Friday, April 30, 2010

Downtown Dentist Visit and Organic Family French Program

There was no time to write yesterday. The children stayed home with us all day, that makes a lot of people in one apartment, and then I had to get downtown for a dentist appointment.

Being me, I managed to lose a REALLY big filling on the first whole day here. My father-in-law offered to try to get me into his dentist since she was really good but backed up for a month or more. Yesterday was the first day she had available. I left early, giving myself time to find the dental office and to roam around in town a little while. The spring styles are in all the windows; cute, sexy dresses with handkerchief hems, strappy shoes and funny-looking pants with cuffs at the bottom, ballooning out like in the 80's. I stopped by the one yarn shop in town (of course) and found some wool/cashmere to try out for a biker sweater for Pierre. Then I had a cup of tea called riad at the tea shop I like so much, delicious.

Then I got lost and barely made it to the dentist on time. She ended up being American. I mean, she has always been American, I just didn't know it. We spoke in English the whole time, hers was a little rusty, but very good. She filled my cavity right then and there with one single shot of Novocaine. Nothing hurt, not then, not afterward and not today. I am most grateful.

This afternoon was all about work. Pierre and I spend much of our time together plying our trades side by side. I write and he does whatever it is he does on the computer. At the end of our day we take a break to talk about our projects and the French lessons I have written that day for our Organic Family French Language program. It is coming along nicely. I have revised the organization of the program, the objectives and the order in which vocabulary will be introduced. I will have an announcement soon, I am really happy with the system we have come up with, it will be a big break-through in language training for children and families. At the same time, it now incorporates a Waldorf-lifestyle into its very format. I think you will like it.

Time for a little knitting and dinner, just the two of us, before the munchkins come tearing in.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Churchyard Entrance

 
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Churches and Company

In a typical day in a small French town, my life was interrupted with pleasant encounters from the time I left the house at 4pm until 9:00 that same night. Lily, Puck and I went out for a walk. We had two goals; to pick up some aluminum foil for the fish and explore the XIth century church in the village.

Half-way there we met up with Pierre's grandmother, on her way home from having her hair done. Even at eighty-eight, she is elegant and gets around on her own. We walked the rest of the way up the hill to the village, facing the afternoon sun all the way. It did not bother me at all to slow down a bit, it was hot! We picked up our foil, then made our way across the square to the church. Lily had been there before, but she had not been encouraged to stop and look at either the construction or the architecture. We began by examining the steps; ancient, worn down in spots, but not smoothly, the way marble wears down in most churches or castles. These steps were made of limestone and sea shells, looking like a sponge from the front and the holes like craters on the moon. The wall surrounding it is made of similar material, thick, solid, built in Roman times to protect and endure. The church is a beautiful example of a Roman structure, rather squat and rounded, reminding one as much of a fort as a church. We entered for a few moments. The organist was rehearsing and one family was praying, the father walking the stations of the cross on his knees, the daughters lighting candles, the mother sitting quietly. Back outside there were enough lizards to keep the kids amused for ages; little tiny ones that like the warm rocks in the sun. Lily caught one, to Puck's great delight, and they pet it and thoroughly checked it out before releasing him.

Pierre's grandmother, who lives right across a path from the church, invited us up for something to drink. We all had water with mint syrup or orange syrup. Puck figured out enough French to say he only liked the orange syrup, I was quite content. She gave the children flan with as much whipped cream as flan, and chocolate and bread. Following the feast, she called over her neighbor and friend of fifty years to show off her jewels of grandchildren. The two of them are terribly competitive concerning all off-spring, so this was an opportunity not to be missed.

We returned home from our half-hour jaunt two hours later, after once again stopping to explore the church and its lizards.

Soon after-wards, the other children arrived with their Mamie and their uncle and cousin. I was just getting the fish, all wiggly and slippery, ready for the oven. This time I remembered to have it cleaned, only to find that the sellers did a hasty job of it. I found hooks in two out of three of them. Three of the kids decided to accept Mamie's invitation to spend the night at her house. There I was with fish sliding all over, threatening to spew fish juice on me at any moment, six munchkins all excited to see each other again and running all over my suddenly small apartment, and I had to pack an overnight bag, quickly.

Once they had left,sigh, I realized that three out of seven of my eaters of fish had just taken off. And the darn things were in the oven. The uncle and cousin were still there; Didier and sweet little Camille, so I inquired if they would not mind staying to dinner and helping us eat the fish. Pierre's sister had to work, so it was just the two of them. They didn't mind, so with a little shuffling (company can't use the table cloth we've been eating on for two days, napkins and wine glasses are de rigeur and must be hunted up, an extra sippy cup, silly things) we were soon all seated for dinner. Camille and her cousins adore each other. She did not want to go home. At 8:30, the two little ones (Puck, almost three and Camille three and a half) were still playing very sweetly with silks and blocks. They were gone by nine and we were ready to settle down for the night.

Here is the recipe for last night's dinner: My online translations are calling "Merlu" "Hake." If you google images for it, you will see what it looks like and what wicked teeth it has. Puck had a blast being "bit" by the sharp little things while I was struggling with hooks and innards. It is REALLY REALLY easy, I bet you even have ideas for improving it, send them please!

Ingredients:

Hake, as fresh as you can find it
White wine
Shallots, chopped, 1/2 per fish
Garlic, minced, 1 clove per fish

Rice
Lardons (or diced prosciutto or thick-sliced and diced bacon)
Chives

Lettuce
Olive oil
Vinegar
salt and pepper

You will need; aluminum foil and a dish, like a casserole dish, that goes in the oven

Clean one good-sized hake per two persons, leaving head and tail intact for aesthetic effect and flavor. Spread out a sheet of foil big enough to completely wrap us one fish. Don't fret if it's not big enough, you can always add another, the point is to keep the juice, wine and bits of shallots and garlic together. Set the fish on the foil, shiny side out. Add a little bit of wine over it, salt and pepper. Cover with garlic and shallots. Wrap up in foil, add a piece or two if necessary to completely cover the fish. Bake at 350 for about 20-30 minutes, test to see if done by actually tasting it, this fish's flesh feel soft but need a little more time in the oven, depending upon how you like it done.

Rice, basmati or jasmine is our favorite. Cook according to directions.

Fry lardons, add chives at the end of cooking, add both to rice.

Wash some nice, green-leaf lettuce, add some leaves of spinach, if you'd like, spin it all out in a salad spinner or in a towel bundled up like a knap-sack, ever-so-carefully, outside over the balcony. Make sure your neighbor is not down below, especially if she is your uncle-in-law's mother and owns the house.

For the vinegrette: the recipe is 3-1, oil to vinegar, which means if you use 3T olive oil, you mix it with 1T vinegar. Salt and pepper to taste. You can get fancy and add 1t mustard, the good kind. You could also choose to add a clove of garlic or a shallot or chives. Use your imagination and, above all, enjoy!

XIth Century Church

 
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XIth Century Church

Same church, back view. This little church has had so many renovations and repairs that it hardly looks like the same one from any angle.


 
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Detail of Steps to Churchyard

 
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Inner Door of Church

 
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Detail of Wall

 
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XIth Century Church; side view

 
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Silks and Silliness

 
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Post-Market Apple in a Cafe

 
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Our Home in France; upper entrance

 
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Puck and Papy

 
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Merluchon or Small Hake

 
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A House in the Neighborhood

 
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Bike Riding and Romance

When I began the daily journaling of our time in France, I did say there would be three parts to this venture; homeschooling, food and rekindling romance, the married kind. While I have thus far given updates on the first two, I have kept the rest private. No worries, this is a family blog, and I shan't go into any shocking details. Here is an update of how things are looking though.

We decided we would make time for each other and time to be together during these three months. The children's grandparents were eager to spend as much time with them as they could, to make up for lost time and to make memories while we are here. Those two ideas coincided so well that we could not pass up the chance while it was offered. So there are about four days a week when the children are all the way out of the house for a few hours. First we take off all our clothes and run around like the kids after a bath, yelling "tee da da!"...all right, not every day. We make each other tea or coffee, take a minute to talk or take a walk, give foot rubs or massages, take naps; romantic moments that real life allows for, but not with the leisure and luxury we have in an empty apartment. It has been very nice so far and it is nicer each day. I highly recommend it. See if you can't find someone to take the kids somewhere instead of going out yourselves, once in awhile. I'm sure you'll find something interesting to do.

We have also begun biking together. That is a whole other story. Day three was worse than day two, as far as pain goes. However, the sandy part of the path, the one that had me trembling two days ago? Today I attacked it, imagining I was the adventurous, athletic type. I am a rugged, indomitable sportswoman, peddling like mad through the sand, over gravel, through tunnels. This is sooo not me, by the way, in case you don't know me personally. I am going to end up tan and in great shape, my father won't be able to find me at the airport when we get back. But man, is my derriere still sore!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Culture, Gender Roles and Questions

My two oldest children have reached an age where they are questioning more than how a house is made or why a rose is pink.Those questions that used to seem embarrassing now seem so easy! Even the "why does that man have funny eyes mama?" is simply excused based on the age of the questioner. When I used to die a thousand deaths, now I just remove the inquisitor to a quiet place and give a little explanation. The older ones though, don't stop at questioning, they are also into judging and even criticizing, wince.

Even though in our family we have traditional roles; my husband works outside the home and I keep house and am responsible for most of the children's daily life, he still lends a big hand when he is home. He helps out with what needs doing on a given day; shopping, cooking or cleaning. I love this and it works for us. If he were in charge, sure, the sheets would walk by themselves, the dust would form into living creatures and no one would ever leave the house, but he would make lovely meals from fresh ingredients and keep everything picked up and the floors clean. If I went to work I would be a psychological wreck, always worried about the children, cutting up client's veal for them at business lunches, and reminding co-workers to mind their manners and take out their trash. I'm afraid nothing would ever get done at home either, because I would be very strongly inclined to come home and read to the children, bake cookies and knit.

In my husband's family, his parents both worked full-time when he was growing up. Like most families of that generation, his mother also did the shopping, cooking, cleaning and child-raising. His father worked on the house they built, putting in the entire second floor by himself, decorating and making curtains for all the windows. He was also responsible for the accounting for their business and worked on that in the evenings. Along the way, his mother managed to have the children recite their lessons to her each evening and his father learned to play flight simulator games on the computer.

Today, they are retired. From the outside, it looks and sounds like my mother-in-law does all of the shopping, cleaning, cooking and gardening and that my father-in-law's only self-proclaimed activity is building model airplanes. He told the children,"I am retired, I have a goal, it is to do NOTHING I don't want to do!" Pierre's grandmother, who helps with the cooking, cleaning and endless ironing, has even called the airplane making "his work." This drives my children nuts. Lily can be particularly challenging when she barrages either her grandfather or us with questions on this topic; "why don't you do dishes, Papy? What do you do? When you worked, didn't Mamie work in the same place the same hours as you? Did you help out with the cooking and cleaning then? Why is the whole yard her job?" (He does mow the lawn on occasion.)

This is so hard for feminist, yet happy-to-be-home me. Inside, I am shouting; "woo-hoo, you go girl, great questions!" Outside, I have to temper my own prejudices with respect both for our elders and for diversity. It's not because I have strong beliefs on a topic that I hold the key to the unique truth on it. (Even if I am sure that I am right, and really, the world would be a better place if everyone just did things my way.) Being polite and pleasant company also has its merits, and while it is good to question authority (go kids!), it is important to treat others, especially ones grandparents, with respect and reverence. I think it's great, too, though, to see that there is more than one way of doing things and that different situations work for different people. Isn't that the whole point of travel, in the end?

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Weekend in Southern France

Everything's about the same here as at home, except that I don't have a cafe that opens at 6 to go write in on Saturday morning. And besides the market that is three times as big as the one on Tuesday, and the baby goat that greets you when you arrive (it's owners are selling candy). Oh, and the apple-seller who flirts with you in English, does magic tricks with the children and gives free samples of different kinds of apples. We were interrupted from actually doing any shopping at the market by my mother-in-law catching us as we reached the first stall and inviting us to have a cup of coffee with her, her sister, her brother, his wife and a dozen of their friends, all gathered around one table at an outdoor cafe,some of them smoking. While we were seated to be questioned and petted, the kids went off with Mamie to the carousel. They had already been given the details of how we got here and all of the obstacles encountered along the way, but they still had lots of things to say and ask. We eventually made our way back to the market to stare at the fish and seafood, admire the cheese, (of course), and shop for fruit and vegetables, sausages and other tasty morsels.

Then there are the hours and hours of eating that take place at our in-laws' and many other houses throughout France. We start out with a little aperitif, then head for the first course. This usually involves sausages and pates, maybe fish or deviled eggs with tuna. Sunday we had foie gras again, poor us. Then comes the more serious food, this week it was "confit" which is duck in a can. Legs and parts of duck that have been beautifully preserved in duck grease. They are removed from their confinement and fried to a crisp, the meat remains tender, just the skin is crispy. Ya' gotta eat the skin, it keeps the bad cholesterol away. To keep on the healthy side, we had fries with that, and a St.Emilion red wine, followed by the salad and cheese courses. Dinner was cabbage soup and bread, delicious too!

So, it's basically life as usual, give or take ten pounds, daily babysitters and time to write and knit. I'm sure we'll all be tired of it in time to come home in July.

Today's Recipe

Rice Salad

A summer staple in Southern France. Easy to prepare, keeps well, everyone seems to like it.

Rice, we like to use Basmati, but use your favorite. 11/2 cups (uncooked) for 5-6 people; cook according to directions on package.

Vinagrette: 6 T olive oil
2 T vinegar (red wine or white wine or apple cider or balsamic)
salt and pepper to taste
1 shallot, minced

Toss cooled rice with vinagrette, add any or all of the following:

Hard boiled eggs
Tomatoes, cherry or diced
Tuna
Olives
Cocktail onions
Pickles, chopped
Peppers, red or green
Whatever else sounds good.

Bon appetit!

Back in the Saddle Again

Aie, aie, aie! That's the sound that a French man makes when he gets to the bank for a really important transaction and realizes that it's Monday and it is closed, of course. That is also the noise a French woman makes when she has not been on a bicycle for over a year and it is the second day out biking.

We have been saying that Pierre and I will ride to the in-laws for lunch each day. Well, today was the day, no more excuses, said my dear hubby. I may have been able to come up with a few hundred, had anyone asked, but who wants to appear wimpy? Besides, no one asked. We rode up to the bakery and grocery store last week, about a three-minute ride. It took fifty-five minutes to get to the in-laws'. Part of that was drop-dead scary. The bike path along a busy road just stopped and I kept expecting to learn how to fly. No flying today, someone was listening to my mama-of-five, please-don't-let-me-die prayers.

We made it, finally, and had a quick lunch with the munchkins, grandparents and great-grandma, then headed home. We took a short-cut, along a sandy path between field and woods. I don't know how to ride in sand! It was not, however, nearly as perilous as the road, and we made it in thirty-three minutes. Quite enough adventure for me for one day, we'll see about tomorrow.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Our Backyard and One of its Cats

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Buckets of Snails and Spinach, Yards Full of Cats

Yesterday I was asked THE QUESTION by the lady who takes care of Pierre's cousin's grandmother, who occupies the apartment below us. Just to let you know how the most random people can take an interest in your child's education. She had heard that we homeschool and wanted to know if that was the reason they never heard any noise from our part of the house in the morning. "That's when they must be in class." Too funny! No, it's because they are all sleeping, jet lag will do that to a person.

She went on to observe the three youngest who were chasing cats around the yard, bringing me specimens of new flowers and strange plants and then finally their secret stash of snails in a bucket. She commented; "wow, they are studying lots of things; botany, zoology, that's great. Amen.

It is a little like living in a zoo right here in our new neighborhood. The wildlife is not the same at all. Nary a squirrel or rabbit, but there are snails galore, now that the weather has turned rainy. There are also cats; imagine, cats free to run around outside, like a normal cat! The kids are loving it.

We were having dinner the other night with my sister-in-law and her family. Everyone under 20 eventually got bored and headed outside to play. When I was on my way to the kitchen I saw Aragorn coming out with something green. I did not pay much attention until Lily, looking a little sneaky, closed the refrigerator with a handful of another something green a few minutes later.

"Where are you going with that spinach!?" She pulled something out of her pocket, "look at my snail, isn't he great?" She decided she would keep it as a pet, so she had to feed it. What I did not know until the next day was that they had found MANY snails and they were keeping them in a big blue bucket outside. Along with half of my lettuce and spinach. Ah well, the snails are the ones having a feast instead of being feasted upon, for once. And it is kind of cool, they have the most beautiful shells when you take a minute to observe them (impartially). When I lived here years ago I saw them from another perspective; they were the nasty little beasties that made slime marks on my windows whenever it rained. Through the fascinated eyes of my children, these are slimy, yes, but slightly exotic creatures that inhabit their new world.

Good thing they haven't seen the spiders yet.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Jet Lag!

We arrived a week ago tonight. I usually give the time difference effect about a week to wear off. It has been fantastic to be in our own space this time and to be free to wake up at 11 and have kids squirrling around at 11pm as well. We're not keeping anyone up but ourselves. No well-meaning relatives have popped in to say hi in the morning, lunch is not on anyone's schedule but our own.

But I think I would like this to be over. I am ready for the children to be in bed reading quietly or sleeping at 8 and for me to be up early, alone. I want to reestablish our morning rhythm again, have a "normal" moment together between breakfast and lunch. I wish it were that easy. Changing time zones does funny things to a body, and most likely your mind too. I know patience and time are my best allies, but it would be nice to hurry things up a little bit.

At "bed time" I've tried massaging the kids with calming essential oils, reading stories like at home, baths, snacks. I have not made them get up any earlier in the morning, it seemed pointless to have grumpy children as well as jet-lagged ones. I might be ready for this step. Any other ideas out there from fellow travelers?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fish Heads

The skeleton had the greatest success. Have I really not served any whole fish to my children in all the years since we've moved back to the States? What a shock. Let's see, we've had salmon, filleted, of course, tuna, canned, halibut, orange roughy and cod, mostly frozen. They all loved the fresh fish, it was delicious, even the self-declared "fish-hater" ate it up. But their favorite part was the skeleton. Pierre had to hold it up for all to see, way cool, and the eyes bulged out all white and squishy, the teeth were clearly visible, as was the tongue. It was like the Discovery Channel, or at least the way I imagine it it would be.

I tried independent grocery shopping today. The kind where I walk out, on a beautiful day, full of enthusiasm for life, France and getting along without an automobile for a few months. I felt like I was eighteen again, it was all fresh, a new place to live, new discoveries to make, I was an American in France again. It was a blow to think that I was no longer eighteen and an accent no longer meant I was instantly desirable, just interesting, lol! I trekked up the hill to the little shopping conglomeration, it would be unfair to call that little spot a strip mall, it is more like a little plaza for pedestrians; a cafe, a bakery, a pharmacy, a hair salon and a little grocer's. I bought bread at the baker's first, then strolled across the square to Pierre's grandmother's place to say hello and offer her a baguette. Then I entered what I thought might be one of many squalid little shops with a few dingy vegetables that looked like they fell off the back of a truck somewhere and two kinds of cereal. (I have lived next to a few of those.)

I was very wrong, and I am sorry to have even thought such things, my apologies, little shop. The produce was very nice, I kept having to put things back, reminding myself that I was on foot and that there was always tomorrow. It took me forever to find everything; the ham and sausages were next to the fruits and vegetables, the meat was in the back, the milk, cheese and cream section was on the opposite wall by the cashier and the rest was in the three middle aisles. One thing I found that I celebrated joyously were the lardons. The closest thing I have found to lardons in the US is diced prosciutto. They look and taste as though smoked bacon was cut about half and inch thick and then chopped into quarter-inch pieces, not quite cubes. I stocked up on this very unhealthy staple, I did not realize how much I had missed it. Below are a few recipes, should you be so lucky to have a butcher who will dice some bacon this way for you, or have it at your disposal.

The kind lady at the check-out even had the patience to help me figure out how to say "rice cake" in French and find some for me in that day's shipment, victory! I walked out of the store enchanted, they even had a free delivery service that I thought I might use in the future, but for today, I could make it home with three bags.

By the time I got home, I was singing a different tune. The tune of "oomph, help, pick me up, I'm a hitchhiker, I can't walk one more step or carry this any further." All the romance left in the notion of living carless has fled, cars are most practical. I will be keeping coins in my entryway for the nice delivery man, beginning tomorrow.

Rice and Lardons
Cook basmati rice in water; 20 min.
Fry lardons in a frying pan, add no grease.
Pour lardons on top of rice, grease and all.
Serve and enjoy.

Pasta Carbonara
Boil spaghetti according to directions, with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. Drain.
Fry lardons.
Add heavy whipping cream to coat.
Add lardons, sprinkle with parmesean. Serve hot.

Potatoes, twice baked with lardons
Bake potatoes, whole, in oven at 325, 1 hour.
Fry lardons.
Slice in two, lengthwise. Scoop out insides.
Mix potato with sour cream and lardons. Optional; top with cheese.
Return to oven to warm.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

SSK: stinky, smelly knitting

My kingdom for a lemon. I am pretty sure I should not be knitting on this sock I'd like to finish up, but I wonder if I will have a problem with my keyboard as well? My children have seen something new today and I have learned a skill I swore I would never need to know...fish gutting.

I picked up a couple of lovely fish while shopping today, along with some Guerande sea salt; the brown, sticky kind I can't find at home. As I was contemplating tonight's dinner, I suddenly turned to my husband with a worry; "Honey, if you buy fish at the grocery store here, do they clean it before they sell it?" My fish were all wrapped up and even sealed in a special fish bag, which was new to France. I only ever bought fish from my fish monger at the market, who knew better than to give me fish with innards, or later from the mother of a fisherman who sold the entire morning's catch before 10am each day in our little sea side town. She very kindly cleaned it for me as well. Ever since that fateful night, about fifteen years ago, when I began to prepare dinner and my husband was called away to fix someone's computer, I always remembered to ask for pre-cleaned fish and headless poultry. That was the night that I ran, panicked, to the neighbor's apartment, with my fish and all its parts, having tried unsuccessfully to stick a knife into it to get them out. My neighbors and husband, never let me live it down. I solved that little dilemma by always making sure it was done before bringing it home. Pierre was sure there must be some sort of law about fish being sold in grocery stores without its insides, and besides, he had work to do. I filled the casserole dish with salt, took the fish out of its two bags and braced myself. They were just as beautiful as I remembered, bright eyes, plump flesh with nary a slit, rip or rent. Oh boy.

I grabbed a knife and held my first victim over the garbage can. As I cut and cleaned, Aragorn clamored for a turn. When he realized that this was tonight's dinner, he got excited, revolted and called in all the others to see. They all watched in fascinated revulsion, then took turns covering them up in sea salt. Dinner will be delicious, accompanied by a little Riesling white wine I bought for $3.60, steamed rice and fried tomatoes. Cheese and bread, then fruit for dessert should be perfect.

Now to get my hands de-fished!

The recipe for the fish, a dorade royale or grise, translated by different sources into different things; sea bream being the one that came up most frequently. I'll try to get a picture of a fresh one in the next couple of days.

1) Clean the fish, rinse with cool water.
2) Line a dish with coarse Guerande sea salt or closest equivalent, place fish on top, cover with more sea salt.
3) Bake for 25-30 minutes at 350.
4) The salt will form a crust that peels off; peel and eat.
Bon appetit!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pierre and his Uncle: after-dinner contemplation

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In Mamie's Garden

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Outside, the Place to Be

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Market Update

Well, it has been four years since I visited the farmer's market here, but I am happy to report that all is well in the tiny town square. The beautiful displays of tomatoes, spinach, zucchini, salad and tiny local strawberries, bright red and sweet, a hundred sorts of cheese, fresh bread and glossy prunes, were enough to make me almost cry. I was with my mother-in-law, she knows everyone, from the local policewoman to each stall holder and just about every customer. To a one, when she introduced me, they knew all about our trip and our "harrowing adventures" as they put it.

I had a harder time getting through the crowds than I remembered. The little elderly ladies are on a mission; they just bull-doze their way through, showing no mercy, yielding no quarter. If you linger too long over your choice of tomatoes or can't find the right change, there will be a hand in front of you with its own vegetables or money in it, getting on with business.

After selecting all of the above, each from the right stall, guided by my "belle-maman"; goat cheese, ewe cheese and fresh whipped cream as well as farm eggs, we met up with her sister and another friend for coffee. It was in a tiny tea and coffee shop that smelled heavenly, no flavor dominated over the others. It wasn't like walking into a cafe and having the overwhelming odor of fake hazelnut knock you over. It was more of an aroma of good things, unadulterated with cheese souffles or baked goods. The proprietress sent me away with three chocolate lollipops and two other chocolate goodies for the children. She had asked and noted how old the kids were, then prepared a little bag of treats while I was choosing tea to take home. Did I mention the tea? Oh, the tea...over 100 kinds, I just counted them on the menu I brought with me. Each smelled better than the one before. I narrowed it down to four, my husband's aunt wanted to offer me some. There were people in line behind me, so I forced myself to stop sniffing and just choose; two black, a rooibos and a green, but I will go back. I haven't even touched the Chinese, Japanese, Earl Grays or decafs!

We drove home to the children at a usual French, break-neck speed. Did I mention my mother-in-law drives like the ladies shop in the market, fast, furious and without pity? Well, not too fast, don't worry, Dad. She is, however, not someone to mess with on the road or in a parking lot. The kids had spent the morning devouring chocolate bread (pain au chocolat) and playing with their cousin, a little three-and-a-half-year-old darling. We all had lunch together; pate, bread, a rice salad, strawberries with whipped cream, and they ran off to play some more outside. I am starting to miss them, it feels like I haven't seen them in two days. They came home at five last night and we had dinner together, but they only woke up as I was leaving this morning. My in-laws report that they are all quite capable of making themselves understood in French when they need to, even the little guys. There may be no formal school work for a couple of months, but I am pretty sure there will be a little bit of progress in the foreign language department of the Academie C.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Puck Feels the Waves: the Ferry

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Our Bags and Us: Victoria Station, London

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Second Meal...and Failing

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First Meal of the Day in London

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Entertainment at Heathrow

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Ninety Days in France: Day One

This is Day One of our project, sort of. Do I need to count the days spent traveling then sleeping? If so, we are on day, let's see; Wednesday we left, Thursday we spent in London, sleeping on metal chairs in a bus station, Friday, oh heaven, Friday, I would rather forget. Friday we made it to Paris, bought some vitamin C and hoped we wouldn't all collapse. Saturday and Sunday we slept until noon and spent the rest of the day with my in-laws. The kids ran around the really big yard and the adults ate, drank and chatted. The weather was perfect, the wine was delicious and the food exquisite. We had sausage, pate, soup, chicken, salad, stinky, flavorful cheese. They had bread with all of that; crisp outside, soft and light inside, the kind that crackles when it is squeezed. I will avoid squeezing the baguettes this trip (gluten-free me and French bread equal bad news.) I even drank coffee, a tiny half-cup, at the end of lunch. We had champagne Sunday and a Graves, one of the nicest reds in France. Lunch was over around 3 or 4 and we had dinner again around 8:30.

My project consists of chronicling our stay in France; three months, five homeschooled children, lots of in-laws, friends, and my husband and I. We have a few specific ideas we'd like to pursue; bilingual homeschooling, this means family time, hours of it with aunts, uncles and grand-parents. Enjoying the food and cooking is goal number two; tomorrow will be my first trip to the market, I can't wait. I hear the lettuces are 20 cents for great big ones, there will be cheese, fish and butter with sea salt, not to mention bread, we will studiously ignore the bread. Goal three; rekindling home fires, making the most of the time we will have, Pierre and I, as a couple while the children have fun with grama and grandpa, known as Mamie and Papy.

This is day one of being at home in our apartment with just my husband. He's at his computer, I'm at mine. We had a little lunch, worked a little, had a little nap. I posted part two of our trip, checked my email, thought I'd make a batch of gluten-free brownies to make up for all of the bread and pastries I've missed the past few days, and went back to work. I have a bowl of warm tea and a bowl of brownies I had to nuke, the oven wouldn't light. Brownies nuked in a bowl are just as nice as brownies baked in an oven, who would've thought it? No, this does not count as furthering my cooking objectives, just self-pampering! Note to self; get out for a walk tomorrow and eat more lettuce, for goodness' sake!

Part Two of Trip

Well, now I know that this little volcano made the news around the world. It was hard to believe at the time, but when we drove past Roissy airport and saw zero planes in the sky or on the runway, it began to sink in. What else did we see?

We saw grown-ups crying in frustration and fatigue. We saw more people sleeping on more types of surfaces than we have ever seen before; on the floor in the tube station in London, on tables on the ferry, on benches, chairs and sofas. We also saw the magnificent White Cliffs of Dover, rising sharply, shimmering ghostly pale in the night. (For more on this, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliffs_of_dover). We saw the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Ismaili Center, along with all traffic speeding along the wrong side of the streets of London, double-decker buses, blue phone booths and people dressed as only they dress in England’s capital. We heard languages from around the world; Dutch, German, Spanish, Chinese, and had a whole conversation with a woman who spoke nothing but Slovakian. My husband adds that he and my son were kicked out of the London Google headquarters when they asked if they could snap a picture.

Then what? Pierre had set off to use his cell phone where he could get reception (thank goodness for the international cell phone his company reserved for the trip for him! We will have a bill to pay, it is meant for professional use only, but it was worth every cent). He found out that there were no buses between Paris and Bordeaux, only one a week and that was on Wednesday, this was Thursday, no good. We had heard and had confirmation of a strike by the railway personnel, so there were no trains. We had briefly considered looking for passage by boat in Calais, while we were there, but two things kept us from that idea. One, it was 3:30 in the morning, and two, we did not think we would ever get another bus from there if we abandoned this one, and hitch-hiking with six suitcases, not to mention five children, is a little tough. Pierre’s father had been given the task of finding us a rental car, but all of the websites said in red lettering; “NO RENTALS AVAILABLE.” He called his brother who said he could drive us down in someone else’s minivan. We thought that sounded like a good plan, if we could rent an additional small car to safely transport everyone and their luggage. My father had driven us to Chicago in a mini-van and we were rather squished together in the back. That was only a three-hour drive, so we knew a nine-hour one would be even harder, especially as tired as everyone was. We also planned on sleeping a night in Paris, as we did not think it wise to attempt to drive in such a sleep-deprived state.

Pierre returned to report that the uncle’s friend had gone to work, but his father had reserved a mini-van for us. When Pierre called to say he was on his way to pick up the car, he was told that the car was gone. Father-in-law to the rescue; he called the central agency of the rental place, was told there WOULD be a car for us, if there wasn’t we were to call in the police and wait until they found one because someone was trying to scam us. Pierre set off on foot to fetch the car. The children and I ate salads, croissants and more fries, called “frites” here.

When my dear hubby returned, he had a bit of a hesitant, yet determined look about him. Apparently, the car DID have seven seats; if you pulled them up out of the trunk space, thus eliminating all trunk space. “Let’s see if we can fit everyone along the middle row, and the suitcases in the back.” was his idea. There was no way. There was no way the suitcases would fit without seven people in the car, someone was going to have to follow later, I voted for me,(but silently), I had my knitting, after all. We decided to try with one seat up, four kids across the middle seat, one larger one in the back. We somehow piled four suitcases into half a small trunk, with the help of a man who looked like he might have been Sherpa, who had been very kind to us when he heard Pierre asking his father for directions via cell-phone. He stopped in the parking garage and helped us engineer the packing of us and stuff. We also put one suitcase in the front where my feet should have been, one under the little ones’ feet, along with the backpacks, smaller suitcase and the guitar, and we drove. I don’t know how Pierre did it, sheer adrenaline and the desire to get the heck home, he says. As for me, I was given the job of calling the in-laws to let them know we were on our way, I dialed the number and woke up ten minutes later, with no recollection of having fallen asleep. Good thing I wasn’t driving.

We made frequent stops for potty breaks, a little time-killer that had haunted us since first setting out, and snacks to keep up energy and good moods.French highway stops can be really very pleasant. At our first stop, there was a full restaurant, self-serve style, with a mini-grocery store if you preferred to make your own sandwich. It was airy and lit by huge windows. The restrooms were clean, there were tables to sit at, and there was a space for little children to play in with cute little flower-shaped poof-chairs, a big, flat flower poof to jump on, and a whole book shelf of graphic novels/comic books (bd, a French, hard-cover genre that just does not have an equivalent in the US) for the daddies to read while the kids played. I can’t believe that I was awake enough to appreciate it, but it was such a great place to stop.

We did, finally, make it all the way here. It was late at night on Friday in France, sometime in the afternoon in the Midwest. We were ecstatic, and had such a warm welcome as only a loving family can give. Our apartment for the three months we will be here is beautiful. It was entirely cleaned, furnished, decorated and stocked by Pierre’s parents, uncle, aunt, cousins, sister and brother-in-law. We could withstand a siege, in comfort and style! There are two spacious bedrooms, a nice little kitchen with a washing machine and a table big enough for us all to eat at, and a big living room with a hutch full of pretty dishes, a big table (with fresh flowers on it), two sofas, a flat-screen television and a corner for the computer. There is so much food it is ridiculous, and his mother has been sending home more food each day. We have four loooong clothes lines outside, a drying rack for rainy days and night time drying. There are towels in the bath, new curtains at the windows, a stereo system, a new floor and any utensil I could ever need in the kitchen. We are waiting for the Internet connection to work, but this is France. We know that some day this too, shall come to pass. In the meantime, the wine is good, the food is fantastic and the company very kind indeed.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Such a Trip

"Are we there yet?" has taken on a whole new meaning. It's been 43 hours, but who's counting? We are still not there, not sure how we are going to get there, but we are trailing around 6 suitcases and various other backpacks, purses, cosmetic cases and knitting bags, and a toddler (no sling, nice going mama.) I am writing from a McDonald’s in a dubious quartier in downtown Paris, while the kids go up and down the escalator of the eerily empty mall we are in.

We have been caught up in one of the craziest natural disasters to hit the western world in a long time. A volcano erupted, in Iceland (it's always Iceland with me.) The volcanic ash from the fall-out, as it were, has formed itself into a giant cloud that has shut down all of the airports in Northern Europe. So as far as I know, there was not major or minor loss of life, it's not, thank goodness, like an earthquake or a flood, it's merely annoying in a big way.

You know when you hear about all of those people stranded at airports all over with no way home? You think, fess up, I know you've thought it, I have; "can't they take a train, rent a car, find a boat, something?" I'm here to tell you, they're stuck, for real. We have managed to get from London Heathrow to downtown London to Paris. But we really need to get to Bordeaux, 7 hours south of here by car.

In the past two days we have been interviewed by a major British newspaper, taken a break-neck ride to London in a very unofficial taxi, had a long wait for an even longer bus ride and taken a ferry across the English Channel in the middle of the night.

Where shall I start? Our flight was perfect. The staff of British Airways and everyone in the airport were kind, friendly even, helpful and very sweet with the children. Upon arriving at Heathrow, nothing seemed out of place. There were no announcements, notices or other indications all was anything but ordinary. It was while we were waiting in the immigration line for the second time (got sent back when we couldn't prove to the officer's satisfaction that we were all indeed, European citizens. The kids' passports are undeniably blue.) An Australian couple in front of us told us about the “cloud” that had canceled their flight and that Gatwick, the airport we were to fly out of, was closed. Once we made it back to the front of the immigration line, hurried along by Puck screaming when his feet hit the ground, we inquired of the officer examining our pass-ports. He was not sure, thought he heard something about it, but someone further on would surely know more.

When we finally had confirmation that the flight was canceled, we had a moment of discussion about the course of action to follow. As we were talking, a reporter from a British paper asked if she could interview us. As we spoke with her of frustrations and lack of any information or aid on the airline or airport’s part, we remembered our initial “family mission statement” for traveling. “A voyage is an adventure. We need to keep that in mind and go with the flow. You never know what may happen, but it will be an adventure.” The tired, hungry, impatient children were not so enthusiastic about adventure at this point in time, but it did help the adults to keep a relaxed attitude and perspective.

I jaunted up three flights of escalator to find out more. I was given different information at each spot, so we decided to take things into our own hands. The most we could do at the airport was to try to rebook, but there were no flights out for at least 24 hours, maybe more. We had to get out of the airport. I went up and out again to search for a taxi that could take 7 people and 6 suitcases into London. A security guard asked if he could help. He looked aghast when I gave him specifics, but immediately warmed up when I told him I had five children with me. He showed me the line for cabs; at least 21/2 hours of queuing, then said it would cost us at least 250 pounds. However, if I would go around the corner, into a little office on the side, they would give me the number of a minicab service that could take us all for around 70 pounds. I got the number, gave them a call, and within 15 minutes, we were on our way, in two separate cars, one with a new driver who really did not know his way around town and seemed intoxicated, but that was the car Pierre was in, so they stayed until we arrived at Victoria Coach Station.

We were just in time for the 12:00 bus to Paris. The line, though, was a mile and a half long. With the help of a young man in the information booth, we got through to the head of the line, only to find out the bus was booked solid. We made reservations for the next available trip; 9:30pm, or 21:30 hours. Then we settled in with our suitcases and our grumpy babies to wait. There was a pub next door where we had lunch and dinner. The manager lived for years in Chicago, we felt right at home. The fries ("chips" locally) were great, the drinks refreshing, only the restrooms left a lot to be desired, but they were free, as opposed to the disgusting ones at the airport and bus station. We would have loved to see London, but there were children too tired to walk any further, a budget too strained to manage the 26 pounds per person bus tour fee and Lily’s recently sprained ankle to consider. We stayed put.

Needless to say, we were the first in line at 8:30 when the windows opened for check-in. We were also the first in line for the bus, but there were many, many more people in line for the bus than seats on said bus. The crowd started to squeeze, they squeezed my children, one by one, away from me. Pierre had been obliged to take the luggage around to the back of the bus, so we were separated. We really wanted spots close together, since we would be traveling at night, in the dark. I stuck to my spot, and kept pulling my kids back to me. We made it on, found seats on the upper deck, and fell asleep before the bus left the station.

At some point the bus stopped, the lights were turned on and a voice came over the loudspeaker to say; “Passports.” Everyone sort of looked at each other, having no idea what to do, then the driver repeated “passports.” A couple people got out of the bus and the rest of us followed. We went through British immigration followed by French immigration, all in a row, and got back on the bus. We drove a little further, still no information, and waited for an hour, it was midnight. At 1:15 the bus drove onto the ferry and we all got out. It was cold, the boat was huge, there were people camping out all over the place, others partying, playing cards and watching tv. We had hot cocoa, walked out on the deck for awhile, and talked about what great stories the kids would have to tell later. We got to France at 3:30am, then to Paris at 7:30am. Here we are, waiting for the next stage, and eating more French fries.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How Not to Lose Five Children in an Airport

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Here We Go...

Dear All,

It is a beautiful morning here in the Midwest, sunny and almost 60, and I took time to meditate and have a cuppa this morning around six, so I am in a great place. "Peace and Calming" has been burning in my diffuser since sunrise, but the rest of them!

Five crazy kids, one hell-bent husband, and too many suitcases. It feels like we are moving house, but it's just a little trip to see the in-laws...for three months, in France. The extra suitcase is for emergency situations which may arise with the new luggage rules. The weight limits are so strict that we have visions of tossing things out like so many sand bags out of a balloon, losing along the way what we were sure we could not live without. This way, we may have a little room to stick things somewhere else. I'd hate to have to leave behind the 155 disposable diapers I got at a bargain price.

I thought I would have a leisurely moment to write, and promise frequent entries from abroad, before packing up my charger, slipping my computer into my carry-on and touring the house one more time for oopses and things, but it appears there are fires to be put out all over the place; "here's my head-gear," "my favorite blanket won't fit in my carry-on," "but I WANT the fluoride rinse," "Where are my Lego 'torm-troopers?" "Hey, Mom, did you see the song I sang is on a website?" "Can I exchange $10 for some French money?"

It is time, good-bye for now, I'm going to miss you, Mom, Dad, sister, brothers, nephews, friends and niece-to-be, see you in three months. You'll hear from us on the other side of the Atlantic.

Good-bye, see you in three months

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Blanket for my New Niece

The family is having a new baby, I can't wait! Here is a little blanket I made for her, my sister is expecting sometime in June. I am heartbroken that I will be in France, but I will be thinking of her and knitting tiny pink things...

Play Silks