This page is meant to collect various bits of advice we would give to someone who wanted to take advantage of what we’ve learned during our travels. It will be a work-in-progress for some time. Nonetheless, please feel free to comment at the bottom even with a minor quibble.
The sections are roughly in order of impact on enjoyment.
The overriding strategy here is to provide for yourself each of the amenities for which one would need to pay a substantial increment over just-good-enough.
1. Salt and pepper.
If you’re what we would call “serious eaters,” you’re often appalled at the pepper provided at even high-end restaurants. If you ask for a pepper mill, out comes the giant three-foot model used to bash credulous customers over the head; of course, it contains the cheapest possible, five-year-old peppercorns, so what do you imagine comes out of it?
This problem is easily solved: carry and place on the table a fine Peugeot pepper mill (Zabar’s, etc.), having loaded it with superior Tellicherry peppercorns from Penzey’s (note that their super-size premium variety do not work: they’re too large to go into the well!).
Once you get the pepper problem solved, you discover that there is, not exactly a salt problem, but a salt opportunity. It’s trivial to load up a tiny jam jar (very high end brunch places) with fleur de sel de Guerande. And you’d be amazed at what it does to a salad or any sort of eggs. And for me, it makes all the difference with the sweet (unsalted) butter one’s given in a good restaurant.
2. A bath towel.
Not much to explain here! You just don’t rely on whereever you’re staying to provide a super-absorbent, very large bath towel of the sort you normally use every day. Well, now you can continue to be spoiled. The only downside is drying the towel after use: we put it on the ledge in the rear of the back seat where it’s in the sun; it dries quickly.
[You don’t need those maps anymore!]
We were pretty excited when we learned that the 3G iPad would be released in the US a week before we left. It was a no-brainer to buy one in any event, but we thought it might come in handy on the trip. Well, it would be hard to exaggerate the usefulness of this device while on the road.
First, the “Maps” application provides a GPS-based directions-to-where-you’re-going service which is just invaluable. This morning during rush-hour, we were stuck in a traffic jam caused by construction and, because we’d been through it before, it was obvious that we would be stuck there for at least a half-hour. We turned around and found (on the iPad) the very local roads around the blockage; we were accompanied by two locals who also knew the way but it was clear that most locals didn’t have a clue.
Second, the web and email whereever you are, via 3G. Keep up with the Times and whatever else you’re used to reading regularly.
Third, iBooks. I’ve downloaded one electronic book so far, “American Original,” a biography of Justice Scalia, which I’m reading for a course I’ll be taking in the fall. It’s a fine ebook platform, much better in my experience than the Kindle.
Fourth, Deb likes to check on the charges we make as they’re posted to our credit card. Of course, it’s useful to transfer money into one’s account so that there is enough on hand to actually pay the credit card bill when the due date comes around.
Finally, we find that it’s much handier to use Google Translate to find the meaning of things that stump us than to use a French-English dictionary. If it’s a gastronomic question, we can get recipes for the dish in a trice.
4. Cut up the Book.
Arthur Frommer taught me this one; he learned it from his readers! Whatever guide you carry (we carry Rick Steves, the heir to Arthur in his approach to European travel, although a bit more up-market), you will only need a tiny portion of it to navigate your current location. Take a very sharp knife and cut the perfect-binding (that’s the glue that holds the pages together) cleanly between chapters. [Arthur made certain that each chapter started on a right-hand page; Steves is not so accommodating.]
You’ll wind up with a sixteenth-of-an-inch slice of the book easily put into pocket or purse. And it will have everything you care about.
5. Ask the Tourist Office.
Although this seems like an obvious suggestion, it’s usually not followed as rigorously as it deserves to be. We count heavily on the information we get at each tourist office along the way, especially the little booklet listing the chambres d’hote in the vicinity. We also count on the tourist office staff for specific information we might need (Where’s the nearest laundromat? Who are the doctors in town? Where can I get this memory card transferred to DVD?).
We also ask about good restaurants but most tourist office staff are instructed not to make recommendations. Our solution: ask instead: “Where would your mother like to be taken for her birthday dinner?” When we get a hesitation (usually with a smile), we point out that we definitely do not want our informant’s opinion, which we know she is not allowed to give, but just that of her mother. It’s remarkable how often this stratagem works (about 70% of the time).
6. Chambres d’hote.
We’ve often used the Bienvenue at Chateaux directory (below) but never made a practice of staying continuously in chambres d’hote. We won’t make that mistake again! As of July 2nd, we’ve stayed in about 30 and would only recommend against two. The best are just astonishing, sometimes recently built or renovated, almost always with a modern bathroom. The hosts are often retired people looking for a little extra off-the-books income and are quite delighted to meet such a strange thing as Americans. The ice is quickly broken and often one becomes a member of the family within an hour or two. Highly recommended.
Deb can’t figure out why I think this is useful advice but that’s because she’s forgotten the ton of useful stuff we’ve found in Carrefour of Leclerc hypermarkets. I’m personally fascinated with the retail scene in any foreign country (to Deb’s chagrin); I learn a tremendous amount about a place from the selection of goods on sale (and the prices). If you’re traveling as we do, you’ll need to buy groceries frequently and since our list includes grapefruit juice and fresh milk (hard to find in Europe in general), we know we’ll succeed in a 100,000 sq. ft. store.
8. Bienvenue au Chateau.
We discovered this directory at least eight years ago (probably quite a few more) and have stayed with hosts listed in it many times, invariably with great success. It’s put out by an association of people who’ve bought and restored chateaus and have included a few guest rooms. The properties are always interesting and the people even more so. Highly recommended.
9. Canon Powershot S90.
I’m no expert on digital cameras so I do the lazy thing and buy whatever camera David Pogue is using at the moment. About a year ago, that was the S90 and it is one AMAZING camera. It’s special ability is low-light shooting and pictures of what we’re eating in restaurants were always a problem. Not with the S90. The new banner photo was taken about a half hour after sunset.
The other magnificent quality is its video: taking full advantage of the low-light capabilities, follow focusing, zooming available, etc.
I highly recommend getting a small belt-borne case with a magnetic flap closure like the Olympus one in the picture (taken with Pogue’s previous-recommendation Canon camera).
10. Call restaurants to make reservations.
This is not about ensuring that you have a table — you almost always will. It’s about the fact that people who have reservations are a different class of customer in the restauranteur’s eyes and are treated differently. So, even an hour ahead (a not-unusual lead time), call and make that reservation.
11. Buy an electric cooler.
We didn’t know about this one . . .
12. Bring everything you might not find provided.
I started out with the salt and pepper item and this is just a continuation listing some things we pack that you might not think of (often purchased in Europe): a) 10 meter extension cord with euro plug; b) battery-powered razor; c) high quality jam and honey for breakfast;