blame it on france

Wow!  With a vacation this long from writing on this blog, you’d think I were living in France or something……….

So sorry for the long hiatus.

I promise to come back here and tell you some of my favorite stories from recent months involving all of the following:  shopping carts, nudist camps, Neuschwanstein Castle, birthday parties, elderly friends, wine sales, fondue pots, Liechtenstein, and sleeping in a VW bus.

Here are a few of my favorite snaps from the summer – lots more stories to come!

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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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oh yes we did

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Let’s put it this way – it’s a 1987, that goes about 80km max (50mph) up hills, it has no power steering, and the steering wheel is as big as a large pizza.  I am in love.

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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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classe de mer – update

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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.

Eamon

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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.”

Ouch.

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.

Love Owen XOXOOXXXOOO

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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:

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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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amsterdam

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I’ve been meaning to tell you the story about our trip to Amsterdam and I’m finally getting to it – here it is:

In March, Tim had some mandatory time off from work and the kids were dying to take a trip on one of the fast trains in Europe, so we booked a trip to a city that I’ve been dying to visit – Amsterdam! To top it off, we booked a canal boat for our stay – oh, yes.

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We had a great train ride and when we arrived, we took a short walk from the train station to the boat we rented. The boat owner, a nice guy in his late 50s, met us there and after showing us around, told us that he was going to be taking a canal cruise later that day and asked us if we wanted to join him.

When I hear things like “canal cruise,” I think of things like big sightseeing boats of tourists, and since it was unclear what kind of boat cruise this was, I didn’t immediately jump at the offer. He said he would let us get settled in and swing by to see if we wanted a ride, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that he pulled up with a small old school canal motor boat, rather than a giant boat teeming with tourists. And along with his girlfriend and her daughter in the boat, he had a very nice spread of wine and cheese. Even better.

When the boys got on the boat, he asked them if they could swim, in a jokey manner which I laughed at, until I realized that there were absolutely no life vests in sight. Oh, those Americans, ever so cautious!

What happened next, may go down as a highlight of our time here – a two (!) hour boat cruise of the Amstel River and canals with a commentary by a true local. It was outstanding and we got to hear lots of local lore like the story of local celebrity Viktor IV, the American artist who lived on the Amstel and accidentally died trying to untangle some ropes under his boat, as well as the story of the Anne Frank House and the addition to the building funded by Steven Spielberg.

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During our boat trip, I had a really nice conversation with our boatlord’s girlfriend and her daughter. They were both really interesting people, but I found the boatlord’s girlfriend particularly interesting. How many people will you meet in life who have been Blackjack dealers in Botswana? Not many, I expect. So far I have met only one.

That night, we ate dinner on our boat and after dinner, Tim decided to take a walk around town at night. After about 20 minutes, he came rushing back on to the boat saying, “You have GOT to get out here!” Remember how I told you that Tim is a world-class trespasser? Well, I am a world-class house snooper. I love to see the insides of peoples’ houses and am particularly interested in what kind of furniture and art they have.

It turned out that Amsterdam is a prime viewing location for house snoopers like me since nobody even has curtains, let alone shutters. When I got out on to the street at night, I saw incredible art, amazing furniture and at least three dinner parties that I nearly invited myself to. Although the people looked fabulous sitting around drinking wine and eating a delicious looking meal, I really thought they could use a funny American to spice it up a bit, since there was absolutely no loud laughing and outrageous behavior. Doesn’t everyone need a loud American at his/her party?

While we were visiting, we rented a car for a day and drove out to Keukenhof which is one of the main locations to see the famous tulips of the Netherlands in spring. It’s only open for 3 months a year and the gardeners there plant over 7 million bulbs by hand annually. We were there at the beginning of tulip season, but it was still incredible to see and a highlight of an outstanding trip.

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The last day we were there, the kids were dying to go to the popular science museum called NEMO and I was dying to look in some galleries and check out some other sites – namely the Red Light District. Who can go to Amsterdam without going there? Definitely not me.

It’s a little mind-boggling to me that a profession like that would be enjoyable, but apparently the sex workers in Amsterdam are unionized, they pay taxes and they get great heath care. From that standpoint, what’s not to like? However, I’m pretty sure that the prostitutes who stand on the forest roads near my house aren’t getting such great benefits for their employment. Like everything else, I guess it depends on where you work.

When I arrived in the Red Light District it was early afternoon on a Saturday and even still, the women in the windows were out in full force. I was mostly surprised by the themed clothing that I saw. I was expecting lots of lingerie, but instead I saw a mix of cheerleader outfits and sporty girl outfits, complete with tall sports socks, very small shorts and sports bras. There must be a market for that look, because the women were working it for sure.

After sauntering through the RLD, I came upon a very nice pottery shop right next to the last sex shop. When I went inside, the potter came out of the back room and said, “Hi there and welcome to my shop! Were you looking for it or did you find it accidentally?”

I said, “Well, I kind of stumbled upon it by accident. I wasn’t really looking for it, but I’m happy to find it. Your stuff is beautiful.”

That’s when he replied, “I figured you weren’t looking for my shop because most people who are looking for my shop come from the other direction. I noticed that you came through the Red Light District.”

What’s wrong with being nosy AND liking pottery?

I can’t really say enough about Amsterdam. I loved everything about it – from the bike culture to the quirky inhabitants. It doesn’t hurt that the city is one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. I fully intend to move to Amsterdam someday and live on the river in a boat like Viktor IV. But if there’s any need to untangle any underwater ropes, I’m calling in the professionals.

Oh, and when Tim and the boys went to NEMO, here was the poster for one of the exhibits at the museum. Gotta love Amsterdam.

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