Reflecting on backpacking with kids – would we do it again?!

CIMG3652My word, time has flow and I can’t believe I haven’t posted for over two months!  That’s insane as it feels like only a few weeks have gone by.  And ironically, rather than having nothing to blog about, I’ve got loads but I’ve put my energy into doing them which has detracted from writing about them, for example, we’re preparing for Christmas a bit differently this year which I’m loving but definitely takes more time, trying to convince my kids’ school to support the kids start a social enterprise and taking part in Dinovember (you can see the photos on Twitter @EllaRove).  I hope to write about all this soon but wanted to finish up my little series about backpacking with the kids first.

Personally, and with a few months of hindsight now, I think this was one of the best holidays I’ve ever been on.  It was a gamble but what we learned about ourselves and each other was something I don’t think we would have got on a normal beach holiday.  I’ve been wracking my brain to think of anything that was less than positive.  Am I being selective in my memories? Other than a woman in Paris trying to scam us into giving her money (which lasted all of 20 seconds as Steven quickly clocked what was going on and politely and quickly moved us on), I can’t think of anything.

Why did it work?  The key was the amount of prep work we put in beforehand and this is made infinitely easier these days by the number of helpful blog posts out there (e.g. step by step instructions about how to get from the terminal in Charles de Gaulle airport into central Paris by train – total bonus for control freaks like me :)) and Google Earth so could find landmarks ahead of time making navigating around where we were staying much easier.  Deciding beforehand what we definitely wanted to do and what would be “nice to do” also helped us focus and not put too much pressure on us. Overall, we wanted to give the kids a sense of what it means to be a traveller (which for us was about spending our short time experiencing living in Paris) rather than being a tourist (packing in as much as possible into your time there).

I asked Steven and the kids what they remember and what they learned from our holiday.  Steven’s reflections were remarkable similar to mine: that he (we) could be overprotective and hold on to the kids a little too tight at times but that because we were away from everyday pressures such as work and housework, we enjoyed our time together much more and, ironically, didn’t feel we needed a break from the kids as much as we might do when at home and work and home and school pressures can feel overwhelming.  It helped him learn to let go a bit more and see that the kids are capable of so much more than we sometimes realise.  Mischa learned that she’s good at trying things she was maybe a bit scared of to begin with – sleeping in a tent, going on a boat – and that what she enjoyed most was spending time with her family.  Even Jude.  Jude, being the youngest, found this question harder to answer.  Whenever we ask the kids where they want to go next, they say back to France, but when I delved a bit deeper with Jude, he can’t remember a lot of what we did and saw.  However, I think he remembers how he felt there and that’s why he’s keen to go back.

So, did we met the criteria we set for ourselves before our backpacking holiday?  Pretty much:

  • Flying from Edinburgh Airport  – TICK
  • Should include at least two foreign countries – one of which being France as Mischa had just started learning French – TICK (and she used some of her French too 🙂 )
  • The trip should feel as close to a backpacking holiday as possible so we decided no hotels but also, to reduce the stress factor somewhat, no hostels – TICK (Airbnb apartment and camping)
  • The kids wanted a swimming pool at some point and a chance to meet other kids. – BIG TICK
  • The main part of the trip to come in at around half of what we would pay if we were to go back to Tenerife during the first week of the summer holidays (which would have cost us £3,000 – WHAAAT?!!) –  the main part of our trip (flights, train and accommodation) came in at approx. £1,600.  We then had local transportation and food on top of that so it was probably closer to £2k.  I might be rationalising here but given that the holiday was 10 days rather than a week and the quality of the experience we got, it was worth every penny and more.

I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone to try something similar to this.  To go off the organised holiday route a bit – when it makes sense and it doesn’t scare you so much you’d never do it (for some of the other holidays I want to take the kids on, I’ll definitely be signing us up for an organised tour).  But amazing things can happen when we try to be even a little bit braver and not let ourselves be scared by thoughts of what might happen.  The week running up to the holiday, I was swinging between feelings of total excitement to those of dread and thinking “why the hell are we doing this to ourselves??!!”  But I am so glad I didn’t listen to that last voice.  This next year, money is going to be tight because we want to do some stuff to our house so we won’t be doing any backpacking around Europe for a while, alas.  But Steven and I have decided to take what we learned and try to do something different in the UK next year.  Can’t wait to see what we decide on.  For me, the value of a holiday is as much the anticipation and deciding what to do as a family, as it is the experience itself.

Top ten tips for Paris with kids (Part 2 of how to backpack with two small kids)

Mischa Eiffel Jump - adjustedParis was amazing.

To be honest, I think we were all surprised by how much we enjoyed it. Partly because we found it so child friendly in spite of hearing reports to the contrary. For example, there are parks everywhere so the kids could run daft and when we had the kids and backpacks in tow, young lads gave up their seats on the metro and one lady, who didn’t speak a word of English, helped us without us even asking to find an easier way through the metro barriers.

Now, let’s be clear. We didn’t eat in any fancy restaurants or go to any of the galleries. We might have had a different experience if we had. Instead, we wanted the kids to see what it’s like living in a foreign city for a short time, hearing French being spoken and getting a chance to see some different customs (like taking your life in your hands when crossing the roads). So we looked for parks and nice food shops and rode the metro. We talked about how the French drive on the other side of the road and why the apartment had big doors onto tiny balconies. We listened to a French radio station which eating our morning brioche…  Ah, Paris…

Sorry. Instead of me whittering on about how fantastic it was and what we did and ate in minute detail, I thought it might be more helpful to give you my top tips for spending a few days in Paris with young kids:

1. Book an apartment.

  • Hotels are nice but really – having the option to go back to our apartment to hang out in the sticky hot afternoons, rather than us all being cooped up in one room, was a life saver. You can buy your own food (and wine :)) which saves money and we found was more convenient. The one night we ate out we spent almost an hour looking for somewhere we all fancied (not to mention £80 on two courses and a drink each – eek!) We stayed in Peter’s flat courtesy of Airbnb and would highly recommend it (this as our view from the bedroom).

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2. Plan out your whole trip from arriving at the airport to where you’re staying.

  • Look up blogs so you know what you’re looking for e.g. what the train, ticket booths, signage looks like. It may seem like overkill but it helped me cope with the nerves beforehand as I knew my attention would be divided between working out where we were going while keeping track of overexcited kids who wanted to run and hide behind everything they saw… I found this blog very helpful in describing how and where you get the commuter train into central Paris.

3. Google Earth your apartment/hotel

  • Ok, this is a bit like the point above but it’s great fun to play with (who hasn’t looked up their own house, right?!)  I started off using it to find out the way between the apartment and metro station. But we had mucho fun in the days leading up, exploring the area and looking for landmarks that helped when we got there. Then we arrived, we also enjoyed pointing out the things in real life.

4. Plan to do only one, max two, big things a day.

  • If you can, be brave and don’t book any trips or tickets in advance either. This will obviously depend on what you want to do of course but it was so nice being able to take our time to get to places rather than getting stressed about being late. Before we went, we chose the things we definitely wanted to do or see and planned them in. That way we weren’t disappointed that we didn’t see everything. The first day we had a picnic under the Eiffel Tower (the online tickets had sold out and we didn’t want to wait 90 mins in the queue) and had a walk along the South Bank of the Seine. That’s it. I’m so glad we did it this way.   The city had set up loads of free kids activities on the South Bank which the kids loved and, neatly, kept our costs down. We also found one of the bridges with padlocks on it (which had been on our “nice to see but not crucial” list) and walked through Place de la Concorde where they beheaded Marie Antoinette.  All nice extra things to see that we didn’t expect.

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5. Make sure you take loads of water if walking along the Seine.

  • We ran out and had to spend 4.5E on a small bottle of orange juice for Jude. I still choke thinking about that.

6. Spend more time in the area you’re staying in rather than traveling all around the city.

  • If you live in the UK, the chances are you’ll be back in Paris at some point if you like it so can afford not to squeeze in everything. We spent the second day in Montmartre where we were staying and found “secret” gardens with playgrounds where the kids mixed with the local kids and heard French actually being spoken properly (with quite a few sweary words thrown in too we figured out). It made the whole trip really relaxing and made us feel like we were really living there rather than visiting.

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7. If you want to really explore an area, make the kids a “treasure” map

  • After the tiring day we’d had walking along the Seine, we knew we had to engage the kids in a day “wandering with no purpose” around Montmartre or else it would turn into a moan-fest with constant pestering for ice-cream. So the night before, we googled all the things we wanted to see, got a map (a good old fashioned one – you can get one from the tourist office on Place du Tertre) and used the kids pens to create a treasure hunt of some things the kids were to find (see the questions we included at the end of this post).

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8. Try your school-girl/boy French out in the patisserie.

  • I was rubbish at French at school and yet found quite a lot of it coming back to me which helped with silly things like knowing which button was the door release to get out the apartment block. I found I really enjoyed it and Mischa got a free cake each morning for attempting to ask for our bread in French.

9. If you’re traveling onwards like we were, keep the last day low key and spend it near the station

  • On the last day, Peter very kindly let us stay in the apartment until 4pm (another perk of using airbnb – check out time is up to the owner).  We had a relaxing day packing and making a packed lunch with some snacks for the train to Venice which left at 8pm.  We got to Gare de Lyon mid afternoon, put our bags in left luggage and checked with Thello that everything was ok for the train that night.  Then, instead of heading to Jardin du Luxembourg as we had originally planned, we stuck closer to the station and headed over the Seine to the botanical gardens, Jardin des Plantes.  It’s small but had enough to explore and space to run about.  We then headed to the elevated gardens, Promenade plantee which were lovely but by then we knew we’d made the right decision not to drag the kids across Paris that day as Jude got really upset that we were in a park (even one built on an old railway line) and there were no swings.  Which brings me lastly to…

10. Expect at least one meltdown and give your kid(s) and yourself a break over it.

  • Jude had the mother of all meltdowns on the metro. He wanted to sit on my lap instead of Mischa which wasn’t possible as the train was packed. Much crying and drooling and gnashing of teeth ensued. Luckily, Steven and I found it quite funny (probably because otherwise we would have joined right in with him) as did the commuting Parisians which helped.

I could go on and on but I’m not sure how helpful it would be. If I haven’t covered something or you have a question, let me know. I could talk about Paris for hours…

HAve a look at how we got on on our overnight train trip to Venice 🙂

 

The Montmartre Treasure Hunt

  1. Take a photo of you helping a man out of a wall (Place Marcel Ayme)
  2. Find a secret garden at the end of Rue Burq – draw or write a story about it
  3. Draw a picture of who you love at the Je T’aime wall (Place des Abbesses)CIMG3684
  4. Draw a picture in the heart of Montmartre with all the other artists (Place du Tertre)
  5. How many windmills can you find? (e.g. Rue Norvins, Moulin Rouge) we were only expecting two but found three
  6. How many ways can you find to get to the Sacre Coeur? (Hint: think feet and wheels)
  7. Take a photo of you outside the Café des 2 Moulins where “Amelie” was filmed (Rue Lepic & Cauchous)
  8. Find these things to eat:
    1. The biggest apple you can find
    2. A flavour of ice-cream you haven’t tasted before
    3. A snail (are you brave enough) we never found one so we’ll never know…
  9. Can you find your way back to the apartment again?!

The kids didn’t end up finishing the whole hunt but it was a useful thing to get them to concentrate on when they were getting antsy.  Enjoy!

How to have a mini backpacking adventure with two young kids: It’s all about the planning, folks

For a while now I have been slightly annoyed by how easy my kids expect things to come to them. Now that might seem a little harsh. Surely we want life to be easy for our kids. Well, yes and no. I don’t want my kids to suffer unnecessarily but I want them to develop perseverance and grit.  Not too much is known about how to develop grit but I had a sense that we better start doing something about it early.

It was about then that my hubby and I started thinking of booking a summer holiday. Up to this point we had taken the kids on a couple of holidays within the UK, a trip to Florida with the extended family and a very easy all-inclusive trip to Tenerife which the kids had adored. We had also enjoyed it and it was what we needed at the time, a lovely no-hassle week away, but I was keen that the kids didn’t see package holidays as the only option. Before having kids, Steven and I had done a bit of travelling but it’s something I really wish we had done more of. That’s one of the reasons “go places” is on our family manifesto as I really hope the kids will do a lot of travelling in their lives. Travelling brings experiences you just can’t manufacture: seeing how different places and people make different choices in how to live their lives, developing self-sufficiency, perseverance, and experience in handling misunderstandings and when things, inevitably, go wrong. The kids are only 7 and 5 but we decided this was a good time for them to start experiencing some of these things and experiment with a mini-backpacking Continue reading