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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Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll in the Summer

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:17 am -

Good, I hope that got your attention. It’s not that the French avoid sex, drugs and loud music for eleven months of the year. But they are more discreet about when and where and how. When August comes, people remaining in Paris assume they’re just about the only ones left, only tourists are walking the streets, and no one is looking out of windows—a Parisian pastime. Clearly, that’s not the case, and if you’re the least bit aware, you may see things that weren’t intended for public viewing. Or you might not see when the weather’s in the single digits Celsius. But August is warm.

If someone lives in an old Parisian building, most windows require curtains that are three meters in length and can set you back a pretty centime. Since the majority of these apartments don’t have air-conditioning, people leave their windows open to let in the air and let the noise out. If you live on a street that’s narrow or looks out over a small courtyard well you may be privy to activities for which you didn’t buy a ticket.

Though all those churches make France look like a Catholic country, relatively few people attend Mass or go to confession. Many (especially middle-aged and younger) French residents appear to have been born without the deep-seated modesty genes good Catholics were supposed to have. Seeing someone in his or her underwear is no big deal. Watching a person (hopefully the occupant) clean the apartment wearing next to nothing isn’t unusual in the summer. Perhaps it’s because it tends to be hot or maybe it makes sense since it cuts down on washing clothes that get dirty during the process. Whatever…

I’ve seen people cooking in their über-chic designer kitchens, eating dinner, sitting in their living rooms drinking wine, having conversations that look heated, putting babies to bed and making love. Come to think of it, I’ve seen relatively few people watch television—even though I know full well they do.

During summer months, I’ve spotted my homosexual neighbors across two courtyards make love as if they’re dancing and want an audience. Oh, to be that limber! Rather than yelling bravo, I close my blinds or exit the kitchen. There are some things that are none of my business; what a consenting couple does between is their business (please), and my fantasies just don’t work that way.

As for drugs, the teens (and older folks) who remain in Paris appear to feel no one’s looking and they can smoke marijuana or do a little coke (not cola) with impunity and immunity. The other night (rather morning) I decided to sit on the balcony at 4 a.m. and witnessed a party in full swing. Being of the live-and-let-live frame of mind (that does not apply to my son and his offspring), I figured what they ingested was their business, wasn’t doing any harm to my central nervous system, and wasn’t going to get my apartment raided.

But I was highly offended by the rock and roll emanating from the apartment. How dare it rupture my silence? I took my trusty whistle and blew it with all my strength. I didn’t want to yell la ferme! since I knew they’d know it was l’américaine who was putting a damper on their party and their fun. Then I began to wonder whether or not I was the only person left on the block or if everyone was so sound asleep they were oblivious to the music that was blasting loud enough to entertain people on the Right Bank… I’m on the Left.

There’s also another August phenomenon. When you think about it, it makes sense. People vacate apartments. It’s as if it’s the end of an old and the beginning of a new school year. Parents are undoubtedly getting situated so their children are settled when the semester begins.

Still, it’s a quiet month because when the French move, they move efficiently and quickly. The truck, complete with scaffolding that goes up and down mechanically, is parked in front of the building and boxes are loaded and unloaded in a fraction of the time it takes in the U.S.

Even though the French don’t move anywhere near as frequently as Americans, there’s been a fair amount of turnover on my street. This is good and bad since it undoubtedly signifies the neighborhood’s value is increasing as apartments are virtually dismantled and reconstructed. It also means the street can be blocked while the movers are at work. Some of the apartments, which had permanently closed curtains or shutters, can now be seen, leaving me to wonder if they had been vacant or inhabited by moles.

Invariably when a property is sold there will be increased noise for a while because the French are now into major renovations. We all know that can take forever and generate a lot of dust and forget about quiet. Anyone who’s lived through a property being gutted down to the studs, rebuilt, etc., knows it isn’t a silent process. I’m fully aware I’d better find another place to work when floors are being sanded, because I feel as if I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair with him drilling my teeth.

Happily, most workmen take the month of August off or concentrate on renovating commercial properties. That’s when they’re most in demand, can charge premium prices and have a finite period to gut and reconstruct before the rentrée and “new” establishments doors open.

By the last week in August, the world eases back to normal. Bakeries reopen. Restaurants spring to life. Invariably there are some new stores and prices have edged up just a tiny bit—as if people wouldn’t notice because they’ve been away. If nothing else, you can count on that. And of course, there are sex, drugs and rock and roll. They’re simply less visible because more people may be watching.

(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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Culture Shock of a Food Junkie

Written by kvfawcett on June 25, 2010 – 1:12 pm -

Some people gauge a country by its museums and monuments. Others gravitate to a place because of sand and surf. Many head to destinations based on what they can buy and bring home. None of these reasons is right or wrong. People travel for their own reasons—and that’s their business, not mine.

But no matter where I go—and I’m always ready to go anywhere, even to places where I can’t get a visa—there are always some must-sees after the usual major tourist attractions. You don’t come to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower any more than you go to Siem Reap in Cambodia and not visit Angkor Wat: granted, we know that.

After Notre Dame or the Luxembourg Garden, my list also includes places where people shop for food. Street market or supermarket, it’s all the same to me because we can learn a lot about a culture from the food people eat when they’re at home—in other words, the food for sale in the markets. The prices of groceries, from staples to produce to meat, can give some idea of the general condition of a country’s economy and a rough notion of how large a proportion of household income the locals are willing (or forced) to pay to feed themselves.

Perhaps my fascination (obsession?) with grocery stores began when I moved to Paris and didn’t speak French beyond bonjour, s’il vous plaît and merci. I was intimidated by the open markets where, if I touched a tomato, the vendor might slap my hand loudly saying, N’y touchez pas. I’d slink off and wonder if my cooking days were over and what were those cuts of beef and why did the chickens still have their heads on and no, I didn’t want it, merci.

I found solace in the Monoprix, where I could read the labels, take my time because there wasn’t someone else standing behind me and what do you mean, you have to bring your own bags and pack your purchases? I spent hours in that store on the Rue de Rivoli across from our apartment on the Place des Vosges. And I learned enough to grow confident in taking on the real markets.

This is true everywhere. You have to get used to the way food is displayed, priced, and used. Those elements after all are cultural, not universal. For example, Australian supermarkets are expensive even when buying local products such as fruit and cheese. I was surprised by the high cost of Australian beef. The wine is good, but (OK, I’m prejudiced) wines of comparable quality can be purchased for less in France.

Now, in Asia, I modify my list unless I’m in a grocery store that caters to foreigners. It’s not hard to identify them since they stock many items few locals would consider buying, and the stores generally have bigger grocery carts. There will be boxes of cereals and few Asians begin their days by eating Wheaties (“the breakfast of champions”) for their get up and go.

Rice is cheap according to Western standards. Not too many foreigners are searching for tiny portions of dried shrimp and other weird-looking items. If you crave peanut butter, chances are it’s going to set you back more than you want to pay unless you can’t do without a fix. Forget wine and opt for beer.

Obviously, no matter where I travel, I compare products with what I’m used to finding in France. But then, consciously or not, I inevitably compare shopping in France to shopping in the States. Parisian markets are for the most part much smaller than American grocery stores. If you want to go to a huge one, you’ll have to go to the suburbs to stock up, but without a car getting your purchases home presents a problem.

The good news is that Internet shopping has come to France, and local markets deliver. About once a month, I’ll order all the heavy stuff that I don’t have to look at—like bottled water, cleaning products, and wine. I know what they are—and let someone else lug them. I’d rather confine my daily shopping to produce, meat, fish, and my caloric downfall—cheese, glorious cheese. And then there’s the mainstay of life, bread. There’s nothing as good as a baguette that’s just come out of the oven, and please let me confine my croissant intake to a maximum of one a day.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I shopped at the same grocery store. Occasionally, I’d stray to the French Market but invariably was horrified by what I’d need to shell over at the check-out counter. The Georgetown Safeway (a.k.a. The Social Safeway) was the store of convenience and choice. When Washington was a village, I had to allow extra time to say hello to neighbors, friends, and parents from the school my son attended.

After being closed for a year, the former building has been replaced with a 71,067 square-foot one that’s state of the art everything and is “the greenest supermarket in the District of Columbia.” It has been built and will be maintained according to LEED Standards. There are even especially assigned parking places for cars that are fuel efficient like hybrids and electric cars. This is the ultimate in going green. And yes, you’re expected to bring your own bags—if not, each plastic bag costs five cents.

Who’d ever guess I’d experience total and absolute culture shock surrounded by produce, every type of food product and thousands of bottles of wine? And this wasn’t in an exotic destination where you’re not quite certain of what’s precisely being sold.

On May 6th the new Safeway had the grand opening the area’s residents were eagerly awaiting. People entered the store totally wide-eyed to be greeted by so many employees asking if they could help you, did you find everything and passing out samples. When I asked where the ladies room was, someone walked me to it and opened the door. I was fully expecting for them to enter the room with me and… never mind.

A guest from the U.K. accompanied me on one of my visits and was clearly overwhelmed by the size of the store and its vast selection. Choosing a cereal was enough to send him into a cold sweat. And what’s this about having a sommelier and a temperature-controlled wine room selling vintages that cost in excess of $100 per bottle.

Yes, this is an over-the-top store. Even the selection of flowers made me stop. When I ended up at the cheese counter that has an enormous selection, I was so happy until I looked at the prices, swallowed hard and put them down. There was no way I was going to pay that amount of money for a pasteurized Brie and will wait until I’m home in Paris.

I had a revelation. People who work in French supermarkets will never kill you with kindness. I suspect when the Georgetown Safeway is running smoothly, many of the company’s senior management will disappear and shoppers will be left to their own devices.

But, the food items I want—bread, cheese, wine and produce—cost substantially less in France. And who cares if I can’t choose from 22 brands of toilet paper. I’d rather buy cheese,merci, not to mention truffle salt.

No matter where I go, I take myself. And within my inner core, there’s an indelibly etched part of France, and certainly its food that will be with me until the day I die. C’est normal. You can’t live somewhere for 22 years and not be impacted by its culture.


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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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Heaven in Hanoi at the Sofitel Metropole

Written by admin on November 28, 2009 – 3:24 pm -

The The Metropole has always been the place to stay in Hanoi. Legends of the rich and famous, as well royalty, have made it their home. Located in the heart of Hanoi, it’s near the city’s Old Quarter. The hotel opened in 1901, although if the research is correct, the Colonial building was constructed a minimum of twenty years before.

There are many special hotels in the world but the Sofitel Metropole has a unique quality. It was designated the  the Sofitel Group’s first Legend hotel in July 2009. After a four-year-long massive renovation, the hotel now offers another level of service, coupled with every amenity guests could want. Yes, there are flat screen TVs and other electronic gadgets that yell, “up-to-date” but don’t detract from the hotel’s charm and elegance.

Each time I’ve tried to snag a reservation at the Metropole, forget it. Either the hotel was full or the rooms were so expensive, they were way out of my budget. I’d lunch at Spices and enjoy its wonderful buffet where more than 60 percent of the diners are locals — so you know the chefs are doing something right.

Or, I’d sit in the outside bar and have a drink and try not to have the look or word “jealous” streaking across my forehead.  “Thou shalt not covet” would echo in my consciousness as I watched the hotel’s residents relaxing by the pool. Before the spa opened, staff members were offering foot massages to help people digest their tea or one of the bar’s signature drinks.

This time, I hit it lucky. Suzy Gershman (of “Born To Shop” fame) and her editorial partner Sarah, and I  were able to score a super super deluxe room for approximately $350 per night. Yes, we’d be cozy in the 55-square-meter space. But we’d be privy to a private butler,  breakfast, tea, cocktails plus 24-hour-a lounge access with free computer access, WiFi and would we like a soda? I calculated that what we’d save by not having to buy breakfast, a glass of wine accompanied by extensive hors d’oeuvres (OK, we ate so many, they were dinner) would compensate for the room costing so much.

There are  perfectly decent hotel rooms for around $50 a night in Hanoi. But we wouldn’t have been treated as if we were royalty. Nor would we have had an elegant digs with a sybaritic bathroom overflowing with Hermes amenities. It felt like an incredible treat after running from dawn to dusk in a city where there’s non-stop noise, not to mention, traffic. The Metropole is an oasis in the middle of a frantic city.

Suzy and Sarah had stayed in the classic Metropole, but had yet to stay in the new Opera section, a building that was acquired approximately six years ago. Its decor is Colonial/modern/chic and the bathrooms have a deep bathtub plus a separate glass enclosed shower with a rain-fall shower head. The pillow menu is actually a small box with samples so guests could sleep on their favorite type.

The Metropole Spa is a part of the hotel’s upgrade. For those who crave relaxation, this is an ideal place. Massages and more are considerably less expensive in town — but you’re not pampered in such an elegant environment. Clients are given the option of selecting their own music (or for that matter, bringing it) and then returning to their rooms to nap.

Unhappily, there was too much to do and see, so I opted to sit in the spa’s lobby, drink a cup of tea and admire its collection of blue and white porcelains.

The hotel reminds me of Raffles in Singapore but has surpassed it.  There’s practically an unlimited selection of elegant hotels in the world. But, many are beginning to have a quasi cookie cutter look and feel. Don’t get me wrong, I could easily live in one. However, it’s a pleasure not to have to go up 22 floors, get lost in a hallway finding the door plus being greeted by a smiling staff member, who actually remembers your name and appears to care.

We were lucky enough to meet with the hotel’s general manager, Kai Speth, who joined Sofitel to complete the complicated renovations and spearhead the re-branding of the hotel to compete with Starwood’s Luxury Collection. We discussed some of the challenges of repositioning a hotel. For example, since the expansion, he doesn’t want to be dependent exclusively on leisure or business travelers. “It was one thing when the hotel was smaller. But, with the expansion, there are now 364 rooms and suites.” Speth explained. The GM also confided that the next Sofitel Hotels that will be labeled Legend are the Winter Palace in Luxor, Egypt, The Grand in Amsterdam and The Santa Clara in Cartagena, Colombia. Each property is unique.

If you’re a chocolate lover, don’t miss the afternoon chocolate tea that costs $15 and could cause anyone to go into sugar shock. There’s no such thing as too much chocolate for me and I tried to use restraint; not because I am disciplined, but because I was going to have a fitting for the suit I was having custom made at Cu Thanh on Hang Gai Street. Happily, it fit. But if I’d had one more dark chocolate truffle, I would have been asking for disaster.

During the tea, I had the pleasure of meeting the hotel’s main chef, André Bosia, who arrived at the Metropole less than two years ago. André assured me that all of the breads and pastries are made on the premises. In addition to a number of elegant boutiques in the hotel, there’s also a bakery that sells incredible edibles. One of the legacies left by the French from the days when Vietnam was one of its Colonies, was the appreciation of pastries and first-rate breads.

Both André Bosia and Kai Speth were pleased over the hotel’s new restaurant, Angelina, an Italian Steak House. Its bar has live entertainment most nights and the hotel goes all out to attract local residents and does an excellent job.

Le Beaulieu, the hotel’s anchor restaurant, offers first-rate French cuisine. It’s a meeting place for the city’s chic and with-it group (or those who love excellent food) at Sunday brunch; reservations are necessary.

Leaving the Metropole came all too soon for those who love Hanoi. We really hadn’t made sufficient use of “our” butler until we had a 4 a.m. wake-up call so we could make our 7 a.m. flight to Ho Chi Minh City. I was expecting to brew some coffee in the pot that was in the room and call it a day. Instead, we were awakened by Van, who was carrying a tray overflowing with hot coffee with hot milk, glasses of fresh orange juice and an enormous basket of rolls, croissants and fresh pastries.

Many people consider that a resort hotel should be in the country or overlooking water. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d like to return to the Sofitel Metropole and pretend it’s a resort that happens to be in one of my favorites city in Southeast Asia. That way, I walk or hop on a pedicab or moto and head into the city when I crave some excitement. The trip takes less than five minutes.

For that matter, I may have to return next year for the 1000th Anniversary of Hanoi. The government just devalued its currency (the dong) by approximately 5%.  That won’t make much of a mark for tourists since hotel rates are generally priced in U.S. dollars.  But, every penny helps.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.


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Hanoi adventures in Vietnam

Written by admin on November 18, 2009 – 4:18 pm -

If you’re someone who craves peace and  quiet, don’t book a trip to Hanoi or Saigon, rather Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). But they happen to be cities that have captured my heart. If forced to choose between the two, I’d head north to Hanoi, the country’s capital. Rise and shine and see the city awaken. Hit the streets after dark when it takes on an almost mystical feeling. Don’t miss Hanoi’s night market when the city comes alive.

Since my last trip to Hanoi two years ago, I immediately sensed the considerable economic growth that has taken place. An American photographer whom I encountered, commented the city has matured to the point that it’s lost some of its charm. Her definition of charm was no longer being able to bargain for items to the point it felt as if purchases cost nothing. Previously,  visitors had been able to return home with silk goods and clothes, lacquer work, pottery and so much more, without making a dent in a modest budget.

Some of my favorite family owned stores have been replaced by chic boutiques, where the personnel aren’t interested in discussing prices.  They know what they’re selling and aren’t desperate to dump inventory. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bargains and there may be some give and take.  You can certainly buy cheap tee-shirts that say Vietnam or “same same.”

Rather than the road from the airport into the city being inhabited cattle grazing the land, much of it covered by low banana trees, manufacturing plants are far more visible. Fewer people sit by the side of the road looking as if they have nothing else to do but beg. This isn’t to imply there isn’t tin and cardboard housing; but it’s far less visible. The cars are newer and cleaner and high-rise housing is more prevalent. A middle class is growning.

There are a lot of choices when it comes to transportation. Wear your most comfortable shoes and walk as long and as far as possible.  Some of Hanoi’s greatest treasures are found down back alleys; this is definitely a place where you want to get lost. Locals warn you to be careful with your possessions because they’re protective of visitors.   As everywhere, there are bad guys who’ll grab and run if it’s easy. Violent crimes targeting tourists are rare, which doesn’t mean purses or backpacks should be filled with valuables. I always leave my passport at the hotel and carry a photocopy of key pages.

A green light at a crosswalk doesn’t mean go. As a matter of fact, it seems to mean the reverse. If you can’t wear blinders and stride right along, you may be standing at the same corner after your flight has departed. People assume scooter drivers will swerve to miss pedestrians. Come to think of it, in spite of the chaos, I didn’t spot an accident, which is amazing considering many drivers might be considered mad with nerves of steel, and take no prisoners mentalities.

Men and women race through the cities on scooters. Most drivers wear masks to avoid pollution and helmets are mandatory. Families share scooters and pregnant women sit side saddle. Being a type-A person, my preferred way of getting from point A to point B was to hail one and join the crowd. The chauffeur always made certain I wore a helmet and I religiously forked over $1.00. It was more than a fair exchange. Ironically, I was sometimes taken the scenic route. Was I being ripped off? Not at all. I suspect the driver was showing his friends an older Caucasian woman was his charge.

There’s a thriving industry of pedicabs. Some drivers pride themselves on being tour guides and are delighted to be hired by the hour. Settle on the price before climbing in since fares are highly negotiable. The drivers, always men, have zero need to see the inside of a gym. They love to take tourists on tours of Hanoi, a city that’s composed of narrow streets. The vendors on specific streets  generally sell the same products. Passengers take photos of other tourists. It’s rare you’ll see a local riding in one of the pedicabs.

During rush hour, taxis may not be the fastest mode of transportation. But they’re clean and air-conditioned. That’s worth a lot if you’ve been out shopping (or whatever) and the thermometer is hovering near the 100 degree F mark.

If you are addicted to pottery and are up for a short excursion outside of Hanoi, head to Bat Trang, the world’s brick center and the country’s pottery and ceramics center. It’s a tiny village, complete with a tourist ox cart and heaps of dishes. You can walk the entire village in less than an hour. But it might difficult to tote your purchases. I scored six very small bowls and forked over $3. The price was established using a calculator with the shop’s owner taping one price and my entering another. If you’re tempted to go crazy and buy larger items, some stores offer shipping. I’ve always been hesitant because I’m certain the cost would negate the savings and will the pottery arrive whole and not in slivers?

Stay away from Vietnam if you can’t tolerate smoking. Asians still like their cigarettes and tobacco companies are betting they’re not going to give up their addiction soon. Non-smoking hotel rooms are available. But you know how smoke rises. Most restaurants have non-smoking sections but bars don’t. Go with the fumes or you’ll end up missing a lot.

Vietnamese food is wonderful. It can be spicy (meaning hot) or well seasoned. Its cuisine is healthy, well presented and you can eat well for next to nothing. How many nems can one person eat? Don’t miss ordering pho, a chicken soup that comes with noodles and you can add a variety of edibles from beef, chicken, vegetables and don’t forget the condiments.

During this trip (that was nowhere nearly long enough) we landed in HCMC, flew to Hanoi and back on Vietnam Airlines. If you’re flying within that part of Asia, you are not subjected to security, forced to have every item X-rayed, take your computer out of the bag and strip to the essentials. Vietnam’s and other Asian transportation officials feel  scanning isn’t effective. Your bags may be checked by hand, even though I can’t imagine anyone being able to see what’s in my purse that’s stuffed beyond stuffed.

If only we’d remember to reserve on line via Air Asia, we could have gotten a lot more bang for the buck. There’s so much more to write about Vietnam. And I will.

One thing that amazes me is that even though 58,000 US troops were killed during the war, more than a million Vietnamese, the majority of whom were civilians and happened to be in the line of fire, lost their lives. You’d think Americans would be disliked. They’re not.

Perhaps the Vietnamese perceive Americans as being anxiety ridden.  A friend asked a pharmacist for some sleeping pills to counter her extreme case of jet-lag and was offered Zoloft. Yes, Dr. Freud.

I’m already planning my next trip to Vietnam. It’s a country that holds endless personal fascination. But, next time, I’ll stay considerably longer.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.


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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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Paris retail sales start January 7th for six weeks of bargains

Written by admin on December 29, 2008 – 12:28 pm -

Admittedly, the economy is terrible and many people are worried about finances. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone should stop traveling. They simply need to know how to travel smarter because now, for anyone that happens to have some extra cash, it may be time to head to the City of Light for shopping and more.

Airlines want to fill their planes and they’re having a hard time doing that these days. Surf the Internet. There are lots of deeply discounted fares, especially if travelers are able to be somewhat flexible with dates. Ditto for hotels. There are many websites offering last minute and discounted prices.

If you need an excuse to visit Paris, shopping when bargains are real and plentiful is as good as any. The winter retail sales in Paris officially begin on January 7, 2009, and continue for six weeks. Stores discount their stock by up to 70%. If travelers are leaving the EU, they’re entitled to a tax rebate (up to 15%) if they spend a minimum of €175 in the same store on one day. Gone, unfortunately, are the days when visiting shoppers could accumulate receipts during a week and qualify for the sum total of the tax rebate.

The French are gunning for the shopping tourist trade and have launched a website Shopping Paris that tells visitors what’s hot and happening during the sales.

Parisians by nature love shopping. Paris has 17,500 shops (many aren’t much larger than a postage stamp). That’s 29 stores per 1,000 inhabitants. Once travelers are shopped out, dine at one of approximately 10,000 restaurants to refresh the body, take in a show at one of the 145 theaters to refresh the soul and visit one of the city’s renowned museums.

It doesn’t take much other than comfortable shoes to walk the streets and get some inspiration. Be sure to bring appropriate clothes. Even though it rarely snows (or if it does, it doesn’t stick), a knit hat, scarf, gloves and boots will undoubtedly come in handy.

Here are five new shopping itineraries targeted at individual’s different styles of dressing. Be sure to buy a Plan de Paris (a small book that you can carry with you that notes every street). Another option is using the GPS function if you’re carrying a Blackberry or an iPhone. Check with your provider before leaving the U.S. about activating it and the costs you’ll incur.

Clothes glorious clothes:

Classic: Looking for timeless elegance? Head to these areas: Montaigne, Champs-Élysées, Place Vendôme and Palais Royal.

Trendy and cutting edge: Le Marais, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Haussman, Étienne Marcel, and Les Halles. Les Halles is a good bet for anyone on a limited budget.

Bobo-chic (or the charm of arty intellectual Paris): Sèvres-Babylone, Odéon, Charonne, and Canal Saint-Martin.

Creative and young designers: Try Bir Hakeim, Abbesses, Marché Saint-Honoré, and Saint-Paul.

Fusion Fashion World or cultural melting pots: head to Belleville, La Villette, Olympiades, Ledru-Rolli, and Opéra.

Don’t overlook outdoor markets. Even though many of them concentrate on selling food, there are usually plenty of clothing vendors. I’ve bought some terrific wearables for a fraction of the cost I’d have to pay in a store.

Even if a browser ends up buying nothing, walking these neighborhoods will teach a great deal about the city and its people. The shopper’s view of Paris after diving into the Paris-on-sale world will be far different from those people who take a city tour or a cruise on the Seine.

Visitors forget how small the city is. In its entirety, Paris is only 41 square-miles and the Métro and the buses will move millions quickly from shop to boutique comfortably and quickly. What more could you want?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.


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