France: Kudos and complaints

Kudos where they are due:

Snaps to:

  • — They have a bunch of apartments for rent all over Paris. The apartment had a dishwasher, a tiny little washing machine / dryer, fridge, stove and microwave. It was a nice little apartment in a fairly nice area, close to Notre Dame and the beautiful Luxembourg garden. All phone calls (including overseas!) were included in the price.
  • Holiday Inn near Charles de Gaulle — I needed internet access to print boarding passes for the flight home, and the hotel we were staying at (Ibis, see below) had internet access but no printer, so they suggested I go across the street to the Holiday Inn. Internet access is only supposed to be for Holiday Inn guests, but the front desk guy let me in anyway. And the internet card was cheaper than the Ibis. And printing was free. And the lobby was nicer.
  • The car we rented was an Opel Zafira, which is a small mini-van. It had a manual transmission (I’d forgotten how much fun it is to drive stick), and had A/C, cruise control, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. It drove nicely and was very comfortable. We had three travel days where we were in the car for between 6 and 8 hours and nobody complained about getting in the car again the next day.
  • L’OpenTour is a bus line that runs four routes around Paris — buy a ticket, and you can get on and off any of these buses all day, though the two-day pass is an even better deal. The buses are double-decker, and the upper floor is open (i.e. no roof). You get headphones, and there are headphone jacks near every seat where you can hear pre-recorded tours in one of a bunch of languages. The tours were interesting, and the price was pretty good too. In addition to the tours, we ended up using it as public transport for the two days we had tickets. Kudos to the driver as well — he had to drive through an archway at the Louvre and I swear there was less than six inches of clearance on each side of the bus. Everyone on the bus held their breath as we went through.
  • The people in charge of street signs in France. Can you imagine driving around a residential area of Waterloo and seeing signs on every other intersection directing you downtown or to Guelph or Cambridge? Not bloody likely. That’s primarily how we got around France. We had a pretty detailed map, and used it to figure out the next semi-major town to look for, and then just followed the signs. We only got lost a couple of times, and then only for a short while. As an aside: roundabouts (traffic circles) are definitely the way to go. People in North America complain about them because they don’t understand them, but I love ’em. That said, the six-lane twelve-street one (with no lane markers) around the Arc de Triomphe is frightening.
  • Drivers in Europe (other than the psycho motorcyclists) are vastly superior to North American drivers. Not once in the 2050 km we drove did I get annoyed at the slow driver in front of me who wouldn’t move over, because it never happened. (It happens every day during my commute.) Not once was I cut off. Not once did I have to honk at anyone. I was only honked at once and that was my fault.

This next part is what blogging is all about, for those of us who don’t get paid for it, anyway: complaining about stuff!

No snaps to:

  • — Before we rented the place we stayed in, we had booked a different place, and by “booked” I mean that we had signed a contract and paid for it. A few weeks before we left, we got an email saying that the person staying in that apartment before us needed to stay an extra day, so we couldn’t have it the day we arrive in Paris. We could either stay somewhere else that night or rearrange our flights to arrive the next day. There was no apology, we were just out of luck, despite having signed a contract. We told them that we could not rearrange our flights, and they offered us another place at a bit of a discount (though not much of one). After looking around for other places (from other companies), we found that there was nothing else available, so we took the one they offered. Turned out that the place we got was in a better location anyway so it all worked out, but we were pretty annoyed that they changed our booking on us without even apologizing.
  • Hotel Ibis Roissy — right next to Charles de Gaulle airport. One of the worst hotels I’ve ever stayed in. Company slogan: “You’re near the fuckin’ airport, what more do you want?” Have to say that the food in the restaurant was pretty good and not too overpriced, but the rooms were tiny and just awful. The front desk staff, except for the guy who helped me with the internet stuff, was generally unpleasant. Here is an actual conversation between myself and someone at the front desk:
    • Me: Do you know where I need to go to return my rental car?
    • Her: The airport.
    • Me: Well, the airport is a big place.
    • Her: Huh?
    • Me: Where exactly at the airport?
    • Her: Terminal 2.

    If she knew it was terminal 2, why didn’t she say so in the first place? And where at terminal 2? Are there signs? At any Canadian hotel, she’d be pulling out a map and showing you precisely where to go.

  • Renaissance Travel — we’ve dealt with the same travel agent (Tracy) since we booked our honeymoon in Jamaica in 1995, even following her when she moved from one agency to another. Tracy helped us with our trip to Britain in 2000, as well as Vegas in 2005, and a couple of others as well, and we’ve never paid her a red cent. For this trip, a friend recommended a company in Mississauga that she had dealt with before, and they were supposed to be experts on France. We decided to give them a try even though they charged a $189 fee for their services, but we figured for expert consultation, you have to pay. Colossally bad move on our part. They were certainly experts on being French — the woman we dealt with had an accent and was rude. (Actually, she wasn’t rude, just not very helpful, but that doesn’t go as well with the joke.) She booked our hotels (except for Paris) and rental car, and did precisely nothing else. We heard about a place called Sarlat near Bordeaux, and how they had some very cool prehistoric caves. I asked Renaissance if they had any information on hotels in Sarlat as well as more information on the caves and other things to do in the area, and received the following two-line email, reproduced here in its entirety:
    • B.W Hotel Le Renoir(Sarlat)
    • Around 105.00eur per night and per room

    (“B.W.” means Best Western) This was the kind of extensive information she thought would help our decision making. We almost want to send Tracy an apology card.

  • motorcycle, scooter and sometimes even bicycle riders. In France, two-wheeled vehicles drive anywhere they want, including between lanes and on the sidewalks and shoulder, and can weave among other vehicles at will. Luckily, other vehicles seem to agree with this, and just let them go. (Or perhaps they don’t agree but just let them go because the alternative is too dangerous.) It’s quite scary sometimes. An experienced French motorcycle rider would find himself honked at every few minutes in Toronto, if he survived that long.
  • annoying beggars in Paris. They would ask if you spoke English, looking like they needed directions, and then hand you a note (in English) which explained how they had recently arrived in Paris from Bosnia, and had a brother with leukemia, and they couldn’t afford to get treatment for him. If you waved them off, they would literally beg: “Please can’t you help me?” Well, maybe I’d help you if you weren’t the fifth Bosnian refugee with a sick brother who’s stopped me in the past hour.

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