Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France

Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

Surviving Jet Lag Day

We landed in France this morning. Paris is beautiful. the weather is perfect. And the croissants and cheese are exactly right.

The children, however, are HORRIBLE!  Jet lag is not the friend of traveling families.

Fortunately, a good nights sleep will change everything.

August 21, 2013   4 Comments

Once in a Lifetime… Twice

In 2010, when we thought about living in France for a year, we had tons of questions:

  • Could we get a visa?
  • How would we find a place to live?
  • Would my book club survive without me?
  • What would happen to our business?
  • What would we do about healthcare? School? Banking? Cars?
  • Would we make friends?
  • What would we do with our house and stuff in California?
  • Would we enjoy the experience – especially the one of us that didn’t speak French?
  • Would the kids’ English suffer?
  • Should we ship stuff or just take plane luggage?
  • ?????????????

But here’s the thing:  Once you do it once, you know that it can be done. So this time, we had only one question:


We couldn’t come up with a reason, so we’re doing it again. Another year in the south of France, this time a farmhouse in the Languedoc. JM will have plenty of castles to explore, including the fantastically amazing Carcassonne.


We’ll arrive early in September. Come visit!



July 9, 2013   3 Comments

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety-Jog

We are back in California.  The luggage is unpacked. The kids are in school. We are back to “normal”.

We spent our weekend having a very American experience: YMCA Family Camp. Three days of wholesome outdoor family fun including two nights sleeping in a cabin with 8 creaky bunk beds and no lock on the door. All this plus a toilet that required a flashlight to find in the dark. We loved it!

There were constant reminders that we aren’t in France anymore:

  • The pile of forms we needed to sign promising not to sue anybody
  • The vat of fruit cocktail masquerading as “fruit”
  • No smokers or lingering cigarette smoke anywhere
  • Super peppy and smiley camp staff
  • Referring to tie-dye shirts as “art”
  • Dinner started at 6, ended at 7, and kids were in bed by 10 – on a Saturday
  • No drivers tailgating us on the way there, but plenty of passing on the right
  • No wine…

While every place has its good points, no place is “better” – at least not for us. It was great to go to France. I’m so glad we did it. But it is also good to be back home!

A huge thanks to all the readers and commenters who took this journey with us. It enriched our adventure to be able to share it with you.

September 6, 2011   3 Comments

“Do You Speak French Now?”

I can’t believe how fast this has come. We’re heading home. We spent last week in Lyon doing some final errands and seeing the sights.

Lyon Parc de la Tête d'Or

Biking in Lyon's fantastic Parc de la Tête d'Or

Now we’re in Ottawa to visit JM’s family before heading back to California in mid-August.

One year of stuff


It’s odd to be back in an English environment. I’m getting severe information overload from being able to easily understand what is going on. I could have happily missed overhearing this little gem while I was in in the Chicago airport:

“Never take a sleeping pill and a laxative at the same time.”

Even after a year, it is still not easy for me to understand French. It did get better, of course. Now I can often (but not always) make myself understood if I have enough time and the person I’m talking to is very patient or adequately motivated. I would feel quite fluent if I only talked to people at the farmer’s market and the parents waiting to pick up their kids from the school bus.

But the truth is I still don’t speak French. Typically I don’t understand someone speaking to me without repetition, I figure out what to say about five minutes after it would have been appropriate, and I frequently discover that I have completely misunderstood the entire topic of conversation.

To summarize:  I can buy food, pick my sick kid up from school, and get info from a tourist office in French. I can’t discuss ideas, understand humor, or have an interesting conversation except in English.

My expectations for this year were MUCH higher. But the reality was that I didn’t live in French even though I was in France. I continued to work in English, spoke English at home, met any person in a 20-mile radius who spoke English, and easily kept in touch with English-speaking friends through the magic social media and the free phone calls (thank you Vonage!). On one hand it was great because I wasn’t lonely and depressed. But it wasn’t conducive to achieving fluency.

As one very direct old lady in the village said about my mastery of French this year: It is better, but it is not good.”  She is right.

Perhaps we’ll need to go back and fix that some day.

August 7, 2011   5 Comments

A Visit from the Tooth Mouse

Our road trip continues. We spent a rainy and cold week in Normandy – which felt appropriate for visiting WW II sites, but annoying all the rest of the time.

Normandy: Mont-St-Michel in the rain

Then it was a week visiting the gorgeous Renaissance castles in the Loire Valley.

Loire Valley: Castle in Azay-Le-Rideau

It was during this part of the trip that Z’s first tooth began to come loose. In France there is no Tooth Fairy. Here the Petite Souris (little mouse) comes to collect teeth and replace them with money. Same basic principle – but a mouse instead of a fairy.

Z really wanted the Euro that she had been told was the standard rate for a lost tooth in France!  The pharmacist in our village had given her the most adorable little container – just the right size to hold a euro coin – so she was ready.

Tooth Box for the Petite Souris

How to Use the Tooth Box

However, Z was worried. She thought that since we were driving around the Petite Souris wouldn’t be able to find us. Or if the tooth fell out after we left France the Tooth Fairy wouldn’t know she was back in California. Our many hours driving in the car offered ample opportunity for our chatty 5-year-old to explain everything that was probably going to go wrong with this important tooth loss experience.

Of course, as luck would have it, things did go wrong. She got hit in the face with a soccer ball and the tooth fell out in a playground full of grass and small pebbles. Even with a playground full of children and parents searching we couldn’t find the tooth. We emailed the Petite Souris to explain, and put a small white pebble into the tooth box as a proxy for the lost tooth.

It worked! In the morning the pebble was gone and the Euro had appeared. Tooth magic works no matter what side of the Atlantic you’re on.


July 31, 2011   4 Comments

Umm…. OK… Sure…

We are spending a few weeks this summer driving around Europe before heading back “across the pond”. We spent a week in Switzerland and now we are in Alsace.

Switzerland: Absolutely beautiful but EXPENSIVE!

Alsace: Charming. Just like a scene from a Grimm fairy tale before the children go into the forest and have terrible things happen to them.

Being on the road as a family is great, but it does have challenges. Work has slowed down, but it hasn’t stopped, and it’s harder to get things done when we’re all jammed into small vacation rentals.

Fortunately, the girls have reached the age where they’re pretty good at entertaining themselves for an hour here and there while we grab some email time. This morning they were sitting at the kitchen table being very quiet (always a worrisome sign!) so I asked them what they were doing. The answer:

“We’re drawing weapons.”

Umm… OK… Sure…  And why?

“Because we like them.”

Yes, my lovely little daughters are into weapons and they know all about them.

It’s our fault. While we have been in France, we have visited a wide range of Medieval fortresses, read books on Chevaliers (Knights), and generally learned a lot about that part of history including the fighting and armies and attacks. Prior to coming to France, I disapproved of weapon-style toys. But apparently I’ve changed my opinion because we bought the children quite a few, as I discovered when I started to pack up to go home.

Here is the “toy weapon tour”.

Or in French if you prefer.

July 14, 2011   7 Comments

I Didn’t Expect To Be Sad…

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

    Buying Nyons Olives at the Grignan Market

  • One last picture of the Grignan castle sitting at the top of the incredibly picturesque medieval village where the girls go to school

    Grignan Castle the end of June

  • 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.

Au revoir et Merci

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

Just Between Us Girls…

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

Medieval Days at the Beaucaire Fortress

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.

The Beaucaire Fortress

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…

Troubadours or Jester? ...with their treasure chest

Then we all had a turn shotting a 12th-century crossbow – adults and kids.

Shooting a crossbow at Beaucaire Fortress

Next, we were led by our guide to the triangular dungeon.

Inside the fortress

Here, we saw many old graffiti and other cool things.


Old graffiti in the dungeon

Tight dungeon stairs to strategically prevent any armed combat

We were treated to a demonstration of the art of medieval fighting.

Ready for battle...

The Art of Medieval Combat

Some little girls got to take part in the action!

Ready for Combat Training

June 9, 2011   1 Comment

The Kissing Thing

I was somewhat familiar with the French custom of greeting with bisous (cheek-kisses) even before this trip. Most French-Canadians greet each other that way, including JM’s family. When JM and I first met, he had been in a predominantly English environment for a long time so he didn’t do any cheek kissing with me. It ended up that both his brother AND his ex-girlfriend kissed me long before he ever did!

But I was not prepared for all the kissing here in Provence. There is a LOT of kissing going on. And they kiss three times – not just two.  (I’m told in some places in France it’s actually four!)

I am still not an expert at the bisous but I have picked up a few things:

  • Don’t actually kiss – the lips should not actually contact anything during the bisous. Simply touch checks lightly while making kissing noises. Ideally the corner of each mouth just barely avoids making contact with the other person’s cheek.
  • Don’t kiss the same person twice in one day – it can take a lot of time to get through all the kissing, especially in a small village where you know most people. The trick to dealing with that is to only kiss each person one time every day. I ran into the cafe owner at the bank one day. I had to almost chase him around the bank to kiss him – but I was determined to adopt French customs. I discovered afterward that was a mistake since I had already done the bisous with him that day during my morning bread purchase.
  • Let the French person take the lead – the only mishap I’ve ever seen during the bisous happened between two English ladies. No one was quite sure of how it happened, but the two sets of lips made distinct contact. It was embarrassing and/or humorous for all involved.
  • Beware of glasses and hats – it took me a while to learn this one, because French men are quite smooth about removing their glasses as they go in for the bisous. The combination of two pairs of glasses bumping into each other is not pleasant, so caution must be used. Hats with wide brims are also dangerous and should be removed before the bisous no matter how bad the hat hair.
  • Some men kiss, some don’t – I can’t figure out any pattern in this at all, but certain men here kiss almost all the other men, some men don’t kiss any other men, and some go both ways. Since I’m not a man it doesn’t impact me at all, but sometimes JM gets some unexpected kissing action.
  • Kiss the village barkeeper, but not the teacher – actually who gets the bisous is consistent, once you figure out the customs. If JM sees someone he knows and gets the bisous, then I get the bisous also since I am his wife. But parents of your kids’ friends are not automatically bisous-ready. When I go pick up the bread or have a coffee, there are bisous for the person behind the counter – man or woman – unless it’s the new lady whose name I don’ t know. But don’t kiss your kids’ teachers even if you see them every day.

If I can just convince my kids to stop telling people they like “French kissing” I’ll be set.

May 27, 2011   7 Comments