Trip to France & Netherlands, Part 1 (France)
It should be noted that the observations made here are from a short 2 week visit to France and Netherlands. My primary purpose for visiting is to tour the Champagne-Ardenne region of France and attend Anime 2011 in Almelo. Iâ€™m in no way an expert on the two countries. Nor am I fluent in French or Dutch. I studied French for 2 semesters back in high school, but forgot most of it and can only hold very basic conversations (â€œOÃ¹ sont les toilettes?â€�).
I booked my trip with the local AAA office, which also offered discounts on travel books and $15 for international driverâ€™s license. The book that I used the most was Rick Steveâ€™s guide to Paris, which I shouldâ€™ve read from cover to cover before booking my hotel. My helpful AAA agent booked me for KLM flight & hotel on top of Marcel Sembat Paris MÃ©tro station, because of my concerns about distance to a metro station, doing laundry, buying supplies from a supermarket, and so on. Well, yes, everything was to my specifications, the hotel was on top of the metro station, thereâ€™s a self-service laundry across the street, and supermarket down the street. But the location was in the lower SW corner of Paris. In retrospect, I shouldâ€™ve read Rick Steveâ€™s book and booked a hotel on Rue Cler, which is closer to the center of the city with excellent shops and restaurants.
I went to Travelex to buy some Euros, and found their rate to be ridiculously high. Ironically I got great buy-rate with my bank, Wells Fargo. But be warned that the sell rate is poor. If you donâ€™t mind being rude, thereâ€™s only so many Wells Fargo offices that offer foreign exchange, and if you go wait in line and chat with others, you can buy foreign currency off the other customers with cash. I carried a money belt with me, and after a few days I realized it was quite stupid. Instead of a money belt, just carry some cash for the day and leave the rest in your hotel safe. If you have an ipod or iphone, you can download free audio guides to Paris from Rick Steveâ€™s and others from iTunes. Since I only carried a large backpack, I had to pack light and carefully consider the weight and space of each item. In retrospect I shouldâ€™ve brought a better camera. I brought my Sony DSC-T900 with 2 x 8 GB memory cards, which was sufficient for 3,000 photos at 12 MP or 4,000 photos at 8 MP setting. I ended up taking over 3,700 photos.
Paris has two sides, the above-ground Paris is a magnificent city of light. The ÃŽle-de-France capital region has some 11.7 million residents with the highest GDP in Europe. If it was its own country, itâ€™d be the 15th richest in the world. Paris has the highest density of museums in the world, and you could spend days just visiting MusÃ©e du Louvre alone (I spent 2 days there and saw less than half of it). The sight of Paris monuments at night with the lighting is just magnificent; I only wish that I had brought a better camera and tripod to take night-time photos. Regrettably my little Sony compact camera was not up to the task.
On the other side, thereâ€™s the ground-level & under-ground level of Paris that is a city of homeless people, beggars, feces, and urine. Public restrooms are difficult to find, and the underground metro with its open sewers reek of urine. For those used to the metro in East Asia, Paris metro will be a shocking sight to you. Everything is old, worn, and smelly, with graffiti everywhere and urine stains behind vending machines (hint: take the bus instead). Just across from MusÃ©e du Louvre, youâ€™d find homeless people camping out on the banks of the Seine River, and dirty drunks passed out on sidewalks. If you take the train from CDG airport to Paris, you might be shocked to find 3rd world style shanty towns along the way, small sheet metal shacks with buckets and broken bicycles holding down the roof.
Paris museums typically open 6 days a week, 9am-6pm, except one day every week the museum would open late until 9pm or 10pm. If you buy the museum pass, you can bypass the ticket line. Check the museum web site for opening days and hours ahead. I only had 5 days to visit museums & 1 day (May 1st Labor Day) for sight seeing in Paris, so I had to make the most of it. I managed to visit Notre Dame, Saint-Chapelle, Louvure, Arc de Triomphe, Versailles, Cluny, Les Invalides, Rodin, Orsay, Marmottan Monett, and couple other places. The line at Eiffel Tower was too long so I only walked around and took some photos before running off to the next destination. If you want to visit Paris, I recommend 2 weeks if you want to enjoy visiting museums at a relaxed pace. Oh and, my tiny hotel room was the size of a walk-in closet. Itâ€™s interesting to note that most museums in Paris permit non-flash photography, so if you can manage to get in front of the huge crowd in the Mona Lisa room, you can happily snap away with your camera as much as you want. Orsay and Marmottan are exceptions, do not use your camera there or theyâ€™ll kick you out.
Visiting ChÃ¢teauâ€™s outside of Paris can be tricky due to train schedules and transpiration issues. I wanted to visit Vaux-le-Vicomte, but opted for Versailles. Hereâ€™s my advice: if you want to visit Versailles, walk around to the back via Queenâ€™s Gate and tour the back-side first (i.e. Marie Antoinetteâ€™s residences), then take the tram to the ChÃ¢teau in the front in the afternoon. Youâ€™d dodge the crowd and lines that way. After touring the palaces youâ€™d realize that it was much more meaningful to be a rich and powerful person in the 17th century compared to today. Back then the wealthy really lived in luxury that was exclusive, while the peasants worked their ass off for bread. Compared to the air-conditioned office working conditions today, I think we have it pretty good!
Visiting the Champagne wine region
I spent a couple days out in the Champagne region, East of Paris. Originally I had hoped to spend a day in Reims, but just didnâ€™t have the time. So I ended up doing Ã‰pernay â€“ AÃ¿ - Rilly la Montagne - Chigny-les-Roses. I think most winery tours go to Ã‰pernay to visit Moet et Chandon, but I had a private invitation to visit Cattier in Chigny-les-Roses so I had to make a beeline for Rilly la Montagne. This was the real French countryside with no restaurants and cafÃ©â€™s. The town had 1 train station, 1 tobacco shop with a squat toilet, 1 small supermarket, and 1 bakery. I hiked (no taxi's) to Chigny-Les-Roses, an even smaller town with no retail stores. But, all around me were great Champaign wineries and vineyards. Labels that I had only seen in stores were in front of me in real-life. The highlight of the trip was actually not the wine tasting part, but visiting the golden cellar of Cattier. The light reflecting off the golden bottles onto the walls was such a spectacular sight, I still dream of it at night. The original winery ownerâ€™s wife liked a certain fairy tale book very much; she replicated the golden Ace of Spades -- Armand de Brignac Brut Gold in real life.
Out in the French countryside, the people are far less fluent (or willing to speak) English. If you ask simple questions in English, theyâ€™d understand but would only respond in French. I found that only those in customer service positions at the wineries spoke English. Bus services were limited and most people had cars. However, unlike the city, the people were friendlier and would greet you on the street. I was sitting by a small park when a school bus pulled up and dropped off kids, the kids would greet me as they walked by. And when I was eating a sandwich, the older locals walking by would greet me politely and say bon appÃ©tit.
Parisians are generally short and skinny; the girls are petite and dress conservatively & for comfort. Only rarely do I see girls wear short skirts, v-necks, or high heels. People who ride the metro have to walk long distances & climb stairs, so itâ€™s not a good idea to wear heels. The Paris subway was built many decades ago for a city with much smaller population, so itâ€™s now showing its age. There are some real strange characters and weirdos in the subways, along with smelly bums and beggars.
I had one unpleasant experience where I saw this pretty girl in skirt and heels walk by, a rarity in the subways; you can hear her heels go click-click-click-click across the platform. Then suddenly I hear clicklclickclickclickclickclick as she quickly walked over and ducked next to me, with some f*cking ugly leering pervert chasing after. I looked up at her and she she looked down at me. I thought WTF, worse case I get into a fight with some idiot and get kicked out of France & go visit Holland earlier. So I stood up, opened my map and asked â€œexcusez-moi mademoiselle, oÃ¹ est Eiffel Tower?â€� I felt like an idiot to ask such a dumb question (you can see the tower from above ground) as I gave the guy a stare-down. He was surprised that I was bigger than him, and after a few seconds he shakes his head and walked off. The girl later thanked me on the metro and pointed to several places on the map, telling me â€œdonâ€™t go here, here, and hereâ€�. I guess those were the neighborhoods where they had ethnic riots back in 2005?
The metro trains have 2x2 seating arrangements facing each other with very little leg room. Parisians will come and sit next to you instead of looking for more â€œpersonal spaceâ€™, but theyâ€™re very private and conservative people. Rarely do they chat with strangers on the metro, and they only talk to their friends or family in low voices (just like riding the MRT in Taipei). Theyâ€™re generally polite and can speak a couple dozen words in English. Those in customer service positions are more fluent. If thereâ€™s a girl with heavy luggage struggling to go up stairs at the metro, nobody will stop and help her. I was very curious, seeing how Paris is a fashion capital of the world, how come there arenâ€™t any girls in heels and dresses? Then one day I was sitting on the steps of OpÃ©ra de Paris, I saw guys dropping off girls in dresses and high heels from their cars. Aha!
While walking around Paris, I noticed that almost all the AM/WF couples were locals speaking French, while the WM/AF couples were tourists speaking British English. The only exception I encountered was a French guy with his newly married Korean bride (both spoke French) doing a photo shoot. I thought this was odd and had an opportunity to chat with a WM/AF couple while waiting in line at Arc de Triomphe. They were from the UK and the ethnic Chinese girl said that when she dated Oriental guys, they were cheap & boring and didnâ€™t want to go anywhere. But when she dated Brits (Anglos) the guys would take her to places like Paris. Her BF said that he thinks some French women like Asian guys, and that he saw quite a few Oriental guys with French girls at Champs-Ã‰lysÃ©es. He also thinks some French women used to be into Middle-Eastern guys, but due to current political situation that has become rare. Keep in mind that these observations & conversations were made solely in tourist areas during my short stay, so donâ€™t read too much into it.
Iâ€™ve heard people say that the waiters at Paris cafÃ© were rude. Maybe that was true years ago but not anymore. Service can be a little slow because Parisians like to take their meals slowly and enjoy it. The waiters are very polite and helpful, and except for cafÃ©â€™s in tourist areas, most cafÃ©â€™s in the city cater to local residents who live and work in the area. The French doesnâ€™t eat much in the morning; they typically go to their local cafÃ© to have a small cup of coffee and a croissant. In the hotels, expect breakfast buffets to be a bit â€œlightâ€�. They treat lunch more seriously, and only dine out for dinner occasionally. Dinner doesnâ€™t seem to have the same importance in France as in the US.
When dining out expect to spend at least 10 Euros for lunch or dinner, unless if you go to a Turkish sandwich shop or fast food joint. At KFC, 3 pieces of chicken will cost you 5 Euros ($7.50 USD at current exchange rate), and drinks do not have free refills. Fast food places like KFC and McDonalds cafe make heavy use of automated ordering machines to save $ on staff. Itâ€™s possible to spend a LOT of money dining out and not get good food, so ask around and see which restaurants are packed. I like to dine at Rue Cler, but the popular places there get packed very quickly. If you want to save money, just buy a sandwich, and get your bottled water from a supermarket. Years ago it was unsafe to drink the tap water, so most people acquired the habit of drinking bottled mineral water. The French also like orange flavored fizzypop, and I found it odd that theyâ€™d drink orange juice and fruit cocktail, but rarely other types of fruit juices.
The French like their meat rare, and their confit de canard fatty. Back in California, weâ€™ve gone too health conscious and the duck confit is served â€œdryâ€�. In Paris the duck confit has fat running off the plate and soaking into the potatoes. I saw nearby diners eat steak tartar. Depending on your past experience with food, you might find the local cuisine to range from the best thing youâ€™ve ate, to â€œmehâ€�. Personally, I thought most of the food was so-so, but the French are great bakers â€“ the best pain au chocolat Iâ€™ve had in Orange County would probably be ranked average in Paris. Also, Americans tend to choose wine by varietal, versus the French choose wine by terrior. In Europe they say the French make great wine, the Belgians make great chocolate, and the Dutch make great cheese.
Itâ€™s not necessary to tip in Paris, because tip is already included in your bill. Yup, tipping is â€œmandatoryâ€� and added to your bill regardless of service. In France, being a waiter is a career and theyâ€™re expected to be paid a living wage. Be polite and greet your waiter. In the past everyone expected the formal bonjour madame or bonjour monsieur, but these days a simple bonjour seemed acceptable. Keep in mind that the waiter is busy and might only speak 17 words in English, so keep your conversation brief. Donâ€™t order the croque-monsieur unless if you want to pay 8-10 EUR for a ham and cheese sandwich.
Paris is a huge destination for world tourism. Itâ€™s estimated that the city received 28 million visitors in 2010, of which approx. 20% are native English speakers (read this from hospitality magazine at hotel). At the museums, I saw a lot of Japanese girls, and fewer Chinese and Korean girls. If you can speak Japanese, Paris is fertile grounds for finding Japanese women on vacation. Theyâ€™re easy to spot, just find pairs of short Asian women (adult Japanese girls sometimes still look like Jr. High kids) in strange fashion roaming about. There were also some mainland Chinese tour groups, which had more men. But for non-tour group visitors, I think there were far more East Asian girls than guys. I chatted with many people while waiting in lines and inside the museums. When people are on vacation mode, they tend to be more open and friendly, including Americans. Actually, I suspect Americans are more open and friendly toward strangers than Parisians (but not necessarily other parts of France).
The Spanish tourists were both the best and the worst. If you look lost, some Spanish tourists voluntarily come help you (the French will only help when asked), a few were surprised that I could speak some Spanish. However, at the same time, the Spanish were the worst in cutting queues and fondling the exhibits. At the Louvre, thereâ€™s â€œno touchingâ€� signs by the exhibits, which many Spanish tourists ignore as they canâ€™t seem to resist touching the marbled statues, while the hapless museum guard yell â€œno touch! No touch please!â€� I even saw some tourists put their crap on the exhibit like a table while they rummage through their backpack. They let their kids sit on the exhibit base too. French parents wouldâ€™ve never tolerated that. From what Iâ€™ve observed, French parents are very strict disciplinarians when it comes to childrenâ€™s behavior in public.
Another stupid tourist thing is that they assume everything with water in it is a wishing well. Well, OK, fine, you want to toss some coins into a fountain, go right ahead. But the holy water basin at Notre Dame? Dude WTF were you thinking?! The seating area in the front is for prayers, and I saw tourist trample over them. On my second visit to the Louvre, I saw some idiot tourist fondle the breast of a Greek statue in front of a group of school children. Later that day I spoke to a museum guard about the bad behavior and she replied and on some days, she gets so tired that she just gives up and pretend she didnâ€™t see anything. By the afternoon I was fantasizing about borrowing a medieval spiked mace to bash some heads in.
If youâ€™re going to take the high speed train around France (or to nearby countries), book you tickets early to get discounts and special offers. I was able to get first class tickets to Holland at a discount, and first class on the HST provides great food and beverage services. After every stop the staff will come around and ask if you want something to eat or drink.
As Iâ€™ve already mentioned, the underground metro in Paris is a dump. The same tickets will work for bus, so youâ€™re better off riding the bus and see more of Paris above-ground. Tickets are 1,70 EUR each or 10 (carnet) for 12 EUR. Note that in France they write 1.70 as 1,70 with a comma. When you arrive at the airport, you can go to the tourist office and discuss the options and buy tickets or passes. Instead of some stupid Eiffel Tower souvenir, why not consider a Navigo pass as your souvenir to take home? With a pass card you donâ€™t have to worry about carrying a stack of metro tickets. I think you can even use it to rent bicycle in Paris.
If youâ€™re flying into Paris and have to take the RER train from CDG airport to Paris, the one-way trip ticket will cost you 8 or 9 EUR. Do the math and see if it makes more sense for you to buy a weekly pass that includes zones out to the airport. After I added up all the cost of buying the tickets, I figured itâ€™d have been cheaper to get a weekly pass. Do not be alarmed if you see French security forces with assault rifles or submachineguns at the airport, youâ€™ll see more of them on the streets and parks of Paris. They make a very blunt point to would-be troublemakers not to f*ck with them.
Despite what you mightâ€™ve heard, your American credit cards with the magnetic strip will still work in many stores in Paris. However, a lot of places donâ€™t accept cards, so bring cash too. A small bottled water from the vending machine will cost you 2 EUR, but if you go to a supermarket, you can buy a 1.5L bottled water for 0,50 EUR. The current exchange rate is unfavorable to the dollar, so shop wisely. Many shops in Paris close by 6pm so you must manage your time well. The French work to live and not live to work, they don't open late for your convenience.
Most stores in Paris are boutique shops; donâ€™t expect to see Fryâ€™s electronics or Outlet malls. Stores rarely have sales (government regulation) and prices are somewhat â€œfixedâ€�. If you need extra batteries or memory cards for your camera, go to Champs-Ã‰lysÃ©es and look for the Virgin Megastore or FNAC store. Donâ€™t assume anything you buy in Paris to be superior in quality, or youâ€™d overpay for shoes made in a sweatshop from somewhere. The French thinks anything with â€œMade in Franceâ€� deserves a premium, including strawberries and mushrooms. Expect the shopkeeper to proudly say "this is made in France" and charge you more for it.
Would I go back to Paris? Yes (I'd go back to Paris but not Amsterdam, more n that later). Despite the 15-16 tons of dog sh*t that gets left on the Paris streets every year, the city still has so much more to see. Frankly I think I need at least 2 weeks just to visit the major museums. Also, France is not just Paris, it's the largest country in Western Europe and has many cities and regions. It should be noted that Paris actually doesn't have a regional cuisine of its own. French food comes from other regions of France! I only saw small bits of Champagne-Ardenne region and didn't make it out to Burgundy. Given the opportunity I'd have loved to go sample Alsace wine, pork sausage, and dumplings too!