Customs

customs

By customs, I don’t mean that it’s customary to say “thank you” when some one gives you a gift. Although if you don’t, then you’re kind of a jerk. I’m talking about the customs agents at the border of a country who inspect your passport, ask you questions, and decide whether or not they’re going to let you enter their country. I have a few friends who are serious world travelers, and they could speak to this subject with much more knowledge than I can, but I can talk about what it’s like to go through customs in 6 different countries, so I figured, why not?Let’s start with a simple question: how do customs agents in the USA compare to customs agents in other countries? The answer: we’re total prigs. Getting back in to this country, as a US CITIZEN, is a pain in the butt. Every US customs agent I’ve ever met has grilled me before letting me come home. Coming back from Canada was the most ridiculous example of this. My husband and I drove across the Canadian border to see Niagra Falls. We drove back the same day. The US customs agent asked us at least 20 questions – including “How do you know this guy?” – “Uh, he’s my husband?” – before he finally waived us through the checkpoint. I started wondering if somebody had hidden a body or some drugs in our car – the way we were being questioned, I thought for sure he was going to search us and find a dead guy in the trunk. The agent was the definition of by-the-book, and it was a tense situation.

The Canadians, on the other hand, didn’t stamp our passports (damn! no proof I was ever there!) or ask us anything other than, “Here to see The Falls? Coming back today? Have a nice time.” So my advice is this: go ahead and drive that dead body into Canada, but for Pete’s sake, don’t drive it back into the US. I don’t have any other advice on body disposal, though – sorry.

The Germans scared the crap out of me. I flew into Stuttgart, just me, alone, and they asked me about a thousand questions. I guess American girls in their twenties don’t travel alone to Stuttgart. So the German customs agent looked at my passport, looked at me, looked back at my passport – back at me. Me. Passport. Me. Passport. This went on for what felt like hours. No smiling, no talking, no nothing. I just stood there and tried not to twitch too much. Here’s how the conversation went after that:

German Customs Agent: “Why are you visiting our country?”

Me, “Uh, I’m visiting a friend.”

GCA: “What friend?”

Me, “A friend who lives here. She used to work with me.”

GCA: “How long have you known this friend?”

Me, “Uh, several years?”

And on and on and on. What is this friend’s name? Where will you be staying? When will you be leaving? What kind of food are you going to eat while you’re here? Okay, so he didn’t ask that last one, but man, I thought at one point, this guy could really give the Gestapo a run for their money! I wanted to yell, “Look! I am not a sketchy character. I even have a German last name!” Which I did at the time. Finally, he let me in. I’ve never been questioned that extensively since, but the US customs guys definitely come in at a close second.

What about the French? Ah, the French. Viva la France! I was fully prepared to answer all sorts of questions about my reason for visiting, length of my stay, etc. They didn’t ask me one question. They didn’t even look at my face as they stamped my passport and waived me past. It was great! I’d go back just for that reason alone.

And the Swiss? They just wanted money. “It’s 40 Swiss Francs to drive onto our highways. Pay up. No I don’t want to see your passport.” We just bought our way in, and that was that. Again, no stamp on the passport though. Rats!

In Mexico they were super friendly. They just smiled, asked us a few questions, and welcomed us into their country. Come! Spend your money here! So happy to have you! Free lobster dinner if you listen to a time share sales pitch.

But every time I leave the US, I come back. Which means more US customs agents. And they just don’t mess around. I haven’t even tried coming from somewhere that’s actually dangerous – I mean, we’re talking about Europe and North America! What countries were you visiting? How long were you gone? What are you bringing back with you? You know, I tried to fit that dead body from Canada in my suitcase, sir, but I just couldn’t cram him in, so really, just some wine and chocolate.

Next on our international travel list: an island, and we’re bringing the kids. Can’t wait to see what kind of questions they get hit with. I am sure of one thing, Corey can’t keep his mouth shut, and he will confess to everything. “I ate 20 hot dogs, I’m bringing an illegal piece of fruit with me, and my parents have a dead guy in their suitcase.”

At the end of the day, I am very glad that these people are doing their jobs and keeping world travelers safe. I do find a lot of humor in their differences, but I’m glad they’re present to stop the people who really are trying to bring in drugs, dead bodies. Or worse.

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On to Provence! (Day 6)

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Ever since I read Peter Mayle’s wildly funny book, A Year in Provence, I’ve wanted to visit the south of France. So we rose early and left Normandy at 6:45 AM on Tuesday, May 27th, to make the trek from the north of France to the south.

Had we been running The Amazing Race, this is the leg we would have lost. Road blocks popped up at every turn, and at one point I thought the universe must be conspiring to keep us out of Provence. Surely it was impossible that so many things could go wrong in just one day of travel.

At 6:45 AM, with protein bars in hand, we waved goodbye to the peacocks of Chateau de Pont-Rilly and set off on our drive to Caen to return our POS Avis rental car. (Dear Avis, please buy some new cars.) Damian decided that we absolutely had to fill the tank with gas, even though we’d only used a quarter of a tank. This quickly turned into mission impossible as we followed the GPS through turn after turn after turn in Caen without any evidence of a gas station. We changed coordinates to a BP, as it appeared to be the closest gas station.

We drove until the GPS announced, “You have reached your destination, on right.” Uh, what? I see a church, not a gas station. You? Maybe the nuns pump gas in Caen. Who knows?

We had tickets for a 9:00 AM SNCF train to Paris, where we were scheduled to pick up our high-speed train, the TGV, directly to Provence, and it was now after 8:30. As you might imagine, I was getting antsy. I was in favor of taking the hit on the gas. Damian was not. We kept looking for an elusive gas station.

At 8:40, we found one. I tried not to chew my fingernails off as Damian literally ran inside the station to pay (no paying at the pump!), only to learn that, if you want to pay by credit card, you need to use pumps 1 through 4. Guess which pump we were parked beside? Not 1, 2, 3 or 4. He sprinted back out, moved the car, sprinted back inside, was told in rapid French to pump the gas first, then pay, sprinted back out, pumped the gas, back in, paid for the gas, jumped back in the car, drove to the rental car office, parked the car in the lot, and literally ditched me to run to the office.

It’s 8:50. Our train was set to leave in 10 minutes. Thankfully, nobody was in the rental car office. Damian handed over the keys, and we ran to the station.

Lucky for my husband, we made the train.

The train departed, on time, but about 15 minutes into the journey, it stopped without warning. We sat there, not moving, for 20 minutes, which was enough time to get me really wound up about making our next train. Thankfully, we started moving again, and less than ninety minutes later, we hit Paris. We needed to take the metro to Gare de Lyon, the major train station with the high-speed TGV trains. It’s one metro train, a few stops, no problem. Or so we thought. When we arrived at the correct track, it was mobbed with people, and we noticed that the sign announcing the arrival of the next train was not moving off of “3 minutes.” Um, what is going on here?

An announcement came on in French, and while we couldn’t understand it, I’ll tell you what we did understand: everybody left.

Holy hell! You have got to be kidding me.

We had to catch our high-speed train, and our metro train was broken, or delayed, or whatever – that train was not going to take us to Gare de Lyon.

We went back to the map to find an alternate route. We found a route, requiring a transfer, that would take us to the train station. But we needed to hustle, so we moved fast through the underground and hopped on board our first train. Luckily, once you’re in the underground, you can go wherever you want until you exit without buying another ticket. We changed trains, rode a few more stops, and finally hit the Gare de Lyon station.

Once we arrived at Gare de Lyon, we found the train tracks and arrival/departure boards. We found our TGV train and learned that we were supposed to be in hall 2. This is when I looked up and saw a sign that said brightly, “Bienvenus au hall 1.” Great. Where the hell is hall 2?

Fortunately the French are fantastic about putting signs everywhere, and we were able to find hall 2 and our correct track. We even had about 15 minutes to scarf down some lunch, and go in search of a pharmacy, before we boarded the train. Damian was sick at this point, so when he spotted a sign for a pharmacy, he went looking for ibuprofen. To get ibuprofen in France, you have to speak to the pharmacist. You can’t just grab it off the shelf and pay for it. So he did. She asked him why he wanted the drugs (in French), he told her he had a headache (in English), and he left with a pack of 400 mg tablets.

Next, we climbed on board the train, made our way to our seats on the upper deck (two seats beside big windows facing each other), and I finally let myself exhale. Not long after, the conductor welcomed us aboard, and we were off! We were going to make it to Provence.

And then the train stopped. No idea why (I still have no idea why). An announcement in rapid French told the other passengers what to expect, and, because I couldn’t understand the message, I watched the other peoples’ faces. A couple of them laughed in a manner that said, “How ridiculous is this?” – but nobody looked alarmed or particularly put out, and nobody made a move to get off the train, so we just stayed put and tried not to freak out.

About twenty minutes later, the train started moving, and once it hit full stride (at 177 miles per hour) we rolled on to Provence without further ado.

We rocketed from the north to the south in no time flat, and when we arrived at the train station, we hopped in a cab for a short jaunt to Avignon and our bed & breakfast. The first thing I noted about Provence was the weather – it was gorgeous and sunny! Such a 180 from the rain and chill in the north.

Avignon is a walled city, which gives it a medieval feel, and the B&B we chose Le Clos de Rampart (if you click on the link, you can see pics of the room we stayed in – the blue room) is inside those walls. Our hostess, Aida, met us at the door and ushered us in, calling us “my darlings!” and just generally charming us silly. She really went above and beyond to make our stay memorable.

Our room was very spacious, with a private tiled bathroom (think French bathroom downstairs in Sunshine, fam) and windows that opened up to the garden. It was a lovely departure from the small size of our Paris hotel room.

It was around 4:00 PM, I think – after our long day traveling, we cleaned up and took the camera and a bottle of wine outside to the garden area to relax before dinner. Aida brought us a lovely tray with some wine glasses and some pistachios. She also recommended a restaurant in Avignon within walking distance, and she called to make us a reservation for 8:00, noting, “They don’t like to serve before 8:00.” Okay fine. We were used to the French dining late. We relaxed and enjoyed the pretty space and gorgeous weather while sipping wine and looking back over the photos we’d taken thus far. It was nice – we needed more moments like those.

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Eventually we strolled out for dinner, winding our way through the narrow streets of Avignon, to an old water wheel that no longer functions but remains as a piece of the city’s history. We admired it for a bit, and then made our way to our restaurant, called 75. The place was beautiful, and le menu offered some interesting choices. We shared a bottle of white wine, and I started with anchovies (don’t think canned, think fresh) served over a fresh bed of mint and finely diced cucumbers, mullet with creamy risotto, and a strawberry tart to complete the meal. I can’t remember what Damian had, but he says he liked it, so we’ll just go with that.

We crashed hard that night with the windows open to the cool night air. The next day we explore Provence…..

 

Versailles! (Day 3)

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We woke on Saturday, May 24th in Paris, but we spent most of the day in beautiful Versailles. We’d purchased the train tickets to Versailles the night before, so we only needed to catch the metro and the SNCF trains to get there. Our regular breakfast cafe was closed, so we went across the street to a similar cafe and had bleu fromage quiche and coffee.

After breakfast, we walked to the metro station, where we discovered that the usual metro line to Versailles was closed for some reason (explained clearly in French). We looked around for a person at a ticket counter to help us. Guess who was on strike again that day? I’ll give you a hint: not the Germans. Determined to find our way to Versailles, we looked at the train map to try and find an alternate route. At this point we met a couple from Minnesota and a French couple who were all also trying to get to Versailles, and between the six of us, we found another route.

With the other couples, we took a metro train to the SNCF station, and, after some confusion, we realized that the SNCF train we wanted for Versailles was leaving in just three minutes. The race was on! We played a game of follow-the-French-guy and literally ran through the train station, weaving in between other patrons, and managed to hop on the last car of the train moments before the doors shut and it took off. Whew!

Damian and I were both on board, luckily, before the doors closed. Had we been separated, that could have been dicey – I didn’t have a phone with me. We’d actually witnessed a similar situation earlier that morning. A single girl got separated from her group as the first few girls hopped on the metro and watched in horror as the doors closed on their friend. Panic attack, anyone? That girl wasn’t dumb enough to be running around France without a phone, though, so I’m sure they found her.

We were on our way to visit the Chateau de Versailles, home to King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette! Since our original train was not available, we weren’t sure exactly how far away from the chateau we would land. Would we be able to walk? Would we need to find a bus? Our guide book said the walk was 25 minutes from the train station. It wasn’t. It was only 15 minutes, and it was a lovely walk through a part of Versailles that we would have otherwise missed. We arrived at the chateau, and it was breathtaking to view the enormity of the place as we approached.

The museum passes allowed us to bypass the long ticket lines again (woo hoo!), but we still had to wait in a long line to pass through security. The sheer volume of people visiting the chateau was crushing and fairly overwhelming, but we skipped the audio-tour line and opted to just walk through the palace on our own. On our first pass through, we familiarized ourselves with the rooms. We would later walk through again (after touring the palace gardens) – the second pass allowed us to stop and take in the details of the rooms we liked.

The size and opulence of the chateau were mesmerizing. Impossibly high ceilings, gold carvings, master paintings, marble fireplaces holding logs that were the size of half a tree, beds with canopies stretching to the ceilings, ornate furniture, precious rugs, a hall  of mirrors nearly the size of a football field, and, as if all of that intricacy wasn’t enough, most of the ceilings were completely painted in heavenly works of art. I could have spent a full day in each room and never been able to appreciate all the details.

The bedrooms were particularly fascinating and beautiful. On the first pass, King Louis XIV’s room was open to the sunlight streaming in from enormous windows. On the second pass, the floor-to-ceiling heavy red drapes had been closed to mimic nighttime, and chandeliers and candles were lit to give the room a soft glow. The queen, Marie Antoinette, had her own separate room, decorated in a much more floral and feminine manor than the king’s. We were amused by the room located directly off the king’s room, the purpose of which was to hold ladies who might join him in the boudoir. Apparently this chamber was designed to hold up to six ladies at one time. I guess King Louis XIV was a busy guy.

We strolled through the massive gardens next. Much like the chateau, the gardens were absolutely enormous. Greenery as far as the eye could see, topiary, ponds, and little theaters-in-the-round built specifically to allow painters to work in an outdoor setting. It was raining a bit, so we found a little snack shack hidden among some trees (probably done to avoid ruining the beauty/experience of the gardens) where we bought salads, a dark chocolate crepe, and coffees. We enjoyed this at a little outdoor table covered from the rain by a canopy of trees. It was a fun little adventure.

Afterward, we found our way back to Paris, changed clothes, and headed out for our next fancy dinner at a tiny gem of a place called Mariette. I wore black pants this time, but I wore my ballroom-dancing heels again, since they’d served me so well the night before.

We were the first to arrive, right on time for our reservation. Several other couples arrived later in the evening, exclaiming, “We’re very late – so sorry!” Punctuality in France is not necessarily a good thing. But! Since we arrived early, we were able to choose our table, and we chose the most private table, near the stairs. Restaurant Mariette is run by a husband/wife team. He is the chef and does all the cooking. She is the hostess and the only server. She takes the orders to her husband, and then he sends the food upstairs via dumbwaiter.

I liked her immediately. She was very welcoming and friendly, and she poured us full glasses of champagne to start our evening. In France, we learned that the coffee cups are small and never full, and the wine glasses are not filled more than a quarter of the way. So we were pleasantly surprised to receive a full glass of champagne. We toasted to our anniversary, ordered a bottle of Côtes du Rhône red for the meal, and perused the menu.

The pace of the meal was wonderfully slow and enjoyable, allowing us to savor every bite. We both started with fois gras wrapped in impossibly-thin slices of sweet potato in an orange sauce. The combination of sweetness and richness was perfection, and it was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. For the main course, Damian had prime rib, and I had a buttery turbo served over a bed of asparagus. For dessert, we savored apple crumble and strawberries & cream. Cognac to finish. The dinner took three hours, and it was fabulous.

We strolled out, content and ready to turn in for the evening, to find that darkness had fallen and the Eiffel Tower was lit! It’s only lit with the flashing lights for five minutes per hour, so we literally ran down the Paris streets to get a photo of it through the trees. Damian managed to snap the shot moments before the lights turned off. And I managed to run in my heels. I’m telling you – ballroom dance shoes. That’s where it’s at.

We crashed after a full and wonderful day. The next morning we would spend time slowing our pace and enjoying the Louvre gardens…

10 Days in France/Switzerland, Day 1

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To celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, Damian and I visited France and Switzerland. There aren’t adequate adjectives in English to describe how incredible this trip was. Maybe in French, but not in English. Alas, je ne parles pas francais (save a few key phrases), so I’m going to muddle through in English and try to do justice to our experiences. (Note: no we did not take the kids. They were in the capable hands of their wonderful grandparents, whom we are eternally grateful for.) I’m going to talk about the trip one day at a time.

We flew from BWI to Charlotte, NC and then over the pond to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on Wednesday, May 21st. It was a red eye, so we landed in Paris at around 7 AM on Thursday, 5/22. We found our bags without much ado, which was fortunate because we were pretty delirious from the flight. Passports in hand, we took our bags and prepared to deal with French customs.

This is where I got my first lesson on the French. I’m used to US customs where you are required to complete paperwork, go through several checkpoints and answer multiple questions before they’ll let you into our country. The French, not so much. I was all prepared to smile and assure whomever was helping me that my reasons for entering the country were all on the up and up, but the guy didn’t even look at me, or my passport, as he flipped to a random page and stamped me right on into his country. Next! Any Dick or Jane can just stroll on into France, I guess.

Our next challenge was figuring out the French train system. We had no Euros at this point, and to purchase train tickets you need either a human at a ticket counter or Euro coins to buy the tickets from the automated machines (or a chip & pin credit card, which we don’t have). No problem – we’ll just break out our two key phrases of “Bonjour Madame!” followed by “Parles vous anglais?” and get some train tickets to our hotel. Seems reasonable, right?

Wrong. Here’s where I got lesson two on the French. They go on strike all the time. Guess which day they decided to strike? That’s right! The day we arrived.

So we’re in France, we’re delirious, we don’t speak French, we’ve got no human and no coins with which to purchase train tickets. We can’t walk from Charles de Gaulle to our hotel, which is steps off of the Champs Elysees.

Right.

I felt like we were in an episode of The Amazing Race. Luckily we didn’t panic. I think we were too tired to panic, really. We eventually found a ticket counter on the lower level of the train station with a human (and a huge long line of tourists like us trying to buy train tickets). The signs were in French, but we managed to get in the right line, buy tickets, and take the SNCF train (which was bigger than the metro trains, but not as big as the high speed trains) about 30 minutes to the Paris metro.

Let me just say, thank God we know how to ride the DC/New York metros, because obviously all the maps were in French, but once you’ve ridden a metro, you can figure it out anywhere. And we did. We found our destination, found our metro trains, lugged our luggage on board, and zipped off around the Paris underground to the Franklin Roosevelt exit on the Champs Elysees. Which we almost missed, because “Franklin Roosevelt” pronounced with a heavy French accent sounds like “Fronk-Lynne-Rose-Felt” – what? Who’s that?

Fortunately our hotel, the Elysees Mermoz Hotel, which is literally steps off of the Champs Elysees, was not hard to find. Unfortunately check in was not until 2 PM, so our ideas of a snack and nap went to hell in a handbasket. We were able to check our bags with the friendly receptionist, though, and we struck out to wander the streets of Paris in our semi-delirious state.

We meandered up the Champs Elysees all the way to the Arc De Triomphe, which we had seen in movies and many times while watching the Tour de France. It was fairly quiet that morning, perhaps because it was chilly and rainy (or maybe it was just early), so we were able to pause and really take it in without being mobbed by other tourists. Seeing the street paved with cobblestones and looking at the shop windows along the Champs Elysees gave me my first real feeling of “we’re in Paris!” We were so in awe of our surroundings that we just wandered around, soaking in the feel of the place.

Eventually we decided we were hungry, and though we knew the food would be overpriced on the Champs Elysees, we decided to stop at a brasserie/café right on the street and people watch while we ate. We wanted the experience, and it was worth it. I whipped out the other key phrase I know in French, “Un cafe au lait, s’il vous plait,” and was rewarded with a delicious, if itty bitty, cup of coffee. Damian enjoyed his first crepe and a 14-euro coffee/liqueur drink with whipped cream in a fancy glass. And, like we love to do in Las Vegas, we watched the people stroll by.

We saw a lot of high-heeled shoes on the ladies. Bright colors, from teal to yellow, regardless of the color of the rest of the attire. Even the sneakers had high-heeled wedges. Lots of black tights with black shoes as well, which was the one in-fashion way that we seem to line up with the French at the moment. The French businessmen wore suits which were short and tight. An interesting look, if you can pull it off.

Two o’clock finally arrived, and we checked in at our hotel. The Elysees Mermoz Hotel is a boutique hotel, with only 20 rooms, decorated with colorful modern art by local artists. Our room was small but very nice, and the location was unbeatable. We had a king-sized bed and lovely windows that opened up to the street. I enjoyed sticking my head out of that window and just looking up and down the street, watching the people bustling by.

We had tickets to go up the Eiffel Tower at 4 o’clock, which Damian pre-purchased back in the US to save us two hours in the ticket line (he had to get up a 2:30 AM to buy them, because they sell a limited amount, and they go on sale at 8:30 AM in France, selling out within minutes). We zipped past the ticket line and got in line for the elevator ride up. We did wait for a bit on the second tier of the tower, but that was nothing, and the views from the top were everything we hoped for. Beginning the trip with a spectacular panorama of the city we were visiting for the first time was breathtaking and informative. Nothing like a bird’s eye view.

When we hit the street again we found a stand selling wine and bought some to enjoy in the gardens at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Sitting down in a little rose garden area and looking up at the tower while sipping a glass of French red wine was a beautiful moment in the day. We slowed our pace to relax and appreciate the beauty around us.

Afterward we found a local dinner place called Le Royal off a side street that offered a prix fixe menu for only 13 euros that included an appetizer, an entree, dessert and wine! It was delicious and the by far the best value we found anywhere on our trip. I had foie gras, chicken and rice, and a small chocolate/orange mousse, and we shared two carafes of red/white wine.

After that, we crashed for 10 hours into a world of oblivion. The next day we moved on to tour the Louvre……