Monday, August 14, 2006

Confessions on a Dance Floor

Considering that we all have toddlers and aren’t very good penpals (virtual or otherwise), my girlfriends and I have done a surprisingly good job of staying in touch while we’ve been apart these past few months. Still, nothing beats quality time together and I’ve been longing for a night out with the girls. Last week, for better or worse, my wish came true!

Three of my best friends—all strong, intelligent and unique women—decided rather spontaneously to take a trip to Paris. By the time they decided, it was only a few weeks until they arrived so I began compiling a list of activities. In some ways, their trip took shape much like our conversations— without any real structure or a massive list "to do" list. Instead, we pooled our ideas and our guidebooks to create a somewhat unorthodox itinerary.

Since it was a girls' getaway, it seemed appropriate to splurge a bit and they stayed at the oh-so-famous Hotel de Crillon (in many ways similar to the old Plaza Hotel in New York). It is a traditional luxury hotel, known as home to an elite group (including Madonna when she is in town) which meant it came complete with plush robes and slippers- essentials for a girls’ getaway.

Throughout the week, we ate well and drank even better- talking and laughing as we made our way through the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and a rather impressive assortment of boutiques. The most read newspaper in Paris, Le Parisien, actually did a brief article about us about our luxury shopping, but that's a story for another day. (Had they found my Visa bill? I suddenly felt guilty!). For the most part our activities were pretty benign- all that is, except one night that is the basis for my Confession.

It started, as all our evenings did, in their suite at the Crillon. They had the foresight to select and chill a lovely champagne. From there we went to Buddha Bar- a great restaurant serving carefully prepared French-Asian fusion dishes and an intriguing ambiance. After a wonderful seared tuna, and great conversation, we made our way to the Moulin Rouge for their "early show." I had been there once before and frankly hadn’t found it especially inspiring, but thought it might be fun in a group. Not only was it fun to be there together, and funny to see my husband with 4 dates (was it a dream come true or a torture chamber? I'm still not sure), but it was an excellent show- snake lady, horses and all!

We left the Moulin Rouge around 11 :30p and walked around briefly before bidding adieu to my husband (someone had to relieve the babysitter, afterall!) and heading back to watch the scene unfold at Buddha Bar. As it turned out, the scene had already largely unfolded. The peaceful restaurant we had left just a couple hours before was now filled with great music (available for 40 euros at the door) and an eclectic mix of people, every one of them clammoring to get one of the bar-level tables. It didn’t take four women long to secure a table, however, and we spent a couple hours watching people pick-up dates, other people trying to forget theirs and still others drowning themselves after a bad one.

After a couple hours, though, we’d had our fill and decided to call it a night- or so I naively thought. As we stepped outside, however, they asked where we were going next! As the only one not suffering from jet lag, I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell them I was too tired, so I offered up a dance club I’d wanted to try, but for which I had never been awake (since it didn’t open until 2a.m.- Yes, it was now 2 a.m.) To make a long story short, we found the club and danced ourselves to sleep barefoot atop a bed of broken champagne flutes (literally, but accidentally, of course) finally returning to the Crillon around 5:30a.m.

I don’t know that I would recommend trying a club that doesn’t even open ‘til 2a.m., and I would highly advise against dancing barefoot on broken glass (my foot took over a week to recover!), but it was an unforgettable night with an unforgettable group of women. Perhaps this is how Madonna's "Confessions on a Dance Floor" was born- perhaps even on the same dance floor; it is how my Confessions on a Dance Floor will end.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What a Wonderful World

I live on a mostly pedestrian street in Paris, which means there are people walking on it at nearly every moment of the day and night. Occasionally street musicians wander up the street, filling our apartment with old Edith Piaf and Louis Armstrong tunes.

A few days ago, after several near 100 degree days, I was snapped out of a good book by a loud, random sound- like someone repeatedly slamming cupboard doors outside. The noise was the result of shutters caught in the now somewhat forceful wind. You could almost feel the thunderstorm descending on the city.

I watched as the tourists continued on their way, completely unaware that their path was about to become a river. And then it happened, it started to pour. Suddenly, these peaceful, carefree tourists were scurrying for cover, throwing their bags of souvenirs over their heads until they found the haven of a well-placed awning. And then they waited. And waited. About 5 minutes later it was still pouring and everyone began to realize they may not be able to wait it out.

Suddenly, these same tourists who were peacefully meandering through the streets just minutes before had reverted to their fast-paced day-to-day mentality. They saw a problem and took action. They were almost all now in a dead run towards their next haven. They had no prayer of staying dry, but they had every intention of getting dry quickly. Was it a race? If so, they were going to win.

And then there were the others. They left the safety of the awnings with smiles on their faces. They didn't cover their heads or scamper about. They walked and, yes, they got wet (very wet, actually), but they had fun doing it. They continued strolling down the street, laughing at themselves, laughing at the predicament and knowing they would be dry soon enough. When life hands out lemons, some people make lemonade. It looked sweet and delicious.

In the end, they say beauty is skin-deep, but it seems like some vacations are only skin-deep, too. Some people go through the motions of vacation, all the while multitasking about their next major purchase or career move, ready to run should some raindrops fall. Others let go of everyday life and take some time to enjoy what the day brings, whether it's a nostalgic Louis Armstrong tune or a bucket of rain- oh, what a wonderful world.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Top 10 Toddler Travel Tips

When we brought our toddlers to France nearly 6 months ago, it was with very careful planning and a well-rehearsed mantra of "this too will pass." It actually didn't go too badly and, as it is summer travel season, I thought I'd give a list of the top 10 things that saved us- or, perhaps more to the point, saved me- from a complete meltdown at 30,000 feet.

1. Tide-to-go: Bless the Mom who came up with this portable stain remover. It is as perfect for the melted candy bar as it is for the spilled red wine. Bring one in your carry on and an extra in your suitcase for long trips.

2. Velcro: If you pre-cut a strip of velcro into small squares, you can apply it to anything that might roll away (i.e. crayons, markers, balls, etc.) before they have a chance to get away.

3. Baby wipes: I know this sounds a bit obvious, but it isn't just for diaper changes, anymore. Use it to wipe off the tray table, the pacifier that fell on the ground or your child's hands that just discovered cool black goo under the chair.

4. Anti-bacterial hand cleanser: Follow up on the now-clean hands by killing any bacteria that were thriving in the yet-undefined black goo. Then clean your own hands for good measure.

5. Crayola ColorWonder: No smell, no stains. Need I say more? PS- As previously noted, this isn't available around the world, so pack an extra ColorWonder coloring book for the trip home.

6. Inflatable beach ball: This one isn't my idea, though I don't remember where I first heard it. It is small, lightweight and you can blow it up during the layover. It can't hurt anyone, won't go through a window and is easy to find if it gets sent down the concourse.

7. Outlet safety plugs: This may sound a bit strange but every quiet corner I've ever found in an airport has an open outlet. While this is good for business travelers, it is not good for toddlers running off steam during a layover. Inevitably, the kids will try to fit the cute pipecleaner animals into the perfect, small holes. Not good.

8. Dark, thin blanket: The local craft or fabric store will sell black fleece by the yard. It is perfect to sit on during a layover, to block any unnecessary light when you're trying to get your child to sleep on the plane (in which case it can be used in conjunction with the velcro!), and then later to prop up your own head.

9. Sippy cups: My all-time favorite. Sippy cups do as they are told, even when everything else is going wrong. Perfect and dependable. What could be better?

10.Child-size backpack: The kids can carry their own carry-on starting at 2 (at least that's when I tried it). I'm not big on making kids pull their own weight, but this seemed to make them feel like an important part of the team and saved me from multiple carry-ons. 6 months later, they are packing their own toys and putting the backpacks on themselves.

The last one didn't make the top 10 because it depends on your trip. Like most parents, we went out and bought the best-of-the-best carseats when our children were born and, unfortunately, that means the seats are large and expensive. What that means for travel is they won't fit in a standard airline seat, and we wouldn't want to ditch them mid-trip only to replace them when we got home. In the end, we purchased new, inexpensive car seats specifically for the trip. We used them when we needed them, and left them when it became too complicated. It worked beautifully.

Best of luck with your summer travel plans. Bon voyage!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Live at your Own Risk

A few weeks ago, I visited a castle with my children just outside Strasbourg. I noticed that while the castle had been recently renovated (truly- it was amazing), the new-and-improved castle came without the safety features that would be required in the U.S. On the drawbridge, one missed step would have landed my 3 year old squarely in the (now waterless) moat. When we later reached the top of the castle, I leaned my head out the window and was impressed by the view, but was acutely aware it was a long, long way down should your feet slip. The window wasn't covered in plexiglass to protect the modern idiots (me) from... themselves. It wasn't covered and neither was I.

As we descended the mountain, there was a sign for Monkey Mountain. I was completely intrigued- I've always loved animals, especially monkeys. Needless to say, we made a detour, hoping to see one or two monkeys, but in the end we must have seen 100. At one point, I became acutely aware that when we walked through the door, we had basically walked into an enormous monkey cage in which we were now wandering, popcorn in hand (monkeys like to eat popcorn- go figure). One had to wonder whether they were our entertainment, or if we were theirs. As the tide began to change, however, and two monkeys began to fight, we quickly made our escape through the door marked EXIT.

In each of these cases, there were small signs absolving the management of any and all responsibility. The signs also kindly handed over full responsibility to the parents.

Then yesterday, I took the kids to a CineAquarium in Paris. No, we didn't swim with the sharks, but we did pet the fish. My 2 and 3 year olds literally stuck their hands (their arms, actually) into the designated fish tank and "pet" the Koi goldfish totally unsupervised by staff. It wasn't dangerous, of course, but at home, someone would have complained that people could have endangered or hurt the fish. Someone else would have sued, claiming to have been bit by the goldfish.

It seems odd, but I'm not used to thinking for myself anymore. The U.S. is so regulated, that we no longer need to use common sense in everyday life- if there is anything unsafe about an activity, you aren't be allowed to do it. It's a bit ironic that we raise children never having to make decisions about their safety and then scoff at the teenagers who do something dangerous. If they've never had the opportunity to determine what is safe, how do we expect them to know? Perhaps we should put a bumper sticker on their cars saying "Drive at Your Own Risk" or better yet, we could put a sign on everyones doors saying "Live at Your Own Risk." The only question, then, is to whom we can hand responsibility... Uncle Sam? And the cycle continues.