Most Paris guidebooks will teach you basic French phrases such as “Parlez-vous anglais?” and “Où est le métro?” While these are certainly handy to know, I’ve begun to notice a pattern in the questions I get about French from the people on my tours. In particular, there’s a few things that I get asked about time and time again, so clearly Google Translate is going awry somewhere along the line. To help bridge the gap, I’ve listed below some of the magical French phrases I’ve discovered over the years that will help ease the way during your time in Paris, and have you sounding like a local in no time.
I can’t overstate how essential it is to not just know these two words, but to understand why they are important. In French culture, it is imperative that you formally greet everyone. To do otherwise is considered to be the height of rudeness, and therefore you have to start every interaction with “Bonjour” during the day or “Bonsoir” in the evening. Entering a store? Look the clerk in the eye and say “Bonjour”. Asking for directions? Start with “Bonjour” before launching into your question. Going out to a restaurant? Greet the host before asking for a table. Even if they are the only two words you know in French, “Bonjour” and “Bonsoir” will get you very far in this country.
If you plan on riding the Metro in Paris, inevitably you will find yourself on an overcrowded train facing the intimidating prospect of pushing through several dozen people to make your exit. I don’t know why, but “Pardon” is the magical word that will make Parisians part like the Red Sea. So forget what you’ve been taught at school and skip the “Excusez-moi”. “Pardon” is all you’ll need.
Une Carafe d’Eau
Have you ever eaten at a restaurant in Paris and wondered why the waiter keeps bringing you bottled water when all you really want is tap water? You’re not alone. It took me several months to figure out that the magical phrase that signals to the waiter that under no circumstances are you going to pay for an overpriced bottle of water is “une carafe d’eau”. Use this power wisely.
According to Google Translate, if you want a coffee with milk you should ask for a “café au lait”. Seems reasonable, but for some reason asking for this will sometimes get you a large bowl of milky coffee and an exorbitantly high check to boot. Once again, the magic words you need to signal to the waiter that you know your French is “café crème”. If you really want to go native, enjoy your coffee at the bar instead of getting it go. Always remember that drinks in France are meant to be savoured.
On that note, meals, much like drinks, are meant to be enjoyed, and they are not a rushed affair in France. This means that at restaurants you will have to ask for your bill or it will never come. And it certainly won’t come mere minutes after digging into your meal like in North America. Therefore, when you’re ready to leave, go for a simple “L’addition s’il vous plaît” and you’ll be on your way in no time.
If you’re out shopping and a price tag is nowhere to be found, take my advice and don’t overcomplicate things with “Combien ça coute” or “Quel est la prix?” All you need is a simple “Combien?” to find out how much your newfound treasure will set you back. It’s really that easy.
La Même Chose
This is a slightly more unorthodox phrase, but it helped me survive my first month in Paris when my knowledge of French was less than this list. Directly translated it means “the same thing”, and therefore whenever I was in a bar, restaurant, or shop, and I saw someone else purchasing the meal/drink/item that I wanted, I would simply point, smile, and say, “La même chose s’il vous plaît”. It’s not particularly elegant, but it works, and it’s unusual enough that I would often get a nod of approval for my effort in speaking French. Give it try and let me know how it goes.
French is a truly beautiful language, but it is not one that can be mastered overnight. So if you’re travelling to Paris in the future and you’re not fluent just yet, don’t stress. These magical French phrases will get you started, and when in doubt, just remember that a smile is universal. Good luck!
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.