With the worst of the pandemic (hopefully!) over, visitors are once again flooding to Paris. After almost two years of a dicey landscape for socializing–whether it’s from the other side of the room or on the other side of the world–the excitement of face-to-face conversation is palpable here, both for locals and for visitors.
The result is that boutiques are buzzing. Exhibitions are overrun. Cafes are congested. Good for the Paris economy. Good for visitors. Good, mostly, for everybody.
When blessings arrive, there is usually a caveat that accompanies them. (Hence the previous ‘mostly’.) This return to ‘normal’ is no different, so it’s best that I, Self Appointed Grand Arbiter of All Things Elegant & Etiquette, review them with you.
First, when you enter a Paris cafe, it’s helpful to remember that you are a guest. As welcome as your patronage and converted euros are, the cafe will survive just fine without you. Locals will migrate through the doors on a daily or even twice-daily basis and support the owner and staff just fine. Other polite and well-dressed tourists from other parts of the world will do the same. So say Bonjour to a staff member immediately upon entering and be on your best behavior.
Know that the cafe will not crumble if you are not instantly waited on hand and foot. Threats of being maligned on social media because someone had to wait on a table for 5 minutes will be dismissed out of hand. If the cafe is busy, be patient. If the cafe is quiet, be patient. Parisian waiters and waitresses are professionals. They know you have arrived and will attend to you promptly.
Second, respect the cafe. Working from home has led many of us down the treacherous path of sloth, one of those seven deadly sins. As I constantly remark, you don’t have to dress up but it is good to dress. I may have mentioned on the blog that an acquaintance of mine, a native of Paris, began to show up at a local cafe still in pajamas with barely an overcoat thrown over her shoulders, fresh out of bed. This was tolerated for a couple of weeks. Eventually, however, Parisians patience wore thin, and she was advised by a manager to present herself a little better or find another cafe. Important note: please, gents, remove your baseball cap when you enter the cafe and while you’re sitting at a table or at the bar.
Third, monitor your volume. Parisians generally speak in a cafe, train, or other public setting in what I term a ‘loud whisper’. They can be heard by the other people at their table, but that’s about it. Some Americans, Australians, and Brits can be heard by people across the street. To a certain extent, it’s understandable. Our restaurants constantly play music. We talk at home over the television. We’re gregarious, and we’re visiting Paris, which can be intoxicating. Still, when we’re in the cafe, it’s best to do as the Parisians do, and keep our conversation entre nous.
Fourth, accept the smoking. Parisians smoke. If you’re sitting at a sidewalk cafe, odds are someone near you will fire up a cigarette or cigar and enjoy it. Don’t get bent out of shape, and for goodness sakes don’t comment about it. The French know the dangers of smoking. They also know the dangers of a sedentary life filled with hours of mindless television and eating highly-processed food laced with pesticides and preservatives. So unless you want an earful about bad American habits, leave the Frenchies alone to smoke.
Fifth, accept the dogs. Dogs are everywhere in French cafes, trains, and restaurants. Nevertheless, my wife and I have not been bitten by one flea since we moved to Paris. Most dogs will be brought a water bowl by a thoughtful Parisian waiter. They’ll sip and get comfortable under the table while their owner reads the newspaper. Don’t think it’s unsanitary. And don’t consider it an invitation to introduce yourself to the dog and pet it. Parisian dogs tend to mind their own business, following the lead of their owners. If the dog initiates contact with you, say Bonjour to the owner first. Take it slowly from there, and keep the exchange brief.
Sixth, mind the time. When a cafe is busy, the tables should be taken up by customers ordering and enjoying full meals, not writers nursing a single coffee for two hours at a time. (J’accuse!) Even though your waiter doesn’t work for tips, the restaurant needs the cash. I am guilty of loitering without intent in cafes as much as the next dilettante, but I don’t do it at lunch time or during the dinner rush.
To fully, lazily, and luxuriously enjoy a cafe without hurry or interruption, drag yourself out of bed early one morning, run through the shower quickly, and venture to your favorite cafe in the early morning hours. This often offers an intimate glimpse of the establishment…and the city. It is also an acceptable time to chat with the staff as they might not yet be too busy.
Seventh, tip anyway. Tipping is not required or very much expected in most Parisian cafes. Still, leaving a couple of euros for your server never hurt, especially if you’re visiting Paris for a week and plan to frequent the same cafe routinely.
Finally, remember that I’m sharing these seemingly obvious suggestions with you because I want you to have a great experience when you visit Paris. The best way to do that is to know the Cafe Rules and do your best to follow them.
Merci beaucoup, and I hope to see you here soon.