Saturday, November 15, 2008

Finally... Switzerland

This morning I got up and took the TGV to Geneva. Someone asked me if I was going because I was bored with Paris. I can assure you, that is not the case! There are two main reasons I decided to take this side-trip:

1) Switzerland was one of the only countries in Western Europe I had yet to visit and frankly, was tired of explaining why it had always somehow alluded me on previous trips;

2) I wanted to see the headquarters of the United Nations.

The train ride from Paris to Geneva was 3 hours 15 minutes. About 45 minutes outside of Geneva there were some impressive mountains, but other than that the scenery was pretty unremarkable. I tried to take some photos, but the glare on the window – and probably the fact that we were going 320 km/h (200 mph) per hour – sort of hampered my ability to do so!

I’m staying at the Warwick Geneva, located right across the street from the train station where I arrived – very convenient. The hotel gives you a pass for public transit during your stay (trams, buses, etc.) which is good because I did not have any Swiss Francs (or Euros for that matter!). As soon as I checked in, I headed out to the ‘old town’ area of the city. To get there I jumped on a tram – kind of like a cable car. It was only about a 5 minute ride.

After a few hours of walking around I realized I was starving so I found an ATM, got some Swiss Francs and went to… McDonalds. Okay, listen…. this was the FIRST time since I’ve been in Europe that I had McDonalds (or ANY fast food actually).

It’s a little coder in Switzerland than in Paris. I was glad that I had brought with me some pocket hand warmers (little pouches that heat up when exposed to air and stay hot for up to 12 hours). They kept my hands nice and toasty as the temp dipped once the sun went down.

When I got back to the hotel, I took a nice HOT bath – I only have a small ‘shower of death’ in my apartment, so this was a wonderful luxury! And then I watched some television in English – horray! I don’t think I mentioned this before but I only had CNN International and BBC World for the first few days I was in Paris. After that, the channels cut off and the girls at the apartment rental agency can’t seem to find the pass code that will allow me to subscribe to them for the rest of my stay. Grrrrr. So the only “English” television I’ve had for weeks is CNBC, Sky News (London) and Al Jazeera (seriously). All three are “okay” but they are all news! The only respite I have is that I found that on CNBC from 11pm-midnight they show the Tonight Show w/Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien (abbreviated versions with no commercials) – a day late of course, but it’s all I’ve got, so I’m not complaining! Someone mentioned going to and watching my shows online (Greys Anatomy, Boston Legal, etc). I thought that was a brilliant idea. But when I tried, it detected that I was accessing the site from a foreign country and brought up a message saying that only viewers in the US could watch episodes on the Web. Grrrrrrr again.

Anyhow, I digress. The hotel in Geneva had 6 whole channels in English and I actually got to watch the Daily Show w/Jon Stewart, the British version of “Dancing With the Stars” (which is oddly called “Strictly Come Dancing”) but has two of the same judges (Len & Bruno) and the British version of The Office. Mindless TV – yeah!!!!

You can probably tell that my first day in Geneva wasn’t that spectacular given that I’ve spent more time talking about McDonalds, television and the hot bath I got to take than anything I saw. To be honest, I just wasn’t that impressed. “Old Town” didn’t seem that old and frankly lacked the charm of Paris. To me, the city is very commercialized. Overall it just lacked that certain “je ne sais quoi”. I guess I'm turning into a Paris snob - ha!

Click here to view all of today's photos (11/15/08)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sneak Peek @ the Photos!

All the photos I've taken so far are now up on my travel photo Web site. Click here to take a look!

The photos aren't captioned yet - sorry, I'll get to that soon. But for now, I just wanted to get caught up and get all the photos posted.

Currently the photos are arranged by day (i.e. all the photos I took on any given day since I've been here), but I also plan to arrange them by category (neighborhoods, buildings, etc.) as time allows - so check back!

p.s. Until I get them captioned, if there is anything you are really interesting in knowing more about, drop me an email and I'll fill you in on what you are looking at!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Eiffel Tower @ Night

Tres Magnifique!

I headed over to the Tour Eiffel late this afternoon, right at sunset and was thrilled to find a fairly short line, so up I went! It's been a few years since I've been up to the top at night. I forgot just how beautiful it is to see the city as dusk turns into night and all the monuments start to light up!

No matter how many times I see the "light show" that happens every hour when the tower twinkles for 10 minutes, I'm still mesmerized. When the Tour Eiffel isn't twinkling, it's shaded in blue with a huge illuminated EU symbol on the front, which is very cool. This is to mark the fact that France currently has the rotating reigns of the European Union.

Lots of great photos to share... again though, I have to say "coming soon." But I do have a special treat right to make up for it. How about some video?!?! Enjoy.....

Click here to view all of today's photos (11/12/08)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Montmartre & Sacré-Coeur

Today was such a nice day. Since there wasn't any school, I decided to spend the day wandering around the area called Montmartre, which is known as the artists quarter and is where you find the beautiful Sacré-Coeur (which means "Sacred Heart" in French).

From the steps of the Sacre-Coeur you have an amazing view over the city of Paris. And on weekends (and holidays like today) hundreds of people gather and sit on the steps listening to street musicians and performers who entertain the crowd (see Video Clips at the end of this post).

In the winding back streets behind Sacré-Coeur you will find dozens of cafes and shops. But most notably you'll discover many artists displaying their works for sale in the place du Tertre. Wandering around the square are even more artists carrying sketchbooks offering to do portraits of tourists as they wait.

I never had my portrait done in Paris before. But since everything about this trip is different than all the other trips before it, I decided to have one done. I found an artist that felt right - his name was Theodore. He was an older gentleman and what appealed to me about his offer was he said that when he was done, if I wasn't satisfied, I didn't have to buy it. Sounded like a fair deal.

Theodore was a very interesting character. Originally from Romania, he had spent a little time years ago in the US. He spoke quite good English and took his time doing my portrait. I saw other artists around me do 2-3 in the time that Theodore worked on mine. I really appreciated how much he cared about doing quality work. And while I'm never happy about how I look, I have to say the portrait came out really nice - I'm so glad I had it done! It's something I'll always have to remind me of the month I lived in Paris. Anyone who has the skill to capture the likeness of someone on paper, has my deepest admiration. So what do you think, does it look like me?

Click here to view all of today's photos (11/11/08)

Monday, November 10, 2008

My 1st Day of Class @ the Alliance Française

Today was my first day of class at the Alliance Française! There are a total of 13 students in the class (including me). And as expected (and hoped for) it’s like a little mini-United Nations. Here’s the breakdown of where everyone is from:

United States........... 4 (Michael, Phil, Warren & me)
Iran.................... 1 (Elham)
Saudi Arabia............ 1 (Almanouf)
Finland................. 1 (Piritta)
Italy....................1 (Vincenzo)
Spain....................1 (Ignacio)
Australia................2 (Teresa, Steve)
Japan....................1 (Suich)
Vietnam..................1 (Phoung)

(In case you are wondering how I know this... part of today's lesson was introducing yourself and saying what nationality you are and what language(s) you speak - and doing it all in French of course.)

5 are girls (Elham, Amanouf, Piritta, Teresa & me); the other 8 are guys.

Age range is early 20s to late 60s (guessing). Three of the people are in their 60s, a couple in their 30s and the majority in their 20s.

A few stories to share about the classmates already...

Warren is in his mid-60s and is from rural Illinois. He works for the state government and has lots of vacation time. Like me, he loves Paris (has been here 10+ times) and decided this time around (again, like me) that he should finally attempt to really learn French. He said people at work refer to him as the “Paris guy” since he comes here every year and that he jokes with everyone that he “winters in Paris” since he usually comes around Christmas time. He’s here for 3 weeks renting an apartment in the area of the Bastille.

Teresa is also in her mid-60s. She is from Melbourne, Australia. She's in France for a year! Not sure what she does... She ‘has’ an apartment in Paris, but said she’s splitting her time between Paris and the south of France close to St. Tropez where she is staying in a house that a friend is ‘lending her’ for the year! (Geez, wish I had a friend like that!)

Steve is the other Aussie. He looks like he is in his mid-20s and is from the Brisbane area. He’s in med school and is on break for a few months (I think its summer there now). After class we were on the same Metro train for a few stops and he told me that he’s spending 5 weeks in Paris, a few weeks traveling around Europe, then finishing back up in Paris for Christmas and New Year’s. He’s renting an apartment over by Notre Dame. (And before the comments begin from the peanut gallery... he’s in his mid-20s people!)

As you can tell, I sort of gravitated towards the English speaking people (US & Australia) during breaks and after class today. But I’ll chat up the others (most of whom speak at least some English) and get their stories over the next couple weeks.

As for class itself, I guess it’s good I’m in the ‘absolute beginner’ class. It was a review – today – but I think after maybe one more day it will be all new. It’s really amazing the difference between our educational systems. We covered as much today in 4 hours as a class in the US would in 4 weeks. And their definition of an ‘absolute beginner’ is someone who already knows the basics. For example, when we talked numbers today, it was just given that we all knew like 1-60 and the teacher started from there up!

No English is allowed in class or any other language for that matter, other than French. None. (That’s where the ‘knowing the basics’ comes in. If you didn’t, you would be SO lost!) I like it so far. It wasn’t too taxing today - i.e. I don’t have a headache ;-) Ask me again at the end of Week 1!

So no school tomorrow – it’s a national holiday and school (and EVERYTHING else in France) is closed. Seriously. I was here one other time with Bryan and we only had one day here and we didn't realize it was a national holiday. We joked how “France was closed” for the day because absolutely nothing was open – we couldn’t even find a bathroom – ha! Not sure what I’ll do – I considered going to Belgium (seriously - it's only an hour away by TGV), but opted instead to use those funds to book a trip to Geneva, Switzerland for this coming weekend instead (more on that later). So I guess tomorrow I’ll just wander around taking photos.

Ok, well that’s the scoop on school. I came back to the apartment after class and ate lunch while I wrote this (a nice sandwich I made on a fresh baguette I picked up at the market on the way home). But now, it's time to go out and do some more exploring :-)

p.s. For those of you who are wondering.... I was NOT late to class this morning :-) However, I do admit that I arrived at EXACTLY 9am. Need to try and not cut it so close from now on - he,he!

Click here to view all of today's photos (11/10/08)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Word About Skype


If you have a microphone or webcam (or preferably both), you HAVE to download Skype and try it out!

Click here to learn more about Skype and to download the free software!

Basically the software enables you to use your computer as a phone and talk to other people (that's where the microphone comes in) AND see them (if you/they have a webcam) - completely free, no matter where in the world they are!

I am using it like crazy! I talked with Sherri the other night for an hour (we both had webcams so we could see each other). I talked with Jeff as well (he doesn't have a webcam so I could just hear him, but he could see me). And tonight I talked with Jessica (with webcams on both ends). It only took her 5 minutes to download the software and get started!

Skype is awesome and totally free from computer to computer over a broadband internet connection!

And another cool thing about it is that for only 2 cents a minute, you can use it to call regular telephone land lines or mobile numbers. So for instance, my Mom doesn't have a webcam or microphone on her computer, but I still used Skype and my computer to call her house the other night and we talked for 20 minutes and it only cost me 60 cents! And I called my nieces tonight and talked to them too. Plus, it's a cheap way for me to call and check my home/cell voicemail while I'm away - only 2 cents a minute! Much cheaper than the cell phone I have at 18 euro cents a minute.

It's kind of weird talking "to" the computer, but you get used to it. The best experience is when both people have webcams. I move my computer around and show people the apartment! And seeing the person you are talking to makes you feel like they are right there!

Ok, enough of the Skype advertisement. I just HAD to mention how incredibly awesome it is, and if you haven't tried it yet, you should. It's FREE!!!!!!!!!!!

p.s. If you decide to try it, email me and I'll tell you my Skype name so you can see me online and Skype me. I don't want to post it for fear of crank Skypers ;-)

Hope to Skype you soon!

So About My Classes at the Alliance Française...

Many of you have been asking about my French classes, so here's the scoop...

When I went to get my student ID and finalize my registration last week, I had to take a placement test. I thought, "No problem" - I can't speak French, but I know a lot of bits and pieces - numbers, phrases, directions, introductions, etc. And I can understand a lot. Heck, I get by just fine in Paris. So I thought...

Let's just say that the intake lady at the Alliance Française had a different opinion of my self-assessment :-( In fact, after briefly 'talking with me' in French, she said I didn't have to take the placement exam (which by the way I looked at and it had nothing basic on it - it was all essay questions and reading comprehension!) and that I should start in the "absolute beginners" class. Grrrr.......

This was annoying for three reasons: 1) "absolute beginner" classes only start on certain Mondays, and of course last Monday was not one of them; 2) the actual fact that I'm NOT an absolute beginner! I bought my books and I know most of what will be covered the first week; 3) I now will only be able to take classes for 2 weeks instead of 3.


But since I didn't know the words to argue with the lady in French...

Things happen for a reason though and it will all work out for the best. I've put this last week to good use, got totally settled into the apartment and into a routine and have seen and done quite a lot. And in the end, I will end up with more instruction anyhow - here's how:

The original plan was to take the 'light' course which was 9-12, Mon/Tues/Thurs (so 9 hours a week) - for 3 weeks - for a total of 27 hours of instruction while I was here.

But with the plan 'nouveau' I am going to take the 'intensive' course which is 9-1, Mon-Fri (so 20 hours a week - more than dbl the other one) - for a total of 40 hours of instruction while I am here.

My brain may explode, but I just felt like I needed to get as much out of the school as I could while I have the benefit of being here to practice. Time will tell whether or not this was a good decision...

So that's the scoop on school. My intensive classes start on Monday. I have my books. I have my student ID. I know where my classroom is and how to get to the school on the metro.

Since I am going to be in the 'absolute beginners' class, I'm really not that worried. The first few days at least should be review and mostly me working on pronunciation. The hardest thing for me likely isn't going to be the French - it will be having to getting up at 7am everyday Mon-Fri for the next two weeks. Très horrible!

And they say I don't know French ;-)

Click here to view all of today's photos (11/09/08)