Top 15 Things We Learned in Southern France

Once we had finally arrived safely at our B&B in Antibes and had a good night’s sleep, we were ready to spend the next 10 days exploring southern France. In addition to Antibes, we spent time driving the Moyenne Corniche through Nice, stopping in Eze, and oohing and aahing over Monte Carlo. We then spent time a little further north in Avignon before heading down and over to Montpellier (where I lived over 20 years ago), Carcassone and finally Sarlat.

So, what did we learn during this part of our adventure? Here are 15 of our top findings traveling with kids in southern France:

1. Kids find figuring out SIM cards and cell phone plans boring.

Especially when Mom and Dad drag them to 3 different stores. Which takes an entire day since everything closes for a few hours at lunchtime. Orange, however, became the clear winner as they had the coolest games.                                                                                                                              20150804_154212

2. It is HOT in southern France. Really, really HOT.

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If there was water…
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we stopped for it (even though we had water bottles).

 

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This became a common sight at the end of the long, hot days.

3. If you really want to beat the heat, find a friend with a boat.

Fortunately, our B&B owners had a boat, and they took us out on the water for the day, complete with a picnic on a small island. Definitely a highlight of our trip.

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Whether we were on the boat, or swimming in the Mediterranean, we loved it!

4. French highway reststops are fun.

Especially in the summer when there are free “animations.” A man walked up to JJ at the playground and handed him two sunhats, CDs, card games and sunglasses for him and Missa B. Because that’s just what they do there.

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5. Souvenir coins are destined to follow us everywhere we go.

For 2 Euros each, they are actually a great to way to find a small souvenir at every destination. And, they are prolific in France. I am still unpacking them from boxes and pockets 4 months later.

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6. The Pont du Gard is beautiful.

It is as spectacular as I remember it from 20+ years ago. However, it is also now extremely commercialized. Entrance fees, cafés, and souvenir shops were some of the shocking things that greeted my eyes. But we did appreciate the museum which gave us a ton of information on the importance of the aquaduct.

I had never taken advantage of swimming under the Pont du Gard as I didn’t really know about that on past trips. It was an amazing way to beat the 99+ degree heat. Missa B., being the daredevil she has been from the time she was born, took to jumping off the rocks immediately.

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A nice climb led us to this gorgeous viewpoint.
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That woman in the water below Missa B? Yep, that would be Mama Bear.

7. Old friends just get better with time.

Cathy was 16 when I last saw her. She is now a mom of two awesome boys and an English teacher.

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Can you spot the kiddo who didn’t really want to be in the picture?

8. New friends can teach us so much.

Meeting Franck and Isabelle was a delight. And when “grandmère” brought over her homemade soup for us to try and insisted we eat the tomatoes from her garden, we fell in love with her.

The stories we heard of how Isabelle’s parents had to house Nazi soldiers on their property when the troops came into Antibes brought WWII to life for all of us. She thanked us, as Americans, for allowing her family to regain their property.

This was a place we  found hard to leave.

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9. We can do cobblestones!

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Every kid for him(her)self.

10. It’s worth staying up late for views like this.

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Carcassonne, France

11. Clapping on someone’s birthday is universal.

And this girl LOVED having an entire restaurant sing “Joyeux Anniversaire!”

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12. There are substations all over the world.

And Hubs insists on stopping to take pictures of them.

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13. If you can afford the TGV first class, it’s worth it.

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14. Street performers are fun.

Sarlat was full of street performers, and the kids loved going into the pedestrian area at night.

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15. Pillow walls may not be effective.

And Missa B. may not have been exaggerating when she said it was difficult to share a bed with JJ.

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Journey to the French Riviera

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It’s August 3rd, and our plane from Dublin to Nice had a time change. Usually, when that happens, it’s an hour or so, right? Not when you’re flying Ryanair. It is now departing 7 hours later. Meaning we land in Nice at 9:45 pm.

But luck is on our side.

Our car rental is at the airport. So, unlike most of the car rental locations in Europe, it has extended hours and will be open when we arrive. And, our B&B owner lives on site and can accommodate late arrivals. She promptly emails me the code for the gate to the property, tells me she will put the key in the door to our room, and will see us at breakfast on the patio the next morning.

All goes well with the flight…if you ignore the fact that I terrify some poor kid on the tarmac in Dublin.

See, I’m one of those people who observes everyone…all the time. And that includes being curious enough to look at the luggage tags of the people around me. I get it. It’s weird. But sometimes, it pays off.

As we’re walking onto the tarmac, I look at the tag of a girl who is probably about 8 years old, and I am pretty sure I see the word “Deerfield,” but I can’t see the rest of the tag. Deerfield?! I’m FROM Deerfield!

Yes, there is more than one Deerfield in the US. And, I actually don’t even know that this girl is from the United States, but based on the general appearance of her family, I’m going with Americans.

But, I can’t let it go. I have to know if she’s from my hometown. So I oh-so-casually follow her. She speeds up. I speed up. I am leaning down, squinting at her baggage tag. I am ready to pull it off the bag if needed. She heads to the rear door of the plane. I head to the rear door of the plane. My family, who has been trained to follow me, asks me what I am doing considering we are in row 5. I ignore them and basically accost this kid.

“Excuse me.”

She jumps and looks at me.

“Are you from Deerfield?”

I’ve now succeeded in separating her from her parents. “Yes,” she answers timidly.

“Deerfield, ILLINOIS?!” I screech.

“Yes…”

“That is SO cool! So am I!”

She isn’t impressed. I guess when you’re 8, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal to meet some crazy lady on a runway in Dublin, Ireland who claims to be from your hometown.

“I saw your luggage tag, and I couldn’t believe it said ‘Deerfield,’ but then I thought maybe it was a different Deerfield, but I thought it could be the same Deerfield, and that would just be wild, so I wanted to see if it was the same Deerfield, but I couldn’t read the rest of your tag, so I wanted to ask you…”

I am pulled away by JJ who is thoroughly embarrassed, and the poor girl sees her escape and takes it.

I still think it’s cool.

We arrive in Nice, get our bags (because when you fly Ryanair, carry-ons can pretty much be no larger than a pencil), and find the rental car agency. Well, actually after an amazingly long walk which included an entire group of us heading up the wrong ramp to a dead end and having to turn back, we find the rental car agency.

After a long wait, I get to a cool desk where you sit next to the agent, and I start the conversation in French. She responds in French. So far, so good. She can’t find the reservation, and we talk about how the flight changed so maybe it’s showing up as an earlier rental? This is still all in French. She finds it, and we talk about all the possible upgrades, which I politely refuse. 15 minutes into this, it dawns on me that she has not switched to English. It’s been 20 years since I’ve had this extensive of a conversation in French, and it’s working! Even when I can’t come up with a word, I’m explaining it differently in French, and she’s getting it. And NOT SWITCHING to English. This is cool.

The four of us go out to find the car. We’ve been upgraded. It must have been my French.

This is an awesome start to the trip even if it is now 11 pm, and we have no idea how to get to our B&B in Antibes.

As we exit the parking lot, our GPS (from home) isn’t working. No worries — it just needs to find the satellites. We take a turn that, based on a really meager map in the Rick Steves book, appears to take us in the right direction.

We drive. It’s pitch black. We continue driving. The GPS still isn’t working.

We take another turn. Onto a toll road. I am pretty sure we don’t want to be on a toll road.

I tell Hubs to pull off the road so we can get the GPS working. We pull into a dark parking lot and sit there staring at the GPS. We turn it off. We turn it back on. It’s not working. Our phones have Ireland SIM cards and don’t work in France.

No map. No GPS. No phone. We started this journey on Monday. It’s now Tuesday.

The kids, who at this point are beyond exhausted, start to whine. We politely explain that we are lost, and could they please be patient?

Oh, who am I kidding. They whine and fuss, and we yell. It’s not pretty.

And then we start whining and fussing. I feel myself getting a bit frantic. We don’t know where we are, and it’s really dark. 24-hour stores don’t exist in France, so who are we going to ask for directions? We’re going to drive around forever. We’ll sleep in the car. We’ll get mugged. (Don’t ask — that’s the Chicago girl in me rearing her ugly head.)

Hubs suggests that we try the car’s GPS. I tell him, in a voice that is quickly going up an octave, that we didn’t pay for the GPS, so it won’t work; don’t even bother. He looks at me like I am a bit nuts. Actually, come to think of it, he looks at me with the same look I got from the girl on the tarmac. He turns on the GPS. I continue to insist it won’t work.

It works.

We put in the B&B address and start on our way. Just as our own GPS figures out its location. So we have two of them babbling at us — one in French, and one in English. But they both have us headed the same way, so I’m good with that.

At about 12:30 am, we arrive at our B&B. We turn on the AC since it’s still 88 degrees and crawl into bed.

We made it.

Bienvenue en France.

 

 

 

 

#PrayForParis

Since we returned home two weeks ago, I’ve been planning to catch up on blog posts. After Ireland, we went to France, the Netherlands, Belgium, back to France, Switzerland, Italy, and then one last stop in France — Paris. So, my plan was to catch up on everywhere else we went and then finish with Paris.

And now Paris has to come first.

As soon as the news broke yesterday, I received messages and emails stating relief that we were back in the States and asking if I had connected with friends in France.

I wasn’t worried for the physical safety of my friends in France. None live in Paris, and the few who work/live nearby are at an age when they are much more likely to be back home on a Friday night than out in the city.

But I am worried for their mental safety. In some ways, I get it. I remember the shock of 9/11. I lived almost 3,000 miles away, but, like all of us, I couldn’t stay away from the news. I didn’t want to hear or see it, but I felt compelled to understand what was happening. I was in awe of the brilliance it took to coordinate a multi-site simultaneous attack and beyond ticked off to know that if only those behind the attacks had taken their amazing intelligence and put it to good, astounding things could have happened. Exactly the same way I have felt these past two days.

Yesterday and today, I sent messages to friends across France. I have not heard back, but I get it. They are reeling. And even more so because they have experienced this twice in less than a year.

And yes, I have read all those social media posts about not praying for Paris — we need less religion, pray for everyone, Paris is about life…

But I do pray for Paris. For a beautiful city so full of life that we reveled in just over two weeks ago. We all loved Paris, and it was a wonderful way to end our trip.

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When Missa B asked these police officers if she could take a picture with them, they had no way of knowing how their life would change in two short weeks.

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When JJ had Hubs take this picture, he had no idea that if we had been there two short weeks later, he would not have been able to go to the Louvre.

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Had I thought about these possibilities when we were in Paris?

Yes, from time to time, I did.

I actually thought about it before we left in June. Known to only a few people at the time, I wrote three letters before we departed. I wrote one to my mom, one to my in-laws, and one to be posted on my Facebook page. I placed them in a safe and gave a close friend instructions on what to do with them should we not return from our trip.

The letters weren’t morbid in any way. I talked about not feeling sorry for us, about how we were getting to do something we dreamed of, and about how even though our kids didn’t get to fulfill their dreams, they got to do things that some people don’t get to do in their lifetimes.

And now I think about how all those people killed in Paris yesterday probably left behind unfulfilled dreams. They went out to enjoy a Friday evening and never got to come back. My heart rips apart thinking about it, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

As a result of the trip, Missa B and JJ have asked that we keep them up to date on world events, especially in places we visited. Hubs wanted to tell them about the massacre yesterday. I didn’t. I don’t think I’m trying to maintain their innocence — they were exposed to so much information about the World Wars and terrorist attacks as we traveled.

I think I’m just trying to protect them from the shock. From playing through the scenes that have been going through my mind…the what ifs. From wanting to do what both Hubs and I did immediately upon hearing about the attacks…going online and mapping the distance of the attack locations to our hotel, to the places we visited, to the bike route we took. From trying to make sense of why people who were doing the same things we did were suddenly taken from this world.

Last night, Missa B, who doesn’t speak French, crawled into bed and said the words she has said almost every night since we visited France:

“Bonne nuit, Mom; je t’aime.”

And, I responded as I have been doing, but with a much heavier heart, “Bonne nuit, ma petite, je t’aime aussi.”

And then I added, “J’aime Paris.”

“Yeah, Mom. Me too. I really love Paris.”

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Word of the Day: Wayworn

My friend, Jennifer, gets the “Word of the Day” emailed to her. Yesterday, the word was wayworn, the definition of which is “worn or wearied by travel.” She sent it to me with a note asking, “Is this you?”

It was actually quite good timing. We have really enjoyed our past month here in La-Charité-Sur-Loire. There is something comforting about being able to send the kids out to the local boulangerie and know they’ll come back with the right orders. Or having the owner of the crèmerie next door wave as you go by or usher you in even though he’s closed because he doesn’t want your daughter to not have her favorite cheese for lunch. We know our way around this town, and we’re quite settled here.

How can you not relax in a town like this?
How can you not relax in a town like this?
They are really going to miss their balcony.
The kids’ terrace.
Out our back window....
Out our back window….

And I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past week or so because on Thursday, we head out on the road again. And I think a part of me is dreading it. There have been quite a few times this past week when I’ve wished we were ending the trip here. That we could go from this relaxed pace back into our old routine at home. That we wouldn’t be back to driving across borders, catching trains, and pre-booking museum tickets. That we could simply get on a plane and head back to our old life.

And then I wonder why I feel that way. The pace we were at before was tiring at times, but I never wanted it to stop. I enjoyed all the exciting things we were seeing and doing.

And we have so much to look forward to over the next 4.5 weeks. I get to see another friend whom I haven’t seen in over 20 years, and I can’t wait to see her. We get to go to Italy, where I first took Hubs 4 years ago (almost to the day), and he loved it. I certainly can’t complain about going to Venice, the Tuscany countryside, Florence and Rome. And then we end it all in Paris…with a fun surprise that I’ll share when the time comes but that will be good for all of us. A touch of the familiar in a foreign city.

So I rally. I get ready to pack up those bags again and try not to think about the fact that we’ll be living out of suitcases again for the next month. I prepare to give away the groceries we didn’t use and put out of my mind the fact that we won’t be doing our own cooking for awhile. I spend my last few days conversing in my second language and don’t worry that communication is about to become a lot more challenging.

I remember that we are travelers. And we’re good at it. So off we go again. Wayworn will not be our word of the day. It won’t be our word…period.

The Art of Doing Nothing

For the past 2.5 months, we have been busy. As in 29 cities in 96 days busy. As is walking 3 miles on our lazy days and 8-10 miles on our active days busy. As in putting 2300 kilometers on the car in one week busy.

It’s time to slow down.

Last Thursday, we drove 6 hours to get to our rented apartment in La-Charité-sur-Loire, a quiet village of 5,500 people in the Loire Valley region of Burgundy. We arrived on our 15th anniversary, so it was nice to settle in that evening. And, thanks to some scheming on my part, we had a chocolate cake waiting for us upon our arrival.

A huge thank you to our host, Kelly, for picking this up for me! And she even threw in a bottle of wine!
A huge thank you to our host, Kelly, for picking this up for me! And she even threw in a bottle of wine!

We arrived to find something we have been lacking…space! We have 3 levels — ground floor has the kitchen and terrace, main floor has the living room, our bedroom and a bathroom, and the top floor has the kids’ room, bathroom, and their own outdoor walkway which has a small table and chairs. We have space to spread out, space to cook, and space to breathe. And did I mention we have a washing machine?! No more counting days to make sure we don’t run out of underwear!

To see pictures of where we are staying, click here.

So we slowed down. Way, way down. We got here on Thursday afternoon and all we really did was go next door to the cheese shop to get cheese, milk, eggs, and yogurt (who knew you could get all that at a cheese shop?!)

And then we slept. And we have pretty much slept ever since. Hubs and I have not been out of bed before 8:30 am any day, and on some days the kids have slept until 8:45 as well. We have lazy mornings where we don’t eat breakfast until 9:30 am. Mornings spent writing journals, doing schoolwork, and finally responding to emails. Mornings when it just feels good to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

It’s been a week since we arrived. We’re getting used to this. We know how to go to the post office and get the stamps we need. We know what we can get at the Saturday market which is a 1-minute walk from our place and what we need to get instead at the grocery store. We know where the local pizza restaurant is and have learned that it is closed on Sundays and Wednesdays (so much for a dinner treat last night!) And, we know that the chocolate shop, the best in the region, sells ice cream in the courtyard on warm days. Did I also mention we found the wine shop? We spent a good 30 minutes chatting with the owner, getting recommendations on local wines, and even tasting one that he wouldn’t sell us until we (and he) had tasted it as he didn’t think it was ready to be purchased. He was right.

The kids know their way around as well. They know that La Presse a few doors down from us sells Minion trading cards. And that the big grocery store sells Lego mini-figures. Better yet, they know how to order morning goodies at the local boulangerie. Give them some money and send them off, and fresh croissants and pain au chocolat arrive at the table. Only be sure to be explicit in what you ask them to buy. If, like Hubs, you send them off with instructions such as, “Here’s 10 Euros. Buy 4 croissants and then whatever you want,” you may end up with this:

A raspberry and cream-filled macaroon practically the size of my head. Which they promptly ate for breakfast.
A raspberry and cream-filled macaroon practically the size of my head. Which they promptly ate for breakfast.

The town itself is charming and just what we had hoped to find. The local shops are all within walking distance. Just this morning, thanks to our hosts, Hubs and JJ found where to get freshly ground coffee for the French press. And, just as we had hoped, there is a lot to do nearby.

Some of our favorite finds in town so far include:

Literally 10 steps from us, this small home is nestled into the church walls. It was owned by the man who rang the church bells.
Literally 10 steps from us, this small home is nestled into the church walls. It was owned by the man who rang the church bells.
This wonderful street is fun to walk down -- JJ is hoping that he can stretch across it with his arms before we leave! Our host, Byron, is in the background as he led us on an architectural tour of the town.
This wonderful street is fun to walk down — JJ is hoping that he can stretch across it with his arms before we leave! Our host, Byron, is in the background as he led us on an architectural tour of the town.

On our own exploration of the town, we walked the rampart walls. Turns out you actually can’t do this due to safety reasons, but there were no signs on the route we took, so we didn’t know that until the end of the walk. It was worth it!

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We have also begun to explore nearby towns the past few days. We continue our lazy mornings and then head out in the afternoon for several hours. The towns have been charming, and we love spending time seeing new sights. But, we also love coming home. After all, who can’t relax when your evening stroll includes this?

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It’s always a bit of a gamble when you book a place online. I’m thinking this time we hit the jackpot.