July 2: Bon Voyage!

Woke up with a lot to do. Took the animals to Patricia and Deva, where they will be lovingly kept for the month, stopped by to say goodbye to Ahno and the dogs, and got home to Dan flinging everything in the van. Or, rather, packing everything into the van with mathematical precision. It took about 4 hours to get to Veronica's house, with holiday weekend traffic in both directions and accidents and rogue vultures and other obstacles. We arrived at her house just in time to say hello, collect her, turn around and leave again, off to Dulles airport. On the way, Veronica gave us some last-minute French lessons: how to say "Salut, ca va?" instead of "Bonjour!" for example, to look like less of an idiot. We tipped out our van's contents at the departures area, waved goodbye, and we were on our own with our 95 bags. Three suitcases, one bike box, two laptop cases, two small travel bags, two violins, one purse, one helmet. This is a mental checklist that will be getting frayed and dogeared by the end of the month, probably. We got through security without incident, boarded the plane, and -- Bon Voyage, we are off to France!


A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

The very first book that a friend recommended I read when I said I was planning a trip to France was A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. This book is now 20 years old, and was so successful that it has been succeeded by three follow-up volumes, a mini-series, and a radio show. Mayle's friendly intellectualism, self-deprecating wit, and obvious love for his subject matter make the book a delight to read. I dare you not to recommend it to your friends when you're done -- I already have. In 12 chapters (one for each month), the author tells the story of the first year after he and his wife moved to Provence from England, giving up an urban lifestyle in London for a rural adventure in the South of France.

From this book I got an entertaining and interesting picture of life in Provence, from the crusty old neighbor who teaches Mayle how to cook a fox to the many restaurants and merchants that feed him well and the contractors that take a year to renovate his house. I have no misconceptions about the existence of the Provence in this book, or its accessibility to me as an American tourist, not a permanent resident, or a resident who intends to be permanent like Mayle does. It made me feel wistful for the experiences they had -- discovering local spots to which they could return again and again, and the sense of the world opening up in a completely new direction, with so much to learn and do for the first time.

The value of this book is not in its factual information or in its realistic presentation of a region you yourself might want to explore. You can't replicate or follow in the footsteps of Mayle and his wife -- it's not a guidebook. But it is a great example of a pioneering spirit, a willingness to pay the necessary cost, both in money, convenience, and discomfort, to experience something truly other. Mayle is relentlessly cheerful, totally unbothered by rude visitors, tardy contractors, weather, fire, and other setbacks. What could have been, in a different voice, a litany of whines, becomes a happy record of one obstacle after another joyfully met and wittily documented. I highly recommend it -- it was a great read.


Must Take Toys for France

The last time my daughter traveled with toys, we needed a special suitcase for all her stuffed animals, pillows, blankets, make-up, jewelry, and other types of accoutrement. This time, space is at a premium, so we've had to limit the kids to just a few toys that they can pack for France. Here's what's making the cut.

#1: Nintendo DSi

Today Dan bought the children SD cards for their DSi's, so they can take a mazookazillion pictures in France. They love to take pictures, and this way they can take their own. The DS's will definitely be coming to France with us. Nice for the plane, multi-functional during the trip, and good entertainment for tired children who have to wait a long time for cyclists to climb mountains. They can record themselves saying "GO LEVI! KILL IT! STOMP THOSE PEDALS! GO!" and replay it at home.

#2: Silly Bandz

Sadie is wild for Silly Bandz, silicone rubber bands that snap back into the shape of an animal or icon or symbol when you unstretch them. The kids are wearing them as bracelets, and originally I thought it was just kind of a lame-o trend to ignore. However, Sadie plays with Silly Bandz as if they are stuffed animals -- they have relationships and ideas and storylines and names. But unlike stuffed animals, they can fit onto an airplane in large numbers. Which makes them perfect for France travel! Yay Silly Bandz!

#3: Bakugan

Like Silly Bandz, Bakugan have names, identities, personalities, and tribal interactions. However, whereas Benny has rejected the idea of Silly Bandz, he loves Bakugan and plays with them enthusiastically, both with his sister and on his own. Bakugan are small, travel well, and have given Benny and Sadie many hours of pretend play. So they'll be choosing a dozen Bakugan to come to France.

#4: MP3 Players

Rechargeable, full of chirpy Irish tunes, 90s pop, Suzuki songs and Latin chants, the iPod knockoffs that I got the kids are still alive and still very useful for entertainment. I bought clunky off brands thinking that they'd get lost and then I wouldn't have to murder the children over electronics (again) but they've actually been pretty good about keeping track of them. If they return from France with their MP3 players intact, we might consider the real thing. But don't tell the children. At least not in English.

Planning in Layers: Vacationing with the Tour de France

Putting together a plan for a month-long trip is daunting, even for a person who is highly organized. My husband is a highly organized person, and even he has expressed a certain level of stress over the trip planning we've been doing. I am only organized when it's absolutely necessary. Inside Dan's brain I imagine tidy rows of labelled drawers, each one with a perfect seal, each one opening and closing with a brisk metallic click. Inside my brain is a rabid badger. And some bamboo. And lots of stacks of paper.

Organization doesn't come naturally for me like it does to Dan and other people (reportedly), and as we approached our France trip I started to worry that I would end up clinging to a one-lane road in the Alps somewhere, no guard rail in sight, children crying in the back seat, unable to find my keys. I don't know if I can organize my way out of that situation -- it may be inevitable no matter what I do to prevent it. However, I'm pretty sure that I'm increasing my odds of falling off the Alps by saying things like "go with the flow" and "see what happens" and even "just roll with it."

There are so many things to consider, from financial stuff like how to exchange money to personal stuff like how many stuffed animals the kids can reasonably bring. It's hard to separate the importance of each element, and to help us, we decided to think about the trip planning in terms of layers. The first set of layers involve the actual schedule of what will happen from day to day on the trip.

Our first decision was to go to France.

Our second decision was where to go within France. We decided that since we were going for four weeks, that we would go four places within France. We knew we wanted to be in the Alps when the Tour was in the Alps, in the Pyrenees when the Tour was there, and then be in Paris for the finish. After gazing at a map for a while and talking out different options, we decided to go to the Alps for week 2, the Pyrenees for week 3, and Paris for week 4, leaving week 1 open for me to pick where to go: I chose the Loire Valley. We knew that for the kids' sake we wanted to stay a week in each location, with one apartment/house per week so we weren't moving too much. Dan set about looking for residences.

Once we knew where we were going to be (choosing the actual places to stay was part of another process!) we could fill in the calendar with the first layer of hard dates: Arrive and depart. Depart USA, arrive Paris, depart/arrive between the four different places within France, and then depart Paris, arrive USA.

Layer two involved hard dates within the trip, outings scheduled externally that could not be changed or skipped. We had two sets of dates like this: the first was when Dan's friend Jim is going to be available for riding with him in the Alps, and the second was when he is going to do l'Etape du Tour, an organized ride in the Pyrenees that covers the same route as the 17th stage of the Tour de France.

The third layer was the stages of the tour itself. Where is it coming close to the places we're staying? Which finishes are going to be exciting, which climbs can we catch? Those dates are also somewhat hard and fast, although we don't have to (and don't want to) catch every leg of the Tour. On the official web site of the Tour de France, we can find exactly where each stage goes(there are 21 stages, including the prologue) and when they are expected to start and finish each day.

The fourth layer of the schedule was Dan's own riding. He wants to climb everything that has snow on top, or anything that makes the mountain goats shudder and cry. Mont Ventoux, Col du Tourmalet, Alpe d'Huez, etc. Of course he needs his own rest days, where we can do sight-seeing and lounging around eating baguettes. He also wants to be able to say he climbed three iconic mountains before anyone else had breakfast. Planning and spacing out those rides filled up another layer of the schedule.

Now we are in the final layer, which involves monuments, museums, things to see and do in which I am interested, that don't involve bicycles of any shape. To some extent, there are constraints on the schedule here too, as some are closed on certain days, open late on certain days, and so we have to consider when they'll be busy or unavailable altogether. Of course, there is also a lot of flexibility here too, so my method is to research and print out a lot of choices in each of the places we will be, for those days where we can explore the region and investigate Roman sites, art, literary landmarks, and more. Then we can slot in the ones that work as we go along. Week 1 and 4 are going to be full of stuff like this, as most of the cycling happens in the mountains.

I printed a monthly calendar, a weekly calendar for each week, and a daily schedule for each day, put it all into a three ring binder (with separator tabs!). We put in copies of our British Airways itinerary, our emails and check-in information from the various houses we're leasing, and other important docs. Now I am going to fill the rest of the binder with maps, lists of hours of operations, menu choices and prices, and all the other info we'll need to prepare for our free days.

After grinding through this process with Dan, I think back to the time last summer when Ahno first suggested the trip, and I never realized how we could get from that vague idea of "a month in France!" to the binder full of specifics that's growing now. Working in layers was a manageable method for both of us to sort of synthesize our priorities and work around each other's "must see" lists. So far, I'm completely happy with the schedule, and as we all know, even though Dan is the one with the bicycle, my joy and delight is all that really matters.