It may be a fallacy that Parisians drink and smoke all the time, wear timeless classics, hang around in cafes and graveyards and always look existentially bored. Weirdly, adopting these stereotypical traits will actually make them talk to you in French…
It was my second visit to Paris and, on my second day here, I was casually smoking a cigarette whilst waiting for my parents to buy a map from a small kiosk. Two teenage boys approached me. Immediately and in French, they spilled forth a number of words which were foreign to me. I shook my head embarrassedly and replied “Sorry, I don’t speak French.”
They did a double-take, of sorts.
“Do you, uh, cigarette?”
I laughed about it with my mother afterwards and continued with my day. Later that night, I left my hotel room to go outside for a nice ‘breath of fresh air’. I gave the standard nod to a fellow smoker stood outside. A couple of minutes after my smoker-in-arms had gone inside, a car pulled up. “Pardon, mademoiselle…” and he continues to throw French verbiage in my direction. Not again. On my fourth day in Paris, a French tourist who was not from around these parts asked me for directions to God-knows-where. At the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, I couldn’t help but look baffled as a French tourist asked me questions in a language I haven’t studied since I was sixteen.
Having been to Paris twice, I’ve had a good chance to study its habitants and their behaviour. For example, no-one really smiles unless something really does amuse them. Or if they’ve had one-too-many glasses of absinthe (okay, if we’re more honest, red wine). Although they are remarkably friendly and welcoming, most Parisians look as if they’d rather be anywhere than in their present location.
Having gathered all of this evidence, I figured I must be quite the unintentional expert in appearing French. I decided that I must pass on any life-saving tips that might help you, fellow traveller, during your time in Paris…
1) Choose the right handbag. Topshop and Zara just won’t cut it in Fashion Central. Trust me, even the most fashion-backwards French male will be able to tell an Hermes from an H&M. I took a gorgeous Marc By Marc Jacobs as my arm candy. Expensive? Very. But a staple item in my survival kit.
2) Wear the right clothes. I know my first point seems to bely the fact, but in Paris brands don’t matter quite so much (surprisingly) as looking good. Parisians are often slightly eclectic in their appearances, but always classic and on-trend. See the accompanying photograph: Shirt-dress, denim cut offs (visible in the wind), violet tights, black booties. Comfortable, quirky and most definitely French.
3) Smoke. Okay, so I don’t want you to start up a 30-a-day habit from the word ‘Go’. But if you do already smoke, then use to it your advantage. Sit watching the pedestrians from a cafe, drinking an espresso and smoking a Malboro Red. Or, if you’re very brave, a Gitanes. But they don’t call these ‘lung busters’ for nothing.
4) Wear lipstick. Postbox red, no alternatives. It’s timeless. Flick through any issue of Vogue, or a Chanel lookbook, and red lipstick will appear on virtually every page. My choice is Yves Saint Laurent’s Rouge Volupté. It also recently won Allure’s Best of Beauty Editors’ Choice Award, so it must be good!
5) Appear serious. Or bored. Either one is good. As you wander up Champs Elysée, make sure you look focused. No parting of the lips (apart from when smoking). Also, make sure that you don’t look as if you’re enjoying yourself too much. Of course, you could be having the time of your life as your rifle through the shelves in Louis Vuitton and furtively touch old paintings in the Pompadou Centre and the Louvre. But no-one else has to know that!
6) Become a regular. At a cafe, that is. Choose a small brasserie relatively close to your hotel, but make sure that it’s not overrun with tourists. A quaint little cafe with tiles and paintings. A bit of dirt on the floor. Always sit outside drinking coffee whilst watching the world go by. And no smiling!
So there you have it. My Parisian credentials and all of the advice you could ever need in order to pass yourself off as French. Don’t take my word for it – take the word of all those French citizens who kept addressing me in their mother tongue, much to my chagrin and secret delight.
If you find yourself still in need of help, then I suggest visiting the Pere-Lachaise cemetery. It’s the burial place of people such as Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. Even the young and brilliantly-named Victor Noir is buried there (groin of the statue a little shiny; he’s a good luck charm for infertile women). Take a look at the sombre composure of the visitors and of everyone walking past the gates. Notice the slightly eclectic style. Take notes.
Of course, once you open your mouth and speak English, your cover will be blown. So either mutter a quiet “ooh la la” or Parisian “bof” under your breath or – better yet – sit there and look pretty.
Alexandera’s Parisian style. The look that launched a thousand french requests for a cigarette…
Visiting the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris is a must. It may not make you seem more French. It will make you feel like more of a person.
More Parisian style. Note predominance of handbag! But walking those streets will make you feel Parisian, and if you slow things up with a cafe or a derive that will, in turn, will make you look Parisian… Work some Paris magic and make the city do your bidding.