Living in Paris for Too Long?

Written by kvfawcett on December 23, 2010 – 11:26 am -

Wait, there’s no such thing as living in Paris for too long. Anyway, that’s my opinion.  Anyone who reads Bonjour Paris is aware I’ve been a champion of its positives for so many years that I feel as if the French government should be employing me. At the very least, it should give me a medal. A Légion d’Honneur would be acceptable, but I’d never be so presumptuous.

Paris isn’t perfect, but it’s always pretty good. UNESCO, suffering from too long a diet of Parisian cuisine, wants to declare French cooking a World Heritage… thing, I guess. Next, we can start looking for monumental bronzes of blanquette de veau, navarin d’agneau, and moules marinière strewn here and there around the city to reflect—or gloat at—the honor. Any city has its frustrations and annoyances, but France is filled with so many good things beyond its food that I always look at it with something like stars, or maybe they’re tears of joy, in my eyes.

I’m writing from Washington, D.C., where my family and friends gathered for Thanksgiving. As expatriates know, being with family takes on a very significant meaning the longer you’ve been away from where you were born, grew up or where your nuclear family resides.

When I moved to France in 1988 (for six months that morphed into 13 months and then…), seeing family and friends was no big deal. Invite and they would appear—and more often than one might really want when there were deep-discounted airfare wars so Americans could travel to Paris, often for less that $300 round trip, including taxes, but excluding TSA knows-all-sees-all screenings or security pat-downs.

My son would come to Paris at the drop of a hat and an issued ticket. My mother even arrived one year with a Butterball turkey defrosting in the cargo department because those were the days when it was impossible to buy a large enough bird to feed our friends for Thanksgiving dinner.

Since then, times have changed. Family members have died and dynamics have shifted. My son and his wife have two perfect daughters, and transporting this mob isn’t so easy, plus the cost isn’t insignificant. The children also have other grandparents and interests that have nothing to do with strolling around the Luxembourg Garden. Expats can either decide to miss out or take their turn to pick up and make the reverse commute, whether it’s transatlantic or simply flying across the continent.

Much to my surprise, it’s hard to avoid culture shock no matter how frequently you go from one place to the other, and this even holds true when assembling this traditional family meal where you’d feel guilty if you were to serve roast beef.

What’s the most striking when you live in France versus the U.S. is that a fresh turkey costs 89 cents per pound (if you have a grocery store loyalty card) and one trip does it all. The cranberries and all of the fixings were in the same area and I didn’t need to go to four stores to find what was needed to serve the crowd.

I certainly needed a car to get the many (too many) bags home, but come to think of it, if I’d been in Paris, the groceries could have been delivered whereas relatively few chain grocery stores offer that service unless you order online, and somehow that doesn’t feel right for such an important meal.

If you’re the type of cook I am, you have to meet the turkey (even through it’s wrapped in plastic) before making the commitment to stuff the bird and spend part of the day basting and making two different types of potatoes, corn bread, cranberry sauce—and that’s just the beginning.

Living away from the U.S. causes you to forget the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the dirigibles or are they blimps or very large blow-up dollies? The thing that has shocked me the most is the Black Friday phenomenon. I haven’t been away from the U.S. so long that I do remember the day after Thanksgiving has traditionally been the kick-off date for Christmas shopping, but it seems to have acquired a new and malign branding, as if a holiday itself. Shop or else! Line up at three in the morning! Trample the slowpokes!  Sounds a little like bayonet training.

However, having stores open at midnight is news to me. In recent years, Wal-Mart would open before dawn, but now everything is discounted and how. Winter sales in France don’t begin until January 12th, so don’t think you can get away without paying retail for gifts that are going to be delivered by St. Nicholas, Santa or an emissary. And now that people walk around with electronic devices that can surf the internet such as an iPhone, iPod, Android, Blackberry or some other claptrap, the retailers are expecting you to say you’ve located the desire of your heart for six bucks less somewhere else and they’ll meet the lower price.

Even though the developed world is becoming more homogeneous, there are simply traditions that don’t change in one place contrasted to another.  Most people would consider that a plus, but it still takes more than a bit of compromising and adapting to different styles of living.

The one constant is that if you cook a turkey either in France or in the U.S. these days, there always seem to be leftovers. But I’m still convinced that born-and-bred-in-the-USA birds are fatter. The other constant is that no matter where this meal is served, the hosts leave the table wondering how so many dishes could have been used, and if they’re lucky enough to have a dishwasher, odds are that more than one load will be required if you’ve invited a crowd.

Even though I consider myself more than flexible, will I be continually confronted and feel a boomerang effect because of cultural differences.  Or will I be able to say, here is here and there is there?

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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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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What Happened to Paris?

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:18 am -

It’s only been a day, or possibly a week, but the Paris I love has changed complexion. It’s not that I’m not still enamored with the city—it’s simply different.

Footsteps are audible in the apartment above me. Ditto for the sounds of my neighbor’s two children, who happily have reached the age that they rarely use the hallway as a non-stop racetrack as if there were gold at the end of the tunnel for the child who comes in first. Yes, you can occasionally hear their voices, which signifies they’re home from visiting their grandparents who take charge of their offspring plus their offspring in Normandy.

Mail is finally being delivered. Perhaps employees of La Poste went on vacation. More realistically, it’s that most of the residents of this building go away, so why send mail if there’s no one home to receive it? France is in many ways more “green” than the U.S. and you don’t have to fight your way through tons of junk mail to find a letter. As is the case in the U.S., bills are automatically deducted from my bank account, accounts are accessible online and it’s hard for me to recall the last time I received an honest-to-God letter. If it weren’t for invitations to some art openings, I’d toss everything without looking.

During August, parking is free where I live. Until the last couple of days, I could have parked anywhere if I had a car. Now people are forced to jockey for spaces, and beginning September 1, the meter maids will be out in full-force, writing tickets and collecting money for the city of Paris. Vivent les pervanches!

Shutters are being opened, and everybody’s cleaning house: duvets are hanging out to air, and it feels like a new morning. The apartment where I witnessed the recent raucous party is also undergoing a metamorphosis. Gone are the sex, drugs and rock and roll as well as the red curtains and the inhabitants. Perhaps they were ephemeral squatters who were taking advantage of the fact that they were not going to leave a forwarding address.

Now, there’s a painter giving the walls a coat of white. I couldn’t hightail it quickly enough to the café below to ask the owner whether or not the apartment is for rent. Perhaps I have a friend who might want it and could snag it before it goes on the market, which it will any minute if someone hasn’t already purchased the property.

I’ll know the answer tomorrow and was able to take a look at the very nice digs. In the process, I was able to get some exercise because there’s no elevator and walking up to the fourth floor (that means the fifth in the U.S.) means it would have to be a very healthy friend. Actually, I should probably move into it—my legs would be so much better for the exercise. In addition, I’d be forced to be so much more organized, because who wants to go down and up four flights because of a forgotten liter of milk?

Construction crews are back and the relative sounds of silence have gone away. Work that came to a grinding halt at the end of July is now being finished. The lobby of a building that has been in the process of being renovated forever may actually be ready.

Parisians who have the means to spend the month of August elsewhere have returned home all at once like lemmings: highways have been filled with bumper-to-bumper cars waiting their turn for their sortie that will take them into Paris.

Women are meeting, greeting and gravitating to cafés, as if they haven’t seen one another in years. It’s clear they have a lot to discuss after having been separated while on vacation. Or have they been? People seem to be having conversations while socializing but the hot thing is that everyone who’s who (and who’s not) has an iPhone, which seems to be in constant use.

This year’s fashion style for “older” women is tights and shirts that are loose flowing tops, as if they’re not quite ready to make the leap to wearing true city clothes. Feet are covered with sandals; people are hanging onto summer. Women’s faces and arms are bronzed and many of them look as if they’re waiting for an appointment with the hairdresser because they’re allowing their hair the privilege of being a tiny bit wild and naturally streaked—which is unnatural in Paris.

Last week, grocery stores were nearly empty. This week, you get the definite impression that people are stocking up after their time away. Grocery carts aren’t filled with that day’s necessities, but are brimming, and purchases are being stacked in plastic boxes that will be delivered within the following two hours—or so they tell you.

Voilà the trucks filled with cartons of groceries, water, wine and more that people have ordered online. Those sites didn’t exist until about five years ago and people using them initially might have been chastised for not caring enough to select their own items. Quite frankly, I don’t feel the need to handpick my own laundry detergent. I do choose produce and fresh fish at the local markets. And naturally, cheese, glorious cheese….

What’s most poignant about this period is that children are obviously getting ready for the school year. Parents are assiduously ensuring their charges have the right books, pencils with gradations of thickness, pens, notebooks with grids and so many other sundries.

After giving the August-September phenomena some thought, I realize my new year always began in September because that’s when we returned to school. The official January 1 new year was always symbolic of the winter-holiday vacation more than another year and a new start. Is this a universal feeling of people where the school year begins in September?  Do we ever break the feeling even if we’re no longer lugging book bags?

Perhaps we’re eternally school children at heart no matter what nationality is stamped on our passport. What do you think?  As some children say, “Good night, Moon,” perhaps we should say, “Goodbye, August.”  But, there will be another one.

(c) Paris New Media, LLC


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Summer Cheap & Free Paris

Written by kvfawcett on September 6, 2010 – 11:10 am -

Okay, you’re coming to Paris. Even if you have lots of euros, this is the time of the year when you don’t necessarily have to shell them out. Actually, it’s fun to see how few you can spend and still have a terrific time. Summertime is when the living is easier, and even though Parisian natives allegedly get up and go to the country, that’s not the case for everyone.

Buy a copy of Pariscope at any news kiosk even if you aren’t fluent in French: you’ll be able to figure it out (just in case, take a look at how to read it).  It’s published each Wednesday and lists events taking place in Paris that cost next to nothing in many cases.

To do:

Walk and walk some more. That means investing in some comfortable shoes. Please don’t wear them to a nice restaurant or you will look like a tourist.

Rent a bike.  They’re inexpensive and a Vélib’ will get you from here to there without too much trauma or drama. The first time I rode one, my heart was in the pit of my stomach.  I quickly acclimated and loved being able to go a few blocks, park the bike, stop and do whatever, then pick up another and continue to my next destination.  In order not to run up extra fees, never keep a bike more than 30 minutes. Important: do remember priority to the right is the rule of the road. If you’re a chicken (or a correctly cautious rider), a bike helmet is in order. The hell with chic and let’s hear it for safe and sound.

Eats:

Invest in a cheap tablecloth, sheet or whatever and picnic to your hearts’ delight. Sandwiches can be purchased in most grocery stores, pre-made salads and so much more. There’s always a corkscrew in my bag. Need I say more?

Do your restaurant eating at lunchtime when there are prix fixe menus that are veritable bargains.

Do you love to dance?  Head to the Seine

If so, you’ll be in heaven as you join the throngs of people on the quai Saint-Bernard and practice your tango, salsa, rock & roll (or whatever). Don’t feel you have to come as a couple. There are lots of singles and who knows, you may meet your true love—well, at least for the evening. The dancing caters to all levels of experts. Expect to encounter some stars who will steal the show. Don’t be intimidated. More than few participants have two left feet.

If you’re a concert-goer, check out musical performances that take place throughout the city when the weather is nice.  Every weekend (and frequently during the week) you can hear music free at a park’s gazebo. My favorites take place in the Luxembourg Gardens because it’s a minute from my apartment. But there are parks all over Paris.

Some performances are definitely better than others, but hey, even you can get in the spirit while listening to a school’s marching band.  It may not be Mozart or a noted string quartet, but those performances take place as well.

Paris’s City Hall has listed many events taking place this summer. There are outdoor movies, film and jazz festivals, classical music performances, art festivals and of course, there’s the Paris Plage.  Even if you didn’t anticipate coming to Paris to survey a man-made beach, it’s worth doing.  It may not be St-Tropez but you’ll see people at their best and at their worse—and watching the children frolic is always a pleasure.  I won’t mention all of the lovers…

During the summer, free readings (please buy a book and don’t bring your copy from Amazon expecting the author to sign it) at bookstores appear to slow down. Some are taking place at Shakespeare & Co. Pick up a copy of FUSAC (it’s a magazine, filled with ads and more); it will have announcements about what’s taking place in Paris.

Don’t miss the concerts at Radio France.  They may cost a few euros but some of the performances are spectacular and the auditoriums are air-conditioned.

Duck into churches even if you’re not looking for religion and/or inspiration. Architecture is free and some stained glass windows can take anyone’s breath away. Plus, you may find that someone’s rehearsing on the church’s organ.

Every Sunday at noon, there is music and dancing at the bottom of rue Mouffetard; free, fun and fabulous.

When you’re scanning one of the magazines, you may see plays announced where the public is invited for free. Again, the performers appreciate if you drop something (called cash) in the hat at the end of the evening.

Tour the city using only one metro/bus ticket. The #29 bus begins at the historic Gare St-Lazare, glides by the Place des Vosges, the Opéra Garnier and ends at the Bastille Opera. You might not have someone telling you in one of five languages precisely what you’re seeing but what do you expect for less than $2?

Bonjour Paris readers already know which Paris museums are free and there’s no charge for looking at the Eiffel Tower.

I’ve listed just some cheap or free events. I’m too busy sitting at a café watching the world go by which, in my mind, is some of the best theater in the world.

These are tips for Paris, but in reality, most big cities in the US and the E.U., stage summer festivals.  All it takes is some research.

If you can add any and all things I’ve missed, and there are tons, please do.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Tourist Hell

Written by kvfawcett on July 20, 2010 – 5:39 pm -

We’re okay, you and I, because we know better, right? We know—and we care—so we don’t stick out like sore-thumbs, like… well, tourists. But here are plenty who don’t know, don’t care, and frankly don’t give a damn, and probably (I hate to say it) wouldn’t know how to dress for the situation or the occasion. After all, what’s wrong with wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flip-flops in a big city? Throw a camera around your neck, don’t forget the backpack, be sure to wear a baseball hat and, yes, you’ll be noticed.

Some feel they’re entitled to wear whatever they want. In reality, the only people who can actually sport these get-ups are born and raised natives or residents—and even they shouldn’t be surprised if people look at them a wee bit askance. If it’s someone you actually know, do you cross the street? Tourist by contamination or guilt by association? Nah, that’s a bit extreme. But, look, there is something really interesting on the other side of the street.

You’ll usually hear them before you’ll see them. Tourists tend to be louder (especially those in groups) when they’re in other countries. This is especially true of Americans. But no nationality is exempt. Perhaps it’s because they’re convinced no one understands them and if they speak at a higher decibel level, they’ll make themselves clear(er)? Works for me.

I’ll never forget the time I was in Notre-Dame in Paris and we were bowled over by a group of Italian tourists. My (now-deceased) native-born Italian husband was able to identify not only the language, but also what city they came from. To make matters worse, he insisted on telling me precisely in which neighborhood they inhabited in the Papal City. I had come to look at the magnificent architecture and gain some inspiration—no such luck. No one could possibly hear himself or herself think because of the incredible commotion.

Then Victor began speaking Italian and I quickly realized we were sinking and would soon be sunk. Within minutes, a group surrounded him, all asking questions at lightening fast speed while simultaneously waving their hands. The memory of groups of tourists going through museums, ruins and everywhere else ricocheted through my mind.

There’s nothing wrong with tour groups. It’s just that I didn’t anticipate we’d be leading one—and in a language in which I was not exactly proficient. The idea that one romance language is the same as another is nonsense and if you speak one, you can kinda navigate in another is wrong.

I don’t care if the root is Latin, which I took in high school, but I can’t say I aced the class. Far from it, and my linguist skills are severely lacking. I must confess I split, but not before going to a souvenir store on the quai where I was able to score a small Italian flag to help identify the instant and self-appointed guide.

If you live in Paris, or in any city that’s a tourist magnet, you’re going to encounter people from foreign countries. It’s up to you to decide how you’re going to cope with them. Are you going to stop and give them directions, take them to their destination, draw a map on a napkin and hope it doesn’t tear… or pretend you don’t speak the language?

The perception that the French are rude is not embraced by all of our readers, which stands to reason since our community consists of Francophiles—and a few francomanes—from all over the world.

But people do contract tourist fatigue, and it’s not just natives. When I first arrived in Paris (and actually began to get my geographic bearings and might even be able to give people directions that were on the mark), I’d speak to anyone and everyone who was muttering in English, looking at a map, and offer my services. It dawned on me that I was so eager to speak English that I was delighted to help. It was the least I could do and as a self-proclaimed representative of the French Government tourist office, I felt a responsibility.

Twenty-two years later, I must admit I’m no longer always as charitable. If I’m in a rush or late for a meeting, I’ll smile and say I don’t speak English or aren’t from the quartier(neighborhood), which is standard operating procedure, especially in Paris. It’s better for someone to admit to not knowing the area than sending you in the opposite direction hither and yon. Good manners would preclude me from asking for their identity papers or following them home to find out they live around the corner. Besides, it’s none of my business, merci.

I try not to be hard-nosed because I so vividly recall my days of being lost in the City of Light. And to be honest, if I’m not in my immediate neighborhood or one that I frequent often, you’ll find me peering at a map or plan de Paris. I am contemplating activating the GPS function on my cell phone, but that feels as if I’m giving in and why isn’t it free?

When people do ask for directions, I’m ever so thrilled when Anglophones ask them in French and then compliment me on my excellent English when I respond. I always debate whether or not I should admit to being an American in Paris.

What do you do if you live in a tourist Mecca no matter where it is? Do you accord strangers (and lost souls) acts of kindness? Or do you run in the other direction? Do you give them wardrobe advice? Or tell them it is illegal to photograph the Eiffel Tower? Or just cross the street? When all is said and done, it’s a question of etiquette. Non?


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Some People May Think the French Are Rude But…

Written by kvfawcett on June 10, 2010 – 11:53 am -

Some people may think the French are rude. But they certainly aren’t Bonjour Paris readers. Nor did the readers of last week’s article here and in the blogosphere of social networking. There’s no way everyone can be a Francophile.

Our email box looked as if we were offering a free trip to Paris that included two first class air tickets, ten days at the The Marriott on the Champs Elysees and breakfast, lunch and dinner at two- and three-star-rated Michelin restaurants.

Each comment was read and re-read. To be honest, they supply inspiration and serve as an incentive for all of our contributors. We’re conveying the message that the French aren’t rude. Or if they are, it’s a lapse and the exception rather than the norm.

Frequently repeated comments:

It makes an enormous difference if visitors attempt to speak some French—even if their accents are terrible. No one should assume the French speak English, but you should be able to say Bonjour, merci and s’il vous plaît.

If you treat people with courtesy, they’ll respond in the same way. Don’t think if you raise your voice, the French will be charmed. They won’t be and you’ll have a harder time dealing with them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Visitors should have the courtesy of familiarizing themselves with the cultural differences between their native country and France. Don’t expect things to be identical to what you experience at home. If that’s what you’re looking for, don’t bother making the trip.

Gwyn Ganjeau said, “I think many Americans go to France and expect the French to be the same as us—but with an accent. But there are significant cultural differences. Reading about those before my first trip was like receiving the secret code. I learned there were so many ways I could have inadvertently been considered a stereotypical ‘rude American.’”

Another person commented that as a former New York City resident, she’s found Parisians not to be any different from other big-city residents.

Some observations:

Amy Gruber commented, “I think Parisians are delightful. Let me give you one of example from my six-week-long stay in Paris last year when I didn’t meet one rude Parisian. One morning, I was waiting outside of a shop, which was late opening. A woman arrived and we began talking. The owner’s phone number was written on the door and the woman phoned her to let her know clients were waiting.

“Then, she asked me what I was looking for. When I told her what it was, she said she had seen something similar at a nearby store. She couldn’t remember its name and asked me to wait a few minutes. Ten minutes later, she returned with the card. Did she have to do that? Not at all.”

William Cover posted that they’d rented an apartment near the rue Montorgueil. Each time they would purchase something from the merchants, they attempted to speak a bit more French. “A small gift of a rose or flowering plant was also a big hit with our favorite vendors. A young girl sales clerk at Stohrer’s, with whom we became friends, spoke some English. She appreciated our trying to speak French. If we passed by, she would say ‘Coucou!’ and wave. When it was time to leave she used her fingers to signify tears going down her cheeks. That was followed by a big hug. We exchanged email addresses and she always writes, ‘Miss you! Kiss Kiss!’”

There were so many additional comments, many having to do with political differences, the Americanization (rather than globalization) of France and other perceptions as well as misconceptions. The reality is that people everywhere have the right to, and do, disagree.  I so wish people would travel more so they could experience people on their home territory and acquire first-hand knowledge of different customs.

Bonjour Paris’s Margaret Kemp, who writes each week for the site, said she believes as most food lovers do, that many of the world’s ills could be solved by sharing a meal together, adding that “French cuisine is alive and well and showcased in every corner of the globe.” Perhaps food could be the common denominator.

There were so many thought-provoking comments….  to be continued


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

(Photo: Primetravels.com)


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Tipping while traveling — more questions than answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.


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Eating out — what are your expectations?

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

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

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

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

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

Service irritations:

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

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

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

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decaf coffee

Tea – there should be a selection from which to choose

Juices – and could the orange juice be fresh please

Fresh fruit and yogurts

A selection of hot and cold cereals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris


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