Paris: The Highest Point

OUR DAY LONG POSTCARD TOUR OF PARIS ended at none other than the Eiffel tower.

After an already long day, our crew emerged from the subway station Bir Hakeim at the onset of dusk and walked directly towards the looming Eiffel.  We staved off the kids hunger pangs with a quick bite, sitting down to eat hotdogs and paninis on a bench directly underneath the tower. There, while endured the constant interruption of street vendors peddling all manner of Eiffel models, somewhere in the Eiffel a switch flipped and the tower changed from cold iron to suddenly bathed warm glow.   We finished up our dinner and headed directly to the top.

What we saw that evening probably made the entire trip worth it.  They say a picture is worth a thousand word, so here’s a dissertation  (Higher res images here).

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Paris: The Farthest Walk

FOR WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, I HAVE NOBODY TO BLAME BUT MYSELF.  They day was about to get way better, but not before the wheels just about fell off.

When we emerged from the Louvre the sky was clearing and we suddenly had a clear view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.   I knew from the map it wouldn’t make sense to walk to the Eiffel, but we could also see the  Arc De Triumphe, and it at least looked closer.  My regrettably too-hasty inspection of that map confirmed it was walkable.  With the warming sun out, we decided to hike it…but  I didn’t want to lose all of the sun and daylight strolling down the sidewalk, so I issued a half-joking challenge to the kids: “Let’s see if we can get there in seven minutes!”

Two hours later, we arrived at the Arc. That is a lot farther than it looks.

The walk was not a waste, it was just really long.  We walked out of the Louvre, through the Jardin des Tuileries, past L’ Obelisque, down the Champs-Élysées and finally to the Arc De Triumphe.  Along the way we had some views of the Eiffel Tower, stopped for a snack, ran around the garden, watched some street performers, and took in the shopping scene along the Champs-Élysées, but by the time we arrived at the Arc, I thought for sure we had lost the kids for the day – it was truthfully an exhausting walk.

AS IF THAT WERE NOT ENOUGH, after we walked to the end of the Champs-Élysées, under the worlds largest traffic circle, to the entrance to the elevator, that is the point at which Chase said,  “Dad, I have to go potty.” Unfortunately Napoleon didn’t commission a toilet built into the Arc de Triumphe, so I consulted with some local police officers. “Is there bathroom nearby (and what I really mean is can he pee on the sidewalk right here in front of you?)“.  Either way the answer was no.   So we walked back across the worlds largest traffic circle and back down the part of the Champs-Élysées in search of a restroom.

What could have been a 5 minute metro ride had turned into a roughly 2 1/2 hour epic Odyssey.   By the time we returned to the Arc we were verging on a 5-kid Chernobyl scale meltdown.

But miraculously,  the Arc perked them all back up.  We took the elevator (yes, there is an elevator) to the top for an unbelievably striking 360 view of Paris and a tantalizingly close view of the Eiffel Tower.  By that point the weather had turned fantastic and the sunlight highlighted a gorgeous city-scape, including an I-think-I-can-almost-touch-it view of the Eiffel Tower, and spirits turned up a little. If you ever get to Paris, the top if the Arc de Triumphe on a sunny day is an absolute must.

At that point, I was ready to call it a day. We’d seen two major sites, one that I didn’t think could get much better.  It sun was setting and we hadn’t eaten, and I feared the kids were at their limits.    But the Eiffel tower loomed closer than ever, and the kids implored us to go see it before we go home.

That turned out to be a great decision.

Paris: The Longest Day

OUR PARIS TRIP GOT OFF TO A SLOW START.

Our first whole day there was Tuesday, and we had planned to meet a friend and her son back at our vacation house (45 minute train ride from the city center) that afternoon.  So we got the kids up and took the train into Paris mid-morning for a quick excursion.  When we emerged from the metro, we were greeted with cold, windy, and rainy weather.  We wandered around a bit and toughed it out for a photo op at Notre Dame, but got the kids lined up to say cheeze and realized just then that the camera was dead.  We took a stroll through the Notre Dame and when we finished it was already mid afternoon, so we trekked back in the freezing cold to the metro and headed back to base.  Paris 1, Senneff Sieben 0.

BUT WEDNESDAY WE SETTLED THE SCORE.

We took the metro early to a station directly under the Louvre and started our tour there.  Let me just say that the Louvre is not an ideal place for kids…it really can’t be tackled with a giant family, including a bored, screaming 2-year-old.  The best you can hope for is to hit a few key exhibits and escape alive.  A full-grown adult would probably have trouble getting through a substantial amount of that place in one day, so a large family has no prayer.  We made a B-line for the Denon Wing, where we found the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and a number of other interesting exhibits, and after a couple of hours, found a place on the floor in the lobby to eat lunch and evacuate.

One editorial note for parents of kids: while kids are not generally appreciative of fine art, ours found enough of the – er – material – to keep their interest piqued.  I don’t know what it is about fine art that requires someone to be partially or completely naked, but our kids found that element particularly entertaining.  Kiersten stopped at nearly every artwork featuring a pair of boobs to exclaim, “Mommy, this one is inappropriate!”  After a couple of hours in the Denon wing, we were strolling through the Roman sculptures when Camden snickered, “Mom, I just saw a penis.”  (Really, ya just now noticed?  BTW: Need to write a future post on exposed breasts in “family oriented” places in Europe.)

So…Louvre conquered, photos taken, all kids still alive and well.  We figured that would be the highlight of the day…but we were wrong.

It was going to get way better.

Rick Steves is about to get some competition.

WE’RE JUST ABOUT READY TO START WRITING OUR RICK STEVES’ TRAVEL COMPANION: Europe with 5 little kids.

We managed to conquer Paris.  It wasn’t always easy or pretty, but all in all, it went as smoothly as one could possibly expect… and there were some fantastic highlights.  I’m almost certain it will go down as some of the most memorable days of travel for our family for years to come.

As far as family vacations go, Paris is about as kid-friendly as a bag of glass shards…subways packed like a can of sardines, occasionally lengthy, foot-blistering walks, and some exhibits that really require effort to appreciate (hello, Pompidou!?)…it’s no Disneyland Paris, after all.  But we’re here to testify that it can be done, and the kids can enjoy it…we did!

As I paged through the guestbook in our vacation home, I noticed we aren’t the only large family to have tried it.  We read notes from a family of 5 kids from the Netherlands, and a family with 7 kids from San Antonio, Texas and even from another US family of 7 living in Germany.  We’ll probably start off our book by carefully documenting the location of all McDonald’s restaurants, clean bathrooms, and cheap souvenir shops.  But it’s a work in progress, so if you happen to be travelling to Paris with your 5+ kids and don’t want to wait for our travel book to publish, here are a few quick tips:

  • If you can’t explain it without using the words ‘art’ or ‘culture’, then either don’t go to it, or unabashedly dangle the promise of a trip through the souvenir shop or McDonald’s after it.
  • In Paris, there are those who stand in line, and those who have strollers (life-saving tip, thanks Flikkemas!).  Even if you don’t have a kid who needs a stroller, take one and prop up a fake baby-doll in it and you’re golden.
  • In Paris, there are those who take the stairs, and there are those who have strollers.  Strollers in Paris equate to handicap access, and it’s an express ticket to the top of just about anything (including the elevator in the Arc De Triumphe that doesn’t exist).
  • Cramming your family on a packed Metro or RER after a long day is a recipe for a meltdown.  But if you must,  just let the kids cry and maybe someone will take pity on you and give up their seat.

There’s plenty more for sure, this is just a quick sampling of advice from a couple of newbies learning the ropes in Europe.  We have a few more posts, bits of advice, and pretty cool photos in the pipeline.

Normandy: We left for home a day early in protest of the protests. (Wait, did someone say ‘home’?)

Sometimes you follow the news…and then sometimes the news follows you.

Sunday night we had plans to leave Normandy on Wednesday.  Those plans called for Bayeax on Monday, then Tuesday for the beautiful costal town of Honfleur, and then the long drive home on Wednesday morning.  But the citizens of France had other plans.

Sunday morning we were running a little low on gas, so I pulled up to a gas station in Carentan, where the pumps had a hand written sign taped over the display.  Roughly translated by Google, the signs said “This station commandeered for emergency vehicles.”  Odd.  We stopped at a few other gas stations in town…all closed, and finally just about coasted into an open one in Insigny sur Mer, about 15km away.  Hmm…What was that all about?

We had heard about the strikes in France but really hadn’t paid much attention.  French citizens across the country were staging protests to proposed changes of some of their social benefits.  We hadn’t paid much attention, because in my experience the average strike in the US consist of a couple of guys with beer guts sitting in lawn chairs outside of a factory.  They are generally distruptive to exactly nobody except the ones striking.  But I’ll give the French some credit here, they know how to strike.  Really.

The first objective of the strike was to barricade oil refineries, effectively starving France of gasoline.  We didn’t realize this was going on, but all the while we were in France, Normandy’s diesel supplies were shrinking.  In fact, by Monday when we drove past the same gas station where we had filled up in Insigny sur Mer again, it was out of diesel….and like most EU cars, The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van requires diesel.  It suddenly dawned on us the gravity of the situation…we had 800km to drive to get home and not enough fuel to do it, and no way of knowing when we’d be able to buy gas again.

We decided the situation called for hitting the road a day early,  foregoing our Honfleur trip (bummer).  That turned out to be a good decision.  The first gas station we passed on the autobahn that actually had some diesel left, had a line more than a kilometer long.  We drove through towns where traffic was snarled due to waits at the gas station extending far into the streets, further complicated by cars stalling in line.  It wasn’t for several hundred kilometers into our drive that we (luckily) found a gas station with diesel and some tolerable lines.  That was enough fuel to get us out of France…probably…

Unless, of course, we got mired into “Operation Escargot”, which we did.  Operation Escargot was an effort by French truck drivers to bring highway traffic to a stall by intentionally driving at a snail’s pace on major highways.  Based on the news reports we expected to run into such protests near Paris, so we drove well north to avoid the mess, but still found ourselves in stopped highway traffic in Reims.  We took a detour through downtown Reims (just cleaning up after a protest march, by the way) and were able to get out of town unscathed.  Fortunately for us the country highways of eastern France were wide open most of the rest of the way home, if an hour or two later than we would have liked.

We were just about to the end of our trip, just crossing over the French border into Deutschland, when an odd thing happened.  Melissa and I both voiced the same thought at the same time to each other: “It’s good to be home“.

Home? This place that we’ve only lived for three months?  Where we barely speak a word of the native language?  Where you can’t get mac-n-cheese or Ranch dressing?  Home, where you have to bring your own bags to the grocery store?  Home, where the Y and Z keys are swapped on the keyboard?  Where the cars are more expensive than our first house?

Germany….Home?

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Normandy: Utah Beach, St. Mere Eglise and Bayeax

Church at St Mere Eglise

With Omaha Beach fully explored but the kids still yearning for some beach time, we decided to make a stop at Utah Beach, just North and West of Omaha.  Utah gets fewer visitors, probably because it doesn’t have the notoriety of Omaha – only 200 American casualties on the morning of the invasion.  But it was still an important step in establishing a beach head, and  with the sun shining it was the perfect opportunity for the kids to find sea shells and capture some photos of Utah.

Just behind Omaha Beach lies St. Mere Eglise, a sleepy little town with a lot of Lore.  St. Mere Eglise was featured in the  movie “The Longest Day”. The story featured there is of paratrooper John Steele who got hung up on the church spire where he remained for hours until finally being taken prisoner.   The church remains at the center of St. Mere Eglise, and in an odd commemoration an effigy of Steele hangs from a prachute from the spire today.

Next to the church is a museum dedicated to the 82nd at 101st Airborne. It wasn’t big or impressive but it was kid friendly, and we’ll take that over big and impressive any time. (Photos of St. Mere Eglise and the Airborne Museum).

Our last stop on our tour of France turned out to be Bayeax.  It wasn’t planned that way,

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeax.

but citizens of France had other plans (more on that later).  And we like to go where the people aren’t…so that worked out well for us, because Bayeax was basically completely closed for business on Mondays.  Nonetheless, we explored the town and the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeax,