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Posts Tagged ‘France’


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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So here I am, five days into 2011 and I think I am doing pretty well on my ever-expanding list of New Year’s resolutions.  I have washed my face morning and night with an age defying cleanser every day since the first of January, and I am on the lookout for a reasonably priced French, wrinkle-zapping, miracle night cream.  (This resolution was bred from the sickening feeling that took residence in my stomach each and every time a well-meaning European man mistook my mother and I for sisters this past week.  My adorable, and I must admit, extremely young-looking mother left our vacation glowing from the compliments, while I slunk away feeling wrinkle-ridden, sun-spotted, and panicked.)

I have gone on three runs and two walks, on the annoying advice of Bob Greene, Oprah’s fitness guru, who callously orders readers of O Magazine to exercise for SIX HOURS  a week.  Maybe that is possible if you get paid to work out, per Mr. Green, or if some hired hand literally drags you from your bed and pushes you out the door every morning, per Oprah, but for me this six-hour mandate is going to be quite a feat. Even with my five days of exercise (an impressive stat in itself) I still have yet to hit 200 minutes, which means I still have more than 2 hours of huffing and puffing ahead of me to fulfill my quota for the week, and I was counting on at least one day of total and complete inertia.   Bob Greene is now and forever my enemy.  In the future I plan to refrain from reading O Magazine, but for now (or for however long I can keep up this resolution ruse) Mr. Greene’s directive is seared into my brain.

In another resolution coup d’etat, I have successfully warded off the snacking bug during all five nap times in 2011.  As much as I cherish nap time, the blissful silence, the opportunity to use the restroom in solitude, the unfettered Facebook time, the clandestine Jersey Shore watching, it is also a time when I tend to graze through my cabinets in a manner not unlike our neighboring gluttonous French cows.  While skimming through pictures of other people’s vacations I unconsciously consume half a bag of pretzels, in the time it takes me to catch up on the trials and tribulations of Lindsey Lohan’s most recent rehab stint I impressively polish off half a wedge of brie and a baguette.  During nap time I eat because I am often too busy to eat lunch with the girls, but I eat without thinking, and I overeat because the stress of the morning has left me weak and haggard.  This year I have vowed to try eat my lunch with the girls, and to not eat anything but fruit and vegetables while they are napping.  For some reason gorging on carrot sticks is not nearly as tempting as polishing off that bag of popcorn in my cupboard.  This resolution just may be my Everest.  As I type this I am peevishly sipping on a cup of herbal tea and desperately trying to ignore that box of chocolates sitting on the counter.

That was it.  Those were my three big resolutions, and I was mildly impressed with the fact that I had faithfully held up the resolutions for five whole days.  Lurking way back in the corner of my mind, however, was a tiny voice, annoyingly reminding me about the blog that I had started with such enthusiasm when we first moved to France.  Remember that blog, Maura?  Remember how you wrote every, single day for weeks, and then every other day for a while, which turned to once a week, which quickly turned to once a month, until finally, not a word has been written since October.  Oh my poor neglected blog!  The guilt that has been steadily building from my blogging drought weighs heavily on my mind.  I read friends blogs and cringe with shame (all the while enjoying your witty prose, and beautiful pictures, I promise).  I read blogs by people who blog for a living, and marvel at their doggedness, their carefree writing style and super-hero like ability to tackle writer’s block, and wish that I could capture just a bit of that talent.  If I am really serious about this whole resolution business, I owe it to myself to dedicate at least a sliver of these efforts towards my blog.  I have been avoiding my blog like a certain beloved children’s storybook character eschews green eggs and ham.  But, today I bit the bullet, I looked that Sam-I-Am in the eye, grabbed my plate of green eggs and ham, and opened my WordPress page for the first time in months.

Remarkably, when I opened up my blog I was greeted with a call to arms; in the upper left hand corner of my page a gauntlet was thrown by the people at WordPress, a challenge to blog at least once a week for the next year.  For the more courageous at heart there was the option to blog every day for the year, but I chose the infinitely easier way out.  Apparently, thousands of others suffer from dysfunctional bloggers block and WordPress is daring them, daring me, to change.  Do I dare?  Yes, I do.  The truth is that I feel better when I blog.  It is almost like exercising.  There are so many days when the last thing I want to do is lace up my sneakers (and let’s be honest, many days I simply don’t, please don’t tell Bob) but once I do, I immediately feel invigorated and that feeling of energy and accomplishment carries me through my day.  When I blog I am also rewarded with a sense of a fulfillment.  When I write I feel like there is more to my life than the endless cycle of cook food, feed food, clean up food, with a little bit of laundry, child chauffeuring, and bottom wiping sprinkled in for fun.  My blog is also a way of giving back to my family.  It is a record of our amazing adventures in Europe, a history of the crazy things that happened and will happen to us while we live in France.  When I think about my blog in this positive light I am invigorated and eager to write more.  It is no longer an albatross around my neck, another chore, like cleaning the toilet, that I must slog my way through before I can relax.  I need to remember why I blog, for my own sense of self, my emotional and intellectual well-being, and for my family.

So, a fourth resolution has been added to my list; to blog at least once a week.  Any words of encouragement on this front are greatly appreciated.  And, if there is anyone who is willing to call me every night to make sure I washed my face, that would be very helpful as well.

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PART I:  The Journey

After two solid days spent unpacking, laundering copious amounts of stained, sweaty, sea-salt encrusted vacation clothes, and reintroducing myself to the kitchen, things are finally back to normal at Chateau Hirschauer.  Our return to the real world after ten days of cloudless beach weather in Turkey was shocking; Emma had a tearful morning at school after carefree days building sand castles, splashing in pools, and pillaging the all you can eat dessert buffet; and Maggie, exhausted from endless water play, baby disco dancing, and looking a bit haggard after a diet consisting exclusively of french fries, oranges, and ice cream, wandered around the house like a zombie until finally collapsing in a pile of dirty laundry.  It didn’t help our vacation fatigue when we returned to Thoiry to find that our quaint, often sleepy French town had morphed into a carnival site complete with cotton candy machines and mini roller coasters in the school parking lot.  So, this weekend, meant to be a recovery weekend, was instead filled with late night torch parades, missed naps, wild marching bands, flower floats, and lots and lots of candy.

While there will be more, much, much, more on the bizarre awesomeness that was the Fete de la Saint-Maurice in a future post, let me return to the subject at hand; our adventures on the Bodrum peninsula in Turkey.  Two weeks ago we pulled Emma from school (gasp, the former teacher pulls her child from school in her second week to indulge in a beach vacation…I am still working through the guilt), packed our bags and headed for a physics conference at a resort on the coast of the Aegean Sea.  I should have known when we arrived at the airport and queued up (I’m not learning much French here, but am becoming fluent in British) in back of a throng of 80 physicists all headed for the same hotel, that the flight was bound to get complicated.  There was the fact that we were in possession of the only two wriggling, shrieking, kicking, jumping small people in a flight of middle-aged, computer wielding, serious looking physicists.  It is one thing to annoy an entire plane full of people you have never met and will never see again, but it is quite another thing to torment a group of Jim’s colleagues, some of whom are senior to him, and all of whom we were to be vacationing with for the next week.  Our troubles began in the check-in line when Maggie grew weary of the cereal I was so kind to shove in her face and took up her new favorite pass time of covertly pushing Emma’s buttons (think hair pulling, toy snatching, unwanted tickling).  The “torture thy sister game” rarely ends well, but on this particular day, in this particular line of impatient, technology deprived scientists, the howling reached catastrophic levels.  By the time we made it up to the check-in counter to be informed of the 2 and a half hour delay that awaited us, I was ready to chuck the whole beachside vacation idea in favor of turning tail, heading home, and watching Disney’s Robin Hood on repeat for the next ten days.

If you have to be delayed for two and a half hours with scores of your husbands nerdy colleagues, however, the Geneva airport is the place to be.  For starters they apologized profusely for the delay (the first “I’m sorry” I have ever heard at an airport counter, I nearly fainted) and gave us vouchers worth 40 CHF to use at any restaurant in the airport.  So, we collected our free lunch, including an obnoxiously expensive Starbucks latte (the first I have had since arriving in Europe) and sought out the fabled airport play area.  I am leery of airport play areas, they are usually sticky with mysteriously tacky toys that I find disturbing.  Also, I swear I can see the germs snaking their way through the nooks and crannies of the grungy toy planes that Maggie will inevitably decide are delectable snacks instead of plastic disease vectors.  The Geneva airport, I am happy to report, has an inconceivably pristine and decidedly unsticky play area.  If you happen to be in the Geneva airport with children I urge you to visit this germ-free wonderland.  It is a sterile oasis of wooden climbing toys, kitchen sets, slides, and popular children’s books.  There is a sparkling toddler sized potty, comfy changing table, and free diapers and wipes.  In a word it is airport heaven.  We happily passed the two hours, the girls in their stocking feet and I with medical booties over my shoes (I’m telling you the Swiss are fanatics about their cleanliness), sliding, reading, and cooking the delay away.  It was divine.

After working out some energy in the immaculate Swiss play place, the flight to Istanbul was relatively uneventful.  Thank goodness because we happened to be sitting directly in front of the Physics Analysis Coordinator (translation: head honcho) of Jim’s experiment.  We arrived in Istanbul aware that we had missed our connection to Bodrum, but seeing that eighty other people also missed their flight, we weren’t too worried.  I was concerned with the unfathomably long line at passport control.  On the three-hour flight to Istanbul the girls had reached their bribing limit, and no amount of pretzels, granola bars, or stickers was going to keep them quiet while we slowly snaked our way toward the customs official.  So we spent a lovely hour or so inching our way forward, trying desperately to quell our unruly, crabby, and excruciatingly loud children.  I feared that we would be kicked out of Turkey before our passports had even been stamped.  Finally we reached the unusually cheerful passport control officer who smiled and cooed at our two wild-eyed monsters, writhing and struggling in their umbrella strollers.  His enthusiasm for the children that I had long grown weary of was disarming.  I had never in my life met a more friendly passport official.  It was like he was a kindergarten teacher wearing a Turkish customs uniform.  He somehow managed to pacify the girls and their whining faded into giggles as the magical (yet extremely slow-moving) passport official stamped our books and welcomed us to Istanbul.

The Istanbul airport was huge, crowded, and super stressful.  We weaved our way through the bustling mob of travelers, searching for the domestic terminal and the group of physicists that we had somehow lost in the passport control maze.  Sweating and breathless after our sprint through the airport (including a frantic trip through security where I nearly had to be restrained from punching an impatient business traveler) we arrived at our gate, reunited with the scientists who I’m sure were hoping that we were lost forever, and discovered that our connecting flight was an hour and a half late.  Deep breathes were taken by all, and we set Emma and Maggie loose in the Istanbul domestic terminal, which was not as kid friendly as the play area in Geneva, but offered plenty of space for the girls to run laps.

We finally arrived in Bodrum a full five hours behind schedule.  Next up in our marathon trek to our hotel was an eighty minute bus ride over bumpy, winding, extremely small roads.  We did not put our bags down in our room until after midnight.  All in all the trip to Turkey, originally intended to take roughly 5 hours, took us 16 intense, sweaty, maddening hours.  I think that our transatlantic flight from Chicago to Geneva was easier.  But, when we were finally able to toss the girls into bed and retire to our balcony with a much deserved glass of wine, I declared our 16 hour exodus from Thoiry  to Turkey to be a success.  The light from the moon, which on our first few nights in Turkey echoed the crescent shape from Turkish flag, glistened off the Aegean Sea, and the sound of crashing waves upon the shore lulled us to sleep.  We were officially on vacation, the girls and I that is, Jim had to wake up early for conference meetings.  Science never sleeps.

The girls and I atop Bodrum Castle.

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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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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.).

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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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