Monday, February 23, 2009

Roller Coaster

So my life is having lots of ups and downs, as usual - hope you are ready for another meandering wander through my brain.

Up, up and away.... On Friday - I got a call from an American living in Besancon - I am meeting with her and another few English speakers this Wednesday. It is strange - I feel like a child, or just a pity case. People take a look at me and say, hey, she needs to have a play date - let's invite her over to our house! In the past, at least as an adult, I've always met people through my volunteer activities or the gym or at work etc... I think as a kid, I met my mom's friends kids, the kids from my classes and on my teams. Here I feel like I am nothing and no one, except the mom of three - and who does that hook me up with??? Perhaps the play date method is the way it works when you can't speak the language. Or, perhaps this is just the way it happens in France? It seems much more stressful this way - what to wear, what to say, oh no, what if they don't like me one bit??? But I am VERY happy to at least have the chance to bomb and the hostess hails from Wisconsin, where also lives one of my dearest friends, so that is always a good omen.

Down, down that steep hill.... went to my second riding class Friday evening. Alone, this time. I really enjoyed the class last week and was looking forward to it. But the level of independence they expect from me at this school is quite shocking. This week I was only told the name of my horse. I had to groom, saddle and bridle him on my own (which I can sort of do, but, no one ever checked my girth - or ANYTHING before I hopped on the horse, which seemed odd to me - how do they know that I know what the hell I'm doing?) Then, of course, there was the lesson. It was incredibly challenging for many reasons. First, I had a more normal horse (last week they gave me the autopilot model, used safely by first timers everywhere). Second, I am just not used to English saddle/reins and, most especially, the little whippy thing they want me to use. Third, I can't understand the language! I don't know why this wasn't a bigger problem last time, perhaps André's presence in the viewing area somehow reached me osmotically? Well this week I was really struggling. The instructor (who seems to be quite excellent, by the way, despite Andre's fears) is really trying to get us to control our horses, find our seat etc... and keeps asking us for more and more complicated actions on the horse, which I simply can't follow and keep screwing up. This is frustrating not only because it makes me look like a big fool (which isn't the most fun) but also because it is impinging upon my ability to learn. I am a very coachable person - but not a natural athletic type. I need the instructions to get better! At the end he had me galloping around the ring (again with no stirrups) and I almost got tossed off a few times because I can't really control the little whippy stick and it kept whacking the horse who was (understandably) pissed off by that. How embarrassing! Then they left me to unsaddle and unbridle and blanketize my horse (again completely on my own) and I took the bus home, discouraged, but determined to return.

Again on the upswing was Saturday morning, we finally found a yoga class for me - it is only one morning per week - and won't start until after the vacances, but I am still very excited to have a chance to do some yoga again. After going to the yoga office, André led us to a local park we hadn't visited yet and the kids spent about an hour playing around. Zander made a lovely ice and dirt cake to share with a little local girl that was also there. I was really proud of him because he spoke in French to the little girl and to her grandmother. Meanwhile Griffin walked around a lot and Callie made several arrangements of twigs, pine cones and leaves that strongly reminded me of ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement). Most of the snow has melted now and we are getting more temperate weather. It was fun to be able to sit on a bench and soak up some sun. André, of course, was only wearing his thin leather jacket and got cold.
In the afternoon we went to Luna Park - a carnizaar type thing being held in the local exhibit hall for the duration of the vacances. I had saved some money but I wasn't sure what to expect -
in the US these types of things are highway robbery. Well, let me tell you folks, France is the place to go to have fun at the fair. All the rides were only 1 Euro and there were lots and lots of them. Also, they seem to realize that each ride should last longer than 35 seconds. I actually had time to get bored waiting for the kids to finish riding around on their little plasticine swings. Perhaps the reason for the reduced prices is the obvious lack of concern for personal safety. People were hanging out of cars, walking next to speedy vehicles and I didn't see any inspection stickers anywhere. I would guess the liability insurance these guys have to pay is quite a bit lower than our own. There was one loop-de-loop, though - the bumper cars. I think this tip should be added to all French guide books everywhere. For your own safety, travelers, please refrain from riding on bumper cars unless you plan on not bumping into anyone, ever. At least, not anyone who isn't already part of your entourage. Bumping other people in bumper cars, apparently, is incredibly rude. And, I might add, dangerous, as the offended person gets some serious bumper car road rage (regular road rage doesn't seem to exist here, so I guess they grabbed their chance when it appeared). A French person accidentally broke this unwritten rule (can you believe she bumped into André, in a bumper car?) and actually apologized, profusely. Well, after that particular dose of daily culture shock wore off (as well as the whiplash) we went on to enjoy trampolines and trains and a cool roller coaster that went fowards and backwards and we never had to tell the kids, sorry, we can't afford another ride..... (bliss). We even had enough money left over to get everyone (for the first time ever) their own barbe a papa (in the past we always shared one amongst the five of us). For those of you with a little linguistic knowledge I will confirm, yes, barbe a papa does mean daddy's beard. Um.... yuck - who wants to eat that? (OK, I know cotton doesn't sound all that appetizing either, but definitely nowhere near as gross as facial hair). The cotton candy shown here is the small size - there was also a famille and a 'super geant'. Since, as you can see, the small is over twice the size of Griffin's head, I can't imagine how big the 5 Euro super geant would have been. It was simply a great time.
And then, there came the swimming lessons. These started this morning at 9am. I signed the kids up for them not only because I want them to learn to swim better but also to give us something to do each morning during the vacances. I figured they'd have their lesson, then we'd all swim together for a bit and head home for a late lunch and shortened afternoon. I have been pumping up how amazingly fun this is going to be to them for about 2 weeks. Well, ixnay on that anplay! Turns out, Griffin and I aren't allowed in the pool at all (try explaining that to him) and the kids have to leave right after their lesson to make room for the next group. The exception is on Wednesday, when we can stay and play a bit longer.
Well, OK, I can deal with that. Griffin (happily bribed by a vending machine chocolate bar - bad mom, I know), Griffin and I get to watch the lesson from a viewing area above. (French like these remote viewing areas, I've noticed) The kids are very far away - hard to even distinguish one from another. There are about 20 kids between 6 and 10 years old, and 4 instructors - it is a 45 minute lesson. First, they have them all jump into the pool and see if they are scared of water. Only about 8 of them are - they go in the 'kiddie' area with one instructor and mine go with the other dozen kids to the bigger pool - this takes the first 15 minutes. They each get a noodle and then spend about 20 of the next 30 minutes waiting on line. C and Z get in the water a total of about 6 times. 4 times of these they are swimming on their back, with the noodle to support their little heads. Huh, well, they can both already swim on their back without a noodle at all. The other two times they took them where the water is deeper and, I kid you not, stuck a metal pole into the deep water which the children were supposed to slide down, firefighter style. Well, my kids would have been just fine simply jumping into the water and swimming to the edge and Zander had no problem with the pole - although I think they got a bit worried when he swam around at the bottom of the pool for a few minutes before coming up but it scared Callie a bit. Then, um, that was it, they got their towels and went back in and I collected them for the ride home. Callie is pretty happy since she got to socialize with Noemi and the other kids. Zander is pissed, he wanted to swim and this was not swimming. It took me weeks of prep to get him psyched for this class as he fears anything new, now the rest of the week is sure to be a bit of a struggle. Oh, and wait, there's more, I can't believe I forgot to mention this part. Remember the 4 instructors? None of them ever got wet. None of them even had a bathing suit on. No demos, no examples.... nothing. I just couldn't get over this and asked Noemi's mom, Alina about it. Oh, that's the way they do it in France. That's how she learned and she learned great. It must be true as over in the other lanes were a bunch of tweens and teens doing steady and gorgeous crawl, backstroke and even butterfly. But, I just can't really believe it. I suspect they must have had private tutors.
Well, tomorrow is another day!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Zander's Blog

The following was transcribed as Zander spoke, so it is as authentic as I could manage - he talks fast! Zander said:

So, my bed has been pretty cold to sleep in, but I still can sleep. These nights I have been sleeping in and I wake up in the middle of the night 'cause of Callie - she wants me to let her do some stuff to play 'cause in the night, she says that she gets bored. All my animals, I care about them, and I sometimes make little houses with them. And, do you see that toilet paper roll in my pile? That's because I get snuffy alot.

This is my special place. I found it at the thrift store, and I said "Mom, could I get this?" and she said "yes" and I said, "could I get it today?" and she said "no" - but day after day we were getting furniture, like mommie and daddie's cabinet and their wooden furniture. Then, finally I got mine and Callie got a little doggie one. I have 2 special places and Callie has 3. Well, this little lock, you would think you would be able to get a lock and put it so it goes through but it doesn't.

Well, in my special place I have 285 marbles in a box and I have my paper box (that red one) and in that parachute I have a dog and in that yellowish looking plastic bag is my telescope and binoculars and a monocular. In our family, if you have a special place, you put your special things in there and no one else can take it BUT if someone else takes something the person who owns it takes it from them when they are taking it out to play with - they are NOT allowed to do that, if you know it's theirs.

This is what looks like a big pile of snow, but it is actually a football field, which is made of fake grass. Do you know when mom and dad blogged about the bat flying around eating the bugs? This is the same field. And even in the snow they go soccering here. The strange thing is that Callie and Griffin have to walk past it every day on the way to school because their school is on the other side of it and there is something amazing about this field. Underneath the field is actually a train tunnel! How do you know that it is there? There is NO way - actually you can't tell that it is under there at all. And we, Callie, Zander, Griffin and Mama and Dada have been there, in the train tunnel.

Well, this is Mama and Daddie at Smith playhouse camp and they are on the spinny which goes very fast. Some kids can't stay on it - Mama has to cling on it when Daddie pushes her. Well, I like it but sometimes you can't do it if no one can start you. A lot of the time I only liked it if there were two people on it - one could be here and one could be there. Well, I went to Smith Playhouse Camp and I had a teacher and she brang to my place a jewelry necklace thing - and I made Grammie a necklace, which Grammie weared, but I accidentally dropped it and it broke, one bead. This picture is in Mommie and Daddie's room on their dresser.

This is Griffin running around, trying to not get caught by a camera flash. I thought that was a pretty hard game to try to get a picture of him. So I tried to do it and get him, plus, I did the same with the cat. Well Griffin is screaming as he's doing it, like "AAHAAA, AHHHAAA" and he's shutting a door, which there is another picture and all you can see is a door with a little light. He has this necklace that he says is only for the night - but he's been wearing it all day -so I don't think it is an only a night necklace. And, do you see him running like that? I got a picture of only his hair because he was running like that - which was not too good. I got a lot of pictures that were not too good.
He said "AAAAAAA" and then he shuts the door and he pees in his pants and then he gets undressed so his legs are all naked and he's walking down the steps and then he is walking down the steps and he has no pants on and then he comes up with new pants on and starts running around again - then I try taking pictures of the cat.
I think he thinks I'm still playing this game, which I don't think I am.

This is Simone, standing on the stairs, and she's looking at me like "What is he doing?" So then I take a picture of her, and then she runs under the bed, and so I take a picture of her underneath there and then she comes out again - and then she goes in the living room. And I take pictures of her on the rug and plus I take one of her walking away out of the room. Simone is not allowed in the living room because she scratches the couches, but I thought it would be good to take some pictures of her on the rug.

This is Callie, starting to make dinner for our whole family today - she got chips, some juice and some pasta and some cheese and some lines of cheese and some cheesy bacon sauce and tomatoes and a treat and it was delicious. And this is Callie behind all of our family, and if you look very closely you can see it a bit, on the one persons family - if you imagine you can just see them but it is hard to tell who they are. Grammie can tell about the family she knows, but the Petersons can tell who they know. But we can tell them all. It is very small, but we can see them a lot better because they are on our door. If they were real sized, they would be too big for the blog.

This is a humungous train track that me and Daddie built - but I built on it more. That black line is actually the Polar Express. It's hard to get the whole track - In a different blog I can show you more. This gray thing is a Cardboard Castle that I put a little lego wall between it. The pink castle is Callie's castle for her princesses - I made it into another wall for the castles. Then, you see that green pile on the side? Daddie made it into another wall but Mom knocked it down. It actually has barely any walls, compared to the Citadel. Well, we have some lego soldiers and if you look on the side near the green part, it is actually part of the train track - the black line again is actually another train on the track. It is actually the breakdown train.

This is a recipe momma made that she found in a magazine that we ate twice. The person who made it said that her kids liked it. And everyone did, except for Griffin until we said it was pink soup. The second time we had it he said, "I don't like pumkin soup." and then, "I don't like tomato soup" and then Mama said, "No, I made tomato soup for Callie and Zander and I made pink soup for you, Griffin" Oh, then he liked it. That worked because pink is his favorite color - and we dipped grilled cheese in it which is strange.
I took all the pictures of this and I liked making it with my mom. I miss everybody. Love, Zander

Saturday, February 21, 2009

long run to chappelle de buis

Last Sunday I went for a long run that was quite beautiful... I've decided to stop blogging here about most of my runs except for the scenic routes, and at this time of the year that means weekend runs since my normal 5:30 runs are too dark to see anything. Well, because of our hike on Saturday I really wanted to get a look at a ridge line that seems higher than any of the hills I've climbed so far, and so I also decided to bring the good camera along. I started from our house with a descent to theDoubs and this beautiful old train bridge:

The bridge was right at the bottom of the citadel:

From there I continued upriver to go through this arch:

...and then I scooped up behind the citadel on a steep switchback road that was covered in ice. It was hard to keep moving up, it was so slippery. I had looked at a map before I went out and identified a dead-end road that looked promising for seeking the highest point on the ridge. This led me along farm roads and then turned into a footpath. I think that this entrance is an old arsenal... but it was too dark to go inside and I was on a run, anyway.

Next I emerged from the forest to find this pretty little church building amongst a tiny village. I got great views from the church parking lot.

Then I headed to a scenic overlook, but I didn't get any good pictures at that spot. Now it was time to run downhill! I found this old roman road, but it didn't look passable at this time of year,

then I got some more views of the citadel. At the bottom I hit the beautiful Doubs, before heading back up through our residental (and not as picture-worthy) neighborhood. All in all, it was a 2-hour run. I have no idea if I ran a decent pace, since so much of the terrain was icy or uphill or downhill, but I felt pretty good on the run. I also really enjoy the exploration!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Psychos, subs, sexism, sledding and sobbing....

Well, Zander has been a real delight lately (as you may have gathered) and on Tuesday he came home extremely unhappy. I was unable to figure out why until he had already physically attacked me, his sister and his brother, thrown his glasses (losing a lens) and tried to break our glass door. I finally ended up holding him down for about 15 minutes until he promised to stop being destructive.

I find this incredibly frustrating since I haven't had to hold him down like that since probably the first week we were here and before that it had been months and months, and also since such attention is completely counterproductive. I mean, let's face it, when I am holding him down I can't really give attention to the other munchkins, can I? Of course, I tried to and actually did hold down a conversation with Callie and Griffin about their days at school, attempting to ignore, as much as possible the writhing scratching spitting creature trapped beneath me. Here is something I never knew I would be doing as a parent - talking about art projects and wrestling simultaneously!

The ironic thing is that I would also classify Zander as my most thoughtful and considerate of our bunch. Here he is holding a little tree he created for Griffin. The other day he made Callie a little picture just for her and he is always the one who wants to send pictures and cards to Grammie and Grandpa and mentions missing Lina and Livi (his cousins) all the time. He will be extra quiet when someone is napping and, for our last anniversary, convinced the other two to let Andre' and I sleep in for about an hour while he engineered breakfast and entertainment. His teachers always say he is the kindest of all the boys in the class. He has been through counseling, we've read every book around, we try to manage his behavior in a consistent, expertly reccomended fasion. Where does all this rage come from?
Once he finally calmed down, the tears started and I discovered he had been cursed with, oh horror of horrors, a substitute that morning at school. And, not just any substitute either. (He has experienced a sub in France one other time) But this one, this was a really, really, really mean substitute. She wouldn't speak English to him at all, or help him understand, and if he didn't do his work, she would put him in time out, AND if he tried to ask one of his friends for help to understand what his work was - she put him in time out. Apparantly, she put the whole class in time out at one time or another - "even if you just breathed too much or, like, wiggled your legs."

Now, I realize of course, how stressful and hard this must have been for him. Imagine being told what to do, not understanding what you are told, and then being punished for not following instructions! He prides himself on his extremely good behavior in school - he always does his best, and she wouldn't cut him even a tiny break. Throughout all this crushing unfairness, he still tried his best, went to time out quietly when the teacher asked and behaved himself. That's worth something.
But I guess he used up all his reserves by the time he got home and an explosion was inevitable. I DID forget to ask him if anything bad had happened that morning when I first picked him up - a measure that we put in place long ago to help him to remember to tell me what was bothering him. So, really, it is my fault, right? I told him I really didn't like having to hold him down like that. His response? "Well, but Mom, sometimes you just have to!" How comforting - to know I have to do such things.
Then, of course, he did not want to return to school that afternoon. "She is so mean and unfair, Mom!" I have to be honest, I half wanted to let him stay home, I mean, what is he learning? IF he had told me first off, without almost killing his siblings and me, about this crazy sub, I probably would have let him stay for the afternoon - but I never want to reward such bad behavior. So I tried to remind him of something I've told him numerous times in the past - sometimes life isn't fair - and sometimes you just have to deal with things not going your way. Well, his response to that was to crawl under the kitchen table and cry - along with flat out refusing to go to school. (At least he didn't attack anyone or break anything, and the fact that he was crying meant he was getting his feelings out - which is good). It took me another 15-20 minutes to convince him to come and get ready to go. By this time, of course, we were all incredibly late - which is super duper frowned upon in France.
I knew he would have a tough afternoon so I brought the sleds along with me for pick up so he could ride out some of that frustration down a hill before coming home and possibly committing hari kari.... Unfortunately, the other moms did not want to go sledding and a few of the kids had a hard time (understandably) passing us by as we sledded merrily down the hill. Tebo - who seems to be almost preternaturally obedient, turned around immediately and rejoined his mom when she called him while Noemi was, shall we say, a bit reluctant. Her mom agreed to let her go for one ride with Zander and then she was dawdling etc... and not wanting to come back up the hill. Her mother, getting frustrated, said "She is difficult!" and I said, pointing to Zander: "Oh yes, so is Zander" Her response - "Oh, but he is a boy...Noemi is a girl - she is supposed to be nice". Ummmm.... am I trapped in a Leave it to Beaver episode or something? I tried to explain that she couldn't really say that in the US, that we think some boys are stubborn and some girls are stubborn and some boys are 'easy' and some girls are 'easy'. Kids all have their own personalities and temperments. (Of course, my ability to express this in French was, to say the least, limited) I pointed Griffin out as an example of an easy-going little fellow. Well, I guess I thought this might make her feel better or something, but she just didn't get it. Noemi is a girl, she repeated, she is supposed to be gentle. I have found the level of gender roles here to be extremely annoying. Callie plays running games outside with her friends almost every day. Their favorite is Loup (wolf). In this game the boys are the chasseures (hunters) with guns and the loups (wolves) are the girls - they run away from the chasseures. Another game is pirate - the boys are pirates and the girls are 'the girls that the pirates are chasing'. Callie has told me, straight out: "I can run faster than all the boys, Mom, but I just go slow so they can catch me - then they won't feel bad." OK - I thought acting like a weak female to feed male egos was a stage that wouldn't arrive until she was a teenager - or hopefully never! They discipline boys and girls differently too. In the preschool, if girls hit, or don't share it is frowned upon but if boys do, that is just them being boys. Griffin says: "I don't like boys, the boys are mean." Mom: "What do they do?" Griffin: "They hit me and they take things. That's why I only like girls, the girls are nice." Mom: "But what about you Griffin. Are you a boy?" Griffin: "Oh yes, I'm a nice boy." Similar in Zander's school - lately he has been trying the physical play a bit on the playground. Noemi will literally tackle him and hurt him, with no consequence at all. If he retaliates against her, though, he gets in big trouble but he can roughhouse with the boys and it is not a problem. If he complains one of the boys is hurting him, there is no consequence for that boy (unless they are much bigger or something). It just seems to get worse as they are older. I pass the soccer field near our house and the boys and girls (tween age) are gender split into two teams for soccer. The boys are awesome, running, passing, dribbling etc... They are covering 2/3rds of the field. The girls, giggling and falling over, are relegated to the remaining third - and are mostly not even trying. I did see a few excellent young women playing - but they were tossed in with the boys. Really, really makes me want to scream. I was talking to someone about how the kids fight here and they said: ''Oh, well you can't go through life without learning to fight.'' "Oh really?" was my logical response, 'Well, I've never been in a physical fight." Then without skipping a beat he said: "Oh, but you are a girl." My response? "Oh, and you are a sexist!" (Yes, I literally did say that - guess my tact gene is missing - how suprising since according to the French I should be a 'nice' girl)

Well, as a consolation prize to the dissappointed friends, the moms invited us to sled with them the following afternoon. It was another lovely Wednesday and we spent the morning hanging at home and in the afternoon while Callie went to another birthday party (ride courtesy of another nice mom) Zander, Griffin and I joined Tebo's family for some luge. There is a hill behind the apartment complex I never knew was there. The snow stopped falling Monday and it got a bit warm on Tuesday, making tons of fun slush. By Wednesday it had all frozen to solid ice. This hill was steep, and, basically covered in a sheet of ice. It seems that it is part of a farmer's field or something as there is a barbed wire fence surrounding it - well, we just slithered right under that little barricade. It seems the French don't really mind trespassing.

It was actually great fun - super fast and super slippery. Griffin and I went down together a bunch of times and Zander was going on his own or with his friends. One strange thing about French sledding - there is no unwritten up and down protocol. In the US, my experience has always been - you walk up one side and slide down another spot. Here in France, whereever we have sledded, it is perfectly fine to simply walk right up where you just sledded down - and to sled down merrily right next to people struggling up the hill, often knocking them down. Makes me crazy. I try to convince mine to walk to the side anyway. Well, Zander was getting bored, I suppose so he decided to try going down on his belly and flipped over, planting face first into the ice. I saw it happen and ran over. Luckily he was not seriously hurt, but, not so luckily he lost his glasses and we couldn't find the lens that popped out anywhere. Poor guy!

Thursday was the day the terrific Isabelle was taking me to a coffee with some other ladies, all of whom, supposedly were transplanted Americans or married to transplanted Americans. I was very excited to finally be meeting some new potential friends. There were about 8 people there in all and one of them was another new Bisontin who has 4 children. She spoke no English or perhaps just very little and so everyone started out speaking in French. In fact, it turned out that except when I spoke and when one person asked me a question, everyone spoke in French the whole time. Isabelle was wonderful, translating for me and trying to help me out, but it was very frustrating for me as I couldn't really understand what was going on, get the jokes etc.... and also because I thought people would be speaking in English since they wanted to meet me or something. (Silly me, I know, I know - earth to Rebecca this is france - get used to it!) I did bring a zucchini cake and that was a big hit and it was fun to get out of the house - but I really didn't get a chance to connect with anyone new.

I got home just in time to pick up the kids for lunch - on the way home Tebo and Zander were playing and Tebo pushed Zander a bit too hard at the top of a hill knocking Zander down and hurting his feelings. So, did he push Tebo back or tell Tebo he was mad? No, both of those reactions would make sense. He (being Zander) decided to hurl himself, rolling, down the rest of the hill and then lay, crying, at the bottom holding his ankle. Oh man, these are the times I HATE being mom - Oh how I wished to not be the one to have to go down there. But, of course I did, falling over in the mud, cutting my hand and trashing my jeans and jacket. Noemi, ever proving she is no typical 'nice' girl, started laughing and pointing at the sorry scene I made. I crawled over to Zander, helped him up and we made it home. I only burst into tears once we got into the door. Sometimes, it is all just too much for me. Sometimes it is all just too hard. Whose job is it to run down that hill and nurse me?

Today starts the 2 week February vacation. Hopefully Zander will be happy to have a break from the stresses of school. His teacher told me the other day "It's a miracle - he is trying to speak in French!" Let's hope this break doesn't result in a backslide! I may not have time to blog for awhile as I will be taking care of the kids 24/7, we will have swimming lessons and carnivale next week and then we will be vacationing in Belgium the week after - I hope that I will do better than I did last vacation - it took me forever to catch up!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

French websites

Have I mentioned yet that French websites suck?

OK, I know I'm a prejudiced American, but I have been dealing with French websites for about 6 months now and I have seen quite a few - and I'll tell you, one of the things I will enjoy when we go back home is NEVER having to visit another French website.

But, cyber duty called. As the stay-at-home section of the family, part of my job is travel agent. I do all the research, budgeting, packing and (unfortunatly) web purchasing for our adventures. With the trains, the earlier you sign up for tickets, the cheaper they are. We are so excited to finally be going on a long train ride. We will be taking the bullet train to Paris - it only takes about 2.5 hours!!! So, got to get those cheap seats, right? You can start ordering as much as 3 months ahead of time, which would have meant the beginning of Feb since we are heading out the last week in April. The cheapest seats they have are at 22 Euros each - well, I wasted 2 weeks and couldn't get those so our tickets will end up being about 25 Euros each - still a bargain! This low, low price is opposed to one time when André had to go to Paris suddenly (to retrieve the cat) and it was over 100 Euros for the same ticket!

So, here I am on the website, trying to nail down those seats. Like the other French sites I've been forced onto this one is poorly designed, slow, inflexible and crashes constantly. I spent over 2 hours this morning trying to reserve the tickets. The site crashes, the site won't let you order more than 6 tickets at once (we need 7) the site won't put the 7th person next to the other 6 - or even in the same train car.
OK, worked out all that out, sort of (guess lucky Grandma and Grandpa Peterson will have a quiet ride to Paris in another train car). I'm finally ready to order - and the site has, irrevocably, it seems, decided that the country I hail from is......... Belgium! (Do you think they analyzed the roots of our last name, or know about our upcoming vacation???) There is no way to change this option, and of course, the credit card will not work that way - so I have to start all over from the beginning - but when I go to reserve the same seats I had 5 minutes before - they are now somehow unavailable????

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!! It's like being back in the 90's on some dial up machine, only worse, because I've come to expect better by now.

OK - give me the 118 Euro ones instead of the 101, no? How about the 140 Euro spot? No? Hmmm... can we go first class??? We are livin' the dream, right? No matter what I do I get the red letters of death:

Nous n'avons pas pu réserver vos places, car les dernières places qui étaient disponibles lorsque vous aviez choisi le train, ont été depuis réservées par une autre personne. Veuillez ressaisir vos choix pour un autre voyage.

Which means:
We could not reserve your places, because the last places which were available when you had chosen the train, have since been reserved by another person. Please seize again your choices for another voyage.

Seize what chance??? You have been telling me that all the spots - on all the trains, at all the times, are gone? I am translating as I go along, which is slow, but the English language site crashes more often than the French - I just don't trust it.

Well, can I just buy the outward trip (which still works)? Of course not. No choice but to start over again. I decide to divide and conquer! I split the outward and return trips into two separate purchases - it makes no difference in the price and I figure, at least I'll get us halfway there. This works, finally, although Grandma and Grandpa are still in another train car. (Or maybe if we can convince them to let it be André and I.... train date sounds good to me.)

I dread next week, when I will attempt to reserve our spots on a trip to Versailles and a visit to EuroDisney.......

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The sound of spring?

So, we get these free magazines and papers at our house periodically and they often feature lists of local things to do. Shows, art exhibits, concerts, etc.... I always read through them, not only to
improve my French skills (and, I must say, my reading comprehension is pretty high at this point - for example, the other day I found a paragraph advertising a local running club which I lovingly clipped out and handed to André - his response: "Um, this is to learn how to be a beekeeper" Well, don't you think he should broaden his horizons a bit?) Anyway, I look to see if there might be anything interesting for us to go see or do. Of course, we always prefer those 'somethings' that are also free.

Last weekend we hung around the house, and, by the end we were all a bit stir crazy, so I was
determined to get us to go somewhere this weekend. This is why we all got up early on Saturday, told the kids they would have to wait (again) to open their Valentines packages, and bussed on over to Centre Ville.

We were headed to a free, guided bird watching tour - in the 'collines' (i.e. hills) of Besancon. All
went according to schedule and we joined a group of about a dozen others. A few of them looked pretty serious. One guy had a giant spyglass on a tripod - when I got a bit closer I saw the imprint of an eagle and the brand name "Swarovski" - ooh la la! I am a bit worried that perhaps, we are supposed to be completely silent during this, which would, of course, be impossible for my 3, less than quiet, children. (There are way too many commas in that sentence!) André and I have pre-agreed that if the going gets too hard, we will not hesitate to bail. Of course, we were the only people in the group who had children. I'm not sure why this is, but our experience, both here and in the US, is that people just don't bring children with them on these types of outings. Do they have more interesting lives than us? Are they sleeping in? Don't their kids like hikes in the woods and birds??? So, who does go out on these tours? Usually the population consists of older couples or friends and there is often a few college aged thrill seekers. (The same type of thrill seeking that I did when in college, since frat parties and night life were never all that appealing to me).

Of course, it takes like, half an hour to get everyone together, wait for stragglers, do introductions etc.... The kids are fine during this, actually they are happy since there is a giant half filled fountain nearby where we are meeting. They are all very busy throwing snowballs in it, scratching at it with sticks and (until stopped) attempting to climb into it. They could have done this for several hours, more than likely. But, nature calls! The leader of the group gathers us up and tells us we are going to take a nice walk over to Fort Chaudanne and stop and listen and look for birds along the way. We will go slowly and gently. (Luckily she doesn't mention a need to maintain silence). We call the kids (none too happy to leave their fountain shangri-la) and head off. Well, for whatever reason (probably because we ruined his fountain game), Zander decides to be a pain in the ass. He is cold, he is tired, he is bored, he doesn't want to go bird watching.....blah, blah, blah. The worst part was, that he had fallen in love with a giant stick which, of course, needed to accompany us on the walk. That kid drives me crazy sometimes. He is having lots of difficulty keeping up with the group - he almost whacks someone with the stick about 17 times etc... etc.... It is a delicate balance, I'm torn between keeping the peace and tossing him head first into the Doubs.

In the first few minutes I get my closest look at wild birds. Unfortunately, they are a couple of pigeons and a whole slew of mallard ducks - nothing I haven't seen before. Callie wonders if the ducks are having a Valentine party. We also stop and try to listen to bird songs. The guide (a passionate young woman clearly in the right profession) explains it is important to know which birds sing which songs, so you know what to look for and how rare it is. She also says that sometimes you may think a bird is common because their call is easily recognizable - but that might not be true. It may just be that their call is unique and stands out from the crowd. Hey, my friends and teammates my life through have always told me that they could find me anywhere. I just have that kind of voice that carries right across the room or field - perhaps this marks me as a rare bird..... (better than just being loud and obnoxious, right?)

The guide also said after one bird call (and I'm not making this up): "That is the sound of spring."I find this amusing not only because it is so overly poetic, but also because it is FEBRUARY and it is snowing!!!! Spring is not here yet, at least not in my book. I also wonder, what is the sound of winter? (jingle bells - hmm... but that only covers early winter - how about the sound boots make squeaking in snow) Of fall? (crunching leaves) Of summer? (the sound of waves on a beach) What do you all think of as the sounds of seasons?

Finally, we get into the woods. Once we are there, Zander gives up on his snit and starts having fun (whew). We walk a bit down a little used road and then head up the hill. It has been snowing on and off since Thursday and we had gotten another 1/2 inch or so that morning. This makes the (extremely steep) hill very slippery. We were all wearing our snow boots but it is definitely not easy going. Luckily we are all experienced hikers. I can't say the same for the rest of the group. Some of them are wearing Keds, some are just in sneakers and some are just not in shape. A couple of people turned back at about halfway up the hill. All I can say is. How humiliating! Can you imagine knowing, as an adult, that you can't make it up a hill a 3 year old can handle? Of course, as we all know, Griffin is not your average 3 year old hiker. He has been hiking the hills since birth, in our arms, in a backback and toddling along. I vividly remember taking him hiking in the Wissahickon when he was only 2 years old and he would absolutely REFUSE to hold my hand. He would be stumbling (it really wasn't walking) down a steep hill (from the Indian statue, for those of you who know this walk) and falling every 4 or 5 feet - but he would hop back up and keep on going. I would walk kind of sideways with my hands spread out - a moving mama fence. This was to make sure he didn't tumble down the cliff! OK, I know, MOST moms would have insisted on holding his hand, or just not taken him at all. We let our kids do all sorts of strange things. Climb trees, go around and around on escalators, explore caves, body paint, climb over the top of monkey bars.... After playdates and hikes with my family, I have had many a friend say, with a bit of dismay, some version of the sentiment: My kid never wanted to do that until he hung out with you guys.... Hello, and welcome to the dangerous, messy world of the Dhondts!

Well, this little colline (probably a 300 foot climb, full of slippery switchbacks) was no match for Griffin. For whatever reason, although he was at the end of the group and fell quite a bit behind near the end, he was determined to make it up to the top on his own. He only used the walking stick for about 5 minutes and that was as a 'snow stabber'. At one point, when the summit was pretty near but the going was tough, he literally began to chant. (I think it may have been a mantra) "grand garçon, grand garçon, grand garçon...." I made no comment, didn't want to break his concentration. Guess all the yoga I did when he was in utero and ever since must have made some impact.

Where were the other two? The 6 and 7 year old, by the end, were heading up the entire procession and were the first to make it up to the fort. This shot shows how they were already conquering the next switchback while I was sticking with 'grand garcon, grand garcon, grand garcon" Zander is the red dot in the photo - and Callie is the beige one next to him. André was the cameraman, in charge of the bags and binoculars, and was trying to hear some of the talk and see some birds.

Oh yeah, this is a bird walk right? So, uh, did you see any birds? Well, not really. We did bring 3 pairs of binoculars and stopped a few times while the lovely guide told us that a certain bird was in the area. They are so fast, the little buggers, and whenever I located a flutter with my eyes, it would be impossible to find with the binoculars, or it was completely out of focus. To be fair, Callie saw quite a few, she has a gift for spying things in nature. Luckily the guide had brought some close up photos with her of the local birds - to help those of us who didn't get a chance to see first hand.

Once we got to the summit there was a terrific view of Centre Ville. We stopped and broke off from the group to have hot cocoa and heartshaped Valentines cookies. André was excited to be able to have binoculars and find exactly where our house was located. I must be binocularly challenged, since I couldn't find it - and it doesn't move like birds do. After a bit, the group headed over where we were and we heard how some of the chemicals in the air and in the food that the birds eat is affecting
their ability to reproduce. It seems that the eggs shells are coming out more fragile than they used to and the mama birds just break them when they sit on them. The LPO (La Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux) works to find the nests and scoop up the weak eggs before they get broken. They then incubate them, hatch the babies, and put them back into the nests. Amazing. I wonder if they put fake eggs in to trick the birds while the eggs are incubating? I remember as a child, being told NEVER to touch a baby bird if you found it, because if it smelled like people, the mama would not feed it anymore. Was this a cruel hoax perpetrated on me by my parents to protect all the helpless baby birds out there? Do they have some way to make the birds not smell like people when they put them back in? Hmm.... here is where better language skills might come in handy.

I did spend some time talking with other hikers. One conversation I had was about how different Valentines is here than in the US. I have to say, I am torn over which I prefer. In France, Valentines Day is celebrated solely between people in romantic love (amoureuse) and not even all of them celebrate it - since it is seen as a commercial trap.

This, in many ways, made my life soooooo much easier this year. No making 3 classes worth of Valentines for my kids and no getting tons of candy etc... Callie did make a Valentine for her teacher, which confused her maitresse, but was graciously accepted anyway. That is what is a bit bad about not having Valentines USA style - it is a chance to show the people you love, that you love them. That can never be bad, right?

So, we now decide to bail on the group (bet they were glad)- it is time to head home. We go over to the fort and look around a bit. This blurb was on the outside of it on a board. "Fort Chaudanne was built between 1841 and 1845. It was one of the forts whose role was to defend the citadel. In 1944 it was the site of violent battles between the German army and soldiers from the 7th infantry of the US army, who liberated it on September 7th." It also said this was the hill that Louis the 16th took over and started firing cannons toward the Citadelle. This is what finally ended Bisontine independance, making Besancon an official part of France. It is amazing to look at this ruin and imagine all that happened there. It is so sad that we have such a long ruinous history of war and pain. And it seems like it will never, ever end. Callie said to me: "Mommy, I don't want to have to go to war." Let's hope she never does.

We journey onward and head down the hill on a different path. This one featured a really amazing underground cave of some kind. We figure it must have been an armory or perhaps a bunker for all those soldiers. It is too dark to go in very far. This is definitely a place we will have to return to for further exploration. (Yes, I realize this activity goes in the column of, um, is that really a good idea?) It is funny how many of these things are around in France. Are people here not so sue happy? Are the liability laws different? In the US, something of this nature would be boarded up and surrounded by signs saying: "Trespassers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." The fact I know that sentence by heart must prove something about the fear mongering environment I grew up in. I had a professor that once told me that I should become a lawyer. Hey, I'm still young, you never know.

Well, we finally made it down the mountain and home for a rather late lunch. Zander decided to be in a bad mood on the way home again and did one of his favorite, and most annoying activities, which is throwing his glasses. Believe it or not, this is an improvement over his earlier habit, which was simply attempting to snap the glasses in half (he was often successful). Unfortunately, tossing them also often breaks them and sometimes, (like when it is all snowy and they are brown wire frame glasses on a dirty brown snow trompled backgroud) it is hard to locate them. Took us about 20 minutes to find.
Urgh! We had lunch and then finally opened the Valentine's packages. Grandma Peterson sent a lovely boatload of candy and Grammie and Grandpa sent lots of stuff - highlight being these cute fuzzy doggies which the kids have been loving ever since. Guess my kids had a sort of American Valentines after all...

Well, whether I'm in France or not, I love you all so.... Happy Valentines from your rare bird, Rebecca.

Horseback riding with The Maimer

So as you know, I got Rebecca horseback riding lessons for her birthday. As a teen, she did ranch camp a couple summers and has loved horses ever since, and there's a riding academy just a 5 minute bus ride from here, so why not?

Well, I'm a little scared of horses. Our friend who took classes at this same academy got sidelined for 1 year with a little accident which involved a horse knocking her over, and those animals are just huge. But then again, a roller coaster isn't fun unless it's scary, right? What good is life if we shy away from everything fun? And, I reassured myself, this is just an intro class, sure to be led by an experienced, trained, professional.

Since it was the first class for Rebecca, and with the language barrier and all, we decided it would be a good idea if I came along. We weren't sure what to expect... but predicted something exceedingly boring involving basic skills (i.e. this is a horse, this is the saddle, this is the reins) and maybe, at the end, a chance to actually mount and do some endless walking around and around in a circle. Of course, even this level of equestrian skill would likely result in mass confusion because of all the new French words. We walked into the front door a bit late due to a delayed bus and they instantly recognized the arrival of the American family from our last visit... They informed Rebecca she would be riding Garauffe. She whispered to me: "Why couldn't I have gotten Joel? I won't even be able to pronounce the horse's name right!" I started browsing around at the signs and saw one that said something like: "since 1367 it has been standard practice for all horseback riders to wear helmets". Not all that reassuring. Then the instructor, dressed in ratty jeans and a sweatshirt, appeared. He promptly asked Rebecca if she knew how to brush the horse, and she responded "no" because she had no idea what he had asked her. I helpfully jumped in to inform him the answer was actually "yes" and tried to explain about the language barrier, but, before I could tell him a bit about her situation, he was off, leading her to Garouffe's stall (or as the kids called it, cage). I noticed the instructor was walking with a rather severe limp and really questioned (again) whether this was a good idea. Hmm.... surely Gimpy will be extra cautious with his students. Once bitten, twice shy, right?

Then a few stable hands helped Rebecca saddle and bridle her (gigantic) horse. His shoulder was about a foot over her head. Hmmm... Rebecca is not experienced with English style saddles and reins. This is not going to be easy.

The riding is all inside an enclosed barn. The kids and I went upstairs to a cafeteria where we could watch everything that was happening . In recognition of Valentine's Day (which is basically a non-event here, only celebrated by some with a romantic date), Rebecca has made each of us a picnic dinner, lovingly labelling each brown paper bag with our names in puffy stickers, and adding a valentine's note at the bottom of our meal. She gave us egg salad and fresh-baked sugar cookies....mmm! But for the kids, this was barely noticed. They were completely absorbed in watching mommie (especially Zander). They were so excited to see her on the horse, circling around the perimeter of the barn, then trotting, they were barely eating. Wait a minute, you may be thinking, how did she get on the horse so fast? Well, Gimpy walked the four students and their mounts into the ring and had them up in the saddle in about 2 minutes. Well, he seems to know what he is doing, all the horses are circling peacefully enough and Rebecca seems fine. She is even handling posting rather well and the language barrier doesn't seem insurmountable. But then, when I was lulled into a sense of safety and security, when I began to think maybe this would all be OK, Gimpy, turned on me. I think he must be bitter, having such an injury, this intro class might be his only chance to have another victim join him in his limping misery. As he began to speak, nay shout, commands such as: "Trot, with no reins" "Trot, with your arms folded" and "Trot, with your hands on your head!" I realized that he was no mild mannered Gimpy - he was The Maimer.... More commands followed, each more difficult than the last: "Everyone, walk around these traffic cones, except you Rebecca, YOU will be cantering around the perimeter" (and use that crazy upright English posture, too). This is a first, introductory lesson? Oh no, The Maimer wasn't finished yet. I saw him speaking briefly with Rebecca (she told me later she was explaining it was difficult for her to adjust from Western to English) and then, the worst happened. "Everyone, pull up those stirrups and drape them over the top of the saddle!" No hands? No feet? This can't be right... He started them out innocently enough.... he wouldn't be able to continue if his tactics were too obvious "Oh, just walk along and relax your feet, my darling students..." But then, as I watched in horror, The Maimer started them trotting along and then lined them up and had them canter around the ring. With NO stirrups. And who went first, Rebecca, of course. I heard one of the other students scream in fear at one turn around a corner... Then I asked the kids, do you think Mommy likes it? Zander said, oh yes--just look at her smile.

I asked afterwards to confirm this is the intro course... yup, debuttante. Do you think the owners have ever watched The Maimer at work? How does he keep all the French students from complaining? I would've fallen off the horse 6 times and never come back!
Well, she obviously survived, and even wants to return. I don't think I'll be watching the next time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Well, remember how it was gorgeous and sunny yesterday?

Today it has snown - at least 4 inches. It is that great, beauteous snow that sticks to all the tree branches and makes great snow balls and snow people.

Of course, it was also a school day, so we just hurried as fast as we could to get dressed and ready so we could all play in the snow together for a few minutes. It's amazing how quickly they can move when they have a good reason to.

Everyone had a great time and we made a giant snow man. (well, all of us except Griffin who was very busy shuffling through the snow. He was a conductor making train tracks and wanted us to get on his train). Once we finished decorating, we headed off to school and had a big snowball fight all the way there. I really value the time we spend together as a family each morning. On the way home, I stopped under a tree to read for about 15 minutes - how lovely.

Then my phone rang, turns out Griffin had a giant poop at school and I needed to go pick him up. The poor guy, when I got there he was sitting all alone in a chair out in the hallway - so the stench wouldn't infect the whole classroom (even though it did, I mean, I could smell it once I walked in the door). They thought he was sick, but I told them no, this is just how it smells sometimes! I keep waiting for them to say he is not allowed to be at school, this is the 4th time he's pooped at school since we restarted again after the winter holiday. The other three times it occurred towards the end of the morning so they just let him sit in it until I came to pick him up. This makes it so no other kids will sit around him, or play with him, and once gave him diaper rash. Does any of this dissuade him? Apparantly not. This poop, coming first thing in the morning, could not be waited out!

Trying a new recipe or two today - but it turns out my roasted chicken is, most likely, doomed. You are supposed to roast it, very low (250 F) and slow (for like 4 hours) - but my oven only goes as low as 170 C - which is 50 degrees higher than it should be. Hmm.... guess we'll just go with 170 and keep an eye on it. This is not the first time this oven has thwarted me. Why doesn't it go lower? Don't french people ever cook at low temperatures?

Went sledding on what was left of the rapidly melting snow this afternoon with neighbors and friends. Callie ended up mostly just sliding down on her back - it's a pretty steep hill so she was actually going pretty fast. I was amazed at how well even Griffin could climb up the slippery thing. He and I went down over and over - yes, we did crash into that green wall - but who cared? When we got home we had some yummy hot cocoa - thanks to Uncle Mark for bringing this from UT for us.


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