By Carol Cain, on June 28, 2014

Reinventing the storybook dream

I grew up dreaming of traveling to faraway places. My mother traveled a great deal as a young woman and I spent many afternoons looking at the photographs behind glossy plastic in her photo albums. My father worked in the hospitality industry, and I often spent weekends in hotels surrounded by tourists from all over the world. It is how I developed my love for languages, this curious need to speak to everyone I met in a way they understood. It is also how I became fascinated with different cultures.

I always said I would travel the world. I daydreamed about it often and would fall asleep to the images in my head of all the exotic and exciting places I would visit. While in college, I worked a full-time job and saved up all my money so that when I graduated I would finally make those dreams come true. Then, three months before graduation day, I found out I was pregnant. I decided to take all the money I had saved up to travel the world and use it to care for my son as a single mother. My dreams to travel the world were immediately put to rest.

When my mother passed away, it changed my entire perspective on life. My mom had put her dreams to travel on hold to raise us, but then didn’t live long enough to pursue them. It became important for me to find a way to take this passion I had, this image of travel I had envisioned for myself, and change the course of history. I was determined to live the dreams my mother never got to live. I was determined to make my “storybook” trip come true.

Excited to see where the road takes us

And so I did. But instead of living my dreams alone, I decided to rewrite the storybook I had originally envisioned so it could include the people I love the most in my life: my husband and my three boys. Our storybook is a family tour of France. Starting this weekend, my family and I will tour around the Midi-Pyrénées and help me check off a list of things I have always dreamed of doing: Vacationing in a luxury chateau in the French countryside, exploring the wonderfully quaint French open markets, driving along narrow roads surrounded by vineyards, and exploring castles and walking through Medieval cities. The trip will be *my* storybook come to life, but it will be even better than I always imagined, because I’ll be doing it with my loves by my side.

Monday, June 30: The end of the rainbow

The weather was hot and the hours were long on the day I was to meet up with my family in France. Words can’t describe the emotions when we finally got together.

I woke up the next day to the sight of my husband smiling at me, and, for a moment, I thought it was a dream. It was Sunday, and the sounds of the church bells joined the soft breeze that found its way into our country-home rental through the tall French windows.


Swimming at our rental

We spent the late morning cooking and playing in the pool, a scene complimented only by the beautiful sound of my children’s laughter.

Later that evening, we ventured again into the beautiful city of Toulouse and dined in a covered outdoor area. Rain fell and cleared out the busy plaza in front of us. I was still in a daze of disbelief that we were here, together. I watched as my little ones tried to speak French, my teen tried his first foie gras, and his younger brother outdid him by dining on his first grilled squid. It was so sweet and perfect that I looked at my husband and said, “Can you believe it? We are here. In France. With our children.” I teared up at my words because this truly was my dream come true. I felt rich and slightly overwhelmed at how lucky I am.

As the rain stopped, we made our way back to the car, the sky cleared up to reveal a brightly colored rainbow. I stopped to photograph the moment, and as I looked into my camera to frame the shot, I saw my family, my wonderful pot of gold, smiling back at me. And my heart felt complete.

Tuesday, July 1: A day for kings and castles

One of the biggest challenges we’ve had so far in the two days we’ve been on vacation is getting up before 11 a.m. The problem: If you like breakfast and you are in France, late wake-ups aren’t going to get you much. Go into a bakery past 10 a.m., and the freshly baked breads are slim pickings, as is breakfast service at restaurants.


Exploring the castle

The eating schedule is pretty set across the board: early breakfast (and never anything too heavy), lunch around noon with a cut-off time of about 2:30 p.m., then dinner service around 7 p.m. Grocery stores close at 8 p.m.,, at the latest. It’s a miracle we are eating at all with the amount of sleep we like to get.

Today, we managed to eat very well in Carcassonne, the fortified city in the French region of Languedoc-Roussillon. Our waitress at Le Longchamp was very sweet, and aside from the made-for-tourists burger with fries, the menu was full of local favorites such as cassoulet (a white bean casserole with duck and pork) and moules-frites (mussels and fries). My kids devoured both and I couldn’t help but feel pride in their adventurous eating habits.

We spent most of the afternoon touring this UNESCO Heritage Site, exploring the small streets, shops, castle, and cathedral. I had been here before, but without my family, making it even more evident to me that experiencing travel with them is sweeter. To be honest, I enjoyed it so much more with them this time around.

This visit has been one of my favorite so far with the kids. We explored the many rooms and towers, as the boys talked about how they would have performed as knights or kings. We lost track of time and were some of the last people to leave as the city started to close down, just in time for dinner.


Kids in the Caves of Niaux

Wednesday, July 2: It’s about the journey

At the beginning of each day, my husband and I pause to remind ourselves we are on vacation. So often when we travel (maybe in great part due to the cost), we tend to want to pack the itinerary with activities. The problem with that strategy: Each day becomes more work and stress than anything else. On this trip, we have promised that we would speak up whenever we found ourselves falling into that trap. So far, it has worked.

And with that mindset, we made our way out of the house by noon (yay, us!) and drove to Ariege, in the Pyrenees Mountains. Here, we hiked the 32 acres that make up the Prehistoric Park. By the time we made it through the bamboo maze and hiked past prehistoric displays and man-made waterfalls, we had forgotten about any need to rush to the next destination.

We found our way to the Caves of Niaux, inhabited by the Magdelanian people more than 13,000 years ago. After spontaneously joining a tour and hiking 1.5 miles into the cave, we spotted some prehistoric paintings. My 7-year-old exclaimed, “I can’t wait to start second grade and tell my class about going into a cave with real cave drawings!”

We made our way home through the Vicdessos Valley without having done half the things we had originally planned to do. But before we could feel any regret or sense of time wasted, our car was filled with the sound of conversation and excitement over the day, a reminder that the experience of the journey is all that really matters in the end.

Thursday, July 3: The little things

It doesn’t matter if you plan to visit a major tourist destination or a tiny town; knowing a few basic words in the local language will get you very far. This lesson has been incredibly important for the other members of my family, who arrived to France with the full intention of relying on me to talk with locals.

Yet today, as we toured through Auch, the capital city of Gascony, I saw my husband and sons making a real effort to communicate in French.

Viewfinder Tip: Apply for a chip-enabled smart card at your local bank or purchase a Travelex Mastercard debit card in pounds or Euros before leaving home.

Their sudden chattiness was motivated by the fact that our American-based credit cards aren’t accepted in most parts of this country. In particular, getting gas after hours has been a huge problem with no one to take our cash. My children witnessed the value of communication when they saw me explain our situation to a local, non-English speaking shop owner, who then gave me directions to a manned gas station that would accept our Euros. The experience solidified what I have been trying to tell them all along: “Listen and learn. Then practice.”

Since that incident, my husband has learned to ask for the check in French, and how to compliment servers for their services. My teen finally mustered the courage to purchase a bottle of water without me by his side. My 8-year-old is enjoying each opportunity to say please and thank you. And my 7-year-old, upon dropping his napkin on the floor, asked me how to ask a waiter for another. In the cutest voice ever, he sauntered up to the waiter and said, “Une serviette s’il vous plaît.” It’s the little things that mean so much.

Friday, July 4: The good travelers

Today we planned to go on a boat ride on the Garonne River in Toulouse. The morning was sunny, something we anticipated after the daily weather report. But as we made our way to the boat, unexpected rain started to fall.

During moments like these our children look to my husband and me to determine what it all means. They want to know if we’ve got alternate plans. They want to know if we’re going to let the surprise get us down. And my husband and I have realized that in order to raise our children to be easy going travelers, we must show them how.


After the tour

So as the rain fell hard, we took the tour. Then came another surprise: The tour was supposed to be in English, but instead it was in French. This second hiccup didn’t matter much to the kids, who were content with looking at the views and the people walking overhead as we passed under the beautiful bridges of the city.

By the time we got off the boat, the sky had begun to clear. My family was excited about the fun we had just experienced and grateful to have more time to explore the city now that the storm had passed.

I would like to say that our dynamic on the road is this perfect all the time, that the kids always are flexible and that my husband and I never lose our patience or become frustrated. I’m not sure that’d be entirely true. What I can say is that we are a work in progress and that we seem to get better with each trip. Today was a really good sign of that.

Maybe our efforts to roll with the punches, both in travel and in life, are starting to pay off. Or maybe today’s pleasant surprises had more to do with the promise that at the end of the tour we would stop for chocolate croissants if everyone behaved. Either way, it was another wonderful day.

Saturday, July 5: Thank you, Toulouse!

I can’t believe our time in the Midi-Pyrenees is over. I still remember the anxiety as I awaited the arrival of my family in France, and now here we are, packing up our bags as we prepare to leave our beautiful country rental and head out to our next French city destination: Bordeaux.

We traveled tons in just one week. The Medieval city of Carcassone took us back to a time of knights and kings, and even the exact movie location where Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was filmed.

The Niaux Caves were a fascinating exploration through prehistoric times. They also contained the most elaborated and beautifully preserved cave drawings I ever have seen.

In Moissac

We walked through the streets that once were the home of the Musketeers in Auch, and in the process learned about D’Artagnan, who served Louis XIV as captain of the Musketeers of the Guard. We ventured through an 11th-century church and climbed up to the bell tower of an ancient abbey in Moissac.

But we spent most of our time in the city of Toulouse, where we shopped, dined, toured museums, and cheered on runners as they raced through the city. We cruised along the Gargonne, and sought out universities (a total of three) at the request of our teenager, who took a liking to the city.

Toulouse also was the place where my children developed confidence to want to speak French however they could, where they became adventurous enough to try different foods such as squid to duck. In short, in Toulouse my children were exposed to the French culture for the first time. For this reason, Toulouse forever will remain a special place in our hearts.

We are continuing with our vacation through France and hope you will connect with us on my personal blog to follow along in the journey!

If you could visit any dream destination, where would it be and why?