Friday, May 27, 2011

Ifs, Ands, & Cigarette Butts

Having grown up in America, I recall the days of my youth when cigarette smoking was still considered to be more vogue than it is now, and certainly, at least, more tolerated. I recall ads featuring pretty ladies smoking Virginia Slims on the back covers of my mom's subscription magazines. At age eleven, I recall flying on my first commercial domestic flight seated two rows away from the smoking section and thinking to myself, "How does the smoke know to stay in its designated section?" I soon learned that it doesn't. I had friends whose mothers smoked Camels and Pall Malls. My grandmother had a two-pack-a-day habit that lasted through my childhood years until she quit at the age of eighty. I blew my allowance on candy, and, more than once, purchased those candy cigarettes laced with powder that mimicked smoke. I attended a high school that had its very own outdoor smoking section called "Smokers' Cove" or simply, "The Cove". At age fourteen I was pressured to smoke a cigarette by well-intentioned friends who simply wanted me to feel like part of the group (this is a nice way to re-frame peer pressure, don't you think?). Despite my not wanting to, I took a puff and tried to look and act cool when I began coughing uncontrollably. That was the end of that. Somehow, despite all of my exposure to smoking during my formative years, I knew it was not my thing.

Thankfully, California voters decided years ago, it's not their thing either, at least in public places. My state's tendency to attract those leading a health-conscious lifestyle also contributes to a relatively low number of smokers. I go about my daily life without hardly ever coming into contact with cigarette smoke.

Then I moved to Paris.

There are three significant ways in which French smoking negatively affects my Parisian life:

1) I can't walk out the entry door of our building without being enveloped by a cloud of cigarette smoke.

There is a daily mob of smoking teens who attend the private Catholic school across the street that congregate on the sidewalk inches away from our building's entry. Turns out, this is because by age 11 about 10% of French kids start smoking and by the age of 15 over 50% of French youths are regularly inhaling tobacco.

After school smoking fix outside of our apartment building.

Parisian sidewalks, including the one in front of our building, are regularly littered with cigarette butts. Both store-bought and self-rolled ones. Rolling one's own cigarette is a very popular thing here.

2) I can't dine outdoors at restaurants without swallowing fumes along with my meal.

About five years ago, France passed a law banning cigarette smoking inside public establishments. Unlike California's smoking ban, French smokers can smoke on the premises of a restaurant as long as they remain on the outdoor patio or sidewalk. Two weeks ago, my friend Renee and I were enjoying a mid-day shopping break refueling with a beverage outdoors at a bustling cafe on the Left Bank (our main intent really was to gain access to a bathroom).

We chose to sit outside since that is where all the best people-watching occurs. I encouraged Renee to sit facing the street where she would best be able to take in the passing fashion show. I sat facing her and the restaurant. The seating was tight and compact, typical for Parisian cafes. Inches away, to our right, was a group of women, all of whom lit up shortly after Renee and I took our seats. The slight breeze blew their smoke directly into our faces. Without many options to avoid their smoke, I scooted my stool over to the left and back a few inches. Soon after, a waiter came over to tell me that I must move my stool back to it's original position. Reading the perplexed look on my face he quickly added in his thickly accented English, "Eet ees za rrrule." Those damn French rules again! He failed to notice that after following his rule, I moved my stool back to it's rule-breaking location as soon as he left our table. Yet, despite the slightly increased distance between my seat and the smoking ladies', I think I vicariously smoked at least a pack that day.

I wish sitting outside to see and be seen wasn't such a hazard to my health here. I appreciate that California does not force me to choose between dining al fresco or protecting my lungs. The next time I find myself enjoying a meal outdoors back home at La Boulange, Chow, or Va de Vi, I will surely feel much more grateful.

3) I can't run on Paris's lovely Promenade Plantée without routinely inhaling a pedestrian's smoky exhale as I whiz past.

I see more smoking pedestrians on this trail than I do power walkers and runners. There is an overall lack of embracing fitness and exercise here, and smoking fits in well with this lifestyle choice. Heck, 30% of French doctors smoke (compared to 5% of American docs) and they're the ones who should really know better.

French parents smoke with little apparent concern for the effects of second-hand smoke on their children.

"There, there, mon bébé Maman's et Papa's smoke isn't that bad is it?"

As a non-smoking Californian, it is hard for me not to feel judgement creep in when I witness a French mother smoking a cigarette and holding hands with her toddler while waiting in front of the school for her older child to emerge at pick-up time. This is a sight that I never see in my community back home. I assume this is because California's anti-smoking campaign has had a great impact, particularly on the recognition of the detrimental effects of second-hand smoke. Of the one mommy friend that I have back home who smokes, she keeps her habit on the down-low and never lights up in the presence of her husband or kids. During our girls' nights out, well, as they say, what happens in Walnut Creek, stays in Walnut Creek (or at least more than 20 feet away from doors, windows, air ducts and ventilation systems of enclosed public spaces).
French teachers smoke too, not in the classroom, but certainly in front of the school and in front of their students. For me and my children this is a novel sight. Raelyn's math teacher told her class yesterday, "Don't bother me today! It's been thirty-six hours since my last cigarette, I'm trying to quit!" Not surprisingly, Raelyn reported, "Mom, he was way grumpier than usual today." Coincidentally, I captured one of his last smokes earlier this week in some photos in front of the school. To his credit, he at least told his students, "Don't ever smoke. Once you start, you can't stop." Hopefully, he'll be able to prove himself wrong and walk the talk. I wish him luck.

Raelyn inhaling her teacher's second-hand smoke.

The other day, I took this photo on the way home from school:

At first, I thought that this advertisement was an anti-smoking one and I felt very satisfied to have captured the irony on my camera. The ad's message, "One could invite cancer, but he definitely would prefer to be left alone," is promoted by France's Institut National du Cancer. I found this out when I saw other similar ads in the Metro station containing their logo. Notice the absence of any tangible reference to smoking in the advertisement. Is the lone guy in this ad supposed to be pondering the thought of quitting smoking as he stares at the side of the Centre Georges Pompidou? Or, is he supposed to be fighting the urge for a smoke before he goes inside to view all of the Pompidou's modern art? Does the fact that I'm not French impede my ability to fully grasp the meaning and message of this ad campaign? Or, is the Institut purposefully using an indirect approach simply because a more blatant anti-smoking campaign wouldn't be well-received in a nation full of smokers? One thing seems perfectly clear; this guy on the sidewalk doesn't seem to be particularly impacted by the ad nor concerned about cancer.

Are the French concerned about cancer? I don't know the answer. According to a recent ranking of global cancer rates, France and the USA are about equal. Same goes for the two country's cancer survival rates. And yet, despite its larger percentage of tobacco intake, France beats America's overall life expectancy rate. What's going on here? Does France's love for croissants, cheese, butter, and wine counterbalance the detriments of smoking? Does America's love for (over) eating all things processed explain its lower life expectancy rate? Hmm...

French cigarette packages do take a more in-your-face approach regarding the dangers of smoking. And they hit below the belt, literally, with health warning messages that target one of the things the French value most. Sex.  This package was discarded in one of our window flower boxes a few weeks ago. I was about to toss it in the garbage when the warning label caught my attention.

"Smoking can cause low blood pressure and impotence."

What French romantic would ever want that to happen? I did learn that the French anti-smoking movement - yes, one actually does exist- went a bit too far last year according to popular opinion when they tried unsuccessfully to launch this advertising campaign targeted at teens:

“Smoking makes you the slave of tobacco”.

The ads are meant to show that smoking creates dependency and submission, but critics of this campaign believe the images trivialize sexual abuse. I can understand both sides of the argument.

What I can't understand is, this: Why do the French, who seemingly have a greater appreciation for a natural beauty aesthetic- particularly when it comes to females- engage in a habit that dramatically shaves years off of this natural beauty in the form of early onset wrinkles, yellowed teeth, and jaundiced-looking skin? Take, for example, our apartment building's Gardienne, a hip bohemian woman with orange dreadlocks, funky boots, tattoos, an eleven-year-old son, and a wicked smoking habit. Her age is a complete mystery to me. She gives off an aura of youth and I'm guessing that she's in her early 40's, but I can't be sure because her skin and teeth look like they belong to a much older woman.

The only upside of being surrounded by all this smoking is that my American-conditioned female self- who wants to stay young-looking for as long as is naturally possible- takes comfort in knowing that in about 10-15 years, I will wind up looking younger than my daughters' twenty-one-year-old (gorgeous) French babysitter. Although she smokes in the presence of my kids- outdoors only- Raelyn and Nola have reported that she strongly cautions them against ever trying a cigarette. This advice coming from a gal who also tans, as many of the French do, both naturally and artificially. Just another means by which I'll wind up looking years younger than her before not too long.

My final thoughts: IF the French quit smoking, would they become fat? AND, if they started exercising, would their current overall life expectancy rise even further? BUTT, it's pointless to ponder these musings because, as we know, the French possess that indefinable je ne sais quoi and who would want to mess with that?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Love Is In The Air

Surely you know the famous tagline: Paris, The City of Love. Well, it's actually true. I have witnessed more PDAs (Public Display of Affection) in less than a year than I have seen in all the PG-13 films combined over the course of my lifetime.

I have noticed a gradual mental shift in my very American internal reaction when I view couples lip-locked on the sidewalks, park benches, bistros, and Metro platforms. My initial thought is, "Get a room!" But then I realize that I actually appreciate the carefree abandon with which the French show their love and affection for each other. And by love and affection, I'm talking much more than the standard double-cheek euro kiss.

Parisian couples- young and old, gay and straight- take their city's moniker very seriously. Love is demonstrated by long, full-bodied embraces, hands cupping faces, or sliding down towards their lover's lower back to pull them in for a closer embrace, and sometimes, hands even disappear altogether underneath a lover's clothing. Fingers caress cheeks and run through their partner's hair, eyes lock upon each others' for long, loving gazes. Kisses are strong and sensual and they routinely involve tongue action. Duh, French kissing! They are exchanged in multiples as if neither partner wants this kiss to be the last. Oh, parting is such sweet sorrow! Seriously, walking down a Parisian sidewalk can sometimes be like flicking the switch on my childhood View-Master if it were loaded with a disc of images from Romeo and Juliet.

While the French desire to keep toileting separate and private, by my observations, they certainly don't feel the same about demonstrative passion. As a parent, I have learned to value the real-life learning opportunities this French behavior has presented to me. The Birds and The Bees has taken on new and deeper dimensions thanks to our daughters' eye-witness accounts of sensual, sexual, passionate, and shocking liaisons.

One Sunday morning, last Winter, Soren and Raelyn headed off to our favorite boulangerie, for croissants, which requires a walk across the river to Ile St. Louis. During their walk, they passed a park bench and this particular bench happened to be occupied by a pair of lovers. Even by our newly revised don't get a room standards Soren was shocked that the woman, who was sitting on the lap of her lover, had her legs hoisted up and over his shoulders while they passionately kissed. She was wearing a mini skirt and had bare legs; in the middle of Winter! I told Soren that perhaps she was a prostitute, but his take on it was that they were mutually authentic lovers in their 30's blinded and numbed by passion to the frigid temperatures outside. Hearing about this bare legged, mini skirted, passionate woman, I couldn't help but think back to the scene from When Harry Met Sally, when, after Meg Ryan's climactic scene stealer in a restaurant, another female diner says to the waitress, "I'll have what she's having!"  

The girls learned about French kissing thanks to two teenagers riding on the Metro. The young gal was sitting on her beau's lap as they noshed away on each others' lips and tongues, oblivious to the fact that two impressionable grade-school kids were taking it all in. Upon exiting the train, my daughters' first comment was not, "Eww, yuck!" Their first question was not, "Why do they do that?" What my girls actually wanted to know as they looked me square in the eye was, "Do you and Dad do that?"

It's not that the girls have never seen Soren and I kiss, embrace, cuddle, and hold hands. It's just that we, like many of our fellow Americans, engage in the rated G version of demonstrative love when in public. Raelyn and Nola have seen our wedding video numerous times and their most memorable clip is when Soren embraces me, dips me backwards slightly and plants a great big lingering kiss on my lips upon the minister's pronouncement that we are husband and wife. Almost every time our girls have seen Soren and I kiss over the years, they begin a boisterous and demanding chant of, "Wedding kiss! Wedding kiss! Wedding kiss!" If we fail to deliver, they let us know that we have not met their expectation of a repeat performance.

It occurred to me that Raelyn's and Nola's desire for Soren and I to demonstrate tangible displays of love, passion, and sensuality between us, likely has something to do with the fact that these emotions are core to our essence as relational human beings. The French have taught me how it can be healthy for children to witness parents engaging in a fuller expression of their relationship- one that moves just a bit beyond quick pecks on the lips or simple hugs, but rather, displays a deeper sense of passion and sensuality. My guess is that very few French children have to ask their parents if they French kiss because this behavior is so ingrained into their country's culture of romance in a very public, and- dare I say- titillating way, that, it's as normal to them as is breathing. As newborn babies, they've probably seen their parents French kiss countless times before they all head home from the hospital.

I do wonder if marital status impacts this cultural display of passion and, if so, to what extent?  The French romantic in me wants to believe that at least some of the folks that I've stalked with my camera are happily married and still wild and crazy about each other. My new goal- for the remainder of my time in Paris-  is to prove to my kids that, like these French couples, I am still wild and crazy about their Dad. Oh yea, and to bring this custom back to the States. Who knows? Soren and I just might gain a reputation for being the prolific PDA couple of Walnut Creek. I think I already have a park bench picked out. Then, of course, there's Bart, the fitness club lobby, the Meher School parking lot ...

Due to the overwhelming and enthusiastic response that I received for my 2010 EuroMan Election blog post, I bring you another voting opportunity. Ladies and gentlemen, Mesdames et Messieurs, I now present to you for your viewing and voting pleasure: The 2011 French Lovers Competition.
Results void where prohibited by law.

Couple # 1
Couple # 2

Couple # 3

Couple # 4

Couple # 5

Couple # 6

Couple # 7

Couple # 8

Couple # 9

Couple # 10

Couple # 11

Couple # 12

Couple # 13

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Urinal This Together

Having given birth to two children- fellow mamas, I know you can relate- the need to relieve myself, when it strikes, can often do so with a sense of urgency. Even if I haven't been consuming my 8 glasses of water per day, I still have to visit a public toilette on a regular basis. And, because I am the same gender as my children, that makes me their default bathroom escort.  Therefore, I now have lots of experience using public restrooms in Paris and the other regions and countries that we have visited over the past nine months. I am still very much grappling with several issues that pertain to the necessary evil of relieving oneself on this continent.

This city, like many others in Europe, suffers from an underwhelming supply of available free toilets. In Walnut Creek, when I gotta go, I can pop into Nordstrom, sneak into Starbucks, or drive to a gas station and take care of business without having to fork over a cent. On this continent, I pay 1.50 euros (as of today that's about $2.00) to use the facilities in a department store, or, I pay for a cappuccino in a cafe to gain access to their bathroom, and, I can forget about using one in a Paris gas station since a single gas pump sitting on a sidewalk is how gas thirsty cars get their fuel. Ironic, isn't it,  that my most usual method of gaining access to a toilet- buying a beverage in a cafe- is only going to exacerbate my core issue of needing one in the first place. And, at my current bladder retention rate, I'm talking less than an hour later.

$5.00 granted us access at the Galeries Lafayette's public restroom. Who wouldn't want to pay for the use of all that pretty toilet paper? I have never before seen a restroom with a maitre d'.  He's too busy taking toileting reservations by phone to admonish us for taking this photo.

Paris does have some free public toilets located on the sidewalks, but every time I attempt to use one, I encounter some kind of mishap. It's the kind of experience when, moments afterwards, I feel the urge to look around for the hidden camera that just caught my blunder on tape. I sort of expect Ashton Kutcher to jump out from behind a garbage can or bus stop and say, "Holli, you've been PUNKED!"

During my first attempt to use one of these toilets, I was accompanied by Raelyn. We waited our turn in line on the sidewalk of a busy shopping district. The young woman ahead of us was British and when it was her turn to use the facilities, I made certain to watch carefully so that I would know what to do when it was our turn to enter. I noticed that she pushed a button to open the door, then she stepped inside, and just as the door slid to almost a complete close, it opened up again while she was unbuttoning and unzipping her jeans. The door attempted to close three more unsuccessful times before she gave up with a loud and exhasperated, " #@!!% this!" and off she went. Despite the intimidation I was now feeling, I was determined to figure it out and make it work for me and Raelyn. She and I quickly scooted into the restroom while the door was still open. Seconds later, it slid closed and we were inside the surprisingly clean looking pod-like contraption complete with toilet paper and soap. I was impressed!

Suddenly and unexpectedly, a recorded French female voice loudly instructed us of something. I had no idea what we were being told. Raelyn, thank goodness, understood that the voice was warning us of the self-cleaning cycle that was about to commence. Before I could push the button that opens the door, a loud alarm sound bleeped repeatedly and Raelyn, who had taken a brief moment to read the French instructions printed on the wall, realized that if we didn't get out- and fast- our feet were about to get soaked with water. This is because the bathroom floor gets a washdown between each usage. In addition, the toilet retracts back into the wall, dumping its contents into an unseen basin and receives its own rinsing before lowering itself back into the ready position for the next patron. I now understood why the British woman could not succeed in getting the door to remain closed- this bathroom knew it was dirty and in need of a cleaning- it's smarter than we are!

While waiting outside for the self-cleaning cycle to terminate, I noticed that these units come equipped with an exterior light system in which each colored light indicates the toilet's current cycle: Green = Available, Red = In Use, Yellow = Self-Cleaning, or Blue = Out of Service. I have learned that these colored lights can be misleading and that, most of the time, a seemingly available sidewalk toilet isn't. I wish there was a light indicator for: This Toilette Looks Available But Isn't And Won't Be For Who Knows How Long So Move On.

I have tried to outsmart these sidewalk bathrooms. Having lost faith in the light system, I employed my other senses, mainly, my hearing, in an attempt to decide if I should keep persisting in getting the door to slide open. I'd like to say that I gleaned useful information from this method, in fact, I'd like to have a reason to become known as The Toilette Whisperer, but listening did not prove to be any more useful than looking.

My intelligent friend, Renee, tried to outsmart the toilette by suggesting that we all go in together. At least this could ensure that all of us who need to go pee actually get face-time with the toilet. Make that butt-time. Her idea was not embraced by all as you can see here:

Raelyn's and Nola's need for privacy trumped Renee's 'Urinal This Together' idea simply because, as Americans, we are used to having a much more privatized public toileting experience. In Europe, I have noticed, gender separation of public toilets is a rarity. I have used restrooms that have a communal sink area, one semi-private urinal, and one toilet stall all confined within a very small space. Even though I want to look in the mirror to freshen up and dab on a bit of lip gloss, I don't due to my own discomfort with the lack of privacy. I am forced to share this space with men and boys and I really prefer to do my female primping in private or, if I must, only in the company of other females. Sometimes, I have cleverly pulled out my compact mirror that I keep inside my handbag and reapply my lip gloss while in the toilet stall. Sure, I take longer, but I'd rather risk others assuming I'm going #2 than go without luscious looking lips.

"Why is she taking so long in there?" Little does this guy know, that, behind closed doors, I am searching around in the bottom of my purse for my lip gloss. He can always use one of these display toilets if he becomes really desperate.

Soren has been forced to get over his desire for privacy, especially when he was using the urinal in a communal bathroom and a cleaning woman mopped around his feet while he stood there taking a leak. This was just one of those in-the-moment cultural lessons for us about the fact that the public bathroom boundaries around privacy and personal space are way different here. The fact that I was even able to take the photos shown below are proof of this relativity.

Soren not quite embracing the lack of privacy.

Soren's comfort level with the Urinal This Together concept is increasing as demonstrated by his ability to flash a lighthearted smile despite the fact that the ladies room is next door to his semi-private urinal.

One fine example of Europe's relationship with toileting was evident in Den Haag, The Netherlands.  We arrived on the eve of Holland's biggest holiday - Queen's Day- a celebration of their queen's birthday which is marked by street fairs, flea markets, and the Dutch consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Our hotel was conveniently located in the city center, the heart of the celebratory action. Naturally, a city needs to provide the means necessary for its celebrants to relieve themselves. Back home, this means setting up rows of individual porta potties. They're stinky, but at least they're private. As you can see from the photo below, the Dutch have devised their own version of the porta potty.

I can't help but wonder what they expect women to do as well as all the people that may have to go #2?

The next morning, while the Dutch slept off their hangovers, we awoke early to find that the urine holes were filled to the brim with beer bottles. Urinating and littering conquered with one invention. I wonder if its creator realizes just how doubly ingenious this contraption is?

Less ingenious are the toilets that I use while out and about in Paris on a daily basis.  The usual toilet bowl configuration leaves much to be desired. Granted, this isn't India and there is an actual porcelain fixture in the stall rather than two foot plates on either side of a hole in the ground. Nonetheless, the functionality of ladies' toilets here aren't much of an improvement. This is because the vast majority of public toilets lack a seat. I'm not naming names, but it's like living with a man who forgets (or refuses?) to put the seat down at home. Except that here, there is no seat to put down. So I resort to squatting over the toilet, giving my quadriceps the same workout that they received when I was traveling in India. There are no seat covers, but I wouldn't want use one. Sitting is just not an appealing option for me. I know someone who, when she travels in Europe, sits on her hands because she does not like to squat. She figures that at least she can wash her hands (obviously not her butt) afterwards in the sink.

Washing is another gripe of mine. There are no paper towels in most restrooms. The majority of public bathrooms here are equipped with very old and/or inoperable hand dryers so I usually resort to shaking mine dry. While I applaud environmental friendliness, for a germophobe like me, I really prefer having a paper towel in my hand when I turn off the faucet and open the bathroom door because of all the folks I see who opt out of hand washing after using the toilet. 

And, let me tell you, size does matter. For ladies' bathroom stalls at least. Like everywhere else in Paris, space is at a premium and toilet stalls are no exception. Most of the time, my knees bump up against the door as I squat over the dirty, seat-less bowl. At least then I don't have to use my arm to hold closed the occasional door with an inoperable lock. The width of the stalls is not generous. When I cram myself, my purse, and the occasional coat and/or shopping bag(s) into my postage stamp of a stall, I become grateful that I do not suffer from claustrophobia. I just hope that my Louis Vuitton handbag (my Baby!) does not fall into the toilet every time I have to hold it behind my body and over the bowl so that I can create enough free space in order to open the stall door.

There are no female-friendly hooks or pull-down shelves for my Louis Vuitton which means that My Baby remains uncomfortably restrictive and burdensome on my shoulder. It inevitably slides down towards my elbow thus challenging my balance during my squat. My germophobia prevents me from putting my Baby on the floor. The reality is, for me to have ease of use in a European toilet stall, I need to grow a third arm. This extra appendage would become my much-needed handbag, coat, and shopping bag holder since, during certain times of the month, I need both arms free for taking care of business. TMI, I know, but I gotta call it like it is. And besides, I take comfort in knowing that at least half of you who read this can fully relate to and appreciate my toileting challenges.

The French appear to have a method of dealing with these toileting challenges by simply avoiding the use of toilets. Based on my observations, one of the ways in which they accomplish this feat is that the French drink very little to no water, at least during mealtimes. The French guests that we have hosted in our home never even touch their water glass and they never use our bathroom. For instance, our 11-year-old French relative spent a full day with us and despite her eating and drinking while in our company she never once used the toilet. Not long ago, our new French babysitter spent the afternoon with us. She drank a glass of wine with lunch (she did not touch her glass of water), and later, she consumed a cup of coffee. She never went to the bathroom! For me, that amount of liquid creates the need for at least two trips to the loo.

Last week, using our babysitter as my cultural relativity barometer, I asked her what this toilet avoidance is all about. She explained that many French people refrain from making trips to the bathroom as a guest in somebody's home because doing so is considered to be slightly crude, embarrassing, and impolite. Urinating and defecating are considered private bodily functions to ideally accomplish in the privacy of one's own home. She did stress the reality that, when you gotta go, you gotta go, and the French- when necessary- will and do make use of the facilities outside of their own home. I was relieved to hear this bit of news because my bladder was really beginning to develop an inferiority complex.

Most Parisian apartments have a salle de bain, or bathroom, which consists of a tub or shower and a sink and then a separate water closet; the tiny room containing only a toilet. Sometimes these two rooms are located next to each other, sometimes they're at opposite ends of the hall. The French, unlike many Americans, create a boundary and sense of privacy in their homes by not taking guests on a tour of their entire house. Therefore, the location of both their toilette and salle de bain remains a mystery to me unless I inquire as to their location.

For almost a year now, I have been totally naive and I have indeed made use of the facilities as a guest in the homes of many French relatives and friends. Had I known that the norm is to hold it in until I get home, I would have been more restrictive with my beverage intake because now I fear that I have been perceived as impolite by asking my host or hostess to point me in the direction of their toilette.  Hopefully, they realize, like our babysitter said- when you gotta go, you gotta go. Because- let's face it-  when you get right down to it, despite societal norms and cultural relativities, we're all human beings at the mercy of Mother Nature, and, when She calls, they, I, and urinal this together.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Weekend Warriors

Two week school vacations are great for traveling, but given how easy and quick it is to get from Paris to another region of France or even another country in just under a few hours makes weekend travel pretty much of a breeze.

Train travel is a real delight. Gazing out the window we see novel and beautiful scenery whizzing by while our ears perk up at the variety of languages we overhear from our fellow passengers.  Making the quintessential dash down the full length of the railway platform because we are late for our train has seared train travel deep into our memories. Soren and I have literally been drenched in sweat upon taking our seats, breathing a deep sigh of relief that we actually made it on board with less than a minute to spare. Mademoiselle Nola always requests to travel first class since she so enjoyed being served a delicious meal in a first class car last winter. We've told her she can pitch in her allowance money to continue to have that privilege. The weak dollar is not working in her favor at the moment.

Cultural experiences are plentiful during these short but nevertheless educational weekends. The girls toasting champagne with us to commence our tour of a regional cellar followed by sips from their child-sized flute is totally acceptable. Visiting a fois gras farm and seeing the ducks that are force-fed until their livers become fattened provoked a discussion comparing and contrasting animal cruelty practices among U.S. cattle ranches and French fois gras farms. Encouraging the girls to leave our hotel with the city map and venture around the block- without us- to find a snack, feels safe and nurturing of their otherwise stunted independence due to our overprotective tendencies back home.

Our touring and sightseeing are not always embraced with enthusiasm. "Another cathedral? But they all look the same," is now the standard grumble muttered by the girls. Another favorite objection of theirs is, "We have to walk? Can't we rent a bike instead?" thanks to their love of our Giverny and Holland cycling escapades. One evening, while visiting the French town of Reims, we treated ourselves to an outstanding meal at a Michelin-rated restaurant. The girls initially refused to try the complimentary bite-sized hors d'oeuvre and amuse-bouche. If I were their age and a shot glass layered with pureed zucchini, a slice of prosciutto, pureed rabbit, pureed carrot, and cream were put in front of me, I'd reject it too. With some prodding from  us, they finally touched their tongues to the amuse-bouche and muttered, "It's okay, not great." As an adult, I appreciate how such a culinary concoction does make for a happy mouth. Someday, I hope, they will too. I'm just glad they didn't ask to order chicken nuggets and french fries. Instead, they surprised us and Raelyn ordered the risotto au homard (lobster) and Nola requested le pigeon, pleased with the fact that she was about to eat a rat with wings. And, true to form, Mademoiselle Nola loved her fine dining experience so much that she can't wait to eat at another fancy restaurant. She had better start saving that allowance.

Here are some photographic highlights of our weekend jaunts:

London, August 2010

Versailles, October 2010
Town of Honfleur in Normandie, October 2010

Markt Square in Brugges, Belgium - January 2011

Brugges is often referred to as the 'Venice of the North'

Nola's memorable first-class meal. Brussels to Paris- January, 2011

Reims, France - March 2011, The Surrender Museum is where General Eisenhower and the Allies received the unconditional surrender of the Germans on May 7, 1945. This is the room and the table as it was on that day where the signing took place.
Welcoming Spring at Claude Monet's home and garden. Giverny, France - April 2011

This would make a nice Impressionist painting don't you think? Minus the tourists.
Disneyland.  Nah. It's really Troyes, France - April 2011
Cathedral in Troyes, France. We're neither Catholic nor religious, but I told them to repent anyway.

Fois Gras Farm in Gye sur Seine, France - April 2011

Nola and Raelyn toasting with their champagne in Gye sur Seine

Biking through the tulip fields in Lisse, Holland- May 2011

Monday, May 9, 2011

Travel Plans: Points to Consider

One of my goals for this year in Paris has been to take advantage of the excellent public transportation infrastructure plus close proximity to other countries and explore France and Europe as much as possible. The girls' 2-week school vacations that occur every 6-8 weeks throughout the year provide ample opportunity to broaden our horizons beyond Paris. It has been difficult to create a list of priority destinations with so many wonderful and exciting locales to choose from. Germany, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic? Check. Greece, Egypt, and  Morroco? No longer at the top of our list at the moment for obvious reasons.

Soren's business travel expenses means we have beaucoup points accrued with Starwood Hotels through our American Express card. I felt confident that we could spend the year lodging in style all over Europe with automatic upgrades due to his platinum status with Starwood's Preferred Guest program without paying a dime in hotels such as Le Meridiens and Westins. Our avoidance of forking over almost $1.50 for every Euro spent on lodging made this plan ultra appealing to me.

I have lost count of the number of times Soren has called home from a business trip to report that he was well ensconced in a suite at the W Hotel in Manhattan or some other similar hip or luxurious locale. "I checked in and they gave me this room with a view, a living room, and two flat screens," became an eventual superfluous description from Soren since these upgrades became the norm rather than the exception. The only problem was that I was not there to enjoy these suites with him. That was all going to change according to my master travel plan for our year abroad.

Boy, was I wrong.

Soren's platinum status expired at the end of December because he did not accrue the minimum number of stays required to maintain it in 2010. Buh-bye automatic upgrades. Luckily, we had one last hurrah in the form of a free night with upgrade that had to be redeemed by the end of the year. We made a date night out of it in October by staying at Paris's Hotel Prince de Galles in a sophisticated and expansive suite with a lovely sitting room and beautiful garden terrace overlooking picturesque Parisian rooftops.

And this is where the luxury ends and reality sets in.

The Starwood chain does not have hotels located in many of the places that have been on our itinerary. The Loire Valley, region of many of France's famous castles- no Starwoods. Normandy, infamous D-Day locale- no Starwoods. Brugges, Belgium and Den Haag, Holland- again, no Starwoods. Soren's thousands of Starwood points are useless to us in these places.

Furthermore, in some of the larger European cities, if they have a Starwood hotel with rooms available using points, it's usually a Sheraton- at the airport- which means we'd be lodging several miles outside the city's center and listening to planes flying overhead all night long. Not appealing, even if we are paying with points instead of cash.

The final culprit of my master travel plan has been space. As in, not enough of it. Granted, space is a relative term, and, as an American, I am used to more of it, including in my hotel rooms. My visions of master suites dancing in my head faded away for good when we learned that the majority of standard European hotel rooms can only accommodate up to a maximum of 3 persons. That includes a roll-away bed which, naturally, adds an extra 50 euros per night. Therefore, a family of four is required to reserve two rooms. Two rooms = double points = defeat of master travel plan simply because the rate at which we would have used our points would leave us with a bankrupt Starwood account before our year abroad is barely at the half-way mark. 

So, what does an American budget-conscious family do? This family opts for Novotel, Europe's answer to affordable, modern, clean, and family-friendly hotel accommodations. Luxurious suites? No. But, large rooms, free all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, game rooms, and central locations are a plus. Given the weak U.S. dollar, a free family meal once a day while traveling is a relief. Raelyn and Nola like the Novotel breakfasts so much that they beg us to return to our Novotels for dinner. Not happening. They would also loose all track of time in the game room if we allowed that to happen. Let's see, what shall we do today? Castles, museums, and historical points of interest? Or play Toy Story on the Xbox?

It just occurred to me to keep that option in mind as a stand-in babysitter for our next get-away. Raelyn and Nola will never even know Soren and I have left the hotel. If our girls' delight with the Novotel is any indication of their interest in the finer things in life, then frankly, I am glad to not have the opportunity to waste our Starwood points on them.

So even though my master plan went awry, we have still managed to see and do amazing things all over Europe while lodging comfortably and economically. Soren and I will simply need to find a way to continue this sense of adventure back home by tapping into our remaining Starwood points next year. Hmm, I think I'm liking this plan better anyway...