Friday, July 28, 2017

Our Own Personal Volcano

Puy-de-Dôme! The geographical highlight and namesake of our prefecture, which is like a county or state, is just a fifteen minute drive from our apartment in Chamalières, and its sight is a beautiful constant as we walk around Clermont-Ferrand. The mountain hosts a climate research laboratory with a giant spire that is visible for miles - and in good weather, tourists and locals hang glide alone or in tandem for hours, looking like tiny, rainbow-colored butterflies circling the mountaintop.

This past weekend Lincoln had a tummy bug, and no one slept great, so our plans for exploring were dashed on Saturday. It was a little frustrating, finally having gotten car insurance and registration sorted and not being able to use it! But look at this little guy. Poor thing.
Fortunately, by Sunday morning he was feeling much better and anxious to leave the house. So we took a long, scenic walk to Place de Salins, which has one of the only Sunday markets in town. The homes in Clermont are so beautiful - this one looks like it was picked up out of Ireland or Scotland and dropped here. 

Well, it does to someone who's never been to Ireland or Scotland, anyway. The market has typical French farmer's market stands - fruits and vegetables, local cheese, sausages - and also a large and vibrant flea market. We were on the hunt for antiques and came up empty, but the booths were fascinating and fun. It reminded me of being a little girl in Pennsylvania, scouring the flea markets at gas engine shows with my dad and grandparents. 

After the market we had a little lunch at home and then headed to the mountains. The drive was easy, if a little queasy for me. Damn motion sickness ruins everything! But the cool air helped a lot, and the views were incredible. We bought our tickets and boarded the new tram, installed just a couple years ago, to the summit.

Daddy and Lincoln love!

Mommy and Sylvie snuggles too - and repping for Maine!

If I ever have sheep, I'm going to keep them in a bowl-shaped pasture on a volcano too.

We reached the top and it was breathtaking. They call it "Panoramique des Dômes," and for good reason - each view of the mountains is more beautiful than the one before it! 

We quickly learned, though, that two under-rested kids who've never seen heights like this before are not very pleasant traveling companions. Getting a nice photo was impossible because one kid or the other was afraid of the heights, or hungry, or tired, or all of the above at each attempt. Lincoln cheered up enough to take a shot of Josh and me (and the oh-so-helpful fence behind us, at ankle level - safety!) near the top. 

Once again, my delicate constitution left me a little queasy, due to the altitude this time. But we walked up to the weather lab and the recently reconstructed Temple of Mercury. We've only scratched the surface of the incredible history of this place, and I can't wait to learn more.

Indoors is a little museum of sorts, with lots of interactive exhibits about the mountain and its history. The kids got to touch thousands of years old artifacts, and feel the difference between volcanic rock, marble, and other ancient building materials. Of course they gravitated to the screens, but everything being in French means they lose interest pretty quickly!

Then it was back outside to finish the last bit of gorgeous sightseeing. Despite my altitude sickness and the kids' general fussiness, it was magnificent.

All those farms, providing fresh food year-round. 
The flowers reminded me of home!
At last we climbed down some stairs and headed into the little cafe for coffee and crêpes - both of which were, alas, not very good. But the snack revived the kids a bit, and the coffee had the same effect on the adults, so all attitudes improved after that. We stopped in the crowded gift shop without finding much of interest, until Lincoln spotted these vending machines in the hall! We miss our Nana so much, and her beautiful crystals and stones.

Then after a few hours, 15,000 steps apiece, and more than 15 flights of stairs-worth of climbing, we headed back to the tram station to begin the journey home. And look, we finally got a smiley picture! Everyone except Josh, haha.

Puy-de-Dôme is a national treasure of France, and it's basically in our back yard. This first trip was a mixed bag, but I foresee a lot of great hikes - and maybe even a little hang gliding! - in our future.

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Few Surprising Facts About France

It's hard to believe we've been in France for nearly three weeks, but here we are! Still no cable or wifi in our apartment (nor a working shower or bathtub, but that's a post for another day), but it's such a beautiful place that we don't mind too much. And mobile data here is virtually free, which is how I'm writing this post! So I'll have a lot more to share in coming days and weeks - especially now that we can drive. But for now, here are a couple of things that I really, really wasn't expecting. I'm sure there will be more where these came from!

1. Portions are enormous
You know how everyone says that American portion sizes are too big, and we need to eat more like the French? Well, they're half right. Eating like the French, at least the bit we're experiencing, means having a tiny breakfast, no snacks, then an enormous lunch and dinner. Most meals include a starter, entree, side dish, and a salad. Bread comes to the table with the main dish - but no butter or oil. Dessert is always offered, and often indulged in with an espresso - which also comes with sugar cubes and a tiny cookie of some sort. And the sizes of the plates are unbelievable! We almost always have food leftover, which we can only bring home thanks to a 2013 law that requires restaurants to provide doggie bags.

2. So. Much. Sugar.
You try telling my kids that they can't have a lollipop. Or an éclair, or a pain au chocolat, or a lemonade with lunch. Even when I do tell them that, 8/10 times the server or shop attendant will give them a little sweet for free anyway. Every cereal in the grocery stores is half sugar, and "all-fruit" jam is not a thing that exists on this side of the Atlantic. Sugar for DAYS.

3. Tout le monde vous aide.
Everyone wants to help you. If you're making an effort with the language, the people around you will appreciate it and will try to communicate. I've had strangers on the bus walk me to a museum, then point me to a better one around the corner that is more geared to kids. Shopkeepers slow down and listen to me, and find a way to ask me a question such that I'll understand and be able to answer. The myth of the rude French person must have been invented by some very unlucky travelers! Of course, I am also an average-looking, able-bodied white person with adorable children, so most people assume I am harmless and deserving of assistance.

Seriously, I have windows the size of a Volkswagen with no screens, no bars, nothing. Road work with heavy machinery is done exactly adjacent to the sidewalk - it almost seems silly that the workers are wearing hardhats, given that those of us three inches away on the sidewalk don't have them! My kids, I have learned, have no survival instinct whatsoever. I'm hoping that will change with time.

5. The smoking
I know, I knew this coming in, but it still surprises me how ubiquitous the smoking is. And it kinda makes me want to start up. I won't! But it's very attractive.

6. Expats will save you
Last time I moved overseas, I had the benefit of enlisted Navy families serving as our sponsors and helpers. Here we have the same thing, except that people volunteer and just fill those roles without being asked. I wouldn't be anywhere near this calm if not for well-timed assistance from a bunch of different people. Thank goodness.

7. Everything tastes incredible
Ok, this one's not a surprise. :) But it's true - everything tastes so great. We have a farmer's market three days a week, five minutes' walk from home, and the produce is unbelievable. I could eat a peach three times a day!

That's all for today. I'll get back into the swing of this blog plan soon! A bientôt et au revoir!