Monday, July 7, 2008

This definitely isn't Disney World

My parents were masters of the Cheap Family Vacation.  So expert were they, that my sister and I really thought there was no one else who was having as much fun as we were.  Our vacations were always to Washington DC (stayed with family) or Quebec City (cheap Canadian dollar), and we always drove (never flew) but still - we fancied ourselves well-traveled.

Except when it came to Disney World.

Everyone else on the planet, it seemed, went to Disney World.

We begged, we pleaded, we promised to be sooooo good forever and never fight with each other ever again ever if we could just go to Disney World like everyone else.

"Disney World is expensive," my mother said.  "We'd have to save up for a few years."

The kids down the street went to Disney World every year.  They'd ride on Space Mountain and get their pictures taken with Donald and Goofy and come back wearing those mouse ears with their names stitched in wobbly script on the back.  (But their father was a cop at the airport and an amateur boxer to boot, so clearly they were living the good life.)

"Sure, we can go to Disney," my father said, and for about two seconds my sister and I sucked in our breath as if this was the moment we were waiting for, although deep down we knew there'd be a catch. "But that means no more Quebec City."

My sister and I looked at each other and knew that we wouldn't even need to discuss this one to agree on a decision.  No dice.  I, for one, spent 51 unbearably long weeks every year waiting to go to Quebec City.  No six-foot-tall helium-voiced mouse was going to take it away from me now.

Quebec City has no roller coasters, no big subways, no beaches.  But it's Disney in its own way - a tiny jewel-box town where jugglers dance in the streets, painters work on miniature masterpieces at easels on the sidewalk, and musicians spontaneously break out in song wherever there's a blank patch of grass for a stage.  There's no skyline, so the Chateau Frontenac rises like a castle surrounded by the 18th century dollhouses.  

The kids down the street who went to Disney World used to ask us what we did in Quebec City.  You know, since there's no Space Mountain.  Well, in Quebec City, we didn't stay in a hotel; we stayed in a little basement apartment with a bed in the kitchen and a door that opened onto the sidewalk so that when we heard concerts starting in the park, we could walk right out in our pajamas.  We ate croissants for breakfast and watched our crepes being made for dinner - huge tabletop-sized wafer-thin pancakes, filled with ice cream and folded like origami until they fit on our plates.  We played on the big cannons on the boardwalk.  We watched my father buy any combination of items at a newsstand that might add up to seventy cents just so he could say "Soixante-dix?" to the vendor.  We rode the Funiculaire, a rickety outdoor elevator, from the upper town to the lower town, each time feeling that at any minute the cords would snap and we would crash to the bottom.  We took the ferry across the St. Lawrence to Levis, just to see the view of Quebec from there - truly the cheapest fun to be had, because it was really just a commuter boat, like taking a bus, and the best part of all was that we could buy salt and vinegar potato chips on board, long before they were available in the US.    

The Disney kids didn't quite get it.  You know, since there's no Space Mountain.  But Quebec wasn't a place where you even had to do things to keep busy.  The place just is, and when you're there, you are too.  It's life experience.

So I've still never been to Disney World, and neither have my kids.  Yet.  (We'll go someday, so that they don't reach adulthood with that nagging feeling that they're missing something like keys or a wallet.)  But a couple years ago, my parents took my daughter on her first trip to Quebec City, just the three of them, and they did all the same things we used to do.  She brought home a tiny glass snow globe of the Chateau Frontenac, the one gift she wanted as a souvenir.  It sits on our mantle, the jewel-box city in miniature.

If someone asked me right now to hop on a plane and choose Quebec City or Disney World, I have a pretty good idea of which one I'd pick.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

155 days until [insert name of country here]

My cousin has this friend who used to work for an airline.  Therefore, she is our favorite person on earth.

She gives us her buddy passes.

How we got to our mid thirties before we learned of this phenomenon, I'll never know, but thanks to my cousin's friend, last year we all flew to Italy gratis.  And let's face it - my dear husband Frosty McCheapass would never just let me go to Europe unless there was a discount of major proportions involved.

There are some downsides to flying on a buddy pass.  You're essentially flying stand-by, so when (and where) you (and your luggage) go is anyone's guess.  The upside is that if there's an extra seat in first class, it just might be your butt that keeps it warm.  (That's how my cousin ended up sitting next to the Edge on a flight back from Dublin once.)  

Well, now that it's summer, it's time to plan our buddy-pass-sponsored trip to [insert name of country here] this fall.  We need to be flexible, so we have a list of places in mind.  Last year our list was Italy, Prague, Budapest (in that order) and we didn't really know for sure where we'd end up until the plane was in the air to Venice.  (Our bags were already halfway to Rome, but that's another story.)  With Italy checked off, our revised list looks like this:

1. Prague
2. Budapest
3. Dublin

This year, we're a little wiser.  This time, we're only packing carry-on luggage.  This time, we know for sure that they're not allowed to send our bags on an international flight without us.  We also learned that Frosty Mc Cheapass wasn't crazy to make us bring all our own snacks, because candy bars are really expensive in Europe.  We also learned that it's okay to get a cheap room with a shared bath down the hall, because you can wear flip flops in the shower and rinse your feet off in the bidet in your room if you were up to your ankles in shower muck anyway.

My parents were in their 40s before they went to Europe for the first time, and that was because we won a raffle.  Now I'm planning my second trip to Europe in the past year.  There are people who have much fancier vacations much more frequently, but I bet none of them laughed as hard as my cousin and I did, washing our feet in a bidet in a crappy hotel room so small that we couldn't both open our suitcases at the same time.  Sometimes I think I'm the luckiest girl in the world.

Gift certificates are good for ten years

Last night my husband surprised me with a dinner out.  This is always a tricky proposition (I say "always" as if this happens all the time, but in reality I mean "twice in the time I've known him") because I can never wait for him to come home to eat.  I need to have at least one dinner before he arrives, or I swear I'll practically have fainted from hunger on the doorstep before he even gets out of the car.  So, in order to surprise me, he needed to divert me with the promise of cold pizza left over from a meeting.  This would guarantee that I would snack moderately without eating an entire meal.

When he finally arrived home, I was all but running in circles, drooling and chasing my tail.  When I saw that he was NOT carrying a take-out bag, he must have caught the glint of fire in my eyes just in time, because he ducked before I could throttle him.  

"I'm taking you out to dinner!  Surprise!" he blurted in one breath, arm blocking his face.  This could mean only one thing.  He had a gift certificate.

"I found a gift certificate when I was cleaning the basement!"  See?  I'm not kidding.

I was tired, I was cranky, I'd been working in front of the computer all day while trying to distract a toddler with Curious George re-runs, I was wearing a t-shirt with Popsicle stains on it - I didn't think I felt like going anywhere.

"My mother's coming over to babysit in 10 minutes," he said, all smiles.  "It's all set.  Let's go!"

I changed, I looked presentable, we went to a restaurant on the waterfront, and for two hours we were real grown ups.  We even held hands as we strolled and he bought me an ice cream.  It was actually sort of cute.

"I get points for this, right?" he asked me.  Normally I wouldn't give him points for "Use of a Gift Certificate for Romantic Dinner", and I'll probably modify my future complaints from "You never take me out to dinner" to "You never take me out to dinner unless there's a gift certificate"... but yes.  He got points for this one.