No time to visit France for a culinary vacation? Try Las Vegas

Written by admin on September 8, 2008 – 2:54 pm -

Snagging a table in Paris often isn’t a last minute event, especially if you’re shooting for the Michelin stars. People clamor for admission into the doors of some restaurants as if they were the gates to heaven. It doesn’t hurt if you’re staying at a hotel where the concierge has clout. But don’t expect him or her to perform miracles if you decide your heart is set on eating at a specific restaurant that night.

But there’s no need to leave the States — unless you want to. You can always head to Las Vegas and come away with a taste of the City of Light.

The same culture and history is lacking but hey, there’s a time and a place for everything. There’s no mandate you’re required to hop on a transatlantic flight. Plus, you may not have the time.

Some of France’s leading chefs have set up satellite restaurants in the desert where, “What happens here stays here.” Among them are Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

People are required to reserve in Vegas as if they were dining in Paris. But don’t expect these restaurants’ meals to be cheap. Even with the weak dollar, a meal in Las Vegas is going to set you back a minimum of $100 per person.

Come to think of it, you might not want to keep your culinary forays in Vegas a secret.

Karen Fawcett is the president of Bonjour Paris

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Welcome to the new world of English

Written by admin on September 4, 2008 – 2:57 pm -

Even though English has been accepted as the international language of business, the French Teachers’ Union doesn’t agree with a proposal presented by the Ministry of Education. Undoubtedly members of the Académie française, founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu to preserve the French language, agree with the union.

The French Minister of Education Xavier Darcos declared that speaking fluent English is essential to being successful. He has proposed that free English lessons be offered during school holidays and be accessible to everyone.

It’s anticipated that President Nicholas Sarkozy will back the plan as he’s publicly stated that English fluency is critical to attract businesses to France.

Xavier Darcos stated, “It’s a handicap to speak poor English. Affluent families send their children abroad to learn English, I’m offering lessons to everyone right here.” Undoubtedly, being able to communicate will create a more competitive playing field.

Times are changing. Just two years ago, former President Jacques Chirac stormed out of an EU summit meeting when a fellow Frenchman started making his presentation in English.

C’est la vie. Why do I feel that in the not too distant future, it’s going to be hard to have a conversation in French with anyone under the age of 40? For that matter, it already is.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

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For Americans abroad, no dollar news is good news

Written by admin on September 3, 2008 – 2:58 pm -

The dollar is stronger than it’s been for a long time, and some American travelers and expatriates are breathing a sigh of relief, hoping this is only the beginning. Many of them are tired of living on a diet of bread and pasta.

Maybe you don’t think currency markets are exciting, but lots of people monitor the exchange rate. They cheer when the dollar rises — and cry when it falls.

The U.S. dollar has risen to $1.45.16 to the euro, the highest since Feb. 14, 2008.

According to Meg Browne, vice president of foreign-exchange research at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., the dollar is on an uptrend. “Growth and monetary-policy differentials are beginning to shift in favor of the U.S. dollar,” she said in a recent interview.

Two analysts — Standard Chartered Plc and BNP Paribas SA — have reportedly raised their forecasts for the dollar. London-based Standard predicts the dollar will rise to $1.44 per euro by year-end and $1.36 by the end of the first quarter of 2009, compared with previous forecasts of $1.49 and $1.42.

The decline in oil prices, plus Europe’s weakened economy, is contributing to the dollar’s rise. But neither Americans, nor people in the hospitality industry who depend on US tourists, are resting easy. The dollar has a long way to go until people feel it’s a good travel buy. And that’s not factoring in the increased airfare costs and airlines’ decreased service.

It’s too soon to forecast how soon Americans will return to Europe but the rise in the dollar can’t hurt. Part of it is a matter of psychology.

But the news is something. Let’s hope it continues.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

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Evacuation problems make a compelling argument for high-speed train

Written by admin on September 1, 2008 – 3:00 pm -

Hurricane Gustav is a wake-up call to Congress. America needs to fund and implement an alternative and effective means of transportation.

Who can forget the images of cars backed up on I-10 as nervous residents flee the approaching storm? And how many air travelers are stranded in New Orleans now that the airport has closed?

In Europe, there’s an additional transportation option: modern trains capable of speeds of up to 180 miles per hour.

People lobby to have lines installed close enough to their homes to up their real estate values and diminish their commuting time, just not so close that they can hear the trains or feel their rumble. And mile for mile, they cause substantially less pollution than planes or cars.

The European Union enacted legislation last year that will require national rail systems to open up to operators from other countries by 2010. And, equally important, they will require train sets that are interoperable, unlike the old Orient Express that had to change engines are border crossings because of different rail gauges. Ultimately, there will be a pan-European high-speed train system.

Imagine what a difference a high-speed train could have made in New Orleans.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Oh say can you see? And drink and drive?

Written by admin on August 29, 2008 – 3:01 pm -

It could happen anywhere but somehow it feels so very French and it happened in Nancy, France. Where else could a blind man get behind a car’s wheel and be fined only 500 euros ($750) by a judge presiding in a French court room. Not only did this 29-year-old journalist not have a driver’s license but also he clocked in at having double the permissible alcohol level after the police performed a breathalyzer test.

To be sure he was feeling no pain as he and his accomplice, the owner of the car, were taking a joy ride on a country road in the very early hours on July 25th.

The police didn’t stop the duo for speeding. Rather, they spotted the car zigzagging at a low speed and wondered exactly what was taking place.

The car’s owner, a 52-year-old photographer, was indulging his blind friend’s wish to drive. Unfortunately, he was also pronounced drunk and was fined the same amount plus the judge revoked his license for five months.

No one was hurt — but it only goes to show that truth is often stranger than fiction. And some of us think that driving in pitch darkness is exciting.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Despite higher dollar, fewer Americans visiting Europe

Written by admin on August 27, 2008 – 3:03 pm -

Even though the dollar is finally a few cents stronger, don’t go out and count your euros and expect to be in consumer heaven when you visit Europe.

Americans are hardly rich, even though there’s talk of a psychological barrier being passed, now that the dollar is clocking in at less than 1.50 euros. Europeans are watching the currency market as if it’s the hottest game in town.

Americans aren’t heading to Paris they way they used to. The weak dollar, the U.S. economic downturn, and the high cost of airline tickets, due to the rocketing cost of fuel and the airlines’ own misguided efforts at nickeling-and-diming travelers, all convince a lot of people to stay home. And many just have sworn off dealing with airport security and being treated as criminals.

According to the French Government Tourist Office, 1.5 million Americans traveled to Paris in 2007, a drop of 5.5 percent from the previous year. Since January 2008, statistics reflect a further decline of 14 percent.

Paul Rol, director of the Paris Tourism office says, “the number of U.S. visitors has been decreasing since June 2007 and the downward trend is growing steadily.”

But as fewer Americans are coming to the City of Light, other nationalities are making up the slack. Paris has recorded an overall increase of tourists by 2.3 percent. During 2007, there were 8.76 million tourists, many of who came from Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Americans still comprise the largest number of tourists in Paris—just fewer, currently. But they’ve shunned France before. There were fewer between 2001 and 2003 following the September 11th attacks and the Franco-American row over the U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, U.S. tourism rebounded in 2004, and many people feel it will again after the upcoming presidential elections if Barack Obama is voted into the Oval Office.

Imad Khalidi, president of Auto Europe, predicts the dollar will become stronger if a Democrat is elected president. “Look back at November 1991, the French franc was very, very strong—4.6FF to the dollar. Once Clinton was elected, the dollar climbed to 6.4FF to the dollar. Let’s hope that’s the case again.”

Khalidi admits that the car rental business is down in the EU. But firms like his have more than made up for the loss by renting to Europeans who are vacationing in the U.S. and, because of the currency exchange, people living on a euro income feel rich and are making the most of their buying power. Walk into any big-city department store in America, and the locals will wonder if they’re in bargain basements when they hear the tourists exclaiming how cheap everything is. It’s reminiscent of the Japanese forming lines to gain entrance to Louis Vuitton on the Champs Élysées.

Travel industry experts agree that the very rich will travel when and wherever they want. Whether or not it costs more or less isn’t a big factor. The swanky Meurice Hotel, located near the Place de la Concorde and facing the Tuileries Gardens, isn’t crying the blues over losing its American clientele because it hasn’t. Eighty percent of them are from the U.S – except during August when the hotel is filled with families from the Middle East because they love Paris and want to flee from the heat at home.

What J.P. Morgan said about maintaining a yacht—”If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it”—applies here where the least expensive room begins at €650 per night, and a lovely Continental breakfast in the Michelin two-starred restaurant, Le Meurice, headed by Yannick Alleno, costs a mere €36. Since most of us have to ask, it’s pretty obvious we can’t afford it.

Another take is from Bill O’Such, who owns a super apartment in the Marais. “If reservations for our apartment— The Elzevir—is any indication, we have people reserving into 2010. It hasn’t affected Americans’ desire to travel to Paris.” In talking with them, they do cut down on what they do (i.e. fewer dinners out, less shopping, etc.) which costs a lot of money. They search for less expensive ways to come travel. “One theory I have is that hotels are now so expensive in euros that people are considering apartments even more than before. The other trend we’ve seen is we have more Australians and Canadians as clients.”

Of course the dollar is stronger against currencies that are pegged to it, so traveling in Asia, for example, may be a better bet than traveling to Europe. “In fact,” says a San Francisco resident, “I can fly more cheaply to Beijing than to Paris.”

So, the exchange rate is only one factor. The cost of flying may be greater, depending on your destination. It’s not easy to balance. And naturally enough, what we love is often what we’re willing to pay for, not matter what.

For instance, author Nancy Bruning says that she doesn’t know about others, but she’s booked to come to France this summer. “I’ll simply be sparing when it comes to spending. But, I love Europe so much that I’m not going to forgo my France fix.”

I don’t know about others either, but I will just be “sparing with the spending” and hope my credit card doesn’t melt.

For people who live here, we’re holding our breaths and eating a lot of pasta and drinking a wee bit too much wine.

Karen Fawcett is the president of Bonjour Paris

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Will the world’s worst tourists please stand up?

Written by admin on August 25, 2008 – 3:04 pm -

So the French are the most obnoxious tourists in Europe, according to a recent survey. Are they better off staycationing?

Having lived in France for twenty years, I’m fully aware the French might be perceived as brusque with one another. But I wondered how the French might be seeing themselves. So I conducted a poll of my own.

Maybe it’s not so surprising that the French were critical of one another about their travel manners.

“I don’t know about their being the worst, but I normally stay away from the French when I travel,” says Laurence de Bure. “My brother, who’s a Parisian travel agent, says avoid the French when traveling because they tend to be negative. Their inability to maintain open minds make it difficult for them to adapt or accept other cultures. They tend to complain and compare everything to France and close their eyes. They can take the pleasure away from your travels.”

Parisian hotelier Thierry Dechaux said, “I don’t know if the French are the least desirable tourists. I do know they tend to complain about the minute details rather than calling attention to something that may not be to their liking. As a result, the staff may be more accommodating. But there is no good or bad tourist. We only have guests who expect value for the money they’re spending. As professionals, we hope guests will respect our staff and our local culture, and the French don’t tend to be the best when it comes to that whether they’re in France or traveling elsewhere.”

One of the problems, of course, may be that traveling in packs brings out the worst in everyone. Large groups of any nationality can be obnoxious, since whining ring-leaders can dominate the whole group. The French are generally no different, although their generally far higher standards for cuisine and antiquities can lead them to publicly express comparisons that may not be ideal in a foreign environment.

David K. Gibson, a journalist who lives in Aspen, has a different perspective. “I suppose it depends on what your criteria are,” he says. “I live in a tourist town, and the French who come here seem polite in town and excited on the ski slopes. I don’t hear complaints about the French. The stereotypes I do hear. Russians are rude and entitled, and too rich for their own good. Germans are too loud, in voice and dress. Australians are friendly but don’t tip. And Texans are all of the above.”

Susie Lavenson, senior partner of a consulting firm that advises clients in the hospitality and tourism industry said, “We’re all hosts in our own countries. If hospitality is welcoming and thoughtful, the recipient of that hospitality is going to be grateful and personable, whether he’s French or American. That’s a universal truth. Tourists are travelers, hungry for food, shelter and recognition. They’re in a foreign land. It’s not too much to ask hosts to behave graciously … particularly if they’re in the hospitality industry. If they’re not in that industry, then good manners and human kindness should fill the gaps. Everything else is just trimmings.”

Gary Clarke, an executive in business development says, “In my travels, I have witnessed ugliness from people of all walks of life, from every corner of the world. Generalizations certainly apply — but parochially rooted small-mindedness is an affliction made worse, not better, with money and transport.”

Karen Fawcett is president of

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August in Paris: trying something different when no one’s looking

Written by admin on August 22, 2008 – 3:06 pm -

Just when they think the Parisians aren’t looking, the merchants have at it. First, they raise prices just a few cents, as if the natives won’t notice when they come back from vacation in September. (If you think Americans are the only ones complaining about prices, you’re wrong. The French are also feeling the economic pinch.)

But walking the streets of Paris will reveal other changes, and some are definitely for the better.

There’s a lot of construction taking place as boutiques are either undergoing renovation or have lost their leases and new ones are moving in and upgrading the space. Unlike American stores getting a makeover, few signs are visible about what will occupy the redone premises.

That is why there are some new-to-the-scene places that have had soft openings and have yet to make a splash. They’ve opted for a shakedown period to make certain the staff is ready for the (hopeful) onslaught.

One is Baboto, a new restaurant. Montpellier native Daniel Alauze wanted to introduce a très Mediterranean, very hip-feeling-and-then-some restaurant in the Forum des Halles/Châtelet area. He spent two years gutting the interior of this building that’s classified as a monument historique. Now it’s anything but traditional and serves very good food from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., but never on a Sunday.

You can eat standing up at the Lucite bar or sitting at one of the higher or lower tables and, during good weather, on the terrace. And there’s free WiFi in the event you’re bored or want to hang out and work (or surf) during the day.

At night, the restaurant takes on a new persona. The bartender shakes up some mean drinks made of faux absinthe since the real thing was banned years ago for being highly addictive, unlike whiskey or cigarettes, evidently. He has an entire repertoire that will leave people who sample them feeling no pain. For non-drinkers, there is an extensive menu of non-alcoholic cocktails.

Shake it up, baby, on Friday and Saturday nights when there’s a DJ between 8 p.m. and 2 in the morning. Don’t wear your go-to-church clothes if you go at night. Opt for something a wee bit sexier.

Another soft opening, but this is the right time of year when people are the most receptive. After a three-month renovation period, Raimo opened its salon de thé in a very charming boutique that’s located at 59/61, boulevard de Reuilly in the 12th Arrondissement. Created in 1947, Raimo is undoubtedly the oldest continuing ice-cream maker in Paris. Now his son is assuming the reins. Some people swear the ice cream is better than Bertillon’s, founded in 1954. Besides Raimo is open in August, and Bertillon is closed.

Another newcomer is Pierre Herme, maker extraordinaire of macaroons—you gain five pounds just walking in the store, ten if you actually eat a couple in his new boutique on the Right Bank at 4, rue Cambon, 75001. The store is so new that it’s not even listed on the Web site. But if you happen to be shopping on the Right Bank and have a craving for undoubtedly the best macaroons in Paris, voilà.

Don’t turn your back long in the City of Light — and love. There are always changes.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Want to learn French on your next family vacation? Pourquoi pas!

Written by admin on August 20, 2008 – 3:09 pm -

Many people want to improve their French and would like to do it during a family vacation. There aren’t so many options, but I’ve finally unearthed one that might fit the bill.

The Centre International d’Antibes may not be a five-star chateau, but it offers accommodations in studios that are located on the premises. Students must be a minimum of 12 years old to qualify for the “family” program. Each student is required to take a written and oral exam, plus an interview before being assigned to a class. The adult classes number no more than 12 while younger students are confined to a maximum of 15 in a group.

The classes are set up by the week so you can stay one week or as many as you want. It’s up to you whether you want this to be your entire vacation or combine it with a week in Paris or elsewhere.

Joelle Sbrana, the school’s director of admissions, explains that even though the school doesn’t offer meals for everyone, there are small kitchenettes for cooking. The entire family isn’t required to enroll for 20 sessions per week that last 45 minutes each. But one or more family member is required to do so. There are afternoon activities for students between the ages of 12 and 18 and they can eat their meals on the campus.

For families who prefer apartments, the Centre has a few. In addition, they can assign you to a host family where you’ll speak French because that’s what is spoken. Call that total immersion which is the best way of learning.

Depending on the time of year, Antibes may or may not be swinging. There’s lot going on during the summer months but if you really want to study, they’re are fewer distractions when it’s off-season. And the prices are substantially lower.

Don’t expect to meet only Anglophones if you sign up for the program. People from all countries attend the programs. As a result, you’ll meet people from many parts of the world, but more than likely from the EU.

The school also offers excursions to nearby towns such as Nice, Cannes and Monaco. Or you can hop on a train and explore them on your own. The train takes less than 30 minutes and you won’t have to worry about parking.

Many people have rental cars, so they’re free to discover the Riviera that’s not on every tourist map on their own. It’s not a bad way to vacation – and return home linguistically richer. Perhaps you’ll retain what you’ve learned if you speak French during dinner. A week will hopefully give you a start.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

Posted in Consumer Traveler |

5 things about Paris even the Parisians don’t know

Written by admin on August 19, 2008 – 3:11 pm -

People who live in a city are sometimes the last to know what’s happening there. But this August, I’ve made it my mission to see what’s hot and new in Paris.

Here’s what I discovered.

1. Paris means business. It’s mid-August and there are more stores and restaurants open this year than ever. Guess President Nicolas Sarkozy’s mandate that French workers had better work harder and longer hours has been taken to heart — or the French have taken to reading economic news and it’s not so hot.

Even though the French government stipulates two yearly sales periods for retail stores, shoppers can score big discounts if they go into boutiques where the sales people are happy to deeply discount the summer stock. The sale signs may not be posted in the store’s window (and yet they may), but don’t hesitate to ask to see if there’s a cache of goodies in the back. Perhaps it’s not in the best of taste, but people have been known to bargain. Something off something on last year’s dress is better than a lot off nothing.

Places that do tend to be closed are bakeries and some small markets in residential areas. But, if you’re in a pinch (and even if you’re not), don’t despair. Just head to Picard Surgelés, a chain selling amazingly good frozen foods. If you need a dessert, it’s hard to beat their sinfully delicious chocolate cake or lemon tart. Their frozen foods can make any person a gourmet cook, and no one is any the wiser. This is a not-to-be-missed store when you’re in France.

2. In a word, EXKi. If you’re craving the freshest of the fresh organic meals, or want carry-out for a picnic or simply to eat in your room, EXKi is definitely for you. The food is good and light, and the price is right. There’s currently only one store in Paris, not far from the Opéra, but the group is in expansion mode. After the rentrée, there will be a second store on the Left Bank’s Boulevard du Montparnasse. Its slogan is “natural, fresh and ready”—interestingly enough, in English. If I were a betting person, I’d wager you’ll see many more of their restaurants mushrooming up in the City of Light.

3. It’s a driving city. No, really. I rented a tiny Mercedes for two from Mobizen. Not everyone is terrified of driving in Paris (most especially in August or on weekends when there’s actually space between cars on the streets) and we managed a fast tour and were able to pick up a few necessities.

4. Where are all the Americans? It’s reputed that there are many fewer Americans in Paris this summer, but it’s really hard to tell. You hear American English everywhere. Just head to the fountain on the Place St. Michel (at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m. and there’s a free three-and-a-half hour English-language walking tour that covers a whole lot of Paris. Don’t wear anything other than super comfortable shoes or you’ll live to regret having joined the group. There’s no charge, but the tour guides work for tips—and, believe me, it’s worth four or five euros.

5. Do the pub crawl. And if you’re not convinced there are a lot of Americans currently here, for 12 Euros, you can meet up at the fountain and embark on a pub-crawl. The students I’ve met have loved the evening, and thank goodness they’re not driving after their foray of seeing French bars and expat pubs and having a great time. Ah, to be in my twenties again.

But, ah to be in Paris now finding wonderful new things to do.

Karen Fawcett publishes the site Bonjour Paris.

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