France, the sixth day

We returned to Sète for the day today, and somehow, every day in this coastal city feels magical, and blue, and bright. We began by parking just outside of the town and taking the “boat bus” down the canals to the center of town for the market. The boats are the city’s way of making the market more convenient, as Sète has become a very full and busy city and it would be much harder for people to get to the market (especially from the outlying villages) without the “taxi”. The boat is also an attraction for tourists, and we happily took our place among the crowds.

The sky was so blue, the canals and the colored houses picturesque, and the children were absolutely delighted by the whole adventure. We were glad to have Alina with us too, as she does not have school on Wednesdays.

We met Axelle’s mother at the market, and of course, she insisted on pastries to begin the excursion. Edith and Alina got matching ones.

How I prefer to do all my walking.

Edith had the chance to pick out a dress from the market for a gift, and she immediately went to a dress she had seen Alina wearing a few days before. There was no changing her mind, and she wanted to put it on immediately. Her connection to Alina and their companionship has been so sweet to watch. It makes me want to find an older playmate for Edith immediately. I also love that Edith answers to “Édit” whenever Alina calls her name. She and Alina have become quite good at communicating, as Alina knows a bit of English and has tried very hard to learn the words she needs to ask Edith if she likes something, or if she wants to come look at something, or if she wants to be held. I will get a picture of them in their matching dresses before we leave.

We made a stop at the cheese shop on our way up the hill for lunch. As you can see, Edith made faces in the mirror and John Henry read about all of his cheese options. We truly are something to see, everywhere we go.

We returned to the car by the boat bus, which no one was complaining about.

We returned to L’Escarpée Belle, the home of Axelle’s parents (and a beautiful B&B if anyone is looking to visit Sète!) for lunch. Between me and my family members, we must have a hundred photos of this view, but it just never gets old.

Lunches in France have inspired me to forget all of my angst about lunch. They truly make it as much of an event as other meals, but somehow it is simple and not a lot of work. We had a lovely salad of boiled potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, radishes, and a vinaigrette, along with leftover chicken from lunch a few days ago, baguette, cheese, and melon with prosciutto. Maybe it is just this woman and this family, but every meal has been simple, yet lovely.

After lunch and some regrouping, we headed à la plage (to the beach) as my one request was to put my feet in the Mediterranean. We did more than that, and the children were delighted by the waves and the sand.

Yes, the water is this blue. Even bluer. After some delightful floating in the water (which was freezing… Edith was shivering thirty seconds into it), the children warmed up in the sun and enjoyed the sand. Edith discovered all of the seashell pieces in the sand and took to collecting only seashells and putting them in her bucket. I love how in all of this traveling and craziness, the children are still developing and growing and surprising us. A few months ago, she never would have differentiated between what she was putting in her bucket. She was not at all pleased with the rock that John Henry attempted to contribute.

We left the beach as two grumpy toddlers and one very satisfied mama. I love the Mediterranean, I love seeing them have such a good time, and I love being on the way home again, because on such big days like this, home means bedtime and bedtime means 6:30 p.m. Sweet John Henry couldn’t wait until then.

France, the fifth day

I must admit, day two of 6 a.m. wakeups really affected all three of us this morning and by about 10 a.m., everyone (me included!) was grumpy and whiny. We were alone again this morning and I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with our time. But the attitudes and misery called for some exercise and, you know, pastries. We took the lovely walk down the hill again to the old center to Axelle’s favorite bakery. It is closed on Mondays and I need to try her favorite bakery here, of course, so what better time for some paztries? (This time pain au chocolat, brioche au sucree and essentially a pain au chocolat with orange pieces, although I forget exactly what it was called.) They were perfectly buttery and flaky and delicious, and the view from the tables in the courtyard was truly French.

We returned home with a baguette hanging out of the stroller basket and full bellies. On the way up the hill, we stopped at Axelle’s favorite wine shop so I could get her a bottle. Much to my pleasure, I was able to communicate to the owner in French that I wanted to buy a bottle of rose, I was a friend of Axelle’s, and that she had told me that he knows what she likes, so I wanted him to help me pick out a bottle. I can still speak just a little French, but it has been so fun to try to use it when I can and to discover the things that have stuck with me all these years. It has also been a nice change from Munich, being able to speak in the local language with the local people. I’ve been inspired to maybe try to pick up French again – maybe just reading a little every day, but I’m trying not to make huge demands on myself considering what is coming up in the near future.

A new road is being built around the corner from the house, so John Henry has been especially pleased to discover that bulldozers do, also, exist in Europe.

A pre-lunch swim and then a nap put everyone in better spirits for our trip into the center of Montpellier. We picked Alina up at school and then headed to the Place de la Comédie for dinner at the new fast food restaurant that has been the talk of the town. You can imagine the kick I got out of discovering it was Popeyes. We have a Popeyes around the corner in South Bend and I’ve never eaten at Popeyes in my life. It seems like a good story, to say I had to go to Montpellier for my first taste.

I have fond memories of exploring the center of the city with EA, just the two of us, years ago. We ate macarons from Paul on the benches among these trees.

After dinner, I loved watching the kids dancing to the street performer and throwing their balloons around. Whatever Alina is doing, Edith is trying to do too, and JH is copying Edith. It is quite a magical place for some Popeyes and balloons.

It truly has been a vacation for these kids, with swimming every day, lots of food to eat, and staying up past their bedtime every night. It can make for some more challenging moments and attitudes, but I’m so glad we can make these memories together. And Edith now has a French BFF.

France, the fourth day

As Axelle had to work in the morning, we spent our time post 6 a.m. wakeup (sigh) in Grabels, walking down the hill to the old city to do some exploring. Of course, the adventures began with some croissant (almond for me) and pain au chocolat. Why else am I in France if not to eat pastries? I like to think all of the walking we’ve been doing is a nice balance. We ate them in the shade of the town’s church, a beautiful, very old building. I didn’t find a year for it, but it has a perfect shaded courtyard and a fountain that came in handy for washing sticky hands afterwards.

The Camino of St. James, a famous and very popular medieval pilgrimage path to the tomb of St. James in Spain runs through Grabels, and the church still offers a place to pilgrims to spend the night on their way through.

After our courtyard interlude, we walked further down the hill to La Mosson, one of Grabels’ rivers. The Camino runs right along the river, so we got to walk it for a little ways. It is remarkable to think of the many feet that have trod that path for centuries.

The walk back up the hill is, thankfully, decently gradual. And we took our time, pausing to look down narrow alleys and admire all the blooming flowers.

After naptime and a swim, we drove a bit further out into the country to sample some olive oil and vinegar. It was delicious and I am sad I don’t have a checked bag from here back to Munich so I couldn’t bring any home with me.

France, the third day

There seems to be something for toddlers about the third day in a new place that means everyone is happier, more easy going, and settled. Yesterday, although beautiful, was also rough with skinned knees, grumpiness, weepiness, and then finally falling asleep at 9 p.m. I felt discouraged and exhausted, and tired of being the only parent to deal with all of the emotions. But today was new, and the children seemed much more settled into the new place and with our friends, even though they weren’t offered afternoon naps and we did a good bit of driving.

Late this morning, we headed west and south to the coast, to Sète, a beautiful town on the Mediterranean, where Axelle’s parents live. My family members have all been there, together for a wedding, and then some of us again at different times, so it is a home that holds many memories for all of us, and I felt not only a connection with the family, but with my own family through all the different experiences we have had there. EA and I lived at this home in Sète for six weeks many years ago, and so in a small way it is like home.

First, here is what noon in the car on an hour-long drive looks like when you woke up at 6:20 a.m.:

The terrace faces north, so although the view of the Mediterranean Sea would be behind the house, this view isn’t too bad. All the way on the horizon, you can see the Massif Central, the highland region in France.

This home has so many “postcard windows” with stunning views and many beautiful reflections around them. When we arrived, Madam had already begun her spread, a very familiar sight as I am pretty sure that every meal she has ever given me has been this detailed, full, and beautiful.

And more of the view, because I can’t help myself. I also don’t have a computer with me this week and I have to post from my phone app, so I don’t have the option of doing the photo “mosaics” that I usually have to share multiple photos.

Preparing for the visit, I felt pretty sure that Edith and John Henry would love having a new playmate for the week, but it has been so sweet watching nine-year-old Alina being so sweet with the kids, and seeing them take to her almost immediately. If she walks out of the room, they ask about her. First thing in the morning, they ask about her. I’m sure they will be disappointed to discover in the morning that she had to go to school. This morning, I found Alina taking Edith out on her first scooter ride in the neighborhood. Watching Alina scooter has really prompted Edith to figure out the scooter, something she had little motivation to do back in South Bend. She also started imitating Alina singing along to songs and Edith has started to sing a French classic children’s song. Hearing her in the back of the car saying “bonbon” is just too cute. This photo isn’t the greatest, but they had the time of their lives playing hide-and-seek in the curtains.

In my mind, this is how all of the French people celebrate birthdays. With many colors and cakes and candles, and a sparkler on top of everything. It might just be the Affouard family, but whatever it is, this view is true to my understanding of them.

It really has been so special to have my children be with our friends. I was six when we first met Axelle, and fifteen when I first came here. These people are so kind and generous, always so true to my memories of them. Françoise is such a kind hostess. She had souvenir cups from Sète for the children to bring home, and she had special regional chocolates for me. Whenever one of my children spilled or dropped something or wanted more, she immediately said “pas problème!” and was there to help or offer a third, or fourth, or fifth serving. There were two little baskets on top of the strawberry and raspberry tart and Edith was absolutely delighted with being given one of them. She took all of the berries off of her tart and put them in the basket before eating them. As the basket was pretty sticky and chewy, she didn’t end up eating it, but of course Françoise saved it and produced fresh raspberries from the garden in the same basket for an after-pool snack. Such thoughtfulness.

Edith has taken to the pool very quickly and for the first five minutes of the swim, literally shrieked and squealed in delight as she paddled around. She is very good at kicking herself anywhere she wants to go in the pool. I’m thinking swimming lessons are in her near future.

All in all, it was a wonderful day and we already have plans to go back in a few days for things like boats, markets, and picnics by the Mediterranean. Not too bad, if you ask me.

France, the second day


It was another gorgeous day in the south of France, not as hot as before, a beautiful breeze, clear skies, and lots of food to eat and classic French scenes to see.

On our way to the weekly market in the center of the city, we stopped at the Montpellier zoo for an hour. It is simple to do, as the zoo is free. Sadly the morning began with two skinned knees on Edith which colored the rest of her day. I can’t blame her, as she fell onto those rocks with great gusto.

The Montpellier market is at the base of a Roman aqueduct that runs through the city. It is quite a striking place, and again, a detail that must be barely noticed by the locals. Imagine living somewhere that this is normal!

The market itself, as one can imagine, was full of beautiful fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads, meats, olives, and flowers. The children enjoyed some perfect brioche, tearing off large chunks of it as we strolled. I love that experience: buying a loaf of bread and tearing off portions.

Axelle got some delicious paella for lunch, one of those dishes that will forever remind me of my grandmother and my own mother.

We ate like royalty at lunch, although somehow this was a normal sort of meal in France. Paella, four different kinds of cheese from the market, baguette, fresh fruit, and a magical lemon tart.

After naptime, the children thoroughly enjoyed time in the pool, so much so that Edith never wanted to get out.

This evening, the neighborhood was having their “block party,” which mostly consisted of a lot of food and French karaoke. As well as a boccee tournament where I got a kick out of watching the men get out the tape measure every time.

Again, we had such simple but beautiful food, finished, of course, with cheese and fresh fruit and then an amazing tiramisu. I have had a few good laughs thinking about and explaining to our friends what the block party on our street in South Bend is like every summer, compared to theirs. Burgers, macaroni and cheese, beans, bouncy houses, a “band” in the middle of the street… As I sat tonight, sipping wine and eating Brie, I was struck by how different but how beautifully similar the two parties really are. They are both neighbors, trying to build friendship, establish a connection, and enjoy the good things of life together. I wish that one day we could have a merger of these two block parties.

France, the first day

The kiddos and I left Munich early yesterday morning (accompanied by a very kind husband to carry bags and push a stroller up to security) for a week in the south of France with old friends of my family. The last time I was here was with my sister, when we were 16. It doesn’t feel like it’s been 11 years, as so much of the landscape and the place is quite familiar. The children have been troopers with yet another change imposed upon them and although it has proven a bit of a challenge the last few days to keep spirits up, children sleeping, and to do it all on my own without Travis, I couldn’t be happier to be here and to see my children get to know these people and this place.

The children were lovely travelers for me and they are becoming quite used to the routines of trains and security lines and airports.

We arrived easily in France, napped, and enjoyed the backyard at our friends’. It is a lovely little backyard, and I enjoyed sitting and soaking in the sun and blue skies while the children explored.

In the evening, we headed into the town center of tiny little Grabels, their village, for Alina’s orchestra recital. The evening of music was put on by the local public and music schools and was held in the courtyard of a very-old looking building. I laugh to myself when I realize that I sit at an event like that and think about how not typical that is for people like me, and just how typical it is for the French that they probably don’t even think twice about the venue.

The beauty here is just so quintissential and striking, and I have found it particularly special to realize the many happy memories and connections I have to my family in this country, thanks to the trips we’ve taken before and the food that I grew up eating. France is truly my favorite place not just because I’m a snob (according to my husband, at least) and like good food, but because it holds connections to my family and my past that I am sure I will rediscover every time I am here.

Elisabethmarkt

Another day, another neighborhood explored, market visited, coffee sipped, and playground enjoyed. This time, it was Elisabethmarkt, a much smaller market than Viktualienmarkt, but lovely all the same. It is tucked inside of a little green park in the middle of a neighborhood, making it a bit quieter, simpler, and perhaps more toddler-friendly.

The Munich public transportation system is really quite simple and straightforward and I have found it relatively easy to navigate. The only detail that complicates things: the double stroller. Finding elevators proves to be the wrench thrown into all smooth traveling (particularly in the biggest stations in the city!), and today was no exception. I was able to confront the difficulties this time, however, with more humor and patience, reminding myself we’re on no one’s schedule but our own, and there’s always a way to get home if we need to. An extra U-Bahn ride and about three Tram maps later, I got us to the correct place and felt like a conqueror.

As we waited at the tram stop, I realized it’s not many days in your life that you have a view like this while waiting for a ride.

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So far my plans for exploring Munich have become: find coffee shop, buy some time to sip the coffee by keeping toddler’s mouths full, find a park or playground where they can run, and then return home with a box of those juicy strawberries that seem to be everywhere. Today was no different.

The treats of choice this morning were the smoothest iced flat white (I have only ever had a Starbucks flat white, so I probably don’t have any other authentic flat whites to compare it to, but it was so good!), an oatmeal almond chocolate chip cookie, and a piece of carrot cake decorated with gorgeous dried flowers.

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These red balloons were the highlight of the babies’ entire day, obtained from people walking around promoting an event in the city. They remained tied to their wrists the entire tram and subway rides home and then clenched in their fists for the rest of the day. I can’t decide if the disappointment will be less if I simply make them disappear tonight and hope they’re not remembered in the morning, or if they are discovered, deflated and drooping on the floor in the morning. Probably neither will be the happiest situation.

When Edith got her balloon, she told me she was ready to float up into the sky, like Curious George.

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The balloons say “We [heart] Munich” and although it has been slow in coming, I am starting to feel those sentiments myself.

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