Friday, May 28, 2010

Lily's Scotland Tour

Lily and I leave Sunday for Edinburgh, Scotland. This is a trip we have been planning on for years; her "13 year old trip," just the two of us. She chose the destination, she chose the itinerary and she has made the final plans herself for when to go where and how to get there.

I helped out by booking the flight and hotel. Lily wanted to see Loch Ness, we explored different possibilities and settled on a specific Loch Ness tour. She wanted to know what I wished to see; the Highlands, of course. Lucky us, Loch Ness is in the Highlands. She has done historical research, finding the names and locations of castles she wants to see, as well as a map to the Royal Botanical Gardens.

We know that we can easily walk to the Centre Library from out hotel and that there is a free wi-fi connection there. We are both very happy with that arrangement.

We may or may not opt for one of the night-time ghost tours of the city or an afternoon in the pub where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the tales of Sherlock Holmes. In any case, this has already been a good experience for her as she grows in confidence and figures out how the world works. I am happy for her.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Alienor and the Donjon

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Even in a dream world of fantastic food,loving grandparents,beautiful scenery and inspiring poetry, there are things that gotta be done every once in awhile. It has been a day like that, no, two days like that. Yesterday was a little more fun; I scheduled TWO outings with my children, one child at a time, but one of them involved a doctor's appointment and getting lost for 35 minutes.

The first one was with Aragorn, age 11 and 11/12ths, to a music store down town to try out guitars. The man in the shop enjoys chatting with him and letting him try out as many guitars as he likes. He gives me a "wow" look every time he talks with Aragorn because my son knows a lot about guitars, amazing amounts. We stopped by the cafe I hung out at in my exchange student days for a "diablo menthe" and a cup of jasmin tea. We hopped on a bus and arrived home just in time for him to leave with all but Alienor for the grandparents' house for lunch.

Pierre was stuck here with me when the internet connection crashed and he spent lunch hour repairing it. I found myself with two people to feed instead of one child to eat something easy with, and thus cooked up a little lunch. It was nice, but time-consuming.

After lunch, Alienor, 81/2, and I took the bus downtown before her appointment with the osteopath. She wanted to visit the library, and since it was Wednesday, it was open. I had come prepared with a phone bill as proof of residence and the librarian signed up all of the children at once, very kind of her. She gave us a tour, showing us what was in each section, explaining the rules for check-out and talking about the collection. Alienor was so excited that she had a heck of a time choosing just three books. I know she picked out Farmer Boy in French, because she has read it so many times in English that it will be an easier read for her in French. I chose three as well and put them under one of the other children's names; The Hound of Baskerville in French for Lily and I in preparation for our trip to Edinburgh, The Princess and the Pea on CD with a beautiful book for Puck, and something on symbol reading that they all want to read. We also left with a DVD for pizza night, Harry Potter II, that we watched in French together last night.

As luck would have it, I struck up a conversation with a girl who ended up being an English teacher. Lucky kids, her English is excellent and she seems like a fun person. That can make so much difference when you learn a foreign language. We almost missed the bus, we were chatting so long, but we made it with a few minutes to spare.

It was when we got off the bus that the trouble started. I had been to the address once before, by car, but standing in the middle of the sidewalk with road stretching out ahead of me and road stretching out behind me, nothing looked even vaguely familiar. Did we stop to ask for directions? Is chocolate a miracle cure for all of life's problems, small and large? We got directions from a whole bunch of mixed up people, nobody else knew where we were going either. Finally, a pharmacist (God bless pharmacists) pointed us in the right direction, and a mother I asked a little boy to call out of her house, sent us up the last correct street to the office.

The visit was lovely. The osteopath, a pretty, gentle, capable-looking woman, spent 45 minutes adjusting Alienor. I sat silently knitting during this time and became so relaxed myself that I had to put down my needles twice and just let my limbs melt into the chair. Alienor has been suffering from migraines for months now, poor little girl. Back home, she sees a chiropractor who adjusts her and makes it all better for a time. This town being short on chiropractors, we accepted my sister-in-law's offer of an appointment with her osteopath. Does anyone else have a child with migraines and have you found a solution to them?

Today has been filled with phone calls; excessively boring details (need an adapter for the U.K., who knew all of this side of the world did not plug in the same way?),making breakfast, cooking lunch for everyone, dressing the kids, doing hair, biking to and from the in-laws (I'm getting faster!), taking care of email, doing laundry, cleaning the apartment. I might as well say; "nothing to report" and get it over with! There were two bright spots; a great friend I have not talked with for ages called and we planned a visit, I can't wait! I also had five minutes to read a story to Puck and play Legos for a little while.

I have a couple of photos from our trip downtown I will post for your entertainment.

Making Bows

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Alienor: Downtown

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View of a Park: the Secret Garden?

Click on the picture to see the black wrought iron gate to the left.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Biking Through the Fields

Check out the cool bike basket, my sister-in-law's, oh, and that's sand under the wheels, by the way.

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Gluten-free, poor me

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Buses, Bows and Airplanes

Papy and the children have been very busy. They spent Saturday making a bow out of bamboo for each child, strung tight with a string, they shoot straight and true as any bow. They collected "arrows" from the mowed grain in the field; spiky remnants that were perfect for the job.

Sunday was spent flying a Styrofoam airplane Papy built for them, back and forth they flew it to each other for hours. They swung on the swing-set, did some knitting and reading and played soccer. They also made time to crash two model airplanes over the weekend, one after dark and one in broad daylight.

Puck is so happy with his five birthday Lego sets that he chose to stay home and play with them today. Aragorn has projects of his own; reading up on guitars (he has requested one for his birthday), reading in French and listening to new books on tape, he is home today too. Last I heard from the other house, Arthur was out in the field with his Papy flying a new airplane and the girls were playing "Quatre Chevaux"* with their Mamie.

Our mornings have become more fun since we learned a new skill last week; how to take the town bus. It is incredible that I never hesitate to figure out a transportation system in a big city, but the smaller ones always boggle me. We have lived in the same town for nine years and I have yet to figure out how to get anywhere by public transportation. Part of this is accessibility, in a big city there will be a bus or tube every ten to fifteen minutes, in a smaller one it may be every two hours. Part of it is laziness, I have a car, so I don't need to bother. I am glad to have this under my hat.

Now even Lily, with her sore ankle, can go downtown easily. It is only a fifteen or twenty-minute walk, but that is too much for her. We've been to a doctor visit, to the market, shopping for a swim suit, and today, Lily, Puck and Arthur came with me just to toodle around for an hour or two. I love the independence it gives me, the children love to be downtown. For such a little town, the center is big and lively; full of shops and people and cafes. What a change from our hometown where the only place people gather is inside a mall. If the weather cools down we may make it yet to the library. It is only open from 4:30 to 6pm on odd days, so it has been a challenge. There is a new exhibit of sculptures in the streets we are enjoying, and I know there is an art museum around here somewhere as well. It is so much easier to convince them to have a "diablo menthe"** than to seek out a museum, but there is much to be learned as well sitting at a sidewalk cafe with the world going by and the adults chatting.

*Quatre Chevaux is a board game Pierre played when he was small, his parents have taught a new generation to play.

**Diablo menthe is the kids' favorite cafe drink; it's fizzy lemon-lime water poured over and mixed with mint syrup. It's bright green and they only get one bright green drink per day here, dang it.

Three! Trois! 3 III San! Drei! !Tres!

My baby turned three yesterday. There is something a little bit sweet, a little bit tragic and a little bit final in this. I am trying to deal with this in a rational, adult, non-dramatic fashion. My children are growing up. They are supposed to do that, that's the whole point, right? (No, the whole point is sniffing tiny babies, nursing them, ah, especially nursing, and holding them close, gazing for hours at minuscule finger nails, bright eyes, fuzzy little ears and miniature toes.) The really hard, physical labor and the not-ever-sleeping part of motherhood is probably coming to an end, that's swell. They are all healthy, capable of about anything they put their hearts and minds to do. Each one is becoming everything a mother could wish for in her child.

They're just not so small anymore.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Good Morning Birthday Boy

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Puck's Birthday

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Joyeux Anniversaire Bebe!

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La Fete!

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Puck is Three, Cakes Galore

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Living in History

Pierre's grandmother is 86, about 4'10" and just as feisty as ever. Aragorn is almost twelve and fascinated by WWII history. When he realized that his tiny great-grandmother once lived through the Nazi occupation, in a house occupied by German officers, and rode her bike through the very woods we're living next to in order to smuggle food through enemy lines to her family, he was agog. On every beach along the ocean front here are German blockhauses built to keep watch for invasions from abroad. Some day we will show them other landmarks in the villages around, but those lessons can wait.

Visiting chateaux, exploring traditional farmhouses, seeing first-hand the destruction caused by last year's giant storm here, all are ways of creating connections that are making history come alive for kids. My hope is that those inklings of past errors will create children who read more history. I hope it makes more responsible citizens for tomorrow, that they will not chose or need to make the same mistakes. I also hope to create pride in their family history and see the paths (many times difficult) taken and the choices made that led to them being alive today. Yes, and world peace too, thank you.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chevre Aubergine (Dairy-Free, Gluten-Free)

Boy does it smell good in my kitchen...I have a little glass of a moonshine, Port-type wine and dinner in the oven. I made up a variation on Parmesean Aubergine, one that I can eat.

Ingredients: 1 egg plant, 1/2 a good tomato, 1-2 cloves of garlic, chevre; 2 sorts; one fresh, one aged, salt and pepper, olive oil 

I sliced an egg plant in half, dug out a little of the center, and filled it with a mix of fresh tomatoes and garlic I had reduced over a low flame for a little while, in a little olive oil. Salt, pepper to taste and slices of fresh and medium aged goat cheese topped it off. It will cook for a little over an hour at about 300, and be served with our evening's grilled selection. No, I do not expect or hope that the children will have anything to do with it, this is an adult dish, it can just stay that way!

Aubergine au Chevre

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

La Pharmacie-Really?

Not your typical institution by the same name in the US. I was considering the phenomenon of the long lines always present in every pharmacy anywhere in France. Many of them even have a play area for the children of customers patiently tapping their feet in line. Were all of these people ill all of the time? Of course not. Were the pharmacists incompetent and slow, all of them? Not likely.

My answer came to me in the memory of a visit I paid a pharmacy last week. I was searching for an ankle brace for a bum ankle. I thought, though I should have known better, that I might be able to find something similar to what I had at home, grab the right size and leave. Oh no, this was serious business. The pharmacist politely requested I wait just a moment and disappeared into the back. She re-emerged, tape measure and a pile of boxes in hand. She ushered me over to the play area, since I had three of my children with me, and invited me to have a seat. She proceeded to measure my ankle, not the one without the brace, no, the one needing the brace to be removed first, because "There can be slight differences in feet." She then removed a selection of braces in the correct size and we tried them all on, one after another. Once we found the right fit, she explained that with a prescription, it would be entirely reimbursed by Social Security. For 16 Euros worth of ankle brace, I felt the service was superior to any I'd experienced at home. I would have to spend $100 on shoes to have someone measure my foot in the States.

So, first point; service. Pharmacists are busy answering questions like; "is this snake my cat caught venemous? how about these mushrooms I found in the forest? do you think I need to see a doctor for this giant spider bite or can I just spit on it and give it a day or two?", as well as explaining prescriptions, special instructions, possible interactions between medicines and how to put on your prescription anti-varicose tights. The pharmacie in my little village is where I first learned about the virtues of one type of pacifier over another, the debate on whether or not to give your baby all of the vitamins the doctor prescribed because you were "only breastfeeding." It is where I was told it was time to turn my nine-month old around in her reversible stroller because she should be looking out at the world at that age! It is also where my father figured out, with no French, how to buy a tube of aspirin that mystified me after he left. I didn't figure out where that tube came from for weeks after my parents' departure. I think he had set himself the challenge of buying something in each of the village shops. He brought home steaks one night from the butcher, chocolates almost every day from our friends, baby food from the grocery shop...and aspirin. But I digress.

There is also the way drugs are sold here, everything that is over the counter in the US is literally over-the-counter here; you have to ask the pharmacist to fetch it for you, or it requires a prescription, this includes aspirin, cold remedies and "protection items". You will be asked what it is for and given advice before a sale. So what is out in the store? Oh, lots of stuff!

There are as many remedies for cellulite as there are types of beer; creams, caffeine-infused potions, cellulite massagers to use at home, pre-treatment soaps, cocktails of several that promise even better results. There are weight-loss products galore; meal substitutes, pills, herbal teas. There are sun solutions; protect from, encourage or fake a tan. Baby shampoo, pacifiers, tooth brushes, perfume, canes, essential oil mixes, orthopedic shoes, all arranged around the edges of the shop, making it a sort of product-wall-paper. There are no aisles of items for sale, just a little room to stand in line for the next available counter.

So why am I not posting a photo of a French pharmacy? For fear of losing my blog's "family" rating; there are always posters in the window and on the door of people with very little clothing on as adds for the above items. I will try to snap one of the green cross that is the symbol in front of every pharmacy. Many pharmacies, like their bakery, butcher or creamery counter-parts, do not have a name, they are known as "the pharmacy on top of the hill across from the tobacco shop" (which is also known as simply "le tabac"). Did I mention that le tabac is where you buy stamps to pay for parking infractions?

Carcassonne, the Keep

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Carcassonne Again

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More Carcassonne

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"Now there is nothing worse than to feel remote in your heart from the things you have to do with your head. "

This title is another Steiner quote from the same lecture. Lest unschooling friends of mine shy away from this lecture, I wanted to point out that there are diverse and pertinent aspects to it as a whole. He talks of the problem of learning so much information that one doesn't have time to think it over, resulting in cramming and then forgetting and the harm it does. There is an exercise suggested for overcoming forgetfulness that is exactly the opposite of what my Feng Shui consultant friend and common sense would tell you, very interesting. I have begun trying it with my knitting bag; big incentive to succeed!

If this is your first time reading Steiner (Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf school movement), look at the second footnote at the bottom of the text before you begin, there is a short explanation of the "four bodies" that is helpful. Anthroposophy only sounds like a scary, weird branch of study, it really is fascinating, not religious and not anti-religious, give it a try.

Steiner's Notes on Handwriting

France, like China, is a country where your entire future can depend upon your handwriting. I learned of the importance of one's calligraphy when studying Chinese in college with a professor from China. I have experienced it first-hand as well. I walked into a Chinese restaurant one day, looking for work, in my student days. I was told they were not hiring, but to go ahead and write down my name and number. When I handed it to the owner, he took one look at my writing and opened a drawer to slip it into, then paused, scrutinized it and hired me on the spot, saying; "You have very good handwriting." He became a fine friend, too.

My husband looked for his first job for months. He was doing temp work digging tunnels for the metro when the phone call came announcing the results of some technical tests he had taken for a job opportunity that looked promising. He failed. A little while later, the secretary called back. "Monsieur's handwriting analysis results were so outstanding that we'd like him to come in for an interview." He got the job.

I have long been an opponent of the "handwriting doesn't matter in this age of computers." I get the reasoning; the important thing is to be able to communicate clearly, not have beautiful handwriting. After all, some people, doctors, for example, or CEOs with five personal secretaries, have atrocious writing, but they do very important work in the world and (ah, subjective and sticky phrase) "earn a good living." I'm more about back to the basics and to what I can teach my children myself. I can help them improve their handwriting, not their computer skills. I was reading a lecture by Steiner this morning on habits. He spoke of handwriting as a way to form character, or reform character by learning anew to draw out each letter in a new way. He says, (of someone with problems that arise from bad habits): "better still you might also recommend that he try to acquire a different handwriting. Tell him to stop writing automatically and try practicing for fifteen minutes a day to pay attention to the way he forms the letters he writes. Tell him to try to shape his handwriting differently and to cultivate the habit of drawing the letters. The point here is that when a man consciously changes his handwriting, he is obliged to pay attention to, and to bring the innermost core of his being into connection with what he is doing. ... the person is made healthier.

It would not be a bad idea to introduce such exercises systematically into the classroom to strengthen the etheric body even in childhood. will doubtless be a long time before leading educators will consider it anything but foolish. Nevertheless, suppose that children were first taught to write a particular style of penmanship and after a few years were expected to acquire an entirely different character in their handwriting. The change, and the conscious attention it would involve, would result in a remarkable strengthening of the etheric body." *

It must be in the very air here, the need to work on one's handwriting. The last time Aragorn was in France, without me, his grandfather had him practice handwriting an hour every day. I think he actually enjoyed the time with his grandfather AND the writing. His cursive, when he wishes, is beautiful. My little eight-year-old Alienor, like her siblings before her at the same age, has terrible handwriting. I decided to begin an experiment with her, and later transfer it to her older brother if it works. I think in the long run it will help her develop her will to a point that makes life more pleasant for her and for everyone else. We began by writing the letters of her name, one after another, deliberately, in a certain order; italic, top to bottom, forming each letter, repeating the "n" she was having trouble with a few times. Was she happy about this? Hmmm, does a cat like baths? It was not easy to begin. It was really truly awful, to tell the truth. She had been asking for someone to please "do school with her," and Pierre had taken some time to do math with her, she has been writing sentences in French, but it has been a bit sporadic. It isn't because mama woke up all fired up about handwriting that the child is just as enthusiastic. However, as we advanced, she warmed up to the exercise and finished satisfied with herself and the progress she had clearly made in one session.

I made myself a cup of tea and let out my breath. Tomorrow is another day. It will get easier.

Tomorrow I plan to begin my study of botanical drawing and the Latin names of flowers. I am sure I will understand the pain of being precise and picking up a new skill in which I have absolutely no talent today.

* Taken from a lecture by Rudolf Steiner on January 11, 1912 that can be found here:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

And the Children are Doing What?

I'm riding along on my bike, admiring the small chateau across the way, the poppies blowing in the breeze, and the snake at my feet; NO I'M NOT. I'm not afraid of snakes, but I do not like being surprised by them either. It was a long black one. It was also more afraid of me than I was of it, so it was gone in a flash. Lots of things along one path in particular, make slithering noises back into the brush as we ride past, mostly, (I hope) they are the cute little lizards that live here, but just to keep some spice in life, once in awhile, it's a snake.

Homeschooling in a new and different environment is like that. You are never sure what may be waiting to be discovered just around the next corner. Most of the time the surprises are good ones, and when they are a little special, you learn how to deal with something new.

Today, the children are spending the afternoon with their grandparents again. There they may spend an hour or two playing card or board games. Lunch was at noon and they will definitely have a snack at 4:00. They may go fly model airplanes with Papy or go for a long walk with him through the woods, along the railroad tracks or somewhere else. They may go to the zoo, play soccer in the back yard, play Legos or read books. Mamie and Papy are retired and do not like to have a game plan, they'd rather see what the weather is like and wing it. They eat at religiously regular hours, and as for the never can tell.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

First Village Home

When we were younger and looking for our first house to buy, we quickly found that one could not hope to buy anything bigger than a one-bedroom apartment in the city with our combined salaries, so we set our sights further out. We looked at many a wreck, and ended up with a house high up on the ancient ramparts with a view of the river, in the sweetest little village. The house was a project requiring years of love and money, we ran out of both, but the village is still great. It is just big enough to have two grocery stores, three bakers, five doctors, two pharmacies, a school and a library, but small enough (population 2000) to a place where everyone knows everyone else. It was where our first child was born, and everyone knew her by name. We would walk out on our daily tour; bread, groceries, butcher shop, maybe a paper or the pharmacy, and she would be greeted with smiles and endearments. Especially at the chocolate shop. We had become close friends with the owners of the chocolate/pastry shop, lucky us! They had sort of adopted us, we lived two houses away, we love chocolate and we had no family nearby. Pierre would obligingly taste whatever new concoction Bertrand had come up with during chocolate season, first thing in the morning, before any other tastes could interrupt his perception, on the way to the bus stop, through the kitchen window as he passed by. I loved the seven-grain bread they made on Fridays, and chocolate croissants, so I was a regular and Francoise loved to chat.

It has been many years, but we made it back to see them, and I am so glad we did. We were thrilled; Bertrand was going to cook for us, and his wife, Francoise, would do the rest. Bertrand is not only a master chocolatier, he is also a fantastic cook. They retired a couple of years ago and we had been concerned about their health. However, the day we saw them they looked radiant, full of enthusiasm (and gossip) and ready for a trip they're to take soon. We spent a fabulous afternoon in their company. Retirement has meant they have even more time to delve into food. They now make their own sausage, pate and boudin, along with their own jams, candied fruit and of course, bread and desserts, as always. They grow their own vegetables and fruit too. Our meal began with a tasting of homemade peach wine, served with olives and nuts. The first dish consisted of all three meats they make, with a special rose wine. Then there was a dish, beautifully done: vegetable salad in the middle (called a macedoine de legumes), with grated carrots alternating with rice all around the edge and tomatoes and hard-boiled egg halves placed between the two layers, dotted here and there with mayonnaise flowers.

Then came the chicken; delicious in a lightly curried sauce and green beans, so slim you understand the expression "string beans." There was a platter of cheese following that and then the dessert...the amazing, light but creamy and rich, chocolaty but not overwhelming, sitting in a tiny pond of peach coulis.

After almost four hours at the table, during which my normally rambunctious children sat without blinking an eye, we walked out to visit the village and show the kids our first home. The pictures follow.

My Village

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Our first house

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The Square Behind the Church

I just realized I am missing pictures of the prettiest parts of the village; the square with the town clock tower over the top of two shops and the church and market place. I don't know why they are not in here, but that's it for photos, the others are food, cooking and eating.

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The Dessert

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Arthur helping Bertrand

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Francoise and the Cheese Platter

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Baby in the Basket

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Traditional Baptism Cake

These are the cakes,(pieces montees) composed of many pastry puffs filled with vanilla, coffee or chocolate cream and stuck together with a ton of caramel that hardens, that will be present at every wedding, baptism and first communion in France.

Little Victoria was baptized over the four-day Ascension weekend, with her whole family present, it was a party.

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Salad II

Warm goat cheese, tomato and walnut salad

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Salad I

Warm goat cheese, ham, egg, tomato, cheese and olive salad

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