Category Archives: holidays

a new way to play badminton

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When we got the VW bus this past spring, our main goal was to drive around and see lots of cool things, but I also had one other goal – not to break down in the van.  I really wanted to give my kids some cool memories, but there are some memories that I’d like to avoid.  Like the ‘breaking down in the middle of the night on a dark scary road,’ kind of memory.  Trust me.  I am living proof that those memories do not leave you.

In any case, I had high hopes for our van and our big summer trip and although we had a rough idea of where we wanted to go (Germany, Austria, Switzerland?, Liechtenstein?), we never came up with a detailed plan.  We planned to make a detailed plan, but that really never happened and since we had taken the van on a weekend camping trip at the start of the summer, we had some idea of how camp sites worked in Europe.  We booked places to stay for only the first two nights and then we just decided to wing it, since, as far as we could tell, there were campsites all over the place.

Our ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ plan seemed to be going well for the first part of the first week.  Not only did we hit upon some outstanding campsites, but we got some amazing spots within those campsites.  This was the point in the trip when we started to get cocky.  Our luck had been so good, we started to feel like we were invincible.  {cue the suspenseful music}

Then one day, we took a particularly long time sightseeing and ended up getting a late start on our way to our next campsite.  When we finally arrived at that campsite, there was a huge sign notifying us that all the spots were taken.  At that point I could hear fear start to creep into Owen’s voice when he questioned me about where we would stay that night.  I reminded him of my ‘one star camping area crisis plan’ which meant staying in the parking lot of the closest McDonalds.  For some reason my camping crisis plan did nothing to easy his mind.

So we drove on and about 10 minutes down the road, the same thing happened again.  The campsite was full.  As I was trying to come up with a plan (or at least find the nearest McDonald’s), the oil light came on in the van and a loud beeping sound started.  If you didn’t know this already, there is nothing like the beeping sound of an engine failure to create chaos in the mind of a nine-year-old boy who is prone to melodrama.  As Tim pulled the van over, Owen screamed, “WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THE VAN?  AND WHERE ARE WE GOING TO STAY TONIGHT?  YOU GUYS ARE THE ADULTS!  AREN’T YOU SUPPOSED TO HAVE ALL OF THIS STUFF FIGURED OUT?”

If I were telling you this in person, I would stop at this point in the story for a long pause…………………………..and with a straight face I would say, “Poor little dude.  He still hasn’t figured out that he has parents who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing.”

While Tim was dealing with the beeping noise in the van, I started frantically calling campsites in the local area to try to find a spot.  After about 10 minutes, we had solved both crises.  The oil light was off and we had a reservation at a small campsite about 15 minutes away.

We finally pulled into the small campsite up in the mountains and it was one of the nicest we had seen to date.  Green grass under the camping cars (not rocks) and a relaxed atmosphere.  With a sense of smug satisfaction, I said to Owen, “See your parents CAN figure things out, after all.”

The woman at the desk told us to pull the camping car in, get set up and then come to check in at the desk.  After set up, I was on my way back to the desk  when I happened to notice a man walking by to wash his dishes in a very skimpy towel, but I didn’t think too much of it.  Once I arrived at the desk, the woman started telling me about the campsite and where everything was located.  That’s when she said, “So since we’re a naturist camp, the first half hour of swim is the pool is with no clothing and the second half is with clothing.”

And my response was, “This camp is a whaaaa………………….t?”

In case you happen to be as slow to recognize reality as I am, the term ‘naturist’ is the modern-day term for ‘nudie’.  I had booked my family at a nudie camp.  It turns out that there was a large nudie section and a smaller non-nudie section.  Luckily for us (read: me), our camping car was parked in the non-nudie section, but directly facing the nudie section.

When I got back to the camping car, the boys were hurriedly putting on their bathing suits for a dip in the pool.  Trying to sound cheerful, I started the following conversation:

Me:  Guess what, guys?  We’re actually staying in a nudie camp, so if you want to go swimming right now, you won’t need those bathing suits!

Owen:  Did you say, nudie?  Like ‘no clothes,’ nudie?

Me:  Yes, a nudie camp means wearing no clothes.

Owen:  Wow!  Cool!  Can we stay another night?  Can you even do things like play badminton naked?

Me:  Yes, in a nudie camp you can play badminton naked.

Owen:  I want to play badminton naked!

Me:  Do you really want to play badminton naked?

Owen:  Well………….ok, maybe not totally naked.  I know where I want to go – I want to go to an ‘undie camp’ where we can do everything in our undies.

Me:  Owen, you already live in an undie camp – it’s call our house.

While the boys went swimming (at the non-nudie time), I poured myself a tall beer and sat facing the gate of the nudie section, marveling at how uniformly tan everyone looked walking in and out.  Then my mind wandered to the wide range of activities that you do while camping and the health and safely implications of doing those same things while naked.  Then I poured myself another beer.

Just the thought of playing badminton naked makes me shudder.

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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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costume confusion

So I had a post nearly ready for you about our experience with Halloween here, but I got sidetracked and before I knew it, it was Christmas.  That said, some recent developments made me revisit my Halloween experience.  Here is the shortened Halloween story, complete with the recent twist at the end:

We knew leading up to Halloween that it really isn’t celebrated here, but the kids go to an international school which was having a small Halloween celebration.  Also, we were invited to two separate Halloween parties being thrown by other family friends, so we had a few opportunities to dress up.

After our costume FAIL at the “Cuisine of the World” celebration at school last year, we had something to prove, so we started thinking about the costumes early.  Eamon told me he wanted to be Pablo Picasso – the object of his artistic affection.  For his costume I bought him a French striped shirt (the national uniform), a beret, and we framed a Picasso-esque picture that he drew.  Done.  Owen, on the other hand found a ghoulish costume when he went to the store and despite the shabby manufacturing and scary face mask, Tim bought it for him.  This is exactly the kind of costume that every boy wants at some point in time, and the kind that I hate.  In any case, they were ready for their school party.

At the end of the Halloween celebration day at school, Eamon was slightly dejected and he told me that nobody “got” his costume, despite the fact that they had just studied Picasso at school.  When I asked him what he meant by this, he told me that all the kids asked him why he wasn’t a ghost or goblin.  Owen, on the other hand, fit in splendidly with the other kids at school – in fact, half of the kids at school had the same costume that he did.

It wasn’t until the first party that I started to get a sense of what Halloween means in France.  Halloween does not mean get a cool costume of your choice and get candy.  In France Halloween means chose between a witch, a ghost, or a goblin and, if you’re luckily enough to have friends who are throwing a party, you actually have someplace to wear these costumes.

After Eamon’s experience at school, he chose to give up on Picasso and he acquired a rugby player costume for the two parties.  The rugby player costume still wasn’t widely understood as a Halloween costume, but at least he had some respect from the young rugby-obsessed crowd.

Lesson learned:  get ghost/ghoul costumes for Halloween next year – avoid all originality.

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Now that we’re many months past Halloween I had nearly forgotten about all the costume drama and cultural confusion, until I walked in the store a week ago and saw racks and racks of costumes for Carnival.  So it turns out that Carnival is the time to express your free will in the costume department and become whomever you want for a day – including Buzz Lightyear, a doctor or any variety of princess.

As expected, the school was putting on a Carnival celebration of their own, so the kids were asked to dress up as something related to “the sea” which was the Carnival theme this year (much better than “cuisine of the world” from last year).  When I asked the boys what they wanted to be for Carnival, Owen immediately said he wanted to be a fisherman, which was lucky for me because we have an entire fisherman outfit on hand.  Eamon, on the other hand wanted to be………..wait for it……………………seaweed.  I hope you didn’t just ruin your computer by spitting milk into it while you were reading that.

I’ve learned a few things as a parent in the years since I first had kids.  The most important thing is that the expectations of kids vs. the abilities of the parents need to be completely discussed to avoid a last-minute meltdown.  In this instance, I had to find out what Eamon was imagining in his mind for his costume vs. what I was capable of making, since I knew that I could not find a commercially made seaweed costume.  So much for my past ridicule of the shabby goblin costume – I would have happily bought a shabby seaweed costume if I could have found one.

As luck would have it, Eamon’s expectations were about as low as my abilities, so I set to work making the best seaweed costume that I could think of.  This involved tieing and mounding puke colored yarn on a hat and around collar for his neck.  Top it off with a green fleece and some green jeans and you’ve got an artistic interpretation of seaweed.

After Eamon’s last costume experience at school, I spent a little bit of time preparing him to rebuff any negative feedback he might receive at school, especially since I found out that half the school was going as either a fish or a shark.  I really want my kids to be their own people and not follow the crowd, but sometimes it stings to see them get their feelings hurt when they try to be original.

At the end of the Carnival party day, Eamon ran out to me to give me the update.  Apparently everyone loved his seaweed costume and, according to him, “The kids ‘got’ it better than they did my Picasso outfit.”

We’ve got a seaweed costume if anyone needs to borrow it.

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french word of the day

Vomir is the verb nobody wants to learn……..first-hand anyway.  Not sure I really need to translate the meaning of that one.

Just when we were ramping up for our big crêpe flipping holiday, Eamon and half the school came down with the the “gastro,” as they call it here.  This put our jackpot winning plans on hold and canceled the crêpe event at school.  We’re making crêpes this weekend instead, but I’m afraid we may have missed the holiday deadline for flipping crepes and getting lucky with gold coins.

Fortunately, the boulanger doesn’t mind helping us out in a crisis.  Yesterday when I stopped by the bakery, here is what I found:

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Crêpes à la maison – we didn’t throw them, we (minus Eamon) just ate them.  Yum!

If anyone wants to spend their holiday coin fortune on a small vacation home in France, let me know.  I’ve got my eye on a hipster compound for you.

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.

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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a guy named guy

A normal blog would present things in chronological order.  But you’re not reading a normal blog, since I’m a random thinker.  For the linear thinkers out there, sorry – the following story happened in November.

During high school I was lucky enough to have a string of hippie history teachers.  I will never forget the day we watched the movie Hair in class and I truly felt that I had never seen anything so interesting in my entire life.  It remains to this day, one of my favorite movies and I don’t care what anyone says, George Berger remains one of the all time super dudes.

Although I graduated from high school with a pretty good understanding of the age of Aquarius, I’m not sure I gained much understanding of any other type of history besides US counter-culture history. {Side note: The summer after I watched Hair for the first time, I waited on John Savage at the cafe on Cape Cod where I worked.  It was my best brush with fame to date. ;)}

So now that we’re living in France, I’ve gained many pieces of historical knowledge that are related to many other countries other than the US.  The first among them, that the British call the US Revolutionary War the War for Independence.  I nearly spit wine out my nose at a party when my friend Steve mentioned this fact to me.

Then we were invited to this bonfire by family friends in honor of Guy Fawkes Day.  At the time, I had no idea who Guy Fawkes was, but since I associate bonfires with s’mores, I was more than happy to accept the invitation.  Before the party, I started talking to my friend from the UK about the bonfire and she told me this story that every year on November 5th there are massive bonfires lit all over England to celebrate the fact that Guy Fawkes didn’t blow up the House of Lords in 1605.  Since I am so slick and clearly not very well versed in English history, I started to say that this plot sounded a bit familiar – like something I might have seen as a movie………….maybe something with Natalie Portman with a shaved head and a guy in a weird mask…………..

I guess I should have paid more attention to world history at some point in my life and I’m lucky my friend isn’t judgemental.  The bottom line:  The movie V was based on Guy Fawkes.

Fast forward to the bonfire.  I came fully loaded with tons of marshmallows but I knew the s’mores would be incomplete because graham crackers don’t exist in France.  We would have to get by with just the marshmallows (newsflash: most marshmallows are pink in France).

In addition to lots of information about Guy Fawkes, here is what I learned that night.

1) Most non-American kids don’t know what a marshmallow is and they have never heard of a s’more

2) Guy Fawkes style bonfires are WAY too hot to safely toast marshmallows – there were no calamities, just lots of untoasted marshmallows to eat

3) Guy Fawkes style bonfires are so hot they will melt the lenses of your glasses

I made Tim take my glasses back to the US to get new lenses in them, since they were still under warranty.  The lady at the glasses shop took one look at them and said, “They look like they’ve been melted.  Did your wife put them near something hot?”

I’m blaming Guy.

Here is an ad for a French cruise that I recently saw as a poster in the supermarket.  Just thought you might enjoy checking it out.  Does it make you want to go on a French cruise?

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