Saturday, April 15, 2017

weekend warriors

I have this phenomenon in my house--you may be familiar with it in your own--where I need to get my kids out of the house on weekends to do something. It barely matters what. Really, it could be anything. The playground is a nice, easy choice. Or hiking, we like to do that. If it's rainy or cold, the Georgia Aquarium is clutch, or the Tellus Science Museum, or sometimes (when we're feeling a little least earnest in our intentions), any of a number of indoor playgrounds, plus or minus go karts. But the reason I need to get my kids out of the house on weekends is the same reason you need to walk your dogs. Well, maybe not in order to poop on the street, but really, the point of taking kids out on the weekend is to wear them out. You need to take that full gas tank full of hyperactive aimless kid juice and run it down, my droogs. Otherwise, the kids start to get bored. And when they get bored, they get fractious. And when they get fractious, they start to complain, and I can't be hearing any of that, because the complaining inevitably leads to screentime begging, which is THE WORST KIND OF BEGGING. (Generally speaking, my kids only get screen time on the weekends, and they know this, so this leads to a kind of hoarding mentality about screen time that is somewhat counterproductive. It's like food insecurity that you sometimes see in kids who grew up not having enough to eat, only my kids have had plenty to eat, and also they get plenty of screentime, so everyone shut up, don't you know I grew up unironically using a rotary phone, yet still, to my knowledge, have never complained about boredom as much as you three seem to?)

Sometimes on the weekend, they will be playing very nicely with each other in the morning, and Joe will suggest, hey, maybe we'll just let them hang out at home and do nothing and just have a low-key morning at home. And...OK, look. I love my spouse, I cherish his input, but sometimes I also wonder when he will ever get tired of being WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME, EVER. Because what happens is this. The kids play very nicely at home for a few hours. But then they get bored. And then they start complaining, "What are we going to do today? Where are we going to go? Why can't we go out to do something else?" Like we were cruelly holding them captive at home against their will! But by then, it's too late! The opportunity window has closed! By the time you let them realize that going out is the best course of action, it's too late to go out to do anything good, and then they're pissed, and you're pissed, and everyone is pissed, and in order to defuse the situation you just end up letting them play Minecraft for a million hours which makes them even more avolitional and makes you feel guilty for being That Piece of Shit Parent and then your weekend is RUINED.

I put this out there because several people have told me that I seem to take my kids to do a lot of things on the weekends, but it's really not anything that reflects well on me, because the only reason I get them out of the house is because I DON'T WANT TO DEAL WITH THE COMPLAINING. I don't want to hear it, I don't want to respond to it, I don't want to try to troubleshoot it, and I certainly don't want to feel guilty for how I eventually deal with it. I don't want to do any of that. I just want to avoid the whole thing. Hence, the weekend activities.

So. This morning we went to do some strawberry picking at Washington Farms.

We have gone fruit picking many, many times before, though never at Washington Farms. The reasons we went to that particular location this weekend are as follows.

1.) They sent me an email from their mailing list, so I remembered that they existed.

2.) I usually buy two flats of strawberries from Costco per week, but this past week the strawberries they had on offer looked like hot moldy garbage, and...

3.) I saw some mention of a Super Spring Saturday petting zoo. Nina likes petting zoos.

So, Washington Farms! Bright and early this morning! So here was the part where I had to steer my kids into the skid a little bit. It's still the beginning of strawberry season in Georgia, so the crop isn't so robust yet, and I was worried that they would get picked out if we didn't show up early enough. (Their website warned of the same, and actually suggested that people call them to check on crop availability before driving in.) So I wanted to get to the farm on the earlier side. However, waking your kids up even five minutes earlier than they prefer to wake on the weekends is a recipe for them deciding that they don't waaaaaant to go pick strawberries. Why do we haaaaaave to go? Why can't we get strawberries at the stooooooore? So, what's a loving, engaged parent to do in response? Why, merrily ignore them, of course! (Really, what I said was this. I know. You think you don't want to go. But trust me, you're going to have fun.)

And they did.

Washington Farms was having a Super Spring Saturday this weekend, which means that in addition to the strawberry picking, there was your standard variety of Family FFarm FFFun offerings on tap, including A Bounce Thing:

An Animal Thing:

A Weird PVC Tubing Slide Thing:

And a Thing Where One of Your Kids Somehow Gets Buried In a Mound of Dried Corn:

Anyway, Washington Farms. Strawberry picking was a success, although now I feel like we're going to be basically eating strawberries defensively until they're all gone. (Last time we went strawberry picking, I made strawberry jelly, though I think I screwed up the recipe somehow, mostly because I didn't follow the recipe on the pectin box exactly. They told me how much sugar to put in and it was an almost sarcastic amount of sugar, and I though surely, that can't be right, and I'm a doctor, therefore I know EVERYTHING, so I cut it by 25%. So it turns out that the instructions were screaming at me to follow what they said the letter for a reason, because that jelly turned out kinda...not so jelled. But anyway. Color me chastised.) The Spring Fun activities were truly fun, and although we only spent about 45 minutes doing the actual fruit picking, we probably spent another 3+ hours there just doing the rest of the stuff. That coupled with the hour it took to drive home means that my kids didn't start thinking about screen time until past 4:00pm. And that, my friends, is what we call #winning. I've already cleared a place on my desk for my Parent of the Year award--it can sit right next to that pile of school papers I forgot to sign and the class pictures I forgot to pay for but also never returned. What? WHAT?

Sunday, April 09, 2017

April in Paris: Voyager Avec Enfants (chez nous, a recap)

I think I promised at the beginning of the week that I would give a little review of the apartment where we stayed, and though I almost don't want to, just to keep competition down for the same apartment should we want to book it again in the future, that's a pretty asshole reason to not share something good with other people.

The rental company we used was Paris Perfect, and the apartment we rented was The Bergerac, which was in the 7th arrondissement on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais, basically one block away from the base of the Eiffel Tower. I picked this neighborhood for two reasons.

One, which I mentioned before, is that every single kid (even Nina) knew that the Eiffel Tower was in France. So I wanted to be close enough that they could see it every day, and have the view itself substitute in for any desire they might have to actually go up into the tower. I mean...look. If any one of our kids had expressed a strong interest to go up into the tower, we would have acquiesced--the key to a trip like this with young kids is letting them choose the things that are interesting to them, rather than just steering them hither and yon. But, do I really want to stand in line for two hours to wait for an elevator, in order to see the inside of a structure that looks way more interesting from the outside? Not so much. (Full disclosure, I grew up in New York City, and I have not once gone up to the observation deck of the Empire State Building either.)

The second reason I chose this apartment was for its proximity to the Champs de Mars. Though we only ended up going there twice (because we spent plenty of time in other parks around the city), the idea of having a large open green space for the kids just a block away from us was a huge draw. The downside of staying in the 7th arrondisment, I'll say, is that since it is kind of a tourist hub, some of the stores (like grocery stores, fruit stands, boulangeries, restaurants) seemed like they sold things at a bit of a markup. But, you know, that's just how it goes sometimes.

So, the specifics. The apartment was 3 bedrooms, two baths, but really I should clarify that it was more one full bath and two half-baths. (One of the half-bathrooms was purely a shower/bathing room, while the other half-bathroom was more of your standard powder room.) There was WiFi (a little slow but enough for utility purposes), two TVs, and a ton of power adaptors sitting in a basket for you to use. The apartment was about 750 square feet overall, with a small open galley kitchen off a living/dining room and not much more common space other than that. It was plenty of space. I mean, if we lived there for real, year-round, with three children, I'm sure it would rapidly feel more cramped. But the thing is that we didn't have any stuff with us, so we never felt crammed in or cluttered. And 750 square feet is, of course, about three times larger than your standard hotel room. So it was more than enough space for a one week vacation, and they laid everything out very well.

So just a quick walk through, then.

The living/dining room is just next to the front door, on the left. It has a small but comfortable sitting area with a coffee table, and a dining table right next to it. The dining table was set quite nicely when we first checked in--six full place settings with wine glasses, two candleholders and the like; but we moved that all out of the way when we got in there because KIDS BE BREAKING SHIT. But as you can see there's plenty of place for people to spread out, plenty of easy, comfy furniture, that kind of thing.

The view from the living room. Every window facing this direction opened fully, and had a small balcony from which to admire the view. The size of the windows in all the rooms also meant that the apartment got an admirable amount of light throughout the day. This exposure faces west-ish, and you get some very nice vantage of the sky and the clouds around the Eiffel Tower at sunset.

The kitchen is right off the dining table. It is small, but very functional. There is a four burner induction stove top, a smallish (by American standards--probably average to good-sized by French apartment standards) Liebehrr fridge just to the left of that, camouflaged with wood. There is also a dishwasher just to the left of the sink, and a Nespresso machine. The apartment kitchen was already stocked with Nespresso pods, salt, pepper, cooking oil, sugar, and dishwasher pods, garbage bags, paper towels; so really all we had to get was actual perishable food to make breakfast most mornings. There was a good stash of cutlery and flatware, and many, many wineglasses and champagne glasses, but (curiously) no bowls. That is why you see that box of Special K sitting there unopened, because apparently, for our kids, the idea of eating cereal out of a mug was A BRIDGE TOO FAR.

Again, the kitchen was small, but workable. Most mornings both Joe and I were on breakfast duty at the same time, and while you couldn't, say, have the dishwasher open and have two people working in there, you could definitely have one adult cooking eggs while the other scootched behind to grab milk or juice from the fridge, wash some berries, slice some bread, whatever. 

Continuing down the main hallway, you have a view of all three bedrooms, as well as one of the half baths at the end of the hall. I can see now in this picture that the front hall runner is a little crooked, and because I have PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS, this is making my brain itch. (I like it when things line up at right angles.)

The first door on the right is the twin bedroom, where Cal slept. The window overlooks the courtyard (translation: not much of a view, as it's where the building keeps its garbage and recycling bins), but it still gets plenty of light, and it's also the only bedroom with its own (small) en suite bathroom. There's a shower, a toilet, and a sink in there, very compact but functional. Sorry, I would have taken a picture of the bathroom, but Cal was actually in there using it when I was taking these pictures.

Second bedroom on the right was the queen bedroom, which we had the two little kids share. There's not much more to the bedroom but this (I mean, there are nightstands, and a small console table at the foot of the bed) but again, more than enough space for the purposes of sleeping. This also overlooked the courtyard, and again got plenty of sunlight, which I like to think helped with the jet lag.

The master bedroom was the last door on the left, and like the living room, had a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower with a small balcony to step out onto. This is a king sized bed, but I think it could be separated into two twins if that's what you needed--you could see the impression of the seam through the sheets. All the mattresses, by the way, had under-bed storage, and in that way they were able to make the most out of the space they had. This bedroom had a small closet (with a safe inside), some shelving, a bureau, and two nightstands, but overall the apartment had very little closet space, which, for a short-term vacation rental, probably is not that much of a concern. But just to make my point, I show you this:

There was no coat closet. You can see all the way on the right of the photo, there was a small, thin closet, almost like a broom closet, where they kept some umbrellas for guests to use, but otherwise this apartment made ingenious use of hooks on the walls to maximize their storage space. I happen to like the functionality of hooks on the walls (and in fact, at home, I turned a storage closet in our garage into a full-on cloak room, like the ones they had at school), so I thought having our coats hanging on the door worked out just great. And again, for a short-term vacation rental, who cares about storage space? It's not like I had to find a place to shove that crazy breadmaker we got as a wedding present.

OK, the bathroom. This was the biggest bathroom in the apartment, but somehow didn't have a toilet in it. I apologize for all the counter mess, by the way--if you want the nice real estate photos, there are better ones on the website, but THIS IS REAL LIFE, PEOPLE.  It did, however, have a full sized bath and shower, a double sink, and most importantly of all...

A washer and dryer. hidden away in a cupboard This was key for us, as it allowed us to pack much lighter. Kids, as you know, make a mess of their clothes, and the younger they are, the more they tend to do this. I usually have a coefficient that I use to calculate how many changes of clothes I need to bring for each kid if I can't actually do laundry on a trip. For a kid like Cal, for example, the coefficient is 1.0, because he can usually be entrusted to keep a single outfit clean for the entire day, which means I can just pack one outfit for every day we plan to be away. For a kid like Nina, my coefficient is somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0, because she's a messier eater, and she ends up in the dirt more, things like that. When my kids were babies--say under the age of two, the coefficient was closer to 3.0. BEHOLD, THE NERDIEST WAY TO THINK ABOUT PACKING CLOTHES, EVER. Anyway, having a washer and dryer on vacation is critical. The machines were small, and you couldn't run them after 10:00pm (#apartmentlife), but they were there, they worked, and we used them every single day. I love you, teeny Miele washer and dryer. (We packed our own laundry pods and dryer sheets, but the apartment actually provided a stash of their own detergent pods, which was quite nice.)

Oh, and this isn't very exciting--I probably shouldn't end the tour on this, but whatever--this is the other half bathroom, right by the front door. The space is tight enough, by the way, that if you had the door to this half bath open, you actually could not open the front door. So it was a series of negotiations every time you want to enter or exit.

Final logistical point. This apartment is on the sixth floor, which is the same as the seventh floor in America. There is an elevator in the building (not a given in Paris, so already we were doing good!) but it's really quite small, and up a small set of stairs, so ADA compliant this place ain't. 

My sense is that most of the people who actually live in the building take the stairs most of the time. Joe and the boys in fact took the stairs most of the time too, because they liked to race up and down to see if they could beat the elevator (they always did--the elevator is not that fast) but the stairs are narrow and curving and dark in the evenings--again, if mobility is an issue for you, this might not be the right apartment. But if you aren't claustrophobic, or else don't mind taking the stairs plus/minus your luggage, it's not going to a huge issue.

So! In sum! Compact apartment. Great (though not ADA compliant) layout for a family of five. Excellent use of space, good partitioning, convenient neighborhood (if a bit touristy), amazing view. Also, after staying there for a week, Joe has decided that now we need to get a Nespresso machine, so at least you know that we tried all the appliances and found them perfectly delightful.

We just got home to Atlanta this afternoon. Charles De Gaulle was pretty hectic (I know most people don't take it seriously when they advise to arrive a full three hours before your flight, but if you're flying out of CDG, do yourself a favor and really plan to arrive three hours before your flight) but the trip was smooth, and as much as we were all not ready for our vacation to end, it's good to be home. Thanks for following along, and while this was just six days with my particular kids, I hope that sharing the experience will be helpful to people looking to plan a similar trip with their own children. This trip was--I can say this now, since we're safely back home--an unequivocal success, and we're all looking forward to our next trip, wherever it may be. So, just to open it up for discussion, where should we take our kids next time, and what should we do there? Rome? Greece? Spain? Amsterdam? Or somewhere totally different, like Japan? Any suggestions in the comments are appreciated. It's never too early to start planning, after all, and it's always nice to have something to look forward to. Allons-y!

Saturday, April 08, 2017

April in Paris: Voyager Avec Enfants (Day Six)

The theme of day 6 was: less fartsy, more artsy.

The second guided tour I planned for this trip was a family experience for the Louvre. Because the thing is, I was pretty close to skipping the Louvre on this trip entirely. Cal would have been in the bag for it (to a degree), and Mack may have been interested to see the Mona Lisa and a few other pieces of art that he recognized, though not that much beyond that. But Nina, I thought, was not the right age at all for a classic art museum. Too big, not interactive enough, too many people in the way, too many queues, too much walking--it would all have translated into: "When are we going to do something I want to do?" in about ten minutes. (Maybe seven. Five and a half. Thirty seconds.) So...probably skip the Louvre this time around, right? At least until all my kids were older.

The thing is, Cal just read The DaVinci Code (yes, I know there is some weird pagan sex scene in it, but don't be scandalized and email me; I've read it myself and I think it's tame and not gratuitous and also, I don't care) so he was actually pretty interested in the Louvre. He was interested in the art, but also, he was interested in the building itself, and the layout, and the logistics of the museum--how vast it is, the number of exhibits inside, the different styles of art in each gallery. When we were planning this trip to Paris, he specifically asked me if we were going to the Louvre. So after that point...we were.

However, in an effort to make it just a little more palatable for the little kids, I booked this family tour through Paris Muse called "Louvre Clues," which would turn an informative art history tour of the major points of interest into a bit of an interactive scavenger hunt. The tour was a private tour with just our family and one guide, and included was the price of a "skip the line" ticket for admission, two hours with a guide, educational materials and a game for the kids, as well as a "treasure" at the end of the scavenger hunt that the children would have to find using clues gathered throughout the excursion. Was it more expensive than just going to the Louvre and seeing it ourselves? Yes, of course it was. But look, the Louvre is huge, we don't know where anything is nor the best ways to navigate the galleries, and of course, Joe and I know jack fucking shit about art history. So given the chance to be taught, and to have someone teach our kids in a highly palatable way--I was sold.

(Oh, it occurred to me this morning that I should say that I am not affiliated at all with any of the services I'm recommending. I don't even do Amazon affiliate codes in my links anymore, because...I don't know. I mean, I have a job. This is just me talking about stuff I liked. I don't get anything for doing any of it, except that I read plenty of other people's reviews before taking this trip, so it feels good to give something back in the form of my own recommendations. Need a penny, take a penny; have a penny, leave a penny.)

How the tour worked was this. After meeting our guide and getting into the building, she handed our kids these activity books, with eight "clues," each of which corresponded to a different gallery at the Louvre. We moved from Ancient Mesopotamia through the art of the Renaissance, and at each gallery she would pick one point of interest and teach our kids something about a particular piece of art, or a particular style of art from that time period. After that, she would give them a task. For example, "In this gallery, find another piece of art that shows the same symbols as the ones we saw here, and tell me in what city it was made." And off they would go, striding through the gallery to find the next "clue" to write down in their notebooks. At the end, all the clues fit together to spell out two specific words, which gave them the hidden location of the "treasure" which had been hidden for them earlier in the day. And throughout, of course, we got to see many of the main points of interest at the Louvre, including a stone inscribed with Hammurabi's code, the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace...and, bien sur, the Mona Lisa. It really was pretty fun, and I personally learned a ton. (Disclosure: I didn't know anything to start with, so the bar was low.)

The tour ended in a most satisfying way (treasure was unearthed, and Nina even got to PUSH SOME BUTTONS in order to get the treasure out, OMG BUTTONS), and I would wholeheartedly endorse this tour as a little bit of a vacation splurge if you want to take somewhat younger kids to the Louvre and actually want the experience to be special and fun, rather than a recreation of Dante's Inferno. I think the "puzzles" were somewhat too easy for a kid Cal's age, but whatever, he would have gone to the museum happily anyway--the elaborate construct was less to sell him on the museum excursion than to sell the other two. (And anyway, scavenger hunt aside, he learned a lot from our guide, so he was happy to play along.) The educational details of the tour may also have been pitched just slightly too high for Nina, who maybe has less of a...nuanced...appreciation for art history and technique than the rest of us. That said, the guide was really good at pointing out concrete details in pieces of art that Nina could easily identify, and Nina definitely liked the activity book and filling in the words once the boys fed her the clues. And of course, at the end of the scavenger hunt, Nina was more than happy to accept the "treasure" for all of us.

The thing with having a spread of kids is that no one thing is really going to be absolutely ideal for everyone (unless it's, you know, a trip to the candy store) but the one thing that really pleased me is that for once, it was the activity pitched just perfectly to our middle kid, who--let's be honest--can tend to get overlooked sometimes. So finding the one activity that was right up his alley, while being fun and agreeable for the rest, was exactly the right thing for us this morning.

The tour lasted just about two hours, after which point we were happy but pretty hungry, so we got some lunch at the restaurant in the Louvre lobby (it was fine) and then headed out through the courtyard back to the Jardin des Tuileries, where we had been our second day in Paris. I thought the little kids might want to run off some of their energy at the playground there, or at the pay-to-play trampoline park (swear to God) next to the playground, but no. They just literally wanted to run, period. So they did some timed foot races for a while, and then they remembered that there was a carousel with ice cream nearby, so we did that for a bit too.

The thing we really wanted to do after the Jardin des Tuilieries was this thing:

which is essentially a giant ferris wheel located at Place de la Concorde. (I believe it is called Le Grand Roue de Paris, because...accurate.) But since we were already in Jardin des Tuileries and we were already in art mode with museum passes in our pockets, we decided to make a really quick stop (to the kids: we swear! really quick! you gotta see this though! it'll be good for you!) to visit Monet's water lilies at the Musée de l'Orangerie. I'm not going to say the kids were really gung ho about MORE ART, but I think they did enjoy the gallery itself when we got in there. Monet's pieces are displayed in these two perfectly serene white oval rooms with ambient light and four curved canvases each, and even though Joe and I didn't do as good a job as our guide at the Louvre, we tried to explain a little bit about Impressionism and the significance of these pieces of art. I also noted that Claude Monet PROBABLY had glaucoma, which seems like it would be more Joe's purview, but whatever, I got there first.

All that crappy LEARNING dispensed with, we were now free to enjoy Le Grand Roue de Paris. Some logistical things to know. It is much smaller than the London Eye, so all "pods" are single party, and our family of five all fit into one. The ticket prices were as you would expect--$12 for adults, $6 for kids aged 3-10. The ride does not go fast (translation: if you're a weenie about heights, you don't feel a dropping sensation as you're moving down), and you go around the wheel exactly twice, which gives you a chance to snap the pictures that you missed the first time around. Go on a nice clear day, bring your camera, and it's worth it.

We Uber-ed back home after that point to do some preliminary packing (other practical notation: Uber service in Paris is very robust), and headed back out to Les Cocotte for dinner, because it was our last night and we wanted to eat somewhere nice. Our flight back to Atlanta leaves tomorrow at 10:35am, and though not one of us is quite ready to go home, I like to think that we just have ample reason to plan a return trip in the future. If and when I can, I will try to do a recap when we get back of our Paris apartment itself, with a pictorial walk-through and a review of our rental experience. Until then, wish us safe travels in the morning, and that all our deep venous structures may stay free of thrombosis. À bientôt!