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.