Planning ahead

Written 27 January 2019

As usual, after the holiday-season dust settled, we started thinking about our summer travel plans, and a little to my surprise, David suggested another Viking river cruise. He didn't even have a particular one in mind. He'd just been listening to some of his bridge buddies saying that since they turned 75 they didn't really feel up to European travel any more. He and I both turn 70 this year, so he thought we'd better start checking off those trips!

So I went to Viking's "last-minute limited availability" page and worked my way down the list. We wanted to spend time in France before or after the cruise, and June is a nice month for that. So after I eliminated the choices with no June availability, those with a lot of overlap with the "Grand European Tour" cruise we've talked about doing with the Sinnetts next year or the year after, those in Asia, and those that covered only parts of France we've already done extensively, only a few were left. We settled on the 12-day "Paris to the Swiss Alps," which starts in Paris, busses us to Trier to board the ship, cruises to Basel, and busses us to Zurich. Or the other direction. We'd hoped to start at the Zürich end and to stay on in Paris afterward, but the only dates available would have run our time in Paris into July, when the crowds show up and the best restaurants close.

In the end we settled on starting with 10 days on our own in Paris, then joining the cruise and flying home from Zürich. David immediately got out the Gault-Millau guide and picked out 19 potential Paris restaurants (though we'll only have 12 evenings there). We'll pass through four countries: France, Luxembourg (the bus ride to Trier includes a stop for a city walking tour there), Germany, and Switzerland.


Many fewer of the optional shore excursions (i.e., the ones that cost extra) appealed to us then on the Russian trip. All three options in Paris and even the included general city tour by bus seemed superfluous—we've already done a cabaret/dinner show, visited Versailles, toured Montmartre, and been driven along the banks of the Seine. Then later, in Germany, we did not feel compelled to bicycle through the vineyards, to view the countryside from canoes, or to skip the included city tour of Mainz to be driven through the Alps (we did that with the meiofauna folks when they met in Vienna). In the end, we signed up only for two (relatively inexpensive) wine tastings and the visit to the Lindt factory with hands-on chocolate-making workshop. That's my kind of tourism! Besides Paris, which you can't really use up, the only overlap with our previous travels is the stop in Strasbourg, but we haven't been there since 1995, when we spent a week in the area after the meiofauna meetings in Perpignan. So the cruise is squared away, except for arranging our air travel, which Viking will consult with us about when we're within about 100 days of the cruise departure.

My phone doesn't work in Europe, so making restaurant reservations makes no sense until I can supply local contact information—it's the first thing they ask for. So I started working on accommodations. I Google-mapped the cruise hotel (the Méredien Étoile in Paris), then used the "search nearby" function to map nearby hotels. Surprisingly, I found three that listed rooms at less than $100/night. I also checked VRBO, the website where I found last year's Paris apartment, and was surprised that all the apartments in the area of the size we wanted were more expensive per night than those hotels! But, of course, when I set out to reserve at one of the hotels, I found that the low rates only applied if you wanted to stay there this week, in mid-January. For our dates in June, they were over $200/night. So back to VRBO. I found us a nice apartment right off the Champs Élysées (technically the Avenue de la Grande Armée, since it's west of the Arc de Triomphe) with two bedrooms, for less per night than a single hotel room.

A hotel would have provided us with the requisite local contact info, but the apartment doesn't, because we probably won't have the use of its phone and also because we won't even learn the exact address until a week or two before our arrival. So I was once again in the position of having to make long explanations to all the restaurants about contact info and promising to call them all with a phone number once I got to Paris, found an Oranage Boutique, and bought a local SIM card. Drat.

But then I remembered a comment by a friend who travels frequently in France about a cheap phone company there that would sell you a SIM card and send it to you in advance. I checked the website, and sure enough they would. If I wanted nothing but the ability to make and receive phone calls, it was indeed cheap, but the plan I needed (with data and mapping capabilities) wasn't any cheaper than Orange. Drat again. So I just Googled "acheter carte SIM orange" and Bingo! Orange will also sell you a prepaid card designed for vacationers, right on Amazon, and ship it to you. I'm a dunce not to have thought of this before. You put it into the phone while you taxi to the gate at CDG (which usually takes plenty of time), and by the time you've gotten through passport control and claimed your luggage, it should have picked up the Orange network and become functional! Best of all, you know your temporary number as soon as you receive the card, so my explanations to the restaurants are simplified to "this American number until this date; this French number after this date." I've usually had to put the French number in the comments section anyway, because most of the websites wouldn't accept it as a valid number—don't know whether that's because it's temporary or because it doesn't, e.g., match my American e-mail address or some such. As soon as the card arrives, I'll check the phone number and start lining up restaurants.

Written 31 January 2019

orange And here it is, the "Orange Holiday Europe" pack, complete with SIM card and instruction booklet. To be able to use it for more than two weeks, I have to "identify" myself by registering either on line or by mail, with a photocopy of my passport ID page. I suspsect the enclosed prepaid registration envelope is only good for French postage, so I'll fill out the form, copy my passport, and have it all ready to mail as soon as I get to France and make my first call.

The instruction booklet is 54 pages long, but only because the same four pages of info are repeated in nine different languages. I've just photocopied the English ones to fold up and stash somewhere in my purse, together with a handy enclosed "memo card" that gives space for me to fill in my own number and also gives a list of emergency numbers for use in France.

So, equipped with my new French phone number, I set out to make restaurant reservations, only to find that all but two of the restaurants won't accept reservations that far in advance. Drat. I'll have to try again in a couple of months.

Written 25 May 2019

Whew! It's been a long couple of months. I couldn't get the last couple of restaurant reservations made until 14 May! and since I last wrote here, my father has reached the point where he had to move to assisted living, so in February and March, I flew to North Carolina three times to sort that out and put his house on the market (a saga in itself and still ongoing—anybody out there want a house in the Resesarch Triangle?), and in April, we went up to Maryland to spend Passover with the Sinnetts. On that trip, we met young CJ's second daughter, who was only 10 days old at the time.

About the time I was travelling so much, my laptop's third battery gave out, and because its keyboard has gotten so flaky, I realized I really needed to replace the whole computer rather than springing for another new battery. That's a really stressful process—both choosing a new machine and getting it set up with all the right software.

And while all this was going on, EarthLink abruptly announced that they were shutting down my website. Please let them know if they should send me copies of all my pages beforehand. What?! Would my e-mail address disappear, too? Back in the Pleistocene, we signed up for our very first internet access and home e-mail address with a little local outfit called InfiNet. Shortly thereafter, EarthLink bought InfiNet and after a while made us change our original e-mail address ( to the lumpy and nonmnemonic That was a nuisance, but the good part of the deal was that our account included 10 MB of free cyberspace! The wonderful computer guys in the Biological Science department had taught me to use a simple FTP program and steered me to a website where I could learn simple HTML (which turned out to be a lot like the editorial mark-up language I'd been using to code manuscripts for publication), so I was able to set up the original Thistle Home Base and have been using it ever since. Over the years, it has ramified somewhat but has remained small, simple, and serviceable.

Of course, these days, we get our internet access through ComCast (the company that serves Westminster Oaks), and I have life-time e-mail addresses through both FSU and my alumnae association, so we've been paying EarthLink monthly all these years just to keep that 10 MG of web space. A long live-chat with EarthLink revealed that, now, they had decided to discontinue the account type that included the free space! They promised to send me info on other ways I might proceed, but they never sent it. So I've been in denial ever since. The deadline came and went, but my pages stayed up and usable (though frozen, so that I can't update them), and I was afraid to attract EarthLink's attention, lest I remind them that they were going to take my pages down.

This week, though, life calmed down enough (reservations done, Papa stable), so I called them up and spent about an hour on the phone with a sales rep. To accommodate people in my position, they offer a special deal, for about 60% of what we've been paying, for 20 times as much web space. I have to have my own domain name to do it, but they pay for the first year of that. They even claim that dthistle@infionline will continue to work. So now Thistle Home Base is up and running at it's new URL: As soon as I'm sure it's all working properly, I'll discontinue the old account, and then my old pages presumably will disappear.

Note, though, that the actual travel diary pages were never in danger—only the links leading to them. The diaries themselves are graciously hosted by the FSU Department of Biological Science, for which I offer them heartfelt thanks.

With luck, I'll be able to acquire a new laptop in time for the trip to Paris, and the Biological Science computer guys have promised to help me set it up, so things are looking up, and I'm calming down.

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