Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Big fat black pen: French bureaucracy part 1

Tuesday’s agenda: connect with the University and find out Kadin’s test results (and take appropriate action)

For the first time, we sleep in and have a real breakfast in the apartment. Then once again head to the internet café. Greg needs to find out where to meet his colleague on campus and I need to find out if Kadin got into school.

If he did, there are forms I need to take to the Mairie (town hall) and then back to the school and I need to sign him up for the school lunches ASAP if I want to avoid picking him up everyday to come home for his 2 hour lunch (perish the thought!). He is not allowed to bring his own lunch to school. He will have only 4 days of school a week for a total of 24 hours. This is standard here as I think there is more homework. He’ll have a luxuriously long 2 hour lunch, be in school from 8:30 to 4:30, but have Wednesdays and weekends off. If he doesn’t get into the school…I don’t know what I’ll do, but something!

At the café I scan my inbox and find the message I’ve been waiting for. He’s in! Just after that message was sent there is one from Carina saying she hasn’t heard yet. Hmmm. Then the end of her message says she then called the school and Sam’s in. We are supposed to stop by the school around 10am and pick up a signed letter to take to the Mairie with passport and proof of address. Okay, it is now 10:15 and I just ordered a coffee. Greg is planning to set off for the University to get set up there, find out more about bank accounts, wifi, French classes, insurance, etc.

I finish my coffee and email and set off with the boys about 10:45 to take 2 trams and a bus to the school. We need to beat the “lunch deadline” when everyone is out of the office from about 11:30 to 1:30 or is it 12 to 2? We arrive sometime after 11 and the headmistress is there with our letter. We take it the Mairie with all of our documents (and more) around 11:30. They do not speak English, but a helpful person in the waiting room translates: there are two people in front of me and with the office closing at noon, it would be better for me to schedule an appointment for after lunch. Fine with me. So after much discussion it turns out the earliest appointment is for 16:00, or 4 o’clock. I have my wits about me enough to ask if I can have the forms to sign up for lunch as well. The receptionist gives me the lunch forms and I figure that should kill about 4 hours!

We lunch at home on yummy selections from the grocery store. There are yogurts and cheeses (goat and sheep are easy to find) salamis and lentils, baguettes for the kids, rice cakes for me.

I do make a valiant effort at the form. I look up words and try to understand the intricacies of the lunch options. I hope Greg will come home to double check what I have concocted. A little before 3 (15:00), when he hasn’t returned, we all head out to see if we can find Carina and Sam. Kadin wanted to play a little bit with Sam and I figure Carina can help me with the forms. We find their place and ring the bell but there is no answer. So instead we buy another baguette and stop in at the fun looking magic shop down the street.

Then it is time to head to the Mairie near the school. I was warned that this could be the most difficult part of the whole process. I have double checked that I have everything I need and they even confirmed this when I stopped by in the morning.

We show up a few minutes early and are told to wait. The room and the building are very pleasant and the people working there are kind, but there is a pall hanging over the room. People waiting there seem to have a sense of helplessness. There is nothing to do in the waiting room. Since French civil servants have a guaranteed job for life, they have little incentive to offer customer service. Our few minutes turns into 15 then 20. Finally someone comes out of the office. I ask the receptionist “16:00? Ça va?” And she explains there are two people ahead of me. Still two people ahead of me.

I am starting to feel like I am in the salle de mort. When the next person comes out, a little argument ensues about who is next and who has been waiting longest. It is explained that several of us have been asked to come back. People say they have young children and they have to work, they can’t sit around for hours. (Realize now that I actually got the gist of this!) Mothers with new babies come in (to register them, I suppose), but they are helped immediately.

Rees is about to jump out of his skin. Kadin is merely antsy. I am just hoping I will pass the test. There is a sweet young girl who keeps trying to talk to Kadin. He asks for my help so I try to understand what she is saying. It takes me awhile, but I finally figure out that she is asking him what his name is. Duh! I tell him how to reply and he does. We ask her name. Boy, I can barely talk to a four year old, how will I do with the official?

Rees and Kadin flee to a little courtyard on the other side of a door. I am not sure they are even allowed to be out there, but at this point I don’t care. If they set off an alarm opening a door at least that would be a little excitement and entertainment for everyone. It is clear we are clueless anyway, so if we inadvertently break a rule, so be it.

The little girl cries because she is too little for her mom to let her go out in the courtyard with the boys.

Finally it is my turn. I say hello (in French) and say I am sorry but I don’t speak much French. The civil servant is very officious and grimly bears the news. She takes my letter and my documents (thank goodness Kadin is French and I have the standard Livret de Famille, otherwise, who knows what complications could have ensued) and trots off on her high heels to photocopy them. She then uses an impressive fat, black pen to fill out a long form in front of me repeating all the information on the documents: name of student, name of parents, address, etc. She has large, formal handwriting. It is almost like a comedy skit, but unfortunately there is only flourish, no humor in her demeanor. I am impressed by the French bureaucracy in action.

Then, before my stunned eyes, she writes out a letter to the headmistress—by hand—saying with her big black pen that it is okay to admit Kadin Tucker to the school. Then she signs it and stamps it with her official seal. Thunk. Done. It is now my job to walk this precious piece of paper back over to the headmistress about 2 blocks away. I think this is done for every single new student in the schools. Hundreds of them. Where do all these papers go?

Then I produce my school lunch form and tell her I would like to sign my son up for lunches (I use the words from the form, otherwise I would be hopeless in saying this). She looks at my form, shakes her head, takes her white out, crosses out nearly everything I had filled in, muttering “non, non, non,” corrects it all with her big black pen and tells me my son can start lunches on September 9th. She writes a big “September 9” on a post-it note for me. Fine. Maybe my inability to understand is working in my favor! I’m the big savage imbecile.

Then she tells me she needs a feuille for the lunches. I am stymied on this one. I understand it is a form or a piece of paper of some sort, but what sort exactly? She tells me lots of things I can’t understand, but I think she says I can get it from my husband. Okay. She then flourishes her pen again and writes out her request on another post-it note in big formal letters and says I should take it to the school.

So I do. The headmistress at the school also does not speak English. She has had a whole day of this. She accepts my all important signed letter and then, when I show her the note about the feuille, she very kindly takes me up to see the school’s English teacher to help translate. It turns out, to see if we are eligible for a reduced lunch fee, they need to see last year’s tax form. “How long have you lived here?” I’m asked. “Since Friday,” I reply. It is clear to all that there will be no tax form from last year. “Well,” I say, “I’m sure we can afford to pay for the lunches.”

“Yes,” says the English teacher, “but it doesn’t work that way here. You live in center city so there is likely to be some subsidy of the fee. Don’t worry about it, it will sort itself out.” Meanwhile the headmistress has gone back downstairs to call the Mairie. She speaks to someone. When she hangs up she explains something that I think means she needs to talk to someone higher up who wasn’t available, not to worry about doing anything now, and that she would let me know more later. Wonderful. “À Jeudi” she says. “See you on Thursday.” Thursday is the first day of school.

I think we’ve passed the test.

We rendezvous with Greg back at the apartment and debrief. His joy of the day was that to get a bank account you need to get paid and to get paid you need to have a bank account. Once again, there are ways around these problems, but one thing he needs to get paid is to prove he is qualified for the job. Part of this proof includes photocopies of his diplomas. Well there is something we didn’t think to pack. Still, they’re accessible and an email home will likely solve that problem. So it goes. I don’t have a bureaucracy part II yet, but I do have the feeling this is only the beginning.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Expats and results left hanging, Monday 8/30/10

Again have to force ourselves to WAKE UP, this time to make it to Kadin’s 8:30 test. Since all stores were closed on Sunday and we didn’t want to accumulate too much more baggage before the big schlep to the apt, we postponed shopping and there is very little around to eat. The landlords have left us some essentials, like coffee, but for the rest we make do with the Lara bars, fruit, and nuts we have.

Rees opts to stay home, the rest of us make it to the school in plenty of time. Early. Kadin is remarkably calm. It is all a bit grim at the school and all business. There is only one other family there, French speaking, when we arrive. Finally the headmistress appears and gives us a numbered card. A few minutes later she asks Kadin to follow her (in French). He doesn’t understand a word, but he goes. She reappears. No reassurances, no attempt to give us more information, like, for example, what this test is or how long it will take. More families have arrived. More children are given cards.

The headmistress makes a sort of announcement explaining something about times and results. I only catch something about 3 o’clock. Kadin is going to be here until 3:00? We are hopeless, unable to understand. The headmistress does not speak English, but adeptly finds another parent to translate. This turns out to be a godsend. The other mother is Carina. She is American, a French professor at Swarthmore, and is in Grenoble supervising the Swarthmore students' year abroad. Her sweet, shaggy haired son, Sam, is 8 and also waiting for his test.

Carina too has just arrived, but has lived in Grenoble before, about 3 years ago. She is obviously fluent. She translates some complicated instructions about how we will be contacted with results later in the afternoon and how we need to get some papers, bring some papers, get some signature at the town hall, bring them back, sign up for lunch. etc. The 3 o’clock I heard was actually 13 o’clock or 1 pm. And that is when the testing of all the students will be winding up. Results come after that, but the test itself is only about 20min. The headmistress will contact us via email in the afternoon.

Another dad standing nearby, Dave it turns out, has, on the whim of his Francophile wife, just moved the family to France. They were on vacation, now they are here for awhile. He speaks no French, so Carina briefs him as well. His wife, who does speak French, is meanwhile off signing their French lease. His older son, Dominic, is 7 and also plans to attend the school. His younger son will be in preschool. The three new American boys all have t-shirts that are too big and sport long, shaggy hair. They hit it off immediately. So sweet to see! So funny that they all have stubbornly kept their “locks.”

Then it turns out Carina and Sam live just a block north of us so we discuss possible “carpooling” or (really) bus/walk pooling. Carina answers many many of our questions and we take the bus back together. The test, which I thought was sort of a formality or a placement test, turns out to be a test of how well the students know English and it is possible a student will not be admitted (it is the only international elementary school in Grenoble and has tracks in English, French, and German). So glad I didn’t know that in advance! Not that Kadin doesn’t know English…

Strange that even though there is a great variety of Americans in the world, the first two we meet here are ones that we feel we know or have known. They are somehow like us and there is a common feeling of understanding and familiarity. Really great to talk to them and really great company.

Dave cracked me up after he took his younger son to the bathroom at school. He inquires of Carina, “And so what is up with the bathrooms? No toilet seats, just a hole in the ground, and the toilet paper is outside the stalls?” “That’s pretty common.” “What if you don’t have enough? What if you need more?“ “Make sure you take what you need,” she replies. “I saw that down south and I thought maybe it was a beach thing, but no. You're in, the toilet paper's out...” Too funny and good to know as I could totally see myself being caught out by that toilet paper thing!

Next mission: lunch and internet access. We had read about a good, relatively inexpensive restaurant in the old town that also had internet access, so we head there. The review was right, it was pleasant and had good food, but unfortunately, though we are surrounded by people working on their laptops online, we are unable to log on. We inquire about a code or how to log on, we are assured there is none. We are assured that the internet is working. We try three computers an iPod and and iPhone. Feeling shut out again. I am hungry and frustrated. I eat a huge salad of grilled veggies and dried ham and feel a bit better. We wait and wait for the bill. Greg finally leaves with Rees to find another nearby internet friendly café with the unfortunate name of “French Coffee Shop.” Turns out the bill was on the table all along. Kadin and I pay and leave.

At “French Coffee Shop” we have success! We get the needed “clé” (that's the word we've been looking for) and we’re on! I reopen my Etsy shop and answers emails, etc. I do this for the next 2 hours. The boys are antsy, so Greg takes them back to the apartment where he would like to nap. I tell him I’ll join him in about an hour and then we’ll finally do the grocery shop we’ve been meaning to do since we arrived.

Now that it’s Monday, the town has come alive. Honestly, it was a bit grim when we arrived. It was the end of August and the weekend so in the center city many places were shuttered. Only the dregs remained. All much more cheerful and inviting now that things are open. Instead of taking the tram home, I decide to walk and take a shorter route I remember seeing on the map. I have to pee but someone is in the bathroom so I just head out. Shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes.

In no time, I am completely disoriented and have no idea if the street angling slightly to the right or the one angling slightly to the left is my best bet to get home. I had in mind that I would eventually hit one of two main cross streets that would lead me back to the apartment, but I don’t find either one. If I were in Boulder I could just use the mountains to get my bearings. Here, there are mountains all around and I try to recognize if they are the ones to the east or the west. However, at the north end of town is a good landmark, the Bastille, the large fort in the bow of the river Isère. Finally I spot the Bastille and adjust my course.

Then I get the idea to look for the trees of Cours Jean Jaurès. Then I see trees everywhere. My need to pee has increased dramatically. I find a big Habitat store but press onward. Finally, I spot the elevated train tracks that run above the market. I am not far! Just a few more blocks and I’m home. Mental note to self: don't leave home without a map. Pee at every opportunity. Near the train tracks I spot a discarded table…

It’s not that we don’t have everything we need, it’s just that I stole the table out of the kid’s room and put it in my room to set it up as my jewelry workshop. The kids have taken to cutting paper and making things on their floor. So, after a pee and a brief rest at home (where I find a map and locate the circuitous route I took), Rees and I go to check out the table.

It is a small gate leg table with a white laminated top and metal legs. One of the leaves of the top has come off its hinges. That looks pretty fixable to me, so Rees carries the leaf and I carry the table, scanning for screws we might find in the sidewalk. Thanks to the tool box in the closet and a supply of screws found there as well, the table is back in shape in no time.

The kids set up shop and start making their paper creations on the table. I have an enormous sense of satisfaction at my first scavenge.

Finally, we make it to the grocery store and cook up our first home made meal in weeks: rice, curried lentils (dal), and a salad with iceberg, maché, and two colors of tomatoes. I am so craving this simple food! Chocolate and a glass of wine top it off perfectly.

After diner we watch something on French TV called Plus Belle La Vie. It is a soap opera, but we like it because we can see the people talking and they speak relatively clearly and slowly, not like on the news or a faced-paced reality show where the voices are clipped and often off screen. Still, I can’t understand a thing, but I’m hoping that will change with time. I’m thinking this will be our show as it ends at 8:40, a perfect bedtime.

Even though I left the internet café at around 3:30, I never did find out the test results. Hope that doesn’t mean he didn’t get in. Too tired to hike back the café tonight. Tomorrow.

Seems there is plenty to do, but we don’t feel rushed.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bye, bye nice hotel, hello life! Dimanche 8/29/10

Agenda for the day: check out of hotel, find Kadin’s school, move into apartment.

After a delicious buffet breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we set off to find Kadin’s school. Kadin’s school is called Houille Blanche. We look it up. Instead of white oil (which would be huil blanc), Houille Blanche means water power.

We find the school and find we can walk there no problem, but there is also a convenient bus (about half a dozen of these pass us as we walk). It seems safe and easy to walk around the city and so far I have managed to avoid getting my z-coils stuck in the groove of a tram rail. The children too have been adapting in their own ways. While one child agilely leaps over pylons and obstacles on the street, the other is so in his own head he is in danger of crashing into them (not to mention being hit by a vehicle). Urban life sure brings a new awareness (and for mom a whole new stress on the brain).

Walking back from the school, keen eyed Rees finds a 20€ note! Score!

We also score as we find the open market (marché) under the train tracks near our apartment. Apparently they set up every morning except Mondays. And, bonus for us: it’s lunch time!

I have some organic goat yogurt in my bag from our stash at the hotel (bought in old town), Greg and the kids opt for some very delicious smelling oven roasted pizzas. We enjoy the sites and smells of the market and the sounds of the accordion player while waiting for the pizzas to come out of the oven. I buy more white peaches and prune plums, and this time some small green ones as well (we have already tried the delicious yellow plums). We resist loading up because anything we buy will have to be carried later with our luggage from the hotel to the apartment.

Greg looks at the map, finds a nearby park, and we head there to enjoy our impromptu picnic. Not sure what we will find, perhaps a bench in a concrete square covered with pigeon droppings, perhaps a dilapidated play structure, perhaps some mischievous foul-mouthed teenagers, or perhaps the garden of Eden. We easily find something in between: a pleasant enough park with formal gardens and plenty of benches. The few people there are relaxed and pleasant, talking and walking as one should in parks.

While the city seems fine safety wise, it is still a city (and one where there were recently riots), and I am trying to calibrate how wary to be and in what situations. Is it okay to walk down a dark alley alone? Is it okay to carry a purse that doesn’t zip closed? Etc. Heck, in Boulder, if you went around with bills sticking out of your pockets no one would take them. In Boulder, if you leave your iPhone or wallet on the bus, there is a good chance it will be returned to you. I don’t get the feeling that would be true here.

But in my experience, if you calibrate it wrong, people are generally very nice and give you some warning that you are being foolhardy. Like in Bogota, Columbia, people warned my mother not to carry around her big telephoto camera before it was ripped off her shoulder. And in New York city, people warned my friend Marcia that having her wallet sticking out of her pocket was not a good idea, even if she thought she always had her hand on it. It disappeared while she was browsing in a department store. So if you pay attention to the cues, you can generally be safe.

So here are some signs of crime that I have observed so far in my short time here:
Bicycles are triple locked (seat, wheel, and then to something like a pole or rack).
You need to ring a bell to get into the hotel lobby.
You need to use a key card to operate the elevator.
There is a man sleeping in the vestibule of the bank across the street.
There are heavy metal shutters on all the closed shops and multiple locked doors.
There is graffiti and burned trash cans.
There are lots of security cameras.
Many stores search your bags or backpacks if you bring them in.
There are security guards in some shops.
Shops only have one door that opens, other routes are closed.

And here are some signs that, though there may be crime, it's not too bad:
People hang purses on their chairs at outdoor cafés.
Not all purses are zippered.
Parks are relatively nice and clean and people in them seem relaxed.
People do walk down side streets alone and seem to take their time when they do it.

After lunch and a rest at the park, it is finally time for the big event of the day: the move in to our apartment! We know hardly anything about it, only that it is two bedrooms, furnished, and Greg’s colleague with two daughters rented it last year and found it worked well for them.

We grab our wheelie carryons and small backpacks from the luggage room at the hotel and walk the three blocks to our future home. At the large, nondescript wooden doors of #54, we punch the code we were given into brass buttons, hear a quiet automatic buzzing sound, and the door unlocks. We push the heavy door open to find ourselves sequestered in a cool, colorfully tiled, echo-y hallway with high ceilings and carved stone walls. Sunlight floods in through a stained glass window at the back. Can you hear the angels singing? Wooden mailboxes line one wall. A large stone staircase with ornate wrought iron railings circles around a central (retrofitted) ELEVATOR. Ahh, I was wondering if there would be an elevator. It's the kind of place suspenseful scenes in movies are set: big, shadowy, cavernous, clanking. Cool.

Our destination is the top floor, where we find the name we are looking for on a large wooden door to the right.: 4D (not 4G, can you figure that one out?). Instead of front/rear we have one side and views of the mountains out both the front (east) and back (west). We have a wrought iron balcony on the front over the street. It’s soooo French! Though our street, Cours Jean Jaurès, is one of the biggest and busiest streets in the city, it is not too loud inside the apartment since we are 5 levels above the traffic and have good windows and solid walls (built in 1910, according to the owners). One other benefit of being on this main drag is that it is lined with two rows of sycamore (plane) trees. Our apartment is at the same level as the treetops and, though it would be nice to be on some small back street, it is nice to have some greenery nearby. It’s also nice to see the sky and have the vistas that we do. And I am grateful for the elevator today since I am thinking about our 4, 50lb bags still back at the hotel.

The kind owners show us around, we sign our lease, and they depart.

Ah, the simple life!
Rees's assessment: "This place is awesome!"
Kadin's assessment: "Well, I think we found the right apartment."

Three large, sparsely furnished rooms plus a kitchen. Wooden floors and ceramic tile throughout with thick stone walls and high plaster ceilings. The kind of place where the rooms are taller than they are wide. Simple and elegant, with the best of old and new (old floors, new faucets/plumbing/dishwasher/washing machine; old stair railing, new elevator; old thick walls, new insulated easy-to-open windows). It is both rustic and refined and generally lovely.

We have everything we need, but not too much. I marvel at how the owners' tastes mirror my own. In the living room they have the same comfortable chair my parents bought the year they were in Boston, that I inherited when they left and used throughout college, and that my grandma bought from me when I graduated. I think my aunt Diana has it now. In the kid’s room we find the same Danish bunk beds I slept on as a kid that are now at my brother’s cabin in Grand Lake. (Glad there are two beds for the kids, something else we did not know beforehand). The choice of décor is simple, solid, functional, eclectic.

When we make the beds we find vivid, solid color cotton sheets and comforter covers, just the kind I would have selected.

Then there were three things I really didn’t want to do without, but also didn’t want to bring, so I took my chances: hair dryer, kitchen scale, and salad spinner. She was right, “il y a tout qu’il faut dans l’appartemente.” They are here.

Even the spices in the cupboard: cumin, cardamom, corriander, oregano, curry, cinnamon, and thyme. Parfait! As if they too like to have cinnamon and cardamon on their rice pudding in the morning, thyme on their roasted vegetables.

And get this, in the master bedroom, next to the bed, is a functioning Singer pedal sewing machine (no electricity needed). She uses it and it works, so she showed me how to use it if I want to. In the cupboard they also have two key things that no hotel could match: a sewing kit and a tool box. Triple score!

And yes, the kitchen cabinets are IKEA.

I half expected to open a cupboard and find yoga mats.

One more trip back to hotel for the big bags, and we’re in!

As we unpack I have a bit of an American moment when I run out of hangers for the wardrobe. The wardrobe in the bedroom doesn’t fit full-sized hangers, only the narrower pant/skirt clamping ones. I just need one more for one last skirt…so the American consumer in me thinks, well, I’ll just go out and buy a three pack. And then I think, well, what would I do if I couldn’t buy a 3 pack, what could I use instead? And then I look at the variety of hangers in the place and the number of different hooks and crevices on each hanger and realize: these hangers are designed to hang more than one item! Of course! Who would waste hangers by using only one piece of clothing per hanger? Duh! So easy to just put two skirts into one hanger. Problem solved, space and money saved.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Good signs from yesterday: when we saw the limestone and the valley Grenoble sits in, I thought: nice! Let's check this out!

Went for a walk to get map, money, and food. Stunning sunset. Notice lots of kabab, Indian, and Cambodian cuisine, all yummy and gluten-free friendly. We've arrived in time to enjoy those lovely French prune plums. Hotel has cool, functional euro design features: pull out tables, wall mounted magazine racks to keep clutter off tables. Modular. Very smart. Our room on top floor (909) is quiet and features great views (see pic above left). Walked by our apartment (on fourth floor of building on right), closer than I thought, maybe half a kilometer from the hotel (we move in on Sunday). Right downstairs from apt is an excellent chocolate shop with yellow awning. Looks like we'll do fine.

Closer view of chocolatier (note chocolate Eiffel Tower):


Today we walked to Place de Sflax (Kadin hears: “plastic socks.” Horrifying thought!) the location of Rees’s school. Here's a picture looking towards "plastic socks"---I like the way they put grass over the tram lines:

Investigated renting cycles through the MetroVelo program (a UN socialist conspiracy, in case you haven’t heard). Looks cool.

Took tram to old city, a lively place with interesting shops. La Halles Ste Claire:

Tomorrow’s agenda: find Kadin’s school (opposite direction and a bit further than Rees's) and the move to our apartment. Probably won't have wifi for awhile.

Kadin has a test on Monday morning at 8:30! Rees starts school on the 9th. Honestly not sure when Kadin starts school, communication in August has been a bit thin, but perhaps they’ll let us know on Monday…or, perhaps they start on Monday!

The journey

At the airport
On a bit of a shopping spree since I can still easily communicate with people at the checkout. I'm buying some disposable toothbrushes behind a Frenchman at the airport. He is using a credit card because he is out of cash (as I always am at the end of a foreign trip). The clerk asks him, "Do you wanna bag?" "Huh?" "Do you wanna bag?" "What?" "A bag." "Oh, no." Tomorrow morning, that will be me. Strangely, or not, this Frenchman has no hair on his legs. Though he is overweight and eating potato chips, his legs (in either long shorts or manpris) are very elegant. Must look into this.

Rees is super excited as it appears we get individual TOUCH SCREEN TVs on the flight.

On the airplane
And what do you know, WE DO! Everything is beautiful on Jet Airways, an Indian airline. The stewardesses in lovely saffron Nehru jackets, the stewards (wow, are they coiffed), in lovely, dark gray, band collar suits, the elegant older woman in a sari sitting in first class as if on a throne. Urdu/Hindi first, English second. Cold towels graciously served before take off, warm towels before landing. Pillows in nice paprika red. Key moment is when one stewardess walks down the aisle spraying a rose scented air freshener. Nothing but roses. But what else do I smell? Now the cabin is filling with the aroma of curries. Fingers crossed it's gluten free.

Flight is under 7 hours, not much farther than CA to NY, but 'cause it's international, as usual, ever so much nicer.

Unbelievably, after we got on, there was a sock dropped in the aisle. A SOCK. The stewardess asked if it belonged to the kids. It did not. I feel like a magnet for socks. Why can't people (and cats) just keep them to themselves? Must other people's dirty socks follow me everywhere??? Huh???

OMG that was the most delicious airline food I've ever had: rice, dal, spicy chicken, and a chickpea salad. I'm saving my yogurt (plain) for breakfast with the almonds I brought.

For me, I choose the "D" movies: Date Night and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Have yet to explore the Bollywood options, the news, the short features, or the games. So much to do...so little time.

Kids are so enamored with the touch screens they stay up well past bedtime. Even Kadin is wide eyed at 11pm glued to Avatar. Eventually, about the time of sunrise in Belgium, he goes to sleep. Rees stays up all night. I sleep for a couple of hours. Greg not so much.

Is it my imagination or do people on this flight throw their trash down on the floor more than usual? The flight attendants keep picking things up. First class was littered when we got off.

Next airports
Brussels is the port of entry. We don't have long to make our connection (1 hr) but must go through passport control, to another terminal, then pass through security again. Luckily we do not have to claim our large bags.

Still, we are caught up in the masses of overseas migrants who arrive at such places early in the morning. Lines, lines, lines. Some clever marketing person has thought to advertise mattresses in this part of the airport. Mean.

At security, for the second time today, they need to search my carry on jam packed with jewelry making supplies. This always turns my stomach in knots (and actually makes me shake), but they have a job to do. I'm glad at least most of my containers are see through! Then Kadin is the lucky random selection to get a more thorough pat down. Not a big deal, there is so nothing on that kid (and I was so proud of him for not freaking out and also for having all his clothes on right side out and forwards!). But it all takes more time. Run!

We run to the gate, but they are running late too and just about to begin boarding. The flight to Lyon is a much smaller plane. Many women at the gate are dressed in fancy kente cloth with beautiful gold jewelry and braided hair. Lots of people seem as dazed and confused and as foreign as we are.

Just over an hour to Lyon on Belgian Air. No elegance here. Rees finally conks and conks big time. Flight attendant speaks many languages. Lyon countryside rather beautiful, Lyon airport rather ugly. We wait forever for our bags. Rees can barely function, says he feels like he is going to explode, that he wants to die, and so on. And it is a grim scene. Exhausted people from all over the world, crying babies, dirty floors. It seems no one works here, there is no music, no color, no cheerful sense of order or cleanliness, just bland, intermittent security announcements.

The luggage too, when it finally begins spewing out onto the belt, does not look like ordinary vacationer's luggage. This is some serious immigrant style baggage: big ugly suitcases, cardboard boxes, baskets, plastic tubs wrapped in more plastic, wicker, drums, surf board bags taped together. We fit right in.

We finally emerge from baggage claim and find we have 10 minutes to get our train. We had anticipated that this might be the most difficult part of the trip: 4 large bags, only 2 of which wheel, 2 wheelie carryons, 4 small backpacks, and 2 zonked children. We find the train station, find the ticket counter, purchase tickets, and with two minutes to spare, we return our luggage cart, heave the big bags on our backs, validate our ticket, and race down to the track.

Only the train is not there. Were thinking we needed about 10 more minutes to get it all right. And miracle of miracles, it seems that that is the only error we've made: the train is scheduled about 10 minutes later than we thought. Another train comes about 3 minutes before ours, so we scope out the most efficient way to board with all our stuff.

Scrutiny of our tickets reveals that we have seats in car 6. So we try to guess where car 6 will be based on the train that comes just before. As that train is pulling away, I notice there is a train parked right behind it, and (gack!) it's OUR train, waaaay down the platform. It's the moment we've been waiting for!!

The mad dash down the platform begins and at the last possible minute, we hop into the nearest car somehow managing to include everything and everyone.

We are a miserable mass of people and bags in a narrow corridor and not in the right place. Only one car off, but turns out the only way to get where we need to go is up some stairs, through a car, down some more stairs, and back again. This would all have been relatively simple and doable if we knew what we were doing, but we don't.

So begins the public spectacle of us shuttling our bags one by one up the narrow windy stairs, down an endless narrow and rocking aisle strewn with feet and elbows (pardon, pardon, pardon), and back down some other windy stairs to our car. We do this what feels like 10 times. Basically a set of 10 reps with 50 pound weights in the glare of stranger's eyes.

I am actually quite proud of us for managing so well, we've been up all night and are navigating a system we've never seen before. However, the passengers we derange with bag after bag after bag are not so generous. It is the sweaty, bedraggled, humiliating moment all trips seem to require. Check.

And so far, that has been the worst of it! The train is very comfortable and efficient, and the French countryside begs exploration.

Another miracle when we get to Grenoble is that the hotel I booked, knowing nothing of the city, is a mere 200 meters from the train station. I chose it because it was 1km from our apartment (which we can move into on Sun) but didn't think about the arrival part. Hooray! No struggling with cash, taxis, luggage, directions. We're in! And out...goodnight!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why France?

Okay, so we have this sabbatical, this opportunity to experience a new place. We could have chosen anywhere. So we chose France. Perhaps because Greg and the kids have French citizenship and passports. Perhaps because France is known for it's food and culture.

But the closer it gets (we fly to Lyon tomorrow), the more I realize that we have chosen a place with not only a difficult language, but also a place extremely proud of its language. That we have chosen a place not known for its friendly generosity and hospitality. We have chosen a place known for being brusque and proper, bureaucratic, and difficult to get to know. If we were going to Scandinavia, I would be happy to learn to emulate some of their simplicity and efficient design. Iceland or New Zealand would be friendly and just all around cool. If we were going to Japan, some of their politeness and grace might rub off. But France? With celiac, I can't even eat their bread. Was I going there to bring back an upturned nose? To paint it in the best possible light, maybe I was going to bring back some of their appreciation of the finer things in life? Still, luxuries are not my forte, so it seems like a strange match. The question remains: why France?

It will be fun to answer this question. I really can't say in advance what I'll learn and what I'll bring back. But reading this book on French culture by Polly Platt called French or Foe? gives me an inkling of something important I might bring back: confidence.

In addition to not smiling at strangers, it is apparently just not French to admit you are at fault. This is truly a foreign concept to me! I am responsible for everything and only too happy to take the blame. When an acquaintance spilled red wine on the author's beige couch, the acquaintance did not apologize, merely commented, "What a strange color for a couch." Or another man who gave an acquaintance a key to use his garage. The man came back and produced a key the owner had never seen and said he had been given the wrong key. The owner figured out that the borrower had in fact lost the key and was trying to save face. This will be interesting for me!

So when the children are eating with their fingers and slurping salad dressing from their plates, wearing their ripped shirts wrong side out and backwards, I will hold my head high as if nothing is amiss. Didn't you know? It is the way things are done.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bermuda cruise

If I'd had internet access this last week, here are some of the status updates I might have posted:

Sunday 8/15/10

The Love Boat....(aka Norwegian Dawn)
Sail down Hudson, under Verrazano-Narrows bridge and out to sea.
Very big and majestic. Feel like I can almost touch the underside of the bridge.
Ship is full (2400 passengers), crowded.

Monday 8/16
Glassy seas, smooth and wide.
Work out in gym with ocean view.
Definitely a cruise for the masses: stunned by quantity (not quality) of tattoos.
As for the dominant vibe, crass luxury kind of sums it up.
Diversity of crew is, for once, reflected in the diversity of passengers. Thanks New York, for being a microcosm!

Tuesday 8/17
Thermal spa. Rocked to sleep.
Second City workshop.

Wednesday 8/18
Bermuda, one of the most isolated island chains in the world.
One hour ahead of NY.
Not a "Caribbean" island but an "Atlantic" island.
Drive on left.
Tempted to stay on the now nearly empty ship.
Rent a moped instead.
Rees and I sing "Wavin' Flag" at the top of our lungs while riding moped on lush, narrow, windy roads to Horseshoe Bay, a lovely, if crowded, beach.
Greg and Kadin opt to take the bus.
Houses painted in the pastel colors of Lucky Charms.
Water comes from collected rain.
All houses have distinctive white, terraced roofs for collecting rainfall.
Rees has found a worthy (read: relentless) opponent in the ocean waves.
Bright. Very, very bright. Stunning.
After beach frolic, Barritts Ginger Beer (since 1874) saves the day.
Nick and Norah after dinner.
Feeling a bit crispy.

Thursday 8/19
Buy spf70, and for me, that's saying something!
Purchase unlimited ferry/bus pass for the day.
High speed catamaran ferry to St. George, historic town on opposite end of the islands.
Lunch at Wahoo (not the chain).
NY prices everywhere. Relative prosperity.
On the bus, you get the novel opportunity to see solid limestone walls pass by at great speed about 6 inches from your nose.
Destination: the remote and uncrowded Clearwater beach on Cooper's Island, a nature preserve.
Ahhhhh! Beautiful, lots of fish, but no waves for Rees.
So far today, Kadin has worn his shirt wrong side out and backwards, right side out and backwards, and wrong side out and forwards.

Friday 8/20
Kids discover they can walk/roll on cylindrical stool in our small cabin. Bad feng shui.
Souvenir shopping at the Dockyards: Bermuda onions, Bermuda grass, Bermuda shorts, Bermuda triangle....
Glassblowing, lampwork fun.
Email at Freeport a real treat!
Depart and air is warm and windy.
More Second City in the evening.

Saturday 8/21
Another sea day.
Reclined and semiconscious, watching a reflection of the porthole fill with the horizon, empty, and fill again.
Post work out: alone in the warm and bubbly hot tub, sighing deeply, rocking in harmony with the swells of the ocean.
Late afternoon, brave the "bingo lingo" in the Spinnaker Bar because it has the best view off the prow. Try to read, but instead, get sucked in to watching the waves. Spot three different pods of dolphins and numerous flying fish.

Sunday 8/22
Wake to gray and rainy Manhattan.
Laundry beckons!