Snapshots from Paris: A Changing City

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:23 pm -

There are days, weeks, months and years when living in Paris makes me come to a crashing halt and reevaluate so many things I’ve come to accept as status quo.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I remain here because boredom is equivalent to my being dead, and I’m not ready, merci, quand même.

No matter how comfortable I may be here, nothing stays stagnant or the same same for long. This is invariably true no matter where you are, but it feels more poignant in Paris. Clearly, I view things differently as I change—but why are the new things so much more vibrant in Paris—and it couldn’t be only the Eiffel Tower. It’s as I’m taking a mini Rorschach test and the answers are always dramatically different.

Some observations:

An aging population: There are so many more people walking on the streets using canes than there used to be. Is this imaginary or because people who live in Paris are older? Probably both, and it’s certainly true that families with lots of children tend to gravitate to the suburbs in search of bigger living spaces that cost less than Paris’s apartment stock.

But I wasn’t aware of so many people having to use a wooden or metal aid to walk.  A French friend conjectured that many of these seniors previously would have gone to retirement homes. They refuse to now because they don’t want to lose their independence.

Even though Paris isn’t especially handicapped-friendly, people tend to look out for one another. Jeanne, a neighbor who has always lived in the 6eme, feels it’s one of the reasons Paris is special adding that, “To spite Paris being a large city, it’s really a conglomeration of compact neighborhoods, where small stores still exist and thevendeurs are an integral part of people’s lives.” Alternatives still exist here to shopping at an impersonal supersized Walmart, or its equivalent, where you’re essentially anonymous.

Restaurants: Though the economy is less than ideal, why is it that most restaurants are constantly full? They’re not giving meals away nor are they low budget. Is it because that even, with the advent of fast food, the French have enormous respect for cuisine and mealtimes? That’s more than clear when you watch the patrons.  They’re generally not in a rush, talk more than they eat and use this time to communicate with one another. Don’t try to intimidate them into vacating a table because you’ll probably be met with stares rather than action.

Travel: On weekends or when there’s a holiday, the French seem to be attached to a carry-on sized lightweight suitcase. They rapidly and skillfully roll on the sidewalk and across streets and, I get the feeling everyone is going some place other than home.

This is a gross exaggeration, but if you happen to be near a train station, you’ll be a believer. If you go inside, you’ll feel guilty you’re not traveling as well. Train travel in France is so efficient that it makes you want to get up and go. And because vacation times are considerably more generous here than in many other countries, people do tend to travel more, if only to their mother’s house. Parisians do travel, but where did they all buy a variation of the same suitcase?

English: The French government has done a first-rate job of getting service personnel to speak English.If you’re in the tourist areas of Paris (that is, pretty much anywhere), don’t be surprised if people answer you in English rather than in French.  I was recently put in my place when a waiter instructed me to order dinner in English rather than in my very accented French because he was in a hurry and didn’t have time to be my French teacher. I took this the wrong way, answered with a huffy response but (kinda) didn’t blame him, except that I’m not a tourist and it hurts my feelings, A LOT.

Museums: Why it is that lines at the exhibits at museums here feel as if they go on forever, despite admission not being cheap? Once you get into the museum, you hope you’re able to actually see the show because there are so many people jockeying for viewing space. Clearly, one of the reasons is that Paris is a magnet for people from all over the world. There are an estimated 75 million foreign tourists each year and tourism is a major part of the French economy. On any given Sunday, you’ll find Parisians waiting to be admitted. They are serious culture addicts and really seem to know and appreciate art. Is it because large supermarkets and the department stores are generally closed?

Paris as the City of Light and LOVE: Why is it that couples that are practically having sex while sitting in a café, essentially go unnoticed? Granted, the French are very much live and let live, but the other day, patrons sitting outside at La Rotonde watched two different couples, who chose to sit back to back to the other (perhaps out of modesty), doing things that are usually reserved for the bedroom, or not to be prudish, at the very least a dance floor that’s dimly lit. Even if this was a show where there wasn’t an admission, it was definitely a show that qualified for an X rating. A few tourists noticed but they were in the minority as the waiters glided us. Perhaps this was the first time I’d really noticed because three out of the four participants were wearing jeans that were set so low on their bodies that (more than) a bit of their derrieres were visible. I found myself being surprised these lovers seemed invisible.

Taxi drivers: Taxi drivers are rarely the same type I encountered when I first arrived in Paris. I used to rationalize they were worth the money because they were captive French teachers or LISTENERS. Plus, they’d very often give me mini history lessons and more often than not, I’d emerge from the ride with more insights and intelligence than I’d had before. Now, it’s generally a toss up as to who has a worse accent, the driver or me. On top of that, I generally know more about the quartier than the driver because I’ve quite possibly been in Paris longer. This must be universal because it happens wherever I go.

Since taxi drivers are very often a person’s first impression of a city, it would make great sense for the tourist departments these cities to train them to be their ambassadors. But, that’s another article. For that matter, it’s probably a rant.

I’m the last person who’d say there shouldn’t be changes in Paris because that’s reality. But, why do I feel ambivalent about finding a new Starbucks two blocks from my apartment and is it really progress? Based on the number of people waiting in line for a Frappuccino®, I guess it is.

© Karen Fawcett

Posted in Paris |

Sitting out Superstorm Sandy in Paris

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:22 pm -

Okay, Superstorm Sandy is real. No matter where I’ve gone today, everyone has asked whether or not I have friends or family who are affected. Don’t get the idea that I’m being questioned by people who know me because you’d be ever so wrong. The reality is my accent is a sure-fire giveaway that I’m an American in Paris.

What’s happened in the world that people are so incredibly aware of what’s taking place on the East coast of the U.S.? The fact that my family is in Washington, DC clearly makes me more concerned about the weather than if they were elsewhere, but total strangers…?

Surf, surge, with power outages on the way, not to mention the thousands of planes that are grounded. The New York Stock Exchange is closed for the first time since 1985 because of the weather. The U.S. Presidential elections are taking a detour that might change the course of history.

All of this caused me to tell my son to leave his SKYPE on so I’d know he and his family are safe. In reality, they’ll probably lose power, since trees, begging to be cut, surround their house. Their electricity goes down often enough and Pepco, Washington’s utility company always has a helluva time restoring it, but then again their real business is sending out bills. Hunker down, don’t go out and what else would I do if I were in the same city? Nothing.

Realistically, D.C. isn’t going to be as hard hit as many communities. But, I’m at total and full alert. The last time I experienced these feelings was when the twin towers collapsed on 9/11. The world has changed that horrible day and not always for the better.

I remember that Tuesday vividly. It was one of the times I regretted being separated by an ocean from my family. It was an act of terror without warning, completely unlike Hurricane Sandy where there’s been nothing but warning, even though many people won’t be prepared for this huge and menacing storm.

Yes, CNN broadcast as much and as fast as they could and did it well. But it took French stations time catch up. The Internet was nowhere nearly as sophisticated as it is now, and people were dependent on AOL instant messaging and still on dial up modems. There were cell phones, but relatively few friends had them and calling the U.S. via France Telecom took hours and was nearly impossible. Come to think of it, there weren’t any “smart” phones and it was before non-stop texting rather than talking.

Communicating is different now and most people believe it’s for the better.  Television anchors are advising people to update their social networks, and I confess I’m checking my friends’ and family’s Facebook pages. The Bonjour Paris FB page is also being monitored in the event readers want to meet or…. Twitter didn’t exist in 2001 but many people are getting updates and news that way. Come to think of it, some of my friends have gone the no-television route but that doesn’t stop them from streaming news and videos on phones and various electronic readers.

Rather than sitting here fretting and wondering how people are all of the time, I think I’d do better if I took a walk and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Paris. My sitting glued to the computer and the television won’t do anyone a bit of good, and anyway I’ll have my phone. It’s hard to ponder life before we were all so connected, but it will be hard for me to accept life after the print version of Newsweek is no longer. And it’s still better, and I think will always be, to hear the sound of a friends voice rather than a tweet on my phone.

To everyone everywhere, stay safe and be careful. And yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all ride it out in Paris…even though no one should come here for the weather.

© Karen Fawcett

Posted in Around the World |

Getting Sick when Traveling

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:21 pm -

For those of us who live to travel and travel to live getting sick isn’t on the top of our anxiety list. We know what to, and what not to eat—fast food from street vendors— and never to drink out of bottles that seem to have passed through too many hands, and so on. We arm ourselves with the shots the CDC advises and off we go. If we’ve been a place numerous times, we’re sure we’ll be OK.

With this mindset, I headed to Vietnam for the seventh—or was it the eighth?— time. By no means do I consider this exotic travel since I’d been here so many often; I even have a tailor in Hanoi. Or thought, since it had closed in the name of progress. But that’s another story, as was my health.  This has been a wake-up call that even the most experienced travelers shouldn’t be complacent. Had I not assumed I’d never contract an exotic disease, perhaps I would have been more on guard.

Don’t get me wrong. I travel with tiny jars of Purell and other stay healthy accouterments. But, you feel kinda silly acting as if you’re going to get sick when you’re staying in lovely hotels or spending a memorable night on Halon Bay aboard the Emeraude.
Exotissimo Travel had taken care of our ground arrangements and we weren’t roughing it. Anything but—this trip was luxurious. Even though we hiked (well, it was more of a long walk) in Sapa, getting there from Hanoi on the Victoria Express Train could hardly be considered hardship travel. We also spent a night cruising the Mekong delta aboard the “Bassac,” a more than comfortable wooden boat.

Yes, it was a glorious trip. Except for overnight sniffles contracted by my travel partner, Pierre, we didn’t confront any germs that were out to do us in…

We flew back to Washington, DC, before I was scheduled to return to Paris a few days later. All was going according to plan until I started sneezing on the first leg of the flight back to the U.S. and, by the time we arrived at Dulles, my nose was running. Within two days, I had a major fever and was miserable. My return to Paris was postponed so many times that it was either use or lose the ticket. What the hell, I’d prefer to be sick in my real home than where I stay in D.C.

Yes, I was miserable and had contacted a doctor in the District, but was too sick to get out of bed, between the fever and the chills. Besides, my real doctor was in Paris and it was time to get home to her to discover what was really wrong with me.

By this time, and it was nearly a month later, I was sure I was at death’s door, and if I wasn’t, I wanted to be. My life was miserable. Sleeping 20 hours a day seemed normal and I lost any and all balance.

Each time I’d venture out of the apartment, I’d crawl back into it and straight into bed. To give you an idea of how terrible life was, I could no longer hold my arms up long enough to type on my computer. If it hadn’t been for my Blackberry, I would have been incommunicado.

By this time, I had a new career. I saw more doctors in the following six months than I’d seen cumulatively my entire life. Since I felt so crummy and was physically unable to navigate the métro, I learned how expensive Paris is if you take only taxis.

Another thing I experienced was how difficult Paris is for the disabled. Why were so many W.C.’s in the basement? Stairs, that never seems steep before, were impossible. Even though I began to get better, my sense of balance, as well as my memory, was shot to hell. Why wasn’t there a diagnosis? And YES, I’m sure the doctors probably thought I was crazy because, at this point, so did I.

Fast forward: I still felt terrible and as if I’d lost so much motor function that I was certain I’d never travel again. Yes, I was getting better but not good enough. I’d become so adept at surfing medical sites on the Internet, that I was convinced I had at least eight diseases. Even though I am a great proponent of French medicine, perhaps a doctor in the U.S. would be able to solve my health problem.

After returning to DC, I made (more) appointments to see doctors, who prescribed many more tests. I felt as if I’d become a class A hypochondriac. Thank goodness the neurologist decided to take what seemed like a pint of blood. No one was more surprised than I, when she greeted me with the verdict that I’d tested positive for this year’s “hot” virus that’s spread by mosquitoes. So much had been in the U.S. press about the West Nile virusthat’s reached epidemic proportions in the States this past summer. I was vindicated when people who’d heard me complaining read, a journalist’s article about how he’d become a “West Nile zombie.” Finally, a diagnosis and more importantly, I learned there are no drugs that would cure me and it would simply take time.

But hold on. I didn’t contract the virus in the U.S. According to the blood test, not to mention the symptoms, I’d been bitten months before. Why had I been suffering?  My Paris internist simply said the West Nile virus hasn’t come to France and I fell in a hole.

Now that I’ve been diagnosed, I’m encountering numerous others who’ve had West Nile. To think I might have avoided that mosquito’s bite if I’d sprayed insect repellant, whether or not, I thought I needed it.

This falls into the “stuff happens” category. But, happily, this “stuff’ won’t keep me from traveling. But, I’ll certainly be on the look out for mosquitoes no matter where I go, even though I now have an immunity to the West Nile virus. In this case, life (happily) goes on and you’ll see me on the métro.

© Karen Fawcett

Posted in Around the World |

August is Over, and Here Comes the Rentrée in France.

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:20 pm -

When August ends, le tout Paris takes on a different look and feel. Many people return from the beach, country or family homes with calm, tan and glowingly healthy appearances. It’s the rentrée, when real life begins again, and life takes on new dimensions.

In contrast to many Americans, the French tend to do nothing (or as little as possible) during their August vacations. Even though many people no longer take off for the entire month, things slow down substantially, and such is life.

Because the French have five+ weeks of vacation each year, a trip isn’t catch as catch can. Most Americans have to wait until after they’ve retired to take a vacation that lasts longer than two-weeks.

And although an increasing number of French executives work during part of the eighth month of the year, many don’t, which makes it hard to accomplish a whole lot. It’s almost like singing to a non-existent audience when you’re trying to do business. Invariably, the person you need to contact is en vacance.

Just plowing through the stacks of accumulated mail, after the rentrée, is enough to make executives shake and shiver, then have a nervous breakdown—or just not bother. How some people can avoid reading emails when they come home from vacation is an enigma to me, but they do. C’est la vie (but, certainly not mine). Support staff is often away, and some companies change their voice mail greeting to “call back in September.” There’s not even a leave-a-message option. Bienvenue en France, pal. It sounds like the 1950s in the States.

If I didn’t check my e-mail while on vacation—and I’ve had an address since the days of dial-up—I know I’d succumb to cardiac arrest when I had to face my e-mails by the dozens… no, the gross.

Still work is work and a necessity, though people may or may not be charmed by it. But the yearly custom of watching children return to school has a nostalgic feel. I live in a Parisian arrondissement where there are four schools within two blocks. I love watching the children begin classes. The younger ones have a look of apprehension as they clutch their mother’s or father’s hand. The students are pristinely dressed and never seem to get dirty in the playground. Of course the playgrounds are paved and covered with shock-absorbing rubber mats.

Each fall, parents have specific instructions as to how many notebooks to buy (yes, they are expected to have tiny grids, the equivalent of the antiquated Palmer method with less of a flourish), specific pencils with different gradations of lead, a list of books and the obligatory backpack once a student has reached a certain age.

There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding these book bags since there’re so heavy they’ve caused back problems. Students are expected to study once they’ve left the inner sanctums of the school halls rather than participating in sports and extracurricular activities.

At the primary school at the end of my block, the children go home for lunch. These days, it’s not unusual to see a grandmother or a caregiver come and fetch them as an increasing numbers of mothers are working. Just walking by the playground causes people to stop and gape over how heavy-duty adorable these students (wearing smocks while playing) are while (seemingly) following their teachers’ instructions.

Kids who attend the high schools have their own style. It’s the casual perfectly fitting jeans. Students appear to have a universal look. But, what often differentiates French girls from ones who attend schools in the US, is how they toss their hair or unconsciously pull it up so it’s coiffed to look just so. In addition, you can usually identify a French teenager by her posture. Children are taught from infancy not to slouch.

Even though this summer hasn’t felt like summer because it’s been unseasonably cold and rainy in Paris, perhaps September will be warmer. Streets will be jammed with cars and people will sooner than later look more harried.

Not to worry. Before you know it, there’ll be another holiday (remember all the Saints’ days) that will be extended into three-day—or longer— weekends). And before you can count to 12, the Christmas holiday season will be another reason to flee the city or stay at home and relax.

Even though the French take much more vacation than their American counterparts, statistics demonstrate they are no less productive. And, that’s a definite positive when it comes to holding out for a superior quality of life and having more family and down time. In any case, I’ve come to appreciate it even though there are days when it’s frustrating.

© Karen Fawcett

photo 1 by Darounet [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr
photo 2 by OliBac [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Posted in Paris |

Rain in Paris and then What?

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:19 pm -

Yes, it sounds romantic. Thank you, Gene Kelly, for singing in the rain and you too, Woody Allen, for making rain a happy ending in “Midnight in Paris.” Agreed: The city of Light can be brilliant even when it’s gray and drizzly and looks like Amsterdam or Seattle. But, it gets old and fast. April this year in Paris and May, too, have been wet—and since it wasn’t in a movie, it was no fun at all.

Drizzle and sheets of rain are not amusing when you’re wading through puddles, and cars are spraying water on pedestrians crossing the street. If you want to see hostile looks, watch people when drivers whiz by with zero awareness of the damage they’re perpetrating. There’s nothing wonderful about feeling wet and cold when it’s the season to be sitting in one of Paris’ thousands of cafes.

Instead, people were waiting in métro entrances and exits, waiting to dash to their destination when the weather broke. Those who could, had long lunches, did their sightseeing and shopping in some of Paris’ beautiful passages. Movie theaters had high-ticket sales during these months, but people don’t generally come to Paris to get their movie fixes, unless they want to overdose on French films and have language classes, which isn’t a bad idea. Some friends attended more than their usual quota of concerts, but had to dress warmly in order to combat the chill factor in churches.

When April comes, people are geared up to navigate the city by Vélib’ bikes, most of which remained stationary in the parking bays this year. Who in his or her right mind would want to navigate slippery streets while draped in parkas that are rarely weather tight? Nor did tourists who wanted to see Paris by Open Bus have much encouragement. A few brave souls sat on the top deck, but they were relatively rare—which is probably a good thing. There was no way some would return home without having been on a cruise on the Seine. Let’s hope they were with someone with whom they could feel romantic if it was an open boat and getting a chill turned into a thrill. If not, they felt… wet. People made pilgrimages to Giverny, but they may not have felt the splendor of Monet’s garden. Gray is not nature’s best color.

It’s not seductive to feel shoes go squish when you want to be wearing sandals rather than rubber rain boots with high tops. It may sound like fun to be huddled under umbrellas, when in reality, you’re probably doing battle with others who are fighting for dryness as well as space and may be poking you in the eye.

Yes, this was the wet year from hell for those of us who were in Paris, although visitors kept affirming that Paris, even in the rain, is more alluring than other places. No one denies that the weather is fluky all over the world because of climate change or whatever it is that you want to call it.

How did Paris residents survive? Not incredibly well, thank you. Some people became short-tempered while others were out and about depressed. Parents were trying to entice anyone they could—parents, neighbors, the baker—to take a turn with their children. Museums were frequent escapes for children who’d rather have been playing in one of Paris’s many  parks—in other words, quasi escapes for their parents.

Some tried to escape for a few days (remember, they took winter breaks in February duringvacance scolaire) while others tried to grin and bear the weather that wouldn’t stop raining except for an occasional few minutes that caused people to think they might be able to put their rain gear and woolies away.

But hold on—wait a minute (well, a few days) and people were complaining about the heat. In the space of 36 hours, it went from winter (or whatever) to summer.  Posts on the Bonjour Paris Facebook page were clear that no one should come to Paris for the weather. Hello, we’ve been saying that for years, as well as that people should be prepared for all seasons and pack a thermal or silk undershirt that doesn’t take up a whole lot of space.

If people don’t know, vendors in Paris do. You can buy Pashmina shawls twelve months a year and try to look French, even though French women have a je ne sais quoi when it comes to wearing scarves, and never drag them on the ground.

I still laugh about the first year I was in Paris, when I purchased a deeply discounted, final-sale, black cashmere sweater in June, convinced I wouldn’t have use for it until (at the very earliest) the following November. It may have been the best purchase I ever made (yes, it’s been retired after owing me absolutely nothing) because that sweater would become my uniform that I started wearing that summer and continued wearing for many years.

Of course, when the rain stops and it warms up, people gripe about there not being enough room for picnics in the Luxembourg Garden, and unless you’re at the park every early in the morning, forget about snagging a chair. Europeans use parks as extensions of their homes, and if you’re a regular, you tend to have a place where you’re more comfortable than others. It’s kind of the same thing as having a favorite café, where you know the barman, and he knows you. But in the park and the bar, it’s first come, first served. At least it’s not raining, right?

When I was growing up, discussing the weather was considered a no-no and lacked a kind of intellectual spirit, plus was ever-so-boring. Little did I expect I was going to have to readjust my way of thinking. The world is now concerned with the climate and in France, it’s a tout à fait correct topic to discuss even with strangers. It’s right up there with books, vacations and food, although it would be awfully nice to be able to take a bit of a break. D’accord?

© Karen Fawcett

Posted in Paris |

May in Paris

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:17 pm -

If you live in France, you’re the first to admit the month of May is pretty much a non-month. Let me rephrase that. Even though it has 31 days, four of them are official holidays. If they fall on a Monday or a Friday (or for that matter, a Tuesday or a Thursday,) it’s amazing how a one day break can morph into a mini-vacation because here comes the weekend.

It’s called faire le pont (or taking a bridge day) and, depending on the year, residents and visitors are more or less affected. Each year, people carefully calculate how many vacation days they’ll have to deduct from their five weeks of guaranteed leave. Some years are simply better than others. It’s the luck of the draw and the calendar.

Offices, and many other businesses, are closed on May 1 for the Fête du travail (Labor Day). Expect to encounter parades and demonstrations that are organized by unions, trade organizations or groups with a social agenda. If you think you’re going to conduct business or shop until you drop, think again. You’ll possibly have trouble getting from here to there because more than a few streets are blocked.

This past May 1 was special. There were gatherings for the French Presidential candidates, Nicholas Sarkozy and François Hollande. But, the elections are only held once every five years.

Food, glorious food: Don’t assume restaurants that don’t cater to tourists will be open. Ditto for grocery stores. Stock up before, since this is one of the days when markets may be closed or open for only a few hours.

If you must buy something, you’ll be able to buy muguets (lilies of the valley).  Individuals and labor organizations in urban areas sell bouquets on the street. Since there are special regulations, which allow people and some organizations to operate without having to pay sales tax or comply with retail regulations, it’s hard to walk even a block without having numerous people, including very young children, approach you. Talk about an incentive to stimulate that day’s (personal) economy for vendors.

I’ve never quite recovered from the culture shock I experienced when I moved to Paris on le premier mai. I couldn’t believe that buying groceries was going to have to be postponed until May 2. I was convinced my husband had dragged me to the moon, in addition to a very foreign country.

Granted, this was many years ago, when if you touched a tomato at a vegetable stand, you very well may have your hand slapped. For better or for worse, times have changed and some grocery stores are open. But, they’re not open 24 hours a day as they were in some Safeways back home.

Moving right along: The other three “holidays” are: May 8, Fête de la Victoire (Victory in Europe Day); May 17th, Ascension (Ascension Day); and May 28th, Pentecôte(Pentecost).

It was in 1905 that France enacted legislation to separate the church from the state. The survival of these three Catholic holidays has little to do with nostalgia for the old days or durable piety among the French: don’t expect churches to be overflowing. Do expect that if you’re trying conduct any business, there are going to be additional challenges, i.e., no one to do business with. The French still take their vacations seriously.

Even though people may stay put, they’re en vacance and feeling laid back. Those who have second homes tend to gravitate to them and get them ready for the summer. Anne, a property manager for upscale vacation homes in Provence, always said she could never take a vacation in May, since that’s when her clients, the homeowners, would descend on the TGV, to prepare their homes for the rental season.

Because the weather is generally beautiful during this period, you’ll find yourself competing for chairs and grass in Paris’ parks. The French, especially if they live in tight quarters, are used to converting outdoor spaces into second living rooms. People come for the day and stay. You’ll see people in every age bracket, frequently three generations and more than likely, they’ll be carrying a picnic. In contrast with the U.S., it’s legal to drink while you’re eating al fresco although it’s prudent to keep voices down and not to get rowdy. Remember to bring a wine opener and don’t sit on the grass if there are Pelouse Interdite signs peppering it. You’ll be chastised by a policeman and forced to relocate. Do invest in a Pariscope, a weekly magazine that’s published every Wednesday and sold at newsstands. It will have listings for concerts and more, which are taking place in the city’s parks.

Should you come to France during May? Bien sûr, unless you’re conducting business, and then you’ll need to orchestrate your meetings to be sure you’ll be able meet your contacts.

If you’re a tourist, come and don’t hesitate to do so. Museums are open with the exception of May 1 (please factor that into your planning). But, as is the case during August, there are so many other things to do if something is closed that you should go for it. You can only do so many things in one day and eat in so many restaurants. People will always find things open and take advantage of the weather (I hope) being lovely.

And if you’re lucky enough to live in France, you learn to adjust to the month of May — and to the French and their frequent absences. You become one of them. It’s a whole lot better than the two weeks of vacation people have in the U.S.

© Karen Fawcett

Posted in Paris |

Do You Want to Live in Paris? If so, Learn the Rules

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:16 pm -

Do you want to live in France and most especially Paris? It’s amazing how many people say yes when they have no compelling reason to relocate. It’s understandable if it’s for a career move, if you’ve fallen in love with someone French, if you’re coming for family reasons, or if you’re studying.

But, the days of Paris being a haven for artists because it’s cheap are long gone.  Unless you’re from one of the 12 most expensive cities in the world, eleven of which are more costly than Paris, you’ll suffer from sticker shock. Even though the surveys vary, not one of these cities happens to be in the U.S.

Do people move here because of the decades of wonderful movies they’ve seen that glorify France’s landscapes and architecture? Many transplants claim they crave history, sensibility and a sense of culture. Then there are those who are seeking out adventure. Could it be the designer clothes that are featured in fashion magazines?  Not everyone can be in search of good bread and croissants, which are more the norm than the exception.

I know why I live here, which many of my friends who live elsewhere simply don’t understand. I’ve chosen to make Paris my home because of the freedom I feel. I love being able to go places alone or without a partner, have real conversations about ideas, issues, politics and not focus on who is doing what, where, or how much he or she is earning. In other words, absenting myself from the world of social confetti. Being able to walk the majority of the places I want to go and access first-rate public transportation is liberating. This doesn’t mean there aren’t discussions centering on food and vacations. But, if you live in France, that’s important.

Savvy business people make it a priority to familiarize themselves with cultural differences to seal a deal. Most realize that something so mundane as a handshake can get you off on the wrong foot. In France, not saying bonjour before launching into a conversation can place a damper on negotiations and that includes buying a newspaper or a baguette. Just because someone is selling you a product or a service doesn’t mean they’re slaves. They may not say it, but some French perceive that omission as ruder than rude.

Why people visit or move to France, without learning as much as humanly possible before coming, is an enigma to me.

Wait a second…come to think of it, I was among the really guilty. I’d like to say I was young and stupid, but I should have known better. My husband gave me relatively little notice before accepting a job with a multi-national corporation and I arrived in Paris with a U.S. dollar check. How dumb was that? VERY dumb. But, we were among the very (very) lucky whose rental contract could be ratified by a deep-pocketed big bank employer.

Not until it was time to apartment hunt without the help of that company were we confronted with reality and the joys of French bureaucracy and red tape that went on forever. Come to think of it (it’s been a lot of years), I had to enlist the help of a French lawyer to persuade the apartment owners that we were trustworthy tenants for this hotly contested rental property. Why was everyone who came to the open house lugging very thick dossiers with all of their financial papers and their utility bills? Cultural differences are one thing but this felt (to me) like insanity.

If you expect to transfer your life back home to another location, where there are different customs plus a different language on top of it, forget it. Some people fare better than others when they move because of their attitudes. More outgoing and adventuresome personality types, who aren’t felled by fear, are at an advantage. But, they need stop to listen before barreling forward and take their cues from the locals whom they respect.

If you’re French and were born here, living in Paris isn’t a big reach. If you’re a foreigner, or even from other area of France, living in the City of Light may or may not be your dream come true. Yes, you can be in Paris without speaking French, but who wants to? So much is lost in translation, and you’re a perpetual voyeur who doesn’t understand the nuances or maybe the basic storyline.

A recently published book, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin, is receiving lots of press and I’m more than ambivalent. It’s great when someone succeeds in selling books. But, when is it more a tribute to marketing, than to content? Baldwin and his wife moved here from New York City and are incredulous that there aren’t credit cards in France and only debit cards. (Actually you can get one, but the process is akin to being waterboarded after root canal without anesthesia.) You mean he couldn’t buy a computer and pay just a bit each month. The banker suggested he could take out a loan. This may be considered untenable (not to mention un-American) but c’est normal in many parts of the world.

Browse the shelves of most bookstores (and certainly surf the Bonjour Paris Amazon store) and you’ll find numerous books detailing why people move here and the glories to follow. It’s the country of wine, cheese and better-than-average-food. Most of my acquaintances tend to travel. But it’s not a big deal. You can get to London from Paris in just over two hours and then there’s Italy, Spain and so many other destinations. Yes, Paris is a great jumping off point for the rest of the E.U.

Conversely, there are the books that detail how hard an adjustment it is to live among those difficult French who (allegedly) don’t smile, are always on vacation and take themselves way too seriously and/or would rather go hunting than keeping their noses to the grindstone. Peter Mayle, of A Year in Provence fame, and the many sequels, made a fortune writing this genre of book. Mayle upped and left Merérbes (was he avoiding tourists who surrounded his house, the French tax authorities or…?) Mayle moved to the Long Island Hamptons but only lasted there four years before returning to Loumarin, another village in Provence. Mayle has apparently gotten the renovation knack and found good workmen since he sold that house in 2011 and has moved to a smaller village not far away.

Places change and people need to change with them and make adjustments. Three essentials: don’t be rigid, have unrealistic expectations and probably the most important is maintaining a sense of humor.

Whatever your motive, it’s important to adopt the Boy Scout adage and “be prepared.”

© Karen Fawcett

Posted in Paris |

It Happens Every Year

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:16 pm -

It happens every year, and every year I’m surprised. You’d think I’d be used to the rhythms of Parisian seasons by now, when spring somehow arrives and people emerge from their winter cocoons. It’s not that there aren’t people on the streets when the weather is less than warm and welcoming. Of course there are. But when it’s grey, they appear to march at a different pace. People tend to walk looking down rather than straight ahead, as if they’re saying there’s no reason to make eye contact, because it might add an extra minute to their route.

Paris’s méteo (or weather) teases the way certain flirts like to tempt without delivering the goods. Just when you think you can’t tolerate another dark day, the sun comes out, and even if only for a few hours, Parisians’ personalities lighten. If there’s a café on a well-trafficked street, the owner or manager will see that some of the ever-familiar tables and plastic rattan chairs are placed outside. It’s as if they’re magnets, people are sitting with their faces peering into the sun.

When there’s even a ray of sun, people really look at one another if only for a minute, with innate but subtle curiosity, understanding it’s rude to stare and certainly not at all French. Only the omnipresent tourists look to see where to sit and don’t automatically glide into position in the same way regulars do. When there are more than three consecutive warm and sunny days, well, it’s as if people have taken happy pills. People tend to push less and smile more. Go into any of Paris’s parks and you’ll never be alone. Parents and grandparents are there with children, lovers are there with one another and then there are those who move to the outdoor living rooms. Take a book, your Kindle, iPad and go with the flow and don’t forget a picnic.

But, one thing that’s very different now from when I moved to Paris more than 20 years ago is that it’s nearly impossible to speak French in a café or a restaurant that’s frequented by tourists. And I can’t get used to this, either. In fact, it annoys me more every year, sometimes every day, sometimes hourly.

Waiters speak English (they think), and if they hear one person in your group speaking it, they launch into: “What do you want?” Even more upsetting for some may be that they automatically bring you English language menus. (This can be alarming and even annoying for people who actually want to speak French.) Or worse, if they happen to be French and
are guilty by association.

Don’t laugh, this happens. I was having dinner with three other women, two of whom were French. When we ordered in French, the waiter replied. “I don’t have time to be your teacher. There are a lot of people here and order in English.”

Then there are your French friends and acquaintances, who insist that you serve as their language professor, pleading that they need to speak English more than you need to speak French. That’s all fine and dandy until people can’t comprehend why your French is deteriorating. A compromise can be a language trade—Karen speaks French, Karine speaks English. Rather, it should be, but both parties need to be dedicated, and it rarely works in a social situation. And sometimes, it can be hysterically funny, at least for the people at the next table over.

But, then there are the times when the person to whom you’re speaking doesn’t understand a word of English, even if they do. For that matter they don’t understand your French either because you don’t have the same accent. If you are wondering who they are, well here goes: taxi drivers, anyone who answers the phone from any of the telephone companies, ditto for the representatives of the internet companies and any and all utility companies. Yes, the telephone presents challenges.

What’s ironic about this is that when they insist on transferring you to a colleague who speaks English, he or she is perfectly capable of understanding your French. Go figure.

Returning to ground zero, when people question whether or not they should come to Paris because they don’t speak French and wonder if they would be able to order a meal, all you can do is laugh. In fact, if you remain in the touristy areas of the city, it’s a challenge to speak what the Académie Française deems correct. Yes, it’s a new and more homogenous world… for better or for worse.

© Karen Fawcett

Posted in Paris |

Surviving Long Flights: How to Fly Long Distances and Stay Healthy

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:15 pm -

Paris bound or, for that matter, traveling anywhere? Air travel is rife with health challenges because planes are essentially flying Petri dishes. Even if you’re 100% germ-free, as soon as you board the flight, chances are one of your neighbors isn’t. Don’t forget the myriad (germ) perils involved with getting to the airport, checking in, clearing security and waiting for your flight to take off.

How many people, surfaces, lavatories and germs will you encounter?  If you stop for something to eat or drink while you’re waiting, the people behind the counter may have the sniffles, the tables are invariably unwashed, at least in recent memory. You may sweep everything to the side or dump it into the nearest trash bin. But don’t count on getting the Good Housekeeping’s cleanliness seal of approval. Whatever you do, if you’re having a drink at a bar, don’t help yourself to a handful of pretzels because you have no idea whose hands have been there before you. Or where those hand have been.

Frequent flyers have many tips and tricks for surviving flights where air isn’t constantly being recirculated.  Pick and choose the ones you like and cross your fingers.

Be as rested as possible. That’s easier said than done since most people are making mad dashes to get away from their offices and homes. Yet, if you’re able to pack a day or two before (less is more) and score some extra sleep before your trip, you’ll be at an advantage.

Medicine and other tips. Take extra vitamins. Many people swear by Airborne. Some travelers say that coating their noses with Vaseline helps with the germ factor.

Drink lots of water (steer clear of liquor) and walk around the cabin when you’re not (hopefully) sleeping or taking catnaps.

Flying overnight. Try to book a flight as late as possible to maximize your ability to sleep. Eat something before you board, carry a stash of nuts, granola bars, fruit and whatever knows your stomach and vice versa.  If you can sleep before the meal is served (and let’s face it, missing most airline meals isn’t the end of the world), you’re ahead of the game when it comes to your rest quota.  The more sleep you’re able to score, the better off you’ll be when you arrive at your destination. Many say that setting your watch at the time of your destination is a trick that helps with acclimating to the new time zone. Remember to fasten your seat belt so if there’s turbulence, a flight attendant won’t need to awaken you.

Be your own thermostat. Since some flights are freezing while others aren’t, and some airlines are no longer dispensing blankets, bring clothes so your body remains at a constant temperature.

The joys of fasting. If you’re on a long-haul flight, there’s no need to eat everything that’s placed in front of you and now is not the time to start sampling different types foods that may not agree with you.

A flight attendant added that since they’re discouraged from taking sick days, many of her colleagues work when they should be home in bed. I bet you didn’t think about that.

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Washing your hands when you’ve used the lavatories is essential. And that means the handles since they’re touched by everyone. Many travelers pack wipes and a tiny jar of hand sanitizer. Use them. Don’t touch your eyes unless you know your hands are cleaner than clean. So many people contract infections that way. It may look anti-social, unless you’re in Asia, but an increasing number of people are wearing facemasks. Consider one if it’s flu or cold season.

Create your own cocoon. Even though (and most especially, if you’re going on vacation) you may want to party, DON’T.  Pack good quality ear phones, thick eyeshades, an iPod, iPad (or the equivalent) with your favorite music, books or movies, your computer and try not to speak to your neighbors. This may sound anti-social and it doesn’t always work. If there are empty seats (in the same class of service) dry to snag one or more. This isn’t always possible in these days of planes flying at maximum load factor—but you may get lucky.

Fly in the front of the plane. Not everyone can afford First Class or Business Class tickets and even if you have miles galore, don’t bet you’ll get that precious upgrade. If you’re flying with the masses (and let’s face it, most of us do) try to get a seat as far up in the front of the plane as possible where the air is cleaner.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that business people, who fly all the time, tend to be the least demanding. They don’t perceive a flight as something exciting. It’s a means to an end to get to their destination with the minimum of hassle—flight delays and strikes notwithstanding.

Bon voyage.

Posted in Around the World |

How to Snag (and not lose) a Good Rental Apartment in Paris or Anywhere

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:15 pm -

From time to time I hear sad stories from people who have rented an apartment in Paris and feel they didn’t get what they paid for or, worse, thought they were scammed. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. On the flipside, I also hear complaints from apartment owners about lousy tenants. Why not? Renting an apartment takes two sides, after all. You have to look out for yourself, check out the apartment, do some homework. But you also have to understand the owner’s point of view. And this is what I want to talk to you about.

Don’t assume it’s a buyers’ market when it comes to renting an upscale short-term apartment in Paris or anywhere else. Sure, landlords may be willing to take what they can get when there’s little or no demand. But in Paris, like New York or London or Tokyo, try not to offend the apartment’s owner before you click “send.”

Reliable agencies (and that may be the best route for some) are able to interpret your wishes and act as intermediaries. They have an ongoing relationship with the owner and ought know what he or she might accept or tolerate. If it’s a good agent, and there are many, with luck you’ll land your dream apartment—or at least place
you’ll be glad to stay.

On the other hand, please don’t have the same expectations as in the U.S. in terms of  spaciousness. Properties in European cities tend to be smaller and, yes, there are fewer bathrooms and not every apartment has an eat-in kitchen big enough for a chorus line to rehearse in.

If you’re looking on the internet on sites like VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owners) and it’s clearly a nice property that’s had more than a few positive recommendations, don’t expect a sensational deal. Read what’s written (the list of amenities and the fees) and be polite if you feel like negotiating.

Here are some things you should not do.

If there’s a minimal rental period of a week, don’t send a request for three days.  Something may be better than nothing for the owner, but please remember that if the apartment is well-maintained, owners need to have the apartment cleaned before you arrive and after you leave, and the cost is constant whether you’ve been there for a three days, a week or even a month. The cost of turning an apartment can be substantial if the landlord has an onsite concierge service.

Apartment owners who specify no young children usually mean it. Don’t write and say your 2-year-old toddler is perfectly behaved and never gets into anything.  If so, your perfect child will surely discover the joys of being bad in someone else’s apartment—and do you really want to be responsible for breakage? If the apartment description says it’s suitable for four people, please don’t ask if it can accommodate eight. And don’t try to sneak extra people in. Landlords get cranky when they receive calls that there isn’t enough hot water, and don’t think it doesn’t get back to them when there are people sleeping in the apartment above and beyond what the contract stipulates.

Let’s say you find an apartment that interests you, but is beyond your budget. Please factor in the cost of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in the hotel or in a restaurant.  In Paris, where an inexpensive breakfast can set you back €10 (and that’s essentially for bread, coffee and a glass of juice), being able to eat at home eases a lot of the financial pain and burden—especially if you’re a family of four. A glass of wine in a café frequently costs less than a Coca-Cola and staying in an apartment means you can have your own stash of delicacies to eat and drink and save a ton of money. (It also means that you can take adventage of Paris’ fresh produce.)

Please, don’t send blast e-mails saying, “Best price” and leave it at that. You’d be surprised at how many of these landlords receive for rentals in May and June, when the best price can be double since it’s high season. Look at the apartment’s calendar to see whether or not it’s available before making the assumption that it is.

If you’re dealing with an agency or an individual who has multiple apartments, they may have other properties to offer. But if it’s someone who rents out one property, don’t come back and say, “What else do you have?” If they had something else, they would have told you.

Once you’ve decided on two or three apartments and are homing in on your decision, it’s perfectly fine to ask about the neighborhood and whether or not there are stores within walking distance. But please read the description first. Chances are it’s covered in the write-up.

Landlords dislike e-mails saying, “We’re an elderly couple, very quiet, and we’re coming in two weeks. Rather than your apartment sitting empty, we’ll pay 25% of your asking price and will tell all of our friends and spread the word.” Hello?
What are these people thinking? What apartment owner wants others knowing the apartment can be rented for next to nothing? Perhaps these people will strike it lucky, but they aren’t going to be staying in a stellar apartment.

When it says discounts are given for long rentals, ten days doesn’t qualify. You can try to negotiate the price, but please know you may lose the apartment if it’s a prime one. Keep in mind that some people actually take offense when you try to negotiate. A sad fact, but if that’s what you perceive, you have two choices: back off and accept the deal as offered or look elsewhere.

Please do a little research before you rent. If you’re coming to Paris, there’s no Bed Bath & Beyond or Costco where you can buy sheets and everything else in bulk quantities. There’s a Costco in the U.K., but unless you’re planning to stay for more than a few weeks, is that why you’re renting an apartment abroad? No, a U.S. curling iron is NOT going to work in the EU except to blow out fuses and possibly cause a fire. It’s all too easy to check different voltages from one country to the next by clicking here.

Then there’s the question of food. Please don’t think I’m unsympathetic to people who have allergies or dietary preferences, but one dumber than dumb question, especially when it comes to Paris is, “Will I be able to find food I can eat?” One of the pleasures of travel is trying different things and for better or worse, the world is becoming so homogeneous. It’s hard to go anywhere and not find a version of corn flakes. When it comes to organic and biologique, yes, it’s available in Paris even though there’s no Whole Foods.

When it comes to finding the ideal rental apartment for you, it’s important to wear a reality hat. And, then, of course, there are some people who should stay home because that’s where they’re most comfortable. If that describes you, don’t worry. Nothing’s wrong with that. Plus you’ll save yourself a lot of heartburn.

© Karen Fawcett

Posted in Paris |
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