Oh, my when I even start thinking about this trip I get overwhelmed with moments to remember. So my way of keeping them complete is to journal them in chronological order (big wow). So here goes. Day one is actually months and months of planning. That was my job. And the Lord was good to us in that, we had our little stash in order to take our adventure and yet it seemed as if it would all be blown on the airfare alone. My excited readiness that started when my husband looked at me at the beginning of 2008 and said "Hey, why don't we visit Adam and Ale in Spain?" would come crashing down each time I saw the prices for a family of five around 6,000-9,000 dollars. And we are talking coach here people--sheesh.
But then, while trying to plan out our itinerary, my hopes would rise seeing that there were actually ways to budget day to day in Europe, like it was more affordable to stay in an apartment in Paris versus a hotel! So lo and behold only two hours (in April) after David and I decided the European adventure was a no go, I just had to take one last look online....what I saw on the screen was the green light I had hoped for in the discount price of $3,500 for all 5. I still gulp knowing that the price is pricey but not the astronomical $$ I was seeing before. We were going to have 3 connecting flights but we felt we could do it (more on that later).
Now I just had to share that bit because Day One went so well and I realized that the long hours of planning helped me quell the "what's gonna happen next" concerns along with all the prayers for how the Lord went before us.
Spain was our main destination, but the most affordable connecting flights go through London, England, or Paris, France, so since we were already paying the airfare and had 14 days why not stop along the way to Seville. So after much, and I mean much, research (because I ached to traipse through the pricey but a bit out of the way Provence region of France) we settled on the Loire (central) region of France, with a quick jaunt (heh) to the Normandy area of France (Northern coast, facing England). So, here goes.
Now in flying out from our central time zone of the US to Europe most flights leave one day with next day AM arrival times. We flew Dallas AM to Toronto early PM (where we had most of our difficulties), Toronto mid PM to Montreal late PM, then Montreal late PM to Paris early AM! Luggage for international trips is very limited, we were each allowed one checked bag, two carry-ons and one personal item.
So what did our family of five carry, drum roll please, (and I add this because I am so very proud of my frugal and efficient packing-it seems the only thing I am frugal and efficient in doing).......For all of us we actually carried only one medium sized checked bag, two carry-ons (with two days of clothes in case of baggage loss) for the overhead bins, and one back pack with entertainment and snacks, one travel DVD case with extra baby essentials and my purse jammed in it, and of course a backpack diaper bag...Viola! But what had to weigh us down were the baby/toddler essentials of a stroller (which we handed to the flight personnel at the entrance to the planes), and a car seat for Sophia for the planes and the car we rented in France. Managing this load of trimmed down luggage should have been easy but with all the carry-ons and baby essentials going through security at each connection, sadly, got my stress level up. So much so that at one point, in Toronto , with the flight we needed to catch almost closing I was running barefoot to our connecting gate with shoes in one hand and Sophia haphazardly strapped in her stroller in the other hand, with the back pack and carry-on both draped across me and far ahead of my sweet David and Anna, and Sara who marveled at my frantic speed. Yet, we did just barely make it and I knew the Lord went ahead of us in these near misses and my family kept me from wanting to erupt all over airline personnel .
May 30th, Friday, we landed in Paris. Oh so tiredly yet leisurely, we found our car rental booth and in my very broken French (the Parisians are forgiving when you try) I got us set and David found our car. Now thank goodness we did not have to drive far, but David navigated us through suburban Paris traffic (where we caught our first far off glimpse of the Eiffel Tower) to the small castle town of Versailles, France. As we drove in to the town center, we noticed that a weekly morning market was in full swing in the main square. The colorful produce, meats, and spices were on display and people darted around the stalls. The image was so vivid and my first mental snapshot of France. David was broken in quickly to the survival of the fittest/quickest/pushiest driving of the French, where pedestrians, bikers, small cars and big trucks mash together and claim their strip of the road and we made it to our oh, so quaint and comfy Hotel du Cheval Rouge. How nice it was to leave the bustle of Versailles small town traffic and enter this quiet courtyard parking lot:
Now I did so much Internet research, but quite a few gems on our itinerary were thanks to Rick Steves. The hotel staff was very warm and welcoming. The room was basic, clean and just what we needed. But I had to fight to keep my troops awake. See, it was noon, but our bodies felt like it was 4am. So in order not to suffer jet lag we had to wait for sleep until a decent nighttime hour. So we quickly refreshed ourselves and headed out to find a place for lunch.
We didn't feel so adventurous as to tour the neighborhood for just the right place, so we found the first inviting bistro outside the hotel. The nearest and yet not the tastiest. But the girls made a discovery about French food here that remained true for the rest of our French meals: frites are yummy (umm, translation, French fries). With most kid friendly meals at cafes or bistros you will find frites as a side and the girls were always satisfied and could find them on every menu. I had hoped for a more pleasing intro to the French menu but at least we filled our bellies, dinner, I hoped would be better.
After lunch, tummies full, David and the girls were ready to fall over, but we had only taken 2 hours for our 3 course lunch and 2pm was too early for beddy bye. So we strolled the streets. I loved it. We searched for Rick's recommended creperie, our dinner spot for that evening, found it and tried to stroll some more but David and the girls were so worn out a brief rest was required. I knew that we still needed some milk, snacks, and fruit for us and mainly Sophia. I left my sweet crew in the room, got some sketchy directions from the front desk clerk, and set out to explore Versailles.
After a couple of wrong turns I found the Monoprix (think small Wal-Mart) and enjoyed the feeling of being like a local, grabbed the hand basket and extended the handle after I noticed all the shoppers trailing their baskets on the floor behind them. I easily found what few essentials we needed, especially for Sophia. Then I quickly remembered that the checkout process is quite different from the American way. First of all the checker is usually seated. Secondly you bring your own bags or you pay extra for the bags you need (about 10 cents per bag). Thirdly and importantly - you bag and take out your own groceries. Quite a few times we saw people put all their purchased items, bag-less, back in the cart in order to take them out to their cars where they had boxes and storage for them. And, very often, you return your cart to the cart park where you grabbed it from because that is the only way to get the Euro ($1.50)out of your cart handle that you had to put in it in order to unlock it from the other carts. Ingenious.
But in this instance I was three blocks from our hotel and lugged three heavy bags of groceries to our room. Near our hotel, I encountered David and Sophia walking down the sidewalk and munching on a large juicy sweet strawberry. David had ventured into the town square's enclosed market and bought some fresh fruit. I was so surprised and delighted by him also venturing into the French scene and chuckled a bit when I saw he had paid nearly $15 dollars for three bundles of fruit. But thankfully Sophia was eating and had enjoyed the walk and charmed some locals.
Closer to dinner time we tried to explore another area of Versailles on our way to our Creperie and we discovered a quaint little courtyard with a trickling fountain. The shops surrounding the courtyard had high end antiques, custom made jewelry and art. The window fronts were so crowded with color and detail that we sat a while and took it in. Above one of the shops a set of French doors opened on the balcony and we glimpsed a very chic interior living room and a mom and her baby stood by the doors taking in the cool evening. And, yes, the thought crossed my mind, "How wonderful that this is her everyday." The girls posed for pictures by the fountain and then we were ready for our delicious crepe dinner.
Now crepes in France are not just a sweet affair. Just as often they are savory. Picture a thin crepe (pancake like) about the size of a medium pizza that is covered with cheeses, onions, meat and about anything else you may want for a dinner, then it is folded up to look like an open envelope. We each ordered a meal crepe and a dessert crepe. Anna and Sara and I were satisfied but it was not the tasty meal we had hoped for and David, who could deal with almost any type of food could not get his down. His first encounter with a cheese he couldn't like. Reblochon. It smelled and tasted like stinky feet. I think he avoided the dinner crepe from this point on. We were very pleased with our dessert crepes and I with my hard cider drink (think light yeasty beer with slight sweet apple aftertaste). Sara proclaimed that she would eat at least one Banana Nutella crepe each day we were in France and I think she almost did. But Sophia would have none of it and so began her boycott of Frenchy food.
We slowly made our way back to the hotel, made calls to home, took hand held shower/baths (a very wet and slippery ordeal) in a skinny persons bathtub (hey even the girls commented on their tight fit), and dozed off easily at a respectable 10pm. I laid in bed and peered out our open balcony windows at the almost dark sky and breathed in the night air. "Wow, we are really here." I thought and said a prayer of thanks to the Lord for the adventure we had started.