My first stop was in Nice (pronounced Niece). This is France's fifth largest city. It's located on the Mediterranean coast, in the far southeast corner of France, in the area generally known as the "French Riviera". During the summer months, this is a resort community where people come from all over Europe and other places to hang out at the beach. It's been a resort since the 17th century. It's only 20 km (15 miles) from the Italian border, and very close to Monaco.
You can find a pretty good summary of information about France at the CIA's World FactBook for France. This website is a pretty good reference for most countries in the world, and you can find an index at the CIA World FactBook Homepage. France is the biggest country in Western Europe, but fairly small by American Standards. It's about 5% the size of the U.S., or about 50% bigger than California. It's population is about 20% of the U.S. population. Combined with the much smaller size, this gives it a population density (people per square mile) about four times the U.S.
The town of Nice looks something like this when viewed from my bike on the way down the coast. My stepdaughter Noelle and her boyfriend Andrew lived about 90 km (60 miles) outside of Nice for the last three months, in a tiny little town called Breil (pronounced Bray), in the foothills on the way to Italy. It looks something like this. She's done with that job now, and has moved over to a spot about two hours south of Toulouse near the border with Spain. She'll be staying there through March, and then she'll figure out where to go next.
Noelle and Andrew have been working on organic farms, rebuilding buildings and other types of work. I'm not quite sure how a Bowdoin Music Major ends up building stone walls using traditional 17th century methods, but I guess I don't really need to understand. Most towns in France have fairly strict building codes, and people are required to build using techniques that will fit in with the town's character. These are more or less strict in different towns. For example, in some towns all roofs have to be done with one of two types of traditional slate material, and all other materials are banned. In some towns, you can use modern techniques, but the facade has to be approved as harmonious to the environment. In other towns, you have to use absolutely authentic methods and materials. In some cases, you don't absolutely have to make the new buildings fit in, but you get tax advantages if you do. Andrew and Noelle spent most of their time building rock walls, floors, cellars and other building additions or repairs. Some of the buildings they were working on were simply ruined through old age, and some were ruined by any one of the numerous wars that have been fought in the region.
Most of the time in France was spent hanging out with family members gathered there for the holidays. In addition to Noelle, we had Noelle's mother Connie, Andrew's father, his sister and her fiancÚ. Andrew's sister is named Chris, and her fiancÚ is also named Chris, so collectively they're called "The Chrisses".
I also put my new bike together and rode it for about 100 km (65 miles) to break it in a bit. Riding in France is very different from riding in the U.S. The typical French driver has a bit of an unusual reaction to bike traffic. It can be summarized as:
American riders can immediately see that this is an entirely new experience. The drivers in general show a lot more respect for bikes than I'm used to in the U.S. I also rode about 30 km outside of Nice, following some other riders to see what route they used. It turns out that when there are no bike lanes, you just get in the right lane of any road you want to travel, and cruise along. The cars will work their way around you as you go. The road I took was roughly equivalent to jumping on 101 in Mountain View on a bike, and riding up to Redwood City in the right hand lane. Nobody seemed to think anything of it.
In Europe, all of the cars are smaller, there's more and better public transportation, and there are lots more bikes, scooters, motorcycles and other small and fuel efficient vehicles. I was sharing the lane with ordinary cars, slow trucks and lots of scooters. One of the most popular cars I've seen is a cute little number called a Smart Car. I want to bring one of these back home, just because they're so danged cute. You almost never see pickups or SUVs, and most of the commercial trucks you see are much smaller than the American equivalents. You do see a fair number of Mercedes and BMWs though, and in fact all the taxis I used in France were Mercedes E series.
Part of the difference is the generally lower energy density way of living that people have in the rest of the world. In case you didn't know it, the U.S. is the biggest energy hog in the world, and the rest of the world consumes lots less energy. Total energy consumption per person in France is 52% of what it is in the U.S. Egypt and Thailand are both about 3% (yes, that's not a typo - 3%), and Vietnam's is less than 1%. In fact, the U.S. has about 4% of the world's population, but uses 25% of the world's energy.
Almost all the countries I visited have much higher population densities than the U.S. (people / square km or mile). France has about four times as many people per square km as the U.S., and Vietnam has almost nine times. In part, this makes the problem of public transportation easier to solve, because a smaller system can serve more people, but part of it is just that the Europeans make a bigger commitment to it. For a good example of this, look at BART. It's now about 30 years old, it was made without connecting to any of the three airports in the region, and they're just now getting around to extending it over towards Livermore.
I also noticed a generally lower level of waste in other subtle ways as I traveled around the place. For example, very few people have clothes dryers. Most people just hang their laundry out. Most houses I saw have a small rack outside one of the windows that serves as a clothes line. Public transportation in Europe is much better than in the U.S. It's quite easy for someone that wants to tour through Europe to do it all by trains or busses. Trains go everywhere, and for the most part they seem to work well. I've also seen lower use of packaging in restaurants, shops and other places. Hotels don't automatically throw away a bar of soap that's been used once, or a half bottle of shampoo. In Thailand and Vietnam, hotel rooms frequently have a socket on the wall that you plug your key into. This powers the air conditioning and/or lights and other appliances. That way when you leave the room, you automatically turn these things off (or lock your key in the room<g>). The lights in common areas on hotels are frequently on a timer, so you turn them on when you go into the hallway, and they turn themselves off a few minutes later, or some are hooked to motion detectors. The places I've stayed in Thailand and Vietnam use either inline water heaters, or very small local water heaters for the shower. These use considerably less energy than the typical big boiler setup you'll find in U.S. hotels. There are other examples, but you get the idea. None of these things are huge by themselves, but they add up.
One really funny thing I've noticed both in Amsterdam and in France, is that I see lots of OLD bikes (1950's vintage), but very few new bikes. In Amsterdam I saw about 300 old ones, and not a single new one. In France, I only saw around 10 or 20 new ones. I'm not sure what that says, it just seemed odd. There are also fewer bike shops. Since biking is fairly common in France, I'll have to assume that people either use them for longer periods of time, or they get them some other way, or I'm just an ignorant tourist and don't know where to look. It may be simply that people here don't buy a bike, ride it for a month, and then leave it in the garage forever. At any rate, it seemed a bit strange. For example, Paris only had about 30 cycle shops listed in the yellow pages, and most of those were selling scooters. This is for a city almost as big as New York City. Speaking of scooters, I saw the coolest scooter in Paris. It's made by BMW, and it has a full roll cage, windshield, stereo and all the comforts of home.
We made a day trip up to Breil to see the place where Noelle and Andrew worked for the last few months. During the visit, we climbed up to the remains of a mediaeval castle. Here's a picture of me at the castle, just to prove I really went there and I'm not making this stuff up. Here's Andrew and his family.
There are a few interesting stories about this region. If you look on the map above, you can clearly see that this are is right in the middle between the strongholds of Italy and France. In fact, the Italian border was a river in the middle of Nice until 1860. As such, it's been constantly in contention between the two countries over the last few hundred years. Parts of the region have flip-flopped between France and Italy several times. In some earlier wars, Italy tried very hard to take the area, but could never manage it because it's very mountainous country, and the locals could melt into the mountains and wage guerilla warfare. In World War II, Italy decided to try to take it very early on. They sent an army to try to take the region, so the locals all burned their own houses, bombed their own bridges, and faded into the hills. I guess they were tired of fighting over the region. At the end of the war, some areas got to choose whether they became part of France or Italy, and they chose by town. This results in a very funny squiggly border line in the region.
The French tend to have lots more cheese mixed into the diet than Americans, but it's primarily soft cheese. A typical breakfast includes baguettes, which look like an individual serving of French bread, complete with the hard crust; or a croissant. You generally spread butter and jam on this, or soft cheese. I've never been much for cheese in the morning, but after a week of this I've decided it's a good idea. Noelle also found the coolest breakfast place in Nice. They serve you bread, eggs and croissants, and they have about a dozen jars of various types of toppings for the bread. They had an excellent chocolate spread for the croissants. It wasn't quite as sweet as chocolate frosting, and went quite well with the bread. They also had a local pear spread that was excellent. It was a nice fun morning to just try grabbing stuff from a bunch of big jars on the table as you went along.
The best thing I found in Nice is called a "Mad Salad". I thought this entirely appropriate to go along with the "Mad American on his Funny Bike" reputation I seem to be acquiring. This salad consisted of lettuce in small amounts, bacon, ham, apples and cheese. Then a fried egg is dropped on the top of the whole thing, and there you have it. It was very good. The apple and the egg were definitely a new and good innovation for a salad.
When you get to a new hotel, go to the front desk and get a map if they have one, or at least a card with the address of the hotel in the local language. Sooner or later, you'll be lost and have to resort to a taxi to get back. The taxi driver may not speak English.
Immediately after that, go out and walk around the block twice, and try to memorize all the landmarks you can see. It'll make it much easier to find your way back when you're walking or cycling. I've been completely lost on Hanoi, and later discovered I was one block from the hotel.
Paris is the most populous capital in Europe, with 5 million people. That compares to about 8 million for New York City. Noelle, Andrew and I were there for three days before Noelle and I left for Egypt. We were at the Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower) for New Years Eve. It was kind of fun, but my pictures didn't come out very well since I didn't have a tripod. They lit up the tower with a New Years Eve Sign, and at midnight they turned on some blue flashy lights. I was expecting fireworks, but there were none.
One thing that I've been having trouble with as a Californian is the amount of smoking everywhere I go. I've gotten used to not having to deal with smoke on a regular basis, but it seems like every second person in France smokes, and it's even worse in Egypt. Some restaurants will occasionally have a non-smoking section, but the non smoking section will frequently be just on the other side of a seat from the smoking section. The trains have non-smoking sections, but the other end of the car is a smoking section and there's nothing between them but a door that gets opened frequently, so the non-smoking section fills up with smoke too. One really amusing thing to witness is that some smokers will buy a non-smoking ticket because they don't like the smoke either. They'll get up and go back into the smoking section to puff away, and then return to the non-smoking section, dragging their smoke with them.
Paris is a very clean city. It's not quite as clean as some of the cities in Switzerland, but it's pretty clean nonetheless; particularly if you compare it to most American cities. It's a fairly green city, with a fair but not astounding number of parks, trees and the like.
Paris has an excellent Metro system once you understand it. If you ever visit Paris, here's the key to the Metro system. Look at the map which has very helpful colored lines. Then remember that the colors on the map are there just to mess with your mind. Once you find the line you want, DO NOT look for signs with the same color, because that way lies madness. They have colors on the signs, but the colors have nothing in common with the colors on the map. Once you understand that, it becomes easy. Just look for the words or letter/number designation of the line you want to take and look for that sign while ignoring the colors. If you want color coding that makes sense, go to London and ride the underground. The metro is very clean, fast, and they have a lot of trains. It also seems to be much quieter and smoother than most subways. Except for a complete fiasco they perpetrated on New Years Eve, I never waited more than five minutes for a train.
Paris has lots of cool touristy things to do, but since I've been here twice before I didn't really go to many of them on this trip. I spent part of the time working (yes, I still have a job. Gotta pay for this thing somehow), and just walking around the city. It's a nice city to walk around in. I also read "The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography" by Simon Singh. This is a very well written treatise on cryptography for all of recorded history. It's easy to read, and if you are at all interested in the topic, I highly recommend it. You don't have to be a geek to be able to understand it.
The concept of a supermarket has never caught on in any European cities I've visited. If you walk around Paris, you see lots of little mom-and-pop shops, but nothing really very big. To make a typical dinner, you'll end up visiting four or five stores. This isn't good or bad, just different. Paris had very good produce, and in particular they had the best tangerines I've ever eaten. They were much sweeter than American tangerines and had very few seeds.
If I stayed in Europe very long, I'd be completely unable to drink American coffee ever again. Everywhere you go in France, if you ask for coffee, you get what would be called espresso in the U.S. There is really no equivalent to standard American coffee. They do have a drink called Cafe Americano, which is espresso diluted with water. Ordering it is a good way to get pitying looks from the locals. After a week in France, I was pretty much hooked on espresso, even though I never really drank it at home.
The best new food idea I ran into in Paris was the idea of mayonnaise and beets. Don't laugh. One of my meals came with a boiled egg, with mayonnaise on top, surrounded by beets. The mayo was sweeter than American mayo, but not bad. There was just too much of it, so once I went through the eggs, I started dipping the beets in the mayo. Then when I ran out of beets, I started dipping bread in a mixture of mayo and beet juice. This was very good eating.
Pizza in France and Italy is much different from what how we eat it in the U.S. They're smaller, and you order one pizza for one person. They aren't sliced, they tend to have less cheese, and the crust is a bit stiffer than what we're used to. Europeans eat it with a knife and fork, and you would frequently have a salad with it. The combinations of toppings is also a bit different from what we would expect here. You may find goat cheese, or ham or peppers, but I've never seen pepperoni, sausage or any of the other typical toppings you expect here.
Carry a small, cheap compass at all times. They're great for finding your way around a new city:
If you ride a bicycle, get a bigger one and mount it on the handlebars. Random wandering is the best way to see a city, and a compass helps make it just a little less random, or at least helps you keep going the direction you want to go. I routinely go back to the hotel by simply pointing in the direction I think it's at, and wander around until I find something I recognize. This works surprisingly well.
Next - Egypt