The toothpaste legacy

[Aside: If you checked the blog in the 24 hours prior to this post, you may have been greeted with an expired webpage notification. Thankfully, I did not check it during that time period or I may well have panicked that all was lost and plummeted into despair. A huge thank you goes to Chris who is hosting the page and renewed it, my friend Madonna (yes, the real one, as far as I am concerned) who sent me a pre-emptive message about the site's status (during which she also informed me that she is now sewing her own kids clothing line -very cool! check it out at ohaikids.com) and also thank you to Nik for remotely backing up the blog in some magical and very comforting fashion. Nik, I think you would get along nicely with Chris.]

The road leaving Aniane

A last ditch effort to make enough money to stay in France: Eric playing roulette at the Bastille Day celebrations

It really didn’t seem like we had accumulated that much stuff until we started to concentrate the booty strewn about the house into a smaller surface area. At this point, it became rather alarming. Marc had already made one trip home to Canada with a full duffle bag and returned with an empty one. Another whole duffle bag was sent with Marie and Gildas to be re-united with us in Toronto. The day before our flight, we headed out in desperate search of a cardboard box. Marc returned with a wine box which was extremely helpful until it was  full and then it was decidedly less helpful. A huge suitcase, two duffle bags, an army size tump-sack, a guitar and a card-board box, three carry-on backpacks, a carry-on suitcase and a picnic basket. Oh, and a pile of stuff still on the bed looking for a home.

The real 'tour de France' passed through a nearby town on our last weekend!

Marc implemented extreme triage measures. “Marbles, Graeme? You have two pounds of marbles here! Surely you can find someone to give them to?” No!! I NEED them! I won them! I love them!  Marc moves on to other victims. “No sunscreen! No shampoo and for the love of God, no toothpaste!”   I concede that he has a point about the toothpaste. Early on in our year, we lamented about the lack of availability in France of our favourite kind of toothpaste (Arm and Hammer baking soda in case you are wondering – we much prefer the paste to the gel kind but either are acceptable over other brands).  With the arrival of our first visitors came five boxes of the stuff and a further five arrived with the next wave. Somehow, through various children’s overnight trips, three bathrooms in use and general toothpaste mismanagement, we ended up with five partially used tubes and two full ones. These, we have left as a legacy to our stay and a house-warming gift to our soon-to-arrive Canadian stunt-double replacements who have rented the same house, purchased our car and bikes and walked into expectations of goodness-knows-what sort of stereotypical traps we have laid for them…

Last trip to St. Guilhem le desert

Leaving Aniane was one of the hardest things we have done. One last look around the too-tidy living room and all of my new-found emotional resolve left me. It also had the somewhat unsettling effect of dissolving the resolve of everyone within a 10 foot radius.  Marc pulled the front door closed for the last time and hesitated with the key in his hand. “Ready? Sure we have everything?” Through a haze of tears I see the luggage piled high in the back of Bastien’s truck. I nod although the finality of the throwing the key through the mail slot panics me. Clink. That’s it.  “Scenic route or highway?” Bastien asks, and we agree on scenic without thinking that this means driving all the way through town for the last time instead of taking a quick exit to the highway. “Bye, tabac” the boys call out. “Bye, salle des fetes. Bye, pizza place.” We drive past the school. “Bye school!” and then from Graeme to his beloved teacher although she is long gone: “Bye, Meat-dress!” At least this makes me laugh a little. Bastien checks the rearview mirror every few seconds sending sympathetic looks.

Chauffer Bastien's sympathetic smile

I begin to compile a mental list to remind myself of the the pros of living in Vancouver but my sneaky subconscious battles back after each new entry: sushi! (duck confit, foie gras, saucisse seche…), bagels! (baguette, croissant, pain au chocolat..), my own oven! (pre-rolled puff pastry…), mountains! (vineyards, plane-tree lined avenues…), huge drug stores where I can sniff shampoos and purchase items anonymously without having to discuss specifics with the clerk before having a remedy selected on my behalf! (sprawling street markets with farm fresh produce….), cheddar cheese! (oh, who am I kidding? This is a losing battle….) Arm & Hammer toothpaste! Dental floss! [This could be the turning point] Family! Friends! Maple syrup! The cottage!

Getting on the train at Montpellier

I relax into my seat and begin to enjoy the blur of lavender and grapevines. I feel Graeme clench his muscles in excitement beside me and look into his smiling face. “We’re going on a train! and a plane! and I get to see my cousins, and nana and nanny and Auntie Moniqu-eeee!”  Keep going kid, I think. I could use some help beefing up my list.

Canadian sunset at the cottage

 

De-croissant

good-bye girls

decroissant defn. 1. (adj) decreasing in number, waning, diminishing. Used in reference to amount or time or amount of time remaining.  2.  (verb) to wean off of croissant, a flaky, tender, pastry bundle of French deliciousness.

We are currently fraught with the emotion of having both definitions applied to us simultaneously. We started our good-byes at the town markets. Since shortly after our arrival, perhaps in early September, Thursday mornings have been observed with the ritual of Aniane market day.  With my going-to-market-basket hung over my arm, we would head out to the market square and stock up, starting with fruits and vegetables.

Messieurs LeCanada et LaFrance

The vendor we frequented was always well-stocked and seemed to have nice produce and good prices. He certainly wasn’t getting customers for the circus-barker calls or flirtatious behavior I had witnessed from vendors in larger street markets. In fact, I’m pretty sure he didn’t like us and he ignored us for as long as he could. Damn tourists. By mid-October, it seemed to hit him that we were not a passing trend and he deigned to ask us some questions.  The following week, he greeted Marc with a semi-toothless smile and a wry “Bonjour Monsieur Le Canada” to which Marc wittily replied “Salut, Monsieur La France”.  This has been their weekly exchange ever since.

Jo et ses olives

Jo, the kind-hearted lady who sells nuts and olives is another favourite. She always has a “little something” extra to add to our purchase and greets me with kisses each week. Today, I brought the kids over to say our final good-byes and she jumped up despite her pregnant belly and threatened to kiss the boys like a “gaie, vieille mamie” which she promptly did.

Le boucher

The butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker. Lots of good-byes. But so far the hardest has been the family of Eric’s closest friend here in France. They pre-empted our departure with their own summer vacation plans but at least it spreads out the farewells. We parted with big plans to import at least one if not all of their kids to Canada before too long.

Last night, we had two more families over for dinner and adieus. We sat in the lush garden as the darkness fell, surrounded by singing cicadas, laughing kids and clinking glasses and I was reminded of something that Marc recently said: “Do you think it’s weird that everyone is so nice to us? They don’t have to be, you know. We’re only here for a year and they know it. Huh.”      I do think it’s nice. In fact, I think it’s great.

Row, row, row your boat

Nik and Amanda

As much as it pains me physically to admit this, Nathalie the bank lady wins again. I struggled through an unintelligible phone call during which she launched new vocabulary at me in a French rendition of “whose on first?”  Her tone increased in urgency until I finally realized what she was trying to say:

Ethan and Graeme

We had overdrawn our account with a cheque written before we withdrew the maximum amount possible in an effort to annoy Nathalie. Rookie mistake. It brings me back to my junior high days when I would tell my mother that I was planning to flunk the upcoming test to prove that my teacher wasn’t effective.

The whole Tarn gang

Banking aside, last week was happily spent with friends from home. I hope they weren’t here for a rest because we had saved a list of “to do before we leave” to check off during their visit. Number one on the list: a trip to the neighbouring Aveyron department to see the famous Millau bridge and to canoe down the stunning Tarn River.

Viaduc de Millau

The Viaduc de Millau which was completed in 2004 is a massive cable-stayed road-bridge that spans the valley of the River Tarn near Millau in southern France. It was designed by a British architect, Lord Foster,  to have the ‘delicacy of a butterfly’ despite it’s impressive size and it appears from afar to be a parade of tallships sailing through the clouds.  It is the tallest vehicular bridge in the world, with one mast’s summit at 343 metres (1,125 ft) — slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower. Apparently, the  500 million dollar pricetag was entirely funded by private donations which makes one wonder why there is a 10 euro toll to cross it….

Graeme in mid-air

We assured the man at the canoe rental company that our Canadian passports served as proof of our ability to manoeuvre a canoe come hell or high water  but our voyageur skills were not really put to the test. The weather co-operated beautifully and the going was easy down the scenic Tarn as we were pushed along by the current,  bumping our plastic boats off of passing rocks or islands and running the occasional (not very) rapid. We stopped to picnic and again for the kids to jump into the river off the rocks. Amanda and I tried to be cool while the dads (from the safety of sea-level) egged the kids to jump from higher and higher.

Eric and Emma

Picturesque La Malene - starting point for Canoe trip

Further down the river, the bungee-jumping platform high on the canyon wall above tempted only Eric and Emma but we glided on past. The scenery was rugged and breath-taking. The pick-up point at 12 km was supposed to be well-marked. I didn’t see it. But then again, I also didn’t see the sign that apparently said: DANGER OF DEATH AHEAD. STOP HERE.  No wonder Nik looked a little surprised as we carried on around the corner in search of the end. Luckily, it was before the deadly part.

No matter where our daily outings took us, we never managed to eat dinner much before 11pm. Maybe we were spending too much time playing with our food instead of actually cooking it?

Team Canada at the market

There was no doubt in Aniane that there were more Canadians about than usual. Amanda and Nik had brought Olympic t-shirts for the kids and they rotated between the new ones and the ones my mom had sent back with Marc. Decked out as Team Canada, the four kids roamed the village (Ethan and Emma jumped right into village life), toured the markets, hit the beach, canoed the Tarn and met almost every one of our new French friends.  It was a good warm-up for our Olympic cheering squad who will be screaming their heads off for Amanda’s brother, Uncle Doug, during his lightweight doubles rowing event on July 29. Row, Canada, Row!

Closure

We are working our way backwards through our “to do upon arrival in France list” and have come to the item involving the closing of our bank account. You know what that means:  a trip back to see the always-irritating, bang-blowing, condescending, excellent-fodder-for-blog-commentary, Nathalie. We are almost a whole year stronger, wiser, more familiar with the system and more comfortable with the language. Nevertheless, I feel the old pangs of nervousness as we walk through the doors of the bank.. What Nathalie is not yet aware of, is that I have handed her the upper-hand on a silver platter. I lost our bank card on Friday.

We are seated. Pleasantries are not really exchanged. She gets straight down to business carefully choosing complex vocabulary in an effort to maintain her superiority and throw us off-balance. I silently seethe at the giant poster behind her head stating her mission to help the lowly people with individually-tailored, attentive customer service.  She has signed it in a cursive scrawl.

Nathalie:  So, you are leaving. (this is delivered in the tone of a conquering general who is banishing us from her newly-recaptured kingdom)

Me: (still making an effort to be appreciative and civil). Yes. It’s very sad. We’ve had such a wonderful year.

Nathalie: But you must go. (the emphasis is placed heavily on the “must” here. Please don’t misinterpret this to be empathetic, reflective listening. It is an order. Part of me wants to throw down the gauntlet at this point and tell her we are staying – apparently I have some deep-seated competitive issues)

Nathalie: Firstly, you need to cancel your house, liability and scholastic insurance. (She eyes us skeptically). You need to put a request in writing for this. Do you think you are capable of writing in French? A little bit?

I snatch the pen as she dictates and I am secretly smug at being able to spell complicated legal-ese words like sous-signe and cloture with the accent circonflex and everything. “…….I, the under-signed, would like to cancel my insurance as I will no longer be living in Aniane….”   and Nathalie continues: ‘because you are moving back to Canada’. I stop, thinking that leaving Aniane is enough of a reason. Nathalie glares and repeats the part about us going back to Canada. “I don’t think that’s necessary” I counter. She stiffens and leans forward. “Yes. It is.” She can be very intimidating. Allright, allright…”because we are returning to Canada”. There.  She leans back, satisfied.

Nathalie: You will have to relinquish your bank card to me.

Me: Funny thing about the bank card. I lost it.

Nathalie: (a fleeting glance of surprise and then some teeth-sucking). You need to put a stop on it!

Me: I did.

Nathalie: (slightly disappointed but recovering quickly). I will order you a new one. That will be 50 euros.

Me: Forget it. We will withdraw money from the bank directly or use our cheques. (I pat my purse to indicate that the cheques are still safe).

Nathalie:  If you write a cheque and then close your account before it is cashed, it is a felony. Are you aware of that?

Me: (thinking more along the lines of it being jolly good timing than felonious). Ah.

Nathalie: You will never be allowed to re-open a bank account. In fact, let me take your account details in Canada so that we can link up the accounts to settle any debts.

Me: (internal dialogue: I believe you have all of our account information in that 10 inch thick file. You might find it beside the wedding certificate of my great-great grandmother’s sister). External dialogue: We are very familiar with how cheques work, Nathalie. Thank you.

Nathalie: In fact, I think it is already too late for you to write more cheques and since you have to return unused cheques when the account is closed anyway, why don’t you just give them to me now. (She has switched this last bit to a gentle, more coaxing tone. It doesn’t have the desired effect.)

Me: (sincerely regretting the earlier purse-patting incident). I don’t have them.

Nathalie: (eyes narrowing to dangerous slits). You don’t have them. (a statement)

Me: (crossing my toes in my flip-flops). That’s right. I don’t have them. (She darts her glance to Marc and I worry briefly since a) he was the one who told me to bring the cheques and b) he recently admitted to bringing a single jar of foie gras into Canada by checking off the box on the customs paper. Who does that? Marc succeeds in looking puzzled as if he hasn’t managed to master this tricky language of France. Her hands are tied. Short of asking me to dump my purse on the table, she is hooped)

Nathalie: (changing tactics) You will be withdrawing money from the teller today?

Me: Yes.

Nathalie: How much?

Me: (consulting with Marc). Ummm…not sure yet.

Nathalie: You must leave at least 5 euros in the account.  You need to tell me how much you are withdrawing today. (insistent)

Me: Well, okay. How about 200 euros?

Nathalie: (back to smug for successful extraction of information). Well, I can’t help you with that. You have to line up for the teller downstairs…..Oh, and we’ll need to set up another meeting for you to return your cheques and your….., oh yes, I forgot that you lost your bank card.

As she opens her office door to see us out (ie. make sure we leave), a miraculous change comes over her and she is suddenly delightful and making small talk for the benefit of the open doors of her colleagues and, no doubt, boss. What a charmer. Stay tuned for the final round on July 13.

 

Bat over-bordeaux

Since the last episode, the kids and I made it onto French national television (TF1), Julie left in a rush of adrenaline chasing after her nearly-departed train and Marc has delightedly returned from the deadly humidity of T.O.

Marc’s “cousin” (you know the type – children of your honorary “aunties” and “uncles”), Marie, and her husband Gildas recently moved to the South of France.  They arrived for a visit on Friday night and dropped right into the school’s year-end party known all over France as La kermesse. The kids played organized games at each station in the school-yard and were rewarded with a goody bag complete with water balloons and water guns. Imagine the fun. The street in front of the school was barricaded to make room for the D.J. and for families arriving for the potluck feast and dance party. Strings of white lights hung from the leafy plane trees and an overhead banner announced La Fete des Ecoles.

Within minutes Gildas was best friends with most of our acquaintances and his gorgeous and infuriatingly bilingual daughter, Elise, became an honorary citizen and was soon lost in a pack of local three year olds. As a fundraiser, the school had set up a bar with white, red and rose wine  being sold by the pichet  (picture clear plastic beer pitchers). I really should have taken a picture of the price list, written in childish hand-writing, announcing  one litre pitchers of wine at 4 euros (about $5.00 Canadian). Fundraiser, indeed. Although, to give credit for clever pricing, they might have made up for lost revenue per pitcher in volume of sales and we were staunch supporters of the cause.  Marc, still delirious from jet-lag and relief for his sister’s continuing recovery, had a much better time on Friday night than on, for example, Saturday morning.

Luckily, he bounces back quickly and he was well on his way to recovery by the time we cracked the champagne on Saturday night in a lead-in to the big event: We had decided that Marie and Gildas would be the perfect couple with whom to share the ’86 bordeaux. (with apologies to the soon-to-arrive Nik and Amanda – we will make it up to you somehow). Gildas, who has experience with Bordeaux wines, recommended that we open the wine at least an hour before planning to drink it. At first blush, he wondered if it was corked but Marie and I sniffed nothing but rich red wine. The ceremonial bottle-opening and cork-sniffing was followed by some decanting back and forth through an aerator, some accidental spillage and some counter-licking. Very classy. Meat was grilled to perfection and the hot day started to cool in the dark as we toasted to Monique’s health and savoured the wine that was bottled long (long!) before I was old enough to drink.  The sanctity of the moment was broken by the sudden widening of Gildas’ eyes as he gazed at the ceiling followed by Marie’s scream of: “it’s a bat!” as she ran from the kitchen while the creature-in-question flew in silent circles around the room’s perimeter, skillfully dodging in-and-out past obstacles. We dimmed the lights, opened the window wider and within seconds, he was gone.

Call me batty, but I’ve just looked up the symbolism of bats and learned that, in some cultures, they represent transition and change. Very apropos to our approaching return to Canada. They are also the only winged creature to suckle their young and as such are a symbol of motherhood, family and social ties. Although I’m sure that I would have no trouble interpreting whatever information google saw fit to provide,  I kind of like these images.  I, personally, think it’s cool that the bat made an appearance as we drank to Monique, to past and to future. Marie may disagree.

Gildas picked up Julie’s lead and spoke almost exclusively in French all weekend. The kids switched to French and my heart soared. They very rarely speak French in front of me and it was so gratifying to see.  We ended our weekend together with an afternoon at a local man-made lake where we rented a paddle-boat with a built-in water slide and a Hobie Cat sail boat. Oh, boy. Eric, the adrenaline-junkie, grinned from ear-to-ear as he hiked out over the side of the sailboat. Elise slid down the slide again and again and laughed maniacally until she couldn’t breath.  Marc and Gildas swooped the sailboat past the paddle-boat so the boys could switch places. Graeme jumped Superman-style and landed astride a pontoon as the wind picked up again. With 20 minutes of time left, the sailors slickly pulled up along side so that I could climb aboard with Marc without getting wet while Gildas and Marie captained the paddle-boat full of kids.  Marc and I took off. Piece of cake. Those things are stable. Really stable. Right up to the point when they capsize. In a last ditch effort to stay dry, (ahem, I mean, to right the tipping boat like a good sailor…) I headed for the high pontoon. Marc was already in the water. So much for the captain going down with the ship. Time stood still as I hung by my fingernails from the top pontoon with my arms at full extension and my toes in the water. I’m sure I looked quite silly and I would have concrete evidence of this if Gildas hadn’t thrown down the camera to dive to our aid. I carried on hanging there considering my options and eventually gave in to the watery inevitable. It doesn’t take a genius or even a google search this time to pick up the symbolism.  Apparently I’m resisting a change in my life. Hmmm….I wonder what it could be?

 

La transhumance

First and foremost, an update on Auntie Monique, who is better and better with each passing day. She credits the hospital staff, the outpouring of love from family and friends and the ’round-the-clock company from Luc and her mom.  What she should be crediting (and what we are all so grateful for) is her tenacious capacity to find the positive in everything and her spirited drive to get well.  Marc, for his part, is happy to be near his sister and is enjoying a rare opportunity to spend time with the rest of the gang.

View of Aniane from the boys' room

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the kids and I are having a lovely visit with Auntie Julie. It takes the mind off of worrying and makes getting through the ten litres of wine a little less onerous. I am pleased to report that I apparently still know how to cook (read: we haven’t starved to death), although I won’t mind returning the reins when the Chef reappears. Speaking of his return, he did casually mention on the phone tonight that he “misses us, but it seems like a long way to travel to see us again…..”  I tried to convince him that we were worth it.  Julie, fluently French, has taken it upon herself to oversee my language development by refusing to speak English. She is also working to correct my (admittedly lazy) vowel pronunciation, focussing chiefly on the difference between “ou” and “u”. I am hoping this will clear up some confusing conversations I have had about fleas (puces) and thumbs (pouces).

The rugby player

Graeme left on Friday night for an overnight rugby tournament in the Auverne region, more than 5 hours away by bus. I didn’t shed a tear this time so perhaps I’m getting the hang of detachment parenting. A friend, who was chaperoning the 50 or so players on the bus, phoned from his cell phone en route and didn’t say a word. He just held the phone up in the bus so we could hear the French equivalent of “99 bottles of beer” or some other such never-ending song delivered at several decibels above the recommended limit to prevent sudden-onset deafness. Very reassuring.  They were definitely alive.

Long-haired hippy freak

Eric and I took Auntie Julie to the Saturday morning market nearby. To protect her from the sun (which has finally made an appearance), we placed a hat on her head that we had in the car. Oh, how I wish I had taken the camera. It took her a while to realize that she was wearing the red sequin bowler hat we were given at New Years and, let me tell you, she looked some stylin’ in it while negotiating the price of saucisson sec and herbes de provence.

Julie, Eric and the dreaded pronom homework

In the afternoon, we were encouraged by our landlady to visit a neighbouring village for the festival of  La Transhumance. A festival for transgendered humans? Very forward-thinking for a tiny, ancient town in France. Perhaps there was a better explanation. Having taken latin in school, I translated the word directly to mean “people across”. But, people across what? In fact, the humance part of the word has nothing to do with people. It comes from the latin humus meaning ‘earth’ or ‘country’. Transhumance, to cross the earth, refers to the biannual migration of the sheep between low winter pastures and high mountain summer grazing grounds. This ritual has been recorded locally since the 1300s and is like a milder/safer version of the ‘running of the bulls’ in Pamplona, Spain.

Sheep arriving in Montpeyroux

People line the village streets.  Flowering planters and shrubs at sheep-height are protectively shrouded in cardboard to deter passing nibblers.  In the distance the sound of bells begins as a low jingle and the unmistakeable smell of approaching sheep strengthens. Between the close-set village houses, the sheep arrive as a river, led by shepherds and corralled by dogs. Heavy bells hang from their necks and many sheep are festively decorated with red pom-poms. As they turn the corner, they begin to run and jump and the river thins out. I barely had time to snap some pictures and thank them for my favourite cheese (P’tit Basque) before they disappeared around another corner on the way to their summer home in the mountains.

Seeing La transhumance was a good reminder of the importance of ritual and custom which serve to mark seasons, uphold tradition and provide static mile-markers in life. Without them, we would be unanchored to the earth and to each other and days slip by unacknowledged and unappreciated. I am reminded of how lucky we are to have had the opportunity to spend this year in France and of how very grateful I am for health, love and happiness. And cheese.

Graeme’s bus returned near midnight. So far we have heard where they slept (in a giant gymnasium with 145 other kids), what time they got to sleep (very late), when they woke up (very early) what they ate (believe me, you’d be jealous) and what they did for fun (giant bouncy castle, handstand contests, rudest sound contest, MP3 and PSP). We’re not convinced that they actually played rugby although he arrived home sporting an Olympic-calibre medal around his neck and a smile on his face.  One more sheep returning safely to the fold.

 

 

Take a minute

Well, I guess we’ve figured out who’s been eating all the bread…..and drinking the wine too, for that matter. Last week Marc and I ventured farther afoot in search of wine-from-the-wall and ended up bringing home not one but two bidon at 5 litres each - one red (non-negotiable) and one rose (which goes so nicely with lunch, as Eric likes to say – although to clarify, he doesn’t drink it. He’s strictly a hard liquor type of 11 year old).  Both bidons remain virtually untouched and the kids and I haven’t been able to get through a whole baguette in one day (let alone two) since Marc went back to Canada.

We heard on the weekend that Marc’s sister, our super-beloved Auntie Monique, was involved in a boating accident. She is conscious and was lucky to have no injuries to her head or neck. It is a very difficult time for the whole family since Monique is usually the one holding everyone together in times of stress. She, in true Monique style, is worried about everyone else and was caught red-handed counselling one of the nurses the other day. We have no doubt that she will pull through with style but until then, I will borrow the essence of the  speech she gave at her own birthday in support of her uncle who had been ill.  If you pray, pray. If not, just take a minute to think positive thoughts for Monique and for Luc and remember to take a minute to yourselves to re-focus and appreciate the important things in life. Hug your kids. Kiss your spouse. Eat foie gras. Maybe I’ll see if I can make a dint in that ten litres of wine…

Eleventh Heaven

 

Strawberry shortcake on the beach

Eric celebrated his eleventh birthday last week surrounded by friends on the beach. There was horseplay in the water, murderball on the sand and mini strawberry shortcakes all round. All was going swimmingly until the present opening portion of the day. Present number one: a cool comic book version of Percy Jackson in French. (big smile)  Present number two: a three-book trilogy of “The Hunger Games” in English (bigger smile).

Nothing says "party" like whip cream on your nose

Present number three: An Asterix in Breton comic in French from his closest friend complete with a detailed dedication and picture taped inside the cover (big smile from Eric, tears from yours truly – perhaps I have some sort of congenital anomaly which finds my kidneys located proximal to my tear ducts resulting in over-production in the lacrimal glands).

Lost in la la land

Present number four: A Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in English from Mom and Dad.  (big smile and Eric fades off into the distance surrounded by almost 2000 pages of new “friends” suddenly oblivious to surf, sand, topless women…)

Two more packages appeared at our front door  (two Alex Ryder books and one Remote Controlled Airplane book). If it hadn’t been for an invite to our neighbour’s house, we might never have seen Eric again.   Marc made friends with our elderly neighbour earlier in the year. They bonded over their garbage pails. An invitation for aperitif was extended and over we tramped at 7:30pm. Now wise to the whole “although-it-is-during- the-time-when-North-American-people-eat -dinner,-aperitif-is-not-dinner-so-don’t- assume-that-you-will-get -fed” routine, we gave the kids a good snack before arrival.  Our neighbour has a huge house – twice the width of ours – which he divided up into seven apartments. He and his wife occupy one whole floor. We were shocked to see the difference on the inside between two houses of the same era (early 1800s) which look so similar from the street.

Poppy fields near our house

We started our tour in the basement where Monsieur has left original features such as a mangeoire for feeding animals and iron hooks and rings protruding from the walls. On to the cave where hundreds of bottles rested on their sides.  “Now that my wife is ill, we don’t drink as much wine as we used to” he said, sadly. We had briefed the kids on Parkinson’s Disease before we arrived so they knew what to expect.  Madame was seated on the couch, a tiny bird with a blanket on her knees and an unmistakable sparkle in her eyes.  The kids came forward to receive their kisses and answer the universal questions (what is your name? how old are you? do you like school? My, you’re a handsome boy – is this your brother?).

A boulevarde of plane trees (platanes)

Madame was delightful as she recounted stories of her heydays in Parisian high society. She held my hand and chatted away while Marc and the Monsieur talked politics and the boys explored the giant room complete with a kitchen built like a ship’s galley, replica guns and a billiards table with no pockets. “Where are the holes?” they wanted to know. Ah, you are used to American snooker. This is Napolean’s billiards. No holes. Here, I’ll show you.  and the Monsieur brought them up to speed on the rules. There are only three balls. You must hit your own ball and try to make it touch the other two. Be careful not to scratch the felt, he added as I gave them the throat-slitting sign over his head. The table looked like it had never been touched.

Zen gardens in a bamboo plantation near Anduze

We were served champagne (Champagne!) with the option to add cassis syrup to change the drink’s name to Kir Royale. I opted for the upgrade. The kids perused the drinks in the fridge alongside the Monsieur. Eric selected Schweppes (which is tonic here, not gingerale) and Graeme came away with a sweet-looking red drink. In fairness, he was warned. “C’est un peu amer”  (it’s a little bitter) but he insisted. So,  my tres bien eleves (very well brought up – an important concept in France) kids choked back straight tonic and bar bitters with an almost straight face. I took pity on Eric and reached for the cassis syrup. Sirop here is like Ribena – concentrated fruit juice that you dilute with water. We have the cassis flavour as a regular feature in our sirop line-up for the kids. I poured a goodly dose into Eric’s glass and suddenly noticed an appreciable drop in the conversation level between Marc and Monsieur.  I looked up, expectantly, as they stared at me. No one said a word. I picked up the bottle again to take a closer look. “Ummm…Is this alcoholic?” I asked.  Only 16%, replied Monsieur.  Ooops. On the up-side, it did save Eric from having to finish a whole glass of tonic water (which he insisted that he was enjoying before I wrecked it). Graeme and his bitters were on their own.

Paella a la Marc

Occasionally, (oh, who am I kidding, often/constantly/usually) our French fails us so we weren’t sure we were hearing correctly when the Monsieur proferred two bottles of Bordeaux from his cellar saying what we thought was something along the lines of “I would like to give one to you. Choose the one you like.”  We hesitated, staring at the dusty bottles with torn labels which clearly listed the years as 1991 and 1986.   “We don’t know much about wine…” we countered, hoping that this would clarify whether he was just showing us or actually gifting one. Well, they are from the same winery. I would get a pre-order form every year and order a case. You can take the one you like.  Knowing that the value of the bottle increases with age, I spoke for the younger of the two, suggesting to the Monsieur that 1991 was a meaningful year for Marc and I - it was the year that we met.  Nonsense, he says. Take the ’86.  1985 was a better year, he went on, so we drank all of that, already.

The time has come to think of packing up our life in France. With 20 lbs of Eric’s books to bring, we may have to drink the Bordeaux before we leave. It seems a fitting way to tie up such an unforgettable year.  We will raise a toast to our families, our friends old and new, good health and to the next adventure.

 

Marche aux Puces *

Summer had not yet arrived last weekend which was probably for the best or we might have over-heated on our three family, 17km hike to the top of the highest local peak called Mount Baudille. The plan was to hike from St. Guilhem le Desert to a gite (guesthouse) part way up the mountain, stay the night and ascend the last bit on Sunday morning. There were seven kids in total ranging in age from 6 to 12.

Because our overnight gear had been taken by car directly to the gite, we carried just the necessities for the hike (ie. sandwich makings and a bottle of wine). The weather started turning gloomy just after lunch and promised to get worse so the decision was made to reach the final peak on day one (obviously I was not consulted in this process). On we hiked to the (not very scenic) telecommunications tower that marked our destination and provided a beautiful view of the surrounding valleys (and reportedly even sea vistas on clear days).

 

The gite reminded me of class trips from my youth. Bunk beds were “called” and wet socks were hung by the fireplace while the kids pulled out card games and sat on the floor.  The hostess of the gite came by to see if the kids wanted to see the goats responsible for the farm’s chevre cheese production. Out we tramped to the yard to observe goats in action (sometimes literally) and learn about the farm.

The vectors

The kids asked lots of questions (which one is oldest? which one is the smallest? do they all have names? what are those dangly things hanging off of their necks?).  We saw goats waiting to be milked whose udders literally dragged on the ground and impeded their walking. The men among us jocularly commented that they were sympathetic to this type of problem…

“Could we see the babies?” The kids wanted to know. “Hmmm” replied the farmer. “Best not to go in the barn. Sometimes there are fleas. Tell you what, I will bring a baby to the door and you can see him.”

Do all of the reader’s know their flea facts? Let me enlighten you from Eric’s Factopedia. “Fleas, responsible for more than half of human deaths since the Stoneage, can jump over 19 inches which is more than 130 times their size.” 

Fascinating, no? And oh, so true. Within two minutes of seeing (seeing! not patting!) the baby goat, one of the kids (small children type of kid, not small goat type of kid) cried out “Aie!” (French for ‘ow’) and started batting at his socks. As he peeled one sock down, an unmistakable black fleck sprung from the scene. “Uh-oh” announced the farmer “everyone should check for fleas”. I’m not sure if these were some sort of flea super-race but at least 8 of us found fleas on our person even those well outside of the Factopedia flea-jumping parameters.  Clothes were shed to be bagged and frozen (the cure for fleas!) and a flea-killing festival began like a Medieval maypole dance.  Good times.

We were still squashing the odd flea the next morning while we waited out the spectacular lightning storm that cut power to the building and even shocked one of the kids in the shower. (“See?” confirms Eric “showering can kill you”) Good thing we had summited on Saturday as Sunday turned out to not be a good day to approach a giant telecommunications tower on the highest peak. The farmer drove Marc and some other rescuers to go and fetch our cars to prevent a flea-bitten soggy slog downhill in the mud. Before departing, we bought some of the delicious chevre in an act of goat forgiveness. Maybe it’s the fleas that make it taste so good.

 

The flea-bitten varmints on top of a dolmen

There are reportedly many prehistoric remnants in our area but we had yet to find one. Driving by car on the way home, with locals as our guides, we stopped at two Dolmen and some Menhirs each dating from 3000BC. If you haven’t recently studied prehistoric structures with your grade 3 child completing the French curriculum, then you might be more familiar with  Menhirs from the Asterix books – they are just giant pointy rocks made to stand straight up. Dolmen are also rock structures which were used to mark tombs and appear as two slabs of rock embedded in the earth to stand parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground. These slabs are topped with a third giant slab and God knows how they got it up there. Actually, Eric knows too. Let’s ask him.

Dolmen. The top slab weighs 13 tonnes.

 

Me:  This is incredible. I wonder how they got the top piece on here?!

Eric: It wasn’t that hard. Do you want to know?

Me: (humouring him). Sure. Tell me, genius.

Eric. They dug trenches for the upright rocks and then rolled the slab along logs until it fell into the trench. Once they got the uprights in, they packed earth in between them and banked the soil up to the outside edge so they could roll the roof onto the top and then they dug out the soil.

Me: (already plotting how I can send the kid to engineering school at the tender age of almost eleven). “Wow! Did you just think of that? I bet you’re right! That is a really clever idea. All that Lego play must have really helped to develop your spatial abilities and reasoning skills!”

Eric: it says it on the sign over there.

Me: (a little deflated) Oh.

*Although I try to curb tendancies to gloat over the creation of any incidental humor contained in this blog, this time I can’t help it.  The title of this entry came to me in a flash of inspiration but it may require some explanation which  unfortunately detracts from any inherent cleverness but cannot be avoided. A Marche aux Puces is, literally, a flea market – the same word we use for a market selling second-hand items. But this story is about going for a walk (marche) where we were infested with fleas (puces). A double entendre! In French to boot! If anyone got it before the explanation, you get major bonus points and my undying appreciation.

The Children are Revolting

Riding l'autobus de Paris affectionately known as the rat pee (RATP)

My sister arrived in Paris with her SWAT team (Sam, Will and Ted) at the beginning of May where we met them at the train station. We expected jet-lagged, cranky travellers but were greeted with enthusiasm and energy fueled by the constant chatter of cousins reuniting.  Our first task in the Paris scavenger hunt was to collect keys to our apartments from the rental agency which was handily located no where near the actual apartment or the train station where we met. A quick assessment of the Paris metro confirmed that there was no way to get to either one directly and we wondered if four subway

Morning chaos in Paris (notice Marc gulping coffee)

transfers with luggage for 8 people was a little much to ask of the group. Thus, in search of the rental agency, Shannon and I waved good-bye to Marc and the five little boys (all with luggage) on the Paris subway after having written the cell phone number on their arms and said a silent prayer that we would see them at the apartment.

 

The pinballs in Cadaques, Spain

We avoided the temptation to go for a drink sans enfants et voila! By the time Shannon and I returned with the keys, the children had been in and out of the coded building about 500 times and the clever little monkeys even managed to discover other four digit combinations that also served to unlock the main doors. Very comforting from a security perspective.

 

Tedums

We hit the ground running on Friday morning after prying Teddy out of bed (who protested loudly in his baby voice with a PhD vocabulary: “I did not get a sufficient amount of sleep! Leave me be!” Me: Okay, crankypants, up and at ‘em. Ted: That’s offensive!)

 

Back on the metro with our five pinballs who were continually cutting off pedestrians, getting caught in turnstiles and generally causing harmless havoc wherever they went as we shepherded them along, repeatedly counting to five. The Eiffel tower did not fail to impress and we skirted the three-hour line up for the only working elevator and headed straight to the stairs.

The three hour line-up for the Eiffel elevator (we took the stairs)

Jetlag hit midafternoon and most of the SWAT team along with their mother and Graeme warmed the benches at the beautiful Musee D’Orsay while the rest of us admired Van Gogh, Monet, Chagall and Rodin.

Saturday reveille was even earlier (this is unjust! do you know what sleep deprivation can do to you?Okay, Ted, just get your clothes on) in an effort to make it to Palais Versailles in time for the

The orienteering challenge: Versailles

garden fountain spectacular. It was indeed spectacular and the kids adored Marc’s orienteering challenge which went something like this: Okay, boys. Take a look at this map. Can you find where we are on it? Good. Okay, we’ll meet you over here (he points to a distant destination on the map of the enormous grounds) in about 10 minutes. Off they went.

Will and Graeme revolting (but so sweet) at Versailles

At Versailles, the kids learned about Lewis Catters, Lewis Says (the sixteenth – possibly a distant relative of Simon Says) and the revolution. We toured the “cottages” of Marie Antoinette who had a hamlet built on the Palace grounds so she could play “peasant life” when she felt like eating cake.   Talk of the revolution sparked the children into action and over the coming days, suggestions of museum visits, delayed nourishment or walking another block prompted outcries of: “We are revolting!” with which the adults heartily agreed.

The scouts in the background who had been huddled around

Shannon and I left Marc and the kids in the Place des Vosges park while we went to leche les vitrines (lick the shop windows) in the Marais district. The boys happily played for a few hours while Marc did some sketching. When we got back, there was a whole Scout troup crowding the bench where we had left Marc and sure enough, they parted to reveal him still sketching and chatting as the scouts admired his artwork and peppered him with questions.

Sam, Eric, Ted and Mona

We (mostly me) weren’t sure about the Louvre. I have memories of overcrowding, overlarge and overwhelming but by popular vote (2 adults against 1), in we went. In fact, it was much better than I remembered but we did have to surrepticiously hand out jujubes to avoid more revolting children.  Shannon snapped a great picture of Ted, crushed between backs, bellies and purses with the Mona Lisa in the distant background.

Missing Cedar to top the pyramid at the Louvre!

Outside the Louvre, the fun really began as the vendors spotted five kids with spending money from Nana which was burning holes in their pockets. There were flying birds, Eiffel tower statues, whirling thingamajigs, hats with umbrellas on them. Oh, what to choose?  Those kids were sitting ducks going down faster than Greece. We held an emergency meeting.

The deal going down

Me: Okay, guys. Here’s the deal. Those sellers want all of your money.

Ted: (loudly)  I have 38 euros!”

Me: Shhh!  What do you want to buy?

Ted: an Eiffel tower.

Me: Just one? Anyone else want one? No? Okay. The rules of engagement are as follows. You ask the price. You admire the object then you offer one quarter of the asking price proclaiming that you’re just a kid and it’s all you have.

Ted: but I have 38 euros. I already told you that.

Me: Shh! I know! But do you think you might want to buy something else later or would you like to give this man all of your money for one Eiffel tower? 

Ted: (pondering the question, cocking his head to fix me with one eye) I might want to buy something else later.

Me: exactly. Alright boys. If he won’t drop his price, we walk away. Cry if you want to – that might help. But whatever you do, don’t pull your money out and don’t agree to his first price. It’s showtime.

In a mixture of French, English and gestures, we probably still got majorly ripped off but it was great fun (at least for me) and a life lesson in patience, perserverance and fiscal responsiblity for the kids. We started all over again about 10 feet later when a man selling wind-up flying birds moved in for the kill. Will wanted to buy one.

Me: (whispering to the boys huddled around). Does anyone else want to buy one? We’ll get a better price for more than one.

Eric: I think I do.

Sam: Me too.

Me: Okay. Graeme?

Graeme: (saddled with his mother’s poor decision making skills)  I’m not sure. Okay, yeah, I guess.

Me: There is a good possibility that they will break in 15 seconds but it might be a really fun 15 seconds. Just so you know.  Ted? Are you in?

Ted: (still admiring his giant Eiffel tower) No. I don’t want a flying bird.

The Blues cousins take over Paris

So, Eric starts the process, asking the price in French. The seller comes back with 15 euros. Eric draws his breath and before I can shoot him a glance or step on his foot, he counter-offers with 3 euros. What a champ!! The seller breaks out laughing and slaps Eric on the back. The price was settled at 8 euros for one bird and that’s when we start adding birds to lower the price for a bulk sale. The four boys shook hands on 6 euros and at this point Ted jumps in. “Actually, I do want one. It’s only six euros. I still have 31 euros left!” Shhh, Ted! all the boys join in this time. They are quick studies.  After that, Will was my best friend. Anytime he tried to buy something he came to find me, asking: Can you deal him down for me, Auntie?

Flying the new birds in front of Notre Dame Cathedral

We checked off most of Paris’ top tourist attractions before catching the train back to the south. The five cousins were bonded like brothers in their attic bedroom and our boys had a ball showing them all the back streets of Aniane with highlights being the candy store and the firecracker store where remaining souvenir money was dispersed.  We had no shortage of kids who were happy to run to the bakery for baguette which

The parking is how much?

we ordered at least three at a time. Will consulted chef Marc for help completing his grade 4 French homework which was to write a menu. Marc took the job very seriously and I arrived as they were revising the four main dishes because of possible overlap in texture or taste.  Sheesh.

Sandwichs a emporter

Our kids returned to school for a rest and Shannon took her kids to the beach and back using a map, highschool french (excusez moi. nous sommes perdues….) and the above-average navigating skills of Sam (recently honed in the gardens at Versailles). They returned late but victorious, flushed with the pride of having found Aniane again.

Jumping for joy in Roses, Spain

In a last-minute change of itinerary, we booked a night in Spain on the Mediterranean coast. The scenery was beautiful despite the iffy weather which was not bad enough to keep the kids out of the jellyfish-infested sea. It turns out that all five of the boys are super little travellers, even if they are revolting.