In July 2010 we did a two week small group tour in France for parents and their teenage children: an induction to France and French for families. The guide was an Australian historian; French teacher and France expert who managed to perform the feat of combining adventure and activity with camaraderie, laughter and learning for us all. The teenagers ranged in age from 13 to 17.
They learned how to master the metro and the bus system of Paris, they learned that when buying a bra the cup is called a bonnet, that traffic is called “circulation” and that it can become “perturbed” during peak hour, that un “diabolo fraise” is a strawberry lemonade, that “un café” in France is also a small cup of strong coffee the consistency and taste of mud. They learned to be careful crossing zebra crossings called “passages piétons” as the French appear not to have cottoned-on yet that they must stop for pedestrians. They learned you cannot sit on the “pelouse” because if everyone did that there would be no grass left – though we did sit and picnic on the Champs de Mars by the Eiffel tower before running up its innards one evening to see the most superb sunset and watch the lights snap on all over Paris at the same time.
We were taken to not only the breathtaking sights of Paris like the Arc, the Louvre and the Tour, but some of the lesser known spots where we learned about medieval toilet paper and torture (not necessarily related) saw the very spot where a Duke was assassinated 700 years ago and where a mad bald queen cut off her lover’s hair for a wig, where Queen Marie Antoinette spent her last days, where the “heart of France” is buried, where the Crown of Thorns is stored, the 800 year old original wall of Paris still stands, where Romans watched Gladiators fight, where Jewish children were dragged from the schools and deported to Auschwitz, where a German General saved Paris in world war two and where the most enduring love story in France’s history began. We climbed up to spectacular views of Paris and then descended under Paris to see its cemetery, its canals and its plumbing.
The kids visited a primary school in Paris and played limbo and rap with the 8 year old girls and poker, cards and chess with the boys (and lost) We shopped on boulevard Saint Germain during the bi-annual sale period – called ironically “les soldes”. The kids haggled for clothes, ordered food, ice-creams and drink in bistros, learned how disgusting “andouillettes” smell but taste surprisingly good, asked directions on trains, made friends with local Parisians and took up the many challenges of practising a foreign language with gusto, pride and a sense of fun. The parents too had a bash at speaking French experiencing some of the hilarious pitfalls of learning another language. My husband inquired inadvertently in a rare attempt at French how many condoms were in the bottle of wine he was drinking, someone asked the waiter for a wild pig instead of an ashtray, my son asked the shop assistant to set fire to his CD and one girl asked for testicles instead of a teaspoon. The traps are endless and just as hilarious in reverse. One restaurant menu told us happily that the “Special today – no ice cream” and in one French B & B the sign in our room said “The genuine antics in your room are from our chateau. Please touch them gently.”
Who would have thought that 8 teenagers and 8 parents could spend 2 weeks together constantly in each other’s company and laugh the whole time? We Segway-ed (a battery-charged chariot type-thing) through the streets and parks of Paris. There is a no better more fun way of spending time with your teenagers than cruising effortlessly through Paris on one of these things as your handsome young guides give you potted historical facts and people take photos of you as you zoom past. We spent a memorable day bike riding through Paris and out on the train to Versailles palace. After buying a picnic lunch in the local market halls we rode through long avenues of manicured trees in the palace grounds (past descendents of Marie Antoinette’s flock of sheep) for a couple of hours and then al-fresco lunched on the Grand Canal with the Palace as backdrop. It’s an experience I shall never forget. It’s so worth having the guide take you through the palace as you get the history and some hysterical anecdotes about Louis the 16th’s love life that the kids will never forget! My son’s doing Revolutions in year 12 so it was a great experience for him to actually be at the place where it transpired.
We then took the TGV to Provence in the South of France and swam in the afternoon heat every day and ate olives, salami, baguettes, fromage et jambon beside the pool.
One evening we danced at the fete du Village line dancing with the locals and watching fireworks. We saw the madcap insanity of the Avignon festival with jugglers, dancers, men in drag and tight-rope walkers. We saw living history in the monumental Palais des Papes – ancient fortress and papal palace from the 14th century and Roman aqueducts, bridges and cities over 2,000 years old. The kids had a morning cooking lesson in a professional kitchen – all in French- before serving their parents lunch under the plane tree at our own private Provencal farmhouse. We bought food and chic clothes in country markets, explored steep cobbled streets, listened to mad local poets and then cooled off in the 1,000 foot deep waterhole which the kids plunged into at least once a day.
No one whinged bickered or snapped all fortnight. The kids bonded like a single-cell organism. They laughed, cavorted, the boys wrestled and were “gross”, and the girls talked about their favourite sandwiches/teachers/friends at school. The parents relaxed, lay by the pool, cycled up Mont Ventoux, (optional) shopped and laughed with their children and drank and ate some of the best that France has to offer – whilst Australia froze in the grip of an unseasonably cold Winter.
Every day was a highlight and so you can never predict what your kids will respond when you ask them what the highlight of their holiday was: but my son told me for him it was the architecture of Paris – because as he puts it; it’s “sick”. What more can a parent ask for?