It’s Complicated!!! Pt. 3
If you have traveled in other parts of the world, you may already know that bathrooms, especially public restrooms, are not all created equal. Norman has already blogged about the difference in the French attitudes about using bathrooms, but there is another part of that issue — the toilet. Much of France has modernized and the toilets you find in houses, hotels, and restaurants for the most part look similar to ours though there are a variety of designs to the flushing mechanisms which you sometimes have to figure out. However, often when you are at a rest stop, public park, or small cafe with limited space, you will run into the old-fashioned European style toilet — basically a hole in the ground with, if you’re lucky, a cement or porcelain floor. They are usually pretty clean, but obviously men designed these with no consideration for women and their more complicated needs. I mean, it’s the 21st century people. Let’s get with the times. When I would encounter this situation, I was usually at an impasse. I didn’t grow up squatting all my life and with no cartilage in my knees, that’s just not happening without a major disaster. I began to observe that French women dealt with this dilemma by searching out the one handicapped stall which would have a normal toilet. So I did the same, but this was not always an option. There’s no requirement in France to provide facilities for the handicapped. The picture you see here shows a rather “deluxe” version of the basic toilet as it has a handle on each side so you can steady yourself. That was uncommon to find. One solution, if you just couldn’t wait like your mother told you to do when you were a kid, was to stop at a cafe and order a coffee so you could use their (hopefully modern) bathroom.
Occasionally we needed to make a phone call. We had an international phone with us for this purpose — a complicated little device in itself that we had to practice using before we left home. You can use your cell phone, but you have to pay for a separate plan and it will cost you an arm and a leg. Not very practical so you have to turn off your cellular data so you won’t get charged outrageous fees for calls or text messages. This makes you completely dependent on wifi networks (causing a bit of withdrawal from your 3G) for e-mail, Internet use, and, most important of all, maintaining your Facebook page and Instagram posts. We were happy to find that every one of the places we stayed during our entire trip had wifi to which we could successfully connect. It was on my list of standard options when I searched for accommodations. Of course, not without their complications. In one location, we could only connect one device at a time and we had four — 2 iPhones & 2 iPads. We had to learn to share. At a couple of other locations, the network password was so long and convoluted that the only way you could get it into the password field correctly was to type it in another app like Notes and then copy and paste it. Speaking of wifi, if you are even remotely addicted to your devices like we are, when you are out and about you instinctively check to see if there’s an available network. There are usually many and some of them say “free” which we rapidly learned was a lie — also no such thing as free wifi. It’s only “free” to subscribers of a particular service. On a positive note, something which is actually less complicated when traveling abroad these days is that most newer devices such as phones, computers, travel irons, and blow dryers are dual voltage (to accommodate the European 240 vs. the U.S. 120, which, by the way, is really efficient — too bad we don’t have it) meaning that you no longer need to lug around a cumbersome converter, only plenty of little adapters for the ends of the plugs so they will fit into the foreign wall sockets.
Whether you’re driving a car or using public transportation, getting around in a new environment is always challenging for a while. Except for one time, Norman did all the driving on our trip. This is not unusual. You know men, they never really like how their women drive. Besides, I have my own responsibilities as I am usually the navigator. I used to use those old-fashioned maps, but these days I generally depend on Google Maps on my iPad. However, with no 3G availability in France, that wasn’t an option. So we relied heavily on Moneypenny, our friendly and extremely polite GPS navigator. Once we finally learned how to properly direct her, we were pretty successful and she did not lead us astray too often. Only occasionally was she unclear about how far right to “stay right” or tell us to turn against traffic on a one-way street. The problem with this mode of guidance is that you don’t really learn your way around on your own and you probably aren’t carrying a map. One day on a return trip to our gîte near Bordeaux, Moneypenny decided to go on holiday. She just disappeared. Embarrassingly we found ourselves stranded and feeling a little foolish that we couldn’t make the 25 mile trip back to where we had come from. We tried everything we could think of to get her to return with no success, becoming more and more agitated by the minute. Eventually we realized that we had personified her a bit too much. After all, she was just a computer. That made the solution obvious. Restart! So we turned off the car, waited about 5 minutes, and started it up again. Voila! That did it. Whew! She never failed us again which was a good thing because we never did buy a map.
Traffic signals in France are a bit inconspicuous. There are no large looming lights in the middle of the intersection like we are accustomed to. Instead, there is a small light with about 3-inch circles for each color mounted on a pole at the beginning of the lane. It is about the driver’s height and if you happen to be the first one in line waiting at the intersection, it is almost impossible to see. This can cause just a bit of consternation for the driver to say the least. Fortunately, however, French drivers are very patient and we never encountered any road rage. An interesting note — stop signs actually read “Stop” rather than “Arrêt”. Apparently, this is the new EU standard. Funny this didn’t even dawn on me until halfway through the trip. Street signs are another source of frustration. Sometimes they exist and sometimes they don’t, but they are never located on a corner post where they can be easily read from a distance whether driving or walking. They’re always placed up high on the side of a building making it difficult to read them unless you are right in front of them which is usually too late by car. This is where you learn to love those roundabouts. You can go ’round and ’round until you get it right.
When traveling on the Metro in Paris, it is important to plan ahead and figure out what line or lines you will need to use to get to your destination. There are 14 different lines and they are each assigned a specific color on the Metro maps. There is a great app for this called “Paris 2Go” and it doesn’t require a connection so you can use it all over the city. You have to make sure when you board your chosen line that you get on going the right direction. This is fairly easy to figure out if you check on the map for the final destination of that line as the directions are identified by that name. The tricky part is when you get off and you have a choice of 3-5 different exits to the street. They all have designated names, of course, but none of them are ever the names of the street where you know you are supposed to go. So you make a guess and invariably it’s the wrong one. You end up having to cross the street and/or turn around and go the opposite direction. It took us two stays (the first and last week) and multiple tries to finally succeed in correctly exiting at our regular stop en route to our apartment. It was such a joy to finally be able to remember we had to exit at Victor somebody-or-other to land on the main street named Alesia. Of the five exit choices, none of them were labeled Alesia!
Quite often we would stop at the local tourism office when we visited a new location to get area maps and information. The people who work at these offices are multilingual and can communicate with you in English if necessary which is very helpful for directions beyond “gauche” and “droit”. One afternoon I went in to one of these offices to ask for some directions about getting to a gas station that had an attendant so we could pay with Euros. (Our plastic doesn’t work if you recall.) The woman behind the desk started off by saying, “Well, it’s complicated…”. No kidding! In the end, she wasn’t really able to tell me anything I hadn’t already figured out for myself. When I came out of the office, Norman was anxiously waiting for my reply. “Well?” he asked. And I said, “She told me it’s complicated.” We had such a laugh because we had been saying this about so many things for weeks. Even the French agree — life in France can be complicated. While this didn’t solve our problem at the moment, it was somehow reassuring and definitely provided great comic relief.
Despite all these complications, we have to admit that conquering them was part of the fun of the adventure. And next time… Yes, next time, we will be all the wiser.