Archive for March, 2008

the pink of Provence

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

Since I was still struggling with a migraine, (ok, and because my morning marketing was such a bust) I let Bill decide how we’d spend the afternoon. He actually went with my original plan: to drive to a place almost to the coast about an hour and a half away called Camargue where I’d read there are thousands of flamingos. The concern was that not a single person Bill talked to in his office had ever even heard of the place. French people. One asked if the birds would even be there, or if they migrate for winter and could still be gone. Undaunted, we got in the car and headed that way.

From the outside, it didn’t look like much. We paid our 18 Euros or whatever it was and went in.

At the front there are several cages of birds. Big birds. No, not the yellow kind from Sesame Street. But kinds you don’t see every day, like giant owls and falcons.

We followed the map, which was little more than lines drawn around a couple of lakes, and soon found what we’d gone in search of. Flamingos. Hundreds of them. The park is at their natural habitat so the birds weren’t in any caged area. They could fly (they’re sort of funny to watch). I suppose they could leave if they wanted; there must be something done to keep them there even with tourists gawking at them all day. At every turn for the next hour or so, we saw bunches of the light pink birds. They are noisy things. Some were fighting. Some were dancing around with their heads in the water, looking for food. You could walk right up to the edge of the water to see them. I was sort of amazed I didn’t see any of the people do something stupid like stick their hand out for the birds to bite. I’m even more amazed that no one has heard of this place. It was well worth the trip.

hoppity hop hop

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

It’s a good thing that Santa and the Easter Bunny are friends. Santa called up the Easter Bunny and told him where he could find Kaitlyn, since we wouldn’t be at home. And unlike DHL, he found her with no problem.

Kaitlyn woke up, went into her room (had to go into it since she hadn’t been sleeping in it) and squealed with delight. The bunny brought her an activity book, a special Easter stained glass coloring book and a dress-up-a-princess book with stickers and pretty paper and stencils for skirts and tops. But the bunny did not bring the pencil, scissors or glue needed to actually dress up any of the princesses. Stores here already aren’t open on Sunday. Easter Sunday didn’t mean more than usual were open, either. But we managed to find one small supermarket that was open and had a glue stick, children’s scissors and pencils. Thank goodness. Once we had those treasures in hand, we rushed to lunch where Kaitlyn could assemble her first princess while waiting for her food to arrive.

to market, to market

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

For the record, Kaitlyn slept in our bed. Again. So I slept in her bed, since my migraine was keeping me awake. I figured I’d flip and flop around without bothering everyone else.

I am obsessed with going to markets. I always think I’m going to find some magical, local item that I’d never find anywhere else. Something I can buy and take home and put on display and tell everyone “oh, that? I found it at this charming little market in Provence.” (or wherever) But the truth is, I’m yet to find a market that even comes close to being able to fulfill that dream. Still… I dragged Bill and Kaitlyn to not one but two markets today.

The first was a food market. I knew I wasn’t going to find anything I could really take home. But you hear so much about the wonderful food in Provence… all the fresh vegetables… I wanted to see what they had to offer. It did all look good. There were a lot of butcher shops; they all were well-stocked with lamb for Easter. Kaitlyn cried because none of the fish places had prepared shrimp she could walk around and eat. One had mussles, but she turned her nose up at that French favorite. She settled on a potato thing: a baked mini-mountain of mashed potatoes. She liked it even though it was cold.

Then Bill navigated the streets to find our way to the weekly flea market. This is where I envisioned authentic old French things. They had authentic old French things alright. Dirty old stuffed toys (some with tags from a local fast food restaurant), dirty old shoes, dirty old crap in general. It didn’t take us long to walk past all that and declare that I’ll never learn.

can I buy something?

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

Kaitlyn’s obsession with shopping while we’re on vacation apparently was not a British phenomenon. (If you don’t remember, she spent the whole of our time in England asking to go shopping.) She started the day asking to buy something and it was her refrain for the day.

We told her she could pick out one thing. ONE. After she patiently went to the palace (I told her it was a palace and while we were in the middle of it she demanded to know where this palace was. I’m telling you, it isn’t palatial.) She scoured the gift shops at the palace and the bridge. There she picked out a giant jewelery box. It had a painting of a castle, a few drawers, and a little dancing couple when you open the top. It was 30 Euros, so we steered her toward the idea of doing a little more shopping before deciding. She also thought a flute she saw would be nice; that was vetoed with no discussion.

After lunch, Bill and I took Kaitlyn on her promised shopping excursion. The second shop we went into had just the thing she wanted: a jewelry box. It has a picture of a ballerina on it, is about a third the size of the one she found earlier, there’s a twirling ballerina when you open it up… and it’s 25 Euros. But we bought it. So she’d stop begging us to go shopping.

She held tight to the bag holding her precious new box when we hit our next tourist trap: the little train. It’s the same sort of little tourist train I rode last summer here in Grenoble. You get on, pay too much, then ride around the town listening to a recording about what you’re riding past. She loved it. I was amazed at the incredibly narrow streets that thing goes down. You definitely are well advised to keep your fingers inside the train at all times.

The train took us past a little park with bikes for little kids to ride. So that was our next destination. The bikes are really little trikes behind plastic horses… to turn the bike you have to pull the reign on the horse. Kaitlyn tried but got too frustrated by it. She parked her horse, patted its nose and thanked it, then ordered some barbe-a-papa. (literally: dad’s beard. Actually: cotton candy)

By the time we left the park, we realized we had on our hands one tired five year old. A five year old far too tired to sit through a meal at a restaurant. The solution was to take food back to our hotel room. But places with carry-out are few and far between in France. Kaitlyn and Bill found theirs no problem: McDonalds. We had McDonalds last night in the car, so I was not thrilled about dumping another giant blob of grease on my stomach. I held out. And almost ended up going hungry. Finally, nearly at the hotel, we found a place making crepes. I think I was the last person to order before they closed for the night. (and it wasn’t that late.. maybe 6:00) Not quite the Provincial meal I’d imagined. But, then again, since I left my tour books at home, I couldn’t exactly propose a good alternative. And even if I could, I wasn’t about to with Kaitlyn being as tired as she was.

We spent Saturday night in Provence eating take out in a hotel room without a television. What a dream trip. No wonder you can add the beginning of a migraine to my evening. And the books weren’t the only thing I left at home. I forgot my migraine medicine, too.

famous bridge

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

First, let me say that Kaitlyn did not sleep all night in her own bed.

Now, to our exploration of Avignon. I chose the city because I really wanted to go to Provence… to see what all the fuss is about. It’s too early in the season for the fields of lavender. So I went for history. Avignon has two claims to fame: a “famous” song I’ve never heard of (Sur le Pont d’Avignon) and a palace where the popes lived for some 70 years in the 1300’s.

We started at the Palais des Papes. Where the popes lived. After visiting the Vatican, I figured a place the popes called home had to have at least some opulence that I could marvel at. But when the popes left, the place went to pot. It was used as a prison and nearly torn down after the French Revolution. There was at least one fire. (I’m not completely clear on the facts, Kaitlyn and an audio guide is an iffy combination… even when you get her one of her own.) We walked through a lot of big, empty rooms with bare stone walls and, well, that was really about it. It was still interesting, but also a let-down. To me. Maybe I set my expectations too high.

From there we went over to the bridge immortalized in the song we’d never heard of. Kaitlyn said she doesn’t sing that song at school, she had no idea what it was. The bridge was originally built in the 11th century and was re-built once. But a few hundred years and a lot of flood waters later, the idea of repairs was tossed out the window. There are four arches still standing. There were 22 to begin with. So the bridge stretches, oh, maybe half way across the Rhone River then just stops. (It used to stretch across that river, a small island, then another river finally ending on the very far shore.) You pay to walk out onto this uncompleted bridge rimmed by a thin metal rail and two signs that tell you to hold your child’s hand. That is France’s answer to safety: hold your child’s hand. Like I needed a sign to point that out. We did not especially enjoy our jaunt out on the bridge. Inside we checked out the display about the song. Just in case you’ve never heard of this famous song, it’s about dancing on the bridge. Kaitlyn danced along. I still can’t buy that it’s a famous song. Frere Jaques. That’s a famous French song.

arrival in Avignon

Friday, March 21st, 2008

We arrived at our warm home-away-from-home tonight in Avignon. It’s a B&B I found on Trip Advisor. It’s our first attempt at anything other than an ordinary, traditional, multi-starred hotel while traveling through Europe.

The owner greeted us at the door. She showed Kaitlyn and I to our room while Bill tried his luck maneuvering the maze of narrow one-way streets in town. (The parking garage is two blocks away. It took him about a half hour to find it. And he dented my car on a cement post while he was at it.) Kaitlyn was thrilled to see she has her own room. We’ll see if she actually sleeps in that bed. She examined the antique armoire that is the closet. She suggested we light a fire in the fireplace (not happening). Then she realized what wasn’t in the room: a television. This could be a real test!

Dang, it’s cold.

Friday, March 21st, 2008

It may be the first day of spring (I was reminded by my little French-word-of-the-day-calendar), but we woke up this morning to snow.

Bill sent me a text message letting me know it was even snowing at his office in Grenoble. So I know he’s not too happy that we are going away for the weekend. I booked a trip to Avignon weeks ago. Who’d have guessed it would be snowy this weekend?

It doesn’t matter anyway. It’s a very good thing that we’ve already made plans to be gone. Because as much as I know Bill wants to stay home to ski all weekend, there’s no way I’m staying here. Neither of us realized that we were running out of heating oil. Until last night when I went to give Kaitlyn her bath and filled the tub with icy water. We went to the basement and realized… oops. No oil. No hot water. No heat. And it’s a holiday weekend here. Monday is a day off for just about everyone except those poor cashiers at Carrefour.

Sort of luckily, my French cooking class was this morning. That meant I’d have a French teacher here who could call and schedule a delivery of fuel. Less luckily, that meant I’d have a pile of dishes to do afterward. She called and the fuel will be here Tuesday. Morning. Between 8 and 1. (I’ll have to figure out what to do if they don’t come by the time I have to get Kaitlyn for lunch. Oh, and when I have to take Kaitlyn to school. This stinks! Maybe she’ll just get the day off.)

As for those dishes, I tried heating water on the stove then pouring it into the sink. But that really didn’t work so well. After a while, I finally just did my best to rinse the dishes and stack them neatly to be dealt with Tuesday afternoon. (The dishwasher is already full with yesterday’s dirties.)

Bill built a fire in the fireplace before he left for work. Between that and the oven being on, the house stayed fairly warm. I did have to lend the teacher a pair of slippers since our heated floors were bone chilling. Once everyone left, I realized the fire had gone out. And I’ve been trying for the past couple of hours to get it going again, but once my fire starter burns out, it’s out. I’m running out of starter, so I’m going to just stop while I’m ahead. We’ll need to start a fire Monday night when we get home! A weekend with no heat should ensure a very, very cold house.

going antiquing

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Today instead of cleaning the house or shopping for the groceries I need for tomorrow’s cooking class (it’s at my house and hostess shops), I spent the day in the antiques district learning about old furniture. It was an outing organized by my favorite group for ex-pats.

We started in a shop where the owner talked about design. Honestly, he didn’t have much lying around that I thought was much of an example. But he said that when something good comes in his shop, it’s out the door right away. He also claimed that his Dyson vacuum is a good example of design. All that did was make a bunch of us long for our Dysons currently in storage in the U.S.

The next stop was a shop specializing in 18th century furniture. He explained Louis 14, 15 and 16th styles. We were supposed to be paying attention for a promised quiz in the afternoon. I did listen, but not that well. I did learn stuff. Like in the 18th century only very rich people could afford mirrors. So they are pretty rare and therefore wildly expensive. He had one in his shop for like 15,000 Euros. For a mirror. An old mirror! Outrageous.

Next door to that was a store I’d been in last year with my antique-buying guests. I swear not a thing had changed. Not a table or armoir or knick-knack. The owner may have been wearing the same clothes even. I don’t really remember much of what he talked about because he talked a long time and you can’t very well lean all over antiques and I was tired of standing up… so my mind drifted a bit. I know he did talk about Art Nouveau and Art Deco. None of which he seemed to have in his shop.

From there we went to a jewelery store/art gallery combo. It didn’t quite fit with the theme of the day, but the owner is the one who called all her antique dealing buddies and set up the rest of the day. So she was included in the tour. She spoke perfect English (I found out later she’s Canadian), so I’d happily go back if I need something. Which means, her little plan worked.

Lunch was next on the agenda. We went to a very nice restaurant downtown. I didn’t even know it existed, although you could say that about most restaurants just about everywhere, not just downtown. We had not only a room to ourselves, but a floor to ourselves. Very smart restaurant to put its private room so very far away from everyone else. Whenever the ISE’s go out, we are always so afraid of being loud. But our group today was quite loud. And it’s a mix of Americans, an Australian, a woman from Norway, and a bunch of French. The shop owners on our tour joined us for lunch. I sat next to a man whose store we hadn’t visited yet. He only spoke French and he spoke it rather fast. I couldn’t think of anything to talk to him about, so I turned to the people at my other side. The first shop owner was in that group, but he spoke English. My friend next to me hadn’t been to one of these events before, and was surprised when they poured wine in all our glasses. Oh, yes, go out with French people for lunch… drink wine.

There was just one more place to go from there: the shop whose owner I ignored all through lunch. (hey, to be fair, he didn’t try to talk to me, either) He was very entertaining (maybe it was the wine)… too bad I hadn’t managed to talk to him at lunch. He explained to us how a lot of the dealers don’t even really sell their antiques to the public; they sell to other dealers. The shop is little more than an office to establish credibility with those from whom they buy things. He also said a lot of people are afraid to go into those places, and not to be. And he said that you should never pay the marked price for something. And don’t buy an antique to make money… buy it because you love it. I guess the dealers want to make sure the making money part stays among the professionals.

I did learn just enough to feel more comfortable going into some of those places… and looking around for stuff. Look for what? That is still to be determined.

battle of the sexes

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

This morning on the radio, the contest was for a caller to be given words, and have to identify if they are masculine or feminine. Here, I thought that was a game only for French students.

I was amazed by a few things:

1.I understood the game (even if I didn’t understand every word they gave)
2.The caller did not get all the words right
3.I knew some of them… including the one trick question. (apres-midi… which is afternoon… is the only word that is both masculine and feminine)

one-ring circus

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

The signs have been plastered all over every pole in town for a week: the circus is coming. I had figured I’d try to take Kaitlyn Wednesday afternoon. But today when it was too dreary outside to do much of anything, I suggested we go today. So Bill could see it, too. He’s heard about it; it is the same circus that Kaitlyn and I went to about a year ago when it came to town.

We got there about 40 minutes before the show was to start. The little ticket window hadn’t opened yet. We crowded under it’s cover along with two other early-bird families… all trying to stay out of the rain. A kid who works in the circus came out and chatted with an old lady waiting to buy her tickets. Finally, the woman who runs the ticket window appeared. Bill paid the extra money for the seats right up against the ring. (Which, just like the ski runs and bowling lanes and bike lanes, is called a piste in French.) We walked into the tent and Kaitlyn announced she was too scared to sit in our 45 Euro seats. Bill and I convinced her that the lions are well fed, they won’t be looking for little girls to munch on, and that we’d protect her. So she gave in. Reluctantly. We took our seats: three plastic lawn chairs right up against the edge of the ring.

Ever so slowly, the tent started to fill up. Bill was dismayed when I told him I didn’t expect the show to start at the advertised time of 4:00. Just before 4, I looked behind me at some of the circus performers dragging big metal pieces of something into the tent. They were assembling more bleachers to accommodate the sales going on outside. Even with that, the show was only about 15 minutes late getting started.

The opening act is the reason to go… and the reason Bill paid the extra money for our seats. Three lions and a police dog came into the ring via a tunnel made of rope. Even Kaitlyn thought it looked a little too easy for the lions to gnaw through. Again, we assured her they are well fed and don’t need to snack on rope. One by one, the lionesses took their places on the three stools set around the ring. One was close enough to us we could have reached out and touched her if we’d been insane; she could have done the same with us. And she was most definitely close enough to smell. Whew! A pouring rain and a lion is a nasty mix. Kaitlyn covered her ears through the entire act because the cracking of the whip was too loud. When it was over, the lions returned to their home via the tunnel and then the circus performers disassembled the cage that had surrounded the ring. I videotaped it, so I know, it took just under two minutes. Safe. (Bill says he watched how it was done and that it was really quite sturdy. Glad we didn’t have to find out.)

The lions were followed by a parade of what is, I suppose, usual circus acts. A girl who can bend backwards over and over in time to some slow music (she must be popular), a juggler who was quite brave to juggle knives and sticks set on fire since he kept dropping the rings, horses , a donkey, a llama who jumps over a stick, a camel whose front hump jiggled as he ran in a circle, a clown, snakes. The snake act was just creepy. It started with that same little boy who’d chatted up the old woman in line. He carried out a snake wrapped around his neck. Oh, and he was dressed like some sort of snake charmer. A bigger snake came out wrapped around another performer. Then the ringmaster asked for two volunteers. First, a man. They took the two snakes and draped them over his shoulders… knowing (I figure) that the snakes would wind around him. Yuck. Then they found a woman to take part. She had to lie on the ground, then they put the big snake up her shirt and it slithered out the top and around her neck into her hair. Super yuck.

During the intermission, Kaitlyn wanted to buy a balloon. So she turned to Bill and said “Daddy, give me money so I can buy a balloon.” Ever since I let her buy her own popcorn at the puppet show, she thinks she can do this all on her own. With our cash, of course. Miss Flexible came around selling tickets that we figured you then turned in for a balloon or flag or other silly trinket. We bought one ticket then let Kaitlyn go cash it on her own. (The balloons were only a few feet away from us, we could see her the whole time.) She’d told us she just needed to say “s’il vous plait, rouge” to get a red balloon. We watched her hand the guy her ticket and get a yellow balloon. But she was happy because it has a cartoon of a dog on it. Bill warned her to be careful so it doesn’t pop, and she has spent the rest of the evening terrified it will touch something that will cause it to burst. When she went to bed, she carefully set her balloon on the pillows on the couch… for safekeeping. If only she’d take that much care with all those stupid Polly Pocket pieces she just leaves lying around.