Apartment or Hotel? How's a diner to choose?
The subject of renting an apartment pops up frequently during thread-drifts but is seldom addressed by itself. Perhaps we could share some of the various aspects of apartment life.
As an avowed apartment-curmudgeon, I'll start this out by saying that having an apartment, going native short term, is a long held dream of mine. I have called it having "a stove with a view". And we've done it a fair number of times with varying success. What works is having a space to make a simple breakfast or to put together or enjoy picnic stuffs, chilled drinks, very simple meals, midnight snacks.
First, there is the delegated croissant shlepper. Someone has to dress and go out for breakfast bread or else eat day-old. And find a morning paper. (Don't look at me. I'm having oatmeal and surfing the net.)
We, personally, have not found that apartment dinners are worth cashing an evening in France. Cooking market product from scratch is, for me, not realistic, often messy and labor intensive. Half the time, I wind up cooking in my gown or robe to save street clothes, having forgotten to bring a smock or apron. And there is cooking odor.
And there is the general unease of cooking in someone else's kitchen, extra care not to make a mess, concern with garbage, learning to cook on an entirely different kind of stovetop (i.e., not leaving something on an electric or glass burner when you are used to just turning off the gas!).
But the biggest drawback for me is deciding what to eat. Most of the time, what I find the most exciting thing at the market is something that my husband has no interest in. Or won't eat. At home, this isn't an issue. But when I am in France, I want to enjoy those things that are particular to the area, that I can't source at home, that require expertise to prepare and, not the least, stuff that my husband won't touch (andouillette, rognon, tete de veau gribiche, bunny, squiddy things). In an apartment, to enjoy these things necessarily requires preparing two main courses. So we settle instead on things that are simple to prepare; reheated mains, fresh pasta with a simple sauce, a fast seafood saute. salads. But this is merely getting the job done, not enjoying the things that I come to France for. And, routinely, my husband realized that the extraordinary looking dish that he saw in the traiteur's window doesn't taste as good as it looks.
Time of year may have an influence. In Dijon, we enjoyed not only a superbly outfitted apartment but because it was very warm, contented ourselves with cold soups, pasta and salads which we enjoyed on our shaded private patio. This was the kind of food that we would have sought anyway at a restaurant in the heat, and very different from a snowy December visit in Paris when shopping was more difficult and appetites ready for more substantial fare.
These problems are mine, not necessarily yours. But they are something to consider beforehand so that your apartment stay has fewer surprises. I look forward to hearing from our expert pro-apartment hounds. We can help each other have the best experience possible, regardless of apartment or hotel.
Mangeur - good post and I agree. For me it really depends on three other factors, first how long do you have? Over a week or so then it makes sense as you have more time to discover and you will appreciate the option to go simple some days. The second, is who is with you, I can see families seeing the benefit. And third, the cost, it isn't less expensive to stay in an apartment, but it can save money to eat in one.
Most of my apartment stays have been when I moved countries and most go to the same way - including Paris. We start i a hotel for a few weeks, it helps us understand the city, relax and get our bearings. But after a week or so we crave simplicity and have had enough of restaurant food. Moving to an apartment is then a relief. In Paris we did this twice, first in rue de Varenne (7eme) which was great for food shopping and was a great place to stay. The second was rue Saint-Honore (1eme) literally next to Hotel Costes, great location but a hike to good shops, and far from the perfect spot to live the Parisian idyl. So for an apartment rental it is all about location and its essential to find one i an area good living area rather than one near museums.
I agree about cooking in an alien kitchen. Few apartments have good equipment, lots of blunt bendy knives, cheap cook-pots with hot spots, a random selection of utensils etc etc. We now take the following with us: a good kitchen knife, a vegetable peeler, a sieve, a potato ricer, a corkscrew, and a salt and pepper grinder. When we arrive we head to Ikea (or Habitat in Paris) to buy two big/thin wine glasses (apartments generally have small thick chunky ones). Generally you also need to buy oils and condiments, salt pepper etc plus teas and coffees. If you are only there for a week much of this will get thrown away when you leave, but without it cooking is tricky!
Last, but not least, beware of the size of the deposit required in Paris. Many apartments have pretty hefty ones which made us a bit paranoid.
That said if the stars align it can be superb, sitting on a tiny roof terrace on a summer evening, eating perfect cheese, with a wonderfully fresh baguette, seasonal fruit and a good Pinot is heaven.
Very interesting take.
Like many things in life, it seems to come down to "you have to be there and you have to be me". :-) And if I were Mangeur, I would make the same decisions as she.
But I am not. And most importantly my travel companion (DH) is not her DH.
The decision depends on our different habits in our everyday life, and different concepts of travel planning as well.
For us it comes down to this: When we travel, market is our top priority, streets second, monuments 3rd. Most travellers probably disagree with us. The more I travel, the less I am interested in sightseeing, the more I am interested in lifestyle-experiencing. And when you have a kitchen, you are much, much less of a tourist.
"First, there is the delegated croissant shlepper. Someone has to dress and go out for breakfast bread or else eat day-old. And find a morning paper. (Don't look at me. I'm having oatmeal and surfing the net.)"
We have very a different morning routine and preferences.
1. We are not croissants fundamentalists. We love just as much good country breads, and they can be bought the day before and taste excellent for at least 48 hours.
2. Our stomachs wake up slowly. What we need first thing in the morning is an espresso blast (for me) and a juice blast (for him). On holiday we love to stop for a second, - the real, - more leisurely breakfast, over which we linger, taking time to read the morning papers.
3. When travelling in the countryside, we always choose a self-reliant kind of villages (with a minimum of commerce: its own bakery, its own butcher, general store…). We avoid renting the kind of place where one still has to get into a car pour un oui ou un non. If we wanted a commute lifestyle we would not have chosen to live in Paris, duh.
Last time when we rented a house in Saignon in the Luberon, the bakery in the tiny village was a short block away. We could have practically yelled out the window and the baker could have thrown crossants at us. The way it worked out, a (god-sent) friend with whom we were travelling always woke up a little early, and this crossant fairy would materialize crossants on the table when we staggered into the living every morning. So my recommendation here would be: travel with him !
"We, personally, have not found that apartment dinners are worth cashing an evening in France. Cooking market product from scratch is, for me, not realistic, often messy and labor intensive. Half the time, I wind up cooking in my gown or robe to save street clothes, having forgotten to bring a smock or apron. And there is cooking odor."
DH always brings his apron and a knife. Those two items are in a travel-must-bring-checklist that we print out before every trip
We like cooknig odor. Food should have odor. When a kitchen smells like a kitchen, for us it is a cheering smell, not an unpleasant smell. Many American friends do not agree with me. I never get the style of kitchen where every cabinet is hidden, as though cooking were a shameful act that must be visually obliviated.
"And there is the general unease of cooking in someone else's kitchen, extra care not to make a mess, concern with garbage, learning to cook on an entirely different kind of stovetop (i.e., not leaving something on an electric or glass burner when you are used to just turning off the gas!)."
These have not been major problems, esp garbage removal. I don't remember when it was a remotely challenging issue. When in doubt, ask the landlord.
1. The first and foremost reason may be the very difference between Mangeur and me. My DH loves to cook. A few years ago I actually had to ask him to cook less when we were on vacation. Essentially he saw all the fabulous ingredients on the St Jean de Luz and went nuts.
2. We assumed all rentals' kitchens to be basic, and we have an archive of simple recipes that do not require multi steps and multi appliances.
3. We do - actually I do - a basic research on the kitchen of any rental. When the ad and the photos don't answer all my questions, I write to the landlord asking for more info and more photo.
4. We don't make a big mess of our kitchen in Paris. We don't do a Johhny Deppt number and trash it on holiday either. :-) I really have no excessive fear about wrecking the kitchen more than the living room or bedroom or garden. Why should the kitchen be such a terrifying place?
"But the biggest drawback for me is deciding what to eat. Most of the time, what I find the most exciting thing at the market is something that my husband has no interest in. Or won't eat. At home, this isn't an issue. But when I am in France, I want to enjoy those things that are particular to the area, that I can't source at home, that require expertise to prepare and, not the least, stuff that my husband won't touch (andouillette, rognon, tete de veau gribiche, bunny, squiddy things). In an apartment, to enjoy these things necessarily requires preparing two main courses. So we settle instead on things that are simple to prepare; reheated mains, fresh pasta with a simple sauce, a fast seafood saute. salads. But this is merely getting the job done, not enjoying the things that I come to France for."
But this is the same reason why we insist on a kitchen. I thank my lucky star for, for many things, especially for my adventurous omnivore DH who lovse to cook.
"routinely, my husband realized that the extraordinary looking dish that he saw in the traiteur's window doesn't taste as good as it looks."
That is true. But this problem is same as the restaurant problem. Mangeur, you of all people must realize that many bad restaurants also look great. One still has to do research in order not to be herded into tourist traps. Alll traiteurs look wonderful. But many are all about style over content. I don't go to the nearest, most esthetically pleasing restaurant. And I won't go to the nearest, most esthetically pleasing traiteur either. I go (3 minutes further up rue Martyrs, NBD) to Les Papilles Gourmandes. Indeed Paris traiteurs, like Paris restaurants, are not all equal. Again, a most basic research will solve this non-issue.
Wherever we go, from Barcelona to Rome, including large and small towns and villages in between, in our travel planning we always do just as much research on the in-season local ingredients as on restaurants. Shopping in the local markets is our top enjoyment. Last time when we were in St Jean de Luz (Ciboure to be exact), even though it was for only 3 days, we could not imagine being deprived of this top enjoyment: shopping at the St Jean de Luz market. On the train there we could already hear the freshest St Pierre there calling our name.
Last time when we were in Rome, 6 of us shared a huge apartment on Piazza Farnese. My fave moment - besides getting up in the middle of the night to star at the incandescent piazza and the ceiling of our neighbor, the Palazzo Farnese, is around 6pm, when everyone streamed back from his own sightseeing and gathered in the larget kitchen over the first of many bottles. DH was the chef while we were all his scullery maids. When one is alone cooking in the kitchen, does not matter whether one is at home or travelling, cooking becomes a chore. When there are 6 good friends together preparing food and laughing, it is the opposite of a chore. In fact this cherished, privileged experience trumps any sightseeing - Forum Schmorum - and most restaurant experience.
Of course we who take this so very seriously have some ground rules when we travel with friends, a thing we do very often:
1. When it tneh cooking is a group effort, we accept that the main thing is GROUP. If the result is not as perfect, it's ok. Friends' laughter trumps food. Always.
2. Very often we travel with friends who are themselves excellent cooks. We agree before hand that each dinner will have only one chef, and everybody else will be sous-ing. I don't tolerate people doing separate cooking.
3. This may be related to 2. It's ok that we prepare the dinner together, ususally drinking up a storm. When it comes to the actual cooking stage, and I see 3 persons in the kitchen, I get out. After the magic number of 3, one is not helping.
Lastly, Mangeur, sounds as though you should be travelling with us ! :-)
Sorriest for this TMI postscript. I forgot to add one last point:
I love food. I am most curious about how a given cuisine comes about. What kind climate, agriculture, people produce such a different palette. That is why the visit and the use of a local market is not one of the options but actually the top priority of any visit.
To me, shopping at markets, trying local ingredients and cooking till I drop are the main reasons that would make me pick an apartment over a hotel room. If, for any reason, I won't have the possibility to cook, I much prefer the hotel room.
For one thing, I love cooking in a kitchen that is not my own. Taming kitchens is my favorite sport in life. Of course that does not go without buying the mandatory sharp knife, unless I know I'll have to cook and pack my survival kit, which is an abridged version of my food styling kit.
I am curious about one thing. Who travels with a minimal kitchen kit? And what does it include?
On or cycling trips to France, we stay in a gite for the extra space, but even more so to take advantage of the markets in the surrounding villages. The "kit" we bring includes dried herbs and spices (mainly ground peppers and sage), poultry shears, corkscrew (double jointed waiters friend), ground espresso coffee and a whetstone for sharpening knifes.
Dinner at either a B&B or restaurant usually involves doing a 3 course (or more) prix fixe, a commitment of 2 to 3 hours and the consumption of much food at night-time. Not to mention having to meet a schedule and the hassle of having to get "cleaned up" for dinner. All this interferes with late afternoon activities; short rides, reading, cellar tasting or a nap. Staying in a house, we stock up on rotisserie chicken and produce at markets and can have a cold buffet at home. Its more assembly than cooking. This way evening repas just becomes a continuation of a late afternoon sampling of our daily wine and food purchases.
Our minimal kitchen kit (don't laugh!):
1. one good knife
2. one very thin chopoing board. Often we - and maybe friends too - prepare food together. Often there are not eough chopping boards.
3. a compilation of recipe printouts using local ingredients (heavy on bbq recipes when we are renting in the countryside)
4. some "starter groceries" consisting of salt, sugar and soy sauce, at least for the day we arrive. Esp sugar. Often one can only buy a huge package, and we don't consume that much sugar over the rental week
5. DH likes to have one of his fave aprons too.
6. if there is a dishwasher: detergent "bricks" enough for the week, again so that we don't have to buy a huge pack.
Lovely. Here is my minimal kit:
1. Opinel paring knife (carbon steel fixed blade), maybe 2 in case I lose one.
2. miniature vinyl chopping board
3. économe potato peeler
4. hard plastic japanese grater (for ginger, garlic, radish, anything hard) cum mandolin slicer
5. Japanese fish scaler (small and incredibly efficient)
6. small filleting knife or poultry deboning knife (almost identical blades)
7. tiny sharpening stone (3 inches long, bought at a market in Thiers)
8. pair of fishbone tweezers (absolutely mandatory)
9. small fine-mesh strainer
10. miniature cleaver (actually a stainless-steeel Thai vegetable knife, does just about everything)
11. can opener, you'd be surprised how often that is missing from holiday rentals.
12. miniature wooden spoon
13. miniature rubber spatula
14. pair of chopsticks
15. set of stainless steel measuring spoons
16. 1-cup measuring cup
Groceries: very simple. In small Muji-type plastic containers, black peppercorns, fleur de sel or Maldon salt, shirodashi and piment d'Espelette, and one or two of my favorite Chinese teas, for I love to drink tea while I'm cooking away from home.
All of that can be carried in a small pouch that takes up very minimal room in a suitcase.
i do understand your angst, but for me, the result is completely the opposite. l like to cook for one or two, but love to cook for 6-8, thus try to have guests as much as l can. The rewards of 'thank you' makes all the efforts worthwhile. For my tastes and desires, l cook better for me than most restaurants and the markets offer far more than any resto could,
This is an interesting thread as it also points to how differently everyone "vacations" (sorry tor nouning the verb). In Paris and in most cities we visit we always rent an apartment, unless we're staying for 4 days or less. Our habits are similar to Mangeurs: The IDEA of cooking great meals from all of the available market goodies sounds good, but in reality there are so many restaurants that I want to try that we don't usually do it (there are exceptions, ecplained below...)
When we arrive in Paris the first stop is the Monoprix for basic supplies, mainly coffee. I can not function until I have been properly caffeinated so I have a hard time when I'm in a hotel and actually have to get dressed before that first cup. We also stock up on things like yogurt (there are many varieties available in Europe that they don't have here). We also get butter and jam. Then we scope out what looks like the best boulangerie closest to the apartment. That's the kind of research I do on the ground...who has the best croissant/pain au chocolat/baguette within walking distance? That of course requires much testing. That settled, breakfast is yogurt or some kind of pastry or a tartine if we have bread from the day before. If we have a big lunch then dinner is either a salad or light meal in a restaurant or a cheese/pate/charcuterie and fruit platter (choosing cheese is also a joy, and the Mr could exist on nothing but rillettes and sausage). similarly, if we plan to have our big meal in the evening then lunchtime is when we have the salad, or picnic with the above-mentioned items if the weather cooperates, or we have a plate of oysters, or a sandwich or crepe...I have done the multi-course lunch AND dinner in the same day in the past but it was tough and not something I can do more than once or twice a trip...
Our not really cooking in the apartment stance changes if we're away over Christmas. I would advise anyone who is planning to be in Paris over the Christmas season to rent an apartment. We've been in Paris over New Year several times, and that is a time when we will prepare a meal rather than pay outrageous prices for a mediocre meal somewhere. Usually just simple things like a roasted chicken from a butcher (note: research this too, there are threads about roasted chickens here). Another year we bought oysters and had a simple but fresh baked fish with that delicious French butter- went marvelously with the champagne. We did the same thing a few years ago in San Francisco...we stayed in on New Year's and had a west coast seafood feast, featuring things we can't get here in the east.
I think if I had the good fortune of staying in Paris for more than a week, I would put Parigi-like effort into choosing an apartment with a chef-friendly kitchen and we'd take full advantage of the markets, buying things instead of oogling and sighing and wishing we could live around the corner. Actually come to think of it our vacation spot priorities also center around food. Hmmm, this has me plotting next year's trips...a market pilgrimage through the Dordogne? Maybe stop and see a few sites along the way...:)
My god, SE, I think we are twins separated at birth! We seem to have the same priorities (food/wine) and habits (coffee/pastries for breakfast, good lunch or dinner with simpler options for the opposite meal). Monoprix on the first day for supplies and a trip to Bastille market the first day it's open during our trip. We have stayed from 1 to almost 3 weeks in Paris and always rent an apartment ~ for the kitchen, for the space, and for the privacy. My restaurant list is so long, I will never get to all the ones I want to try, especially since I keep adding new ones and wanting to return to old favourites. We don't really do much gourmet cooking in the apartments, but make sure to enjoy things that mean Paris to us ~ wine & champagne, cheese, olives, pates & rilettes, foie gras, strawberries in spring, yogurt, roast chickens, pain au chocolat, croissants, baguettes, oysters, spreads from the markets, charcuterie, chocolates and little jewel pastries for dessert, etc, etc, etc.
Am in the early planning stages of a trip to south of France next September (1 week Nice/1week Provence/ 3 days Paris) and the food options are driving location and lodging choices. Hoping not to have to drive home from dinner, so options in walking distance and the ability to have a few meals at home will be very important.
It's all about the food and the wine for us, folks.
"wine & champagne, cheese, olives, pates & rilettes, foie gras, strawberries in spring, yogurt, roast chickens, pain au chocolat, croissants, baguettes, oysters, spreads from the markets, charcuterie, chocolates and little jewel pastries for dessert, etc, etc, etc."
With the exception of chicken and oysters, we enjoy these in our rooms. We call it lunch.
This is just food porn.
I like most food smells. Rillette , esp rillette d'oie does smell great.
We once rented a top-floor apartment in the old town of San Sebastian, with a window next to the chimney that channels the food smell from Bodegon Alejandro, which happens to be in our building basement.
Heartily second your Christmas scenario. One of our best was in a London apartment. Our son who was in school on the East coast joined us. I had plans for a classic English hotel dinner, but when I found out what they would charge per person, I multiplied it times 3 and said, "No way!" We shopped at Herrod's food halls and at street markets, even buying a tiny fake Christmas tree that still makes an annual appearance at holiday time. The other carryover from that feast is the tradition of Christmas crackers; to this day, you gotta have a cracker and a paper hat.
For a stay of 5 days or more in cities in Europe, we tend to rent an apartment. Hotels for shorter as it is too much hassle to set up a functional kitchen. Even iwith an apartment, breakfast is alway out at a neighborhood cafe. We tend to find one and stick with it for the duration; never go hunting for the best coffee, croissant, etc. Lunch is simple, requiring very little cooking or none at all; same routine when we stay a couple of months every year in our apartments in Paris and Venice. Reasons for apartment are:
*I love to cook, shop, visits supermarkets. Rarely had any problem with rental apartment kitchens regardless how spartan it is. We always managed; just simplify the cooking.
*As we've gotten older, we are eating out less and less partly because we are getting jaded and also find it difficult to sit through long restaurant meals. Once in a restaurant, one gives control of the evening to the restaurant staff. Too many in succession and I get antsy.
*Save on cost. I can buy the best seafood, good meat/poultry and produce and cook them competently at a fraction of the cost of eating out at a decent restaurant. Plus decent wines.
*After three days cramped in a hotel room and bumping into the same visitors in the lobby, I get claustrophobic and need space.
Exceptions are when we visit Southeast Asia where it is always hot and humid. Too much so to cook inside. Eating out tend to be informal/group oriented, festive, inexpensive with great street food. Luckily we have friends we can stay with or else always in an air-condition hotel rather than an rental apartment.
"Exceptions are when we visit Southeast Asia where it is always hot and humid. Too much so to cook inside. Eating out tend to be informal/group oriented, festive, inexpensive with great street food. "
Totally agree. Southeast Asia is street food heaven, and one eats nonstop wherever one goes.
Ooh, I like this thread. Count me in the apartment camp.
Some memorable meals:
1) Seafood risotto after a trip to Rialto market in Venice
2) Aged ribeye from Borough market in London
3) Burrata with ripe tomatoes and basil and plate of lampredotti from Florence mercato
4) Two kinds of temaki sushi, small tuna slivers and chopped tuna with green onions, from a chunk of blue fin tuna belly bought from Tsukiji market + a live alaskan king crab boiled and served with some reduced broth with butter and lemon, also from tsukiji. (this was actually at my friend's parent's house).
5) Freshly picked corn kept on ice in NYC.
Best apartment. London apartment owned by an architect converted from an old warehouse, right on the thames river.
If left on their own, I suspect my wife and kids would be just as happy in a hotel or still in an apartment, but mainly with take out.
Agree on South East Asia (and Hong Kong and China) as exceptions.
Traveling with kids? Apartment or gite every single time. (although I agree that 3 days is about the cost/benefit/hassle breakeven point)
I'm one of those people who can barely find the floor before coffee (even with the help of gravity) -- so having the ability to have a cup of coffee NOW is a big deal for me (yes, I travel with a small kettle and instant coffee if we're not staying in self-catering lodging.) It's also far easier to have breakfast "in-house" when there are more than one or two people doing the shower-coffee-breakfast shuffle. And yes, we toast yesterday's baguette, too, if nobody feels like going out yet.
I'm one who loves the whole market-traiteur-new foods thing... but after having been a road warrior in another life, there's something to be said for an actual chair at an actual table to eat, and enough space for the kiddos to have a nap or go to bed on time while DH and I can enjoy a glass of wine or cup of coffee after returning from dinner. And on a longer stay, there are times when everyone is tired, cranky, unwell, or apathetic -- and the ability to have something simple "at home" is very welcome.
LOVE this thread! We we're bounced out of an overbooked hotel 8 years ago into an apartment they managed and have never looked back. Our annual routine now consists of flying into Paris, picking up a car and driving out to the country for a week or two almost always in a gite. I loathe big box stores in the US, but love them in France and we'll hit a few of these while out in the country. At a minimum, the re-usable bags will be necessary to carry all the comestibles into the Paris apartment we will conclude the trip in. We travel around the holidays so two things are relatively assured: extremely jolly markets, esp. the last one before the holiday, and at some point in the trip we've been snowed in so having a pantry with a few options is critical. Always stock up on jam, butter, coffee, cheeses, pates, olives, cornichon and goofy snack crackers and cookies (why, WHY can't we have Sable de Flandres in the US??) A couple of cheap and cheerful torchons will be a joy throughout the trip and a nice thing to have back home. Ditto some regional pottery serving dish or bowl. 8 years and several dozen pieces of pottery and all of them have made it home in one piece and remain freighted with happy memories of meals in France. Once all this booty makes it to Paris, all delivered right to the door cause we still have the car, we can then manage the rest of the shopping very close to home. Most Christmases we eat in, might be a combo of foraged and cooked ( slow braised lamb stew with Moroccan spices) but usually something that I can pull of without to much fuss or thought. Rental kitchens everywhere seem to suck. The list of things we bring to Maine each summer for a few weeks is 4 columns long - in France I tend to restrict myself to my trusty Opinel, a small but decent bread knife (amazing how hard this can be to find in an apartment, and since the fresh morning baguette is among my favorite traditions I hate to see the pour dears hacked to bits...) a vacu-vin because I want to pretends I wont finish every bottle we open, and a folding, waiter's corkscrew, which I far prefer. A decent spice shop will sell in small amounts (we're close to Izrael) and I adore asking the verger for a handful of nuts, fruits etc. to have on hand for the one or two dinner parties or apero we'll host while in Paris. Oh, and not to neglect an icon - I am mad for the small faience pots that Fermier yogurt comes in and will keep these for olive pits, pencil cups, sugar bowls, once served a starter course of soup in them, and have squirreled home an absolute ridiculous number of them. Here, as in many restaurants in France, they will be used for pot de creme or some other gelatinous dessert. I love every single one of them... I sort of love the bracing winter morning walk at dawn to go fetch the baguette or croissant. The streets are so quiet, the merchants so energetic at this hour, and the little morning routines of the neighborhood such a delight to take in: the hand-holding father and child off to school; Madame from the apartment next door buying her meat for the day; the morning deliveries still coming in. At this hour I can at least momentarily feel like a local...
Wow! You know how to have a good time and enjoy France's best.
If I were François Hollande, I'd make you honorary French. You like even the hypermarchés. There is just no cure for you.
"Rental kitchens everywhere seem to suck."
In my experience, it's a lottery. Sometimes it does not suck, but always I lower my expectations.
We have chanced upon good kitchens in rentals in Brittany, Ardèche, the Lot, the Luberon and Basque country. Other kitchens were more basic. I would not say they sucked, even the one in Nice that kept short-circuiting every time we used more than 2 burners. We'd stir-fry with one hand and hold a candle with the other, LOL.
but if you're honorary French, Hollande will try to make you pay honorary taxes.... :)
I have to say that most of the kitchens I've found in France are very well-equipped. I take my own knives (at minimum a decent chef's and a decent paring, in addition to the folding Opinel and the corkscrew that live in my handbag when we're on vacation) -- for several years, the kitchen towels were always holey and worn out, but even that seems to be better recently.
(it's also a good reminder to use a kitchen that's not as fully-equipped as yours...and remind yourself that you CAN put out a really good meal with piecemeal equipment if you need to. It also reminds you to appreciate your own well-equipped kitchen!)
don't know if they still carry them, but Walmart used to have a ridiculously cheap set of knives with an acrylic cutting board for about $5-7. That went in my checked back, still in the package.
They were not knives I would want to to use for more than a week or two at a time, but I was a little surprised to find that they weren't terrible, either -- the balance and grips were actually pretty decent. (not a patch on my Wusthofs at home...but definitely usable.)
When we checked out of the last rental property, I just left them for the next guest.