Thursday, July 12, 2018

Au Revoir, France

Sadly, we must leave the country of amazing bread and delicious food.  We shall return to the country where three out of the four of us in our family were born.  

During this particular international move, we are handling things a little differently than the move to France.  For going to France, we had a short house hunting trip when Dan was on a work trip to Toulouse and I came for a short visit without the kids.  I visited houses, apartments, and schools, then we decided which ones worked for us.  Then, without seeing any of it, we brought the kids to France with everything decided.  Because that's how the lives of adults and kids ultimately work.

Given that the children had never moved before, they were not happy about this arrangement.  In fact, they wouldn't have been happy had we involved them in the house/school choices either.  Of course, after a year or two of resisting life in France and exploring Europe, they finally settled into it.  Here are the things they do now, without thinking anything of them:
  • Going to the bakery to pick up pastries and bread (on their own)
  • Going to the market to buy their favorite cheese (it's still sharp cheddar)
  • Listing "cocoa mass" when required to make an ingredients list for a chocolate bar (Alex was told later that level of detail was not necessary, "milk chocolate" would suffice)

  • Traveling the 17 km to school by train/bus/tram/walking (on their own)
  • Arriving in a foreign country and figuring out how the metro system works
  • Recognizing specific types of art and specific artists (Picasso, Matisse, VanGough, Degas, Monet, Magritte, Kandinsky,  Münter, Rodin, Renoir, Vermeer, Dali, Warhol, Mucha, Escher, Calder, Černý, and all 4 of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Renaissance Artists)
  • Spelling words in a British manner while typing them on a French-layout keyboard
  • Talking to our neighbors in French
  • Sitting down for a 2-hour dinner at a restaurant (3 hours is a bit much, they go home on their own if it lasts that long)
  • Ordering food for delivery on a French website
  • Understanding which activity involves wearing all white, with a red bandana
Overall, we had an amazing time living in France and are sad to leave.  Thanks to everyone who helped to make our stay here amazing!

Kroboths Toulouse Airport Departure




Thursday, June 28, 2018

Public Transportation to School


Mini-Commuters

The kids have been on many different types of public transportation during their lives.  Will first rode the Tokyo Subway system when he was just 10 days old.  They have both been on subways/metros, buses, boats, trains, trams, light rail and funiculars in more than a dozen countries.  They have been on the busiest and most complex systems in not only Tokyo, but also New York, Washington, London, Paris and Budapest.

Back when Will turned 10-years-old, he had a good grasp of the metro system in Toulouse.  It's got 2 lines, so it isn't terribly complex.  We told him that since he was getting older and more responsible, it would be ok with us if he wanted to go on the metro by himself.  You know, to the candy store or something.  He never really took us up on the offer except to head home after late dinners out at restaurants as we were finishing up our dessert or coffee or paying the bill.   Typically that would not really involve the metro since there are many restaurants within walking distance of our apartment.

Then, when Alex turned 10 this year, a new family moved to Toulouse and their kids started taking the metro the 17 km out to school.  They were 12 and 14 years old.  After we figured out the route, we started sending the 4 kids to commute to school on their own.  Because when you think about it, spending 3 hours a day driving and waiting for kids at school is a little crazy.  We would leave for school at 7:30am, drive for 30 minutes, then hang out for 25 minutes until Alex's school started.  Then, I would return, typically taking 35 minutes back, getting home at 9:00am.  If we left later than 7:30am, we might not make it to school by the start time of 8:30am because traffic stacks up during that window.  Then, in the afternoon, I would drive to school, leaving around 3:25pm, getting Alex at 4:00pm, waiting the 15 minutes for Will to finish school, driving back home arriving around 5:00pm.

Three hours is the estimated time spent with normal traffic.  One time it took 2 hours to get to school.  There had been a truck drivers' strike the day before.  The trucks didn't go anywhere until after the strike was over, then they all left the next morning at the same time.  Which meant we couldn't go anywhere.  After about an hour of trying to get out of our neighborhood, we finally got across the river and were sort of on our way.  We stared wistfully at the tram for a while as we were stuck in traffic near the stop.  The kids got to school just before 9:30am.  To add insult to injury, it was a Wednesday.  Which means that the kids only had a half day.  I decided to just get coffee and groceries near school until the noon pickup time.  We have had similar experiences returning home from school.  The problem is primarily on the Friday before a school vacation.  Everyone leaves a little early and tries to get on the road on Friday evening.  It's kind of like trying to get out of Los Angeles before a holiday weekend.

Back in January, when it was still dark at 7:30am, the kids started taking the Tram to the Train to the Bus to school.

The Tram in January

We didn't just stick them on the tram and hope that they could figure out the connections.  The first few times, I went with them.  For the return trip, we practiced that too.  I would leave around 2:00pm to take the public transportation to school, then return with them, trying a couple different ways to get home and teaching them how to figure out which train to get on and where to scan their transport cards.  Despite being a huge expenditure of time, it was totally worth it.

After a few tweaks in the route, the boys currently the boys leave home at 7:10am, scooter over to the SNCF station, take the train nearly all the way to school, then scooter over to school, arriving around 8:00am.  Then, to return home in the afternoon, they take a bus to the train station, train to the tram, then scooter home, arriving at different times, depending on the day and success of quick connections.  Sure, they need to spend more of their time commuting, but it's a whole lot better than me spending 3 hours per day, every day, driving them to school and back.

Fun and Fast Scooters

Of course, nothing is simple and easy.  The kids have had times where the different parts of the journey were behind schedule, connections didn't work, part of the system was shut down, or the national trains or local transport have been on strike.  Fortunately, they have been able to think on their feet, improvise, and make it to their destination without too much trouble.

One time, when Will was coming home on his own after Computer Club, the transit officials kicked everyone off the tram.  Since Will had his scooter, he decided that the best way home on the last part of the journey would be to scooter on the sidewalk, along the tram track route.  It took a while, I was slightly worried, but he made it home.

The train strike has been the most fascinating of problems.  The day before a scheduled train strike, you can check the route you want.  It will show the schedule changes and alternative transportation by bus if that is what replaces the normal train route for that day.  Most times this has been reliable.  One time when the boys' train was supposed to be on track, it didn't arrive.  Fortunately, they were able to take the next train that was 30 minutes later.  They were slightly late for school, but here in France, La Greve, the strike, is an acceptable excuse and you aren't counted tardy.

The kids have become so adept at taking the public transportation that they feel they can figure out any route.  They think that when we are in the US, they are going to be able to take transport out to visit their cousins' house.  I think someone needs to tell them that the US doesn't work the same way as Europe.  (Technically they could do it, but it would take 3 hours.)  It will be a disappointing reverse culture shock for them.





Monday, April 02, 2018

The Giant French Omelette of Easter


A long time ago, before I was born, an Easter Monday tradition began in Bessières, France. They prepare a giant omelette and share it with the town and visitors.

As the children were off school, we made the trek to Bessières to experience this excellent tradition.  (See how I didn't use the obvious egg-pun there... the children have enacted a restriction on egg-puns.)  Like many outings to the surrounding towns and villages of France, our trek involved me driving with the kids and Dan cycling.  

We arrived around 9:30, with omelette starting time at 11:00.  So we found parking near a bakery and consumed some pastries to keep us happy until omelette-time.  We walked toward the center of town, through a market and festival area and found THE GIANT FRYING PAN.

giant pan
GIANT FRYING PAN and a fire

I know it looks like the pan is actually on the fire, but the fire is behind the pan.  It's a perspective thing.  The frying pan weighed about a ton.  And, no, it's not lifted by using the giant log handle, that's really for appearances.  It is moved with a forklift.  The legs on the frying pan are attached.  So when the forklift moves the pan, it doesn't put it directly on the fire, but the legs cause it to be a non-buring distance above the fire.  This is French Cooking, not me-burning-eggs-in-my-home-kitchen-cooking.  

On one side of the park were the omelette ingredients.  There are 15,000 eggs, a bunch of chives, some chili pepper, and other spices.  The pots on the ground were for holding the eggs after they get cracked.  Then the chefs beat the eggs with a whisk attached to a large drill.  


It's going to be necessary to break a few eggs!

Obviously, if you have a giant omelette, it must be accompanied by giant bread.



Alex near the bread, waiting for the cooking to get started

The fire was already being prepared when we arrived.  The guy on the left was the official fire tender.  I'm not sure what the guy on the right with the hat's title was, but his role was important.  One of his tasks was to drive the fort lift.  

Fire Preparation

After hanging out, just watching the fire for a while, the time finally came for the event to start!  It started with some guys dressed as chickens who handed out chocolate eggs, a parade of officials and, of course, a bunch of drummers.  Because French Chefs need inspirational music.



After a long procession, everyone was assembled.  This included the guys dressed as strawberries in red and green.  They handed out flyers promoting La Tarte Geante aux Fraises coming in June.

Strawberry Guys next to Country Western Guys (Country = USA)

Finally, it was time to cook.  
The official chefs of the day, ordained by the knightly order of the giant omelette, started with 25 liters of duck fat.  Because it's the local, probably artisanal, grease.  And it's delicious.  

Giant Pan of Duck Fat

During this whole time, people had been preparing all of the ingredients.  This includes cracking all of the eggs, slicing the giant bread, and cutting all of the scallions.  It took a long time.  I think from the time we started watching the fire preparation to the time when the eggs actually went into the pan, it was about 2-3 hours.  That's practically longer than a visit to the Louvre.  Or most museums in our travels.  The kids were prepared to wait with books and stuff to do but they were getting kind of antsy.  And hungry.  The eggs went in...


How Many Chefs does it Take?

... we heard the officials announce that cooking would take half an hour.  So, we left our excellent omelette cooking viewing vantage point and let the kids explore the rest of the festival a little.  We found snacks.  Will got fries which he declared, "The best fries ever!"  (They were probably cooked in duck fat.)  Alex had a Nutella crêpe.  After about a half hour, we noticed people walking around with plates of omelette.  

Empty Plates, Waiting to be Filled with Omelette

We sent the kids to get some omelette, but they couldn't find where and how to acquire it.  Plus, they didn't really want any, so they weren't particularly motivated.  I ran into some friends who already had plates of omelette and they told me to hurry and get some of my own.  So, I went to the crowd where the plates were being distributed.  It was kind of a process.  People in the front got omelette, they left the crowd, everyone moved up a bit, until you were in the front and could get your own omelette. I was involved in this process when I saw the kids walking back to where we had been standing (without any plates of omelette).  They are pretty independent, so I let them go.  Besides, I had omelette priorities!  I got my omelette and went back to the general area where I had last been with the kids.  

Successful Omelette Acquisition!

While I was busy taking this selfie of my successful omelette acquisition, the kids found me.  They were mildly annoyed, which is their general state of being when we force-them-to-experience-things.  But, since we were done, we headed back to the car to return home.  As an important last stop, and to bring things full circle, we once again went to the bakery, grabbed some bread and croissants so that the kids could consume non-omelette based sandwiches on the way home, and found a route out of  Bessières that didn't go directly through the festival.  

Will we go to the Giant Strawbery Tarte?  Perhaps.  Wait and see...

Saturday, September 02, 2017

The Extraordinary Garden - Weekend Adventure

In our efforts to expose them to new things, we took the boys to a place recommended by Dan's French teacher.  She said that it is only open for 4 days each year and this weekend was during that time.  It is called, Le Jardin Extraordinaire.  



The objectives of the garden are listed on the left side of the sign.  I think they say:
* Make art accessible to all
* Nature Sensitivity
* Bond with others

So it was kind of like a hippy festival of nature art.  There was also music.  And some artisanal crafts including this 450 euro steampunk badger.

My eye is a watch and my intestines are gears!

Rather than branding this adventure as a hike, we told the kids that it was more like a hunt for koroks.  We pulled out an old camera and told them to take pictures every time they find a place that a korok should be hiding.  While they still complained a bit about the hiking part and the uncomfortable weather, we got these excellent pictures...

Hiding under a bridge


In a Circle of Flowers


Enjoying the Tournesol


Inside the Vine House


Playing on the Bug Decorating the Stream



Nom Nom

We were warned not to tickle the koroks.

Sometimes Koroks Like to be Left Alone


Alex even took some time to pose for pictures.




And take a selfie...

Great Pumpkin Selfie!

It was an extraordinary garden.  If you get the chance to visit, it is open in 2018 the weekend that spans August and September.  Maybe you can find some koroks too!


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Planning Summer Days

This Tree was in the Middle of our Walk!

Summer is here!  The kids finally got done with school last Thursday.  We spent Friday playing video games, taking Alex to a party, and going shopping for a new marche pied as we lost ours at the park.  We took the Pamplona trip for the first adventure.  Yesterday we spent the day playing video games, taking Alex to another party, and going shopping for groceries.  

However, I don't want to spend the whole summer playing videogames, taking Alex to parties, and shopping with Will.  So, today, we implemented a new regimen.  


  • Play Video Games
  • Breakfast
  • Exercise
  • Write
  • Lunch
  • Nothing Time
  • Go Outside
  • Chores
  • Summer Goals
  • FREE TIME
  • Dishes - Set Table
  • Dinner
  • Shower
  • Cuddle (Alex insisted it be on the list)
  • Sleep


The video game before breakfast part worked pretty well.  Normally the kids wake up at 6am anyway, so if they have something to do that is quiet and doesn't wake me up at that hour, everyone is happy.  Breakfast makes a good break as they are usually hungry when I wake up anyway.  The kids are used to turning off electronics during school hours, even on weekends.  

For breakfast, we made French Toast (not called that in France, btw).  Typically we buy "pain au lait" for use as hot dog buns.  However, there are different versions of it.  Once, we accidentally bought some that had chocolate in it.  And recently, we bought some that has bits of honey inside it.  It's delicious.  But not really with hot dogs.  Turns out, it makes great French Toast!

Miel = Honey

Deliberate exercise was a newly added thing.  At school they go out and run around, but for us all together, we needed to make a plan.  I started the negotiating high at 5 loops around the park.  The park is 1km around.  They countered with 1 loop.  I said we needed to meet somewhere in the middle.  So I counter-countered with 4 loops.  Will countered again with 2.5, exactly in the middle of zero and 5.  I said that works for me, but then how would we get back home?  So we decided to cut across the middle of the park, then do one loop clockwise, then do one loop counterclockwise, then cut back across to get home.  

I ended up traveling nearly 3 kilometers.  The boys took breaks in a tree and cut some corners, but tried to make up for it by running part of the way and meeting me back on my path.  Fairly successful.  

Image may contain: one or more people, tree, outdoor, text and nature

The only whiny part was right at the beginning where Alex decided that his knee was super injured for no reason.  Fortunately he sucked it up and got back on track.  I told him that he clearly needs intense training so he can go beyond a 0.1 km walk before whining.  Maybe tomorrow we can do better!

I asked the boys what we should do on our next walk to make it more challenging:

  • Walk further
  • Walk with arm weights
  • Run the same distance
Alex proposed that we add 0.5km each day to the walk.  Will quickly did the math and determined that would get kind of far, pretty quickly.  I suggested that we reset every week to the base 2.5km.  Alex added that we should add 0.5km to the base kilometers every 2 weeks.  Will decided to write a Scratch program that does these calculations for us.  

And now we are writing... 
The boys are composing music while I do the blogging.  
Anyone for Lunch yet?
 

  

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Cheese Tour while Camping

Cheese is Awesome!

As we buy different cheeses at the grocery store, we notice that the labels tell us where the cheese is from.  Much like champagne from any other region than Champagne is only sparkling wine, a camembert not from the Camembert region is something different.  My favorite cheese is a cantal jeune.  So, when we went camping in the middle of France to escape the heat, it was an awesome bonus that it happened to be in the region known for cantal cheese.  

As we know the kids don't like to do anything, or at least they say this when we ask them what they want to do for the weekend adventure, we knew that whatever we picked would be unacceptable.  So, we told them that we were going to do 3 activities during the weekend (other than hang out at the campground).  These activities were cheese tour, explore a volcano, and go to a volcano amusement park.  They were not interested in any of these, as expected.  Finally we asked them to rank the one that they would dislike the least and they seemed to agree that the volcano amusement park would be that one.  More on that later.  

Saturday morning, after Dan finished his bike ride and we ate lots of pain au chocolat from the local campground store, we headed out to the cantal region.  Fortunately the display case at the camping ground check-in had a bunch of activity brochures, including a map of cheeses.  One of the cheese places was open in the morning.  

After an hour drive, we arrived at the cheese place!  It sort of looked like a factory outlet store for cheese with a fairly empty parking lot.  

Exciting Parking Lot Picture

We walked inside to find a small store with a cheese counter.  The children walked in, and immediately walked out, complaining about the smell.  We tried to convince them to come in and participate in the cheese adventure, but they did not think that was a good idea.  So, we explained, in French, to the confused people at the counter that we were American and the children thought the cheese smelled bad.  Then, we further convinced them that we were American by asking to taste a cheese that I had not seen before.  However, it was not a cheese for tasting or eating, although I was welcome to do so if I insisted.  It was a cheese that was used for cooking.  I guess kind of like a cooking wine.  You don't really taste it, you just cook with it.  So, in line with the strange reaction they had to me asking for a taste, I followed their lead and did not taste it.  

We bought three cheeses, a cantal jeune, a cantal entre-deux (aged longer), and another cheese that Dan picked.  We got about 300 grams of each cheese.  Total price, 10 euro, an amazing deal.  I guess it is cheap to buy cheese direct.  


More Cheese

Next, we followed google maps to the next place of fromage.  Unfortunately, it was the actual factory where the cheese was made, not the place they sold it.  So we continued onward and found another cheese store.  This one also had the little cheese counter with a brief assortment of cheese.  We got a cantal jeune, and a tomme gris.  It cost 3 euro.  Dan tried to pay 13 euro (trois and treize sound similar), and we laughed with the lady about how cheap cheese is here compared to the United States.

Fromage!


The children safely avoided the cheese by sitting by the car, across the parking lot.

Smells like Parking Lot

Next, we continued up the road.  We thought it might be time for a restroom break.  We saw on the map that we were almost to Chanterelle.  As Chateau Chanterelle is a video game level in one of the kids' Kirby Nintendo U games, we stopped.  It was a small, quiet town.  Quite unlike the video game version.  

Chanterelle - No Coins Here

Finally we stopped at a small village a bit more up the road.  There was an event where people were getting together with their classic cars to drive them around in the mountains.  We quickly got some bread and left ahead of the crowd.

As we were in a volcanic region, there were a bunch of lakes around.  We stopped at Lake Pavin.  As Alex had somehow forgotten to put shoes on before he got into the car, Dan ended up porting him around.  I don't understand how he isn't too big for this kind of thing.  But then again, I don't understand how he forgets his shoes either.

Take me to the Lake!

Lake Selfie with Will

An amazing day, with amazing cheese.

Cheese, and Bread, and Jam

And cheeseburgers...

Who put that disgusting ketchup on their perfectly good cheeseburger on baguette?




Friday, June 16, 2017

Glamping - Somewhere in Middle France

Glamping

Dan says that "glamping" is a real term.  It means glamour camping.  I'm not sure about this.  In any case, it meant that we didn't have to pack our car to the brim with tents, sleeping bags, kids air mattresses, etc.  We simply brought some linens, clothes, and a little food.  We rented a cottage through the British site, instead of the French site, which meant that even though this was an activity we didn't know a lot about, we could learn about it in English and arrive without too many surprises about what we booked versus what we thought we booked.


Weather

It has been quite warm in Toulouse for the past couple of weeks.  So, for the weekend getaway, we entertained the idea of going to the beach, but ultimately decided that the beach would be hot and crowded.  Instead, we headed to the mountains.


Bridge on the way to the mountains

We told the kids that it might be a bit like camping in a water park.  Given the pictures on the web site, it seemed like there would be many Will/Alex compatible activities.  On arrival, we found some awesomeness.  



Shallow Wading Pool


Deeper Swimming Pool

The pools were great in that they were quite shaded and even had a cool extendable roof that could close them in when it rains.  The different depths of pool made it easy for the smaller kids to have a place to play and the bigger kids too.  Plus, inside, through the windows/glass that you can see, was an adults only pool, spa, and sauna area.  

There were also water slides.



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Will in the orange shirt

And, just in case the pool and slides weren't enough, there was another "splash pad" play area.


Waiting for the Giant Bucket Dumping





Once the kids got tired of the artificial water activities, they could head over to the beach and build a sand castle.

Now we Build!

There were also playgrounds, boating, a convenience store, and a restaurant.  Dan took the kids paddle-boating.

Alex is king of the paddle!

Will in a boat

So here in France, the food is great.  The convenience store had a bunch of local products such as cheeses, jams, wine, beer and sausage.  It also had the obligatory bakery section so that we could get a baguette or some croissants or pain au chocolat for the morning breakfast time. 

The restaurant had amazing food.  But not only did they have a wide selection of local tasty French dishes, they also had chicken nuggets and fries to pacify the children.  As we were in one of the regions known for cheese, this is my dinner.  I couldn't finish it, it was huge.  


Cheesy Tortellini and Salad

No, I promise we were camping!  Here is a picture of Alex in front of the cottage.  The cottage had two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a deck.  


Cottage

We even did camping-type activities such as grilling hot dogs and burgers on the bbq and toasting s'mores.  Of course, there are no graham crackers in France, but they do have fancy cookies that already have chocolate attached.  So we went with that.  Will decided that it was necessary to skewer all of the ingredients.  Alex decided that it was important to pretend that he was not enjoying himself.    


Feelings: Wonder and Sadness





Hot Coals Produced!

So when it comes to camping without a lot of planning or packing, this is the way to go.  The kids were completely exhausted at the end of the day.  Also, we successfully escaped the heat of Toulouse for a few days.  Perhaps we shall try it again!