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

Category — Culture

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

Burning Man: The Village Edition

Carnaval is celebrated many different ways around the world. Our village throws a childrens’ festival based on  Provençal tradition. It was a charming event – with a slightly barbaric twist.

The day started with costumed children “trick-or-treating” around the village asking for the ingredients to make crêpes – eggs, flour, milk, and sugar. Our village was very generous so that was done quickly.

Ready for Carnaval

Next the entire village is invited for a lunch of soupe à la courge (squash soup) and crêpes. We were expecting a simple lunch, but of course it’s France so we had a feast that included sausages, nine different kinds of cheese, bread, three kinds of tartes, wine, homemade liquor made from mountain flowers, and much more.

Making the Carnaval Soup

After lunch, the kids helped to make the carmentran. An old pair of pants and shirt were stuffed with straw, and a head added. The kids painted on a face, and gave him a pair of glasses. He’ was attached to a stick, and straw was piled up underneath him.

Next the kids read the “accusations” where they blame the carmentran for everything bad that has happened to them during the year. This is actually quite funny. Each kid starts with  “J’accuse carmentran…” The carmentran was accused of not buying cereal, breaking bikes, never letting the kids do anything, and many more heinous acts.

Finally, the carmentran was lit on fire, while the children danced around happily chanting “A mort carmentran! A mort carmentran!(Death to the carmentran!).  <- This was the slightly barbaric part I mentioned earlier.

"A mort carmentran!"

To finish up the afternoon, the kids took turns riding on the two donkeys that live in the village.

Donkey rides for all the village children

We enjoyed spending the day hanging out in our village. The people were great, the food was excellent, the kids were amusing, and the donkeys were pedestrian-friendly in all the important ways –  important since I simply cannot get into the habit of constantly scanning the ground looking for poop.

I do want to embrace all aspects of our trip to France and the culture here, but I must confess that I was not completely comfortable watching my kids cheerfully demanding the death of a stuffed pair of pants.

March 16, 2011   5 Comments

Truffle Hunting

Thanks to well-connected friends, we were invited to a truffière (truffle farm) to enjoy the action of finding truffles. With truffle season at its peak (and the high-demand mushroom selling at markets for about 800€/kg!), this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

The first surprise was that it was indeed hunting, and not at all like when you pick mushrooms. Truffles grow underground on the roots of oak trees and they are found by smell. We went “hunting” with a specially trained truffle dog that was raised from birth to smell the truffles. Puppies from proven truffle dogs sell for 5,000€ each!

Truffle Dog at Work

The next surprise was how easily the dog found the truffles. For us, the hunting part was keeping up with the dog, since he found truffles faster than they could be picked up, brushed off, sniffed, and admired. The dog would smell a truffle, dig until the truffle was uncovered enough for the handler to gently remove it, yap non-stop until he got his treat (usually a piece of sausage), and then run off for his next find.  The truffle farmer normally does this every other day during the season which lasts from November to March.

Will Dig for Food

L Holding a Good One!

Of course, being in France, every hard afternoon’s work must properly end with the very famous and much appreciated (and well-deserved?) apéritif. Our group gathered at the truffle farmer’s house for a couple of bottles of wine and some truffle sniffing, while we judiciously selected the one(s) we wanted to buy. We choose a very, very small one. We paid well below market, but it was still très cher.

A Truffled Apéritif.

So why are truffles so expensive? It turns out that growing truffles is very much like gambling for the farmer. Some farms produce truffles on more than half of their trees while others don’t produce anything at all.  The farm we went to had 180 trees but only a dozen produced the beloved mushroom, giving a yield of less than 10% (this is not unusual). All trees were planted with truffle spores at their roots, and the soil condition was supposedly perfect for production. The trees at this truffière were 15 years old, and some started producing truffles only last year. So a farmer wants to keep every tree, even the non producing ones, as they may suddenly produce in just one more year. It’s the never-ending hope for the French version of  “black gold”.

March 14, 2011   3 Comments

Has the trip changed you?

I was asked this question by a friend. The answer is yes, although it’s complicated to say exactly how. But here’s a really simple example.

Lunch in Venice – Delicious!

This is a picture of a lunch I was served during our trip to Venice. One year ago I would have thought of this as: “My lunch is looking at me – yuck!”

Now I think of it as:  “Absolutely perfectly prepared fish.  Delicious.”

Lunch in Venice – Delicious!

March 13, 2011   4 Comments


When you discuss other cultures, big differences come up frequently. Many of the things I heard about France before we came here are true:  the food really is that good (REALLY!!!), there is a truly unbelievable amount of dog poop, businesses close for weeks with no notice while their proprietors go on vacation, and Provencal men pee out in the open even if there is a perfectly good bush only a few feet away.

But there are the smaller things that are different here. They really are not worth mentioning, but I notice them. For example:

  • The milk is stored in the CUPBOARD! Of course there is UHT (shelf-stable) milk in California, but normally you buy refrigerated milk and drink it within a week or so. Here in Provence it is much more common to buy milk that you stick in the cupboard for up to nine months.  It comes in smaller bottles – typically one liter – and once opened it should be used very quickly.

    Shelf stable milk

  • Less fundraising – In California somebody is always asking us for money. Our California school has three huge fundraising events a year – a carnival, a gala, and a wine auction – plus about half a dozen smaller ones. Neighbourhood kids knock on the door to sell magazines, cookies, wrapping paper, and chocolate.  Our little French village is different.  Here fundraising is a rarity not the norm. The only fundraiser our Provence school does is a plat a emporter (take out) dinner twice a year. 7€ for a really, really amazing meal. I wish they’d do that fundraiser every week. The only other fundraiser was the firemen that came to the door in January to “give” us a calendar, but would of course accept a small donation. (Sorry ladies, it was full of fire-prevention tips and everyone was fully clothed. Quel dommage.)
  • No facecloths – It’s a small thing, but several times a day I reach for a facecloth that doesn’t exist.  We did find some small towels that are sewn together like thumb-less mittens. They do the job cleaning dirty faces, but it’s not the same.
  • Recycling and broken glass – Our village recycling station has a bin for plastic and cans, one for paper, and one for glass. The bins are the size of a small garden shed with slots for recyclable items at eye level. But here’s the thing – when you put the glass items in near the top of the container, they fall to the bottom and shatter. You can hear the breaking and I find it a bit disconcerting. When I first arrived I was sure I was doing something wrong, so I hung around trying to look nonchalant until a local came to recycle their glass so I could watch. They just tossed it in and didn’t flinch when it broke, so that’s what I do now too.

    Recycling in the Village

Somehow it’s these tiny, silly, irrelevant things that make me realize I’m in a foreign country.

February 27, 2011   8 Comments

Medieval Christmas

We’re living in an area surrounded by villages that date back to antiquity or medieval times. We frequently experience interesting and fun traditions just by walking around.

Earlier in December, we visited Taulignan for its annual Christmas market.  Taulignan is a fortified medieval village that prides itself on beautiful walls with a dozen defensive towers, generally all intact and quite spectacular.

Medieval Christmas Faire in Taulignan

Medieval Christmas in Taulignan

Many people take this event quite seriously, dressing up as knights, princesses, bards, medieval soldiers, priests, medieval farmers and so on.  Some folks even explore the market by riding a horse, just like the good’ol days.

[Editor’s side note:  Watch where you walk!]

Taulignan by Horse

The Christmas Market

But the highlight of our visit was the show of people who dance with fire and then spit it from from their mouths.  It’s really quite impressive.  To this day, I still wonder what they drink to make such a spectacular flame.  Perhaps this is a secret best unknown…

Too much chili for lunch?

Let's all sing together...

January 2, 2011   1 Comment

This is NOT Polly Platt’s France

I turned 40 this week.

Before coming to France, I researched French culture. I talked to people who had spent time in France and read as many books as I could including Polly Platt’s seminal book on life in France, French or Foe. One thing was consistent – don’t expect to have a social life. Not that anyone said the French are unfriendly, just that it took them time to warm up and one year simply would not be enough.

Polly Platt obviously NEVER visited our village. The people here couldn’t be more lovely, warm, and welcoming.  And to the whole family – not just to JM whose “cute French-Canadian accent” seems to charm the ladies (who knew?).

(Side comment:  Despite what Polly Platt says, it is OK to use the restroom when you visit a French person’s house!!!)

Even though we’ve only been here for a few months, we knew enough people to have a party to celebrate my 40th birthday. Naturally we have mostly met people who have kids the same age as ours and who speak at least some English – it turns out there are three English teachers in our village and they were all here.

Forty Tea Lights for my Fortieth Birthday

After the charcuterie (pate-style meat) but before the fromage (cheese), the kids summoned the adults to see the Spectacle (show) they had just made up. They had taken our “reuse toy box” and made a family of very clever puppets:  a king, a queen, a princess, a policeman, and a pig.  They even had a program listing the puppeteers and their roles, with a special English edition just for me. All the parents had been assigned seats on a specific color of yoga mat. I was completely charmed.

Garbage Puppets

We’re really enjoying our village and the people. I especially love the kids, who simply do not get that I don’t understand French. So they just talk normally, and I tell them “lentement” (slowly) and “répéter” (repeat) and use charades until we figure it out. The same exchange can be very awkward with an adult, but the kids don’t care and it’s great practice for me.

Not to paint everything in the village as idyllic. As we get to know people better we are seeing more of the disagreements, politics, and personalities. Apparently they’ve been trying to name the streets in our village for two years now but can’t agree on the names even though there are only two streets! And that charming puppet show the kids put together – we never actually saw the final performance because the kids started to bicker.

The one benefit of not speaking French is that I’m completely oblivious to any issues!!!

November 22, 2010   7 Comments


Growing up in Canada, Remembrance Day was a day for contemplation. Each year the entire country seemed to shut down for a minute of silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

This year, we are spending Remembrance Day in France, where the end of the war has a much deeper meaning. One in five men living in Provence died during World War I. Every village, no matter how small, has a memorial listing the names of their war dead.

The local custom is to “appel aux morts” (name the dead).  They gather at the war memorial and read out the names of each of those who died during the war in a ceremony. It’s a lovely tradition.

Remembrance Day in the Village

But I really missed the red plastic poppies and hearing Canadian John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. So I am posting it here.

November 11, 2010   4 Comments