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

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

XVIIth Century Hotel Stay…

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…

Hôtel Doctrinaires – Founded 1635

Hôtel Doctrinaires Lobby

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 with the girls (Diane taking the picture)

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 !  🙂

L cleaning up her salmon dinner plate!!!

 

 

 

May 27, 2011   1 Comment

Roman Days in Nîmes

Roman Days

We are in the 1st century A.D. at the height of the Roman Empire.  Emperor Augustus is coming to visit Nîmes, and the city promises to mark this extraordinary event with a magnificent show at the Arena of Nîmes featuring gladiator fights, chariot races, chariot battles, barbarian prisoners from northern England, military exercises accentuating the Roman army’s mighty prowess, Roman and Celts simulated battles, etc.  In other words, an unprecedented show to highlight the Emperor’s days of remarkable glory…

The Nîmes Roman Arena before the show

Chariot Races in front of Emperor Augustus

Chariot Battles

Military Exercises by the Roman Cavalry: The flying green ball is a cabbage.

Showing off a Barbarian prisoner captured in northern England. Prisoners were let loose and if they could make it to Caesar before being stopped would be freed.

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The mighty Roman turtle formation

The Gauls in front of the Roman Arena

Two friendly barbarians

Young Legionaries in training…

 

The year was 127 A.D.     🙂

 

May 12, 2011   10 Comments

A Monolingual’s Apology

Being on the receiving end of a multitude of French conversations that I don’t understand has taught me a lot about the best way to talk to someone who is learning a new language. I now know that I did a really terrible job at this for the first forty years of my life.

To all the non-native-English speakers that I have ever talked to in English: I am sorry.

I am sorry for talking so quickly. Believe it or not, that speed actually was me trying to talk slower than I usually do. I now know that it wasn’t anywhere close to comprehensible. From now on, I will do better. I. Will. Put. Separations. Between. Each. Word. I. Say.

I am sorry for making jokes and laughing. It wasn’t that I meant to be rude, it was just my way of trying to make you feel comfortable. I realize now that jokes are almost impossible to get when you’re just learning a language, and that the laughing probably made you feel more uncomfortable than anything else I could have done.

I am sorry for using more words when you didn’t understand the first time. When I talk English that works. Now I know that it helps to have a phrase repeated exactly the same way – maybe even a couple of times.

I am sorry for treating our social interaction as a “learning opportunity” for you. I only meant to be kind, not pressure you to talk correctly when just stringing together a noun and a verb that makes sense is an enormous mental effort.

I am sorry for not giving you time to think. I assumed those pauses meant you had nothing you wanted to say. I will keep quiet more so you can search your brain for those words that are just out of reach in the moment.

I am sorry for using polysyllabic words when a simple word would have worked. That really is the way I talk. It didn’t occur to me that you were more likely to understand “good” and “bad” then “magnificent” or “disturbing”.

I am sorry, and I will do better from now on.

 

May 12, 2011   10 Comments

Confusing?

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

Sexism at the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

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.

River in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

The source of the river is at the bottom of a cliff, which makes a pretty dramatic backdrop.

Cliff above the spring source

Source of the fifth largest spring in the world

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:

View from the urinal

(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

Culture Shock: Easter Egg Hunt

The village hosted an egg hunt on Easter Sunday morning. Our kids had been to egg hunts in California too (shout-out to our fabulous neighbors!), so we weren’t expecting this to be any kind of new experience. We were wrong.  There were a couple of things that were very different.

  1. The eggs are chocolate. These French mamas are not at all shy about sugaring up their children for birthday parties, school events, or the after school goutez (snack). At Easter the eggs are chocolate and they are LARGE. Among our friends in California it would be quite a faux pas to give kids large amounts of candy, so it’s typical to hunt for plastic eggs filled with stickers or small toys. I mentioned this to one of the parents from the village, and she were concerned about the environmental impact of all the plastic eggs. Her view was that the kids just eat the sugar and then it’s gone, but a plastic egg will live for centuries.
  2. The eggs hide in the rocks. There are no lawns in our village, but there are lots of rock walls with plenty of cracks just perfect to hide an egg in.

    Egg hidden in a rock wall

    Egg hiding in a grape vine

  3. Kids don’t keep their eggs. After the hunt was over the girls proudly showed me their eggs. I was very surprised to see them dump their precious eggs into a big basket, and watched as every village child was given exactly four eggs (one big, three little). The eggs the kids went home with had nothing to do with the eggs that they found on the hunt. I wondered if this was just a village thing, but the girls told me they did the same at school. Everybody shares.

    Sharing the Eggs

    This is different from the US egg hunts we’ve been too. If a kid doesn’t make an effort (or have a parent who will make an effort for them) they leave empty handed. This is a very basic example of the difference in the thinking between the individualistic American society and the community-centric French one. It’s not like either approach is clearly better. It’s nice that everyone got eggs, not just the big kids who are faster. But then that kid who sat and whined instead of trying got the same eggs as the motivated ones.

  4. After hunt glass of wine. Of course, being France there has to be a drink. This time it was juice for the kids, and white wine for the adults – at 10:30 AM!

    Apres-egghunt

April 27, 2011   10 Comments

Boxers or Briefs: The Clothesline Tells All

I have blogged previously about how we don’t have a clothes dryer in France. One of the important lessons I’ve learned on this trip  is how to avoid funny lines and puckers when air drying.

However, hanging your wash out for the world to see does have a certain impact on your privacy. Anyone who comes to visit us will find out very quickly if JM wears boxers or briefs. And if they stay long enough to do laundry, we’ll know the same about their menfolk.

Partially staged photo. No need to comment on my pinning technique.

It’s not just us. Very few people in France have a clothes dryer, so when you’re invited to someone’s house there is a very good chance you’ll get a glimpse of their underpants. We know definitively which ladies prefer beige bras and mom-panties to fancy French lingerie.

I’m not telling which we are. If you want to know about our undies, you have to come visit us while we’re still in France. But if you come visit, you will probably leave with more information than you really want.

April 17, 2011   8 Comments

A Lucky Schedule: Mardi Gras in Venice

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.

We were there!

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

Talking Turkey about Toilets: A Parenting Experience

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.

The Dreaded Turkish Toilet

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

Travel Disaster or Great Memory?

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!

Tasting rosé straight from the vat

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.

Mini-keg of rose

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).

Very good, very expensive nougat

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