It's New Year's Eve in France!

It is"trente-et-un" in France, or "le Reveillon" (did I spell that right, Sabrina?) and in about half an hour we are heading over to Sabrina's house for a big bash. The kids will be a couple of houses away in with the babysitters, and the adults will be together at another.

I didn't think to have Carter take a nap, so who knows how this will turn out. But I made sure there will be A LOT of Champomy for Dave and me, so we'll manage.

To Be Continued . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

p.s. Sam and Sophie are fist-fighting before we have even left, so that's a great sign.

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Miss France is in Trouble

Pioneers all?

As you may recall, I wrote previously about the Miss France 2008 pageant, which was quite an affair. Turns out the affair has turned a bit sordid, as "compromising" photos of Miss France, Valérie Begue, were published last week in a French Magazine. This stuff always comes out afterwards, since no one cares to see "compromising photos" unless they're of someone famous.

Apparently under the rules of the crown, Miss France being in compromising photos is prohibited. Which is odd because I've seen the photos on the TV and it's basically her in a bikini. I don't know what the big deal is. I mean, they had a 2-piece bathing suit competition during the pageant. Been there, seen that.

But scandal is scandal and there has been much debate about Miss Begue giving up her crown. She's apparently survived, however. The Times (UK) says:

Miss France 2008 will be allowed to keep her crown, contest organisers have said, despite a row over suggestive photographs that saw MPs, a bishop and the Minister for Overseas Territories spring to her defence. However, she will not be able to compete in the Miss World or Miss Universe contests, where she will be replaced by Miss New Caledonia.

Valérie Begue, 22, from Réunion, an overseas departement of France located in the Indian Ocean, won the beauty pageant, which is taken far more seriously in France than in many other countries, in a televised ceremony on December 8. But her reign threatened to be short-lived after a magazine published a risqué set of photographs in which she was featured lying in a crucifixion-like pose while wearing a bikini, and licking condensed milk in a suggestive manner.

The rules of the contest forbid participants appearing in nude or provocative photographs, and the head of the Miss France contest, Genevieve de Fontenay, called for Ms Begue to renounce her title. She refused, saying the three-year-old photographs were published without her consent. In the face of massive public support, the organisers later relented.

As Americans, we've already been through this with our very own trailblazer, Vanessa Williams. And as all Mormons know, thank goodness for her, since if it wasn't for those photos the very average-looking but Victorian bonnet-wearing Sharlene Wells of Utah would never have won the very next year. I still remember my mother crying when Wells was crowned, saying "They KNOW that Mormons aren't going to be involved in any scandals. They KNOW it!" They knew about scandal thanks to Vanessa Williams. Catch her every Thursday night on NBC's "Ugly Betty." Must see TV.

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Sabrina's Birthday Party

A nice lady, Sabrina & Stasha.............Sabrina's birthday card

Last Friday Stasha and I went to a birthday party for our friend Sabrina, who was turning 34. As Sabrina’s husband Olivier says, “At 50 a man is still young. At 30 a woman is finished.” Both he and Sabrina have a great sense of humor, and that’s one of the reasons why we really like them. They’re also the parents of Enzo, who is one of Sam’s favorite people.

We arrived at their house about eight and waited in the kitchen for the other invitees to arrive. First there was Marilyn and her husband whose name I’ve forgotten. It’s probably Pierre. Then Natasha arrived, then a couple we’d never met before and whose names we forgot instantly, then another lady we’d never met before whose name we forgot instantly, then another lady we’d never met before whose name we forgot instantly. But they were all nice. French names are almost impossible to remember. I think they do it on purpose so that if you actually remember someone’s name it’s a sign that a lifelong friendship is forming. Other than the name Guy, I challenge you to come up with a single French name that’s less than two syllables. Go for it. I dare you. We have Bob and Bill and Fred and Sam and George and James and Jim and Charles and Jeff and Greg and Dave and Paul and Chris and Brad. The French have no such names.

We arrived at the restaurant about 9:30. At the front door were two big-boned mean-looking goons dressed mostly in black leather. When we walked up they scowled at us while blocking the door. Natasha stepped up and said some magic words and all of a sudden the goons started smiling and stepped aside.

The restaurant offered a fixed menu for 25 euros. The choices were something with foie gras (pronounced “Fwa Graw” and literally meaning “fatty liver”) and something without foie gras. Along with truffles (which are basically dirt that costs a hundred euros per kilo), foie gras is a food that makes French people salivate so wildly that they need bibs to catch the overflow. But it’s basically just mashed up duck’s liver that’s the consistency of cold butter, and the mere thought of it makes me swoon with nausea. I tried it once and won’t make that mistake again. If a French person ever talks to you about the taste of foie gras, everything they’re saying is a lie.

So I ordered the meal sans foie gras. I was very hungry and ate everything, since we began eating about 10pm, which isn’t particularly late for dinner in France. Also, since it was Sabrina’s birthday everyone ordered champagne with dinner, and I naturally stuck to my normal regimen of fruit juice or whatever non-alcoholic substitute that’s available. The act is starting to wear thin, frankly. A man in France that drinks no wine and eats no foie gras (or truffles) is like a man in America that hates guns and enormous SUVs. I’ll probably never fit in in either country.

After dinner they brought a cake and we all sang Happy Birthday to Sabrina while Olivier took a bunch of pictures. Sabrina seemed very happy to be 34. She didn’t look finished at all.

At 10:30 the karaoke began. Back in Arizona we have a restaurant at my golf course and the retirees start coming in for dinner about 4:30 in the afternoon. By 6:30 they’re mostly in bed for the night dressed in their flannel pajamas. At 6:30 in France people are basically just finishing lunch, and dinner at such an hour is out of the question. When we arrived at 9:30 we were literally the first people there, but by 10:30 the place was full of revelers, and when the karaoke began we were all encouraged to sing a few songs.

More singing, first at our table and then on the dance floor. Sabrina is in black. Her sister is in the gray with the scarf. The woman in the funky blue blouse is from Marseilles. I can't understand anything said by people from Marseilles.

Stasha and I looked through the list and chose Endless Love. I wanted to choose Patience by Guns N’ Roses, but when I realized that no French person has ever heard this song and that I would have to sing it by myself, I changed my mind and chose a duet.

At 11pm they called us up to sing. I know Endless Love well from numerous romantic slow dances at Desert Shadows Middle School in Scottsdale, AZ in 1984, and was excited to showcase my singing prowess. Unfortunately just as we – the only foreigners in the whole place – got up to sing, the machine broke. After standing there for two minutes with a hundred people staring at us, the DJ finally asked if we wanted to sing another song by Lionel Richie. I blurted out the only one I could think of: All Night Long. The problem with this song is that I don’t know the words or the tune. Oh, and that it sucks.

They started the music and we began singing. It was the worst rendition ever. Seriously. Ever. I was completely off tune the whole time. Stasha helped keep it together, however, and I even started getting into it at one point, as you can see from the photos. And Sabrina and Olivier and almost everyone in our party (except a couple of people whose names I can’t remember) came out to dance while we sang, so we wouldn't feel so exposed.

Singing and dancing to "All Night Long" with my hot wife. I've got to do something, anything, about my enormous head.

At 11:45 the karaoke ended and the dancing began. We formed a tightly-knit group on the dance floor while a growing crowd of lesbians formed around us. While dancing to mostly French hip-hop music we debated whether or not so and so was a man or a woman. It was all very confusing but fun nonetheless. At 1:30 we paid the bill and went home.

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The Sultans of Swing

It's Dave. How's it going?

The Cote d'Azur is the sunniest, warmest part of France but it's still at about the same latitude as Boston. And while the weather during the day can be beautiful, as soon as the sun goes down the temperature plummets. And there aren't many streetlights here. When the sun is down, it's dark.

Tonight when I walked outside I was again hit by that darkness, and when I got in the car I could still see my breath. I felt really far from home. I pulled onto the narrow country road that leads away from the house and turned on the radio. Instead of another French song whose lyrics I can't understand, they were playing "Sultans of Swing" by Dire Straits. I felt closer to home.

It's amazing how language affects us. In Mougins, where most days I don't hear a word of English outside my own house, I'm much closer to the place where Mark Knopfler wrote Sultans of Swing (London, I assume) than anyone in the United States. But the culture and language of England has spread itself through much of the world the last 300 years, and I'm a product of that history. Chances are, if you're reading this blog, you are too. And I think that's mostly a good thing. At the very least, it makes it easier to appreciate certain simple pleasures no matter where you are. I was glad to enjoy one of them tonight.

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"Midnight" Mass

The Church Just After the "Midnight" Mass

Dave and I went to the church in Old Mougins for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. It actually started at 10:30, but by the time we were finished with the whole experience, it was nearly Midnight.

I learned about this tradition when I was in Middle School in Ohio taking French class. I didn't really believe it happened (I don't know why I was skeptical, why would Ms. Frimmel lie to me?).

The church was already pretty crowded when we arrived around 10:15, but we managed to find a bench fairly close to the front, but off to the side. There was a lot of talking in French that I didn't understand, but there was also enough singing that I had a nice experience.

The songs were set to the tunes of "O Come All Ye Faithful," and "O Holy Night," and the words were printed on the bulletin they handed out when we entered the church. I was happy when the priest called everyone up to take communion, because that meant it was almost over! (Dave said he wanted to go up, but when I told him I had tried one of those wafers in high school and it tasted like paper, he changed his mind.)

After the mass we saw some friends from Abby's school, so we chatted and took some pictures. In the square they were serving hot wine and plates of the 13 desserts, but the line was too long and we had a rendez-vous with Pascaline and Nicholas to get to.

Just outside the church after midnight mass.

We actually just meant to stop by for a quick drink of "Champomy," but their kids were still awake (they open gifts on the 24th here) and everyone was in a good mood, so we ended up staying until the wee hours of the morning. So Dave and I were exhausted when we finally got home and started wrapping presents!

I have to say the best part of the evening was when Nicholas decided he wanted to speak to Dave's mother in the US. He was a little "gaie" as they say here (not drunk-just tipsy!) so he was trying to speak in English and was cracking us up. (He wasn't doing too badly at first, but as the night wore on, he sounded more and more like "Borat.")
Here is a picture of Nicholas explaining to me about wine glasses. Listening to him speak english was MUCH more interesting!

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'Twas the Night Before Christmas

The Kids Enjoying Their Hot Chocolate on Christmas Eve

"I run this house!" "J'adore la creme!"

"I'm sleepy, but I won't admit it!"

"I Can't Wait for Tomorrow!"

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Signs of Christmas

At the Maternelle, Sophie and Sam's classes made Christmas signs that were then posted all over Mougins at bus stops. This is the one right by the school. So festive!

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At La Maison de Retraite

Sophie showing off her creation

Last week Sophie's class had a field trip to a retirement home. The goal was to hand out ornaments made by the children, make a treat (dates stuffed with marzipan) and sing some Christmas songs.

After passing out their handmade ornaments, the kids and "aged people" as they say in French donned plastic gloves and began cutting open the sticky dates. The ladies (I say ladies because there was not ONE man there) did most of the cutting, thank goodness.

But there was no marzipan (pate d'amandes) because none had arrived in the truck that made the daily deliveries to the home. So there was a lot of staring off into space, playing with sticky gloves and aged people worrying about what they were supposed to do next.

Finally someone made a grocery store run and saved the day, and most of the dates were eaten, save a few (like when I offered some to a very old lady in a wheel chair and she snipped back at me, "I didn't order anything.")

After everything was finished, the kids drank grenadine mixed with water (so gross!) and the directrice gave them all chocolates and huge tubes of Smarties. I'm not sure who got the better end of the deal!

Giorgios giving a lady a Christmas ornament

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Riding horses a few weeks ago at the Ferme D'Anais: Sophie (on the white
horse) and Mailys. Pascaline is the mother of both Marine and Mailys.
Marine, The 12 year old daughter of our friends Pascaline and Nicholas, is WAY into horses. She goes to the riding center every Saturday and Sunday and stays there from noon to six p.m. She only rides for one hour, but the other 5 hours she chats with her pony-obsessed girlfriends and brushes and cleans the horses.

She REALLY wanted me to come for a lesson with her this weekend, and I also really love horses, so I was definitely interested. Of course this weekend it has been raining non-stop and it was totally ugly and drizzly.

Pascaline brought me a rain jacket to borrow and said "Now don't fall, eh?" to which Marine replied laughing, "You are going to fall!" Pascaline smacked her on the arm and said "CUT that OUT!" Or something like that in French.

When I got to the farm, I talked a little to the instructor and Marine fetched the horse, Cheyenne, for me. After trying to scrape the mud off the horse and get her all saddled up, we finally got in the ring and got down to business. Cheyenne and I were doing pretty well, we walked and trotted and even galloped. It's been three years since I went riding, so the galloping was a little scary, but exciting at the same time.

Then the instructor made us switch horses. I got Marine's horse, Enzo, who was a lot shorter than Cheyenne and kind of a spaz. The second go around the ring, I almost stopped and asked the instructor for a little advice on the gallop. But I didn't. BIG MISTAKE.

Halfway around the ring I knew I was going down and when my face and right shoulder hit the ground I thought "I'm sure glad I'm wearing a helmet" (right before it flew off my head upon impact).

I felt totally nauseous and had to lie down with my feet up for several minutes while everyone explained to me that when you fall you get a cake, and how I needed a nice massage for Christmas, and they would be happy to call a "beau pompier" (handsome fireman) for me. I could barely manage shifting the car on the way home and immediately jumped in a hot bath.

Pascaline (who is a doctor) wrote me a prescription for some special cream to rub into my aching shoulder muscle, and this afternoon I went to pick it up at the Pharmacy before everything closed until Wednesday. Pascaline's Prescription

So now it's Christmas Eve and I have gifts to wrap and goodies to prepare but my shoulder really hurts when I try to lift anything. Merry Christmas to me!

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Carnival of the Absurd

Insane things get said at our house sometimes, mostly because our children are nuts.

The following exchange about Carter – our two year-old – occurred last night in the kitchen:

Stasha: Dave, Carter just pee’d all over the table.
Dave (to Carter, standing naked on his chair): Carter, are you kidding me?
Stasha: Did he get it in his meat?

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Merry Christmas From Us

Click to play Christmas+update+from+the+Ashtons

Given how far away we are from most of our friends and family, we created only an electronic card this year. Perhaps next Christmas we'll get back to the paper-based version, but hopefully this will suffice for now. Merry Christmas everyone!
Stasha, Dave and the kids



Josh Groban on Star Academy

Pierre, (26 yrs old from Paris) and Josh Groban (wearing makeup?)

Last night on "Star Academy" Josh Groban was one of the celebrity guests. I don't know if they do this on American Idol, but on Star Academy, the contestants live together in a chateau and have dance and voice teachers. They also practice and perform with celebrities, which is really cool.

Here is the link of Josh Groban and Pierre singing "You Raise Me Up." Notice the funny look on Pierre's face most of the time. I don't know if that is a face you make because you are singing with a celebrity and you don't want to mess up, or if it is the face you make when you are singing in English and you don't really know what you are saying.

But it was really fun to see Josh Groban on TV here in France. Nice little taste of home for the Holidays.


Santa's Been on a "Regime"

Looks like Santa has been into jogging lately, judging from his svelte figure and his snazzy reflective jogging shoes. I guess he was getting stuck in too many chimneys and decided to slim down for 2007's night of round the world generosity.

(Okay, so this is actually our neighbor Roger - pronounced 'Ro-jay' - trying to open the floo in our chimney. He actually came by to pick up a wheelbarrow full of firewood that Dave offered him for lending us some flour about three weeks ago. He generously offered to take a look at the fireplace and managed to get it open. Too bad we gave him all of our firewood.)

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13 Provençal Desserts

As we're learning, in Provence at Christmas the big event actually comes on Christmas Eve more than on Christmas Day itself. A big part of the tradition on the 24th is to have a celebratory meal called Le Gros Souper (basically, "the big dinner"), prior to attending midnight mass at the village church.

The dinner table is set with 3 table cloths and 3 candles and a meal of various traditional vegetable and fish dishes is served followed by cheeses (everyone should really try French and Italian cheeses, which are incredible). The high point of the evening however, comes at the end of the meal when the table is re-laid and out comes dessert. There are 13 different desserts, to reflect the number seated around the table at the Last Supper.

According to tradition, the first 4 desserts represent the four orders of friars (monks): Raisins for Dominicans, dried figs for Franciscans, almonds for Carmelites and hazelnuts for Augustinians. That stuff is really, really good.

Next come the walnuts and one or more types of dried fruit, usually dates or prunes. Seasonal fruits provide another 3 of the 13 dessert items usually including apples and pears and either melon, grapes, mandarins or oranges.

Nougat will always be part of the list. the final dessert will be the Pompe de Noel a light-textured cake made from a yeast and egg dough, sweetened with sugar, flavored with grated orange and lemon zest and sprinkled with orange flower water.

One of our friends, Nathalie, brought us a small box of these 13 desserts two days ago. Dave devoured them in about an twenty minutes. He said his favorite was the figs stuffed with 'pate d'amande' (a pink paste made with ground up almonds and sugar). I'll see if I can find some better pictures of the desserts, because it really is a cool thing, the way it all gets laid out, and the significance of the tradition itself. You can read a better description of the whole thing HERE.

The thirteen provençal desserts may not beat pumpkin pie with whipped cream on top, but it sure beats the heck out of fruitcake!

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Monday's Sunrise

Looking Out the Back of the House

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My kids are sneaky and selfish

When the kids are playing on the computer and something urgent tears them away (like going to the bathroom or they have been called away to help clean the kitchen), they take the wireless mouse with them. Or they hide it somewhere, so nobody else can come along and take their place at the computer. The only problem is that sometimes they forget where they put it and Mommy can't find it. And when Mommy can't get on to people.com, Mommy is NOT happy.

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Some Photos of Mougins

Click on any of the photos to enlarge. If the formatting is off it's because Blogger is horrible.
Good view of the old village from the road to Antibes. Much of the description below comes from HERE.

The village of Mougins has been occupied since Roman times. Much of it dates back to the fifteenth century when it was the property of the Monks of Saint Honorat from the nearby Iles de Lerins just off the coast of Cannes. Many of the Abbey’s old properties are now private villas that are rented to tourists during the Cannes Film Festival and the summer months. Although Mougins was originally a fortified village surrounded by ramparts, no trace of this remains except one of the old gates to the village (the "Porte Sarrazine"). The village remains unspoiled despite the radical changes going on all around it and some people say that it looks so perfect that it resembles a film set.

Tiles painted to show a map of the old village. Most old villages in Provence have a map like this at or near the entrance to the village.

The village is renowned for its restaurants and for the many celebrities that have lived there over the years including Man Ray, Yves Saint Laurent, Catherine Deneuve and of course Pablo Picasso.

Two pictures of the main square in Mougins, called Place Commandant Lamy, which is surrounded by restaurants and art galleries.

People come from all over France and the world to visit the village’s many excellent restaurants, the most well known being Le Moulin de Mougins, which is located in an old mill just outside the village and is regarded by many as one of the top restaurants in France.

Several hundred years ago this "lavoir", or public wash basin, was a primary gathering place for the women of the village, who came here to wash clothes and discuss the goings on of the day with their neighbors. The lavoir is now an exhibition space for paintings and sculptures.

The church of Notre Dame de la Vie ("Our Lady of Life") just outside Mougins. Dave is obsessed with old churches so it's surely a matter of time until we take a tour.

The oldest part of Mougins: the Porte Sarrazine, built about 600 years ago. What remains of it is shown in the upper left portion of the picture: the cobblestone wall with the rounded doorway, set between the (newer) stucco buildings.

Just inside the main entrance to Mougins today.

These last three photos are of some of the restaurants, art galleries, and winding streets of Mougins. Today the old village doesn't really offer any jobs or industry. And I think fewer than a thousand people actually live inside the village walls. It's really just a place to have lunch or dinner and to tour around. For the most part cars aren't allowed in the old village, so you can stroll through the streets as you wish. It's an incredibly tranquil place.

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Carter at Le Bois Jolie

Every Monday and Thursday from 1:30 - 5:00 Carter goes to day care, or what's called "Garderie" (meaning "to watch over"). Carter's Garderie is called Le Bois Jolie. It's about a five minute drive from the house and is set on a hill not too far from the old village. The ladies there are very nice and Carter - after several months of trepidation - is finally going there without too much complaint. He still starts to whimper when we pull up to the Garderie, but he no longer screams in terror anymore when Dave or I drop him off.

In France, all families in which the parents work (or the parent, if it's a single-parent family) are able to leave their children at a day care. The day cares are mostly funded by the state. There is a cost to the parent for leaving the child there but it's extremely cheap: two euros or less per hour, depending on your income. The care is excellent, the places are warm, clean, bright and happy, and the kids seem to really enjoy their time there. Carter doesn't like getting dropped off but he's never unhappy when we arrive to pick him up.

In our case, we received approval to take Carter there twice a week based on our request to expose him to as much French language as possible. And it's working: at two years old he probably says twenty words, and most of them are in French.

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Dave Redeems Himself . . . With Some Prodding

Carter Always Puts on His Best Face for Photos

After spending a busy Wednesday tutoring kids in English (Enzo, Marine and Jeremy, children of friends), the kids finally remembered that it was the day to get the Sapin de Noel. Of course it was already after 7 pm and in France that means everything is closed. Except Carrefour, which is finally where we found a tree after going to two other places.
We were the last ones in the tree tent and they wanted to close it up, so I felt a little bit of pressure, an the choices were a little slim less than a week before Christmas. The kids wanted a really lovely Normann that was well-proportioned and had evenly placed needles. But the grinch wasn't willing to pay 35 euros for something that would be thrown out after a couple of weeks, so we finally chose a scraggly tree for 10 euros. They even make you a tree holder out of a stump of wood for a mere 4 euros!

Turns out the sapin is the perfect size for our living room and the kids had a great time drenching it with ornaments and glittery garland. Sophie got her wish and Dad lifted her up to place the star on top.Sam wisely instructed that we move the red chair out of the way to make room for all the presents Santa will bring.
I hope he's not disappointed on Christmas morning!


Some "clips"

Here's a bunch of good songs that we hear almost every day, either on the radio, on MTV France at the gym, or in some store. I haven't been in the US since July, so am curious if any of them are popular there? I like almost all of them: The best song on this list is probably La Lettre, but I posted about that one before. They're all worth a listen, except for "1000 Meere", but that video's worth a look so you can gawk at Boy George with jagged front teeth (lead singer).
  1. Amy Winehouse -You Know I'm No Good (If she sings it, they like it)
  2. Christophe Mae - ça Fait Mal (That Hurts)
  3. Fall Out Boy - Thnks fr th Mmrs
  4. Fergie - Big Girls Don't Cry
  5. Peter Cincotti - Goodbye Philadelphia
  6. Plain White T's - Hey There Delilah
  7. Renan Luce - La Lettre (The Letter)
  8. Renan Luce - Les Voisines (The Neighbors)
  9. Rose - Ciao Bella (Goodbye Beautiful - French song with Italian title)
  10. Superbus - Travel the World (Title is in English but the song is mostly in French)
  11. Tokio Hotel - 1000 Meere (This German band is unbelievably popular in France)
  12. Yael Naim - New Soul (This woman is French-Israeli and is basically Natalie Merchant reincarnated, even though NM is still alive. Look at this photo. The song is in English. Also, here's a live version from a French variety show where you get a better sense of what she looks like. To watch it, skip to 1:47 of the video and it will start after a short intro)
  13. Zazie - Je suis un Homme (I am One Man)
  14. Zucchero - Wonderful Life (Italian Singer - this video is really good)

The Grinch

This is the latest picture of Dave. I took it just after he said (in the car today on the way home from buying himself a new white t-shirt for working out):

"Do we have to get a Sapin de Nöel?"

I replied, "We have to have a tree. When I was a kid, one year we got our tree on Christmas EVE!"

"Well, we're not doing that," he said flatly.

I declared, "Okay, then we're getting one tomorrow because the kids don't have school."

"Fine," he replied, "but it has to be a small one."


Cars, Roads and Hot Rabbits

Imagine this, but with cars. Welcome to France.
Last Saturday night we had dinner with our friend Sabrina and her husband Olivier. We must write about this soon, as it shows one of the big differences between the French, who enjoy their meals, and Americans, who enjoy them in a much different way. I'll explain it some other time and we'll post some pictures, when we get them from Sabrina. It was a great meal.

Some longtime friends of Sabrina and Olivier were also at dinner: Merilynne and her husband Pierre, and Sabrina's friend Natasha. About halfway through our meal, which was four hours long, Merilynne asked me what are the biggest differences between the US and here. After asking "What did she say?" to Stasha, we talked about some differences in politics, that stores are open in the US more than six hours a day (and also on Sunday), and that people eat very differently in the US than they do in France. Then we also talked about how you can turn right on a red light in Arizona, but you can't do that in France.

Then we moved on to another subject, about how the Directeur at Abby's school, one single man in his late-40's called Monsieur Gyss, is constantly dating single mothers of children that attend the school. This is apparently because he's what's known as a "hot rabbit" in French, as well as a "profondeur". You can figure those out on your own.

But we should have continued to talk about turning right on red lights, because the differences between driving in the US and in the Cote d'Azur are staggering. I could go on all day about them. Basically it boils down to the fact that driving in the US is somewhat safe and driving in France is a near-death experience about half the time.

Roads in the Cote d'Azur are a challenge. The back lanes are incredibly narrow and the pavement is sometimes little more than rubble, having been taken over by expanding tree roots. Like most of Europe, the roads were built long before cars existed, and there are now many you can't even drive on. In the old village of Mougins, for example, cars are forbidden altogether, unless you live within the village walls. I can't describe how narrow these roads are. And we live on one. Some are less than eight feet wide: for cars going in both directions.

This creates problems that you can't even fathom in the United States. When driving the kids to school it's a normal thing to stop the car and pull into the entrance to someone's driveway just so the other car - going in the other direction - can pass. It's not so much a courtesy thing as a matter of survival: the roads are literally too narrow for two cars to pass each other while moving. And passing someone going your same direction is unthinkable. If the huge delivery truck in front of you is going 15 km an hour as it wheezes up a hill at a 30 degree angle, you just hang back and wait. And the roads are not straight. They basically look like this:

Only way, WAY more narrow.

A few months ago when Stasha smashed our car mirror on a tree, or a road sign, or a stone wall, or whatever it was (it all happens pretty fast), we went to Garage Raymondou to have it fixed. Here in France a "garage service center" for cars is sort of like Schumacher Mercedes Benz in Scottsdale, with just a couple of differences:
  1. The whole place is less than a hundredth of the size of Schumacher. Usually it's a garage on the ground floor of somebody's house.
  2. There is one guy working there. He lives there. When he goes out for groceries, the garage is no longer open.
  3. There are probably no hydraulics at the place. Just one of those little beds on wheels that roll him under the car.
  4. Almost no parts are at the garage. Everything gets ordered from somewhere else.
  5. There's no free coffee. But since we don't drink coffee that's no big loss for us.
  6. The guy at Garage Raymondou speaks French with such an odd accent - possibly a speech impediment - that I can't understand a word he says.
Other than that it's exactly like Schumacher. When Stasha broke the mirror I figured it would take the guy at Garage Raymondou a while to get the part that we needed, since he had to match the make and body style of a ten year-old BMW. But in fact he got the part and did the work in one day. Broken passenger side mirrors are so commonplace around here that they must have a huge warehouse somewhere stocked with millions of units of inventory. Anyway, driving is not something done for pleasure. Not for me anyway.

Dropping off Abby at school is always a bit of a challenge. The parking lot at her school has an entrance and an exit that are extremely narrow, just like the roads. All the cars (and all in a hurry) go in the entrance and exit the exit, on the other side of the parking lot. So inside the parking lot there is a distinct traffic pattern that's repeated every day by all who come and go. And the unwritten rules are not to be violated. You drive in, find a parking space, get out of your car while it's running, walk your child to the entrance gate (this is the Primary school, in which parents can't go in. Whereas at the Maternelle school we are required to walk the children all the way to their classrooms), walk back to your car and get in, look around to see if you can exit your parking space, since there's usually six to eight inches between you and the cars on either side of you, and then drive toward the exit.

Thus created, this very day, my first road rage experience in France. It was very tame by Arizona standards but is worth repeating anyway. But since I've written too much already, I shall post it another day...

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