Smoking? The French take no prisoners

Written by admin on August 25, 2009 – 4:57 pm -

Sacre bleu! No one thought it could ever be done but they were wrong. The French government passed a no-smoking law that took effect in early 2007, which banned smoking in public spaces. Now it has spread to restaurants, bars and hotels.

Today, groups of people now huddle together outside of office buildings, looking like refuges, sharing a lighter and puffing away. A definite sense of ‘us against them’ solidarity has developed.

Offices are no longer allowed to have a smoking area for the addicted. Smokers are out fresh out of luck — even in the rain and frigid weather, they are forced to brave the elements come hell or high water.

The French restaurant lobby fought mightily and the ban wasn’t enforced in cafés and restaurants until January 2008.

Some chefs and restaurateurs opted to go non-smoking earlier, for the sake of their food and attracting a clientele who felt strongly about not having their taste buds deadened by the smell of tobacco.

Well – it’s come or is coming. Many Parisian hotels have decided to ban smoking and no longer even have one or two smoking rooms. Even though large hotels may have some designated smoking rooms, many smaller hotels have gone the non-smoking route and the management is serious. If you’re caught smoking on the premises, they are entitled to fine you.

Soon Paris may be like Boston where smoking inside any hotel room is forbidden.  Katherine Johnstone, Media Relations Manager of the New York Office of ATOUT FRANCE (the France Tourism Development Agency), says that’s definitely the trend and projects all hotels will be non-smoking in the very near future.

Not believing this could be possible in a country where so many people still smoke (albeit a diminishing number since cigarettes cost approximately $7.50 a pack) I popped into a number of hotels in Paris and confirmed that smokers are out of luck. If they have a nicotine attack in the middle of the night, if they don’t have a room with a balcony, (and shut the doors to the room) occupants will have to go outside in their pajamas.

Look at the fine print of many hotel registration forms; it’s frequently noted that if you smoke in the room, there will be a substantial fee to have it deep cleaned and you might even be responsible for buying new curtains and more.

In an informal survey, people responded they have zero tolerance or sympathy for smokers and feel they should be fined and made to pay for a complete deep cleaning of the room.  Opening up an Air-Wick bottle or spraying L’eau de Cover up doesn’t mask the odor.

Smokers said they didn’t want to stay in smoking rooms. It’s one thing to smoke— it’s another to have all of your clothes and hair permeated by cigarette smells.

Having stated the above, it’s interesting that many cafés have extended their terraces because they’re considered exterior space, and awning companies and space-heater suppliers have never done brisker business.

If there’s only a narrow sidewalk, expect to see a few tables and chairs butt up against the façade of many restaurants.  If the restaurant is adjoining a business that closes early for the night, weather permitting, you’ll see tables migrating down in front of them. And it’s not because everyone is dying to eat al fresco.

Does anyone have any sympathy for the addicted? Smoking is harmful and if you read the literature, it has no positive effects. Still there are smokers. Should they be treated as lepers?

As someone who has kicked the smoking habit more times than I care to admit, should I start smoking again, will I be a social outcast and have to move to China where smoking is accepted? I look forward to reading your responses.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Hold On: How Many Stars and Why Can’t I Smoke?

Written by admin on August 21, 2009 – 1:58 pm -

Hervé Novelli, Secretary of State for French Tourism, recently announced that France is embarking on a new hotel classification program. “Palace” or four-star “Luxe” hotels will be a memory of the past, and France will join the five-star gang.

Why the change?  France is the only country not to use the five-star evaluation method so this is being done to conform to the globally used rating system. The current rating code, adopted in the 1960s will be reviewed and revised to reflect tourists’ needs and offer more standardized criteria.

But there is more than one catch. The criteria for awarding stars are inconsistent from one country to another and even within the same country. A five-star hotel in Tunisia is rarely comparable to one in Paris or in the U.S.  Hervé Novelli is aware of this problem and says the decree relating to hotel reform will be published in the Official Journal at the end of 2009; for a hotel to merit five stars, there is a long list—298 in all—of points of compliance.

Hotels of great charm will be more difficult to pinpoint since this is mostly technical list of criteria opposed to noting a hotel’s taste and charm or whether or not it’s lush and lavish. “There doesn’t appear to be any differentiation among five-star properties,” states Katherine Johnstone, Media Relations Manager of the New York Office of ATOUT FRANCE (the France Tourism Development Agency).
Novelli explained that the world’s leading hotels offer guests a high level of personalized service, concierges, valet parking, and a multi-lingual staff. They’re very luxurious and equipped with the latest high-tech gadgetry (LCD screens, Wi-Fi, etc). Additional services, such as restaurants with stellar chefs, spas, fitness centers and more are also considered part and parcel of top-end luxury properties.

There is certainly some good sense here, but now Le Meurice and the Marriott – Champs Elysées have the same rating. When queried about how people will differentiate between the two hotels, a spokesperson for the Meurice replied, “The difference between Le Meurice and the Marriott CE is 200 years of history.”

We could put it a bit differently—and, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the Marriott.  We’re just talking apples and oranges and very different taste. Some people might prefer the Marriott to the Meurice, but I happen to prefer the Meurice and wish I could live and die there.  And that goes to the core of the problem.  Granted: it is difficult to rate or quantify taste and charm, but we appreciate them (or not) and often are willing to pay for them (or not)—and there is no question that they make a difference in our experience of staying in this hotel rather than that one.  How does any rating system account for the differences?

The other change is a question of habit, not taste—at least not in the literal sense. For smokers there is a big problem. Don’t think you can retreat to your room and puff on a cigarette.  The smoking ban in all public places (including restaurants and cafés) has been law since Jan 1, 2008.

Smokers brought in that New Year knowing that at the stroke of midnight, they’d be forced to change their habits. As an act of kindness to the addicted, the deadline was extended to 2 a.m. January 1. But that was it.

Much to everyone’s surprise, the French didn’t strike although they did gripe and griped loudly to the point that the restaurant association was able to delay the smoking ban in cafés and restos from 2007 to 2008.  As a result it’s not unusual to see smokers huddled together taking a cigarette break in doorways. Many cafés have extended their terraces because they’re considered exterior space, and awning companies and space-heater suppliers have never done brisker business.  If there’s only a narrow sidewalk, expect to see a few tables and chairs butt up against the façade of many restaurants.  If the restaurant is adjoining a business that closes early for the night, weather permitting, you’ll see tables migrating down in front of them, and it’s not because everyone is dying to eat al fresco.

But back to hotels. Even though large hotels may have some designated smoking rooms, many smaller hotels are completely non-smoking, and an increasing number will be going that route.  Soon Paris may be like Boston where smoking inside any hotel room is forbidden.

In Paris, if someone wants to smoke, more than likely they’ll have to go outside or smoke on their terrace. In an informal survey, people responded that they have zero tolerance or sympathy for smokers and feel they should be fined and made to pay for a complete cleaning of the room.  Opening up the Air-Wick bottle doesn’t mask the odor.

Even the smokers said they didn’t want to stay in smoking rooms. It’s one thing to smoke— it’s another to have all of your clothes and hair permeated by cigarette smells.

Last night at dinner, a group came in after we’d arrived at the restaurant.  The first thing one of the women did was take a good sniff and say with visible distain, “Who’s been smoking?’  There was a smoker sitting at our table, but he certainly hadn’t smoked inside of the restaurant and thought the woman was being a loudmouth pain.

For that matter, the dinner was so good, he didn’t even take a smoke break.  C’est la vie. Anyone who doesn’t want to be an outcast is going to have to move to China where smoking is the rage. Thank goodness I kicked the habit, and reformed smokers are the worst when it comes to being sanctimonious and smelling cigarette smoke when smokers pass them on the sidewalk.

But it’s a fact of life.  We have moved from a society where everyone, it seemed, smoked to one where smokers are a depraved minority.  And, at the same time we have moved into a society that wants to quantify charm—and simply can’t do it.  I have no idea if this is progress, if I am being nostalgic, or simply if there’s no stopping the world, no matter where and how it goes.

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in Paris |

How many stupid questions can tourists ask?

Written by admin on August 18, 2009 – 5:00 pm -

English Heritage, a group that exists to protect and promote England’s historic environment and ensure that its past is researched and understood, recently released a list of the most embarrassing questions asked by visitors to the country’s historic sites. The worst is an unwitting insult to one of Britain’s most somber monarchs Queen Victoria.

A young visitor to Queen Victoria’s summer palace, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, was told that she had nine children and asked: if they all have the same dad? Come to think of it, in this day and age, it seems as if it’s a perfectly valid question.

Another visitor seemed disappointed when he learned the lavishly decorated building was once home to a Queen and not the current residence of rock star Ozzy Osbourne and his television presenter wife Sharon.

When visiting Siem Reap and touring the incredible temples at Angkor Wat, I was horrified to hear an American teenager asking if there had ever been a war there and was the U.S. involved? Where has our education system gone wrong and why didn’t he study up before traveling from Cleveland to Cambodia? My only hope was the visit inspired him to study that era of history.

But it’s not only students or young people who ask incredibly dumb questions. My mailbox is flooded with questions from people asking if Paris hotel rooms have their own bathrooms or is the food safe to eat in the countryside? Skip the questions about whether or not the water is safe to drink in France. That’s a valid question when it comes to developing countries as well as parts of the U.S.

One friend reported that when she was taking a tour of Rome’s Coliseum, one of the members of the group asked if it were the stage set for Ben-Hur? Duh? And no, Italians don’t eat only spaghetti.

Traveling is and should be educational and some people learn as they go. But reading this article made me wonder what are the craziest questions you’ve heard, how have you reacted and have you made any faux pas?

And no, Abe Lincoln was not that large when he was alive. The memorial on Washington’s National Mall wasn’t built to scale.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Photo Kevin Burkett, Flickr Creative Commons

Tags: ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Paris is Glorious in August

Written by admin on August 15, 2009 – 2:02 pm -

This past week has been a glorious week in Paris. Not that being here isn’t always wonderful.  But after a non-summer that’s been cold and rainy, the weather has been pleasant and conducive to taking long walks, sitting in cafés and watching the world go by. Sure, it’s August, but you don’t feel as if you’re drowning in a sea of humidity.

My appointments have been all over the city. One of them was in the 2eme arrondissement and even though I was on the same street less than six months ago, the neighborhood is undergoing extreme gentrification. Yes, the buildings are still the same, but many are being cleaned, and new and trendy stores and restaurants will debut on their ground floors come the rentrée.

This area of the 2eme used to be a wee bit seedy. I was sad to see there’s only one remaining bar on my walk that actually looked as if it welcomed men wearing workmen’s clothes, who might bolt back a glass of wine at 9:00 a.m.  I thought about joining them but reconsidered. It’s as if I could smell cigarette smoke wafting onto the sidewalk. I knew the odor was my imagination since smoking is deféndu unless there’s an outside area. Much to my surprise, people have been adhering to the no smoking ban. It’s sad that these bars that sell Métro tickets, lottery tickets, stamps, and cigarettes may become relics of the past.

So many chic and hip fast food eateries are replacing them. When the French adopt a trend, they embrace it with a vengeance. And these bar/cafés are mushrooming. Don’t get the impression that I’m opposed to organic and healthy food served with implements that are recyclable. But they simply don’t have the look and feel of vrai Paris—and who comes to Paris to eat off paper plates with plastic forks?  Many of them slickly redesigned and splashed with color everywhere—the walls, chairs, stools, banquettes.  I’m not sure it if it’s décor for every taste or décor with no taste at all.

But cheer up: WiFi is free. People don’t spend hours surfing but, even if the place you’re sitting in doesn’t offer it, much of the city of Paris is wired.  Thank you, Mayor Delanoë.

I had time before my next appointment and strolled to the Rue de Rivoli via the Rue du Louvre. It was only 9:30 a.m. but Rivoli was filled with tourists and they couldn’t wait for the stores to open (Up with the metal grate! Down with the postcards and the souvenirs made in Asia!) so they could buy and buy some more.  As for nationalities, there are a lot of Americans and my minimal Italian received a quick and dirty refresher course.

I spotted groups of Japanese (they’re visible as they follow a guide waving a flag or an umbrella). Even though business may be off due to the economy, it’s by no means dead. French tourists are in evidence. And many Parisians are living life as usual. Some have taken the month off while others are manning their desks.

Some other things I noticed:  Even though the shops in this über touristy area seem to sell the same goods (and perhaps are owned by the same people), everyone was pleasant.  Perhaps it’s because the weather has been idyllic and people are in good moods.  The prices being asked were less than they used to be although nothing was free or much of a bargain.

The very expensive clothing stores selling haute couture (on sale) were less frequented and when I tried on a pair of pants that I didn’t love or want and couldn’t afford anyway at 70% off of retail, the sales clerk was willing to bargain.  The fact that the pants and I were not meant for each other didn’t seem to enter the equation. She insisted on showing me a great blouse, but after looking at the price, I passed, realizing there are only so many clothes a person can wear.

On my return, I crossed the Seine to take a look-see at the tourist situation on the Left Bank.  There was no lack of them and people were eating and buying.  I am not suggesting they were sitting in three-star restaurants, but neither am I, even if they are open and offering discounts the size of their main courses.

Taxi drivers always give me a realistic take about the economy. The ones I’ve hired say there are plenty of tourists. Business is down because it’s August.

I decided to play tourist myself and hailed an electric Urban-Cab.  My driver Nicholas spoke incredible English and he biked me (OK, there’s a tiny motor) home. We talked about everything, including his two summers in Indiana and why he’d chosen this profession.  We agreed he didn’t need to go to a gym.  Nicholas says he’s having an excellent season and there are plenty of tourists to keep him busy. The company has only ten vehicles so people should reserve.  Although not tour guides, these electro-pedi-cab drivers will give you a new perspective on Paris. Nicholas said he enjoyed American tourists the most—though I wonder what he would have said if I were German or Italian.  Who cares?  It was fun and perhaps, I’ll treat myself to a ride at night so I can watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle.  A cheap treat for August in Paris.

Tags: , ,
Posted in Paris |

Would you rent clothes when you travel?

Written by admin on August 13, 2009 – 5:03 pm -

Canadian entrepreneur Catharine MacIntosh has announced she hopes to launch the Zero Baggage concept in 2010. Her launch markets would be the Gold Coast of Australia and in her hometown, Toronto.

Clients would pre-select wardrobes on-line and they’d be waiting for them in their hotel rooms when they check in. New or pre-worn clothes would be available.

This is an interesting concept. But would I go for it?

Well, yes and no. How I’d love not having to worry about the cost of checking suitcases, or not having my bags arrive when I do.

Then there’s the security problem. My suitcases have “inspect me” written all over them and the TSA doesn’t always repack my clothes terribly neatly. Also, some things have disappeared. Where’s that sweater I wear with everything?

Backpackers might find this service a boon to traveling light. If the clothes are inexpensive enough, they might qualify as disposable.

If you’re traveling with children, this service might be a godsend. Little ones need a lot of changes and if the price is right, having clothes awaiting them (especially pre-worn ones in excellent condition) could cut your suitcase count down substantially. But don’t think you can get away without bringing their favorite things or they might freak.

If you’re heading to a region where the weather system is different from the one where you live, not having to buy heavy winter coats if you’re from Florida could save you a bundle. This would be especially true for young children who are experiencing growth spurts.

As I travel frequently, I have whittled my clothes down to the point that I can take a carry-on. But when I see families going on vacation, I wonder how and if they’ll ever transport their suitcases and keep track of their children. They arrive at airports and need to rent carts to pile up their possessions plus their offspring.

What do you think of the “rent your clothes” concept? How extensive would the selection need to be in order to entice you? Would you worry about whether or not the clothes would be the correct size? Ms. MacIntosh has received considerable positive feedback. But, I’m sure she’d appreciate your opinions.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Tags: , ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Camping — is it your thing?

Written by admin on August 10, 2009 – 5:06 pm -

Lord knows, it’s not for everyone. There’s a theory that people who are contemplating going camping or sailing should spend the weekend together in a bathroom. Tight quarters do not necessarily guarantee closeness – and I’m not referring to physical space.

Having survived three camping trips, I quickly decided they weren’t my preferred vacation. But my partner loved them (and sailing) so I learned to adjust – well kind of. We finally agreed that every third night – we’d stay in a hotel. Camping in a VW bus didn’t qualify as a five-star adventure.

Some people relish living in self-contained units where they can eat, sleep, shower and perform bodily functions and not have to pack and unpack.

Depending on the season, you can be spontaneous about when you pick up and go. If it’s high season, you may not be able to reserve a space in a National Park at the last minute. Camping trips during July and August require substantially more planning since if your dream is to visit the Grand Canyon, you’re not alone.

There are private and public campgrounds and guides as to where each one is located. In Europe, they’re rated with the equivalent of Michelin stars and some of them are even posh.

OK – what to take – and what you need to leave home.
This takes a lot of soul searching.

Clothes are the easiest part. Everything should be wash and wear and preferably quick drying: Take layers; do not forget rain gear and an umbrella. Weather can vary during the day and depending where you are, can plummet at night.

Shoes are challenging and the number one priority should be comfort: you’ll need shoes for hiking, walking biking and rubber flip flops if you’re using communal showers. Take an extra pair in the event you get soaked. If you’re planning to go to a restaurant that has tablecloths, a pair of “dressy” shoes is appreciated.

Travelers should have their personal necessity bags especially if they’re using campgrounds with shared facilities. A plastic bag with soap, toothpaste, a tooth brush, shampoo and a personal brush and other essentials is judicious.

Pack a waterproof bag with the following: medicines, band-aids, antiseptic lotions and sprays and a kit to suck out snake or spider bite venom. Do not forget bug spray and repellent lotions.

If there’s a mosquito within a three-mile radius, it’s going to make a beeline for me. My son loves to tell the story about how I was bitten everywhere when I slept on the deck of a sailboat moored in the Caribbean. The stars were beautiful, but the next morning, I looked like a swollen monster and was mainlining antihistamines for the remainder of the trip.

Be sure to have sufficient amounts of sunscreen and a hat. There are few things more miserable than a child (or an adult) who has a terrible sunburn.  It ratchets up the pain and suffering level.

What “toys” you bring with you will be dictated by the campers’ ages, interests not to mention space. A Kindle or a facsimile can be a godsend for readers. Board games, playing cards and electronic games can keep children and older types occupied for hours. Some people wouldn’t leave home without a portable DVD. There are so many options for music – the list could go on forever. Depending on where you’re headed will mandate things such as bikes and/or rubber rafts.

If you can’t live without a computer and being online 24 hours a day, camping probably isn’t for you. You can purchase a USB modem or spend your time where there are WiFi hot spots. But some people might feel that negates the purpose of being on vacation. I don’t happen to be among that group since I’m an addict and just think of the research we could be doing about the trip en route.

Food glorious food: Cooking is a challenge most especially if you’re confined to a limited space. The most perfunctory charcoal grill is a lifesaver in the world of cramped quarters. Before departing on your trip, families (or friends) should have a specific chore list. You can’t be too rigid but successful camping trips requires planning.

During our (ad)ventures, we acquired a fair number of outrageous stories. One was the night the owner of a restaurant agreed that we could stay overnight in his parking lot.  He didn’t tell us about the meaner than mean guard dog or the adjacent train track. Another night I’ll remember is when we pulled into a camp ground and were delighted we could snag a place since it was nearly 10 p.m.

We went to sleep nearly immediately.  The next morning as I was headed to shower, I was greeted by a nude man who was taking out the garbage.  I had a revelation. Nude isn’t necessarily sexy and we left the Camp Naturaliste.

I’ve left out so many tips – not to mention funny stories. Now’s your turn …..

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Dealing on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Written by admin on August 6, 2009 – 2:05 pm -

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been splitting my time between Paris and Washington, D.C., and traveling as much as possible.  When I lived exclusively in France, I was convinced everything was so easy in the U.S. How wrong I was. Waiting for Comcast Cable Company’s technician can cause any sane person to become cranky. Workmen don’t show up in the U.S. They don’t show up in France. But in Paris, they usually call and when they appear, my experience has been the French tend to be more competent.  I may have to revise my thinking.

This year, I’ve had the pleasure of refinancing two apartments and neither has been easy. With interest rates at an all time low in the States, it only seemed logical to opt for a lower rate that would reduce my monthly payments by $200.

Why not take the path of least resistance and request a new mortgage from the bank that’s holding the current one? It knows you, your payment history, and when you brush your teeth.  I called JPMorganChase and proceeded to get the run-around from hell.

A young man (and I do mean young) “sold” me the mortgage while another man’s job was to implement it. The problem was that the two appeared to have zero communications and the right hand had no idea what the left one was doing, including a discrepancy in interest rates, points and when and where settlement would be.

Thank goodness I had a file for each and every email and resorted to sending blind copies to a Bonjour Paris faithful who’s an owner of Heritage Title & Escrow Company. What I didn’t know was that Rachel was on vacation and was overwhelmed when she opened her email box to what many people would have reported as spam.

In the U.S., there are title companies, mandatory inspections, fees, and taxes to pay. I forgot to add that in order to get a quote for a mortgage, I had to pay $700 for the privilege, a portion of which would be applied if the mortgage were executed. When I ached to tell Chase where to go, I remembered that $700. I also remembered that banks are in the business of making money—and receiving bailouts.

When I reminded the friendly representative from Chase the apartment had been appraised not so many years ago and considering it’s in a building that has 256 units, no one could say they’re weren’t comparables. The response was they were sorry but a physical inspection was mandatory (considering the downturn in the housing market and the sub-prime calamity) and thank you very much but the appraisal fee is $500—no ifs, ands, or buts.

After the appraiser called and questioned me for an entire five minutes, I felt my defensive side rising. Because he was so familiar with the building, he said there was zero reason to bother me, I noted his name and phone number and off went yet another e-mail saying I was not going to pay $500 for an on-site visit.

You get the picture. The closing did happen and thank goodness Rachel was there to catch some tiny mistakes—such as my deceased husband wasn’t owner of the apartment and never had been. Oh well.

Moving right along. It was time to refinance the mortgage on the Paris apartment. When we took out a mortgage, the euro was worth eighty-seven cents. Who would have imagined that seven years later the dollar wouldn’t have a heck of a lot of buying power in the EU?

Happily, since the mortgage was only for fifteen years, a significant amount of the loan had been paid.  That’s when I met Sébastien at HSBC.  That was good, because the bank that held the mortgage had become an internet bank called Boursarama with no Paris office and evidently (as you will see) no brains. There are times when human contact counts for a lot.  There is not a time when lack of brains is useful

My lawyer, Tim Ramier, contacted Boursarama to see if they would offer a rate comparable to HSBC’s and, if not, what they would want by way pre-prepayment penalty.

Maître Ramier had my power of attorney and acted for me.  He received a letter from Boursarama that I did not qualify for a new loan at a lower rate because the value of the American dollar had recently sunk against the euro.  Note that Boursarama and its predecessor had been receiving monthly payments on my current property and another property I sold in Provence for eighteen years—monthly payments that were about twice as high as the new payment I would pay if they agreed to refinance my loan.

So tell me, anyone, what do you make of this?  The bank felt secure with me paying x euros a month—evidently, I’m good for it.  But if I were to pay one-half x euros a month, that would be a risk they cannot accommodate.  It would?  How?

What is wrong with this picture?  France isn’t wallowing in sub-prime mortgages because people don’t move often, few have the American need to keep up with the Joneses, and if you have a French mortgage, you’re required to pay mortgage insurance. As I’ve said before, banks don’t want to have real estate departments and the ones that found themselves in financial pickles were institutions and pension funds that invested in U.S. real estate.

When I receive e-mails asking advice about real estate, mortgages, visas and more, people must think I’m taking the easy way out since I invariably say they should obtain professional advice.

No transactions are the same. Countries, not to mention regions, have different rules and regulations.

When, however, you are dealing with illogic—or brainlessness as I see it, I doubt any amount of expertise will do any good.  Patience.  Deep breathing.  Meditation.  Ommmm.

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