Memories, Paris, Provence, Loss, Sadness and Joy

Written by kvfawcett on October 15, 2010 – 10:19 am -

Ever since September 11, 2001, most people can’t have that day come and go without remembering the devastating destruction and loss that occurred. Three thousand people lost their lives, and we lost some of our freedom. For many, it was the end of an age of innocence. It’s one of the defining acts in recent history that has impacted travel and so much more. As much as we’d like, the world will never be the same.

I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I was sitting at my desk in Paris in the afternoon, writing away. Because of the six-hour time difference, it was morning on the East Coast of the U.S. My son would usually sign on his computer and thank goodness for AOL instant messenger (IM)—even though we were on different continents, I had the feeling of being able to “talk” to him if necessary. As soon as he signed on, he started typing as if in a whirlwind. Where was I? What was I doing? He told me to turn on the television so I could see what was happening.

I ran into the living room just in time to see the second tower crumbling down. This couldn’t be real. Clearly, this was a bad movie and couldn’t be real.

Please remember these were the days before most of us had high-speed Internet, much less Wi-Fi. I grabbed my laptop and moved into the living room, plugged in the rinky-dink modem and, amazingly enough, was able to snag an AOL dial-up connection.

Sitting on the sofa in total disbelief, I IMed with my son and a couple of other people on my buddy list. Who could possibly believe what were seeing on CNN and why was this happening? The horror and the terror were not to be believed. It would be a while before we knew the whys…

I was unable to reach my mother who lived less than two miles from the Pentagon. All of the phone lines were jammed and there was no way I could make a call from Paris to Washington, DC. The irony was my mother thought I should move home (meaning where she was) because of some mini-bombs that had recently been detonated on the Champs-Élysées.

A buddy list friend, who lived in the area, finally contacted my mother who’d been sleeping. My son had gone home to his wife so he was off-line.

People frequently want to know what it feels like to be an expat. In this case, I wanted to be with family. But would that have changed anything? In essence, we were all impotent and could do nothing but wait and hope the nightmare would abate and we’d wake up and realize it had been a bad dream and shake the dust out of our eyes.

Phyllis Flick, who’d just moved to Paris to study, had rented a room down the street and didn’t have access to CNN. Even though we’d never met except through Bonjour Paris, she asked if she could come up to the apartment so she could see English-language television. That was fine with me. I was pleased to have the company and I think she camped on the sofa in front of the television. To be honest, the entire time was a blur.

How well I remember my neighbors knocking on my door and asking if there was anything they could do for me. We really didn’t know one another, but they knew that I was l’américaine and at times such as this, even the French don’t stand on formality.

The memory of my downstairs neighbor who worked for Microsoft will be indelibly etched in my mind. Michel appeared and insisted I come downstairs for dinner and their door was always open in the event I wanted coffee, company or a cigarette. Yes, it was politically and socially correct to smoke in La Belle France then.

My husband Victor had left for Provence a couple of days before. He so loved that house in the vines, and I was planning to join him a couple of days later. Since his U.S. office was headquartered next to the World Trade Center, he was concerned about many of his colleagues and friends. What a terrible time when he heard that one of the offices where he’d worked was no longer standing. So much sadness.

When I started writing this, I realized today is the fourth anniversary of Victor’s death. I came across this article in the archives of Bonjour Paris and thought it would be appropriate to republish.

To the many people in all of our lives who’ve been lost for myriad reasons, let’s raise a glass to them. To those who are our friends and part of our families, let’s do everything possible to nurture and cherish them.

Please know I consider Bonjour Paris readers family. You may come and go, but we’re a community and so many thanks to each and every one of you for being there.

September 12, 2010

(c) Paris New Media, LLC

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Posted in Around the World, Paris |

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 |

Camping — is it your thing?

Written by admin on August 10, 2009 – 5:06 pm -

Lord knows, it’s not for everyone. There’s a theory that people who are contemplating going camping or sailing should spend the weekend together in a bathroom. Tight quarters do not necessarily guarantee closeness – and I’m not referring to physical space.

Having survived three camping trips, I quickly decided they weren’t my preferred vacation. But my partner loved them (and sailing) so I learned to adjust – well kind of. We finally agreed that every third night – we’d stay in a hotel. Camping in a VW bus didn’t qualify as a five-star adventure.

Some people relish living in self-contained units where they can eat, sleep, shower and perform bodily functions and not have to pack and unpack.

Depending on the season, you can be spontaneous about when you pick up and go. If it’s high season, you may not be able to reserve a space in a National Park at the last minute. Camping trips during July and August require substantially more planning since if your dream is to visit the Grand Canyon, you’re not alone.

There are private and public campgrounds and guides as to where each one is located. In Europe, they’re rated with the equivalent of Michelin stars and some of them are even posh.

OK – what to take – and what you need to leave home.
This takes a lot of soul searching.

Clothes are the easiest part. Everything should be wash and wear and preferably quick drying: Take layers; do not forget rain gear and an umbrella. Weather can vary during the day and depending where you are, can plummet at night.

Shoes are challenging and the number one priority should be comfort: you’ll need shoes for hiking, walking biking and rubber flip flops if you’re using communal showers. Take an extra pair in the event you get soaked. If you’re planning to go to a restaurant that has tablecloths, a pair of “dressy” shoes is appreciated.

Travelers should have their personal necessity bags especially if they’re using campgrounds with shared facilities. A plastic bag with soap, toothpaste, a tooth brush, shampoo and a personal brush and other essentials is judicious.

Pack a waterproof bag with the following: medicines, band-aids, antiseptic lotions and sprays and a kit to suck out snake or spider bite venom. Do not forget bug spray and repellent lotions.

If there’s a mosquito within a three-mile radius, it’s going to make a beeline for me. My son loves to tell the story about how I was bitten everywhere when I slept on the deck of a sailboat moored in the Caribbean. The stars were beautiful, but the next morning, I looked like a swollen monster and was mainlining antihistamines for the remainder of the trip.

Be sure to have sufficient amounts of sunscreen and a hat. There are few things more miserable than a child (or an adult) who has a terrible sunburn.  It ratchets up the pain and suffering level.

What “toys” you bring with you will be dictated by the campers’ ages, interests not to mention space. A Kindle or a facsimile can be a godsend for readers. Board games, playing cards and electronic games can keep children and older types occupied for hours. Some people wouldn’t leave home without a portable DVD. There are so many options for music – the list could go on forever. Depending on where you’re headed will mandate things such as bikes and/or rubber rafts.

If you can’t live without a computer and being online 24 hours a day, camping probably isn’t for you. You can purchase a USB modem or spend your time where there are WiFi hot spots. But some people might feel that negates the purpose of being on vacation. I don’t happen to be among that group since I’m an addict and just think of the research we could be doing about the trip en route.

Food glorious food: Cooking is a challenge most especially if you’re confined to a limited space. The most perfunctory charcoal grill is a lifesaver in the world of cramped quarters. Before departing on your trip, families (or friends) should have a specific chore list. You can’t be too rigid but successful camping trips requires planning.

During our (ad)ventures, we acquired a fair number of outrageous stories. One was the night the owner of a restaurant agreed that we could stay overnight in his parking lot.  He didn’t tell us about the meaner than mean guard dog or the adjacent train track. Another night I’ll remember is when we pulled into a camp ground and were delighted we could snag a place since it was nearly 10 p.m.

We went to sleep nearly immediately.  The next morning as I was headed to shower, I was greeted by a nude man who was taking out the garbage.  I had a revelation. Nude isn’t necessarily sexy and we left the Camp Naturaliste.

I’ve left out so many tips – not to mention funny stories. Now’s your turn …..

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

And Then There’s the Month of May

Written by admin on April 25, 2009 – 12:13 pm -

Anyone who lives in France is the first to admit the month of May is pretty much a non-month.  Let me rephrase that. Even though it has 31 days, many of them (and I am not including weekends) are vacation days and not a whole lot of work gets done. The French are used to it. But it’s unnerving for business people coming to France and finding that the decision makers aren’t around. 
This year, the calendar isn’t cooperating with people who want to take mini-breaks and deduct a minimal number of days from their guaranteed five weeks of vacation.  Pity, because the French will take mini-vacations wherever and whenever they can.     

This year, May 1 (Labor Day) falls on a Friday. The second May holiday, Armistice Day, is Friday, May 8th.  Naturally, this isn’t ideal, but these are moveable feasts and the days they fall on change every year. Some years are simply better than others. It’s the luck of the draw.

The next holiday, Ascension, falls on a Thursday. Who wouldn’t take that Friday off since the majority of their colleagues would have built the pont (bridge) and made it a four-day weekend?  They wouldn’t be able to accomplish any business even if they were sitting behind their desks. If you do the calculations right, people can get away for five days and only need to declare Friday as vacation day.

That sounds pretty good to Americans who generally start with ten days of vacation (two working weeks) and work their way up to somewhat longer periods after being with a company for so many years and gaining seniority.

The last May holiday is Pentecost which is celebrated on May 31st—alas, always a Sunday. But don’t despair; Whit Monday, June 1 is a holiday so all isn’t lost. But if we assume that this holiday is really an extension of May (May 32?), then things look glum because there are no holidays in June, the next being Bastille Day, July 14.

The majority of them aren’t glamorous or necessarily expensive. Frequently, they go and visit parents or other members of the family. May is one of the most pleasant months of the year. People take advantage of it and take to the rails or the roads. Be certain to reserve train tickets as soon as possible and don’t be surprised if you encounter more traffic than normal on the autoroute.  

One of the reasons the French have started staggering winter and spring break school  vacations according to specific areas of the country is because it’s better for families as well as tourist destinations. But May is May and so are July, August and Christmas and New Year’s holidays — so you can expect everything moving as slow as a snail.  

May 1 is a date that will be indelibly etched in my heart and in my mind. This year it marks the 21st anniversary of my move to Paris. I’ll never forget landing at Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) to start my husband’s six-month-long consulting assignment. I hated the idea of being a “trailing spouse,” but he persuaded me to look at the sojourn as a Sabbatical and I’d be back at work before I knew it.  

The ride from the airport into town was eerie. There practically weren’t any cars on the road and it felt as if the taxi were entering a ghost town. In my jet-lagged condition, I wondered what we’d find at the rental apartment.  Would it be as I’d remembered? Would there be sheets on the beds? Why weren’t any stores much less restaurants open? What had I done? It sounded so romantic but I was in for culture shock supreme.

It wasn’t until I saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance that I realized I was actually in Paris.  My life and I were embarking on a radical change and turning to a new and dramatic chapter. But that’s another story. Perhaps even a book.

In the meantime, I’ve learned to adjust to the month of May—and to the French and their frequent absences.

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Posted in Around the World |

10 ways to save when feeding a family on the road

Written by admin on April 24, 2009 – 5:58 pm -

You’re traveling with hungry kids whose stomachs aren’t precisely timed to breakfast, lunch and dinner. They’re hungry whenever, and frequently, at inopportune times.

Here are some suggestions as how to return home from your vacation with some coin in your pocket. Remember, fast food isn’t free food; anything but.

Go inclusive: Take an all-inclusive vacation where food’s available for the asking. Many cruises offer nearly non-stop meals and appear to have on-going buffets. All-inclusive resorts do the same.

Breakfast is important: If you’re not renting an apartment, stay at hotels where breakfast is included. Instruct the kids to get a good start on the day and bulk up. Most hotel staff members are gracious and agree (if you ask) to give you extra fruit to take with you as you embark on the days’ excursions. Do request a refrigerator be in the room.

Carry snacks: Never leave your lodgings without a stash of power bars and drinks. Some people visit Costco or other bulk chain stores and stuff the corners of their suitcases with these high protein snacks.

Go fixed-price, or free for kids: Surf the Internet and see which restaurants offer fix-priced lunches, early-bird specials and free meals for kids.

Clip coupons: Many restaurants offer discount coupons. They may be accessible on the Web. Or inquire at your hotel, check the local papers and the town’s Chamber of Commerce.

Snap up happy-hour specials: Some bars lure people in during happy hours when they serve more than adequate food and reduced priced drinks. Just because your charges are underage, doesn’t mean they can’t have yummy non-alcoholic drinks and eat at the same time.

Plan a picnic: It goes without saying that picnics are godsends and hotels (especially in the U.S.) are generous when it comes to allowing you to fill a Styrofoam chest with ice. Go to the local grocery store and buy all the makings for a picnic. During nice weather, it can be a wonderful way to eat and enjoy nature simultaneously.

Fabulous fruit: Eat a piece of fruit before your stomach screams empty. Grocery stores have plenty and if you happen to be at a local market in Europe at closing, many vendors sell at a big discount, rather than having to pack them up.

All you can eat: Look for restaurants (and many of them are “ethnic”) that offer refills. Moroccan restaurants frequently keep bringing out trays of couscous until you’ve had more than your fill.

Street food: Some of the best food (and most reasonably priced) is found in street markets where locals eat. There are certain rules that must be followed to avoid possible Montezuma’s revenge.

• Never drink the water (or any drink) unless it’s come from a bottle that’s been completely sealed. Use straws rather than drinking directly out of the bottle.

• Eat food only if you watch it being cooked and the hotter the pan, the better. A discerning eye can spot how sanitary the conditions are and it’s important to be careful. It’s amazing what foods children will try and more than likely enjoy it.

• Use sanitized hand wipes before and after eating.

If this sounds risky, remember your kids are probably eating more dangerous food when they’re munching on hotdogs purchased at school bazaars.

What suggestions do you have for stretching your food budget when vacationing?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Camping as an alternative family vacation

Written by admin on March 23, 2009 – 6:23 pm -

This year, many families are considering axing their annual family vacations.  Traveling is a luxury and people are looking at their expenses and their bank balances with fear and trepidation.

If you’re in the U.S., you might want to consider camping. Campgrounds at state parks, national parks, national or state forests, and other public recreation areas as a destination for your family vacation. The cost of gas is down and there are numerous options when it comes to accommodations.

What can you expect at the campground?
They cost approximately  $12-$25 per night, considerably less than a motel room.

Park rangers, who also provide security at the campgrounds, typically run the parks. Frequently, they conduct programs where people can learn about the ecology and more of the area. Many campgrounds have activities targeted to children (and adults) with different interests. A great number have evening lectures and even sing-alongs.

Most campsites have a fire-pit, a charcoal grill and a picnic table. During high season, it’s prudent to reserve; different campgrounds have regulations as to precisely how long you may stay.

You’ll find an area to set up a tent and a place to park your car. There are dedicated buildings for bathrooms and showers. Don’t forget your personal belongings such as soap; shampoo, and rubber flip flops and other sundries.

All camping areas have drinking water available as well as places to do dishes and toss your trash.  Many are equipped with laundry facilities and some have mini-markets, which aren’t the least expensive place to buy groceries but are convenient. There’s some work to camping but hey … family members save a lot of money when everyone gets involved in doing the chores.

If you’re not into the tent culture, many camp grounds offer rental cottages. Some are more primitive than others. Or you can rent an R.V. if you want to travel in a self contained unit. Or you may prefer to drag a trailer behind your car so you can park it  and go off exploring.  Visit camping lots in your area and you’ll find there are a lot of used campers as well as trailers for rent and for sale. Many owners are delighted to rent them in order to generate some income.

Possible things to do  in a campground.
Most public parks have hiking trails and many parks have lakes for fishing, boating and swimming.

Discover nature — some city children have never seen a deer crossing a path much less a mushroom sprouting from the ground. Hummm, watch out for poison ivy.

Many camping destinations have recreational facilities such as basketball courts and playgrounds with swings and slides for the younger set.

Don’t forget to bring bikes, inflatable floats and pool toys, softball equipment, Frisbees, board games if the weather isn’t cooperating.  Remember your children’s favorite toys.

Yes, you can break down and ever bring a portable DVD player.

Bring a telescope so you can star gaze and a include a bird book if that’s your thing.

Locating camp grounds (both public and private) is only a question of surfing the Internet. In France, there’s a manual rating camping areas as if they were hotels with the equivalent of Michelin stars.

One caveat: Don’t assume you can pull off and camp anyplace you want. Depending on the state and local regulations, you might be breaking the law and awakened by the police in the middle of the night. Plus campgrounds offer greater security from people who might be up to no good.

I’m not an avid camper but have gone camping both in the U.S. and in France. I have some great memories and have amassed some tips. But, let’s hear your dos and don’ts and how you’ve maximized your camping forays. And whether or not this article is inspiring you to launch out on one?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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