KUALA LUMPUR, May 8 — Oh la la! Paris, oh Paris! Visitors to the City of Lights know what to expect: the Eiffel Tower, romantic walks in the city, couples both young and old engaged in public displays of affection everywhere you turn (this is the capital of diehard romantics, after all), and French cuisine that runs the gamut from escargots à la Bourguignonne (snails baked in garlic butter and parsley) to subtly sweet macarons named after Marie Antoinette (infamous for her “Let them eat cake!” exclamation).
Much of Paris is marvellous but much is myth also. Here are five top things Malaysians visiting Paris for the first time should know, to make sure you enjoy the full Parisian experience:
1. Parisians aren’t all rude… especially if you try to speak French
Contrary to a popularly-held belief by folks who haven’t visited Paris yet, Parisians aren’t necessarily rude. It’s forgivable if you think this way: I remember taking a French language course during university and my French lecturer (she was from Montpellier in southern France) told us as much.
Basically the myth is the Parisians can be curt and impolite, and the rest of the French folks (meaning inclusive of my French lecturer) were much nicer people. I think this is the sort of passed-down “wisdom” that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — you expect the Parisians to be rude to you, and therefore they seem to be.
The reality is most of the Parisians are just busy city folks, rushing to and from work, not unlike how folks in Kuala Lumpur may be more harried than those in a kampung. Do not expect unfriendliness and you may not receive it. Try speaking a few words of French, and you can see most Parisians opening up to you.
Try not to start immediately with “Parlez-vous Anglais?” (Do you speak English?) as a default opener. Just as you would appreciate a tourist in Malaysia trying to have a conversation in Malay with you, albeit stumbling at every other word, so would Parisians appreciate you trying out some French.
2. Say hello and thank you
While the Parisians aren’t as unfriendly as their reputation may seem, they are sticklers for decorum, especially restaurant etiquette. The French do take their food seriously, after all, and any formalities associated with dining are gleefully embraced.
The first faux pas you could commit could occur even as you enter a restaurant or a shop. In Malaysia, we don’t think twice about entering a casual eatery and grabbing a table. In Paris, this is considered rude. You have to greet the proprietor or a server with a “Bonjour, Madame” (when greeting a lady) or “Bonjour, Monsieur” (when greeting a man) when entering the establishment.
Add a smile when you say it, and you’re more likely to be greeted back in warmth and offered assistance. Similarly, say “Merci” (thank you) when leaving to complete the experience. You are a guest in their restaurant and Parisians expect you to behave accordingly.
3. Wake up early to beat the queue at a good boulangerie
Tourists to Paris may head to Pierre Hermé or Ladurée for their exquisite macarons and delicate pastries, but the real treat of the French capital isn’t its desserts but its bread. There’s nothing quite like biting into a hot, crispy and buttery croissant that left the oven only minutes before.
Of course, to do this, you have to beat the crowd at a good boulangerie (bakery) by waking up early before the queue snakes around the next block. The best boulangeries are bound to have their lines of loyal regulars – the French take their bread seriously, with yeast, flour and water specifications that are adhered to religiously.
Head to Poilâne at 8 rue du Cherche-Midi to get some of the best sourdough loaves (pain au levain) in Paris. There are other delights on Poilâne’s old-school wooden shelves; another signature treat is their flaky apple tartlets.
My favourite Parisian breakfast is simplicity itself: a freshly-baked pain au chocolat enjoyed with a cup of black coffee afterwards. Life doesn’t get better than this.
4. Eat well without splurging on an expensive, Michelin-starred restaurant
The French are known for their cooking, and haute cuisine (or fine dining) is the pinnacle every French chef aims for. Where else to dine well than in Paris, the capital of Michelin-starred restaurants?
The more Michelin stars a restaurant possesses though, the more expensive it will be to dine there. For Malaysians travelling in Paris on a budget, there’s no need to break the bank to enjoy a fantastic meal.
There are many down-to-earth restaurants and canteens serving authentic, rustic French fare. One favourite is Le Bouillon Chartier in the 9th arrondissement (7, rue du Faubourg Montmarte), where hungry theatre-goers would head to after plays and musicals. You get to dine in an atmospheric Belle Époque ambience that brings you back to another century at a fraction of the prices at fancier restaurants.
From rustic terrine de campagne (country-style terrine) to poulet fermier roti frites (roast chicken with farmer fries), there is a dish for every palate and budget. Another trick is to stop by a crêperie (some of which are simply stands by the street) for a freshly made crêpe Suzette or a savoury galette complète with a “telur mata kerbau” (sunny side-up egg).
5. Don’t drink coffee with your escargot
In Malaysia, we don’t think twice about enjoying a kopi O or a cappuccino with our meal, whether it’s a bowl of assam laksa or a tuna sandwich. The Parisians take their mealtimes very seriously though, whether they are dining in a nice restaurant or eating at home. Ordering a coffee to go with your meal is a big no-no.
Instead, enjoy your coffee at the end of your meal, when you can linger at your table — alone or in conversation with your companions — like a bona fide Parisian would.
Knowing what to order helps too. Instead of asking for an espresso, ask for a café. Replace requests for lattes and cappuccinos with a café crème (espresso with heavy cream added) or café au lait (coffee with hot milk added).
If you really want to sound like a real Parisian, ask for a noisette (a short black coffee with a bit of milk froth on top). Bon café!