Monday, October 27, 2008

Misadventures - The (Way) Overpriced Lunch

Walking through Paris, with its rich culture and seemingly endless supply of the best-looking pastries and desserts I’ve ever seen, it’s nearly impossible to go a day without indulging in something. After all, I know I’ll walk it off.

Sometimes, however, it’s more than calories that add up.

On my second trip to Paris – as in “I should have known better” – my family and I happened to be walking around the square where the Bastille used to stand. I was prattling on about the part the storming of the infamous prison has played in French history when we happened to pass by a pastry shop.

The display case in the window drew us like moths to a flame. Cheesecakes, ├ęclairs, chocolate cakes, macarons, strawberry pies and a host of other delicious-looking desserts called our names.The prices seemed fairly reasonable, with just abut every dessert being less than five euros. Did we see the sign that said – even in English for us stupid Americans – “take away prices”? Nope. We even took a picture of it, but who would expect us to even notice the sign with all those desserts distracting us?

The French, apparently.

We each decided what we wanted, and ordered from the counter.

“Would you like to sit inside?” the woman asked.

We looked at each other, peered through the window at the cute little elevated seating area overlooking the obelisk in the center of the intersection and thought, why not?

Once we were seated, the stereotypical Parisian waiter waltzed over to us and smiled, then took our order in perfect English.

A moment later, our mouths were salivating as plates were set in front of us. The Cokes we ordered each came in a little glass bottle, accompanied by a glass with a slice of lemon and, luxury of luxuries – ice. That should have been a warning.

Seriously, if you’re in Europe and your server speaks flawless English, the signs are in English and your drink comes with ice, don’t order another thing.

Oblivious to what was looming at the end of the meal, we ate like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the Revolution. My cheesecake with raspberry sauce was the best I’ve ever had. Most likely because I was eating it in Paris, but it was definitely excellent.

My sister enjoyed every last bite of her strawberry cheesecake, and my parents laughed as they cleaned their plates.

I drained the last of my soda and sat back, satisfied and thinking I could get used to this kind of lunch.

Then the bill came.

I did the math in my head. We’d ordered the cheap desserts, and they should have totaled 12 euros, give or take. Add in the beverages, small as they were, and I thought we were looking at another 10 euros, tops. Then the pittance for the service charge that is almost always factored in, and we’d be good to go.

I never expected the bill to be 44 euros. We stared at the scrap of paper like cavemen contemplating a TV, our mouths comically open.

Flagging the server brought him hustling over, a small miracle in France, where meals can last for the better part of an afternoon.

“Yes, but you sat down and ate in here,” was the end result to our disbelieving questions.

How glad was I that dad was paying? Factor in the exchange rate, and that little snack had actually cost us just under $60.

What could we say? They put a sign out, in English, and we were the idiots who suddenly lost our literacy, not them. There was nothing for it but to leave the money on the table and beat a hasty retreat. At least we knew for next time.

It didn’t help any that, walking to the closest ATM, we passed the shop next door, which happened to stock the same basic selections. Not only were they cheaper, but they advertised no extra charge for sitting inside.

Ah well. C’est la vie.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Salzburg - The True Eternal City

Nestled on the northern frontier of the Alps, Salzburg is one of the places I could visit a hundred times and still look forward to another trip. Formerly a Roman city called Juvavum, Salzburg is today one of the most visited cities in Europe, and with good reason.

Some of the places I have been are only worth mentioning because I had a good time or something funny happened to me in them. My mind is definitely full of fond memories of Salzburg, but they barely contribute to the allure the city has for me.

My first impression of Salzburg was that the fortress dominating its highest point was imposing. Originally built in the late 11th century, it is so impressive that no one ever dared attack its walls. It took a moment for my focus to move to something else, but when it did, I was amazed at how quaint the old town was.

Having just come from Vienna, which has its charm but shows signs of later centuries' ill-guided architecture, Salzburg's Baroque architecture was a sight right out of a fairy tale.

I could have spent several hours soaking up the sunlight and ambling through small streets time has forgotten, but, unfortunately, time never seems to forget me and always moves too fast.

The first order of business was checking into the Hotel Weiss Taube, located right in the center of town. Two peculiarities detracted from the timeless ambiance in front of the cathedral – the massive screen showing World Cup Soccer with its accompanying grandstands, and the helicopter, which sat upside-down on its rotors as part of an art exhibit aiming to demonstrate life's dramatic highs and lows.

Being on one of life's highs, I didn't take any time to ponder the art. With my family, I set about exploring the old city.

Wandering through the streets, we made frequent stops at shops – both artisanal and mainstream. My mom and sister enjoyed the Swarovski crystal shops, filled with hundreds of pieces of fine crystal jewelry and figurines.

After sweating under the halogen lights the crystal merchants use to showcase their wares, I decided it was time to trek across one of the bridges and up a cobbled pathway. I simply can't resist a cobbled pathway weaving through walls of foliage to a mysterious destination, and this one was no exception.

As it turned out, the destination wasn't very exciting, but it is usually more about the journey anyway, and that held true this time. The pathway I'd inadvertently stumbled upon had some of the best views of the city I have seen, showing the Baroque buildings, the Salzach river and the snow-capped mountains in the background, separated by improbably flat green plains.

Back in the Old Town, it was time to pay homage to one of Salzburg's greats. OK, probably Salzburg's greatest – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

I'm not a purveyor of classical music, and I doubt I could even pick out one of his compositions if I heard it, but I appreciate the fact that the man was a genius – and so do the Salzburgers.

Men and women dressed in period clothing roam the streets and tourist destinations, handing out advertisements for concerts. I, however, was interested in something more tangible, and that came in the form of his house.

Largely preserved to showcase the way the young musician lived, his house is not only a window into his past, but a glimpse of Austria's rich history as well. Original and reproduction furniture graced the old floorboards, and informative audio guides explained everything, accompanied by samples of his music.

After eating an unremarkable lunch in the entrance to the Mirabell Gardens, we walked around the immaculate grounds. They are similar to the palace gardens throughout Western Europe, but they have some cinematic history as well.

The statue of Pegasus was a featured in the film, The Sound of Music, as were many of Salzburg's famous sights. On a raised terrace, several statues of dwarves brought back images of the fairy tales I read as a child.

As darkness fell, Salzburg's lights took over. We joined several hundred others in watching a World Cup game, but it lacked the excitement of being in Munich when the Germans won. Nevertheless, it was fun, and I often find myself wishing Americans got into soccer like the Europeans do.

The next day was a fast-paced tour of the fortress followed by the Sound of Music tour. I wasn't for taking the tour, but got outvoted, and was surprised at the depth to which the guide went, and the fantastic sights I would have missed had we opted to skip it. After all, the tour included luge racing and sampling some apple strudel.

Upon returning from the tour, our next stop was the city's famous shopping street, the Getreidgasse. A narrow medieval alleyway maybe wide enough for two cars, the winding street is adorned with fancy iron signs – reminders of a time when the populace was illiterate and a shop's specialty was advertised by pictures formed in metal. Even the McDonald's followed tradition, with the golden arches in a unique frame.

Sadly, we were back so late that the shops were closing, and we missed out on some of the traditional Austrian souvenirs and collectibles. Oddly enough, it is the street that Mozart's house is on, and we'd missed the main drag during our visit there.

Leaving Salzburg was not what I wanted to do, but the blow was softened by the fact that our next destination was Paris, which happens to be my favorite city in the world. I know I will return to Salzburg, and the first thing on my list is to hike the Salzkammergut, a trail that wends its way through some of the astonishing beauty the Austrians live in every day.

Some of the cities I have been to (like New Delhi and Brussels) hold nothing special for me. They were notches in my belt, so to speak, and I don't feel particularly compelled to return. Salzburg, on the other hand, is one of those rare destinations that just feels...right. The people are extremely friendly, it seems to lack some of the tourist traps dotting other cities like black holes and left me with the impression that I could live there. Surrounded by history and beauty, both natural and architectural, Salzburg remains a place not quite like anything I've ever seen before or since. It's so charming that it almost hurts – in a good way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Apple Hill - A Fall Must-Do

To me, fall used to mean going back to school and facing the drudgery of homework and – horror of horrors – waking up early for class. Since graduating from college a few years ago, fall has come to mean something else, and the idea of cooler days, the approach of Halloween and the changing colors has turned it into one of my favorite times of the year.

Getting outside during this time and taking part in some of the festivals and activities that accompany the harvest can really be a good way to spend time with friends and family. Fortunately, I don’t have to travel very far to reach one of the best fall destinations I’ve ever seen – Apple Hill in the California foothills.

Originally composed of 16 Apple ranches, Apple Hill has come from being just a working farmland to being a tourist destination. My best advice is to avoid, if at all possible, going there on a weekend – or brave the crowds.

I went up the hill this weekend with my family, and we visited several of the apple ranches, eating pie, drinking cider, eating caramel apples, petting a few animals, eating fudge and watching kids fish – followed by eating apple donuts.

Yeah, if you’re going to Apple Hill, leave the diet at home.

All of the major apple ranches are easily accessible by a network of roads off of Highway 50 just east of Placerville, so though you can spend hours walking around the properties or through orchards, you don’t have to walk off any calories if you don’t want to. All the ranches are easily reached with the help of the maps offered at many of the locations and published in “The Cider Press.”

Our first stop was Rainbow Orchards. It was crowded, but not as badly as some others. Craft tents were set up, and handmade scarecrows dotted the area. A band played music on stage, and the air was festive. We looked around at the various stalls and a trailer loaded with gourds, then went into the barn to join the line of people waiting for food.

Deciding not to wait in line for the moment, as we’d just eaten lunch, we headed on to Plubell’s Family Orchard. Like Rainbow, it is one of the larger places, and there was quite a bit of activity.

I walked past a wagon that had just emerged from the pumpkin patch, where the family had gathered its pumpkins and the father was pulling them – and a cute chubby baby bedecked with sweater and beanie – to the spot to pay.

The petting zoo featured a bevy of goats who were all too eager to lap up the food visitors could buy. The baby goats, being the cutest, got a disproportionate amount of food, causing the bigger ones to climb the fence high enough to stick their heads over and, in one case, eat the food and polish off the Dixie cup in which it was sold.

Walking past decades-old tractors with very simple mechanical accessories, I spotted a clown giving a free show. I headed instead to the booth of free apple cider and made sure I got the cup as full as I could.

After that, driving down the road toward High Hill Ranch, which would be our final destination, our attention was grabbed by a 1920s-era car with a sign touting apple pies. Unable to resist old cars and apple pie, we pulled over and had a treat that was not unlike the apple strudel we had outside Salzburg.

I scored a free cup of hot apple cider, and then we were off to High Hill.

High Hill Ranch, to me, simply is Apple Hill. Each year, after cutting Christmas Trees with my extended family, we stop and finish off the day with apple donuts and hot chocolate. As a kid, I ran back and forth with my cousins in a small valley that sits next to the small lake in which I once caught a fish.

The place was as crowded as I’ve ever seen it, but the line for the free cider samples was relatively short, and we all dispersed to stand in the various lines to mitigate the waiting.

I headed past the pony rides and the wolf rescue display to the fudge shop, which is technically not part of High Hill, but a place I simply must stop at, since they always have what I need for my white chocolate fix.

Had there been less people, we would have sat on one of the outdoor tables and eaten our donuts, or, if we wanted to be cruel, eaten them inside where all the people waiting in line could see us, but we headed home instead.

It seems funny to me that we always come home from apple hill sans apples, lest they be covered in caramel. Even though I rarely eat apples by themselves for some reason, I do truly enjoy visiting Apple Hill and just being there. Once the leaves turn color, the colors on the hillsides explode, and it really becomes the idyllic place to spend time with family and friends.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Travel Tips: Don't be the "Ugly American"

Everywhere I’ve gone (except India) has been awash with Americans. In Europe, we’re easy to spot with our tour guides and clothing choices. I’ve only ever been able to blend in in Germany and Austria, and only then until I speak.

Being so recognizable has its advantages, such as people instantly speaking English when they see you, but it can also be a minefield if you don’t pay attention to the culture and customs.

The “Ugly American” unfortunately roams the streets of Europe and other well-traveled destinations. Don’t be the “Ugly American,” and you’ll have a better trip.

What is the “Ugly American”? Well, it is usually someone who is so convinced that what we do in the United States is far and away the best way of doing things, and feels the need to impress this upon the populace of wherever it travels.

Yes, there are many things about America that I miss when I go overseas, and there are many things I think we do better. I do not, however, necessarily believe that I am always right, and when I do, I don’t feel compelled to tell everyone in the loudest voice possible.

An example? The following story was told to me, and, unfortunately, I have no reason to doubt its veracity, in the face of what I have seen in my own travels.

A woman checked in to a hotel in France, but was upset with the accommodations. Unwilling to accept that, in a foreign country, some things are just different, and you aren’t likely to get your cookie-cutter Holiday Inn room with all the amenities of a refrigerator, minibar and wireless Internet, this woman was angry with the hotelier.

The nine-room hotel was clean, and the staff friendly, but this Ugly American felt the need to complain and moan about something, and said, “I am a middle-class American, and I deserve a certain level of accommodation.”

Whoa, what? If you feel that way, pay 400 Euros a night and stay at the Marriott by the Eiffel Tower. Otherwise, accept that things like elevators, showers and bathrooms will often be exceedingly small compared to American standards in most foreign countries.

The way things are done in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, and even Canada might be different, but they aren’t necessarily wrong.

I, for one, like ice in my soda. Very few places outside the U.S. seem to care. I either accept it or order something else.

While some things are obvious, being an “Ugly American” can often be accidental. If you’re not familiar with a country’s customs, or what the people find rude, I recommend buying a guidebook that addresses those issues. The guides in the Culture Smart series are very good for that.

You will have a better time of it and be met with friendliness if you learn some of the basics. When you enter a shop in France, say “Bonjour/bonsoir monsieur/madame.” In Germany, make sure you ask for your check at the restaurant, rather than getting upset over its not being delivered to you. In Italy, understand that some restaurants charge a cover just to sit down, and that the bread, while brought to you, is not free, and you will pay by the slice for what you consume.

Knowing a little bit about the culture, being accepting of it and making the smallest attempt at the language really does go a long way. In all the towns, cities and trains I’ve met French people, I have only found one who was rude, yet there exists an unfounded stereotype that the French are rude.

Understand that you are a visitor to the country, and as such, you should conform to the local customs, rather than the other way around. If it’s too bad to handle, go home and watch the Travel Channel.