Life in France Journal, Part One

Life in France Journal, Part One April 4, 2008

Initial Impressions

I’m in France, about 80 km south of Paris. Here, in a small hunting cottage originally built in the 1700’s, I’m watching (and helping where I can) Adriana care for a 22 month old and a four month old in a house that was never designed with “kid-safety” in mind.

About a 100 yards from this cottage is the estate house, built some time in the 1800’s. Beautiful, white stone with numerous outbuildings, including a greenhouse. To get here, one takes a sharp left turn off a narrow road and then heads down a steep driveway which goes first to the estate house and then another sharp right turn leads to the cottage.

The cottage has three levels. On the first level is the kitchen, dining and a step down living area, along with a tiny toilet room and tiny laundry room. The living area looks over a small patio which itself looks over a rapidly flowing river, the River Loing. On the other side of the river is a lovely green area, home to a number of horses.

A very, very steep flight of stairs leads to the upstairs hall. An immediate left at the top of the stairs leads to one bedroom which has a shower room off it. From that room, another very scary set of steps (wide open to below–all the way to the ground floor) winds to a loft where Jonathan’s study is–and where I’m writing this note. Going down the hallway, there is a toilet room on the right followed by the only closet in the house. On the left is the amazingly spacious bathroom, and then there is the other bedroom, which the children and I share.

In France, the toilet room is separate from the bathroom. There is no sink in there, just the necessary facility. The bathroom has a deep but exceedingly narrow tub (as I discovered this morning when I sought to bathe in there and discovered my american-sized derriere would barely fit). But it’s great for bathing the children.

The kitchen is a narrow space, perhaps six feet wide total. Everything is small–sink, stove, refrigerator, oven and microwave. Almost no storage of any kind. A few upper cabinets, a couple of drawers and two lower cabinets. One open shelf above the sink holds most of the condiments. The kitchen has a pass through window to the dining space which is open to the living space which has the spectacular view of the river and horses.

Joshua, the 23 month old, can get up the stairs to the second level OK by going on hands and knees, but can’t get down on his own yet. He must have someone holding his hand. That means that if we need to carry the baby and bring Joshua down at the same time, we gave to navigate those steep stairs without any kind of support–no handrail. The first day I was here, I was holding Samuel and needed to get downstairs and Joshua wanted to go down as well and I realized there was no way I could do that safely.

All the upstairs rooms have sloped ceilings, going with the roof line. I watched Jonathan this morning come and get Samuel when he woke early and noticed that the top of his head missed the door frame by about 1/2 inch. Things are built here for smaller people, to put it mildly. In this loft, where he keeps his computer, he can stand up straight only in the exact center of the room.

The house is light because there are skylights in most of the rooms. It is warmed with radiators, and that keeps the early spring chill at bay. It has certainly been remodeled and modernized since it was first built. Floors are either hardwood or ceramic tile or berber carpet. Kitchen probably last saw any work in about 1950, but it is functional.

The almost complete lack of closets is typical for French homes, I understand. Certainly helps to keep one’s possessions to a minimum. The one upstairs one has a clothes rack about 2 1/2 feet off the ground and just about that long with a shelf above it. It is built into an attic eave, as is the toilet room. The toilet room almost makes my own bathroom at the parsonage look large–but not quite.

At this point, Adriana manages because Samuel is still immobile and is a very laid back, happy and content child. Very much like Jonathan as a baby. Joshua, on the other hand, is really struggling with a lot of separation anxiety, is very, very active, talks in long paragraphs (and primarily in Spanish), and needs a lot of attention. Jonathan is home more here than he was when he was working, and that helps. He’s loving his school-work, studies rarely and is still one of the top students, and is having a great time. He often rides his bike to school (about 8 miles, up a STEEP hill at one point), so Adriana can have the car. Since it rains daily here, it also means he often gets wet on the bike ride, but he rides in biking clothes and takes a clean pair of jeans and a shirt in a backpack.

The children are healthy and beautiful. They look very much alike, just are unlike in temperament. Adriana and Jonathan look wonderful–slim and in shape and very youthful. It’s a good thing I have that narrow set of stairsteps at my church which I go up and down multiple times each day–at least the stairs are not bothering me, even carrying a child. Adriana, as always, manages in that kitchen to create all her own babyfood, and fix healthful meals, all from scratch. They have hired a once a week housekeeper, thank goodness. That does take some household pressure off.

There’s a huge sandbox outside for Joshua to play in–about 15 by 20 feet, with a lovely tree in the center of it. Everything is green and the grass has small wildflowers growing everywhere. Trees are just beginning to leaf out.

We’re a mile out of a little village that has two small grocery stores, a fabulous bakery, an amazing pizza place (we were so tired last night that I teased Jonathan about ordering in Pizza and he said there is a place to do that. However, they only deliver when the person who tends bar decides to shut the bar down and deliver the pizzas, so he ordered some and we went and had a beer with the locals while waiting for them), a pharmacy (I’ve not been in yet, but may have to go there), a few restaurants that Jonathan has not seen open yet, an inn where some other students live and houses all crowded along the narrow road–just a two lane strip that also serves as a parking lot for some people. You have to see it to believe it.

So, that’s the initial report from France. Will write more later.

Saturday in France

Well, Adriana is working on getting Samuel to sleep for the night and Jonathan is outside with Joshua working on wearing him out. Not a problem with me–I’m utterly worn out. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how I managed three children under five, and two this close together.

After getting up and having a nice breakfast (Joshua and Jonathan went to the boulangerie early this morning and brought back fresh croissants and baguettes), we loaded up the children and all five of us crammed into their small Renault and headed for a town about 15 miles from here for a major grocery shopping trip. Just before we got there, Joshua fell asleep in the car, so Adriana elected to stay with him so he could nap and Samuel and Jonathan and I headed for the French equivalent of a shopping mall with a large store similar to Wal-mart.

About two and a half hours later, we had a cart full of food, I had passed Samuel back to Adriana and traded her for Joshua, and we headed for the check out. At least $400 American. and not one bit of junk food in the cart. All “Adriana” food–fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, a little beef (we skipped the horsemeat, freely available here), some cheeses, and lots of diapers, paper towels, etc. Somehow, it all fit into the small trunk, which usually carries a stroller and we headed home to unpack.

Here’s what I learned at the store: French women DO get fat. So do French men. Not as fat as Americans, but there is definitely some heft around the butts, thighs and stomachs here. Everyone wears blue jeans, and dark clothes. Sales help is not particularly friendly. Not reading French puts me at a great disadvantage when trying to figure out what products do or how much they cost. There are three aisles of cheeses, two of yogurt and at least four of wine. You can also buy Scotch in the grocery store. Fish is very, very fresh here. And things are pretty expensive.

After getting back and unloading, Jonathan fixed us a great mid-afternoon meal of fresh caught trout while Adriana and I tried vainly to get several loads of laundry folded in the midst of looking after the children. Jonathan had left a couple of aluminum pans on the counter in which he had poached the fish and after the meal, Joshua brought us one of them. We were impressed that he had not spilled it until I went into the kitchen and saw the contents of the other all over the floor. At that point, I took over cleanup duty and got all that taken care of, as thoroughly as possible cleaned the kitchen, started another load of laundry (learning to use these machines has been tricky), tried to get Samuel to bed but couldn’t, and went outside to sit with Jonathan and Joshua. Decided to come back in and get this day down on paper. Am really tired, but feel good. Know it is helpful to have me here. But also bet I’ve been up and down those stairs over 50 times today. Nothing like one’s very own fitness machine in the house.

Tomorrow, I hope to take a long walk in the woods near here. There are miles and miles of walking trails nearby. Hopefully I won’t get too lost–just need to remember the name of the village nearby and can find my way back again. Other things about France: stores all close on Saturday and most are closed by 5 p.m. each day except for some grocery stores which stay open until 7 p.m. So evenings are spent with family. NO big SUV’s here. All cars are small. From what I can tell, gas is at least $6/gallon–maybe more.

Lots of traffic circles at intersections–roundabouts they are called. Really treacherous. Lots of bicyclists also. Streets in towns are very narrow. Just two lanes and people sometimes even park on them, so traffic has to negotiate around them. Houses are right up to the streets–no yards in the towns. But there are big estates like this one where we are on the outskirts.

>So, that’s the report for the day. I’ll sleep well tonight. Daylight savings time starts tonight for France–but I won’t even care. Not bothering to look at my watch while I’m here.

Sunday Morning in France

It is a rare quiet moment in this lovely household and the first time I’ve been able to write without a baby in my lap, so am taking advantage of this time. Sunday morning here, nearly noon now. Daylight savings time started here today. I slept a little late as I wasn’t feeling real well during the night and am still in some jet lag, so just about the time to get up here, I fall into a sound sleep. Jonathan and Joshua and I went into town earlier, listening to the sound of church bells, and picked up the daily ration of fresh croissants and baguettes. All are napping here right now. I’ve cleaned up the kitchen, made another cup of tea, and am watching another rain storm come in. It does rain daily here in spring, and the trees are just now coming out, but the grass is extremely green. The horse pasture across the river from their house just looks lush–surely the horses that graze there are getting rich with good, fresh green food.

It’s such joy to be here, and much hard work. I estimate I climbed those treacherous stairs here at least 50 times yesterday. With everything so small and somewhat inconvenient (to these spoiled eyes of the pampered citizen of the US), everything takes longer. This morning, all three of us, Jonathan, Adriana and I, were in the tiny kitchen getting breakfast ready and cleaning up–that in a floor space 2 1/2 feet wide by five feet long. Joshua was sitting in the hallway just outside it playing with a piece of kitchen equipment. Samuel back down for his morning nap by then. Later today, Jonathan plans to take Joshua for a bike ride and I will go for a long walk in one of the many walking trails in the forest around here. Am looking forward to it. If Adriana feels like it, we’ll put Samuel in the stroller and take him too. Initial roads into the forest are paved, and we can stay on them and give him a good outing. I enjoy being around Jonathan and Adriana. In the midst of child chaos, they keep their affection for one another and support one another with necessary disciplinary issues, pretty frequent in Joshua who is testing every single boundary. Many “sits” a day in the time out chair for him, but they are consistent and it is paying off.

He is still having trouble adjusting to me. Although he likes to play with me, he has a memory that my presence means his parents are going to disappear for a while, and he is not happy about that. Probably the only time I’ll have them alone is a couple of days before I leave as Jonathan and Adriana need to go to Paris to deal with immigration issues. A never ending battle for them.

As I may have written earlier, Jonathan studies little but stays at the top of his class. This is like a vacation to him, and when he runs short of funds, he picks up some consulting work to bring in some income. They live fully, yet frugally where possessions are concerned. They indulge in the healthiest and freshest of food, and Jonathan has become quite an accomplished cook. Anyway, that is the news from France this Sunday morning. I am finishing this note with Samuel now in my lap. He woke early and I am insisting that Adriana resume her nap while I care for him. He’s the sweetest baby–truly Jonathan almost reincarnated. Rarely cries, full of huge smiles when he sees anyone, loves to be held and cuddled.

Tuesday in France

France: It is chic and it is picturesque, but convenient it ain’t.

>Adriana and I made the brave decision to drive the children to the place where the large store is that we shopped in on Saturday–about 15 miles from here. She had to return an item and also wanted to pick up some things we’ll need for a party for Jonathan’s 31st birthday on Saturday (this is a surprise, so please don’t say anything to him). The drive went beautifully. No getting lost for us! We put the baby in the stroller and Joshua in the cart (it costs one Euro to get a grocery cart, but you get it back after returning it. Keeps carts from being all over the parking lot).

First 15 minutes went great. Managed to find someone who spoke enough English to help with the exchange, and we were finding what we needed. And then . . . Samuel got fussy and hungry and Joshua got restless and obstreperous. Oh my. Apparently French children DO NOT misbehave in public. Dirty looks all around. I’m trying to carry Samuel and give him a bottle at the same time and I think my arms are going to fall off. Joshua did not want to stay in his seat and became more and more demanding. By the time we were checking out, they were both screaming. They calmed down as we headed to the car, and then everyone was fine. Adriana nursed Samuel while I unloaded the cart and returned it and then had an uneventful drive home.

After we got home,I decided to walk to the village to get some bread, which we had forgotten to do the day before. Should have bought it at the big box store. Also should have bought some stuff for Samuel’s aching gums, as he is teething. Before I left, I decided to give the flooding washing machine one more try. Keeping up on laundry here is nearly impossible. With the small machines, and that fact that every single thing any of us wear is quickly either covered with baby drool or dropped food or something worse, everything needs frequent washing. With reckless abandon, I decided to gather up all Samuel’s dripping bibs (how can one tiny mouth put out that much drool every day?) along with other pieces and throw them in, gambling that I could get them washed and dried before the current one was soaked.

Of course, even after a lot of attention to the washing machine drain, it still spills all over the floor. I’ve become the expert mopper with that. Anyway, I thought I’d take a walk to the village (one mile, mostly sidewalks, quite hilly) then to get the bread and my exercise and the teething medications. Hmmm . . . it was 1:30 when I got there and I was wondering why there were actually parking spaces along the street. Then I walked up a huge flight of steps to the pharmacy, and found it closed. Walked down those steps and up a hill to the bakery and found it closed. Walked back down the hill to the small general market and it was closed. Of course–it’s mid-day meal time in France! Everything closes so all can have their leisurely meal together.

An hour and a half later, after mopping the latest flow from the washing machine, I headed back to the village. Pharmacy still closed–with my awful French, I really tried to read the sign on the door and realized it will be closed until April 4. Bakery still closed. A friendly woman said to me, “french words french words french words Merde.” Merde! Tuesday! The Bakery is closed on Tuesday!!!!!!

So, just went to the market, got a baguette and some lemon tea and cough drops for me, and trudged back up the hill to the estate where we live.

Now, on this walk, it is possible to see gorgeous views of the river below and houses that sit on it, as does this one. Beautiful, peaceful, verdant, quiet, settled, aging gracefully. I have no idea how people around here support themselves. Nothing seems open. No commerce. But it is quiet and gentle.

When getting to the estate, I walk in and can either walk down a steep driveway to the main house or take a steeper flight of stone stairs to the farmhouse we are in. I take the steps–wondering how many years people have walked down them. A lot of history here, yet there does seem to be a lack of life.

Oh well. I’ve about decided I’m in boot camp. When I got back, trash needed to go out–two children in diapers means it goes frequently. To take it out means a trudge back up those steep, steep stairs and then hope I’ve got things in the right bin. I also make a trip with the recyclables, May as well do my part.

I’ll be in better shape than I’ve been in for years after this trip is over.

I come up here to this attic room and write on Jonathan’s computer when I’m just not able to do any more “kid stuff.” Adriana manages beautifully in this never ending process of feeding, napping, playing, feeding, cleaning up, feeding, cooking, shopping, napping, feeding, laundry, feeding, cleaning up, playing. Yet there is something quite powerful to rearing children this way. Joshua can be left alone upstairs when necessary. He knows he can’t go down the stairs without help, and abides carefully by that. Samuel will also figure that out, and they have baby gates to use for a while. I know that Adriana does things I would have given up on long ago, especially the making of all her own baby food, but this is right for her and I fully respect it. So I’m getting in the rhythm of this household, and helping where possible.

Tomorrow, I shall try to write about Malibu and Reisling, the estate dogs.

Wednesday in France

Just got back from my dash to the village and Samuel is still napping, so I have a few minutes to write before he awakens and the late afternoon craziness occurs here.

>Here’s the latest I have discovered about French bakeries: what they bake in the morning, they sell in the morning. Late in the afternoon like this, the cupboards are nearly bare. But I did snatch three “pain de chocolat, ” one bag of “financials” a type of afternoon tea cookie that Adriana loves, and a loaf of “pain de rustique.” So it was worth the walk, plus my “boot camp” experience here means I’m making the walk quickly and without fatigue, even up the somewhat steep hills.

Now, about Malibu, one of the estate dogs. He’s a rescue dog, mixed breed, but a lot of terrier in him, black and white, about 40 pounds, and somewhat erratic. To this point, he has bitten Jonathan, Adriana and at least one of their visitors. There is little that terrifies me more than an out of control dog, so this was not good news for me. The first evening, I went out for a short walk with Joshua and Malibu was out with Agnes, the owner of the estate. He came charging and barking toward us but she called him back and kept him under control while we walked. Later, he came over when Jonathan and I were in the back, and he was clearly friendly and curious.

But Adriana is terrified of him and she needed to go to the estate house to talk with Agnes about the washing machine a couple of days ago. I decided it was my job to protect her. After all, I am a dog owner and I do watch multiple episodes of “The Dog Whisperer” with Cesar Milan. Who better to be the champion here? I walked with her carrying a large walking stick that I had picked up on my walks in the woods to help me get down muddy trails. As we approached, I held my head high, kept the stick prominent, spoke to Malibu with a confident and firm voice, and was astonished to see him quickly get into a posture of submission. He did come forward to bark and remind us that the estate house is his territory, but with no menace at all.

Then there is Reisling, whom we don’t often see. Huge–at least 140 pounds, giant beast, reddish brown, very much a chow, but perhaps something else mixed in. He just wants his rump rubbed gently and go goes into a trance, eyes half closed, somewhere off in dog heaven. That’s the kind of dog to have!

Today, the French housekeeper came to do her weekly ablutions. First rule for this American: do NOT get in her way. She had a way of doing things that would brook no interference. When she was done, the house was not only spotless, but also totally re-arranged so it looked like a proper French home, not one overrun by children. Coffee table back in the middle of the living space, not shoved off to one side as we had done to create more play space. Joshua’s bedding removed from the floor in the joint room where we sleep and the proper rug restored to it’s spot. Essentially everything in the kitchen rearranged–one can only hope they can find what they need. I don’t think she cleans Jonathan’s study–I don’t see anything re-arranged here. That may be part of the deal. By the way, she was definitely the size of a nicely plump American.

Well, I hear Samuel starting to wake. This is the longest he has napped since I’ve been here and we’re all relieved. He feels better with more sleep and we are all more relaxed.

Thursday in France

Adriana and I had a good laugh last night when we started talking about the fact that I’m losing weight and trimming up here. I really hate to leave them next week without my help as I know it has taken a huge load off her and so we decided that we could package this as a fabulous “Weight Loss Spa.” I would charge a finder’s fee, send people over here with the instructions that their job is to be housemaid, laundress (and laundress mopper–it is still not fixed), kitchen help, nursemaid, trash taker-outer, and errand runner (walker, that it, to the village at least twice a day).

In return, they receive room and board, and are to eat only what Adriana puts in front of them each day, plus just one glass of local variety wine/day (of course, I allow myself more!). It will be healthy, and filling.

Everyone wins! I think people would pay a premium to live in the French countryside, eat lovely and healthy food, play with babies, etc. and trim up in the bargain. Just even writing this paragraph probably burned 100 calories because I’m doing laundry right now and each time I hear it start to spill, I race down two flights of steep stairs to mop the latest batch of water before dashing back up to keep writing. As each load has six drain cycles, that makes for some multiple stairs! I say again, thank goodness for these european washing machines that use very little water, or we wouldn’t be able to do laundry at all.

It’s a glorious day here. Adriana took Joshua to Fontainbleu to a play group and left Samuel in my care. This is the first time I’ve had him alone and we were both concerned because he’s not been able to get to sleep recently without Adriana’s nursing him. However, I told her he had to learn sometime and this was as good a time as any. He and I had a great playtime. Just since I’ve been here, he’s starting to sit up on his own and also has gained much more hand coordination. Then when he got sleepy, I gave him his bottle. He only wanted a little, but then was able to get himself to sleep after just a few minutes of fussing. A definite step forward for him as he learns more self-regulation.

Monday will be the day I need to care for both of them. A friend of Adriana’s who has a six month old will come for the morning. We figure between the two of us, we should be able to handle three children, and it spares me the concern of having to leave Joshua either up or down by himself since I really can’t bring both children up or down at once, as Adriana can.

The landlady, Agnes, came for a visit today. They are still working on the washing machine situation and know now that they’re going to have to get a rotor-rooter type service out here. She speaks some English, thank goodness, and we enjoyed the conversation. They bought the estate 5 years ago and are slowly renovating it–working on the main house now. They have four children, two away at the University, and two others as home. I’ve only seen the youngest son, however.

Yesterday, we needed more groceries. Since Adriana insists on cooking everything with fresh ingredients–and that includes fresh squeezed orange juice for everyone in the morning, and since storage space is so limited, it’s hard to keep everything in stock. So Jonathan, Joshua and I went to Moret, a village about 5 miles from here that has a pretty large grocery store. After doing our shopping, we drove through the center of Moret, into the old town via the entrance over a one lane bridge through a high, stone guard tower. All the streets in the center part are just one lane, but they are two way, so stop lights control the flow of traffic in and out and each street changes direction every few minutes. Very, very charming and old world–just full of little shops and ancient homes and a huge, Norman church with real flying buttresses on the outside.

At the grocery store, Jonathan wanted to buy some celery and had a bunch in his hand, looking for the price. Then a store working came over to him and said something, tore off the plastic strip that held the bunch together and explained to Jonathan (whose French is coming along nicely) that he should just tear off the number of actual stalks he wanted and leave the rest. Those were then weighed and priced. Ah, the no waste French cook in action!

Well, Joshua is stirring. Must go.

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