If you saw a couple of “Ugly Americans” being loud and obnoxious on a Parisian café terrace, would you ignore them, laugh, or tell them to “go back to Texas”? That’s what one American TV show came to find out.
Last week, the cast and crew of ABC’s show “What Would You Do?” set up hidden cameras around several Parisian cafés and sent in two actors posing as Texans visiting town on their honeymoon. They snapped their fingers and called the waiter “Garçon!”, sent back their steak tartare to be cooked, asked for Freedom Fries, tasted the wine at neighboring tables (and spit it out), wore Crocs and “Paris Texas” t-shirts that said “Bush 08” on the back, and generally made spectacles of themselves in an effort to get a rise out of the other diners and unsuspecting waiters.
Being interviewed by the host John Quinones on the terrace of L’Avenue, Avenue Matignon (check out the crowd watching in the reflection in the window)
I was asked to participate as a local “expert” to comment on what visitors should and shouldn’t do in Parisian cafés if they want to feel welcome. In my interview with the show’s host, ABC Primetime co-anchor John Quinones, I explain that being loud isn’t polite in France, and that calling a waiter “Garçon” is insulting. Amazingly, it was harder to ruffle French feathers than we all suspected.
At the first restaurant terrace on the Ile St-Louis, the crew arrived early to set up cameras in hidden places, on street lamps and inside black Mercedes vans (which are actually not quite so discreet in Paris), and attached to bags carried by the “extras” they planted on the terrace as fellow diners. These extras, the actors, and the one waiter who was in on the secret, were all wired with sound mics as well. As the Sunday lunch crowd arrived, so did our actors, giving a gregarious “howdy” to every person they passed on the way to the best table on the terrace.
The actors and extras got wired up at the control van. Camera crews were hidden in three black Mercedes vans parked across from the café. Yeah, not at all obvious.
Despite their best efforts, sending back food, drinks, changing their order, pulling their own bottle of ketchup out of their bag, asking neighbors how much their watch cost, and complaining incessantly about the slow service, the waiters remained pleasant, and only one customer actually told them angrily to behave (and she was also American).
A few of the diners actually suspected a hidden camera because they thought the Americans were a bit too much like caricatures to be real. All of them said that they were surprised and amused, but found it hard to get angry or upset because the Texans were just so friendly that they thought it was harmless. “French people act the same when we are on vacation,” said one woman. They also offered advice to visiting Americans, such as “Be curious about the food.” The waiters all said the same thing. “Oh, we’ve been doing this for years, we don’t mind as long as they aren’t being drunk or violent; it’s funny for us.” Even being called Garçon? “We’ve heard worse,” they all said with a shrug and a smile. These are, ladies and gentlemen, the nicest waiters in Paris! Lol!
The second café was in a quiet side street in the Marais, a place frequented mainly by locals. We had to be more careful to hide ourselves and all of the wires, cameras and crew running around with clip boards and walkie talkies. Again the actors had a lot of fun trying to get a reaction out of the waiter and the crowd on the small terrace. They asked the waiter to pose with a baguette and say “George Bush” instead of “cheese”, tried to get a young couple to give up their table by offering a hundred US dollars (they didn’t take it, nor did they move), and told the smokers that they were causing cancer.
I sat in the main van watching the monitors with John and the producer, who would tell the actors (via hidden ear pieces) what to do next (ie “ask for a bucket of ice for your beer”, “ask the lady in the white shirt if she could translate the menu for you”).
When we felt enough time had passed, the mobile camera crew would follow John and I out to the terrace and explain to the “marks” that they’re part of an American TV show, that the Texans are in fact actors, and then invite them to comment on what they thought (and obviously the crew had to get releases from everyone on camera before they could use them). I translated when necessary, but most of the participants spoke a bit of English.
In the end, the Parisians proved themselves to be more than tolerant of obnoxious behavior (as long as it remains friendly and not abusive). Does this mean you shouldn’t try and behave discreetly, dress appropriately, or be open-minded about French food? Of course not. They will love you even more for it. But it does mean that you don’t need to be overly stressed out about appearing uneducated, unfashionable, or unwanted simply because you’re obviously a tourist. This is Paris, after all. They’ve seen it all. And the longer I’ve been here, the less I’m inclined to make generalized statements about what one should and should not expect of the French. Relax and enjoy yourselves (in moderation, of course).
Just last month I had a lovely American family of five for a tour. At lunch we stopped at a typically Parisian bistro filled with locals. Just behind us sat two elderly ladies lunching together. When their meals arrived (before ours), we couldn’t help but turn our heads to have a peek (it smelled delicious), and they kindly offered us a taste! Just goes to show…you can never make assumptions about people!
The Paris “What Would You Do?” episode will appear on ABC sometime in the fall (I will mention it on the blog when I know for sure). Read more about the show from Oprah’s interview here.