Traveling during a Period of Uncertainty

Written by kvfawcett on November 19, 2010 – 1:10 pm -

When the seasons change, the Bonjour Paris mailbox is traditionally filled with questions pertaining to what clothes people should bring to France. If they’re heading to the Côte d’Azur, will it still be warm enough to swim? And could you please suggest 22 day trips?

That’s part and parcel of running a website; we’re used to giving advice, making recommendations and hoping for the best. There’s no one answer that satisfies each and every person. But c’est la vie, and we do our best.

This week’s queries have been different. Is it safe to come to France? If you’ve been watching the news, you know the Eiffel Tower has been closed twice in the past week. Both times were false alarms. A friend of mine who lives near the Tower said she had zero idea about the closures until a family member called from San Francisco to see if her family was OK. Jane was amazed since she said the area was “tourists as usual.” She’d just returned from the playground with her toddlers and commented that no one looked panicked in the least.

In addition, one of Paris’s train stations was evacuated. As tends to be the case in such situations, someone had left a suitcase. Until the police and the sniffer dogs came and the area was declared safe, people were inconvenienced. Better safe than sorry.

This reminds me of when a bomb was detonated in a trashcan on the Champs-Élysées in the ’90s. The receptacles were solid with round openings. People weren’t as aware of terrorist attacks then, although the French government claims it had its antenna up and out.

Rather than waiting for another possible occurrence, the trash bins were sealed tight as drums. What people did with their accumulated trash was a bit of a challenge. The city placed brown box cartons that overflowed with paper and cans, etc. Finally they were replaced with transparent plastic bags hanging on rings so garbage could be tossed without having the sidewalks look as if they were trash dumps.

During that era, travelers were concerned as to whether or not Paris was a safe destination. Initially, I found the trucks filled with national police from the CRS always visible and looking extremely well-armed and rough-and-tough unnerving.

What I ultimately realized is the French government doesn’t want to hide the fact it’s willing to do battle with anyone or any group with subversive motives.

The police are visible in a show of strength. Imagine my surprise when I was doing an interview with one of the officers in a truck only to see the others playing cards. At the same time, they were constantly on the lookout.

My brain flash-backed to the days after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and riots erupted over the country. The 14th Street corridor in Washington, D.C., was torched. It was one of the most shocking occurrences in my lifetime.

I was young and naïve enough that it didn’t even enter into my realm of consciousness that something so terrible could happen. At that time, I lived in the Georgetown area of D.C.  Because it was where many government officials lived, the Marines and the National Guard were called into to protect the area as well as other parts of D.C.  It was an eerie feeling being surrounded by armed soldiers. We breathed a great sigh of relief when they disappeared and it was deemed safe to return to our daily routines.

There have been numerous troubling and horrible occurrences since that time, but does that mean people should give up traveling? My vote is no. I’ve even made it a point to take a flight on September 11th, the anniversary of the Twin Towers being destroyed as well as parts of the Pentagon.

There have been rumors of terrorists’ plots brewing in the U.K, France and Germany, and security has definitely been beefed up. The U.S. government is working with its European allies. But Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declined to provide specifics. “We are not going to comment on specific intelligence, as doing so threatens to undermine intelligence operations that are critical in protecting the United States and our allies.”

In France, Olivier Bagousse, who runs the Paris police department’s Command and Information Center, said authorities have stepped up their alert level following recent intelligence. They are manning a restricted area in Paris’s central police headquarters (across from the Notre Dame Cathedral) that looks and functions as a small version of NASA’s Mission Control. From there, they can survey Paris utilizing 400 closed-circuit cameras that are strategically placed throughout the city.

The seminal question is should people stop living because of fear? On top of that, my guess is there probably aren’t many cities that are considerably safer than Paris since the authorities are being more than vigilant. It goes without saying that tourists should stay alert.

Would you postpone a trip to Europe?  I wouldn’t, though I know not everyone shares my mantra that living in fear isn’t really living.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Around the World |

Memories, Paris, Provence, Loss, Sadness and Joy

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:19 am -

Ever since September 11, 2001, most people can’t have that day come and go without remembering the devastating destruction and loss that occurred. Three thousand people lost their lives, and we lost some of our freedom. For many, it was the end of an age of innocence. It’s one of the defining acts in recent history that has impacted travel and so much more. As much as we’d like, the world will never be the same.

I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I was sitting at my desk in Paris in the afternoon, writing away. Because of the six-hour time difference, it was morning on the East Coast of the U.S. My son would usually sign on his computer and thank goodness for AOL instant messenger (IM)—even though we were on different continents, I had the feeling of being able to “talk” to him if necessary. As soon as he signed on, he started typing as if in a whirlwind. Where was I? What was I doing? He told me to turn on the television so I could see what was happening.

I ran into the living room just in time to see the second tower crumbling down. This couldn’t be real. Clearly, this was a bad movie and couldn’t be real.

Please remember these were the days before most of us had high-speed Internet, much less Wi-Fi. I grabbed my laptop and moved into the living room, plugged in the rinky-dink modem and, amazingly enough, was able to snag an AOL dial-up connection.

Sitting on the sofa in total disbelief, I IMed with my son and a couple of other people on my buddy list. Who could possibly believe what were seeing on CNN and why was this happening? The horror and the terror were not to be believed. It would be a while before we knew the whys…

I was unable to reach my mother who lived less than two miles from the Pentagon. All of the phone lines were jammed and there was no way I could make a call from Paris to Washington, DC. The irony was my mother thought I should move home (meaning where she was) because of some mini-bombs that had recently been detonated on the Champs-Élysées.

A buddy list friend, who lived in the area, finally contacted my mother who’d been sleeping. My son had gone home to his wife so he was off-line.

People frequently want to know what it feels like to be an expat. In this case, I wanted to be with family. But would that have changed anything? In essence, we were all impotent and could do nothing but wait and hope the nightmare would abate and we’d wake up and realize it had been a bad dream and shake the dust out of our eyes.

Phyllis Flick, who’d just moved to Paris to study, had rented a room down the street and didn’t have access to CNN. Even though we’d never met except through Bonjour Paris, she asked if she could come up to the apartment so she could see English-language television. That was fine with me. I was pleased to have the company and I think she camped on the sofa in front of the television. To be honest, the entire time was a blur.

How well I remember my neighbors knocking on my door and asking if there was anything they could do for me. We really didn’t know one another, but they knew that I was l’américaine and at times such as this, even the French don’t stand on formality.

The memory of my downstairs neighbor who worked for Microsoft will be indelibly etched in my mind. Michel appeared and insisted I come downstairs for dinner and their door was always open in the event I wanted coffee, company or a cigarette. Yes, it was politically and socially correct to smoke in La Belle France then.

My husband Victor had left for Provence a couple of days before. He so loved that house in the vines, and I was planning to join him a couple of days later. Since his U.S. office was headquartered next to the World Trade Center, he was concerned about many of his colleagues and friends. What a terrible time when he heard that one of the offices where he’d worked was no longer standing. So much sadness.

When I started writing this, I realized today is the fourth anniversary of Victor’s death. I came across this article in the archives of Bonjour Paris and thought it would be appropriate to republish.

To the many people in all of our lives who’ve been lost for myriad reasons, let’s raise a glass to them. To those who are our friends and part of our families, let’s do everything possible to nurture and cherish them.

Please know I consider Bonjour Paris readers family. You may come and go, but we’re a community and so many thanks to each and every one of you for being there.

September 12, 2010

(c) Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Around the World, Paris |

Personal Space

Written by admin on November 24, 2009 – 3:27 pm -

Traveling is a challenge no matter how you approach it or like it. It happens to be my passion. But travel barges in on your personal space, starting at the airport. Before you board the plane, you’re jiggled and jostled while navigating security. How many times have you felt as if you’re playing beat the clock just to get through the TSA screening process and collecting your possessions?

It’s taken a while, but I routinely make snarky comments to people behind me, telling them to get off my back, so I can gather my clothes, cell phone and other paraphernalia. I’ve become increasingly aggressive since I left my driver’s license in a plastic bucket on the conveyor belt and had to spend an entire day replacing it. There must be a lost and found in aviation heaven that’s jammed with electronics, documents, the belt that was holding up someone’s pants, and sweaters passengers thought they’d collected.

Skip the fact of being stripped of liquids that are more than three ounces—and that limit has recently been increased. I hope someday it goes up to 12 ounces because I want to gulp something as soon as I’ve had the chance to catch my breath after making it to the other side. Come to think of it, you could swig a miniature purchased at the liquor store. But then, you might really be subjected to a lack of personal space because the airport police don’t think kindly of people drinking in the airport in public area

Plane travel is the ultimate testimony to existing in cramped quarters. Coach class can be more intimate than you ever fathomed, especially when someone has reclined his or her seat, so you’re wedged into your chair. There are (or should be) rules of etiquette. But they seem to evaporate each year. How many times have you gotten to know your neighbor better than you ever imagined just because you need to go to the WC—where invariably there’s a line to be admitted to the inner sanctum.

Unless Americans are forced into sardine situations, they tend not to stand on top of one another. And as friendly as people in the U.S. tend to be by telling one another too much too soon, strangers rarely touch one another. In other countries, the protocol is very different.

For example, in Asia, it’s apparent that vendors in outdoor markets feel they have the right to run after you and tug at you in order to make a sale. “Missy, missy, how much do you want to pay?” the out-to-kill salesperson will ask while simultaneously grabbing your shoulder. Americans aren’t used to this since it’s hard in the States to locate a salesperson when you want one. And you rarely touch even when you’re forking over your credit card and collecting the purchases.

Ask someone who’s French for directions and they become so intense you may feel you’re going head to head. As my Bonjour Paris colleague Joseph Lestrange has pointed out, they can make any conversation seem urgent, a matter of life and death, even if all you want to know if should I turn left or right or how much a beer costs. I think of this as the linguistic equivalent of crowding, words hemming me in.

The American idea of people not crowding you is a mystery to people who are used to existing in more confined quarters. But think about it. When you’re in Paris, there’s generally a lack of space wherever you go. Contrasted to the U.S., grocery aisles are barely wide enough for one cart and rarely two. And these are small caddies.

Bakeries are located in narrow storefronts and if someone steps out of line, it’s hard not to notice. Visitors to Paris find are dismayed to discover that they better know exactly which loaf or pastry they want when it’s their turn to be waited on. The customers behind you have little to no tolerance for any form of discussion other than, “Bonjour, je veux une baguette et deux croissants, s’il vous plaît,and off you go after a fast financial exchange.

Most Parisian restaurants are jammed with tiny tables. Thank goodness most French speak with well-modulated voices or you’d go nuts from noise pollution. Skip the idea of a truly private conversation if you’re eating in a bistro or a café.

The French must have it ingrained into their psyches that personal space is a negative. Sure, there are those who go off hiking, but even when they can spread out, they don’t. When they go on vacation, they tend to be like termites who exist only as a colony and not at all as individuals. In August, there’s a mass exodus to the beaches, and off they go to the ski slopes in February. And when they arrive at their destinations, they tend to stick together as if they’re joined at the hip.

That’s the way they are. As another colleague, longtime resident of France and husband of an exceedingly French woman, Bud Korengold has noted, a title for his collection of very sympathetic stories about living in France could be called “Those French!” The exclamation point encodes exasperation sometimes, puzzlement at others, and often enough absolute wonder, not to say admiration. That’s why they’re French and we’re not. And that’s why we come to visit or stay.

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Posted in Around the World |

One lost drivers license can really ruin your whole day

Written by admin on July 6, 2009 – 5:20 pm -

Sometimes, even the most seasoned travelers can find themselves up a creek without a paddle.

I just had a day like that.

Somewhere, somehow between my going through airport security and boarding the plane, I managed to lose my driver’s license.

Was it in the Red Carpet Lounge? Did I stick it among my possessions?  Did this indispensable piece of plastic fall into a tray as I was rushing to collect my computer, bag of liquids, the bag filled with electronics and more cords than anyone should need?

All I knew was I’d become a non-person and even though I’d reported my losing the license to everyone with whom I’d came into contact at United Airlines, I boarded the plane suspecting it was going to be a day of no good news.

I spent the first hour of the flight tearing through every pocket, bag and the new wallet I recently purchased.

I don’t drink alcohol on morning flights but succumbed this time. The flight attendant brought me a screwdriver, which I quickly downed and went to sleep.

Perhaps the license would surface when I awakened.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. As instructed, I checked with airline officials when I arrived at LAX as well as the lost and found. No luck – no news – no license being transported on the following flight.

You don’t come to Los Angeles and think you can exist without a car. Even though I’d rented cars from the same rental company numerous times, there was a pit in my stomach that this would be a no go. Too bad the car was prepaid and that I had my insurance card plus a newly filed police report certifying I was licenseless.

Oh yes, the details of my driver’s permit were on file but there was no way the agent was going to give me keys. “It’s against California law,” he said and called a cab.

After the cab arrived and the driver was given my destination, he said he didn’t know where we were going even though it was downtown L.A.  This time, I was prepared and whipped out my GPS. People complain they’re frequently taken the scenic route when hailing Paris cabs and watch the meter ticking. Portable GPS’s may be the solution.

Since my arrival, I’ve had a copy of my passport, license, French residence card emailed and printed. The United executive advised me I should be at the airport early  for an extra security check and was nice enough to make a notation about my lack of identification.

If you’re into betting, how many people think someone might have found and mailed the license to the DC address that doubles as Bonjour Paris’s office?

If not, I know how I’ll be spending a few hours this week. And the Department of Motor Vehicles isn’t renowned for its charm.

Has this type of incident ever happened to others? I can’t imagine it hasn’t and want to hear how you solved the dilemma.

Karen Fawcett is president of  BonjourParis

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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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