Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Comment Ca Va Update

“Comment ca va” means “how’s it going.” The blog has taken a bit of a back seat to real life lately. What we are doing on a daily basis is exciting to us because a.) it’s our life, and b.) we are doing it in France! However, we realize that it might not be all that exciting for the rest of you reading the blog. Anyway, here’s a quick update on each of us...

Irie is doing better attending school taught in french while knowing very little of the language. She and her friend Abby get private time with a french tutor 3 days/week and she likes that. She seems to like her teacher, and she is generally enthused about doing her homework. She has had a couple of issues with kids picking on her and Abby on the playground so we had a problem-solving meeting with her teacher to help her feel more confident about dealing with bullies. She also started piano lessons this past Weds. and practices multiple times per day. She seems to have the aptitude for it and we’ve told her if she wants to continue back home we’ll look into buying a piano.

Lisa has gone from feeling like an isolated outsider to a full schedule in two weeks time. She took a chance by calling a woman, Nathalie, at the local Vous Accueil (welcome center) who gave her her phone number and they hit it off immediately. Now they and two other women get together at least once/week to teach each other french and english. These same women are now part of her beginner’s hula class which she started teaching on Friday afternoons. She has also joined an arts and crafts class and a french perfection class with another set to begin in Oct.

I am enjoying my experience in France, but was sticking to what I felt comfortable doing, ie. shopping at the markets, cooking, and being a supportive husband and father. I feel my language was coming along much too slowly, so while waiting for french classes to begin I took to translating Le Petit Prince. I finally found a tutor (Irie’s tutor at school) who comes on Weds. morning, and have finally started the french class at the Vous Accueil on Tuesdays. While applying for yet another french class I went out on a limb and offered my phone number to a guy who worked there who was nice, talkative, spoke a tiny bit of english, and expressed an interest in the west coast of the U.S. He called me a couple days later and we are going to meet for a drink and see what happens. Meanwhile, I also called the local kite-surfing instructor and signed up for my first lesson. I had no problem handling the kite on the beach, but once in the water it was très difficile! I felt like I got hit by a truck that night, feeling sore muscles I forgot existed, but am looking forward to the next lesson.

The Vous Accueil has been an incredible resource as it led Lisa to Nathalie and her other new friends, gave Lisa the chance to teach hula while promoting it for her, led us to our french classes, and has outside events and day trips that have been fun and created new acquaintances. We also now have 2 potential babysitters! Last Sunday we attended a city-wide event called Fête du Sports - Irie got a chance to try roller-blading, track-and-field, and we all tried fencing. We also got invited to a little party last week which was informal and fun. Everyone was genuinely friendly and despite most of the conversation being in french (obviously), they all gave their limited english a go. As the night ended, somehow we started talking about American v. French TV and the hostess said she liked this show “sheeps.” Our American friend asked “you mean les moutons?” (which is literally french for “sheep”), and the hostess laughingly described the show about cops in California and Ponch until we got it...”Chips.” Laugh out loud funny, and very typical of the kind of misunderstandings that can occur from language barriers. Today, we went on a Vous Accueil bus trip to Monaco and had a great day, but that’s another post.

Thanks to everyone who sent support to Irie for her school woes, we are all very grateful! We got our first pieces of mail from the U.S. including our absentee ballots (but are still waiting for some packages). Also, family members and friends have begun booking dates to Europe and Fréjus. We think it will be interesting to have your American thoughts on our french lives and may even make you write about it right here. au revoir for now.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

La Vie de la Chienne (Maggie's Life), as seen by Lisa

Peter Mayle seems to be background reading 101 for life in the south of France. I have dutifully read “A Year in Provence”, “Toujours Provence” and “A Good Year” and brought “Encore Provence” and “A Dog’s Life.” I haven’t read it yet but I think the latter is a first-dog account of life here. Maggie’s story is not going to be her words, because, well, she doesn’t have words, and to substitute my language into her head seems silly, and dumb. So this is her story, as seen by me.

Maggie had a rough trip cross country. This was not known until she was able to stop riding in her crate, ie after we landed in Michigan. Three straight days of driving were hard on this dog. She rode in her crate so quietly that I would often ask Rick if he remembered to put the dog in the car after a pit stop. She sometimes slept, sometimes sat up looking out the back window, thinking her dog thoughts. She ate no dog food during these three days but did accept some pizza crust. She only ate after the Michigan arrival when bribed by chicken broth poured over her dog food. She also peed in Nana’s house, completely unlike her. So my medical, catastrophic mind speeds toward rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown from the immobility) and kidney failure. Just when we were preparing to take her to the vet she starts to drink, pee and poop outside, be interested in food, and perk up. She milks the chicken broth bribe several weeks into her stay.

Leaving her with Gramma and Grampa Browne was hard. We knew it would be several weeks and piles of (fingers crossed!) paperwork until she arrived in Paris. They took great care of her, their yard is the best she’ll see in a while. Between them, Aunt Kari, and Nana, Maggie managed to get on a plane to Paris, and we managed to find her at Charles de Gaulle, and I already told that story!!

Though she seemed healthy and perky after her arrival Maggie took a couple days to get into the swing of Paris apartment living. The cats rejected her immediately. One of them returned to MIA status, the other hissed and scratched at her, then took to a basket way up high. The guinea pig scurried into his den when Maggie would sniff the cage, of course after crapping all over his fresh sawdust bedding. Maggie got stares on the streets of Paris. “Un loup”--a wolf--muttered under the breath of fellow pedestrians; little children pulled away by their fearful grandmothers. She didn’t know what to make of the pee-stained sidewalks or little pieces of dog turd we would encounter on our walks. We dutifully carried our plastic bag everywhere, ready to clean up after her, but she wouldn’t go. Not even in the delicious forbidden grass of the park. We were again on poop watch. She was eating, so what goes in must come out....and it finally did. Finally, she realized our little courtyard was her spot. She trotted around, hopping frantically into the pots of bamboo and out again, finally settling on the concrete near the back gate, over a grate. That became the pee spot too. Clean up was a breeze! She even started to become Parisian Dog, becoming accustomed to the circular sandy areas surrounding the trees. Unfortunately the common image of “dog in restaurant” did not happen for us. We expected we could take her anywhere--metro, bus, stores, PARKS--but no, dogs “interdit” most everywhere. We could have taken her to a café or brasserie and sat outside with her under the table but she doesn’t lay placidly while being nipped at by tiny terriers. She scoots around our legs to hide, bewildered these toy dogs take her on. She is big enough that she would likely tip a tiny café table, or two or three, in the process.

Leaving Paris, Maggie reveled in space. Our Renault Trafic van that we took to Alsace was so spacious she got a whole seat to herself. The gîte where we stayed for a week was fenced and big enough for her to run around in, and had a grassy area for dignified and discreet elimination. She spent her days playing with children or napping in the shade under the stairs.

We are now in our permanent home, and like the rest of our accommodations we have slick tile floors. This makes for easy dog hair cleaning and cool floors for sleeping, but also makes for a slip-sliding dog when Maggie tries to move fast. The large and beautiful courtyard outside our building is dog friendly. Maggie has met a playful Doberman-mix (we see many more large dogs down here than in Paris) and a feisty Jack Russel who is called “vilain!” by his owner whenever he goes after Maggie. There are handy signs reminding us to clean up after the dog, as if!
Maggie has not yet adjusted to the weather. She has always been skittish with loud noise, and this includes thunder. Now we have discovered that she is afraid of wind, too. I hear there are many types of winds that blow through the south, so I’m not yet sure I can call the winds of September the Mistral. But we’ve had some intense windy days. There is something about the wind that scares her, to the point of climbing up next to someone (usually me) no matter what the tight surroundings. There is comfort in a den.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Update on our lives in Fréjus

Rick: We now have internet/email at home, as well as a landline phone and a cell phone. We are with Orange for the first three and Bouygues for the cell. If you don't have those numbers and would like them, email me. Getting services in France is a slow untimely process, but thanks to Lisa's patience and french skills we are now "connected" to the rest of the world again. Once connected, however, the wifi service is fantastic.

Irie is doing much better in school! The American friend helps immensely, and she only lives 3 blocks away so they see each other a lot, but she is also (slowly) making other friends too. It's more difficult, obviously, because of the language barrier, but she comes out at lunch and after school often holding hands with another little girl, and she is starting to learn their names. The big barrier now is Friday lunch - lunch is from 11:30-1:30 every day and we pick her up, walk the one block home and have lunch and down time together. We signed her up to stay at school on Friday and have lunch there (in hopes of getting some social time in french with the other kids), but she doesn't want to do it. The lunch is good, but she says she gets bored after eating as the playground has nothing to do. She is right, the playgrounds here SUCK! No jungle gym-type stuff, not even swings, just a big asphalt space with a couple of basketball hoops and soccer goals with no nets in either. We told her to try it for Sept. and then we'd decide what to do, but she just doesn't want to go. Otherwise, it's going well, she is into her homework, has really comprehended the french numbers, and seems excited to go each day. Plus, the schedule is nice here with no school on Weds., so she says it's like having two weekends every week, though she is going to begin piano lessons on Weds. with a teacher who will come to our apartment. We are so close to the school that as I type this I can hear the kids on the "playground." Oh yes, and she already had school pics, here's what she choose to wear:

We're already planning our first "vacation" when she has a 12-day break in late Oct-early Nov. We are looking into booking a peniche or barge/houseboat to sail the Canal du Midi for a week. This canal was ordered built by Louis XIV to create a shortcut between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. It opened in 1681 and has 103 locks, but never became the great shipping lane envisioned. It is busier now with the peniche vacation business than it ever was before. We are looking at cruising a southern section of the Canal, between Lattes and Argens, that would cover 16 of the locks. We estimate the peniche to be the size of the 5th wheel! Different digs than the Queen Mary 2!

We are enjoying life without a car. Sure, it would be more convenient at times, especially when wanting to buy "big items" such as going to the Jardinerie to start an herb garden - how does one transport plants, pots, and dirt home on a bike? Luckily, Irie's American friend's mom has a small car that I was able to borrow for that occasion. Otherwise, we have taken the bus to the city center which takes all of 7 minutes (we have also walked it), and I scored each of us used bikes in the past week. New bikes are pricey, so I scoured the Vide Greniers (literally: "empty attic", ie. collective rummage sales) and found Lisa's bike first for 30€ (plus 15€ for brake repairs), then my bike for 50€, and finally Irie's bike for 5€. A bike is perfect (at least in this weather) for getting anywhere nearby that we need to go including the two neighboring cities of St. Raphael and St. Aygulf.

The weather has been wonderful! When we arrived it was HOT...about 30℃ (about 86℉) during the day, and staying above 20℃ at night so we've had all the windows (which are really french doors) open all the time. Lately, it has been in the 24-25℃ range during the day, with nights in the high teens. One night we actually closed all the doors as it got to about 12℃ (54℉), which felt cold, but when the sun comes up, it doesn't take long to warm up. We go to the beach about 5 days a week, not counting our daily forays to the Blvd. d'Alger which is what I call the Beach Blvd or Boardwalk and where we go for the bakery, etc. It is a beautiful Mediterranean setting with sandy beaches, palm trees and water that is still in the low 20's℃. Ideally, it is great to walk down in the morning when the water is like glass and take a swim (with all the senior citizens), pick up a loaf of bread, then head home before getting Irie for lunch. By afternoon, often the wind picks up and the water gets choppy, but then all the windsurfers, small sailboats, and kite-surfers (of which I plan to be included very soon) come out to take advantage of it.

We applied for our CDS (carte de sejours) this Monday. When staying in the Euro zone for more than 3 months, one is required to apply for a visa (a lengthy process we went through this past spring). Normally upon arrival in that country one is then required to show up at your local prefecture (like a County Seat only for the national government) to apply for the CDS. We explained at our visa appointment in San Francisco that we wouldn't actually be arriving in our "home" town of Fréjus for about 8 weeks because we would be traveling so they wrote an exemption on our visa that is glued into our passports. So on Monday, we applied at the Prefecture and everything went very smoothly. The two women who helped us separately were very friendly and humorous. We were told it would be about 5 months until we received them which I find kind of funny as we'll only have about 5 months left before coming home. I joked with Lisa that for 275€ each (Irie doesn't need a CDS) we should just skip picking them as we have the stamped paper that says we have applied for the CDS, if asked.

Meanwhile, I am desperately looking for someone willing to teach beginner's french. You'd think it would be easy to France...yet it has been much easier to find french for Lisa's level. So it seems they expect anyone crazy enough to move to France must have some language skills. I actually do have some skills, but it doesn't show if I'm required to speak. My reading and listening skills have definitely improved, but speaking always comes along last. Then again, going off alone I have been able to barter for bikes, go to the bike store for repairs, handle the Jardinerie shopping, and buy all kinds of market, bakery and grocery items. So I can manage here, still finding a french teacher/class has been the slowest thing to fall into place. It's what I need most, but am finding least. Update: I found a tutor! Irie gets pulled from class a couple times/week to work with a specialized french teacher who is now going to come here to the apartment on Weds. to teach me for an hour. I'd still like to find a class, but that's a start.

I will let Lisa speak to her own experiences of the past week with regard to friends, french, and hula.

Lisa: The shift into a foreign country (oh so many weeks ago) was challenging. We went from being completely taken care of on the Queen Mary to having to navigate in French ourselves. This started quickly with getting the electricity fixed that was blown at our first apartment in Normandy. Paris seemed like a piece of cake with regard to transportation, internet, phone etc. The biggest challenge seemed to be finding Maggie at Charles de Gaulle and managing Irie's moods as she felt lonely from her friends. But we were like tourists in Paris, gobbling up the culture as well as the food. We continued to be tourists as we squeezed out the last week of August in Alsace before return to school. Then reality and culture shock hit again when we landed here. Were we tourists? Residents? We live here but know no one. The phone didn't work on arrival, we had no cell phone, no internet, and though I taped our names to the mailbox we got no mail. We started to become "official" when we showed up to the main school offices the day before La Rentrée. The place was a madhouse as parents were dealing with last minute registrations. Somehow I had the correct paperwork for Irie, and while I was prepared to argue why she didn't have a TB vaccine not one word was said about it. Pop! Out came a fiche with all her info and she was all set to start school. We owe a lot to our landlady Christine. We met she and her husband Marc weeks ago in Paris and they were thrilled to welcome us and help us in numerous ways. Christine made the initial contacts with the school offices. She also came down and spent several hours with us getting the phone and internet set up, going shopping, and dealing with the washing machine door that I broke. They are generous and available.

In downtown Fréjus we found the Office de Tourisme and the Mairie, where we gathered up a bunch of information. Between us and Michelle (our American friend) we share all the information we get. We found out about a welcoming organization "Fréjus Vous Accueille", which is a funny name for it because they want the membership to keep on coming, not just to be for newbies. It seems geared for retirees (I think this area is France's version of Fort Myers, Fla). We found our way there, learned about what they offer and I met Nathalie, my new French friend. She is our age, has 2 teen kids (possible baby-sitters!) and volunteers for this organization. She gave me her personal phone number and offered to show us whatever we needed. We've already met up for coffee and now there are 4 of us who are going to meet regularly to form a speaking group--2 French, 2 American. When I mentioned I dance and teach Hula she jumped at that, and I have met with the president of the organization and will be starting Hula classes next week. So far I have 3 students!

With regard to speaking French, my self evaluation of this varies. Sometimes I feel like a complete idiot, other times sharp. The French people I'm with don't correct me too much, so I too am looking for a class, something with some structure that will serve as scaffolding for my speaking out and about. Sometimes the sentences and expressions just flow out of me, sometimes I am busy translating in my head. As I speak daily that need to translate should be less and less, but my goal is to be able to express the complex stuff--opinions, feelings, psychological processes, analysis, metaphor--with ease.

It is very encouraging to see Irie picking it up already, without thinking too much about it. She will tell me something, or know a word, and when I ask her how she knows it she'll just look at me funny and say "I don't know, I just do." Right on!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Food in France

After two months in France, I am already able to pinpoint specific differences in how we live our daily lives. Food is a biggie. At home we certainly eat in a healthy manner. A light breakfast of fruit or cereal and coffee, and dinner that is light on meats and heavy on vegetables, pasta and rice. Lunches are my weakness as my job keeps me on the move so I often grab something quick, and thus less healthy.

Here in France, we are much more focused on the 3 main food groups: bread, cheese, and wine. The bread is unbelievably delicious, and fresh, and nearby. There are boulangeries it seems on every block, definitely many in every neighborhood, and everyone has their favorite. You see people carrying their baguettes on the sidewalks, on the metro, in their bike baskets, etc. Many bakeries offer baguette sandwiches consisting usually of ham and butter (jambon et buerre), ham and cheese (jambon et fromage) or sometimes sliced salami (saucisson). Occasionally they might include lettuce and tomato but even without they are always delicious and never dry. A sandwich without mayonnaise and mustard? And it’s not dry? How can that be? Sure, the butter helps, but I’m convinced it’s all about the fresh-baked bread. It has that nice crispy crust, with a substantial but not doughy inside. Then there are the specialty breads, the loaves of yummy goodness with the perfect taste and texture. Nothing like a slice of the local bakery’s campaillou with some butter, jam, nutella, local honey or peanut butter. We have already determined that when we get home, the local bakery is going to be a regular stop, but will it measure up? I already feel wistful about getting in my car to drive to one of the two bakeries in Ashland v. walking a block or two with multiple bakeries in that range.

Of course, every bakery also has mouth-watering treats such as éclaires, tarts, etc., and our favorite called the religieuse - a cathedral of a pastry packed with a creamy center and frosting of the same flavor. All of the above come in chocolate, but also café (my favorite!), fruit flavors, and specialties like pistachio or rose. The tarts are often topped high with fresh strawberries or raspberries, and they all look as good as they taste, suckering you into buying a treat you don’t really need but never regret. Our bakery in Paris made it easy by offering a lunch “menu” which included a baguette sandwich, a drink, and a dessert. We love the breads at our local bakery here in Fréjus, but the lunch specials aren't as great. The religieuse is not quite as good but they have this almond topped chocolate croissant that is delectable, so it's also a regular stop for coffee and treats!

Then there is the cheese. With bread, you can’t really go wrong, but cheese can be more of a guessing game. We are lovers of cheese, yet here in France they make cheeses that cause serious pause. They have over 500 cheeses that come from either cows (vache), goats (chevre), or sheep (brébis). We’ve had plenty of the first two, but none of the brébis...until a couple weeks ago. Lisa decided on a round pie-shaped package that we only ate about 1/3 of - it seriously tasted like the farm, the barn, like licking the sheep’s wool and rolling around in hay at the same time. We tried, but none of us liked it. That doesn’t mean we won’t try another brébis, but we’ll ask for advice first. Irie’s favorite is the typical chevre like we can get at home. Soft and delicious spread on fresh bread. However, we have also had a goat cheese that was very farm-like, that Irie didn’t like, and my theory is to not buy any cheeses that look like a brain.

We started our France adventure in Normandy and that region is the home of Camembert cheese. It is similar to a brie in texture and shape though a bit stronger, and delicious, and like a brie you eat the outer coating. However, be prepared for the whole residence to smell of a strong cheese the minute you open the fridge. I was warned by my friend Larry that many cheeses smell stronger than they taste and that early experience proved correct. However, the brébis didn’t have such strong a smell, but certainly that strong farm taste, so sometimes it can work in the opposite way. Here in Paris, at the outdoor market, Lisa asked for a semi-mild cheese that would melt well and we have fallen in love with the tomme de Savoie cheeses. They come in a big round loaf with a crust that is not eaten. The texture is the softness of a mozzarella with smaller holes than a swiss. We took one loaded with cumin to Versailles, and have loved them all. A similar cheese, St. Albray is very similar. Lisa lists “blue cheese” as one of her 5 favorite foods, and here the Roquefort is to die for! Stronger then American blue cheeses, only a little is needed on bread or in a crêpe to create the desired taste. We also found it used as a moules (mussels) sauce and it’s our favorite by far! Even Irie loved them, and we all lapped up the leftover sauce with spoons, a cheese “soup” from the heavens. I feel like we need to get a bit more daring in our cheese selections now that we’ve become regular users of the above, but I have yet to find a fromagerie that allows tasting.

We are spoiled by the world-class inexpensive wines. Available in every restaurant, grocery stores, and specialty shops like Nicolas, it’s more a matter of deciding what to pick. The stores have bottles priced anywhere from 2€ on up, with the vast majority between 4€ and 8€. We’ve tried a couple of the cheap bottles and while not bad, they are clearly not as complex as the mid-range, but for $3 it was difficult to complain. We’ve had great success with mid-range wines, whether red, white, or rose, and have enjoyed trying wines from the various terroirs: alsace, bourgogne, côtes de Rhône, sud-oest, val loire, etc. We fell in love with the Alsace region and their wines and they make excellent Pinots, Reislings, Gerwurtztraminers, and their version of champagne called Cremant. The val Loire makes another one of our favorite whites, Vouvray. Here’s a map of the various regions and what they produce: Wines by region Another example: real Champagne can only come from the Champagne region in northeast France. It is not cheap. We have had two bottles and paid about 20€ each which is on the inexpensive end for champagne, but they have both been excellent and the feel is different than from wine. Yet other regions make their own version of Champagne (Brut and Cremant) that are much cheaper but taste very good as well. The other thing we’ve both noticed is that while some American wines give us headaches, here we have had no such problem yet we are not sure why. Between a happy hour glass, another with dinner, and one after dinner or with dessert, it’s easy to polish off a bottle in an evening. I am happily tasting and learning about the multitude of wine choices here. We now look forward to discovering the wines of Provence and the south! Having been more of a beer drinker at home (France is not known for it’s beer making), when I’m in the mood for beer here, its usually a Belgian ale like Leffe or Grimbergen which are easy to find in pubs and grocery stores.

Meals we are eating on a regular basis include crêpes, salad nicoise, moules frites, pork chops with sauteed veggies like eggplant and zucchini, steamed fish with rice and greens beans or another veggie, pizza, egg scrambles with cheese potatoes and veggies, typical pasta dishes, and baguette sandwiches with sauteed veggies and goat cheese, and lots of ice cream. I have even made a ratatouille and a shrimp étouffée. Of course, all the meals include lots of bread, olives (for which our region is known) and/or cheese. For breakfast: cereal, lots of fruit or bread with nutella, honey or jam, and coffee of course. Being on sabbatical, it seems that a large portion of our daily lives revolves around going to the market, planning meals, and eating! The market here on the beach boulevard is an amazing delight of local olives, sundried tomatoes, spices, fresh fruits and veggies, and the smells of the rotisserie chickens, seafood paella, etc. mean lunches-to-go on the beach every Sunday. Bon appetit!

PS. UPDATE! We now have internet at home! I have sent emails to those who were bouncing back, and they have not bounced this time, so hopefully we are all set.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Our New Home

After an incredible 11-week journey we arrived in Fréjus on Sat. August 30, our home for the next 10 months. By incredible, I mean: challenging, fun, new, old, joyful, maddening, alien, familiar, refreshing, exhausting, spontaneous, planned, difficult, relaxed, educational, inspirational, chaotic, unbelievable and emotional. How can one plan so thoroughly for such a year and have so many unexpected occurrences? Should I be relieved or freaked out that life can still be so full of surprises? I am thankful I had the foresight to set up this blog to document our travels and travails, but as much as it does that, how much went unshared and will be lost to the sands of time? How much will stick like glue to my brain cells that won’t be forgotten, even if I want them to be? Does Lisa feel the same way? At least she, as a participating adult had a choice in this momentous year, but what about Irie? It has been a roller coaster ride of a summer for her - from the highs of playing with cousins, traveling across two continents and an ocean, visiting Mont St. Michel and climbing the Eiffel Tower to the lows of saying we are wrecking her life, she doesn’t want to be here, fits on the streets of Paris, and her first day of school. Will she, as I believe, adjust and remember the incredible joy and experiences of the adventure we took her on? After Day One of her first day in a French Public School, I can only hope so...but more on that later.

Our arrival, after an 8-hour drive from Alsace was late enough in the day that all we wanted was to get the van unloaded and to start to acquaint ourselves with our new home. We found rue André Lazès easily, could tell from the pictures online that we were at the correct apartment complex, and the clicker given to us by the Chantriers opened the gate. It’s sunny and hot and Maggie needs out right away and we immediately find the big grassy courtyard where another dog is roaming off leash. Great, this will be a regular haunt for Maggie. But where the hell is our apartment? Our apartment inspection papers say B1, yet there is no such building. We are tired, hungry, hot, and feel like we still have a ton to do, but here we are wandering around a strange apt. complex with no idea where we belong. Somehow (systematically trying out keys, building to building and peering at names on mailboxes) we finally figure it out, and the first order of business is to open up all the shutters and doors and get some air flowing. Actually the first order of business was to figure out how to open all the shutters and doors. Did I say it was hot? It’s almost September and summer has finally arrived for us! Meanwhile, all those bags we’ve been lugging from Oregon to Michigan to Baltimore to NY onto the QM2, to England, to Granville to Paris to Merxheim and finally to Fréjus need unloading one last time.

We are all excited, but do not have time to revel in our “permanent” surroundings. It is Saturday night and the rental van is due back at 9 am on Sunday morning. We have learned enough about France by now to realize that supermarkets are not open on Sunday and most gas stations need a European credit card (which we still do not have - another long story) on Sunday when no attendants are working, so off we go on more errands. Lucky dog gets to stay home. After a 30-minute adventure getting the tank filled, we sight a Picard store which carries all kinds of delightful frozen foods (from frozen veggies to ice cream to meat to prepared entrees) and get there 5 minutes before closing time. Serendipity, a stroke of good luck, so we skip the grocery store and head home, frozen lasagna for dinner! The freezer is packed to the point of bursting and the fridge is empty but who cares, let’s put the lasagna in the oven and take a quick walk down to the beach! It is a Saturday night, and the beachfront boulevard is hopping. With only two days until La Rentrée we wonder how quickly that will change. Since it’s almost dark we don’t dress to swim, but the sand feels fine and the water is warm on our feet. Here we are - the south of France! The Mediterranean! Can you believe it, we’re here! On the the way home, we walk past the supermarket and a sign says they are open on Sunday mornings...another stroke of good luck. Home for lasagna and unpacking suitcases, we go to bed late, tired, but pretty damn satisfied.

In the morning, it’s off to return the van in neighboring St. Raphaël. We figure it’s early in the morning so let’s drive right along the beach and enjoy the view, only to find the boulevard closed for a market. A massive market. After returning the van we take a walk out on St. Raphaël’s pier/park which extends like a thumb into the bay and gives us a great view out to a small group of islands as well as back towards Fréjus plage (see pics). The beachfront boulevard which connects St. Raphaël to Fréjus plage is closed to traffic and packed with booths of arts and crafts, clothing and food. Fresh fruits and veggies - yeah, another score! Having filled three bags Lisa and Irie head home while I head to the still-open supermarket to complete our food needs for awhile.

The apartment is cute and quaint, and full of stuff. The owners are world travelers and the decor is emblematic of their adventures. The walls are full of eclectic paintings and weavings of various styles and from various locales. Unique chandelier-type lights hang from the ceilings in each room. Big consoles and little end tables are everywhere and loaded with keepsakes and knick-knacks, almost all of the breakable variety. With a dog and Irie (of the world class “set-ups”, ie. arranging small items in imaginary motifs) we are hoping we can store these away. Not only do we not want such precious items to get broken, but we need the space for living. The veranda has a nice view of the plush courtyard and has an automated awning that extends so the sun doesn’t beat directly into the apt. in the afternoon. With all the doors open to the veranda the apt. stays airy and comfortable and so far we have eaten all our meals out there. Also, there is a Pleyel upright piano which Irie has already taken to playing quite a bit - piano lessons are in her future. Discovering the kitchen and it’s supplies is the next big task, but overall we are very happy with our new home and the location is ideal. The beach is 3 short blocks away, the grocery store two blocks away, and Irie’s school is right across the street. First days in Fréjus photo gallery

That brings us to the last and most important issue, Irie and her acclimating into a new school. Not only is she “the new kid” but she doesn’t even speak their language. She has been nervous and anxious about it all summer, which I’m certain is why she has been acting out so much. Doesn’t everyone get irritable and grumpy when scared? On Monday, we went downtown to the busy central office to register her for school. School goes from 8:30 - 11:30 and 1:30 - 4:30 M, T, Th, and Fr, no school on Weds. with a two-hour lunch. We tried to sign her up for lunches figuring this will be her chance to socialize, make friends, and learn french informally, but we could only get Fridays. They said to check back mid-Oct. for more days. While walking to the beach on Sunday, we read the notices at the school so knew that she needed to be there at 8:20 am on Tuesday and that all the new students needed to wait at a separate entrance to be admitted in after the other students.

Upon approaching, it was clearly the first day of school with kids and parents filtering in from every direction. It is so nice to walk and not be in the driving chaos that we know at Walker School. We went to the entrance that had less kids and Lisa surveyed the different moms deciding who to ask if we were in the right place. The woman she picked was a dream come true for Irie as both moms realized they were Americans and Irie immediately had an English-speaking playmate, Abigail. This was a huge surprise as we had been warned that Irie would probably be the lone English speaker and we thought it set the tone for a successful first day at school. Abigail is a year older, but the Director put them in the same class only asking that they not sit together as learning French needed to be a priority. (Abigail and her mom, Michelle, are from Atlanta). We obviously agreed, though the girls didn’t necessarily like it. The teacher introduced herself, tried to assure us that they would learn quickly, and off we went leaving two wide-eyed girls alone in a foreign environment in their new classroom. We picked her up at 11:30 and took her out to lunch, as promised. We had a very nice lunch at a beachside restaurant, but Irie was having some difficulty. She felt isolated by the language difference and two boys had teased her and Abigail during recess (“Americains, Americains”). We explained that that wasn’t really an insult and the best response would be “Oui, et bien?” (Yeah, so?) Little girls came up and said “friends?” and some wanted to learn English from Irie and Abigail. But Irie freezes at positive as well as negative interactions. She was still trepidacious upon returning after lunch but knowing Abigail would be there made a big difference.

Arriving at 4:30 for pick-up we laughed at the crazy manner in which parents were crowding the entrance/exit area looking eagerly for their kid(s). In Ashland, parents wait out in the playground, outside the classroom in the hall, or even go IN the classroom to get their children. Here, parents are specifically asked not to go onto the school grounds so the exit scene was chaotic and full as each classroom filed out onto the sidewalk. Irie’s class was near the end, I saw her teacher, Abigail appeared...but no Irie. Lisa squeezed through the mass of parents, through the gate and approached the teacher, who immediately recognized her from the morning and invited discussion about what was going on with Irie. Seconds later Irie came down the stairs, clearly upset and promptly tripped over another girl. That fall was the opening needed for the floodgates of tears about her day. Ten minutes before the end of the day the teachers made a decision that this level was too difficult for her. Essentially we had stuck her into 4th grade in a foreign language. The teacher was very kind, worked with her all day, but said she didn’t have the math skills she needed to be in this level. Irie felt humiliated and more alone than ever. She complained the new class looked like kindergarten (but only had seen the kids for a few minutes and they were all seated). Her new teacher, M. Fedoul was also kind. Between the first teacher and the second they explained that she was too overwhelmed and needed to be in the lower level (which equates to a 2nd/3rd grade mix). They both seemed genuinely interested in her well-being. M. Fedoul is youthful, energetic and was wearing flipflops. He speaks some English and isn’t intimidated about using it, and wants Irie to help him improve. He wants her to talk to the class about Oregon when they return on Thursday. She cried and cried, it was the worst day of her life.

Our hearts ached but we stayed upbeat and positive, telling her how proud we were of her, reminding her what her Spanish speaking friends successfully faced back in Ashland, and telling her stories of when we felt embarrassed and incompetent. Luckily, with school starting on Tues., we had the next day off which we hoped would allow Irie time to settle down and adjust. Instead, she spent all of Weds. worrying and fretting, and saying she didn’t want to go back to school. As a teacher and a psychiatrist we were trying all the tricks of the trade, but our têtu daughter was buying none of it. While watching Irie suffer so badly was heartbreaking, we also made it clear that she was not giving up that easily and would be going to school come Thurs. morning. Some of the key points we made were that she is a smart, capable girl and that we are not concerned with grades, math (a key point of concern to her for some reason) or any subject. except for learning French; that she knows how to enjoy life, so she needed to figure out a way to look at the positive parts of the experience; and that there were plenty of nice people everywhere, including here, which means there are friends waiting to be made. Thurs. morning we dropped her off at the front gate and she went in with an anxious attitude, while we felt terrible. She came out at lunch holding hands with a little French girl (but didn’t even know her name) and said the morning was ok.

I took her home to make her favorite french meal...crêpes. I make the batter from scratch and we usually each have a main course crêpe of cheese, mushrooms and spinach, and then share a dessert crêpe of sliced bananas, nutella and honey. With a two-hour lunch, she actually seemed bored and ready to go back to school. I am now finishing this post on the weekend and she made it through Thurs. and Fri. (including staying for lunch on Fri.) with each day getting better. She came out Thurs. afternoon holding another girl’s hand and learned that the first girl’s name was Tia. She actually admitted her favorite part of her meal at lunch on Friday was salad! She also had fish with a little mussel on top. She seems to be settling in to the routine, part of which includes going to the beach everyday after school, and has done her homework (writing cursive in French) for tomorrow. This has been an incredibly emotional experience for us all but we are very proud of our brave girl and hope someday she will actually appreciate this experience. As my friend (and french teacher) M. McKinney says, “she’ll thank you when she’s 25.”

Friday, September 5, 2008

Three Artists (by Rick AND Lisa)

We had the luxurious opportunity to visit the works of 3 artists, solely exhibited in their own space, on 4 separate occasions. (One of these deserved a repeat! More to follow.)

The first of these tours was Atelier Brancusi. This fabulous workshop (atelier) was envisioned and bequeathed to the French State by Constantin Brancusi, prior to his death. He was originally from Romania and adopted France as his own. This atelier is located on the grounds of the Musée d’Art Moderne (Centre Pompidou, aka Beaubourg). The building is a copy of his actual atelier (“exactly as it stood on the day of his death”) where he lived and worked, seemingly not really dividing the two. His works and tools are placed just so, as if he only stepped out for a minute. Seeing the minute living space (a loft really) amongst the explosion of creativity made us wonder what kind of life he really had.

Rick: Was he an artist 24 /7, did he have a love life, outside interests, did he do anything aside from create?
Lisa: Maybe all artists are artists 24/7. I’m an interpersonal psychiatrist and view the world through relationships, artists included. I’m always wondering what influenced an artist to paint this, or sculpt that, or get into a particular series.
Rick: So knowing next to nothing about Brancusi’s personal life, I wonder what inspired him, caused him to create what he did, how he did. One can have a unique vision without interacting with the outside world, but having interactions could thus create a different vision. Where did his influences come from?
Lisa: I have always loved this sculptor, admiring his cool clean lines, especially the Muse series, and whenever I’m in a modern art museum I look for Brancusi sculptures. If there are any, and there usually aren’t, they are few. Now I know why. This guy was so into composition that his sculptures didn’t exist solely as themselves, they needed to be grouped together. The atelier demonstrates this dramatically. While he worked he surrounded himself with pieces already finished and placed JUST SO in proportion to each other. Unlike other artists who sent off their works to this museum or that commission, Brancusi seemed into it solely for the art, and kept his pieces.
Rick: Yes, I enjoyed learning that he even obsessed about the bases and columns on which his pieces were displayed. He was deeply into the spatial relationships, of his art and his space, so even though he lived there, his studio was also the art gallery in which he showed the world his creations. He wanted everything to be perfect, at least to him, and the recreation of his studio really allows even a casual observer of art (like myself) to see the importance of space...and how cohesive it felt for me.
Lisa: Not only the placement of the objects amongst themselves, but the neatly arranged tools, the lighting, the way the limitless columns reached up to the sky, who wouldn’t want to work in a place like that?
Rick: Well, I tend to move fast, which creates the illusion of clumsiness, so I’m not sure they should let me into that place :) I’ll stay on the periphery and enjoy the visuals even though I’d love to put my hands of some of his sculptures. I agree with what Lisa said earlier about his clean lines, and will add that the slender vertical nature of many of his sculptures (partly because so many were done in marble) creates an effect of smoothness, flight, of reaching to the sky. I really enjoyed the Atelier.

We went up to the Hôtel Salé where the Musée Picasso is housed. This was special, as we were on a date, leaving Irie with the hip half-French, half-Dutch babysitter. The Hôtel (city mansion) is located in the trendy 4th arrondissement, so the neighborhood and Hôtel were lovely to see. The museum winds you about progressively through Picasso’s various influences and periods. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures so the recollection of this tour, weeks later, is dimming. Maybe too, because it was disappointing. There was very little of his cubist style. There is much more of his renowned cubist work in Centre Pompidou.

Lisa: I love cubism, they way Picasso can deconstruct a person or an object into fragments, yet still retains the wholeness. He and Braque are side by side at Centre Pompidou and I can just imagine them in their day scrambling to compete in who can chop up a still life. “Can I borrow that guitar after you’re done?” I also love the way Picasso had a limited palette during his best (according to me) cubist period but that the variation in brown and grey hues seemed limitless. When I see green dots thrown in, à la Seurat, YUCK!
Rick: I too was underwhelmed with the Picasso Musée (though the date was très agréable) because of the lack of those later-era paintings with their fantastic distorted yet geometric shapes. Like Brancusi (or Rodin) he would do endless works on the same theme, such as the guitars, goats, and his various poses of women. Was it that they could never get it quite right, or that they fell in love with the creation so used it over and over? With Picasso, I was struck with his obsessive desire to paint women in almost grotesque distortions and wondered if he had a deep-seeded hostility towards the opposite sex.
Lisa: Yea, didn’t really like the goats. And those women, all chopped up and highly sexualized, and to me, objectified. When we browsed through the bookshop and you read that quote about how he knew he had achieved the final product when he “smelled the sex”, yuck again. Interesting that Picasso stayed in Paris all through the German occupation, working away. Yet his masterpiece “Guernica” shows his horror at war. And then the photographs of him in the museum: little old man with those almond eyes and striped sailor shirt, looks harmless. No wonder this museum trip went fuzzy for me--too much to try to make sense of, and not.

So finally we get to Rodin, also housed in his own Hôtel, (Hôtel Biron). Unlike Picasso and the Hôtel Salé, Rodin actually rented out part of this building and prior to his death in 1917 bequeathed his works to the French State. He also made arrangements to display this treasure in the Hôtel Biron. Unlike Brancusi, Rodin had items by other artists in his collection. We learned he often traded art. We wondered what pieces of sculpture van Gogh and Renoir each received for the paintings Rodin had of theirs.

Lisa: I fell in love with this place immediately. First of all, I was sent out with love and good wishes for a day alone. I chose to start in the garden. It was a glorious day--sunny, not too hot, and I turned to see The Thinker with a background of the golden dome of Les Invalides and the top 1/3 of the Tour Eiffel. These outdoor sculptures are larger than life and well placed in this grand and beautiful garden. There were even lounge chairs! Inside the Hôtel are themed rooms. Many of his works such as Walking Man and The Age of Bronze are unto themselves. But there are many smaller versions and models of the gigantic ones outside. This helped to understand the motivation and arduous craftsmanship and tie it all together, especially for massive pieces like The Gates of Hell.
Rick: His work does the exact opposite for me of Picasso. I don’t feel any objectification or hyper-sexuality at play, but instead love, sensuality and often the exact opposite: sorrow and despair. He is renowned for his life-like sculptures, accurate to the tiniest detail. Yet while his busts are full of emotion and delicate features that clearly show why he was acclaimed, many were commissioned by wealthy friends and patrons, so are of less interest to me as they were work-for-pay as opposed to creating because he was moved. Even though his anatomical figures evoke scientific study they are so accurate, that doesn’t account for the incredible beauty (or horror) and emotions that emanate from his figures. The Muse (the inner motivator of an artist) was clearly a force in Rodin’s work.
Lisa: Rodin’s sculptures of Balzac and Hugo (worked and reworked many times), as well as the Three Shades and Berghers of Calais, are such strong male figures that I was swayed away from the “female as object” drive for this man. His women were often paired with men, in loving, sumptuous poses. In fact, some pairs he intended for The Gates of Hell he later left out, as there was too much love and tenderness in them. His commissioned busts, while lovely, nowhere near matched the emotional content he evoked in the faces modeled or inspired by Camille Claudel.
Rick: He definitely sculpted as many men as women, if not more, most completely naked, some with robes or cloaks. My favorites are those which include both genders and are unclothed because of his ability to show such precise proportions, musculature, and yet also an artist’s vision for the pose or posture of the figures. The Kiss and Eternal Springtime evoke wonderful feelings of connectedness. The word “eternal” represents Rodin (and Claudel) perfectly for me as these sculptures do such a wonderful job of evoking feelings that seem infinite, ever-lasting. Lisa and I visited separately, yet these sculptures, this Museum, constantly made me think of Lisa and wish she was there with me. She said the same thing returning from her initial visit, so we took Irie and went back for a repeat visit together. It is now my favorite museum in Paris!
Lisa: A driving force for me in visiting this museum was his relationship with Camille Claudel. She was a student of Rodin, became an obsession for him, and influenced him throughout his life. When he made arrangements for the museum, long after their break up, he made sure her work had dedicated space there. She had been locked away in a psychiatric hospital and remained there until her death in the 1940s. Her room is amazing. She was immensely talented, and the ambivalent mix of passion, love, devotion, loss, and anguish is obvious in this room. I heard a sculptor speak at a conference once and he remarked that sculpting (or art in general) and passionate love cannot coexist. So the sculptor will often give up or avoid that kind of love to keep the art he or she is driven to do. I don’t think the intense personalities of Rodin and Camille could coexist in the same space. He left the relationship to pursue the art, she left sanity.
Rick: I find it a bit sad that an artist must give up passionate love to be creative. I would prefer to believe that love can provoke new art and vision, but how do these three artists prove or disprove the above? Brancusi seemed isolated, Picasso moved from one love interest to another, and Rodin had the constant supportive force of Rose mixed with the intense affair with Camille. What did these artists derive from the passions in their lives? Or did the art drive the destiny of their private lives? I’m not sure it matters, the impact of their art is vivid and lasting, but it is a provocative question for those interested in the art AND the artists’ relationships.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Alsace Fairyland (by Lisa) UPDATED with photos!

Search your imagination for an image of the French/German border (the valley bound by the Vosges Mountains to the West and the Black Forest to the East) and every stereotype is indeed true. The pristine villages of half-timber houses, courtyard fountains, winding passages, red tile roofs, hanging flower baskets, citizens on bikes, central cathedrals. And while we didn’t stumble into the Maginot Line (weren’t even asked to show passports crossing the border to Germany) nor see abandoned tanks from France and Germany’s repeated fighting in this region, there were fighter jets overhead, lots of them. We first thought they might be patrolling the border, but then learned there is a military flight school near our village.

The weather was great, and being in a valley like that reminded us of home. I had an attachment to Alsace before even arriving. Maybe because we were seriously thinking of living here, maybe because I admire the region’s tenacity given all the conflict seen at this crossroads of Europe. This region seems to be thriving. Colmar and Mulhouse are adorable small towns where it’s easy to wind your way through narrow streets admiring the architecture. Colmar is the birthplace of Bartholdi, sculptor of our Statue of Liberty. Colmar also saw Rick in Beer Heaven--he found a wine shop with a beer room with 300 beers and Irie and I left him there to drool and take his time picking out a selection of mostly Belgian, some German, and no French beer. Ken, take a look at the pics and decide how you want to bien profiter (take advantage) when you are here. Irie found her way to Gingerbread Heaven and we took our time picking out little cookies and macarons. In Mulhouse we came upon the ubiquitous merry go round. By this time Irie is having to use her own money to ride. Not only did she ride but she found out the price, bought her ticket and arranged her ride all on her own. We were nearby, supervising from a café.

We planned a day trip to Strasbourg for the end of the week. By this time we were friendly enough with the family next door that we could leave Maggie outside in the compound. They were pleased to look after her. I really looked forward to seeing this city, mostly because it already seemed familiar from all our research. It really was postcard perfect on this sunny late summer day and I had stabs of doubting our decision. Not only is Strasbourg beautiful, it is vibrant and cosmopolitan without being fussy or uppity. There was a certain energy to it that seemed very livable. Maybe the energy came from the candy store that Irie swore must be like Honeyduke’s from Harry Potter. Instead of Every Flavor Beans they had Every Flavor Caramels and Every Flavor Suckers (good suckers). I kept reminding myself that the rivers Ill and Rhine aside, Strasbourg is landlocked, and very cold and grey in winter. I would suffer. We are already considering a train trip up for a sparkly and enchanting pre-Christmas weekend.

Alsace is also famous for its wine road which winds throughout the valley through charming villages, one after another. Our last day in Alsace we left Irie with the neighboring family and had a date wine-tasting.
View Larger Map
The layout of the vineyards is gorgeous--lush, green and oh-so organized. The villages dot themselves at the edge of the Vosges and it’s an embarrassment of riches with the number of wineries. How to choose? No method really, just drive into a village, find a place to park and look for the signs that say déguster et vente (tasting and sales). The first stop caught the elderly vintner off guard, as I think he said his son and daughter in law usually man le cave. I think we woke him from a nap. The family tree on the wall traced back to the 1600s. The second guy was our age, and we interrupted him in his work, but was very happy to chat and keep pouring. He has an award winning Pinot Gris, and a Grand Cru Pinot Gris, which we loved. The first sensation of this one was “peaches.” He also taught us about the Alsatian Pinot Noir--which is like a cotton coverlet compared to the goose down comforter that is the Oregon Pinot Noir. They actually chill this red, which is more like a rosé, but don’t think of blush wine!! But you don’t drink it straight out of the fridge, all the taste is lost, and you don’t let it come to room temp either. This guy was great, because his main take home message was there is no right or wrong way--you just like what you like. The third one seemed surprised to have any visitors at all. He was welcoming nevertheless (they all were). He had several awards too, but they were from the 80’s. We asked to try a Muscat, not being familiar with this grape, and he hesitated. He said it was a project of his son’s, and while we were free to taste it, it wasn’t bottled. “It lacks something,” he said. Yes, it lacked something. It also had something. “Armpit” on first whiff, “sausage” on tasting it (Hi to my friend Kim who used to pour for Paschal, and for whom I loved to charm with my tasting descriptions). That one went into the bucket. He did have a cremant (sparkling wine) and a Riesling that was good. I am happy to report the Rieslings here are dry. We learned German Rieslings are sweeter and that German wine tends to be drunk by Germans. This guy also had a lovey-dovey cat and a wife who told us about her daughter who had just moved to Canton, Ohio for 3 years. We gave our condolences. During each of our 3 visits I introduced ourselves as from Oregon, mentioned the wines there, and then had to explain where Oregon is. Oh yes, we are also purchasing these treasures for 10€ or less per bottle. At the grocery store it’s even less. As I catalogue my French experience for later comparison to things at home I am already wincing at the cost of French wine at my local co-op.

(PS. to family: lots of emails bouncing back, specifically kari, brenda, norm and ken. Not sure why, but hopefully you'll see this. Kari, talk to Ken about flight deals. Ken, you are definitely welcome to stay, and that time is open. I hope to have internet at the apt. in about a week. -Rick)