Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France
Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

Category — Culture

Culture Shock: Swimming Pool

Requests for parent volunteers are not common in French schools. We are enjoying the break from school commitments, but it does mean we don’t know much about what is going on at school. So when Z came home with a note asking for parents to chaperone her weekly swim class, JM signed up.

It turned out to be a pretty big commitment. First was a required class where the parents were taught how to be good teaching assistants in the pool, then to the swimming pool for the  practical skills test.

After some difficulty finding the pool, JM changed into his bathing suit and headed out to take his test. There was no “please shower before entering the pool” sign, since everyone is automatically doused when they walked through the door from the change room to the pool. As JM was recovering from his surprise shower, the lifeguard hurried up to him in a state of clear agitation. For this one time only they would overlook it, but JM was not allowed to wear THAT in the pool.

“THAT” was a typical pair of navy swim trunks – typical in North America that is. This big suit was simply not allowed in the pool in France. Men here are required to wear speedo-style swim wear.

JM modeling the “banned” swimsuit

Off to buy some more “appropriate” swimwear so JM can chaperone the young children’s swim class.

September 29, 2013   Comments Off on Culture Shock: Swimming Pool

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

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

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

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.

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

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!


April 27, 2011   10 Comments