Practical Comparisons: France 1971 vs. 2017

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National Geographic Traveler’s Map of France

While cleaning out my grandmother’s home, my mom found a 1971 copy of National Geographic Traveler’s Map of France.  Both Andrew and I eagerly unfolded the yellowed map to see what National Geographic recommended to tourists in 1971. We were impressed to see that we could have taken most of their advice for which monuments to visit, though most practical information is sadly outdated.  Check out a list of comparisons below:

Under the “Hints for the Traveler” section, NG advises that a “valid passport [is] required; visas [are] needed for stays of more than three months.”  Even with the advent of the European Union and Schengen zone, this remains true.  US passport holders visiting France and other Schengen countries can stay within the bounds of this area for 90 days, before they either need to leave the Schengen zone, or hold the required visa to travel, study or work for an extended period.

 

The currency exchange information lists 1 franc as equal to 18 cents U.S.  Clearly, this has drastically changed since 1971, as France introduced euro banknotes into circulation on January 1, 2002.  I have no understanding of the buying power a franc represented (1 franc = 1 baguette? 1 coffee? 1 piece of candy?), but I would have liked to experience France pre-Euro, as currency can be a meaningful indicator of cultural identity.  As of June 27, 2017, Google Finance reports that 1 Euro is equivalent to 1.13 USD.  This should be encouraging dollar holding travelers to Europe, as in recent memory the dollar has been (de)valued to as high as 1.40 USD for 1 Euro, which is a depressing and expensive to the visitor earning a dollar-based salary to any Euro country.  Exchanging money in 1971 probably involved a more direct transaction.  Now, we recommend taking a debit card, and withdrawing money directly from your US bank account at a local ATM in France directly in Euros.  This allows you to avoid any unnecessary fees at your local branch in the US, and gives you the best exchange rate.  Don’t use the airport or train station currency exchange booths; these are truly a rip-off!  Another suggestion is to use a credit card for larger purchases, but be sure to pack a credit card that charges no foreign transaction fees.  We use a Capital One card, both in the US and abroad.

Under the “Shopping and Sightseeing” category, NG states that most shops are closed on Monday, which we found to still be accurate in Tours and the surrounding region.  Small shops and local restaurants shuttered their windows for a day off on the first day of the week, which overall had a sleepy, post-weekend sluggishness feel to it.

NG confidently assures the monolingual American that “English [is] understood at most hotels, shops, and restaurants in the larger cities.” While I’m sure this is true, venture out into the provincial capitals and smaller towns, and English is not as “on demand” as one might expect, even in 2017.  The French willingly engage in their language, too, given they sense your effort is honest, and more or less competent.

My favorite section, “Hotels,” lists the price for various categories of accommodation. The average rate for “big-city luxury hotels:  about $20 a day for a single; $35 double (without meals).  Some inexpensive hotels offer rooms for as little as $5, without private bath.” Assuredly, there are no upscale accommodations available in Paris for such a deal in 2017!  Since I have no experience with “luxury hotels” in France, let’s compare an “inexpensive” stay in 1971 with one in 2017.  In December 2009, a friend and I spent a week in Paris, and sojourned at the Hotel du Commerce in the 5th arrondissement, which I’ll use as our point for comparison.  This hotel offers a fabulous location at a budget price (walk to Notre Dame!  explore Rue du Moffetard!).  While not fancy (the shower was at the foot of the bed, spraying water into the floor, the toilet at the other end of the creaky hall, our room up 5 flights of stairs, like sleeping in Gryffindor Tower, but no fire for the winter cold), it was, and still is, affordable.  In fact, I’d stay here again, and recommend this albergue to a friend!  A stay amounts to around $70 a night for 2 people in a full bed, with a shared toilet, even in 2017.  So, a $70 room cost 59 euro in 2009, and supposedly $5 in 1971.  All indicators point toward booking a flight to Paris, right now, with such a reasonably priced establishments available.

Another option for lodging when traveling in the countryside and through smaller towns is to book a Chambre de Hote or a Gite for a larger party.  Both offer a unique cultural experience, normally breakfast is included at the Chambre de Hote, for an outstanding price / quality ratio.  Outrageous by today’s standards, NG informs young adventurers that youth hostels cost only $1 a night in France, with a three night limit.  This chain of Auberges de Jeunesse in Paris advertises a night in dorm in Montmarte for 19 euros a person.  While 20x the amount quoted in 1971, still doable for the modern day budget conscious voyager.

Other memorable pieces of information from the 1971 Traveler’s Map of France include the advice to travel by bike – “the ultimate in inexpensive travel.  For short excursions, bikes rent for about $1.00 per day.”  No longer true as we rented bikes for 15 euros a day, but thoroughly endorse a day by bike experience.  Our pedal along the Cher River counts as a highlight from our recent trip, and continues to be a popular pastime among the French.

Also enviable was the cost of a “top-flight restaurant meal including wine and service: $20.” Blessedly service is still included (one of our favorite parts about dining out in France – the price listed is really what you pay, no 15-20% tip to be added at the end), but a nice meal out for lunch in Tours with a glass of wine cost between $55 and $70 dollars for 2.  While more expensive than Spain, considering the cost of a three-course meal with alcohol in the US (astronomical!), we thought the price quite fair.

Later this week I plan to post about the sightseeing recommendations provided by NG in 1971, which gave surprisingly similar itinerary suggestions to the one we followed in 2017.  That must mean either NG is forward-thinking, Andrew has an old soul and loves the traditional spots, or else the tourist attractions in France remain largely unchanged.

Do you have any practical information for tourists to France in 2017?  Am I totally wrong about the prices listed above?  Do you have insider’s advice to someone booking accommodations, transportation, or restaurant reservations for an upcoming trip?

Cultural Observations from France

As when visiting any country, one’s experience is improved by observing certain cultural customs.  Below are a few norms (definitely not an exhaustive or authoritative list) to follow that will smooth your path to successful interactions with French people:

  1. Always use the “vous” form (formal “you”) address when speaking with a server, store clerk, grocery check-out worker, and basically anyone you don’t know, but with whom you’d like to have a mutually beneficial interaction. Merci and s’il vous plait don’t hurt either!

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    Town of Amboise
  2. Make sure to greet those working when entering any type of store.  It is not the job of the store clerk to greet you, and it is considered rude not to say “Bonjour!” especially since most places of business are smaller than the ones we frequent in the US.  Ignoring the one person working in the store becomes painfully obvious when the store is a shoe box, so when in doubt, just say hello. Say goodbye too, even if you decided not to purchase anything at the store you visited.

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    Chateau Amboise
  3. You can always window shop if you aren’t in a buying mood.  Lingering outside a store front display is normal in France (and Spain).
  4. Holler “Hello” and “Goodbye” when you enter and leave the host family’s home. This lets everyone know who is where, avoiding any unwanted surprises, and it shows respect for those staying at home as you traipse in and out.
  5. Try to speak French in your daily interactions!  We were pleasantly surprised to find that most everyone would respond to us in French, and were willing to let us practice, even if we made gargantuan blunders.  It could be that Tours is a small town with more limited tourism, so English isn’t quite as widespread as it might be in Paris or another large city.  And, if someone does switch to English, that’s okay too!  People are generally flattered if you notice their English, and comment on how well they speak.  This is another way to open the door to a friendly exchange.  I used to feel insulted that someone would switch on me to English (it happens all the time in Germany!), but now I realize it isn’t generally done in arrogance, rather for the sake of efficiency, or because they’d like to try out their language skills.  I’d rather have a positive interaction than feel slighted, too, and the power to make a conversation uplifting ultimately depends on me. IMG_3017.JPG
  6. Cars have the right of way in France!  We’d been surprised by how fast cars sped by the zebra crosswalks in downtown Tours, and kept commenting to each other on how drivers weren’t nearly as thoughtful of pedestrians as in Spain or Germany.  Well, turns out, they don’t have to be!  I’m sure we made quite a few French motorists upset by barreling out onto the crosswalk without a second consideration!  After asking our host “mére” what the protocol was, we understood the uncomfortable feeling we’d had, even if we didn’t agree with the law.  We began to stop at the curb before each crosswalk, waiting patiently for oncoming vehicles to pass.  Though some drivers didn’t slow down, just as many stopped out of courtesy for the pedestrian.
  7. Dressing “chic” is appreciated, but not a prerequisite to success.  While packing I panicked!  How could I dress as effortlessly as the French?  How could I keep my blackheads to a minimum when I was sharing a bathroom with Andrew and another German student from the school?  What was I going to do with my hair without access to my beloved heat wands to curl, straighten and flatten? (Just fyi, the converter that ConAir markets that will “regulate” the voltage for your hair tools doesn’t stand up to a flat iron that heats to 450 degrees Fahrenheit or your Dyson hair dryer – thank me later for saving your preciously expensive styling machines). Turns out, in Tours at least, people aren’t as “chic” as I expected.  Hair stands up in the wrong places, a natural wave is expected, and as for clothing, anything goes.  There really was no defined dress code.  I way over-packed in fear that I’d have to have a solid rotation of clothes to keep up, but in reality, I could have packed much more reasonably.  Not that I minded having lots of options, since half the battle of a good attitude in the morning can be feeling good about how you look.

These are a few insights we picked up on while in France!  Anything important you’ve noticed while traveling abroad that would improve our interactions in the wide world for the future?  Anything you think we should add to this list?

Bike Ride to Villandry

One of our favorite days in France we biked 36 km to visit the chateau of a neighboring town, Villandry.  We set off around 11:30 am, after seeing the small Fine Arts museum in Tours.  While the art wasn’t really worth the admission price, a visit to the museum gardens rewards one with the chance to behold a giant Cedar of Lebanon.  Just knowing that Biblical authors were in awe of this tree was enough to spark my interest.  The feeling of astonishment I had when I saw the 200-year old mammoth arbor didn’t compare with the curiosity I felt beforehand.  Never pass up a chance to see such natural beauty.

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Fine Arts Museum, Tours.  The cedar is just to the left… I guess Andrew didn’t get a picture of the tree itself?

After speeding through the art museum, gaping once more at the tree, and renting our bikes for the day, we pedaled south of Tours, over the Cher River, past the municipal pool, and into the sprawling park along the banks of the river.  Even though the wind blew directly in our faces, and the biking turned out to be more difficult than we bargained for (wrinkly faces and gray hair sped past us easily), we loved the exhilaration of physical activity, and the ability to see the pristine countryside.

Once in the tiny town of Villandry, we refueled with sandwiches and ice cream, then entered the castle grounds.  Chateau Villandry is really renown for its gardens.  The acres of traditional French gardens surrounding the castle are what visitors come to see.  Reflection pools, rows and rows of lime trees, a hedge maze, and a potage garden all await those who stroll through the greenery.

 

On the way back to Tours, we stopped in a little town along the river for a break.  In a green field underneath shade trees, two locals had set up a refreshment cabin, selling drinks, crepes, and waffles.  We sat together under the shade, drank apple cider, read our books, and watched the people out enjoying their Sunday afternoon.  Seeing families and friends together outside, relaxing together on a Sunday, playing cards, swimming, biking, makes me appreciate how important it is to take a rest day at least once a week. It seems that much easier in places like France, where almost all shops are closed on Sundays, so that people aren’t tempted to go on with their daily chores and shopping.

Reflecting on the trip with Andrew, we both agreed that our day biking in the fresh air was one of the highlights of the trip for us.

Visite a la fabrique de Cointreau

I wrote a post in FRENCH for the blog that the language school runs.  I am posting the translation here, but you can hop over to the CLE blog to see the original!

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We love the Chateaux of the Loire region, but we are interested in the wine and spirits the region offers as well.  So, when we discovered that the Cointreau factory isn’t far from Tours, I absolutely wanted to visit. I like making a margarita on the weekend, and learning about new cocktail preparations.  And, since Cointreau, an orange liqueur and the original triple sec, is so expensive at home, we’ve never even purchased a bottle, even though every cocktail recipe that requires triple sec suggests Cointreau as the highest quality option.  So I thought an afternoon at the factory would prove to be interesting.

For the excursion, we rented a car, since we wanted to see different parts of the region that are difficult to access without one.  After a visit to the town of Angers, we took the car to the outskirts of town where the Cointreau factory is located.  I made a reservation by telephone (all in FRENCH!) before arriving, since it is obligatory to have a reservation in order to complete the 10 euro tour and tasting.

The guide explained the ingredients in Cointreau to us:  three different types of dried orange peel, neutral alcohol made with beet sugar, and water.  The whole factory smelled like fresh, sweet orange.

After the visit, that we completed in FRENCH!, we enjoyed a tasting of three different types of Cointreau.  First, we tried a long drink cocktail called the “Cointreau Fizz,” that was made with Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and sparkling water.  Not as good as a margarita, but also less potent, and refreshing for a hot day.  Next, we tried a few sips of Cointreau Blood Orange, and Cointreau Noir.  If you like cocktails, and want to experience a unique visit to the region, I recommend the Cointreau factory.  And, the best part, you can buy a bottle of Cointreau for about half the price of a bottle in the US.

Azay le Rideau

For Andrew’s birthday last week, we decided to make the most of our afternoon after class.  First, we ate a formule of gallettes and crepes for lunch, washed down with apple cider from the Brittany region of France.  If you ever visit Tours, we can highly recommend lunch at Le Timbre Post.  Featuring a neat small space adorned with memorabilia through the decades from the Poste (mail delivery system) in France, and staffed by two efficient men: a server, and a chef, the restaurant serves lacy buckwheat crepes stuffed with ham, emmentaler cheese, mushrooms, and sunny side up eggs.  The dessert crepes are simple and delicious: sea salt caramel, 72% dark chocolate, or butter and sugar.

After lunch, we took the local train to visit Azay Le Rideau chateau.  We didn’t realize that the chateau was a 2km walk from the train station, but that worked in our favor, as we walked off a little of our lunch, and revived after dozing sleepily in the sun on the ride over.

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While we didn’t have any expectations for the chateau, it has ended up being one of our favorites!  A “reasonable” size mansion, surrounded by a gurgling stream and an English garden, provided the perfect afternoon to celebrate a birthday.  I especially loved the chaise longue chairs in front of the chateau.  While the grounds of other castles in the region feel distinctly off limits since they are so carefully manicured, this property invited guests to rest a while, enjoy the view, read a book, and disconnect in a way that set it apart from some of our other visits.

Canoeing on the Cher River

Friday afternoon, Isabelle, the director of CLE Language school, led a group of students on a canoeing adventure.  We canoed 12 km down the Cher river, paddling underneath one of the most impressive chateaux of the region: Chenonceau.  Though we didn’t go inside to explore the interior, it was obvious our vantage point from the river provided the best views of the castle from the outside.

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I felt like Pocahontas bravely kayaking into uncharted territory: “It’s just around the riverbend!”
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Chenonceau: We paddled underneath!  Also, this castle was used as a hospital during WWII. Pretty cool!

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Les amoreux – as Isabelle and Marc say

I paddled in front and Andrew directed the canoe.  I’m sure that I did quite a bit more paddling than Andrew.  Every time I turned around to check, he was taking a quick break!

After the 3 hour adventure on the water, Isabelle efficiently guided us to the nearest riverside garden bar.  With an overlook of the water, a drink in hand, and a snack, we were quickly revived.  We tried a few of the region’s specialties, including pulled duck (it looks like BBQ pork), fois gras, and goat cheese with more duck meat mixed in.  We both decided we’ve had enough duck for the trip!

If you ever visit the Loire Valley, a water ride on one of the rivers, whether by boat, canoe, or kayak, is definitely recommended to take advantage of the best views and breeze from the water!

Chinon

On Saturday an unlikely group took a train ride together to visit the small ville of Chinon. A man originally from Taiwan, now relocated to Boston where he practices general medicine, a nurse practitioner from Washington DC, Barbara, a Swiss teacher studying in Tours as part of her professional development program (WOW!), and Bill, from Australia, joined us as we ventured to Chinon, a tiny town on the Cher River.

Highlights from Chinon included a relaxed four-course lunch with our new companions, and learning how to geo-cache with Barbara.  The view back on the chateaux and the town from the opposite side of the Cher river was spectacular, too.   After visiting the chateaux (which we preferred viewing from the exterior, as opposed to the tour inside), and after losing a member of our group who wandered off unknowingly, we all recognized that our growling tummies could be put off no more.  Thankfully, on our way to lunch, Andrew relocated Jack enroute to our destination, and our group of 6 reunited. Lunch at Au Chapeau Rouge started with a petit amuse bouche, followed by a fois gras portion for both Andrew and me.  For the main course, fish from the river Cher, along with mushrooms and other veggies, arrived bathed in a burgundy sauce.  After our cheese plate, my favorite course arrived:  chocolate ganache with saffron ice cream.

 

We all decided that quick spin through town would help us digest our rich lunch and wine, so off we went, me as “madam-guide” as Bill dubbed, and Barbara ever snooping around for a geo-cache treasure. We even took advantage of the Chinon Jazz festival while visiting. Even though rain interrupted the jam session, we enjoyed jazz on the river, too.  A lively group played melodic jazz music in the afternoon from a boat parked on the Cher, and when weather threatened to end the party, the group just moved under a cluster of trees, and started again.  Most interactively, they proceeded to lead the crowd on a jazz march through town, stopping every 200 meters or so to finish a song, and then moving along through the streets again, so even folks who opted to stay home could hear the music from their windows and balconies.

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Jazz dans le bateaux
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Jazz dans la rue
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Should we eat at Chapeau Rouge? Should we not? Where do we go?

Most impressively, though our group of wayward traveling friends were almost all anglophones, we managed to speak mainly French the whole day!  While Andrew thinks the amount of distressingly poor French might have caused him to regress in his abilities, the comprehension level was just about right for me!  Anyway, I appreciate how others are willing to play along with the immersion experience, and recognize that when learning another language, the other second (or third, or fourth) language learners can often be the most sympathetic listeners, and provide the most appropriate input.

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I think the look on my face explains just about how well we communicated during our time together!