Not Pandora’s Box

Guide books report where to find those “little out of the way shops” and blogs tell you the latest “trendy” spots to get a bargain. But by the time the guide books are published and the blogs are posted, everyone has discovered the boutiques and the bargains are gone.  So what to do when you’re shopping in Paris, or Houston, or Shanghai? Get out of the malls and out of the shopping centers. Avoid Pandora’s Box!

The Treasure Hunt

I have a friend who collects decorative boxes. Although I don’t always find one for her, searching for a box has been the key to finding many other treasures. Wandering the streets of Paris, I looked in all kinds of shop windows for a box; next to an antique shop, I discovered fashion designer Anna Fjord. Her clothing is custom-made of beautiful fabrics and reasonably priced for a unique design in Paris.  I bought a dress … but no box.

A new restaurant opened on Rue Chappe, and its window was decorated with pillows, baskets and painted boxes.  Adjacent to the restaurant, I found a potter who displayed pitchers, cups and bowls in a functional setting with one bare light bulb.  Marie Caloz proclaims herself from the Jurassic Age; she has no television, no computer, no Website, although she did get a cell phone six months ago for emergencies. I bought a couple of pieces of pottery for gifts … but no box.

We saw a street-fair that certainly wasn’t a sidewalk sale! Vendors had Cristofle silver, Lancel handbags, Baccarat and Lalique glass. I was careful not to touch anything for fear of decimating the crystal AND my bank account! And there I found it, nestled among the silk foulards … the perfect box!  I bought a scarf AND the box!

It’s In the Bag

My friend Deb Evans is a handbag freak – she LOVES purses, bags and satchels. I knew that was what I wanted to buy for her in Paris, but I wanted it to be unique. Over the course of the two months, I saw several women carrying handbags that I admired.  Finally, I gathered my courage and asked for help from a woman walking in Montmartre.

“Votre sac est tres agreable. Pourriez-vous me dire ou vous l’avez achete?”  Your handbag is very nice. Would you mind telling me where you bought it? “Je voudrais acheter un sac simulaire pour une amie aux Etats-Unis.”  I would like to buy one for a friend in the US.

Not only did she tell me where she purchased the bag, she took me into the nearby store and introduced me to the owner! Of course I bought one!

When is a Bargain … a Bargain?

When you pay what you’re willing to pay! I used to enjoy bargaining for the lowest price in Sicily and Mexico, but I’ve become too lazy.

We try to buy one antique liqueur glass from each country when we travel – just one, special individual glass, not a set. Like searching for the box, we have a good time searching for the perfect glass. We were in Marche Aux Puces, once a flea market but now with an upscale antique area, and discovered a signed Baccarat glass. It was marked 80 Euro; I was willing to pay 40. Instead of starting at 20 Euro, and negotiating up while the vendor negotiated down, I decided to experiment with an alternative technique learned from a friend who took me to the gold Souk in Dubai.

I waited until no one else was in the shop, so the vendor and I could speak privately. I looked at several glasses, appearing to consider less expensive options, none of which I really wanted; I kept returning to the heaviest cut, and most expensive, piece, but my reluctant body language made it “obvious” that the less expensive ones were in my budget. Finally, I asked “Qu’est-ce que le plus bas prix que vous accepterez de celui-ci?” What is your lowest price?

He looked at me for a moment, then replied, “Quarante Euro” – 40 Euro. Just as we purchased the gold bracelet for half price in Dubai by looking at other options and asking for the lowest price, we paid what we wanted to pay for the glass in Paris.

Maybe I could have paid less, but maybe not. If nothing else, I bought less frustration for myself and more time to do additional shopping!

Three key takeaways for frustration-free shopping are:

  • Search for the Unusual and you may find something even more unique next door
  • Enlist the Help of Strangers and score a great find
  • Decide What You Will Pay and never discuss price in front of other clients. (The proprietor will feel obligated to stick to his price in case the other customers aren’t so savvy as you!)

And, as the gift-giving season approaches, have fun finding the unusual!

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The Top Ten Things I Didn’t Realize about Paris Until I Got There

GUEST BLOGGER: JEFF PERKINS

I spent a week in Paris with Larry and Cyndee Perkins (my brother and his wife) who rented an apartment in Montmartre for two months. I had never been to Paris, but I knew what I wanted to do – enjoy the art masterpieces, eat good food, and drink great wine. In preparation, I read my guide books and learned some basic French phrases; prepped by one of Cyndee’s previous blogs, I could both count to ten AND attend to my personal needs. But I wasn’t prepared for everything.

10. Courteous

Espresso and Orange Juice

The Parisian people are very pleasant and courteous. I had heard stories about how they did not like Americans.  Well, a smile and a friendly “bonjour” from me got an immediate return smile and greeting. One gentleman helped translate so that I could get an espresso and some orange juice at the train station. He smiled and said, “It’s hard (learning French), but keep at it.” Thanks to his encouragement, I kept trying!

9. Baguettes

I had the best baguette in the world, every day. A local boulangerie (bakery) in Montmarte was recognized in 2011 as providing the “Best Baguette in Paris”. If their baguette is the best in Paris, I think it is probably the best in France, and the best in France must be the best in the world. Sometimes I bought two … one to take home for dinner, and one to eat on the way!

8. Legs

Most women in Paris have legs that go to their shoulders. Even short women seem to have long, shapely legs. This year’s fashion trend of short skirts and high-heeled boots provided a visual delight … to go along with so many other Parisian attractions.

7. Massive

The Eiffel Tower is massive. Even though I could see it from almost any place in the city, I had no conception of how large it really is. The Statue of Liberty is 305 feet (about 30 stories high); the Arch in Saint Louis is 630 feet. The Eiffel Tower is about 40% higher at 1,063 feet. Once I got to the Deuxieme Etage of the tower, I was happy to stay right there … no need for a “bird’s eye view” from the top of a tower swaying in the wind!

6. Awesome

The Paris Metro (subway) is awesome. The apartment was only a couple of blocks walk to the Metro. 32 Euro ($40) for a 5 day pass to go anywhere in Paris is such a deal! The system is easy to follow and I could have done it on my own by the end of the second day (though glad I didn’t have to, having the two best tour guides in Paris…see #1) .

5. Feu d’artifice

The feu d’artifice (fireworks) display at the Montmarte Wine Festival, which was being held near Larry and Cyndee’s apartment, was probably the best display I have ever seen. It overwhelmed us with continuous star bursts, rockets, whistlers, all less than 100 yards from the apartment balcony and at eye level. The kid in me couldn’t quit smiling and laughing. Cyndee was so affected, she had tears in her eyes…

4. A Fine Line

The necessary walking and standing in line to see Paris attractions was definitely a surprise! Sometimes we stood in line to stand in another line (Stand in line to buy a ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower; stand in another line to get on the elevator after you have your ticket.) I learned that Paris has more tourists than any other city in the world. I believe most of them had descended upon Paris when I was there. On the other hand, I walked more than 50 miles in six days. That was good, because I could eat a second baguette every day!

3. Magical

Monet’s Water Lilies in October

Giverny is a magical place. Okay, Monet’s home is a 45 minute train ride from Paris, but give me a little author’s license here. I saw the pond with the “Water Lilies” and the Japanese bridge; I sat, stared, trying to see and feel what Monet saw well over 100 years ago. Well, maybe not exactly what HE saw, but I sure felt a lot of emotion.

2. Joy

Watching and hearing my nephew’s 6 year old daughter sing her heart out on the balcony of the apartment for no apparent reason made me realize that just being in Paris makes you feel good.  Watching her lean out the second story window of a restaurant where we were having dinner, and hearing her call “Bonjour, Bonjour” to the passers-by showed the true joy only a child, or the child in us, can express.

1. And the number one… Family

The special time I had with Larry and Cyndee, the two best tour guides in Paris. We have always been close but this is a very special memory for me and there is no way I will ever be able to thank them for their hospitality, their joy of living and most important, their love.

The Pickpockets Are Not the Problem

Signs to remind the unwary to “beware of pickpockets” are in every Paris metro station, restaurant and museum. Paris bloggers tell you the latest scams such as the dropped gold ring and woven bracelets. Thieves work alone, in pairs or in groups, and as two obvious tourists, Perk and I know that we are wonderful targets!

Sometimes the groups are outrageously overt. A half-dozen schoolgirls dressed in uniforms of dark skirts and white blouses hover at the entrance of a Montmartre metro station each day, miming a request to sign a petition to help the deaf and mute; I know that they are neither because early one morning on my way to the boulangerie, I saw them laughing and talking on their way to “work.” It’s a good ploy: when a sympathetic tourist takes the clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other from one young woman, another girl slips her hand into his pocket or bag.  All of us who use that metro regularly watch out for the more gullible visitors on their way to the Sacre Coeur. Perk and I used to feel quite smug that we were “local” enough to be able to warn other tourists.

Music in the Air, a Hand in Your Pocket

One day we stopped in the Metro passage between train platforms to listen to a group of musicians playing rousing folk songs and selling their CD’s; children skipped through the crowd, adults snapped photos. The music made you want to dance. I took several pictures, tossed a few euros into a basket, and we moved on.  When we reached the platform, a man approached Perk,

“I want to warn you that two Gypsy boys from the music group tried to open your bag and steal from you. Please be more careful.” Sure enough, when Perk looked at the shoulder bag which he had slung over his back, the zipper was partly open.  The “pickings” weren’t good; apparently the kids didn’t need maps or another umbrella. But we were not quite so smug thereafter and we now make sure that our bags are secured!

The Problem?  C’est Nous!

We made our way into the Louvre taking our membership cards from our wallets, stopping by the information desk to pick up some pamphlets about a new exhibit. Hands overflowing with cards, brochures, wallets and cameras, we moved to the side of the madding crowd to organize ourselves. At that point, I realized that my wallet was gone.

A museum employee shook her head mournfully when I asked where to find the Lost and Found. “I will take you there, but I am sure it is of no use.  You need to be more careful about pickpockets, Madame.”  I know, I know…  I have seen them on the streets and in the metro; I can read French signs…

The clerk at the Lost and Found eyed me carefully. She spoke English. “You lost your wallet?” I nodded and started a description. Interrupting me, she held out a pad of paper and said, “Write your name here.” It wasn’t a form to be filled out, but plain notepaper. I printed “Cynthia Perkins”.

She unlocked a drawer and pulled out my red wallet. She looked at me, at the picture on my driver’s license and then held out the wallet — credit cards, driver’s license and euros intact. She stated the obvious. “You are lucky, Madame, that an honest person saw you drop this. A pickpocket would not have returned it.”

***

A few nights later, we chose a sidewalk table for dinner at a nearby restaurant. We carefully put our bags under the table so that no super scooper thief on a skateboard could swing by and grab them. The staff was fun and gregarious; the locals were friendly. We enjoyed the duck, the recommended wine, dessert and coffee.  Like stuffed ducks ourselves, we waddled the half-mile back up the hill to our apartment. Three hours later, Perk decided to check his phone … that was in his bag…that was left under the table.

Midnight on Saturday night in Montmartre is the beginning of the fun, so we knew the restaurant would still be open. We sped back and our waiter greeted us joyously!

“It is here! It is here! You left your bag and I did not know how to find you! No one has opened it, I promise you!”  Telephone, binoculars, camera were all in place! Grateful, Perk tipped the waiter who thanked him and said, “Please, you must be more careful. Not all people are so honest.”

He is right, of course. Not all people in Paris nor in Houston, New York or London are so honest. It’s not the pickpockets of Paris who are the problem; it’s the people like us – the casual, careless, trusting tourists who get themselves into trouble!

Once Bitten…

Sauntering through the Tuilleries, we watched a group of young adults in their school sweatshirts, joking and laughing. They approached us with a clipboard, but the metro petitioners and the Gypsy songsters had made us more careful.  We ignored their requests for “help,” until one young woman explained in careful English,

“We are a group of engineering students from the Ecole Centrale, and we have a series of challenges that we have to do today.” She pointed to a checklist on the clipboard.

“One thing that we have to do is to make a video of some old people saying that our university is the best in all of France.” Seeing our grins, another student intervened, “No, no, she didn’t mean ‘old’ like senile. She meant ‘old’ like ‘mature’ – we can’t ask other students.”  We looked at each other, shrugged and agreed.

Perk donned a Centrale sweatshirt , we made the quick video, then handed over our cameras for them to take a group picture …  no one took my Nikon and ran, no one slipped a hand into my shoulder bag. Sometimes you just have to take a chance!

Cheers! A Toast to Wine Glasses

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur from Our Apartment

We are ensconced in our apartment in Montmartre, with its incredible view of the Sacre Coeur and the rooftops of Paris. At night music and cigarette smoke drift through the open balcony doors from the Square de Willette seven floors below.  Like Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I am quite sure that Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and Sartre are driving about the streets, and I will run into them around the next corner!

The apartment is everything that it was advertised to be on the Vacation Rentals by Owner Website (VRBO). We have two bedrooms, a separate water closet, a dishwasher, and even a washing machine! But what we didn’t have was an extra supply of wine glasses for entertaining our family. Since the apartment had been recently refurbished with IKEA home design, we decided to buy some matching glassware. The nearest IKEA was in Roissy, at the Parc des Expositions. We felt very global – Americans searching out a Swedish store in France. But getting there without a car was the challenge!

From Hemingway to Hamlet

We consulted the Website for public transport directions: first a Metro, then a train, then a local bus.  We’re Metro pro’s now, so we were soon at Gare du Nord, one of the major train stations. Buying a train ticket presented the first predicament – the automatic machines took only coins, and we had bills. After fierce negotiations with the official at the Bureau de Change whose job, he reiterated emphatically, was to exchange foreign currency NOT Euro’s, we emerged victorious having traded our Euro paper for Euro coins.  We popped our money into the machine, and out popped two tickets.

To Go … or Not to Go?

Looping our way through the throngs, we arrived at the designated platform. A train was waiting … but was it ours?  As we puzzled through the list of stations searching for “Expositions,” the warning bell rang. To go … or not to go… that was the question!

Passengers crowded forward.  The bell rang again, and the doors began to close. We shrugged, and with inches to spare, we leaped aboard. What did we have to lose? If the train wasn’t going where we wanted to go, we could just get a return ticket at the “unknown destination.” Or, if the unknown destination turned out to be fun, perhaps we would buy a toothbrush and stay there for a day or two!

The train interior was utilitarian, with plush seats worn to a hard glaze. Outside, the cinder track beds ran alongside each other; power lines rusted overhead. I thought of black/white movies of troop trains going through a gray and rain-soaked Europe, but the houses along the track had colorful window boxes behind the hedges and shutters thrown wide to catch the afternoon sun. I wondered how they had looked when my uncles were part of the liberation in 1945.

How Do You Say IKEA?

IKEA at Roissy

After screeching stops at various stations, the train surprisingly halted at Parc des Expositions! We scrambled out of our seats and on to the platform. The Website had suggested bus number 640 or 23; each had its own bay and we settled uneasily between the two, ready to board quickly when one or the other arrived. Bus 640 rolled in and I approached the driver, “Est-ce quec’est  l’autobus du magasin …?”  I hesitated.  How do you say “IKEA” in French? I substituted. “…du magasin de la Suede? …Does this bus go to the store from Sweden?” The driver grinned. “Oui, madame. Cet autobus va EYE-KEY’-AH” . It sounded like the IKEA in Minneapolis, Houston, Denver, and probably in Sweden as well! He made sure we got off at the right stop.

Cheers!

Far more confident and many Euro’s less, we returned by bus, train and metro to the apartment … bearing wine glasses and other impulse purchases. We were impressed with ourselves – especially with our spontaneous decision to jump on the train to nowhere at the last minute! If we had ended up on the Riviera or in the Dordogne Valley, we would have bought toothbrushes. We have all the time in the world … or at least six more weeks!

We filled our glasses, stood on the balcony and saluted the Sacre Coeur with a good chardonnay!

Bourgeois, but Still “Adorable”

“You ride the Metro?!”  Parisian friends had been aghast that we would be so common, but then fearing they had offended us quickly modified their stance. “Well, I guess it works very well for tourists and students to get around Paris.” It also works very well for those of us who have decided to live the life of a Montmartre local for two months.

Anvers Metro

Friends also advised us that if we were determined to live local, we should buy a month’s metro pass which allowed unlimited rides. Key to its purchase was an “official” photo taken in one of the kiosks at a train station; the photo instructions were very clear: we were forbidden to smile, wear glasses, have any hair over our faces and we MUST look straight at the camera. The result was a true mug shot (missing the ID numbers) and worthy of a “most wanted” poster hanging in US Post Offices of yore. Perk looked particularly degenerate in his picture (I realized that I rarely see him without a smile!)

Worth 10,000 Words

With photos in hand we stood in line behind 30 or so others at the ticket/information booth at Gare du Nord .Only one attendant was on duty; we marveled aloud at his patience as he sold train tickets to London, answered questions about Metro connections, explained the value of Euros, sympathized with a couple who had missed their train to Amsterdam.  The blonde university student behind us in the queue listened to Perk and me chatter, and then asked in broken English why we had the photos. We explained about the month’s pass.

As the queue wound slowly forward, Perk worked with her to figure out which would be the most economical package for her three-week stay in Paris. (You know how he LOVES numbers!)  She decided on the month’s pass, but needed to get her picture taken. At least thirty more people had joined the queue behind us. She pondered. Were the savings worth losing her place in line?

“You get your picture taken, and we’ll save your spot,” we volunteered. The students behind her agreed to the plan and she loped toward the nearby kiosk.

Inspector Clouseau

Soon she was engaged in an argument with a uniformed agent. He kept shaking his head forcefully, “No, No, NO!” She kept arguing, gesturing toward Perk and me.  “Yes, Yes, YES!” The uniform eyed us suspiciously as she kept talking. What was she telling him? Why did he keep looking at us? Did he think we were smugglers, terrorists?  Had he seen Perk’s picture?

Perk’s Paris Metro Pass

The ticket line moved forward as they argued. Only two groups were ahead of us. Finally he shrugged, and she dodged into the photo booth; the uniform continued to watch us closely.

Within minutes and pictures in hand, she jumped into line behind us. The agent grimaced and moved away.

“Thank you,” she gasped.  “The kiosk attendant wanted to work on the machine. He said he would take 30 minutes. I said, ‘No, I must have my picture taken NOW.’ He argued.

“I said, ‘My parents are waiting in line for me. See, they are over there. I must hurry.’ He still didn’t believe me. ‘They will be angry if they have to get out of line after waiting so long. If you don’t believe they are my parents, go ask them!’”

“I know it was not nice of me to say such a lie. But I knew you would help me out. You are so gentille.”

“Adorable” in the US. “Gentille” in France. Either will do.