EuroBlog : Traveling with a Toddler in Europe

A very big trip with a very little girl.

When Amelie was just under 2, and still free to fly on our laps, we took her along on a long trip  that was spurred on to photograph a wedding in France. When I was asked to photograph this wedding, which just happened to be only a couple hours from my brother's home in Normandy, I took it as a sign we HAD TO GO. Once in Europe, we went on to Spain, Gibraltar, Brussels, and Iceland on the way home.

This is the diary I kept of our adventure together.

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Day 1 – Seattle, WA  So as to avoid the 3 hour drive right before a very, very long day of travel we decided to save ourselves the stress of waiting in I-5 traffic and come to stay the night before our flight. As luck (and perhaps a lot of phone calls/internet research) would have it, the cost to stay the night and leave our car at an offsite lot serviced by a shuttle was about the same as it would have been to leave our favorite four-wheels parked at the airport for the trip.

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We stopped for an awesome Mexican dinner on the way up, knowing that with all the glorious food in our future, it’s unlikely to find much Tex Mex on the menus.  Filling our enchilada cravings prior to departure was fun for all. A leisurely walk around the hotel property with her favorite doll in the strolly was a great night cap to a pretty eventful final day.


The best part about leaving ourselves this extra day of time was not being rushed while we headed out the door. I got to wash my sheets and put vacuum lines in the carpet before we left, and that will just making coming home sweet home that much sweeter. But, all that coming home business can wait. For now, it’s BON VOYAGE!

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Day 2 - Up In The Air  Staying at the hotel pre-flight turned out to be even better then we’d imagined. We greeted the morning with our big free hotel breakfast before a dip in the heated pool.


I grew up with a pool in the backyard and clocked countless childhood hours enjoying it. Swimming the way we did made me feel like a kid again. Amelie is a bit timid of the water at the moment, but she enjoyed splashing around and dunking our heads under the water. She thought it was hilarious that we could go all the way under and swim around before popping back up! It also felt like an awesome pre-flight stretch to swim a few laps.


Before heading to the Seatac airport, we found a little gem called BBQ Schacht to get our last fill of super American cuisine. Matt said it was the best BBQ brisket he’s perhaps ever had. I preferred the pulled pork, but all three of us enjoyed every last bite as well as our chat with the friendly owner.


The following flights we were wonderfully uneventful. Yes, long, but I think the baby had more tears in the last 20 minutes of our drive to Seattle then our full day up in the air. She’s a great traveler and such a trooper. It helped that we kept her up and had her prepped to sleep through most of our longest leg.


I can’t say enough good things about Iceland Air, and the views of what was certainly the closest I’ve been to the North Pole out the window were pretty insane too!

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Day 3 - Paris, France    Bonjour! We were greeted at the airport by my dad who had scored himself a CAR with his Parisian flat. I had expected more trains or buses, so this was the most wonderful surprise. We are staying at my sister’s fiancé’s flat, and upon arrival were greeted with loads of kisses from family as well as a wonderful spread of melon, meat, and (most importantly) butter, cheese, and bread. And my father’s favorite French wine.


It was early afternoon in Paris, and per my dad’s recommendation to cure ourselves of jet-lag “if there even is such a thing” we were on a mission to stay up late. Despite missing an entire night’s sleep, this proved to be easy with the way the sun was shinning and the city was bustling. My sister led us on a walk up to Montmartre with a stop at a wonderful park for Amelie to play with her cousins on the way.

I’ve been reading “Bringing Up Bebe” where the author seems to wax poetic about how French mothers sit on the sidelines while they let their littles play, as opposed to the American helicopter mom counterpart. Well, I’m calling out the reason already. The playground was so much safer! I feel far more comfortable sitting on a bench in the periphery of the park while my 1.5 year old plays on a slide that is enclosed up top vs. the contraptions at home. Also, everything has clear age markings. Anything suitable for min. 2 year olds seems about right for her. I’m sure by 2, I’d be fine to let her play at her own pace without my interference at a park like this.


As our walk continued we enjoyed wonderful views, and lots of street art sites, before stopping for a glass of wine (and ice cream) on the way back downhill. We finally found a place beginning to serve dinner around 8:00 or so and enjoyed a croque madame while baby snoozed in her stroller. I still don’t understand how European’s wait until 9 at night to eat, but there are many days ahead for me to explore such craziness. For now, mission stay awake for who-knows-how-many-hours: Complete.

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Day 4 – Paris, France   It’s such a pleasure to see the city of Paris again in my adult life, but even more so to do so with family. My sister’s family have been the most wonderful hosts and it’s been so wonderful to see Amelie bond with her cousins too.


Despite the rainy forecast, the walking tours continued, this time through many very cool covered streets. We stopped at the little shops and and cafes that lined the “passages” before arriving, most notably for Matt, at one quite big shop. A famous professional cookware store with giant binders for their pricing system tacked to the walls and a curious set of winding stairs to even more kitchen wares below. Matt spotted a couple autographed photos of Julia Childs from when she used to shop there before picking up his new favorite copper pot. He is thrilled, I’m a bit worried about the strict 10KG weight for carry-ons for the rest of our travel.

Timing for a window of sunshine couldn’t have been more ideal as we made our way down by the river Seine where the city has shut down an expressway to put in a temporary beach for a few weeks of summer! As if sun loungers in the sand weren’t enough, we were also greeted with a free game of foosball under a bridge (yes, my sister and I unapologetically scored point after point against her children) before winning free tickets to the Louvre! YES! Free, and we don’t have to wait in line either! We plan to use those bad boys when we get back to Paris next week.


The evening ended with a home-cooked meal at Steffi’s where Amelie was thrilled to have a cat to terrify. All in all, another wonderful day in Paris!

 

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Day 5 – Paris, France    The Eiffel Tower really has a way of reminding you of just where you are. My all-time favorite way to enjoy it now is from the carousel underneath where grand -pere bought Amelie her very first carousel ride ticket. She choose to drive the “hairplane”, rather then a traditional horse, and had an absolute ball. Afterwards at the playground next door, more age- appropriate play structures are proving my point about the slides being far safer here in France then back home.


We spent most of the day posted up at dad and Paula’s, due to the downpour, but had one more window of sunshine in the evening to go out for ice-cream. This was after an incredible French lunch and before Matthew cooked everyone an awesome French dinner. I haven’t eaten so much bread and cheese in my life, and I’m a woman who proudly eats a LOT of bread and cheese on the regular!


Another unexpected quirk I’ve noticed is people don’t seem to drink enough water, or by people, perhaps I mean myself. The cafes give you water, only if you ask, and in tiny carafes with small glasses. At the dinner table, I’m finding similarly small glasses for water and maybe one large bottle of water for the table to share. I’m used to Portland’s water stations in nearly every restaurant and large glasses of water being constantly filled. It would be simple to buy my own water bottle and refill it often to remedy this for myself; but I still find it quite odd. Ok, rambling complete! Good night, France! We have to get up early for the train!

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Day 6 - Normany, France   When we got off the train in Bayeux, we were greeted with more warm familiar faces. The most wonderful part of this trip is the chance to reunite with family that lives more then 5,000 miles away from us.


My dad and Paula have come with us to stay with my brother Greg and his absolutely incredible family. I have the very best memories of my nieces for the fleeting years we all lived in Florida close by, so it was really refreshing to see a big photograph of them on the beach from that age in the bathroom. Now they have another little sister and it just so happens we get to celebrate her birthday tonight!


As excited as we are to eat more fascinating French cuisine, the baby is excited to bond with more of her French family, and particularly thrilled to meet the furry members of the household. A golden named July is most tolerant of her, and thus an immediate favorite. We are all so happy to be here! And the big day is just around the corner now…

 

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Day 7 - The most important day.


It is here. The reason we traveled across the globe: the wedding day! I am still in disbelief that this has all worked out like this.


After I first moved to Portland, many years ago now, my friend Caitlin and I joined an adult kickball league. We were matched with other random people who wanted to play a child’s game each weekend for a winning team pitcher of beer, and thus our team was created. Léa was on our team.


Matthew would come to the games, often with his camera around his neck. I would post some of his photos to Facebook, and eventually some of us became friends online. I invited Léa to “like” my So Many Moments wedding photography page on Facebook, and there she saw what Matt and I do for a living.


Fast forward a few years and I get a message from her out of the blue with the happy news that she is getting married! She had remembered our photography and was asking us to be her photographers: I was so thrilled! Then the curve ball, as Léa is French, the wedding was to be in France. As luck would have it, I have quite a bit of family in France, and not just anywhere but my brother is LESS THEN AN HOUR away from her Aunt’s house where she tied the knot. The stars were so aligned for this one! How could we say no?! When would we ever have such an incredible opportunity? This trip was planned around this day: Léa’s wedding, for without this we would not be here.

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We greeted the day with a trip to the market in Bayeux. Fresh flowers and produce made it feel like a market at home, but the extra large wheels of cheese and COMPLETE chickens (head, neck, feet, and all) reminded us that we were in France. Home for lunch and then it was mission: Get Ready!


The French do things late, very late. But, we are Americans so we were early, very early. I wanted plenty of time to scope out where we would be shooting and I knew it was very important to Léa and Ben to have two very large group photos. I needed to be sure that I was going to nail these two giant portraits, so I was happy to have the extra time to set up all the lighting and so forth that we dragged all the way here to use.


The wedding was a hit and the sun couldn’t have cooperated more beautifully. The family and guests were so kind, despite all sorts of language and cultural gaps, and the FOOD: the food was the best. We left at nearly midnight and they hadn’t even reached the cheese course! But best of all was the party. The French really know how to let loose and party. We had a blast, took so many photos I can’t imagine at the moment how long it will be to sort through them all, and we are just so stoked it all worked out. That we’re here. Our family spent time with the baby. And that Léa and Ben are happily married. WIN. WIN. WIN.  *pinching myself*

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Ahh, and now that we have done the job we came here to do, we feel we are truly on a vacation! We started the day with another fresh market, this one in the coastal town we’re staying. The wind was so strong by the sea that the baby kept swinging back and forth from being afraid of the force to being very amused by her hair blowing about.

After another lovely lunch with the family, I pulled my camera out again. I figure as I’ve brought all of my fancy photo gear across the big blue pond we call the Atlantic Ocean, it seems a shame not to put it to use it a bit more. I don’t get to see my nieces often, so I was so thrilled when they were excited to take some portraits today. With their hilarious boyfriends in tow as “voice-activated light stands”, we went to Omaha Beach for some snapshots together. Then, Anastasia and Joséphine dressed up a bit more to play in a field by the house. My favorite portraits are with a hippo I’d fallen for in the bathroom.

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Photography is so much fun. Whether it’s working a full wedding day or just playing in a field, it’s just so much FUN. As much as I dig being given a clear direction from a client, there’s also something pretty magical about just being creative with a willing friend or family member who has no expectation or preconceived notion of what their portrait should be. It’s nice to just let myself be led by what’s available and create from there. I’m glad to have these portraits to remember my time with these special gals.

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Day 9 - Normany, France   As a thank you to our incredible hosts, Matthew is cooking dinner tonight. We are enjoying the French food to no end, but when mexican enchiladas sounded exotic to our family, we had to jump at the chance to share a bit of what we love to eat at home. We’ve been gathering ingredients for a couple days now, but went to two huge grocery stores this morning.

It was so fascinating to see the food here like that. We know we are far from Mexico, or any Tex-Mex, when there are no black, pinto, or refried beans and no sour cream. You should have seen how high we jumped for joy when we discovered some soft flour tortillas in a refrigerated section. But, we were not discouraged and our hard work paid off when my guacamole bowl was scraped clean and Matthew received a roaring round of applause over dinner. Sharing food is so wonderful and eating on this trip has been a blast!

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Day 10 - Normandy, France   It occurred to me this morning that this trip is filled with as many good-byes as hellos. As if we didn’t already miss our family that lives all the way in Florida enough, now we have a ton of people to pine for even further away in France.


We enjoyed another beautiful breakfast and very French lunch before running off to catch the train back to Paris. I taught Jojo my favorite duet on the piano after dinner last night, so we managed to squeeze in another practice this morning too.


Once back in Paris, we were off to my sister’s for dinner and decided to drive since we had access to a car. It’s fun to see the city from the car rather than down in the metro, but parking proved to be as difficult as Steffi had warned it would be. Once finally there, the baby had had enough. She was grumpy after a long day and I found myself cuddling her on the couch rather then enjoying the meal and such limited time with my sister. Luckily, she has kids of her own and understood completely. We will have another day to catch up before we go, so that makes it sting a bit less too.

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Day 11 - Paris, France   Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. WOW. Matthew and I agree this is the day, out of nearly a decade together, that we just had our favorite date EVER.


But, first I need to back up for a really lovely day spent exploring with my dad and Paula. What started as a quick morning walk to a market became a beautiful lunch and long walk about town seeing some of the sights. We’d come up with a game plan to put the baby to bed and then sneak out for a date that evening.


On Matthew’s only other visit to Paris, the one thing he remembers enjoying the most clearly was a boat tour. He remembers the boat tour as just about the most romantic thing he had ever done, except that this first trip to Paris was with his grandmother. As much as he loves his grandma, how he had wished to be there with just about anyone else and promised himself on the boat that he would one day return with his wife (or at least a girlfriend). When asked what Matthew wanted to do in Paris, this was his answer. And I’m so glad it was.


With baby snoozing and a nice bottle of champagne safely tucked into my purse we frolicked down to the docks like teenagers who had snuck out of our bedroom windows to be together. I don’t know how to put into words the experience of that night from there. It was just magical and so purely joyous. We were so thrilled simply to be together. Cotton candy, a great conversation, a stunning time on the water, and a quick ride up the Eiffel Tower at the end made it just perfection. We got one of the very last elevators up, and while it didn’t go all the way up so late, the level we reached felt still like the top of the world. Amazing.


We can’t thanks my dad and Paula enough for making this possible for us. Especially as the baby did wake up, and Paula said the only way to get her to chill out and stop yelling “mama” was to chant “mama” even LOUDER! Ha! Luckily, they were peacefully snuggled up on the couch when we got home and I put her back to bed easily. Perhaps it wasn’t Amelie’s favorite night, but it was ours and that is important for all of us. We are still learning about family balance.

 

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Day 12 - Paris, France   It is our last day in Paris and we still have our 4 free tickets to the Louvre that we won under the bridge last week! A quick bus ride with dad and Paula, and skipping the line with our fancy tickets, got us inside but staying together proved to be cumbersome. We decided instead to split up and all meet at a near by cafe for lunch with Steffi and Thierry that afternoon.

The thing I did not quite understand about the Louvre is its sheer size. To walk the entire thing is nearly half a marathon and that’s to see the collections currently on display, only 8%! I bet people visit Paris and just go back every day, but I never could. The size is only the beginning of what made the experience overwhelming for me. It was also the environment of… art consumption. The huge crowds, the noise of being in a crowd, the detail of the building itself… the beauty and the chaos and the history and the GRANDNESS of it all. It was complete stimulation overload. I said to Matthew “we should have brought headphones”. If I could have listened to some music or something to help cut out the insanity, that probably would have helped.


Knowing we could never see it all anyway, we came up with a game plan. I wanted to see Mona Lisa in person and Matthew was interested in Egypt and Napoleon III’s apartment. The baby was interested in nap time, so in the end, it all worked out beautifully. I could probably write an entire post on seeing the artwork alone, but I’ll spare you.


The restaurant Steffi chose for lunch was across from another wonderful kiddo park (I’ll include a photo of one of these amazing age-appropriate slides Amelie enjoyed playing solo on) and also near by Matt’s favorite cookware shop. I managed to pull him out without him buying any more copper pots (just barely) before we all went back to dad and Paula’s for one last bon soir family dinner. What a perfect last day in Paris!

 

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Day 13 - San Pablo de Buciete, Spain   Bienvenido Espana!
The night I met Matthew in Orlando I essentially told him my name and then that I wanted to move to Spain. Legend has it he loved me from that moment forward. We simply wanted the same things (most notably, to get out of Florida) and our partnership grew from that foundation.
Despite EU citizenship, the more we learned about this far off fantasy land, the less likely it seemed like the place for us. We instead decided our best bet was to lay roots state-side and thankfully discovered Portland, OR. While making our home in PDX has been the single best choice we have ever made together, I was still beyond thrilled to finally be visiting Spain!


As luck would have it, the very best first girl friend I made in Portland now lives in Spain, as her husband landed a killer job here. So, again, we have wonderful company to stay with! Not only that, we timed it to arrive at the beginning of a holiday weekend, and Caitlin planned an awesome weekend for us to escape the heat of the city and go “GLAMPING” together.


I’ll admit that when I first read about glamping, I thought it was a little bit of a cop-out. Wasn’t half the point of camping the struggle? The packing, the tent, the grubbiness, the food planning, the “toilets” (or lack thereof)? Didn’t all that chaos make the feeling of finally putting your feet up by the fire that much sweeter? Short answer: NO. GLAM camping means you still sleep outside in a tent (furnished with proper bed linens), but you don’t have to do any of the pain in the arse bits of camping because you’re too busy marinating in all the glory of it.


The Orange Tree Garden  is run by the most welcoming British couple, Sharron and Declan. After our gorgeous drive through the Spanish countryside we arrived at a home set in an orange tree grove with 4 large tents perched in the spacious yard. We were greeted with a tour of the beautiful outdoor kitchens and bathrooms and a pitcher of ice cold Sangria. They even had a kiddie pool out in the lawn for Amelie to play with, knowing we were bringing a baby along. They took care of everything from lighting the little tea light candles around the property in the evening to a delicious light breakfast in the mornings. We are so, so, SO thrilled to be in Spain!

Continue to the next post for Part 2, Days 14 - 26