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May 2015

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Hey there honey, from Burgundy.

Hi Folks,

Hope everyone is doing well out there. We’ve been gathering readers on this blog and we’re happy to report that about 150 readers now tune in per posting, which isn’t too shabby. Lovin’ all the feedback we’re getting, all the emails. There’s nothing like connecting with readers out there in the States, Canada and France. Just wanted to sing those praises and say thanks!

So since last week, what has been happening in Paris? First, we’re all pretty well coiffed here which isn’t always the case. The eldest took the reins and walked into a Paris salon and got a new do. She came home with a blunt cut above her shoulders, a very geek-tech-feminist-mod style, like she intended. We were all impressed as were her aunties and grand-nana back home. Andrew got his first decent haircut in 10 years. In Canada, they had wanted to make a military man out of him, which, if you know him, just doesn’t work. Here, they seemed to recognize his inner Beatle and left some hair on his head. Of us all, the dog got the best deal. Her lamby wool curls shorn down, she’s now a a sleek white velvet dog. Elvis would have loved her. When I picked her up from “Bella”salon, 3 other small white dogs were gathered waiting their turn for the doggie styling table. Small white fluffy dogs are IN, in case you were wondering. Dogs that match white Stan Smith leather sneakers that every woman in Paris wears with her skinny jeans, dress suits or dresses. (Fashion tip alert!)

My stylist, for some reason, took it into her head that I’d make a great Abba singer because she blonded me to a new degree of Swedish blonde. Yesterday, I DID dance to Dancing Queen… Meanwhile, our 10 year old just shrugged her shoulders as if to say, why would I go to the salon when I have long flowing golden locks, then walked off to rehearse her lines for the Alice in Wonderland play.

Last Friday, a friend and I took out two Paris bikes called Velib’s that you can rent at any station and return whenever you want. It’s a large scale public bicycling system that works really well. Look for a future post on this great way to get around the city. But on Friday, we started out at the Luxembourg garden, wound around the 5th, went down the steep slope of rue du Cardinal Lemoine then crossed the Pont de la Tournelle, both of us siting it as our favorite view of Paris because it looks onto the back of Notre Dame and those flying buttresses and all the ivy and clinging greenery and then we biked around the 3rd. But the important thing was where we ended up. The Marche des enfants-rouges, the oldest covered market in Paris. There is a marvelous selection of stalls: Turkish tagines, hamburgers and fries, organic salads, African. Japanese. We had creole while sitting along the crowded colorful stalls, spices in the air. (Highly recommend this spot. Will write a future post on the Marches of Paris.)

Saturday morning, we trained out to Burgundy for the last long May weekend. Vezelay, Noyers, Flavigny (again). We stayed in a tiny village in a stone cottage and took walks up winding meadow paths to look over valleys and onto medieval villages atop hills in the distance and arrived home at 11pm Monday night totally enjoyably tired. The next day, our dog kept looking for a grassy spot to go on. Sorry, pal, back in the city. Pictures of Burgundy seen below. Note the abundance of flowers, stone and pie.

This week it’s been school council meetings, doctors appointments, and catching up on the administrative duties of the household. The girls have school exams coming up and school plays and all the end of the year presentations, so it will be a busy June. Friends arrive this weekend too. We’ll look forward to sharing more stories next week.

 

 

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Week in Images.

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So much happens in Paris in the course of one day, that believing it sometimes means photographing it, so you can look at the images later, maybe after dinner, still sipping on a Perrier, before you settle into some other activity like emailing or dishes or playing with the dog. You flip thru photos you took only hours ago, but isn’t there often still some trace of disbelief that runs thru your mind as you view this Paris life?

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You’ve suggested a terrace on the Seine on a Saturday night, it’s pleasant, though you are tired after a day when small things bothered you, and the city was chilly and gray. But the night sky opens up blue, boats go by, a sunset glows on the gold cherubs of the Pont Alexandre. You all take a cab to the Marais where throngs of people fill the streets, cafes, then there is a light show on the facade of the musee Picasso that you can’t quite believe and keep watching over and over as you talk and have dinner, the doors of the cafe open wide.

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You’re running by the Eiffel to get to an author reading at the American library. It’s 7:30pm, it’s warm out, and for a moment you are walking thru a dreamscape with its iconic feat, the layer of your life, with its constant demands and frequent surprises laid on top, your own architectural achievement.

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And the days go by.

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May, French style.

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You might have heard the rumor that the French get a lot of holidays. I’m here to tell you that it’s no rumor, it’s hard fact, or rather, it’s a French law that mandates at least 5 weeks of paid leave for every worker, per year. Then there are the national holidays, and in the month of May, the Queen of them all, there are a whopping 4 national holidays in this one little month. In practice, what that means is, there is a long weekend every weekend in the month of May.

For example, here we all are on Thursday, May 14, in our apartment in Paris – I’m writing and gazing out at the chestnut trees, the kids watch a TV show in the other room, and Andrew sits on the terrace reading the paper. The dog is curled up on the couch. It’s Ascension Day – the third of the four national holidays. It’s the holiday that celebrates Christ ascending to heaven after hanging out on earth for 40 days after Easter Sunday. Like a clever Parisian, our eldest daughter said, “Why couldn’t he have flown up on a Friday or Monday so I’d have a longer weekend?” Since Ascension day always falls on a Thursday, many French people solve this problem by doing the ‘faire le pont’ or ‘making the bridge’ to the weekend, by taking Friday off as well. Being descended from Puritans, we stayed in town and will go to school on Friday.

May does tend to also raise questions regarding the approach to school scheduling – it seems that the ministry of education in France has concluded that children work best in spurts, so the school year is punctuated with six weeks of school followed by 2 weeks of vacation. School begins in September then mid-October there is a 2 week fall break, called Toussaints, in December it’s 2 or 3 weeks for Christmas, then a 2 week winter break in February, spring break for 2 weeks in April. After the April break, there are an ambitious 8 weeks until the 2 month summer vacation. So, by the time May rolls around, there have been a lot of breaks of one sort or another and people are looking at each other with that glazed exhausted look you get if you eat too much pudding. That or they look fabulous and relaxed from their 2 weeks in Biarritz.

A few days ago, having arrived back from the April vacation, sitting at La Palette cafe on rue de Seine, under the shade trees, what my friends and I joked about was – how tough it was getting back to ‘it’ for one week and 3 days since the two week school vacances that ended May 3 and before the next rigorous 4 day week. Oh, but May 8 was a holiday too… the days, the weeks, the holidays, it is all running together in a big blur of baguettes and cheese, trains through medieval towns, ice cream cones dripping on shirts, piles of laundry and stacks of late library books.

How is an expat housewife to keep any kind of schedule or maintain any order with this willy nilly coming and going? (this being tongue in cheek, for those of you who know my relaxed and spontaneous philosophies) I was sharing my sense that planning these abundant family vacations was an art form whose rigorous training should start in primary school: where to go when for optimal weather, optimal chances for sport, cultural happenings, requires extensive knowledge, not to mention the skills to coordinate train schedules, gites, logis, airb&b, flights, car rentals… 6 or so times a year. It also occurred to me that this was a high form of economics and advanced algebra to figure out how to afford all this vacation and a cautionary tale about why it’s important to book ahead if you want to secure decently priced train tickets or places to stay in France in May.

Bon voyage and Welcome back. We’re all in this May thing together. And yes, next Saturday – we take a train for a long weekend to Vezelay with our dog staying in a gites in a small medieval village to celebrate Pentecost Monday, the fourth long weekend in May.

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Springtime in Normandy.

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Spring vacation, roller bags, the kids and I take a bus to the Gare St. Lazare and stand under the departure signs to wait for Nana to arrive at the station directly from Charles de Gaulle airport to catch our train to Deauville. There she is, in the nick of time, rolling in like she hasn’t just spent the last 48 hours in an airport. Hugs all around, we set off down the designated platform, find our seats and start our 7 day journey across Normandy to the border of Brittany.

Deauville is also called the 21st arrondissement because it’s only 1.45 hours from Paris up to this 19th century seaside resort on the Cote Fleurie (flowery coast). It’s also a flowery train ride going past fields and fields of bright yellow blooms of the colza plant. France is mostly agricultural, to the surprise of many who only see crowded Paris. Once out of the city, it’s a feast of fields and sky and beloved sheep.

Deauville is famous with film star types and thus is full of places to shop. But there are other charming attributes like story book half-timbered architecture, a boardwalk that spans the grand beach, a fancy American film festival, hills in the background, horses that race into the surf in the mornings and an artisanal ice cream shop called Martine Lambert. Plus you get Treuville, the town right across the inlet, a playful place with colorful rows of buildings facing the water, and a beach that has bungee jumping and old-fashioned amusement rides for the kids.

Much of the coast of France is apparently dotted with beautiful villages, but we loved Honfleur. From Treuville, if you take the D513, a winding coastal road, thru Villerville (stop for a coffee in the nice little square) in 20 minutes you arrive in Honfleur, a picturesque village with a harbor and narrow lanes twisting up hills that lead to artists studios, boutiques, imaginative food shops. We arrived on a gorgeous warm and sunny day and so were smitten. We took our time lolling around going in and out of little shops mooning over Italian linen shirts, leather purses…  drooling outside shops devoted solely to caramel and nougat. We had forest mushroom crepes and ice cream sitting overlooking the harbor. I bought a peach lace Italian dress which is cuter than it sounds. Honfleur is a romantic persons ideal, with hidden hotels, courtyards, gardens.

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The next day, in a light mist, we headed west along the coast driving through many quiet stone villages toward the World War II beaches and memorials. After crossing the Pegasus bridge, around Arromanches, high above the sea, we saw what looked like giant squared concrete beasts rising out from the gray misty sea off in the distance. I had no idea what the structures could be. Someone said it might have been Mulberry harbor – where prefabricated military harbors developed by the British were taken in sections across the English Channel and assembled here off the coast of Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion of France in 1944. Or part of the “Atlantic Wall.” I had never heard of the Atlantic Wall, so when I discovered what is was, I was a bit shocked and fascinated. So, I pulled the following from Wiki, apologies for the long post:

“The Atlantic Wall (GermanAtlantikwall) was an extensive system of coastal fortifications built by Nazi Germany between 1942 and 1945 along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia as a defence against an anticipated Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe from Great Britain during World War II.

Hitler ordered the construction of the fortifications in 1942. Almost a million French workers were drafted to build it. The wall was frequently mentioned in Nazi propaganda, where its size and strength were usually exaggerated. The fortifications included colossal coastal guns, batteries, mortars, and artillery, and thousands of German troops were stationed in its defences. When the Allies eventually invaded the Normandy beaches in 1944, most of the defences were stormed within hours. Today, ruins of the wall exist in all of the nations where the wall was built, although many structures have fallen into the ocean or have been demolished over the years. By the time of the Allied invasion, the Germans had laid almost six million mines in Northern France.[4] More gun emplacements and minefields extended inland along roads leading away from the beaches.[4] In likely landing spots for gliders andparachutists, the Germans emplaced slanted poles with sharpened tops, which the troops called Rommelspargel (“Rommel’s Asparagus”).[9] Low-lying river and estuarine areas were intentionally flooded.[7] Rommel believed that Germany would inevitably be defeated unless the invasion could be stopped on the beach, declaring, “It is absolutely necessary that we push the British and Americans back from the beaches. Afterwards it will be too late; the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive.”[8]

 

Next we visited Omaha beach in Colleville-sur-mer and the American cemetery. Omaha beach was also a surprise. It was absolutely gorgeous, just sand, sea and high green hills behind it, and the beach itself at low tide was extraordinarily wide, miles and miles. But it was riddled with German bunkers everywhere you looked, like mole mounds, overgrown and grassy and hard to see, but you could go in them, which was strange, so the beauty of the place was at odds with its history.

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The American cemetery sits high on a bluff above the sea and is a lovely and moving place to visit. The memorials are beautiful in recognition of the 10,000 who lost their lives there.

The end of the day brought us to St. Malo, Brittany where we found food and settled into our gite. On the following day, we awoke to gray mist which seemed to match the landscape of St. Malo – the sea, the sand, the fortifications, the small islands with fortresses and mossy hills to climb. The landscape is stunning. The walled city wonderful, like a fairy tale with pirates, knights, and perilous rocks. We walked all around and took the ferry to Dinard and back. We found another crepe place for lunch.

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On the agenda the next day was Mont Saint Michel, the 12th century island abbey seen on so many postcards. Driving there, like a mirage, you see it off in the distance for miles around, but to approach you must get across a great silt mud flat that has now been closed to automobiles, so you approach the Mont as any pilgrim would, by foot, or by a French shuttle bus. (they even offer a horse-drawn carriage experience) On the day we went, it was a national holiday in France and it was raining bishops and cardinals. Perhaps in a sense, it was a more authentic experience because of this. The single narrow medieval street that winds up to the abbey was wall to wall with pilgrims (tourists) slowly bulging by way of creperies, souvenir shops offering saintly tea towels, keychains, oven mitts, the iconic Mont emblazoned on all. Some devout folks had walked across the mud flats barefoot and were relishing the holy mud between their toes. All in all, it was blessedly miserable if you were a regular pilgrim just trying to enjoy a jaunt out to the mount.

Our last day, we decided to brave the back roads to Deauville where we would return our car and catch our train home to Paris. The night before, I had folded out my gigantic map of Calvados/Manche (Michelin map #303) the area we would be driving through and had mapped out what looked like the greenest most scenic route by way of Bayeux. En route, we stopped in a grocery and geared up with some Vital, chips, abricots, licorice, and chocolate. We passed orchards and chateau and sheep and got to Bayeaux after a car lunch ready to stretch our legs. The Bayeux tapestry is 230 feet long, was made in the 1070’s and is kinda like ‘reading’ a film strip or cartoon. The linen roll is embroidered with some 50 scenes, the action, the Norman conquest of England, unrolls with 2 main characters, Harold the King of England and William the Duke of Normandy. You receive a free audio guide and are led along the ‘script’ as the story unfolds. The kids loved it! It all culminates in a Battle, but we won’t spoil the ending…

Thru Vire, we stopped and bought brioche and late that afternoon, while we waited for our train, we unfolded the buttery paper and ate the soft bread out of the bag. Andrew had been in Kiev then Brussels, and we were all reunited that night in Paris. The next day more family arrived and we had dinner and recounted our travels. Andrew is now in Budapest but will finally take a holiday himself with us next week on a four day weekend. Our dog enjoyed hanging out with our lovely dog sitter while we were away, but she jumped 3 miles high when we walked in the door.

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