Category Archives: school

zoo residents


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.


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!”


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.}







classe de mer – update


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.



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.”


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.



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:



This is what happens to little kids when they move to France:


I was cleaning up my house the other day and on top of a pile of junk mail, I found this little note.  Just to be clear, I did not write this.  Owen did.

Most of my life, I’ve had a thing about nice writing implements.  I may not have the best handwriting, but I’ve usually got a nice pen to write with.  In college, I remember procrastinating for hours in the pen aisle at my campus bookstore.  Who needs to pledge a sorority and gain sisters for life when a fountain pen, if cared for properly, will also last a lifetime.  Delta Gamma sweatshirt vs. Waterman pen with blue/black ink?  I’ll take the pen.

France is a writing implement lover’s dreams.  When we originally received the list of supplies the kids needed to start school here, at the top of the list was a fountain pen with ink cartridges.  I was ecstatic and clearly slightly more excited than they were.  My kids were confused.  In the US, they weren’t even allowed to write with pens in school, let alone fountain pens with ink cartridges.

It quickly became evident at school that the French take their handwriting very seriously.  The kids here learn, what we used to call in the US, penmanship.  I’m not sure if we call it anything in the US anymore because I’m pretty sure it’s not taught.

Back in the day at my elementary school, we  had a penmanship expert named Mr. Moran, who came to our school to assess our handwriting on a monthly basis.  His had a head shaped like a lightbulb and good penmanship was rewarded with small prizes like erasers or pencils.  I’m pretty sure that there is no reward for good penmanship in the US anymore and the reward for bad penmanship is…….a computer.

But in France, things are different and good handwriting is still an educational priority in schools.

For the first half-year of school, my kids were baffled by the French interest in good penmanship, proper handwriting and pens.  Then one day, it happened.  My kids came home from school and started a random conversation with me about pens and penmanship.  Apparently there were these super cool erasable pens that were making the rounds at school and my kids really wanted to get their hands on a set.  I merrily skipped to the local pen store with them.

Since my kids have embraced life in France, they now spend time arguing about the best way to connect letters in “ecriture.”  And they spend time talking about fountain pens.  And they write little notes like the one above and they leave them around the house.  Yahoo!

Here was my Christmas present from them:


They know me very well.

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.


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.


classe de mer

Remember last year’s Classe Verte school trip to the circus that I wrote about here, here and here? You know, the trip that culminated in my kids kneeling and standing on the backs of ponies as they circled in a ring under a big top tent?  I’m pretty sure you haven’t forgotten because just the concept of taking a bunch of elementary school kids away from home for a week to do circus tricks is the kind of thing that sticks in one’s mind for a really long time.

I wasn’t sure that anything could top the big top, but now I’m not so sure.  We found out that this year’s trip is headed to the coast instead of the country.  Rather than being called Classe Verte, this year the trip is called Classe de Mer because 60+ kids and four teachers are headed out of town to learn how to surf and sail.  It’s a bit of a mindbender, I know.

I could barely handle a group of little French kids once a week and these teachers are taking 3 entire classes out of town for FIVE FULL DAYS.  Here’s a link to the place they’re going this year.  It’s five hours away from our house.  That’s about 4 hours longer than I would consider going with a group of kids that age and size.  To me, busses + kids = trouble.  I have many memories causing and witnessing mayhem on busses when I was a kid.  Although we never went farther than 1.5 hours from our school on a bus, it didn’t stop me from breaking a window with a jawbreaker I was throwing at a very cute boy sitting in the back seat (not sure you knew about that one, Ma).  Remember “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall?”  Me too, but I wish I didn’t.  I can’t wait to hear how these kids manage to entertain themselves on a bus for 5 hours – EACH WAY.  I’m sure movies will play a part in the equation, but there’s a limit to how long those will keep them engaged.

Last year I spent some time wondering how my kids would do away from home for a week in a foreign country where they had few language skills and few good friends.  This year, I feel like we’re ahead of the curve because:

a) at least I know what the term Classe de Mer means when parents are chatting about it on the playground

b) my kids have many friends now and speak French with the attitude and accent that I envy, and

c) I know that my kids aren’t going to combust away from home for a week.

I’m not sure how the teachers will hold it together however.  It may take more than 99 bottles of French wine to make it through that week.

From my perspective, it’s great that there are no parent chaperones allowed on these trips, that way I don’t have to feel bad about not volunteering.  And since surfing is on the agenda that week, it only makes sense to say the two words that pop into my mind when I think about the teachers alone for a week with this crowd, “Bummer, dude.”

Guess who was crowned the king last night?


What we learned today

The kids had their first day of school today – very exciting and scary at the same time. The kids looked slightly terrified when I dropped them off (especially with so much French being spoken by all of their future friends). By the end of the day, they came running out of school with this report:

Eamon: “Mummy, I met one new friend. His name is John. He is from the US, or maybe England or maybe New England. He is my best friend, but he usually couldn’t remember my name.”

Owen: “I might have a new friend. I don’t know his name, but he’s nice. I think he’s from the Netherlands, or someplace like that. I can’t remember.”

It’s nice to know that kids are kids, no matter if they’re from France, England or New England.

We also learned that the 1.5 hour lunch break that the French kids are given is taken up entirely by eating a 4 course meal. We kind of thought the 1.5 hour lunch break was more of a play time than a lunch time, but apparently we were completely wrong. It was reported by Owen & Eamon that the kids eat off of “real glass plates” and are served a full 4 courses, starting with an entree (or an “app” as Owen calls it), a plate (which is the main course), a second “app” or cheese course, and then dessert.  Apparently, lunch really does take 1.5 hours in France.

Sadly, our kids were sent to school with little peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made on bakery bread that we had sliced.  Our kids wolfed down their lunches in about 10 minutes (the average amount of time they have to eat at their school in the US), so they had to sit and watch the rest of the kids get served 3 more courses (on glass plates!).  I think our kids are going to start buying lunch there from now on…… can we possibly compete with that?