26 January 2010

An Unwanted Birthday (for me)

OUR YOUNGEST KID turned 5 over the weekend and I am not happy about it. I don't know why, but I just loved 4. It is such a great age: vocabulary is increasing every day; physical limits are being pushed; self-sufficiency is developing; and things are said and done everyday that make you laugh. I know -- things continue on this trajectory at age 5 (and beyond), but I just really, really like age four.

I kept telling Henry that he wasn't allowed to turn 5 because I wanted to have a kid who was only four , but he insisted that turning 5 was very important to him. Not so important, however, that he wanted to share the day with friends. When he woke up on Monday he told Kerri he was sick and he didn't think he could go to school--knowing full well that Kerri had made a treat to take to class to celebrate his birthday. He generally doesn't like situations where he is the center of attention (this is an area where he and I differ greatly).

We had a fun day celebrating on Sunday and I'll get around to putting up some photos of the birthday boy and his brother and sister. And I'll also get around to loving the idea that little Henry is now five years old.

25 January 2010

11 Yr. Olds Don't Really Understand Grad School

LAST WEEKEND I asked the kids if they wanted to hear about my school studies -- since I'm always asking about their school studies. They seemed kind of excited and we decided the best way for them to find out what they want is if they asked me some questions. Julia went first: 'Who gets to erase the board at the end of the day?' Patrick was next, 'When you raise your hand to talk, do you put one finger up or all your fingers?'

They still have no idea what I'm doing in Geneva once a week.

22 January 2010


I DO MY best to keep this blog as un-serious as possible. There are no posts about how much I love my wife or adore my children; nothing about how much I miss my friends and family; and certainly nothing about the Meaning of Life. This space is reserved for an informal, kind-of-fun, often sophomoric written/photo diary of our life in France. Plus a dash of sports and politics.

But considering I spent a full day visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau last Thursday, it's tempting to veer from that template for a moment to reflect on what can only be described as an indredible day. I should probably take a moment and try to express the wave and breadth of emotions that I felt as I toured the scene of one of the most heinous crimes in all of humanity.

But I'm not going to.

Because I can't.

Ce n'est pas possible
! I refer once again to what my parents told me after their visit 30 years ago: it's impossible to describe.

But I do have a few thoughts that I'll share, as well a few photographs.
  • I'll start where I started in the earlier post: it is incredible that the French Ministry of Education provides this opportunity for students. They chartered one plane every day this week and filled it with students from all around the departement. Our plane had 8 different schools -- each with about 20 students. (How would you like to fly with 180 14-year olds)? I hope the flight crew got a bonus!
  • It was COLD! With the wind we were told it was -20! That is cold. The 2 1/2 outdoor tour of the Birkenau section was incredibly cold.
  • We participated in a short ceremony at the main memorial. A student read two poems, a Rabbi from Nice led a short reading and prayer, then an Auschwitz survivor (M. Gotlieb) led a group of students in laying a wreath of flowers -- flowers sponsored by the Alpes Maritimes. It only lasted about 5 minutes, but was quite powerful.
  • Great lunch -- very what-I-consdier Eastern European food.
  • The students seemed more moved by the afternoon part of the tour -- the part that included Auschwitz. It helped that a lof of the tour was indoors -- in the buildings -- and included exhibits, photos, etc.
  • The Execution Wall. Tough to look at, even now.
  • Barbed wire everywhere; and high guard towers.
  • If I have to pick between watching Schindler's List or Life is Beautiful, I chose the later.
  • How does one begin to describe the stairs that lead down to the crematoriums?
  • Arbeit Macht Frei -- the sign is back up, after being stolen last month.
A few photos from the trip:

Our tour begins just inside the main gate at Birkenau.

Over 400 acres. All surrounded by barbed wire.

The single, solitary train car is quite an image.

A ceremony at the Memorial led by a Rabbi from Nice (the Auschwitz survivor who came with us is the man on the right with the hat and ear-warmers, M. Gotleib).

One of my students brought flowers to lay on the train track.

I took this photo partly because it shows how intently the students are listening to the tour guide. Tough not to pay attention when the photos behind them are being explained.

Quite a day, that's for sure.

Late Update: The Nice Matin newspaper has a story in today's edition. In French, of course, but one of our students (Matteo) is featured a couple of times. France 2 also showed a segment on the news last night that I'm going to look for on their website.

If It's Friday, We're Skiing

19 January 2010

An Incredible Thursday

AFTER THAT SHORT teaser yesterday, I'll briefly explain what I am going to do this Thursday.

As part of a program sponsored by the Conseil General Alpes Maritimes (which is sort of like the regional school district) I am going to Poland with 21 students to visit the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. But what makes the trip really 'incredible' is the fact that we are making this trip in one day.

First, some background. The 3eme (that's 9th grade in the U.S.) program in history focuses on Europe in the 1930s and 40s. For about half of the year the students study the period between the World Wars, which obviously includes the rise of Hitler and the issues related to the Holocaust. Every year students from select schools are given the opportunity to travel to Poland for a guided tour of the two concentration camps. The trip is free to students who are selected to go. In order to get a place on the trip, students must write a letter of intent and submit it to the Conseil General, which then chooses which students get to go. Since I teach history at one of the schools that takes part in this program, I am able to go this year as a sponsor. This year the 21 students selected are a mix of students in the various international sections that we have at the CIV -- so some will be from the Anglophone section, some from Italian section, and some from the German section.

Our day begins when we meet at the airport at 5:15am. At that point we rendez-vous with our tour guides and prepare to board a chartered plane for the 2 hour flight to Krakow. But before we board the plane we will meet an 84-year old resident of Nice who will be making the trip with us: he is a survivor of the Auschwitz Camp. Once we arrive in Poland we spend the morning touring Birkenau, take an hour for lunch, spend the afternoon touring Auschwitz, then return to Krakow for the flight back to Nice. According the schedule I have received, we get back to Nice at 11:00pm.

Any way you look it at, that's a full day. When you consider what we will we see during the day, it may seem even longer. I've never been to a concentration camp, but I remember my parents telling me about the time they visited Auschwitz some 20+ years ago. One of the things they used to say is that it was difficult to describe.

In any case, I'm in for a whirlwind day -- one that is sure to be incredible, no matter how you define the word.

18 January 2010

Coming Up on Thursday

I'M GOING TO do something incredible on Thursday. It involves students, history, cold weather, and an airplane. More later.

How Could I Forget?

I'VE BEEN TRYING all evening to get a hold of someone at my bank in the United States. When I finally got through to a human voice they politely explained that the offices are closed...for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I think this is the first US holiday I have completely forgotten about.

So because I'm feeling a bit guilty, I'll feel better if I share one of my favorite King quotes -- one that seems particularly appropriate today:
Life's most persistent and urgent question is this: what are you doing for others?
Happy Martin Luther King Day.

15 January 2010

'Best Day Ever'

THAT WAS THE initial response by Patrick and Julia to their first Friday of skiing. We picked them about 45 minutes ago and they still haven't stopped yapping.

To be fair, it was an absolutely perfect day, and it snowed all day yesterday. And I'd be pretty thrilled if I got to ski all day -- and got to do it every week for two months.

13 January 2010

The Girl from Haiti

DURING MY STRANDED weekend in Geneva I spent quite a bit of time standing in lines and waiting in hotel lobbies with my fellow 'trying to get to Nice' passengers. One such passenger was a very nice girl who was a first-year student at the University of Nice. She had won a scholarship to the school and had left her native Haiti to spend three years in Nice studying Neurology. We happened to be at the same breakfast table one morning and we talked about school, education in general, and her desire to get her Ph.D. in the United States (Columbia University). She also told me how excited she was that her parents might visit in the summer -- if they can get the money together for the flight.

Her parents live in Port-au-Prince.

I don't remember this girl's name, but I'm thinking about her and her family right now.

12 January 2010

Joining the Blog Ranks

SOME GOOD FRIENDS have started a blog about the house they recently purchased in the Vaucluse. We've written about Michel and Shirley before because 1) they have been good friends for many years -- going back to the days when Michel and Kerri's dad worked together, 2) they were the first 'American friends' who visited our house in France, 3) they co-own a great French Bistro in northern California called Bistro des Copain, 4) we visited their house in Sablet, France last year, even though they weren't there (we found a way in thanks to a phone call and a neighbor), and 5) they treated us to the fanciest meal we have had so far in France -- at Lane Rouge on the Nice harbor.

And it was number 5 that really did it! Thanks again.

Check out their own experience as Americans who own a home in the South of France at www.sablethouse.blogspot.com.

11 January 2010

It Finally Happened to Me

I'VE TRAVELED QUITE a bit in recent years, mostly for work, and I have never experienced the Nightmare Scenario -- the one where you're stuck in a city for several days because of the weather. I've been very lucky: I've never lost a piece of luggage, never been stuck in bad weather for more than a few hours, only had flights canceled one or two times, never had rental car problems, never really had many problems at all (unless you count the time I was on a five hour flight and the only two movies showing both starred Christian Slater).

Well that all changed this weekend. Here's the rundown -- which includes some bad moments and some surprisingly good moments. To make it easy I'm going to just use bullet points:
  • Fri, 8:30pm -- Kerri and the kids drop me off at the airport for my flight to Geneva. As soon as I get into the terminal I see the flight is canceled (lots of snow in Geneva).
  • Fri, 9:30pm -- after waiting in line for an hour I am re-booked for the next morning AND have a voucher for a free night at a hotel across the street. Now, I live about 20 minutes from the airport, but I stayed in the hotel anyway for two reasons: 1) Kerri wouldn't have to bring me back at an un-godly hour the next morning, and 2) the kids wanted me out of the house so they could sleep in my bed.
  • Sat, 9:00am -- flight leaves...a hour late.
  • Sat, 6:00pm -- after a full day in Geneva I return to the Geneva airport to catch my flight back to Nice. The departures board says 'Delayed. More information at 7:15'
  • Sat, 7:15pm -- board now says more information at 7:45
  • Sat, 7:45pm -- board now says more information at 8:15
  • Sat, 8:15pm -- board now says...OK, you get the idea.
  • Sat, 9:45pm -- boarding begins for the flight and we get on the bus that will take us to our plane.
  • Sat, 9:50pm -- we arrive at the plane...and wait for 10-15 minutes on the bus...right in front of our plane.
  • Sat. 10:03pm -- we are told that our flight has been canceled.
  • Sat. 10:05pm -- we get back to the gate and are told to go upstairs to the Easy Jet gate to get new flights. The line looks long.
  • Sat. 11:15pm -- the line is long. Still in it.
  • Sun, 12:20pm -- re-book for 1:00pm the next day. We're told to go back downstairs to get our hotel vouchers for the night. When we get downstairs, the line looks very long.
  • Sun. 1:15am -- the line is very long. Still in it. But I'm getting in some good French practice with my fellow passengers.
  • Sun. 2:10am -- a group of 11 of us from the flight to Nice are all told we'll be staying at the Holiday Inn in Thoiry, France, about 20 minutes from the airport.
  • Sun. 2:11am -- we're told the hotel has been called and they are sending a bus. It will be here in 20 minutes.
  • Sun. 2:52am -- I get into my room. To be fair, it was a very nice room. The towels were so thick I could barely get them into my suitcase. (That's an old one!)
  • Sun. 10:00am -- catch bus back to airport for flight to Nice after a great breakfast buffet.
  • Sun. 10:30am -- find out that all Easy Jet flights to/from Geneva are canceled for the entire day.
  • Sun. 11:00am -- try to catch a train. Booked.
  • Sun. 12:00pm -- get my hotel voucher for the night (Ramada this time). Luckily, the line was much shorter...until I got to the hotel. Once in the lobby of the hotel it took 1:15 to get to the front desk.
  • Sun. 3:20pm -- get into my room.
  • Sun. 3:21pm -- have mastered the television remote control.
  • Rest of the day -- bussed into Geneva for some kebabs, Starbucks coffee, some walking around, and a few solid hours of studying! Nothing like a little International Law on a Sunday evening.
  • 8:45pm and 8:45am -- dinner and breakfast at hotel, respectively. Easy Jet's treat.
  • Monday, 2:10pm -- on a flight to Nice.
  • Monday, 3:10pm -- back in Nice, 41 hours late.
To be fair, the experience was far worse for others than for me -- particularly those with small children or large ski bags. I kept thinking how much more difficult it would have been had Kerri and the kids been with me. So I'm not complaining too much.

The weather caused some real problems, but not so much in Geneva where they know how to handle snow and cold weather. The real problem was that Britain was covered in snow. And since so many Easy Jet flights have origins in Britain, it messed up schedules even for those of us traveling to the South of France. And I will give Easy Jet credit for putting us up in hotels and giving us meal vouchers. I know that isn't always the policy unless the airline is at fault. Of course, one could then conclude that it wasn't really the 'weather' that was the problem, but an issue with the airline. After all, a lot of other airplanes were flying in and out of Geneva all weekend.

06 January 2010

The Kids are Going to Start Loving Fridays

PATRICK AND JULIA are going to start liking Fridays a whole lot. This Friday marks the first of 8 straight weeks where they will spend the entire day...skiing. (Don't read that over and over, you read it right the first time).

This is actually quite common in France, but for our first two years the kids have missed out. You see, the way it works in our village, a teacher has the choice of what 'activity' or 'project' to work on during the year. One year it was the perfume industry (we live near the perfume capital of France -- Grasse), one year it was ceramics and art. This year it is sport/health and as as part of the project they will spend each Friday receiving skiing lessons in Greolieres -- a ski station about 50 minutes north of our town.

A school day. The whole day. Every Friday. For 8 weeks.

We didn't have that when I was growing up. Of course, we didn't really live near any ski stations either. It goes without saying that I am quite jealous. To make it even better for the kids, it's been snowing in the mountains like crazy for the past few days.

Fun with Picasa

KERRI THINKS THIS photo is kinda creepy. The kids scrunched their noses up at it. I like it.

My inclusion in the background was, of course, unintentional. I was just scootering around the Monaco Casino on Julia's little scooter. You know, like people always do in Monaco.

03 January 2010

France's Favorite Celebrity

A RECENT POLL has revealed that former tennis pro and current pop star Yannick Noah is the nation's favorite celebrity.

I'm not sure if that tells me more about Noah's popularity or France's lack of real celebrities.

(Oh simmer down, I love Noah -- but most popular celebrity? Especially when you could have chosen Carla Bruni or Thierry Henry's left hand?)

What Started as a One Month Pass...

I FREELY ADMIT that I am a typical guy in the sense that I love my sports. Baseball, cycling, football, hockey, it doesn't matter. But I reached a new high (some may say low) last spring when I subscribed to a one month pass to ESPN360.com so that I could watch my beloved Washington Capitals during the NHL hockey playoffs. Sure, the games started at 1:00am French time, but my brother was visiting at the time and we happily set our alarms and woke up to watch the games. My dad, who was also here, even joined us for a couple of games.

But when the month was over I figured my hockey-watching days were over until next May. But something happened a few days ago that caught my attention. While reviewing my bank account I noticed an charge of 15.20 Euros that was charged to a biller named...ESPN360. A few clicks later and I realized that the charge had come every month since October.

Hmmm. Why was this charge still coming? I onlysigned-up for a one month pass.

Wait...was it possible that I was signed-up for some other package and I didn't know? Was there some automatic 'update' that I had to cancel or it would kick-in automatically. I decided to check. I went to the site, logged-in under my user name from last spring and discovered....that I have the full NHL season package. Do you realize what this means: I can watch every game of the season live or, if I want, watch every game that has been played this year in the archive section. Every game. In fact, at this moment I have the Buffalo/Montreal game on in another window and am listening to the audio. Buffalo v. Montreal!! I don't even like either of those teams -- but I'm going to watch the entire game!

And you know what else? I'm not going to cancel this new package I have. I'm not going to watch many games live because of the time change, but I'm going to watch a few here and there, especially when the Capitals are playing.

01 January 2010

A Gem Just Over the Border

IN EVERY CORNER of the world there are little gems that seem to go unnoticed by the general public. Yesterday, on the final day of 2009, we found one of them in the small Italian village of Dolceacqua.

Now maybe we've simply missed it and we're just late in discovering this village; and considering it's only a few an hour from our house, a few kilometers over the border, between the mountains just north of Ventimiglia, that is always a possibility. But we're not going to shoulder much blame because we've never heard anyone talk about this village and -- as if to confirm our 'hidden gem' theory -- there is scarcely any information about it on the internet. But we decided to stop by the village on our way to San Remo (another favorite spot of ours) for some lunch. When we arrived we were stunned at the quaint charm and beauty of the town.

It's hard to explain the village, but let me try by saying this: eat your heart out St. Paul de Vence! And that's saying something. (OK, it's not that it's better than St. Paul, it's just more incredible in some ways).

To get to the old village you walk across a single-arch medieval bridge that is breathtaking. Then the fun begins: the vieux village is an incredible maze of narrow stone streets, some covered in a tunnel-like fashion, some slightly open to the sky above. All streets seem to head up! -- toward the ruins of the castle on the top of the hill. Each street is lined with art galleries, bed & breakfasts, private homes, and a few restaurants for good measure. We ate ate one in the village square and it was absolutely delightful.

Kerri's parents were with us yesterday and none of us have ever seen a village like this one. Ever! These photos won't do Dolceacqua justice, but they give you a feel for what the village is like. If you really pay attention you can almost imagine Patrick, Julia and I running through the streets ahead of the rest of the group pretending we're tracking down a dangerous criminal -- finger- guns drawn and everything. (OK, full disclosure: Patrick and Julia had their finger-guns out, I was using Henry's stroller as a makeshift M-16. And yes, I'm in my late 30s).

I can't say it enough: stunning! If you're close by give it a visit.

Twenty Ten

THAT'S HOW WE'RE supposed to say it, I guess. I'm hearing that 'Two Thousand Ten' is so not how to say it.

But however you say it: Happy New Year! We hope it's the best one yet.

Photo: December 31, 2009 - the medieval village of Dolceacqua, Italy