Tourist Hell

Written by kvfawcett on July 20, 2010 – 5:39 pm -

We’re okay, you and I, because we know better, right? We know—and we care—so we don’t stick out like sore-thumbs, like… well, tourists. But here are plenty who don’t know, don’t care, and frankly don’t give a damn, and probably (I hate to say it) wouldn’t know how to dress for the situation or the occasion. After all, what’s wrong with wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flip-flops in a big city? Throw a camera around your neck, don’t forget the backpack, be sure to wear a baseball hat and, yes, you’ll be noticed.

Some feel they’re entitled to wear whatever they want. In reality, the only people who can actually sport these get-ups are born and raised natives or residents—and even they shouldn’t be surprised if people look at them a wee bit askance. If it’s someone you actually know, do you cross the street? Tourist by contamination or guilt by association? Nah, that’s a bit extreme. But, look, there is something really interesting on the other side of the street.

You’ll usually hear them before you’ll see them. Tourists tend to be louder (especially those in groups) when they’re in other countries. This is especially true of Americans. But no nationality is exempt. Perhaps it’s because they’re convinced no one understands them and if they speak at a higher decibel level, they’ll make themselves clear(er)? Works for me.

I’ll never forget the time I was in Notre-Dame in Paris and we were bowled over by a group of Italian tourists. My (now-deceased) native-born Italian husband was able to identify not only the language, but also what city they came from. To make matters worse, he insisted on telling me precisely in which neighborhood they inhabited in the Papal City. I had come to look at the magnificent architecture and gain some inspiration—no such luck. No one could possibly hear himself or herself think because of the incredible commotion.

Then Victor began speaking Italian and I quickly realized we were sinking and would soon be sunk. Within minutes, a group surrounded him, all asking questions at lightening fast speed while simultaneously waving their hands. The memory of groups of tourists going through museums, ruins and everywhere else ricocheted through my mind.

There’s nothing wrong with tour groups. It’s just that I didn’t anticipate we’d be leading one—and in a language in which I was not exactly proficient. The idea that one romance language is the same as another is nonsense and if you speak one, you can kinda navigate in another is wrong.

I don’t care if the root is Latin, which I took in high school, but I can’t say I aced the class. Far from it, and my linguist skills are severely lacking. I must confess I split, but not before going to a souvenir store on the quai where I was able to score a small Italian flag to help identify the instant and self-appointed guide.

If you live in Paris, or in any city that’s a tourist magnet, you’re going to encounter people from foreign countries. It’s up to you to decide how you’re going to cope with them. Are you going to stop and give them directions, take them to their destination, draw a map on a napkin and hope it doesn’t tear… or pretend you don’t speak the language?

The perception that the French are rude is not embraced by all of our readers, which stands to reason since our community consists of Francophiles—and a few francomanes—from all over the world.

But people do contract tourist fatigue, and it’s not just natives. When I first arrived in Paris (and actually began to get my geographic bearings and might even be able to give people directions that were on the mark), I’d speak to anyone and everyone who was muttering in English, looking at a map, and offer my services. It dawned on me that I was so eager to speak English that I was delighted to help. It was the least I could do and as a self-proclaimed representative of the French Government tourist office, I felt a responsibility.

Twenty-two years later, I must admit I’m no longer always as charitable. If I’m in a rush or late for a meeting, I’ll smile and say I don’t speak English or aren’t from the quartier(neighborhood), which is standard operating procedure, especially in Paris. It’s better for someone to admit to not knowing the area than sending you in the opposite direction hither and yon. Good manners would preclude me from asking for their identity papers or following them home to find out they live around the corner. Besides, it’s none of my business, merci.

I try not to be hard-nosed because I so vividly recall my days of being lost in the City of Light. And to be honest, if I’m not in my immediate neighborhood or one that I frequent often, you’ll find me peering at a map or plan de Paris. I am contemplating activating the GPS function on my cell phone, but that feels as if I’m giving in and why isn’t it free?

When people do ask for directions, I’m ever so thrilled when Anglophones ask them in French and then compliment me on my excellent English when I respond. I always debate whether or not I should admit to being an American in Paris.

What do you do if you live in a tourist Mecca no matter where it is? Do you accord strangers (and lost souls) acts of kindness? Or do you run in the other direction? Do you give them wardrobe advice? Or tell them it is illegal to photograph the Eiffel Tower? Or just cross the street? When all is said and done, it’s a question of etiquette. Non?


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Posted in Paris |

House Guest Heaven or Hell?

Written by kvfawcett on July 20, 2010 – 5:38 pm -

Summer is here, and more than a few people would like to come visit if you live in Paris, or New York City, or have a country house almost anywhere.

The dollar may be stronger against the euro, but free rent is still cheaper.  Besides, staying with friends feels better than staying in a hotel.  Whom would you trust to steer you to the right places—a friend or a concièrge?  Your friend has only your interests at heart when he recommends a restaurant (and possibly a desire to get you of her hair for a couple of hours) while it is possible that the concièrge gets a free meal or a pourboire from the resto for his pains.

Houseguests can be wonderful when they know and really understand the rules. If you hear the least bit of hesitation in your host’s voice when asking whether or not you may stay, move right on—not right in—and try someone else.  If you have enough friends, you are sure to catch one in a weak moment or at least on a second bottle of wine.

One of my friends loves having guests. I accuse Judy of running a hotel, but attribute her being the hostess with the mostest to the fact she was in the Foreign Service and was stationed in some hardship posts where she was delighted to have company and had hot and cold running staff to look after them.

She’s left the government, but has a large house and works in an office. When her working day is done, it’s done. She’s trained her guests to shop for and prepare dinner or, better yet, make reservations.  It always seems right to me that the person who makes the reservation should call for the check—and pay it.

Judy leaves for the office before people are up and the refrigerator is stocked with the essentials for breakfast. As I do, she takes the initial order for what they want before they arrive and stocks coffee, tea, milk (regular, low-fat, and the list goes on), juices, fruit, breads and expects them to restock their own special brand of organic Swiss muesli.

Guests don’t need to feel that pots and pans and dishes will break if they look at them cross-eyed.  No one likes to return home to a sink filled with dirty utensils, and please don’t use the excuse, “I wasn’t sure how you like to load the dishwasher.”  Load it carefully, run it when it’s full, and please (if you’re staying with me), unload it and put the dishes, glasses and silverware where they belong.

Unless you’re in the boondocks without a car, find a grocery store, a place to buy wine and liquor and go all out and spoil your host(s) with flowers, unless there are so many in the garden they’d be redundant. It’s OK to deadhead the roses and cut some and put them in vases inside the house.

Bathroom etiquette:  If you’re staying in a Paris apartment, chances are pretty good that bathrooms are at a premium. A WC is not a library and please don’t plan on making it one unless you’re home alone.  Do pick up your towels and please show others courtesy. To be upfront, the toilet brush is there to be used, and please don’t leave the toilet seat up.

Bedroom etiquette:  I don’t want to get personal but unless your room is separated from the living quarters, please make your bed in the morning, pick up your clothes and try to keep the room in order.

Paris apartments tend to be small so your mess becomes visible to others.  If that other is I, color me cranky. Do not feel it’s offensive to strip the bed when you’re leaving.  Place your sheets and used towels in a pillowcase. If there’s a spread, make up the bed (sans sheets) until there’s time for someone else to do it – usually in preparation for the next guest.

My son and daughter-in-law have shoes off rule in their house. I’ve adopted it and keep a basket by the front door since I hate seeing shoes strewn everywhere.  Some adults may be taken aback, and if they’re coming to my once-a-year dressy dinner party, they may wear shoes. But the reality is that floors tend to creak when a building is more than 120 years old as is my Paris apartment. No one loves hearing footsteps above them or finding shoe polish on their upholstery.

A friend of mine asked me to compile a do’s and don’ts guide for people who rent her country home.  Clearly it wasn’t the same you’d send to guests.  But come to think of it, I may just write one specifically to friends and (some very recent) acquaintances.

It would save a lot of time. I wouldn’t need to explain about converter plugs, please don’t bring your U.S. voltage curling iron or the fuses will blow and, yes, I have 220 voltage hairdryers in each of the bathrooms.

Some people love staying with others. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to be one of them because I feel as if I have to wash the kitchen floor, paint the ceiling, and take out the trash before the wastebasket is full.

And since I’m the guest, I feel it’s my responsibility to pay for dinner. After one go-around as a houseguest, I calculated that it cost more to be a guest than if we’d stayed in the town’s hotel. Plus, I feel terribly embarrassed asking whether or not someone has Wi-Fi since Bonjour Paris isn’t a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job.  If it were, I could take a real vacation!  What a nice thought… er, fantasy.

Please add any tips or thoughts you might have for being a good host.  Ditto for being the perfect houseguest!


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Posted in Paris |

Cross-Cultural Relationships – Playing with Fire?

Written by kvfawcett on July 20, 2010 – 5:36 pm -

It’s June and based on the questions in Bonjour Paris’s in-box, love must be in the air. Or, at the very least, like—okay, lust. There are so many e-mails that begin, “I’ve met someone who lives in France (or remplissez le blanc) and am considering…”

Perhaps it’s because people are more mobile and even though air travel may not be glamorous or pleasant, it’s easy enough to fly wherever you want for the person you want than ever before. And with the advent of Internet and email, it’s simply easier to maintain long-distance relationships.

And that’s only the beginning. Anyone can instant message, Skype and spend as much time (at least) communicating with someone else as if you were in the same city. The main impediment to whether or not you should pick up the phone is the time difference. I don’t care how much you love speaking, not everyone feels like talking at three in the morning.

Some conjecture that on-line dating has opened up a whole new world. People who would never have “met” twenty years ago are striking up cyber relationships that may develop into something substantially more.

Can two people from different countries see eye to eye and agree on little things such as where to live, how to raise children, who’s responsible for doing what and how? Factor in religious and political differences and you’re asking for double (a conservative estimate) trouble. If you don’t speak the same language, a lot gets lost in translation.

Will these relationships work? For some people yes—and for others, forget it. Unless they’ve been raised with the same set of values and references, cross-cultural relationships are too much of a stretch.

Some people are truly better off marrying someone from their community and (with luck) living happily ever after. The fact that fifty percent of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce seems to be lost on a lot of people. Marriage, or just getting together with reasonable seriousness, is, well, a serious matter. And who remembers the quaint thought that it’s ’til death do us part?

The divorce rate is lower in France, which doesn’t mean that people are necessarily more content. But, because France is a nominally Catholic country (all right, Catholicism ceased to be the state religion a century ago, and attendance at mass is on the slim side most Sundays), perhaps people are less likely to divorce for the sake of the children or their status within the community. And many couples opt not to marry for all kinds of reasons—including being able to establish a civil relationship, which is more common among heterosexual couples than homosexual ones.

But what’s different now and interesting to me (and perhaps this is due to the somewhat older demographics of our readers) is that many of these emails are coming from Baby Boomers. We’re the post-WW II generation of people who are (possibly) easing into retirement and many are “empty-nesters.”

There’s a good chance you like to travel if you’re reading this site. So what about falling in love or like or lust and changing your lifestyle? Are people more willing to take a chance and move to another country? There are certainly a lot of reasons not to. But as I reminded someone who was chastising me for living in Paris because my grandchildren are in Washington, DC, I reminded them that the commute is an hour longer than if I were living in California.

Many of my American friends in Paris came to France for their college junior year abroad. So many of them stayed, married and have become more French than the French. Have their marriages worked? Not each and every one—but I am surprised how many have and how many of their children speak English with very French accents.

So much in relationships has to do with expectations and the ability to compromise. Can you be flexible in the way you approach life? Are you able to give the other person space to do what he or she needs to do—most especially when it comes to dealing with family who may live on the other side of the world? Are you capable of doing with someone from another country what is hard enough to do with someone from your own?

Real life situations cross us up, and unless you’re a take-charge type, you may need to assert yourself. I was just speaking with someone who commented that even though he’s 50 percent Italian and 50 percent American, he and his Italian wife don’t understand one another all of the time. Duh—who does?

When I questioned a friend who’s a therapist and does mediation training and conflict resolution, his first comment was that men and women tend to speak in different languages, and people (no matter their sexual orientation) get out of synch. And yes, there are some real negatives to being involved with someone from a different culture. On the other hand, there can be real pluses. Some people thrive in different cultures and may turn out to be more interesting than if they’d never left home. I like to think that’s my case.

What’s the best way to approach cross-cultural relationships? I have no idea. Only you and your other can have a clue. Try to figure it out, but look at the person, not the scenery, not the material. So what if he or she has the most spectacular apartment in Paris? You don’t make love—or even like or lust—to an apartment. On the other hand, if you feel right together, where you live, isn’t the be-all to end all—and there are worse places than France.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Posted in Paris |

Getting Legal

Written by kvfawcett on July 12, 2010 – 4:35 pm -

Mention the phrase “French bureaucracy,” and most residents tend to break out in a sweat. Navigating the system feels more daunting than it should be, could be and frequently is. Talk about wanting to get a carte de séjour, you will hear horror stories, arguments about whether it’s even worth applying for one, and a year’s supply of misinformation—enough to drive you to drink, provided it’s decent French wine. But for that matter, it could be Plonk. When desperate, people aren’t necessarily selective.

Bonjour Paris receives so many emails about these subjects that I wish I’d been admitted to the French bar. But the reality is that even if I were, the laws, regulations, what’s needed and what’s not seem to change every few months and certainly when there’s a new administration.

And that’s not taking into consideration which clerk is reviewing your paperwork and whether or not he or she is in a good mood that day. Some friends have been asked to furnish supplemental documents only to return to the local préfecture and not be asked for them. Go figure.

Obtaining a French driver’s license for an American is a major undertaking and who cares if you’ve been driving in the U.S. for 25 years. Unless you come from one of the fifteen (Texans are now eligitable) states with which France has reciprocity, there are definite rules and regulations about how long you may be in France without obtaining a permis de conduire.

Don’t think you can set up house with a friend or a relative who lives in one of those states because, unless you did so more than a year before entering France, trading that license for a French one is a no go. I was going to try that route until I read the fine print.

If you import a car from the U.S. or any other country where taxes are lower, don’t fantasize you won’t have to pay the French taxman and be sure the car conforms to E.U. standards.

I’ll never forget the hours I spent in Paris’s préfecture de Police on Île de la Cité, watching a French executive nearly self-destruct because he’d purchased a Volvo station wagon when he was posted in the U.S.

He had to jump through hoops (not to mention spending a substantial number of euros having the car’s headlights and emission controls regulated to conform to E.U. standards). Since I was obviously an American, we struck up an instant and intense (albeit brief) relationship since we didn’t exchange business cards. For that matter, I’m not sure we knew the other’s name.

We were both frustrated, and he was so happy to have someone to whom he could vent. Did I realize how many hours he was having to take off from work and wasn’t this ridiculous? Plus, his dilemma was further complicated because he’d bought a Swedish car in the U.S. and had it outfitted so he could bring it back to France without having to have the car inspected yet again by yet another government entity.

I was simply trying to have my car’s registration changed from Provence to Paris but even though I thought this would be a no-brainer, I was missing some paperwork. We sat and waited for our numbers to be called (and called again) because we’d have to go to anotherguichet to collect more papers and instructions and please sign everything in triplicate. I do remember that I was able to exit the offices before him—all I had to do was pay a hefty tax and advise the insurance company that my car would be housed in Paris. Oh yes, then there was the cost of having new license plates made. C’est la vie and it’s only money—in this case, mine. When I sold the car (who needs a car in Paris, merci?) I had to supply additional papers.

Well, life goes on. It’s time to renew my ten-year carte de séjour and my lawyer is assembling all of the papers so I won’t spend weeks trying to accomplish something that I could easily mess up by not including one required document. Paris is my chosen home and it’s essential that mon statut juridique est en ordre (meaning I’m legal, please).

I’m also going to be dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Washington, DC next week. I keep a car here and was shocked the first time I pulled into the parking space adjacent to mine in the apartment building where I was staying, to see a car with the license plates “Bonjour.” The tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet” echoed in my brain.

The owner and I became friends and he promised that when he decided to give up driving or sell the car, those plates would be mine. I’ve spent hours on the DMV website, called the insurance company here and no one has been able to supply the information as precisely what’s needed to transfer the plates. I’ll spend half a day in that office next week so I may return with the needed data. But, why isn’t there a phone number for that department? I feel pretty confident my English is good enough to understand!

Let’s face it, no matter where you go, there are bureaucratic irritations and sometimes you simply have to bite the bullet. But, they do feel more daunting when you’re in a different country. Well kinda.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Posted in Around the World |

Follow the Bouncing Dollar

Written by kvfawcett on July 12, 2010 – 4:35 pm -

The U.S. dollar hasn’t been this strong against the Euro in more than five years. That isn’t a shabby incentive to motivate Americans to take to the skies and head to Europe. There’s no question there’s been a pent-up demand to travel—and why not do so when your money will go a whole lot further?

According to a survey conducted by TripAdvisor.com, which polled more than 1200 Americans, 60 percent of them are planning to come to the E.U. in 2010, up 50 percent from 2009.

(Surprisingly, only six percent of the people surveyed stated they were reconsidering their travel plans because of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland even though volcanologists are predicting it isn’t dormant and won’t be for quite a while.)

The favorable exchange rate makes a trip to Europe more manageable—or may just put it back in reach if you’ve been feeling priced out of the market. Bonjour Paris has been saying that if you’re coming to Europe for a short vacation, a few dollars here and there do not make a live-or-die difference. But it’s a real difference and it’s your money. Here are a few numbers.

A little over two years ago, a euro cost $1.60. Today, it costs a little less than $1.25. That’s like getting a 22-percent raise or, to make it very practical, 100€ spent in restaurants costs you about $122 (today’s exchange rate), not $160. Does that sound real enough?

Apparently it does to quite a few people. We conducted a very quick poll on our Bonjour Paris Facebook Page and queried our readers about their plans. Some people commented that, because of the current exchange rate, they’re booking tickets to France since it’s simply too good to pass up. Others posted they’d planned their trips when the dollar was at $1.40 to the euro and would go anyway, stating that the elevated airfares are the real sticking point.

Those truly (under $300 round-trip) deep-discounted fare wars seem to be a thing of the past, which makes sense because of the cost of fuel. Fares may look good until all of the add-ons are factored into the price.

Kathleen Delgado commented that she travels to France four to five times a year on business, so the exchange rate is not the deciding factor. But Kathleen commented, “Since I’m not made of money and have respect for the money I earn and the people who help me earn it, the exchange rate does impress me.”

Other Bonjour Paris readers say they’re feeling some respite from when the dollar didn’t buy as much. Dorothy Bain Raviele plans to make improvements to her home in Europe and do some more traveling thanks to the lower euro.

Some of our most faithful readers (merci) Barbra Timmer and Richard and Kathy Nettler posted they’re currently in France and enjoying the dollar’s increased buying power.

Hotels, restaurants and other businesses in the service industry that target an American clientele are seeing a definite increase in business.

For American expats who live in the E.U. and whose income is dollar denominated, we feel as if we’ve come into a small inheritance from a relative who worried about whether or not we’d be able to pay our bills. Yes, we’ve received a slight reprieve from what’s felt like poverty, especially for those of us who have lived in France since its currency was denominated in francs. It’s been a financial roller coaster, whether or not we were prepared for the ride.

On the other hand, Americans who invested in property in the E.U. with the idea they might return to the U.S., sell their homes and convert their profits into dollars aren’t so happy today because of the limp euro. Few of us anticipated we’d need to be experts in currency arbitrage when buying our primary residences. Well, you can’t have it both ways, have your cake and eat it, and (for good measure) on ne peut pas avoir du beurre et l’argent du beurre.

Not being an economist, I don’t pretend to know whether or not the euro has been overvalued—although given the way all the members of the currency union have been fibbing about their deficits, there’s some good evidence that it has been. If that is the case, then, on the one hand, it’s overdue and, on the other… well, as Harry Truman said, it would be nice to find a one-handed economist. But the facts of the moment are right in front of us. The euro is down and likely not to rise very far any time soon.

So, here’s a question for everyone. Is the lower value of the euro having any effect on your plans for travel? If so, how? Let us know. We’re always glad to hear from you.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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