Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Le Havre

Yesterday we went on mini-excursion #2, to Le Havre, on the Normandy coast (on the English Channel). Le Havre has a very different feel than Rouen, or even than Paris, because it’s almost entirely new construction. Le Havre, a port city, was 90 percent destroyed in WWII, so everything you see looks much more like the US than like what we’re used to seeing in France.

We set out fairly early and drove countryside that could have been anywhere — California, Oregon — nothing about it said France. We really didn’t have a plan for our day, so we parked by the water (which looks very much like an ocean, not a channel) and set out to see what we could find.

Our first stop was yet another church, but this one was very different than the others we’ve seen on this trip. Saint Joseph is quite small, although very tall (106 meters), with really unique architecture and gorgeous, geometric-patterned stained glass virtually floor to ceiling on all sides (well, it’s a circle so they’re not really sides). Other than a small creche, it really felt less like a church than a…hmmm, I don’t really know what. According to Wikipedia, “some interpret its gloomy, neo-Gothic interior as a memorial to the five thousand civilians who died in Le Havre during a Nazi siege.” More spiritual, less religious I guess. Really beautiful — the stained glass just took our breath away. We spent a lot of time inside trying to capture the effects, especially when the sun would come through and cast reflections of the colors on the walls.

From there we strolled around the downtown area, stopping to admire the fountains (flowing, although filled with ice — it was really cold out!) at the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), and to play and get warm at another amazing bookstore, where I bought “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in the original French (I’ve been wanting to tackle that for a while but it’s prohibitively expensive to purchase in the states) and a gorgeous, really uniquely-designed interpretation of Hansel and Gretel (yeah, it’s a kid’s book but I bought it for me. Maybe I’ll share ;-))

Sorry for the run-on sentences. I write like I speak!

Anyway, we needed to find lunch and took a chance on an overly-designed (in a self-consciously cool way) bistro where I once again ordered the wrong thing. I have no idea what it was supposed to be, but it was just about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tried to eat. I gave Anna a taste and she said it tasted like goldfish food, which was pretty accurate except that it had the color and texture of the bottom of a swamp. It was warm, brown, and slimy and tasted like goldfish food smells. I tried to eat it, but ultimately I couldn’t. (I’ve included a photo of this in the slideshow above. If anyone can identify it, please let me know. Probably the cloves of raw garlic as a side dish should have been a dead giveaway.)

After that, and feeling totally sick, David suggested stopping at a patisserie to undo what I’d just done to my taste buds. I bought an extremely large, really wonderful slice of apple pie, which went a long way towards healing my lunch trauma.

Finally, Anna had noticed a playground on the beach when we parked. I hadn’t seen it so I had no idea what was really there — yet another example of how the French have families in mind when doing their city planning. There was an awesome, big playground with loads of slides, jungle-gyms, etc.,; a huge skate park with loads of ramps, hills, and jumps for anyone on wheels (picture dozens of teen and pre-teen boys on bikes, rollerblades, and skateboards); courts for all kinds of ball games — just loads of free, clean, space to play on the beach.

When we headed back to Rouen, David took a detour so we could go across the Pont de Normandie, a cable-styled suspension bridge completed in 1995 (the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world at the time of its completion). By this point Anna had passed out in the back of the car, so we drove across with me shooting photos through the windshield. After crossing over and back, David pulled over and got out to shoot some pics while Anna slept and I browsed the web (gotta love that iPhone).

And that was it — our second and final road trip from Rouen. We both wish we’d gotten to take more, but the weather just wasn’t good the first half of our stay here.

And thus completes my final blog entry for 2008. I’ll still be posting for the rest of this trip and beyond, I think. Picture me sitting in my funky, house-swap house here in Rouen, Anna asleep upstairs while David and I make crêpes and drink a nice bottle of wine (me in my new, French dress, David in his sexy Obama T-shirt!). Not a bad end to the year.

Bon fête et joyeux 2009, tous le monde.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Yesterday we finally managed our first mini road trip, about half an hour away, to the town of Jumièges. We took a winding road along the Seine, going through a couple small towns along the way. Our destination was the Abbaye de Jumièges, originally built in the 8th century, rebuilt (after burning down) in the 11th century, culminating in its dedication in 1067 (with William the Conqueror among those present).

The abbey is now in ruins, which to my eye makes it all the more beautiful. We happened upon a cold but stunningly clear, blue day and the juxtaposition of the ruins with the sky and the green grass was so striking — rendering the difference between indoor and outdoor space obsolete.

Because it was the day after Christmas, we were pretty much the only people out and about, which was nice. After the abbey we decided to head back along the Seine to see if a charming little restaurant I spotted happened to be open. It was, and it turned out to be the most memorable meal we’ve had here.

We were greeted at La Pommeraie by Pascal, the owner (and only other person there) and the resident cat, Felix. There was a fire going, and our table was directly opposite the Seine. We were presented with mini toasts and the maison specialité, saumon fumé (smoked salmon mousse). When we ordered our meals, I asked if there was something simple he could prepare for Anna (this was not the kind of place with a kid’s menu). Pascal suggested a small piece of salmon, which sounded great. Little did I know we were dealing with a true, French chef. The plate that came out for Anna was so beautiful I photographed it. Of course, she wouldn’t touch the pureed pommes de terre with ongion which was presented in a carved out onion, the carrot and sweet potato mousse, or the parsnip terrine, but she did devour the entire piece of salmon, and then proceeded to eat some of mine.

By the time we finished our meal, Anna was beyond hyper and it was past nap time, but the experience of this place was so lovely we just couldn’t tear ourselves away. We ordered coffees but Pascal first brought us glasses of Calvados, the apple brandy that Normandy is known for. After our digestifs and coffees we tore ourselves away, but not before snapping some photos with Pascal and Anna, who by now had, of course, bonded.

On the drive home we kept pulling over to the side of the road to shoot pics of the houses built right on top of the carved-out, limestone ridge to our left, or the Seine to the right.

We are definitely hoping for at least one more excursion like this before we leave next week. It didn’t happen before because the weather was so miserable, and because we were either traveling to Paris or hosting guests. But now that we’ve had a taste of what that kind of meandering can offer, I’m definitely hungry for more!

Friday, December 26, 2008


Update: Click on the image above to link to David's Flickr set of all the Christmas pics.

We’re just settling back to our pre-visitor routine after about 10 days of various guests and an assortment of maladies. In the days leading up to Christmas, we were treated to many delicious dinners courtesy of Tasia’s friend David (from now on referred to as David A. to avoid confusion with my David). Our consumption of the trifecta of fat (croissants, fromage, and cookies) hit an all time high (really, I didn’t even know it could get any higher!), and we managed a few outings, including two that were child-free.

The pre-Christmas highlight for me was definitely getting a few girl-hours to shop for dresses in town with Tasia. She found 3 that are true Tas (short, tight, flirty as hell), and I found one that I love, love, love (not quite so short, but the other adjectives certainly apply :-).

Christmas Eve day Anna made cookies for Santa, which she later put out with vin chaud (what, you expected milk? Americans!). Going to sleep that night she kept saying “I’m so excited,” and it was just so sweet. (Side note: a few days before Christmas we saw “Santa” riding in a horse-drawn carriage around Rouen. Anna and I chased the carriage for a block or so with Anna beaming and yelling “I’m so happy!!!” the whole time. It was definitely one of my favorite moments of this trip.)

Christmas itself was lovely, filled with the enthusiasm that only a 3-year-old can manage, as well a champagne (the real kind), and the usual goodies. We had agreed to limit gift-giving to stocking stuffers, the sillier the better. There were a few exceptions, most notably the gorgeous necklace David bought me. I had spotted it one day racing through Printemps (sort of the French Macy’s) in search of gloves (I managed to lose one each of mine and Anna’s in the first week here). He remembered and has now created a big problem, as there are 4 showrooms for the jewelry line in Paris!

Christmas dinner was the brunch we never got around to earlier, followed by the first 3 episodes of Season 1 of Californication and the finalé of season 4 of Weeds (perhaps not the expected choice for Christmas—unless you know the crowd that was present!). This is actually one of the interesting things about this trip—the dichotomy between the very old architecture, roads, etc., and the technology we have access to. Because we brought a laptop and WiFi base station, we have access to the world. Pair that with the big screen and video projector in the house and we can download and watch most anything we want. The most surreal example of this has been sitting in this funky, old, French house projecting Barack Obama in HD and larger than life onto the screen to watch his podcasts. Surreal because of what I mentioned above, but also because we are so hopeful and encouraged by who he is and what he has to say. And we just can’t believe that this man is our President, that for the first time in 8 years, we are willing to call someone our President. (Sorry for the political tangent!)

As much as we loved having our friends here to help us celebrate, I am enjoying the quiet (ok, relative quiet) that comes from just being our little family. We have time for a few more adventures and then it’ll be time to head home. Nine more days left—hard to believe.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Beautiful Things

A few of the reasons I love France. This is just what the world looks like here—there is so much design and beauty in the presentation of everything. A feast for the eyes.

BTW, that buddha—all chocolate.

J’aime pas le Rock

David found this video of a song we’ve been listening to since we got to Rouen. The Fabulets (the owners of this house) have a double CD set called Les Années 60, which is filled with awesome French covers of quirky 1960s pop. The first CD is particularly good. Anna is addicted to this song (which for some reason she thinks is monsters singing) and asks for us to play it on loop. For me, this song will forever be the background music for this trip. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Leaps and Bounds

Despite being out of school for a month now, Anna has hit some kind of intellectual growth spurt here in Rouen. In the past 4 weeks she has begun to decipher both reading and spelling by sounding out words, do basic addition, and has just completed (with me) her first 100 piece puzzle. Super exciting. :-)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dana, again

"I dunno—this whole country—it either smells like a sewer or it smells like butter."

Random observations

A few things I've noticed since we’ve been here (in no particular order):

1) The French will gladly run you over with their car if they get an opportunity. I’ve actually seen cars go speeding around little, old ladies stranded in the middle of the road rather than letting them finish crossing safely.

2) People here don’t smile easily. Even when my extremely adorable child (ok, I may be a little biased, but have I mentioned she’s adorable?) is smiling and being generally charming, people tend to be pretty unresponsive. Eventually, of course, Anna breaks at least a few. The first to give it up are always men between the ages of about 30-50, which is to say, the dads. Old ladies are surprisingly tough to crack. Maybe they've been hardened by all the drivers trying to run them over!

3) France, probably all of Europe, in fact, is way more family friendly in many ways than the States. Most cultural and governmental institutions are free for kids, often up to age 18. We get a dramatically reduced fare when we travel by train with Anna (and she's free), and our neighbors told us that they actually get paid 250 Euros a month because they have 3 kids. Also, the town of Rouen has transformed much of the downtown to be a holiday oasis for kids right now, with many of the rides and festivities free either for the kids or their accompanying adult.

4) Every skirt I own is too long. Way too long. Acceptable lengths vary from just below the tush to 1 inch above the knee — no longer. I plan to do something about this upon my return!

5) Picking up after your dog must be an American thing. There are piles of dog shit, of varying size, color, and consistency, everywhere.

6) It takes exactly 28 days of my eating excessive amounts of white flour, butter, and sugar to hit my saturation point. And by excessive I mean ridiculous, morning to night, 7 day a week amounts. And by saturation point I mean I haven't had any yet today and it's after 3pm, but that chocolate-almond croissant in the kitchen is starting to regain it's allure.

Let's get this party started

Today was the first time since Tasia arrived (3 days ago) that she’s been well enough to leave the house. We had arranged for Maïte (the neighbor’s daughter) to come over for a few hours so we could go exploring. Tasia’s friend, David, is also here visiting (he has other friends in France) and it was Dana’s last day so we really wanted to get to have an outing all together.

Since Tas is still quite sick, we drove downtown and then meandered around, starting at the Vielle Marché, near Place Jeanne d’Arc. Tasia and David were just transfixed looking at all the different vendors with their seafood, meats, candied fruits, even one just for butter. (The butter here is seriously to die for. We’ve had many conversations about how to smuggle butter back to Portland!) After a little while Tasia needed some food (and the rest of us are all pigs and quite happy to stop for food anytime), so we went into Printemps for a light lunch. The French really have the food thing down. We had a bottle of cider for the table (minus Tasia, of course) and everyone got little open-faced sandwiches on thin-sliced, toasted bread. Mine was roasted aubergines (eggplant) with tomates and fromage. Trés delicieux.

After lunch we walked around some more, spending an inordinate amount of time in chocolatèries. I also bought yet more xmas gifts for Anna. (I just can’t resist art supplies. Total projection! Thank god she’s finally starting to get into crafts.) Sometimes I feel like I am single-handedly (single cardedly?) keeping the economy from total collapse!

After a few hours Tasia had had all she could handle and we came back home. The two Davids went in search of fixings for latkes for dinner tonight (did you know it’s the first night of channukah?); Tasia, Anna, and Dana napped (separately); and I got in an hour of work on the annual report.

With the exception of an ugly, lingering cough, I seem to have gotten over all the mishaps of the previous few days (thanks to all who sent well wishes!) and I’m encouraged that Tasia was able to get out today. And now it’s time to get this party started. This is what I envisioned when I was back in Portland imagining our time here.

Happy Channukah everyone!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why Dana makes me laugh

Dana: How many Notre Dames are there? Must be a franchise; McNotre Dame.

Bumps along the way

It's been a somewhat rough day or two. For me, it started with the beginnings of a cold which has morphed into a pretty nasty cough. Then, yesterday, I did what David and I have been fearing since we got here. I fell down our steep, narrow, twisty, dark stairs while carrying Anna. Thankfully I didn't have far to go and I was able to keep my wits about me enough to protect Anna's head. My body took it a little harder. I bashed the side of my face into a wall and banged-up both my legs. Fortunately the only lasting impact a day later is that my left ankle/foot is a bit torqued. I am very grateful that I can walk today and that Anna's just fine.

And Tasia, my girlfriend extraordinaire from Portland, arrived yesterday sporting a pretty nasty deep tissue infection. She's been sick for a week or so, and we really didn't think she'd be able to make it here, but that's Tasia. She decided she'd rather be sick in France than in Portland and somehow made it through a full 24 hours of travel alone, puking her guts out along the way. She's on heavy-duty antibiotics which are making her feel terrible. Hopefully she be feeling better in a few days. We had such grand plans for our time together in France!

And, alas, today is my love David's 40th birthday. The motley crew he's surrounded by today doesn't exactly make for an exciting soirée tonight. I am planning to make crèpes, and we picked up a nice bottle of Burgundy and some amazing looking treats from the chocolatèrie. Hopefully we can all rally to give him a proper fête.

Happy birthday, Love. Je t'aime.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Christmas

One of the many things I love about Paris — the holiday window displays!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


So my friend Dana arrived from Oakland on Monday. I went in to Paris and met him for a day/night of grown-up time in Paris before bringing him back to Rouen for a week. Dana and I have been friends since high school. He lived in Santa Cruz, California, where I spent summers and holidays with my dad. Dana and I have always seemed unlikely friends, and yet he is one of only a handful of people I can say I’ve been friends with for over 20 years.

Dana and I have almost nothing in common except for a shared history and a fondness for 80s music. He is a large Filipino man with mod tendencies and a fondness for zombie movies. Thing is, he makes me laugh harder than any other friend I have. (In fact, the only other person who makes me laugh as much is my mother.) I have no idea what it is about him, but during the 24 hours or so we were in Paris I laughed nonstop. And I was strikingly aware of how different that felt that my usual days. It’s so nice to be able to have a sense of humor and so hard sometimes to do so with a 3-year-old. It’s really something I need to work on—lightening up.

Despite Dana’s jet-lag, we wandered around Paris for about 11 hours. He had never been there and had a must see list of the Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower. We met at the hotel (Hôtel Eber, a perfectly fine, cheaper place in the 7th arrondissement) and decided to head to the Louvre. Dana wanted to see the Renaissance paintings, and I’m always game for a world-class museum. I think Dana had no idea what he was getting himself into. We wandered around for 5 hours and still didn’t see an entire section. We worked in a few of the greats that he had studied in art history class, and I was able to sneak in the last part of the 3-part Picasso show going on around Paris (this one was his influence from Delacroix—just showing a handful of paintings and sketches. I still must make it to the Picasso museum this trip).

After the Louvre I decided to take Dana to a brasserie I like that serves good vin chaud right next door to Notre Dame. We didn’t expect the cathedral to be open, but we actually found ourselves able to walk right in during a mass. There was a soprano singing a hymn, and the overwhelming smell of incense burning. We sat for a few minutes and then wandered around a bit before heading back into the cold night air for our next destination, dinner.

We stuffed ourselves full of classic French brasserie food (escargots, duck, and a crèpe for Dana; onion soup, salmon, and crème brulée for me) and then decided to head back to our neighborhood. On a whim, we decided to see how far it was to walk to the Tour Eiffel. Not far at all it tuned out, and so we were able to hit all 3 of Dana’s Paris sights on Day 1. When we got to the tower, it was all lit up in blue lights. This is apparently a special thing they’re doing while France is the head of the EU, and will change any day now. Since there were no lines, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to ride all the way to the top of the tower. If either of us had been paying attention, we would have realized that since we couldn’t see the top of the tower, due to fog, we wouldn’t be able to see anything from the top either!

Instead we had a terrifying, hilarious ride up to the top (alone, with an elevator operator who kept his face pressed into the corner the entire ride!). At one point, when we were higher than anyone should be without an airplane and we’d both realized how bizarre this guy was, Dana turned to me and said “Well, I’m scared shitless”. For some reason the way he said it just cracked me up and we laughed the rest of the way to the top (where there was literally zero visibility).

After that we headed back to the hotel where Dana crashed as soon as his head hit the pillow. The following day we slept in till 10am (ah, what a luxury!) and then roamed around Paris aimlessly for a few hours before taking the train home to Rouen.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Lost in Translation, part duh

So, I think I just ate a dead pig.

Again, if you know me at all, you know that’s far from the norm for me. In fact, with the exception of les poissons and the occasional turkey, I have avoided meat for the better part of 20 years, and pig for even longer. When I was a kid, I loved bacon and hot dogs. But once I was old enough to think about it, meat just grossed me out. Completely. Especially pork, with it’s pink, fatty texture.

So today, on our date afternoon at a local crêperie, I thought I was being bold ordering a crêpe which had sardines in it. I’m not a fan of sardines either, but I thought, you know, I’m here and it’s a local delicacy, I should take a risk. When I started eating it, I found the texture and taste a little off-putting, but just a little. Not enough to be a problem, just enough to know it was different than what I’m used to. It wasn’t until I offered David a bite and started fishing around in the crêpe to make sure he got all the tastes together that I saw the little pink pieces. They didn’t look like sardines.

And then I had to decide what to do. I couldn’t send it back—I had ordered it after all. I could have made David trade with me. He doesn’t eat meat either, but he’s less grossed out than I am. But instead, I chose to ignore the reality. I wouldn’t let him look up the word on his iPhone to discover what I was really eating. Instead I poured myself an extra large glass of cider (Normandie is cider country, and it is de rigeur with crêpes) and pretented I was eating sardines. And you know it’s pretty bad when you have to fantasize that, in reality, you are in fact eating sardines.

And that is actually one of the interesting things about being on this extended vacation—the frequency with which I am able to chose to ignore reality in favor of whatever benefits me most at the present moment. There’s probably some long term benefit in living this way. At least, that's what I’m telling myself in the present moment!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Les Voisins

Last night we had drinks and dinner with our neighbors. They are a family of five (Anne and Theirry, Maïte (17), Elliot (14), and Harold (8)). It was probably the best time we’ve had since we’ve been here. They have a beautiful, chaotic, warm (in all ways) home and have welcomed us completely.

Drinks and dinner was a multi-course, many hour event beginning with champagne and smoked salmon (which Anne specifically made for Anna—they have a mutual love affair going on) in front of a wood-burning stove. After drinks we brought Anna back home and put her to bed. Then Maïte came over to babysit while David and I went back for dinner (which began after 8pm—pretty standard here). There were always several conversations in varying degrees of French and English going on, music playing (beginning with Ziggy Stardust and ending with Miles Davis), good food (fish curry with basmati rice followed by a selection of at least 6-7 cheeses, followed by a homemade apple tarte), good wine, and lots of laughter.

When we first got to Rouen, I assumed all the houses had that Old World feel that ours has. In fact, I assumed we were pretty spoiled, since ours is comprised of 3 units that have been combined into one larger one. After seeing Anne and Theirry’s place though, I know what’s possible! They also have combined units, but have a truly modern, gorgeous place straight out of Design within Reach (although they tell me it’s Ikea!). We joked with them that next time we’ll have to house swap with them, but the truth is as much as I love their place, I’d be sad to be in Rouen and not have them here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lost in Translation

So we're having dinner with the neighbors, who have varying amounts of english. We're discussing what traditional Christmas dinners might consist of, both in the States and in France, and I mention goose. However, I use the wrong word and say instead "canard", or "duck" So we're trying to explain goose, and Anne (the wife, whose english is the best in the house, and certainly better than my french) is trying to translate goose. What she comes up with is "wife of the duck". Love it.

Paris, again.

Our most recent trip to Paris didn’t go as smoothly as the last, but was good nonetheless. For me, this trip involved a lot of museum time, which is a big part of the reason I’m here. As a former art student, and on-again off-again fine artist (definitely more off-again for the past several years), the lure of Paris museums is irresistible to me.

On Wednesday I went back to the Pompidou, this time to see a special show of Futurist art from the early 20th century. I went ahead and bought the accompanying audio tour, which definitely helped point out details long forgotten from my art school days. It was a really great show.

On Thursday I was able to get a ticket to see the much-hyped Picasso show («Picasso et les maîtres» — “Picasso and the masters”) at the Grand Palais. I’m a big Picasso fan, and have gone out of my way to see his work many times over the years. I have to say, this was not my favorite show. The point of this show was to demonstrate how Picasso was not just influenced by, but how he directly interpreted many of the works by the masters of the art world. This show is actually being held at 3 different museums, although the one at the Grand Palais is by far the largest.

David and I saw a portion of the show at the Musée d’Orsay last week, which I enjoyed more. That part focused solely on Picasso’s interpretations of Manet’s «Dejeunner Sur L’herbe». The show at the Grand Palais had several hundred paintings (by Picasso and the others), most of which I had never seen, but they just weren’t among my favorites. Also, despite the attempts at crowd control by selling tickets for specific time slots, it was mobbed. I like to be close enough to lick the art (something I actually haven’t tried). I like to be able to virtually crawl inside the paintings — to really experience the color, the play of light, the scale, and especially the texture. This is what seeing the art in person is all about — these are the details you can’t reproduce in a book.

(Side note: this is actually something I’ve recently realized about the way I look at things: I’m very interested in texture. When David and I are out taking photographs, I’m often shooting the cobblestones or the layers of paint on a section of wall, as opposed to the landmarks of Paris. When I have some time in the coming days, I’ll start a Flickr gallery of the texture shots I’ve been taking.)

While I was taking in the art, David and Anna were having adventures of their own. Of note was the Cité des Sciences et l’Industrie, which sounds amazing. They loved it, which is great. I’m sure David will blog about it and post some of his amazing pictures soon. I have to admit that things like that just don’t hold my interest at all. I’m a big believer in playing to your parenting strengths. David and Anna can geek out together and both love it. I, OTOH, am right there for reading stories, doing art projects, cooking and baking, teaching French, etc. It sounds much more Martha than I actually am!

Sign o' the times

Well, I have to admit that since we've both currently got work, the recession/depression hasn't really effected us much yet (well, other than losing most of the value of our savings, but I'm choosing to block that from my mind and focus on the immediate). So I was really bummed to get an email from my client informing me that the print budget for the annual report I've been designing was cut. Entirely. Really it makes perfect sense, and I'm sure a lot of organizations will make the same choice this year. I'll still get to finish designing the piece, it's just that it will go directly online instead of becoming a beautiful, printed piece. Of course, as a print designer, I will very much miss the tactile piece of the equation. And you just can't achieve the same impact with an online publication — the elements of pacing, color, and even surprise just don't translate as well.

I wouldn't be surprised, though, if this becomes the way businesses do business from now on. The money saved by avoiding print costs can certainly be put to better uses. I remember folks taking about the end of print 10 years ago and I just didn't believe it. Perhaps this worldwide financial crisis will prove to be the harbinger of this change.

Have you felt the impact directly yet? Other designers out there finding similar changes?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Out of place

So we take Anna into Notre Dame de Rouen today and she's fascinated with all the candles. As in Notre Dame in Paris, there are the votives, like the ones we lit for my dad. Here, however, there are also tapers. Anna sees this and with great enthusiasm goes running up to them, next to the nice woman praying, and yells "They have a menorah!". As if the princesses weren't enough.

Old World charm

So, I believe I've mentioned some of our bathroom challenges thus far. The latest involves our downstairs bathroom, which is split into a toilette, and the aforementioned bath that doesn't work. About a week ago the toilette started smelling bad. Really bad. Without anyone having used it. I cleaned it with bleach, which helped for about an hour, but then the smell returned. I emailed Jane who informed me that the smell was coming from the pipes, that this sometimes happens when it rains, and that there's nothing to be done. So for now we keep the door to said room closed and avoid using it whenever possible. Just another example of those little things we take for granted at home.

More walking, more food

David and I had our first couple of hours alone in 3 weeks yesterday. We went walking (what else?) around town and made some nice discoveries. We had heard about the Christmas marché, so we decided to check that out first. Throughout the downtown area, from December 5 to January 3, there are all kinds of holiday festivities particularly focused on children. In the square by Notre Dame de Rouen they've installed a mini ice rink (3 Euros for adults, free for kinds under 6), and a beautiful, double-decker carousel (2 Euros for the kid, the accompanying parent is free).

(Side note: another major cultural difference here: kids are free in many of the museums in France up to age 18! Also, it is actually quite a bit chaper for us to ride the train with Anna than without her. They give us a substantial discount on our tickets, and she rides free.)

In other areas there are more (smaller) carousels, animatronic characters, a luge slide, and there are stands selling vin chaud, crepes, cakes, and all sorts of goodies everywhere.

We walked and walked and eventually found ourselves at the eglise (church) Jeanne d'Arc. In case you didn't know, Rouen is where she was burned at the stake. There are many monuments, streets, etc. for her here. David pointed out that the church looks like a giant witch's hat! Quite amusing. Look for some pics on his blog in the coming weeks.

After that we were freezing, so we decided to look for a nice, warm spot for lunch. I opted for the default, the nice restaurant in the fancy department store. This worked out really well, especially since they gave us much needed bathroom coupons! (Okay, another cultural sidenote: you pay to use the restroom anywhere in France—in the train station, in department stores, sometimes even in restaurants, although they'll often give you a ticket for free admission!) I can see both sides of this approach. OTOH, the bathrooms are clean and there is toilet paper. OTOH, having to pay when I'm already a paying customer seems a bit extreme. FYI, the average seems to be .50 Euros (about 65 cents).

Today we brought Anna down to see some of the marché. David took her for a ride on the carousel, but her poor hands were so cold she just wanted to get off. We went into Notre Dame de Rouen (more princesses), and had lunch at the only "bio" (organic) restaurant I've found. It was quite lovely—small but with fresh, familiar foods like salad, quinoa, and tempeh. I recommend it highly (Le Chenevis on rue aux Ours).

Tomorrow our plan is to lay low since we head back to Paris again Wednesday. David is going to attend the local Perl Mongers meeting (there are geeks everywhere) and I'm going to try to get some more museum time. Tomorrow night we're getting our first date night. We're planning to head to a popular local restaurant known for it's traditional Rouennais cuisine. I'm guessing they won't have tempeh.


Why is it that things that you would never do at home seem like such good ideas when you travel? David and I polished off a bottle of local cider with our lunch today (at a great "bio" [organic] restaurant). We then stopped at a marché where we bought 4 different kinds of cookies, dark chocolate pudding, and more cider. (Mind you, this is in addition to the vin chaud and chocolate cake we already have at home.) Then we stopped at the boulangerie, as we do roughly every other day, for our morning croissants (with chèvre and jam) and baguette (with cheese and butter). While I can justify this somewhat with the miles we walk every day, I am sure that there's a point at which the intake is exceeding the output. That point was probably somewhere around when the 4th box of cookies made it into the basket.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Take that

So, Anna was asking for too many things at once and, big surprise, I got frustrated. So I asked her to have David help her. This is how the conversation went:

David: Let me get it for you, honey.

Anna: Well, this isn't between you and me. It's between me and Mommy.


Me: Anna, how did you get so smart? You're not supposed to be outsmarting me until you're at least 12.

Anna: I'm not outsmarting you. I'm smarting you.

And there you have it. Why I am terrified of the teenage years. We are so screwed!

You're welcome

Vin chaud:

1 bottle vin rouge fruité (which I took to mean cheap, fruit-forward, full-bodied red)
(side note: a bottle here cost us 1E 70!)
1/2 c brown sugar
zest of 1 orange
2 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 c cognac

Let simmer lightly 10-15 mins and then let rest another 10 mins or so. It's even better the next day.

A votre santé!

Cultural Differences

It's interesting to see how people do things over here, especially with regard to child-rearing. Although we have certainly seen children out with their folks, the only ones in strollers are babies—certainly not Anna's age. People here walk a lot, and that means the kids walk too. None of them seem unhappy about it either, despite what feels to us like bitter cold. Anna, OTOH, who is perfectly happy to jump and run in circles around our house for hours, whines immediately if we need/want her to walk more than about half a block, regardless of the weather.

Another difference is with regard to schedules. Kids as young as 4 are in school from 8am to 4:45 pm daily. This means that at 5 they come home for le goûter (snack, the only one of the day I might add) and then join their parents for dinner around 8pm. Our neighbors invited us over for dinner next week and it took quite a lot of back and forth to communicate that by 8pm Anna needed to be in bed. They kindly offered to have her sleep in the room with us while we're dining—that would be with 4 adults and 3 other kids. And I guess maybe a French kid could do that, but there's no way my kid's going down in those circumstances.

It really does make me realize how we've come to let our kids change the way we would otherwise do things—at least some of us have (ahem). I honestly don't know if that's for the better or worse. OTOH, it would be great to be able to go over to friends houses for dinner until 10pm with Anna in tow, instead of being dependent on getting a sitter. And it would surely be nice if she'd walk more instead of being pushed in her comfy ride while we're huffing and puffing up hills in the freezing cold. But would it be better for her?

There are so many differences that we're experiencing right now compared with our normal day-to-day life: what we're eating, how much we're walking, the amount of family time, the lack of television, the amount of cultural activities, the lack of the usual hustle and bustle of all those things that just have to get done. The few chores we have here are certainly more labor intensive, but the pace in general is SO much more relaxed that it doesn't matter. I wonder what we'll be able to take back with us, if anything? Well, vin chaud for damn sure! And croissants with fresh chevre and homemade apricot jam every morning for breakfast, as long as we've had to walk a mile or two to obtain them! After all, I've got my culinary priorities right anyway.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


This is my fourth trip to France. I came here twice in college, and David and I came here for a week to celebrate our 1-year anniversary in lieu of a honeymoon. All three times I was poor and in my twenties. This was back in the olden days, pre-EU, when you needed a visa to come to France and needed different money for each country you visited. Also, pre-cell phone and pre-Internet (ask your parents about it, kiddos). For me, traveling back then was exciting, but also scary. Everything seemed so unknown and difficult to understand. So I'm trying to figure out why being here this time is so, so much easier.

I think part of the reason is that the world has become a lot smaller in the past 20 years. With the Internet, the formation of the EU, the ease of travel, etc. there's just less difference between "us" and "them". We're more familiar to them and they to us so there seems to be less wariness. But I think the larger part (for me) is best summed up by what Kathy Bates said in Fried Green Tomatoes: "I'm older and I've got more money."


I'm on day 2 of my regular 5-day migraine. I've always had headaches, but it took me a long time to realize this particular variety was a migraine because I don't have the nausea or visual stuff. My head just hurts like a motherfucker. In the past, my special homemade cocktail for this was 2 each of Tylenol, Advil, and Aleve, taken together as needed. The thinking was that I never really knew which drug the migraine would respond to, or if it was a combination that worked best. In fact, this treatment tended to work pretty well for about 6 hours and then needed to be repeated. When I finally realized they were migraines, friends urged me to talk with my doctor about migraine medicine, since my homebrew was perhaps a bit taxing on my liver (hah, like that's my liver's worst problem! ;-) Anyway, I have now tried Maxalt and Immitrex and neither helps at all. I took Immitrex for the first time yesterday morning at 7 a.m. (I often wake up with the migraine). The result was that I passed out within the hour and lost the entire day to lying in bed. When I awoke, I still had the migraine. So I've taken 3 Advil (my more recent homebrew) and this keeps it to a dull roar but leaves me functional. Anybody out there have other suggestions?

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Day the Music Died

Today would have been my father’s 66th birthday. I owe so much to him, including being here in Rouen now. He was a magical person who loved encouraging people to think out of the box about how to live their lives. While in Paris this week Anna and I lit a candle for my dad at Notre Dame. I bawled my eyes out while she sang “Happy Birthday Dear Zeda”. I love you, Dad. Happy Birthday.

Update: Not to be all woo-woo, but as soon as I finished this post I got up and looked out the window. There, directly in front of our house, was a giant, bright, arcing rainbow. The first I’ve seen here. Every little bit helps.

Lest you think this sounds romantic

So today we finally went to the big supermarché (think Freddy’s if you’re from the Pacific Northwest). After almost 2 weeks of pretty rustic home cooking (lots of eggs, potatoes, cabbage, cheese, bread) finding this place definitely resulted in some binge shopping. I loaded up the stroller with such random things as Nutella, capers, frozen pizza, premade crepes with caramel and salt (oh come on, like you wouldn’t!), a decadent chocolate cake mix, fish sticks (can’t take the 3 out of a 3-yr-old), and ingredients for vin chaud. I think I speak for us all when I say it’s so nice to have options.

And that right there, I think, gets to the heart of a lot of the differences between living in the states and living elsewhere. We have so, so many options at home that it’s often hard to make a choice. Here the options are far fewer in general (cheese notwithstanding). Take laundry for example. Those who know me know that I am no laundry wimp. We chose to use cloth diapers with Anna and, through trial and error, to wash them ourselves. Moreover, I frequently don’t dry my own clothing, hanging it instead on the lovely Ikea racks we have in our laundry room, where it’s a balmy 68 degrees.

Here in Rouen (and in much of Europe I gather) we have a tiny washing machine, but no dryer. To run a single load of laundry takes 2.5 hours to complete, and then everything needs to be hung up on a line outside. I’m sure this is delightful in the summertime, but in December it’s hideous. By the time I’ve hung everything (maybe 10-12 minutes) I can barely feel my fingers and need to go rub myself all over the wall radiators in order to properly thaw. The laundry then hangs on the line for 2 days where it gets almost dry. We gather it all up and spread it all over the house, focusing mainly on the aforementioned wall radiators (which have become my best friends). One more day like this and our clothing is dry, crunchy, and ready to be worn.

Of course, there’s a flip side to everything. As I write this (at roughly 2 p.m.), I am drinking a glass of vin chaud, which I just made while the chocolate cake was baking. This is not how I usually do things. First of all, drinking wine before 5 p.m. is usually either due to a celebration (a special brunch, for example) or because if I don’t I will surely hurt someone soon (more desperation than relaxation). Here it’s just the way things are done. Walking home from the grocery store today we passed a restaurant window and I happened to look inside. Every person, at every table, had 4 wine glasses in front of them. At lunch time. Surely this is the way things are supposed to be.

And a completely random note: French people, especially French people in Paris, seem to think I’m French. They ask me for directions, talk to me in French (as opposed to David, whom they always address in English), etc. I take this as a high compliment. I can’t even attribute it to my fancy new red lipstick Tasia made me buy for Paris, since I wasn’t wearing it at the time (sorry Tas!).

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Paris was a whirlwind. On the train back I said to David, “Did we really just take the train into Paris yesterday?” We packed in a lot.

On Tuesday we arrived in Paris at 11 am and took a taxi directly to the hotel to drop off our stuff. We’ve found a great B&B that we’ve made our home when we’re there. It’s expensive, but any decent place seems to be and this is a lovely, small (12 rooms), place owned by a British couple who make their own jam (need I say more?). They go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, have a fridge and dining room you can use for meals, and have Wi-Fi.

After getting settled we walked to the Eiffel Tower and then hopped the Batobus for a quick ride along the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay. Having learned that food always makes my daughter happier, we stopped in at a lovely little Italian place for some pasta and a glass of wine first. I then decided to resort to the use of bribes to convince her to “rest” in her stroller for an hour while David and I cruised the museum. Of course, the resting never happened, and there were several meltdowns in the museum, but it was well worth it. Afterwards I had to make good on my promise, so I took us on an interminably long and circuitous route (I misread the map) to what turned out to be fabulous gelato (for A) and much needed coffee (for us).

The following morning, after the requisite croissant and jam at the B&B, we set off for Notre Dame (billed as a “castle” to Anna). Surprisingly this was among the easiest sightseeing destinations we’ve had with Anna, probably because I kept pointing out all the “kings” and “princesses” on the walls. The best part, however, was the creche which had been modernized with computerized lights that I’m at a bit of a loss to describe. I’m embedding photos that won’t begin to do it justice. Suffice it to say that we were all mesmerized for a full 10 minutes just watching the baby Jesus and his princess posse get all sparkly and colorful.

Of course by then little miss was once again starving, so we stopped for fabulous crêpes and vin chaud at a stand by the cathedral. (Side note: vin chaud is a hot spiced wine and is super yummy. I Googled for recipes and plan on drinking it daily for the rest of the winter in place of the Emergen-C I was drinking stateside.) After we refueled we headed to the Centre Pompidou, stopping first at the amazing fountain outside. Despite the rain, we all had such a great time looking at all the outrageous Niki Saint Phalle sculptures (I got some great photos — definitely head over to the Flickr page to see them all).

Inside the Pompidou I got a painfully short, but totally rapturous 45 minutes to myself in the Art Moderne 1905-1950 section, which is where my passions lie. Room after room of Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Miró — just ecstasy for me. I will definitely be going back for several hours before our trip ends. This was followed by (what else) more food, this time awesome Israeli falafels in the Marais district (I could seriously lead eating tours through Paris). Then we raced to the previously mentioned stroller rental shop, cabbed it to the hotel and then to the train station, and were back in Rouen by dinner time.

Today we just hung out and took it easy. Anna found a copy of “Monsters, Inc.” which she’d never seen (up till now, the only feature film she’d seen was “Finding Nemo”) so we put it on the big screen here with the projector and all sat together watching it. Quite a treat to just watch a matinee on a Thursday afternoon all together.

And now, it’s bedtime. Bonne nuit.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


A few issues resolved:

I believe I had mentioned bathing issues: as in, we hadn't been able to bathe Anna. There are two bathrooms in this house, one of which has a tub (Anna is shower averse). Unfortunately, the tub doesn't appear to have hot water, which can be a problem at times; the month of December for example. When I contacted Jane (the daughter of the folks who live here) she said we should use the bathroom of the unit connected to this one, that of a tenant who is away for a month. This became complicated though, because the tenant forgot to leave the connecting door unlocked, nor did she leave the key. There is, however, another person who lives in the unit, none other than the man who delivered us the bag of bread, Theirry. You following all this? We are basically supposed to use the tub in Theirry's apartment, which is connected to this one via a locked door. Unfortunately, by the time we figured all this out (not exactly intuitive) Theirry appeared to be away for the weekend. No problem, Jane said, the back door is never locked. Go outside, across the courtyard, through the gate, and let yourself into this person's apartment and use their bath. Um, okay. I avoided doing this until it had been a full week since my child had been bathed, and with no hope in sight of her being bathed anytime in the future if I didn't, in fact, break and enter into this person's apartment. Needless to say, it was a bit awkward. The happy ending to this story is that tonight I finally reached Theirry, explained as best as I could the situation and low and behold, he produced a key. So now I can let myself into his apartment to bathe my child whenever I want (still a bit awkward, I must admit).

The other good news is that all my hours of obsessive Googling while awake at 3 a.m. led me to a better stroller for the duration of our trip. I found a place in Paris which rents all sorts of gear and we now have quite the ride for Anna. The poor kid's face is completely chapped from being exposed to freezing wind and rain while thrashed about in a crappy umbrella stroller for hours at a time. Now we've got rain gear, a boot, a roomy basket, and much improved steering. Never thought some cheap Graco stroller would seem so dreamy. Ah how quickly things change!

More to come soon about our adventure in Paris and some new pics. Until then, wine and cheese of course.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Jet-lag, part deux

I seem to have developed an unfortunate pattern. It's now 2am and I've been up for an hour. This is likely because I fell asleep at 8pm, owing to the fact that I was up at 3:45 last night. What can you do but give in?

Do the rest of you who blog find yourself composing blog entries in your head in the wee hours instead of sleeping?

I honestly don't mind. I feel more awake now than I have all day. Today I decided to try harder to just let Anna be Anna. I offered to take her back to the toy/bookstore we found the other day to just play there. Almost as soon as we set off it started to rain, and of course we have no real rain gear here, including for the stroller. We made the best of it, ducking into a cafe for a bite before actually going to the store. One of the things I've learned about Anna is that she's always hungry. If you know her, you know she's a skinny little thing who eats constantly. At home I never leave the house without loads of snacks, even if we've just finished a meal. So part of my plan for our collective happiness here is to plan on many, many snack breaks.

Lying in bed tonight my mind was jumping from this blog, to our overnight in Paris tomorrow, to my work for Mercy Corps. I'm super excited about the annual report I'm designing for them — work which is continuing while I'm here in France. (Side note: we are so very lucky that we can take our work with us. It's what allowed us to move to Portland and to make this trip to France). Anyway, the work has been on hold for a week while we were traveling and getting settled, and now it's starting up again. Having been away from it for a week, my brain is just firing up again and the gears are spinning at about a thousand miles an hour.

Also on my mind is the planned resdesign of the Strongrrl website. The site is at least 8 years old and doesn't reflect any of the work I've done in that time! It also doesn't reflect my current design aesthetic. I want to design a new site which will accommodate both my graphic design work and the line of purses and children's gear that I've been making. If only there were 30 hours in a day and I had both childcare and energy to do something with them! And I find it harder to design my own stuff than for clients, both because it always gets backburnered and because designing something to reflect one's personal sense of design is intimidating.

Anyway, with all this to do I guess it's time to stop talking about it and start doing it! Oh, and if you're one of my friends whom I haven't seen/heard from in a while lurking on this site, drop me a line! You know what I'm up to but I'd like to hear about your life!

A bientôt.