A friend of mine is heading to Europe for an extended visit with her twin infants and has asked for ideas of things to do while in France. Much has been written about France, travel and children. What immediately came to mind was Todd Babiak’s 2010 Learning French column from the Edmonton Journal. A serial account of family life in France simply doesn’t get much funnier, truer, and more whimsical. Alas, a quick search on the Journal’s site returns next-to-nothing. My next thought was Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon. This book represents the fruit of Gopnik’s dispatches from France to the New Yorker. Lately, there’s been an awful lot made, perhaps too much?, of Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. A personal favourite, though it has nothing to with children at all, is David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed In Flames. Any of the above will give you an introduction to the French from a North American’s perspective.
I have made many pilgrimages to France over the years, both with and sans baby, and have yet to have had a terrible time. My last visit was in September and October 2012. I travelled solo with Ladybug and made the mistake of using points. My 23 hour journey went like this: Edmonton – Heathrow – Frankfurt – Toulouse. By the time we got to the airport hotel in Toulouse, Ladybug had a meltdown the likes of which I had never seen and hope never to see again. It lasted for 2 hours and I hadn’t slept in two days. You get the picture, I’m sure. Which brings me to my first tip:
1. Know thyself and thy child. If you have never travelled with your child, have never travelled far with your child, have never crossed time zones with your child, or have never been on a plane with your child, make it easy on yourself. Book the flight with the least amount of stops. Bring an adult companion with you. Ask for a seat at the bulkhead or one with an extra seat open next to it. A perfectly rational child may become a snivelling mess when a mile high. You may become a three-headed monster when seriously sleep-deprived. The only way to know how you and your child will travel is to go travelling.
Once we got on the train to Agde the next morning, we were both slightly more composed. The train is an excellent way to travel in France and many parts of Europe. It also eliminates the need to lug around a carseat.
2. Kids are currency with French public services, if you can find the right information. Before we left, I did a fair amount of research on train travel. I purchased something called the Carte Enfant+ for 75 euros. It is available to children under 12 and is valid for one year from the start date of usage. The card entitles the child card-bearer to a free seat on the train when accompanied by an adult. It also entitles up to 4 people to accompany the child and receive a minimum of 25% off their fares and up to 50% off certain journeys. These people do not have to be related to the child and can be of any age. My parents qualified for seniors’ pricing but this card proved more economical than the seniors’ discount. Certain trains even have Espaces Familles which are like your own private room reserved for families. For more information, click here.
Children under 18 are admitted free to most national monuments and museums in France. If you are planning to visit a lot of sites there are multi-day passes available to adults that really cut costs. However, if you are there in the late spring, summer or early fall, there are many lovely outdoor opportunities that won’t cost you a cent. Walk the lavender markets in Provence, stroll along the Seine in Paris … but leave your stroller at home.
3. Be prepared to get some serious exercise. As anyone who has ever been in the metro in Paris or any train station in France will tell you, accessibility is a huge problem. Many stations have stairs, stairs everywhere and not an escalator in sight. I brought an amazing, light umbrella stroller for my mother to use with Ladybug. It was a pain in the airport, on the plane, on the train, on the cobblestones, in pubs … you get the picture. I did see French women blithely pushing their progeny is strollers whilst sucking on cigarettes, in skinny jeans and stilettos, but I found it much easier to navigate with my carrier and sensible shoes. I definitely did not see anyone anywhere with those gigantic “jogging” strollers women here are so fond of.