signing off

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signing off

I started this blog after we’d already been in France for a few months but for most of the time we’ve lived here, it’s been a sort of travel-meets-expat blog, with forays into parenting and politics and writing and all sorts. However, we are leaving France in less than two weeks and so things will change.

I will write a little something, I’m sure, about re-adjusting to New Zealand, about going back, reverse culture shock and all that jazz.

And I’ll still be writing books. One day, some of them will be published, so this website will remain my home base online. The flavour and frequency of blog-posts will change, but this feels a little like goodbye.

Mind you, everything feels a little like goodbye this week. I went to my final writers’ group get-together last Friday night. I hosted my final Friday morning prayer thing (which never got a name but will continue without me and might yet…). I’ve been to my final french class and tomorrow I teach my final English lesson.

writers' group

This is the kids’ last week at school and halte garderie. The thank-you pressies and cards are sitting on the bookshelf will all the other things I must remember to give or give back to people.

Several large pieces of furniture have been dismantled. The basement storage space is empty. Our house is full of boxes and lists and my next job is to go through all the lists and pull it all together into one big list of all the things going in the container. I have an episode of ‘Call the Midwife’ all lined up, ready to keep me company while I do that scintillating job. (Hopefully it won’t have me in rivers of tears like the last one did. Wonderful catharsis though it is…)

So here’s the plan:

Monday 16 Feb – moving out of our flat

We’re staying in a hotel in the vicinity of Paris and taking advantage of things like Disneyland, sometime in here…

Sunday 22 – flying out of France

Tuesday 24 – arriving in NZ (the length of the flight is having a similar effect as ‘Call the Midwife’)

We’ll stay with Luuk’s folks in the Waikato for a couple of weeks and we will spend a couple of days in Auckland, and maybe in Tauranga too.

Then we’ll drive down to Christchurch… exact dates yet to be confirmed. We really must get onto that – ferry tickets and whatnot.

Right, on with the packing then. (Have I suddenly started sounding like something out of 1950s London?)

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finding pace

We’re back at it. Luuk’s at work, Elena’s at halte garderie (well, not this very minute. Right now she’s watching Monsters Inc. for the thousandth time), Louis is at school and I’m in the thick of revisions… again.

the kids and their friends

The kids are happy to be back in routine, and playing with all their buddies.

They’ve gone and changed up the school timetable, so Wednesday is now a school day – but a half day – and every other day wraps up at 4pm (used to be 4.30) which means everyone’s a bit confused… but three weeks in, it’s settling down.

I’ve found myself a french conversation group, and signed Louis up to stay after school on Thursdays so I can go. I’ve even got myself a little job – talking English with a kid for an hour a week. Yeah, it might cover the cost of printing all my drafts. But probably not.

lovely autumn

Lovely autumn

September is gorgeous in this bit of the world, if you can slow down enough to notice. They have a cheese and wine fair in Antony each year, which seems a wonderfully hedonistic way to celebrate.

cheese and wine fair

Foire au fromage et aux vins!

champagne at the antony foire au fromage et aux vins

My happy place: the champange tasting.

Last year it rained… but this year I think Luuk got a bit of sunburn. Needless to say, we are stocked up to our eyeballs. We will be eating a lot of cheese in the next few weeks. Wine, at least, lasts for a long time. But in our enthusiasm to taste it we have two bottles open right now – one has gone into a bowl with chicken (I’m gonna try coq au vin) and the other will be going into tonight’s risotto. (The chicken needs a day or two of swimming so we’ll eat it tomorrow.)

So we’re eating well. Surprised anyone?

There have been a few cool bits and bobs in the past couple of weeks:

– I met Margaret Atwood at the Festival America at Vincennes. And she signed a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale for me. I was not at all cool about it. Star struck silly, in fact.

handmaid's tale, signed by margaret atwood

– Elena is biking to school and garderie, so we’re inching toward the end of the pushchair.

elena on her bike

– There was writers’ group last week, and we tackled a whole novel. We’re all working away at novels and usually do a chapter from each, in a session. But for editing purposes, looking at a piece of work in its entirety can be hugely helpful, and it went very well.

photo (2)

 From beginning to end.

I also found it encouraging to read a complete manuscript, written by a member of our group, and next time we’re doing one of my whole manuscripts. There’s at least one other member with a finished one so perhaps we’ll tackle that (when said member gets back from hiking in Nepal…)

– There’s an election in NZ, in a couple of days in fact, and there have been lots of great conversations via social media. I’ve been particularly encouraged by how many of my former students are taking an interest and getting involved. One of my favourite units to teach was on government and democracy (link is to a great documentary) and five years later those kids are old enough to vote, and still give a damn. So, win!

– I’ve been reading ‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig – a downright brilliant book. Highly recommend. It’s not long or difficult, but wow, talk about tackling the big questions with humour and heart.

I feel like I’m forgetting something, but that might be it. Elena’s gone down for her nap so I’d better get back to my disgraced heroine and the unconventional earl she’s accidentally falling in love with. As you do.


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chocolate therapy

It’s true. Chocolate does not cure chicken pox. We are yet to ascertain whether or not it makes Elena immune. She is spot-free as yet, but not going to Halte Garderie because apparently she’ll be contagious before she’s spotty. Louis’ pox appeared after we’d already been staying with friends for a couple of nights, in Lille. Oops. Too late, they’d all been exposed. But only the baby hadn’t had it before. Good luck, JJ. Hope you sleep right through it, kid.

So, there was one day of our holiday in which we were all good and healthy, basically. And we went to Bruges, which is less than an hour from Lille, across a border you wouldn’t know was there (except your cell phone company texts to say they’re ‘with you’ and these are the roaming charges…).

belfry, bruges

The belfry tower in Bruges.

looking down a well, bruges

Louis and Luuk in a very old well. Let’s say they’re looking for chocolate.

virgin and child, bruges  I recently saw Monuments Men (good one. See it.) and in the film, one of the artworks threatened by the Nazis is Michelangelo’s Virgin and Child – in the middle of this photo. A bit of action takes place in this church, where the statue stood before the war and (spoiler alert) returned later. I was keen to see the place, and the statue, so I bullied everyone else into it.

our lady of bruges  Cool old church, undergoing refurbishments. On the plus side, entry was much cheaper than usual. In france churches are free to enter, but not so everywhere else. We’ve paid in england, italy and now belgium. But fair enough, must cost the earth to preserve stuff for so long.

refurbishments, our lady of bruges

I do like looking at old stuff. Call me a patina junkie.

more modern sculpture in our lady of bruges

Quite like the more modern art as well. Louis, inside this other Madonna and child statue.

So that was Friday. Saturday I woke up all head-coldy and Louis, covered in pox. So we took it pretty easy.

connect four, or five, or three

The kids, messing with a board game. Not playing it.

what I did Saturday morning...

I did manicures with a six year old… pas mal. And read.

After lunch, the dads took the kids to the park and us Mum’s relaxed, got the roast on, and hid the easter eggs. Sunday was meant to rain so we did the hunt early.

The kids had a restrained but appetite-destroying amount of chocolate. We grown-ups probably ate about the same amount, in all fairness, but that didn’t damper our enthusiasm for the leg of lamb. Not one bit. I do a mean roast potato. Marcelle’s gravy was gravy baby.

Sunday we went to an English church in Lille. Elena and I helped with some easter egg smashing, all very symbolic of Jesus of Nazareth, defeating death… and yummy. And possibly exposing quite a lot of people to chicken pox, though probably not, because she hasn’t visibly got them yet.

We were going to visit the market in Lille but parking proved a problem and so we had lunch at a family friendly (but painfully slow) restaurant, and then returned to chez Leo’o for a little lazy indigestion.

rocking and rolling

Some slept. Others did not.

And then, because lunch was so late, we had to work up an appetite…

backyard soccer, pros and toddlers all together

Just a little light backyard soccer. Nothing to see here.

backyard soccer

Hard work, facing a professional sportsman, but all those years playing goalie paid off. It wasn’t a total walkover until I joined in.

elena swinging happy

Elena found a safe spot, where she wouldn’t get trampled. Smart kid.

After the kids were in bed, we cracked out the easter treats for the grown ups. Hot chocolate spoons from Bruges, and some good old Whittaker’s peanut slab from NZ.

hot choc spoons from bruges, belgium

Monday we headed home… via (well, not strictly via) Dunkirque and Calais and the Baie de la Somme. First stop, Dunkirque. It was a bit early for lunch, so we wandered, and then settled on La Pataterie, a baked potato chain restaurant we’ve never tried before.

There was a play area, a high chair and a changing mat in the loos. Who cares what the food is like? But it wasn’t bad at all. Then there was the circus, right there, how convenient. We went to visit the caged animals… hopefully not supporting any horrific abuses in the process. I dread the thought. But the kids do love them horses.

And the tigers and elephants and baby goat, leaping over it’s mother gleefully. It’s hard to compete with tigers and elephants but the kid made a noble effort.

Louis approved.

The kids were asleep before we even got to the coast. But Luuk and I enjoyed the meander around the port and the breakwater.

lighthouses, dunkirk

Lighthouses aplenty!

driving around the harbour at dunkirk

Lots of cool lifty-uppy and swingy-roundy bridges.

lighthouses at dunkirk

And more light houses.

There was a road across the top of the breakwater, which we missed access to.

on the breakwater, dunkirk

So we stopped to have a look-see.

And then drove on to Calais. We woke the kids, because we’d promised them some beach. So we had afternoon tea on the sand, at Calais. And to build castles.

luuk and kids at calais

Apple compotes and old snickers bars from the car-stash. Gourmet, much.

pier at calais

We walked up the pier, Louis on his bike, scooting around all the many fishing poles.

watching the fishermen on the pier at calais

Watching the fishermen cast, in the shade of the lighthouse.

The kids didn’t want to sleep again, so the trip from there on was a little less peaceful. We stopped to take in the view, at one point.

elena looks out on baie de somme

Lovely misty sun. Lovely restless toddlers.

windmills in baie de somme


kids at baie de somme

Happy kids. And then we put them in the car.

And they were less happy kids… and then (thank heaven) sleeping kids. Bit of a late one. Direct drive from Lille to home is about three hours. The dunkirk-calais detour should have added an hour and a half, plus a meal time.

Two meal times in the end, and three hours of sight seeing. Long trip, in the end. But we probably won’t make it back up to that bit of France. For eight days in May we’ll drive around Brittany and a bit of Normandy, but not this far north. So it was good to see it while we were there. And it was great to catch up with the Leo’os, our good kiwi friends who are moving back to Christchurch within a month of us! How cool is that?

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decision making ability, zero

We’ve (almost) made it. Luuk will be back by this time tomorrow. And I… I will be at a Backstreet Boys concert!

I had great aspirations to write a post about the week’s highs and lows but – gotta be honest – it’s not going to be thorough.

so many cheese/bread based meals

There’s been quite a lot of cheese-focused food. And bread.

There were two days in a row in which plastic melted on the stove top. The bread twisty tie was reduced to two wires and a white smudge before I noticed. Elena’s dummy (that’s a pacifier, or a tétine to the frenchies) carked it after we finished making popcorn. That’ll teach me to do a second lot of melted butter… hah. Yeah right. The element was off and I noticed the smell pretty fast. Holy cow, the stink. Stable plastic… to a point.

The popcorn was for a Purim party – it’s a Jewish festival. It’s to celebrate not getting killed, in this particular instance, thanks to Esther. She has her own book in the bible, if you want to look it up.

Elena, a new dummy, and I picked up Louis from school and walked a couple of kilometers to our friends’ place.

The kids got face-painted and ate a lot of junk food, including triangular pastries called ‘Haman’s purses’. I liked the more traditional fig versions but the kids scoffed the nutella ones. And all the popcorn. A cake box-full was not enough.

going home in the smog

Going home in the smog.

On the way home, walking those two kilometers again after 7pm with two pre-schoolers, we were all pleasantly surprised to find the carousel still going. So they each took a ride on a helicopter. Then home for sandwiches for dinner and a late night.Shame that doesn’t equate to anything like a sleep-in the next morning.

And then it was Saturday. I had no plans at all. I had a headache. I had lost all decision making ability. I’m a little food obsessive, most of the time, but I’d lost the ability to decide what to eat. I ate the other half of Louis’ pain au chocolat. I had a coffee (because NOT having coffee is the hard call) but failed to decide to eat anything else.

I text messaged a friend who suggested the ludotheque, so we did that. The kids played. We tried to keep up a conversation but she was about as shattered as me

Louis, at the ludothequeA marvelous man with a flying machine.

Come eleven I was starving. She suggested a crêperie, so we did that. Louis threw my sunglasses across the, thankfully empty, restaurant and cracked them (though I’m still using them – they’re my favourite). But the food was delicious and the cider was an apple and pear, sweet and dry deal. So good. My dear friend made all the decisions, basically, and saved the day.

Then we went home and napped and I felt better.

Sunday was lovely. Took the kids to writers’ group – a first. Husband of the host took Louis down to the river. They threw pinecones and sticks in the water for over an hour. That’s a good husband my friend has… doing that for over an hour so his wife’s writers’ group is not interrupted by a three year old.

eating well at writers group

Ah, writers group. The writing is good too.

Elena slept. Angel. Then the hosts shouted us Chinese food for dinner. Me and the kids were so well looked-after. I only hope the table cloth cleans up…

I’m probably missing something cute or noteworthy. Oh! Elena has started saying ‘à moi’ (french for ‘mine’) ALL THE TIME. She speaks more french than english, at this point. If it’s not ‘la’ or ‘la bas’, it’s ‘doudou’.*

Have I got any writing done? Ah, a little. I wrote a short story and entered it in a competition… within a week. I thought about it a bit before hand and left several days between revisions. I got writers group to check it over. Still… a week? Chances are good, it’s bad. And I paid money to enter the competition.

See? Decision making ability, zero.

I should go to bed now. This is also a decision I’ve struggled to make in a timely fashion. I’m reading several books. And I had a tv show to catch up on. And ironing. But mostly, I played Myst V (a horribly addictive – don’t look it up – computer game). I’ve finished now – as you can tell. I’m doing something other than playing Myst. I’m writing a blog post. Ta-dah!

Yep, so, to bed. Forgive typos, please (Luuk).


* La = there. La bas = over there or down there, like when you give directions. Doudou = cuddly toy that children get overly attached to.


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home comings

Excuse me if I go backwards for a few posts. I’ve been slacking off (ie. tripping around the land of the long white cloud, visiting rallies and all sorts, being actually sociable – and virtually anti-social) for a whole month and so there’s some catching up to be done.

I am starting at the end, which I’m hoping will wend its way into a seamless summary of our New Zealand trip. Except now that I’ve told you about the hidden seam you’re bound to spot it.

paris, land of the criss-crossed skiesParis, land of the criss-crossed skies.

We’re home. Home in France. We arrived back a few days ago and are yet to have a proper night’s sleep, uninterrupted by hunger and ratty kids. We tried not-napping yesterday but were exhaustified rather early in the evening, despite having an impressive line-up of TV shows ready and waiting for us.

So the big question, having just returned from our first visit ‘home’ to NZ, is: did coming back to France feel like coming home?

And the answer: yes. We’ve been here for nearly 2 years and are well set-up, even if it might not be for a lot longer. We have friends, a happily cluttered apartment, a bakery we call ‘ours’. We know our way around, the kids have teachers and friends and schedules, we have work and commitments… all hallmarks of home.

It’s cold and often grey and often wet, but also beautiful. Louis and I walked up to get bread this morning. It was still dark, not raining but wet, and all the lights were shining on the pavement. Lovely.

And then there was fresh baguette. It always seems to come back to the bread. I did miss the bread. Om nom nomeny nom.

Anyway, mustn’t get carried away. Yes, it feels like coming home, coming back to Paris, to the suburb of Antony, to the cobbles and the fromages. But it also felt like going home when we flew into Christchurch.

familiar but different, christchurch

Driving around the city and suburbs, though they’ve changed with all the demolitions and rebuilds post-quakes, was eerily familiar.

There’s a map in my subconscious. I got in the car (first drive in 2 years went off without a hitch) and just wound my way around to where I was going. I got a little confused – came out on Riccarton road one road earlier or later than intended, that sort of thing – but still got to dinner on time.

Mum would give me a street name and I’d know just where she meant, but then couldn’t find it on my mental-map. Things have sunk a little deep into the subconscious, but I found my way around.

We spent 12 days in Christchurch (more about that in a later post) and then had Christmas with Luuk’s family in the North Island (another post on that too). Flying into Hamilton didn’t stir any home-coming-vibes in me but a couple of days later we drove into Te Awamutu and wham! I’ve never in lived there, but Nana has, for as long as I’ve been alive, and we would visit multiple times a year throughout my childhood.

Nana's house, Te Awamutu

Visiting Nana’s house itself is pretty powerful nostalgic stuff. Yeesh.

(I’m always tempted to switch on the ceiling fan in the spare room, turn it up to full-bore and then lie on the floor underneath, and freak myself out, but it wouldn’t be the same without my sister to giggle along with. That fan wiggles around like mad.)

Driving into Auckland, now that always feels like going home. I lived there till I was fifteen and whenever we visit we always pop in on one particular family, who were my neighbours for most of a decade. Their house is up there with Nana’s in how long I’ve known and loved it.

Oh, the games, the sleepovers… we were orphans with magical powers, more often than not. They’re renovating it for sale, sadly, but we enjoyed one long last gargantuan afternoon tea in the downstairs lounge while my children discovered the Disney castle toy (manual elevator included) and freaked out about the cat (Josephine rules the roost now that Napoleon has gone to the happy farm in the sky).

mission bay fountain, auckland

Mission Bay in Auckland, a beloved old haunt.
(Yes, we dipped our toes in the dodgy harbour water, burned our feet on the sand and then ran to the fountain, but of course.)

So those were my many homecomings of the past month. We had a wonderful, if busy time. We got a bit tan, and a bit more confused about what we want to do with the rest of our lives – or the rest of the year, for that matter. We really don’t know where we’ll be a year from now, but stay tuned!

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this side of the season

Tomorrow we are off! We have nearly a month in NZ and will be sure to enjoy all the perks of a summery christmas break, but for the past couple of weeks we’ve been doing the silly season Paris-style… or Euro-style. Or just northern hemispherish

fourth night of hanukkahThe 4th night of Hanukkah, once again with the Russakoffs.

I’d never done Hanukkah in NZ, but it’s not particularly French either. It’s just that expats flock together a bit, and so here on the other side of the globe we have close friends who celebrate Hanukkah, and aside from anything else, who says ‘no’ to latkes?

last french class of the year

Last day of French class (and Ina’s farewell.)

The whole grande finalé bit actually reminded me of NZ, given that it’s the start of summer holidays and everything is wrapping up, farewells aren’t unusual. But this is a rather international crowd, and a french class too. We sent Ina off with a basket of all things français, and a mustache for good measure.

elena spins her dredle

More hanukkah. Several days later, between savory and sweet courses of crêpes, care of our friend the chef, look what Elena found on the table.

leaves beat the playground

Playing in the leaves at the park after school. So very cold. Bring on summer!

clocks and kids at galeries lafayette

The marvelous window displays at Galeries Lafayette.

kids at galeries lafayette

They have mechanised marrionettes and music…

galeries lafayette windows

… and little bridges for the kids to stand on.

iphone pressies

Christmas markets in Paris… and a few shops too. If I had an iphone I think mine would be chocolate coated.

santa aint charming

Louis is unimpressed by Père Noël.

bells and sleighs

Elena is more impressed in the bell than the man.

last day of school

Last day of school for 2013! (And the school Christmas tree – just plain humongous.)

We’re half packed and the house is half-tidy (but actually pretty clean – incredibly) so we won’t have too late a night tonight. Tomorrow, to Singapore!

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Category : Daily Life

Officially, POUR QUOI is the way to ask WHY in French. But with the right kind of eyebrow action (and a hand gesture might help) a good QUOI? does the trick. Literally, just WHAT?

Perhaps it’s PMS but there seems a lot of stupidity going around this week. Perhaps it’s teething and the terrible two’s last stand, but my kids are driving me up the wall.

Elena hates (loathes, attempts to destroy, screams at) the rain-cover on her push chair. This means a lot of noise, all the way to school, the market, and home again. It varies from screech to whimper but all of it’s miserable and really, truly, SHE’S FINE. Strangers comment, or just glare at me – terrible mother, clearly, ignoring the protests of my otherwise adorable daughter. Thing is, the moment I take off the rain cover, she’s fine. If I pilfer her a grape from the groceries, she’s happy as larry, until the grape is gone. Gah!

All this pales, of course, compared to the real problems in the world. Violence, oppression, bigotry, warped ideas about bodies and beauty in the media… But, gr.

Louis gets stuck on repeat, and feels the need to tell me, thirty times over before I’ve had my morning coffee, that he’s not going to go outside at school today. The decision, I’m afraid, is not up to him (or me for that matter) but he needs to stop saying it over and over and over, before I lose it.

School holidays have finished, at least, and we can return to routine and normality (for a month or so, then comes the Christmas Crazy – ie. trip to NZ!) I’m sure the kids will get into their groove. And I’ll get out of my rut.

I was doing the groceries online, earlier today, and was browsing through the international food categories. There’s USA (sweet popcorn is the only item in this category – quoi?) and then there’s TEX MEX. I scroll through two pages of burritos and tacos and guacamole with a surprisingly low percentage of avocado… and then at the very bottom of the last page –

tex mex and peanut butterSo this is why the French don’t like Peanut Butter… they think it’s tex mex! Quoi? (Doesn’t help, I’m sure, that it’s Skippy, hardly the best example of this delectable spread.)

I mean, I certainly mess with food, play with fusion, make up recipes as I go. I use sweet chilli sauce like the Thai never intended, probably, and the Italians would have some strong words about the way I make cannelloni, but where do you put peanut butter on a taco?

On Tuesday, in the rain, Elena and I went to the market. She wouldn’t sleep in the morning and so I figured she could grab a few winks between an early lunch and halte garderie (starts at 2pm).

It didn’t go well. First there was the rain cover to contend with, and then we were half an hour early to pick Louis up from school. So we went to Cafe de la Gare, which make awful coffee but an alright Lemon pressé. I let Elena stir in my sugar then wrestled the glass off her so I could drink it. But I used all my cash at the market and they won’t take my bank card for a 4 euro purchase. How much do I need to spend? Twelve, thirteen Euros. Quoi? He’s just pulling numbers out of the air, right? I got a croissant (Elena needed lunch – but she wouldn’t touch it – quoi?) and a hot chocolate (also held no appeal to the stirring-child who just wanted to load it with sugar packets, paper and all). Nine euros, he let me pay by card. Was the four euro reduction on account of the screaming toddler?

Then we got Louis and went home for a sham of a meal and (finally) Elena napped.

Randomly, I bought fish off a guy whose sister works in NZ, for the French ambassador. Small world, eh? Also managed to take the kids for their BCG vaccines (finally) and turns out the pediatrician knows a few kiwis in these parts, mostly rugby players, and once saw to Andrew Mehrten’s kids.

Speaking of rugby, we’re off to a game this weekend. For someone who grew up in NZ I’m not much of a fan. I’d been to two live games in my life before moving to France. This time next week, I’ll have been to as many in France as I ever did in NZ. Unfortunately, my warm coat is blue. Might have to fashion some black ferns on my cheeks, just to be sure.


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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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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.


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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Apparently, that’s what re-entering the earth’s atmosphere looks like. In France they call the first few weeks of school the ‘rentrée’ and, yep, it’s a bit like that. Louis even had a fever at one point (he’s all better now) so there was burning – and the sausages I overcooked, I suppose. That’s the kind of thing I tend to do when there’s too much going on. I start forgetting things.

We got back from Italy on the Sunday night, thinking school might start the next day. It didn’t, fortunately, but Elena had her first session at the halte garderie.

first day at halte garderie

They start them off with ‘adaptation’…

Day 1: I go with her and we both stay and play for an hour.

Day 2: she does the second half hour by herself.

Day 3: a whole hour en seul.

Day 4: if all goes well (and it did) she does an hour and a half there on her own.

Day 5: two hours.

And then the next week she goes for her ordinary three half-days (3 hours), which will be the usual habit from now till next July… minus Christmas holidays and the like.

My lovely friend Erin watched Louis while Elena and I stayed at halte garderie for an hour, but the next day Louis sat in the salle de réunion (waiting room?) and played on my ipad for the first half hour. Then we went to the park, which he was happy about.

And Elena? She loves it. She has a thousand toys and two kind teachers, a few english-speaking (as much as any of them speak at 15 months) kids in her group, and cried only once – when Louis and I came to pick her up and waved through the window, then ‘disappeared’ to go in the door. She thought we’d gone. We were only on our way inside, but out of sight.

School for Louis started on Thursday. This information was on the noticeboard, on the fence, outside the school. I saw it on Monday afternoon, but we’d already figured out there wasn’t any school because the menu didn’t start till thursday. That’s right. We could find out on the internet what the kids were having for lunch, but we couldn’t find out when they started school.

A couple of days later we got the local magazine in the mail and on the back is the menu for the whole month:

menu at maternelle

Louis eats bread. I’d have thought he’d want the pasta, the deserts, the petit pois (peas) but no, apparently he only eats bread. This is what Louis tells me, so it’s possible he’s forgetting some delicious morsel of… no, probalby he’s just eating bread.

Je ne comprends pas.

He did just the morning the first day, coming home for lunch. On friday we thought he could try a full day. We want him to stay there for the lunches as we’ve heard it’s an environment which has helped many a stubborn un-adventurous eater to try new things, but he can’t stay for lunch unless he stays all afternoon. After lunch they have a two hour sleep and then the last ninety minutes of the day are free-time, easy play, or so it seems.

This week he’s done full days every day, with mixed success. He’s napping no problem, and has been dry about half the time (no nappies at nap time). He doesn’t eat much but that hardly makes for a dramatic change. He was upset on Tuesday morning. Luuk dropped him off before going on a work trip, so perhaps there was some added tension there.

first day of school, afternoon tea Afternoon tea at the park, after school. Comfort food and some big changes for the little man.

hot chocolate after school

On Tuesday it rained so I took Louis to Café de la Gare for a chocolat chaud. We have half an hour to kill between when he finishes school and when Elena finishes halte garderie, so if this wintry weather keeps up we will soon figure out where to get the best chocolat chaud in town.

Wednesday is a day off, every week, all year around, for French schools. Older kids have clubs and extra-curriculars. Little kids need the rest. It was grey and miserable, so we stayed home and baked muffins.

fig, banana and white chocolate muffins Banana, fresh fig and white chocolate muffins.
(Yes, Louis picks out the figs when he eats them.)

Louis and Elena watching fishWednesday’s outing: lots of errands and the fish pond!

School went a bit better on Thursday. I stayed for a while when we dropped him off in the morning. We did some painting and he was drawing happily until I told him I had to take Elena home for a sleep – and that he didn’t need one, because he’s a big boy, so he could stay at school and do all the fun things with the other kids.

He was not convinced. He cried. I felt a bit guilty all day. But at the end of it Louis’ teacher proudly informed me that he’d actually spoken to her! Progress! It’s all in French, of course, so he’s got a lot to adjust to.

This morning he was upset again, but more readily distracted with a truly impressive selection of those toys with beads on a wire.

wire bead toy

Comme ça.

So hopefully he’s doing okay. He should be asleep at school at the moment. Elena is too (here, at home) and I could nap, probably. I have succumbed to a cold. The kids had a bit of chesty cough last week but got better within a couple of days. Lucky things.

There’s a meeting for parents at Louis’ school tomorrow, but other than that the only thing on this weekend is Antony’s famous annual cheese and wine fair. It’s incredible. The whole neighbourhood is a-buzz with preparations today. The lights are strung up like christmas. There are roads closed, stalls set up all along the streets, the whole shebang.

Might have to find me some medicinal bordeaux after I’ve picked up Louis from school.