Traveling Europe Together
Three weeks, Two Tired Parents and One Toddler
We woke in the morning to the sounds of our daughter singing sweetly to herself from the next room. Now at the tail end of our three week European adventure, we were well settled into a comfortable routine – sleeping when the little one slept, waking to her happy sounds, eating ourselves silly and spending the bulk of the day on foot exploring. But it had taken months of discussions and planning to get us to this point – and there were certainly days when I wasn’t quite sure we’d be able to pull off such an audacious trip.
The whole thing started off six months prior, once we convinced ourselves that the idea wasn’t too crazy (after all, at 22 months her ticket would be practically free as she still sits on my lap on the plane), and without acknowledging our unhealthy addiction to travel. Then, we made the plan – three weeks in Europe, traveling through three cities (London, Edinburgh and Paris), with two very tired parents and one toddler hurtling full-force toward the Terrible Twos.
Living Like the Locals
On this trip, we took a different, and for us, untested approach toward accommodation. When we awoke this morning, it was in a teeny tiny two-room walk up pied-a-terre in Paris’ Latin Quarter which we rented through a private owner online.
After our daughter was born, we tried staying in traditional hotel rooms with her, and quickly came to the conclusion that sitting in silence in the dark at 7pm when the baby went to sleep was not a fun way to spend a vacation.
Booked through the website VRBO.com (Vacation Rental by Owner), our Parisian apartment featured a washing machine, a full kitchen stocked with dishes and silverware and the necessary two rooms with a sliding divider. VRBO provides thousands of renter reviewed house and apartment rentals around the globe at many different price points. We also used the site to secure apartments in London and Edinburgh for the first two weeks of our trip. What really made this place stellar was location, location, location! Situated in an enclave of university students, the Latin Quarter felt like it was bustling with locals going about their day instead of swarms of tourists and honking traffic.
Crepes, Croissants and Cheeses, Oh My!
Right around the corner from our tiny Parisian flat was both a metro (subway) stop with excellent connecting service all over Paris and an historic pedestrian street market, Rue Mouffetard, overflowing with luscious and beautifully displayed meats, cheeses, breads, wines and crepe stands. After our little one’s pre-breakfast of yogurt (another perk of having a full kitchen is the ability to stave off hunger-induced crankiness with handy snacks), we headed to the market to pick up the fixings for a midday picnic in the park.
We allowed our eyes and noses to be our guides as we meandered down the cobblestone street – our small girl trotting happily beside us and using all her new “food” words. We amassed a treasure trove of baguettes, croissants, pain au chocolat, goat cheese and grapes. The night before, using our excellent Fodor’s guide book, I identified the Jardin des Plants as our destination – and after a short walk we arrived with our goodies at the garden’s imposing gate (complete with an even more imposing lion statute) and found a sunny picnic table to lay out our lovely, decadent spread.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of travel is sampling the local cuisine – and on this trip we vowed not to let Miss Picky hold us back. Putting all of our daughter’s notoriously finicky eating habits aside, we offered her a taste of everything we ate – from fish and chips in London to apple and pea soup in Edinburgh. This morning at our picnic, we offered her a moderately piquant goat cheese on a baguette and she gobbled it up and asked for “more, more”! Though not every food we attempted with Miss Picky was a winner, we learned an important lesson on our trip that she can be much more flexible than we give her credit for. Playtime
After our delightful picnic at the Jardin des Plants we strapped our tiny traveler into her new travel-friendly umbrella stroller and began our walk to the second park of the day – the famous Jardin du Luxembourg where we read many child-friendly activities awaited.
In anticipation of this big trip, the stroller was purchased after much research and informal polling of fellow moms. Anticipating the bumpy cobblestone streets of cities hundreds of years old, and the need for our little one to comfortably nap on the go, we invested in the pricey Maclaren Quest which featured a very sturdy (though still light) frame, decent recline for happy napping, quick fold and a carry strap.
On this afternoon, as she had every afternoon before, a few blocks into the walk our daughter fell soundly asleep for her nap and my husband and I shared one of our favorite parts of each day – the chance to have a beautiful walk and uninterrupted conversation for well over an hour. We strolled the left bank of the Seine River and snuck in a few smooches along the way. Who ever said Paris with children couldn’t be romantic?
As she sleepily began to stir, we arrived at the Jardin du Luxembourg just in time for the start of one of the rites of passage of Parisian childhood –the Marionnettes Du Luxembourg. I learned about this frozen-in-time puppet show from the entertaining and informative ex-pat memoir “Paris to the Moon” by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. In a tiny nondescript cinder block building in the middle of the park, twice weekly art-deco era wooden puppets delight young children with re-imagined fairytales and fables, accompanied by music and lots of audience participation.
From the moment the curtain rose, our girl was entranced. This was decidedly old-fashioned entertainment and we loved every moment – no matter that the whole thing was in French and none of us spoke the language.
Across the way from the puppet show, we spotted the beautiful children’s playground our Fodor’s guidebook noted and thought we’d give our girl a chance to get out some energy before dinnertime. We’d become quite the connoisseurs of outdoor play spaces on this trip – with the best rating going to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground at Hyde Park in London. The energetic girl and I spent a solid afternoon there lost in the gorgeous and innovative equipment modeled after Peter Pan’s Never Never Land, and partook in the delicious (and healthy!) organic outdoor snack bar.
As we approached the gate, a sign in French and English listed prices for entry. A “pay to play” system, entry fees at playgrounds in Europe are quite common. We doled out our 2.50 Euros (about $4) per person, and she went to town on the equipment, which actually looked suspiciously like the lovely (and free!) playground amenities at 41st and Riverside.
Time for Mom and Dad
Though the majority of our days were geared toward activities that would keep our little one happy, the whole vacation was not about entertaining the littlest globetrotter. My husband and I reached an excellent compromise as to how we’d each get to experience some non-child friendly activities without having to hire a sitter in a foreign country. We decided to switch off staying home for one night with our daughter while the other ventured out for some grown-up fun.
My husband chose his “night out” during our Edinburgh visit in the form of hitting the pubs with his old study-abroad buddies who still live in the city. As a ballet lover, this particular night in Paris I chose to spend my evening out at a performance of the Paris Opera Ballet. Held at the world famous (and infamous for it’s haunting by the Phantom of the Opera) Paris Opera House, I bought an inexpensive ticket and spent two and a half hours in rapt awe as the dancers performed three pieces by George Balanchine.
We’d Do it Again!
The reassuring takeaway from our European adventure is that exploring the world does not have to end with the arrival of a little one. We succeeded in having a superb, though admittedly exhausting, three week tour through three European cities largely because we kept our expectations in check. There were no long days spent wandering through hushed museums or fancy nights out at elegant restaurants. But what there was – time spent in the sunshine exploring neighborhoods, eating delicious foods, delighting in new cultural experiences – was wonderful time spent together as a family.
To Know if You Go…
1. Airline Tickets
Children under 2 travel for free or just have to pay taxes if they sit on your lap. This varies by carrier, and international vs. domestic flights, but the downside is the lap infant cannot check a bag or have a carry-on bag – and you must be comfortable with a baby on your lap for a potentially long-haul flight!
2. Child-Friendly Europe
London and Edinburgh were incredibly child friendly. Every restaurant and coffee shop we went into had baby changing facilities, and the big department stores had special “baby” rooms with areas for heating bottles, nursing babies, changing diapers or just taking a little break. We had no problem getting high chairs at any restaurant or cafe. Paris was a bit less so, and we more than once relied on the stroller as changing table in a pinch.
*Child Equipment Rental – There is no need to lug all your baby gear overseas and endure yet more airline charges! Because we rented private apartments during our stay, we also had to separately arrange for cribs for our daughter. Our London apartment owner provided a crib, but we relied on two excellent private services in Edinburgh (Tom Thumb Baby Equipment Hire www.tomthumbbabyequipmenthire.co.uk) and Paris (Baby’tems www.babytems.com). These services will rent portable cribs (like pack n’ plays), high chairs, car seats, age-appropriate toys and will even sell you baby food and diapers. Though we only used these services for crib rental, we found them amazingly accommodating for scheduling drop off and pickup around our oddly-timed travel and everything was incredibly clean, up-to-date and well cared for.
No baby is too young to get a passport, but both parents must be present in person at the passport office to obtain one. It can be tricky to get a little one to sit (or lie still) for a photo, but with tenacity it can be done. For more detailed information on getting your child a passport, visit the official US government site at http://travel.state.gov/passport/get/minors/minors_834.html .
Packing for an overseas trip with a little one can be daunting, but best to avoid the desire to pack everything but the kitchen sink! With a truly globalized society, you’ll find just about everything (and even most of the same brand names) for baby hygiene and care in other first world countries. We easily bought the same brand of diapers at local grocery stores (the packaging and sizing were a bit different), baby shampoo and even the squeeze packs of pureed fruit she likes as a snack. Prices will be steeper, but there is something to be said for not hauling another bag onto the airplane (and being stuck with the astronomical bag fees).
5. Vacation Rentals
There are many sites that provide information on short-term vacation rentals; three of the best known are www.vrbo.com, www.homeaway.com and www.flipkey.com. Beware that renting a home or apartment from a private renter is NOT like staying in a hotel (and thus may not be for everyone) – you’ll often have to provide your own paper products, daily maid service is not part of the price and the owner will hold you responsible for tidying up and returning the rental to its original condition before you depart. Be sure to properly research and read past renters’ reviews before booking.