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From Strong Roots…..

Grow Mighty Girls

Traveling Solo SF Edition

My sister and I fancy ourselves to be pretty clever people.  Just ask us, we’ll tell you.  Humbly of course.  We’ve had a lot of great ideas in our time but one of our recent ones is going to go down as an all time favorite.  For a few years now, we have struggled with the idea of gifts.  You know, birthday gifts, Christmas gifts, online browsing and pulling your hair out trying to find the perfect gift gifts.  We wanted to get gifts for each other, but, we didn’t want to spend time or money on gifts that nobody wanted or needed.  Last year we decided that we weren’t going to buy each other birthday or Christmas gifts any more.  We were going to have experiences together.  We decided to take a yearly sister vacation in lieu of material goods.

Now on to the good stuff……where to go, what to do?  The opportunities were endless.  We could go to Europe (too expensive and time consuming), Costa Rica (ditto), Arizona (uninspired), Mexico (hmmmm….real possibility here), wine country (we always have fun in wine country).  We went back and forth for awhile but nothing felt quite right.  Then my sister, who lives in San Francisco, got the happy news that she was getting a raise at work.  While not the kind of raise that allows you to take six weeks off and roam Europe, it was the kind of raise that allowed her to afford her apartment without a roommate.  Which is almost as good as Europe.  Seriously.  So after spending most of her adult life sharing space with people possessing various degrees of compatibility and cleanliness, she gave her roommate notice.  It was time to move on.

Once the roommate moved out, my sister gained a guest room.  Suddenly, operation sister vacation was in action.  What better than a long weekend in San Francisco with affordable (free!) accommodations, allowing us more money for food, drink and adventures.

When the time arrived I packed my bags (including 10 pounds of bison meat and a sourdough starter) and left Montana for San Francisco.  Upon arrival I dashed to my sister’s house and packed the meat in her freezer.  I then walked to the station and took the train downtown to complete a little solo shopping while my sister finished working.  I powered through Cuyana (I’m obsessed) and Anthropologie (spring wardrobe refresh).  I then met up with my sister for oysters and a cocktail to kick off the long weekend.

We spent the next three days hitting the best of San Francisco.  We got pastries at Tartine Manufactory (delicious!) and wandered through Heath Ceramics.  We drank Boba tea and ate pizza.  We browsed the Mission district.  We got a bottle of rosé and drank it in Mission Dolores Park on a gorgeous sunny afternoon.  We wandered through Flora Grubb and soaked in the beautiful plants and art.  We sat on the porch and drank coffee and took afternoon naps.  We ran with my sister’s running group through Golden Gate Park on Saturday morning.  We ate breakfast burritos and drank coffee at Philz in the Castro.  We had cocktails with friends and gorged ourselves on crab at PPQ Dungeness Island.  Insider tip…..go to PPQ.  It’s the best.  While we wandered, we talked.  We talked about things big and small, but mostly, we spent a few days living in each other’s universe.  We coexisted without the distractions of parents, partners, children or work.

It may not have been an exotic vacation but it was packed full of experiences and time with my sister.  Those are priceless commodities.  Those are the vacations that provide happiness and good memories long after they are finished.  Those are the vacations that make life fun, and meaningful and fulfilling.

Here’s to more sister vacations and meaningful travel.

Race Recap

My previous post was all about training my kids to run a 10K in my hometown.  As that post mentions, I also ran the half marathon that day.  I haven’t historically done race recaps on this site but I’m going to give it a try both as a way to document the race for my own memory as well as to provide a format to share race info with fellow runners.

The Governor’s Cup race series is held annually in June in Helena, Montana.  The series includes a kids race, 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon.  The half and full marathon courses were new courses this year.  Having not run this race previously, I can’t really compare and contrast.

Online registration is easy.  The website is reasonably well done.  I loved the videos of the course.  I had a question that I posed via the Facebook site which was answered within hours.  I didn’t attend packet pick up as I was working that day and driving in late from out of town.  My dad was able to pick up packets for myself and my daughters.  Totally appreciate that they allowed that to happen.

Race day started at 7:00 AM.  There were buses to the start but I hitched a ride with my dad because it allowed me an extra half hour of sleep.  Getting to the start was relatively easy but not well marked for those venturing by private car.  To be fair, the race organizers definitely encouraged taking the bus.  With the help of the locals, however, I made it to Clancy Elementary School where the start line was with plenty of time to spare.  There was water and gels at the start.  Bag drop was very easy at the start line.  There were ample porta potties.  So, so exciting!

Weather was nice with starting temps in the mid 50’s.  By the time I finished just shy of two hours later the temperatures were definitely warming up and were close to 70.  One advantage of the new route is that the start is somewhat cool and you are protected by the shadows of the mountains for the first half of the race.

We started on time with a nice, gentle downhill.  The course is all on paved road with limited traffic.  Great course monitors helped keep the little traffic that there was where it belonged.  The course is very scenic with beautiful mountain scenery for much of the race.  The first 9 miles or so are hilly with lots of ups and downs.  I felt great until about mile 6 when the ups and downs started to wear on a lower back and hamstring issue that had been plaguing me for weeks.  Regardless, the hills are real.  None are too big but they do start to feel relentless.  There is a relatively long climb coming out of Montana City going into Helena then there is a short stretch of relative flat.  At mile 10 you get the climb “Cardiac Hill”.  I really didn’t find it that steep, it just lasted forever.  The last mile and a half is mostly downhill until you turn onto the walking mall which is a slight uphill grade.  On a normal day I wouldn’t even notice the grade but after having my legs trashed on hills for the previous 12.5 miles, I noticed it.  It felt like a cruel joke.  As always, thought, the finish line came into sight and I crossed it, feeling completely worn out in a pretty good way.

On course support was good with aide stations approximately every 2 miles, more frequently at the end.  There was water and Gatorade as well as gels which I did not partake in.  One station towards the end had a sprinkler set up which was heavenly.  Multiple porta potties along the route as well.  I did find on course spectators, lacking, however.  There were very few people along the route, even along the finish chute.  One of the things I love about racing are the spectators who are out on a Saturday or Sunday morning, cheering on random strangers.  There was almost none of that at this race which I found disappointing.  Once I finished, I did my part and went back along the route, cheering and clapping for runners coming in.

The finish line was extremely well stocked.  The marathon and half marathon runners had their own finish line tent with great foods, cold bottles of water, and cold cans of soda.  Probably one of the best finish lines I have ever seen in terms of quality and quantity of post race fuel and fluids.

All things considered, certainly a well organized, well executed race with a scenic and well supported course.  So come run in Montana, and if you live in Helena, let’s see you out on the race course next year!

Running

Sometimes we go on epic adventures in far away lands.  And sometimes we venture much closer to home.  Or return home, as the case may be.

It was early, early spring in Montana.  Which really means that it was still winter but we just couldn’t stand the thought of winter any longer so we decided that it was spring.  In early spring we hatch a lot of great ideas.  More on that later.

In one of our moments of isn’t-winter-over-yet desperation, my daughters and I decided that this year we really ought to participate in a June race known as the Governor’s Cup.  This race is held annually in my hometown of Helena, Montana.  Every year my brother runs the 10K.  Sometimes my dad has run with him.  They always talk excitedly about the race, the training, the course.  As soon as registration opened this year, my brother signed up.  His enthusiasm must have been contagious because my daughters were inspired to sign up for the 10K, too.  Not to be outdone, I thought I had better sign up for something as well.  As a runner who has completed a few marathons and a handful of half marathons I thought the 10K sounded, well, too short.  But the marathon sounded just a touch too long this time around.  So, the half marathon prevailed and I signed up.

If you have ever run before, you know that there a few moments associated with running where you get this little endorphin hit.  Somehow, that really rare and really fleeting hit is enough to convince you to run mile upon mile, most of which are really just a lot of drudgery and nothing amazing at all.  One of those endorphin hits occurs after you hit the “Complete” button on your race registration and before you realize just exactly what you have done.  Another of those hits happens at the start line when you are all caught up in the amazing potential of the race before you.  The next hit usually happens for me at the finish line.  Everything in between…..well, it can get kind of ugly.

Usually, I only have to worry about my own training before a race.  This time, however, I had a 9-year-old and 11-year-old who were training for their first 10K.  Left to their own devices, I’m pretty sure they would have toed the starting line without any training what so ever.  Which, in retrospect, would have been an amazing learning opportunity for them.  But I am here to temper, to some degree, their learning opportunities.  So, we made a training plan, sprinkled in a few local races and set about meeting our goals.

Those first few training runs were brutal.  Always, someone had an ache or a pain.  There were side aches, stomach aches, foot aches, headaches (those were mine).  We stretched and warmed up (goodbye side aches), talked about fueling properly (see you later stomach aches) and bought new shoes (au revoir $95.00).  The foot pain, by the way, is just my youngest’s way of saying she’s over this.  And she was over this by mile 1 of the first training run.  But, she had committed to this and I was there to make sure she honored her commitment.  Because if you aren’t accountable on the little things, you probably won’t be on the big things, either.

So, yes, there was some complaining.  There were doubts and second guessing.  There were bribes of hot chocolate and lemonade.  We’re only human after all.

There was also some magic that happened in the midst of the hard and ugly.  As we were running (complaining), my girls talked to me.  They talked about things that were frustrating and things they were thinking about.  They talked about things they wouldn’t have talked about if we were busy leading our usual lives.  We spent time together in a way we wouldn’t have otherwise.  We solved problems, we encouraged each other, we got through some tough stuff and we were okay on the other side.  I don’t know if either them will embrace running as a life long sport but I do know that, as always, the journey was totally worth it.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I did not “make” my children train for or run this race.  They wanted to do it, we talked about how long 10K is, we talked about how hard it would be and during the training I reminded them multiple times that they chose to do this.  I also, multiple times, gave them the option to reconsider their participation in the race.  When push came to shove, they didn’t want to back out.)

On race day, I handed my little bundles of race ready children with expensive shoes and a propensity for side aches to my sister.  Somehow, she had also got caught up in the early, early spring excitement and had come home to run the 10K with our brother and her nieces.  I felt like my children were in good hands as I departed for my own start line that morning.  Luckily for my children, my sister does not possess my Type A personality.  She really didn’t care how they got from the start to the finish.  In fact, the slower the better as far as she was concerned.  I’m not entirely sure how the race went down but I do know that my favorite Instagram post of the day from my sister shows a photo of my brother and my daughters with the caption “A rare moment of actual running”.  So it seems that they might not have really run that much.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t “leave it all out there”.  But I think they did a difficult and brave thing.  They committed to an adventure, they started down the path, the path got rocky and rough but they kept going.  They cried and laughed along the way.  They grew closer to their mother, their aunt and each other.  And they crossed the finish line, affirming that they are capable and strong and tough when they need to be.

And then we got lemonade and coffee, because, really, maybe that’s what it’s all about.

You Got This

There are some things that I swore as a parent I would never do.  If you’ve ever raised anything, you already know that most of the things I swore I would never do are things that I have, by now, actually done.  I was a really superb parent before my children were born.

One of the many promises I made was that we would never, under any circumstances, be part of a traveling sports team.  We were not going to spend our time, our money, our WEEKENDS, traveling around to other towns watching our kids play ball or shoot a puck.  While I understand why some families choose (or are coerced) to do this, I’ve never really understood the appeal.  I’m not a natural athlete and didn’t really grow up playing sports.  Plus, I love my weekends.  A lot.  They are necessary to my ability to unwind and catch up after a long week at work.

But something unexpected happened last spring.  My oldest daughter tried out for the competitive gymnastics team at the local gym.  At that point, she hadn’t really found her niche.  She had things she liked to do, friends she liked to hang with.  But she hadn’t found her thing.  And I really felt that she needed a thing.  Something she could work hard at, fail at, succeed at.  I didn’t really think that gymnastics would be her thing but figured that if she wanted to try out, she might as well.  And as fate would have it, she made the team. Fast forward a few months down the road and now it’s competition season.

Our first meet was a three hour drive and two states away from our home.  We were total meet rookies so I was glad to have our good friends there with us.  They showed us the ropes, talked us through the events and scoring and cheered for and encouraged my daughter.

As is my nature, I was worried about the whole thing.  Would she remember her leotard and warm ups?  How would we do her hair and get it to stay in place?  Where was the gym, how long would it take to get there?  More importantly, how would my daughter respond to the pressure of competition?  Would she get terrified and freeze?  Would she just phone it in and give a mediocre performance?  Would she, could she, rise to the occasion and shine?

I was a nervous wreck.  There is little that is more terrifying for a mom than sitting in the bleachers and watching your child mount a balance beam with the intent of staying on it through cartwheels and dismounts.  I literally held my breath through every event as if by not breathing, she would magically be able to hold on, stay on, carry on.  I didn’t want her to know how nervous I was, though.  Before she marched in for open warm ups, I wanted to pull her aside and give a lifetime’s worth of wisdom.  I wanted to tell her to try her hardest, do her best, hold on tight, focus, focus, focus.  But I knew that would be the wrong move.  I knew it could throw her into a tailspin and, being my daughter, she was already nervous enough.  So I settled on a single phrase.  Just one sentence.  That’s it.  No more, no less.  I met her in the athlete’s room, gave her a hug, choked back my tears of pride and said, “You got this.”

And she did.  She had it all under control.  She stepped out there with confidence in front of a bunch of strangers and she performed her routines.  It wasn’t perfect.  In fact, she was dead last in her group.  But she didn’t care.  She held her head high, conquered her nerves, stayed on the beam, and she did it.  All I had to do was trust her, and hold my breath.

You got this.

Unexpected

By now you probably know that I’m a planner.  I plan everything.  EVERYTHING.  When I travel I know where I’m going, when I’m going, who I’m going with.  I have it all planned down to the smallest details.  This is how I roll.

Sometimes, though, plans just don’t work out.  Sometimes we finds ourselves journeying at unexpected times to places we never thought we would go.  I don’t love these kinds of journeys, I really don’t.  But sometimes I’m forced to go on them.

I took one of these journeys recently with my oldest daughter and our oldest dog.  It was a gut wrenching journey.

Our oldest lab was approaching 13 years old when he began to show signs of slowing down.  Nothing specific really, just a little slower, a little weaker.  But he still seemed game for his daily walks and twice daily meals.  He still loved to be petted and eat ice cubes.  He was still the patriarch of our three dog pack.  This was the dog that had grown up my oldest daughter.  He was only two when she was born.  When I brought her home from the hospital, I told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to protect her, look out for her, and keep her safe.  He took those instructions to heart.  As a toddler, she would take her naps with her head rested on his belly.  Once she was out of the crib, he would sleep in her bed. Every night.  The muddy bedding made me crazy.  But the two of them loved it.  When she went out to play, he went outside, too.  When she went down the hill to her playhouse, he went too, and sat on the porch.  He walked to the bus stop with us every single morning, even on his last day of life.  He went to school with a Santa hat on.  That girl and that dog were best friends.

Over time, though, his weakness increased.  He had to be lifted up off the floor.  He needed help navigating the stairs.  His appetite waned and his muscles atrophied.  He made multiple trips to the vet.  He was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease and prescribed a lot of medications.  He took them all but still, he didn’t get better.  He developed large, weeping sores on his torso.  His weakness worsened.  We watched him get worse and worse, spending his days lying on the floor.  I prepared the girls that his time with us was coming to an end.  Either he would die soon or we would have to make the difficult decision to put him down.  They received the message well, took it in quietly.

Another week passed and he worsened still.  My husband and I talked about it and made the incredibly difficult decision that it was time to put him down.  He no longer had anything he loved in life.  I called the vet and we scheduled a time on Thursday to take him in.  Wednesday evening I told my daughters that it was time to put down their beloved pet.  There were tears.  There was sobbing.  There were heads buried under blankets.  I asked them if they wanted to come with me to the vet’s office when he was euthanized.  My youngest said no.  She wanted to stay in school.  She was sad but she and this dog had never been particularly close.  My oldest, though, that was a different story.  She said she wanted to come with me.  I wasn’t sure I could handle that.

She never wavered, though, in her desire to come with me and be with her dog at the end.  So, I picked her up at school at noon on Thursday.  We took the long way to the vet’s office.  She snuggled her dog in the back seat and held his paw.  She helped me get him out of the car and into the vet’s office.  She sat with him while he ate treats and had a sedative injected.  She wrapped her arms around him while the catheter was placed in his left front leg.  She buried her face in his neck while the lethal drug was injected into the catheter.  She held him tight while his heart stopped beating and his soul left this earth.  And she sobbed.  She sobbed, and sobbed and sobbed.

I told her we could stay with him as long as she wanted.  After a while she said, “Mom, I can’t leave him”.  So we stayed longer.  And still, she couldn’t leave him.  So we talked about how sometimes you can’t leave because you just need more time.  And how sometimes you just have to leave because more time isn’t going to make anything any better.  A few minutes later she kissed him one last time, said goodbye, and we walked out the door.

The ensuing days were filled with intermittent bouts of sobbing.  At bedtime when would lay in bed and cry for her dog.  I know with time this will get better.  I know she will move through her grief and come out on the other side.  I know that I’m incredibly proud of her for doing the hard thing and being with her first best friend all the way to the end.  I also know this was a journey I never wanted to take to a place I never wanted to go.  But I’m heartened, at least, that I had the best traveling companion ever.

Solo

Traveling solo with my daughters is something I’ve done since they were babies.  It’s not unusual to find us in the car, traveling to Spokane for some “big city” time, journeying to our cabin on the river or headed to my parents’ house for a visit.  When my oldest was 10 months old I flew solo with her to Boston to visit my sister.  By the time my second child was born, my sister had moved to San Francisco.  So I bundled up my youngest when she was six months old and flew to California with her.  A few years ago the girls and I flew from our hometown to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  We got through customs, hailed a taxi and arrived at our resort in one piece.  We spent the night there alone, went to brunch the next morning and were joined later in the day by my husband who was traveling to Mexico from a work function in California.  Needless to say, we’ve covered some ground with just the three of us.  Sometimes it’s daunting to be the only adult with two young children.  There’s a lot of “mom”, “mom”, “mom” and not a lot of peace and quiet.  Over time, though, we’ve kind of figured this out.  Plus, the girls are older now and pretty responsible and could basically travel by themselves if I would just get out of their way.  And give them some money, of course.

If you’ve followed along with us so far, you also know that last summer the three of us flew across the Atlantic Ocean together, arriving in Paris.  Once there, we met my mom who was staying in the flat with us.  When she left a week later, my husband arrived for a few days.  So while we flew there solo, we meet up with family once we arrived and were not ever truly left to our own devices.

Until the day my husband left for Budapest.  Then it was just the three of us.  We had already planned to leave that day for the Loire Valley for a mini getaway.  So…..we locked up the apartment, bought some new leggings at Gap, (yes, Gap, hello global economy) and hopped a train to Tours.  Despite all our adventures so far, I have to admit to some trepidation as we pulled out of Paris and chugged down the line towards the countryside.  Staying in a big city is one thing.  Most people speak fairly good English.  There are grocery stores, wine shops, restaurants, hospitals.  There’s a pretty good chance that all my needs and most of my wants will be met.

In the countryside things are a little more, well, French.  English is NOT spoken by everyone.  Restaurant interactions have to happen in French.  Shopping and buying happen in French.  It’s sudden immersion in a foreign country in a way that just doesn’t happen in the big city.

Despite all the potential for disaster, the biggest adventure in the French countryside at the end of the day was driving.  Yep, driving.  After taking the train from Paris, I rented a car in Tours and managed to get the three of us to our lodging at Chateau de Pray just outside of Amboise.  Before picking up the car I did a quick Google search about “driving in France”.  I spent approximately 30 seconds determining that driving in France looked pretty straightforward.  Drive on the same side of the road as Americans? Check!  Steering wheel and gas pedal on the same side of the car?  Check!  Automatic transmission?  Check!  Road signs with internationally recognizable symbols?  Check!  And most importantly, a navigation system.  We were set.  Our car was an adorable Mini Cooper that we immediately named Sweet Cheeks.  As in”Sweet Cheeks, please deliver us in one piece.”  Or “Sweet Cheeks, what were you thinking?”  You get the picture.

At the end of the day, all I can say is thank goodness we were in very small towns with very little traffic.  Turns out that a 30 second Google crash course on driving in France is completely inadequate.  The assumptions I made about the road signs were like most assumptions.  Ridiculous and inaccurate.  My understanding of right of way is so not French.  I got honked at.  A lot.  I was probably sworn at, too.  Deservedly.

Of Sweet Cheeks’ many virtues, perhaps the greatest was her ability to find the shortest distance between two points.  She could, for example, find the quickest way to get from our lodging to the chateau we were visiting that day.  Never mind that her chosen route took us down the roughest, most narrow, most remote roads in the Loire Valley.  No concern of hers.  It was the shortest distance between two points.  If I thought about it too much, it would freak me out a bit.  What if we broke down miles from nowhere?  What if we got a flat tire jostling through all those pot holes?  What if she didn’t know where the hell she was going?  I could have let my worry stop us.  I could have stayed at our chateau, happily ensconced in good food, good wine and a warm swimming pool.  I could have gone back to the known quantity of Paris, or even stayed home for that matter.  But if I had done that, we would have missed out.  We would have missed out on a grand adventure and a lot of laughs.  We would have missed out on amazing food and wine.  We would have missed out on spending some really great time together, enjoying life and each other.  It turns out that some of my favorite memories with my girls are these times when it has just been the three of us.  So we cranked up the volume on our road trip playlist, sang along, and trusted that Sweet Cheeks would take us where we needed to be.

Getaway

I’ve always loved a good getaway.  You know, just a brief respite from day to day life.  A few days spent in a neighboring city or a weekend relaxing at the cabin, free from responsibilities and interruptions.  Vacations, of course, are usually one long, decadent getaway.  But during an exceptionally long vacation, sometimes you need a getaway from your getaway.  After two great weeks in Paris, we were getting just the slightest bit city weary.  So we hopped on a train bound for the Loire Valley.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not really that spontaneous.  I’d like to be, but I’m not.  Months before I had planned this mini getaway, knowing that a change of scenery might be just the ticket after a lot of togetherness in a tiny apartment in a bit city.  But I digress.)

We grabbed lunch at the Monoprix, hopped on the train and headed to St. Pierre des Corps, a relatively large train station close to our final destination of Amboise.  I picked up our rental car at SIXT, right by the station.  I had some angst about the rental car.  After all, I was the only adult with two children in a foreign country where I can’t even read all the traffic signs.  My original plan was to rent a car in Paris and drive to Amboise.  By some stroke of good luck and genius, I changed my mind and took the train out of the city.  Driving from the train station to our hotel was definitely rural but still difficult.  I was the navigator, translator and driver.  It took about 30 minutes and by the time we arrived I felt like I had more than earned my glass of wine.  As a side note, if you are driving in a foreign country, study the road signs ahead of time.  Trust me.  The rest of the world does not drive like Americans.  They just don’t.

We stayed at Chateau de Pray, just out of Amboise.  Our room was bigger than our apartment in Paris and beautifully appointed.  The loft sleeping area for the girls was an added bonus.  The grounds were amazing, the service impeccable.  The heated pool felt like our own private oasis.  Buffet breakfast in the morning (additional cost) was convenient and delicious.  A definite win and would be ecstatic to stay here again someday.

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Terrace at Chateau de Pray

We spent some time meandering about the town of Amboise.  We loved the specialty market where we stocked up on oils, vinegars, salts and wines at a fraction of the prices found in Paris.

One of the big draws of the Loire Valley of course, are the historic chateaux dotting the countryside.  You could spend weeks seeing all of them.  We picked two, based on our own interests and enjoyed them thoroughly.  I was able to drive to them both with the help of the car’s navigation system.  The first we saw was Chenenceou, a grand estate with glorious gardens and a labyrinth.  There is a cafeteria on site, lunch for three was €40.  We also visited Cheverny, known for it’s hunting dogs.  It is a smaller chateau but offers the excitement of feeding of the dogs at 11:00 every morning.  The girls loved this but found the chateau less impressive than Chenenceou.  Next to Cheverny is a storefront that offers free wine tasting of some of the regional wines.  A few shops and restaurants can be found on the quiet street next to the chateau.

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Chenenceou
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Gardens at Chenenceou

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Roses at Chenenceou

Another big draw of the Loire Valley are the multitude of vineyards and tasting rooms scattered over the region.  There are some truly beautiful wines that come from the Loire Vally that are accessible and affordable.  We stopped at Caves du Pere Auguste one afternoon.  I had a lovely tasting there which included a fabulous history of the wines of the region.  They even offered a grape juice tasting for children!  I bought five bottles of wine there for €30.  Ridiculously inexpensive, amazing wine.  Carting five bottles of wine back to Paris, first by train and then by metro was no small task and I cursed myself at least 100 times but, the wines and I all survived.

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The crowning glory of our time in the Loire Valley was our dinner at L’Orangerie, the restaurant on site at Chateau de Pray.  A Michelin Star restaurant, L’Orangerie offers impeccable food and service.  Reservations are a must.  My children were accommodated and treated like princesses.  The meal lasted for three hours and they made it through the entire thing without complaining!  The food is local, fresh, French and delectable.  My entree of blue lobster and beets with beet broth still has my mouth watering.  There was an endless supply of bread.  The cheese course was stunning.  The dessert of wild strawberries with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream was perfection.  There are multiple wine choices and a sommelier to assist you.  The prices were reasonable, particularly for the children who were able to order a children’s meal for €18.  This included their appetizer, amuse bouche, entree, bread, and dessert.  This was fine French dining at it’s best and a splurge I won’t ever regret!

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Salmon cream foam
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Dessert

My only regret is that we didn’t have more time in this beautiful valley.  This a place I could easily spend weeks, exploring, biking, drinking wine, hanging out with my fellow travelers.  Once you’ve seen Paris, plan a getaway, get off the beaten path and discover the gems.

Paris With Kids, Round 2

In my last post I outlined some of the activities my daughters and I most enjoyed while we were in Paris.  Here I’ll outline for you some of the tips and tricks that will just make traveling life with les enfants much more enjoyable for everyone.  This is a bit of a hodgepodge of collected wisdom but I hope it will suffice none the less.

General:

I really cannot emphasize this enough.  When traveling with kids of any age, planning is key.  And by planning, I don’t mean a loosely assembled idea of what you are going to do. I mean a PLAN.  Thought out, researched, written down, reviewed, and rethought out.  A big time, capital letter PLAN.  For those of you who aren’t planners by nature, this may seem intimidating but trust me, it will be worth it.

For my planning purposes I adopted a modified Bullet Journal (or BuJo for short).  I started with a nice, new Moleskine journal (ahhhhh) and a few colored Sharpies.  For coloring coding, or course.  I’ve included some pictures so you can get a sense of my organizational scheme.

First page…..flight info.  Which changed after I originally wrote down the information so I had to redo it.

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An Index is indispensable…..

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A list of sights we wanted to see.  Blue notes indicate cost, whether or not the sight is covered by the Museum Pass (MP) and any other logistical information.  Orange notes indicate random bits of information for consideration.

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List of shopping stops we wanted to make with references to pages that have more information about that stop.

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Basic itinerary…..

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A more detailed entry about a  specific activity or neighborhood, again with color coded comments.

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Transportation: This probably won’t come as a surprise to you but plan your major transportation needs prior to your arrival in Paris.  Upon arrival at CDG Airport we were tired, hungry and spent.  Our host at the flat we rented recommended using a driver he knew well for our airport to flat transportation.  I have to say, this worked exceedingly well.  When you are the only adult and you are towing children behind you, you do not want transportation hassles.  When traveling alone to Paris I used the Metro to get to the city from the airport.  While it served it’s purpose, it is infinitely more difficult and cumbersome and requires you to pay a fair bit of attention.  Not my strong suit after a transatlantic flight.  Uber is another option and works in Paris much as it does in the rest of the world.  A private driver is your most expensive option, followed by Uber, followed by the Metro.

For day to day travel, we loved using the Metro.  There was a stop within a few blocks of our flat which made hopping on and off seamless.  When looking for a flat to rent, one of my specific requirements was that it be within walking distance of a Metro stop.  And by walking distance, I mean a few blocks.  I’m all about minimizing the whining at the end of the day.  Metro tickets are affordable, the system is easy to navigate and the efficiency is pretty great.  If you don’t believe me, try traveling the same distance above ground.  It makes the Metro seem like a dream.

One of the tasks the girls enjoyed immensely was planning our Metro routes.  Each evening we would lay out the strategy for the next day.  The girls would take turns looking at the Metro map we carried with us and strategizing the route for the next day.  They had fun and better yet, learned a lot about distance, time, strategy, etc.

Food and Drink: This one is easy.  Rent.  A.  Flat.  Get on VRBO or Airbnb or parisperfect.com and get a flat with a kitchen.  You can hit up the local bakery for breakfast and bring it back to your flat where you can enjoy your coffee and eat your pastry and take in the view and plan your day.  The kids can do handstands and pick on each other and no one will be offended.  We were often out for lunch, sometimes ate at restaurants or grabbed a bite in a cafeteria or cafe.  We carried snacks with us everywhere, nuts, trail mix, maybe a piece of fruit.  We bought bottled water at the grocery store and carried a bottle with us each day.

When you have a flat, you have maximum flexibility with your eating choices.  Going to the neighborhood grocery store or the bigger Monoprix was always a grand adventure.  It could take hours if we wanted it to and that was just fine.  We also LOVED the fun of stopping off at the end of the day at the fromagerie, the boulangerie, the charcuterie, the produce store and the wine store and picking up the components for a delicious dinner at home.  An assortment of cheeses, a few meats, a baguette, some tomatoes, olive oil, salt, wine.  Dinner.  And everybody loved it.  Some nights we went out but only when we felt like it and when people were in a good mood.  We either made reservations or arrived at the beginning of the dinner hour.  Some restaurants had lovely menus for children, at other places the girls ordered off the regular menu and discovered new foods that they really liked.

Not uncommonly, we would pop into a cafe for a pre-dinner drink, an afternoon espresso or ice cream or a quick crepe and some people watching.  I always carried in my daybag some postcards, a small sketchbook or a little game so the girls could be entertained while the adults enjoyed their drinks.

Shopping and Souvenirs: The best way to ruin a vacation for me is to have my children nickel and dime me on a routine basis for this or that junky trinket.  I hate it.  So for Paris, my kids had to save their own spending money.  And their own money for activities but we will get to that later.  They had about two years notice that we were taking this trip.  We told them that in order to go, they had to save a specific amount of money.  They both opened bank accounts and saved and saved.  Before embarking on our journey I sat down with them and we created a budget.  We delineated what I would pay for (airline, accommodations, three meals plus one snack a day) and what they would pay for (souvenirs, gifts for friends, extra snacks or drinks, Metro tickets, entrance fees).  They made a list of what they hoped to find or buy while on vacation.  Once we hit the ground, they found lots of things they wanted.  And each time they got to decide whether or not they really wanted to spend their money on it.  If it had been my money we were spending, I would have been broke.  With their money, however, they were conscientious.  They deliberated, they walked away, they went back, they decided to wait.    They didn’t bug me once.  It was amazing.

They found great clothes at Zara and H and M.  I know, I know, we have those stores stateside but they are way cooler in Paris.  And much more affordable than Parisian boutiques.  Art stores and art supplies were a major hit and they stocked up on high quality sketch books, colored pencils and paints.  Museum gift shops were a great spot to find posters of art they loved.  Scarves and bracelets bought at neighborhood street markets were also popular.

This whole approach really made my travel experience about a million times better than usual.

Activities: My previous blog post details the various activities and sights we enjoyed.  There are specifics for each of these that are worth paying attention to.  I urge you to get a good guidebook (Rick Steves’ series are my favorites) and study it religiously.  Find out how to skip the lines (hello, Museum Pass) and when to go to avoid the crowds.  You might be able to suffer through a long line in the heat of the day so you can go stand shoulder to shoulder with a  bunch of other tourists in the Louvre.  Your kids, on the other hand, will have a melt down.  And then you will have a melt down.  And then you will wonder why you ever go on family vacations.  And then you will find a nice café, order a glass of rosé and regroup.  And go back to the Louvre on Wednesday night when it’s open later and the crowds are gone.

Also, one, maybe two activities per day is plenty.  Any more than that and you will have a mutiny on your hands.  So go, do your thing, and then spend a little down time at your flat in the afternoon.  Your sanity will thank you.

We did a lot of “pre-work” before we visited the main attractions.  We would read at night or in the morning before we left and talk about the history of the attraction, what we expected to see, etc.

We made our own Bingo card and scavenger hunt and completed them as we made our way through Paris.  Poodle?  Check!  Dog poop on the sidewalk?  Check!  It gave us something fun to do, made us more observant, and led to quite a few laughs as we pointed things out to each other and compared our Bingo cards at the end of the day.

One more tip……go off the beaten path.  Do something just a little unexpected.  We had the best time spending an afternoon at a cooking class.  We learned a lot about French pastry making, the girls practiced their techniques, we met other travelers, we spent some great time together, had some good laughs and now relive our memories when we make eclairs and macarons at home.  We spent nearly an entire day in Montmartre on an exceptionally fabulous food tour that will be talked about for years to come.  So whatever your passion is, or your interest is, find a way while traveling to explore that.  It will be worth it.  I promise.

Journaling: I brought my own journal for the trip and kept lots of notes about what we did, what worked, what didn’t, etc.  The girls each had their own journal as well.  They really enjoyed using it to write out the plan for the day, write about what we had seen or draw.  They both discovered a new passion for drawing the sights and this filled many quiet hours in the flat or at a café table.

Boredom Busters: You, and your kids will need some downtime.  I know, Paris is vast and amazing and how could you ever get bored or need to take a break?  Trust me, you will need a break.  It’s no small feat navigating a huge, bustling city where you don’t even speak the language.  We brought along a deck of Uno cards, a travel cribbage board (I love this one from Walnut Studio https://walnutstudiolo.com/products/travel-cribbage-board) and one new game, Iota.  We each brought one book to read and others that were on our electronic devices.  As an aside, I really love a real book but when traveling, I really don’t love lugging them around so…..e-books suffice.  I also made a travel pack for each of the girls before we left home.  It was a basic plastic school type folder filled with fun pages.  Crosswords, word searches, sudoku, coloring pages of French sites, maps of the world, USA, Europe, France, Paris, colored dot stickers for marking, a few fun Parisian and travel theme stickers.  These were great on the airplane but also in the flat or at cafés when they needed some down time.  I allowed screen time, too.  I’m not a purist by any means but screen time only goes so far and there were lots of times they wanted something other than a show to watch.

Money: I know, I know.  No one likes to talk about money.  But you can’t travel without talking about money.  So here goes.  As I alluded to above, we had a pretty well organized strategy about saving and clear delineations about who was paying for what.  The girls bought their own Metro tickets, paid for admission to all the sites, paid for all their own shopping.  I did pay for the food tour and cooking class because they were a bit more pricey and because I was the one who really wanted to do those activities.

So, what does it cost to traipse a family around Paris?  Here’s the breakdown….

Day 1:

Fresh fruit at the local street market: €10

Eiffel Tower tickets: €17 each adult, €12.50 each child

Lunch at the Quai Branly Café €40 for three people

Grocery store for water, snacks: €12.71

Dinner at Café Constant: €60 for three people

Total: €164.71

 

Day 2:

Bakery for pain au chocolate: €6.00

Notre Dame: no cost!!!

Lunch at café: €47.50

Saint Chapelle: covered by previously purchased Museum Pass

Assorted dinner supplies (cheese, meat, baguette, wine, nuts, oils, vegetables): €80

Metro carnet: €5

Groceries: €8

Total: €146.50

Day 3:

Bakery: €6

Picnic lunch supplies: €30 for four people

Glass of wine in Luxembourg Gardens: €6

Louvre: covered by Museum Pass

Dinner at Le Nemours: €66.50 for four people

Total: €102.50

 

Just a few examples but, overall, I think they are representative of our spending habits.  Breakfast was usually a small price at the bakery and accompanied by eggs and fruit we had at the flat.  Lunch was at a café or picnic style in a park.  Dinner was at a less expensive restaurant or assorted supplies we picked up and ate at home.  Restaurant costs always included at least one glass of wine and maybe more.  The kids drank water at restaurants but had more fun drinks at the flat that we purchased while at the grocery store.  Our €80 dinner supply expense easily covered 2 or 3 dinners.  Seemed like we spent €25-40 every few days at the grocery store for water, wine and snacks.  Cost for activities varies depending on what you are doing on any given day.  We were thoughtful about our spending but didn’t try to penny pinch.  By the same token, you could easily spend lots, lots more if you wanted.

Au revoir and happy travels!

 

Paris with Kids

After three weeks spent exploring Paris and the surrounding areas with my daughters, ages 8 and 10, I’d like to think that we have some sense of what works with kids in Paris.  Paris is, in my humble opinion, an inspired place to spend time with kids.  There are families everywhere, Parisians generally love kids, and the possible activities are endless.  This is by no means an exhaustive review because there are so many things we didn’t even get to!

One of our favorite things to do in Paris was to just immerse ourselves in everyday life.  We rented a flat through VRBO which in my opinion is the ONLY way to travel with kids.  You have a kitchen, laundry, room to spread out, and best of all, you become part of the fabric of everyday life in the neighborhood.

We would wake in our sunny flat every morning and stroll down to the local boulangerie where we were greeted by our favorite shop owner who served us pain au chocolate.  Yep.  Every morning.  Without fail.

We loved spending the morning at the Rue de Grenelle market, acquiring fruits, vegetables and eggs.  We would admire the housewares, clothes and leather goods. Occasionally we would snag a fun piece of jewelry or a scarf.  After dropping our collected treasures back at the flat we would take off again for our daily adventure.  Afternoons would invariably find us relaxing at the flat before heading up to Rue Cler to walk the pedestrian only street, darting into the fromagerie, boulangerie, charcuterie and wine shop in a veritable scavenger hunt for dinner items.  We would stroll the streets of Paris, pass through the Champ de Mars, steal a glance at the Eiffel Tower and then back to the flat to enjoy our finds.  Our favorite dinner would be baguettes, salted butter from Normandy, beautiful tomatoes with olive oil and salt, with an array of cheeses and charcuterie.  Oh, and a glass (or two) of rosé.  Sheer perfection.  Part of the beauty of these experiences is that they have carried over even now that we are home.  Our favorite dinner is still a baguette from our local bakery, cheeses from the cheese section of our specialty grocery store and fresh, ripe, juicy tomatoes.  Ahhhhh.

As for the sights to see with the kids, I have collected wisdom and insights below.

The Classics

Eiffel Tower—-a beautiful classic that in my opinion is not to be missed.  Reservations are a must, reserve on line for your entrance time to skip some of the lines and make the best use of your time.  Elevators to le sommet come with long lines and there is no way to bypass the system.  But, really, you are in Paris.  Stand in line and go to the top.  You’ll never forget it!  Return, if you can, after dark to watch the tower lit up in all it’s glory at the top of every hour.

Notre Dame—-short lines to get inside and no fee or reservation required.  Insanely long line for the Tower Climb so had to forego that portion of the tour.  Beautiful interior with lots of religious history to be learned.  Perhaps more interesting for the kids is the exterior of the building with it’s multiple gargoyles and flying buttresses.

Ile St. Louis—the small island in the Seine adjacent to Notre Dame is chock full of cute shops, cafes and treats.  Berthillon ice cream has a walk-up shop on the main street and some of the cafes serve the classic ice cream as well.  Crêpe stands abound as well and the collection of cute shops makes for a pleasant diversion.

In the general vicinity of Notre Dame are the Left Bank boquinistas and the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore.  The boquinistas are a must see and interesting for the children.  The bookstore is an historic landmark and could be fun but we found it hot and crowded.

Saint Chapelle is a gorgeous cathedral that is a must see.  Plan your entrance time strategically to avoid long security lines.  The stained glass is simply breathtaking.  Between Saint Chapelle and Notre Dame, adjacent to Cité Metro stop is the Flower Market which is well worth the stop for little adventurers.  A covered outdoor market, the Flower Market features all varieties of plants, flowers, garden accessories, bird houses, etc.

Rue Sèvres neighborhood—-start at the Bon Marché for a taste of a Parisian department store.  The toy section on the upper level will captivate your children.  So fun to see which toys are the same in Paris, and which are different!  From there, stroll down Rue Sèvres to La Maison de Chocolate, snag a free sample and buy some treats if desired.  From there, wander to Gerard Mulot and treat yourself to Paris’ best macarons and quiche Lorraine.  Oh, and the avocado crevette.  Take your food finds to…….

Luxembourg Gardens—-a beautiful place to picnic and people watch.  We enjoyed two trips to les Jardins de Luxembourg during our stay here.  Picnicked both times accompanied by a glass of rosé purchased at the cafe in the park.  Wine in the park, brilliant!  There are two playgrounds here, one for younger kids, one for older kids.  Mine were happily occupied for an hour playing at the bigger of the two.  There is a small fee to get in but so worth it.  Sailing sail boats at the pond in the center of the park was also a great diversion.

Louvre—timing is everything at this large, iconic museum of all museums.  We arrived on a Wednesday evening about 3 or 4 hours before closing time.  No lines, minimal crowds.  We got up close and personal to the Mona Lisa.  My girls loved the ancient Greco Roman statues and had such fun imitating their poses.  Don’t try to tackle the entirety of the Louvre in one visit.  Pick a wing and do it, or however much of it they tolerate.  A return visit can always happen to explore more the museum when everyone is happy and rested.  We made two trips to the Louvre and the girls loved every second of it.  A gift shop in the carousel level (below ground) offers a place for quality souvenirs at fairly reasonable prices.

Arc de Triomphe—the best part of the Arc for my children was the view from the top of the massive roundabout that encircle the Arc.  Monument wise, this was probably their least favorite.  It does, however, give you a great perspective on the layout of the city and the Champs Elysses.

Champs Elysses—-Meh.  There are more interesting shopping streets in Paris that feel more authentic than the Champs Elysses.  We did have a little shopping success but could have skipped it and not missed it.

Tuileries—-pretty garden between the Champs Elysses and the Louvre.  Nice cafes for lunch or a snack.  In the far corner adjacent to the entrance from the Place de la Concorde is a trampoline park.  Small entrance fee (10 Euros) buys your child 5 minutes of jumping time and you 5 minutes of peace.

Musee d’Orsay—-accessible, approachable museum housed in a gorgeous old train station.  The building and the art are amazing.  Stunning impressionism work captivated the girls’ imaginations.  Snack and wine in the decadent museum cafe was a great way to end the visit.  I can’t say enough about how great this museum is.  Don’t miss it!

Pompidou Centre—Paris’ collection of modern and contemporary art.  This collection is quite a departure from the Louve and d’Orsay but does complete the historical tour of the art scene, bringing the viewer now to modern times.  The building itself is interesting.  The girls most enjoyed the imaginative, interactive play exhibit located just inside the main doors.  We found this a fine way to spend a morning but it wasn’t one we would likely return to.

Napoleon’s Tomb and the Army Museum—-much more enjoyable than I ever would have imagined.  The building housing Napoleon’s Tomb is stunning and the Army Museum gives an exceptionally detailed tour through WWI and WWII, providing foundational knowledge from which to understand the complex interplay between nations.  My husband loved it here and could have spent many, many, many hours.  The girls and I enjoyed it but were tapped out after a few hours.

 

Shopping

Galleries Lafayette—–quintessential Parisian department store for budding shopaholics.  Yes, it’s busy and crowded with tourists.  But it’s also a whirlwind of fun and a feast for the eyes.

Canal St. Martin—this is a typical Parisian neighborhood along the canal.  A little off the beaten path, this is a quiet, charming, area with fun shops filled with treasures that captivated myself and my children for many hours.

Sennelier Art Store—the oldest art store in Paris, jammed full of gorgeous art supplies.  We could have wandered for quite some time.  Girls each purchased a sketchbook here but the options are nearly endless.

Pure Fun

Baking class—we love baking and cooking together at home and this was a great way to learn a bit about French baking.  We took a class at L’ateliers des Sens where we learned to make choux pastry and delicious eclairs.  This was one of the few cooking schools in Paris where children and parents could take a class together.  The class was very child oriented, hands on and lots of fun.  A great way to learn more about French culture and baking and to meet fellow travelers.

Montmartre Food Tour—-this was great!  We spent five hours touring the food scene in Montmartre with an amazing and knowledgeable guide.  We visited a chocolatier, macaron shop, boulangerie, fromagerie, wine shop, butcher, and crêperie.  At each stop we learned about the food made and sold there and gained wisdom about how to shop for foods.  We had a backstage tour of the boulangerie where baguettes were being made.  The girls got to feel the dough and help push it into the big ovens.  Delicacies were purchased at each stop and consumed family style in a restaurant at the end of the trip.  Yes, this was a long activity but well worth it and the girls enjoyed it immensely.

Out of Paris

Chantilly—a former hunting chateau and current home to beautiful, well trained horses.  Chantilly is just a short train ride out of Paris.  The town itself is small and charming and English is less prominent than it is in Paris which I found to be refreshing and an excellent opportunity to use my French.  The chateau grounds are beautiful but most impressive are the horse stables.  The horse training demonstration is a must see.

Loire Valley—this was my big, brave adventure.  The girls and I traveled by train from Paris to St. Pierre des Corps in the Loire Valley.  Once there, I rented a car and we drove to the village of Amboise.  We stayed just out of Amboise at Château de Pray, a former château tucked in the hillside.  We swam in the pool, explored the village, visited surrounding châteaus, ate the most amazing food, toured vineyards and wineries and generally enjoyed ourselves.  I could write an entire post about this small segment of the Loire Valley, and maybe I will, but suffice it to say, this side trip was well worth our time. With any luck, we will return.

As a brief aside, there a couple of online resources I found to be extremely helpful in planning our kid friendly time in France.  One is https://mylittlenomads.com/paris-for-kids.  The other is http://mamalovesparis.com.  I followed Mama Loves Paris on Facebook which was great for receiving timely updates about cool happenings in Paris.

I could go on and on but the bottom line is that traveling with kids is amazing and Paris is just the city to embrace with your little ones.  What a beautiful introduction to international travel, culture, fine art, delicious food, and the Parisian way of life.

Stay tuned for our next installment where we will detail some of the specific tips and tricks for making the most of your time in Paris with children.

 

 

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