Monthly Archives: October 2013

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a few of my favourites

We will soon be visiting New Zealand, going home for the first time since we moved to France over 18 months ago. We’ve also been talking/thinking about what we want do to when/if our time in Paris is up (in theory, next June).

I could be organised and make lists of pros and cons… but a lot of the things I’d list probably aren’t really game-changers.

Still, here are a few of my highs and lows of life in Paris, or in my case, the Banlieue (suburbs outside the 20 arrondisements)…

Coffee here is a definite LOW. Australia and NZ are spoiled for fantastic coffee. Italy beats Paris, in my experience, but neither float my boat, after years of caffeinated artistry, care of the baristas down under. When in France… drink wine. Or pressé. Pressé is fresh squeezed juice, usually orange or lemon. This comes served straight up, with water and sugar on the side. Mix as you like. A lovely, long, refreshing and healthy drink.

luuk and kids at parkLuuk and the kids at a popular park in La Rochelle.

Parks for the people. In Paris, it depends on which bit you’re in, but out here the parks are fantastic. The play grounds tend to be fenced in. Adults sit around the edge, barely involved, while the kids play. But whether you’re at the playground or not, the parks are so well-used. They’re full of people. School gets out at half past four and the parks are buzzing till six. Later in summer, and a little earlier when it’s dark by five in the winter months… but the atmosphere is great. All the kids play together, adults sit around and talk, read, relax. Students picnic and study and smooch. People walk dogs, work out, watch the world go by. Lunch time is similar, and most of the day on wednesdays (no school) and weekends. People live so much more of their lives in public, in their community, surrounded by strangers, acquaintances, friends.

Public transport was the bad back-up plan back home, or it was for me. I hope to approach it differently when we return. Here, I walk or take public transport nearly everywhere. Once a week (at most) we drive somewhere. I walk five kms in a normal day, just taking the kids to their things, picking them up, buying bread or running errands. Visiting friends often takes me further, but a trip to the park is barely a detour. Louis rides his kick-bike and can easily go faster than me. It can get a little chaotic in the market, on busy footpaths or in tiny shops, but that’s always going to be the case with two toddlers in tow. Unless they’re asleep.

Fresh bread is so readily available, at a good price. If you can’t eat wheat then France is difficult, but if you can, it’s heaven.

Several hundred types of cheese. Need I say more? (My previous post is a roquefort-rant if you want more on this…)

The markets, with their numerous fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, fromageries, traiteurs, poissoneries… I could go on and on. Just this once, I won’t.

friends and foodFriends and Food, the perks of everywhere!
(Me and my art historian and cellist friend, at a 4th July BBQ…
cooked up by her French chef husband… c’est la belle vie.)

It’s hard to get to know locals and perhaps more-so in France than in many places in the world. I’ve met a few at the playground and formed one actual friendship with someone I met while our toddlers fought over sand-pit toys. But most of my friends are expats. I’ve gotten to know a few locals through expat friends – spouses, friends, partners, etc. But expats attract expats and – man alive! – what a fascinating bunch. I have friends from so many different walks of life. The majority are English or American, with a few Aussies, Germans, South Africans and Fijians thrown in, but the diversity exceeds the list of nationalities. Dancers, musicians, travelers, art historians, an orchestra conductor, translators, theatre types, writers, rugby players, mums with such a wide variety of pre-mum work, and then there’s the variety of ways we’re all doing motherhood. Old, young, gay, straight, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, bit-of-everything, bit-of-barely-anything. All this difference is fascinating and enriching, challenging and liberating.

Picnic at Ostia AnticaPicnic at Ostia Antica, ruined city near Rome.

Access to Europe is a definite HIGH of being in France. The limit on our time here gives us plenty of motivation to visit places, to take advantage of every opportunity, but there is a LOW side to that: rest-guilt. It can be hard to just chill. And sometimes we need to chill. The other LOW is the cost of travel and it’s easy to feel guilty about that too. And then there’s a bit of guilt for dragging the kids around when they’d really rather be pushing each other off a slide. Still, they have a longer attention span for art galleries than many adults I know. It’s a helluva lot cheaper to visit Switzerland from here than from NZ. And we can watch tv/play board games/read The Luminaries any time we like, for the rest of our lives, in NZ. And so… a long weekend in Switzerland, in February? Without the kids?

C’est une bonne idée.

Language is both a HIGH and LOW. The kids are learning, Luuk’s nearly fluent and I’m making progress. It’s a wonderful thing, learning another language. But, ouff, it’s hard. And some days I really cannot be arsed dealing with it. That’s the ugly and honest truth.

Do I want to stay longer in France? Yeah, I think so. But not too long. There’s another Hobbit movie coming out and I’m about to be bombarded with poster-pictures of good ol’ kiwiland. I’m ready for a summery Christmas surrounded by English-speakers who I’ve known for years and years.

And roast lamb, gingernuts, jelly, venison sausages, flat whites, cheese scones, Chinese food (NZ styles), pineapple lumps, rice crackers, meat pies, pavlova, fish’n chips, mountains in the distance, eavesdropping, getting the jokes, fearless phone calls, endless oceans, empty beaches, bare feet, giant jaffas, pesto with cashew nuts crushed through it… I’m getting carried away.

east coast, nz, dawn

Le fin.


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the roquefort problem

Once you’ve discovered Roquefort, you’re always vulnerable. You’re always in danger because you cannot un-know how good it is.

can't get enough roquefort

Once you’ve (inevitably?) purchased a chunk of this potent, brilliant cheese you’ve a real problem because that stuff doesn’t last long. It needs eating. Or at least, that’s what it tells you; that’s what it whispers from its layers of foil and cheese-paper, sequestered in the not-quite-sealed cheese container in the fridge.

Melted on steak, stuffed in mushrooms, smushed onto bread or just pealed from the knife, you will eat the whole lot. And then lick the knife.

Which is all well and good until you’re trying to watch your diet and discover how many calories this stuff packs.

(Actually, the calories are about the same as every other cheese, if you’re wondering. If you can make a small amount of strong cheese satisfy, as opposed to a large amount of mild cheese, you’re in luck. Unless you live outside of France, or don’t have the funds. Sorry.)

I’m having The Roquefort Problem (not yet recognised universally by psychologists…) with Nanowrimo. Nanowrimo is an annual novel-writing challenge. Fifty thousand words in one month, that’s the goal. At first it is a strong flavour to get your tongue around, but once you know it, once you love it… well, there’s just no going back. At least, not for me.

November starts in a few days and I MUST NOT WRITE ANOTHER SHODDY FIRST DRAFT.

That’s not to say my first drafts are uniquely shoddy. First drafts tend to be shoddy, in comparison to their fifth/sixth/seventh drafts (ie. the ones worth publishing, best case scenario).

I am in the throes of fine-tuning two near-finished (probably… possibly…) manuscripts and that is what I need to focus on, not the shiny new sports car that is Nanowrimo. It will jet me off to some fascinating new location with fascinating new friends, and enthrall me for a month and leave me with YET ANOTHER unfinished novel.

I have ideas. I daydream about novel-ideas. I haven’t written a new one in a while. When these two manuscripts are shining bright and actually done-with I have at least two more waiting in the wings. Major rewrites involve lots of new writing, so I will get to do some fresh work in there, but I know myself. I will be tempted by that shiny sports car. I will need a line in the sand.

We recently instituted a new rule, aiming to get ourselves into bed earlier: no starting a new tv show after 9pm. This is working wonderfully, or would be if we didn’t then read and read and read… but it’s certainly helping.

New rule for me: no new novels until something is published. Or at least underway to be published.

Deal.

Nanowrimo, like Roquefort, is a wonderful thing. If you need a kick of motivation and a world-wide community of cohorts procrastinating- I mean working right along side you, cheering you on, do it!

But I better not. Not this year. I got some feedback from a literary agent and if I can make the changes she suggested, in an impressive time-frame, then hopefully, fingers-crossed, we might have ourselves a real chance…

Fingers crossed, next year I’ll be doing Nanowrimo.


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preparing for battle

Some days feel like one fight after another. Getting breakfast into the kids, putting long pants, not shorts, on Louis, even getting up out of bed is a battle.

This morning’s mission was to make an appointment with a pediatrician, because our GP won’t give the kids their BCG vaccines. It’s not even super urgent that they get this particular vaccine, except that I have the box sitting in the fridge.

In France, when you want a vaccine, you get a prescription for it, then go to the pharmacy and pick up the vaccine, and then take it along to your next doctor’s appointment. My GP gave me the prescription, so now I have the vaccine, but I can’t get someone to inject it into my poor offspring.

I know all the French I need in order to have this conversation, so long as the receptionist doesn’t go off script. She did. I apologised, told her I didn’t understand,I’m still learning French. I asked her to speak more slowly, explained what I needed repeatedly… and then she hung up on me. I may have been a little over-tired but I promptly burst into tears. Then made myself a large coffee and put the appointment-making-palaver on tomorrow’s to-do list.

Which is a joke. Wednesdays are not for getting things done. Wednesdays I have both kids all day long.

And tomorrow afternoon, while both kids sleep at the same time (fingers crossed) I will be participating in a twitter pitch competition of sorts. A bunch of literary agents will be watching the hashtag #adpit and I’ve got two novels ready to pitch. I’ve spent the past few weeks fine-tuning and torturing my manuscripts and query letters, the first line of which has to be this brilliant sentence summing up the main conflict of the story.

For the twitter competition it has to fit in the 160 character limit. This is what I’ve got:

The new Earl of Belvedere will distract the London gossips from Lady Ailsa but he poses a greater danger than slander ever could. #adpit

and for the other,

Sun loathes rugby, with good reason. When she unwittingly falls for an AllBlack, he won’t let her go without a fight. Sexy NZ Romance #adpit

For the query letters there’s a bit more room for length but those agents are famous sticklers for the one sentence thing. And I suppose it’s a good way to make sure a writer really knows how to write. It takes focus and a careful use of language. A good story doesn’t hurt.

Of course, if the pitch (1 sentence) or the query letter do their jobs then I’ll be submitting several chapters or even the whole manuscript, so I’ve been fine-tuning for a while. I’m ready. Or, I hope I’m ready. I’ve thought I was ready in the past. I’ve even been asked for manuscripts, but in the end the agents didn’t bite. So my manuscripts probably weren’t ready.

Facing off with a nearly-3 year old at eight in the morning and submitting my carefully edited writing are two rather different battles, but the secret to both is in the prep. I’ve prepared my manuscripts over weeks and months. Getting shoes onto a wriggling target is a little more of-the-moment.

Right this minute he’s trying to use his drinking straw on a plate full of green curry sauce (very mild version) and rice. I think this is the stage of development when kids are independently capable of lots of things and don’t like all the things they’re NOT doing independently. So, basically, if I ask him to do something he immediately wants to do ANYTHING else, just to be sure he’s the boss of the moment.

Still, he’s rather cute, even with the attitude. Damn.

How do I prepare for every instance of that? Earlier nights and potent first-thing cups of coffee would help, sure. Reverse psychology and limited choices (“sit down or go to your bedroom,” for example) have their place.

Keeping my cool… well, that’s easier with the literary agents. With them it’s business. And they get one hit. If they say, ‘No,’ it’s over. Louis says ‘no’ and the fight is just beginning.

A receptionist hangs up on you and the fight is over, but also just beginning. I ran the whole conversation by my French teacher this afternoon. He said I’d been clear. He only corrected me when I said ‘une rendez-vous’. Turns out appointments are masculine.


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bouchons, bridges and beaches baby!

The grand plan went something like this:

Friday night the kids and I would meet Luuk at a train station near his work, bypassing the Paris-bound traffic. Luuk had the suitcase in the car, ready to go, and we’d be away early for our weekend by the seaside.

We’d drive to Tours, just a couple of hours away, and find dinner, then stay there the night. Saturday morning we’d continue on, fresh and refreshed, to La Rochelle, find us a patch of sand and wile the day away.

But fifteen minutes from Tours the motorway backed up to a stop. Black smoke billowed in the distance, and the traffic info radio station informed us a truck was on its side, cutting off the entire south-bound route and a few lanes of the north bound A-10.

Four and a half hours later the traffic started to move. By then the kids were asleep, having dined on hunks of baguette and snickers bars that had been too-long in the glove box. We arrived at the hotel half an hour after the restaurant stopped serving dinner. Fortunately (or not) we’d been snacking on peanut MnMs for the past three hours and could wait for the buffet breakfast.

The next day, breakfasted but far from refreshed, we continued on to the coast, bypassing La Rochelle in favour of the Ile de Ré. There’s a fantastic bridge across to the island, which Louis would’ve liked to cross more than just twice.

bridge to the Ile de Re

The bridge to the Ile de Ré

After lunch and a good strong coffee I was fantasizing about a lazy afternoon in the company of a good book, but we’d come all this way for the beach. And I was quickly won over.

Off to the beach, Ile de Re

Off to the beach we go.

making sand castles, or something

The kids loved the sand and both of them seem to be past the sand-in-ears phase. I only told Elena not to eat it once or twice.

Luuk and the kids on beach

The first time Louis had a dip in the ocean it was the Atlantic, but that was at Miami beach and a good fifteen degrees (and then some?) warmer. You never can step in the same ocean twice, eh? Louis wouldn’t touch the water, not even to rescue his Flash McQueen ball (that’s Lightening McQueen if you’re watching Cars en Version Originale, ie. English, but when in France…)

elena taking off down the beach

Elena, on the other hand, on her wobbly walking legs, bowled right in. She chased us around and braved the waves and, of course, fell over. Shame she was fully clothed at the time, but if you can’t go naked on a beach when you’re a baby then-? No need to finish that sentence.

We kicked flash mcqueen and got covered in sand, collected a humble selection of shells, and while the kids dug the sand, I got some of that lazy afternoon in the company of my book.

Both kids conked out in the car, ah the joys of sea air, so we drove up to the lighthouse on the north coast of the island. Luuk and I took turns staying with the sleeping babes in the car while the other looked around. When they woke we went for a walk.

Luuk and Elena exploring Ile de Re

Luuk and Elena exploring Ile de Ré.

not the worst family photo

Not our worst ever family photo.

Ile de Re, north coast

The north coast of the island.
Foreground: aesthetically pleasing fence.
Background: German bunkers from war(s?)

Ile de Re, sunset

Sunset from the lighthouse.

We had a lovely seafood dinner and the kids ate chips and frankfurters… there’s just no selling the ingrates a mussel apparently. Elena was asleep before we got to the hotel and didn’t wake up till morning. Louis pulled his charming manic-over-tired bit but eventually slept. We all did. Much better than the night before.

Sunday morning we explored the waterfront at La Rochelle, a ten minute walk from our hotel.

la rochelle beach

The patch of beach in the city centre
(we were glad of Saturday’s island alternative)

lighthouse, la rochelle

The oldest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast, or something like that.

a la peche

This guy is fishing, apparently.

morning at la rochelle harbour

The inner harbour at La Rochelle – including two beacons for leading ships up the harbour (red one in centre and green on far left).

Sunday morning, early as we were, the place was pretty quiet but for restaurant staff hosing down the remnants of the previous night’s festivities. But things were opening as we worked our way around the harbour.

(p)laying anchor

(P)Laying anchor.

inner harbour at la rochelle

The inner harbour at La Rochelle.

towers of la rochelle

The towers of La Rochelle. The oldest lighthouse is the far one. The closer two flank the harbour entrance.

la rochelle harbour

The harbour entrance from the far banks.
(That blue door above is probably just out of shot on the left.)

pain in la rochelle

Pain, of course, is French for bread, but if you can’t enjoy the double meaning every now and then. what kind of anglophone are ye? There’s a bakery just down the hill from home that is called ‘The Art of Pain’. I have a friend who’s written poems and stories playing on this, all bread and misery.

It takes four to five hours to drive directly from La Rochelle to home but that’s on the motorway and most of that route is just off to the side of the Loire valley. So instead of taking the slightly shorter motorway we headed for the scenic route.

And stopped at a whopping great castle.

the boys by the moat at chambord

This is Chambord.

Chambord, Loire ValleyUnfortunately the ticket office closes at 4.30pm from October onward, and we got there just after, thinking it closed at five… anyway, not the end of the world. Another time maybe.

Chambord

Spot Luuk and Louis. And the awesome asymmetrical towers.

The thing was so impressive from the outside, I felt like I got my dose of wow.

After a coffee in the town square (yep, castles this big have their own wee towns attached) we continued on to Paris, avoiding all the bouchons (that’s traffic jams) but failing to avoid MacDo. The kids were losing it, but I’m proud to report that both of them turned down chicken nuggets. No matter how much yummy mayo-based-sauce we doused them in. The potato wedges (alternative to fries) here aren’t bad at all. Shame about the rest. Still, just one meal, barely a part of the holiday really. A fantastic weekend all in all.


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Are you pretty?

Category : Daily Life

Louis asks me this question every day, multiple times. “Are you pretty?” This is his latest phase. He also asks if he is pretty, if Elena is pretty. This morning he wanted assurance that yes, in fact, his undies were pretty.

smiley elenaIs Elena pretty?
May she rarely need to ask.

I tell him yes, straight up, every time. Is Daddy pretty? Absolutely. Is Mummy pretty? Yes. I try not to pause. But it is strange to answer the question with confidence. Blame growing up in a society with serious tall-poppy syndrome. Blame the media warping my ideas of beauty.

Thing is, I’m aware of all that. I taught whole units to my media studies classes, aimed at convincing teenagers that you can be beautiful and bear no resemblance to either Brad Pitt or Angeline Jolie.

Is it worth mentioning that jolie is the french word for pretty? Joli (without an e) is the masculine form.

Anyway, this barrage of questions and my steady affirmative response is making me realise a few things…

– KNOWING that beauty is predominantly a construct doesn’t mean I don’t want to be beautiful.

– Being ‘pretty’ is important to me. Too important in fact. I think about it quite a lot. Is that a window? Hey, look it works like a mirror. And judgey-judge-judge-judge. This scrutiny is of course not reserved for myself. I judgey-judge-judge-judge plenty of other people too. Not good.

– How I actually look doesn’t correlate directly with whether or not I feel pretty.

– How pretty I feel DOES affect how I feel about myself in other fields. I approach my writing, my family, my friends, learning french, housekeeping… basically everything with a better attitude, so long as I feel pretty. (I’m sure there’s a tipping point where being just-plain-conceited makes me unbearable…)

Pre-occupation with appearances, especially coupled with a narrow definition of beauty, is a problem, obviously. But I don’t know what to do about it. I consciously avoid fashion magazines and all that propaganda but perhaps it’s just too late, the damage is done.

The thing is, I’m not convinced that the solution is to somehow feel pretty all of the time. It’s just not that important to look good! But tell that to my unconscious. Jeez. It’s as stubborn as a two-nearly-three year old.