Monthly Archives: January 2012

holiday warning!

In the past I’ve told you about a few kooky French holiday celebrations after they’ve happened.  Today I just found out about another quirky holiday coming up so I’d thought I’d give you a couple of days advanced notice so that you can celebrate along with us.  The impending holiday is called La Chandeleur or Candlemas.  Since I haven’t lived through this one yet, I’ll give you the rundown from Wikipedia:

In France, crêpes are traditionally served on Candlemas (La Chandeleur), February 2. This day was originally Virgin Mary’s Blessing Day but became known as “avec Crêpe Day”, referring to the tradition of offering crêpes. The belief was that if you could catch the crêpe with a frying pan after tossing it in the air with your left hand and holding a gold coin in your right hand, you would become rich that year.[5]

Apparently, at school today the teachers pulled out some crêpe pans and the kids were practicing tossing gold coins to improve their chance for riches in advance of the holiday.  I’ll let you know how it works out both at school and at home, since you better believe I’ll be throwing crêpes and gold coins on what I consider to be Groundhog Day.  To be honest, I think that throwing crêpes and coins is much more fun than watching a groundhog.  Sorry Phil.

If you’re interested in making French crêpes, there are 2 kinds.  The first is called galette which is a savory type of crêpe made buckwheat flour.  It is usually used for dinner crêpes with things like cheese and smoked fish inside.  The other type of crêpe is made with white flour and is mainly used for dessert crêpes with sweet things inside.

Here are the recipes for both types of crêpes:

Best of luck for many riches this year!  Let me know how it goes.

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tooth mouse

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It is like a zombie film around here – body parts falling off.  Eamon lost two teeth in the past couple of weeks and there is something about that process that grosses me out.  First it’s the wiggly tooth thing (ew…) and then all of a sudden you move into the crooked tooth phase, and then teeth suddenly fall out.  Yuck.

A couple of years ago, Owen lost one of his front teeth by accidentally snagging it on my white shirt because it was so loose.  In addition to the fact that I looked like part of a crime scene for the rest of that day out on the town, there is just something inherently gross about having a tooth so lose that it can get snagged on a shirt.

When Eamon lost his first front tooth a couple of weeks ago, we had a failed parenting moment when we forgot to put the money under the pillow from the Tooth Fairy that night.  Having the Tooth Fairy fall down on the job is only slightly better than having the Easter Bunny no-show, but only slightly (ummmmmm……Ma?).  Anyway, I’ve devised a slacker parent guide to dealing with the inevitable disappointment when the Tooth Fairy is on hiatus.  Here it is:

1) When the toothless child runs into your bedroom in the morning screaming that Tooth Fairy didn’t come, try not to wallow in the parenting self-doubt that you’ve failed in your role again.

2) Quickly jump out of bed dig out some change from your pants pocket from yesterday and offer to search the room with the toothless child.

3) Once you get into the toothless child’s bedroom, throw the change behind the bed in a stealth manner and then say, “Oh, I found the money!  It was hiding behind the bed.  It must have fallen out from under your pillow.”

4) Feel proud of your ability to outsmart your child again, until the toothless child points out that the tooth is still under the pillow, which goes against all Tooth Fairy conventional wisdom (tooth goes away = money is left).

5) Try not to blush as you make up a small fib about the Tooth Fairy being so busy last night she must have forgotten to take the tooth.

Luckily for us, French culture has saved us from going down in history as terrible parents.  When I was talking to my friend about my Tooth Fairy ineptitude she told me that in France there is no such thing as the Tooth Fairy, but instead they have a Tooth Mouse who visits toothless children and leaves money.

After school that day I told Eamon about the French Tooth Mouse and his response was, “Oh….now I know why my tooth was still under my pillow.  A tooth would be way to heavy for a little mouse to carry.  That story you told me before about the Tooth Fairy being too busy didn’t make any sense.”

Note:  Don’t take parenting advice from me.

bye-bye, lily

Our French driver’s licence issues have taken front and center stage as our one year anniversary of our arrival in France is nearly here.  That means that there has been a significant fire placed under our respective asses in recent weeks.  This fire is not only hot, it is also painful.  Since we really needed to pass these licence tests we ended up signing up for driving classes with “the sure thing” who is also known as Monsieur F.  He’s the guy that owns the only English-language driving school in all of France and he is making a mint off of desperate ex-pats like us.

In order to get a French license you have to pass both a written test which is called the “code” and a driving test with a French DMV employee in a car.  The last time I took a driving or road rules test I was 16 and even back then, I don’t remember breaking a sweat.  I may be too old to remember this things, but I’m sticking with my current version of reality which is that the US tests weren’t that hard.  Let’s just say that I was imagining that the French tests would be about the same difficulty as the US tests.  Imagining this would not be the first mistake I’ve made in this country.

Our driving prep started in December when Monsieur F. came down to Fontainebleau to teach the 4 Vermonters the driving code.  Prior to his arrival he had sent us the French driving code book translated into English, which I proceeded not to read prior to our first class.  About 15 minutes into the class, I knew I was in serious trouble since on our first practice test of 40 questions I got 12 wrong.  To pass this test, you need to get less than 5 wrong.  This was not a straightforward test, as I thought it would be, it was a multiple choice test which could have more than one correct answer, but all the correct answers must be chosen to get credit for the answer.  I knew right away I was in some serious caca.

Monsieur F. proved to be not only a brilliant entrepreneur specializing in the desperate American demographic, but also completely off his rocker.  He personality was like the combination of your worst high school math teacher with a thick French accent and your friend’s great-uncle telling repetitive bad jokes during a holiday dinner.  One of his favorite jokes/repetitive phrases was to say something like, “If you don’t stop when the railroad lights are blinking, you will see God in a pyjama.  Bye-bye Lily!”  At first I laughed, because the joke was so absurd, then I nearly cried because I heard a variation of that joke about 100 more times.

There was one fleeting moment at the beginning of all this that I thought I might try to take the test in French to avoid having to travel to Paris for the English translated test, but that plan quickly bit the dust as I realized that I could barely pass the test in English, let alone in French.

The first day Monsieur F. came to our house he stayed for 9 hours teaching us driving code.  Just when I thought my head would explode I realized that we had barely made a dent in the amount of knowledge it takes to pass the test.  I’ll fast forward through the details of two more nine-hour days of driving code, the seemingly endless hours of practice tests and the unending string of bad jokes to tell you about test day.

We were supposed to be in Paris at 8am for a last-minute test prep at the driving school before driving to the testing location to sit for the test.  My friend was kind enough to offer to take our kids at 7am so that we could attempt to make it up to the driving school on time.  Against all warnings, we decided to drive into Paris since we had two different locations to go to in a short amount of time.  This proved to be one of the worst ideas we’ve had in a long time.  After sitting in two hours of gridlock to get to the driving school, we abandoned that plan and decided to drive directly to the test site since we knew that we would never make it on time otherwise.  The test was scheduled to start at 10am and at 10:01am our car rolled into the parking lot.  Thankfully, nothing in France starts on time.  By the time we arrived, I was a doubtful, hyperventilating mess.  Sitting in three hours of Paris gridlock can unravel even the best test taker, so I tried to take some calming breaths and focus on the driving code.

When the lights went down in the room to signal the start of the test, I thought I was going to combust.  There was so much French driving code jammed into my head at that point, I wasn’t sure I could get it out successfully.  But when the lights went up to signal the end of the test, I was relieved because not only had we made it to the test, but it was finally over.

I know you’re wondering what my test result was…………..I PASSED (and so did Tim)!

Now we just have to take the driving test.  Bye-bye Lily.

I did take a picture of the sunrise over gridlock on the test day, but I decided that I’d rather share this one instead.  This is the Chateau Fontainebleau in the morning.

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classe de mer

Remember last year’s Classe Verte school trip to the circus that I wrote about here, here and here? You know, the trip that culminated in my kids kneeling and standing on the backs of ponies as they circled in a ring under a big top tent?  I’m pretty sure you haven’t forgotten because just the concept of taking a bunch of elementary school kids away from home for a week to do circus tricks is the kind of thing that sticks in one’s mind for a really long time.

I wasn’t sure that anything could top the big top, but now I’m not so sure.  We found out that this year’s trip is headed to the coast instead of the country.  Rather than being called Classe Verte, this year the trip is called Classe de Mer because 60+ kids and four teachers are headed out of town to learn how to surf and sail.  It’s a bit of a mindbender, I know.

I could barely handle a group of little French kids once a week and these teachers are taking 3 entire classes out of town for FIVE FULL DAYS.  Here’s a link to the place they’re going this year.  It’s five hours away from our house.  That’s about 4 hours longer than I would consider going with a group of kids that age and size.  To me, busses + kids = trouble.  I have many memories causing and witnessing mayhem on busses when I was a kid.  Although we never went farther than 1.5 hours from our school on a bus, it didn’t stop me from breaking a window with a jawbreaker I was throwing at a very cute boy sitting in the back seat (not sure you knew about that one, Ma).  Remember “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall?”  Me too, but I wish I didn’t.  I can’t wait to hear how these kids manage to entertain themselves on a bus for 5 hours – EACH WAY.  I’m sure movies will play a part in the equation, but there’s a limit to how long those will keep them engaged.

Last year I spent some time wondering how my kids would do away from home for a week in a foreign country where they had few language skills and few good friends.  This year, I feel like we’re ahead of the curve because:

a) at least I know what the term Classe de Mer means when parents are chatting about it on the playground

b) my kids have many friends now and speak French with the attitude and accent that I envy, and

c) I know that my kids aren’t going to combust away from home for a week.

I’m not sure how the teachers will hold it together however.  It may take more than 99 bottles of French wine to make it through that week.

From my perspective, it’s great that there are no parent chaperones allowed on these trips, that way I don’t have to feel bad about not volunteering.  And since surfing is on the agenda that week, it only makes sense to say the two words that pop into my mind when I think about the teachers alone for a week with this crowd, “Bummer, dude.”

Guess who was crowned the king last night?

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galette des rois

One of the coolest things about being in France is getting to experience the many little celebrations that I’ve never heard of before.  Also, there’s not much I like more than little celebrations which involve cake.  Bring on Epiphany!

The latest in the lineup of little celebrations is the Feast of the Epiphany which happened on January 6th. This holiday clearly has religious meaning, but I choose not to get too caught up in the religious aspect of it and spend all my energy focusing on the cake that comes with it.

The cake for Epiphany is called Le Galette des Rois and it is basically a round, puff-pastry tart with almond or apple filling inside. Also baked inside this cake is a little porcelain figurine, called a fève, that ends up in one piece of the cake when it is all sliced up. Whenever you buy this cake you are also given a paper crown to go with it.

Here’s what we knew about this cake before arriving in France: nothing.

We assumed that you just cut up the cake and whomever gets the fève gets to wear the crown. Of course, each time we bought the cake (nearly daily for a week) there was a lot of jockeying and peeking inside the cut pieces of cake to try to deduce which piece held the fève.  This diminished from the overall joy of eating the cake, since there was always chaos surrounding the distribution of pieces.  About mid way through our cake eating spree, we were finally set straight by a French friend. Apparently there are a specific set of rules for eating this cake which diminishes the chaos and boosts the enjoyment.  Here are the official French rules:

1) the youngest person in the room sits under the table and the cake is then sliced into equal pieces for the number of people at the table

2) as the pieces are getting ready to be distributed, the youngest person calls out he name of the person to whom each piece of cake should go (no peeking!)

3) when all the pieces are doled out, everyone eats the cake and waits anxiously to see who gets the fève

4) once the fève is found, the person who finds it is considered the king (or queen) and then that person gets to choose a different person to wear the crown

Now that we know the official rules, eating the Galette des Rois is much more fun, however I still have yet to win the fève.  Yesterday I found out that the cakes are being sold until the end of January at the bakeries.  There is still hope for me.

Part of the fève party at our house with Remi le Radis leading the way.

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oef update

Not sure if you remember my plan called Operation Elderly Friend (OEF) but you may be glad to know I’m just a little bit closer to having an elderly and non-English speaking friend here.  For a while my search was on hiatus as backlash from slightly offending an elderly woman at our block party in the fall, but there is finally hope on the horizon.

A few weeks ago, I happened to run in to my elderly neighbor one night as I was arriving home from the store.  She was standing outside her house and seemed slightly confused in the dark.  When I spoke to her she told me that she couldn’t get her door open and she had just spent the day walking around in Paris and was exhausted.  In an effort to help, I pulled out my trusty iPhone flashlight (is there nothing these phones can’t do?).  We finally managed to get her door open and that’s when I happened to mention something to her that would turn out to be a critical to the next stage of OEF:  le petit chat.  Two in fact.

We’ve known since we moved in to the neighborhood that our neighbor is crazy about cats.  Her cats walk along the walls of our property staring at us as if we’re trespassing on their turf and each night she goes outside to call them in to sleep in her cozy house.  Despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of cats (warning: I’m a die-hard dog person), it is refreshing to see a cat owner in France take such good care of her pets.  Frankly, most cats in France are left to live and die on their own.  If they’re lucky, they may get an occasional bowl of food left outside, but that’s pretty much it.  The dogs with hair bows on the other hand………….they are the royalty of the French pet world.

A few days prior to the interaction with my neighbor, we heard a noise outside of our house at night that seemed loud and close.  Since there are no squirrels here and the hedgehog who lives in our yard doesn’t like to come near the house, Tim went to investigate.  It turned out that we had two tiny kittens playing on our back stoop with some things we had left outside.  When Tim opened the door, the kittens ran away and although we were concerned about them, we figured that they would go back to wherever they came from.

A few days passed and that’s when I happened to help my neighbor open her door at night and when I mentioned that we had two petit chats in our backyard a couple of days before, she immediately came to life.  All tiredness from walking the streets of Paris disappeared and she told me that she had been looking for these two kittens because they were wild and she was trying to save them.  Not only was she planning to capture these wild cats, but she had already lined up someone to adopt them as house pets.

The next thing I knew I was making a plan for her to come over to capture the cats the next day.  She wasn’t really asking for help in capturing the cats so much as setting up a time to trespass in our yard to capture them herself.

Here’s what was going through my mind as I was having this conversation with her:

1 very elderly woman + 2 wild kittens = epic disaster

Not only was I not at all convinced that this woman could catch these cats, I was actually afraid she might hurt herself in the process.

When I offered up 9am as a good time to come over, she said that was WAY too early for her and then she counter offered with a time that I thought was 1pm.  In case you didn’t know this, the French sleep very late.  And in case you didn’t also know this, I’m number challenged in French.  As a result, I thought she said 1pm, but she actually said 3pm.

The next day when 1pm rolled around and the woman failed to show up, I started to get worried.  We ended up waiting until about 2:3o for her to show up and then I sent Tim over to make sure she was ok.  He came back to report that she was alive and well and still lingering about in her pjs while getting her cat cages ready for the big cat capture at 3pm.

I really needed to run out to the store and although I wasn’t actively trying to miss the cat capture, I really didn’t think there would be much to miss.  I was pretty sure that there could only be a bad outcome from a war of wills between the old lady and the wild cats.  When I returned, I fully expected to hear a sob story about the petit chats who got away, but instead I was greeted with shouts of joy from the boys that the old woman had accomplished the impossible.  She had wrangled those cats into a cage with the help of nothing more than a sheet over her hand.  She was a cat whisperer after all.

As a result of the petit chats and the success of the great cat capture, I’m a bit closer to succeeding at OEF.  The elderly neighbor wants to get together with me for coffee and I’ll let you know how things work out for us.  I certainly won’t mention that I don’t really like cats.

Here is a picture of one of the MANY dog beauty salons in our town for the pet royalty of France.

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a year of adventurous eating

There are a lot of good things about being a parent:  the hugs, the kisses, the eternal love, etc. But then…………there are the bad things. Like the smirky look on your kid’s face as sage advice you so freely dole out comes back to bite you in the ass.

Before we moved to France, I would often tell my kids when they were presented with food they didn’t necessarily like, “Being an adventurous eater in life is really important. How are you going to travel around the world if you will only eat hotdogs? They don’t serve hotdogs in Thailand.”

This is especially great advice when you live in the US and you are trying to feed your kids something like a different variety of sliced bread. In addition, I also used to also say things like, “It’s rude not to eat something when it’s served to you. Put a smile on your face and suck it up.” Also really good advice. Sometimes.

Here’s the main trouble……..we now live in France. Since our arrival, my kids have turned into the adventurous eaters that I had always hoped they’d be. As you may remember, they eat a four course meal every day at school and they are served any number of strange food items that they’ve never had before. At school they are served mussles, veal, beef with olive sauce, squid, and loads of stinky cheese, among many other things.

But here’s the catch – I could eat cheese morning, noon, and night, but when it comes to meat I’m a closet vegetarian.  It’s not that I have any sort of moral or ethical opposition to eating meat, it’s just that I really don’t like it and I never really have.  Every once in a while I’ll break down and have a good burger, but most days I would much rather eat a whole pot of squash soup.  But in a country like France, there is not only an abundance of cheese, but also an abundance of meat.  Foie gras is just the tip of the big meat iceburg.  One trip to the open air market downtown will expose you to more animal body parts than you even knew existed and the French eat them all with gusto.  And now my kids do too.

I actually had a French friend say to me recently, “I can’t understand why anyone would be a…………..what do you call that……..when somebody only eats vegetables?  Oh yes, a vegetarian!  That doesn’t make any sense.”  I did not take that opportunity to share my personal feelings on the subject.  I just stuffed more cheese in my mouth.

My boys haven’t exactly used the “adventurous eater” guilt against me yet, but it is only a matter of time before they realized that I’m always hiding behind the wheel of cheese and avoiding the lamb.  I think I may start to call myself something that the French might understand – a cheesatarian.

To demonstrate what adventurous eaters my kids have become, I’ll share with you a conversation we had recently while walking home from school:

Eamon: The lunch at school today was so gross. It was this beef stuff with this really gross sauce all over it. I couldn’t eat it.

Owen: That’s funny, I kind of liked it……………..

Me: What was it? Do you know?

Eamon: I have no idea, but it was so gross that Maxence barfed at lunch when he ate it.

Owen: Yeah, that part of the day was pretty gross.

Me: Oh no! Was he feling sick before lunch too?

Eamon: No, he just tasted the lunch, he didn’t like it, and then barfed on the table.

Me: Yikes! Did his parents have to come get him?

Eamon: No, the lunch lady just cleaned it up and then Maxence ate his dessert.

Me: Oh gross! What did you guys do while all of this was happening?

Owen: I just kept eating – I thought the lunch was really good!

Eamon: I just ate my dessert during it all. Mum, I can assure you, if you tasted the lunch, you wouldn’t have liked it either.

I’m pretty sure he’s right.

Here is the meat that almost hit me in the face as I walked around the corner of the truck – a terrible sight for a cheesatarian.

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