Saturday, May 30, 2009

I'm Finally Home (or am I....)

Hi everyone - I hope this message finds you all well.

I feel a bit like I've been around the globe lately - my recent adventures have taken me about half way around the globe and back. Not too bad in terms of frequent flier miles - not too good in terms of being away from Kate and the girls - what's a guy to do???

The fun started innocently enough. I was invited to a friend and colleague's wedding in Chicago that was to take place this past weekend. My friend Adam Wakefield and I worked side by side for five years at my previous employer and his now current wife Katie Sullivan Wakefield and I also shared time in the same pod (term for bank of desks in our offices). My plan was to make a quick Friday to Sunday trip from Paris to Chicago and back; never to miss any work because the previous Thursday was a Bank Holiday (love em!), the Friday was equal to our Friday-after-Thanksgiving, and I'd be back in the office by mid-Monday morning. Turns out, this wasn't meant to be. Another friend and colleague, Chris Strijbosch who lives in the Netherlands and works with me at Coyote, has never been to the US and also happens to be a big car racing fan. These facts combined with my company's desire to send Europeans to the US and Americans to Europe, along with the Indianapolis 500 falling on the same weekend as Adam's wedding, meant that my trip would now be extended.

Chris left Caen on Wednesday afternoon to fly out of Paris on Thursday - he worked in our Lake Forest IL office on Thursday afternoon and Friday. I left Caen on Thursday afternoon to fly out of Paris on Friday. My first stop was to Kim and Tom's house in Villa Park IL. Kim is Kate's sister (as you all already know by previous blogs, current relative status, or other means) and her husband Tom recently had some work done on his back. They were both home to meet me when I arrived on Friday afternoon fresh off my flight from Paris and packing a large tin of fois gras. Tom and I had some beers at 7-10 (yes, it's a bowling alley and bar referring to the seven - ten split), I gave some French candy to their kids Jordan and Cooper, and even hob-nobbed with both sets of neighbors. It was great to see everyone back on their own turf and it gave me great memories of the Sunday afternoons and evenings that Kate and I used to spend with Kim and Tom in years past. From their apartment in Wrigleyville, to the first condo on the West Side, to the house in Minneapolis, and at their current pad in Villa Park, Kate and I have spend what feels like a hundred days at Kim and Tom's eating, drinking, talking, playing with the kids, watching the kids grow up, etc, etc. I for one am sure that even though these days are fewer and further between that they are in no way over as they certainly can not be missed. Oh, and by the way, Tom was still able to rake dirt for a new garden and power wash his deck even though he was still hobbling from his run-in with the back doctor - I wish him the quickest of recoveries.

When my cell rang that Friday afternoon, it meant that my old friend Brian Miller was almost home from work and that I needed to hit the road for his place in a town nearby called Clarendon Hills. After a short drive I was pulling into his driveway and being greeted by his three beautiful girls and his wife Ann. The night at the Miller's couldn't have been better. It was great to see Olivia, Macey, and Ruby getting so big and Ann was amazed at how quickly they seemed to attach themselves to me. I'm sure it was the French candy, but I'll never tell. I also was able to swoon Brian and Ann with a tin of fois gras and luckily for me we cracked it open for an appetiser. It was a little hot from sitting in the trunk of the car - however - you can't beat any food that has "fattened duck liver - France" written on the tin. After the girls went to bed, it was time to get down to business. Brian and I cracked open some Bud Lights (what happened to Miller, my friend Miller???), we BBQed the ribs that Ann had pre-cooked, and the three of us sat down for an amazing meal. Unlike previous nights with Brian and Ann, this night was cut short at around 10.30pm - it seems that the bit of jet lag had caught up with me and I couldn't make it happen for any longer. The next morning was a quick home-made breakfast, some general hanging out, and my departure so that Brian could start spreading mulch and I could get downtown to get ready for the Saturday wedding.

After a short shopping spree at Nordstroms and a quick check-in to my hotel at the W City Center, I hopped in a cab and headed to the wedding on the West Side - not too far from UIC. A beautiful day, wonderful ceremony, historic church, and the reunion with some old friends made it a perfect afternoon. It got even better with some beers outside while waiting the 2 hour delay between the wedding and the reception (hey, a wedding party has to take some pictures sometime, right??). The rain stayed away and the reception went off without a hitch - you can see some lovely pictures above.

Even though I could have stayed to the end of the wedding and gone out until 4am that night, I had to hit the road around 9pm. The two main reasons were that Chris Strijbosch had also checked into the W City Center and we had a plan to meet up and also that we had a wake-up call for 5am so that we could head to Indianapolis the next morning. This is where the story connects - you see, Chris used to work as a mechanic on Formula 3 cars here in Eurpe (think of F1 / Formula 1 - it's 2 series below) and he also loves the Indy 500. Check out his picture above - he was a good sport when I told him that he had to bring along a black shirt and probably black pants too if he wanted to look hip in the W City Center. He told me that he hates black and never wears it - luckily for him the downtown Sears sold him a nice black button-down shirt with black dragons and eagles super-imposed all over along with a black pair of Lee jeans. When he walked into the lobby I thought I was meeting a Gold Coast Local as opposed to a guy from Venray NL (population 600). Just like the night before and like the wedding, this night ended kind of early because we had the impending 5am wake up time looming and a big day the next day.

Amazingly enough, Chris and I both woke up on time and were on the road by about 10 till 6 on Sunday. I forced him to bypass the junk coffee in the hotel lobby coffee pot and introduced him to Starbucks in Merrillville IN. Chris was amazed that I could drink my Venti Black Eye (extra large regular coffee with two shots of expresso poured in) before we hit the Indiana Beach and he was still drinking his at the Crawfordsville exit on 465. You see, in Europe, the coffees they drink are about two ounces - these are about ten times the size. Yes, everything in America is bigger. Our goal for that day was the Indy 500 car race - our parking place was a guy's lawn about a half a mile from the track ($20 even got us a bush to pee on) and tickets in turn one. We spent about an hour walking to the track, talking to random people, and hitting up scalpers to see what they had. We enede up buying tickets from a family of sorts (guy, girl, and two kids who all may or may not have been related) and headed into the race.

I'm 100% positive that my blogging will not do the day justice - all I can say is that I had one of the most amazing times of my life and I happen to be an American who has been to about 10 car races in recent history. Chris lives in a tiny town and has surely never seen anything like the Indy 500. Take that point and combine it with the 40 or so amazing people that we met and talked to throughout the day and you come to the assumption that he will be back next year. I really had fun with my friend and tried to introduce him to as big of a slice of America as I could in one afternoon. Even though the Dutch driver crashed a few times and came in 27th or something we really had an amazing time. After the race we spent almost two hours getting our way back to the car, spending most of the time stopping in people's front yards, businesses, and BBQs to say Hello and have a coversation about Holland (and anything else that came to mind). We spent the night and were heading back to Lake Forest by 10am the next day.

Two Memorial Day pic-nics later I was able to lay down for a quiet's night rest in a hotel just next to my company's main office in downtown Lake Forest. I spend a short day at the office on Tuesday and was at O'Hare by about 3pm so that Chris and I could head back to Europe. Our 9 hour flight was followed by a 4 hour drive to Venray NL which is the town where Chris lives and also where our Dutch office is located. Chris and I spent a short while meeting his wife, checking out his expansive gardins, watching his dogs run around, and even collecting eggs from two of his chickens. His wife let me pet one of the chickens too - amazingly, they are much more like a cat then I had ever imagined. Later that day I met everyone in his office, took them all out to dinner, and fell asleep in the 85th minute of the Barcelona - Man U Football (Soccer) match (Yes, Barcelona won....).

Some of you may remember the last time I was in Holland (The Netherlands [it's the same thing]), I had my car broken into and my GPS stolen. Well, this trip was a bit more forgiving. Chris and I had 2 meetings during a day that had seven hours of driving - after dropping him off I only had 4 more hours to drive to get back to Charles de Gaulle airport so I could return my rental car and take the train back to Caen. I would have been home that night, except I had to take a 30 minute nap on the side of the highway (because I kept driving off the side of the road) - that extra time meant that I missed the last train and had to spend the night at the aiport hotel. I made it in Caen after lunch on Friday, dropped off my bag, drove to the office, worked for a few hours, and then finally, finally made it back home.....

Wait a minute - what did I just say?? Did I make it back home???? OK, OK - yes, my home as I see it is in Crested Butte Colorado - and it always will be. That being said - I'm finally getting to have some sort of feeling that our apartment here in Caen is feeling a bit more like home every day. Each day, Kate, the Girls, and I all are starting to feel a bit more comefortable with our surroundings and are able to enjoy each day that much more. We are learning about and enjoying more and more about our little corner of the world each day. Just tonight, Kate and I tested out our first baby sitter and celebrated with a night on the town. You'll see by the pictures that amazing French food is alive and well in Caen. Even more amazing is that the GM, host, and sommilier of the restaurant knows Jeff Silver - the CEO of Coyote Logistics and my friend and colleague of 13 years. It really is a small world.....

I'm looking forward to two upcoming trips to Belgium in the coming weeks, visits by my parents, visits by Kate's parents, overseas trips by my colleagues in the US, all followed by our first trip back to Crested Butte in August. Assuming we can all survive a visit by Barack Obama to Caen next weekend, the Swine Flu, and the global auto crisis this summer will proove to be more amazing than we had ever hoped.

Best to all!


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 26, 2009: Who Says You Can't Go Home?

So yesterday I went to a local do-it-yourself store to buy some odds and ends.  When I left for the store, it was hot, humid and crazy sunny.  When I was walking around the store, I thought I heard thunder but then realized that was insane.  There was not a cloud in the sky when I came.  It must be something else making that noise.  But let me tell you, when I left that store, I knew it was thunder the whole time.  The sky was dumping buckets of water - I can't even fathom where all that water comes from!  I stood underneath the roof incline for about 15 minutes but eventually I just had to make a run for it.  The girls had to be picked up from school in half an hour.  I kept wishing that I ironically bought a plastic tarp so I could use it to protect my purchases. But no such luck. I had nothing to protect me or my cart and to top it off I had cleverly parked in the very last parking spot at the very back of the lot so as to have an easy entrance and exit with my CTA bus.  I walked (not ran) to my car in resignation.  I was soaked the minute I stepped foot out of roof's way.  Once I got past the initial frustration of being completely soaked, sliding around in my flip flops and the not-so-nice people who were not giving me the right of way as I tried to cross the olympic size pool parking lot, I was actually OK.  I resigned to the situation and voila! I told myself I was lucky to have a car and shelter and money to buy DIY items and it wasn't so bad anymore.  Even though I was still cold and shivering and my purchases were wilting...

This is one of those good/bad scenarios so hold on to your seats...

After I got home for the DIY store, I had just enough time to change my wet clothes and get to school to pick up the girls.  When I arrived at school, I saw the following sign posted in the entryway:

What I read the sign to say is that on the 18th of May, in the classes of Grace and Mia, nobody cried, nobody was calling for their mother and father.  The class was for once happy and content to be together.  Now, I am not 100% sure my translation of that sign is accurate, but it made me happy to think that 1) it isn't just Grace and Mia that are discontent at school at times and 2) that they might actually finally be happy in their classrooms.  So, even though my day was quite soggy until this point, I felt very happy after "reading" this sign.

Tonight I booked our plane tickets to go back to Crested Butte in August for three weeks.  I think the whole family is totally excited.  The girls are excited to go to Little Red Schoolhouse while we are home and do all the summer activities and see their friends. They also are thinking about what they can ship back to France as every day they mention something else at home that the wished they had here.  I can't wait to see my friends and actually get some time on my new mountain bike that is rusting in the garage as we speak!  And Andrew is probably the same - happy to hang with friends and get some mountain biking in and just be at home for a while.

As for the remainder of the week, tomorrow is a day off.  I think we will get together with a friend and her daughter for a play date.  Thursday is a field trip day for all three of the girls. Mia and Ella are visiting a farm and Grace is visiting a nature museum.  On Friday, Andrew will return home from his travels (which I will definitely have him guest blog about). Yay!  I am hoping to secure our new babysitter for Saturday night so Andrew and I can go out on the town.

Pictured above: The ridiculous rain that was falling and soaked me to the bone.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

May 24, 2009: Brace(let) Yourself

Today may have been one of the most beautiful days yet here in Normandy since arriving in February.  The skies were blue with few clouds, the temperature was very comfortable at around 70 and there was no wind to be felt.  After having spent what feels like most of the past 4 days inside we needed a good hearty day in the outdoors.  

Grace and Ella have been so sick lately with flus of all kinds and I am not sure what it is about France that is bringing this about.  Regardless, I took this long school break to keep them relatively low key and well rested and see if I could get these bugs out of them.  The bad part about staying low key is the drive-me-nuts factor of staying indoors.  And I am sure the same goes for the girls.

We decided to head to Arromanches today.  Arromanches is the location of "Port Winston", which was an artificial harbor built to bring in supplies and protect the landings of millions of soldiers during June 1944.  I had heard about the remnants of this harbor just lingering in the water and the tides quick move and had wanted to see it for myself.  So we set off around 10:45 a.m., after a long session of hama bead crafting, and arrived in Arromanches around 11:30 a.m.  We grabbed a quick bite for lunch and then started to walk along the beach and visiting various sites set up along the town.  There was a big tank, some historic artillery, stories of the artificial harbor's conception and the best part for sure was the train ride around the village.  There was a 360 degree cinema of the story of Arromanches and a museum but I know way better than to take three young children into these types of cinemas or any museum that doesn't have flashing disco lights and huge cartoons jumping off the walls.  So unfortunately I don't really get to see these types of historical bits.  But the good news is that when visitors come, and they want to see the D-Day beaches of Normandy, I will be able to see the museums for the first time just like them. In the meantime, I just do my tutorials of history on the internet.

Around 3:oo p.m. we were ready for some tasty ice cream and then a trip to a park we had seen. This took us until 4:45 p.m. and after lots of nagging I finally got the girls in the car to come home.  They just had so much fun today because they were feeling better (right now, I hear Mia coughing...she must be next in line for sickness), the weather was great and there was plenty to keep them occupied and happy.

Now, let's revisit my blog from yesterday where I stated that I was going to don a bracelet to help me keep my "no" quota in check.  I still have this bracelet on because it really has helped in many ways with the kids.  For instance, I rethink the reason I might be saying "no" before I say it and it has reminded me to be more light-hearted and upbeat instead of frustrated throughout the day.  So overall this bracelet has been a good idea.  It will remain on my wrist for the next few days.  And I can see how this may even help in other ways in my life - not the "bracelet" so much but a constant, visable reminder of a goal you are trying to achieve but can easily forget if not reminded about it always and often.  Try it yourself!

This coming week includes a field trip to a farm for Grace and Ella and I will accompany.  I also plan to look into taking French classes at the local university this coming fall.  Something for the girls to do this summer - some kind of activity or classes  - is also a priority.  Lastly, the babysitter I met on Saturday was too cute and sweet and just perfect for the girls.  They already invited her to come back to Colorado with them.  So I will try to find a way to get her back this week.  Now I just need to find something to do myself with Andrew out of town!

Pictured Above: Grace, Mia and Ella looking out over Arromanches; A song about Arromanches that is posted largely in the village; the last three are pictures of the girls dressing up in their new Disney costumes during the many days of staying and playing inside.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

May 23, 2009: Date Night - Can It Be Saved?

Yesterday's adventure was a day-long trip to the beach in Ouistreham.  The port in Ouistreham, which is right next to the beach, is where you would catch a car/person ferry to the United Kingdom.  This beach is also known as the place where the Free French Forces landed on June 6, 1944.  The girls and I didn't discover any historical points of the town yesterday, such as a huge bunker that still exists in the middle of the city.  Instead we just headed straight for the sunny day at the beach.  

I did discover through a little research that there is a movie called The Longest Day that is all about D-Day and includes a feature of the assault on Ouistreham.  If possible I am going to try and see this movie. After visiting many of the D-Day landing sites and museums, I am very interested in learning more about World War II.  I never thought I would be saying this!  If you asked me 25 years ago if I wanted to know more about World War II or D-Day I most certainly would have told you no thank you.  

So, back to the beach.  I thought this beach was the best one yet in terms of play area, sun bathing and nice sand.  There was tons of beach space  - so much in fact that the girls wanted to plop down and start playing long before we ever got to the coast line.  Maybe next time we will see the actual water...  We arrived shortly before 11:00 a.m. and the beach was pretty bare.  Fast forward to 4:00 p.m. when we left the beach and it was stuffed with people!  The boardwalk, the beach, the little amusement area - full of people.   So I was glad we arrived early and were able to find a great parking spot right next to the beach.

Right next to the beach are tons of little attractions.  Mini-golf, a bungee jumper for little kids, go-carts, a carousel, a bouncy ride, and of course ice cream, food and a pointless 2-5 Euro toy stand.  The casino is also right next door but fortunately the girls are a few years away from being allowed to sink away their saved Euros in the slots.  

We spent about 5 hours at the beach.  I packed a picnic, blankets and came properly prepared this time with three sets of the exact same buckets, shovels and rakes so there was no fighting over who gets what sand toys.  That worked really well - the girls were very happy to have their own set of toys and it helped avoid a lot of arguments.  Now, I am concerned about having to buy three of everything for the rest of their lives. Think 16th birthday and cars = big trouble is brewing.  

The day was sunny and warm for the most part.  Very sunny skies but there are breezes that cool the air.  The girls were happy in their short sleeve shirts and pants all day long.  I myself wore a sweater and jeans and was chilly at times.  It's funny to think about how we head to the beach now to play just as a diversion - even when the weather is not ideal for swimming orbathing suits.  In the past, we probably wouldn't have bothered.  Now I wonder, why NOT go to the beach?  Who says you have to be slathered in Bain de Soleil to enjoy it?  I was equipped with my US magazines and the girls had buckets with shovels that did us just fine.

From a personal standpoint, yesterday was a tough day for me.  I felt like/have felt like I answer NO to 95% of anything the girls ask me.  And I see that the whining becomes worse and worse the more I say NO to the girls.  Some things are legitimate that should receive a NO such as, "Can I have just cookies for lunch?" or "Mom, can I use your shoes as buckets for collecting sand?".  But other questions, if I just loosened up a bit, could be a YES instead of a NO such as, "Can we ride the carousel when we leave?" or "Can we use this blanket to roll around in the sand?".   The more I say NO the more the girls become agitated, the more I become agitated with their actions and then a happy day turns to yucky for everyone.  So today, I have decided to be more aware of saying NO and raising my voice or talking in a frustrated voice.  Yesterday I just felt awful at the end of it all.  Tired and frustrated and perplexed at motherhood!  Maybe it's just me?

So, today I am trying an old well-known approach to help with my current mommy problem.  I  have tied a string around my wrist and it's significance is to remind me to think twice before I say NO.  It is also to help remind me to not get frustrated and think twice before I react - can I avert this frustrating situation by suggesting an alternate activity or by diverting their attention in another direction?  So far, so good.  I have already questioned how I respond. For instance, as I am typing this, Grace came up to me and asked if the could have some chocolates that she noticed in the kitchen.  I had told her and Mia and Ella earlier that we could have one as a treat after dinner tonight.  But she is coming up and asking me at 10:00 a.m. in the morning for a "few" chocolates right now because she says she is hungry.  I reminded her of our agreement to have one after dinner and the whining commenced immediately.  I thought twice about it and I still feel NO was the right answer because candy in the middle of the morning, right after breakfast, just is not necessary.  But if I continue to think of the reasons I say NO throughout the day - maybe the result will be better.  I'll let you know!

This afternoon I have a babysitter coming over for a trial run. She was referred to me by a new friend.  Her family is from New Zealand and lives here in Caen.  An english-speaking babysitter was key for me to find so I am hoping this works out well.  We'll probably visit with her for awhile and then I will let her watch the girls while I run to the store and maybe workout.  Cross your fingers - maybe date night will be revived for Andrew and I!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 20, 2009: From Company Feast to Company Famine

Sorry for the delay since my last blog!  My sister was here and I was not about to waste a single moment of the day or night sitting in front of the computer.  She just left yesterday afternoon and I have heard back that it was a VERY long day for her, but she got home just fine. And with possible strep throat as a going away present and a husband who is fresh out of back surgery. Sorry, Kim!!!

It was really awesome having Kim here.  She was both a great diversion to the every day and also a touch of normal that was needed in the every day.  The girls couldn't wait to show her everything.  Their teachers knew their aunt was coming and even the teachers were excited to see the girls excited.  I myself had a friend that I could just talk to about anything and everything (I probably talked her ear off!) that you typically don't expect an audience of 4 and 5 year olds to give two Care Bears about.

We visited that lovely Chateau de Balleroy and had lunch on the Drome river.  We went to the American Military Cemetary in Colleville-sur-Mer.  We received a personal tour of Bayeux from a friend who grew up there.  We visited the many parks and gardens around Caen.  We managed to throw a last minute dinner party together on Sunday with relatively few groceries (stores are closed on Sundays).  I must say it was quite a success!  Our parents should be happy that Kim has her RHI background from Purdue and we both have our 4-H creativity in check at all times. And finally we ended her trip by taking the train to Paris and spending a day and night touring the city by foot and Metro.

Paris was a great idea.  We found a hotel on that turned out to be just perfect.  It was called the Hotel Mayfair. It had a great location by the Tuileries Metro and was across from the Jardin Tulleries.  My favorite part about the hotel was how quiet it was all day and night.  I think the kids missing had something to do with the quiet.   And it was clean and the room (#68) that we had was spacious.  Great find at the last minute!

Kim and I were a little rusty at first (or maybe just me) with reading big city maps and train schedules but before we knew it we were zooming around Paris.  We managed to see quite a bit in just 6 hours.  The Jardin des Tuileries, the Eiffel Tower, a boat tour up and down the Seine River, the Place de la Concorde, the Grand Palais and just a glimpse of the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe.  Despite our comfy shoes, which we patted ourselves on the back for a few times that day, we still were quite tired after all the walking.  We took a nice long nap around 5pm and then got ready to go out to dinner.  Our concierge recommended Pinxo, a nearby restaurant in walking distance.  The dinner was really tasty as well as very numerical. Numerical, you ask?  How can a dinner be numerical?  Well, I will let you find out on your next trip to Paris!  I don't want to spoil it.  

The next morning Kim and I got up and had breakfast at the hotel.  Unfortunately, she also woke up with the makings of a sore throat which she quite possibly contracted from two other shorter residents at our apartment.  It seems she was able to evade the stomach flu but not sickness altogether!  After breakfast, Kim got a taxi to the airport and I took a short walk around Paris before my train-ride back to Caen.  I walked up the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and then began my Metro rides back to the Saint Lazar train station.

I highly recommend the train ride as opposed to driving from Caen-Paris and back.  The train ride is just 2 hours, very comfortable (not sure about 2nd class as I took 1st) and provides a great opportunity to get in a nice nap or a couple of chapters read in your favorite book you haven't had the time pick up the last few weeks or years.  Personally, I played Scrabble on my iPhone. Addicting!

Well, now my big sis is gone.  Bittersweet, really.  It was great to have her company but awful to see her go!  She'll be back in July with her sons Cooper (almost 4) and Jordan (6) and time will pass by quickly with a visit from my parents and Andrew's mom in June/July.

Today is Thursday and is also another public holiday here in France which means no school.  Grace and Ella have coughs, sore throats and ear aches so we are pretty homebound for the foreseeable future. For some miraculous reason, they don't seem to be waning in energy as the messes, fights and rate at which toys are being used has not slowed down!

Tonight, Andrew leaves for Chicago, then Indianapolis and then Belgium and some other country.  He doesn't return until next Friday!  Honestly, I am bummed.  I went from tons of company with my sister to no company with Andrew leaving.  And though our little adventures are fun as a family, they become much more difficult when it is just me and I start to lose daily creativity and momentum.  And I miss adult interaction and  the help around the house.  And the girls miss their daddy as well and their old house so they get sad.  Oh well, this time shall pass and Andrew will be back before we know it.  So, I am going to buck up and just get on with it already!

Tomorrow there is also no school.  With Andrew gone, if the girls are feeling better, I may take them to a nearby chateau that has pretty gardens for our daily fieldtrip.  Or maybe the beach.  Stay tuned!

Pictured above: Kim and I in front of the Eiffel Tower, Kim sitting in front of the many fountains in the Jardin des Tuileries, Bayeux, the amuse-bouch presented at the "numerical" restaurant Pinxo.

Friday, May 15, 2009

So What's It REALLY Like?

Kim guest-blogging here. Isn't the burning question everyone wants to know this: "Is it really that great for the Haverkampfs in Caen?"? I came here to visit with Kate, Andy and the girlies; but also to scope out the 'story beneath the story'. So ... allow me to share my observations thus far.

1) Caen is much bigger than Kate initially described it to be. Her earlier blogs pretty much showed how much (or how little much) she had ventured out when she first started blogging. Just so no one is surprised when you come visit (and you all MUST COME VISIT), it's probably the size of Indy. I envisioned this small little French town that has a few restaurants, a couple of markets and a nice place for pastries. Um, not so much.  Let's just say Kate took me to a little nook over at the other end of 'the castle' (William the Conqueror's that is) and it had no less than 15 - 20 of them. The choices are endless. Lucky for Tom, we haven't done any shopping yet; but there are more places to shop for clothes and shoes than in the Mall of America.

2) The noise isn't as bad as Andrew says. Well, that's coming from a girl who has airplanes flying over-head; but so far, so good from the light sleeper. The first night I did sleep like I haven't since having kids; but awoke around 6am to the cooing of pigeons. Ear plugs perfectly address that issue. The second night I did not sleep as soundly; but that's normal for me. I was bewildered as to why Kate kept 0pening and closing doors last night; but then realized it's the movie theater next door letting out. Nothing a little Bordeaux can't fix - no ear plugs necessary. 

3) Ella, Grace and Mia are doing GREAT! When I first arrived, I asked Ella how many words she knew in French. She said she thought about twenty. Not - even - close! Tonight I played stupid and was asking her what the French words were for many things - breakfast, lunch, dinner, feet, head, nose, you name it I asked it. She knew it. What she didn't know, I opened up my French-English book and she even read the French translation for the English word. So - not only is she speaking and understanding, she is reading. Grace and Mia thoughtlessly sing French songs they sing in school and say Oui! instead of Yes! without even thinking. And - how can a child be bad if they like playing at 'the castle' (refer back to #1).

4) Kate and Andrew are doing GREAT! Kate has settled into being a full time mom so much that I can't even imagine how she's fit salaried work in. Here's an example - her freezer is empty. How many of you back in the States can say your freezers are empty? I would bet my next paycheck the answer is none. You may ask why; but the answer becomes clear (WHEN YOU COME VISIT). There's no need to buy in bulk or buy frozen. You wouldn't even want to. The fresh pastries, meats, breads, fruits, vegetables are there for the taking. When Kate says she shops every day or every two days she means it. It's all on the way to/from the girls' school and around the corner from their apartment. No driving to the grocery store, no clipping coupons, no pre-fab, fast-frozen, corporate-owned stores. It's amazing. We bought two types of fois gras as appetizers tonight that would have cost upwards of $20 at home. It was 5.20 Euro. 

5) There ain't no real French food in Chicago. Ok, so I've only been here since Wednesday; but I have not seen a menu with Steak and Pomme Frites yet. I have to be honest and say that when I go to French restaurants at home I'm not all that excited because I don't like what I see. Apparently that's because I haven't had French food before. Maybe it's because I'm in Normandy and not in Paris, so just another reason to COME VISIT. You read about our amazing lunch yesterday which admittedly isn't typical fare; but I have yet to have difficulty finding something to order. I usually hope Kate orders what I didn't order so I can try it. 

Kate and I visited the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach today. It's one of the famous D-Day landings. The weather was crappy; but as Kate mentioned, you can't let it stop you. (If I did, I wouldn't have run on a horse-race track this morning!) It's an amazing place to visit and makes you so proud to be an American. 

Tomorrow brings us some leisure time with the girls, hopefully less rain, and a BBQ later at one of Kate's friend's homes. 

Pictured above: American Cemetery and the girls after school playing red-light green-light.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

May 14, 2009: Follow the Stars (Michelin stars, that is)

What a fun time we have had with my sister!  Kim arrived yesterday morning into Paris from Chicago.  She took the train to Caen and Andrew picked her up from the train station and brought her back to our apartment.  We had a great family lunch together.  Kim then unpacked some great surprises for the girls - toys, scarves that were sent from their Great-Grandma Anderson, and best of all old sporting and club outfits of ours.  The girls were dancing around in colorful scarves, Ella was doing gymnastics in my old gymnastics uniform and she was doing cheerleading in Kim's old cheerleading uniform.  Quite fun!  

After Andrew left to go back to work following lunch, the girls and I took Kim out for a mini-tour of Caen.  I knew the key to beating her jet lag was to keep her up until bedtime.   So I walked her around Caen for about 4 hours, making stops at parks here and there for the girls to play.  We arrived back at the apartment around 4:30 and she took a shower to revive.  We managed to keep her up until 9ish and she reported this morning that she slept like a log - the hardest she has slept her whole life - until 6am!  Mission accomplished.

Today, after I dropped the girls off at school, I came back to the apartment to pick up Kim. We grabbed some coffee and almond croissants and then headed off to see a chateau.  The weather was pretty awful - rainy and cloudy and humid.  But if people let the weather stop their lives here in France, the place would come to a halt!  So on we went.  We arrived at the Chateau de Balleroy around 10:15am.  I chose this chateau for a few reasons. First, I have never seen it so Kim and I could discover something new together.  Two, it is relatively close to Caen being only 30 minutes drive.  And three, many people have recommended this chateau.  I think the most interesting thing about this chateau is that it one of the rare buildings that were not destroyed during World War II.  As a matter fact, it remained in wonderful condition.  The current owners of the chateau are the Forbes family - of Forbes Magazine - since 1970.  Malcolm Forbes was a hot-air balloon enthusiast as well as a flyer of those balloons.  That is why there is also a hot-air balloon museum located on the property of this chateau.  Kim and I really enjoyed the tour and walking the grounds.  It is an impeccably preserved chateau that we thought was also cool because the Forbes family comes and stays at this historic chateau many times per year. Can you imagine staying in such history?

After the tour, I took a look in my guide book to see if there were any restaurants recommended that were located in walking distance by this chateau.  You won't believe the gastronomic experience we had between the hours of 12:00pm - 3:30pm today!  It was truly divine.  The restaurant was called Manior de la Drome.  After a closer look at the description in my guidebook after arriving at what seemed to be quite a fancy establishment and menu, we discovered this was a Michelin-starred restaurant.  We decided to go for it if this place was actually open.  It turned out it was open and Kim and I dined for about 3.5 hours, course after delicious course, sipping tasty wine and catching up.  It was a surprising yet very pleasant meal and well worth the splurge! The restaurant has an outdoor patio with blooming flowers, a small pond with koi and it sits on the River Drome.  We took a small stroll out there before heading back to the car.  Our waiter was very nice and fun and made us feel very welcome.  What a treat the afternoon was!  We arrived back at home just in time to pick the girls up from school.

Tonight we hung out at home.  We let the girls play dress up and dance around for us - something I think they would do for 2 weeks straight if we never made them go to sleep!  I know they had fun with their Aunt Kim, showing off their moves, cuddling with her on the couch.

Just when Andrew was putting the girls to bed, Kim and I left to grab a drink and maybe dinner somewhere close by.  We ended up at Chez Patoch and were so stuffed by the time we left.  Our meals were so tasty, the atmosphere was fun and friendly, and now we have just arrived back home stuffed to the gills and very tired!

Tomorrow we plan to go for a run after we drop the girls off at school.  After that we will head up to some of the Normandy Beaches to see some history about the D-Day landings and maybe eventually head to a casino later in the evening!  Fun times.  I love having my sister here!  I'll keep you posted on our adventures, but for now I have to sleep.  Too much fun today ; )

Pictured above: Chateau de Balleroy; the chateau's gardens; Kim and I after our fance lunch at Manior de la Drome; Ella in Kim's old cheerleading uniform; the girls putting on a dance performance.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 12, 2009: My Cooking Makes You Sick? Phew!

Just when you think the flu has comes back and in harsher appearance just so you don't ever doubt it's strength, again.  Yep, Ella had the stomach flu last week. She woke up with it very early Thursday morning and I stayed up with her through those early hours as she puked and made visits to the toilet.  It's funny though.  All the while as she is getting sick, she still sees a ray of sunshine in the fact that I let her sleep on the couch and I slept on the couch, too.  She is shivery and pale and unable to hold down water, yet she is thanking me for letting her sleep on the couch.  I sure wish I was that easy to please when I am sick!

Anyway, just about 1 hour ago, Grace came out of bed to inform us that she was about to throw up.  So I got her to the bathroom just in time and sure enough, she got very sick.  When I informed the school's secretary last week that Ella was sick with the stomach flu and wouldn't be at school on Thursday, she reported that it was going around the school.  But I seriously thought that the flu would have been eradicated by now.  So, now Grace has it and I am praying that Mia does not get it next but I really have no idea how she won't get it.  The worst part of this (yes, the girls being sick is bad for them and I feel awful) is that my sister is arriving tomorrow.  She is leaving her sons Jordan and Cooper in Chicago, taking time off from her job, leaving her husband, the comforts of home, to fly across the world to come visit her little sister.  And she comes all this way to come to a flu-infested home?  What if she gets here and I have to stay home all day with a sick child and she doesn't get to see or experience Caen?  Worse yet, what if SHE gets the flu and she has flown all the way here just to be sick?  Or what if I get the flu and I am a big downer?   So many variables, yet I am hoping for the best outcome.  That the reason Grace threw up tonight was for the reason that she stated when Andrew asked her why she was sick. She said, "The french toast at dinner was not so good."  I don't typically like the dinner's I make to be criticized by the eaters, but in this case I will take all credit for a bad meal if it means a nice, healthy visit with my sister.

Around noon tomorrow, my sister should arrive on the train from Paris into Caen. I am absolutely thrilled that she is coming (can you tell?) as she is my first family member to come visit us in France.  All that I am perplexed about is what to choose about where to take her to visit, what restaurants to narrow down, what shopping to fit in during the trip.  We only have 5 days and there are about 700 days worth of things to do and she probably wants to relax a bit, so the math is hard here.  I can't wait to share how things go and what we do!  No matter what, you can be sure it will be another adventure.

Pictured above: My sister Kim and me; Grace at a moment of car-sickness.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

May 10, 2009: A Mother's Day

First of all, Happy Mother's Day to all of you moms out there!  I hope you all had great days that had at least one, even small, gesture of appreciation for the great work you do.  Now I am no fool and neither are you.  You know that some days, you feel unappreciated, undervalued, overlooked and overexposed.  And even though today is Mother's Day, it doesn't mean that your favorite band was booked for a private performance, a gourmet meal was made for you or you got a day to yourself at the spa.  You may have only gotten a Happy Mother's Day and a hug but believe me. No matter the size of the celebration  you are appreciated so much!  Mothers around the world unite today in a universal hug of understanding.  So great job, mommies!!!

My day happened to start out great.  I was allowed to sleep in.  This has become my unstated gift each Mothers Day.  I know when I go to sleep the night before that I will get to sleep in the next day.  Why is this so great?  Mostly because since I was born I have been a go-to-bed-late and a get-up-late person.  And even a go-to-bed-early and get-up-late person.  Andrew has been a go-to-bed-early and get-up-early person and a go-to-bed-late and a get-up-early person. Over the years I have adapted pretty well to getting up early.  I mean I still hit the snooze button if I can sneek a few more minutes and that drives Andrew CRAZY!  But all in all, I get up way earlier every single day then I would ever choose.  So, this makes getting to sleep in on Mother's Day a very sweet treat.  And each year, it get's better and better for some reason.  Today was by far the best sleep in ever.  I woke up feeling refreshed and relaxed!

Following my 9:30 a.m. wake up (by choice, mind you) I was presented with a lovely necklace by the girls and a really cute card.  Andrew did a great job preparing a special gift for me with the girls.  For some reason, today feels like my first real Mother's Day.  I know I have been a mother for almost 6 years now but today is a celebration at a whole different level.  Up until 5 years ago I was working full-time, traveling for work, leaning on my husband and family and nanny and babysitters for support.  And that was all fine.  But when it came to Mother's Day, I felt like the most thanks should be going to my nanny.  She was a brilliant caregiver and pseudo mother to my children and on Mother's Day I really wanted to give her a cake and a trip to the spa - she basically nurtured my children and gave them hugs and kisses and naps 85% of their lives.  Then we moved to Colorado and had to part ways with our family and nanny and babysitters and that was hard.  But I was still working full-time and traveling for work and the girls were either at kindergarten or daycare or with Andrew.  Then, Andrew basically was in Caen, France for 3 months, I had quit my job and I was caring for the girls full time and tending to their daily needs.  Finally, we moved to France and while Andrew has been our biggest support while living here, I now see myself as the "nanny" of our children, helping them navigate their way through a challenging and sometimes difficult life in a new country.  Months of walking the girls to and from school, buying our groceries for meals, doing our laundry, doing the ironing, doing the dishes, cleaning our house, taking the girls on adventures on Wednesdays - all these things have made me feel like I have personally earned my Mother's Day celebration.  Please don't get me wrong!  I loved working, I love working and I support all of you moms that make either choice to work or stay home.  It's just that today, based on my life experiences, I feel truly able to celebrate being a mother unlike any other year prior.  Like I have earned my "badge" so to speak.  And I am proud!  

I'll bet that each of you have those years - at least I am hoping you do.  I know some days I don't feel like I deserve the mother of the year award but other days I think I would be a pretty good contender.  But isn't it all worth it when your child(ren) give you a great big hug and kiss and say they love you?  Unexpectedly, to boot!

Good job, mommies.  And don't forget how much the daddies help to make your family so great.  Let them "sleep in" or whatever it is they way on Father's Day.

Pictured above: The girls and I standing in front of a historic Chateau in Suisse Normande today.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

May 9, 2009: Monkey Business

Well, today was a fun adventure.  We went to a park in the Suisse Normande area which is known for it's hills and "mountains" and hikes through green valleys.  The park we choose was called Orne Adventure located in Roche d'Oetre.  Specifically, the park is known for it's ropes courses that swing you through trees!  The lowest age limit was 5 years old so Grace and Mia and I watched as Ella and Andrew took some quick lessons and then were off like monkeys!  Ella had so much fun.  I was amazed how quickly she learned to hook and unhook her clips and all the other rules you have to follow to make sure you stay safe up in the trees.  Grace and Mia were very jealous but they did really well being patient and watching.  After Ella and Andrew did the two lower level courses, we sat down to a picnic.  From there we watched Andrew do his ropes course. It takes a lot of courage to get way high up and use your balance and keep your cool and he did really great!  Mind you, I have never seen Andrew really afraid of anything until today.  He was truly afraid of some of those stunts but I knew he loved being afraid of it!  Next time I will definitely go, too.  There is another park similar to this that has stuff for 3 years and up so we can all participate if we head there next time.  All in all, a fun day!

Tonight, I am happy to report that I made my first loaf of bread here in France.  NOW I finally feel like I am home!  I also made some rhubarb crumble and some roasted chicken so we had a tasty dinner.  Now all of us can't wait to wake up tomorrow morning and have sliced homemade bread for breakfast.  Just like back in Colorado!

Just 4 more days until my sister Kim arrives to visit here in Caen.  I can't wait!!! 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Vive la France...

Hi - it's Andrew and I'm contently sitting by the computer on the eve of our 2nd Bank Holiday of May. You see, in Europe, they have about 16 Bank Holidays (equal to our 4th of July etc). There are 3 in May alone - the 1st Friday, the 2nd Friday, and the last Thursday (prompting a Thanksgiving like Friday after "bridge" day off as well) all being holidays. What's an ex-pat family to do anyway? Road trips - what else?

In the US, many times you have to drive hours and hours until you get to see what you want to see. Why do you think it is that 90% of Chicagoans have never see the Mississippi river? Well, it's 4 hours away (and it's just a river to boot). Here in Normandy we can drive about an hour or so in any direction and be in completely different worlds. Last week, on Thursday evening, Kate and the girls came to pick me up at the office. Yes, it's true, I really wanted to show the girls off to my colleagues - the kids really can be cute from time to time (and so can Kate). The real reason was the start of our Bank Holiday road trip.

We started off with an hour drive to Etretat - this is an amazing little town just past Le Havre right on the English Channel. The cool thing about it is that the town juts right up to the water and directly on the right and on the left are these steep cliffs and you can climb right up them. On the water are beatutiful rock arches that are very similar to Arches National Park back in the US. Being in that there were no Holiday Inns nearby we ended up staying in a "guest house" - yes - literally a person's version of their own hotel. It was really cool - very Andy Warhol type decorations in the room, a 400 year old building, about ten rooms, and even a home-made breakfast the next morning. We definitely realized that the girls haven't learned their "inside voices" yet as we're sure we could be heard all night long by our fellow travelers - but it was all forgotten by freshly baked fresh croissants, local yougert, and double expressos for breakfast.

The next morning we headed to the beach after breakfast. Don't get me wrong - this is the pebble and rock type beach (as opposed to sand) and the weather was misty/raining, cloudy, and pushing about 50 degrees. Luckily the kids didn't care and neither did Kate and I. We spent some time wandering around and ultimately headed for one of the hikes up the cliffs. You could either go to the right or the left - we picked right and headed off. Check out the pictures above to see the amazing views.

The next few days were filled with lots of tiny towns, small walks and hikes, lots of eaten-out meals, wine/beer/hot chocolate, and 400 year old hotels. We went to churches, castles, beaches, and watched fish get their heads cutt off and guts pulled out by sales women next to the beach. My favorite question of the week-end was from Grace - it went like this: We watched an old lady order a half of a Stingray type fish from a vendor by the beach - the vendor pulls out this saw type knife and proceeds to saw this completely alive fish right in half - the guts were going everywhere and the fish was flopping around. The guts went into the bucket by the side and half of a fish was put into a recycled plastic grocery bag for the old lady. As she walks away, Grace asks me "is the fish dead now?" - um, yes honey, you just pictured the food chain in action....

On our last day we stopped by a zoo. Taken in the context of the usual US zoo, I would expect the usual "boooorrrriinnnngggg" response from any reader. However, this was no usual zoo. This was someone's old house (well, mansion, manor, chateau, or whatever). The previous owner loved birds, filled the place with about two thousand ducks, let his monkeys and peacocks wander freely, and basically created the anti-US zoo as it relates to the cement and glass structures we Americans seem to erect. In France at least, they seem to think that a string around the monkey island really is sufficient to keep the monkeys from escaping. Amazingly enough, they seem to be right...

As Kate mentioned in the last post, there were definitely times when we were prepared to give up on this road trip. In fact, that you are reading this means that I'm at home now (another Thursday night eve of a Bank Holiday), and that we have not yet set off on our next adventure (although I'm holding out my hopes for one to start tomorrow). Anyway - the point is that it is tough to drive all around, deal with car seats, restaurant eating, hotel sleeping, long drives (30 minutes, c'mon), and the rest - but - it won't stop us. We know that the day will come when we return to CB and the last thing I want to do is leave with regrets. The fact that I can have lunch with my wife and kids in a restaurant that is older than all of America is a bit hard to even get my brains around. I'm only able to get past it by popping another blob of fois gras in my mouth, having a sip of wine, and dreaming of the mountains to which we will soon return....

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5, 2009: Life is an Adventure

One of the many great perks of living in a rather small foreign country that is surrounded by thousands of historical and beautiful locations is that you can see something significant and new as often as you desire.  One of the downfalls of living in a rather small foreign country, as employed ex-patriates in a collapsing economy, is that it could all come to a close quicker than you can say fermer (pronounced 'fair-may' which is the French verb that means 'to close')!  The latter is the reason we go on these big weekend road trips and adventures.  We know that this unique situation won't last forever so we are taking full advantage.  Getting it while it's hot, so to speak.  

It wouldn't surprise me if we have traveled to more French tourist sites in the past three months than a typical French family does in ten years.  But, the difference is obvious.  They think they have all the time in the world to go see the Eiffel Tower!  I share this with you because these grand adventures are not how our family typically, "rolls" back in the United States.  Before France, when living in Chicago and Colorado, we would have been pretty content to stay around the house and enjoy the local parks, activities, friends and house chores on our days off.  Rarely would we plan a trip to see a new national park, monument or take a tour.  Personally, the reason for my local attachment is the ease and predictability, which I find comforting with three small children.  You know, less hassle in packing up the car, less concentrated amounts of whining, ability to put the kids down for naps with ease, etc... When we were living in the Chicago-area, even a road trip to St. Charles was dreaded.  Obviously, we wanted to see our dear friends, but the length of the drive sometimes was not welcomed and for the same reasons mentioned above.

So what am I getting at?  Good question.  It took me a while to get my point myself!  But here it is.  I won't be the same person when I get back to the United States.  Andrew, me, our children - none of us will be the same.  When I say we won't be the same, I mean about life and living and the day to day.   Instead of staying around home every weekend, the easiest and safest option, we as a family will be much more inclined to take more trips to go visit friends in Denver or Boulder or Steamboat, go see a tourist attraction, attend a festival in another city or state, go camping at the last minute.  I laugh when I think about all the interesting things (and yes, there are some!) that I haven't seen in Indiana and Illinois after all my years of growing up in those areas.  And after one year of living in Colorado, my family and I certainly could have seen more.  So we have decided that when we return to the United States, we are selling our house, buying an R.V. and driving around for the rest of our lives while homeschooling the girls in the R.V.  JUST KIDDING!!! No seriously, I just know we will be more adventurous and make the decision to just go instead of just stay.  One thing I have learned is that if you take the steps to make the effort, you almost always never regret it.

Now, here is why I am blogging about this topic.  I was trying to think of where to start, what to say about last weekends four day road trip.  There certainly were some ups and downs.  There were times when Andrew and I wanted to just turn around and head back home, times when we threatened the girls that we would head back home.  We battle car sickness, fighting, whining, non-listeners, loud outbursts in quiet places, temper tantrums, bad manners in nice restaurants, loud hotel rooms.  Any one of those things in large doses will drive parents up the wall, much less all of those things combined.  But a day later, with a really bad day put behind us and a new, fresh day ahead, Andrew and I were in the front seat driving to our next adventure and reconciling our thoughts about the previous day's craziness.  First we discussed the possibility that all three of our children have medical problems that have previously been missed at routine physicals. It's the only explanation for their obnoxious behavior!  Then we agreed that was probably not the case so we looked for another answer.  And collectively we decided that it just might be that our poor kids probably don't know up from down, right from left, wrong from right due to all the changes we constantly put them through.  They don't know how to act in what situations because the situation is always changing.  I can jump on the couch at home, why can't I jump on the couch in this lovely seating area at the hotel?  I play tug of war with my sisters at home and the park, why can't we have a raucous tug of war with our coat in the middle of a quiet, pristine chateau?  Our dinner never lasts 1.5 hours at home, how can you expect me to sit still for that long at a restaurant?  This must be the case for all children but Andrew and I finally realized and their crazy behavior is not all their fault.  Ella, Grace and Mia simply don't get how to modify their actions and behavior in a constantly changing environment and they become extremely frustrated with always choosing the wrong "answer".  Andrew and I also realized that we spend more concentrated time together than we ever have, probably even more than most families, due to our weekend adventures of hours driving in the same car, sharing the same hotel room and eating three to five meals a day together.  So we are getting a more concentrated dose of children's not-so-pretty behavior than ever before.

At the end of the day, Andrew and I came out of the weekend agreeing that we are ready to conquer yet another.  Since we now understand what we think are the reasons for the kids' ill behaviors, we are now better prepared to handle these days. We'll try to prevent the issues before they occur or we'll be more patient and less frustrated knowing that maybe they just don't know what to do or how to act.  And most importantly we won't let any of this prevent the whole family from continuing to see new things and go on grand adventures - in France or back in Colorado.  Because in time it won't be these irritating childhood behaviors that we'll remember but rather we'll remember the beautiful castle or monstrous alabaster cliffs.

I urge you to get out there, too!  You won't regret it.  See sites with the family.  Take an overnight trip and get a hotel room or rent a camp site that is just an hour away.  Stay and enjoy your surroundings instead of rushing back home!  Stay in a hotel room that isn't as nice as you would typically stay in to help you save money.  If you keep yourselves going all day long, the whole family will pass out and you won't notice if the stationary says Super 8 or Hilton.  Trust me, I used to be the Hilton person but now I am the whatever works person!  Just in case you need some help or need motivation to plan your next family adventure, I provided some websites to get you started.

Tomorrow, look for a blog about the places we visited this past weekend and some wonderful photo's that we took.

Pictures above: Ella, Grace and Mia after their parents succeeded in wearing them out; Mia deciding she is too tired to go on so she drops to rest in the rocks; Grace, Mia and Ella getting their agressions out by throwing rocks into the water; Ella's smily face man that she made with her food (showing impeccable manners!) during our mommy daughter elegant dinner in Dieppe.