Monthly Archives: June 2011

boating with Leo

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Our recent trip to the Loire Valley included a special side trip in the small town of Amboise  – a trip to Leonardo da Vinci’s house!  This house, where he spent the last 3 years of his life, is also the place where he died.  I have to say, it was pretty cool to be in the place where the legend slept.  And unlike Graceland, where another legend slept, this legend painted the Mona Lisa.  For me, this was off the charts on the “cool-things to see” scale.

Even cooler, were the designs that Leo built.  He was not only a painter, but an inventor and very deep thinker.  Apparently, he was invited to live in Amboise by Francois I because the minions needed entertainment and Leo was the man for the job.  For many of Francois’ parties, Leo would build a machine to entertain the crowd – some machines pumped water, others showed the power of centrifugal force and one was what we would consider a paddleboat by modern standards.  Can I mention here how much I love paddleboats?!

In order to bring the machine’s of Leo’s mind to life, a group of IBM engineers recently got together and built a set of the machines which you can see in operation all around the park that surrounds his house.  It is really amazing to think about how people’s minds work.  It’s clear that in idle times (like when he’s not painting the Mona Lisa or something) Leo’s mind went to machines.  I wish I were like that, but sadly, in idle times my mind goes to the almighty baguette.  And to paddleboats.  Sigh…………..

milk snob

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During my post-college jaunt around Europe, I remember being appalled that people would buy milk that was not refrigerated.  And that it was very common to drink UHT milk, was even more shocking.   It just didn’t seem right.

After having lived in VT for 14+ years, I feel like I arrived in France with a big milk chip on my shoulder.  “Pas d’UHT,” was my chant at the grocery store on every visit.  So being the good Vermonter that I consider myself to be, I skipped the UHT aisle and went right for the fresh stuff.  The bottles here are not that big (and they’re really expensive), so rather than walking out of the store as I would in VT with 2 gallons of fresh milk, I would end up with 10 smaller bottles in my cart.  And I stood out like an even more MAJOR oddity in the checkout line.  Try explaining the need for that much fresh milk to the cashier in broken French.  I dare you.

But one recent day, our milk dreams came to an end.  It would seem that whatever machine they use to separate the milk from the cream had broken and nobody bothered to tell the customers.  All the milk we were buying started to have giant chunks of solid-ish cream in it, which completely grossed the kids out.  My attempts to explain to the kids that they should be happy to have giant chunks of “real cream!” in their cereal didn’t go over so well.

After a bit, it seemed like the farmer fixed her machine and we were finally back on track with our milk.  And then a French food workers strike happened.  I was suddenly mentally transported back to DC in the mid 1990s when we used to shop at our beloved neighborhood store nicknamed the “Soviet Safeway.”   Suddenly, there was no cold food at the Carrefour.  No cheese, no yogurt, no butter (gasp!) and no milk!  What’s a milk snob to do?  Answer:  Wander sheepishly to the UHT aisle and find the snobbiest UHT milk available.

Enter Bio (organic) Lait!  I have to say, it’s pretty darn good and much easier to buy because it comes prepackaged in sets of 6.  Although the strike is finally over, we’re sticking with this stuff and feeling very French.  No more milk drama for us.

2 things I cannot explain

Thing I cannot explain #1:

I have never been a fan of wheelie backpacks for kids.  In Vermont, when there were kids with wheelie backpacks I would think that their parents were allowing them to miss out on a right of passage from childhood – the famous childhood backpack slog.  Kind of like school pictures, but slightly worse.  If it’s not my job to give my kids things to be bitter and angry about in the future, than who’s job is it?  And carrying the kids’ backpacks for them?  No way, man.

Once we arrived in France, I noticed a disproportionate number of kids with wheelie backpacks.  What gives?  Seriously, what kind of work ethic can you develop without slogging your pack on your back?

One day Owen was complaining about the weight of his pack on the way to school and I broke my cardinal rule – I offered to carry his pack for a little bit of our walk just to cease the complaining.  After about 5 minutes, I felt like I needed to sit down for a rest.  His pack was outrageously heavy.

All the kids in France carry all of their notebooks (of which there are many) and books to and from school every day.  I quickly realized the reason the kids in France are missing out on a childhood ritual is solely because their bags are SO INCREDIBLY HEAVY.  And maybe their parents aren’t into parental-imposed torture, like some others are…….

Later that afternoon at school I was speaking to another parent about it and she told me that there is an epidemic of childhood back problems here.  I was not at all surprised, since my brief encounter with Owen’s pack in the morning put a kink in my own back.  I came to the realization that if my kids are going to be bitter and angry at me in the future, I should at least want them to have a fair chance of standing up to be bitter and angry.  Off to buy wheelie backpacks.

This is where the story gets really interesting.

We were going to order them from LL Bean, which (as far as the customer reviews are concerned) makes a fairly mean wheelie backpack.  But after realizing that the shipping alone to France would be $85, I had to move to plan B, which involved surfing the web.  We suddenly landed on the Quicksilver website and happily found that all of their wheelie packs were on sale – super score!  And Owen’s friend Evan has one at school and it’s super cool – double score!

I ordered then and the kids waited anxiously for them to arrive.  I fully expected to have to pick them up from the post office because they would clearly not fit in our mailbox and it is forbidden for the mail carrier to leave packages outside your door.  A few days later I got a note in the mailbox that said that our package had arrive d and I could pick it up.  However the address on the note was not the post office – it looked like another place entirely.

I got the boys at school that afternoon and told them we were going to take a walk into town to pick up our package.  I got out my trusty iPhone gps and punched in the address.  That led us to the local……………gym?  The boys couldn’t believe that I had the right address and I could hardly believe it myself, except since living here I have realized that there is no normal.  Why shouldn’t one assume that you should be able to pick up a package at the local gym?  I have learned not to question my new reality.

So in we went to the gym.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking that this gym may have an account with Quicksilver which would at least partially explain why we had to pick up our package there.  I was clearly grasping for any explanation.

When we arrived at the gym, I told the man working there (and the only person in the entire gym) that I had a package that I was supposed to pick up.  He said ok, stood up, went to a broom closet and pulled out a package with our 2 wheelie backpacks.  All without explanation.  Not only was there no obvious Quicksilver relationship that I could find, there was no store at this gym.

I really wish I were creative enough to make this stuff up – instead, I have learned to embrace the strangeness.

Thing I cannot explain #2:

This giant French slug.

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roadside joy

There is almost nothing that I love more than stopping on the side of the road to buy stuff.  Flowers, junk, fruit, I’d really stop for anything, except the prostitutes lining the A6.  That’s some junk I don’t want to buy.

When we were in the Loire Valley, we took a detour on some back roads and ended up in the epi-center of roadside buying.  First we ran across the famous wine caves.  While I don’t feel like I’m the least educated person out there, I was somewhat surprised to find out that these wine caves were actually caves that had been carved out of a giant cliff and were lined up all along a road.  The winemakers put modern doors on them and “voilá” a wine cave, perfect for not only aging wine, but also selling it to the masses.  The caves kind of reminded me of an ant hill or some sort of Frenchified Machu Pichu.  Awesomeness.

While the kids were good sports, they weren’t loving the wine cave experience.  They started to realize that we weren’t really there to look at the cave – we wanted the wine.  That, and the French wine makers did not appreciate 2 little American boys exploring in their wine caves.  Absolutely no spelunking allowed.

The next thing we ran across on the road was one of the best things I’ve ever had the opportunity to buy on the roadside.  Fresh cherries!  That’s right.  Apparently France is known for it’s cherry farms and we were right in the heart of cherry country – DURING CHERRY SEASON!  Holy crap!  An unplanned move of genius on our part.  At the first farm Tim got out of the car to make the purchase and came back to the car with 1kg of the most amazingly sweet and perfectly ripened cherries I had ever tasted.  When I asked him why he didn’t get more, he responded, “I didn’t want to get too many and have them go bad.”  Sometimes his clear mind and moderation are a disability.

We proceeded to eat those cherries for the entire day and by night, they were gone.  On the drive home, I had a singular purpose – get more cherries.   When we found a cherry stand, I realized I needed to take matters into my own hands.  I was buying the cherries this time.

The older woman at the stand chatted at me in French the entire time she was weighing my cherries on her antique scale – I had ordered 2kg.  When she got to 2kg, I asked her for a little bit more, since I was salivating at the site in front of me.  She told me that she didn’t have the ability to do a little bit more, because she couldn’t calculate parts of things, so she asked me if I would like 3kg.  Since I am not a woman of moderation and I have a particular weakness for cherries, I responded, “Oui, merci.”

When I got back to the car and Tim saw the bag of cherries (that was at least twice the size of my head), he had no choice but to laugh – and then grab a handful of cherries.  During cherry season in France, moderation is for weanies.

Here is a picture of the joy.  I know it’s blurry.  It’s called art.

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shout out to the ladies

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Most people know that France has castles, however as we were planning to move, I was a little bit more concerned about what shoes to wear than the landscape.  Mais, il y a beacoup des chateaus ici!   You get the point right?  It sometimes feels like everywhere we turn there is yet another castle that I’ve never heard of.  In fact, the first week we were here with the boys, we made a plan to visit one of the best local chateaus  – Vaux-le-Vicomte, but realized after arriving that they had not yet opened for the season.  The kids were really disappointed and weren’t satisfied with the plan to just going home, so we started driving in the direction of a town that we knew had another castle (about 1 hour away), but about 10 minutes down the road we bumped into 2 more castles.  It’s almost like they’re breeding in the countryside.

Anyway, a few weeks ago we took a short trip down to the Loire Valley to see more of the many castles dotting the landscape.  We ended up seeing some of the big ones that are most famous in France – the two main ones were Chambord and Chenonceau.

We started with Chambord which was enormous in every way.  It is an epically huge castle and it was the first castle we’ve seen where the ground are not kept at all.  They mow the grass – that’s about it.  No gardens and sculpted trees, just grass right up to the building on all sides.  The most startling thing about Chambord was the the height of the ceilings in every room.  I’m not great with estimation, but I would say that the ceilings are over 30 feet tall.  My first comment when I entered the castle was, “How could they possibly heat this thing?”  Guess what friends?  They couldn’t.  Apparently, the castle was so cold and drafty that most of the nobles moved out in the winter.  There’s no amount of fire that could keep that place toasty.

The other famous castle we visited was Chenonceau and it was like a study in contrasts.  This castle, while huge, felt very intimate and cozy.  The entire castle was stocked with all sort of period furnishings, many of them original to the castle.  There were enormous arrangements of fresh flowers in each room and apparently there is a whole separate division of the Chenonceau organization whose sole mission is to arrange and deliver fresh flowers on a daily basis.  Absolutely amazing.  If you have even a remote interest in gardens, this is one chateau to see.  And most amazingly, it is built across a river, so on the day that we were there, there were kayakers paddling lazily underneath the castle along the river.

But to me, the most interesting thing about Chenonceau is that it is the only chateau in France designed by women.  You know what?  I could tell.  I’m not trying (too overtly) to bust on the guys out there, but when I was at Chambord, I couldn’t help but think that there was more thought put into the moat than the livability of the chateau.  I mean, what good are 30 foot ceilings if you can’t live in the place.

bigger IS better

It may have been the hours of board game playing we did as kids, or maybe I have a touch of arrested development, but even as an adult, I LOVE a good game.  Unfortunately, I’ve heard from many people, that France is not a game playing country.  In fact, when I had another mother over for lunch recently and I opened up our game cabinet, she gasped in surprise.  She had never seen so many games (about 20) and she admitted that their family didn’t own a single game.  It was finally my turn to give the exasperated sigh and the “what for” expression.  No games?!?!?!  Sacré bleu!

It was hilarious when we first came here and were connected with a realtor from Paris to help us find out house.  After a whole day together, she sheepishly divulged that she didn’t have cable at her apartment and that she really liked GAMES.  It was like she was confessing a crime to us.  The even funnier part was when we admitted that we also didn’t have cable and that we, too, liked games.  Her comment was, ”Americans without cable?!?  I’ve never heard of such a thing!  And you actually play games?!?!”

Now before you start thinking that I am June Cleaver and that playing games is some sort of hand-holding kumbaya moment for our family, think again.  Games are the great equalizer and losing is a part of life.  That’s why, I’m in it to win it.  Every time.  And if you can’t feel some satisfaction about still being able to outwit your kids, what can you feel good about?

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I would also like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to the Parker Brothers corporation for giving Monopoly another chance at life.  Remember back to your childhood when one game of Monopoly could take days, if you could even bear to finish it?  Luckily for all of us, they’ve come up with a new and improved version with a 3rd die to expedite the painfully slow process of acquiring properties.  And there are skyscrapers, not just hotels.  Need I say more?   Mega Monopoly is genius!  I only wish I was the brainchild behind that one.  Disclaimer:  This is not a paid advertisement (said in a robot voice).

And remember my bold statement about games being the great equalizer and losing a part of life?  If you take a good look at my Instagram picture of our latest Mega Monopoly game above, you might notice a young hand rolling the dice with the nice lineup of property and cash along side it.  Those hands would be Owen’s.  If you look very carefully at the other side of the board, you will see a lovely lineup of mortgaged property.  That is my side of the board.  What you cannot see is the lowly 4 white bills in my clammy hand (that’s exactly $4 for you non-Monopoly players – no joke).  Take that, sucka……………I mean, Mommy!

Not sure that France is quite ready for Mega Monopoly yet, however.  I think we should start with some card games and work up from there.  Euchre anyone?

my favorite shop

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I’d  been walking by this certain shop for weeks and each time I walked by I was drawn in by the eclectic mix of items in the window.  Among the kitchen gadgets, and assorted glass jars, there were boxes of Borax and rat poison.  Have I mentioned before that the stranger the thing, the more I am drawn to it?  I can safely say that because I know that Tim doesn’t read this blog.

Anyway, right in the middle of the strange mix of things was the object of my desire – the Bialetti Moka Express.  This was no fake Ikea version of the moka pot, it was the real deal and the one I’ve been wanting.  I just needed to get up the courage to enter this odd and tiny shop, because unlike my beloved Monoprix, there was no way I was getting out of this shop without some sort of conversation in French.

After passing this store every day for over 2 months, I started calling it, “my favorite shop that I’ve never been in.”  Then Tim started asking me, “So, have you been in to your favorite shop that you’ve never been in yet?”  I also found myself recommending the store to people, despite the fact that I’d never been in there.  My conversations went something like this:

My friend:  I really need to have a giant French key made for my house and they don’t have the kind of key I need at Monoprix.

Me:  You should go over to my new favorite shop on Rue Grande.  I bet they would have what you’re looking for.

My friend:  Oh, do they make keys there?

Me:  I don’t know.  I’ve never been inside, but it seems like they would make keys.  I mean, they sell rat poison and coffee makers.

My friend:  Hmmmmm…………………..but I thought you said it was your favorite shop?

Me:  Well, it’s actually my favorite shop that I’ve never been into, but it seems like the kind of place that would have keys.

My friend:  Okay…………………………………………………<very long silence>

I needed courage fast because the Bialetti was calling my name.  And I was starting to seem crazy in a community of people I don’t know very well.

One day, as I was passing the shop, my feet just carried me inside without much forethought.  The inside of the shop was like a wonderland of strange things.  It kind of reminded me of the Island of Misfit Toys from the Christmas tv special.  Except this was the French Island of Misfit Plungers and Old Rusty Chandeliers – some old and some new – and everything had a very thick layer of dust on it.  Just my kind of  strange store.

A very nice old man approached me (the only customer) and started asking me all sorts of questions in French.  I managed to croak out “Bialetti” as I reached up to take it off the shelf.  As soon as I had it in my hot hands, he said something about it making the best cup of coffee in the world and he quickly took it out of my hands and wrapped it in bubble wrap.

Once I had gotten the point across (apparently) that I wanted to buy the Bialetti, I decided to take a minute to look around the shop, rather than rush out.  I glanced over and spied a very nice Peugeot brand salt mill.  As I reached up to put my hand on it to have a closer look, I muttered something related to sel and the old man said in French, “Peugeot, the best salt mill in the world.”  As he was speaking, he quickly took the salt mill off the shelf before I could get to it – and he wrapped it up in bubble wrap and put it with the Bialetti.  Since I’m not yet so quick with the responsive French, I decided that I needed to cut my losses and get out of the shop, as it appeared I was buying not just the Bialetti, but also the salt mill.

To insert further chaos into the situation, I realized that I forgot my wallet, but I did however have a check on hand (checkbooks are still alive and well in France – they are used at least once a week, if not more).  I wrote out the check under duress (do you have any idea how hard it is to remember how to spell the numbers in French, when you’re being watched?) and handed it to him.  He took one look at it and asked where Vermont was and why was it on my check.  I had totally forgotten that my checks still had my Vermont address on them.  Ah, the joy (and pain) of simple conversations!  My next trip to my favorite shop (that I’ve finally been in to) will be with my hands behind my back and cash in my wallet.

And guess what?  He DOES cut strange French house keys in his shop.  Now, who’s crazy?!?

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