My daughters and their new Italian friend have absolutely no clue what the other is saying. Doesn't matter. Within minutes of shy greetings in English and Italian, the young trio happily dash around Barga's 12th-century Piazza Salvo Salvi in the late afternoon sun, squealing with laughter and shrugging happily when one "speaks funny" to the other.
Language is no barrier for children.
Happy kids mean happy parents, so my husband and I are enjoying another relaxed afternoon on our family holiday. We're watching the fun from our regular al fresco table at Giovanni Togneri's Bar Spuntineria - the social hub of Barga's Piazza Salvo Salvi - and we know we have planned this holiday well. My children call the colourful Togneri "Italian Santa" because of his voluminous white beard and moustache. He theatrically tweaks his moustache tips for the kids as he serves our chianti and juices.
We planned a holiday that avoids tourist traps and big cities like Florence, Siena and Pisa. We chose Barga so our 6 and 4-year-olds get a more genuine Italian experience. This vibrant Italian town is perched on a hill in northern Tuscany's Serchio Valley. With about 10,000 people, this is a family-friendly location - no tourist crowds to battle, queue-jostling, or big-city prices. Our kids quietly absorb daily doses of Italian life and enjoy getting familiar with locals like Togneri.
To keep costs down we hired a holiday villa in neighbouring Albiano, called "il Trebbio". It is much cheaper and more enjoyable than a hotel room and allows us greater freedom and flexibility.
We also leased a diesel "people mover" from Peugeot Eurolease, much better value than long-term standard daily car hire. Our own wheels means we freely explore the many intriguing hillside villages throughout the area.
It's warm and early springtime in Barga. Abundant wisteria hangs near colourful villas painted orange-yellow or soft pink and sun warms the sea of terracotta rooftops. Barga's 9th-century duomo (cathedral) provides a panoramic view of mountainous landscape peppered with villages.
Our typical day is kick-started in Barga, ordering macchiatos and hot chocolate so thick your spoon stands in it. The kids are keen on daily explorations so we visit numerous neighbouring villages, including Fornovolasco, a quiet, medieval village built in a narrow valley along two streams. A steep drive up the Apuan Alps leads us to Verni and Trassilico. The latter village provides spectacular views of the alps and has an impressive ancient fortress. Further north of Barga is Campocatino, an eerie former shepherds' village. Its stone huts are so ancient the kids expect ghosts to pop out and squeak "Ciao!" A walk into its forest leads to a surprising, tiny hermitage built into a cliff.
This region is known for good food. It is surprising how much more cheaply our family can eat here than in New Zealand. A large, three-course meal, including bread and a litre of wine, costs our family about $40. A large, Italian-style pizza is about $10, a glass of red wine costs $2 and a good coffee $1.80. Supermarket food is also cheap and a litre of milk is about $1.50. For $2.25 we get 500g of fresh tomatoes, and a 500g block of pecorino or parmesan costs about $6.
Fresh food is the fabric of life so we all enjoy an Italian cooking class near Barga with chef and restaurateur Rita Lucherini. Our daughters explain to Rita their new love for cheese and authoritatively explain that some Italian cheese "smells disgusting" but tastes great.
In Rita's kitchen we make four authentic pastas and sauces from scratch, fresh bruschetta, local delicacy Farro soup and decadent tiramisu.
Holidaying in smaller towns is proving easy, affordable and low-stress. Best of all we're experiencing the real Italy, unmanufactured for tourists. The girls thrive getting to know locals like the barman Togneri, the friendly gelato shop owners and our villa's Italian owners, Diego and Sonia, whom the children invite to lunch.
We wonder if southern France will deliver a similar experience. After loading up our people mover we're headed to Provence.
The same modus operandi applies: avoid big cities and stay away from tourist crowds and tourist prices. We're staying in tiny Buisson, three hours northwest of Nice. Its population grows to 360 in summer but it's springtime so life is even quieter. Again, we have hired a holiday villa for affordability and flexibility.
Buisson is an extraordinary, 12th-century Knights Templar village with ancient charm. The girls are convinced giants live in Buisson's towering belfry. The village's maze of paths are framed by pale stone homes, many with light-blue and green wooden shutters hugged by scented, creeping roses or ivy. Picture-perfect.
Buisson is in Provence's vineyard-rich Vaucluse area. Picturesque neighbouring towns and villages are all in easy driving distance, The children enjoy seeing a new village to test their fledgling French on locals.
Our days begin with a 6.30am dash to the local boulangerie. A dozen items, including hot breads, large almond croissants and pain au chocolat, cost about $12. A large baguette is about 50 cents.
Food is very affordable. A good espresso costs just $2.25, four yogurts are $2.70, 500g of butter $1.50 and a very large punnet of fresh strawberries is just $3.
Most mornings we stock up on food at bustling, open-air markets in neighbouring Vaison La Romaine, Bedoin, Buis-les-Baronnies or Nyons. People are peddling fruit, vegetables, meats, salamis, huge cheese wheels, breads and spices, plus clothes, shoes, handbags and more.
Our kids love the energy of the markets and especially the local dogs on parade. French dogs are possibly more stylish than their impossibly stylish owners. Dachshunds don scarves, poodles and shih tzus prance in velvet coats or ribbons in their coiffed manes. One poor spaniel was even sucking a baby's dummy. This dog's owner was an exception to the stylish rule.
The children also become skilled at tricking me into taste-testing dodgy salami before revealing the key ingredient - "It's donkey meat, Mum!" Their young love affair with stinky cheese continues and they enjoy ordering Roquefort wedges from stallholders before swooning dramatically at the pong.
Not far from Buisson is Vaison-la-Romaine, one of our children's favourite towns. It is rich in Roman history and has fascinating ruins and sites worth visiting. You won't stand in queues to view them. Nearby is hilltop gem Seguret. One of France's most beautiful villages, Seguret has typical medieval character with sloping, higgledy-piggledy cobbled lanes that the kids happily skip on for hours and there's an incredible 14th-century belfry. Again, no tourist crowds here.
A highlight of our children's experience was meeting local chef and restaurant-owner Claudette Arnaud in the small village Saint-Roman-de-Malegarde. Arnaud's Chez Claudette restaurant is a small but popular outfit that heaves with lunchtime patrons. Friendly Claudette whips up an authentic French four-course meal, plus bread and a litre of red or rose wine, for just $17 a person ($9 for kids).
She gives our girls big hugs and free sweets when they bid her a patchy "Au Revoir!" after our lunches.
In Provence our girls have absorbed French culture in laid-back communities. They reckon French people are the "most friendly", always encouraging when the girls try French, smiling and clapping when they reply in gibberish.
On our final night in Buisson we ask for the girls' favourite memories of France. Snails, says Zara. Not eating them, playing with snail families when they slither out after rain. And in Italy? Gelato.
It's the little things.