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?


Monkeys watching monkeys at the Servion Zoo, Switzerland.

Yesterday the girls and I packed up the car and made the hour drive into Switzerland to visit the Servion Zoo, outside of Lausanne.  Armed with Raffi tunes, snacks, cryptic google maps directions, and with a clear view of Mont Blanc out our car window, we zipped along the highway in search of lions, tigers, and bears.  I was a little nervous about tackling a road trip without Jim, but as I had a gaggle of supportive moms meeting me at the zoo, I decided to take the chance and head out into Switzerland on my own.

Most of the zoos that I have frequented have been in the middle of cities, thus making for harrowing, traffic strewn driving experiences.  Picture two hyped up children, salivating for a glimpse of a wild animal and doing their best monkey impressions; add two frantic parents, swearing at traffic, cursing the incorrect directions, and vowing never again to venture into any sort of metropolitan area.  Usually by the time I even arrive at the zoo I have a headache the size of a silverback gorilla.  The Servion Zoo, however, like all things Swiss is tidy, organized, and relatively stress free.  The zoo is situated in hills above the city of Lausanne, and instead of navigating around potholes and past aggressive city drivers, the girls and I flew along winding country roads surrounded by green meadows and grazing cows.  (It is nearly impossible to feel stress in the presence of lazy, grass-eating, black-and-white spotted Swiss cows, especially if the pasture in which they are lounging is bathed in sunlight and rimmed with mountains.  Makes me want to be a cow, but then I remember steak.)  Maggie, was so enamored with the cows that she could have possibly skipped the zoo entirely, but her sister was not so easily dissuaded.  Emma is not nearly as fond of cows as Maggie, she finds them stinky (can’t argue with that) and is positively appalled with their propensity to poop everywhere.

We arrived at the zoo with nary a wrong turn, curse word uttered, or meltdown and joined our friends inside.  All thoughts of mooing cows were erased as soon as we stepped into the monkey house.  Cows, animals that we see multiple times a day, have nothing on furry, acrobatic, swinging monkeys.  It was inside the monkey house that I discovered the downfall to this small, tidy, idyllic Swiss zoo.  All the animal signs were in French.  Meaning, each time a child asked me “What’s that, Mommy?” I had to try to read the French name plate and make my best guess.  Often, I knew the animal by sight, sometimes I could read the French word and using my context clues (go first grade teacher) decipher the correct animal name.  There were a few terrifying times when I just had to guess.  Just what were those deer-like things with huge antlers?  Daddy deer, like I confidently told my daughters?  Or some other species of deer entirely?  Luckily I was joined in the zoo excursion by a few women who were infinitely more well versed in animal species names than I and who were patient enough to correct my mistakes with limited laughter.  Like when I declared that the tall, feathery bird in the corner was an ostrich, but it was actually an emu.  Or, when I told Emma the colorful birds in wire cages were peacocks, but they were pheasants.  By the time we actually saw a peacock I was so discouraged by my knowledge of zoo animals that I was certain it was an escaped pheasant, until he showed me his tail.

We did encounter some animals that could not be misidentified.  There was a huge brown bear taking a dip in a pretty cushy new enclosure that was outfitted with trees to climb, snuggly caves, and a large watering hole.  The kids were delighted to happen upon three lions, who were being fed a delicious afternoon snack of huge hunks of raw meat, and two beautiful striped tigers enjoying the same treat in their own enclosure.  We saluted our fellow North Americans, the buffalo, petted some goats, howled with the wolves, quacked with the ducks, and had an all around wild time at the zoo.  The girls were asleep in their car seats before we exited the zoo parking lot, Maggie may have been out before I snapped the final buckle on her car seat.  Saved from the gentle, yet immensely annoying voice of Raffi by two sleeping children, I tuned into my favorite Euro pop radio station and enjoyed a relaxing ride back to France.  The snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc still visible out my window, guided us home.

Maggie and her friend Eva on the swings. Such sullen faces for fun times on the swings. This is one of the two pictures I took yesterday. I brought my camera determined to document our day, but left with only these (bad) pictures, taken five minutes into our trip.

Snooki vs. the Blog

Too much sun, too little typing. Maggie and I lounging on a paddle boat on Lake Annecy, France.

Summer is in full swing and it has been harder and harder to find time to post.  Between company, trips to fabulous summertime destinations, crazy kids, and my insanely embarrassing trash television addiction, Pardon My French has been sorely neglected.  My vocabulary and writing skills have also been adversely affected by too many episodes of The Jersey Shore and the teen drama Pretty Little Liars (why my taste in television failed to mature past 9th grade, is beyond me).  I think I hit rock bottom when I quoted Snooki at a play date and somebody asked “What’s a Snooki?”  I got some strange looks from the normal moms who couldn’t comprehend why I knew so much about a three-foot, big-haired (okay maybe she’s 3 and half feet with the hair), overly tanned, permanently inebriated, loud mouth from Jersey.

That was yesterday, and I made a promise to myself that I would not, under any circumstances visit the casttv website (the gateway drug for bad t.v. watching overseas) during nap time today.  Instead I vowed to work on my blog and perhaps peruse CNN.com to enlighten myself on the goings on in the world, and to find something more relevant to discuss at the dinner table other than what disgusting thing Maggie touched at the park today (something unidentifiable dug out of a trash can) and the use of the word “grenade” as it pertains to the social dalliances of the boys on the Jersey Shore.  Of course, after a long morning at the park spent peeling whiny children off my legs and urging them to go play with their friends and leave Mommy alone for two seconds, and a car ride home where I played the game “who can be louder, crying children or Mommy’s radio?” (and lost, unfortunately), I collapsed on the couch where I immediately caved and watched an episode of Top Chef (but that is a Bravo program, infinitely more intelligent and classy than other reality shows, therefore justifiable).  It wasn’t until the episode wound to its conclusion that I felt able to tackle my first blog post in (gasp) 20 days.

So here I am, finally sitting down to the computer, with almost a months worth of outings, pictures, and memories to document, and I am completely exhausted from writing my first paragraphs.  I am obviously out of writing shape and will need to ease myself back into some sort of routine.  Lucky for me, unlike my dismal running program, I can blog with a glass of wine in my hand and a plate of chocolate by my side.  Getting back into top writing form should be easier than losing my baby belly.  Rest assured, Pardon My French fans (aka my mom), I have not been arrested by border patrol, I am back in writing mode and will be updating the blog soon with our adventures in Annecy, the South of France (ooh la la), and an insanely delicious authentic French meal that Jim and I enjoyed sans children (thank you Grandma Eileen).  But for now, I need to take a break, as it took me all day to write these few paragraphs, and there is an unusually charming serial killer beckoning me from Jim’s computer (because surely serial dramas on a premium cable channel do not count as trash t.v.).

I Fought the Law

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).

Vive le Tour

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.

The Hirschauers in Interlaken

After our whirlwind trip to Normandy, the Griswalds needed a few days to unwind.  The last leg of our road trip home had completely drained us of our adventurous spirit, and we recovered with long walks on Thoiry farm roads, tours of CERN (for Grampa), and visits with friends at toddler group.  We did manage to squeeze in a Geneva day, where we fulfilled Grampa’s wish to swim in the glacial waters of Lake Geneva (and to escape unscathed by the dreaded Lac Leman duck mites*), toured the streets of Old Town, and gazed upon the Geneva cityscape from the top of the Cathedral bell tower.  So, in reality, the Griswalds really only rested for one day, (battling crowds on cramped Geneva sidewalks with a stroller the size of a Smart Car does not a relaxing day make) and then we hit the road again, this time with Jim (our captain) in tow, to bask in the beauty of the Swiss Alps.

The drive to the Interlaken was infinitely easier than the drive to Normandy, which had almost scarred me for life.  We spent less than three hours in the van, and the scenery was so gorgeous that the last hour of the trip flew by in a blur of sparkling ice blue lakes, and jagged, snow topped mountains.  When Emma first laid eyes on the Jungfrau from the car window she was left speechless (a rare treat for those of us sharing the backseat with her) and finally blurted out the word “HUMONGOUS” in her best Murray from Sesame Street impression.  She was right, the mountains around Interlaken were gigantic, and mesmerizingly beautiful.  We happened upon a cute playground area complete with picnic tables just as we were entering the city (couldn’t have planned it better if we had tried, and of course, had we tried, we never would have found such a great spot) and stopped for lunch and a romp.

After the girls had sufficiently tired themselves out on the playground equipment we took to the crowded streets of Interlaken.  We spent some time watching paragliders float down from the mountain tops, bobbing and weaving in the cool alpine breeze.  Marring the somewhat idyllic mountain scene was the neon orange lights from a Hooters sign in downtown Interlaken.  Yes, Hooters (ye of the chicken wings, dangerously short orange hot pants, and painted on tank tops) in Switzerland.  What the what?  Just what we needed to complete our authentic alpine vacation in a Swiss mountain town, greasy wings and scantily clad waitresses.  (Instead of ranch or blue cheese, I wonder, do they serve fondue with those wings?)

We walked through the city of Interlaken, always with one eye turned to the snow-capped peaks above us, and succeeded in putting the girls to sleep in their strollers.  When traveling with small children it is critical to not let an opportunity like two comatose toddlers in umbrella strollers pass you by, so we promptly stopped at a Swiss cafe (not Hooters, to the dismay of some in our party) for some very large, very refreshing beers.  After being in France where they eschew cold beer in favor of wine and sell warm beer in miniature bottles and munchkin-like glasses, the extra-large chilled beer steins of Switzerland were a welcome sight.  We ordered four of their largest local lagers and settled in for a relaxing chat.  Amazingly both girls stayed asleep for our entire happy hour and were coaxed (bribed with ice cream) into sitting patiently while we enjoyed a second, slightly smaller, yet still refreshing, beer.  Upon leaving the idyllic cafe we walked straight into a toddler paradise, complete with jumping, bubbling fountains to frolic in and giant-sized chess pieces.  Without thinking twice we stripped the girls down to their French finest and let them loose in the fountains.  Interlaken was very good to us that day; sun, mountains, playgrounds, fountains, beer and ice cream, the stuff dreams are made of.

We left Interlaken and drove a bit farther up into the valley to our hotel in the town of Wilderswil.  In true Griswald style we had booked our hotel at the last-minute and we weren’t quite sure what to expect as we made our way through the quaint, winding streets of Wilderswil and up the hill to the Hotel Berghoff.  I half expected to round a corner and find a rickety, single level motel establishment with dingy curtains and a blinking vacancy sign.  I was pleasantly surprised by the pristine Swiss style hotel, nestled in the hillside with striking views of the Jungfrau and a Maggie-approved proximity to grazing cows.  The Hirschauers were lucky enough to have a family suite in the “Chalet” with a balcony looking out into the Alps.  Alas, poor Nana and Grampa were stuck in the big hotel, with a stunning view of our balcony from their only window.  After dropping our stuff in the rooms we hightailed it to the pool and enjoyed a surreal evening swimming and watching the sky turn pink behind the Alpen giants.

The next day Team Griswald split up and my parents took the trains up to the tip-top of the Jungfrau and hiked the glacier while we conquered the Alps at a slightly lower elevation.  The girls loved the cog railway that inched its way up the twisty, turning tracks past mountain towns, ski resorts, and various farm animals.  In Maggie’s world, every animal she sees is a cow, and there are no distinctions made between goats, donkeys, or horses.  She loved spying the many species of “cow” out the train window, and Emma kept a keen eye out for gushing waterfalls, that spewed snowmelt off the side of the mountain at awesome rates.  We got off the train at Kleine Scheidegg, a little resort town that boasted its own family of tame mountain goats (goats Maggie, not cows).  The girls loved playing with (harassing) the goats and feeding them (shoving dead grass in their faces) and were surprisingly unfazed when one of the smaller goats, having had his fill of weeds and greasy toddler hands, butted them angrily.  We finally tore the girls away from the goats and stuffed them kicking and screaming into backpacks so we could enjoy a short, yet extremely steep,  hike in the Alps.

We followed the well-worn path up out of Kleine Scheidegg and found ourselves in a mountain meadow straight out of a scene from the Sound of Music.  Frauline Maria was lucky enough to be alone, spinning through the wildflowers in blissful solitude, we, unfortunately had to pick our way past throngs of Japanese tourists who were possibly more enthralled with the adorable children on our backs than the impressive rocky peaks of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.  Countless pictures were taken of Emma and Maggie as they sat in their backpack thrones, waving and smiling to their adoring fans.  We finally found a quiet resting spot for lunch, one situated far enough away from people that we felt like we were alone in the Alps, yet not so remote that the girls were in danger of tumbling down the rocky mountainside.  Emma and Maggie frolicked in the meadow and picked flowers in the shadow of the Eiger, while Jim and I rested and basked in the beauty of the mountains.  On our way back down into Kleine Scheidegg we stopped to rest our hot, sweaty, weary feet in an ice-cold mountain pond.  The Swiss have come up with some ingenious ways of enjoying nature, my favorite of which is the foot soaking pool with benches and jacuzzi-like bubbles.  It felt sinfully luxurious to dip your feet in the cool bubbly water, surrounded by the natural beauty of blue sky, green grass, and white-capped mountains.  And, of course the girls are always game for anything that involves taking their clothes off and splashing in water.

After enjoying a well-earned beer and sharing a tearful goodbye with the goats in Kleine Scheidegg we boarded the train and headed back to our hotel to meet up with Nana and Grampa.  They had had a fabulous day hiking and exploring the Jungfrau glacier.  Though tired, they came down from the mountain looking ten years younger and full of smiles, adventure, and happiness.  That night we dined al fresco at a cafe in the town of Lauterbrunnen, and then collapsed into our beds after a day spent hiking, playing, and laughing in the Alps.  The next day we took a family hike to another mountain village called Wengen, and after a delicious picnic and one last train ride, we bade our new friends Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau “Auf Wiedersehen” and made our way back home to Thoiry.

Peaceful slumber in the Hirschauer Chalet.

Riding the rails.

Making new friends in Kleine Scheidegg.

Soaking our feet, Swiss style.

*A note about “duck mites.”  After we mentioned that we had all gone swimming at a beach in Geneva, a friend disclosed her secret fear of parasites called “duck mites” that live in duck feathers and become a problem in the summer, when the lake water become warmer.  While I listened intently to her warnings and shuddered at the thought of tiny parasites boring their way into my skin and causing a nasty rash, I dismissed the issue, thinking that perhaps my friend was over-reacting.  But then, not even an hour later, I heard a health report on the English-speaking radio station sternly warning people about the dangers of duck mites.  Now, I realize that duck mites are not fatal, and something as simple as showering immediately after swimming will greatly reduce your chances of catching them, but I do not fancy getting an itchy rash that may last for weeks, or even months.  No thank you.  I count myself lucky to have swam in Lake Geneva and escaped rash-free and I will not chance fate again.  I haven’t so much as dipped a toe in the lake since I have been alerted to the existence those sneaky parasites.

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."