Category — Travel
This was our final week in Provence. It has been a week of lasts:
- The last trip to the market to buy olives, pasta, and cheese and practice my bad French with the very patient people who sell their goods there
- One last picture of the Grignan castle sitting at the top of the incredibly picturesque medieval village where the girls go to school
- The last Wednesday pizza from Ivan des Pizzas – a Hawaiian, the American kind with ham and pineapple, not the French version with chicken, green pepper and onion (pineapple optional!)
- One last pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) from the best bakery of the many, many, many we’ve tried during the year.
- A last trip to the clothesline… one last walk to the garbage and recycling station… one last mad dash to catch the school bus…
- And many, many, many last bisous (kisses) with the wonderful people we’ve met during the year
This year has been intense. It’s been incredibly good in so many ways, but it has also been difficult. Everything was strange which meant it was also hard – like the time it took four hours to buy lightbulbs!
I fully expected that right now I’d be feeling glad we came, but ready to get back to “normal” life in California. I didn’t expect that leaving would make me sad.
It was hard to say good-bye to so many people. Claudine, Jacqueline, Augustin, Alain and the other wonderful Chansojeux leaders who immediately embraced our children as part of the village; Emma, Christine, Vanessa, Genevieve and the lovely English-speaking people who let me have a real conversation; Caroline and the other parents who let me practice my French while we waited for the school bus; Genevieve and Jean who introduced us to raclette; Vanessa and Jerome who taught us the traditions of the galette des rois; Julien who gave us homemade pate from his own pig; JP and and his amazing food (takeout fois gras – yum); Gilbert who gave JM tips about growing crops in Provence; the staff at the village cafe who kept us supplied with coffee, bread, pastis, and great conversation; the wonderful teachers at the Grignan school …and…and…and…
We hate to leave. As the girls say, we’d like to stay in California AND stay in Chantemerle.
Our very warmest and most sincere au revoir and merci to the incredible people who have touched our lives this past year! Vous allez nous manquer!
July 3, 2011 11 Comments
Ladies, if you are going to spend any amount of time in the south of France, there are a few things that you might want to be aware of.
- No medical modesty - When you go to see the doctor or get an x-ray there is no paper dress, hospital gown, or disposable sheet to cover your naked self. You may be put in a small room to remove your clothes, but there is nothing provided instead. I can intellectually understand that this is a good thing since a visual exam is important to any medical procedure – and I know they see the girl parts anyway. But I still find it comforting to have some kind of cover, even an ineffective one.
- No locker room nudity – On the flip side, when you go to the gym or the pool don’t strip down in the ladies’ locker room. There are small rooms with excessively private floor-to-ceiling doors where you go to change into your running shorts or bathing suit. It took several horrified looks from local French ladies to figure that one out – I assumed those cubicles were toilets.
- Toilets not always segregated - Men and women frequently go to the same location to do their business. This comes in every possible combination: fully shared facilities, toilets that are designated for men or women but with a shared sink area, or a ladies’ toilet plus an unlabeled toilet. My personal favorite was the place that had one sink then a row of three urinals which you had to walk past to get to the one toilet cubicle that was also where the coats were hung.
- Flush capabilities vary – I still don’t fully understand this one, but some toilets just don’t have much gumption. They seem to wash away the liquid, but leave the solids (paper or human) behind. Of course this always happens when there is a line so the next lady will know exactly who left what in the bowl. Occasionally there are two buttons. If you push one button and there are still remains, you can push the other one and see if you get lucky. But my tip – never generate solid waste until you are confident of what will happen next.
Forewarned is forearmed.
June 9, 2011 6 Comments
Once again, we had a plan, but we quickly got distracted.
We were supposed to visit the Tarascon castle, the famous Château du bon roi René (Good King René’s castle), but we got distracted on our way. It turned out that the Beaucaire Fortress was holding a journée médiévale (medieval day) that weekend. The animated tours are held once a month in April, May and June, then every Wednesday in July and August. And so we changed our plans for the nth time and decided King René’s castle will be for some other time.
Well, it was a great choice. The Beaucaire Fortress only opened to the public last year, so is not in any guidebooks. Plus it was a windy Mistral day, and so the fortress wasn’t busy at all. Best of all, the animators were serious scientists who study medieval life in general and the art of medieval self-defense. So, we were set for an amazing personal tour.
First, meet the troupe de troubadours, the singers & jesters with their chest of ridiculous stuff…
Then we all had a turn shotting a 12th-century crossbow – adults and kids.
Next, we were led by our guide to the triangular dungeon.
Here, we saw many old graffiti and other cool things.
We were treated to a demonstration of the art of medieval fighting.
Some little girls got to take part in the action!
June 9, 2011 1 Comment
Welcome to the Hôtel Doctrinaires, an old college founded by the Pères Doctrinaires of Avignon in 1635, now fully renovated and converted into a nice hotel in Beaucaire. Surprisingly for a 17th century hotel, it was very comfortable, and our room was large with a jacuzzi bath.
Here are a couple of pictures to give you a sense of our stay…
It’s interesting that this hotel was almost empty, despite its awesome charm and great comfort, whereas the much more expensive Best Western was fully booked. Go figure…
Dinner was revealing, however, when I realized that L had now fully developed her palate for French gastronomical cuisine. Indeed, when given the choice between the standard “kid fare” of steak haché and frites (hamburger patty with french fries), she instead opted for the adult salmon main course – along with a small provençal quiche, an awesome preparation of mixed vegetables and a little side salad. And Z who was notorious for eating only plain pasta, rice and bananas before coming to France, had to “copy” her sister and ordered the same dish. They’ve fully embraced the local culture. Now that’s my girls !
May 27, 2011 1 Comment
This sign tells you that the maximum driving speed is no longer 70 km/h. That speed zone is over.
Maybe it’s just me, but I would find it more helpful if the sign mentioned what the new speed is.
UPDATE: So apparently it is just me. All the other people who live in France (and apparently in many other countries) find it completely normal that you just KNOW what the speed limit is for that kind of road. Any sign that is posted is indicating an exception. This sign is merely saying “the exception is over, go back to your normal speed”. Maybe if we stay here longer I’ll be able to look at a road and instinctively know if it’s a 90 or a 50. Until then, I stick by my original premise that if you’re putting up a sign anyway, you might as well put one up that is informative for everybody, not just those who are in-the- know.
May 9, 2011 6 Comments
It is the school break yet again and we are taking day trips around our area. There is still a lot to see and we only have two months left before we leave the village.
We visited Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. We saw the source of the river, which according to the visitor information is the biggest spring in France, and the fifth largest in the world. It is certainly a beautiful spot. The water is crystal clear, and there is some kind of water plant that gives the river a gorgeous green color.
The source of the river is at the bottom of a cliff, which makes a pretty dramatic backdrop.
The area is a bit touristy. You can clearly tell how to get to the famous source – just follow the stands selling things. We stopped at one of the most expensive ice cream places, which had the benefit of a view of the river. But the extra 2€ per scoop was worth it for the access to a clean washroom.
As it turned out, the men’s room at the ice cream place had one of the most lovely views in the whole area. Each man who took a leak was treated to this lovely scene:
(Yes, I looked. But JM checked that the coast was clear first. I’m inappropriate, but with limits.)
But for the ladies – NOTHING!!! Just a white wall. Not even a picture of the view – let alone the real thing. NOT FAIR!
May 3, 2011 3 Comments
When we booked our trip to Venice, we choose our dates based on the school vacation. We didn’t check the calendar to see what was going on. So when we got off the train in Venice it took us a few minutes to figure out why the entire town was dressed up and partying. In one of our luckiest travel moments ever, we had arrived on Mardi Gras – the last and most festive day of the famous Venice Carnival.
We discovered afterwords that the Venice Carnival is known for being very sophisticated and family friendly. It is nothing like the craziness of Rio or New Orleans, so we had a total blast going out with the kids and seeing the sites. The costumes were absolutely amazing.
That evening, we went to the famous San Marco Piazza, near the Palais of the Doges, where it’s all happening. There was a free concert, and lots of folks showing off their costumes.
Of course, it was hard to get to sleep when we got back to our apartment. Folks outside were partying until about 4AM, blowing horns, trumpets and the like. But a calm, beautiful, and remarkably clean Venice was there to explore when we got up the next morning.
The Venice Carnival is definitely an event worth making an effort to see, and great for the kids. We’re very happy we were lucky enough to experience it.
April 8, 2011 6 Comments
Our girls were not early potty trainers. They were the children the other parents could look at and feel superior because at least their kid was doing better than that. On the flip side, once they were trained, they did NOT have accidents. Ever. So when L started coming home from school almost every day with wet pants, we were surprised.
Our first thought was that it was a physical problem, but she didn’t have accidents at night or on weekends. We asked the teacher what might be going on and I had a motherly talk with L (girl plumbing is apparently Mommy’s job) about the importance of using the toilet at lunch and recess. That seemed to go reasonably well, but the accidents kept happening.
We tried a checkmark list. We tried a serious talk about the social ramifications of smelling like pee. We tried bribery. We were at our wits end when Z happened to mention that L’s class uses funny toilets at school.
Mystery solved. The little ones have regular toilets with seats, but from Grade 1 on the kids use turkish toilets. For the first few months, L had been sneaking into the little kid area to pee, but she got busted and sent to use the potties in her area. But she didn’t know how to use them, so was just having accidents.
The Dilemma: How do you teach your daughter to use a toilet that you don’t use yourself?
I’ve seen turkish toilets before, but I’ve always managed to avoid them. The first time I saw a turkish toilet, the previous user had been severely “aim-challenged” and the smell combined with the site of yucky brown gunk marred me for life. Fortunately, I discovered that there is almost always a handicap stall with a normal toilet you can use. And if there isn’t – well I’ve never had to go that badly.
But I am a Mom so now I had no choice. I needed to figure this out so I could teach my daughter. I started with the internet and read a number of truly horrific posts on the “eliminatory customs” of various cultures. My key takeaways were:
- Empty your pockets before squatting
- Get out quickly after flushing because the spray is unpredictable
I was now able to have a theoretical discussion with L using a variety of visual aids and charades. But we were left with the practical application. How could we find a turkish toilet to practice with? We got lucky on our trip to Italy and stopped at an Aire (truck stop) just outside of Monaco. They had a clean turkish toilet and I was able to demonstrate the finer points of use for my child without sacrificing my shoes.
Problem solved (rap wood).
March 29, 2011 20 Comments
One of the things I love about travel is how easy it is to make friends with other travelers. When my sister told me that her husband’s friend’s wife’s brother and his family were also living in the south of France, it was natural to invite them for a visit. It turned out great.
Our new Canadian friends have a wine cave a few steps away from their house in France, so we went to try it out. The proprietor was away, and had left his son in charge. We told the son we were interested in wine tasting, and he invited us in.
There was some lengthy chitchat, but no wine appeared. We were about to ask again, but another couple came in so we were sent to go check out the cave while he conducted some existing business. We gave ourselves a tour of the big vats of wine and looked at some scary machinery while we waited to be called back in, but apparently we’d been abandoned. We finally went back in and asked again.
This time he pulled out some bottles, but emphasized that most of the wines they offered weren’t very good – we tried one and determined that he was right. There was more lengthy chitchat, and it turned out there was also some rosé, but he only sold it in big jugs so discouraged us from trying it. JM asked to taste the rosé anyway, so we all went back out to the cave where he filled our glasses straight from the big wine vat using the gasoline-nozzle-style attachment!
It was not bad, so we asked what it cost. After a long discussion about the many ways that we would NOT be able to buy the rosé, we found out that we could buy a 3-liter plastic keg for 4€. As we finished our purchase, the world’s worst wine salesman proceeded to explain at some length that this was not an “appellation” wine (one of the quality controls in France), and they sold most of their wine to China since the French only drink better quality wine.
We experienced the other end of the salesman spectrum when the Canadians came to Provence to return the visit. It was the last week of the famous truffle market in Richerenches. We had heard stories about the side street where truffle farmer’s park their cars and deal the famous mushrooms out of their trunks, so wanted to go see for ourselves.
It turns out that some of the world’s BEST salespeople are at the truffle market. It was the last day of the market for the season, and we arrived one hour before closing with our cameras around our necks and our kids running around yelling in English. The lady selling nougat saw “tourists” coming and immediately started handing out generous tastings of candy to the kids. We said we would take some, since it was very good, but also in part because of guilt over how much the kids had eaten. The woman grabbed her huge knife, cut off a slab, wrapped it up and informed us it cost 32€!!! (About $45!!!) In comparison, the truffles we bought that are known to be incredibly expensive cost only 13€ ($18).
You could call them disasters, but the stories of the world’s worst wine salesman and the world’s most expensive nougat will be revisited with laughter many times by both families.
March 26, 2011 5 Comments
A year is an odd length of time for a trip. We don’t want to acquire stuff, but we do want to be comfortable. Trying to find the balance requires creativity.
Last fall the wasps decided to build a nest inside the stone wall of the house – of course right beside the patio table where we ate most of our meals. JM used France’s most common household item to solve the problem – a wine cork. It worked great.
The house we’re renting is mostly used as a summer home, and there are a few things that are missing for winter living. Our landlords have been fantastic and told us to buy what we need, but the spirit of “make do” has kicked in, plus we don’t know the stores or the brands so it becomes a huge effort to buy anything out of the ordinary. We couldn’t easily find a coat rack to buy, but we did find a ladder in the basement. Add a couple of those “over the door hangers” from the supermarket, toss a couple of baskets underneath for mittens, and Voila!
L turned 7 last month, and she asked for a pinata for her birthday party. In California I would have just gone and bought one, but I had no idea where to do that here and the “How to Make a Pinata” video on YouTube seemed pretty straightforward. It turned out to be a lot more complicated, but we figured it out and every kid got at least one turn before the pinatas broke.
Of course, there are limits to making do. We have invested in a few key things that we won’t take home with us. The printer/scanner has been a lifesaver many times.
When the battery on the car got too weak to start on cold mornings, JM figured out how to start the car by rolling it down the hill to get enough momentum to turn the engine. Creative yes – but that was definitely worth the effort of fixing before we ended up with a dead car at the bottom of a hill somewhere far away.
February 8, 2011 2 Comments