It’s Vacances Scolaires

Written by admin on February 26, 2010 – 3:11 pm -

How many times have I heard the words “it’s vacances scolaires?” And why does France appear to come to yet another halt? Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for rest and relaxation. But there are times when it seems as if the French actually go overboard. This February and March feel like that.

People are conditioned not to expect to accomplish much (okay, practically nothing) during August. Executives, who want to stay in Paris and take their summer vacations at different times, cave into the masses. They say it’s hard to accomplish a lot if they’re operating in a vacuum and most meetings are out of the question. Like the old joke: “Meeting? With whom?” But that’s August, a tradition and you can’t fight tradition in France.

However, the French government stages winter vacation over three periods depending on which part of the country people live. This is logical since it would be impossible for all French vacationers to leave home simultaneously. It also makes sense for the hospitality industry. Can you imagine every ski area and vacation spot (and the French tend to travel in large groups) simultaneously being inundated? Or how would you like to show up for skiing near Grenoble to find all the hotel workers had gone for sun in Guadeloupe?

The good idea of staggering vacations has the unfortunate consequence of making a two-week vacation nearly six weeks long. For example, Paris’s winter vacation began last week. So when attempting to set up a lecture for March 15th, the response was it wouldn’t happen because the decision-makers would be away—all of them. You would think in this day, when Parisians walk around with iPhones and Blackberrys they could make decisions and set an agenda a few weeks in advance. So would I, but I guess not. When the person who was in charge of organizing the meeting said, “Don’t you know, all of Paris is leaving on vacation?” I suspect my look was one of puzzlement or confusion—or just Americanism.

Other consequences are mixed. When you walk into a restaurant and ask for a table, you’ll more than likely be able to snare a table because it’s vacances scolaires even if you haven’t reserved. All to the good but still reserve. But the corner bakery makes less bread and is even going to close for a week. After all, the employees’ children deserve a vacation that somehow makes it impossible to bake the daily bread. Not so good.

A houseguest took a Segway Tour and had the time of her life, even though the weather did anything but cooperate with rain and sub-freezing temperature. Twelve brave souls zigged and zagged throughout Paris with Myrna and the guide. There would have been more participants if it hadn’t been (you got it) vacances scolaires, but a lot less camaraderie than the smaller group enjoyed. They wound up having drinks after the four-hour tour and getting to know one another. Good again.

Anne and Kirk Woodyard of Music & Markets were in Aix-en-Provence, hell bent on buying the apartment of their dreams. After a week of non-stop looking during this go-around, they returned to the U.S. without having signed a compromis de vente. One property, in which they were potentially very interested because the photos and specifications were precisely what they wanted, was featured in a real estate agent’s window with a sign saying “urgent.” When the agent attempted to contact the owners, they were vacationing in Corsica and hadn’t bothered to leave a set of keys. For that matter, they didn’t even leave a phone number. When the French go on vacation, they’re really on vacation and finding an Internet café on that island may not be so easy. That is, if they’d given their representative their email address. Not good at all.

But the event that has left me the most baffled is that the air controllers decided to strike and they purposely scheduled it during vacances scolaires. The majority of the long-haul flights took off and landed, albeit late. But flights within the EU, to French territories and North Africa were problematic if not cancelled. Numerous smaller airports in France were closed tight as a drum.

What’s amazing is you don’t hear a lot of bitching and moaning. Perhaps that’s an intrinsic difference between French and Americans. The French defend their right to take vacation and to strike and don’t appear to get bent out of shape. Go figure!


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Posted in Paris |

Reflections on Paris

Written by admin on February 19, 2010 – 3:15 pm -

Many people ask how I spend my time and it’s hard to answer concretely as I work from wherever there’s a computer. I have a good enough idea, so I’m not really stumped, but no two days in Paris are the same. Even though I may have a careful agenda and a head full of plans, invariably I end up doing something that wasn’t scheduled.

A lot has to do with the weather. As much as I try I go to the Luxembourg Garden each day, if it’s freezing cold or raining, I don’t make it. As a warm weather person, I’ll skip seeing “my” flowers, the children climbing on the play equipment in the fenced-in area, being a cheerleader for the take-no-prisoners tennis players (members of the Sénat have priority booking the courts: well, the senators own it) and forget about watching the men play chess.

I spend a lot of my life behind the computer working on Bonjour Paris. It’s my passion as well as an addiction having spent the past 15 years typing away and sharing my love of, and more than occasional frustration with, France.

I’m desperately trying to stay away from daily pilgrimages to Kayser, the wonderful bakery that’s less than a block away from my apartment. Even though it may only be one croissant, the calories gravitate to my thighs. My money is better spent at Monceau Fleurs, where clients can buy moderately priced flowers and, although ephemeral, give me pleasure.

Rather than going to the gym, my exercise consists of walking and walking some more. When taking the Métro, there are invariably stairs involved and even though I know better, I jog from one platform to another when changing trains as if another won’t come for an hour if I were to miss the one that’s pulling into the station.

It must be a type of adrenalin that’s part of the chemical makeup of Parisians or people who move here. Rarely do you see someone strolling in the Métro as if they have nothing but time. When not rushed, buses are so much more pleasant, since you can actually see the city above ground and observe stores that once were favorites are no longer.

A confession – I do take taxis occasionally even though it’s unusual there’s a legitimate reason unless I’m very dressed up, and that’s pretty rare since Paris has become a substantially less formal city. Unless it’s a 3* restaurant, men often don’t wear ties. But a taxi ride allows passengers to see the city in a modicum of privacy and there’s always the rationalization about how much money people save by not owning cars, not paying parking, insurance or maintenance; not to mention the cost of the car in the first place.

Plus, from the vantage point of a taxi, it’s easier to observe changes. Some favorite haunts have disappeared, with other businesses taking their places. Restaurants seem to come and go – or have been renovated to qualify as BCBG.

As Paris has entered the world of globalization with a vengeance, there are more fast food restaurants where you can eat healthy, such as EXKI, Starbucks emporiums and stores selling “smoothies”—a French word. Franprix and Monoprix have opened boutique outlets where you can sit at a counter and order a pre-made breakfast, lunch or dinner. You can eat there or take your food home, to the office or to a park when the sun is shining.

People who live in France usually have a favorite café. It’s more than a place to drink coffee; it’s a front row seat to observing others and living theater. Mine tend to change according to where’s there’s the most sun.

And as much as visitors assume all Parisians eat out all of the time, those days aren’t as frequent unless you’re made of big bucks. When I first arrived in Paris 22 years ago, I was horrified by the few kitchens I was allowed to see because they looked like dungeons. The French are now into chic kitchen design and all you need to do is walk down Boulevard St. Germain near rue du Bac in the Seventh Arrondissment and have your choice of one uber-expensive kitchen company after another.

More of my friends eat at home, and I eat out far less frequently now because it’s expensive. My main shopping venue is Ed, located at the end of my block on rue Notre Dames des Champs. Initially, the store was kind of a dump where the neighborhood’s residents would pretend they didn’t see each other.

The grocery store stocks its own Dia brand and many generics that cost less than comparable items at Paris’s mainstream groceries. Since Ed opened in 1978, the quality has improved. People go there to buy essentials that are often as good as what you’ll find elsewhere. I want soft toilet paper. I do not crave designer toilet paper at double the price.

That doesn’t imply I don’t go to the food hall at Bon Marche if I want special goodies to serve to my guests. I’ve also become a devotee of Picard, a chain that sells the best frozen foods anywhere. You can order via the Internet and a delivery truck will arrive the next day. One of the joys of living in France is the availability of first-rate food and cheese is one of my greatest weaknesses. It’s hard to say no to a Vacherin Mont d’Or at its runniest perfection.

Whenever I have an appointment anywhere in Paris, I try to factor in extra time to walk around that neighborhood. Like all big cities, the City of Light is changing and unless you take the time to look, you may miss one of the highlights—or sometimes a change that’s less than appealing. It constantly amazes me how frequently I see a detail on a façade of a building I’ve never previously noticed. And it’s a building I’ve passed so many times I wouldn’t be able to count.

At least once a week, I try to make a pilgrimage to a neighborhood with which I’m not familiar. Even though my first Paris home was at the Place des Vosges, the whole area from the Marais to the Bastille has changed. As soon as the weather improves, I am going to recharge my Vélib’ subscription and start biking throughout the city. It’s great not having to look for a parking space (never keep a bike for more than 30 minutes or there’s an extra charge) and zip all over Paris to renew my view of my favorite city!

It’s important to allow your eyes and heart to absorb the city’s beauty and its differences.


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Posted in Paris |

Medically Alone in Paris

Written by admin on February 19, 2010 – 11:55 am -

It’s common knowledge that France has one of the best health care systems anywhere.  In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it the best in the world.

Knowing that and considering my late husband experienced French medical care all too frequently, why did I fall apart over having cataract surgery last week? My English-speaking internist recommended the cabinet of renowned ophthalmologists in whom she has confidence.

I was able to get an appointment nearly immediately—a good thing because waiting for medical appointments is not good for my nerves or disposition. I sailed into Docteur Caputo’s office in the 16ème near the Trocadéro.  Immediately surveying his walls, there were zero framed diplomas attesting to where he attended school, whether or not he was a real doctor, much less one who was competent to make me see clearly again.

Plopping down in his chair, my first question was, “Do you speak English?” Not missing a beat, his response (with a French accent) was, “Yes, my mother’s from New York. She and my Italian father met in the U.S. and they moved to France.”

Georges (by now, we were on a first-name basis—or I was) assured me he goes to the U.S. at least twice a year. And yes, he was qualified to operate on me—for that matter, he makes his living constantly doing surgery and has the newest ultrasound equipment.

Already, I felt better, if still scoring high on the anxiety scale. Georges explained he’d remove the lens and replace it with a new synthetic one. An Acrosof IQ lens was inserted into the “pocket.”  What a coincidence it’s made in Fort Worth, Texas. I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t been handed a patient implant identification card as I was leaving the clinic after the outpatient surgery. The nurse instructed me to always keep it in my wallet because it contains the precise information about my new eye.

It’s amazing how the French and most Europeans keep every medical document and the results of all the tests and vaccinations they’ve ever had since they were born.  It’s a complete difference between Europeans and Americans. We’re so used to our primary care doctor keeping our records that when my Paris internist asked me about a surgery I had 20 years ago, I simply couldn’t answer and it was a quasi-major operation. But Nancy, the internist of enormous patience, will simply have to guess about the results.

Another difference between French and U.S. medical care is that it’s rarely one-stop shopping unless you’re a patient at the American Hospital of Paris.  In order to prepare for the surgery, I had to go to three different offices in various sections of Paris and Neuilly-sur-Seine.   Then there were the two trips to the pharmacy for pre- and post-surgery medications.

One of the other things I learned is unless you have family, surgery when you’re overseas and alone makes you feel vulnerable. When the admissions clerk at the clinic asked for an emergency contact, I gave her the name of my son, who was snowed in and under in Washington, D.C.

If there had been a problem, what could he possibly have done except to come and collect my body? I should note this surgery was done seven days after my first meeting with Docteur Caputo and perhaps my thoughts weren’t as organized as they should have been.

Prior to the cataract surgery, I surfed the web and then some. It’s a now-routine procedure with few complications.  But there are always some oo-la-las.

Another conclusion: if you’re at all language challenged, it’s important to have a doctor who can talk to you in your native language or take a translator. It’s essential patients understand all of the ramifications.

During the 35-minute-long procedure, I wanted to know precisely what was taking place, but Georges was having none of it and had draped the surgical area.  If only he and the people who were assisting him would speak up, I would have loved to ask questions.

When I was in the recovery room for observation because I’d had local anesthesia, I started firing off what’s and why’s immediately and guess what?  Amazingly, I was asking them in French. The staff responded in English.

OK, happily this was a simple surgery. But expats in foreign countries should examine their tolerance level and whether or not they should return home if they’re ill.

Patients tend to be nervous and aren’t always listening as well as they should. Line up your friends and support system. Undergoing  these types of procedures are enough to make a calm person nervous.

The morning after the surgery, the doctor wanted to check on how the procedure had gone.  He was pleased with the results. I was a bit tired, but was reassured about my vision since it didn’t slow down my tapping away on my BlackBerry. I stuck around the apartment, but that was more because of the sub-zero Celsius weather than because I didn’t feel well.

When I went for my second check-up, it was apparent I was the only patient who was alone. After all, this wasn’t a dance where it takes two to tango. I questioned Docteur Caputo if that were always the case, to which he responded I’d have to ask the other patients.

On my way out of his office, I told Georges I was writing an article and wasn’t he curious to see what I had to say about my brush with French medicine.  It was only then he gave me his email address. French doctors don’t do that! Hey, merci Georges. First, I can see and second, I realize I can navigate the French medical system and go at it alone. Does this mean I’m a grown-up who can operate nearly anywhere?


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Paris Discoveries

Written by admin on February 18, 2010 – 11:59 am -

To really enjoy the city, all you have to do is open your eyes and allow sufficient time to get lost, because when you do, you’ll discover something new. This past week has been a testimonial to that premise. I kept finding myself in places I didn’t expect to be and I’m continually amazed there are so many areas I barely know, even though they’re within minutes of my apartment.

During a trip to Neuilly-sur-Seine, I got off at the wrong Métro stop and ended up walking through the commercial area of Paris’s bedroom community.  In spite of the fact it’s just outside of the Périphérique and about four miles from home, this town is completely different from central Paris. Come to think about it, the last time I was there was to visit a friend in the American Hospital of Paris.

All of the stores are très BCBG, and the women and children certainly weren’t wearing tattered jeans. If they were wearing jeans at all, they were crisply pressed, and the women sporting them had dressed them up with high heels and fur coats.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Neuilly’s residents are rich. If they’re not, they’re probably housekeepers, nannies, gardeners—or inherited the house.

The apartment buildings are grand—many built in the mid-1980s and have balconies that go on forever and not only are landscaped but have (often red) awnings protecting them from the midday sun.  The majority of these low-rise units are set back from the road and gated. Inside the gates, you can spot the types of cars owners don’t want parked out for all to see because they’re magnets for vandals.

Neuilly has some drop-dead beautiful houses (pardon, villas), and you know that captains of industry must own them—and you wonder if anyone can make so much money and be honest.  After being somewhat dazzled by Paris’s version of Beverly Hills, it was time to get going or I’d miss my appointment.

Even though I’ve lived in France all of these years, I never remember that the French refuse to give directions—either because they don’t know where you want to go or because it’s going to take too long to explain how to get to my destination—or give the most detailed instructions waving their hands as if I’ll understand more quickly.

Then there’s always someone who gives directions, but they happen to be the wrong ones. In this case, I hopped into a cab and paid the driver and chalked it up to being born without a sense of direction and forgetting my plan de Paris or printing out directions from Mapquest.com.

Rationalizing a taxi ride is a way to see more and faster, I also like to use the captive driver as a French teacher. How I wish the use of cell phones (even with earpieces) were banned.  I want to speak French and not be subjected to someone’s private conversation—and frequently in a language that has zero resemblance to French.

Getting home is generally less chaotic if I don’t have another appointment. I can intentionally use getting lost as a means to see another neighborhood that’s beyond the usual limited bounds of my neighborhood.

When I moved from Washington, DC, to Boston, I ended up knowing Boston much better than the District.  My routine wasn’t set in stone as it had been back home. The way I initially came to know Paris was by hopping on and off the Métro or the bus, walking until I was ready to drop and then hopping on another bus or subway.

Each and every neighborhood was a new discovery. Now that I’ve lived on the same Paris block, I realize I’ve lost some of the feel of the City of Light. In a couple of weeks, I have a houseguest coming for a visit. I’ve already informed her she’ll be on her own during the days while I’m working.  I hope she’ll understand that when I tell her to get lost, I’m actually trying to encourage her.

But the more I think about it, I think this is the time to take a refresher course in Paris 101. We’ll get weeklong RATP all-purpose transit passes and explore the city the same way I did when I was a newcomer here.  And what makes wandering and getting lost interesting is that Paris is also changing.  It seems to me that, if Bonjour Paris is going to write about Paris, we shouldn’t be recycling press releases and stories from other websites.  Much better, I think, to get out and see for ourselves, even if we have to ask for directions.  D’accord?


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No, Buenos Aires Is Not Paris

Written by admin on February 17, 2010 – 12:03 pm -

There are so many wonderful places to live. In reality, I could move anywhere and have considered many options. I had been thinking about Buenos Aires.

After doing considerable reasarch, I thought HolaBuenosAires.com and the city might be my future. How many people do you know return from Argentina’s capital without raving?  The city is so charming and très Français. The cost of living is much less than the City of Light. And if I could master the very stylized steps (yes, the man leads), I could dance my last tango in Paris—and head to Argentina.

My mental bags were packed, having done a fair amount of homework. There’s a daily non-stop flight from Washington, DC, where my grandchildren (and their parents), live. Because there’s only a one to two hour time change, you don’t have to deal with killer jet lag. Since I was going in December, the forecast was the 80s and 90s, warm and sunny. There’s a lot to be said for crossing the equator in a cold, wet winter.

Well, that’s what I thought, but the weather wasn’t summer. It had never been so cold or rainy. Rarely did the sun have the courtesy of shining. Even so, I hit the streets, and wandering is a great way to see Buenos Aires. Walkers can spend hours exploring its 48 barrios, including San Telmo with its incredible stores filled to the gills with wonderful jewelry plus art deco artifacts.

No one should go to Buenos Aires and not visit the 13-and-a-half acre Cementerio de la Recoleta. It has more than 6,400 incredible vaulted tombs and mind-blowing mausoleums, 70 of which have been declared historic monuments. And yes, Eva Peron was finally laid to rest there after having made her political mark on the country.

Anyone heading to Argentina should read its history. Argentina (Eyewitness Travel Guides) gives people an excellent overview of the country and its tumultuous past and present.

Who cares if Argentina is famous for its beef, and 68 kilos (that’s 150 pounds) is the average per capita consumption? Even vegetarians can find plenty to eat. The country’s wine industry is exploding. I prefer French wines but the wines from Mendoza, San Juan, and La Rioja provinces are good and are making their mark in the global wine industry.

Why didn’t I fall in love with the city?  Why did my visit further persuade me France has a superior quality of life, albeit more expensive? Perhaps it was influenced by the fact English is not taught in the schools as a second language; or because I was depressed knowing that a third of the city’s population of 14 million people is officially classified as poor by the by the government. You can see the evidence in the presence of the cartoneros, the army of trash pickers who make the central area of the city look like an expanding landfill

If I hadn’t rented an apartment, I might have felt differently. But staying in a hotel gives people a false sense of security and well-being. That doesn’t make sense if you’re really trying to learn the city. You should feel a city, explore the grocery stores and get a taste as living as a local.

For example, after visiting the Park Hyatt – Palacio Duhau, it was clear I would have had a very different impression of Buenos Aires had I stayed in this drop-dead gorgeous hotel, which has been named one of the best business hotels in the world, and certainly #1 in Argentina.

Yes, it could have been transplanted from Paris in terms of style, incredible food and the French look and feel. But, it also commands Paris prices. More to the point, it’s not Buenos Aires, not the reality of the city. Instead, it’s a place for rich locals to gather and for foreigners to parachute in—and in which they could be anywhere where money buys everything you want.

I left Buenos Aires disappointed and with increased resolve to stay in Paris. Even though I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb in B.A., as I would if I were to live in Asia, it was clear it would be hard to assimilate in a country where families are incredibly insular and not overwhelmingly welcoming of foreigners—especially ones who don’t speak Argentine Spanish.

The Expat community isn’t as large or as active as Paris’s. It’s hard to visit the city without coming away with the impression of its  economy and the realization that Argentines have very little confidence in the country’s government and are vocal about its corruption.

It was surprising to me that real estate purchases are priced in US dollars, and a major topic of discussion is where rich Argentines can invest their money. They recall all too well when the banks closed in 2001, and the peso was devalued by 75% causing the worse financial crisis in the country’s history.

Having cited the negatives, my friends rave about Argentina and are making beelines there since they feel it’s so French and is one of the in destinations.

Now that I’m convinced Paris has the best quality of life, I can’t wait to return to Buenos Aires as a tourist, take tango lessons and spend my evenings at one of the city’s many milongas (dance halls). It will be fun to enjoy one of South America’s most vibrant cities. And, I’ll make the time to explore the countryside rather than apartment hunting.

Even if Buenos Aires is considered the Paris of South America, it simply isn’t Paris. If you’ve spent time in either city, invariably you’re going to have a lot to say.


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Posted in Around the World, Paris |

France May Not Have It All, but…

Written by admin on February 16, 2010 – 12:05 pm -

For the fifth consecutive year, International Living has announced that France has the best standard of living in the world. As someone who lives here, loves it and writes about France, this should make my heart sing—and does.

Returning to Paris to see snow on the runway at CDG airport gave my heart a wee start. What caused greater consternation was the news that the air controllers might be on strike. Hey, this is France and manifs are a way of life. Strike first and then negotiate. Whoever was watching over me took pity and the moment I was home, I was home.

I wondered whether I would find the clothes I remembered leaving for the deep winter chill. Where were my boots, my gloves and the wool hat that I bought in case of weather extremis? Not to worry, if I couldn’t find something, the winter sales are in full swing. Having lived in Paris 22 years, I’ve learned where to find deep discounts on moderately priced clothes.

There are downsides to living in France. Dealing with the French bureaucracy can cause people with rock-solid constitutions to contract heartburn. Anyone who has moved to, or within the country, knows the amount of required paperwork is enough to make perfectly sane people pull out their hair.

In spite of these frustrations, the French are privy to what’s considered the world’s best health care system. In addition, free and excellent education is available for those who choose to take advantage of it. French citizens are subsidized by the government from cradle to grave, and even though poor people do exist, they comprise less than 15% of the population. The French are quick to complain about high taxes. But they receive many benefits for their contributions.

All I know is I’ve been able to schedule all of my medical appointments within a week, and I’m going to have to fork over 60 Euros to see a private physician. If you’re an American, you know that’s peanuts.

If anyone tells you France is a tropical paradise, please remember the Bonjour Paris mantra: People don’t live in or come to France for the perfect weather. They come for the architecture, museums and world-famous landmarks. People wax poetic about walking along the Seine, being overwhelmed by the beauty of Notre Dame and tracing the steps of so many renowned writers, artists, actors and intelligentsia. Many people agree that France is one of the most beautiful countries anywhere; it’s difficult not to be impacted by its varied and rich history.

It’s hard to mention France without noting its food and wine. Many feel it’s some of the best in the world and has inspired many countries’ cuisines.

I’m not saying that there isn’t excellent food all over the world. My first dinner here, however, was a tribute to what I’d been missing. For 35 Euros, a beautifully presented and delicious three-course dinner shouted welcome. The restaurant’s wine list had some expensive selections, but we were able to find a perfectly lovely bottle for 27 Euros.

Aesthetics are an essential element of French, life from the way food is presented, flowers are displayed and store windows are decorated. For many, France is filled with unlimited eye candy. No matter where you look, you’ll invariably see something you’ve never seen before.

Another thing I appreciate about France is its central geographic location, and the fact you can be in different countries, with incredibly varied cultures, in a matter of hours.

There’s no question that living in Paris is substantially more expensive than other parts of France. But once you venture further afield, properties are available that cost less and the quality of services doesn’t diminish. Homes in Province frequently sell for less than $100,000 and may be situated in mountain ranges, on land with cascading wisteria, lavender galore, sunflower fields or vineyards. Few will refute that France has some of the most beautiful landscapes anywhere—and there’s no charge for the incredible views.

Even small villages have outdoor (roving) markets. Churches have concerts and cost nearly nothing or are free. France is small enough that you can be in the mountains, at the seashore or in locales that look and feel entirely different. And France’s first-rate rail system facilitates getting from here to there quickly and economically.

Film executive Leonid Bochkov says, “I think the #1 rating is close to reality. France is one of the greatest nations located in the heart of Europe. It is large and diverse in terrain, has a good climate and its history and culture are very rich. French people are friendly and the atmosphere is optimistic. Prices are less than in many neighboring countries plus roads, transport, medicine and education are on a high level. French women are beautiful. I vote for France!”

My choice is France as well. Hail to long lunches and family meals. Who wouldn’t be seduced by five weeks of vacation and a greater chance to savor living and life.

Manners are important and people tend to be respectful of one another. The French possess a certain savoir faire. Even though many people work extremely hard, their jobs aren’t what define them unless they’re Président de la République française.

For the most part, people aren’t judged by how much money they do or don’t have. Rather, who and what they are takes precedence over the size of their apartments or houses or by their cars.

Most French tend to buy fewer things but invest in better quality ones. They appear to have an innate sense of style and a profound appreciation of the here and now. Whether or not it’s true, many claim the French are more romantic than others. It may not be easy to become a French person’s friend, but once you are, it’s for life.

Clearly, I’m prejudiced. But, do you think a survey that ranks quality of life can be valid? People have different criteria as well as expectations.

Please don’t be bashful and post your thoughts—including what country you’d vote for as being the best place to live. Aren’t there always compromises?


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Posted in Paris |

Paris Bound

Written by admin on February 15, 2010 – 12:07 pm -

After spending the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in the U.S., I’m really looking forward to returning home. Don’t get me wrong—there is so much to do and see in Washington, D.C. It’s not as if there aren’t great (free) museums, exhibitions, lectures and readings at bookstores—not to mention shopping. And yes, there are good restaurants in Washington, but my favorites in Paris are awaiting me, not to forget their moderately priced wines.

If only Loehmann’s, T.J. Maxx, and Costco opened in France, people would be elated. Anyone who has ever visited Wegmans, located in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., would make even the French jealous when it comes to the incredible selection of groceries of differing varieties. A foray there is almost like taking a gastronomic trip around the world.

On the other hand, knowing the French, many would bemoan the opening of such stores as putting the Ma and Pop variety out of business. And they’d be right since people (most especially in smaller villages) tend to be loyal to smaller commercial enterprises.

When I lived in Provence, the advent of a new shopping center was invariably coupled with some boutiques in the town, plus butchers, bakeries and vegetable stands closing their doors. Perhaps it was “progress” but it also signified a lack of personal interaction and perhaps, a sign that the same level of quality might be on the way down.

Even though it’s freezing cold in the City of Light, the first thing I’m going to do (after unpacking my suitcase and shuffling through the mail) is run to the Maison Kayser Bakery at the corner and buy a croissant and a pain au chocolat and hightail it to the Luxembourg Garden. Then I’ll know I’m really home. A thermos of coffee will be in one hand and even though it may be colder than cold, those bakery items will taste like heaven. Who cares about calories and carbohydrates on the first day home? Besides, I will have turned in my car keys in D.C. and will go back to walking and taking public transportation. No more jockeying for parking spaces.

I will have had my initial Paris fix when riding from the CDG airport to my Left Bank apartment. My breath never ceases to be taken away when crossing the Seine, spying the flying buttresses of Notre Dame and catching a fleeting glimpse of the Musée d’Orsay. The same van driver usually collects me; he’s accommodating and takes me a slightly circuitous route as if to affirm the landmarks I love are still there.

No matter how many times I’ve made the trip, there’s always something new on the horizon—and even familiar things often seem new to me.

When I return to Paris after a lengthy hiatus, I indulge in a trip to La Grande Épicerie Paris at Le Bon Marché. Yes, the groceries cost an arm and a leg, but the quality is nothing less than sublime.

After writing about how much I love Paris, which doesn’t keep me from traveling as much as I can, you might wonder why I spend time in the U.S. The main reason is family and the most compelling magnets are two girls (age three and six) who are constant inspirations, fill me with belly laughs, and make me realize I’m growing older because they’re filled with boundless energy and it’s hard to keep up.

One of my greatest pleasures is telling them about France and the collection of books about it keeps growing. Watching the film The Red Balloon, produced in 1956, was a special experience. Each of us came away with different impressions and a few tears were spotted rolling down our faces. “Gran” can’t always answer their questions and thank goodness for Google. Why wasn’t the Internet invented (as we know it today) when my son was in high school?

Many of my American friends who live in France don’t have the luxury of returning to the States as frequently as I. For me, traveling between the two countries provides a sense of equilibrium and an opportunity to regroup with very old friends. And no matter what I’d like, I will always be an American—albeit an American in Paris. And after I’ve been in one country long enough, I realize that both have more than their fair share of bureaucracy and frustrations.

I count myself among the lucky: one day, I’ll know what I’m going to do when I grow up. In the meantime, I hope to share my love of France with my friends (real and cyber) and kidnap my son, his wife and their daughters to the City of Light as frequently as possible. Things could be worse!


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Les Soldes! Sales, Glorious French Sales

Written by admin on February 14, 2010 – 12:10 pm -

The Christmas and New Year’s holidays are over, and if you weren’t able to be in France for them, here’s another reason you might want to hop on a plane and come.

The winter sales begin on January 6, earlier than in previous years when the sales generally started closer to the 20th. Perhaps the early start time is giving Père Noël a reprieve if he happened to be feeling a budget crunch on Christmas morning. Patience is a virtue and what are a few extra days when it comes to buying a gift for your dearest and nearest or for yourself?

The Minister of Economy and Finance, Christine Lagarde, has officially standardized sale periods. The Bonjour Paris email box will no longer be inundated with questions as to when France goes on sale. Winter sales will begin on the second Wednesday of January unless it falls after the 12th and will continue for five weeks rather than six. Previously, the government didn’t have the dates fixed in stone and the sales began on different days in different areas of France. Now, with a few exceptions, the sales will take place at the same time from the top of the tea kettle to the bottom.

If the sales aren’t enough of an incentive for you to come to France, there are additional reasons to head here: low airfares, hotel promotions, and if you’re going to spend time in stores (and hopefully, museums), you won’t be bothered if it’s cold. There’s also a greater selection of rental apartments during the winter than in the spring or summer. Plus, many landlords are willing to discount if it’s a last minute rental. Something of something is better than a lot of nothing.

Now for shopping tips: Go to your favorite store(s) before the sales begin. Scope out the inventory, but please understand that no matter how much you beg to buy an item before the official start date, it’s verboten…. which doesn’t mean that if you’re a regular at a boutique, “your” sales person won’t (kinda) hold something for you if it’s possible. If you’re a good customer, you’ll have more of a chance of engendering favor.

French law mandates sale items must be on the store’s premises a minimum of a month before the start of a sale and on the sales floor at least a week before. Items that have been specifically purchased to entice shoppers into stores because they are discounted, or less expensive than the store’s usual stock, are required to be labeled with the word “promotion.”

If there’s an item you must have, try to be at store when the doors open. Don’t think you have to line up at 4:00 a.m. à la Walmart on black Friday. But it’s judicious to hit the sales as early as possible if your heart is set on a specific item. It’s chancy to wait for the perfect dress to be marked down again and most stores discount substantially at the beginning of the sales. They want to move merchandise, and there will be more of a selection in more sizes when the sales begin. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check back in case the store’s management has additional stock in the backroom to lure shoppers into returning to the store again — and hopefully again.

The most heavily discounted items are generally ones with the greatest mark-ups. For example, if a dress has been featured in a fashion magazine or on the store’s website, chances are it’s going to be priced to go and go quickly.

Accessories have a longer sales life and generally aren’t as substantially discounted. That doesn’t mean never, and many Americans find that last year’s French fashions haven’t been introduced yet when they return home.

The way shoppers can be certain it’s a sale item is if the original price ticket with a bar code has a slash through the price with a reduced price noted. Don’t be seduced by signs proclaiming reductions up to 70% — at least at first. Yes, there will be a few items but probably not ones you’ll want to take home with you.

Clothes are by no means the only things that are on sale. Housewares are some of my favorites, and I try to buy at least one professional Henckels knife. Even reduced they still cost plenty and merit being preserved and never placed in the dishwasher.

When buying during the sales, many stores specify the sale is final. Check with the sales people before buying if you have any doubts and if you think you might want to return the item, be certain that’s noted on your receipt. Some stores will allow returns within 48 hours.

OK — how about the deeper than deep discounts? As the sales continue, there’s more wiggle room depending on the item and how eager the store is to make room for new inventory. I bought a coat that was reduced by 60% and because it was dirty from being tried on so many times, the storeowner gave me an additional 10% reduction.

If you’re a non-EU resident and exporting your purchases, you’ll qualify for the VAT rebate (12%-15% depending on the store) if you spend at least €175 in the same store in one day. Be sure to bring your passport and allow time for the clerk fill out the required paperwork. Many hotels give tourists a 10% discount coupon for certain department stores. These may or may not be valid during the sales – but it’s always worth a try. You have nothing to lose except for the 10%!

The summer sales will also go from six weeks in duration to five. Shopaholics do not despair! Storeowners now have the right to schedule two weeks of sales during the year with the only caveat being that it must be finished more than a month before the official sales begin.

Even with the weak dollar, there are plenty of people who come to France and the EU to shop for specific items that they can’t afford in the U.S – even when they’re on sale. One friend sent me a spreadsheet detailing how she saved money even after factoring in her air, hotel and food costs. It can be done and even if you don’t save real money, it’s fun trying. At the very least, it’s an excuse to head to France!


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Posted in Paris |

Bonjour Paris – Another Year Has Passed

Written by admin on February 1, 2010 – 12:13 pm -

As I sit down to write the annual Bonjour Paris year-end letter, I realize I’m not quite certain how many have been written. It’s either the 14th or 15th. I’ve lost count, since we first launched as Keyword: Paris on the travel channel of America Online. How times have changed.

Those of us who worked on Bonjour Paris were initially condemned to connect via a 14.4K dial-up modem. In France, it was always hit or miss and rarely on the first try. There were at least five AOL numbers in Paris, and the modem would rotate from one to the next until there was something other than the damn busy signal. The “You’ve got mail” message signaled success.

The France Telecom phone bill would arrive, and there would be pages and pages listing each connection attempt. And then there’d be a notation of many French francs. Since the site had many people working on it, the phone bills at the end of the month would be staggering. Mine was over $1,000 because FT charged by the minute. Talk about sticker shock, but it was the cost of doing business.

Connecting to the Internet was the ultimate luxury. If it were a question of sending emails, you’d compose them first and send them all at once and download any ones you’d received. Then you’d answer them off-line because you could hear your phone bill’s meter edging up, or in my case, skyrocketing. Those were the days of chats, with me, living in the wrong time zone, getting up at 5:00 a.m. Paris time to be online until 7 a.m. (9-11 p.m. ET).

The concept of staying connected 24 hours a day was unfathomable for neophytes. Skip the idea of IP phones, Skype and on-line meetings where people can be anywhere in the world. Who imagined many of us would be living a large portion of our lives on-line? The recently released movie Up in the Air that stars George Clooney would have been considered fantasy. Who could possibly fire people via video conferencing rather than in person? It happens—but it’s not the way George Clooney opts to do it as he lives out of a suitcase taking short-haul flights within the US collecting American Airlines frequent flyer miles.

Today’s college students probably have no concept of dial-up modems. The French have become incredibly adept at IT technology. There’s even a T1 cable in my apartment building, which was constructed in 1887. Considering how the French swore the Internet would never catch on, they’ve come a long way since the Minitel.

The year 2009 has been another landmark in how people communicate. Many people and companies have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Bonjour Paris has launched both, and we realize it’s the new way of establishing a community. The number of Bonjour Paris Facebook Fans has been growing, and we’re delighted to have yet another way to keep in contact. On Twitter, we’re @Bonjour Paris, and realize this social medium is an art and a science.

What we’ve realized is we’re changing with the times. Our site has always been a work in progress, and we hope to make some significant enhancements in the upcoming year. There will undoubtedly be some changes some might not love. We will be doing more social networking and would appreciate your spreading the Bonjour Paris word. As always, we’d like to have our readers’ input, so please feel free to send me an email with your suggestions.

It’s a new era and we’re listening. In the meantime, the Bonjour Paris staff wishes everyone the happiest, healthiest and most peaceful New Year with nothing but love and joy. Our family may be changing, but we’re a family of readers, of writers and of so many people who contribute their time. Thank you (or more correctly, merci) to each one of you.


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