Friday, September 20, 2013

Our Trip to France

In late July I headed off to France with my 4 children.  It was quite the adventure.  Since there is so much to say and share I thought I would do it "photo dump" style.
At the airport...ready for the big trip.  We flew into Paris and then took a smaller flight to Nice in the south of France.  We knew it was warm there.  We were not expecting palm trees at the airport and to see yucca plant and cacti in the south of France. Much warmer than expected!

Our first stop was Cotignac. The buildings are so close together and the streets are so tiny.  Cotignac is a beautiful quaint rural town...we loved it!
I loved the windows....shutters and windows that open all the way...with no screens.  And we had no bug problems.
France is filled with small little street cafes.  We ate at several.  Because we are pretty much functionally illiterate in become a favorite because I could comfortably order "Pizza au jambon et fromage seulement ...pas des olives"  (a ham and cheese pizza without olives).  Interesting thing about France... it is quite impossible to get a pizza without matter what you say... it always comes with olives.  There must be a national quota of olives they have to use.

A few interesting differences we noticed about dining...
  • Tipping is optional.  However, waiters know that Americans tip and seem to be annoyed if you do not tip them.  Yet they don't expect a tip from locals.
  • Order everything you want at once because wait staff is much less attentive than in the USA
  • Ordering water is quite confusing.  There is sparkling water and bottled mineral water.  If you want just a glass of tap water... we learned it is called table water.  Learn this quickly...because bottled water can be pricey.  Also you have to ask for ice... and its not readily available.  And we like very cold drinks. The French... not so much...much closer to room temperature.
  • Special orders and hold the tomato etc...pretty much forget it...not happening.
  • We were a bit afraid to eat red meat after finding horse, donkey and lamb on menus.  We are not real red meat people... I actually fed the kids lamb once by mistake.  They really shouldn't put it so close to the pork. They survived but were not happy.  They would have never known....except for that darn Google Translate ;0)
Although we are overly cautious as to what types of animal proteins we will knowingly consume, we still really enjoyed French cuisine.  Among our favorites were their amazing ice cream, delicious desserts / patisseries, and fresh bread ...every day!  And of course the rotisserie chickens from market day!

France is full of wonderful old architecture and fountains.  There is practically a fountain at every corner or town square.  It is beautiful!
Just outside the center of Cotignac down a wooded trail path is a stream that leads to a waterfall.  It was a wonderful place to spend the very hot afternoon.  By American standards we are quite the prudes.  We were very surprised to find adults as well as pre-teens stripping down to their skibbies (and less), and swimming...some even topless. We choose to wear swimsuits and blush and hide our eyes at those who chose otherwise.

About a 15 minute ride outside of Cotignac we stumbled on to the most gorgeous fields of lavender.  The wind was blowing just enough to spread the glorious scent.  We stopped and took several pictures.   Hailey, my daughter, took some of her senior portrait shots here... later when they are edited I will share them.  We so enjoyed the scent in the wind that I will be planting a bed of lavender at home in hopes of recreating the wonderful aroma in my own backyard.

 Behind the small village of Cotignac is a large rock formation that has small caves in it.  We were told that in ancient times some of the early residents of Cotignac used these caves for protection and storage.  For just a couple of Euros you can climb a few staircases including this very small winding one to go to the top and get a splendid aerial view of the village.

After 9 days in Cotignac it was time to turn in our keys and head to our next destination. (Aren't these the coolest room keys ever?)

We headed to Arles to see some of the ancient ruins.  On our ride through the countryside we found this beautiful field of sunflowers.  The soil is so different from ours, that we were continually amazed at how well things grew.  Where soil in the Midwest, U.S.A is deep dark brown or black it is much different in France. The soil is more of a reddish clay color and when tilled up it almost looks like rocks.  It seems to be a much harsher growing climate. Yet grapes, lavender and sunflowers flourish!
 The square in the center of the Arles of course has a great fountain and this obelisk.  Nearby is a church from the 17th century (I think) with actual relics of a saints. The kids were amazed and a little grossed out seeing skulls and bones of Saints from hundreds of years ago.  Under ground are the Cryptiques which are ancient rooms that were even used to protect local treasures during the one of the World Wars.  Hint:  this is a great place to visit when its 95 degrees outside.  It was a great cool break from outside, even if it wasn't the most visually inspiring tour.

We also walked to the far side of the square and a few blocks more to see an art museum, because we had read that they owned a Picasso exhibit.  We were very unhappy to find out that it was only on display once a year.  We did see an exhibit that was much more contemporary.  On of the pieces of art was a peanut pinned to a canvas and another was an actual piece of lint. I nearly lost it laughing so hard at the piece of lint.  Have you ever tried not to laugh because you know it is totally inappropriate? is nearly impossible not to!  I am sure all the French museum goers were just thinking that we were rude uncultured American tourists.  But I had just paid the better part of $30 for my family to see a piece of lint and a peanut. Somehow that was very humorous.

 Although we didn't eat there because it was more than our budget would allow, one of our favorite spots was the cafĂ© with the yellow awning that Van Gogh featured in one of his paintings.  It is very said that Van Gogh spent so much of his time in Arles and not one of his paintings can be found in the city.

We absolutely loved the shopping in Arles, even more so than in Paris. The shops were less crowded, had a better selection and were more affordable.  We found many great sales. Many many of the young boys and college age boys wore scarves.  We made Gavin try one on...he was a good sport...but he would die before he wore one in public in the USA.

After a quick couple of days in Arles we returned to the airport in Nice to fly to Paris.  We had a very early flight and had to leave Arles at 3am.  The hotel owners were not happy that we were to be up and moving about so early.  They made sure to tell us to be packed and showered in the evening so our movement and the use of the old plumbing would not wake the other guests. Once we quietly got on the road, it took about 2 hours and about 30 euros or more in road tolls to get to the airport. After boarding the plane and taking off it took around an hour to land in Paris.

 After we landed in Paris, took a cab to our apartment rental office, climbed up two flights of stairs with luggage and wandered the city for about 3 hours waiting for our apartment to be ready.  Then an amazing thing happened.... we stumbled upon a Starbucks!  OMG it was like an Oasis in the desert. We had Internet access and we knew what everything on the menu was...even though we couldn't read it.  We stopped, refueled and rested!  (We also had some amazing bottled Blueberry Arizona Ice Tea...that we just can't seem to find anywhere now that we are at home.)

We had to see Notre Dame Cathedral.  The kids saw the Disney Hunchback movie years ago and knew a bit of its "history".  Although Gavin did seem to have a bit of a problem with the concept of historical fiction.  Yes the place is real!  No Quasi Moto does not live here and has not ever really lived here.  Victor Hugo is real....Quasi Moto is not.
The church is amazing.  Actually awe striking.  It is such a great feeling to see the hundreds of people waiting in line to go inside a church.  When we got inside we looked around and even lit a candle for Dad / Papa who had recently had a heart attack and was recovering.  So I take partial credit for his amazing recovery.  For goodness sakes I light at a candle at Notre Dame for him.  How cool is that?  Ok we will give the Big Guy some credit too for his recovery!
We of course went to the Louvre, where we got to see the Mona Lisa.  It is so tiny! And we were almost squished to death trying to get this close for Katelyn's picture by it.  What you can't see behind us is literally a couple hundred people squeezed into a roped off waiting area, all pushing forward at every available if you inhale too deeply.... that spot is gone and now you can't exhale!

This is the Seine River.  We walked all the way from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower.  Note to self:  it is much much farther than it looks.  It only looks close because its big! On the way we stopped at a little food stand and had something to eat.  We had a wrap style sandwich and a what they called a "Chicago Style" hot dog.  It was delicious.  But you would never find a hot dog like that in Chicago or anywhere in the use.  It was a huge fresh made sausage on a fresh made poppy seed bakery bun, with grilled peppers, unions and mustard.  You could hardly fit it in your mouth.  My experience with hot dogs in the quite different.  They are little scraggly things that are quite delicious but you suck them down in about 3-4 bites.  This was not that kind of hot dog at all.

After walking in the heat for a long time.  We made it to the Eiffel tour.  We did not have advance reservations to ride the elevator to the top.  So we bought tickets to walk up.  There are a ton of stairs.  We only went to the second level.  That was more than enough stairs and climbing for us.  I am very glad we had brought several bottles of water!  The view was wonderful and well worth the climb.  After the we left the Eiffel Tower we crossed back over the Seine and enjoyed some more of that delicious French ice cream.  Then we headed to the metro station to ride back to our room.  We were exhausted when we finally made it back.  I quick check of the Fitbit told us we had walked more than 10 miles that day.
We spent the next day shopping and just walking around downtown Paris.  We went to an amazing chocolate shop called La Mere de Famille.  I wish we would have bought more of their chocolates and amazing little hard candy suckers.  While in France also bought several bags of Gummies.  I don't even want to wager a guess on how many bags of gummy Smurfs. Cola bottles, etc that we ate while there.
The next day we boarded a bus and headed to the Paris airport.  All in all, our airport travels went ok.  I would describe French travelers as much more patient than American ones.  The lines in the airports in France were very very long and tolerated by the travelers much better than they would have been in the US.
This trip was truly a vacation of a lifetime.  I am very thankful that I got to share it with my family.  Our trip was originally to take place in June but was postponed when my Dad had a massive heart attack.  So we travelled in late July instead.  Since we have returned home many things have changed for us.  Some due to our trip and some because we are more aware of all the blessings around us.  Here's an update of the latest news since we have returned home: 
  • We bring our own bags when shopping... often.  Not always...but we never did before. (Everyone in France brings their own bags and bags their own groceries.  That was a new concept to us until we stood staring at the first grocery store cashier wondering why she wasn't doing anything and all of our stuff was just laying there.)
  • I went on a low carb diet.  Thank you France for the delicious carbs and extra 10 pounds.
  • Katelyn started college and wrote the most beautiful paper about our visit to the lavender field.  It's amazing how the simple things leave the biggest impression on you.
  • My Dad is continuing to recover.  So much so that he is almost completely back to normal...  just a few lingering effects of being in bed for so long.  He is back to shuttling the grand kids around and watching their sporting events.
  •  Gavin has become a little bit more fashion conscious from all his shopping in French boutiques.  He actually likes to get dressed up! (However, he still doesn't really like shopping with 4 women.)
  • Hailey, Ellen, Gavin and myself are super busy with fall sports.
  • I am on a quest to figure out how to get KinderEggs in the USA
  • We are much more aware of the people and gifts all around us.
Thanks for letting me share our adventure with you.