Friday, October 31, 2008

Our First Week of Vacation

The kids are on vacation – from October 24 through November 6 – and we’re making the most of it!

Lac du Salagou

Sunday adventures are becoming a weekly phenomenon with the Bruns. We love it!

This week, Jean-Louis lead us to Lac du Salagou. The water was chilly, but the kids still grabbed the intertubes and walked out in the distance. The water is shallow for a long way, so it was safe to let them frolic while we stayed warm on the rocky beach.

The kids also had a great time exploring a small inlet river. They shucked their shoes and marched up and down the creek. I wish I had caught a picture of Josey in her “mud booties”! She stepped in the mud to almost mid-calf to give herself very stylish shoes.

Noah even caught a fish! This poor fish was gasping it’s final death throes in the shallows of the creek. Of course, that is a temptation that most boys cannot resist.

For better pictures of Lac du Salagou:

Fossil Hunting

This week, we made our first and second fossil hunting journeys. Well, the first attempt was an unsuccessful journey, and the second attempt was a successful jaunt!

Monday we decided to start our first official day of vacation by finding some amazing French fossils. Dado did some research on the Internet, we picked a destination, we scrounged up some fossil-hunting hammers and a picnic lunch, and off we went!

Our planned destination was Millau. Based on Dado’s research, Millau was supposed to be overflowing with fossils. He he he. Not a fossil was found, although we did troop through some pretty strange places to look!

The highlight of the day was the Viaduc de Millau. We’ve renamed this “The Golden Gate Bridge of France”!

For more information on the Viaduc de Millau (it really does look like an engineering marvel!), check this out:

Millau was nestled in the valley beneath the Viaduc. As most of you know, we are not city people. It turns out that Millau is quite a thriving city. We ended up driving through the center of Millau a few times, but we didn’t stop to look at anything. We were on a mission! Plus, there wasn’t anything that tempted us to stop.

We drove first toward the Gorge de Tarn, which is a place I definitely want to revisit. It reminded me of something out of a JRR Tolkein book! We were driving along the bottom of this amazing gorge, with the hills first sloping up beside us – covered in green fields – then rising in vertical, rocky cliff faces! After a few twists or turns, another quaint village would spring up in our path on the road or would appear as if magically clinging to the cliffs above us. It is so cool!

We made one fossil attempt in the Gorge de Tarn. Dado turned up a small side-road, we drove up and up until we found a place to park, then we climbed through an orchard like billy goats (it was on a steep hill). After climbing a short hillside covered in thorny plants - all with Max in shorts of course – we decided that we had to change plans and look in easier-to-reach places.

That lead us out of Gorge du Tarn and toward Roquefort – yep, where the cheese is made! We crossed through Millau again, drove directly under the Viaduc du Millau (cool!), and headed up the mountainside again. By this time, we had been driving for hours with little result. We were all getting a bit restless.

Long story short, we ended up back home, relieved to be out of the car and determined to do better research for the next time.

The second trip was a success! Jean-Christopher told us to go about 5 minutes away, just beyond the town of Lupian. The kids found several oyster fossils! Pictures to come soon.


Our friend Jean-Christopher needed some computer help, so we paid him and his family a visit on Tuesday. Oh – I wish I had my camera with me to show you how amazing his house is! It has an ambiance I would happily copy.

While we were there, Jean-Christopher showed us the amazing photos he has taken of Bouzigues, and he gave us copies of several! They are my favorite French “art” so far!

We also brought him a map of the two local areas, and we spent an hour pouring over the map (and going through his extensive map collection). He highlighted places we should visit for either historical beauty and/or natural beauty. How cool is that?! He wants to accompany us on some of our journeys, but he’s recovering from knee surgery. Poor guy! He’s one of the sportiest men I’ve ever met, and he’s out of commission for a while.

Of course this was 99.9% in French, and I understood a lot of it! Dado is a star and communicated almost flawlessly the whole time.

Pumpkin Carving

As you already saw in my last post, we had a ton of fun carving pumpkins Tuesday afternoon!

Sandra’s Cousin

Thursday we were invited to the Brun’s because her cousin and his family were in town for a visit. They live in Bordeaux, where we have been graciously invited for a visit. Get this – there is surfing in Bordeaux!! Yeah for Dado.

We had a great afternoon. They kids all played happily while we ate a delicious lunch. Philippe and Sandrine (his wife) are kind and hysterical. We are definitely treated like family – not as guests. It is a wonderful feeling! I hope you know what I mean . . . when you are part of a group, and you are completely at ease and a full member in the festivities. Thanks again, Sandra!

Today is Halloween!

We are all so excited. Sandra has been planning today since we first met her! There will be trick-or-treating in the village this evening, and there is a party at Sandra’s before that. Woohoo!

She loaned Max and Josey Halloween costumes, too! Max is going to be Jack Sparrow, and Josey is going to be a witch.

Last night the kids told us that Halloween is their favorite day of the year, even before Christmas! Josey explained it like this: “On Halloween, you are excited all day waiting for trick-or-treating. On Christmas, you are only excited in the morning.”

Mike and I have to miss the party. (Imagine my sad, sad face right now!) Our Carte Sejour saga continues, and we have an obligatory appointment in Montpellier today at 2:30 for chest x-rays and a medical exam. Wah!!!

Love to all!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pumpkin Carving

Today we had a great “American” experience! We carved pumpkins with the Bruns. Okay, carving pumpkins while speaking French isn't quite the same as in America, but it was really fun!

The Bruns are no strangers to pumpkin carving and Halloween. Sandra loves it, and their house is suuuupppper spooky with Halloween decorations. The new addition this year, besides the crazy Americans, was the pumpkin carving kits. Mom, Dude, and Di sent over a great care package of Halloween decorations, pumpkin carving kits, and other seasonal goodies.

Check out the arachnids! Tres cool!

Josey’s smiley face is on the other side of Max’s spider. When Mike opened her gigantic pumpkin, it was horribly moldy inside. Luckily Josey is a good sport! She helped Noah scoop his guts out, and she did her carving on the back on Max’s pumpkin. Great teamwork.

Thanks, Sandra. We are looking forward to the Halloween Party on Friday. Boo!

Did I mention that Sandra is very funny?

Love to all!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Nitty Gritty Part 5: A Map

Since I have mentioned so many villages and towns near Bouzigues, I figured it might help to put them into perspective for you.

Bouzigues is beneath the red A.

Here are some points of interest:

  • Water: L’Etang de Thau, the lagoon on which we live, is the large body of water we appear to be floating in. There are many etangs along the coast, and l'etang de thau is one of the largest. That’s the Med to the right!
  • Meze: The closest “town”, which has a market on Thursday and Sunday. It also has a decent grocery store and our bank (ick!). Meze is about 5 minutes away.
  • Balaruc-les-Bains: Home of the “cultural center”, which is the locals’ love-name for the Carrefour. There are a lot of useful stores in Balaruc, but it is not very picturesque. Balaruc is about 7 minutes away.
  • Sete: This is the 4th largest port in France. It also boasts our closest train station. Sete is a very pretty canal town. The train station is about 15 minutes away, and Sete’s center is about 20 minutes away.
  • Pezenas: This is the home of the terrific Saturday market! Pezenas also has a brocante (antiques flea market) every other month, which we really enjoy. It has a charming centre ville with some amazing historical buildings. Pezenas is about 30 minutes away.
  • Montbazin: This is where my new American knitting friend lives! She’s only 14 minutes away.
  • Gigean: Home of the Abbaye St. Felix and la petite grotte. Gigean is about 10 minutes away.
  • St. Pons de Mauchiens: This is where we participated in la vendange!
  • Frontignan: Frontignan reminds me a bit of Santa Clara . . . lots of large stores and such. However, the Frontignan Plage (beach) is terrific! There are actually waves there.
  • For my running friends: My “beach” run takes me around the little tip of l’etang from Bouzigues to Balaruc and back, which is probably a 10K distance – takes me about an hour. My “Beverly Hills” run takes me up a steep (kick-ass!) hill from Bouzigues into Loupian and back, which is probably an 8K distance – takes me about 45 minutes.
  • A9 (the large orange road): This is the auto route that goes from Paris to Barcelona. If we take the A9 toward the top of the map, Montpellier is about 30 minutes away from Bouzigues. We try not to use the A9, since it is much like any large interstate. We prefer the smaller, “B” roads that travel through villages!

We have a lot of places still to explore.

Love to all!!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

An Unexpected Turn of Events

Today we set out for our semi-regular Wednesday adventure. Since the children do not have school in France on Wednesdays, this is un bon jour pour la grande aventure! Our destination was Bize-Minervois, which was described on the Internet as follows:

“Bize-Minervois is arguably the prettiest village in the renowned Minervois wine growing area. It is situated on the River Cesse where a natural swimming pool has been created within the bed of the river.”

Ha. Not so entertaining. Of course, it was bitterly cold and windy, so the swim bag stayed in the Kangoo. Here is a look at their beach in fall.

We took our picnic lunch to the banks of the River Cesse and ate a quick lunch. That was followed by an even quicker walk through the village. The kids were pleased with the quick walk because it led us right to a candy store. They loaded up on “reward treats”. These are the treats they get when they win Dado’s French game: The child who earns the most points by hearing, speaking, and repeating the most French words on school days gets a treat! Bribery is always a good thing.

Our trip to Bize-Minervois was finished in under an hour. Considering it took us an hour to get there, we simply had to do more exploring. So, we turned off the GPS, took a right turn outside of the village, and headed to the mountains.

Our first stop was a winery, bien sur. Look at how beautiful it was.

The woman providing the tasting was very friendly and described why they did not have white wine. Of course, this translation is based on my very limited understanding of quickly-spoken French: The vineyard in which they grow the grapes for their vin blac (white wine) is on a hill where it is difficult to grow grapes due to the heat. Thus, they did not have a harvest last year and do not have a white wine this year. Dado did like the red from French oak barrels (known as fut de chene), so he bought several bottles.

Factoid: When doing a wine tasting at a small vineyard, it is customary and expected that you purchase at least a few bottles of win. Thus, every stop at a winery results in a few more bottles added to the growing collection at home. Dado is planning to bring home select wines from each region we visit. Cool!

This region is called the Minervois wine region in France, and this was our first tasting of Minervois wine.

When we left the winery, we took another right turn. Let me describe the country side for you . . . We were in a low mountain area, so there were rolling hills all around. In every dip and fold of the hills is a tapestry of vineyards where the grape vines are in different fall colors. The small road we were traveling is a two-lane highway that weaves deep into the center of France. As we drove deeper into the hills, there were fewer and fewer villages sprinkled along the road.

But, as happens magically in France, as you round a turn, there is suddenly an amazing village springing up from the side of a mountain . . . often with a castle or a ruin, and always with an old church somewhere in the center of the village.

Today was no exception to this beautiful phenomenon.

This is how we discovered Minerve. As the road climbed through the vineyards, there was suddenly a very deep gorge to our right. A beautiful gorge, the likes of which I’ve never seen in the US. We kept climbing, hoping to see a river at the bottom. Instead what we found was the village of Minerve.

Minerve is on the other side of the gorge, so we crossed a gorgeous bridge to enter the village. We wandered
through the village, where there is a Cathar ruin, and we attempted to get down to the gorge.

That was our true goal. We had seen what looked like caves from the road, and we wanted to explore. But we couldn’t find the way! There was even a trail map posted at the bridge, but we have great difficulty reading French maps.

Dado to the rescue! We walked back to the Kangoo, and Mike drove back down the hill until he found a fire road. The fire road led us straight to the riverbed. From there, it was a short walk to the first “cave” that we had spotted from the road.

The cave turned out to be a tunnel! We were stunned. The opening was seriously huge and completely dark. This picture doesn't do it justice. This opening is really at least 50 feet wide and 20 feet tall. Hopefully that gives you a sense of how tall the gorge wall is, too.

From outside, you couldn’t tell that it was a tunnel at all. Of course the crazy Billat Family walked right in to explore, and – shock – there was dim sunlight around the corner. Too cool! We walked straight through, and when we broke on through to the other side, there was a great trail to the next “cave”. Aha – that was a tunnel, too.

Mike and I kept commenting on how odd it was that there wasn’t a river of some sort. The gorge was obviously carved by a river, and the rocks looked like river rocks . . . yet everything was dry. In fact, there was even some construction in the bottom of the gorge, and vineyards of course.

Later in the day, we found out that these tunnels are full of running water in the winter – the River Cesse. During the summer, the river goes underground. Wild! So, we are definitely planning a return trip sometime in early 2009 to see the tunnels filled with river.

Of course the remaining mystery is – why on Earth is there construction going on if it fills with water? We’ll let you know in 2009.

Check out the history on interesting history of Minerve at the URL below.

Our adventure wasn’t over yet! Naturally we wanted to stop at another winery on the way home. Wineries are really entertaining places, usually, with all the conversation that occurs with the vintners.

Today was the coolest winery visit yet. We once again crossed the gorge along a one-lane road, following the direction of the tiny sign for Domain Vordy. When we pulled up to the Domain several minutes later, it looked like a French home – not a winery. Of course there were vineyards all around, but there were none of the other vats, hoppers, etc. indicative of a winery.

We curiously poked our heads into the open garage door and asked if the cave was open for tastings. The man led us to the front door of the house! This has never happened to us before. Usually, there is a “tasting room” area, with bottles displayed, glasses ready, etc. Today we were warmly welcomed into a home! The man invited us to sit at his dining room table, and he proceeded to give us a tasting of his wines. Meanwhile, Josey and Max were playing with a Tonka fire truck that was sitting in front of the fireplace. The house was charming and completely spotless!

We had just finished tasting our first wine when another couple showed up. We happily tasted wine for about 45 minutes, listening to the three French people chatting happily. It is always a great French lesson at a winery. We learned that the vintner is also the “protégé” – the person in charge of maintaining the area in its natural state, ensuring the development does not occur. Cool!

Guess what else we learned?! He is the MAYOR of Minerve! Just imagine our surprise! Welcomed into his home to taste his wines, and . . . as soon as we were leaving, he announced that he had to drive into the village for a meeting since he is the Mayor. Surreal.

As it turned out, Mike loved his wine. We ended up with 12 more bottles for the ever-growing collection.

The ride home was almost uneventful; however, I have to add one thing – don’t always blindly trust your GPS. As the Haughty Travel Boy instructed us to merge onto A9 (the main auto route here, which is a toll road), he put us on in the wrong direction! We knew, in that split second when you can no longer merge to the left, that it was a mistake. Sure enough, “Route recalculation. Drive 21 kilometers.” No way! The next exit off the A9 to turn around was 21 kilometers away. Darn – if only we had trusted our guts instead of the Haughty Travel Boy.

Love to all!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Une Aventure Grande a une Petite Grotte

On Sunday, we had our first outdoor adventure with the Brun family. Our planned destination was a tiny cave (une grotte) up on a hillside – not the tourist sort of cave, at all! Sounds cool, doesn’t it?

Eight Weeks Earlier . . .

Josey discovered this cave by accident one day back in August. We were out exploring fire roads (you know how Dado is – if it looks like we shouldn’t be there, he’ll explore it!) beyond the village of Gigean with Reed. After 30 minutes of bumping around on dirt roads, Dado turned around to make our way back to Gigean. As he was turning around, Josey looked back and said, “Look! Is that a cave?”

Sure enough, it was! It was too late that day to take an unplanned adventure into a cave. After all, we didn’t have flashlights, and we hadn’t told anyone we were going spelunking. Isn’t that the first vital step? To let someone know that you are going into a cave – so they know where to look for you in case you don’t come back home?!

Thus, the spelunking adventure had to wait for another day.

Our primary destination that day was an amazing old abbey on the hills above Gigean. This abbey was the first “ruin” we saw upon our arrival in Bouzigues. As you drive into Bouzigues from Montpellier, the abbey looks down at you from the left side of the auto route. Since it was the first “ruin” we saw, I really wanted to see it up close.

It is the Abbaye St. Felix de Montceau. Look at how gorgeous it is!

Fast Forward to October 19, 2008

The Bruns met us at our house Sunday morning, ready for une grande aventure. It was great! They showed up wearing Gap sweatshirts, looking entirely American.

Off we went to start our adventure with a picnic lunch at the abbaye. This was funny, as well. Sandra packed tuna and ham/cheese sandwiches, along with hot dogs for the kids (still warm from home, I must add!). We packed fresh bread from the boulangerie, French cheeses, chicken, and apples. Although we had reversed roles (they brought the “American” lunch, while we brought the “French” lunch), they did bring wine.

Thus well fortified with delicious “power food”, we set off for la grotte. We only made one wrong turn on the fire roads, so we had 30 minutes of anticipation in the Kangoo while journeying to the cave. Bouncing along the fire roads with 8 people in the car was a great start to the adventure!

When we pulled up, we were all so excited! Our local fitness-buff friend, Jean-Christopher, had told Mike that the cave was safe, and it was about 500 meters long. That was going to feel like a very, very long way in the dark. However, we had about 6 working flashlights between us. We were set!

We hiked the super short distance to the cave, pulled ourselves up to the entrance, and slowly started in. The pathway was very, very narrow, so we were in single-file. The roof is also pretty low, so the adults were hunched over. The kids had sandwiched themselves between the grown-ups, feeling well protected in case bats should fly out over our heads.

About two short turns into the cave, I was worried that the adults were going to have to go on all fours. The roof was getting lower!

Alas . . . that’s all there was! The cave was blocked . . . a mere 100 or so feet from the entrance! Oh man! Could it be true? After all, Jean-Christopher had said it was a 500-meter cave!

Back we trekked. Okay . . . it wasn’t much of a trek, but I have to get some mileage out of this adventure. Back to the light!

Our grande aventure had lasted about 5 minutes, and that included the walk from the Kangoo to the cave mouth.

Well, of course we figured we must have the wrong cave. After all, Jean-Christopher couldn’t be wrong! Right?!

We wandered along trails and paths, hoping to find another cave entrance nearby. The trails and paths petered into bushes and brambles, and we continued to try and forge our way through the prickly French foliage in our earnest attempts. He he he.

The best part about this leg of the race (we’ve been watching the Amazing Race, downloaded of course), was Noah! Sandra told him that we were on an adventure like Indiana Jones. He was the only child who didn’t whine and complain about the prickly plants tearing at their flesh (okay, that’s an embellishment, too – we were all unscathed). Instead, he was leaping and bounding fearlessly everywhere we led, muttering French about Indiana Jones all the while. He was great!

We were ill-prepared for the journey through the brush, so we gave up after 30 minutes or so. We let the kids play around in la petite grotte for a while longer, determined to make the most of the adventure. They loved it! It is small and harmless, so they all got to wander in and out as the wished while we adults wandered around the hillside.

Dado, Max, and I took a trail to the other hillside, just for fun. It was cool!

When we finally drove back to the abbaye, the kids were starving again. We pulled the coolers back out and enjoyed an encore of the picnic. There is a picnic area at the abbaye, and it was quite crowded. This is a popular area for hiking, biking, and horse riding.

Back at the picnic area, there were about 15 horses tied up while the riders wandered through the grounds of the abbaye.

Josey decided that she wanted to ride a horse. Figures, doesn’t it? So she asked Sandra to teach her how to ask in French: May I please ride your horse. I had told her that the answer would probably be no, but Josey said, “Well, that’s the worst she can say. I’m going to at least try.” Good girl! Sandra told her to start with, “Je suis Americaine.” Sandra thought that if Josey started with “I’m an American”, the woman guarding the horses might say yes.

Bien sur, the answer was no. Josey then tried, “Can I sit on your horse?” Stubborn or determined? You be the judge. The answer was still no.

Next, Josey wanted to ask if she could feed the horse a piece of apple. I figured the third time might be the charm. Before Josey could ask, the other horse riders walked into the picnic area. Sandra asked two people in chaps if Josey could feed the horses some apple. Voila! They were the right people to ask, as they were in charge of the horse outing!

The nice man led all 4 kids over to the horses and helped the kids feed them apples. It was so funny – Josey almost chickened out on feeding the horse the apple. After all that build up!

As the riders were riding the horses out of the picnic area, the man wheeled his horse around (literally), and walked over to our picnic table! He let the kids pet the horse while he talked to us. The horse’s name is Texas. Too funny! He was very kind, and the kids were thrilled. He even left the picnic area at a run, which was also thrilling.

A really cool, unexpected end to an interesting day.

Thanks Sandra, Jean-Louis, Victoria, and Noah, for being such great sports! We certainly had fun, even if la grotte est tres petite. Here’s to our next adventure with the BrunsLake Salagou.

Below is the gorgeous view of Bouzigues from the abbaye.

Love to all!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lunch with the Bruns

Sunday we had a terrific lunch with our friends, the Brun Family. Sandra made almost everything from scratch, and she is an amazing cook! Here is the drool-inducing menu . . .

Hours-doeuvres et Aperitif

The kids were in Little Kid Heaven, as Dado says. There were cheese puffs “just like in America” according to Max, other crackers & chips, petite sausages wrapped in pastry rings, and Mini Knacks – bite-sized hot dogs that the kids ate with toothpicks. Max and Josey each gobbled up several Mini Knacks. We found them a new favorite in France. Thanks, Sandra!

Le Entrée

The first course was Quiche Lorraine – the real thing! Sandra even made the crust herself. She made it with fromage de chevre (pas de cheval), which you may remember means goat cheese (not horse cheese, like I tried to buy at the farmer’s market on accident). Deeeelicious. She also made a salad that Dado loved with avocado, apples, tomatoes, rice, shrimp, and crab – served with homemade oil & vinegar. I think he had 3 servings.

Sandra, s'il te plait, part avec moi ta recette pour Quiche Lorraine!

Le Plat Principal

The main course was spaghetti with sausage! Oh yum. Sandra made a meat sauce that was wonderful. This was obviously the “American” part of lunch, and we loved it. When she served it, she said, “Est-ce que c'est bon ou mauvais! Dites moi la verité!!!” That means, “Is it good or bad. Tell me the truth.” It was very cute.


Yes, this word is the same in French and English. Another homemade delicacy: French Lemon Pie. This was much like the Lemon Meringue Pie that Mike makes every Thanksgiving, but the lemon taste was milder. Also, Sandra used a thinner layer of meringue (which is exactly how I like it). I’m glad it was a thin layer because I managed to get it all over myself during lunch. Mike also made a delicious chocolate cake for dessert.

Bien sur there was an abundance of wine and fresh bread for the entire afternoon.

Merci mille fois pour le dejeuner, Sandra et Jean-Louis!

Unfortunately, I did not take pictures. I brought my camera, but I was focus solely on eating and speaking French. A girl has to have her priorities.

Love to all!!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dado Becomes Certified . . . Maybe

Here is a saga that has been unfolding for us since August.

Most of you know that in the US, it is standard (even expected) for parents to “work” in their children’s classrooms. This means that parents volunteer their time to help in the class by working with the children, doing busy work for the teachers, and so on.

Well . . . as we should have known, it is very different here in France. A parent cannot help in the class without specific written permission from the school superintendent. Seriously.

In August, we visited the Directrice (principal) of the school to introduce ourselves, get all the important school information for the kids, and volunteer. Unfortunately, we used the phrase “work in the classroom”, which she interpreted literally (bien sur). We said something to the effect of: “We would like to volunteer to work in Max and Josey’s classes for the English portions of the class, since we speak English very, very well.”

I think what she heard was: “Blah blah blah work for money blah blah English blah blah.”

Next we knew, she said she would call the superintendent on our behalf to ask if this was possible. Several weeks later, we asked again. She said she was still waiting to hear from the superintendent.

Our friend Sandra wants her children to learn “American” English, so she started talking to the Directrice for us. Cool! The next thing we knew, Mike was suddenly getting enrolled in a certification class in Montpellier! How wild is that? Apparently, this one-day class was supposed to certify him to teach English in any French school.

Unfortunately, the French school system will not take us both. Since Mike speaks more French than I, he was picked to become certified. Like most French parents, I cannot even enter the school premises during school hours without specific permission. They literally lock all the doors. I’m bummed.

To put it mildly, Mike is less than thrilled to have to attend this certification class. He was expecting a one-day class taught in rapid-fire French that he wouldn’t be able to understand. Sound like fun?

We waited and waited to get information in the mail about the class. When it finally arrived, of course it was all in French. Mike read it as best he could and determined that it ended at 4:30pm – but no start time was provided. What’s up with that?

Of course we consulted Sandra. She took one look at the letter and said, “That is when the class starts.” Oh my! A class start time of 4:30pm? Mike was wiggin’ out! Montpellier is a very difficult place for driving - and parking! So, he wanted me and the kids to go with him, so we could drop him off at class – so he wouldn’t have to worry about parking. Well, what about me having to drive around Montpellier in the dark with the kids? I mean, really!?

The next day, we got a voice mail from the certification organization regarding the class. Of course the message was all in French. Let me tell you, it is much harder to understand French on the phone than it is to understand it when someone is standing in front of you! We had no idea what the message said. Sandra to the rescue!

Sandra said, “Mike, they want you to be there at 1:30, since you are an American.” Oh no . . . things were going from bad to worse.

Sandra called them for Mike to find out what was really necessary. Good news!! Since he’s an American, he only has to take a test to become certified. They told Sandra that he has to be there at 1:30 to take the test, and it should only take 15 minutes. Awesome. Sandra is even going to go with him to translate. With the GPS to guide them, and Sandra to translate, this should be easy, right?

Keep posted to hear if it really goes that smoothly. In our experience, there is something we still don’t know – like Mike will have to take the test then go back at 4:30 for the class. Yikes!

Love to all!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Visit with the Dude: Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Bouzigues and Beyond

This is Chapter 2 of our visit with Dude . . . the tale of the 2.5 short days we spent with him in Bouzigues and beyond.

We arrived home in Bouzigues around 9:45 Sunday night. We bundled the kids off to bed and skyped my mom. It was great! We chatted with her for 2 hours. Mike and my dad polished off 2 bottles of wine while we all talked about everything from Paris to Obama to Bouzigues to who-knows-what. It was really fun: Chatting with both of my parents while relaxing in my French living room. How cool is that?!

On Monday, we had to be a bit more serious. We walked the kids to school, then we took Dude on the tour through Bouzigues. He saw it all – the school, the post office, the gym, the church, the mairie (city hall), the port, the beach, and the coquillages vendors (shellfish – remember, Bouzigues is famous for their oysters). Dude bought a kilo of palourdes (clams) for lunch!

When the tour was complete (Bouzigues is small, so the walking tour took a total of about 25 minutes), Mike and Dude took a journey to the Carrefour. The Carrefour is part of our French experience, what can we say? Then it was already time for the kids to come home for lunch.

That 3 hours of seriousness was all we could handle. I mean, sheesh! Dude may not get a chance to come back for another visit! We had to maximize every minute he was here. So, we kept the kids home and headed off to Pezenas and a winery we had heard good things about – Bebian.

This is a picture of Dude & the kids with the Moliere monument in Pezenas. Apparently, Moliere was banished to Pezenas in the 1600s.

The Bebian winery was a bust. The wine wasn’t great, and the winery was much too big . . . as in it wasn’t family owned and operated. So, back we went to Bouzigues to make it home in time for the kids’ judo class. That judo class is a huge hit!

While the kids did judo, les adultes stood outside chatting with the locals. That means that Mike spoke somewhat fluently with Sandra, Jean-Louis, and Jean-Christopher while I listened intently. I speak often, but it’s halting French. I did a lot of translating for Dude, too. So, Dude got to see what our afternoons are like here. If we don’t have judo, we try to go to the park after school. The park also provides a great dose of “French In Action.”

Tuesday was a fabulous day!! We kept the kids home from school, and we all slept in. For those of you who know me well, can you believe all this sleeping in I do now? And Mike? Wow!

We started Tuesday at the farmer’s market in Balaruc. This is only the second time we’ve gone to the Balaruc market, and it’s not one of my favorites (or even in the top 5). However, it was great to show the Dude a market. We bought all sorts of great, authentic French goodies: brie, Roquefort cheese, Cantal cheese (one of my faves!), ham, sausage, bread (bien sur!), lavender honey, Cuban coffee (where else can you find coffee from Cuba?!), olives, fruit, and dried fruit. A lot of these goodies got packaged up for Dude to bring back to Grandma. We bought her many of our favorites from the market and the Carrefour, so she could experience les goutes (the flavors) de France, including wines.

News update: Dude arrived home safely, and Mom has already tasted the French goodies. She said: "Have you tried a slice of bread (assuming yours is much more delicious than American french bread), some honey and then the roquefort? It's to die for. And then wash it down with that yummy white wine. Yummmyyyyy! The cuban coffee isn't bad either! You guys sure eat well.

We are very glad you liked the goodies, Grandma!

Dude also bought the kids some ladybug watches that they have been looking for for weeks. They were fully prepared to spend 5 euros each on these watches, and they were thrilled when they found them at the market (finally!). When Dude said they were a gift from him, the kids were ecstatic!

The kids don't look ecstatic in this picture (it was many hours later), but you can see their necklaces. Well, maybe they are a bit hard to see here. LOL You can check out our Flickr account if you are curious.

We zipped home to eat our lunch and put stuff in our tiny little refrigerator, then we were off again. Our next destination was the region of Saint Chinian. This is a region famous for its wines. I know - isn’t all of France famous for its wines? Well, the soil in Saint Chinian is unique, so the grapes and wines are also unique. The lovely village of Roquebrun is in the Saint Chinian region, and we really wanted to show Dude the beauty of Roquebrun.

Check out the link below. It is a list of the 14 most beautiful towns and villages of our region in the South of France. Roquebrun is number 4, and Bouzigues is number 7. And we’re so lucky that we found both of these villages “by accident” – so to speak.

The link below gives some info about the Saint Chinian wines, for those of you who are wine buffs.

We visited 4 or 5 wineries on Tuesday, and we squeezed in a visit to Roquebrun. Dude loved it, too. He said, “Oh, you’ve got to bring your mom here.” Bien sur!

Of all the wines we tasted, our unanimous, hands-down fave was a Savignon Blanc that had been aged in a French oak barrel. Note that not all French wines spend time in oak barrels. Both Mike and my dad prefer the oak taste in their wines. The second I sipped this one, I knew they would love it.

The wineries we visited were all small places, family-owned and operated for generations. These are our favorites because the vintners are friendly, they love sharing their wines, and they spend time to talking to us in French. In fact, visiting the wineries is one of our favorite things to do in France. Even the kids love it because there is always something for them to do to – explore the yard, play with the ubiquitous dogs, etc.

At the Los Tour Terelles winery, I had fun trying to tell the vintner that my dad installs hardwood floors for a living. My dad whipped out his camera to show the man a photo of French Oak from the Amsterdam winery.

I said to the owner as we were leaving, "Merci pour les goutes. Vous etes tres gentil." My broken French for: Thank you for the tastes. You are very nice. He smiled, thanked us in turn, and gave us a free bottle of wine! That happens about 50% of the time for us (maybe a produce vendor gives us a free melon, for example) simply because we really try to be friendly & nice. This vintner was especially funny because he then said, and of course this was in French, "How did you find this place?" It was great to have to answer him in French - to tell him that our family was on a driving adventure when we found the neighboring town of Roquebrun and that we loved the wine so much that we came back to try other wineries with my dad.

At the next winery, the owner gave us a tour of the wine making area. We got to see the whole production. It was fascinating!

Wednesday we visited the walled village of Aigues-Mortes. And guess what?! There was a bull run through town right after we arrived! We got to see them run the bull through town, surrounded by men on horseback. Wild! If we had been 10 minutes later to the village, we would have missed the bull run. How lucky is that?

Aigues-Mortes is amazing. It almost looks fake . . . like something built for a movie! However, when you get a glimpse inside the walls, through one of the city gates, there is a thriving village inside the walls! The village is completely enclosed within the walls, which are complete with battlements, arrow slits, portcullises, watch towers, etc. All dating from the 13th century! The only disappointments were that it was raining and we missed the tour of the battlements. I would love to return to Aigues-Mortes when the bull run is gone (it was accompanied by a lot of people and their requisite trash, unfortunately) and the sun is shining so we can see the view of the village and the surrounding land from atop the battlements. It will be easy to imagine what it must have been like to stand on the battlements and defend the city from the army below!

For more information and pictures of Aigues-Mortes:

Aigues-Mortes actually means something to the effect of "dead algae." It was built in the 13th century by Louis IX, and it was France's only Mediterranean port then. It later silted up and became unreachable by boat!

We were sad to bring Dude to the airport. We wanted him to stay longer! Josey especially was sad about his departure. She was close to tears most of the afternoon. When we got home, she made him cards right away. She and Max also told me, “You can’t make the bed where he slept!”

Naturally I asked, “Why not?” They said, “Because then we might forget that he was here!” I assured him that they will never forget his visit here in Bouzigues. If we are really, really, really lucky, maybe he’ll come back and see us again before we move back to the US.

Thanks, Dude! It was more than wonderful to have you here! The kids made cards for you the second we got back home, and they are already in the mail to you.

Now we can’t wait for Grandma and Alex to arrive for the 10-day Christmas visit. Woohoo!

Oh my . . . I almost forgot to mention Dude’s mule hauling!! Grandma, Dude, and my aunt Dianne did us a humongous favor! They bought us a ton of goodies from the US that we cannot find here in France – or it is outrageously expensive here, and Dude was our mule. He hauled them all over here for us.

Merci mille fois, Grandma, Dude & Di!! These things are true treasures. You should have seen how excited Mike and I were as we unpacked this suitcase. I just wish we had taken pix.

If you ever plan to move to France, here are some things you may want to bring:

  • Aspirin, Excedrin, and Acetaminophen (They don’t sell Excedrin here. Their Acetaminophen is “Doliprane”, and it is 1.74 euros for 8 tablets! The tablets are 1000mg each, but still! The aspirin here is also ridiculously expensive.)
  • Eye drops & Nyquil
  • Hair products (You have to admit that my hair is difficult to control, so good hair products are hard to find!)
  • Beef jerky, baking powder, brown sugar, chili powder, Bisquick, Pam (We cannot find any of these things here.)
  • Halloween decorations
  • O’Neill wetsuit for windsurfing in the winter
  • Pay Day candy bars for our new friend Sandra!

Love to all!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Visit with the Dude: Chapter 1

Chapter 1: From Amsterdam to Paris to Bouzigues

Who is The Dude?

For those of you who don’t know, we call my dad “Dude” (this started when Alex was a baby). He was here visiting for the last 5 days, which proved to be far, far too short! However, we managed to fit so many fun things into that 5 days that this blog post will be in two chapters.

Dude was given a free trip to a hardwood floor mill in Amsterdam. He is such a great customer of this mill that they flew him out for some schmoozing, including a visit to the mill, wining and dining, etc. He extended his return ticket so he could come see us!

He rendezvoused with us in Paris, traveled with us to Bouzigues, and flew from Montpellier back to Amsterdam on October 8th. He’ll be back in the US on October 9th. Counting the countries he rode through on the train, that is 4 countries in 6 days.


Debb and Reed, our wonderful benefactors here in Bouzigues, gave me a fabulous 40th birthday gift: They offered our family a weekend in Paris! Originally, we were going to stay with Debb and Reed in Paris for the weekend. However, their travel arrangements were such that they had to stay in the US. Therefore, they generously offered to let us stay at their amazing apartment. Take a look at this place. It even has a view of the Eiffel Tower.

Here is a link to Reed’s Flickr account with 20 pictures of the apartment. You’ve gotta check it out!

They even have built-in chalkboards for kids! This is the stairway entrance to the apartment.

As luck would have it, this is the same weekend that my dad was planning a rendezvous with us. So, instead of killing time for the only flight from Amsterdam to Montpellier (the closest airport to Bouzigues), he took the train from Amsterdam to Paris.

We took the train from Sete to Paris. Sete is the largest town close to Bouzigues, and they have a train station – it’s about 15 minutes from our house. The train was one of the highlights of our visit with Dude. Max and Josey were doing the typical kid countdown, asking us several times a day (for weeks!), “How long until we see Dude? How long until we get to ride on the train?” The day before we left, Max said, “Mommy, I’m so excited. I think when I see the train I’m going to explode.”

The train ride was 4 hours from Sete to Paris, and . . . we rode in First Class! Debb arranged the tickets for us, and it turned out that there was a promotion for this weekend where the First Class tix were cheaper than Second Class. A birthday gift from the TGV.

It was a very fun ride through amazing French countryside. The fields were bright green with the recent rains to the north, and we saw beautiful villages, sheep and cow farms, vineyards – simply amazing scenery. I commented to Mike that the houses look slightly different to the north, a moderately different architectural style. He pointed out that they are built to handle the colder, wetter climate of the north.

We arrived in Paris Friday evening. Saturday morning was spent leisurely exploring the area around Debb & Reed’s apartment, killing time until Dude’s 12:35 arrival. The weather was chilly but gorgeous! Our Bouzigaud friends had warned us about the cold of Paris, so we were appropriately bundled.

We found the farmer’s market street 2 blocks over, and we were tickled by the produce stands, boucheries (butchers), cremeries (cheese stores), boulangeries (the best chocolate croissants yet!), etc. We loaded up on goodies, then headed back to the apartment. We wanted to have plenty of time to pick up my dad, since we were planning to take either the train or the bus (more adventure!).

Ha! Here is serendipity at work. Our train from Sete arrived at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris, and we assumed that is where my dad would arrive as well. As we disembarked, Mike looked around and said, “Let’s see where we should have Dude meet us tomorrow.” We spotted an Upper Crust Pizza parlor (not a branch of the Santa Cruz eatery, but very funny nonetheless!), and we thought that would be a great rendezvous point for my dad. We sent the message through my mom, and we were feeling 100% confident that we would find him with no problem at all. Easy peasy.

As luck would have it, Saturday morning Mike picked up a map that Debb left for us. He said, “Hmmm . . . there are a lot of train stations on this map. Are you sure your dad’s train is coming into Gare de Lyon?” I looked at him in puzzlement, since he made the train reservation. We quickly pulled up Dude’s train itinerary in our email to find that he was arriving at the Gard de Nord. Oh no! Dude was already on his train, heading for Paris, and we didn’t know how to get to his train station! Can you imagine my temporary panic?!

Seriously – Paris is gigantic, and we had no clue where the Gare de Nord was or how to get there. And my dad’s train was due in 90 minutes or so. Remember, all street signs, bus signs, etc. are in French, so getting around Paris is not easy for us.

Mike to the rescue!

Mike whipped out the computer, Googled the Gare de Nord, looked up the directions using (the equivalent of Mapquest here in France) and emailed the directions to his iPhone (which has GPS). I love being married to a computer geek! We managed to phone Dude on the train and give him the new rendezvous info, and we set out on foot for the Gare de Nord (only about 3.5 kilometers from the apartment, thank goodness). That's it below.

We made it! Can you believe that? What a huge potential for disaster – averted by Mike happening to pick up a map that Debb left out of thoughtfulness. Thanks Debb! Thanks Dado!

Dado saw Dude stepping off the train, and we saw them both moments later. It was so good to see him!! I thought the kids might knock him over they grabbed his legs so hard with huge hugs. He looked fabulous, although very, very tired. Jet lag!

When we got Dude back to the apartment, we decided that we had to go to the Eiffel Tower. The kids really wanted to climb to the top. Once again, Dado got us directions and had them on the new iPhone.

Sidebar: Okay . . . I must admit that his insistence to buy that dumb French iPhone really paid off this weekend. Do any of you remember my disgruntled stories about driving through Montpellier to get to the Orange store (a trip we had to do several times before we actually got the phone)? Well, with the built-in GPS, the iPhone did help us get to the Gare de Nord, the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame. It was a pain-in-the-butt to buy the darn thing, but it is cool.

He he he . . . When Dude saw the view of the Eiffel Tower from the apartment, he said, “That’s at least a mile away.” I thought to myself, that’s not so far. Ha! That’s as the crow flies, of course. By foot, that sucker was a mighty long walk from the apartment. I carried Max the last 2 blocks, and he was far too tired to climb to the top. That even turned out for the best, though. The line to buy tickets to climb the stairs was at least 500 people long. We all decided that we could experience that exciting climb another day. Poor Dude was quite jetlagged, too!

I have to admit – we took a taxi back to the apartment.

Here is a beautiful picture that Mike snapped of the sun beaming next to the Eiffel Tower.

It was a great leisurely day, besides the train station panic. And I’m the only one who was panicked. We saw so many cool things, but the coolest of all was Dude! It was so wonderful just to sit around talking to him. I haven’t done that in almost 3 months.

On Sunday, we all slept in and got a late start on our adventures. Unfortunately, the weather was awful – super cold, windy, and rainy. Max really wanted to see Notre Dame, so we headed in that direction with the iPhone GPS guiding us along. After a few blocks, I decided that I really had to get some hot chocolate. Shucks! We wandered into a café and ordered up 3 chocolat chaudes, an espresso, and a cappuccino, along with two plates of demi-patisseries. Yum! Thus fortified, we headed back into the cold. The rain held off long enough for us to visit the gorgeous St. Eustache church.

My dad and I stared at the gorgeous pipe organ in wonder . . . imagining my Grandpa Bob playing it. It is amazingly beautiful. We stayed long enough to marvel at the architecture and artwork and for Dude to light a candle for his mom.,_Paris

When we left the church, we decided to go for one more block to see what we could see and give the rain a chance to dry up. We found a great park for the kids, and the rain clouds drifted away! Woohoo! It stayed dry long enough for us to see Notre Dame. I saw it in July, but I wasn’t able to see inside on that trip. This weekend, we toured the inside and saw the rose window. Amazing!

We followed Notre Dame up with lunch in another French café, complete with crepes for dessert. The waiter was funny and helpful. I was asking him in English how we could call a cab later to the train station, and he told me I had to ask in French. It was great – and I did it! It was the most enjoyable meal out I’ve had in a long time. Great company, great spirits!

After lunch, we had to power-walk back to the apartment to clean, pack, and get to the train station. We had planned to call a cab, but it’s difficult to find a cab to carry 5 people in Paris. So, Mr. Adventurous (Mike) decided that we’d all take the bus. It was super easy! The bus stop was 1 block from the apartment, and the bus comes every 5 minutes. We hopped on, and 15 minutes later we were at the Gare de Lyon train station. We had enough time left over to buy chicken, cheese, and bread for dinner on the train.

One brief stop we made on the way back to the apartment was at this museum with the lips fountain. Dado and I used "French in Action" videos to learn some French before we left the US (this was the curriculum from his San Jose City College class), and this fountain is in those videos. When we got to Paris, Mike said, "We have to find the lips." I didn't think we would ever find them, but . . . voila! All by accident. Check out the wind, too. This one's for you, Professor Berke!

The train ride home was very low key. Most of it was in the dark, so we didn’t get to see the beautiful countryside. However, Dude and the kids had fun visiting the dining car. I asked the kids, “What is your favorite way to travel now? Train or plane?” Remember, Max had never even been on a plane before leaving for France. Josey’s answer? “First class train, Mommy. I added first class because it’s probably a lot better than second class on the train.” LOL

Chapter 2 coming soon! Love to all!