PARIS — Paris -- Madame, her thick glasses sliding down her nose, smiled from behind the marble counter of her little grocery shop, tucked away on an ancient back street in the 8th Arrondissement.
The shopper, freshly arrived in Paris, was trying to negotiate -- in the worst possible English and French -- the exchange rate for the purchase in American dollars of that night's wine and the fixings for a mushroom omelet.
"Cinq francs?" asked Madame, and with a friendly "why not" shrug of her black-sweatered shoulders, the informal exchange rate was established.
A customer who spoke some English even recommended a fine Beaujolais with a modest price tag.
So, with a "Merci" and an "Au revoir," we strolled out, grocery bag in hand, back along the cobblestone street to our apartment, feeling ever so Parisian.
No, we weren't living in Paris, just exploring a vacation idea that a growing number of business travelers, couples and families are discovering -- short-term rental apartments.
Whether it's for a few days or a few weeks, renting a furnished apartment, complete with kitchen, is often less expensive than a hotel, and it can give you that living-like-a-native feeling.
It also makes for a great base of operations if you plan to explore the surrounding countryside.
And in many cases, the apartments are as luxurious as prime suites at deluxe hotels. In fact, many of them are in such hotels, with all the services and amenities available to hotel guests.
L We recently tried a sampling in Paris, London and Amsterdam.
A quick hop by plane over to Paris landed us in the magnificent Les Suites Saint Honore, just off the famed rue du Faubourg Saint Honore, lined with some of Paris' most famous -- and expensive -- shops.
This small, luxury-serviced suite hotel is within easy walking distance of the Louvre, Notre Dame and the busy Place de la Concorde. (Yes, we crossed against the light and survived!)
If the Saint Honore, with its spacious one- and two-bedroom apartments (ranging from $400-$840 a day, $2,700-$5,750 a week), represents the luxurious, there are a number of other rental units on the Right and Left Banks that combine comfort, convenience and economy, with rates as low as $90 a night, $650 a week.
In London, we tried a three-night stay at the Grosvenor House, on ritzy Park Lane just opposite Hyde Park.
An apartment rental suite -- with bedroom, living room and kitchen -- in a separate wing of this five-star hotel goes for half the published rate charged for comparable hotel accommodations.
Our apartment featured a good-sized bedroom, living room and modest kitchen unit -- adequate enough to scramble eggs, boil pasta or slap together some sandwiches.
Just a few blocks away is 47 Park Street, a 52-suite Edwardian town house. It is also home of London's legendary restaurant, the two-Michelin-star Le Gavroche, no doubt one of the reasons such celebrities and rock groups as Cher, Mel Gibson, Van Halen, Bon Jovi and (a well-behaved) Metallica make it their London digs when visiting.
We missed an introduction to its concierge, though. He was, explained the management, "out of the country picking up a puppy for a guest."
Forty Seven Park Street and Grosvenor House are, of course, at the luxury end of the apartment rental scale, with a one-bedroom suite at Park Street going for $375 a night, or $2,475 a week.
But rates at other rental locations can run as low as $400-$500 a week and up.
And then there was that former convent in Amsterdam. Renovated in 1992, the Grand Hotel has a grand history, dating to its 16th-century days as a convent. It then became Amsterdam's Town Hall. Many vestiges of its government days remain -- check out the banquet room, formerly the council chambers.
Situated between two canals and only a short stroll from Dam Square, this centrally located structure boasts a number of rental apartments. A one-bedroom costs $245 a day, $1,650 a week. Two- and three-bedroom apartments are also available.
For more information about apartment rentals in Europe, see the box that accompanies this story.