Getting Legal

Written by kvfawcett on July 12, 2010 – 4:35 pm -

Mention the phrase “French bureaucracy,” and most residents tend to break out in a sweat. Navigating the system feels more daunting than it should be, could be and frequently is. Talk about wanting to get a carte de séjour, you will hear horror stories, arguments about whether it’s even worth applying for one, and a year’s supply of misinformation—enough to drive you to drink, provided it’s decent French wine. But for that matter, it could be Plonk. When desperate, people aren’t necessarily selective.

Bonjour Paris receives so many emails about these subjects that I wish I’d been admitted to the French bar. But the reality is that even if I were, the laws, regulations, what’s needed and what’s not seem to change every few months and certainly when there’s a new administration.

And that’s not taking into consideration which clerk is reviewing your paperwork and whether or not he or she is in a good mood that day. Some friends have been asked to furnish supplemental documents only to return to the local préfecture and not be asked for them. Go figure.

Obtaining a French driver’s license for an American is a major undertaking and who cares if you’ve been driving in the U.S. for 25 years. Unless you come from one of the fifteen (Texans are now eligitable) states with which France has reciprocity, there are definite rules and regulations about how long you may be in France without obtaining a permis de conduire.

Don’t think you can set up house with a friend or a relative who lives in one of those states because, unless you did so more than a year before entering France, trading that license for a French one is a no go. I was going to try that route until I read the fine print.

If you import a car from the U.S. or any other country where taxes are lower, don’t fantasize you won’t have to pay the French taxman and be sure the car conforms to E.U. standards.

I’ll never forget the hours I spent in Paris’s préfecture de Police on Île de la Cité, watching a French executive nearly self-destruct because he’d purchased a Volvo station wagon when he was posted in the U.S.

He had to jump through hoops (not to mention spending a substantial number of euros having the car’s headlights and emission controls regulated to conform to E.U. standards). Since I was obviously an American, we struck up an instant and intense (albeit brief) relationship since we didn’t exchange business cards. For that matter, I’m not sure we knew the other’s name.

We were both frustrated, and he was so happy to have someone to whom he could vent. Did I realize how many hours he was having to take off from work and wasn’t this ridiculous? Plus, his dilemma was further complicated because he’d bought a Swedish car in the U.S. and had it outfitted so he could bring it back to France without having to have the car inspected yet again by yet another government entity.

I was simply trying to have my car’s registration changed from Provence to Paris but even though I thought this would be a no-brainer, I was missing some paperwork. We sat and waited for our numbers to be called (and called again) because we’d have to go to anotherguichet to collect more papers and instructions and please sign everything in triplicate. I do remember that I was able to exit the offices before him—all I had to do was pay a hefty tax and advise the insurance company that my car would be housed in Paris. Oh yes, then there was the cost of having new license plates made. C’est la vie and it’s only money—in this case, mine. When I sold the car (who needs a car in Paris, merci?) I had to supply additional papers.

Well, life goes on. It’s time to renew my ten-year carte de séjour and my lawyer is assembling all of the papers so I won’t spend weeks trying to accomplish something that I could easily mess up by not including one required document. Paris is my chosen home and it’s essential that mon statut juridique est en ordre (meaning I’m legal, please).

I’m also going to be dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Washington, DC next week. I keep a car here and was shocked the first time I pulled into the parking space adjacent to mine in the apartment building where I was staying, to see a car with the license plates “Bonjour.” The tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet” echoed in my brain.

The owner and I became friends and he promised that when he decided to give up driving or sell the car, those plates would be mine. I’ve spent hours on the DMV website, called the insurance company here and no one has been able to supply the information as precisely what’s needed to transfer the plates. I’ll spend half a day in that office next week so I may return with the needed data. But, why isn’t there a phone number for that department? I feel pretty confident my English is good enough to understand!

Let’s face it, no matter where you go, there are bureaucratic irritations and sometimes you simply have to bite the bullet. But, they do feel more daunting when you’re in a different country. Well kinda.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Posted in Around the World |

Do as the French do… or not?

Written by kvfawcett on June 22, 2010 – 10:23 am -

The French government has declared war on alcoholism, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with drinking wine. Nor is the campaign targeting the group that begins imbibing before the noonday sun shines and continues drinking throughout the day. It’s really not focusing on the group sitting in cafes à la Peter Mayle’s books, most especially “A Year in Provence” that motivated so many to move to that part of France. Mais oui, what’s wrong with having a Pastis after finishing your morning shopping? Nothing if you don’t have to work or drive and do so moderately.

France’s stop-drinking campaign is aimed at teenagers, an increasing and alarming number of whom are binge drinkers.

Their alcohol of choice is hard liquor, often gin, vodka, calvados, or something that can be masked with mixers.  After three, four, or more drinks, teens find themselves on the floor wondering what they’re doing and where.  Or, they know and drink to get drunk. Are you surprised since France is a country where many children grow up drinking watered-down wine when dining with their parents?

The French government has banned gas stations from selling alcohol, and clamped down on clubs, where the entrance fee gives people carte blanche to drink until their faces fall off. Too many were abusing the privilege, and many claim that French teens were becoming more like those in Nordic countries where heavy drinking is more the norm.

A study of French 16-year-old teens that was released two years ago reported that drinking is on a rapid rise. According to the French Monitoring Center on Drugs and Addiction, one in five boys and one in ten girls admitted to having ten drinking episodes each month. If that’s what teens will admit to drinking, you’re pretty secure in surmising the statistics are under-reported.

Yes, there are random Breathalyzer tests. But all too frequently, the right ( or maybe that should be “wrong”) people aren’t stopped. Or it’s too late and crashing into another car or an inanimate object may stop them. Parents hope there will be a designated driver. Still, overdoing drinking doesn’t foster good behavior or healthy liver function.

By no means is France alone in fighting this battle of the binge drinker. However, it has a different idea as to how to combat the problem. A government commissioned report is advising that university students attend wine tasting sessions so they can learn about drinking in moderation, an undeniably French solution to the problem.

A committee is advising that conducting wine tastings during lunchtime would enable students to learn about wine. Jean-Robert Pitte, a former director of Paris’s Sorbonne says, “Hopefully, this would lessen the Friday and Saturday night freak-outs that are occurring with greater frequency.”

Jean-Pierre Coffe, a television anchor says, “Universities should give young people an education in wine as well as in academia,” questioning why there’s sex education in schools but none about wine. Not everyone is happy with this suggestion and some feel that it’s a ploy on the part of the wine industry and students shouldn’t be drinking at lunchtime.

Even though there’s a movement to raise the drinking age to 18 in the E.U., the reality is many teens begin at a far earlier age. Alcoholism has become a serious problem and rarely (if ever) does anything good happen after someone has had too much to drink and especially if they drink and drive.

People are fully aware that kids in the U.S. are known to drink—and how.  Since the legal age for drinking everywhere in the States is 21, teens need to persuade older friends to buy liquor for them or use a fake ID, available everywhere for very little money.

Restaurants and stores that sell alcohol to underage buyers can lose their licenses, and you’ll see people (who are clearly over 21) being carded and are serious when it comes to not allowing underage people to drink, even if they’re with parents.

In addition, if an establishment serves someone alcohol and he or she ends up causing an auto accident, the establishment’s owner is legally responsible and can be prosecuted for serving the driver too much: ergo, the last drink that caused the client to go over his or her alcohol limit. Many bar owners and restaurateurs claim this isn’t fair since people may look as if they haven’t been drinking when they arrive in the restaurant when they clearly have, and all it takes is another drink and boom, they’re so drunk that they’re menaces to themselves and others – most especially if they climb behind the wheel of a car.

You can’t help but wonder whether or not binge drinking is a function of age and simply a sign of the times.  It used to be that beer was traditionally the drink of choice among teens where they’d get ‘pissed.’ That was bad enough and can certainly have the same effect. But teens drinking hard liquor, with the main intent of getting drunk and consequently losing control. is causing many adults to think and think hard. Some claim it’s a phase. Others say teens are boozing it up to mask the pain of the fact that life is more difficult in this day and age and their getting jobs isn’t by any means guaranteed.

When you think about it, teens drinking too much is nothing that’s new. How many young adults, in developed countries, haven’t been exposed to too much temptation in the “let’s drink” department? And it’s more difficult for teens not to succumb to peer pressure.

But who guessed the French would be passing legislation to curb drinking to excess. It’s all to the good but hey…..

If you have children, or grandchildren, who are drinking to excess, how are you and your community dealing with the problem? It’s real and not going to be swept under the rug.

© Paris New Media, LLC


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Posted in Paris |

Life in Close Quarters

Written by admin on June 16, 2010 – 11:52 am -

It’s become a growing trend. Rather than being cramped in a hotel room, an increasing number people are opting to rent apartments when they come to Paris or cities. They may be on vacation, but even business travelers are going the rental route if they’re going to be in the city for more than a few days.

When Americans rent Paris apartments, invariably they’ll echo the same refrain. They wonder how people can live in such tight quarters. Many rental apartments are in the 40-50 square-meter range; multiply by 11 for the number of square feet.

Besides a living/dining area combination, a kitchen and a bedroom, there’s usually only one WC (toilet) and one bath (a tub and/or a shower) plus a sink.

Sound good? You bet. This size apartment isn’t terribly unusual if you want to stay in central Paris. But the agent or ad states the apartment is large enough to accommodate four people. Few Europeans flinch nor will people on a very tight budget.

Americans tend to have different expectations, unless they’ve sailed together in an under-30 foot boat and have experienced truly close quarters. People from the U.S. expect to be able to spread out unless it’s a family of four or very good friends—and then, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice had a king-size bed.

Well, hello, and welcome abroad! The American way of life including living in big houses or large apartments isn’t the norm. City dwellers in many parts of the world don’t have excess space to burn. But here’s the bottom line: A week or two spent living in what seems to be half the space or less than you need can be an illuminating moment. I can’t predict that you will shout Hallelujah or just Eureka, but you might learn something about how to live.

This idea is already taking hold in the States. I don’t know how many magazine articles I’ve seen recently about how to adapt to small quarters and live with less and more efficiently. Then there are the television shows that focus on downsizing, and designers and space planners engineering small spaces so they fit their clients’ lifestyles. With the advent of the green movement, many groups are advocating that people should downsize in order to conserve resources.

Okay. Now, the French have traditionally been energy conscious because of the high cost of electricity. As an American, I applaud this and turn lights off and the heat and air conditioning down no matter where I am. It’s become such a habit that I turn out lights even in hotels where utilities aren’t the issue. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t.

They utilize space very differently even in other rich countries. Few people have enormous family rooms with media centers plus workout equipment discreetly tucked into a corner. People tend to buy less because closet and storage space is at a premium.

Many people in the U.S. are spoiled. I count myself among them. But the idea of having a big house for which to care has become increasingly less appealing. Having had those pleasures and responsibilities in both France and in the U.S., it’s no piece of cake, and for the few times a year guests want to stay (and vice-versa), booking a room in a nearby hotel is more sensible.

When someone shows me their château or mansion, heating bills and maintenance costs immediately shoot through my mind. The next question is who is going to clean the digs? It’s amazing how some people don’t appear to factor in that someone is going to need to be responsible for cleaning the premises or, perhaps as I did, work at full gallop in order to pay a housekeeper and a gardener or two.

How many people spend their weekends and time when they’re not at work pushing vacuum cleaners and scrubbing floors? If they have children, their time is spoken for. Sadly, most children aren’t into being neat or mopping floors.

If you live in a small apartment, there are so many ways to maximize space. If the ceilings are high enough (which many are in France if the building is more than 100 years old), you might add a mezzanine. Even though built-in furniture can be expensive, IKEA and other stores lessen the cost. Even if you don’t buy a thing, purchase a catalogue and use it as a textbook in addition to providing inspiration as to how to utilize every inch.

Europeans might partition rooms by using screens to separate space or have beds that go up and down on a hydraulic lift. In addition, having furniture that’s moveable can allow flexibility when entertaining. Consider sectional seating that can be shifted, and thank goodness for mirrors that make spaces look larger.

But please, whatever you do, if you’re coming to Paris, please don’t send an email complaining about the size of your rental apartment. If you’re space driven, ask the owner or the agent for the precise number of square feet (or meters) of your temporary home and go (and pay for) bigger. Or, hey, you might consider renting a suite at The Meurice.


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Posted in Paris |

Don’t cry for Argentina, but open your wallet

Written by admin on January 7, 2010 – 10:15 am -

One of the things many travelers don’t factor into their trip expenditures is the cost of coming and going to certain countries. Depending on your passport, you may be in for a surprise when you purchase a plane ticket. If it didn’t set you back enough, you may have to buy your way in and out of the country and obtain a visa.

A hot off the press add-on fee pertains to Americans, Canadians and Australians who are flying into the Buenos Aires airport. Effective December 28, 2009, the Argentine Immigration Office implemented a reciprocity fee.

Happily, you can pay for the visas at the airport and won’t be turned away if you arrive without a stamp in your passport. There’s a desk at the airport and as long as you have cash, a credit card or traveler’s checks, you’re good to go.

The fees are:

$70 for Canadian Nationals and it’s valid for only one entry
$131 for United States citizens that is valid for ten years
$100 for Australians that can be used for only one entry.

Flight crews, people from the above countries, who have legal residences in Argentina, plus people with official or diplomatic passports are exempt from paying entry fees.

While you’re thinking security and the myriad aspects involved in air travel, ascertain whether or not a visa is required. The airline should know but that doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for checking the government’s official tourist site. Another caveat: be sure your passport doesn’t expire within six months of your return ticket to the U.S. A conscientious airline representative can (and should) forbid your boarding the outgoing flight.

Leafing through my passport, I realize it represents a mini-fortune documenting my travels and some didn’t come cheap. You have the option of sending your passport, the supporting paperwork and passport photos to the consulate of the country where you’re intending to travel or using an Expedititor Service to facilitate the process. A Briggs is one of many of these companies and you do pay a premium in addition to the cost of the visas listed on their site.

Who says travel is glamorous when there so many variables? But for travel junkies like me, each visa stamp brings back memories I’ll never forget.

Come to think of it, it’s a good thing I returned from Buenos Aires on December 18th, 2009 or I’d be out an additional $131. On the other hand, I’d be able to return to Argentina without having to ante up additional cash.

Many Consumer Traveler readers travel extensively. Have you ever forgotten to obtain a visa before leaving the U.S.? And what’s the most expensive visa you’ve had to buy? In my case, I’d wager it’s my collection of visas permitting entrance into Vietnam.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris

Photo: detail of print by Tina Chaden


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Weather gods wreak havoc in U.S. & Europe

Written by admin on December 21, 2009 – 3:18 pm -

If your immediate travel itinerary includes a train trip on the Eurostar, you’d better make alternative reservations and hope. Eurostar has announced it’s suspending service indefinitely until the company is able to rectify the most recent problems that caused trains to break down and passengers to be stranded. With Christmas only days away, more than 55,000 passengers’ trips have been canceled.

Saturday was chaos as 2,000 passengers were evacuated from six trains. People were trapped in the Channel Tunnel for up to 16 hours, after condensation caused a series of electrical failures, on Friday night. The stranded passengers had to walk through the darkened tunnel.

Eurostar chief executive Richard Brown has said, “We won’t  resume services again until we’re  sure trains can get through safely. We want to understand what caused this unprecedented breakdown.”

But getting anywhere in Europe may not be easy. Cold snap wreaks havoc across Europe as the EU is experiencing some of the coldest temperatures in recent history. Mother Nature isn’t cooperating with the travel gods. In France, 40 percent of flights out of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports were canceled as a second wave of snowstorms hit northern France.

Airports in Duesseldorf, Germany, Belgium’s Charleroi, Liege and Brussels airports were also closed due to heavy snow. Severe delays and cancellations were reported at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

In the U.S., airports in the Washington, DC area were closed on Saturday. The region experienced the largest snowfall ever recorded in a single December day. New York area’s airports were closed for a portion of the weekend and passengers were advised to access airlines’ websites before heading to the airport.

If you happened to be in much of the East Coast, even if planes were flying, passengers may not have been able to get to their flights. The mayors of Washington and Philadelphia and the governors of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware declared states of emergency. There simply wasn’t enough equipment to cope with the areas’ accumulated snow.

In West Virginia, blankets were given to hundreds of drivers and some motorists were stranded on highways for up to 27 hours, according to Red Cross spokesman Jeff Morris.

A massive snowstorm headed north to New England and blizzard warnings were still in place in some parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island on Sunday. A record number of car accidents have been recorded during this period.

So many people have been stranded on the roads, in trains and airports that this December will go down in transportation history as one of the worst ever. If you’ve been a victim of the weather, please post your comments. Could transportation officials have done a better job? If so, how?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

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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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Persona non grata at immigration? Can you get off the list

Written by admin on November 23, 2009 – 4:14 pm -

Even if you’re not a terrorist or anything akin to one, you too can spend extra time getting through customs. Ask as many times as you want, you’ll never be told what you might have done. You’re guilty until proven innocent.

I’m now pulled over each time I enter the U.S. So much for trying not to check luggage so I can beat the crowds clearing customs. I count on spending extra time being grilled in the secondary screening room. Sometimes it’s a matter of minutes. Other times, it’s substantially more. Who cares if I have a connecting flight. I’m captive to the point that I wonder whether or not I did something in a former life.

I’ve explained more times than I can remember that my passport was stolen in Nice France in September, 2000, and blurt out my mother’s maiden name before my inquisitor can ask for the information. Sometimes that does the trick. Other times it doesn’t and the interview is more extensive.

How does someone get off this list? During my most recent encounter, I was informed I couldn’t. Never? “Yupp,” the officer replied and waved me on. I only had 45 minutes to get from the international terminal to the domestic one and hit the departure gate with a only minute to spare. Talk about huffing and puffing.

This experience made me determined to take action. Being persona non grata, if only temporarily, is a pain in the neck. Well, i hope there is a way to get back into The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) good graces. It took numerous calls and more than three hours of listening to voice prompts and two days playing phone tag to locate someone who could tell me how.

A Consular Affairs Press Officer at the U.S. Department of State took mercy and said to fill out this form: The DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. Based on how many people are fielded to the secondary sanctum, this research may be useful.

After all, who needs or wants an immediate welcome interview each time you have to go through customs? No one. If you happen to be on the DHS hit list, do you know why you’re on such a list? I still don’t and suspect I never will. All I know is that I want off.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.


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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

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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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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