Wednesday, November 17, 2010


We hiked up the hill from the parking lot to the site of an oppidum—Oppidum D’Esérune—a hilltop settlement from the ancient Mediterranean world. It was a nice spot, at one time inhabited by more than 10,000 people c. 300 B.C. We were moving up from the Neolithic.

I'm sure the whole South of France and Mediterranean coast is littered with such sites, many of them now cities and villages (and even small countries!), many of them unexcavated. This one had walls and foundations unearthed and a nice museum of the Gallo/Roman artifacts they'd found. One of my favorite French words is quotidien(ne)(s), and there was lots of that, along with more fancy stuff too. And I love how wherever you walk, if you look down, there are all sorts of pot shards under your feet.

Okay, so they are open every day and it was the off season, or low season, and I don’t think this is the case during the summer, but when we got there at about 11am they pointed to a sign of "closing times" which said: 12:00am and 5:00pm. Now this was not the usual, less ambiguous, French 24 hr clock and Greg and I got caught up in the 12am thing. Did not compute. So they only close? At midnight? Then I noticed another sign with "opening times" so apparently they open too.

What they were trying to tell us is that we only had about an hour until the first closing time, which turned out to be noon, not midnight. And then the next opening time was 2pm. Okay, we went ahead and bought our tickets and enjoyed the sites and museum.

At the gift shop, Kadin bought a new Asterix book, and near the end of our visit, while we were looking at the rooms and walls of the old artisans buildings outside, he sat down to read his book. We moved on about 10 meters to look at an old road with the ruts from the chariot wheels still visible, took our time, read the sign, then we moved on another 10 or 20 meters to see grain storage silos and houses, etc. We went over a little rise, heading out farther towards the cemetery, at which point we encountered some donkeys and thought it was time we turn back, retrieve Kadin, and head out.

A man was walking very quickly towards us with a walkie talkie. It was still about 15 minutes before the first closing time, but maybe they were clearing out the back part of the site first?

He approached us and asked us something about our daughter being lost. Our daughter? Lost? There was no daughter, there was no lost. Once again: did not compute. Did he mean our son who had chosen to stay about 100 meters behind and read his book? We were not looking like the brightest bulbs on the planet.

So we returned with the man and found his female colleague with another walkie talkie and Kadin. Not sure how distressed Kadin had been. The French word “criée” was used, but this can also mean to call out. He seemed happy enough now. We left the park and as we slowly ambled down the winding road towards our car, another car with the three employees passed us as they went out for their two hour lunch.

And to us this was strange. In America, the employees would just bring a sandwich and take turns managing the gate. But here, anything less than a hot, two-hour lunch is considered barbaric. Perhaps once you get used to it, it’s a tradition that is hard to give up. I mean, you wouldn’t want to be associated with these clueless outsiders who can’t read simple times on signs and loose their children at the drop of a hat.

We eventually head down and look for a picnic spot along the Canal du Midi, a beautiful canal that runs from Toulouse to Sète and is now high on my list of places to boat and/or bike along. You can’t go far around here (Languedoc) without hitting a great site, great food, great wine….languid? Yes!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Score one for Control...or maybe not?

Coming home today on the bus I was sitting next to a teenager who was pretty much in a teen coma, listening to his iPod, zoning out as one is wont to do on a long bus ride. He even smelled like a teenager. I was on until almost to the end of the line and was wondering if and how he would signal me when he wanted to get off.

Suddenly, a couple stops before my stop, there was stirring next to me. His bus card was out. He was hesitating, then moving awkwardly, he wanted out. I let him out and he quickly validated his card at the machine and sat right back down again. Huh?

When the bus doors opened, the rationale behind his actions was revealed: the doors were blockaded by controllers. Every single person getting off had their cards checked. The controllers were organized this time, systematic, no one escaped their oversight as they swept methodically through the bus.

The guy next to me was a-okay. He was so on it. I was impressed. Another guy a few rows behind was not so lucky. By the time the controllers got to him he was studiously zoning out, paying them no mind at all. The controller waved in his face to get his attention. I don’t think he had a valid ticket. Unfortunately (?) my stop came up before I could see what happened.

But what does this mean? Why wait to validate? Maybe there is a way to recharge your card for 30 rides or something and the guy next to me didn’t want to use up a ride unless he had to? He was working it and it was working for him. The mysteries of the honor system continue…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Opening times

Still haven't figured this out. Some stores are open in the morning (like food stores and markets) while other stores are open in the afternoon (like more specialized shops like the magic shop or the healthfood store). Big stores---like the hypermarchés---are not open on Sundays (or if they are, only in the morning) while smaller shops may or may not be. Many small shops are closed on Mondays. Some places are only open at lunchtime (like restaurants) and others are closed at lunchtimes. Some are “non-stop” or open all day, but not open every day. Others open only in the evening. Some places are open more on Wednesdays when the schools are out, others are not open on Wednesdays, etc.

On every storefront there is practically a whole paragraph to decipher. Not easy to grasp (click to enlarge):

So I am trying to figure out if there is ONE BEST TIME to run errands. I'll have a plan for a circuit I need to get done (post office, bead store, shoe store, grocery store, butcher, healthfood store) and I’ll either hurry to go out early or wait to go out later, but half the stores will be closed and open at the other half of the day. Do people go out twice? How does a working person do it? I don't get the sense that other people find this frustrating, though, it just seems to be a fact of life. I’ll have to ask.

When traveling, we’ve learned, the thing to do at noon is to find a restaurant and sit down for 2 hours. Somehow, though, when we're on vacation or out for a day of exploring, I always feel like we are just getting started about noon and not ready to sit for two hours when there is so much still out there to see. And how can we start out earlier in the day if we are up late for dinner? There is an internal rhythm here that I am not getting.

I'm sure there is a logic to it (well, not exactly sure about the "logic" part, but it doesn’t seem to be a hassle for others), so I need someone to just spell it out for me. I have been unable to get the feel for it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


46˚ and raining

So we have just passed the halfway mark of our stay in Grenoble. And the kids have reached what I hope is the nadir of their stay. For me, we are not here long enough, for them, they can't get home soon enough. They are very down on school. Very down. Very homesick. Not that they don’t complain about school in Boulder too, but it does seem especially difficult here. One of the benefits is that they will likely appreciate their Boulder situation more when we return. One of the big problems with growing up in Boulder is that you think it is normal….

So, if nothing else, at least they’ll get some perspective, but I don’t want it to be all bad. At the moment, everything associated with France and French seems to be a turn off. I have never seen Rees so enthusiastic about things such as Dominos pizza and Kraft macaroni and cheese. We are in the land of lovely food, so what is up with that?

I am hoping that we are here long enough for things to turn around for them. But it could go either way, it’s kind of a coin toss.

While I have mostly heard good memories from adults of living abroad when they were young, this is not always the case. Greg has a colleague in Boulder whose wife has forbidden sabbaticals abroad because she was so scarred by her year in Switzerland as a child. (Meanwhile Switzerland has taken on godlike status with my kids because it is not France…)

And Rees has a friend who is here because his mom, who is French, is back to take care of her mom, who is ill. They don’t know anyone in Grenoble, but are living in the city because it is where the American school is. His mom didn’t want to put him straight into the French schools. She had a friend (also French) whose son (grew up in America) was in France for his 6th grade year. He was not used to the school system and, while he understood French, his writing and other academic skills did not match up to what was expected. In France, the students are all ranked from best to worst and he struggled all year and was at the bottom of the class. It crushed him, she said, and though he is now in his 20s and supposedly recovered, it was many years before he once again felt confident in school. Whoa!

And it does seem to take a thick skin here in school, something my kids are not versed in. Carina went to her back to school night and her son’s (3rd grade equivalent) teacher began her presentation by saying what a terrible bunch of students she had this year and how careless they were in missing their punctuation marks and how they had forgotten all their manners over the summer. She said she would give them each an X for a mistake and when they had 5 Xs the parents would be called in for a conference. Most of the students already had about 3 Xs so “expect a note from me soon.” And so on. She went on to say that in PE, though they should be doing swimming, it was just too much bother because she would have to wear a swimsuit and she couldn’t take the whole class in at once and didn’t know what to do with the rest of the class, so instead, they would be doing long distance running. This is one woman who loves her job! She seems to be thriving on her resentment of everything.

To be fair, that teacher seems to be exceptionally bad. At my back to school night (same school), Kadin’s teacher started out by saying what a great group of kids she had and how she was very impressed by their hard work and intelligence, so it is not all grim, but it’s not all touchy feely and cushy either. (Recall Kadin’s first phrases learned from her were “Ce n’est pas d'accord!” “Ce n’est pas amusent!” and “Silence!”)

When I took my placement test here I tried to tell the teacher what I thought was a funny story from my French studies in France the summer of 1986 (I took a one month intensive, the last time I studied French….). My 1986 teacher would do these long dictées where he would read something in French and we were supposed to write it down. I have already talked about all the homophones and silent letters in French, so as far as I am concerned, such an exercise is nearly impossible. He would give 30 points per dictée and take off 1 point for each error. Now, there were hundreds (thousands!) of letters in each dictée that I got in their correct, proper places. With accents! I was really excited when I would correctly decipher some phrase that I had never heard or seen before in my life. But the results were always the same: 0. Sure I might have only made 80 errors instead of 100, but there was no acknowledgement of my progress. At one point I even tried to ask him if he was proud of how much better I was doing, but he didn’t seem to understand the question…

The recount of this story fell flat too. I thought it might have been my poor ability to relate the story, it's outrageousness, but when I went to a potluck at the American School, I learned that what I thought was absurd was the norm, not the exception. French teachers routinely give dictées with a fixed number of points, 0s are common, and there is no acknowledgement of progress. A 0 is failing no matter how much improvement is underneath.

In my French class here now, I also got a taste of this more critical style. I like my teacher, she is young and knowledgeable, has lived in many places, and seems open minded and forward thinking, not a terrifying old school rap-you-with-a-ruler type at all. Not one to give dictées. But one class a few weeks ago, she came in in a foul mood. It was the only time I was slightly late and she was berating the students for not coming prepared with the homework (I always do the homework as I need to learn all I can!).

Then, a couple of students needed to leave early, they said because it was too cold to walk home later. Then my phone rang and it was one of the kids, who were home alone, so I had to take it. I apologized profusely, explained, and excused myself. (Of course it was just Rees asking where something was…arrrrrgh, but what’s a mom to do?) Then another student got a phone call, so the teacher started telling us we should not take calls in class, fair enough, but I felt justified (once I tell the kids to only call me if it is an emergency!).

Finally, near the end of class, she laid into one poor girl who seemed to be struggling, more due to extreme shyness I felt than lack of ability. In front of everyone the teacher asked this student (in French of course) if she understood what was being taught and if she didn’t think that perhaps she was in too high of a level, that she was overwhelmed, that perhaps she should go down to an easier level. The teacher asked her what level her assessment test had put her in and wondered if there hadn’t been some mistake. She kept asking questions in rapid fire French and kept asking the student if she understood. Whoa! That just seemed so inappropriate and counter productive to me.

But maybe that is a taste of the traditional French way. Luckily, that night seems to have been the exception, so I am inclined to think the teacher was just set off for some other reason. I’m thinking it was a remnant of a style that is on its way out. I’ve heard that the EU is going to have a more standardized curriculum across the board, so that will be an impetus for change. Still, it does seem that part of the French training is in getting a thick skin. You either thrive or are scarred for life. And if everyone who runs the system successfully develops a thick skin and succeeds, change will be slow. But you do have to admire anyone who has been through the French school system and survived.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A tale of two books

On one of our “incidental journeys,” we came across a book sale at a school in Meylan. The price was right, so Greg and I each looked for a book we’d enjoy reading in French. Nothing too difficult, but something we could try to sink our (baby) teeth into. We chose carefully and have learned unexpected things from the books we chose.

Greg’s choice: Blanche Neige et les Lance-Missiles: Quand les dieux buvaient – I by Catherine Dufour (a prize-winning French sci-fi novelist)

My choice: La Saison Des Bals a novel by Geneviève Bon (a romance novelist)

Here is the first page of Greg’s novel:

Les Uckler formaient un peuple industrieux, gai et généreux.

En général.

Ils se levaient tôt d’un air content, sifflaient en travaillant et avaient toujours un morceau de pain à donner à plus pauvre qu’eux—le quignon rassis de la veille bien sûr, car ‘généreux n’est pas neuneu’ disait souvent la grosse Couette.

Pourvu cependant que le plus pauvre qu’eux soit le beau-fils de la soeur de la nièce de l’oncle du cousin. Ou le beau-père du frère du neveu de la tante par alliance. Ou quelque chose d’approchant. Car les Uckler avaient un défaut: quand ils voyaient un étranger, un vrai, qui échappait à tout généalogie même de la main gauche, ils le tuaient d’abord, ensuite ils ne se posaient aucune question.

Ce qui ne contribuait pas peu à préserver cet équilibre psychologique qui leur faisait au matin l’oeil frais et l’air content.

Bref, c’était un sacré foutu ramassis de salauds.

Which, roughly translated, means:

“The Uckler formed an industrious people, gay and generous.

In general.

They got up early with a satisfied air, whistled while they worked and always had a piece of bread to give to those poorer than they—now it was the stale hunk of the day, of course, because 'is it not generous to be a nanny[?]' as was often said [under?] the fat duvet. [not sure on that meaning…um…anyone???]

Provided however, that the poorest of them is the stepson of the sister of the niece's uncle's cousin. Or step-father's brother's nephew's aunt by marriage. Or something like that. Because the Uckler had a flaw: when they saw a stranger, a true stranger, who escaped all this same genealogy with his left hand [?], they killed him first, then no questions would arise.

Which contributed not a little to preserving the psychological balance that made them fresh eyed in the morning and seemingly happy.

In short, they were quite a bunch of fucking bastards.”

Well, okay then. Not boring. Started out with promise, anyway…and now I look at the title of the chapter: Une Omelette de Cul d’Ange (an omlette from the ass of an angel) and think, maybe he should have expected as much?

And here is the first page of my novel, a little simpler with more everyday details:

Martin Grüne enleva ses gant de jardinier et monta l’escalier quatre à quatre. Devant la porte de la salle de bains, il s’arrêta malgré sa hâte, écoutant la voix pas très grave, mais joyeuse et alerte, qui chantait:

‘Celui à qui Dieu veut montrer une juste faveur,
Il l’envoie par le vaste monde…’

Martin Grüne frappa et entra.

Andreas Freiherr von Berg-Alsdorf se tenait nu devant le lavabo. En chantant à pleine voix, il s’efforçait de couper avec de longs ciseaux quelques mèches de ses cheveux blonds, dont les boucles désordonnées étaient un de ses constants soucis.

Which, roughly translated, means:

“Martin Grüne took off his gardening gloves and climbed the stairs four at a time. At the door to the bathroom, despite his haste, he stopped, listening to the voice, not very serious, but cheerful and alert, singing:

'He to whom God wants to show a just favor,
He sends out into the wide world ... '

Martin Grüne knocked and entered.

Andreas Freiherr von Berg-Alsdorf stood naked in front of the sink. Singing in full voice as he tried to cut with long scissors a few strands of his blond hair, whose curls were disorderly and a source of constant worry.”

A naked baron in front of the sink cutting off his blond curls. And let me just add, a few pages farther in, the stairs weren’t the only thing being mounted four by four.

So we did pretty well finding books that were interesting enough and at the right level though not what either of us expected. Greg learned interesting phrases like “the stale end of the day” which sticks with me as poetic and seems to say so much about the culture. But he said it was difficult because in science fiction super natural things can happen, so it’s hard to figure out the meaning from the context. But the potential is there. I mean imagine the garden you’d discover learning what “the sayings of the big duvet” and “escaping the left hand” really mean. There is much to be uncovered…

And I learned things like knocking and entering is fine and every verb must be carefully chosen to be as enticing as possible. My problem with the French, however, is that there are all these twisted reflexive sentences and I can’t tell who is doing what to whom. Also, not understanding tenses, it is hard for me to know if it is happening, has happened, or someone is wanting it to happen. I also can’t tell if the book is truly interesting or if it’s the puzzle of figuring it out that I find interesting as my imagination that fills in the blanks with what I think they are doing. (Kind of like you do with dreams.) But I am certain the books are very French.

And now that I am learning tenses and pronouns I am going to try again. I do like the descriptions of everyday scenes and the discussions of character. It is the kind of book where lots of time is spent introducing and describing a character and everything around them from their clothes to the decor contributes the same information in a new way. Like said baron above, with the curls, who is cheerful yet disorganized as things around him are always precariously balanced. And though his trousers might be old and threadbare, they hang ever just so and look very chic on his stylish frame, and though his furniture is a bit shabby it is large and expensive and well loved. That kind of repetition is very helpful to my (flawed) understanding.

Interesting too that both books feature German names. Will have to look into that.

16 November, 2010, update:

Just read a blog about repurposed books and it struck me that perhaps these books we got at the sale are all that much more interesting because we don't understand all the words. It is like an ornament made out of a vintage French paperback that only has a hint of the original. That is intriguing. Like a page with holes punched in it. Some of the mystery is preserved and the story is layered with both the words on the page and the holes that you fill in with your mind. Structure and suggestion with improvisation on top. That is a fun place to be.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Incidental travel

How to travel, now there is a difficult question. Having just returned from our one “vacation” while we’re here in France (yes, I know, it’s all pretty much like a vacation…), I think I’ve figured out a favorite way (for me), and that is what I am calling “incidental travel.” It’s where you don’t do “great things,” but instead, make lots of small discoveries. Of course, variety is key, so I like to mix in some “great things” and some “no things” days as well. But here’s a general outline of how it works.

My favorite thing to do is to pick a destination that’s not too far, and get there in an interesting way. The destination can be anything, but is usually something small and minor like a store, a weekly market, a festival, a scenic overlook, a statue, a village. Just a spark that you heard something interesting about. That spark functions as the excuse to go somewhere new and see what you find along the way. It’s the journey and creativity you bring to it, not the destination. You don’t know what you’ll find, there is no itinerary, but getting there is part of the fun, so maybe take the bus, take the scenic route, bike, walk.

Our first two weekends in Grenoble we simply had a general destination in mind (one day a “sports forum” in a northeastern suburb where they had different activity booths for the day, the other an 11th century church in a southwestern village) then we took the bus or the tram as close and we could, and walked and explored.

One key thing we figured out is that every bus stop has a map. This knowledge would have saved me the day I got lost coming home. So my rule about always carrying a map turns out to not be so important. I still use my map from time to time, but in a pinch, you can just find a bus stop and get oriented immediately.

So on our first suburban excursion we used dead reckoning and found a nice historic path through the suburbs, lost the path, checked in at bus stops, and continued to meander. Along the way, we found a school book sale, a rock climbing demonstration, a basketball hoop the children enjoyed climbing (after which we started looking for OP-COs or “other potentially climbable objects"), a merry-go-round, and, the ultimate destination, a demonstration of various athletic activities including props we could try from the circus school. Rees learned how to walk on a ball and both Rees and I were able to spin plates on the top of sticks. You just never know.

It was its own sort of geography lesson too and we now know there are walking paths, playgrounds, commercial centers, and parks scattered all around (with maps at every bus stop!). Each has its own sort of unique activity.

The next weekend we headed out to a small village with an 11th century church. We found a fun skatepark (Rees had his roller blades on) near the tram stop, miniature golf, a climbing wall, an old dovecote (where I banged my head and once again bled all over the place in dramatic fashion, but luckily, another feature of this area are the numerous water fountains/pumps where I could wash up), and the church and cemetery in the old, central part of the village. We smelled delicious Sunday lunches being grilled in outdoor ovens. I started taking pictures of Gallic Rooster statues. The church had interesting icons and symbolism about water. There is always something.

For our trip to southern France, we took a similar approach. After visiting a few towns and few abbeys, we wanted something different. Each town is great and all, but it’s so predictable to walk around though lovely winding, cobbled streets, find a luncheon spot, see the market square, the church, etc. etc. Abbeys are gorgeous and historic, but also predictable in many ways. So we did the beach and collected some stones and shells, and that was nice too. We were craving more open spaces and noticed some symbols on the map for menhirs and dolmens---symbolic rock structures created by Neolithic peoples---and that’s when we started menhir and dolmen hunting and that’s when I remembered the joys of incidental travel. (This is much of the appeal of geocaching as well, an activity my Aunt excels at.)

Along the way we found many interesting villages and sites and many a backroad that we never would have ventured down. It’s the small place you find for lunch, the sweet donkeys in a corral, the feeling of connection to people from thousands of years ago, the lay of the land, the garage sale or farm stand or medieval ruin that you unexpectedly come across. Expectations are low and pleasures are many. It’s perfect.