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Innocents abroad

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I never thought I'd take my kids to Europe until they were older. Like, say, 25.

The thought of a nine-plus-hour transatlantic flight alone was enough to put me off the idea of hauling a three- and five-year-old across Paris and London. But then we got an offer that seemed too good to refuse: a month-long house-and-car swap on the French Riviera, courtesy of a friend's parents.

The timing was good. I was on a year-long sabbatical from my job, and my husband is a self-employed wooden-boat builder who works from home. We had the time, although not necessarily much cash. But we had enough Air Miles for three tickets, and the accommodations and a car would be free. What wasn't to like?

The trip was to begin in early March, decidedly the off-season. But that offered some advantages, too: Smaller crowds and cooler weather would hopefully make for less cranky kids.

We took the plunge and said yes. It was our first house swap and based on what we learned, we'd do it again. The house, on the outskirts of a resort town called St. Maxime across the water from St. Tropez, was a two-storey villa on about two acres with a large flagstone patio, a pool (unfortunately not open in March), a swing set and tons of kids' toys and bikes kept by the owners for their grandchildren. We had a distant view of the Bay of St. Tropez framed by two large umbrella pines, a common species in the dry Maures Hills that roll away from the turquoise Mediterranean Sea. At night, it was almost perfectly dark except for the constellations above and the glow of lights dotting neighbouring hillsides.

The temperature hovered just under 20 C for most of our stay, although we got off to a rough start.

Our first day, we awoke from a jet-lagged, fitful sleep to winds whipping through the umbrella pines and rain puddling on the patio stones.

Oh, and the telephone line wasn't working, which meant no Internet. That lasted another five days before the sun finally broke through and the technology was fixed -- both on the same day. It was soon so sunny and warm, we shed our spring-in-Victoria clothes and went shopping at the local weekly clothing market for a couple of summer items. We spent days exploring nearby medieval hilltop villages, walking past vineyards and along streams in the countryside, playing at the beach, scrambling over the ruins of an old castle and a fort with a real moat -- all for less than 50 euros a day.

Sure, it's not a lie-on-the-sand-with-your-nose-in-a-book-and-a-margarita-in-your-belly kind of holiday.

You still have to cook and clean. It's more of a change of scene, a chance to experience another culture -- or even another city -- one step closer than tourists stuck in hotels and restaurants. We got to know the local markets and grocery stores (a bottle of fairly decent red wine for just over a euro? -- gotta love France) and probe a little deeper into the surrounding countryside than otherwise would have been possible.

With the addition of a couple of English-speaking playmates for the kids, it would have been perfect.

Here are a few lessons we learned along the way:

The big flight

We faced about 20 hours of travel, including three flights to get to Nice, France -- a daunting prospect. But thanks to personal TV screens with kids' programming at every seat, it was a mostly peaceful experience. My five-year-old, granted, is a TV addict. Normally restricted to one or two hours at home, she thought she'd died and gone to Treehouse heaven with nine-plus hours of Max and Ruby and Little Bear. Even meals failed to break her reverie.

The three-year-old had a little more trouble sitting still, but we brought a bag full of Polly Pockets along with colouring books and stories. My husband loaded his iPod with storybooks too, providing a distraction when we'd reached the end of our tether. (This also worked later on trains.)

We got off in Frankfurt for a two-hour layover, and found ourselves lost in a maze of corridors. Moving from one terminal to the other with the stroller required us to go up and down elevators no fewer than six times.

Finally, we found our gate and parked ourselves for the 90-minute wait for our flight to Nice. Things started looking up when I discovered Lufthansa offered waiting passengers little stations with free cappuccino and hot chocolate from an espresso machine.

Not to mention free booze on the flight.

The travel experience may have been relatively easy, but jet lag was another story. It took us almost a week to recover, with the three-year-old waking us up at odd hours every night.

Don't forget the stroller

We debated for days whether to bring our full-sized stroller, ultimately deciding it was a necessary evil. We never regretted it, even after the inner tube burst and we had to trek all over Paris looking for a bike store to buy a new tube, then repeat the experience in London after getting a puncture. We met some very nice people along the way -- in London, they patched the tube for free. Countless people offered to help us carry the stroller up the stairs, no matter where we were.

Sure, our three-year-old has been walking for two years, but she tired easily and would go on strike and refuse to move. One day, we didn't bring the stroller and ended up carrying her on our shoulders, a tiring alternative. The stroller allowed us to travel farther in the knowledge we could always throw one kid on the back and one on the front and make it back without tears -- mostly. It was also great for naps.

Diapers, too

Our three-year-old is potty-trained but when she says she has to go, it's usually almost too late. You need a bathroom, and fast. Unfortunately, when you're away from home in a strange town or city with no bushes in sight, that isn't an option. After a few days of resistance for fear of undermining months of potty training -- and a few days of rinsing out underwear and pants -- we started outfitting her with a diaper to "catch the drips" on the days when we knew finding a bathroom would be tricky.

That wasn't an option with our five-year-old, who was prone to announce her need for the bathroom at the worst possible moment. This was compounded by the habit in rural France (not, thankfully, in Paris) of closing everything, including public toilets, between noon and 2 p.m. I can't tell you how many times she would make this announcement at 12:01 p.m. and we would rush to the toilet, only to find it barred -- the whole country is apparently in on a conspiracy to funnel tourists into one of the local cafés or restaurants for long lunches. Either that or they have very well-disciplined bladders.

In larger towns and cities, we could sometimes find a coin-operated automatic toilet, but the kids developed a fear of being locked inside these funny wet and windowless spaces and strenuously resisted using them.

Picky eaters

It's true that the prospect of cooking every meal just like at home while on "vacation" doesn't exactly fill the heart with joy, but kids can be finicky eaters and it's harder to find something they like that has nutritional value when you're stuck eating out all the time. We found kids' menus in France were not unlike kids' menus here -- chicken nuggets, spaghetti, pizza -- at seven to 10 euros a shot. Eating at home can be easier and less time-consuming (not to mention cheaper) than searching for a restaurant every night.

For breakfast, we ate lots of croissants and fruit picked up from markets.

Once, we even found and bought donkey sausage in the market in St. Tropez. (Donkeys were always poking their noses out from behind some house or fence in that part of France.)

We ate picnics by streams on country walks, under the walls of one of those medieval towns or the Citadelle in St. Tropez, or in one of the many playgrounds we found (often with beautiful carved wooden animals on springs).

Every Thursday, we walked 20 minutes down our country road into town for the weekly food market in the old quarter. We bought bread, cheese, fresh pasta, a whole chicken and locally grown oranges and lemons. There wasn't another tourist in sight -- or, at least, one that wasn't speaking French.

Twice we took a boat for the 20-minute ride to St. Tropez, where there's a huge public market every Saturday, selling everything from p¢té to underpants.

Pare down itinerary

One activity a day is enough, since kids have a way of derailing the most carefully planned itinerary with their demands for food and toilets, need for sleep and complaints of sore tummies and general crankiness. (Overheard on the second level of the Eiffel Tower, from a father to his approximately seven-year-old daughter: "People come here from all over the world, and you want to go SWIMMING?")

In Antibes, about an hour's drive from St. Maxime, I wanted to see the Picasso Museum, walk the old town, check out the beaches, hike a bit of the Cap D'Antibes coastal trail and visit the museum in Renoir's old house between Antibes and Nice. It was a lot to fit in one day, so we decided to stay overnight.

After a stop at the downtown beach, where we marvelled at the startlingly turquoise water and the women sunbathing in their bras, we walked through the gates of the old town.

When we got to the museum, in a house where Picasso once lived, we were told the lunch closure began in half an hour, since it was already 11:30 a.m. We decided to go in anyway, since we could come back at 2 p.m. if we weren't finished. Ha; as it turned out, we could have been out of there in 15 minutes. The kids were wired and ran from room to room. I tried to keep up with them and still look at the art, so I got a dizzying, fast-forward view, which may well be an appropriate way to view Picasso. The attendants were polite but vigilant and seemed happy to see the last of us. We were out the door by 11:55 a.m.

We headed along the seaside road past the old town to more beaches and a playground promised by our Rick Steves guide. We found the playground and the kids went nuts. I settled in with my book. Within about 10 minutes, however, the five-year-old was back with the words every parent dreads: "Mommy, I have to poo right now."

There were washrooms nearby but the women's side was closed and the men's was dirty with no paper. She absolutely refused to use it. I tried the archeology museum nearby but alas, it was closing for lunch. Eventually, we surrendered and went to a pizzeria for lunch, just to use the toilets.

The Cap D'Antibes worked out about as well as the Picasso Museum. Five minutes into the spectacular seaside hike, the three-year-old fell on some gravel and scraped her knees, and my husband had to carry her on his shoulders the entire way -- or as far as we could go.

The moral of the story was clear: Do what you want to do, by all means, but fail to include kid-centric activities at your peril.

The next day, we hit the Renoir Museum in the morning, then decamped to Parc Phoenix, a kind of combined playground and wildlife park on the outskirts of Nice. Would we ever have gone there without kids? Not on your life. But they loved it, so everyone was happy.

Later, in Paris, we discovered another kid paradise in the form of Luxembourg Gardens, with its pony rides, carousel, puppet shows and playground.

(Sure, the puppet show was in French, but if you can't understand a puppet show without the dialogue, it's probably a pretty bad show.)

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 D1

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