If I’m Not in Paris

Written by kvfawcett on June 25, 2010 – 1:08 pm -

Bonjour from Washington, D.C. If it’s late April through early June, chances are I’ll be in the Nation’s Capital. It’s not because I feel the compulsion to wave the American flag. Just because I choose to live in France doesn’t mean my forehead isn’t emblazoned with an invisible beacon flashing “Born in the USA” à la Bruce Springsteen. I’m proud to be an American—even if I do find certain things baffling on this side of the Atlantic.

I try to be in Washington for my granddaughters’ birthdays and school events. Even though some people may consider my carbon footprint environmentally irresponsible, I’m lucky to be able to celebrate significant events in person. Travel is a priority and a main line item in my budget.

Many expats miss important family occasions because of distance and the time and cost of travel. Of course that’s also true of people who never leave the United States which, after all, is about as large as Western Europe: the distance in air miles from Madrid to Moscow is less than the distance from New York to Los Angeles. But the euro and Europeanization notwithstanding, you travel farther in Europe. And let’s face it, not everyone speaks English.

The fact that my job is located in my computer (dear lord, please don’t let it crash again) allows me flexibility few people have. Even with increased cyber commuting, virtual offices and on-line meetings, most workers still need to make a physical appearance in an office on a frequent basis.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s no way I’d want to head Bonjour Paris if I didn’t live in France. But there’s no need for me to be there 365 days a year. In fact, it’s better that I’m not. Each time I return after a trip of more than a few days (a long weekend in Morocco doesn’t count), it’s as if I am seeing the city in a new light. This is especially true if I return to Paris after the August vacation when many storefront businesses look completely different. Perhaps some people don’t work in August, but that can’t be said of many French construction crews.

So I was puzzled or, really, put out when someone who knew I was away shot me an email saying she didn’t believe I could write about Paris if I weren’t there. My response was downright snarky. But then I came to the realization that some of my best insights about the city I love are derived when I’m not there. The idea of not being able to feel the pulse of the city elsewhere or what’s taking place is downright nonsense. In Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth declared his manifesto for the Romantic Movement, saying that powerful poetry was composed from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I may not write poems, but I think the feelings of daily life can be felt directly in one place or another, but recollected anywhere—and often more clearly and movingly.

The reality is when I’m in Paris, I may not always have my hand on its pulse. More than likely, my hands are on the computer keyboard and doing the same things anyone does when working. This is especially true if they work at home and a trip to the grocery store is considered an outing.

Even though traveling can be a pain in the derrière—and who enjoys dealing with security screenings, delayed flights, the recent bouts with volcanic ash and being stranded?—when I see a plane, I want to be on it.

Travel, whether it’s for business or pleasure, is the best way to learn about other cultures and mores and to gather a more global perspective. It is also the best way to see my own cultures—American and French—more clearly.

After 22 years of living in Paris, I look at things with a French attitude. My idea of home is a comfortable apartment near the Métro and a good bakery, not a 5000-square-foot MacMansion in the suburbs with a one-hour commute on clogged roads to work in a cubicle. I did not intend this, but this is what has happened to me. Or this:

Last night I toured Washington’s monuments after dark with a friend visiting from abroad and admired the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials as great examples of architecture—and symbols of the American republic. But they don’t make my heart stop the same way it does when I drive by the Assemblée nationale in Paris at night. Perhaps it has to do with lighting? The perspective? Maybe I’ve gone native? I don’t know. It’s a powerful feeling, though, and I can recollect it here in the United States.

Consider buying Travel Insurance. And you’d better believe that my Medjet Assist policy is renewed each year.

© Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Around the World |

Paris Dreaming

Written by admin on October 1, 2009 – 7:34 pm -

People always ask me why I love Paris. I’ve lived in other places, and seize every opportunity to hop on a plane and explore the world. But Paris is the place I know and the one where I feel the most comfortable.  My French is less than stellar, so I don’t opt to make France my home because I’m not language challenged.  Because I am.

Now that I’m relatively footloose and fancy free, I could move anywhere. The world is my oyster. Ah hum. It’s a funny situation to be in as I’ve always considered myself the “responsible one” who has been at other people’s beck and call.

Now I read books and more books and surf the Internet about places to retire. The more articles and books I read, the more convinced I am that Paris is the correct place for me. It’s home—at least, I ‘m beginning to believe that.

It’s wonderful being able to walk out of the door and be in a café within minutes. Being able to buy a baguette and be sitting in the Luxembourg Garden in five minutes is a treasure. Not being responsible for the extensive plantings and always being surprised by the gardens’ constantly changing beauty is such a gift. I’ve lived in the same apartment for nearly 20 years and am always discovering new things since Paris is full of eye candy.

Not being tied to a car is the ultimate freedom.  Excellent public transportation and the availability of clean taxis make life so much easier. I feel safe walking home from a neighborhood restaurant alone at night and even though I always use big city caution and smarts, I don’t feel if I might be robbed if it’s after dark.

Before waxing poetic, there’s plenty wrong with the City of Light. Taking care of the most mundane things, such as having a phone installed, can assume monumental proportions.  It used to be obtaining a high-speed Internet connection was next to impossible. Those days are over and happily the French have become pros when it comes to the Internet.

People can now cyber-commute to their jobs and there’s no reason you can’t live one place and work in another. Plenty of my friends do precisely that and their professional colleagues are in the dark as to where e-mails, reports or phone calls are generated. It’s a whole new world, barring some of the nitty-gritty realities that rear their heads, when you’re least expecting them.

It helps if you’re independently wealthy and clip coupons. If you need to renew a visa, set up a business or even open a bank account, import a giant bottle of Excedrin from the U.S.—where it costs relatively little—money helps. And those pills will come in handy when you’re navigating the quagmire of red tape, where French government officials need and want everything translated yesterday (well, within the past three months) and S’il vous plaît in triplicate and you’ve forgotten the most important form, je suis désolé, madame.

Money helps because French bureaucracy can be daunting. If you’re not willing (or able) to do battle yourself, find someone who will assume that responsibility. For example, renting an apartment isn’t a slam-dunk. You’re required to furnish more paperwork than most Americans can fathom. U.S. residents are getting a bit of a taste now that it’s more difficult to get a loan for whatever.  But if you’re not clipping coupons, count on spending a lot of time, learning to intone Ommm, and practicing counting from one to ten.  But the time is most important.

Even though many people assume I’m an expert because of my years of writing about France on Bonjour Paris, the reality is that the longer I’ve been a French resident, the more aware I am of the need for professional advice in certain situations. Real estate, wills and anything that might be considered an inheritance is out of my comfort zone.

Paris is by no means cheap and the cost of living keeps many people from relocating to the EU if they’re dependent on a dollar income. Few economists forecast that the dollar will rebound enough to make Americans feel rich any time soon.  What I’ve discovered is that even though Paris is expensive, most people are willing to do with less. They may go out to restaurants less frequently, but my friends limit their clothing expenditures, and few people move to keep up with the Jones.  Few crave the equivalent of a McMansion—and there aren’t any, anyway. They may buy a run-down château, but do it as a long-term project. Few people expect it to be renovated and decorated yesterday.

The French are taking shorter vacations and they’re staying closer to home. But each week when the travel specials come flying across my computer screen, it’s so apparent that travelers can be in so many different countries and cultures within a few hours and package deals are really deals.

Some people are out of their comfort zones if they move from one state to another. And then there are those of us who are born part-gypsy.  Which type of person are you and why?

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Posted in Paris |

Thailand wants tourists and will go a long way to attract them

Written by admin on February 24, 2009 – 8:55 pm -

AirAsia, Southeast Asia’s top budget carrier, is giving away 100,000 “free” tickets to Thailand to support the nation’s tourist industry that was badly impacted last year when the Bangkok airport was closed because of political demonstrations.

“Get Your Baht To Thailand” is the theme of this aggressive marketing campaign that’s being sponsored by the airline in conjunction with the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Tickets are available until March 31 on AirAsia’s official site. The airline operates approximately four hundred international flights between South Asia and China and nearly that many within Thailand each week.

Free is not always free. First, you’ll have to get yourself to an Asian city where you can climb aboard one of the airline’s flights. Second, passengers will be responsible for airport taxes and an administration fee. But AirAsia has waived fuel surcharges.

Surf the Internet for hotels and resorts in Thailand and there are an amazing number that are practically giving rooms and extras away. If you have the urge to go and the money, you’ll get the most bang for your buck and return having experienced a special culture — or simply vegged out on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

How I’d love to go.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

A new world of travel planning

Written by admin on January 9, 2009 – 12:22 pm -

It wasn’t so many years ago that planning a trip that included multiple components meant travelers would need to patronize travel agents to book flights, hotels, cars and more. Clients came away with crafted itineraries they would follow with precision. Friends’ recommendations, travel publications, guidebooks and advertising were the deciding factors on where people went and how.

Those days have come and gone. A vast percentage of people are more actively involved in their travel logistics and planning via the Web. Some book trips independently other simply do the research. On the Internet, there are many ways to plan and book a trip.

Trip planning
Social networking sites such as Facebook allow travelers to solicit input from their contacts about trips. TripAdvisor.com provides comments that tend to be truthful and provide the ability to read between the lines in order to glean needed information.

Cruise sites are excellent resources and there are so many blogs and so much information (as well as misinformation) that people are able to formulate ideas as to which trips are their cup of tea and which aren’t.

The Internet is filled with content about specific cities and countries that once upon a time was only found in guidebooks and travel magazines. Today, most travel magazines have Web sites — the more interactive, the better. Plus, there are Frommer’s, Fodor’s and Time Out that have even more up-to-date information than their trusted guidebook namesakes.

Booking travel online
Booking sites (and sites linking to booking sites) have mushroomed on the Internet. To name a few: Kayak.com, Travelocity.com, Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, BookingBuddy.com, Priceline.com, CheapTickets.com, Cheapoair.com … and the list goes on and on. Travelers have developed their personal surfing methods to find the best deals.

One friend claims that, “Orbitz has a great search tool but they don’t let you save searches without starting a reservation. So I’ll search on Orbitz and Expedia for best deals and then book via Expedia.” I’m not sure what he means, exactly, but it seems to work for him.

Another frequent traveler says that after perusing various websites, he can usually get the same fare or hotel rate by contacting the airline or hotel and he’ll almost always end up booking directly to save the added booking fees.

Yet another suggests that creating a package within one of the travel sites that combine air, hotel and land transportation yields the best bargains – even after the added booking fees.

Travel agents and tour operators still count
When it comes to booking “exotic trips” (e.g. Asia and Africa) some people opt to go with organized tours. Others contract with travel agents who specialize in the area.

If these travel agents are real pros, they’ve gone on FAM (familiarization) trips and have developed intra-country resources, that serve as a contact when their clients are in the country and inform the agent about the area’s most current developments. Plus, some travel agents are able to get bulk prices and you, the consumer, end up paying less.

However, most consumers today will inevitably turn to the web during their travel planning process whether the buy through an agent or online.

In fact, study after study confirms that the majority of travelers are likely to view between three and five websites, including social sites, before making a final purchase decision.

What type of travel planner are you? There are so many options.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

For depression-era vacationers, a bed and breakfast is just the thing

Written by admin on October 10, 2008 – 1:30 pm -

After this week’s stock market plunge, some people think they’ll never be able to retire — much less afford another vacation. Maybe not.

Yes, hair is turning gray and there are more than a few individuals who refuse to look at their investment portfolios. Houses that were formally worth a lot of money are going begging. Welcome to the new world of tight credit.

Travel addicts are bemoaning the fact that their wings will be clipped because of incredibly high air fares and fewer flights.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat. When the going gets tough, the tough start having second thoughts. Some people with long-scheduled travel plans are contemplating whether or not they should cancel their trips. Others are seeking alternative ways to save money.

In the past, many travelers would never consider a bed-and-breakfast (B&B). For some, it’s akin to invading someone else’s personal space. Other people will always opt for B&Bs since there may not be a lot of alternatives in some of America’s most charming towns.

There are exceptions, such as exploring New England during leaf season. Many who make the pilgrimage find B&Bs romantic, an excellent way to meet other people in addition to profiting from their hosts’ knowledge of the area. The majority return from their mini-adventures feeling vacationed, have had a look into someone else’s life style and are invariably financially ahead unless their alternative is staying in a Motel 6, which are rarely long on charm.

Europeans have traditionally opened their doors to guests driving through the countryside. But city residents tend not to for numerous reasons. First, it’s a question of space; second, apartment dwellers cherish their privacy and would prefer not to be greeted by people in tourist mode wanting croissants (and how about some eggs and bacon, please?) and that day’s marching orders.

When it comes to Parisians, if they are going to rent rooms to strangers, more than likely it will be to students who tend to be less picky. Plus, the French government offers tax subsidies to apartment owners who provide housing to those of university age.

Some people refuse to accept “get-up-and go” defeat. The Internet has opened up new avenues of finding affordable digs. It’s up to the renters and the rentees to do more than a modicum of research and due diligence.

In my search, I unearthed a B&B, Chez Bertrand, that’s located near Paris’s most famous flea market, the Porte de Clingancourt. This must be one of the funkiest places to stay in all of Paris and it wouldn’t be my choice for more reasons than one. I’ve never slept in a Citroën nor has it been my dream. But this B&B satisfies one of my main criteria. It has WiFi even though the décor may not be exactly up my alley.

People can find rooms to rent by the day, week or month. For example, access The Bonjour Paris Classified section, and you’ll find rooms advertised for rent for different periods of time and in different places.

If you don’t see precisely what you want, post an ad and people wanting and needing to generate some extra income will invariably inundate you.

If you decide to book accommodations online, call the owner at least once before you go. Ask for references.

Some topics to discuss:

While some B&B’s are sophisticated and somewhat costly, others are very simple and can be a real bargain. Know what to expect in the way of room accommodations.

Most B&Bs have fairly strict check-in times. Find out what the policy is, so that you are not (as is often the case) barging into someone’s home after hours.

Find out whether or not you’ll be required to share a bathroom and if there’s a communal kitchen or, at the very least, a fridge.

Unfortunately for families who enjoy traveling together, don’t assume an establishment welcomes children. Even if they do, find out whether or nor there’s a minimum age.

Does the bed & breakfast allow pets? If so, are there size and breed limitations?

Ask if credit cards are accepted and inquire about cancellation policies.

If you smoke, inquire about the B&B’s policy. You will find that a majority of them do not permit smoking of any kind. Some allow it outside or in designated public areas. But many will not allow smoking anywhere on the grounds.

You may have a wonderful time not only getting to know a neighborhood but a family as well. Like everything else in traveling, you need to be lucky. But with smart planning, you can improve your luck — and the odds of having a good time.

In times of financial uncertainty, try to look on the bright side.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Big Brother is watching travelers — here’s what you can do about it

Written by admin on October 7, 2008 – 2:42 pm -

A group of Canadian human-rights advocates and computer security researchers has discovered a huge surveillance program in China that may be tracking your phone calls. It’s just the latest in a series of computer-security breaches that may affect travelers.

The system tracks text messages sent by subscribers of Tom-Skype, a joint venture between a Chinese wireless operator and eBay, the Web auctioneer that owns Skype an online phone and text messaging service. It monitors and archives certain Internet text conversations that may or may not include politically incorrect words.

This has focused increased attention on the Chinese government’s Internet monitoring, which created controversy this summer during the Olympic Games in Beijing. It’s estimated that 30,000 or more Chinese Internet “police” were monitoring online traffic, Web sites and blogs for offensive content.

The Chinese may be more overt when it comes to censorship. But no one should be complacent that someone might not be intercepting your calls or emails. More than one divorce complainant has produced reams of emails and .wav files and told it to the judge.

This doesn’t happen in the usual divorce case. But when big bucks are at stake, don’t think a private detective doesn’t have a battalion of computer savvy types who can break into your email account more quickly than you can log on. Some of these geeks probably aren’t even shaving. Welcome to the new generation of kids who can type more quickly than they can write.

Computer security causes many people to have second thoughts. As one who does nearly all transactions on-line, including banking, shopping, booking air tickets and hotel rooms, my credit card may very well be at risk — not to mention my credit worthiness.

Here are some rules consumers should consider following:

- Use one credit card for all of your on-line purchases.
- Change your password frequently and steer away from using your birthday or the name of your first-born son.
- Frequently access the recent transactions of that specific credit card. This can be done either on-line or by telephone.
- If you’re traveling, contact the issuing bank and advise them of your itinerary.
- Be sure to have a four digit pin code in order to withdraw money from an ATM. Change the code after each trip.

Back to the initial point, never send an email with information that could ruin you or your business and certainly don’t do it over a public unsecured WiFi connecton. There’s a reason companies set up encrypted Intranet communications systems. And even they’re not infallible.

Being able to speak to friends and family, not to mention business associates is a terrific tool and Skype claims it’s secure and customers shouldn’t worry. But in the event you’re having a tryst or something more, find a different way to communicate and say nothing that can be misinterpreted.

Come to think of it, that’s probably a rule we should all take to heart.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

It's A Brand New World

Written by admin on June 13, 2007 – 3:54 pm -

In mid-June, the city of Paris introduced free WiFi connections. There are 260  Municipal WiFi Connections where you can take your laptop and work away. Imagine being able to surf the Internet while sitting in the Luxembourg Garden, other parks, museums, libraries and so many more locations.  Surfers are no longer delegated to sitting in McDonald’s, the first place in Paris that offered free on-line access.  But, if you’re in a park, be certain your laptop’s battery is fully charged.

There are numerous cities in the US and in Europe that are WiFi-enabled and more than friendly. There are an increasing number of free Hot Spots in the US and many paid and free WiFi Connections throughout the US and the world, including Japan, Asia and the majority of cities in the EU. It’s amazing when you consider that not so many years ago, people depended on faxes and overnight mail delivery, if they were really pressed.

This relatively instant interconnectivity has dramatically changed the way business can be done. People can and do cyber-commute. “File-sharing” is the norm in companies so that numerous people can work on the same project around the clock. One Washington, DC lawyer I know doesn’t even tell his clients when he’s gone to Paris. His cell phone has a DC area code and he answers it night and day. The Philadelphia set a goal to be the first US city with free WiFi.  The city’s mayor felt it would be important for both the private and public sectors, attract tourists, and enable students to compete in a more level playing field when it comes to academic studies. With the development of computers that cost less than $100 each, perhaps it’s feasible. ”Wireless Philadelphia” has completed testing its wireless service in a 15-square-mile test zone and plans to expand access to the city’s 135- square- mile radius by the end of 2007.

But, that’s the US where many people had computers (or were been exposed to them). It’s amazing Paris has taken this extremely aggressive Internet connectivity initiative considering personal computers were a rarity among the French who, not so many years ago, were addicted to the Minitel.

FranceTelecom distributed millions of free “dumb” terminals in lieu of phone books. Anyone with a phone line could access a phone number and other services such as train schedules. As a result, the Minitel was often considered an impediment for a fast deployment of the Internet in France as it already provided safe and easy online access for many useful services without requiring personal computers.

There are (marginal) advantages of the Minitel over the Internet: it doesn’t require subscribing to a service or buying and maintaining a costly personal computer, plus there are fewer security issues with respect to credit card payments and other personal information.

Also, because the Minitel follows well-defined standards, there are hardly any compatibility problems that often crop up with Internet services.

Some contend that thanks to the Minitel, the French are used to doing transactions online and have embraced the Internet since it offers more value and convenience than its predecessor. Plus, the cost of computers and other hardware have dropped and consumers can buy them on-line, at electronics stores, and in nearly every hyper-marche.  FranceTelecom has essentially phased out the Minitel after France’s Internet czar degreed that it was time for the country to start tapping and typing into the 21 st century.

When Bonjour Paris launched thirteen years ago, the main response when discussing the Internet among the French was, “C’est quoi ca?”   Educated people, including graduates of the Grand Ecoles, with whom I discussed the Internet refused to believe it would make any inroads among the French.

Neighbors in Provence couldn’t understand why I spent so many hours sitting in front of a computer screen.  Work was done over a very slow phone line. To add insult to injury, phone bills were akin to the National debt and weren’t anything to be taken lightly.

France has come a long way since then.  High-speed Internet connections are available practically country- wide. The speed of connection in Paris is faster even than what’s normal in the US – to the point that the speed of some IP providers is essentially equal to a T-1 line.

So why should it be shocking that Paris has hopped on the cyber bandwagon?  If Paris’s Mayor Bertrand Delanoe can introduce the Paris Plage (beach), why wouldn’t he go full-steam ahead and make the city WiFi?  The city government will undoubtedly do the same when new technology is introduced.

Tourists can carry a tiny computer or PDA with them and access web sites about France on the go.  Can’t wait to see what will be next!

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