Saturday, June 27, 2015

Still in France! (Part IV)

Hello everyone,

Here is the continuation of our French adventures.

Yesterday (Friday 6/26) was a very busy day.  We had planned on leaving early in the morning but after all decided to let the kids sleep in. Actually, only my son slept in.  My daughter elected to come grocery shopping with my mom and me. It seems that we go grocery shopping every day over here. I'd like to say that we shop at quaint small French shops but we end up at the supermarket every morning, it seems.

We shared a cart since my daughter and I also wanted to buy some items, among them a larger duffel bag to exchange for the smaller ones that we had come with. We haven't really bought anything else than food, but the bags that we brought from France seem very packed now!  My mom let us use her customer loyalty card and we saved an unexpected 20 euros on the bag, more than 50% off and we ended up paying only about 15 euros for it, which is an awesome deal. It's a much larger bag and it has wheels, which will be nice, although it will take a lot of space on the back seat of the car.

The bag was on sale because now is the summer sales period, also known as "soldes" over here. Every store is offering deep discounts on pretty much everything.

My daughter and I had fun squirrelling items from my mom's area of the cart to ours, as I had fully intended to purchase the groceries since we've been at my mom's for most of the week and will be there for another week and she lives off a small pension.  She sometimes figured it out and would scold us and try to put everything back in her little corner of the cart, but in the end I instructed my daughter to distract her when we reached the register and I was able to pay for the groceries.  She was cross, but not really :)

I'm not sure why it struck me funny that they sell organic eggs in cartons of 4 eggs...

USA! USA!  They sold American sweet potatoes :)

This was taken about halfway down ONE of the wine aisles at a local supermarket!
We came home, unloaded the groceries, and had lunch.  After doing the laundry and having a cup of coffee, we finally left at about 1:30 p.m.  We drove about 90 minutes to the Grottes D'Arcy, which are prehistoric caves in the Massif du Morvan area of northern Burgundy.

Once we reached the parking lot, we couldn't really tell where the entrance or the ticket booth was.  Leading away from the parking lot was a wide wooded path that I thought led to the caves but a small group of people were coming down the path so I decided to check with them.  A French woman in the group, flanked by 2 young boys, answered that the path only led to smaller caves and pointed to the proper entrance.  I thanked her, and as I walked away, I heard her call out to one of the young boys in English.  I didn't think much of it but my son caught up with me and asked me if I felt weird (I think he meant "silly") speaking French to a woman who spoke English.  I replied that I thought that maybe she had married an Englishman since her accent in English sounded British to me.  We kept walking towards the cave entrance.

In the meantime my mom had struck up a conversation with the older woman of the group and called out to me excitedly to tell me that the lady I had spoken to lived in Florida, in St. Petersburg, which is about 2-3 hours from where I live, I think.  Quite a coincidence, especially as I learned by talking to her a little more, since she also married an American who doesn't like to travel so her husband stayed home (like mine), she didn't teach French to her children (as I didn't), and it was the first time she brought the kids to see her parents (just like me!).  Another weird coincidence was that her dad recognized my mom's accent since he was born very close to the area of France where she was born. My mom and I thought she had lost her accent years ago but I guess not, after all!  Anyhoo, we all had a good laugh. The parents insisted on us daughters exchanging phone numbers so we exchanged email addresses to humor them but I don't think either of us has any intention of corresponding :)

(This is a picture borrowed from the cave's website)
The entrance of the caves.
We finally reached the entrance to the caves and struck a pleasant conversation with the lady operating the register while we were waiting for our tour to start. I'm glad we got a late start to our day since it wasn't crowded at all at that time of day. There were only about 11 of us in the group, 3 of them being small children. Our guide was very nice and knowledgeable.  He started translating everything he said in English for my children's benefit, but it was quite apparent that this would double the amount of time spent in the caves so I told him that I would translate as he talked.  We weren't allowed to take any pictures so I have none to share, unfortunately.

We walked 900 m (almost one kilometer) underground to the back of the caves, observing stalactites (hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites ("growing up from the ground"). He explained that these caves were never "discovered" since their entrance was quite evident so people had known about them for centuries (indeed they found Roman coins in the small lake inside, proof that maybe even Romans threw coins in water while wishing something!).  So generations of people had been visiting the caves.  In 1903, the owner started charging entrance fees to visitors.  Back then, there wasn't any electricity or lighting in the cave so people used candles to see, as they had for centuries.  In 1976 the owner of the mine decided to clean them up since he thought centuries of candle smoke had dirtied the walls.  They used hydrochloric acid to wash the walls and essentially bleach them... but in the process is it now estimated that they destroyed about 80% of all the prehistoric paintings that had been, unknown until then, in the cave.  Unknown because they were covered by a thin layer of calcite that had grown over them.  As they cleaned deeper and deeper into the cave, someone noticed a partial red drawing on the walls and so work finally stopped and archaeologists, armed with dentist drills spent 6 months over the next 4 years removing the layer of calcite to reveal a large mammoth painting. Nowadays we could see mammoth paintings as well as other animals depicted as a fish, the ancestor of a cariboo, and others. We also saw a negative hand print, made of a child's hand. 33,000 years ago.  It was made by blowing ochre over the child's hand pressed against the wall. They found the bone that contained the ochre at the bottom of the handprint and were able to carbon date it.

This was also borrowed from the cave's website since we weren't allowed to take pictures.
I had never seen prehistoric paintings in real life so this was very cool.  Although not the most beautiful and somewhat hard to see (we had to kneel down because the cave's ceiling was quite low in that spot, and the area was cordoned off so we couldn't get very close), it was chilling to realize that we had walked in the footsteps of very very very ancient people.  My kids quite enjoyed this excursion.

After that the kids and my mom enjoyed an ice cream cone, and we drove on to Vezelay, located only about 20 minutes away.

Vezelay is a very important village in Christendom (well, for Catholics, I suppose), because its basilica is said to contain the remains of Mary Magdalena, the prostitute pardoned by Christ, turned apostle who was said to be the first to see Jesus resurrected.  This is the site where several crusades were launched from.

Nowadays you park at the bottom of the hill and walk through the narrow street (still open to car traffic which can make it a perilous journey) up the hill to the basilica.  Itself is quite unremarkable and starkly bare. It was originally built in the 12th century but damaged and destroyed during several wars and restored in the 19th century, I believe.  There were lots of monks milling about, as it was close to 6 p.m. and I think that is the time for Vespers (evening prayer). Not being religious, we didn't stay for that and instead elected to walk the grounds around the basilica.  There are gorgeous views of the adjacent villages and fields down in the valley and it was all very peaceful.  Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures of the landscape without the kids smack dab in the middle of them so you don't get to see it.

The basilica

Inside the basilica

This is a very unadorned church

I love how the stones capping the walls around the property dovetail into one another :)

One of the old houses seen as we look down the main street leading to the basilica
My kids were once again quite uninterested in the explanations that I was providing and I got quite upset with them at that time, but my mom and I were having a good time while reminiscing about previous visits.  Our visit was quite short and we slowly walked back down the hill.

When we had arrived the official in charge of issuing parking tickets was making the rounds of the small parking lot were we landed.  I had asked him where the parking meter (= horodateur) was and he had pointed it out to me and told me that since I had arrived quite late, I could just pay for 1 hour and he wouldn't issue me a ticket if we stayed longer. I asked him several times if he was pulling my leg and he swore that he wasn't, and indeed he hadn't, although we had only stayed just over an hour.

We decided to ignore the GPS and take small countryside roads home, heading in the general direction to where we were going and it was very nice.  We got home at about 8:30 and my mom cooked a quick dinner (can I say, again, how nice it has been not having to cook? She won't even let me do the dishes for her!) and then she went to bed because she was exhausted.  After dinner the kids enjoyed some more French pastries. I think we're all going to go into withdrawal when we come back to Florida.

This is called a "religieuse" (aka a nun). 
I was tired too but I had wanted to take the kids to see the Light Show on the façade of the cathedral of the nearby town, which is only on during the summertime on Fridays and Saturday nights at 10:30 p.m.  The cathedral in Sens, Burgundy, celebrated 850 years last year. It was the first gothic cathedral built in the world.  The king known as Saint Louis got married in it (to Marguerite de Provence, the daughter of one of the Savoy counts' wives who was buried in the abbey we visited in the Alps last week).

So the kids and I headed into town on our own. I wasn't really sure of where we were going to park because my mom had warned that parking might be hard to come by.  As we waited at a traffic light, my daughter exclaimed "It's your sister!" and indeed, my sister and BIL were crossing the road nearby. They were walking their dog and hadn't seen us. We flagged them down and were able to park nearby.  It's a small city but not that small so it was yet another weird coincidence to run into them!  We chatted for a while and invited them to come along with us but they hadn't eaten dinner yet (at 10:15 p.m.!) and their sons were waiting for them at home so they went on their way and we found our way to the cathedral's square.

The nearby cafe's terraces were filled with people having a drink or dinner and waiting for the light show.  Everyone was standing in the back of the square to get a better view since the façade is quite tall but we preferred to stand in the front of the crowd.  We had a great view.  The show was truly spectacular.  They used special cameras to project 3D images so perfectly molded to the façade of the cathedral that they seemed to change the actual architecture of it with every new effect.  The kids and I really loved it.  I especially loved that such a spectacular 30-minute show didn't cost us a dime as there is no entrance fee!  I was really left speechless.

You couldn't tell but this picture was taken at about 10:25 p.m. PM!!!! without any flashes or lighting of any kind. Yes, it is bright outside, still!

About 5 minutes before the end of the show, I felt a small hand on the back of my arm. Being a pessimistic person, I thought that maybe someone was getting ready to rob me, but it was my little 9-year-old nephew who had discovered that we had run into his parents before the show and had insisted on his dad bringing him along so he could see me.  Awww!  They looked for us during the show and were about to give up when my nephew spotted me.  Double awww!  So he was quite happy to sit on the ground with his 2 cousins and watch the end of the show.  After that we all walked about to our car and their neighborhood and my BIL and I chatted for a while about his own family.

We finally took leave of them and came back to my mom's house. We were very very tired!

On Saturday morning, we had decided to stay home. I woke up at about 9 a.m. and it suddenly dawned on me that my sister had said she was off today.  She is quite a bit younger than me so we never knew each other as adults and moms. I texted her asking if we could get together today without our kids and she was quite enthusiastic about it. So after lunch I went to pick her up and we went to one of the cafes by the cathedral where we spent a couple of hours chatting.

After drinking a couple of French Coke Zeros (they don't taste the same as in the USA... and they taste much better!), we decided to take a walk and found ourselves walking down the main street, which is a pedestrian street. When I was a teen, there was nothing to do in that town and our main entertainment was walking up and down that street, wishing that we could buy the cool stuff in the windows, and looking for our friends (and avoiding our enemies!).  As we were coming back up the street, my sister spotted my son and was puzzled because for a moment she thought he had run away. But then we saw my mom and sister with him: my non-English speaking mom had taken my mostly non-French speaking children shopping and they were having a good time!

We hang out together for a bit and visited the local Sephora where they were having "soldes!" and where my daughter found blue nail polish on sale for 70% off which my sister bought for her. Then they went on their way and we went on ours.  We visited a small tea shop where I got some green mint tea for Greg and some ginger chocolate for me, and I stopped by a patisserie to get some chocolate croissants for my nephews.  I briefly stopped by my sister's apartment to see my nephews and BIL and give them their chocolate croissants and then my sister and I walked to my car and we managed to spend another hour in the parking lot chatting about our families. I really wish I lived closer to her!

I came home to my mom's at about 8:30 and we had dinner shortly after, just like magic!  Did I mention I love this? I love this. I want a maid. And a cook.

After catching up with the kids and my mom, I got ready for tomorrow.  We will be driving to Verdun to visit the WWI war battlefields and ruins. I have secured a hotel nearby. Then on Monday we will drive to my great aunt's and also visit my grand-parents and great-grand-parents grave sites. We also want to drive into Belgium and Luxembourg.

I will write more in a few days. I won't be taking my laptop on this trip!

Friday, June 26, 2015

France So Far - Troisième Partie (aka Part III)

Greetings from France on June 27th!  I start this post at 1:45 a.m. so we will see if I can stay awake long enough to finish it, add pictures, and publish it. If not, I'll have to come back and finish it at a later time.

We've done a lot of things since my last post.  Sadly, I don't think the kids are really enjoying them.  They don't seem overly interested and that saddens me and really disappoints me. But I have decided that I would have fun anyway and if they don't... well, I care but I can't let them spoil this trip for me.

Yesterday (well, Thursday), was kind of a bust. First off, we had to drop my mom's car off at the local car service center so she could get a check-up. No problems there and I reminded her to mention that one of the rear brake lights had gone off so they knew the replace the bulb. They noted it on the work order.  We drove the 90-minute trip in my rental car.

 My mom and I had planned on spending the whole day visiting the medieval castle site at Guédelon.  I visited it with my brother 2 years ago and my mom had visited it several times in the past as well. Back when I visited in 2013, my youngest son was still very much interested in medieval castles and knights and I so wished for him to be there with me, at the time. Fast forward to 2015 and he seems to have lost interest in a lot of things (damn puberty!), including medieval castles.

Guédelon is a project that was started about 15 years ago,  I think. Several people were interested in building a medieval castle from the ground up, using only local materials as they did back in the days, and tools and technologies from the period as well.  They settled on the Guédelon site in northern Burgundy,  I believe because of the presence of all the natural resources that they needed.  The site is located in the middle of a forest and it is a little hard to find.  Despite this, it's always crowded as tons of school trips take place and there are also tourists like us.

They estimated that the project would take 25 years, I believe (I'm repeating what my mom and brother told me but didn't bother fact-checking them so this might all be wrong!), and they're on uear 15 so they still have 10 years to go. There are 70 salaried workers who are master artisans and there are also a lot of technical school students learning the ropes as well as a few volunteers, I believe.  They quarry and carve the stones there, make the white-wash for the walls with lime and sand from on-site materials, make all the metal tools and objects that they need, etc.

Approaching the castle itself.  They're still building several of the towers and the chapel but you can go inside and visit several rooms and halls that are finished or being worked on.

Here the flooring is being added to the Great Hall that is located on the 2nd floor of the castle.

This is one of the artisan huts located in the surrounding forest, like a small village in the woods. There are live animals roaming about (dogs, sheep, chickens) and others such as pigs, horses, and donkeys, which are penned.  We had a lot of fun observing and filming a baby sheep running around with its mother who was kind of an air-head.  His bleating was very cute but she had the most horrible,  hoarse voice when we was calling him and we couldn't stop laughing!
The site is the castle itself, that you can visit, and also several small artisan tents where you can observe those artisans hard at work and also ask them questions.  It's really interesting.

We had lunch at their outdoor lunch counter. courtesy of my mom.  We enjoyed sandwiches and a pastry for dessert.  My mom had a beer, which really shocked my kids, as I don't drink much alcohol (if any) ever, and my daughter's dad doesn't drink either. I guess they hadn't noticed that my mom and stepdad have a glass of wine with lunch every day!

As I mentioned, my mom and I had thought we'd stay there all afternoon, but we were pretty much done at 1 p.m.   I asked the kids whether they wanted to see anything else and they mentioned seeing brochures near the ticket booth about local attractions so I sent them to find something that might interest them. My son came back with a brochure of the Castle of St. Fargeau which I have never visited.  They advertised an awesome lightshow with live reenactors as well but it doesn't start until July 11 and (I hope that) we will be home by then. It was disappointing.

My daughter came back with a brochure about what we thought was a chocolate museum but ended up being a museum of chocolate molds. Since it was on the way home and we hoped they sold chocolate, we decided to try and find it. It was surprisingly challenging (shouldn't a museum be easy to find?!) and the GPS sent us through very tiny, empty, village streets that seemed to lead nowhere. We started to joke that the whole thing was sketchy when we finally found it at the bottom of an old farm road but it looked to be a very small museum located in someone's very old home. I had misread the brochure, thinking that it was open at 2:30 p.m. and we got there at 2:10 p.m. so we parked the car and started to wait. After a couple of minutes I looked at the brochure again and realized that the museum was only open on the weekends at set hours, but that you had to make an appointment in advance to see it during the week! I made the kids get out of the car to take a picture of them in front of the museum entrance to remember our crazy adventure :)

So we drove home. It was a 90-minute drive so we were home by 3 p.m.

We first stopped by the car service place to pick up my mom's car.  The kids and I dropped her off and went home.  The kids went to get their phones on the wifi in their respective rooms and we never saw them again, apart from dinner. However, when mom got home, I looked at her brake lights and they hadn't replaced the bulb at all.  She was going to postpone bringing the car back but I urged her to call them right away. They apologized, replaced her bulb and didn't charge her for the replacement, which was very nice. Frugal mom!

Back home, I had settled in the garden with a nice cup of coffee while waiting for her so she joined me there as soon as she got back. We were chatting nicely when a friend stopped by for a visit so we invited him to sit in the garden with us and my stepdad joined us and we had a nice visit.

We had a late dinner (my family seems to eat dinner at 8:30 or 9:00 p.m.) and then everyone was exhausted so we pretty much went to bed.

I'd love to finish this post with the stories of what we did on Friday but it's now past 2:40 a.m. and I can't keep my eyes open so it'll need to wait until later!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

France So Far - Part Deux

THIS WAS PUBLISHED BEFORE I HAD A CHANCE TO INSERT PHOTOS, SORRY! I will be updating this post later on today, probably and illustrating it a little better :) - Nathalie

Update #2 on 6/27/15: sorry, everyone!  Being able to find time to blog is proving harder than I imagined as someone is always trying to get my attention and so I'm "on the go" all day long and into the night.  It's past 1 a.m. and my daughter is asleep next to me and I'm just now getting to doing what I said I would do 3 days ago!  Plus I want to write another blog post so I don't forget what we did over the last couple of days.  So here are some photos to illustrate this now-old post. I keep on forgetting to take pictures for the blog so I don't have a lot of them to share, as I would prefer not featuring pictures of my family members (including my kids). I need to get better at remembering to take interesting pictures without the kids in them too. They'll be happy since they hate it when I take their picture anyway. Is it just my teens or are all teens like this?  They all seem perfectly fine taking selfies every 2 minutes, but if I try to get them to smile to take a picture for me, it's a huge imposition!

Hi there again. I am going to try to remember what happened over the past few days :)

Unfortunately, just a few minutes after I published my last post (on 6/22), my dad had a huge fit (I still don't totally understand why although, truly, I was expecting something like this to happen and both my brothers and my mother had either warned me or expecting this eventuality) and I elected to leave his house a day early. Thankfully the kids were upstairs so they didn't witness anything but I urged them to pack up everything fast and we left, after making sure that we had left everything in order. I even started a load of laundry for him.

Sadly my dad and I have a long history of being at odds. I had started talking to him again (after not talking to him for about 11 years) just 3 years ago when I had heard that my stepmom had gotten cancer, but although I feel loyalty towards him, he is not someone whose personality I enjoy and were he not my dad, I would have never made any efforts to have a relationship with him. This last incident was hurtful enough that I decided that I truly do not need his horrible personality to poison my life any longer and I doubt I will ever talk to him again. I think that in one sweep he alienated his oldest  child and 2 grandchildren and probably will never meet his other 2 grandchildren and it's sad but more for him than anyone else, truthfully.

So we texted my mom that we were coming a day early and drove back to Burgundy. Once there, my daughter realized that she had left her wallet there as well as her headphones, because I had rushed them out of the house and despite the fact that I had made sure the house was in order, I hadn't made sure that we weren't leaving anything behind.  Her wallet only contained her US driver's license, 10 euros, and her student ID.   I've already ordered her a duplicate license online so it will be waiting for her when we get home, and I bought her a new pair of headphones.

My mom and stepdad were very excited to see us and made sure the kids felt welcomed and loved, which was lovely and much appreciated by all 3 of us.  They're really spoiling us and said they would do "like the Americans" and let the kids help themselves to anything in the fridge whenever they wanted instead of stressing over what the kids would eat at mealtimes or how much they were eating. They think my kids don't eat enough because they watch American movies that seem to be showing Americans eating a lot, all the time, so they bought tons of food and goodies and are puzzled that the kids really don't want them, lol!  They also were very surprised to hear my kids refuse to drink Coke.

I had to fill in both my brothers about what had happened at our dad's and neither of them was surprised nor upset with us. On the contrary, they were quite upset with our dad, and they each have their own horror stories with our dad so we commiserated.  Sigh.  The man will truly die alone as he has already alienated a lot of friends and doesn't talk to his siblings, but that is his choice and I just can't worry about it anymore.

This time around, it was obvious that my son truly felt more comfortable as he chose to sleep alone in my mom's office and moved his inflatable mattress there. She loved it because she said it proved that he felt at ease in her home, which was a huge compliment to her :)

Mom and I stayed up chatting until 1:30 a.m. and then I texted with Greg until 2:30 a.m.  The kids slept in the following morning while the birds outside woke me up at 7:30 a.m.  I had breakfast with my mom and stepdad and we all chatted some more.  My mom and I went to get some groceries and then we went to surprise my youngest nephew by picking him up from school for lunch (they have 90 minutes for lunch and you can sign your kids out) and taking him back to my mom's to have lunch with his cousins. He and my son played with an old deflated soccer ball that my mom had, in her tiny front yard.  My nephew was so excited that we decided to pick him back up at 4 p.m. so he could come back and play some more. We took him back to school and went to buy a real soccer ball, drinks and snacks and, after we picked him up from school, we went to a local beautiful park.  There is a wonderful free greenhouse near the park, displaying all kinds of tropical plants, including some that we find in Florida... they even had the same hostas as the ones my son and I had planted in front of our house so that was funny to see in Burgundy :)

Huuuuuge lilypads! You could seriously put 2 people on each.
We had called my sister (his mom) to get permission and found out that she had the day off so we invited her to join us at the park. She can walk there from her apartment.  We had a great time at the park!  The kids played soccer and on the playground equipment (there weren't many other families around) and my mom, sister, and I chatted.  We stayed there until past 7 p.m.!

The 3 cousins enjoying some good old playground fun. It never gets old, even when you're 16 and 13 as they showed their 9 year-old cousin.
My sister and nephew walked home since we didn't have enough room in the car for the both of them, and we drove back to my mom's house. My stepdad has been taking care of all the cooking and most of the cleaning so it really feels like a vacation, once again (at my dad's I was taking care of the cleaning and my dad was doing the cooking). So relaxing!  We had a really nice dinner of ham and cheese croissants baked in the oven and a fresh salad from their vegetable garden.

It was a little chilly at night and on Monday night my daughter had wrapped herself in the best blanket so I even got a little cold... which is a good thing since I had been worried about being too hot, hahaha. My mom gave me another comforter for the following night. We've been having wonderful weather pretty much everywhere, it's been really enjoyable.

On Tuesday morning, after I had breakfast with my mom and stepdad again, mom and I decided to drive to the local garage center to make an appointment for my mom's car's oil change.  We also went to the supermarket and got more drinks and double the amount of chocolate croissants from the previous day since we had obtained permission to pick up my youngest nephew from school at noon (there is no school on Wednesday afternoons in France) and then his older brother (who was home from school, supposedly studying for an exam tomorrow) to play with their American cousins.  We all had lunch at my mom's.  My stepdad had made "raclette" for us.  I have seen the machines in the US but it's something that started in France, and my kids had never experienced it.

The raclette apparatus is under the potatoes.  It's an electrical appliance that heats up several small frying plans (you see their handles sticking out from under it) in which you melt your slice of "raclette" cheese. While you can top pretty much anything with cheese, my mom only uses baked potatoes and ham.  I also sliced some saucisson (dry spiced pork sausage) in mine, it was delicious.  The kids loved it but it was too much food for them for lunch.
They loved it but we're used to eating light lunches and heavier dinners while at my mom's the lunch is heavy and dinner is light.  So once again, they didn't eat much and my mom was disappointed, lol!

After lunch we headed to another park, which was huge but didn't have many amenities. This time we took my mom's dog with us and my son, while not a dog lover, took pleasure on walking him on the leash while I tried to get my 16 year old daughter and her 16 year old cousin to communicate. It was hard work as they each preferred to be left alone :)

After a while we decided to go back to the previous day's park.  It was more crowded today but you could still play soccer. However neither of the 3 older kids wanted to play so my little nephew was disappointed. I played soccer with him for a bit and we had fun but I'm really out of shape so I didn't last long.  The other 3 were reading on their phones or listening to music, or coloring (my daughter!) and after a while my mom and I decided to take a walk through the park which was larger than I thought and very very lovely.  I wished the park had existed back when I lived in this town!  It would have made my childhood happier, I think!

There were gorgeous flowers and trees and everything was labeled, which is very nice for a novice gardener such as me.

We visited the goats and Chile black pig enclosures and then headed home. The kids ended up having more fun in the front yard of my mom's house.  Mom and I had coffee in her garden, which was lovely.  We called my great aunt in Lorraine and agreed that we would visit her on Monday. She is very excited.  She's had a lot of horrible tragedies in her life in the couple of years so she really looks forward to a distraction.  I can't wait to see her. She's my favorite great-aunt and I haven't seen her in close to 25 years.

I also emailed my childhood friend back. I think I mentioned that she had emailed me, out of the blue, on the day of our departure from Florida, to see if we could reconnect.  I should be able to see her next week, I hope. I also haven't seen her in 25 years!

We took my nephews back to their house at about 8 p.m. and had dinner. My daughter was tired so she went to bed early.

Monday, June 22, 2015

France so Far

I don't know why I thought I'd be able to blog while on vacation!  Days are a whirlwind of activity with our family members and when we're not going somewhere, we're chatting the day away.

The weird thing that I had forgotten about France in the summer is that it's dusk at 10:00 p.m. and the sun rises at about 5 a.m. so it's bright out pretty much all the time.

The blue star shows where we were at the time.
Actually, I suck at geography so I think we were a
little South of there... I didn't look it up!
We spent our first day at my mom's in Burgundy in the town where I spent most of my childhood.  I drove the kids around, showed them the Gothic cathedral and the medieval walls (although very little remains) and where I went to elementary school, middle school, and high school.  I showed them the route I biked to go to high school (in the snow, uphill, both ways, and I'm not even joking) and they realized that I hadn't been joking when I told them they had it very easy back at our house, lol.

In the afternoon we surprised my 9-year-old nephew, who had been dying to meet his cousins, by picking him up from his school.  He was so happy!  We took him back to my mom's to have a snack and relax and then to his mom's (my sister's) where we also got to visit with my 16-year-old nephew and my BIL.  My nephews speak as much English as my son speaks French but they all found common ground with video games as they went into a bedroom to play Black Ops on the PS3 and had a good time.

My mom and stepdad don't speak English but they were able to communicate with the kids somewhat, which was nice.  My son is there reluctantly and is finding it hard to enjoy anything, really, which is getting on my last nerve.  Thankfully I brought my laptop so when we have some downtime he can get on YouTube and do what he does at home and that seems to help. I can't wait until puberty is over, to tell the truth.

My daughter is having a grand time and practicing her French. She was a great help to me when we left the airport and the GPS couldn't connect to the satellite for the first 10-15 minutes. It's a good thing that I usually over prepare and I had printed the instructions and map from the airport to my mom's, but they were in French since they were from the French highway authority site, so she grabbed that and directed me like a boss!

Our rental car
The rental car that we ended up with is a Toyota Yaris hybrid.  I won't bore you with the long story but we ended up getting upgraded to that car for free.  It's a little bigger than the car we were supposed to get, but the bags still don't all fit in the trunk! 2 bags go in the trunk and then we pile up everything else on the back seat.  I couldn't figure out how to start the car at the airport and the attendant didn't know how to do it either at first. It doesn't have a regular key, just a sensor that you carry on a keychain. It needs to be in the car for the car to be able to start. Then there's a button that you push (while depressing the brake, something that in my exhausted mind, I hadn't realized) and that starts the car but the engine doesn't make any noise whatsoever upon starting so half the time I'm not even sure that the car will indeed move when I press on the gas. It's an automatic, which ended up being really helpful when we hit traffic jams outside of the airport. Since it's a hybrid, my gas expenses won't be as high as I feared, which is nice.

On Saturday 6/13 we left my mom's at 5:15 a.m. We had a long drive ahead of us (about 7 hrs) as we traveled through France to get to Marseille, in Provence, where we were staying with my brother (the older of the 2 brothers but younger than me as I am the oldest child) and his girlfriend.  She is Russian but has lived in France for 20 years and she is a violinist.  We wanted to make it in time for a chamber music concert in which she was performing and we did.  It was wonderful!  Violins bring up so much emotion in me that I cry every time I hear one so I cried the whole concert, hahaha. I had warned her not to be upset if she noticed it while playing since we had reserved seat at the very front of the room so she was amused :)  A couple of days later she played the tune from Schindler's List for me as I told her that just thinking about that piece makes me cry spontaneously and we laughed as, sure enough, tears came streaming down as she played.  She's such a wonderful violinist!  My brother is very proud of her and was tickled to death to see his sister and nephews enjoy her playing as well. Such a goofball!

The drive to Marseille was uneventful as there wasn't as much traffic as we had feared and it didn't really rain at all, yay!  The kids managed to sleep some of the time, but sleeping in a small car is never comfortable so they were tired.  I wanted them to stay at my brother's and sleep while I went to the concert but my daughter really wanted to go so we took 2 zombies to the concert. I doubt they'll remember that we took a tram there, which was really cool. I didn't remember to take a ton of pictures. It's so hard to try to take everything in, translate for the kids, try to get good pictures of my teens who keep on dodging me (aaargh!) and remember to take other pictures too!  Plus I'm a horrible photographer and every time I feel that I have a good photo on my phone or digital camera, I'm very disappointed when I see it on my PC.  So sorry for the crappy pictures in advance :)

We're being spoiled with fresh French bread, croissants and pains au chocolat (i.e. chocolate croissants) every morning and everyone is at our beck and call, which is so sweet. I'm really enjoying not having to cook or even worry about what we'll be eating, hahahaha. I have very little planning to do for anything, which is a relief, as our family members are the ones deciding of our itinerary.

On Sunday my brother took us to explore the outskirts of Marseille, one of the oldest cities in the world and a very important Mediterranean port since antiquity.  This is a view of the Meditteranean sea and part of the old port of Marseille (which is thousands of years old).

This was taken from the Belle Mère Basilica that overlooks the harbor.  This is part of the inside of the basilica.

Isn't it gorgeous?

After that we drove along the coast to Cassis. We stopped along the road to have a picnic of French sandwiches (buttered French baguette with ham) while admiring the view of the coast. We were quite high and I was reminded of how afraid of heights I am as I almost hard a nervous breakdown watching my daughter inching toward the edge, aarrgh. My brother telling me stories about rocks falling down with people on them didn't help!

This is as close as I got to the edge of the cliff. I'm a big chicken.
Later on we stopped at one of the "Calanques" (small fjords where you can find secluded beaches, usually only accessible by boat or after a 2-hour hike) but since it was readily accessible from a tiny parking lot, it wasn't the nicest one and a little bit crowded so we didn't stay.

The Calanque de Figuerolles
My daughter wanted to bathe in the Mediterranean so we tried going to the beach in Cassis but we couldn't find a parking space anywhere (Cassis is very tiny) so we drove on to La Ciotat where we sat at a café on the beach and had a drink and pastries/ice cream while my daughter took her Mediterranean dip. I made my son go dip his feet in the water, which he did very reluctantly. I'm sure that, years from now though, he will boast about having bathed in the Mediterranean :)

One of the beaches at La Ciotat, as seen from the beachside café where we had a drink.
From there we drove to Aubagne where we visited the French Foreign Legion museum.

The code of honor of the French Foreign Legion.  The museum, while interesting, didn't have
many interesting "views" to offer! 
My son is very interested in military history (and so is my brother) so this was an outing for his benefit. It was small and would have been quite not so interesting without my brother providing us with historical background about what we were seeing (everything was in French, nothing is in English). Did you know that anyone can apply for the French Foreign Legion?  They weed out the worst criminals but if you are accepted (my brother claims some applicants will walk from China in order to come apply here), they first place you in a building with other people from your nationality but after a couple of days you start intense French training and everyone is expected to be able to follow orders in French in very short order.  They also have an extensive honor code that they have to memorize and recite in French (even though at this point they're really not conversant or anything) before they can be "ordained" as legionnaires.  Also, they are given new names, chosen at random, so they completely leave their old lives behind and no one can find them again (which is one of the reasons why someone might want to join). They, however, cannot have a bank account, own a car, have a wife, etc.  Some of them might have been officers in their own country's military forces but everyone starts at zero with the French Foreign Legion so they have to work their way back up the ladder like everyone else. They've had a long and illustrious history and really are, according to my brother who is former military and a cop, the "badasses" of the French military and our elite troops. They enlist for 5 years which they can renew, and upon completion of their enlistment, they are able to claim French citizenship if they want.

We enjoyed a lovely dinner on the balcony of my brother's girlfriend's apartment.  The weather is hot during the day but since we're near the sea we get nice cool breezes. However it gets stuffy in the apartments. Luckily they do have an AC unit in their living room, where we sleep, which helps a lot.

Conversations are about politics!  I'm not sure if it's my family or if everyone else in France does it too but every conversation turns to a political discussion (well more of a speech as I don't know anything and politics really aren't my cup of tea) but it's interesting how everyone in my family really resents Europe and the current economic situation (same salaries but everything turned 5 times as expensive once France joined the European Union).

Yes, all the French women that I have seen so far have been skinny and I feel like an elephant in a crystal factory!

On Monday we drove around a lot.  We wanted to see lavender fields and take cool pictures of them. You see them pretty much everywhere in the Provence countryside, but my brother wanted to find one with the mountains in the background so we did.

We were supposed to visit the very famous one that belongs to an old abbey but since it's a working abbey and not a tourist site and there are a lot of rules and regulations, my brother didn't want to bother with it. Honestly, I think it would have been nice, but oh well.  Weirdly enough the lavender fields didn't smell of lavender.  You actually have to crush the lavender in between your fingers to get that lovely smell.  I had no idea and expected the whole countryside to smell like softener, hahaha.  We stopped on a lovely tree-shaded road that was an access road to an estate. There were lavender fields on each side.  On the left side, there weren't any bees buzzing in it at all.  On the right side, the whole field was abuzz with bees.  It was so weird!  I guess they all go "eat" in groups, like tourists on a 2-day group tour of Europe, I guess.

One of the old fountains in the village
We stopped in a small village called Valensole.  My brother said it was far from being the most beautiful Provence village but we liked it.  It was on a hillside with the church at the top so we parked at the bottom of the hill in their small municipal parking lot (which had a public bathroom, yay!) and walked the very narrow, steep streets up to the top.  We saw cats, which the kids love, and cool small houses.  It was very peaceful and all three of us wished we had a vacation home there :)

We had brought sandwiches and chips so we had a small picnic on a park bench.  It was very frugal (especially for me since my brother provided the food!).

We also went to visit the ruins of a medieval castle in Baux-de-Provence. The ruins were actually kind of unremarkable (they were really ruins!) but the views were terrific and it was fun to walk up to the castle in the small narrow medieval streets where old houses were converted into shops and cafés.

Wanna bet whether I went on those steps?! 

The French countryside in the valley below the castle. You can't see it in this picture but to the right of it, in the distance, there is a huge landing strip which was one of the emergency landing strips for the space shuttle. It's the longest landing strip in Europe, if I remember properly.

The medieval village among the castle ruins
Look at those medieval cobbled streets!
On the way home we stopped by the small airport where my brother keeps his newest ultra light plane. He's a very experienced pilot and really wanted to take us up in the plane (one by one) so we could share his passion but call me scareddy cat if you want, I see too many headlines where small planes have crashed while killing everyone on board so I had already told him we wouldn't go up.  My daughter was disappointed because, like many 16 year-olds, she has no real sense of danger, I think. My son is like me and prefers the solid ground so he was relieved we didn't go!  It was still nice to climb in the cockpit and having my brother explain how he pilots the plane, etc and especially how he and his GF cram all their camping gear in the tiny cabin so as not to destabilize the plane. Yes, he and his former GF have toured France using his first plane, camping along the way.  He's much more adventurous than anyone else in our family and I kind of envy that but at the same time, not really, lol.

On Tuesday we stayed in Marseille.  The Haribo candy factory is there and while it might have been possible to tour the factory, we just decided to visit the factory store.  O.M.Z!  So much delicious gummy candy!  My daughter found her best friend's favorite candy that you can only get online in the USA and that it quite expensive so she bought her a large bag, as well as tubs of gummy bears that she plans on eating while we're touring France.  My son wasn't going to buy anything. He can be quite.... stingy, err frugal with his money. I had given the kids spending money in euros.  I told him that he could very well spend it because I would just give him more if he ran out and then we'd go home when I had ran out myself. So he piled up candy in his basket and I'm not quite sure if that meant he really wanted the candy or really wanted to go home earlier, hahaha.  Just kidding. He's enjoying the candy.  Haribo candy's flavors are pretty intense and better than the store-brand stuff I usually get for them when it's on sale over in the US.

We also stopped by the last traditional "Savon de Marseille" (Marseille soap, which is world-renowned) factory. We got there a couple of minutes before lunchtime so we couldn't visit anything, but I had enough time to buy a couple of bars of traditional soap, one of them chocolate-scented for my oldest son. He loves chocolate!
I bought rose petal, chocolate, pear, and cotton candy-scented soaps

We met my brother's girlfriend back at their apartment and took the tram into the downtown area where we found a Creperie (a restaurant where you eat crepes as a meal). It's not a local delicacy (crepes are a specialty of the Brittany area, not Provence) but I knew the kids would enjoy it.

My banana, fresh cream,and Nutella-filled crêpe.  The cider was served in those cups that have a specific name but I forgot what it was!
We ate outside on the plaza and shared a couple of bottles of French cider.  French cider is drank year-round at meals, not only around Christmas time like here. It's light and bubbly and comes either in "light" (= cidre doux) version which is about 2% alcohol, or "brut", which is 7% or more alcohol. We had cidre doux and the kids tried it. My son didn't care for it but my daughter liked it. It's not illegal for teens to drink alcohol here or for parents to let their kids drink, especially 2% cider so my daughter enjoyed being a "rebel" compared to their American friends.

Ancient greek tombstone

Old Saracen helmet
My brother's girlfriend went to work (as a violinist she was rehearsing for a very famous annual concert that will take place tonight, Friday, and will be live on TV) and we went to visit the Marseille History Museum.  Marseille is the 2nd oldest port (harbor) in the world so there is A LOT of history here.  The kids got their English audio tour devices and went off on their own while my brother and I went our own way. We spent a very interesting couple of hours there.  There were old cameras that I photographed for my middle son.  The Lumiere brothers invented the moving picture in the area so at some point Marseille was very popular with photographers and in the late 19th century there was a street with more than 160 photographic studios located there!  I think my son would love the area with all this background, the diving and kayaking and the amazing landscapes to photograph. I'm hoping to be able to come back with him maybe next year but hush, no one says anything (just in case I can't) :)

Lastly my daughter wanted to do some shopping in French stores so my brother  decided to have us visit the latest "commercial center" that had just opened last year downtown Marseille. We walked there under the threat of storms, while lightning and black clouds profiles against the mountainous Cevennes background, but we luckily escaped the rain.  It was a beautiful mall... but an American-style mall, complete with a Claire's Boutique and scores of other stores that looked just like the stores we have at home.  My daughter tried on a couple of things but they weren't her size and she was a little dispirited so she didn't want to try anything else on.  Frugal victory for me, hahaha.

Walking towards the downtown mall as the sky was getting darker and darker. This is a big cathedral
downtown Marseille.
We had dinner at my brother's on his balcony once again.  His girlfriend was working late into the night so he and I put our laptops next to one another and shared our favorite Youtube videos. We had such a good time and exchanged links and lots of laughs. The kids were quite happy to be left alone and to play with the cats and surf the net on their own devices :)

We had a sleep-in on Wednesday morning, packed up, and then waited for my (hopefully) future SIL to come home from an appointment so we could say good-bye.   My brother and she insisted on leading the way to the proper highway, which was not necessary but also a great help since the GPS takes a while to locate the satellites so I have to "drive blind" for a good 5 to 10 minutes each time.  So we left Marseille and beautiful Provence behind. We'll see my brother again in Paris, at my other brother's wedding on 7/4.

My brother's Norwegian Forest cat named Alaska wanted us to pack him up and take him with us, I think!
As we left Marseille, we were behind a Google Street View car so we wave at it like crazy and I took a picture of the street sign to remember where we were so we can look up Google Earth later on and see if we made the street view, lol! When we look up my dad's house we see my rental car from my trip 2 years ago parked in front of his house. I was only there 3 days so it's amazing that Google took a picture of his house at the time.

It was quite shocking, when I came to France 2 years ago after a 17-year absence, to see all the graffiti everywhere. And it is
everywhere. In the countryside on the side of an old barn, along the highways, and of course everywhere in the cities, no matter how small the city. It's quite disgusting, actually.  There isn't a respect for anything and quite often there will be tags on very old buildings. I'm very disenchanted with this and my family members are quite upset as well.
The southern wind known as the "Mistral" had started blowing so driving was a little scary at times because my small rental car felt very unstable, especially at high speeds, but traffic wasn't bad, especially as we left the Autoroute du Soleil (the A6, which is the main North-South toll highway) and forked toward the Alps.  We didn't take the most scenic route to get to my dad's since that road was closed for some reason (good thing he had warned me in advance!) but we got here safely in about 6 hours due to pit stops.  The most annoying thing so far is that I never know if my CHIP and PIN Mastercard is going to be accepted or not and indeed the PIN code was rejected at the first pay-at-the-pump gas station that I encountered so far on this trip.  I was painfully aware of that possible problem so I had elected to carry lots of cash with me so we wouldn't be stuck without being about to buy gas and other things, but I don't like having so much with me, especially with all the dire warnings about pickpockets, robberies, etc.  In this case, the attendant told me that they didn't accept credit card payment at the register (?!) so I needed to pay cash in advance. I gave her 50 euros and she handed me a receipt which I had to hand her back once I had gassed up so she could give me my change back. Probably the same system we have in the US but since I always pay at the pump at home, I wasn't sure of how this would work. How spoiled we can be!  So once at my dad's I emailed my card issuer, which is also my bank. They had assured me that my card was still a CHIP and PIN card (due to a security concern last year they had had to reissue me a new card) and that my PIN hadn't changed, but while during my last 2 trips I was prompted to enter my PIN for each purchase, this year I've had to sign all the receipts (something that apparently never happens there anymore so quite a few shopkeepers were kind of puzzled and unsure of what to do, lol) and now the pay at the pump was rejecting my PIN code.  They replied last night that they have no record of my card or PIN being rejected and that I need to call them if I want to change the PIN. With an 8-hour difference (they're in Central Time zone), I have to call them at night over here and I didn't bother last night but maybe I should. Arrgh. Why are things so complicated?! I spent so much time preparing for this trip so this wouldn't happen and it still did.  I'm very annoyed (but it's not the end of the world).  I started my email by warning them to read the whole thread (as I added my new email to the conversation thread that I had had with them back in February asking them about the possibility of this very issue) and told them that I had "no time for the usual back-and-forth as the rep didn't bother to read my email carefully and sent me canned responses that had nothing to do with my questions" and thankfully they did and the answer was thoughtful, detailed, and I think, for the first time, accurate.  The rep explained that over the past year USAA did change their CHIP and PIN cards to be "signature preferred" so if the terminal (i.e. register) is able to request a signature, that will always be the preferred option. If not, it will default to ask me for the PIN.  That doesn't fix that PIN problem that I'm having but it confirms what I suspected and completely negates that the other rep(s) had told me back in February.  I know I keep going on and on about this and this is boring, but some reader might plan to go to France at some point and find the insight helpful.  You just can't assume that your credit card or phone will work the same as it does at home or that it will be accepted at all.  Frankly, I miss traveller's checks!

Anyhoo... of course the Alps are drop dead gorgeous. My dad and now deceased stepmom really put a lot of thought into where they wanted to spend the rest of their days 30 years ago and the scenery is breathtaking. My dad lives outside of Annecy, France, up in the mountains.  The house (a typical Savoy chalet) is from 1850.  The only drawback is that it is right again the mountain road so traffic is very close to the house without much space to park, but he had a nice garden with tons of fruit trees and fruit bushes, flowers, etc. My dad is an accomplished gardener and cook and... many other things. He's a jack of all trades. He's also a snob but he is very very "cultured" and knows his stuff. But a snob, which can be very trying. But I love him.

The view from my bedrooom (the tall mountains are all around but you can't see them from his angle)

and from the balcony
There is a deep, strong brook that passes in front of the house so when you're in the yard the brook's lovely rushing water sounds almost drowns down the occasional traffic noise.  He fishes trout from there once in a while.  He and a friend just built a small cabin in the back of the garden where he put his stationary bike and is waiting for the hot tub to install it in there as well.  It will be so nice for him to go into the hot tub when there is 6 ft of snow outside! It almost makes me wish I was here again in the winter. But not really. I love to look at the snow but I hate it too.  You can hear the bells of the cows grazing in the pastures just beyond the house, although you can't quite see them.

My dad is a flower-lover so he always decorates the balconies with beautiful hanging baskets. It's quite gorgeous against the mountainous backdrop.

However, my daughter is suffering from allergies which got worse once we got here so I stopped by the local pharmacy to get her allergy pills and eye drops as well.  They take a while to work but I think they helped.

Yesterday (Thursday) we had a late start. It's so nice to be in a large home where we can have some privacy!  The kids elected to sleep in the same room but they have their own bed, while I took the room next door. My dad doesn't care if we sleep until noon so they got to lounge around the past couple of mornings. My daughter set up a chair facing the balcony and is enjoying drawing in the sunshine, while my son is more than happy to surf Youtube on his phone. Since I brought my laptop, he also uses it when I'm not. I'm glad I brought it along despite the extra luggage and worry!

So we got up and had a French breakfast (hot cocoa for the kids, which is a French breakfast tradition if you're not having café au lait) and toasted brioche with homemade jam from my dad's garden (reine claude, which is a greenish plum, cramaillotte which is dandelion jelly (made from the thousands of dandelions that my brothers and I harvested when we were all here 2 years ago!) and groseille (red currant) jelly. Then we got into my dad's car and he insisted that I drive. That was fine, but at some point he decided to take us to see some mountaintop (that wasn't on the program for the day!) and made me take a VERY narrow mountain road and as luck would have it, another quite inexperienced mountain car driver was coming down the mountain and both cars wouldn't fit on the road.  I had a sheer drop to my right and she has a steep embankment on her right.  At some point my back wheel left the road and we had the scare of our life. Seriously. I've never been so scared. My dad asked me to back up slightly (he wasn't as calm as I'm making it sound, quite frankly!) and he was able to get out of the car without rolling down the mountain and take the wheel while I directed the other car. He was able to pass them without scratching either cars but all the while insulting them... my dad has a very hot temper and thinks everyone else is an idiot so it's very trying when you drive with him because he insults everyone.  Ugh.  Anyway, after that he wouldn't let me drive again!  The thing is that he is elderly and isn't quite the safe driver that he thinks he is so we had a couple more scares, especially as he was driving way too fast down the curvy mountain road with other cars and BIKES (crazy people!) around.  Seriously, I spent the time wishing the trip was over and telling him to slow down.  Ugh, it wasn't enjoyable at all because I didn't even want to look at the scenery since HE was and I had to tell him what was coming up on the road ahead so we wouldn't crash. Also, he has a heart condition so... ugh, ugh, ugh. I've got to figure a way to tell him he's not driving us anymore and we're only taking large as flat as possible roads from now on without pissing him off :)

We went to visit a 900-year-old abbey where all the counts of Savoie have been buried for centuries.  The audio tour was very well done and the sculptures inside the church and architecture was gorgeous.  We couldn't take pictures in the church so I didn't but my dad did so I'll try to update this post with a couple later on. In the meantime, here are some French cows that live on the estate :)

On the way home I insisted we take the highway and not go back up that road from hell (!) so we did.  But driving on the highway with my dad at the wheel is another risky proposition so I was very happy to get home.  We stopped at a bakery on the way home and since it was almost closing time, I was able to purchase 2 large bags of pastries for breakfast (croissants, pains au chocolat, raisin rolls and pastries filled with applesauce called chaussons aux pommes) for just 5 euros. Score!  I joked that the night before we leave the Alps, I would come back with a large duffel bag and buy up all their 2.50-euro bags, lol.

We spent the evening relaxing somewhat.  I'm having problems with the cable that I use to connect my iphone 5S to my laptop (well at least I hope it's the cable that is giving me trouble and not the phone or the PC) so my laptop once again wouldn't recognize my phone and I couldn't download any of my pictures. The wifi connection here is slow so emailing them to myself, even in the smallest format (which I don't want since I want the full size pictures!) takes forever so today we will stop by a FNAC store to see if I can find a genuine Apple cable.  Back home using Greg genuine cable had fixed the same problem right after I got the phone so I'm hoping it'll work!  The cable charges the phone from an outlet without any problems so I'm afraid it might not be the cable that's causing the problem. I'm crossing my fingers. You might wonder why it's such a problem for me but I only have 1G of space left on the phone and it starts not working properly when I have such little space... plus we still have 3 weeks in France and I want to be able to leave my digital camera home and take every day pictures with the phone without worrying about it not functioning anymore.

On Friday, my dad taught my daughter how to make rhubarb pie so we had delicious pie to snack on for a couple of days. The kids didn't enjoy it so my (diabetic but sugar-loving) dad and I managed to eat the whole pie ourselves over the next few days.

We were "stuck" at home until mid-afternoon as a bicycle race went up the mountain road in front of my dad's house. I don't know if there were any American riders in the group or not, but I cheered them both in French and English and wished them luck. Better them than me!  The last ones looked exhausted despite their obvious excellent overall shape. The leading cars that were sponsored by various companies threw us a couple of freebies: a small package of marshmallows and a couple of balloons.  Freebies! All told, they were more cars and motorcycles than bikes in this race, but my dad says that's the way it goes with those bike races.

After the race we drove into into Annecy and visited another "mall" to see about getting an Apple cable for my phone. I found one (priced at 20 euros tax included so pretty much same price as in the US) and it did make my problems disappear. Hooray! Due to the International Animated Film Festival that was going on in Annecy that week, the Mall had several small booths staffed with people explaining various animated movie techniques like stop-motion animation.  I wish we had had more time to explore this but we ended up leaving :( We had planned on visiting the downtown area but it was rush hour and the traffic was pretty congested and my dad and I had a heated disagreement over illegal maneuvers he wanted me to make (I was driving) so I decided to just go home.

On the way home, however, we did go by his sailing club. My dad has a sailboat on the large and beautiful Annecy lake. The club was closed so we just took a look at the boat (the same one he used to take my brothers and me sailing on when we were little so it's so old now, it's not all that impressive, especially on dry dock, lol!) and walked through the very peaceful, beautiful and unonstentioustly ritzy nearby neighborhood on the lake. Ah, to live there!  It must be heavenly.

We stopped by a supermarket to buy some supplies and the friend's who was coming with us on Sunday to the Aiguille du Midi.  She was kind enough to lend us some heavy winter jackets as the temperatures on the 10,000 ft tall mountain reaches very low temperatures.

The evening was spent watching my SIL's live concert on TV. It took place in a Roman amphitheater ruins in Orange, a few hours outside of Marseille and is a very prestigious annual event.  There was a giant screen installed outside on a plaza in Marseille for people to enjoy it "al fresco" and live and probably in other cities too. It was classical music, opera, etc, not pop although some French pop stars were there and sang traditional French songs and crooned. I didn't enjoy those at all but the classical music and opera singers were awesome (I love opera and classical music so I'm easily pleased).  It is to be known that on June 21 (so the following day), is National Music Day here in France and there were thousands of free outdoor concerts of all kinds all throughout France.  What a lovely way to start the official summer season, although if your local concert is a rap or techno concert, I don't envy you :)

The camera work and live editing was horrible but the music was beautiful.  I thought I recognized the back of her head on a couple of occasions and that was confirmed by my brother the next day. Yay for me, lol! My brother had come into 3 free tickets the same day, which made me sad since if we had known in advance that we might have been able to go see it live, we would have altered our plans. However, there was no way to have known and also my brother said the temperatures really cooled down in the evening so he was freezing.  They had an adventure getting there themselves as the bus that was supposed to take the orchestra and their instruments to the city where the concert was held never showed up so the musicians all had to pile up into available personal cars at the last minute.  My brother himself had to work until the last possible minute so he ended up taking his motorcycle instead of his car and made it there just a couple of minutes before they stopped letting people in. He said the wind was blowing so hard on the highway that it was the very first time he was scared to be driving his motorcycle so he drove kind of slowly behind a large truck to use it as shelter.  On the way home, his GF decided to go back on the motorcycle with him instead of piling up into another car so they took small roads where trees and hedges sheltered them better from the wind and didn't get home until 3 a.m.  I'm glad I didn't know that at the time because I would have worried a lot.

This is a picture that my brother took during one of the rehearsals on a previous day.  They used the background of the ruins to project several pictures that changed according to the aria or music piece being played. That was very well done, actually.
On Saturday (June 21), my daughter, my dad and I went to the weekly outdoor market in the town near where he lives. I love going to the market and seeing all the delicious fresh produce, lunch meats ("charcuterie"), cheeses and artisanal condiments for sale.  We didn't buy anything but it was fun. I also forgot to take pictures :(

However, I did take pictures of the Roman bridge that we pass on the way down into town.

 My son had elected to stay home to relax.  We did spot by a supermarket (Lidl, similar to Aldi) afterwards and I spotted small LEGO kits. My son used to be a huge LEGO fiend, we have an enormous amount of LEGOS back home, so I bought him a small kit to bring a smile to his face. My daughter argued that he wasn't into LEGOs anymore and that his reaction would disappoint me, but she was proven wrong as he gave me the biggest hug ever and was excited... until he realized that I thought the black figuring in the kit was Darth Vader and it wasn't and he was hugely disappointed in me for still not knowing all the Star Wars' characters' names after all these years. Whatever, kid.  I have never really understood the plot of the Star Wars movies anyway, despite watching them - and enjoying them - many many times, lol!

Look at those weird zucchinis!  I called them "grenade zucchinis" :)
After lunch, my son and I took an hour-long hike on small mountain roads behind my dad's house. What gorgeous views!  I was surprised that he was so enthusiastic about coming with me and that my daughter decided to stay home and draw. We had a great time and some much needed exercise!  Almost every house has a very neat vegetable garden ("potager") that makes me very envious.  Like an old lady I exclaimed on every flower (even the weeds!) and gazed enviously at their leeks planted in neat rows with nary a weed in sight, their huge rhubarb stalks, etc.

Wild flowers on the mountainside

The hills are alive.... with the sound of cow bells!

Red currants... those don't grow in Florida and they're one of my favorite berries!

One of the very orderly vegetable gardens. So jealous!

Totally random picture: Roasted Chicken Lay's potato chips.
We fell in love with them!  I want to start a petition to get Lay's
to sell them in the US :)
We went back to the supermarket in the evening to pick up some supplies for the next day's picnic. My daughter called her dad on Facetime and I got to talk to my middle son for a couple of seconds and warned him to keep next summer open as I would love to come back with him this time. He's the last one of the kids to have never been in France (well, I was pregnant with him when I brought my oldest son over when he was a toddler) and he is dying to come.

On Sunday morning my dad dropped us off at his friend Cathy's house.  She and her two daughters (ages 15 and 12) were to be our guides for the day. Cathy is a long-time friend, a volunteer mountain and skiing guide, and my dad's part-time housekeeper as well. We drove 90 minutes to Chamonix, a famous French ski station, and took a couple of cable cars up 10,000 ft to the Aiguille du Midi, an observatory platform facing the Mont-Blanc and overlooking everything.

The drive to Chamonix. These are the Alps.  I learned that where my dad lives is actually considered the pre-Alps.  The Pre-Alps are mountains of limestone created when the granite mountains that came to be the Alps pushed through the crust of the Earth (in the Jurassic period, I think). They're not quite as tall as the actual Alps.

I was anxious about going up (and so was my son as we both are dead scared of heights) and I would have never paid such high prices to go up a mountain, but truly it was gorgeous and we really enjoyed ourselves.  The girls spoke a little English so the kids were able to converse somewhat, especially the 15-year-old and my daughter who practiced her French.

This is taken from the observation deck right under the Aiguille du Midi.  This is Chamonix, down below. where we parked the car.
This is the Aiguille Du Midi (Noon's Needle). If you look at the small cage protruding from the
right side, this is the "Step Into the Void" glass platform for braver people than me!

Seeing the summits "up close", you lose all sense of scale and everything seems smaller than it is, until you spot ants climbing up the mountain and you suddenly realize that they aren't ants but people and that the mountain facing you is a million times larger than it seems. At least, that's what I felt.

The clouds being snagged by the peaks. I think the one of the left is called "The Tooth of the Giant" (La Dent du Géant).

It is true that the air is much rarer in altitude and while going up some steps didn't seem hard at first, suddenly the last 2 steps got very very hard and my heart was pounding so much in my chest that I thought it would explode!  I had to rest at the top for a few seconds and clear my head as I felt somewhat dizzy and really out of breath. But once I rested I felt much better.  The "Step Into the Void" platform was closed for renovations. Phew!  I would have peed my pants if my daughter had gone onto it. It's actually like a glass cage protruding from the mountainside so when you're in it, it's as if you were suspended in the air with nothing under you.  Arrgh!  Instead there was an exhibit of the various mountain sports, including Base Jumping, with videos of those crazy people jumping off mountain tops with nothing else than a flying squirrel suit and a tiny parachute that they have to deploy at the exact right moment. A young woman heard us speak English so exclaimed with us that those people were nuts and we chatted for a while. I was thinking that her English was excellent and when we ran into her again later on I asked her where she was from and she was from Texas, lol. She didn't have a Texan accent at all and was traveling by herself. I helped her take some pictures and got her email address so I could mail her the picture that I took of her.  I have to say everyone we have met, from any country including France, has been lovely and super nice, except for an older British couple when coming down the mountain who were the dourest people I have ever met. Back home I would have told them off as they were quite rude to us but I decided that they weren't important enough to let them upset me (although, 24 hours later, I'm kind of still seething at their behavior so I guess that didn't work so well!).

Some clouds were clinging to the top of the summits, we saw a glider pass above us (we joked that maybe it was my plane-owning brother coming to say hi!), the crows were taking daring dives into the clouds, and my stomach was in knots watching the mountain climbers do their thing, hahaha!  We took lots of pictures :)  We had our picnic on the observation deck.  Initially we had planned on taking another cable car into Italy but when we bought the tickets that portion of the trip was closed due to high winds.  They reopened later on and we thought about going but I won't lie that I was scared shitless as the cable cars for that portion were really tiny and it didn't look like they could fit all 6 of us at once (and I didn't want to be alone with the kids or even split the kids into another cable car).  I was saved from having to appear brave by the fact that we realized that my daughter had lost her ticket despite my dire warnings of making sure she kept it safe (she had refused to give it to me so I could put it in my bag).  She had already forgotten her big jacket that morning, again after several reminders from me, causing my dad to have to drive back to his house and back to Cathy's house again in order to fetch it, so she was getting on my last nerve and I decided that being pissed off wasn't the right frame of mind to face death in a tiny fiberglass cabin suspended by a thin-looking cable over 10,000 ft of nothingness so we went back down into the valley. Thankfully the attendants let her go down with us despite not having a ticket and me offering them to let them keep her on the mountaintop :)

I was able to get her ticket reissued for free once we were back down because the ticket also included another excursion. This time we took a small "cremaillere" train (a train with cogged wheels that grip corresponding pegs and cogs in the railing to propel itself up a steep incline and this time we climbed about 3,000 ft by train (it was a lot fun and beautiful, of course!) to go visit a glacier called "The Sea of Ice".

The train à cremaillère that we took back into town
The train station

The "Mer de Glace" looked like a large river with part of it being ice and the rest just being a dry, gray river rock bed, until you realize that the grey parts are still actually ice that is very very thick so it's probably millions of years old (I honestly don't know as I didn't listen to the explanations because I was helping the teens communicate at the time).  Once again as we looked over the "Sea" from the observation deck, everything was much larger than it appeared and what looked like smallish rocks ended up being huge chunks of boulder-looking rocks when we saw tiny tiny people next to them!
You'd think the ice is only that white tongue in the back of the picture but what looks like a dried-up river bed is actually all
ice as well. This is the whole glacier. However, the ice used to rise up much higher than it does now.  Every year you have to go down another 3 to 4 meters (9 to 12 ft) to reach the glacier, due to the warming of the Earth. To show you the hugeness of this, I will tell you that there are people walking on the glacier in this picture, towards the beginning of the white part of the snow (going up).

This is a picture of these people taken with my 40X zoom!
 We elected not to go hike on the glacier itself but instead went down 430 steps to an ice cave where they had carved several rough-looking statues that were illuminated with various colored lights.  It sounds very corny but it was very beautiful and the kids loved it.  Afterwards we had to go back up all those steps... I thought I was going to die!  Seriously!  I had to do it very slowly and at the end the kids, who had climbed ahead of Cathy and me were cheering me on from the platform, lol!

The ice cave

The 430 steps facing me to go back up to the platform at the top right. From there you take a very scary cable car up the train station in the mountain.  It's quite small, they cram many people in it, and everytime to pass one of the huge pole holding it up, it makes the cabin jump and sway and it was quite enerving, especially the first time it happened!
The youngest daughter of our friend was tired and had been cranky so to cheer her up, before we went down to the cave, I told her I would buy the kids ice cream when we got back up. So Cathy and I did reward everyone with an ice cream cone and a drink in the café on the observatory deck, not a frugal purchase since whole the ice cream bars were less than 3 euros, the small soda bottles were about $5 each.  Oh well, you only live once and we were thirsty!

The train ride back to the valley was also fun as we were crammed on 2 benches with a group of middle-aged French hikers who were super nice and had a large fluffy dog with them.  The kids enjoyed the dog and happily chatted in English and French.  We exchanged pictures of our cats and everyone in the cabin exclaimed at our male cat who has 6 toes on each foot. They had never seen that and a lady let out a French expletive as she saw the picture of his paw, which made my daughter guffaw as she perfectly understood the bad language, which tickled her to no end. I have to say that thanks to various family members and especially my dad's bad temper when he drives, her swear word French vocabulary has increased by... a lot :) But my view is that you're never truly fluent until you have learned to swear like a sailor in the language that you are studying.

On the way home Cathy took a very scenic route along some lower mountain tops.  I trust her driving more than my dad's but at some portions of the trip I had to tell her to please look at the road as she was pointed down various things while careening down a narrow-ish mountain road (which no barriers or lines on the road at all) and the void was facing me until she made those crazy turns!  I sound like a scareddy cat but let me assure you that while the people who live here can drive those roads with their eyes closed, pretty much, is it a loose-bowel inducing ride when you're next to them!

We didn't get home until past 7 p.m., exhausted but having had the time of our lives. My dad had hot homemade vegetable soup ready for us and he had also made a traditional Polish cake (his side of the family was Polish) that my grandma used to make all the time when we were little. Yum!  The kids retired to play with their phones and go online and I watched several French TV shows with my dad although I was dead on my feet, because I was doing the laundry and I needed to wait until the wash was done so I would hang it dry. His washing machine is really ancient and takes 2 hours to finish a load and then the clothes are still soggy so he has a special machine to spin the clothes and then since he doesn't have a dryer I had hang everything by hand.  Then I crawled into bed because I was really tired.

On Monday we elected to just stay home and enjoy the peace and quiet of his gorgeous house (save the traffic noise!) for our last day in the Alps.

I had wanted to drive by the Ubisoft studios which are located in Annecy... if you're into video games, you might now that Ubisoft, a French videogame maker, produces Assassin's Creed games (among others), which is a game 2 of my sons including my youngest really like and play all the time.  I had wanted to take a picture of my son with the studio in the background. Also, it's a direct competitor of Greg's employer so I was joking that I would knock on their door and offer to trade merchandise from our own studio, lol.  I didn't bring any so, of course, I'm wouldn't have done that :)  But it seemed more important to truly enjoy our last day in the mountains then to drive around yet again. We can't do everything and hopefully we will be back some day to enjoy the rest of what we haven't seen yet.

I had asked to go to Switzerland but we didn't since Switzerland decided earlier this year not to have their currency linked to the euro anymore and consequently all their prices increased by 20% overnight. Personally I don't really care as I wasn't really going to be spending tons of money there, I just wanted the kids to be able to say that they had been in Switzerland and maybe see some of Geneva.

We are leaving tomorrow (Tuesday) to go back to my mom's and spend a little over a week there.  We want to go visit my elderly great-aunt in Lorraine near the Belgian and Luxembourg borders so the kids will be able to set foot in those 2 countries as well, and we'll visit WWI battlefield memorials around Verdun since my son is very interested in this time period.  We'll also visit several other sites around the Upper Burgundy region where my mom and step dad live, probably the Fontainebleau castle, Vezelay (where several Crusades started from) and Guenedon, where for years artisans have been recreating a life-size medieval castle using only tools fashioned after original tools used back then and local materials, just like they did back then. My cop brother and I visited it 2 years ago and it was amazing and super interesting. The kids would enjoy that, I think.

Well, that's it for me today.

I hope all is well and that I didn't bore you all too much.

What is going on in your neck of the woods?