Just Dance

14 March 2017 —
Dance like no one’s watching, they say.

But of course that’s kind of difficult if you’re in front of one of the most famous churches in the world, in the middle of one of the most visited cities of the world, and you know for a fact that despite it being low season, dozens of people are going to be watching you.

But then you think…

Who cares?

Who cares if they’ll be watching? Who cares if dancing isn’t your strong suit? Who cares that the only other people to respond to the musician’s invitation is a group of seven friends who look like they’ve known each other all their lives?

Are you going to spend all your life thinking: “Dammit, I should have danced”?

What are you really going to regret more?

When are you going to get another chance to prance and clap and stomp your feet, to move to music that makes you laugh, to whirl in bliss under the bright winter sun among the crowd gathered at the Notre Dame?

You want to dance so dance.

Do it: step forward, don’t give it another thought.

Move and immerse yourself in a experience you know you’ll never forget.

“Once upon a time, I danced in front of the Notre Dame…”

Die of mortification if you have to, then live to tell the tale.

For the record, I didn’t need that much of a pep talk to step forward when the leader of a group of musicians playing in front of the Notre Dame asked for volunteer dancers. I had just spent the last couple of hours feeding birds with a complete stranger so by then I was in “what the heck, why not” mode. 🙂 Unfortunately, I was traveling alone and there was no one to take a photo or a video of me dancing. But it happened, I swear. 🙂

Where We All Go

Four weeks ago, as I was walking towards the Tuileries Garden, I fell in step and into conversation with a retired French schoolteacher. It actually started with him asking me if I was Japanese and when I said I was from the Philippines, he exclaimed that he had been.

Christian — that was his name — had traveled quite a lot in his youth. In fact, he said, that was why he chose teaching as a profession: the long vacations meant he could travel to more countries, for a greater period of time. In the Philippines, he told me, he was able to visit Manila and Baguio, and Boracay long before the hordes “discovered” it. I asked him what his favorite country or city was; he answered it was impossible to say. “It’s not this place or that place that I love,” he said. “It’s the whole thing. Traveling.”

Our conversation was in English, of course, as despite my best intentions, my French still hadn’t progressed beyond courtesies and a prepared apology for not being able to speak the language. Christian, on the other hand, had been an English teacher. I told him I regretted not being conversant in French, to which he replied, “Oh, Gaya, it doesn’t matter. Don’t waste your time. You know English, you can explore the world. You don’t have enough time to learn the language of every country you visit.” (A surprising sentiment, that was, given, erm, certain French reputations, but one I’d actually heard before, from two French men in Marseille…who both knew Tagalog. Expect the unexpected, indeed, when you travel the world.)

Christian had kept records of his own travels. By the time he retired, he had filled dozens of notebooks with thoughts about the world he’d seen with his own eyes. Unfortunately, a shipping accident caused many of the notebooks to be lost or damaged; only a few now remained. I could tell this saddened him but not overly so. He still had his memories, after all, and that was more important.

Nowadays, Christian lives in the suburbs of Paris with a friend — a frenemy, he said in a tone both tart and fond — whom he met on a stint teaching English abroad. His wife is gone; his daughter has her own family. He travels much less frequently now but he does, at least twice a week, make the journey from his home to central Paris, armed with hard staling baguettes, to feed the birds and ducks at the basins of the Tuileries. Afterwards, he drops by the library and reads the papers. He takes notes to help him remember what he’s learned, constantly challenging his mind to keep dementia at bay.

I wondered, at some point, if he was lonely — if he found his life now a far cry from the wandering days of his past — but if he was, he seemed to have made his peace with it.

I wondered too, at some point, if I would end up like him, and decided it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

“If I lived around here,” I told him as he handed me pieces of bread to toss to his eager beneficiaries, “I’d come every day and feed the birds too.”

Afterwards, he asked me if I had any plans for lunch because he wanted to treat me to McDonald’s. I was then quite hungry and, spotting a cafe among the bare trees of the Tuileries, I proposed I buy him lunch there instead. He said, dismissively, they probably only had French food. I murmured it might be nice to eat French food in France but he seemed (or pretended?) not to have heard.

Okay then: McDonald’s.

Over lunch, he said that in many of the places he’d visited, there were no McDonald’s branches because the people there couldn’t afford it. I told him that it used to be — and probably still is, for many — a status symbol in the Philippines to be able to eat at McDonald’s. However, I added, we had a homegrown fast food chain that we loved even more, so much so that there were branches of it in countries that had a significant Filipino population.

The thought delighted him. “What’s it called?” He asked and proceeded to write down “Jollibee” in one of the folded sheets of paper he was carrying. “I’ll look it up,” he said with satisfaction.

We went our separate ways near Notre Dame — me to revisit the park behind the church to paint a happier layer over an old grief, Christian to the library to resume a well-worn path. Before we parted, he told me it had been an absolute joy to spend the past few hours with me. In all sincerity though — inspired beyond words by his life, his outlook, his generosity and quiet dignity — I assured him the pleasure was mine.

The Eiffel Tower: You Never Forget Your First(s)

6 March 2017 — 
It can’t possibly be cool, to still be gushing about my first sight of the Eiffel Tower six years and two return trips after my first first-sight, but the truth remains it’s one of my most vivid memories of my trip last month: looking out the window of the DIRECT2 bus from CDG and catching sight of the Eiffel Tower through the golden haze-bathed terrace of the Palais de Chaillot.

Valentine’s Day Tickets to Paris for Only $480! (Yep, round-trip!)

SGMT | Valentine’s Day Tickets to Paris for Only $480!
SGMT France Paris Bridge Street Lamp posts

How does Paris for Valentine’s Day next year sound? ^_^

EVA Air, one of the top 10 airlines in the world, is currently offering round-trip tickets to Paris for only $480, for flights departing January, February or March 2017. That’s just a little over PHP 23,000 for tickets that usually cost PHP 50,000 or more! Take note these flights to Paris depart from Hong Kong but you can nearly always get cheap tickets to Hong Kong from the Philippines, so that’s not going to be a problem.

Here’s how to book:


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How to Get A Schengen Visa Through the French Embassy (UPDATED 2017)

SGMT France Paris Hotel de Ville

The French embassy in the Philippines has entrusted processing of Schengen visa applications to VFS Global. Here’s what you need to know about the current procedure for getting a Schengen visa through the French embassy.

See if you are one of the people allowed to apply directly to the French embassy HERE.

Want to know about my personal experience applying for a Schengen visa at the French embassy? Read this article.

Basic steps

  1. Prepare your documents.
  2. Schedule an appointment with VFS.
  3. Go to the visa application center on your appointment schedule to submit your documents and have your biometrics taken.
  4. Wait for the result.
one week paris_php50000


When should you apply?

You can only submit your visa application within 90 days from your date of departure. For example, if you are leaving the Philippines on August 1, 2016, you can submit your visa application from May 3, 2016 onwards.

Things to take into account as you decide when to apply:

  • The processing time for a short stay visa is 48 hours from the time the complete application is received at the French Embassy, while the processing time for a long stay visa is 15 working days receipt at the French Embassy. If you are asked to submit additional documents, processing time may take up to 4 to 8 weeks.
  • In 2015, the French embassy received almost 20,000 visa applications! (That’s actually why they decided to get the help of VFS for visa application processing.) Don’t take it for granted that there will be an appointment slot available anyday.


Is personal appearance necessary?

Yes! You will need to have your photo and fingerprints taken.


Will there be an interview at the French embassy?

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Paris. Is. Possible.

On the third anniversary of my first ever European trip, I thought I’d go back to the basic, underlying message of this blog: you can do it too. And what better place to feature than Paris, where this love affair with travel (and writing about it) all began.

Paris_Gaya_SGMTIt was exactly three years ago that I first stepped foot in Paris. Before that day, I’d thought European trips were only for rich people so I hadn’t even dared to dream of Paris or Rome or Venice. But one day my sister found a seat sale to Paris and, on a crazy impulse, we decided to go for it. In the months between the day we bought the tickets and the day of our departure, we scrimped and force-saved every extra cent we had. The day after every payday, once the bills were paid, I would literally have no money left for non-essentials. It was difficult to give up the little luxuries that had made ordinary life more enjoyable but in the end it was worth it: I was there, in Paris, on the 6th of October, breathlessly climbing up the steps of Champ de Mars station, and catching my first ever glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.

If there’s one thing I would like to share with anyone who also dreams of going to Paris, it’s this: it’s possible.

And not only is it possible, it’s very doable.

It starts with a dream. You have to tell yourself that you are going to Paris. And you have to set a goal date for it, otherwise it will remain one of those dreams that are always dancing just beyond the horizon of reality.

Next: you have to start. Now. Start saving at least for the airfare, which will probably take up the biggest chunk of your budget. Save for your airfare first because airlines regularly have seat sales and the best way you can snap up cheap tickets is if you already have the means to pay for them — luck favors the prepared. Once you have the tickets, you can slowly pay off or save for other travel expenses: this month, accommodations; next month, food; etc.

And then…you just gotta do it. Once you spot an opportunity, go ahead and grab it. Say YES to the dream and, if necessary, figure out the details of how you’ll do it later.

one week paris_php50000

The budget

Some people say there’s no point in going to Paris if you’re not going to spend freely and enjoy — as if happiness is measured by the price you pay for it. Other people say that PHP 50,000 will only cover hotels — that it will not include food and certainly will not include airfare. And that’s fine if they think that way. (Ssshhh…the benefit of some people having that mindset is that the rest of us have less competition for the low airfares. But don’t tell them.)

However, if you’re willing to open your mind a bit, and you’re not too particular about the thread count of your bed sheets or the number of Michelin stars in your food, a 1-week Paris vacation is possible for only PHP 50,000.

Here’s the breakdown:

7 days in Paris for php 50000_updated 06Oct2015

The details

. As mentioned above, airfare will be your biggest expense and you will have to keep your eye out for promos and seasonal price drops. What I do is I check Skyscanner every now and then for low fares. Right now, for example, Skyscanner shows flights from Manila to Paris for only PHP 21,169 (via Oman Air). You can’t book flights on Skyscanner but they will give you links to the booking websites — such as Expedia or the airline website itself — that are offering that price. (See this article for other ways to stay updated on seat sales and promo fares.)

Skyscanner prices as of 06 October 2015

Skyscanner prices as of 06 October 2015

Schengen visa fee. This is a standard fee that the French embassy charges for processing your visa application. (See this article for a step-by-step guide in getting a Schengen visa at the French embassy.)

Travel insurance. This is required to get the Schengen visa you will need to enter France. The price of PHP 1,135 for a 7-day trip to France is offered by Blue Cross, which I personally use because it’s so easy to get (see details here). Other travel insurance companies might charge more or less for the same coverage.

Schengen travel insurance_Blue Cross_as of 06 October 2015

Blue Cross prices as of 06 October 2015

International travel tax. This is standard as well. Sometimes the travel tax is even incorporated into the airfare so that’s one less thing you will have to budget for.

Accommodations. It goes without saying that you can’t expect a 5-star hotel for this sort of budget but if you’re not too choosy, you can find fairly decent lodgings at this price. (A friend stayed at the OOPS! Hostel for only 30 euros per night, including breakfast.) What I do is I search for accommodations at Booking.com and filter the results based on my budget. Low-priced options with fairly good reviews include the Generator Paris and the St Christopher’s Inn Paris – Gare du Nord. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, I can personally recommend the Grand Hotel du Loiret, the Hotel Terminus Lyon, and the Hotel Le Notre Dame Saint Michel.


Food. Again, you can’t expect multi-course meals at Michelin-starred restaurants at this budget but you can still eat reasonably well. Of course, you’re in France and it would be a shame if you don’t get to try classic French cuisine at least once. What I usually do is I splurge on 1 or 2 good meals and eat frugally for the rest of the trip. See this article for tips on how to save on food while traveling. (Hint: supermarkets are your best friend.)

Transportation. Ideally, you should stay near the city center so you can walk to most of your destinations for the day. When you must take the Metro, you can save by buying a “carnet” — a book of 10 tickets — for €14.40. (A single ticket costs €1.80 so you save €3.60 when you buy a carnet.)

Miscellaneous expenses. You’ll notice that the PHP 50,000 budget does not specifically include things like admission to the Louvre or the fee for going up the Eiffel Tower. You can use the miscellaneous expenses budget for those costs. Do keep in mind, though, that there are many free things to do in Paris. Even the Louvre is free on certain days. (See: 3 Things That Will Surprise You About Paris.) A simple Google search could save you tons of money.

Entrance to the gorgeous Notre Dame cathedral is free

Entrance to the gorgeous Notre Dame cathedral is free

And that’s it

…a one-week PHP 50,000 budget for Paris. Of course, it’s a very basic budget so it would be great if you can save more than PHP 50,000 for your trip. But definitely you don’t need to be wealthy to fulfill your Paris dreams. If you want it enough, and you’re willing to make a few sacrifices for it, Paris is definitely possible. Happy travels! 🙂

Paris is possible: 1 week in Paris for only PHP 50,000 | This is an updated version of an article previously published in this blog. | © Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.  




small-town girl travel_you can do it too

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