Friday, May 24, 2013

Betwixt and Between

It's inevitable.  We've reached the point in the trip where I spend equal parts trying to soak everything, already beginning to feel nostalgic and finding myself thinking more about what awaits when we return home.

But before we get home, we have our biggest travel test:  about two days of travel en route to Seattle.  It should go something like this:

  • Leave Arles, hopefully with enough time to swing by the playground so the kids can expend some energy first.
  • Drop off the rental car and catch the TGV back to Paris.
  • Cab from Gare de Lyon to our hotel in Roissy, near Charles de Gaulle airport.
  • Catch an early morning flight to Reykjavik.
  • Kill some hours in Iceland.  I'm hoping we have time to hit the neighborhood pool and get a good last meal in.
  • Get back to the airport for a roughly 7PM flight.
  • Fly seven hours back to Seattle, which will mean we'll all want to sleep but will also be arriving in Seattle around 7PM our time.
  • Deal with jet lag on the other side....
I'm slightly less optimistic after our debacle getting off the train in Arles, but it will be what it will be.  On the plus side, I think we were able to change our seats on the flights so the kids can be in their carseats (which wasn't the case coming to Paris and I think contributed to the less than stellar flight).  More on how all this transpires to come....

In preparation, we decided to make an easy day of today, staying in town and letting the kids have a lot more free time. 

First stop after breakfast--my favorite boulangerie and patisserie in town, where they have excellent brioche, sandwiches, desserts and--my new favorite--fougasse with chevre, a roll stuffed with delicious cheese!

Next stop:  quality time in the fountain/obelisk square for dancing and running time

Giving the accordion player some euros for again making the scene so atmospheric and French!


Playground time!  Stella loves climbing up and down ladders in preparation for moving into the top bunk after we get home.  (After three weeks in beds, we think Otto is ready to move out of the crib).  Oh, and she's learned to get the merry-go-round running on her own.  Otto, for his part, climbs ladders up and down, goes through the rope-y obstacle course and also tries to hold is own on the merry-go-round.  One of the disquieting things about this leg of the trip is that I've found myself much more anxious about Otto's safety and haven't felt like the best mom to a boy.  I guess I just need to get better at letting go, trusting him while also figuring out when he's out of his depth.....

Final stop of the morning:  another Roman relic, the amphitheater, which is also actively used and under renovation after being unearthed an used as a quarry for awhile.

After our morning adventures, we headed home for lunch and some quiet time.  We decided on our last night in town to head out for dinner. 

Downside of not going for a drive?  No car nap.  Otto crashed out while riding on my shoulders.

Little did we know, after largely living as self-caterers, that being hungry at 5PM is a bad idea.  We headed to one restaurant we were really excited to try, as it sounded good and was supposed to be kid-friendly.  We walked there (Otto asleep on my shoulders) to find it didn't open until 7PM.  We were all hungry, so we decided to get Stella a snack and see if we could wait it out.  Some days this might have worked, but it was windy and cold, so that quickly became a less good proposition.  So we headed back to the square by the "Café at Night" restaurant since we'd had a good experience there last time.  This time?  Not so much.  We tried a neighboring restaurant which also didn't serve food until 7PM and then learned that the menu advertised on their pieboard (the whole reason we chose that place) was already sold out.  So we killed time and had a fairly miserable meal, with fussy kids, mediocre food, next to a table of young guys who we felt were regularly mocking our situation (though we couldn't be certain and may have been projecting....)

I figured since we'd captured shots of the kids in their cranky moments it was only fair to get Tyler being pretty grumpy during dinner....

But once we were all better-fed (and watered), all our moods improved as we "raced" back to the house and enjoyed the last bits of our evening in Arles.

Last walks on narrow, scenic streets

OK, this is here for really no good reason except that it was on the walk and I think Stella looks really cute....

Last walk down the alley to our apartment, which we probably make at least three times a days.

Last sun-kissed view of the Rhone from our terrace

Getting ready to say goodbye to our near-final temporary home on this journey!

I know we'll do more post-mortems post trip, but a few thoughts here.  Three weeks have been fantastic.  I think we've stretched to the end of poor Otto's rope and Stella's started saying she's ready to get back to home routine and school, and, truthfully, I think Tyler and I feel like it's been a good stretch.  One week would have felt like nothing.  And though I try to portray the wonderful and less so in these entries, when I think about how I'll respond to queries about this trip when I return, I can truthfully say it's been amazing.  Amazing to get to spend this much time together as a family.  Amazing to see a country that's been on my list for a long time.  Amazing to return to Paris with Tyler in a different phase of my life.   Amazing to get to experience Provence in a different way than I ever would have pre-kids.

And amazing to get to live our values.  Tyler and I took a class one time to help keep our marriage strong post-kids and one of the things we did was to create a family crest of things that were meaningful and important to us.  While it sounds a bit dorky here, it was interesting to think about what to include, which included travel, good food, camping/hiking outdoors, and quality time enjoying things we loved and cared about together.  This trip has managed to touch on nearly all of those.  And while it hasn't always been easy and fun, it has been an amazing experience.

I expect once we return home we'll reflect more on the experience and also some logistics for others who might want to undertake similar adventures, including how we felt about our packing!  A bientot!

Goodbye, Arles!  You were a good Provencal home base for us!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ochre Toned

Yesterday, after finishing my meal, I snapped a picture of the empty plate and announced "there's poetry to a finished meal!" Sort of a stupid, clichéd sentiment, but at the same time, it sort of fits the mood that has been creeping in at the edge of our vacation this last day or two. Sarah and I are starting to sense the end of our trip approaching and -through us- even the kids seem aware that we'll be returning home soon.

And, if you can't be a bit maudlin and fatalistic at the end of a vacation to France, where can you be? So...

This is actually the tail-end of tonight's meal of sausages, green beans with leeks, tomatoes, cheese, bread, olives and a little red and rose wine. We've been eating well since the market day yesterday.

Like the last two days, we climbed in the Clio and hit the road for what was supposed to be a half day road trip, but inevitably turns into a full day one. This routine seems to be working well, because the kids get some bonus nap time while we drive, Sarah and I get to talk to each other a bit (novel!) and we can explore some of the smaller towns and tourist spots scattered around us.

Initially we were planning on going to the Camargue today. The Camargue is the giant Rhone river delta to the south of Arles, known for it's pink flamingos, white horse and black bulls. But, the looming threat of mosquitos, a Roma festival and the fact that most positive reviews of it seemed to hinge horse back riding or biking (neither of which seemed practical with the kids) made us reconsider our plan this morning.

Instead, we set course for Roussillon in the foothills of Le Petit Luberon. Roussillon, aside from being a "Most Beautiful Villages of France" (literally, that's a designation, sign and everything), is also famous for its ochre quarries, where it's famous oxidized iron and clay sands are used to pigment paints, pottery and more.

The drive there, which was a little over an hour long, took us due east, into a different part of Provence. Honestly, while we've loved Arles, and enjoyed our explorations so far, I'd been left wondering a bit "what's the deal deal?" when it came to the scenery and countryside. Today, I discovered what the big deal was. Driving the Clio skillfully (yeah, I said "skillfully") through winding turns, up and down hills, Sarah and I were treated to an unending parade of vineyards, olive groves, rocky hillsides, small towns and villages perched amazingly on top of the previously mentioned rocky hills. To wit, Gordes...

Another of Provence's "Most Beautiful Village's of France." To help understand how scenic it is, that photo was taken from a moving car... and it would still make a pretty swell postcard.

Eventually (or as Stella might say "thankfully" since apparently 4 year olds are less impressed with olive groves and vineyards), we arrived at Roussillon. After a quick lunch of sandwiches (I'll let Sarah talk about he new favorite bakery in another entry), we started by exploring the village.

 Climbing the stairs towards Roussillon's "peak." Like so many of these hilltop villages, they basically boil down to one long, zig-zagging, stair/road-climb to a church and view point. But, it's a super scenic climb.
One thing that sets the village of Roussillon off from other nearby villages is that all the buildings are stained with ochre, giving them all that red-orange color.

After exploring the village itself, it was time to explore the surrounding country side and old ochre quarries. Just outside of town, there is a "Sentier des Ocres" where, for a small admission fee, you can follow a winding path through the "gold and blood" hills of ochre.

 The Ochre colored hills. I haven't been to the American Southwest  much, but I've read a number of comparisons to there. To me, it was sort of reminiscent of the red soil and green vegetation we saw in Hawai'i. Regardless, pretty striking.

 Going into this, Sarah and I acknowledged and accepted the fact that we could be coming home with some very orange kids. Stella, being a little more sure-footed and cleanliness-minded than Otto managed to stay presentable. Otto... well "Ochre-eyes Otto" had a blast rummaging through the clay and dust.
 Otto was definitely in his element. We'd kind of hoped that by taking him into the wilderness, he'd find less to fall off of and give Sarah and I mini-heart-attacks... but no, still plenty of ledges, steep steps and the like to try to run at and jump off of.
While on our Round the World Trip, Sarah and I perfected the couple self-portrait.... our family self-portrait is still a work in progress.

After exploring the countryside, it was time for one last "glace" before we hit the road for home. Stella, in particular, earned it by actually walking the entire trail on her own.

Stella opted for violet flavored ice-cream. Surprisingly sophisticated, and surprisingly tasty.
Oh, and finally, we got a photo of me with the Clio, our rental car. Proof of the 8th country I've driven in, and a mild nod to my favorite action movie character...

This will likely be my last entry for this particular trip, though I plan on doing a post-op where I talk a bit about packing and traveling with kids. So, for now, I will resign myself to enjoying the "poetry that comes with a finished meal" ...or however my lame phrase goes.

(And, remember, all roads lead to Avignon.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Slowing Down....Sort of

After the excitement (and associated meltdowns) of our trip from Paris to Arles, we spent one day mostly hanging out at this square and our apartment:

The obelisk square.  the kids loved the expanse to run around in and the accordion player.  It was interesting to really spend time there and see the tour groups pour in and out at regular intervals.

But it wasn't long before we were ready to take advantage of our wheels and see more of Provence.  First stop, Pernes les Fountaines, a town with 40 fountains that my business partner had visited last year.  We thought we'd enjoy a bit of road tripping and the fountains would be like a scavenger hunt for the kids.

Our first fountain sited!  I think Stella was still waking up....

On the fountain trail! 

Checking off the ones we saw.  Otto mostly wanted to play in the water and spot cats, but Stella was having fun finding fountains and the arrows showing our path through town.

We had thought about making another stop while out and about but decided to head home and hit the nearby castle on another day.  But once we got home, we decided to walk to one of Arles' bigger sites, an ancient Roman coliseum.  It was interesting--old, big, but retrofitted so that it's a functioning arena for bull fights and the like.

Parts were old and scenic....

Others had lots of scaffolding for the more modern-day bleachers that have been installed.  And apparently when they decide to resurrect the site to an arena, they had to raze a number of houses and several churches that had been built inside the protective walls.

Looking down at the arena from the one accessible tower of three that are still standing.  Otto liked to make me anxious by wanting to run, jump and be a bit reckless in places with narrow, hard, stone steps.  As I overheard Stella repeating to Tyler, it's covered with sand to "absorb the blood and stuff"

Not sure if this will work or not, but a neat panoramic shot Tyler took.

 Afterwards, we decided to tempt fate and go out to dinner.  In Seattle, we generally feel like our kids are well-behaved and pretty appropriate in restaurants.  After being in Paris, we couldn't decide if they were good for America, they were just strung out in Paris or what, but we ended up not eating out much after too much shushing and frustration on all sides.  But this evening was lovely, with good food, out in a square, enjoying a Southern France evening.

Stella drawing a half block from the café (painted yellow on the left) that is famous for being painted at night by Van Gogh.

And Otto?  Well, he really liked his spaghetti Bolognese

And today was Wednesday.  I've been anxiously awaiting today since we arrived because it's one of two market days in Arles and one thing I *love* when travelling is markets.  First we stopped by a playground we had spied for the kids, which was conveniently located near the market street, then decided to walk through.  Which quickly was no fun.  Hot.  Windy.  Dusty.  Tacky, cheap trinkets, clothes, housewares and the like for blocks and blocks.  While trying to steer Otto and Stella away from the cheap, tacky kid eye-candy conveniently placed right at kid eye-level.  After a bit of a trudge and not having fun and getting hungry, I told Tyler we should just turn back.  We had decided to head to the Tarascon castle in the afternoon, and it seemed better to just get on the road.  It had also been a day with an early start for me and Otto, and a day where just getting out the door had seemed like quite the accomplishment.   Fortunately, we decided to first drive by the far end of the market (it is a big market, and only about half as big as the Saturday market).  Finally!  The market I was looking for!


Provencal olives!


The bounty!  Poorly captured because we were all too hungry.  But we ended up with:  a rotisserie chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, a zucchini, carrots (Stella's choice), a leek, green beans, a head of lettuce, fresh eggs, two kinds of cheese, strawberries, ham (French jambon is amazing), pate, green and black olives, fresh sausages, nougat with raspberries, and a ridiculously large quarter of a round of bread.  It should keep us through a few dinners, lunches, breakfasts and snacks!

After lunch and a ridiculous diaper situation that I will spare all you readers from, we finally drove to nearby Tarascon to see the chateau castle.  From the outside, it looks more like a fortress, and Tyler enjoyed telling Stella all about the defensive options (arrows through the tiny, slit windows!).

Heading into the castle, initially with a crashed out Otto-bot

The garden and pond at which Stella declared, "I could stay here all day!"

Looking across the Rhone to the castle across the way in Beaucaire

Tarascon from the top parapets.  I have a slight anxiousness about heights, so it was cool to be up there, but I was a little relieved to head back down.

Going down one of the curvy stair towers.  I got a bit worn out by Otto, who spent most the time insisting on running around and generally being more reckless than I was totally comfortable with.  And, and did I mention he wouldn't have anything to do with Tyler?

Then probably my low point of the trip.  I finally insisted that Tyler go with Otto and got ready to lift Stella onto my shoulders.  But as I bent to lift her up, she jumped up, bashing my jaw with her (hard) skull, so hard I bit my tongue pretty impressively.  I actually started to cry because it hurt so bad, and she started laughing (which I think is her nervous reaction to that kind of situation).  That and I think my nerves from having Otto hang on and run like a little daredevil had gotten the better of me.  Fortunately, I think Otto realized he needed to give me a break and we got to the car and headed home.  Which led to lots more tears (I need two arms for cooking), but also a delicious, mostly-market-based dinner:  chicken, salad, cheese, bread, and olives.

Two more days in Provence, then we start what is effectively two days of travel to get back home....I can hardly believe it.  Stella continues to be a hardy traveler, but I think poor Otto will benefit to getting home to more routine.  We keep having to remind ourselves he's quite a little person to be having such a big adventure....

And a rare moment together while the kids were playing at the playground.  While I know I'll miss seeing Stella and Otto so much when we get back to daily life, I may actually have a bit more time with Tyler since our time now is mostly now either split between the kids or managing logistics of life on the road.  But I still couldn't wish for a better partner in travel and life....

Monday, May 20, 2013

Faster than a speeding bullet! Now stop!

During our last couple of days in Paris, I think that Sarah and I began to secretly fret and worry a bit about our coming change of location. Partially because of how rough the move from Reykjavik to Paris was, and partially because of the feeling that there we are a lot of opportunities for something to go wrong. First we had to pack and get out of our apartment in a timely manner, then secure a taxi in a part of town not exactly swarming with them, get to the train station, find our train on time, board with the kids and luggage, get off at the right stop, get our rental car, drive to Arles, get in touch with the woman we were renting our apartment from and then actually find our apartment.

None of these things alone seemed especially challenging, but the unending string of them, combined with a few worrying random factors (not even sure if the woman renting to us knew we were coming on the right day... and wait, where is Arles from Avignon again?) was enough to cause some concern. Plus, at any point, one or both kids could mutiny, and the whole thing could come grinding to a halt. Here goes!

Luckily, the morning went as good as could be planned! Sarah gave the kids a pep talk in the morning that seemed to actually stick. Packing and cleaning the apartment went smoothly. Talking to a receptionist at a Best Western down the street, I was able to get a cab with little hassle. Furthermore, it was a van cab, so there was plenty of room for our collection of bags, car seats and children. We arrived at the station just in time. Found and boarded our train with reasonable effort and were off!

Now, planning the trip, I'd sort of thought that the kids would be excited about the train trip. And that they might geek out at both the experience in general, or the speed of the TGV train, at least. So, let's see how they responded...

They literally did this for the entire three hour trip. Occasionally, they'd ask for food or water. Or I'd make some half-hearted attempt to point out some sheep or what looked to be a distant passing castle. But, meh.

They seemed content, so Sarah and I were content to leave them be.

Unfortunately, everything went pear-shaped when we arrived at the Avignon station. Roused from their Word World stupor, the kids went into full on mutiny mode, claiming to be hungry, thirsty and tired at the same time, and then commenced to declare war on each other over who would get to carry a Gogo Kidz wheeled-car seat caddy. Defeated, a screaming Otto attempted to scale Sarah, who was already weighed down with a two packs and a car seat. Meanwhile, Stella declared the caddy too heavy to carry, dropped it and broke into vocal sobs. Somehow, despite this, we managed to all topple from the train into a crying, sweating pile of backpacks and car seats on the sweltering Avignon train station loading dock.

Recollecting ourselves, we made our way to Hertz and got the keys to our Renault Clio. (Picture to come, promise!) Then, Otto made one final attempt to torpedo our commute by losing his poop both figuratively and literally. Sarah took him, screaming again, to the restrooms to change him. Those ended up being pay restrooms. But, I believe taking sympathy on Sarah's situation, the women manning the restrooms let Sarah and the kids in, with the promise of later payment.

When I went by a short while later to pay them, and only had a 50 Euro note, they were less than  pleased.

Anyhow, shortly after being deposited in their car seats, first Otto, then Stella, crashed out... and it was off to Arles! Luckily, starting at the train station, there were signs that read "Arles," so getting too Arles was a breeze. And what did I think of driving our micro-mini Clio down winding Provincial roads?

Something about small cars and country roads just finds my happy place. Much like our week in Tasmania, I could drive like that unendingly.

Soon we arrived in Arles, where Sarah and I got to test our marriage by living the tired cliché of "male driver won't stop and ask for directions," but we'll just breeze over that... and the several dead end roads ...awkward trips the wrong way down narrow one way roads ...uncomfortable silences from the passenger seat ...and parking lots with no exit... and focus on arriving at our apartment after stopping for directions at the tourist information booth.

But, what an apartment it is! An ancient three story townhouse, with old stone walls, wood rafters, cute blue shutters and a roof deck overlooking the Rhone! Despite the inevitable fall one or both children is bound to take down the narrow marble staircases, it is a definite win!

And did I mention the rooftop deck?!

And, so what is my impression of Arles so far? It's definitely more "Otto-Speed." Less chaotic. Narrow streets with few to no cars for his parents to try to keep him from getting run over by. And, lots of quiet plazas and courtyard to run around in, most with jump-worthy cement posts. Let's take a quick visual tour shall we?

 This tiny courtyard, a block from our place, is already dubbed "Otto's Plaza." He runs straight there after we walk out or front door, and -upon arriving- declares "here it is!"

 A small street we ate dinner on our first night. This sort of shabby-chic look seems to be the towns defining charm.
 Stella and I headed down a narrow street. Pedestrian-friendly places like this are a welcome change from the crowded, narrow sidewalks and busy streets of Paris. 
Breakfast breads at the towns central plaza. At first I was eager to "go, go, go," but after watching Stella dance to the accordion player there, Sarah reminded me it was probably more important to let the kids have their time.

Anyhow, today was a quiet day. Partially to give the kids a chance to rest, and partial because I was feeling a bit ill this morning. Fermented shark, no problem. But, switch my diet to bread, cheese and rose wine... and apparently all bets are off. But, our plan tomorrow is to pile back into the Clio, hit the road a bit and hopefully find a nice village to explore and some nice wine to taste.

Small car, country roads and the promise of wine at the end? Sounds good to me!