"What's Jacqueline doing?"
While we were waiting for the baby to wake from a morning nap, my 4-year-old was leaning out the kitchen window of our 15th-Century Provence farmhouse, keeping an eye on both a departing thunderstorm and the neighbors next door.
Neighbor Jacqueline Portay, decked out in rubber boots that would have made L.L. Bean proud, was wandering about under a towering stand of linden trees, occasionally bending over and dropping something into a bucket.
We headed outside to find out what was up. Escargots , she said, letting us peer into her pail. And so began our great snail hunt.
Last May, other tourists in southern France may have been having the kind of adventures that involved Cannes, the five-star Carlton Hotel and the glamorous likes of Mel Gibson. My family was hunting snails, exclaiming over the deep-sea edibles for sale on the Marseilles waterfront ("Mom! An octopus!") and queuing up at the bakery with the working crowd for fresh-from-the-oven baguettes.
We were in France. With the kids. And we were having a grand time. The key, as we have proved to ourselves numerous times since having our first child five years ago, is renting a house.
In our pre-child days, my husband and I loved racing from fancy hotel to quaint bed and breakfast to mountaintop inn. Inevitably, we would visit some little town that would cause us to say, "Wouldn't it be fun to spend a month here?" We never did.
Then along came Ryan. We were determined not to give up traveling, but we couldn't imagine lugging around all that baby equipment. So we set about finding a cocoon where, after each long day of sightseeing, we could retreat to the serenity of a crib already set up, baby formula in the refrigerator and a washer-dryer awaiting the day's spills. The hoped-for bonus: A glimpse of what it was like to live in a foreign country.
When Ryan was 7 months old we rented a house for a month in Tourrettes-sur-Loup, a medieval village perched on a mountain high above the glittering Riviera about a 20-minute drive northwest of Nice. On our first day we parked in the town square, and, as our rental agency had promised, found our house just yards away from the square's bakery, butcher and other food shops. A few steps in the other direction led to the Grande-Rue, a cobblestone street too narrow for cars, where several dozen artists living above their workshops-studios have turned the town into an arts-and-crafts center.
The two-bedroom, two-bath house, owned by a retired couple from Boston who dabble in antiques, was lovingly furnished with finds from the weekly Nice flea market. Unexpected pleasures included an antique highchair; bookshelves stacked with juicy novels (in English and French); a stereo cassette player with plenty of tapes. The third-floor terrace, just big enough for a few lounge chairs and a dining table, looked out over tile rooftops and tall cypress trees to the distant Mediterranean. We felt completely at home.
On day trips we explored the Picasso Museum at Antibes, the waterfront promenade in Nice and the glamorous shops of Monaco--all within a half-hour's drive.
But often, we just lounged around our terrace, took walks into the valley, picnicked on the mountain or devoured fresh strawberry crepes at the local creperie. With the help of my high school-college French (and our home's friendly, English-speaking caretakers), we picked up on the village gossip: why the two bickering sisters shut down the grocery on the corner, which man had bought up all the real estate in town, why the nickname for our favorite baker was Madame Overcharge.
At night, when Ryan was tucked away, we'd dine on pate, sausages, cheese, bread and wine. Sometimes we'd buy one of the chickens the butcher roasted in the square. We'd get take-out artichoke and Nicoise olive pizza. Or we'd boil some gourmet ravioli packed with wild mushrooms or smoked salmon. France is a take-out paradise. Our caretakers, who run a clothing store on Tourrettes' Grande-Rue, had two teen-agers who baby-sat when we went out to dinner. And our electronic baby monitor even reached across our narrow cobble-stone street into Chez Grandmere, a French and North African restaurant to whose couscous I became addicted.
The French, we found happily, love children, especially babies. Ryan was the catalyst for more conversations with natives than I've ever had on vacation.
Tourrettes shop owners would scold us for not putting socks on him during our morning runs for croissants. Waiters would carry him around. Fellow diners would spirit him away to their own tables and coo over him tirelessly ( Il est magnifique , one woman pronounced firmly, smooching him goodby on both cheeks).
Because the family-oriented French expect kids to be a part of life, we brought Ryan to lunch at the kinds of restaurants we'd never dream of taking him to in America. At the Colombe D'Or in Saint-Paul de Vence, an expensive celebrity haven where Roger Moore was dining on the terrace a few tables away, they didn't bat an eye when we wheeled in a stroller. In fact, they switched our reserved table to one with more room on the side for Ryan to play.
Lunching the French way--long, hearty and on an outdoor terrace--was perfect for a 7-month-old (who didn't learn to crawl until one memorable day in St. Tropez). While we ate course after course, the baby played happily around the table, just like the dogs that the French assume are welcome everywhere.
In the next few years, we rented a house in the Austrian Alps, a condo in Santa Fe and a house in Tucson, all with great success. But last year when baby Caitlin came along, we returned to France.
This time, we found a farmhouse deep in the heart of Provence, about a half-mile from L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This picturesque town, built on a series of canals, is the gateway to the Luberon hills and the villages made famous by Peter Mayle's books, "A Year in Provence" and "Toujours Provence." With two kids, we wanted to be no more than an hour's traveling time from such attractions as Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Arles.
Our stuccoed, three-bedroom farmhouse, whose large, airy rooms were filled with comfy antiques, was the secondary residence on a once-glamorous estate called the Domaine de Palerme. The main house next door was occupied by Jacqueline Portay and her husband, Pierre. Pierre is a dentist and Jacqueline works in the Avignon tourist office. But they also oversee the tourist tenants and farm the estate, planting fields of sunflowers to sell for oil and lavender to sell for perfume.
We did visit the traditional highlights of Provence, from the mountaintop ruins of Les Baux to the seaside beauty of Cassis. But we had some highlights all our own. Baby Caitlin was as popular as Baby Ryan had been. And Ryan, at 4, sparked new adventures.
When he wanted to play and there were no kids around, we'd produce our soccer ball. Voila : Out would come the children, eager to coach an American kid in their favorite sport. Ryan, who had been blase about watching the French-language videotapes I'd bought for him at home, suddenly got religion. He'd race over to me, saying, "Quick, Mom! Tell me some French!" He learned not only that it wasn't so easy, but that you picked it up by listening. Allez-y! a boy would call, sending the ball Ryan's way, meaning, "Your turn, go ahead." Pretty soon Ryan learned to say it back.
We became regulars at what we called the Hat Cafe in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which we nicknamed because the sidewalk umbrellas were in the shape of straw hats. Our favorite waitress would festoon Ryan's dishes of ice cream with toy favors that are usually one-to-a-customer. The cafe employees provided us with sightseeing and shopping advice and, eventually, baby-sitters.
One of our greatest pleasures was shopping--not only in the small food shops where tourists occasionally venture, but in the supermarkets where they almost never set foot. The cheese-counter ladies were delighted to educate us in the differences among the 20 locally produced goat cheeses. We took satisfaction in learning to negotiate the fresh-produce section, where machines automatically weighed and priced delectable asparagus and delicate baby lettuces. After a while, it did feel, just a little, like we actually lived there.
Since we had our own kitchen, we could cater to Ryan's picky food tastes--not to mention save money by taking picnics on day trips. Pizza, however, is ubiquitous in France, and cafe menus usually offer hamburgers or plain, kid-friendly dishes such as roast chicken and French fries. McDonald's knock-offs are common too. Much to our surprise, however, Ryan took a shine to all kinds of goat cheeses.
Every supermarket has shelves of baby food: Along with the ordinary stuff, Gerber and Nestle produce pureed artichokes and a wide variety of tropical fruits for the French market. And disposable diapers (Pampers is the big name) have become a way of life for French parents too.
On Sunday mornings, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue hosts one of the best markets in Provence, a bonanza of food and antiques booths that line the narrow streets. Each week, we would spread out over the market, buying olives, strawberries, breads and sausages (our favorite was a pistachio-studded version, but the donkey sausage from Arles was pretty good too). We'd head back to the farmhouse, spread the back-yard table with a Provencal tablecloth and feast all afternoon in the sunshine.
And then there was the snail hunt. At first, Ryan was appalled at the thought of touching the slimy creatures. But, coaxed in a mixture of French and English by Jacqueline, he was soon racing around the fields of emerging sunflower plants hunting up the little beasts as gleefully as if they were Easter eggs.
When we had filled two huge buckets, we carried them back to Jacqueline's house, where she dumped them into boxes of flour. After the snails had binged and purged on flour for several days, they were ready to cook. On our last day in Provence, she made us a sumptuous snail stew.
True, there are trade-offs to traveling with kids that even the comforts of a home away from home can't eliminate. You can't spend hours wandering through museums, people-watching over cappuccino or poking into boutiques. Kids' interests and attention spans tend to rule the day. As do their basic needs: One day in Monaco, my friend went into the Hermes store to shop . . . and I went across the street to change a diaper in the park.
But I wouldn't have missed that snail hunt for the world. Not even for Mel Gibson.