Monday, May 30, 2011
With less than a week to go in Paris we decided to rent a car and spend three days exploring Normandie (Normandy in English spelling.) We figured it would be good practice with dealing with a rental car, driving in Paris and then on the country roads but mostly we felt we couldn't leave France without honoring the history of this part of the country. I'm so glad we made the effort. One, it was stunning and two to feel and witness the tranquility and peace that has settled over the coast that was awash in blood and violence only 67 years ago is quite moving.
Jim was determined that Quinn and Logan spend time at the D-day museum and at the cemetery because history is bound to repeat itself. Also in this day and age of violent video games and glorified images of violence, it is sobering to weave your way through nearly 10,0000 grave stones--and that's just ONE cemetery. There are also cemeteries and museums honoring the Canadians and British and they are equally powerful. What I most appreciated about visiting this area is it is not built up and doesn't cater to tourists. It hasn't sold it's soul, in other words. I found this to be even more powerful. There were no billboards welcoming tourists to Omaha Beach, there was simply a little sign and we wound our way down a little country lane that ended at a small parking lot at the beach. There is now a little sailing/sand sailing depot and a restaurant with a few hotel rooms, but mostly it is tranquil country side. The meadows were in full bloom, the cows were peacefully chewing their cud, the small village was off in the distance. To see that life continues and moves forward, that the cows still need milking that the gardens still need to be planted, that the hedgerows still need tending, I found this very moving. There was a small little trail that led up to the US cemetery, and on a hillside overlooking the sea were the nearly 10,000 gravestones in perfect rows. One could also reach the cemetery from the "main" road, but I'm glad we traveled up the back way. To walk along the hillside and see the remnants of the German fortifications was a much nicer way to approach the cemetery.
After driving along the coast we headed south toward Mont St. Michel. The weather was nice enough that we ended up camping less than 1.5 kilometers from the island. Over the years I've seen photos of Mont St. Michel and I knew that it was an abbey and medieval town built on a rock "island." Nothing quite prepared me for seeing this in person and up close. I think it was even more impressive for the boys because they didn't know anything about this place and they were napping as we drove near it. When they woke up they thought they were in a Harry Potter dream. They commented a few times that it was "the coolest thing they've EVER seen." I'd have to agree. We spent an entire day exploring the narrow streets, abbey, gardens, and many little niches and passageways that wind their way around this most incredible place.
Coming from a country where a building built 150 years ago is considered "old," it's mind-boggling to walk through a thriving little community that has been active for more than 600 years! Not only that, but to see how well these buildings were constructed and that they've lasted with very little modification really makes one wonder why we can't build to last anymore. We get excited if our roofs last 25 years, when the roofs on some of the buildings around France have been there for hundreds of years!
After a full day of exploring Mont St. Michel we had to head back to Paris. We took a different route home and ended up driving through some very quaint little villages. Every now and then we'd round a corner and there would be a full-blown castle and medieval wall surrounding a city. We are very much looking forward to our two week driving/camping trip that we'll be taking around the country side. It will be nice to have the time to stop and explore when we feel like it, rather than having a deadline. We leave this coming Friday morning and our tentative itinerary is to head east toward Colmer and then down toward Geneva. We're going to visit CERN and then make our way to Mont Blanc/Chamonix. After we'll work our way down through Provence and then head back to Paris. At least this is our plan now. Who knows what we'll end up doing once we're on the road. I think what we realized after our few days driving throughout Normandie is you could eat up an entire week and not travel more than 50 kilometers.
On a completely different note, I'd like to commend the French drivers for being smart and courteous. Here are people who drive in the left lane ONLY TO PASS! Do you hear that Oregon drivers?! I swear, Oregon is one of the worst states to travel on the interstate. People get in the left lane and just stay there. Never mind that they're not moving more quickly than those in the right-hand lanes, and never mind that traffic is stacking up behind them! Anyway, it was a refreshing change! I'd also like to highlight that Jim is a ninja driver in Paris! That man tore up the streets, winding his way in and out like a local! He was having too much fun and enjoyed actually "driving" rather than mindlessly steering a car. Good thing because we have a lot of kilometers to tackle before returning home. Look out France, here we come!
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Sunday, May 15, 2011
I thought that I would post more regular blog posts, but I'm finding that somehow the days are slipping by and it is on the weekend that I have the time to sit down with the computer and pound out a blog post. Tonight I don't have any particular topic or subject in mind, but I have enough wine coursing through my system that I feel I can sit here and type out something, which just might prove interesting in the end! Also, I have the urging of my mother to keep posting, as she and my dad were considering coming to visit us and that is now off the table, so it is through my blog that she gets to vicariously experience Paris. It's armchair travel at it's best!
I kept thinking of my mum last night as we finally made it to the Louvre museum and I know she would have wept had she stepped inside this most amazing museum! Let me back up a little and say that we never made it to the Louvre when we were here last year. A local told us that to truly experience the Louvre, one needed multiple days, and since we were here for only a week, he said that we simply didn't have enough time. This was actually great advice as we focused on the many other parts of Paris that are equally enthralling, and we used it as a carrot to bring us back here. We've now been here for more than a month and it was only last night that we finally went to the Louvre. I was absolutely blown away!
First off, the building itself is so beautiful that I found myself admiring the space as much as the art. Secondly, the size and depth of the collections housed in the Louvre is almost beyond description! We've enjoyed many other museums while here and part of me resisted going to the Louvre a bit because that is what most every other visitor to Paris does, and I felt that there were still many other parts of this great city to explore that I hadn't felt compelled to give up a day to spend in the Louvre. Also, I'm a cheap-skate! I know that it is easy to suffer from museum overload in a few hours and I haven't wanted to pony-up the twenty euros for entrance for me and Jim if we could only stay for a few hours before hitting a wall. Last night was "night at the museum" throughout Europe and many museums were open late and had free admission. That was enough to motivate us to finally take our maiden tour. The moment we stepped inside I realized the folly of my cheap-skate thinking and will now say that experiencing the Louvre is worth every euro and more! I still think it best to enjoy its treasures in smaller doses, but we'll be back soon.
We focused only on the Ancient Greek and Roman antiquities and to stand before artifacts that are more than 4,000 years old is humbling, to say the least! Actually, we first made a bee-line for the Mona Lisa, to get that out of the way, so to speak, so we could then focus on the antiquities. As a family we've had the fortune of spending a lot of time at the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC and the Met in New York, and while we enjoyed our visits to these museums and learned a lot, it pales in comparison to the depth of the collections of the Louvre.
Quinn and Logan have read enough Greek mythology and know enough about Roman history that they were totally engaged and were educating us on many historical facts. I actually didn't realize how much Greek and Roman history they knew until last night, which made me feel both ignorant and proud. They were thoroughly engaged for the entire three hours we stayed and said they want to return again. I think we'll try to return sometime this week while we're all feeling inspired.
This last week we also enjoyed visiting the Rodin museum, which is located very near our apartment. Again, the grounds and building were as compelling as the art inside. To see closely the mastery of Rodin's sculptures is beyond words. The subtle details he is able to convey, particularly in his marble sculptures is just mind blowing. I was especially moved by "The Kiss." Like many, I've seen photos of this sculpture but to see it in person and up close was stunning.
We're starting to think about all of the other museums and places we want to visit in Paris prior to our leaving for our driving tour, which is now only three weeks away! I'm trying not to panic and am trying to be very mindful and appreciative about our every day here. I know that it would take years to fully appreciate Paris and so we're staying sane and pacing ourselves. We can't possibly see everything or do everything we'd like, and that's okay. We're living like locals and not like tourists and somethings will just have to remain a mystery. We'll be back, of that I'm sure...
Monday, May 9, 2011
Dear Quinn and Logan,
We just celebrated your 14th birthday this last weekend. Let me say that again, YOUR 14TH BIRTHDAY. This seems impossible, as it doesn't feel that 14 years could have possibly passed in between the time of your birth and now. Do you notice the theme in all of your birthday blogs? "Oh there she goes again...she doesn't feel that it's possible to have her children blossom into adolescents because, whoa, where the hell did the time go?" Yeah, yeah, I get it, but I'm going to say it again: where did the time go? Okay, that's out of the way so let me focus for a moment on the wonders of this past year. First off, you became "official" teenagers on your last birthday, although quite honestly given your maturity level and independence, it felt like we've had teenagers in our midst for much longer. This has been an interesting year, and not one that I would have even dreamed of on your last birthday. On your 13th birthday you were begging us to move to Paris, on your 14th birthday, here we are! So happy birthday, but also don't expect this to be the norm. I hope we can always find time to carve out of our normally crazy lives in order to step away and reset, but this time away is special and knowing that you know it is yet another sign of your maturing.
So here we are, living in Paris, celebrating your birthdays. Our time here is more than celebrating your birthdays though, it is honoring your transition to adulthood and hoping that you'll learn many new skills and be exposed to different ways of thinking and living that will serve you throughout your life. Deciding to move to a foreign country wasn't a decision that was made by just me and dad, you were as much a part of making this happen as any. We questioned your motivations and tested your commitment to the lifestyle changes that we'd all have to adapt to in order to step away from our very predictable lives back in the states. You've handled it with such grace and openness that I sometimes have to stop and remind myself of your chronological age. When I was your age my only knowledge of the world beyond my small town came in the occasional afternoons looking through National Geographic magazines at my grandparent's when there was nothing else to do. I wasn't worldly in the least and my concerns at age 14 pretty much centered around what I was going to wear to school. Not so very cultured, I'm the first to admit. Dad on the other hand had a much better sense of the world beyond his doorstep thanks to the international travel that his father did for work. It also helped that his mother was born in another country and that her ethnic roots were still very much planted back in the Ukraine. Fortunately, and for entirely different reasons, dad and I each were fortunate enough to travel the world prior to meeting each other and so traveling was a value that he and I shared when we met. Even prior to you being born we talked about traveling abroad with our eventual children. We never talked specifically about how or where, but I think it was always rooted in the back of our minds that someway, somehow we'd include some time abroad with our kids. Of course, before we went overseas there was (and still is) a lot of traveling to be done domestically, and up until last year that is what we did. You've been to Canada and more states than most adults. You have been good travelers from an early age, taking your first trans-contintal flight at seven months to celebrate a friend's marriage and countless road trips logging thousands of miles. We've never hesitated to travel with you because you've always been so amenable, so I guess making the transition from domestic to foreign travel was a natural step.
I'm not a religious person, but I do value the Jewish tradition of bar/bat mitzvah and although dad and I talked about doing something significant to recognize your transition from childhood to adulthood, we just never did. Not having a cultural touchstone of our own to recognize this important milestone has forced us to improvise and try to carve deeper meaning about moving abroad. We know that this time away will be the gift that keeps on giving in terms of lessons and different ways of thinking. This is one of the gifts of adulthood, the ability to understand the longer term and not expect immediate gratification. Not that it is always automatic, mind you. In fact we had to remind ourselves of this after getting over here and feeling initially frustrated that we weren't seeing some grandiose changes. I'm not even sure what we were expecting? That you'd suddenly start speaking French? That you'd stop bickering? That you'd see that the toilet needing cleaning and you'd do it? No, I think what you'll take away from this experience is trusting in yourselves to make something happen if you put your mind to it. In a way, you've already accomplished this by continuing to ask us about moving to Paris last year. As a result, you were open to trying a new way of schooling in order to allow you to travel and you gave up a lot of time with friends as a result. I know this hasn't always been easy and that you've felt socially isolated, but I so commend you both for keeping your eyes on the prize, so to speak. I also trust that at some point during your life when if feels like there is no clear-cut answer or direction you'll feel more comfortable with moving ahead and trusting your own judgement. There's nothing quite like travel to teach these lessons. Every day we must go out and interact in a language that is totally unfamiliar and try to adjust to very different social and cultural customs. You've done this so remarkably well already and I hope that you'll be able to recall these skills throughout your life.
Your generosity of spirit continues to amaze me. You recognize when people are less fortunate than you and you show compassion. It's never easy seeing the sadder truths of life, but we cannot hide them from you and knowing that you care for other's well being makes my heart swell. May you always be inspired to lend a helping hand and be gentle with those around you, as we can never know what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes.
I appreciate the fact that as teenagers being around your parents is often not your first choice for companionship, but here you are living 24/7 with your parents and being mostly okay with being out in public with us. I appreciate when you let us know that we are embarrassing you and are able to articulate why. Sometimes our own inner-teenager comes out and we do get some pleasure out of watching you squirm, but hopefully you won't be too scarred.
All this to say, you are incredibly kind, sensitive, caring, motivated, intelligent, curious and wise young men and it is a joy to celebrate your 14th birthdays in Paris. We love you more than feels possible and although you hear us nag way more than we praise, we adore you and are so proud of who you are. Joyeux anniversaire mon amis. Quatorze années incroyables!
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
What inspired this trip happened during our visit to Paris and London last year. On our first day in Paris, Logan was literally begging to move here. He badgered us all week asking if we could move to Paris. Even though Logan was most vocal about spending an extended period of time here, Quinn was also enthusiastic about the possibility. To see the boys enthusiasm about living abroad certainly re-kindled Jim's and my desire to travel more extensively. Upon returning home from our trip last year we started exploring all the possibilities of living overseas. It soon became apparent that we couldn't pull off a year away--between the hassle of securing an extended stay visa to schooling to trying to manage our businesses, we soon decided that a three-month trip was most realistic. We were familiar with an on-line charter school available to Oregon students and decided to enroll the boys in the school for their 8th grade year. We figured that if we decided not to travel the boys could always go back into their middle school; however, it soon became apparent that they were more academically challenged through the on-line academy and they most likely would have stayed the whole school year, regardless of our travel plans. Once we had their schooling figured out we then had to think about when we'd want to go abroad. Initially we thought we'd be here during the winter, but an unexpected relocation of one of our bakeries quickly changed those plans. For a while we weren't sure if going abroad would even happen given the craziness of building a new bakery and getting it up and running. The managers in our stores helped push us into making a decision as they said they were accustomed to us being unavailable while we were busy building the new store and they were confident in their abilities to handle everything in our absence. I'd have to admit that Skype, on-line banking, etc. has helped make this possible, as I can't imagine being away from our businesses without being able to keep a close eye/contact with our stores. In fact it's the first thing people asked us when they learned of our intent to leave the country, "Aren't you afraid you'll come back and find your stores in shambles?" I think they were always alluding more to their own fears/insecurities, but I can't say the thought didn't cross our minds. I'd just like to give a shout-out to our great managers for doing such a great job in our absence! Thank you Emily, Sahra, Heather & Michaela! With some parameters on when we wanted to travel I then spent a good three or four weeks on-line doing research on apartment rentals. We would select a few apartments but given the 9-hour time difference between the west coast and Paris a whole day would be lost in our communication with the various rental agencies. It was a bit overwhelming trying to select an apartment in an arrondisement that we weren't familiar with. We had confidence in using the metro to get where we needed but we also wanted to be conveniently located and didn't want to be spending too much time traveling to and fro. Part of the beauty of Paris is walking, so being close to those parts of Paris that we knew we'd want to frequent was important. We knew we loved le Marais in the 3rd arrondisement, but ended up in an an apartment in the 7th. My only criteria for an apartment was a decent kitchen and a dining room table, I figured we could make do with anything else. Price was also a consideration, of course, so with these parameters in mind we quickly whittled our search down to about three apartments. We chose our apartment for price, location, size, and amenities. We totally lucked out and I would absolutely recommend this area for anyone looking to rent a short-term place in Paris. In terms of affordability we figured that eating is eating, and we would be buying groceries/food at home, so we didn't count that as part of our overall budget. Our biggest expenses were the apartment rental and the plane tickets. Fortunately, we scored on some decent priced plane tickets and when we rented and paid for our apartment the exchange rates were more favorable. Since being here the exchange rate hasn't been so great, but even so, we've been able to eat MUCH BETTER food more cheaply than we would at home, so we consider that a wash. As far as visiting museums, the boys get in free to most everything since they're under 18. There are certain days a week when the museums are open later at a reduced tariff, so we take advantage of those opportunities.
I am very grateful that we own the type of businesses which allow us this time away. I'm also grateful that we have a strong enough family unit to be able to live abroad without wanting to strangle each other. Not that we haven't had our moments, but having this uninterrupted time together is something I know I'll value for the rest of my life. Jim and I don't want to get to the end of our lives wishing we'd done things differently and sometimes you just have to make a bold move. This sabbatical has been just that, and I know this will be the trip that keeps on giving long after we return home.
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Part of the appeal of extended travel is breaking old patterns and taking notice of people and places with "fresh eyes." When home we are so programmed into our routines that it is difficult to notice what is new or to seize opportunities as they arise. Unless something really smacks us upside the head we tend to trudge along in our daily routines: sleep, eat, work, school, exercise. The days of the week may change, but really our patterns don't fluctuate all that much. Travel is the antidote to wrote lives. And so it was on our very first day coming to Paris that we happened to be on the same bus with a gentleman who noticed the silly amount of luggage we were schlepping (camping gear!) and struck up a conversation with Jim that lasted the whole 45-minute ride into the city. Before being deposited at the steps of the Paris Opera house the gentleman, whose name is Manuel Hughes, gave Jim his business card and told him to give him a call so we could get together for dinner. We took his card and told him we'd give him a call after we settled in. A few days later Jim and I went to the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, located just across the Seine from Notre Dame, and there was a picture of Manuel posted near the cash register. We took that as a sign that it was time to give him a call and see about getting together for dinner. We were unable to locate Manuel's business card but knew his name and knew he is an artist, so we did a Google search and found his contact information. In addition to getting his e-mail address we were able to see lots of images of his art and learn a little more about him. (Thanks Google!) Jim made contact and Manuel and his wife Elizabeth graciously invited us to their home for dinner the following week.
We met Manuel and Elizabeth at their apartment and decided to tour their neighborhood before dinner. They walked us through the Parc des Buttes Chaumont and then over to the St. Denis canal. We never would have discovered this fabulous arrondisement had it not been for Manuel & Elizabeth, in fact we're heading back over there tonight for a picnic and boules game. Prior to sitting down for dinner we admired all of Manuel's paintings that adorned the walls. He gave us some background on his work and was so open and gracious especially answering Quinn and Logan's questions. The last painting he showed us was one that he called his "family portrait." It was similar in style to his others, it was a collection of antique cans and boxes that he ever so subtly added the names of himself, Elizabeth and their daughter Jade-Fleur. It was so beautiful and I told Jim and Manuel that the only family portrait I would ever consider would be one similar to this. No posed photograph, just a collection of cans with our names. Manuel said, "wait here just a moment," and came back with a painting that he put up on a shelf. We were all standing there and then life went into slow-motion. The names Logan, Tamara, Underwood, Jim and Quinn slowly started to register and we all realized that oh my goodness, Manuel painted OUR family portrait! Unbelievable. We all stood there somewhat stunned. Jim exclaimed that it was pure magic and I stood there speechless with goosebumps. It was one of those times that I thought about all the preceding turns and twists one must take to land at a precise moment. There we were standing before a beautiful painting done of our family names, humbled by the generosity of a man whom we hardly knew! We were gifted with new friends and a painting all because we were living our lives off the beaten path.
Needless to say, the dinner was delicious and we ended up staying until midnight. The conversation flowed effortlessly and it truly felt as if we had just added new friends to our circle. Elizabeth invited us to visit her at her office, where Manuel had more of his paintings and they had more of their collections of odds-and-ends that they find at flea markets on display. Unfortunately the boys were sick, but Jim and I met up with Elizabeth and Manuel and ended up spending the day with Manuel at the St. Ouen flea market. Not wanting our time with them to end we invited them over for dinner the following week. That dinner took place a few nights ago and once again, the hours strung out effortlessly.
And so it goes here in Paris. Every day gifts us with new discoveries, new friendships and many opportunities to pause and feel eternally grateful for our blessed lives.