18 September 2015

I went to France in August! Part the Second

There was one area where I took the "don't go to France in August" advice very seriously: Paris. As we planned the trip to France with my parents, I kept assuring them--and myself, I suspect--that we could and in fact should skip Paris on this visit. "It won't be Parisian," I said. "Everything good will be closed, and everyone there will be American," I said. But we did want to go to Dijon on this trip, and the easiest way to do that as a day trip was to stay in Paris for a few days.

Checking out the "statues" in the Louvre
You know where this is going, right? Guys. You can totally go to Paris in August. It's true, not everything is open--my favorite special-occasion restaurant (and one of my favorite places to bring my souffle-loving pre-schooler) was closed for the season, which almost made me want to call the whole thing off.

But a lot of things are open! And some of the things that are open, are un-crowded, on account of all the people not coming to Paris (and all the Parisians being on holiday somewhere else). My husband and I took advantage of traveling with the grandparents and spent a kid-free evening at a bar I love, and it was the first time I've been there that I could sit wherever I wanted and not have to vacate in time for a reservation in an hour. (It was also not air-conditioned, which may have had something to do with that. But they made up for it in special icy cocktails.)

Which reminds me: it is hot. If you're used to Irish or English weather, it's seriously hot. I kept saying it was great to have another chance to wear all the summer outfits that don't really get much use at home, but even that wore a bit thin when we found ourselves walking the 45 minutes home from Notre Dame through 90-degree heat at the end of a long day. But the other times I've been, it's been cold and often rainy, so the heat was a nice change! And a good excuse to eat lots of ice cream.

Part II: Paris and Dijon

Josephine would have happily come back to the playground
in the Luxembourg Gardens every day of the trip.
Paris is a particularly great place to take a small child in August. We've taken a baby to Paris in April a couple of times, and while it's lovely, there just isn't as much happening, kid-wise. This was the first trip where we actually found the Luxembourg Gardens playground--not for lack of looking on our other trips. (It's the first playground I've ever paid admission to enter, and it was worth it--it was also the most comprehensive playground I've ever been to.)

I'll admit: I started to get a bit parent-judgy about how closely everyone seemed to be following their kids. I've only ever parented in Ireland, and the playground approach here is pretty hands-off once kids hit three or so. But even the little-kid area of the Luxembourg playground (appropriate for up to age seven) has a lot of opportunities for a kid to bite off more than she can chew, climbing-and-sliding-wise, or even to wander off and hide; and before I knew it I was following along right behind my perfectly-capable three-year-old, too.

"We got wet! Daddy got really wet."
At least in the city center, Paris really goes all-out for families in summer. The city had built a beach along the banks of the Seine, which we didn't visit, and installed a funfair in the Tuileries, which we visited twice (because the preschooler needed one last go at the trampolines before we left Paris). She rode the mini-rollercoaster with me ("Everybody screamed. Mommy made lots of noise!" she told anyone who asked) and the log flume with her dad ("It was really surreal to see the Place Concorde and the Eiffel Tower from the top of the log flume," my husband said--and here was me thinking the surreal bit was watching my tiny child in that giant car on a freaking log flume, which suddenly looked it went a lot higher up).

Another interesting discovery: the Louvre will let you skip the line if you have a child in a pushchair with you. We joined the queue snaking around the courtyard in full sun, and no sooner had we opened our mouths to discuss maybe finding something else to do with our Friday morning, than a helpful official-looking person with a walkie-talkie ran over and said, "your entrance is over there." There was no line, and there was a platform-style lift to take us down to the ticket area--where another nice official-looking person pointed us to the shortest ticket queue. After that, we really had no choice but to let our pushchair-rider decide that all we were going to do that morning was look at statues; it was clearly her museum trip. I haven't felt so pampered since visiting Versailles when I was seven months pregnant (and also not allowed to wait in any queues).

Des fraises, des tomates, du pain, des abricots, du fromage,
les saucisses, les prunes--et la champagne, bien sur!
We took our day trip to Dijon on the Saturday of our trip, taking advantage of the super-fast TGV service from Gare de Lyon. We met our friends for a wonderful lunch at DZ'Envies and let the small one ride the carousel a few times, after spending a couple hours wandering through the marché and picking up things that wouldn't spoil before we got them back to Paris. It wasn't exactly what I'd imagined, but we did have a wonderful market supper that night in our hotel room (thanks in no small part to the hotel staff being generous with plates, glasses, and cutlery).

I will cop to having often felt surrounded by tourists on this Paris trip. This led to the one disadvantage of visiting in August versus, say, January: everyone's thinking in English. In January people I meet are, on average, happy to let me stumble through my school-French for the length of our interaction; in August they just switch to English. Heck, a lot of the time they start out in English. If you're hoping to practice your French, maybe don't go to Paris in August.

Once she got the hang of it, the bungie-trampoline
combination was the hit of the fair.
On the other hand, if you don't have any French to practice, you don't lose your cool in the city heat, and you're looking for a nice place to entertain three generations, August is probably the perfect month for your visit.

26 August 2015

I went to France in August! Part the First

"Don't go to France in August," they said. "It's beastly hot, it's full of tourists, all the real French people are on holiday somewhere else, and half of Paris will be closed," they said.

After years of heeding this advice and going to France in almost any other month, this year August was the best time for us to go. So we went. And you know what? It was fine! It was fun, even. It was no less pleasant than visiting in November or January, and the people-watching was a lot more interesting.

Since we've lived abroad, my husband and I--and our daughter, now that she's joined us--have managed a France trip at least once a year. Paris, usually, but the last few years we've taken longer trips and visited other regions (as well as a few days in Paris at the beginning and the end). This year was my parents' 45th Wedding anniversary, and the 10th anniversary of the family trip where my husband and I got engaged, so we decided to celebrate by inviting my parents to join us for a week in France during their usual long summer visit to their grandchild.

Part I: Normandy

The Rouen Cathedral was lovely.
We did that thing I swore I'd never do again, after the last time: we flew into Paris, rented a car at the airport, and drove immediately to Normandy. When will I learn? Even if the traffic isn't completely appalling (and, honestly, this was the first trip where it wasn't--another point in August's favor), leaving Paris immediately means hours and hours of planes and cars, instead of a few hours' travel and then relaxing at your destination. We stopped at Rouen for dinner and a bit of sight-seeing, which was delightful but meant we didn't fetch up at Bayeux--where the beds and showers of the cozy Churchill Hotel were expecting us--until nearly 11 p.m.

And then, early the next morning, we got back in the car for the drive to Mont Saint-Michel. Because it was August, and the guidebooks all said we had to get there early to beat the crowds. (The three-year-old cried buckets when she saw the car waiting for her first thing after breakfast. I sympathized.)

Naptime outside the Abbey at Mont Saint-Michel
Here was yet another nail in the coffin of the "Don't go to France in August!" myth. Because Mont Saint-Michel, while indeed crowded, was also stunningly well-equipped to handle the crowds. The parking lot is clearly marked and well laid-out, and shuttles run constantly. There's a visitors' center right near the parking lot, which we didn't have time to check out because we were already getting on the bus. I even saw signs for a dog kennel, since dogs are not allowed on the island itself.

I had expected to get off the shuttle bus and find a long, long line of people waiting to buy tickets to get through the gates. And I was wrong on both counts. There's no ticket to enter the town, only to visit the museums--and, frankly, the queues for the museum we visited weren't extreme. Every time we stopped to eat at a restaurant, we were seated immediately and served promptly (though there were lots of people waiting patiently at the takeaway sandwich places, which is why we decided on restaurants). A crowded Mont Saint-Michel just meant that we were surrounded by lots of other happy, excited people on their holidays.

(And a couple of screaming, over-stimulated children. Not mine, fortunately. But considering how many kids of all ages were happily accompanying their parents up and down the steep staircases and through the narrow streets, that we only saw a few major kid-meltdowns near the Abbey almost makes one believe in miracles.)

Bringing water back up the beach for hole-filling purposes.
"Don't go to France in August!" they said, and they completely failed to mention that France--Normandy, anyway--has a coastline. And beaches. Such that going to France in August can afford you a lovely, hot, sunny morning for building sandcastles and jumping over waves near the memorial on Omaha Beach. You can even chat in French with the other families who are there doing the same thing, as it turns out that quite a few of the tourists in France in August are from other parts of France.

It was a bit weird to look around the site of the Allied invasion, with the giant memorial right there, and rub sunscreen on my kid's nose and send her down to the ocean with her bucket and spade. But I got over it. Right beside the memorial is a series of placards with the history of the beaches, and of course, being beautiful, they were a resort location long before they were occupied and then liberated. I'd hate to see a place with potential for so much happiness barred from it forever because some people were awful there for a few years three generations ago. If I were being flippant, I'd say that to close the beaches to beach-going in perpetuity would be to let the Nazis win.

A picnic-free bomb crater, with rubble.
We also saw an elaborate family picnic at Pointe du Hoc (an invasion site managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission). Right there in the bomb craters, which have been left as they were seventy years ago, to show the extent of the damage to the countryside. Our guide said that usually the staff at the memorial site will inform picnickers that they are at a solemn site, despite all the wild flowers and sunshine.

Gravestones are not for climbing.
We decided to take a tour to the Normandy invasion sights, rather than just going ourselves, because (a) TripAdvisor/Viator's marketing is effective even when it's creeping me out and (b) I was worried about things like parking at the sites, and deciding which of them to see. I ended up really glad we went that route, even though doing so with a three-year-old was a bit of a challenge (we ended up with an unscheduled break to eat frites and watch the waves next to the National Guard memorial, and later there was a bit of difficulty explaining to a pre-schooler the difference between "The Normandy American Cemetery" and "a park"). Our guide loved D-Day history and had all kinds of stories to tell (in fluent English), and we learned much more than we would have from just going to the sites and reading the placards. 

We also picked up another advantage to going to France in August: while the D-Day sites were as crowded as everything else, they were nothing, per our guide, to the lines that accrue in June, around the anniversary of the landing. Really, France in August just gets better and better.

The tour was in the afternoon, and that morning we took advantage of having Grammy and Granddaddy with us to let them explore the cathedral in Bayeux with their granddaughter (who has a thing for statues) while Gino and I saw the Bayeux Tapestry. (My parents had seen it the previous afternoon, while the rest of us napped.) Thank goodness for grandparents! There's no way the three-year-old would have let us actually listen to the audio tour, or take more than a cursory glance at the tapestry itself. Between the exploits of William the Conqueror in the morning and a tour of WWII sites in the afternoon, we had a very martial day for our last full day in Normandy.

A rope/plank bridge at William the
Conqueror's chateau
Since the young 'un had put up with a lot of grown-up sightseeing on Tuesday, we pretty much scheduled Wednesday around whatever sounded like fun for her. Wednesday was also the day we had to get ourselves from Bayeux to Paris, but we worked it out by stopping at William the Conqueror's castle in Caen on the way. Once we finally found the entrance, the chateau was pretty much all our little family needed: we spent most of the morning at the nice playground right near the entrance, took a quick spin through the Musee de Normandie's exhibit on neanderthals, and finished up with a much nicer-than-anticipated lunch at the Musee des Beaux-Arts, whose museum cafe turned out to be a fairly fancy restaurant. (Albeit with a ham, cheese, and mozzarella tartine on the menu, so even the little one ate well.)

Then we got back in the car, and--ta-da! How often does this happen?--she fell fast asleep, just as I'd planned, for most of the three-hour drive to our hotel in Paris.

Paris, of course, was a whole different adventure for a whole new blog post. But still worth visiting in August! Stay tuned.

20 March 2015

A Dinner in Dijon

Hi, Gang! Long time no blog. Greetings to all of you who check in now and again, and a big wave to those whose Google searches have turned up my Expat Survival Kit, or who've landed here from Expats Blog. Hope you're enjoying your adventures in your new home!

It occurs to me I should write about something besides the ins and outs of traveling with a small child. It's true, this is a topic that spends a lot of time at the front of my mind--we're never sure when we're going to lose our easy access to Europe, and we still have a lot of places we want to visit before that happens, so I'm almost always planning the next trip (sometimes, even while I'm on the last one). Right now, I'm two trips ahead: planning a trip to France with my parents, when they visit us at the end of the summer.

Early spring vinyard near Baune
We manage to visit France at least once a year, and while we're in France we try to hit Dijon--wine country; cheese country; many-different-fancy-stews country; millennia-of-human-history country--for at least a day. Gino spent a term there as a student and still talks about the apple tart the mother of his host family used to make, and about his daily before-school second breakfast of croissant and hot chocolate.

Twice now his host family has had us over for wonderful meals (including that apple tart!) during our visit. We're planning another trip at the end of this summer and this time it's our turn to treat them to a nice dinner.

French markets
are some of my favorite things.
My first preference would be to cook. I don't have enough opportunities to throw dinner parties, honestly--especially not French ones. And Dijon has an absolutely wonderful market, so planning a menu and making dinner could be a complete French Fantasy Come True: shopping in the morning, getting inspiration from the stalls rather than cookbooks; spending the afternoon in the kitchen; and then cracking the crément for pre-dinner drinks as our guests arrive.

Due to logistics, this plan is unlikely to fall into place, and I'll end up using a combination of Fodor's, Lonely Planet, and TripAdvisor to find a restaurant that can accommodate eight people of three generations and two languages. (Speaking of which: it's a good thing I'm comfortable reading French, because once you leave Paris a surprising number of restaurant websites don't offer website translation, and while Google Translate does its best, as soon as you use it all the links die on you. Adds an extra layer of suspense to calling for a reservation--which I'm probably going to make Gino or my dad, both of whom speak fluently, do anyway, because my French isn't quite good enough to handle the phone.) 

But let's dream, shall we? Let's take a deep breath, close our eyes, and imagine ourselves: waking up in a rented farmhouse in Burgundy, munching on butter-and-jam tartine, drinking coffee, and scrolling through a few French food blogs for inspiration before heading to the market...

These wouldn't take up too much room in a carry-on, right?
...and because it's August and everything is in season, I've managed to come home with the ingredients to a Franco-Italian feast I can make largely from recipes and techniques in my head (since my cookbooks will still be in Ireland).

We'll start with a goat's cheese, fig, and walnut tartine from Rachel Khoo's Little Paris Kitchen, a cookbook I fell in love with after her BBC cooking show shamed me out of complaining about the stove in my Large Dublin Kitchen. (It really is a little Paris kitchen. A teeny-tiny one. This woman makes a cooking show using basically a two-burner hot plate.)

We'll have the goat's cheese and fig tartine with cured meats and cheeses from the market, of course. If we haven't snacked our way through everything we brought home during the cooking process.

My Company Dinner is a roast chicken. This has gotten more true since Gino gave me a Le Creusset casserole for my birthday a few years ago. I had already learned, at cooking class, the trick of roasting the chicken with water or broth, and then pouring in a glass of white wine twenty minutes before you think it's done. That plus the high walls of the uncovered casserole (plus the onion, garlic, herbs, and lemon you've stuffed in and around the chicken, and the oil or butter you've rubbed over the bird itself) make for a flavorful, moist bird when you take it out of the oven. I'll add white burgundy instead of pinot grigio and slather it with butter instead of olive oil, and voila! My roast chicken becomes un poulet rotî.

An actual company dinner I cooked last year:
roast chicken, ratatouille tian, Provencal roast
vegetables, and chickpea-flour pancakes. It was good.
The recipes for everything but the chicken came from
The French Market Cookbook.
The vegetable/side depends on exactly how nuts I've gone at the market, and how nuts I'm now going about time now that the chicken's in the oven. Oh, and how many sous-chefs have I? If my mom is helping me cook, and the holiday house has decent knives, we can make Clothide Desoulier's ratatouille, a melange of vegetables (eggplant, tomato, and zucchini) and herbs which, in her own nice touch, she roasts in the oven. (Actually, if I was really smart, I've made this ahead--every ratatouille I've ever made has been better as leftovers than it was the day I made it.)

Or, if I'm at the point of making things easy for myself, I bring out a recipe I've been serving to company since college: fusilli pasta tossed with chopped tomatoes, parsley, basil, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. (This is the Italian part of the Franco-Italian feast.)

And once that's staying warm, my job's pretty much done. Of course, I could make a dessert. Of course I could make a dessert; what do you take me for? But then, why on earth would I make a dessert, when I've just been to the Dijon market (and nothing I'll make would stand up to that apple clafoutis Gino's host mother makes, anyway)? We'll have ice cream, fresh from the farm. Or tarte tatin. Or house-made chocolates. Or all of the above.

Where would you go, if you could have any dinner anywhere? What's your dream feast?

This post was suggested by web-translation service Smartling. They did not pay me for this! They asked if researching local food options in a foreign country was something I'd like to write about, and I decided it was. And it's been fun! So thanks to Smartling for suggesting the post idea.