Paris and Beyond

Our Personal Tour de France & Other Exciting Adventures!

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Show Me the Euros!

Usually when we travel overseas, we just exchange dollars for local currency when we get to the airport. However, for this trip I decided we needed to purchase some Euros ahead of time. We will be arriving  in Paris on a Saturday afternoon and will need a substantial sum in Euros to cover the balance owed for the rental of our apartment plus a hefty security deposit. I was concerned that it might be challenging to get this amount at the airport or somewhere in between there and the apartment. I didn’t want to fret about this during our 10 1/2 hour flight. I hope to be sleeping like a baby instead… yeah, right.

About 2 weeks ago I went to a branch of our bank near my workplace and inquired about ordering Euros. I was told I could order them any time during banking hours and that it would take about 3 business days for them to arrive. The exchange rate was somewhat higher than in France which adds up when your need a large amount. I was advised that I could check around for other rates such as those offered by the popular Travelex stores found in many shopping malls. Their exchange rate was even higher. Somewhere online I found some information stating that you could purchase Euros through AAA. It would be great if my membership actually provided me with some benefits I could use. Next step was to look into that. Turns out they no longer offer this service (of course!) but were willing to give me some advice = go to your bank or the travel exchange store in the mall. Hmmm… for this I pay AAA. Back to the bank I went, but a different branch this time — only to be amazed once again at the lack of service and knowledge that you get from any professional institution these days.

“Can I help you?” a too-young and obviously inexperienced customer service representative asked.

“I’d like to order some Euros.”

“Ok, just a minute, let me find out how to do that.”

Upon her return, she explained that Euros had to be ordered no later than 2PM. When I informed her I had been told other wise, she went to ask again but came back with the same information. However, she told me that I could order them online and it would be much easier plus I could order them any time of the day or night. Why is this? She said she didn’t know but it had something to do with how the money is moved around in San Francisco — not my paraphrase, her answer! Since previous experiences wiring money through my account online hadn’t been very intuitive, I asked her to explain to me exactly how to go about ordering the Euros…

“I don’t know. I’ve never done that. Let me find out.”

She stopped another employee and asked him but he stated he didn’t know either. She disappeared and finally returned with an informative post-it note which read: “Customer Service – Online Banking – Order FX”

She insisted there would only be three choices once I clicked on Customer Service which was partially true though each one had at least a dozen sub choices. I managed to navigate through the process fairly easily, but when I printed the confirmation page, I realized to my horror that the bank still had our 7-year old, no longer in service landline phone number from a previous residence listed. I had been told that the bank would call when the Euros arrived so I could pick them up. Frantically, I clicked back to the Customer Service tab and updated my profile with the correct phone number. I thought I’d better confirm that the people arranging for the Euros would be aware of this update so I used  Live Chat in an attempt to find out. There I learned that I needed to contact the Foreign Exchange Team by phone and that they were available until 6PM PT. Since it was only 5, I figured I could jump right on that and get to the bottom of the whole issue today. NOT! The recording I received stated that their hours ended at 5PM and they were closed. Well, there’s always another tomorrow, thank goodness!!

Epilogue: Finally got through all the red tape without any other snafus and voilá, I am now in possession of some beautiful new Euros bills. Unfortunately, they probably won’t last very long. 

Packing Our Bags

How does one pack only 2 bags for 2 people for 7 weeks anyway? For a long trip, the temptation is to take more things. Even though we are leasing a car once we leave Paris — larger and more luxurious than what we really need (it was such a deal – more on that later) with plenty of trunk capacity, we still have to get to and from Charles de Gaulle Airport and an apartment in the 14th Arrondissement 4 times during our stay without one. You just don’t want to be dragging all that luggage around on the Metro and through the streets of Paris. Aside from the inconvenience of it, you look like the worst tourist. Fortunately, it is summer and that definitely lightens the load in the wardrobe department. While I don’t want to be a slave to fashion on my vacation, I do want to keep a bit of style in mind as I plan what to pack. After all, we are starting off in the fashion capital of the world.

Someone once taught me that the trick to fitting it all in and keeping it organized is to use ziploc bags. I have employed this technique on other long vacations and found it to work very well. So I have purchased ziplocs in array of sizes including the super large ones which Rick Steves, my travel guru (hmmm… not really but he does have some good ideas) suggests make great washing machines when no other alternative is available — just fill with clothes, water, a little laundry soap & shake. As I understand it, ziplocs are not so easy to find in France which, of course, means they are probably smarter than we are about limiting the amount of waste they generate. To use the bags most efficiently, you roll your clothes, arrange as many items as possible in one bag, and ZIP it closed (I love that part) making sure to press out all the air. What you end up with is a neat little package that takes up about half as much space as those clothes normally would thus affording you the opportunity to take MORE!! in less space. This also allows you to moves portions of your wardrobe around in your suitcase in order to locate a particular item without having to unpack your whole bag.

When it comes to cosmetics, that is another issue entirely. You can divide everything up and put it in ziplocs too, but, frankly, I get tired of rooting around in the bags for a particular item. By the same token, I don’t really want to unpack it all at every stop. I decided that the best compromise is to use hanging cosmetic bags — a smaller one for makeup and a larger one for everything else. In some cases, I was able to buy travel-sized products, but for other things, I purchased travel-sized containers that I could fill myself. If you haven’t figured this out already, Bed, Bath, and Beyond has by far the largest selection of travel-sized items and containers. I went crazy there. For the length of time we will be away, it was necessary to prepare a backup ziploc of some items to replenish the bags as needed. With these two bags, I can experience the ease of setting up my vanity for one night or seven by simply unrolling them and hanging them on the back of any bathroom door. Ah, you say, what if there’s no hook? Well, I have that covered too — 2 over-the-door hooks that I am also taking along.

Getting the Adventure Rolling

We are packing our bags and taking off for 7 weeks in France. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Well, not quite. When my husband first announced it was time for us to make this trip we have dreamed of for years, I was very excited. Then I realized I had to get very busy. Seven weeks is a lot of time and provides endless possibilities, but you have to focus and plan ahead or really, it won’t be any fun. We started off with grandiose ideas and were going to include two other countries — Italy, the Cinque Terre & Spain, all of it. We planned to lease a car so we could virtually go anywhere.

A quick look at a map of Europe along with reading up on the devastation of last year’s floods to many towns in the Cinque Terre region immediately led me to eliminate that from our plan. Besides, my husband had done that in “another life” and I didn’t really want to repeat it with him. I wanted this trip to be uniquely ours. Then I got down to the serious business of planning a route from Paris south through France and into Spain. The route continued south as far as Morocco and made a complete loop returning north and ending up back in Paris. I added up the mileage (about 3500 miles), divided by 51 days, and came to the conclusion that this was going to be insane. I was getting hot, tired, and uncomfortable just thinking about this kind of trek especially through Spain in July. In the end, we cut out Spain and decided we would leave this for another adventure. I was briefly disappointed about giving this up since it has only been my desire to travel there since I was 18 and in college studying Spanish. I have foolishly forsaken this dream on several occasions, but suddenly it didn’t seem so important despite the fact that it was the one country where I could speak the language fluently.

So, now to focus on France. Ah, what a relief! Only one country the size of Texas to conquer. With my trusty AAA map taped to the closet door and a generous supply of those sticky post-it arrows, I proceeded to choose our destinations. Once I had figured out 5 separate 1-week stays and several great stops in between, it was time to make reservations for our lodging. That took about 2 solid weeks of non-stop research and e-mail exchanges. With the 9-hour time difference, I never received an immediate answer to my inquiries. It became a game of anticipation waking up early every morning before I went to work to see what exciting messages had arrived overnight.

Alas, I was faced with the task of having to make some phone calls and actually speak to people directly to confirm a couple of reservations. That was an interesting challenge. First, how do I make an international call on my cell phone — my only choice since I don’t have a landline. Turns out you have to call Verizon and get them to activate it – for a fee, of course. Then you have to figure out all the extra digits you have to dial to make the call work. Once you finally get the phone to ring on the other end, you hope and pray that when you say, “Parle vous anglais?” the answer is “Oui.” My French is 35-years old and I just wasn’t up to speed yet with Rosetta Stone to pull off an entire conversation. The people I spoke to were very accommodating. We both struggled but in the end made ourselves understood. With one gentleman, I kept wanting to lapse into Spanish. I figured any language other than English might be helpful. I didn’t but when I finally got an e-mail confirmation for our reservation from his wife, she admitted he spoke Spanish fluently. Ha! If only I had known. Somehow the struggle was part of the adventure though.

Eventually, one evening we were able to toast to the fact that I had nailed down reservations — great ones at that in price, amenities, and location — for 51 nights in France. Santé!!

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