Memorial Day: Stained Glass Moments

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“Never judge a book by its cover” is one of many oft-repeated phrases we repeat to ourselves and our children.  It’s also a message which we can easily forget.  When we arrived in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I had The Longest Day on my mind and images of paratroopers dotting the sky, not to mention hanging from the church itself.  More prosaically, I also knew we were 69 years away from D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.  It’s a small village.  Without the events which happened in 1944, I doubt most people would stop there at all today.  I can certainly give you a long list of “charming” villages to see first.  The church sits surrounded by a parking lot in the middle of a square lined with souvenir stores and such.   The Musée Airborne (with its neat roof which mimics an open parachute) sits nearby.

There is a parachutist hanging from the church.  We looked at him, walked around the building and only decided to go inside at the last second.  It was the ten to fifteen minutes we spent in the church that made our trip worthwhile.  The stained glass windows commemorate the paratroopers and the towns liberation.  The first window shows the Virgin Mary surrounded by paratroopers coming to liberate the village.  The image was sketched by Paul Renaud, a boy who lived through the events.  The second window (below) depicts Saint Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers.  It was a gift from the veterans of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division on the 25th anniversary of the battle.  We stood in the church listening to the religious music in the background and simply looked at the windows in silence.  War memorials can be big and impersonal, cold and stone.  Memorials come alive to me when they manage to make their subjects personal. 

Earlier in the day, we had listened to Brigadier General Kevin McNeely speak at the American Cemetery in Normandy.  His speech stayed with me more than the others for the simple reason that he made it personal.  Instead of talking about “glorious conflicts” and “dead heroes,” he talked about family–his own (his father served and his daughter is also in the military) and the greater military family.  When you think of the dead as individuals with families and give them names and stories, they lose their anonymous status and become alive again, people you can grieve for, relate to and honor.  Standing in front of the stained glass in Sainte-Mère-Eglise and looking at the light shining through it, made the moment personal.  A private moment of silence for the men who fought and died there before going on to continue our day and the peace they brought. 

“To the memory of those who through their sacrifice liberated Sainte Mere Eglise.”

DSC_1264The stained glass

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Running to the Mont Saint Michel

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4:33:18!!!! I did it!!!

This blog has been on hiatus for most of the winter.  Wet, cold, windy weather did little to inspire me but I’m back again with the warm weather and good news.  I finished my marathon yesterday.  I felt good.  I ran across the line with a smile and then started walking like John Wayne in full cowboy mode.  The whole experience was amazing.  Standing in the rising sun waiting for the race to start and looking out across the port.  Cancale never seemed so lovely to me as it did yesterday morning. Rather than try to write a true narrative, here are some highlights of yesterday’s 42.2 km run from Cancale to the Mont Saint Michel:

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World’s Best Supporter

–Listening to the sound of the Breton bagpipe music blaring as we waited for the gun to go off and the race to start.  I could feel the goosebumps on my skin.
–I’m not sure why I was so scared of the hill at the beginning of the race.  When we drove to Cancale two weeks ago to check it out, it seemed so much more imposing.  As I was actually running up it yesterday, I kept thinking it has to be harder than this.  I suppose the combination of the hills I ran as part of my training plan and the energy of starting the race made it go by that much faster.
–The wonderful group of Renault runners from outside Paris that I attached myself to and who were an essential part of my making it all the way.  Running, or more specifically training, might be an individual activity but nothing beats the encouragement of running with others and feeding off of each others energy.
–Running by a Texan flag around Km 20 and doing a double-take.  French flags, Breton flags, even a Normand one…normal.  I wasn’t really expecting Texas in the middle of the French countryside!
–Seeing Laura and Elise waiting for me around Km 32.  Laura ran out to meet me, her arms wide open and I stopped to hug her and take some pictures…so much for my 4:30 goal!  Blame it on the girls but it was such a boost to see them and stop for a hug!
–The hard part i.e. Km 34-36–running in the middle of nowhere…fields, a few brave supporters, and nothing or rather the knowledge that I still had a way to go.  I write that and yet at the same time I already knew somewhere inside of me that I could and would finish.
–Sucking down gel after gel, thinking of my friend who had mailed them to me a few months ago–the ultimate energizer, pure fructose plus a bit of caffeine and knowing that she was thinking of me.
–Counting down the kilometers from 37 onwards and savoring each step bringing me closer to my goal.
–Choosing not to look at the Mont Saint Michel off to the side especially as I got closer to the finish line.  In what has to be a first for me, I kept my eyes off the Merveille.  When I signed up for the Marathon, everyone I talked to told me one of two things either: “the wind” (as in won’t you have fun running 42 km into it) or “you can see the Mont from the start line and it will mentally destroy you” which translates to “good luck sucker, why didn’t you sign up for Paris?”  I got lucky with the wind; we were blessed with a light breeze most of the way and even at the end, I had dealt with far worse out running around the neighborhood.  As for seeing the finish line, you can’t see it from Cancale but you can see the Mont Saint Michel early on in the race hazy in the distance, still looking majestic silhouetted against the blue sky and mist.  I focused on the group I was running with, each supporter, music group and rest stop we went by instead of looking off into the distance.
–The amazing boost of energy that came out of nowhere in the last 2.2 kilometers.  I didn’t feel tired, I felt like I could fly.  (It makes me wonder how much of running truly is mental–could I have run like that earlier in the second half?)  I just started smiling and everything came together so effortlessly.  Sure I came in at 4:33:18, long after the winners and countless other runners but I was as happy for everyone who finished from the winner on down because we all earned our way across the finish line.  I can admire the amazing people who were faster than me and not feel jealous because I feel amazing too.  I did it and no one can take that away from me.
–Any write-up would not be complete without a big thank you to all the supporters and volunteers who lined the race.  Every little cheer made me smile, every person waiting with water and glucose was another smile, and the music always made us pick up out rhythm.
–Oh yes, and McDonald’s.  One of the things about living in France, at least outside of Paris, is that trying to find an open restaurant outside of normal dining hours is difficult to say the least.  While you can normally turn to a bakery for bread and a good sandwich to tide you over at any point during the day, they too have their opening hour quirks.  Our local bakeries tend to be closed on Sunday afternoons.  By the time, I got through the exit area, hooked up with Anthony and the girls and finally made it to our car, it was late in the afternoon.  We started driving home looking for a place to stop for a late lunch/early dinner….nothing.  In desperation, we ended up walking into McDonald’s, the only open “restaurant.”  Try and picture me wearing my marathon running bib, finisher medal and open track jacket, walking up to the counter with the rest of our family to order the ultimate in unhealthy food and imagine the reaction.  The teenager who served us looked somewhere between shocked and impressed–he did manage to stop staring long enough to take our order.  I don’t think fries have ever tasted that good; I got sick an hour later.  (I’m not blaming that on McDonald’s; my stomach sometimes acts up after long runs.)

I’ve spent today being lazy, enjoying my tired legs and wearing my official shirt like a peacock.  I don’t care.  I’m still floating today!  Oh, and I must be crazy–I already know that I want to do another one!

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La Chandeleur

Yesterday was the Chandeleur, a lovely excuse to stuff myself with crêpes in the name of tradition!  Not to be confused with Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday, another wonderful crêpe-filled moment, La Chandeleur occurs every February 2nd.  Its roots, like so many other holidays here are a result of the meeting of pagan and Christian tradition.  The pagan ceremony was all about light, the Christian add-on commemorates Jesus’ presentation at the Temple.  Neither the pagans nor the Christians seem to be present in today’s supermarket-endorsed celebration.  Instead, la Chandeleur comes across as an occasion to get together with your family (and friends) and have fun eating crêpes and trying to flip them in the air.  I’m not much for flipping anything other than coins but I still tried to flip one in the air yesterday.  Needless to say, my small audience got a good laugh and then spent the next ten or so minutes eating while imitating me…and the sound of a wasted crêpe falling to the kitchen floor.  I didn’t care, it was so nice to hear everyone laughing and healthy for a change.

Laura even recited the story of Roule Galette.  I think it must be a pre-school classic here–you can start working on it in January for the Galette des Rois and then finish it up with La Chandeleur and Carnival.  While the galette in the story is closer to the Galette des Rois than to a crêpe, they’re both round, tasty, classic deserts.  The Galette story reminds me of the Gingerbread Man.  Like the Gingerbread Man, the Galette escapes from the old woman who baked her and her husband before meeting a regular cast of animals.  The Galette meets and outruns in short order a rabbit, a bear and a wolf.  Each time anyone thinks of eating it, the Galette starts singing its little song which ends with the lovely “you can’t catch me!” All of my crêpes, minus the one that hit the floor, ended up caught and eaten!  If you want to make your own, no need to buy a fancy mix.  Crêpes are little more than flour, eggs and milk.

Here’s a quick crêpe recipe to get you started:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour/128 grams
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk/1/4 liter
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • optional: dash of rum or vanilla extract

Steps:

  1. Mix all ingredients together in a blender until very smooth.  (You can also whisk them together by hand if you don’t have a blender available.)
  2. Pour into a bowl and let it sit for an hour in the refrigerator.
  3. Grease your skillet with butter and heat until hot.
  4. Using a ladle, pour a small quantity of batter into the skillet and immediately tilt the pan so that the batter covers the entire surface and forms a thin crêpe.
  5. Let the crêpe cook until the edges turn brown, flip, continue cooking and add any desired toppings (chocolate, butter/sugar, etc.)
  6. Serve immediately and enjoy.
  7. Note: You can also make all the crêpes at once and then reheat them with the topping of your choice.

And as a finishing touch, the Roule Galette story with the classic illustrations that Laura loves.  The story is told in French, but the pictures speak for themselves!

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In Which Erin Gripes

January is almost over and I can breathe a sigh of relief.  As new years and new starts go, this month has been a disaster. February cannot be worse!  I have done nothing that I planned to, am behind in just about everything (including mailing my last three Christmas presents!) and to top if off, I managed to pull something in my leg!  A month to put behind me and not dwell on, a month that has also convinced me that I still have ways to go in my parenting goals.  Put simply, all I have done all month is take care of Elise (and to a much lesser degree Laura and Anthony) since she started preschool.  She barely goes for a day or two before she comes home with some version of the flu, vomit ting, diarrhea or just a high fever or an infection that needs antibiotics!  When she’s sick, she’s too sick to do anything but lay on me and sleep, when she starts to feel better, she’s grumpy and unpleasant.  Her appetite is non-existant so I’m sure you’re not surprised to learn that she tires easily.  I might sound egotistical here but I am sick of her being sick!  I want to move on.  I want to do something other than take care of a sick child–my sick child.  I want back some of the empathy I had at the beginning of the month.  I want time to blog, to write, to buy stamps and postcards, to go out without wondering if it’s a good idea to take Elise with me, to see something other than the walls of my house without feeling like I’m not being a good Mom (whatever that is)!  Tomorrow is February 1st and I’ve decided to treat it as a fresh start–sure Elise will still be taking her antibiotics but if I can convince myself that I’ve turned the page, the rest will surely follow and I’ll be able to enjoy life a bit more again!

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Stamp Calendar 2013–A 12-month Overview of Life in France

cards 037Laura is working on time at school. She comes home and proudly recites the days of the week, months, and seasons off to me along with their associations–Wednesday means no school, Saturday and Sunday are the weekend, December equals Christmas, January, New Year’s and the Galette des Rois, and so on.  She has become obsessed with our calendar.  If you ask me what I think of when I hear December, after the holidays and the Téléthon, the annual “calendrier de la poste” comes to mind.

Every December, French postal workers sell calendars to the people along their delivery route.  Rather than sell the calendars at a specific price, you are free to choose how much you would like to donate–all the proceeds go to your mail carrier and there is a very strong incentive to buy the calendar.  The calendar, or Postman’s almanac as it is also referred to, has its roots back in the 18th century!  According to La Poste’s website, its “modern” look dates from 1810!  You can find all your Saint’s Days, holidays, local maps and a multitude of random facts, a leftover from its almanac days.

This year, La Poste created a series of stamps that come in their own version of the calendar.  I love it!  The front cover features the first six months of the year, the back, the second half just like the real calendars.  When you open it, not only stamps but random facts greet you.  The calendar contains 12 stamps at the Forever Green rate (lettre verte).  Each stamp corresponds to a month and highlights one of its key associations–Laura would be proud!  Thus, a quick overview of the months:

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January–“Le Mois du Blanc”  In terms of shopping, January is synonymous with sales and bed linens!  “Le blanc” here refers to sheets!  Every January, stores push you to buy new sheets in January!  Why?  Marketing I supposed as I can’t come up with a better explanation!

February–Valentine’s Day!  Love letters anyone?

March–Spring showers!  (Living in Brittany, it feels like we have 12 months of spring showers.)

April–April Fool’s Day!  Here in France, children (and some adults too) enjoy trying to pin fish to the back of people’s shirts!  A light-hearted practical joke!  I wonder if Elise will manage to get Laura this year…

May–Je porte bonheur.  On May 1st, you can’t go far in France without seeing people selling lily of the valley or muguet de mai, the must-have good luck charm to start the month off with!  Charles XI started the tradition in 1561 by offering lily of the valley flowers to his court.  Who will you offer a bit of luck to this year?

June–Les feux de la Saint-Jean commemorate John the Baptist’s feast day on June 24.  John’s feast day falls near the summer solstice and the tradition of celebrating the solstice and dancing around bonfires has been going on for centuries.

July–The Fireman’s Ball!  July 14th is known worldwide as France’s national day but did you know that it’s also a great evening to go out dancing at your neighborhood fire station in Paris?

August–Vacation, vacation, vacation!  If you want Paris to yourself, this is the month to go!  All the Parisians have fled to the beaches and to the mountains!  Enjoy the capital!

September–Back to school!  No crying children either!

October–I have to admit I can not figure out where the romance-novel theme came from for October…neither can Anthony…nor our 85+ year old neighbor who is an almanac in her own right…

November–The End of WWI

December–Winter Sports, snow, skiing, sledding…but not where I live!

What would your calendar look like?  Your stamp themes?

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Snow day

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Walking to the Farm to Buy Eggs

Snow, gray skies and freezing windy weather!  Can you believe it?  We have snow!  I can hear some of you laughing already, pointing to the picture and snickering a little more–what snow?  Keep in mind that we live in a region that rarely sees snow.  You can think of snow in the same sentence as “when pigs fly” or, if you want to use your French, “quand les poules auront des dents” (when chicken have teeth).  The 2cm of snow you see here was enough to create more than one problem this morning.  In an area that doesn’t get snow, snow plows are non-existent and even salt is a luxury!  (And, in all fairness, not worth the investment for the one day of snow we get every 2-3 years.)  Perhaps even more importantly, people simply don’t know how to drive in snow.  It took Anthony 2 hours instead of 12 minutes to go to work this morning, more than half of the girls’ school, teachers included, didn’t make it in today and I could go on.  In terms of local productivity, today must be a low point.  I did get to teach Laura to throw a snowball and that has to count for something!

Now that it’s night, the snow is mixed with ice (something no one can drive in) and I’m sitting by the fire.  It looks the temperatures will remain below freezing for now and tomorrow you can think of me out there scooping up enough snow to make a snowman with Laura!  Dreams can come true!

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La Gastro and “Fun” French Vocabulary

What Happens When You Wash a Doudou

What Happens When You Wash a Doudou

This week was supposed to be Elise’s big week–she was supposed to start going to preschool four days a week.  Note the word “supposed” which leads me into my first post for 2013, vocabulary that you don’t learn in school.  She went to school on Monday and came home sick.  She has the flu or as they call it here in France, “la gastro.” In parenting terms, la gastro is that wonderful combination of throwing up, diarrhea, and achiness that leads to your children sleeping on you for hours on end and your washing machine running non-stop.  Sleepless nights are no longer a thing of the past.  It is also a national cause célèbre–in addition to the weather report, you can catch the national flu map on TV too!  Brittany as you might guess from the state of my living room is bright red!

When we visited the US with Laura as a baby, we only brought a limited amount of baby food with us and decided to buy most of it as we explored.  Anthony’s face when we finally got around to buying some was priceless.  I found him standing with a bottle of Gerber baby food in his hands and a horrified expression on his face.  Gerber is French slang for to throw up or, translated a bit more loosely, “to puke.”  I’ve been dealing with a lot of puke over the past 36 hours.  Laura, because Elise had to share with her sister, even puked on her doudou.  Doudou is a catch-all French term for a child’s favorite stuffed toy or blanket that they cannot live without.  Washing a doudou is tantamount to instigating a nuclear meltdown as the photo above from our summer vacation shows–needless to say when it’s been puked on you have no choice.  (As an aside Mo Willems has two wonderful books Knuffle Bunny/Guili Lapin in French and Knuffle Bunny Too that perfectly summarize the child-doudou relationship.)  Doudou blankie is in the dryer now and I’m counting down the minutes until it comes out and I can put the girls down for a little “dodo.”  Dodo is my last word for you today.  Faire dodo means to go to bed/sleep in French baby language.  I could use a little dodo time myself–time to dream of puke-free days and new adventures!

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