At Home in Paris

Written by admin on January 30, 2010 – 3:18 pm -

People mean well, but if one more person asks me how I’m spending my time in Paris, I’m going to scream. It’s wonderful to be home. But that catapults me into a different reality zone. I am not complaining; it’s a statement of fact.

I’ve attended lectures including a reading at the Village Voice Book Store that detailed the extraordinary journey of the English language translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. I was riveted by a presentation given by the wife of the Ambassador to France from Afghanistan Khorshied Samad and laughed through Born to Shop Suzy Gershman’s show & tell at The American Library in Paris.

I’ve eaten a couple of memorable meals and even managed to stick my head into a few stores with signs touting Les Soldes at more than 60% off. Because it’s freezing cold, I bought a knit cap for ten euros and have already amortized the purchase.

But the reality is I’ve been living in the Métro (and bless Bienvenuë, its visionary chief engineer), going from one appointment to another. Doctors with four different specialties have had the pleasure of my company. My lawyer, who also does my French and U.S. taxes, was a must-see, as well as a quick visit to the bank of course and renewing my French press card that has to be done annually. This is called real life and taking care of nitty-gritty necessities.

It’s been wonderful being reunited with friends, and last week’s Bonjour Paris get-together was a true highlight. Meeting the site’s readers was important in more ways than you can imagine. Living in cyberspace is isolating, and spending time with people who are BP (not British Petroleum) faithfuls has fueled my motivation to continue writing and adding additional information to the site.

I’m amazed by the number of writers I’ve met who want to contribute and am delighted to read what they write (most of the time) since they have different perspectives on living in and visiting France.

May 1, 2010, will mark my 22nd anniversary of moving here and how things have changed—for better and for worse. I suppose it’s a sign of the times and expanding globalization. When I recount how my hands were slapped when I had the audacity to touch a peach before buying it, people laugh. Don’t get me wrong—it still happens. But, there are more supermarkets where the owner isn’t surveying each time a client approaches a vegetable.

Tasks that were impossible to accomplish 20+ years ago can now be done via the Internet. People can buy groceries, and for that matter nearly everything else, not to mention record their electricity and gas usage and conduct their banking online and even renew their cartes de résidence. Considering how resistant the French were until fairly recently about computers—this was, after all, the home of the Minitel—this is almost as amazing as fondling vegetables without fear of corporal punishment.

But it’s mystifying that if you want to talk to a real person, there’s a charge. This is not simply for tech support, but for purchasing a product. It’s not the end of the world. But it’s irritating when you’re required to call a 08 customer service number to reset a PIN code on a bank account.

It’s an enigma that if you want to buy an item, you’re charged for the pleasure. When inquiring why this is the case, the voice on the other end of the phone explains you wanted help and that’s what you’re receiving. Excuse me? You’re selling a product and what’s happened to the concept of marketing?

It’s Paris, and with Paris comes houseguests. I’m delighted if they stay a few days and are well trained. If they want croissants for breakfast, I’ll direct them to Maison Kayser a block away from the apartment. It’s come to my attention that you-won’t-know-the-difference bakery items are available frozen at Picard and they’re more than delighted to deliver.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to sightsee unless it’s something I want to see—and invariably write about. The same is true when I’m in Washington, D.C. My days of playing tour guide and docent are over.

When I try to qualify (or quantify) what makes Paris so special, it’s that I’m not forced to get into a car to accomplish the most mundane chores. This is true about New York City and many very small towns, but New York is very big and small towns (for me) are very dull.

It’s early afternoon and I’ve already bought some fruit, stood at the bar of a neighborhood café for a coffee and skimmed Le Figaro, took a three-minute walk through the Luxembourg Garden and bought some flowers. All of this was accomplished in less than 30 minutes.

If there’s a real down side to Paris, it’s that my granddaughters aren’t here. But, we said Bonjour this morning via Skype and they’ve already gone to buy doughnuts (thank you Facebook for the information). Undoubtedly their parents and they are in full gear!

But when I go back to see them (sooner than later), I’ll have a stash of croissants and a baguette with which to greet them. The girls are fully aware there are advantages of having a grandmother who lives in Paris. They get to visit and see the city though my eyes.

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Travel Reveals Many Ways to (Over)do Christmas

Written by admin on January 30, 2010 – 12:16 pm -

So many people are Christmassed out by the time December 25th rolls around that it’s a relief when the actual day arrives. Deck the halls and fa-la-la! ’Tis the season for eggnog and holiday cheer until you want to get in bed and pull the covers over your head. It’s nearly impossible to avoid the constant sounds of holiday Muzak bombarding you as you enter a store.

Are you irritated by television ads promoting things to buy, buy, buy? Even adorable Sasha sitting on the presidential lap for the “igniting” of the national Christmas tree and Michelle Obama reading stories to children just add to the heap. Are you tired of Christmas? If so, you’re not alone.

But if you travel, you can get a different dose of Christmas, depending on where you’re going. There’s no question there can be way too much Christmas—and the feeling is global. If you happen to be in Asia, where they share the religion of marketing, it’s hard to escape stuffed Santa dolls and streets festooned with wreaths and miles of lights. Artificial snow in Southeast Asia? Why not?

Paris has a special glow during the holiday season, as do many cities throughout the world. The lights on the Champs Élysée may be overpowering, but they’re excess with a French accent, and variety makes the too-muchness of Christmas a little more bearable.

Christmas Markets in the EU have become big business and an increasing number of cities are promoting them as another way to attract tourists. Come one and all and stay in the area’s hotels and eat in local restaurants—and spend. But the markets have amazing things for sale and many of them are beautiful and unfamiliar to Americans

Americans who are traveling on business frequently buy gifts for their friends and family when they’re abroad precisely because they may find something unusual from a local craftsman or simply a more European sort of thing—and anyway, you’re supposed to bring home a souvenir, aren’t you? Even then, if you’re in Munich or Perugia, make certain the item wasn’t made in China. If it was, it probably costs less back home. But will you have time to go shopping after you return?

But just now I have found myself craving some holiday spirit. I’ve just returned from Buenos Aires, and the Argentines traditionally don’t decorate for the holiday until December 8th. When they do, it doesn’t feel terribly festive. The city doesn’t go all out decking the streets with holly and ornaments.

The Plaza de Mayo, the city’s historical center, famous because of the Perón rallies as well as the riots that took place in 2001, doesn’t even have a decorated tree. The square is surrounded by the city’s Cathedral, city hall and the presidential palace, The Casa Rosada, looking much as they do anytime of the year.

The stores and restaurants may put up a light or two, but don’t expect copious garlands. Perhaps it’s because it’s supposed to be dry and hot during December. But that doesn’t stop Miami from overdoing Santa.

The tango is the national pastime of Argentina, but don’t expect the milongas (dance halls) to look festive. Maybe it’s because it would detract from the dancers, who wear shoes that frequently shimmer and glitter, as they glide across the dance floor with precision and elegance.

No one should go to Argentina without watching people tango—which is nearly impossible since wherever there are tourists, there are bound to be dancers. Some dance because they’re in the spirit. Others perform and then pass the hat hoping to collect some pesos or dollars. The tango is done by people of all ages and it’s nothing less than sensual without necessarily being sexual. There are definite dos and don’ts when it comes to milonga etiquette.

Cultures are so different. Buenos Aires is considered the Paris of South America and some of its building are very French in feeling. The ultimate tribute to that architecture and design is the original building of the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt on Avenue Alvear, which looks like so many streets in Paris’s 16th or 17th arrondissements. But it’s not all decked out in splashy Christmas colors.

The original building is more of a statement about how the French architect León Dourge built a Hotel Particulier in 1934 for a member of the Argentine aristocracy. After extensive renovations and the addition of the new section, the Park Hyatt opened this property in July 2006.

Still if you can’t afford to stay there (and expect New York City prices), at least go for tea. Not only will you see some the city’s most elegant and rich residents, but you’ll also see some understated holiday decorations if you’re in B.A. during the Christmas season.

It’s not New York or Paris. But the belle époque glamour of the Palacio, complete with rows of columns and the intricate ironwork coupled with panels from a 17th century castle in Normandy in the Oak Bar, gives visitors a real insight into how the “Portena” rich and famous lived. And yes, even though smoking isn’t permitted in restaurants in this part of the city, cigar smoking is permitted in this opulent room. This visit to Buenos Aires made me contemplate whether I like all of the razzmatazz that accompanies the holidays in France and in the U.S. I’ve come to my personal conclusion but would appreciate hearing yours. In the meantime, merry, merry.

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Don’t cry for Argentina, but open your wallet

Written by admin on January 7, 2010 – 10:15 am -

One of the things many travelers don’t factor into their trip expenditures is the cost of coming and going to certain countries. Depending on your passport, you may be in for a surprise when you purchase a plane ticket. If it didn’t set you back enough, you may have to buy your way in and out of the country and obtain a visa.

A hot off the press add-on fee pertains to Americans, Canadians and Australians who are flying into the Buenos Aires airport. Effective December 28, 2009, the Argentine Immigration Office implemented a reciprocity fee.

Happily, you can pay for the visas at the airport and won’t be turned away if you arrive without a stamp in your passport. There’s a desk at the airport and as long as you have cash, a credit card or traveler’s checks, you’re good to go.

The fees are:

$70 for Canadian Nationals and it’s valid for only one entry
$131 for United States citizens that is valid for ten years
$100 for Australians that can be used for only one entry.

Flight crews, people from the above countries, who have legal residences in Argentina, plus people with official or diplomatic passports are exempt from paying entry fees.

While you’re thinking security and the myriad aspects involved in air travel, ascertain whether or not a visa is required. The airline should know but that doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for checking the government’s official tourist site. Another caveat: be sure your passport doesn’t expire within six months of your return ticket to the U.S. A conscientious airline representative can (and should) forbid your boarding the outgoing flight.

Leafing through my passport, I realize it represents a mini-fortune documenting my travels and some didn’t come cheap. You have the option of sending your passport, the supporting paperwork and passport photos to the consulate of the country where you’re intending to travel or using an Expedititor Service to facilitate the process. A Briggs is one of many of these companies and you do pay a premium in addition to the cost of the visas listed on their site.

Who says travel is glamorous when there so many variables? But for travel junkies like me, each visa stamp brings back memories I’ll never forget.

Come to think of it, it’s a good thing I returned from Buenos Aires on December 18th, 2009 or I’d be out an additional $131. On the other hand, I’d be able to return to Argentina without having to ante up additional cash.

Many Consumer Traveler readers travel extensively. Have you ever forgotten to obtain a visa before leaving the U.S.? And what’s the most expensive visa you’ve had to buy? In my case, I’d wager it’s my collection of visas permitting entrance into Vietnam.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

Photo: detail of print by Tina Chaden

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