Thursday, January 12, 2017

Paris Metro Mania



I love the Paris Metro. I hate the Paris Metro ticket system.

I’ve been to Paris four times in the past couple of months. Not being smug. I know for most folks in the States a trip to Paris might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, if that. But in context, Paris is about three hours by train from where we live in Switzerland or six hours from the south of France. Akin to someone in New England or Georgia visiting Washington DC. A treat perhaps, especially in contrast to life in a small village, but not that big a deal.

To start with, the spaghetti web of trains, trams, subways and buses in and around metropolitan Paris is a confusing array of acronyms and names – SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français), STIF (Syndicat des transports d'Île-de-France), RER (Réseau Express Régional), RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), Optile (Organisation Professionnelle des Transports d'Ile-de-France), M for Metro, T for Tramway, and BUS for bus. Add to that the multiple artificial travel “zones” … central Paris is Zone 1, but cross the Seine to the west into the La Defense area, and you’re in Zone 3.

The ticket machines are not always terribly clear about what type of ticket you need to traverse which zones on which type of transportation.

For residents of Paris and the surrounding suburbs, access is simple. They purchase an electronic Navigo photo ID pass, payable monthly. As they enter the turnstile gates for whichever mode of transport they’ve chosen, they flash the Navigo over a sensor and move on.

For those of us who are non-resident in Paris, not so fast. You must purchase a paper ticket with a magnetic stripe, and you damn well better get the type of conveyance and the zones correct, or you could end up dying in the subterranean depths of the station.

When we arrived, we bought RER tickets for the Red Line A train from Gare de Lyon rail station to La Defense, which is a short bus ride from where we were staying. No problem getting in to the station at Gare de Lyon; however, at La Defense, those tickets would not open the exit gate. Fortunately we found a gate that was stuck open and got out.

We had purchased a book of extra tickets for the three days we would be traveling around Paris. But the next day, we discovered the tickets purchased at Gare de Lyon (inside Zone 1) would not even allow us into the train-access gates at La Defense (Zone 3). And, of course, the tickets I purchased at La Defense would not allow us to exit at Chatelet (Zone 1), so Donna-Lane tailgated someone with a Navigo and I managed to trick the baby stroller gate to open.

Another time I purchased a ticket which I thought was for the tramway, but it wouldn’t work, and I realized I had bought an SNCF rail ticket (even though the ticket machine indicated tramway also).

At times we had legitimate unused tickets which did not work, probably a magnetic stripe malfunction.

For the bus, at least, the driver would accept euro coins without a ticket, as not all bus stops have ticket machines.

And don’t get me started on the irregular directional signage in stations. Apparently Paris signmakers only have access to left- or right-pointing arrows. No such thing as an around-the-corner or u-turn arrow when it would make more sense.

Next time, perhaps, we’ll try one of the all-day, all-access passes they promote to tourists. But I’m not confident they will always work. I have these visions of never getting out of the underground, forced to sleep on trains and subsisting on vending machine snack foods.
Oh, another thing. Like most public transportation, there’s no real security in train and bus stations. Yes, there are the occasional soldier or gendarmerie strolling around. Not nearly as many as you would expect under France’s “state of emergency” situation, but perhaps many of them are undercover (cleverly disguised as clueless visitors whose tickets won’t work). However, when we exited the Chatelet station into the huge Halles shopping centre, there was a security guard inspecting bags. Apparently protecting the merchandise in the stores is more important than protecting the people traveling on the trains.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Musings

We're in Argéles-sur-mer for Christmas, which is where we most like to be. It's peaceful, as there are relatively few people here through the winter, mostly locals, yet enough to be festive and cheerful.

The village has really outdone itself this year with a Christmas village, street decorations, parades, an evening soirée at our favorite café ... and the best part is that it's not at all commercial. There's not a shopping mall for miles. Just local merchants, whom we patronize as much as we can, and itinerant sellers of inexpensive goods who make the rounds of the marchés in the region. There are seasonal foods such as vin chaud, roast chestnuts, foie gras, mince pies from our English baker friend, and of course the bouche noel.

We have a Christmas/Solstice tree that's one step up from a Charlie Brown model. There are no lights to untangle or find the burnt-out bulb, just hand-painted wooden memory ornaments by my stepdaughter when she was three years old. She made the needlepoint stockings in the photo as well, when she was somewhat older. We'll open the presents in the stockings tonight on Christmas Eve while watching the classic White Christmas movie and save the gifts under the tree for Christmas Morning. We don't exchange anything expensive; we have everything we could need or want (and no storage left). But the gifts have great value simply from the affection that each package represents.

Our bed is adorned with a beautiful Christmas quilt made by my mother. Another, just arrived, blankets the snore room bed. Both are cherished heirlooms. D-L calls my mother "an artist in cloth." A local retoucher is repairing a treasured family quilt made by D-L's grandmother, completed after she had lost her sight; we bought cloth for the replacement squares at the country store in the States where my mother gets her supplies -- a perfect marriage of family traditions and American and European artisans.

We think of friends who are off in the mountains, those on an island, others back in Geneva, the UK, Denmark, Austria, around France, and elsewhere, family and family of choice in the States, and of those who are no longer physically with us but live on in our spirit.

A year ago, so very different. D-L did not have the strength to travel, so we remained in Geneva as she prepared for the final rounds of chemotherapy, including a quadruple dose which almost completely sapped her energy. Yet we did take a short journey on Christmas Eve, along the lake to Hermance, which has a peninsula park extending into the water. There too, in the solitude of a Swiss winter sky, we experienced a calm and peace that together we could and were dealing with a temporary adversity.

As we arrived at our door after touring the Saturday marché, the church bell tower, just a few steps down the street, chimed 12 times. We could still hear the brass street band quintet, its members dressed as a duck, a giraffe, and who knows what else. There's snow on the distant peaks of Canigou, but not down here on the plain, which is just the way I prefer it.

There's no place like being with your life partner and best friend for the holiday.

We hope you too have a peaceful and cheerful Christmas with someone you love.  

Friday, December 9, 2016

I'm Stubborn

Okay, make that obstinate.

I don't take no for an answer easily, and I only give up on something when all options are exhausted. Especially when I sense someone trying to put obstacles in my path.

I wanted to open a bank account in Switzerland, where I am a legal resident. I knew - as an American citizen - it would be difficult at best. The FATCA law passed in 2010 and enforced beginning in 2014 has made all but the richest Americans totally toxic to banks outside the US. The threat of draconian penalties by the US government (the government that is supposed to care about my well being no matter where I choose to live - after all, they tax me no matter where I earn my money) has led banks to dump basic banking accounts of Americans and refuse to open new accounts.

I was told La Poste was perhaps the easiest Swiss bank for Americans to do business with.

If they are easy, I'd hate to experience hard.

At first, it seemed a breeze. Walked into the main La Poste office in downtown Geneva, filled out the paperwork with a nice young man, and walked away thinking I would receive my account info in the mail. (I thought it a bit odd that he wouldn't allow me to make an initial deposit.)

A few days later, I started to get a sequence of letters from the bank office that handled "foreigners." One thing they insisted on was a copy of my Swiss Permis B, my legal license for living and working in the country. When I provided it, they said there wasn't sufficient time before the expiration - I had about 5 months remaining before renewal, and they curiously required at least 6.

When my Permis B renewal came through, this time good for two years, the bank required additional documentation.

After I had furnished all that I thought was necessary, they came back with another one - I needed a Certificate of Residence, ie proof that I actually live in Switzerland, and it had to be dated within one month of sending it to them. (The certificate I had from a year ago apparently not good enough.)

One day last week I walked up to the mairie for our commune. They couldn't provide me such a certificate, unless I was Swiss. Foreigners (etrangers) had to go through the Geneva office in Onex on the other side of town. (I could have applied online, after paying a fee at a bank machine, and received the certificate in the mail, but it would not arrive in time to meet the bank's deadline.)

So today, I walked up the hill to the bus stop, took a bus and two trams to get to the communal office in Onex, got a number for the queue, waited three hours for the 60 or so people in front of me (for various services), and secured my certificate. Then another 90 minutes working my way home on the buses/trams. About 6 hours total for one lousy piece of paper.

I could have blown off the certificate and the account. After all, in the meantime, another Swiss bank had kindly opened an account for me. But I was not going to let La Poste beat me down with their flurry of obstacles. Obstinate, remember?

Let's see what happens when I send in the residence certificate.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Getting Around

I am normally a good travel planner, but I made some rookie mistakes on this short sojourn to Paris. These were compounded by some unusual issues.

No problem getting from Geneva to Gare de Lyon, where we expected to pick up Line 1 of the Metro to La Defense, a short bus ride or walk from the friends' home where we are staying. Except Line 1 had a problem, and they weren't allowing people to board. Two hour delay they said.

My first mistake was not having a Metro/RER map with me, or having checked alternates online when we were still in Geneva. I would have realized we could have taken the A train. But we were also somewhat concerned the Line 1 shutdown may have signaled a more serious problem, ie the recent terror attacks on Paris. So we went back upstairs to grab a cab for the journey across town.

Less than halfway there, the taxi developed an engine problem, and the driver said we'd need to get out and take another cab. We happened to be near Stalingrad, which is one of the more troubled areas of the city, and I had visions of walking the dark streets, dragging two suitcases, looking for an unoccupied taxi to get us out of there.

Fortunately, the 1st driver was very professional and actually called for the backup cab, who pulled up right behind us on the street. Within a minute we had transferred the luggage, paid the 1st driver, and were on our way again. The 2nd driver was very pleasant; D-L chatted with him the whole rest of the way. We saw a few sights: L'Arc de Triomphe, la Tour Eiffel, and the Pigalle sex district.

Only took us an hour and 45 minutes for a trip that should have been perhaps half that or less by metro and bus. Not to mention rather expensive.

The next day, I was heading to see a client in a suburb northwest of Paris. I thought I had mapped out the train route to Cergy, requiring two different lines and buses on each end. Our host commented that the lines I was looking for did not go from La Defense, so I re-looked online and discovered I needed only one direct train on the A line. Instead of more than an hour, it should take less than 30 minutes.

At the train station, I rushed into a store to buy a bottle of water, only to learn later it was lemon water. Okay, but not great with the pain au chocolate I bought as breakfast.

In Cergy, the client had said to take the 44 or 60 bus, which I could not find (and if I had, I had neglected to print out the name of the bus stop nearest the client's office). So I got a taxi instead, and fortunately he knew where to drop me off.

At Cergy train station for the return trip, I learned my 2nd ticket, which I had bought at La Defense, did not work in the opposite direction. Had to buy another ticket. Skipping the entrance turnstills which only worked with electronic passes, I stuck my ticket in the 1st machine slot available. After it was stamped, I looked up to see that that particular turnstile was closed and sealed off with construction tape. The ticket clerk kindly let me through a side gate.

Probably a sign that we've been traveling too much. Road weary. 

Did I mention I forgot my gloves?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Addiction?

A friend recently announced that they were "leaving Facebook," calling it an addiction.

Certainly it can be. Scrolling through posts from friends, friends of friends, and sites we chose to like once upon a time can be time-consuming.

I find, whether it's good or not, that I get much of my "news" via FB, whether news of some major event in the world such as an earthquake or political shitslinging, or news from family members, friends, and a few business colleagues who are also friends. I also regularly check news aggregators such as Drudge, and Twitter is pretty much confined to professional aviation connections.

The best thing about FB is that I can keep up with what my grandkids are doing. It fills in the gaps between visits and skype calls.

I also love the wide-ranging diversity of views from people I know, some very right-wing tea-partyish, others radical liberal. I may not share their views, but I like that they voice their opinion, and I think it's good to keep an open mind, not listen just to people you tend to agree with.

When I post or share something potentially controversial (which is almost everything these days), I sometimes pause to think which of my family/friends/colleagues will be offended, and will it sour or kill a longstanding relationship. (Doesn't seem to stop me from posting, though.)

I love the intelligence of many of my friends, especially the ones who will push back and challenge something I post. Maybe I didn't explain myself thoroughly enough. Oftentimes, I am spurred to go do my homework to better understand and define where I stand on an issue.

In general, I avoid posting responses to people with huge followings, simply because my email will then fill up with replies from people with contrarian opinions. However, from time to time I will post on a fringe site such as DailyKos just to be provocative and stir things up. After a few predictable nasty replies, usually name-calling with no substance, I will take down my original post to shut off the stream.

I especially love to challenge statements which appear to be unsupported, for example, people pushing the theme that the Russkies are behind the DNC hack and Wikileaks posts when not a single person has offered any proof. That's one of those "big lies" - tell it often enough, and some sheep will believe it.

My brother claims that I post photos of everything I have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and perhaps at one time I was, almost. I do get some good recipe ideas from other people, though.

Most of all, I like videos of kittens. Call me addicted.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Pressure

Having been in five different countries in the past couple of months, and three more coming up, staying in a dozen homes and hotels, we've experienced a lot of variation in shower water pressure.

My favorite is Geneva where the pressure is strong and the temperature fairly consistent.

My least favorite is Argèles-sur-mer in July and August when the village is flooded with tourists and the pressure can at times drop to a trickle. However, the touristas do bring money into the village, which enables the local merchants to survive year-round, for which we are grateful. Like yesterday when I needed mozzarella to make a pizza and could dash about 50 metres down the street to the green grocer and be back in less than five minutes.

Now that the tourists are gone, not only does the village have a very different dynamic of mostly locals, the water pressure is more than adequate. I can stand in the shower long enough to get some serious thinking done.

Just, please, don't turn on the dishwasher while I'm in there.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

I have a French disease (Ménière’s)

You don't have to grow old to be preoccupied with aches and pains, but experience does foster the angst.

Donna-Lane, having survived two bouts with cancer in the past five years, tends to become concerned with every new twitch and bump she feels. Has the cancer returned? Quite a legitimate fear. But so far so good, her checkups have all been clean since the chemo and radio treatments ended in March.

Since she and I have been together the past three-plus years, I have almost never been ill. Maybe one mild cold for a few days.

Yesterday was different. Severe nausea, which worked itself out, and dizziness, which is the concerning part. I don't have any heart issues, etc., but I do have an inner ear issue known as Ménière’s. It was first discovered in the early 1800s by a French doctor, Prosper Ménière. (Why would someone want to have a disease named after them?) https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/menieres-disease. More than 600,000 people suffer from it in the US.

Is it hereditary? Experts are unsure whether it's genetic or environmental or a combination of both. However, my older brother also has it. And my mother, though not diagnosed as such, has been having dizziness issues. Then again, she's 93 and otherwise going strong.

A potential problem with Ménière’s is vertigo to the point of suddenly falling down, even though remaining conscious.

No, the world is not spinning. It just feels like you've had a little too much to drink.

But think of the ramifications. How long would I be able to sit at the computer to research and write? If walking through the apartment was a concern, what about walking around the village? Driving a car? And worst, could I keep my balance swinging a golf club?

Giving up the car and driving would not be tragic. It would be somewhat limiting for reaching off-the-train-and-bus-route places. But we could survive. There are always friends with cars for really important short trips. D-L managed without having a car for years. And at some point, assuming we grow old(er), they'll probably take away our licences anyway.

I start asking myself, do I really feel dizzy? Really feel nauseous? Or am I imagining feeling those things because I'm overly concerned about those symptoms and the possible progression?

The mind is a mystery when it comes to physical aches and pains.