I have been thinking about what information I can offer about traveling with children that our trip to Paris illustrates. I’d like to share things beyond the “tips” so often found on parenting sites (for example, I think by now that we all know that diaper wipes will wash any body part as well as a filthy toilet or bathroom. And if you didn’t know this, consider your need for a “tip” fulfilled and bring them with you even if the kids are staying home.)
Some of what I say here may seem obvious, but since I myself tended to forget some of it in the thick of things, I hope it bears repeating.
Make a plan. And make it a good one. Before we left, I did my homework. I have posted the document I created here, because, if I may say so myself, it is a thing of beauty, with all facts researched and all opening hours double checked (it also lists the books I used, which were indispensible resources).
Before you start crying OCD, please remember that this was meant only as a guide; when necessary, we deviated from it (you will in fact see things on there that we didn’t do). But one thing I’ve learned is that with young children it is better, infinitely better, to have a plan. If you don’t, I guarantee you will end up frittering away precious moments of your vacation trying to figure out what you will do, or getting somewhere and finding a two-hour line, or (as in the one time I tried to wing it and choose our lunch spot on the fly) walking very very very very far only to discover the restaurant closed.
I know that some people hate to plan. Get over it. I know some people say that part of the wonder of travel is the unexpected. I definitely agree. But don’t think that having a plan eliminates surprise. In our case, it didn’t reveal the fact that a sports bar would be beneath our children’s bedroom or that our first night there would be during the finals of the European Cup.
Know thy children. Knowing what your children are passionate about will help you make good decisions. For example, my children love all forms of transport. I knew that they would be more than happy to ride on trains and metros and so we used nary a taxi. They also love to be outdoors – if you look back over the list of post you will see that we planned only a few museum trips with children in tow (and surprise! several of these were a failure). I also know that they can’t stay up late and eat meals in restaurants. And so I brought Caroline (and I am someone for whom the word nanny is anathema, as anyone who knows me will tell you). After all, it was my vacation too.
Ask not what your children can do for you…. Don’t expect your children to behave differently while they are on vacation. Unlike you, they are not escaping their workaday lives. They will not sleep in (or wake up early) if it is not their wont. They will not suddenly lounge about every afternoon reading books. They will not sit happily writing postcards in cafés for hours. They will do exactly what they always do, often louder and more insistently. Be prepared. Buy a few new games and books and bring them along. Surprise them with a little extra viewing time (in our case on YouTube, as they didn’t like watching TV in French). Let them use every pillow and blanket in the apartment to build a fort into which they pile all of the toys you have brought along, their baby brother, and a number of baguette crumbs. (Oh, wait, perhaps only my child wants to do that). In any event, indulge them. Note that this does not always involve compromise, as I noted in my post about the Promenade Plantée.
But then again, don’t be afraid to ask things of your children. Granted, our luncheon at l’Ambassade d’Auvergne was a disaster. But there were many other things that this trip demanded of my boys, and they passed with flying colors. They traveled for fifteen hours without a real meal, stood in line to see the inside of Sainte Chapelle and climbed the perilous stairs to see the chapel, made it through room after room of paintings at Versailles that even I found tedious, and cheerfully walked all over the Left Bank to name a few. Tommy ate a plate full of cod at a fancy restaurant and searched the Centre Pompidou until her found a Jackson Pollack. And the two of them shared a bed for the majority of our stay after our happy realization that The Local tended to get a little rowdy.
Enjoy. Suspend some of the rules. Live a little. In our case, we were in Paris for two weeks. You know what we did? We all ate pastries every morning (Tommy even took a picture of one of his brioche sucrés with his disposable camera). We had the best ice cream in Paris, let’s see: once, twice, thrice–and it was wonderful each time. I lost count of how many crêpes were devoured, most of them filled with Nutella. And lest you think I can only come up with pleasurable things that relate to food, I’ll point out the fact that my children rode on something like five carousels; played on untold numbers of playgrounds; rode one boat, four trains, and numerous Metros; and ascended the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t worry about lines or the fact that the dollar was in the toilet, and we didn’t let a little rain stop us.
So overall, what did I learn? I used to make the snarky comment that a trip with children was always just that: a trip, never a vacation, retreat, holiday, escape. Well, I was completely wrong.
This vacation is going to live on inside me; I’ve already returned to it numerous times in my mind, reliving the best moments over and over, remembering Teddy’s gasp of pleasure when he first saw the Eiffel Tower, Tommy drawing at Giverny. It’s definitely become my internal happy place, and really, isn’t that what a vacation should be? A time of sustaining memories that carries one through the rainy Mondays of song?