Thursday, October 18, 2007

Honeymoon in France - Lowlights

On the whole, our 13 days in France were wonderful, particularly the time in Burgundy. There were a few lowlights, though:

Crime - On our second day in Paris, my pocket was picked on a crowded Paris subway by a young gypsy girl. The wallet was in a double-buttoned pocket in my cargo pants, but the thief took advantage of the packed train and her tiny hands to undo the buttons and work her way in. She was skilled enough to take the money while leaving the wallet. This was a clever tactic because, while I could feel something rustling in my pocket, I checked and felt the wallet, which made me mistakenly think all was okay. I was carrying too much money and was stupid for leaving the wallet in a pocket in the first place.

This is the third time I’ve been the victim of crime in Europe. A videocam was stolen out of a latched camera bag in Prague years ago and more recently I had a digital camera swiped from a checked suitcase. I guess the lesson is that you can’t be too careful in Europe.

Cost – The Euro hit an all-time high against the dollar while we were in Europe and that caused some pain. As a rule of thumb, anything that costs $1 in the U.S. costs €1 over there. So pretty much everything was 50% more expensive. I don’t think we had a dinner for under $100, and that includes modest bistro cafes. Even wine, which is usually a bargain in France, was about the same cost as in the U.S.

The countryside was a little cheaper than Paris, but food was costly everywhere. The only bargains I found were wine in Burgundy and the ubiquitous pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant), which are about €1 everywhere. There’s no sign of the Euro falling anytime soon, so visitors to the popular destinations like France and Italy should be aware of that. I understand that Spain and the eastern European countries are still a pretty good value.

Lyon We had read good things about Lyon, which is France’s second largest city, and had planned to spend two full days there. However, our experience was disappointing. The traffic into and out of the city was terrible, and our overall impression was that Lyon is a smaller version of Paris with all of the cost and traffic and none of the magnificence. If it was the first city we’d seen in France, we’d probably have been impressed. But I thought it was a pale imitation of its cousin to the north.

Drivers – French drivers are probably the worst I’ve ever seen, worse even than the Chinese. They change lanes without warning, don’t signal for turns and drive at high rates of speed punctuated by sudden stops. Part of the problem is the narrow, twisty roads, but other parts of Europe have the same characteristics and the drivers aren’t nearly as bad. I found the Italian drivers to be speed demons and borderline maniacal, but they were basically good drivers. French seemed to be Italians without the skill.

Rudeness – I expected Parisians to be rude and certainly wasn’t disappointed, but I didn’t expect to encounter the same experience in the countryside. The two other times I’ve toured the countryside, I’ve encountered mostly warm and friendly people. On this trip, however, we were treated coldly and even rudely. The most memorable incident was at Chateau Gilly (above), which canceled our dinner reservation when a large group of British auto enthusiasts took over the restaurant. We were offered free drinks in the bar, but after finishing a second glass of wine were presented with a bill for $40. We refused to pay and fortunately didn’t get a hassle, but the whole experience left us unable to recommend this chateau.

On the whole, these were minor things. If you do travel to France any time soon, bring lots of money. And keep your wallet where you can see it.

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