Category Archives: fontainebleau

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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donkey horror movie

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Here are some strange pictures and a strange birthday party story for you (yes, that is grass in his shirt):

Owen was invited to a birthday party the other day by a friend in his class. The classmate’s mother just told me the address and the party time, but she didn’t tell me anything about what was happening at the party. When we arrived at the address to find a donkey stable, I was a little curious. Although I was invited to stay at the party, I made up a big excuse about having something important to do and drove like hell out of there. For me: Donkeys + Birthday Cake = trouble.

When I returned to pick up Owen and his friend Diego from the party, they were not at the donkey stable, so I sat and waited. After about 15 minutes, I saw the gang of kids and the few parents who stayed, walking up a dirt road toward the car. When Owen saw me he started running and as soon as he got close to me he screamed, “That was like a donkey horror movie!”

Apparently, the family rented a donkey for a few hours to carry a birthday picnic into the forest and after they loaded up the donkey with bags of food and a cake, they set out for the walk. About halfway through the party and right after they had eaten the cake, a thunder-storm rolled in. A huge clap of thunder sent the donkey bolting into the forest, carrying all of the party supplies. What happened next was hilarious – especially if you weren’t a parent chaperoning the party.

When the thunder clapped and the donkey ran, the kids panicked and, according to Owen, they started running and screaming through the forest in absolute hysteria. Of course, this didn’t help the situation. Not sure the dark sky and heavy rain helped either. Evenutally, the parents got the kids under control and had a talk with them about remaining calm, but the donkey was long gone.

Since the group needed to get back, they started walking and eventually started seeing things on the trail that had fallen off the donkey’s back as it ran. The group followed the trail of party goods to a clearing where they eventually found the donkey comatose on the ground, too scared to move. After some coaxing, they were finally able to get the donkey up and the group realized that in his frenzy, he had torn the pack bags. When the group emerged from the forest, they were holding all of the party goods in their arms and the parents of the party boy looked fairly pissed.

Other than a huge scratch across Owen’s face right under his eye, there was no lasting damage from the donkey party, but the experience was accurately summed up by Diego as we drove home.

He said:

“I told my mother all morning I didn’t want to go to the party, but I really wanted to eat the cake, so I decided to go. After seeing that donkey, I know I should have stayed home.”

Well said, Diego.

Below you can catch a glimpse of Owen’s favorite nighttime reading book. Also, not sure where in the world this would be “See on TV.”

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the very good and the somewhat sad

I know I’ve spent some time writing about the great French products that contribute to the high quality of life in France (think: wine, cheese, bread), but one thing I have spent less time talking about is the outstanding people who live here.

Fontainebleau and the surrounding villages, are a mishmash of French natives and many other people with interesting lives from around the world.  As well as learning many new things about France, we’re getting an education about many other places where our friends have lived (Happy Diamond Jubilee, Your Majesty!).  I’d like to think we’re teaching people something too – in fact, a friend here recently wrote me a text that said, “Just reading up on Vermont.  If the capital only as 7,500 people, where on earth do you guys live?”  I guess this proves that a place cannot be measured by the number of inhabitants alone.

Prior to moving here, I was at a stage in my life where I thought that it was somewhat difficult to make new friends.  It’s not that I was looking for new friends necessarily, but the opportunity didn’t arise very often that I had the time/energy to meet up with people I didn’t already know well.  But what I learned since living here is that I’ve still got it – as in, the ability to make new friends, which s lucky for me since this could be a very lonely place without some friends.

Our area in France is somewhat transitional by nature (people are here on short-term contracts, there is a rotating group of business school faculty, etc), but meeting new friends is made easier by the fact that people here welcome outsiders readily.  So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that because this place is fabulous but somewhat transitional, there is also a constant stream of people leaving.  And sometimes those leaving people have become friends of ours and watching them leave really sucks.

It’s hard to say goodbye to people we have known for only a short time, but with whom we feel so comfortable that it seems we’ve known them forever.  If there is one upside to our most recently relocated friends, this would be it:

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Meet Ollie, our temporary pet who we’re watching while our friends get settled into their new lives in Australia.  Ollie will be joining them there sometime in the near future, but until then, he’s living with us.

Oh, and he doesn’t really like cats all that much so Justin‘s reign as the king of our household is being threatened.  Welcome to life in a monarchy, little cat.  Here is Justin sitting on his throne, otherwise known as the bidet.  Nice.

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a game of wiffley, anyone?

A few years ago in our neighborhood in Vermont, I threatened promised to plan a giant wiffleball game on a weekend in the summer.  I’m fairly certain most of my neighbors thought I was off my rocker.  No respectable adult spends a sunny summer afternoon throwing a plastic ball around and trying to hit it with a skinny yellow bat.  Luckily most of my friends are only minimally respectable adults.

That’s why, on a sunny day a couple of summers ago we had our first big wiffleball game.  Let’s just say that any minor skepticism about this seemed to melt away as we started pummeling that little white ball around and running the bases.  At one point, most of the kids had left the game to play on the jungle gym at the school field while the adults kept at it.  Was it fun?  A friend of mine pulled a massive muscle in her leg diving into second base and everyone from opposing teams started to trash talk each other on the field.  Oh yeah, it was fun.

The wiffleball tradition in our neighborhood in Vermont lives on, but we decided to take on an even bigger challenge – to bring wiffleball to France.  Once we knew we were moving, one of the first things in the shipping container was  a load of wiffleballs and some bats.  It took us a while to find a place to have the game, since most of the big spaces in France are filled up with things like chateaus, fountains and reflecting pools.

Finally, after a long search, we finally found the perfect site for a game and I sent out an email to all of our friends to see if they would like to meet up on the Monday after Easter for a game and a picnic.  Not a single person had ever heard of the game wiffleball and despite that, I had a huge response from the email.  Even more shocking was that not one person seemed to think I was off my rocker.   At least they didn’t mentioned it directly to my face.

The day of the game, the weather was rubbish.  It wasn’t rainy, but it was overcast, chilly and very windy.  My first thought was to postpone the game since wiffleball is best played on a sunny, warmish day but when I called my friend to gauge her opinion she said, “CANCEL THE GAME?!? You can’t cancel the game!  Everyone is coming and I even made a cake!”  These new friends of mine are even more hardcore than me.

After everyone showed up at the field, we made an attempt to explain the game, which it turns out is similar to a game played in the UK called rounders.  Similar but not the same.  We decided that we should just start to play and work throughout the details as they came up.

What happened next was sheer chaos.  People were running with the bats in hand, they weren’t touching the bases and sometimes they were passing each other or doubling up on the bases.  It was like a mix of every bat and ball sport you’ve ever seen, with a little bit of Philadelphia Kickball thrown in.  Soon everybody was saying that they really loved playing “wiffley,” which meant that, in addition to a set of new rules, the game also got a new name.  And it was fun.  Really fun.

Luckily there were no pulled muscles, but there was an enormous amount of trash talking, which in my opinion, is the indicator of a great day out at the ballpark.

When is the last time you played wiffleball?  You might want to give it another chance.  I can assure you, you won’t be disappointed.

Some of you may be interested to know that the tradition of playing marbles at recess is still alive and well in France.  

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the hipster compound

A couple of weekends ago in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times, a cute little shack on a river in France was featured that is a summer home for the Parisian crowd.  The pictures in the NYT were beautiful and they set the dreamy scene for the kind of summer party I want to be invited to.  The shack had all the trimmings of a super-cool summer hangout including a treehouse, a picnic table draped with a beautiful French table-cloth and kayaks on the river.  After closer inspection of the photos, I realized that the riverfront setting of this shack was on the very river that flows through our town (the Loing) and after reading the article, I realized that this shack was actually located in our town!

According to the Times, a super-cool Parisian couple who are well-known designers (to those people who know about well-know Parisian designers) decided that they needed an escape from the Parisian hipster scene so they bought this shack several years ago as a refuge.  I showed the photos to Tim and jokingly told him we needed to meet these people with their super-cool hangout that I started calling “The Hipster Compound.”  There’s probably nothing that hipster Parisians want to do more than hang out with real live Americans who eat at Buffalo Grill and whose kids who wear lice combs in their hair for fun, right?

The following Sunday, Tim said he was going out to take a walk in the woods while I was hanging out at home with the kids.  The next thing I knew, Tim started sending me photos from his iPhone of cool shacks along the Loing River.  It appeared that he was actively trying to track down the Hipster Compound and possibly the hipsters therein.

I should take a moment to tell you that there is nearly nothing that Tim likes to do more than trespass. He will trespass freely in any structure in the progress of being built or any land that appears to have no people on it at the moment – even pieces of land or buildings with big chains across the driveways and DO NOT ENTER signs strewn about.  He is not deterred by the rules of society – he walks anywhere he wants until someone directly tells him to get out.

After a couple of hours tramping around on the banks of the Loing, Tim finally found the actual Hipster Compound and despite the chain across the road, he walked on to the property.  Luckily for him, the hipsters weren’t out at their compound at the moment, but Tim got a good look around.  Yes, it is a cool as it looked in the Times and no, we’re not friends with the fancy Parisian designers – yet.  There is still time and much more trespassing to do, since it seems unlikely that we’ll run into the shack owners at Buffalo Grill.

I don’t want to include any pictures of the Hipster Compound in this post, just in case the photos would incriminate Tim and his trespassing self.  Instead, I’ll leave you with this:

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2 things I cannot explain

Thing I cannot explain #1:

I have never been a fan of wheelie backpacks for kids.  In Vermont, when there were kids with wheelie backpacks I would think that their parents were allowing them to miss out on a right of passage from childhood – the famous childhood backpack slog.  Kind of like school pictures, but slightly worse.  If it’s not my job to give my kids things to be bitter and angry about in the future, than who’s job is it?  And carrying the kids’ backpacks for them?  No way, man.

Once we arrived in France, I noticed a disproportionate number of kids with wheelie backpacks.  What gives?  Seriously, what kind of work ethic can you develop without slogging your pack on your back?

One day Owen was complaining about the weight of his pack on the way to school and I broke my cardinal rule – I offered to carry his pack for a little bit of our walk just to cease the complaining.  After about 5 minutes, I felt like I needed to sit down for a rest.  His pack was outrageously heavy.

All the kids in France carry all of their notebooks (of which there are many) and books to and from school every day.  I quickly realized the reason the kids in France are missing out on a childhood ritual is solely because their bags are SO INCREDIBLY HEAVY.  And maybe their parents aren’t into parental-imposed torture, like some others are…….

Later that afternoon at school I was speaking to another parent about it and she told me that there is an epidemic of childhood back problems here.  I was not at all surprised, since my brief encounter with Owen’s pack in the morning put a kink in my own back.  I came to the realization that if my kids are going to be bitter and angry at me in the future, I should at least want them to have a fair chance of standing up to be bitter and angry.  Off to buy wheelie backpacks.

This is where the story gets really interesting.

We were going to order them from LL Bean, which (as far as the customer reviews are concerned) makes a fairly mean wheelie backpack.  But after realizing that the shipping alone to France would be $85, I had to move to plan B, which involved surfing the web.  We suddenly landed on the Quicksilver website and happily found that all of their wheelie packs were on sale – super score!  And Owen’s friend Evan has one at school and it’s super cool – double score!

I ordered then and the kids waited anxiously for them to arrive.  I fully expected to have to pick them up from the post office because they would clearly not fit in our mailbox and it is forbidden for the mail carrier to leave packages outside your door.  A few days later I got a note in the mailbox that said that our package had arrive d and I could pick it up.  However the address on the note was not the post office – it looked like another place entirely.

I got the boys at school that afternoon and told them we were going to take a walk into town to pick up our package.  I got out my trusty iPhone gps and punched in the address.  That led us to the local……………gym?  The boys couldn’t believe that I had the right address and I could hardly believe it myself, except since living here I have realized that there is no normal.  Why shouldn’t one assume that you should be able to pick up a package at the local gym?  I have learned not to question my new reality.

So in we went to the gym.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking that this gym may have an account with Quicksilver which would at least partially explain why we had to pick up our package there.  I was clearly grasping for any explanation.

When we arrived at the gym, I told the man working there (and the only person in the entire gym) that I had a package that I was supposed to pick up.  He said ok, stood up, went to a broom closet and pulled out a package with our 2 wheelie backpacks.  All without explanation.  Not only was there no obvious Quicksilver relationship that I could find, there was no store at this gym.

I really wish I were creative enough to make this stuff up – instead, I have learned to embrace the strangeness.

Thing I cannot explain #2:

This giant French slug.

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