Fabuleuse France!
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Fabuleuse France!

As a little girl, I dreamed of visiting Paris. I was sophisticated and fluent in French in that fantasy, neither of which has come to pass. I have at least visited Paris. If you don’t have it on your bucket list, you should. It’s as awe-inspiring as everyone claims. That said, France is far more than Paris. If you only go to Paris, it’s like only going to New York City and thinking you’ve seen Ohio, Alabama, or Utah. Here are more ways to discover the essence of France that your kids will love.

Floating the Canals

Okay, I’m biased. But I think one of the loveliest ways to immerse yourself in a country is to drift through its waterways. It’s not fast—you can bike or even jog faster than we often move. But every day feels a bit like a Sunday afternoon drive through centuries-old villages and verdant farm country. It’s quiet enough to hear songbird symphonies and lazy enough to have real conversations. The water is glassy and provides Monet-like mirror images of the countryside around every bend. Kids will be intrigued by the lock system and how water flow is managed with it. If you rent a boat, be sure to get bikes for everyone. It’s a faster way to explore when you stop for the night, or a perfect way to work off some energy if your kids would like to bike the trail along the canal from lock to lock. A canal boat is surprisingly reasonable. Once you’ve paid the rental rate, the nightly rates are a bargain. We’ve never paid more than 15 euros per night, and most of the time it’s less than that or even free.

Finding Fantastic Forts (and other serendipitous discoveries)

Given its proximity to Italy, it’s no surprise that much of France has citadels leftover from the centuries when the territory was fought over with the Romans. Our favorite fort is the Citadel at Besançon. It’s worth every one of the several hundred steps to get to the top. (Or you can take the easier way and use the tourist tram.) A UNESCO World Heritage site, the carefully preserved fort hosts a zoo, stunning views from the rampart walk, and a surprising number of museums. We passed on the Insectarium. (Really. Do I need to think more about bugs?) But we spent a couple of hours in the Museum of Resistance and Deportation. The free audio device helps explain what you’re seeing. Although it may be a bit much for younger children, junior high and high school kids will find it fascinating. I was a history major in college and did an enormous amount of research about World War II for my Never Enough trilogy, yet the museum put additional nuance and context into my understanding of the war.

The serendipitous part: We always wander through the ancient churches. When we do, we look at what events are coming up. We’ve ended up stumbling upon a stunning organ and orchestra concert, another concert that featured three young saxophone virtuosos, and at another spot, an informal vocal concert. All of them free. All of them memorable.

Feasting on French Food

Oh my. Where do I even start? We’ve discovered the French lunch menu. Typically, it’s Monday through Friday (although many places in France are closed on Monday). The price is fixed—usually 10 to 15 euros (about $11-17 US)—and includes a choice of a starter (see the above photo!), choice of a main course, and choice of a dessert. Kids’ menus start at 7 or 8 euros (about $8-9 US). That may be more than you typically spend for lunch, but remember that tax is included and it’s uncommon to tip in France, which makes it quite reasonable. We’ve had fabulous food, and we’ve enjoyed it at a leisurely pace. We find ourselves so full, that we often do a simple evening meal of bread, cheese, and some fresh fruits, making the lunch even less expensive.

Every town of any size has a farmers’ market, which overflows with fresh and inexpensive fruits, vegetables, and cheeses. Wandering the market is always a highlight of the week, and I always overbuy. Those flavors, scents, and colors are seductive. Give your kids five euros to find their own taste treats or bargains to share. They’ll love exploring, and the stall owners will love the interaction.

Bread, of course, is the ultimate French experience. By law, places must sell a baguette for a euro or less. Like anywhere, there’s a range of quality. But if you seek out the boulangeries, or bakeries, you’ll be rewarded with a baguette that still costs only a euro, may be hot out of the oven, and definitely will be crusty and chewy. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve probably eaten my weight in French bread. Thank goodness the country lends itself to lots of biking and walking.

Focusing on French

If you don’t speak French, no worries. Contrary to American stereotypes about the country, people are friendly and gracious even if you only know oui (yes), merci (thank you), s’il vous plaît (please), and bonjour (hello). We always look for high school or college age people to help with questions and generally find their English to be sufficient to get us what we need. We’ve also been surprised at how quickly we’ve become familiar with French by using Duolingo, a free and easy language app. The lessons are simple and the learning incremental enough that you don’t even realize how much you’re learning. Team up with your child to practice in the weeks leading up to your trip. Your child will get a kick out of discovering how many French/English cognates there are. And you’ll all be happy to have a bit of conversational expertise (or at least some word recognition) when you land at the airport.

Go to France with an open heart and a generous spirit. You’ll find the French warm and welcoming, and you’ll leave understanding this part of the world just a little bit better.