Medical Musts or Maybes When Traveling

Written by admin on November 15, 2009 – 3:33 pm -

Anyone who’s traveling these days should take extra health precautions. This isn’t targeted only to people going from one continent to another. They may be taking a driving or train trip—or for that matter, going to visit friends or relatives during the upcoming holiday season. But that doesn’t negate the need to be prepared.

Driving long distances can play havoc with people’s bodies. Do stop every couple of hours if only to take a walk around the car even if you don’t need to use the facilities. Some rest stops are cleaner than others, so it doesn’t hurt to take some baby wipes with you, even if you’re not traveling with the infant or toddler set.

Whichever way you’re traveling, having a bottle of water with you is a good idea and even if you’re the best of friends or family, don’t share them. Take individual ones and fill them from water fountains when you stop for gas. I’m not implying you do this in Mexico – but if you’re close to home, chances are the water’s safe to drink. If there’s any question about this, buy a gallon bottle and fill your personal bottles from it. During these days of coughs, colds and flu, why chance catching something you might not if you’re extra cautious?

I’m not one who sees germs everywhere. But having just flown in three planes for cumulatively 24 hours, my antenna is at an all-time high. Considering the hacking and sneezing going on, I bet some people are feeling not so hot (or perhaps they’re feeling too hot since they’ve come down with a fever) because they contracted someone else’s germs and made them their own. Airplanes (whether or not the air is circulated) can’t help but be breeding grounds for infections and one sneeze may be enough to do the trick.

When I take long flights, I use an ointment (a type of menthol one) in my nostrils. My others musts are my own blanket, pillow and items the airlines may have cleaned but have not 100% sanitized.

My travel kit includes earphones, a tiny bottle of Purell and hand wipes. Many people tend to have sensitive stomachs when confronted with new foods – so pills for any and every GI problem are in my survival kits. Ditto for antacids. There’s nothing worse than a sour stomach when embarking on a new adventure.

Don’t forget throat lozenges in case you feel a tickle in your throat. A friend takes an entire sack of homeopathic drugs. She swears by them and come to think of it, never gets sick when she’s away from home.

Some people definitely have better immune systems than others. Not departing on a trip exhausted definitely gives most travelers a step up on overcoming jet-lag, adjusting to food, water and air in new environments.

Be sure your shots are up to date. Contact your doctor or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a list of necessary vaccinations. Allow plenty of time for this step in case you need to get vaccines that require more than one dose if you’re headed overseas. Even if you’re just going camping, be certain your tetanus shot is up to date. A cut shouldn’t necessitate your making a trip to the nearest hospital if you’ve encountered a rusty nail.

When traveling to a location where I may contract an exotic disease and won’t have access to an English-speaking doctor, I pack Tamiflu and Cipro with printouts with when and how to use them. Happily, I’ve never had the need.

This may sound crazy but pack a bar of soap, one you usually use or have tested. I should confess that I caused a houseguest to contract (what felt like) a killer case of hives. He was incapacitated from welts and the subsequent itching. When I had to ask my Paris pharmacist for some cream so this person could move without being miserable, I had a case of serious humiliation.

Even though houseguests may not be a blessing, death by savon isn’t polite. Plus, it’s embarrassing when the story is told – and retold. And this type of happening invariably makes the rounds. “She did what?” is said with giggles and more than a bit of incredibility.

What do you pack when you’re traveling? Prescriptions (and always get a written one for refills from your MD if you’re going to be away for any period of time) and your usual medications are givens. But do you have other musts? There’s no way I could have included everything.

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Posted in Around the World |

Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City, or to many, Saigon

Written by admin on November 9, 2009 – 4:22 pm -

Karen Fawcett, our intrepid traveler, is back in Asia. On this trip she has decided to head to Vietnam. Here is her report on the road, so to speak. She has just landed this weekend.

Welcome to Vietnam. It’s now possible to get a visa when you arrive at the airport rather than doing it before leaving home. Definitely try to avoid this unless you’re in a pinch or have no other choice. An E-Visa can be a savior if your trip has been re-routed.

This kind of visa would have been the perfect solution last year when the airport in Bangkok was closed and my traveling companion and I were forced to go to Singapore rather than eternally be in transit. However, getting a visa at the airport is cumbersome and if the paperwork isn’t in order, you’ll be out of luck. The Vietnamese government really wants visitors to get visas in advance from a local consulate or its embassy prior to boarding the plane.

Our 100-percent-full flight arrived after 10 p.m. One would have thought it was mid-day in Miami. Besides being hot and humid, there were thousands of people greeting friends and family. Even though it costs extra, it was a godsend to spot someone holding a sign with our names waiting to shuttle us to the hotel.

There are taxis. But since last year’s airport renovation, locating them is chaotic and forget finding  an organized taxi line. The confusion is compounded after traveling for hours and sagging from jet-lag, which is probably the case if your trip originated in the U.S.

Collecting checked luggage is a challenge. Those coming to visit family, or returning to Vietnam, don’t appear to worry at all about excess luggage fees. Bags and boxes come rolling, one after the other, off the conveyor belt. People appeared to be transporting everything including the kitchen sink.

Even though most locals probably speak minimal (if that) English, one woman was fast to ask if I wanted cold water. “One dollar.” she said with a heavy accent. Clearly a capitalist, she had a good gig going. Locals generally accept dollars to such an extent you don’t need to change much money into the local currency. Good thing too, since the local currency has so many zeros one would have to be a human calculator to figure out the exchange rate. Even with a calculator or a currency cheat sheet conversions are mystifying.

What a difference three years makes. That was the last time I was here. Saigon felt like a quiet French Colonial city then. It’s now assumed more of a boomtown feel. What else is new in Asia? At least, there’s no Starbucks, McDonald’s or Baskin-Robbins – yet. There are plenty of coffee shops and restaurants galore and places with free WiFi reign supreme.

Motor scooters whiz by (and don’t be surprised if you see a family of four perched on one) but progress means more cars as well. Not that driving here could be compared to driving in Paris. It’s not that scary – yet. Mind you, that’s not a recommendation to rent a car.

When taking a taxi, be certain to get the driver’s number.  If he takes the scenic route, inform the doorman at your hotel and he’ll spring into action. We were amazed when the guilty driver returned the majority of the fare after we showed the concierge the circuitous route we were taken. We felt more guilty after discovering it was the driver’s first day on the job and he was lost.

The newest hotel destination is the Asiana Intercontinental. The 300-room hotel is barely open and it’s already known for having some of the best restaurants in the city. Asians like buffets and it has one (for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch) that goes on longer than the eye can see.

Don’t expect to encounter solely quantity rather than quality. The hotel’s largest restaurant, Market 39, has seven open kitchens. Diners can choose from French, Vietnamese and Southeast Asian cuisines.

At the Sunday buffet brunch, shellfish lovers, will think they’ve hit the jackpot when they see the mounds of oysters, crayfish and other choices. This is just the beginning. The pastries and breads would put any French baker to shame. All of this (and much more) is served with luscious Laurent Perrier champagne. While you’re if Vietnam, learn to like local beer to quench an alcoholic thirst. Wine costs a small fortune since there’s a 50% import tax on liquor and wine.

Shopping in this city runs the gamut. Visitors can bargain for nearly anything in some of the outdoor or smaller stores that are frequently in alleys.  Don’t miss Ben Thanh, the city’s central market.

Many upscale stores such as Louis Vuitton have opened recently — there, expect to pay the asking price. I haven’t been here long enough to get into serious shopping but have had a quick overview. I did bring a few clothes to be copied in silk for next to nothing – especially compared to French prices.

One of the city’s most respected tailors, Lam Couture, said a custom-made man’s suit including top quality fabric would cost $300.

There’s much more to Vietnam than shopping and eating. The country is full of culture and history that’s especially meaningful to many Americans. In a short vacation, don’t expect to do more than scratch the surface. But any visitor can try and should.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Houseguests à la Française

Written by admin on November 7, 2009 – 3:37 pm -

When one moves to Paris, or for that matter anywhere in France, one obtains immediate celebrity status. People you hardly remember always seem to be able to remember that they know you (sort of) and that you live in Paris. This is especially true in the days of the weak dollar where airfares may be cheap. But once you arrive in the EU, living is expensive.

You quickly acquire the habit of never answering the phone just after a U.S./Paris airfare war has been announced. If you should forget, the conversation goes like this.

Scenario #1: The Casual Acquaintance

“Hi, my dear friend. Guess what? I am coming to Paris and would love to see you,” says the person you hardly know.

Then comes the inevitable question: “Can you suggest a really cheap hotel? Or for that matter, could I sleep on your sofa if you don’t have a guest bedroom. I (or we—for example, a family of four) will be no trouble and we will have such a good time,” croons the voice on the end of the telephone.

If I weaken and say yes, it is only proper that these guests be greeted each morning by fresh croissants and home-made jams. Please do not think I am forgetting the freshly squeezed orange juice or cafe avec lait chaud. After all, this is France, and there are certain standards.

Scenario #2: The Teenaged Backpacker

This is a bit of theater that American expats know by heart. I suspect that if you took a survey of the “transplanted,” you might find one—maybe—who has not experienced the following:

The phone rings. A happy voice says, “Guess what? My teenager is coming to France. He/she will be no problem, and I would be ever so appreciative if my darling could camp on your floor.”

The reality is that “darling,” having been backpacking for three months, comes equipped not only with a sleeping bag but also with three months’ worth of dirty laundry. “Darling” tells you, “I hate to spend time at the laundromat.” Can’t blame our newest guest. Why should he/she (it?) have to spend time doing laundry in Paris when he/she could be out and about? But after the fourth load of clothes, I am tempted to throw them all out the window.

I forget to mention that “darling” needs to be bathed and fed. I may be mean-spirited, but nevertheless, I am a mother myself.

Inevitably, this hot-to-trot kid also has a list of “must dos” while in Paris. And few of the targets are in your ordinary guidebook.

My “charge” takes off and I mean, off. I want to go on record that I do not appreciate waiting up for this 16-year-old “darling” to roll “home” at five in the morning with reports of what “neat” people he or she has met (and with dilated pupils). “And excuse me,” says the guest. “Do you mind if I sleep a bit late? Do you really need to get into your office/guest room? I’m exhausted.” No problem. I try to be quiet and pray that my Skype calls won’t awaken sleeping beauty.

Scenario #3: The Gourmet Tourist

Then there is the third type of visitor. More sophisticated (or possibly wealthier), these are ones who stay in hotels. But they are nice enough to call and say, “Let’s get together. You choose the restaurant. For that matter, we’d love to try the restaurant at Le Meurice tonight. We’re sure you have connections with Yannick Alléno, the chef”

No, I don’t, is my response. It only takes six months to get a reservation in a three-star restaurant here. And on a journalist’s take-home pay, it is a wee bit out of my restaurant budget—for the year. “We’ll go anywhere you choose,” says the caller, “but let’s make it special since we want to experience the best of French gastronomy.”

We eat a calorie-killer dinner, after which it is midnight and all I want to do is go home. Amazingly enough, when the check does arrive, more times than not, it is left on the table as though it did not exist. My guests point out how expensive everything in Paris is. I reply, “I know!”

After what feels like an eternity, I take out my credit card. “Thank you,” my “guests” say, “when you come to the U.S., we will take you to dinner.” Gee, I wasn’t planning on coming to Cincinnati!

Hotel Fawcett House Guest Policy

After living in France for more than 20 years, I have adopted a house guest policy. No one camps with me for more than three days.

I have even become so hard-nosed that I have instituted the rule that if people were not close friends of mine in the United States, I’m not going to put them up in Paris out of a feeling of obligation because I am the one person they happen to know here.

If people do stay with me and they crave fresh baked bread in the morning, I will point them to the closest bakery. I will help them plan their itineraries, but I no longer try claim that I’m an offshoot of the Paris Tourist Office, solely in Paris to be a tour guide.

I am not in Paris on vacation. Unlike my guests, I have to get up in the morning and get to work. And, even though sitting at a computer may not appear to be work, rest assured, it is!

Gazing at the Eiffel Tower at 2 a.m. lacks a certain thrill when one’s work day begins at 8 a.m. If anything, I would appreciate it if they would assume some day-to-day chores such as picking up some groceries.

Also, I refuse to feel guilty anymore because I don’t know the entire Metro system without consulting a map and rarely know that day’s precise currency exchange rate. Nor do I need dollars in place of the euros in my wallet “because it takes such a long time to exchange money at the bank.”

I have learned after all my years here to compile a “survival” kit that includes a set of keys to the apartment, a guide book or two, a map of the Metro (subway), a few metro tickets, and a cell phone. I am rethinking the inclusion of the phone since it seems to serve as a license to call at any hour of the day or night and ask the tiniest of questions.

Do you think that I am being ungracious or unkind? Well, how would you feel if you had 83 consecutive nights of revolving house guests, which is what happened to me when I first took up residence in France? Put yourself in your host’s shoes and do unto others…

I must confess the nicest thank-you gift from a guest I ever received was a sign saying HOTEL FAWCETT. But, I have buried it somewhere… hopefully never to be found again.

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Posted in Paris |

Tipping while traveling — more questions than answers

Written by admin on November 2, 2009 – 4:25 pm -

With so much information easily accessible on the Internet, most travelers are still clueless about tipping. Many have no idea of how much they should tip and to whom? If you’re on a tour or a cruise, travelers receive guidelines and some of the tips are automatic. But, for travelers on their own, a sense of local tipping rules are need-to-know facts. Otherwise, travelers may come away leaving locals with the impression that they’re rude, condescending or stupid tourists.

One purported resource is: The Conde Nast Tipping Guide. It’s a start. Tipping rules vary by country, by region and by the scenario. However, many locals feel this Conde Nast chart is out of whack as well. If you are not totally confused after reading this post, add your own tipping stories.

Tipping gaffs are international — foreigners don’t know our rules, just like we don’t know theirs. One of the reasons many Europeans receive bad raps in U.S. restaurants is because the tip is already included in the tab at home. They may choose to leave a few extra coins to show their appreciation. But, it’s no where near the traditional tip of 15% U.S. waiters expect to receive.

Because of this, some restaurants in areas that attract a lot of foreign visitors, note on the menu that tips aren’t included (or clearly state they are included). It’s not unusual for the management to state an 18% tip will be included on checks when six or more people are dining. (Of course that can happen anywhere, even in non-touristy spots.)

If the service has been less than satisfactory, it’s up to the clients to make their feelings known. First, you have to find the manager on duty.

Note: For Americans used to tipping 15-20 percent and traveling in areas frequented by foreign tourists, check your restaurant bill carefully. Often the tip is unexpectedly included. Nothing is more irritating that finding that you unexpectedly tipped again on top of the original tip.

Even here at on American turf, tipping rules are somewhat confusing. Travels don’t have to be international to be confusing.

Americans tend to tip the service people with whom they do business including the person who brings you your car (you do want to see your car again and relatively quickly) if you frequent that garage. Tipping is expected at the hairdresser, barbershop, the person who grooms your dog and the list goes on. Are you supposed to tip the owner of a hair salon if she or she does your hair?  The technical answer is no. But have you ever seen your “thank you” turned away?

Hotel guests frequently overlook tipping the maids who take care of their rooms. Who does what and when may be a mystery and how do you know the correct person is collecting the money? Either you can tip as your go if you see the housekeeper or you’ve made a special request for extra towels or more. If there’s a day crew, a night staff and then there are weekends, you might want to leave an envelope at the front desk for the head of housekeeping and hope he or she passes on your monetary thank you.

Do you tip the concierge? I always do if he or she has done something special, such as making a restaurant reservation.

How much do you tip the bell-hop for dragging suitcases to your room?

Are you expected to deposit something in the doorman’s palm each and every time you leave or enter the hotel? Or do you save your money for when a  taxi appears because of his magic whistle or wave?

Don’t necessarily do as the locals do. Yes, they’re definitely a good frame of reference. But there may be different rules for people who live in place rather than visit it. And you won’t always get a 100% accurate response if you ask a waiter whether or not the tip is included. Some waiters in the E.U. have an interesting way of interpreting that question that ends up with the diner forking over some extra money.

Read what it says on the bottom of a check before making up your mind as to whether or not an additional gratuity is expected. If one is, it’s more appreciated if left in cash rather than on a credit card. Not that I’m an authority but it has something to do with the tax man.

Most people have made gaffs when it comes to tipping. When I insisted on giving a taxi driver in China something more than was shown on the meter, the tip was quickly and audibly returned. I wasn’t aware taxis are equipped with with microphone and tipping isn’t allowed. Live and learn.

A group of us are still  feeling (somewhat) guilty over our not tipping when we were having a drink recently. We waited 20 minutes before our drink orders were taken as we were bellied up to the bar. When a table freed up in front of it, we grabbed it taking our Martinis with us. No one bothered to clear or clean the table so we were sitting among glasses and dirty napkins and empty dishes. We were hoping for a second drink but we were invisible.

When the check arrived, our host forked over a credit card but omitted adding a tip. The bar’s owner marched right over and chastised us for not adding a tip or making a slash in the tip amout line and insisted it be done. One of our group decided to write a summary of everything  that was wrong and we exited quickly.

We were fine with that decision because we had zero service. Our host wasn’t, because it’s the only place in her tiny town that has a bar and she might need to return there.

Everyone has tipping stories of when they’ve tipped too much or not enough and when they’ve regretted it. Add yours to the comment section and add to the confusion. Some are even worth a few giggles because cultural differences are precisely that.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Thanksgiving Abroad

Written by admin on November 1, 2009 – 3:42 pm -

Many Americans are in the process of making plans for Thanksgiving. Families traditionally gather over turkey and all the fixings to give thanks and catch up with relatives. It’s frequently a multigenerational gathering under the best circumstances. Americans tend to live in different parts of the country because the days of the nuclear family are pretty much a thing of the past.

Many consider this holiday a time for reflection. Even if their lives are a bit bumpy (OK, the economic data are better—do you hear that?), it’s a time to give thanks. Invariably, there are collections of food for families who are less fortunate. Some begin the day by going and serving turkey dinners to people in shelters or soup kitchens. Perhaps, because it’s a holiday with a muted religious significance, it isn’t loaded with do’s and don’ts. And realistically, aren’t we paying homage to native Indians who taught the first inhabitants of the new continent how to physically survive?

If you’re an American living abroad, Thanksgiving poses a different type of challenge. It’s your holiday. But it’s not one in the country where you’re working. The fourth Thursday of November isn’t even a day off or a leave-the-office-early day. On the other hand, you may not have to work some days when your U.S. colleagues do, such as La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) where people honor the dead, and it’s not just an excuse for a Halloween party—and trick or treating. For the French, it is a religious holiday, and of course an excuse to take a long weekend.

Children who attend American schools most probably will be on vacation. But their parents won’t be. Some families opt to band together and celebrate the holiday because, if they plan to return home, it’s usually during the Christmas break when everyone is on vacation.

Expats may leave their home countries, but they take their traditions with them, and holiday traditions often become more meaningful to those living abroad. Because of this, groups such as the American Club and many others sponsor holiday events. Americans who are traveling and find they won’t be home for the holidays can contact various groups and pay to be included. Many hotels that cater to Americans offer a special meal. If you look in the English language newspaper (or call the American Church), you’ll find numerous choices. But, if you’re in Paris, don’t wait for your invite from the American ambassador to France. The Rivkin family is undoubtedly busy.

Preparing the traditional turkey dinner can also be a challenge, unless you’re stationed on a U.S. military base where it’s easier to “live American,” and Butterball turkeys are available at the PX. Those who are entitled to buy at a U.S. commissary don’t have to pay a small fortune for such exotic products such as canned cranberry sauce or jelly, Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, and tiny marshmallows to bake on top on the sweet potatoes. They can even buy cans of puréed pumpkin so they can whip up pies in ready-made pie crusts. Don’t tell your French friends.

Thanksgiving has always been meaningful to me. I’ll never forget the first year I lived in Paris (we’re talking 22 years ago) and my mother came to visit. Her luggage included cans of Ocean Spray’s finest tucked into shoes, and unpacking her suitcases was an experience in itself. It was a true treasure hunt.

These were the days before France discovered and started marketing turkey as the “white meat.” The largest turkey anyone could buy was a bird only marginally larger than a chicken. A few butchers in the 6eme, 7eme, and 16eme arrondissements (where most Americans tended to live) were willing to order large turkeys for their clients. But everything had its time… and that time was Christmas.

Being resourceful and ignorant of French agricultural regulations, my mother imported a real honest-to-goodness Butterball in a Styrofoam container. Gee, it had to defrost anyway, and what was wrong with doing it in transit across the Atlantic? When the customs inspectors asked what the trunk contained, my mother who spoke little French but had a dazzling smile, explained it was for her daughter and Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey and she were waved through security and, yes, it was a memorable dinner.

We invited all of our American friends, who were amazed by the Butterball caper. We also included French friends and professional colleagues who weren’t overwhelmingly impressed by the caliber of the food. Who could blame them? Thanksgiving meals simply aren’t haute cuisine. It goes without saying they were incredibly polite and saved the evening by bringing chilled champagne. We were all feeling less pain by the time dinner was on the table.

Big turkeys are readily available now, but because they’re free-range, they cost a fortune. After you’ve tasted a farm-raised turkey, you’re spoiled for ones that have been raised in incubators, even though they may look juicier and considerably plumper.

I’ve come to relish Thanksgiving dinner with family, American friends, and French friends. The evening probably doesn’t begin until 8:00 p.m. But we have a wonderful times bonding over food and an American tradition. And lots of wine. Isn’t that what life is about? And something to be thankful for?

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Posted in Paris |

Eating out — what are your expectations?

Written by admin on October 28, 2009 – 4:31 pm -

Eating at a restaurant should be a positive experience. But is it? After all, it’s the time when someone else shops, cooks, serves you what (you think) you’ve ordered and takes away the dishes and glasses to a mysterious place. Best of all, you’re not responsible for washing them. In spite of these definite pluses, people appear to have more gripes than you’d think. And they make no bones about voicing them.

Whether it’s your  local joint down the road,  a  recently opened trendy new café or a big name/big chef /big tab restaurant that’s drawing rave reviews, small and large irritations can mar a dining experience.

Pet peeves about dining out — Here’s a laundry list of what a survey of dedicated eaters had to say.

  • Dining rooms that are so noisy you can’t hear yourself think much less hold a conversation with your tablemates.
  • Tables that are placed  so close together you have to be a contortionist to get in and out and there’s no possible way to hold a private conversation.
  • Music too loud. People want to eat their meals in peace and relative quiet and not feel as if they’re in a high-decibel dance hall.
  • Lighting should be bright enough that you can read the menus; but not so bright that you feel as if you’re getting the third degree.
  • Restaurants should have coat rooms and sufficient space that you and your things aren’t competing for space on the chair and at the table.
  • Bathrooms should be clean and well stocked. More than a few people feel there’s a direct correlation between the cleanliness of a restaurant’s WCs and the kitchen.

Service irritations:

  • Being greeted at the door and grilled as to whether or not you have a reservation. If you don’t, the host or hostess will often shoot you a dirty look and lead you to a table as if they’re doing you a favor.
  • Finding yourself even more irritated because when you get up to leave, the restaurant is still half empty.
  • Sitting down and waiting more time than you care to before being handed a menu.
  • When you’re ready to order, being forced to wait. The group of people, who were seated after you, have the waiter’s attention and are firing away what they want to eat. You’ve missed your chance.
  • While you’re waiting, not being asked if you’d like to order a drink or being served water.  Some restaurants serve bread immediately, Others force you to wait so you’re crying, “bread and water — please.”
  • Waiter etiquette:  There are the ones who act as if they’re doing you a favor by serving you. Then, there are too many who want to become members of your family and participate in the conversation. I’m glad your name is John but please remember who’s the waiter and who are the clients.
  • The service personnel not being sensitive to your needs and wishes:  e.g. – when you want attention and when you don’t. There are times conversations are private and should remain that way. Professional waiters appear to have a sixth sense about anticipating a diner’s needs and seem to have eyes behind their heads.
  • Spare diners from waiters who refuse to write orders down. Being able to memorize a list of dishes may impress some people but others would prefer being served the correct dish.
  • Please don’t ask, “Is everything all right?” before someone has tasted the food.
  • Not serving everyone at the same time; Ditto for clearing the table. Many people find it offensive when a waiter removes a few plates at a time, as if to say to the diners who are still eating, “hurry up and leave.”
  • Meals that arrive so quickly that you know they’ve been sitting on a steam table or have had a quick zap in a microwave.
  • Having to wait forever to be served and then receiving the check before you’ve had a chance to drink your coffee. A meal should not be a marathon. Rather, it should be orchestrated to fit the scenario.
  • Some people complain that portions are so large they detract from the meal and its presentation. Not everyone wants a doggie bag.
  • Waiters who fail to check back with you after the meal is served.

There were complaints about parking, stratospheric menu prices, outrageous mark ups on wine. People jumped at the chance at adding their input. And I want to hear yours. You’re bound to have a lot of comments and post away.

Before you do, please stop and ponder what complaint is missing. It seems so obvious. But it doesn’t appear to be a high priority among the majority of people who eat out.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

(Photo: seventh.samurai/Priscilla Flickr/Commons)

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

How Business Manners Differ in France—And No, It Isn’t All Bad

Written by admin on October 25, 2009 – 3:45 pm -

Have you noticed that in U.S. offices, people who work together tend to confide in one another? They frequently spend more waking hours in each other’s company than they do with their families. If you opt to work in a French office (or for that matter, conduct business in France), be prepared to encounter differences. Some are subtler than others, but it’s important that you understand the ground rules. It’s a different playing field in France compared to the U.S.

Laurence Caracalla, a former French press attaché, has tried to demystify the subject by writing a guide about office life in France that covers subjects including clothes, manners, parties, and romances. The first book became such a quasi-bible that Caracalla wrote a sequel. It’s considered the Emily Post for office etiquette, instructing readers how to rise to the top of the pyramid without committing a career-breaking faux-pas.

For example, there may be a bit of a caste system in both the U.S. and in France. American female executives may try to keep things secret from people in the rank and file. Part of the work ethic is doing your own typing and organizing, and welcome to the world of answering your own phone and voice mail.

In France, there are still vestiges of support staff – that is for now. Some men and women still have secretaries. But they’re rarely taking dictation, and they hold the title executive assistant. These assistants inevitably hold the keys to their bosses’ lives and decide who may and may not be granted audiences. These powerful people can make or break a business deal by determining whether you’re allowed to speak to Mr. (M.) or Ms. (Mme.) X.

Americans are fast to tell work colleagues about their children, romances, and fights with their spouses or significant others. There’s considerable talk (and occasional gossip) during coffee breaks. It’s not unusual for coworkers to share intimate details of their lives with their bosses.

If your child is sick, it’s public knowledge. Should you need to do an extra car-pool duty, American colleagues will probably know why you’ve left the office without giving advance notice. French workers more than likely will leave citing a family emergency, and coworkers will rarely query whether there’s been a death in the family.

Americans are simply more open. Is this a positive? Probably not, considering some people remember things you wish they wouldn’t. When all is said and done, people go from being dear friends to “yes, we worked together” if and when someone changes jobs or snags a big promotion.

There’s invariably a pecking order wherever you’re employed. The French are simply more cautious that something they say today doesn’t come back to haunt them tomorrow.

Dying to talk about your daughter’s exams or being stuck in traffic on your way home the previous evening? How about your dental work? People are convinced their lives are enormously interesting. The reality, Carracalla reminds us, is that these things may only be of interest to the closest of friends. Certain subjects just aren’t appropriate during business hours.

The French are more reticent except with their friends—and work colleagues aren’t necessarily considered friends. Problems tend to be left at home, and conversations dealing with money, romance, or even childcare issues generally remain private. When working, the French consider themselves professionals and usually act and dress the part. Protocol is important.

French women have a certain je ne sais quois when it comes to appearance. How they manage to look as fresh at the end of the day as at the beginning is a mystery to those of us who tend to look increasingly bleary and rumpled as the day progresses. At 7 p.m., a French woman will look as if she’s just showered, and clothes will still have that just-pressed look. Some people say it’s because the French tend to buy fewer clothes, but the ones in which they invest are better quality, and many French women have their clothes altered to fit just right. Or perhaps they starch their blouses and their backbones.

Other rules French women learn and never forget: Don’t overwhelm yourself and others with perfume—a couple of dabs behind the ear are quite enough. Don’t wear jewelry that clings and clanks, and steer clear of bling.

Keep your voice down, and don’t carry on long conversations on your cell phone for all to hear. It’s an invasion of other people’s privacy as well as yours.

If you’re at a business lunch, refrain from waving across the room if you spot a friend or business associate. A smile will suffice.

Never drink more than one glass of wine (and you may want to stick to water) in a business situation. Being professional in France means being dignified and (okay) somewhat aloof. At office parties, be careful not to get tipsy. The French may like their wine, but don’t drink too much, and whatever you do, steer clear of those who do. Don’t tell jokes unless you know you can tell them well, and avoid any story that may be construed as being a wee bit off-color. Not everyone may understand the humor, and there’s nothing worse than being greeted by silence plus some stares. It’s all in the cultural nuances.

If your work superior wants to tell you his or her life story, including the problems of the day, listen carefully and with interest. Do not think this means he or she wants to hear yours. Discretion is an important part of climbing the corporate ladder.

The French may flirt, but it’s considered bad form to have interoffice romances. If they occur, be certain they happen as far away from the premises as possible. Then, there’s always the problem that the affair might not last, and you’ll be forced to confront one another in meetings or halls. Whatever you do, don’t confide in a third party about your indiscretion. If you decide to announce your engagement, that’s another story.

Another thing I’ve learned from working in France that may or may not stand you in good stead: Don’t go up and introduce yourself. Wait for the introduction to be made. When I used to do this, I’d occasionally hear someone say “Why did she tell me her name?” It took all of my restraint not to reply “Because I’m an American and was raised that way.” What’s polite in one country isn’t necessarily in another. Cultural differences are precisely that.

My last bit of advice: always send a thank you—whether in letter form or, as the French say, un mail. You never know where that person may end up in his or her next job, and politeness goes a long way in La Belle France. And yes, your communication will probably be remembered. If the recipient doesn’t, you will.

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Posted in Paris |

Breakfast on the road — Go native or bacon and eggs?

Written by admin on October 16, 2009 – 4:35 pm -

When you’re taking a trip, whether it’s business or pleasure, what foods to you want to see at the first meal of the day? There’s a reason, it’s called break fast.

Do you prefer buffets over menus? How much time do you usually allot? Do you eat and run or do you find it’s a good time to conduct business?

Some hotels offer breakfast as part of the room rate. How much does that impact your housing decision? Do you have lower expectations if breakfast is included in the room price?

If you’re in a foreign country, e.g., Japan, are you ready, willing and able to eat steamed rice, miso soup, and side dishes such as broiled/grilled fish, tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), onsen tamago, tsukemono pickles orseasoned nori (dried seaweed)? Or do you want Corn Flakes? How local are you willing to go?

Some people don’t want to eat the same breakfast they would were they at home. If they’re in another country, they consider eating what the natives do a cultural experience. The most extensive buffets I’ve ever seen have been in Asian hotels. If you have the fortitude to eat just a few of the selections and don’t appear at the crack of dawn, you can make the meal breakfast, lunch and (almost) dinner. Dim sum anyone? That’s only the beginning if you want to pig out.

American travelers do appear to have expectations no matter where they’re staying.

Coffee – and plenty of it. Some people like it stronger than others so if there’s an espresso machine, so much the better (milk, cream, sugar and a low/no calorie sugar substitute).

Decaf coffee

Tea – there should be a selection from which to choose

Juices – and could the orange juice be fresh please

Fresh fruit and yogurts

A selection of hot and cold cereals

It goes without saying there should be a copious selection of breads, bagels, muffins, croissants and pastries. Bring on the butter, cream cheese, jellies and jams

Eggs, glorious eggs and they shouldn’t be too hard or too runny. Ditto for sausages and bacon. Undercooked, overcooked – it’s all so subjective.

Bob Murphy, a senior software engineer from the San Francisco area, is an authority when it comes to breakfast. He has personal favorites and isn’t hesitant about sharing them.

• “The Lotte Hotel, Seoul. Go to the big restaurant underground for breakfast and get the buffet. It’s insane – every major world cuisine is represented. One of my favorite combinations is American bacon and link sausage, croissants, Norwegian smoked salmon, oshinko (Japanese pickles), and kimchi. He eats this accompanied by a cafe latte.

• German hotel breakfast buffets are also great. A half-dozen different kinds of bread, cold cuts and sliced cheese, muesli, and fresh juice. For a change, skip the coffee and try Trinkschokolade. Or grab a cold cut sandwich and a coffee from a vendor at the train station.

• French hotel continental breakfasts range from sucky to marginally okay. They really haven’t figured out the breakfast thing the way the Germans have. A croissant and a cafe au laitare decidedly are too small for me. However, if you stay in Paris in the Quartier Latin, go wander around the streets just off the Seine. There are all kinds of little boulangeries with fresh cold-cut sandwiches that make a great breakfast, plus innumerable Turkish, Moroccan, Greek, etc. cafés. If you can find a restaurant with Breton food, try a galette complète (buckwheat crêpe with egg, ham, and Emmental cheese) and some cidre (hard cider) for breakfast.

• Continental breakfasts at British hotels, range from awful to merely okay. However, if you leave the hotel, you may be lucky enough to find a restaurant serving a traditional English breakfast with eggs, streaky bacon, beans, grilled tomato, chips.”

I guess I’ve lived in France too long and only want very strong coffee and (possibly) a slice of baguette to begin the day.

Bob is clearly a man who looks forward to breakfast. What do you crave? Will you select one hotel over another because it puts on a better spread?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Home is Away from Home

Written by admin on October 16, 2009 – 3:48 pm -

You’ve moved to France, (or another foreign country), and it’s now your primary residence. Unless you were kidnapped at a very early age, it’s nearly impossible to lose your native identity and your sense of place and roots. Even if you wanted to, you can’t—and most people don’t and shouldn’t. But the question remains:

How do you become acclimated to a new environment? Some people don’t and choose to live exclusively in a community comprised of fellow countrymen and -woman. Realistically, that’s the same as never leaving the security of home (with some added inconveniences) and why bother if you’re not up for a new adventure and the opportunity to be exposed to different things and new cultures? Sure, there are trailing spouses who’d rather not be trailing. But there’s a reason they signed up for that duty and it’s better to make the best of it than sitting around bitching and moaning.

If I sound somewhat emphatic about moving from place to place, it’s because I left the U.S. kicking and screaming and full of resentment over giving up my fast-track job. My husband was offered a six-month-long gig that was simply too enticing for him not to accept. That was nearly 22 years ago and I became the one who developed an incredible sense of travel lust. But our initial foray into living in Paris didn’t begin well at all.

While Victor was working 18 hours a day (yes, people do work in France—if they’re foreigners), I was left to deal with the nitty-gritty and back-to-back house-guests in a language I didn’t speak… mais pas du tout. Learning how to operate the appliances was a major challenge, and I’m not quite certain I do now. Fahrenheit and Celsius, ounces and grams and all of the dry measurements left me stumped. Please have compassion. This was pre-internet and I assembled a list of each and every conversion.

There are so many ways to throw yourself into a local community—clearly some places are easier than others. Contrary to what some people may say about the French, they’re comparatively open, if you make the effort. This isn’t to imply they’re ingrained with the “welcome wagon” culture. But they won’t go out of their way to snub you unless you’re downright unpleasant. And they’re as curious about the newcomers to their apartment building or street as you are about them.

My husband had no idea about the stress I was assuming. All he knew was he was going from one office tower to another and had to produce and quickly. Victor was talking the same “language” and actually could have been in any country because his working environment was essentially the same. The canteen at his new job in a building at La Défense did serve substantially better lunches accompanied by wine. But they didn’t merit his coming to Paris since he wasn’t in Paris proper and couldn’t see buildings designed by Baron Haussmann unless he was looking through binoculars.

Back to getting settled—and no, I didn’t know anyone when I arrived in Paris: I knew I had to take drastic measures. I attended one meeting at the American Women’s Club, and knew it wasn’t my thing. Most of the attendees had children and wanted their offspring to retain their American background and not have their lives disrupted more than absolutely necessary. The women insisted on drinking instant Nescafe—but I won’t go there.

Children actually facilitate matters when making international moves. They meet on the playground and start chattering away nearly immediately. If only adults had the same language facility as young children, their lives would be so much easier. Parents soon find themselves struggling to converse with the other park goers. Schools bind people together because of shared common goals and seeing that their children are educated.

If you don’t have a child (and don’t think that moving can’t and doesn’t take definite tolls on them), a great equalizer is dog, especially in France, which is pooch heaven—almost literally: the largest pet cemetery in the world is in Asnières, just north of Paris. Even if you don’t speak a common language and can’t carry on a conversation, dog owners are always able to communicate.

Attend bi-lingual groups where people do language exchanges. There’s always an English-language publication where people want to meet and mix. And I don’t mean dating sites even though having a French significant other will catapult you into speaking the language quickly, that is, if your spouse or mate doesn’t object.

If you’re in France, attend wine tastings. Take cooking classes. Go on tours of neighborhoods where attendees aren’t speaking exclusively English. Take or tag along on museum tours. I’ve even been known to read French children’s books and find the pictures help a lot.

Give yourself permission to watch French TV. One of my most vivid memories of that was watching four women sitting in a group nude from the waste up. One man was clearly in charge and this was at 10 am. After a few minutes I realized that the doctor was discussing breast cancer and the importance of women doing self-examinations each month. But for a moment, I was startled and wondered exactly where we’d moved that porn was being shown during the day.

If you’re politically inclined, join the overseas chapter of Democrats and Republicans Abroad. Not everyone speaks only English because many members are coupled with natives.

Do take language classes. They’ll enrich your stay and ability to communicate with potential friends and neighbors. Plus, you won’t miss out on some of the subtleties of the place that’s your temporary (or longer) home. Whatever you do, and this is hard for a lot of people, speak the language even if you do it with a terrible accent. People appreciate your trying and you will improve.

It may not be quickly and you may never develop a refined accent. But you’ll know you’ve arrived when you can do battle with the phone company. The representative will probably call you Américain(e) but what the hell. That person can’t usurp what you’ve learned and experienced. No way, Jean-Claude.

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Posted in Paris |

Airport lounges – worth the price of admission?

Written by admin on October 13, 2009 – 4:39 pm -

Do you think you need access to airport lounges? If so, why? If you need to ponder the question, you’re probably not a frequent traveler, who’s been bumped from planes or missed connections. It’s unlikely you know the interiors of airports as if they were second homes.

Those traveling in business or in first class internationally don’t need to join a club. Paying big bucks for plane tickets usually entitles them to a guest pass. It’s the least an airline can do to show its gratitude. It may not sound like a big deal. But, for passengers with connecting flights and a lengthy layover, these retreats can be godsends.

Some clubs/lounges are clearly better than others. For example, I haven’t been overwhelmed by the Red Carpet Clubs in the U.S. The ones is Asia (for that matter anywhere but in the U.S.) are so much nicer.

There are some airport clubs, where no one would be devastated, if they were stranded for the night. These clubs come complete with hot and cold running food, lounge chairs where someone can sleep (some even have a sleeping room) and a large selection of libations. Lucky passengers can have a free massage then continue on to their next destination in a more relaxed, Zen-like, state.

If you’ve decided to join a lounge, what would you like to find?

The following are a few suggestions on my list. Please, feel free to add more.

- peace and quiet
- enough area in the lounge so passengers don’t feel as if they’re sitting on each other’s laps
- separate areas for children
- good food and good beverages; alcoholic ones should be free
- an extensive assortment of newspapers and magazines – in different languages
- large flat-screen TVs with different broadcast channels. Not everyone wants to watch the news or sports
- a business area with computers, printers, copiers and even a fax
- plenty of plugs including multi-standard ones; there should be a collection of electrical cords and adapters that may be used in the lounge
- free WiFi

Moving right along:
- well maintained washrooms and showers available for passengers with a long layover or who want to clean up before proceeding to the next destination
- sufficient amenities in the event travelers can’t put their hands on a toothbrush, etc.
- quiet areas that are designated for people who want to sleep in a lounge chair, chaise or massage chair where cell phones are forbidden
- Band-aids and simple medications (e.g. Tylenol, Tums) for heart-burn and headaches, so club members aren’t forced to leave the premises to find a pharmacy

Club members voice that they want personnel staffing the clubs, who are qualified and are authorized to provide VIP service, can answer questions and solve problems.

Additional things on travelers’ wish lists:
- Priority check-in facilities for passengers and their luggage
- Announcements at boarding time in the lounge so people aren’t forced to continually check the airlines’ monitors

Some say the ultimate perk (other than better-than-usual customer service) would be having a door on the outside of the security perimeter that leads directly to the screening area. And a special exit area for club members to use when boarding flights – so they aren’t forced to wait with other passengers.

What would provide you the incentive to part with hundreds of dollars to become a club member?

Realize, there’s nothing wrong with sitting in an airport’s concourse (most have WiFi) and new restaurants and bars inside the departure areas are finding that captive travelers spend real money eating and drinking because it’s a good way to fill time.

If you belong to an airline club, which ones do you consider the cream of the crop? And which clubs do you think are the worst?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |
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