It’s a Small World, but a Big Decision

My aunt once announced that Perk and I had to quit moving because she had run out of space for us in her address book. When I calculated the number of places we have lived over the course of our marriage, I realized that we averaged a move every three-four years – sometimes to a new city, sometimes to a new place in the old city. I started keeping an inventory of our worldly goods, so that we could divest ourselves of them more easily with each move. We’ve pared down considerably.

???????????????????????????????When we were moving from Minneapolis, I measured my bookshelves in the new DC condo and made tough choices; as an English teacher, I had collected books for decades. Our son carted boxes of cherished volumes to the used book store until the manager cried, “That’s enough! We can’t take any more!” My son sorrowfully choked, “But I don’t know what to do with all of these. My parents aren’t with me anymore.” Assuming that we had moved on to that great Barnes and Noble in the sky, the manager relented and took all 3,000 (yes, three THOUSAND!) books.

Where in the World?

This next relocation, however, is disconcerting because we have no parameters for our decision-making.  Being retired, we do not need to worry about the commute time to the office, the quality of the schools, or even the city we live in. We only need to think about where we want to go, and it’s a big world out there!

As a Type-A Virgo, I had to invent some boundaries for myself.  We began by thinking about what we wanted in a new location:

  • A destination place We are gregarious, accustomed to lots of house guests. Apparently our delightful presence is not enough of a draw, because NO ONE accepts our invitations to come to Houston.  As my friend Ann Flanagan said, “Once you’ve seen the zoo and the beer can house, what else is there to do?”

    Beer Can House

    Beer Can House

  • No snow We lived in Minneapolis, Chicago and sometimes snowy DC for most of our lives. I’ve learned how much more room you have in the trunk of your car when you don’t have to carry bags of sand, snow brushes and jumper cables. I rarely complain about the rain in Houston … I don’t have to shovel it!
  •  Clean beaches I love sitting in the sun and smelling the salt water, wading in the surf and feeling the sand slip from beneath my toes. I don’t want to know what could be slipping from beneath my toes on the shores of the Potomac or on the red tide beaches of Bolivar Peninsula!
  • Things to do We like street fairs and open air concerts, science museums, funky art galleries, baseball games and people-watching.  We like to be outside, dressed in casual clothes and munching goodies purchased from sidewalk vendors.

After we considered the above four bullets, we still had too many options – California, the Carolinas, a Caribbean Island?  We added criteria:

  • Affordable
  • Healthy lifestyles
  • Friends to show us around

We were making progress, but decided that we needed input from the most important people in our lives.

Gulf Coast Sunset

Gulf Coast Sunset

Yes, we consulted our grandchildren. Where did they want us to live? Where would they like to visit us? I loved that their first response was “Paris”, but it’s too expensive for many visitors, snow sometimes clogs the Champs Elysees, the Seine is not for wading.  Their next choice was inevitable …

…and so we’re off to Florida. It’s a Small World after all!

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!

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


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!

Dior 2012: Cinderella Goes to the Ball

Dior at des Invalides

Dior at des Invalides

Yes, it’s true … we were THERE, at the Dior Fashion Show at the Hotel Nationale des Invalides!

Friday, September 28, was the Dior spring/summer fashion extravaganza and the first pret-a-porter show for their new creative director, Raf Simons.  It was the talk of Paris and the fashion industry (and our dinner table) for days.

Of course we aren’t House of Dior clients. The story of how we were invited could be a blog entry itself, but the short version is that 30 years ago Perk worked with a young man at AC Nielsen who is now the CEO and Chairman of Christian Dior. When Sidney Toledano learned that we were in Paris for two months, he invited us to the event…and what an event!

Casual Chic

First, of course, I panicked … what to wear to a House of Dior fashion show! My niece Diana Lee, a knit designer for Proenza Schouler, calmed me. This event was not high fashion couture, but pret-a-porter, ready-to-wear clothes for spring and summer fun! I called and emailed friends in the States for advice.

At the Ball

Prince Charming and Cinderella

The attire for attendees was “casual chic.” I owned plenty of “casual,” but not much “chic,” so the next step was to go shopping! Much as I love my Chico’s, I didn’t think my “Travelers” would make the cut. Perk was amazing! For days I dragged him from one boutique to another searching for “chic.” After we found the dress, he patiently waited while I tried on every size 36 shoe in Paris before I settled on a pair of ankle-boots with 4-inch heels, and then listened to me worry that I would trip and make a spectacle of myself while wearing them. I bought slinky sexy black silk hose! (Perk? Ummm… he got a new tie.)

The Invitation to the Ball

The invitation was delivered on Thursday, just 24 hours before the show; it was on embossed card stock about a quarter of an inch thick (and unlikely to be able to be forged!) We put it away carefully, knowing that we would have to present it to enter the event; we didn’t want it to be tattered and wine-stained from lying on the kitchen counter!

Friday arrived. In honor of the event, we decided to forego the Metro and take a taxi. The driver was blasé about just another fashion show. But he loved that we were excited and enthusiastic, and promised to get us there by 2:30 PM despite the traffic.  He had obviously passed his NASCAR test, squeezing out buses and other taxis to get into the faster lanes. Carried away, Perk shouted, “Bravo” when we left a Peugeot driver blowing his horn in frustration at being cut off at the light.Crowd at Dior Entrance

The crush to get into the show was a television spectacle in itself! Autograph seekers pushed and shoved. Tour buses paused so their passengers could gape. A phalanx of photographers lined the ropes as we presented our invitation. A Dior “host” read it carefully to be sure that TWO names were on the ONE invitation Perk proffered – I was not going to be able to sneak in uninvited! (Sorry, Deb Evans, even if you had hopped the red eye, you couldn’t have come in!)

The Ball

The venue was unique with separate rooms where guests had assigned chairs. The models would not parade, turn and walk back on a raised catwalk as I had seen in countless videos. Instead they would walk from room to room through wide aisles among the guests. We were surprised  to find ourselves seated in the main room, the Rose Salon, in the section reserved for the Toledano’s, the Dior designers and the supermodels! Across the aisle were Robert DeNiro and Kanye West. Random photographers, who took our picture as we sat among the models and others of renown, are probably scouring their archives trying to figure out who we are and why we were there!

SHORT SKIRTSAt 3 PM the show started – pulsating music built the anticipation. Cameras clicked on, telescopic lens whined into position, and a series of reed-like models in aqua, lime green, orange or pink glittery cat’s eye make-up, strode past us, made an abrupt turn in front of the press photographers and continued their parade into another room. One every fifteen seconds. Ponytails swinging.Opulent in Organza One beautiful ready-to-wear item after another. Tuxedo bar suits. A-line dresses with sassy pleats. Floating, flowing organza gowns with shimmering designs. And short, SHORT skirts! Reviewers called the designs “edgy and minimalist.” I called them beautiful, but for the items to be “ready” for me “to wear,” I would need to add another 12-18 inches to the hems!

The Clock Strikes

It was over in 15 minutes! Raf Simons in a denim jacket jogged down the main aisle and waved. The models did a last high speed walk through the Rose Salon, and retreated. The supermodels posed for pictures. The reporters typed on their tablets. The buyers scurried into a private room to discuss their orders.

And Perk and I sauntered out into the sunlight of a beautiful fall Paris afternoon. Someone pressed a long-stemmed rose into my hand. We shook our heads – dazed a little by the long anticipation and the surprising quick delivery of the show. How could it be over so fast!?The Real World

No taxi was to be found, so we decided to walk to a restaurant, any restaurant, for a very late lunch. We turned into the first place we saw … a brasserie … that surprised us by offering off-track betting in addition to traditional fare. We sipped our wine. The men at the bar placed bets on televised horse races and cared nothing about couture.

The ball was over …

NASCAR: the Game – Paris Version



Why Perk and I decided to rent a car in Paris to drive to Normandy with our Colorado family was a flash of foolishness at best. We could have rented from Hertz somewhere on the Peripherique, the beltway of Paris. Instead we found ourselves in a real-life video game with heart-stopping action!  As in an arcade, NASCAR: the game – Perkins Paris Version begins simply, then escalates with challenges…

Level 1: Searching for Dante.  Push your way through the crowds at Gare du Nord to find the Hertz office (along with other rental agencies) in a subterranean catacomb. Take an elevator further down; descend a flight of stairs to find your car wedged in a stall with 2 inches to spare on either side. The lighting is dim, the cavern walls damp. Crawl across the gear shift to the driver’s side, wriggle the car out of the space, trying not to ride the clutch. You have completed the novice qualifying round!

Offer the keys to your son-in-law who has spent the last week driving a stick-shift through the Spanish Pyrenees and has a fearless attitude. He accepts the challenge and agrees to complete the course.

Earn 500 points

Level 2: The Corkscrew. Follow the exit signs to a circular ramp with such an incredibly tight screw that, for five levels, walls on both sides are scarred by the paint of past vehicles trying to escape: black, gray, blue and blood red scrapes reflect the screaming curses of previous drivers.  You creep out unscathed amid cheers and adulation from the passengers in the back seat!

Earn 1000 points

Cumulative Total: 1500 points

Street Market

Street Market

Level 3: The Street Market.  Debouche (we’re practicing French!) into a traffic jam; make a wrong turn and end up in the middle of a market.  The sliver of street has parked cars on one side; stalls of fruits and vegetables, handbags and scarves on the other. Vendors hawk their wares in strident pleas.  An elderly woman, back bent into a question mark and wearing a frayed pink cardigan staggers in front of your car while pulling her trolley of groceries home.  You do not hit her!

Earn 500 points

Cumulative Total: 2000 points

Cars, bicyclists and motor scooters clog the road. You try shortcuts, have no clue where you’re going. Your co-pilot pulls out the GPS.

Rose at the Roadside Rest

Rose at the Roadside Rest

Level 4: The Peripherique and the By-ways.  Take advantage of the straight-away and catch your breath.  Six lanes of organized traffic bring your heart beat back to normal. You stop for lunch and to smell the roses at a roadside rest. You dawdle through beautiful small towns in Normandy. It’s easy driving. Where’s the NASCAR challenge?

Lose 500 points

Cumulative Total: 1500 points

Level 5: Pick Up Speed. Resume the challenge when you return to Paris on the Peripherique. You need to buy gas or pay a $225 fee to Hertz.  Catch a glimpse of a gas pump icon on an exit to Place de la Porte Maillot– zoom across five lanes of traffic and swerve on to a city street. Brake quickly as you find yourself in the Bois de Boulogne, traffic inching along in stodgy lanes. Old men sit on benches; children squeal in the playground.  It is rush hour, but no one is rushing in the Bois. No gas station is to be seen.  You do not lose your temper!

Earn 500 points

Cumulative Total: 2000 points

Level 6: Pit Stop.  Circle back to the Place. Ask a gendarme for directions to the gas station. He says to go straight on and then descend into an underground parking area that also vends gasoline.  Miss the turn, circle back … plunge down the chute to the unvented parking garage filled with gas fumes. Fill the tank, then realize that the exit is a 45 degree uphill plane. Slam the car into gear, flatten the gas pedal and pray. You spurt out into the oncoming traffic that miraculously swerves around you!

Earn 1000 points

Cumulative Total: 3000 points

Level 7: Final Triumph.  Shoot along the Avenue de la Grande Armee. Undisciplined traffic bucks and plunges alongside the rental car as you circle the Arch of Triumph, holding the inside like a good racehorse. A bicyclist looks scornfully at your hand-held GPS as he dares you to hit him. Dodging scooters and delivery trucks, you dare a purple Mini Cooper to challenge your progress; she backs down with a look of dismay at being bested by a tourist.

Arch of Triumph

Arch of Triumph

Your breath becomes quick and shallow; you focus on speed, crevices in the traffic, and screech out of the circle – the exit to Avenue de Friedland, the final straight-away to Gare du Nord and the Hertz return.  You cruise through the last stretch. After a quick left and then an immediate right into the station, the checkered flag is waved!

Earn 2000 points

Cumulative total: 5000 points!

The Winner and CHAMPION with no scrapes, no dents, no penalties, no deaths!

(Next time we’ll go by train!)

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.


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.

The Best Laid Plans

After the Search

After the Search

“Ma’am, what can I do to help you?” The IAH skycap hovered over me as I unzipped my suitcase at the curbside check-in and tried to stuff an armload of sweaters, pants and jackets into it. “Here, let me take those hangers. Can I sit on this bag for you? You have two minutes before they close the check-in.”  He was concerned. I, on the other hand, was near tears.

My husband and I had been planning our retirement and an extended trip to Paris for over six months; for weeks I lay in bed pondering the details, repeating quietly “I think I can …” I am a Virgo, I am organized, everything is under control.

A House is Not a Home

To add to the upheaval, we decided to sell our house before we left.  We rented a climate-controlled storage unit, and boxed up the personal things, changing the atmosphere from homey comfort to boring “a total stranger can imagine herself living in this house” décor.  Artwork by the grandchildren was stripped from the refrigerator.  My beloved amateur photographs went into cartons. Clothing was packed away so that the closets would look bigger and more spacious. We took a truckload of boxes and wardrobes to storage, and then waited … living in stressful cleanliness, fearing even to bake a pizza lest the tangy smell would drive away a possible buyer.

We set a deadline:  we were leaving for Paris on August 31st; the house had to be sold by midnight August 15, or it was going off the market!  We were DONE with living in anxiety!  At 9 PM on August 15th, we got an offer “that we couldn’t refuse” – recently divorced mother with infant who needed a family neighborhood. We couldn’t turn her down.

A Fortnight of Frenzy

My calm was in jeopardy! In fourteen days we had to:

  • Find an apartment big enough to house our major furniture
  • Pack thirty boxes of the extra belongings and move them into yet another storage unit
  • Wrestle with the buyer’s home inspector who said our AC was “suspect” (it wasn’t, but it took two service calls to prove him wrong)
  • Hire and supervise movers (Two Men and a Truck labored in 100 degree heat to lug our belongings to the second floor in a building with no elevator!)
  • Figure out how to close on the house when we were not living in the country, and the signing had to be done on “American Soil”
  • Pack clothing and essentials for two months’ vacation

Surviving on only four hours sleep per night helped. I finished my last week on the job; we got everything done – even threw a little “house-warming” party for ourselves the night before departure – and had a calm two hours to pack before heading to the airport. I had my list, so knew that everything was under control.  I told Perk to go ahead; I only needed a short time because I had everything set…

Perk finished; I went to my closet to start folding my clothes.

I rifled through plastic bags from the cleaners, but didn’t see what I needed. With a hint of anxiety, I started slitting the bags to see if my clothes were tucked between less important items. No.

The first twinge of panic was replaced by reason: they must be in some unopened boxes in the apartment. Friends had helped us pack; they may have been over-zealous.  I opened a few boxes carefully, found nothing except what was labeled on the box top. My anxiety was growing exponentially!

As my search grew more frantic, my husband told me to stop, offered to let me shop for an all new wardrobe in Paris, which only added to my panic. I knew we couldn’t afford that! As anxiety melted into dizziness, I began shredding the box tape with my fingernails!  I plunged into cartons, scattering books and kitchen utensils, linens and cleaning supplies.   The organized apartment became a maelstrom of chaos!  If we weren’t at the airport two hours in advance of an international flight, they could refuse to let us board. We had been planning for SIX MONTHS! I had ONE HOUR to get there! I couldn’t breathe!!

And then it hit me – I was too well organized!   My clothes were seven miles away, carefully stored on hangers, in dry-cleaning bags, in a cardboard wardrobe, in a climate-controlled storage unit, waiting to be packed…

Leave the Kitchen Sink

Hong Kong Shopping

I am going to Paris for two months with only one suitcase (thanks to the washing machine in the apartment we’ve rented). When my in-laws visited us, they drove a station wagon from Memphis to Minneapolis because my mother-in-law Mary brought everything in her closet!

My father-in-law’s belongings were relegated to a valise and his golf bag. A rod across the backseat held a rainbow of Mary’s silk and linen; the wagon’s rear storage contained a butterscotch soft-sided suitcase ballooning with undergarments and cosmetics, and a 3x3x3 foot box filled with women’s shoes – golf shoes, walking shoes, sandals, pumps and boots. She brought everything “because you never know what you’ll need.”

Although I adopted Mary’s philosophy enthusiastically, we scaled it down a bit and usually traveled with two suitcases for me, two for each of the children, two for Perk – plus assorted carry-on pieces – a tour group’s worth of baggage for four people. Of course we brought most of the clothes home unworn, but we always had everything we needed!

Pay more; bring it home…

And then I ran into an uncooperative airline agent. After a business trip to Malaysia and Hong Kong (and after too many non-business trips into the local markets) I was heading home with suitcases strapped shut.  Airline baggage restrictions had changed, but I hadn’t changed my habits.

“Of course, you can pay a little extra for your overweight baggage and not have to worry about it.” The agent was excessively cheerful.  “Or you can take the heavy things out of your suitcases and dispose of them in that bin over there.” Suddenly my pewter vases, picture frames and tableware, bargain hand-stitched shoes and fake Rolex watches were a lot more expensive!  I plunked $300 more on my Visa card and muttered, “Well, at least I’ll get mileage points …”

From that day forward, I weighed my luggage wih a handheld scale that lets me know if I’m going to run into any overwieight luggage problems. AND I vowed to have plenty of room in my suitcase for new items by taking less to begin with!

Take less; bring more home!

I created a travel planner that has made my vagabond life much easier! I enter the activities that I think I might be going to do each day; I choose the clothes and shoes that I might wear, and add them in the grid. Then I consider what I could possibly wear twice, and cut my list in half; I transfer the clothes into the bottom half of the planner for packing purposes… and voila! I can usually cut another third off the list when I see that I planned to take three black sweaters when I only need one (or maybe two).  I know that I have done a great job of planning when I return home and drop my suitcase by the washing machine because everything in the bag needs laundering!

The best part is that if I don’t have what I need, I “have” to go shopping. And whether I need those hand-stitched shoes and pewter vases or not, I now have plenty of room for them in my suitcase!

Save  time, save space, save money! Download the free and editable Cyndee Perkins basic travel planner from Google docs.