Monday, February 28, 2011

Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why...

Tennyson wasn't talking about French bureaucracy, but he might as well have been. Why war, why me, why are we all here on this earth? It's all so absurd. And when it comes to absurd, why the hell are there so many useless rules in France for which no one can explain the logic.

Spend much time in France, as I have, and you quickly learn not to make reply or reason why you have to do this, or can't do that. But I keep doing it anyway. It's my damn anglo mind. A case in point:

During our second week here, we decided to spend the afternoon in Antibes, which is just a few train stops away from Nice. Emily would nap at home in the morning while Chloe and I would hang out at the local park. We would all meet up at the train station at around eleven.

Well, Chloe and I arrive at the train station a little bit early, as I desperately need to go to the bathroom. If you've never been to France, there's a whole make-work project here that rivals toll booths. In France, most public washrooms are minded by a gate keeper - a man or a woman who takes your 50 centimes to let you use the facilities. Now don't get me wrong; although I think the money collector could easily be replaced by a simple coin slot, I don't mind at all paying to use the washroom. Anyone who's ever tried to use a free washroom in Europe will understand why. And to be fair, the gate keeper is often the person who keeps the facilities in a clean condition.

The problem with the washroom gate keepers (besides that they can be touchy  at parties when asked what they do for a living - o.k., low blow, but they're not on my good side right now) is that they wield so much power, albeit within very confined parameters. You can't go to the washroom until Saint Peter has let you past the gate. End of story. And on this fateful day, Saint Peter wasn't letting me or my Peter by. And why?

Well, Chloe and I arrive at the washroom with my 50 centimes ready to hand to Lav man and Miss Tinkle (yes, there were actually two guards at this washroom) when we're told that Chloe will have to remain outside of the washroom. "Non non Monsieur. You cannot bring your child into the washroom with you. She is female....." (appreciate my pause here).

Me: But she's two years old. I can't leave her outside of the washroom by herself.
Miss Tinkle: Oh, don't worry sir. We are professionals. We'll watch her.
Me: Ah... I don't feel comfortable leaving my toddler with anyone she doesn't know.
Chloe: Daddy, don't leave me here (clutching my wrist).
Lav man: It's fine. Your girl will be fine here.
Me: Look, she's only two. Can't I bring her with me.
Miss Tinkle: Absolutely not. A girl cannot be allowed into the men's washroom.

At this point I'm right ticked off (I know, I should be thinking of Tennyson's quote). I march right up to the customer service desk at the train station and tell the gentleman behind the desk what's been going on. He gives me the strangest look (as if to say, are you kidding me) and starts making calls on his walkie. Finally, I think, someone's taking me off this crazy train.

Well, before long, Chloe and I are being escorted by an SNCF (train company) official back to the washroom. Great, I think. Let's let the loo duo have it. So the train guy goes up to the guards, removes his hat (like he's entering a church) and asks very nicely why Chloe and I can't go in. The bathroom guards give the same answer, naturally, and the SNCF official turns to me and says, "well sir, that's apparently the rule. But leave your child here with me and I'll look after her."

Me: Pardon me? I just want to take her in with me.
SNCF: Well that's just not possible. I haven't got all day, so you had better make up your mind what you're doing.
Chloe: Daddy, don't go (crying)
Me: Well I guess I'm not going to the washroom.
SNCF: You're very stubborn sir.
Me: Stubborn! My little girl is going to cry her eyes out.
SNCF: Then let her cry. A little crying won't hurt her.
Me: I will not let her cry for no good reason. This is absurd (getting on my high anglo horse). There's no good reason in the world for not letting her in. You're the ones being stubborn. It's a ridiculous rule.
SNCF: You're just stubborn sir (quite mad).

The crazy part is, in French culture, nobody ever wants to leave a person without a solution. It's a duty to find you an answer and fix the problem. But at the same time, roles and responsibilities, turf so to speak, are clearly defined, and SNCF didn't want to trample all over the the loo duo's domain. So the SNCF official was left just as frustrated as I. In the end, it was really quite funny, although I didn't find it so at the time.

One last funny note to this story. I went back to the customer service desk to vent my frustration. By then, the gentleman who had seemed to be on my side at first had already been radioed about my stubbornness. He said, "I'm sorry sir, there's nothing more we can do. Apparently it's a state law in France. You'll have to speak to the police if you have a problem with it."

As you can imagine, there's no state law (this is a country where people pee freely everywhere). But since it's impossible to explain some of the sillier rules in France (Chloe goes with me into every other washroom in the country), the French will often simply try to give the rules more authority, e.g., telling me that lave lady's bathroom rule is a state law.

The moral of the story: Break the rules, ignore the rules, try to get around the rules. The French do all of these things daily. I found out during this fiasco that had I simply said that Chloe needed the washroom, we could have used the private kids washroom (this would be a family washroom at home). But once I said it was for me, I was told that I couldn't use that one. It's only for kids.

But never ask why a rule exists. It's as existential a question as, why am I here?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A few pictures

I thought I would share a few pictures from our "great adventure." By the way, we did something today that no parents of young children should do. We made a spontaneous decision. Today was cloudy and damp, and definitely not a day just for hanging out in the neighbourhood or at the beach. So while the girls were having their afternoon nap we decided that when they woke up,we would hop on a bus for Cagnes-sur-Mer and check it out. No planning, no map, and no idea whether it was worth the trip. It went beautifully. Chloe was an angel and we all had a lot of fun (if toddler ain't happy ain't nobody happy).We had an hour to check out the medieval village and made it back just in time for bed.

In Cagnes-sur-Mer

Julie and Emily on the Promenade, Nice

Daddy and Emily at the beach, Nice

With Grandma and Grandpa Sutton

At Chloe's favourite playground


Levens - a village perched on a mountain (20 km from Nice)

Still Levens - much colder than Nice

Friday, February 25, 2011

Banging our heads with a 2x4? Sounds like fun!!!

It's Julie again.....

We've just finished our first month in Nice, and I thought it would be nice to reflect on how things are going so far.

As Sean mentioned in his last post we've had to adjust to traveling as a family. We have little ones that need to eat at certain times and sleep at certain times. On the surface, it seems that we have done nearly everything possible to accommodate and consider their needs. For example, we bought Emily a little sleep tent which pops up in an instant and VOILA, somewhere to have a nap on the occasional day trip. Add a little portable white noise machine (just like at home) and we're good to go right? Mostly, yes. Things should go well, right? We'll be able to carry on and see everything we want to and everyone will be happy, right? We are learning that there are little nuances to traveling with children and you can't always control everything to make things run smoothly and sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. Those of you who know me well would be very proud of the way I'm learning to "let go" of things on this trip....

Sean's parents spent some time with us over the last couple of weeks. We were musing over the challenges of traveling with small children, and talking about how we don't see many other families with toddlers and babies traveling around (apparently we are the only gluttons for punishment!). They told us of a trip they attempted to take when Sean was a toddler and his brother was a baby. Apparently his father said to his mother a few days into the trip, "why don't we just go home now, the thing is, I can bang my head repeatedly with a 2x4 for free at home and have just as much fun as I'm having on this trip"! So, home they went!

While we won't be going home (that's not easily accomplished either, it's a full day of travel home!), it's nice to know that it's not just our family! What we have reminded ourselves of often though is that we would be having these same challenges at home too, we'd just be much colder :)

At any rate, being the gluttons for punishment that we are, we headed out on the train to Cannes (after a disastrous trip to Monaco earlier in the week, I think both Sean and I were eager to prove that a day trip could go better) today. We decided to head out after Emily's morning nap in order to not compromise her sleep completely. Then, of course, the train was delayed over an hour. We thought of getting our tickets refunded and going another day, but Chloe was SOOOO looking forward to taking the "big big train" to Cannes. When we discussed the possibility with her of going another day, she started crying in the train station that she "wanted to go to the Can". How could we back down after that - she'd been looking forward to it all morning! So off we went. We had a fantastic train ride there. Chloe was engaged in the scenery and enjoyed watching the engineer exit the train at each stop and blow the whistle for "all aboard!".

In fact, the day went very smoothly, all around (aside from an incident where Chloe and I got locked in a washroom for 20 minutes - more on that in another post). Emily had a good nap in her tent on the beach, and Chloe enjoyed playing in the sand. The sun was shinning and we enjoyed an ice cream together as a family. We walked a bit around Cannes and then took the train home. Here's where it gets interesting......

We got on the train (which was super busy because it was rush hour) and I staked out a group of four seats together (two seats facing two seats). I put my purse and some bags down on the seats in order to set them aside for Sean and Chloe while Sean secured the stroller. A lady got on after us and was not impressed at all that I had "reserved" the seats with the bags, and she basically just pushed them out of the way and sat down (leaving three seats in the group of four - one for me, one for Sean and one for Chloe). You should have seen her eyes when Sean brought a chattering toddler and all of our stuff into the group of seats. She looked like she'd wished she'd just kept on walking and sat somewhere else! She quickly realized why I had been "reserving" the seats.

We had bought some dinner for Chloe to eat on the train, as it was close to her dinner time. So there Chloe was, eating cheese pasta right beside the lady. Her hands were covered in it and she was kind of dancing in her chair while she ate, and we were trying our best to keep cheese sauce from getting all over the lady (who looked like she was out of a Louis Vuitton add). You could tell she wished that she could just get up and move, but she had made such a stink about sitting down, that she really couldn't have changed seats now!!

At any rate, the day went quite well really. Sean and I basically crashed once we put the girls to bed tonight. It's easy to attribute it to the day trip, but we quickly reminded ourselves that we likely would have crashed at home at the end of a day as well. The fact is, when you are parents of young children, nothing is easy. Having fun is hard work. When we put Chloe to bed tonight, and asked her what her favourite part of the day was (as we do every night), she said "going to the beach on the big big train". This made it worth it for me. Fortunately, over time, the memories that stick are usually the fun ones, and the ones that quickly fade are the ones that make you want to stay home and bang your head with a 2x4.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


For all of the glitz and glamour associated with the French Riviera (or Azur Coast) as the French call it, Nice is a pretty quiet place in the winter. In January and early February it has a calm, unassuming, feel about it. The locals are in their glory because there are no tourists (or at least few enough of them that they meld pretty well into the general population). Winter is the season where Nice shows its roots. On the street corners and in the cafes and shops, one hears a blend of Italian, French, and the local Niçoise dialect as people order coffees and pick up bread from their favourite bakery. The Niçois love to spark up conversations, ask questions, and laugh out loud. To say they have a joie de vivre would be an understatement.

It was the perfect season for a young family with great expectations. Julie and I were restless when we arrived. Memories of our honeymoon in Europe came to life when we arrived and my memories of living in Nantes and backpacking everywhere brought back a renewed excitement to travel widely and see everything. Of course we're not a young childless couple anymore. We're not free to do what we want when we want, and our hopes of travel to small medieval villages and beautiful cities were quickly dashed. What were we thinking? We have a baby who naps three times a day and a toddler who gets bored after a half an hour on the bus. We would definitely have to scale back expectations.

And of course we realized we would be limited before we ever left home. It's not as though we hadn't thought of sleep schedules and children's needs. We had chosen old Nice precisely because we knew we wouldn't be very mobile. I guess sometimes it actually takes seeing reality first hand to accept it. Our heads knew what was possible, but our hearts weren't sold. We tried going out of town a couple of times, but the trips were complete disasters, leaving us deflated and wondering what we were doing in a place like this when we couldn't get around to see it. Kids don't let you forget that parenting is a full time job, even when you are in an exotic place.  Emily still wakes up several times a night and we have to listen to her cry while nervously tossing and turning or biting fingernails, and just this week we all came down with a nasty stomach bug that kept us out of commission for most of the week.

We've now slowed down to match the pace of where we are. We're enjoying Sunday afternoons at the beach with all the other families and mornings at the market picking out fresh cheese and produce for lunch and dinner. We've found a wonderful city run centre for parents and children where Chloe can read and play and take part in weekly activities, and we've managed to find every park in the city - something unrivaled by most tourists, I'm sure. Chloe's also in a program called the Kids Club (more on that another time), and I've found French classes to take so that I'm prepared for language exams when I get back to Ottawa. And of course the weather here is lovely. I think that's why Chloe took to France without a moment's hesitation. She's no fool, unlike her parents.

Winter in Nice reminds me of fall back home. It's short, brisk, and calm. It's a time to reflect and get life in balance. That's what the Niçois seem to do with it, and that's what we've been doing. We're very blessed to be here, to be learning and exploring, even if it is locally. Chloe is speaking lots of French, she likes museums (a 3 year old, who'd have thought?), and she loves the beach. We're basically doing what we set out to do, as much as is possible. We're living in Nice. We're having a family adventure. Clark Griswold would be proud.

Winter is coming to an end and spring has started. The tulips are up, some of the trees are in bloom, and Carnaval has begun. Suddenly the streets aren't quiet anymore. There are tourists everywhere, filling the streets of the old city and lining up at the Gelato stands. The locals are slowly going back into hiding, or maybe they're just melding with the tourists. There's a new energy in the air. You can feel it just walking down the street. Carnaval is a big deal here, and marks the end of the off-season. Now that we're settled and confident in our surroundings, we have a little more energy too. We're making plans for small, manageable adventures to other places, baby sleep tent in tow (more on that later). But I'm very glad we arrived during the quiet period. It gave us an appreciation for this ancient city and its people we might not otherwise have had. The Carnaval will end, of course, and there will be less people again. But we won't see those quiet, unassuming little streets of the old city again on this trip. That Nice has passed.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Shit My Kid Says - February

Mommy had to go to the washroom, but Chloe's potty seat was still on the toilet. She offered to take it off for Mommy:

Mommy: Thanks Chloe, that's very nice of you
Chloe: You're welcome Mommy, 'cause you have a really big bum.


Chloe at a park, while passing a couple of little dogs: Daddy, can I taste them?
Daddy: Taste what honey?
Chloe: The doggies. Can I taste the doggies?


We've been warning Chloe not to touch certain buttons and dials, especially on the stove, oven, etc, so that she doesn't hurt herself.

Chloe, (toy phone in hand): Mommy, don't touch the buttons on my phone or the ambulance will have to come and take you away.