Life launched, lessons learned

I moved to Paris in March.

Some would say my timing couldn't have been worse, with the value of the dollar eroding and French-American relations icy.

But I think there was no better time for shaking up the gray matter and seeing things from a different angle, which is one of the great reasons to travel.

For me, 2004 must be written in red letters because it was the year I seized the chance to live out a dream, to get to know this dazzling city up close, to make it my home and travel staging area at the threshold of all Europe. I meant to return to L.A. after seven months but now have extended my stay for how long only the gods can say. I'd hate to be considered an expatriate, though, because that sounds like something to do with treason.

Politics had nothing to do with my move. I think the best travelers are fundamentally apolitical, and I am amused when, sometimes on the same day, I get a letter or an e-mail from a reader taking me to task for being anti-American and another calling me a Francophobe. More and more, I see the strengths, weaknesses and eccentricities of both countries. More and more, I love them both.

Of course, it became almost impossible to ignore politics this fall during the U.S. presidential campaign, which passionately engaged people everywhere — from my French butcher to the Welshman in a Cardiff pub. The U.S. was a hot topic, so we all had something to talk about, though I was privileged to cast an absentee ballot as an American citizen.

The French assumed I would vote Democratic simply because I live in Paris. Given public acrimony toward President Bush here and the pro-John Kerry stance of the French press, I first predicted an easy win for the Democrats. Then, on a visit to Los Angeles in October, I encountered people with compelling reasons for re-electing Bush and realized how easy it would be to get the wrong idea about America from a distance. That helped me better understand French myopia, though I wished I could take a few Bush supporters back to France with me — like some exotic specimen — to make their case in Paris.

They would have been given a respectful hearing here. We sell human nature short by thinking people in the countries we visit can't distinguish between governments and individuals. So when readers ask me how they'll be treated if they take the risk of traveling abroad when American foreign policy is widely debated or even despised, I tell them there's no need to worry if they travel with open hearts and minds, not to mention a sense of humor.

A few months ago, when I asked in French for the Financial Times, an English newspaper, at a Paris newsstand, the proprietor barked, "What country are you from?"

I narrowed my eyes at him and said with mock ferocity, "I'm American and you'd better be nice to me." It gave us both a good laugh.

Warm greetings

One morning last spring, I stood by I.M. Pei's glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum, trying, unsuccessfully, to find an American tourist who felt uncomfortable in Paris. Hector Black, a tall man from Tennessee in overalls and a baseball cap, said, "I was here during World War II and came back as a student. I love France with no hesitations."

Researching a story on how the rise in anti-Semitic acts in France has affected Jewish American travelers, I was repeatedly told by people I interviewed in the U.S. that the subject was a nonissue for travelers.

And everywhere I traveled in 2004 — from Libya, newly re-opened to American travelers after decades of political isolation, to Dresden in eastern Germany, finally rising from the rubble left by Allied bombers during World War II — I was greeted with warmth and a willingness to listen.

Nor were my experiences unusual. I went to Libya with the first American tour group allowed to visit since the lifting of U.S. travel sanctions in March. Given Libya's record of aiding and abetting terrorists, there was every reason for us to feel uneasy, never mind that our group was accompanied by a government security agent carrying a pistol. But wherever we went, we were received with effervescent surprise and fascination, especially by schoolchildren at the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, who wanted to practice their English and have their pictures taken with us.

I'm not saying people around the world are pro-American, just that they can be pro-American and anti-America at the same time. It was ever so in France, which sent money, arms and gifted military men such as the Marquis de Lafayette to help the U.S. gain independence from England. Little more than a decade later, French radicals, embarking on the Reign of Terror, made an outlaw of the brave marquis and condemned America's fledgling government for its similarities to that of Britain.

U.S. travelers abroad fare best everywhere, including France, if they can relish paradox and hold contradictions in their minds without feeling compelled to resolve them. French people eat fattening foods and stay slim. They are reserved but are the most loyal friends once you get to know them. They are passionately, almost slavishly, concerned about appearance, yet seldom pick up after their dogs.

Observing such contradictions is one of the principal joys of my half-American, half-French existence. Any traveler with eyes open can see them, and it takes only a modicum of effort to meet people, if only on a superficial level.

Another is being close to all the places I wanted to see, which, this year, included Normandy right before the 60th anniversary of the D-day invasion; Libya and the Sahara Desert; Germany's electric Berlin and glorious Baroque Dresden; Italy's Amalfi Coast and the islet of Lipari, my paternal grandfather's home; modern architecture near Basel, Switzerland; London, for an exhibition on women travelers at the National Portrait Gallery; eastern Belgium's Ardennes forest, as oaks and beeches turned yellow in the fall; and Wales, to hear male choirs sing.

In Europe, things are conveniently close together and trains are efficient, though the amazing proliferation of budget airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair has made it often cheaper to fly. In October I flew one-way from Paris to London on British Midland Airways for $55, about what I paid for a cab to Charles de Gaulle International Airport from my Paris apartment.

Hurdles to jump

Moving here meant facing such challenges as finding a place to live and improving my French so I could communicate once I arrived. Meeting them gave me a great deal of satisfaction.

I approached those challenges the way I plan any trip, regardless of the duration. Reading, pursuing leads, talking to people, using instinct and imagination are the keys to organizing an itinerary and getting the most out of a vacation.

Before I left Los Angeles, I called rental agencies that cater to American tourists in France, answered magazine ads, checked the bulletin board at the Alliance Française in Beverly Hills. Ultimately, I found a one-bedroom apartment three blocks south of the River Seine in the chic 7th arrondissement. One landlord I spoke with was an American teacher who suggested I retool my French at Paris Langues, where I took an intensive program during my first month in the city.

By proving, among other things, that I was solvent and not a convicted felon, I got a visa at the French consulate in L.A. Then, in Paris, I had to prove the same things all over again, have a medical examination and pay $285 for a carte de sejour, which allows me to stay in France for a year.

I don't know where I'll be at this time next year, but that doesn't faze me. I like that I sold my car and left most of my worldly goods in a Hollywood storage unit. I didn't even mind turning 50 in August at a dreamy Belgian country inn, with champagne, foie gras and nothing to drag me down.

Of course, any number of things do dismay me, chiefly that I'm now too old to get hit on in southern Italy, where I spent two weeks vacationing with my family in June. Coffee in Paris' vaunted cafes is abysmal, leading me occasionally to visit a Starbucks on the Left Bank, never mind the dreaded homogenizing effects of globalization. My niece in L.A. will be getting ready for her senior prom without her auntie to pin on her corsage.

Worst of all, I'm losing money here, and travelers to Britain and the Continent must face the grim results of the weakening dollar.

I got about .80 euros to the dollar when I arrived in March; now the exchange rate is closer to .75. That means every time I took 200 euros out of a cash machine in Paris 10 months ago, it cost me about $254, including a currency conversion fee. Now the same number of euros costs me $270, and economists say there's no end in sight to the slide of the dollar.

So with every admission to the first level of the Eiffel Tower ($4.50) and two-course bistro dinner ($50, including wine) we buy, we're getting hammered. I take some consolation in knowing that even such places as Canada aren't the bargains they once were for Americans. Travelers who refuse to stay home should shop the market and book early to get the best deals on airfares and hotels, because — trust me — it will feel as though you have a hole in your pocket once you reach your destination.

These days, I often think of a passage in Elizabeth Bishop's "Questions of Travel":

Think of the long trip home.

Should we have stayed at home

and thought of here?

Where should we be today?

It wasn't until last summer that I knew positively that I should be in Europe, because it keeps me alive intellectually and emotionally.

I had just visited Normandy to see where so many of our brave soldiers died, above all, bloody Omaha Beach, which my father, a naval officer during World War II, saw from a transport ship on the morning of the great invasion.

To better understand the Allied liberation of Europe, I read "D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II," a day-by-day account by Stephen E. Ambrose, and "Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944," Robert O. Paxton's scathing assessment of French collaboration with the Nazis during the war.

Standing among the white crosses at the Normandy American Cemetery near Coleville-sur-Mer, I wondered, like so many of my compatriots, how France could ever fail to stand behind the U.S. in such matters as the war in Iraq.

Shortly after that, I went to the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in central France, which has an evocative ruin to commemorate the deaths of 642 civilians killed by German troops on June 10, 1944. For no clear reason, the Nazis burned the village before leaving the area for Normandy, where the Allies were breaking out.

Understanding dawns

Putting those two chronologically close but geographically separate events — D-day, America's finest hour, and the senseless slaughter of innocents in a forgotten corner of the French countryside — together in my mind made me realize that World War II doesn't mean the same thing to the French and Americans.

For us, it means victory; for them, it has to do with shameful defeat to Germany, uncertainty about French behavior during the occupation, and a deep disinclination to wage any future wars, no matter the provocation. As Paxton said in his book, "It is indeed hard for the two peoples to comprehend each other across the chasm of two such different experiences."

In Dresden after that, I had to give serious consideration to German historians who claim the Allies committed a war crime by destroying one of Europe's most treasured cities and about 25,000 — maybe more — citizens and war refugees on Feb. 13, 1945. With the Red Army on Germany's doorstep and the Third Reich clearly collapsing, there was no reason to bomb Dresden, they say.

Knowing a little more about World War II from the perspective of Europe made me see its landscapes in a different light. I had found many German cities characterless, without understanding that we're lucky to have Cologne's great Gothic cathedral, because, unlike the rest of the west German city, it survived the war.

I expected to be charmed by the Welsh port city of Swansea, birthplace of poet Dylan Thomas. Instead, it looks about as snug and cozy as gritty Trenton, N.J., partly because Swansea's petroleum refineries were targeted during the war.

So here I sit in Paris in the season of peace on Earth and good-will toward men, coming to no conclusions about either the fire bombing of Dresden or the current, divisive war in Iraq. But the point is that I'm thinking, which is the reason I bother to travel.

Did I have to leave home to jump-start my brain? It would seem so, but maybe I'll go to Starbucks and give that further consideration.

Memories made -- for better or worse

Best moments

A cruise around the Aeolian islet of Vulcano, la dolce vita day of basking on the boat, swimming in deserted coves, watching fishermen off-load a 60-pound swordfish, eating pasta and drinking wine at the only restaurant in the minuscule Italian port of Gelso.

When a compatriot on a trek to the Sahara Desert of southern Libya downloaded images he'd taken that day to a solar-powered laptop as astonished Tuareg guides — the famed "blue men" of the desert — looked on.

Worst moment

That trek in the Sahara, with the first group of American tourists permitted in Libya since the lifting of U.S. travel sanctions. The tour operator, Mountain Travel Sobek, was eager to get there before the pack, so we ended up hiking in the desert later in the season than is advisable. It hit 132.8 degrees in the shade (if you could find any). There were no toilet or bathing facilities.

Favorite hotels

Two in the Ardennes, a hilly, forested region of eastern Belgium. Auberge du Moulin Hideux, Rue du Moulin Hideux, B-6831, Noirefontaine, 011-32-61-46-70-15, , is a classic European country inn. The rooms are tasteful, the service polished, the long, lush dinners memorable. Doubles from $290 to $427, including breakfast. (Closed for winter until March 12.)

Aux Comtes de Chiny, Embarcadère 35, B-6810, Chiny-sur-Semois, 011-32-61-32-05-44, , is a modest version of the auberge, on a bend in the Semois River. Rooms are spare but comfortable, and the food is satisfying. Doubles with private baths $200, including breakfast and dinner.

Favorite restaurants

Added to my list of good, moderately priced places in Paris: Au Moulin à Vent, 20 Rue des Fossés St.-Bernard, 011-33-1-43-54-99-37, a small, convivial bistro on the edge of the Latin Quarter, with excellent coquilles St. Jacques and côte de boeuf; Le Perron, 6 Rue Perronet, 011-33-1-45-44-71-51, nice people and terrific Italian food in the St. Germain des Près neighborhood; Le Lotus Blanc, 45 Rue de Bourgogne, 011-33-1-45-55-18-89, for Southeast Asian concoctions, on the Left Bank near Les Invalides.

Travel discovery

"The Towers of Trebizond," a 1956 novel by Rose Macaulay about nutty Britons blundering through Turkey.

The venerable, 174-year-old Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR; 011-44-20-7591-3000, . Membership costs about $180 a year and includes a subscription to the society's monthly magazine, Geographical.

— Susan Spano