Sunday, August 29, 2010

Parting is such sweet sorrow

We are leaving the farm house in about two hours, headed to Paris to spend the afternoon shopping and the evening going up to the top of the Eiffel Tower to see Paris at night.  We are then staying at a hotel close to the airport and catching our 9:25 am flight tomorrow morning.  We are scheduled to land about 4:00 pm in LA, after a change in Houston.  Our connection in Houston is very short (about an hour) and I didn't realize that we had to go through customs in Houston (meaning we have to get our luggage, go through customs, recheck our luggage and make our flight), so there's a good chance we're going to miss our original flight from Houston to LA.  The pre-France Steph would have been frantic.  She has NEVER missed a flight.  Never, ever!   The post-France Steph says c'est la vie, whatever happens, happens.  (It could also have something to do with the fact that I'm not really ready to come home, so any little delay is ok with me!)

Last night, our friends the Mopins, had us over for dinner.  It was a fabulous dinner and a great night!  We can truly say that these folks are now our friends.  They are sending their oldest daughter to spend a month with us next summer and we're hoping they'll come visit for a couple of weeks next year too.  We are also looking at spending another month in France next year (perhaps in Strasbourg) and they've invited us to stay with them for a bit.  We are so lucky to have met them!

Here are a few photos from last night.

Here's Eva, their beautiful Percheron draft horse.

Here's Mona, Juliet & Laurent, plus most of us.

Juliet will be visiting us next summer.

Part of their lovely country home.

Appetizers....lovely, yummy grougeres that Juliet made (best we had in France!)

Sitting down for dinner.

Absolutely fabulous beef meal we had in France....everyone swiped their plates clean (with bread of course!!!)  Mona made an incredible tiramisu for dessert, which I didn't get a photo of...c'est tres bon!

And, of course, wonderful wine!

Our delightful hosts...Laurent & Johanna!

This might be my last post from France.  I don't know if we'll have wifi at the hotel and if we do, whether I'll be too tired to write.  This won't be my last post though.  I've found writing my blog to be very cathartic.  Both what I actually write and what I just say in my head, but choose not to share with the world.  That's the stuff that's probably been most helpful for me.  So, I'm going to keep writing.  We'll see if I have anything interesting to say once I get home.

I did want to write about the sunflowers.  The sunflowers here are an absolute metaphor for our time in France.  When we landed and drove to our new home, we saw fields of beautiful green, next to the golden fields of hay and wheat.  We didn't know what they were.  Even after we got out and looked at the plants, we couldn't quite tell what they were...they were still new....still a mystery, just like our new home.

And then, the sunflowers decided to reveal themselves...just as we were discovering France and starting to understand her ways a little bit.  Her beauty, her mystery, her great food, her wonderful people.

And now it's time to leave...we're sad to leave.  We've had a wonderful that we will never forget.  And we feel a little like the sunflowers, who are at the end of their season, waiting to be harvested.

Still beautiful, in their own special way.

Au revoir...bonne journee!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Exploring the Louvre with 50,000 other people!

Waiting for the train to Paris.

Yesterday we took the train to Paris and went to the Louvre.  I was concerned after the kids' lackluster interest in Fontainebleau that they were not going to be very interested in the Louvre.  After a month for three of them and two months for two of them of looking at cathedrals and castles and paintings and sculptures...some of the shine was definitely wearing off the apple.

I thought some sort of scavenger hunt might make the experience a little more fun.  We decided that the kids would each buy 3 postcards when we went into the Louvre and then they would search for the actual art that was depicted on their postcards.

In theory, this was a good idea.  We had planned on turning the kids loose for two hours and letting them find their art, while the adults did their own thing.  Like I said...a good idea in theory.  We purchased our tickets at the Carrousel entrance because we had heard there would be no line.  We had heard line!  We then made our way to the Galerie du Carrousel entrance and encountered a very long line...I figured this was for folks who didn't have tickets, so I made my way to then front of the line to see where we could slip by.  Oops...nope this was the security line...for everyone!  We waited about 30 minutes to get through security.  We then spotted a book store and stopped to let the kids pick out their postcards.

A portion of the Louvre, through the Pyramid.

As a little aside, I have been struggling with letting go of control.  I feel like we need a plan.  If we don't have a plan, we seem to wander aimlessly.  There are days when aimless wandering is exactly what we want and need, but when we come into Paris, we definitely get more out of each trip when we have a plan.  However, since I'm trying to not be in charge all of the time...I'm trying to not always be the one making the plan.

This isn't working!  If I don't make a plan, it seems like no one else makes a plan either.  The other night, over a couple of glasses of wine, my sister informed me that I am scary and intimidating (but not in a bad way!)  What she was saying is that I'm such a type A personality, that folks have just learned to let me do my thing and they go along for the ride.  She's actually thanked me several times during the trip for being a type A person.  We don't miss our trains, we know where we are going (usually) and we've explored a lot of the French countryside.  She likes that I'm in charge and trusts that I'll get us where we need to be. That's a good thing, usually.  But, as I've mentioned, I'd like to be the one just going along for the ride sometimes.

So, with respect to our trip to the Louvre, while I suggested the scavenger hunt...I didn't do any real planning around it, other than the 3 postcard idea and wanting to the kids explore on their own.  This lack of planning was a mistake.  First, when we got into the security line, it was clear that we would be sharing our experience at the Louvre with 50,000 of our closest friends.  The museum was PACKED!  I immediately realized that I was uncomfortable letting the kids explore alone in this mob.  I told James and Kerry and I'd shadow the kids, just to make sure they stayed together and they could go see what they wanted to see.  James said, no, he'd stay with the kids and Kerry and I could go off on our own.  Kerry then said, no, she'd stay with the kids.  Of course, we all ended up staying with the kids (which turned out to be the best thing, actually).

The kids picked their postcards.  Here's where a little planning on my part would have been helpful.  Did you know that the Louvre has about 35,000 pieces of art and more than 645,000 square feet of exhibition space?  Add to that 50,000 tourists and you've got a major ZOO!  If I had been thinking (ok, if I had been planning the way I normally do), I would have told the kids to limit their scavenger hunt selections to a certain period or artist or something that would put their selections at least within one wing of the Louvre.  A scavenger hunt that takes you all over the Louvre is not practical!  When the kids actually found one of their art was absolutely pure luck!!!  Oh well, the kids had fun trying to find their works of art and we had some interesting discussions about walking into a room, looking at some of the pieces of art and figuring out if there was a possibility that their piece might be in the room, based on style, color, types of people represented in the works, etc.  I don't feel like they got as much out of the experience as I would have liked them to, but they were probably happier than if I had had a detailed plan of what we were going to see and what was what and why it was important, etc.   I guess I even drive myself crazy sometimes with my planning and obsessing!

Lukas and Ethan were the first to find one of their pieces of art!

We started off my visiting the Egyptian Antiquities.  We saw this Sphinx:

Photos are allowed, with no flash (which means the pictures are not as good as they could be, because of low lighting and my shaky hands!)

A sarcophagus.

After exploring lots of Egyptian relics, we decided to find Ms. Mona.   That's Mona Lisa to you and me. On our way we stumbled across this:

The Winged Victory of Samothrace (around 190 BC)
Discovered on the Greek island of Samothrace in 1863 by a French archaeologist who sent the pieces to be reassembled at the Louvre.  Her right hand was discovered in 1950.

The most famous painting in the world, La Gioconda (La Joconde in French) is tougher than she looks: the canvas was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian nationalist in 1911, recovered from a Florentine hotel, and survived an acid attack in 1956.  She is believed to be the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine millionaire, and was probably 24 when she sat for the portrait.  Some historians believe the portrait was actually painted after her death.  Either way, she has become immortal through da Vinci's ingenious "sfumato" technique, which combines glowing detail with soft, depth-filled brushwork.  My photo isn't that great, mainly because she's behind a thick layer of glass and I had to shoot this over the heads of the adoring crowd (thank goodness for my telephoto lens)!
The Death of Cleopatra...ouch!!!

This is interesting because it is on loan from the Norton Simon!

People, lots of people!

Venus de Milo, approx. 120 BC

My guide says: After countless photographs and bad reproductions, the original Aphrodite continues to fascinate those who gaze upon her.  The armless statue, one of the most reproduced and recognizable works of art in the world, is actually as beautiful as they say.  She was unearthed on the Greek island of Milos in the 19th century and sold for 6,000 francs to the French ambassador in Constantinople, who presented her to King Louis XVIII.  Guess this makes up for the Louisiana Purchase!

Love the pyramid from below!

We spent about 3 hours in the Louvre.  We could have spent three weeks and we still would not have seen it all.  We all agreed it was just too crowded and difficult to enjoy the art.  I guess we are all getting use to our small town where if we see 10 people in a day, that's a lot!

After the Louvre, we had an unremarkable lunch and then did some shopping.  The boys and I decided to rest at Starbucks for a bit.  I should start this story by saying that every where we have gone in France that has more than a few thousand people, we have been approached by Gypsies (or Romas).  They walk up to tourists, ask if you speak English and if you say yes, they had you a slip of paper that has some story on it about a child they are trying to get out of some country (the details are always a little different, but the story is relatively the same), they then ask you for money.  It only took a couple of times of being approached and asked "Do you speak English?" before we all learned to say "No, no parle pas Anglais."  Every once in awhile, I get fooled.  I'm not paying attention and someone innocent looking approaches and asks me if I speak English and I say yes...then they pull out the paper and I smack my head!  Tricked again!

At Starbucks, I was sitting at table by myself, James was sitting at a separate table and the boys were at another table.  The girls had just come in and we'd pulled some chairs around for them.  Kerry and one of the girls were in line.  Two guys walked up to me, and started talking (not in English or French).  One guy went around me and headed towards Ethan, pulling a piece of paper out, waving it at Ethan and speaking quite emphatically (leaning across Katie as he was doing this).  I had no idea what he was saying or what he wanted.  The other guy was approaching me from the other side, waving a piece of paper too.  I was trying to get the guy who was going after Ethan to leave him alone, when I see James jump up from his chair at another table and rush over to us...all the time yelling "No, No, No!"  and waving his hands.  He was definitely in the papa bear mode!  The guy who was approaching from my side, immediately grabs his piece of paper (which he had dropped on my table) and rushes out of does the other guy who was trying to get to Ethan.

Turns out, the guy going after Ethan was trying to distract me so that I wouldn't notice his friend who had dropped his piece of paper on my table (on top of my iphone)...with the intent of scooping up by phone.  Thank goodness St. James had been paying attention!  I have to say, since we were sitting in Starbucks, my guard was completely down.  I wasn't expecting any harassment or problems, so when these guys approached, I was trying to figure out what they wanted, rather than assuming they were up to no good.  Anywhere else, when we're outside or on the metro, if anyone approaches us, I just say No and get between them and the kids (James does the same thing).  I learned a valuable lesson, no matter where you are, if it's anywhere near tourists (which is just about everywhere in Paris), you need to be on your guard!  It was nice to learn the lesson without actually having anything stolen.

After it was all over, we all laughed and thought it would make a good story!  After all, what would a trip into Paris be without at least one story!!!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fontainebleau...the best palace so far!

On Sunday we visited Fontainebleau.  It was an hour's drive from our house.  The Castle has been inhabited by all of the sovereigns since the Middle Ages and every king left his mark.  It is an absolutely incredible place.  Portions of the Castle date back to the 12th century.  We were able to do an audio tour in English and we could take pictures without our flash.  I have to admit, it took me 7 weeks to figure out how to turn off my flash...but I finally did I have pictures of the inside of the palace to share!

Main Entrance

As we entered, we saw an almost identical couple to one we had seen in Paris at Notre Dame.

One side of the Palace

I liked this carving!

Frescoes in the Grand Hall
The Grand Hall

Unbelievable arches in the ball room
Fascinated by the history of the place!

Our group in one of the chapels
Cool fire place mantel
This room at one time was the Queen's public birthing room...that's right...queens had to give birth in public to guarantee that the baby was the real heir.  What a bummer!!!!

The library...absolutely awesome room!

Napoleon's Throne's the last Throne Room in France...all the rest were destroyed during the revolution.

This is the spot that Napoleon gave his farewell speech in 1814...notice any resemblance?
Soldiers of my Old Guard: I bid you farewell. For twenty years I have constantly accompanied you on the road to honor and glory. In these latter times, as in the days of our prosperity, you have invariably been models of courage and fidelity. With men such as you our cause could not be lost; but the war would have been interminable; it would have been civil war, and that would have entailed deeper misfortunes on France.
I have sacrificed all of my interests to those of the country.
I go, but you, my friends, will continue to serve France. Her happiness was my only thought. It will still be the object of my wishes. Do not regret my fate; if I have consented to survive, it is to serve your glory. I intend to write the history of the great achievements we have performed together. Adieu, my friends. Would I could press you all to my heart.

Napoleon Bonaparte - April 20, 1814

We toured the inside of the Castle for about two hours (could have used an entire day)...then it was time to eat our picnic lunch and explore the gardens. 

The incredible gardens...

More buildings of the Palace

The great can't even see the end of it!

Enjoying the gardens!
Wow...the Castle is huge!

At this point, the kids were a little tired of sight seeing, so they rented a row boat and explored the pond while we adults explored the gardens!

This guy was terrified of the kids!

A little mother/daughter moment.

We then discovered that you could go in a horse drawn wagon through parts of the park and we couldn't resist.  The Park is huge and the suggested walking tour is three hours long!  Seeing it in a horse drawn wagon was a great way to rest our weary feet and enjoy the scenery.  However, it was a tad bit smelly!


Our beautiful guide!

All in all, another amazing day discovering French history and architecture.

Gosh, they really could be brothers!