It is now my job to force you to look at my vacation pictures. I’ll try to give you as much useful information on what I’ve learned (the hard way) at the bottom. If you’re a regular traveler that stuff will all be old news, but if you are, like me, new to these things I hope it will be helpful. Ready?
Our apartment rocked. After a long day and night traveling it was like arriving to find treasure. Above is a hastily stitched together view from the corner window in the living room. There is a horn player on the corner, which you cannot really make out. By the time we arrived we’d been up for about 24 hours. We were talking with the apartment greeter (an incredibly sweet lady) and suddenly there were horns playing. Both Maggi and myself assumed we were having auditory hallucinations, we were that tired.
The street shown above was never again as empty as it appears there. We were in the Marais, about two blocks from the St. Paul Metro station and two blocks in the other direction from the famous falafel place. The view was fantastic for people viewing as there was a steady stream of Parisians, tourists with maps looking around confusedly, bicycles, scooters, adorably tiny cars and lots and lots of people. I adored walking the streets in Paris as there are far more pedestrians than cars and you were able to wander in relative peace and gaze around.
That said, there were far more people than I expected. When I told people we were headed there in February the most common thing said was “well, it might be rainy but at least it will be empty!”. On Saturday and Sunday it was difficult to press through the streets to get home, and on any given day there was an overwhelming (watch-your-purse) amount of people about. I cannot imagine it in high season, it must be a nightmare.
There was a moment this first afternoon when my traveling companions went off to nap and I laid down on the (fabulous, huge, white, leather) couch with the windows propped open. All I could hear was the occasional scooter engine, soft conversation and lots and lots of muted footfalls. It was magical and not a sound I’m likely to hear in the US.
More views of the fabulous apartment (it was actually difficult to leave it some days):
The original floor boards were charming, but very creaky and loud, and so loose you could pinch your feet if you walked around barefoot. It was hard to get up for a glass of water at night without waking everybody up.
The kitchen was larger and better appointed than my own. It had a six burner stove! And, as far as I could tell from warming up my first Pain au Chocolat, the oven had never, ever been used.
The WC was painted entirely in a glossy red and was very dramatic.
We rented an apartment through Haven In Paris, which was recommended to me by Rockin’ Poncho (thank you!) and whom I wouldn’t hesitate in the least to use again. They took very good care of us. The apartment was $$$ but split between two couples, and with an unexpected off season discount, we were able to fit it into our collective budget. The apartment had everything we needed including, and this was so, so nice, a Mac laptop to use.
Fun fact: The French pronounce wi-fi as “wee fee”.
After unpacking and giving in to a brief nap we roused ourselves and ventured out to pick up some pastries for breakfast and have our first meal in France. Notice the little pool of fabulous butter in the middle of my potatoes here, I will always do this in the future:
Scott is a bit more adventurous than me and ordered the duck confit, which was delicious. And then we had creme brulee, it was, of course, amazing and so satisfying to crack with the spoon:
All of the waiters we encountered were friendly, or at least patient, with our little bit of French. We took to heart the advice to not ignore greeting when you enter a restaurant or shop, at least attempt to ask if somebody speaks English in French to show that you are trying (!), and be kind. Our traveling companions actually witnessed an ugly American moment where somebody at a different table was asking, loudly and slowly, for RED WINE which at which point their server gave up and walked away to let somebody else deal with them.
After dinner we went home along a different street and stumbled across the Muji store, which became something like another traveling companion on this trip.
Obligatory picture of mountains as seen from the plane.
The stuff I learned the hard way
Flights and travel tips: International flights aren’t nearly as bad as the one I experienced years back. I did a college summer semester in Italy and the flight to and from were so long, cramped and horrendously boring I swore off long plane rides for good length of time. (The trip to Italy was not so great, but I cannot blame Italians for cringing a bit when a group of 30 American college students walks into their tiny village.)
This USB power port in the seatback? It was as precious as diamonds to me for those 10 hours on planes.
This time I was over prepared for the flight, and consulted the wisdom of several regular long haul fliers. My necessities included and iPhone loaded with movies and a back up battery, noise canceling headphones (so important), a big drapey sweater that acted like a blanket, a borrowed Nintendo DS, yummy sandwiches and snacks (thank you Columbia City Bakery for our wrapped and ready to go sandwiches, especially the ham and cornichon butter), shoes that slipped off easily (for on plane comfort moreso than for getting through security), hand sanitizer, underseat luggage sturdy enough to prop my feet on (short legs + tall seats makes for 10 very uncomfortable hours), eye shades and earplugs, comfortable clothing (I skipped soft pants and went for a jersey dress and leggings). I also brought two travel pillows (I know, I know) and found that I loved the Thermarest compressible travel pillow a lot (also good for lumbar support) but sadly the Bucky Pillow didn’t prop up my sleepy head as well as I’d hoped.
Even if I hadn’t been able to bring movies with me, each of our seats had a screen from which you could choose from about 10 movies or television shows (most were American, some were from the UK, and there was on Icelandic TV show — we were traveling Icelandair). You could also look up flight stats, see a global map, learn about Iceland, and I think listen to music. People have been telling me this is pretty standard for long flights so I really didn’t need to freak out before hand as much as I did. I did try to find the model of plane we’d be in beforehand but there was no information on it, just a vague note that said their fleet was being updated but we might not be on a newer plane. Thus, freak out.
I also packed my coat, a change of clothes, my boots (bulky but I didn’t want to let them out of my sight), enough small toiletries to get me through a few days in case my luggage was lost (I plan for bad luck) and my electronics (camera, battery chargers, headphone splitters, USB memory sticks).
Thing I wish I’d done differently: gotten a new carry on bag. Last year I bought a regulation sized wheeled bag only to find that it doesn’t fit under the seat in front of me if I’m sitting in an aisle seat, as the supports there give you a narrower area to use. On the flights this time I didn’t have to worry about it as I’d chosen window seats, but had our seats been shuffled around I would have been sad to have to get into the overhead luggage compartments every time I wanted to get into my bag.
The habitrail-like moving sidewalk system at Charles de Gaulle airport was crazymaking.
Arriving in Paris: Be aware that it’s a 45 minute ride from the airport to the city so if you’re terribly hungry or thirsty do grab something from the airport. We hired a driver (as we were arriving 4:30 am our time it seemed like a good idea to hire somebody to take care of us) and after we’d piled into the van and were off he told us how long it would be. Then he offered us juice and nearly swerved into another lane and came to a near stop on the highway reaching into a storage compartment to get out cans. Still, I was very grateful to have that juice.
Money exchange, or just money getting: Thing I worried about but turned out to not be a big deal: money exchange. I brought a wad of cash (drama surrounding the wad of cash happened at the end of the trip, stay tuned) but it was actually cheaper to find an ATM and get out a bunch at a time, our bank charged $5 for the privilege and we only needed to do this twice. Otherwise most places took our credit cards, with the exception of automated ticket dispensers at the unmanned Metro stations, where having cash was necessary. European cards have a chip and pin system, and some of the automatic machines cannot accept US cards without a person there to override the step. Very good to know this.
Do phone all your banks and credit card numbers to let them know you’ll be traveling so that they don’t put a hold on your account. They’ll often give you an international number just in case you need it, and tell you which bank ATMs you can use for the lowest fee.
update: Nazila notes in the comments (thanks Nazila!) that cards will carry an extra percentage per purchase, so is it good to use cash if you want to avoid those fees. (Yikes, wish I’d known that earlier, though I should have guessed.)
The first thing I took a picture of once we arrives in Paris? These chips at the airport. I have many more pictures of interestingly flavored chips to follow.
Power converters and plug adapters: Another thing I worried about but turned out to not be a big deal: power converters. This is one of those things which I suspect is so basic and known that it’s actually hard to Google it and get a straight answer. Or maybe it was just me. There are two parts to being able to use electrical devices in places with differently shaped plugs, one is the adapters (the small things that simply turn your US (two flat prong plug) into a European (two round prong) or UK (three flat prong) plug). And the heavy, sort of bulky power converter boxes that will keep your appliances from being fried by the 220 or 230V power (whereas we use 120V in the US). Turns out? All of my electrical stuff could already handle up to 230V power, including the little flat iron for my hair. I didn’t need a power converter at all, just two plug adapters. If you look for the electrical information on your stuff you should see something like “Input: 100V-230V”. Additional thing I learned: the UK used to use 240V, but most all places now have 230V. I actually found such conflicting and/or old information on this that I wrote to Laura to ask. She was also a bit confused by all the information out there. But none of my battery rechargers fried while we were there.
We borrowed plug adapters from a friend, but on our travels found these convertable plug adapters with a USB charger, as well as this one at Muji which I almost bought just because it seemed so darn handy.
Jetlag: Our party attempted to stay awake, for the most part, until we arrived in Paris and it was a reasonable bed time. I took a fitful two hour nap on the plane (child behind me was using the seat back as a punching bag maybe?), and a one hour nap after we’d settled into the apartment before forcing ourselves out for a 9 p.m. dinner. The person who slept through dinner that night had a harder time adjusting in the next few days. The next night we found that venturing out instead of chilling at the apartment help keep us awake until a normal bedtime approached.
Next up: Day Two big impressive monuments, unexpected meetings, needing to pee.