Sunday, April 19, 2015

World Travelers

More than a week later, and I can say that the laundry from the trip has finally been folded and put away, jet lag seems to have dissipated, and the backpacks have been entirely emptied.

If you're thinking "oh, maybe they took their kids camping/to the beach/to visit family in New England" - you'd be wrong :) With the convergence of several events and facts overseas, we bravely hesitatingly took our two children under 4 on two trans-continental flights to visit family and get a little taste of some new locales in Europe.

I spent months in preparation, culminating in a pink soft-covered binder with every known piece of documentation for our trip, determined to get both the most affordable prices for every bit of travel and places to stay, while also somewhat convenient or at least well-thought-out. Here is our trip by the numbers:

3: Flights taken with 3 seats for 4 people
5: Trains missed
1: Wallet stolen
7: Somewhat terrifying hours driving/riding in a small car in the UK
6: Cousins or cousins' children played with over the 10 days
2: Chateaux (castles) visited in France
5: Parisian pastries eaten in place of a meal
22: Ducks, or canards, fed
4: Ducks eaten for a delicious family dinner one evening in France
1: Crazy taxi ride to the airport
8: train/metro rides
4: tram/bus rides in Amsterdam
1: Boat ride through Amsterdam canals and under teeny little bridges
2: little-boy hats I'm so glad I brought, because even in the 50s it was very windy
1: stroller left on a train
23: Extended and wonderful family members we got to visit

It was certainly an adventure. The first day, after the overnight, red-eye flight (both kids slept on all plain rides, so we can't complain), we took a train, losing our stroller in transit, to Southampton. We
then walked a bit to the rental car and Tim managed to navigate the mirrored driving, reverse manual shifting, and the 45-minute drive to Tim's aunt and uncle's house. As always, they are wonderful hosts, providing rest, relaxation, toys, and of course, tea :)

We spent the next few days playing in the garden (yard) in beautiful British sunshine, napping, and visiting family. We spend one evening eating copious amounts of fish and chips for Adam's birthday, played catch, visited a local county park with wonderful playgrounds and a walking trail punctuated by wooden animals to play on. I managed to finish one of the three novels I brought for the trip (in my mind, vacation is synonymous with "read all the things!" We visited Tim's Grammy in her new digs, which has a beautiful balcony that Theo happily walked to and fro on for most of the time we were there. Saturday, we headed to a different cousin named Adam's wedding, which was lovely, if a bit rainy. The kids made it about ten minutes into the ceremony, which is OK because they are adorable, ha. Then they ran around the adjacent hall sneaking juice in advance of the coffee hour. Theo managed to snag three entire chocolate biscuits and eat them before we caught
him. After naptime, we headed back out for the...after-reception party, it might be called? A wonderful Frank Sinatra cover band played, switching on and off occasionally with a DJ, and Levi made good use of the candy bar while Theo kept walking up to the lead singer and bopping along to the music.

The next day dawned, and with it, the beginning of the next phase of our adventure: Amsterdam. We made great time headed back to Southampton, and Tim dropped the kids, most of the luggage, and I off about an hour before we needed to catch our train. Ahead of the schedule! With the kids and all of our luggage (including a replacement stroller from wonderful Auntie Ann). And so begins the first time on this trip that I cried.
Mid-wedding ceremony
That's a life record, I think, for crying in a short period of time. Last time I cried might have been almost two years ago after Theo was born. So...the plan was for Tim drive about a third of a mile down the road, drop off the car, then walk back. Ten minute process, tops. About 45 minutes go by, at which point we miss the first of two trains we could have taken to the airport (about 20 minutes away). We had no way of contacting each other. After tearing up and worrying out loud about where

Tim was and what I should do (head to the airport to make sure we caught our plane? head toward the rental car place with both kids and the luggage by myself? Sit and wait, the most frustrating option?) a security guard helped me carry our things over to a supervisor's office, where I called the rental car office. It'd now been about an hour. The car rental place hadn't seen Tim, at which point my tears escalated (while the supervisors graciously played with the boys), and I started asking what the UK equivalent of 911 is. The guys in the office stopped me, explaining that traffic was stop-and-go on the ONE road behind the train station Tim needed to be on. To which I replied "He must have been in an accident! He's causing the traffic! We have to call the police!!" and they stopped me and said no, there's just an IKEA right behind the train station, and everyone coming in and out blocks the flow of
traffic on the four-lane road in front of it. So....I figured we had just enough time to take a taxi to the airport and meet Tim there, arriving in similar fashion, to catch the plane before the gate closed. I called the rental car place back, and asked them to tell Tim to run right out of there and take a taxi to the airport. They said he'd already been in and run out again. I walked the kids outside, flagged down a taxi, who wouldn't let me put our bags/children in until Tim was there. He came running out of the train station; we jumped in; we had to stop at an ATM b/c the cabbie only took cash; we pulled up to the parking garage taxi stop and ran into the airport, I ran through security with Theo to ask them to hold the flight; they called me back for possible explosives in my bag, and in between shouting at the security check guy that we were going to miss our flight, he said "check the board, I'll be right back," and the board said "2 p.m., Amsterdam status: sit back and relax." So, we did.

The bad news is that the flight to Amsterdam was the worst flight I'd ever been on in my life. The delay had been for high winds, and only one runway was open in Amsterdam. So while the children were conked out and did not wake up even when it felt like we were plummeting out of the sky, I was gripping the arm rest hard enough to bend the metal and silently crying for an hour. In between terrified gasps of course, to which I'm surprised the surrounding plane riding people didn't shout "stop it!" at me. Tim even got out the puke bag, thinking one of the kids would wake up and hurl. Theo woke up at one point and just kept staring up at me in confusion, as if his big blue eyes were saying "what the heck is happening to you, Mommy?"

But upon arrival, everything was OK. I might have cried harder for a moment, thinking, wow, we're
still alive. And in Amsterdam! Amidst extremely high winds that actually pulled my directions to get to the hotel out of my pocket... :) I had mostly memorized them, and we used the airport's wifi to check the rest. And then it was miles and miles of row houses, canals, bicycles, flowers, and trolleys. We headed to a local cafe - sort of a cross between a coffee shop and a pub - and Tim tried a local brew while the boys mostly just ate french fries. Tim and I had some amazing food, and the place itself was my perfect idea of a restaurant - full of atmosphere, candle light, fun music, and very tasty food.

After crashing, we woke up the next morning and headed to an equally charming coffee house, where we had cappuccino, croissants, and yogurt. Some trams and moseying later, we boarded a boat with walls and a ceiling of windows, big enough to stand up, but small enough to fit through some very tight bridges. We learned all about the architecture of different areas of the city, history, historical sites, etc. And, you know, the boys got to ride on a boat - Theo added the word to his slim vocabulary within a few
minutes of boarding :)

The rest of Amsterdam we walked, sampled some of the famous local pancakes, and visited a street market. Then it was time to head to the central train station for our high-speed train to Paris. Unfortunately, it was at this point of the day that both kids were overtired from not napping, we were all hungry, and a little bit frazzled. The perfect target for a pick-pocket, the one time I didn't put my wallet where I usually keep it when traveling, and instead, stuck it obviously in my back pocket while dashing from a small grocer's to the train platform. I realized it about 19 seconds later when I was checking that we had
everything before boarding the train. Dumb traveling mistake - apparently the dozen countries I've been to internationally doesn't mean I've learned Constant Vigilance! The good news is that we
had travel insurance, with free international calls and concierge services. So upon arriving in Paris and making it to our (really classy, fun, rooms at the top of scary six flights of stairs) hotel a couple of blocks away, Tim put the kids to bed while I talked on the phone for an hour and a half. No cash was stolen, just a Dunkin's giftcard and my favorite wallet that I've had for almost a decade :(

We took it easy the next morning, and then hit up a couple of sites in Paris! First, of course, we stopped at a boulangerie. We bought pain au chocolate, dougnut holes, doughnuts, muffins, and a chocolate chip baguette. We took the metro to the other side of the city, came around a corner, and voila! The Eiffel tower! And then even better -
a playground right nearby! We strolled back to the metro to head toward Luxembourg Gardens, and stopped again at a boulangerie. This time I got some sort of fromage (cheese) pastry that they heated up and it was seriously the best thing I've ever eaten. Tim had a ham sandwich on a fresh baguette, and Levi of course had more chocolate doughnuts. At Luxembourg, we happened upon a wonderful playground, which you had to pay for, but it was pretty amazing. Tim and the kids ran around for awhile and I munched on something chocolate :) We headed over to the big lake on the property, hoping to sail some tiny sailboats, but it was too early in the season, so we fed the ducks. Probably the highlight of the trip for Levi, to be honest. Theo added "duck" and "quack" to his vocabulary :)

After a stop in a "birdhouse" on the way out (so-called by Levi, but we're pretty sure it was an historic outhouse, I was determined to see at least one more sight while we were there, and Notre Dame was closest on the map. Which meant that a good hour of walking (downhill, at least) later, we stopped momentarily at the Pont des Arts, then trekked over to the cathedral while the kids mostly napped or just chilled. Such a beautiful city,
but so huge!

Then it was time to head to the final portion of our trip - visiting Krista, Jesse, Josiah, and William in their small town in France! We picked up a car outside of the city, which luckily came with GPS because it was a four-hour drive, and we were off!

The drive (unlike in the UK) was easy as pie. And then we were getting lost in a small historic French town, with streets that looked too small for cars and we weren't sure which ones were one-way and which ones would drive us off the side of a cliff. And then we were climbing the beautiful old stairs and seeing the stone walls, French doors, and enormous windows of their home
Feeding the ducks!
for the year.

They are living in the Loire Valley, in the town of Thouars, which is on Le Thouet River. We spent the next two days relaxing, walking around the parts of the town that date back to medieval times, walking along the river, and playing baseball in the park :) Krista made us a picnic one day, and we went to visit Saumur and its chateaux, picnicking on some tables that are always somewhere nearby in France. We sampled some local cheese, wine, Madeleines, and Krista made us crepes one night. I kind of want to go back and eat all that food right now...

The last day we were in France, Krista volunteered to watch the kids during/after naps so we could go off on our own for a bit. We headed to another chateaux, at Montreiul--Bellay, a small town nearby.
We toured the chateaux (part of which is still lived in!), sampled some locally-made wine, and walked around the small town in search of tea. We found a small tea shop that was part tea room, part library, part art gallery, and part boutique. The owner (or maybe a vendor?) had a book binding contraption all set up, it was very cool. As was my caramel oolong tea (well, OK, the tea was hot).

Homemade pizza, crepes, a walk about town and some good conversation later, and we tucked in for our last night abroad.

The next day was supposed to contain about 23 hours of travel (Thouars to Paris to London to New York to Lancaster). It was somehow both rushed and elongated. Our GPS underestimated the drive time to Paris by about 45 minutes, which was fine
because we had an hour and a half buffer. Except then we couldn't find the rental car place (enter tears #3), because it was under the train station in a public parking garage. By the time we ran into the train station to check in, it was 4 minutes before our train left. They just bumped us to the next train (12:40), which was awesome. The check in worker told us to head to board the train at 12:25. Which we did. And then had to wait in line for security and passport control for the UK, which apparently was on this side of the channel, instead of their own. And we didn't get through those lines until....the next train had left. Timing was still fine because I'd left a good two hour buffer in London, and another three hour buffer before our flight from Gatwick, but man, we just wanted to get onto the next leg of the trip! And they were already boarding for the next train, which didn't leave for 30 minutes (shame on you, check-in
lady, for telling us totally the wrong thing). And then! across the French countryside, under the channel, and into London. Grabbed the direct commuter train to the airport, showed up a good hour and forty five minutes before our flight left and....realized it had been delayed more than two hours. Awesome. No complaints though, Gatwick had a whole kids area that entertained the boys for hours. They slept the whole flight home (we did not). And then after waiting in THREE lines at JFK to check our passports (crying #4, although to be truthful, it was only a little and it was almost 5 a.m. in France), over an hour later we got to leave the terminal! Yay! My amazing, wonderful, perfect brother Shawn picked us up in Tim's car, and away we went to Lancaster, arriving smoothly at 4:30 a.m. EST. The kids slept in the car and went straight to bed when we got home, awaking impressively at 7:30 a.m. Tim and I were feeling awful and off-schedule for several days, but apparently the boys never actually changed schedules while there, because they seemed fine.

I've used up all my words for the next several days. And if anyone's made it this far, kudos. Give yourself a high-five :)

Pancakes Amsterdam!

Inside the "birdhouse"

Krista and Jesse's beautiful house! That first window
above was our room for the duration!
The medieval house down the block from their house