Friday, October 31, 2008

The week in review

Well - the first week of petites vacances is drawing to a close.
Here's what we did this week.
Monday - kids played mostly on their own while Mommy cleaned the house after the Halloween party. Main fun activity for them was painting wooden crates I trashpicked. Trashpicking here is way more difficult than in the US - they have all these uniform sized trash bins that are sealed up and no one seems to dump things on the curb - although I got some good winter coat hangers the other day - they were labeled 'servez vous' which I'm pretty sure meant free....)
Callie and Griffin did the one on the left for tea parties and Zander did the one on the right to make into a ghost train. They all have an incredible capacity to play nicely together if they have something engaging - this activity covered about 2 solid hours (partially because I only gave them teeny tiny paint brushes -heh heh)
Tuesday - went to the theatre to pick up the BFG tickets for the next day - I managed to go through the entire transaction without using English - a first for me. We then navigated the buses successfully to get to the closest bus stop to the Citadelle --YES! Of course this is still a mile from the main attraction so we went into the St Jean Cathedral which we pass on the way up the mountain. Here is a shot of the outside.
This is the second time we have been in the cathedral. The first time the kids were, at first, scared to go in, and later, awed and amazed by the special feeling they got while in the cathedral. There is just nothing like the smell and sound and weightiness of that air! While we were there the first time, they noticed the place where you can light a candle and asked about it. I told them that people who want something in particular light a candle and wish for it to come true (as my pagan babes wouldn't know a prayer if it hit them on the head). After we left they asked if they could light one the next time we came in. So, of course this was the time. We lit the candle and all four of us held onto it - we then silently wished for two agreed upon things - that our family would be happy here in France and that someday Grammie and Grandpa would come to visit....

We then went on to the Citadelle - it was a cold and rainy day and I was looking forward to visiting the indoor exhibits since we don't have the appropriate clothing for such excursions. Well, we went inside alright, but, unfortunately, the heat was not on. Luckily it was on in the "aquarium" (10 tanks in one room) which is where we ended up hanging out and even eating our lunch in a quiet warm corner before heading back down to civilization. We stopped at a fabric store and got Zander some scraps to practice on and then on to an amazing European toy store. The kids have been drooling at the windows of these stores since our arrival and I have been (cheaply) avoiding them. We spent much time browsing and they all agreed on the purchase (to share) of a good quality petite guitar. We then made it back home without incident. Hooray!

Wednesday was BFG day - as André has already posted about. We took Claire and Arnaud and it was pretty fun but very intense for me as I was attempting to translate and whisper into Zander's ear throughout the show. In fact, I can understand not too badly - but translate on a level he could get was nearly impossible for me -- luckily I have read the book about 57 times so I got to get away with making up a lot of stuff when I really had no idea what was being said. Afterward I had such a headache and literally felt nauseous from the effort - that's how André says he feels every day at work trying to translate everything - poor guy!

Thursday was swim at the pool day - since it was vacation and there are camps running at the pool I wasn't sure if the hours would be the same. On a normal Thursday (the website claims) they would only be open in the early morning, lunch and after school hours. However, I was able to find another discussion board about the pool saying it had different hours during vacations (of course, they were referring to vacations the previous year). So, I asked André to call the pool to confirm when the hours were for free swim this particular day. Using his new sewing materials, Zander made a pillow, shawl and sleeping bag for Callie's favorite kitty, while Griffin and I played stickers on paper. Then André texted me that the pool was to be open between 12 to 1:45pm. Well, we ate a snack at home and headed for the pool arriving around 12:05 to be told it was closed, not to be reopened until 2pm (14h en français). Turns out André checked the website and asked around at work (instead of calling). Oh, the hours will be the same, they all asserted. Guess not! This meant my plan to have lunch at home was not going to work - nor my plan to do some housework. So, we ended up walking to a nearby restaurant for lunch which had nothing Griffin could eat (except ice cream, lucky guy) and then swimming all afternoon. It was a bit tricky since the pool was crowded but a good time was had by all.

On Friday, I spent a long time doing chores, laundry, mopping etc... and doing crafts with the kids - at one point Zander and Callie got into an argument and Zander decided to scribble all over her 'special place' (a trunk containing her most sacred toys) and then, when she tried to get him off, stabber her hard enough with a pen point to puncture her arm and cause her to bleed and swell up. Nice.... So, no trick-or-treating for him tonight. This made for a fun afternoon for me as he needed to be watched constantly lest he do something vengeful. Finally I caved in to some TV while I caught up on email and photos. Tonight I thought he was handling not going out pretty well by organizing the candy to hand out etc.. - of course later we found he had stashed a boatload of candy in his special place that we had to confiscate - ugh! Here is a picture of Callie as a ballerina/rainbow - it was pouring out so they didn't trick or treat long. André said he went to all the lit houses and half didn't have any candy or had already run out - we only got about a dozen trick-or-treat rings total.

One thing I didn't mention that happened all week was that we had tutoring for Zander every day. Olivier's mom, Helene, is a retired teacher and she came 3 days while his regular tutor, Cecile, came the other two. He is really working hard at it - but it is very hard for him. We also spent lots of time going shopping for food etc... here is Griffin showing off a discarded bus ticket, a.k.a., treasure!
So, all week we have been busy and the kids are happy (for the most part - barring stabbing incidents) but it is all just so lonely. If we were in Philly there would have been play dates and outings together where I could chat and bond with others and so could the kids. When we were at the restaurant on Thursday waiting for our food, I asked the kids what they missed the most about Philly - Callie and Zander chose (of course) Grammie and Grandpa. But Griffin - who is getting maturer every day said - I miss my friend, my friend Anya. It is hard to only be stuck with each other all the time. Everywhere we went there were groups of moms or dads with groups of kids - friends and neighbors hanging out. Then there was me, alone, with my three. On the last day of school the kids gave our number out so friends could call us for play dates and we also gave a (kick ass) party for tons of people - but no calls, no dinner invites, nothing.... Here we are - all alone on top of the world....

Maybe next week will improve things -rumor has it our shipment is coming Monday - hopefully I will soon be able to surround myself with material items and get some sort of shallow pleasure. However, I'll believe it when I see it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

dreams and reality

Am I dreaming, or is that a real street vendor with wheels of cheese the size of a car tire? For the last few days, I've been having recurring dreams. Every time I wake up I'm at my new job--in the US. It seems we've decided to book airline tickets and flee... but, here in my new office, I am regretting not being in France. Then I awake and realize--I am still in France! It's hard to identify the feeling that comes next--relief? regret? Obviously I'm still in shock. I really am here, with real cheese, real vacation, and with much more family time than ever (except when I wasn't employed).

Yesterday I took a half vacation day so we could go to see the Bien Formidable Géant, or BFG, a great and entertaining book by Roald Dahl--translated and adapted into a French play. It's our first chance going to the théatre here, and for more fun we took a couple friends (Olivier's two kids). This particular play wasn't great for our kids (confusing since all 5 or so roles were played by the same actress, so when I translated with a whisper it was never clear who I was speaking for), but I enjoyed it--the actress had invented some interesting and creative ways of telling the story. We intended to stop at a vendor that makes fresh crèpes after the show (a treat only to be enjoyed when wheat-allergy-boy is with the sitter) but they were closed, so we stopped by our local corner-store instead. It is called the mic mac (we like to think of it as our french version of wawa) and sells essentials of french life: baguettes, french fries, pastries and a wall of candy!

Taking a part vacation day was interesting, because I was learned a bit more about how that works here. Basically, I accrue about 2 days vacation per month, plus 1 day of RTT, which is some federally mandated don't-work-too-much program, and the equivalent of yet another day of vacation. Just as in the US there is a lot of controversy about how much the government should be involved in corporate affairs, in France this is a concern as well, and the pendulum swings back and forth regarding the regulations. With Sarkozy in office, the pendulum is swinging to the 'right' as it has with George W Bush, and reforms for 'work more, get paid more' have been eating away from some workers' time off. Now since one of the reasons I moved here is to have a better work-life balance (New York was waaaay out of balance in favor of work), I'm not happy to hear that lots of companies are increasing the amount of time people spend in the office. But at my company, fortunately, they want to keep the current system, which breaks down somewhat as follows (if I undersand it right):

260 approx week days in a year
218 number of days I will work
42 days paid time off (25 vacation days, 12 RTT, 5 holidays)

42 days? Am I dreaming???

Just to put it in perspective, when I left my job in Philly with almost 6 years' tenure, I was up to 20 days. Not enough, since after the occasional sick days, it was hard each year to scrape together 5 days in a row for vacation.

Well, if this is a dream, it's one in which it rains 5 days in a row just so that my little boy (who loves pink and yellow and doesn't feel the cold even when it's 40 degrees out) gets to wear this crazy outfit (all his other clothes, ruined at a rate of 3+ outfits per day, won't dry on the laundry line): shorts, long green checkered socks (that belong to his sister) and of course, his yellow-pink umbrella and yellow rain coat!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

La fete de la Citrouille

OK - here is the party blog - I know you have all been on pins and needles waiting for it. I am having a hard time finding time to blog lately - the 'petit vacance scolaire' means I am on with all 3 kids pretty much 24/7 - this leaves not much time for blogging!

Anyway - the long story short of the party is that it was fabulous.

I am now going to ask many of you to reach back in your memories to that other fabulous party, 10 years ago now (can you believe it?), our wedding. Our wedding was really, really fun. I know that I am prejudiced in this opinion - but others over the years have confirmed this impression. André and I have formed an opinion about why this was so.

Indulge for a moment....
Do you remember, when you were a kid - maybe 9 or 10 and were finally old enough to go to your first big, fancy wedding? It was just so exciting - getting all dressed up, eating the food, dancing - the anticipation and energy just about bounced off you at this shindig. You had never seen such fun!

Well, André has 21 first cousins, and he is the oldest of them except for one. This family hails from the great state of Utah. When they heard he was getting married, they made the amazing choice to come out east for the wedding. (OK, it was probably really mostly to see NYC and DC, but it made for a great excuse!) Weddings, at the time, in the Mormon community, went something like this. You go to the temple with your closest friends and family to get sealed. Then you have a reception. The reception consists of the bride, groom and their immediate families suffering through several hours of standing on a recieving line whilst 200 to 400 of the people they know pass through. As a guest, you show up, wait on this line for an hour or two until you reach the guests of honor. You shake all their hands, kiss kiss, toss a $5 to $20 present into a pile, eat a piece of cake, and go home. Mormons invite, everyone, and I mean everyone, they have ever known. André's Grandma told me she's often recieved invitations from the kids of people whose kids were friends with her kids when they were kids. (got that? reminds me of the fight scene from Spaceballs, the movie:
Dark Helmet: Before you die there is something you should know about us, Lone Star.
Lone Starr: What?
Dark Helmet: I am your father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate.
Lone Starr: What's that make us?
Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing! Which is what you are about to become.
In other words, mormon receptions stink. After our wedding, when the other cousins began to get married, they all wanted parties like ours - music! decent food! dancing!!! Their parents probably curse our names to this day....

So, here come about 40 Mormons, young and old, to their first (forgive my prejudice here) real wedding. This is what made it such a blast, over half the people there were just having so much fun it gave the party a wonderful energy. We didn't even have booze!

This is how the pumpkin party was too. Here is this group of 23 people, 18 of them have never carved a pumpkin, never had pumpkin soup, pumpkin seeds or pumpkin bread and were just really excited and suprised by each new discovery. (again, there was no booze) These spiders guarded the stairwell - the one with 1000 legs is by Griffin

When everyone arrived, almost no one was in costume. I think they would be embarrassed to roam the streets in strange garb but they almost all got into the spirit with witches and ghosts being the most favorite picks. Olivier arrived as a knight (complete with chain mail) but later chose the peaceful path and went into a monk costume. We were, of course, in our own unique garb - André and I were yin and yang, Zander was Casper the friendly (but scary) ghost, Callie was a rainbow and Griffin was the most awesome - as his favorite colors pink and yellow. You can see some of his antics below - all the sewing on the costume was done by Zander - it is his new hobby and he is doing it quite amazingly well for a 7 year old I think!

My idea was to have lots of activities, to keep the masses happy and to cut the need to converse in French (not my strong point, as you know) to a minimum. We played witches' brew and had a haunted room in our house complete with a scary ghost (Zander) hiding in a trunk, body parts to touch and a leap through a monsters mouth out into the back yard. This project was mostly masterminded by Zander and Andre' on Saturday - but, unfortunately, the string they used to hold up the paper maze walls collapsed right before show time - we had to get some extra adult helpers to hold them up. We also had lots of scary thematic Halloween music playing. Only about 6 of the kids were even brave enough to walk through the room - but I'm pretty positive they'd never done anything like it before - they loved it!

Then we carved pumpkins - I had said on the invite to bring a keyhole saw - but most came with simple knives - they were pretty shocked to see me let Zander and Callie and Griffin have turns with this weapon (OK - Americans would have been too - but they have to learn sometime, right?) They followed our lead and seemed happy to carve and chop and many even got messy pulling out the pumpkin guts - the end results were dazzling - and drew many admirers from all around to see them.

We also played my favorite Halloween game from my own childhood - the (now banned in most countries due to paranoid parents and choking fear) lifesaver on a string game. You tie lifesavers (or, if you are in France where lifesavers can't be found, ring shaped gummy candies) to equal length threads and have the kids suck them into their mouths using no hands and not moving their heads. I clearly remember doing this, and bobbing for apples, while at the Ringwood firehouse halloween party as a kid. We also did a mummy game with toilet paper that was hysterical as it kept ripping. Then we tried assembling skeletons and played musical chairs. The kids and adults loved everything.

For dinner we had pumpkin and baked potato soups (needed real cheddar!), salad, and lots of creepy hors d'ouevres - people really liked the food (although I forgot to include forks and many of the guests were gamely reduced to eating salad with spoons) and Olivier even said 'Now I think that Americans can cook'. For me, that is as good as it gets! For dessert we had ghosts in the graveyard (a la frienddeb!) - the adults really thought this was gross - disgusting even and had a hard time eating it! Luckily there was also pumpkin bread. It seems that they don't eat pumpkin here so this was very novel!

It was probably the most fun I've had in France because people were just all laughing and playing together - words were not essential - kids wrapped up in toilet paper racing toward a finish line is fun in any language. Everyone left around 9pm and we all just about collapsed into our beds.

Love to all - Rebecca

Monday, October 27, 2008

Party - the preview


Haven't posted for days b/c I have been in an absolute frenzy preparing for "La fete de la Citrouille" and spent all day today cleaning up from it. Lots to share....

I was very nervous - the last time I had had people over for dinner was Olivier and his family about a week after we moved in. The pork was overdone, the mashed potatoes were cold and very lumpy (due to our inability to find a masher -we used a fork - gross and time consuming) and the brown sugar carrots were done with white sugar (since they don't have brown sugar here) and I attempted to make apple betty for dessert - but, at the time, our computer couldn't access our recipes and I tried to recreate the crumbly topping from memory, with french butter, not a good idea. I'm not a creative chef - I'm a recipe following type of girl and not having the ingredients I'm used to, or the tools, is challenging. Of course, they were very polite, but it was humiliating!

Let me digress a bit (you're shocked, I know) about the things they don't have here. I'm sure you all remember the elusive pumpkin (yes - they have them - but where? The picture below is Zander posing by some gourds in a local decorative shrubbery display. I gave the children a great ethical lesson that day - by not stealing one (or ten) like I wanted to!!) The list goes on to include: brown sugar (as I mentioned), sour cream, real cheddar, baking powder, seedless grapes, easily available fresh herbs (this was very shocking - I mean, this is the land of haute cuisine, right? When I asked other people, they said they simply picked them from their gardens - what - everyone has their own? And what about in the winter??) chocolate chips (OK they sell these bags of mini ones but they are tres chèr and not too good - they have soooooooo much chocolate - but don't traditionally cook goodies with chips. Oh how I miss you ghiradelli - I always thought you were european!)

Anyhow, back to the party. I love parties, I love planning parties, and getting my kids involved in the creativity of the party process. We invited 4 families - from André's work we invited Olivier (of course) and Regis. Callie invited Evan. Zander invited Noemi (the last minute replacement for busy best friend Anouc). Griffin and I have no friends, so we didn't invite them or their families - this turns out to be a very good thing since, altogether, that meant 23 people in the apartment -11 adults and 12 kids ranging from 4 months t0 about 11 years of age. (that's the kids - I don't dare guess about the adults' ages) and I don't think we could possibly have handled more - I actually don't even think we could have handled that many if it wasn't for the fact we have almost no furniture. See, every dark cloud has a silver lining.

We told everyone, come in costume and bring a pumpkin.

In France, Halloween is not a big deal -basically not everyone even does it. They think you HAVE to dress as a witch or ghost or scary thing and they don't carve jack-o-lanterns etc.... The kids have caught onto the 'give me candy when I knock on the door' aspect of it all - but they don't even say 'trick or treat' - it's just stick your hand out (how rude). The impression I got from people is that they think Halloween is just a commercial trap created by the media. I admit, I feel like that too - do you know that people in the US now spend more money on Halloween than any other holiday except Christmas?- but I, personally, love falling into the Halloween trap.

So, I knew I had a job to do - I mean, Halloween is my favorite holiday. You get to dress up and be creepy and (except for Jehovah's witness and very conservative Jewish and probably various other groups I don't know about and I apologize to (and by the way, I love all of you who fit into these, or any other, categories)) - everyone in the US loves Halloween. I had to show the French how cool Halloween is.

I had big plans and I dragged my whole family along into them. The menu was to be extensive and the games terrific. I spent every spare moment Friday creating pumpkin soup (it takes all day when you are using a dollar store peeler and don't have a butcher knife and are caring for Griffin etc..). Also, all week the kids and I worked on decorations - scary pipe cleaner spiders, a giant monster head, BEWARE signs leading to what was to be the 'haunted' room etc... etc.... We spent almost the entire weekend in frantic preparation. 5 costumes were made, homemade pumpkin bread baked, haunted room decorated, monster body parts assembled and a variety of scary hors d'oeuvres were sliced and diced.

We thought we were doing pretty well on our prep so we did take a break on Saturday night to pop over to Centre Ville. Callie and Griffin needed new shoes and they were having an sidewalk sale all over with big discounts (plus, cooking dinner seemed insurmountable). Got there no problem, got both kids gorgeous, expensive (even with discount) european shoes (insert whine here - I buy them things I would never get for myself - so unfair). We then ate quickly and headed over to the bus stop - it was expected in about 20 minutes. Should have the kids in their beds by about 8:15 - only slightly behind schedule. We decided to use the extra 20 minutes to try to get a pastry, but, unfortunately, got a bit lost and ran out of time. Got to the bus stop (with no pastry) and I realized my purse was gone - did someone grab it in the hustle and crowd of the sidewalk sale? André hands me his keys and 5 bucks (for the bus) and sprints off toward the restaurant....

Kids immediately start to freak out - especially Zander - how will we go to the Citadelle, how will we get on the bus???? How is Daddy going to get home if he misses the bus? You don't have your phone - how will you call him?? (Of course, I'm thinking of the most likely possibility, what if Griffin poops?) I try gamely to maintain my calm for the sake of the children while I am actually in a severe panic! (Aside - one of the hardest things about parenting for me is attempting not to let my adult emotions overwhelm my kids). Hey, shouldn't our bus have come by now???

But look, there is Daddy - and he has the purse! Hooray - but - still no bus. We have seen others at the stop - but not ours. We cross over the river to find another bus stop. Find one but it is going the wrong direction. Now time is really passing, the kids (who should have already been asleep by this point) are gamely hiking up a random hill searching for the next stop (they are usually about 1/4 mile apart). André and I are extremely impressed by their fortitude throughout this blunder, they are really getting strong - or maybe they just expect utter chaos at this point. Finally we turn around, go back to the last stop and walk in a different direction - arriving at the correct stop. It is now past 8:45pm and the regular buses are no longer running - we have to take the C bus and we are worried it will also not be running - seems that the sidewalk festival has changed the routes of many buses. Will we have to call a cab or, heaven forbid, end up calling Olivier again for help? Fortunately, it arrives and we make it home and in bed by 9:30.

The next day, party excitement is in the air and we are all up by 6am - which is actually 5am due to daylight savings. It takes every minute of that day to finish our prep and we are throwing on costumes as the first guests arrive....

Stay tuned..... love to all Rebecca

Friday, October 24, 2008

flashback to selling our van

Well, since it would be very difficult to live without a vehicle in Philly (which we knew firsthand because of our blunders with Nellie Belle, pictured here, left), we decided to hold on to our vehicle until we had chosen a departure date. Yet waiting until the last possible moment to get rid of the van was not easy either. More on that in a minute. But first, you need some perspective to understand our minivan. You see, driving a classic car like Nellie Belle sort of ruined us for normal cars. There were so many people that grew up in these VW buses that it always brought a smile to their lips as we passed them, put-put-putting along. Nellie Belle was not very reliable, never worked quite right, and was exceedingly expensive, but we loved the adventure she brought into our lives. So when we decided to sell her, we couldn't picture ourselves in anything besides some amazing, earth-friendly hybrid-electric vechicle that could seat our carpooling crew...but they weren't available in the States yet. So we settled for an (ugly!) white gas-guzzling, but American-made, mini-van. We couldn't bear to look at it the way it was, so we made some improvements, as all of you Mt Airy-inhabitants already know. The one thing about us Dhondts--you always know if we're around because our vehicle is quite distinguishable:

Now I have to admit I was embarrassed to drive this thing sometimes, but our stickers did serve their purpose well--it was an ice breaker on the streets of Philadelphia and we met many a kindred spirit. It also helped me open the topic of politics with some of my Agile Philly colleagues--it's always fun to find a few more liberals out there.
On the other hand, the stickers, um, affected the resale value of the van. We knew that if we posted the van on craigslist that we'd find out within 2 days whether it was possible to sell it with the stickers on, and figured that if we got no nibbles, we'd peel the stickers off. But why bother attempting to peel them off if some like-minded zealot was hungry to have a modern-day hippy-mobile of their own? One of the for sale signs we tried was "Vans really can be cool!" Well, no nibbles. We dropped the price. Again. Yet again. We were also in the midst of trying to get our kitty a plane ride, move out of Grammie and Grandpa's house, and pack our bags for the planes. Back to the van.
Saturday morning (our flight was scheduled for 6:30pm) instead of having one last run in Mt Airy I went outside and started scraping off stickers. I started to get really good at it. I even had enough time to categorize them--there's the stretchy plasticene kind, the flaky metals, and the forever-acrylics. I like the forever-acrylics best because once I got a straight edge under it, I could get the whole thing off in one peel. Oh, just one problem. We didn't have any straight edges, and the local convenience store didn't either. Or maybe more than one problem. Only about 20% of the stickers were the easy kind. Rebecca came out to help. Someone called about the van--our first prospective customer--and asked whether we thought it would be hard to remove the stickers. I could honestly say no--it's not going to be, because almost all of them are gone already. We picked a time for them to come see the van, and then Greg and 6 munchkins came out to help with the bumper sticker project. Thank you, Greg! He was naturally gifted at removing those accursed flaky metals.
We left the blue "racing stripe" on the van to reduce the amount of work we'd have to do--and everyone was washing and buffing off traces of adhesive when our [only] client came to see the van. We gave them a test drive and they responded with their best and final offer. I tried to bargain with them. And then I said no--they were offering only HALF the kelley blue book value -- $5,600. I thought I'd get more money by selling it to a used car dealer, and I told them so; if not, I told them I'd call them back.
We decided to drop our bags, Rebecca and the kids at the airport, and then go sell the van to someone at the Airport Auto Mall. Seemed like a good plan--but 2 hours and 8 car dealerships later, I realized that what I thought were minor scratches and dents were major problems to retail sellers. Almost none of them would even consider selling this van--regardless of price. It didn't help that the economy was really bad for used vehicles at the time--there were so many dealerships offering 0.0% financing on new cars, why should anyone have to settle with used? Yet, our single interested bidder was willing to live with the scratches and remaining stickers. Even though we were sad to lose so much money on this vehicle, the new owner was a single mom with three kids who really needed a reliable van. She said it was the nicest car she ever owned. They drove out to meet me at the airport auto mall, handed me a wad of cash, we setted affairs with the tag and title shop, and they dropped me off at the airport around 4pm.
I caught up with the family and off we went to customs. Everything went smoothly, so I started to look for a MAC machine to get rid of this cash. Well, guess what? None of the MAC machines at the airport accept deposits.
So, What should I do with this wad of cash? I don't want to get mugged with this kind of money in my pocket! I also didn't think I'd be able to deposit US currency once I got to France. I thought I could use a money changing vendor, but the last couple times we worked with them they gave us horrible exchange rates, stealing upwards of 30% of our money. So ultimately I found a check cashing place that would also give me money orders. The woman was a bit surprised to see so much cash, and had to file all kinds of money laundering paperwork, but she eventually (oh, only 5 minutes before our airplane gate closed) handed over my money orders. I really wanted to drop that in the mail before getting on the plane, but oh well, we were out of time.
That's not the end of the story although it should be. Eventually we get around to endorsing all these money orders, and put them in the mail around the 3rd of October. We wait for them to post to my bank account. And wait. And wait. I learned earlier this summer that some transactions take 10 business days, so I figured I needed to wait some more. Today I contacted the bank to find out that they do not accept money orders! They returned the money orders--to where? My Philadelphia address. What a blunder!!!!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Zander's Fate (at school, anyway)

Today we had a meeting with Zander's teacher, the director (french for principal) and a translator to discuss how he is doing and whether or not he should go to this special school to help him learn. I'm going to back up a bit to talk about the whole school thing. Everyone (french) said the best thing to do would be to put them into the local school and they would just absorb it naturally. This is what others had done in the past and, as a matter of fact, there is NO other option than this for Callie or Griffin as they are so young. Zander, however, had the option of another school where they teach french to strangers (that's what they call foreigners) - like we would have an english as a second language class. This is where we had wanted to enroll him from the beginning - but we received alot of pushback from the people here. We decided we would have to wait and see what was up when we arrived. We also knew he needed to be in the grade only one above Callie (as he would be in the US) and this was receiving lots of pushback as well. Well, when we got here we found out that the special class is in Planoise which is over an hour away (by bus) and also that you can't even get in if you are not specifically recommended to be there by your 'home' school - this is to encourage people to stay in their neighborhood schools. They wanted him to try being at the local school and then go from there. This made me very nervous, it basically meant to me that they wouldn't consider it unless he was already failing here - a bad set up for Mr. Z. We did win out on which class he was in, since once I went to meet with the teacher and spoke to her for five minutes, we agreed he needed to be with the younger children. So he started out rocky but has now made a few really good friends and seems very happy to be at school - he was actually really disappointed to hear that he would have off for two weeks. That's right folks, in France they have school for 7 weeks, and then they're off for 2. At the meeting, we discussed the possibility of the special school but decided there were two good reasons not to try it at this point. The first is that it would be way too expensive to schlep him back and forth each day - I can't do it b/c I have no car and I have 2 other kids. We are talking 58 Euros each day for a taxi (they might be able to subsidize this a bit - but even if they did half it would still be prohibitive). But, the second, more important reason, is that it would be too traumatic for Zander - he really loves school, he loves his friends and he is sincerely trying his best to do all the work that he can. He doesn't seem frustrated and is not giving up. All the children in the class love him and try to help him as much as they can. He participates in activities and games - and even won a game earlier that day. It is clear that his teacher already loves him. She is wonderful and assured us the extra work for her is no problem - it's her job. I teared up as I thanked her for her concern and help. Her response 'If Zander is happy, I am happy'. Now this is how teachers should be - what is wrong with Griffin's teacher??? (OK, OK - I know Zander doesn't poop all over the place, but still , where is the love?) Anyway, it went really well all around, although I have to say, as an aside, that the translator was just horrifically bad. The teacher would talk for 5 minutes telling some anecdote or something and then the translator would say - Zander is good. More than once even I knew she was translating wrong (which means it was really bad) and André corrected her or jumped in to translate himself lots. I am so glad I have him to help me in these situations although he is frustrated he is missing so much work in these first few weeks either meeting with teachers, doctors or the government.
So for now, Zander will stay where he is and our tutor (sous tiens) and his teacher will start working together.

Citrouille or not to Citrouille?

As I mentioned earlier, we are having a pumpkin party this Sunday - this requires lots of prep (fun for me) - but, most importantly, PUMPKINS! Yesterday the kids and I went out to the thrift store for a punchbowl for our wormy apple punch and the art supply store and grocery store in search of tacks and googly eyes and, of course, the elusive pumpkins. It was raining all day and we were unable to find anything on our list (except the punch bowl) but the kids got to go to Quickos (french for mcdonalds) at lunch - which they loved as they have a play area and hot dogs.... Here they are pictured on the way home from the last bus ride of the day:

Of course, no blog would be complete without a poop update so I will mention one exciting thing that happened that afternoon. Griffin finally went pee on a potty that wasn't in our home (see photo).

Of course, today he peed in his pants 3 times and pooped in them 4 (still has an angry belly from that baguette) - so I guess it's one step foward, two steps back.
Anyway, back to the pumpkins, I went to four stores searching and was unable to find them (despite being assured I could get one before I even planned the pumpkin party) and asked (who else?) Olivier for help.
He found some little produce place (1/2 mile from the closest bus stop) that had them. Supposedly you can go in, look at the pumpkins and then point to the one you would like and say - get me three more of those! Then they will get them for you the next day. Well, what with one thing or another I hadn't gotten around to ordering them yet (it may have been the constantly pouring rain, the fact I didn't know exactly where this place was or how I would navigate asking someone for help with my limited French and the fact that we have some sort of meeting every day). So Olivier helpfully ordered them for me - to be picked up today. Also, Sevrine, one of André's coworkers, brought a pumpkin into work and gave it to him. Wow, I am thinking, 4 pumpkins - great! All I have to do is go pick them up while the kids are at school.

Well, it turns out we had a meeting this morning at Zander's school and it ran late--I'll say more about this later, but André (who had borrowed Olivier's car so he wouldn't miss too much work) agreed (once I begged) to pop me over there and drop me back home so I would be able to make it back to pick up the kids at school on time for lunch. (and also so I wouldn't have to lug 3 giant pumpkins home on the bus with Griffin in tow as well).

So, we get there and the citrouille are nowhere in sight. They will come in "10 little minutes", says the shop keeper. OK... I guess we will wait. And so, (taking advantage of the fact we have a car for a few brief and shining moments) we hop over to Carrefoure (french for walmart) and pick up some garden soil, laundry detergent and other fun things.

This bag of gardening soil was hard for us to translate--but Rebecca's electronic pocket translater said that engrasse was fattened duck, which we thought was hysterical. Of course, in France, everything is fattening--even dirt.

We then return to the produce place to get the citrouille. Pictured below is what I expected - and it is, in fact, the citrouille that Sevrine got for us. (so we know they do exist here)

This is what we got....

All I can say is - that is not a pumpkin - I don't know what it is - but it is NOT a pumpkin! It will be what our jack-o-lanterns are carved out of, however, b/c I am using the only real pumpkin to make pumpkin curry soup and pumpkin bread for our fete (where it came from I don't know--hopefully I'll find out by this time next year).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

the saga of the family cat

So, we did this whole move thing really, really fast. When we started talking to shipping companies and immigrations people, they said it normally takes 6 months to do an international move... but overachievers as we are, we had to make it faster than that: from deciding Aug 4 to do this trip for real, to the day we arrived on the plane, Sept 14, was about 6 weeks. It's not that we were trying to make things difficult, but since I hadn't had any income since quitting my New York job in June, and we had been tapping into our savings for almost a whole year before that, we just needed to do this as fast as possible to stay afloat. So, the day our visas were approved, we bought our airplane tickets--with only 5 days' notice.

Apparently it's easier to get a plane ticket for a human than for a cat. We called British Airways the next day and they said they don't allow animals on their planes at all--if we want to bring our cat, it will cost almost $800 -- to put this in perspective, our tickets were $1300... and, we have to arrange this through BA cargo. We called them, too, with no answer. We called a few times that day and left a couple of messages... same the next day... Friday we finally hear from them that we need to give them 5-13 days' notice, and since we're down to less than 48 hours there's nothing they can do. Rebecca spent probably another 5 hours on the phone and ultimately we find out that if we'd flown Air France we could have brought the cat into the cabin with us for free... but being so cat-friendly as the French are, they'd gladly take our cat next week for (only) about $300. We scramble to get friends to take care of these details (thanks to Shana and Leah) and fly in to France ourselves.

Ah, but this is only the beginning. Our cat is scheduled to arrive in Paris / CDG on Sept 18th, and I have booked a TGV (bullet train) ride from here to there, leaving at 5:30am, only to find out that there's no bus that runs before 6am and I need to go 3 miles from the apartment in the dark. Well, I'll just pack light I decide, and I scope it out by bus the day before, as well as pick up my tickets in advance. The ticket vending machines here don't work with American credit cards, and knowing this I thought everything should go smoothly in the morning.

I'm pretty familiar with the trip from Besançon to CDG so it does go smoothly, until I get to the airport itself. I assumed the train stations would be labelled like they are in the US--something like Arrivals, British Airways, terminal A; Arrivals, Air France, terminal B, or the like. But no. There are only two train stops, labeled abstractly: Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. So I guess, get off, and see no airport at all--just office buildings. I find one for Air France, ask in sputters of franglais where I might find my cat... yes, really, I'm looking for a meow, meow CHAT, and when the people are convinced I'm not joking they send me to Terminal 2, Arrivals. Oh well, wait for a train, a shuttle, and find my way to the Arrivals. Just one problem. This is international arrivals, and there's a wall of sealed doors between me and baggage claim. You see, most international baggage comes along with the passenger. Well, I'm picturing my poor cat sitting on the side of the conveyor belts meowing and meowing for someone to pay attention to her, and I look all around for some employee somewhere. None in sight, just weary travelers hustling away with their bags. So I decide to go up to departures, figuring there must be some Air France people up there. Repeat the whole comic skit again--yes, a chat, where can I get her? They have no idea... maybe I should ask at the Arrivals window. Where's that? Blah blah descendre blah blah blah blah. Oh, that means down. But that's just where I came from. This is not going very well, and I've now been here for 2 hours. My return train ticket is scheduled for noon so I can be back to Besançon to meet Zander's prospective teacher. I go back down and find the right window and literally wait for 30 minutes as this Air France agent calls number after number looking for someone that knows where my cat is. Finally she says I need to go back to Terminal 1, take a bus to Fret 1, and ask the guards at the gate for further instructions. OK, so I do that (takes 45 minutes) and I'm now see it is already 11am. Forget the return train--I'm over an hour away from the station. Now I'm sweating bullets because I know lunch break starts at noon, and everyone, and I mean, everyone, will be gone for 2 hours.

Replay the skit where I insist I'm looking for an animal, a chat, and they suggest I go to veterinary services. Makes sense to me. They give me driving directions, then realize I'm on foot, so suggest I go outside the security fence, walk along the sidewalk, and go in the other entrance, 1/2 a mile away. OK. Get to veterinary services to a person that can't understand my accent AND is fending off an angry customer on the phone, and have to wait 15 minutes to find out that no, they don't have my cat here... but wait, they can call around and see where she is. Now it's 11:30. I get to the freight claims desk, and they say--oh, we were trying to call you. There's a problem with your paperwork. It says here that a man is coming to pick up the cat, but that won't work, because the owner, Rebecca Dhondt must pick up the cat, or fax us authorization for you instead.

Hmmm.... Flash back to Besançon, about 9:30am. Olivier gets a call. He tries to stop by our apartment, but Rebecca's already left for shopping for the day, and she has NO phone or any other way to be reached.

I guess we're not getting that fax.

I rifle through my stack of papers, and find something from a vet that lists me as the owner. I then beg. I assert that this is my pet. The clerk says he needs to go find his supervisor.

They come back at 11:50 and say they have decided to approve me as the one who can pick up the cat without the fax. Now I have to pay them 70€. For what?? I protest. I already paid hundreds of dollars to get this cat here. They simply show me an invoice and I resignedly pay. They stamp it, disappear, and I sit down, awaiting a scared and jetlagged cat.

But NO. They come back out and say I'm free to proceed to customs now to retrieve my cat. It is 11:55. I see a whole bunch of coworkers headed out of the building for their lunch break. I'm ready to cry, but I choke out--where's customs?

The first guy has no idea what I'm talking about. I can't believe I'm going to have to wait another 2 hours. Then somebody yells out--it's up that ramp.

So I run. I get inside and hand over my paperwork to a customs guy who says, gruffly: there are problems with your papers. None that I know of. I say hopefully. At this point, two other people walk in to the room, asking about a pickup as well, and he replies to them curtly: it's lunch time. You can come back in 2 hours. (see, we are not always completely unlucky!) Although, it was not that fortunate that I hadn't managed to eat at all that day, what with leaving before the rising of the sun and trekking all over the airport ever since.... For anyone, this would be tough - but for me, this is torture. My body is literally digesting itself.

He looks at my papers again, rips apart the stapled stack, hands the top sheet to me, and walks away. I strain my ears for any meowing... he comes back with another rubber stamp and tells me I'm good to go and get my cat.

It's 12:05.

I wait another 15 minutes in some cargo bay and, by some miracle, the workers haven't left yet for lunch. I am finally able to get a Simone! I then walk outside (it starts to drizzle) and see my bus (that runs on a 30 minute interval) drive by. Simone kitty and I start crying together - at lease I am no longer alone. I walk to the bus stop, wait for 1/2 hour and eventually get home around 6pm.

Happy birthday to me (oh - did i forget to mention this all occured on the anniversary of my birth this year?)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Poop - certainly not the final chapter (unfortunately)


So today was the day we had to meet with the director of Griffin's school (who is also his teacher), a government official, the school doctor, the assistant in the classroom and the partridge in the pear tree. Schools are managed by 2 structures - the teaching staff which is governed by the French government concerning curriculum etc... and the municipal government that provides things like paper, pens, resources and non-teaching staff (assistants in the class, lunchroom aides etc...). All teams have to be represented. We wanted Olivier to come along as well to help translate - but they wouldn't let him in the room. (Only family allowed - besides the 5 other people there, of course...). This is frustrating b/c Olivier is good at speaking in a non-offensive way to people - where we are challenged due to not only language barriers, but cultural differences.

For those of you who haven't been following - this is all because Griffin is NOT potty trained and, despite our best efforts, continues to mess in his pants - often poop during school hours. This meeting was to discuss what to do about this situation.

A bit of background on Griffin and poop. As many of you know, the guy has been having GI problems since he was weaned and was put through a battery of tests over the past 2 years because of this. Nothing serious was discovered, and, through our own efforts, we finally discovered putting him on a gluten free diet stopped his pain and cut his poops down from 5-10 per day to 2-3 per day. Doctors in the US agreed that we should just keep him gluten free and hope that he outgrows it in a few years since we have ruled out all serious ailments. We are fine with this decision as the idea of putting him through more medical intervention is detestable and not neccessary. However, this means he still poops far more than the average guy - and it is still always incredibly stinky diaharrhea type poop (very fun to clean out of underwear several times per day as I have been doing for several weeks) and sometimes he accidentally gets some wheat and he ends up in pain for days and pooping even more. Anyhow, we are pretty certain he can't predict when he is going to poop, as he only made poop in the potty 1x (seemingly by lucky chance) in the several weeks we've been potty training - although the pee has been steadily making it into the pot more often. At least, it makes it when he is at home- he absolutely WILL NOT pee anywhere else - whether he is with me or at school.

So, back to the meeting...

We are basically expecting them to try to kick him out and are pleasantly surprised when they agree to give him the PAI (don't remember what this stands for - some french thing that means you have a medical excuse) and allow him to wear pull-ups to school. Also, since he seems to poop in the first hour he's at school, they are requiring me to come to school at 9:30 with him instead of 8:30 (to hopefully avoid the poop issue in the school building (I guess I get to be the lucky winner (have you ever seen this many nested parenthetical phrases in print (i love parentheses)))))))))). Also, I have to take him to the potty at school before I leave - to give it a last chance to come out.

This all seems OK and fairly reasonable (although - selfish whine here - it means I have my only break severely curtailed) and we agree to the conditions set forth. We all agree he is steadily doing better in school. He is no longer crying when he is there, participates in class more often, and does not whine about the prospect of school each day. We don't want to stop this progress. The group even talks about finding a bilingual psychologist to help him to overcome his fear of going anywhere but outside home.

I, however, have a concern. Griffin does not want to go to school - he would much rather be with me, (who wouldn't?) and I personally think a big part of the reason he won't even sit on the potty at school is that he knows that once he pees at school there will be no reason for them to kick him out. A few weeks earlier they asked if I would come into school during potty times to help him out and I said NO - b/c that would be a gift for him - he would never be motivated to pee if he knew once he did it I would stop visiting.

So, I have the same concern about having him start school at a later time. What do I say to him about why he is not starting at the same time as Callie? If I say, it's b/c you don't go poop on the potty - he will be elated - and never do it! My fear is that this is a path that will never be reversed and our ultimate goal should be to get him as a full part of the community - not be taking him away from it.

So, I ask for advice on this sticky conundrum. This is where translation and language and cultural barriers get really tricky....

First off - they are pissed at the question. This is part of the problem, you don't support this plan, they say. The doctor just says we should tell him, that since he is not pooping on the potty he is not allowed to go to school. Duh!

Well, I try again to explain - he will be elated at this news and NEVER change his ways - if he ever gains any control - he will use it to poop at 10:30 instead of 9ish so he will be kept out longer and (hopefully) eventually be allowed to skip school altogether. Don't you see how his 3-year old mind is working??

Well, they say -you should just tell him he is not a big boy, only babies poop in their pants and
he is not a big boy and only big boys get to go to school etc... etc...

First off, I have said this type of thing to him - almost every day in fact. This is not effective - Griffin knows he is a big boy - just one that poops in his pants. One thing to know about about both of my boys (and my man as well) is that they are internally motivated - once they make a decision peer pressure can't dissuade them. He IS big - an no one is gonna convince him otherwise.

They are not thrilled with this explanation. He is the kid - you are the parent - he says he IS big - you say NO - you aren't. You are in charge - not him. (stupid american) Listen, people, you are damn lucky we are even considering keeping him in school, he is such a pain in the ass. (At this comment, my wonderful husband aka translator thanks them profusely for all their time and help with all this and explains how we really appreciate all the work they are doing on our behalf b/c - of course - it sucks to be them - they have to deal with this stubborn, stinky, American kid who wants his mommy - it is clear they would much rather just chuck him back out - but they are just bending over backwards etc... etc...) After the grovel, they reiterate that we just need to tell him he is NOT big, and that he won't be big until he poops and pees on the potty.

Hmm... I am thinking - great, of course, we could turn up the pressure on this "you are not big" method. Get Callie and Zander in on it - possibly even his classmates. Perhaps we could find a fun name....oooh - I know! We'll call him Stinky Baby every time he has an accident and get them to do the same - let's just humiliate him as frequently as possible. It would kind of be fun - I mean, your whole life whenever you start to tease someone some grown up (or later, your conscience) comes along to tell you that it is just not nice and stop doing that. It would be a license to tease... I wonder why people have discouraged me all these years. Maybe if we are just as emotionally cruel as possible to our children - their behavior will improve . Perhaps this will be the way Griffins longstanding GI problem will miraculously reverse itself.

Needless to say this conversation is going nowhere and I decide I will have to figure this out on my own (any american ideas out there???). We sign the paper detailing what everyone has agreed to (this deal will carry to the winter holiday break, at which time we reevaluate) and the director makes three copies of it, handing one to the doctor and one to the government official. I reach for the other one and they are all very surprised. I want this?

I don't get these French folk - I mean - who wouldn't want the piece of paper that is the contract for your child's school life over the next 2 months? What is the thinking of French parents? After much hemming and hawing they hand it over.

What, you may ask, are our lovely children doing during this time? Well, at the start of the meeting they were in school but when it let out we asked Olivier to go pick up Zander (no - you can't translate for us - but can you be our taxi? Olivier's answer (of course) "It is not a problem") He did, however have a noon meeting so a school aide was watching the kids whilst we discussed how to deal with Mr.G.

We come out of the meeting and I notice Callie is eating something. Upon closer inspection we realize it is a piece of bread. The ever so nice aide thought the children might be hungry and fed them each (all 3) a piece of lovely, wheat laden, baguette.

Clearly the staff has not been informed that Griffin can't have wheat - they seem to have no understanding at all of what he can and can not eat - I found out today they have been withholding juice. That's great - withhold juice and feed him slices of baguettes.

They are apologetic and seemingly concerned about the screw up. Most concern they've shown so far for his issues - since, I think, it's the first time they can't just blame me for the problems he is having.

Anyway - until tomorrow....

This afternoon Griffin has been in pain and pooped 3x so far. A sleepless and painfilled night is probably ahead for him - and consequently - for me as well!

Monday, October 20, 2008

French food and more blunders

Well, today I went to the Prefecture (pictured here, doesn't it look like a nice place to wait?) to do the next step in my application for a long-stay visa (kind of like a green card in the US). We need this card not only to stay here for the planned 2 years, but also to recieve many benefits that the French take for granted - like health care, familial assistance programs and other goodies. There's a lot of paperwork they need, including proof of current address, passports of both me and my spouse, birth records, etc. This should be easy, except for a few details:

Since I took my wife's name when we got married, everyone's always confused that my current name doesn't match the one on my birth certificate. So I always bring along my marriage certificate when they want the acte de naissance. Today the clerk helping me kept laughing at how rigolo that was--just think, in America the man can take the woman's name (or at least in Pennsylvania, where they passed the ERA decades ago).

  • I had two coworkers check the paperwork I had assembled (thanks Olivier and Genevieve!), and they found a few missing things, like a stamped envelope and the original of my marriage certificate (probably because I keep taking it out to show people--everyone in France seems to need my act de naissance, from bankers to insurance companies--oh, did I mention how we need insurance for the kids in case they get hurt when they're at school? Or insurance for our bank card / ATM card in case it gets stolen? There's insurance for everything here!) Well, on Friday I attempted to complete my paperwork for Monday's trip to the prefecture, but I forgot about the birth certificate until around 9am this morning, which is when my bus was coming--which should give me about 15 minutes wiggle room in case of any mistakes for my 9:40am appointment. Around here, I figure 15 minutes is usually enough because if I have a problem with a bus or something I can usually take another route and get close enough I can walk/run the rest of the way. Well, since I remembered that I needed the marriage certificate I dug through my bag looking for it, and as the bus approached I decided I had to go back to the apartment to try to find it. So, I missed the bus. Luckily, the next came in 15 minutes, so I got to the prefecture just about 5 minutes before my appointment... whew. Then I had to wait for 40 minutes for someone to actually call me in to do the paperwork. That went smoothly, as I now had all the paperwork necessary. The clerk concluded with, that's all for today--you should get your carte de séjour in about a month. "But our health insurance", I protest, "is being held up by this"--she responded that now that I have completed the application process, I could go apply for the sécurité sociale, which would give me insurance we needed. Now, in France, everybody has health insurance, as long as they're legal residents--so it's not like if there was an emergency we wouldn't be insured right now--but, we're in this grey area where we're not officially insured, either. We've already all been to the doctor a few times and nobody knows exactly how to bill us... and at work they don't know what to do to complete the rest of my employer-sponsored health insurance paperwork either--so, we're supposed to pay out-of-pocket for now until we can be re-imbursed. Oh, they do have co-pays here, and free selection of family docs etc. But co-pays are only 1€ for visits, and about 1-2€ for meds!
  • The long-stay visa application must be started within two months of arrival in France, but it can't be completed until we have finished the Medical Exam Certificate, we have proof of residence, e.g., a utility bill, a paycheck from our current employer in France... etc. So that means it can't really be done until someone's been here for about 6 weeks, though as I understand it now I may have avoided a few visits to various offices if I did some of this paperwork in parallel... but it's hard to know how to do all this since so many people only know part of the process.

  • Rebecca needs a carte de séjour of type visiteur, but that is contingent upon my application, so now we basically have 2 weeks left to apply for hers, but still no carte de sejour from me. This paperwork is so complicated!
Oh, so the food. When I think of French food, I think of baguettes, fromage, et les pâtisseries. But that's not french food. A nice French meal starts with an appetizer, followed by fish, meat, cheese, and dessert. Nowhere in that list do I see a guaranteed spot for bread. Oh, at the lunch time meal where we pay with pre-taxed euros there aren't really 5 courses, but there's always a slice of baguette, a side dish, and the meat. Again, notice the lack of emphasis on bread. I'm a simple carbohydrates kind of person. I want lots and lots of bread, and would be perfectly happy if I never saw meat again. But no. Every serious french meal has meat. Then again, at home we eat a whole buelle or baguette in a sitting. We love those 80-cent baguettes! Pictured at left is a brie-like cheese with packaging that (I believe) would never go over well in the US -- it's too irreverent -- translated literally, "whim of the Gods", and "Godde, how good it is!". Then at our chinese dinner--definitely tinged with french influences in the way that every dish came with meat--we learned that chopsticks are "baguettes". Now that's taking it too far--why is my baguette made of plastic?

Biggest blunder of the day--I was home for lunch, but was really tired, so I decided to set an alarm for a 15 minute nap. That should give me about 10 minutes to get to the bus so I don't have to walk 20 minutes to work (it's a 5 minute ride). I got up on time, but missed the bus anyway because I had the time memorized wrong--I normally catch that bus next to Callie and Griffin's school after dropping them off. So I decided to try my new, 5€, thrift store roller blades so I can get to work on time. I haven't tested them yet--I imagined I'd play out front with the kids to refamiliarize myself with these things... but hey, just before we moved here I bladed over to pick up Callie and Griffin from tot lot one day, and that was fine, so off I went. Well, one of the brakes was missing, which I thought wouldn't be a problem (and I tried it on a little hill first)--but then I hit a really steep hill. I always brake with my right foot, and attempting to do so with the left for the first time on a steep hill wasn't going so well. So I started thinking about a bail-out plan. The bottom of the hill is an intersection with grass across the street--assuming there would be no traffic when I got there (pictured, right).

Speeding up... lots of cars to my left, and this is a narrow sidewalk... no u-turns.

Going kinda fast...maybe I can do that drag my foot sideways kind of braking... no, not confident in these new blades

This is getting kinda scary... must stop... how about dragging my foot against the base of the wall? nah, that didn't seem like it would do anything but whip me head-first into the stone..
hmmm.... I reached for a corner on the wall, and whoomph, my body just kept going, my legs kept going, my feet swung up as high as my head, but I did't let go... and then I swung back down, landed on my feet, and was at a full stop. I wonder why Indiana Jones never gets scuffed hands when he does that kind of stunt? My right hand was stinging and torn. I gingerly took off my blades, put on my sneakers again, and walked (wounded) the rest of wayto work. Oh well.

The worst part of the story? First thing people do when they arrive in the office, even if it's in the afternoon, is they walk around to shake hands or fais la bise. But that wasn't going to work with a blood-drenched hand... and even after band-aids there was no avoiding having to explain why I couldn't shake hands... and embarrass myself with this story of really really bad judgement.

Aaah, but Dr. Snyder said I need lots and lots of opportunities to feel helpless, so le-voilà. Blundering in Besançon again, despite all attempts to seem confident, punctual, and in control.
Tonight, thanks to Olivier, we have a refridgerator again. He was going to drive me out to the store to help me pick up another one, but when he found out that we hadn't yet purchased one, he suggested he take a look. He was able to troubleshoot it in about half an hour, and now we have ice again!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Le Bon Week-end!

Hi all,

I want to say it is SO great hearing comments from some of you my friends and neighbors - it makes us all feel so loved (and reassures me that this isn't too boring!) Well, we will test that today with a long blog - with lots of photos for a long weekend.... (we did skip a few days)

As I pick up the kids from school on Friday we are happy to run into some natural wonders. I love the wildlife that abounds in Besancon, from the sublime of a mist tipped spider web to the mundane of a giant slug enjoying the remains of a foolishly discarded baguette.
The kids are happy, the sun is shining and we all sing a little ditty (composed by Callie):
It's le bon week-end! It's le bon week-end! (repeat in sing song voice whilst skipping merrily)

In France, that's how you would say, 'Have a good weekend' and the kids think that is the french word for weekend. That means no school (like on Wednesdays) and DADDY! Yippee!

So, on le bon week-end we are determined to have some fun - cheap fun, preferably free fun, but fun nonetheless. Being sans auto, we are now official Ginko bus card holders (Ginko is Besancon's equivalent of SEPTA and is pronounced jinko) - it's was another blunderful adventure to recieve these plastic coated wonders - but, as usual, I digress. We have them now and can go on any bus at any time for free (plus the musee de beaux arts)

So, we look at the book that Ginko gave us about local attractions and see there is a waterfall (cascade en francais) just a busride and 15 minute walk away. Great. We love hikes and waterfalls and shall be able to get there for free. Wake up, eat breakfast, switch laundry, and do our USA homework with the munchkins by 10:30 am - doing great - time for the fun stuff.

It is a gorgeous fall, Indian summer, day. (Should I say Native American summerish? What do they call this in France??) Anyway, the weather is delightful. I pack up a picnic while André looks up when the bus heads out there. We figure we'll go out there, hike, picnic and head to the local thrift store for some cheap platters and perhaps a French DVD player so I can survive the two week school break starting the 27th.

So we need the 85 bus to Buere. Buere is the village where the waterfall is - and also almost the word 'butter' in french (that's buerre). I am excited, picturing local delicacies slathered in extra yummy butter. Oh, and the waterfall.
Not so fast.
Turns out there are only 3 busses that go to Buere on Saturday - the whole day. The first left at 7:35am - the next not until 12:15 and we can't come home until the 6:08pm return - which would make us miss our scheduled appointment with (YES!) a babysitter beginning at 5pm! What to do?

Well, we are not going to let a little snag like this stop us. We give up the idea of thrifting and decide to head out on the 12:15 bus returning via taxi so we can still go out that night.

We get to the 85 stop and get on the bus. The 5 of us are the ONLY ones on this entire bus. We are dumped off on the street and look around hopefully for some signs indicating where we need to go. No such luck. André (aka - the only one of the 5 of us who can speak french at all) goes in the local convenience store (tobac) and asks for directions. We look around at the lovely street.
The shopkeeper reels off the directions as if he's been asked 1000 times. Thanks! says André and leaves. He rejoins our little crew and explains he only understood the first part of what the guy said but he's sure we will find it. Now, here is where I get irritated. We are not in a city where we can ask for help -- this is a little village!!! But, am I willing to go in and do these things myself? No - the humiliation would be too great. Therefore, we go on, hoping for the best.

It works out very well, actually. It is a beautiful day and we enjoy walking along - seeing the amazing gardens, beautiful vistas, a nearly vertical vineyard and old memorials to the glory of the French resistance during WWII.

Eventually we come to a sign for something that leads off into a woodsy path and (luckily) a runner happens by. He tells us to continue on to the cascade. We do so, finding the little path that leads down a very steep hill. Now, as many of you know, we love to hike and do so very often. The kids are experienced and sure footed. Callie and Griffin head gamely down the hill but Zander, for whatever reason, is terrified - we really have to help him alot to get down but we are catching glimpses of the waterfall through the trees and this helps inspire him to overcome his fear. Still, since it is now past 1pm all the kids needed a bit of encouragement:
What a beautiful waterfall - I have never seen one so high.
Here, Griffin, let me lift you up for a minute so you can see it - we'll be able to get closer soon
Can you hear the sound of the water falling? Isn't that amazing?
Ooh, look! It even seems as if the grounds around the base of it are groomed with flowers and benches - this will be perfect for our picnic....
Right now we are hugging this fence along the path, but we will get to the end of that and be able to go around it to the waterfall soon...
Yes, I know it seems like we are getting further away -but this fence must be a deer fence to protect the plantings around the waterfall....
Wow! Look at that big white castle type house at the end of the fence. I bet that must be the park office where you can get more information about this place and go in to see the waterfall better.
(Have you seen the handwriting on the wall?)
Yep - turns out the entire cascade is private property!! We can't see it closer than the glimpse through the trees that we already had. The kids are outraged - Zander insists that it is just plain mean and my thought is that this is totally unamerican (um, yeah).
I mean, this cascade is in the guidebook (they must have broken in to get the picture they did) as something to go and see. The shopkeeper knew where it was and so did the runner. I guess this is normal in France but the idea that we could be forbidden to take a good look at something so magnificent really ticked me off! On the other hand, it must be pretty nice for those people, owning their own waterfall. I wish I had the money to buy it myself so I could liberate it - as it should be!

The Trapped Waterfall

We headed back, passing some incredibly cute and curious sheep and found a lawn to eat our lunch on (bread, cheese and meat with apples from a friend's tree followed by chocolate bars - yum!) and headed back down the mountain.

When life gives you lemons - make lemonade! We decided to explore the path we had passed up earlier and had a great time hiking up the mountain. We saw some amazing views and took turns screaming echos down the mountain (seems Zander has inherited my ability to make one's voice carry incredibly far). The coolest part though, was that we got to walk along part of an ancient Roman road - we could see where the chariots had dug grooves into the rock -that was simply amazing. We probably ended up covering 3 miles - and Griffin walked the whole way until the very end - Zander and Callie did get tired and were carried for a few hundred yards by Daddy.

Called the cab and got home only about 5 minutes late for the babysitter. Her name is Flore and she speaks English. All the kids are so exhausted they are whining and fussing - a perfect time for us to escape! We headed to the thrift store. If we had a car it would be a 15 minute drive - but it takes over an hour on the bus - so annoying! We get there and find a DVD player with speakers and a bunch of platters and things for the party- we also see a fridge to replace our broken one and are relieved to see they are open tomorrow morning (most everything here is closed on Sunday)- we will try to borrow Olivier's car and transport it home then. Headed back to Centre Ville and went out for Chinese food -best meal out I've had so far in France.

Sunday (are you still with me?)
We get up and have French toast (what do they call that here?) and do some house cleaning - then Olivier heads over to drive us to the thrift store for the fridge. It is hard for us to always have to ask for help from him but we need a fridge so what can we do? He says, "I don't think they are open on Sunday" but we assure him that we were there the night before and checked the hours. He offers to drive us over himself. When we arrive the store is, you guessed it, closed! We misread the sign for the store next door. How embarrassing! Oliviers comment 'It is not a problem, now you will have another thing for your blog' Voila!

We head back home and Griffin works on another 5-6 pictures (he is prolific!) and Zander makes an incredibly cute ghost tram. We are getting excited for our upcoming pumpkin party and work on some of the decorations for it. Griffin is having a bad belly day and poops on the floor through his undies and pants 2x - poor little guy. Appointment on Tuesday about what to do about him and school stuff. Our DVD player and speakers work - now all we need are some French DVDs and a TV set.... I have been blogging but now the rest of the crew has returned from their visit to Olivier for a playdate with his kids - turns out Griffin had another huge poop while he was there and had to have a bath! Poor little guy!
Hope you are all well.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Stuff delayed - AGAIN!

I can't believe it!

Just heard from the shipping company that our stuff will not arrive until the beginning of next week. We paid beaucoup dollars for the 'best' shipper so we would get our things!

Here is the nasty note I wrote to our contact:

Just heard our stuff won't even arrive in Antwerp until monday at the earliest thats the 20th - Thursday the 23rd will be 2 full months of waiting for our stuff. In an earlier email you stated it would probably take at least an additional 2 weeks from arrival to get through customs and get on a transport to our home. This means we will be waiting probably at least 2 and 1/2 months for our items from when they were picked up in Philadelphia.

When we hired Sea and Air International over other shipping companies (at a MUCH higher rate than others) it was soley because you said you would gaurantee arrival at a quicker rate. Others said they could not get it to us until the end of October, we found this unacceptable and chose your company instead.

Not only will my (3, 5 and 7 year old) children not have their homemade Halloween costumes. I do not have proper winter clothing for them or blankets to keep them warm at night. They and my husband have been sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor for over one month.

This situation is not what we were promised - or what we paid a premium for. We believe we should recieve financial compensation for this inconvenience.

Please advise,
Rebecca Dhondt

Anyway - I am livid - and very stressed! I was counting on getting that stuff.

1. we are cold
2. we are tired of sleeping on the floor
3. I am throwing a party next weekend and I needed my cooking pots and costumes etc..,
4. Kids have 2 weeks off school starting next Friday and I was counting on us having our toys/crafts and amusements to play with during this break. Now what am I supposed to do with them for 2 straight weeks?

OK - I am now going to whine a bit MORE - feel free to skip this.

In France you only get paid once per month and since A only worked 8 days in Sept that means (except for the tiny bit that this paid us) we will be completely out of work/pay for over 5 months - and need to hang on until Nov. We don't have health insurance yet (until André gets his green card/carte de séjour finalized) and I have strep throat for the 4th or 5th time this year. There is NO way we are going to be able to travel or adventure etc... for the forseeable future. Anouc (Zander's new best friend) can't come to the Pumpkin Party which is devastating Zander so much he has been destroying something every day (cut up tablecloths, smashed glasses etc..) and Griffin is still not potty trained. Our fridge doesn't work, we can't afford to replace it, Callie and Zander are peeing their beds at night and when it is pouring rain, your sleeping bag doesn't dry too well and we have no extra linens. We have broken so many of Olivier's things it is insane - and can we afford to replace them? No. I am going to have to beg our French friends for the supplies to throw this party (Oh, hey, remember that party I wanted you to come to? Well, can you give me pots, and pans, and a table, and chairs, and tablecloths, and hmmm.... a ladle or two, a decent peeler, a butcher's knife etc...., etc.... so I can actually have it?)


Anyway - off to the doctors to get my antibiotics (again!)



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