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Posts Tagged ‘France’

The Allure of the Eiffel Tower

October 25, 2011 3 comments

We took our children to Paris this past summer. It was a highly anticipated event, to put it mildly. Topping their list of expectations was Disneyland Paris, but after we firmly crossed that off their list, the next item was, of course, the Eiffel Tower.

I would like to report they were most charmed by the second hand book peddlars that lined the Seine, the incredible food, or a work of art in the Louvre (preferably something other than the Mona Lisa). But if you ask them what the highlight of their Paris trip was, you will hear three voices in unison proclaim the Eiffel Tower. This is the only thing I have ever heard them proclaim in unison, incidentally.

At their first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, they were speechless – it was fulfilling to see them react this way about something besides Justin Bieber. As we neared the iconic structure, we saw a virtual carnival of life happening around its base.

There were people lounging everywhere. Some were having a picnic, others were playing soccer, musicians were strumming guitars, models were posing, and peddlars were selling everything under its grey skies, including umbrellas once they opened up. It was a world unto its own arrondisement.

Like crashing a birthday party, the people watching opportunities were vast and the party games varied. But it was my turn to be aghast when it was time for the birthday cake: hour long line-ups awaited us at each of the entrances for the trip up to the top of the tower. We seriously considered taking the stairs until we realized we could only walk up to the first platform.

Patience isn’t in my DNA, and so I had to be strong-armed by my children to join one such line. But I was glad I did; being in the line was simply another opportunity to watch the carnival and meet people from all over the world who had converged on Paris that day.

Besides the incredible vistas and thousands of tourists, there was an exhibition about the history of the Eiffel Tower on the first platform. We loved seeing the pictures of the tower under construction, when it loomed curiously half-built above Paris. You could understand the scorn city dwellers felt for this structure, widely thought to be an eyesore before its debut at the World Fair of 1889. It was a great teaching moment, talking about Gustav Eiffel’s perseverance in the face of this controversy.

I’d stupidly allotted an hour in our day for this visit, thinking we’d quickly check it off before lunching in a cafe and then hitting the Louvre. In fact we were there almost all day, which I now realize was the right thing to do.

I’ve talked to people who have been disappointed by their trips to the City of Lights; it simply didn’t live up to its hefty billing. Incredibly, there is an illness called Paris Syndrome, as is described in this month’s issue of Atlantic magazine. Some tourists are experiencing hallucinations, nausea and dizziness when their high expectations of Paris fall short. I know, it sounds more ludicrous than the thought of me joining the chorus line in the Moulin Rouge, but this is an actual documented illness.

Far from these poor afflicted tourists, my children could only stand awestruck at this world famous landmark, oblivious to the long lines with which I was obsessed. Whereas I saw chaos, they saw magic. (My reaction of impatience and frustration did fall short of hallucinations, I hasten to add.)

Oh, to see the world through the eyes of children.

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When In France, Eat Like the French Do

July 11, 2011 5 comments

I have a penchant for competition, but I would never dream of attempting to beat the French at their own game.

Their passion for eating, that is.

It would take a serious training regime of long lunches and longer dinners – over weeks, preferably months, perhaps years – before one could possibly achieve a similar metabolism, let alone the tolerance for wine that would render one a contender.

Food and drink are their game, and they play it extremely well.

Everywhere you look between the hours of 12 and 2, and then again from 7:30 – 10:30, people are enjoying sumptuous lunches and dinners, eyes closed and conversation hushed as they concentrate on the task at hand.

Rose is consumed like water. We stopped at a little cheese shop the other day and noticed the proprietor was also doing a booming business selling rose out of a vat, filling large glass jugs for his patrons for one and half euros per liter. (It was pretty good wine, I might add.) Bottled water costs more, so it is perfectly rational to drink wine instead.

So although I freely admit I will never beat the french at this game of eating, I would like to join them at playing their game, in my own miniscule way. And so to this end we ventured to Jardin d’Ivana the other night.

Jardin d’Ivana is exactly as it translates: Ivana’s garden, which also serves as a restaurant every night. Ivan is apparently the host, server, and busboy while his wife, Nadine, concocts miracles in her kitchen. It was a short walk down the hill from where we are staying, so we struck out on foot. We felt a little sheepish walking into our neighbor’s yard, but this is how it’s done here we reminded ourselves, and went in.

Ivan greeted us and ushered us in to our table. This night their tables were all set under their sheltered veranda – the mistral, high winds that blow down from Siberia, had arrived the day before, and were whipping up the tablecloths and making waves in their small swimming pool.

In the next fifteen minutes, twenty other people were ushered in to surrounding tables, reconciling our previous worries that this was, in fact, very normal here.

The feast began.

There of course were no menu’s, just Ivan telling us what the menu would be that evening. We didn’t understand all of what was to come, so it was a bit like getting a grab bag of of delicacies – each course a little present in its own right.

It was a slow but steady procession of dishes in various forms of pomp and circumstance. Slim aperatifs were served in tiny champagne flutes. Pureed carrots laced with parmesan and cardamon arrived in glass bowls. A long slice of eggplant spooned an equally long slice of zucchini on a salad plate. A pork stew with thick sauce came in round bowls. Slices of apricot sweetened with brown sugar and some other divine sauce were set down just as I started to see double. Wine glasses were replaced with tiny digestif glasses smaller than shot glasses. Espresso in tiny vessels with saucers.

As we rolled out of their garden, I humbly raised my white flag in defeat. I couldn’t eat like that every night, but it was fun trying.

And I hoped like hell that Ivana had an industrial sized dishwasher.

Never Trust Google Maps

July 4, 2011 5 comments

It wasn’t the best time to discover Google is shy on its travel time estimates. One would think such a great company would be bang on, in everything it does, estimates included.

Believing that was my first mistake.

A few months ago, I’d taken a cursory glance at a map of Europe.  The distance between Tuscany and Provence did not look daunting. In fact, it was only a couple of inches.

Further scrutiny of possible routes looked even better. The roads that Google suggested hugged first the Italian coastline, and then the French. It held the promise of a beautiful, awe inspiring drive. I imagined us waving to the Europeans lounging on their yachts, bidding them either bon giorno or bonjour, whichever.

Google estimated it to be a six hour journey. A bit of a haul for the kids, but certainly doable, we would stop for a nice lunch en route, and would be eating foie gras and drinking a Luberon rose for dinner.

Emboldened by my research, we started off. We had water and bananas with us. The kids each had their iPods fully charged. We were ready.

The Italian countryside gave way to the Italian Alps, and the children started asking, how much longer it would be.

Not long now, only two hours to go, we replied.

We passed the Cinque Terra, and toyed with the idea of going for a hike. We’d hoped to have lunch in Portofino, so we pressed on.

The thing about driving on the auto route, we realized, was they never gave you distances. We finally started seeing signs for Genoa, and congratulated ourselves for being so speedy.

But the signs for Genoa continued for the next two hours.

It was around this time that the tunnels started.

Instead of gazing at the impossibly blue Mediterranean Sea, we looked into the mouths of one tunnel after another, many of which stretched for two kilometres at a time.

These tunnels were both a blessing and a curse. We couldn’t enjoy much of the landscape, but they kept our children busy for hours as they tried to hold their breath the entire length of the tunnel.

With iPod batteries long dead and no radio stations worth listening to, this was something.

How much longer, they asked. About two hours, we replied. You said that two hours ago, they pointed out.

The other thing we noticed was that Italy didn’t mention any other countries that you might be stumbling into momentarily. We saw no signs indicating France was imminent, until we were in France. We happened to glance a European Union blue sign saying France between tunnels. We had arrived.

Almost.

Surely, we were really only two hours from here. It was dinnertime, and in lieu of our foie gras we had sandwiches au poulet at a reststop.

Monaco gave way to Nice, and then countless other french towns we hadn’t heard of. The sun was setting in front of us, glaring into our tired eyes. We made the turn up north towards Aix en Provence.

How much longer, the kids asked. Surely less than two hours, we replied.

If you happen to be making the journey anytime soon, the drive between Tuscany and Provence is actually eleven hours, not the six that Google promises. I say this with the utmost confidence, and a whole lot of exasperation.

There are, however, two bright sides to this tale.

The first is that our children, incredulously, saw the humor in this situation, and remained good-natured throughout this marathon car ride.

The second is that when we finally reached our destination, we opened the fridge to find one glorious item: a bottle of a Luberon rose.

A European Vacation Experiment, Family Style

May 31, 2011 14 comments
a backpacking travel to europe R002-005

The decision to travel to Europe this summer, en famille, was not a light hearted one. My children tend to complain loudly on any walk that is longer than the length of our driveway, so there’s that to consider.

And then the sheer expense of the sojourn – multiplying everything by 5’s was great when we were learning our multiplication tables, but when we’re talking dollars it can be painful and exorbitant. When people used to tell me, children are expensive, I was thinking more along the lines of the extra toothpaste requirements, not additional plane fares. Yowsers.

Yet we are dying to show our children places that we have fallen head over heels in love with, and France and Italy are chief among them. My husband is taking a rare sabbatical, six weeks off work, and so with such a luxurious amount of time – unprecedented and perhaps never to be repeated – we have decided to carpe diem.

Despite the fact that my six year-old tells me every night she wants to stay home and practice her new monkey bar skills, we are flying to London in a week. After a couple of days there we will be spending time in rural villages in Tuscany and Provence.

My nine year-old is most excited about the mere fact she will be leaving North America for the first time, while my eleven year-old is under the illusion she will be shopping in Paris.

I have attempted to play Italian language CD’s in my car to familiarize my kids with some basic words, but it’s been impossible to hear them over the peals of laughter from the backseat. Mature guys, very mature, I tell them. Then they laugh harder.

Which leads me to ponder whether or not they will appreciate the food, the culture, the language, or the lengths we are going to to show them these things. Children being children, I expect not.

I recognize we are lucky to be able to take this trip – it’s a huge privilege I am so thankful for. Yet when my friends ask me if I’m excited, I tell them excited might not be the best word. More like trepidatious, cautiously optimistic, fingers crossed, hoping for the best.

I have been a parent for long enough to realize this experience will certainly fall short of the Von Trapp’s dancing through the hills of Austria, yet hopefully rise above National Lampoon’s European Vacation. The Griswald’s set the bar pretty low, after all.

Exactly where our happy medium lies is yet to be seen, but come along for the ride for the next six weeks, and I’ll give you an idea.