Archive for July, 2011

The Glorious South, Part Deux (And Off to Paris)

Well, we’re headed back to Paris. On the high-speed train. Vineyards, sunflower fields flying by.

We’ve spent the last week in the South of France. We had planned to make some field trips to neighboring towns and cities—Uzès, where we’ve stayed before, for the market and the Pont du Gard; St. Remy de Provence, a beautiful little town for walking and exploring; Marseille for some deeper discovery of the harbor and winding streets, plus we had hoped to visit some new spots: Anduze, Toulouse, Carcassone. In the end, we stayed Chez Mousseron, enjoying the company and the pool, the local markets, shopping, and the beach.

As Melisa noted, the beach was a highlight. This time around we rented beach chaises at a private club. At last, my own cabana boy! Bringing me salade Niçoise! Rosé! A mojito! San Pellegrino! The kids playing in the Med in front of us. An umbrella thoughtfully put up for Melisa. A lovely and convenient bathroom, shower, and parking.

Folks, this is the way to hang at the beach. And I could have done it EVERY DAY.

The kids loved the beach, too. Even more, though, they loved Pirates Paradise, a restaurant we tried for lunch. Located in a huge outdoor shopping complex in Montpellier, Pirates Paradise is a theme park and eatery in one. There’s an entire pirate fight on the hour. A kids play area. Waitresses dressed up like pirate wenches, and waiters like pirates. You can eat in a galleon. Eat over the water. Eat in a pirate jail. It was entertaining, and the food wasn’t bad either.

Meanwhile, Melisa would have rather been exploring all those new cities I listed at the top. She gets a little high off of the new (whereas I get my high from il dolce far niente). One of the great things about being gone a month is that there is time to get a healthy dose of everyone’s individual interests and find some common ground.

This month marks the longest continuous period I’ve spent with my kids (and my wife for that matter) since they were born. I admit I was a little worried about how it would go. Thirty-three days is extreme togetherness, and as mentioned in previous posts, there have been the typical bumps in the road you might imagine on any trip.

At the market in Sommières

We’ve had FUN. We love road trips. We love ice cream, swimming, a gorgeous view. Exploring. Finding secret places. The promise of great food.

I’ve learned new things about my kids. I’m proud of what good travelers they’ve been. Both of them weathered the overnight flight here like pros, and walked off their jet lag in Paris. They’ve made friends in France and Italy. They’ve tried sausages, cured tomatoes, new fruits, fish, local specialties like tielles (seafood pies from Sète) and mussels, paella, olives, cheeses, meats. They’ve tried to speak French and Italian for niceties (hello, goodbye, please, thank you, excuse me). Gamely carried their own backpacks and pulled their suitcases through airports and train stations, up to taxis, cars and apartments.

And they have tried blend in with the locals on occasion.

So it’s with a heavy heart that we leave the South, knowing our days here are numbered. Yesterday, I cleared out the Mireva and drove it back to the rental company. We said our goodbyes to our generous hosts, who have fed us and entertained us (no small feat) for a week. Kim drove us to the train station and walked us to our couch to bid us bon voyage.

I’m not usually the one who is upset on departure; that’s Melisa’s department. But as soon as Kim was out of sight, I surprised myself by bursting into tears and crying on Melisa’s shoulder.

It’s all gone by so fast. Didn’t we just step off the plane, a whole month of friends and travel ahead of us?

A day and a half more in Paris, and then back on a plane to New York.

What a whirlwind.

Our plan is to make the most of the City of Light in the next 36 hours. After all, there is the gelato v. glace smackdown that needs to be solved, the Tuileries and the great pyramid at the Louvre still to see. There’s still some time to squeeze more of la belle vie out of this trip!

Europe with Kids — France: One Thing I Loved Today

Palm Ray Plage

Palm Ray Plage in Carnon, France.

The “premiere ligne” at the Palm Ray on the beach in Carnon, France.

Leave it to the French to make beach-going more civilized.

Today we booked lounge chairs and a big umbrella on the “first line” — aka the front, closest to the water — at the beach in Carnon, on the Mediterranean. For a few Euros, we got our prime spots, plus lunch and a glass of wine delivered to our chairs — with access to bathrooms, a seaside library (!), and a waiter serving cocktails, San Pellegrino, and desserts — right next to the kids while they played in the sand and surf.

Heaven! (And all thanks to our fabulous hostess, Kim, who KNOWS about all of these wonderful things. Everyone should be so lucky as to have her at their side in the South of France.)

Glass of rosé and, in a while, a mojito? Don’t mind if I do, to both.

Does this exist in the U.S.? We gotta find out.

Palm Ray Plage

Life's a beach. Cheers!

Honey, We Forgot to Bathe the Kids (and Other Ways to Tell You’re Happy)

You Were Here

Arrivederci, Italy!

Friday was our last full day in Chianti. We pulled out of the driveway on Saturday morning, Melisa and I teary, Magnolia looking glum. Jasper, true to form, turned bright eyes to the next stop on the Italian Riviera, and the promise of that “Cars 2” ice cream he was (still) hoping for at the hotel.

Big field trips marked the second week of our stay. While New York was suffering through a close to 100-degree heat wave, temperatures in Tuscany dipped from the 90’s to the mid-70’s. We missed the hot, dry days, (and tried to remember how much we’d long for cool weather the second we got home), and took the opportunity to do a bit more exploring.

Cortona charmed us. It’s a bit larger than the other hill towns we visited, but generally, everything seemed more local (less tourist-y), and more lively. This was a bit surprising as we were there, in part, to fulfill a wish of Melisa’s to see Bramasole.

Bramasole, Cortona

You might remember that Bramasole is writer Frances Mayes’s home, made famous in Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s pretty gorgeous. And we were far from the only tourists seeking it out. Still, somehow Cortona got to us, and we’d go back in a flash.

We traveled to Pisa, our longest journey from Chianti (about 1 1/2 hours), to see the leaning tower. Folks, it’s really leaning.

We were in luck; the tower has just been reinforced and cleaned, so it looks like a skinny lopsided wedding cake. Unfortunately, kids under 8 cannot climb to the top, so we did our viewing from below.

Florence!

Florence, despite being only 1/2 an hour away from us, was a late addition to the agenda. We had planned on visiting Rome, but it was too complicated (and far, and expensive) from our outpost in Castellina. So we “settled” for Firenze, which in the end charmed us into spending two days exploring the red-roofed streets. We succumbed to an impulse we always resist in New York: the pull of the horse-drawn carriage. It was completely fun (if expensive); a lovely way to see the city.

The Meriva zipped in and out of the busy Florentine streets, batting off the velos and motorcycles that buzz like flies on the road. We stopped at the overlook on the way out of town and took pictures of the Duomo, the Campanile, everything. And of course, there was gelato.

Petale di Rosa at Festival de Gelato in Firenze

Our last day in Italy was also our best day. Melisa chose Siena, a city we had already visited and loved, for our destination. The day was bright and clear, and warm, and we wandered in and out of shops and up and down winding streets, into the Campo. The find was Antica Pizzicheria, where we stopped to order sandwiches, and were seduced by Antonio De Miccoli, the butcher and proprietor of the shop.

Antonio!

By seduced I mean with cheese, and wine (and Antonio’s big personality); first a bold Tuscan white, then a light, dry Vernaccia, and finally, a delicious Brunello. The wine kept coming, along with a board teeming with cheeses, bread, then cured tomatoes, delicious olive oil to taste, pastes (parsley, pestos, hot pepper, eggplant). More and more. Plus conversation. We were in heaven.

What were the kids doing, you may ask? Running in and out of the little shop and taking bits of cheese and bread. Playing hide and seek among the velos outside. Happy.

We left sated, poorer, and very very glad to have pushed aside the soft red strings that passed as a doorway and asked if they could make us a panini.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the best way: sleepy and poolside, under the bright sun.

Last pic of the pool, promise.

Could it get any better? It could. Date night! Mimma & Franco, our hosts, agreed to watch the kids so Melisa and I could have one night out for dinner. We chose Osteria Le Panzanelle in nearby Lucarelli. What a place. The meal started with prosecco and ended with panna cotta, the highlight being (besides the company) an amazing Spaghetti di Pesticcia (house-made spaghetti with mushrooms and pork sausage). What was in it? I wish I knew. I think I tasted a bit of cinnamon. It was heaven.

This wine was another highlight of the meal.

In short, we loved our trip here. Specifically:

Waking up and looking out over the Italian countryside.

Morning from our bedroom window.

Our incredible view from the terrace. Our hosts. The drive from San Donato to Castellina, all rolling hills and mountaintops.

A view from my favorite drive

The food. Walking through the sleepy villages.

Climbing the ramparts in Monteriggioni

Radda in Chianti

Visiting Radda in Chianti

Stepping up to a counter and saying Buon Giorno.

The kids had a slightly different take. They loved: gelato everyday, pool everyday. They loved having two children about their age at the house to play with for two weeks, hide and seek in the yard and in the cities we visited, the tree swing on the terrace below, making flags with new friends, and running amok.

They loved (as did we) the Australian family who was at the big house up the hill our first week, also on a month-long holiday, hanging out at the pool with us. The three older kids raced in the pool, and fetched coins from the bottom, and were universally kind and sweet to our two little ones.

Jas & Nola loved castles, and ramparts of the small hill towns. They loved the carriage ride we took through Florence.

Secret tunnel in Castellina

Il Campo in Siena. They loved the campaniles, the tunnel in Castellina. The playground in Radda. Carousels. They loved having the mommies around all day. Pasta almost every meal. Mud baths.

Jasper loved the lizards scurrying around our house, helping shop at the Coop (the local grocery store) and the iPad. Magnolia the swing, the butterflies (that flit in one window and out a door all day) and her power-bikini.

Here’s one barometer of happiness: the kids probably got bathed 3 times. Remember they were in the pool everyday. We  just shined it on, and they certainly weren’t going to argue.

Italy, we loved ya. And we’ll be back!

A parting gift of lavender

Gelato, Everyday

Mmmmm

There are many things I love about Italy. Gelato, however, deserves a special place.

How many different flavors have we tried? Let’s see:

  • Cioccolato (chocolate)
  • Cioccolato Fondente (Dark Chocolate)
  • Cioccolato al Peperoncino (Chocolate and hot pepper)
  • Pistachio
  • Torrincino (chocolate, cream & honey)
  • Fior di Latte (Milk Flower- kind of like sweet cream)
  • Stracciatella (Vanilla Chocolate Chip)
  • Bacio (Chocolate hazelnut)
  • Cremino (Nutella with hard chocolate topping)
  • Nutella
  • Tirimisu
  • Menthe
  • Sex on the Beach (better than the drink: Nutella, Caffe, and Tirimisu combined)
  • Caffe
  • Antica Deliza (the home flavor of our local gelataria-vanilla, caffe, with some sort of vanilla wafer crushed in it)
  • Amaretto
  • Pinolata (Pine Nut)
  • Smarties (Vanilla with m&m’s)
  • Salted Carmel

Not to mention the fruit flavors:

  • Melone (Cantaloupe)
  • Limone
  • Fragola (Strawberry)
  • Peche
  • Pompelmo Rosa (Pink Grapefruit)

And finally: the flavor I was afraid would get away! Petale di Rosa. Did it live up to the hype? Not exactly, but the thrill of the hunt made it great. The kids were so caught up in the mystique of the rosa that they chose it too: Jasper paired it with Menthe (does everything go with Menthe? Jasper thinks so) and Magnolia with Chocolate (and she’s right; everything goes with chocolate).

Star-Crossed Gelato Picks:

  • Chrissy: Bacio & Pistachio (Pistachio! Who knew?)
  • Melisa: Bacio & Caffe (tho Melisa notes that the Cioccolato Fondente sorbetto she had would be her favorite single flavor selection)
  • Jasper: Menthe & Stracciatella (Menthe paired with all sorts of flavors for Jas)
  • Magnolia: Cioccolato & Melone (picked over and over)

Tomorrow, our last day in Italy, may be time for GELATO FOR BREAKFAST.

Europe with Kids: It’s Not All Gelato (the Other Side of the Grand Tour)

Europe with kids

Chrissy:

The blog, like Facebook, is the place where I show my best face. Happiest moments, optimism, wishful thinking. All reflecting only one side of the coin.

The truth is that as much fun as we are having, there are also moments of the ridiculous, despair, tantrums, cross words, the gamut. You know. Those moments of tension over directions, where to eat, schedules. The kid who has to go to the bathroom the second we leave someplace WITH a bathroom.  Not to mention two bee stings (Magnolia, me), a number of large spiders (and me with my phobia) and stinging bugs of every variety (Melisa’s worst fear).

Here’s a little taste of the dark side:

  • The kids’ favorite word of the trip is ARMPIT. Just saying it sends both into the giggles.

“I want ARMPIT gelato”

“How many ARMPITS does a deer have?”

“ARMPIT!”

  • Most car drives, like the one we made yesterday to Pisa, are characterized by the sillys. For instance: Magnolia coming up with surnames for Betty instead of Boop. You get the idea. Or singing a tuneful melody at the top of her lungs about Spiderman. Jasper punctuates both with random exploding noises. Melisa ignores everything, reading her guidebook, until she can’t. I chew gum like there’s no tomorrow, thinking  “find a happy place, find a happy place.” God bless the iPad. Without it there would be no silence.
  • Once we get to our destination, the complaints begin.

“Mom, when can we have lunch?”

“Mommy, can’t we get some gelato?”

“Momma, I can’t walk any further!”

“Mom, can we get a toy? Why nooooottttt?”

“I don’t want to see the leaning tower of Pisa, I want the pool!”

“Mommy, mommy, mommy…(pause) MOOOOOOOMMMY!”

Then: “Not you, OTHER mommy!”

Yesterday, Melisa and I laughed half-way home from Pisa. We were laughing over ARMPIT. It is kind of a funny word.

Melisa:

Chrissy, true to form, has been posting on how fabulous everything is. And, don’t get me wrong — it IS fabulous and we feel very lucky to be here, enjoying exceptional time away from the normal day-to-day of our lives in New York City. But, as you know, we’re a family traveling with young kids. If you’re reading these posts and hating us just a little bit, perk up here — it hasn’t all been great. Here’s what I mean….

Yes, we’ve been seeing beautiful cities and towns and villages in France and Italy, but at a snail’s pace — Magnolia slows EVERYTHING way down. Chrissy and Jasper walk ahead, as if they’re on their own — I have to stop every two seconds with Magnolia, while she gets a rock out of her shoe, scratches an itch, examines a bug bite, picks up something potentially interesting from the sidewalk, stops to smell a flower (yes, she actually does this), or pauses to reflect while asking a pressing question (can we have a picnic on the floor of our house tonight for dinner?). How SLOW can you go? I’m finding out.

Jasper has been giving us the major attitude. He chews with his mouth open, picks his nose (!), touches his sister’s bottom and then laughs uncontrollably, and asks every two seconds for gelato, a piece of Pez candy, chewing gum, or more movies on the iPad. When we ask him to dial it down a notch, he responds with: “Why don’t you quit telling me what to dOOOOOOO?!’ Dude, yeah, no. Get a grip. When you’re like 40, maybe.

And, embarrassingly, our kids are the loudest and the wildest wherever we go. Seriously. Name your nationality or number of kids in a family and we will take their asses down with EASE. We’re the mother-effing international STEAMROLLER of loud and wild.

And you know all those loooong posts from Chrissy you’ve been reading and enjoying? Well, she’s been commandeering the laptop and the kids have had the stronghold on the iPad while I COOK DINNER.

But, you know what? We are having the best time! I’m here with the people I love most in the world, and we are laughing a lot.

ARMPIT!!!!!

And it’s beautiful everywhere we go. Yes, yes. Beautiful.

Chianti

What (This) Girl Wants: Il Dolce Far Niente

In Italian: the sweetness of doing nothing. In the words of Lucinda Williams: “Cool, quiet, and time to think.”*

For me, it’s lying like a cat in the sun at the pool, alternately watching the olive trees blow silver in the breeze, the kids creating a tent from towels and cushions, and reading.

For Magnolia, it’s sneaking off to the tree swing on the lawn beneath our house, or stalking the butterflys in the lavender.

Whatever works! And more of it.

*The great Lucinda also mentioned “pens that won’t run out of ink” and “passionate kisses” as must-haves. Those too, please.

Europe with Kids — Italy: One Thing I Loved Today

Bramasole

Seeing Bramasole, the house outside of Cortona, in Tuscany, that belongs to writer Frances Mayes

Like bazillions of others, I enjoyed Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes, so, so many years ago — a confection, a fantasy, light and sweet. Except it wasn’t entirely a fantasy — Mayes really did come to Italy at a time of rediscovery and reinvention, and she bought a house that transformed her life. What’s not to like about that?

Today we drove to Cortona, about an hour and a half away from where we’re staying, near Castellina in Chianti, to see the town and house. The town is lovely, with an appealing, lively vibe; the house and gardens grand and impressive. (After much hard work, of course — go, Frances!)

But what I loved was seeing, in person, a solid, physical manifestation of change, good fortune, happiness — set in a foreign land.

Bramasole was inspiring.

It reminded me that anything can happen.

And I love that.

Bramasole

The shrine on an exterior wall at Bramasole. Say a prayer (or whatever). See what happens.

More things I’m loving about Italy:

Breakfast four ways

Campari by the pool

Our waiter in San Bartolomeo al Mare

To Bikini or Not to Bikini: That is the (Surprising) Question

Last week, as one of our daily field trips, we drove an hour South to the town of Rapolano Terme, home to a mineral water spring of supposed healing properties. That Melisa and I would seek out a spa is not such a surprise. The surprise is that we took the kids.

We wouldn’t have thought to do it, if it hadn’t been recommended as a great place to go with children. I know, seems unlikely. And in hindsight, I’m realizing the mom in question has three girls (I’m sorry but that HAS to be easier), AND they are older than our kids. Still, no one (including our hostess Mimma) seemed to think there would be anything wrong with taking our brood.

I’m not sure what I was expecting—maybe something like a water park, with slides?—but it wasn’t what we found. The Spa San Giovanni looks like a real spa: quiet, peaceful, painted cool colors, spa music (you know what I mean) playing in the background.

Your mineral water experience, which apparently can heal all sorts of skin ailments, rheumatism, and respiratory issues, starts in a kind of domed sweat room, with one large circular pool surrounded by chairs, and mineral waters spouting out of the mouths of gods. It’s pretty warm, that one.

Looks nice, doesn't it?

A small water walkway and cave leads outside to the other pools, which get cooler as your graduate down the terraces. The kids loved the cave and spent some time there, pretending they were bears. I have to say I wasn’t too excited to get into hot water on a 97 degree day, but once in (Jasper said I needed the full “tour”), it was relaxing.

The outdoor pools vary in size and are surrounded by pretty chaises and umbrellas, on the patio and out on the lawn, all of which is surrounded by the rolling Tuscan hillside (vineyards, olive groves, little umber towns perched on hills, you know the drill). It’s pretty good.

The last pool was my favorite. It’s the largest, and the coolest (i.e. lukewarm). The bottom of the pool is covered in some sort of thick white mud that is naturally created by the springs. This is the other thing the kids loved about the spa: making mud pies and smearing mud on themselves as they saw the other adults at the pool do. How often does that happen? Grown-ups smearing mud all over themselves? Woo-hoo!

Your whole m.o. here is to float. Or smear yourself with mud in one of the little beaches on the edge of the big pool where you can lay half in and half out of the water. All in all pretty relaxing (even with Jasper and Magnolia saying every two minutes, “mommy! More goo!”).

There’s a cafe overlooking the pools where you can get a sensible lunch (and we did) or an espresso. The locker rooms have nice showers for rinsing off the mud.

Final ratings: a 10 from both kids (mud pies, bear cave), a 7 from me (not sure it was worth 13 euros a piece) and a 6 from Melisa, who was expecting effervescent bubbles in clear pools, and not mud.

 ***

One of my favorite things about our vacation is swimming every day. It’s a rare treat.

Between here and France, Melisa and I have both noticed that every woman, REGARDLESS OF AGE/SIZE is wearing a bikini. And sometimes topless. At the beach, or at the spa, they are out there.

When you are spending as much time in the sun as I have been, it’s hard not to think of the benefits of the bikini. It’s cooler for one. Your tan lines that disappear a little easier under clothes. Dries faster.

I haven’t considered really putting a bikini on since I was 26 or 27, but I’ve considered it on this trip.

The kids in their European suits. Me in my American one-piece.

The day after the mud baths, we took the kids into Siena. My favorite trip so far! So cosmopolitan after all our sweet little towns.

Il Campo, in front of the Torre (and with a little friend)

The kids loved it, too: they ran through shell-shaped il Campo like the horses at Palio, begged to climb the Torre del Mangia (400 steps!), and thrilled to the huge doors, old wells, flags of the Contrade, and castle-like homes.

The sales are on here in Italy, and I couldn’t help but notice all the bikinis on sale, for little girls and big. Magnolia was all over it, too. We wandered into a tiny shop and she immediately started pulling out the sparkliest, spangliest, gaudiest, tart-iest tiny bikinis she could find. Luckily, the worst of the lot were not in her size. Here is the compromise:

"Perfecto" says Magnolia

I looked too—at a couple of stores—but I could never quite get around the skimpy factor. Maybe I’m too American. Maybe I’m just too modest. I left, bikini-free.

Magnolia wore her bikini top (over her clothes), the rest of our time in Siena.

Siena's world renowned Duomo. Oh yes, and also Nola.

She got home, and would not put on her floaties when we went to the pool, for fear of ruining her look. (BTW, where did she learn that pose? We are in so much trouble). Still, by the end of the afternoon, she was swimming across the pool by herself. The floaties are gathering dust.

One afternoon in a bikini, and she’s swimming.

What would happen to me if I took the bikini plunge? Would I try a strapless dress? Write the first chapter of a novel? Cook lobster? Fry soft-shell crabs? Walk out of a boring meeting?

There’s still time. Stay tuned. 

Europe with Kids: Anyone Homesick?

Europe with kids

We will have been gone two weeks tomorrow — I’m reluctant to type that, the time is flying by so quickly — and Chrissy and I have just started to hear a few fleeting mentions of missing home. (Really, I think to myself with wonder? Really?)

But from the kids it’s pretty sweet. Here’s who’s missing what (crucial stuff, people.)

Jasper:

What do you miss from home?

All of my toys. I miss my three best toys the most — my Spiderman, and my Hero and Thomas trains.

I miss our new TV. And our Scooby-Doo movie, “Abracadabra-Doo.”

My oatmeal for breakfast!

School — I miss Ms. Oram and Ms. P. and Ms. Plasencia and Ms. Bittner.

And all of my friends.

Magnolia:

What do you miss?

My Barbies, my princesses, my castle and everything

Everything, even my own bed.

And I miss my dollies

I miss our cereal.

And our entire house.

I miss Quinn, Carl, Isadora, Abby — all my friends.

Chrissy:

You fessed up to missing some things about home…. So, what are they?

Officially, “no comment.”

After having spent two full weeks of uninterrupted time with our children — morning, noon, and night — Chrissy notes that she does miss some things about home, but has declined to answer this question on the grounds that it may incriminate her (and would like for me to emphasize that she’s having a wonderful time and would not like to be anywhere else in the world.)

Me?

I love Brooklyn but, really, miss nothing — well, maybe our house, just a little — and am busy plotting how we can spend more time here more often. A year abroad, a la Design Mom? Can we figure out a way to make it happen?

There’s only one way to find out.

Europe with Kids — Italy: One Thing I Loved Today

breakfast in Tuscany

Breakfast four ways — and my pretty frittata

At home, I often find it annoying when everyone wants something different to eat — that typically means more work for me.

But on vacation — as with other things I’m noticing about our daily routines in a fresh, new setting — I find it less so.

This morning: zucchini frittata (with varying sides) for the moms, eggs sunny side up for Jasper, toast with honey for Miss Magnolia, and fruit all around.

Everybody gets what they want. Lovely.

zucchini frittata

More things I’ve been loving in Italy:

Campari by the pool

Our waiter at the hotel in San Bartolomeo al Mare

 


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