Sunday, August 20, 2017

Annecy, or How Not to Find a Beach

So when we left off, we'd arrived in Annecy and checked into our apartment, rented via You can see pictures of it here, because naturally I forgot to take any, and after three days here with the kids, it's a wreck. But it's a great little apartment; very lived-in with toys in the kids' bedrooms and a beautiful view of downtown. We headed out to find dinner in La Vielle Ville; the old village. 

Weirdos be weirdin'. She specifically asked me to take this shot. 
 Well, to be precise, the kids and I left Daddy to rest for a little while and explored the flower-lined streets, canals, and other gorgeous features of "Venice of the Alps." Then we met for dinner.

 Happily, dinner was fantastic! Josh had Googled around and found a place well-known for its raclette, which is a cousin of fondue. I had seen pictures and videos but never tasted the stuff, so we headed to Le Freti to try it ourselves.
 By some miracle, we were seated for dinner a few minutes before 7:00. Most of Europe despises our American meal schedule, so feeding two American kids who have a 7:30-8:00 bedtime is a perpetual struggle. But here we were!
 The kids ordered an adult portion of fondue with bacon lardons to share, and it was delicious. Despite what the look on Lincoln's face tells you. The kid is focused.
 Josh and I shared the raclette. That's a portion of a wheel of raclette cheese with a hot burner positioned over it. One waits for the top layer of the cheese to melt, then uses a special knife to scrape the melted bits onto bread, sausage, or potatoes.
One also steals fondue from one's children. 

 It was heavenly. The raclette cheese is sharper and less nutty than the typical Swiss fondue cheeses, and Josh and I agreed that we would go for fondue next time. But the experience was a hoot, and a really fun start to our first trip to the Alps. We finished up around eight and headed back to the apartment.

This is when I should mention that I never sleep well when I travel. I suffer from insomnia pretty regularly anyway, but new environments, new beds, and the stress that always accompanies travel makes it a lot worse. Of course, being a grown-ass woman, I come prepared for this with sleeping pills, a sleep mask, and a white noise app.

None of which worked on our first night in Annecy. Between insomnia and sharing a full-sized bed with my very sweet, very snore-y husband, I was lost. Around midnight I took a quarter of a sleeping pill. At 1:30, still restless and miserable, I took another quarter. Finally at 3:00 in the morning I took the final half of the pill and managed to sleep for about four hours before the kids woke me up for the day. Here is the result of four hours' sleep and a sleeping pill hangover:
 Not good. And unfortunately, compounding my fatigue and frustration was the fact that what we thought would be a quiet hamlet is actually, well, Venice of the Alps - a slogan I wish I had learned before arriving here. It's packed with tourists doing exactly what we are doing, namely, trying to beat the heat and avoid the crowds. So when I sleepily looked at a map and some tourist websites, then convinced Josh that we could avoid the crowded Annecy beaches and drive a half hour to emptier ones, I was setting us all up for failure.

I drove us, through heavy traffic and half a dozen villages, for nearly two hours looking for a place to park near a beach. Every single lot was full, every beach promised to be beautiful but calm was completely full of tourists by 10:30 a.m. on this particular Thursday. I wound up hungry, exhausted, and behind the wheel at noon, ready to finally acquiesce to Josh's good judgment and head back to our apartment. Never let the exhausted adult make the key decisions. Or drive, come to think of it.

On our way back into town though, I decided to try just one more municipal beach - and it worked! There was a parking spot with our name on it, room at the beach, and a table at the beachside restaurant. The food was forgettable but fresh, and the beach was absolutely breathtaking.
She was a big hit with our dining neighbors. 

There is little in the world that makes this kid as happy as "multi fruits" juice!
It wasn't so much a beach as a series of docks and ladders, and the water was freezing of course. But we all made our way in and paddled around, enjoying the wakes from passing motorboats and the welcome break from travel woes. After she'd swum around and watched bigger kids leap off of the diving board, Sylvia led me to the playground and cut loose, towel in tow.

 I wore a bikini in public for the first time in many years, and covered my shoulders on shore with a caftan that my friend Becca made for me. The photobombing kid who was playing doorman to the playground had thoughtfully worn a Speedo to match!

Josh and Lincoln stayed in the lake nearly the whole time, loving every minute. They are the little dots in front of the dock, as Lincoln was more comfortable closer to shore.
 We finally left after several hours' fun, and drove back to Annecy with no trouble at all. The day was saved thanks to the sheer luck of finding that parking spot! Josh ran out for takeout while the kids played with our hosts' toys and I rested. Thursday night's sleep was much better - and Friday meant a road trip with an actual destination planned. More on that soon.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Road trip!

I am typing this on a French keyboard, which means that every fifth letter I write is wrong. Z is where A should be, M is under my right pinky finger, and for some reason I have to use the shift key in order to make a period. The shift key is also in the wrong place, of course, along with the comma. Thank goodness for autocorrect! Oh, and Google France will not unhide password characters on the login page, so it took be about an hour, 8 verification codes, and a LOT of swearing to get logged in on my Airbnb host's computer.

All of this is a fitting introduction to today's story about our first roadtrip in France! Somehow Mr. Sullins and I, despite having three undergraduate and one Master's between us, neglected to select "with tolls" on our car's GPS system before striking out. And, being totally dependent on GPS to get around, our 3 1/2 hour drive to Annecy by way of Lyon turned out to be a 6 1/2 hour drive to Annecy by way of Nowhere l'Est! See for yourself:

 Yeah. Whoops. We sure saved money on tolls though!

So, thanks to our foolishness, we found ourselves in a tiny town called Le Donjon for lunch. With no cell signal and therefore no reviews or directions to be found, we stopped at the first place that said "restaurant" and had people inside. Given that it's summer vacation time, we were lucky to find a place at all! So we parked the car, walked in and took a seat. An older man approached us, looking perplexed, and when I saw his face, I realized that all the patrons looked perplexed, too. So I said:

"Bonjour! Nous voudrions avoir le déjeuner; s'il vous plaît. Avez-vous une carte?" which means roughly that we want to eat lunch; do you have a menu? And it was then that I noticed that the puzzled patrons were all smoking cigarettes, drinking beers, and staring at us - not eating. Our friend the proprietor said as much, and I choked out enough broken French to ask for a recommendation. Fortunately he was very kind and directed us to a restaurant across the street. "Une bonne cuisine," he promised, "et pas cher."

So with the promise of good food, not too expensive, we walked across the street and found another bar, but this time the old man in the front gently guided us through what appeared to be his family's dining room and into the restaurant.
 At last, lunch! The owner/hostess/server/proprietor greeted us all individually with a "Bonjour!" and a handshake, even for the children, who obliged cautiously. As soon as we were seated I asked for the restroom and followed both kids up a tiny spiral staircase to les toilettes - well, la toilette, anyway. It was a single toilet in a tiny room, with no sink but a hand sanitizer dispenser on the wall. We all did our business and then coated our hands in sanitizer WHICH WAS ACTUALLY SOAP. With no sink. If you've never had to spit in your children's hands and then wipe them down with toilet paper, I don't recommend it. And yet the best was yet to come.

You see, when the three of us walked out of the door to return to our seats, we heard a shout. And there to our left was the old man from the front of the shop, yelling for his wife at the top of the stairs in his underwear. Not even boxers; full skivvies in Navy blue. Quite a start to the meal! And of course he said bonjour as we walked swiftly by.

Meanwhile in the dining room, Josh was enjoying the decor.
 Une boisson pour le bébé?

The menu was, as always in family-run restaurants in France, small and mostly local. The children were served a small salad with local ham for their appetizers, and Josh chose charcuterie while I opted for a filet of herring. Ordering was an adventure - in the presence of the owner, I asked Josh (in English) if he was going to have steak and he said he would. Evidently, Madame understood enough English to consider that his order and left the table, with us assuming that not only was she not going to feed him, but that she'd asked me how rare I wanted my duck! It all worked out in the end, though, and the food was delicious.

Filet of herring that wound up coming on a salad; with a delicious potato and bread on the side. 

Beautiful antique furniture is par for the course. 
 After the entrees (which is what appetizers are called here), came our main dishes. The kids had "steak haché," which is ubiquitous on kids' menus here and is basically a burger patty. As usual, Lincoln chose fries while Sylvia opted for noodles - once we saw on a neighboring table's plates that pasta was an option! After a long, circuitous, frustrating morning of driving, we all felt much better with some home-cooked food in our bellies and were relieved when Josh got a main course after all. We felt so good, in fact, that we got a little goofy.

 Again, as is the custom here, everyone had dessert. The kids were served creme caramel which both of them loved. Sylvia showed off the superpower of not finishing all of a dessert even though she likes it - whose child is she, anyway?
 I had îles flottante again, just like at Le Kitchen in Clermont. It was delicious, but I prefer the version from home*.
 And Josh ordered le fromage - the cheese - instead of sweets. It's a huge disappointment to realize that I forgot to take a photo! Because instead of bringing him a personal selection of cheese on a plate, they brought an enormous, cutting board with seven or eight large chunks of local cheeses. Some hard, some soft, bleus and whites and creamy ivory ones. He had to wait until the couple across from us finished their fromage before it could be brought to him. It was wonderful - and Lincoln, our adventurous eater, found three new French cheeses that he loved. If only we knew their names!
After lunch we used the restroom one more time and were disappointed to miss out on the naked old man show, haha! I fired up The Incredibles on the car DVD player that we save for emergencies (thanks, Ashley!) and we finally fixed the GPS and slowly made our way to the highway. Annecy is a lake city in the foothills of the French Alps, so the drive was punctuated by long, impressive tunnels followed by breathtaking vistas at the ends. I was driving, so I don't have pictures, but I was in awe. We arrived at our three bedroom vacation rental in the heart of town without problems and set about planning our next few days. Part of me wishes that we'd gotten the directions right, but for the most part I'm glad for the adventure of it all. I still have to keep pinching myself to be sure this is all real.

*Home. Talk about a relative term.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Le Kitchen

There was this moment in a cultural training course that Josh and I took with three other couples in Greenville who were going to expatriate. The course was mostly useless - lots of high-level thinking about cultural foundations of France vs. the USA, very little concrete information that would actually help us acclimate to those differences - but then the moderator told us that the majority of children in a big survey of expatriates, when asked who the move was hardest for, answered "my mom."

We started talking about this as a group, processing it, and brainstorming ways to manage the stress of the move. My first instinct was to think of ways to protect my kids from my anxiety, anger, and stress - all of which are inevitable in an international move. I suspect the same was true of the other moms in the group, because they too were discussing ways of keeping those emotions private. But then a light bulb flicked on in my brain, and I realized that the answer, at least for me, wasn't to hide my stress, but to (duh) actually manage it better. So I promised myself that I would carve out time for self-care, find a babysitter when we arrived, and accept offers of kid-free time when they came.

I've done pretty well with those goals! I've swapped babysitting days with one friend and made time for myself when Josh is not working. But I let the babysitter idea slide for way too long - until last week, when another friend gave me the name of a British teenager who watches a bunch of expat kids. I had her come for a couple hours one afternoon this week, then immediately booked her for Friday night. Josh and I had been out for a late dinner once already in France, thanks to a very kind friend, but this was our first time letting someone else put the kids to bed. Freedom!

We started off by walking downtown from our apartment and stopping in to this great restaurant, Le Kitchen, to make a reservation for later. Then we had a beer in Place de la Victoire, right next to the beautiful black cathedral. Smelling smoke and drinking Affligem and La Chouffe, we watched as a woman coaxed and dragged her tiny French bulldog puppy from their front door across the plaza. This little guy was brindle colored, with one ear sticking straight up and the other flopped over - just about the cutest thing I'd ever seen. I started to relax.

After we finished our drinks and some passable chicken wings, we walked back toward Place de Jaude, the center of town. This was the sight that greeted us.
Gorgeous. We had to stop and just take it in.

Then we arrived at Le Kitchen and started reading this menu. Three courses for 19 or 25 Euro, depending on your tastes - can you make out the choices?
Entrèes are appetizers here, and Plat means main course. Dessert is the same. :)
Josh went with the Menu Règional, and I chose the more expensive carte, or regular menu. We were both in for quite a meal.

Monsieur started with the "terrine au bleu d'Auvergne," which was a cold, mild blue cheese dish that seemed to have been whipped, with tiny minced vegetables added. It was accompanied by caramelized onions, a tiny slice of tomato, and balsamic vinegar reduction, and even for I the non-blue-cheese-fan, it was delightful. My appetizer was the "poivron farci avec fromage frais au basilic," also known as a skinned, cooked red pepper stuffed with fresh, basil-scented cheese and resting in a room-temperature tomato sauce with a hint of cinnamon. It was unreal.

Next were the plats.

Josh ordered coufidou, which is this incredible dish of green lentils - a food Josh normally avoids - with stewed beef and carrots on top, all cooked in a flavorful beef stock of some kind and so tender he barely had to use his teeth. I've never seen him eat lentils without great effort, but he loved these, and so did I.

I chose something a bit lighter - "filet de saumon rôti, bouillon coco citronelle." A roasted filet of salmon served in coconut citrus broth (and foam!), with delicious rice pilaf of some kind and zucchini (courgette), cut into a beautiful oval-ish shape that probably has a fancy French name I don't know yet. The skin on the fish was so crispy the next table turned to look when I cut it with my fork. The broth was so delicious I could've had a bowl of it by itself. I was in heaven.

Naturally, we had wine - La Vieille Ferme, or the old farm. It was delicious and cheap and offered by the glass, carafe, or bottle. So tasty I took a picture so we'd remember to buy some for home.

Speaking of wine, I secretly took a picture of the couple at the next table! It's tempting for Americans to think of all French food as super fancy, expensive, and superior. But a three course meal for 25 Euros is pretty darn affordable, and when this couple to my right ordered white wine, the server brought ice water to keep it cold. A clear plastic bag of ice water. See it, to the right of their wine glasses? Super fancy!

So that's what I'll say about dinner out in France. It's almost always delicious, prepared expertly, and made from fresh ingredients. It's fancy in that there are courses and small menus and wine pairings - but that's all. Unless you're specifically "fine dining," you can expect to see relatively casual clothes, inexpensive wine, and friendly smiles. The details will have been considered, the wine will be kept cold, but probably in a nifty bag the owners found at a restaurant supply store or Ikea, not a fifteenth century silver bucket. It is outstanding, but unfussy. And if you find a place that isn't good, there are a dozen around it that will blow you away.
We finished our dinner with pompe aux pomme for Josh, which is a lightly sweetened apple pie, and îles flottantes (floating islands) for me. I foolishly tasted just the meringue at first, which was bland and unappetizing. But then I took a spoonful of meringue and dipped it into the vanilla creme anglais, with a little bit of that incredible caramel drizzle that stained the dish from above, and my eyes rolled back into my head. I was so full I couldn't eat it all, but it was one of the best desserts I've had so far.

Finally around ten o'clock we arrived back home, where Caitlin the babysitter told me that they'd played Monopoly, read a chapter of Harry Potter, and had a grand time. Both kids were sleeping so soundly that they didn't stir when I kissed their foreheads. And both Josh and I felt some of the stress of this enormous change melt off of our shoulders.

Friday, August 11, 2017

L'Anniversaire de Sylvia

I had been dreading Sylvia's birthday, ever since we learned we were going to expatriate in the month of July. Her August birthday was, ahem, planned for - with the rest of us born in January AND a February anniversary, neither Josh nor I wanted yet another party to plan in the winter months. But that meant last year that her special day was the second day of preschool, too chaotic a time to plan much of a celebration. And this year it meant we would have just left all of her friends behind, the first year that she was old enough to really want them around to celebrate. All spring and summer long she asked for a My Little Pony party with Gracyn, Shireen, Morgan, Niko, and her other friends from school and our Simpsonville neighborhood. She would ask Nana and Pappy whether they were coming. And the pit in my stomach would get a little pittier.

But there was nothing to be done about it, so as we settled into our French apartment and August crept closer, I planned a little gathering in the park.  Some of our new expat friends were traveling in August, but many were still around. Thanks to a happy accident, we wandered into a party supply store that had My Little Pony invitations - Sylvie was overjoyed! And a local chain store had all of the baking supplies I was missing; the cookie sheets and cooling racks and spatulas that didn't make it into our shipping container. The birthday girl chose a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and strawberry filling, and together we found all the ingredients we needed to pull it off. 

When the weather forecast showed rain and cold for the morning of the big day, I looked around at our enormous flat and decided to hold it here instead of the park. This place just begs to be filled with people, coffee or wine in hand and kids off making mischief in a bedroom. So we obliged.

It was beautiful outside when the day actually came, of course. Birthday girl with friends in our little courtyard.

So nice to see our big window framing happy friends!

And here they are from the inside.
When the day finally arrived, we had nearly 20 guests, many of whom we'd never met before. The expat community here, like most, is friendly and kind and happy for an excuse to gather in the slow summertime.

We made short work of the cake!

Naturally, the kids instantly found every toy that has 1,000 tiny pieces and strew them about the bedroom floors. There wasn't a single fight or tussle, just English-speaking kids of all ages, from at least three countries, playing together.
Sylvia's room
And then there was the piñata! She's been asking for that for a long time too, and luckily the unicorn she picked out has ribbons to pull - no swinging a bat inside our home! Mr. Sullins held it aloft and all the kids, ages 2-11, grabbed a ribbon to pull. With My Little Pony treat bags in hand.

I love this picture of Josh!
We had a small technical difficulty when the ribbons failed to break the thing open, though!
 Luckily there were no injuries, and with a little adult help, the treats were freed. This is a nice way of saying that I ripped a unicorn in half in a room full of children.

Birthday girl and friends, in the thick of the hunt!

 Here was where we ran into the one problem of the day. For all her piñata enthusiasm, Sylvia had never actually seen one in action before. So when the candy and toys came falling out, she started carefully looking through them to choose the ones she wanted most. Of course, the other, more experienced kids were (politely and appropriately!) grabbing treats by the handfuls - so when the floor was clear, the birthday girl had an empty treat bag and started to cry.

And that was probably the sweetest moment of the entire party. All of the kids, even the youngest ones, saw her crying and brought her treats from their own collections. The Kinder Buenos, mini chupachups, and plastic rings were a hit, and everyone wound up happy.

It was such a sweet, busy, fun party that I forgot all about my anxiety earlier in the year. Friends who have been here longest taught us the birthday song in French, new friends who'd just arrived came and were introduced around, and a bunch of us semi-newbies grilled the expat veterans about school supplies, first day schedules, and how to operate French appliances. Everyone left before lunchtime (morning party means no conflicts with nap times), and Sylvia declared it "her best France birthday!" And that was even before we started opening Legos, puppets, art supplies, and other thoughtful gifts late that afternoon. I needed another coffee for that process.

I'm so lucky to be Sylvia's mom. I am so proud of this brave, sweet, brilliant, hilarious four year old kid who can just roll with a thousand big and little changes. I can't wait to see what the next four years will bring.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Château de Murol

What to do the day after you keep the kids up too late having dinner with friends? Drive thirty minutes to a 12th century castle, obviously.
Château de Murol (I'll pause a moment so you can be impressed that I've found all the accent shortcuts on my American keyboard). (Ok now? Good) sits up on a hill overlooking the village of Murol, along the "Route de Fromages d'Auvergne," which translates to "Auvergne Cheeses Road." We'll definitely be exploring that one soon.
 As with every historical tourist site in the area, and there are hundreds, Murol boasts beautiful panoramic views of the volcanos, villages, and farms. This region is aggressively beautiful. I hope I never get used to it.

We parked alongside the road, in a mercifully shady spot on another 90 degree day. Josh wasn't feeling great, which was made worse by the steep hike up to the castle. France is notoriously difficult for anyone with mobility issues to navigate, and this place is no exception. It feels great for we soft, able-bodied Americans to be walking so much, but it frustrates me greatly to think of all the people who never get to see these sights. But once we made it up to the castle and paid for our entrance, the kids and I left Josh resting on a shady bench and started exploring.
Halfway up inside the castle.

Another view from about halfway.
 There's a reimagined kitchen with cooking shows a few times per day, a root cellar down below which was so cool we nearly stayed there the whole time, and a bedroom designed to look as it would have when the château was in regular use. The kids were delightedly grossed out by the chamber pot! Nothing can beat violence when it comes to kids' imaginations, though. Not even poop and pee. So we made sure to take a picture with the swords, crossbows, and helmets. The walls of the room were lined with spears and sabers too! And on some days you can see a real jousting exhibition, but not the day we were there.
 Next, Lincoln insisted that we climb up the tiny, steep, shallow spiral stairs to reach the top of the castle. It was terrifying for me, but they loved it! And again, the view.
Sylvia is pretending to be me. She loved it.

Narrow passageways - I couldn't see the kids if they got more than a few steps ahead of me!
 Finally Josh was feeling a bit better, so we collected him and moved on to the blacksmith's shop. A real working blacksmith, and he spoke English! His brother in law has moved to Atlanta to work for an ophthalmology research firm, and he's hoping to visit. But at these Medieval wages...haha!
 He explained the process of making an arrowhead that would've been used with an English longbow, and then he made one, right there in front of us. The handle above his head pumps the bellows, and we were all impressed by the big flames that resulted.
Medieval man bun! And seriously awesome skills. 
 Finally the kids got to hold the cooled arrowhead, and I managed to ask a couple of questions in (very bad) French.
We were all tired and hot, and the walk down the hill to the car was slowed by grasshopper hunting and recreational whining. But then there was a view of the village, and horses nipping flies off each others' flanks in the pasture, and the chance to drive over 40mph on the highway for a change. Another easy, educational treasure in close proximity to Clermont. More and more and more to come.