Archive for December, 2008

Christmas vacation

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

We’ve returned home from our week in a nearby ski resort where we spent Christmas. I don’t know that it was what I expected. Even after checking out the resort this summer (we drove around for about 30 minutes on our way home from our vacation in Italy… hardly serious research).

We stayed in Alp d’Huez. It’s only about an hour from here. I’d really left the selection of the resort up to Bill because he’ll spend hours studying the piste map and determining if the place has enough easy, intermediate, and advanced runs to satisfy everyone going. And this year, it was the three of us plus Bill’s sister, who hasn’t skied in about 15 years.

The hotel wasn’t at the base of the slopes. Those were far too pricey. But it got good reviews on Trip Advisor, and it was affordable without being so cheap that you’d wonder what on earth you were in for. We checked in and went to our rooms… opened the doors.. and discovered that Debbie got a fairly big room with a balcony overlooking the mountains. We got a room of about the same size but with a twin bed stuffed in, only a desk and small closet for storage, and a window a small window with a view of an apartment building. Nice. As the week went on, I started to peek into other rooms when the housekeepers left the doors open while cleaning… and noticed armoires… big rooms… two double beds… oh, well.

We’d also opted for taking the hotel’s half-board. That means breakfast and dinner was part of the price. After a day skiing, it’s just easier to know that you can walk downstairs and eat, rather than try to find a restaurant and mess around with reservations and the like. I’d read that the food was good. We ate things that surprised all of us: gratin of mussels, venison, oysters (only Kaitlyn ate that and she loved it), perch, crab tacos (not really tacos, don’t know why they called it that), Chartreuse ice cream (tasted like frozen Nyquill). The food was excellent. The service was suburb. The last night we were there we finally went into the lounge and sat in a corner playing games. We should have done that every evening, it was a lot of fun. Ok, I ended up “playing” chess with Kaitlyn which consisted of letting her move the tokens around the board however she wanted, but she enjoyed it so that was all that mattered.

The dinners were excellent, but long. Generally by the time dessert came around, Kaitlyn was too tired to stay at the table, so Bill and I took turns taking her upstairs to the room. Christmas Eve was my turn. We set out the eclair we’d bought at a bakery for Santa (it’s France, he has to eat what they have here) and an apple we’d picked up for the reindeer to share, and a bottle of water since we didn’t have any milk in our room. That got Kaitlyn to thinking… where does Santa stop to pee while he’s busy delivering gifts all around the world? She seriously needed this question answered. I told her that Santa has helpers stationed around the globe, giving him a place to go if he needs. She was ok with this. Then she wanted to know how Darth Vader pees in that suit of his. Before I could dream up something for that question, she decided that he doesn’t have to pee because he’s only partially a real person. And with that, she rolled over and fell sound asleep.

During the day, Kaitlyn took ski lessons in the morning and ate lunch with the other kids before we picked her up. I ended up not getting in as much skiing as I’d have liked… partially because Bill usually took her to school then came back to get me, meaning we only had about an hour to ski before we’d stop for an early lunch. So I can only blame myself for not getting ready faster. Bill’s sister only skied a day and a half. The first day she ended up walking all over town wearing her ski boots and we think that’s what caused strange blisters to form in rings around her legs. It was a couple of days before she could put anything on her legs, let alone ski boots. Then when she gave it another go, she took a pretty good spill on one run and I think that did her in. She says she had a good time shopping and resting and riding the gondola to join us for lunch. She did try sledding with us. You ride the gondola up and take a sled run down. It’s not nearly as scary as the one we tried last year in Switzerland. But it was too fast for her. And we got there so late that we only got to go down once before the gondola closed for the night. (Kaitlyn isn’t good at switching gears… we shouldn’t have let her go to the room to rest… oh, well)

One of the neatest things we saw was on Christmas night. We went to the ice rink to skate, but it was closed because Santa was walking around it, tossing chocolates to the kids lining the outside of the rink. That wasn’t the cool part. Then we looked up the mountain and all the ski instructors (there are a couple hundred at least) skied down the mountain carrying torches. The kind you take to rid your village of an ogre. It was very pretty… a line of orange dots snaking down the mountain… all the way into town! They walked from the piste to the ice rink where they put out their torches and stood together. Then there were fireworks. Luckily we were not so close that the noise upset Kaitlyn and she could actually watch them and enjoy them… with my hands covering her ears.

Friday night there was a concert of Christmas songs at the church in town. The concert was being played on the pipe organ. It’s a unique organ because it’s made to look like a giant hand. I wanted to see this. And I like Christmas music. But by Friday night, Kaitlyn had no interest in doing any such thing. Neither did Debbie. I’d resigned myself to just sit in the room when Bill told me he’d go with me. So we walked to the church. Our ski pass got us into the concert for free. Which turned out to be a very good thing. Because when the guy started to play, it was stuff I’d never heard before. I peeked over the shoulder of the woman in front of me to read the bulletin (I refused to pay the 12 Euros for it)… 6 songs… not a single recognizable Christmas song. I videotaped one. Bill offered to hold the camera for me and I told him to point it anywhere, I was just trying to get some nice music to use in my home video of the trip. Just then, the organist struck a chord and started playing a song that sounded more like something from a horror flick than a Christmas song. I started laughing and couldn’t stop. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I’m sure the people around us weren’t pleased, but I didn’t care. I mean… that was the most un-Christmas sounding Christmas concert I’d ever been to.

All in all it was a good week. Got to rest. Got to visit. Got to ski. Got to laugh. Found a restaurant worth an hour’s drive. Next year.. we’ll try yet another resort.

fois gras day

Monday, December 15th, 2008

If I am perfectly honest, there are just some foods here that, well, scare me. But I decided to face one of those fears head on. I figured it was sort of a once-in-a-lifetime event for me and, well, what the heck. I’d also promised to go with a friend who is real into food but a little hesitant about attending the event… as he’d be the only man there.

The food fear du jour (so to speak) is fois gras. Fois gras, if you don’t know, is duck or goose liver. Made so incredibly fat that it’s simply not natural and even some French think it just might be a wee bit cruel to force feed the birds so that their livers become so enormous. A group I belong to here and normally go to museums or shopping outings with hosted today’s culinary event: the preparation of fois gras and truffles. The chocolate kind, not the kind pigs sniff out in the woods.

First omen of the day: my friend cancelled. His in-laws arrive for their first visit tomorrow and he doesn’t feel anywhere near ready. Ok, I can appreciate that. But I’d made such a big deal about going myself to see this preparation for myself, I couldn’t very well back out. Which I seriously wanted to.

I got to the fois gras preparation event just in time. They started by making chocolate truffles. Those look and smell good. The preparation is, well, normal. Not in the least bit disgusting.

Then, we moved into the dining room for the main event. The fois gras.

The hostess hoisted this giant, tan blob onto the table and announced this was the fois gras. This is what all the fuss is about. A big, ugly blob that weighed nearly two pounds and in no way could come out of any ordinary duck I’ve ever seen. Then she pried it apart and said that all you have to do is carefully pull the veins out. It took her quite a while and nearly every nose in the room turned up at the idea and then at the sight. Once she’d decided she’d pulled all the veins out, she pressed the two halves back together to form it into it’s original giant blob state and then she marinated it (poured salt, pepper and wine over it) then wrapped it in foil and declared it ready to sit in the fridge for two days. When I have something that looks like that in the fridge, I throw it away, I don’t treasure it.

Like Rachel Ray, she then pulled a marinated one out of the fridge and said it was ready to cook. All that needed was a pressure cooker…. and a good cold to prevent being able to smell… and in a few minutes… voila! Fois gras. Still not ready to eat, oh no, you have to stick it back in the fridge so you can enjoy it cold. And I use the word enjoy liberally here.

Naturally, there was a finished one ready for us to taste. No — two finished ones. And to enhance the demonstration, one still had a vein in it so we could all see what that looks like… if you’re wondering… it looks gross.

I tried eating my slice, I really did. I put it on the bread, took a sip of wine, and took a bite. It really tasted ok… just like incredibly fatty butter. But all I could think about was the way it’s prepared with the yanking of the veins… and I nearly gagged on each bite.

At least I hadn’t agreed to buy one to try to make on my own at home. Not only does that mean digging around for the vein yourself… it means forking over 25 Euros (or so) to do it!

Another French tradition I don’t have to worry about missing when we move back to the states.

une ringy dingy…. deux ringy dingy..

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

The moment I volunteered to make a phone call for Bill this morning, I instantly regretted opening my big mouth.
He and Kaitlyn are heading up to Chamrousse to go skiing. We’ve gotten two feet of snow down here this week; they’re sure to have more on the top of the mountain. It’s sunny, there’s fresh snow… it’s perfect.
I’d love to go but before all this snow fell I accepted an invitation from a girlfriend to go shopping in Lyon.. which means a grown up lunch, a stop or two at Starbucks and some window shopping… not a bad alternative. It’s not like I’m staying home to mop or something. I’d never take that option. Never. Just look at my floors and you’ll believe me.
Since this is Kaitlyn’s first time on skis this year, Bill figured it would be a good time for a refresher course with a real instructor. He planned on piling her into the car and getting to Chamrousse when it opened at 9. At 9, Kaitlyn was still eating her oatmeal and coloring some Barbie cut-out doll she’d printed off the “dot com” as she calls it. He was getting increasingly frustrated and that was when I boldly volunteered to call the ski school and see if we could even get a lesson for Kaitlyn this morning. Now it is far FAR easier to conduct such business in person. In person you can point, you can look confused, you can act things out if necessary. (I’ve gotten very good at charades.) On the phone you can ask someone to repeat himself… over and over and over.
As they were finally heading out to the car, Bill asked me if I would make the call. I hemmed and hawed then realized I had made the offer, I couldn’t really refuse. So I looked up the number, looked up some key words on the ski school’s website, and dialed.
Certainly, the moment I opened my mouth, the woman knew I don’t speak French very well. Still, she rattled off her answers and questions at a pretty rapid pace. About three questions in, I had to ask her to repeat herself. That’s when she slowed down and I could, amazingly, understand her. I managed to tell her Kaitlyn’s age, the level she’s completed in lessons already (they have very clearly defined levels for the kids at the French ski schools… all the same), that she wants a teacher who speaks English, that she wants the lesson for an hour and a half, that I know the meeting point she told me about, Bill’s phone number (although I kept trying to give her a number that doesn’t exist), and finally our credit card number.
Bill and Kaitlyn are about halfway up there now. I guess we’ll find out in about a half an hour if I did the whole thing correctly. I sure hope I did. It’s one thing when you goof up your own matter. It’s another when you try to do someone a favor and end up sending them into a quagmire of lingual misunderstandings.

Il y a beaucoup de neige

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Sometimes, I think I left my common sense in storage back in the US.
We got more snow overnight. I don’t know how much… I’d guess easily another foot. And it’s still falling. Although the plows are finally making it something of a habit to come up our road. One came through just before Bill was about to leave… creating a 3 foot high barrier between our driveway and our road that Bill had to dig out before he could go to work. Another one came by about an hour later. I saw it’s flashing lights while I was on the phone with the English teacher from school. She was the second person I’d called to try to figure out whether or not there’d be school today. It’s like I just can’t figure out by myself what to do. I guess it’s because times like this I feel particularly isolated. I cannot just turn on the radio or tv to find out what’s happening beyond the stretch of street that passes in front of my house. So I make calls and make an idiot of myself polling people while I decide what to do.
Because, really. Think about it. We live in the mountains. This is part of life here, right? The plow is out. We all have or should have snow tires and chains. Yes, we’ve gotten a lot of snow in 36 hours. Probably 2-3 feet. But this isn’t Raleigh. This is the Alps.
Turns out the English teacher was the only teacher who got to school on time this morning. And she walked there.
Another snow day for Kaitlyn. Cabin fever is setting in quickly. At least for me. Kaitlyn is thrilled.

when it snows… it pours

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Bill called me when he left work to say the roads were fine. Bill called me 15 minutes later to say I’m not leaving the house tonight to go to any dinner. Bill called me 10 minutes after that to say he was stopping to find a place to put on his chains and, by the way, did we have power because the entire town of Uriage was pitch black.

So I started making the dinner I’d intended to make tomorrow night but now suddenly needed for tonight: spaghetti and meatballs. (Generally if I’m not home, Bill and Kaitlyn are happy with Ramen noodles and a can of corn. Sure, that probably won’t earn me any housekeeper awards, but, let’s face it, I wasn’t really in the running anyway.) I got the meatballs done and then went to boil the water for the noodles. It seemed to be taking an awful long time, so I looked and realized the stove was blinking at me. Blinking is not a good thing for a stove to do. That’s how stoves tell you they are dying. Bill went out to the garage and flipped the fuse off and back on. Didn’t work. The immediate result was a meal of spaghetti and microwave rice (which we discovered last December when the first stovetop stopped working). The long-term result is that we have to tell our landlord that yet another stove stopped working. It’s fairly obvious the problem is in the wiring. But I doubt we’ll get that idea across. Especially if I’m the one left dealing with any repairmen.

Footnote: After dinner, Bill got the stove to turn on again. So we’ve earned a small reprieve. The only question is…. how long will it last… and will I have time to stock up on microwave rice and crock pot recipes?

Sheesh. finally

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

UPDATE: 2:30 and the snow plow just went up our road. It isn’t even a real snow plow. It’s a tractor with a plow stuck on the front. The main roads must be getting a constant plowing because apparently that’s where all the real plows are. This guy was probably the farmer down the street who just got tired of waiting. Still don’t know about going out later…. what if the farmer stays in after his dinner? And there didn’t seem to be any lights on his tractor…

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: 4:30 and the real snow plow came along and scraped the road and spit down some salt. If only I’d known how to ask them what took them so long to get here.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: 7:30pm that farmer guy made another pass on the road. Guess he eats late.

let it snow! and snow… and snow… and snow….

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

My inability to drive in snow is surpassed only by my inability to know when one should or shouldn’t even try to drive in the snow.

Bill woke me up this morning to tell me he’d shoveled the driveway of the 8 inches or so that had fallen overnight. But don’t worry, he said… the snow plow had obviously been through. Better than last time. If they’re out plowing, it can’t be too bad.

I dragged myself up about a half hour later, got Kaitlyn up and ready for gymnastics. We put on snow boots (well, I put in hiking boots) and we headed down our road to gymnastics class. They obviously hadn’t returned with the plow and there were a couple of inches of snow on the road. But no ice. I went slowly and only slid a little bit around one corner, but I managed it. We got to a main road and it wasn’t in much better shape than ours. “Hmmmm….” I thought. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” Then we got to the main road going up and down the mountain… there was the plow and the road was pretty clear. “Hmmmm….. “ I thought. “Maybe this was ok after all.”

We made it to gymnastics. I parked where I thought I could get back out because the lot had been cleared but the snow had been pushed into all the parking spaces. Logical. We trudged up the hill to the building where all the Wednesday sports activities are and I realized that hiking boots in a foot of snow are stupid. We saw Kaitlyn’s teacher who told us no one else was there. Just us. And I didn’t understand everything she said, but I got the distinct impression she was in no mood to give a gymnastics lesson to just one kid. She said we could wait a few minutes to see if anyone else made it out. Kaitlyn started playing in the snow…. but she wasn’t dressed for playing just for trudging. Her cotton pants were immediately soaked through, as were her cotton gloves. (she prefers gloves but has tiny hands so the only gloves we can find that fit her are plain cotton… good for cold bad for snow) So without even saying goodbye to the teacher, I got Kaitlyn out of a snowbank and trudged back to the car cursing my boots and complimenting hers (why didn’t I buy a pair when we bought hers? I wanted to and just should have done it).

The steady snow covered the road that was plowed when we’d headed down the hill. I paused when we passed the last good place to put chains on your tires, but decided that the extra inch or so of snow wasn’t enough to warrant that much trouble. So trying to act as cheery as possible about driving up our snow covered steep winding narrow street…. I turned up it. I made it up the first most nerve-wracking part no problem only to encounter a departing car at the top. We squeezed by each other successfully and I figured I’d made it past the worst. I kept telling Kaitlyn there was nothing to worry about, but I don’t know who I was trying to convince. My car has something-er-other built in to help keep it from slipping around and it was doing it’s job as I continued to climb up our street. I really didn’t feel out of control of the car. I didn’t panic. Didn’t cry. Didn’t snap at Kaitlyn to be quiet.

That was just after 9. Now it’s 2. The plow has not been up our street all day. The snow has not let up. I am not going out in this. It would at least require chains and probably also require panic, tears and yelling. Needed to get to the toy store to buy some birthday gifts. Too bad we can’t get out, I bet the store isn’t crowded at all today…..

I’m supposed to go out to dinner tonight with a group of friends. Don’t know if that will be happening or not. I’m definitely not messing with chains in the dark.

best kept secrets….

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

This morning in my French lesson, my teacher asked me what I did this weekend.. standard beginning of the lesson banter… and I told him we’d gone to see the lights in Lyon.
“Oh! They’re wonderful, non?”
I explained that the experience is really not a child-friendly one.
“Oh, no.” he said. “It’s really not good for kids until they are around 12 years old.”
Would have been good to mention at my lesson LAST WEEK when we discussed the event!

a la poste

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

I don’t know what it is about the people who work in the post offices here, but they all think that it’s part of their job not only to mail your package, but to advise you on how to mail it. Maybe not so much advise… as scoff at your idea.
I went this morning to mail a package with not a great deal of monetary value, but with a fair amount of heft to it. Yes, it’s a Christmas gift which I’ve waited until the 9th of December to mail. No, it isn’t vital that it get to its recipient on time, but it would be nice.
So I hand over my package and tell him I want to send it “prioritaire.” No one sends things priority mail here. They just won’t spend the money. He looked at me like I had to be pulling his leg and he didn’t care for the gesture. “Prioritaire???” he asked the question as if he were certain by my accent that I was using the wrong word. “Oui. Prioritaire. C’est pour noel.” (Yes, priority. It’s for Christmas.) He said something about how that is so expensive, if it isn’t urgent there’s no need…. the need is that I’ve sent this “economique” in the past and if you mail it 2-3 months ahead of when you need it, it’s fine. So I asked him how much prioritaire would cost. He didn’t even know, yet he’d scoffed. So he looked it up. 36 Euros and change. Ok, that is a lot. That’s three and a half times more than the value of the package. How much is economique? Twenty-four and change. Still too much, but maneageable. So basically the employee of the company talked me out of spending 12 Euros I’d have otherwise happily (ok, maybe not exactly happily) spent. I have no idea why the French government is facing a spending crisis.

long night in Lyon

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

There are some things that you don’t want to say you lived in France but didn’t get to see. Like Paris. Then there are things that you didn’t know you needed to get to see until you got here. Like the yearly light show in Lyon. Now we’ve seen them both. And now I know why you’ve only ever heard of one outside of France.

As a celebration of some statue built hundreds of years ago, every year the city of Lyon lights up buildings and fountains and whatever else you can shine a light on. Ever since we’ve gotten here, people have told us we really need to go.

The official website for this event has woefully little information. It basically says “come to Lyon… it’s really cool!” And assumes you know any pertinent details like times, where to go, etc. Given the void of useful information, we decided to take the train to avoid beginning our evening hassling with full parking garages and, I could only imagine, streets closed to traffic.

We got to the train station just after 4 and got tickets for the 4:45 train. We boarded and sat down to eat our fancy dinner of Subway sandwiches. (Yes, there is a Subway sandwich shop here in Grenoble. Not exactly like at home. Actually, better. I’d never set foot in a Subway at home.) Soon all the seats filled up. Then the aisles. Then the areas around the doors. Until it looked like a subway train in Tokyo at rush hour. All that was missing was the guy who shoves people farther into the train. Since it’s a local train, it stopped half a dozen or more times on the trip. Each time the train stopped, no one got up. But more people got on.

Bill had managed to find more information about the light festival than I had, and he’d even remembered to bring it with him on the train. My original intent had been to read it while we rode, but I didn’t. We’d made the trip with another family and the two men had picked a path to take to see the most stuff, so I trusted them.

As soon as we got to Lyon, we headed for the bathroom. It was far too crowded on the train to drag Kaitlyn to the bathroom there, so I’d waited. We got to the bathroom entrance and the attendant told us the ladies side was closed for ten minutes for cleaning. I asked her, in French, if there’s another bathroom. She repeated “ten minutes.” I repeated my question. Then she said in English “ten minutes.” That was the first thing that annoyed me. I understood what she was saying; I didn’t need her to translate it. I needed her to actually answer my question. Then I pointed at the girls and said “but the children…” and she said “I understand.” That was the second thing that annoyed me; it annoyed me so much I raised my voice likely to that horrible screeching sound it makes when I’m upset which is likely aggravated by trying to argue in French. I yelled at her that no, she doesn’t understand. That Kaitlyn had to go immediately and that the men’s side was open. At that point Bill walked up and offered to take Kaitlyn in, which the woman accepted. Mind you, during all this arguing, a woman walked out of the men’s room. But that attendant wouldn’t let any of us go in. The worst of it is, I let that annoying woman set the tone for my evening.

Once we’d finished there, we hit the streets to find the lights. There’s a cathedral in old town Lyon that Bill really wanted to see, so we headed over there. Now, imagine our entire train crammed with people all pouring into the streets of Lyon to see the lights… added with all the other train loads of people.. and the full parking decks worth of people…. and it turns out that old town’s streets are narrow… to say the least. After we saw the cathedral (which was neat) we tried to walk to the next light display (they are spaced about two blocks apart). Us and about a zillion other people. All in this one tiny road. I understood how it could happen that a Walmart greeter would get crushed by a mob of shoppers and simply hoped we wouldn’t meet the same fate ourselves… because with so many people it could be hours before anyone would even notice. Bill had Kaitlyn up on his shoulders otherwise she’d have certainly been crushed. Finally we were literally spit out of the mass and into an even narrower alley but with far fewer people, so we just headed back toward the newer part of the city.

After stopping for french fries from a street vendor, then a few pictures, then a glass of warm orange juice (gross), it was time to get back to the train station. And all we’d seen was one fountain and the cathedral and our near deaths. The walk to the metro stop took us past two more buildings decked out with lights.. and appeared to have been the path we should have focused on for the evening. We tried to do too much with three little girls in tow. Not a good idea. I mean, you’d go to a city all lit up and think it would be something for kids. But, like most everything here, it isn’t. Besides, the path to the metro station took us right past the Starbucks. And by then it was so late I wasn’t going to gået yelled at for delaying us even more by stopping for a chai tea latte.

As soon as the metro doors opened at the train station, Kaitlyn announced she had to pee and took off running. So I went after her, assuming the others were at my heels. Turns out, Kaitlyn and I were a lot faster than I realized. We hit the train station and I didn’t realize we came in the opposite side of where we’d gone out so I had no idea where the bathroom was. Once I found it, I was really annoyed to find out that the same attendant was on duty and that she’d closed the men’s side but was letting men use the women’s side. AARRGH! I was too exhausted by then to even try to argue about it; arguing wouldn’t have changed anything anyway.

We should have missed the train but it was still sitting on the tracks so we hopped on… and this time we were the poor people stuck at the doorway without seats. The whole evening was such a disappointment and the whole getting to the train was such a cluster, I just burst into tears. We ended up slipping into two seats across the aisle from each other in the back of the car, so I could cry sort of privately. Kaitlyn sat on the steps with our friends and their girls… until I collected myself then collected her. She came back to our seats and laid down and fell fast asleep.

If we’re here next year, I’ll stay home rather than go to see the lights. Or go to Paris… the city of lights.