How Many Ways can you say the Economy is Rotten?

Written by admin on March 27, 2009 – 12:21 pm -

No one is happy about the world’s financial situation. If we’re not experiencing a depression, it’s certainly one hell of a recession. Economists can call it what they like, but unemployment rates are spiraling out of control and even though we’re allegedly not experiencing inflation, certain necessities feel as if they’re more expensive. Perhaps it’s because people have less disposable income. Expats have to deal with the situation in the old country as well as where they are living at the moment—and realize there’s no place to run. 

A trip to my local grocery store has me looking at the receipt more than once. Why did it cost so much to buy so little? There was less of a sting last year and the only really good buy that appears to be left are bottles of wine at Ed, the discount grocer at the end of my block. For less than three euros, I can buy bottle of wine good enough to serve to company and drink it with a baguette. The French are still buying bread because it’s part of their religion as well as tradition. And perhaps it’s because the cost of a baguette (not specialty breads) is price-fixed by the government.  

Americans are used to clipping coupons and trying to make the most of their purchasing power. But as long as I’ve lived in France, I’ve never received a brochure before now telling me that Franprix (a medium sized grocer with numerous stores in every quartier) was going to be open on a Friday night between 8 and 11 pm. It was a nocturne exceptionnelle (which is not the same as a Chopin composition) and six euros would be deducted from clients’ bills if they spent more than 30 euros.  

My neighborhood store wasn’t mobbed and the salesclerks looked bored silly. Perhaps people who live in the more upscale areas of Paris would rather dedicate a Friday evening to going to the movies. What might have been a huge success appeared to fall flat. 

However, you’d have to be blind not to see that deep-discounted “promotions” are taking place in many stores in Paris. It may not be sale time, but when there’s a will, there’s a way to persuade customers to buy—or die trying. 

Each time I turn on CNN, it is clear that things are worse in the U.S. and that it’s time for banks and financial institutions to be regulated. If you weren’t feeling nervous enough, the constant re-looping of the same bad news story is enough to make people not want to leave home — if they still have one. This isn’t to minimize the severity of the crisis; my friends in the U.S. send emails filled with doom and gloom scenarios.  

How could things go so awry with AIG, one the world’s largest multi-national companies? As for Bernard Madoff, it’s hard to imagine that so many people could have been snookered by the king of Ponzi schemes. Where was the SEC in spite of numerous warnings? 

The French aren’t happy at all when it comes to their present and future security. On May 19th, more than a million people throughout France went on strike. Employees of the private sector joined traditional public sector strikers such as teachers, transport workers and hospital staff. People were protesting President Sarkozy’s cuts to the public sector and to France’s welfare system and are holding him accountable for failing to protect workers from the economic crisis.  

Ironically, even though there were so many people striking, people who live in or were visiting Paris didn’t feel much of a disruption unless they were near the Place de la République where the demonstration took place. Because of a recent regulation, buses and metros are required to operate in Paris – with less frequency – but people could still get around.  

Unemployment is on the rise and the French are scared for their futures. All of this has a familiar ring. But contrasted with the French, Americans rarely take to the streets over economic conditions since most labor unions, such as the AFL-CIO, are substantially less powerful than they were in the 1950s. 

All we can do is hope for the best — and that the hard times won’t last too long. But as the man in the White House said, we didn’t get into this mess overnight and we won’t get out of any quicker.


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Posted in Around the World |

Jet-lag jungle survival tips

Written by admin on March 26, 2009 – 6:20 pm -

There’s an alleged rule of thumb that when crossing time zones, it takes one day for every two hours of time change to acclimate to a new destination. That means, if you’re jetting from the East Coast of the U.S. to Europe (a six hour time difference), your internal body clock might take three days to get into sync.

Most people just don’t have that kind of time to get on schedule. For that matter, they could be home before they do. Luckily, people are generally adaptable or air travel might not be a viable option for them. Even three hours from the east coast of the U.S. to the west coast can set a person’s sense of time amiss.

Ask flight crew members how they cope. Some will tell you they always stay on the same time zone in order to function or be able to work during their out-bound, ongoing or homecoming flights. Some people are definitely more adept than others and quite a few cabin attendants confess to suffering from frequent sleep deprivation. Such is life and they have learned to smile — most of the time.

Frequent vacation travelers and most road warriors often have suggestions as to how to combat jet-lag. There are no universal answers but here are a few hit-or-miss ideas.

Mindset:
Get in shape and prepare for your trip before leaving home. Gradually adjust your sleeping pattern. Some people go to bed an hour earlier or later each day (depending on whether they’re traveling east or west) and attempt to get into that destination time zone before the departure date. Focus on where you’re going. As soon as you board the plane, set your watch so many hours ahead – or behind. Ideally, you’ll be less tired if you’ve already partially shifted your schedule.

Alcohol:
Some people vow the worst thing to do on a plane is drink alcohol. Other passengers swear they have one or two cocktails or glasses of wine in order to relax and facilitate drifting off to sleep.

Some passengers opt to pop a pill with their drink and skip dinner if it’s an evening flight. They eat something before the plane departs and immediately will themselves into a Zen-like state. They resort to eye-shades, earplugs, headphones and a neck pillow and try to sleep all the way to their destination. Ask not be awakened for duty-free shopping or a second meal – if there is one. Wear your seat belt so it’s visible in the event of turbulence. Who needs to be disturbed by a crew member who’s checking to see whether or not you’re complying with the rules?

Request a large bottle of water so when you awaken during the flight, you can take a swig and remain hydrated without having to summon a flight attendant for a refill.

To nap or not when you arrive:
There are a many theories when it come to whether you should or shouldn’t. Some people say you should force yourself to stay awake the first day. You may be dragging but if you’re able to keep busy, eat an early (and light) dinner and hit the sack at a quasi-normal time, you’ll be good to go the following day.

Others say they couldn’t live without a nap, but it shouldn’t last more than a couple of hours. A lot depends on whether or not your accommodations are ready upon arrival plus your personal needs. And don’t be surprised if they change as you get older.

Exercise:
Many business people (and they’re usually the ones sitting in the front of the plane) swear that a workout in a gym gets their bodies and adrenalin going. Frequently, they’re expected at meetings the day they arrive and need to be in optimal form. They may even be scheduled for a business dinner their first night that can be more trying than pleasure.

On business trips, there’s a written rule that can’t always be followed: Never sign a binding document or contract before having a good night’s sleep. Doing so may cause you to regret having put pen to paper.

Light:
Jet-lag is often caused by the body’s internal clock being out of alignment when it comes to the Circadian Cycle or more commonly known as the sleep cycle. This controls when the body releases melatonin, which signals your brain when it’s time to sleep. Some travelers swear that taking melatonin tablets in preparation for a trip does the trick. Others give it little or no credence.

Some people use a light therapy unit (Apollo Health sells a travel kit) that might help adjust your body clock. Some people swear by artificial light as an antidote to winter/seasonal depression or “SAD”- Seasonal Affective Disorder as well as jet-lag.

Another theory suggests getting extra sleep before and after your trip when crossing multiple time zones. It’s as if you’re stocking up or making up for lost hours in bed.

If people agree on anything, it’s that you shouldn’t spend a long haul flight catching up on all of the movies (good and bad) you haven’t had the chance to see at home. Teens may be able to pull all-nighters; but even they suffer upon landing.

One thing I’ve noticed during my many flights is people in business and first class appear to sleep from lift-off time even if it’s a morning or mid-day flight. Let’s face it; it’s rare when it’s worth staying awake to sample the gourmet food.

If you have any secrets, ideas or suggestions as to how to beat jet-lag and falling on your face on the first and second days of your trip, please post them.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Camping as an alternative family vacation

Written by admin on March 23, 2009 – 6:23 pm -

This year, many families are considering axing their annual family vacations.  Traveling is a luxury and people are looking at their expenses and their bank balances with fear and trepidation.

If you’re in the U.S., you might want to consider camping. Campgrounds at state parks, national parks, national or state forests, and other public recreation areas as a destination for your family vacation. The cost of gas is down and there are numerous options when it comes to accommodations.

What can you expect at the campground?
They cost approximately  $12-$25 per night, considerably less than a motel room.

Park rangers, who also provide security at the campgrounds, typically run the parks. Frequently, they conduct programs where people can learn about the ecology and more of the area. Many campgrounds have activities targeted to children (and adults) with different interests. A great number have evening lectures and even sing-alongs.

Most campsites have a fire-pit, a charcoal grill and a picnic table. During high season, it’s prudent to reserve; different campgrounds have regulations as to precisely how long you may stay.

You’ll find an area to set up a tent and a place to park your car. There are dedicated buildings for bathrooms and showers. Don’t forget your personal belongings such as soap; shampoo, and rubber flip flops and other sundries.

All camping areas have drinking water available as well as places to do dishes and toss your trash.  Many are equipped with laundry facilities and some have mini-markets, which aren’t the least expensive place to buy groceries but are convenient. There’s some work to camping but hey … family members save a lot of money when everyone gets involved in doing the chores.

If you’re not into the tent culture, many camp grounds offer rental cottages. Some are more primitive than others. Or you can rent an R.V. if you want to travel in a self contained unit. Or you may prefer to drag a trailer behind your car so you can park it  and go off exploring.  Visit camping lots in your area and you’ll find there are a lot of used campers as well as trailers for rent and for sale. Many owners are delighted to rent them in order to generate some income.

Possible things to do  in a campground.
Most public parks have hiking trails and many parks have lakes for fishing, boating and swimming.

Discover nature — some city children have never seen a deer crossing a path much less a mushroom sprouting from the ground. Hummm, watch out for poison ivy.

Many camping destinations have recreational facilities such as basketball courts and playgrounds with swings and slides for the younger set.

Don’t forget to bring bikes, inflatable floats and pool toys, softball equipment, Frisbees, board games if the weather isn’t cooperating.  Remember your children’s favorite toys.

Yes, you can break down and ever bring a portable DVD player.

Bring a telescope so you can star gaze and a include a bird book if that’s your thing.

Locating camp grounds (both public and private) is only a question of surfing the Internet. In France, there’s a manual rating camping areas as if they were hotels with the equivalent of Michelin stars.

One caveat: Don’t assume you can pull off and camp anyplace you want. Depending on the state and local regulations, you might be breaking the law and awakened by the police in the middle of the night. Plus campgrounds offer greater security from people who might be up to no good.

I’m not an avid camper but have gone camping both in the U.S. and in France. I have some great memories and have amassed some tips. But, let’s hear your dos and don’ts and how you’ve maximized your camping forays. And whether or not this article is inspiring you to launch out on one?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Health Care for All

Written by admin on March 21, 2009 – 12:23 pm -

One of President Barack Obama’s goals is to make health insurance affordable and accessible to all Americans by utilizing the current healthcare system. This would include using existing providers and insurance plans.

As an American, this would be a dream. Not everyone can afford the wildly expensive health insurance policies, many of which have so many deductibles that people may find their insurance isn’t worth much except in the event of a catastrophic illness.

Some states in the U.S. forbid insurers to decline patients because of pre-existing conditions. In other states, it’s the insurer who makes the call and can do as they like and do.

In addition, monthly premiums might run as much as your housing costs. It’s not a pretty picture and, as a result, too many Americans go without medical insurance.

Being a French resident has increased my awareness (as well as the funds in my bank account) that medicine in France is a whole lot cheaper than in the U.S. A consultation with an internist costs 22 euros. And French healthcare is exceptional.

Because of government controls, prescription medications cost a fraction of what they do in the States. I was just able to buy a six-month supply of a pill I take for the cost of one month’s supply of the same pill purchased in the U.S. My cost for a month’s worth of pills was two dollars less than my co-pay. 

Having said that, if you need an aspirin in France, its much more expensive than in the US. Expatriates, once back in America, stock up on enormous bottles of vitamins, aspirin and other over-the-counter drugs. There’s current legislation pending that will enable French residents to buy non-prescription drugs for a reasonable price at certain grocery stores and parapharmacies.

Being an expat of a certain age, I don’t understand why Medicare doesn’t cover people who don’t live in the U.S. Some of us view it as discrimination and can’t believe it’s so difficult to do the mathematic calculations between what a procedure costs in Nebraska and what it would cost overseas. In spite of ongoing lobbying, American citizens who choose to live outside of the U.S. are under the financial gun. We’re hoping this will change sooner rather than later.

As things stand now, the same doctor’s visit and other medically related procedures cost very little in the E.U. (and even less in countries that are developing medical tourism, such as Singapore and India).

A few U.S. insurance companies are sending patients overseas for complicated surgical procedures to save on costs. Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently did an in-depth report on CNN, explaining this may become increasingly prevalent. The hospital he toured in India was nothing less than state of the art and many of the physicians had been trained in the U.S. 

The differential cost in medical care personally struck home recently when I had a houseguest from the U.S. His vacation was spent in misery, since he developed numerous symptoms from some mysterious illness. Don’t get the wrong idea – I usually don’t aim to kill people who stay with me. But on his second day in Paris, he awakened with the rash from hell. His body was covered with hives and it wasn’t a pretty sight, not to mention he was in excruciating pain from the itching.

Off I went to my local pharmacy to explain the situation, and returned with a box of antihistamines and some body lotion. The pharmacist couldn’t have been nicer or more accommodating. Contrasted with the U.S., there’s a drug store on nearly every Paris block and they sell almost nothing but medications. In France, you may be able to buy a toothbrush in a pharmacy, but forget milk and other sundries—la pharmacie is not CVS.

When my guest wasn’t better the next day and had developed additional symptoms, we headed to the pharmacy (which can’t be more than 500 square-feet in size). Two of the pharmacists held a conference and decided he should go to the doctor. 

One phoned a near-by one and made an appointment for him to be seen immediately. We were told to rush to the office since it was a Saturday and the office was only open until noon. So we wouldn’t lose time getting lost, one of the pharmacists drew a map to show us the most direct route.

My guest, now the patient, was seen within minutes of arriving in the doctor’s office. None of this “sit and wait business” I’ve become accustomed to in the U.S., in spite of having a walk-in appointment.

If someone becomes sick in France and can’t make it to the doctor, he or she can call SOS Médecins — a network of 1000 doctors who make house calls 24 hours a day. When you speak with the dispatcher, explain you’d prefer a doctor who speaks English and describe your symptoms. The price varies depending on the hour you call. But the group guarantees a physician will be there within an hour. And it’s usually sooner. They can come to your house and even give shots at your home.

Many people say that all of the perks of the French medical system can’t last, as the French social security system (sécurité sociale) is under severe financial strain due to an aging population, which has contributed to a huge increase in spending on healthcare, pensions and unemployment benefits in recent years. As of February 2009, France’s health spending alone is around 10 percent of its GDP. Then again, America’s is over 14 percent—and I’m not always sure we get the best care for the high prices.

You can’t help but wonder if there will ever be parity when it comes to medical care and goods and services. For right now, I have US insurance, and I also tap into the French healthcare system when needed. Fortunately for me, I have the best of both worlds.


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Posted in Around the World |

For hard-core travelers, only one kind of airline ticket will do

Written by admin on March 19, 2009 – 8:34 pm -

Let’s face it: These days, most people are cutting back on travel costs. But if you’re conducting business, there are times when you have no choice but to bite the bullet and go.

This is especially true if you’re dealing with clients or suppliers in foreign countries where you must press the flesh to get a deal done.

Frequently, it’s less expensive to purchase Around the World (RTW) tickets rather than going from here to there. Some road warriors have more than one open ticket going simultaneously. Thank goodness I don’t need to do that type of travel, but I fully admit to being a get up and go travel addict and love to visit old and new places.

I’ve finally found a savior and have delegated the worries to them. I was especially glad when I went to Asia this past December and the airport in Bangkok was closed. I had to be rerouted and rerouted again. Imperial American Express Travel Services was on the ball and sent me emails (as well as calling) to ensure I wasn’t going to be stranded. If I had been planning the logistics myself, I would have been a nervous wreck. As it was, it was only inconvenient. But hey, I wouldn’t have seen Singapore if something hadn’t gone awry.

Imperial American Express Travel Services is based in Canada, which gives them a definite advantage over U.S. agencies. What I learned is that if an Around the World trip originates in a county that costs less, most tickets are required to be raised to the (higher) U.S fare. For some reason, and I’m not going to refute it, Canada is the exception.

People taking long haul flights would rather travel business class or first class, and you can’t blame them if they’re going to be spending hours in route.

The airlines (with their partners) can and do offer RTW trips. But each time I’ve tried to book one, I’ve never been able to find the best price if I’ve wanted to make any detours. Unless you’re really savvy and have a slide rule coupled with a computer for a brain, you can spend not just hours, but days, planning the air portion. This agency has managed to ticket me in business class for less than coach class would have cost had I been doing the travel planning myself.

When friends and family inquire how I afford to indulge in my passion for travel, I advise them to access Imperial American Express Travel Service’s site and specify their itinerary needs.  With all of the promotions, advanced purchase requirements and rebate stipulations, there’s no way I can possibly compete with these pros. They have had the pleasure of planning four trips for me. If they can survive my constant emails, they deserve to be nominated for sainthood.

I’d much rather book the hotels where I want to stay, the sights I want to see and leave the air details to a company that has resources I simply don’t and will never have.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Editor’s note: Airtreks.com is an online agency that specialized in RTW tickets. It might be another option.


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Which airport do you dread the most?

Written by admin on March 16, 2009 – 8:39 pm -

It feels like sacrilege to be writing this, considering I’m someone who loves and lives in Paris. But that doesn’t mean I have to relish its main international airport Roissy – Charles de Gaulle.

Perhaps it was because I was flying on a Friday the 13th and because Terminal One is (still) being renovated that getting through passport control and security was enough to make most people experience heart palpitations.

Departure passport control madness
There are numerous airports I try to avoid when clearing security or customs is mandatory. London-Heathrow is one of them as is Chicago-O’Hare. Airports in India and some developing countries are no fun either. But Paris? I’d never had such an experience when departing.

Arriving at the airport nearly three hours before take-off should have been more than enough time especially because I was flying business class. (Thank goodness for accumulated miles with which to upgrade.)

Obtaining the boarding pass was a no-brainer and I was given a pass to the Red Carpet lounge where I could relax before boarding. I must admit I was surprised I had to pay a €36 departure tax that previously had been absorbed by the airline. But times are tough. It’s only money and so far, so good.

That’s where the good luck ended. Only one checkpoint was open where passengers were required to show their boarding passes and passports to take the rolling sidewalk up to passport control. I had a deja-vu feeling of arriving in New Delhi, India only to find myself in the midst of hundreds of people pushing to get into the front of the line – as if there were a line – in order to clear customs.

The Aéroports de Paris inspector stopped the hoards of people who were trying to get to their planes and instructed them to wait since there was a back up at passport control. There’s nothing like hearing those words when your flight may be leaving without you, even though you’re supposedly there in plenty of time.

When the impatient crowd was permitted upstairs, there was more than an hour’s wait to have passports stamped to leave France. The four inspectors looked at each and every document as if people were trying to come into the country rather than exiting. The line kept getting longer and longer and people looked increasingly nervous.

By the time I arrived at United’s Red Carpet lounge, there was already an announcement to go to the gate for security clearance. We had to wait again to have our luggage searched and to have our passports and boarding passes inspected yet again for our flight on a U.S. carrier.

The line went on forever and the inspectors were none too swift; there certainly weren’t enough of them to contend with the numbers of people and their carry-on luggage.

Eventually, passengers heading to Dulles were given priority so the flight could take off on time. As it was, people straggled onto the plane until the very last moment and the pilot advised everyone to take their seats immediately or we’d lose our take-off slot.

On-board disappointments
One of the perks of flying business class is being given a drink before take-off. I opted for a Mimosa in order to quench my thirst and hopefully calm my nerves.

When it was time for a drink before lunch, I requested a glass of champagne. Colette, the very French flight attendant who’d been with the airline for more than 15 years, apologized by saying that all United serves in business class is sparkling wine imported from the U.S. and she was humiliated that flights originating in France were no longer serving French wines. “It only stands to reason that French wines are substantially less expensive in France.” Colette kept repeating as a point of national pride.

She went out of her way and highjacked a flute of French champagne from first class. How spoiled I was even though it certainly wasn’t Dom Perignon. Lunch was lunch but certainly not the same as it used to be. Colette explained they did the best they could, but with such massive staff cutbacks only so much was feasible when it came to food service and it certainly wasn’t French.

U.S. customs ease
Going through customs at Washington’s Dulles Airport was the height of organization. Everything went smoothly until an inspector randomly waived me to another exit area where each and every bag was checked for food products. I had none and know better. The extra inspection didn’t take too long.

Perhaps I should just chalk it up to bad luck and plan not to book another flight on Friday the 13th.

Which airports do you dread the most when it comes to going through security and/or passport control? Some are clearly easier than others.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Look on the Bright Side

Written by admin on March 13, 2009 – 12:26 pm -

If anyone isn’t experiencing the impact of the economic downturn, bless him and her. They must be living in a bubble of wine and roses.

There are very few people who are so isolated or rich that they don’t know people in Europe and the States who aren’t feeling the crunch. Acquaintances are losing jobs and homes, closing their businesses or at least tightening their belts, and it’s simply not a happy time. And unfortunately, this crisis is not going to be ephemeral—here today and gone tomorrow. 

The tourist industry is suffering and business travel is down. People who traditionally take vacations are going to find that vacations will be among the first things they’ll have to sacrifice. For the French, vacation time is sacred. During this past month’s winter break, many people sent their children packing to their grandparents. If they took a vacation en famille, they went to substantially less expensive places. Or they were able to negotiate a better package deal. 

So what can people do to lessen the pain? Adopt the mantra to go without and decide to take advantage of things that come with a zero to minimal price tag. It’s a question everyone is asking and that includes many Bonjour Paris readers.

For example, walking in Paris’s Luxembourg Garden is a respite. Any well-maintained city park is free for the looking. If you’re so inclined and don’t have a child of your own (and there are times when it’s easier not to because of the responsibility), emotionally adopt a perfectly behaved one and share in that child’s innocent joy of exploration. 

Watch his or her excitement when finding a flower or a piece of ribbon that’s more than simply a piece of cut fabric. Share the child’s exuberance when he sees a new bird or notices a tree that merits climbing.

When taking a walk last Sunday, the person I was with suggested we buy some roses. The florist is by no means the fanciest in Paris. But for ten euros, I received nearly a week’s worth of pleasure. The bouquet was better than any meal and certainly more affordable. Were the flowers an extravagance? Some people might say yes if it were a toss up between them and eating. But the joy the arrangement gave me (and the florist arranged the bouquet as if it cost ten times more, complete with ribbons and wrapped in clear plastic) was worth the three subsequent days of eating exclusively pasta. 

Adopt a neighborhood and really get to know it. Gaze up (and down) in Paris. There’s invariably something new and different to discover. Map out walking tours wherever you live or pinpoint a town near you. Play tourist. How many times do people run from here to there without taking the time to look around? I know I’m guilty.

In France, people escape by going to the movies when times are tough. They’re more affordable than dining out. As a result, theater attendance in Paris has risen. Netflix rentals have yet to become a way of life as they are in the U.S., where an inexpensive way to pass a family evening at home is to schedule a movie time and cook up a couple of huge bowls of popcorn. There’s something decidedly exotic even about seeing an American movie (labeled V.O. for Version Originale)in Paris. 

Paris is full of churches where free or nearly free concerts take place. But people don’t need to attend services, only. Find out what time practice recitals take place and join the audience. In Washington, D.C., the Kennedy Center has Millennium Stage performances at six p.m. every evening, open to all for free. Let’s hope funding for the arts doesn’t disappear from the Federal budget and there will be people with enough money and foundations to underwrite artistic presentations. 

This is the time to return to reading. Many of us are guilty of buying books because Amazon.com makes it so easy and so fast. Visit your local library and become a borrower. Read books to purely escape from the reality of everyday life. 

Another thought—now’s the time to pare down your possessions. If you haven’t worn something in more than five years, chances are you’re not going to. Take those clothes, dishes and items you’ve been collecting in your attic or closets and try to sell them or give them to charity so others who are in need can make use of things you can hardly remember.

France is filled with stores where you can sell second-hand goods, and your cast-off may very well be someone else’s treasure. Why not generate a few euros or dollars, clean out your storage areas and make someone else happy? There are yard sales and flea markets springing up everywhere and many people frequent them as a form of recreation. And big hint: May is a big flea market time!

This is the time when people need to band together and treat one another with increased kindness.

Please feel free to add any and all of your ideas as to how to get through these more than difficult times. People are scared and with good reason. Let’s help assuage some of those fears.


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Posted in Around the World |

Would the French ruin one of their main tourist attractions?

Written by admin on March 11, 2009 – 8:45 pm -

The movie Sideways highlighted wine tasting junkets as a major sightseeing activity for wine lovers in the U.S. People go from one wine producer to another, sample a bit of that year’s crop (or older vintages) and buy bottles of their favorites to take home.

Limousine companies got into the marketing act by chauffeuring oenophiles (tasters out for a good time) from one producer to another. Driving after too much drinking is frowned upon and punishable by hefty fines with points being added to a driver’s license. Worse yet, you may find your car wrapped around a tree with you and your passengers in it. That doesn’t factor in the cars you might have encountered head on.

The French have traditionally enjoyed wine tastings at caves throughout France. Many wine growing parts of the country have designated wine-tasting routes where people stop and sample tiny glasses of wine and may or may not came away with a bottle or even a five- or ten-liter bag-in-box. Off they go to the next cave, which may be less than five minutes away. People from all over the world come expressly to make wine pilgrimages. France’s hospitality industry has benefited.

Last week, France’s Minister of Health Roselyne Bachelot proposed a law that would make it illegal to have wine tastings. This is intended to ban binge drinking at soirées sponsored by liquor companies in open bars where young people, often students, pay an entrance fee to drink as much as they like. But it could be interpreted as banning wine tastings.

As the French like to do, vintners went on strike over this proposition that would severely impact business and their ability to sell wines. Gone would be tastings in liquor stores and grocery stores (that sell enormous quantities of the country’s best-known beverage.)

Most observers of the French wager this law will never be adopted. It has too many marketing ramifications and would destroy a huge draw for French tourism.

Wine growers are proposing they be given a status differentiating them from producers of hard liquor and fortified spirits. That’s what’s done in Spain.

“How can one imagine that French wine, without even talking about its economic weight or its place in our heritage and our cultural identity, can have any real export growth opportunities when everything is done to censor it in our country?” questioned Bordeaux mayor, Alain Juppé.

Time will tell. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if you read about the French striking and a lot of lobbying and posturing.  C’est la France.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

What are the worst hotel experiences you’ve had?

Written by admin on March 10, 2009 – 8:41 pm -

Hotel horror stories abound but some are definitely worse than others. At the moment, they may feel horrible and catastrophic. Later, you might view them with a touch of humor. You can always hope.

The following are a few hair-raising hotel sagas I’ve heard over the years.

Bumped by a convention
A group of people assigned to an on-going business project always stayed in the same hotel. They would arrive on Sunday or Monday and check out on Friday. One would think it would be good business for the hotel and that these clients would be given A+ service? Well not precisely.

Upon arriving one Sunday, they were informed there were no rooms available. Their standing reservations weren’t going to be honored since there was a convention taking place. But they shouldn’t worry since alternative reservations had been made. The group was bused to a hotel approximately 45 minutes away in a rather seedy area of the city. Some rooms were clearly being rented by the hour.

When one person complained that his room had no phone (this was pre-cell phone days), the manager unplugged his phone on the front desk and gave it to him. The group survived the night but never returned to the original upscale hotel. Not only did they nix that city’s hotel but also they decided to sever its relationship with the chain.

Even dead bugs like classy places
Another not-so-funny hotel story but certainly creepy and memorable, it told about an upscale establishment. A woman decided to splurge and booked a room in a luxury boutique hotel that cost nearly $400 per night and promoted itself as the cream of the crop.

After a grueling workday, she was looking forward to relaxing in the hotel’s whirlpool. Before she took the plunge, she cleaned the hair littering the tub. After filling the tub, she discovered the whirlpool jets weren’t working but decided to use the tub anyway. As she looked up at the light over the tub, she was horrified to be greeted by generations of dead bugs. That clinched it. She put on her clothes and checked out of the hotel ASAP.

Can we get the windows opened?
Sometimes the hotel problems are caused by previous clients. This story about maintaining the heating, or cooling, system seems humorous in hindsight.

Now that so many hotels have gone the no-smoking route, the room’s windows are often bolted shut. I guess this is probably to maintain the sanctity of its no-smoking designation. Some clever client had managed to pry open the window just enough so the room felt as if it were being overtaken by howling gale winds. The next hotel guest had to turn up the heat full blast to stay warm. The end of the room with the pried-open window was frigid while the other end was roasting. Happily, the bed was in the middle of the room. The hotel gave him a 50 percent rebate when he checked out that morning. Thank goodness he didn’t contract pneumonia along with his discount.

It meets corporate criteria, but …
A businessman was booked into a hotel by the personnel manager’s secretary. The criteria were that the hotel should be near the conference venue as well as near the train station. The company quality standard specified four-star accommodations. When he arrived, there weren’t any taxis. After eventually finding one, he was driven to the hotel that was on very impressive grounds and looked as though it had once been a very grand country house.

He thought there might have been an old-folks convention taking place based on the number of wheelchairs and walkers not to mention the median age of the guests. After checking in, he asked for directions to the bar. The receptionist shot him a strange look and informed him Quakers owned the hotel and no liquor was permitted on the premises.

In addition, part of the hotel was a retirement home causing the ambiance to be something less than cheerful. The receptionist took pity on him and directed him to the closest village. It had a pub, served meals and he hung out there until closing time when he returned to his long-term-care facility.

I still can’t figure out what kind of convention he was attending and why his secretary booked him there.

I’ve been collecting these stories and could go on and on. But rather than continue rambling on, let’s hear your accounts. Some of them must be zingers. And the real questions are: Did you find them amusing at the time? Are you laughing about them now?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.


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The revered Michelin Guide awards its stars

Written by admin on March 3, 2009 – 8:48 pm -

For people who want to know about the (alleged) best restaurants and hotels in various countries, the Michelin Guide is more than likely their culinary and hotel bible. Or one of them.

People who happened to be passing Paris’s Musée d’Orsay yesterday might have thought the Academy Awards were taking place. The area was filled with police and there were dozens of satellite broadcast trucks, so the press could announce the newest winners (and losers) of the much sought over Michelin stars.

France has twenty-six three-star restaurants. There’s only one new addition this year and it’s been awarded to 45-year-old Eric Frechon, head chef at the tres chic and expensive Bristol Hotel. Frechon has already worked in the restaurant business for 32 years and has done everything from mop floors to cook for royalty and France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s home is literally a three-minute walk to the hotel.

But as Paris is feeling the economic crisis and even the very rich have been cutting back when it comes to eating out and opting to go to less expensive restaurants. Frechon wagers this star will insure every table is booked as they were in the past.

This year was the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Michelin Guides that are printed by the tire company. During the two world wars, the guides were put on hold. Inaugurated in France, Michelin now publishes guides covering twenty-three countries and forecasts further expansion. As of this year, the information is now accessible via mobile phones including the iPhone by accessing Michelin as well as the Internet.

In addition to the 548 starred restaurants, Michelin’s 2009 French edition has awarded 527 restaurants a “Bib Gourmand.” That designation signifies restaurants that offer good value for money. These meals cost no more than €35 (without wine). They are where I’ll be eating when I’m not eating pasta in the kitchen.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |