Vive la famille
A trip to France is all about slowing down the senses. Meals are served at an unhurried pace. Strolls through local markets encourage dawdling over the fresh vegetables and handmade crafts. The local cafes help the senses absorb simple joys such as a good café crème. At least that’s what France would be like if you hadn’t chosen to bring your 3-year-old. In this case, your trip enters the realm of adventure travel.
You may not be completely naive about traveling abroad with a toddler. His diaper bag carries the requisite bottle of Benadryl (your motto: If he isn’t the loudest child on the plane, it’s a successful flight). You’ve brought new books and toys to distract him through marathon French dinners. Your hotel on the Côte d’Azur has a pool, a two-room suite and expansive views of the Mediterranean.A few years earlier the balcony would have been the ideal spot for a bottle of wine and a romantic moment with your beloved. With a potty-training toddler in tow, however, it is used primarily to dry his hand-washed pants.
When you arrive, hotel staff members smile at your child and you assume they are thinking “what a sweet little boy.” By the end of the vacation – after he has broken the glass coffee table in your room, stained more than one of the gourmet restaurant’s pink upholstered chairs, and regularly performed rousing renditions of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the lobby piano – you know in fact that they were thinking, “Oh no, Americans with a toddler. What bad luck.” Jet lag hits hard the first few days and you are lucky to leave the room before noon. A quarter of your vacation is spent in bed. Another quarter goes to the pool as a necessary indulgence for your son. When lounging in the room, you are transfixed by the complexities of a weeklong British snooker championship on television. It will take until the last day of your trip, however, to determine what it means to be “snookered.” The rest of your time is spent in search of food. Since the hotel breakfast costs 25 euros per person (and the dollar is dropping by the day), your husband sneaks out each morning to purchase baguettes and pain au chocolat. He laments that the local patisserie doesn’t sell coffee, so you’re not only jet-lagged but veering into caffeine withdrawal as well. At one point you threaten to ship your son home in a box if he doesn’t behave.
Your first forays out as a family are disorienting. Your spouse adjusts to driving the narrow, serpentine roads with such zeal that your son throws up in the rental car. It takes him less than 24 hours to break the car’s built-in window sunscreen. Your first beach picnic is disrupted four times by his constipated attempts to negotiate the hole-in-the-floor public bathrooms.In search of food The first two evenings you wander through deserted alleys in two coastal towns searching for hotel-recommended restaurants. Even Hollywood couldn’t fabricate a better locale to be mugged. The first night you end up in a Mexican-inspired pizzeria reminiscent of home – except that Mexican restaurants in the United States know better than to serve pizza. To your child’s delight, the second night also finds you in a smoky waterfront pizzeria. You are crammed back near the hot kitchen and forced to use rusty French to repeatedly tell your neighbors, “Excuse me, my son’s car is underneath your table.”
Once the gastronomic highlight of your European travels, meals are now undertaken with steely determination. One night your son delights in crawling under other diners’ tables. Another night, just as the main course has been served, he loudly announces “I have to go potty!” The waiters quickly replace the silver covers they have just removed with such flourish from your plates. Not once are you offered a cheese platter, coffee or dessert. Do they know you would gladly take your meal to go if they offered?You can’t help wondering why these restaurants are so quiet or your son so loud. Was he always this loud at home? Certainly he’s never pestered other diners with his loud “bon jour!” At one point you wonder aloud, “Has he eaten anything besides pizza, French bread and chocolate since we arrived?”
You take the TGV train to Marseille and spend the 40-minute ride staring longingly at a well-behaved little French girl. This is the first toddler you have seen in France. You wonder if the French lock up their children until they have learned to behave; bibs, sippy cups, booster seats, crayons and other paraphernalia that you take for granted in the United States are nonexistent in France.Stolen momentsThere are moments of humor.
Although mortified about the broken coffee table, you manage to smother a giggle at the anxious medic who arrives an hour later to make sure no one is bleeding. At one fancy seafood restaurant, the maitre d’ plunges his entire arm into the fish tank to disturb the camouflaged bottom-feeder for the delight of your child. The head waiter soon follows suit. While your child is entertained by these unlikely heroes, you order freshly caught sea bass baked and encased in a salty meringue. Your mouth comes alive with salt and sea and tender meat, and you don’t care if your child crawls under your smoking neighbors’ table or even into the fish tank. This is why you came to the South of France.The other senses aren’t neglected either. You stumble across several local markets during the week and delight in the countless varieties of olives and fresh produce, which lead to beach picnics with a baguette and hot slice of jambon. Each evening the sunset paints the sky in hues of pumpkin, sunflower and raspberry. Fall has turned the hillsides and vineyards to muted shades of red and yellow, while the air is filled with the smoky aroma of summer detritus being burned all over the countryside. On one drive along the coast, you peek hundreds of feet down a sheer cliff just as the sun breaks out of the clouds and sends streaks of glimmering light down on the Mediterranean.When the jet lag finally recedes, you venture inland to the medieval hill town of Castellet. While you and your husband take in the magnificent views, your son takes French habits to heart by peeing on a bush in the very public courtyard behind you. When he falls asleep on the way home, you careen across the region, visiting the wineries of the AOC Bandol district. You meet Lulu, the matriarch at Domain Tempier’s winery and a personal friend of author Alice Waters, and purchase her cookbook. She signs it in French that will take you weeks to decipher.
On the last day of your trip at the fortified hill chateau of Grimaud, you finally stumble across a family-friendly attraction. Tucked on the backside of the town at the base of the 12th-century ruins is a superb playground that occupies your joyous son while you and your husband take turns visiting this fortress once guarded by the famous and powerful Knights Templar. One last time you order Salade Paysanne, a simple culinary highlight that you vow to recreate at home while knowing it can never be done.Your son is anxious to return home to his friends and routines, and he’s as fidgety on the airplane as he was on land. The gentleman in the next row calls him an enfant terrible. You watch your son repeatedly kick the seat in front of him and pretend you haven’t heard. He is the loudest child on the plane, after all, but, when it comes to 3-year-olds, it’s doubtful you could have had a more game little companion.When you finally arrive home after the requisite canceled flight, detainment in customs due to lost luggage, a 45-gate run to your next plane and five-hour drive home through a blinding snowstorm, France seems like a faraway dream remembered through the pictures hastily snapped in the brief moments your child stood still. You will be comforted by the knowledge that you survived and actually enjoyed this first family outing abroad – but also by the fact that the next time you visit France your son will be old enough to stay home with his grandparents.
Allison Johnson lives in Carbondale and, when Nathaniel isn’t climbing in her office chair, works as a writer and director of publicity for Snowmass Village.
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