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

Category — Provence

Great Kid Trip in Provence: Pont du Gard

The Pont du Gard is less than an hour from our village and is a perfect day trip.

When we first arrived we were shocked at the price for parking – 15€!!  But it was actually quite a deal since the price covered access to the entire site for the whole family – including an extensive hands-on kids educational exhibit, a museum about the history of the site, plus miles of trail and of course the absolutely amazing pont itself. It was built in the first century by the Romans as part of an aquaduct to move water 50 miles from a spring in Uzes to Nimes. It took about fifteen years to build and used almost no mortar. The result is still stunningly beautiful thousands of years later. Those Romans were really impressive builders!!!

Z at the Pont du Gard

In the summer you can swim in the river right under the pont itself. For only 25€, you can buy an annual pass that includes the day of your visit, so we were upsold the extra 10€ and definitely plan to go back.

And it gets even better. If the sight of such an amazing Roman architectural feat inspires an urgent need for a penguin postcard – you are all set.

Penguin Postcard at the Pont du Gard?!?

November 29, 2010   4 Comments

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

A Challenging Itinerary

One of the challenging things about car travel in France is the high distraction factor.  It’s very easy to get side tracked by really cool sites.

Case in point:  Diane and I took a few days off while my parents were taking care of the kids (Merci Maman et Papa!) and we decided to go to Avignon.  After driving for less than half an hour from home, we saw a really cool medieval fortress perched up on a cliff by the highway.

9th Century Mornas Fortress

9th Century Mornas Fortress

We simply had to stop and check it out. Our guide was dressed as a medieval soldier and spoke to us in old, medieval French (very cool).  We learned several useful tips on how to build our very own attack-resistant fortress, including:

  • Always build the main doors perpendicular to the natural path of travel to ensure attackers can’t get any momentum as they (try to) ram the door
  • Since attackers are right-handed, make the approaching path uphill with a right turn so it’s harder for them to swing their swords without hitting the wall (but easier for the defenders)
  • Put lots of large nails in wooden doors so it’s hard to break through with an axe

As an engineering geek, now I can’t help notice such building subtleties at other medieval sites.  Neat!

We also learned to speak the language of medieval soldiers and in particular how they described their coat of arms.  For example, the original Provence Coat of Arms is said to be “D’or aux quatre pals de gueules” (Of gold with four pallets of mouths). Note:  Yellow is said as “gold” and red is said as “mouths”.

Provençal Coat of Arms

Provençal Coat of Arms

We ended up staying in Mornas for the night, about 25 minutes away from home.

The next day, our determination to get to Avignon evaporated after driving for about 10 minutes as we got distracted by Orange and its famous Roman Arc de Triomphe, its world heritage Roman Amphitheater, and so on.

We stumbled on so many cool things on our way that we never made it to Avignon.

What’s the moral of the story?  It depends who you are:

  1. Drive with your eyes closed. Select a destination (at home, away from distractions), then drive straight there without taking your eyes off the road.  This way, you won’t get off track with really cool distractions.
  2. Planning is for losers. Just hop in the car, drive, and be surprised.  Chances are, you won’t go very far, but you’ll enjoy every minute of it.
  3. Focus on day trips. You’ll end up staying less than half an hour from home, so why pay for a hotel room?  Unless your objective is to prop up the French economy.

November 9, 2010   5 Comments

Wherein Diane Regrets Talking Smack about the Mistral

When we first landed in Provence, it was windy. I knew about the mistral, the wind that causes entire towns to shut down and people to go mad.  So when I was told this baby wind was the famous mistral, I scoffed. Worse, I scoffed on Social Media (@kidsandcastles on Twitter). After all, I grew up in Saskatchewan.  That little wind with a clear blue sky was what we prairie folk refer to as “a beautiful day”.

But I shouldn’t have dismissed the mistral that quickly.  It got much worse.  Here’s our neighbours’ veranda after the last windy day here:

The Mistral Redesigns a Village Veranda

The wind even did some damage to the road signs:

Mistral-Damaged Sign

But the saddest of all, was the fig tree in the backyard. I really don’t like figs as a general rule, but these ones were very good.

Mistral Destroys Yummy Fig Tree

Au revoir yummy fig tree.  You will be missed.

November 4, 2010   6 Comments

The French Grèves (Strikes) and Our Trip

This may be a very short post, but I’ve had a lot of questions about the impact of the protests in France on our trip. Short answer – NONE (almost).

We haven’t seen any violence, run out of gas, or gotten stuck in traffic because of a protest. None of the businesses we frequent have closed and we don’t use public transportation on a daily basis so don’t notice when the trains stop. We don’t have a TV or a radio or get the paper except occasionally, so we don’t hear that much about what is going on unless we go looking for it.

We have talked to a few people here about what they think of the strikes, and that’s been really interesting. One of the goals of this trip is to be exposed to a completely different point of view, and certainly the protests have facilitated those conversations. It has inspired JM and I to think more about our own views and the balance between wanting a social safety net (we’re Canadians, we like that!) and not really believing that government is a solution (we live in Calfornia, enough said).

The “almost” part is because of two things:

  1. We’ve canceled our trip to Paris: We had planned to take the TGV (high-speed french train) to Paris for the fall break, because Z is very disappointed that she hasn’t seen the Eiffel Tower yet viagra a bas prix. But we aren’t excited about getting stuck at a train station, so have decided to delay that trip until later in the year.  Instead we’ll head south and explore Provence with the kids.  We’ve been flipping through the Routard Provence looking for all the “family-friendly” icons and I’m even more excited than if we’d gone to Paris.
  2. The teachers strike: So far L’s teacher has taken two strike days and Z’s teacher has taken four days. (One thing we learned is that you don’t get paid when you go on strike in France, so it is sometimes an individual choice to strike or not.)  But the teachers are very considerate about how they strike.  You get several days notice, and there is always an option to put your kid in an alternate program for the day. One day Z was put in L’s class, which was a huge treat for her.

As you can tell, neither of these things are real hardships, and it gives us something to talk about.

October 24, 2010   1 Comment

Tip: Always Use Parking Brake When the Mistral is Blowing

It’s a cold and miserable day here in Provence. The mistral, the wind made famous by Peter Mayle, is blowing.

I stopped to get gas after dropping off the girls at school today.  This is always a bit of an adventure since our local  gas station has pumps that don’t like any of my credit cards – even the local one from France. Once again my card magically worked after failing six or seven or twelve times.

(Paranoid Thought:  Does choosing the “English” button make it fail? Is this a subtle way they torment people who don’t speak French? Easier for me to believe that then the more obvious conclusion that I simply lack the proper skill to put a credit card into a gas pump.)

Just as it started to fill up, I realized the car at the pump beside me was ROLLING AWAY.  The mistral was strong enough that it was making the car move.  The driver was grabbing at the gas-cap-door-thingy to try and stop the car while speaking very excited, very fast French. Even I could figure out that she needed some help.

I will confess that my first thought was “Dang, I just got this pump to work. If I stop now will I ever get gas?” before doing the right thing and running over to push the runaway car back into place.

I will ALWAYS check my own parking brake from now on!

October 18, 2010   3 Comments

Diane’s First Impressions

So I am still sick.  Just to be clear, I am NOT faking it because I’m scared of meeting some French people. I know JM bought that thermometer out of love for me and not because he wanted some numeric proof that I really could be this laid up this long.

I have been pretty much inside the house for the past few days while JM has taken care of registering the girls for school and buying food and figuring out a ton of other admin stuff – which I very much appreciate.

But a couple of observations about France, as seen from the inside of a house at the edge of a tiny medieval village in Provence.

1. It is really beautiful!

Here’s the view from the kitchen window.  Pas mal as they say here!  (Not bad)

Stunning view from the kitchen window.

2. Garbage cans are tiny

Europe in general is much more “green”.  Drinks in bottles are EXPENSIVE, you must buy bags at the store if you don’t bring your own, and so on.  So I don’t know if this is part of that trend or what, but the garbage cans are really, really small compared to California. Will be interesting to see if this changes our garbage behavior, or if we just create more but smaller bags of garbage.

3. Towel Warmers!  Yes!

Why don’t they have these miraculous inventions everywhere in Canada or places it gets so cold.  There is nothing like a toasty towel after stepping out of the shower.

O.K.  Going back to bed now.  Luckily the girls are sleeping through the night, so we should be all set for first day of school tomorrow.

September 1, 2010   4 Comments

We Have Arrived

We are here.  Spent way too much time at Heathrow airport on the way (the whole terminal reeks of perfume, unbearable) and the hotel that was “5 minutes from the Lyon airport” was not, but all in all not a bad trip.

Everybody is still jetlagged, and I have a brutal chills-and-fever type of flu, but we’re starting to get settled.

The famous Provence Mistral is blowing.  Just like a snow storm in Saskatchewan but without the snow.  Same whistling, hard to catch your breath wind though.

JM went to buy food, so I did some email including sending our new phone number to friends and family.  The phone rang 15 minutes later so I answered it thinking it might be someone I actually wanted to talk to.  Of course it wasn’t and I had my first entirely French conversation this trip. I think I handled it o.k.  Of course not sure exactly what she said so maybe it was a disaster.

Took the girls outside today and they decided to walk down the road.  It’s narrow and turns and doesn’t have a sidewalk, but they were doing good at staying on the side like they’re supposed to even though there were no cars.  Of course, at the exact moment that Z runs out in the middle of the road a car comes around the corner. It’s a small village. I may have just earned the reputation of the American Mom who lets her kids run on the road.

Adventures are not as much fun when you’re sick.

August 31, 2010   8 Comments