Helping Tourists (Or Not)

Tourists and City Map, Paris, 2010

Tourists and City Map, Paris, 2010

Whenever I see people with a clueless look on their face, a city map in one hand and a guidebook in the other, I tend to stop and offer help. It’s good karma for travelers like us. Plus, I’ve been there—lost in a new city, unable to read the damn map properly, looking for directions, etc.

But tourists can be really weird.

One Sunday, as I was taking a morning walk in Nantes, a couple stopped me in the street.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”

“As a matter of fact, I do!” I replied enthusiastically.

Nor my eagerness or my language skills seem to impress them.  Apparently, they were expecting all French to speak English fluently. Well, be glad you didn’t ask my grand-ma for help.

“Yeah, where are the shops?” the woman asked abruptly.

“The shops? Like, what kind of shops?”

“The shops!” the woman repeated impatiently. “I need to shop!”

“I get that. But shop for what?”

“Well, clothes.” The “duh” was implied.

“Alright, you are here,” I started to explain. “You can go to Bouffay this way, there are tons of little boutiques. Or you can head to the department stores this way. But it’s Sunday, everything is closed today.”

“I need to shop today.”

“Then you are out of luck” I confirmed. “Businesses close on Sundays. Restaurants are open though, and so are a couple of bakeries. But clothing shops are closed.”

“But what do people do?”

“Er… they shop on weekdays?” I offered.

“This is ridiculous”.

I shrugged like only the French can—may as well fit the stereotype—and walked away.

The following Sunday, I bumped into a group of tourists glued to the doors of Decré-Lafayette. I could tell where this was going.

Le… er, shop. Quand open?”

These ones got bonus points for attempting to speak French.

“I’m sorry,” I replied in English. “Most shops are closed today. It’s Sunday.”

You should have seen the look of horror on their faces.

“But we have to be in Germany tomorrow!” they protested.

Again, I shrugged and directed them to the nearest bakery. At least, they wouldn’t go around telling everyone in Germany that the French had starved them.

I know, as a Canadian, it annoys me too that businesses are closed on Sunday in France. But seriously, isn’t it mentioned in all guidebooks? This is some basic info you should get before you leave home, along with critical illness insurance information. And don’t most countries around the world take a day off during the week? North America has a 24/7 culture, but I remember a lot of businesses were closed on Sunday as well in Latin America and even in China.

French tourists can be strange too. I bumped into this family of five close to my parents’ place in Nantes. The parents and the kids were dressed extremely “bourgeois” (conservatively). The father was looking for a specific address. I don’t know the name of all the streets in Nantes (some are only a couple of meters long!) so I asked him if he was looking for a business, an apartment building, etc.—maybe that would ring a bell.

“Well, it’s none of your business but I’m looking for a bookstore.”

Hey buddy, I’m just trying to help! I didn’t like the tone of his voice and the fact he was annoyed with me for not being a human GPS.

But I knew the bookstore he was looking for.

“Oh, I see,” I replied candidly. “Well, it’s easy. It’s right past the gay district.”

As soon as I said “gay”, the parents gasped and almost covered her kids’ ears.

“You can’t get lost,” I continued. “It’s a colourful neighborhood, very friendly, lots of bars and restaurants. You will notice the gay flags… you know, the rainbow? Well, your bookstore is right at the edge of the neighborhood. And if you can’t find it, ask around! Locals will be glad to help.”

What? It was true! It’s not my fault if this religious bookstore borders Nantes’ gay district! The look on the family’s face was priceless. I’m pretty sure they never made it to the bookstore, though.

It’s tourist season in Ottawa as well, and there are a lot of Latinos, Asians and Europeans downtown Ottawa. The other day, I stopped to offer directions to a couple who seemed lost. I didn’t know where they were from, so I spoke English.

“Can I help you find anything?” I asked.

They both looked at me without saying a word.

I smiled. They didn’t smile back. I smiled again and walked away.

“I’m not going to trust a stranger!” I heard the woman say in Parisian French as soon as I left.

“Ah non!” the husband agreed. “You can’t trust people like that. She probably wanted to sell us something. Well, too bad for her!”

French tourists are hopeless.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. I can’t help but laugh! The French are so cynic of everything and everyone.

    Note to self: France is turning you into a big cynic. You sound exactly like those last French tourists Zhu mentioned in this post. You better cool it on the cynicism.

    Is is any wonder that I only actually learned what the word cynic meant when I moved to France? hahaha

  2. I find these encounters of yours interesting. Somehow, I get the feeling that people like these shouldn’t travel at all, if they think that the world outside their own bubble of a comfort zone is dangerous and bad. If you think that every stranger is out there to sell you something, is out there to get you, then why even venture out of your bubble and travel? The same goes for the attitude that one is expecting a travel destination to function the same way as home, like being open on Sundays for example.

    Seriously, I think it shows the lack of maturity these people have when it comes to traveling; my jaw almost fell when I was reading the “But I have to be in Germany tomorrow” comment.

    I personally don’t go out my way offering help to tourists that look lost here in Berlin, but if they ask, then I try my best. And when I travel myself, I do ask for directions; recently, in Georgia, given that my knowledge of Georgian only consists of the phrases for “Hello”, “Do you speak English?” and “Thank you”, using these three phrases opened doors and produced smiles. But then again, the Caucasus is famous for their hospitality, so that might be a confounding factor.

    • I agree, anyone who travels should be better prepared. And yes, trusting strangers, to a certain extend, is part of the “game”! Learning basic sentences in the local language (even just “thank you”) is also great way to thank locals and to make interactions smoother.

  3. Haha I love this! I did encounter one group of rude & bitchy French tourist girls in Myanmar. The urge to slap them, urghhh! That said, the other French tourists I met were pretty friendly. And it seems to me that the French love to travel around with kids – everywhere I go, the tourists that tagged along a few jumping kids, must be French! But I do like the fact that they are so family-centred, and that reminds me of the Asian culture.

  4. I usually would help such as buying ticktets at the metro station and the direction in Orchard Road (for shopping malls) and yes when we travelled we do know shops and mostly close on Sunday, if not, much earlier then our local malls.

  5. Ha! I have never commented but I have been reading your blog for a while, and this post made me laugh. Since you’ve been in France this summer, you must know that “mariage pour tous” was a big issue here. Cette famille représente l’archétype même de ceux qui n’étaient pas favorables au mariage gay.

    • Hi Vad, nice to meet you! I missed mot the demonstration against gay marriage (I would have loved to demonstrate in favour of it!) and I bet this family was at the first row 😆

  6. “I’m not going to trust a stranger!” LMAO ! Come on ! They were totally lost! Tsk tsk ! I never encountered snooty tourist but i did met a clingy one in Spain (i was the only person he met so far during his stay that spoke English).

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