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Archive for the ‘France’ Category


Our first Christmas in France was filled with new experiences, some shocking, like the sudden arrival of Christmas decorations in October, others deliciously soothing like the welcomed appearance of vin chaud (hot, spicy, mulled wine) at every single outdoor event we attended.  This year I learned that life is better when indulging in a warm, alcoholic beverage.  Hordes of grumbling, shoving, faux-merry Christmas market revelers turn amiable and festive after just one sip from a Santa-festooned mug of piping hot vin chaud.  While shopping at our Sunday market, cupping the warm, aromatic brew in my frosty hands, my snot-encrusted, whining children magically sound like two jolly carolers, spreading cheer (as opposed to their nasty cold virus) throughout the crowd.  The local ski club charges the bargain price of 1 Euro for this cold weather staple and the Thoiry pompier (firefighters) give it away for FREE.  You gotta love municipal workers who dole out free alcohol on a Sunday morning.  Vin chaud, welcome to my life.  I think we are going to be very, very good friends.

Christmas of 2010 will forever stand as the year of Santa.  It was the year that my three-year-old became a card-carrying member of the “I ♥ Santa” club.  For the first time in her little life she fully realized the power of the Claus and spent the majority of her December dreaming about Santa, asking questions about Santa, and drawing pictures of Santa.  Her behavior magically improved, she was kinder to her sister and less apt to erupt in ear-piercing shrieks.  She efficiently collected data on the Big Man in Red, grilling us like a seasoned Law and Order detective.  Where does Santa live?  Who does he live with?  What is Mrs. Santa’s real name?  How many elves reside with Santa?  What do elves eat?  She peppered me with questions until I would cry mercy and seek outside counsel in the form of my infinitely more creative husband.

We were officially Santa crazy at the Hirschauer house and it didn’t help matters much that there were Santas everywhere in our little French town.  Now, French Santa, or Pere Noel, is a different breed from the traditional sack-wielding, sleigh-driving, jolly old elf that we are familiar with in North America.  Pere Noel doesn’t seem to ride in sleighs or pal around with reindeer.  The French take a much more “Mission Impossible” approach to delivering presents.  The Santas in our town dangled from ropes, and shinnied up drain pipes like furtive cat burglars.  They hung from military grade cables, looking like a band of special ops taking over the produce section in our local grocery store.  The houses on our street were teeming with acrobatic Santas.  One family had as many as ten tiny Pere Noels scaling the front and side walls of their maison.  Their backs were always to us, faces turned away from passing cars and pedestrians in an attempt to conceal their true identities.  Why so furtive Pere Noel?  Are you spending the holidays spreading cheer and goodwill towards man, or are you pocketing a few trinkets for the Mrs.?

The girls were a bit confused by this new twist on the lovable Christmas icon. After seeing a life-sized Santa dangling precariously from a top-story window Emma exclaimed, "Mommy! Santa is falling!" Burglarizing Santa, Nyon, Switzerland

Poor Santa dangling from the ledge was not nearly as disturbing as this headless Santa in Geneva.

Thieving Pere Noels, however, have nothing on the strange, bough-straddling Santas that were immortalized in neon lights and illuminated our street this holiday season.  What is a bough-straddling Santa, you may ask?  Well, it is a Pere Noel with an odd penchant for placing Christmas tree branches between his legs and riding them like a bucking bronco, or a witch on a broom.  Why does Santa do this?  What possible place does a Santa with a fir-tree between his legs have in childhood lore?  And why is it that the French do not believe in a Santa that drives a reindeer drawn sleigh?  According to the French, Pere Noel either rides a phallic tree bough or burgles his way into our home, and I am not sure which option is less disturbing.

A right jolly old elf! (Freud would have a field day.)

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Premier Jour d’Ecole


The big Bug outside of the Ecole Maternelle.

Jim, Maggie, Emma, and I walked toward the Ecole Maternelle on Friday morning in nervous silence.  Silence is unusual for my family as there is always someone whining for a snack/book/toy, or tripping and erupting in tears, or chatting my ear off about dijets, detectors, and data sets.  Come to think of it, I am usually silent, it is the people that surround me that are the noisemakers.  But, on this particular morning we were all reserved because we were tingling with the anticipation of Emma’s adventure in French school.  Jim and I were struggling with thoughts of our tiny baby girl (only 5 and 1/2 pounds when she was born, the little Bug) suddenly being old enough to wield a backpack and navigate a classroom all on her own.  Emma was wide-eyed and serious, but not at all scared of starting school.  She looked as if she would burst with excitement as we waited for the school doors to open.  And Maggie, poor little sister, was panicked.  She bounced back and forth between Emma and me, unsure of which person to attach herself to.  She did not want to leave her beloved sister, but she was not quite ready to forgo Mama’s arms in favor of an unfamiliar classroom.

We waited amidst a crowd of parents and children, all buzzing with first day of school excitement.  I strained my ears, searching out some English speakers in the native crowd, and was pleasantly surprised to hear a few families conversing in English.  In fact, the more I listened the more English I heard, along with a little German and Italian sprinkled in with the French.  Thanks to its close proximity to CERN and Geneva, our tiny town is really very international.  It calmed my nerves a bit to know that my baby would not be the only non-native speaker at the Ecole Maternelle.

When the gate to the school was finally unlocked, we followed the crowd through the playground (temporarily losing Maggie to the brightly colored climbing structure) and into the school.  Aided by our incomprehensible, yet visually informative tour that we took earlier in the summer, I was able to locate Emma’s classroom without any problems.  We found her coat hook and shoe cubby and stood there for a few minutes unsure of what to do next.  It was then that I remembered the advice of a very wise woman, who said that when navigating the first few days of school it is best to simply look around and do what everyone else is doing.  Emma and I glanced at the families in our vicinity (Jim was wrestling with an increasingly more frantic Maggie) and noticed that all the children were sitting on benches and changing into their school slippers.  (In France, children are required to bring slippers to wear in the classroom.  When I first heard this I was panicked about where in the world I would find slippers, but then I stumbled across the endlessly long slipper aisle at Migros.)  So we sat down and put on Emma’s brand new, purple flowered, velcro chausonns.  Maggie escaped from Jim’s clutches and began tearing off her own shoes, still not knowing where exactly Emma was headed, but positive that she must be shoeless if she was to join in the fun.

Chausonns clad, with beloved backpack hung carefully upon her very own hook, Emma confidently approached her classroom door.  We waited in line to speak to her teacher, Madame Doubroff, a gentle, gray-haired woman with a smiling face and brightly flowered dress.  She greeted us warmly, and her smile did not waver when we answered her initial questions with distressed, blank stares.  We explained that we did not speak French (I am becoming masterful at brandishing my “Je ne parle pas Francais”) and she was able to speak to us in broken, but much appreciated English.  Emma, exasperated with her bumbling parents, slipped past us and immediately took up residence in the pretend play center in her classroom.  We had to call her back to us to administer our goodbye hugs and kisses.  I felt the tears welling up in my throat as I held her close, but she wiggled free, anxious to get back to the food and kitchen toys.  She did not give us a second glance as we bade Madame Doubroff farewell, and wrestled Maggie away from the classroom where she was crying and clutching the door frame.

Our diminished family walked back to the car, peering into the window to ensure that Emma was happy and settled in her classroom.  We spotted her firmly entrenched in the pretend play center, unaware that her overly emotional, voyeuristic parents were watching her with watery eyes.  Maggie was making no pretenses of hiding her dismay at having left her sister behind.  She was alternately collapsing onto the sidewalk in anguish, and making mad dashes back to the school in an attempt to infiltrate the doors and join her sister in the Shangri-la that was the preschool classroom.  We made it back to the car where Maggie was easily distracted by raisins and the opportunity to read the Cinderella book that Emma usually commandeers on car trips.  We dropped Jim off at work and spent a relaxing morning running errands and playing with friends at toddler group.

Three hours later we rejoined the families at the gates of the Ecole Martenelle and waited with bated breath to see Emma’s smiling face.  Madame Doubroff greeted us again at the classroom door, and as I waited for other parents to claim their children I peeked inside and saw my little Bug sitting patiently on the floor (criss-cross, applesauce) in line of other children.  I have never seen her be so still, so serene, and so quiet.  It was then and there that I determined Madame Doubroff to be some sort of mystical preschool whisperer, able to silence whiny children with a nod of her head, and to quell fidgety bodies with the twinkle in her eye.  When Madame Doubroff called her name, Emma flew from the ground and dashed into my arms.  She had a huge smile on her face and had clearly had a wonderful morning, but I could tell from the way she clutched my legs, that she had missed me, just a little bit.  Maggie greeted her long-lost sister with a joyful hug, that was (surprisingly) returned with equal love.  Maybe this time apart will be good for my normally feuding daughters.

Reunited, we returned to CERN to have lunch with Jim and get the full report on Emma’s first day of school, which was unsurprisingly, but unfortunately vague.  I found myself wishing that I had slipped a tape recorder in her pocket, or attached a nanny cam to her hair clip, in hopes of catching some glimpse of what had transpired at school that morning.  She emphatically stated that the day had been “fine” and “fun” and had admitted to loving the play kitchen and dolls.  She told us that Madame Doubroff had sung some songs, and that most of the kids had joined in, but that she just listened because “I don’t speak French, Mommy.”  (Duh-uh, Mommy.)  I felt a little nervous when she told us that she had not made any new friends, or talked to any children because (once again) “I don’t speak French, Mommy.”  But then I realized that Emma is only three, and most three-year olds I know do not have stimulating, deeply intimate conversations with their peers, or with anyone for that matter.  She will make friends, she will begin to understand the language, we just need to give it time.  For now I am grateful that she enjoyed school and is anxious to return on Monday.

On a side note, on my trips to and from the school I noticed some very positive signs that led me to believe that our neighborhood school will be a perfect fit for Emma.  One, was that on a clear day, which it was on Friday, Mont Blanc is visible from the playground.  Imagine a bunch of maniacal preschoolers running rampant in a playground and pausing for just a moment to look up and gaze upon the snowy peak of Mont Blanc.  It is quite a pastoral scene in the background of a lively and often chaotic place.  Adding to this sense of calm and peace is the official name of the school “Les Tourterelles” which means “the doves” in French.  What could go wrong in a school with such a beautiful, poetic name?

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I grew up in Maine, very close to the New Hampshire border, where interstate travel was very common, almost a necessity seeing that the largest grocery store, nearest movie theater, and closest mall were all located in New Hampshire.  An added bonus being that there is no sales tax in New Hampshire so those Guess jeans with zippers AND bows on the ankles were a real steal.  (Who am I kidding, I don’t think I ever owned a pair of real Guess jeans, just some decent knock-offs, but, oh, how I longed for them.)  Now, many, many years later, I find myself living in another border town, but instead of crossing state lines, I frequently cross international borders.

We live in France, but Jim works just ten minutes away in Switzerland.  We pass through a usually empty border crossing a few times a day without so much as a pause, merely a dip in speed to navigate the barriers and bumps.  There are a handful of activities that we enjoy across the border such as  swimming at the Meyrin pool, visiting the library and using our illegally procured card to borrow English books.  We frolic in Swiss vineyards and sample their delicious wine, and our most recent (and possibly favorite) field trip is journey into Geneva to play in the fountains at the United Nations.  It was on a trip to the fountains that I had my inaugural scrape with the Douane (French/Swiss customs).  On the few times that I have seen uniformed Douane patrolling the border stations, I have slowed down, given them a meek look (hissed at my monsters in the back to stop arguing/crying/stuffing food in their faces and to look darling and adorable) and then smiled gratefully when they waved me through.  I am always gripped with fear when I see a Douane in uniform, as if at any moment he could yank me from my car and throw me into a grimy French/Swiss prison.  (I still cling to a vague Clinton-rescue fantasy.)  They never seem to give my car a second glance, however, even though we have expired Illinois license plates.  We are patiently waiting for our green Euro tags, but everything in France takes forever.  So, my interactions with uniformed Douane agents of either country have been stressful, but nothing more than smiling, nodding, and waving a heartfelt and grateful thank you.

On that fateful day as we journeyed to the fountains at the UN (of all places) my luck with the local Douane ran out.  Finally, some top-notch, overachieving guard eyed my Illinois plate, and, not liking the looks of my banana encrusted children, flagged me down and asked me to stop.  Terrified, I obediently pulled over, cursing myself for not taking the “fast lane,” or the lane to the right, through which I had followed my (infinitely more savvy and worldly) friend just the other week.  I panicked and did not take the easy lane seeing that I did not have the requisite “nothing to declare” sign.  Instead, I followed the rules and unwittingly pointed my car in the direction of a strict, unyielding, and exceedingly grumpy Swiss border patrolwoman.

I meekly pulled over, took the car out of gear, and rolled down my window, giving my best, most polite smile to the blond, shortly cropped guard.  She said something to me in French (as if she didn’t know I was American with my Illinois plates, baseball cap, and wide, terrified eyes) to which I replied my standard “Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas français.”  (A phrase I am becoming extremely adept at uttering, by the way.)  The guard smirked (or was it my imagination) and briskly said “Passports, please.”

My heart stopped.  My skin crawled.  I went numb.  (Ok, I am a bit dramatic, but I was really scared.)  I did not have our passports.  They were in a drawer back in our apartment.  Jim and I had discussed extensively the pros and cons of me carrying three passports during my daily dalliances.  The cons being that I would inevitably misplace the crucially important books, leave them at the checkout counter at Migros, the bathroom at the pool, or buried in the sand at one of the many playgrounds we frequent.  The pros, however, obviously being that I would avoid terrifying circumstances such as the one I was currently facing.

I took a deep breath, gave the guard my best confused, apologetic, angelic face and said, “I am sorry I do not have our passports with us at the moment.  But, we live just over there, in Thoiry, and we are going to meet our friends at the UN to play in the fountains.”  (Note the airy use of “at the moment” I am apparently becoming a bit of a Brit, but that is for another post.  Madonna would be proud.)

She demanded my driver’s license, which of course, was in the trunk of my car in my diaper bag.  So, I had to get out of my vehicle, and accompanied by two uniformed Douane, open my trunk, spilling sand toys, a pink princess ball, and a bag of pretzels onto the ground, and dig out my wallet.  Once I had located my wallet I was able to produce my driver’s license (from Colorado, a state I haven’t lived in since 2007, but still valid), my CERN picture ID, and my French residence permit and identification card.  I triumphantly handed all three impressive forms of identification to the disgruntled Douane and waited for her to bid me adieu.  To my surprise she flippantly discarded my precious documentation and said “We need to see passports.”

I was stunned.  I did not have our passports and was not sure what was going to happen next.  (Clinton?  Anybody have any Clinton connections?)  She indicated in broken English that we must return to Thoiry and get our passports.  I had never heard of this happening to anyone before, so I thought that she meant we could go to Geneva, and then from hereafter make a point of traveling with our passports.  So I said, “OK, we will go to the fountains, and then go home and get our passports?”

She scowled, and said, “NO.  Turn around, go home, bring back passports.”  At which point the tears began to well up in my eyes (a pretty impressive fact, that I waited this long to cry, considering that anything from Hallmark commercials to the death of Tommy Boy’s dad can render me a blubbering mess) and I said, “But the children are going to play in the fountains.”  But, this Douane was a Terminator-like automaton and immune to the big, woeful eyes of my children.  She watched me dejectedly get into my car and make a U-turn back towards France.

At this point, Emma, who had been surprisingly and blessedly silent during this whole mess, said “Mommy, that lady was mean!  Are you angry, Mommy?  Because you have angry eyebrows.  Can we still go play in the fountains?”

A few yards down the road I pulled over, because I couldn’t see through my tears, and desperately wanted to call Jim so that he could drop whatever gobbledygook data he was compiling on his computer and come down to the border and beat up the entire Swiss border patrol.  Instead, I freaked him out, as he assumed that I had been in some sort of accident because I was crying so hard on the phone.  Once I calmed down enough to set the story straight, he commiserated with me, and then in his practical way, suggested that I merely drive a few miles out of my way and enter Switzerland at a different, un-patrolled border station.  Which, I eventually did, but not before grumbling about the European borders, and complaining that no one I had ever met had had this problem, and who did that lady think she was, anyway?

A few hours later we were enjoying a fabulously sunny day, splashing in the fountains in front of the UN with the flags of over a hundred and ninety counties waving proudly in the background.  I had to pinch myself as I watched Emma and Maggie frolic in the water with their friends, surrounded by important looking men in suits, protesting Iraqi citizens, and camera toting tourists.  Even three months into our stay here, it is still hard for me to believe that we live in Europe, and that, for my girls, traveling to Geneva, Switzerland for a morning playdate is akin to my childhood trips to Portsmouth, New Hampshire (minus one crotchety Swiss Douane).

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The leaders of the course zoom past us on stage 8 of the Tour.

I am sitting here watching the final stage of the Tour de France, wishing I was sipping champagne along with Contador and team Astana, but also wondering why they are celebrating with 90 km left in the race and a 38 second lead.  Is a 38 second deficit in a bike race akin to a four touchdown lead in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl?  Is it physically impossible for Schleck (who is now and forever to be known as Shrek in our house, and is an obvious toddler favorite) to force the pace of the race, turn on the gas, and leave Contador in the dust, 40 seconds behind?  Whatever the reasons, this final stage of the race is dull, dull, dull.  If I want to watch a pack of guys going on a joy ride in the French country side all I need to do is look out my window.  I wanted to see some drama today, some flying elbows, or head butting.  (In all fairness, it has taken me a while to finish this post, and the end of the race was exciting.  Perhaps I spoke, or typed, a bit too soon.)

Two weeks ago, when Team Griswald donned their Livestrong t-shirt (Nana), packed a picnic lunch and headed out to see the Tour, the atmosphere was anything but dull.  We were lucky enough to have the Tour pass very close to where we live in Thoiry.  After a ten minute drive and a fifteen minute walk we found ourselves a shady spot on the side of the Tour route and settled in for a few hours of waiting.  We were perched at the top of a down hill and correctly guessed that the riders would be flying by us, but it was a very family friendly vantage point.  Initially we had hoped to position ourselves in the mountains on one of the huge climbs so that Jim and Grampa could don crazy super hero costumes and run wildly alongside the ascending riders, and Maggie could use her Curious George monkey to accidentally hook Lance’s handlebars and give Nana the opportunity for some face time with her hero.  (Emma and I, of course, are much to poised and mature for such antics.)  But, the reality of having two toddlers means that waking up at the crack of dawn to camp on a mountainside for six hours in order to catch a 5 second glimpse of cyclists is not really a viable option.

One of the caravan floats.

Our vantage point was perfect for us.  It was shady, an extremely important factor given the molten-like temperatures.  There were other children near us for the girls to shyly interact with, and we were able to spread out blankets and eat a comfortable picnic lunch.  About an hour and a half before the riders came through a frenzied, party-like buzz filled the air.  We all jumped up off the blanket (because that was what everyone around us was doing) and pushed our way to the edge of the road, unsure of what exactly was happening, but swept up in the fever of the crowd.  The excitement was due to the arrival of the caravan, which I assumed was just a parade of team buses, camera crews, and reporters.  It was, indeed, a parade, but it was more along the lines of Mardi Gras then the official procession that I had imagined.  Each Tour sponsor had elaborate, colorful floats and trucks with attractive young girls tossing samples and other goodies at the crowd.  People went wild going after mini packages of Cochonou sausages, Belin cheese crackers, and polka-dotted Carrefour hats.  We were bumped and jostled a few times before my killer instincts kicked in and I joined the melee, coming up with an armful of hats, some crackers for Maggie, and a Disney themed Tour comic book for Emma.  The girls loved the caravan.  Snacks flying through the air, Lady Gaga blaring from trucks, what more could they ask for?  The caravan was pretty neat, but it would have been much better (and much safer) had the trucks and floats not been roaring by us at highway-like speeds.  Not only did they go by us in a flash, but the booty that they tossed out to the crowd was whipped at us at a dangerous clip.  Most goody tossers aimed for the feet, but there were a few who mistakenly threw packages up into the air, and one man standing near us was whipped upside the head by a rogue sausage packet.  Poor Maggie, driven into a frenzy by the appearance of the Haribo gummy bear float, was shocked into reality when she was slapped in the face by a bag of gummy bears.  Her hurt and anger were tempered when the offending gummy bears were opened and consumed, but she spent the remainder of the caravan peeking out from the safety of my legs.

Once the caravan had passed us by we had an hour or so to kill before the riders came through.  This was the most difficult part of our day.  It was nap time and we were in the middle of nowhere, frying in the blazing heat, with children caught in the throes of a candy induced sugar high and a midday sleep deprived meltdown.  With help from our Tour schwag we kept the girls busy until the tell-tale noise of whirling helicopter wings alerted us to the on coming riders.  We grabbed our noise makers and roused the girls from their candy comas and got ready to greet the riders.  The anticipation of seeing the riders was intense, there were a few false alarms, and everyone was on the verge of heat exhaustion when we finally saw the first group of six riders emerge from the tunnel.  But the appearance of the riders sent adrenalin pumping through us all and we cheered, banged pots, tooted horns, and jumped around with wild abandon.  The leaders of the course zipped past us and we eagerly turned to greet the peloton.  We waited patiently for them to zoom through the tunnel.  We waited, and waited, and waited (no longer patient, and no longer full of enthusiasm), until finally, four or five minutes after the leaders, they swarmed through the tunnel and past us down the hill.  Once again the appearance of spandex clad, helmet topped, zooming cyclists sent us into a noise-making frenzy.  It was quite an experience, and one that, despite the heat, complaining children, killer flying gummy bears, and long periods of waiting, we would all do again in a heart beat.

Collecting our caravan goodies, prior to the gummy bear incident.

Post caravan picnic while we waited for the riders.

Getting ready for the riders!

Nana and Maggie get ready to cheer on the leaders.

The Pelton (finally) emerges from the tunnel.

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Maggie storms the beach in Arromanches-les-Bains, with the remnants of Port Winston in the background, an artificial port that the British establish shortly after D-Day.

When we broke the news to my parents that we were taking their only two grandchildren and moving them across the Atlantic, we knew that our announcement would be met with more sadness than enthusiasm.  After all, we had finally moved from the dreaded left coast to Chicago where we were an easy two-hour flight from Nana and Grampa.  Now we would be on another continent (greatly overshadowing the positive fact that a flight from Boston to Europe was only an hour or so longer than the Boston to San Francisco flight that they had endured for two years) and in a completely foreign time zone, thus making phone calls and skyping more difficult.  But, even when faced with these debilitating factors, we held two aces in our pockets.  The Ace of Nana was the fact that the beloved Tour de France would be passing extremely close by our house, making the odds of meeting Lance up close and personal increase exponentially.  The other Ace (and infinitely more important, because it was really not difficult to sell Nana on a trip to France.  The apple does not fall far from the tree; wine, cheese, chocolate, mountains, grandchildren…Nana was a piece of cake) was the Ace of Grampa.  He was a more difficult nut to crack, harboring a life-long hatred of flying and a deep-seeded love of his summer routine.  We were hard pressed to find a reason for him abandon his morning beach-side walks with the dog, daily tennis matches, nightly Red Sox games, and his lawn (my goodness, what was to become of the lawn while he was away?).  But, the Ace up our sleeves was Normandy.  If Grampa came to France (and let’s be honest, he would never miss an opportunity to visit his granddaughters, regardless of the flight time) we would reward him with a trip to visit the D-Day beaches.  Grampa is a man with many interests, the foremost of which is WWII.  He has read every book, watched every movie, dvr’ed every television show (a feat unto itself, seeing that my parents have yet to tackle hooking up their DVD player) having to do with WWII.  When my parents came to visit me in London (which I am realizing, with a shudder, was over 10 years ago) I endured an extremely long visit to the Churchill War Rooms and followed my father around as he reveled in the history there.  How could we move to France and deny Grampa the chance to walk the shores of Omaha Beach, gaze up at the intimidating cliffs of Pont du Hoc, and visit the serene grounds of the Normandy American Cemetery?

We were all excited to give Grampa the trip of a lifetime, which is why we cheerfully piled into our rented VW Touran van, packed to the gills with snacks, bags, strollers, and books.  If we had stopped to ruminate on the enormity of our road trip (roughly 500 miles) we probably would not have ever left.  But in grand Griswald fashion, we did not think, and hit the road with great enthusiasm.  Google maps calculated that our trip would take seven hours and 43 minutes, but, while google maps has a button to calculate walking time, or public transportation time, it does not allow for toddler time.  (Not a bad idea for any of you NoCal computer geeks reading this.  Add toddler time to the google maps function, allowing for anywhere from 1-4 hours for potty breaks, snack attacks, tantrums in rest area parking lots, and games of tag in sketchy interstate truck stops.)  Our trip up to Normandy took us a grand total of 10 hours, and I have to say, because of the bewitching powers of our portable DVD player and Nana and Grampa’s shiny new iPad (which almost did not make it back on the plane home due to a particular love of all things Apple) was not that bad.  Sure, it was long, and the French rest stops are particularly disgusting, but it was worth it.  (When describing a toilet that I encountered at a French rest stop to Jim, he said, “Oh, you mean a ‘squat toilet’ those are common in many parts of the world.”  Well, ‘squat toilets’ are not common in Emma’s world, and I welcome advice from ‘squat toilet’ patrons far and wide as to how to encourage a recently potty trained toddler to use such a disgusting and ominous device.)

Playing in the shadow of history.

We arrived at our hotel in time for a surprisingly delicious dinner, set Grampa up with an early morning tour of the D-Day beaches and collapsed into bed.  The next morning Grampa left bright and early, and Nana, the girls, and I headed out to soak up some sun on the Normandy coast.  Our concierge recommended the seaside town of Arromanches-les-Bains.  We had no idea that we were headed for the historic Port Winston and would be letting the girls loose amidst wreckage from World War II.  We were a bit taken aback when we arrived at the beach and saw giant, seaweed covered cement platforms washed up on the beach, and other crude floating blocks a bit farther up shore.  I was wary to let the girls frolic on such historic sands, but a quick glance to my right showed four teens in a tense beach volleyball match, and to my left I saw a family entrenched in some serious sand castle construction.  No one else seemed to be phased by the remnants of World War II that dotted the sandy coast, instead they were enjoying the seaside as it was meant to be enjoyed.  Before WWII and the fateful day of June 6, 1944, Arromanches-les-Bains was probably famous for its quaint ocean-side beauty, kitschy storefronts, and ice cream shops.  It is still a beautiful town with grassy cliffs that offer breathtaking views of the ocean, and cute stores where you can buy anything; a neon orange Arromanches t-shirt, beach shells, a classic French bateau neck striped shirt, or an American flag.  The girls enjoyed hours and hours of digging holes on the sandy beach and playing around in the surprisingly warm surf.  It was the perfect spot to pass our time while Grampa reveled in his history lessons.

After naps at the hotel we journeyed back up the coast with Grampa to soak up all he had learned on his tour.  It was the perfect time to hit all the historical monuments with the girls.  They were well rested from their naps, the sights were clearing out at the end of the day, and both girls were dazzled into good behavior by the promise of carousel rides and ice cream at the end of the evening.  The move to France has been tough, being so far away from family is really hard.  But nothing made me happier than listening to my dad describe the D-Day landings while overlooking Omaha Beach.  At that moment all the chaos of moving, the homesickness, the Goldfish cracker withdrawal, was all worth it.  We had a wonderful afternoon touring the beaches with Grampa.  (Note to parents, D-Day landing sites are almost as treacherous as castles.  It is terrifying to watch your children frolic in the dusty, cement-laden pit of a German bunker.  I won’t even mention the barbed wire.)

The next day we made the trip to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  I was a bit nervous about bringing the girls to such a sacred and serious place, but they were on their best behavior.  We packed up the BOB with books and snacks and they happily munched away and took in the serene beauty of the cemetery.  The memorial is cared for and run by the United States government and once you drive onto the property the feeling immediately changes.  The difference was palpable for me, having not been in the United States for almost three months, it just felt different there.  The grounds were immaculate, not a grass out-of-place.  American flags stood proud against the brilliant blue sky, perpetually at half-mast.  Three colors stand out in my mind; the emerald green of the grass, the clear blue of the sky and ocean, and the crisp, clean white marble of the cross and star-shaped headstones.  The order and serenity of the cemetery stands in contrast to the devastating, chaotic battles that took place upon the sandy shores that loom below the gravestones.  It is such a beautiful tribute to the heroic soldiers who gave their lives in the Normandy Invasion and the harrowing battles that followed.  The time we spent at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial was emotional and very special.  Emma and Maggie walked seriously through the cemetery, the pinks and pastels of their skirts standing out against the rows of stark white marble headstones, not comprehending where they were, yet acting reserved and respectful.  They are however, living, breathing, ticking toddler time bombs, and just as we were approaching meltdown mode, we were rescued by the other-worldly voices of choral singers.  I thought I must be dreaming as the melody of “God Bless America” floated toward us, just as I was wrestling with Emma to please smile for one last picture.  We all stopped and followed the singing to the main monument in the cemetery where a group of older singers were standing, music books open, serenading us with gorgeous music.  It was nearly impossible for me to hold back the tears as the singers wrapped up “God Bless America” and started in on the National Anthem.  We discovered that they were a traveling chorus from southern California, and were practicing for a concert that they were holding the next day, July 4th.  How lucky were we, to be touring the American Cemetery with a heavenly chorus, on a sublimely gorgeous day?  Even Emma and Maggie, who had had their fill of sitting still in a stroller, were struck numb by the patriotic singers.

And that is where our idyllic tour of the Normandy coast ended.  We left the cemetery full of emotion and love for our family and fellow-man and began the long journey home.  Six hours later when we called it quits for the night in Dijon all feelings of goodwill were replaced by frustration and exhaustion.  It is on this leg of the journey, however, that Jim (who unfortunately could not join us on the trip because of work) earned his new nickname.  He is now and forevermore to be known as Chloe O’Brian, the heroine of the epic 24 series.  We were hopelessly lost in Dijon with nary a map or street sign to help us and Jim, all the way in his office at CERN, was able to direct us via cell phone to our hotel.  His Chloe-like manipulation of google maps (along with my Jack Bauer-esque ability to relay landmarks and decipher street signs) helped us find our way through the labyrinth of streets in Old Town Dijon to our hotel.  Jim swears that he was aided only by google maps, and did not have the luxury of Chloe’s satellite cameras, but I am still suspicious of CERN’s actual capabilities.  Who knows what super secret navigational devices he may have at his fingertips.  If it weren’t for Chloe, we may still be circling the streets of Dijon, a nonsensical city where nearly every street we passed was either one-way, or closed for construction.

Maggie in a German bunker at Pont-du-Hoc.

A well-earned reward for an afternoon spent touring bunkers and beaches.

Trying really hard not to cry while listening to the chorus sing "God Bless America."

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The Griswalds (minus Jim, the photographer) in Interlaken, CH

I have taken a two-week hiatus from blogging.  My computer has lain dormant, collecting dust, while I traipsed around France and Switzerland with my visiting parents, leaving a trail of tears, cracker crumbs, and accidentally abandoned (and frequently cried over) plastic princess figurines in our wake.  Initially I really missed my blog, and was continually looking for scraps of paper to jot down notes and anecdotes from the road.  Eventually though, exhaustion and the need for sleep at night overtook all writing urges and just today I am finding it bearable to open my computer again.

Vacationing is hard.  You would think a two-week vacation with free babysitters (Nana and Grampa), a personal chef who specializes in farm fresh omelettes by morning and meat on the grill by night (Grampa even had to purchase the grill himself), and a laundress/maid (Nana worked double shifts cleaning clothes and windows) would leave me feeling refreshed, relaxed, and rejuvenated.  Well, I feel anything but fresh, but this could be in part due to the 35 degree weather that has settled into the valley and refused to leave (don’t let that tricky Celsius scale fool you, it is HOT, practically 95).  I am exhausted, and feel more like I have been racing in the Tour de France for the past week, instead of enjoying a vacation.  I have a sneaking suspicion that relaxing vacations are not made up of  10 hour car treks across France with a whiny three-year old and a one year old who enjoys practicing her ever-growing vocabulary at an ear-splitting pitch.  Thank goodness for portable DVD players and Lady and the Tramp, which we watched on repeat despite the fact that we had quite a selection of other toddler favorites.  By the end of the trip I was hard pressed to choose the more annoying sound, whining/crying from the peanut gallery or the squeaky (and dare I say offensive) singing of “We are Siamese if you Please” heard for the billionth time.

My family has a history of crazy vacations, a la Clark Griswald and his gang.  We aren’t great planners, but we are spectacular doers, and this combination makes for some harrowing but memorable last-minute vacations.  The first big trip I remember taking with my parents was when I was 8 and we flew out to Utah for a Christmas ski vacation.  Sounds great in theory, but as our plane touched town in Salt Lake we became suspicious of the lush green hills and snow-less peaks.  There was not a flake of snow to be found when we arrived at our hotel in Park City, and the resort was closed, with no open trails or lifts.  Unfazed by the odd weather and their horrendous luck, my parents collected their refunded money, rented a tiny car and drove through the canyon to Alta, where there were a few trails open.  We managed to find a room and had a great time that week.  Especially when, a few days into our trip it snowed so hard that there were avalanches.  Sometimes being flexible has its advantages, if we had hightailed it back to Maine, defeated, we would have missed out on some spectacular skiing (or so I am told, I was only 8 and don’t really remember much about the skiing, mainly I remember the ping-pong table in the basement of the hotel).

Our flexible vacationing style reared its head again on a spring road trip from Maine to South Carolina when I was in seventh grade.  When passing by the exit for Gettysburg at 4 am, my Dad, suddenly filled with a thirst for historical war monuments and battle fields, got off the highway, yanked me out of my comfortable bed in the back seat (being an only child has some perks, like being able to lie flat with a pillow and blanket on long car trips) and forced me to tromp through the cold, muddy fields with him.  At the time I was far from pleased, in the way that any miserable, moody, pre-teen would be on a road trip with her parents.  But now I look back on that trek through the misty Gettysburg battle fields with fondness.  It was pretty amazing to walk around those historical grounds when they were quiet and we were the only people around.  I remember grumpily trailing after my parents as the fog lifted, rising from the grass like a thick curtain and covering the forest with an eery film.  In that moment it was not difficult to picture the battlefields as they were in the Civil War, and I was spooked enough to shed my sullen attitude and join my parents as we finished our clandestine tour of Gettysburg.

Many years later, while I was studying abroad in London, my parents came to visit me over their Thanksgiving break.  The highlights of that trip include, accidentally bumping into the Queen and her caravan on the opening day of Parliament, and eating at the same restaurant three nights in a row.  (In our defense we were overwhelmed country folk in a big city.  We ate at the Hard Rock three times in two different cities, London and Edinburgh.  We just always seemed to be right next to a Hard Rock when we were tired, cranky, and ravenous.  Rick Steves would have been extremely disappointed in us.)  Seeing the Queen, however, was an act of kismet.  My parents arrived in London, dropped their bags off at the hotel and I (being the worldly Londoner, having lived there for all of two months) took them on a tour of the city and promptly got us lost.  We were wandering around the streets of London, my parents dazed and jet-lagged, and me teetering about on high-heeled boots with blisters the size of quarters because I refused to wear sneakers for fear of looking too American, when we ran smack into a parade of horse-drawn carriages carrying the Queen, her staff, and various other members of Parliament.  We couldn’t have planned a better first day if we had tried, blisters and all.

Nana and her girls. Someone is in desperate need of a nap, well, probably all three ladies are but two are dealing with their fatigue a bit better than the other.

So, when my parents came to Thoiry for a two-week trip with plans to visit Normandy (way up in one corner of France) and to climb the Eiger (well, choo-choo train up the Eiger and hike around the glacier) in the Swiss Alps, I knew we were in for a roller coaster of a trip.  The fact that when my parents landed on a Tuesday, we hadn’t cemented our plans for Normandy, meaning we hadn’t rented the necessary mini van, booked hotel rooms, or mapped out a route, didn’t faze me much, but it may have freaked Jim out a little bit.  He sprang into action like a magical Travelocity gnome and found us a rental car, printed driving directions, and prodded us to book a hotel.  With his help we were ready to storm the beaches of Normandy a mere forty-eight hours after my parents landed in France.

All gripes aside, we had a fabulous time exploring the beaches of Normandy, the jagged, ice-capped glaciers of the Alps, and all the flower filled French and Swiss villages in between.  As I said before, vacationing with children is hard, but amidst dealing with the high-jinx of nap-deprived toddlers there were moments of pure magic.  Watching the girls pick wild flowers in a grassy meadow beneath the three Swiss giants, the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau mountains, making sand castles among World War II era concrete pilings, getting lost in Paris but not caring much because we were too busy gazing out the window at the Eiffel Tower (the girls, of course, were too consumed with soap opera-like affairs of pasta-eating dogs to notice), these are memories I will never forget and for them I am more than willing to endure a few days of bone-numbing fatigue.

Again, the most important member of Team Griswald, the brains behind the operation, is also the man behind the camera.

Stay tuned for more in-depth analysis of our two-week adventure coming soon!

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What is a birthday without cake?  It is like a baseball game without peanuts, a movie without popcorn, or (as I discovered when I moved to France) a day without cheese.  Jim’s birthday was yesterday, and I spent the better part of the day shopping for, worrying about, and sweating over his birthday cake.  Back at home, I have perfected my cake baking routine.  I have my favorite recipes, my insanely cute and wonderful red stand mixer, and all my supplies.  In France the playing field has changed drastically.  No red mixer to make me smile, inappropriate utensils (three slotted spoons, but no spatulas), recipes that are confusing and migraine inducing because they require intense mathematical conversions, and ingredients that are unfamiliar and down-right weird.  I don’t think people bake their own cakes here.  French women are too busy strutting around in fabulous shoes and skinny jeans while guzzling wine and munching carbs, making the rest of the world crazy jealous by staying magically thin.  (Consequently, it may be that NOT baking cakes contributes to their perplexing twig-like figures.  Because they do NOT bake cakes, they do NOT spend 2 hours traipsing around the grocery store looking for baking soda.  During which they do NOT have emotional breakdowns that cause them to find solace in consuming an entire bag of potato chips and half a baguette while they wander the aisles.)  Perhaps, though, the French understand that the art of cake baking is best left to professionals, and they simply buy their goodies at the local Patisserie, which is what I should have done.  But, old habits die hard, and I was determined to bake Jim a cake, just as I have for every birthday since we have been together, metric system be damned.

Here is what I discovered on my shopping odyssey yesterday.

#1  Cream cheese is surprisingly difficult to find in a country that boasts more kinds of cheese than there are vuvuzela tooting fans in South Africa.  I’ve been told that you can find Philadelphia brand cream cheese in Switzerland, but I didn’t have the energy to cross the border, so I settled for a French soft cheese called St. Moret.  I also threw in a few squares of a strange cheese called Kiri, that is marketed to children and has cartoon characters plastered all over the packaging.  It looked similar, and smelled similar, but it just wasn’t the same.  Perhaps it wasn’t processed enough.  The consistency of my cream cheese frosting was oddly runny and drippy, not ideal adjectives for carrot cake icing.  The end result was a frosting that was suspicious looking, but tasted enough like good-old American cream cheese frosting to garner a smile from the birthday boy.

#2  People in France rely heavily on the skills of their neighborhood Patisserie and truly do not do much baking at home.  Perhaps it is for this reason that baking soda is not sold in grocery stores.  It would have been nice to be privy to this bit of information before I spent the better part of a morning scouring the aisles for some “Bras & Marteau.”  I had an embarrassing conversation with a teenage grocery clerk concerning the whereabouts of “bicarbonate du soude.”  It consisted of me thrusting my google translated shopping list in her face and her leading me away from the baking aisle and toward the tooth brushes.  She then proceeded to point to her own teeth, which I assumed was a polite way of telling me I had potato chip or baguette slovenly crusted onto my mouth.  I blushed, and attempted to discreetly wipe the evidence of my stress-induced food binge off my mouth, but she continued to pantomime something involving her teeth.  I was at a loss, until she said “bicarbonate du soude, for teeth brushing.”  Uhhh?  “No,” I said, “for a cake.”  She gave me a confused look while I began a panicked rendition of “Happy Birthday” and pushed Emma forward because she was proudly holding the birthday candles.  So there we were (all three of us, because Maggie and Emma never miss an opportunity to wow the masses with their lusty warbling) in the toothpaste aisle, singing “Happy Birthday” to a French teenage grocery clerk.  I will never know if she got the gist of our charades-like conversation, but she understood enough to inform me that regardless of what we intended to do with it, we had to go next door to the Pharmacy if we wanted bicarbonate du soude.  So, the girls and I took our traveling circus to the Pharmacy next door and tried out our material on another clerk, who, thankfully, spoke English, and was able to show us to the treasured baking soda.

Once we conquered the grocery store the actual cake baking was not that difficult.  I would have been lost without the computer on hand to help me calculate how many grams of butter is equal to one and a half sticks and other mathematical cooking mysteries.  Although it was not my most aesthetically pleasing creation, the cake was edible, and actually pretty good.  Jim praised it (but he may have sensed that anything other than flattery and accolades would have resulted in tears) and both girls cleared their plates (but they do not have the most refined pallets, one would eat nothing but butter noodles and peanut butter toast and the other has been known to snack on rocks, paper, and other found objects).  My inaugural French baking experience was a success, but I think there may be something to the local sentiment that baking is best left up to the experts.

This is how I should have spent my Wednesday afternoon...

but this is how I actually spent it (all the metric conversions turned my hair gray).

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