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

Category — Travel

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

Sabbaticals are the Mother of Invention

A year is an odd length of time for a trip. We don’t want to acquire stuff, but we do want to be comfortable. Trying to find the balance requires creativity.

Last fall the wasps decided to build a nest inside the stone wall of the house – of course right beside the patio table where we ate most of our meals. JM used France’s most common household item to solve the problem – a wine cork. It worked great.

Wine Cork - the Natural Solution for Wasps

The house we’re renting is mostly used as a summer home, and there are a few things that are missing for winter living. Our landlords have been fantastic and told us to buy what we need, but the spirit of “make do” has kicked in, plus we don’t know the stores or the brands so it becomes a huge effort to buy anything out of the ordinary. We couldn’t easily find a coat rack to buy, but we did find a ladder in the basement. Add a couple of those “over the door hangers” from the supermarket, toss a couple of baskets underneath for mittens, and Voila!

Designer Coat Rack

L turned 7 last month, and she asked for a pinata for her birthday party. In California I would have just gone and bought one, but I had no idea where to do that here and the “How to Make a Pinata” video on YouTube seemed pretty straightforward. It turned out to be a lot more complicated, but we figured it out and every kid got at least one turn before the pinatas broke.

Pinata in Progress

Pinatas Ready to Hit

Of course, there are limits to making do. We have invested in a few key things that we won’t take home with us. The printer/scanner has been a lifesaver many times.

When the battery on the car got too weak to start on cold mornings, JM figured out how to start the car by rolling it down the hill to get enough momentum to turn the engine. Creative yes – but  that was definitely worth the effort of fixing before we ended up with a dead car at the bottom of a hill somewhere far away.

February 8, 2011   2 Comments

Crime in the Village!

It was during our usual school day morning rush that I noticed a pink notebook lying in the driveway. It took a while to register that the notebook actually belonged in my purse, and then it took a few more moments for my brain to understand that SOMETHING BAD WAS GOING ON.

Lying in the driveway was my empty wallet, next to my empty purse, with various pens, lipstick, paper, and the other stuff that used to be inside the purse. What was not there was money or credit cards.  We’d forgotten to lock the door that night and someone had come into the house while we were sleeping and stolen my purse.

It took almost an hour to cancel all the stolen ATM and credit cards, and then we called the police to report the robbery. I frankly didn’t expect much. The cards were canceled, it wasn’t that much money, they hadn’t taken my driver’s license, and all other important papers were still in the house.

But the gendarmes were impressive. They were at the house about 45 minutes after we called, and took the whole thing very seriously. They asked if I’d touched the purse and were disappointed that I had contaminated the evidence. Of course I know you never touch anything at a crime scene, but it even never occurred to me that they would bother for a petty crime like this.

JM was checking around the perimeter of the house with one of the policeman, and the other one asked me to show him were I had found the purse that morning.  With bad French and lots of charades I indicated where I had found everything. That took us to the end of the driveway where I stopped, but he kept heading across the road to the field on the other side.

Just like a modern Inspector Clouseau he found more clues!

He showed me the tire tracks in the field where the thief had parked, and then said something that sounded like “let’s find your credit cards”. I thought probably I hadn’t understood his French or maybe he hadn’t understood that THE CARDS WERE STOLEN. They were gone, and I had canceled them.  But he followed the tracks around the field and a few minutes later voila! we found all of the missing cards.

Field were the thief parked

Of course, the cards were all useless at that point, but they were not contaminated. The police pulled out a massive metal toolbox-thing. One of them took a swab while that other took a picture of the swab being taken. I have watched enough police dramas to realize they were establishing a chain of evidence. They asked for our contact information both here and in California so they could reach us when they found the thief. I liked their confidence that they would actually catch the guy.

In the end, we lost the equivalent of a couple hundred euros, and I have the inconvenience of a couple of weeks of living without my own credit and ATM cards. It could have been much worse. If they had taken my driver’s license or gone further into the house and found the laptops or (I can’t even imagine) gone into the girls’ room…

Thankfully we were robbed by thieves that were not vindictive. But from now on I will store the backup credit/ATM cards in a different location than the main ones. And we will carefully lock the doors every night!

January 29, 2011   10 Comments

Our Visit to the Crocodile Farm

The BIG tourist attraction for kids in our region of Provence is the Ferme Aux Crocodiles (Crocodile Farm). We were told about it before we came, picked up brochures and coupons from every tourist information we visited, and had other families tell us about it. It was very high on our list of things to do.

However, since all the brochures emphasized that it is always open  – even on Christmas Day and bank holidays – and it is mostly inside, we’ve been saving the crocodile farm for a rainy day.

Last week it was raining, so we decided to head out first thing Wednesday morning and spend the full day with the 350 crocodiles plus alligators and turtles and other beasties. We managed to leave the house at a reasonable time and about five “Are-we-there-yet?”s later we arrived to find this:

Annual Closure of the Crocodile Farm

Stuff being closed has become a part of our life here in France, so we’ve learned to roll with it. We still hope to see the crocodile farm one day, but in the meantime we visited the perfume factory next door and watched a machine fill little Eiffel Tower shaped bottles with cheap perfume. We also took the opportunity to visit Pierrelatte for the first time, where we discovered this little gem of a sign:

The evidence on the ground gives no indication that the dogs in Pierrelatte understand this sign.

January 18, 2011   1 Comment

When You Keep Your Resolutions

Last year we made a resolution – to live in Europe for a year. But this time we actually did it!

We  are very excited, happy, and proud that we finally took this trip we’ve been dreaming about for years. But it turns out there was a catch. The closest thing we’d ever done to something like this was taking a vacation. But a one-year trip isn’t like a vacation. You can’t pause your life for a full year like you can for a few weeks. Life goes on. It’s easy to imagine that a mere change of location will make life better because you’ll have more time – just like when you’re on vacation.

We worked too hard in Silicon Valley – in France we’d take the time to sip wine and relax. We owned too much stuff which cluttered our lives – in France we’d take only our four allowed suitcases and live a simple existence. We didn’t spend enough time with our kids – in France there is a four-day school week and lots of vacations so of course we’d have more family time. In California we put on weight no matter what changes we made to our diet – but the famous French Paradox would let us slim down while eating a high-fat diet. My dental hygienist sternly lectured me on gum health every time I saw her – in France I would floss my teeth EVERY day!!!

But we’re not on vacation in France, we’re living here. There is the usual stuff that happens anywhere but is more work because it’s not familiar – feeding ourselves, doing homework, washing clothes, fixing broken windshields, and on and on. There is the sabbatical-specific stuff like figuring out our next appointment with immigration to keep our visas (370€ – each!) and learning French. And we want to travel and see this amazing place, which requires planning and time.

For us, there was no “geographic cure” that magically took our existing life and made it better just by changing our physical location. I’m still pretty much a control freak. JM still has back/muscle/etc issues. The kids still won’t eat salad.

We’re very, very glad we came. This has been an amazing experience and we look forward to the second half of the journey. But it’s still real life and we’re still us.

January 2, 2011   5 Comments

Don’t Panic, It’s Just a “Teachable Moment”

Sometimes the kids do something that really just wouldn’t have happened if we had not come to France.

Last night we made spaghetti for dinner. The girls were helping set the table and stir the sauce (why do kids love pots of boiling hot liquid?) and for a brief moment we were having the kind of positive family time you might see in a pasta commercial. The girls asked for a piece of dry spaghetti to play with, which I gave them since they asked so nicely.

So my guard was down when L turned to Z and said, “Let’s go play smoke break” and they confidently put the sticks in their mouths and inhaled.

I’m not one of those smooth, natural, and unflappable mothers who easily rolls with the unexpected. My first reaction is usually to freak out a little bit and assume I’ve damaged the children yet again. This time was: AARRGGHHH!!!  What is this country doing to my children?!?!?

But I am working on being more relaxed and I’m learning to embrace these times as “teachable moments”.

I am also figuring out how to introduce them to all the medieval stuff. History tends to be pretty violent, and there is a LOT of history here. So the kids end up exposed to the kind of violence that was common in medieval times. The otherwise cool knights and fortresses come with all kinds of nasty ways to kill people. Those medieval lords seemed to get quite a kick out of throwing people over a cliff after they conquered a particularly well defended fortress. (Not that there isn’t violence in American – duh – but it’s different.)

Stocks at Mornas Fortress

I think I did an o.k. job explaining how stocks were used for punishment without causing any nightmares. Although I confess that I arranged to slide them quickly past the gibbet before the questions started since I wasn’t ready to handle that.

I am comforted by the fact that we grew up with Bible stories which are really kind of frightening – baby Moses being put in a river full of crocodiles, lions’ dens, fiery furnaces, crucifixion, stoning, and on and on – and we survived.

The most likely scenario is that the kids will be just fine.

December 14, 2010   3 Comments

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

Slow Down and Carry Snacks: Traveling with Kids

We are looking forward to traveling around Europe during the many (many, many, many) school holidays.  For the fall break, we decided to explore Provence. There are a lot of amazing things to see just a short drive from where we are staying, so we set off to find them.

These day trips were (mostly) great – but it was always enlightening to hear the kid version of what we had just seen. Some days it was like they had been in a totally different places than JM and I had.

We visited Vaison la Romaine, a town with a bridge built two thousand years ago by the Romans (it withstood a recent flood that wiped out all the modern bridges) and a fabulous Roman amphitheater. But for the girls, the best part was the old Roman toilets “all in a row”.

Adult Pick: 1st Century Bridge at Vaison la Romain

Kid Pick: Roman Toilets at Vaison la Romaine

We visited a beautiful and historic stone overhang thing (not quite a cave) where a famous author used to write  letters.  That night, the kids couldn’t stop talking about the very HUGE mushroom they saw beside the parking lot.

Kid Pick: Cool Mushroom

We went to the Grotte de la Cocalière, a truly amazing cave with incredible stalactites and stalagmites reflected in perfectly still water. The next day they wrote a letter to their cousin in Oregon and it was all about the little train that took us back to the parking lot at the end of the cave walk.

Adult Pick: Stalactites and Stalagmites

Kid Pick: The train at the end of the cave tour

It is nice that when things don’t go as planned, the kids can find something to else to do very easily. We planned to visit a Troglodyte Village in Bollene. The Routard recommended it for children – and how can you not love cavemen houses? But when we got there we found out that it was temporarily closed for safety reasons.  So we wandered around the medieval part of town and the girls found a pile of leaves to jump in and had a fantastic time. (JM liked the 11th-century church behind the leaf pile.)

Kid Pick: Pile of Leaves. Adult Pick: 11th Century Church in Background

More pictures from our fall day-trips in Provence are posted on the Kids and Castles Facebook page.

November 12, 2010   3 Comments