Monthly Archives: September 2012

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Never get on the wrong side of a bureaucrat

if you can manage it.

It’s difficult to pick up the nuances in French – difficult for me, anyway – but I’m pretty sure we got on the wrong side of several recently.

The rules say, and we triple checked, that as a NZ citizen, married to a non-French EU citizen, I do not need a visa, and my residency application process should be smooth and quick.

The rules didn’t tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Yesterday I had to return to the prefecture to pay for a visa so that my residence application can go ahead. Perhaps we were talking to people who can only process documents and money, who have no authority to say, “Oh, yes, you’re correct, the law does say you don’t need this visa.”

It’s also possible that yesterday being pay day, budget day for Monsieur Hollande, they had to get every penny, centime and sous before close of business. (They do call it the ‘sous prefecture’ after all.)

For arguing the fact, we were made to wait. I’m not a hundred percent certain, but it did seem rather like we were being punished – me and my baby, standing in the middle of the ‘etranger’ (foreigners) department like a naughty child being made example of, while Luuk and his colleague
(Oh thank god we had a fluent and gutsy french speaker with us) went to buy ‘timbre fiscal’ to pay for my visa.

As soon as Luuk and his colleague left, the man who’d been dealing with us started telling another ‘etranger’ about our arguments, laughing at the ridiculousness, and complaining of how difficult it was… right in front of me! He was assuming I understand no french at all, I suppose, but talk about unprofessional.

Anyway, right or wrong (it’s wrong!), it’s done. I am here to stay. I may well be back at the prefecture in a few weeks, however, because if my card doesn’t arrive a week before my ‘recipice’ (temporary residence permit) expires I have to go in again and get an extension. If this is the case, and if the people we saw yesterday have any say in the matter it seems likely, I’ll have to go in at the crack of dawn and line up for two or three hours. But I’ve learned my lesson: leave the toddler (elsewhere); take the book.

Since coming to France I’ve also learned how to spell bureaucrat and bureaucracy. Silver linings eh?

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Getting back into it

My holiday is over. Time to get back to work novelling. Between now and 1 November I want to plan out all the changes and additions I’ll eventually make to my young adults novel.

And then I want to plan whatever I’ll write during nanowrimo – perhaps a sequel to my young adults novel, perhaps a romance set in france, perhaps something else entirely…

We have a new routine, now that my toddler is off to nursery school three days a week, and so I’m trying to figure out when are the best times to schedule in writing for the foreseeable future.

So far, this week, it’s been slow and rough going. I’m creating a post-it-plot.

This is a great tool, I find, for getting my head around a whole book. This particular novel needs dramatic changes – reconstructive surgery, I’m calling it. So I need to get perspective on the thing as a whole, and make decisions as objectively as I can manage. I may need to be brutal – cut whole scenes, change characters… terrifying stuff! The central idea and the central character are strong so it’s not a total do-over.

Next week I will be polishing up the first chapter to take along to writers’ group. I might also have a go at short-story-ifying my draft. This, hopefully, will really help to crystalize its strengths. Known them, I’ll better be able to hack off the dead wood.

Might have to try this brainstorming technique too. I have noticed that the main character’s love interest is not all sweetness and light… which somehow I missed when I first wrote this. Problem for rewriting though… implications will probably mean more major changes.

On re-reading I also noticed a few coincidences and a few cases of life being a little too sweet and easy for the main character… so things will obviously have to get more difficult. I can get away with coincidences if they cause problems for the protagonist… so perhaps she shouldn’t hit it off with her love interest straight away. Instead she could thoroughly embarrass herself, and so bumping into him later is not actually, initially, a good thing.

I need to slow things down a bit and add tension at the same time. My characters shouldn’t easily and happily fall into a friendship. And my main character is fascinating enough (or should be) to have a bit more time and words spent on her, on her own.

Another thing to add to my revisions to-do list: shorten scenes to the bare essentials. Shorter scenes = faster pace for readers… plus will help me to be really clear about the point of a scene. In short, I should end scenes with cliff-hangers and start them smack-bang in the middle of the action.

The high-tension actions scenes are probably the exception: rather than trimming they might need more of a slo-mo work-over. Good advice on just how to do this here.

Lots to do, and I’m dreaming about having plenty of time and energy with which to do it. Time may be on the increase, but energy is hard to come by. Elena has been waking multiple times in the night far too regularly. Meanwhile, I’m trying to decrease my caffeine intake – this afternoon I made coffee with half and half decaf and normal coffee grinds. Desperate times. I’m hoping my half-strength coffee has a bit of a placebo effect, revving me up with psychosomatic caffeine. Worth a try.

Fingers crossed next week will be easier, but I suppose getting used to a new routine might take three or four weeks… so perhaps things will be easier in November.

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Louis started at Pomme d’Api this week. This is like nursery, or early preschool, or daycare. I don’t know what all the different words really mean exactly but here in France they call it “halte jeux” or “halte garderie” which is closer to a direct translation of daycare.

“Halte” means stop or layover.

“Jeux” = play.

“Garderie” is, I guess, similar to carer. Similarly a nanny (and also the building caretaker) is a Gardienne (or Gardien if male).

Thus endeth the French lesson.

All ready for day two at the halte jeux!

This first week is called ‘Adaptation’ – same word, different pronunciation. Monday we went for an hour and I stayed the entire time (with Elena dozing in my arms then sleeping on the floor till another toddler tripped over her… awkward). Today Louis was there for an hour but I only stayed for half the time.

He’s never been much of a clingy kid but I was still relieved to see him busy playing before I left.

Luuk will like this: a toy drill! The drill bit even turns and makes a whirring noise when someone pulls the trigger.

… which perhaps teaches an unhelpful lesson about safety.

Tomorrow he will be by himself for a full hour, Thursday for two hours and Friday for three. He’ll be fine. It’s a great little place, just 500m from home, in this cute old house.

I particularly love the little room up top – which is where Louis’ class is! (It’s bigger than you can see – fills the roof.)

Nothing about this building is wheelchair accessible. We have to leave the pushchair in a shed out front and carry everything, & everyone, inside. Louis is an accomplished stair-climber now but it’s terrifying to watch him descend the stairs – and the inside stairs are steep enough to even freak him out.

He coped totally fine with my half-hour absence, from what the teacher said… from what I understood. I got lots done too, in my half-hour of freedom (well, almost freedom – Elena was asleep in the pushchair). I made a hair appointment and posted two letters. I bought bread and some petit pain au chocolat for me and Louis’s afternoon tea. He ate half of his… and I ate the rest but still only had as much as half a normal size pain au chocolat.

Good thing too as tonight is Lasagna night – beaucoup de calories!

Starting next week Louis will go three times a week. I am fantasizing (unrealistically, of course) about just how much I can get done while he’s there. I’m planning to take a walk after dropping him off – so as to mess with Elena’s sleeps a little less, and to get into an exercise habit.

Fortunately, the market is on tuesday and thursday – the days Louis doesn’t go to Pomme d’Api – so no temptation to get my exercise to, from and around the market. Fortunately, and unfortunately. Yes.


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soaking up every last…

We have had a week in paradise. After our mammoth mission into the mountains on Wednesday, we spent the rest of the week soaking up every last little bit of holiday (cough-sun-cough). Lots of lazing around by the pool and reading. Finished reading one novel, started another, did a sudoku puzzle in mum’s book, wrote a few sentences of some stories I’ve started, and some I haven’t… was very relaxing.

On Thursday evening Luuk and I left the kids with my parents and went up to Bormes Les Mimosas, the old village, for a nice dinner out.

Mum and Dad had found a path up the hill that wasn’t on the road, so we followed their directions along this way – initially a gutter, then this rocky, rather angular path, but it wasn’t difficult and the view was fantastic.

At the lookout, just on the edge of the old village.

The restaurant didn’t open till 7.30 so Luuk and I spent half an hour or so wandering around the little alley ways and pokey paths of this lovely old village.

Straight walls? Overrated.

The restaurant was outside, but under arches with buildings over the top and little lamps or pretend candles on each table – tres romantic.

Lovely Luuk, enjoying his starter of salmon carpaccio with figs… and other stuff. I took photos of the food but they turned out too dark. For once, perhaps, I should have used the flash.

The restaurant had great atmosphere, and a cat. A few other couple were there when we arrived and it was almost full when we left – perhaps a bit touristy but clearly popular. And delicious. Highlight of my meal: figs stuffed with goats cheese and wrapped with prosciutto. Will have to try that at home some time!

We walked home in the dark. The Hotel de Ville (town hall) was rather easy to spot, lit up all patriotic-like in the dark.

The next day we had notions to go for a boat ride but no one was quite eager enough to pay the hefty ferry-fee and then risk miserable kids hemmed in on a boat for over an hour… so we went to the beach instead.

This makes it look far more relaxing than it actually was – babies and sand are a difficult combination – but the water was warm (if a little shallow and flat – good for babies but not as entertaining as waves eh?) and the sun was toasty-good.

Saturday was our last day and so we unanimously, without discussion, agreed to stay in close proximity to the pool for all of it.

And there was a frog hanging about in the pool too!

Luuk got a better photo… and got the frog onto the ball. Like something from the circus. The miniature circus.

Mum and Dad went for a walk and while they were away we got up to some hi-jinks… well, Luuk and Louis played cricket in the living room with a baguette for a bat.

two-day old baguette = solid

I cooked up a last-night-of-holidays feast and Luuk and I spent the evening playing “Ticket to Ride” on his phone, watching television in the background. Very relaxing.

White wine poached salmon with greek salad, green beans and spinach potato mash. Très délicieux! (if I do say so myself)

The train ride home was less relaxing, but that’s the price of a holiday in the south of France so who’s complaining!? Elena slept but she can lie flat on one chair, whereas Louis doesn’t fit so neatly, and doesn’t lie still no matter what you do to him… I suspect. Too many interesting things going on, or going past, but as always, he dozed off in the buggy between the Antony station and our apartment.

A gorgeous holiday, but I am glad to be home. Today was Louis’ first day at halte jeux (day care of sorts) but more on that in the next installment.

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journey to the giant ditch

I did it. I got up off the sun lounger, departed my poolside happy-place. We all did, on Wednesday, in search of a canyon, one that suits the name and, I’d go so far as to say, is possibly in the same class as the grand one state-side.

It was a long drive and there were some rough times with the wee ones. Always a risk, travelling with a baby and toddler.

All in all they did very well. Louis slept a lot and Elena had several short sleeps but was less than content for quite a while later in the day. Holding Gran’s hand seemed to help some of the time.

We had lunch at Saint Maxime before heading inland and drove through a military base on our way to the canyon. Saw a few soldiers in their trucks and a base-area with loads of tanks. Bit of advice: don’t attack France with anything. Other than words – liberte! after all.

We drove toward Castellane, through a gorge, thinking it was the canyon. The rock formations were awe-inspiring and the scale, grand!

Castellane was fantastic – pokey little street after pokey cobbled little street, wonky and ancient buildings and walls, with bright shutters and intriguing doorways

This particular path was narrower than the rest, but wider either side of this point. Still, not for cars, this road. And it wasn’t the only one.

We found a cafe and indulged in waffles and crepes with our afternoon coffee. Louis preferred the fountain to his waffle – mad child. He was particularly fascinated by the gutter beneath the doggy-trough bit… Mum was a bit worried when he started drinking the water out of his hand and then we realized he’d learnt that particular trick from her at teeth-brushing time the previous night. Hm…

Elena took turns cuddling and dancing about with each of us, glad to be free of the car.

It was a gorgeous little courtyard with a few shops around, no doubt a hive of activity in peak season, but most of the shops were still open for us to look around, even though school’s been back for three weeks now.

One particular shop stood out, what with having no postcards out front. Or was it the gas-mask-wearing mannequin? Inside we discovered a holy grail of… well, crap, if I’m honest. But old crap. Like helmets from wars and shell-casings from what must have been small missiles!

Another interesting sight – High above Castellane there is this crazy cliff, and upon the cliff, a church. Kept catching glimpses of it between crooked buildings.

Luuk found a map in one shop and discovered that we had not yet seen the actual canyon, so off we went to find it, hoping the kids wouldn’t completely lose it.

We drove past this town twice in our travels and it captured our imaginations – a castle cut into the rock, layers of these tall, narrow houses, and a noisy donkey on the hill. What must it be like to live here?

The view, looking back toward Castellane was amazing – huge sky and layer upon layer of mountains and valleys, numerous quaint towns, cliffs and rocks and forests…

Finally, over another hill, we found the actual canyon.

Hello, vertigo. The cliff just fell away beneath the road and further along it was even more dramatic.

A colleague of Luuk’s had told him of a thousand foot drop and it lived up to expectations. We wowed our way along a very high road, looking out and over at a deep, deep ditch, the river at the bottom, a squiggle of shiny water in the distance.

It was a long drive home but we more than fulfilled the adventure quota of our holiday!

We spent the next day lazing about, poolside or inside, reading and relaxing. Elena, celebrating her freedom from a confining carseat, no doubt, did her first roll! And Louis, not to be outdone, fell in the pool, giving us a fair scare. I put my kindle down, somehow doing it no damage at all, and dived in. I lifted him to the surface, not knowing what to expect. He didn’t even choke – must’ve held his breath, smart cookie. And whew. He was a bit upset but very robust really.

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Bormes Les Mimosas

We set off at a leisurely hour (though we’d not had a leisurely morning) on Saturday, Our usual troupe of four plus my folks… very handy when traveling with wee ones.

Dad discovered the best way to speed up matters. Louis, at 22 months, can walk, even run, forward and in a straight line when so inclined… But there’s the rub: inclination.

Four hours on a speedy-mc-speedyson train and, voila, la sud! Toulon to be exact. The kids slept less than we had hoped (Louis not at all) but they were pretty good. The wee man crashed in Mum’s arms while Dad and Luuk were sorting out the rental car, so mum and I high-tailed it to a cafe and Louis slept on a booth seat while I fed Elena. Mum and I drank overpriced water but we were the lucky ones: Luuk and Dad were miles underground in the parking garage wrestling with logic and kids car seats. French cars! Argh! Or perhaps it’s just this particular Citroen…

Bit of stress then a bit of a drive, and then…

… Hello new favorite place in the world.

So that picture pretty much sums up my plans for the week: bronzing and bathing. And what you can’t see, the third B, my book. Or books. I’ve got several going, as always. I’m not sure Les Miserables can be read by a pool in the French riviera without breaching some serious moral or social code.

We have to hide Elena in the shade, but the stones are warm. Lovely.

Louis is loving splashing, not so much immersion. We went to the beach yesterday – the Mediterranean is warmer than our pool, plus there’s sand: a clear winner.

It’s been very relaxing. Lots of lazing about, reading, napping, swimming, a couple of little outings and lots of delicious food.

We have talked tentatively (lazily) about an adventure or two in the next few days – there are natural wonders amongst other things – less natural or less wonder-inspiring but worth visiting nonetheless… But there’s always the chance I just won’t quite make it up off the sun-lounger.

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Foire! Fromage! Vin!

Category : food , Seeing the World

We live in the best town of them all… as far as the Paris suburbs go at least ( at the very least). On Friday night the annual cheese and wine festival began.

Now that sounds awesome enough but I’d be understating dramatically to leave it at that.

It’s rather like a street party, throbbing with people, huddled around vendors, sampling vintners’ entire selections of wine – chardonnay, rose, burgundy, champagne, muscat… beaucoup aux vin!

But it wasn’t just for the grown-ups. There was a balloon vendor. 4 euro later… Dora!

There was a lot more than cheese and wine – charcuterie (cured meats… think a thousand different types of salami, and then a hundred variations on you classic deli leg of ham…), fois gras of every flavour (I tried it for the first time – very rich and probably never to be my very favorite thing), and tartiflette or similar (uber cheesy potatoes).

And then there was the cheese!

Glorious in all shapes and sizes. Brebis (sheep’s milk) and Chèvre (goats’ milk) and cows’ too, of course, and none of it pasteurized.

We weren’t very self controlled but, I tell you, we could have been ever so much worse. According to my calorie-counter app I did about 1300 calories of damage – not bad considering I had cheese, wine, potatoes, pasta, and even a couple of bites of mum’s blueberry jam crepe. Fortunately I’d been careful earlier in the day and in the end only “overspent” by a hundred calories.

In euro, on the other hand, we probably overspent quite a bit – not by more than a hundred… But we will be sure to savor every morsel, and in the interests of good health will make it last.

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for the fun of it

Category : Art

For the next week I’m not making a concerted effort toward any great goal or long term project. I’m taking a break, a holiday, so any writing will be done solely for the fun of it.

I expect silly and/or bad poetry, scraps of prose, snippets of conversation, ideas, descriptions and maybe a postcard or letter. I will write every day but it’ll be totally free and I’m rather looking forward to it.

I do hope this helps me to decide what to work on next. I’ve got loads of ideas but am being indecisive and keep changing my mind. Probably cause I’m tired.

On that note, nap time. The babies have gone quiet and – fingers crossed – to sleep. My turn. Tonight the foire!

More on that later, promise.

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older, meaner, braver

Category : Art

Today I finished reading through the first draft of a novel I wrote three years ago. I rather enjoyed reading over it – a pleasant surprise. My expectations were low – which is probably wise when reading a first draft. There are lots of problems, to be sure, and the ending needs some work – like a whole new section probably – but it was interesting and fun and readable. I even laughed in places.

That’s not to say anyone else would, of course, but it’s a start.

It’s nowhere near ready for anyone else to read it, but when we get back from our holiday I’ll do some more work on it. This is my revision process:

1. print the whole thing, double spaced, pages numbered, but duplex because paper doesn’t grow on trees… well, you know what I mean.

2. read the hard copy, write all over it, make notes on outline, or if there wasn’t one to begin with, make an outline!

3. go back to the digital version and, reading it a second time, make adjustments. Usually this involves doing all the fixes and rewrites suggested in my barely-legible scrawl on the hard copy. I probably have to write a few new bits and cut other bits. I always have consistency problems with names… but hopefully I’ve noticed by now.

4. give it to others to read – my husband is great for this. He spots all the bits that don’t make sense, as well as any spelling/grammar issues. Unfortunately he’s not really my target demographic… it’s nice that he enjoys my writing but I usually need a couple of other readers. People who give detailed critical and constructive feedback are rare and wonderful.

5. usually some time later… I go over it again, taking into account the feedback, and as I’ve had some distance from it myself I will no doubt have my own changes to make.

6. Next: write the hook and synopsis for a query letter. If this is too difficult then chances are the book itself isn’t ready.

Today I finished number 2. When I get back from holiday I’ll start on number three. And for this book that’ll mean a lot of rewriting and a few serious name issues… eg. I used the first names Gareth and Peter twice each… and both for the same character at one point… oops. I also gave my main character and her boyfriend the same surname. On accident.

Oh dear.

That gives an indication of just how much work this draft needs. The ending is the most alarming bit – I think there needs to be one or two more major events… and I’m feeling mean. Someone might die. There may be some serious betrayal. Once upon a time I was nice to my characters but I’m getting older and braver and meaner. My poor characters…

So there’s lots to be done. But that’s fine. I read a good quote on twitter earlier today:

“When we demand that we always paint or write or draw well, we are putting our critic in charge of our creative process.” – Julia Cameron

I’ve become quite good at kicking my inner critic out of the house for weeks or months at a time when I’m writing a first draft. Now I have to get him back, though, to get this thing fine-tuned. He’s more forgiving than you’d think, for a critic. I suppose he’s always keen for new material to rip to pieces.

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in for the count

Category : Daily Life , food

A few months after I had Louis (now nearly 2 years old) I realised I had no idea how much I was eating, or how much I was really meant to eat – though I suspected less would be a good start.

I was breastfeeding, and hungry a lot, including in the middle of the night. I was tired and not getting much exercise. I decided to do the math – how many calories was I supposed to be getting a day?

Rather than count every meal and snack, adding them up and subtracting the value of any exercise, I decided to give myself “options”, so that when I came to snack I would think first. I had little pieces of paper up on the kitchen cupboards reminding me that I could eat two squares of dark chocolate, a handful of nuts, and some dried apricots for the same “price” as a tim tam. I could have a carrot and a muesli bar, or a banana berry yogurt smoothie… Options.

Well, Elena is three months old and my diet is different to what it was when we lived in New Zealand. Better, in some ways, I suspect, but I’m not sure about mathematically. We have fresh bread every day, so fewer preservatives, but then we probably eat more bread, so that’s not so good.

I was about to rifle through the folders on our computer for the spreadsheet I put together last time, but then I realised, times have changed… or at least my cell phone has. I bet there’s an app for that.

And there is! Several in fact. I did no research at all and picked the first 4.5 star free app in “play store”: My Fitness Pal.

It does all the hard work – well, except the exercise – it adds up how much .7 of a banana is worth (after I chuck the bad bit out) and it had the particular brand of soft cheese I put on my salad at lunch in its database.

I won’t always be able to resist… if we’re being realistic. Which we should.

I realised, after lunch, that my meals were “worth” more than I thought -the pain au chocolat at breakfast was a bit naughty, but they don’t get better with age – so I was either going to blow out my goal number of calories on my very first day, or I needed to get some exercise.

I don’t know if it’ll always be so motivating, but I always think the first day of a new regime/goal is rather important. So I did some Pilates and went for a walk. All together that earned me another 200 calories – I can have dinner after all!

Tonight: risotto with mushrooms, courgettes, the last of the smoked salmon and a few shrimp. Yum. Turns out most of the calories of this meal come from the butter I’ll cook the mushrooms and onions in… a whopping 300 for just 3 tablespoons. Ouch. Ignorance was bliss.

Too late for ignorance now though.

I’m going to try and stick with this thing for a while. If it can change some of my bad habits, or at least make me more aware, and bit more active, then I won’t need to do the math for long. I did realise today that the long part of the afternoon, between when the kids wake from naps and when Luuk gets home from work, is a perfect time for a walk.

Good for my sanity too.

I have set myself a modest goal: to lose half a pound a week. I am breastfeeding and this app doesn’t take that into account, but I’ll keep it in mind and not starve myself or anything. I guess, if I can stick with it, I might lose more than half a pound a week. That’d be nice.