Thursday, December 29, 2005

Holidays Elsewhere

In a year full of displacements, Christmas abroad was particularly disorienting – at once magical and strange. To be close to Yvonne’s grandmother in Holland, we rented an apartment in Naarden which we stuffed with holiday cheer. This included a squat, heavily-decorated Christmas tree, bunches of tulips and squadrons of tea candles.

All our lives we have journeyed back to our family homes in Eugene, Oregon for Christmas. Predictably, we always dreamed about having our own family Christmas, complete with creating our own traditions and special meals. Instead, our first Christmas dinner away from home was concocted in yet another efficiency kitchen with its wafer-thin cookware, dull knives and tired, temperamental stove.

After the extravagant specialization of Parisian food shops, it was painful to be back to a land of Supermarkets, bad bread and one cheese (Gouda, albeit with infinite variations). Dutch markets have their own compensations, however, including Roggebrot (black full grain bread), Stropwafeln (small waffle cookies) and Pofferejes (mini pancakes).

On Christmas morning, our boys generated their own waves of holiday cheer. The morning started with their opening their big gifts from Santa – yes, they still believe in Santa! Alexander’s present was addressed first to San Francisco, then to Paris, then to Naarden – proof positive for him of Santa’s global reach and excellent E.D.L. (elf-driven logistics). We adults were excluded from Santa’s largess, being at the age where all we have to look forward to for Christmas gifts are neckties, baked goods and factory close-out sweaters.

Yvonne’s grandmother also loved being in the circle of a family for Christmas. Despite the unfamiliar surroundings, the combination of family, flowers and enthusiasm of our youngest and oldest participants made it a successful and memorable Christmas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Heaven in the Alps

For beauty and luxury, nothing beats a catered chalet in the French Alps. Our week in Val d’Isere was as close as we have come to vacationing perfection.

We set out from our apartment in a heavily-laden taxi for a drive along the Seine to the Gare de Lyon. Like the entrance into New York across the 59th street Bridge or seeing San Francisco across the golden gate bridge, nothing can make a drive through Paris along the Seine lose its magic.

From the Gare de Lyon we took a train directly to the city of Bourg St Maurice in the French Alps. There we were met on a snowy afternoon by a van driver with champagne and snacks and whisked off to our chalet in Val d’Isere. For one week, time stopped while we skied, drank and ate as much as we possibly could before collapsing into a collective case of la grippe.

Our chalet slept up 10 people, which ended up being our family, Yvonne’s dad, and a lovely family of 4 from Sheffield. Satisfying our every whim was a crew of three delightful hostesses – a British songbird, a Scottish actress and an Irish chef. Over a week of wonderful meals and late night conversations, we managed to break every conversational taboo, trying - mostly unsuccessfully – to explain to ourselves and each other the tangled stew of world politics and religion.

The most trying day of the week was when we hired a guide to show Yvonne and I the off-piste skiing. The short answer was that this early in the season there is no off-piste skiing. We spent the entire day hiking to the top of one rock-strewn couloir after another, with the guide intoning at the top of each one “zhis vill be fantastique skiing in February.”
At the end of the week we sorrowfully repacked and retraced our steps back home. Arriving at 10pm in a fog-filled Paris, we experienced for the first time the smoky Gare de Lyon captured by Monet, with everywhere a shimmering mist and a feeling of magical


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Off to play in the snow

One of the great advantages of French schools is their plentiful vacations – typically 2 weeks for every 8 weeks of school. If you are working parent, this can be a time of great stress – conversation around school drop-off centers around various improvisational schemes to occupy the kids, including laying in large stockpiles of Christmas videos.

For us slacker parents, however, each school vacation is an opportunity to explore a new region of France. We are off early tomorrow to ski at Val d’Isere for a week, then go to Holland for Christmas with Yvonne’s 95 and going strong grandmother.

Last week was cull week for the kid’s ski gear – not much made the cut. Then Yvonne headed to the sporting goods store to replenish. Paris has a remarkable dearth of sporting stores. Decathalon has an almost absolute monopoly here with a unique value proposition of high cost, moderate quality and limited selection. Not too good for the consumer but must produce great profit margins for Decathalon!

We will be off the Net for the next two weeks - Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Chilly view of Eiffel Tower

On a very crisp Saturday morning recently, we got up at 7am and raced down to the Trocadero plaza to pose for our Christmas photo. There is a narrow time window early in the morning when there is enough light to take a picture but before the flood of tour buses arrive.

With a shutterbug friend manning the camera, we tried to pretend that we weren't tired and freezing. Halfway into the photo shoot we got swarmed by that Paris street staple, the obnoxious trinket salesguys.

The blinking statue mongers must have hoped we would pay them to leave us alone but we refused on principle. Thus the last few shots were something of a cat and mouse game - with cranky, cold kids, lurking vendors and the odd tourist standing transfixed gawking at the Eiffel Tower all conspiring to try to ruin our perfect Kodak moment.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The shock of the familiar

I have been spending the week in Chicago helping my mother limp around after her (very successful) knee surgery. This is the first time I have been back to the US for an extended period since May, and has entailed more adjustment than I had anticipated.

The best thing about being back is that the fog of miscommunication that has dogged me across all of Europe has been magically lifted. Gone are the knot in the stomach and thickness of tongue that precede any attempt to communicate in a foreign tongue. Vanished also is the dull certainty that the more successful you are in saying your piece, the more likely it is that the response will turn out to be completely incomprehensible.

The second best thing is to be back in the land of “would you like fries with that”-style service. In Europe, every commercial interaction begins with your trying to create a good impression with the server so that they will deign to interact with you. In the Chicago, every interaction begins with an almost puppy-like enthusiasm on the part of the server to make your day.

At the same time, there are things I positively pine for after just a few days here. Curiously, the top of the list is missing hearing French spoken – the musical cadences, animated features of the speakers and the infinitely nuanced gestures that go along with it. I also miss the beauty of the Parisian architecture and am struck by the unrelieved ugliness of your average skyscraper.

Summary of things I miss about the US
· Showerheads that stay put
· Phone numbers that make sense
· Big smiles and optimism in general

Summary of things I don’t miss about the US
· The CostCo effect: the generalized willingness to trade-off quality for quantity
· Oversized food portions
· Cheerfully incompetent staff - give me frosty but knowledgeable help any day

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Christmas at Chartres, 1000 Years Later

On a cold grey winter day, with my gimpy mother in tow, we made a pilgrimage to the cathedral of Chartres, 100 km from Paris. As befits any true pilgrimage, ours was a journey filled with surprises, adversity and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over the petty worldy snares that the French seem particularly adept at weaving.

1000 years ago, pilgrims from all over Europe streamed to Chartres to invoke the help of the Virgin Mary by means of the holy relic on display at the cathedral - a piece of the garment Mary was wearing when she gave birth to baby Jesus (good story for the Christmas season, no?)

Our pilgrimage was no less focused – to learn about the famous stained glass windows of Chartres from the world’s foremost authority on the subject, Mr. Malcolm Miller. That part of the experience was not supposed to be difficult, as Mr. Miller gives tours every day at noon.

On the big day, we got the kids off to school and then headed off to fetch a rental car, which was where we hit the twilight zone. The Hertz location nearest us hadn’t gotten delivery of any cars the night before, but sent us to another location, where we were assured our reservation would be honored. We then trooped over to the second location which had no trace of our reservation, nor any available cars, nor any apparent interest in helping resolve our predicament.

This was when we adopted the sure-fire, rarely-fails formula for transforming the word “non” to "oui" with a French functionary. The steps are as follows:
1. Immediately upon entering any business establishment, wait patiently until you establish eye contact with an employee and issue the only words of French that you ABSOLUTELY MUST KNOW – “bonjour monsieur” or “bonjour madame." If you did not perform this critical, relationship-building task before the employee told you “non”, abandon hope, turn around and walk out, come back on another day and start with step 0.
2. Understand that the word, “non,” when uttered by a French person in a position of power, really translates as “I have the power to say no.”
3. Smile politely, thereby acknowledging their ability to arbitrarily consign you to one of the lower rings of hell, and wait expectantly them to demonstrate just how vast their powers are by miraculously discovering a hitherto-unexpected-even-to-them means of overcoming the objection that they themselves just raised.
5. Repeat as necessary.

One very frustrating hour later, we were on our way to Chartres where, despite the efforts of our peerless driver, we showed up at 12:15, to a bone-chillingly cold and empty church. We then had another typically French conversation:

Me: “Bonjour madame. Did we miss Malcolm Miller?”
Nice French gift shop lady: “Oh, he doesn’t come in the winter.”
Me: “That’s funny, I sent him an e-mail and he said he would be here at 12 today.”
NFGSL: “Oh, he was here at 12, but there was nobody here for the tour so he left.”
Me: “That’s too bad, my aged mother traveled all the way from Oregon to see him.”
NFGSL: “Oh, his number is listed on the bulletin board just outside. If you call him he would probably come up and give you a private tour.”

20 minutes after that exchange, the famed Mr. Miller arrived. He was much more sensibly dressed for the cold than we were, and so was able to conduct the tour in relative comfort while the rest of us checked one another periodically for signs of frostbite or hypothermia.

In one hour we were only able to scratch the surface of the church, its art and its history. The most interesting feature of the church is its 170 stained-glass windows from the middle-ages, each of which is a mini-sermon delivered in symbols and light. The most interesting windows drew parallels between the story of Adam, the man who brought death into the world, and Jesus, the man who vanquished death.

After our much too short tour, we shivered our way back to the nearest café for sandwiches and tea, then hurried back to Paris for the 4:30 kids pickup.