Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Home at last

Hello dear friends and family! I have now been home a week, but have had not one spare minute to complete my blog. I actually made a final post from France on the Saturday afternoon before coming home Easter Sunday, but as I hit the "publish" button, my Internet connection was severed, and never recovered that day.
Our plane landed in Wilmington at 7:00 PM Easter Sunday afternoon, and we are all home safe and sound. But it was sure hard to get up and go to school the next day! While my body is moving around at fairly normal speed, my energy level and attention span don't seem to have made the return trip! I've never flown that far before, and I don't think I realized that "jet lag" actually occurs several days after the fact. It was Tuesday night when I absolutely hit a brick wall and just collapsed into bed around 8:00 that night. As a music teacher, I have tons of activities going on after school hours, and right now, our arts department is producing our spring musical. This year, we're doing Disney's Aladdin, Jr., and we're putting an orchestra in the pit for the first time. We open next week, so it's been crunch time for me and "Peeps" (Ms. Peoples, the theatre teacher that was also on this trip) since landing! Our rooms are side by side on our hallway, so as I've watched her work this week, I realized that we REALLY DID fly to FRANCE and do all those AMAAAAZZZZZIIIINNNNGGG things together. I know this, because she looks just like I do!!!! I'm not the only one with puffy eyes in the mirror every day! I look back on these past two weeks, and just marvel over what we actually accomplished. Being back home now, I just can't imagine how we managed to take all those students and do the incredible things we did. I'll tell you something else- I miss my French family! They truly are an extension of my own family now, and I know we have made one small corner of the world a far better place because of this.
I have over 800 photos on my digital camera, and I would like very much to upload them all for you to see, but it would simply take me years to do. So I will leave you with a few parting thoughts, and a few final photos of my last days in that beautiful country.

Some lessons we learned:

Take Risks. Life is too short to live in constant fear of failure. How can one know for sure that a task is impossible until it has been attempted? Nearly every day on this trip, we were moving someone (especially me!!) out of their comfort zone. Eyes and minds were opened, and possibilities lay like the beautiful wildflowers around us just waiting to be picked up and enjoyed. A new and different experience waited on us every morning. But we had to lose our fear of the unknown first. With that said, a second lesson would be:
Use common sense and good judgement. The French do not regulate every little aspect of their lives. In fact, they do not regulate most BIG aspects of their lives! (Like roads, for instance! Except on major highways, most general roads in towns and villages are relatively unmarked. One is expected to use common sense and good judgement, and learn the meaning of YIELD- especially when it comes to pedestrians and bikes! Think we could have a little of that here??)
Embrace life. Live to the fullest extent possible. I saw so very many artistic touches in the most unexpected places. If there's one thing I truly noticed in almost every French person I spent any time with, it's this: Life is for LIVING. Enjoy it, embrace it, experience it. Our lives are gifts, and we need to open the package!
Quit whining. France was crowded. Toes were stepped on, bodies bumped- especially when riding the trams! But true rudeness was non-existant among the French. We have heard so much about the French being a rude country, but I can tell you it never happend to me. I was alone more than once on this trip, spending hours shopping and walking around Strasbourg. I identified myself as American every time I spoke to anyone, and not one person treated me unkindly. In fact, the exact opposite was true. They were exceptionally friendly to me, and helpful in every instance. It was a tough lesson for our students to learn, but they quickly saw that whining about something wasn't going to change it. When faced with a crowded tram, they very soon learned to suck it in, squeeze into a tiny space, and make room for others. When they walked for miles, they realized why the French have such tiny cars and why most of them bike or walk. And most importantly of all, they realized how grateful the French people are when we attempted to immerse ourselves in their culture and speak their language. i.e, America (and in particular, Wilmington) is NOT the center of the universe.
Finally, Teamwork works. There is simply no way we could have made this trip without the concerted efforts of everyone involved. Five little teachers working in conjunction with about the same on the France side made the world a much smaller place in the space of a few short weeks. When the French students came here, the Murray and Ashley teachers and parents worked incredibly hard to make their visit an unforgettable experience. St. Etienne's teachers and parents did the very same thing for us. There is no question about it: the lives of every student and teacher involved in this venture have been changed forever.

Well, despite my best efforts, I can't upload a single picture tonight. I have no idea why it is isn't working, but I'll try to edit this post another day. It's late, and I need to rest. School, Aladdin, choir practice at church all await me tomorrow!

I would like to thank each and every one that has supported our efforts, read our blogs, provided any kind of assitance, or said multitudes of prayers for us throughout this adventure. I lived every day with the sure and certain knowledge that I was never, ever truly alone, and, along with our "wing" angels, we flew with every one of you- in our hearts.
Blessings and Peace from home!

Friday, April 10, 2009


Boujour, folks! Here, it's now Friday, 10 April, and I have a few minutes to get started on the blog. I was not able to blog last evening, as we arrived home too late at night. But let me tell you what's been going on the last two days.
We have been running, running, running to try to squeeze in as much as we possibly can of France before going home, and yesterday, we finally got a chance to just relax a litte. We started the day with a trip to a village specializing in pottery. We got to see how various things were made, either with molds or on the wheel. And we watched the women hand paint each piece. It was a beautiful sight. We were also able to shop a little in their gift store before we left. By the way, this village was in Germany, on the way to our primary destination for the day- Caracorolla- the Roman baths!

Preparing to release a new mold

This is one of the ladies painting the designs onthe bisque before firing. They do not use paintbrushes- their tool is a sort of syringe with a nib-like tip. It"s called a "pear" because of it's shape.

This particular item is not a muffin pan-this is for making escargots!

After we left the pottery village, we went on to Baden-Baden to the Roman Baths and Spa. But first we stopped at a local park to eat our lunch. Here we had more than an hour to rest, stroll through the park and enjoy the beautiful weather. And speaking of weather, my son Matt reminded me I have not told you about the climate here in all my blogs. Very sorry! I have been so involved with the activities, I've forgotten to tell you what the weather is like here. Except for the first day or two when it was rainy and cold, it has been absolutely beautiful. But this is a country of extremes- it's either very, very cold, or very, very hot. In the mornings, one needs a jacket or coat. The temperature is in the 30's or 40's I would guess. Really very cold. I never pass a thermometer, and it would be celcius anyway. But by lunch time, it's much warmer. Mid afternoon has been in the 70's all week, and today it must be in the high 80's. Gorgeous, CAROLINA BLUE sky almost the entire time!!

This is the little park where we stopped to eat and rest. I do not know the name of the little river, but its bed was paved with large stones set very close together.

Just for me!!! This beautiful carriage passed throught the park several times.

We arrived at the Baths in mid afternoon, and had three hours to soak up this fantastic place. There is a natural geo-thermal spring here, and the water content is so high in mineral salts, one floats very easily. The facility is huge, with both indoor and outdoor pools. They are at different temperatures, also, to promote better circulation. The hottest pool was around 100°, and the coldest 60°. There is a little "river" of sorts, also, with a strong current. A kind of "lazy" river that will pick you up and float you around and around an extremely large ourdoor pool. There are waterfalls in abundance, and huge jets to stand under that pummel your shoulders and back to get rid of any tension and soreness. Underwater jets in the hot pools and spas were just the thing for our sore legs from the Eiffel tower! All the pools are round, oval, or different shapes with rounded edges. Nothing square or angular. Soft, meditative music plays, and palm trees and plantings are every where. There is a solarium, an aroma-therapie spa, and steam-room also. The aroma-therapy room is very dark, with many little cabins or oval-shaped rooms with benches to sit around on. It is VERY thick with a hot, steamy menthol mist that was incredibly soothing to my asthematic lungs. I could have sat and breathed in this room forever. It felt sooooo good- not only inside; but out as well. My skin felt fantastic when I left. And the darkend room had very subtle colored lighting changes that shifted with the gentle music and birdsong.

The entrance to Caracarolla. Sorry there are no other pictures! There
are signs everywyere inside that say "no cameras"- I guess for obvious
One thing; though. You must remember we are in Europe- not America- so we were cautioned strongly to stay on the FIRST FLOOR only. Can you guess what the second floor might be for? Aha! I heard those shocked gasps! That's right, the top floor is only for those who wish to bathe au naturale- in the nude!!!! No worries, parents who are reading this. Your're kids were fantastic. Not one single child made an effort to sneak up the stairs. Besides, there are lots of attendants who would have stopped them anyway.
After the most relaxing afternoon ever, we went back to school. We arrived a little after 6:00PM, to find a dance in honor of the American students already in progress. I truly could have just gone home and gone to bed, but it was not to be! Here, a school dance lasts AT LEAST 4 hours!!!! One of the French teachers told me it is not uncommon for a dance to last longer than that! So I was stuck at a very lively, very LOUD school dance until after 10:00 PM. But I'm not complaining- it was in our honor, and the families had brought beaucoup de gateaùx (many snacks), so I tried not to look at my watch and just enjoy the company of my kids and teacher friends.
This morning, there was no school, and Cathie had arranged for us to have a cooking class with a local Chef. I confess- I've been looking forward to this since I arrived! I love cooking; I watch the Cooking Channel all the time to learn new things, and I just couldn't wait for this. So Cathie, Chantalle, her aunt, Sebastien, and I donned aprons and joined about 11 others in a master class.

Cuisine Attitude- the restaurant and cooking school

Chantalle and Sebastien

Our Chef and a few others in the class

On the menu was a roulade of crab for starters, then poisson avec une beurre blanc, et haricots blanc avec basil pesto. Then for dessert- the most amazing little thing! Chocolate "eggs" in a nest of green apple jullienne. In english, this would be small egg-rolls filled with a crab mixture of olives, sun-drued tomatoes, onion, and lemon confit. This is lemon that has been "preserved" in salt for at least two months. The flavor is unbelievable!!! I MUST try this at home! The main course was a baked fish with a white butter and wine sauce. This was served with a mold of white beans mixed with a basil pesto. I would nave never paired the little navy beans with pesto, but it was fantastic! The dessert was made by first opening large chocolate eggs that werre hollow. We have these in the states, also, and they have a little toy or surprise inside. We heated our VERY sharp knives in hot water, then separated the seam of the eggs. The toy went in our pockets as a souvenir! We then made a white chocolate mousse, and filled each egg half. These were then placed in the fridge for later. After the crab appatizers were baked, we plated our appatizers with several kinds of sauces, and went upstairs to an eating area. They were just fantastic! Very delicate and not at all difficult to make. We relaxed a while and enjoyed our first course. Afterward, back in the kitchen, we thickend some fresh-squeezed orange juice with something similar to arrowroot to make an orange pudding consistancy. We brought the chocolate egg halves back out, and used a mandolin to make tiny julienne slickes of Granny Smith apples. (or at least green, tart ones. They probably weren't actually Granny Smith, but very similar.) We tossed these with some lemon juice to keep thm from browning. We put a dollop of the orange pudding in the middle of each egg. The mousse made the egg white, and the orange pudding the yolk! We made a "nest" of the green apple juliennes on each plate and place two egg halves on top. This was a very simple dessert, but very pretty and perfect for Easter. We popped all that back into the large fridge, then began plating our main course. We trooped upstairs again to enjoy our efforts, and a server brought our dessert to us later. This was such a fantastic idea. I wish we could do the same in America! There are many wonderful chefs- think we could we get Emeril to teach like this? BAM!!

Me and Chantalle behind the food processor!

This is the chocolate egg cut in half. The bright yellow capsule
contains the toy or surprise. Opening this egg
was the most challenging part of the meal!

Our chef proudly presenting our main course. He was really
friendly, and his food was superb.

Left to right: Chantalle, Sebastien, and Cathie

This afternoon, I finally got to go to church!!! I think Sebastien has told Cathie that I miss going to church, so we attended an afternoon service today; Good Friday. I was so very, very glad. It really brought home the scripture, "I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord." I don't think I ever really knew how that felt, as I have grown up in church and attended all my life. But two weeks without it; and I know my face just lit up when Cathie told me. Maybe it's just being so far from home, but I was so very happy to just sit in the sanctuary and absorb the service. I couldn't understand a lot of it, but fortunately, I know the story real well! In whatever language, it is still worship.

It my last few days with this wonderful family, and leaving them will be bittersweet. They have been so kind and generous, loving and playful. VERY much like my very own family, whom I miss greatly. Tomorrow, Cathie wants to go to an Easter "market", so I will close for now and go to bed. We leave for home on Easter Sunday morning. We will have to be at St.Etienne's at 5:00 AM our time, and our plane should land at Wilmington around 7:00 PM your time Easter Sunday evening. (remember we are traveling backward in time coming home). I will probably make my last blog entry tomorrow night.

After dinner tonight, left to right: Annaise, Sebastien, Cathie, and Joel Amhrien

I love and miss you all!

Blessings and Peace from France,

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tout le Monde

Salùt, mes amis! Un petit blog, ce soir. It's Wednesday, 8 Avril. Here are a few pictures from yesterday's trip to the Parliament. I think I was too asleep to get them done last night.

The Grand Staircase. Yes, we had to walk down it!

This view is actually from inside the Parliament complex. There is a beautiful, large courtyard within the building that is open to the sky. It was stunning.

This is the exterior of the Parliament Building. Some of us wondered why the US flag was not represented here. Then one of the really smart kids reminded us this was the EUROPEAN Parliament. Well, duh!

Today we all went to Europa Park. It's a grand, huge theme park, a lot like Busch Gardens, only much bigger. There are 13 or 14 countries represented in this park, with rides, gift shops, shows, and, of course, FOOD.

Entrance to Europa Park

It took about an hour and 15 minutes to get there, as it is in Germany. We took a large tour bus, and rode in comfort. Only one very sad note- we passed by the remains of a hotel and several other buildings that were recently damaged in the riots you may have heard about. It was a tragedy to see the burned buildings, because of the exceptional value the French have for art, beauty, and the uniqueness of each person. This is indeed the work of extremists- not the average French citizen; and please let me reassure you this occured nowhere near where we are. I saw a little of it on news reports, but if I had not passed this area (immediately prior to the Rhine River and the German border) I would have never known of it's occurance. We had seen a few protestors with the rainbow flags, and there were a few flags fluttering from upper level balconies, but that was pretty much it.

Our kids were absolutely top flight again on this little sortie. They were on time to their check-ins, and never complained. As I am quite literally the QUEEN of field trips, I was asked about how to manage that many kids in the park. We have 30 American kids, and maybe 25 French kids with us today. I knew it- I can hear it from here! Those are BAND PARENTS laughing their heads off! Well, I knew all those trips to Carowinds and Busch Gardens would pay off one day! The French teachers are accostomed to having two or more check-ins during the day. I learned a log time ago that it works better with less, as the lines can be so long kids really don't have time to ride anything if they are forever trooping back to the check in spot for the head count. But this is what they are used to; so I'm really proud of our kids for not protesting. They bunched up into groups, with at least one French student in every group, and off they went to play in the park. The teachers played too! I took a grand little video of all 5 American teachers and 2 French teachers riding in zippy little airplanes. Hope this works, but if it doesn't, picture minature bi-planes, seating two, and suspended from a center pole. Now picture them weaving in and out of themselves; and getting highter off the ground. VERY much fun; but probably designed for 8 year olds!

The video wouldn't load, but these are the little planes!

We rode the costers, had lunch in Greece, and in general just enjoyed being with each other during the day. Legs and feet are still protesting; but it was so much fun, we're not paying much attention!

EUROSTAT: an indoor roller coaster like Space Mountain. Looks just like Epcot, oui?

I think this is "Blue Fire", one of the popular nwer coasters. It's really long; with multiple things to scare the life out of you. No; I did NOT ride this one!

On the river ride. Nice, easy, comy ride for us aged folk. Yes, I am the Elder on this trip!

When I got home this evening; I made Sebastien's favorite meal when he was with us: Enchiladas! I was expecting to make it with regular hamburger meat, but my kind host has been looking for DAYS for meat substitute (like Morning star crumbles) but it's very hard to find here. She told me she finally found it two villages away. I was a little concerned about this meal; since I was using new products and new (to me) equipment. But, the worries were groundless. IT came off without a hitch, and Sebastien and his family finally had the enchiladas they had been waiting for so long. I actually sent the recipe to Cathy some months ago, but acording to Sebastien; this didn't work so well. So tonight I taught Cathy to make it herself. It came off beautifully, if I do say so myself!

It's hard to believe it's already Wednesday; and I will be home in just days. This has been the most amazing trip, and I hope you've enjoyed coming along, but truthfully, I'm ready to be home and in my own bed!

Group photo at Europa Park. The sign above the students is actually beneath a French flag, and reads "Place of Friendship".

Pretty cool, huh?

Blessings and Peace from France.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Paris, Parliament, ane Pain

Monday, 6 April, 2009
Salùt, mes amis! I am truly sorry I wasn't able to blog yesterday, but we left our home at 5:00 AM, and I didn't return until after 11:00 PM. And while I have started my blog later than that on this trip, the day trip to Paris truly wore me out and I needed rest. So tonight, I sit down to start before dinner, and I'll hopefully finish both days before midnight.
Paris! Just the name sends little shivers of excitment through your brain. Sometimes when I have a moment or two of real quietude, i am enveloped with wonder and amazement that I am, in fact, in France. And not just a state or two over. It's almost impossible to describe my Paris trip on one blog. And I truly think the Louvre should have it's very own. But somehow I've got to squeeze in two days tonight, so let's get this journey of 1000 miles going with the first step.
We met at the train station at 5:45 AM. And not just any train; either- this is the TGV "Tay Jay Vay"- France's high speed rail system. (The very one Mr. Obama professed to be jealous of!)

At the TGV station. Yes; thoses ARE Nickelodean banners!

Riding the train was literally a breeze. It's well-marked, easy to manage, and VERY fast. I was told this train cruises at about 250 kilometers an hour; making the trip to Paris in 2 hours. We were met at the Paris station by a guide, and were whisked away on a tour bus. It wasn't on our itinerary, but most of the adults wanted to see Notre Dame, so we made a whirlwind unscheduled stop. The magnificence of this cathedral was breathtaking. There were hundreds and hundreds packed in lines to get in, but our guide knew exatly how to get us in quickly. The cool, almost earthy damp feeling of the nave was comforting and refreshing, but we were inside for less than 20 minutes!

The famous flying buttresses of Notre Dame

A view of the Organ Pipes from the transept.

On the facade

Then we began our bus tour of Paris. Our guide was exceptionally knowledgeable, and pointed out more interesting sights than we could capture with our cameras. I wish I could remember every detail- but we went very quickly, with our guide speaking almost non-stop. I can leave you with pictures, but few actual descriptions. I plan on looking these up when I get home so I will have labels for all the pictures!

Don't ever complain about Wilmington traffic! This is a view from our front bus window. These folks are moving! No lanes- people just go where they want.

Our driver regulary took us where "No Bus Should Have Gone Before"- yes! Through t hese high, narrow gates!

Napolean' s famous L'Arc de Triumphe

We ended our ride at La Tour Eiffel- the magnificent Eiffel Tower! If there is just one symbol that absolutely IS France, it would be the Eiffel Tower.

We entered from the East Tower, and took a lift to the top. (Or as far as we could go. The very peak was closed because the crowds were too great.)

Breathtaking views:

Before I knew it, our guide told us it was time to go. As we made our way to the lifts, she told us that we would walk. WALK? DOWN??? Really? Do you know HOW FAR UP WE ARE???

Eh bien; there is nothing for it. It's climb down the swirly, dizzy, steep stairs or be left behind.

I did consider my options; but only for a second. It took almost 30 minutes to reach the bottom, and by then, even the fittest student was letting the tiniest little peeps of complaint be heard. My legs were absolute jelly, and shaking so violently I could barely stand when I finally reached the bottom. Truthfully, this Tower makes Hatteras look like your attic steps. But there wasn't time to contemplate how uncomfortable I was. Our guide told us it was lunch time, and we were to sit about on the lawn and eat our lunches. Right- sit DOWN on the GRASS and I would surely NOT get up again! But I've accomplished much more on this trip than I ever have at home it seems; so down on the cool grass we all went. Our families had packed us lunches, and we enjoyed about 30 or 40 minutes in a little park around the Tower. A quick word about lunches packed from home: In the US, when we pack our kids' lunches, they will probably get a sandwich of some sort, maybe a bag of chips, and a cookie or brownie or piece of fruit. Here, everyone eats out in the open all the time, so our lunches are baged in huge shopping bags, and most everyone has enough packed to feed the entire crowd. Sandwiches are usually an entire baguette ( anywhere from 10 to 24 inces!) with "jambon, fromagge, et buerre". This is the National Sandwich of France- ham with cheese and butter. And instead of one brownie, you typically would have the entire box. Instead of a baggie of chips, you would have the full container. Ask your kids- it truly is remarkable!
Before we knew it, it was time to head for the Louvre!

Like many of you, I've read the Da Vinci Code, but seeing the glass pyramid and the inverted pyramid inside just was astonishing to me. We began our tour of the Louvre with what would become the bane of my existance that day: STEPS. I had in no way at all recovered from the Eiffel tower, and now our guide was telling us that we could not take our book bags or water bottles into the museum. This normally would not be a problem, but do you have any idea how big the Louvre actually is? There are 8 separate entrances; and the entire museum is roughly a "U" shape on it's side. There are 4 or 5 different levels, from the foundation of the castle, to its top-most floors. And yes, it was originally a palace. Our guide told us the name "Louvre" doesn't have a specific meaning, but scholars believe it was from ancient Celtic words that meant "Fortress". And when we entered, it was from underground, looking at the stone foundations of this mighty Fortress.

Steps. Exhaustion, and a growing thirst, all knawed at me relentlessly, but couldn't diminish the awesome sights of this place. To stand next to Winged Victory, or to gaze into the enigmatic eyes of the Mona Lisa- ther REAL one!! made all creature discomforts disappear. I really can't describe to you how this felt- to stand in the same hall as the French Crown Jewels- Napolean's own crown and jewel-encrusted sword, or to stand with Venus de Milo in the Greek Antiquities hall just have no comparison at all with seeing these things in books. It's not even apples and oranges. It's more like apples and hippopotomusses. One has nothing to do with the other.

As speechless as this all left us, we were truly beyond exhaustion, and many of us were really beginning to feel the effects of dehydration. Did I forget to mention there are no water fountains in France; either?? There must be somewhere, but I haven't seen one yet. And as beautiful as the Louvre was, it was slam packed full of people, and very, very hot. We had three hours here, and by the last hour; we were so overcome with trying to absorb everything, and so hot and thirsty, that unfortunately many of us just wanted to go home. Our wonderful guide kept showing us just one more thing, and our kids did not complain; but I saw them drop more and more frequently into any available place to sit as they listened to her.

It's a good thing we could take pictures! We were sure some seriouly tired puppies, and now I can upload my pictures and look back on them with fabulous memories. We had about 30 minutes of free time before we got back on the bus, so Mrs. Peoples and I headed to the nearest little snack bar. Yes, there are some of these, but there was no time while we were with out guide. We had to keep moving or risk getting lost. We got the largest bottles of water they had and a beignet (French doughnut) a piece, then popped in a couple of little gift shops.

We left the Louvre about 6:30 PM, and boarded the bus of the train station. After a brief stop in the train station for refreshments or dinner, we boarded the train for Strasbourg.

You'd think everybody would sleep on the train!
Well; you could THINK that, but you'd be wrong!

Just one gi-nor-mous field trip!!

So I've pretty much explained the Paris and Pain part- now for Parliament!
April, 2009

I thought the pain was going to be confined to yesterday; I was very sadly mistaken. Just coming down the stairs in my home today was an unbelievably difficult task. My poor mom, Cathie, looks at me with the gravest concern over my hobbling around. And what a day I have ahead of me! Today, we are to visit the Parliament!

We began our day at St.Etiennes, by sitting in on a PE class. But sitting isn't quite the right word. There appear to be 3 or 4 different gyms in this school, and most appear to be rather small in sz, but with fantastic equipment. This was Sebastien's first class of the day, and our American kids were invited to a friendly game of dodge-ball: French style!!

By the way, I received this camera for Christmas, and just today I figured out how to make a video. Now, if I can figure out how to get that on the blog before I go, you'll be able to see a little of this exciting game for yourself. The ball is super-squishy; so even though it sounds terrible, there's no risk of injury in this small; confined space. Basically it's like American Dodge ball, but once you are hit, you move over to the opponent's side and become an ally infiltrator. If you get the ball and score a hit, you can come back "home". And if that sounds like fun; double it with TWO balls! This is fast-paced; frantic; and really gets those kids moving in the morning!
After an hour or so of play; we struck out for the bowling alley. Yes, walking. It took about 30 minutes of steady walking to get there. I'd estimate about 3 or so. And my legs and feet are protesting with every step. The French students came with us, and we bowled a couple of games in groups of 6.

Afterward, our students went with their French hosts to lunch. Some went home, others went back to school. Here, everyone has a very long lunch break of more than an hour. Some days more than that. Their schedule is very flexible, and I haven't yet been able to figure it out. But they are allowed to leave the school campus for lunch if they want. Cathie met me on the Pont St. Gilliaume (Saint Gilliaume Bridge) near the school and took me to lunch.

A Vegetarian restaurant! My gracious host mooking out for me once again. We dined "on the terrace", which was really just tables and chairs set up on the side walk, and had the most wonderful lunch. This tiny restaurant held only about 8 or 10 tables inside, but like everything here, was simply scrumptious. And all was sweetness and light until I decided I should visit the restroom before leaving. (Remember, restrooms aren't so easy to find here, so I almost never pass up the opportunity). When I asked our server where they were located he simply said "la bas" -over there- and pointed DOWN.
The ever-present spiral staircase. It most be some sort of national treasure here. Houses and buildings are built vertically to avoid a large foot-print. In the 1500's and 1600's, when most of these villages were being built, taxes were paid on the square footage of the foundation- not the enitre house; so you see many buildings and homes that are small at the bottom, but get wider with each story to avoid paying higher taxes. This also results in spiral staircases to accomodate high, narrow walls and passageways. Navigating that little staircase was nothing compared to parliament. We met back at the school at 3:00 for the trip. I had sent my mind off in search of something to distract from the pain of walking; when we suddenly stopped. We were getting tickets for the bus!

I was truly a happy camper.

We arrived at the Parliament building around 4:00, and were given a tour. Other than a couple of other school groups, he could have been minding the store all by himself. I never saw anyone other than the security guards at the entrance and one person in the gift shop. But he was quite knowledgable about the history of the European Parliament, and the physical space was gorgeous. We watched a short video, and listened to his descriptions, then he took us to the debating hall; and explained how interpreters are used to help everyone hear and speak and vote in their own language. It was huge and beautiful. An awe-inspiring space.

There's much; much more, but I can't write any more this evening. I've got to get some sleep- tomorrow we're all going to Europa Park.
Yes, more walking! They probably even have spiral staircases!

More pictures tomorrow night. Right now- I've got to sleep!

Blessings and peace from France-
I love and miss you all!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sunday, 5 April:

Bonjour from France! I'm so glad you are coming along with me today. It has been a very full and busy day. I will not be able to blog tomorrow, as we will be leaving for Paris very early and won't get home until almost midnight. I will try to get Monday and Tuesday together on Tuesday night.
I began my day with a little quiet time after breakfast. I read a little from my new travel-sized bible, and remembered in prayer all my family and friends back home, and our students and families here. Cathie asked me later if I would like to play piano with Sebastien, so I went downstairs to their music room/office, and sat next to Seb for a little paino-quatre mains, or piano four-hands. Cathie wanted a picture, too, so here's the one she took with my camera.

I enjoy playing with Sebastien. We have a piano in our home in Wilmington, and Seb and I played a little while he was with me then. Today, we ended up playing for hours, sharing all the books he had, and sight reading things he had not yet learned. Around lunch time, Cathie told us it was time to go. We were going to a birthday party for her nephew.
We traveled west of Eckbolsheim about 20 or 25 kilometers to a very small village (but a very young one, also) called Fessenheim. This is the first time I have seen more modern houses here, and Cathie explained to me they are more like American houses. I'd say only somewhat. They are indeed more modern and angular, but there is still the feeling of France with their immaculate gardens, plantings, and attention to tiny details. This was the home of her cousin, Monique. It is a beautiful, slightly more modern home surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland. Here her family grows asparagus and tobacco.

Family farm

A view across one field

When we arrived, we gathered in her garden, and were greeted by the most joyous little West Highland terrier. This precious little white dog bounded all over the place, and would bring his inquisitive little nose right up as far as his little legs would reach to see if you would pay attention to him. As the family was gathering outside around the little table with lès gôutes, or the little tastes, I asked "Chips" (pronounced SHEEPS) for a photo (en Francais, of cuorse!). Funniest thing- he politely sat down and held very still. I think he actually understood! The whole group just exploded with laughter as I snapped his photo.


Even though the birthday part was for a 15 year old boy, I actually saw very little of him. It was all adults, (16 of them!) and mostly older adults. And one more very important thing- every single one of them spoke Alsation- just like Cathie's parents who were also there. Now you will remember the importance of food with these families?? Well, as you can imagine, I was beginning to get a little concerned, since the amount of food on the little appatizer table was already so heavy. I had breakfasted very lightly, with a small piece of fresh baguette, yogurt, and coffee, and it was now about 1:30 in the afternoon. Lunch time should be no problem. I didn't get up from their table until 4:00- and that was to ask where la toilette was! And no, we weren't done yet. It started with a delicious soup course, with a piece of dark brown bread in the bottom of the bowl, a little like "French" onion soup, but without the cheese. Then there was a space of time where all the "mamans" got up to clear the large bowls, and the rest of the group sat and talked. For almost twenty minutes, I was surrounded by thick German words and accents with the occasional french word I could recognize. And then Cathie and a couple more of her cousins would fire off rapid French to each other, and then the whole group would roar with laughter and break out into an unintelligible mélange of German and French. The way these people could switch from one language to the other with such ease and familiarity was truly amazing. If I had not already learned a fair amount of French history, I would have no idea what was going on. But if you remember that this country has changed sides several times, it makes a lot more sense. History has no absolute borders. We do not go to sleep one day in ancient history and wake up the next in Modern. Lables are only applied in retrospect, to help organize our thinking and to create convenient ways of describing periods of time. Here, time is utterly blended, one epoch into another. And the people and the languages reflect that. The meals do, too!

Cousins- Monique, Cathie, Christian

Around the table

After the soup, enormous platters of boiled beef with cabbages and potatos, and monstrous mounds of shredded celery root ( a speciality here), beets, and thinly shaved cucumbers were hefted onto the table, and the birthday fète began in ernest. After nearly another 40 minutes of steady eating and conversation, the men got up from the table and walked outside to smoke. (If there's one thing I would want to change about France, it would be this. Most people smoke here- men, women,; and youth. But THANKFULLY- not my family!!) The ladies helped clear the table, and then Cathy and I went to sit with the youngest niece. She had a scrap book of a recent visit to Paris with her school, and Cathie thought I would enjoy seeing it. We chatted for a while, then we all trouped back in for the dessert. Dessert consisted of a full-sized dinner plate with 5 different desserts on them. There were slices of fresh kiwi, apple, and orange, then a rich chocolate mousse in a small glass, a large chocolate muffin that was the most incredibly light and fluffy brownie, a large slice of the parfait-type ice cream cake; but only with various hues of chocolate and vanilla, and finally a dark chocolate truffle. It was the birthday of Tomàs, and the birthday traditions are very similar here. Grand birthday cake with candles, but I've now seen two such cakes in very different settings, and they both contained a sparkler in the middle that would put most Roman candles to shame. Check this out!!

Monique, Tomàs, Seb behind, and Laurie

We sang Happy Birthday in both Alsatian and English; then Monique served not one, but TWO different cales (yes, this is AFTER the dessert!!) And of course, we had to have both! No teensy little slice of birthday cake, here. Following this was strong black coffee, and more conversation around the table. If you've checked your watch lately, you'll see we had been at this meal for nearly 4 hours. Seb tells me that is quite common. But at last, it was "finis", and we managed to get up from the table. Cathie asked Monique, her cousin, about "les cheveaux". The horses. INSTANT alert from my ears. After a period of time, I had to just shut out most of what I was hearing. The cacophony of such mixed languages was too difficult for my brain to digest, so I just sat and tried to listen instead to the lilt and tone patterns of their speech instead of the words. But "les cheveaux ets mon specialité", as they say here. My absolute favorite. HOSRES! Cathie was talking about horses nearby. My sweet, kind host is ever on the lookout for things that make me feel welcome. There were horses in the area, and we were going to see them.

On foot, of course! We walk everywhere here, and there was no exception in this tiny village. Monique told me that Fessenheim holds about 500 people, no more. So we walked the entire circuit of its territory. And on the far side, there was a riding school. A huge, magnificent, riding school. The stalls were open to the warm late afternoon sun, the horses had been perfectly curried, and were being fed for the night. Many had their heads poked out, checking out the new folks wandering into their yard. So many beautiful horses! And all but one were very sweet natured, allowing me to tickle the velvety spot between their nostrils that almost every horse I have ever known adores. I spent about 30 minutes here, going from stall to stall, speaking in French to horses that wouldn't understand English!

"Chips" was with us on a leash, and was bouncing about, impatient to get home and to his own dinner. So we made our way back. Monique offered us sparkling water "with gas" as they say here (C02 ), then we finally left for home. It was well after 6 PM when we left, and I sat down to start my blog early tonight since we will be going to Paris tomorrow.

I had only typed for about 30 minutes when Cathie rang the little bell she uses to call her family to dinner. DINNER??? Surely not....

You'll never believe it!

ESCARGOT! Snails!!!!

I think I'll fast for about a month when I get home!

Blessings and Peace from France-

I love and miss you all!