Spring Break in Paris, part 2

Here’s the rest of our Paris adventure over spring break:

Day 3: Paris sightseeing

We bought a Paris breakfast at the corner boulangerie — pain aux rasins and croissants au beurre. Then we boarded the metro near our apartment. I had forgotten how it feels to commute in a large city, with bus and subway rides lasting for at least a half hour. It wouldn’t have been a problem for Joe and me, but these long rides were very difficult for my kids to endure.

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When you exit from the Trocadero metro station, you are treated to this splendid sight. Sam and Lucy both recognized the Eiffel Tower from an app they’ve been playing which teaches about Paris, although Lucy pronounces it “Pookal Tower”. From there, it’s an nice downhill walk through the Palais de Chaillot and a bridge across the Seine to the base of the tower.

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The hardest part was figuring out which line we should queue in. Even though we arrived just before opening, the lines of tourists snaked in spirals underneath the tower without any recognizable order or system. It took us about an hour of waiting in line before we made it inside and took the elevator to the 2nd floor.

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Pretty great views from up there!

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After we descended back to the ground, it was lunchtime. We bought some baguette sandwiches and frites and had a picnic on the Champ de Mars park beneath the Eiffel Tower.

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The kids loved climbing the old trees and we enjoyed some great people-watching while we ate. We walked to the south end of the park and caught a city bus to take us to the Île de la Cité. I researched in advance and picked a bus that would let us off at the Right Bank of the Pont des Arts bridge, so we could add a “love lock” to the railing.

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Can you spot our lock? It’s in there!

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Unfortunately, we had a mini disaster. Sam had a lock in his hand that he’d drawn pictures on in advance. He dropped it on the bridge and it fell between the cracks into the river below! Poor kid lost his mind and threw the biggest tantrum of his life. We placated him by buying a new lock from a vendor nearby, but his mood never fully recovered after that.

We walked along the left bank and browsed the used books, comics, and art sold by the Bouquinistes before arriving at Notre Dame cathedral.

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It was nice to see Notre Dame from the outside, but the line to enter was too long. Sam was cranky, Lucy had fallen asleep in her stroller, and the grown-ups were hot and tired. So we opted instead to let Sam play in the playground near the cathedral grounds and we found an ice cream shop for a sweet treat.

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All in all, we were happy to accomplished so much in one day!

Day 4: Break Time

Lucy had been sick for most of the evening prior.  Waking up from her nap to a stuffy city bus ride wasn’t good for her sensitive stomach. So we decided to cancel our plans to visit the Jardin du Luxembourg in the morning and Montmartre in the afternoon.

Instead, Grandma came to visit! The kids were very happy to see her and spend the day with Grandma at our rented apartment while Joe and I went for a walk.

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We walked past the Place de la Bastille and browsed through a farmer’s market there, before making our way to the Place des Vosges. After admiring the regal architecture and symmetry of the grounds and seeing where Victor Hugo used to live, we found our way to a lovely Renaissance garden courtyard at the Hôtel de Sully.

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We had a relaxing café lunch of a croque monsieur and café noisette. On the walk home, we visited charming shops in Le Marais and bought some macarons at a pastry shop.

Grandma said goodbye and we took the kids to a park and playground near our apartment, Square de la Roquette, to burn off some of their extra energy.

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Then we bought some groceries at a produce market to cook dinner at home yet again. Eating dinner with the kids at a restaurant wasn’t really possible in Paris. Most of the restaurants don’t open until 7pm which is far too close to bedtime for Lucy and Sam. There are brasseries and cafés that are open all day, but my kids were often too cranky from sightseeing to have been patient enough to wait for food service. We were lucky to have booked an apartment so we could cook meals in our own kitchen. I’d recommend it highly to any other families travelling with young kids.

Day 5: Rainy Departure

On our final morning in Paris, we were dissuaded from our plans to see the Arc du Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées by a heavy rain storm outside our windows. So we instead let the kids watch some French cartoons on TV while we packed the suitcases and cleaned the apartment. We took one final trip down the rickety elevator and made our way to the train station and home again on the high-speed TGV trains.

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Above is a shot of us waiting in the train station, trying to avoid being accosted by the aggressive pigeons inside the terminal. At least our first-class meal included mini bottles of wine (in plastic bottles!).

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Above is a view of the scenic French countryside from the train windows.

It was good to be home, and have the kids in their own beds. We’re glad to have made it to Paris and seen as much as we did, but it’s not ever easy traveling with little ones. Funny to think that they’re so young and will likely not remember this vacation at all when they get older. I’m glad to have this blog as an outlet to help record our experiences during this year abroad.

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Spring Break in Paris, part 1

We planned a getaway to Paris over Joe and Sam’s school spring break for a couple of reasons. Joe had never been there before, and we didn’t want to spend our year in Europe without going to at least one of the big cities that tourists usually visit. I’ve always liked Paris, and have some French language skills that make traveling there easier than going to Italy or Spain. And most importantly, we were able to coordinate the dates with my mom to meet up with her there for a couple of days while she toured through Italy and France with a friend (hi, Linda!).

Ulm is a bit of a train hub, so it was no problem to find a train route without connections to get us to Paris. We did have trouble booking the seat reservations for the kids, because they’re minors in Germany but not in France, so we went to the info desk for some human help. The attendant was able to snag us four first-class seats for a cheaper fare than second-class! We were happy to have a little bit of extra room and some charging ports for our electronics.

We stayed the night before in a hotel near the train station since our train departed pretty early the next morning, and Lucy proceeded to bonk her forehead on a bedside table. You may very well see a goose-egg lump on her forehead in some of these photos, and that’s the reason why!

Day 1: Arrival

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In the morning, we ate some so-so train food and tried to keep the kids occupied for the 5-hour journey. They fared well until we crossed the German/French border. After Strasbourg, the TGV train began its high-speed route through the rapeseed fields of central France. It’s hard to see, but the right-hand photo above shows the display screen with a speed of 311 km/hr! To achieve such high speeds, the train cabin was pressurized and became very hot and stuffy. That’s when all four of us began to feel some degree of motion sickness. Both Sam and Lucy fell victim to the nausea, so we arrived at the Gare de l’Est quite a bit worse for the wear.

For most of our week in Paris, we avoided the metro because it’s too hard to navigate with a stroller. We took a city bus to our rented apartment in the Ledru-Rollin neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement. After checking in with the landlady, we were finally able to relax and recover a little.

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We enjoyed the view from our apartment, and it was nice to have a small kitchen and an extra bed for the kids. It was on the 7th floor (!) of the building, but luckily had a tiny elevator that would carry one adult and one child or suitcase at a time. The elevator was an experience in and of itself! Shame I didn’t take any pictures of that odd bit of machinery. We decided we were too exhausted from the train journey to attempt the restaurant meal and Seine river tour on the Bateaux-Mouches we had planned. Instead, we bought some groceries from a nearby shop and made dinner in our apartment so we could get to bed early. Such is the life of families with young kids!

Day 2: Paris Disneyland

We felt like silly tourists, but Sam’s been asking to go to Disneyland since he first saw a TV commercial featuring Buzz Lightyear as a two-year-old. We decided that his enthusiasm combined with Lucy’s obsession with Minnie Mouse meant that we couldn’t pass up the convenience of a day-trip to Paris Disneyland.

We took the metro and the RER train a half-hour outside of central Paris to arrive at the crowded Disney gates.

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Here’s Joe and Sam posing for the requisite photo in front of the Mickey topiary out front.

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Even “Les Toilettes” were cutely designed, in typical Disney fashion. Lucy and I spent a large part of the day waiting for Sam outside of these fixtures. It’s been a long time since I visited a theme park with a preschooler, and it’s not always easy!

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And we had to get a castle shot of Sam, as well. The Paris Disneyland castle is especially pretty. Travel websites mention that they had to make it especially fantastical to compete with all of the real  castles in the nearby region.

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We waited in our first queue, for the carousel. I had planned to pass this one up, since there are so many carousels for tourists to ride all over Paris, but Sam insisted. And he was right, it was worth the wait.

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I spent the ride standing next to Lucy’s horse and making sure she didn’t fall off.

Next we went to the It’s a Small World ride. Not my favorite, but every travel website said that it was the best option in the park for small kids, and possibly the best of the Small World versions amongst the various Disney parks worldwide. Their advice was spot on, and my kids adored the experience and watched the animatronic dolls singing with awe in their eyes.

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Then we met Tigger. I think we could have left at that point and called the day a success. In Lucy’s opinion, it was already the best day ever.

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We managed to tour the inside of Sleeping Beauty’s castle as well as the animatronic dragon in the cave underneath. Sam still swears to this day that the dragon was real, and we can’t convince him otherwise. It was a bit too dark in there to take any photographs, however.

Then we hurried out of the Disneyland park for a character lunch at Cafe Mickey. We had booked this spot in advance, because we knew that we wanted our kids to have a chance to meet a few characters in costume without having to wait in long lines.

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Neither of my kids ate much of their food due to the excitement, but it was well worth it.

We went back to the park and visited some of the other lands.

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In Frontierland, Joe and Sam inspected the cannons and attempted a tour through the Phantom Manor. Unfortunately, the ride broke down while they were in line and they didn’t get a chance to experience the haunted house. Meanwhile, Lucy napped in the stroller and I greeted the riverboat’s arrival and watched the Big Thunder Mountain ride get stuck and evacuated. It wasn’t a good day for ride maintenance at the park, apparently.

Then we went to Adventureland and explored the many bridges and tunnels on the Adventure Isle and let our kids burn off some extra energy at a nice playground they have there.

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It was fun to see a life-sized version of Captain Hook’s pirate ship.

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Lucy woke up from her nap in time to play on the playground, so afterwards we bought the kids some popsicles to help beat the heat and keep their spirits up.

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Sam tried to pull Excalibur out of the stone on our return journey through Fantasyland. We had to break the news to him that only the true king of England can succeed, and he was mightily disappointed!

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In Discoveryland, Sam found some sculptures to climb and even spotted Wall*E and Eve! We used a Fast Pass we’d picked up after lunch to avoid the 2+ hour wait for the Buzz Lightyear Lazer Blast ride. I wasn’t sure if it would be too much for my kids to handle, but they both enjoyed it.

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The inside of the ride has a lot of black-lights and targets you’re supposed to shoot at with your laser gun, so it didn’t make for very good picture taking.

We had planned to go back to Fantasyland for a bit before catching the parade, but our kids had other plans. They needed a snack so we spent a good half-hour waiting in line at a snack bar for some food. Then, the clouds coalesced and drenched us with a heavy downpour. We abandoned our plans because of the weather and our exhaustion, and instead went to wait in line for the train. Paris Disneyland has a steam-engine railroad that runs the perimeter of the park, so we rode that back to the Main Street portion of the park where we had dinner reservations waiting for us.

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Lucy really liked riding on the train, despite the fact that we’d ridden trains to get to Paris and to get from the city out to Disneyland. Perhaps this train better matched her schema for what a train should be, with real “choo choo” noises, unlike the modern counterparts we’d previously encountered.

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Our excursion to Paris Disneyland was well worth it. I was surprised by how well our kids handled all of the stimulation and excitement. I’m glad we managed to pack so much into our single day there and have such a magical time.

Lindau am Bodensee

When Joe’s brother Jeff’s came to visit at Christmastime, we were lucky enough to manage a day trip to the town of Lindau. It’s a small island in Lake Constance (der Bodensee in German), and a popular vacation destination. It’s at the southernmost part of the country, near the borders with Austria and Switzerland.

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We drove onto the island by bridge and parked near a marina that reminds me a lot of Poulsbo, for some reason.

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Lucy wasn’t too happy to be out in the cold. Toddlers have no appreciation for the picturesque views!

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Jeff helped us to lead an eager Sam into the town center. In the background, you can see the city wall which runs along the outskirts of the island.

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A view of the wall from above.

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After navigating a few narrow, winding alleys (definitely not stroller-friendly, but we’re getting used to it!)

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…we emerged into the heart of a charming, Bavarian village.

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It has the requisite town church.

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Since we came during the Christmas holiday, many of the shops were closed. We mainly just wandered the streets and planned to come back another time. Don’t let the blue skies fool you, it was terribly cold out that day! Note in the foreground how Joe ended up carrying Lucy much of the day to help keep her warm.

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Love the Bavarian rooflines with their architectural details.

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I haven’t yet lost my fascination with the Bavarian exteriors. Leavenworth is great and all, but it can’t compare to the real thing surrounding us at every turn.

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And these swirling business signs are so beautiful.

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Lindau also has, of course, an ornately painted Rathaus (town hall).

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At the far edge of the island, we finally found a bit of sunshine to thaw out in. Such a beautiful view of the blue lake and Alps beyond.

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The Lindau harbor has a lion sculpture to stand guard, and Bavaria’s only lighthouse.

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We owe a huge thanks to Uncle Jeff for the idea to visit Lindau and helping to get us there. It was a fantastic single-day getaway for us.

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We even got to stop on the drive home for a little snow.

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And Sam got to fulfill his month-long request for a snowball fight! What a happy boy.

Schloss Neuschwanstein

With Mom here for a visit, we’ve finally had enough courage to brave a small day-trip with the kids. It wasn’t easy to battle car-sickness, cranky hungry toddlers, and frequent potty breaks, but we are thrilled to have been able to see such a beautiful Bavarian castle. (Thank you Grandma!)

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We hiked up the mountain with our stroller and picnic lunch. During the climb, we had a beautiful view of the fall foliage and sweeping vistas of the valley below to help keep our spirits up.

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We only got a little bit lost.

Just kidding — even on our late-October weekday visit, you only needed to follow the crowds to know where to go.

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Although Lucy did want to stop and pick up every leaf and rock she could get her hands upon.

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Our tour wasn’t scheduled until later, so after our picnic lunch we attempted a walk to Marienbrücke, the bridge directly behind the castle which spans the canyon and offers unparalleled views. A tip to future visitors, however: it’s too crowded! Imagine being crushed from all sides like the shrinking hallway in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”. Many of our photos from the site include odd bits of other people who couldn’t help but be in the way of our camera.

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Lucy tried her best supermodel face.

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With such postcard-ready views, it’s easy to understand why this site has been such a popular destination for decades.

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Sam liked seeing a man in costume playing a hurdy gurdy.

No cameras were allowed inside the castle, but we were allowed to see King Ludwig’s throne room, bedroom, and other ornate spaces.

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A view from Neuschwanstein of the nearby castle Hohenschwangau and the alpine foothills.

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And a shoulder-ride back down the hill. What more can you ask for?

Also, a big thank you to Joe for driving a stick-shift foreign car along the German Autobahn. You have more courage than I ever will!

Train tales

We rode a high-speed train from the airport in Frankfurt to our new hometown of Ulm.  In theory, riding a train through the German countryside sounds like a beautiful, relaxing way to travel. It didn’t turn out that way for us, however.

No one is at their best after flying for 9 hours. We were dirty and tired and hungry. The kids had slept a bit on the plane, but not much, and to them it felt like we were dragging them around an airport and train station at midnight. We had our giant luggage cart piled high with suitcases and carseats like we were Dust Bowl migrants heading to California.

On board the train, Joe started to feel sick and was trying to take care of himself and the cranky kids. All of us dozed on and off. Sleep was fitful and served only the purpose of causing us to miss most of Germany’s scenic vistas.

And then the worst part of all: Joe got stuck on the train! He and I carried as much off as we could in one load along with the kids, and then he went back and forth grabbing bags and tossing them out to me on the platform, where I was focusing on keeping Lucy from running away. We had suitcases stashed near our seats, in the overhead space, and in the aisles near the exit doors. We counted all 6 bags, 2 carseats, and 4 carry-ons, when I remembered our expensive SLR camera.  Joe jumped back in the train to check for it in the overhead where we’d stashed it, just as the doors closed behind him.

Cut to: me standing on the platform, pressing the green open button next to the doors in vain and banging on the window to try to get the attention of the conductor or other staff.  Joe, inside, doing the same. Both kids crying upon seeing us act this way. Sam was truly in hysterics. It’s 90+ degrees outside. And all we can think is that Joe is going to have to ride the train to the next stop in Munich and then catch a later train back.

It was agony, at least momentarily. Joe told me after the ordeal that he had been pressing the same buttons to open the train door inside. When that failed, he pressed hard on a different button, breaking glass that surrounded it. Turns out it was an emergency stop button.

So, out of the distant parts of the station start streaming different DeutscheBahn workers on their walkie-talkies. None of them calmed us or spoke to us at all – we were still banging away at the door and panicking. Eventually, they managed to open a different door – the door we were using was not operating correctly, it turns out.

It took about an hour to calm poor Sam down. No wonder all of us have been so sick in this first week.  At least, after having such a terrible train experience the first time, it can only get better from here!

Wir sind gekommen — We have arrived

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The journey was exhausting. We expected it to be rough, but it’s been three days and we’re still trying to feel normal-ish. There’s the jet-lag, and the heatwave, and the fact that we packed far too many bags and forgot our stroller.

Then, a tummy bug knocked out several of us, leading to even more exhaustion as we both try to adjust to normal daylight hours but are unable to sleep at night. Joe & Lucy had a long walk through the empty train station the first night, and we’ve all been napping through “housekeeping” at the hotel during mid-day.

We are reveling in the foreignness, enjoying the walking experience and all of the yummy foods we have been able to try. Sam, our grumpy 4-year old, isn’t making for a very positive travel companion, but we’re trying to work on that. He’s expressed homesickness more than once, and has yet to find any food he really likes, poor kid. Other than gummy bears, of course.

It took us two days to find enough travel adapters to charge our electronic devices, making us feel even more isolated from our friends & family back home. Our hotel is the InterCityHotel, which is actually built as part of the train station complex, putting us right at the heart of the loudest part of the city. And since it’s been dreadfully hot, we leave our window open at all hours. So we’re all becoming very familiar with the sounds of police sirens, drunken people after midnight, and drag-races taking place just outside.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  •  5 bags, 2 carseats, and 5 carry-on items is FAR too much for two adults to handle. German flight stewardesses are (for the most part) quite rude.
  • German public bathrooms have toilet paper MUCH rougher than America, and paper towels by the sinks that are soft and velvety.
  • Carbs are easy to come by (and delicious), but good luck locating any vegetables! The only we’ve found so far are the occasional bit of lettuce on a sandwich or some creamed carrots as part of a cafeteria buffet.
  • Sam loves escalators and will hunt them out in every department store and train station.
  • It’s interesting to be out around 8pm in this smallish European city – there’s the families with kids wearily heading home and the scantily-dressed youth heading out for a night of partying. Venture out at 6am and see the reverse – my kids, skipping over the cobblestones as the hungover masses do the walk-of-shame back home.

More soon!