PARIS – The city of light has an unfortunate blight: the locals’ reputation for rudeness.
That’s why a group of friendly Parisians have banded together to show complete strangers around their Paris, the one not found in travel books – for free.
And forget stereotypes of the francais-only French. The Paris Greeters are happy to speak English, or nine other languages of your choosing.
These local volunteers are not certified tour guides, but regular folks eager to show off delicacies at their favorite boulangerie, or point out a tranquil park perfect for watching autumn shades fill in the famous skyline.
“I’ve always heard my American friends say things like, ‘Paris is wonderful – except for the Parisians,’ ” says volunteer Christian Ragil. “And I always wanted to do something about it.”
When he retired, Ragil decided to join the Greeters, which has grown since its inception a year ago into 120 volunteers who have guided 1,100 visitors.
His visit starts out at the Trocadero, where tourists flock to admire an unparalleled view of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine River. But instead of focusing on the monument, he turns his back on it to show a young woman from Seoul the striking 1930s architecture surrounding them.
He then takes his visitor on a leisurely two-hour walk around a residential, tourist-free area, pointing out architectural marvels along the way.
“It was very much like walking with a friend of yours you hadn’t seen for a while,” said Steve Bernstein, a 62-year-old retiree from San Diego who recently followed Ragil’s tour.
When a visitor asks for culinary guidance, Ragil whips out a secret list of Greeter volunteers’ favorite restaurants – ones you won’t find in travel guides. The visit ends, as many Paris afternoons do, over a cup of steaming coffee in a sidewalk cafe.
The visits are as eclectic as Paris’ neighborhoods. Some greeters will ride bicycles around town with you. Others will help you sift through antique shops, let you into local artists’ studios, or have you taste the best pastries in the city.
The program is based on the original in another city famed for its inhospitable locals: New York. Similar programs are also found in several U.S. states, and in Australia, Britain, Argentina, Canada and the Netherlands.
A not-for-profit, the Paris Greeters was launched in July 2007 with help from the city government.
“City officials wanted to change the image tourists have of Parisians,” said Dominique Cotta, president of the Paris Greeters. “We wanted to show that the city was not just old stones but also had human capital: small bistros, restaurants, culture, ambiance.
“Paris is much more than just its monuments,” Cotta added.
As visitor Bernstein said, “It was exciting to be there surrounded by these beautiful buildings, and realize people like Christian lived in them.
“After the tour, my friend and I walked around Paris with our newfound knowledge pointing out different architectural periods in the buildings we saw.”
The best part, Bernstein said, was the moderate pace, so foreign to many tourists hungrily rushing through a new city.
“It was a much more relaxed tour,” he said. “You didn’t have the pressure of going to the Eiffel Tower and telling yourself, ‘I can only stay here for half an hour because then I have to go run to the Louvre.’ ”
Following in Paris’ footsteps, a second Greeters program recently launched in Nantes, in western France.
The Paris Greeters are being flooded with requests. They jumped from 18 visitors in their first month to 146 visitors in July.
Organization has proved increasingly difficult, with only one salaried employee, and a high rate of last-minute visitor cancellations and no-shows. Cotta hopes to recruit private sponsors and new volunteers later this year.
To meet a Paris Greeter, sign up at least two weeks in advance. Note that Greeters will not accept any tips, but will expect you to pay for their transportation fares.
And whatever you may have heard about Parisians, you might just come home with a new saying.
As Spanish tourist Marina Iglesias succinctly told her greeter: “Paris – and the Parisians – are wonderful.”