Google Analytics

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hugs and Kisses

Many of those who travel to France have encountered “bisous”, whereby people kiss each other on the cheeks as a form of greeting. The number of kisses depends on where you are, though it usually consists of somewhere between two and four. No matter how many kisses there are, those of us coming from the English speaking countries are usually pretty awkward upon our first try.
At first, we are tempted to shake hands, as kissing is a very personal greeting to us, usually reserved for close family members and lovers. As a general rule, girls kiss both boys and girls upon meeting. Boys will normally only kiss girls, unless it is a close friend or family member, in which case it is perfectly normal for guys to do a cheek-to-cheek kiss with a male counterpart.
Based on kisses being such an integral part of interaction in France, one might think that this implies that the French are more comfortable with intimate displays of affection, right? Not necessarily. Try hugging a French person.
My girlfriend and I are currently traveling in the U.S. for a few weeks. We have been using a French guidebook to get us around, as I don't have a guidebook for my own country. In this book, there is a section dedicated to social etiquette and respect in the United States called Faire/Ne Pas Faire. Almost every time that we have met up with a friend or family member, we have brought out the list and discussed its contents. Make sure you pronounce your H's. Don't drink in the streets. Not leaving a tip will lead to a horrible impression of one's character. Though these are all interesting (and important to know), the following suggestion is by far my favorite:
Ne faites pas la bise, quel que soit votre sexe, ça ne se fait pas. On se serre la main, en plus tendre, on se fait des "Hugs" (grandes embrassades avec tapes affectueuses dans le dos et grognements béats).

In summation, (when in the United States) don't greet people with kisses, especially if they are the same sex as you. they don't do that. One shakes hands, or more affectionately, one does a "hug" (big embrace with affectionate pats on the back and blissful growls or grunts).

Do French people really not know how to hug? I asked my girlfriend and she confessed that when she first visited the U.S., she was not sure of proper hugging etiquette. She thought that she was supposed to gently place her arms around her counterpart, and rest her chin upon their shoulders, only letting go when the other person made the first move. If one is not used to hugging those that are not their lovers, then this makes sense. French people do hug, but this is usually reserved for couples. Hence the reason why people from France might melt in your arms (if they are not uncomfortably squirming) when you are greeting them with a hug.

If you happen to visit France and feel awkward during the kissing process, don't feel bad. Just know that a French person might feel equally maladroit in your homeland when you are tapping them on the back and affectionately grunting.

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

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

French Administration

One of my first experiences with French administration was when I was renewing my visa a couple of years ago. I had to get to the prefecture early enough so that I could be waited on, as the foreign service office at this prefecture is only open for two and a half hours a day. In front of the prefecture was not a line, but a bunched up group of people struggling to keep order. Some people are claiming that they are in front of the line, some people are repeating that nobody run.

Why would anyone need to run?

There is a big wooden door blocking the entrance to the courtyard of the prefecture. To be served at the prefecture, one has to collect a ticket with a number at the other end of the courtyard from the attendant at the reception desk. When the door is finally opened, everyone tries speed-walking their way to the door. Some people send their more nimble children to get to the front.

It is frustrating, chaotic, and occasionally nothing short of baffling, but in a way, it sums up French administration.

It can take eons to get anything done in this country, and people have come to accept that in France. Long waits and a mind numbing amount of repetitive paperwork are the norm. While in line at the prefecture, you might see three guichets and four employees, and yet only one of these windows is actually open for business. Meanwhile, the other three employees are drinking coffee and complaining about how they hate the job that they hardly pretend to do. You'll be asked for numerous documents à fournir, and upon arrival you'll probably be scolded for not bringing others that you were not told to bring. I've learned my lesson. I bring every document I have ever received in this country, with at least one copy.

After I had lived in France for one year, my girlfriend urged me to save copies of my pay stubs, as I will be asked for them whenever completing an administrative task. I've even been asked for some bulletin de paie that were three years old, so this means hanging on to every single one I receive from here on out in my lifetime.

As soon I opened a bank account, I was told to hang on to my account statements each month, even though I have them online. I could live with hanging on to bank statements and pay stubs, as they are handy to have around sometimes.

However, while renewing my visa last year, I received a letter from the prefecture that stated that they did not have proof that my girlfriend and I were in a domestic partnership from between June and November of 2010. Oddly enough, they had sufficient proof that we were together before the end of June and after November, but not enough for in between. We were asked to find things that could prove that we were sharing a place of habitation. It turns out we had some junk mail from that time that for some reason, we had not thrown out. We obtained a giant envelope, stuffed the junk mail inside, and mailed it to the prefecture. It was just what was needed to renew my visa.

So not only do I have to save my pay stubs and bank account statements, I now have to save my junk mail as well. Magazines from Office Depot, Google, and several clothing stores are kept in a folder, waiting for their time to be sent to the prefecture next year to prove that we still live together.

Earlier this year, before one of my two or three visa appointments per year, I called the foreign service office at the prefecture to make sure I had a proper list of the paperwork I needed to bring. Defying logic, they said they cannot tell me over the phone. So I wrote a letter asking for a list of things to bring. They sent the list, but it was the wrong one. I called them again to ask, once again being reminded that they could not tell me what I needed over the phone. They sent another list, which happened to be the same wrong list they had already sent me. For my prefecture visit, I brought every paper known to man (at least to this one) in a backpack, just in case.

After waking up at 5:00 am in order to arrive on time, followed by a brisk speed-walk through the courtyard at the prefecture, we were called to the guichet pretty quickly. Per usual, everything was wrong with my dossier. First, we were told that I was at the wrong prefecture. After arguing with them for a few minutes, they realized that I was at the right one. They bring out the list of things I needed to bring with me, which of course was completely different from the one that they kept sending me. Even though I expected this and brought every paper I knew of with me just in case, it turns out we only had 17/20 of the papers that we needed. Fortunately, we were told to mail the rest in. For reference, we asked if we could have the list of papers to bring. The administrator told us that she was not allowed to give us a copy, even though she had an enormous stack of copies of this list on her desk. In what I would call a breakthrough, as she finished her sentence, she realized how illogical this was and gave us a copy anyway.

Hopefully more examples of common sense will prevail to reform administrative incompetence in France. However, those that wish to change it should prepare themselves to wait in line.

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

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, October 3, 2011

What is Fluency?

Everyone seems to have a different definition of fluent. I remember hearing a grown man tell me that his friend went to Sweden and was fluent in Swedish in three weeks, with no prior experience with the language. Then again, the man who told me this never learned a foreign language and had never really travelled abroad.

In the United States, the bar seems to be set a little lower for quantifies "fluent." I've heard people tell me that they were fluent in a language, yet couldn't order dinner without the waiter switching to English. Perhaps it is because we have so little exposure to foreign languages that anyone that speaks a few words in something other than English can be considered a fluent speaker of the language.

Conversely, one must have a high level of command of a second language to consider themselves fluent in Europe. A high proportion of native Parisian students would be considered fluent in English if they were judged by the same standards as those used in the United States. However, if you were to ask them if they are fluent or not, many would decline and say that they do speak it well enough.

This leads to the question: What is fluency? What constitutes the progression to fluency?

Exposure- While I'm sure it is possible to become a fluent speaker of a language with limited exposure, it is very difficult. If you want to speak a language well, you have to be around it. Speaking for 5 minutes a day in your high school classroom just isn't enough.

I had this naïve belief before I moved to Paris that based on my 6 years of middle and high school French, that I would probably be fluent within 6 months of living in Paris. I had studied here for a month in university, and I felt pretty comfortable with my French while I was here. However there were a couple of things that I didn't take into account:

First, I was spending most of my time with American students, and we weren't speaking in French to one another.

Secondly, since I wasn't passing time with the French, my only real exposure was in restaurants, ordering food. I was a pro at getting dinner but I couldn't contribute much to a real conversation. I remember someone asking me where the post office was and I was able to tell them that I didn't know. I was proud of that moment up until two years later, when I moved back to France.

Upon arrival, I realized I was nowhere near fluent. I made friends with some French kids, and this is where I made some progress. At first, I just listened to the conversations. I couldn't contribute anything meaningful, so I just concentrated on understanding the dialogue. I would concentrate so hard that I occasionally fell asleep at the table (surprisingly not as a result of alcohol). It was here that I started picking up useful words and expressions like "truc", "machin", "mec", "en fait", etc. I would look these up and then try to use them in the conversations I attempted to have with my girlfriend.

After about three months of living in France, I actually felt like my French was worse. It was actually better, but only at this point I began to realize how often I made mistakes.

On a side note, from time to time I started having dreams in French. This is no indication that I was fluent, as at this point I was far from it. I feel this is misconceived as a sign that one has a command in the language. Almost every dream I had in French at this time involved me buying a croissant, or asking what time it was, or telling my mom to put away the dinner plates.

Speaking- One cannot have a command of a language without being able to speak it, right? I made quite a few attempts to speak French as often as possible. My biggest help is that I started dating a French girl a few weeks after moving here. Instead of me going to my French classes, I would come over to her apartment and attempt to speak nothing but French for two hours, two to three days a week. It was incredibly frustrating and exhausting at first, but within a few weeks I saw some improvement. Here's how I gauged that my French was getting better:

At first, when I came into a shop, I would ask for something and the vendor would respond in English. From thereon, the conversation was in English.

After a while, when I came into a shop, I would ask for something and the vendor would still respond in English. However, I would respond in French, and then we would continue butchering the other's language until one of us gave up. At first I would give up. A couple months later, they would give up.

Three or four months after moving here, when I came into a shop, I would ask for something and the vendor would respond in French.

Making Progress- I knew that my French was improving when two thoughts occurred to me:

First, I no longer had to mentally translate my sentences word for word from English to French before I spoke. French and English sentences do not always have the same structure, so until you start thinking in French, it can be very difficult to have a fluid conversation in French.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, I no longer cared if I made mistakes in speaking or writing French. I make mistakes in English all the time (hopefully they have been edited out before you read this), and it is my native language. How can I expect myself to speak French perfectly if I don't speak and write perfectly in English?

From here, the learning process becomes much more smooth. One might not notice the progress as much as they did previously, but those around them, especially those they only see every now and then will be able to tell the difference.

Fluent- I think it took a couple of years before I could consider myself fluent in French. How could I tell? The telltale sign for me was that when my girlfriend and I had conversations, we couldn't remember in which language we had been speaking. The languages begin to blur together. We could be equally comfortable speaking English or French. Though we both have much work to do before we could be considered native speakers in the other's language, and though we still both make mistakes, it doesn't really inhibit the conversation, nor is it as mentally draining as it was in the past.

I would love to hear other's experiences with this. As I said, seemingly everyone has a different definition of what constitutes fluency. What is yours?

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

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Why Do I Keep Staying in France?

Working as a tour guide in Paris, I get asked a lot of the same questions on each tour. When I get asked "Where are you from?", "How long have you lived in Paris?", or "Is John-Paul your real name? (yes it is)", my answer is automatic, to the point where I can almost think about other things while I am giving my response. However, when I am asked "Why do you still live in France?" or "What keeps you here?» I am never really sure how to respond, no matter how many times I am asked this question. Perhaps the following story can give you an idea why.

In the summer of 2010, while beginning to prepare dinner one evening, I decided to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner at a shop around the corner from my apartment. For New Year's, I had made the resolution to start spending more than four euros on a bottle of wine, and so far, I was doing a pretty good job (even though I still rarely go above seven euros a bottle). It's not that I felt that I was becoming too good for 3 euro-a-bottle wine, as every now and then one can procure a good bottle of wine for that price. It's just that the difference is pretty noticeable when you spend those two to three euros more in France.

As I walked into the shop, I was greeted by a guy who was in his early twenties, and was eager to help me find something. I was wearing a shirt from work, which has English written on it, so he asked if he could practice his English on me. We chose a bottle of Régnié and made our way over to the cash register. After I paid for the bottle, he suddenly switches back into French and asks me, "Do you want to meet an Alsatian?" I have no idea what he means by that, but I say, "OK, why not."

The vendor directed me behind the register to a small passageway, which led to some stairs to the basement. I get down to the bottom of the stairs and take a good look around. He's led me down to their wine cellar! In the middle of the cellar, sitting on a pink couch that looked like it had been abandoned on the curb, were two of his friends, drinking rosé wine, which they had placed upon a folding table. Sure enough, one of those guys was Alsatian (he didn't seem as keen to introduce me to his other friend, though he was as good of a guy as any of them). They offered me a glass of wine, and I sat down and talked with them for a good thirty minutes about Alsace and about getting robbed here in Paris, as the vendor and I both had stories about being victimized the week before. They offered me another glass, but then I realized that my girlfriend was probably wondering where the hell I was, especially since I said I would be gone for five minutes. I thanked the guys profusely for their hospitality and made my way back home to continue chopping vegetables for dinner.

If a story like this happened once in my time living in Paris, I would already be impressed with the serendipity of this city. However, incidents and occasions like these seem to happen all the time here. I've lived in Paris since February 2008. Though I originally planned on living here for three months, I have now lived here for three and a half years. Chances are that I will be here a while longer.

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

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Duck Fat

In several of my articles, I have written about the wonders of the French Paradox. To sum it up, people eat a high fat diet, lots of pork, salt, and drink plenty of wine and other alcohol to wash it all down. Yet, as a whole they seem to be one of the healthiest countries in the world. Today I want to address what may be the most surprising secret to their success: that is, duck and goose fat.

Even though many people in France eat a lot of fatty foods, smoke cigarettes as if they were breathing air, and don't pay any attention to exercise (Paris is becoming an exception to the latter point), France has one of the lowest, if not the lowest risk for cardiovascular disease in the industrialized world. For example, according to a survey conducted by the World Health Organization's Multinational Monitoring of Trends and Determinants in Cardiovascular Disease (MONICA), on average 315 out of 100,000 middle aged men die every year in the United States from a heart attack. In France as a whole, approximately 145 out of 100,000 middle age men die from the same cause each year.

In the Gascogne region of France, there was a puzzling find. Though this region eats more saturated fat than any other group of people in the industrialized world, only 80 out of 100,000 middle aged men die from a heart attack each year. What is their secret?

Apparently, it is duck and goose fat.

These two fats are used for cooking nearly everything. While best known in France for adding scrumptious flavor to sautéed potatoes, the Gascons use duck and goose fat with nearly everything they prepare. Where one in Italy, Spain, or Provence might use olive oil, the Gascons use duck or goose fat. While in Brittany one might put salted butter on their bread, the Gascons use goose fat as a spread.

What is it that makes duck and goose fat so healthy? Apparently it is a result of the kinds of fats that make up its composition. Duck and goose fat are low in saturated (bad) fats, and very high in unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and can clog up arteries in the human body. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, and go through the system much easier. Duck and goose fat are actually closer in composition to vegetable oils like olive and grape seed oil than they are to butter or lard. This is a reason that duck and goose fat need to be kept refrigerated, as it becomes liquid at a fairly low temperature (14° C, or 57.2° F).

Duck and goose fat are pretty easy to find in France, though I would say that duck fat is less expensive and more prevalent, at least here in Paris. One can buy duck fat in a jar, in a refrigerated section of almost any grocery store. It is pretty cheap (2-3 euros), and it can potentially last for years (though once you get in the habit of cooking with it, it is likely that you'll run out of it in a couple of months at most). It adds the taste of duck or goose to a simple meal, so its a cheap and healthy way to add a lot of flavor to your dishes.

This is just another mystery solved in how the French Paradox lives up to its name. Go get some duck fat and start living a healthier, and tastier life.

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

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Heavy Legs

Is there a time of year when your legs seem to be heavier than normal? Are there days where you feel like you have weights tied to your legs? You might be suffering from Heavy Leg Syndrome, one of France's most peculiar maladies.

Heavy Leg Syndrome, from a non French perspective, is just a hypochondriac's term for "my legs are tired," but it seems to be a troublesome widespread epidemic that is mainly confined to mainland France.

Last night when I was watching the news, a commercial came on promoting a cream for the treatment of Heavy Leg Syndrome. I hadn't thought about this in a while, as I guess it's not the Heavy Leg time of year. I went on to google and typed in "crème jambes lourdes" just to see what might come up. The amount of cremes that treat this "illness" is nothing short of astonishing. The claim is that if your legs are feeling tired or a little heavy that rubbing these special cremes into your legs will provide instant relief for the suffering caused by this debilitating malady.

Now why is it that people feel the need to see a doctor just because their legs are sore? The French do have great health care here, and as it is quite inexpensive (at least in comparison to the United States), people head to the doctor anytime they happen to fart or cough a little more in the course of a day. And referencing an interview given in a great article on the subject of French hypochondria, to which you can find the link here, French doctors don't feel right unless they prescribe something to treat you. Anything less than a written prescription implies that the doctor doesn't care and is not doing his job correctly.

As a result, medications are over-prescribed, perhaps more so than anywhere else worldwide. According to a French consumer's organization UFC Que Choisir, France prescribes 40% more medication than most other countries in Europe. The French Health Ministry even came to the conclusion that 40% of it's medications are useless (The Economist, The Price of Popping Pills, 13 May 2004). The only purpose of these placebos is to give relief to patients that expect a medication to cure whatever illness they may or may not have.

So, perhaps these cremes and other holistic heavy leg treatments (such as walking in the sea and drinking copious amounts of herbal tea) are a product of the desire to sooth those sufferers who were tired of coming away from their doctor's appointment without a solution for their heavy legs. However, until someone scientifically proves that Heavy Leg Syndrome is little more than having tired legs, then I guess gravity will continue to pull a little bit harder underneath mainland France, much to the chagrin of its suffering populace.

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 .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page
here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 16, 2011


C'est comme ça.

There is no other phrase, word, or expression in the French language that irritates me more than this one. The literal translation would be "It's like that," similar to our expression in English "That's the way it is." English speakers certainly use this phrase a lot, but seemingly nowhere near as much its French equivalent is used.

In the United States, we being the eternal optimists that we are, always try to look at the brighter side of things. When someone loses their job, one could be consoled by being told that they now have the freedom to find their true calling. Someone might tell this person that they are sure that they will find a new job. Or, at the very least, one could say that they are sorry to hear about the news, and give them a pat on the back.

Not so much in France. One is likely to say c'est comme ça and then rant about how France flat out sucks.

Heatwave in France? C'est comme ça.

Girlfriend run off with pizza delivery guy? C'est comme ça.

Car run over your foot? C'est comme ça.

A few weeks back, there was an article in the Economist that discusses how France has lots of reasons to be happy. It is becoming increasingly easier to set up a business here (I can attest to this). If you have a good idea, there are fewer barriers to get your idea off the ground than in the past. Not to mention, France has a high quality of life, beautiful landscapes, amazing food and wine, lots of time off from work...

Yet, when asked if they felt if 2011 would be better than 2010, only 15% of French people said yes. This survey was conducted in several countries, and according to these results, France is the most pessimistic about the future. By comparison, Afghanistan and Iraq are close to four times more optimistic about 2011 than the French. The Americans, who have had hard times and are becoming increasingly more pessimistic about the economic recovery, had around 45% of those surveyed say yes, that this year will be better than the previous year.

Why are the French so down about their chances? There was a quote that stuck with me from a book written by James Baldwin titled Giovanni's Room. In this novel, the main character, who is American, falls for an Italian bartender, and both have been living in Paris for several years. The main character mentions something to cheer up the Italian, who responds with something like, "Oh you Americans. Your country hasn't been around long enough for you guys to be pessimistic." Perhaps this holds true in Europe, as according to the above-mentioned survey, most of the old European powers are not terribly optimistic about their future, though they are not nearly as pessimistic as the French. However, China has been around a long time as well, and they are very optimistic about things to come.

When I was setting up my business last year, I had a meeting with someone from the state to explain the creation of my company. The lady I met with took a quick look at my resume as I explained to her that I would be giving eating and walking tours in Paris. She saw that I have a Master's Degree in Political Economy and Public Policy, and as a result, she commented, somewhat jokingly, that my new job had very little to do with what I studied. I went to tell her that in the U.S., things like this are possible. You work as a banker, but have always dreamed of opening a restaurant? You certainly can do that in the United States. If one has a dream, one can see it through.

The lady conducting the interview said that it's amazing how Americans can think like that. She said it is just not possible in France. There are too many restrictions, and mainly, people are taught when they are young that if they are satisfied with their occupation, chances are it was an accident. I told her that I beg to differ, that if she didn't like what she was doing, that she could find a way out, and that maybe she too could find the calling of her dreams. However, she seemed hesitantly resided to her fate, and uttered that over-utilized phrase to end all discussion-

C'est comme ça.

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 .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Brief History of Anti-Semitism in Paris, Part 3

In the last installment of this subject, I will discuss how France has come to deal with its actions towards the Jewish during World War II, and whether or not anti-semitism is prevalent in France today.

France was in an interesting position following World War II, at least in comparison to their German neighbors. The German role in World War II was pretty clear, which seems to have led to a more clear understanding of their mistakes and has allowed them to educate their populace with the hope that they can avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

The French role is not as obvious. While they were at war against Germany and worked towards their defeat, they also complied with the Nazi government and assisted in achieving the goals of the Third Reich in France. In the summer of 1944, the French military (thanks to the assistance of several other countries) felt safe enough to band together to fight against their invaders and declare victory. In an effort to cleanse their population of collaborators, many were sent to their deaths for their roles in complying with the Vichy Government and the SS. As a result, the French activity during the war is remembered differently, depending on who one asks.

The average American has the impression that the French did not fight back against the Nazis and it was the Americans, with help from other Allied troops, who saved the French following the invasion in Normandy. The French did fight, albeit they were poorly organized when the Nazis pushed through the Ardennes Forest in 1940. Many did fight with the French resistance throughout the war. It is true that the Allied forces did strike the death blow that led to the surrender of the Nazis in France, though the French did their part to help as well.

The impression is slightly different in France. Until recently, French film and other media related to the war, at least in my opinion, gave the impression that France was conquered by a superior army, and were brutally oppressed until the French, with allied help, rose up triumphantly and banished the German forces. The parts included in this impression are accurate, although there a quite a few details, in particular in relation to the Vichy Government and their treatment of the Jews in France, that had for a long time been overlooked.

Until very recently, the French government denied any responsibility for the actions of the Vichy Government, as they claimed that they had nothing to do with the choices of Philippe Pétain and his supporters. This seemed to be something that has been widespread in France- in retrospect the actions of the Vichy Government were horrendous and inexcusable, and although the Vichy Government received widespread support in France during a large part of World War II, everyone seems to point their finger and say that they had nothing to do with those guys. It is almost as if the Vichy Government was seen as an invading body as well- they crossed the border and took power in France, and as soon as they were defeated, they packed up their things and returned to their native land.

In 1995, Jacques Chirac , on the anniversary of the round-up at the Vélodrome d'Hiver, blasted the French government as well as the French people for ignoring the entirety of their role for so long. In sum, he declared that the French needed to own up to their past, and accept that France "delivered those it protected to its executioners." Though much had been made of their heroics during World War II, little had been discussed regarding French complicity in World War II in sending thousands of Jews to their death.

In 2010, the deportation of the Jews by the French suddenly received unprecedented attention. Last year, two of the top grossing films in France focused on the round-up at the Vél d'Hiv. The first, "La Rafle" is a French film that focuses on the round-up and deportation of several Jewish families in Montmartre during the war. From what I heard, this was the top grossing film in France last year and many were saying that it would be used in schools so that French students would learn more about the complicated role that the French played during the war. This story uses real names and was based on interviews with several of the characters featured in this film.

A second film, "Elle s'appelait Sarah" based on a very popular book (known as Sarah's Key in English) focused on the story of a reporter tracking down the story of a Jewish girl who apparently survived the round-up in 1942, and the connection of her husband's family to this girl. The story itself is fictional, but the events regarding the round-up are true. As the film was shot in French and English, I believe that it should now be available in English speaking countries (of the two films I mentioned, I thought this was the better one). As a result of the recent attention, the French (and the rest of the world) have the opportunity to become better informed on the complicated situation in France in World War II.

The last issue that I need to address is regarding anti-Semitism in France today. Does it still prevail today? My answer would be not necessarily, though there were many who were furious with Israel regarding their attack on a ship headed for Gaza in 2009 to provide aid. Protests were huge and quite angry in the Arab neighborhoods of Paris, and did lead to some violence against Jews in Paris, or at least some strong words. However, general anti-Semitism is not a common site in today's Paris. The Marais, home of much of the city's Jewish population, is a thriving quarter that is considered by many to be the most desirable place to live in all of Paris. It is a neighborhood popular with tourists as well, as it is filled with good delis, as well as the most popular falafel stands in Paris. Furthermore and most importantly, it gives people an inside look at a thriving Jewish community that is very proud of its identity and their traditions.

Thank you for reading, and as always, if you have comments, 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 .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Brief History of Anti-Semitism in Paris, Part 2

In the second section of my three part article on anti-Semitism in Paris, I will focus on the attitude towards the Jews in Paris and their subsequent treatment during World War II. Obviously, this article could be long enough to fill a book, so I will try my best to keep this brief enough that it could be read in a single sitting.

The memories of the First World War had left the French military and government indecisive in the face of the Nazi threat; the government collapsed several times leading up the war, though most times the governments consisted of the same people, just their positions had been reshuffled. Though the French did offer resistance when the SS made their way through the Ardennes forest in the late spring of 1940, they were caught off guard, and stubbornness as to how a battle was supposed to be fought cost them dearly. The French did not expect the Nazis to come through the Ardennes forest, so they actually moved the barriers that they had blocking the way so to focus their attention elsewhere on the French/Belgian border. In addition, as the SS were making their way through, the French sent planes over the enemy lines to observe the incoming threat, yet they were told not to fire upon them, as according to the commanding French officer at this time, planes were to used for gathering intelligence, rather than attacking. Within a few weeks, to the surprise and horror of many, Paris had been captured.

Many in Paris fled, by some accounts, more than 50% of the city. Then they realized that the Nazis were in the countryside as well, so they might as well return to where they at least had a place to live. Many fought bravely against the Nazis as well. The French resistance needed to keep themselves underground throughout the war so that they could operate without interference from the French war time government (which I will get to in a moment). However, this article will focus more on those that welcomed the new overlords and submitted willingly to their doctrine.

To help distribute pro-facist and anti-Semite propaganda, several newspapers were created, including a couple that were becoming widely read even before the Nazis made their way into Paris. Je Suis Partout (I Am Everywhere) was first published and 1930 and from 1936 on, they championed the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Though briefly banned in 1940 by the French government, it grew in popularity upon the arrival of the Germans, and eventually had a circulation of 300,000 issues. Several others, including L'Humanité and Au Pilori (On the Pillory) applauded French citizens who made friends with the SS soldiers and declared that all Jews should be arrested and deported, without hesitation.

Perhaps the most famous example of collaboration in France would be the French government itself. Maréchal Philippe Pétain, a former WWI hero, became the head of the Vichy government, based in Vichy (in Auvergne) because of its reliable electricity, and being a resort town, a city with plenty of hotels. Though he claimed that the goal of the Vichy government was to protect the French from destruction, they willingly worked with the Nazi Party, and followed through with their desire to assist in eradicating the Jews in France.

On July 16, 1942, 13,152 people (almost entirely Jews) were rounded up in the middle of the night and taken either directly to an internment camp at Drancy, a northern suburb of Paris or to a former bicycle racing track known as the Vélodrôme d'Hiver, or Vél d'Hiv for short, which was located a couple of blocks away from the Eiffel Tower. For five days the captives were kept with little food or water in a stifling hot building during an especially warm time of year. Many killed themselves by jumping off of the upper deck of the seating area. Very little medical attention was provided. From here, the Jews were sent to internment camps close to Paris, and from there, Auschwitz.

While this action was promoted by the Nazis, it was not them who followed through on the deed. This was done by the Parisian police in cooperation with the Vichy government. The Nazis originally requested that only the male heads of families be captured, however a senior French official argued that one day the children would become adult Jews as well, so they should capture them as well. Whole families were arrested, and many were separated to never see their loved ones again.

With the liberation of Paris, the collaborators were naturally treated very severely, as many were beaten, jailed, and executed. However, it could do little to erase the memory that many in France had willingly submitted their wills and energy to the Nazi cause.

In my last article in this three part series, I will try to give a brief rundown on anti-Semitism in Paris following World War II, up to the present day. In particular, I will focus on how the French have accepted their role in complying with the Nazi party, including how French collaboration during WWII has become an increasingly popular subject in film and literature in France.

This is a very short article written on a very complex subject, so I appreciate the understanding as I had to skip over a lot of detail for the sake of brevity, and yet still give an accurate picture of the situation faced by the Jews in Paris during World War II. Thanks for reading, and as always, if you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to 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 .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Brief History of Anti-Semitism in Paris, Part 1

Before beginning this article, I would like to state that I am by no means an expert on this subject. I am addressing this issue because when I have talked with people about the subject of the treatment of the Jews in Paris throughout its history, for better or for worse, there are quite a few misconceptions on this subject. For example, I've heard from people that Jews did not have a hard time in Paris in World War II (definitely not true), and I have also heard that there is an underlying resentment for the Jews that exists in the populace today (not that I have seen). Over the next couple of blogs, I will do my best to give a brief outline of the treatment of the Jewish population in Paris, beginning with the Middle Ages and going up to the present day.

The persecution of the Jews in Paris began quite early in their history with King Phillippe Auguste in 1180. Under the pressure of his court, he arrested the Jews while in their synagogues, had them imprisoned, and left to purchase their freedom using their wealth. This was done as a political move to get on the side of the many debtors in Paris, who owed significant amounts of money to Jewish moneylenders (the Templars also worked in this field, and were persecuted for it not too far down the road). The money earned from the Jews who bought their way out of jail helped build the famous wall that surrounded the city of Paris, known as the Louvre (not the museum). Pieces of this wall are still visible today in parts of the Latin Quarter, St. Germain, and the Marais. Two years later, Phillipe Auguste expelled the Jews from France and confiscated their savings, which wiped out the country's debt. He later repealed the decree, but his original expulsion created a wave of anti-semitism that made it difficult for the Jews to be treated fairly upon their return.

The Jews made their way back into France and slowly brought themselves back into prominence, as great centers of learning were created and wealth was being restored. However, under Phillipe le Bel in 1306, the Jews were once again expelled from France, this time for supposedly charging too high of interest rates. The Lombards, also known as money lenders in France at this time, were treated in a similar fashion. The Templars were perhaps treated even more cruelly as many were forced to admit to bogus crimes and were subsequently burned at the stake.

One of the most infamous cases involving anti-Semitism in Paris occurred in 1894-1895. Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery captain from a somewhat wealthy Jewish family from Alsace, which had been annexed from France by Germany following the disastrous Franco-Prussian war. Many Jews fled in the direction of Paris, and with the influx of Jews moving to Paris came a subsequent rise in anti-Semitism (somewhat similar to the current influx of North Africans entering France leading to an alarming rise of the French far right political parties and candidates. This subject in itself is worthy of a another article). In October 1894, Dreyfus was accused of passing on intelligence regarding a new cannon being used by the French army. A cleaner apparently found this paper in the waste basket and passed it on to the Chief of the French General Staff, who accused Dreyfus of having written it, though Dreyfus himself claimed that it was obviously a forgery since it wasn't his handwriting. Unfortunately, no one took confidence in his word and he was subjected to a sham of a trial, stripped of his decorations and rank, and sent to serve out a life sentence on Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana in South America.

Years later, it was found that the note on which the case was based was indeed a forgery. An intelligence officer brought this to the attention of his superiors, who refused to believe him and to cover up the discovery, sent the intelligence officer to jail as well. In 1898, Émile Zola, in perhaps one his most famous written pieces, "J'Accuse!", attacked the Parisian populace and brought to the forefront the real issue in this case: "Dreyfus symbolized either the eternal Jewish traitor or the denial of justice" (Seven Ages of Paris, Pg. 286). Though his efforts led to a retrial, Zola himself was imprisoned briefly following the article's publication, and perhaps led to his suspected murder in 1902. Dreyfus was finally cleared of the charges in 1906, after more than a decade of captivity. Leading up to his release, the Parisians became divided into "Nationalists" and "Revisionists", and provided a preview of things to come down the road.

In Part 2 of this subject, I will briefly cover events involving the Jewish populace in World War II.

Most of the historical information included in the article came from Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. This is one of the best, if not the best, books that I have read on the history of this city. If you have interest in the history of Paris, this certainly worth checking out.

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 .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rollerblading in Paris

Remember rollerblading? I certainly do. I had my first pair of rollerblades when I was maybe 6 years old. I had them so I could practice playing hockey off the ice. This further evolved into joining a street hockey team, then secretly signing with their rival. I even got into the inline phase of the mid to late 90's, wearing jnco's and senate t-shirts and trying to grind on curbs and rails (that phase only lasted a few months however). Lastly, I played roller hockey for my school while in grad school. I certainly had a connection to rollerblading growing up, but mainly as a way to play more hockey.

Rollerblading seemed to hit its peak somewhere in the 90's and has slowly tapered off from there. Whenever back in the U.S., it seems rare to see kids rollerblading to school, or playing in pick up street hockey games in the schoolyard. Aggressive inline skating has all but disappeared from the mainstream, as the X-Games, which used to be the pinnacle event for the sport, stopped paying attention to it and even cut the event in 2005. Seems that rollerblading's popularity is on the downswing.

In the U.S. perhaps. Not so in France.

I remember hanging out with a French friend on a Saturday night, and I was asking how long they would be staying at this party. He said he wouldn't stay out too late since the next day him and his friends planned on getting up to rollerblade.

On Sundays behind my apartment in the 15ème arrondissement, there is a gathering of 30-40 people skating very slowly and clumsily around tiny cones that they brought with them for the purpose of having a place to turn. They set up on a big patch of concrete which is reserved for pedestrian traffic. I was jogging yesterday and stopped what I was doing to watch for a few minutes. I was impressed that not only were there little kids out there, but the majority of the skaters were adults, and quite a few were at least in their 50's, if not older. People of all sizes (as there were a couple of bigger ones out there) and ages were parading around in circles on the pavement, having a great time. This is far from the only example of rollerblading in Paris.

On Friday nights, there is a group that gets together and rollerblades at a fairly good pace around the city of Paris. The police even get involved and block off traffic for them.

When I say a group, I don't mean a few friends. There are occasions where 15,000 people will show up for the weekly event. If you don't believe me, look at their website here.

So this is what I would like to understand: how did rollerblading become so popular here? And why now?

It can't be a result of their underlying love of ice hockey, as aside from those in the Alps, most people in France could not care less about the sport. There are a dedicated few who play roller hockey near Pont Alexandre III, as well as a few kids who play near my old office, but other than that, the motive for rollerblading seems to lie somewhere else.

A thought crossed my mind yesterday: Disco was huge here, and by many accounts, is still pretty damn popular here. I never liked disco music in the U.S., and I like it even less now as I hear it more often. Not only that, people don't necessarily cringe when they hear it, they actually seem to enjoy it. What's more is that rollerskating and disco were inextricably linked for a while, as many when to roller discos in the 1970's and 80's. Could this be a continuation on this pastime? Could it be that young people want to emulate their parents by using the modern equivalent of roller skates? Could it be that those in their 40's and 50's want to get back on to some wheels and roll as they did in the days of yesteryear? Maybe this helped the sport to take off in Paris, but it's not what is keeping it going.

The one thing that cannot be argued here is that rollerblading is extremely popular here in Paris. How it became popular, however, is still a mystery to me. If you happen to know, don't hesitate to 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 .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page
here. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wearing Shorts in Paris

In the last few days I have had a couple of experiences which aid in reinforcing my reasoning for writing this article on the French perception of shorts.

Just yesterday, Julie surprised me for my birthday with a guided tour of L'Hôtel de Ville, or Paris' big city hall. It is very difficult to get access to the city hall, so I was thrilled to be along for the tour. Through a contact, Julie got us on tour with an elderly group from the Loire Valley.

About halfway through the tour, one of the ladies asked me "Where you with the group this morning?," even though I'm sure she knew that I wasn't, since we were the only ones below the age of 55. I told her no, that we got on this tour thanks to a friend, and this tour was a total surprise. She responded by saying, "Well it must have been since you are wearing shorts." She also commented to Julie to be careful when she sat down, as people might be able to see up her shorts.

In retrospect, if I had known that we would be on a tour of the city hall, I probably would have dressed a little nicer. I was wearing a collared shirt, shorts, and Birkenstock sandals. It was warm yesterday, so I wanted to be comfortable. Most of the group on tour were dressed as if going to a wedding; men were in suits and ties and ladies in elegant dresses.

If this was the only instance of being repressed for wearing shorts, I probably wouldn't be writing an article on the subject. However, this was not the only occasion.

A couple of weeks ago, I was giving a tour on another unusually warm day for April. As we were eating at one of the restaurants on tour, one of the cooks came out to say hello and see how things were going. As I got up to shake his hand, he comments, "Oh, are you being a tourist today as well?" As he said this, he looked down at my legs.

You guessed it, I was wearing shorts.

There was nothing mean in the way he said it, so I replied that it was hot and I like to be comfortable when giving a tour, and he agreed, and then we continued talking about other things.

One other example: A year or two ago, I was giving another tour with a group of anglophones when I heard a lady behind us start to comment to her daughter, "I don't get what it is with those tourists and wearing shorts." She didn't realize that someone in the group might speak French. I turned around as soon as she said this and made eye contact with her. Before I had the chance to respond, she realized that I understood, and pulled a 90 degree turn into the closest shop.

This is something that continues to baffle me. In a country where topless beaches are prevalent, and magazine kiosks next to schools are plastered with nude women in sexual acts, why do people here have fits about others who wear shorts?

When I first arrived here, I really tried my best to blend in with the French. I tried to eat like them, talk like them, and also dress like them. When it started to become warm, I tried to wear jeans when I worked outside, but alas, I gave up. It wasn't worth it for me to sacrifice my comfort for conformity.

Perhaps in a city where people still get dressed up just to go downstairs to go to the baker for 30 seconds, shorts are seen as sloppy. Rarely will one find a Parisian male whose legs are not covered by pants. Sandals, in addition, are still a rarity here, and a good way to stand out as a tourist.

Nevertheless, the amount of indignation and disgust with wearing shorts seems strangely out of proportion, especially considering how France is usually seen as more relaxed and liberal in terms of lifestyle. If anyone could provide further insight into why shorts are seen in such a poor light here in Paris, please let me know. Until then, I guess I'll just put up with the whispers and comments about baring my hairy legs to the public.

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 .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page
here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 4, 2011


Without a doubt, France is a country full of culinary tradition. UNESCO even decided to recognize it last year as "part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity." Many of their specialities are very well known, such as their wine, cheese, mustard, and bread. Many common French meals are known to and eaten by people who have never set foot in France, and perhaps have no desire to do so. However, today I am going to discuss a little known tradition which could actually lead to prosecution in modern France.

When I was studying French culinary traditions this past winter to prepare myself for my tours, I came across one that seemed almost unbelievable in terms of its cruelty and perhaps its originality as well. The Ortolan is a small bird that is native to most of Europe, France included. As is the case with almost any creature that has once been walking or flying on its own in France, it has found its way to the dinner table. In the past, eating Ortolan was fairly common in the Gascogne area of France.

There are a couple of ways to prepare the bird, but I'll give the most graphic way first. Once these birds are caught with a net, they are kept alive in a darkened room or space, such as a shoebox. These birds are constantly fed, and as they are nocturnal feeders, they continue to eat and eat as they are not exposed to sunlight, or really any light for that matter. Once they are deemed fat enough, they are drowned in Armagnac and then cooked whole in the oven. Once brought to the table, they are eaten in one bite, with everything except the head and the feathers.

An alternate way of preparing the bird is doing so on a spit, cooking it solely in its own fat. I took this from a French book on traditions, La France Retrouvée, which mentions the fattening of the birds, but not their method of slaughter. This lets the reader come to their own conclusion on how to execute the bird, though I doubt many would have thought on their own to drown the birds in liquor.

When eating an Ortolan, the tradition says to eat it in silence with a napkin placed over the head. One reason given is that the bird is quite juicy and can potentially explode when bitten. Another reason I found was that it is said that the napkin allows one to get the full aroma of these birds, as they are apparently quite flavorful. However, my favorite hypothesis that I came across was that the diners in the past felt ashamed of eating the bird, and thus were hiding from God.

In France, it is illegal to catch these birds or pay for them, but oddly enough, it is still legal to eat them. Hypothetically, if a friend cooked an ortolan for you, you could eat it without getting in trouble. However, if you happen to pay money for the meal, then both parties could potentially go to jail. Therefore, it won't be likely that one will find these on a restaurant menu in France anytime soon (nor will it be served on my tour).

Every now and again, certain culinary traditions, both in France and worldwide, give the need to try and forget what exactly you are eating, or how it was prepared (foie gras would be another great example from France. If you like foie gras, yet don't know how it was made, I probably wouldn't bother looking into it if you happen to be squeamish with food). If the rare opportunity arises and you find a roasted Ortolan on your plate, I can't tell you what to do, but no matter your choice, the outcome of the experience will no doubt be memorable.

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 .

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page
here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 28, 2011


Last year, my girlfriend (I guess in the spirit of this article, my domestic partner) and I were PACSed. PACS is a term that is used with increasing frequency here in France, but probably means little or nothing to someone from outside the country.

PACS stands for Pacte Civil de Solidarité; essentially, a domestic partnership. It was originally created in France to give rights and benefits to homosexual couples, and then eventually heterosexual couples started doing it as well. I have even heard of roommates getting PACSed so that they can acquire a visa (I'll explain how in a second).

To be PACSed, a couple has to prove that they are in good standing, that they live together (providing an electric bill or a joint bank account statement, for example), and they intend to stay that way. Though this did not happen to us, some of the forms we read said we need to find proof that we had been together for two years, just to show that we were serious. PACS was perfect for us, as it gives me almost all of the benefits of being a French citizen, without having a hasty marriage. Most importantly, it allows me to obtain a visa, which I am allowed to renew each year as long as we stay together.

As I was saying, I have heard of roommates doing this before. Let's say a French guy and another foreigner, guy or girl, live together. They like hanging out, but they aren't dating, nor do they plan on it. To keep the foreigner in the country, the roommates can decide to get PACSed, basically proving that they are together, which will allow the foreigner to renew or obtain a visa. As they don't ask couples to prove that they love each other physically, this can be relatively painless.

Our "ceremony" was pretty uneventful. We traveled out to a sub prefecture, dressed in t-shirts and shorts as it was warm that day. At the desk, we were asked to present our ID's, and to verify that all the information on our papers were correct. After signing the paperwork, they handed us a copy of the papers we had signed, and that was it. As the ceremony itself was so administrative and unremarkable, it is easy to forget sometimes that we are legally bound to each other. Apparently they even put my name on Julie's birth certificate (though we have yet to see this).

PACS seems to be viewed as a preliminary step towards marriage these days. We've known a couple of friends that were PACSed, engaged, and then married, in that order. We had a few friends ask us when we were going to have our party to celebrate our union, which seemed funny to us because we didn't realize it was that big of a deal. In one of my many meetings with the French State regarding the creation of my company, as they were going over my personal information, they asked "OK, so you are married?" I laughed and told them no, my girlfriend and I are PACSed. To my surprise, she continued to fill out on my forms that I was married and said "Yeah, well, it's pretty much the same thing."

If you happen to be dating someone that is French and want to stay in France, or move to France, getting PACSed is a relatively simple way to do so. However, like pretty much everything in France, it requires an a lot of paperwork, and from what I have heard from other friends in different prefectures, not every prefecture has the same requirements for being PACSed. While the process was fairly easy for us, I have had friends dealing with mind boggling stupidity courtesy of their prefecture, putting them in real life catch-22's where obtaining their domestic partnership status was technically impossible, no matter which route they took per suggestion from the official.

Unfortunately, PACS is not recognized outside of France, so when Julie and I happen to leave the country, we are just boyfriend and girlfriend, and don't receive the same benefits as we enjoy here. At least in France, we are pacsou and pacsette.

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

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Where Are You From?

When I have given tours over the last three plus years, one of the first questions that I ask my clients is "where are you from?" Once I find out, I try and think of something I know about that place, or someone I know from there, or maybe even some tidbit that has been in the news lately pertaining to their locale. Occasionally, we are able to make some connection, which can make things a lot more interesting when some common bond is established. Over the last few years, some truly bizarre connections have been made on my tours. For example, I met one lady who grew up in the same small town in rural West Virginia as my mother, and went to the same school, though she was a year older than her and I don't think they knew each other. I've met people that went to the same small college as I did in Colorado. I've met people who grew up in the same town as me, and on one occasion, as soon as I mentioned that I was from St. Louis, somebody in a large group suddenly recognized me from high school. These are just a few examples, as this seems to happen fairly often over here in Paris.

Establishing connections is a field in which Americans seem to excel. As soon as we meet somebody, if a good feeling between them exists, they might even tell some intimate details of their life to someone they just met an hour before. In finding out where someone is from and a little about them, one might find out that they possess similar interests, or perhaps they might work in the same field, or vacation in the same places. It seems to me that a majority of the jobs found in the U.S. today are found by having some sort of connection with someone who is working or has worked for a company, or has a family member or good friend that is in the certain field of interest. It was how I moved to Paris in the first place.

When I took a tour with my former company in 2005, after the guide had explained the first stop, he happened to ask me that question: "Where are you from?". I told him, and it turned out that he happened to be from Missouri as well. We talked off and on about Missouri throughout the tour, and by then end, I mentioned (half-jokingly), "Maybe I'll see you over here as a guide." He immediately told me about how to get a job here, and a little more than two years later, I was back in Paris, working as a tour guide for the same company.

In the U.S., connections seem to mean everything. Connections certainly get you places in other parts of the world as well. However, in France, connections are much harder to establish.

Last year, I returned to the U.S. for a job interview, and was stuck for a few extra days because of the volcanic ash floating over parts of Europe. I flew to Saint Louis while I was waiting, since I had no idea when I would be so close to home again. On my first day back, I returned to the airport to try and work on my plane ticket to return to Paris. As I was standing in line at the American Airlines ticket counter, I noticed that the lady standing in front of me was speaking in French on her cell phone, and it sounded like she was trying to go back to Paris herself. I was thrilled since outside of French class in high school, I had only heard French being spoken maybe once or twice in Saint Louis, and now I could speak it well enough to actually have a conversation with her in line! I was almost shaking with excitement to get the chance to speak with her.

Finally we were standing close enough where I could be heard, and I asked in French if she was trying to head back to Paris. Turns out she indeed was trying to get back after being stuck for close to a week already. I told her that I was trying to go back as well, and being American and wanting to get more familiar and talk about Paris, I told her that I lived in the 15ème. She became noticeably uncomfortable by my telling her in which arrondissement I live. Fortunately, the two people standing behind her also happened to be French, and cut into the conversation and saved the uncomfortable silence I had created by crossing into forbidden territory.

Example two: Julie and I were in Boston, watching my brother play a hockey game at Boston University. I went to order a bottle of water at the concession stand, and judging by the name tag and the vendor's accent, I asked her in French if she happened to be French. It turns out she was French. I was so excited about this, I called to Julie to come over and meet her, so they could maybe talk together. Julie seemed very timid about it, and when I turned to look, the vendor seemed uncomfortable as well. Neither one would ask details about the other, so I decided to tell the girl about where we have lived there. It turned out that the girl had lived a block or two away from Julie's old apartment. Afterwards, I thought the coincidence was crazy that this could happen in Boston. Julie and the vendor, however, seemed happy that the encounter was over.

Example three: When I first went to Auvergne in central France, I was taken to a bar owned by Julie's cousin. In the bar, there were maybe 15-20 people, who most likely were all cousins of Julie as well (this seems to happen a lot in small towns in France, and a lot of times, the people aren't even sure if they are related or not). We did our rounds and said hello to everyone in the bar. As I shook everyone's hand or kissed them on the cheek, I told them my name. Not one of them told me their name in return. Finally by the 10th person, somebody told me "You don't have to tell us your name." Slightly embarrassed, I continued greeting the rest of the patrons of the bar in silence.

Example four: I have been getting my hair cut in Paris by the same guy for the past two years. Every time I come in, he seems really excited to see me as he is trying to teach himself English, and in a part of Paris where few English speakers venture, he doesn't get much of an opportunity. He always shakes my hand, greets me warmly, and then, as he cuts my hair, we talk about things since the last time we saw each other, and give each other pointers in French and English. I like him so much, I sent an email to my old colleagues and told them about him, and that he would love to practice English with whoever wanted an inexpensive but good haircut.

A couple of people did ask me about him, and asked me his name and how to find him.

I had no idea. In the two years I have known him, neither of us has thought to introduce ourselves.

This doesn't mean that we don't get along or aren't friendly. However, in France there seems to be more protection about intruding into someone's private life. For example, almost all apartments have shutters that close over the windows, which can make apartments pitch black even in the middle of the day. Houses in the countryside have fences and stone walls that surround their gardens or property. In France, younger people are more likely to introduce themselves by name when greeting someone than the older population might be, but it is not necessary awkward if you don't show much interest in getting to know someone. As a result, it appears connections are less likely to occur when meeting someone for the first time in France compared to many English speaking countries. Whereas in the United States, when introduced to someone we almost feel obliged to ask for more details regarding someone's hometown or occupation, occasionally to the point of superficiality. Contrastingly, the French don't feel the pressure to ask certain questions that almost seem obligatory to ask in other parts of the world.

In speaking with a few French people about how we get jobs and find friends like this in the U.S., many times I've been told that things like that just don't happen here. With this knowledge, it is a little easier to see why.

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

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Decline in Standards in Restaurants in Paris?

A few weeks back, a friend of mine sent me the story below, which asks if restaurants are starting to cut corners here in Paris, which is leading to lower quality food in Parisian restaurants:

I thought this to be an interesting argument, and especially pertinent since I have recently started a culinary tour company here in Paris. One of my goals is to show the opposite of this claim, that if you know what to look for here, the food industry in Paris is perfectly fine and in many cases, getting better.

First, why might there be an argument that restaurant standards are not as high as they once were in France? The argument I seem to hear quite often is that the cost of business here is going up, so owners need to cut back on costs, and in some cases, spend less money on the acquisition of food for their kitchen. Whether or not costs for restaurant owners have indeed increased is a question for which I don't know the answer, but it seems to be cited fairly often, not just in the restaurant industry but in regards to life in general in France.

As in many cities that receive a lot of tourists, there are those that own restaurants that know they can get away with serving food and drink of lesser quality. In Paris, many tourists have never eaten real French food, so they might head to a restaurant that is mediocre in quality (and perhaps a rip-off price-wise as well), and if they try to complain about the food, the restaurant and waiters can suddenly pretend that they do not speak English. The Rue de la Huchette in the Latin Quarter is well known for having many restaurants of this caliber. Unfortunately, the vast majority of restaurants in Paris that are of this sub-standard quality happen to be situated close to the big tourist attractions (Notre Dame, the Louvre and Eiffel Tower to an extent, Sacré Coeur). If these happen to be the only places that a certain tourist visits on their trip to Paris, then there is a good chance that they won't be eating the best of what Paris has to offer.

Fortunately for those that inhabit or visit Paris, you do not have to be stuck eating in the tourist traps. Good food does exist here, and people do stick to their principles about using whatever is good and standing behind their product. For example, when I first got my company running, I was working with one of my restaurants on what to serve my clients for my tour. Initially, I suggested the idea of having just one small menu item being brought out, so that we wouldn't be too full from just one restaurant. The owner disagreed, saying that it would hurt the reputation of her restaurant by doing so. I was confused by her rationale and asked why, if her food was good, would serving it alone hurt her reputation?

She said that in France, all meals must be served with the proper accompagnements. For example, if she was to serve a meat dish, it would have to be served with a vegetable and some sort of starch, such as potatoes or pasta on the side. If she was to move away from doing this, word would get around that she was moving away from tradition, and would hurt her business with her regular clients. I thought that was a damn good response.

What made me even happier was that she said that the menu changed each week, based on what they find at the Marché de Rungis (the Paris area's biggest market). If they were not happy with the quality of a certain fruit, vegetable, or meat, then they have no obligation to use it. Thus, they create their menu each week based on what is fresh and what looks good.

While this may seem a rarity in today's culture, this type of food preparation is gaining popularity in Paris. Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations on the Travel Channel in the U.S., hosted his 100th episode in Paris, where he was shown from restaurant to restaurant, finding that cooks are getting away from fancier haute cuisine and getting back to using very simple ingredients and simple recipes to make some outstanding food. Many cooks are taking more time to select their products each day (some even go as far as to run across the street to get food items from the markets just after the customer has ordered), making sure that their food is fresh. Another finding is that several cooks are getting away from working at more exclusive restaurants to open places that are more approachable, and much more affordable. I have found as well that many of the most popular and most difficult to reserve restaurants in Paris are surprisingly affordable.

I have cited this in a previous blog, but it is worth noting again. If you want to avoid the touristy restaurants of Paris, there are two things to look for. First avoid the places where the menu is in more than French and English. Second, avoid the restaurants where someone is standing outside begging you to come in and eat, or where the food is displayed under plastic wrap in the window. People that have traveled around Europe might have noticed similar tactics in more touristy areas of Brussels, Rome, Venice, and Prague, among many others.

Hopefully I've shown that one can eat very well in Paris, and as long as you know what to avoid, finding a good meal at a reasonable price is fairly easy.

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, February 14, 2011

What do the French Think of Americans?

A few days ago, I realized that I have not written on this subject yet. I feel like I talk about this a lot, and yet for some reason, it took me a year to think of writing a blog on the subject. At last, I will address some opinions I have heard from the French on what they think of my country and its people.

1. Everyone Has a Gun: This may seem pretty laughable to someone from the United States, but on several different occasions I have been asked about safety in the United States. A perception I have heard from some people is not only do they think that everyone has a gun, but many people have one on them when they leave the house. This might be the result of the popularity in France of such shows like CSI, Bones, and NYPD Blue.

This also might be the result of both the French and American medias' tendency to blow the other countries news stories out of proportion. When I was here in December 2005, the American media was still reporting about riots in Paris and continued to advise Americans against travel to Paris. Meanwhile in Paris, the French media had stopped reporting on the matter at least a week or two before, and furthermore, there were no signs in Paris (minus a few suburbs) that any rioting had taken place.

As I said, the French media acts in a similar manner. In the last few months, the last three documentaries on the United States that I have watched in France were on the following subjects: polygamy in the United States, the Tea Party, and violence in the inner cities. I guess if these are the subjects that are the focus of attention on French basic cable, then maybe I can see why they have the impression that we are all packing a pistol in our undergarments.

2. We've held on to Puritan Ideals: Of all of the American stereotypes I have heard over here, this one might be the most accurate. It's not something that crosses the mind of an American on a daily basis, but there are certain ideals which we have upheld since those times. For example:

-We frown upon those that are not punctual. I remember having not one, but two teachers in high school who gave me detention for walking into class as the bell was ringing, in effect being less than one second late.

-Perhaps most importantly, too much pleasure is a bad thing. Americans think that the French get nothing done business wise because they spend all their time at cafés and bars; eating, drinking, and smoking their lives away. People just are not working hard enough to their tastes. There is no rush (Paris, by comparison to the rest of France, is very rushed. Paris, in comparison to an American city, is very relaxed).

-The best way to achieve happiness is to work hard. Working hard brings the satisfaction of accomplishing something, or maybe it's just way to keep oneself busy. Either way, people in the United States that don't work hard are also looked down upon.

-Kissing and other forms of sexual interest being exhibited in public is viewed as wrong. These are things that are supposed to be done behind closed doors, where there is no risk of being seen by others.

-Alcohol, though allowed, is treated as sinful. By American standards, pretty much everyone in Europe is an alcoholic. The biggest difference I feel is that while in France, alcohol is taught to be respected, in the United States, alcohol is taught to be feared.

3. We are oblivious to what is going on in the world: In a sense, this might be true, but in my opinion, no more so than any other country. The reason why this stereotype exists results from lots of media exposure in the U.S. As we are perhaps seen as a hegemon, pretty much every country focuses on relations with the U.S., whether to build good relations or to antagonize the US to show that they are a country that matters and boost popularity with the citizenry. One way or another, everything we do is closely examined by pretty much every country, if not all of them, in the world. But just because everyone follows what is going on in the U.S. doesn't mean that people follow what is going on anywhere else. Could an average French person answer who is charge of Belgium? Or the current state of affairs in Zimbabwe? Probably not. If another country took over as hegemon and the world's microscope focused on its everyday activity, I guarantee that the world would not be so critical of the United States.

This article is just a starting point on what I've seen in terms of what the French think of Americans. If you have another to add, or have a comment to add to the discussion, don't hesitate to write!

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