With one last stop at at Ladurée we are finally ready to return to the states. We are sorry to leave France — even after three weeks. I wish every American could come to visit this country and see the trimuph of man in the arts, food, and culture. When you are getting depressed about our species, these cities and sites remind you of what were are capable of being.
First, I am incredibly grateful to our guest bloggers who filled in for me during this period. Mike Appleton, David Drumm, Mark Esposito, Gene Howington, Elaine Magliaro, Lawrence Rafferty, and Mike Spindell are a brilliant team. They made it possible for me to enjoy this trip with the family while keeping the blog fully active. I will be forever in their debt.
Now for a few suggestions for future travelers.
On the van, we faced the daunting task of renting a van for a long period to drive from the South of France to Normandy to Paris. We wisely got rid of the van in Paris and relied on the Metro. Parking and driving is very difficult in Paris. We used Kemwel and will do so again. They look at all available companies and find you the best deal. They are extremely knowledgeable about driving in Europe and very responsive to any problems. They also guarantee the vehicle — protecting against the all-too-familiar problem of arriving and finding a different car that is too small. We had a couple of issues or questions during the trip and Kemwel always responded promptly and helpfully.
On this trip we went with the GPS (which you can rent from Kemwel). Some cars already come with the GPS so check before you rent. However, I will never do Europe again without a GPS. It took the stress out of driving. Last trip we drove in France it was very difficult following the maps because the street names change in odd ways, particularly in Paris. The GPS is a no miss system that saves you a lot of time. What is fascinating is that in France the police had to warn you about speed traps with large signs. Your GPS also dings when you are approaching one of the cameras. A driver’s delight.
While gas is expensive, we found driving to be a delight — giving us total freedom to peel off to check out little towns. I read many people warning to just take the trains. I have to disagree. I found the trains pretty expensive and, with four kids, logistically difficult. The van was perfect for the family.
We flew out on American and back on Air France. The difference was amazing. We have long preferred Air France and this trip confirmed our inclinations. As noted earlier, American put us on an aged aircraft with no room for anyone of average height and beat up interior. I had to put my knees on either side of the seat to avoid being kneecapped by the guy in front of me. Passengers had to walk shared a few monitors on the ceiling that we broken and difficult to see. There were two movies — both horrible. When you have to choose movies for an entire plane, you generally go with the most insipid and low risk option. The food was virtually inedible. I am still not sure what our dinner was on American beyond tasting like gruel. (True, I have never had gruel, but this much be what it tastes like).
Air France put us on a 777 with more room. Each passenger had his own screen and countless (and good) movies as well as games, television shows, and other interesting options. The food was outstanding. Unlike the one-stop service on American, Air France flight attendants came repeatedly with food and free drinks or just to grab and trash (American has fewer people working the plane and left the trays in front of you for what seemed like hours). Air France also offers free champagne, excellent wines, and other drinks.
As American Airlines cuts back on basic services, it seems intent to be the RyanAir of U.S. airlines — just a touch above a cargo plane. What is now business class on American is coach on Air France. American has long had the reputation for being one of the cheapest airlines. The former CEO even ordered that olives be removed from salads as an unnecessary expense. It is the same mentality that led to the decline of the auto industry as it cheapened their product and yielded market shares to better European and Japanese products. Air France is a much better choice and worth the slightly higher costs.
We made the mistake of not obtaining one of the credit cards with no fees on conversion in Europe. It cost us. I would recommend taking the time and opening one of these accounts before your trip.
Finally, do not buy eighteenth-century plaster panels (or any art or items) unless the store can ship them. We never did find a shipper for our panels which are sitting with friends in Paris who are going to try to find a solution. We falsely assumed that (as in Italy) we would have no trouble in sending stuff back to the states. This is France and employees are not exactly inclined to solve such novel problems. Federal Express was the worst of the lot — sending us to drive to Bordeaux after promising that they could pack and ship the panels. When we arrived at the specific address, it turned out to be an affiliate “France Express” with no one who spoke English. When we finally got someone on the line, Federal Express said that they could not pack such items and simply said that their earlier instructions were wrong. Federal Express has learned the French shrug, simply walking away from such problems despite sending us for a meaningless three hour drive.
I would strongly suggest going to France in the Spring or Fall. While many said that the summer is a good time because residents in Paris are enjoying their guaranteed one-month vacation, it was still super crowded and many stores were closed. To this day, I do not understand how the French economy continues to operate. Stores that depend on tourists still close during August at the peak of the tourist season. Our trip in the fall saw shorter lines and more choices in Paris.
Finally, please find a way of going to France and get out into the countryside. France remains an enchanting and fascinating place. We cannot wait to return.