Posts Tagged ‘travel’

France – what an American will find surprising (or what I did, anyway)

October 4, 2014
  • Hotel rooms do not have clocks
  • Grapes have seeds
  • Bus drivers give change
  • Bathrooms cost money. Expect to pay 40-60 centimes per visit.  In the train stations, they are particularly well hidden. The one in Gare de Lyon is run by a company called “2theloo” which offers coupons for their other products. Yep, they’ve privatized the privy.
  • Bathrooms are clean and free of graffiti.  The exceptions are rare public bathrooms where you don’t pay. So it’s worth keeping monnaie (change) in your pocket for the high-class experience.
  • Fast freeways cost money. You’ll learn to appreciate the political struggle Eisenhower went through to build the Interstate highway system in the US.  In France, the roads lettered “A<#>” (e.g. A8) will be “péage” (toll) roads.  The D roads let you travel between 50 and 70 km/h typically (about 43 mph max), and traffic circles will be plentiful. But if you want US highway speeds (up to 130 km/h = 81mph) you’ll need to go on the more expensive roads.

    And, expensive they are.  Between gas prices (about $7.70/gallon) and the tolls (from Aix-en-Provence to Nice was about $22*) you’ll probably find the TGV (Train Grand Vitesse) to be cheaper, faster, and more pleasant for long distances.  The TGV train I was on between Paris and Avignon averaged 290-300 km/h, which is around 180 mph (There was a speedometer in the front of the car).**

    The non-toll roads offer a more relaxed and close-up experience. Better sight-seeing.

  • Fast freeways are clean and free of graffiti.  They claim video surveillance, but whatever, it works.
  • Freeway clover leafs do not exist. If you miss your exit, you are screwed. Turning around to go back means exiting the toll road, figuring out how the hell to get to the entrance you want, and paying the toll again to go back. Yep, you have to pay for the part of the road you didn’t want to be on in the first place. And those exits can be far apart.  Try doing this at night, it’s loads of fun.  GPS navigation is the best solution. Hint: google maps will remember a route when it’s disconnected from the internet, but it won’t search for a new one. The tourist info offices offer free Wi-Fi so you can search for new routes.

    It’s a good reason to prefer the non-toll roads, which have frequent traffic circles.  Those at least make it easy to correct if you mess up.

  • Drive with both feet. Automatic transmission is rare, and French drivers love to honk, so take a deep breath and don’t get flustered. Think of the honking as their way of expressing affection.
  • Think in a spiral. It’s the escargot. Navigation on French roads can be downright bizarre, especially near big cities.  For example, the entrance to Avignon is this giant one-way figure-8, that does NOT meet in the middle, with directional signs that are not at all helpful. Once I sat down with a map and studied the layout, I was able to get where I was going, but not (reliably) before that.  There’s a place where you look across and say “All I want to do is go up there and turn left!” but instead you have to go underneath an overpass and loop around, so you can turn right instead. Weird.

    Partially, this can be explained by the superimposition of modern driving onto medieval road maps, but my opinion is that there is a also general failure of French city planners to eliminate pointless complexity.

    Between big cities isn’t so bad, and the traffic circles are surprisingly easy to navigate once you get used to them.  Which doesn’t take any of the fun out of dodging huge delivery trucks as they share the dinky European roads with you. Fortunately, you generally have the right of way once you’re in the circle, which was not the case in the past.

  • There are probably a few I left out, so there may be updates …

* has an app for smart phones that will do currency conversions, or you can do them on the website

An easy way to think of speeds is that 80km/h is about 50 mph, so 40k/h is 25m/h, and so on. But there’s no requirement to do the conversion while driving, since they use the same units for everything.

** for the TGV bookings, or for the bigger routes. Booking in advance saves money. It’s worth going comfort class.


France, 2014 – language and vegetarian food

October 2, 2014

When I was in seventh grade, I began studying French, in room 55 of our “Junior High” (now called “middle school”) Last month, shortly after turning 55, I traveled to Europe for the first time. The only country I visited this time was France … but I’m hoping to go back next year! I visited Paris, the Loire Valley, Avignon, Arles, and Nice.

I speak enough French (badly) to get by, but in many places people were willing to speak English. One notable exception was employees the Paris metro. Not that I blame them – that’s got to be a tough job. I found people to be generally friendly and helpful, even in Paris, which has a reputation for being the opposite. The ones who speak English are generally eager to practice, if you make it clear you will be polite and friendly. I always would start out in French and often wind up with a mixture of the two languages. Unless I heard them conversing in native-sounding English.

Many people have said that the initial “bonjour” is important. Meaning, always greet the person before you start asking questions. It’s the French way. Probably a good idea, though sometimes it was not effective, and sometimes it was not necessary. Mostly, if you’re polite and friendly, people will be polite and friendly back. It’s pretty universal.

You’ll also find lots of multilingual tourists, and trading tips with them is a great way to hear good stories and find cool places to visit.

I took several thousand photos, some of which you can see from the photo feed that should be adjacent to this blog.

Hopefully some of the images and insights I will present on my blog will help future travelers, as I enjoy the memories of a challenging but fulfilling trip.

As a vegetarian, I was hearing horror stories, and was very worried about finding anything to eat. It turns out these fears were unfounded. I would not attempt to be purely vegan, however. I am sure it would be possible, but it would be a lot of work. The question is: would you rather be scrapping with weird logistics, or seeing the country?

Boulangeries are a place to start. Baguettes are plentiful and easy to find, and I found them handy to stash in my pack for a day trip, along with a few apples. Most of the boulangeries would also sell sandwiches, the vegetarian ones generally with chevre (goat cheese). I found myself a few times eating chevre, even though I do not eat cheese here in the U.S. My general sense is that it’s better quality than typical American cheese.

Indian restaurants are plentiful. There was at least one in every city I visited. Mediterranean food is also abundant. Though in some places you have to search for the ones that serve “Fallafel,”  the ones I found were superb. (e.g. L’As du Fallafel in Paris) There are also a lot of Asian restaurants, of various (purported) nationalities – Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, &c,) and they could always come up with wok-fried vegetables and rice. Tofu, however, was scarce.

AND … in some places, there were the daring innovators who bucked the trend of the French foule (crowd) smoking everywhere in their brasseries, to serve up “Biologique” (organic) genuinely vegan offerings.  I plan to cover a few of those in subsequent posts. Serving from the passion of heartfelt belief, these were some of the best restaurants ever.

If you see a green AB, that’s probably a symbol for the French “organic” produce. It stands for Agriculture Biologique. (the green symbol gives the B two leaves that look like rabbit ears) There is also a growing “Fair Trade” (commerce équitable) movement .

agriculture biologique symbol

And I should mention a few sites:

  • – Some valuable information, but these listings are often out of date.  Be sure to verify before counting on them.
  • – the listings of vegetarian places wasn’t too helpful, but searches for Asian, Mediterranean, Italian, &c. were.
  • – this site lets you keep notes that will be available via web or smart phone. I found the pages difficult to edit via phone, but entering them via the web and then accessing via phone turned out to be quite useful.  One thing I uploaded was a copy of my passport, a nice thing to know you have in case it gets lost. Also a good place for the phone numbers on the back of your credit cards.