So You Wanna Take Your Boomer to France With You?

Full length of delighted old grandparents are going with their son and granddaughter at airport terminal to check-in on their flight.

Boomers, or those born between the years of 1943 and 1964, are generally thought to be hardworking, loyal, optimistic, and idealistic people who fought to change America and, by extension, the world. But Boomers are aging now, and the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. That idealism and change Boomers affected back in the 60s has had less staying power than everyone hoped, and Boomers may feel canceled, irrelevant, old, fragile, sad. This, along with the trademark Boomer entitlement and ideological rigidity, might make traveling with your Boomer harder than you imagined. 

There’s this funny bend to experience where we forget how age changes the parameters for a trip… for everyone. We remember people as they were 20, 30, or 40 years ago. The fact that we all have aged can be a little bit of a shock. 

So here are some tips to make traveling with your elderly relatives easier and more pleasant for everyone involved.

Rent a car

Unless you are in Paris, it might make sense to rent a car. When in France, it’s common to do as the French do: walk. Indeed, older people in France tend to be in pretty amazing shape, scaling hills, hundreds of steps, and even walking along endless fortresses just to get to the fromagerie. But most Americans aren’t that accustomed to walking 5 plus miles a day, which is customary for the French, regardless of age. In my family, we laugh about the “French fifteen” (minutes, that is) when we are there, because everything is “15 minutes away, à pied.” TBH this 15 minutes is always more like an hour, if we walk briskly. Even though the buses and train lines are wonderful and effective in many parts of France, there’s still a lot of walking and waiting, which can be tiring. A car is an easy and more relaxed way for an older person to see things, then get out and do a bit of walking, without spending an entire day walking around on tired feet. 

Book ahead for lunches and dinners

Booking a few restaurants in advance will take the chaos out of knowing when dinner time is and where. Though Boomers might not be as stuck on “cocktail hour” as their parents were, there is still a Boomer witching hour, which begins when they get thirsty, hungry, and cranky at about 5:30 or 6 pm. 

Though booking ahead takes a little of the mystery out of the trip and means you can’t just stop for a bite whenever you get hungry, it does add structure, something we all, from 0 to 100, can appreciate. Also, be warned that these days, it’s common for restaurants in France to charge cancellation fees for canceled reservations. They take it seriously. You often get your money back if you cancel within 48 to 24 hours prior to your reservation. The beauty of this setup is that they know exactly how many people they will have, and can procure the freshest ingredients for that number, exactly. I think it’s a win/win, as long as you plan ahead and check the details of your reservation!

Choose an Airbnb or hotel according to your needs

Choose your Airbnb carefully, or consider a hotel: one of the things that a family with young children can forget is that an Airbnb that’s perfect for one family might be a little less ideal when an older parent or parents are in the mix. Think about this: You may not have spent more than 48 hours with your parents since you were seventeen. Now you want to be in an Airbnb with one tiny bathroom and a single-serve French press? 

If you go the Airbnb route, make sure you request extra blankets and towels. Both of my parents claim they are always cold at night at my house in Maine, whereas I am always boiling (perimenopause). And in France, you should be prepared to have less control over the temperature–AC is a rare commodity, so it can get hot in the summer. Or you might find yourself in an old stone building that naturally holds in the cold and makes for a chilly evening. You might need some more warmth, or a way to make it comfortable for everyone. 

If you are staying at an Airbnb, you may want to bring your own coffee and tea: I am a coffee nerd, and French coffee is usually terrible. I now travel with a vacuum-sealed bag of Wicked Joes organic French roast (double-bagged to prevent spillage). Most older people are into their routines. If coffee or nice tea is a part of theirs, bring the tea and coffee you know they like for the first couple of mornings. If you can brew it up in the Airbnb, or even by cup in the hotel room,  give them the gift of alertness… especially when dealing with jet lag. Uncertainty about when a good cuppa is coming along can brew grumpiness in the best of us. 

While thinking about coffee, an obvious plus to an Airbnb is that you can relax and eat as you please, make individual coffees, fry up breakfast, lunch, or even whip up dinner with fresh ingredients from the marché. Your schedule is yours. However, it’s worth considering that if you stay at a hotel, it’s likely someone else’s job, not yours, to take care of the guests. So you might also get taken care of a bit and get a break from the strain of everything feeling it’s on your shoulders. Also, think this through: you may have the kind of parent who might be very happy taking the elevator down to a restaurant and dining with their phone alone. Or waiting with coffee downstairs in the morning while checking their email as you wrangle your kids out of temper tantrums and into their clothes in your own room. (Perhaps you could even schedule an afternoon at a hotel spa one day as a buffer between days of walking around to catch all the sights.)

Pack melatonin

Melatonin works wonders for jet lag. Helping your parents get rest will benefit everyone. 

Make sure your cell phones will work abroad

When we were in Lyon in February, we lost my dad, who roguely went off to find an ATM after we had left him at a store that didn’t accept credit cards. He got himself lost on a street he didn’t know, and his French wasn’t good enough to get help. Thankfully, his phone worked, and so did my son’s. Mine was not working, even though I thought I had set it up correctly. Make sure someone in each buddy group has a working phone. Call your cell phone provider and tell them where you will be. You can often buy a plan for a month (if that’s more affordable), or you can tell them you need extra data with a cap. If you get stuck in France with a non working phone, all is not lost: Go to the Tabac or a local cell phone provider and buy a SIM card for about ten Euros (one-week or one-month plans are often available) to get you through. 

Have a medical contingency plan

If there is a medical emergency, you should have a contingency plan for getting to a hospital. The French version of 911 is 112, but you should dial 15 for medical emergencies. You may have to wait for someone who speaks English, so be prepared to at least try and explain the situation in French. House calls can be arranged through your local SOS Médicins, and you can make doctors appointments through Doctolib (they have a filter to find English-speaking doctors, though it is sometimes faulty).

Know in advance how to describe any medical conditions, and if there are any French analogues for medications you or your Boomer take daily. You might also want a plan for Covid. Let’s say one of your kids gets it; you may want to scope out a nearby hotel in advance, where you can book a room for you or your Boomer.

Review trip details in advance

Don’t assume your parents will be able to take care of anything to do with the trip. They may be too jet lagged, exhausted from walking, rattled by being in a family again with small children, or unable to understand the culture and language. They may not know what the possibilities are. You will have to figure it out, and hope they enjoy it. Try to enjoy that process yourself. 

Explain any tech or planning necessary for the trip. For example, that you can’t always just walk into a popular museum and buy a ticket, and you might need to get tickets online and appear at the reserved time. But that will mean you have to get the tickets tonight, rather than tomorrow morning. Find out which banks in France are partnered with your own, so that you can get cash from ATMs without paying exorbitant fees. If you have train tickets on your phone, tell them if they need to download an app to show their QR codes.

Choose comfort while traveling

Pack sandals for tired feet–I cannot stress this enough, Birkenstocks and a cup of tea after endless wandering can save the day. (Same thing I mentioned about budget flights for this piece we did on mastering long-haul flights. But also when renting cars, etc. Make sure you know how much room you’ll have and can make your family members comfortable.)

Schedule an activity or two for just your family and the kids–everyone may need the break. A little time for your parents to just read or put their feet up might be just what they need before walking (again) to dinner. Quiet times and naps are good for everyone on a trip. 

Have a discussion about money before you leave

We are paying for this, you for that, and when we are there, we can pay for these things, are you okay with paying for X, Y, and Z? “Money changes everything,” as Cyndi Lauper once sang. Letting financial responsibilities remain nebulous can be stressful. And Boomers tend to have more money than any other generation, however they also tend to be more conservative about it. They tend, as a generation, to eat more at home, and go in less for a cool restaurant than Gen X. (See this video about how Boomers tend to save money.) 

The good news is that the markets in France have amazing rotisserie chickens, vegetables, cheeses, breads, whatever you want. You can have a five-star meal in your Airbnb and everyone will feel they are getting their money’s worth. 

Discuss etiquette and parenting ground rules

It might be worth it, prior to your first restaurant excursion, to have a discussion with the entire span of ages about local etiquette, i.e., if you snap at a French waiter they will ignore you for the rest of time. Not talking too loudly in public, etc. Waiting is common in France, so don’t complain. After all, your parents need to be just as well behaved as your kids.

Traveling with your parents who had different ways of parenting (70s and 80s parenting), might be hard. Gen X and millennials tend to be very communicative, and want to work it through, whatever the “it” is, with their kids. They are also less punitive, silent, and remote than previous generations. Parents who are millennials or Gen X tend to want to be friends with their kids, not just have them behave. This can create friction when traveling with parents who might have other notions. I have had friends tell me about nightmarish scenarios where suddenly their mother in law is yelling at their child to stop crying and everyone falls apart. 

Just be clear about what your parenting ideal is and stick with it, even with an audience. Keep in mind, though, that French children are generally well-behaved, more like the children our parents wanted us to be. So, making sure your kids are on their best behavior and can speak a little French is better for everyone. (Check out this guide to traveling to France with kids for more suggestions.) If they fall apart back at the hotel and it’s stressful for your parents, well, tant pis, everyone, even Boomers, have tantrums sometimes. Let it go, have a glass of wine, and enjoy your trip. C’est la vie.

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