How Times Have Changed When Talking Turkey in France

Written by kvfawcett on December 23, 2010 – 11:22 am -

Ah, it seems like yesterday, but it wasn’t. To be precise, it was twenty years ago. Being a good American, there was no way that I wasn’t going to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was the one holiday where we’d get together, eat too much, laugh and have a good time.

Of course, getting up at the crack of dawn in the U.S. so the bird would be ready before noon was kind of a pain, but Thanksgiving and the NFL football games went hand in hand. It seems distant now, but that was the way it was in those days when I lived in Washington.

After Victor and I moved into our new Paris apartment, we decided to invite our American friends to come and celebrate, which (for Americans) falls on the fourth Thursday of November unlike Canada where it falls on the second Monday of October. We included some French friends who thought it was more than a strange meal and a stranger ritual.

All I knew was that I was hell-bent on having a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. What I didn’t anticipate was that we could have gone to the most expensive restaurant in Paris and eaten for less than that dinner cost, but we wouldn’t have feasted on turkey—and please don’t say “so what?” In those days, it mattered.

Being of the Butterball generation, it didn’t occur to me that chemically treated über humongous birds simply didn’t exist in France. I went to the butcher only to be told that it was impossible to buy a turkey large enough to feed twenty people before Christmas.  Didn’t I understand these were free-range birds and weren’t going to grow large enough just because I wanted one?

OK, that was no problem. Being resourceful and being able to add, I ordered two turkeys. Defeat would not be mine. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t been able to add when the bill was presented. It was nearly $125. Were the birds stuffed with gold?

By the time the fixings were purchased (what do you mean one can of Ocean Spray cranberries costs $6?), it was time to contemplate taking out a loan. But defeat would not be mine: a tube of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce on a plate, with the marks from the can looking like ribs, is a sine qua non of Thanksgiving, particularly if no one eats it and it is thrown out whole.

I won’t bore you with what it cost to import enough pecans to make a sticky and gooey pie. It was sheer determination… defeat would not be mine. Ah, hmmm. That was until I picked up the fowl that morning only to realize there was zero way both could possibly fit in one oven, especially ours which was French and small.

That was the year of our becoming extremely friendly with the concierge of our building. We usurped that oven and shuttled up and down five floors so we could baste both turkeys. Each time we went down to the ground floor apartment, we took a bottle of wine. After all, that was only polite.

Dinner was a roaring success. In fact, it was the best Thanksgiving we ever had as twenty people were stuffed into our dining area, which usually seats eight.

I went to bed with a headache that night, undoubtedly from the stress of cooking for so many people and the fact that the guests each brought a lovely bottle of wine—and there was no way we could insult anyone by not drinking all of them.

Since this wasn’t a French holiday, dinner didn’t begin until 8 p.m. By the time it ended after midnight (thank goodness someone brought a bottle of first-rate cognac), I wondered how our guests were going to be able to work the next day.

But this being France, the only one who had a real hangover was I. And clearly it was due to the fact that I refused to go to bed until all of the dishes, glasses and silver were washed and put away.

Happily, Thanksgiving comes only once a year—it takes that long to recover. But that evening was one I’ll never forget.  Nor will our guests and the concierge who’s still talking about it:

Vivent les Américains (even if they are crazy).

(c) Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Paris |

Ten Reasons I Love Living in Paris

Written by kvfawcett on November 19, 2010 – 1:15 pm -

Are there only ten? No, and in fact I have twelve here. Though I could go on forever—or at least for another dozen reasons, lists of Ten Best or Top Ten or Ten Dancing Girls seem to go over better, a fact of life from vaudeville to the internet—and it probably started in Ur of the Chaldees.

Anyway, I figure I can always come back for more. So here are my twelve reasons for why Paris is the place I live and love.

1. Architecture: There’s eye candy as far as the eye can see, and I’m not only referring to the city’s roof tops. Look at the buildings’ façades, windows, balconies, and wander into small passages. Invariably you’ll find a garden or something you weren’t expecting—like a bicycle circa 1955, still in working order.

2. Safety: The feeling of safety and most especially as a woman alone. Being able to return home after midnight alone (using big city smarts) gives one such a feeling of freedom.

3. Food: I’m not just thinking of restaurant meals, but what you can buy in markets. Even though people do buy French, you can go to ethnic markets throughout the city and come home with a taste of other cultures.

4. Cars: You don’t need one. Public transportation really works, and considering the saving that comes from not having to buy, maintain, insure and garage a car, I could (but don’t) hire a limo. If I want to go away, I either take a train or rent a car from Auto Europe.

5. Solitude: Being able to sit in a bar or café and keep to myself when I want to be enveloped in my cocoon. When I feel social, it’s perfectly safe and comfortable to go to a nearby jazz bar for the music and a glass of wine, and nine times out of ten, I’ll end up having a conversation with others. Music is a great equalizer. But being alone is sometimes just what I want.

6. The gardens and parks: There’s my favorite, the Luxembourg Garden which I think I mention more often than just about anything else. But the city has many magnificent parks like the Parc Monceau—not to mention those forlorn and seedy little squares where my friend and colleague Joseph Lestrange sits and daydreams about the other people sitting on benches and gives the half his sandwich he can’t eat to some down-and-outer. And you don’t have to look far to find what American urban planner Jane Jacobs would have labeled vest pocket parks. You want more? Take a look at a list of Paris’s parks.

7. The world is my oyster: You can be exposed to other cultures by simply boarding a cross-town bus. India, China, the Middle East, anywhere—Paris is anything but a homogeneous city. There have been clashes between people, but rarely between the different cultures that coexist within Paris proper.

8. Talk: The main topic of conversation here isn’t money or real estate. I have friends who live in humongous apartments and others who live in shoeboxes. People aren’t judged by their financial means, but rather by who they are and what they do and think.

9. Shopping: It’s all here. Women can buy anything from haute couture to black jeans (black anything) and look chic. Men, too.

10. Culture: There’s always something going on. It’s nice to be able to buy a big-euro ticket to the opera or the ballet. But if you can’t, you’re by no means going feel culturally deprived. So many events are free or cost next to nothing.

11. The height restrictions in Paris: Central Paris doesn’t cause people to feel claustrophobic, as New York City tends to do. Washington can also make a similar claim, but the architecture there is most decidedly not Beaux-Arts.

12. The monumentality of the city: I’m the first to admit I’m prejudiced. Before moving to Paris, I thought my hometown, Washington, DC, was a glorious capital city. It isn’t at all bad, but its scale and grandeur simply aren’t as spectacular as the views of Paris. Perhaps it’s because, unless you’re at the Tidal Basin or the Lincoln Memorial, the vistas aren’t the same. And even though it may be gaudy (well, before the paint fades and dirt settles on the gold leaf), the monuments glistening when seen at a distance highlighted in gold are spectacular.

No matter how many times I leave Paris and return, my breath is invariably taken away when I pass Notre Dame, the Pont Neuf and the Grand Palais. And I know it’s crazy, but what really touches my heart and my soul are Paris’s florists. Some are more haut de gamme than chic and très cher. But there are so many other flower stands where you can buy a bouquet for three euros and it can’t help but make me feel cheerier, even on a very gray day.

It’s Paris for twelve reasons or more. But I’ll give you one perfect reason. Here I am chez moi.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Around the World |

Back at Home in Paris

Written by kvfawcett on November 19, 2010 – 1:12 pm -

I’m home and it feels so right. Yes, there are strikes and there are more to come. But, if you’re in the City of Light, it doesn’t feel as if it’s the end of the world.

Based on all the news reports and shows of violence being looped on television, who in their right minds would consider coming here now?  Ahh, hmmm… let me attest: plenty of people. When I arrived at Dulles airport, my first questions to the airline personnel were about the strikes. The what? No, there hadn’t been more cancellations than usual on the Paris-bound flight.

The plane from Washington, DC, was 80% full. After asking a few passengers if they were concerned about coming to France, they really didn’t know about the strikes. Or if they did, they weren’t concerned over being affected by them.

The flight took off on time and landed 40 minutes early. Getting into the city wasn’t substantially more difficult than usual although it did take a bit longer because some people, who might have taken mass transit, were driving. Gas stations were open and plenty of cars were waiting to receive their allotment of gas.

As angry as the French may be, they generally don’t lean on their cars’ horns to express their displeasure.

The French passengers with whom I spoke shrugged and said, “C’est normale. We strike first and hope we can negotiate later.”  Even they admitted they didn’t think the French government was going to back down from voting in France’s pension reforms.

The most cogent discussion I heard about the strikes in France was broadcast on The Diane Rehm Show, which is aired in Washington and networked by NPR to its member stations. Her guests explained a bit about the French mentality in addition to the economic necessity of the pension reform.

Alexander Chancellor, columnist for British newspaper The Guardian, had another explanation about the strikes.  “British resistance to government cuts will never match those in France. Some will certainly fight the cuts tooth and nail, but it is more in our national character to unite in shared suffering.” The famous British stiff upper lip seems to have been deployed, if perhaps with a crinkled nose and squinted eyes, while the French are out in the streets as they have been since before the Saint Bartholomew massacre.

The French feel they are defined by revolution, and look back with nostalgia to the events of May 1968. They are conditioned to distrust their ruling elite and think they are only living up to their finest national traditions when they are burning cars or throwing cobblestones at the police. If we find comfort—and we don’t always—in following our government’s calls for self-sacrifice in the national interest, the French find it in defying their government.

Brits are astonished the French are making such a fuss about the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 when it has already been raised to 67 in Germany and will soon be raised to 66 in the U.K. According to opinion polls, a majority of French people actually accepts that the retirement age must go up if the country is to be able to afford its generous pension system.

The French Senate officially adopted the reform bill and the final vote will likely take place during the week of Oct. 25, with the law expected to be enforced soon thereafter. We’ll see if the strikes continue, as unions and other strikers vow will happen.

But what am I seeing in Paris? People are walking, biking and when I went out last night for a dinner that made me know I was home, the #83 bus that’s always late came immediately. The patrons in the restaurant were enjoying their dinners and no one could be audibly heard complaining.

A trip to the grocery store was another indication that life is good. People are on the streets and in the shops and if there are any visible signs of striking in this area, it’s that the trash trucks haven’t been by for a couple of days. Some heavy trash bags have joined the trash bins but are placed just so because in spite of the strikes, the French maintain a sense of order.

Please don’t get me wrong and think I dismiss the strikes as nonsense. Anything but and it’s distressing that some students (in addition to probable thugs up to no good) have joined the strikers. Their activities seem self-defeating, especially in a debate which is over.

What is amazing to me that I returned home to find a sign on the main door announcing the one elevator in the building is not going to be operational for six weeks beginning January 3rd. Living on the fifth floor (U.S), that gave me pause. I immediately encountered my next-door neighbor who is well over 80 thinking she’d be upset.

Chère Mme Morin commented we’d better remember all of the groceries we needed so we wouldn’t have to make more than one trip to the grocery store each day. I was too tired to remind her that grocery stores deliver and wasn’t about to mention all of the Internet grocery sites where you can order everything including the kitchen sink.

If the same thing were to happen in the U.S., I assume the tenants would go ballistic and… there would not be a strike because what or whom would they be striking against? A dilapidated elevator? Yet, I’m not thrilled and can’t believe it’s going to take six weeks to repair. On the other hand, I need to lose some weight and will use the stairs as the way to do so. I try to take them once a day when I am in Paris.

Now, I’ll simply have to take them more frequently. And to be sure, no one in the building will go on strike although Mme Morin suggested we might want to put a chair on each floor so we could rest before continuing up. She’s absolutely right and I’d better inform some friends who’d planned to visit during that period that they might want to reconsider.

My guess is the lack of an elevator will be more of a deterrent to houseguests than the strikes. As the French would say, on verra.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC

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Are The French Rude?

Written by admin on June 6, 2010 – 5:23 pm -

For years I’ve been denying the French are rude. People simply don’t understand cultural differences. Tourists who come to France should remember they’re guests. It’s their responsibility to learn about French culture and mores, before making grand pronouncements that they’re not well treated as soon as they land on Gallic soil.

There have been times I’ve nearly waged battle over what I believe to be massive misperceptions. Some people assume I’m a representative of the French Government’s tourist office since my mantra has been: smile, shake hands, say “bonjour” and “merci” and don’t assume your being here and spending money entitles you to jump to the front of the line.

The analogy I’ve made is Parisians tend to be like people who live and work in Manhattan and don’t necessarily make nice-nice to strangers—you know, the ones who look lost and ask for directions, in a foreign language no less, about how to travel from the lower East Side to the upper West Side without changing subway lines.

Imagine my upset when the results of a telephone poll conducted by the CSA (France’s Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel) of 1000 French adults, who live outside of Paris, were made public.

The findings were devastating. But there had to be a reason. It was a sample of those who were willing to take the time to answer the questions, undoubtedly because others were too busy. How many times have you said no to a telemarketer or a survey-taker because you had other things on your plate—like dinner? I’m skeptical of the results, but here they are:

Parisians were found to be: arrogant, aggressive, snobbish, flirtatious, chauvinistic, feel they’re superior to people who live outside of Paris, and—dig this, Lotharios who hang out on the Champs-Élysées picking up women. It didn’t mention whether or not women were guilty of picking up men.

Thank goodness, “Marianne,” a political magazine ran an editorial alongside these findings. It was quick to say Parisians are under substantially more stress than people who live in other parts of France. Many have longer commutes to their jobs, work longer hours and, if the truth be told, they tend to be unpleasant to one another.

In addition, Parisians may have tourist fatigue since the city is a major tourist destination. Among the French, people from Brittany frequent Paris more than people from other parts of the country.

In spite of the fact that I constantly defend the French, Parisians are different from residents from other parts of France. When I split my time between Paris and Provence, I was constantly irritated by how long it took me to accomplish the most mundane things. I’d go into town to buy newspapers, bread and a few other things and it would invariably be a two-hour foray when I was in the country.

Why did people want to discuss everything and anything? I’d look behind me (when I finally got to the counter) and wonder whether or not these conversations were really necessary.

If I ran into a neighbor, it was considered rude if we didn’t stop for a coffee or a pastis. If I had a drink at 11 a.m., well, so much for the rest of the day. What I had to remember was that many of our neighbors were retired and that’s precisely the reason they settled in Provence. They were doing what they loved, and bless them. But I wasn’t into planting gardens (that was my husband’s passion) and please please, let me get home so I could access my passion Bonjour Paris.

As someone who loves to travel, we all have to learn that people march to their own drummers and at different paces. No matter where you go, rhythms are different.

When I spend time in Washington, DC, my pace slows down compared to Paris. Another thing I’ve learned is that no matter where I am, taxi drivers tend to be rude. It may be because they’re tired from having to fight traffic, busy listening to the radio and invariably are carrying on phone conversations— rarely these days in a language I understand.

My question (I’m ducking) is do you find Parisian rude? If you do, how could they change their behavior to make you more comfortable? Most people (and certainly ones in the hospitality industry) speak English. What can tourists learn from Parisians?

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How I Know I’m Not French But Then…

Written by admin on March 12, 2010 – 4:33 pm -

May 1st is the twenty-second anniversary of my moving to Paris. It’s hard to believe I’ve been here so long and how many things have changed—especially me.

I’ll never be French in spite of feeling very much part of the culture and loving so many aspects of life in France. The global insights that accompany relocating to a new country are both mystifying and enlightening.

No matter how long anyone remains in a new country, no one assimilates one hundred percent even if they’re totally comfortable in their adopted home. Scratch the surface, and invariably you’ll unearth a raw nerve.

For example, strikes are irritating and will always be. Even if they’re announced (as they’re legally supposed to be) and you plan accordingly, there are times when the best made schedules will crash and burn.

How well I recall the day I spent at the Gare de Lyon not going to Provence, even though the departure board showed my train would be pulling out of the station within the next 30 minutes. Sure. Had I been smarter, I would have returned to the apartment after a couple of hours. But that would have ensured the train would leave within minutes of my climbing on the bus heading to Boulevard du Montparnasse.

During strike season, working at home has its advantages albeit isolating. There are days when I stay put with my computer—even though I know it’s important not to become a hermit. I may become lazy (or absorbed) and sometimes have to force myself to get up and go.

I’m still irritated when I can’t accomplish things during the vacations and days off that are a part of French culture. One of the things about being an American in Paris is that French holidays aren’t necessarily holidays because I’m working with people in the U.S.

Ditto for American holidays. When all of the U.S. is observing Thanksgiving, I’m invariably working or preparing a Thanksgiving dinner to be served after 8:00 p.m., when friends are available. I’ve never heard of a multi-national corporation telling its American employees to take the day off even though some U.S. expats do return home to eat turkey and the fixings with their families.

More likely, Americans wait until the Christmas holidays to make a beeline to the States. It’s well known that not a whole lot gets accomplished during Christmas and New Years even if you don’t observe them.

But wait. I’ve done nothing but cite negatives. After all these years, more of me is French than American. For example, it’s hard to see into my closet because ninety percent of my clothes are black and it feels as if I continually buy the same ones.

The moment the sun appears during the dreary months of January and February, I make a mad dash outside to soak up a few rays. After all, if nothing else, we all need vitamin D, and if you’re someone who feels better after absorbing natural light (and who doesn’t?), you can rationalize the escape is precisely what the doctor ordered.

My French self is really evident in how and when I buy clothes and housewares. If something isn’t on sale, forget it. Retail has never been my thing (yes, I miss discount stores that are in practically every U.S. shopping center) but unless I’m desperate, I never buy anything unless it’s discounted.

Food has assumed more significance since I’ve moved here. Iceberg lettuce is no longer a staple. Don’t laugh: that was one of the few fresh vegetables you could always count on finding in a U.S. supermarket more than twenty years ago. Discovering French cheeses was a revelation. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven—and will unless I eat substantially less of it because of my cholesterol count. Unlike the French who eat tiny portions, my innate reaction is (was) to pig out.

Wine is an affordable commodity. It’s easy to experiement with different ones and you don’t have to spend more than a few euros per bottle. It’s not a major budget item and I’ve developed an anti-snob attitude and rarely spend more than ten euros per bottle in the grocery store when I buy it. What’s dinner with a glass or two of red wine? It’s good for your heart and it’s my contribution to France’s wine economy.

Flowers are a must in where and how I live. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I used to buy inexpensive ones at sidewalk vendors in Washington, DC, but soon nicknamed them graveyard flowers since they always died within 24-36 hours. There are incredibly expensive florists (ergo, artists) in Paris where you can drop a bundle. But there are also chain stores where you can purchase flowers that don’t make you feel as if you’re robbing a bank. My most recent purchase was forty white roses that cost ten euros and gave me ten times the pleasure.

This may seem odd, but the French are incredible when it comes to packaging. It’s a sense of aesthetics that brings me such intense pleasure. If you purchase something and say it’s a cadeau, the vendor usually wraps it as if it’s worth a million dollars using tissue, cellophane paper, ribbons and imagination.

Yes, there are irritations when living in France and it’s not for everyone. But, it’s captured my heart and part of my soul.

(c) Karen Fawcett

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Posted in Paris |

Medically Alone in Paris

Written by admin on February 19, 2010 – 11:55 am -

It’s common knowledge that France has one of the best health care systems anywhere.  In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it the best in the world.

Knowing that and considering my late husband experienced French medical care all too frequently, why did I fall apart over having cataract surgery last week? My English-speaking internist recommended the cabinet of renowned ophthalmologists in whom she has confidence.

I was able to get an appointment nearly immediately—a good thing because waiting for medical appointments is not good for my nerves or disposition. I sailed into Docteur Caputo’s office in the 16ème near the Trocadéro.  Immediately surveying his walls, there were zero framed diplomas attesting to where he attended school, whether or not he was a real doctor, much less one who was competent to make me see clearly again.

Plopping down in his chair, my first question was, “Do you speak English?” Not missing a beat, his response (with a French accent) was, “Yes, my mother’s from New York. She and my Italian father met in the U.S. and they moved to France.”

Georges (by now, we were on a first-name basis—or I was) assured me he goes to the U.S. at least twice a year. And yes, he was qualified to operate on me—for that matter, he makes his living constantly doing surgery and has the newest ultrasound equipment.

Already, I felt better, if still scoring high on the anxiety scale. Georges explained he’d remove the lens and replace it with a new synthetic one. An Acrosof IQ lens was inserted into the “pocket.”  What a coincidence it’s made in Fort Worth, Texas. I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t been handed a patient implant identification card as I was leaving the clinic after the outpatient surgery. The nurse instructed me to always keep it in my wallet because it contains the precise information about my new eye.

It’s amazing how the French and most Europeans keep every medical document and the results of all the tests and vaccinations they’ve ever had since they were born.  It’s a complete difference between Europeans and Americans. We’re so used to our primary care doctor keeping our records that when my Paris internist asked me about a surgery I had 20 years ago, I simply couldn’t answer and it was a quasi-major operation. But Nancy, the internist of enormous patience, will simply have to guess about the results.

Another difference between French and U.S. medical care is that it’s rarely one-stop shopping unless you’re a patient at the American Hospital of Paris.  In order to prepare for the surgery, I had to go to three different offices in various sections of Paris and Neuilly-sur-Seine.   Then there were the two trips to the pharmacy for pre- and post-surgery medications.

One of the other things I learned is unless you have family, surgery when you’re overseas and alone makes you feel vulnerable. When the admissions clerk at the clinic asked for an emergency contact, I gave her the name of my son, who was snowed in and under in Washington, D.C.

If there had been a problem, what could he possibly have done except to come and collect my body? I should note this surgery was done seven days after my first meeting with Docteur Caputo and perhaps my thoughts weren’t as organized as they should have been.

Prior to the cataract surgery, I surfed the web and then some. It’s a now-routine procedure with few complications.  But there are always some oo-la-las.

Another conclusion: if you’re at all language challenged, it’s important to have a doctor who can talk to you in your native language or take a translator. It’s essential patients understand all of the ramifications.

During the 35-minute-long procedure, I wanted to know precisely what was taking place, but Georges was having none of it and had draped the surgical area.  If only he and the people who were assisting him would speak up, I would have loved to ask questions.

When I was in the recovery room for observation because I’d had local anesthesia, I started firing off what’s and why’s immediately and guess what?  Amazingly, I was asking them in French. The staff responded in English.

OK, happily this was a simple surgery. But expats in foreign countries should examine their tolerance level and whether or not they should return home if they’re ill.

Patients tend to be nervous and aren’t always listening as well as they should. Line up your friends and support system. Undergoing  these types of procedures are enough to make a calm person nervous.

The morning after the surgery, the doctor wanted to check on how the procedure had gone.  He was pleased with the results. I was a bit tired, but was reassured about my vision since it didn’t slow down my tapping away on my BlackBerry. I stuck around the apartment, but that was more because of the sub-zero Celsius weather than because I didn’t feel well.

When I went for my second check-up, it was apparent I was the only patient who was alone. After all, this wasn’t a dance where it takes two to tango. I questioned Docteur Caputo if that were always the case, to which he responded I’d have to ask the other patients.

On my way out of his office, I told Georges I was writing an article and wasn’t he curious to see what I had to say about my brush with French medicine.  It was only then he gave me his email address. French doctors don’t do that! Hey, merci Georges. First, I can see and second, I realize I can navigate the French medical system and go at it alone. Does this mean I’m a grown-up who can operate nearly anywhere?

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Posted in Paris |

Ask Karen — And People Do

Written by admin on September 16, 2009 – 7:41 pm -

E-mails to Bonjour Paris are a good barometer as to what readers are thinking and doing. No, we’re not a branch of the French Tourist Office, but, come to think of it, some days, we’d be hard pressed to deny we’re not doing some of its work.

Because we answer all e-mails (some might even accuse the B.P. staff—or me—of being compulsive), people fire off at all hours and expect an immediate response. And more than likely, they’ll receive one within twelve hours. How we wish we could be online 24 hours a day, but it simply isn’t realistic.

One thing that’s glaringly apparent is that people are going to France. Contrasted with a few years ago, frequently it’s last-minute travel. It’s almost as if people can’t stand it anymore and are being seduced by last-minute deep-discounted airfares and hotel-booking sites that are offering rooms at affordable prices.

Business travelers are coming to France now and want information about less expensive digs or where to rent an apartment if they’re staying for a week. Even though the economy is in the tank, executives appear to be realizing that occasional face-to-face contact and shaking hands is a necessity if you’re going to get a job done. Can we suggest less expensive restaurants where to take clients? Make reservations? And yes, they’re leaving for Paris tomorrow afternoon.

Examples of emails we’ve received—and these are the tip of the iceberg:

A recently married woman is coming to Paris and realizes her passport hasn’t been changed to her married name. Theresa sent an email asking, “Didn’t I think she’d be OK if she showed up at the airport with a marriage certificate and a driver’s license that have her ‘new’ name in addition to her passport.”

I shot back an “absolutely not.” She could chance it, but I’d be a nervous wreck getting in and out the US and into France. Perhaps she’d succeed, but my stomach would be tied up in knots. Theresa called the help desk at the airline and, since they’d yet to issue the ticket, they were willing to issue it in her maiden name. Whew.

Another reader sent an e-mail from a man who realized his passport would expire in three months and he’d be fine? Again, off went a reply he didn’t want to hear that included the names of a few companies that expedites visas and new passports.

During my recent travels, I’ve noticed when I’m traveling from one country to another, the person checking my ticket against my passport always looks at the expiration date. Even though this passport and visa site includes all of the information any American traveler could want and need, people don’t always want to take the time to do the research themselves. Who blames them?

Some airlines may allow you to check in online (United does for a fee—at least for U.S. citizens departing from Paris), but since I’m a French resident and my plane tickets originate in France, every time I return to France I have to show the ticket agent my Carte de Séjour, because no one is legally allowed to remain in France without a visa for more than three months. I live in fear that I might misplace that plastic card because I’d be persona non grata.

Another notable e-mail: Susan and John sent one telling me they were planning to bring their miniature Yorkie to Paris since the city is so dog friendly. That’s true. But they assumed they wouldn’t have any trouble sneaking Fidoette on the plane since she’s so tiny and never made a peep buried in Susan’ purse.

I literally called this couple to tell them that they’d better find a puppy sitter or they might be faced with having their baby confiscated while going through security in the U.S. or in France. All animals are required to have specific vaccines, tests, I.D. chips, and a clean bill of health issued by a veterinarian who’s authorized to complete an international health certificate.

On top of that, they’d need to make a reservation for their canine companion and pay between $200-$250 each way (depending on the airline) for the privilege of allowing Fidoette to come to the City of Light.

Some readers probably think I’m exaggerating. How I wish I were.

Now it’s your turn to ask questions. Please register HERE if you need a user name and password and ask away.

There’s no such thing as a (really) stupid question. It’s better to appear silly than end up in another country not knowing what to do where.

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Posted in Paris |

Kissing Off the Kissing Habit?

Written by admin on September 9, 2009 – 7:46 pm -

It’s as common as seeing a person carrying a baguette or drinking an espresso while standing at the bar of a neighborhood café, la bise.  But now, now la bise, the cheek-to-cheek pecks that the French use when saying hello or goodbye, has come under pressure as a result of the global swine flu threat.

Even though there have only been three (possible) swine-flu related deaths reported, the French Ministry of Health is alerting people they need to stop kissing. And they mean it even though it goes against the grain of French tradition.

Some are wondering how and if the French will be able to kick la bise habit—and habit it is.  Most Parisians will kiss twice, once on each check, and usually the right cheek gets served first.  I hear that overly enthusiastic students may kiss four times.  But if you kiss three times, people will ask if you’re Belgian.  This is not a compliment, though better to kiss too much than not at all, right?

As winter approaches, some French schools, companies and a hotline sponsored by the Health Ministry are advising students and employees to cut out the kissing, which is as much a ritual as a greeting. They fear that because of flu, a kiss might cause illness or in the extreme possibly death.  Which would be a high price to pay for an air-kiss on the cheek, but better to be cautious than get the flu, which causes people to run incredibly high fevers, is highly contagious and leaves people feeling as if they want to die even if the virus is a temporary affliction. Those who’ve had the flu report that every bone in their body has ached, and some say they’ve never experienced a flu that’s plowed them under as acutely.

So, the Health Ministry advises keeping a minimum of a three-foot distance from people and states that facemasks should be worn when possible. “These are recommendations, not requirements: People are free to do what they like,” said a hotline operator. The government’s main thrust is to encourage people to wash their hands frequently and use sanitary wipes and gels.  Caution is the rule of the week. Teachers are requesting that students refrain from kissing one another—which, if they’re keeping a distance of three feet would be hard to do anyway, but it might be interesting to watch them trying.

Some people are staying away from department stores and other closed places for fear of being infected. Since the swine flu vaccine won’t be available until October, many people are being extra cautious. That’s okay, but not kissing?

Besides prevention, stay home if you’re running a fever or think you might be contracting the flu.   Marie-Louise and Jean have decided to postpone putting their one-year-old into the crèche (day-care) until the flu has come and gone. It will mean one parent will need to stay at home with their daughter until they line up a caregiver.  Some parents are banding together to alternate homes where their children may stay with one parent at a time so they aren’t exposed to twenty or more children who spend their days at a local center.  That’s okay too—though you might ask how many toddlers create a critical mass of infection—but not kissing?

It will be interesting to see whether or not this is yet another blow to tourism. A French tour operator said some people have canceled their travel plans because of the swine flu epidemic—which has not reached epidemic levels in France.  All you have to do is walk through any airport and you’ll see people wearing facemasks.   Is this another avian flu that dealt the deathblow to travel in 1997? Are you postponing your plans for fear of contamination?  Let’s face it; most tourists would rather be sick at home than spending vacation time down and out in a hotel room—even if there is a view of the Eiffel Tower.

But trying to keep people from kissing, while hygienically sound, doesn’t sound very French to me.  I wonder if it will actually become the rule—and la bise will pass into history, along with the beret, the horizontally striped shirt, and the cigarettes known as Parisiennes, sold in paper packages of four really nasty smokes.  And what about shaking hands?  Everybody does that in France, constantly, sometimes even while kissing.  Can that be far behind?  And, while we’re at it, what about sex?

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Posted in Paris |

France, the world’s #1 tourist destination

Written by admin on June 8, 2009 – 5:33 pm -

Eighty million people can’t be wrong. That’s how many visited France last year. France must be doing something right. According to the French Ministry of the Economy, the country leads in attracting foreigners. Some people may simply be passing through on the way to final destinations because of France’s central European location and airlines’ use of Paris as a hub. But many people stay.

The world had its eyes on France this past weekend when many watched the 65th Anniversary of the D-Day Normandy invasion on television. They saw people gather to salute the veterans and heard U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy speak at the ceremony.  People couldn’t help but view a bit of the beauty of that area of the country and realize there’s history bonding the U.S. and France.

After the ceremony in Normandy, the Obama family spent time in Paris touring the City of Light. How exciting the sites must have been for just eight-year-old Sasha and ten-year-old Malia. They’ll have a lot to tell their friends and classmates. No child leaves the Eiffel Tower without stars in their eyes – even ones who live in the White House. Notre Dame Cathedral is always incredible as is the Seine and Paris by night.

In spite of the global economic downturn, there was only a .3 percent decrease in the number of people who came to France in 2008 than in 2007.

Thierry Baudier, CEO of the recently formed tourist entity, Atout France, and New York based Director Americas Jean-Phillipe Perol, have staged major marketing campaigns targeting Americans. The French did not condone the U.S. involvement in Iraq and some Americans feared there would be anti-American sentiments.

But  they held nothing against Americans as individuals. If an Anglophone visitor attempts to speak French in Paris, I’ll wager they will receive a response in English, especially in hotels and restaurants and service oriented businesses.

In spite of getting a bad rap, the French are incredibly gracious to Americans who are considered among the best visitors. The younger generation tends to like all things American, its movies, music and most especially Mickey Ds. France is the second largest market for the burger chain.

Tourism accounts for 6.9 percent of French GDP and is a high priority for the government. There were an estimated 45 million visitors in 2008. Between 2.5 and 3 million Americans come to France yearly and many are repeat visitors.

One explanation for so many American coming to France may be because they perceive France to be a good value, even with the strength of the euro against the dollar. Once you get out of Paris (much in the same way as in other major cities such as New York City), you can travel well and find decently priced hotels and restaurants, which serve wonderful meals, for a fraction of what you’d pay in Paris.

Another factor may be that Americans, as well as 78 million other people, love France for its food and wine. French chefs are fast to say many Americans are more knowledgeable about gastronomy than the French, who tend to take it for granted.

I’m prejudiced and appreciate so many things about France, its incredible wealth of culture and its diversity. It’s an easy country in which to travel because of high-speed trains and its highway system. The fact the entire country is only about 200,000 square miles (less than twice the size of the state of Colorado) makes France easy to tour in a finite period of time. As much as I love to travel and learn new things, not a day goes by when I am in Paris that I don’t discover something I’ve never seen before.

Do you think an increasing numbers of Americans will opt to visit France now that President Obama has embraced the country and the two presidents are making a conscious effort to work together?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Have the French Become Less Food Conscious?

Written by admin on June 6, 2009 – 11:55 am -

A newly released book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France by Michael Steinberger believes that chefs in other countries are taking center stage in the arena of cuisine. The American journalist and wine expert’s premise is that food in France is no longer what it used to be and it’s on a spiraling permanent decline. Can it be reversed before it’s too late? From personal experience, I think he may have a valid point but refuse to believe French food won’t continue to a contender for some of the best in the world.

How well I remember a trip throughout France in May 1968. It was an eating orgy where the itinerary was planned with a Michelin Red Guide in one hand and a map in the other. We drove 3,000 kilometers in the new car we’d picked up in Germany that would be shipped to the US. What we saved on the price of the car paid for our vacation. Plus we were getting 10 French francs to the dollar which was probably the best currency exchange rate-timing ever. In retrospect, rather than simply eating, why didn’t we buy property?

What an indelible impression that trip made. We drove from town to town to eat and to absorb the culture. We underestimated how long the driving would take on the two lane roads and how we would be forced to forego many of the sites that were highlighted in our green Michelin Guide. In reality, we were in France to eat and drove seven hours to eat at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant on the outskirts of Lyon. In spite of curtailing the urge to have our faces fall into our plates (and they kept coming), the meal was so memorable I still remember the menu.

It was a personal turning point when food and wine became an integral part of my life. I took cooking classes and spent hours with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Thank goodness there was a French Market in Washington, DC, where you could buy special cuts of beef, incredible produce and pay double what you’d have to in the supermarket up the street.

It used to be hard to get a bad meal in France but you can now. There’s no longer the same pride in cuisine as there was less than 25 years ago.  The glory, grandeur, starched white table clothes with food being served by waiters, who consider their work a profession and one of which to be proud, is on the wane.

Paris’s former New Yorker correspondent Adam Gopnik published an article in 1997 suggesting that French food had become “rigid, sentimental, dull and incredibly expensive.” Gopnik said, the “muse of cooking had moved on to New York, San Francisco, Sydney and London. In these cities, the restaurants exude a dynamism that was increasingly hard to find in Paris.”

In addition, the French were cooking less at home than ever before, and pre-packaged and processed food had made enormous inroads into daily life. The French still eat out a lot, but they don’t have the same type of disposable income.

In 1960, France had 200,000 cafés and now it has fewer than 40,000. Many of them were replaced by fast-food chains and McDonald’s where’s there’s high turnover and big profits. There are more than 1,000 McDonald’s and the chain has become France’s largest private-sector employer. And even though many people swore that McDonald’s would never succeed, France is the second most profitable market for it worldwide.

French vintners are also feeling the pain from increased global competition and perhaps more important, the French are currently drinking 50% of the wine they did in the 1960’s.

This isn’t to imply that you can’t get wonderful food in France. Stellar chefs such as Christian Constant trained some of the people, who have become Paris’s best chefs, when he headed to the kitchen at the Crillon Hotel, and can take credit for inaugurating a less expensive but more innovative type of cuisine found at many three-star restaurants. Sadly, some of them may have been floating on their past reputations and all of them are incredibly expensive.

Many of Constant’s disciples have gone on to create small restaurants with wonderful food but without lavish décor and ostentatious surroundings. Pascal Barbot, who struck out and opened L’Astrance was awarded a third Michelin star in 2007, when he was only 34. Barbot is the most revered of the group of young stars. And let’s hope the French government enables small restaurateurs to realize a profit during this difficult economy via taxation. 

Some feel the French have become complacent about their gastronomic heritage. I refuse to believe that and am optimistic this has been a temporary aberration plus people worldwide have become increasingly interested in good food and are more discerning than when France had a hold on gourmet cuisine.

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Posted in Around the World |