Commuting & Romance – and Marriage

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:22 pm -

The in-box of Bonjour Paris is beginning to resemble an advice to the lovelorn column. We never purported to be “Dear Abby” but we’re delighted to try to come up with ideas (and hopefully) solutions, for our readers.   In this age of cross-cultural, trans-Atlantic relationships, anything goes.

A long-distance romance used to be when couples were commuting between New York and Washington, DC or Boston. Many people were such constant regulars on flights between San Francisco and Los Angeles that it was almost a club of people who frequently greeted one another by name.

Life has certainly changed.  More than a few of our readers commute between NYC and the City of Light.  The same goes for other cities in both the US and in Europe. Some people affirm this doesn’t produce the ideal partnership and creates added strain; this is most especially true when there’re children involved.

Can mommy or daddy get home to see Junior’s recital or sporting event?  One parent may feel that he or she bares the majority of the responsibility, while the other feels cheated that he/she is missing a major part of their children’s evolution.

Many parents are able to make personal and professional accommodations. Other couples decide that being married, without being day-to-day partners, isn’t for them and tell it to the judge.

Others couples claim their marriages and/or relationships are increasingly exciting and they’re appreciative of their time together. Some people need their own space. One couple I know explains they can focus on their individual careers without having to worry about being home at a specific time to prepare dinner much less eat it. These couples also cherish their time together and attempt to make the most of each minute.

Some couples on the commute TRY not to combine work and family time. This is harder said than done and takes incredible discipline. Between cell phones and PDA’s, a person can be anywhere. There are those of us who remember when the Internet didn’t exist much less fax machines. We wouldn’t return to that era, even though, it may elicit moments of nostalgia.

Some hints when it comes to long-distance commuting:

If one member of a couple is working for a multi-national company, chances are that there’s a clause in the employment contract specifying conditions for home-leave.  The more “essential” you are, the more generous it will undoubtedly be.

If you’re involved in a romance, keep your weekends flexible. Register on every last-minute Internet site that (usually on Tuesdays) announces remaindered seats.  When you see a reasonably priced fare cross your screen, (and I know people who stay up until midnight ET), grab it.   If fares are at parity, opt for the same airline so you may accrue frequent flyer points.

Redeem those points for tickets during peak seasons. Summer and Christmas holidays are when prices are generally at their highest. Reserve these flights as far in advance as conceivably possible since airlines would rather sell seats than give them away. So much for fidelity. Airlines are out to enhance their bottom profit and loss line.

Don’t dismiss package deals. Some are less expensive than just the airfare. Don’t worry if you don’t check into the hotel – although it’s only polite to call and say you won’t need the room.

Invest in an Internet phone. Just because you’re geographically separated doesn’t preclude your being in communication. Talking every day diminishes some of the nitty-gritty realities of life that need to be discussed and not put on hold until you see one another.

Web cams cost next to nothing and are a great way to have children see and talk to you. They lessen the loneliness factor  — not that a picture in this case can replace your being together.

Numerous parents with whom I’ve spoken say they bring one child at a time to the city where he or she is living. They line up daytime activities and focus on him or her before and after work. It demystifies the assignment (so far away from home) more of a reality.   Plus, it makes that child feel ever so special. Don’t forget family vacations in Europe. They’ll add to everyone’s intellectual memory banks for the remainder of your lives.

Communications have evolved so rapidly in the past few years.  Use them to your advantage. Sure, there are downsides of being apart– but consider the benefits. They’ll last forever.  And, perhaps your relationship will actually be stronger and on a more solid footing. The days of being a “Stepford” wife or husband are becoming ancient history.

The in-box of Bonjour Paris is beginning to resemble an advice to the lovelorn column. We never purported to be “Dear Abby” but we’re delighted to try to come up with ideas (and hopefully) solutions, for our readers.   In this age of cross-cultural, trans-Atlantic relationships, anything goes.


Tags: , ,
Posted in Around the World |

Making the Most of a Found Day in Paris

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:20 pm -

When travelers find themselves with an extra day in Paris with no preplanned agenda, what should they do?   You could revisit a favorite destination.  But it’s also an ideal opportunity to succumb to serendipity and experience something you’ve never contemplated. This is especially true for people here on business, or those who have been to the City of Light so many times that they don’t feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to the Louvre to pay homage to the Mona Lisa.

Now that spring appears to be finally here, there are so many ways to take advantage of what I consider a “found” day. These are the moments to be treasured by people who work and live in Paris, along with those coming solely as tourists.

People are constantly asking the writers at Bonjour Paris what to do and where to go. Depending on your interests, the choices are endless. I happen to love walking the city. But as is the custom with many Parisians, I tend to stay in “my” quartier.   It’s comfortable; it’s home. Our apartment is located three minutes away from the Luxembourg Gardens which is an exquisite place to begin one’s day, weather permitting.

Occasionally, I fill a thermos cup with coffee, make a fast stop at the corner bakery, Kaiser, where I purchase a heavenly 100%-butter croissant, and dash across the street to the newsstand to grab the International Herald Tribune and a French newspaper. Even though I read numerous US and French papers online, there’s nothing like the tactile feeling of turning pages and reading articles you might otherwise skip in cyber-space.

I’m prejudiced. Many might disagree, but the Luxembourg Gardens are the most beautiful in the world. The Luxembourg Palace, in the 6th arrondissement, was commissioned in 1615 by Marie de Médicis, regent of France. It was modeled after the Palazzo Pitti located in her native Florence. It was remodeled several times and is now the seat of the French Senate.

Perhaps I feel so bonded to the gardens since they feel like an extension of home. If you’re entering the southern gate off Rue d’Assas, you’re greeted by tended bee hives (yes, beekeepers conduct classes there) and espaliered fruit tresses planted along a chain-link fence. The trees have been grafted by the garden’s horticulturalists, pushing science and nature.

There’s the “big” kids’ playground that has every conceivable variety of wooden play equipment. There’s an age limit as well as an entrance fee; but parents are allowed into the fenced area in the event there are any scrapes or falls and Suzette or Fredric require a tiny bit of TLC. It’s amazing how French children manage to stay clean in this confined area of potential tumbles.

Most mornings, there is a group gathered to execute the Asian discipline of Tai Chi.  The slow, dance-like speed motions create balance, flexibility and calmness. It exudes a feeling of mysticism combined with art. There’s an emphasis on deep breathing and mental imagery; Tai Chi is reputed for integrating mind and body while relieving stress. Watching the participants is enough to lower one’s blood pressure. It’s on my agenda to find an instructor, since Tai Chi is an art not intended for klutzes.

No matter how many times a visitor walks through the park, there are invariably surprises; both because of its vastness and the time of day. No matter where you look in the 25 hectare green oasis of perfectly manicured gardens, which change according to the season, you can’t help but be constantly overwhelmed by the beauty of this park, peppered with statues, fountains and flowers. There are innumerable attractions for children, including pony rides, a merry-go-round, puppet shows and a fountain where little wooden boats steered by sticks can be rented for the younger set. Squeals of children’s laughter are omni-present.   The Park is a magnet for lovers, parents with children and/or strollers, students, older couples coming to enjoy the fresh air. There’s a specific area for dedicated chess players to congregate at outdoor tables that are shaded. Don’t be surprised if you see games of boules.   The participants (generally male) meticulously hang their coats or jackets on the coat rack.

The tennis courts are public but be forewarned – members of the Sénat have priority. Even though players need to schedule court time and pay a fee, really good players are often around to join a pick-up game.   Tennis is an equalizer and a language unto its own.

People spend hours engrossed in the magnificence and variety of fauna and flora. They don’t have a uniform look since the numerous gardeners appear to be having informal contests over which area can win the beautiful landscape prize. This large park, which has sprawling lawns and abundant flowers, always astonishes visitors with its harmonious paths that entice visitors to meander.

Others, young and old, enjoy themselves in the gardens. Boats can be rented for children to sail in the glassy central fountain.   During summer months, some people adopt the garden as a beach and leave with tans that look as if they’ve been to St. Tropez.

A visit can take a full day or just a few minutes. I always make it a point to walk through the gardens if I am going anyway towards the Seine. Just a few minutes absorbing their beauty in the good weather refreshes me.   Being able to stay longer is a real luxury. Plus, I don’t need to drive or give up a parking space.


Tags: ,
Posted in Around the World |

Travel Insurance – No Wonder It's a Mystery

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:18 pm -

Do you worry  about travel insurance and its intricacies?  People want to know about the following:  trip cancellation coverage (for myriad reasons), what if they become sick while traveling, repatriation insurance (you can’t blame someone for wanting to be home if struck by a major illness) and/or insurance coverage if they’re too ill to be transported home. These questions are just the tip of the iceberg.

If you think there are easy answers, try Googling “trip insurance.” You’ll be amazed by the number (more than 50,000) of Internet Sites that pop up. Some policies are clearly better than others — it’s a question of defining your specific needs.

If you’re a road warrior, it’s probable your employer has a blanket insurance policy. If not, before signing the contract, stipulate that you require it in your benefits’ package. Travel insurance is not a perk; rather, it’s a necessity; read the fine print. You don’t want to be stuck in a country where the medical facilities are less than optimal only to find out you’re not covered for any and all situations. Giving your all for your job is one thing; dying is another.

If travelers become sick – and I don’t mean a cold — will the policy: pay for hospital costs abroad; transport for a family member to be with them; upgrade patients from tourist class to business class, if indicated, once they’ve recuperated and are well enough to return home? One friend recently broke his leg while vacationing in New Zealand and was required to have immediate surgery then and there. The insurance policy not only paid for an airline upgrade, but for a nurse to accompany his wife and him back to the U.S.  The company took care of all of the arrangements and the nurse ran interference at airports, insuring wheelchairs and porters were on hand to expedite the New Zealand – Washington, DC voyage.  When someone is in medical extremis, it shouldn’t be expected that the person or the family can anticipate all of the factors entailed in such a trip.
The insurance was expensive but cost nothing compared to what AIG (American International Group) had to fork over to get the patient home. In addition, it paid for their having to prolong a trip that certainly didn’t end up as a vacation.

If doctors in your country of residence, as well as the country you are visiting, all agree you’re too sick to be moved and the operation must to be done ASAP, will the insurance policy cover the cost of the surgery without your being out-of-pocket until you do the paperwork?  If you’re in a place where medical facilities aren’t adequate, can you be jetted to the closest first-rate medical center?  If you’re forced to miss work, will you receive any compensation?

Some issues to consider before enrolling (and we cannot stress enough, again: read the fine print!):

  • Do you need trip insurance for one trip or for multiple ones?  Your answer to this will dictate what type of policy is needed.
  • Are you traveling as an individual or as a family?
  • Do you need trip insurance if you get sick before the trip; or if a member of your family (such as a parent) falls ill or whose physical situation deteriorates?
  • If you’re over a certain age (75 is usually the cut-off), travel insurance will cost substantially more and undoubtedly will require a physical exam. Pre-existing conditions may be excluded. You’ll find you’re paying a lot of money in the event you break your leg. Buyer beware.
  • Will you be in a country for more than a month and require quasi-expat insurance?  Will the insurance company pay for translation service and/or send you abroad with a medical dossier?
  • Are you insured for evacuation in the event of a terrorist threat?
  • Under what conditions, will and won’t a medical jet land in specific countries?

Where and how to find insurance:

Check with your credit card company(ies) and see what’s included if you buy a plane ticket using a specific card.  For example, Starwood Platinum American Express charges those who have enrolled in its insurance program a fee that covers insurance situations and pays a hefty premium in the event of death.  This holds true when renting a car.

Study your existing medical policy and see what it includes (and does not include) if you’re out of the country. Ditto for your car insurance coverage.

Credit cards offer myriad premiums –it’s worth a call to the issuing company; and, yes, again, read the fine print on the flyers that many people toss in the trash which accompany newly issued pieces of plastic.

If you’re reserving via a booking service or travel agency, many offer cancellation policies and/or trip insurance.  It’s another way of generating income and, if needed, is a blessing.

Three recommended insurance sites are:
Med Jet Assist
AllTripProtection.com
MediBroker

I keep a Med Jet Assist policy going at all times. I hope I’ll never have to make use of it. But it’s cheap considering the peace of mind it creates.


Tags:
Posted in Around the World |

The Grey Skies of Paris

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:15 pm -

It’s only the very beginning of November and already people are slinking around the exterior walls of Paris’s buildings. And now that clocks have been set back an hour (a week, sometimes more, earlier in France than the US), it feels as if it’s the middle of the night.

When Paris is grey, there’s nothing like it to make some residents want to jump from windows. How many studies have been done documenting direct correlations between light and people’s mood swings? Perhaps, some of the vacations to which the French are legally entitled, are realistically methods and means of keeping them working constructively and conscientiously in their offices.

OK  – today is one of those days when it feels as if the sun never shines nor will it ever again. It’s been the same for over a week and if you work at home, you can order your groceries on-line and avoid having to rip off your pajamas.  That is, unless you have an appointment in the “real” world where that attire wouldn’t be acceptable.

Even though Bonjour Paris’s mantra is people should never come to the City of Light for the weather, those of us who live here and aren’t on the tourist circuit, occasionally want to set our hair on fire and head someplace sunny. That’s one of the reasons some people have houses in Provence; once the TGV crosses the Valence border on its way to Avignon, it’s often akin to arriving in another weather system — a mistral may be blowing down the Rhone River, but at least there’s sun. You’ll see people sitting in wind protected nooks and crannies with their heads facing the sky trying to absorb every ray of solar energy.

Friends and I’ve been known to take advantage of last minute deals that come flying across our computer screens. We’ve gone and been places that aren’t high on our must see lists – but at the very least, they were sunny and gave us a needed break from what felt like a Faulknerian cloud. Naturally, this is an extreme reaction but who knows?

The weekly cyber announcements from  last minute sites just hit my email box; they’re filled with deep discounted deals that are of the moment. Because of the current Euro – dollar exchange, if you want to go to the US for the weekend, it’s yours for the booking.

There are shopping tours, theater trips and — even though there’s no guarantee until you press reserve whether or not you’ll be flying charter (more than likely, it will be in the far back section of an Air France flight) – the booze is free on European carriers. At least that will ease the pain of the less than glamorous “get to airport hours early” cow herding (coupled with security hassles that are part and parcel of hitting the skies these days).

With some of these bookings, you won’t know in which hotel you’ll be housed immediately. But these trips are cheap. Often they’re terrific buys as airlines like full load factors and hotels count on room occupancies clocking in at a certain level.

After looking at the prices, it’s quite possible it costs less for the French to visit Las Vegas than it does for US based residents. And why does the Air France fare from Paris to the Big Apple cost less than $500?  You can’t get transport that cheap if you’re originating in the States. What happened to parity unless there are a ton of taxes added when you press the button?

Even though web site travel booking is up, people are accessing call centers. Expedia.fr has succumbed to posting a telephone number so you can hear the sound of a real live voice. Naturally, this is after being kept on hold. But that’s the norm and who doesn’t want to scream? Is voice mail an asset or a curse?  But, that’s another article all together.

The destinations to which I invariably gravitate are Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Istanbul and other places I might not choose if left to my own devises. The cultures are so different… but there’s sun! Plus, they don’t take forever to reach from Paris and you don’t need to combat jet lag. Remember, supposedly, it takes one day for your body to acclimate to each hour of time difference. That’s a luxury business travelers can’t afford.

With these “buy now or soon” sites, you may be able to choose the precise date for the weekend or if it’s a charter flight, you’ll invariably have some choices immediately and others further out. There are a few other options such as how many stars the hotels have plus different activities. More than likely, breakfasts and dinners are included in the package. Once in Tunisia, there wasn’t a meal where a variation of fennel wasn’t served. Seeing some rendition of it in the early a.m. isn’t my cup of tea. But you don’t have to eat it and there’s always that country’s version of bread and accompanying condiments.

One of the cheaper than cheap trips was enticing enough to cause me to head to Cairo with a group. Some of us were mighty surprised when we were sitting on camels. None of us were sure we would have opted for that journey had we had the time to contemplate it, but Egypt was an experience, and seeing the Pyramids is a must-do.

If you aren’t duty bound, take the leap and hop on one of these last minute trips. If you’re not crazy about the dinners in the hotel or pension, you can always splurge and eat elsewhere.  You won’t even feel guilty with the tiny euros you shelled out! And who knows, you may experience an adventure you’ll never forget.


Tags: , ,
Posted in Around the World |

There’s Eating and Then There’s Dining

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:14 pm -

The adage that you can’t get a bad meal in France is a fallacy. Paris is filled with restaurants, bistros and cafes where tourists gravitate. Chances are the management will never see the majority of these diners again. “What… me worry?” may be their attitude.

How can you make your dining experiences more meaningful? By all means, read Bonjour Paris’s food critics’ reviews. But there are some other ways when you don’t have access to the Internet or guidebooks that may give a clue as to when a restaurant is out of date.

Steer clear of establishments where the carte (that’s required to be posted so it can be seen from the establishment’s exterior) is written in multiple languages. It’s a sure tip-off that you should be on the lookout for the next group of haggard-looking people disembarking a tour bus.

After all, everyone has the right to eat especially after spending the morning in the Louvre and seeing half of the City of Light. 

Many restaurants do have English language menus. This is partially for the guests but more for the waiters. They may not understand your English, much less your accent. The selections sound so much less elegant in English than in French. Most Francophones will tell you the translations leave much to be desired.

It’s akin to being in a very trendy restaurant in New York City or Los Angeles where, even after you’ve read the menu, the waiter, who feels the need to introduce himself, has to spend 30 minutes explaining what to expect. “Cunningly arranged” are frequently buzzwords for nouvelle cuisine, where it’s more than likely you’ll probably leave the restaurant hungry and awaken with the 3 a.m. munchies.

I’m currently in Washington, DC. Considered a good restaurant city, I’m at a total loss when a friend asked me to choose where I’d like to eat before I board a Paris-bound flight tomorrow. It’s not that I don’t like going out for a nice meal, being pampered and avoiding dirty dishes plus pots and pans.

But after seeing numerous $60 tabs for soup, two burgers and two glasses of wine, my enthusiasm diminishes about eating out for the sake of eating out. Remember, in the US contrasted with the EU, you have to factor in the tax and the tip.

There’s a new group of “in” restaurants in Penn Quarter, a recently renovated area between the White House and the Capitol. Some of the city’s hottest eateries are found there. The food is often good and sometimes more than that. But the headache that’s derived from the din can be enough to make you question your sanity.

Perhaps it’s because the under 40-year-old crowd has been subjected to blow-your-ears-out music since they were teens. 

Some of the most popular restaurants in DC are the steak houses where some of the city’s power brokers and big-buck expense account types meet and greet and impress clients.

These restaurants (frequently chains such as The Palm, Morton’s and Smith & Wollensky’s) serve such humongous portions that you need to be a gourmand or feel guilty about those who are starving throughout the world.

One of the neighborhood haunts I frequent offers $5.00 burgers if you sit at its bar and are finished before 7 p.m. when the crowds descend. Each Monday night, wines from Chef Geoff’s more than adequate list are priced at 50% of the regular cost. That’s a bargain and attracts neighborhood folks including a lot of the area’s students. But why are there two televisions? Why does everyone talk at the tops of their lungs so you can’t hear the people with whom you’re breaking bread?

Each time a person raises his or her voice, the sound level escalates. Why isn’t there carpeting, walls with materials that baffle sound, acoustical ceilings, etc.? There are sports’ bars everywhere; during playoffs, noise, and even shouts and screams, are anticipated. But, why are people discouraged from thinking when it’s a normal day. Is it a commentary that the art of conversation is on the wane?

Restaurants in Paris and many other EU cities encourage people to linger over their meals and don’t count on turning tables 2-3 times during a dinner service.

Studies have proven that the less comfortable the seating and the higher the decibel level is, the faster patrons vacate a table. In Europe, getting the bill is often a lengthy process. In the U.S., signal your waitperson and you’ll be out the door within minutes.

One way to be able to have a conversation coupled with a light meal is to go to a hotel bar, which has sofas and additional seating with sufficient space between areas. If you’re noise sensitive, steer clear of people sporting nametags (undoubtedly, they are part of a convention) and/or the pianist who may be wonderful if and when you’re in the mood. However, when you’re not …

There are ways of escaping death by decibels but it takes a certain amount of creativity to accomplish the feat.


Tags: , ,
Posted in Around the World |

What to Wear When the Dollar is at an All Time Low Against the Euro?

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:12 pm -

For those who fill their closets with European clothes, and we’re not talking haute couture but simply off the rack prêt a porter, what buying options are there when the dollar is lower than low vs. a vs. the Euro?

Those of us, who live on dollar incomes in the EU, are feeling the pinch. We’ve probably already developed the habit of buying better and buying less. We buy only during the sales unless it’s something perishable to serve on the table.

Pulling out all the stops, who is more of a buying expert than Born to Shop Suzy Gershman? She’s no enigma to Bonjour Paris readers and dedicated shoppers and advises people to purchase clothes and more for the long haul.  That includes weight fluctuations. Her caveat when shopping in Europe is, “ buy silly throwaway mementos or clothes, which you’ll wear forever.” Suzy states there are still bargains in Paris, but the majority of them are found in the make-up department. If you’re into designer clothes, she advises that the second hand store route may be a solution. Two of her favorite Paris outlets are Réciproque and Le Dépot Vente du 17eme.

I’ve found some neat, cheap and chic clothes in outdoor markets and should confess the dress I wore to my son’s and daughter-in-law’s wedding came from the Tuesday market in Vaison-la-Romaine. Suzy found a linen dress that she loved and purchased it in every color, merci.

Suzy’s current mantra is,  “Go West Young Man,”  (or woman) when seeking fashion deals.  “Think Indo-Chine (Vietnam) and head to Hong Kong or China where fashion and home décor bargains still exist. Plus,  $200 per night can buy a first-class hotel room contrasted with Paris, where you’ll probably be sleeping in a closet. Don’t forget restaurant costs in Asia and who doesn’t love noodles?”

An additional plus of buying in Asia is that clothes can be tailor made or altered within a matter of minutes or days. When was the last time (unless you were spending couturier big bucks) when you were entitled a fitting? If you have an item of clothing you love, take it with you and have it copied. Some people say you should import your own thread but that’s a matter of opinion.

Some trends: Department store and professional buyers are scouring former European colonies for the new look. US buyers are heading to Tokyo in order to seek out fashion trends. They may buy one sample and have it modified to fit the American body and shape, before articles find their way into department or clothing stores.

The shopping queen also advises going to second hand stores and buying carefully. Two of her favorites in New York are Michael’s and Encore, which was made famous by Jackie Kennedy Onassis, since her “used” clothes ultimately ended up (discreetly) being resold there. But, people in the know, knew.

Friends who live in the US are complaining about dramatic price hikes when it comes to their buying power. A few are threatening to go nude rather than wearing last year’s wardrobe. Even though that’s a grand exaggeration, what happened to parity? Suzy once again has a way to beat the system.  If you happen to be near a Loehmann’s, head to its Back Room.  You may find an Armani for a fraction of the cost you’d have to shell out in Italy. So what if it’s last year’s model? Women should also peruse the men’s department since they’re frequently less expensive even if they require some alterations.

Another recommended shopping destination is: The Woodbury Common Outlet Center where you’ll find 220 discount stores including Chanel and so many others. Located approximately 1.5 hours north of the Big Apple, don’t fret if you’re without wheels. There are buses to transport you to and fro for your buying pleasure. All you need to do is reserve.

Suzy has been shopping with a vengence and has just completed circling the world three times doing research her upcoming book, “Where to Buy the Best of Everything” that is slated to be released this coming March. She’s spent her time unearthing the 1000 places where addicted shoppers should shop before they die. Don’t expect to see the usual stores you’ll encounter on 5th Avenue or Rodeo Drive. The listings will include emporiums for people who are looking for the most unique of the unique.

How did Suzy pack for these killer trips?  “I always wear black and then black,” she said. She didn’t even pack anything grey for because it might necessitate an additional pair of shoes. Another hint; the shopping goddess always includes a very lightweight duffle bag in her suitcase. First, she’ll need it for things she’s purchased during her travels. Secondly, the way different airlines are adhering to different weight specifications, she’s been known to have to repack as she checks in for a flight.  And who said shopping is easy?  It’s both an art and a science. Not to mention, an act of passion and love.


Tags: , , ,
Posted in Around the World |

Being Among the Newly Poor

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:09 pm -

By definition, expatriates who live in Paris usually don’t feel as if ordering a café at the local tabac is going to break their weekly budget, most especially if they stand at the bar where the French government regulates the cost of un vrai. Don’t order a café crème or (OMG) sit down. Then all bets are off. It’s an entirely new ball game these days.

Many people wouldn’t dream of starting their day without a quick visit to “their” corner bar. You can identify the regulars. They always shake hands with the “barman” who makes the freshly ground coffee that’s served in a demitasse cup. Frequently, before the client even enters the door, he’ll be spotted and his morning fix of caffeine will be awaiting him (or her.) A bit of gossip might be exchanged — the world is good. None of this lingering a la Starbucks and there’s nothing akin to a latte or a drink topped with cinnamon.

Ditto when it comes to buying a simple baguette. Here’s another item where the price is fixed by law. The French consider bread sacred and will stand in line twice a day in rain or shine for a really good loaf of freshly made bread. Prior to the EU’s converting to euros, a baguette cost Americans less than 50 cents. Now it costs approximately $1.75. In spite of the price hike, (and calories) bread tends to be served at every meal.

But if you want to indulge in a to-die-for pastry, watch out. It’s no longer a bargain for anyone living on a dollar denominated-income.

These are the days when Expats wish they worked for multi-national corporations where employment contracts include cost of living escalation clauses. With the devaluation of the dollar plus inflation, the dollar’s purchasing power is well — verging on a joke.

This doesn’t mean tourists should cancel their European trips. The hospitality industry is crying the blues and more likely than not, you may be able to snag a lovely room on the many discount hotel booking sites that are pervasive on the Internet. And contrary to the myth that the French don’t like American tourists, they do. That’s because in general, tourists are polite and good travelers and do spend money — even if for less than they previously did with the dollar/euro exchange clocking in at a painful $1.58.

But before leaving home, head to the nearest electrical store and/or supermarket and buy a coil or travel pot (be certain it’s 220 voltage) to heat water for your morning coffee or tea. Reserve a room with a mini-fridge where you can stash some snacks and soft drinks purchased at the local grocery store. Why pay 17 euros per person (and that’s conservative) in a three star hotel for a continental breakfast when you can go to the local bakery and buy flaky, melt-in-your mouth croissants for approximately a euro each?! (And quite often, unless the hotel is really good, the breakfasts won’t be nearly as good as the one’s you’ll prepare yourself; many times you can expect lukewarm coffee with your continental breakfasts.)

While you’re at it, invest in a travel iron. It may not be romantic to contemplate ironing clothes on your bed (better tip: pack clothes that are pretty much wash and wear) but you may avoid heart failure when you see the bill after sending your clothes to the hotel’s laundry/dry cleaner. Spending precious hours in a Laundromat rather than seeing the sights and hearing the sounds of Paris is not my idea of heaven.

A lot of restaurants do offer moderately priced  prix fix menus (2 or 3 courses) plus possibly some house wine.  http://www.bonjourparis.com/ Bonjour Parisalways used to advise its readers to eat their main meals mid-day. We still do, but because of the exchange rate, these meals are no longer dirt-cheap. There are some tips and tricks: whatever you do, don’t order bottled watered. A liter adds up to $10 to your tab and the cost is essentially for status and not for taste… unless you must have bubbly water.

A carafe of Eau Sarkozy, or whatever comes from the tap, is perfectly fine. If you’re really feeling pressed for money, wait to drink your après-lunch café until you pass a bar or a tabac.  Remember, keep standing.

We’ve been on the hunt for moderately priced hotels and are amazed by the dearth of nice ones that cost less than 200 euros for a small but “correct” room. Between inspection tours, we’ve stopped for a glass of wine and have been horrified that the least expensive (OK, we had to sit down) is never less than five euros. This is fine if you’re buying a seat to watch the Parisian world go by. It’s not fine if you’re simply trying to muster enough energy to get up and go to look at more hotels.

It’s still possible to buy a bottle of 2005 Bordeaux at the ED grocery store located at the end of the block where I live. It’s not OK (I hear my mother’s admonishments) to drink said bottle while walking the streets. Someone might get the wrong impression.

Hoteliers might not agree but unless you’re rolling in bucks and/or privy to an expense account, consider renting an apartment for your sojourn in the City of Light.

For that matter, if you know Americans who live in Paris and are free to get up and go, offer to rent their apartment or possibly even trade digs. They might be more than delighted to have a respite from the falling dollar, go to the US for all of their shopping or trip the light fantastic in Mexico.


Tags: , ,
Posted in Around the World |

Returning to Hong Kong – the Ultimate Playground!

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:07 pm -

Before I started Bonjour Paris, I was a trailing spouse who was easily bored and needed permission to ask “none-of-my-business” questions. I lucked out and snagged writing some “Expat Abroad” columns for the international edition of USA Today.

The joke was that while my husband was hauled up in an office (he could have been in Newark), I was out exploring and having the time of my life. He’d set off for his day of back-to-back meetings and each evening, we’d compare notes. We’d both agree that I was having a better time!

We’d been to Hong Kong numerous times in the mid-90s. Hong Kong is now even sleeker, more aggressively modern and well managed than it was then. The idea of living there was appealing at that time. It’s even more so now. During our recent stay, I began looking at real estate ads checking out apartment rentals.  For Expat-suitable apartments, rents are comparable to those in New York City.  But I’m told that other services and stables cost substantially less than comparable items in the Big Apple.

We returned to “our” old hotel, the Hong Kong Conrad (in the upscale group of the Hilton chain) that’s attached to Pacific Place, a mega-shopping center of elegant, chi-chi boutiques.

Driving up to the Conrad was a bit like going home again. Some floors have been remodeled and all will have been redone in the coming year. The hotel prides itself on excellent service and does not let its guest down. We settled in, enjoyed a sumptuous tea in the lobby and then took a walk on Hollywood Road, famous for antiques – real and probably faux. Whichever, we were sorry we hadn’t purchased more when Victor’s consulting work had us spending a lot of time in Her Majesty’s Hong Kong. Prices have since sky-rocketed and everything we lusted for was well beyond our means.

The US has nothing quite like Hong Kong: smooth-running, super-efficient (not to mention, well marked) subways, pedestrian overpasses to avoid traffic jams, covered moving sidewalks and escalators everywhere, cars zipping along via in-town highways and clover leaves – an amazing sense of being in the city of tomorrow. And oh yes, great food, so much nightlife, shopping, glitzy hotels, etc.

Heavy traffic and increased demand for office and retail space is prompting the government to embark on an extensive reclamation project to meet the demand.  Even the Star Ferry terminal, built in 1955, will be a casualty and will be replaced by a new landing on the end of a landfill.

HK is and isn’t China. It was an English territory until 1997, when it was turned over to China. The UK honored its promise to cast HK loose, much as it did for India 50 years earlier. In HK’s case it was absorbed by China, but with semi-independent status – at least for now. Democracy is flourishing in HK, as does business and tourism.

Talk about small world. I had sent   Born to Shop Suzy Gershman, a Bonjour Paris contributor and dear friend an email mentioning where we were. We’d compared our schedules but missed that we were going to be in Hong Kong at the same time.

Within seconds, there was a return email. Thirty minutes later; Suzy and I were having coffee at the Peninsula, the most elegant hotel in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong. The Peninsula is a legend in itself. Built 75 years ago, it’s the most historic hotel in city. The Peninsula’s extensive renovations a few years ago managed to update its facilities and furnishings, while preserving the Colonial elegance that has made it a favorite with discerning people coming to Hong Kong for business or pleasure.

While Suzy and I went and shopped until we dropped, Victor attended a dim sum class. He’s always loved Chinese food and frequently pulls out a wok and cleaver. Suzy and I ran all over the city unearthing bargains (and some NOT). The two of us bought unlimited one-day subway passes (approximately $5 each) and navigated the city as fast as we could. Boy – were there bargains. I literally had to pry Suzy away from buying more than six dog outfits – one for every holiday.

Hong Kong is a more than small world. It turns out other friends from Provence were there. George and Johanne own Al Forno, a much-admired restaurant in Providence, RI. The four of us had a fantastic seafood dinner at the Victoria City Seafood in Wah Chai (852) 2827-9938, and staggered out into the night, convinced that Hong Kong is the ideal Asian playground. People speak enough English to make Anglophones feel at home and there’s so much to see and do.

For those who want to see what Hong Kong used to look like, climb onto the Outlying Islands ferry that will transport you to Cheung Chau – a traditional Chinese community that has 18th century temples and is car-free.

For stellar views of the city, don’t miss tasking the Peak Tram. On a clear day, you can see forever and there are lovely nature walks.

Asia is changing so quickly ….. What’s here today will not necessarily be here tomorrow. If people consider Asia a “difficult or trying” destination, take my word, many cities cater to travelers who aren’t the rough-and-tumble type. For that matter, Asian hospitality is some of the best in the world.

Karen@BonjourParis.com
Bonjour Paris


Tags: , ,
Posted in Around the World |

Malaysia – Here I Come!

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:04 pm -

Before taking a long international plane trip, I always save the bulk of my work until the last minute. My theory is that if I pull an all-nighter before departure, the more likely I am to sleep through most of the flight, and can hit a new destination rested and ready to go. I knew that Kuala Lumpur (KL from here on) was famous for radiating chaotic and electrifying excitement, and my hope was to be energized enough to go with the flow. My fears were unfounded; as it turned out, KL was less daunting and more manageable.

The flight was one of, if not the best, I’ve ever taken. The Malaysia Airline flight attendants were wonderfully accommodating (no dagger-like stares for a request of an extra blanket or pillow).  In addition, each looked as rested (and well-groomed) upon arrival as when we departed.

Landing at the KL Airport is a bit of a shock – especially if you’re dazed after a long flight.  It’s hyper-modern:  an automated walkway to the driverless shuttle glides between terminals to the Customs and baggage collection areas. There, you have one last opportunity to buy duty-free items or down your first shot of Starbucks coffee from one of the city’s omnipresent emporiums.

Many travelers take the new non-stop train (www.eXKL.com) from the airport into the city, a relative bargain at only 100 Malaysian Ringgits. Not only does this save time (the train ride is a mere 26 minutes to the city terminal), it costs less than a limousine. Included in the price is a chauffeur-driven Mercedes to transport you from the terminal to your hotel or a downtown office. If you’re arriving during rush hour – and it’s always rush hour – this is the way to go.  (Keep in mind that, in Malaysia, people drive on the wrong – e.g., British – side of the road.)

The reputation of the Ritz Carlton — KL is stellar.  This is the first hotel in the group to introduce butler service for all guest rooms.  Jesse, “my” butler, helped me unpack and asked if I wanted refreshment. She also offered to make any and all reservations and (as promised in the brochure) and did her best to “anticipate guests’ needs to make them feel at home.” Best of all, Jesse was a pro at configuring my computer to the DSL modem.

There’s nothing ostentatious about this Ritz-Carlton. Rather, the guest rooms and public areas are decorated in muted tones that reflected a subtle British style.

The hotel’s cool elegance contrasts dramatically with the rest of the city. KL is dazzling combination of funky and futuristic.  Garish twinkling Christmas lights – glowing all year long – decorate many of the outdoor walkways (complete with oversized cool “spray misters”). Starbucks and McDonalds are omnipresent.

Inhabitants of different cultures coexist peacefully. Indian temples and monks wearing saffron robes share the city’s neighborhoods with ancient Chinese temples and the mosques of Malaysia’s Muslim community (estimated at 60% of the population). Dress codes are relaxed, both for tourists and locals.  In fact, most tourists dressed more conservatively than many young Malaysian women.

For an overview of Malaysian culture and history, plan on a visit to the National Museum. It has recently re-opened after extensive renovations, and now has a comprehensive exhibit about Malaysia’s extraordinarily diverse society; the Malaysian government is one of the most liberal and progressive in the developing world. It is making huge investments in educations and technology, and government officials are determined to make KL the business/IT capital of this part of the world.

KL’s twin towers are (for the moment) the tallest in the world. There are shopping centers everywhere. The median income in Malaysia is $300 per month, and most people make their livings as farmers or working in light industry. With the many government subsidies, there is a feeling of optimism in the air, and tourists rarely (if ever) see beggars or real poverty.

Visitors aren’t often conscious of the six-times-per-day call to prayer, perhaps because there’s so much street noise. It feels as if everyone’s is driving at 100 kilometers per hour, honking and weaving in and out of traffic. There are buses and taxis galore, with more than 50 taxi companies in KL alone. The concept of street lanes is relative, and the road construction everywhere results in bottlenecks. Whoever did the highway planning clearly didn’t foresee how KL’s jet-propulsion into the 21st century would impact traffic. With no central hub, the subway and aboveground rail systems are difficult to navigate, especially since different companies built lines without connecting them; the modern monorail is often hot and crowded.

If you’re transportation challenged, your hotel will gladly provide a pristine car and a driver (who usually speaks reasonable English) at surprisingly low rates. Regular metered taxis waiting at taxi stands are cheaper still.

Since I’d heard Malacca was a charming city brimming with antique shops and history (it was once a major shipping port), I wanted to see it. One of my traveling companions, Tim, tried to convince me that Malacca wasn’t what it used to be, but accompanied me on a two-and-a-half hour (each way) day trip.

A car “whisked” us to the town approximately 150 kilometers away. The narrow two-lane dirt road was being expanded into a four-lane highway, which made travel difficult. Although Tim was intent on showing me a specific landmark, we couldn’t find it. We assumed the house had been demolished. Here today, gone tomorrow, all in the name of progress. When we returned, we sited this Colonial house and took a brief tour. Unhappily, the original would be destroyed when the highway was inaugurated, replaced by a newer model.

After arriving back in Malacca, we headed to the central square. There were ideal photo opportunities of the Dutch-built town hall. We turned down transportation offers from elderly men navigating trishaws with tacky beaded umbrellas. We weren’t being cheap; rather, we were conscious that, given our combined weights, the trip could well end of the driver’s life!

The Asian crafts were disappointing and we left without buying. We had a pleasant lunch in the courtyard of a former 4-story farmhouse, alongside the original animal water basin. Even though Malacca’s Colonial architecture is suffering from neglect, a renovation plan for the town is in the works. Let’s hope the town’s fathers won’t make it look like Disneyland.

Then it was back to the Ritz Carlton. There’s definitely something to be said for a bath, nap and air-conditioning after such a long day. My butler was on call to see if I needed clothes pressed or cleaned, free of charge.

Tim and I had a quiet dinner at The Top Hat, a restaurant housed in a Colonial building, then proceeded to the night market where haggling is de rigueur; the vendors are ruthless, so be prepared.  If you’re (faux) label conscious, you’ll find everything from the “finest” watches to leather and luggage goods, including, of course, Vuitton bags and Polo shirts. You’ll also find an incredible choice of CDs and DVDs (I assume mainly pirated). I’m told they work in the US. Don’t expect to find native crafts.

I had brought a wad of Euros, as well as some dollars, but found the Euro hasn’t spread to the KL markets and thus has zero buying power. I was forced to go to a rip-off exchange emporium to buy Malay ringgits.

Tim’s goal was to buy two watches. He eventually found two llolexes (Rolexes; apparently Malaysians have the same problem with the “r” sound as the Japanese.) for a total of $20. My heart was set on a carry-on suitcase with wheels. I chose one and did the deal. I think I saw better knock-offs nearby but was too tired to continue the hunt. Plus, Tim was giving me dirty looks.

I did, however, buy some “Polo” shirts.  As Tim put them in my new suitcase, the zipper came off in his hand. Not a good omen. Back we went to that stall, which wasn’t easy to find. The salesman managed to produce a duplicate suitcase, and Tim zipped every zipper at least fourteen times. The young man assured us the suitcase was guaranteed, and we should return if there were additional problems; it was a nice gesture. As it happens, the handle went poof during my trip.

As we left the market, Tim and I were offered “lookie, lookie, dirty movies” and other forms of porn. In case we didn’t understand the words, some graphic gestures were made. I chose not to look.

Tim had been amazingly patient, up until we reached the taxi rank at 10PM and found the taxi drivers had formed a private labor union. They refused to take us to the hotel without charging nearly three times the metered rate. I was outraged and told Tim we were going to wait. Tim gave me an exasperated look and threw me into the cab, muttering that he was paying the two extra dollars!

There’s something for everyone in KL. It’s a wonderful walking city. The older parts of the city are filled with surprises, architectural and otherwise. For dedicated eaters, there are so many types of interesting food; my favorite included noodle houses.

Some members of the group opted for massage, reflexology and herbal medicine, while others went shopping. We didn’t see many indigenous native crafts in KL but there are a lot of “antiques” from neighboring countries. I hit pay dirt when I stumbled into Aseana, an elegant store featuring Malaysian gifts and accessories, as well as some from other parts of Southeast Asia. Best of all, what I liked had been reduced by seventy percent.

If you want to encounter locals, try the Central Market, filled with stalls of all sorts. Especially attractive were the leather goods, handmade purses, straw items and two stores with real antiques (and high prices). You’ll also see underwear and other real-life necessities, such as tee shirts, modestly priced children’s clothes, a few stands of shoes and some food stalls.  No matter the hour, there’s a hum of people doing business.

The Indian market was my favorite. The salespeople were friendly and willing to bargain, and several spoke excellent English. Some of the fabrics were spectacular.  Even though English is mandatory in the Malaysian school system, don’t expect to converse or get information in English except from people in the hospitality industry.

In contrast, the very popular Marriott Hotel shopping center features many boutiques, where you can buy high-style designer merchandise (the real stuff) from around the world. While luxury goods are not cheap in KL, it’s duty free.

On the Marriott’s ground floor, a restaurant called SHOOK really shakes.  It’s the place where those who want to see and be seen gravitate and order from one of the many stands—great if you’re in the mood for pasta, and your companion craves grilled foods. Diners can watch their meals being cooked in open kitchens.

Every shopping center is peppered with restaurants and a food court. In addition to restaurants at all price levels, there are cheaper outdoor cooking areas. Some no doubt will soon be displaced by, but for the moment . . . .

In spite of the standard warnings about not eating street food, most people in our group did. No one reported bad after-effects. But, it’s wise to stick to cooked foods, and to avoid drinking non-bottled water (when in any developing country, you should make sure the bottle is opened at the table).

Another warning: be prepared for Turkish toilets in older establishments. I didn’t go anywhere without a package of baby wipes. There were times when I was Ms. Popularity, because we all wilted in the heat of outdoor markets and were grateful for a refreshing dab or dose.

I could have stayed in KL for much longer.  Little did I know we had just begun our real adventure.   If you go to Malaysia, you can’t leave without visiting its resorts. They’re some of the most beautiful in the world.

Tourist Office Site
http://www.tourism.gov.my/

Malaysia Airlines:  http://www.bookonline-malaysiaairlines.com.my/MalaysiaApp/main.jsp?storefront=1001

Ritz Carlton
168, Jalan Imbi
55100
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel:     603 2142 8000
Fax:    603 2143 8080
E-Mail:  ritkl@ritzkl.po.my
www.ritzcarlton.com

Karen@BonjourParis.com
www.bonjourparis.com


Tags: ,
Posted in Around the World |