I’m Eeeeeeating, On a Jet Plane…

NCE-FCO

I first flew to Paris on TWA flight 800, which some of you will remember had been thoughtfully renumbered sometime after it went into the sea off Long Island. I was traveling on Famous Designer‘s dime to Semaine du Cuir – the leather and suede exhibition where I was to meet vendors I’d known only via phone and fax (hi, I’m old), and hopefully pick up some new sources.

Before I left, I asked the designers for direction in choosing samples to bring back from the show. I will never forget their responses:

  • “I’m thinking…sherbet.”
  • “Bring me back beautiful things.”
  • “I love horsey leathers.”
  • “I want the Marc Jacobs jacket that’s at Barney’s.”

Fashion people aren’t like you and me.

But I digress. Continue reading

French on Strike: Cry Me a River

PARIS, France (CNN) — A day of strikes dubbed “Black Thursday” in France looked more like “Gray Thursday,” with officials reporting a mixed impact across the country.

Maybe it’s because they realize they’re protesting something that DOES NOT AFFECT THEM?

This strike is about the French worrying over the lack of job security. IN FRANCE. They can’t be bitching about the credit crisis, since no one here has credit; they all have debit cards.

France is the only place on the planet where there IS job security, except maybe Cuba. NO ONE loses their job here, ever. Ever, ever, ever. Everyone has their job for as long as their contract stipulates, no matter how awful they are at it. This is why, for example, customer service people don’t give a rat’s ass about you. Go ahead, call and complain! You know what happens? They get a little note stuck to their file somewhere in some back dusty room’s filing cabinets.

Remember that guy who bilked Societe Generale of like, a kabillion dollars?  Even HE had a job until the lengthy bureaucratic process of firing him was completed.  After everything he had done, he could have walked into that office every single day and played Free Cell on his computer until he got the official word that he was canned.

A friend of ours has not been paid since November. The company screwed something up, and now they have no money. But because of the labor system, they can’t lay anyone off. And employees can’t walk out, either. So everyone in her office is sitting there, not being paid, and working. They wouldn’t even give her the day off to attend our friend’s dad’s funeral last week. Tell me, gentle readers – would you have even asked permission?

The daughter of a friend of mine is a waitress at a restaurant. Her boss is beyond cruel. So, she has been counting the days until MARCH FRICKING FIFTH when her contract is up. In the meantime, she’s an insomniac and has other stress-related physical problems.

There are many, many things I love about this country. And there are many, many things I cannot stand about it. This is one of them. Next up, I will be writing about something I love, to balance out the bitching.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

When we first headed to Père Lachaise Cemetery on New Year’s Eve day, it was closed for reasons of security. There was no mention of this on the website, naturally. And, naturally, the site that has the most logical name has no actual affiliation with the cemetery, so you have to hunt around and find it within the Jardins de Paris uber-site. Because, naturally, you’d look for information about a cemetery on a garden website.

Sigh.

We got our hotel guy to find phone numbers for us, and I called many times but no one answered, so we headed blind back out to the cemetery on January 3. It was open, and we swooned at the decaying beauty that enveloped us.

Père Lachaise Cemetery
Continue reading

Wow, Huntley Santa Monica, You Messed Up.

I don’t believe I need to express further on this blog how much I love hotels. Some might call me a hotel snob, but really, I’m not. I disdain hostels and a one-star is out of the question, but my only true requirement is that the room is clean and well-maintained. Give me that, and I’m perfectly content.

I’ve rarely had a room that has disappointed me. Sure, my room in Negril was made of bare cinder blocks; I was 35 feet from the Caribbean sea, I wore my bathing suit to dinner and people brought me rum punch 14 hours a day. The room was fine. [I was going to link to the hotel as evidence, but it looks like they’ve completely renovated it – so for your enjoyment, here it is! And, I highly recommend all-inclusive resorts while in the Caribbean; but that is a post for another time, and I digress.]

Right, then, my point – and I do have one – is most likely unfounded, but strongly held nonetheless: The Huntley Santa Monica Beach messed up.

Now, don’t get all excited; I haven’t secretly flown to the States for a sneak peek. My opinion is based solely on their site, which I linked to above, and this totally awesome review by film critic Leah Rozen. Why is that review awesome, you ask? Because it is an evenly written slap across the face. LOVE IT. And love her!

So, let’s take a look at the hotel from Miss Expatria’s point of view, based solely on Ms. Rozen’s review and the hotel’s website:

1. The Huntley is located across the street from the beach. But 62 white fish on a white wall and a rattan-inspired end table do not a beach feeling make. Especially since they are in stark contrast to the 1970s Lake Tahoe theme of the rest of the lobby. I come in off a day on the beach and find this? No, thanks.

2. I enjoy a nice television as much as the next girl. But did you really stick it like a hot dog on a large black pole in the middle of my room?

3. You boast a view of the Pacific, and then give me windows better suited for a motel off the Turnpike? As Ms. Rozen herself points out, the sea was “glimpsed only from the bed or by standing directly alongside the window.” For shame.

4. The bathroom: “Comparable in size and layout to a narrow galley kitchen in a cramped Manhattan apartment. There was no bathtub but instead a capacious glass-enclosed shower. A broken towel rack hadn’t been fixed and, during the evening turn-down service, housekeeping failed to replace used towels.” Ouch. When a room starts at over $400 per night, I would expect it to be at least as well maintained as my crappy apartment.

5. Why the candles at the bar? First off, the ceiling is going to be black within six months. Secondly, the wax will leak and make the bottles stick to their shelves. And finally, the bar looks like an operating room – 15 candles aren’t going to add nearly enough warmth. And I caught your cheeky scallop shells in pressed tin – again, not enough to let me know I’m 100 yards from the beach.

From Ms. Rozen’s review, it seems that the entire hotel merely serves as a backdrop for yet another swanky bar frequented by the glittering masses. Remember when hotels were for the guests?

If you’re into travel as much as I am, you don’t like using travel agents and you never buy travel insurance. Personally, I like to travel by train, and my most trusted travel advisor is myself!

Travel Books, Part Two: Not-So-Favorite Ones

A follow-up to my popular post, Travel Books.

Here are some travel books that just didn’t do it for me.

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
In this memoir of her buying, renovating, and living in an abandoned villa in Tuscany, Frances Mayes reveals the sensual pleasure she found living in rural Italy, and the generous spirit she brought with her.

Holy shit, did I hate this book. I’m sure she is a lovely woman, and I’m sure her home is lovely as well. But I could not get over how ridiculously condescending she was when describing her interactions with Italians and the Italian culture. She infuriated me.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Plagued with despair after a nasty divorce, the author, in her early 30s, divides a year equally among three dissimilar countries, exploring her competing urges for earthly delights and divine transcendence.

This book is actually fine, and quite entertaining. I am truly sorry that her life fell apart, and I am truly happy that she found peace and a solid love. However, I disliked it for two intensely personal reasons:

1. Her time in Italy. That’s supposed to be my book. Now everyone will think I wrote my book after she wrote hers, trying to ride her coattails all the way to Oprah.

2. The means with which she lived this exploratory year were given to her in the form of an advance to write about the trip she was taking with that money. You know what? Give me an account full of cash and a year to go explore the world, and I’ll give you a great book, too.

Spanish Lessons by Derek Lambert
British journalist Lambert and his Canadian wife, Diane, find just the right place when they visit La Jara, an unassuming Spanish village inland from the Mediterranean shore of Costa Blanca.

This book combined the worst elements of everything I hate about fellow travelers and travel writing: The smug sense of entitlement; the condescending tone when describing the host country and its citizens; the sense that every moment is dripping in poetic opportunity; everything, everything.

I think that’s it. I haven’t read a ton of travel writing, and I’m fortunate to have loved most of what I have read. Even in this list, I only really hated two of the three.

Package Tour Vacations to Italy – My Four Cents

I recently read and participated in an interesting conversation on the Internets about package deals for traveling with a tour to Italy. The person who had requested advice was going to Italy for the first time.

First of all, holy mother of WOW. I love it when people are going for the first time. You just know their lives are going to change. I love love love when friends come to visit that have never been – there’s just naked awe and wonder every second of the day.

A great number of people who replied to this question gently advised avoiding tour packages. I mean, it’s not the Serengeti – you can get around easily, and its not dangerous at all. Also, yuck, tours, ew. I think about the richness of my solitary adventures while traveling, and I get the chills:

Losing myself in a new city. Being anonymous. Being mistaken for a local. Eavesdropping. Feeling like I am the only one who has just witnessed some little vignette of daily life in a foreign land. Being able to stop and take a photo of heartbreaking beauty, even though it’s just a doorway framed in late afternoon sunlight or a clothesline of sheets drying in the breeze. Following a delectable smell to a tiny restaurant on a forgotten side street, and being served the pride of the kitchen while reading a great book in blissful silence. Sleeping in after walking around all night, listening to the quiet rhythms of a city that has gone to bed.

So I joined the fray and rattled off my two cents about package deals, from my experience when usually older friends of my family would have exactly 12 free minutes outside the Colosseum after their guided tour. They were still jet lagged days later, they were exhausted, and they really
couldn’t remember anything they had seen up to that point
, let alone have an opinion about it.

And they would tell me where they have eaten so far with their tour group, and I would weep silently for their pain.

I told this person who was looking for tour advice a bunch of other whiny crap, too, and posted it under her question, confident that she would have the vacation we all wanted her to have.

And then, I felt bad. Some people really like package tours. They like being in a group. They like being led to places and not getting lost and being able to complain to someone who speaks their language when things don’t go right. And if this woman was a package tour true believer, then she deserved some Solid Advice.

So, I gave another two cents.

Sorry, I feel so bad that I dissed your package idea. Here are some thoughts on packages.

The thing you want to look for in a package deal is a LOT of free time without the group, and the ability to eat where you want at least one meal a day. You should also pick one that matches your age range and physical ability. Obviously, pick one that has the cities you want to see in it, duh.

To me, as someone who has ushered friends and family around Rome for five years, a sign of a decent package deal to Italy would be to look at their itinerary for Rome, and see what else they have you doing on the day you go to the Vatican museums.

The Vatican and its museums are overwhelming, enormously hugely huge, and exhausting. Ideally, you don’t want to do anything else that day – but that’s not possible on a package tour, usually. But, you want to choose one that has the minimum amount of other stuff planned on that day – it’ll give you an idea of how punishing the rest of the schedule will be.

Also, any tour that is more than two days in Florence is ridiculous. You can do Florence in a DAY.

Have you been on a package tour to Italy? What are your tips, tricks and secrets?

People Watching in Airports

While waiting to board a flight, I never read or listen to music. I people-watch. I get nervous about becoming engrossed in my distraction and missing my flight – it happened to a friend of mine, so don’t laugh! Besides, it’s fun.

Flying has become more commonplace at the same rate as it’s become more terrifying. People-watching in an airport is akin to watching a bride in her final private moments before walking down the aisle – there is a heightened intensity of competing emotions in travelers, and it brings out all of their nervous habits and ugliest obesessions.

My favorite people to watch are ignorant rich people. I love how they’re incensed about being among the riff-raff, and privately ashamed that they’re not rich enough to have their own plane, or at least to have Richard Branson on speed dial.
They make up for this, though, with ostentatiously expensive carry-on bags, preciously luxurious wrapthings lest they catch a chill, and pretentiously foreign magazines and peach-flavored financial publications used like treasured baby blankets.

The travelers closest to my heart are those my parents’ age and older. They’re retired, and they are traveling like mad. At first glance, they look like amateurs, typical American travelers – sturdy travel sneakers, matching luggage, sensible travelwear. You feel bad for them, or perhaps you write them off and glance elsewhere. But you get to talking to these people -and man, do they love to talk – and you learn that they’ve been EVERYWHERE. Places you can only DREAM of going. Sure, they go with a tour, and they ask you about a place as if they discovered it themselves – but these seniors have been around the world, and they’re SO EXCITED about it. They have my respectful envy.

The one type of traveler that confuses me to the point of obsession are people who travel with REALLY young children. Why? Why do you put yourselves through that? Why do you put the rest of us through it, as well?

I completely understand the need to go on vacation. I can guess that after a year or so of dirty diapers and sleepless nights, this need would become overwhelming. But for the love of all that is sacred, can’t you find SOMEONE to take those kids off your hands for a week? Do you really have to drag them, literally kicking and screaming, through airports and down Europe’s biggest boulevards?

They look like they realized this was a bad idea from the second they got in the minivan – but they can’t back out now. You just know they are going to spend a FORTUNE on their trip, and come back exhausted. This is not a vacation; this is torture. I’d feel bad for them, but I’m too busy blocking out their children’s screams.

Business travelers – I’m sorry, but as a whole, you annoy me. NO ONE CARES to hear about your busy life conducted by cell phone. No one. Sure, there are those business travelers that are quiet and unassuming, just trying to get from one place to another. But most of us are traveling to get AWAY from work, not to bring it with us. Listening to you schedule meetings and delegate to someone invariably named Carol only serves to remind us of our overflowing inboxes that await our return.

Backpackers are another annoyance. Hey – I know you’re seeing the world on a shoestring budget, and that’s admirable. You’re gaining experience and making memories that will last a lifetime. But airport lounges are not bedrooms, and water fountains are not mini-showers. What you see as resourcefulness learned in a bus depot in Prague looks to actual grown-ups like you’re being cheap with Daddy’s money so that you can have more money for beer in your next city. Plenty of broke people manage to look and act respectful – I’m one of them.

And stop city-dropping. You’re not impressing anyone with your tale of sleeping on a beach in Phuket. You’re trying really hard to sound jaded about smoking pot in Amsterdam, but you should just go ahead and be excited about it, because you sound like an amateur anyway.

I honestly started this post wanting to write a few observations, and now I’m ranting. So, Miss Expatria will stop now. But I want to hear from you, gentle reader – who do you love, or hate, spying on while traveling?

If you’re looking for cheap airline tickets to your favorite destinations, check out Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Airlines.  Or, for you New Yorkers who are thinking of heading home for the holidays, keep up to date on Midwest Airlines travel deals!

Decadent Hotel Weekends

Choosing a hotel for a vacation is fun, and an important decision – it will be your home away from home for a length of time, and it will influence how you experience that city.

However, as attentive readers will know, Miss Expatria has another use for hotels – getaway weekends for no reason whatsoever. And for this purpose, gentle reader, there is an entirely different set of criteria that is taken into account.

The first thing one must realize when planning a hotel getaway weekend is that the destination is of little importance. You are going to spend almost all of your time in the hotel, not traipsing around the city. You might head out for a meal, or for a walk, or for vital supplies like cigarettes and Sunday newspapers. But the point of a weekend like this is to hole away from the world and interact with as few people as possible.

The destination should only be a consideration if it is at all possible to get a hotel room with an unobstructed view of the sea. Sea trumps all!

The other factor regarding the destination should be that it’s easy to get to – you want the weekend to be about the hotel, not the long and arduous voyage to the hotel. If you have a car, great – I don’t drive, so I consult transportation schedules and routes constantly during my search for the getaway hotel.

Normally, for vacations, I like little hotels that aim to please and are attentive to my comings and goings. But for getaway weekends, I prefer the larger hotel chains – the rooms are usually bigger, and they have all the whistles, horns and bells that hotel rooms should have.

Which brings me to hotel amenities: Does it have a decent pool? Does it have 24-hour room service? Check out the menu online, if you can. I’ve chosen one hotel over another because there was something on the menu that I just had to have.

Bathrooms are a big factor in my choosing a getaway hotel – you want a big, deep tub for soaking, and good lighting for taking care of all the things you can’t see in your bathroom light at home.

While I love staying in bed all day during these getaway weekends and bringing everything into bed with me and having everything set up around me like a princess, an extra bonus is a room that has another, comfortable area to sit in when you feel like you might be getting bed sores.

In terms of searching for the actual hotel online, I use opposing tactics than my normal routine – I sort by number of stars, start at the five-stars, and work my way down. For a vacation, I try to see how close to a hundred bucks a night I can get, and never spend more than $150. But for getaway weekends, I go to $200 for a truly spectacular hotel – although I rarely need to spend that much, because the deals are so great.

This is also where consulting the hotel’s actual website comes in handy – you would not believe how many large hotels, for whom business travelers and conferences are their bread and butter, practically give away their rooms for weekend stays. And don’t be put off by staying in the hotel on Sunday night, especially if it’s part of a great deal. For one, it RUINS the idea of a decadent hotel weekend if you have to get out of there by noon on Sunday. Who the heck wants to break up their Sundays like that? Also, it merely increases the decadent factor when you glide into work an hour late on a Monday after having a long bath and room service omelets. (Not that I’ve ever done that. Ahem.)

The most important thing to remember when planning a hotel weekend is that it’s going to cost you some money. You’ve got to fork over the bucks if you really want the weekend to be a mini-vacation. I know plenty of New Yorkers who think nothing of dropping $600 for a weekend at a friend’s summer share in the Hamptons – complete with nasty traffic, ignorant rich people, and lumpy sofa beds. Why not stay in town over that weekend, or book the nicest room at a hotel in the opposite direction, order the entire room service menu, have someone else pick up after you, and have unlimited use of a pool and gym, which are hardly ever used?

Try a decadent hotel weekend. You’ll be glad you did. Tell them Miss Expatria sent you!