Chronicling the experience of a New England Family spending a year living in the Loire Valley of France.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

La FĂȘte de Vivienne

Each year my kids' birthdays benefit greatly from my passionate enthusiasm for throwing a good party. This year, when Vivi's birthday appeared on the horizon, we discussed our options and determined there was simply no better way to celebrate a girl's birthday in France than with a Princess Party at a castle. (The fact that it meant no mess to clean up before or after was merely a fringe benefit.) The Chateau du Rivau nearby hosts birthday parties, but of course they don't do this until the middle of April, so poor Vivi had to postpone her March celebration a whole month. In the end, this waiting paid off as we had a fantastic time and Nana and Papa (my parents) were able to join in the fun. Below are some images and comments about our extraordinary day. Vivi's comments are in pink.

The Chateau du Rivau
Vivi's special Princess Ensemble purchased at the Market in Chinon
Watch out Rivau, here we come!
The party favors were rose garland crowns and pink candy necklaces. The girls all came in princess attire and looked thoroughly fantastic. We had rented a van for my parent's visit - which meant all the girls could be together for the ride to the castle and back. It was so hilarious and endearing to hear them singing French songs at the top of their lungs, Vivi's voice and perfect accent blending right in.

The princesses getting a tour of their estate.
The birthday package includes a special tour designed just for young princesses and knights. The guide was so incredibly good at her job, that even though I didn't understand *every* word - I still LOVED her presentation. She was incredibly animated and engaging.
The tour continues. Note there were two groups - Vivi's group can be identified by the crowns of roses.

Calligraphy Class - Mandatory for all Proper Princesses.
We were writing our names on pieces of paper with letters that were different than French letters or English letters. - Vivienne
Vivi's referring to the fact that they were writing with quill pens and ink, copying a form of calligraphy. There was ink everywhere! But the girls loved it.
Fencing Lesson - Because a Good Princess is also a Warrior.

We did fencing and it was very, very fun. - Vivienne
This was a riot. The video proves that, I think. You can hear the guide giving instructions on how to commence the duel with the proper 'greeting' - "Below, above, at face, behind and 'enguard'."
Graduation. Princess Vivienne passed with flying colors.
After the tour, the lessons in calligraphy and fencing class, the girls were "Knighted?" errr "Princessed?" or "Princessified?" Anyway - the tour guide used English to say something like, "Well, what can I say about you? I name you 'the American Princess of Rivau.'"

Playing in the Labyrinth with Nana (the girls are too short to see).
Sometimes it was hard to find our way out when we went in the labyrinth. But that was fun! - Vivienne
I think every lawn should have one of these. It never stops being a blast. We even found a bird's nest in one of the bushes!
Toutes les Princesses.
This is a picture of my friends and me. - Vivienne

Everyone celebrated Vivienne with such flare!
My mom said this was one of my presents. It was very beautiful and my first time seeing a peacock with his tail open. - Vivienne

Such a great souvenir de France. I sure hope Vivi remembers her childhood better than I do mine!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Buffalo Grill Won't You Come Out Tonight

You would think being in the land of Foodies (people who know how to appreciate food), finding a place to eat dinner would be a piece of cake (or in this case perhaps quiche). However, we've learned that unless you're willing to subject your family to the consequences of childhood sleep deprivation, dinner out isn't really an option. Lunch to be sure, but not dinner.

Most restaurants are open for about two hours from noon through 2pm (which here is 14h - something I'm still not used to and am forced to use my fingers to figure out). Then establishments close and don't reopen for dinner until 19h30 (that's 7:30 in the P.M.). When we first arrived here, eating out would have meant we would be sitting down to dinner right about at the kids' bedtime. Close to a year later and I hate to say we have begun to cross over to the dark side. Our kids rarely are asleep before 21h. (That's NINE AT NIGHT!!! I feel like such a bad parent!)

But on our last night of vacation, after a week of touring, hiking, going to bed late, getting up early, we were all so exhausted we desperately wanted to fall back into our comfortable, familiar routine of 5:30 dinner, relaxing down time and 7:30 to bed. Around 4pm we left the lake to begin our search for something that would be open and serving meals that early. I had my doubts then, and should have probably insisted on stopping at a market to buy some supplies for a bed-top picnic dinner back in our room. But that sounded like too much work at the time. Ohhhh, had I only known....

The first village we arrived at seemed very promising. There were at least half a dozen restaurants lining the center square. We parked the car and began our procession past the menus. Turned out half were closed for the season with "see you in July" signs in the windows. Another was open, but not serving dinner until 7:30. One had a menu with regional fare including tripe and some word I didn't know. The kid's menu options were literally a tripe casserole or local sausages (which are NOT like whatever you are picturing in your mind right now, I promise you). Even though we have been pretty impressed with our kids' willingness to try new things, we weren't up for the job of convincing them that cow's stomach was edible. I can't even convince myself of that one. That left one more possibility. From afar, there was hope. "Bar - Pizzeria - Cafe" was stenciled on the awning. As we drew nearer however, it became apparent that "Bar" was by far the dominant operative. A couple shady characters, sans dents, blearily peered at us over their drinks. I stopped short. "I don't think so." Reluctantly, the kids turned and followed us back to the car.

The next two towns we drove through were shut up tight. Not a restaurant or cafe to be found. With school vacation still being a solid month away, apparently our timing was off. By 6pm we were desperate, so we decided to skip trying to find something nearby and instead drive the 30 minutes into the town on the other side of our B&B - where our hostess had specifically recommended we go to find dinner. We walked down the two or three main streets only to find one restaurant (which was of course closed until 7:30) and a "Kebab" stand - which I refused on principle. I had dismissed the notion of self-serve or picnic dinner two hours ago. I wasn't about to change my mind now. Certainly not for greasy meat-on-a-stick.

Our hostess had also mentioned another place down the street from her. We slumped back into the car hoping beyond all hope that "La Fumade" would provide the nourishment we all desperately needed at this point. The kids and I held our appetites at bay with slices of "American Bread" (sandwich bread) and peanut butter (from England). Hope soared as we pulled into the restaurant's lot and saw the doors wide open and a woman busy at work inside. We scrambled out of the car and over to the entrance like desert wanderers to an oasis. "Nous allons ouvrir a dix-neuf trente." David glanced at his watch. Twenty-five minutes. Hmmmm. We took a quick look at the menu.

Menu d'enfant
Nuggets de poulet avec frites
Steak hache avec frites

SCORE! We could wait the half-hour knowing chicken nuggets and hamburgers were foods the kids would gladly eat. As we contentedly ambled back to the car I began to notice a profound number of mosquitoes congregating in our midst. Back home, this wouldn't be all that surprising, but you must understand this was practically the first time I'd seen ONE mosquito in the past ten months. They simply didn't seem to exist here. When we had first arrived last August, I was shocked to see screenless windows wide open for all the insect world's delight. But after a while of never seeing a black fly or mosquito, I figured, "well, no wonder, without those pests, I think I'd prefer no screens as well!"

But here, the mosquitoes were EVERYWHERE. After taking refuge in the car for a bit, we decided to risk a short stroll over to some very small but pretty cascades on the other side of the restaurant's large lawn. By the time we returned, two other cars had joined ours in the lot and one of the couples had entered the restaurant. Ah! Finally. We could begin to believe dinner was really going to happen for us. It was 7:25p.m..

We entered the restaurant, swatting at the mosquitoes all along the way. With the doors still wide open, we opted for a table further in toward the center of the room, despite the hostess's offer of the table right by the door. Better not to *be* dinner while we eat dinner. Ha! Like geography mattered. We sat waiting for menus, taking in the bright yellow walls and American-diner-like decor and the swarms of mosquitoes. And I do mean SWARMS. David and I began batting our arms, slapping our hands against walls, the table, our legs; we were on a mad killing spree in attempt to usher in some semblance of peace for our dinner. "With the door wide open, we are fighting a losing battle." I mumbled. Our fearless leader got up and closed the door, the other guests eying him suspiciously as they swatted the air around themselves as well.

Two seconds later, when it appeared we might actually make some headway; the air clearing and the death count mounting, the hostess walked through the door with drinks for another table and propped the door back open in one swift motion. The black "fog" began to roll back in. I felt like crying. Would our drinks be safe? Could we get the food from the plate to our mouths and have it remain mosquito-free?  Honestly, if it was this bad in the dining room, how much worse would it be in the kitchen? In my mind all I could picture was an industrial sized kitchen, hot and humid with an open door leading to "out back" where dumpsters and an ashtray sat. The air in my imaginary kitchen was thick with mosquitoes. The "chef" was stubbly-faced with a smoldering cigarette drooping out of a mouth spewing well-justified french profanity at these god-awful bugs. I couldn't shake the mental picture I had created and I despairingly reached my limit.

"David?" My eyes were pleading, so afraid of his reaction to what I was about to say. "I don't think I can do this. I don't think I can stay and eat in this environment. It's just too much."

"I'm with you. Let's go." To my shock and relief, he practically jumped from his chair. But not before the hostess arrived with our menus. She looked confused as she took in our eminent departure.

"Desolee," I began, horrified to have to explain why, after waiting a half an hour to eat here, we were actually leaving. "Mais, nous ne pouvons pas rester ici. Les insects - c'est trop...non. Nous avons besoins partir. Desolee." (Sorry, but, we can't stay here. The bugs - it's too.... no. We must leave. Sorry.)

We all but sprinted to the car, and collapsed with an exasperated, "Now what?!"

"Oh what I wouldn't give for an Applebees right about now," David lamented.
"Mmmm.. or a TGI Fridays," I sighed.
"Bugaboos!" chimed in voices from the back. The kids were behaving unbelievably well considering all we had been through in the last three hours of our dinner-search. The whimpered quietly behind us while David and I ran through our depleting options. A rather large city was just on the other side of the mountain range. They'd be sure to have *something.* Even, dare I say, a McDonald's. That's right people. I had become that desperate. We decided to go for it.

At 7:55pm we found ourselves hot on the trail of a Buffalo Grill, which is the French equivalent to Applebees. Hallelujah, the Lord had heard our prayers! We'd found food. And not just food. But good food. Familiar food. Food with descriptive words like, "barbeque," "American," and "grilled" in the titles.

When we pulled out of the Buffalo Grill parking lot at 22h (that would be a mere two hours before midnight) - we sure were exhausted but also totally stuffed with extremely content food-drunk smiles across our tired faces.
Ahhhh the sweet taste of success.
*For the record, this phot is from dinner with my parents at a different Buffalo Grill. I was too tired to think to take a photo of Bo with his Barbe a Papa and Vivi with her ice cream. But this still captures the sentiment, and like Applebees, all Buffalo Grills are exactly the same, so whatever.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Touring the Puy du Dome Region

Tucked in and around the Massif Central's volcanic peaks were dozens of little hamlets to explore. Two of our favorites were Aydat with it's charming little lake and Orcival with it's towering basilica.

Aydat reminded me of the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. It had a lovely lakeside park, boardwalk and little fish-shanty like restaurants. As we looked around, it was easy to imagine we were back home, except for the presence of all the speedos (ick). The kids had fun playing in an elaborate but overly-crowded playground for a bit, but then despite lack of swimwear, they romped around in the warm-ish waters of Lac d'Aydat while we took in the sights of tourists and sailboats and enjoyed the warm breeze.

In Orcival we  discovered a lovely little village square, overpowered by a magnificent basilica.

Little twists and turn of the main road gave way to darling centuries-old houses, surrounded by much more modern dwellings. It created such a strange effect, making it appear like the older structures were what didn't belong.

The basilica dates back to the 11th century. The sun fought against the shadows inside as it pierced through the stained glass. It always amazes me to see how much the light and dark seem to battle it out in these majestic stone churches. It makes the light-flooded altars that much more breathtaking. It's hard not to hold my breath in awe in a place like this.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hiking in the Massif Central

One of the perks of spending a whole year here has been the opportunity to tour different areas of France and experience the diversity of landscape covered by such a small geographical area. This past week we started a vacation at the base of the French Alps and concluded in the heart of the Massif Central - France's dormant volcanic region. The differences in landscape were stunning and also proved to be a great learning opportunity for all of us in regards to how God formed this gorgeous planet of His.

These are photos of our hike in the Massif Central. Another post will include our tour of some of the little towns in the area. 

Once again, I think photos will do more justice than words ever could.
Puy du Dome is the highest peak to the left. We hiked the crater rim to the right.
A view of Puy Du Dome from the Puy du Pariou hike.
Puy du Pariou
At the trail head.
The gorgeous forest trail.
Bo & Vivi inspecting the air bubbles of pumice, or as they called it "Hot Lava Rock."
These sheep were right up along the trail, leaving the "proof" of their presence all over the trail from top to bottom. It created  quite a fly problem. We dashed through a few swarms that made me think of the Plagues. Scary stuff.

A short video where you can hear the sheep's bleating and their bells ringing.
The Pariou crater.
You can see the trail winding down to the lowest point of the crater. You can also just make out the rim trail along the top.
The inside of the crater. The people help provide some scale. I told the kids those rocks were placed by prehistoric people. Luckily, Bo's embraced Young Earth Theory enough to scoff at me.
  Some pretty flowers along the way:
I think these are Forget-Me-Nots. Which just seemed appropriate.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

We will Remember

Memorial Day Weekend seems an appropriate time to share about our experience visiting Omaha Beach in Normandy. Once again, what I expected and what I experienced were not the same. I thought we'd see a beach with a plaque and a very, very large cemetery. It was so very much more.

When we arrived from the car lot to the park entrance, we were welcomed by armed security who appeared to be French military. My back stiffened and eyebrows raised as I took in their expressions. The presence of these men silently but powerfully reminded all who entered that this was a place deserving the sincerest respect and deepest honor. I pulled the children into me and quietly but sternly explained to them the significance of where we were. Eyes wide, they nodded their understanding and we passed through security into a large, bright and sunny lobby dotted with immense photographs of soldiers and battlefields. Along one wall were computer monitors and keyboards for looking up the location of specific graves. You could search by state, name, unit number and more.

By the time I'd reached the far end of the lobby, to what I thought was the entrance to the grounds and cemetery, I was fighting back the tears. But the doors were actually just a wall of glass, and the traffic pattern turned sharply left and down a flight of stairs.

Below, underground was, by contrast, a dimly lit but nonetheless elaborate gallery of artifacts, photographs, statistics, video footage and written stories depicting the chain of events, personal accounts and tributes of the men who fought on the ground no more than 500 meters away. To say this was moving doesn't do it justice. I wiped away a steady flow of tears as I read about the heroic acts of countless American men and women. At the end of the gallery another sharp turn led through a long dimly lit marble-lined hallway. A soothing female voice announced name after name after name. I wondered to myself how long one would have to stand in the hallway to hear the names of all 9,387 men and women who gave their lives near this place and were buried above.

The hallway opened up suddenly, to a large, cathedral-height rotunda majestically labeled "The Hall of Heroes." Glass plaques formed a fluid circle around the room with head shots of smiling young men in uniform. Under their names were labels identifying those whose bravery saved lives and those for whom that bravery cost them their own. In the center of the room, enclosed on three sides was a wordless memorial.

Vivienne and my mom stood close to one another inside the glass enclosure, heads bowed and hands folded. My mom later explained Vivi had asked her, "Nana, what is this?" And when my mom explained, tears in her own eyes, this was a special place to say a prayer for the men and women who gave their lives for freedom, Vivi responded accordingly and my mother followed suit.

After their silent "amen," Mom and I took a deep breath, grasped hands and headed toward the doors that led to the beach and graves beyond. My eyes locked with the soldier standing guard. As we passed, I whispered a quiet "merci" hoping it would convey the deeper gratitude I felt for the tribute this place was to my country and fellow countrymen.

The path led us along a beautiful coastline, rolling with hills down to a gorgeous sandy beach, the forest at our back.  

It was breathtaking in it's beauty and serenity even without the knowledge of what took place here 68 years ago. But looking down the slopes to the waves below made the courage of the men who stormed this beach so tangible my insides hurt. 

Rather suddenly, the forest behind us gave way to perfectly manicured fields with rows upon rows of crosses and stars.

This cross reads, "Here rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms known but to God." These graves of unidentified soldiers were spread throughout the grounds, surrounded by their fellow heroes.
The rosary hanging on this cross of a soldier from Massachusetts reminded me that although I don't have a personal connection with anyone here, each cross is connected to someone, somewhere who misses them.
What you are seeing in this video is, I believe, roughly one quarter of the actual cemetery. We weren't able to go beyond the gazebo you see in the distance because a massive rain cloud rapidly rolled in causing us to cut our visit short.

 While I'm doubtful a WWII veteran will read this post, I still want to say, "Thank you." We are so indebted to the people who gave their lives and time to end the horrors of Hitler's regime. Oh how I pray we will always remember, so we never repeat.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Vivi's Reflections on France

Vivi looking *very* French.
This is Vivi typing.

I can't wait until we are going to the Alps! We're going to a park! We're staying at three different B&Bs. And then we're going back home!!! 11 more weeks until we're going back home!!!

I'm happy we came to France for lots of reasons:
  1. I've enjoyed the work and recesses at school,
  2. I like my teacher,
  3. I love church,
  4. I'm happy I have a lot of friends,
  5. I've learned a lot of French.
1. I love when we listen to the sounds of a word and find certain sounds in the beginning, middle and end of them. I like the bikes we have at recess. Some are blue, some are yellow and some are red. The big blue one has a platform behind the seat for people to stand on and ride. The yellow one is only for one person, but it goes really fast. The red one is basically broken now, so...

2. My teacher is funny and sweet. If I have problems, she just says, "come to my desk."  some times I stay after with her to learn French.

3. Church has Sunday school where we color, play 2 games and she reads a little bit of the Bible.

4. My French friends are Lucie, Elsa, Charline, Elise, Hugo, Gaeton, and Romain.
Lucie - She's funny and I sit next to her in school. She is fast at running.
Elsa - We play together at recess.
Charline - She makes funny faces.
Elise - She's my partner in my dance class. She's my teacher's daughter and she's in Bohdan's class.
Hugo - He likes to act silly to make us laugh.
Gaeton - He's fast, but I like catching him at tag.
Romain - He is very kind. He's not as bad or crazy as the other boys.

5. I've learned a lot of French and I'm happy I can speak to my friends now. I'm happy I know how to do more stuff now at school. The French people say my accent is fluent and doesn't need any more practice.

We'll be back very soon. I miss you all!
-Vivi (Mom helped with some of the typing)
Vivi's special Birthday-Party Outfit she picked out at the market in Chinon.


I'm not sure what I expected. Perhaps an elaborate castle surrounded by gardens and woods. Or a mansion akin to what one finds in Newport, RI.

I had no idea.

We were driving through a typical town in France, on the outskirts of Paris - an odd combination of suburbia and old-European village - when the road suddenly opened onto a very large courtyard-turned-parking lot. It surrounded by a network of imposing branches of building, which at first appeared to be separate and only upon closer investigation did I realize most of them were all connected, like massive fingers reaching out from the giant palm which is the heart of the Palace of Versailles.
The Queen of my family in the courtyard of Versailles
Approaching the gates.

The main entrance, but tourists are redirected through a security building on the side.

Major restoration work is in progress, including restoring all the gold-leaf and filigree along the entire exterior roof line.
The gardens of Versailles. Those ominous looking clouds in the background became foreground very quickly and prevented us from touring the landscape.
Bo & Vivi admiring the view.
The chapel for King Louis XIV where he attended mass every day.
The Famous Hall of Mirrors.
A view of one of the fountains from the Hall of Mirrors.
I have a ridiculous number of ceiling shots because EVERY single room had elaborately painted ceilings. They were dizzying.
You should be grateful I only included two ceiling shots.
The King's bedchamber. Sadly, this doesn't do it justice. It was WAY gaudier than it looks here.

The bedchamber of Marie Antoinette. It was from a secret door to the left of this bed where she attempted to escape the day the people of France stormed the palace.
My mom and dad (he's the one in yellow in the back) taking in the architecture.
 As usual, these photos completely fail to capture the grandeur of this palace. It was so completely over the top. Ornate to a distraction. And we didn't even see Marie Antoinette's separate estate on the other side of the grounds. Nor did we tour the grounds at all due to the rain. And yet, David and I still completely understand what caused the people to revile their king given that he lived like this while they literally went without food. Reign of terror indeed. I think I would have revolted as well.