Category Archives: loire valley

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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building a work ethic

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In France castles (or chateaus) dot the countryside.  It sometimes feels like they’re breeding out there because there are so many of them of all shapes and sizes.  This summer, we took a trip to Guedelon a castle that is in the progress of being built.  Apparently, Guedelon started over a decade ago with the goal to build a castle from the ground up, using all of the antique tool and methods used to build all the rest of the castles around.  It was a fascinating to see the castle in progress and after a decade of work, the bulk of it is still not done (although they don’t have nearly as many people doing the work as they likely would have long ago).  While I was there I was wondering if they had a “hard labor” internship program so that modern kids could see what really hard work was like, as opposed to the really hard work that we make them do around the house like empty the trash and unload the dishwasher.  Life if tough in modern times, am I right?

On the topic of labor, we have this wall chart of jobs and weekly responsibilities that the kids do to earn spending money.  The chart is part of a larger kit that we bought in the US which teaches kids spending, saving and giving, as they do jobs around the house.  Our kids are at a great age to be helpful and they also have a grasp of money/spending, so we’ve been using this system pretty successfully for a few months now.  It’s not set up to provide an allowance (which may imply that the money comes on a weekly basis no matter what), but rather to define responsibilities and require that jobs be done before money is paid.  In this situation: no work = no money.

The other night we had a party at our house and I found the wall chart to be the center of all conversation. Every time I walked by, another parent was standing there looking at the chart and talking about how to get their kids to work around the house.  I think it was decided at the party that we are very American with our democratic wall chart and view of labor and capitalism.  While this may be true, they all wanted to know where they could get a wall chart for themselves.

ps – The are currently no jobs listed on the wall chart that involve slogging rocks up an incline.  

boating with Leo

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Our recent trip to the Loire Valley included a special side trip in the small town of Amboise  – a trip to Leonardo da Vinci’s house!  This house, where he spent the last 3 years of his life, is also the place where he died.  I have to say, it was pretty cool to be in the place where the legend slept.  And unlike Graceland, where another legend slept, this legend painted the Mona Lisa.  For me, this was off the charts on the “cool-things to see” scale.

Even cooler, were the designs that Leo built.  He was not only a painter, but an inventor and very deep thinker.  Apparently, he was invited to live in Amboise by Francois I because the minions needed entertainment and Leo was the man for the job.  For many of Francois’ parties, Leo would build a machine to entertain the crowd – some machines pumped water, others showed the power of centrifugal force and one was what we would consider a paddleboat by modern standards.  Can I mention here how much I love paddleboats?!

In order to bring the machine’s of Leo’s mind to life, a group of IBM engineers recently got together and built a set of the machines which you can see in operation all around the park that surrounds his house.  It is really amazing to think about how people’s minds work.  It’s clear that in idle times (like when he’s not painting the Mona Lisa or something) Leo’s mind went to machines.  I wish I were like that, but sadly, in idle times my mind goes to the almighty baguette.  And to paddleboats.  Sigh…………..

roadside joy

There is almost nothing that I love more than stopping on the side of the road to buy stuff.  Flowers, junk, fruit, I’d really stop for anything, except the prostitutes lining the A6.  That’s some junk I don’t want to buy.

When we were in the Loire Valley, we took a detour on some back roads and ended up in the epi-center of roadside buying.  First we ran across the famous wine caves.  While I don’t feel like I’m the least educated person out there, I was somewhat surprised to find out that these wine caves were actually caves that had been carved out of a giant cliff and were lined up all along a road.  The winemakers put modern doors on them and “voilá” a wine cave, perfect for not only aging wine, but also selling it to the masses.  The caves kind of reminded me of an ant hill or some sort of Frenchified Machu Pichu.  Awesomeness.

While the kids were good sports, they weren’t loving the wine cave experience.  They started to realize that we weren’t really there to look at the cave – we wanted the wine.  That, and the French wine makers did not appreciate 2 little American boys exploring in their wine caves.  Absolutely no spelunking allowed.

The next thing we ran across on the road was one of the best things I’ve ever had the opportunity to buy on the roadside.  Fresh cherries!  That’s right.  Apparently France is known for it’s cherry farms and we were right in the heart of cherry country – DURING CHERRY SEASON!  Holy crap!  An unplanned move of genius on our part.  At the first farm Tim got out of the car to make the purchase and came back to the car with 1kg of the most amazingly sweet and perfectly ripened cherries I had ever tasted.  When I asked him why he didn’t get more, he responded, “I didn’t want to get too many and have them go bad.”  Sometimes his clear mind and moderation are a disability.

We proceeded to eat those cherries for the entire day and by night, they were gone.  On the drive home, I had a singular purpose – get more cherries.   When we found a cherry stand, I realized I needed to take matters into my own hands.  I was buying the cherries this time.

The older woman at the stand chatted at me in French the entire time she was weighing my cherries on her antique scale – I had ordered 2kg.  When she got to 2kg, I asked her for a little bit more, since I was salivating at the site in front of me.  She told me that she didn’t have the ability to do a little bit more, because she couldn’t calculate parts of things, so she asked me if I would like 3kg.  Since I am not a woman of moderation and I have a particular weakness for cherries, I responded, “Oui, merci.”

When I got back to the car and Tim saw the bag of cherries (that was at least twice the size of my head), he had no choice but to laugh – and then grab a handful of cherries.  During cherry season in France, moderation is for weanies.

Here is a picture of the joy.  I know it’s blurry.  It’s called art.

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shout out to the ladies

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Most people know that France has castles, however as we were planning to move, I was a little bit more concerned about what shoes to wear than the landscape.  Mais, il y a beacoup des chateaus ici!   You get the point right?  It sometimes feels like everywhere we turn there is yet another castle that I’ve never heard of.  In fact, the first week we were here with the boys, we made a plan to visit one of the best local chateaus  – Vaux-le-Vicomte, but realized after arriving that they had not yet opened for the season.  The kids were really disappointed and weren’t satisfied with the plan to just going home, so we started driving in the direction of a town that we knew had another castle (about 1 hour away), but about 10 minutes down the road we bumped into 2 more castles.  It’s almost like they’re breeding in the countryside.

Anyway, a few weeks ago we took a short trip down to the Loire Valley to see more of the many castles dotting the landscape.  We ended up seeing some of the big ones that are most famous in France – the two main ones were Chambord and Chenonceau.

We started with Chambord which was enormous in every way.  It is an epically huge castle and it was the first castle we’ve seen where the ground are not kept at all.  They mow the grass – that’s about it.  No gardens and sculpted trees, just grass right up to the building on all sides.  The most startling thing about Chambord was the the height of the ceilings in every room.  I’m not great with estimation, but I would say that the ceilings are over 30 feet tall.  My first comment when I entered the castle was, “How could they possibly heat this thing?”  Guess what friends?  They couldn’t.  Apparently, the castle was so cold and drafty that most of the nobles moved out in the winter.  There’s no amount of fire that could keep that place toasty.

The other famous castle we visited was Chenonceau and it was like a study in contrasts.  This castle, while huge, felt very intimate and cozy.  The entire castle was stocked with all sort of period furnishings, many of them original to the castle.  There were enormous arrangements of fresh flowers in each room and apparently there is a whole separate division of the Chenonceau organization whose sole mission is to arrange and deliver fresh flowers on a daily basis.  Absolutely amazing.  If you have even a remote interest in gardens, this is one chateau to see.  And most amazingly, it is built across a river, so on the day that we were there, there were kayakers paddling lazily underneath the castle along the river.

But to me, the most interesting thing about Chenonceau is that it is the only chateau in France designed by women.  You know what?  I could tell.  I’m not trying (too overtly) to bust on the guys out there, but when I was at Chambord, I couldn’t help but think that there was more thought put into the moat than the livability of the chateau.  I mean, what good are 30 foot ceilings if you can’t live in the place.