Ah, Paris, breathtakingly beautiful, irresistibly romantic and of course, oh so chic. And no address is more stylish than the posh hotel Plaza Athénée. It was here, in the next-to-last episode of HBO's "Sex and the City," that Carrie Bradshaw made her grand and giddy entrance.
"American?" asked the desk clerk. "New Yorker," she corrected him. And then, stepping out onto her terrace in her Manolo Blahniks, she squealed with delight at the glorious sight of the Eiffel Tower. Like a French Cinderella, she knew she had arrived.
But on this day someone else was checking in: Bonnie Jones and her husband, Bob.
"Howdy!" shouted Bob to the porter, in a Texas drawl. "Je m'appelle, Bob!" They were dressed in shorts and matching shirts marked: "Paris, Texas" and "Bush '08." Instead of Manolo Blahniks, they wore Crocs. They were loud. They were clueless. And they didn't know the difference between haute cuisine and oat bran.
They're the "ugly Americans," those famously hapless tourists adrift in a foreign culture. But in this case, they were actually actors from the United States. For the first time, "What Would You Do?" took its actors and hidden cameras overseas. We wanted to test the legend of the ugly Americans to see just how ugly American tourists have to get before the French rise up and shout "non!"
Western tourists, oblivious to French etiquette and culture, have thrived in American literature for more than a century.
In "Innocents Abroad" (1869) Mark Twain painted the ugly American as a naive, blundering fool. Novelist Edith Wharton once said, "How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be 'American' before [or in contradistinction to] being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, and having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries?"
The modern version of these blundering Americans appears in David Sedaris' book "Me Talk Pretty One Day," where he describes Americans wearing "the pleated denim shorts, the baseball cap, the T-shirt..."
Fictional ugly Americans have also been immortalized in films such as "National Lampoon's European Vacation," where the Griswolds made American a synonym for hapless.
But is there any truth to the stereotype? And what about the American stereotype of the haughty Parisian who seems to relish putting outsiders in their place? For a week during the summer, "What Would You Do?" took its actors and hidden cameras to Paris in an attempt to find out.
Faux Pas No. 1: Wearing Overly Casual or Tacky Clothing
No doubt about it: Our ugly Americans stood out among the well-dressed Parisians. French etiquette expert Heather Stimmler-Hall, who moved to Paris from Colorado 13 years ago, offered her expertise as our actors invaded the city she knows so well. She writes a blog, The Secrets of Paris, and gives American tourists a course on how to behave -- the dos and don'ts.
According to Stimmler-Hall, our actors' attire was faux pas No. 1.
"You're in Paris, the fashion capital of the world, and people notice your clothes, they notice your shoes," Stimmler-Hall said. "You could be Bill Gates -- he's not going to get treated well either if he's wearing shorts and a baseball cap and a T-shirt."
The very word "faux pas" is French, Stimmler-Hall said. "They have a lot of faux pas," she said. "They're the masters of what not to do."