Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I've been struggling with what to write about Egypt. What to say about a country of so many contradictions? One minute, I'm sitting there in awe of the the Karnak Temple:comparing it to Carnac France:I mean, at the time when the Egyptians where building these incredible architectural structures, the neo-Bretons were sticking rocks in the ground.

But on the other hand, here we are several thousand years later, and there are still people living like this in Egypt:It just blows my mind - that there were so many ancient societies really - that were so advanced for their time, and nowadays many of those same societies are some of the poorest in the world. So what happened? How did they go from being the most advanced to the least?


Friday, March 26, 2010

The pratical side of Egypt

I'm not even sure where to begin - but I think I'll start with an overview of the logistics side of it in case anyone else is interested in going.

Price breakdown:
  • Airfare+visits*+transfers+7 nights on a 5 star boat w/full board (no drinks) cost us 499€ each (purchased via The same deal was going for as high as 769€ during the school vacation or on other websites.
  • There were several optional excursions, including Abou Simbel for 90€ extra, a visit to a Nubian village for 20€, a 1 hour camel ride for 15€ and a 2 hour carriage ride of Luxor for 20€. We did the Nubian village and the camel ride.
  • We only drank water while on the boat, buying a 1L bottle at lunch and dinner, which came to about 20€ for the week. (Note: Coffee, tea & juice were included as part of the breakfast at no extra cost). Our table mates however were Bretons and drank copious amounts of alcohol at every meal, so they walked away with a drink bill of a couple hundred euros per couple at the end of the week. Which is fine if that's what you want to spend your money on - just don't forget to include it in your budget!
  • Total for everything: 545€ each (+ about 50€ spending money)
(*Included visits: Edfu Temple, Kom Ombo Temple, Karnak Temple, Hatshepsout Temple, the Valley of the Kings, the Assouan Dam and a ride in a traditional Egyptian sail boat.)

General tips:
  • It pays to shop around - prices for our some cruise varied by over 200€ according to the website. We found the best deals on and, especially for the 5 star boats.
  • Read the fine print - make sure you know what is included (ie. pension complète does not usually include drinks, some excursions cost extra, etc)
  • If you know the name of the boat, it's also a good idea to google it and see what comes up on the various forums out there. It'll give you an idea of what to expect.
  • A 5-star Egyptian boat is not the same as a 5 star boat in Europe or the US - it probably corresponds to about 3 stars here. Our boat was pretty decent overall, but the bathrooms were extremely tiny (think: Paris hotel small).
  • Bring earplugs just in case- there are inevitably rooms that are close to the motor and are thus very noisy. When we booked, we included a little line in the comments box asking for a room on the upper deck if possible, and we actually ended up getting upgraded to a suite on the top floor. Our room had great views the entire trip and was silent as could be. Whether this was just by chance or because we asked for it, we'll never know - but it is definitely worth a try!
  • Drinks on the boat were pretty expensive - about 8€ for a cocktail and 20€ for a bottle of wine. Water was about 1,25€ for a 1L bottle.
  • We were lucky and our boat had a private docking quay everywhere we went, but that's not the case for most boats. Most end up docking next to other boats, so you could end up having to cross through several other boats before getting to land. The average ones had maybe 3 or 4 together, but we did see one with 8 boats attached!
  • I thought most people would speak French, but there were actually more that spoke English instead. I still tended to speak French with people if possible though, because the Egyptians think the French are cheap and thus the starting negotiation prices are lower.
  • Don't bother getting Egyptian money - we did, and pretty much everyone refused our big bills. Bring 1 or 2€ coins instead, everyone wants them and they are great bargaining tools.
  • If you go with a group, your guide will bring you to several different stores "at the request of someone in the group" - usually a perfume store, a jewelry store and a papyrus store. It's okay to buy here, but just know that prices are a bit higher and your guide will get a nice kickback from everything that's sold during the visit.
  • For big purchases (jewelry, sculptures, etc), they take credit cards - just don't let the card out of your sight during the payment process!
  • Speaking of big purchases, you have to haggle prices on EVERYTHING. If they quote you a price, automatically divide it at least by 50% and then counteroffer. Negotiations can take ages, and if things aren't going the way you like, just move on - there will be someone else with the exact same wares farther along down the line. In fact, if you're looking for something specific, it's a good idea to just do some light haggling in a few stores first before actually buying, just to get an idea of what the true price range is.
  • Prices will also depend on how naive you look - an elderly French couple on our boat paid 40€ for an outfit that another couple paid 6€ for. At the exact same place. And the elderly couple had thought they'd gotten a good deal, since the vendor had originally started at 80€!!
  • Clothes-wise - avoid skirts, shorts and revealing tops. Cropped pants are okay, and so are tank tops, but you may want to cover your arms/chest with a scarf when walking in a public place.
  • Bring snacks with for the plane and for the excursions, as well as small water bottle for the day trips. Our room had a fridge, which was nice since we could keep stuff cold.
  • Internet cafes are popping up every now, and some boats even have one PC available for use. Prices are still high though, expect to pay 5-6€ per hour for the privilege.
Things to watch out for:
  • When getting change back, make sure to double check - some vendors will try to substitute 1 pound coins for Euro coins because they look very similar (but 1€=7 E£, so it's not a mistake you want to make).
  • Along the same lines - if you do have both Euros and Egyptian pounds - watch carefully if you hand them a 20€ note. A woman in our group got conned this way - she gave him the bill, looked down quick at the change to make sure he hadn't cheated her using the scheme above, and by the time she looked back up, he'd swapped it with a 20£ note, which looks very similar. He then insisted she'd made a mistake and had given him 20£ instead of 20€, so she took the 20£ note back and gave him 20€ instead. Meaning she'd just given him 40€ instead of 20€.
  • There will also be people in the streets wanting to exchange euros coins for euro notes - I was really suspicious of this at first, but then we learned that it's because the Egyptian banks won't exchange euro coins for Egyptian citizens - they will only take Euro notes. So the vendors are constantly looking for people who need change. A lot of people in our group broke their bills this way and I think it's a good method to do so as long as you're aware of the two common scams above.
  • Only buy water from your hotel or boat - many of the street vendors refill used bottles with tap water and then reseal them, and it's not always safe for tourists to drink.
  • Everybody gets kick backs here - from the taxi driver to your tour guide - so the less middle-men you can deal with the better, as it will only raise your prices. Example: We paid 55€ for our visa plus "service charges", but when we got to the airport, we found out the visa really only cost about 12€ ($15) - and that our guide had pocketed the other 40+ euros. But everyone gets their cut of something, and expect to have to tip a lot as well, from the doorman to the person who cleans your rooms.
  • Avoid taking taxis or carriage rides for roundtrips if possible - they will quote you one price and then actually charge you double or triple to take you home. Others will offer to take you to the Souk and then will really take you to their family's store, and will drive off and leave you if you refuse to buy anything. It can get pretty cutthroat at times and several couples in our group got scammed this way.
Overall, I'm really glad we took the time to talk to others who'd been and to do some research online - it helped us have a better idea of what to expect and what traps to avoid. I also feel like it helped us get the most value for our money - I don't know about you guys, but I think that 550€ for an 8-day, 7 night vacation including food & visits is a pretty good deal.

If you speak French, I'd also recommend checking out the report that the French show "Enquête Exclusive" did a on Egypt back in February - the first 20 minutes or so talk about the Nile cruises. It might be on their website as well, but I found it on YouTube a few weeks ago by searching for the title "Egypt: la face cachée d'un rêve". It's a bit dramatic and over-exaggerated, but still gives a fairly realistic idea of what it was like.

I think that about sums up the practical side of things - but if anyone has any specific questions, feel free to ask away:

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I've got a lot to say about Egypt, but first I wanted to write about the surprise C had planned for me last night. He told me to wear something nice and meet him at the Gare du Nord at 8:15. I had no clue what I was in for, except that it wasn't dinner. Luckily I wore comfortable shoes because he signed us up for a couple of dance classes.One of his cousin's is getting married in May and he mentioned something about us having to waltz at the wedding. I was like "Waltz?? I don't know how to waltz!!" So he signed us up for lessons. They're run by the wife of a famous French tap dancer in a small, old-school studio. The class normally lasts an hour, but ours was 1 1/2hrs. It was nice because there was only one other couple there with us, so we got a lot of one-on-one attention. She also taught us the basic steps for the polka and the cha-cha. Neither of us are the most talented dancers in the world, but after a few lessons, we should be at least able to dance at the wedding without trampling anyone else!


Saturday, March 20, 2010

2 days left in Egypt

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The only good thing about my trip to Tunisia this past week was the awesome hotel we stayed at. Too bad we worked 16-17hr days the entire time, so we barely got to take advantage of any of it. It was like a Club Med sort of deal - all-inclusive meals+drinks, with lots of organized activities. We'd been hoping to ride a camel and use the spa on Friday, but an emergency came up and I ended up having to come back to France very late Thursday evening and then get up at 6am Friday morning to head to Bretagne. Hmmm....camel rides and massages, or cranky clients in rainy Brittany? It's not exactly a difficult toss-up, is it?

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Look what I got in the mail this past Saturday - just in time for the Frenchie elections today!!


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The one in which I almost end up in a Tunisian jail

So enough of my relationship freak-outs. M co-worker and I met up at the airport in Paris yesterday morning and hopped on our flight to Tunis. As usual, while filling out the customs forms, we decided to check “tourists” – we both look young and could easily pass for a couple traveling together, and it’s just easier that way. But he had a bunch of parts for work in his suitcase, so the airline had stuck a big “fragile” sign on it. Which of course caught the eye of the Tunisian customs officials, who flagged him down and said “Monsieur, ouvrez votre valise s’il vous plait”. He tried to just open the one that had all of his clothes in it, and they said “No sir, not that one –your other suitcase”.

As a background note, the Tunisian government basically charges for anything and everything here. Import, export, invoices – you name, they take a percentage of the total. So even if we send our client something that’s included in their contract, they still have to pay import taxes on it. Which usually amounts to a minimum of 500€. So we’ve taken to bringing stuff for them in our suitcases, in order to save them this money. And up until now, it hasn’t been a problem. But not this time….

So back to my co-worker opening his bags. Of course he opens and it’s all electronic and mechanical items wrapped in bubble wrap. So much for our cover of being tourists. They start questioning him in French, but since he doesn’t speak French, things weren’t going very well. I finally step in and start translating, and then they turn on me.

“Et vous – vous êtes qui mademoiselle ??”

So I say I am French (since I was traveling on my brand-spanking new French passport!!) and that I also work for The Company. They ask for my passport and are suspicious because 1) it is brand-new and 2) my birthplace is shown as Minnesota. So then they spend several minutes questioning us as to why we both have the same birthplace but are of two different nationalities.

I am starting to panic, thinking they are either going to refuse us entry or make us pay a boatload in import fees. Or sell us on the black market. So I tell a teensy, tiny white lie, and I say that it is all stuff that we need in order to test the equipment. That none of it will be staying in Tunisia. And the man guy says somewhat incredulously “You’re 100% sure that none of it will stay here??” To which I reply “Normalement everything will go back with my co-worker”. But it was the normalement that got me. “Wrong answer” he says. “Please step into my office”.

We then spend the next 30 minutes explaining why we have no official documentation showing 1) that we work for The Company or 2) that our client has asked us to come. I try to explain over and over that this is our 4th trip here and that we’ve never had to provide this info before, but it falls on deaf ears.

I finally remember that my client’s company is owned by the largest company in Tunisia, so I bust out that name – Poulina – and they all look at each other. See, the owner of this massive company is all buddy-buddy with the Tunisian President. So you don’t really want to piss anyone there off. They ask us for proof that our client is part of Poulina, and I’ve got nothing – all of the emails I have on my blackberry are in their own company’s name. But then I remember the call my client made to me on Saturday – the call that so annoyed me at the time because it was a weekend and I was celebrating a friend’s birthday. I didn’t pick it up, so he forwarded an email containing some hotel info (also owned by the big head honcho) on to me – and in that email was a Poulina address. And that my friends was our key to freedom! Once they saw that, we were free and clear.

We exited customs, only to discover that my colleague hadn’t printed out the car rental reservation (the one thing I asked him to do, btw), so we then spent the next 30 minutes going from agency to agency, asking if anyone had a rental in the name of Mr X. It was terrible – there are so many agencies in the airport and they will all lie and pretend they know you, just to get your money. But we finally found the one who had our *real* reservation and we got our car. As we’re driving away from the airport, we realize the tank is almost empty. Some of you may remember how my last trip to Tunisia involved us practically getting kidnapped by the Tunisian mafia because we tried to fill up at a station that only wanted cash….of which we had none. So after all our troubles at the airport, we decided to leave it to tomorrow and just get to the hotel.

Except on the way to the hotel, we got pulled over by the Tunisian police for speeding…I’m still not actually sure if we got a ticket or not, but we were eventually allowed to go on our merry way. (ie. We were allowed to continue dodging the various goats, sheep and humans that cross the freeways here). Sometimes I feel like this country is just one giant game of leapfrog.

So that was my Monday – how was yours?

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Monday, March 8, 2010

After shocks

One of the things I've tried really hard to do these past few months is not let what happened with Fab tarnish my relationship with C. I haven't taken the line of thinking that "All men are jerks", nor have I become all crazy jealous or suspicious or overly needy. At least on the conscious level. But my subconscious unfortunately sometimes decides otherwise.

C had to get up early yesterday AM to go to work, and I fell back asleep after he left. To a dream which involved him deciding to leave me and go back to his ex-girlfriend. Who, thanks to C's mom, now has a face in my dreams.

I'm pretty sure all of this was triggered by a comment that C's English host dad said this week. See, this past summer, C used his month of summer vacation to go volunteer on an organic farm in England (which I think is totally awesome, btw). And the family he stayed with just happened to be in Paris this past week, so we met up with them for dinner - despite their dislike of Americans. And the dad said something about how it was really nice to see C happy and dating someone new, because when he was in England, he was right in the middle of his "mourning period" for his ex-girlfriend. Which struck a chord with me because that wasn't very long before we started dating, and I guess I'd always been under the impression that he was completely over her by that point.

It also rears up when C's work organizes a pot and he stays after work to have a few drinks with his colleagues (many of them whom include fairly attractive females). Because Katell was Fab's co-worker, it immediately brings up uncomfortable memories. Luckily I am able to not freak out, and remind myself that it's two separate men, and two separate situations, but it frustrates me to no end that these feelings keep popping up.

And I think part of the reason I keep struggling with this is that Fab was such a nice, normal guy. All of his family and friends were so surprised when it happened, no one ever thought he'd cheat - let alone on me. So it's hard for me to be with another nice, normal guy and to really, truly, 100% believe him when he says I'm the only one for him.

Because I've heard that before too.

In many ways, it makes me sad to think about how despite my best efforts, it still has affected my relationship with C. I think about how because I was scared to let go, I missed out on those first few months of the relationship, where everything is fabulous and wonderful and it feels like you're flying. All unicorns and butterflies and all that jazz. Instead, I was practical and took it slow and didn't get too involved. But I'm watching a few friends go through that phase now, and it's so, so sweet. And I didn't let myself have that with C because I was worried about falling too fast and the possibility of getting hurt.

Sigh. I guess it's all part of the process though, non?


Friday, March 5, 2010

Strange coincidences

My mouth just about dropped after I read the beginning of this month's horoscope:

You have a rare and very liberating influence in your chart this month and it's sure to set your spirits soaring. Spread your wings, dear Cancer. It's been such a long time since you've felt this excited by life. If only you could see your chart this month! In March a whole lineup of stars are twinkling in your ninth house of new and broadening experiences.

There are many ways you may feel the profound and positive influences at play. One of the most likely will be that you will travel quite far, to a foreign country, or at the very least, plan a trip to take soon. Travel could come up spontaneously and trips taken now would be a wonderful influence on you. You're tired of same old routine, and you seem hungry to learn new things. The planets will provide you with a way to step off the merry-go-round and experience something new.

If you had hoped to become a citizen in a foreign country, this would be the month that the paperwork comes together and the approval comes through. This would also be an ideal month to apply for a green card or visa. If you have no plans to change citizenship or to work or study in a foreign country, you may start to do import / export of goods, services, or information.

Not only will travel to far-off places make up a big part of my month (Tunisia next week for work, and Egypt w/C the week after), but I will be able to travel to them using my new brand spanking new French ID card and passport!! That's right, I finally have them in my possession. I can't even believe it really - after almost two years of stress, here they are. I keep checking my purse to make sure it's really true.

For some reason, it just seemed so fitting to see the Pantheon looming before me as I walked out of the city hall. And look at that blue sky! If that doesn't say "Hello Freedom!", I don't know what does. Which reminds me - I've been doing a lot of pondering lately, and I think I am finally ready to start publicly blogging again. I would like to say a HUGE thank you to those of you who have respected my privacy all this time by not linking to my blog, I really appreciate it. But the chains have been broken and I'm finally ready to start sharing my life with the world again. So if you feel like it, feel free to link away to my blog, folks!

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Monday, March 1, 2010

24h sans nous

I'll write more about my weekend dans le Noorrddd tomorrow, but today I want to bring up "le 1er mars - La journée sans immigrés", or "March 1st - The day without immigrants", with the idea being that for 24 hours, all immigrants would stop buying and working to show the impact that they really have on the French economy. March 1st was chosen because it was the day that the "immigration choisie" (controlled immigration) law took effect back in 2005. Similar events will also be held in Spain, Italy and Greece.

I haven't quite decided if I'm going to participate today or not, but I do think the idea is interesting - and well-timed, given all the national debates going around about "What it means to be French". I also think it's easy for most of us to forget how tough it can be for immigrants in France. We all complain about having to go to the préfecture, dealing with red tape, etc, but given our nationalities, we actually have it quite easy when compared to many other foreigners.

If you want to learn more about the event, you can click here for the main website.