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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Treatment of African-Americans and Africans in Paris (Part II)

In my last entry, I discussed how many African-Americans were able to find success and liberty in France as a result of a populace in France that did not seem to judge on the basis of the color of one's skin. The French welcomed many talented artists and performers to France that would have suffered prejudice in the United States, and many of the artists were allowed to blossom in a way that was impossible at the time in their homeland.

However, the Black African population might argue against the claim that they are treated the same as anybody else in Paris. While the African-Americans were revered for their artistic talents, the Black Africans are treated poorly. Though nobody should be treated differently because of their skin color, why are two minorities of the same color treated so differently?

First, many in France believe that "Blacks are a social problem, not racial" (French Blacks Skeptical of Race Neutrality, New York Times). It's hard to try and explain how in 2005 in a span of five months in Paris, 48 people were killed in fires, and that all of those who perished in these fires were black. My guess would be that these are in neighborhoods that have poorer housing conditions, perhaps faulty electricity, and are in crowded areas where it might be much harder for the fire department to respond in time. At the same time, why aren't issues like these addressed?

Officially the French government refuses to recognize minorities. The census does not ask for one's skin color, nor religious affiliation. The reasoning is that by not identifying one's background or beliefs, the French are upholding an egalitarian society. In concept, this isn't such a bad idea, but there is one major issue with this. The European Union allots money to each country in order to provide assistance for their minority groups. Unfortunately, as France does not recognize minority groups, they do not have any programs to assist those minority groups within the country. Alas, equality in principle is upheld, but there are those, mainly minorities in France, that need more help than the state is willing to provide.

In the United States, when submitting a resume or applying for a job, it is illegal to ask for a person's ethnic identity or religious background. In France, this is not asked outright, but in many cases, an interviewer will ask for a photograph of the potential employee. Many of the jobs I have searched in France ask to include a photo of yourself with the resume when sending in a job application, and these were not for modeling jobs, which might be the only acceptable time in which to send one in. If a recruiter has any sort of racial prejudice, it is easy for him to pick out those that he does not want as employees.

The education system does quite little to help those in the banlieues or African dominated areas of Paris. Schools are in poor shape in a lot of the minority populated areas, especially in the suburbs of Paris. New teachers are put into these schools to test the determination and patience of the new recruits, and many of them quit as a result. Even if a student in an area like this is to graduate from a lycée (high school), he or she probably has little chance of attending a good school or getting a good job, and as unemployment rate is significantly higher in these areas of Paris and its suburbs, there is a good chance that the young student may join those ranks. With a future so bleak, what is to stop him or her from selling drugs or becoming a prostitute on the streets, where they might actually be able to make enough money to fend for themselves? This might sound eerily familiar, as many inner-city kids in the U.S. face the same issues.

To return to my initial question, I intend to address my personal opinion of why blacks from the United States and blacks from Africa are perhaps treated so differently in France. As many African-Americans were perceived to be creative expressionists of some sort, they were seen to be contributing to the well being of French society. Furthermore, many were fighting in wars side by side with the French, coming from a country that has been seen equally, if not admirably, as a world power by the French. These two facts help contribute to the mindset that the African-Americans are helpful contributors to French society.

The Africans, however, are perhaps viewed in a different light as they are considered the root of many social problems in France, such as high unemployment, street violence, and crime. Many escaped to France as a result of political turmoil, in some cases, caused by the French themselves. Some of the suburbs of Paris are compared to war torn Eastern Europe, as muggings and harassment are frequent and burned out cars line the sides of the road. Most of these problems are blamed on immigration from Africa and several politicians have taken the stance to boot them out. The current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, once suggested that the French should only allow the intellectual Africans to enter the country. This further alienated Sarkozy from this population, as he was considered by many responsible for sparking the 2005 riots in suburban Paris by calling the rioters in the African neighborhoods "scum". There is little that Africans can do in regards to these views in government, as blacks are poorly represented in government, both at the local and national level.

With better representation in government and general understanding of the situation of Black Africans in France, there is a good chance that these issues could be alleviated. Progress has been made as frequent protests by organizations such as CGT (General Confederation of Labor) are receiving national attention, calling for assistance to those (mainly Africans) without working papers, among other issues. Though progress is moving along, there is still a lot of work to accomplish to give Africans in France the rights that they deserve.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Friday, March 26, 2010

Treatment of African-Americans and Africans in Paris (Part I)

When I came to Paris in December 2005, this was the subject of the class that I was taking while here. We took a look at how the African-Americans who came to Paris in the early 1900's lived here and how many were very successful in Paris. We also examined how black Africans were treated, many of whom came to France as a result of French colonization. Even though they possess similar skin color, the treatment by the French is vastly different for these two groups.

France prides itself on being a nation of equality. For example, the census does not ask about ethnic origin nor religious affiliation. Religion and politics do not mix, as it is rare when a politician brings his or her religious beliefs into their campaign. It is also said that there is not prejudice on the basis of the color of one's skin. This is what attracted many African-Americans to France, as many of the rights of which they were denied in the United States were attainable in France.

Many African-Americans were first introduced to Paris when fighting for the Americans during World War I. Many loved the fact that people were actually willing to invite them into their houses, that they were permitted to hang out at the same cafés as everyone else, and that there didn't seem to be an aversion on the basis of the color of one's skin. Naturally, this proved attractive for these soldiers, and many began to ponder staying in France as a result.

Numerous African-American performers received attention in France that would be considered unimaginable at the time in the United States. Josephine Baker, born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, is considered a national icon in France. Until the age of 15, she scavenged for food in garbage cans on the streets of St. Louis. Once she began performing in New York, she was paid fairly well, but it wasn't until she moved to France that she obtained iconic status. As a result of her influence, after Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, she was approached by King's wife to lead the American Civil Rights Movement, though she declined so that she could look after her 12 (all adopted) children. She was the first American woman to receive full military honors in France at her funeral.

Josephine Baker, though an excellent example, is far from being the sole African-American to succeed in Paris. Eugene Bullard from Columbus, Georgia, though uneducated, opened a very successful night club in Montmartre, was the only black pilot who flew in World War I, and worked as a spy on the Germans on behalf of the French leading up to World War II. Other famous African-American writers and musicians who lived freely in Paris include Langston Hughes, Sidney Bechet, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. If I were to write about all of these men, this could become a very lengthy entry.

The artistic and personal liberty that these people received in the France was essentially the opposite of what they might receive in the United States. Once Bullard returned to the United States during the outbreak of World War II, he was unable to find a steady job, working as a perfume salesman, elevator operator, and other jobs that did not live up to his accomplishments on the other side of the Atlantic. He died in poverty in New York City in 1961. Baldwin, being both black and gay, was subjected to prejudice for two reasons whenever he returned to the U.S.

African-Americans also had another benefit when moving to France in that their skin color actually helped them, rather than provided a burden. Many Parisians, when meeting an African-American in Paris would assume that the person was an artist, writer, or performer of some sort. As Parisians have a profound respect for those involved in some form of artistic and/or creative expression, they were treated with the upmost respect.

Naturally, these reasons above provide enough justification for an African-American who would have liked to live freely in the early 1900's. Many African-Americans, including my former professor here in Paris, have commented on how racism does not seem to exist in France. Our second professor from my former class, as he is a Black African from Senegal, angrily refuted this claim, as he felt that he was treated with disrespect and suspicion in Paris on the basis of his skin color.

Next week I will continue with the second part of this entry, which will discuss the treatment of Black Africans in France.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

French is Becoming English

If you think that you do not speak French, you might already know more than you think. The gap which exists between the French and English Languages seem to be inching closer together every day. While it may seem daunting, French is becoming increasingly approachable for English Speakers.

Leading up to the 20th century, French and English already had many words that were the same in both languages. This is a result of numerous invasions, both by the French and the English, against each other. As a result of William the Conqueror's invasion at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, French was considered the language of the ruling class for close to 300 years in England (A History of the French Language). French names such as Robert and Richard became very common among the upper echelon. Today, most words in the English language that end with -tion, -ant, -ont, -ent probably owe their roots in the English language to this invasion.

In 1964, René Etiemble, Professor of Comparative Languages at the Sorbonne (France's most widely known university), wrote a book called Parlez-Vous Franglais?. This book declares that the French language is losing its status and importance as English is taking its place. Not only that, the English language is seeping into the French language, much as a weed does over a garden. I've heard some accounts that when this book was written, about 25% of the French language was already English, and I would not be surprised if it is higher than that today. Etiemble states that if the French language continues to surrender its ground to English, French students will no longer be able to read authors like Voltaire or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, let alone Hugo or Zola.

To combat this, an organization known as the Académie Française was given a wake-up call to defend the French language. This is the body that is known to be the official authority on the French language, and by one account I heard, these guys still dress in Napoleonic era clothing in their meetings, complete with swords, as they are "defending" the language from outside sources. It became a sort of witch hunt to track down those detestable English words, throw them into the Seine, and replace them with a more French equivalent. For example, efforts were made to change "le weekend" to la fin de la semaine (the end of the week), "le walkman" to le baladeur (the walker), and even le hot-dog to le chien chaud (the hot dog).

Unfortunately for the Académie, few of these words actually stuck in the consciousness of the French. Some of these phrases were viewed as ridiculous and flat out ignored. However, the Québecois actually use a lot of these Académie created words, and even created some of their own. As they are surrounded by all English speaking states and provinces, the people of Québec are more isolated, and as result, more willing to defend one of the last remnants of their uniqueness.

Why is English becoming so popular in France? The media certainly helps. It is a law here that 50% of the songs played on a given radio station have to be by French artists. Even then, most stations stick to the bare minimum and play French and English language songs half and half. Furthermore, many of the popular movies over here happen to be the American ones. France does put out some great films, but the output is far exceeded by the United States. When English language films are screened in France, in most cases they are shown in the original format, just with French subtitles, which can be a great exercise for learning slang, both in English and in French.

Technology has also helped advance the spread of the English language in France. As new technologies continue to emerge worldwide, the French cannot keep pace to create a French equivalent for each new product or invention that surfaces. Thus, they just use the English word. Windows, iPod, Playstation, Email, Segway, and Satellite among many others, are pronounced essentially the same as they are in English (minus the eating of the syllables that Americans like myself tend to do). The only one I can think of that is different in French from English is computer, as pronouncing this word with a French accent will cause you to say "fucking whore". So it's probably not a bad idea that they choose to use ordinateur, which translates to organizer, instead.

In the last few years, it seems the Académie has started to give up. I feel that at least half of the billboards that I see here in Paris are in English. They are required by law to put an asterisk next to the English phrase and translate it somewhere in the advertisement. The translation is usually found in small letters towards the bottom of the ad, barely legible if one happens to be standing on the other side of the métro platform for example. The one I found above was from walking out the door of my apartment to the grocery store. As I started writing this entry, I realized I didn't have any photos to prove my point, and it took me only 5 minutes to find a great example.

To name a few, outsider, boost, feeling, and coaching are the same in both languages and have recently been introduced into the French vocabulary. These words do not have French roots. As the French language is only 1/5 the size of the English language, sometimes it is just easier to use the English word, rather than create a wordy French equivalent.

There's no need to feel stressed about learning the French language. Whether or not they are aware of it, an English speaker already has a good head start.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Friday, March 19, 2010

How to Identify Your Tourists

According to a statistic that I found online, Paris has somewhere close to 45 million visitors per year, making it one of the most visited cities/landmarks/anything in the world. In addition, about 60% of those tourists are from abroad.

I used to enjoy trying to pick out Americans in the crowd when I first moved here to Paris. Maybe it's just because I grew up in the United States that it seemed relatively easy, but after two years here, I've had some practice at trying to pick out people from other countries as well. Here are just some observations I have made, and if you can think of some others (within good taste of course), then feel free to contribute as well.


Once again, this one was the easiest since it's what I see at home as well. Anyway, certain clothing items to help identify an American tourist in Paris:

-White tennis or running shoes- I'm not sure why this is, but it seems to be an almost completely North American thing.
-Hats with any sort of sports logo on them, with the exception of the New York Yankees. If you see someone here with a Yankees hat, don't automatically assume they are American. The Yankees (or at least their hats) have a huge fan base in Paris.
-Shorts- though more Europeans wear shorts as well, I rarely see Parisians wear them. When I went running in them last month, people looked at me as if I was running naked.
-University Apparel- this is a surefire way to tell, unless you have the occasional kid who studied abroad in the US that brought back a souvenir. French people are not as proud of their universities as we are back in the US, nor do they have sports at these schools for which to cheer. The one exception is Franklin and Marshall College, which is located in southeastern Pennsylvania. A clothing company in Italy took their logo and made it a huge hit in Western Europe, and many French teenagers wear these shirts around. The company has no affiliation with the college either.
-If you are a girl below 25, North Face jackets and Uggs. On second thought, North Face apparel in general, more often than not, is a sign that one comes from the US.


This is a little more tricky, because in most ways, the Canadians are similar in makeup and appearance to those from the US. However, there are a couple of little differences.
-Roots- like North Face apparel and Americans, Roots apparel and Canadians seem to go together pretty well.
-Canadian Flag on Backpacks- this is a good way for a Canadian to show that not only are they from Canada, but they are NOT from the United States. Since a lot of people believe that Americans do not have a good track record abroad, something needs to be done to differentiate those that could easily be mistaken as Americans themselves.


Like Canadians, Australians seem to fear being mistaken for Americans. To keep this from occurring, I have seen many Australians that wear Australian flags on their clothing. In addition, I have seen quite a few that wear Australian flag hats, berets, vests, t-shirts, etc.
-Kathmandu- This seems to be worn uniquely by Australians. Easy way to tell an Australian. Other clothing that helps include Billabong, Quicksilver, or basically anything that has to do with surfing.


-Loud-Don't get me wrong here, Americans are very loud as well, probably on the same level as Italians. In France, you'll notice that when sitting on the metro, you won't be able to hear the conversation of two people sitting no less than 5 feet away. However, replace them with Americans or Italians, and you'll be able to know every detail of what they are doing today, and maybe even their personal life, if you are lucky.
-Glossy Coats- This is the big clothing item that stands out to me. During the winter, it seems that almost every Italian has a long glossy jacket with a hood. On these hoods, one finds a fur lined collar. I have no idea what kind of animal was killed for these, but a lot of them were maimed for the sake of style.
-Designer Eyewear and Purses
-In many couples I have seen, the women are taller than the men. I don't know why this is, and this item is very much debatable, but I seem to see it a lot.


-The only thing I can think of here are Jack Wolfskin jackets and apparel. This is a German company, so I guess it makes sense.


-Dressed Like Going Camping- When I see French people coming from the provinces to Paris, they have a unique way of standing out from the crowd. I often times see them dressed in rainproof jackets, pants, hiking boots, backpacks for hiking, and occasionally walking sticks. To be honest, I guess it isn't such a bad idea to come dressed like this, but it is hard for me to imagine these tourists dressing like this when they are back at home. I included a picture above that I took near the Eiffel Tower. I felt that these guys were just as likely to set up a tent and camp for the night as they were to climb up the Eiffel Tower.
-Quechua- French sporting goods company. French travelers may be seen decked out in Quechua apparel.

This is just a general note for tourists of any background: Parisians do not wear berets. The only people that can pull it off are geriatrics and occasionally some girls that match a beret with other clothing. If you want to stand out here in Paris as a tourist, however, go buy one of the colorful berets with an Eiffel Tower on it that can be found in every tourist shop in the city.

As I said above, these are just some observations that I have made. They aren't necessarily true of everyone from a given country. If you have anymore to add, or if you disagree, feel free to contact me.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mistakes in Speaking a Foreign Language

When learning a foreign language, there seem to be a couple of internal signs that indicate when one has started to make progress. First, one does not have to translate every thought word for word in their head before speaking in the opposing language. Hypothetically, imagine someone asking you for directions to a restaurant, and by chance you happen to know the location of this restaurant. If this was asked in one's native tongue, this would take very little effort on either person's part.

Now imagine that this question was asked in French by a native French speaker while you happen to be a native English speaker. Let's imagine that you had been practicing your French, but still had limited experience. The most likely internal scenario would be for you to think out the directions in English, translate word for word in your head to French, and then explain to the other person where to go. Once a person becomes more comfortable speaking a foreign language, this internal process becomes less frequent.

The other sign that progress in a foreign language is evident is when a person begins to lose their fear of making mistakes. It is perfectly normal to feel conscientious and embarrassed when speaking a foreign language to native speakers, as one will wonder what the others think of them, perhaps laugh at them, and just make an awkward situation all around. Fortunately, it is rare when people will laugh at you for trying to speak their language, they will probably encourage you and particularly in Paris, might even be more helpful with your query.

Once people lose their fear or consciousness of making mistakes, this does not imply that people stop making mistakes altogether, and far from it. At this point, a person might make even make more mistakes because they are making less effort to sound perfect every time they happen to speak. Though we might not notice it, we make mistakes speaking in our native language all the time, making the notion that we should be speaking a foreign language without faults seem frivolous.

On one occasion in the summer of 2008, myself and some friends from work were meeting Julie and one of her friends from home at an Indian restaurant close to her old apartment in the 15ème. After I greeted both of them, I noticed that Julie was rolling her shoulders and rubbing the back of her neck, which gave me the impression that her neck was probably sore. The word for neck in French is cou, while the word for ass is cul. In French, there is a fine line, at least for me as an English speaker, in the pronunciation of these two words. In addition, the word for sore which I had learned from Julie was bloquer , which literally means blocked. I tried to ask Julie if her neck was sore, but instead I happened to ask if her ass was blocked. Fortunately, they saw my mistake and didn't give me too much trouble about it. Needless to say, those are two words that I rarely mix up anymore.

Inversely, we as English speakers can gain insight into how a foreign language is spoken by how a non native speaker converses with us in English. If a non-native speaker says something that to us sounds ridiculous, there is a possibility that one word in French has similar meanings, or what they said was literally translated. For personal example, I remember when Julie was doing her taxes a couple of years ago and she kept telling me how boring they were, though her tone of voice seemed to imply that she was pretty frustrated. I thought, "Well, I guess they can be boring." After she said it a couple more times, I finally realized that she meant that her taxes were in fact annoying. In French, the verb ennuyer can mean to be bored or annoyed, depending on the context. Julie just happened to choose the wrong English equivalent. There are several words in French that have more than one meaning, depending on the context and the words placed around it, such as encore (still, again, more, another, too) and toujours (always, forever, still, all the same, anyway).

Translating catch phrases word for word from one language to the other almost never works. For example, one might hear in France that "it's raining like a cow pisses" to describe a hard rainstorm. In English, we happen to use "it's raining cats and dogs." Both describe the same event, though I have to say that I think the French one seems to make more sense to me. If one tried to say in French that it is raining cats and dogs, a French person could rightfully be confused and might wonder how to protect the outside of their home and car from the unprecedented cat and dog rain.

So if you happen to be learning a foreign language, the only way that you will improve is through practice. So get out there, embarrass yourself, confuse your ass with your neck, and find yourself a little closer to understanding and fluency in another language.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Are Parisians Rude?

Both in and out of Paris, Parisians do not have the best reputation. On my tours, I am asked all of the time: "What do you think of the people here? I always heard that the French are rude." In the eye of most tourists, the French and the Parisians are clumped into one category, which is about the American equivalent of saying that one will find the same kinds of people in Nebraska as they will in Boston or New York City. One is more likely to find someone pushy, arrogant, and hurried in the big city than they will in the countryside, and this is the same in France as it is all over the world. So to begin, the terms Parisian and French are not synonyms.

The distrust of the Parisian is not just a common sentiment amongst foreigners. French people from outside of the city seem to have an equal dislike, if not misunderstanding of the average citizen of this city. Last spring, I attended Julie's cousin's wedding in Normandy, near Fleury-La-Forét. We stayed in a gite (bed and breakfast) that Julie, her Mom, and I shared with another gentleman. At breakfast the day after the wedding, I found myself outside in the garden, discussing trivial things with the other guy, who came from Provence. I remember telling him across the table that I live in Paris, and his facial expression immediately changed. He went from a jovial disposition to somber and reflective within a matter of seconds. "Oh. Paris," he said. "The sky is always grey there. People knock each other over to get onto the métro. They step over the homeless people without saying hello or giving change. Everyone wears black." Julie's mother came outside and joined the discussion, nodding in agreement as this man continued to recount the atmosphere in Paris as if he was talking about a recently deceased lover.

I have to say, I actually did agree with most of the things he said. The sky is often overcast in Paris. It rains a lot here. A lot of people do wear black here, more so than anywhere else I've ever seen. People would trample over their grandmother to board the métro, even though most lines operate every 2-3 minutes during rush hour. I even find myself sprinting to the métro, even though I'm usually not in a hurry to get anywhere. I just feel satisfied knowing that I saved two minutes of my day.

The homeless people do receive attention here, but the thing is that many of them are faking it to prey on gullible tourists, so a lot of times they are ignored. But there are enough people in the city that people will find them a coffee or a bite to eat, and the police do go around asking the homeless to come with them to a shelter if it happens to be very cold outside.

To be able to address my question, one needs to be able to define what constitutes a Parisian. This is not an easy task.

First, I have only met a couple of people who happen to be born and raised in Paris. Even then, everyone claims to be from somewhere else. Julie occasionally claims she is Auvergnat, even though she was born in Paris and raised an hour to the east in Seine-et-Marne. According to her, too many people think that Seine-et-Marne is essentially Paris (the western half could be considered suburban Paris), so Auvergne (where her father is from) might give her more credibility. The family I lived with last year were Breton in origin. A lot of my other French friends in Paris are also from Brittany, Burgundy, Normandy, and the like. Not many people from the provinces want to be considered a true Parisian, thus perhaps a true Parisian is one that admits that he or she is, in fact, Parisian.

So back to the question: Are Parisians rude? Yes and No.

First of all, I think that the concept of the rude Parisian is blown completely out of proportion. The biggest shock for most tourists is the fact that many people will go out of their way to help someone enjoy the city. Waiters and waitresses in cafés are usually extremely patient and hospitable, and many love taking the opportunity to practice their foreign languages on their clients. I often see residents help those in need of directions by showing them where to go on a map, or occasionally, just take the person to the site itself. Usually the only people I see that believe from experience that the Parisians are unfriendly and rude are those that are rude and unfriendly themselves. If this is the kind of person you are, then trust me, most Parisians are equally good at giving you shit.

However, like most urban environments, there are some individualists who think of themselves as a gift to Paris that everyone should respect and obey, no matter their whims or demands. I have seen many times where people will make the extra effort to let someone know that they are upset. I've seen people in grocery lines complain to the cashier that the communists probably had shorter lines to wait for food, even though there is nothing the cashier could do about it. I've seen people yell at someone on a bike for passing through a yellow light, even if they weren't crossing the street themselves. I've seen French people correct other French people when they make a mistake in speaking, whether it is the conjugation of a word or word order. I had a neighbor who introduced himself to me by coming to my door and complaining that I walk too loudly in my apartment. The first issue which made his complaint absurd was that I was asleep. Secondly, he often hosted parties which ran until 6 or 7am, in the middle of the week, and when Julie or I complained, he threatened to beat us up, or worse.

In conclusion, most people in Paris are well mannered, polite, and helpful. Every now and then, one will come across an irritable and self-centered individual. When I happened to encounter persons like these, this is when I happen to think to myself, "There is a real Parisian."

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


In 2008, a ban on smoking was enacted in France that extended to cafés, bars, restaurants, and more or less every public place that is enclosed. Some here talked as if it was the coming of the apocalypse. Many people, when imagining the café scene of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus, for example, cannot think of a café in Paris without placing the description of "smoke-filled" in front of it. How could the French hold on to the cherished tradition of going to the café to have a glass of wine or coffee, to read a book, or talk to a friend without being able to have a cigarette?

To be honest, France is doing just fine with the ban. If someone wants a cigarette, they either sit outside at a table, or they put on their jacket and step out the door for just enough time to light up. Occasionally it will stop the conversation, but more often than not, the conversation will continue after the smoke break. Personally, I do not smoke, but oftentimes if I am in a conversation, I will accompany the smoker outside. It seems that the biggest complain against the cafés in Paris are the prices, not the fact that smoking is no longer permitted inside.

Though ignoring the law can be penalized heavily, sometimes the rules can be ignored. In an earlier blog, I wrote of a day in Seine-et-Marne where one of Julie's father's friends asked the owner of the bar if he could light up. The owner had no problem with it and brought out an ashtray. We were the only customers, so it wasn't likely to bother anybody. The owner said that most of her clients smoke, and if she said no, then she would probably have no business.

In Paris, a lot of the cafés have big open windows, and tables and chairs can be placed inside these openings. Even if only a leg of the table is outside, then technically one can smoke in these seats, which I have noticed on one or two occasions to make the smoking ban somewhat pointless in these particular cafés.

Since living in France, I have noticed a difference regarding etiquette with smoking between France and the United States. Here's why:

1. When hosting a party in the United States, most people, when in need of a cigarette, will step outside in order to smoke. If in a small apartment, then usually people will lean out the window. What is important is that the smoke is not inside, thus not bothering those who are inside and choose not to smoke.

Here in France, many times when hosting a party, people will just light up a cigarette in the room, regardless of the presence of ventilation. We've had to remind Julie's mom several times not to smoke in our apartment, as she has lit up several times without the windows open in our place. At Julie's apartment when we first started dating, her roommates smoked in her room a couple of times a day. Julie never thought to tell them no, because she said everyone does it here and she didn't want to inconvenience them.

2. In the United States, a lot of my friends, particularly in St. Louis, tend to smoke regularly as well. Only a couple of them actually do it in the presence of their family. Even if they have been smoking for years, and even if their parents smoke, they don't want to disappoint their family by showing that they have chosen to be a smoker. It is viewed by parents as shameful and embarrassing. Announcing to your parents that you smoke is about as difficult as a 17 year old announcing to his parents that his girlfriend is pregnant.

Though I'm sure there are parents in France that are upset when they find their teenage son's pack of Marlboros in his jacket pocket, there seems to be a lot more tolerance regarding smoking from one's parents. When I lived with a family in 2008, I was amazed one night after dinner when the mom, son and daughter were all enjoying a cigarette at the dinner table. Her kids are both in their early 20's. I commented that I didn't realize that they smoked, and she said, "I could tell them to stop, but I'm not setting the best example myself." Another time, when Julie and I went to a friend's housewarming party, our friend had several cigarettes with her grandmother, and though our friend's father is a doctor and did not smoke the whole evening, he didn't seem to mind his daughter going through half a pack over the course of the evening.

According to data from the OECD in 2005, 27% of the population in France smoke at least one cigarette a day. If I was to give my personal estimate of what I see over here, it is hard for me to imagine that less than 50% of the population under 18 are daily smokers. Of the people I have met and know from France, I can literally count on my hands how many I know that do not smoke. Smoking is so prevalent here that I've had friends from the U.S. who actually started smoking over here, just because everyone else they spend time with seems to do it as well.

Sometimes I think smoking is just something that is done here just to keep the French from living forever. Everyone in this country seems to smoke, and still they have one of the highest life expectancies in the world (80.7 years, ranked 10th in the world). Without cigarettes, they might live to 150. Some sort of vice has to keep people in check. In the United States, it is the diet. In France, it is the cigarettes.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Scams of Paris

If you have ever visited Paris and been to the Louvre, Pont Alexandre III, or Jardin des Tuileries, there is a good chance that someone has attempted to scam you. You may or may not of known it. Some of these are very clever, some of these are stupid, but all of them can be entertaining from time to time. Here are the most common ones that I know of:

1. The Ring Trick

This is the one that I see the most and probably spend the most time discussing with my groups on tour. What happens is a Romani (Gypsy) will walk past and suddenly stoop down to the ground, pretending to drop a ring on the ground. Somehow, they will articulate that they found the ring on the ground, and then ask if the person next to them dropped it. The people will say no and walk on. Then, the ring bearer will return, saying that it doesn't fit their finger, and as they cannot wear it, try and give it to the victim. They also might point out that it is real gold (which is not even close to true). A lot of times, the people don't know what to say and so they just take it. The Gypsy will then shake the person's hand (though I have seen them kiss people too) and then walk away. The people will stand dumbfounded, or keep walking. Meanwhile, the Romani will walk four or five steps away, turn around, and then come back and ask their victims for money for food. They usually show this by putting their hands to their mouths in the motion of shoving food into them. Sometimes people will give them money, sometimes the people will realize it is a scam and give the money back.

If this happens to you at some point, just keep walking. If you want to go through the experience just for the fun of it, then I guess that could be fun, too. This scam can be found in the Champ de Mars, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Louvre, and on a handful of bridges in the city such as the Pont Alexandre III, Pont Neuf, and a few others as well.

2. Deaf/Mute

Occasionally, one might find some people with sheets, usually near Pont Neuf, asking for people to sign something for the deaf and the mute. And when I say ask, I mean point at their sheet with their pen. Some people sign it, and then they will make some gesture to give them money. Do not bother with these guys, as I've seen them talk to each other, which pretty much ruins their credibility as mute people begging for money.

3. Bracelets

In front of the Louvre, and especially at the bottom of the steps of Sacré Coeur, you will probably find some West African guys who will ask you to stop and ask you to put out your finger. Unless you want to pay for a bracelet, don't do it. What they will do, if you so happen to extend your finger in their presence, is throw a loop around your finger, and start tying the bracelet together. If you try to move your finger out of it, it tightens up like a Chinese finger trap, leaving you trapped until they are finished. They might even tell you that it is made from rare African thread, even though it comes from a shop just down the street from Sacré Coeur. Furthermore, if it was so rare and expensive, you wouldn't find pieces of it strewn all over the ground where they work.

Once finished, they'll come up with some ridiculous price for the bracelet, and you'll either pay what they tell you, or try and talk it down to something reasonable. I have a little more respect for these guys as the bracelets actually look pretty cool, and you might get away with paying five euros or less for it, which if you wanted a bracelet, is actually a pretty good deal.

4. Sign For Peace in Africa

This scam is by far the most successful of any of the scams in the city of Paris. These guys are also West African in origin, and hang out near one of the back entrances to the Louvre. They are usually only there in the morning, but honestly, with as much money as they probably make, they really don't have to work more than a couple of hours a day.

What these guys will do, when they see someone pass, they might come up and say "Ah good morning big family! Welcome to Paris! Sign for peace in Africa!" The location in Africa tends to change based on which country is in the news at the moment. The first year and a half I was here, they usually said sign for peace in Darfur, but as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe has been getting a lot of press around the world for his total disregard for democracy, Zimbabwe has been name-dropped frequently in recent months.

These guys will then throw a pen and paper in front of the victim, who will then start to sign. The scammer will probably grab the person's arm, shake their hand, even hug them to show their gratitude for the money they are about to give them. Then, the victim will be asked for donations for food, water, political assistance, or whatever causes a person to give their money over to Africa. The scammers also mention that the average donation is about 20 euros. Amazingly, people give over 20 euros all of the time. I've seen people give 50 euros without even flinching.

I made a rough estimate that if every few people happen to give five euros to the cause, then in a morning's work, these guys should easily make 100 euros a morning, if not more. If that is the case, and these work maybe 6 days a week (though I see the same ones daily), that would allow them to make close to 32,000 euros a year, untaxed. 36,000 is considered an excellent salary in France, and that includes the high taxes. These guys are doing well.

So why don't the police stop this? They do try from time to time. Let's say the police start to walk by- all these guys have to do is to close their binders and walk away. If the cops do not see them soliciting people, they will leave them alone, even though they know what the scammers are doing. Security at the Louvre is maybe worse, as I see them come and high five or handshake these guys when they happen to pass by. They might tell them to cross the street and stand in front of the Pont des Arts, but they are always pretty nice about it.

5. Do You Speak English?

This one is also very common and is probably the most widespread around Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre. Scores of Gypsy girls will come by, one at a time, and ask you if you speak English. If you actually say yes, they will show you a piece of paper that usually says something like this:

Ladies and Gentlemen: I am an immigrant from Bosnia, my father has cancer, is on life support and has one arm/leg/lung. My mother is dead, my sister is blind, and we live on the streets. Please give me some money.

I have to say I somewhat doubt that everyone of these girls has a dead mother and father with cancer. Everyone of these girls has a sheet of paper that says the exact same thing; they seem to be working with a template. If you want to give them money, go for it, but don't feel obliged to do it as someone else will probably do it.

These are just the most common that I have seen here. If you can think of any other scams in Paris, let me know.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Differences in Drinking Habits

I remember the first time I tried drinking beer. I think I was 11 or 12, and we were on vacation in St. Barth's in the West Indies. My Dad was having his usual beer after diving and he decided to pour me about a finger of beer into a tumbler and had me try it out. I don't think I liked it that much, but my father told me that beer is a developed taste and that it takes some time, so he just wanted to help me on the path to responsible drinking.

I get the impression that a story like this is somewhat taboo in the United States. A parent giving their kid beer before 21? Is he out of his mind? Quite the contrary, he lived in France as a kid, where children are taught about the delights of alcohol, but more importantly, they are taught to respect its potency.

To begin, the official age for buying alcohol in France is 18 for hard alcohol and 16 years old for beer and wine. However, drinking underage is not forbidden. It used to be a common practice in schools to serve kids a little bit of wine mixed with water at lunch so that they could develop a taste for wine. This doesn't happen too often anymore, but parents here still may serve their kids a little bit of alcohol with meals. Julie's father first served her homemade cider when she was 5, and she drank it with certain meals as if it was water or milk.

The point being taught isn't to learn how to get drunk; rather the emphasis may lay on two issues. First, alcohol can be paired with certain foods and really enhance the taste of the meal. The second point is to make alcohol accessible so that getting drunk isn't looked upon as something cool to do.

In France, certain meals are not complete without the presence of wine, cider, or beer. Red wine is touted for numerous health benefits, and in addition pairs well with red meat and barbecued foods, among many other things. With a cheese course, a well paired wine can seriously enhance the flavor of a cheese. Along the Eastern border, a lot of heavy dishes are paired with white wine from the area, or in the Northeastern quadrant of France, beer. In Normandy and Brittany, one is most likely to find cider paired with their meal. These are all facts that can be looked up pretty easily on the internet.

Now, my second point is regarding its accessibility. Though a lot of people I knew drank during high school, drinking in the United States seems to explode once teenagers head off to college. People challenge each other to see who can puke first, who can drink the most without having to pee, who can finish a power hour, and so on. In essence, once people go to college, they are likely to be encouraged to drink quickly. It doesn't help that most of the popular beers in the United States are weak in alcohol content, which encourages people to drink more of them, or mix in some shots of liquor to speed up the process of drunkenness.

Why do kids go crazy on the alcohol when they head to university? It's because suddenly their parents are not watching their every move, and now they can do things that were once forbidden to them, like drink alcohol. Not only that, many times when one starts talking with a friend about what they did yesterday, the conversation will begin with "Man, I got so wasted last night" or "We started drinking and things got crazy." Showing that one can get wasted can establish a common bond, and then one can trade stories of the stupid things they did the night before when they were inebriated.

In France, I don't seem to see people bragging about their drinking prowess as much. Of course young people in France drink, and yes, they too can get drunk. It's just that with the fact that alcohol is easily accessible and in many cases its consumption is encouraged, drinking, being drunk, or being able to drink a lot isn't that impressive. The main reason? Pretty much everyone can do it.

Beer and wine are very easy to obtain in this country. In most places, a small beer is the same price as a small soda, and it is fairly common to find a beer for cheaper than a Coca-Cola in a bar, café, or restaurant. Not only that, people can drink at 18 at a bar and if you are with your parents, younger than that.

By comparison, my girlfriend Julie, who at the time was almost 26, was turned down in two bars in the United States; once because she forgot her ID and another time because no one in the restaurant recognized the French ID card. The latter was very frustrating as we were at dinner with my parents and Julie, who was the oldest amongst me and my brother, was the only one that was not allowed to have a beer with my family.

Someone pointed out to me that it seems when we (Americans) go out to bars, we assume we will be drunk, and thus hungover the next day. As a result, not many people go out during the workweek in the U.S. In France, if you are going out to hang out, this doesn't necessarily imply that you are going to get drunk. One of my friends from back home, when visiting me last year, commented on how surprising it was that people went out during the weeknights. It wasn't because people want to get drunk. Rather, it is because they wanted to meet up briefly to talk with a friend, or just hang out somewhere else than in their living room. People return home at a decent hour and still get plenty of sleep (as I mentioned in a previous post, the French lead the world in average number of hours sleeping per day).

Just like in the U.S., a lot of kids in France go through the phase of imbibing too much alcohol, but it seems to be at a younger age, around 15 or 16 years old. Not only that, many times parents accept this as a phase and let it slide, and will let their kids host parties at home, or offer to pick them up from a party at whatever time the kids feel like coming home, or encourage them to sleep over wherever they were drinking. They prefer that if their kids drink, they do it responsibly rather than get themselves into trouble.

Aside from exposure, perhaps there are a couple additional reasons why French kids appear to be more responsible with their drinking. First, many of them are not exposed to the same atmosphere as many of us were in the United States. Far fewer French adolescents attend university, 1/3 fewer than the U.S., per capita. In addition, many of those French students who attend university do so while still living with their parents. I'm sure the majority of us would have done a lot less partying if we had to explain to our parents why we were hanging out so late and so often instead of getting our homework done.

Would French kids drinking habits be different if they attended Universities like those in the United States? Would American kids drinking habits be different if we weren't sheltered from it until attending college? My guess is that these changes would result in a closer parallel between American and French drinking habits and education, but I certainly cannot prove it.

If you have any questions or feedback, please let me know, I'd love to hear it.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at

Monday, March 1, 2010


When I returned to the United States in December 2008 for the first time in almost a year, I was happy to get settled into my old routines and habits, such as playing hockey, eating a burger, and tipping for next to everything. Aside from my girlfriend, there was only one other thing from France that just felt like it was missing from my daily regimen: the bread.

Bread is more than just a filler in a basket placed out on the table. In France, revolutions have begun as a result of bread shortages.

It's still one of the only cheap food items that one can find in this country. No matter where you are in Paris, an average baguette is sold between 80 and 90 centimes, or $1.25 US. Even if you find a baguette more expensive than that, look for another couple minutes and you should find at least one other baker within a one block radius. A boulangerie across the street from our new apartment charges 98 centimes, and so instead I go across the street to another one that charges just 80.

Before the French Revolution, bakers started raising their bread prices to combat the scarcity of materials for bread, and this is considered one of the major reasons why the people revolted and started tearing off the heads of the wealthy. Since then, baguette prices stay relatively constant, and considering its necessity in France, that's probably a good idea if the bakers don't want to face the guillotine (not literally of course).

There are hundreds of bakeries in this city. When I lived in Montmartre, I had 4 boulangeries within a two minute walk of my apartment. It's not like there is a surplus of bakers here either, they actually need this many. Around 6 pm, when a lot of people are heading home from work, the bakeries are packed with people, picking up their baguette or two for dinner that night. By 8:30 pm, most bakers have already run out of baguettes. This also happens every week day around lunch time, and in the mornings on the weekends.

It's not like people can stock up on baguettes for several days- as there are no preservatives in the bread, a baguette is stale within 6 hours, so it has to be eaten fairly quickly. The ingredients in a baguette, by law (seriously) in France, must contain only four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. If it does happen to become stale, it can be put in the toaster or oven in the morning to be served with butter and jelly as breakfast.

If you sit down to dinner in a French restaurant in Paris, bread will be brought out, regardless of what you order. You should always be able to get a refill too, as bread is served in unlimited quantities to customers. During the meal, bread can used to soak up the sauce of whatever is served, and it can also be used in place of a knife and fork to scoop some hard-to-grasp food left on the plate. If you happen to get a cheese course, more bread will be brought out so that you can spread the cheese upon it. Two people could easily split a whole baguette during the course of a meal. Thus, you can pretty much expect bread with your meal wherever you eat in Paris. However, the first time Julie's mother, Evelyne, went to McDonald's, after getting a burger and fries, she went back to ask the guy at the cash register for a basket of bread. Unfortunately, McDonald's hasn't picked up on the French concept of serving bread with everything.

Since I have lived here in Paris, I average at least a baguette a day. I always buy two every time I visit the baker because Julie eats even more bread than I do, so it is fairly common that I have to visit the bakery a couple of times a day. When I returned to the U.S., I went through a withdrawal of sorts. I was able to find enough bread to eat, but it just was not the same. The crust wasn't flaky enough, or the soft middle (la mie) was too firm; I could always find something that was not right. When Julie came to Saint Louis a month later, it was even harder for her. We ran out of bread the first couple of days that she was there. Though she never said anything, there were times at meals where she would reach out to a bread basket that wasn't there. My Mom, who slightly overcompensated, started buying four baguettes a day to keep up with demand.

Julie and I went to a French bakery in Saint Louis, that I had remembered being the closest thing to a good baguette in Saint Louis. We drove 30 minutes to stop by the bakery, and we even said bonjour when we came inside, hoping that someone there would see that she was French, get excited, and give us some free food. Instead, the high school kid at the register ran into the kitchen to get someone, and brought out a lady that appeared to be Russian. Our hopes were dashed, but we loaded up on some good looking pastries and, of course, some baguettes. As soon as we were handed the baguettes, we could immediately tell that these were frozen. They were far too light, which seems to happen when the baguettes are thawed out and rebaked. I wouldn't have noticed this before moving to France, but after spending countless hours in close proximity to real baguettes, it was kind of disappointing to think that when we move back to the United States at some point, it is going to be really difficult to find a good baguette.

Then again, maybe I'll just learn the trade an open up a legit bakery of my own.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at