Way Beyond the Periphérique: Culture Shock and Awe in the United States

December 5, 2011By David JaggardC'est Ironique!

This “French bakery” in the Bay Area was apparently styled after the other Paris – the one in Las Vegas.

I just returned from a trip to California. Although I am still a mono-national citizen of the United States, I don’t get back to The Old Country very often, so I was glad to have this opportunity to engage in one of my favorite pastimes: jumping to facile conclusions based on superficial observations — in this case by comparing aspects of life in Paris versus San Francisco. Or, to indulge in specious extrapolation (another great way to spend a rainy afternoon), life in France versus the United States.

Of course, each place has its attractions and attributes, but some things are just easier to deal with in one city or the other…

Easier in Paris: knowing what things cost

I had forgotten about sales tax. On a Parisian price tag, what you see is what you give, but stores in the States tack a tax onto every purchase at the register. In San Francisco it’s 8.5%.

Embarrassing confession of the week: in the 12 days I was over there, I never did get used to this. Like an idiot, which is the only way to do it, I was surprised by the final tally every time. Naturally, I prefer the French system, but hey — that’s just my 1.8433 cents worth.

Easier in Paris: getting around by public transit

Like most American cities, San Francisco has a sort of pretty-fair public transit system, with buses, streetcars and the BART underground train system, but it’s nowhere near as extensive, widely used and user-friendly as the Paris Métro-RER-bus network. Just ask any pickpocket.

Easier in San Francisco: getting around by car

Automatic transmissions. Right turn on red. Wide two-way streets laid out in a right-angle grid. I rest my case.

Easier in San Francisco: parking

In sharp contrast to Paris, it’s relatively easy to find free (although limited — see below) parking on the street in most neighborhoods of San Francisco. But space is only part of the story…

Easier in Paris: understanding the parking regulations

The Paris parking rules are simple. In fact, they could be summed up in a single principle: wherever you want to park, it’s either illegal or outrageously expensive. In San Francisco, there are signs on most streets saying something like “Two-hour parking only Monday through Friday 8:00 am to 9:00 pm except for ‘S’ permits, no parking 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm for street cleaning,” as well as a mind-boggling array of additional curb markings in yellow, green and red indicating other parking restrictions for specific stretches of pavement, each with its own daily and hourly parameters. By the time you figure it all out, it’s time to move the car.

Easier (on the wallet) in Paris: the restaurant tipping system

As every Ironique reader knows, a 15 percent service charge is included in restaurant menu prices in France, and you are not obliged to tip any more than that, whereas in the United States, you’re supposed to add the waiter’s gratuity to the total indicated on the check.

In addition, the going rate has kept pace with inflation, rising from 10 percent when I was a kid to 15 when I left the States nearly three decades ago to 20 or more today. At this rate, the standard American waitstaff tip will reach 100 percent in about 2500, which will at least have the virtue of being easy to calculate (you just double the tax, square it and divide by one percent of the total).

Way easier in Paris: understanding the restaurant tipping system

Jeez, you go away for 30 years and they change the rules… On this trip, I found out that not only has the tipping rate gone up, but many restaurants now figure in the service charge for tables of six or more, apparently to counteract a plague of undertipping by large parties.

In San Francisco they also add $1.50 per person to fund something called the “Healthy San Francisco” initiative. I presume that this goes to promote the physical health of the city’s residents and not merely the fiscal health of its municipal budget.

I learned this the hard way: unbeknownst to me, the restaurant where I took a largish group of friends to thank them for lodging, help and hospitality is in the habit of lumping the big-table “Svc Chg” in with the health thing. The bottom of my check looked like this:


What’s that extra 75 bucks doing in there?


I was preparing to add another 20 percent on top of this (and to suppress a high-pitched gasp), when one of the natives clued me in. Then the waiter explained that their computer system tots up the bills like that, and there’s “nothing they can do” to change it. Frankly, given their prices and proximity to Silicon Valley, I find this kind of hard to swallow.

Fortunately, though, after paying a stomach-churning sum for dinner, you can take advantage of this next point to balance your budget:

Easier in San Francisco: breaking and entering

Both Paris and San Francisco are big cities with their fair share of the criminally inclined, but no one in California seems to be unduly concerned about burglary. To break into an average Parisian abode, you need to get past a code and/or intercom at the building entrance and then a steel-plated apartment door with a five-point pick-proof lock, but in San Francisco I noticed a lot of places, both commercial and residential, protected only by a single deadbolt that a semi-trained raccoon could have opened by breaking the window, reaching inside and turning the handle. It’s no wonder the American crowbar industry is in decline.

Even more amazingly to me, one of the friends I stayed with doesn’t even lock his door when he’s home, day or night. (Address available on request in exchange for 50 percent of the take.)

Easier (on the eyes) in Paris: people in the street

Sorry to say, this was pretty much a slam dunk. Most of the people you see in the street in Paris are dressed in a way that says, “I am going to work or perhaps to run some errands,” whereas most (not all, but most) of the people I saw in the street in San Francisco were dressed in a way that says, “I am going jogging or perhaps to clean out the septic tank.” At least in the Bay Area, baggy, garish, ill-matched sweat clothes are the new black.

Harder (for me to take) in San Francisco: friendly service

According to the well-known truism, French shop clerks and waiters are supposedly brusque, if not downright rude. I have rarely found this to be the case, but it is definitely a fact that service is friendlier, if not downright effusive, in the United States.

When you enter a store in Paris, you can expect to be welcomed with a polite “bonjour,” but in San Francisco walking within earshot of a clerk triggers a barrage of bonhomie: “Hi, how are you doing? What can I help you with today? Well, I’ll be right here, just let me know if you need anything!”

And if you don’t drift away, the ebullience continues unabated: “Anything at all! Did you have a nice weekend? Looking forward to the holidays? That’s a nice outfit you’re wearing this morning! Were the toilets backing up?” etc., etc.

Nice as all this niceness is, after a week I found myself longing for the simpler, more standoffish Parisian retail relations. This led to one of those ghastly mid-life realizations, the one that usually takes the form of “Oh my god, I’m turning into my parents!” but that in my case was more along the lines of “Mon dieu, I’m turning into my neighbors!”

Maybe it’s time for me to apply for dual citizenship.


Reader Kathleen Clarke writes: “$1.50 pays for health insurance for restaurant staff. Not a worry in France.”

Reader Janine Cortell writes:I have been to Paris often over the years. I was actually born there many moons ago. I was very surprised last year to see how poorly people in Paris were dressed. I would definitely disagree that people in Paris are better dressed than in San Francisco. As for the clerks, well, I am always happy to get back to the U.S. I always feel as though the people in stores are doing me a favor to serve me.”

Reader Honor writes: “All you say is true except for the service part. If you want surly service (which I admit I like better than the effusive kind, too) you should come to New York.”

Reader Carol writes: I travel to Paris twice a year, I have relatives in San Francisco, and I live in L.A. I got a kick out of your descriptions of the differences. What’s hard for me in Paris is to greet every store clerk with ‘Bonjour, Madame or Monsieur,’ although I am getting better at it. I like the abrupt way we just blurt out a question or comment… something you don’t do in Paris. And of course we can ‘feel up’ all the vegetables and fruit before we buy them in our big markets, but not in the Mom and Pop Paris shops.”

© 2011 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

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