French Public Inconveniences
As Joan Rivers would say: "Can we talk?"
Despite some of the world's finest culture and art, literature, philosophy, haute couture and grande cuisine - the French have complete disregard for personal comfort and hygeine when it comes to the call of nature. Its as if you had stepped back a thousand years. If not confronted by a unisex hole in the ground, sometimes, if you are really lucky, you may find cold porcelain, bare of any supporting structure. Strangely for a nation beleagered by bureaucrats and paperwork, there will be no paper in sight.
In a cafe sometimes the loo will be kept locked to prevent desperate members of the public taking advantage - the key will be kept behind the bar for paying customers only.
In select urban locations the JC Decaux company install these frightening self cleaning steel automatic toilets. Personally they scare the pants off me. What if the exit gets stuck and you are sucked down the U-bend before anyone can help? Machines don't care!
Most public areas and especially railway stations - Nice Ville Gare is among the worst offenders - should be given a wide berth, as should many of the beach public facilities. Attendant run facilities cost around 30 cents and can be ok: anything "free" should be avoided like the plague.
Without wishing to border on the indelicate, venturing out for any extended period of time in France means preparing for such of life's little hazards. Mrs NiceLife recommends not to worry, but always to have a small packet of tissues to hand, "just in case you need to blow your nose". No doubt the French say we British are too concerned with our bowels. Perhaps we need to say to the French: you are not concerned enough!
Allow time to queue for railway tickets
TRAVEL UPDATE November 2011
Gare SNCF Nice Ville is being "modernised" and the pictured line of ticket windows has been walled up; Purchase has been moved to the old Enquiries and bookings area at the far end of the hall, and ticket opening hours are severely curtailed. What was merely a nigtmare is now hell on earth. Purchase train tickets a day before travel, or master the ticket machines. SNCF appear to be on suicide watch.
So you are off to Monaco for the day. You are excited. The train goes straight from the Gare Nice Ville at 10.30 - what could be simpler - just turn up at the station, buy a ticket and go, no?
Despite a large and helpful bureau for "Information" at the end of the station, and leaflets on all services, and a big departure board, most travellers expect to get the information they need at the ticket window. The window is for people with "problems".
Can I do this? Can I do that? How much is it if I come back Thursday? Where do I change? Is there another way? When is the next train. When is the one after that? And what time is the last train back? And which platform was that on? Is that TGV? Do I have to book in advance? What should I buy my grandchildren for Christmas? Question after question . Eventually the fumbling around with credit cards or cheques begins.
You are at the back of the single snake style queue of maybe eighty people and you are moving painfully slowly. You have only ten minutes left before your train comes, and goes. Eighty people at one every 30 seconds is...is...is...hell, you do the sums. A quarter of an hour is not unusual!
You are probably not going to make it.
Don't think that the staff behind the glass window care a cent that you will miss your train. If the person in front of you is exchanging pleasantries with them, thats nicer for them. If the lady just served is fiddling around putting her Carte Senior back in her bag, blocking the window for another minute, tough.
The way around this requires careful planning There are the dark blue ticket machines, but they don't accept currency notes or some US cards like Amex and Diners, only Euro coins and "chip and pin" Visa/Mastercard. Not a good idea to risk a debit card or your only one credit card - the machines have been known to disable cards from further use. Making sure you have first cleared the screen of any previous travellers aborted purchase , you start afresh and roll through the choices - destination, one way or return, fare tarriff, how many travellers, - price pops up on the screen. You pop your card in the CORRECT card slot (not the green Nice employees discount card slot as many people do) punch in the PIN ("code bon"), and bingo it returns your card and prints your ticket.
Train tickets are good for sixty days so its a good idea to buy them earlier during your stay. A trip to the station the evening before is a good idea, when the ticket windows are less busy.
Check your restaurant bill!
No wonder the French for the bill is "l'addition" - that refers to the addition of extra items you haven't had!. An innocent mistake? Perhaps, but this was the third time this year I noticed mysterious items appearing on a restaurant bill.
Some of the wheezes were really quite crafty - the "budget" pichet of wine suddenly became a half bottle of wine, adding an extra 8 euro to the bill. In another case an additional main course we had not had was slipped on to "l'addition" increasing it by Eu7.99.
In each case the bill had been bumped up by about 15% - not by so much as you might notice, but by enough to make the "mistake" worth while.
The language and currency is unfamiliar. What was that dish called again? People are having a good time, they are on holiday, guard down, difficult to argue with the waiter if your command of French is not up to it.
Many people just read the bottom line and pay. Perfect opportunity to boost the bill a little.
You would be well advised to check off the line items on any restaurant bill, to make sure you recognise each of them. If not, welcome to Frances new tourist tax.
UPDATE: New French merchant's wheeze,
When goods in a shop are on special promotion or special offer, the computerised master ledger linked to the barcode on the item will often still have only the original price, not the special offer. And the original price is what gets put on your bill. So your bargain isn't. Both Virgin and FNAC are prone to this sloppy merchandising. Last week, three special offer CDs were rung up at the till at the full price.
(Very) small risk of snow
In Winter 1929, seventy five years ago, it snowed on the Cote d'Azur. ("Zoot Alors! C'est incroyable! Toute le monde c'est blanc! ") That week you could toboggan down the Chateau, chill out - literally - on the Promenade.Heaven knows how the Nicois coped.
Towards the end of September, as the temperature dips below 20 degrees, the locals don overcoats and ladies their thermal underwear. Little dogs are fitted with smart burberry pattern body warmers. Poor dears. They are used to 250 days of sunshine a year.
Snow on the palms? It could happen again. So be prepared. Pack an emergency pair of snow shoes and earmuffs and . . .
Nah. Only joking.
UPDATE 30th January 2005
Well, it snowed on Saturday night. Didn't last and didn't settle but snow it did! An icy blast intended for the skiers in Isola 2000 strayed a tad further south than it should. Global warming not.
UPDATE2 22nd February 2005
OK it snowed on the beach, and it settled. Very apt as the Nice Carnival theme at the time was our deranged climate. A picture is on my Carnival 2005 Travelogue
Update February 2009
Well, its becoming a bit predictable now. Yes, snow again on the beaches, not just far inland, in February, in town and on the beach. Plus very strong gales and high tides, and storms. In addition to the air traffic controllers and the train drivers on strike. And the collapsing Pound. Nature is not happy and man worse. Spare a thought for north west France which took the brunt of high seas bursting defences. Still I guess we have the Summer to look forward to. I hope!
Update February 2010
Yup. Snow again on the beach. Becoming a regular feature of February
Having always thought the UK a bit PC and over the top on disabled access, pushing a fourteen stone man in a wheelchair around Nice for a week has opened my eyes!
Every now and then there is a token ramp, or a lift, but most of the time its very difficult to negotiate even the basics of crossing the road. Kerbstones are rarely dropped and once my charge was tipped out when hoisting the front wheels failed to clear the required four inch over a kerb.
The railways make a token gesture - to cross platforms requires negotiating steep stairs and tunnels, so you call a member of staff, whom trundles the wheelchair-bound off to the end of the platform and over the rails, after switching signals to red. Add 5-10 minutes in addition to to your time allowance for ticket buying.
Platforms are low height and train steps often high, leaving you anything up to a two to three foot climb to board the train. Mostly there is nowhere to stow a wheelchair whilst travelling so if the train is crowded it'll be a battle. Smaller stations have the same steps and tunnels but no assistance, so its manhandling wheelchairs up and down, as long as your charge can manage a few slow steps.
The TAM buses are generally not adapted in anyway, and you fall on whether the driver is sympathetic in anyway. One just barked "Pas de places assiste!" - no places for persons in need of assistance - and intended to drive off leaving us stranded at the roadside. The coaches have a luggage hold - ignore the driver and just stow the chair there and board.
Mothers with baby buggies are fortunate their charges are light and the buggy prettty manouverable. Whilst the airlines treat disabled travellers like royalty, once beyond the airport you are pretty much up against it and on your own.
The supermarket checkout
You weren't in any hurry, were you?
The French simply don't do retail. Despite its superb quality of life and nearly everything else, the supermarket checkout is a tortuous and agonising process.
Old dears fiddle around endlessly with small change, problems arise every second, everyone is still writing cheques (which are sacred here), there are not enough checkouts open, the assistants chat happily with each other, the queues are long and hardly moving. Grit your teeth and double the dosage of any anti-hypertensives you may be on.
Still, you will still be greeted with the traditional "Bonjour" (good day) and a fond farewell "Au revoir, bon soiree" (its night time by now) . Don't forget to reply in kind.
Parking, French style
As a visitor you really don't need a car in Nice unless you plan to do a lot of touring. The bus services are fine, and your own two feet can do the rest.
Sadly, this view is not shared by the Nicois, many of whom insist on driving furiously everywhere, on four wheels, or two.
One side effect of this is bad behaviour when it comes to parking. Here a distraught young Nicois has found her car victim of the automotive finale of chess. Unable to move either forward or back , her diagonal moves are also blocked by cars double parked.
Voila. "Checkmate." Now get out of that!
The rest of the day could be spent here waiting for the owners of the surrounding cars to turn up. Politeness suggests you leave your mobile number on the dash, but often it doesnt happen that way.
And if the parking doesn't get you, the municipal traffic police love setting up traps for hapless motorists, with spot fines a possibility. So no, you don't want a car in Nice.
When the Green Man says "cross", watch out!
Crossing the road in France is not something to be undertaken lightly,
First, "zebra crossings" confer no right of way for pedestrians as in some countries - cars are not required to yield to you. Secondly, cars turning right have the freedom to turn into your path despite the fact you are crossing the road with the Green Man symbol lit up beckoning you that its safe to do so. That car will swing round into your path. Now you can trust a French driver to know you as a paedestrian now have right of way. However, how do you know that driver is French?
Watch out always - sadly French drivers are amongst the most competitive in the world, having the highest road accident fatality rates in all Europe. Motorcycles here are a menace too. They come only in two sizes - the very big and fast ,usually with names like MotoMacho and are mainly an excuse to swank around in full leathers as seen here Or they are little 50cc scooters buzzing like angry wasps, driven by two kids with possibly no insurance, sometimes no helmet and no road-sense. In the first eight months of 2009 there were forty two driver road fatalities in the Alpes Maritime. Twenty were car drivers, and twenty were motorcycle and scooter drivers, whilst only one was a pedal cyclist.
Don't join them!- watch out!
For many months now the decline of the exchange value of the US dollar - to do with its relationship with the Japanese yen and other South East Asian curencies - has pushed up the value of the Euro for no earthly good reason. European economies are - lets face it - nothing to shout about, but the falling dollar is dragging currencies like British sterling down with it. This charts the decine in the purchasing power of my GB Pound against the Euro. Thanks guys. Sort yourselves out!
My prefered site to track the value of the Euro is X-rates which gives you a good three month daily picture. You won't get this actual rate of course - its the central bank rate for large commercial transactions, but knock a few percent off to get the high street tourist picture. Its customisable to whatever currency you want, and there is a friendly daily email service to tell you what the value is every day. Invaluable.
Tip: don't waste even more money changing at the airport. They offer the worst rates you are likely to find. You will do better taking money out of the French hole-in-the-wall machines through your debit card.
15th June 2005
The French "No" vote against the European Constitution" has completely reversed currency trends. GBP Sterling just crossed 1,50 - amazing good news for Tourists!
Especially in Summer, afternoon or evening, wherever you sit in the cafes of the Cours Saleya, Palais de Justice square or the Zone Pietone, be prepared to be busked at.
If you are a big fan of "Incantation" and Peruvian pan-pipe music, Bulgarian wedding bands, solo saxophone renditions of The Godfather theme, you will most definitely love Nice. In a more modern twist, troupes of back-spinning hip hop dancers draw big crowds in the Place Massena, or this lively 5 minute performance of The Beatles greatest hits.
Some of the performers are are good, some less so, but you will have to listen anyway so you might as well get into the spirit of it and put a few centimes in the hat. It goes with the territory.
In the newly refurbished Place Garribaldi open air cafes have spilled out to line the roomy square, and the quality of busking raised the bar considerably, with a jazz quartet and chanson francais. Beats pan-pipes any day.
Begging is more commonplace than you might expect. Not aggressive or intrusive, nevertheless in the Centre of Nice expect to see people every 50 feet sat down on the pavement with a hard-luck story crudely written on a piece of cardboard or just paper cup before them.
Many of the beggars have a regular place and are in effect local characters. The more sucessful tactics are having a pet rabbit or little dog companion. Here a savvy young beggar has spread hemself out on the Av Jean Medicin with two little dogs, holding a begging basket in their mouths. Cute.
As a form of charity, the Nicois seem quite ready to dispose of the annoying volume of small change created by the Euro into their paper cups.
And unlike aggressive beggars who plague big cities, the money is not generally for drugs, but genuinely for food - as you will know when the little lady in front of you at the checkout pours out hundreds of centimes to pay for a few groceries. Also the alcoholics are harmless (to others if not themselves) A can of their lager of choice, the 11 percent "Amsterdam" (liquid amnesia)- is less than a euro, so its not an expensive habit, and they get by on very little.
Most recently we have seen life's unfortunates - amputees or with some other form of deformity - adding to the begging community, and Romanian gangs have however established themselves in Nice, and many other European cities since their country's EU accession (Previously France had an accord with Romania for deportation). The collectors are usually women and some have a baby in arms (sometimes on loan). Go to the gardens around noon and you will see the "pimps" or "gangmasters" meeting up with their group to take the morning's proceeds off them. The gangmaster's belly showed no sign of malnutrition. There is nothing charitable to be done: its an industry.
Specialites Nicois - Testicules de mouton?
So you would like to try the local specialties?Well good for you. Nice has many and delicious some of them are..
But just how adventurous are you when it comes to the animal anatomy? Well the French are very comfortable with all of it. Lambs testicles are a beloved traditional favourite. Look in the Nice butchers windows and see the difference between the "sanitised" supermarket offerings back home and the entrails and sweetbreads, tongues, guts and viscera of animals served as delicacies.
I'll stick with the pizza, but you may have a more daring streak - just don't write and tell you thought the testicles were "a little chewy" - I don't want to know!
A half million swallows stopover
Like its human counterpart, the swallow likes to spend the Winter somewhere warm and sunny. The european swallow winters in sub-Saharan Africa, Arabia and India. In Autumn and Spring huge swarms of these migratory birds make their way across continents, feeding on flying insects as they travel. Clearly they have not yet experienced the delights of EasyJet.
They need resting points before the next thousand miles, and the large trees in the Nice have become a routine sleepover for swarming flocks of these swallows. At dusk the sky can become almost black with the sheer volume of birds, and every spare centimetre of branch is occupied, chattering and jiggling away. Cars parked in the locality can expect to change colour.
At the end of October this year the swallows have moved from Place Garribaldi to the large Plain trees in the Albert 1st gardens near the gare routiere. Around seven in the morning a million or so of these birds make their take off south.
This is not something you will find written about in general tourist guides, but ....see all those beautiful belle epoche buildings - see a fire escape on them? You wont, because generally there isn't one. The Nicois are proud of their firemen - the sapeurs-pompiers - because their lives depend on them.
Fire in a six story apartment building means smoke filled stairwells. Your instinct to flee the building down those stairs to get out may be your last - smoke inhalation is often fatal. The official advice is to stay behind closed doors, get out to fresh air, phone 18 for the fire brigade, and let the sapeur-pompiers do their job. They train in evacuating apartments by fire engine-mounted extending ladders. Strangely it is not a requirement to fit smoke alarms. Health and Safety in France is not as big a priority as in some other countries, so don't assume anything.
The tragic story of a mother and daughter killed by fire a few weeks ago in their top floor Riquier apartment is described in the local newspaper (pictured). Connoiseurs of French will note the liberal use of cooking terms in describing the effects of fire. The poor mother was "carbonisee"'d in her appartment, and the family pet dog, "un Yorkshire" (this is France, they love dogs, they need to know the breed...!) was "sauted par la fenetre".
(One of the more curious traits of the French is that not only do they make a point of mentioning the breed of dog in any doggy-related story, they do the same for cars in the event of any car-related story, especially accidents and fatalities. When two policemen were fatally injured in a crash in Cannes recently, the press coverage made a big deal of their driving a Citroen. Sort of reverse advertising)
Recent fire in Paris echoes same tragedy on a bigger scaleRelated to:
- Budget Travel
Pelagia noctiluca - stinging jellyfish
Before you plunge into warm waters this summer, look before you leap.
Bell shaped up to 10cm with purple and pink warts, Pelagia inflicts burning sting and a high intake of venom can be deadly. The Med has shoals of them in the summer peak, due to the very warm waters (25C+).
Beaulieu was recently (July) unswimmable due to one floating in every few feet of water. The are easily visible,a bit nasty, and not to be "trifled" with. ("Jelly" + "Trifle" - geddit?)
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