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How to be a Parisian: 11 ways to fake it

By Fiona Dunlop, for CNN
updated 9:26 PM EST, Sun March 2, 2014
Read the headlines in Le Monde so you can pretend to have opinions on current affairs. Read the headlines in Le Monde so you can pretend to have opinions on current affairs.
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1. Bone up on culture
2. Sort the coffee minefield
3. Treat waiters as equals
4. Stand up to civil servants
5. How to dress -- women
6. How to dress -- men
7. Shun the suburbs
8. Learn to be a flâneur
9. Get something going on the side
10. Disdain money
11. Learn French
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writer who lived in French capital for almost 20 years reveals how to fit in
  • Sort out the coffee minefield -- fast
  • Learn to stroll aimlessly
  • Never check a restaurant bill -- not when anyone's looking, anyway

(CNN) -- Is there a worse city in the world to be marked out as a tourist?

Maybe, but we haven't been sneered at by a waiter there yet.

But you don't have to be the bumbling out of towner.

Stick to a few rules (actually 11) and you'll fit right in.

1. Bone up on the latest films and exhibitions

Dinner chat in Paris is dominated by culture and opinions, so read Le Monde or Libération for the latest.

Le Monde comes out around 3 p.m., so you can easily grab a copy and read the headlines en route to le diner -- nobody will pay that much attention to what you say, anyway, before interrupting.

In October, you can join the strutting vernissage (opening night) of the FIAC, a contemporary art fair and annual glam gathering.

In the celluloid division, be sure to mention seeing an obscure independent film at the slick MK2 Bibliothèque (French site only).

2. Sort out the coffee minefield -- fast

Always drink a Parisian espresso after lunch or dinner, never white coffee, ordering simply "un café" to designate the little black one.

For breakfast, don't ask for soupy café au lait, but rather the stronger crème, petit or grand.

A noisette (macchiato) is also standard.

Unless you're in or near one of the top patisseries, croissants in cafés are often tasteless sponges. But as a Parisian you should be whippet thin, anyway, and rarely in need of bread products.

To really do the coffee thing right, sit for a few hours over a black coffee, moodily flicking through a paperback or Le Monde, though in reality people-watching from behind your Ray-Bans.

A waiter -- not a garçon.
A waiter -- not a garçon.

3. Treat waiters as equals

Parisian waiters are professionals, not students or unemployed actors, and they expect to be treated with respect.

Bark your order, make a smart insider joke (reference latest political scandal) and drop a few coins before you sweep onward.

4. Stand up to civil servants

Develop a snippy attitude toward any fonctionnaire (civil servant), who are notoriously tough, even obstructive, nuts in France.

Don't be cowed -- keep the upper hand by using an assertive, informed tone.

The fonctionnaire revels in the power they wield from desks on which a bottle of mineral water is firmly planted -- they believe it makes them lose weight.

Their jobs are for life, and resignation is unheard of.

Read: How to be a Hong Kong local: 10 tips on faking it

5. How to dress -- women

Wear primarily black, keeping a casual, just out of the sheets look by day and a more primed, predatory look by night.

Accessories are key so invest heavily in shoes and watches.

Perfumes follow, preferably something ethereally obscure from Dipthyque or L'Artisan Parfumeur.

Kit yourself out at Merci (111 boulevard Beaumarchais, +33 01 42 77 00 33), the cult concept store near the Bastille, or at the style emporium Colette in the rue Saint Honoré (No. 213; +33 1 55 35 33 90).

Adopt a younger lover for illicit coffees in the romantic backstreets of the Left Bank, and use a Vélib (hired bike) to get around, no helmet of course.

Johnny Hallyday -- \
Johnny Hallyday -- "non."

6. How to dress -- men

Like the iconic existentialist pinup, Albert Camus, turn up your (black) coat or jacket collar, stick a Gauloise in your mouth and puff away -- or pretend to.

Smoking is still cool and even in deep midwinter pavement café heaters cater to the inveterate nicotine fiend, environment be damned.

Serge Gainsbourg is another defunct role model, a poetic, rock 'n' roll roué who managed to sing with a cigarette drooping from his lower lip and stiff drink in hand.

The Parisian celeb not to model yourself on is Johnny Hallyday, a perma-tanned crooner of beyond pensionable age.

Read: London as a local: 10 tips on survival

7. Shun the suburbs

Only stay intramuros

No respectable Parisian lives outside the city, as the very word banlieue (suburb) brings shivers to their stylish souls.

The faubourgs, once looked down upon as too prolo (proletarian), are now considered ultra-hip, with more space at less cost.

If you decide on an extended stay, first-floor apartments with high ceilings are tops, though a fifth floor walk-up is perfectly acceptable. Kitchens aren't important, as you always eat out.

The Champs Elysées -- double \
The Champs Elysées -- double "non."

8. Learn to be a flâneur, i.e. stroll aimlessly

You need no specific goal to your day, just cruise the boulevards, bookshops and cafés or drape an arm around your girl/boyfriend on the banks of the Seine.

In summer, stretch out on the sand of Paris Plages to show off your toned body and ogle others.

Never stroll along the Champs Elysées, which is only for non-Parisians and people eyeing up big cars.

Favored "bo bo" (bourgeois bohemian) ambling areas are the Marais, Canal Saint Martin and République.

The Left Bank's Saint Michel is for students and tourists, while Saint Germain is for aging artists and moneyed "intellos" (intellectuals), à la Bernard-Henri Lévy.

9. Get something going on the side

You may not be in town long enough to pull it off, but attitudes toward sex are liberal in the extreme, so you might follow the example of Parisians who commonly have lovers.

Women generally cultivate younger or married men -- the expression "de cinq à sept" (from 5 to 7 p.m.) refers to such after-work activities.

President Francois Mitterrand had a mistress holed up with their love-child in an official apartment for years.

Jacques Chirac was known for a string of affairs, while even bland François Hollande doubled up on the mother of his children.

Nicolas Sarkozy was so smitten with Carla Bruni he may have been the only Parisian without a lover.

Read: How to be a New Yorker: 11 tips on faking it

10. Develop an utter disdain for money

For Parisians money isn't a topic for discussion.

Never compare salaries or even refer to the exorbitant cost of a restaurant.

It's bad form to check a bill -- although it's sometimes rewarding.

It's worth cultivating the maître d'hôtel of a grand brasserie to be sycophantically swept to your favorite table on arrival.

That's when you know you're a true Parisian.

11. Learn French

Nobody will really accept you, of course, unless you speak la langue de Molière.

Once you have the basics, sprinkle them liberally with English words such as "cool," "look" (as in a style), "weekend," "design" and "trench" (not warfare, but a belted raincoat).

Remember that the innate sense of "les Anglo-Saxons" (a catchphrase for the U.S. and UK) is negative, while "perfide Albion" (treacherous England) crops up regularly.

Parisians nonetheless show a grudging respect for American culture and history, particularly given that the Yankees broke away from perfide Albion.

Read: How to be a Seoul local: 10 tips on faking it

Now resident in London, freelance travel writer Fiona Dunlop spent 18 years living in Paris.

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