May 15th

Once in a while, I slow down enough to sit and reflect on this incredible adventure that we are having in France, rather than being swept up in either the mundane routine of work and school (laundry, groceries, cook, clean up, is it library day, where are the gym uniforms, lather, rinse, repeat) or in the incredible travel and cultural experiences that we are lucky enough to partake in as often as we have the energy to do so.

Some days, it’s really lonely being here in a two-working-parent expat experience. We haven’t forged the tight connections that a lot of other families do through the international schools, for the sole reason that we aren’t around to engage in a lot of the daily activities that occur. We are friendly with a lot of people, but no one here counts us among their best friends (well, not among the grown-ups, anyway!). And when our close friends and family are having a hard time back home, and we can’t be there to help, it makes the distance feel all that greater. Luckily, we are incredibly fortunate to have our French extended family here who treat us like cousins and are always happy to see us for get-togethers when they occur, and Jamey’s sister and her family are just across the Channel in London (we love the Eurostar!). Also, these circumstances have caused our little family to bond together more than we would have otherwise, I think. Our boys are very close (they are travel buddies and playmates) and we spend a lot of time all together as a result. That closeness is very precious to us, and I hope we can maintain it when we move back to the States.

Other days, I am so in awe of the learnings and travel experiences that we are all getting that I’m ready to sign up for another expat gig (sorry, Mom). I have learned so much about my own culture and biases over the past three years, and while it has been the hardest learning curve ever, I have grown as a leader in myriad ways through my job. We have all learned that there are a lot of different ways of looking at the world, and lots of different ways of doing things, and that many times there isn’t a black or white answer to the question at hand. Imagine what it’s like learning that lesson at age 6 or age 9 for the kids (though I still think it’s valuable for us at age 40-something, too)!

We have all changed. Our kids climb trees without us hovering over them, eat pâté, radishes and cornichons, count on their 4:00PM goûter like it’s a religion, can make it to 8:30 or 9:00 PM for dinner, wear little European swimsuits to the pool, and have friends from all over the world. Oh, and the fact that they speak great French with almost no accent is incredible.

While there are things that make me crazy about France (to name a few: customer service, priorité à droite, the fluidity of time, all the strikes, the arguing, and the outward coldness to people they don’t know), there are so many things that we have embraced since being here. I love how important the rhythm of the week and year is in French life: as an example, every Sunday afternoon, all of the parks are full of families taking a long walk, biking or riding trottinettes or playing football after their big meal on Sunday afternoon. And when the schools are on vacation (which by the way is for 2 weeks after every 6 weeks of school – this is on the bad side of the column), life slows down just a bit to allow people to take advantage. Even the buses reduce their schedules, and small stores will close for a week or two. And while sometimes it drives me crazy when we’re approaching a deadline, I appreciate that my colleagues sit down and eat a meal together just about every day. They appreciate their food and savor their three courses, and take a little break from working.

Food deserves another mention. The quality of the products at our markets and butchers is incredible (the merchants wouldn’t last long if it wasn’t!). Our local boulangerie is to die for (there is nothing better than walking out of there with a hot tradition and breaking off the end). The cheese, the wine, the desserts, I could go on and on.

Just like everything, there are pluses and minuses to this adventure, but I am thankful for the opportunity and for the chance to grow and change that we have all experienced!

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May 14th

Last weekend, we embraced the great French tradition: on a fait le pont (we made the bridge) between a Thursday holiday and the weekend. It was another week where Christopher and Drew did not have the same school calendar (this has been a nightmare this year), so we pulled Christopher out of school for the Friday. Since his class is reading biographies, and since they are about to do a field trip to Auvers-sur-Oise to visit La Maison de Van Gogh, our choice of cities turned out to provide some good continuity for his classroom learning.

We headed to Gare du Nord and caught the Thalys train to Amsterdam. Have I mentioned how much I love train travel? It’s so easy and relaxing compared to air travel, and everyone can move around much more easily than in the car. In this case, the train provided free wifi, so Jamey and I were able to catch up on a couple of hours of work on the way while the kids played on tablets and watched videos.

Jamey had visited Amsterdam before, when he studied abroad his junior year in college, but this was my first trip.

The weather was gorgeous, which always helps, but I was very impressed by this friendly, inviting, casual city (as long as you avoid all of the drunk tourists and didn’t let the kids linger too long breathing deeply in some of the more touristy places). It seemed like there were playgrounds and cafés right next to each other all over the place, so the kids could play while we watched them and enjoyed a local beer.

The tram system was also very easy to use, and we were able to easily get from our hotel to any other point in the city without too much trouble.

Highlights:

The Vondelpark: a huge park in the center of the city with lots of grass (which you’re allowed to walk and play on in Amsterdam, as opposed to in Paris) and lots of ponds. There are also lots of really gorgeous gnarled trees that kids use for climbing. The whole thing had the feeling of a New England college campus on a spring afternoon – music and lots of people relaxing and enjoying the sunshine after a very long winter.

Canal Tour: It was a little long, but it was a fun way to see the sights of the city.

Bikes: We eventually decided that it wasn’t a true Amsterdam experience unless we joined the crowds on bikes. Jamey rented one of the bucket bikes, so Drew rode in style. And yes, I have changed enough during our European experience that we let Christopher ride his bike in the bike lane with no helmet like everyone else. Granted, there are something like 800,000 bikes in Amsterdam, and not that many cars, so the traffic is a little different than in a US city; I still think I gained a few grey hairs before we got into the Vondelpark. After that, it was really fun.

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Museumplein: A huge square flanked by the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum, with grass, fountains, cafes and playgrounds.

Honestly, the Van Gogh museum was so crowded at 4pm (which was when our tickets were for) that it was hard to enjoy it too much. We rented audio guides, but they ended up being tablets, and the boys spent more time looking at the tablets than looking at the art, which was frustrating.

The following morning, we went to the Rijksmuseum at 9:30, and this was a much more fun experience. The boys were given a little sketchpad and a special map of the museum to guide them to things that they might find interesting. This was great, and we especially enjoyed the special collections with model ships, weapons, jewelry and musical instruments.

Once we emerged into the garden outside, the boys tried out a fun fountain where you can stand in the middle while the jets make patterns around you.

I don’t think we will take any more trips outside France for a while (well, other than our upcoming home visit in June), so I am happy that our Spring trips were so much fun!

 

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April 30th

Last Saturday, we escaped the cool, grey Spring in France and embarked on another trip, this time, to Athens, Greece. Our wonderful nanny Marina is from Athens, so we decided to visit her city and to experience the history there. The weather didn’t disappoint: blue skies and pleasant temperatures were the consistent theme of the trip, and we ate most of our meals outside.

Highlights of the trip:

Our guided tour of the Acropolis and Acropolis Museum with Marialena from Athens Insiders. We sprung for the virtual reality experience at the Acropolis: we were all outfitted with iPads, which showed what all of the monuments would have looked like in ancient times, and which kept the kids very engaged.

The Acropolis Museum was amazing. Apparently, when they started digging the foundation for the museum in 2007, they found significant archaeological remains. Rather than scrapping the project, they used glass throughout so you could see right down into the old buildings underneath. It also featured a scale model of the Parthenon (the original of which you could see through the glass, up on the Acropolis), and the original friezes wherever possible. Very cool.

Wandering the old streets and eating amazing food. There were beautiful flowers and delicious treats everywhere.

The Agora. This old marketplace was the center of life in Athens in ancient times, and you can walk all through the shaded site, looking at remains of the buildings. There is also the beautiful Temple of Hesphaestus, which was very well-preserved. We had fun telling stories about Christadrew and Andopher in ancient times while we wandered.

Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon. We took a car about an hour south of Athens to the coast, and we spent some time at the gorgeous Temple overlooking the sea. There weren’t very many people there, and we had room to explore and imagine what life was like back then.

We also stopped at a family-run (3rd generation, I think) fish restaurant for dinner on the way back, and caught the sunset on the beach.

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The taxi ride back was long, but I will always remember sitting between the boys as the beatboxed and sang We Will Rock You.

The Panathenaic Stadium. This ancient stadium was renovated in the late 19th century, and hosted the first modern Olympic games, as well as being the site of some Olympic events at the Athens Olympics in 2004. We really enjoyed seeing all of the posters of various past Games, and of running around on the track!

The Olympic Torch! A childhood friend of mine lives in Athens, right next to the Acropolis, and she invited us over for a drink on our last night. We spent some time catching up, and then started to hear a commotion outside. It turned out that the Olympic torch was starting its journey from Athens to Rio for the upcoming Olympics, and it was literally outside her window. We said quick goodbyes and followed it up toward the Acropolis for a while. Afterwards, we had a very late but delicious dinner at a recommended restaurant and enjoyed our last evening in Athens.

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Morning with Marina (and the Playgrounds of Europe tour). Unfortunately, we only overlapped with Marina in Athens for about 12 hours! She came and met us Wednesday morning in the National Gardens, and we spent a little time getting wiggles out there (as we did several other times during our stay in Athens), and then we wandered around a bit, seeing the guards in front of Parliament, and admiring some other beautiful buildings.

We’ve been so lucky to have lots of wonderful trips, but this one was definitely be among the most memorable!

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April 22nd

Suddenly, it is spring. I was driving to work yesterday and as I turned the corner by the aqueduct to go up the hill to the site where I work, I noticed that it looked drastically different than the day before; the leaves had arrived overnight! It was the same in the park across the street: green and ready to burst. The tulips are out, and their scent stopped me in my tracks as I was walking home last evening. It is light until 9pm, the grass is being cut on the side of the road, and the birds are singing in the morning and the evening. I, like everyone else, am breathing a sigh of relief and am ready to throw open the windows.

Christopher just finished a week at Centre des Loisirs, aka French Camp. They went to Jardin d’Acclimatation, the amusement park on the edge of Paris, on Monday, and he has been working on ping-pong and baby-foot (foosball) the rest of the week with about 20 other boys his age. He had a great time, and is happy to go back for a couple of days at the end of next week.

Drew had school this past week, but has the next two weeks off. He is excited for vacation, and was still wide awake when I went by a few minutes ago (10:00pm). Considering we’re leaving tomorrow morning at 7:30, it might be a grumpy morning tomorrow!

Jamey was away this week in Germany, but he’s back and ready to travel!

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April 18th

Back in February, before Christopher’s 9th birthday, we gave him the choice of having a birthday party or of bringing one friend for a day at Disneyland Paris. He chose the latter (and by the way, I rejoiced, because it meant I didn’t have to place any phone calls to organize a birthday party in French! Talking on the phone in French is hard!). Because of the weather, we had been struggling to find a suitable day, but the forecast looked reasonable for yesterday, so off we went!

We picked up Colton at his house around 8:30, and he came bearing cupcakes that his Mom had made to help us start off the celebration on the right foot. So sweet! It’s about an hour in the car from our place to Disney, and we listened to music and to the backseat chatter of nine- and five-year-old boys (e.g. “robots can’t fart!”). We arrived about 15 minutes before the parks were to open, parked ourselves, sugared up with the cupcakes, and headed off!

We spent the morning and into early afternoon at the Disneyland Park, watching characters and riding rides. We all enjoyed It’s a Small World and the teacups for a warm-up,

but Pirates of the Caribbean was the early family favorite! The boys put on their best pirate faces afterwards.

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Autopia was also fun, even if Drew’s and my accelerator left a little to be desired. Christopher looked right at home in a red sportcar.

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We waited out a little downpour during a nice lunch near Aladdin’s area of the park (Middle Eastern buffet – best amusement park food ever!), then came back out into the sun for the Spring Festival parade and Buzz Lightyear. We did a few other walk-through rides here and there.

We decided to head over to Disney Studios next,

where we found longer lines but some of our favorite rides. The parachute drop was Drew’s favorite ride of the day, and we all loved it, particularly since we were all facing each other.

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We caught a quick line for the Slinky Dog Zigzag Spin,

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and then waited a full hour for Crush’s Coaster. We followed the lead of a group of women and pulled out the game Heads Up to pass the time a bit, but it was still a long wait. However, it was a great ride for everyone (Colton’s favorite of the day) except for poor little Drew. It was a little scary for him, but he got through it and took some extra snuggles from both of his parents after the ride.

At this point, we headed back to Disneyland and caught the Main Street parade while eating a snack, and saw all of the characters go by. Jamey and Christopher then braved Space Mountain, which was both of their favorite ride of the day! Colton, Drew and I hung out (or I hung out while they climbed rocks and got boy-energy out) and waited since Drew was too short and Colton wasn’t interested. After joining up again, we fit in Pirates of the Caribbean one more time, and the Snow White mine cart ride. We finished off a very long day with a take-out dinner while watching Jedi Academy.

At 8PM, five tired bodies piled into the car and headed home. Both of our boys fell asleep in the car, and we dropped Colton back off at his house. As I tucked Christopher in, I told him that I hoped he had a fun day. He replied that it wasn’t just fun, it “was awesome!” Mission accomplished!

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April 17th

The grey, windy, dark winter has transformed into a very wet Spring. I learned a new term: la giboulée, which refers to the weather this time of year (actually, usually in March) where it quickly transitions from sun to rain to sun to rain. it is so variable that it is easy to walk into one building on our campus without a jacket enjoying the blue sky and sun, and to find oneself running back in the pouring rain an hour later. The cycle sometimes repeats all day.

We had what was probably our last family event at Forest International School yesterday: we will miss the Summer Fete (we’ll be in the U.S.) and Drew will be enrolling at the American School of Paris with Christopher in the Fall. The parents’ association had designed a fairy tale themed treasure hunt in the forest, and the kids formed teams and did  all sorts of fun, active games (in their rain boots, of course, due to the aforementioned wet weather!). I really enjoy seeing the boys playing in the forest, enjoying the outdoors with their friends from all around the world. While I am happy that Drew and Christopher will be together at the same school next year, I will miss this part of the experience, for sure.

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Jamey and I had the evening to go into Paris last night, while Marina babysat the  boys. We took the train/metro into Concorde and started out at W.H.Smith, the English language bookstore. I picked up a few books for our upcoming travel, as well as the French version of the first Harry Potter, on Jamey’s encouragement. We then strolled through Place Vendôme, enjoying the results of the refurbishment that has been done there, and ended up at the Frog Hop House, a microbrewery with a fun atmosphere and a big screen (showing the Paris Saint Germain football/soccer game). After filling ourselves with pork tacos and a tasty beer, we wandered to Chatelet and made our way to Rue des Lombards. This is a lively area in the evening, and is home to some of the famous jazz clubs in Paris, Duc des Lombards and Sunside-Sunset. We had tickets to see the Giovanni Marabassi piano trio at Sunside, which was a small, intimate venue.

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They were great: in particular, the bassist’s fingers were incredibly fast, and when he played, his face lit up with joy at what they were creating.

A few days ago, I was cutting up vegetables for a salad to serve with dinner. Drew asked me, “Oh, are there radishes?” When I responded that there were, he asked me enthusiastically if he could have radishes and butter with his dinner. He sat himself down and knew exactly what to do: take a slice of radish, slather a little butter, shake a little salt, bite, and repeat. My little French boy.

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March 18th

It’s been a long dry spell on the blog, but as you may imagine, it’s because it’s been a crazy first quarter of 2016. Rather than trying to catch up, I am going to re-start from here. Our excellent ski vacation to Zell am See, Austria (including our first family chairlift ride) will just have to remain in our “heart drive,” as my nephew would say.

We had two funny stories this week that show how far Christopher and Drew have come in their French acquisition.

Earlier this week, my sweet Christopher came in to the bathroom as I was finishing getting ready for work. He told me, “Mom, you look really nice today. I really like that robe.” “Thanks, honey,” I replied. “I think you mean, ‘dress,’ though.” Robe is the French word for dress, so that’s what he was thinking.

Another day last week, Drew came into the kitchen with a box of crayons. “Can I write on the wall, Mom? They’re lavable.” Lavable is the French word for washable, which he read on the box, but since he didn’t know if it was a French or English word, he just read it with his American accent.

 

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