A European Traveling Adventure with my Teen Boys

I’ve done several trips with just one child sans husband and they were all memorable.  The first was with my son to Bermuda.  We were a walk from the beach with lots of restaurants and at age eight he was surprisingly not bored once.  The second was with my daughter also at age eight to B.C.  Another beach and more good food.  We were joined at the hip for tandem biking in Stanley Park, singing lustily on the drive from Nanimo and kayaking in Tofino.

For my son’s 16th birthday I invited his best friend, also turning 16, and we experienced the Netherlands, more specifically Amsterdam, and Paris and Biarritz, France.

Some people like to tour on buses or boats, some like to create their own schedule, some like to wing it – I like to find small personal operators and “experience” somewhere in between.  For the French part of this trip I hired Evelyne Dufau, a neighbour of mine from Toronto.  She owns and operates Expérience Authentique

After two consultations, Evelyne designed an experience to please both myself and the two boys in France by connecting unique accommodations, transportation, food, shopping, outdoor activities, French language and art. Here were some of the highlights from this memorable 2006 trip.

We took the train from Amsterdam to Paris and a taxi to The Marais section, one of Paris’ oldest and most visually stunning areas with it’s narrow cobblestone streets and gorgeous French men.  There we stayed at the Hotel de la Bretonnerie which is gently loved, well priced, quaint and wonderfully located.

The Marais reminds me of SoHo with lots of dining along narrow streets, very different than the wide avenues of central Paris.

The Marais reminds me of SoHo with lots of dining along narrow streets, very different than the wide avenues of central Paris.

Of course, immediately after I paid for dinner on our first night, the boys ditched me.  I reassured myself that with the hotel’s card in hand, a map, their rudimentary French and charming smiles, they could find their way back and they did.  The boys breathless arrival was accompanied by a story about their walking into a “sports” bar and finding it entirely male.  They weren’t sure why everyone was staring at them or why they were having such bad luck finding any teenage girls.  I had not bothered to mention that the area in which we stayed was the “gay/hip” area of Paris, but it appears that they found out.

While they had their own Paris adventure, I stumbled across a film festival within five blocks and enjoyed an evening of free short films on a balmy Paris night.   It was no matter that my French is pretty pathetic, the films were all subtitled.

Stumbled across this free event complete with deck chairs and emcee Charlotte Rampling

Stumbled across this free event complete with deck chairs and emcee Charlotte Rampling

Our visit to Paris was brief and beautiful, including my bribes to visit the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay in exchange for surfing lessons later on in Biarritz.  Like the trip to Amsterdam, we mixed equal parts of Anne Frank House and Dine with Dutch with Coffee Shops, the Cannabis Collage and a graffiti walkabout.  It all worked to expand all our Cultural minds.

These Canadian boys were a fascinated and a little freaked out by the gendarmerie who were smiling broadly while carrying automatic weapons.

These Canadian boys were a fascinated and a little freaked out by the gendarmerie who were smiling broadly while carrying automatic weapons.

My triumph was seeing a brief look of awe with the sheer scale of this painting.

Triumph was seeing mouths agape and a brief look of awe with the sheer scale of this painting.

Instead of climbing the tower, we decided to sit and watch the tourists and mess with the gypsies who tried to mess with us.

Instead of climbing the tower, we decided to sit and watch the tourists and mess with the gypsies who tried to mess with us.

We had been advised about the swarming rampant at tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Coeur [Sacred Heart Church].  It’s so easy to let fear itself be the thing that ruins your travel experiences.  I’ve done that to myself in the past and found the best antidote is be prepared and use humour whenever possible.  I discussed this with both boys and we managed to sidestep the bracelet-making circus at the Sacré Coeur, but under the Eiffel Tower my son was approached by a group of women who proceeded directly with their scam.  My son, ever the polite Canadian, decided instead to mischievously pretend he was psycho and began gibbering and laughing maniacally.  The women were shocked and unsure of what to do.  As they backed off, my son trailed them and I, with ice cream cone in hand, watched from a nearby bench with some concern.  At the point where I was sure the husbands or a Gendarme would appear – it was over.

Traveling with teens can be as challenging as living with them.  They are not yet adults and clearly too big to put in a time out.  2006 was before the day when every child had a cell phone and I was glad as it forced me to do things differently.

First I had to trust that they were able to make good decisions and second they had to agree to make them.  I worried, but the entire point was that I wanted them to have the experiences.  To see that there was a different world out there that they could navigate and to plant the seed about equal parts of curiosity and responsibility being the best part of being human.

Surfing

The people in Biarritz reminded me of Canadians. It was cool and windy, but everyone was out in their bathing suits.

In Biarritz, Evelyne had booked us into another spectacular place overlooking the ocean, which included breakfast on the terrace, in Villa le Goeland.  We walked everywhere including to the beach where she had arranged surfing lessons for Colin and Mike.  While the boys surfed I managed to get in some shopping, mostly table and bed linens which my sisters and I are addicted to.

The staff and the surf kept the boys engaged physically and mentally and they dropped into bed contentedly having only grumbled once.  Apparently the gaggles of French teenage girls disappeared at night and the only people they ran into were the gendarmerie who teased them about Canadians lax laws concerning pot smoking.   What?

Evelyne’s specialty is South West France, particularly the Basque Regions that straddle France and Spain.  My sweet sixteen year old boys were excited about what I told them would be bar hopping, but they were in for a cultural surprise.  Our driver regaled us with stories of the Basque people and history [comparing it to Quebec] and we soon arrived to the beautiful City of San Sebastian.  We parked in the port section, cleverly not dominated by condos and whose medieval architecture was home to a large number of bars in close quarters serving beer, pintxos or pinchos and tapas.

Having ordered a selection of small plates of hot and cold food to share, the beer arrived and eyeing it my son whispered that they were ripping us off because the glass was just one third full.  Our guide laughed and said yes, but since we had four more bars to go there was no use filling up in one place.  Pace yourself he said, enjoy the food, the beer and the company.

 

I can't say enough about how adventurous the boys were about eating.

I can’t say enough about how adventurous the boys were about eating.

If you didn’t already guess, food is really important to me as a travel feature, heck as an everything feature.  On the last night  in Biarritz, however, the boys were ready for some comfort food and ordered fresh shrimp, “French” fries and Coca-Cola – I could not believe at last that the novelty of ordering wine or beer had worn off.  The night’s finale was a fisherman beside the roadside restaurant who swung his catch, a wiggling squid, around the crowd, the screaming girls, and the catch discharged to be someone’s calamari.  Welcome to France!

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