Tuesday, January 5, 2010
WhatI l Learned on My Winter Vacation, or What the Guidebooks Don't Tell You
After 28 years of celebrating the holidays with children, we found ourselves alone, as each of our children celebrated with their inlaws and prospective inlaws in other parts of the country.
So we decided to go away for the holidays and cheer ourselves up in Paris.
Have you heard the expression, "Best laid plans of mice and men...?"
Here is what I assumed and here is the reality.
Listen and learn.
Assumption #1. No one would want to fly on Christmas Day and, if they did, it would be a festive atmosphere.
Reality Check: The plane was not only full, it was agonizingly full, with crying babies and snoring seat mates.
And festive? Not one person expressed cheer for the holidays. It was business as usual.
What I learned: Christmas Day is a popular day to fly. Avoid at all costs.
Assumption #2. We would have Paris to ourselves, because it's winter and the holidays.
Reality Check: There were more tourists in Paris than you could imagine there would be even in July. Everyone from New York City to Timbuktu was there -- and they brought their kids!
What I Learned: Avoid Paris at all costs after the holidays unless you like crowds.
Assumption #3. Parisiennes are unfriendly to us Americans.
Reality Check: Americans are unfriendly to other Americans.
What I learned: Actually the Parisiennes bent over backward to be friendly. But when sitting cheek to jowl with other Americans in cramped bistros, not a one acknowledged each other with a friendly, "Where are you from?" It took an Italian on the train ride back from Versailles to strike up a conversation. Had a nice chat. As an aside, he told us he had been all over the world, but never to America despite having relatives there. He said he didn't feel the need to actually go to America, because there were so many American television shows in Italy. I cringe to think of what shows are exported to Italy that portray living in the U.S. On our television in Paris we were treated to German MTV which played endless episodes of Next.
Assumption #4. Parisiennes will make fun of you if you try to speak French.
Reality Check: Not so. However, as soon as it becomes apparent to them that your attempt at speaking French is pathetic, they will launch into impeccable English just to show off. But wouldn't you? If you can speak the other person's language better than the other person can speak yours, wouldn't you want to bypass all of the stumbling and gibberish that might ensue?
What I learned: It is de rigeur to say "Bon Jour" and "Au Revoir" when interacting with Parisians. And if you feel you can make yourself understood, I am sure they will look kindly on it. But don't be surprised when they launch into English, slang and all.
Assumption #5. A museum pass lets you bypass the lines.
Reality Check: Sorry, Rick(Steves).
Not so. Everyone is wise to the museum pass now, so the line for people WITH TICKETS was longer than the line to GET tickets. Minimum one hour to get into the D'Orsay and Versailles. Went to the D'Orsay.
What I learned: Even with the museum pass, go early or expect to wait. And you might not get to see everything you are expecting to see. When I asked the guard at the D'Orsay, "Ou est Whistler's Mother?" he politely explained in English, that she had been sent away on loan, because how else were they to make money?
Assumption #6. Musuems will be open on the days the guidebooks say they are open.
Reality Check: After a frustrating day of waiting in line to get into some museums (WITH our museum pass!), we decided to go to the Picasso Museum, which was a long 10 Metro stops away. But it was later in the day, so we thought we had a good shot at not having to wait long. We arrive...Closed until 2012. It had been closed since August. My 2010 Fodor's made no note of that. However, I will give Rick Steves credit. His 2010 Paris guide does mention that, but did we take that one with us? No. Checked it when I got home.
What I Learned: Don't leave guidebooks at home.
Assumption #7. The French are well-dressed.
Reality Check: Well, mostly. The women wear impossibly high heels and seem to navigate the cobblestoned streets just fine, and everyone, but everyone wears a stylish scarf. But the current fashion seems to include puffy jackets of all lengths and colors that look like quilted Hefty Bags. Not a fan.
What I learned: I looked more Parisienne than the Parisiennes with my long black faux fur coat and stylish scarf. On more than one occasion, I was asked by French people for directions. Sadly, I had to say, "Je suis desole, je ne pas parle Francais."
Assumption #8. Eat at the restaurants recommended in the guidebooks.
Reality Check: Good luck.
We were using Fodor's 24 Great Walks in Paris , and walk #1 ended up at Angelina's Tea Room on the Rue de Rivoli. Line.
Walk #2 ended at L'As du Falafel in the Marais. Really long line.
Walk #3 ended up at La Mere Catherine in Monmartre. Packed.
What I learned: You will do just as well taking some chances on your own. We had fresh oysters in a bistro on the Rue Cler shucked right outside the restaurant door. We had our New Year's dinner in a lovely restaurant upstairs overlooking the Ecole Militaire - La Terrasse - and ate a banana and Nutella crepe prepared streetside on the Rue des Rosiers.
Assumption #9. Ringing in the New Year with the locals at the Eiffel Tower will be a memorable moment.
Reality Check: Not if you stand on the wrong side of the tower. Who knew the light show was only on the Seine side? As midnight approached, no countdown ( "Dix, Neuf, Huit, Sept..") and then all we got was the usual LED lights that go off every hour every day. Huh? We were underwhelmed until we went back to our room and saw it on TV. We were standing on the wrong side! When we went over to the Pont D'Alma to pay homage to Princess Diana (she died in the tunnel going under that bridge), we should have stayed there with the people roasting chestnuts and selling cheap champage. That was a prime spot -- but we assumed we could see fine on the other side which was closer to our hotel. And did the guidebooks warn us about this? No! Rick Steves even addresses New Year's Eve, but does not say, "Be sure to stand on the Seine side." And there weren't even any fireworks.
What I learned: Don't assume. You know what they say about that.
Assumption #10. Enhanced airport security will make you feel safer.
Reality Check: On New Year's Day, after going through "regular" security, as we were getting ready to board, we had to go through another security check point where all of our carry-on luggage was gone through. The French equivalent of a TSA worker confisgated my aspirin, mascara and small container of hair mousse. She wanted to take my hot rollers, until I convinced her there was no gel in them. She made me eat one of my Icebreaker Sours
in front of her to make sure they were not explosives. And when she looked suspiciously at my Mme. de Sevigne chocolates, I screamed "Nooooo". Actually, I didn't scream no, (she was too scary), but I must have looked so visibly upset that she put them back. After all of that, we then had to remove our shoes and outerwear again, we were patted down and wanded, and by then, I was really scared. Maybe they know something about this flight to Seattle that we don't? Boarding took 2 hours. Happy New Year.
What I learned: After the Christmas Day incident with the makeshift bomb on the Northwest Flight to Detroit, flying into the U.S. from abroad has gone to a whole new level. If you take carry-ons, pack carefully if you want your reentry to go smoothly.
Despite the fact that guidebooks can be fallible, I don't want you to think I am completely down on them. I am not. Without them, we would never have known about the Place Des Vosges or found the Rue Cler or the Place De Furstenberg
-- all gems.
So here is my advice, for what it's worth.
Do you homework, but as Rick Steves advises, then let yourself get lost.
Here are some good guidebooks available through your favorite Sno-Isle Branch Library.
Rick Steves Guides
Now I would like to hear your travel tips!