Thursday, March 29, 2012

Paris: Epilogue

Observations and Reflections

We had a very nice time in Paris.  By the time we got home, we were tired.  I had to work my evening shift for the next week and it was very difficult.  I had pretty severe jet lag and wanted to go to bed every night around 7 pm.

The Food

One of the reasons we went to France was to experience French food.  Here in Sacramento, we can get all kinds of different food from all over the world, but one type that is very difficult to come across is French food.  After having a few French meals and finding them not as "French" as I would have guessed, I now realize that some of what I thought of as American food - things like steaks, lamb chops, etc. - are in fact French, or perhaps universal.  The only things that we ate that I felt were uniquely French were the liver pate, goat cheese, breads, and croissants.  Also, sparkling water, among my favorite beverages and one that I could pretty much drink all the time, is available everywhere, and is cheap everywhere, except in the Louvre museum, where it is an unbelievable ripoff.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Saturday 3/17/12: "GOATS"

American Airlines 41: Paris CDG - Chicago O'Hare
Depart 11:20 am, arrive 2:45 pm (local times)
American Airlines 637: Chicago - Los Angeles
Depart 5:10 pm, arrive 7:40 pm (local times)
United Express 6462: Los Angeles - Sacramento
Depart 10:52 pm, arrive 12:15 am

A morning of minor missteps

Took the shuttle from the Hyatt to CDG Terminal 3 and caught the CDG-VAL tram to terminal 2, then walked to Hall 2A (American).  We waited in a LONG line.  About halfway through, we were interviewed by an AA security employee, who said we could have waited in the short line to the right since we had already printed our boarding passes.  Misstep 1!

The area was crowded.  At the same time the Chicago flight was boarding, a flight to Dallas was also boarding, and it was oversold.  They were taking volunteers and offering $800 to switch flights - for people with reservations on the Dallas flight, but not the Chicago flight.  Misstep 2 - should have booked through Dallas!  (couldn't have known 8 months ago though.)

Security confiscated a bottle of kosher wine, some pear jam, and halvah with Arabic writing on the package which we had tried to carry onboard with us.  They said that we could check it, but it wasn't worth the cost of another checked item so we didn't bother.  In retrospect, we should have thought it through.  The 3.5 ounce limit for liquids was not news to us.  Misstep 3!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Non-Travel-Related: Cash vs. Financed Real Estate Transactions

And now for something completely different.  Literally:

My wife Nancy is a real estate agent in Sacramento.  I submitted a guest post about cash vs. financed real estate buyers in Sacramento.  For anyone interested in reading it, here is the link.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Last Tango in Paris: Hyatt Regency at CDG Airport

Last Chance for Shopping

After Versailles, we pretty much decided were were done sightseeing and if we were going to do anything today, it would be shopping.  We stopped at a nearby shopping area we had passed when we were lost 2 days before.  It is called Parly 2.  Once we got there, we realized it was a mall very similar to one you would see in the U.S., although not quite as big.  We rarely shop at malls at home, and weren't about to pay Euro premiums on top of retail, but we did stop at Toys-R-Us to pick up some gifts for the kids.  We looked for the food court.  We found a McDonalds and kept looking.  We did find an area with restaurants but they all looked pretty expensive and were actual restaurants with service, whereas we wanted something quick and informal.  So we left.

The mall also had a grocery store so we bought some things for lunch there.  We bought a lot of things that we had purchased the day before, although this time I upgraded to bona fide pate au foie gras du canard: duck liver pate, a splurge at 12 euros/kg.  I asked for 50 grams but she said she could not cut a slice that thin.  (That appeared to be what she said.) She gave me about 140 grams (about 1/3 lb.) which cost about 1.75 euros.


Drove over to the Chateau de Versailles.  We parked on a side street, almost across the street from the pay lot in front of the palace.  Nancy waited in line while I bought tickets.  I had to walk through a labyrinth made of chairs and couches, which seemed oddly improvised given that it is one of the most visited places on Earth.  I used a machine to buy tickets; this is one of the only machines I was able to buy anything from in France with my American credit card with a stripe.

It is absolutely impressive and is another place that is not done justice by photos, at least not ones I can take.

I think I read somewhere that it took 1/2 of France's annual GDP at that time to build.  On the other hand, that money might have been wasted some other way.  For what it is worth, it has been open to the public for about half of its existence.

It only took about an hour to tour the palace.  It's very large but there is a lot of it that is not exposed to the public.  Little things such as the following made us wish we had sprung extra for the navigation devices (or downloaded any of the various podcasts available for free):

Yikes.  There is a pretty detailed description of what this all is on wikipedia, and from what I understand there were also other bizarre facets of royal hygiene that involved assistance from the Court.

Finagle that we didn't use

Interestingly, we noticed as we exited Versailles there was an unmanned open gate that could be a perfectly easy way to sneak in without paying.  I have no idea if this is usually guarded or not.  I don't endorse this kind of behavior but here is a picture of it for reference purposes.

View Larger Map

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thursday 3/15/12 - Driving Back to Paris

Got back in the car and drove to a Super U supermarket we had passed to buy some items for lunch. Some things in France are expensive but some are really dirt cheap.  The shopping trip resulted in the following:

  • Mimolette cheese, similar to cheddar, about 250g (1/2 lb), 2 euros
  • Pork liver pate, 100g (1/4 lb), fresh cut from the deli counter, 50 cents.  That's right, when in france we eat pork, and it is delicious.
  • 1.5 liter bottle of sparkling water, 40 cents
  • Baguette, 80 cents
By "cents" I mean euro cents, 1/100 euro, worth 1.33 american cents at the current exchange rate.  Those prices are approximate, since I didn't save the receipt, but it should give you an idea. The total came to about 4.80 euros.  

The pate was literally 5 dollars per kilo, and 100 grams (1/10 kilo) was more than both of us could eat in a sandwich since it is so rich.  We threw about half of it away.    But what we did scarf down was delicious nonetheless.  Duck pate is considerably more expensive, about 12 euros/kilo, but still not expensive considering how little one needs in a sandwich.  

We thumbed our nose to the French lifestyle and ate American style, meaning in the car in the supermarket parking lot.

We then drove back north toward Paris, again relying on directional signs in each town and our macro-level map of France.  We stopped in Blois and tried to find a place with internet access so we could find a hotel for that evening.  After trying the park, the library (closed), and not finding McDonalds, we went to the Holiday Inn and paid 5 euros for their wifi service.

We booked an Ibis hotel in Velizy, a southern suburb of Paris, for 59 euros.  This is part of the Accor chain which also owns Motel 6, and was about that level.  We were able to get within 1/4 mile of it with our directions, but the last few blocks took about 45 minutes because we made a wrong turn and ended up in a mall parking lot.

Our Autoroute tolls came to about 17 euros in each direction from Paris to the Loire Valley, plus 4 euros we spent accidentally going into a tunnel in the Versailles area that sent us in the wrong direction.

Finally found it and just ate in the restaurant in the hotel, which was lousy and had a very limited menu, but we were exhausted and didn't really want to go anywhere.  I wouldn't go out of my way to stay here, but it was passable for a one-night stay, and the bed was comfortable.  On the plus side, it was the only hotel we stayed in the entire trip that had free wifi service.

Thursday 3/15/12: Chateau de Chenonceau

We stopped for coffee in St. Aignan and did a little shopping at the supermarket downtown.  I bought some pear jam which I had enjoyed very much that morning, and planned to bring it home, and nancy got her signature chocolate croissant.  We went across the street to a cafe and got 2 cafe cremes at the counter for 4.40 euros.

We didn't have a very good map for the Loire Valley - just a road map of France - but the directional signs in the area are actually very good and we were able to find our way without a problem to the chateau de Chenonceau.  It was about a 40 minute drive.  It's considered one of the more beautiful chateaux in the Loire.  Apparently King Henri IV built it for his mistress Diane de Poitiers.  At that time the portion over the water was only a bridge.  When he died, his widow Catherine de Medici threw her out and later completed the structure over the bridge. (Needless to say, it was presumably the slaves and serfs who did the actual building in each case, not those people.)  During World War I it was used as a hospital.  During World War II the Cher river which passes under it was the southern boundary of the Nazi occupied territory of France, and many people were smuggled through the Chateau to freedom in the South.

It was surprisingly not that big. The area over the river is a single large room and the whole chateau can be toured in about 45 minutes.

One of the most interesting areas is the kitchens.  Here is a rotisserie with a mechanical contraption attached to a weight outside, which pulls on the rope so it is not necessary for a person to constantly rotate the rotisserie.

Gardens are also beautiful and well maintained, and kids would enjoy the maze (with no wrong moves).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wed. 3/14/12: Goat farm in the Loire Valley

If you rent a car in France, don't do what we did, which is to say drive around without GPS or map.  I had looked into buying a GPS for France or buying the map set for the one we have for the U.S., and they were both about $100 - at that price you might as well hire a cab, or at least start to think about it.  I meant to ask about it at the rental agency but I just forgot, and in any case I suspect I would have had to rent a larger car, which I didn't really want to do because I wanted something that wouldn't use too much gas, given that we would need to spend about $7/gallon.  I had also tried to skirt international copyright law by scanning a few pages of a France road atlas I had checked out of the library, but when I tried to print it, it was so data-intensive that it backlogged my office printer for an embarrasingly long time so I aborted. In any case the atlas would not have provided us with the detail we needed, and we realized as we were driving that some of the roads (tunnels in particular) were very new and certainly would not have been on that 20-year-old atlas anyway.

We wasted several hours lost in the suburbs around Versailles.  (We weren't actually headed to Versailles.)  We finally found another Holiday Inn and stopped to ask for directions, thinking they would speak English.  One of them did.  We asked him for directions to Mareuil-sur-Cher, the town we were visiting in the Loire, and he said that was an excellent choice.  I asked him if he had been there.  He said no, but they make great wine there.  Anyways, they were very helpful and reprinted us directions, but the biggest help was that they directed us to a gas station where we were able to buy some maps, which were fairly helpful but not as detailed as we could have used - and no index.  What gives?

From there we regrouped and got back on the road.

Once on the Autoroute, everything went relatively smoothly.  Autoroute speed limit outside of cities is 130 kph, about 81 mph, about as fast as I was able to drive that small car.

Arrived at la Lionniere around 5:30 p.m.  This is a farm-inn (ferme-auberge), with 2 rooms that rent by the night including breakfast, and they serve dinners based on foods that they produce at the farm.  Apparently some people come only for meals.  I had booked 2 nights with dinner.

The owners, M. and Mme. Bouland, raise about 85 goats and also have chickens.  They sometimes have ducks but didn't when we were there, except for a single duck that seems to be a pet and is exempt from foie extraction.

Shortly after we arrived, we watched the goat milking.  They make cheese every day and sell it at some of the local markets.  The goats smelled much cleaner than most livestock or even petting zoos I have smelled in the U.S.  They definitely had a distinct odor but it was not offensive.

Everything at dinner was a product of the farm, which meant goat (chevre).   This did not bode well for my wife Nancy who is not a big fan of goat, but she was a good sport.

Goat cheese on bread as an hors d'oeuvre:  Cheese was surprisingly mild and soft, similar to cream cheese.  The bread tasted like it was a day old though.

Salad with grated hard goat cheese, similar to parmesan.  The cheese was pungent.  The lettuce was some kind of a winter lettuce, and was more rigid than any lettuce I had had before, somewhat like cabbage.  I really liked the salad

Goat cheese fritters:  The cheese was what I think of as goat cheese, semi-soft and with a strong flavor.  The dough that they were fried in I didn't really like; it tasted like all-purpose baking mix.

Goat meat: shoulder (epaule) and leg (gigot).  It was stewed and in a gravy. Texture was somewhat chewy but almost springy, yet tender.  My wife Nancy didn't like it at all; she thought that it tasted like the cheese, meaning that everything had the same smell of goat.  This was served with a side dish of potatoes and carrots.

After the meat, we were served the cheese course (you guessed it!  goat cheese)  and apple beignets.  For those of us who do appreciate goat cheese, this was delicious and everything one would hope for - as fresh as it can be, made in the next room. For the rest of us, not so much.  The beignets were just ok, with the same dough as the cheese beignets served before dinner.

I had consumed several glasses of wine and was getting very full and very tired.  Perhaps because I have a goatee, I thought it was pretty good, the cheese was great, although in total it did not live up to my expectations of the ultimate French country dinner.  Nancy didn't enjoy it at all.  We went upstairs and I fell asleep, although Nancy did not sleep well.  She found the bed very uncomfortable and she was having a difficult time with digestion.

Nancy used one of the other beds in the room (there were four, I believe) but she hadn't felt well all night.  By the next morning we decided to leave.  I had breakfast by myself - it was bread and butter with pear and quince jam (delicious) and coffee, but Nancy wanted out as quickly as possible once she was up.  Since I had reserved the room for 2 nights and they had refused other customers, I agreed to pay for the 2 nights plus the one night's dinner for the 2 of us, plus a small carafe of wine.  Total was 148 euros, cash only.  (room was about 48e per night including breakfast; dinners were about 22e each service compris; wine and coffee about 10e total.)

Wednesday 3/14/12: Renting a Car in France

I had arranged for the car rental using a few months back, and added a new reservation when I saw the price drop.  I had two reservations, one for 85 euros for Wed-Sat and one for 77 euros for the same period.  I thought I canceled the high priced reservation but apparently I later found that I didn't but it didn't matter anyway.   The great thing about car rentals (provided you don't use Hotwire/etc which I never do - there is no way to avoid lots of waiting in very slow lines when using Hotwire) is that  you can make a reservation without a credit card, never show up to pick up the car, and nothing bad happens to you.  I always make an extra just in case the first one has problems, which car rentals often do.

I picked up the car at a rental office in the 10th Arrondissement at 184 Rue du Faubourg Saint Martin because it was one of the cheapest locations to pick up and was within a mile of my hotel. I also had scheduled to return it to an office just a block from our hotel near the CDG airport in Roissy (although we ended up returning it to the Avis at CDG because the branch was closed), which removed the need to figure out a way to get to the airport. Other locations were quite a bit more expensive.  If it is an option for you, picking up away from an airport can often save a lot in extra taxes, which sometimes amount to more than the cost of the car itself.

It turns out the rental office is an Avis office, not Budget, but they seemed to be aware of my reservation.  I had to spend about 1/2 hour figuring out what the extra insurance they were trying to sell me covered, because it would have been an extra 100 euros for 3 days. I'm not an expert at insurance, but I believe the only insurance I needed was liability insurance, because the standard Visa Signature cards include collision insurance and we have our own health insurance. I finally realized their very expensive upsell covered the collision portion, which I didn't need , so I declined it.  They gave me a contract to sign with a copy written in English, and I saw that the liability insurance was included standard.  This jives with what I had read on Rick Steve's web page on rental cars.  The Frenchman sitting next to me was friendly and helpful, but quite surprised that my credit card gave me the collision insurance, which apparently French credit cards don't.

Had the car, which was a nearly new white Peugeot 5-door hatchback (small upgrade from the mini car I ordered).  Likc most cars in Europe, it had a manual transmission, which I enjoy driving.  I drove off and found myself on the open road in Paris.

Some things about Paris had never occurred to me until I started driving.  For one thing, there are no stop signs.  However, if you are turning right onto a street, apparently the drivers on the destination street have to allow your merge and yield to you as you turn in front of them. I only approximately knew how to get to the hotel but finally did, and used the loding zone to get Nancy and the luggage.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tuesday 3/13/12: dinner deal at le Meltin

Tuesday evening, we had a reservation to use our Groupon for a restaurant about 3 blocks from our hotel called le Meltin, which apparently is the French translation of the Melting Pot (and has nothing to do with the fondue chain).

Once there, I also ordered a beer which was on special for 2.5 euros, and due to miscommunication, Nancy ordered a second glass of wine. 
Our waiter asked if we would like the steak medium, and I said “non, moins, s’il vous plait” and whatever the word he used for rare I tried to say I wanted something between that and Medium.  He seemed to understand.  I should have ordered it medium because when it arrived, it was pretty much raw everywhere except the seared outside.  I’ll eat it that way, but I prefer a nice pink throughout.  Meat was good enough to eat raw though.

The mashed potatoes were also good, and Nancy ordered a salad which she liked.  The additional 2 drinks and salad came to about 10 euros.

In the U.S. I would only order a steak at a steakhouse because everywhere else would buy a lousy piece of meat, or if it was good meat, would ruin it by overcooking.  However this was a good piece of meat and as noted earlier, was not overcooked.  (I once had a very similar experience in Italy also.)  Anyone ordering a steak in Europe should order it 1 step more cooked than how you would order it in the U.S.  If you only eat well-done steak, you may want to opt for the chicken or duck when in France.  (Honestly I don't really understand why you would bother to order an expensive steak at all if you are just going to have them turn it into a piece of beef jerky, but it just goes to show once again that there is no accounting for taste.)

The two people who waited on us were very welcoming, spoke some English, and it was a very nice and reasonably priced restaurant, but it was pretty clear that the restaurant was struggling.  Only two other tables were occupied while we were there, and I had seen them promoted through in addition to  I asked them for a menu and left it with the front desk at our hotel in case the hotel was looking for a place to give anyone else a recommendation.

The Finagle

The deal we bought, which I ordered about 2 months before our trip, we selected because the restaurant was 3 blocks from our hotel.  It included ribeye steak (entrecote) for 2 (total 640 grams, about 22.5 oz.) with a side, plus 2 glasses of wine, for 22 euros.    

Since it's on the internet, anyone can subscribe to, and probably any other groupon site for that matter.  

My U.S. credit card never worked with in multiple tries for different offers.  However, I finally tried the PayPal option which worked fine.

Another web site which is similar to in the US is called in French, or which ostensibly is in English although most of the content is not translated.  This offers a percentage off the a-la-carte items, although drinks and fixed-price menus (in French called "formule" or just "menu") are usually excluded, so it's not always that different from just walking into a restaurant and ordering the formule.  We never did use this, although I wasted a lot of time researching.

I had been subscribing to and LivingSocial for the Paris Northeast area for the last several months in anticipation of this trip, but this is the only deal we ordered, because we didn't want to be constrained by knowing we had to go to a bunch of specific restaurants or do certain things.  That is a risk of prepaying for something - you use it or you lose it, and for something like traveling to Paris, it is something one would need to plan around, which might be constraining, or the coupon could be thrown away, in which case it was a waste to buy it in the first place.

There were several good ones for all kinds of different restaurants and a few hammam/spa ones that we considered.  Over several months, I received many offers which I found amusing and some just bizarre, including for example:
  • Riding a Segway at Versailles
  • McDonalds: Lunch for 2 for 16 euros.  (I actually found this quite disturbing because if 8 euros was a discounted lunch at McDonalds, I feared some serious sticker shock.)
  • At least 2 offers a day for all kinds of bizarre weight loss treatments and surgeries, botox, etc.  I had no idea the French were quite so vain and no less desperate than Americans to be thin.  (this was reiterated by the many infomercials we saw on TV for no-exercise, all-you-can-eat weight loss products)
  • Fish Spa pedicure, where apparently you dunk your feet in an aquarium and tiny flesh-eating fish nibble away your callouses.  No thank you.

Tuesday 3/13/12: Trocadero (near Eiffel Tower), Musee d'Orsay

Signed up for Velib bikes again online, but the bike terminal was broken this time, so we never actually used it and the e1.70 per person went to waste.  Instead, we caught the bus to the Trocadero, from where we viewed the Eiffel Tower.  The weather was cold and foggy so we didn't go up in the tower, but the Trocadero affords a pretty spectacular view of the tower.  Photos generally, and these photos in particular, don't do it justice at all.  It's really beautiful and looms much bigger in person than it looks in the picture.

Walked around looking for a place to stop for coffee but the 16th is too rich for these tightwads.  Looked through a book shop - they still have those there - and realized everything was in French so we left.  Then took the metro down to the Musee d’Orsay.  It's only about two miles away, maybe less, but it took 3 different metro lines to get there.

The line to get through security was about 90 minutes.  A new exhibit on Degas nude paintings and sketches opened that day.  They were primarily pencil sketches and some paintings.  Most but not all of them were of women, and most were from a very specific angle, more or less from behind.  

There was one small sketch that was quite explicit – it took a second look to realize what it actually was - and I believe the description said that it was the only such drawing that had survived, and any others were likely destroyed by his family.

Also looked at their permanent collection of impressionism, including the classics such as Van Gogh’s self portrait.

Didn't take any pictures, but you can find probably all of them on their web site.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday 3/12/12: Bicycle Ride to the Left Bank, Sacre Coeur

We rented the “Velib” bikes that are all over town.  We needed to do this online and our hotel seemed to give us ½ hour free slow internet access every two days, which was barely enough time to get that done. 
This is a system of rental bicycles primarily for transportation.  You get an account, and then you check a bike out from a station and check it back in at a station near your destination.  Americans need to sign up online because our credit cards with the magnetic stripe cannot be read by the machine.  The fee for visitors is 1.70 euros per day, and bikes are free for the first ½ hour and about 1 euro for every ½ hour after that until they are returned.  

For the most part, the bikes worked well.  However, we found many stations to be out of order, and/or without vacant spaces to return bikes.  We realized that since many people use them to commute, in some areas there are plenty of bikes and no stalls to return, and in others there are no bikes at various times of the day.

Our hotel was ideally situated to rent velib bikes because there is a station across the street, and there are bike paths on either side of the canal.  We rode along the canal de Villette and continued all the way to the Seine.  I had a bike map of Paris but we soon realized that many of the paths on the map were actually bus lanes, and we found ourselves along with many other riders darting in and out of traffic.
We crossed the river to the left bank (5th) and tried to return the bikes to a station, but the station screen had the blue screen of death and was in need of a rebooting.  I later realized I didn't need the screen and probably could have just returned it there, but I didn't realize that at the time, so anyways we kept riding.  We happened to find the bridge of locks, which we had seen on the Late Late Show when they filmed in Paris.

 The next several stations we found were all full of bikes with no spaces to return.  Finally we found a station where some people were checking bikes out, so we could put ours there. 
After returning the bikes we walked around the 5th in the student area, stopped at a crepe stand for lunch and ate our crepes in a churchyard/park nearby.  Then we walked further south to the Jardin de Luxembourg, which was partially under construction.  However, it was the first beautiful and sunny day in Paris since we got there, and probably in quite a while, so there were many people enjoying the sunshine.

We observed that Parisians are big readers.  Almost everyone there was either reading a book or doing some kind of writing in a notebook, in full sunlight.  We saw no gadgets such as Ipads or Kindles.  (Lots of people have iphones and blackberries, but they did not use them for things like reading as far as we could tell.)

At that point we thought we might ride up to the Marais again to walk around some more.  We checked out some bikes and found ourselves riding through the middle of rush hour, and it was very harrowing.  We gave up and walked through the 3rd and 4th areas, past the Pompidou center, and then decided to take the metro up to Sacre Coeur.

We got off the metro down the hill from Sacre Coeur and Nancy finally found a clothing store she could sink her teeth into.

This was about a million miles from les Champs Elysees.  As far as I could tell, it looked like piles of peoples’ laundry with price tags on top.  However she didn’t buy anything.  It even took too long for her to hunt for anything.  I would have taken more pictures but some of these people clearly didn’t want their pictures taken there.

Then we walked up the hill and nancy waited about 40 minutes to use one of the automatic restrooms.  They are great if nobody is ahead of you, but each cycle of using the bathroom, washing, and cleaning takes about 5 minutes.  So with 7 people ahead of her, it took a while.

Took the funicular up the hill.  Sacre Coeur was a nice view but there were a bunch of teenagers there listening to folk music and we didn’t stay long.  We walked north from there along Rue Clignancourt, intending to catch the bus along Rue Ordener back to our hotel.  Clearly this was a part of Paris that doesn’t make the guidebook. 

We were hungry and cold so we stopped in Chez Fille a la Peau de Lune ("The House of a girl with skin of the moon"?), a West African restaurant with about 2 visible tables (more in the back) for dinner.  A woman who seemed to be the owner of the restaurant was from Gabon and sat right at our table while she chatted with her other clients.  We couldn’t communicate well with anyone there, since nobody spoke English and I was limited to my high school level French, but people were perfectly nice to us.  Nancy got chicken wings, which were delicious, and I got pork ribs, which were good but was the kind of food I can’t eat very much of, so I helped nancy with her wings.  We both got plantains on the side, although I later wished I had ordered fufu, which my old roommate Ricardo used to make, and she said they served.

At the restaurant I ordered a beer, which featured this warning label:

At Rue Ordener, we caught the bus back to our hotel.  While on the bus, we saw someone outside chasing another person and yelling at him.  It was pretty apparent that the person being chased had just pickpocketed the person doing the chasing.  Nobody on the bus seemed to care very much.

Got home and were tired.  Hit the sack.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday 3/11/12: Evening @ l'Arc de Triomphe and walk

Before dark, we walked about halfway to the Arc de Triomphe, and then took the bus the rest of the  way.  The weather was very clear and the views were spectacular in all directions.  When we got there, there was a ceremony of a military family laying a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with a military band playing, which we observed for a while.  Then we climbed the stairs.  We reached the top just barely in time to watch the sun disappear over the horizon.

Later, we took a walk around the Marais and ate falafel and shawerma at Mi Va Mi, which is across the street from the apparently more famous l'As du Fallafel, whose line was long, whereas Mi Va Mi had no line.  Most people seem to take falafel to go, which is definitely cheaper, but we needed a rest and were cold, so we splurged and ate in the restaurant.  I'm not sure why the place across the street had a line that was so much longer, because Mi Va Mi's falafel was fantastic, as good as any I have ever eaten.  Service was very good also.  1 falafel sandwich, 1 shawarma sandwich, a plate of fries to share, and tap water came to about 22 euros.  (would have been about 8 euros less if we had taken it to go)

Then walked around the Ile de Paris to see Notre Dame, and Ile de Saint Michel.  We didn’t have enough change to buy metro tickets so we stopped in a café for hot cocoa mainly to get change, but it turned out to be delicious. (the hot cocoa that is)

Sunday 3/11/12: A Day at the Opera

We went to the Opera de Paris for the 2:30 p.m. matinee of La Veuve Joyeuse (“The Merry Widow”).  The Palais Garnier is everything you would hope for in an European opera house.  The entry hall is incredibly ornate, with statues and marble stairs everywhere. Being in one of the boxes felt like being on a wedding cake.  The view from our seats in the 4th tier straight down to the orchestra section was somewhat vertiginous.  On the plus side we had a fabulous view of the Chagall-painted ceiling.  On the minus side, our seats were obstructed, and we could see about half the stage, which is what you get for 25 euros per ticket.  Also, it was very warm, and I was thinking the place could use a whole house fan, although that would probably be too noisy for an opera house. Bathrooms are completely unremarkable and felt like they could have been in a gas station, except in one key respect, which is that they are co-ed.  You get a private stall with a real door to do your business but you wash your hands with the whole family.  
As for the opera, it was about as light as opera gets in my limited experience, and not all that different from musical theater.  It was a pretty cheezy story, more or less about a rich widow who is seduced by a politician because the government is out of money and they need her 20 million Francs to fund the government.  Then the politician legitimately falls in love with her, at which point she reveals she is in fact broke.  Or at least that is what I had gathered from listening to the opera in German and reading the French supertitles.  I didn’t bother to read all of the liner notes, even though I had them in English.  We didn't go to see this opera in particular; we went because it was the only opera showing at the Palais Garnier (which apparently usually shows ballet these days) while we were there.  Thanks in no small part to the heat, darkness, and our jet lag, we both dozed off here and there, but still very much enjoyed it.  There were several scenes that took place in Paris cabarets with showgirls, and in an only-in-Paris moment, there was indeed a showgirl wearing nothing but feathers, and she was not leaving anything to the imagination.  To clarify: this was the state-funded opera, during a matinee, with more than a few children in the audience.  

The Finagle

If you are interested in buying Paris opera tickets for 25 euros each, or ballet tickets which may be less, you can look at the calendar at for the time you will be in town.  

They have an English web site but not everything is fully translated; I suggest using Google Chrome's translate feature as needed, along with a separate window opened to google translate so you can copy and paste text as needed.  Also it is a good idea to navigate around the site so you know what you will be buying and have a good idea of the seats, etc. I suggest being online and preferably pre-registered with an account before the tickets are released.   

Be sure to check the web site as soon as you plan your trip, and then mark on your outlook calendar the day they will go on sale:  They release the tickets on one day at 9:00 a.m.  Paris time, which is midnight California time, for a block of dates lasting a few months.  In our case the showing we saw was sold out by the day after they went on sale (although it was not full when we were there, so there may be last-minute tickets available somehow, but I can't speak to that.).  At 9:00 a.m. when you click to buy tickets, you will be in a queue and your screen will be mostly white with a timer in the middle (in French).  You just need to wait until your time comes up; it took me 15 minutes.  Don't navigate away or you will lose your place in the queue.  Then when your time comes up you can go ahead and book your tickets by date, time, and take the first seats they give you in the price range you request, or else the next seats will be worse (as was my experience).

Also, note that the classic opera house is the Palais Garnier.  the Opera Bastille is a modern opera house built in the last 20 years, so it may not be the experience you had in mind.

Sunday 3/11/12: Joinville Market and lunch at Chartier

All four nights in Paris, I wasn’t able to sleep more than about 5 hours per night, even though the room and bed were very comfortable.  I don’t think it was due to jet lag, because I was going to sleep in the evening without a problem, and I didn’t feel especially tired during the day.  Maybe too much coffee.  Whatever, it wasn’t really a problem.  I was just awake.  Nancy was somewhat annoyed because I kept waking her up, and we didn’t have another room I could go to while she slept.
Anyways, I woke up very early and walked over to the Joinville market around the corner from the hotel on Saturdays, at Joinville Street.  Still had leftovers from yesterday’s shopping so didn’t buy anything.

Later, after Nancy woke up we had breakfast at the hotel, which is included with the room.  It was excellent.  We didn’t make any real plans for the morning due to our opera tickets that afternoon.  We went to McDonald’s to use the internet.

Dressed and took Metro to Opera, then walked over to Chartier for lunch.  There was a long line, but apparently since there were only two of us, we were directed past the line and seated immediately.  We were seated with four other people at a table.  On one side of us, two people were dining solo, and on the other side, a couple dined together.  One of the solo diners left shortly after we arrived and we didn’t talk much with him beyond pleasantries.  The other, as best I could understand, is a member of the Corps of Engineers in the French Army and in the next few weeks was going to deploy to a base in New Caledonia in French Polynesia, and would be away from his family for 3 years.  He didn’t seem very happy about it, but said it came with the territory.  The couple to my left was very friendly.  The woman said she has some colleagues in Glendale, CA although we didn’t get into what they or she does.  I noted that a restaurant similar to Chartier in the U.S. would be very expensive, whereas Mcdonalds is cheap, but in France eating at either place almost costs the same, and Chartier is frequented by people from all walks of life.  She said the French actually have a lot of respect for McDonalds because they have introduced some new concepts to France that many people appreciate.  As far as I could understand, these are things like a place to use the internet for free, and food that doesn’t cost extra if you eat in the restaurant, but I didn’t really get all of what she was trying to say.
At Chartier, the menu was completely in French and I understood about half of it and translated for Nancy to the best of my ability.  The woman to my left offered to translate, and we started up a simple conversation.  I had read about this place in a guidebook (Rick Steves perhaps) and also in this yelp review and knew it was near the Opera.  It is known as a classic French restaurant and has been there since the late 1800s, and was definitely a fun place to eat, although we found the food to be just ok.  The atmosphere reminded me of the (now defunct) Berghoff restaurant in Chicago, basically an inexpensive restaurant serving comfort food in an environment that felt very fancy, with tuxedoed waiters, etc.  I ordered an aperitif, Escargots, and lamb chops. Escargots were delicious.  Lamb was pretty good but wasn’t served hot off the grill.   The fries were just so-so.  The aperitif tasted to us like Manischewitz wine.  Nancy ordered shrimp with avocado and a good but relatively unmemorable veal dish.  Total bill was about 33 euros, service compris.  Waiter was friendly and accommodating to our language handicap.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday 3/10/12 - Hotel room and location, and calling home

Came back to the hotel (Holiday Inn Express Paris - Canal de la Villette) and checked in.  Very pleased with the room, Room 102.  The room is large (according to the web site it is 23 sq. m. (= 248 sq.ft.)) and the bed in particular is comfortable and about as big as a California king, apparently 160 centimeters wide, although they refer to it as a double.  Since my credit card gave me platinum status, they gave us a room with a nice view of the canal. 

Then we took a nap.
Later, I couldn’t figure out why the lights didn’t come on.  I called the front desk and they told me to put the room key card in a slot, which apparently is intended to reduce energy use when there is nobody in the room. Later found out this is normal in Europe, where apparently they are not blessed with the virtue of energy that is sufficiently copious to be able to take its consumption for granted.
I did have a few complaints:  I found the lighting to be inadequate, so the room was somewhat dark in the evenings.  Also, the storage was minimal, just a single shelf/hanger combo unit, so we could not really unpack our suitcases.  My biggest issue is that internet access is not free, and within the room is only available by a very short cable.  HI Expresses in the US have ubiquitous free wifi.

The neighborhood is out on the edge of town, but I really liked it.  Interesting mix of people in the area, including French, West African, Moroccan, Middle Eastern (I suspect primarily Lebanese), Orthodox Jewish, and a few Chinese.  Importantly to me, it’s well off the executive motorcoach beat and not a place where one is as likely to get tourist-trapped as in the lower 9 arrondissements.  For dinner we went to a Turkish hole in the wall kabob place, which didn’t charge extra to sit in the restaurant.  It was good, not anything better than we can get at home.  Nor was it much more expensive, about 18 euros for dinner for both of us, including a shared salad and 2 drinks.  Interestingly, the Kronenbourg beer comes in an all red can and I thought it was a coca cola before I looked at it a second time and realized it was in fact a beer.

The Finagle


I had selected this hotel because it was the only one in Paris I could get for the 5000 points + $60 points-plus-cash deal from Priority Club.  Don’t look for it, they have since raised this Holiday Inn Express to 15,000 points + $60 I believe.  (I had points from a Chase Priority Club credit card promo.  Probably would not have gotten it if the hotel was not available for 5000 points.)  However I am listing the details because the general approach might apply to other folks' places and needs.

This was one of those deals that was much better than all but one other of the 25 or so Intercontinental Hotels Group chain hotels in Paris.  This was apparent when listing all hotels within a 5-km radius of Paris on the Priority club / IHG web site and searching by rewards availability.  They have a pretty good web site with good search and filtering tools that make it straightforward to do such a comparison, although you do need to scan through each hotel to look at their points + cash availability and cost.

I suspected the 5000 points + $60 offer for a hotel within the City of Paris - let alone the one that also includes breakfast - wouldn't last or would sell out quickly, so I pounced as soon as I got my Priority Club bonus points from the credit card, knowing that the reservation would be cancelable.  Actually, our first choice was another more centrally-located hotel (Holiday Inn Opera Grands Blvds) with the same points+cash cost, but it was fully booked for our travel dates by the time I got the points from the credit card into my Priority Club account.

It took about 8 weeks between applying for the card and the 60,000 points showing up in my Priority Club account, because there is processing time, mail time, and they didn't credit me until my first bill is issued after the first complete billing cycle.

One thing Chase asks you when you first call to activate the card after you have received it is if you would like to change the due date.  In retrospect, I should have asked them to move the due date to be the first date available.  Instead I changed it to a date that worked better for my bill paying schedule, which postponed it more than necessary.

Telephone SIM Card

We also needed to get a phone sim card to put in the unlocked phone we had brought with us so we could call the kids, who were staying with my parents in California.  The phone is my old flip-phone from my office; I called customer service and since it was about 8 years old they gave me the unlock code.  I had tried to order a SIM card on line and have it sent to the hotel but that didn’t work.  After asking around at the Monoprix department/grocery store (similar to a very small Target), several people directed us to a “Taxiphone” store, which apparently is the French term for a pay-as-you-go phone, or maybe a store that sells them.  We found the store, more of a booth really, and bought a Lebara sim card which was the same brand I had ordered, for 10 euros, and was preloaded with 7.50 euros of calling credit.  Calls to the US bill at 8 cents (1/100 euro) per minute.  It took a few tries to figure out how to activate the card in our unlocked phone but they do have English-speaking customer service which was helpful.  Then we were able to call the US and enjoyed very good sound quality, without the satellite bounce delay I expected when calling overseas - although maybe this is a thing of the past now that there is a good network of submarine fiber.

To dial the U.S. we had to dial 00-1-area code - number.

Saturday 3/10/12: Market at Barbes-Rochechouart station and Musee du Louvre

Arrived at the Holiday Inn Express @ Bassin de la Villette in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris.  

No room was available when we arrived at about 8:00 a.m. so we left our luggage at the front desk and headed out for our first day in Paris.  We first took a walk in the neighborhood of the 19th.  Nancy enjoyed her first pastry in France, a chocolate croissant, while I had a sesame baguette (not shown).

We went to the Barbes-Rochechouart market, which I had read about on a blog and knew it occurred on Saturdays.  We bought several items for lunch, including:
  • ·         Cheese – 2 packages for 2 euros since they were going to expire within the week.  I got small wheels of Camembert and some kind of soft muenster.
  • ·         Baguette
  • ·         Liver pate from an unknown animal.  The butcher who sold it to me said it was not duck, and since it ostensibly was a Halal butcher I presume it was not pork, but if he told me what it was I didn’t understand him.
  • ·         Some vegetables
  • ·         Mandarin oranges, samples of which were delicious when he offered them to us.
  • ·         Two types of olives
  • ·         A knife

All of this was around 10 euros.

Then we headed to the Musee du Louvre.  Since we entered through the train station, the security line at the Louvre only took about 8 minutes.  However I did have to surrender my knife.  The guard gave me a card that I could later exchange for my knife.

We were hungry so we sat at a table in the Louvre lobby and had our picnic.  We hadn’t bought anything to drink so we had to buy a 4 euro small bottle of water at the Louvre, which we shared.  We probably could have saved 3.75 euros if we had bought it before we got on the train.

Here is a photo of the picnic:

Everything was good, nothing was sublime, except for the orange which tasted nothing like the one we sampled at the market.  It was terrible.

Toured the Louvre that afternoon.   Focused on the Mona Lisa.  It’s not just us, or even Americans generally, who focus on greatest hits and superstars. Most people apparently come to the Louvre primarily to see the Mona Lisa, as you can see from this picture of people viewing the Mona Lisa:

Present company included. 
If for no other reason than to say we went to the Louvre and saw more than just the Mona Lisa, we also looked at some other things and spent a while in the Etruscan antiquities gallery.  This is a sarcophagus of what must have been a couple that was relaxed.


By then we had about enough art for a while and wanted to walk around.  Exited the Louvre through the pyramid, so we never did recover our knife, and walked around the Louvre’s outside grounds and the Jardin des Tuileries.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday 3/9/12: Flying to Paris

American flight 118:  Los Angeles to New York (JFK)
American flight 44: JFK to Paris (CDG)

In Los Angeles

Caught 5 am hotel shuttle to LAX.  When we told a woman traveling in the shuttle with us who was in LA on business that we were on our way to Paris, she acted like she just heard that her grandchild had been born, like it was some kind of a miracle, and there was finally some good in the world.
LAX security process was terrible.  First, we were standing in the security line and then were directed by staff to another line about 300 feet away, which turned out to be considerably longer than the line we were originally in.   Next, apparently the boarding passes I had emailed to Nancy to print the night before while she was in the hotel’s business center were mobile boarding passes and were not valid when printed on paper.  So she had to download the pass while we were trying to pass through security but her connection was poor, so it took us about 30 minutes to get through security.

Once we got through security, everything was fine.  The AA/Citibank credit card I had recently acquired gave us two passes to the Admirals’ Club.  When we arrived at the Admiral’s club check-in desk, I asked the clerk if we could re-use the cards at our layover and she said we could, and returned them without filling the cards out.  Inside the Admirals’ Club, everything is quiet and there are free snacks (nothing interesting, some apples, party snack mix, and grocery-grade mini muffins), and coffee and tea service, but more importantly there were lots of places to sit and dock my computer, with wifi, so I was able to wrap up my work for the time being.  We sat there until boarding.

Flight 118

LAX-JFK flight (AA 118) was full, or nearly so, but not oversold.  Skipped the pay-per-chew meal.  Our plan was to keep awake on the first flight, and then take our sleeping pill on the second flight so we could sleep, since we would be arriving in Paris at 6:30 a.m.  This plan largely worked.

At Kennedy Airport

At JFK, we were hungry and thirsty and stopped in the priority club again, but the clerk told us we should go to the Admirals’ club (A.C.) in the International section after she started filling out our cards (rendering them useless beyond that day).  By the time we huffed over to the international A.C., it was already time to board.  Doh!  Had we skipped the A.C. in JFK altogether, we could have used the passes on the return flight.

Since they were admitting several standbys, I waited at the counter about 10 minutes until I had the chance to ask if they were asking for volunteers for denied boarding,  Nancy rolled her eyes, perhaps appropriately, since they weren’t. We boarded having grabbed a handful of pretzels at the Admirals' Club and wishing we had sprung for snacks and more reading material when we had the chance.

Flight 44

Coach in American Airlines was surprisingly not bad.  I was prepared for the worst but I found the service to be warm and sufficient - we are pretty do-it-yourself kinds of people - and the food on international was perfectly edible.  They still serve 2 meals included with the price of admission, and they still offer complimentary wine and beer on international flights (not liquor) so I enjoyed a “Champanito” as I first heard a mini-champagne bottle called when flying to Ecuador in 1997, and since then has been my personal tradition on outbound international flights.  This and the meds, combined with 3 hours sleep the previous night, enabled both of us to sleep about 4-5 hours on the flight, which for me is pretty good.

Flight arrived slightly ahead of schedule.  We waited at least ½ hour for our luggage, but immigration had no wait at all, and as far as I could tell there were no customs inspectors there whatsoever.  We were told to walk to catch the train but when we walked all the way to the station, about 1/2 mile, we were stopped, apparently because someone left an abandoned luggage item at the train station, so we were told to walk around the other way, which we didn’t understand how to do and didn’t want to shlep our luggage another mile around the airport.  We decided to take a cab instead.  While we were in the taxi line, an unlicensed cabbie offered to take us to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express in the 19th Arrondissement - about as close to the airport as you can be while within Paris proper - for the bargain basement fare of 80 euros.  We passed, and took a regular metered cab.  The fare ended up being 37 euros.  Should have done that in the first place because trains (and the added bonus of shlepping luggage up and down stairs, etc.) would have cost at least 24 euros for the two of us anyway.

The Finagle

The tickets were made possible by the 75k bonus AA citicard (a different one) I ordered last year.  (The 75k offer no longer exists but there are other good offers that still do.)  AA offers round-trip mile Saaver coach seats in the off-season for 40,000 miles plus $98 taxes each.  (For comparison, a summer peak non-capacity-constrained frequent flier ticket may cost 120,000 miles.)  After the tickets were booked and paid for, I later realized an even better finagle – a way to bundle it with a one-way ticket to Hawaii at a later date – but it was too late to change without incurring significant fees that would have offset the upside, and in any case that is a story for another day.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thursday 3/8/12: SMF-LAX with the kids

Southwest flight 3705: Sacramento to Los Angeles

We left Sacramento in a rush with some work left a little more undone than I had hoped.  First time in the new SMF terminal and was generally impressed, although struck by the amount of relatively vacant space in the check-in area.
Uneventful flight on Southwest to LA. 

Dinner with my parents at the Proud Bird, a classic near LAX airport.  Parents paid.  Thanks, Parents.

Checked into the Candlewood Suites in Hawthorne.  It was the least expensive Priority Club hotel with an airport shuttle to LAX.  Hotel was adequate but the area is pretty sketchy and the pictures on the web site paint a pretty rosy picture.  Room was nice, lobby almost nonexistent.  I probably wouldn’t stay there again unless I am traveling solo, although Nancy is a trooper, and didn’t seem to mind.  Room was booked in advance for about $90/night inclusive, about $10 more than I saw available on hotwire. 

Parents took the kids with them, first night kid-free in over a year.  I was mostly focused on trying to wrap up my work that I had not finished before my vacation, before getting about 3 hours of sleep.

N&D go Continental: Our Adult Trip to Paris

Nancy and I just returned from a vacation in Paris.  This was our first trip without kids that lasted more than 3 days since we've had them, and the first that lasted more than 1 night where we weren't laid up with the flu.  More to follow.