Friday, October 31, 2008

Nice and credit cards and the Promenade

Tuesday, September 9

We drove into Nice to get the lay of the land. In the backs of our minds was Pat and Tony’s upcoming arrival on Thursday evening and we wanted to be sure we had some activity plans in mind for their visit. We learned a lot about what we didn’t want to do while they were with us.

We took the A8 into Nice and found ourselves getting off the highway ‘way north of where we wanted to be (we learned later in our stay that taking the Moyenne Corniche –that 6007 road that runs through Cap d’Ail – would have been the right way to get to Nice – beautiful Mediterranean to our left as one drives on the smaller road). We learned a lot about how French traffic signs are placed – their idea of pointing arrows is different from ours – and Jim refined his city driving skills among the French. We said many times throughout our trip that we were glad there was a big Europcar sticker on the back window of the car. Tourist!

We followed signs as best we could until we finally found ourselves at the coastline in Nice. Took us about an hour to figure it out. We were already thinking about how hard it was going to be to get out of Nice!

We got something to eat after parking the car. Sidewalk café serving pizza and sandwiches. When we paid, the waitress brought a small credit card machine to the table. We thought this was very interesting as we’d never seen anything like it before. Turns out, it’s a common practice in Europe – it keeps the credit card within eyesight of the owner of the card. Apparently, there’s a lot of credit card # cloning going on and this practice prevents that from happening. The screen on the machine tells the server if a PIN or a signature is required. While we have a PIN associated with our credit card, we regard that as being for cash advances from an ATM – and never remember what it is. Pat and Tony explained the whole credit card machine brought to the table thing to us and they use a PIN. And told us it’s been this way for years. Tony and Pat are very seasoned travelers and went to Australia earlier this year. They stopped in Thailand for a few days and Tony told of a night they got dinner at a place where the waitress disappeared into a huge crowd with their credit card and Tony immediately jumped up and followed her to where she was running the card through a machine. She wasn’t doing anything underhanded, but Tony couldn’t be sure, so he followed her. Wow. How naïve do we continue to be in the good old US of A? Maybe I should limit that comment to moi, but maybe not.

The seaside in Nice is paved with something called the Promenade des Anglaises and is quite beautiful. We wondered aloud to each other if the people who work and live along this area have become so inured to the view that they don’t marvel at it like we were doing. I noticed that most women in the area were wearing skirts and dresses. And almost no one was wearing shorts. Or athletic shoes, as I was wearing.

The beaches in this area are what are called pebble beaches, though the rocks looked more like stones. Looked very uncomfortable, but many people were lying on towels and mats while they sunned. Several people were going to the beach at lunchtime, in their office clothes, with rolled up mats in hand to sun on the beach. And the only places open from Noon to 2pm, for the most part, are restaurants.

We took lots of photos throughout our trip, many of which can be seen at, so go take a gander. Our grandson Dylan can also be seen at this site!

Reading: I finished Laura Lipmann’s To the Power of Three and started in on Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn (sequel to Case Histories) – both very good.

Italy tomorrow!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Groceries in Monaco and TV in French

Monday, September 8

Big event for the day was grocery shopping in Monaco. The tall woman at the front desk of the resort put an X on our map and drew out the route for us – certainly seemed simple enough. And we set off.

Jim and I have found, in our 20-plus years together, that we will always have a fight in the car when we are approaching an unfamiliar area. Knowing it doesn’t prevent it from happening. And finding the supermarket in Monaco was no exception. Suffice it to say that (as usual) he was making (what I thought were) stupid decisions about where to turn and I was making (to my way of thinking very helpful) suggestions (to his way of thinking criticisms) about what to do next to get back on track. By the time we parked the car underground and got back up to the surface to enter the shopping arcade that included the super market, we actually had to split up to go cool off. And we did. And it was all fine after that.

We watched while several people got shopping carts from a locked chain. They appeared to be putting a coin into a slot in order to release a cart. We had to pay to rent a shopping cart?? We approached the line of chained carts and saw that the place to put the coin was attached to each cart. The slot seemed to accommodate 50 cent, 1 Euro and 2 Euro coins. Hmmmm. A puzzle. We finally took the plunge and put a coin into the slot – where it didn’t disappear into the container but sat there, half poking out of the slot. We were able to unlock the cart and use it. Turns out that the money was released back to you after you locked the cart back up. Incentive to return the cart! If you had too many groceries to return to your car without the cart, there was another cart lockup in the garage! They were thinking of everything!

We also learned that you have to bring your own shopping bags to the grocery store. No choice between paper and plastic – no bags if you didn’t bring your own! Or purchase bags at the store itself, which is what we ended up doing. Sarah and I now each have very chic reusable shopping bags from Monaco! Was food more expensive? Yes and no. The produce seemed very reasonably priced – a package of 3 mixed color peppers was 2 Euros, which was about $3, usually costs us almost $5 in the states. Other stuff? Hard to remember but we spent 100 Euros, which included 4 coffee cups (I haven’t yet mentioned that the apartment had 2 sets of 4 coffee cups that were small and smaller), toilet paper, and other stuff we don’t normally include in our weekly shopping.

After getting back to the apartment and putting away the groceries, we ended the day eating in, reading, and playing games – we had brought cards, dice for Greedy, and a travel version of Rumikub.

A word about our television in the apartment. Jim and I love to watch TV and while there was TV in the apartment, all the channels were French except for one channel in English that was BBC World. So, it was CSI in dubbed French or news in English. CSI in French loses any charm after about 2 minutes, so we learned about the financial meltdown in the US from the BBC. And I was foolish enough to look at the balance in my 401k when we got back. Ugh.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Renting a car and other practicalities

Sunday, September 7

After seeing the lay of the land, we realized that we could not do without a car for the entire two weeks. We found out from the front desk how to get to the airport by bus and trekked up the hill to the 6007 road to find the bus stop and wait for the bus. The bus we were waiting for never came, but another bus stopped at the red light and we ran up to ask where it was going – the airport! The driver looked at us dubiously since we had no luggage, but we assured him we wanted to go to the airport. It cost us €33 for two fares – this was an express right to the airport. Sorry to keep listing the prices, but we kept being astounded at how expensive everything was. Anyway, it was nice to be on an express, in comfortable air conditioning, on our way to rent a car that we could, hopefully, afford.

And we did. After finding out, once again, that there were only prestige cars at one company (€2000 for the two weeks) we found that Europcar had affordable Toyotas and VWs for us. Whew. We ended up with a Yaris that took good care of us thru our trip.

While we were at the airport, I found a kiosk with a computer and internet connection, so decided to send a couple of emails. Our cell phone didn’t have service and I wanted to be in touch with Ehren and Sarah, and also our friends Pat and Tony who were coming for a visit from England on the middle weekend of our trip. The French don’t use the QWERTY keyboard! My emails (I should have kept copies) were full of typos, abbreviations, all lower case, and very short!

Then we had the adventure of getting back to Cap d’Ail from the Nice airport, which actually was no big deal. Jim learned how to drive like a Frenchman very quickly! When we got back, we decided to see what was at the bottom of the hill where our resort was perched – we found the town of Cap d’Ail and a road to Monaco. We had learned that the big supermarket in the area was in Monaco and not open on Sunday. We did a trial run (what a traffic mess in Monaco!) and then went back to the resort. Exhausted. The resort had a snack bar and we availed ourselves of their offerings for a late lunch/early dinner. The snack bar, also open air, overlooked the swimming pool, which is an “infinity” pool – it looks like it drops off into nothing at the far edge, melting right into the sky. Very attractive effect. And a very nice pool. Very refreshing. And the snack bar turned out to be quite sufficient for our needs J

The Towel Saga

One of the things we didn’t know about the “residence” concept in Europe is that guests are expected to bring/supply a lot of their own things – toilet paper, soap, towels. After we fought with the front desk about getting enough towels for ourselves (and in anticipation of our guests!) we saw that other guests, at the swimming pool at least, had brought their own beach towels. Picture this: I am at the front desk asking for eight towel sets – one set equals a thin bath-size towel and a hand towel. My calculations are: two towel sets each for Jim and me – 2 bath towels each – one for bathing and one for swimming and then two more towel sets each for Pat and Tony for the same purpose. The extra hand towels would be used for bath mat, tea towel, hand towel for the bathroom with the toilet, etc. The woman staffing the desk that day looks at me like I’m a nut – she says “The maximum occupancy of your apartment is 5 people; I can’t give you 8 sets of towels.” I explained my calculations to her and she said that we were to use the same towel for bathing and for swimming. I’m sure I looked horrified. We ended up compromising – I took 4 towel sets and Jim and I ended up using all of them before Pat and Tony came. I then got 4 more sets before they arrived, and we made do. We kept making do!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

This is just Day 2??

Saturday, 9/6

We arrived in London around 8:30 local time and changed planes – we also changed airports. We collected our bags at Gatwick and found the place to buy the bus ticket to Heathrow. The bus trip was about 45 minutes and then we had about a 90 minute or so wait at Heathrow for the next leg of the flight.

I was again in the middle on the plane from London to Nice. It was a smaller plane, full flight, and the man on the other side of me from Jim was a pleasant Englishman on his way to Monaco for his company’s annual meeting. There were many others from his company on the same flight. He works for the British arm of Marsh McLennan. He’s been making this same trip for 20 years. Poor guy.

BTW, presidential candidate John McCain recently announced Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, as his VP running mate. I wish I could remember the exact thing one of the Brits on the plane said, but the gist of it was that the Americans are up to craziness again.

We arrived in Nice about 2:30pm local time. It was warm in my knit pants (comfy on the plane, but …) It was also a long trudge from the jetway to the luggage claim. Immigration was easy, getting baggage was easy, and then came the decision about how to get to the resort. We had decided against making car rental arrangements in the US – one of our several “we think we know better” decisions. We had discussed trying to do a lot of things via local train and bus service, renting a car only for the time that our friends Pat and Tony would be joining us from England for a few days. We stopped at one of the car rental desks and were told that the only cars currently available were “prestige” cars – we figured (rightly, it turned out) that this meant “expensive, and certainly beyond your puny means” and so we didn’t pursue it much more at that point. We also needed some cash – we had come only with US dollars in our pockets, which NO ONE in Europe would be interested in – ah, Mexico! Anyway, the CashPoint machine in Terminal 1 was out of service – “diseased” is how the charming woman at the Info desk put it. The same woman made a quick call to Terminal 2 to see if the cash machine there was working, and it was. So off we went to the shuttle from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2, dragging our luggage with us.

At Terminal 2, we found the ATM and were presented with many cash withdrawal options – there might have even been a 1000 Euro (€) option. I picked €500 and was rejected. I calmly reinserted my card, picked €400 and that was fine. Whew. OK! Now, off to find a taxi. However, one more try – car rental prices? There were more rental company desks at Terminal 2, but all of them were busy. We figured we’d find a rental car in Cap d’Ail. Again, we thought we knew everything.

As we were leaving the terminal, I stopped again at the Info desk and asked about the protocol for tipping taxi drivers – is it done? The woman behind the desk politely said “It’s up to you.” I pressed her – “What’s the custom?” – she conferred with her colleague and they both indicated that taxis in Nice are so expensive that it was probably best not to bother. We all laughed and went on our way. We were so in for it.

We dragged our luggage out to the curb and looked for a taxi stand. I saw a woman getting something out of a car and behind her was a man who looked very much like a taxi driver. I waved at him and called “Taxi?” He pointed at the woman – at first, I thought he was telling me he was waiting for her, a passenger ahead of us, but it turned out she was the next taxi drive in line. She really looked like a regular citizen! Anyway, I gave her an apologetic look and she didn’t seem to mind.

She was a very attractive, tanned blonde woman who didn’t speak much English. I showed her the address for where we needed to go – P.V. Residence Costa Plana, Cap d’Ail – she seemed to have no problem with it, she stowed our luggage, and off we went.

I tried to speak some French to her as we drove, but I guess my accent isn’t as good as I’d like to think. She tried some English on us, but that was limited too. The drive was exciting – our first view of the drive between Nice and where we were staying in Cap d’Ail – we were going to be taking the exit for Monaco! The road we were on – the A8, equivalent to a U.S. interstate (with tolls, however) – was far enough north of the Mediterranean that we didn’t see it on the drive.

Something was dangling from the rearview mirror and as it turned my way, I recognized that it was a Hello, Kitty ornament. I said “Hello Kitty” loud enough for our driver to hear and she exclaimed, in a charming French accent, “I love Hello Kitty!” Jim had no idea what was going on.

We took the Monaco exit from the A8, went through a long tunnel and then wended our way on the 6007 road into Cap d’Ail. What hadn’t been apparent in our looking at maps back home started to become very clear to us – this part of the world rises steeply above the Mediterranean and everybody who lives within a few hundred meters of the sea can see the sea! As the taxi driver turned off the 6007 and onto the road called Rue General Charles DeGaulle we began a (relatively) steep descent parallel to the sea. Soon after, we were turning into the driveway for our resort and began a very steep ascent up the drive. There was a sharp switchback type of turn and suddenly we were at the gate to a parking garage underneath a building. This wasn’t looking like any resort we’d been to before.

The road, the building, the greenery were all packed closely together. The driveway was steep, turned sharply – and was very narrow. I didn’t notice it at this point, but later noted that the steep side of the hill we were on was held back by chicken wire that stretched up to the top of the slope. A rockslide prevention measure!

The taxi driver parked (with that emergency brake set very strongly, we hoped!), went to an intercom, and said something that we didn’t hear or understand. The gate started to slowly move aside and we started to get our bags out of the car. The gate slowly started to close. The driver went back to the intercom, said more stuff, and then told us that we just needed to go into the garage on foot, with our bags, and make our way to reception by way of the elevator around the corner. By this time, our bags were out of the trunk and I had my wallet out, ready to pay her. She said “Seventy five” and in a daze I took out the money out and handed it to her, my foggy head thinking all the time, “What is that? A hundred dollars? A hundred fifty dollars? What kind of cab ride was that?!” No tip, needless to say.

She took the money, wished us well, and went on her way (I didn’t watch her, so I can only imagine that she had to back her large-ish car all the way down the driveway, at least until that switchback which might have given her enough room to turn around.

Jim and I dragged our suitcases to the elevator and might have even started thinking “We’re almost there!” We rode the small elevator up 2 levels and stepped out onto a wooden deck surface, a large swimming pool to our left, behind a fence, and an open air reception desk ahead of us.

We checked in, got our keys, and were informed that Elevator #1 wasn’t working. They handed us a map to the grounds and highlighted our room, #114. Here’s what we found out: the map made no sense and got us lost; we could never find Elevator #2 to even give it a try; our room was up about 5 flights of stairs; every room in the place had a view of the Mediterranean. This last was the only saving grace for this shabby room they put us in. We were too tired to go back to the desk to express our disappointment about the room and to request another room – for all we knew, this was as good as it got. The “room” was really a small one-bedroom apartment with a small kitchen area (no oven, but 4 burners and an oversized toaster oven). The bedroom was only slightly larger than the double bed that occupied the center. There were two daybeds in the living room, doing duty as couches and sleeping platforms.

Anyone who had never been to the various resorts we’ve been to in Mexico and Aruba, and who’d never been to our home resort in Key West, would probably have found this place in Cap d’Ail to be perfectly acceptable. But it struck us as claustrophobic and very shabby. Two weeks in this place?? It was also very warm and humid the day we arrived, and there was no air conditioning (poor Joan!) The breezes from the Med, plus the eventual weather change that occurred in our second week, ended up making it bearable and eventually quite nice, but we didn’t know that was in store as we stood there, looked around us, and (Joan) tried to keep a stiff upper lip.

We dismissed the bedroom as a room to use and slept for the 2 weeks on the day beds. The wall of the apartment that faced the sea was comprised completely of sliding glass doors. We kept them all open for the entire 2 weeks. The doors opened onto a terrace with table and chairs; this was also the way into the apartment so we were able to lock the place up at the landing while keeping the sliding glass doors open even while we were away during the day. (There are virtually no bugs, in case you’re wondering)

Tired of the whining? OK! I’m done. Wait - one more thing – the bathroom comprised two rooms – one with the toilet and a sink and the other with a bathtub and a sink. The bathtub had a shower hose attachment, but no shower curtain or door. Bathing was an adventure; we made it work.

Warning: Probably too much detail! Feel free to skim!

Friday, 9/5

We both worked ½ day; I went into the office and Jim worked from home. We had a 6:35pm flight out of Atlanta and I was anxious not to be late, so we left home at 2:45, kissing Sarah and Dylan goodbye in the driveway. Ehren came with us so he could drive the car back home. Having checked in online via, we only had to drop our bags at the desk, which we accomplished by 4pm. Now, more than 2 hours to kill!

We got a bite to eat at the food court and then found our gate. I had gotten us seats in an exit row which would give us more leg room than usual, but it proved to be one of the most uncomfortable flights of all time for me. It was a British Airways 777 and we were in cattle car class (euphemistically called “World Traveller” by BA) and although we were at a bulkhead, it was several feet in front of us. This meant no seat (or bulkhead) pockets into which to slip our paperbacks or sudoku books (or plastic wrapped sleep mask/socks/toothbrush/toothpaste/blanket kit issued to each of us, which in my case ended up on the floor behind my feet). So I’m sure there are many, many more inconvenient things in life than this flight was, but I’m hard pressed to remember any of them.

Several feet in front of where we sat was the flight attendant’s jumpseat, affixed to the aforementioned bulkhead. And there was also what seemed to be the only toilet on the plane next to our seats – a very high traffic area indeed – with a very loud flusher. It went off every couple of minutes, all thru the night. I imagine human waste ejecting at rocket speed over the Atlantic. Not to mention parts of South Carolina. Bermuda. Ireland.

I’ve been on flights where those of us in cattle car class were asked to use the toilets in our own cabins. But I remember seeing, on this BA flight, plenty of people from the class ahead of us – World Traveller Plus – coming back thru the curtain to use our toilet. I was a bit miffed. They had wider, leather seats. Why not their own toilet?

I got the middle seat for this flight over. I sat between Jim and a very nice British fellow named Richard, who is now an American citizen and has been living in Atlanta for many years. He was on his way to England to see family and then join up with his partner for a drive around the Lake District, and then they were going to take the Queen Mary back to the US. He might have talked to me the whole way to London, but I was uncomfortable turning to listen to him, I wanted to read, and I was just uncomfortable in general, squashed between the two guys. So I discouraged him from talking by putting my nose in my book.

The movie selection (we each had our own TV screen – those with seats in front of them had back of the seat screens; we had these screens attached to the armrests that swung up to view or down out of the way) sounded quite good, but I didn’t understand that all the movies and TV programming started at the same time and then ended when it had all shown one time. I thought it was going to be “on demand” (what an idiot I am) and when I finally turned on my TV, all the movies were more than half over. I saw the end of Recount, the end of the Helen Hunt movie The She Found Me, and most of episodes of Friends and Frasier. Yay. Because there was no under-the-seat-in-front-of-me storage, my carryon was in an “overhead locker” and a big pain the butt to try to get to. I pouted for much of the flight. And tried to read. Or sleep. Not a lot of success at either.

What we did on our summer vacation

A few years ago, when Jim was pursuing his degree at Central CT State Univ, he took a French class. His instructor raved a lot about the south of France and Jim decided he'd like to go someday. So, we started planning. And in September 2008 we went. We flew to Nice and stayed for two weeks, in a timeshare exchange, in Cap d'Ail, near Monaco. It was a weird and wonderful trip and for the first time ever, I kept a relatively detailed journal of the trip. What follows is a transcipt - heavily embellished - of that journal.