Category Archives: culture

a rambling tale of strasbourg and a bear named Otto

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Christmas Markets + hot wine; promise me those two things in one location and I’m there.  In this case, that location was Strasbourg in mid-December.

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Right before Christmas, we jumped on the fast train and rocketed down to soak up the local color and drink our fair share of vin chaud in Strasbourg.  With a name like Strasbourg, doesn’t it seem like the city should be located in Germany, rather than France?  I think so, but although I was born with a directional and geographical disability, I found out that I have the ability to become more adept at geography when it benefits me.

When I think of the term “Christmas Market” the image of little old ladies knitting mittens is the first thing that pops into my head.  The second thing that pops into my head is realization that those hand knitted mittens, although often cute, never, EVER, keep your hands warm.

Getting off the train in Strasbourg, I was surprised not to be assaulted by mittens, but rather I was greeted by every type of Christmas trinket available.  Sadly, nearly none of it was handmade and virtually nothing was even made in France.  From the original product perspective, I would say the markets were a bit of a bust, unless your sole purpose was to expand your collection of mini figurines to surround your model train setup.  But once I determined that there were few goods I really wanted to buy, I changed my focus to determine which market stall had the best vin chaud (hot wine).  Hot wine tastes much better than it sounds, since it has spices in it to make it taste delicious.  Since each stand seemed to have their own recipe, I had to try them all.  In the end, there was no clear winner – it was all good.

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While we were there, we also found out that the Tomi Ungerer museum was located in the city.  What?  You don’t know who Tomi Ungerer is?  Have you ever read The Three Robbers?  It’s one of few children’s books which includes a blunderbuss, a pepper-blower and a huge red axe.  It is also a book that will most assuredly scare the shit out of your small children (especially if read in a deep voice in a dark room).

This is a magazine with an article about Tomi Ungerer that I bought while in Strasbourg (notice on the cover under Ungerer’s name his quote is “it is necessary to traumatize children” – maybe I like him so much because we share the same parenting philosophy):

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Tomi Ungerer has been one of my favorite authors and illustrators for nearly my entire life, starting with the original version of “Flat Stanley” (written by Jeff Brown and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer).  Seriously, who doesn’t dream of becoming flat and getting mailed to California?  I still dream of doing that.  Or maybe I will mail myself back to France once I finally leave…..

This year in school, Owen’s class read Ungerer’s classic “Otto” which is about a stuffed bear that was owned by a Jewish boy during WWII.  I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will tell you that it is not an easy read.  Don’t let the fact that the main character is a stuffed bear fool you; Ungerer is nothing if not a realist.

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In any case, once we found out that the Tomi Ungerer Museum was located close to our hotel, it was on the top of our (read: my) list of things to do.  I was so excited to go to this museum that we ended up arriving a bit early for the daily opening and I found myself nearly climbing up the giant metal gates and screaming like a groupie.  Once inside, we found a treasure trove of antique toys (Ungerer’s personal collection), as well the original illustrations to most of his books.

As we entered the top floor of the museum, Owen spotted the original stuffed Otto across the room and he ran toward him.  In French museums, it is extremely normal to ignore all rules.  In our two years here, I have witnessed untold numbers of people taking pictures of things in museums, even when they are literally surrounded by giant signs forbidding photography.  When Owen asked if I would take a picture of him with Otto, I did a cursory glance around the room to see if there were any signs forbidding photos and not seeing any, I took out my camera and snapped a picture.  As soon as the security guard, who was chatting around the corner, heard the shutter click, she rounded the corner and gave me a severe reprimand for taking a photo where they were not allowed.

In the past I would have been horrified for getting busted, but I’ve perfected my “c’est comme ça” look and I flashed her a shrug.  Even Owen wasn’t phased by her.  He tends to be the (only) rule follower in our family, however he whispered to me as we walked out of the museum, “I don’t care that we got busted.  At least we got a picture of the REAL Otto.”

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In celebration of our illegal Otto picture, I suggested we go drink some vin chaud (with chocolat chaud for the kids).

team mossot

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I know that I’ve made no secret about my desire to find an elderly friend in France.  I also know I have written a few times about the elderly woman who lives next door to us, Mme Mossot, however I haven’t given her nearly enough time on the blog to accurately represent how important she has become in our lives in France.  If you don’t remember the stories about Mme Mossot, she’s our 85-year-old next door neighbor who first wrangled the wild kittens living in our garden and after that, she convinced us to adopt JJ (I just can’t bring myself to call him Justin), our massive French street cat.

The history of Mme Mossot is as long as her long life and I could write a two part book about her.  Part I of the book would be about her past life as an artist, an art journalist, an interior decorator, and an animal crusader.  Part II of the book would be about our interactions with Mme Mossot and it would read something like Tuesdays with Morrie, with a lot less death and a lot more quotes and advice. Mme. Mossot is a highly opinionated woman and although I love her for it, but I can guarantee that it’s much easier to be friends with her than to be related to her.

In the early fall, there was a special exhibition in Paris that Mme Mossot wanted to attend and I promised her that the kids and I would go with her.  The exhibit was at the Musee D’Orsay and it was called Misia.  Misia was the muse and benefactor to many famous artists in France in the early 1900s and this exhibit pulled together all the paintings of Misia made by all the famous painters she knew throughout the years.  

Since Mme Mossot lived in Paris most of her life she knows the city very well and when she told me it had been a couple of years since she had been to the Orsay, I believed her until we got to the door.  At that point, I suspected that it had been a little bit longer than a couple of years when she tried to show her French senior citizen’s card to the security people at the entrance of the museum as if it were the ticket desk.  She also tried to write a check at the desk to buy the tickets and although there is still an affinity for check-writing in France, the young man looked at her like she was from another planet.

Part of the reason that Mme Mossot was so interested in seeing the Misia exhibit was because her husband was the nephew of Pierre Bonnard, a famous French painter.  Bonnard was one of the primary painters at the Misia exhibit and when we entered, Mme Mossot started pointing out Bonnard paintings that she had seen before in her life at Bonnard’s house and at other shows of his.  It had always been clear to me that she has lived an exceptionally interesting life, but that day at the museum further reinforced my belief.  

The exhibit was great, and afterward Mme Mossot told us she’d like to take us out for gouter at the new restaurant that had opened at the Orsay.  Once we were seated at the restaurant, we scanned the menu and each ordered a dessert-type snack.  However, as soon as Mme Mossot’s ice cream arrived, she called the server back over to the table.  Apparently the menu had promised a praline cookie on the top of the ice cream, but when the ice cream arrived, the praline was nowhere to be found.  Mme Mossot complained to the server about “false advertising” the server gave her the classic French eye roll and told her they had run out of cookies.  After the server left, Mme Mossot told me that she was a “crusader for the tourists” in Paris who don’t know that they are being taken advantage of by the French and who don’t have the ability to speak up about it.

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Being a tourist can be hard, especially when you live in a foreign country and have a tendency to feel like a tourist all the time.  I’m just glad to know Mme Mossot’s got my back.    

Here is the picture of us in Paris that Mme Mossot took:

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a wine trance

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When we were young, the kids in my family would wait impatiently for the Sears Catalog to arrive in the mail around the holiday season.  As soon as the catalog arrived, my mother would sit us down with pens and pads of paper to make our lists of all the things we would like for Christmas.

Isn’t that nice?

I know what you’re thinking right now…………you’re thinking, “Wow.  You must have had an incredibly generous Santa in your life.  You were SO lucky!”

Don’t be fooled by the first part of that story.  In fact, we spent hours, if not days (and maybe even weeks), writing down detailed descriptions of every toy we wanted.  We made columns.  We wrote prices.  We wrote code numbers.  And year after year, we were very optimistic.

And each Christmas morning, we would run downstairs with visions of mountains of toys from Santa/Sears piled underneath our tree.  And every year the big man let us down.  It wasn’t that we didn’t get fabulous things for Christmas, but we NEVER got a single thing that we had chosen from our hours of work with the Sears Catalogue.  Not once.

Now you know where I inherited the ability to subtly torture my children.

This fall in France, when I received a giant wine catalog in the mail, I was immediately transported back in time to my days with the Sears Catalog.  I quickly found myself circling things in the catalog and feeling hopeful.  Then I realized that at this point in life, I am my own Santa Claus.  So rather than sitting around hoping, I got in the car to attend the annual wine sale at our massive supermarket.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I have very simple wine selection criteria.  I have only two requirements:  1) it must be under 5€,  and 2) it should have some sort of award seal on the bottle.  I know there are people who are much smarter than I am, and clearly there are those who know much more about wine than I do, so I choose to leave the big decisions to them.  If the smart wine judges give a decently priced bottle of wine an award, I buy the wine.

When I arrived at the wine sale, it was like a wonderland with crates of wine all over the massive center of the store.  I was wandering around in a daze as wine buyers in fancy suits and pointed shoes walked purposefully with their cellphones pressed to their ears.  Who were they buying wine for?  I have absolutely no idea, but I did my best to represent the low standard crowd with my wrinkled skirt and rounded shoes.

When it comes to buying things in France that I don’t know much about, I have developed one main strategy.  I find someone who looks like she (or he) knows what she is doing and I follow her around (at a safe distance) to see what she buys.  I am almost like an ape in that way, except I apply this tactic to decidedly un-apelike things like buying skin care products.  If there is a woman with really nice skin in the moisturizer aisle, you can bet that I’m trailing her.

I pulled out the dog-eared catalogue I had stuffed in my bag and I browsed nonchalantly while I waited to find someone to follow who was not wearing a suit.  Once I had identified my secret buying mentor, I walked slowly behind him watching what he was choosing.  In a few short minutes my cart seemed to be sufficiently full, and I deflected my buying mentor’s suspicious glances at me, by looking at my catalog whenever he turned around to give me the hairy eyeball.

After I finished loading up on wine, I walked by the bra section and I saw a familiar sight – French women grabbing handfuls of lacy bra and undies sets and tossing them into their carts like they were buying croissants.  Do they try them on?  No.  Do they fret about fit or comfort?  Apparently not, since this is a scene I have witnessed nearly every time I walk by the bra section.  And since I was living the spirit of France that day with a cart full of wine, I decided to toss in a few bras to top it off.

As I wandered back across the store, I go sidetracked by the home goods section (happens every time) and left my cart sitting in the middle of the dishware aisle.  After I was finished looking there, I went back to my cart and started pushing it to the other end of the store toward the checkout.

It wasn’t until I was nearly at the checkout that I heard a woman yelling behind me and I turned to look.  An elderly woman was hobbling quickly toward me.  She was saying something that I couldn’t exactly understand and I figured that she was speaking to the wrong person and began to turn around again.  That’s when I happened to glance down and I noticed that my cart was not filled with wine and bras, but rather with vacuum bags and yogurt.

I had accidentally taken the other woman’s cart and left the poor woman with a cart full of loot that appeared to be the weekly shopping trip for the brothel.

“Je suis très, très désolé, Madame.”

Sometimes I don’t get the language right, but I always know how to say “I’m sorry” correctly in French.  In fact, those are the words I speak the most on a daily basis.

As you now know, Santa really delivered this year – from a catalogue even!

For your added entertainment value, I thought I’d throw this in.  When we’re not buying wine, this is what we do in France for fun:

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zoo residents

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I have a running joke with my mother about the number of days that our kids are in school in France.  As a retired US teacher, my mother thinks it is hilarious that nearly every time I speak to her I tell her that the kids have an upcoming day off, or that they’ve just had a day off.

I’m not going to lie, there are many, many holidays in France.  In the month of May alone, there were 5 school days off.  I know I’ve mentioned this before, but kids here have a half day of school every Wednesday (and some children, in certain grades have no school at all).  That said, the school day is longer here and the summer vacation is shorter.  In the end, I’m sure it’s about the same as the US, but it seems so different (and I love it).

So during the last holiday weekend we decided to head south back to the Loire Valley with some good friends to see more castles, the only panda bear in France, and some wine caves – not at all in that order.  As far as the castles go, you’ve got to see them to believe them – no amount of narrative can do those things justice.  And as for the wine, tasting is believing.  Sorry I can’t be more descriptive.

As we were walking through the zoo to see the pandas, we came upon an outdoor habitat that had a huge crowd around it.  When I walked a bit closer to check out what the crowd was looking at, I was slightly stunned and mostly horrified.  The huge crowd had gathered to view the North American Raccoon.  One of the raccoons in this habitat had clearly learned to work the crowd as he was sticking his little paw out from underneath the glass of his habitat to try to get food from the awestruck tourists.  As we North Americans know, depending on where you live, the raccoon  ranks right up there with the skunk or squirrel for household menaces.  I was half expecting to see big trash cans in the raccoon habitat as the food source.

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See the look on this guy’s face?  It’s almost like, “Oh shit, I’ve been spotted by an American who knows that I eat trash and live near dumpsters.  Please don’t tell anyone in France!”

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Generally speaking, I support the existence of zoos as a concept, but I often feel bad for most of the animals in them.  Especially when you see the big cats who generally roam many miles each day cooped up in big glass enclosures, it makes me a bit sad.  I know they’re well fed and well cared for, but still…..

But you know what?  The North American Racoon has got a sweet deal in the French zoo.  No more trash picking for him.  Even though raccoons are nocturnal, this group of raccoons was wide awake and putting on quite a show for the adoring crowds.

And the giant pandas?  Those dudes were fast asleep.  On a scale of animal popularity the raccoons stole the show.

{On a side note, the boys and I were in Paris the other day at the Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes.  The Menagerie is a small zoo that was created in 1794 and according to Wikipedia, it is the oldest zoo in the world.  There were also a very active set of North American Raccoons there with a big caption under their habitat that read “The Americans in Paris.”  No wonder our international reputation can be iffy.}

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classe de mer – update

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Well, the Classe de Mer trip has finally come and gone.  For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read back through to figure it out yourselves:  start by reading this, then read this, then this and finally this.  Put down the Soduku and consider it your daily mental exercise to put the pieces together.

As a teaser, I’ll give you the very short story:  the school takes the kids away for a week every year, with no parent chaperones allowed, only teachers, and somehow everyone comes back alive.  How that happens is a mystery to me.

I’m not exactly sure what would possess an elementary school teacher to take away a class of kids for five days, but as a parent, I fully support this program.  I am such an enthusiastic supporter of this program, in fact, that I took all that enthusiasm and crammed it on to a train and headed to Paris for two nights with Tim during the Classe de Mer trip.  I will be the first to admit that my ensiasm for this program knows no bounds.

This year the school headed to a small town called Sables d’Olonne on the west coast of France for a week at the beach.  Here are the raw facts about the trip:

  • there was a 5.5 hour bus trip to get there
  • there were sailing lessons (too chilly to surf)
  • there was a visit to a shell museum
  • there was a visit to ‘les marais salants’ where they make French sea salt (‘fleur de sel’)
  • also included was a visit to a zoo

The only minor drama in the lead up to this trip was the fact that I put Eamon on the wrong bus to start things off the morning that the trip started and there was chaos as the teachers scrambled to find me.  After all, it was 6am and completely dark out.

Aside from my trip to Paris, the highlight of the Class de Mer trip were the postcards the kids sent home.  A couple of days after they arrived back in Fontainebleau, we got an envelope with two postcards inside.  The front of the postcards were the standard tourist fare, but the backs were outstanding.

Here is what Eamon’s said:

Chers parents

Je m’amuse bien et vous me manquez.

Eamon

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This roughly translates to “I’m having fun and I miss you.” When I read it, I said, “Aawwwwww.  Did you miss me?” Eamon’s response:  “No I didn’t miss you at all.  The teachers made me write that.”

Ouch.

Then I read Owen’s postcard.  It read (in English):

Dear Mom + Dad,

It is so fun.  Can you make an extension for me to stay?  I do not miss you at all!!!! Today, “Wednesday” we went sailing I was the driver of the boat.  I got a room of two with Diego Eamon had to sleep with the cps.  We got a great view of the sea and the lake!!!! We have got to come back here.  It is a cool beach town with lots of little shops and Big WAVES.

Love Owen XOXOOXXXOOO

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When I asked him about his postcard, he said, “I really didn’t miss you at all.  See that ‘do not’ on the postcard that I underlined in red?  I really meant it.”

Truth be told, when I was sitting at a cafe in Paris, O &E weren’t the first things on my mind either.  Sometimes a little separation is a good thing.

This was the view from the apartment we rented in Paris:

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amsterdam

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I’ve been meaning to tell you the story about our trip to Amsterdam and I’m finally getting to it – here it is:

In March, Tim had some mandatory time off from work and the kids were dying to take a trip on one of the fast trains in Europe, so we booked a trip to a city that I’ve been dying to visit – Amsterdam! To top it off, we booked a canal boat for our stay – oh, yes.

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We had a great train ride and when we arrived, we took a short walk from the train station to the boat we rented. The boat owner, a nice guy in his late 50s, met us there and after showing us around, told us that he was going to be taking a canal cruise later that day and asked us if we wanted to join him.

When I hear things like “canal cruise,” I think of things like big sightseeing boats of tourists, and since it was unclear what kind of boat cruise this was, I didn’t immediately jump at the offer. He said he would let us get settled in and swing by to see if we wanted a ride, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that he pulled up with a small old school canal motor boat, rather than a giant boat teeming with tourists. And along with his girlfriend and her daughter in the boat, he had a very nice spread of wine and cheese. Even better.

When the boys got on the boat, he asked them if they could swim, in a jokey manner which I laughed at, until I realized that there were absolutely no life vests in sight. Oh, those Americans, ever so cautious!

What happened next, may go down as a highlight of our time here – a two (!) hour boat cruise of the Amstel River and canals with a commentary by a true local. It was outstanding and we got to hear lots of local lore like the story of local celebrity Viktor IV, the American artist who lived on the Amstel and accidentally died trying to untangle some ropes under his boat, as well as the story of the Anne Frank House and the addition to the building funded by Steven Spielberg.

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During our boat trip, I had a really nice conversation with our boatlord’s girlfriend and her daughter. They were both really interesting people, but I found the boatlord’s girlfriend particularly interesting. How many people will you meet in life who have been Blackjack dealers in Botswana? Not many, I expect. So far I have met only one.

That night, we ate dinner on our boat and after dinner, Tim decided to take a walk around town at night. After about 20 minutes, he came rushing back on to the boat saying, “You have GOT to get out here!” Remember how I told you that Tim is a world-class trespasser? Well, I am a world-class house snooper. I love to see the insides of peoples’ houses and am particularly interested in what kind of furniture and art they have.

It turned out that Amsterdam is a prime viewing location for house snoopers like me since nobody even has curtains, let alone shutters. When I got out on to the street at night, I saw incredible art, amazing furniture and at least three dinner parties that I nearly invited myself to. Although the people looked fabulous sitting around drinking wine and eating a delicious looking meal, I really thought they could use a funny American to spice it up a bit, since there was absolutely no loud laughing and outrageous behavior. Doesn’t everyone need a loud American at his/her party?

While we were visiting, we rented a car for a day and drove out to Keukenhof which is one of the main locations to see the famous tulips of the Netherlands in spring. It’s only open for 3 months a year and the gardeners there plant over 7 million bulbs by hand annually. We were there at the beginning of tulip season, but it was still incredible to see and a highlight of an outstanding trip.

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The last day we were there, the kids were dying to go to the popular science museum called NEMO and I was dying to look in some galleries and check out some other sites – namely the Red Light District. Who can go to Amsterdam without going there? Definitely not me.

It’s a little mind-boggling to me that a profession like that would be enjoyable, but apparently the sex workers in Amsterdam are unionized, they pay taxes and they get great heath care. From that standpoint, what’s not to like? However, I’m pretty sure that the prostitutes who stand on the forest roads near my house aren’t getting such great benefits for their employment. Like everything else, I guess it depends on where you work.

When I arrived in the Red Light District it was early afternoon on a Saturday and even still, the women in the windows were out in full force. I was mostly surprised by the themed clothing that I saw. I was expecting lots of lingerie, but instead I saw a mix of cheerleader outfits and sporty girl outfits, complete with tall sports socks, very small shorts and sports bras. There must be a market for that look, because the women were working it for sure.

After sauntering through the RLD, I came upon a very nice pottery shop right next to the last sex shop. When I went inside, the potter came out of the back room and said, “Hi there and welcome to my shop! Were you looking for it or did you find it accidentally?”

I said, “Well, I kind of stumbled upon it by accident. I wasn’t really looking for it, but I’m happy to find it. Your stuff is beautiful.”

That’s when he replied, “I figured you weren’t looking for my shop because most people who are looking for my shop come from the other direction. I noticed that you came through the Red Light District.”

What’s wrong with being nosy AND liking pottery?

I can’t really say enough about Amsterdam. I loved everything about it – from the bike culture to the quirky inhabitants. It doesn’t hurt that the city is one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. I fully intend to move to Amsterdam someday and live on the river in a boat like Viktor IV. But if there’s any need to untangle any underwater ropes, I’m calling in the professionals.

Oh, and when Tim and the boys went to NEMO, here was the poster for one of the exhibits at the museum. Gotta love Amsterdam.

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deuxième rando

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Umm……. I’m kind of not sure where the time is going here – it seems like it’s really flying by.

What seemed like a couple of weekends ago, but I now realize was over a month ago, we took our kids on the annual spring Rando.  Rando is short for randonne which means a long hike.  Each spring a giant Rando is organized as a day-long event with different walking routes for different ambition levels between three local chateaus.

Last year we participated in the short version of the Rando which involved walking from one chateau to another, having a picnic lunch, and then walking back.  Last year it was hot – so hot, in fact, that we ran out of water and ended up staggering across the finish line like we had emerged from the dessert.  Somehow after our parched schlepp, we did managed to find a beer table like a mirage in the dessert  – and ice cream for the kids.  These are my favorite kinds of mirages.

This year, we were determined to be more prepared and we were also determined to try a more challenging route, so we decided on the 17k route (that’s nearly 10.5 miles for my American friends).  Our kids are pretty good with long distances, as long as there are snacks involved, and despite the fact that a few of our friend thought we were insane, we decided to try it.  We did also managed to convince a few other friends to join us.  My motto “safety in numbers” works especially well in situations like this, since there is nothing that motivates a kid like another kid running ahead of them.  And, there is nothing that motivates an adult like being beaten by your kid.  It’s like Psych 101 in action.

Things were going pretty well until we came to the top of a large hill and saw a woman passed out laying on the side of the trail.  Luckily she was surrounded by other people and we were not first on the scene.  My ability to be calm in a crisis situation (especially when people are screaming in French) is admittedly not the best.

We were heavily armed with snacks and plenty of water, but unfortunately for us the weather was about 30 degrees cooler than last year, which made walking a long distance more like a slog and less like a frolic in the sunshine.  On our way, we passed the house where Django Reinhardt, the legendary jazz musician, lived in a small town called Samois-sur-Seine.  Although he died in 1953, I would imagine that Samois looked about the same then as it does today, and probably as it did even 100 years before that.

The good news is that we made it to the end of the Rando and we felt a good bit of pride as we took off our shoes and took a pause for a cold beverage.  There was a shocking lack of whining and next year the kids say that they want to do the 28K (17+ mile) route.  I’m not sure about that one.  I might need to put some beer in my backpack to get through it.

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