Treat Yo’ Self – Handbag Shopping in Paris

I love a good handbag. It’s possible this started when I worked in the purse department at Macy’s for three years during high school and college. It was then that I learned about finer bags – including Coach, Dooney & Bourke, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton – and I’ll readily admit that from age 16 on, I was spoiled and couldn’t buy a handbag that wasn’t top of the line. Fast forward 30+ years and I’m still using a few of the bags I bought way back when.

Thus when we were in Paris recently, I toyed with the idea of buying a new, fancy bag from the French luxury handbag company Longchamp. Founded in 1948, Longchamp’s signature bag is very distinctive, and once you’ve noticed one, I guarantee you’ll see them all over the place. In two sizes and at least 20 colors, their Le Pliage Tote is quite lovely. Was this elegant, practical and reasonably priced $150 bag for me though? Of course not. My eyes and heart were drawn to their luscious, brand new, all leather, Roseau Tote Bag, coming in at a moderate (cough, cough) $525.

Generally speaking, I’m not an indecisive person. When I decide that I want to do something, or buy something, I do it. But it took me forever and a day to decide on this bag. We first shopped in the Longchamp store on the Champs-Élyseés, but when I finally decided that I wanted to buy the fancy expensive bag, this Longchamp location did not have it in the color red, and I couldn’t for the life of me decide between red and yellow without actually seeing the red in person, so Bob and I walked all over tarnation to find the other Longchamp store. After a couple of wrong turns, some exasperated address hunting and, finally, a phone call, we learned we had been given the wrong address. The phone call got us on track and once we found the store, seemingly hours later, I ended up buying the bag in black. Sorry dear.

When making my purchase, I discovered that by filling out a VAT (value added tax) refund form, I could receive a tax refund 2-4 weeks after my purchase. Longchamp helped me fill out the form, which required a passport at the time of purchase, and then I dropped the form into the VAT refund box at the train station on our way out of France. The Longchamp employees had provided me specific instructions on how to fill out the form and send in for the refund, as it must be done exactly as detailed. Within a few days I received an email confirming that my refund claim had been made, and sure enough, two weeks later, I received a refund to my credit card of about $60. Because you know, you’ve got to spend to save.

I worried that I would regret such an expensive purchase, one that I was making for no reason other than that I wanted it. But you know what? I regret nothing. I use my beautiful purse almost every day and when I put the supple and beautiful leather bag over my shoulder I say to myself, “Nancy, you’re worth it.” Because I am worth it.

The Clampetts Take on The Champs-Élyseés

On our recent trip to Paris, we spent an entire morning exploring the Champs-Élyseés, on one of Rick Steves’ many recommended self-guided walking tours. I’m a big fan of the walks in Mr. Steves’ tour books, as he points out lots of things that I would never otherwise notice. His Champs-Élyseés walk was no exception. Before I regale you with our adventure, however, let me first paint a picture of Bob and I on this day. We were both wearing long sleeved SmartWool tops, the same exact tops we would wear the entire trip. Look at a photo of me on day one and day six and you won’t see a difference. In our defense, 100% merino wool clothing does not get smelly. I’ve worn the same top hiking in late summer in Southern Portugal for five days in a row, with no adverse aromas whatsoever. So at least we didn’t smell when we were on the Champs-Élyseés, but I can’t say we looked very fancy either. I had on black ExOfficio travel pants, also low on the glamour scale, while Bob was wearing ExOfficio travel jeans. Yes, we were a walking advertisement for Travel Essentials. Bob was wearing black Doc Martens (highly comfortable and hip in London perhaps, but not in Paris), and I was wearing black converse tennis shoes, to give you a better idea of our fancy wear.

Now that you can surely picture our attractive attire, here’s how we spent our morning. We started out at the Arc de Triomphe, admiring the compelling scenes carved into its exterior. From there we popped in to the flagship Louis Vuitton store, the Renault automobile store, the famous and extremely popular Longchamp handbag store, and many other fancy Paris shops. The Champs-Élyseés has quite a few international chain stores too, including McDonalds – which the French were apparently, and appropriately, horrified by when it opened in the ’70s – Sephora, Gap, Disney, and more. But Rick Steves’ guided us to historic French shops and sites, which are frankly not to be missed. One such stop is Ladureé, a stunning 19th century tea salon and patisserie, where we sampled delicious macarons and mini tarts, along with outstanding coffee. Ladureé is well known for their macarons, which you can purchase boxed up to go, but it’s well worth an hour of your time to soak up the atmosphere. We sat upstairs in the fabulously decorated cafe, where we were seated close to a French mother/daughter pair in fancy wear and pearls, and a Frenchman reading the newspaper and drinking coffee with a bow tie, handkerchief, and suit to match. But we rocked our well worn travel clothing.

After our mid-day snack, we pressed on to a Rick Steves’ recommended shop, Guerlain, a perfumery with roots stretching back to 1829. Steves advised us to “notice the 1914 details of the shop,” and to “climb upstairs, as it’s tres French.” What he didn’t tell us was that we would quickly be scooped up and adopted by an entertaining and quite knowledgeable Guerlain employee, Remy, who would proceed to spend the next 60 minutes with us. He walked us through all of the perfumes, skin care and makeup routines that Guerlain has to offer, describing each with great detail in his beautifully French-accented English, before he finally escorted us upstairs to see what frankly is more of a stunning perfume museum than a store. Remy was delightful, showing us the private room where British royalty, and the likes of Madonna and Celine Dion, are said to sit when they visit Guerlain, spraying samples of 300 euro bottles of perfume onto card sticks so we could smell them, and telling us that in all of our future visits to Guerlain, he would be our “personal assistant.” We ended up buying skincare products for our daughters, not because we intended to, but because we felt some obligation to Remy, after all the delightful time he spent with us. At one point, he asked Bob what his “scent” is, and when Bob stared blankly at him, he prompted, “are you more spicy, woodsy, fruity, or floral?” Bob chose woodsy. LOL.

Our visit with Remy ended with him asking me if he could “perfume me.” It took me a few seconds to understand that he wanted to spray me with the scent I liked best, even though there was no chance we were going to buy any perfume. I happily said yes, and while Remy “perfumed me” he taught me the proper way to perfume yourself. Apparently, I’ve been doing it wrong for 52 years. Imagine that.

Never once did Remy blink an eye at our “experienced” travel clothing, at my scuffed Converse tennis shoes, or my Baggallini backpack. Nor did he make us feel like we “had” to buy anything. He simply wanted to show us everything in the store because he was excited about it, and because he takes his job seriously.

I highly recommend a walking tour of the Champs Élyseés, as well as a visit to Guerlain. Ask for Remy, and tell him Bob and Nancy sent you.

Strolling the Canals of Venice Beach

I love to stroll neighborhoods admiring houses. If it wasn’t frowned upon, I’d go to open houses on a regular basis, not because I’m looking to buy a new home, but because I love to see their designs, their décor, and their landscaping. And maybe I’m just a little bit nosy too. Thus, when my sister and I were in Los Angeles recently, I insisted that we check out the Venice Canals Walkways. Not because I am super interested in the waterways of Southern California, but rather I am intrigued by interesting architecture and landscaping, and the Venice Canals have both in spades.

If you didn’t know anything about the Venice Canals, you’re not alone. I only learned of their existence when I read an article in a travel magazine. They’re not hiding by any means, but you can easily overlook them when you visit Venice Beach and its surrounding area. Built in the early 1900s, the “Venice of America” was founded by a tobacco millionaire who wanted to bring a little bit of Venice, Italy to the United States. Today, more than 350 homes border one of the six inland canals, which are tucked in to the otherwise traditional residential neighborhood of Venice Beach. Each home is unique, ranging from small beach-like cottages, to large, modern glass structures, and massive Italian and Spanish inspired homes. Their backyards border the canal walkways, so there’s ample opportunity for nosy curious people like myself to casually glance into the yards of these homes, and if there’s a large picture window or sliding glass doors opening into the backyard, even better.

The canals themselves are quite picturesque. There are several pedestrian bridges that afford terrific views of the neighborhood and there are walkways on either side of each canal. My head hurt from swiveling to look at the homes across the canal along with the homes right next to the walkway on my side of the canal. I feel like you have to walk both sides of every canal to get a complete picture of the homes, both up close and from a distance. Lots on the canal are apparently zoned for single family homes only. And there were many homes being remodeled.

Water enters the canals through sea gates, which are opened at low tide to drain the water, and closed at high tide to trap the water for a few days. We must have been there when the sea gates were open, because the water was extremely low. Many homes have docks in the canal, with a range of little boats tied up. We saw all sizes of canoe, paddle boats, and kayaks waiting for the high tide to come back in. The landscaping was delightful as well. I might feel pressured to have a fancy yard if I lived in such a sought after neighborhood, with so many lookie-loo’s like myself checking out the spaces. The gardens did not disappoint. There was everything from cactus and succulent designed yards to bonsai gardens and extravagantly colorful flower beds.

The walkways of the Venice Canals, now on the National Registry of Historic Places, do not allow bicycling, and on the Monday morning that we visited, there were very few other walkers. It’s a delightful place to take a stroll when visiting Los Angeles. And it’s quite different from most other walks I’ve taken in Southern California. The beach is just a handful of blocks away, but you’d have no idea by looking at the Venice Canals. The area is simply charming. I’ll happily go back again when I have the opportunity.

Striking Workers in Paris Close Museums

Earlier this year, when Bob and I were visiting Paris, we had to change our plans on the fly. We had purchased advance tickets for admission to the Catacombs, but when we arrived at our appointed time, we learned that they were closed for the day. Government workers were on a “social movement” or strike. The only way we found this out was via a small sign on the front door. It was not a problem for us, only a slight inconvenience, as we were able to use our tickets for admission the following day, when the “social movement” was over. It was never clear to us why the workers were on their social movement, but things appeared back to normal the next day. The Catacombs is a very popular site and some visitors wait hours for admission during high season. We were there on a weekday in February, and because we had purchased tickets on their website in advance, we didn’t have to wait in line.

This week, workers at the Louvre went on a day-long strike, protesting “unprecedented deterioration of conditions.” While that may sound a bit vague, visitors to the Louvre increased by 25% from 2017 to 2018, and the Union stated that museum facilities are not increasing along with the growing number of visitors, and staff is actually decreasing.

I suspect that the strike at the Louvre in late May will have a greater impact than the social movement at the Catacombs in February, but I admit I have no idea how these things work. I can only say that if visitors’ numbers keep growing, and workers continue to be unhappy, visitors are going end up unhappy as well. Particularly if they’re shut out of a once in a lifetime visit to a historic site.

The Bluest Skies You’ve Ever Seen are in Seattle

While I do love my small town living in Ashland, Oregon, population 21,000, Bob and I also love getting away to the “big city.” In the big city, I can safely go to the grocery store in my sweat pants first thing in the morning, before I’ve brushed my teeth, and not run into five people I know. I’m not in any way suggesting I do this, I’m just saying I can do this. If I wanted to.

Thus, the fact that our two daughters live in Portland and Seattle respectively means we have an excellent excuse to visit two of my favorite cities in the Pacific Northwest. We were recently in Seattle, and got to take advantage of its many splendors. On a sunny day, I completely understand why Seattle is nicknamed the Emerald City. I’m a sucker for a city by the water, and with the sunshine glinting off the blue bay, Seattle sure has that one down.

Emily lives in the lower Queen Anne neighborhood, and a short two-block walk from her apartment building is Kerry Park, with its absolutely stunning views of downtown Seattle, the Space Needle, and Elliott Bay. I often try and start a visit to Emily with a walk to Kerry Park, just to breathe in the beauty of Seattle and its surrounding waterways. From there, I like to take a spin through the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood. The old (and new) homes are gorgeous, and I love to wander residential streets and look at front doors, porches and front gardens. I’d look at back decks, backyards, and kitchens too if I was just a little more confident of talking my way out of a trespassing charge and of jumping fences.

If you’re a regular reader of our newsletter, you know there are two things I love to do, walk and eat, and not necessarily in that order. One of my favorite Seattle food haunts is Salumi, a sandwich shop and producer of cured meats. I realized on my last trip that I’ve bought a Salumi sandwich on my last three visits to Seattle in a row, so I must really like it. Salumi has been around for 20 years, and the grandfather of the original owner—who is the father of chef Mario Batali—opened an Italian grocery store in Seattle 100 years earlier. Their hot and cold sandwiches are outstanding, and they are generous with tastings of their cured meats to help customers decide what they’d like to order.

Recently Emily and I bought sandwiches at Salumi, then took them on the ferry to Bainbridge Island, a beautiful 30 minute ride across Elliott Bay. The views of Bainbridge and back to Seattle are amazing, and for an $8.50 fare (the way back is free!), it is well worth your time just for the ferry ride alone. I really only saw the downtown of Bainbridge Island, which is a very cute three-ish block retail and restaurant neighborhood. I’m sure the Island has much more to offer, but we chose to walk the downtown area, then wander a bit along the water, before heading back to Seattle. Homes along the waterfront on Bainbridge Island are also beautiful to gawk at. Once again, I’d love to get closer, but for those nasty trespassing laws.

I have to admit to loving a very touristy part of Seattle too, Pike Place Market. If given the opportunity, I’m happy to take a quick wander through the market and check out the food and craft booths. A couple of favorite stops include Rachel’s Ginger Beer (thanks to Emily for turning me on to this delicious non-alcoholic drink), the donut robot at Daily Dozen Donuts—with hot and fresh mini donuts, and Sarah’s favorite, the Johnson Berry Farm jam stall. I also enjoy a meander past the famous fresh fish stall, but it’s usually packed with people waiting for the popular fish toss.

Emily works in East Lake Union, and with my love of the water, I was delighted to eat Salumi sandwiches on another Seattle visit with Sarah and Bob down by the houseboats on the Lake. I’m a lover of a good rom/com, and can’t help but remember Tom Hanks living on a houseboat in Seattle in the movie Sleepless in Seattle. When Meg Ryan comes out to see him, and they miss each other right near the houseboats, sigh…..But I digress. The houseboats are beautiful, and although I don’t see myself living in one, I sure like to look at them.

One last tidbit that I’d recommend is the Center for Wooden Boats, on South Lake Union. The Center boasts a museum, which wasn’t open when I stopped by, but there are old wooden docks with beautiful historic wooden boats tied up that you can wander around and admire. The location is stunning, and with seaplanes docked nearby, I found myself gasping out loud once or twice at the beauty of it all.

Thankfully, with Emily calling Seattle home, I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to check out more of Seattle’s top spots. And to go to the grocery store before I’ve brushed my teeth too.

Basic Economy Fares Severely Limit Carry-Ons

Last month I flew to Los Angeles for three nights for a “sister weekend” with my sister Teresa. I chose United’s Basic Economy fare, because it just seemed wrong to pay $241 for a roundtrip ticket from Medford to Los Angeles when I could get one for $198. This meant, however, that I was not allowed to take a full-sized rolling carry-on onto the plane. I was limited to one “personal item” that could be no larger than  17” x 10” x 9.” My bag would have to fit underneath my seat on the plane, or I would have to pay a checked bag fee of $30, plus a $25 gate handling fee, or as I like to call it, a “you broke the rules” fee.

Could I do it? Could I pack everything I would need into a personal item? Challenge accepted United Airlines. And yes, I was able to fit everything I needed for the weekend (including a hardbound book!) into a Baggallini Avenue Tote—note my bragging photo at left. Everything, that is, except my deodorant, which I forgot. Sorry Teresa. I even wore two light sweaters, one on top of the other. A little hot perhaps, but smart, right? That and the fact that I didn’t have deodorant with me was only a slight cause of concern.

I got to the airport to get my boarding pass, because with a United Basic Economy ticket, you are not allowed to check in online ahead of time, as the desk agent must see the size of your bag. You also cannot pick a seat in advance, and are instead assigned whatever is left when you check in. As I suspected, the United desk agent did not pay any attention to my bag when he handed me my boarding pass. I worried my outstanding packing and sweatiness would be for naught.

But fear not. At the gate, when those in the cheapest seats were finally allowed to board—Basic Economy Passengers like myself—the gate agent checked out every personal item bag with the eyes of a hawk, and pulled several people aside for trying to carry-on two bags, or for a personal item bag that was too big. And she made them pay too.

I definitely couldn’t fly Basic Economy if I were going to a cooler climate, or on a trip for longer than three or four days. One carry-on, yes. But a personal item only? It’s not easy. Although I didn’t care where my seat was on the plane (second to last row, both directions), I didn’t love waiting until I arrived at the airport to get my boarding pass. I much prefer to talk to as few people as possible and get all my ducks in a row ahead of time online. But if the price is right, and your kind sister is willing to share her deodorant with you, it might just be worth it. On this trip, it definitely was worth it for me.

25 Years of Fun and Adventure at Travel Essentials

When Bob and I rolled into Ashland, Oregon in our orange Volkswagen bus 25 years ago, at the end of a five month honeymoon odyssey around the United States, it would be pretty safe to say that we didn’t think we’d soon move to Ashland and open up a retail travel store. In fact, it would be pretty safe to say that Bob and I had no idea what we might do in the future. We didn’t have jobs, didn’t have a place to call our own (outside of the awesome camper van), and hadn’t really thought much past our honeymoon. Oh youth, I miss you. We did know that we didn’t want to live in the crowded San Francisco Bay Area, and didn’t want to work for “the man.”

With no market research, and nary a thought about how one goes about opening and running a retail store, we decided to move to Ashland and open and run a retail store. Because, why not? We saw a tiny travel store on our big road trip, and knowing that we both loved to travel we thought, “hey, this looks easy and fun. We should do this.” So we pulled up the few stakes we had left in the Bay Area, rented a U-haul for the free furniture our families had gifted us, and moved on up to the quaint Shakespearean town of Ashland.

We leased a storefront in the old Anderson Pharmacy – across the street from our current location – complete with a soda fountain counter and stools in the back. I wish I had a photo of us from the first day we opened, but we were too busy making sales. Yep, we brought in $64.48 that day. So you’ll have to be satisfied with these photos of our honeymoon, because that’s what ultimately brought us to Ashland in the first place.

We quickly learned how to buy merchandise, and bought a seemingly huge amount of books and maps, which in hindsight filled about a quarter of the store. And we learned that when you own a small business, you are the buyer, you’re the salesperson, you’re the janitor, the seamstress, the decorator, the painter, the accountant, the clothes steamer, the newsletter writer, etc., etc. Easy and fun? – Fun definitely, but not always easy. But never too hard.

Amazingly, here it is 25 years later. We’re still the buyer, the salesperson, the janitor, the seamstress…..you get the idea. But we have a wonderful staff helping us out, so thankfully we’re not doing it all on our own. And I daresay, it has gotten easier and even more fun. Everyday we get to visit with great customers who recount their fascinating adventures. And we’re fortunate that we occasionally get to take outstanding trips of our own.

Buck Owens sang, “It takes people like you to make people like me.” And that’s the truth. What we do only works because of people like you who offer a remarkable combination of loyalty to their city and its inhabitants, and a passion for visiting and experiencing people and cultures around the world. And that’s quite a mix. Hats off to you all.

Don’t Let Your TSA PreCheck Expire!

I am a busy woman, okay? I’ve got books piled up on my nightstand, waiting to be read. I’ve got a stack of New Yorker magazines gathering dust on the living room end table. There are recipes I want to try, hikes I want to take, and then there’s that pesky job waiting for me too. I tell you all this to offer up an excuse for why I didn’t realize until last Friday that my five year Global Entry membership expires in three weeks. Whoops.

I do vaguely remember getting an email about this some time ago, and I’m sure I told myself that there was plenty of time to renew. Well, time is now clearly running out for me to get my handy dandy TSA Pre-Check on each flight I take in the next few months.

Once I realized that my procrastination had gotten out of hand, I hastily got into my account on the Trusted Traveler website and filled out my online renewal. Among other things, I had to list every country I have visited since 2014. (Note to self: keep better records.) It’s possible I may have forgotten one country. Will this throw a wrench into my renewal? To be determined. After several screens of questions, I was able to pay my renewal fee of $100, and send in my renewal application. It’s unclear if I’ll have to do another in-person interview at a Global Entry office. It’s also unclear how long the renewal process will take. Some take a few weeks, others longer. It appears I might be able to keep my Global Entry membership while my application is under review, even after my current one expires. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

So if you’ve got TSA PreCheck or Global Entry – and if you’re a frequent traveler, why don’t you? – do yourself a favor and check the expiration date of your membership. Don’t wait until the last minute to renew. Let us hope the TSA gods shine favorably upon me.

Red Light District Tours Banned in Amsterdam

On our trip to Amsterdam last winter, Bob and I walked on more than one occasion through its “notorious” Red Light District. It’s so notorious that the first time, I didn’t even realize we’d entered it until we walked past a glass door lit up with red lights. I’ll admit, I still didn’t get it. Until we walked by a second door lit the same way. Then I clued in to what was going on. Quick on the uptake, eh?

Amsterdam is proud of its liberal attitude towards prostitution and soft drugs. Marijuana shops and prostitution legally take place right in the historic downtown area, with no shame or disgrace. From our Rick Steves guidebook, we learned that Amsterdam employs nearly a thousand prostitutes. Prostitution was legalized in 2000, and there are rules and even taxes.

On our second and third walks that included the Red Light District, I tried to pay a little more attention to my surroundings, and without staring, noticed that women of all ages work in the trade, and in most cases, appeared a little bored while waiting for work. Most were on their phones, texting or perhaps perusing social media or the news. It was way more mundane than I expected it to be. Granted, we were there in the middle of the day or early evening each time, and it was also the dead of winter. I’m guessing things get busier later in the evening, and when the weather is warmer as well. But most people passing through seemed to pay little attention to the workers.

Apparently, that’s not always the case, because as of January 1, 2019, Amsterdam has banned guided tours of the Red Light District. This should come as a surprise to no one, but gawking tourists are apparently bad for business. And an Amsterdam city council member says it is no longer acceptable to see sex workers as a tourist attraction. Overall, Amsterdam is struggling with the number of tourists in its city. Residents say it is increasingly harder to live and work there. Organized tours for the rest of the city have changed as of January 1 as well, with the maximum number of people on a tour being limited to 15, when previously the maximum was 20.

It’s A Nice Day for a White Wedding

When Bob and I got married 26 years ago, we had a very traditional wedding. I wore a beaded white gown with a long train, Bob wore a tuxedo, we had about 175 people in attendance, sitting respectively on the side of the bride and of the groom. We had the typical flower bouquets, wedding guest book with plume pen, first dance, and more.

I look back on that time, and although I wouldn’t say I have regrets (really Bob, I’m not saying that), I can say that if I had to do it all over again, I would likely do things a little differently. I’m not a beaded white gown with a long train kind of gal. Bob is not a tuxedo kind of guy. We’re really more of the backyard barbecue party throwing kind of people. But we—really I, because Bob seriously talked about a backyard barbecue at the time—felt like I had to follow along with how things are “supposed to be” rather than how I might have preferred them to be.

Thus when Bob and I were in San Miguel de Allende recently, and we came upon a wedding procession, being led by a mariachi band and a donkey, and with everyone dressed in decidedly non-traditional wedding garb, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous. Granted the soon to be newlyweds were about the age Bob and I are now, not the 20-somethings we were then. But I was still a little jealous.

We caught the parade as they ambled through Juarez Park early in the evening, with the band leading the way. In addition to the musicians and the donkey, the procession also included two Mojigangas, the giant puppets that accompany nearly every San Miguel de Allende procession, dancing along with the party. Once the group left the park and started walking along the narrow, cobblestone streets, car traffic stopped as the revelers danced their way towards a downtown restaurant. With the beautiful streetlights of San Miguel and its stunning architecture all around, it was quite a scene. We didn’t appear to be the only hangers on to the party. And I’m only a tiny bit disappointed that the family didn’t invite us in once they arrived. We did however, get to hear one final mariachi tune as the bride and groom and their families stood at the door of the restaurant dancing and swaying to the music. When we waved goodbye to them as they went inside, I wasn’t crying, my eyes were just watering because the procession kicked up a lot of dust into the air.