Saturday, October 11, 2008

Observations, the weird & bizarre, and other info you always wanted to know!

People are people, but life is very different in other parts of the world, be it cultural, or people just being weird. We always enjoy and find it interesting noticing the diverse lifestyles, experiences we encounter along the way or just things we had to scratch our heads and say hmmmmm . . .


France is mostly country with lots of farms. Big cities are few and far between, but small villages and towns are plentiful. Each town has a sign with the town name as you enter and the same sign when you leave, only with a slash across the name indicating town limits and a change in the speed limit.

The French business day begins late, between 9-10am. Restos close down between 2-7pm and reopen for dinner hours 7pm - 11pm. Schools let out around 5pm. The sun doesn't come up until after 7:30am, making the day seem like it starts later. The B&B's rarely served their breakfasts before 8:30am. Being early risers, we had a hard time adjusting to their time schedules.

Every thing from groceries, restaurant bills, anything bought in a store has a 19.6% sales tax added-YIKES! Everything is priced with the tax added in already, so you pay the price you see, making everything seem expensive. The receipt breaks down the item price and tax.

One load of laundry, wash and dry, set us back E11-12 a pop, another yikes! We did our laundry 5 times on the trip so figure it cost us roughly E55 (or $72) to wash our clothes. Maybe we should have just tossed them and bought new along the way, hehe. NOT! Clothes are expensive in France.

The French women love their shoes & hair. Seems like every fifth store in a sizable town is a shoe store or hair salon.

Thinking in Euros, I honestly don't know how the French survive. Everything is so expensive - they must pull in a comparable, decent amount in salary.

I was shocked how much attention the TV news covered the USA news, especially our politics with the upcoming election. I would say that Europeans are much more aware of world politics in general, much more than the average Joe here. They know just as much about our government and politics as we do. Do you even know the name of the French or German leaders?

Of all the sights we visited, we never had a security or bag check except in one place. Guess? Disneyland Paris and it was a quick look into your bag and Merci.

None of the sights are handicapped friendly, nor does it appear the French govt. has made any attempt to make them wheel chair friendly. Stairs abound everywhere you go with not a ramp in sight.

It was COLD the whole time we there, the biting cold, wind made it even colder. I wore my vest and jacket every single day. The last week we fought the rain off and on.

Everything closes down on Sundays. Gas stations, grocery stores and even about 1/2 the restos.

We leased our brand new Peugeot 207, 5 speed diesel. What a great little car, loved everything about it from great 55 MPG gas mileage, size, and maneuverability in tight spaces and narrow roads. The US car industry can take some lessons from the European carmaker designs. However, trying to sell smaller cars to the American public would be the challenge. Everyone here has the stupid mindset of bigger is better despite the gas situation, we really need to change our thinking. If the Peugeot were available in the US, we would be first in line to buy one.

The autoroute toll roads throughout France are extensive and costly. You take a ticket when you get on and pay when you get off, price is based on how far you drive. Exits are few and far between. Rest stops are about every 10 km, in varying degrees from just a picnic area to full on Autogrill with restos, shops and gas stations. The most expensive gas is along the autoroute, knowing they got ya. It is hard to not have to take an autoroute when traveling between major cities. For example, when we drove from Avignon to Dijon, we took the E30 toll autoroute which was a 4 hour drive. If we opted for the side roads and no tolls, which went through small towns and farming, it would have taken us 7 1/2 hours.

Roundabouts instead of intersections are the norm, we love them. It keeps traffic flowing and no waiting for traffic lights.

Final driving tally:
We drove a total of 3,872 km or 2,324 miles
We spent E245 for diesel or $319.00
Diesel cost anywhere from E1.25 - E1.40 per liter or E5 - E5.60 per gallon or $6.50 - $7.30 per gallon. Unleaded gas was much more costly, usually about 50 eurocents more per gallon.
We spent E65.80 on tolls or $86.00
We spent about E55 for parking or $75.00

Our car:

Items we buy in a supermarket are bought in specialty stores. Supermarkets as we know them, do not exist in France. They do have a chain called Super-U, which is similar to a Walmart selling groceries, clothes, hardware, some furniture etc. But still not near the size of Walmart. Intermarche chain would be the closest to our supermarkets, but again much smaller. Intermarche also had gas pumps in their parking lots with the best gas prices.

A marche (market) is usually small, a little bigger than a 7-11. 
Items available are:
1. A limited amount of paper goods, one brand of toilet tissue, kleenex or napkins
2. A very small soap and toiletries selection
3. Small dairy section with limited amounts of deli meats, cheeses, yogurt and sometimes cold milk. Most milk is sold warm, in cartons on a shelf.
4. All have a produce section
5. A cookie, candy, cracker, chips, cereal section
6. Soda and water, and sometimes booze.
7. Small can goods section, mostly soups.
8. Almost all sell the French staples, baguettes and croissants, near the register.

Specialty stores include:
1. cheeses at a fromagerie
2. breads and pastries at patisserie/boulangerie
3. fresh cut meats and deli at the boucherie/charcuteries
4. fresh produce at open air produce stands, same for flowers
5. health, beauty, hygiene products at a pharmacy
6. medicines, over the counter and Rx at an Apothoteek
7. tobacco, newspapers and magazines at a tabak
8. pet products at a pet store
It must take the French all day to buy their goods. But they shop every day for fresh products and rarely do a one week shopping. They use reusable shopping bags, plastic bags cost 10 eurocents each. Lots of people stop by the stores on their way home from work for that nights dinner. They buy only what they can carry home in 2 bags and on foot.

Food and restaurant prices seemed high to us, even thinking in euros without the exchange. One exception was bottled water, 15-20 eurocents for a 2 liter bottle. We always kept lots of bottled water and soda in our car and refilled smaller bottles to carry. But yet, buy a 16 oz bottle of water from a street vendor and you pay E2-3, same as a soda - what a mark up!
Street side goodies include mostly crepes, both savory and sweet and glace (ice cream).

Restaurants or restos
The food was fantastic! The combo of fresh herbs and sauces the chefs used made every meal unique.
The cooking methods and specialties changed from region to region. I love chicken and ordered it often and never had it cooked twice the same way, same with the fish Terry ordered. I was pretty adamant about not trying some regional specialties: foi gras, duck (too greasy for me), escargot, tripe, or any sausage, not knowing what was in it. I knew I'd always be safe with poulet (chicken) or any kind of pasta. The French eat a LOT of jambon & fromagerie combos (ham & cheese) in sandwiches, main meals and even pizza. Pizza dough was more of a crepe, thin and crisp, with tons of toppings piled on.

We tried to eat in the smaller, family run restos knowing they take pride in their food. The woman would usually wait tables and the man would be chef, sometimes with help. We frequented casual, cafe bistro type places staying away from the high priced, falooten restos, it's just not us. I can honestly say I only got one meal that I consider bad, lasagne in a small town of Uzes. It tasted like the sweet, tomato-y spaghetti-O sauce plopped on noodles. The salad was a few lettuce leaves with no dressing or any other veggies added - BLAH!

Most restos have a plat du jour special (plate of the day) that usually included a starter, main meal and dessert. Many times this was just too much food for us at dinner, but we often opted for just the main meal selection ala carte. Sometimes at lunch we would order the plat du jour and then have a light dinner, worked for us.

Not much fast food in France, not that we cared. McDonalds were in the larger towns, saw a few KFC. Their 2 homegrown fast food chains were Quick and Flunch, but they were few and far between. We used McD's on the road when we knew we needed a decent bathroom for a good, clean decent sit or to use their free WiFi if we hadn't had internet access in a while. To order a Big Mac meal, it cost about E8 ($10.50).

Not once did I see any place that sold coffee to go. Nobody walks and carries drinks. I did see a few cafe au lait vending machines in a few Metro stations in Paris, but never saw anyone buy one. We saw one Starbucks, tucked away in a shopping mall on the Champs Elysees in Paris. Coffee is meant to be savored, sitting at a sidewalk cafe, people watching. At about 3pm every day, everyone does just that, they have their drink of choice at a cafe, for their version of siesta.

I believe if a restaurant inspector from here were to inspect the restos in France according to our big brother standards, most would be closed. The kitchens are small and tight, usually in an old building, plumbing and electrical seemed to be cobbled together to make work. In one resto, my chicken & potatoes were grilled on a BBQ grill over an open fire right by our table, you'd never see that here. Resto workers would smoke in doorways when not busy.

Animals were found everywhere in restos. Dogs sit at their owners feet at the tables. I saw a resto owner's large parrot in a cage located right by the kitchen, it said hello to me as I passed to use the bathroom. One resto owner's white kitty made several appearances running around during the dinner hour. And lastly, several pigeons made their home on the third floor of a McD's!! And yet, the resto food was delicious and we never got sick.

We always used the restaurant bathroom when we had a meal. They would be the most decent, public bathroom when out and about. Which leads me to . . .

Public Bathrooms
Uhhhh, this was probably the MOST diverse subject we encountered. In France, cleanliness left a lot to be desired . . . some were downright unusable in my opinion and I'd turn around and walk out choosing to hold it instead. Restaurants, museums, and some but not all, main sightseeing venues had the best toilets. Ass gaskets do not exist anywhere in France. The first prize for the best sit goes to Disneyland Paris with McDonalds coming in second, except for the big McD's on the Champs Elylese in Paris - YUCK!

Basically, we were able to classify the potties into 3 categories, cleanliness aside:
1. A regular toilet with seat.
2. A toilet with no seat.
3. A WC, water closet, avoid at all cost. It is nothing more than a hole in the ground, having fun straddling and aiming. Ummm, NO!

Some toilets were shocking, like the outdoor, public urinal fountains. We never actually saw one, but saw signs pointing the way to some. Corner public cubicles are located on the sidewalks, usually in a bigger city. And the sidewalk WC's (remember a hole in the ground) with nothing more than a flimsy screen for privacy, that literally left nothing to the imagination. Many public bathroom's main door entries had large windows in them, giving a front row view of the men's urinals. Often times, public bathrooms were pay to pee, 20-50 eurocents per sit.

But the thing that took the most getting used to were the co-ed potties. The autoroute toll highway rest stops were notorious for these. The big autogrill bathrooms were busy and co-ed. I walked into one where a man was standing in his underwear, taking a spit bath from the sink, washing his under arms and upper body. Ewwwww, made me even more cautious about touching ANYTHING in a public washroom. I became very adept at using my feet opening and closing doors, flushing any kind of flush mechanism, not touching any hard surface. I brought my own stash of travel ass gaskets, but when they were gone, I used probably more than my share of toilet paper to fashion my own multi layer ass gaskets, especially when no seat was in sight. I'd wash my hands thoroughly at the sinks and then exit and wash them again with my antibacterial hand gel. Thank god I brought plenty.

Probably my favorite place, a happy mix of Germany and France. The great food of France and the cleanliness and orderliness of Germany. The Belgians have a laid back, friendly disposition and most speak fluent English. The Flemish areas around Brugges, the north and the west coast, proudly protect their Flemish heritage and still speak their native Belgian Dutch. Travel east to Brussels and the official language is French. There is an obvious rift between these 2 areas when it comes to language and heritage.

The roads are well lit, well signed and never a toll. The highways are well kept and easy to drive. Belgium has preserved their old city centers, allowing newer buildings to surround the old. Every public bathroom was spotless and all toilets had toilet seats - what a breath of fresh air, literally, after France's potties. A lot of bike riders in Belgium, like the Netherlands.

Belgium, like Germany, is also known for it's local breweries. Terry tried a local Brugges beer called Brugges Zot. I tried a sip, very different with an almost sweet first taste then the bitter beer taste follows, interesting taste. And how could I forget to mention the Belgian Chocolates - YUM! It is melt in your mouth, smooth, chocolatey heaven . . . we definitely had our share along with a few more insulin shots for me. Besides the multitudes of chocolatiers, Belgian street side goodies included hot Belgian waffles smothered in ice cream, toppings and chantilly (whip cream) and paper cones filled with piping hot Belgian french fries, dipped in mayo.

I really wish we had blocked additional time to see more of Belgium, it is a place I'd like to return to someday.

The Netherlands
Crossing the border into Holland was an instant change. The roads are well kept, well lighted with large signage. The sound walls along the highway became decorative plexiglass art work. The names of roads and exits (UIT) became un-pronounceable to us, very Holland-ish. The landscape is still farming and cow fields, yet cities would come into view, with very modern, new, contemporary buildings - some with very odd architecture. Old windmills sit proudly in wet fields alongside large, modern wind turbines. The Dutch have always used wind power, and it is obviously still used widely today with the thousands of wind turbines we encountered along the highways. Yay for alternative energy solutions at work.

Everyone rides bikes, seemed there were more bikes than cars. Bicycles come equipped with everything you can imagine. Some have 2-3 child seats attached to one bike, some have large wooden boxes permanently on the front of the bike to carry kids, groceries, etc. I never saw anyone wear a helmet, not even the kids. Bike parking often took over squares, the train station bike parking was a zoo. The bike lane system throughout Holland rival the road system for cars. Bike lanes have their own signage, traffic lights and well kept lanes keeping riders safe. Even bridges have separate bike lanes.

The Netherlands also has preserved it's older city centers, but feels more modern and up to date. Being socialist, income taxes are very high in the Netherlands but their city infrastructure and roads are very well kept and reflect the spending. The Netherlands has lots of water, and is known as the Low Country, because the majority of land is below sea level. Draw bridges are common over waterways as are under water tunnels.

The food is very similar fare to what we ate throughout France, with plat du jour and lots of ham. Familiar fast food chains include McD's, Burger King and Subway. Street side goodies, small herring fish, tilt your head back and slither and swallow whole!!! It was gross to see people gobble these up, needless to say WE DID NOT have any desire to try these - YUCK!

Bathrooms are spotless, complete with seats and free. People on the streets speak Dutch, but if you ask if they speak English, they say 'little bit'. Then carry on a full conversation with you in fluent English. Just like we found with the Germans, they are first reluctant to speak English as if embarrassed, but speak just fine. And yes, wooden shoes are sold, mostly as Dutch souvenirs.

Same 20% tax on all goods as in France and everything is even more expensive, especially groceries. Businesses and restos in Holland shun credit card purchasing and prefer cash. We heard more than a few times that the credit card machine had just 'broken' please pay cash.

The odd, funny & weird . . .
Driving into Dijon we pulled up to a stop light and heard horns honking. On the corner, was a middle aged, paunchy overweight man, balding with a fringe of long, gray, stringy, hair. He was wearing a very stylish, black patent leather outfit, including a pointy, bra/bustier ala the 80s Madonna, a very short skirt with his butt hanging out, and over the knee, spike, high heeled boots!!!! OMG, he was a sight to see! We laughed so hard, wondering what he was doing and if he was getting any business. Who would want that? And who knew, that you could even buy black, patent leather, over the knee boots in a size to fit HIM?

See our entry for 9-30 in Haarlem. Our laundry day was quite interesting and weird.

See our entry for 10-2 in Amsterdam and the red light district. That whole experience was memorable on many levels.

On our drive to Verdun, France the Autoroute had quite a bit of construction. The signs indicated that our lane would completely end and take us onto the opposite side of the road, one lane in each direction. As we approached the area for the switch, we noticed a construction worker with a bright yellow hardhat, standing on top of the center divider, wildly waving his arms up and down with several red flags in each hand. We both thought, wow that could be dangerous. As we got closer, we realized it was a motorized manequin, with a very flithy, pockmarked, ugly face. We both died laughing as I turned to get a look at his back, his arms flailing in fast motion. I was too late to get a picture, darn. Animatronics on the Autoroute-HA!

We entered a grocery store in the Netherlands, to a large sign above the shopping carts about 1/2 the size of ours. They are called "Winklewagons." I so wanted to take a picture of that sign but Terry thought it would look weird, darn again.

In France, condoms can be bought in vending machines on the streets outside any pharmacy.

Final thoughts
Overall we really enjoyed our trip. We saw everything we wanted and more. Some places exceeded our expectations like the Normandy area, Brugges, Arles, Sarlat and Arnhem. We enjoyed every single one of our B&B's and wouldn't hesitate to recommend any one of them. Our hosts went above and beyond to make sure we were comfortable and all served a very nice, filling breakfast. We gobbled and ate like pigs, savoring excellent food, yet we both came back 5 lbs lighter from all the walking and stairs.

In hindsight, we see that we bit off more than we could chew. We would have skipped Avignon and possibly Carcassone not going so far south. Instead, adding more days to Belgium and possibly the Netherlands. That one week of one night stays from Sarlat to Arnhem, trying to reach the Mediterranean, Provence and back north just about did us in - it was exhausting. Packing and unpacking everyday, squeezing in the sightseeing & eating, and planning for the next day's drive was a bit much. Once we reached Haarlem and started with the 2 and 3 night stays again, we felt more rested and less stressed to stay on schedule.

Lastly, we started planning this trip last year for this fall travel. It took a lot of time, research and effort to make it come to fruition. We bought our flights in March just before the big increase in fuel, we reserved the car shortly after. Emails to reserve our B&B rooms started going out in June. Even though we are budget travelers, it was still a big chunk of change of saving for us to even go. Never in a million years would we have taken this trip, had we had any inkling of the big financial blow up our country faced while we were gone. We had unforeseen bad timing taking this trip - but now that it is over, absolutely no regrets.

We ABSOLUTELY LOVED our 2008 France, Belgium, Netherlands trip!!!
Au Revoir et merci de lire le long de
(Good bye and thanks for reading along!)

1 comment:

PeggyE said...

Jodi, I love your travel log! I am just now enjoying the pictures. I had been curious about Brugge and it looks like a must-see. Now if the economy will just allow us to plan another European trip!Peggy Etheridge