Category Archives: France

France by the numbers

KM flown about 6000 each way
KM driven 2050
Different hotels 5
Nights on plane 1
Nights in hotels 15
Pictures taken 1868
Size of pictures taken 5.265 GB
Videos taken 139
Size of videos taken 4.377 GB

Times we got rained on while visiting a chateau 3
Times we got rained on while not visiting a chateau 0
Times we walked into a restaurant in the middle of the day or evening only to be told they were closed at least 3
Number of thousand-year-old buildings we drove by and didn’t even bother looking at countless
Number of thousand-year-old buildings in all of North America 0
Price for a litre of gas in France about 1€45 (~$2.30)
Price for a litre of gas in Canada about $1.35
Average price for a bottle of Coke in a restaurant in France 4€ (~$6.40)
Average price for a bottle of Coke in a restaurant in Canada $2.50
Average difference in price between a Coke and a beer in a restaurant in France 0€50 (~$0.85)
Average difference in price between a Coke and a beer in a restaurant in Canada $3

The Treasure Hunt

The Louvre is probably the most famous art museum in the world, containing the most famous painting in the world and some of the most famous sculptures as well. Jackie, Gail, and I knew that we could walk around there for hours, but we also knew that our boys (and most kids in general) would get pretty bored pretty quickly just looking at paintings and sculptures. So we had a clever plan to make it fun for them so we didn’t have to listen to “Can we leave yet?” all day — We turned it into a treasure hunt. (We can’t take credit for this plan, the former vice-principal at the boys’ school told us that this is what they did.)

Once we bought our tickets, our first stop was the gift shop, where we asked each of the boys to choose two of the many postcards representing works contained in the Louvre. They each chose a couple, Gail and I each chose one (though I’m wondering if we never actually bought mine, because I can’t find it), and we began our hunt. Of course, we walked slowly while searching so that we could look at the other works as well.

One of the first things we saw was Winged Victory, which is a 2200-year-old sculpture found in Greece. I’m not sure what it is about this piece, but I was really impressed with it, and Ryan really liked it as well. He couldn’t get over the fact that it was over two thousand years old.

We spent a long time in the Grande Galerie, which is a huge hallway containing zillions of Italian paintings. The Mona Lisa is in a room just off of this hallway, and it was the second piece we found on our hunt. Mona is smaller than one might think, and because it’s behind a big sheet of plexiglass, it’s hard to take a good picture of it. I must have taken ten pictures from various different angles to try and minimize the glare from the plexiglass. I even took one with the flash on (a no-no according to the sign, but lots of other people were doing it too), but it turned out worse than the other ones.

At the end of the Grande Galerie were a few rooms containing Spanish paintings, and this is where we found the first postcard, one of Ryan’s. All the rest of the paintings were by French artists, so we headed over to where the French paintings were. We wandered around there for a while and the only one we found was mine. We then found a section that contained more French paintings but was closed to the public that day. We were disappointed, since we figured that this room is probably where the rest of our postcards were, so we asked the security guard if they were indeed in the closed section. He looked at the pictures, and said no, these particular ones were in a gallery of larger paintings on a different floor. We made our way down there, and hit the jackpot. First off, we were amazed by the size of these pieces. There were paintings in there that must have been fifteen feet high and at least twice that wide. As we were admiring the biggest one, Nicky pointed out his picture of Napoleon, and then we noticed his other one just down from that one, then Gail’s Jeanne d’Arc in one corner, and finally Ryan’s tigers in another corner. Of the six postcards we chose at the gift shop, four of the corresponding paintings were in the same room. Considering how many paintings are in the Louvre, we were blown away by this. Of course, the vast majority of the works in the Louvre are not available on postcards in the gift shop, so it’s not like we picked six out of 35,000 and four of them were together.

One thing we found that was a little surprising was that the boys were not just looking for paintings that matched their postcards, they were actually looking at the paintings. There were a number of times that one or both of the boys would ask about who was in a painting, or why they painted whatever it was. There were a number of paintings of various people holding the head of John the Baptist. (Note that the link is to a painting that is supposed to be in the National Gallery in London, but I’m sure we saw it in the Louvre. Perhaps it was a copy.) I couldn’t explain the significance of that, but Ryan thought it was cool. There was one of David fighting Goliath where the artist had painted the same scene from two different angles, and both boys enjoyed walking in circles around the two paintings comparing one with the other. And Ryan mentioned the other day that there were a lot of paintings with naked people. He’s right.

We walked around the Louvre for at least three hours, and not once did either of the boys ask if we were done yet, or when we were leaving, or complain about being bored, or anything. Is this because of exceptional parenting — we’ve taught them not to whine when things aren’t going exactly how they want? Well, we are trying to teach them that, but it doesn’t always work. Is it because we’ve taught them to appreciate fine art and so they were simply fascinated the whole time? As I said, this was true to a larger extent than I expected, but for the most part, no. The simple truth is that we found a way to distract them for long enough that we got to see what we wanted. We’ve found that a good portion of parenting young children is the art of distraction.

BTW, some of our pictures are available at our family website.

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.

Nos vacances en France

We returned on Saturday from our wonderful vacation in France. I won’t bore you with the day-by-day details, but here it is in a nutshell:

We stayed in an apartment in Paris for a week — saw the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Versailles, Luxembourg garden, and Disneyland Paris. We did a lot of walking, and the metro system is very straightforward and can get you anywhere. Vastly superior to Toronto’s public transit system. Paris is an amazing city — you can just feel the history everywhere. I have to say though, while the view from the Eiffel Tower is spectactular, it’s also kind of boring, in that the vast majority of the buildings are the same colour (gray) and the same height (five or six stories).

After a week in Paris, we took the high speed train (kind of disappointing — didn’t seem much faster than any other train) to Bordeaux where we picked up our rental van. Stayed a couple of days in Bordeaux, and took one day to drive to Perigueux, where Jackie’s family originated (Jackie is Gail’s stepmother, and she came with us on the trip). We then drove up to Amboise, near Tours. Stayed a couple of days there, mainly driving around various châteaux including the beautiful Château de Chenonceau.

Next we drove up to Saint Malo on the English Channel. Every restaurant in Saint Malo serves seafood of some kind, and the most popular dish seemed to be mussels and french fries. Don’t get me wrong, I had them and they’re very good (the boys liked them too), but fries seemed like an odd thing to serve with mussels. No vegetables or rice or anything, just a bowl of mussels and a plate of fries. We also drove to nearby Mont Saint Michel, one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. It’s just your average monstrous church and abbey built on top of a huge rock on an island surrounded by quicksand. Must have been pretty trivial to build eight hundred years ago.

We also drove to a town (and a château) called Pirou, which is where, we think, my family name comes from. As it turns out, the Pirou family that lived here died out many hundreds of years ago, but one of them fought in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was subsequently given land in England, where there’s now a town called Stoke-Pero. I’m planning on doing some more digging to see if that’s where my line of the Perrow family came from. If so, the next time I’m in France, I can go back to Pirou and claim my castle.

Anyway, after three days in Saint Malo, we drove back to Paris and flew home the next day. I think splitting the trip up into two (a week in Paris and a week driving around the countryside) worked out very well — it almost seemed like two different vacations back to back.

Some North American beliefs about France:

  • French people are rude — in general, yes. Of course, there are exceptions; we met a number of very friendly people, but in general, we found that people didn’t say “excusez moi” or “pardon” nearly as often as we thought they should have. While waiting in lines, we had people walk through the middle of the lines without saying a word — sometimes physically pushing their way through, and other times pushing a stroller or shopping cart, all silently. Waitresses in Canada would be fired if they treated customers the way we were treated in a couple of places. Well, maybe not fired, but we left a couple of places without leaving a tip of any kind, and I didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty.
  • French people are dirty — I did not see any women with underarm hair (though quite honestly, I wasn’t looking), but we did notice more B.O. per capita than we’re used to here.
  • the Mona Lisa is smaller than you’d expect — yup. I don’t know what it is about that smile, but you just find yourself staring at it…
  • France is expensive — yup. 6€ (over $9) for a Coke in a restaurant, gas is almost twice what it is in Canada, and the “American style” breakfast buffet in one of our hotels was 13€ (about $20) per person. Obviously the person who called that “American style” has never been to America. In one of the other hotels, breakfast was 16€50 — we passed on that one.
  • French people eat baguettes — absolutely. We couldn’t count the number of people we saw walking around Paris eating a baguette. Nothing on it, not even butter, just a big long hunk of dry bread.
  • French wine is good — dunno, don’t drink wine. None of us had even a sip of wine while in France. (Wine drinkers reading this are probably all angry that a French vacation was “wasted” on people who don’t drink wine.) There was a beer called 1664 that was pretty good, though.

I have a couple of other postings in the works about our vacation, and I’ll try to get some pictures up on our web site soon too.

Blogging fron Paris

In Paris…stop
Sitting in internet café near Notre Dame…stop
Having trouble figuring out this stupid French keyboard…stop
Our apartment is a five minute walk to Notre Dame…stop
Had lunch on Champs-Elysées the other day, 6€ ($9) for a Coke!…stop
Disneyland yesterday, Versailles tomorrow, then Bordeaux on Friday…stop
Must go now, time running out…stop

Not a word in the French press wondering about whether Mats is resigning with the Leafs! Unbelievable!


We leave for France tomorrow afternoon, and although (I think) there is a computer with internet access in the apartment in Paris, my guess is that blogging will be very light (i.e. probably nonexistent) for the next couple of weeks. Hopefully, faithful reader, you can find some other way to occupy your time in my absence. Au revoir!

Deux salles, s’il vous plait

We are trying to plan our trip to France this summer. Gail’s stepmother is coming with us, and this is causing us no end of grief. That sounds wrong — it’s not her fault. We’re looking forward to travelling with her (and not just because she’s fluent in French!), it’s just the fact that there are more than four of us that’s the problem.

There are zillions of hotels and B&B’s in France, but most of them don’t seem to like groups of more than four (and a good number don’t like groups of more than two). We are finding that we need to book two rooms every night because none of these places have rooms that can hold five people. It’s pretty standard for hotels over here to have rooms with two double beds, and many of these have a fold-out sofa-bed as well, or you can get a rollaway bed brought to the room. We’ve stayed in hotels that had two queen beds and a double fold-out sofa-bed — and these weren’t the upgrade rooms. I’d be willing to sleep on the couch for a night or two if necessary, but that doesn’t seem to be an option either. For our week in Paris, we’re renting a two-bedroom apartment because it’s cheaper than getting two hotel rooms per night. This has the advantage of having a kitchen as well, so we can buy our own baguettes and cheese and escargots and make breakfast or lunch some days rather than going out to restaurants and cafés for every single meal.

What the hell do European families of five do when they travel? Do they always get two rooms?