About Provence

Written by admin on May 30, 2009 – 11:57 am -

Each year, emails flow into the Bonjour Paris mailbox with questions from people thinking of moving to Provence and setting up permanent housekeeping there. Even with the dollar-euro fluctuations, life can cost less in the French countryside, especially if you’re into food and wine. For people who are retiring (and can get medical insurance), France’s quality of life can be lovely. I know because I did it but was far from stopping to exclusively smell the roses.

My husband and I went for it full-tilt and fulfilled the dream so many people share. It was the perfect run-down mas (farmhouse) in the midst of the vines. All it would require was a little work—hah. After two years of more workmen than I could imagine and getting to know all of them in the area, the house was finally a home rather than a construction site. After spending fifteen years commuting between Paris and Provence, selling the house was bittersweet.

There had been so many wonderful events, birthdays, a wedding and memories I’ll always cherish. But for many reasons, most especially the death of my husband Victor, its time had come and gone. I considered trying to keep the house so my grandchildren could spend summers there. But it was a different era and the time had come to move on.

As I drove out of the driveway for the final time, I realized the tiny trees we’d planted when we’d first moved there had quadrupled in height. The fig trees we’d nurtured from slightly larger than twigs were bearing fruit. We’d lived through different weather systems, all too many mistrals and managed to become cat owners.

I don’t (rather didn’t) like cats. But Kitty has become a pivotal part of my life and even has a EU passport. Thank goodness, she has been insinuated her claws and ways into the hearts of others who give her incredible TLC when I’m traveling.

The house and the property were a lot of work and what we spent on upkeep… it’s vulgar to talk about money, but it was a hell of a lot. All I wanted was a staff only to find out we’d be dependent on very part-time help.

My husband was passionate about the garden. I love flowers and immediately planted peonies. Somehow, I always seemed to be somewhere else when they were in full bloom and would have to be content looking at photos of them in their glory.

We had a potager (vegetable garden) that cost a fortune to plant and to maintain. But Victor loved it and I learned to make every recipe that contained zucchini. I would literally stand in the garden and watch it grow. Our guests could hear me cursing. Neighbors knew to lock their doors and close all shutters pretending to be away in the event I came calling with three kilos of what became known as the vegetable from hell.

Naturally, the items I had hoped would grow didn’t. They were planted. But the mole population of the region knew what was good and they weren’t going to bother themselves with the zucchini that would explode a minimum of six inches if I turned my back. These devious animals aren’t stupid and were fully aware flowers are tasty. I thought about buying a shotgun or maybe dynamite, but I don’t think the neighbors would have liked that—or liked the idea that I’d drive the critters into their gardens.

Unless you’re committed to living in the country and becoming a part of the community, Americans shouldn’t strike out and buy property just because they’ve read one of Peter Mayle’s books. Or, our neighbors’ book, We’ve Always Had Paris and Provence by Patricia and Walter Wells.

It’s one thing for people who live in the EU and the UK to have second homes in Provence that they can reach easily on weekends or for a vacation. It’s quite something else when Americans take the plunge and opt to take up permanent residence on the other side of the Atlantic. Even if you shuttle between the two continents, you can’t help but lose contact with family members, old friends and professional colleagues unless you don’t mind running a hotel. And even then…

Before taking the plunge, rent houses in different parts of France where there are huge differentials in costs of buying your dream house. Let the owners do the work as well as absorb the cost of the upkeep. In addition, you become familiar with different regions of the country and where you’d be the most comfortable. Some parts of France are extremely remote and don’t open their arms to newcomers unless your French is flawless.

Other areas of the country are filled with expats, which may be precisely why you opt to move there. It’s easier to acclimate if you already have a nucleus of acquaintances. But try not to fall in the same rut that some do by not even making an effort to learn anything other than the most rudimentary French and residing in colonies.

It’s never too late to learn a language even if your accent is terrible and you use incorrect tenses. The secret is to take lessons, studying, listening to language tapes or jumping in and speaking even if you sound foolish. Children have no shame when speaking a new language and adults should adopt the same attitude.

The cost of real estate in France with the exception of Paris has taken an approximate 10% dip according to Karen Tait, the editor of French Property News.

Buying into a “fractional ownership” of a property tempts some people. There are certainly advantages. But don’t consider buying into one without legal counsel. The developer is the main person who comes out ahead financially. Remember, whatever it’s called, it’s still a time-share.

Consult a lawyer who knows the laws and tax regulations of France and your home country. It’s money well spent since the Napoleonic Code is like none other unless you’re from Louisiana.

There are a lot of pitfalls that can be avoided by not relying on the local real estate agent and his or her chosen notaire who will be responsible for recording the purchase and sale of the house or apartment. If only we had taken this advice and sought out expert advice. But we were too busy smelling the lavender and contemplating the sunsets, which was the point after all.

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Around the World |

Confessions of a mileage junkie in London

Written by admin on May 28, 2009 – 5:38 pm -

I’m a travel junkie. When I see a plane, I want to be on it. All of these “you can’t beat these fares” ads are nirvana.

When a $500+ fare to London from Washington, DC popped up on my computer screen, it was booked as if I were possessed. In addition, it was on United. I’m going to make 1K this year, come hell or high water.

United has made mileage runs easier since travelers are being awarded double qualifying miles until June 15th if registered for the promotion.

London is a wonderful city of which I never get enough. Plus there was a must-see exhibit closing that Saturday afternoon. Off I went on Friday morning flight at 10 a.m. and scheduled my return to IAD Sunday morning. This was going to be a snap. And it almost was.

It was the first time I’d taken a daytime transatlantic flight. Would it limit jet lag? Would I feel human? In essence, this was a bit of an endurance test. And thanks to a friend, I’d snared a ticket for the exhibition.

So far, so good. Because  I was arriving after 9 p.m. London time, it made sense to stay at an airport hotel. I cashed in points and opted for the concierge floor so I could enjoy all of its conveniences.

I read the hotel’s website: Shuttle service to and from the hotel, priority check in, a club lounge that remains open 24 hours a day, promising coffee, tea, soft drinks and something to stave off starvation, free breakfast, free cocktails and complimentary hors d’oeuvres each evening. And free high-speed Internet or WiFi was included, which is a must in my life or I go into a quasi- catatonic state.

This made perfect sense. I’d take the Heathrow Express from the airport to Central London’s Paddington Station. It takes only 15 minutes and is a pleasure. It’s not cheap but neither is sitting in a cab that’s stalled in traffic. It was more convenient to sleep at an airport hotel than worrying about coming and going after and before my flights.

Where did I go wrong?

How did I know that it would be nearly an hour before the shuttle would appear and there’d be £4 fee. The hotel’s lobby was overrun with people and skip the “preferential” service. I went to the lounge that looked as if it had been trashed. I managed to grab a piece of fruit but had to steal a napkin off of a room service cart that was sitting in the hallway and was still there the next morning when I left.

No problem – I’d plug in my computer and do some work. Why didn’t I understand that free computer time was exclusively confined to the lounge and I’d have to pay £15 for 24 hours if I wanted to connect.

Not to worry. By now I was both hungry and thirsty and headed to the bar. I was greeted with a room filled with people, most of whom had tattoos and were chugging beer. It was 11:02 p.m. The kitchen just closed but I was welcome to peanuts, which was fine with me. The patrons looked as if they were Rolling Thunder bikers. (I knew they weren’t since I’d left them in Washington where they’d rallied for the Memorial Day weekend.) There was no question though that this group was having a jolly old time.

OK – to bed. The room was stuffy. I was certain the air-conditioning had been off. After switching on the air conditioning, I turned to the television. I carefully followed all of the instructions. CNN was my station of choice and, carefully following instructions on the channel card, I clicked on station number 10. What I saw certainly didn’t resemble anything I’d ever seen on the Cable News Network since it was the hardest of hard-core porn. After trying the channel again, I was greeted by the same performance.

Not giving in – remember my internal clock was five hours earlier – I called the desk and a very helpful young woman informed me that I’d obviously clicked on a pay-for adult program. She’d send an engineer up with a new remote and he’d program the television so I could watch the news.

By now I was wearing the hotel’s terry cloth robe. Mohammed knocked on the door and seemed confident he could tune in the news. He was greeted by the same show and said with more than a smidgen of embarrassment that the hotel no longer featured CNN and he’d better tell the manager.

So all shouldn’t be lost, I asked him to regulate the air-conditioning. This was not Mohammed’s night since he was forced to admit that I should leave the window open — and it hardly opened — since the AC hadn’t been turned on for the season.

The yogurt at breakfast was just fine as was the espresso. Off I went to London, perused the exhibit and walked in Hyde Park. It was a stunningly beautiful day. I was back at the hotel in time for cocktails, which consisted of wine, beer and appetizers that more than missed the mark. The assembled group mumbled that the chef clearly was off-duty.

Back to the airport — the shuttle only stops at terminal one, where United operates. I hit the lounge so I could catch up on some emails and do some research. I’m always amazed what a pleasure Red Carpet lounges are overseas compared to those in the U.S. Free food, all-you-can-drink liquor plus lots of space.

Seven hours later, I was back in Washington after having had an adventure. Would I do it again? Of course. And since the flight was full, I suspect a lot of people were making mileage runs and would rack up approximately 9,000 miles.

Next trip, I think I’ll pass on staying at that specific hotel even though it received positive reviews on Trip Advisor. Plus I hope there will be CNN where I reserve.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

8 ways to stretch vacation dollars

Written by admin on May 26, 2009 – 5:40 pm -

The Memorial Day weekend has come and gone and the travel industry is going all out for your business and travel dollars.

Many people are feeling nervous about the economy and whether or not their jobs may be cut. Will they be asked to work fewer hours, accept less pay or lose their jobs? Getting away may be out of the question.

Here are some bargain options that should stretch anyone’s traveling budget this summer.

With a family, drive
Many families are taking vacations closer to home so they can drive.  Gas prices are lower than they were last year — even though the cost has been gradually on the climb in the past month. Some experts are predicting that filling your car’s tank will continue to rise.

All-inclusive deals
Other people are renting cabins or spending a few days at resorts where everything is included. If you’re able to be flexible and don’t have your heart set on a specific destination, you can snag a last minute special that will minimize your feeling guilty about the cost.

Cruises are a bargain
Cruises are hotter than hot on this year’s vacation list. Many companies are practically giving away cabins and this may be the time to go to Alaska. Yes, there may be supplemental charges (e.g., liquor, off-shore excursions) but you can factor them into your budget. Again being flexible and having the ability to go at the last moment is a plus. Travel agents who specialize in cruises will know which cruise lines are discounting and which ships are floating bathtubs. Cheap may be cheap. But do your due diligence.

Bargain cities
The agents ranked the top U.S. cities for the value as: Las Vegas; Orlando, Fla.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; New York and Los Angeles.

Use frequent flier and credit card points, take shorter vacations
A recent survey of 600 American Express travel discovered that clients are finding ways to offset costs by using credit card reward points, booking last-minute trips and traveling mid-week when air prices are lower and they are taking shorter vacations

Go where the dollar is strong — Central and South America
They’re picking destinations where the dollar goes further such as Costa Rica and other Central American countries. Mexican tourism is suffering. But for people who feel the swine flu was greatly exaggerated, there are incredible deep-discounted deals begging to be booked.

Europe looked good, but be wary of the exchange rate
Many people have been showing interest in Europe because of the dollar’s strength. Unfortunately during the past month, that’s taken a hit and no one is quite sure why. In the meantime, travelers may have booked (in dollars) an incredibly reasonable package get-away to the EU.

More friends than ever
If you own or rent a summer retreat, some acquaintances become new and dear friends and, “May we come stay with you for a few days? We won’t be any trouble.” If you happen to live in Europe as I do, you assemble a list of house rules and email them to your guests before their arrival. You may consider moving into smaller digs. Another option is to say no – which may sound heartless – but can save one’s sanity.

Well June is here. Although the economy is tentative at best, are you succumbing and signing up and on for vacations? If so, let’s hear where and how you’re intending to stretch your budget. People can learn from others various ways to beat the system. For some, it’s become a science.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

French Etiquette: A Special Set of Manners

Written by admin on May 23, 2009 – 11:59 am -

People often ask Bonjour Paris to explain French etiquette—or rather what the French expect people to do and what they definitely do not like. During the 21 years I’ve been a resident of France, customs have relaxed—but not as much as you might think.

The French are more formal in their personal relationships, so it’s understandable—but not always understood—that Americans’ bonhomie can turn into a series of gaffes. These may not be deal-breakers or complete disasters, but little faults can be seen as slights, and anyway who wants to appear unsophisticated? Little things take on importance, so it’s worth your while to know what you’re supposed to do and say.

For example, unless you’re very young, French people greet one another with a Bonjour while shaking hands. A woman who’s in a business situation is addressed as “Madame” whether or not she’s married. After a female is out of school, she’s Madame rather than Mademoiselle. Until you’re instructed to call her (or a male colleague) by their first names, don’t. And don’t use the familiar tu form of verbs until someone uses it to you. The French have a sense of when the time has come: assume you do not.

Thirty years ago, it was rare when a French person would smile at a stranger. Thank goodness life is becoming less rigid. However, the French, when walking down the street, are pros at not making eye contact with people they don’t know. If they bump into friends, expect to see a round of kisses. One on each cheek if you’re in Paris, three pecks if you’re in other parts of France—but Parisians assume they are Belgians. And then there are the teens and college students who will kiss four times in quick succession. It can be confusing.

The French maintain “personal space” in a way most Americans don’t. Go into any Paris café and you’ll rarely see the French striking up conversations with strangers. It’s different if they’re in a tabac (the same one they frequent each morning) for coffee. If the barman knows them, it’s possible they’ll end up speaking to one another because they’ve been introduced. Gone are the days of asking someone for a light for a cigarette because, unless they’re sitting outside, it’s definitely no smoking.

Another annoying trait about the French is they were born with perfect posture. If they slouch, it’s due to a physical impairment, and most people try to cure it by going to a physical therapist, which is covered by French  health-care system. You can always differentiate a French person from an American by how straight he or she stands. Some French people swear it’s by how loud Americans speak—but that’s not necessarily the case. Still, keeping your voice down is a good idea. The French by nature aren’t eavesdroppers and really don’t want to hear other’s conversations.

Even though the French are quick to use hand gestures (nothing compared to Italians), they’ll rarely shake or point a finger at others. It’s simply considered rude. Whatever you do, never snap your fingers. It’s a sure recipe for being ignored by taxi drivers (who aren’t supposed to pick up passengers unless they’re at a taxi stand anyway), and if you ever snap your fingers at a waiter, count on being the last person in the restaurant to ever be served.

Americans are quick to make the figure O with their fingers to indicate that everything’s OK. In France, it’s construed in a totally different way and is enough to offend your companion. In essence, you’re saying someone is a big zero and it’s not taken lightly.

These are just a few cultural differences. Please feel free to add more. My French friends consistently ask for advice when they’re heading to the U.S. The difference is, that when they commit a faux-pas, it’s usually considered charming. Their accents go a long way in the manners game and their basic manners, sorry to say, tend to be better than ours.

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Around the World |

5 think-ahead strategies that make travel easier

Written by admin on May 22, 2009 – 5:42 pm -

There are ways of minimizing stress when taking to the skies but sometimes, it takes imagination in addition to organization.

Think ahead about packing
Pack the day before or even earlier, then take everything out of your suitcase and whittle down your possessions. Unless you’re going to be seeing the same people for two solid weeks (and who cares) and have to attend a black tie event, travelers can do with half of what they think they need to bring.

For city travel, black is always safe for women. Bring a skirt, a pair or two of pants, a jacket, some wash and wear tops, one dressy blouse and different accessories. Scarves, shawls, costume jewelry and a silk flower to pin on your jacket or place in your hair can give women an entirely different look.

Men have always had it easy. Unless they have business meetings that require a suit, a navy blazer and gray pants with a shirt and a tie is usually as dressy as they need to get. Add some khaki pants and knit shirts and most men are on their way.

Assemble a plastic bag containing pills and copies of the prescriptions (generic please) that you need to pack in your carry-on bag even if you’re checking a suitcase.

And give careful thought to electronic accoutrements. All the many cords, converter plugs, chargers, camera apparatus such as a memory card reader or extra camera batteries are some of them. Separate the cords with rubber bands or twist-em’s so you’re not confronted with having to untangle everything.

Whether or not you check a bag is up to you. I try to avoid doing so since I’ve arrived at a destination too many times without my luggage — or have had to wait longer than I care to for the carousel to cough it up.

One caveat — don’t try dragging such a large carry-on that your back hurts before boarding the flight, or you’ve alienated your fellow passengers and the flight crew before getting your suitcase into the overhead compartment.

Think ahead about clearing airport security
Some frequent flyers are opting to become members of CLEAR where they’re on an immediate fast-track to be waved through security.

The most challenging items are electronics and personal items that require screening. Clear plastic zip-lock bags are godsends.

Have your computer ready for inspection as well as your cell phone, camera, keys and anything that might set off alarms. This sometimes includes coins and sometimes not.

Then there’s the make-up, toothpaste, etc. etc. bag, which invariably contains liquids and has to be removed from the suitcase to be screened.

They should be placed on the top of the bag for easy removal. I place all of these items together in a cloth bag so I can pull everything out in one easy swoop.

Clearing security is stressful at best. But take your time while being as efficient as possible and don’t let people push you. Airport lost and found areas are treasure troves and there’s nothing worse than realizing you’ve lost an essential.

I never wear a belt, shoes that aren’t slip-off or heavy jewelry. If I had any “important” jewelry pieces, there no point in traveling with them and being worried about robbery. Also, there’s less to take off in line.

I also have succumbed (inelegant as it is) to wearing a neck pouch containing my passport and boarding pass. This isn’t high fashion. But after leaving these essential papers in a tray, I’ve come to the conclusion there are times to be chic and other time when being secure is more appropriate.

Think ahead about waiting at the airport
I’m a great believer in belonging to an airline club because I travel enough to justify the cost. Plus, it’s not unheard of when one of the employees is able to wangle a better seat or possibly an upgrade. There are occasions when you can buy a last-minute upgrade for substantially less money than it would have cost if you’d bought a business class ticket.

One-time passes can be purchased for airline clubs if you find you’re going to be delayed. As crowded as some may be, it’s more comfortable waiting in a club and if you want or need to work, you can get on line. Be certain that if you’re not flying internationally you keep track of time because many clubs don’t announce domestic departures.

Many people go to the bar, or in some airports where there are decent restaurants, eat before the flight leaves and thus avoid eating (or buying) mediocre airline food.

Think ahead about your seat on the plane:
Some airlines aren’t permitting passengers to pre-select their seats, while others save advanced booking for premium clients. If you’ve bought your ticket though a travel agency, they can arrange for a seat to be assigned. If you’re flying United or some other carriers, opt to pay the extra money for somewhat more legroom. Five inches can make a big difference.

Consult Seat Guru and you’ll be able to tell the seating configuration of specific planes. If you can pick and choose and there isn’t a plane change, you’ll have an advantage when selecting your seat.

There are different theories and if you’re flying coach (and most of us are these days) hope the flight isn’t full and you can stake out five middle seats and the armrests go all the way up. One of the best transatlantic flights I recall was when I lucked out and slept across the ocean.

Think ahead about getting from the airport to your hotel
This tip, passed along to me by a wise traveler, has saved me time and aggravation countless times. Take a clear folder with your itinerary. Access Mappy.com or Mapquest.com and print out a map of your destination including the directions from the airport. This will put a stop to a lack a communication or a joy ride should you encounter a cabbie with whom you don’t share a common language. And even if you do, some streets are difficult to locate.

Please add your hints for making trips easier. These are just a few.

Karen Fawcett is president BonjourParis.

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

13 tricks for making plane travel easier

Written by admin on May 18, 2009 – 5:44 pm -

There are two types of travelers: those who are constantly in the air and others who take occasional trips. People who fly a lot appear to have it down (kind of) to a system.

Much depends on whether or not you’re flying coach or in the front of the plane. Are you flying more or less than three hours? This will dictate some of the preparations you’ll need to make — but fewer than you think. Travelers should always be prepared for delays and what’s supposed to be a short trip may end up being anything but.

Here area a baker’s-dozen tips that I follow whenever I jet off into the skies.

Wear really comfortable clothes so not to feel confined if you’re stuck sitting for hours. This doesn’t mean sloppy but they should be loose. Shoes should be the slip off type. I always wear (or pack) a pair of really comfortable socks.

Dress in layers. Some flights tend to get very cold and there’s no joy in freezing while flying from one coast or continent to another

Pack a blanket and pillow if you’re flying long haul. It can be a neck roll or another type that helps you catch a few winks. Your own blanket can be a godsend and you know whether or not it’s clean. If it’s not as clean as it should be, you’re the only person who’s used it.

Bring a small package of baby-wipes. They can come in very handy and negate your having to go to the WC if all you want to do is wipe your hands or face.

Don’t forget a package of tissues. Be germ conscious and careful how you blow your nose. Immediately dispose of the tissue in the sack supplied in case of airsickness.

Use headsets and ear plugs. Most ‘road warriors’ have a set of noise canceling earphones and wear them throughout the flight. Bring a pair of foam earplugs in the event you’re seated next to screaming babies or party animals.

Heavily padded eye shades are godsends if you want to sleep.

Power adapters help. If you’re traveling with a computer and want to work, buy a charger that’s specifically configured for plane outlets. It will keep you from playing beat the clock. Plus, if you want to watch a CD on your laptop, you won’t need to worry about the battery’s life.

Don’t forget reading materials. Take books and magazines you’ve wanted to read. An increasing number of people will probably be traveling with “Kindles.”  iPods seem to be the fashion of the day so you can listen to books and/or music you’ve downloaded.

Bring a notebook and a pen. You never know when you might get creative or need to make some notes. If you’re traveling internationally, you’ll need a pen to fill out the immigration forms. Flight attendants are the first to admit they’re at a premium because of cost cuts.

Don’t forget to pack your medications (and copies of the prescriptions) and enough of them in the event your trip is delayed, you won’t panic. Some people I know wouldn’t fly without Airborne or a cold remedy.

Pack some snacks, even if you’re traveling first or business class, in case you’re stuck sitting on the plane waiting for it to take off. When you’re traveling coach, you may want to pack a meal brought from home rather than buying something at the airport where they tend to be expensive and not necessarily what you’d prefer to eat.

Bring an empty plastic bottle and fill it up with water after you clear security.

These are some obvious tricks and tips. My next article will include carry-on packing ideas, clearing security, airline clubs, how to select seats and anything else you’d like to have me research.

In the meantime, please add your travel tips.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Tags: , ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Slow Down, Enjoy Your Meal, and Sleep

Written by admin on May 16, 2009 – 12:05 pm -

Slow down and do as the French do and invariably you’ll be healthier and thinner. According to a recently released study conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, the French spend more time eating and drinking than any of the world’s most prosperous nations. In addition to devoting two hours a day to eating, they average nine hours of sleep each day.

Not that some French aren’t becoming heavier. They are, and it’s because some of the younger generation have adopted more than a few of the U.S.’s bad habits: e.g., eating junk food, buying more pre-packaged and processed foods such as potato chips, and drinking more Cokes than water. Even though they drink less wine, beer consumption has increased.

However, the French tend to be more physically active and not necessarily due to spending hours in a gym—although that’s on the rise as people are pumping iron and running in place. Walking is a way of life even if people live in Paris and take the métro.

Métro stops are generally no further away than five minutes apart. But walking up and down the stairs burns calories. And if you’re in one of the larger métro stations, such as Châtelet, Concorde, or Étoile on the Champs-Élysées, by the time you walk from one line to the next, you may have walked nearly half a mile.

Tourists are usually amazed by how fast the French navigate subway stations. People are eager to get in and out and to their destinations. Sure, you can stop and listen to some of the (licensed) musicians and frequently hear pretty good classical music. There will always be a hat, basket, or bucket to drop some coins. More than likely, you’ll hear music that sounds as if a band comprised of the ubiquitous Peruvian pan-pipers is performing, and if you haven’t already done so, you can buy the generic CD.

It wasn’t so many years ago you’d never see the French eating on the run. That’s changed. Now, most French bakeries have a section of sandwiches available for carry-out. They’re generally made from scrawny baguettes. Skinny doesn’t do them justice: a more accurate description would be bulimic with one nearly transparent slice of ham and one of cheese and voilà, the idea being that you don’t have to open your mouth very wide to eat it.

American delis, sandwich shops, and carry-outs of all kinds astonish the French. When French friends accompany me to one, their eyes glaze over when they see the size of the sandwiches. They’re unable to believe how thick they are and that someone could possibly eat so much in one sitting—or standing. Remember, most French people don’t know about doggie bags in spite of being a nation of dog lovers.

In addition, most French people tend to eat meals with utensils. It’s considered a faux pas to eat pizza by picking up a slice rather than using a fork and knife—ditto a burger. Many people who come to France on business are shocked to see how fastidious their dining companions tend to be, and it’s smart to take your cues from them so as not to be perceived as lacking table manners.

Some other reasons the French tend to be thin: Rather than piling everything on one plate (and you’ll rarely see an all-you-can-eat buffet in France), meals are comprised of courses. It makes for a lot of plates, but a first course, a main course, another plate with salad and a sliver of cheese plus a dessert (tiny to be sure), give people the sensation they’ve eaten a lot even with rigid portion control. Eating this leisurely way takes time—and time is what the brain needs to register the food you’ve put in your stomach and tell you to stop it now. And there’s a bonus: when dinner is over, there are a lot of dishes to wash up, and that burns up calories.

Studies conducted at Penn State University and Cornell have repeatedly documented that the more food that’s served on a plate, the more people will eat. Perhaps too many Americans were raised as members of the clean plate club. Most people don’t get the signal to stop eating if there’s food left to be consumed—rather like goldfish that will eat until they explode.

Even though Americans believe that the most essential meal of the day is breakfast (bring on the cereal, toast, jam, and eggs), the French generally grab a cup of coffee and a tartine (a piece of a baguette with a light smear of butter) and that’s how they begin their day.

Few French snack between meals. Plus, if they’re having an apéritif before dinner, it will be accompanied with a few olives, perhaps some nuts, but not a dinner before dinner. Americans tend to set out platters of hors d’oeuvres so you’ve consumed more than your fair share of calories before even sitting down for the meal.

Time will tell whether or not the French will adopt America’s bad habits when it comes to eating. The one given is that the more affluent the French are, the thinner they tend to be. I’ve always believed French females are born without hips and thighs and it’s in their genes. That’s one way of rationalizing why Parisian women wear size six (or smaller) pants—and, if will make you feel better, you can believe that too.

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in Around the World |

Come back to Mexico – come back

Written by admin on May 15, 2009 – 5:47 pm -

The Mexican Tourist Board is launching a multi-million dollar investment plan that will include a global public relations campaign. It is also calling for U.S. authorities to lift the travel ban with the hope that doing so will restore confidence in Mexico’s being one of the world’s top tourist destinations.

Its tourism industry has been crippled by the outbreak of swine flu or more correctly, the H1N1 virus. Twenty-five hotels in the Cancun area have closed because of the crisis that was feared to have the potential of becoming a global pandemic.

After the numbers are tallied, the influenza caused 65 deaths – and that’s throughout the world. That’s nothing to sneer about. But happily, it’s not a plague some people had feared.

Nor has the US State Department dropped its travel alert that all non-essential travel should be shelved for now.

In the meantime, flight operators are extending the suspension of planes to Mexico. Thomson and First Choice Holidays have canceled all outbound flights to Cancun and Cozumel through May 18th. Thomas Cook has placed holidays to Cancun on hold until May 23rd.

To exacerbate the drastic fall in the number of tourists coming and staying in hotels and apartments, cruise lines diverted ships from anchoring at Mexican ports.

As a result of dwindling tourism, a group of three hotel chains on Mexico’s Caribbean coast – Real Resorts, Dreams and Secrets have joined together and have issued a “flu-free guarantee.” The hotels will offer a total of 5,000 rooms to travelers who exhibit flu systems within eight days of returning from Mexico and the free vacation offer will be valid for three years.

I am not minimizing the seriousness that the H1N1 virus might have had and agree that the Center for Disease Control and other government and medical groups had no choice but to take strident measures to insure people’s safety.

The question is whether or not the media went too far and scared the public unnecessarily. After the initial findings indicated this flu was not a repetition of the 1918 H1N1 pandemic, should the media and government authorities eased up?

Is this an example of officials being too cautious and as a result, having a dramatic negative impact on Mexico’s economy?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Are high-speed trains viable in the U.S.?

Written by admin on May 11, 2009 – 5:49 pm -

This month, Tripso’s guru Charlie Leocha, interviewed Karen Rae, the Federal Railroad Administration Acting Administrator. They discussed the proposed $8 billion initial investment that’s slated to bring high-speed train travel to the U.S. How wonderful and let’s hope it happens. But those funds won’t go very far. Constructing a countrywide rail system will take years and a huge amount of money.

High-speed has been discussed for years
The discussion of high-speed rail travel isn’t new. In 1989, the Morrison Knudsen Corporation proposed a train that would take less than 90 minutes between Houston and Dallas. The fantasy was dashed for myriad reasons. Ditto for a bullet train speeding up and down the northeast coast corridor. But, the concept is catching on gradually in certain areas of the US.

The Acela Express, inaugurated in 2000, created the long-awaited electrification of the Northeast Corridor linking Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Travel time from Boston and New York was reduced by up to 90 minutes.

It’s the nation’s first high-speed rail system, with the capability of traveling at 150 miles per hour. That means people can go from Boston to New York in 3 hours and 15 minutes. The time between New York and Washington, D.C. has been reduced to 2 hours and 28 minutes. It’s projected the time will be faster after new rails are installed and the infrastructure is upgraded.

If travelers are unanimous when it comes to anything, it’s that being able to go by train from one city to another and quickly is so much more preferable to going to an airport outside of the city, arrive at least 90 minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave, be subjected to the indignities of security (how many times can you take off your shoes and empty your pockets, briefcase, etc.,) fly to your destination, which may only take an hour and arrive there definitely the worse for wear and tear – not to mention, generally poorer after you factor in transportation costs to and from the airport.

Europe and Japan already have it
One gets spoiled living in Europe. Being able to take the Eurostar between London and Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes. means you can travel between the two countries (don’t forget your passport) for the day. It gives people so much flexibility if there’s a special exhibit or something that strikes your fancy. There are weekend same-day fares that cost less than $100 (and make certain you check out the http://www.raileurope.com/index.html if you want to travel by train and see all of or certain parts of Europe. It’s no big deal.

Trains in the EU are clean and fast.  The TGV in France is a great way to go. Many people rent cars when they arrive at specific destinations so they may explore the area and get a look and feel of the countryside and not simply be confined to staying close to the train station. It takes only four hours on the Thalys to travel between Paris and Amsterdam. And those are just two destinations. Buying a “global pass” gives travelers access to 21 countries; people have extraordinary flexibility. Don’t expect to see exclusively the backpacker set. People of all ages have taken to the rails. Don’t overlook senior passes, couples passes and family passes.

Train travel is a great way to go and leaves the driving to someone else. One word of advice, pack picnics since food on trains isn’t cheap and is rarely tasty enough to merit the cost. Remember, when  captive, you’re at the supplier’s mercy. Bring your own bottle of wine, water and lots of soft drinks and juices if you’re traveling with children.

If you’ve taken the Japan’s Bullet train, you’d be a convert. They’re pristinely clean as well as being fast. Before boarding one, there are vendors selling foods of all types attractively boxed and ready to go and without having to wait.

The San Francisco train experience
I had to laugh when I read the following about high-speed train from a San Francisco Internet entrepreneur. Arnon Kohavi said,

I live in the United States of Slow Trains. My country is a little primitive and does not know that one can use electricity to run trains. Rather, it uses old diesel engines that pollute and are slow to accelerate.

My city, called San Francisco has three city trains: one is the BART that was built in the 1970s. It appears the carpets in the stations and the trains have not been updated since the train was inaugurated.

A second train, the MUNI, is probably the slowest train in the world. The third train, the Caltrans feels as if it belongs in a museum. I am told San Francisco actually has some of the best trains in the country. But the inhabitants, called commuters, seem to prefer big boxy trucks called SUVs, where one can store super sized cups with drinks in a nice cup holders.

Another interesting thing, in my city has no central train station. In order to go from here to other cities such as Chicago, I go to the SF train station that is actually a bus stop with a sign saying Amtrak. There, I’m ferried to Oakland that’s located on the other side of the bay. From there, I can take a train. Yes, my country is poor and undeveloped. But one day it will be rich and I will have a fast train. I will dream about it tonight.

Kohavi’s comments are amusing and definitely comprise more than a touch of reality.

Will we see high-speed rail? Will you use it?
My question is, do you think Americans will give up driving their own cars and opt for train travel? Many LA residents says they’d far prefer to train to Las Vegas in two hours than spending five hours driving each way.

I’ve questioned numerous people and would like to know what you think. First, would you opt to train it? Second, do you think you’ll see high-speed commuter options and cross-country train travel be available soon enough to have an impact on your daily life and travel planning? If you’re already commuting or traveling on super fast trains in the U.S., please post your experiences.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Traveling When Disabled—You Can Do It

Written by admin on May 9, 2009 – 12:06 pm -

It doesn’t matter how fast you walk or even if you can’t walk at all, you can still travel.  But before you decide where you want to go, take stock, think it over, and make a plan—and then plan some more. 

Before booking your trip, sit down with your doctor and discuss what you should and shouldn’t be doing. Find out if you’ll need extra inoculations or to take supplemental pills.  Make copies of your prescriptions and ask for a summary of your medical records. In addition, your doctor can contribute valuable advice as to where you should and shouldn’t go. Depending on your disability, there are some countries where you’ll do better than others, especially should you encounter problems.  In spite of its architecture, France is a doable destination.

Depending on your limitations, some doctors may advise you to have an emergency medical contact at your destination. More than likely, they’ll have a professional colleague to recommend. 

France, albeit not easy, is becoming increasingly disability conscious.  People are living longer, and the French maintain do-or-die pride and don’t like being dependent on others.  Yes, there are impediments that come from being a city that was constructed during the Roman times. But the French government is doing its best to mitigate them—and the Michelin guides note hotels and restaurants that are handicap friendly.

It’s hard (or perhaps impossible) to retrofit some ancient buildings. But Paris is trying to do so when push comes to shove. Tourists who are disabled might need to stay in a newly renovated hotel or one that conforms to U.S. standards such as a Hilton or a larger place that doesn’t have tiny elevators and doorways. They may not be the most charming boutique hotels—but hey, people come to Paris to see the Louvre and eat at wonderful restaurants, not spend hours in the lobby.

Some people opt to use travel agents whose specialty is planning trips for people with disabilities. They know which places are more appropriate than others and have the contacts.  Their service can be very useful. 

If you’re making your own plans, make advanced preparations and think out every possible contingency. Leave as little as possible to chance.

You aren’t going to want to book a biking or hiking trip or any trip that’s physically taxing.  But there are so many other places to go and things to do. Don’t be passive as you plan the itinerary and its various stops.

If you’re flying, inform the airline if you’ll need a wheelchair when departing and upon arrival. Some people don’t think they need this service, but airline terminals and their connecting ramps feel as if they are expanding every year.  Don’t let a false sense of pride cause you to board the plane tired and frazzled.  

And there’s a plus. You’ll be ferried through security and, if you’re traveling internationally, you won’t have to wait forever to clear customs because the escort will take you to the front of the line. One time when I was accompanying a friend, who had a broken leg and realized the bonus of being expedited through the security process, I considered faking an infirmity the next time I was traveling alone. How I hate waiting in lines. But then, who doesn’t?  But pulling out that stop falsely is a definte no-no as it’s depriving others from necessary and limited help at the airport.

Even though it’s an extra expense, you’ll probably feel it’s worth it to have a private taxi or shuttle meet you upon arrival outside of the customs area. The driver should take charge of you and your luggage and it’s one less hassle with which to contend. If you’re tired from the flight, having to deal with luggage (not to mention finding the correct exit door) to the taxi area is something you’ll be pleased to forego. This is especially true if you’re landing at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport that’s confusing for people who come and go because of the on-going construction.

When traveling by train, always reserve a porter. For the few extra dollars (and do tip), he can make your life easier by escorting you to your seat and doing battle with your luggage. Do not expect to necessarily find roving porters in the station. In many European cities (and elsewhere to be sure) they must be reserved in advance.  

When making hotel reservations, specify you need a room that’s easily accessible from the main floor and if there are stairs, there’s an alternative way of getting from here to there.  Not every facility has elevators (or big enough ones to accommodate a wheelchair) and it’s up to the traveler to do the homework. Many older properties don’t have ramps or places without stairs. In Paris, many breakfast rooms may be in the cave (basement) that’s accessible only by steps.  Better to know before you arrive than find yourself trapped. It’s no sin to decide to stay at a different hotel because of its layout.

Restaurants may or may not present a challenge.  In France, it’s amazing how many of them have restroom facilities located on another floor. As they’re renovated, restaurants are required in many places to install WC’s on the main floor… but it’s prudent to check before sitting down to eat.

It’s also illegal for taxis not to stop for a passenger who is using a wheelchair. Don’t expect to hail a taxi. You’ll need to go to a taxi stand or call for one to come to you. But keep in mind that the driver is responsible for folding up the wheelchair and may not charge a supplement to transport it in the cab’s trunk. 

Paris has buses with ramps that can be lowered. They many not be on every route, but are being added as vehicles are being replaced. Some metros have elevators but it’s iffy and would be my last choice as how to travel. The cars are often crowded and there are too many potential pitfalls.

Pack what you need such as special pillows, bandages and anything that will make you more comfortable during your trip. You may need to check an extra suitcase, but the additional cost is comparatively little compared to needing to find something specific in a foreign place—even if it’s only a two-hour flight away from where you live.  Don’t expect drug stores to have what you need or necessarily even be open.  Parisian drugstores do not look very much like your neighborhood CVS or Rite-Aid.

Travel insurance is generally a good investment, especially if you have any type of disability. Better to spend the extra money and be able to be repatriated to the medical facility of your choice. You’ll travel with increased peace of mind as will the family that you’ve left behind.

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in Around the World |