Monthly Archives: March 2012

cortina

As people who have lived in the mountains for many years, moving to France has been a dramatic shift in our topographical landscape.  Most noticeably, we have no big mountains nearby.  I do miss the mountains of VT, but Tim?  He gets plain antsy without them.

We managed to find some mountains to ski on in south eastern France after Christmas and it was amazing.  Great conditions, great sun and very, very good melted cheese dinners.  Oh, and the wine.  Yes, there was wine.  But when it came time to think about what we were going to do for the February school vacation, Tim was already on it.  I was thinking something warm and sunny and he was thinking…….mountains.

I was in a holiday fog when he booked some cheap flights to Venice to get us to the Dolomites for some skiing/snowboarding.  And, hey, who can complain about having to go to Italy to get in some turns, even when you’re dreaming of the sea?  Not me.

After our outstanding visit to Venice, we headed up into the mountains with our gear to Cortina d’Ampezzo.  As it turns out, Cortina was not only the setting for scenes from The Pink Panther (1963) and James Bond: For Your Eyes Only, but it was also home to the 1954 Olympics.

Since I never had any Olympic dreams of my own, hanging around in an Olympic town is about as close as I’m ever going to get to the thrill of victory………..or the agony of defeat (yes, I did just quote ABC’s Wide World of Sports).  Rather than set goals to get something really big like an Olympic gold, I tend to set my personal goals much lower.  And when it comes to snowboarding, my goal at the end of every day is to walk, unassisted, off the mountain.  To me, that’s a pretty thrilling victory.  I definitely don’t feel old, but I know I’m just one fall away from ending up in traction.  That would be a bigger defeat than I am willing to face.

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When I wasn’t trying to avoid ending up in traction on the mountain, I was hanging around on the town plaza with the many other locals and tourists.  I’m pretty sure that the anti-fur campaign by PETA hasn’t made it to Cortina yet, because I saw more giant fur coats in that town than I’ve seen in my entire life.  What was even more hilarious was that there were so many people who seemed to layer ski gear under a giant fur coat to spend the day sitting on the plaza.  That’s another way to avoid ending up in traction.  Don’t go down any slopes.

We didn’t end up at the beach on this vacation, but we did get some incredible sun and on the last day, it was so hot we were skiing in short sleeve shirts.  Good thing I left my giant fur coat back in France.  I would have really been sweating it out on the slopes.

ps – This is a joke.  I don’t own a fur coat.  Small fuzzy animals belong in the woods, not on a coat.  And they certainly do not deserve to be layered over ski gear for plaza sitting.

I must have sent an ESP message to my (imaginary) friend J. Peterman, the guy from the catalog who I wrote about here.  I guess that J.’s been hanging around in Cortina too because I happened to see this just the other day.

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I wonder if J. Peterman was on the plaza writing this text at the same time that I was wondering why so many people were wearing fur coats over ski gear?  I guess I’ll never know………….

ecriture

This is what happens to little kids when they move to France:

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I was cleaning up my house the other day and on top of a pile of junk mail, I found this little note.  Just to be clear, I did not write this.  Owen did.

Most of my life, I’ve had a thing about nice writing implements.  I may not have the best handwriting, but I’ve usually got a nice pen to write with.  In college, I remember procrastinating for hours in the pen aisle at my campus bookstore.  Who needs to pledge a sorority and gain sisters for life when a fountain pen, if cared for properly, will also last a lifetime.  Delta Gamma sweatshirt vs. Waterman pen with blue/black ink?  I’ll take the pen.

France is a writing implement lover’s dreams.  When we originally received the list of supplies the kids needed to start school here, at the top of the list was a fountain pen with ink cartridges.  I was ecstatic and clearly slightly more excited than they were.  My kids were confused.  In the US, they weren’t even allowed to write with pens in school, let alone fountain pens with ink cartridges.

It quickly became evident at school that the French take their handwriting very seriously.  The kids here learn, what we used to call in the US, penmanship.  I’m not sure if we call it anything in the US anymore because I’m pretty sure it’s not taught.

Back in the day at my elementary school, we  had a penmanship expert named Mr. Moran, who came to our school to assess our handwriting on a monthly basis.  His had a head shaped like a lightbulb and good penmanship was rewarded with small prizes like erasers or pencils.  I’m pretty sure that there is no reward for good penmanship in the US anymore and the reward for bad penmanship is…….a computer.

But in France, things are different and good handwriting is still an educational priority in schools.

For the first half-year of school, my kids were baffled by the French interest in good penmanship, proper handwriting and pens.  Then one day, it happened.  My kids came home from school and started a random conversation with me about pens and penmanship.  Apparently there were these super cool erasable pens that were making the rounds at school and my kids really wanted to get their hands on a set.  I merrily skipped to the local pen store with them.

Since my kids have embraced life in France, they now spend time arguing about the best way to connect letters in “ecriture.”  And they spend time talking about fountain pens.  And they write little notes like the one above and they leave them around the house.  Yahoo!

Here was my Christmas present from them:

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They know me very well.

venezia

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but the last time I visited Venice I almost didn’t get off the train at the appropriate stop because in Italy Venice is not called Venice.  It’s called Venezia.

Although I had studied foreign language in school and was even a Spanish minor in college, it still didn’t dawn on me that the name would be different in Italy.  I was young and broke and traveling around with a friend and spent an inordinate amount of time sleeping on trains, so maybe I was sleep deprived.  In any case, we realized the name difference at the last moment before the train doors closed and threw ourselves off the train into a city of water.  Needless to say, Venezia made a very big impression on me.  That’s why it’s been on my list of places to revisit since we’ve been living in France.

It was almost as if this lion was mocking me, “What, you don’t know that Venice is called Venezia in Italian?  What are you, an American???”

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During the most recent school vacation after we had a meet-up with Yoda and developed a deeper fear of spiders, we hopped on a cheap flight to Venice.  The real purpose of the trip was to get back to the mountains that we miss so much from our days in VT, but we were so close to Venice that we had to make a stop.

After hanging around at the Doge’s palace and spending an inordinate amount to time with ancient torture devices and weapons, we hit the streets to track down the library where Indiana Jones hung out.  We had to make the time to go stand where Harrison Ford once stood.  I did it for the kids.  Really.

The entire time we were enjoying the sight of Venice, the boys were angling for a gondola trip.  The gondolas are like giant candy bars lurking at every turn, just screaming to the kids, “Come on, just bug the crap out of your parents until you wear them down enough and they will buy me!”

Despite the fact that I’ve never been on a gondola before, I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down to throw what was likely lots of money to do something so touristy.  I grew up on Cape Cod and that gives me the unique ability to spot a tourist trap at least a mile away.  To add to my tourist trap street cred, I will also mention that on a very eventful road trip to Florida with my family, we even stopped at “South of the Border.”  Oh yes, we did.

The giant Citrus Tower?  Been there too.

But the gondolas are not really like your classic tourist trap, which usually involves one of the following three things: 1) loud music, 2) bright lights, or 3) giant fiberglass animals/pirates.  The gondolas are a distinctly different type of tourist trap because, well,…………………they’re actually pretty cool.

Since I was slowly getting worn down by the peanut gallery, I approached some gondoliers to find out how much damage the trip would do to our wallet.  At one point, I thought about trying to wheel and deal for a better price, but as my former boss would tell you, negotiating deals is not one of my stronger skills (I actually negotiated a work contract at one point in which we ended up paying more than the initial quoted price).  Once I fully realized that there was no way I was getting a deal, I knew we had two options – either skip the ride and hear about the missed opportunity for the rest of our lives, or bite the bullet and get on the boat.  As you might have guessed, we got on the boat.

As I was stepping on to the boat, I fully intended to report that the trip was not worth it, but I can’t say that.  Instead, I will say that it was thoroughly amazing and worth every penny.  It really helped that our gondolier wasn’t wearing a traditional hat and didn’t sing to us.  Instead, we had an honest conversation about the city of Venice.  Here is what I learned:

  • 80% of all tourists visit Venice in the summer
  • 30 years ago, Venice had 120,000 residents and now it has only 60,000
  • the property prices are so high and so few people can afford to live there that there really is no independent culture that exists anymore – everything in the city exists for the tourists
  • every house in Venice was built specifically for a family – there was never any mass building in the city
  • all of the front doors of the houses in Venice face the canals and every family had a gondolier who lived in the first floor of their house to get them around – kind of like a chauffeur
  • the city is no longer sinking, however the water level is still rising in the city due to melting ice caused by global warming
  • gondolas are not symmetrical boats – they are designed that way so that the gondolier can stand on the back and not tip over

It was an incredible ride and I loved every minute of it, mostly because the canals show you things you can’t see on foot.  In fact, it was way better than a giant candy bar, even the kids would agree.

Next time you’re in Venice on a gondola, though, be careful.  The gondolier told me that although the boats are designed not to tip over, every year a couple of loads of tourists hit the water from leaning too far to one side when they encounter the wake from other boats in the bigger sections of the canal.

Even the world’s best tourist trap has its risks.

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i feel the force

We had been avoiding going to the movies in France for a very, very long time.  Although I was interested in taking the kids, I was getting a lot of feedback from them about it because, well, we have a bit of a language barrier.  You see, despite the fact that many movies shown in France are created and distributed by American companies, they are usually dubbed into French before they hit the theaters here.

I used to be very disturbed by watching dubbed movies, since there is something slightly disconcerting about watching someone’s mouth move in a different way than you would imagine when you hear the sounds.  However, my view on this has changed, since as a non-Francophone, I often feel like my own mouth is moving in a different way than the sound coming out of it.  See how being a stranger in a strange land can really change your attitude toward many random things?  Now I can watch any version of CSI dubbed in French and not be even slightly disturbed.  That fact, in itself, is slightly disturbing.

I knew it would take an epic film to change my kids’ view on going to the movies.  Despite the reality that their French is now outstanding, they had little confidence in their ability to understand a full length movie.  And guess what just recently landed in the movie theaters in France?  Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3D!

I’m sure this was probably out in the theaters months ago in the US, but it seemed like news to me that it was even being made in 3D.  I am not even a Star Wars fanatic, but something about this series makes me very nostalgically happy.  You see, my first memory of seeing the original Star Wars was in the theater in my hometown, with my father as he smuggled a whole load of popcorn into the theater in his jacket.  He believed that the popcorn he made at home (since he was a Nebraska native), was better than what we could buy at the theater.  That, and he was a bit of a cheap skate.  I’m pretty sure he had a couple of can of Schlitz in his pockets too, but luckily we were more focused on seeing the movie than the fact that my Dad looked pregnant with the mass of popcorn.  After all, it was the 1970s and we were still on the rebound from the Age of Aquarius.

Since that day, I’ve had a deep love of the Star Wars movies and now, like many others in the youngest generation, so do my kids.  So when we heard that Star Wars was coming to the local theater, the kids suddenly changed their tune about movies in French.  Their reasoning, which follows logic, is that they’d seen the movie so many times in English that it wouldn’t matter if it were in French.  It didn’t dawn on them that they might actually UNDERSTAND the words in French.

I didn’t try to smuggle in any popcorn to recreate the good old days, but we did get some really sweet French 3D glasses.  Even the 3D glasses have some style here:

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Once we settled in to see Yoda on the big screen, all was right with the world.  There were only two things that would have made it even better:

1) a cold can of Schlitz
2) my Dad sitting next to me.

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My kids, by the way, understood nearly every word.

real arachnophobia

Hey ho, friends! Sorry for the hiatus. I was out of internet access for a bit – that, and I’m lazy.

Nearly every vacation in France for kids is two weeks long. Some people would argue that it is way too much time to have off, but not me. I love it and so do my kids. Here’s the way I look at it: with a one week vacation, you either relax or travel, but you can’t do both happily. The two week school vacation in France is the perfect about of time for doing both: one week of lazing about and one week of seeing cool things. Pair that up with the very generous vacation schedule for working adults and you’ve got the makings of a very nice time.

The first week of vacation turned out to be the lazing about week except that we need to do something somewhat interesting before I was completely absorbed into a giant Lego abyss. A Lego abyss which involves non-stop talk about Lego, many audio sound effects to go along with the Lego action and chatter about which character is stronger and faster, etc. Try as I might not to get sucked in, I have two boys constantly trying to draw me in to the vortex by asking me questions like, “Mum, who is your favorite Ninjago spinner?” and “In your opinion, who is cooler, Coal or Kai?” Although I strongly advocate having an opion in life, these conversations are way out of my league. Way.

So I finally told the boys that we were going to take a trip to Paris to get out of our (my) Lego rut and learn something new. I was trying hard to convince them the Musee D’Orsay would be a great museum to see, especially since they just completed a major renovation. No dice. Then I was on to the Paris Science Museum, but I heard from a friend that school vacations are hell in that place. Finally we reached an agreement that we would go to the Natural HIstory Museum in Paris based on the fact that there would be dinosaurs present – my friend told me so.

When we arrived at the Museum, we immediately saw some giant bones hanging from the ceiling. At that point I exclaimed,”Hey, look at the dinosaur bones!” Unfortunately, my kids are the direct descents of their smartypants father, to which they replied, “Those aren’t dinosaur bones, those are WHALE bones.” Hmm. After further inspection, I could see that they were right, which I might have realized sooner if I had channeled my inner Cape Codder, since I have visited nearly every whaling museum in the New England area as a school kid.

Despite Owen’s fear of spiders, we decided to take a hiatus from the dinosaur search to see the special spider exhibit. His fear of spiders is a recent addition to the “Scared of Our House” syndrome that had plagued Eamon since we moved in here. The house is big and old and a little bit creaky and Eamon refuses to go to a different floor without another person present. Owen, on the other hand, was fine in our house until he saw what I can safely say is the biggest spider I have ever seen sitting on our basement floor. Since that time, he had referred to the spider as “Dracula” and now refuses to set foot in the basement except under duress.

The spider exhibit started out pretty simply with diagrams of spiders and their webs and progressed in complexity to the finale which was made up of real spiders and an exhibit showing scenes of spiders in the movies. To be clear, the movies featuring spiders were not scenes from Charlotte’s Web, but rather, the exhibition was called “Spiders From Horror Movies.” There was a slight hesitation on my part. Does a responsible mother let her kids see an exhibit entitled, “Spiders from Horror Movies?” The obvious answer is no, but I mean, how bad could it really be? It is, after all, a museum for kids.

Here are just some of the movies we saw clips from (there were others that I think I’ve blocked out):

  • Arachnophobia (1990)
  • The Lord of the Rings – Return of the King (2003)
  • Tarantula (1955)
  • Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
  • Raider’s of the Lost Ark (1981)

The spider scenes ranged from seeing a giant tarantula loom over a city and devour a horse (think Godzilla) , to seeing a giant infestation of spiders take over a town. But the scene that really took the cake was the scene from a movie I can’t remember where a guy opens his mouth and a load of spiders come out and starts to crawl up his head and down his chest. I nearly had to scrape Owen of the floor after that one. Another parenting milestone surpassed – scare your kid’s shitless so that they never go down your basement ever again.

After that movie experience, we were rushing toward the exit of the spider exhibit, when a photo caught my eye. It was a picture that looked just like the spider in our basement and I read the name of the spider out loud, “French House Spider.” When Owen found out that Dracula was not some rare breed of spider that happened to find a way into our basement, but rather a typical type of spider that could be found anywhere – like even in his bed – he nearly lost his mind.

At that point, we had to put the spider exhibit behind us, so we resumed our quest for the dinosaurs. After a full day of seeing nearly every species of mammal and insect, we found no dinosaurs. Not a single one. Another promise broken to my kids. It seems like they should be used to it by now, doesn’t it?

As it turns out, there was a big dinosaur exhibit at this museum but it closed six months ago. Go figure. I did, however, track down some other dinosaurs in Paris on the web after we got home that we’re going to make another trip to see – once they recover from the spider exhibit.

Here is a photo of the stampede in the middle of the museum. I think they’re all running away from the spider exhibit.