How we did it: Two weeks in France with two kids under four.

by Blagica Bottigliero


(clickable picture gallery below)

When I began telling people that my husband and I finally booked a trip to France. I received warm smiles and high fives of congratulations. When I also added that the kids were coming with us, many of the smiles turned into ‘oh no’ faces.

Did I mention that I booked the airplane tickets before my son was even born? Yes, that was me alright.

Here’s the deal.  Life is short.  For us, we knew that going to France was a major bucket list item.  Before marriage and the kids, we spent a few weeks traveling around Italy and missed the experience and the food terribly. Of course, gallivanting around France with two babes isn’t as exciting as effortlessly hopping in a rented Mercedes and zipping down to Positano. For us, time away from everyday life in Chicago and getting a breath of much needed new culture was in our to-do list for 2013.

I am going to break down exactly HOW this whole trip happened. From the plane tickets to the apartments to what I packed.  Take any tidbits you’d like, if at all applicable.

The Plane Tickets

I was still pregnant with my son when I was on the phone with United booking the tickets. My Orbitz trained mind (I worked there for three years) told me to book early and book early again. With the husband’s blessing, I researched flights and decided to flight direct. One of the best decisions I ever made.  I wanted to have a completely European airline experience (Lufthansa, for example), but that means I would have to connect through Frankfort. There was zero way I was going to take two kids off a plane, then walk through an airport and attempt to board a plane again. Negative, Captain.  

We ended up going with United, direct into Paris.  I made sure I had three seats, in the middle of the plane. The baby was going to be eight months at that time so I arranged for a bassinet. (I won’t go into the back and forth drama when we arrive at O’Hare, but let’s just say that United made a mistake, we all had to be moved and I almost lost my mind thinking I would be split from someone helping me with two kids. Luckily this didn’t happen, but almost did).

Because of the mishap on the way TO Paris, we didn’t have the bulkhead like I wanted, but we did have it on the way back. This meant no one sat in front of us and I was able to have the kids’ toys on the floor, change the baby without going to the bathroom and, if needed, could have the baby ‘sleep’ in the makeshift bassinet the airline gave us.  Again, I was disappointed when I was told our seats were set up in an area where the bassinet attached to the WALL, but no dice. Good thing is, I mentally prepared for anything to go wrong and went with the flow.  That is a key here: go with the flow. Another tip: bring those plastic bags from the grocery store..they come in handy when you need to wrap up diapers. 

The Train Tickets

We spent one week in Paris, then took the TGV down to Dijon and stayed there another week. Then we came back up to Paris for one night and left. Do I recommend this? No. I would recommend staying in ONE place, but since my husband never saw Paris, I just couldn’t spend two weeks in a smaller French town without giving my husband the experience of Paris.  What was more amazing? Our then three year old girl had been studying Paris with me for some time and went nuts when she saw the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa and other Parisian sites. 

I booked the tickets via RailEurope.  The process was easy, BUT there was confusion at BOTH legs of the train trips because I was trying to find the confirmation # on the tickets and acquire our final tickets from the auto machines at the train stations.  I finally had to ask for help each time. I recommend going right to the ticket window if you have time pre train ride.

I did NOT buy our daughter a seat and wished I had.  My husband and I ended up carrying a child on our laps each way.  I regret not going ahead and telling the RailEurope system that I was buying four tickets for four adults.  The booking process of the site asks for children’s ages and decides if you can buy a ticket or not.  Had I bought four seats facing each other, we could have taken over a whole section with toys and what not. Lesson learned. 

The nice perk of the trip was booking first class on the way to Dijon. Not that much pricier and the seats were definitely bigger and made carrying the wee ones easier.

Next up, transportation methods. We did NOT take a specific baby car seat. After assessing our gear and how much we’d be afoot, I made the decision not to take one. Playing ‘pass the baby’ on the flights to and from Paris was a little rough, but even if the baby had a seat, he needed to be held. Boyfriend was teething and my breasts were a saving grace on the entire trip.  As soon as Mr. Teeting became upset, I nursed him and all was well.  Special shout out to the French women who told me to throw my cover away and just enjoy nursing my kid.  

Transportation from Charles de Gaulle to Paris Apartment

We hired a driver to pick us up from baggage claim and drive us to our apartment.

It was pricey, yes. A few points:

1.     I was not going to deal with two little kids who needed more rest while navigating our luggage through the airport. It wasn’t fair to them, either.

2.     I love the Parisian metro system. As a matter of fact, most trains get you right to city center with zero problems.  I do know that the main RER line to Paris tends to get targeted by pickpockets.  I didn’t have the energy or awareness to watch two kids, ensure the luggage was together and make sure someone wasn’t trying to get the best of me. Oh sure, I have a streetwise southsider for a husband, but I didn’t want to take any chances.  We landed, we found our driver, he found our luggage, the car was steps outside the door, he had a car seat for the baby and we were off. And yes, traffic getting to Paris was plain awful. Not going to sugar coat it.

Transportation from Paris Apartment to Gare du Lyon (which was the outpost station to Dijon)

We had the gentleman who was our house manager call a taxi for us.  It was a short ride to the train station. I held the baby in my lap and Ms. Toddler was buckled in the back alongside me. Michael sat in the front.

Transportation from Dijon train station to Dijon Apartment

Another short taxi ride. This time, we had to wait outside of the terminal for a ride. Dijon is a small town and taxi cabs aren’t as frequent. This is a situation where I took out my phone, called the Dijon cab company and, in broken French, managed to order five cabs for the people who were in line with us. Yes, I felt like a rockstar.  We also took a cab back to the Dijon train station.

Transportation from Paris hotel back to Charles De Gaulle Airport

Our last night in France, we stayed at the hotel right NEXT to the Gare du Lyon. It was also a pretty family friendly hotel. They gave us a sleeping blanket for the baby, along with a pop up crib. Our toddler had a fun play space (not so large, but something).  This meant that when our TGV train rolled in from Dijon, we were steps away from the hotel. Easy.

To get back to Charles De Gaulle, I pre-booked an airport shuttle via the Airfrance shuttle. You do NOT have to fly Airfrance to use their service. Another plus to the hotel location is that the Airfrace pickup stand was literally around the corner out front. Pay in advance, show driver your voucher, done.

Where We Slept

Apartments. Apartments. Hands down, if you travel for a length of time with little kids, the best option would be to rent a house or an apartment. We stayed in Paris and Dijon. In both places, we found amazing, spacious apartments. We were able to cook meals, have space and really feel like part of the neighborhood.  It’s France so bakeries were within a stone’s throw of each home.

Paris Left Bank

Though Paris’ 6th district is considered the most expensive to live in all of Paris, we managed to find a gorgeous and lovely apartment at the base of Luxembourg Gardens. It.was.perfect.  Located near a university and ample playgrounds, we had green space and places for strolling right outside our door. WiFi included.

We also used this as an easy home base when we walked all the way to the Louvre. I calculated it. We were 1.5 miles away. And we walked all of it.  On that particular day, we walked to the Louvre, then hit up Notre Dame, made our way to the other side of Paris, and came home. Our daughter was a trooper, but we also realized how much she relied on the stroller in Chicago. This changed as soon as we go back. Here is the website we used to book the Parisian apartment.

Dijon

We stayed in the City Center, with cobblestone steps and a bakery outside our door. No, we didn’t want to leave. WiFi included. Our apartment building was popular with American tourists. We loved our apartment.

Our Typical Daily Schedule

7 am – Get up, someone go grab croissants if we didn’t already have them

7-9 am – Eat, play take showers, pack up for day out

9 am – Toddler walks, baby in stroller. Explore.

Late morning – Baby hopefully sleeping, prep for lunch and/or go to market

Lunch – Usually at a café. And yes, we took the stroller. We ate in at small tables and made room for the whole family. One lunch, we actually had lunch in a pish posh, but casual Anthony Bourdain choice. I was hesitant when they saw us with two wee ones, but we were determined.  Our wardrobe was very French (I think this was the key to getting treated so well with kids) and me speaking some French was tremendous in getting great service with the kids.

Afternoon time –  If not back at an apartment, check out park/other part of town. Notice toddler getting whiny. Switch to toddler in stroller and baby in carrier. Baby and toddler potentially nap.

Pre dinner – Go home, have a snack. Unwind.

5/530 – Join the rest of the French and go out.  Pick up fresh protein for dinner (if you didn’t already do this at the market) and/or walk around, see who is selling what and watch the neighborhood walk home with their kids from school.

6-7  Family dinner, bath, playtime

730-on Wine, cheese, email French TV

Going Out at Night

No, this didn’t happen.  Meaning, we didn’t go out together at the same time.  As I mentioned before, this was a working vacation for me.  The updates, coupled with the baby teething meant that I needed to be close to home. That was OK for me – I anticpated this would happen. We checked into babysitters before going to France, but no dice. I was happy to see Michael go out and explore Paris and Dijon.  He took our daughter on a lovely Crème Bruele date one night. She came back with the biggest grin on her face. I did have the chance to meet a friend for wine. She’s an American now living in Paris with her boyfriend. It was lovely to hear about her transition into French life and have some one-on-one girl time.

 When We Took the Metro

Seeing the Eiffel Tower required use of the Metro, but that was also easy.  A quick jaunt north and some walking and we were there.  As soon as we go there, we had zero chance of getting to the top of The Eiffel Tower, lines were too long and we couldn’t secure tickets in advance.  We used this time to walk around, eat lunch, etc.  The four of us managed to leave The Eiffel Tower, make our way to the 5th, get to the Champs Elysee, visit the Arc de Triomphe, walk the entire Champs Elysee back to Concorde, hop on the Metro and come back home.  This is a day where I did quite a bit of Ergo carrying. 

The Gear

Ok, this one was tough. I started packing clothes and writing to-do lists two months before the trip. I was still nursing the baby and began supplementing with formula. He was also starting solids, so I needed to think about bringing extra food. Now, of COURSE you can buy food in Europe (I ended up buying formula and baby food in Dijon towards the tail end of the trip). With the Euro, I decided to bring as much as I could, knowing my load would be heavy on the way THERE, lighter coming home. I was right.

 

The Packing List

·      A single stroller. I decided to invest in an Uppa Baby G-Luxe. So well worth it. It was light enough to carry everywhere, sturdy enough for either kid and folded in a snap.

·      Ergo baby carrier.

·      One large red Longchamps bag and one leather large cross body bag.  The Longchamp bag because my food storage bag. The black leather bag became the everyday, walk around town bag that had the essentials for changing and feeding. The black bag was also basic enough and ‘nice’ enough to go in and out of restaurants, museums, etc. The key? It was a CROSSBODY bag. Easier to hold across my body if needed, especially when babe was in the Ergo.

·      One large rolling duffel bag and one carry on bag. That’s it. I stuffed all of our clothes and shoes in these bags. Since we had a direct flight, the duffel bag was considerably ‘safe’ for the trip. The carry on bag had a change of clothes for everyone, along with immediate gear/backup

·      One large red backpack. This contained the tech gear, cords, etc. We run our own businesses and though this was a vacation, it was also a working vacation. (Hey, drinking great wine and eating amazing cheese at night while checking email isn’t so bad.)

·      Two tablets, one wireless keyboard, two smartphones

·      One kids’ backpack which contained all of the toddler’s toys..but mainly busy things like coloring books, crayons, etc. I bought all of this a few days before the trip and she was exciting to try everything out on the plane and train trip.

·      A few books

·      Two containers of formula

·      Various packets of organic baby food

·      Bottles

·      Numerous Ziploc bags.  From potential bathroom accidents, diaper explosions, to storing used utensils, these bags came in handy the entire time

·      Mini toddler portable potty. I kid you not, this thing was amazing.  It compresses flat, but then opens in a little standing fashion so your child can go to the bathroom wherever needed. My daughter had to use the restroom in Paris, middle of the street. No bathroom in sight. We simple unfolded the seat, stood around her, she did her business and we threw the bag away (there is a bag that goes over the seat and is absorbent). In another instance, we were in the middle of a small wine town outside of Dijon. Public bathroom closed. No problem. Without flinching, I whipped out that little toilet sit and had my daughter do her business in the middle of the street (covered by us of course). Toddler bladders cannot wait for the bathroom that is too far away.

·      Small thermometer

·      Small nail clippers

·      Nasal bulb

·      Baby shampoo

·      Toothpaste

·      Diapers

·      Small spoons

·      Easy toddler snacks

·      Adult energy bars

·      Two child friendly fleece/throw blankets (one for each kid..on the plane, in the stroller, random naps on bed, etc. Gave a true sense of home and came in handy during chilly walks)

·      Outlet converters (this was KEY for charging all of our devices)

·      Copies of all credit cards and passports (in a separate Ziploc bag in a separate bag)

·      Copies of all credit cards and passports AND detailed itinerary sent to my parents’ house. This included names of apartment contacts and phone numbers, should we need to get stuck in a pickle.

·      Addresses of phone number of U.S. consulate

·      Phone numbers of nearby hospitals, doctors and doctors on demand (Paris sends docs to your house)

·      Pre set, downloaded maps of every neighborhood via Google maps. This trick came in handy A LOT.  Every major hot spot or walking path to museums, parks, etc. was already in my device via PDF. I would deactivate the WiFi and access the pre-saved PDFs.  The GPS was still active in my Nexus 4.  Bonus. We would open the PDFs, see our little blue dot and go on our marry way.

How Did It Go?

I spent 12 consecutive nights with my family in another country. We had our ups and downs. Our tantrums and the in-the-middle-of-the-park diaper changes. There were grouchy moments and moments of sheer anger (i.e. when Hertz ‘misplaced’ my husband’s reservation, thus making him miss all of his wine meetings outside Dijon).  All and all, it was some of the most magical times of my life. 

Not having my phone active to a WiFi signal for the bulk of the day was glorious.  Aside from taking photos, our phones weren’t used much during the day. Can’t lie to you, however. As soon as we walked into our apartments we checked our emails and uploaded phones. Quick skims of emails took place, but there was nothing ‘pressing’.

I saw my kids in different lights. Our little boy changed. New teeth came in. He realized he ‘wanted’ to crawl, but wasn’t there just yet. My daughter couldn’t stop talking about how close she got to the Mona Lisa. My husband was reveling in the affordable prices of French wine (we went through 18 bottles between the two of us).

The four of us were this little clan of hilarity, navigating around France and its shops with open minds and happiness. There was an afternoon where we threw away our planned trip to Montmarte. We all needed a break, especially the kids. Since we were so close to Luxembourg Gardens, it was decided that we would take full advantage of it.  Our daughter was in heaven playing in its massive kids’ area.  My observant mind enjoyed watching little French kids yelling at each other. At one point, a few French mothers and I struck up a conversation about maternity leave, healthcare and soups. Then I was invited to push a series of kids on this mini tilt-a-whirl of sorts.

From there, we rented a little boat for our daughter to push around with a massive stick – a Lux Gardens tradition for years.   My son enjoyed naps under trees and nursing sessions with cool breezes hitting his locks.

As for me, my spirit was back where it felt at its fullest.  France represents a place where both of my parents spent time as children.  It’s a place that I always gravitated towards and vowed that one day, I would be back with my family. 

Throughout the lower back pain from the Ergo carrier, beads of sweat from a warmer than usual September, frustration attempting to quiet my toddler during a tantrum, it was all worth it. We came back with new memories, a few new pieces of clothing and an appreciation for being able to handle any situation as a family.

Would I do it again?  Yes, but not for some time. I think the kids were the ‘right’ age to be portable.  Many things were cheaper or free for the kids, which was a bonus.  As soon as children are four years of age, everything goes up – train tickets, museum entry, etc. 

If you are on the fence, I say take a deep breath and just do it.  

You only live once.