Monday, September 20, 2010

My number one interaction: paying for things

So I can’t say I am getting tons of French conversation going on here. My main interactions come from the post office, the market, the grocery store. But still, I have learned many things from paying for things: how to understand numbers, the implications of the tax system, the rhythm of the typical day, how people use cash, immigration issues, and codes of politeness to name a few. Really. You won’t believe the variety of checkout experiences I’ve had in three short weeks.

First, numbers. Early on, I realized that purchasing things involved mainly numbers. And how hard can numbers be? They are concrete, quantifiable, predictable things that even have the same symbols in both languages.

Well, if you ask me, numbers in French are dang hard. They have a weird system where you say things like “sixty twelve” for 72, or “four-twenties-ten-nine” for 99 (that would be 80 and 19, get it?). On top of that, I find the word for tens almost identical sounding to the words for hundreds. For example, 50, cinquante, and 60, soixante, just do not sound that different from cinq cents (500) and six cents (600).

Another difficulty is the word Euro. In French, this word seems almost entirely swallowed to me. There might be a bit of an R and an O coming out at the end, but mostly this word just vanishes. I listen for it and it is not there. Deux euros sounds to me like “dur.” And then the 100th of a Euro, is, again, a cent which just throws me for a loop all over again (see above). So deux euro cinqante cents sounds an irregular combination to me like “duh, 5 hundred hundreds.” Don't even get me started on "one euro."

And the don't say "one hundred" or "one thousand," they just say "hundred" and "thousand" when there is only one. At least that is what I think is going on...

Now I know it is possible to function well with these numbers because people here do it effortlessly everyday, so I am trying to hone my ear.

In our first week here I noticed a sign in the closest grocery store about new hours for Sunday due to the braderie on the street that day. So I looked up braderie and find out it means “cut rate sale.” I ask Carina, my key source, what is going on (thrilled that I managed to notice something was going on). She says it is an annual street sale on our main cross street. Kind of like a flea market, but more like a remainder sale for the businesses on the street. Basically the McGuckin’s tent sale for those of you from Boulder. (And I of course thought that meant the grocery store would be reducing its hours due the street sale, when in fact, these were added hours and the store is not usually open on Sundays at all---but I wouldn’t learn that until the next week.)

So on Sunday Rees and Kadin and I head out into the braderie. There is tons of cheap junk, mostly, but it is fun because there are people doing what they have been doing for millennia: looking for a deal, hawking their wares. There are pitchmen doing their thing in French and it all seems so timeless and universal. I can picture this same thing happening in the same place in medieval times: smells of bread and cheese and sausage, olives and sweets, people demonstrating the latest trick or gadget, buyers digging through piles for treasures.

Under the train bridge I find a booth selling fabric for 1 euro a meter. The couch cover in our apartment is a little too small for two boys to manage to keep on the couch and looking neat, so I thought if I found a source of cheap fabric, I would make another one that would stay put. I can’t believe the price, so I want to ask the guy how much. Rees gives me the words, “combien coût?” and the guy replies with something incomprehensible. So I figure I’ll try another way, “Combien trois metres?

The guy wonders if I can really be that dense. “Twaro,” is the reply. Eh? Rees translates: 3 euros, mom.

I eventually ask for 4 meters, and the guy explains something about how much is left on the bolt. He is repeating the words “samet sont” over and over. He looks to Rees for help. Hmmm.

I do not know this word samet. Is that a kind of fish? He should be saying something like 5 meters, why is he suddenly talking about fish? And then the light dawns, samet IS cinq metres. Now we’re getting somewhere! 5 meters 50 left on the bolt, he’ll give it to me for sanker (5 euros, mom, says Rees).

I should probably bargain, but what the heck, about $8 for 5.5 meters of fabric and I can’t go too far wrong. I could easily spend that much for lunch (or French lessons!). So I learn that the way I learn is to listen for what I think they should have said and then calibrate backwards. It is a very slow process! I will have to take Rees with me more often…

Now, on to taxes:

I am in line at the store where I bled all over the dressing room, waiting to buy my skirt. There is a long line (I’m slowly realizing through trial and error that shopping at the lunch-two-hour is not a great idea as many things are closed, and those that aren’t, are crowded). There is only one register open and apparently, it is possibly not working. It is amazing to me, but the clerk is writing every transaction down in a book. She writes down what each item is, it’s brand, it’s size and price, and then she writes the total, how much money she was given, and how much she gave back in change. Wow. This is a tedious process.

Still, it is a step up from the Indian grocery where I went the other day. There, the old, grandmotherly lady didn’t even write anything down or use a register at all. We just added up the price of everything together in our heads and I gave her the money and she gave me the change. Like a garage sale!

Still, I am a bit stunned. This is a chain store and it seems so old fashioned to me. Other people too seem to think it a bit odd, but no one in line seems put out. They seem ready to wait. I think that in America, turnover would be key to store viability. Don’t make the customer wait, etc. Not a concern here.

Later, when back at the same store, the register is working. I again ask Carina and we hypothesize that it might be a tax thing. Either the register truly wasn’t working, or for a day or two a month, they do not record transactions electronically for some reason.

It is interesting that while people here seem to really enjoy and benefit from their higher level of social care from the state, they also pay higher taxes. One side effect is that they seem more open to finding ways to avoid taxes. I wonder if that wasn’t the cause of the retro payment systems I experienced at these two stores.

Big bills:

Next payment pickle I find myself in is at IKEA. I try to use the self-checkout to pay for the three items I have scored for a total of 5 euros (very psyched: two new---so gluten free---cutting boards, a salad bowl, and an analog clock). Unfortunately, I find there is no place to insert money into the machine and I am then informed the self-checkout is only for use with bankcards. Still don’t have a bankcard. Sigh.

So I go wait in line again. There are only two people in front of me, but the man paying is paying a HUGE amount in cash. There is some delay, which I can’t understand at all. A manager has to come over and go through every item on the 2-foot long register tape again. He is holding what I believe are several 1000 euro notes and a couple of 500 euro notes. He is paying in several batches or something.

I can’t really believe my eyes. Those are some big notes! I don’t think I have ever seen a $1000 bill or a $500 bill. Still not sure if I really did see a 1000 euro note, but definitely was tuned in by the time I saw the two 500s. At one point, one 500 sort of fluttered down to the floor. The person in front of me wistfully rolled her eyes. We were both sort of stunned.

Finally he finishes his elaborate transaction, the woman in front of me is uncomplicated, and when I get to the register I hand the clerk a 20 euro note. She asks me if I have anything smaller! I don’t really get that at all.

And my most recent foray into cultural codes:

Last Saturday, Kadin was brave enough to accompany me to another one of these gigantic super huge über stores. He wanted a French plug to charge his DS. So we head to the equivalent of giganto-Walmart. It is packed. Masses of people everywhere. It is located in an area of town where there is lots of diversity and a large immigrant population. It is closed on Sunday, so Saturday is THE DAY.

We find what we need and we opt to use the self-checkout. Not only do I now have a bankcard, but the lines are shorter and we only have a few items. Still, I am alert to any restrictions there might be at the self-checkout: how to pay, how many items maximum, etc. etc.

I find a sign and it says something about “for the comfort of other customers in the self-checkout area, please limit the number in your party to 3 people or fewer.” Wow. That is a new one. There is some logic to this since the space is tight and there are many large families shopping together, but I had never seen it spelled out like that before. Again, a whole new category that had never occurred to me.

The final lesson of this trip is how people let you know when it is your turn to go. I was again about the 3rd person in line when there were at least 2 self-checkout stations open. Perhaps the people in front of me were new, I don’t know, but they were hesitating. The woman who was monitoring the self-checkout area was not making any signal that they should proceed. I had no idea what the protocol was. Then two people behind me noticed the stations were free and just loudly started saying, “Pardon, pardon” and pushing their way through the crowd up to the waiting machines.

So that is how it is done here. In America, you would show someone how to go ahead by pointing out the free station and encouraging them to go. In France, they show you by example, by just doing it themselves. You’re not going to go? You don’t know what to do? Okay, I do. And that is perfectly acceptable. You are expected to take care of yourself and take your own initiative. No blame, no fault, no apologies, just action.

I can completely see why the French and the English have such a hard time getting along.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Kid context

So every time I pick up Kadin at school he seems okay, if a bit tired, but he always has something to complain about: the teachers, the students, the food. And I totally understand this. How fun can it be to go to a new school that is stricter than you are used to and where you don’t have any friends in your class and where you don’t speak the language? But still, a few days is not enough to form a balanced impression.

“I don’t like it, I’m not going back.” He says. I remind him that’s what he said when he started a new school in kindergarten too. “Oh mom, back then I was just spoiled.”

So that is my rallying cry. In Boulder the kids really are spoiled. They go to nice, friendly schools with highly skilled teachers, we have a yard, a trampoline, there is open space, room to run around, low crime. Life is easy.

So at least some of the point of our being here is to appreciate how really nice that life is. And that really easy place wasn’t so easy to begin with. Being new is hard.

Luckily, Kadin gets a break over the weekend, and with Wednesdays off, he’ll never have to go to school more than two days in a row. You do the first day, then there is just one more day before a break.

Rees too, was not at all happy after his first day of school. I remind him of how hard the first few days of middle school were, how he would complain about not having enough time to go to his locker or find his class and how the staff would “yell” at them to hurry.

What seemed overwhelming then is now a breeze and maybe even a little boring. Two days is not enough time to form an impression.

(New development: Rees does not want anyone to walk him to school. It is a little hard to send him out into the streets of a big city on his own on his first day of school, but he’s ready. Still, he had only done the route once before, so he agreed to let Greg shadow him that first day, just to make sure he knew where he was going…he did.)

I asked him about his music class, “What did you do, just sing or listen to music? Were there any instruments?” “No mom,” he replied sarcastically, “It was much more interesting than that: the teacher just talked at us for an hour and I didn’t understand any of it.”

On Rees’ second day of school he has his heaviest schedule: 8am to 6pm and that’s a lot of middle school, especially a new middle school where you don’t speak the language. So, by 6 I had a delicious dinner all prepared and ready to go. When the doorbell rang a little after 6, I knew it was him coming home. There he stood, shoulders slumped, head down. Hi.

Then, a couple of seconds later, “Just kidding! I’m practicing my acting skills!” He knows what’s up and he’s playing me like a highly strung instrument.

Turns out he found his day quite enjoyable and they are doing a boating unit in PE. (Okay, so if they do swimming he has to wear a speedo, apparently, so that’s a draw back, but so far, so good.)

I think they are both going to be able to deal. It may not be easy and they may not love it, but they're trying, and that's just fantastic.


Got my carte fidelété!

So they ask every time at the grocery if I have one. The first few times I didn’t know what they were talking about. Then I would just say, “Non.” (That’s a whole new logistical obstacle to navigate, and I figure I’ll wait ‘til I’m ready…)

Then this morning the clerk asked me something else, right after. I thought maybe it was, "Would you like one?" so I said, "Oui!" but nothing happened. Hmmm.

Obviously I answered a different question. Like maybe she said, "You know you can save money with a fidelity card?" "Oui!"

Reminds me of the time the movers were packing us up to go to England. They were great, hard working guys, but they didn't speak much English and were probably recent immigrants. (When labeling the boxes TUCKER, for example, it was pretty clear they were just copying shapes of lines and weren't familiar with writing letters. We had boxes labeled TUKER TCKER TUCKR etc.)

It was a long, hot, miserable day and I really wanted to help them in any way I could. So at one point I walked into the kitchen and asked the guy there if there was anything I could do to help. He smiled enthusiastically and said, "Yes!" And then promptly went back to packing. He probably thought I asked if everything was okay. I think I finally got them all pizzas and soda.

So the next time I went to the store, I had a plan. When asked if I had my fidelilty card I said, "Non,” as usual, but then added, “pas encore," "not yet."

And it was like magic. A drawer opened, "Would you like one? Here is the form. It is simple to fill out. You get one point for every 5 euros, etc. etc." (That part all in French, BTW.)

I did it!

I'm no longer just passing through.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


So there are certain hoops I need to jump through to get my long stay visa and I am getting a sort of sick pleasure filling out my forms with a crappy ball point pen.

The next step is to mail my forms by “registered post” with a “requested return receipt.” The words they gave me are: “Reccommandé avec accusé de reception.” I’m mailing them to an office not very far from Kadin’s school and thinking it might actually be easier for me to just take it there than to try to explain all this at the post.

What I really want to do is make my own form that says “I have received the following documents from Jennifer Knuth” “Sousignée le xxxxx á xxxx” and take my ball point-pen-filled forms down, hand them to someone, have the person who receives them sign my form, take a out a stamp, and stamp it. Thunk! And I think I’ll wear a burka when I do it. That would feel so good!

This burka thing is still really bothering me. The French senate just voted overwhelmingly (like 243 to 1) to outlaw wearing a burka in public. I’m not even sure if the French senate is elected and represents the views of the majority of French citizenry, but I just don’t see the logic behind this mandate. It’s completely out of line.

And I've heard almost nothing about this on the news (not that I can understand the news). I am able to make out that there is a ton of coverage of "l'affair Bettancourt" and the "manifests" and "gréves." The new retirement age is certainly getting a lot of play, the deportation of the Roma. Maybe I just don't know the French word for burka. Still.

I mean the French are so tolerant of so much. Certainly it is completely accepted and appropriate to wear more revealing clothes than would be the case in the US. When I went to Kadin’s back to school night for his English class, the English teacher, who is from England, was wearing a form fitting, longsleeved, tan, crew neck t-shirt, which was all very well and good, but underneath it you could clearly see that she was wearing a busty, lacy, corset thing. This is completely normal. Carina said at her back to school night for Sam’s French class, the teacher was wearing tight white jeans with an obvious black g-string underneath. Again, completely appropriate. But a burka? Apparently that’s a no go.

The only thing I can think is that because the French so value tolerance and openness, the in-your-face symbolism of the burka infuriates them. They really see it as an ostentatious display of religion and they find that very offensive. Their anger is so blinding they can’t see their hypocrisy. At least that is the only explanation I can come up with. That and a deep, underlying fear of the “other.”

So I was envisioning a protest of my own where everyone wears burkas. We could even march down the streets, stop the trams… It would disentangle clothes from religion, just make it part of choosing to wear what we want, when we want. No big deal. Right?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The dam/bubble bursts

After Kadin’s third day of school, his list of French phrases learned from his teacher consists of the following:

Ce n’est pas d’accord!

Ce n’est pas amusant!



Great! Well, that sounds like one skilled teacher. Still, he says he doesn’t mind because he can’t really understand what’s going on, it’s all water under the bridge.

And I can see that. I think it is kind of comforting to be shielded from outside input. We don’t understand conversations going on around us, we can’t comprehend the news, so it all just seems okay. Our buttons aren’t being pushed. We don’t have to debate the merits of the strike, we barely know what it going on. We can’t brood or plan, we can just react in the moment. We are cut off and helpless and in general, people take pity on us and fill in for us. We are like toddlers or old people, where seeing our vulnerability, people are kind and/or deferential. We call it living in the bubble. It has its perks.

Tuesday was a big day. Not only was there a strike and Rees’s orientation, it was also the day we got our mail from America, and, at long last, phone and internet.

Wow. Now we were connected. I was so relieved to get the mail from the US---kind of a minor miracle---but at the same time it was mostly bills and automobile taxes, etc. Dang, I’m connected. (Except for one bright thank-you note from my niece---thanks Erin! That made it so worth it!) Oh, and to update an earlier post, two of the letters were from our lovely friends at HM Revenue and Customs. One saying they had updated our account and we were owed 2 pounds and the other saying we were also owed 75p. Those letters went from England to France via Colorado....

And we were thrilled to be able to have wifi and read the news and research things and use Google translate, but all the news was about terrible fires in Boulder and distressing political elections. And, as soon as we were connected, each family member suddenly retreated into their own respective technological device.

When the green internet light on the “live box” illuminated, Greg said, “Bye!”

It’s true. That sort of signaled the end of the cozy family time we had been having. Though we were cut off and frustrated, it was also really nice. We didn’t have much except each other and it was simple and old fashioned. That ended precipitously.

Not that I’d go back. But it was interesting, and a watershed moment. Now I seem to have more freedom, more agency, but less time.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I know enough French to be dangerous

In most cases, I get the gist. But I can also go very far wrong. For example, this morning:

There was a survey on Rees’s cereal box , actually it was called a “Kuizz,” about, well, something, not sure what. But promising a “programme personnalisé.” So what the heck, could be fun. Let’s take the kuizz!

Question #4:


(a) Une préoccupation permanente

(b) Une simple question de bein-être!

(c) Un objectif que j’atteindrai…un jour!

So first off, we think it is a question about laundry, LINGE. And with that in mind, I think the options are

(a) a permanent preoccupation

(b) a simple question of well being

(c) a goal you attain in one day

Hmmm, those seem like sort of funny answers to the question about laundry, kind of all or nothing, like it is either never done, a happy thing, or done in one day. Not sure those are the categories I would have chosen, but maybe it is cultural thing.

Then, on closer inspection, I see that it is not linge, but ligne. Linge is laundry, but ligne literally means “line.” So the question literally is “For me to have line is…” Not sure what that means, but maybe something about being fit or in good form?

Then the answers sort of make more sense. Except the last one about attaining this in one day. And it dawns on me that I missed that a bit too. Not “a goal you attain in one day, “ but, “a goal you attain…one day!”

So you can see how easily I am diverted down the wrong path! And in the end, I still don’t really get it…sigh.

A couple of days ago I went shopping at a sort of French version of TJMaxx. This shopping trip taught me many interesting things, as most outings here do. One of which is to be careful where I put my feet.

When I go to try on some clothes, I try to read the sign in the back of the dressing room. It says something about what to do with the clothes you don’t want. I get that, but I don’t get what to do with them. Whatever.

I step out of my danskos and promptly step right onto a long, sharp tack, probably part of the security tags they use. Yowch! There is a giant tack sticking out of the instep of my foot. More unintentional acupuncture. I don’t really have the words to tell anyone about this unfortunate event, so I take the tack out of my foot and put it on top of a box that is outside the dressing room.

Then there is the blood. I am bleeding all over the dressing room floor. Which is actually a good sign for my healing, but I don’t have a tissue or a bandaid and I don’t know how to ask for help. I don’t want to be alarming and I am really fine, but it is a bit of a mess.

Since I don’t want it to ruin my trip, I just carry on, blood or no blood.

In the end all is well, no infection, and I buy a skirt. That evening I tell Greg the story and he reminds me the word for blood is sang. So I say sange. No, he says, that is the word for monkey.

So the kids and I get a big laugh about me explaining that there are monkeys all over the dressing room floor. Like asking a clown if you can have one of his baboons.

Yesterday I find out that Kadin thought n’est pas (isn’t it) was nez pa (no nose).

It's a puzzle everyday.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Rees’s orientation, Tuesday, 7 September, 2010

So we’re walking to Rees’s orientation and I remember that this is not an American School event, that this is a CSI event, probably in French and probably for the whole incoming 4ème étage (8th grade). It also occurs to me that parents weren’t exactly invited. I remind Rees of this, and as we approach, despite the strike, we see there are hundreds of 13year olds gathered outside the gates to the school. It’s on.

The kids are all in little groups and every now and then a girl will arrive and squeal as she sees her friends for the first time since the summer break. Rees and I joke about this a little bit, how it is just like at his school back home and he can imagine certain girls he knows doing exactly the same thing. And then we imitate the boys, “hey,” “hey,” trying to be all cool and low key.

So anyway, there are no parents anywhere and it is clear that I am really not someone to be seen with. We scope it out a bit and don’t see anyone we recognize from the American school. We are, unfortunately, about 15 mins early, so we head to our post across the road that we used the last time we were early.

So we sit. Kadin is all settled, now it is Rees's turn. My stomach is a bit fluttery, I can only imagine that Rees’s must be tying itself in knots. I mean hundreds of 13 year olds is intimidating in any language.

5 minutes pass, 10. We talk a little bit about the plan.

Pretty soon, the gates are going to open and the kids are going to go through into the courtyard. Rees is going to go with them. He has his carnet, but his picture and schedule are not on it. We are not sure what he needs to do to get through the gates today.

And then, once through the gates, what next? There will probably be some sort of announcement—in French. Will he understand it? Since we did have a meeting last week with the American school, he has met the head, the administrator, the math teacher, and the French teacher. That would be 4 people he might recognize. The meeting last week was only for new students and out of the 6 grades there were only maybe 1 or 2 in Rees’s class and we can’t remember who they were.

I have an insurance form to drop off at the office. I need to go through the glass doors, not the gate. So that is our plan. I will nonchalantly walk through the glass doors and he will independently walk through the gate. He will look for someone he recognizes and hope for the best. I will be nearby, and he knows where I am going.

The gates open and we walk independently across the street and into the school through our respective entrances.

I find the office of the head of the school and give her my form. I tell her I just dropped Rees off and she confirms that that is fine. I confirm that the orientation ends at 5pm (three hours later) and she says it does. I haven’t really made plans to meet Rees after, but whatever, we’ll figure it out at the time I guess. If he doesn’t know the way home, he’ll look for us.

So as I leave the school I see all the students are going in in little groups led by teachers. Somehow they got organized and found their places. I look for Rees, but I don’t see him. I guess that is a good sign? Then, when I am outside the gates I see a group of students from the American school led by the administrator I recognize. I see Rees and he is talking animatedly to another boy. He is not that far away, so I call out, “See you at 5!” He doesn’t hear me. I think maybe I should call again just to make sure he knows the plan, but then think better of it. He’s made a friend already. He’s doing fine. Go Rees!

And three hours later I go to pick up Kadin at Carina's while Greg goes to meet Rees, then Kadin and I walk over towards Rees’s school. And there they are, on their way home and Rees has a spring in his step and all is well. He has a draft of his schedule and is looking forward to starting school on Thursday. Of course, he failed to mention to anyone at the school that his draft schedule and everything else he saw had him down as Rees TRUCKER. Too funny.

Wow, that couldn't have been easy. I am so proud of him.

Our first French strike

On our first weekend in our apartment, there was a protest, or a “manifest” as they are called. Since we live in the center of town, we are at the center of such activity. It seemed so French and protesty, even if we couldn’t understand what it was about. Something about “doits,” rights. Okay, duh.

The trams were disrupted for a bit due to the manifest. I only found this out when I was waiting at the tram and heard an announcement. I could understand that, due to the protests, there was something going on with the tram I wanted, but I couldn’t understand the part where it said what was going on. It sounded like the trams were running somewhere else, but where? I thought of calling off my trip, but instead called Carina who told me where to go to catch the tram. Just glad I was on my way out, not stranded somewhere trying to get back home!

By the time I was ready to come home, all was back to normal.

That was French protest experience number one.

Via Carina, we had also heard about a potential nationwide general strike that was scheduled to take place on Tuesday. I’m sure news of this was all around on signs, in conversations, on the radio, and on the TV, but none of it registered with us. Wooosh. On Friday, there was a note sent home in three languages from Kadin’s school saying the school would be closed on Tuesday due to the strike. We needed to sign off saying that we understood. Okay, that was clear. We understand.

They don’t have snow days here, instead they have strike days. Each individual employee decides whether they want to participate in the strike or not, so schools don’t know who will be there and who won’t. At higher levels of school it seems that school mostly goes on but some teachers just don’t show up so there are more gaps. Schools for younger kids might close if enough staff will be out, which I guess was the case with Kadin’s school.

So Kadin got another bonus weekend (he always has Wed off), and Monday was the last day I needed to pick him up for lunch. He'll have Tuesday and Wednesday off and then, starting Thursday, stay all day for the first time. It had actually worked out to be a nice, gentle, gradual immersion for him.

By Tuesday, in addition to manifest, we learned the word grève for strike or grievence. Now that I know these words, I hear them all the time on the radio. In fact, it now seems the world is full of protests and strikes!

It had rained Monday night and continued to rain on Tuesday. Greg was going to go to the university on Tuesday but heard an announcement at the tram stop that the tram would soon stop running and he wasn’t sure how he would get home, so he decided to work at home instead.

Meanwhile, Rees and I walked to the nearby grocery store and it was having a flood. There was water dripping everywhere from the ceiling, which was strange since the store is under a 5-story building and it hadn’t rained all that much. Still, the store was open and people just walked around, or through, the huge puddles while clerks patiently restocked shelves.

Wading out of the store, my cell phone rang and it was Carina who lives on the street with the tram saying the strikers had stopped the tram and it was getting exciting. She and Sam were heading out to see what there was to see. I told her we were wading through the grocery store and would call her back in about 15 minutes to meet her on the street (after we had unloaded our groceries).

We all suited up in rain gear and headed out to see what was up. There were tons of people out and about and waiting around with an air of expectation. I tried to call Carina but her phone was off. It was almost like there was going to be a parade. There were people lined up with signs and music playing waiting to march, but nothing was moving, just dense crowds of expectant people.

We headed towards Carina’s street, which seemed to be where the action was happening. It was only a block north of our apartment, but it took us a long time to get anywhere through the crowds. At the corner, I checked that we were all together. Greg was thinking he would go home. I told Rees and Kadin to stay close and follow me. It occurred to me that we should have a plan B if we got separated, but we had not gone far and the obvious plan would be to just go back to the apartment. I was at the corner and Greg was heading back to the apartment. Carina’s place was just around the corner and I wanted to check if she was there. If she wasn’t there, I was ready to head home too as the rain was starting to pick up.

I rang her bell and she answered. So she buzzed me in and I turned around to let Rees and Kadin in and…they weren’t behind me. I held the door and after a moment I saw Rees in the crowd and called him over. We had only been to Carina’s door once before when she wasn’t home, so I didn’t think the kids would remember which nondescript wooden door she lived behind.

“Rees, where’s Kadin?”

“I don’t know.”

Shoot. I couldn’t go in, but I didn’t want to shut the door either. Rees turned around to retrace our steps to the corner. He came back. No luck. Meanwhile, Sam came down to see why we hadn’t come up. I told him to tell his mother we had just lost Kadin.

Rees headed the other way to see if Kadin had somehow gotten ahead.

I didn’t want to leave my post in case Kadin walked by and since that was the only place Rees knew to find me.

Soon Carina appeared with her umbrella (her cell phone had stopped working for some reason). She and Sam headed out after Rees to see what they could find. I called Greg on his phone to tell him Kadin was lost. He had just gotten back to the apartment so could confirm Kadin wasn’t there. Greg would retrace his steps looking for Kadin and come back to Carina’s to help. Basically Rees, Carina, and Sam had gone one way and Greg was coming up the other.

Gosh. We really weren’t far, but the crowds were so thick and it was raining hard and everyone was wearing hooded jackets and had umbrellas. Even if on a normal day Kadin would know where to go, it would be so easy for him to get disoriented in this crowd and with the rain. And he didn’t know his way around yet at all. Maybe he thought he was following me but it was another person in a black jacket? How in the world would we ever find him? One small, confused boy who didn't speak the language in a mass of humanity.

Greg arrived and had not seen Kadin. Yikes.

Then Rees came back from the other direction. He hadn’t found him either.

Suddenly a dark blur came out of the crowd and threw itself into my arms. Kadin! He was crying and with some people we did not know. They smiled and nodded and looked concerned. I didn’t know how to explain, but they could see how relieved we all were. Hallelujah!

I still couldn’t call Carina, but eventually she and Sam also came out of the crowd.

Greg returned home and Rees and Kadin and I went up into the refuge of Carina’s apartment. There were computer games…and legos!

Carina and I had bowls of tea in the kitchen while the boys played. Soon the march outside started and the crowds thinned.

Kadin stayed with his friend and I took Rees home for lunch because that afternoon he had his 4ème étage (8th grade) orientation at school. We walked past cars backed up in the alleyways all the way home. It was gridlock. These people would not be going anywhere soon.

Luckily, it’s easy for us to walk to Rees’s school. Since we hadn’t heard otherwise, we assumed the orientation was still on.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Run-around Monday, 6 Sep, 2010

Monday is the day of 6 essentials:

(1) Post office to mail out an Etsy order as well as mail samples of my necklaces to Brown Alumni Magazine ASAP so they can be photographed for the gift guide.

(2) Buy school supplies.

(3) Deposit cash into our new, but empty, bank account.

(4) Sign insurance papers at insurance office.

(5) Recharge Greg’s ancient cell phone (the 50euro mobicarte I bought for him doesn’t work on his phone and now he’s out of minutes----thought I had that one settled!), and find out why our landline is still not working.

(6) Sign up for French classes.

I also still need to pick up Kadin for his lovely 2 hour lunch in the middle of the day.

So here is the plan: Rees and I drop off Kadin in the morning then head to the hypermarché for school supplies.

Return to pick up Kadin.

Take Kadin back to school with his (late) supplies, decode the Post Office (find one, find out how it works, etc.), and then head to meet Greg near the bank and insurance agent.

Orange, the phone solution center, and Alliance Français for language classes will be our last destinations before it is time to pick Kadin up at the end of the day.

And it works like a charm. Rees and I get school supplies and Rees endures me asking “embarrassing” questions of other shoppers in the store about what it is that is really on our list. Things I learn include that a Cahier des Textes is the same as an Agenda Scholaire, and what I thought was a box of “sheets of paper” is actually a box of tissues, etc.

Kadin is picked up, fed, and supplied by afternoon.

The post office is actually really easy and the woman there extremely kind and helpful. It is all done by automated machine and she shows me what selections to make. The menu is even in English. One thing I can’t understand is the difference between “Abroad” rather than “Overseas.” I am told to select “Abroad” or “étranger.” I ask her why these are different. She doesn’t understand my question and tells me that letters and books have special mailing rates, they are different. Okay, that’s good to know too, but…. Only later do I figure out that “Abroad” is anything outside the EU, and “Overseas” applies to French overseas territories. That kind of distinction would be so obvious to someone who grew up here that she probably couldn’t even comprehend why I didn’t know. Makes so much sense after the fact! I can do this!

2 down, 4 to go.

I have with me the information we need for the bank deposit, but I hope Greg has remembered the paperwork for the insurance. We meet near the offices of both and take a wad of cash out of the ATM. Then it turns out that particular branch of our bank does not accept cash, but we are given directions to another one that does. More exploring! Also, we don’t have the paperwork for the insurance, so that will be another trip.

We head to the other branch of the bank. There we successfully deposit cash and learn what numbers we need to make deposits in the future and what the verb for deposit is, the noun for account, etc. We’ve got money in the bank now!

Then we head to Orange. On the way we see the Apple logo. I am drawn in. There we get a small click-on plug adapter that will give our laptops a French plug and do away with the multiple adaptors we’ve been using. Psych! That wasn’t even on our agenda.

Orange is good and they successfully top up Greg’s phone by making a call (something that is hard for us to do in French). Hopefully that will be enough for the duration of our stay. Then I wait a bit to talk to the same woman who helpfully set up our landline account. She gets on the phone, inquires into the delay, and says it should be working by tomorrow. Hooray!

Meanwhile, Greg has been scouting the location of the Alliance. We head there next and find out they offer French classes on a schedule of 5 hours per week. That fits our schedule better than the 20 hours per week another language school was offering. We make appointments for placement tests on Wednesday evening. We are jamming!

5 down (with an Apple bonus thrown in), 1 to go.

I head off to get Kadin while Greg heads home to get the insurance papers and Rees. We don’t even let Kadin have a breather, just take off on a march to the insurance office. We eventually find it and successfully sign our forms. We are insured (an important part of French life, it seems, something that is required by our landlords and the schools, etc.). So it is done.

But run-around Monday has left me exhausted. Sore even.

We are very nearly there.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The sad truth about McDonalds

Early on at Kadin’s school I meet Liz, another American who is here on sabbatical. Her oldest son, also named Sam, is 7 and at Huille Blance. She has 2 other children: a 4 year old son and a 1 year old daughter. When I meet her she is getting on the bus with the baby and says she’s in need of a Quickburger. We chat, but I can’t help wondering why someone so fit and thin and seemingly normal would want a Quickburger at 8:30 in the morning. I let it pass, but the name says it all. Quickburger. It’s waaaay down on the list of places I personally plan to visit here in France. In fact, I could say it is at the top of the list of places I would avoid like the plague.

It comes out later in the conversation that the attraction had nothing to do with the quality of the food, but rather the quality of the internet connection. She too has no phone or internet. Though they have been here a month, they have just moved into their house. She is an expert at making do and gives me some vital insider information: all McDonalds and Quickburgers have free wifi. Hmmmm.

The next day, Greg and I spot a McDonalds. So we walk over to check it out. We stand outside on the patio and sure enough, before my eyes, my email is quickly and conveniently downloaded to my iPod. Sad but true, McDonalds has found a way to be appealing here.

There is actually a McDonalds within sight of our apartment, just under the train bridge. I was ignoring it, but I have tried email in several other places, and except for French Coffee Shop across town, have had little success. So I head on down to our neighborhood McDs. I am horrified to see that it advertises something called the Croque McDo. (FYI, the Croque Monsieur is the French version of a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.) Sad but true.

The one thing I think will be safe for me on the menu is the coffee. Black. I order my coffee with a glass up water and find that this McDonalds is actually, well, attractive. It has efficient service, interesting architecture, plenty of seating. It’s clean and friendly, and for just over 1 euro, I can sit for as long as I’d like and use my computer. It’s open until 1 am. I find a nice spot with a view of the street AND an outlet. Very nice. The coffee is even good.

I confess, this will be my new office until our connection at the apartment is up and working. Sad but true.

School supplies

So Carina told an interesting story about a French lecture she attended where she was taking notes with a ballpoint pen. The lecturer saw what she was doing and stopped his lecture to ask her how she could dare deign take notes in HIS class with anything but a fountain pen. He found it insulting that she would use a crap ballpoint pen to take note of his words. Wow.

I had heard some nightmare stories of the school supplies here and how you have to buy lots of them and how complicated and confusing it can be. Well, at least so far, it is true that there are lots to buy and it is complicated and confusing, but no worse than in Boulder. If I had arrived in Boulder and didn’t speak the language and tried to understand what the teachers were requesting, I would find that a nightmare too.

Since I expected worse, it hasn’t been too bad. And I have mellowed significantly over the years since my boys take about zero interest in school supplies and see their pencils, erasers, paper clips, and tape as more raw material for sculptures and weapons than as precious, appealing tools. They rarely use everything I provide because it’s overwhelming. So my motto in that department has become: less is more. I do it more for me than for them.

The biggest problem I had with school supplies here is that I planned to buy them on a Sunday. We got the list on Thursday and Friday and Saturday were filled with other obligations (like banks and insurance and making a gluten free cake that Greg volunteered me to bring to a dinner party Saturday evening). Little did I know that the huge hypermarchés are all closed on Sundays. It was so hard to imagine on Friday, when I was hurrying past one on my way to the bank, that this giant complex with a parking lot full of cars would be a dead zone one day of the weekend. But it is. Sadly, fermé.

So I would do it Monday. I had to write a note in Kadin’s cahier apologizing that we had only been here a week and his mother did not realize the stores were closed on Sunday. He was a bit nervous going back to school without supplies, but what can you do? (Besides, I think he has sort of been taken under the wing of this sweet, precocious tri-ligual American girl who translates for him and shares her supplies with him.)

True to Carina’s story, the strangest thing on the list for me was the fountain pen. Seriously? For nine year old boys? The French, as Carina so painfully experienced at a much higher stage of education, take their pens very seriously and they start with fountain pens early. Students Kadin’s age are expected to use pens almost exclusively (and write in cursive). Pencils are only for drafts. The quality of the fountain pen is apparently important and you can find a huge range in prices from 3 euros to 100s of euros. I think Kadin was taught handwriting but never taught to CARE about his handwriting. This will be something new.

Now I know that fountain pens are nice to write with and more expressive. I also know they help you form your letters consistently from the top down. And, I guess in a place where many documents are still hand written, handwriting is important. But for me, the thought of young boys with cartridges of ink is just bad feng shui. All I can do is envision exploding ink!

Carina said that the upshot of the professor’s ridicule was the students rallying around her saying they were horrified by his behavior and telling her where and how to get an affordable fountain pen. And she said she still has the jeans that have a big stain on them where that first fountain pen she purchased leaked.

And what do you know? Rees is psyched about his fountain pen and is practicing his signature for the first time in his life. Kadin too seems to be trying to make his letters consistently from the top down. Two minor miracles as far as I am concerned. I'll take it while it lasts!

Friday, September 03, 2010

American School of Grenoble, a school within a school, Friday, 3 September, 2010

There is a 1:30 meeting on Friday at the American School (Rees’s school) to brief us on how they work and to sign more forms. 1:30 is also the time Kadin needs to be back at school. It is only his second day, but I ask Carina if we can just drop Kadin off at their bus stop at 1:00 on our way to the American School. This works out great. So Kadin returns to school with Sam and Carina and we go with Rees to learn more about the American School.

The American School is a private school embedded in the Cité Scholaire International (yes! CSI Grenoble!), the big, international public school in town that houses what we would call middle school and high school (they call them Collège and Lycée). The Cité Scholaire is one of the most prestigious schools in the city and students have to pass tough entrance exams to get in. There is even student housing near by and students commute to go here. As part of the American School, we just have to pay. I know the American School is in the same building as the CSI and the kids eat in the same cafeteria and that Rees can go there, but that is all I know.

Well, what we thought would be a 1 hour meeting turned out to be a 4 hour marathon of explanations, tours, and form signing. Rees and I left towards the end to go get Kadin—our insurance appointment will have to wait until Monday.

Turns out Rees is in what is called Collège in the 4ème étage. (Both kids are in some sort of 4th grade!) It sounds impressive for sure, but they count down from 6th grade (6ème étage) to 1er étage (11th) and then Terminal. They really do have a way with words that I am only beginning to appreciate.

We find out that Rees will go to school anywhere from 8am to 6pm, 5 days a week. Lucky for him the American School does not do Saturday like the French CSI does. Wednesday is a half day with classes anywhere from 8am to 2pm. He will take all the regular American 8th grade curriculum in English (Math, Science, English, Social Studies, etc.) but also have his other classes like PE, computers, and music in the regular French school with the French students. In addition, he will have about 2hrs of French instruction each day. This is ideal because this particular school has excellent facilities for science, technology, PE, etc. The American school is able to benefit from having a small, close knit community and American curriculum as well as having all the infrastructure, facilities, and exposure to French found in the French school.

At the same time, that means the American School has to follow all of the French school’s rules. Some are a little odd. Like, for example, there is no way to take your child out during the day for a doctor’s appointment. There are gates that open and close at specific times and the students have to be in at the right times. Students have a Carnet or a school passport which must be in their possession at all times. It has their picture and schedule (also Retard notes and Pink Slips for absences) on it and they need to show it to get in the gate at the critical windows. If you miss your gate, tough. And students are not allowed to bring any food to school and can only eat food purchased at the Cantine at lunch time.

There is a Vie de Scholaire which sounds like a euphemism and is part of what we would call the Dean’s office. It is the only place you are allowed to be if you don’t have class and have a gap in your schedule. You can get a pass from the Vie to go to the library. You are not allowed to hang out in the hallways at any time, they are only for passing through. The head of the Vie (I forget the French title, the CPU?) has students who work under him/her called surveillents. Guess these are kind of like the prefects at Hogwarts (and the shifting staircases seemed kind of synonymous as well!). What an unfortunate name! I think Rees understood the underlying zeitgeist well when he said he wanted to have a mug shot on his Carnet.

And not only do you have a different schedule everyday, your classes can move to different rooms depending on what equipment might be needed for that class. There is also no substitute teacher system at this level so if a teacher is absent, that class becomes a gap. And your schedule can also change from week to week. And there is something in the schedule called Heur d'Arc de Ciel, literally "hour of the sky arc" or "Rainbow hour." Sounds like another euphemism. Wow. It will be great practice for high school. But certainly confusing at first, especially in a foreign language.

Despite all this, Rees is actually psyched about his school and game to give it a try. He has a sense of humor about all the rules and is ready for the challenge. Go Rees!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Reéntree Thursday, 2 September, 2010

It’s the big day, the first day of elementary school, the reéntree.

Rees again opts to sleep in (his first day is Sep 9th), Kadin, Greg, and I hop on the bus. Who do we see on the bus? Carina and Sam! Hooray! Makes for a very nice, relaxed ride to school.

At the school it is a little more festive than it has been. Just like at Mesa, there are signs for all the classes in different parts of the playground. The equivalent of the PTO has set up a table with coffee and juice for parents.

Kadin is in the class CM1, one level below the top level in the school. Basically 4th grade, just like he would be back home. CP is 1st grade then CE1 and CE2 then CM1 and CM2. CM2 is a bit of a grind we’ve heard because they prepare for entrance exams to competitive middle schools. Glad Kadin avoids this! Perfect placement.

Sam is in CE2, 3rd grade. His name is on a class list. There are two CM1 classes, but Kadin’s name is not on either of the lists. I am meanwhile in the office, proudly giving the headmistress a list of our new phone numbers. Seems there is no secretary, only the headmistress, so there is a bit of a line for her. I overhear some people say their kids aren’t on any list. Realize now I must have overheard this in French because I don’t recall any English going on. When Greg and Kadin show me how his name is not on any list, I go back and find the English teacher. She says that is because Kadin is supposed to come with her. Phew!

There are three English teachers and they take about half a dozen students up to the classroom and invite the parents to stay for the first few minutes. Kadin was fine, calm, and ready to go, so I didn’t really feel the need to see his classroom, but something about the invitation struck me more as a request than an invitation. So Greg and I go up with the class. Turns out we are the only parents who took the teachers up on their invitation.

The teachers are very nice and explain that in English class the kids are not allowed to speak French and in French class they are not allowed to speak English. They have the students introduce themselves and they learn a little bit about each one. The teachers want to start with a writing assessment so they know better how to place the students in their classes. All is well, so Greg and I excuse ourselves and head out to the University. It is the day to set up our bank account with the aid of Greg’s colleague, Peter.

I meet Peter in the Geology department and he says we have an appointment at the bank for 10:30. I will have to leave around 11am to get Kadin, but at least it will be a start. In the meantime, Peter generously sets us each up on a computer with internet and I fumble with the French keyboard but get some stuff done. Then the bank calls and has changed the appointment to 11am. Oh well, I will walk with them back to the tram and they will forge ahead and get as much done as possible without me.

First we have coffee, which is a really more like espresso, small dark and strong, no milk. We chat and enjoy our drinks and then walk towards the bank. At the tram stop I get on the tram, a completely different line coming from a completely different direction, and who is on the tram, right where I get on? Carina! Too funny! She was on campus meeting with her students and we are both heading back to pick the kids up for their two-hour lunch.

We pick up the boys, ride the bus back home together, lunch, then head back to the school. Kadin is okay. Not overjoyed to be in school, but not too distressed. This time Rees comes with us as we’ll shop for his school supplies after we drop Kadin off again. When we get on the bus we find Sam and Carina, again! The buses come about every 2 minutes, so this is remarkable. We are synched. Kadin completely relaxes when he is with Sam, so this is helping dramatically with the transition to school.

After the drop off, Rees and I shop at a larger supermarket (á la Target) down by the school and pick out some simple pens and pencils, a lock, and the “agenda” we were told he would need for sure.

We have a pleasant time, but when we get home we are shocked to find our door OPEN. Yikes! I rush in, hoping no one is inside, and find everything as it should be. Nothing is gone. WE must have left the door open. That is a wake up call. I guess with three people leaving the apartment, it can be a little vague who is responsible for shutting the door. For some reason I assumed it closed itself, but no, we need to be more vigilant in the future.

Then at 4pm it is time to go get Kadin again. And yes, Carina is on the same bus. At the school we once again encounter what Carina calls the French “clump” as there often is a clump of people it seems. Not like the English queues or the American scatters. But this is exteme, I would call it a mob. After picking up Kadin at the end of the first day of school, I understand Bastille day a little bit better.

Kadin is exhausted, a little down, but okay. He reports on the first French he has learned from his French teacher: "Ce n'est pas d'accord." Oh well.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Bootstrap Wednesday, 1 Sep, 2010

Who needs language, anyway? We're doing it. With a few grunts and hand gestures (and a lot of good will on both sides), a lot can be accomplished.

We're like persistent, demanding 2 year olds. It works for them and it's working for us. Our needs are being met. A couple key nouns in French and a couple words back in English accompanied by some pointing and gesturing (happy face, sad face), and progress is being made. We’re pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

We set out with passports and our baille (lease agreement, also handwritten, used by many places as proof of address) to get phone service via Orange, the hip network in these parts. They apparently don’t require a year-long contract. After waiting a bit, a very nice, patient woman does it all for us. She should get an award. She should be a teacher. Just the right amount of information: not too much, not too little, using slow, clear words as we all search for ones that are the same or similar enough in French and English. Synonyms are us!

She says if we know the name of the previous tenant in our apartment, we can waive a connection fee. We tell her the name of Greg’s colleague who lived there last year. She shakes her head and shows us the computer screen to see if we recognize any names. We don’t, but it can’t be that hard. There are only 8 units in the building and only two on the 4th floor, so one of them has to be ours. She looks hopeless, presses a key to go to the next page, and there, only one more name, but it’s the one we had mentioned. Phew! Now she does not think we are so totally clueless. She is working for us. Yea! Land line set, should be up and running by Friday.

Then she sets up internet. Should be up and running in a week. Cost for phone and internet? About $30 a month. Compared to the $70 we pay in Colorado, that feels like a great deal. And we pay nothing up front. Don’t need a bank account.

Then we get a new sim card for Greg’s phone ($15) and a prepaid phone for me ($25) and we’re connected! We now have a way to call each other and have people call us. Boy does that feel surprisingly good! We’re doing it.

Communication. Check.

I want to press on and brave the line for bus passes. Transportation the next key piece of infrastructure. Greg says the phone store’s about all he can handle, and it’s a beautiful day, the last day before the start of school. He wants to take the kids out to do something fun. But hey, we can do that now: one person can go one way, the other person go the other, then meet up later. Wow!

The kids are in a bit of a rut and apartment living is not really Rees’s thing, so Greg is determined to get them out and moving. Yesterday on his way to the University, he walked past some interesting playgrounds with big climbing nets and ziplines. He wants to take the kids there for one last hurrah before the start of classes. Great idea as I think only one person needs to apply for the bus passes.

Before I even start standing in line I have the brilliant flash to walk a few blocks to our friendly internet café, stand outside, and quickly download my email to my iPod. Then, while I’m in line, I can read it. After doing my email, I familiarize myself with my cell phone and add the two contacts (Greg and Carina) I have in Grenoble. I’m multitasking. Feeling pretty chuffed.

I get to the front of the line and with a few more grunts and gestures, I successfully purchase 4 unlimited bus passes complete with photo ids for each member of the family. Hooray!

Transportation. Check.

I call Greg (my first contact!) to find out where they are. They are at a big park in the center of the city, but he is frustrated and says the playgrounds he saw seem to have vanished. Vanished? I think he is maybe in the wrong place, but I set off, using my new pass, to meet them.

I take tram A to tram C, cross the tracks and go one stop. I get off and call Greg again. He says they found out what happened to the playgrounds. Since it is the last day of summer vacation, it’s the day all playgrounds come down. Bad timing!

He even sees a truck with the workers in it that says: “Maître de l’éphémère,” or Masters of the Ephemeral. So zen, and yet so cruel. The kids are disappointed but at least that solves the mystery of the disappearing playgrounds. Bummer. Greg says they are at a snack kiosk near the tower and I can’t miss it.

I don’t see any tower. Hmmm. So I get out my map, walk a bit, then slowly realize my mistake. I got off one tram, crossed the tracks, and got on the very same tram going the other direction. I backtracked instead of transferring. Oh well, I’m not that far off, figure out where to go and meet up with Greg and the boys soon enough. Dope!

They are ready to go back to the apartment. So we do and I spend much of the rest of the afternoon figuring out how to recharge my phone. With only 10 minutes of talk time, I don’t want to wait until I am in a panic to do it. Much trial and error.

Takes me about half an hour to figure out that "précédent" on the phone menu means "back." Boy is that useful. Big old forehead slap when that came through! To my dismay, it seems that our foreign credit cards don’t work for the phones (or the trams, but tram problem now solved) and at dinner time I see Orange mobicartes for sale at the grocery store. I buy the cheapest one, and it works! Hooray! I found a way to do this without a bank account!

Very excited by what we’ve accomplished today.