Up and at ‘em we got to the Venice airport early and made our 6:25am flight to Paris with time to spare. Before landing at Charles De Gualle we flew over the city and the girls had their faces pressed to the windows straining for any glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, no sightings were reported.
Now that we’re firmly in the Schengen Zone, travel between countries is a snap. Off the plane, we grabbed our bags and headed toward the train to take us into the centre of Paris. It was nice to skip border control, so Jod and I did a little vocal praising of the virtues of the European Union. The girls, being used to border crossings and airports, noticed this was the exception rather than the rule and asked about the EU, what it is and why it’s important. On the train, we made the effort to explain the common market, common currency and open borders - it was a theme we kept returning to over the following two-and-a-half weeks.
Having arrived so early, our flat wasn’t ready so we needed to kill a few hours before getting the keys midday. The train and metro were faster than what Jody and I recalled from a previous trip to Paris, so our time killing skills had to be upped. Slightly cranky due to the lack of caffeine and food, we made our way to Gare de L’Este before walking a block to find a sidewalk cafe for breakfast. Coffee, croissants, pancakes (and more coffee) were thoroughly enjoyed and we sat in the sun all looking forward to what our Paris experience would bring.
At this point, the girls started to notice the cigarette smoke. Being outside, other patrons were smoking and so were many pedestrians who walked by. Smokers are a dying breed in Canada and they are usually cloistered by some side entrance while huddling out of sight. So the girls haven’t really been that exposed to cigarettes. In France however, people smoke like it’s their job. Needless to say, they were less than enthused to have to eat their breakfast awash in other people’s exhaled fumes and vapours (gross!).
Over the course of this adventure, we’ve had family conversations about our experiences and observations, with regards to Europe the girls have developed a pretty succinct tagline:
Nutella, Cigarettes & Speedos!
Not likely to win any branding awards, but fairly accurate regardless!
That said, we resolved to focus on all the great stuff we wanted to do over the next several days. The girls were excited to see the Eiffel Tower, Jody wanted to go to the Versailles gardens and I was looking forward to visiting the Louvre. We had a plan, got our flat and were ready to take on the city!
Our place was in the 10th arrondissement, directly across from a metro station, wedged between a grocery store, a boulangerie and 20 steps away from a patisserie — a great location! However, as in all large cities, there were a few nefarious elements on display. Fortunately, the junkies were harmless keeping to themselves (although one night a gentleman was randomly screaming at a fence post). This slice of life provided an excellent lesson for the girls on the impacts of drugs and the problems resulting from addiction. Jody and I chose to use these as learning moments when questions were posed and we were really pleased when connections were made to what we had learned about the favelas in Rio.
Our first day saw us explore the city orienting ourselves along the Seine and seeing a number of the big sights of Paris - Nortre Dame, the Louvre, Place de la Concorde, Champs-Elysées, Arc de Triomphe and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. Our resident consumer Avery, also managed to make a purchase at the Disney Store! It was a great day seeing so many of the places that are often featured in shows and movies.
The next day, we visited the Louvre and caught a number of our highlights. Having spent time at the Vatican and then the Uffizi, the girls enthusiasm for museums waned but they were keen to see the Mona Lisa with Meghan managing to get up front and centre to take a few photos for us. As a pep-talk, I told her that all of the time she spent fighting the crowds in Asia had prepared her for this day - she didn’t disappoint! Avery really liked the glass pyramids, Jody enjoyed de Croix’s journals (being a special display on) and I got to see the Winged Victory of Samothrace. We had a fabulous day, and tried to figure out how Beyonce and Jay-Z managed to shoot a music video in there (it HAD to be on a Tuesday when the museum is closed)…
Versailles was excellent. We got up early to take the train to the outskirts of Paris and to be some of the first to get in. The palace is an incredible place, so full of history and connected to so many significant world events from the French Revolution to the end of WWI. The Hall of Mirrors was a particular highlight but we all really enjoyed the gardens and the Queen’s Hamlet - where the Queen would dress up and pretend to be a milk-maid… no wonder the people lost it on French royalty. The fountains and music were fantastic and it was a great day just wandering around and enjoying the grounds. It was clear the girls needed some time and space to run.
Over the past few weeks, we certainly pushed the girls in terms of art, history and culture. If you asked Meghan, she’d say we visited way to many museums, so now it was time to balance it out. Being not far from Sacre Coeure we walked to the basilica from our flat and climbed the stairs to get a better look at the building and take in Paris from the high-point of the city. Afterward, we wandered over to see the Moulon Rouge to get a dose of profane. From there, we took the Metro into the centre in order to hit the playground at the Luxembourg Gardens. This was a major highlight. The girls literally spent hours on the flying fox and running around with some new friends they made there. Despite the language barriers, a game of tag seems to be universal. Jody and I sat and watched while they ran and ran and ran. Our pedometer count was totally thrown off!
Our last full day in Paris was an active one. We climbed the Eiffel Tower, all 775 steps, both up and down and then did a second round at the Luxembourg playground. Later in the evening, we headed back out to have a picnic on the lawns in front of the Louvre. We felt like locals (cheese, bread and wine!) and it was a fantastic cap to our time in Paris as we saw the Tower light up the night sky. As we walked back, we agreed that Paris is yet another destination on our return-to list.
The next morning we organized our gear, I grabbed the rental car from Gare de L’Est and we made our way up to Normandy. Stopping along the way, we visited Monet’s gardens in Giverny. After walking around a bit to see how the impressionist was inspired by the plants and flowers, we pulled out the watercolour paints to give it a go ourselves. This was something Jody had dreamed of doing since we visited years ago. A bit disconcerting to paint in public, all four of us took it on with gusto - even with some extremely talented artists beside us! Megs and I took one side of the pond and Jod and Aves the other. We each had a view of the green bridge and it was really interesting to see the results. There could very well be more painting for all of us in the future!
That night, we arrived in the medieval town of Arras. We all agree Arras is pretty although not all of us can find Arras on a map. (hehe) Megs was pretty excited when she could try out her new soccer jersey as we went to a pub to take in the quarter final game to cheer on France with the locals! Avery got into the spirit too sporting some French bling!
This was the start of a heavy few days as we explored WWI and WWII sights. School may be over but the girls still learned about how and why the two world wars started. There were lots of questions about the role of Germany starting both and how such a thing could happen. We explain that Hitler, among other things, used the humiliating defeat in 1919 and the resulting Treaty of Versailles as a way to stir up nationalistic pride in the German people at the expense of others. This proved an excellent opportunity to talk about why the European Union was conceived as a way in which to prevent future calamities - the idea being that you are less likely to declare war on a neighbour if you share common goals and interests. With the ongoing confusion over Brexit, an introduction to the notion of Frexit (a possible France departure) and talk of closed European borders to exclude migrants from the middle-east and Africa the girls observed that 'it’s like things are happening all over again’. A thought that is both sad and frightening,
For Canada Day, we specifically planned to visit Vimy Ridge and the monument. The small museum and preserved trenches give a snap-shot in time of what life was like on the front-line of WWI. Gifted to Canada by France, Vimy Ridge was the first time a unified Canadian fighting force was used in battle. At the time, it was believed by British and French military leadership that the ridge couldn’t be taken but it was important to attack in order to weaken German positions elsewhere. So when the Canadian forces achieved their objective in a relatively short 4-day timeframe, it proved to be very significant. We took a guided tour of the subway (tunnels) beneath the ridge that were constructed to bring the forces to the front line in secret and learned about different fighting techniques employed by both sides. Later that day, we went to the Beaumont-Hamel battlefield for a ceremony honouring the Newfoundland regiment that fought there on July 1, 1916. It was a very moving event with music, poetry and wreath-laying. This was a very special thing to experience on Canada Day and a memory we’ll have for many years to come.
The next three nights were spent in Courselle-sur-Mer, just metres away from Juno Beach outside the city of Caen. We visited Dieppe, the Caen War Memorial and the museum on Juno Beach itself. Meghan has a keen interest in WWII history and soaked up information like a sponge, learning about the preparations for D-Day, the Normandy Landings and the push to gain a foothold in Europe. We did sanitize some of their exposure glossing over some elements related to genocide - there are some things our girls don’t yet need to see.
Lastly, we visited a Commonwealth Cemetery in Beny-sur-Mer. It is in the country-side about 3 km inland and is where approximately 600 Canadians who are buried there after their participation in the Normandy invasion. It is a beautiful place, incredibly well-tended, filled with flowers, trees and neatly trimmed grass. Amongst the gravestones, we were able to find the girls’ great-great uncle, Donald James (Jim) Collins. It was impactful for all of us.
Remembrance Day will be much more significant for us in the future now that we’ve visited the places where the soldiers had fallen.
We're the Danchuks - follow our explorations and family adventures in a wide world (2018).