When traveling internationally, it is advisable to do some research concerning languages and customs. It is not necessary to be fluent in the language of the countries you visit, but there are some necessary things you will need to know.
First of all, get a good language book of words and frequent phrases for the country to which you are traveling. Study ahead of time and try to be able to say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and where is… at a moment’s notice. It is also helpful if you can say, “do you speak English” and “I don’t understand.”
There are some really good translation apps for your phone or computer, such as Google Translate. On Google Translate, you can actually speak a word, phrase, or sentence in English and it will show you the printed translation in your chosen language. On my cell phone, I can speak the English and it will also speak the other language back to me, thereby helping me to learn how to say it. If I were ever in a tight spot and needed to communicate and couldn’t, I could use this app and either show someone the sentence in their language or let them hear it.
I haven’t traveled far from languages I am familiar with yet except for my trip to India. I traveled there in 2011 (my first time overseas) and was not well prepared at all for the language. I had been told that most people in Chennai would speak English as well as their Tamil. Once I arrived, I discovered that professional people and the highly educated usually could speak English. However, the clerks at the local grocery, where we had to go the first two days for our drinking water did not. We made good use of body language and hand gestures to get by. That said, we really didn’t have any big problems.
I have found, when traveling abroad, that the local people are always very happy to help you communicate if you are following their basic customs and are humble about not knowing everything. The term “ugly American” to me means going into someone’s country and expecting them to change for you and expecting them to speak your language fluently to help you.
Many of the basic customs in Paris are simple once you are told what they are. For example, it is imperative that a customer or diner always greet the proprietor or clerk with “boujour” or “bonsoir” upon entering even if you do not see that person and they have not spoken to you yet.
At a café with outside dining, look at the tables to know what you should do. If a table is cleaned off (empty), you may take a seat for a coffee or a snack or a meal. However, if the table is set with flatware and any dishes, you should wait to be seated and only expect to order a full meal at that time at that table.
A majority of restaurants in Paris do not expect you to ask for a “doogie bag.” It is considered by many to be impolite. However, I have had two places offer to send some of my leftovers home with me.
When I ate at the Basque restaurant, Chez L’ami Jean, there was so much food for each course, that I could not possible eat all of it. As I arrived at the restaurant, there was a young lady standing at the door. I asked in French if she spoke English and she replied in French that she didn’t, but that she would get someone who did. She sat me at a table and handed me a menu in French.
A waiter soon arrived who spoke English. I explained in French that I only spoke very little French, to which he responded “like me” and smiled a big smile. I asked if he could translate the menu for me. He said, “Oh, no, no. You do not want that. The chef has prepared a very special meal today in honor of the Fourth of July.” It was July 14, Bastille Day, but he was making a connection he thought I would understand.
He explained to me that this special meal had an appetizer, a main course, and two desserts. That sounded good to me. He proceeded to tell me there would be tuna, then a baby pig (I thought “just for me?”), and two desserts. I asked if they had their famous rice pudding today because I had heard so much about it. He replied that they did and would this menu be ok? I said yes. In reality, I received the tuna and then a bowl of fois gras soup. By this time I was already feeling full. He then brought the baby pig. It was a fairly large terrine filled with large chunks of pork and potatoes and carrots. This looked like enough food to feed at least three people. There was also a plate with some of this already dipped out. I started on the food and only needed a little from the terrine. The bus boy came by and asked in French if everything was ok. I said yes, the food was delicious, but that I just couldn’t hold it all.
The waiter immediately returned and said “You told him something and he didn’t know what.” I explained that the food was wonderful, but way too much for me to eat at one meal and that I was finished with that course.
The dessert came soon. It was actually three desserts. There were two small, individually sized desserts. Then I was served the famous rice pudding. They serve it in a fairly large bowl and then extra little bowls of toppings. The bowl they brought me was the same size they were placing on the tables for four and six people.
I truly ate as much rice pudding as I could possibly stuff in because it was so great. However, I finally had to stop. The waiter came with the bill and I commented that I would love to go on eating that pudding all day, but just could not hold any more. He smiled and took my money.
The chef had walked through a little earlier to the front sidewalk where he stood talking to a friend. He had slowed down to pat me on the arm as he came through. As I left the restaurant, the waiter came after me and said, “wait, wait, you must meet chef,” at which point he ushered me over to the chef and his friend and I told the chef how good my meal was. The chef quickly grabbed me and planted a kiss on each cheek.
As if that experience weren’t enough for one day, as I started down the sidewalk toward my hotel, I soon heard from behind me, “madam, madam!” I turned around to find the bus boy with a large sack in his hand. He handed it to me and I found about a 3-cup container full of pudding and all the toppings for me to take with me. I was really glad I had a refrigerator in my hotel room because I ate off of that for the next three days.
Now we will talk some more about customs and what to expect in Paris. Breakfast is not considered an important meal by the Parisians. Locals usually have a large cup of coffee at home or stop at a café and stand at the counter for a café and pastry. These are very quick breakfasts. However, the Paris café owners do well providing for tourists who like our larger American breakfasts. Remember, if your hotel offers breakfast, be sure to check and see what they offer. You can often find breakfast cheaper at a nearby café. If all you want is coffee and a pastry, it will for sure be cheaper.
One thing different is the coffee. I do not really care for French coffee and, from what I have read, most Americans don’t. However, it is important to know what you are ordering when you order coffee in Paris. There are several different ways you can order coffee in Paris. Café au lait, café crème, café Americana, and une noisette are just a few of the varieties. Each term means a different size, espresso with or without milk or foam, filtered coffee, etc. Be sure before going to Paris to research which café you will want to order.
Customs concerning acceptable behavior on a subway are probably the same around the world. However, if you are not accustomed to using this form of transportation, here are some of the unspoken rules. Traditional subway etiquette calls for none of the following: eating, loud music, phone calls, initiating conversation (unless you need to ask an important question), really large bags, or spreading out to cover more than one seat. Etiquette does call for you to have your ticket or pass card out of your wallet and ready to insert or swipe so as to not hold up the line getting into the metro station.
It is also important to keep track of your children while in the metro and during the boarding and getting off process. Do not step off the subway car and pull out your phone to slowly walk, checking your messages. As you step off the train car, it is important to either keep moving quickly, or step aside out of the way if you need to check on your group or directions.