From Par-ee to PDX

August 29, 2009 at 10:08 pm (Uncategorized)

Toilet bowls filled with swirling water. Instant-hot water from the tap. A freezer with ice cubes ready to go. Clerks who speak English. Our daily newspaper, delivered to our door. Piled-up bills. Two eager cats. Familiar sheets and mattresses. No need for a GPS, either one that works or doesn’t. Family and friends, close by. I needn’t go on. We’re clearly home!


OK, OK, I admit it: I had a hard time leaving. Not in the tearful-ending, I-just-can’t-board-the-plane kind of way. But in the heavy-nostalgia kind of way, even prior to our departure, as I anticipated taking off from Paris for Frankfurt and then on to Portland.

The French treated us to one final very French experience, just as we readied ourselves to leave. On Wednesday morning, we all awoke around 4 a.m., quite refreshed after our very early bedtime the night before. We were outside of the hotel — 2 km, or about 1 mile from the airport — ready to go, for our 5 a.m. shuttle bus. The navette arrived at an unprompt 5:05. Dave had by then accumulated 5 minutes’ worth of sweat. We then tooled around in the navette as the driver hit what seemed to be every terminal, parking lot and train station in all of the greater Charles de Gaulle area…without hitting ours. Dave’s face became a shade more glistening. I gingerly asked M. le conducteur at what stop we should get off. “A’ la prochaine,” he said. Next one — no problem. Indeed, our stop was the next one. But that still was not the terminal we needed. Beh non; we’d need to schlep our luggage down another floor to catch a little shuttle train and THEN arrive at our terminal. We finally gathered up all our bags, only to find the elevator to the bottom floor was out of order. Of course it was. Dave, by now, needed a second shower. It was about 6 a.m.; our flight was to depart at 6:40 a.m. Thus, our entire navette ride took approximately one hour to travel about 1 mile. That’s no impressive statistic; I’m sure the Soviets would have shown off a touch more efficiency than our dear Frenchies did that harried morning.

We arrived at the Lufthansa check-in gate with 10 minutes to spare until we no longer would have been able to check through our bags (we had seven of them…we’re kinda shamed about that fact) all the way to Portland. But we did make it, with Dave, the entire time, cursing the French and their enormous inefficiencies (and his need for a second T-shirt). Alyssa quickly picked up on the creative use of language and flying insults and did her mightiest to copy her Daddy with her best vitriol. Eventually, we had to quiet her down.

The upshot of all this is that we didn’t have to wait at all prior to boarding our departing (sniff) flight. I must say that I maintained a positive attitude through all our close calls before actually finding our terminal, gate and ramp down to and onto our German plane (a model of efficiency, of course). I do irrationally forgive the French their foibles and ridiculous systems, from Turkish toilets on down to airport shuttle buses that don’t really get you to the airport. Dave faults me for this weakness of mine. I simply do have a weakness for the French and all things French. C’est comme ca. That’s just the way it is.

Anyway, our flight was — thank God! — uneventful and smooth. The food was quite tasty (even the girls ate most of their kids’ meals), the wine and Bailey’s was yummy and the movies were constant; each passenger had a small screen embedded into the head of the seat in front of him or her, and there were plenty of movie choices for the duration of the 11-hour flight, one hour of which was spent on the tarmac in Frankfurt. Not one of us slept (including through the vomiting episode of a young boy sitting dangerously close to our middle bank of seats) the entire time and, yet, we landed in Portland relatively perky and relieved to be home. Dave took a shower first thing after waltzing into our house.

The only casualty of the trip (besides some superfluous skin on Alyssa’s right thumb) seems to be our camera. After all that traveling and moving around, we left socks in various corners of Europe, all which will be returned to us by friends with whom we inadvertently left them, and in Paris we’d left behind Hayley’s water bottle. My computer has since been fixed (thank you, Dave!!), but the hard drive’s data has yet to be successfully recovered. (It still could; we’re holding our breath for that one that the professionals will now take a crack at.) The camera, however, we believe one of us left behind in an overhead bin on the Lufthansa flight. The Bailey’s is not to be blamed. Probably, a thief is, as we were quite careful with all our sundry carry-on pieces. We hope the thief enjoys our pictures of the Millescamps, their beach home and our girls as they prepared to bid adieu to their European adventure.

(We’ll see about at least recovering the money to cover another camera.)

Now that we’re home, it’s good to be getting back into a regular routine. Three days into Portland life, I believe the four of us have caught up on our sleep; no more 3:45 a.m. wake-up calls! (Though it was fun trying to pull weeds our first day back before the sun even had risen, as well as catching up on a month’s worth of mail at 4:30 in the morning.) The girls keep talking about how amazing it is that no one is speaking to them in French. That they can understand everything. That their rooms are so wonderful, as are their cats. And that they’ll have so much to share with their friends and teachers once school starts. The shells they collected in Merlimont. The lace hankies they bought in Brussels. The key chain from Bayeux. The stationery of Claude Monet’s gardens from Giverny. We’ve been reviewing photos, and they remember with great clarity the rose window in Notre Dame, the tapestry in Bayeux, the dessert crepe in Rouen, Josephine the bunny outside Omaha Beach, and the German children and their great trampoline in Aachen.

The girls start school Sept. 8; Dave returns to Intel Sept. 13. Tonight, my folks have the girls overnight: Dave and I are going on a date and will relish every second of not having had time together for a very long time. It is, indeed, great to be back. I’d started dreaming in French about three nights before leaving for home. Our first night back, I continued having dreams in French (grammatical errors and all). I know that will soon go away; I’ll look forward to the next trip to France where I can hopefully pick up where I’ve left off.

Until then, it’s back to work for us all. Incidentally, two days after returning home, my story about the synagogue in Lille and experiences with Chabad ran in the Jewish Review; its link is here, though the photos included in the hard-copy paper are not on the Internet:

Maybe I’ll continue some random posts; then again, maybe not. To all who read and followed us on our journey, merci bien! And we hope all your summers were special and filled with exciting and memorable experiences.


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Dinner at 2:30 p.m.

August 25, 2009 at 4:44 pm (Uncategorized)

It’s not yet 6 p.m., yet the girls are sleeping in our Roissy-area hotel, which is a 15-minute shuttle ride from the Charles de Gaulle airport. Dave is reading with his booklight; this computer screen is providing the girls’ their nightlight.

Our alarm for tomorrow is set for 4 a.m. Berk! We’re all (well, almost all) ready to return home. Dave and I succeeded at completely wiping out the girls our final weekend in Europe. In fact, this afternoon, as we awaited heading into this small town for a very late lunch and a very early dinner all wrapped into one, we both gazed for a lengthy moment at Alyssa. “She looks like she’s been beat up,” Dave said, half-joking. Her hair she never brushed this morning. Her pants are floods and dirty, to boot. She got a black eye on accident, while rough-housing with Hugo, the 7-year-old French boy who’d been living in her room for the past month and with whose family we spent the last two days. Her right thumb, as you well know, is nicely bandaged. And she’s pale, thanks to two previously too-late nights and two subsequent too-early mornings. Tummy empty, energy at near zero, Alyssa was a site. Hayley wasn’t too far behind, but didn’t have the black eye or thumb bandage to match her sister’s poorer state.

We wandered a bit through Roissy’s charming streets; the town is small but existed before the airport and has since tried to maintain its kinda charming and provincial feel. It succeeds, until you hear the 777s whizzing overhead. We then came across the most perfect brasserie for our needs; Dave had a large glass of beer, and I had a lovely Cotes du Rhone in the middle of the afternoon. I never, ever do that (well, I did yesterday, too; read on for more about my recent drinking habits) and it was so fun to feel so relaxed the day before a dangerously long flight that awaits our tired asses. Last tastes of jambon, salade de chevre chaude, limonade, pate d’agneu et beaucoup de frites were enjoyed languorously by all.

(N.B. It’s 6:05; both girls are asleep!)

On Sunday, we returned from Germany and, two hours later, greeted Gilles, Florence, Hugo and Ines Millescamps, fresh off their long flight followed by Chunnel ride. They were amazingly alert, happy, energetic and WONDERFUL. We all fell instantly in love with each other and then spent the next two days wondering at our luck to have so randomly done a house exchange and come across excellent new friends in the process. We now always have a place to return to in France as do they for a return trip to PDX.

While Gilles and Florence’s English is quite good, their accents are QUITE heavy, so Dave and I had a great time sniggering at them. As did they sniggering at me and my aforementioned college-student French. Florence especially expressed great happiness in being back in France and speaking French again, so she and I chatted lots in her native tongue, which was just my hope so I could fill as much time as possible our last couple days working on the language I adore so much.

A mere two hours after they returned to their Avelin home, off we caravanned to Merlimont, their beach home. Dave and I kept marveling at the Millescamps’ fortitude; the last thing we’d have done upon our return home was what they’d chosen to do! We arrived at about 11 p.m. to their cute little home and all fell into bed, the girls in bunk beds (glee!) and us in a room to ourselves next door to the girls’. With the room’s window open a tad to let in some much-needed fresh air, mosquitoes gladly entered through it helped themselves to my blood. All over the right-hand side of my face and along my arms. Those and the yellow-jacket sting I’d sustained in Aachen didn’t do me in, but I can’t say my skin looks fabulous. Tant pis.

I awoke the next morning (Monday) and took a nice jog. It wasn’t a “lovely” one, however, as Merlimont resembles Seaside too closely. I suppose many coastal towns worldwide share lots of similarities. Many homes in Merlimont on its main drag (Avenue de la Plage, Beach Avenue) were named as many private boats are, after individuals, or with jaunty expressions, using phrases that yearn for things like heaven, paradise, vacation: le repos, etc.

We hung around the Millescamps’ beach house until noon, the time by which we were to go to Gilles’ folks’ place in nearby St. Josse “for lunch.” In the States, having lunch with friends or family members means just that: lunch. Maybe noon ’till 2, especially if folks are getting on well, but not much beyond that. Well, we quickly were reminded by Monique and Didier that we’re in France. Our “lunch” started with a champagne toast to new friends and our 13th wedding anniversary at about 12:30 p.m. Our meal ended with tea and coffee at 5;30 p.m. Beh oui. I drove us back to the Millescamps’ beach house at the end of our amazing afternoon, as Dave had consumed throughout the experience many glasses of earthy, rich, warm and carefully selected Bordeaux from 2004 and 2005. Monique had prepared lamb that fell off the bone; a white-bean dish carefully prepared in a light tomato sauce and slightly seasoned with echalottes/shallots; a sauteed dish of peas, carrots and corn that included a touch of Tabasco to make the taste buds stand at attention; and ratatouille that even Dave ate, despite its evident inclusion of yellow peppers and tomatoes. For dessert, Monique had prepared a bien alcolise tiramisu, liquid only at its base with the extra cointreau that wasn’t completely absorbed in its baking.

We all chatted about Monique’s pet escargots, Americans versus French, food, politics, Obama versus Bush, different American cities various people around the table had visited and what’s to like or dislike in each. The four children all played pretty well together, with occasional outbursts and the need to be settled down a couple times. Then, on came a French video and all were happy again, allowing the adults their very fun and unbelievably tasty indulgence. The afternoon ended with Monique expressing her feeling that we’d all shared a family meal together, not a meal of mere friends. That about summed up the sentiment of the day, as well as generally how we quickly came to feel about the Millescamps.

From Florence and Gilles, we learned funny things, such as they’d become our neighborhood’s attraction; they ordered French pastries from the St. Honore Boulangerie only to not be understood due to their French accents!; they couldn’t correctly pronounce Seattle and so at first had a hard time making plans to visit the bigger city to Portland’s north; they laughed uproariously at my huge black-and-white poster of the Eiffel Tower I’d lovingly hung in our laundry room but that many a Frenchie would take as an insulting gesture, near as it is, too, to the kitties’ litter; they’d bought a small coffee maker as they didn’t know where our French press was and we don’t own any other coffee-making apparatus; they wondered aloud how the hell we use all four of our toilets; and the list goes on. As it did from our end.

The kids, nearly unable to communicate with one another with words, quickly bonded over the new universal language called DS. First a little displeased our girls had such a mechanical distraction, I quickly became so very pleased this weekend that they each had their own and that each has a few games to play and share. I took some sweet pictures of the four little ones bent over their DSs (while 3-year-old Ines looked on with interest at the blinking screens). Last night, we went to a small town called Montreuil sur Mer that predates the Middle Ages (a new town I want to live in) for some great pizza (at 10 p.m.). Alyssa, always eager to order for herself in the States, asked that I write down how she was to order her pizza margarita, and she did it with the waitress offering her ‘tres bien‘ after Alyssa’s terrific show of bravery and a very nice accent, I should add!

I should, too, join my slumbering family, properly preparing for our journey home tomorrow. Quel voyage on avait eu, en vrai et egalement a’ l’esprit.

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Only two days left

August 23, 2009 at 1:22 pm (Uncategorized)

Hallo! That’s close to the extent of my German and yet last night I was to feed dinner to and put to bed Alyssa, Hayley and Mona, the 5-year-old German daughter of good friends Sabine and Christophe. Keine probleme, I thought. Dave would be out enjoying himself with some German folks in Aachen, at a friend of Sabine and Christophe’s; the least I could do was offer him a night out of Deutsch, Deutsch and more Deutsch. Besides, the girls all were getting on so well…what could go wrong? Other than the HUGE communication chasm between us three Americans and a German child not yet introduced to the mysteries of English.

Hayley and Alyssa, in the confusion, opted out of dinner. Mona, comfortable with her own food, set to eating yogurt with honey, wonderful black bread and some rolled up ham. I sat with her, largely in silence, but we engaged in some silly food play, too, as silliness is a universal language.

After that, the group meltdown occurred, signaling not simply the end of a fun (and even not-too-busy) day but, truly, the end of our trip. While Hayley happily tripped off to bed, Mona understandably wanted her German-speaking Mommy (imagine that) and Alyssa wanted everything but to be in this house, in this country, with these people, surrounded by that language, etc. (Hayley’s equivalent melt occurred this morning; it was similar to Alyssa’s in form and function, but the gaps in Hayley’s European life also included our two live kitties — as well as our two long-dead kitties whom she now misses quite, quite terribly.)

Long story short: I tried desperately to piece together phrases Mona could understand while also soothing Alyssa to sleep. Eventually, both calmed down enough to wait for Sabine, Christophe and Dave to return to the house. Then, all was quiet, and Sabine, Dave, Christophe and I enjoyed a fabulous second night of great wine, chatting and togetherness. Well into the wee hours. I’ve been up well past my bedtime this weekend! (In fact, I fell asleep for 1.5 hours in the car on the way back from Aachen to Avelin.)

While in Aachen — a university town dating to pre-Roman days — Sabine and Christophe took us to a very symbolically cool point where Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany meet at one point. At this kinda (but not too) touristy spot (not an American other than ourselves to be found) there was a huge park, a tower to climb offering a long-distance view into all three countries and French fries with so many delicious and sundry toppings (such as peanut satay) I can’t wait to try to emulate them upon our return to Portland.

We then returned to Aachen (a very short distance from this incredibly international point) and got the kids ice cream. The rest of our time in the town was spent in our friend’s home, with the kids loving the big trampoline and the family’s two sweet bunnies (well, one more sweet than the other; one of them liked to bite). Still, the girls soon were done struggling to understand and be understood by the other children. Understandably, even despite all the adults’ attempts to aid in the communication barrier.

Dave and I agree, however, that having our girls realize that they can’t communicate with every person on this planet is a good life lesson and that perhaps they’ll take on some additional empathy when they come across someone new to the States, or at least someone in America whose native language is not English.

Right now, I’m writing this entry from the kitchen table in Avelin. We returned here for two hours to finish our laundry, last-minute cleaning (Dave’s vacuuming out the car in which many baguettes were consumed…with le Skippy) and then pick up the Millescamps family at the nearby train station; they’ll have just arrived from the States, via London and then the Chunnel to France. From there, our two families head immediately to their beach house in Merlimont, about an hour northwest of here. They take us to Paris on Tuesday; we’ll spend the night and awaken at the ridiculous hour of 4 a.m. on Wednesday to at last head home.

Probably, this is our last entry; maybe we’ll get some additional pictures uploaded but that I can’t promise before we’re Stateside. We’re so thrilled the girls have had the experiences they’ve had and, that at the end of this trip, we get to meet and spend time with the family with whom we did this exchange — the family ultimately that made this adventure all possible.

Thanks to all who’ve read and didn’t fall asleep doing so!

Lots of love. Comme la France me manquera beaucoup. Damn, I’m gonna miss France.

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Ouch! That hurt!

August 22, 2009 at 10:40 am (Uncategorized)

Two days ago, we arrived in Brussels, to stay one day with my cousin, Nancy Rosen, husband Meir Minsky and son Ranen, who speaks — ready for this? — SEVEN languages. Talk about a polyglot. And he’s handsome, too, and so the girls quickly went ga-ga over him. Lucky guy — at 21 — having so many girls gawking at him. Here, we had a fantastic time with the Minsky trio, and on our own we made it into the center of town and had a very (too) quick visit to the Magritte Museum (I thought Rene Magritte was French; guess he was Belges) and the “famous” Mannekinpis. The silly Flemish created a fountain on top of which is a little metal boy who “pees” all day long a constantly flowing stream of water (or is it really water?) back into the fountain. I was sure there’d be no end of potty talk upon viewing this lovely landmark; my concern came to fruition, of course.

Two days ago, I didn’t have time to blog; having reached Brussels, Nancy and Meir took Dave and I at 11 p.m. to the capital city’s very lively central square, a gorgeous cobblestoned plaza whose buildings are tall, narrow and Flemish in design (gabled roofs as far as the eye can see). French and Flemish swirled about us in the illuminated plaza in this very international city.

Since I’ve been absent from blogging the last couple of days (to give your eyes a rest…how kind of me) I now need to do some updating:

Thursday morning, before leaving Avelin for good (sniff. sob) to head to Brussels, only an hour’s drive away, we were in the midst of finishing up our packing and cleaning and enjoying the girls playing so well together, until…. Alyssa let out a blood-curdling yell from upstairs. “Blood” is the operative word here.

We’d discovered the Millescamps’ seeming penchant for collecting Swiss army knives. Ever curious, Alyssa kept trying to “play” with them, despite our constant remonstrations to keep her fingers away from all them. “They’re not a toy; they’re dangerous; you could hurt yourself.” Deaf ears was the response she gave us. Much to Alyssa’s chagrin. She’d found a couple days prior a stick that transformed itself into the perfect Quidditch broom stick. But, covered in bark as it was, it needed to be smoothed out. Only a knife could do that, of course. During a quiet moment Thursday morning, Alyssa stole away with one of the many Swiss army knives, finagled one of the blades out of its protective slot and commenced whittling. Her right thumb.

Followed by that blood-curdling scream. I ran upstairs to find her grasping her thumb that was spurting blood everywhere. And screaming. Trying to remain calm and not yet knowing what had transpired with the knife and Alyssa’s Quidditch Nimbus 2000, I quickly wet a dark-colored washcloth and returned to press it — hard — onto Alyssa’s thumb to stanch the bleeding. At this point, Hayley was wide-eyed, witnessing the aftermath of her sister’s stupidity, and Dave had run to the freezer to clutch the bag full of beans I’d only days before soaked, boiled, spiced and prepared for a future meal. We then adhered as best we could that bag of beans to Alyssa’s gushing thumb. Tylenol came next. Then three Band-Aids wrapped so tightly around her wound that her digit quickly turned purple. Soon, Alyssa calmed down; I got her water; and I started to think more clearly.

We should call the doctor. Florence and I had exchanged doctor information before leaving for one another’s homes. Good thing, too. I prayed I could communicate to a doctor via phone what had just transpired and what our need might be. I called Monsieur le medecin who, I quickly learned from the impatient guy who answered the phone, that Monsieur was on vacation. Of course he was. “Is there another I could call.” Oui. I called M. Wartel. He answered his own phone. After I got over that shock, he shocked me further with, “Can you come now? I can see you now.” Avelin does not have a bank or even an ATM machine. But it does have a doctor, and his “office” (clearly a small clinic adjacent to his own home) was only five minutes by car from our little farmstead. Alyssa was calm and reading a book by this point, with thumb still elevated and continuing to numb from the bag of frozen beans.

The doctor ushered us into his cute waiting room; Dave started looking through a car magazine and having me translate some fascinating news about Audis. The girls then had me read a kids’ book to them about a young girl with a good voice selected to be the class’ soloist for an upcoming school concert. The doctor then took us into his exam room, took off the tightly wound bandages from Alyssa’s very purple thumb and delivered the bad news. “Il faut le coudre.”

“Alyssa, honey, you need stitches.” As you can imagine, she freaked out. Then came the Novocaine injection. Alyssa let out a primal scream and began shaking. Hayley, ever the uber-empathic one, started crying, too. Dave quickly ushered her out of the exam room while I dried Alyssa’s sweating brow and tried to translate everything to her, while calming her, too. Fortunately, the doctor only had to do one stitch to permanently stop the blood flow. But he first had to administer three shots of Novocaine and then had a hard time working on the narrow tip of her thumb with his needle and surgical thread. He clearly got concerned he’d not be able to complete the single stitch needed to fix Alyssa’s thumb; he said, “If I can’t get this, you’ll have to go to the hospital.” I remained silent, hoping Alyssa wouldn’t notice the doctor had said anything at all. “What’d he say?!” she not-so-calmly asked. I told her the truth and that she had to calm down to help him make it work. Eventually, she did and he successfully sewed up the split thumb. Oy va voy. Then, as quickly as Alyssa’d descended into fear, she ascended up to pride. Great swells of it, in fact, over her bravery, her making it through “surgery” (as she called it) and her immediate need for a treat for demonstrating such courage in the face of horror. A chocolate-chip cookie was her reward, and she was so totally relieved she’d made it through and would live to tell (she did believe at one point she was going to die, poor thing), she even shared parts of her cookie with Dave, me and even with Hayley who, by that point, had determined her sister was brave and Hayley never, ever would need stitches her whole lief long.

That drama over and my heart rate not yet back to normal, we did head off to Brussels. I’ll add from the few comments above that the only other time I’d been to Brussels was at the New Year in 1993, and the weather literally was well below freezing. I never wanted to be outside the entire time we were in Brussels, as it was deathly cold and therefore I never had a very good feeling about that city or Belgium itself for that matter. During this trip, however, it was gorgeous, in the 80s, and the girls really enjoyed the city’s center, its pretty fountains and its amazing hot, chewy, chocolate-covered gaufres — waffles — for which Belgium is quite famous and deservedly so.

Also while in Brussels, we happened upon a wonderful park that had a trampoline-like contraption whereby kids get attached to a wall-climbing-like apparatus with bungee cords and flung into the air by its operator. For 5 euros for five minutes, the girls each got a ‘ride.’ While Alyssa was at the zenith of her ride, she shouted out, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in a foreign country!!!!” The thumb, by then, was nearly completely forgotten. Thank God.

Today, I’m writing from Aachen, Germany, an adorable town that sits at the point where The Netherlands and Belgium meet Germany. We’re staying with a family, the mother of whom was a good friend of mine while we both were studying abroad in Toulouse. Sabine Dzuck has two children; her partner, Christophe, has two of his own from a former marriage. Three of the four kids are here this weekend, and the girls are having an absolute blast, speaking in pantomime and English with these three great kids, Mona, 5.5, Noah, 11, and Katja, 15. There also are two sweet little bunnies in these friends’ backyard. Guess who can hardly get her little paws off the bunnies’ paws? Yup, Hayley is in love with the rabbits and they with her. The girls so needed kids (and soft pets) at this point; they don’t even need to speak the same language to have fallen in love with each other. They’re on the trampoline in the Dzuck’s backyard. You don’t need an intact thumb to jump, flip, cartwheel and laugh with new friends.

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Third time’s (or day’s) a charm

August 20, 2009 at 8:41 am (Uncategorized)

Our third and final day in Paris, Dave and I got it right: Hit the highlights, make it brief and then call it quits. While we were pleased we’d figured out how best to see some key sites of Paris and not completely exhaust (or piss off) the girls, we also were pleased we were to return home — er — to Avelin later in the afternoon.

This morning the girls and I walked to a nearby boulangerie/patisserie while Dave packed up our stuff; we brought back to our terrific hotel room a salmon-and-spinach quiche, two croissants, a baguette and a chocolate crepe. Our day got off to a great start…and a sweet one, too. We decided to skip the boat trip along the Seine, fearing a line, high prices and a less-than-stellar experience. So we headed, via a quick walk along the Seine, directly to Notre Dame. Make that we headed — along with all of Italy — to Notre Dame. Yes, we heard American and British English and some other unidentifiable tongues there, but none more than the lilting of Italian. Just hearing it makes you want to start wildly gesticulating and scarfing down gelato. No gelato to be found, we stood in a rapidly moving line (grace a’ Dieu = thank G-d) to enter the historic, gorgeous cathedral whose facade is covered with one ornately carved statue after another and whose interior is dominated by the Rose Window. Inside, we found a plaque commemorating the very beginning of Notre Dame de Paris’ construction…in 1163. And it’s a cathedral still used for regular worship today. We lit our candle for Tito (so appropriately an Italian0 and said prayers for others, too, and made a very quick tour of the not-to-be-missed…or  lingered-at…church. Indeed, just as the girls had had enough of craning their necks at unbelievably high arches and listening to Dave and I drone on about the beauty of the Rose Window, we reached the sortie. Honestly, having first seen the Notre Dame de Rouen prior to visiting Paris’ Notre Dame, the girls were a little nonplussed by the arguably more famous cathedral. Rouen’s is so much bigger, less crowded and more magestic; the girls, frankly, were jaded. I thought that was so interesting, as Notre Dame de Paris was the first such cathedral I’d ever seen when I was younger (13), so it’s stood out in my mind all these years as so overwhelmingly big. Upon arriving at Notre Dame this very hot morning I, too, realized that in terms of height, if not grandeur and beauty, Notre Dame de Paris has stiff competition.

Daddy and girls in front of Notre Dame

Daddy and girls in front of Notre Dame

Alyssa's picture of the Rose Window

Alyssa's picture of the Rose Window

We then took the Metro to view the Arc de Triomphe. Period. We hopped on the subway and exited the underground system within view of the Champs Elysees and the famous cement arch. C’est tout! (That’s all!) A lovely American couple from Ohio took our picture as a foursome, and then we didn’t even cross the street or take two steps down the Champs Elysees. The girls were happy to see the Arc and equally pleased we were going to head to our TGV to return to the tranquility and, by now, familiarity of Avelin.

Mommy and girls in front of L'Arche de Triomphe

Mommy and girls in front of L'Arche de Triomphe

A happy moment on the subway...I think Hayley know that we were headed "home"

A happy moment on the subway...I think Hayley know that we were headed "home"

Sweating profusely, we made our way to Gare du Nord (that Dave kept pronouncing like a lion in heat: “GRRRRRRRRRRrrr du NorD!”) and, again starving, ate quite decent food for having purchased it in a major train station while making camp on the station’s floor. There simply were no places to sit! All the while we were eating jambon, emmental, baguette, salad and le Skippy for Hayley, we were captive to the P.A. system’s continuous loop chain of recorded announcements. Plus, the place was just bustling with people of all stripes and smells. Entering, at last, our car #7 of the TGV, was such a welcome respite from the heat, noise and commotion. Returning to Avelin was yet another terrific comedown from all the stimulation of all things Parisian.

Joffrey’s girlfriend, Betty, VERY kindly picked us up at the gare in Arras, a small town about 15 minutes south of Avelin, and, much like our taxi ride from Heathrow airport in London to the town of Watford, the girls fell asleep, me seated in between them, (and on this brief drive, Dave speaking Franglais in the front seat with Betty).

The girls ecstatically frolicked in the Millescamps’ yard for a very long time this afternoon while Dave and I cleaned and packed; tomorrow we leave for another five-day out-of-town trip, and then,exactly one week from today, we’ll leave France behind. Sniff. Sob. The girls have begun talking more about home: starting school; friends; the kitties; their grandparents; their own rooms. But I believe, like me, they’re quite torn about leaving this idyll. Just tonight, a very tired and naked Alyssa, contemplating taking her bath, ran up to me and announced she plans to travel the world when she’s older. “I love traveling!” she beamed, adding she’s been loving having a home base and traveling to points outside it, experiencing new and different things at nearly every turn. I hugged her close, telling her that’s ultimately what I’d hoped for her and Hayley in having endeavored to take this trip.

More Belgian chocolate tomorrow, followed by lots of kids to play with from Friday through Tuesday should seal the deal.

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From “a bag of steaming poo” to “Thanks for the best day ever”

August 18, 2009 at 7:52 pm (Uncategorized)

Versaille beckoned. So, after fortifying ourselves on wonderful crepes, croissants and an impressively long baguette (that the girls ate in its entirety), we took 13 trains outside of Paris to Versaille. Well, we didn’t actually have to take 13 different trains, but it felt like it. We had to stop a few times for emergency potty breaks. That’s not as easy as it seems. Searching for a W.C. in Paris is a bit like searching for the Holy Grail, the only difference being that pissing in Paris is more expensive. We eventually arrived at Versaille, whose gilded gates from afar look quite impressive, as does the outside of the palace of the Sun King, Louis XIV. In fact, we should really have appreciated that view and left it at that. But oh no: Dave went to wait in a line that took two hours to snake around the front of the palace’s grounds before we even could enter the building. That’s right: TWO HOURS. I still can’t believe he was that patient. I’d agreed to take the girls to nearby souvenir shops to distract them from the inevitable wait. We got giant gumballs, myriad postcards and a few souvenirs. I wasted more time my favorite way: Striking up conversations with shopkeepers to chat about absolutely nothing…but it’s a great opportunity to practice French or ask the definition of words I see around but don’t yet know the meaning of. That game exhausted, we returned to the outside of the Versaille palace to find Dave.

He was standing in line behind a lovely foursome from Canada, playing the ‘Country, City, States’ game, in which one person says the name of a city — say, Atlanta — and the next person then has to name a new city that starts with the last letter of the place just given. It was great fun playing it with an international group: Turns out one of the Canadians is from Quebec, another from Vancouver, B.C., and another (also from Quebec) was with his Czech girlfriend. I learned Czech cities starting with “z.” Fascinating.

That waiting game over, we bought tickets to view the palace’s interior. Again, we should have turned around, grabbed the train back to Paris and satisfied ourselves by talked up to the girls just how amazing the lobby of the palace was. But oh no. Onward we went. It was hot today. The rooms were packed with people. People who I believed last bathed before their most likely quite recent march up the Eiffel Tower’s steps. As structures of Versaille’s sort weren’t built with hallways but only with adjoining rooms, one feels trapped, unable to exit until you see every f-ing room, in the order in which they were constructed. After a while, Dave and I were hunting for the “sortie” sign in the same fashion most folks around us were hunting for the “royal bedroom” or Hall of Mirrors. We saw those and much more but really celebrated when, indeed, the red “sortie” sign became visible beyond the (smelly) masses. The girls viewed the amazing gardens out the few windows open during the palace tour. Neither gave a crap about them and so we saved 8 euros per person in completely passing up a walk around arguably one of the most famous sites worldwide. But the girls didn’t care and, so, neither did we. Oh, and by the way, it was nearing 3, and we’d last eaten at about 9:30. The snacks I of course had packed no longer were tiding anyone over.

This is how Hayley saw the inside of Versailles

This is how Hayley saw the inside of Versailles

Alyssa is really lovin Versailles

Alyssa is really lovin Versailles

Dave and I truly felt we’d made a plan for a day that would be a total failure. However, instead of calling it quits mid-afternoon, we were resolute in sticking to the latter part of our plan: to get to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur.

We took the train (a double-decker! Hayley was loving at least that) back into Paris, the entire time listening to Alyssa wail about the fullness of her bladder. We got off at Invalides, a central Metro stop. Not one toilette. Not one. I finally approached a young man in his newspaper/sundry shop and frankly said I had a child in dire need of a loo. He looked at me with such empathy I thought he’d open his secret back hatch and let Alyssa relieve herself (and us, of her whining). “There’s no toilet here.” He said. Very frustrated (and starving, too), I looked at him and mustered in the sharpest French I could, “Donc, what do you do?” He simply shrugged in that very French way and pointed in the general direction of various cafes that, moments previously, a young woman at an information booth told us simply didn’t exist in the Invalides quarter. The French, along with their amazing shrugging and powers of looking empathic, must, too, have hollow legs. Not for an extra aperitif or glass of wine, but for the urine they clearly store up throughout the day, in their land of no powder rooms.

Next stop: Place Clichy. We found a brasserie and engaged in dinner at 4:30 p.m. Hamburgers for the girls; a steak kabob for Dave; my favorite Salade a’ Chevre Chaud for me. And French fries, of course. This place had ketchup, so Hayley ate some meat with her ketchup and I thus was able to keep “le Skippy” in my backpack for that meal.

Sated after a lovely meal, we mushed on and indeed made it to Montmartre. There, we got the girls each a Ben & Jerrys treat and, in lieu of climbing up the many steps that transports one to the era of Hemingway and the artists’ colony that inspired him and so many others of even earlier epochs, we took the “funiculaire,” a tram-like thing that allows you to look at the steps without needing to climb them. The girls were really perked up by now! We ogled the extremely international crowd up at Montmartre and the unreal view of nearly all of Paris from that height. We then rounded a corner and came upon the artists, hawking their wares and their ability to charcoal any passerby, for a price. We picked an artist (Camille) and sat the girls down — first Alyssa, then Hayley — to be depicted in black, gray and white. They both had to sit kinda still for a very long time and, despite getting really squirmy, they both did made it through, and we walked away with a very fun, memorable and decent rendition of both girls. The artist made them each look at least 5 years older than they are, but that’s OK; we agreed he captured their eyes and their T-shirts (and Alyssa’s necklace) quite well.

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

Alyssa getting her portrait drawn in Montmartre

Alyssa getting her portrait drawn in Montmartre

Adding Hayley to the portrait.  The artist did a decent job, but both girls look like adult versions of themselves

Adding Hayley to the portrait. The artist did a decent job, but both girls look like adult versions of themselves

Alyssa wouldn't believe this was a real person...until we paid a Euro and he moved

Alyssa wouldn't believe this was a real person...until we paid a Euro and he moved

The girls had entirely forgotten about our Versaille outing, which, earlier in the day, Dave and called a “bag of steaming poo.” We’ve noticed the girls remember only the good stuff. They again proved that to be true, as descending from Montmartre to our Metro that would take our tired, hot and sweaty selves back to our American hotel with lovely American amenities (read: great toilets), both Alyssa and Hayley waxed frenetic about how awesome our entire day was. “The best day ever,” in fact. (I think both girls said that at one point earlier this evening: The quote is accurate, and it’s attributable to both.)

Tired as hell, Dave and I looked at each other with very large, very relieved smiles. The day was not the failure we’d feared it would be. While we’d missed lunch, we did not miss cocktail hour. After arriving back to the hotel and getting the girls in bed, we shared some wine. Much-needed wine. Actually, I’m off to sip a bit more of it and get off to sleep myself.

Tomorrow: Notre Dame and a Seine River boat tour. Then TGV back to calm and peaceful Avelin. To pack and clean before our final week abroad is spent traveling to Brussels, Aachen, Germany, and then the northern French coast. A’ tout a’ l’heure.

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A’ Paris

August 17, 2009 at 6:21 pm (Uncategorized)

Dave proposed to me in September 1993, atop Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park. Later that night over dinner, while reveling in our relationship’s new stage as an engaged couple, Dave told me he’d actually hoped to propose to me at the Eiffel Tower but realized how difficult, on so many levels, pulling that one off would be. Today we had a second proposal of sorts — a moment at the Eiffel Tower, not as an engaged couple, but as a nearly 13-years-married couple and the parents of two lovely children. That moment was arguably as romantic as a Parisian proposal would have been — N O T!!!

Our friend, Joffrey, this a.m. took us to the train station in Lille so we could take the TGV (train de grand vitesse, or high-speed train) to Paris’ Gare du Nord. Our return trip from here is in two days, on Wed., Aug. 19. The TGV trip was fast, easy and, next thing we knew, we were in Paris! That realization was so very exciting for all of us…until about 3.5 minutes later when we still were schlepping through the Metro system to reach our Courtyard Marriot hotel in the Neuilly neighborhood of Paris. It’s considered a bourgeois neighborhood and it’s certainly quite nice: It’s quiet, calm and away from the major bustle of Paris Centre. But as it’s not in the center of town (it’s a good deal northwest of it), our schlep continued…and the whining started. We hadn’t eaten since about 8 in the morning, and it now was about 1 p.m. Sure, I’d packed snacks, ever the roving 7/11 that I am. But they were barely tiding over the girls.

Still, we got checked into our spacious and beautiful room that includes a room with a king-size bed for Dave and me and a salon-type room with a hide-away bed for the girls. We unpacked; Hayley put even her jammies on hangers. The girl likes to feel entirely settled before a place is OK to her and, thus, a place that no longer is scary or unknown. Once all the panties were anally folded and put away and every single garment hung impeccably, we ventured exactly one block to the nearest brasserie at which we ordered a Mt. Sinai-esque pile of frites (French fries), jambon, baquette and sundry other items we simply will no longer be able to eat much of on a daily basis once Stateside.

Alyssa chilling in our room in the Marriott

Alyssa chilling in our room in the Marriott

Hayley making herself at home in the hotel room.  Every article of clothing was hung in the closet...pj's included

Hayley making herself at home in the hotel room. Every article of clothing was hung in the closet...pj's included

The Eiffel Tower beckoned. How wonderful it would be to gaze upon its grandeur, mount its 1660 stairs and buy a souvenir after the trek. Purchasing the souvenir — and an ice cream cone — turned out to be the biggest success of our first Parisian day.

About 100 stairs into our vertical Bataan death march (there’s a theme of this trip, non?), the girls started to fatigue, audibly. The whining commenced, and yet Alyssa and Hayley were resolute about getting to the top of the radio tower. (You can’t really do that, but you get where this is going.) Onward and upward we marched, simultaneously hearing every language on the planet and smelling all of humanity; it reached about 80 F today. (“F” didn’t stand for Farenheit at the moment I’m describing.) We reached the first landing. What a view! Ouch! My ears! A little bit of chastising had to occur and yet, onward the girls wanted to ascend. So we did. We reached the second landing. Hayley bit Alyssa; Alyssa slapped Hayley with a brochure; Dave’s smile got really, really tight; and I walked away from the carnal scene to view Notre Dame and the Opera in the distance. I could see Sacre Coeur, too, through a blur of rage and fatigue. It was all so beautiful…and so very far away and on the ground. And we all desperately needed to be on the ground, too, along with the monuments.

Alyssa climbing the Eiffel Tower...pre-meltdown

Alyssa climbing the Eiffel Tower...pre-meltdown

Hayley even climbed a a good deal of the way

Hayley even climbed a a good deal of the way

With the pain and suffering we went through to get these photos, you'd better believe that I'm posting them

With the pain and suffering we went through to get these photos, you'd better believe that I'm posting them

Note that Hayley bit Alyssa just before they got their turn posing for these photos.  It was the beginning of the end of our Eiffel Tower climb

Note that Hayley bit Alyssa just before they got their turn posing for these photos. It was the beginning of the end of our Eiffel Tower climb

After more tears and complaints about the state of the feet (if not intimations of our high-elevation de-feat), we headed on down. The return trip always takes less time than the initial aller. So, we got to the bottom of the Tower (it is truly such a magnificent structure; I just can’t take my eyes off it), found a cute tourist-y T-shirt for each of the girls and resumed our horizontal Bataan death march back to our hotel. With a final destination in mind, however, the girls relatively happily walked through three switches of Metro trains and the nearly 10 minutes it takes to get from Metro stop Anatole France to our hotel on Boulevard Victor Hugo that’s in sight of an impressive statue that I’ll check out more closely tomorrow when on a tranquil run…by myself.

A new t-shirt soothes all wounds

A new t-shirt soothes all wounds

The girls suddenly perked up — as Dave ordered two pizzas to go to devour in our suite — and talked about how much they loved the Eiffel Tower. OK, so, it was indeed a success…kid style. At one moment today, Dave and I considered returning a day early to Avelin; maybe we were asking too much of our young traveling companions. But the girls inadvertently let us know we should keep in tact our travel plans: They’re quite excited to go to Versaille tomorrow and perhaps even have their profiles drawn by an artist at Montmartre. So, in Paris we’ll stay. The Mona Lisa will go unviewed by their eyes. I hope all of Paris is saved tomorrow from the agony of the ears it certainly experienced today, thanks to our rough-and-tumble girls.

At dinner in our hotel room, Hayley wolfed FOUR SLICES OF PIZZA, repeating over and over that it was the best pizza she’d ever had. Alyssa fell into bed after only two slices, even forgetting to ask for dessert. I do hope today’s adventures ultimately leave not only a good taste in their mouths but result in a stellar night sleep. Bonne nuit!

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A’ la piscine

August 17, 2009 at 5:25 pm (Uncategorized)

In level-I French class in junior high, our teacher, Robin Fretheim, taught us a very helpful mnemonic device for the word “pool” in French: “Don’t piss in ‘la piscine!'” (with “piss” pronounced “pees”). Very clever; Dave has gotten lots of mileage out of that phrase on this trip, as we’re now a regular commodity at the local pool about which we clearly have written before. In fact, today, upon our return there, one of the locker room workers told me on the sly to keep our tickets for another day, knowing we’d return. (In other words, he was helping us not pay for the next time we use the facility. Zat eez so niiiiiiiiiiiiiiice.)

We had a day more typical of a Saturday or Sunday back home, but with a few exceptions. We woke and hung out around the house. I taught Alyssa UNO and she took to it immediately and just adored it. Hayley then got in on it and started learning some strategies, especially the one about “not whispering about your hand so loudly that the neighbors know what you’ve got in it.” We then went to our favorite and most hygienic haunt — the pool — and, lastly, picked up a challah from the most gracious Chabad rabbi and his family; this time they slipped in a nice bottle of kosher wine. We were so glad we’d thought to buy them a lovely house plant as a gift of thanks before heading to the large family’s apartment. Three of his eight children now have chickenpox; last week it was two. Vaccines in America are a very good thing.

And that was our day!

Now, for our “few exceptions”: I was up early and went on a fabulous run, trotting past the town’s single boulangerie/patisserie to ensure it would be open today (one never knows). Indeed, it was. The girls awoke soon after I got home; while Dave — so tuckered out from penning his banana hammock story — continued to snooze, we three sneaked out and went to the boulangerie. There, Alyssa did a very admirable job of ordering for herself a croissant and pastry with chocolate pieces in it that I’d never seen or tasted before. Hayley decided not to order on her own, but requested a second chocolate yumminess just the same. I got a picture; they were still in their bedtime attire (Hayley in her sleeper and crocs, Alyssa in her Space Needle jammers from Seattle) and were quite proud to have procured their breakfast treat “by themselves.”

Once home, I do believe I ate most of the chocolate heaven. When in Rome…

Alyssa was especially thrilled to learn UNO; she started talking a lot about individual friends from both school and summer camp who’d played UNO and what fun they seemed to have doing so. Now, she said, she’d be able to play with them. Shortly after waxing eloquent about the card game whose mysteries had been revealed to her, she got moody then downright melancholy, then hysterically sad. “I just miss my friends so much,” she blubbered. “I miss school. I just want to be back at school!” Hayley, stunned by Alyssa’s sadness, kept checking on her sister and saying again and again, “I’ve never seen this [from Alyssa] before.” (Later in the day, Hayley started talking about the virtues of kindergarten and how she can’t wait to go. With a reaction like Alyssa’s, all-day school must be damn good! She said she planned making up songs tomorrow about her teacher.)

Soon, Alyssa calmed down; we wrote some emails to friends, requesting their digital pictures, and Dave and I gave her extra hugs and reassurances: While it’s sad to miss friends and school, it’s wonderful to miss friends and school, too; you’ll look forward to your return for so many reasons. Think about if you didn’t want to return to school!

UNO, at that point, went by the wayside and la piscine called.

While eating dinner tonight, Hayley brought up the Bayeux Tapestry that we’d visited earlier this week. She started asking great questions about it indicating she clearly was still thinking about the experience. She wanted to know its age; how it was made; why it’s so long in length; how it’s lasted so long; why it had to be viewed it such a dark room? She also said that she enjoyed listening to the audio more than she did looking at the artwork itself. Why’s that, we asked. Shrug. Pause. “Was your audio the same as mine, only more boring?” she asked, shoving another piece of jambon doused in ketchup in her mouth. At that we guffawed and then tried to explain that the kids’ version most certainly was more — er — lively than ours (“narrated in English by a boy,” she said) but very interesting just the same.

Today, we also saw a porcupine, loping across the street. Hayley immediately declared it to be a girl. Thank God she didn’t also beg to take its pricklyness home with us. (I still can’t believe she’s not yet captured one of the millions of bunnies running rampant around here and stuffing it in a suitcase for our return trip. Good thing those rapid multipliers and poopers are really fast hoppers, too.)

Bed time!

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Une vrai soiree francaise

August 16, 2009 at 9:03 pm (Uncategorized)

Yesterday I didn’t blog (is that really a verb?) because we got home from our day’s single activity after 11 p.m. I went to bed with the girls; Dave stayed up to get his Tiger Woods fix (the golf tourneys are on LATE here). We were out so late because we spent a Saturday night with a French family — friends of the Millescamps — who, in Dave’s subtle, sensitive assessment, “pimped us.”We’d had a very mellow day; we spent all day until 1 p.m. in the house, lolling about, playing UNO, noshing, folding laundry. It felt very much like a regular Saturday at home. We’d been invited to meet Joffrey, his girlfriend Betty (pronounced Beh-Tee), her father, Francis, and his girlfriend, Danielle, for a day’s outing and then dinner. What they ultimately gave us was our best night in France thus far.

We drove to a small town south of here called Noyelle Godault, where Joffrey lives with Betty, who is to have a baby next month. Married previously, Betty has a 10-year-old son, Hugo, who spends August with his father. For Joffrey, this will be his first child. The couple expect a son, though Joffrey’d admitted to us earlier he’d hoped for a girl. That was obvious in how much pleasure he got out of engaging Hayley and Alyssa in play and “conversation” as best he could, given he speaks about three words of English and the girls speak about that much French, when the two are put together!

At Noyelle Godault, the couple offered Hayley and Alyssa numerous bonbons (fruit-flavored candy, chocolate candies, violettes, a sweet, fragrant French specialty); Dave enjoyed some dark, French beer; and I partook of a nice, mint tea. Perfect on the apparently unusually hot day. Betty speaks some English, the operative word being “some”; again I had the privilege of playing translator. After the candy was (nearly) polished off, the girls spied Betty and Joffrey’s inflatable pool. The begging to take a dip began. But Dave and I of course had no idea there’d be a pool at our destination. “They have no clothes,” we told our hosts. They shrugged while simultaneously doing that very French thing of puffing out their lips and raising their eyes to heaven, accompanied by an expulsion of the semi-word “bof!” In other words: “So what if your young, pre-pubescent children are naked! Let them enjoy.” And so, enjoy they did. I got one picture; I’m not sure we’ll upload it, as in the States it probably counts as kiddie porn. (But, today, 24 hours later, when I ask the girls their favorite part of yesterday, they both agreed it was “getting nudie and going in the pool, twice!” It’s good to be in Europe on a warm summer day.)

Next, Francis and Danielle arrived; the middle-aged couple spoke fabulous English, and so soon everyone could join in all conversations, with a little bit of translation necessary both from our end and from theirs. They all were adorable with the girls and, we soon learned, had an itinerary chosen for our afternoon, prior to dinner. Betty, very, very pregnant, stayed behind to rest while the rest of us piled into two cars and headed a bit further southwest to an amazing Medieval village, Arras, which is the seat of government for this region, Nord Pas-de-Calais.I’ve become so accustomed to Avelin, “our” farming village, that I now believe any new, smalltown in this region will be similar. Quite to the contrary, after spending an hour there, I’ve decided I’d like to live in Arras. We drove in through the town’s Grand Place, or central square, which truly rivals Bruges, Belgium’s so-called Venice of the North. While Arras hasn’t the canals of Bruges, Arras’ architecture in its huge, cobblestoned square, is entirely Flemish. One building among all the others in the square has the gabled roofs quite typical of Flemish structures. All the other buildings in the Place — peopled by many revelers for the Catholic holiday of Assumption, all enjoying a lovely, warm afternoon at various cafes and bars — are wedged together, side-by-side, with narrow facades that are perfectly rounded off up top. They look as if their roofs once were gabled but someone took a nail file to them and filed them smooth and curved. Before we learned from Francis, our host-cum-tour guide that this town once had been part of Flemish territory in one of this region’s many territorial scuffles before finally becoming French, Alyssa blurted out, “This looks like Ghent!” I love evidence my children really are gaining so much from their various experiences. (Meanwhile, Hayley is still talking about the Bayeux Tapestry; if she wants to return one day, I’ll be the first to join her. I’m free next month, as a matter of fact…)

Central square in Arras showing its Flemish architecture

Central square in Arras showing its Flemish architecture

Each city in northern France has a set of their own giants.  For what reason?  Even our hosts/tour guides had no idea.  A bit freaky, huh?

Each city in northern France has a set of their own giants. For what reason? Even our hosts/tour guides had no idea. A bit freaky, huh?

We learned, too, that during World War II, the multi-layered tunnels that criss-cross the Place underneath its cobblestones were hiding places for soldiers and residents. Germans, British, surely French, too. As we arrived at the office of tourism, the last tour of these secret tunnels, or “boves,” had just departed. Oh well. Knowing they existed at all was amazing. Francis’ guidebook indicated the underground passageways weren’t built in anticipation of WWII; they’d been around for hundreds of years, the town itself having been built in the 1400s century.

Next destination: Douai, where Francis and Danielle live. They explained before arriving there that Douai is considered a bourgeois town. If Francis’ place is any measure, Douai is just fabulous. I’d now like to live in Douai. His multi-storied, very vertical home is furnished in a sophisticated manner with dark-wood chests, cabinets, tables. His kitchen is about 5 x 10 — inches, that is. I noticed throughout our three-hour evening meal Francis kept stealing into other rooms for the dinnerware; clearly, there’s no space for such items in his diminutive kitchen, decorated with flowing bowls and plates of fresh fruit, dried summer squashes and two fish, each of which had his or her own bowl, adjacent to the sink. The girls loved them — “Fish 1” and “Fish 2,” they’re apparently named.

Dinner began with slices of jambon — ham from Parma, Italy; local, smoked ham; and the kind of ham Hayley’s been wolfing down from our favorite, Auchan. Prepared for his American guests, Francis was ready with French fries (known either as “chips” in the English style or “frites“) and Coca-cola (not known as “Coke” here). The girls were in (literally) pig heaven. Hayley especially. Let me explain:

At the outset of our drive from Avelin to Noyelle Godault, I told Hayley, “I’ll bring your Skippy peanut butter to snack on during the afternoon, but it’d be rude to bring it in to have with dinner.” She was NOT happy about that, nor with me, but I was going to sick to my guns, damnit. During the afternoon, upon our stop in Arras, we opened the trunk of the car to feed Hayley a portion of her day’s allotment of Skippy, and the French folks of course saw what we were doing. And were they ever so curious about it. Not that Hayley was having a snack, but the thing on which she was snacking. “Le Skippy?” they asked, pronouncing Hayley’s most favorite food group “Skipee” with a very elongated “eeee” sound. They all decided they’d give it a try, too, with dinner. Dave and I went to pains to inform our French friends that Skippy is not the real thing; the real thing one must put in the fridge for its LACK of preservatives.

Danielle, Francis, Betty, Joffrey, David and Alyssa at dinner in Francis' back yard in Douai

Danielle, Francis, Betty, Joffrey, David and Alyssa at dinner in Francis' back yard in Douai

Our best friend in the Lille area, Joffrey, with Alyssa and Hayley at Francis' house in Douai

Our best friend in the Lille area, Joffrey, with Alyssa and Hayley at Francis' house in Douai. Note that Joffrey is just about as tall as Dave, and he seems to really like kids. So Hayley was taking full advantage of Joffrey's willingness to carry her on his shoulders when we toured Arras and Alyssa begged the entire time for a ride, as well. She got one in the end.

At dinner, out came le Skippy. Hayley’s jambon soon became a Skippy delivery device. Joffrey watched with a very, very pained expression as Hayley took a nice slice of jambon in her fingers, ran it through a soft glob of Skippy and shoved the layered combination into her mouth. “Yum! Jambon is so good with Skippy!” Hayley declared. No translation was required; her bulging cheeks was all the language anyone needed to comprehend. Alyssa, meanwhile, happily slurped Coke, ate smoked jambon, sliced baguette and frites. The French all tried le Skippy, each mirroring the other with his or her reaction to Hayley’s favorite delice: First, after taking a small dab on their tongues, they’d smile, pleased with le Skippy’s initial, sweet taste. Second, their expressions turned to one of confusion, followed by one resembling the universal symbol for “yuck.” The French, always very attentive to their palates, eat certain types of food at certain times of day. Joffrey, in particular, expounded on the confusion le Skippy engendered, unsure if it would be a sweet treat to have around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, or a salty treat to enjoy with a cocktail before a meal. Soon, the girls were done with their meal and went off to watch a Harry Potter DVD, leaving their folks to thoroughly, thoroughly enjoy an incredibly tasty, very relaxed and relaxing evening with new friends.

First for the adults: an aperitif. I had a bitter orange liqueur Francis had made himself. Dave and the others toasted with a champagne from the Champagne region, just south of Pas-de-Calais. After our jambon course came a dish of ground chicken, flavored with fennel. Dave was brave and tasted a gelatinous ham dish, as well as pate mixed with beer (which I can’t stand). I stuck to the charcuterie, or cold cuts. Next came a lovely red wine whose grapes came from land in the south of France (near Toulouse/le Pyrenees) owned by Francis. Terribly yummy. Then a salad of greens. Then a cheese platter. Then the fresh fruits, including green plums, bursting-with-sweetness purple grapes and tiny, yellow plums, too. The Siren song of dessert summoned the girls, and Francis had waiting for them tiny little ice cream cones with solid chocolate at the base of the cones. By then it was nearing 10 p.m.  We had to go. I didn’t want to. We all exchanged addresses and email addresses and invited them all to our Portland home. How I hope to return here; how I hope they come to visit.

One kinda funny thing: It was my first real opportunity to speak French at a regular, conversational clip and for a prolonged period of time. As a result, my French was, well, conversational. I learned, too, that my French is that of college kids. At first, I took that comment to mean that I’m a youthful 37. But, after a quick explanation from Danielle as to what that meant, I was less thrilled by the “compliment.” I had learned my conversational French while trying to keep up with my college-age peers when I lived in Toulouse (16 years ago0. I apparently was using lots of slang that otherwise is used by young folks, not adults with kids enjoying sophisticated wines and lovely liqueurs. Tant pis!

Today I worked on my story about Lille’s Jewish community and its synagogue, while the girls played a Harry Potter make-believe game and Dave wrestled with Gilles’ gas-powered lawn mower. We then went to our favorite pool, where the employees now know us and laugh each time they see us and wave us on in (after paying, of course).

Hayley watched the American Girl made of tv movie three times on the flight over from Vancouver.  Apparently, the lead character (who also happens to be her doll Chrissa) wore her swim cap prior to her meets.  Hayley copied, with swim suit and cap on hours before our outing to the swimming pool.

Hayley watched the American Girl made of tv movie three times on the flight over from Vancouver. Apparently, the lead character (who also happens to be her doll Chrissa) wore her swim cap prior to her meets. Hayley copied, with swim suit and cap on hours before our outing to the swimming pool.

Tomorrow, we leave for a three-day stint in Paris, followed by a day in Brussels and then a weekend in Aachen, Germany, with a friend of mine (and her children) from our days as exchange students in Toulouse. I’ll blog as often as I can but not sure what Internet access will be like over the next week. Upon our return from Aachen, Germany, we’ll finally meet our French hosts, the Millescamps, who are then taking us to their beach house for the remainder of our French month.

I’ll blog when I can; as always, thank you for your interest and your comments.

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Bickering abroad

August 13, 2009 at 8:22 pm (Uncategorized)

Today I thought a lot about the opening scene in “The Music Man.” In it, businessmen on a train shooting through Midwestern cities take issue with one another’s ignorance of “the territory” they’re each hoping to dominate as door-to-door salesmen. One song includes a refrain that goes something like “You can talk, you can bicker; you can talk, you can bicker. You can talk talk talk talk bicker bicker bicker bicker.” While I doubt Alyssa and Hayley were reflecting on the old-time musical, they nonetheless were channeling it, at least its opening scene. For that is what Alyssa and Hayley did today, in Olympian fashion: bicker bicker bicker bicker. Very little talk talk talk talk of any substance; were they a few years older, I’m quite sure vitriol befitting an R-rated movie would have been slung. As it was, there was a lot of, “I’ll never play with you again!” and “Since you hit me, I’ll hit you back!” The Nobel Peace Prize surely would not have been awarded our two, were they in contention for such a purse. (And we could have used the money, actually, to pay the road tolls here. Damn.)

After our Bataan death march of the past couple days, though, Dave and I could have expected very little else. Indeed, we were ready for today’s onslaught and planned accordingly: Our day included a long stretch at home (punctuated by a number of “quiet times”); a trip to our favorite grocery store to purchase something other than a banana hammock for Dave’s “boys”; a tour of Lille’s synagogue (that Hayley made it through and that Alyssa did not); and a marathon swim at the offending pool where Dave had had to don the borrowed piece of dental floss-cum-man’s swim suit and where my bordering-on-lunatic guffaws still, indeed, were reverberating off the walls.

(More on the synagogue experience in another post; I’m still gathering my thoughts about all the interesting things I learned from Chabad’s rabbi, Rabbi Eliohu DAHAN, a very kind man with a very impressively filled out and impressively gray beard. Eight children, ranging in age from 3 to 21, at the age of 47 would do that to a person.)

Alyssa didn't last long enough in the quiet synagogue to make it into this photo.  She and Dave are waiting in the car, reading books.  Hayley was a princess, once she was separated from her arch nemesis

Alyssa didn't last long enough in the quiet synagogue to make it into this photo. She and Dave are waiting in the car, reading books. Hayley was a princess, once she was separated from her arch nemesis

This pool really is fantastic. For more about it (and pictures), click to

It includes an indoor hydrotube and wave machine; at 3:53, the life guards announce the wave machine is going to run for the next 7 minutes. The roughly 100 Frenchies in the pool (scantily clad, most of them) all started cheering. By this point, I’d started to turn blue with cold and so was on the sidelines, watching Dave look very bewildered at the sports-center-like huzzah that went up among the assembled baigneurs. I pantomimed to him the wave machine was about to get going. Slowly, the water started to drain into huge underwater vents. And then, as the crowd could barely contain itself and I imagined a scene from “Lord of the Flies,” the waves began. Truly, the pool was transformed into a contained ocean. It was fantastic to behold all these swimmers being hoisted up and down like buoys about 50 feet from shore in a pretty active ocean. Dave had a tight grip on Hayley who, toward the end of the 7-minute ho-down, was trying to body surf with a good deal of bravery and alacrity. Alyssa, on the other hand, on whom I had trained a hawkish beam the entire time, was swimming on her own, up, over and under the waves with amazing calm and ease. I noted that while the pool’s employees are terribly strict about swimmers’ attire, the life guards looked rather unimpressed by the force of the wave machine’s current. Swimmers young and old were bobbing up and down, struggling to swim against the manufactured current, clearly tiring out, and yet the life guards looked like they couldn’t wait for their upcoming cigarette break. I knew all that swimming upstream would translate into an early bedtime for les filles. (Indeed, at 7 p.m., their bickering came to an abrupt end, as they both crashed out hours before the sun sets on Northern France, at 10 p.m.)

Our Auchan trip earlier in the day (you’ll recall it’s our favorite grocery store, ever; we’ve started making up songs about it) was a big success:

We bought tons of Belgian chocolate on the cheap and thanks to the North African influence in this country, I bought two packages of Medjool dates, which means I purchased roughly 5,000 dates to keep me happy for at least a little while. (Trader Joe’s should take a quantity lesson where its package dates are concerned.)

Muslim woman at Lille’s Sunday market (maybe buying dates like Jenn)

The best purchase at Auchan, however, was Dave’s “maillot de bain,” a proper man’s swimsuit that resembles the “boy shorts” underpants popular among many American girls and women.


Hayley's friggin excited to go to the store today. And yes, this was one of her better moments of the day!

At the pool, when we entered the locker rooms, the same attendant — the one who’d explained all about French hygiene, his country’s complex legal system and how the two relate to one another — again was on duty. I explained to him how we’d just come from the store where Dave purchased a proper swimsuit. He smiled. I continued to explain about our fellow Americans’ reaction to the story of Dave’s needing to borrow a banana hammock, for fear his bathing-suit-to-his-knees would introduce swine flu and who knows what all to the tiny town of Villeneuve d’Ascq via its otherwise very sterile swimming facility. This guy figured all guys worldwide do as the French do; he was floored to learn of the U.S.’s very loose rules about male swimming attire and found it quite interesting our friends laughed hysterically at Dave’s recounting of the swimsuit incident.

Meanwhile, once on the pool deck, it’s just so ironic to observe the French’s otherwise entirely lackadaisical attitude about pool safety. We’ve got lifeguards in the States blowing their whistles at the slightest infraction. And how often do kids at the pool hear the refrain, “Walk! No running!” At this pool, running on the slick pool deck made of tiles seemed practically encouraged. As was diving without looking to see if you’re about to impale yourself on a swimmer just below who’s yet to clear out of the way. As was racing down the hydrotube at top speed, trying successfully to overcome the swimmer ahead of you and land together in a big splash at its terminus. I remember our 6th-grade party, as we all were about to depart Ridgewood Elementary for the bigger world of Cedar Park Junior High. Our big trip was to the now-defunct hydrotubes at Washington Square Mall. There were spotters at the top of each of the three tubes and at least as many down below, ensuring even spacing as all the revelers shot down the tubes and exited safely and in single file at their bottom.

This afternoon, when the lifeguards announced the pool’s closing, everyone quickly filed out, into the locker rooms. (While there are “separate” locker rooms and showers for each gender, the bathrooms and changing areas are actually shared by all. What a surprise for Hayley, Alyssa and me the first time we filed into “our” locker room only to need to duck into changing stalls to avoid the glance of boys, teens and men mere feet away!) Anyway, Alyssa was the last person out of that pool; the life guards had gone on their cigarette break even before her last mermaid manoeuvre was completed and she finally deigned exit the pool.

The girls bickered a bit on the way home, but mostly their energy was too sapped to really get into it. Dave and I looked at each other, gave one another the thumb’s up and mouthed, “7 p.m. bedtime, baby!” Home, bath, dinner, bed. All by 7. France is terrific, even when we’re doing no touring. And it’s best at night out here near farms, where it’s quiet inside due to slumbering children and “loud’ outside, due to braying donkeys, honking geese, doodling roosters and mooing cows. We can literally hear the cows munching hay. Even when the wind shifts, this is like a slice of heaven.

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