Almost all of my experiences abroad have been in Third World countries, so I’ve always been a little intimidated by European travel. It seemed so organized and sterile, and I felt like developing countries would be much more forgiving of a bumbling traveler than some chic, stiff European city. My two brief skirmishes were years ago- a day in Hampton Court, England on my way to a 2 year position as a Parks and Wildlife Officer in Malawi, Africa (I ate plate, chips, and peas and drank cider) and on another layover occasion, a day in Amsterdam (which doesn’t really count because I don’t remember anything).
Our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Paris was on Malaysian Air, long yet remarkably cheap. Sarah (our travel agent) rented an apartment through airbnb, which was significantly more realistic in price and much more spacious and accommodating than any Paris hotel room we couldn’t afford. It had a complete kitchen, a comfortable family room, and an open stairway to a loft above. On my way to the toilet in the middle of the night I managed to gracefully break one of my toes as I threw myself onto our luggage, trying to avoid falling through the stairs to the landing below. We were within walking distance to the Metro, a Carrefour (a French supermarket strangely found also in Indonesia) and the Gare de Lyon train station, where we would leave for southern France. We didn’t make any impressive agendas for our two-day exploration of the city, since many of the traditional Parisian destinations were places better suited for a return visit sans children. Bringing Áine to the Louvre would be like bringing Attila the Hun to a Fabergé egg exhibit. This also allowed us to truly stroll the streets of Paris without worrying about missing closing times and reservations. We took the Metro to Île de la Cité to see Notre Dame, Pont Neuf, the padlocks on Pont des Arts and some beautiful vistas of the Seine. We also enjoyed ducking into cafes to sit with a glass of wine, a plate of bread and cheeses and sink into local Paris.
After our two days in the city, we boarded a train in the morning and traveled to the south of France, through Burgundy and some of Provence, then headed west to Carcassonne, a fortress city in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The sway of the train tugs at you to snooze, but the unbelievable scenery kept me awake and pressed against the window. Old stone monasteries and chateaus could be seen in the distance behind endless green vineyards and fields of sunflowers. To participate in the ongoing train strike, our conductor stopped the train in the middle of nowhere for a half hour. Fortunately, all the other trains did this, too, so no one missed their connection, making you wonder about the effectiveness of French train strikes. Despite the thick film of tourist attraction over the city, Carcassonne won the day. The old town, La Cité, was a warren of narrow streets walled by old white buildings wearing wooden shutters and plank doors, and it was constantly under the shadow of the expansive 700-year-old citadel looming from the hilltop above. Áine was almost killed by a car trying to run across the street to “her castle”. Upon arrival to our hotel, we dropped our things and made our way along a narrow, secret path following the old outer wall to the fortress rather than the popular main road. Inside the fortress restaurants and shops catering to the tourist industry replaced the original citadel’s innards, which only meant we could drink a glass of wine and eat Roquefort inside a medieval castle. We were good with that. But no, Cian, you cannot have the Carcassonne commemorative wooden bow and arrow set that doesn’t work.
My parents and sister arrived from their flight into Toulouse the next afternoon travel weary, jet lagged and unbelievably excited to see our kids after a year apart. We greeted them with French refreshments at our hotel then let Cian and Áine guide us up to the fortress for shopping and a fine French dinner. My parents were about to embark on a dream they had when my sister and I were in university. Leaving us tending to their house in the summer (i.e. Jen and I hosting the annual and epic Powell Peace Fest, details of which will not be found here), my parents would travel somewhere in Europe and rent a houseboat for a few weeks to submerge into the local region and traverse a canal and its locks. This year, after a long hiatus, the family would finally go together. The boat, however, was not in Carcassonne, so using the rental car, my father shuttled us to the Canal-side town of Argens. We spent the night at a nearby bed and breakfast with a local family at their exquisite home. They were very courteous hosts, and we entertained them with our abysmal French and overactive children. Fortunately, they were both patient and amazing in the kitchen.
We raided the nearby grocery the next morning before boarding our house boat for a week on the Canal du Midi. Completed in 1681, the canal is a tribute to the impressive engineering achievements of the era. The canal itself is unchanged, besides the regular maintenance and the lock system evolving from a wooden-paneled affair to electrically operated metal doors. Our boat, nothing more than a camper with a hull, squeezed in four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a kitchen, family room/eating area, and the deck with seating throughout. The picnic table behind the steering wheel was fitted with an umbrella for shade, which lasted only the first day before it was taken out as we went under one of the low stone bridges. We never saw it happen, but believe that the Canal du Midi has a layer of picnic umbrellas at its bottom. Our week was spent docking in small French villages and towns to explore and eat, soaking in the southern French countryside, watching Cian fight with my father as to who would captain the boat, waiting for Áine to fall into the canal, and enjoying the daily perfect weather. We traversed 21 locks during our trip, and over that time had fallen into our personal lock duties. My mother and sister were in charge of the bow and stern ropes, my father was at the helm (although there’s not much steering once you’re in the lock, making me feel like he did nothing), Sarah monitored the kids and reminded them they couldn’t help and I had the respectable title of “lock master”. That means I was the idiot running around on land getting the ropes thrown at my face, working the lock mechanics that only worked most of the time, and making polite conversation with the other sucker lock masters from the other boats waiting their turn. What I’m trying to say is that the trip was fantastic!
Eventually we meandered back to Argens, giving up our gypsy life on the canal for our regular landlubber existence. Jen, Sarah, the kids and I traveled by train to Toulouse and spent the night in a very clean and convenient Holiday Inn Express (we even went as far as to have McDonald’s. Well, you can’t judge too harshly- there was a playground to keep the kids occupied). My folks were staying an extra week in Europe. They said something about Cathar fortresses high in the Pyrenees mountains, but I couldn’t hear them, because all I was thinking about was having their house, my childhood home, almost a week by ourselves to regroup, sort the dirty laundry from the clean, and give the kids a backyard to run wild.
We were headed back to the States after our first year abroad. One year, 21 flights, Java, Bali, Sumatra, Borneo, Bangka, dengue fever, hiking jungles, urban flooding, nannies and house keepers, living on the Equator, new language and culture, tropical fruit, breathtaking scuba diving, Dunkin Donuts that don’t serve egg and cheese sandwiches, orang utans, cat-sized rats, pygmy elephants, exotic foods, high-rise living, no car- and this just a surface scratch of our time. What would our reentry into America look like? And as the kids and Sarah snored in their plane seats from London to JFK almost loud enough to encourage apologizing to the surrounding passengers, I reflected on our experiences so far. With the past year sticking out of our back pocket, what would this American intermission from our international life present? We were about to find out.