Category Archives: what i learned today

colon update

Just found this picture from our trip to Amiens that I mentioned here.  I thought you might like to see a different angle of the giant colon and yes, those are polyps on the inside hanging down.  If this doesn’t make you schedule that colonoscopy, nothing will.  Just be thankful that your job isn’t to stand in this thing all day.



something strange in amiens


While we were in Amiens, France for a short stay a couple of weeks ago (at our two star hotel) we saw many things.  After the giant cathedral in the center of town, by far the most amazing thing we saw was a giant, blow-up colon in the middle of the street.

We first saw it in the early evening walking to dinner.  It was giant and bright pink and it snaked down the center of the street like a gargantuan pink slug.  For a moment it felt like the set of a 1960s horror film, only this thing wasn’t fighting Godzilla.  It actually took us a few minutes standing there staring at it to figure out what it was.  The point is that ‘a giant colon’ is not the first thing that jumps into your mind when you’re trying to identify an enormous object in the middle of the street in a small French city.

It appeared that the colon was part of a health fair and although it was possible to walk through it, it was closed for the night.  During dinner, the kids could not stop talking about the giant colon and how they really wanted to go in it the next day.  Not exactly the best dinner conversation – especially when you’re eating squid.  Eew.

On our way back through town we had to pass the giant colon again and at this point we saw a dude strumming a guitar move aside the barrier and walk slowly through the giant colon while strumming some Bob Dylan.  He continued to strum in the colon until he was chased out by a security guard.  I did have to wonder aloud about the job satisfaction level of a security detail in which you were tasked with protecting a giant colon from Bob Dylan strumming hippies throughout the night.

As expected, priority #1 for the boys the next day was to go for a stroll in the colon.  When we neared the entrance to the giant colon, we were given a short quiz about general colon health with questions we were supposed to find the answers to on our way through it.  We grabbed the questionnaires and headed into the giant pink slug to learn more facts about colon health.  The only problem was that we were in sort of a rush, since we needed to check out of our hotel, so rather than working slowly through the questions and answers, I gave the kids the short version of the message.  Get a colonoscopy.  You may not want to do it, but you must.  Yes, it is a tiny camera in your bum.  Yes, it probably kind of hurts a bit, but you must do it.  End of story.

We were considered colon deadbeats by the time we got to the end of the exhibit because we hadn’t filled out any of the questionnaire.  A man approached us when he heard us speaking English and asked where we were from.  We explained that we were from the US, but were living in France and we apologized for not completing the exercise due to our short timeline.  That’s when I said, “Sorry we’re just rushing through, but we really HAD to come to see your giant colon.  It’s amazing!”  After that statement, we had a slightly awkward moment of silence.  I guess that’s the kind of thing that can happen often when you’re hanging around in a giant colon all day.

Although we hadn’t completed the exercise, the boys were each given tiny squeezable colons to take with them to impress upon them the need for good colon health.  For the drive home, I had to hear unending exclamations from the back seat of the car similar to this:

Owen:  Hey Ma!  I’m getting really big muscles in my arms by squeezing my colon.

Eamon:  Dad, stop slamming on the brakes!  My colon just fell under the seat.

Owen:  I can’t find my colon!  Have you seen it?

Eamon:  I love my colon!  It’s so cute!

I know that colon health is no laughing matter, but hey, you might as well have fun with the thought of a tiny camera up your bum as long as you can.




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???”


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.


gainful employment?

So here’s how I came to be (somewhat and not very well) employed in France:

A couple of months ago, just around the start of school, my friend Louise came over to my house and we were chatting. She’s an ESL teacher who has a long track record of teaching adults, however she took the past few years off work while her kids were young. This year she decided to go back to work and she got a job in Paris teaching English at UNESCO, which is a great job.  Just after the start of the academic year, Louise got a call from the school where my kids go (C.A.B.), asking her if she would be willing to teach a weekly ESL workshop on Wednesdays, which is offered as a supplementary course for kids to learn English (and because many children don’t have school on Wednesdays in France). Here is the vague summary of the conversation, after which I became (somewhat and not very well) employed:

Louise: So C.A.B. called and asked me if I wanted to teach the Wednesday morning ESL workshop but I’m not sure if I can pull it off because of my new UNESCO job in Paris. I think it might be too much.

Steph: You’re probably right. With everything else you have going on, it’s probably too much.

Louise: Yeah. I think so too. Plus, since it’s on Wednesdays, I’d have to hire a babysitter for Harry & John because they don’t have school on Wednesdays.

Steph: Yeah, that’s totally not worth it.

Louise: You’re lucky that Owen & Eamon have a half day of school on Wednesdays so you wouldn’t have to worry about a babysitter.

Steph: That’s true.

Louise: You should take the job.

Steph: Ummmm………..But it wasn’t offered to me and I don’t think I’m even qualified…..

Louise: Of course you’re qualified! You speak English!

Steph: But I’m not an ESL teacher and I’m not legally allowed to work until February……….

Louise: Who cares? This is France!

Steph: Ummmmmm………………………

So that is the story of how I became an ESL teacher to a group of eight French kids between the ages of 4-6.

I teach for only 1.5 hours per week, however it’s possible to prepare for about 20 hours per week for this 1.5 hour class – no joke. So basically, I’m making about 1€ per hour. In case you’re wondering, that’s not a livable wage. Not even in France.

At this point I am confident that there is one universally understood word in my class. Sadly (for me) it’s the word, “No.”

Since I know that what doesn’t kill me will make me stronger, I should be Hercules by the time I return. Be prepared friends.

Here is a picture of Alfred Hitchock in the town of Dinard, France (the location of an international film festival). I’m putting it in this post to give you something interesting to look at. Is it a coincidence that I chose this image? I don’t think so. Each week in English class I barely make it through without covering my eyes…………………’s sort of like a horror film.



Living in a rental property seems strange.  Tim & I have owned a home for the last 10+ years and for all those years we spent most of our off work time on a house/property related project.  We’d fit in fun around that, but most weekends you could find at least one of us with a paintbrush, shovel or hammer in hand at any given moment.  Now, in France, in a house we don’t own, we have no obligation to do anything related to the house except to change the lightbulbs (which can be a challenge of its own, since French lightbulbs are strangely hard to change).

When we moved in, the landlord said that he was going to have a handyman come by to do some jobs to make things a little bit better at our new house.  A handyman that’s not named Tim and/or Steph?  Bring it.

There was a spot in the bathroom in the shower/tub area that needed immediate attention, so about a month after we moved in, the handyman showed up to deal with the moldy part near the shower head.  Prior to this handyman’s work, we had a moldy but passable French ‘shower’ with the hand-held nozzle stuck on to the wall with this bar-like contraption that it snapped on to.  At that point, you could (somewhat) comfortably stand in the shower and linger a bit, your only worry being how to minimize the amount of water going on to the floor, since we don’t have a proper shower curtain, only a French half-glass wall.  After the handyman’s work, we had a mold-less tiled shower wall with no mounting bar, just the traditional French hand-held shower.

Owen, who just recently recognized the difference between clean vs. dirty (except in the case of his underwear), was immediately perturbed. Since he had only recently found the joy of standing in a hot shower, he was now at a crossroads – how to relax in the shower while holding the nozzle over your head and worrying about how much water you’re spraying on the floor……… Obviously, not so relaxing.

If we had been at our house in VT and faced with a similar problem, Tim (or I) would have channeled our inner Bob Vila and drilled through the nicely/newly tiled wall to mount the bar to hang the shower nozzle. But…..this is not our house.  That, and we didn’t bring a drill.

So, now we are left with a very traditional hand-held shower and a half-glass wall. Very French.

Occasionally, Owie will start to complain about this situation and it always turns into one of my “Despicable Me’s Mother” moments.  I usually end of saying something like, “I feel so bad that you are being forced to take a shower in a sub-standard bathroom in France!  Where is the justice in the world!?!?”

All of this hubbub with the shower has really diminished the number of showers being taken in our house.  However, instead of focusing on how stinky everyone is, I have chosen to focus on the great benefit to the planet, since we are saving so much water.  I am also trying to ignore the fact that Eamon’s hair is about 4 shades darker than usual, since his showering went from infrequent to impossible.  And for those of you planning a visit to France, you have been warned.


a true pioneer

In the US, we don’t have cable. We know we’re an oddity and we’ve managed to accept it, despite the shock and disbelief of our friends.  Although in France, when Tim went to set up our phone and get our cell phones, we thought that cable could prove to be a lifeline for us – both emotionally and for our language skills.  Here is what we have found out about French television:

Most French tv shows are dubbed American shows.

I have to admit, I was a little bit shocked at first. But over time, I’ve come to find it quite funny.  Each time I see a dubbed American show, I have this moment what I imagine I’m back home in Vermont.  That is, until Dr. House starts going crazy in French.  And his lips are moving in a different way than the sound of his words.

The worst part of the dubbed American tv show situation, is what shows are being chosen to air on French tv.  Can you say “Monster Garage” in French?  Even the Kardashian family has made prime time tv here.  My heart breaks for the red, white and blue when I see this stuff – IN FRENCH, no less.  It almost seems disrespectful to the French language to have Jesse James, trying in vain (in French), to get the monster car started. And don’t get me started on the French obsession with Vin Diesel…….

So leave it to the American PBS geeks to try to find the one interesting thing in the sea of channels. It took a while, but we finally found the one guy who is really interesting and authentically French:

Arian Lemal

He is a French environmentalist who has a show on the French version of PBS in which he is climbing major mountains and picking up trash.  That’s pretty much all he does. He just climbs mountains with his video camera and picks up the mounds of trash left by the many expeditions which have been there, all while filming it himself. There are times when he cries after summiting a really big mountain, out of sheer exhaustion.  Then I cry.  And then she sets down his camera to pick up all the trash.  And I watch.  Completely riveted.

I can’t exactly pinpoint why it is so fascinating to watch this, but it’s probably because picking up trash is something that is important and this guy is living his dream of summiting mountains while picking up trash.  Oh, and he’s saving our beautiful places for future generations.

I am completely enthralled with this show.  So much so, that I googled him to find out more about his expeditions.  As it turns out, he stopped his expeditions in March 2011 due to lack of funding.  Of all the things being funded in the world, I really think this is one is particularly worthy.  I would also like to give a shout out to his sponsors for this:   Mountain Hardwear , Millet , Julbo , and Petzl.  Happy to see that there are companies that think that this guy is as interesting as I do.

Although I’m sad to know that Arian has ended his expeditions, I’m happy I got to see it.  Not sure when his run on tv will end, but since he’s not picking up mountain trash for a living anymore, I’m not sure what will happen to the mountains and also French tv.

Anyone got some corporate connections to sponsor this guy?

The next generation?:


the little rascals of normandy

Ever since moving to France, I feel like I’ve taken a step back in time.  Kids don’t wear bike helmets, the internet is not a good source of information and the stores are not open on Sundays (Massachusetts Blue Laws, anyone?).  I guess it’s time to take a seat and listen to the flute, since there’s not much else to do on a Sunday.

When we were in Normandy last week for the Fête Nationale (the French 4th of July), we wanted to find some fireworks to see.   After hours of searching on the internet to find out where and when they would be in any surrounding town, we came up completely empty-handed.  The owners of the B&B we were staying at also had no idea about fireworks, so they had to call their friend down the road to get some information.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if they called on a Party Line, honestly.

The other interesting thing that seems oldschool about living here are the methods of parental discipline.  It is sort of a joke among the non-French here that the French kids are unnaturally well-behaved when out in public with their parents.  I’ve noticed that the reason the French kids are well-behaved is because their parents are absolutely not afraid to twist their ears in public and pull them down the street if they misbehave.  Want me to say it again?  PARENTS TWIST THEIR KIDS’ EARS AND PULL THEM DOWN THE STREET IN PUBLIC.  It’s true and really painful to watch.  I’ve still got some vivid memories of 5th grade and I can tell you from personal experience that having someone twist your ear and pull it ranks on the pain scale just below the nose flick.  Ouch.

The flip side of this situation is that when the kids are not with their parents, they are like hooligans – like springs ready to be sprung.  I think I watched too many reruns of The Little Rascals when I was young, but the kids here remind me of them, minus the slicked down hair.

When we finally located some fireworks in Normandy last week, we drove to this tiny coastal town, ate some fried dough on the pier and staked out a spot to watch the fireworks.  Then the hooligans arrived.

They rode on their bikes like a gang with their backpacks filled with a vast variety of fireworks and an unlimited supply of matches.  The youngest member was about 6 and the oldest was a mid-teenager and although it was a group of mostly boys there were a few tough girls mixed in.  Unfortunately they set up their fireworks station right behind where we were sitting.  At that point we were witness to a whole lot of pushing, shoving, laughing, match lighting and firework setting off.  Sometimes a bottle rocket landed in the crowd near the pier, sometimes it landed on the roof of a house – no matter, they were lighting them off in the epicenter of town behind a giant war monument that intensified the noise as it ricocheted off the monument and buildings.  When the hooligans threw a set of roman candles into a giant metal trash can, the noise was so loud it made the entire crowd jump.

Our kids were completely stunned by the scene.  Kids with matches?!?!?!?  Kids with fireworks?!??!  Where were their parents?!?!?  I could see their small brains expanding as they watched what was happening.  I’m pretty sure that up until that point our kids thought it was illegal for kids to touch matches.  In that moment, right in front of their eyes, kids were not only playing with matches, but using them to light FIREWORKS – the holy grail of what not to touch!  Their eyes were literally as big as saucers.

After watching this scene play out for over a half hour, the hooligans finally got cussed out by a bystander who was hit by a random firework.  That is something that is also somewhat common here, people (usually very loudly) disciplining other people’s children.  They packed up their backpacks and headed out on their bikes to terrorize another group of spectators further down the pier.

For the rest of the night, the boys kept wanting to know where the hooligans were.  Although they were somewhat scared of them, they were fascinated by them – sort of like watching a horror movie through your fingers – you’re scared but still want to know what happens.  Eamon kept asking, “Where do you think the hooligans hang out when they’re not lighting off fireworks?  Do you think they have a clubhouse or something?”  Later in the evening when we saw some trash on the side of the road, Owen said, “I wonder if the hooligans left that there…….”

I told Tim if we return from France without our kids turning into hooligans, I will feel pretty good about myself.  Especially since O & E now know it isn’t illegal for kids to light matches.


Disclaimer:  After this post, my mother called to make sure that the reference about ear pulling in 5th grade wasn’t any commentary about her, since she had no memory of ever pulling my ears as a child.  I told her that, no, she had never pulled our ears as children and that reference was to an old 5th grade friend of mine who I shall call Meg (to protect her identity).  My mother was a great mother and would never have inflicted any pain on us as children.  The fact that she had us picking us cigarette butts at our motel in the summer for $.01 apiece was, in fact, character building, not torture.