Berlin – Time to Plan a Return Trip

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:23 am -

Berlin, Café Kranzler on KurfürstendammIt’s entirely your fault. You voted to read more about my Berlin trip. Once again, it wasn’t the usual “three days here or there” because we skipped so many must-see sights.

To be sure, it’s a luxury when you can get from one EU capital to another so quickly and don’t feel you have to do and see it all. You don’t need be afraid you may never return, since it’s not a long way from where you live. And if you’ve fallen in love with another city—Paris, in my case—you can always work out a little thing on the side.

Your input:

Readers sent comments and suggestions about the many things I missed during my whirlwind trip. A couple of Berlin residents offered “insider tours” on my next trip. Thank you, and the answer is yes.

There was even an email regarding transportation. Ken Dole suggested, “Splurge and take an overnight train. Book a private sleeper car. You board at the Gare de l’Est. Arrive early because it leaves at 20:20 (8:20 p.m.) Read, socialize and turn in.”  For those who miss dining cars, the overnight train has a real one. Ken continued, “At 9:00 a.m., the train arrives in central Berlin at the Zoo or Hauptbahnhof (near the Reichstag). Passports and tickets are collected on the train at the beginning of the trip, so you won’t be awakened during the trip. They will be returned to you before you arrive in Berlin. You’ll have a porter who serves only a few passengers. Take the train one way and fly back or vice versa.”

That’s a great idea for train aficionados and the full-fare price is just over $400 for a single cabin. If you book a ticket through Rail Europe, it costs approximately $270. Remember, prices are always subject to change.

Hotels:

If you’re into luxe and history, the Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin is considered by many to be “the” hotel. It’s classic and has an indoor pool, a spa and a one-star Michelin restaurant. Located across from the Brandenburg Gate, it opened in 1907. Emperor Wilhelm II was its most loyal (and demanding) guest. No one was permitted to put a foot in the door before him and he treated the hotel as one of his palaces. You can make it yours.

It quickly became the hotel for the nobility, the rich and the famous and even some of Germany’s intelligentsia. Embassies moved their offices to the premises and used its reception rooms.

If the hotel, which was renovated for approximately 245 million euros and reopened in 1997, has a familiar look, it’s because the movie “Grand Hotel” was based on the property. It’s where Greta Garbo whispered the phrase for which she’ll always be remembered, “I want to be alone.”

A friend recommended the Bleibtreu Berlin Hotel. Since Barbara is a German architect, who worked on my apartment, it seemed only appropriate to see where she stays. The hotel was renovated in the early ’90s by an artist and is near Kurfürstendamm. Barbara reports the hotel serves great breakfast (no, not just coffee and a croissant, but one that sticks to your ribs—for weeks) and, contrasted to the Adlon Kempinski, is a veritable bargain. It’s a short walk to the subway—great when exploring a city that has an excellent transit system.

Palaces:

Thanks to all of you who sent messages about the palace that’s been classified a UNESCO World Heritage Monument.  No, I didn’t go to Sanssouci in Potsdam. I know it’s near Berlin and is a smaller-version Versailles constructed à la Rococo. It will be on my to-do list on my next trip. When we were in Berlin, it was too cold and too far to go and who needed to worry?

Shopping:

If you’re into labels and expensive, Berlin is definitely a buying center. Your can head here if you need to stock up on Louis Vuitton, Gucci and designers who make a statement when you wear their clothes and when you receive your credit card bill.

According to Toma Haines, the Antiques Diva, “The other place in town to shop is in the West on the Kurfürstendamm, known locally as the Ku’damm.  There’s rarely a crowd, even on Saturdays.” Certainly not like Paris or Amsterdam.

Toma raves about Berlin for its antiques shopping  and says, “Berlin is a treasure trove. First, there is the Suarezstrasse that has thirty antique dealers clustered together. Thirty doesn’t sound big, but this district packs a punch: you can find anything you want and you’ll want everything you find. Vintage everything is HOT and cheap, especially when compared to Provence and Paris.” Clearly, there was no way we could go to all of Toma’s secret sources and have signed up for one of her antiques tours.

More shopping and eating:

Don’t miss the mega department store KaDeWe. Not only is it 60,000 square meters large with an enormous selection of clothes, accessories and more but also on the top floors, there’s food, glorious food. For my money and calories, this one beats London’s Harrods in a heartbeat. People must go wild deciding what to buy, much less what to eat. If you’re language challenged, head to the top floor where there’s a cafeteria like none you’ve ever seen. All you do is have to point, pick up and pay.

Berlin is filled with ethnic restaurants and choosing isn’t easy. Not everyone craves heavy food all of the time and if you’re coming from Paris, you might really want to opt for good Italian food.

Adman in Charlottenburg is definitely worth a visit in addition to a walking tour of the neighborhood. If you miss sushi, voilà. This is a first-rate and fun restaurant.

Monsieur Vuong was the surprise of all surprises. You would have thought it was haute cuisine. When we arrived, there was a line long enough that we considered going elsewhere in the Mitte neighborhood. We stood with the gang and were given tea (and shawls) to keep us warm. A camaraderie among those left out in the cold formed and it was actually fun to wait together. Good thing too. When we were seated, we sat wherever there was a place and were served sensational Vietnamese food. This restaurant has a very limited menu but what it does offer, it does well. If you’re going for a huge wine menu, forget it. You have the choice of red, white and rosé. If I remember correctly, you could choose from three or four beers. By this time, it was very late.

Walking back to the hotel, we decided to cruise the Mitte area the next day. There was so much to see. Yes, there will be a return trip. In the meantime, I’ll be studying Time Out Magazine, planning which exhibits to see in this edgy and happening city.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Around the World |

Berlin Musings & Travel Tips

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:22 am -

After another week of thinking about Berlin, it’s more than clear there was no way we could do the city justice with a fast in-and-out trip. Living in Paris has so many advantages including being the ideal jumping-off place from which to travel. If you’re a travel junkie and find it enriching, it’s heaven.

Don’t get me wrong: I had no illusions or delusions we were going to see and do it all. Berlin is approximately eight times the size of Paris. There are plenty of neighborhoods here in Paris with which I only have a nodding acquaintance. I’ve designated specific days when I pretend I’m a tourist, with the conviction there’s no place like home. And, I want and need to explore it, especially if I’m going to maintain my being considered a Paris expert.

People who go to a place of any size, spend a day sightseeing and think they’ve seen it amaze me. That’s one reason to steer clear of tours where travelers are whisked from here to there with an agenda like “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Brussels… or maybe Berlin?” How about seeing the city? How about seeing what’s in between this city and the next?

You probably read the “three days here and three days there” articles as do I. If you have unlimited energy, an infallible sense of direction, don’t get confused or take the wrong bus or subway, perhaps you can do and see what’s on the must-see list. That’s simply not the way I travel since I like to wander and invariably do, since I was born without the sense of direction gene and find myself exploring whether or not I’d planned to do so.

OK, here are some suggestions, which does not mean we did them–we certainly did not get to all of them!

For a 360-degree overview of the city, the Visit Berlin Tourist Office suggests you go here. It is a TV Tower 680 feet high (270 meters) where you can get an stunning overview of the city; you can see many of its tourist attractions from here, including the Reichstag (Parliament building), the Brandenburg Gate and the Main Railway Station, as well as the Olympic Stadium, the Museum Island (Museumsinsel) and the Potsdam Square (Potsdamer Platz). This makes sense.

We didn’t go. Instead, because of a recommendation, we ate at Solar, located at the summit of a high-rise building. Our source assured us it’s a local hangout where we wouldn’t encounter tourists. She was right. The food was more than decent, portions were huge and could be split and the prices were moderate especially compared to Paris. As guaranteed, the view was incredible and the decibel level could blow out people’s eardrums.  Décor-wise (all-black and glass), it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s the type of place you either love or hate, and you know darn well there’s a whole lot of shaking going on after midnight.

We went to Checkpoint Charlie (and yes, there’s a kind of cheesy feeling that comes from being besieged by people being able to buy a piece of the Berlin Wall) and other relics of the Soviet era. We walked through The Brandenburg Gate and studied the exteriors of Museum row.

I’m embarrassed to admit we didn’t go to the Jewish Museum. You need to dedicate three days to do it justice.

But, contrary to what you may think, this is not a to-do-and-what-to see article. It’s more about the very superficial conclusions I came to. If you’re looking for tourism information, the Berlin Tourist Office has a first-rate site.

My way of learning is to interview people and ask lots of (often, too many) questions. One of the pluses of living in Paris is I know I can and will return to Berlin. And, sooner than later.

I grilled Toma Haines, the Antiques Diva, a Bonjour Paris contributor, who lives in Berlin and commutes to Paris. She shared her insights and said, “I can’t emphasize strongly enough is that Berlin is a poor city. It was flattened in WWII, isolated by the Wall, and it’s never recovered. In 2004, Klaus Wowereit, the mayor, said in an interview, “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy.” (“Berlin is poor, but sexy.”)

Beginning with the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November 2009, investors have been building non-stop, so construction is always visible. I love the quote from Jack Lang, former French minister of culture, when he talked about Berlin’s growth and how quickly it’s changing. “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin.” Of course, Lang missed Baron Haussmann.

“Literally every week a new store opens up, a new building is being built… fueling the economy with the hope it will pay off. People, especially Americans, are investing in Berlin, but you have to think long-term to make it worth your money,” Toma said.

Some things I learned:

Even though Berlin and Paris are so close (by plane), it’s an eight-hour drive and an overnight (12 hour-long) train trip between the two capital cities.

Think BIG. Streets are wide, stores are big and the city feels quasi empty.

Don’t expect people to speak English. It’s a plus if they do if they’re of a certain age. Younger Germans will, but they’re not necessarily the ones who are manning information booths in the train or subway stations. Use transport maps, or a smart-phone application if you have one.

Many Germans steer clear of making eye contact. I hate generalizations, but that tends to be the norm if you’re passing by and through. If they know you, it’s something else.

Waiters are professional and appear to do their jobs well. But, they’re not as friendly as those in the U.S. nor as professional as waiters in France. Tips are not included. Supposedly, 5% (more or less) of the check is the norm.

Taxi drivers don’t necessarily speak English.  Be sure to have the address in writing of where you’re going plus your return destination. If you find the “right” driver, however, you’ll learn a lot. The one we snagged when we went to the airport was full of information and was happy to share his sense of how the city and housing demographics have changed. When we thanked him, he thanked us, remarking that passengers usually treat him as if he’s invisible.

People aren’t supposed to cross the street when there’s a red light – even if there’s not a car in sight and it’s 6 a.m. Moi?

Even though graffiti is an art form, don’t toss your trash on the sidewalk including a napkin that happens to fall.

If you happen to have a car and park illegally even for a minute, even if the police don’t arrive in time to give you a $5 ticket, other drivers and passersby will reprimand you.

Berlin is a safe city as long as you use big city smarts. At the same time, some younger Berlin residents buck the establishment. Don’t be surprised if you see storefronts that have been bashed in and because it’s non-shatter glass, you might mistake it for being an art statement. It’s not. One shop owner told me it’s frequent and perpetrated by Berlin punks.

Compared to Paris, it’s cheap. If only it weren’t so expensive to check luggage, it would have made dollars, cents and euros to have bought drugstore and grocery items and so much more and brought them home.

Food and More:

Berlin is the land of coffee here and coffee everywhere. The first café in Berlin was opened in 1670. Between Einstein and Starbucks, fast, good and moderately priced carryout coffee to go is available whenever you’re in the mood. And you can sit down in the shops, inside or out, no matter how cold it is. Bring on the lattes and the “white coffees” that are made with condensed milk. The majority of these places have free WiFi and are enormous compared to those in Paris.

I’m told women with curves are appreciated…it’s a bit of a culture shock after living here where Parisian women are forever on a diet and are seemingly born without hips and thighs.

Come to think of it, you’ll see relatively few French women drinking beer contrasted to those in Germany. Yes, there some very good wines produced there, but nothing compared to the amount of beer. On nearly every block, you’ll see a restaurant with a cheery rosy-faced (wooden) man beckoning you in for beer and local cuisine. If you like heavy and copious, you’ll be in heaven. Expect to be served bratwurst, other sausages and foods that don’t leave you craving for another meal within two hours—or maybe two days. Portions of Wiener Schnitzel are enough for two people if you aren’t into super-size-me portions. Head to Ottenthal if you want to taste the real thing perfectly prepared.

Berliners are crazy for organic and you can get organic almost anything for same price as nonorganic.  Go figure…

Clubs and more:

There’s an enormous club scene in Berlin and, generally, it doesn’t get going until late and not every night. We were advised to go to Cookies Club in Berlin, which is hot and heavy on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but were told it didn’t really get swinging until 2 or 3 a.m. and stays open until 6 a.m. Even though it was practically in the Westin, there was no way I was going to make an appearance. Although I awakened at 2 a.m., wearing a terry cloth robe to a hip hang-out isn’t comme il faut.

There’s a super jazz club, but hey, tired is tired. Badenscher Hof is by reputation a crowded hole in the wall in West Berlin that reminds you of what a night out in Berlin would have been like in the 20s. For a more modern feel, and perhaps bigger names, there’s also A-Trane.

Neighborhoods and shopping:

The reason we weren’t museuming is because we were exploring neighborhoods trying to decide why the city is so über hot and hip.

OK, I am way over the word count. If you say you’d like more, I can write about so many shopping revelations. Some are ours, others are Toma’s. Few (if any) are boring.

C’est à vous to decide yea or nay.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Around the World |

Berlin – Only Two Hours from Paris

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:21 am -

Welcome to Berlin. It’s so close to Paris, but so very different. It’s going to take a long time to digest what we experienced. This isn’t a city where you can see and do all and get a feel for its history in a long weekend—but many might work.

Things not to do: Don’t take a flight that requires you to leave the apartment at 5 a.m. unless you’re really hale and hearty and are given to being able to sing arias. Traveling within the EU requires fewer security checks, but airports are airports and, by the time you get to your destination, if you’re like me, you’re going to be pooped.

Traveling on no-frills Easy Jet Airlines was perfectly fine. The planes were clean, the flight attendants professional. One flight steward even had the courtesy to laugh when someone asked if there were a charge for a glass of water. In his very British accent he replied no, but there was one for coffee. Best of all, the flight was cheaper than cheap and, once in the air, it took only 90 minutes.

We decided to train it to the hotel rather than spend money on a cab. That was possibly a mistake since it was a 15-minute-long walk to the airport station and a subsequent 30-minute wait for the next train, which was the slow train into the central station. No RER that whisks by the outskirts of the city and we immediately spotted the considerable graffiti that’s considered an art form there.

By the time we arrived at The Westin Grand Berlin (thank goodness for Starwood points), we weren’t feeling so perky. But, that wasn’t going to deter us, come hell or high water. Nor was the bone-chilling cold weather that had us wearing so many layers that I felt like Charlie Brown. A friend, who lives there, says there’s a reason the city is called Buuurrrrrlin. And the summers tend to be hot. OK, one doesn’t travel for the weather unless you’re off on a beach vacation and then, you can only hope.

The hotel was very, but very nice, albeit without free WiFi, one of my pet peeves on my hotel list, but I won’t go there. Its location is ideal if you want to get around by public transport. The Welcome Pass is a real bargain for tourists. Myrna and I spent hours on the hop-on-and-hop-off City Tour bus and were impressed by how much we were able to see and how comprehensive the narration was and in impeccable English, thanks to earphones.

Our M.O. was to do a complete tour and then decide where we wanted to spend time. Berlin has incredible museums and there’s no way you can see a fraction of them and do them justice. The Jewish Museum consists of three buildings and is more than 3000 square meters in size or about 32,000 square feet.

We were forced to make an executive decision. Were we going to see the city, which is known for being the hip and happening place in the EU, or spend all of our time in a museum or two? We opted for the former, vowing we’d return and do only culture.

Contrasted with Paris, it’s huge and the German capital takes a lot of exploring in addition to a more than superficial knowledge of history. The more we saw of Berlin, the more we realized people can spend weeks sightseeing and only get a glimpse of the city and its many layers. It still has the feeling of an Eastern Bloc city where so much was leveled during WWII. Its architecture is a tribute to the many architects who rebuilt the city after the WWII and after the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, when there was another massive wave of construction.

What We Did:

After the city bus tour, we took a boat trip on the Spree. Because it was before the season began, we couldn’t find a barge with English narration. We followed a map noting where we were and drinking hot chocolate laced with rum. It was an eye-opener that there are approximately as many canals in Berlin as there are in Venice.

On the banks, there is nothing but restaurants and even though it was frigid, people were eating outside, bundled in blankets the restaurants supply. If you spy a red or bright yellow fleece blanket with fringe, chances are people have helped themselves.

Residents of Berlin so love the sun they’ll seize every opportunity to sit outside. Rumor has it that there are more convertibles there than in any other European city. This may reflect the fundamentally optimistic nature of Berliners, who concludes that putting down the top means the weather must really be nice and warm and sunny, even if they’re wearing clothes appropriate to hit the ski slopes.

We walked throughout the city, not always precisely certain where we were going. Always a believer in leaving time for serendipity, we explored streets and came to one conclusion: living in Berlin costs substantially less than it does in Paris. That gave me pause and more of an understanding as to why Berlin has become a center for artists and writers. Before going any further, I am NOT moving there for so many reasons including that fewer people speak English and there’s no way I’m ever going to learn another language even if I took total immersion classes. At my age, life is too short.

I just looked at Bonjour Paris’s writers’ guidelines and realize I’ve already surpassed the word limit count. Well, it’s my website. But here’s a question. Should I continue writing about our sojourn in Berlin next week? Or, should I stick to my Paris adventures? Tell me what you think. C’est à vous

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Around the World |

More Reasons to Live in Paris

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:20 am -

Living in Paris isn’t for everyone. Some simply aren’t big city folks and never will be.  They love the country or small towns, and why should I try to convert them?  But living here in Paris suits the way I like to live, which I admit isn’t as efficiently as I’d like. Each week is filled with surprises or, in a really good week, serendipity.

If you’re not a member of the establishment and don’t have to turn up here and there with complete precision, so many things simply seem to happen. And if you’re someone like me, you live in total amazement when they do.

An example from two days ago: I was crossing Bv. Montparnasse and bumped (literally) into an old friend whom I’d wanted to see, and we hadn’t made it happen. Jean-Marc and his wife have been traveling, and coordinating schedules appeared to be impossible. To make a long story short, we ended up having a coffee (and then a glass of wine) at La Rotonde.

Even though it was cold, we sat outside (meaning on the sidewalk) under space heaters. The sun felt wonderful. The smell of cigarettes didn’t, but c’est la vie. Most importantly, Jean-Marc and I had a fast-forward conversation in Franglais about what had transpired in our lives since our last dinner—too long ago. We made a dinner date and we’ll see if it actually occurs because he’s in the midst of a project and one never knows.

This is one example of how France has changed. When my husband and I moved to Paris (May 1, 1988), dinner invitations were issued a month in advance and if a last-minute trip came up, the hostess would express discontent that her seating plan would be ruined, and why couldn’t Victor postpone the meeting? The concept that we were in Paris because of his company, and it had first dibs on his time, was an enigma to her.

Another event of the week. I called my usual hairdresser, and no one answered the phone. Assuming the number had been changed, I hotfooted it there to beg someone to take compassion and mask some of the traces of aging. The salon was closed and locked tight. There wasn’t even a note on the door. When I walked by the next day, ditto.

Desperate, I gave my business to a hairdresser who’d been in the same place for the past 20 years, but I’d always bypassed the place because the salon has the look and feel that it caters to older women. All the people working there were lovely and even though I’m beginning to think that Parisians are permanently attached to their iPhones, iPods and other mobile devices, everyone in the salon was that fascinated I was reading “Murder in Passy” on my Kindle. Plus, that I could make the typeface really big…but let’s not go there.

Another happening. I’m not big for meet & greet meetings, but a dear friend insisted I attend one I probably would have missed if I hadn’t been coerced. Five women piled into a car and off we went to the Marais. With the exception of one, none of us were tourists, which may be the reason we were crazy enough to be in a car.

Naturally, there weren’t any real parking spaces but one space had potential. After jockeying in and out for about ten minutes, we were about to give up, until the former New Yorker in the crew decided to inspect the car in front of us – assuming it would be locked.  Miracles of miracles it wasn’t. Recognizing we had little to few options, I hopped in, released the brake and we made our car fit and ran like hell hoping the police wouldn’t arrest five women who were possibly up to no good. As we were making our get-away, my business cards fell out of my coat, which only added to the Marx Brothers farce of what has been termed the “car pushers.”

After the meeting, I found myself in the Place des Vosges. It was nearly midnight (OK, some of us had stopped for dinner) and I realized this is where I’d begun my life in Paris when we rented an apartment there. It’s not that I haven’t frequented the square many times in subsequent years, but never alone late at night. Well, I wasn’t alone. Reynaud and I became fast friends and I wanted to take him home. But, the owner of this eight-month-old fuzzy white quasi-poodle wasn’t d’accord. But I like to think Reynaud liked running around the Place with me as much as I liked exercising with him. My sojourn there recalled so many memories.

The following night, I ended up listening to Joan Nathan read from her most recent book, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous.” This isn’t a simple cookbook, but a compendium of some of Joan’s research about the evolution of Jewish cooking in France. Getting home was so easy: a fast ride and the bus let me out at a stop two minutes away from my apartment door.

So many people question me about why I love living in Paris. I could and have talked about the city’s architecture, its food, bread and wine and all of the things that attract people to the City of Light.

But for me, its real draw is the freedom I feel here and not needing a car (even if pushing one every once in a while is fun) or unlimited funds to make things happen. That might be true in Manhattan, but after a few days there, I find the density and the noise more than I would be comfortable living with on a full-time basis and want to go someplace that feels less frenetic. And in Manhattan, unlimited funds will let you just about get by.

The weather in Paris often leaves à désirer, but it’s not so hot (or maybe too hot) everywhere else I’ve been in recent years. It’s just proof, I guess, that wonderful Paris is real, not a fantasy. I’m alive, living, not dreaming, not at all.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Paris |

Can You Guess Which is the Most Frequently Asked Travel Question?

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:19 am -

Let’s face it: When people travel to foreign countries (most especially if it’s for the first time), they can ask a lot of dumb questions. With the caveat that there’s no such thing as a truly dumb question, here are some that can’t help but make you laugh. And every one has appeared in the Bonjour Paris mailbox.

Bonjour Paris ran a mini-contest on its Facebook page asking members to guess which question is the most frequently asked.

Here are some of the questions we’ve received over the years:

- Can you give me the names of five hotels on the Left Bank that cost less than $100 per night and are lovely? Naturally, no one else should know about them.

- Should we stay on the Right or Left Bank? What’s the difference?

- Questions about restaurants are popular. Which are the least expensive? The best? Will I have to eat snails?

- Can you get a reservation for me at Frenchie tonight? The answer is no.

- Can I use my credit card in France?

- How much money should I bring?

- Do stores and restaurants accept dollars? Ditto for taxi drivers. Are taxis safe? Are metros and buses safe?

- Where’s the closest ATM?

- What are the rules and regulations about tipping?

- Does everyone in France speak English?

- When is the best time to visit?

- If someone is planning a trip in August, will all of the restaurants be closed? That question is frequently asked when there’s a holiday.

- Is it safe to drink the tap water?

- What days are the museums open and which ones are free?

- One Bonjour Paris reader (merci, M. Raspail) suggested the most frequently-asked question was about where to meet women. Ah hum. But, don’t think women don’t ask where to meet men. They do and the Bonjour Paris staff has a list of places and things to do where they might encounter the love of their life – even if it’s short-term.

- Can you use an American hair straightener or hair dryer without an adapter? What type of adaptors are required for computers and other appliances?

- Will my cell phone work? — and all of the other mobile devices that people carry these days. That’s a question that only your local provider can answer with certainty.

- Is it safe to come to Paris alone?

- It’s not unheard of for people to ask plumbing-related questions. No, you don’t have to worry about being confronted with turkish toilets in most places in Paris.

- Where is the best chocolate & pastry shop?

- Is there an app for that? [Thank you Kathy ;-) ].

Cindy Shoemaker won the prize for the most frequently asked question: “What’s the weather like and what kind of clothes should I pack?” Bingo!

What Cindy didn’t add is that people ask this question for two years out. If I had a crystal weather ball, I’d be richer than rich. Even though I consult the forecast every day, the weather in France rarely cooperates. I usually stick my head out of the window before deciding what to wear. And, frequently, there are days when people are exposed to four seasons.

Clearly, there are questions people have been hankering to ask and have been too shy. Feel free to post them at the end of this article.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Paris |

The French Paradox

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:18 am -

When it comes to the French, there are so many paradoxes—many of which I’ll never understand—nor am I sure I’m supposed to. That’s one of France’s appealing qualities. But, some things will remain mysteries and such is the world, which is more difficult to explain these days.

This article is dedicated to my French internist, who’s the best of the best. Call her, make an appointment and she’ll see you as soon as possible. If it’s an emergency, she’ll see you that day.

Her patients usually have to wait because she doesn’t allocate only twelve minutes, which some U.S. insurance companies have specified as sufficient, to make a diagnosis. My most recent appointment with her lasted more than an hour. At the end, she tapped some figures into her computer and it spit out a bill. I was more than happy to pay it on the spot, which is more than I can say when I see my internist in the U.S. and my hand shakes when I sign my life away (thank you Visa or MasterCard, but never American Express) after I’ve seen Jeffrey, who’s also wonderful and caring.

One time I called Nancy, certain I was dying because I was having trouble breathing and speaking, and suggested I needed a chest x-ray. Why not go there directly and bypass her? After all, time is precious. Nancy very calmly replied she didn’t know I was a certified M.D. and should come to her office tout de suite.

After she listened to me breathe in and out (with the help of a stethoscope), she pronounced me fine and handed over a prescription for antibiotics. After querying her as why she didn’t insist on an x-ray, she responded she was a more than competent doctor and she is.

But, if I’d been in the U.S., there’s no question there would have been an x-ray and who knows what else, a procedure straight from the C.Y.A. file. U.S. doctors are terrified of being sued. Americans know that story all too well, especially if they’re paying for medical insurance themselves.

Following my most recent visit to my French doctor, she prescribed some iron that didn’t like me and vice versa. I shot off an email and was informed I would be receiving a prescription for a substitute one. After four days, I emailed again and was (nicely) instructed to be patient. O.K., d’accord.

On the same day as the appointment, a Friday, I ordered a printer from Amazon. Much to my surprise, it arrived 19 hours later by Chronopost. Talk about customer service, but this took the cake!

To think the French didn’t even know what the internet was when Bonjour Paris launched in 1995. And over and over again, they said there was no way in hell they would ever buy online. My mind went into reverse, recalling all of the discussions I’d had from French business owners telling me I was crazy. I may be, but I was proven correct—and with a vengeance. More than 27 million French people bought goods or services over the internet in the third quarter of 2010. Wonderful and good for them. But my prescription was sent to me—never mind a pharmacist—not over the internet. It went into the mail—and evidently has stayed there. I guess that’s a paradox—and certainly a pain in the derrière.

True confessions: The other day, the Bonjour Paris office closed, and a staff member and I played hooky and decided to hightail up to Bv. Montparnasse and see the 3:00 p.m. show of The King’s Speech. Who could fault us for wanting to spend two hours watching Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter transporting us to 1937, when George VI of Britain ascended to the throne, because his brother decided to marry a divorced American woman of questionable moral character.

After the movie’s rave reviews, trying to see it at an 8:00 p.m. show would entail buying advance tickets and standing in line as if there were no tomorrow. The French love movies and will queue up for the worst and this one is proclaimed to be among the best. We were delighted to be able to be able to buy tickets, even though I was unable to qualify for a senior one because I didn’t have the right card. Quite frankly, it wasn’t worth waging battle over a few euros.

But here’s another paradox. A woman approached the kiosk and asked for a reduced ticket because she’s a chômeuse.  Excuse me, she is unemployed and… I was kind of taken aback, but frankly, this doesn’t upset me (I know it would some Americans). I guess that’s part of my being semi-French.

Another example of a time when I was stopped cold in my tracks: The other day, when I was taking a taxi (and yes, it’s allowed to have love-hate relationships with some drivers), we passed a building in the 17ème and found ourselves discussing the architectural detailing. Its façade was different and worth noting. When we arrived at my destination, he stopped the meter and asked whether or not I had a few minutes before my appointment. When I said yes, he said he wanted to show me a nearby building that he felt was even more interesting than the one we’d seen a few minutes before. He gave me a brief lesson in architecture and was delighted to mentor me.  That’s ever so French.

There are so many paradoxes—many of which I’ll never understand—nor am I sure I was supposed to. That’s one of France’s appealing qualities.

Oh, the prescription did arrive. It only took eight days via La Poste. I could have walked to the office in 15 minutes, so who knows where that envelope has been. Perhaps that’s the real paradox.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Paris |

Being a Tourist in Paris

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:18 am -

If you read Bonjour Paris, you know we’re all for people visiting Paris as well as La Belle France. There’s so much to see and to do and if someone is bored, well…it’s his or her own fault.

Having proclaimed that, I must admit I “discovered” parts of Paris this past week. The catalysts were houseguests, who were kind enough to drag me to other neighborhoods. They are from the outskirts of London and weren’t going to allow any grass to grow under their feet during their long weekend here. They were scheduled up and down, inside and out, and were catching up with what seemed like, and was, a multitude of friends.

Parisians tend essentially to stay where they live or work. Since I work and live in the same place (which is both good and bad news), a walk to the Luxembourg Garden, the neighborhood grocery store and one of my favorite cafés on Blvd. du Montparnasse qualifies as an outing. There are so many movie theaters within a six-block radius I could be movied out and never see the light of day if that were my addiction.

Not having a car means my must-do’s are confined to the immediate area surrounding my digs. I can take the métro or bus to the Opera Garnier or the Bastille and hightail it to see some of the events that take place in Paris—so my cultural life isn’t a void.

But, to be honest, I’m lazy. My apartment is my haven and inviting people here gives me real pleasure. It’s so easy to cook a simple meal and does anyone care that a Kir Royale isn’t made with vintage champagne? As a matter of fact, using something much more than a good sparkling Vouvray is a waste when you’re adding cassis, which actually makes a very good jam. Plus, when you live in a place, you don’t go out to dinner every night unless you’re among the rich and famous and have a debit card that doesn’t ding.

So, a foray to Jacques Melac in the 11e provoked some culture shock. I’d eaten at this wine bar before, but since my previous visit, the picturesque owner has added real food to the menu. I remembered it as a place to go and sample wine and have a large plate of cheese or meat. It was fun, but it wasn’t high on my must-go-there restaurant list because it wasn’t within walking distance. We arrived at night, but it wasn’t hard to see that the neighborhood had lost its seedy look and feel. It was hopping and trendy.

Even though when I first moved to Paris I’d lived on the Place des Vosges near the Bastille and not that far from where I had dinner, it’s no longer my stomping ground. When you move from one side of the Seine to another, things change—and such is life or, anyway, mine.

I had another revelation. When you find a permanent apartment and are settled (hopefully happily ever after), you stop looking at real estate. When friends of mine started moving to the Pigalle area, they were pioneers. The other night, I went to dinner at Le Pantruche in the 9e and was surprised to find myself walking by some very trendy bars and others where there were (I assume and without any surprise at all) working girls waiting for clients. Some things never change.  I was eager to get home after a wonderful meal. On the way to the taxi stand I saw some glorious-looking buildings and a few courtyards behind gates including one where the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier lives.

After climbing into the taxi, we sped by the Moulin Rouge and I realized i hadn’t been there for nearly 20 years! The driver (who lives in the 14e) and I discussed how much that area of Paris has changed. Some French drivers love acting as tour guides and he said he was surprised by how well lit and clean the area appeared. He’s also a Left-Bank aficionado and suggested we return to explore the area. I might have thought he was looking for a date if he hadn’t shown me photos of his family—four generations, no less—yet he talked non-stop about how Paris has gone upscale during the 30 years he’s been driving a cab.

The conclusion I came to after last weekend is that I need to resume doing what I initially did when I moved to Paris. I’d hop on the métro and walk neighborhoods until I felt I had begun to understand them, and that made them more my own.

After all, they’ve changed as have I during the past 22 years. Perhaps it time for a “stay-vacation” and getting to know my city as well as I know ones in faraway places. Just think about the money I’d save! And I wouldn’t have to go through airport security, wait for delayed flights or worry about the weather.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Paris |

Fantasy and Expensive Paris Hotels

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:17 am -

As a perpetual romantic, I’m always on the lookout for hotels that make me feel more spoiled than spoiled. They should be beautifully designed and elegant or, perhaps, exquisitely executed examples of modern minimalism that make a statement. Many hotel architects and designers have been influenced by the Mies Van der Rohe “less is more” school of design, rather than the knock-your-socks-off opulence of the old grand hotels or their offspring, like the Taj and Peninsula Hotel Groups. Either one can do, depending.

I’ve always had a hotel fetish. It goes back to my days of fantasies about being Eloise at the Plaza, one of my favorite books when I was growing up. The idea of calling room service sounded just fine. Undoubtedly, that stems from the fact that my mother didn’t cook, and I would have liked something other than frozen dinners—you know, the ones in three-compartment trays, containing gray mystery meat, overdone vegetables and were those really mashed potatoes?

I love touring hotels, and what better city than Paris? There are some incredible ones here and more are opening all the time. It’s not only the décor, but it’s the ambience (bring on the flowers and they may make you sigh, or if you’re allergic, even cry). You may not be able to afford the latest design à la Philippe Starck, but if you look carefully, it’s possible to find high style at the right price and make it your own.

Even if I can’t afford to stay in these hotels, I can bask in their beauty and elegance and spend a few minutes feeling as if I am living in the lap of luxury. There’s a method to my madness. I enjoy seeing how old hotels are being renovated, upgraded and catapulted into the 21st century. Paris has always been a grand city, and here come the five-star hotels: if you have to ask the price, don’t consider staying there.

Happily, these hotels have bars with sumptuous seating areas where you can order one drink, eat premium munchies and pretend you’re one of the rich and famous.

My visit to the Shangri-La Hotel a few weeks ago was an eye opener. It’s very different from the Shangri-La hotels I’d seen in Asia where the hotel chain was launched. It was decorated in a substantially more subdued style and was more of a historic renovation and preservation than big-time flash.

One of my favorite Paris hotels is the Meurice. Going there for a drink in its elegant bar is always such a pleasure. The barman, William, who’s definitely in charge of the inner sanctum, has been there for more than 30 years, but never on weekends. Hot off the presses: on February 7th, the hotel’s Chef Sommelier, Estelle Touzet, was awarded Chef Sommelier of 2011 by the Pudlowski Guide.

People are flocking to the newly opened Hôtel Raffles Royal Monceau Paris. It’s lovely, but certainly not cheap and is one of the truly “in” hotels. Its terrace restaurant is one of the prettiest in the city and tout Paris gathers there.

Others are talking about a new boutique hotel and giving it rave reviews. I’ve yet to inspect a room at the Hôtel Champs Élysées Plaza but, based on the reports, I may splurge and book a room with a Jacuzzi and go on a stay-vacation for a night.

The Mandarin Oriental is slated to open this summer. In the interim, other hotels have completed or are undertaking heavy-duty renovations.

It’s interesting to see how people who walk into a hotel in jeans are treated. I wish people would dress properly (meaning they shouldn’t wear torn tee-shirts and baseball caps) in a hotel’s lobby. But in these days of informality, people sporting such outfits tend to be rock or fashion stars—you know, from the “industry.”

In my mind, a hotel is more than a place to sleep. They’re destinations that often provide some of the best theater you can see. As long as they have free WiFi, I’m happy.

If you could stay in any hotel in Paris, which would it be? And by the way, there won’t be a bill. Why ruin a fantasy?

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Paris |

Being a Citizen of the World

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:17 am -

Life in Paris is glamorous. Well, sometimes Paris can be glamorous. Cold, however, is not glamorous, and I’ve been sitting at my computer wearing so many layers that I look like the Michelin man’s puffy sister.

But, even the weather improved and hopefully, now that President Hosni Mubarak has resigned, let’s hope there will be a smooth transition

I was sporting a vintage khaki down vest with red and black plaid lining, bought 27 years ago, that I wore in colder-than-cold Vermont.

Then it paid its dues in Provence during winter months when the wind was roaring down the Rhône Valley. Funny, the real estate agent didn’t mention the mistral, which seemed to come in three-day increments. By the sixth day, I was complaining. By the ninth day, I thought I was a goner. The down vest saved me then and is saving me now.

I also kept warm in front of a roaring… television set, waching the crowds in Egypt.  I am glad the demonstrations were peaceful, glad that Mubarak is gone, and glad it’s over.  But I know it isn’t.  There are so many possible scenarios that can spread and spread some more. Is this another Iran in 1979? What does this mean for the rest of that part of the world? Israel? And now there are protests in Iran.

However, I also think about the six times I’ve been to Egypt. It’s less than a five-hour flight from Paris, practically next door.  Rarely does a week go by that there isn’t a cheaper-than-cheap trip flashing on French travel sites, which, for travel junkies such as I, is as enticing as heroin is to others. Expats have the ability to explore different parts of the world more easily than they would if they weren’t moving from their home towns to other places.

My mind flashes to Luxor and the Oriental Institute run by the University of Chicago. Luxor is home to so much history and ancient archeology. Anyone who has witnessed a sound and light show in the midst of the ruins can’t help being moved now by the events that are taking place. The looting and destruction that took place in the Cairo Museum are a crime against history, if not humanity.

Tunisia is another country I’ve visited more than once. So close to Paris and yet so different. Emails have already started filtering into my inbox asking whether or not I think it’s safe to go to Morocco during school vacation. If I can’t predict the weather, I certainly am not competent to advise where people should and should not travel in the Arab world.

We’re talking about cultures, people of differing mores and religions and so much more. But more important, we’re talking about people and their lives.  The upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt make me realize that living here makes me more aware of international relations than I’d be if I were living in a small town in the Midwest of the U.S.; however, this awareness is not glamorous—just upsetting and a little depressing. Don’t forget Algeria, Yeman and ??

Perhaps worried is a better word for my feelings.  No one knows what’s next in Egypt.  Even with Mubarak gone, the amount of reliable information we’re getting about the military rulers—-presumably interim rulers—is scanty at best.  In a world of instantaneous communication, only some may be correct. And so much will probably be wrong. All anyone can do now is watch in anticipation of something wonderful emerging from all the chaos. And anyway, it takes my mind off the cold for a little while now and then.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Paris |

Language Challenged in France

Written by admin on April 15, 2011 – 11:16 am -

One of the most frequent questions Anglophones ask is whether they’ll be able to manage in France if they don’t speak the language.

My advice has been (and will continue to be) that people should attempt to learn some rudimentary French before traveling here. You know, bonjour, au revoir, s’il vous plaît, pouvez-vous me donner les indications, and, naturally, merci.

If nothing else, it’s only polite and indicates you’re making an effort not to have the “here I am, I am a tourist, help me out” attitude and it’s up to the French to speak English. Unlike Holland, where the Dutch long ago realized no one was going to bother to learn their language and so they all learned English, the French didn’t feel it was a necessity to learn anything other than French since, once upon a time, it was assumed to be the language of diplomacy and general all-around classiness.

Well, those days may be coming to an end and there’s no question that some members of L’Académie française (not yet all deceased) are turning over in their graves. Good thing that Cardinal Richelieu, who founded the organization in 1635, isn’t around to see how French is becoming Franglais—and lots of other bits and pieces are chipping off the monument of la gloire française, too.

Why the change? First and foremost, English is the de facto language of aviation, the Internet, and business. Graduate schools such as INSEAD (“The Business School of the World”) conduct classes in English. No longer do people have to cross the English Channel or the Atlantic to be prepped to do big-bang deals.

An increasing number of Parisians speak English, including the butcher, the baker and the Bon Marché salesgirl. Initially gradual, English speaking has picked up momentum with the advent of the Internet. Now more English language movies are being shown in V.O., or original version, not with some wonderfully (or weirdly) translated French subtitles. Relatively few films are dubbed these days. Plus, today’s music (that is, music with lyrics) tends to be English or a form of it.

Now the French Education Minister, Luc Chatel, has declared he wants to “reinvent English teaching” in schools. His plan involves teaching English to children beginning when they’re three years old.

Chatel contends the trials, which have already been conducted, prove that the “sooner children begin to learn English, the easier it will be for them to learn additional languages,” adding that English is a priority. The debate has already begun as to who is going to teach children English, since the French education system is feeling the financial squeeze, and to who’s going to pay for the additional education?

The Minister of Education has indicated that teaching English via the Internet or “E-learning” is a real probability. Another future component of learning languages, he said, would be “mobility” in schools, and he expressed the wish that “each school and high school should have a twinned school or high school in Germany, England or the United States” so that at the age of 18 “every child has spent at least some time in another country.”

OK, so this is a big official step. But the reality is that speaking French in Paris and certainly in quartiers that tourists frequent has become considerably more difficult in recent years. Last week when I was inspecting hotels on Paris’s Left Bank, I must have had “Anglophone” tattooed on my forehead. The moment I walked in to see which hotels had done what, asked to inspect some rooms or even for a brochure, the person manning the desk responded to my request (made in French) in English.

Granted, this is the hospitality industry and the French government has asked people to master enough English to be able to communicate with foreigners from around the world. Granted, also, that as soon as I say Bonjour, the cat’s out of the bag.

But, who’d expect clerks in grocery stores to want to practice their English on me? My French isn’t that bad. Honestly. Ordering a glass of wine in French posed such a challenge in café after café that as soon the barman answered in English, my response was “Non merci” and off I went to the next bar.

I finally scored a glass of Bordeaux (by this time, I needed a drink) and was sipping it feeling a modicum of victory. As I took my second taste, the French gentleman standing next to me asked what I thought of the aroma. He was being pleasant (bless him) and must have immediately labeled me as a rude American when I ungraciously responded in French that the bouquet was convenable, which means anything from adequate to more than satisfactory. It’s a French expression that has many meanings depending on the time, place and the moment.

I am determined that I’m going to learn first-rate French and may have to spend a year in la France profonde. But, come to think of it, I already did that when we had a house in Provence and my language skills were only marginally better and my accent was more Provençal, which the French think is Italian, than American.

I have this sinking feeling that by the time (or if) I learn to speak eloquent French, it may be hard to find many Parisians with whom to speak. Well, maybe…

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


Posted in Paris |