Travel Journal – Lessons from French Culture

This summer we visited France, spending numerous days in Paris, Normandy, Brittany, and a few other locations. We saw a lot of great sites, and were able to experience numerous dimensions of French culture. Like almost every country in Europe, France has a unique culture. Well, it is just very French. I will not pretend to be an expert on French culture (I don’t even speak the language), but I have visited this beautiful country numerous times and have taken note of a few things I really like about French culture…and a few things that I would not emulate. Please note that I am not trying to stereotype an entire country’s culture based on my limited exposure. Rather I just want to note some things that you will remember from our recent journeys that I think can inform how we live our own lives. First, three things that I enjoy about French culture.

1. They enjoy a good meal. Let’s face it, the French know how to cook tasty food. As you can tell from my size, I do not have the most sophisticated palate, but I do eat like a King when I am in France. The list of French foods I enjoy is long, but not endless. I really enjoy croissants, croque monsieur, escargot (yes – the snails are delicious), baguettes with cheese (not the really stinky blue cheeses), onion soup, steak and mussels with fries, beef burgundy, andouillette, and crepes to name a few. Just typing that list makes me hungry. To be fair there are several dishes I don’t like such as liver pate, tartare dishes, or creme brulee. French food enjoys a good reputation worldwide, and it is well deserved.

2. They look good walking around. France, particularly Paris, is known for its fashion. You notice this walking around Paris, and other cities. Simply put, I have seen few French dressed like slobs. You can tell that most people spent some time thinking about what they are going to wear before going out the door. We here in America tend to be much more casual than many countries. I am not saying that is a bad thing. Rather I am saying that it is probably worth investing some time and money into looking nice. I used to dress really casual all the time, but try to dress more appropriately these days. I don’t think you would ever witness a French person walking around in their pajamas, and I have seen more than one person in Reston Town Center who looked like they just rolled out of bed.

3. They appreciate art. We saw so much great art in France. Their museums are full of masterpieces. In fact, the Louvre has so much art that I would never attempt to see all of it during one visit. The Orsay has a wonderful collection of impressionist art. We visited Monet’s house in Giverny. The garden there was as beautiful as you would imagine. I see their appreciation for art spilling into the colors and designs they use in everyday life. I am not an artist (no talent at all), but I do notice how prevalent art is throughout French culture.

France is a great country, but not all is sunshine. There are a few things I will note that could use improvement in France. Some of these are obvious, so I will not elaborate in detail.

1. Many people still smoke. The negative affects of smoking cigarettes are well known, but I guess the French don’t care. I was surprised by how many people still light up cigarettes on a regular basis…to include with coffee over breakfast.

2. Many people are working less. The short work week is a reality, and many stores are closed during lunch hours. Trying not to judge, but it just seems like the French work ethic is much different than ours. Granted, Americans probably work too hard, but it is noticeable.

3. The dog poop. I know it sounds crazy, but there is dog poop all over the place in many cities. For those who have been to France, you know this is true. For others, it is probably shocking. It seems like no one invented the plastic bag to pick up dog poop in France. Pay attention when you are walking around, or else you may get an unpleasant surprise.

As always, I enjoy traveling and learning from other cultures. In case you are looking for a humorous perspective on French culture, check out the video below from a You Tube travel channel that I watch on occasion. Yes – he talks about the dog poop too.

Tips for Traveling – France

As you know one of my goals is to visit Europe on a regular basis. In fact, we have taken a vacation there the past three summers. This year we went to France. I thought it was a great trip. We saw a lot of great art, walked through awesome cathedrals, strolled through half-timbered houses, visited historic sites like the D-Day beaches, ate wonderful food, met new people, created memories, and learned a little about what it is like to be French. There are a few specific reasons I like to travel, and enjoy showing you different parts of Europe. I think it is important to see other parts of the world. More importantly, you learn a lot while you travel. You learn things about yourself, about others, and how the world works. Below are three travel tips from our most recent trip to France. They are focused on the trip itself, not what we learned from the French while there…that will be in the next blog post.

1. Detailed planning helps make the trip go smoothly and creates lasting memories. Traveling is not easy. Things will go wrong. In order to avoid our vacations becoming a chaotic mess, I spend a lot of time planning the trip before we board the plane. You know this – you have seen the slides I create that describe the trip in detail. I know my approach is kind of geeky, but it seems to work really well for us. Some would argue that it is better to just “wing it” when it comes to travel. The idea is to show up without a plan, and just “make it up as you go along”. I am not a big fan of this approach, especially when you are traveling as a group like we were this year. I would rather invest the time researching and planning so that we make the most of the trip. The last thing I want to happen is for us to spend a few weeks in a country, shell out a lot of money, and not really enjoy it. To avoid this scenario I will map out the route, design an overall schedule, and a basic agenda for each day. That does not mean that every minute of every day is planned in advance. Rather, I like having a basic structure so that we get to see what we want to see, and get the most from each day at a pace that is comfortable. We always leave time in the schedule for unplanned excursions that arise during the trip. For example, this year we decided to drive down the Normandy coast rather than take the main highway. It was a beautiful drive full of amazing sites that we would have missed.

2. Use the resources that are available to stay organized and avoid mishaps. There are a lot of great tools available nowadays to help you plan for travel – books, websites, blogs, videos, etc. For example, I use booking.com for our hotel reservations. This website allows me to search for hotel rooms at all the cities we will visit. It includes reader reviews, photos, and detailed descriptions. The site allows me to track all of our reservations in one location. I almost always book rooms with a free cancellation policy, because you never know when you plan will change and you need to cancel a room. I also use trip advisor for researching, but rarely will book rooms through their site. There are several great websites like kayak and google flights to use when buying plane tickets. Let these sites do the searching and tracking of prices for you. It is amazing the price difference you may see in flight prices. For example, this year we stayed an extra day because it was cheaper to pay another day for the hotel room than to fly on a Sunday back to the states. YouTube has a ton of travel related content that is useful. I will watch numerous videos to extract tidbits of information about where we are going, what to see, and what to expect. Lastly, investing in a travel book is worth it. The reality is that a trip to Europe costs thousands of dollars, so it makes sense to spend the $30 on a good travel book about the area that we are visiting. As you know, I am a huge Rick Steves fan. His books, TV show, website and videos have taught me a lot about travel, and saved me a lot of grief while wandering around Europe. This year, we spent a lot less time waiting in long lines for tickets based insights gained from his France guidebook.

3. Live like a local when you can. One of Rick Steve’s mantras is to try to live like a local while you travel so that you actually experience the culture. It is easy to stay in comfortable hotels away from the action. Many enjoy this type of travel. I prefer to see what life is like for the locals. It is much more interesting than being holed up in a fancy hotel built for foreign travelers. For example, based on Rick’s recommendation, we actually stayed on Mont St. Michel for one night. Sure – it was expensive, but it was worth it. I knew that we should arrive late in the day as the day trippers were leaving, so that we could experience this unique site without hoards of tourists around us. We did, and have many awesome pictures to prove it. Another good decision we made was to spend multiple days in the Rue Cler neighborhood in Paris. We stayed in a funky modern hotel, and were able to see how the locals live in this pedestrian zone part of the city. Each day we ate breakfast at the local bakery where locals sip their coffee while eating a croissant, chatting with their neighbors about current events, and smoking cigarettes. As you learned the French still smoke a lot. At night we ate and drink in one of the local cafes watching Parisian life pass right in front of our eyes. I felt like we learned a little about what it is like to actually live in Paris – one of the greatest cities in the world. For anyone considering visiting Paris, this video gives more insights about staying near Rue Cler. BTW – the best croissant I have ever eaten came from the bakery on this street. It was dripping in butter and goodness.

Hit the reset button – New York blunder

As you know, this past weekend Gavin and I visited New York City. It was a great trip, and every thing was going really well until we arrived at the airport for our trip back home. Once at the airport I noticed that our flight was not listed on the arrival board which seemed strange. I should have stopped there, but we went through security and on to the departure gate. At this point, I could tell something was wrong. Our flight was not listed at the gate, so I checked my ticket. Crap – our flight did not depart at 9 AM…but 9 PM. I made a huge blunder, a really big error. We were at the airport twelve hours early with nothing to do, and no other flights available.

What to do next? Gavin and I pondered the situation and we decided to hit the reset button on the day. We trekked back to NYC, found a place to store our luggage, and spent another day exploring NYC. The weather was not great, but we had a good time being tourists. We went to the top of the rock, hung out in Times Square, visited the wax museum, explored Ripley’s, and an array of other attractions. The day was topped off with New York cheesecake at a diner. Not a bad day considering we had not planned any of it beforehand.

As this experience shows – sometimes you have to hit the reset button on a day. The bottom line is that I messed up big time. But, we could recover from it. Rather than spending the day beating myself up over my mistake (Gavin did a nice job reminding me about it), I decided to get on with it, and make the most of what was left of the day. The ability to “hit the reset button” is an important skill in life. Many times, you will make stupid mistakes, or have things not go your way. It is easy to get really upset about the situation, and even pout about it. But, a more mature response, is to get over it, and then get on with it. You will be amazed at what will happen when you hit the reset button – you will meet new people, see new places, and gain new experiences.

Keep this lesson in mind the next time you travel, and things take a turn for the worse. I have traveled a fair bit, and trust me, these kind of things happen. Flights are delayed, and your plans will need to change. Hopefully, I will avoid making this kind of big blunder again. But, if it does, I know what I will do. Hit the reset button, and start all over again.

Standing in the middle of nowhere,
Wondering how to begin.
Lost between tomorrow and yesterday,
Between now and then.

And now we’re back where we started,
Here we go round again.
Day after day I get up and I say
I better do it again
– Do It Again by the Kinks

Lessons learned while traveling – Cancun Mexico

As you know, I really enjoy traveling. Seeing other parts of the world is fun. Experiencing other cultures is eye opening. Many of life’s greatest lessons I have learned while traveling. Spring Break is next week, so I was thinking about our trip last year to a luxury resort in Cancun Mexico. My parents were nice enough to let us borrow their time share points to enjoy a week off in paradise.

I hope that you noticed a few things during the trip. First – it is rewarding to take a week off and relax. The place we stayed was awesome. We had great weather, and a chance to truly relax. It is important to take time off and enjoy life. Second – you saw first hand another culture that is much different than ours. Mexicans speak a different language, eat different foods, and take a different approach to work. I was impressed with how hard everyone at the resort worked, and how diligent they were in making sure that we had what we needed during our stay. Lastly, you witnessed first hand the art of haggling. Some items you buy do not really have a set price. Instead you will have to negotiate the cost with the seller – it is expected. I do not pretend to be an expert in haggling, but understand that I will not pay more for something than what I think it is worth.

I hope you learned these lessons and more during our trip. We have several trips coming up soon. Riley – we are going away again this year for Spring Break. I am looking forward to relaxing in the sun, especially with our recent crazy weather. Gavin – I am taking you to New York City for the first time. You will get a chance to see one of the greatest cities in the world. Of course, we have exciting summer vacation trip plans as we visit a new part of Europe. We will see and learn a lot. Great adventure is ahead for us.

So I just sit right here and have another beer in Mexico. Do my best to waste another day
– Beer in Mexico, Kenny Chesney

Travel to See and Experience the World

Travel and see the world whenever you get a chance.  You will gain a different perspective on life, on people, and life long memories during your travels.  We lived in Germany many years ago, and had a wonderful time traveling all over Europe. I still have fond memories of all the trips, both the good and the bad. I saw some of the best places like (Bavaria, Iphofen, Burgundy, Tuscany, Cinque Terra, Alsace, Paris, Venice, Florence, Bruges, and Dresden, etc.), and some grim reminders about humanity’s dark side (Dachau and Bosnia). My hope is to take you to Europe every summer.

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert
But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime
In a big country, dreams stay with you
Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside, Stay alive  

– The song In a Big Country, by Big Country