fact, the best advice for American tourists is simply to remember that you are a guest here and to respect the golden rule. And that means that you should:

Be polite: Learn to say "bonjour, madame," "bonjour, monsieur," "s'il vous plait," "merci," and "parlez vous anglais?" Treat waiters, bus drivers, ticket sellers, hotel clerks, and shop owners with respect.

Don't call attention to yourself: Keep your voice down in public spaces, including the bus and the metro. Leave your team jerseys and ball caps at home although trust me, you will see the French in shirts from the Gap, Abercrombie, and even occasionally an NBA jersey.

Be aware of your surroundings and your personal property: Keep your money in your pocket (preferably your front pocket) and your camera and other valuables tucked out of sight. And fanny packs? Yeah, they look dorky but the real reason you shouldn't wear one is that they are easy pickings for pickpockets. A shoulder bag with a strap that crosses your body or a backpack held securely under your arm when in crowded places is far more secure.

Carrying a water bottle, opening up a map, and wearing jeans are not crimes. Wearing shorts when it's hot outside is fine; just be sure to change into a pair of slacks or a skirt for dinner or the theater.

And finally, don't assume that just because you don't hear people speaking English a lot that no one can understand your "private" conversations or complaints. Many Europeans speak English and who knows? You may find yourself sitting on the metro next to a quiet expat, like me.


Starman said...

I used to worry about how I dressed when I traveled, but now I just feel that if they don't like it, tough. I do however, agree with your advice about keeping a low profile, especially in restaurants.

Scarlet said...

Great post! I live in a very non-touristy area of paris, and when I walk past the stalls at the markets, the sellers start yelling out 'welcome' and 'cheap!' as soon as they see me. It used to bother me, but now I just respond straight away in french; I love seeing the look on their faces. Enjoy your holiday, people, without being hung-up on how 'french' you look.

Jan Heigh said...

Very sensible advice especially for a first time American tourist in Pairs---me. Even though I'm taking a French class I already figured out they would know who I was the first time I tried to speak in French!

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