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Uncle Mame in Europe
A gay uncle and his teen niece and nephew weather the lurid temptations of pot-smoking, pornography, and pizza-with-egg to find family fun in Paris and Amsterdam
Paris: The city of light and architecture, littered with renowned museums filled with the great masters, has culture oozing from every street corner. It is also home to billboards featuring full nudity and broadcast television showing X-rated films. Just a short train ride away is Amsterdam, a city whose pot bars and prostitutes overshadow its great museums and peaceful canals. In a time when everyone is screaming about how we must protect our youth from such influences, which are pervasive in Europe, are these still good destinations for teen travelers? You bet.
Having traveled to both cities before, I wanted to bring my 17-year-old niece and 14-year-old nephew to both those cities for their summer break. Having lived in the small mountain town of Big Bear, Calif., their entire lives, I felt it was time they saw the world.
Their parents were, of course, apprehensive. The teens had never been further north than San Francisco (a mere two-hour plane ride) and had only vacationed on the sedate island of Maui, Hawaii. Did the kids even want to go, I asked? The resounding "yes" sprang forth from their mouths more quickly than you can say Nintendo 64.
Half of any trip begins long before boarding the plane. There are hotel and airfare arrangements, itineraries for daily activities, budgets, and millions of other details. One factor to consider when traveling with teens is to make sure that they see what's interesting to them. Being 39 made me believe someone under 18 might have a different agenda than me. While I'm content to sip wine on the Champs-Elysees, young minds like fuller agendas.
So, as I started arranging I gave them a homework assignment: research. I asked them to use the Internet and the Dorling Kindersley travel guides for each location. The guides are easy to understand, cover both the history and geography of the regions, and feature essential items like public transportation routes, restaurant suggestions, and in-depth features on attractions.
While they studied, I planned. First, transportation had to be arranged. American Airlines still has the best coach value, dollar for dollar and inch for inch. And it has Boeing 777s in its fleet, which feature individual monitors in the back of each seat with five movie channels, a GPS system, radio, and even Nintendo. Remember, an occupied teen is a happy teen.
Then there were hotels in each city. While Paris offers a host of hotels, it's far easier to stay in a major chain hotel when traveling with teens because of the basic service level and standard amenities. The Paris Hilton sits directly beside to the Eiffel Tower and one block away from the Bir Hakeim station for the Metro line that connects travelers with the rest of Paris. The summer family rate I received (after all, the kids had to have their own room) was a remarkable $139 per night during peak season. I had thought about staying at the Four Seasons George V, located one block from the Arc de Triomphe (that's the Arch of Triumph to you Americans), but realized the opulence and sheer splendor of that property might be overkill for our purposes. After all, how much of the rooms would we see? We planned to stay with the Hilton chain in Amsterdam and gained the same favorable rate. When staying at chain hotels, be sure to join their rewards program such as Hilton Hhonors (yes, that's spelled correctly). The priority check-in and late check-out privileges can come in very handy.
Next there was the matter of transportation to Amsterdam from Paris. The kids really wanted to see the countryside, so the obvious choice was Rail Europe. Be sure to purchase tickets in advance and have them before departing the U.S.--it will save a ton of time at the bustling Paris Nord train station. Rail Europe has student fares for people under 25 available for second class. Since all seats are reserved and there's a club car for food and drinks, it's not a bad deal. However, first class is not much more expensive and far more inviting with its meal service and beverage carts.
Because I was an "uncle" by association--my 11-plus-year relationship with their recently deceased real uncle was not legally recognized in the United States--there were legal issues to deal with as well. This included getting a durable power of attorney notarized for all matters pertaining to the well-being of the traveling teens. New immigration regulations also state that anyone under 14 traveling with only one parent or guardian have a signed statement saying they are legally authorized to do so from both parents (in hopes of cutting down on the number of children being abducted by a parent to a foreign country). Check with the U.S. State Department for more details. Always carry health insurance cards, emergency numbers for the providers, and actual hand-written prescriptions for any medications along with the pills in their original bottles.
Upon landing at Paris's Charles De Gaulle airport, the city waited. First things first: exchanging money to pay for transportation. It is wise to only exchange a small amount at the airport. The exchange rate is not that favorable, and most hotels now offer the service for their guests with a better rate. Also, charge whatever you can because credit card companies have an even better rate of exchange.
There is an RER train (rapid transit) from the airport to the city for approximately $7. A taxi ride is $35 or more. Take the taxi. The train station is a schlep with luggage in tow and for more than three people equals about the same in price. Be careful, however: Paris taxi drivers are notorious for taking the scenic routes to run up the bill. Save the train for running about Paris.
So, what agenda had the teens decided upon? Surprisingly, much of what every traveler young or old wants to do. First, the Tour Eiffel. They sat sketching it from their balcony at the Hilton and enjoyed laying down under it, looking up into its center in the evening.
Museums were big on their lists, including the Louvre. A tip to the wise: buy a museum pass from the French Tourism Board. Not only is it good for days, but it allows holders to enter without standing in sometimes-substantial lines. It's good for over 70 museums and monuments, and a five-day pass is about $35.
After seeing the Mona Lisa (in which my nephew found a man and his dog hidden in the background, who knew?) and Aphrodite (Venus de Milo), my young charges found the museum a little dull. So we crossed the Seine to the Musee d'Orsay, and suddenly they were in the gallery of art's greatest hits. The two were awestruck that some of Van Gogh's and Monet's most famous works were right in front of them. It is legal to photograph inside Paris museums (with some flash restrictions), and they each wanted photos in front of these works.
The museum pass also works on monuments, so that night they wanted to see the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. They took great delight watching their uncle maneuver the seemingly endless narrow spiral staircase to the top of this 164-foot tribute to Napoleon's little-man complex. The structure, completed in 1836 after 30 years of construction, fulfilled Napoleon's promise that his soldiers "shall go home beneath triumphal arches." It offers the best view of Paris, including the cube-like Grande Arche de La Defense.
The beauty of the Grande Arche drew us there immediately. It was built in 1989 and sits on a 198-acre business center. It is a giant hollow cube, large enough to fit Notre Dame Cathedral inside. It features glass elevators in the middle of the cube supported by steel poles that go far too high too fast for my taste. The sheer enormity of it made it of interest. The fact that there are offices and an exhibition center inside the walls of the cube made it astounding. American architecture is so terribly boring, as my nephew put it.
Shopping was high on the list of things to do, and what better place than the Marche aux Puces de Montreuil. This Paris flea market is famous for clothing and loud sales people, bric-a-brac, and must have items. It's also a great place for souvenirs. My nephew bought a 24-inch-tall Tour Eiffel for $14. We could not find it elsewhere for less than $28. My niece loaded up on handbags, buying five for under $30. Learn the phrase "C'est combien?" It means "How much?" Just be sure you can figure out the answer. The flea market is two train rides away from most locations.
And what of food? Most teens aren't adventurous, and most French food is--pizza with egg in the middle, sauces on most everything, and unique spice combinations throughout. The Marais district was a hit with the kids due to its Chinese--yes, Chinese--restaurants and Middle-Eastern food. They also really wanted to eat at McDonald's--to compare differences. They were more than taken aback when their fries came with mayonnaise instead of ketchup and their Diet Coke was named Coke Light. Dinner in the Bastille area included a trip to a small unmarked crepe stand. Lines of locals told us we were in the right place, as the proprietor made the crepes right in front of us and then filled them with Nutella (a chocolate hazelnut cream) and bananas. From that moment on, Nutella became a staple of their diets.
Also, in each hotel we were sure to get executive lounge access. The lounge provided breakfast and snacks, saving us a fortune. They also featured wines and cocktails for adults. The nominal increase in room rate is well worth it when traveling with teens. They loved sitting, looking out, planning the day, or meeting for afternoon tea there.
Day three saw the Cite des Sciences located in the Parc de la Villette. More than a museum of science and industry, this complex is part of a 136-acre park complete with a huge round geode that houses an Imax-type theater, a planetarium, a vintage submarine to explore, a playground, and hundreds of hands-on exhibits about how things like computers, cars, and even your eyes and hair work. Plan on spending at least four to six hours here, and get the audio tour in order to understand what you're looking at. The fee is under $8 per person and well worth it. There is a Metro station (Porte de la Villette) directly in front.
And what of the full nudity on the sunscreen billboard or the risque television? After the initial curiosity wore off, the teens were more interested in what to do next instead of preoccupying themselves with television or ads. I realized I risked the complete moral decay of my niece and nephew by allowing them a room of their own without a V-chip or blocks of any kind on their television. However, it's been over a month since our return and their parents assured me they haven't taken any guns to school or turned up a parent themselves.
Departing Paris by train is a quick taxi ride to Paris Nord train station. A hectic and busy place, the large board on each wall will give you platforms and times for your trains. The train takes you through several countries, including Belgium. It arrives in Amsterdam at the Central Station, which sits at the center of this semicircular city of canals.
The first things you'll notice are the thousands of bikes heaped upon each other all over the sidewalks. While the station features an actual three-story bicycle parking lot, the ones on the street are often free to use--just get on and drive, and leave it when you're done. My teens were immediately impressed with the spacious separate bike lanes Amsterdam offers and how the city seems more geared for foot and bicycle travel than for automobiles.
Our hotel, the Amsterdam Hilton, was another fascination. It houses the suite that John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their "bed-in" back in the '70s. Left relatively untouched, avid fans can rent the room and stay in a piece of pop history.
Amsterdam is an easy city to get around without the use of a cab. Since its drivers seem to have the same ethic as in Paris (taking longer routes, running up the meter), buy a 16-use trolley card from your hotel's gift shop and take the train. From the Hilton or Meridian Apollo, the number 16 stops at all major points and the number 5 goes to the Times Square of Amsterdam, Leidsplein. Those two trains serve a visitor well.
In Amsterdam the first stop was the Van Gogh museum. It houses Theo Van Gogh's collection of his brother Vincent's work, featuring over 200 paintings, sketches, letters, and artwork. Sunflowers, Portrait of the Artist, and The Potato Eaters are just three of the many classic works presented in this architecturally pleasing attraction.
The kids wanted to see more of Holland than Amsterdam, so we took a Holland Keytour to the traditional city of Volendam and the former island of Marken (it's now connected by a dike). This four-hour excursion cost $25 and was worth every penny. It gives travelers a more comprehensive look at the Netherlands including a stop at a working cheese farm, shopping, and a boat ride to Marken. A note: you will need to notify customs when you return that you visited the cheese farm because of the goats there. They will then ask you to go with them and sterilize your feet due to hoof and mouth disease (a quick dip for the bottom of your shoes in a small tub).
Shopping is wonderful in Amsterdam, and the teen duo wanted plenty of it. Our dollar holds up well there, and bargains on clothing, unique china, and pottery can be found everywhere. This is also a Wedgewood outlet that ships to the U.S.
Amsterdam is a tribute to tolerance due in part to its past function as the busiest European port city. Port cities had to tolerate a culturally diverse population in order to keep their port economies going.
The Anne Frank house was a must-see, and the silent echoes of a tragic life brought a sense of quietness over our group immediately. It sits next to Westerkerk, the church that has the highest steeple in the city at 272 feet. Rembrandt is buried there, but his grave has never been found. The Imperial Crown of Maximillian adorns the spire. Current monarch Queen Beatrix was crowned and married there.
Directly behind the Westerkerk along the river sits the Homomonument. Three large stone triangles comprise this testament to cultural diversity. If viewed from above, the three triangles all form one larger triangle.
So in a town that mixes religion, gay rights, pot and prostitutes how did the teens fare? Just fine, thank you very much. The red-light district was of little to no interest to them. As we walked through, they laughed far more than any thing else, questioning devices in sex store windows and remarking at the extreme physical differences between the girls in the little windows. They questioned the reasoning and were thrilled to find out that these women have health insurance and legal benefits from the government just like every other tax paying citizen. My niece remarked the U.S. could learn from the Dutch how to handle prostitutes in our society, since they don't seem to be going away.
As for the pot bars, I asked if they would like to explore one. These clubs are for adults 18 years or older, but there are some where under-age visitors can simply browse about with shopping adults. While they laughed at the openness of the pot smokers, they showed no interest whatsoever. Being a horrible uncle, I even asked if they wanted me to buy them a pot brownie for them to try and they both stated an emphatic "No, thanks!"
The most fun was had at La Bastille coffeehouse in Leidseplein. At the 30-station high-tech Internet cafe, the three of us sat checking our E-mail and Web surfing at least one hour each night. Right around the corner we watched street performers and artists, ate fresh Haagen-Dazs and marvelous chocolate-covered Belgian waffles that seem to be all over town.
Both Paris and Amsterdam offer art, literature, and culture beyond belief. Yes, there are elements unusual to U.S. travelers, but it would appear that teens handle it better than adults. As American organizations push to limit and remove sexual situations from television, most visiting American teens prefer to see what different artists are on MTV Europe than cheesy X-rated flicks. It's the age old adage--teach them right, and they'll do right even when they're surrounded by wrong.