Category Archives: family

Holidays in France 2013

I definitely wanted to document our second year of holidays in France. For one, we made an American Thanksgiving for people here who made an impact on us and made us feel very welcome. It was a big meal in a small kitchen, but every person there was a gift we were thankful for!

A lively table of food and conversation.

A lively table of food and conversation.

We weren't just thankful for us old fogeys, either.

We weren’t just thankful for us old fogeys, either.

And I was super especially thankful that my oldest daughter had arrived from the States to join us for more than a month!

And not just thankful for the help washing dishes. Folks were pretty amazed we had no dishwasher here.

And not just thankful for the help washing dishes. Folks were pretty amazed we had no dishwasher here.

My friend Brigitte brought adorable little costume additions that we photographed the group with. I added them to our centerpieces!

A centerpiece with extra oomph!

A centerpiece with extra oomph!

We had a quiet Christmas at home, but left the next day for Paris. I’ll include the Paris photos another time.

 

Joyfully celebrating the Christ-child's birth!

Joyfully celebrating the Christ-child’s birth!

The big reveal. I am sure Theo was grateful his sister came. His dad and I are sort of boring on Christmas morning.

The big reveal. I am sure Theo was grateful his sister came. His dad and I are sort of boring on Christmas morning.

New Year’s was celebrated early, with Italy, and minimally, with a toast of sparkling pear juice. Party on, people!

So that was our Bonne Année, and I think next year we will get to have some of it back in the good ol’ USA.

 

 

 

 

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Staying in Bern

Bern is the capital of Switzerland. It is part of German-speaking Switzerland, and toward the center, a city surrounded by hills and tidy farms of cows and goats. Our hotel was directly west of it, attached to a mall with a water park and cinema, and next to the train and tram station. I was pretty pleased with the Holiday Inn.

The rollout bed was a tad short for my fast-growing boy, but it worked.

The rollout bed was a tad short for my fast-growing boy, but it worked.

The now-traditional view from the hotel room: many commercial roofs are planted, and goats are pastured in the distant farm. We could hear their bells tinkling.

The now-traditional view from the hotel room: many commercial roofs are planted, and goats are pastured in the distant farm. We could hear their bells tinkling.

The cinema in the mall offered Despicable Me 2 in English, with German and French subtitles. We jumped at the opportunity to attend the sequel to one of our favorite shows, and the theater happened to be having a family day. They were giving away minions and other themed items. We bought a popcorn with a minion cup. Stoney found his twin…

My Ironman with his twin.

My Ironman with his twin.

The German title for Despicable Me 2. Yeah, the French title bears no resemblance to the American title either.

The German title for Despicable Me 2. Yeah, the French title bears no resemblance to the American title either.

The drawback to staying in Bern was the cost of eating out. Just a warning to folks going to Switzerland…even expensive Starbucks is more $$, as in 6-8 francs a drink, at least. Our hotel’s all you can eat evening grill was 50 francs a person, and the Japaneses noodle shop in the mall food court was about 16 francs for a good sized bowl, 19 francs with a few dumplings included. Stoney and I split a bowl, because, seriously?

We did get free passes to the waterpark, but I couldn’t get any takers on that one. And while Spain, Italy and France are all nightowls, the Swiss are morning birds, so things in the mall closed relatively early. I’ll show you around Bern next time.

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Birthdays and Bugs

We have been very blessed regarding flexibility to travel this year. Nowhere was this more evident than our trip home to the States. My oldest daughter graduated from Kansas State University mid-May. If Theo had been tied to the French school schedule, we would not have been able to attend. And really, no one should miss a processional led by a kilt-clad bagpiper in the midst of the US plains.

I would never have expected it!

I would never have expected it!

We are very proud of our young graduate!

And visiting the States at this time is high birthday season: my oldest son had just had his, this daughter’s was a few weeks away, and definitely Theo, with a late summer birthday, would prefer to celebrate with US friends. How nice to knock out three with one blow, so to speak.And really, I was so, so grateful to spend time with my kids, including the poor winter birthday child. I took all the summer birthday kids camping. OK, so maybe this was the birthday choice of the nearly 14-year-old boy, but everyone loves camping, right? We fueled up with Krispy Kreme donuts before heading out. On a 2-hour drive to the campsite. That’s right, I’m the smart mom.

None of these in France, believe me!

None of these in France, believe me!

Fishing was almost as popular a past-time as messing with the campfire. Unfortunately, Quinn, my oldest, was the only one who caught anything. At least it was big enough for everyone to get a sample. Good fish, Kansas! Honestly, I couldn’t believe how chilly it was there in JUNE. Theo had asked for Oklahoma, but after the near-daily tornadoes, I was able to talk him into camping a little closer to his sister. The weather has been weird, folks. Still, as Deep-Woods Off as I fogged myself, I still got multiple aggravating mosquito bites and one tick. Uck. Now that leaves a person looking fondly on France…

Tyring for one of the really big ones at the dam  outlet. No luck.

Trying for one of the really big ones at the dam outlet. No luck. 

I really loved being home. It felt so comfortable! And seeing so many people I love was like refreshing water in a desert heat. And the hugs!! American hugs everywhere you turn! All good things end, though…

When we first moved to France, it was mid-July. I wrote about the remarkable weakness of pest invasion in our open home not long after. Having now almost completed a WHOLE YEAR (Happy anniversary to us!) in France, I have decided spring is the more buggy season.

It’s still kind of odd, though. For instance, we had one day that was really the Day of the Mouche. (That’s French for housefly.) We had a plague. The doors and windows were closed, but we killed, by swatter, over a hundred houseflies. What is with that?! Seriously? I couldn’t find where they were originating, and I couldn’t find a, well, organic source for them. The next day we killed only about 40, and the next day, maybe single digits. The funny thing about these flies was their general lethargy. Well, you can probably guess that by our high kill rate. There would be some serious effort to dispatch that many flies back in Kansas. It would probably qualify as some kind of boot-camp workout, but here, not so much.

And then there are the bees. They are obviously quite healthy and numerous here, unlike back home. And I am betting they loved the wet winter and spring, because the outdoors is literally humming with them. I have this hedge that goes around two sides of the house…

See any flowers? Me neither.

See any flowers? Me neither.

It is abuzz. Constantly. I canNOT figure it out, because why? There seems to be nothing a bee could eat there. But there are hundreds just all over this thing. I even had one briefly pause on the back of my hand one day while I was sitting out back chatting with friends. Being allergic to wasps, I prefer to avoid bee encounters. If there was some way to discourage their constant chillin’ in my background, I’d take it. The wildflower field behind the house was recently flattened (not mowed, interestingly), and I am wondering if that might encourage the bees to hang out elsewhere?

But on the up side, the mosquitos are STILL wimpy. We have enjoyed backyards, riverbanks, our own patio right along with the mosquitos. We have been bitten, but I don’t even get welts. They barely itch. Curious, eh? For a place lush with flora, there just isn’t much annoying fauna. I hope this continues! We are back in France for another year and then a bit. Our appointment is set with the prefecture to formalize that at the end of the month. I’ll let y’all know how that goes!

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Churches in Florence

My one great regret in Florence occurred at the end of Sunday, walking back to our hotel after a long day on our feet. It was growing dark, and singing was wafting from a recessed doorway. Suddenly Theo realized the tune was familiar. I stopped dead, recognizing an often-sung praise tune. Oh joy! Brothers and sisters in Christ, worshiping here, in Italy! I know this should not be a surprise to me, but I wasn’t looking for it here, in this non-descript stone building. My legs almost carried me up the dark stairs to the low light inside, but my tired guys had only paused. I was torn, knowing I would not be unwelcome in that body even if none spoke English (highly unlikely from my experience), but I followed my exhausted fellows. Only later did I realize that I could have gone in and let my traveling companions proceed without me. I really think I could have found my way back to the hotel myself. It is the one thing I did not do that haunts me. But what a reminder that the true Church is not these massive towers and domes of stone or brick. All of the houses of worship we visited house that Body; they are NOT that Body!

Any European city seems to be riddled with churches, most of notable beauty. Florence was no different.

A beautiful church door.

A beautiful church door.

Many of them have these cool domes along with the bell towers.

Many of them have these cool domes along with the bell towers.

Ornate carcing on a church otherwise much covered, in the process of being refurbished.

Ornate carving on a church otherwise much covered, in the process of being refurbished.

Pretty much all the churches we saw charge to come in and look around, and considering the serious brand names of the contributing artists in the churches of Florence, I can see why. You have to pay for wear and tear after all that foot traffic somehow. But as a result, we only went in one…

The ? cathedral.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, opposite the train station.

I’ll save all my Basilica di SMN photos for another post. My favorite church we only stumbled upon accidentally, returning from our iffy bus ride, and never even got inside its gate. It was a tiny little Byzantine-style Orthodox church.

I'm pretty sure this is the Chiesa Russa.

I’m pretty sure this is the Chiesa Russa.

The onion dome spires were distinctive, and this rainy day doesn't really bring out the vivid colors.

The onion dome spires were distinctive, and this rainy day doesn’t really bring out the vivid colors.

Beautiful entry! It shimmers and glows even in the rain.

Beautiful entry! It shimmers and glows even in the rain.

So next time, I’ll share with you our tour of the Basilica di SMN.

 

 

 

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Traveling in Italy

We are back from our week in north Italy! It was quite an adventure, and truly, the Italians are a unique people. We experienced a LOT of firsts while there, not the least of which was the being there.

We arrived in Italy (our first First!) at Marco Polo airport near Venice with easyJet, which, while cheap, I do not consider easy. It’s like flying a la carte, which isn’t bad, but carries a lot of details to track. We were taking the high speed train(our second First!) to Florence right off, but weren’t sure how many delays we might encounter transferring to the train station by bus. Also, the afternoon trains are much cheaper than the morning ones, so we chose a later train. I figured we could find places to hang out, drink coffee, whatever at the train station.

First miscalculation:The train station in Mestre is small and for the most part unenclosed. Mestre itself in this area is unattractive and offers little to do. Several hours’ layover is something I think I would pay more to avoid next time.

Waiting on the train, thinking, we are pretty sure, at the right platform.

Waiting on the train, thinking, we are pretty sure, we are at the right platform. Pretty sure.

Not an attractive station, and the McDonalds is small and about the only place to wait.

Not an attractive station, and the McDonalds is small and about the only place to wait.

The train itself was nice and comfortable for a two-hour trip, I thought. We zoomed along at over 130 mph.

A wall zooming by.

A wall zooming by.

However, it didn’t FEEL that fast, unless another train passed us going the other way. It was remarkably peaceful.

Not as exciting as one's first high-speed train trip might have been.

Not as exciting as one’s first high-speed train trip was expected to be.

The station in Florence is much more like what I was expecting. There are shops, a large McDonalds/cafe, and is surrounded by, well, Florence; so if someone had to have a layover here, it would be manageable. At this point, let me also add that, unlike the French, Italian transportation staff are only minimally helpful, and actually rather rude. It pays to be as familiar with the system as possible beforehand.

Florence train station

Florence train station

Soooo much nicer!

Soooo much nicer!

Mostly we traveled Florence on foot, but our hotel was a little farther from the main tourist area than I had realized. This made for some very sore-footed days. It also meant that after hiking up to the Piazza Michaelangelo, I had no intention of hiking back, especially since that was a rainy day. We took the bus. The bus routes and map were a little confusing, but we managed to get off at a stop we recognized. The regular buses don’t travel in the center piazzas at all; those are little electric buses, and I have no idea how to catch one of those.

Compare the size of ths bus to the man walking behind it...

Compare the size of ths bus to the man walking behind it…

Italians really do drive fast and crazy. Loads of people walk, and the sidewalks aren’t really wide enough to easily accomodate two people walking abreast, so you would think drivers would be slower and more cautious around these literally overflowing sidewalks, but no. They just honk a lot. And we witnessed a nasty crash at an intersection where we were standing. After that, I was VERY cautious about crossing only with the light!

Another First was, after returning to Venice by train, taking the vaporetto (or waterbus) to our hotel. It is only a 15 minute walk, and we could have easily done that over a 6 or 7 euro vaporetto ticket, if not for the bridges. Hauling your suitcase over bridges is not pleasant. I know, because we did that on the way back. Besides, the vaporetto ride down the canal was one thing Theo enjoyed!

The view coming in on the vaporetto was truly charming.

The view coming in on the vaporetto was truly charming.

Stoney wasn't so much a fan of the waterbus.

Stoney wasn’t so much a fan of the waterbus.

We never did ride a gondola or a traghetto, but getting around on foot in Venice is much easier than Florence. The walkways are quite wide, and at the time of our trip, early April, Venice wasn’t nearly as crowded as Florence. We also took the bus back to the airport rather than the train or the Alilaguna airport shuttle, and that worked fine for us, actually leaving earlier than schedules said.

So there begins our trip! I feel much more able to navigate their transportation system in future, although I realize there is still a lot about it I don’t understand.

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How Far is Too Far?

I’m a pretty game person. By that, I mean that I usually try to take what God gives each day and do the best I can with it. Some days I’m more successful than others, usually in direct relation to how closely I walk that particular day with God, honestly. Some days, though, are just hard. Whether I can count the day a success or not, whether it was fruitful or productive or a waste of space on the time continuum, some are just plain painful. That’s how life is, right? You overcome the obstacles you can, and embrace and be embraced through the ones you can’t.

That’s why I hate distance. Physical distance.

They say the world is getting smaller every day, but it’s an illusion. It may seem smaller, news near-instantaneous, a friend’s sonogram and joy shared around the world in the same virtual minute. But sometimes you can’t replace the up-close and personal. A parenthetical virtual hug doesn’t warm and lighten your heart in quite the way a real squeeze can. And sometimes I’m just too far away.

The power of human embrace.

The power of human embrace.

My husband has traveled a lot, more or less, with work. We’ve lived on both coasts at one point or another, while family, friends and other loved ones are pretty centralized. Our children had this special talent for saving illnesses for Dad’s work travel. Juggling the responsibilities of three or four young children is taxing enough alone, and then you find yourself caring for a baby with a high, unresponsive fever, or juggling two children fighting asthma in the night and taking turns on the nebulizer. Before the times of instant texting…heck, before we even carried cell phones!…that distance was concrete. There was a wall thousands of miles wide. I once tried to track down my husband in my crazy, sleep-deprived state, through friends I thought he might be having dinner with at some point on a business trip because I had no other contact point with him, including a hotel phone number, just so I could cry and yell at him for abandoning me with these sick children. The fact that they were entirely healthy when he left was lost on my delirious brain. I’m not proud of it, but there you are. He was too far away.

At one point while we were living in Georgia, my mother became sick with her third, most virulent cancer. It had invaded her brain, and I was desperate to get to her, to do anything I could to help. I had four young children and responsibilities to divest myself from. It took two weeks for me to make arrangements to leave and two days to drive to her with the kids. I felt desperately that I was too far away.

The virtual distance between me and my loved ones really has decreased over the years. We have cell phones and free long distance, skype and interactive xbox gaming. I can see my children, and play Risk with them, even though we have moved an ocean away. I don’t feel as distant as I really am most of the time, but occasionally it is just overwhelming. Now would be an example.  My precious husband went back to the States for work. A couple of days into his trip, his family called him to come, as his father was dying. Now, I am so glad my husband was only a few hours’ drive from his father, but I was an impossible ocean away from my husband. There was no way to get to him at all. I wanted so much to hug and comfort my husband, and it is impossible.

At times like this, I just wonder how I can have been ok with traveling so far. I’m ready for teleportation stations. That would so beat skype.

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Beautiful Barcelona

With our daughters here for Christmas, one of whom speaks fairly fluent Spanish and the other basic conversational Spanish, the best gift we could imagine was a trip to Spain. The fluent student also has beginning French under her belt (better than mine, to be sure), leaving the younger sister feeling a little overwhelmed in this country where she can’t communicate at all. Seeing this made me especially glad we planned a 5-day vacation in Barcelona. Our little jaunt into Costa Brava earlier in 2012 did not prepare me for the striking architecture and beautiful sights of this city. In truth, there was so much to see and I have so many photos, I’m not even sure what to share or how.

I’ll start at the beginning. We stayed at a lovely little boutique hotel downtown in the very nice and less busy Gracia district of Barcelona called The Petit Hotel. The staff was very helpful, especially little Petit, a terrier who let us rub behind his ears. They recommended the best Catalonian breakfast at a little spot a block away: omelettes called tortillas (which had no tortillas) served with split baguette pieces brushed with a tomato dressing and all drizzled in olive oil. Very tasty!

cat eggs

The district was loaded with interesting shops.

Incredibly adorable Christmas cookies!

Incredibly adorable Christmas cookies!

Sweets for Christmas

Sweets for Christmas

An incredibly innovative stationary bike. Design seems like a HUGE part of Barcelona.

An incredibly innovative stationary bike. Design seems like a HUGE part of Barcelona.

Italian in Spain

Italian in Spain

Everything is in Catalan, so we really didn't know what these things were.

Everything is printed in Catalan, so  it’s really helpful to see something in English, even if you don’t know what a turron is.

I’ve got lots more to show, so stay tuned!

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Celebrating Holidays Far from Home

Yes, that’s right: the French do not celebrate Thanksgiving. I mean, really, why should they? Why do we in the US just assume that everyone shares every holiday we feast up? But still, I manage to need reminding that there is no official day of giving thanks here. I know this, but it slips my mind on occasion. But I give thanks for the fact that it still does not go overlooked.

The candy corn had to be imported from the States.

We did not celebrate the actual Thursday of Thanksgiving, other than taking chocolates to French class to share with my fellow students. Most are north African ladies, so it was a novel concept to them! We did, however, have a gracious invitation from a couple from church to celebrate with them Friday night. We were part of a party of 26, and it was so joyful! We brought sweet potato pie and roasted carrots. Our hostess, an American with a New Zealander spouse, roasted the largest turkey I have ever seen. It actually fed us all! My favorite part was the inclusion of two French couples whom the host and hostess had befriended some time ago back home in Washington, DC., who later moved to the Toulouse area, too. It is a small world with many intersections!

On a more mundane note, my sweet spouse has become a city commuter. To avoid traffic, parking nightmares, and to allow me transportation, he has become a bus rider. He leaves early in the morning to catch his bus, walking about 10 minutes to the stop. He often shares his dry wit in observations of his fellow French commuters on his facebook status. And I love that his stylin’ hat and scarf came from our own ville’s Dimanche Marché. I’m sending him off into the dark morning, and won’t see him again until the dark evening, though.

off to catch the bus

Maybe someday we’ll get to enjoy some of that relaxed French workweek.

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A Beautiful Sendoff

Our last day in Spain was breathtakingly lovely.

Our last morning at the Hotel Sol Ixent.

We enjoyed our last complimentary Euro-style breakfast.

Stoney and I liked the breakfasts; Theo, as usual, ate almost nothing. It is tough having limited, young tastebuds.

We think this would be a delightful area for a vacation home! If one had the means for one. I hope to return before our stay in Europe is over.

 

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Dream Field Trip Part II

So the Romans, crafty militarists that they were, being at war with Carthage in Spain at the time and allied with Greece, moved in and encamped a garrison. They chose the high ground. Over time Rome incorporated Greece, this area became a Roman city, and the Greeks and Iberians below, Roman citizens or at least under Rome’s aegis. The Romans held a lofty view…

Looking back from the entrance to the Roman forum. The treetops are at the Greek city level.

Now, if we found it windy in the Greek city, up here among the Romans, it was brutal. Not even exaggerating. Take the city gate, for instance…

otherwise known as “The Wind Tunnel.”

To your left is the remains of the amphitheater; to your right, the arena. Through the the remains of the arched gate, the forum and city. Interestingly, on a stone to the right of the gate is a phallis carved in relief, we are told as a protection for the city. Obviously I am a woman, because that is not generally a symbol I regard as defensive. Anyway, to get here in this spot to take the photo, I was buffetted by the wind, but encountered no real difficulty. To return through this gate was a different story: a sandblaster of focused gales was whirling through here, and I found I had to turn my back and push backward through the gate. It was an actual feat of strength. Ridiculous! Or maybe I am just wimpy.

All roads lead to the forum, seemingly.

The whole archeological museum has wonderful signage, in four languages (one of which is cropped out here). It shows what the ruin looked like new, which is tremendously helpful when all you have are a bunch of footings.

Looking out over the forum. Big, eh?

The Roman house ruins were surrounded by, and surrounded, gardens, including this courtyard pond.

There were lots of marvels of engineering. The Roman bath houses were in the process of being excavated, including footings that raised the floor in the hot room, heating from the floor below. There were sewer systems, and fresh water systems. One I had never heard of before here was the Roman water purification system, used in the Greek and Roman sites. This photo is from the Greek city, but most of the houses boasted water collection from the tile roofs, which was then treated for use when water was scarce.

Amazingly, this apparently collected water from rain and rooftops and filtered it to make it potable water.

I am still in awe of such an old, old city…layers of oldness, even to the medieval convent that now houses the museum. Had I been a little girl, this would have delighted me as a playground. It makes me wonder if I wouldn’t have enjoyed a little archeology myself! But after all, it is MY dream field trip. I just hope my son/student benefited as well!

 

 

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