Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

48h in Hong Kong

I returned back to Paris this weekend, after two weeks in China.  It was a crazy trip, and left me fairly exhausted. I do okay when I travel by myself, but when I travel with my boss and/or co-workers, we tend to all enable each other into too much food and booze, and not enough sleep and exercise.  Plus, I'm fairly introverted, so things like trade shows really take a lot out of me.  Having to be smiley and friendly all day long is hard work for this girl. ;)

I traveled to two different parts of China, and had a free weekend between the two weeks, so I decided to take the train to Hong Kong.  I didn't really want to hang around where I was nor go back to Shanghai, plus Oneika was back in town for an extended stay, so I figured why not?

I didn't really know much about Hong Kong besides that it was a major financial center full of expats, but the more research I did, the more I was looking forward to going. In the end, I actually had a hard time trying to fit everything I wanted to do in the two short days I had there.

And unfortunately my two short days became even shorter after a 3h+ train delay.  About 30 min after leaving the station, my train stopped in the middle of nowhere. Shortly after, several men with shields, guns and batons started surrounding our train. Announcements were made in Chinese, but I couldn't understand a word they were saying, and no one around appeared able to translate.
As time went on, the train turned into one hot, sweaty mess and other passengers became quite agitated. People were banging on the windows and the doors, and being very aggressive with the train employees. One hour became two hours, and then two hours nearly three hours, and I was getting progressively more and more anxious. I had no water, no money and no clue what was happening.  I finally had the bright idea to send a message to one of my Chinese colleagues, and he was able to talk to one of the train employees for me.  The train was broken, they would not be sending a new train, and we would sit there on the tracks until it was repaired.  The guards were there so that no one would try to escape off the train.  Whew, finally some information.  And luckily not too long after that, the train started up, the A/C came back on, and we continued on our way.

I lost no time after arrival, quickly dropping my bags off at my AirBnB, and then heading up to The Peak for some 360° views of the city. 
I meandered back down, took a quick shower (HK is hot, hot, hot!), and then headed out for a night out on the town. I was lucky enough to be invited to a bachelorette party and experienced the best of the city's nightlife.  So. Much. Fun.
The next day, I rolled myself out of bed at an ungodly hour and made the long trek out to see the Big Buddha.  I climbed the 260 steps up to see him and to enjoy the aerial views.
And then I headed back down to do some hiking. It turns out that Hong Kong is mix of islands, city and scenery, and I only got a short taste of it all during my stay. 
After following the wisdom path, I looped back around to check out the Po Lin Monastery. The lunch there came highly recommended.  My opinion?  If you're with a large group, it's worth it because you get to try 8 dishes, but if you're alone or with a small group, you only get 4 dishes and you pay the exact same price...  The food was good, but I could have gotten pretty much the same thing for 1/4 of the price from the vendors just outside of the restaurant (with a lot less waiting).
Those of you that know me know that my travel style is pretty thrifty, but I also like to splurge every once in a while. So for example, C & I may get a super fancy hotel and then have a romantic picnic for dinner. To get up to the Big Buddha, most people take the cable car there and back (at a cost of around 29€/$33).  That seemed a little pricey for me, and thanks to Google, I found out there was a bus that went up there for 1.90€/$2.10. The bus ended up providing some great scenery, and also let me enjoy guilt-free the 360° crystal cabin ride on the way back down (19€/$23).
Once back on hard ground, I checked out several markets. My verdict - meh. Cheap shopping is definitely better in China or Thailand.
I meant to watch the city scape light show before heading home, but Oneika talked me into a foot massage instead.  :)
It was a quick ferry ride back to Central, and then I had to take the longest escalators in the world back to my AirBnB.
I ended up having an unexpectedly great time in Hong Kong, and I would definitely like to go back for a longer stay in the future. From the little I saw, there are a lot of other islands, beaches and trails still to be explored, as well as several other cultural sites in the city that I didn't get to see.  Public transportation was great and easy to use, most people spoke decent English, I felt very safe walking around alone, and the food options are plentiful.  The only downside is that it's a fairly expensive place to visit, but it can be done for a reasonable price if you use options like AirBnB and eat locally. It would be a great place to spend 3-4 days before heading out on an Asian Cruise for example!

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Friday, May 6, 2016

Top Ten Mistakes to Avoid when Renewing a US Passport!

One of the biggest frustrations when renewing your passport is receiving your application back in the mail because of a mistake.  This is frustrating 1) because you've wasted precious renewal time and 2) you've wasted your precious argent on that darn Chronopost envelope.

So here is my list of the Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid when renewing your US passport:
  1. Don't use the same photo as last time - your passport photo must be different from that of your last passport, and recent. 
  2. Along the same lines, don't use a French size passport photo - it must be 2x2" or 5x5cm with a white (not grey) background. You can read more about the photo requirements here. As of today, there is only one official photographer approved by the US Embassy. It is Photo Madeleine, and they are located at 41 rue Boissy d'Anglas 75008 Paris. The current cost for US passport photos is 10€.
  3. Your passport application should be filled out on the computer.  Filling it out entirely by hand will mean a longer processing time. Do not forget to sign and date your application by hand however!
  4. Wildly different signatures. It's true that if you got your last passport at 16 and then another one at 26, your handwriting may have changed (no more hearts over your i's for example...).  But if your current signature looks too different from the signature on your previous passport (or you never signed your previous passport), your application could be refused.
  5. French or American checks are not accepted. Applications sent by mail must be paid with a mandat cash from the French Post Office; applications done in person can be paid in dollars, euros or by credit card.  
  6. Don't purchase your mandat cash a long time in advance before you send in your application.  This is a little known fact, but the passport price in Euros is changed every few months due to exchange rate fluctuations. And if your mandat cash does not match the current amount (even if it is for more), your application will be returned.  So buy your mandat cash the day you send your passport (more instructions can be found here). 
  7. There are different prices for payment in dollars or euros, so be sure your mandat cash is also for the euro amount. 
  8. There is no need to send your passport application via Chronopost. You can save yourself 27€ by using a normal letter (if you trust La Poste!), or a registered letter. 
  9. Don't try to get away with including a registered letter for the return however - your application will be sent back with a request to include a pre-paid, self-addressed Chronopost*.
  10. This last piece of advice is one of the most important ones - be sure to write down your Chronopost tracking number before you send off your application, and set a reminder on your phone to check it once a week (or sign-up for delivery notifications if possible).  A phenomenal amount of passport applications are returned to the Embassy each day because the Chronopost envelope was not picked up within the two week time frame.  This is (mainly) through no fault of the American - it's most often the Chronopost deliveryman who never leaves a delivery attempt note - but it means that your passport could be sitting at the Post Office without your knowledge. And then you will need to send the Embassy another Chronopost letter in order to get it back!  So keep that tracking number and check it regularly online. 
*The US Embassy used to accept pre-paid registered mail envelopes for return, but so many of them got lost and/or stolen on top of the fact that delivery notifications were rarely given out, that they eventually decided to go with the Chronopost. So even though the Chronopost is more expensive and there is still the issue of delivery notifications sometimes not being given, they have at least greatly reduced the possibility of your passport being stolen along the way.

Here's one last bonus DON'T - US Passport applications are country-specific, so do not waste your time looking at the US Passport site or the US Embassy websites for other countries. Requirements differ according to the country, and you'll only end up getting even more confused!

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Renewing your US passport in France

I've been seeing a lot of expats in France on social media lately expressing frustration regarding their US Passport renewal process, so I thought I'd break it down step by step for any future renewers.

Major caveat here - this information is valid as of today, May 5, 2016. Things can change, so please verify the US Embassy in Paris website before sending in your application.

All normal adult renewal applications should be done by mail. If your application is not a normal renewal, it will have to be done in person (see the lost or stolen passport section below). 

Adult renewals
Adults who already have a US passport in their possession that was issued fewer than 15 years ago and after the age of 16, will need to send:
  • Your most recent US passport (don't worry, it will systematically be returned!)
  • 1 recent passport photo (2x2" or 5x5cm) with a white background
  • 1 self-addressed Chronopost envelope (1 per family)
  • The payment in the form of a mandat cash purchased at the post office*
  • Form DS-82, filled out on the computer, and signed and dated by hand
Lost or stolen passports
If your passport was lost, stolen, or issued more than 15 years ago, you'll need to appear in person at the US Embassy either in Paris or Marseille. You'll have to make an appointment online, and be sure to bring everything on the list above, plus the following:
  • Form DS-11 (filled out on the computer, not signed - you'll sign it at the Embassy) 
  • Birth certificate (or report of birth, naturalization or citizenship certificate)
  • Recent valid ID (original plus photocopy)
  • If your passport was lost or stolen, Form DS-64 (filled out on a computer and signed)
  • If your passport was lost or stolen, provide any photocopies you have of it
  • If your passport was lost or stolen, provide the original of the Police Report declaration
  • Payment can be made at the Embassy in dollars, euros or by credit card (no US or FR checks allowed)

Passports for Children
Children aged 15 or under have to follow a different process.  All applications, be it their first passport or a renewal, must be done in person, either at the US Embassy in Paris or at the Consulate General in Marseille.  An appointment is needed, and can be made online at the website.

For a child passport application, parents must submit the following documents. If you are applying for multiple children at the same time, you will need to provide the originals and photocopies listed below for each of the applications.
  • Form DS-11 (filled out on the computer, not signed - you'll sign it at the Embassy)
  • Child's birth certificate, or report of birth or naturalization or citizenship certificate (original + photocopy)
  • Both Parent's passports or IDs (originals + photocopies)
  • Notarized consent of Form DS-3053, if one of the parents cannot appear in person
  • The most recent US passport if the child already has one
  • 1 recent passport photo (2x2" or 5x5cm) with a white background
  • 1 self-addressed Chronopost envelope (1 per family)
  • Payment can be made at the Embassy in dollars, euros or by credit card (no US or FR checks allowed)
As a side note, for children's passports, the US Embassy staff understands it can be difficult for both parents to take a day off of work and travel to Paris, so they sometimes spend a day or two at the various American Presence Posts around France to allow parents to apply directly there. The APP offices are located in Rennes, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lyon and Strasbourg.  If you are interested in being informed of the next renewal day in your region, you can sign up for the Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP) and APP-specific dates will be sent out to those living in that region roughly a month before they occur.

 *The official payment amount can be found at the bottom of this page. If you are applying for multiple family members at the same time, you can send in one mandat cash for the total amount.

Check back tomorrow, when I'll be posting about the top ten mistakes to avoid when sending in your passport application.  I'll also explain why Chronopost envelopes are needed, since that is another sore point for many fellow Americans.

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Russia

I spent all of last week in Russia, mostly in Moscow, but there was also a jaunt out into the countryside for a day or two.  I didn't really have any expectations for the week - coming after the UK, US, India, Poland, etc, it was just one more trip abroad amongst many. 

I actually ended up really enjoying Moscow.  The people we met with were overall much friendlier than I was expecting, and the hotel receptionists rivaled the Thais in niceness.  It may have helped too that I blended in much more than some of the other places I've been lately, so I could just go about my daily business without people giving me some serious side-eye.  I often even had people trying to speak to me in Russian, even though my vocabulary is limited to four words: hello, thank you, goodbye and cheers.  One day, I should count how many languages I can say those four words in now...

As far as English goes, it was pretty much all or nothing - people either spoke fantastic English or not a word. A lot of restaurants didn't have English menus, so we (tried) to rely on my phone for translations, with some pretty hilarious results. I put a few of them on Facebook, and they still make me crack up:

The city itself is beautiful - extremely clean and well-maintained, with lots of lovely pastel-colored buildings. 
The sheer size of some of them was also impressive - this is one of "Seven Sisters", or one of the seven absolutely massive buildings dotted across the city:
I found the food delicious as well - it's probably the only place I've been to outside of the US (and Bulgaria) where I could easily eat my normal diet - lots of soups and fresh veggies. Most of the hotels had gyms too, which was useful for helping work off the vodka calories. ;)

And of course there's the famous Red Square - something I never thought I'd see again:
You see, I've actually been to Russia before. 16 years ago when I was living in Finland, a fellow student organized a bus trip to St Petersburg and Moscow, and I thought "Why the hell not?  When will I ever have a chance to go to Russia gain?".  Little did I know....

The dollar was king back then, and it was a great trip, though a lot of my memories are seen through a vodka-induced haze. It was also only a few short months after my father died, and I think a lot of my memories from that time have been made cloudy by grief.  I do remember snippets here and there though, and last week's trip has amazingly brought some of the back.  I'd see a building, or a familiar monument, and all of the sudden a memory would break through the fog.  Like "Hey!  That's where we got chased out of the Russian biker bar".

It's funny though how much things have changed in such a short time.  Back then (at least in Minnesota), besides those who made one-off 'pilgrimages' to Scandinavia to see where their family came from, I didn't really know anyone who traveled abroad, and I was a bit of an odd-duck going to all these far-off places at such a young age.  Nowadays, it seems to be quite common for young-uns to travel to Europe or elsewhere even in high school.  I've been a bit disgusted as of late to see how so many countries (US, UK, France, etc) seem to be turning inwards, and I can only hope that the early exposure to other cultures will turn the tide in future generations.

And now I'm off to pack for my trip to Italy tomorrow...





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Monday, March 14, 2016

Avoiding Dehli Belly

I mentioned food poisoning in my last post, and I'd be curious to hear what everyone else's take on food poisoning risks and travel.  I talked about it a lot with my boss and co-worker during our trip - they are both very daring and will eat pretty much anything, anywhere. They have estimated that they get sick about 1 in 10 times on work trips, so for them, they'd rather take the risk and eat something delicious.  I don't know - maybe I'm overly cautious, but hearing the details of how sick they were (ie coming out of a sketchy bathroom in the middle of nowhere with just one sock) makes me cringe.  What do you think dear readers?  Go ahead and vote in the poll here: http://poll.pollcode.com/63315626

What kind of Traveler are you?




pollcode.com free polls


I don't know about you, but I would be completely mortified if I had to call up current or future clients who I had flown around the world to see and say "Sorry, I've got to cancel my meetings for the next three days because I have explosive diarrhea". Funnily enough, I am actually more likely to be adventurous when on vacation because I know if I'm sick, I can just hang out and be miserable in the hotel.  But if The Company paid a ton of money to fly me around the world and I had all kinds of meetings set up that I had to miss...   I guess some people probably wouldn't care about that, but I would end up feeling extremely guilty. 

As such, I've got a pretty good list of tactics that I have used to so far, *knock on wood*, not fall sick while traveling.  This can also be more or less strict depending on the country, if I'm in the capital or out in the countryside, etc.

In general, I tend to follow these rules in most places, at least when I travel for work:
  • Only drink bottled water, and make sure the cap is still on when it arrives (though this is not 100% full-proof, there are some countries where they refill the bottles and superglue the cap back on)
  • Forgo any ice in your drinks, as you don't know how it was made or where it was stored
  • Always wash your hands before eating
  • I know they are super tempting, but try to avoid any fresh fruits or juices unless you are able to peel or prepare them yourself 
  • Be cautious of street food, especially if you have a weak stomach.  If you absolutely want to try some, either pick a place with good recommendations online, or where there are lots of families/children eating
  • If you eat meat or seafood, make sure it is fully cooked - it's just not worth the risk
  • Same goes for vegetables - this is one of the hardest ones for me to follow since I mainly eat raw veggies at home, but I avoid all salads and raw vegetables, and only eat ones that have been cooked
  • If someone invites you over, also be cautious about what you consume at their home - their stomachs are used to the local water and bacteria in a way that yours might not be 
  • Stay away from buffets, because you can never be sure how long the food has been sitting out and at what temperature
  • Ice cream can be tricky too in places that experience frequent power outages or brown-outs
  • I'm not big into hand sanitizers, but if I remember, I do try to use an alcohol wipe on the two dirtiest items for travelers - the tray tables in airplanes and the TV remotes in hotel rooms
 And if I'm in a rural area or a place I'm really nervous about:
  • Use only bottle watered to brush your teeth and wash your face.  Also keep your mouth closed in the shower.
  • If you're in a place that uses silverware, try to wipe it down with a napkin before using it
  • Be careful with straws that arrive unwrapped
  • I always travel with emergency meals - protein bars, oatmeal and dried soups are good substitutes in cases where restaurants are rare or you just don't want to risk it
  • I also try to eat some sort of yogurt every day, just to be sure I've got good bacteria to fight off any bad that gets in
For non-food related action items, I try to make sure I have all the recommended vaccines for each country I visit, and I have my doctor write me a prescription for antibiotics, immodium and other 'stronger' stomach medicines.  Charcoal tablets are also a good back-up.

Lastly - and this isn't food related either, but it's so important - the number one thing I do when I enter any hotel room around the world - no matter how fancy or which country I'm in - is pull up the sheets from all four corners of the mattress and check for bed bugs. Better safe than sorry, and those are definitely critters you don't want to bring home with you!

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

India, take 1

When the opportunity came up for me to go to India for work, I was divided. Half of me wanted to go, to see a new country, and especially one where one of our dearest friends hails from. The other half of me was annoyed with the six months it took to get a visa (and the bureaucracy that makes France look like child's play), and I was also worried about food poisoning since almost everyone I know has gotten sick there.  As a side note, getting food poisoning in the middle of a business meeting or during a long drive where no bathrooms are available pretty much sums of two of my worst work-related nightmares...

In the end, I was slightly underwhelmed.  Before I left, everyone kept saying "It will be like nothing you have ever seen!", and I suppose that never helps expectations.  The best way I can describe it is that it reminded me of a mix of many of the places I visited last year - the temples and tuk tuks of Thailand, the traffic of Manila, the honking (oh the honking! dear lord the honking!) from China, the simultaneous colorfulness and dustiness of North Africa.  But the friendliness I was expecting was not really there, at least not during this trip - one shop owner even called me an asshole when I negotiated a discount on a silk rug for my boss. 

I imagine the staring can be jarring for some people too, but I've grown used to it during my travels, so it doesn't really bother me.  But what I didn't anticipate was the difference in the staring.  Some folks would stare in the normal way because I am blonde, but the young 'rich' men with popped collars would stare very lasciviously, no matter where we were or who I was with. I'm talking up-and-down, full-on, shameless ogling that gives you the heebie jeebies. And then on the other hand, I'd have the older men that we met with in business meetings who wouldn't look at me at all - they would look around me or near me, but never directly at me, which was equally disconcerting.

I also wasn't expecting to eat so much meat.  Meat meat meat.  It never ended. I didn't eat a single vegetable until the 4th day in, and that was only because I very strongly insisted we order at least one plate of vegetables.  I normally eat meat 1-2x per week, so it was definitely an overload for me. My boss and co-worker loved it though.

The pressure of being appropriately dressed was also a stress for me. Luckily our friends were able to help me choose some outfits that were both respectful and modest enough for business meetings yet also breathable for the hot temperatures.  But it also made me slightly angry that I had to adapt my attire so much as a woman, whereas my boss and co-worker could just wear what ever they wanted and no one would blink an eye. 

And maybe that's what's clouding my view overall - this is the first time in the nearly ten years I have been working for The Company where I have attended business meetings with my boss, and I was really hoping to shine and show off my skills, but the general deference toward men throughout the whole trip didn't really give me an opportunity to do so, leaving me feeling slightly defeated.  He even mentioned after a few drinks that he was disappointed that I hadn't been more forward.  I tried my best to explain that it's such a fine line as a woman some times - 90% of the time I work with men of a certain age, and it can be really difficult (for me anyways) to find the balance between being assertive while also trying to respect cultural differences, especially when it's a country I don't know very well yet.  At the end of the day, I just wanted to reflect a positive image of my company, and I erred on the side of caution instead of 'in their face'.  It's frustrating at times - sort of damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Anyways.  I'm probably just tired after the 3am departure, the 10h flight and the strange 4.5 hour time difference.  Our meetings did go well overall, so if things keep moving along, I will likely go back 2-3 more times this year.  At least now having been there once accompanied, I'll feel safe going back alone (however I was surprised that the presence of my boss and co-worker did not stop people from touching my butt in public).  And who knows - I may be treated completely different by everyone the day they will be forced to deal with just me instead of my male colleagues.

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Valentine's Getaway

For Valentine's Day, C & I decided to do a little weekend getaway.  We wanted something within 1-2 hour of Paris, in a quiet area and with a cozy fireplace.  I started looking around on AirBnb and came across this adorable place.
We had the whole house to ourselves, and it was absolutely lovely.  There's a little river just behind it, so with the window slightly open, we could hear the water running by and a whole host of birds singing.  The covered patio on the left of the house had heaters and there was also an area for BBQing. 

The inside was adorable - the owners used very high quality materials to renovate the place, and also left a lot of the originals architecture in place - exposed beams, the fireplace, etc. There are two bedrooms upstairs (one with a bathroom), and the beds were soooo comfortable.  

I never got a chance to talk to her about it, but apparently the owner is half-American, and had mentioned her grandma had been staying there.  She must have been the American grandma then, because there were a lot of American books, magazines and products lying around (like Centrum Vitamins), so that was kind of funny and made it feel a bit more like home.  The kitchen was also extremely well-stocked and had much more than your usual rental apartment. We definitely had everything we needed to cook a nice meal.

We were mainly there to relax, but we took a nice walk around a nearby lake:
And there was also a château just down the road:
As well as a super adorable village about a 15min drive away:

The only two downsides were the breakfast (which was pretty sparse) and the cost.  This place was a bit more than we were wanting to spend, so what we did was have C sign up for AirBnb so he got an 18€ credit to use on his first rental (and as a bonus, I got an 18€ credit too).   As a side note, if you're not signed up for AirBnB yet, you can go through my link and get the same bonus offer off of your first rental here!  I haven't used AirBnB that many times yet, but so far it's been a great way to stay in some unusual spaces at a reasonable cost (and usually with more room than a hotel room).

All in all, it was an excellent spot for a relaxing getaway from Paris, and I would definitely spend another weekend there.  If you don't have a car, I think I remember seeing that she will come pick you up from the local train station for 5€/person, which I thought was a nice offer.  The place is also close to Beauvais, so it would be good for an overnight stop before a flight. 


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