Saturday, September 25, 2010

Holiday Musings - Part 1

It's been a hectic week back in Singapore, but I think a blog entry will help keep some of the nostalgia in check.

For the record, I miss France. Tremendously.
And yes, it is indeed the best overseas trip I have ever had.

Chats with friends who've been there previously revealed experiences that ranged from unpleasant to downright terrifying. The general consensus being that the French are typically unfriendly, kinda snooty, and occasionally prone to racially-motivated acts of aggression.

These same friends were understandably surprised by my overwhelmingly positive accounts. As per my usual habit, I joined a tour group comprising travellers from all over the world. We visited the French countryside for 2 weeks via coach, with a local tour director handling our travel arrangements, but were regularly left on our own to explore the area separately.
Thereafter, my mom and I extended our stay in Paris for another 6 days.

As such, we had ample opportunity to interact with the locals and observe them in their natural habitats, so to speak.

Of course, I'm familiar with this style of touring, having taken at least 1-2 overseas trips every year for the past decade, often with the same company, or flying solo with mum +/- dad in tow. I would've opted for a completely independent free-and-easy format, if not for the language barrier. ( Sadly, while I was offered the chance to study a 3rd language in secondary school - I was interested in French - my parents eventually decided not to enrol me in classes. )

So why do I say this is the best trip ever? Not because of the scenery ( New Zealand and Bavaria top my personal list for now ), and not because of the fun factor ( NZ, Tokyo, Las Vegas and Manhattan take the cake ).

It's hard to pinpoint one particular reason, so I'll mention a few:

1) I find France's rich history and culture endlessly fascinating.

2) The French language is music to my ears. It sounds good even when you curse. :)

3) Paris is now my favourite city, toppling Manhattan from the top spot.

4) I was lucky enough to meet many friendly and kind locals everywhere I went. Not just in shops / restaurants / hotels, but on the street as well. Assistance was rendered when requested - despite the language issue - with a few even going out of their way to help us out, and always with a big smile.

5) Our tour director, F, was beyond excellent. Took fabulous care of us on a daily basis, and taught us tonnes about French idiosyncracies. His commentaries were insightul and peppered with hilarious anecdotes. He may not be considered good-looking, but his charm more than makes up for it. Really like him. A lot.

6) The tour group was, as always, an eclectic bunch. Lots of Australians and Canadians this time round, and surprisingly, zero Americans. A first! Met a fellow doctor - another first! A few of our meals together practically turned into Saturday Night Live skits, causing me to laugh so hard I teared up and almost choked on my drink. Great memories. :)

7) Lots of foodie adventures. Croque monsieur, escargots, poulet / canard / poisson / St-Jacques cooked to perfection ( can't describe them exactly 'cos most of the menus were in French ). Even had a lunch where I cooked my own fish on a hot stone. And a dinner in Beaune prepared by a Japanese chef, consisting of pre-appetizers and pre-desserts that stimulated the taste buds beautifully ( fish- and beef-flavoured mousse, anyone? ), with a wagyu beef main course which I will sigh about forever.
Let's not forget a lunch in Nice, just steps away from the Grimaldi palace, featuring an escalope of some kind ( indecipherable menu yet again ) that melts in your mouth, drenched in the most heavenly cream sauce.
Can't imagine what my cholesterol level is like right now. Hopefully my liver is working properly.

8) All the beautiful French people. Naturally, those in Paris are usually dressed to the nines while those in the countryside are more casual. But there's no denying their drop-dead gorgeous looks. I used to drool over the Italians, but the French are 10 times better.
( I stare at the locals a lot when I travel, so trust me on this. :))

What I enjoyed most was the eye candy at restaurants, hotels and shops. The service industry appears to be dominated by men ( excluding women's boutiques, that is ), and a lot of these 20- and 30-something-year-olds look like models. Tall, slim or athletically built, perfect teeth, perfect hair, flawless manners, oodles ( and I mean ooooooodles ) of charm.

Compared to all the other countries I've visited, the French definitely take service very seriously, practically elevating it to an art form. At restaurants, if you stop to read the menus posted on the notice board outside, someone will usually come up to you to offer you the actual thing, invite you to sit down, or hover in case you have a question ( usually with a welcoming smile or greeting ).
At hotels, aside from opening doors, the bellhop follows you right into the lobby, offering help with your packages even though you don't ask for it.
At one renowned tea shop, the sales staff ( I'd just like to mention that I had the best time talking to him 'cos he is so freaking, unbelievably handsome :)), followed me around as I selected flavours, arranging the boxes on a counter to keep track of my purchases, opening containers for me to smell the tea leaves, then giving me loads of extra bags to present as gifts to my friends / relatives.
At a famous perfume shop in Nice, a lady also followed us from counter to counter, even though we didn't request her help. She took the trouble to describe all the fragrances in a bath soap set we were inspecting, and we ended up buying 5 of them.

9) Lots of memorable places / activities.
More to follow in a later post, but here's a compressed list.

#1: the Louvre, which was just a 3-minute walk from our hotel. Crowded and a nightmare to navigate ( I got lost twice even with a map in my hand, so don't be a hero, just keep asking the staff seated in the various rooms for directions ), so booking a guided tour proved the right decision. ( Our guide for the day, V, is a walking encyclopaedia, has a delicious sense of humour and is clearly gay. Loved him to bits. :))
We covered a few of the must-sees ( Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa, to name two ), before being left to our own devices.
I made a direct beeline for the sculpture galleries, which are AWESOME. I thought the one at the Met in NYC was amazing, but this is way more impressive. I could've stayed there all day, but started to get a headache while mum's energy level began to wane, so we left around mid-afternoon.
Will definitely return the next time I'm in Paris.

#2: a Segway ride around the city.
If you're going to ride a Segway, Paris is the place to do it!
But a word of caution: if you haven't ridden one before, it can be very VERY dangerous.
Evidence: my mom fell off and dropped out of the tour, and I lost my balance just before the tour ended, crashing into a barrier and giving myself a humongous bruise on the leg. ( At least nothing happened during the tour itself, which lasted 4 hours. Great value for money! )
The contraption is quite easy to manoeuvre, especially if you know how to ride a bicycle ( balancing ability is key ), but the tour guides for this company are mostly young guys in their 20s, and they go extremely fast on the narrow sidewalks. Add the heavy foot traffic, numerous crossings and uneven ground, and you've got disasters waiting to happen.
Doesn't help that everyone has to sign indemnity forms before the tour starts.

#3: Giverny, aka Claude Monet's place of residence.
About an hour's drive from Paris, quaint and, IMHO, utterly enchanting.
I booked this tour purely out of curiosity ( the water lily pond featured in his famous painting is located here ), but found myself falling in love with the place.
Will of course upload photos at a later date. The water lilies weren't blooming when we visited, so we concentrated on the main garden just outside Monet's house.
It isn't large, and in fact looks totally chaotic, with an unkempt appearance. But somehow, it actually works. Lots of exotic, strange-looking blooms, in a riot of bright colours. There're many paths for you to stroll along, and every one offers something new to gawk at.
The house itself is, again, quite small. The paintings are copies - originals were moved to museums ages ago - but make sure you enter the studio, which is clearly the largest room in the building, and arranged to match a photograph taken many years ago.
The place has a very peaceful, happy vibe. I felt the same way when I visited Winston Churchill's Chartwell residence 15 years ago.

Also stopped for lunch at a lovely 200-year-old water mill / restaurant. The dessert was a slice of apple pie with a sauce that is to die for. Spent 15 minutes in the beautiful garden, snapping pictures and gazing at a bunch of cows soaking in the river. There was just... something about that scene. Pastoral is the best way to describe it. I honestly could have stood there looking at those cows for hours.

10) The French's appreciation of Asian women.

As the tour progressed, I began to realize that all that friendliness wasn't a case of simply good manners or maintaining service quality.
Perhaps we're considered a little exotic - although this seems a tad impossible in tourist hotspots like Nice and Monaco, but that's where I kept getting stared at. Most flattering, I must say. :)
A few of them asked whether I'm Japanese, and my penpal E, who plays for the other team ( if you know what I mean ), kept beaming at me appreciatively from across the table during our 3-hour chat, even though it would've made more sense if I'd been a guy.
Ahhh, European charm at its best. :)

Shall conclude the post here for the time being. There's still lots more to discuss, but that will have to wait till my medical cover duties at the F1 race are completed.
Just found out that my location is in close proximity to the stage where Adam Lambert will be performing. Hope I get to see him in person! :D

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quick Update From Paris

aka Bliss Part 27. :)

It's Day 18 of my vacation, and just returned to the City of Lights yesterday evening, after concluding a 2-week-long tour of the countryside.

Details from our journey will follow in a later entry. For now, all I can say is that I'm enjoying myself thoroughly, and have been most fortunate to meet many locals who've been nothing short of delightful. Made lots of new friends from the tour itself. Our Tour Director and coach driver have also exceeded expectations, and I was very sad to bid them goodbye.

However, my mom and I now have another week to explore Paris on our own, with a couple of outings to Versailles, Giverny and the Loire Valley lined up as well.

Considering a few horror stories I've heard from various people who visited France in recent years, I was definitely apprehensive about making the trip. Not sure if it's our good fortune, or whether the French have mellowed, but all our experiences thus far have been very pleasant.

The cuisine had its ups and downs, but I blame it on the organized tour group dinners, a few of which were rather disappointing. But when my mom and I went hunting for restaurants on our own, we often struck gold. I already count at least two of our meals - in Beaune and Monaco - among the best I've ever had. There was another one in a small town, but I don't even know the name of the place, and we basically ordered randomly from a French menu.

Perhaps that's part of the appeal of these gastronomic adventures - not really knowing what we're going to get, so when the meal turns out to be great, it makes the whole experience that much better.

Also, let's not forget all the handsome young male waiters who seem to have cornered the restaurant business. Hardly see any waitresses around anywhere, not that I'm complaining. :)

It really is quite amazing how unbelievably good-looking some of these chaps are. At one sidewalk cafe in Nice, there were 4 gorgeous hunks strolling around at the same time, with the best of the lot - a dark-haired version of Ryan Gosling (!) - serving us. And believe it or not, I managed ( though ununtentionally ) to get him very flustered at one point. Don't ask me why, I just sat back and enjoyed the display. :)

And yes, it appears that Asian women are prized by the Frenchmen, both young and old. I guess it helps that I look much younger than my real age, plus the fact that I dress well and smile a lot more when I'm overseas. It's easy when you're not bogged down by stress or fatigue. The weather also agrees with me, as evidenced by a healthy tan and perpetual rosy cheeks. :)

Mum and I are now staying at yet another different hotel in Paris. First one when we arrived in late August was in the Opera Quarter. Second one was yesterday, near the Eiffel Tower. Today's is in the Tuileries district - excellent location, close to many museums and monuments, all within walking distance. And our toiletries are from Bulgari. Yow. :D

The Rue de Rivoli is just a street away. Met E, my penpal from Paris, for afternoon tea at Angelina, and ended up chatting for 3 whole hours, about everything from food to music to family. My mom joined us, of course ( she was NOT going to let me meet a stranger in a foreign country alone ), and can't stop singing E's praises either. The restaurant was packed to the brim, with lots of tourists and a few locals, but definitely a fashionable crowd. I was particularly pleased with a table adjacent to ours, populated by 4 gorgeous young men who fit the jet-setting, playboy mould to a T. I think one of them sat next to mom and I at a Chinese restaurant later during dinner, but with a different chap whom he didn't seem to know that well, based on their conversation. That was interesting. :)

This is what I love about France ( not just Paris ). People-watching has never been one of my favourite pursuits - I prefer to eat and run in Singapore, who the hell cares about the other diners? But the French have helped me learn to relax and appreciate life a lot more. The first few days were a little tough, as we waited up to 30 minutes between courses, and a typical dinner took 2-3 hours to complete. As our trip progressed, time passed more smoothly, and I found myself daydreaming, savouring a beautiful sunset, feeling the cool breeze on my face, and really tasting the food I was eating.

I'm often homesick when away for more than 2 weeks, but currently find myself extremely reluctant to return to Singapore...