July 29, 2013

Can you Forward your Mail from South Africa?

When we moved away from South Africa, one of my last errands was to return my post office key. I went to the local post office in Dainfern Valley and asked how this is done.

"Oh, you just give me the key," was the answer.

"That's it? No form to fill out? Won't I get a receipt?"

"No, you just give me the key," at which she shoved the key into some drawer and gave me a dismissive look.

Oh well. It seemed a bit irregular, but then again, I was leaving the country. And, frankly, any time you are not asked to fill out a lengthy form by a South African official, you are thrilled and don't want to spoil your good luck by asking any more questions.

So I left, and didn't bother to ask the next obvious question, i.e. how any mail could be forwarded to our new address abroad. Leaving a hole in my meticulously assembled moving-out expat to-do list.

Which is why I was so thrilled to hear that a friend of mine explored that very question when it was her turn to leave South Africa recently. 

Maybe she could provide some answers.

This was her conversation with the post office:

"I'd like to redirect our mail internationally from South Africa."

"That's not possible."

"It's not?"

"No, it's not. No-one in South Africa has ever moved abroad, so no-one has ever needed to do that."

There you go. Such simple logic. All of us now living abroad, we don't really exist. Except on the books of the SABC when it comes to renewing our TV licenses, and on the books of the UIF when it comes to keep paying unemployment insurance for domestics we no longer employ. 

Well, at least they can't reach us per mail. 

If the mailboxes are even working, that is.

July 25, 2013

The Joys of South African Bureaucracy

I've recently been suffering from Africa withdrawal.

As a cure for my blues, I thought I'd reflect on a particularly annoying reminder of South African bureaucracy that keeps coming up time and again, by way of my email inbox:

The SABC has not yet received your television licence payment for the current licence year. Your licence year runs from 2013/03/01 to 2014/02/28 and your TV licence should therefore have been renewed by 2013/02/28.  The balance currently outstanding on your account is R275.00.

In terms of the Broadcasting Act penalties of 10% per month to a maximum of 100% per annum are levied on overdue accounts. In order to avoid incurring further penalties, full payment must be made by no later than 2013/04/07.

Should you wish to pay your licence directly via credit card on the TV Licences internet website, follow this link to access the payment site. Alternatively, you may pay at any of the other paypoints listed on our website and on your statement.

Should you require any assistance, please contact the SABC's TV Licences Contact Centre on 011 330 9555 during office hours (07:30 - 18:00 on weekdays and 08:00 - 13:00 on Saturdays).

We look forward to receiving the outstanding monies.

Yours sincerely

For those of you who have never lived in South Africa, the very idea of a TV License might be a rather alien one. Why would you need a license to watch TV in your very own home?

But you do. It's their way of collecting a tax for broadcast TV. Even though you will probably never be caught watching that, and even though you pay a much more handsome fee for cable via Multichoice. You still have to have one TV License per household, renewable annually.

So no problem when you're moving abroad, right? You just follow the link stated above and cancel your license?

No, of course it wouldn't be that easy. You have plenty of options for paying your renewal fee, but no option whatsoever to terminate your record altogether for having moved abroad. No one ever thought of that, apparently. It reminds me of the story I just read about Germany, a country similar to South Africa in terms of its zeal for record-keeping: The government discovered, to their horror, that they had one and a half million fewer residents than they thought they had. With negative implications on tax forecasts and all sorts of other indicators. One and a half million people simply disappeared. How was this possible when the government kept such good track of people's movements by making them register and de-register wherever they went? It's simple: People leaving the country never bothered de-registering. I myself am guilty of doing just that, twenty-something years ago.

Apparently, my phantom self will now be on the books of not just one country, but two. I will forever be listed as a TV owner in South Africa's vast bureaucracy. And, as was confirmed by friends with similar stories, the unpaid fees together with the penalties for non-payment will accumulate over the years so that if you ever move back and apply for another TV License, you will owe the government a ton of money.

Unless, of course, you remember to have your spouse apply the next time around. Or change your name.

The thing is, as annoying as it is, this story once again makes me shrug and say "Welcome to Africa" like I've done so many times over the years. In contrast, when things don't go well in the United States, even though they typically go a lot better than in South Africa, you don't just shrug your shoulders and say "Welcome to America."

No, you get angry that things aren't going well.

Not making them go better, incidentally, and making you feel a lot worse.

July 22, 2013

The Ultimate Expat Moving Checklist

You would think that we had moved enough in our lives that when the news was dropped that we were moving again, I could have just whipped out a moving checklist from my files and bingo, all I needed to do was start checking off items.

But sadly I had no such list.

Well, to take that back, I do have a Moving Checklist on my blog, forever a resource of amazing breadth whenever I need to find something. But it is more geared towards moving TO South Africa, not AWAY from it, and it is also not nearly specific enough.

What I wanted was a list with every single moving-related to-do on it.

I think the reason we don't keep those kinds of lists around is that they get so messy so quickly, with items being added and crossed out continuously, and that they also pose a reminder to a period of upheaval in our lives that we'd just as soon like to forget. The first thing we do upon arrival in our new home is throw out all those dog-eared lists, as if we wanted to ban the whole business of moving from our lives as well.

So there was nothing left to do, sometime during the second half of 2012, but to once again painstakingly jot down every single thing that must be done to get our family of six extracted from one continent and established on another.

The result was a labor of love, or at least a labor of attention to minute details, several pages of them, taped to the wall of my South African bedroom staring at me accusingly every single morning, pressuring me to accomplish something - anything - so that it could be crossed out with a flourish.

I know this is a tedious business and some of it won't apply to your life. My kids, who I've let read some of my blog post drafts during our Europe trip, read this one and proclaimed it as "the most boring story ever." So you are excused if you are now moving on to check out hot sales on Amazon.com.

Or hot dudes on Singles.com.

But if you're sticking around, I thought I'd share my Ultimate Expat Moving Checklist here with you.

Or, if not with you, at the very least my own future self.

Just somebody please remind me when the time comes again (the mere thought horrifies me) to Google my own blog.

Moving Checklist

1. In South Africa:

  • Terminate rental agreement
  • Advertise furniture and appliances for sale
  • Clean out kids' rooms and donate/discard old toys
  • Update/create valued inventory of all items to be shipped
  • Back up computers to external hard drive(s) or cloud storage
  • Schedule packers
  • Schedule rental furniture delivery and pickup
  • Dismount/unscrew wall hangings to pack
  • Repair and paint walls
  • Schedule house/carpet cleaning
  • Find home for pet(s) or contact pet relocation service

Personal belongings

Tip: Set aside an empty room in the house for items outside of packers' reach (or mark larger items with masking tape):

  • Passports!!
  • Immunization records - the new school will ask for them before letting kids start!
  • Other files (i.e. services to cancel, school reports, birth certificates)
  • For sale items
  • Donation items
  • Items that stay with house (garage openers, remotes for alarms, keys, manuals)
  • Paint
  • Painting tools
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Adapters/chargers/power strips
  • Suitcases
  • Backpacks/hand luggage
  • Clothes/personal belongings
  • Laptop computers
  • Modem/router
  • Kindles
  • Phones
  • Money/wallets
  • External hard drive with backed up data
  • xBox
  • Games/toys
  • Rented musical instruments
  • Medicines

Our "special" room while packers were at our house. I'm sure yours will look much neater!

  • Schedule last checkups if necessary
  • Obtain immunization records
  • Buy last medicines to stock up on
  • Dermatologist records
  • X-rays from hospital
  • Dentist records
  • Orthodontist records
  • Family doctor's records

  • Close/transfer balances from kids' accounts
  • Cancel debit/credit card orders for school feeding scheme, Multichoice, Telkom, internet, Vodacom, instrument rental, insurance, Tracker.
  • Transfer remaining funds to new bank
  • Close bank account

  • Clean/take photos of car
  • Advertise car
  • Sell car
  • De-register car
  • Cancel car insurance
  • Cancel tracking service
  • Schedule rental car delivery

  • Buy South African artifacts
  • Have pictures framed (much better prices in South Africa)
  • Buy stock of Mrs. Ball's chutney and other special food items
  • Order cases of wine for container

Services (also see The Expat Game in Reverse)
  • Cancel Multichoice
  • Prorate Eskom and COJ bills and make payment
  • Cancel Afrihost
  • Cancel Telkom
  • Cancel Vodacom cellphone contract
  • Cancel garden service
  • Cancel recycling
  • Cancel pest control
  • Cancel gym membership
  • Cancel post office box

  • Return rented instruments
  • Cancel music lessons
  • Obtain all outstanding report cards
  • Ask for teacher recommendations/testimonials for each child
  • Sort out and sell/donate school uniforms
  • Cancel horse riding, gymnastics, cricket, and other private sports

  • Bonus for domestic
  • Place ad for domestic and tell friends
  • Hand over charity projects
  • Use up/transfer video store credit
  • Use up/transfer tuck shop account at school
  • Return borrowed books
  • Have a, or rather a series of, goodbye parties

2. In the United States*:

  • Research schools
  • Research neighborhoods
  • Contact realtor
  • Look at houses
  • Buy a house
  • Buy car
  • Schedule house repairs and improvements
  • Give friends and family your new address
  • Change your address for all your credit cards
  • Fill out school paperwork
  • Schedule physicals for school sports
  • Schedule dentist
  • Schedule orthodontist
  • Start utilities and services: Cable, phone, internet, mobile phone, electricity, gas, water, trash, recycling, garden service, pest control
  • Set up wireless router
  • Research and pick school and outside sports and activities
  • Research and pick music teachers
  • Invite your new neighbors over to follow up on We Should have Dinner Sometime
  • Inexplicably wait for six months
  • Hang all your pictures

You're not truly done moving until you've hung all the pictures!

Are you still with me? That's amazing. You deserve an award just for reading all of this. And if you actually ever DO all of this, alongside doing all the other unsung things that need doing like cooking, washing, and cleaning for your family, and repairing things that don't work, and buying birthday presents for everyone, and finding time to repair stuffed animals, you can officially call yourself a Saint.

No, wait, a Mom!

* Disclaimer: That second list of to-dos in the United States is not nearly as long and exhaustive as the first. I admit that Noisette did a lot of the things on this end while he was already here. I'm sure he'd say there was a whole lot more to it.

July 18, 2013

Girl Power

This post is dedicated to my two daughters. Who have got to be the best two daughters in the entire world.

I mean, who else would make me a birthday card such as this?

Not my boys, that's for sure. As I've told you before, girls and boys are made of entirely different stuff. 

At least the ones in our family.

I know my sons will be sure to distinguish themselves in another way some day. Like, for instance, if they ever install a wireless router that actually works in my house. I shall be forever grateful. Because I sure as hell can't figure stuff like that out.

Or if I ever find myself under attack from a vicious virtual army and they come to my valiant rescue with their battle tested thumbs to defeat the enemy. That is something they'll be far better at than the girls. Although I should mention that the girls are still much better at it than me. The few times I've played Call of Duty, I was dead five seconds into the game.

Oh, and the boys are also good to have on your team when you play 30 Seconds. Especially when it comes to such pesky questions as "capital of Norway" that will have the girls swearing that they've never heard of such a place before and why should they be expected to know this when it has never come up in school.

But card making prowess, and the required stamina, is not one of the boys' strong suits. 

I mean, they moan, as if it was truly the end of the world, if I ask them something as simple as to unload the dishwasher.

"All those dishes?" they will ask, horror on their face. It truly seems like a monumental task. Never mind that they'll be done two minutes later and proceed to playing on the xBox for the next six hours straight. If I ask them again to do something later that same day, they are incensed.

"I already did all this work for you today," they protest, indignantly. 

Maybe this is just practice for their later lives as husbands, when they will have to work up their resolve for two weeks before changing a light bulb.

The girls, on the other hand, can lock themselves in a room all day and work at my birthday card. For thirteen hours, to be precise. Without anyone prompting them. In twenty-three different colors, using eleven different fonts they've practiced over the last three weeks. And - this is the most amazing part - they can do this without ever having a single fight. Perfect harmony for the greater good.

They can also spend days devising a Jeopardy game on Powerpoint for Mother's Day, complete with coupons for the grand prize that promise future pedicures, massages, and bathroom scrubbings.

This wasn't easy. I know much less about my family than I thought.

Some of it was very predictable...

...some of it was impossible to know...

...and some of it made me laugh (I got it right - the answer is "panic")

As Zax pointed out, I could also have used all my points for 500 bathroom cleanings

To be fair, Zax made me a sushi Mother's Day dinner, which was actually a lot of work. Partly because he insisted on measuring every ingredient to the exact gram. But also because making sushi is just a lot of work. Sure, Noisette supplied all the initiative, or it would never have happened, but still. 

Something in the boy column.

Homemade sushi, anyone?

Today, however, I'm saluting my girls. 

Thank you for the very special birthday card!

July 16, 2013

It's a Climb - TCKs and the Power of Peer Pressure

As I was sitting through an interminable end-of-year awards ceremony at our middle school the other day, I was struck by the stark contrast to the last awards ceremony I had attended on another continent in December of 2012.

Not that it varied much in its basic nature. As with all awards ceremonies, there was a succession of teachers extolling the virtues of learning and the virtues of this particular group of students over any other past or present, there was a table with plaques and medals and certificates, and there was an endless parade of students down from the stands to receive their awards.

What was very different this time lay in the amount of pomp and solemnity, or rather lack thereof. I suppose it's hard to extract much pomp and solemnity from a vast gym where you're sitting on hemorrhoid-breeding bleachers and surrounded by banners of athletic awards hung from the rafters, bright neon lights above and squeaky sounds of rubber sole on gym floor drifting up from below. It was much easier to achieve in a posh auditorium with cushy seats and stage lighting.

But something tells me the South Africans would have managed to give it more style even here, with well-rehearsed speeches delivered in their beautiful South African lilt, wearing their black robes, and infusing it with their sense of humor and showmanship, which in our Dainfern College days invariably made it into one memorable stage performance or another. I could point to the time that Mr. Webb lit a fire on stage to make a point about kindling the flame, or the occasion of Mr. West’s departure where he had the entire staff perform an impromptu performance of Gangnam Style, black robes and all.

Dainfern College impromptu Gangnam Style performance by teaching staff, December 2012.

The other stark difference was the complete absence of any awards for my child.

Where at the end of last school year our family had scored several top student and subject awards, we came home completely empty this time. Nothing, zip, not even perfect attendance or dedicated library helper. Which was actually quite the feat, considering there were about eighteen different award categories, with well over twenty kids lining the floor at any given time.

The most exclusive club, that day, seemed to be the one of children not receiving any awards.

The students with A averages actually outnumbered the others by quite a substantial margin. Grade inflation at its best. Everybody gets an A, so everybody is above average, yippee! The names were rattled off in alphabetical order and any recognition these students might have deserved ceased to be meaningful about five minutes in when we were still laboring through the Gs and people started pulling out their iPhones to check their emails.

There were awards for simply everything. Academics, arts, music, best short story, forensics (an unfortunate naming of what we previously knew as debate and public speaking, leading my children to give up any ambitions they might have had in that regard, at least for the moment), model United Nations, math, science, battle of the books, geography bee, spelling bee, good citizenship, and more. I was baffled that there seemed to be all these ways my child could have gotten involved, but didn't. Choosing instead to fly under the radar and try to blend in as best they could. In fact, had they given out any awards for the most inconspicuous student, I'm sure my child would have scored.

This led me to reflect on another side of expat life I haven't talked about yet: The fact that you start over and over and over again. As Hannah Montana so aptly put it, it's a climb. Or maybe it’s more like Groundhog Day. You start at the bottom every single time. Making friends. Getting the school to know you, to understand that you're not totally stupid. This is now the sixth school for our oldest, and every single one of them was quick to point out that “our school has particularly high standards” whenever the discussion turned to gifted programs and accelerated math classes, for instance. Like I said, the category our kids seem most eager to compete in is the one of blending in without attracting undue attention, so by the time the powers that be get an inkling that there might be potential worth tapping into, we've probably moved on again.

It's a climb. In life as it is in the Drakensberg. Photo: Jacky du Plessis

I would have expected the opposite. I would have thought that being the new kid in school so often, and not only surviving it but doing quite well, both academically and in terms of friends, would have given you enormous confidence. That it would have shown you that being different is okay. That being the same in one place makes you different in another, even though you’re still the same person, so why bother trying to adapt so much every time. That it might have made you want to stand out and make your mark faster, because you never know when we’re moving again.

It’s almost as if our frequent moves have made the desire to blend in even stronger. Or maybe it’s just your typical dose of peer pressure and teenage angst, which of course these days we have plenty of in our family. 

Or perhaps it’s just genetics. Some people like the limelight, and some don’t.

I admit I was a limelight avoider too. I recall countless instances of deliberately marking answers wrong on my French vocab tests, when in truth I could memorize a list of twenty new words in about two minutes. And giving some words an awkward German accent. Just so as to avoid the gushing praise from my teacher, and, consequently, the derisive wrath from my classmates (most of whom, it must be said, had not one Francophone bone in their body).

So maybe I should be more lenient on my kid who wants to quit band “because it’s just not cool here.“ It’s enough, he says, to have been christened “Africa” immediately upon arrival, and every other sentence starting with “Hey Africa, I bet you didn't have that in Africa.”

On that particular note, I found a piece of comedy that totally fits the very thing he’s going through right now. By none other than South Africa’s very own Trevor Noah. If you haven’t seen him, it’s about time you did.

July 13, 2013

The New Domestic Help

Do you know the scariest thing about repatriation?

And no, I’m not even talking about the hassle of moving an entire household. Of re-registering any bit of data that needs registering in a new place. Of learning that not all toilets flush equally. Not even of finding a new hairdresser, and, almost worst of all, a new orthodontist yet again.

No. It's the prospect of losing your domestic help, of course.

I consider myself lucky. In that I dimly recall, from three years ago, how to do household chores. How it feels to put on clothes that are not ironed. To sleep in sheets haven’t been changed in, ahem, two months. To try and ignore all the dust bunnies as best you can, or sort of kick them under the sofa, until such time as you actually haul out the old vacuum once every blue moon.

Some of us aren’t that lucky. Some of us gave birth abroad and have had domestic help from Day One of child rearing, with no earthly idea how this monumental task can possibly be achieved all on our own.

Even though I don’t fall into that latter group, I still had to go from made beds, perpetually mopped floors, and starched underwear back to a world of disorder and dirt. Also called The Real World.

So I’m quite pleased to announce that I've hired new domestic help. Not even just one, mind you. Why not get four, I thought, especially as they come for free.

The new domestic help

Although not entirely free or even cheap, to be honest. You have to provide room and board. And sometimes they can be quite demanding about the "board" part. Taken together, my new domestic workers don't eat any tomatoes, peas, or anything green for that matter. None of what they do like seems to overlap with one another, and their dislikes are often expressed in a loud exclamation of disgust.

You also have to be able to bear decades of whining and bickering and arguing, except maybe for the years that they refuse to talk to you at all. And you have to be entirely immune to all sorts of eye-rolling.

But if all that doesn’t bother you too much, and if your standards of cleanliness aren’t too terribly high, and if you don’t mind prodding and nagging constantly, and I mean constantly, then my new domestic help solution might work for you too.

Meet Zax, Jabulani, Impatience, and Sunshine. They now cover the areas of folding laundry (all that arrives in the laundry room is washed, dried, and sorted but that is where my contribution ends), dishwashing duty including putting away food and wiping counters (rotating on a weekly basis), taking the trash out to the curb, picking up rooms and vacuuming as needed, preparing their lunch boxes on weeknights, and cleaning their own sinks and toilets every weekend. Dusting shelves will eventually have to be added too, but so far the thick layer of dust hasn’t bothered anyone. We lately added the new task of making the dessert of the week, which for some reason has been embraced a lot more willingly than all the other stuff.

The new domestic help might be a bit slow addressing such situations in a timely manner

And not only has this helped keep my workload to a manageable degree, it has also contributed to some real savings in terms of energy and supplies. Tossing laundry in the bin, it turns out, is done much less frequently when tied to the vivid memory of having folded it in painstaking labor not too long ago. One can actually look at it and sniff at it and determine that it can be worn again if hung on a hook. I’m a master of installing hooks. There are about a bazillion of them all around the house. I love nothing quite so much as a favorably placed hook in the right location.

Take this rather substantial reduction in laundry, together with the fact that my washing machine now holds a load the size of a small elephant, and all of a sudden I have to go on a veritable clothes hunt each time I want to fill a load.

So, if you’re an expat living a life of bliss with around-the-clock maid service and facing the dreaded repatriation in your near future, don’t despair. You can retrain your kids to pick up the slack.

I’m told you can also train small rodents for the same tasks. It probably works better.

July 10, 2013

Eiffel Tower, Pigeon Poop, and Picasso

Have you ever had the crazy thought of touring Europe by rail for three weeks with four kids in tow? Without your spouse to help heave suitcases onto luggage racks and drag overtired kids out of bed in the mornings?

If yes, and especially if Paris is one of your travel destinations, you might benefit from the following lessons learned:

  • If you travel by train, make sure you look at the train diagrams posted on each platform, showing you where to stand in relation to the seats you have booked. Otherwise you’ll be spending your entire trip hauling your bags through the obstacle course of an overfilled train, bumping into people left and right and possibly sustaining injuries from the dagger-like stares you’ll attract.
  • Make sure you listen to any announcements that might contain a last-minute change to the train diagram you just studied.
  • If you didn't make any seat reservations, brace yourself to be hauling your bags through the obstacle course of an overfilled train, bumping into people left and right and possibly sustaining injuries from the dagger-like stares you’ll attract.
  • Don’t split up in a train station leaving some to watch the bags while the others search for the bathroom. A) you won’t find the bathroom. B) if you do, it will cost money in a combination of coins you won’t have on you. And C) the people staying behind on the platform will throw a tantrum when the train arrives on another platform and they are saddled with five bags between two people, even if there are fifteen minutes to spare.
  • Don’t trust your train ticket telling you which platform you’ll depart from. Inevitably you will find yourself on the wrong one and only realize your mistake with about 30 seconds to spare and two long flights of stairs between you and the arriving train, leading to a ginormous burst of adrenaline you frankly could have done without.
  • If you’re planning a trip to Paris, book the Eiffel Tower online at least a week in advance to avoid the lines.
  • Except when one of your children gets sick the minute you arrive in Paris, it will be a good thing you totally missed the deadline for booking tickets online.
  • When you finally do make it to the Eiffel Tower with all your healthy children, it is entirely possible it will be closed down and evacuated because some crazy person is climbing it on the outside. But you will only learn this after standing in line for an hour and belatedly realizing it has not moved one inch and going to the front to investigate. The many message boards advising you of ticket prices will not make any mention of a closure whatsoever.
  • If after all this you’re still intent on climbing the Eiffel Tower, consider sending your kids to the top by themselves while waiting in a nearby café over some coffee and a croissant – it is so much more relaxing than dying a million deaths if you have a fear of heights.
  • If you want to spend 11 Euros in order to have your feet trampled on for an hour and be pressed through a funnel of human congestion and body odors, all the while clutching your backpack and obsessively checking your pockets lest you be robbed, go right ahead. Buy a ticket to the Louvre to catch a reflection-riddled glimpse of the Mona Lisa. Or you might prefer to send your kids in for free with instructions to take a picture to prove you were there – a picture, mind you, with many a stray elbow and backpack and iPad in it in addition to the Mona Lisa - while you treat yourself to another coffee and croissant while Googling the Mona Lisa over free WiFi and getting a much better view. Or you might be sensible and skip the Louvre altogether and visit the much more manageable and arguably interesting Musee D’Orsay.
  • The Paris Pass for major attractions sounds like a great deal, until you do the math and realize it doesn't include the Eiffel Tower and for it to pay off you’d have to visit three museums a day. I don’t know about you, but three museums a day with four children in tow are not something a sane person should ever undertake.
  • Buy a baguette and cold cuts at the corner store for a couple of Euros and make a picnic lunch of it in a park somewhere rather than dishing out 70 Euros each time you sit down in a café.
  • If you do sit down in a café, at least ask for a “carafe d’eau” which means you’ll be getting free tap water rather than paying 6 Euros for a tiny bottle of Perrier that your youngest child will have accidentally spilled before anybody even had a sip. The waiter might very likely kill you but it will be good for your budget.
  • Speaking of budgets, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with five people in the building Pablo Picasso once had an atelier in is both quaint and very cost-effective.
  • Sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the building Pablo Picasso once had an atelier in means the apartment dates from the time when Pablo Picasso had his atelier in the building, including the kitchen appliances and shower curtain.
  • Sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the building Pablo Picasso once had an atelier in also means you will probably live in closer proximity to your kids and everyone’s bodily functions – especially if the toilet is at one end of the apartment and the sink at the other end – than you might have hoped for.
  • The city of Paris provides a number of free WiFi spots in certain public locations and buildings. It’s a good idea to study the map of these locations before leaving the apartment while you actually do have a WiFi connection. Or you might just find a Starbucks which often has free WiFi  You’ll just have to go there secretly without telling your kids or you’ll have to spring for four Frappucinos for 5 Euros each.
  • When a pair of pigeons dive-bombs you in the Jardins de Luxembourg while also pooping on your head, you’ll be extremely glad you didn't book the even cheaper apartment which you found out at the last second didn't have a shower in it at all (which is why it was such a bargain). You’ll be very grateful for your shower, even when the water has turned completely cold because the water heater is probably also from the time of Pablo Picasso.
  • Invest about fifteen minutes on your first day in Paris to study a metro map with everybody including a quiz for the kids at the end on how to find their way home. It will make for much calmer travels. Plus you could technically send your kids off on their own while you admire the view from Pablo Picasso’s building and rest your feet on the windowsill, if indeed you trust the windowsill to be stable enough for such a load. It doesn't look like it, but then again, it has already lasted this long.
  • Tell your children not to throw away their Metro ticket stubs right after feeding them through the machine and passing the entrance, because it is entirely possible the tickets will be checked on the other end when getting off and it makes for a much better day when you don’t have to explain why you don’t have one on you. Also, a Metro ticket stub is a useful tool for scooping pigeon poop off somebody’s hair. Just thought I’d mention that here.
  • If there is an elevator when you get out of the metro and you’re hauling four heavy suitcases, take it. The French don’t ever waste an elevator for a few steps, so it is very likely you’re either emerging from under the Seine or inside of an entire mountain.
  • You will always be recognized for a foreigner however hard you try, so you might as well give up. But with some practice you can join in the game of detect-the-foreigner yourself and refrain from buying your crepe in spots where there are many of them, or you’ll be paying way too much.
  • The hat game is ALWAYS a scam. Do not be fooled into playing it. I am proud to say that I don’t speak from any bad experience in this regard. Not on this trip.
  • When you finally meet people who won’t automatically address you in English and who’ll admire your beautiful French, it is very possible they are from Quebec and have their very own troubles at making themselves understood in what they thought was French.

So – if you don’t mind a slanting floor, a few missing window panes, and a mattress full of straw (I know this because the straw was leaking out), then I have a place I can recommend to you in Paris. It’s a magical city and I think it’s safe to say that we are all returning home with fond memories.

Except perhaps not of the pigeon poop in our hair.

Montmartre, the neighborhood we stayed in from afar. Gorgeous,
right? Just don't look too closely at what's leaking out of the mattress.

The view from Pablo Picasso's building, by day...

...and the view at night

The proof! Or at least the claim...

The view inside the kitchen in Pablo Picasso's building after it turned out the dryer wasn't working.

Somehow this picture shows a bigger room than it was in reality.
TGV pulling into Paris Gare de L'Est

Pulling suitcases along endless train platforms
Our Metro station, Abesses, one of the few original Art Nouveau entrances left

Don't be fooled by the scenery - the Abbesses spiral staircase is agony, especially carrying
a heavy suitcase on each arm.

Musee d'Orsay, well worth a visit for its Impressionist paintings and the building itself, which
used to be a train station until it was closed because the platforms turned out to be too short

The view from inside the Musee d'Orsay; possibly my favorite Paris picture (except all
the Eiffel Tower ones)

View of the other bank of the Seine (I never know which is left and right) from Musee d'Orsay

Rodin's Thinker. Looks a bit like my pose when sitting on the toilet.

Don't leave home without it. This was my typical stack of things to stuff my pockets with as
we left the apartment. We were a bit freaked by all the literature about pickpockets so we often
left the backpack at home. That might also have had to do with it being plain heavy.

After I was told it was our shoes that might give us away as Americans, I was obsessed with
looking at people's shoes. Can you spot l'Americaine in this shot?

Montmartre neighborhood parade

We saw plenty of these, and they all screamed "Steve Martin" at us. 

Sacre Coeur, only two minutes from our apartment (which
Picasso once had his studio in, did I mention that?)

Hello, Paris!

Dome des Invalides; the boys enjoyed the military museum inside

The Louvre. If the Mini screamed Steve Martin, this one screamed Dan Brown.

A lot of pushing and shoving...
...to see this. Is it really worth it?

All happy to be outside again
View of La Defense from l'Arc de Triomphe
View of the Eiffel Tower from l'Arc de Triomphe

The closest we got to the Eiffel Tower for 3 out of 4 days

Forgive me, but I went a bit crazy with Eiffel Tower pictures

The guy who almost thwarted our Eiffel Tower plans altogether with his own plans of suicide,
which thankfully he was later talked out of, so that we could return for a beautiful night time visit.

Also see previous Europe with kids blog posts: