31 October 2009

Kids had a great indoor Halloween celebration complete with a treasure hunt and room-to-room trick-or-treating--all within the confines of our yard! Not quite what they had in mind but it worked!!! Thanks for all the candy/cake and goodies!!!

27 October 2009

DC Visit

DOING A BIT of 'housekeeping' back in Washington for a few days. Kerri and the kids will enjoy their break from school with pumpkin carving, crafts, trips around the area, and lots of movie nights.


Marsilles: Mixing Business with Pleasure

WE HAD TO make a semi-emergency trip to Marseilles today to visit the American Consulate. We decided to make a full day of it and explore the city a bit. I'm not sure why we haven't yet visited France's second city, especially since it's only two hours away (we've been to Bologna, Italy twice -- and it's 5 hours away). I think in many ways Marseilles gets -- or at least has had -- a bad rap for a variety of reasons. It's dirty; or it's too crowded; or it's kind of rough; or it's not charming; or there's too many immigrants (let's be honest).

But for me it is precisely these kinds of 'imperfections' that give cities their identity, their feel. I want cities to have texture and flavor, and want there to be more to it than what the glossy postcards show at the souvenir stands. It's one of the reason why I prefer Nice to Cannes. Maybe I have these feelings because I hail from Washington, DC -- one's of America's most flawed cities in many ways.

So you might guess that we really like Marseilles, and we did. Sure, the drive into town is pretty dumpy (what big city has beautiful suburbs?), but the old port and village were beautiful. We were only there for 5 or 6 hours and it's hard to really get to know a city in that amount of time, but we liked what we saw. Here are some of those things:

The old port -- which is really old. Marseilles dates to 600 b.c. and is the oldest city in France.

Kerri and Henry then went for a spin

Between Consulate visits: lunch. Kerri went for the Niçoise salad.

P&J had pasta and I opted for...well, you can see my plate.

As usual, Henry just ate a bit of everyone else's food.

Watched some skateboarding while having coffee in the late afternoon.

The visited the stunning Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde.

Patrick tries to get a better view of the harbor.

I just wanted a picture of the Chateau d'If (the famous prison on the small island in the center). And yes, I loved The Count of Monte Cristo.

Climbing in trees.

Marseilles through the trees.

We made a mistake by not visiting Marseilles sooner. It was beautiful on top of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde.

26 October 2009

Can Stairs Be Fun?

THIS IS AN incredible video out of Sweden.It's been around for a while, but give it a look. Behavior can be changed. It just takes a little effort and creativity.


Better Than Last Year

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, it was a pretty successful day. Sure, I was awake at 5:30. Sure, I was at the prefecture before the car park even opened. Sure, I stood in a line outside the door for two hours. Sure, I watched a woman yell at a man for nearly 5 minutes because she thought he cut in line. Sure, I didn't have the proper number of photocopies of every document we needed. But in the end we got our new cards and are now legal for another year.

We timed things pretty well this time. I know that I'd be in line for several hours so I called Kerri when it became clear about how long a wait we would have and she and the kids simply came down and met me. The arrived at about 9:30 and we were out of there by 11:15. Last year we walked out at 4:45pm.

Like I said -- all things considered, that's a pretty successful day.


25 October 2009

Nice Lunch, Cheap Dinner

WHILE PATRICK SPENT two hours making architectural plans for a house on graph paper (left), Julia and I made a very nice lunch. Since I don't get to cook very often during the week I try to make a nice lunch each Sunday afternoon -- and Julia and/or Patrick often help.

Today we did quite well with Ginger and Garlic Chicken Kebabs with Roasted Red Peppers; a tomato-chick pea salad, and a very nice Basmati Rice with Dates and Fresh Mint.

On the whole, very good indeed.

But because we had a nice, hearty lunch we went light for dinner. Really light. We chowed down on Ramen Noodles and Saltine Crackers. Total cost for dinner: just a bit under 3 Euros. For 5 people. Reminds me of my college days.

This afternoon we ate on our small table on the porch. Julia prepared the settings.

Reader Help (with photo update)

IT IS THAT time of year for us again -- time to renew the 'ol Carte de Séjour. I have a question that I hope somebody knows the answer to: As an American (non-EU) can I renew a Carte de Séjour at a Sous -Préfecture or do I have to go to a full Préfecture?

For our purposes, I'm basically asking if we have to go to Nice or can we go to the Sous Préfecture in Grasse?

If you know, let us know.

This is 'us' for the next year -- at least in terms of our identification card. Every year we have to go through this. We're preparing for a full day at either the adult prefecture or the kiddie prefecture; haven't decided yet. And the most important thing we will have with us are these sepia-toned photographs (and a stack of paperwork about 2 inches thick!)

23 October 2009

A Bit of Poe

IN ADDITION TO teaching history and economics at the CIV, I also spend 5 hours a week teaching literature to 2nde students. You can only imagine the joy!

Today is the last day of class before the Toussaints break -- a (nearly) two week break that comes every October. I have 2nde English for one hour today, from 3-4pm. They are not going to be in the mood for much. That's why I'm just going to read them a story today. Just like your parents may have read to you when you were young. I'm going to turn the lights down, invite them to put their heads on their desks if the wish, bring a cup of coffee to class (for me), and just read to them.

And because Halloween is nearly here I'm choosing The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe. I'll read it in English (of course), but the famous opening lines are also quite good in French (sorry, no accent marks today as I'm on my American laptop):
Vrai! -- je suis tres nerveux, epouvantablement nerveux, -- je l'ai toujours ete; mais pourquoi pretendez-vous que je suis fou?
It's my favorite Poe short story.

Get Your Checkbooks Out

ONE OF THE most famous restaurants in Paris is getting ready to do a little house cleaning -- and they're putting some of the items up for sale.

La Tour d'Argent, an establishment that dates back to the mid 1500s, is putting nearly 20,000 bottles of wine and spirits from it's cellar up for auction in an effort to clean out a bit of space and raise about a million euros. La Tour d'Argent has the one of the most extensive wine cellar in Europe, boasting nearly 500,000 bottles -- some that date before the French Revolution (inset photo).

So if you've ever wanted a 1983 Chateau Petrus, a '49 Chateau La Tour, or a 1788 Clos du Griffier cognac (yes, 1788!), this is your chance. Bring your checkbook though -- these vintages will cost you a pretty penny. But the restaurant wants people to know that not all bottles cost a lot of money: thousands of bottles will sell for between 10 and 15 euros.

I will again recommend the book Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure. Among other things, the book talks about how restaurants like La Tour d'Argent hid their most precious wines from the occupying Germans during WWII.

Of course, I'm not in the market -- I just like the idea of a cellar that is big enough to hold nearly 1/2 million bottles of win.

20 October 2009

Decorating the Fridge -- One City at a Time

IF YOU WERE like most kids you went through a period where you collected something . For me it was baseball cards and backpack patches. Kerri collected Smurfs and stuffed animals.

[Quick note on the backpack patches. I lived in Cambridge, England for a short time when I was 10 years old and whenever we would travel around the country my parents would buy me the little patches that you can sew onto a backpack or canvas bag. So somewhere in my collection of things I have patches from Bath, Ely, London, York, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford, and St. Ives, etc. I have literally just remembered this as I am writing. I need to find those the next time I visit home.]

Our kids are into this phase now and Patrick has quite a collection of football (American) cards that he arranges constantly. Julia has made herself a collection of potholders that rivals any kitchen's stock. Henry collects snails (a long story for another time). But since we have come to France the kids have also chosen something to 'collect' when we visit cities around Europe. Patrick has chosen key chains; Julia has tea spoons; and Henry...well, he's still deciding.

But what is fun is that our family has a sort of collection that we are working on as well. Each time we visit a (fairly major) city we buy a refrigerator magnet. We tend to choose the three-dimensional ones but we have a wide variety. Many of the magnets now adorn our frigo, and many sit in a small bowl because they're broken. I took a picture of the side of our fridge this evening. Can you identify all the magnets (despite the bad photo)?

Here are some close-ups of a few:

Several are missing and I'm not sure where they are (Bordeaux? Strasbourg? Como? Basel?). We'll have to find them.

Here's the answer key from the first photo (from top-left): Maryland (our home state), Lyon, Carcassonne, Venice, Paris, Colmar, Luxembourg, Baden-Baden, Avignon, Milan, Bologna, Frankfurt, Washington, DC, Amsterdam, Annecy, Andorra, Monaco, Pont du Gare, Torino, Geneva, Chamonix, Barcelona, and Ireland.

What did you used to collect?

18 October 2009

Planes, Trains, and a $10 Pepsi

ACTUALLY, THE TITLE should read No Planes, Trains, and $10 Pepsi. For the first time since we have lived in France, my plans were directly affected by la grève -- this one involving the baggage handlers at Orly Airport in Paris. I was supposed to take an afternoon flight on Easy Jet Thursday afternoon, but after learning of the strike and confirming my flight was indeed canceled, I rushed to Antibes to catch the train. Kerri dropped me off at the station just in time to catch the 2:46pm train. 6 hours later I was at my hotel and 15 minutes after that I was sitting at Akash (my 'standard' Indian restaurant) ordering tikka masala.

So I got to Paris despite the strike and we actually had a fairly productive day of meetings on Friday. That evening a group of us decided to go for a quick drink at a local cafe near the Sorbonne (our meetings were at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand if you happen to know the area). Most of my colleagues ordered beer or wine, but I opted for a large Pepsi (needed some sugar). A couple friends joked that the Pepsi would be the most expensive thing on the bill. They were almost right. Take a good look at the glass on the right -- you can't see it but there is mark near the top that reads: 50cl. Well, those 50cl's cost me €7.90. The only thing that made me feel better was that the beer my colleagues ordered was a €8.50. Suckers!

Later that evening after a very good meal I checked my email to find that the strike at Orly was still on and that my flight for the next day was canceled as well. So I was stuck catching the train once again. I know that the train is a very civilized way to travel, but I'm the kind of person who only enjoys the train if I'm psychologically prepared for it. If I've planned for a 1 hour flight I'm not going to get excited about a 6 hours train ride. Luckily, I had the following two things in hand to make the trip a little easier.

Now all I have to do is find out how to get my money back from EasyJet.

17 October 2009

The French and Their Love Lives

CHECK OUT THIS video. It's an add for Canal Plus -- kind of the French equivalent of HBO or Showtime. You won't regret it.

The French guy who is 'buying' this story is so terrific.

As usual: hat tip to The Dish.

15 October 2009

Bread, Sunrise, Paris

IT'S VERY DIFFICULT to beat a breakfast that includes fresh bread -- especially if it's from Le Moulin de Flor in Roquefort-les-Pins. Roquefort is the village next to ours and Le Moulin is quite well known for its variety of incredible baked goods. The bread -- especially the compagne baguettes --cannot be beaten. I know that bread is very local ('ours is the best!'), but I'll put this boulangerie up against any of them.
I must also admit that the bread tastes even better with a hot mug of coffee and this view -- the sun rising at about 7:12 in the morning.

On another note: I am off to Paris this afternooon for some meetings and if you ask my kids if they will miss me they will say yes. But if you ask if they are glad I'm going, they will also say yes. You see, our 'policy' is that when daddy is away, everyone gets to sleep with mommy in our bed. They get so excited when it's time for me to be away for a few days.

Aren't kids great.

13 October 2009

Unintentionally Dropping the (almost) F-Bomb

NOT ME, OUR four year old son Henry.

Henry has a habit -- which is quite funny at times -- of using English phrases or idioms but sometimes not quite getting them right. One of the ones he uses frequently is a mixture of 'Let Go' and 'Get Off' which ends up as 'Luck-Off'! As you might expect, this is used whenever someone (OK, usually me) is annoying him or trying to help him when he just doesn't want help. And as you might guess, when he says this phrase with a certain degree of force it sounds like he is throwing around the F-word. Sometimes he just looks at me and says, 'Luck-Off!' Just like Mr. Beeks in Trading Places (come on, you remember the scene!). I find so much joy and humor in the phrase that it's to the point now where I purposely irritate Henry just to hear him tell me to Luck-Off.

I am such a child sometimes, I know.

Oh, and if you think this is the first time Henry has thrown-around the F-bomb, you might have forgotten this video from about 18 months ago:

12 October 2009

One Beats Zero. Every Time.

I JUST RETURNED from picking up Patrick and Julia from school and on the way home they told me about their day -- one event in particular -- and it made me so proud of them.

This year, for the first time, their class has the opportunity to select the délégué de classe which is basically two students who will officially represent their class in various ways: at conseils, at meetings with the administrations, when students have problems, etc. The French take this 'honor' very seriously starting in about 6th grade, so this year is kind of dry-run for the real thing that will take place next year.

So this afternoon each student was asked to write down their ideas for what they would want to focus on as délégué de classe. After each idea was read allowed the class voted to narrow the list down to 4 finalists -- and it was expressly stated that you could, in you wanted, vote for yourself. So Patrick was explaining this to me in the car and Julia was chiming in with the details that he was missing and they were getting quite excited about the whole thing. They explained who got the most votes (Xavier) and what some of the ideas were. Then Patrick revealed to me that he, in the end, decided to vote for himself. 'That's great,' I said. 'If you have the best ideas you should vote for yourself. How many votes did you get?'

'One!', he said, with a small smile on his face.

'What about you, Julia?' I asked.

'I got one vote, too. And I voted for myself!'

What a couple of losers, eh?

But the part that made me the proud father comes next. After detailing their losing bids for this early political honor, they started telling me the ideas of the students who made the finals. One involved more field trips to the pool; another involved having candy available in the rooms at all times. 'They just voted for all the stupid ideas,' Patrick lamented. When I asked what he had suggested he told me his plan was to have monitors assigned to make sure the bathrooms were clean every day because they are a mess (pee on the floor, tissue everywhere, horrible stench).

What a fantastic idea!

Julia's was equally good -- her plan involved having the good academic students tutor the kids who are struggling a couple of days a week.

But alas, when it comes to 10-year olds these kinds of ideas lose-out to '20 more minutes of recess every day.' As we were getting out of the car the kids told me that they thought that some of the students were just giving ideas that they knew people would vote for rather than ideas that would actually help. Most of the ideas, they said, could never really happen.

Is it possible they completely understand the realities of politics already?

08 October 2009

Two Years

IT DOESN'T SEEM like that long ago until you see photos of your children. This was taken on our very first trip to Cannes a day or two after we moved to France. I don't know why I'm in a refelctive mood, but I've been going though Picasa looking at old pictures lately and really spent a lot of time on these two photos --- from that first day.

In some ways they haven't changed a bit. In some ways I can barely recognize them.

Henry 1, Julia 0

THAT'S THE SCORE if your keeping tracking of how many times Henry and Julia have drawn blood on each other. Henry scored his first blow two days ago, and it was a doozy. More on that when I take some good photos of Julia's swollen, colorful eye. Meanwhile, here's a reminder of the medical attention Henry insisted on when he got a tiny cut on his forehead a little over a year ago. Overkill?

07 October 2009

Kids Are Legal

AFTER TWO YEARS our children finally have identification cards that 'prove' they are living in France legally. Don't get me started on why it took this long (mainly because I have no idea!) but they now have it. But can you explain this little tidbit: Kerri and I have cards that allow us to stay until 2010 and our kids have cards that allow them to stay until 2014.

That doesn't make any sense to me, but if it helps us qualify for CAF assistance, I won't ask questions.

Photos as Promised

HERE'S A COUPLE photos we took when our friends Vic and Gay visited last month. Check out more about the visit here. In the first photo we're enjoying a fantastic American Pancake breakfast that Julia prepared.


04 October 2009

Earning Their Patches

EACH WEEKEND WE are trying to force encourage the kids to do some sort of new project or activity -- very similar to what kids do in Pathfinders or the Boy/Girl scouts back in the States. Like in the scouts, Kerri and I are offering 'patches' that they can earn by successfully completing a project or task. They earned a few patches yesterday

First, we took the kids on a hike/bike ride along a river near our house. There came a point where we could no longer bike down the path because it was too technically difficult -- especially for Henry. So we dismounted and I took the kids about 300 meters upstream then gave them their challenge: cross the river and make it back to the bikes in less than 10 minutes (the reward would be a 'navigation patch'). The task would have been quick simple except crossing the small river/creek was a bit of a challenge. I ran back to Kerri and the bikes and we waited...and waited...and waited. Finally, about 9 1/2 minutes later we saw three kids coming along the river bed -- on the other side. Success.

Then, later in the afternoon, Patrick and Julia earned two more patches. Take a look. Patrick chose a raft-making task where he had to create a raft that will support a toy figure, using only items from our yard. The Swiss Army Knife he bought in Geneva came in real handy. Success!

Julia chose a baking project and she made calzones completely from scratch and completely by herself. I can tell you without a doubt that this was a success. She made four -- filled with tomato sauce and cheese -- and they were gone very quickly.
Next week I'm pushing them to try for a 'laundry', 'ironing', and 'car washing' patch.

A Good Mail Day

WHEN THESE KINDS of things come in the mail it makes for a very good day. Kerri's parents sent a couple of boxes and this was just some of what was in them. Wow!

Did you pay special attention to the item on the far left! It's shaped like an American football and I'll be drinking it tonight!

03 October 2009

Good Music Pickup

AFTER A NICE hike/bike ride in the mountains with the kids and a quick lunch at Subway, we decided to spend some time a the Mediatheque -- or library. We all really enjoy spending time at the Mediatheque: the kids like to look for books and movies to rent, Kerri likes to find new books to help her with her French, and I like to sit down with English newspapers (International Herald Tribune today), and Lequipe.

But today I also went to the music section to look at their CD collection. About 10 minutes later I went to the desk with a stack of CD's. My collection today:
  • 'Magical Mystery Tour' and 'Past Master's Volume 1'- The Beatles (time to expose the children to the Beatles).
  • 'Songs About Jane' - Maroon 5 (Kerri likes them)
  • 'Greatest Hits' - Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (a little embarrassed about this one)
  • 'The Very Best of the Smiths' - The Smiths (loved them when at university in England)
  • 'Appetite for Destruction' - Guns N Roses (come on, it's a great album)
  • 'Octavarium' - Dream Theater (they had every Dream Theater album there -- what a great library!!)
Nice pickups. Now it's time to face the big ethical dilema: should I download these albums I've rented to my iTunes account? Ohhh, that's a toughy.

02 October 2009

Blame it on Rio! And Some in the US are Loving This

SURE, I WAS pulling for Chicago, mainly because I love when the Olympics are held in the US. But I'm also pretty excited about an Olympic Games in Brazil -- indeed, in the South America period. You can bet they'll put on a great show.

You might be thinking that Americans are pretty disappointed by today's selection -- but you'd be wrong if you were talking about some of the leading members of the hard-Right. I'm talking about the right-wing Republicans who are already frothing at the mouth because they see Chicago's loss as a huge embarrassment -- even failure -- for Chicago's own Barack Obama. Yes, even something like trying to land the Olympic games has turned into a partisan party for those at the extreme end of the GOP. Don't believe me? Take a look at some of these quotes from some of American's leading Republican voices when they heard the today's news:
  • "Hahahahaha," wrote Red State's Erick Erickson. " So much for improving America's standing in the world, Barry O."
  • "Please, please let me break this news to you. It's so sweet," said Glenn Beck on his radio show.
  • The Drudge Report announced the news like this: "WORLD REJECTS OBAMA: CHICAGO OUT IN FIRST ROUND. THE EGO HAS LANDED."
  • "The worst day of Obama's presidency, folks," echoed Rush Limbaugh.
  • "Chicago and Tokyo eliminated. No Obamalypics," Michelle Malkin tweeted,
  • "Cheers erupt at Weekly Standard world headquarters," wrote editor John McCormack in a post titled "Chicago Loses! Chicago Loses!"
  • The National Review Online called it an embarrassment for Obama, adding: "If he can't work his personal magic with the Olympians, why does he expect it to work with the Iranians?"
Now I know that both ends of the political spectrum have their share of mind-numbing blowhards (a Democratic congressman said something pretty stupid about Republicans just two days ago) and I have called-out both sides for engaging in this kind of boorish political point-grabbing, but these reactions were even more sophomoric than I would have thought. Cheering an American failure just to stick-it to Obama? Really? That's the strategy they're going with?

Boy, they're going to become downright giddy if unemployment keeps going up or the economic crisis gets worse. How will they contain themselves?

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. -- Alexis de Tocqueville.

Good luck Rio!!

Late Update:
Here's a link from a political conference for a group called Americans for Prosperity -- a conservative political group . This is their reaction upon hearing that America lost it's bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

01 October 2009

Wine Experts: the Good and the Bad

NO, I'M NOT just going to remind you how much the French hate Robert Parker (who knew?). There was another story that caught my eye in the morning paper. Time for a little report. You know those tiny gold medals that appear on wine labels? It turns out they're mostly meaningless:

Writing in the Journal of Wine Economics, retired Cal State Humboldt professor Robert Hodgson said he looked at the results for more than 4,000 wines entered in 13 U.S. competitions in 2003 and found little consistency in what wines won gold medals. The study found that of almost 2,500 wines that were entered in more than three competitions, 47% won a gold medal in at least one contest.

However, of those gold medal winners, 98% were regarded as just above average or below in at least one of the other competitions. Hodgson said that demonstrated how little consistency there was."Of the wines that entered five competitions and got at least one gold, about 75% also received no award in at least one of the remaining competitions," he said.

In recent years, wine tasting has become a surprisingly popular experimental subject. Neuroscientists at Cal-Tech conducted an elaborate taste-test of California Cabernets in a brain scanner - more expensive wines taste better, even when they're actually cheap plonk gussied up with a pretend price tag - while Frederic Brochet, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bordeaux, explored the sensory frailties of wine "experts".

The Brochet experiment went like this: he invited 54 experienced wine tasters to give their impressions of a red wine and a white wine. Not surprisingly, the experts described the wines with the standard set of adjectives: the red wine was "jammy" and full of "crushed red fruit." The white wine, meanwhile, tasted of lemon, peaches, and honey. The next day, Brochet invited the wine experts back for another tasting. This time, however, he dyed the white wine with red food coloring, so that it looked as if they were tasting two red wines. The trick worked. The experts described the dyed white wine with the language typically used to describe red wines. The peaches and honey tasted like black currants.

According to Brochet, the lesson of his experiment is that our experience is the end result of an elaborate interpretive process, in which the brain parses our sensations based upon our expectations. If we think a wine is red, or that a certain brand is better, then we will interpret our senses to preserve that belief. Such distortions are a fundamental feature of the brain.

But the news for wine experts isn't all bad. A large study published last year demonstrated that, although there's a slightly negative correlation between the price of a wine and the pleasure it gives wine amateurs, oenophiles actually derive more pleasure from more expensive wines, even when tasted blind.

In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. For individuals with wine training, however, we find indications of a positive relationship between price and enjoyment. Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.