Monday, September 7, 2009

Les Differences Culturelles

Yesterday I stopped at a corner traffic light waiting for it to turn green. Standing next to a family of three, I noticed that the father and teenage son were rambunctiously flailing their hands in the air, only to be discouraged each and every time an empty cab drove by.

“Why won’t any of them stop?” the mom wondered aloud. “Don’t they want a fare?”

I took it upon myself to save them from any more anxiety and wasted time.  “American, right?”

“Yes,” the father responded with a look of astonishment on his face—apparently because he thought I was French and in turn, didn't expect me to speak with my flawless American English accent.

“I have to tell you that they don’t hail cabs here.” 

The arms of the two dismayed men immediately fell to their sides. I continued, "While you may luck out from time to time by getting someone to pick you up from any place on the street, generally speaking that is not going to be the case. Unless you call them from a phone for a pickup, you will have to walk to a taxi stand."

Like at bus stops, people queue up and wait for the next available cab to come by and pick them up. So, I did my good deed for the day and pointed out where the closest taxi stand was located.  They showered me with gratitude and afterwards, we all went our merry ways.

It occurred to me right then and there that when you are in someone else’s backyard, don’t expect the rules to be the same as what you are used to at home.

Here are a few more differences…

One thing that I discovered about taking cabs here in France is they don't carry much change with them. It is up to you to have the correct change.  Save yourself an added trip to the bank while the cab driver waits for you. It is much easier just to pack your wallet beforehand with both small bills and plenty of coins.

In America, we try to make it as easy as possible for people to pay for something.  Credit cards, cash and change are all accepted at any BART (Bay Area subway) station. Ever try to put your American credit card in the ticket machine at one of the metro stops in Paris? If you have, you already know that it won’t work. A small inconvenience, but at least it will take bills, right? Guess again. Unfortunately, the majority of machines will not accept bills either. Okay, in reality you can still use bills at certain locations, during certain times. That's because at some stations, during business hours, there will be a cashier working inside a booth.  They would be happy to take your cash. However, they are not always available. So, be prepared to weigh down your wallet with coins. You’re going to need them.

And just a side note about the metro tickets, you will save money if you buy a packet of ten. You will likely need them anyway so that is the more economical route. Just look for the word ‘carnet’ on the machine.

Weekly and monthly passes may be purchased, as well.  For your weekly passes, they will be valid from Monday through Sunday and can be purchased for any given week on Mondays or later. This is because in Europe, the first day of the week is Monday, not Sunday.  Purchasing tickets before the beginning of the week is not possible. So, no need to try. Monthly passes are available on the first of the month or any time afterwards.

While you are in the station, please keep in mind that the escalator etiquette is different here.  I can always spot an American when they are riding an escalator. Americans want to chat with their friends while standing side by side with one another so they can easily do so. That unfortunate habit many of us have gotten into, blocks those who are on the left side that wish to either get a little exercise or are simply in a hurry and want to get by you.  Keep in mind, that it's not just France, but just about anywhere you are traveling in Europe, that it is considered a common courtesy to stand to the right in order to give others the ability to pass. If you don’t, you may get a few angrily voiced ‘pardon’s’ coming your way.

What about getting the check at a restaurant? I have repeatedly heard from American tourists how rude they think the servers are simply because they don't receive their bill in a timely manner. The thing to remember here is that while in the U.S. it is the goal of every server to feed you and get you out as soon as humanly possible so that they can serve the next person in order to make more money. That is not the case in France.

The French consider dining a pleasurable experience that should be enjoyed. They want you to relax, savor each bite, enjoy your conversation and while you are at it, do a bit of people watching too. Unless it is a specific restaurant that caters to the American tourist (meaning the locals do what they can to avoid this establishment), they will rarely hand you the bill unless you ask for it. Essentially, it is your job to tell the waiter that it is time to go, not the other way around. Ask for it by saying, "L’addition s’il vous plait." (pronounced law-dee-sea-ohn sea-voo-play).

Tipping is done a little differently here too. At home servers expect a 15-20% gratuity. In France, the bulk of the tip is included in the price of your bill. However, people commonly leave up to a euro or two in cash. There will not be a place to add a tip onto your credit card bill. So, having some coins handy will be necessary.

If you have a kitchen where you are staying, you will likely need to spend time at the grocery store. Just note that the cashier's job is to ring you up and that is all. You will be your own bagger. It took me some time to become accustomed to this idea, but after awhile I became an expert bagger myself. Safeway would only be too happy to have me as a clerk.

Have a hankering to watch a new film? The French love their movies, but you are not allowed to wait inside the theater for it to start. Buy your tickets outside at the booth. Check your ticket to see which theater you will be in. Then queue up outside behind the corresponding number that matches the ticket. They will allow you to enter about ten minutes before the starting time of the movie. Of course, just like at home, if the movie is a blockbuster, arrive early as the lines get long quickly.

If you don't speak French, not to worry. Simply find the English speaking films that say V.O. on them. Version Originale or Original Version, means the movie will be in the original language that it was filmed in with French subtitles. So, go ahead and get your movie groove on, if that is what you are called to do.

Before getting into the theater, you may want to utilize 'la toilette'. Please note that they are all a little different here. Just know that the smaller button is for smaller flushes and the larger button...well I think you get the picture.

The best advice I can give is to do a little research on what some of the common cultural differences there are before visiting any country. You can usually read up on these idiosyncrasies in your trusty guidebook. At the very least, be open to learning them while you are here. It makes the travel experience more fun. Plus, we can all learn from each other and make the world a better place.

Thank you for reading and bonne journée!