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Tim Foolery

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Tag Archives: French

Hong Kong Weekend – Trip Introduction

You may not know this, but I’m getting married in May.  It will be a formal affair, so I needed to get a new tuxedo.  I’ve got a Hong Kong tailor who comes to Chicago once a year and I buy a handful of shirts from him each visit.  I was never really happy with the one suit I got from him though – it just didn’t fit right.  I knew I couldn’t do a suit fitting from afar, so I decided that I’d fly to Hong Kong, bring my best man along and get us a couple custom tuxes.  The problem?  From Thanksgiving through mid-February, work is so hectic, I really can’t get away for very long.  There is a sweet spot each January where I can usually escape for 2-3 days.  I’ve used this golden time on the January calendar to visit Shanghai and Stockholm before.

We didn’t have much time, so we decided to leave on Wednesday and return on Sunday.  We are fortunate enough to have a couple direct flights daily between ORD and HKG (UAL and Cathay).  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cash in American miles for Business or First on Cathay, or United Miles – then my best man (EAD) mentioned that he had four Global Premier Upgrades (GPU) expiring at the end of February.  I did a quick check and found that our upgrade would clear immediately on the outbound, but we’d be wait listed for the return. I decided let’s go ahead and book a cash trip on United and apply these GPUs to move us from economy to BusinessFirst.  I figured that about 17K EQMs would be a nice way to start off the year too.

I did forget a key issue with applying GPUs — they aren’t valid on all fare types.  So the $890/person round trip in economy wouldn’t allow me to upgrade.  The cheapest upgradable fares were $1,500 each.  A total of 32 hours in the air for an additional $610/person (or $20 additional per person per hour — SOLD).   I booked the tickets and our GPU cleared immediately into BusinessFirst.  We were able to snag two seats together (United’s 777’s BusinessFirst cabin is in a 2-4-2 seating configuration) on the two seat side of the plane – unfortunately, our seats were backward facing.  This doesn’t bother me at all and while in the air, I don’t even notice that I’m flying backwards.  EAD has a mild motion sickness issue, so we were a bit concerned that this might be a rough flight for him.

Our trip was 16.5 hours to Hong Kong, 63 hours on the ground and then 15.5 hours back to Chicago.  We had to be efficient, that’s for sure.    Over the coming couple of weeks you’ll be able to read about the following aspects of our trip:

Have you been to Hong Kong?

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Quick Tip – Booking Awards on United.com

As you know, each year we take a trip for Thanksgiving – not a family trip, but just an “us” trip.  We’ve gone to Ireland, Mexico City and most recently France/Switzerland.  Usually we’ll wait until summer to book — or if we hear of a great fare sale.  This year we are trying something a little different  – we aren’t going abroad, we’ve decided to stay in the US – again, skipping the family events though.

Once of the reasons we love traveling abroad over the Thanksgiving holiday is that flights in the US are outrageously expensive, while trips to Europe (and even Mexico) are cheaper than usual and often just a few bucks more than domestic flights.  For example, we toyed with the idea of going to San Diego last Thanksgiving.  The airfare was going to be nearly $850 — while our flight to Paris for the same days were basically the exact same price.  I love San Diego, but I love Paris much more.

Since we are traveling in the US over a hugely busy travel weekend, we decided we’d start looking now.  We’ll be spending time in Colorado and needed to fly into a smaller airport away from Denver (we didn’t want to have several hours of driving after our flight to Denver).  We did a quick spot check on the fares — which were running about $700 for less than ideal times and $950 for our preferred times.  I can’t pay that much for a domestic flight – something in my DNA won’t allow for that.

We flipped the switch on United.com to search for award space. Our outbound flight was coming in at 12,500 miles while the return was coming in at 50,000 – a total of 62,500 in economy.  I’d rather not spend that many miles for domestic flight either.  We decided we’d just hold off and see if the cost comes down.  Then it clicked.  MS wasn’t actually logged into United.com – he was searching as a guest.

Screenshot from UAL.com -  "MileagePlus Premier members may receive better search results by signing in."

Screenshot from UAL.com – “MileagePlus Premier members may receive better search results by signing in.”

United.com even offers a warning that Premier members may receive better search results by signing in.  A little “benefit” for being an Elite Flyer that I almost forgot about.  We signed in and managed to find the exact flight we wanted for only 25,000 miles each – coupling that with our outbound for 12,500 our trip would cost 37,500 miles per person versus the 62,500.  That savings of 25,000 miles means that I can take another cheap domestic flight in the future.

My advice – always make sure you are logged into United.com when you start your search for award seats – you’ll need to log in to use your miles, so save yourself some heartache during your search.

Discover Burgundy Wine Tour

We knew we wanted to do a wine tour while in Burgundy and we also knew that France has some very strict drunk driving laws – not that that really impacts us because we have a no tolerance rule on drinking and driving ourselves. We needed someone to drive us and someone to coordinate the various winery visits. After a few minutes of Google and TripAdvisor searches we found Discover Burgundy Wine Tours. Robert and Joy are ex-pats who run this shop and were a pleasure to deal with. We opted for the Premier Cru Tasting. This choice had us being picked up at our Hotel (the Abbaye) along with another couple, who were a bit obnoxious (Australians living in Singapore) and driven north to Côte de Nuit to view the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti vineyard, one of the best known Monopole Vineyards in the Region (perhaps even the world). We just viewed – we didn’t taste, unfortunately. There were a handful of people standing along the stone fence taking photos and selfies – this really is a destination in and of itself.

We learned about the geography and the geology of Burgundy – I personally had no idea how small the Region was (in some parts it’s just a couple hundred meters wide) and discussed the history including the former Duke of Burgundy, how the Region fared during the various wars (100 years, French Revolution and WWI & WWII specifically).

Beautiful Vineyard Views - Burgundy.  Horse drawn vine work.

Beautiful Vineyard Views – Burgundy. Horse drawn vine work.

Beautiful Vineyard Views - Burgundy

Beautiful Vineyard Views – Burgundy

Beautiful Vineyard Views - Burgundy

Beautiful Vineyard Views – Burgundy

Beautiful Vineyard Views - Burgundy

Beautiful Vineyard Views – Burgundy

We stopped at three wineries and tasted the following at each:

Domaine Michel Noellat & Fils (Vosne Romanée Côte de Nuit)

2011 Vosne Romanée
2011 Vosne Romanée Premier Cru “Les Suchots”
2011 Vosne Romanée Premier Cru “Les Beaux Mont”
2011 Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru

Domaine D’Ardhuy (Clos de Langres Corgoloin – Côte de Nuit)

2010 Premiere Cru “Petit Clos Blanc de Teurons”
2011 Meursault – Les Pellans
2011 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru La Niger Deiu
2011 Clos de Langres (Monopole)
2012 Chorey-les-Beaune Les Peuillet

Domaine Henri de Villamont (Savigny Les Beaune – Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuit)

2010 Chassagne – Montrachet
2011 Meursault Les Clous
2011 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru
2008 Volnay Premiere Cru – Le Ronceret
2007 Chambolle-Musigny Premiere Cru Les Feusselottes

We didn’t buy anything from Domaine Michel Noellat & Fils, but did end up making some purchases from our other two stops. We ended up just getting a single mix and matched case from Domaine D’Ardhuy and Domaine Henri de Villamont.

Clos des Langres

Clos des Langres

Our favorite was Domaine D’Ardhuy, equally because of the wine and the woman assigned to walk us through the tasting. Emma was knowledgeable, funny and personable. She’s the type of person that you meet and immediately want to sit and talk to for hours. Domaine D’Ardhuy is a completely biodynamic winery – everything from the vineyards to the cellars. My first run-in with biodymanic wine making was during the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) a few years ago. We visited a biodynamic vineyard called Maysara – so I knew the basics. Like Domaine D’Ardhuy, Maysara had a charismatic and entertaining winemaker. Emma explained more about the cycles of the moon and how it relates to the harvest and well, everything that you do on the winery.

Clos des Langres - After spending some quality time with Emma. Go visit!

Clos des Langres – After spending some quality time with Emma. Go visit!

Around 13h00, between our visits to Domaine D’Ardhuy and Domaine Henri de Villamont we stopped off for lunch at Le Gremelle Hotel and Restaurant. The meal was included in the price of our tour and it was a very acceptable meal. Since we were on a specialty tour, we weren’t allowed to order from the full menu. Our guide, Patrick, gave us three options for a starter and three options for our main and two for dessert. I had a quick peak at the full menu while we were at the restaurant and there were several other items that looked pretty good on the full menu. While I wasn’t wowed by my lunch selection, there were a few other items that I would have loved to have tried. That’s what you get on a tour like this though.

We were given the opportunity to buy up to do a Vintage tasting or add on a nicer restaurant, but we elected to stick with our main tour – the Premiere Cru. The tour itself was 250€ per person and I think it was definitely worth that price – as it included all the tastings, the transportation, the English speaking guide and the lunch. Adding a nicer lunch destination would add 30€ per person and adding on the Vintage tasting the cost would increase by 120€. I love the idea of tasting French wines dating back to the 1960s, but on this trip, I couldn’t pull the trigger. We need to save something for our next trip to Burgundy, right?

Burgundy Discovery was a really good group to work with – starting with the initial inquiry to the pickup all the way through the tour and the drop off. I wouldn’t hesitate in coordinating another tour with these folks again. I’m sure there are several other equally qualified and professional guides in the Region, but why fix it if it isn’t broken, right?

Language Study – 2015 Plan

I’ve been studying French at L’Alliance Francaise de Chicago since the July 2011.  I’ve been taking a two hour class each week.  The classes are grouped into 8 week sessions that build off of each other and utilize the spiral learning method – wherein you touch on a topic briefly initially (quick introduction) then get reintroduced in a more in depth fashion a few weeks later, then again and again.  I end up missing one or two classes each 8 week session because of work or vacation commitments.  I do the homework and I participate in class, but I’m not where I want to be in my language study.  After 3.5 years of studying, I’d like to feel comfortable enough to vacation in France and basically function in French.

I can order food and drinks in restaurants. I can ask for directions (and understand the basic responses).  I can read signs and menus. I can’t carry on basic back and forth with a server in a restaurant or a shopkeeper.  My listening skills aren’t where I want them to be and the quickness of my mind isn’t there either.

I use Anki to study the vocabulary words from the immediate session we are studying in class — and I can memorize these terms pretty quickly.  I feel I’m a bit ahead of the rest of my class in this regard — but not in many other parts.

I can listen to a dialog  and read along with it and can respond pretty quickly, but without the subtitles or a script along with it, I struggle.  This is not where I want to be.  I don’t feel I spend enough time each week studying — I think I need to focus more.

I’ve decided for 2015 to put together an official Language Study Plan  that I hope will allow me to progress to the level I feel I should be.  I want to focus on all aspects of Language Study – Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening.  My plan is below:

  • Continue to take classes at L’Alliance each term
  • Flashcards – Daily
    • Continue Chapter Vocab
    • Learn Other Critical Words
      • Food
      • Shopping
      • Travl
  • Read two French Language Books in 2015
    • L’Etranger (I love this book by Albert Camus and know the story very well and it’s a small book). Finish by 6/30
    • Any suggestions for the other book? I hear reading a children’s book is good too. Finish by 12/31
  • Write a one page essay each month (and share with my French classmates to critique, and share on Tim-Foolery.com)
    • February – Autobiography
    • March – Winter
    • April – Spring
    • May – Wine
    • June – Our Garden
    • July – L’Etranger Book Report
    • August – International Pinot Noir Celebration / Vacation
    • September – Summer
    • October – French Foods / Recipes
    • November – Fall
    • December – Christmas
  • Listen to the Michel Thomas Language Lessons (for listening/speaking)
    • Two 30 Minute Sessions Each Week
  • Watch one French Film each month
  • Watch TV5 News twice weekly
  • Watch 30 minutes of non-news each week on TV5
  • Travel to one French Speaking Country in 2015

This is my plan as it stands now.  Do you have any recommendations or suggested ways to tweak my plan for 2015?  What are your language study plans for the year?  What languages are you studying now?

Holiday Inn Bern – Westside

We decided to stay at the Holiday Inn in Bern, Switzerland. MS usually has to stay at an IHG Hotel when traveling for work, so we’ve got a ton of points built up – and since Switzerland is so expensive, it made sense to burn some of these seldom used IHG points. We usually stay in the center of whatever City we are visiting – we don’t like the burbs at home, we don’t like them on vacation, but based on the various reviews…and well, availability the days we were in town, we decided to stay on the edge of town.

The Holiday Inn is connected to a large shopping mall and is adjacent to a commuter rail line that takes you into Bern Central Station. There is just one stop that separates the Holiday Inn Bern-Westside and the Central Station – this trip took less than 10 minutes. Another benefit – the good folks at the Holiday Inn gave us a free transit pass to get between the hotel and the Center. Not an Earth Shattering Perk, but a nice surprise nonetheless.

We checked into the hotel at around 15h30 and were greeted by some very young looking gentlemen who were working the front desk. They thanked MS for his loyalty to IHG and recognized his status (I don’t think the status got us anything – or maybe the free train ticket was a benefit…who knows). We were efficiently checked in and given a rundown of the facilities, which included direct access to the mall, complimentary internet and access to breakfast in the hotel (not complimentary). They also explained to us how the gym access worked, but 1) we had no intention of using it and 2) the explanation was long and complex so even if we wanted to use it, we probably couldn’t have figured it out – the explanation was mostly about open hours and how to get to the gym.

We were on the 7th floor of the hotel in a standard room. The room had a queen size bed, a small desk, a small closet with a coffee station and a safe.

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Bed and Seating Area

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Bed and Seating Area

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Queen Bed

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Queen Bed

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Coffe Closet

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Coffe Closet

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Desk, TV and Oddly Placed Art

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Desk, TV and Oddly Placed Art

The bathroom was clean and modern – as was the entire hotel. The building looks to be only a couple years old and despite it being a Holiday Inn, it is in really great shape. That being said, I will say that the European Holiday Inns are usually much better than the ones I come across in the US.

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Efficient Bathroom

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Efficient Bathroom

I did find it interesting that the room was pretty bare. There was but a single piece of art hanging on the walls. It was a bit above the TV, sort of bridging the gap between the TV and the closet – a large expanse of white walls. It looked strange where it was hung and the subject matter was odd: the picture was of different chocolates. When in Switzerland, I guess.

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Another View of the Oddly Placed Art

Holiday Inn Bern-Westside Another View of the Oddly Placed Art

One of my biggest concerns in a hotel anywhere is that we have hot water and good water pressure in the morning. This hotel was perfect in both respects. God I hate getting up with a luke warm drizzle shower.

We did have one issue at the hotel and it was all our fault. When driving up to Bern from Beaune, we hit some pretty heavy fog so we turned on the fog lights in our rental car. We neglected to turn them off when we parked at the hotel. As we left, we noticed the lights were on, but very dim. There was a bit of juice in the battery, but not enough to turn the engine over. I’ll write about the awful customer service provided by the rental agency Sixt later. Long story short, the hotel and the shopping mall helped us eventually get the battery jumped and we were on our way – wasting about 2.5 hours of the day and requiring us to miss a couple sites we wanted to see in Bern. Now we have a real reason to go back!

Speaking of going back to Bern, I wouldn’t hesitate staying at the Holiday Inn Bern-Westside again. The location isn’t ideal, but the train connection is frequent (and free), the hotel is modern, clean and with a great staff. I’d prefer it to be in the Center, but you can’t be perfect. One recommendation though, skip the breakfast at the hotel and walk to a coffee/pastry shop inside the shopping mall. You’ll get a great selection of food and two people can eat for less than half the price of one person at the restaurant in the hotel.