December and Skating in Rennes

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Elise’s First Time on the Ice

December is almost over and I’ve hardly blogged at all this month.  I’m not yet ready to think about New Year’s resolutions or my favorite moments of 2012.  I’ll save that for tomorrow.  New Year’s is traditionally a lazy day for us.  Elise’s birthday, Christmas, and one too many bûche de Noël have come and gone.  What else has happened?  Not much to be honest.  Somehow, all the Christmas activities devoured our weekends and I didn’t see the time go by.  I’ve been keeping fit too.  I’m in Week 6 of my Marathon Training plan and ran 15km yesterday.  Yes, I know I’m still nowhere near the sacrosanct 42km but you have to start somewhere.  My appetite has picked up too.  I ate more than Anthony last night for dinner!  I’ve even convinced him to start walking and exercising again.

Here I Go

Here I Go

The girls are on Christmas vacation and while I wasn’t interested in spending our money to go skiing, I was up for trying something new and enjoying a little post-Christmas splurge.  Can you believe that I’m the only one in our family who had gone skating before Saturday?  Rennes is about 45 minutes south of Dinard/Saint Malo and home to Le Blizz–2700m² of indoor ice-skating fun!  While it’s a bit pricey if you don’t have your own skates (we didn’t), it does make a nice change from the sea and surf theme we live with most days.  For 22.20€ we received two adult tickets with skate rental and two Under-5 child tickets with skate rental.  Le Blizz actually has two side-by-side rinks with the smaller of the two being devoted more to beginners and families.  After getting skates on everyone and picking up a skating sled, we headed out to the ice and both girls immediately panicked!  I think it’s every parent’s nightmare–you spend (good) money to give your child a treat and they just don’t like it, start crying, tell you they want to go home or all of the above at once.  We coaxed Elise onto the skating sled and immediately went back to pick up another one for Laura.  There are times when it pays to be short and as I spent the next 30 minutes pushing Laura around the ice, I felt a bit of sympathy for the tall fathers out there with their children.  Our patience did pay off and, while Elise refused to move off the sled, by the end of the afternoon Laura was skating on her own pushing the sled in front of her.  She even started crying when it was time to leave.  If you’re planning to bring your small children, it pays to arrive as soon as the rink opens.  On Saturday, there were not enough sleds for all the children present and we were constantly being asked if we were finished with ours.  The sleds are available first come, first serve in exchange for your ID card.  The atmosphere reminded me of the roller-skating rinks I went to as a kid–loud (but not deafening) music, swirling lights and the constant motion of people going round in circles and having a good time.  If only every day could be so much fun!

And now, off to finish 2012 not with a bang, but with cheese, wine and good friends!  See you next year!

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Guernsey Part II–It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas

Christmas Lights, Guernsey

Christmas Lights, Guernsey

If our morning was devoted to discovering a bit of Guernsey’s wild coast, the afternoon was all about tea, scones, postcards and Christmas!  I had already guessed that something was up when we arrived in Saint Peter Port in the morning and I saw the telltale crowd control guard rails.  A few questions later, I found out that Father Christmas was coming to town that very afternoon!  Talk about being in the right place at the right time!  I don’t care how old I am, I still find the magic of Christmas contagious and you could feel the excitement building throughout the afternoon.  While things got underway down at the Yacht Club, Santa’s official arrival spot on the island, we were hanging out at Gâche downtown and enjoying a break from our pre-parade afternoon window shopping expedition.

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Relaxing at Gâche

If you’re planning a shopping based trip to Guernsey, keep in mind that stores close early by French standards.  Most stores close at 5:30 pm and a few stay open until 6 pm!  In the winter, it feels like the island shuts down at dinner time.  (Yes, I know the pubs are open but I’ve never been a pub/bar type person.)  I believe there will be special Christmas late openings for shops this month; check with the tourist office when you arrive or shop early.  When you’re ready for a break from your shopping, Gâche, located at 31 Le Pollet, Saint Peter Port, is a small coffeehouse/tea room perfect for quiet conversations and long letters (or short postcards as the case may be).  We spent an hour sipping tea for two, eating the official Guernsey gâche (I have to admit I prefer French gâche) and writing postcards.  The owner made us feel at home and not at all rushed.  She also offers Millionnaires Shortbread.  I might not have been wild about the gâche but the shortbread was an entirely different matter–you cannot go wrong with layers of shortbread, a smooth caramel, and melted chocolate!

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Is He Here Yet?

When we were finished with our break and stocking up on some calories for the cold, we headed over to the church to join the crowd waiting for Santa there.  It felt like the entire town turned out for his parade too!  We arrived around 4pm near the church and staked out a spot amidst all the families.  While we waited a choir led the crowd in a Christmas carol sing-a-long.  I might not be able to sing but I joined in anyway–I figured the crowd would drown out one off-key voice!  A children’s sign language choir also joined in for several songs.  Watching the little kids in their Santa hats signing and looking somewhere between nervous, proud, excited and very concentrated was a wonderful moment.

Waiting for Santa to Turn on the Lights

Waiting for Santa to Turn on the Lights

I quickly noticed that all the kids in the crowd were holding their letters to Santa.  You see not only does Father Christmas come to Guernsey to turn on the Christmas lights but he also brings his helpers and collects all his mail at the same time.  In addition to his elves, Santa came with a host of storybook characters!  We saw Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and friends, Peter Pan and Captain Cook, and I could go on!  If Laura and Elise had been with us, I know they would have jumped for joy to see Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf and Frosty the Snowman.  At precisely 5 o’clock, Santa led everyone in the official countdown and lit the lights.  The town came alive with the colorful lights and the cheering crowd!  Even Anthony had to smile!  When the last of the confetti had fallen we took one last walk around the city, enjoying the crowds and the lights before heading off to an early dinner and returning to France.   The proverbial perfect ending for a perfect day!

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Guernsey–the Great Escape Part I

Fort Grey, Guernsey

Fort Grey, Guernsey

I love Guernsey!  There I’ve said it!  The island, the people, the food, the complete and total change that comes from leaving France, French and Euros behind for a taste of English, (Guernsey) Pounds, and the island touch!  This is the second time we’ve gone to Guernsey and I need to book us a long weekend come spring–one day is not enough to appreciate all there is to see.  (You can read about last year’s adventures here and here.)  Once again we took advantage of Condor Ferries 2-for-1 adult fare day trip promo.  If you’re in the Brittany/Normandy area and want to get away, I highly recommend it.  We convinced Anthony’s Dad to watch the girls and headed off for some much-needed alone time.

The Condor promo is running again next Saturday, 8 December 2012.  For 43.90€, you and your soul mate, best friend, or even neighbor can spend the day in Guernsey with or without your children!  Condor has actually improved on their offer, while the price has gone up since last year, they’ve actually shortened the day.  Instead of arriving at 6:30 in the morning and wandering around aimlessly until the first cafes open an hour later, you now arrive at 7:30 am right in time for breakfast.  By the same token, the return ferry was scheduled for 8:00 pm.  As you need to arrive a bit early, you can eat a leisurely dinner and then go directly to the ferry terminal.  If we devoted last year to Saint Peter Port and the neighboring island of Herm, this year, we concentrated on seeing a bit more of the island.

Lihou Island and L'Eree Headland

Lihou Island and L’Eree Headland

We chose not to bring our car.  From the ferry terminal it is a straight walk into town.  If you turn left, you quickly come to the Tourist Office (a handsome gray stone building) and a little further on, the main bus terminal.   Island buses run regularly and cost only 1£ per ride.  Pay the driver when you board and take your ticket from the machine.  Exact change is appreciated.  If you don’t have change, 5£ notes are acceptable.  Our driver had to turn several tourists away who only had 10£ notes on them.   If you’re looking to get a cheap overview of the island, Bus 7 and 7a follow the coastline most of the way around.  (Buses with “A” run the route counterclockwise, buses without an “A” run clockwise.)  We enjoyed staring out the windows and watching the capital fade into the background.  From a tourist’s perspective, it would be helpful if the stops were better labeled or even announced ahead of time.    We let the bus take us all the way to the western part of the island before randomly  hitting the “request stop” button and hopping out.  Like here in Brittany, the better part of the coast is lined with pedestrian trails perfect for walking and exploring.  We ended up getting out near Fort Saumarez, just across from Lihou Island.

Le Creux és Faies Passage Grave

Le Creux és Faies Passage Grave

The island is covered in military history.  Fort Saumarez has been a strategic a spot centuries and traces of human existence there go back even further.  As we walked up to the see the tower firsthand, a small sign for “Le Creux és Faies” passage tomb caught our attention.  The Megalithic passage tomb dates to the 3-2,500 BC!  Judging by the massive stones that form its walls, it will still be standing centuries from now!  I actually felt tall walking into it.  While I didn’t have to duck, it’s clear that the first people using the tomb were more like me and Anthony in size than today’s “average” population.  The spot’s long-lasting strategic importance is also clear–the Germans simply built their observation tower on top of the older Victorian Martello tower.  When you look at the tower, you can see where stone gives way to concrete casing.  If you stare out to see, you can look at the house on Lihou Island.  As it was high tide, we couldn’t walk over but simply wonder who would want to live in such splendid isolation.  We headed south from the tower our eyes on the horizon.  We took a leisurely pace as we wandered from l’Eree Bay to Rocquaine Bay, Fort Grey beckoning us on.  The sandy beaches were mainly deserted, we passed a few people walking their dogs but otherwise we were alone.  I can imagine them in summer covered with sunbathers and swimmers instead of decaying seaweed.

Fort Pezeries (Interior)

Fort Pezeries (Interior)

Fort Grey, otherwise known as the Château Rocquaine, houses a shipwreck museum.  Like the majority of the tourist sites on the island, it was closed.  To be honest, I didn’t miss the “must-see sites.”  The beauty of the coast more than made up for a lack of museums to explore.  (In all fairness, there were a couple of sites open but we chose to focus our morning on a part of the coastal scenery.)  Fort Grey, built-in 1804, is another Martello tower.  We kept walking making it all the way to Fort Pezeries, another Napoleonic-era fort.  I lost track of the number of people we passed out walking their dogs or simply biking around Pleimont.  This is one of the perks of traveling off-season, you see the island and people relaxed, simply living their daily lives.  I can’t speak for the islanders, but I know I change some of my habits in the summer when Dinard and Saint Malo fill up with tourists.

Simply Beautiful

Simply Beautiful

On a side note, we could almost pick out the other French tourists back in town simply by looking at the way they were dressed.  After checking the forecast, we came equipped for walking in cold, windy weather with our backpacks, coats, hats, gloves, and scarves.  It was cold, brisk when walking, but we looked overdressed compared to the locals.  The very first person I saw when we were getting off the ferry was a dock worker dressed in shorts!  Half the people we saw on our way to get breakfast didn’t have winter coats on and I lost track of the girls in short skirts and tights.  I suppose it’s all what you get used to!

We ended our morning by backtracking to the bus stop and heading back into town.  With the exception of the last part around Portelet Harbor, bus stops lined our entire walk.  If you get tired or your children get cranky, escape is only a bus ride away.  We brought sandwiches and water along with us.  While we didn’t see much in the way of cafes or places to eat along the way, my guess is that during the summer season the area springs to life.  Things were certainly lively back in Saint Peter Port, you see we were also there for Father Christmas’s official arrival…

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The Nutella Tax

Have you heard about the Nutella tax?  Or perhaps we should start with have you heard of Nutella, the incredibly rich hazelnut spread guaranteed to make you smile and destroy your dieting plans at the same time?  Can you tell I went through a Nutella period?  I don’t miss it anymore but it was good while it lasted.  Nutella, like any number of spreads, cookies, chips, etc. contains palm oil.   France imported 126,000 tons of palm oil for the food industry last year and you can find it in 13% of supermarket foods.  Last week, France came close to taxing palm oil (and by extension all products containing it) citing health and environmental reasons.  The Green Party, behind the proposal, noted both health safety concerns and the link between palm oil and deforestation.   The text has been shelved for the moment following an outcry from both the food industry and palm-oil producing countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia and Malaysia.  The tax money was marked for the Social Security fund (SECU).  Putting aside the environmental angle, I think the French government needs to come up with a better way to get people to eat healthier and be more active than simply coming up with yet another new tax (and this in a country that has taxes on taxes!).

The Nutella tax fits into the larger (developing) category of taxing anything deemed unhealthy.  On January 1st of this year, the “Coca-Cola” tax came into effect.  The Coke tax applies to all soft drinks, fruit drinks and any other drink containing added sugar and was voted under Francois Fillon. The government is hoping to raise 120€ million Euros for the SECU with it.  Which makes one wonder what the real goal is–raise money or fight obesity!  I suppose my sarcasm shows what I think.  I have to admit that I’m rather curious to see the first soda tax statistics come in next month.  Will soda consumption have gone down?  How much money was raised?  More or less than planned?  (And how do you budget based on people’s “bad” habits?)  How do you legislate healthy eating habits? I think it takes more than a stick approach.  Where’s the carrot?  Of course, the carrot costs more than the stick but then isn’t that a big part of the problem?

The Coke tax hasn’t had a huge impact on us.  I don’t buy soda.  I thought it was expensive enough before the new tax and we tend to drink water and tea anyway.  As for the palm oil, I’m one of those people who actually reads labels and I make most of the cakes and cookies we eat.

Cost does play a role in what I buy.  We’ve chosen to buy our fruit and vegetables at the market because, while they’re more expensive, the quality is unmatched.  We rarely buy wine–that budget got slashed to allow us to buy better meat, poultry and fish.  We eat less meat than before due to the cost and our desire to buy good meat.  We make most of our food from scratch.  As I mentioned above, we don’t buy cookies, candy and junk food (but I do bake a lot).  None of this, however, came about because of another government tax.

Would a tax make me change my shopping habits if I didn’t look at labels?  To be honest, I doubt it unless it was a prohibitively expensive one.  The day, France tries to tax butter and cheese though I’ll be in for a real problem.  Or even eggs for that matter; the eggs/cholesterol debate has been going on for years.  Which presents another issue–good fat versus bad fat, quantity and moderation….and good luck legislating that!

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Tackling the Big One

I’ve decided not to wait until January 1st to make my New Year’s Resolution for 2013.  I want to finish the Marathon du Mont Saint Michel in May.  There I’ve said it out loud and I’m even more nervous now.  I’m terrified actually.  I don’t want “DNF” (did not finish) next to my name and since I’ve made my goal public, I can’t pretend I didn’t make it or forget to tell you how the story will end.  All the books and articles I’ve read suggest telling all your friends and family about your new goal so that can encourage you.  I’ve decided “encouragement” sounds better than “go ahead and burn your bridges–now you have to do it.”  I think the same logic is at work in the comments that tell you to sign up immediately.  I haven’t signed up yet.  Basically according to what I’ve read anything that will make your marathon commitment feel concrete from Day 1 is worth doing.  I need to wait for next month for the entry fee to fit in the budget but I’ve got my medical certificate ready, printed out my training plan (all 23 wonderful weeks of it starting next month) and Santa has already brought me my new GPS-enabled watch.  (I don’t want to think about Santa’s reaction if I don’t get my money’s worth out of that investment!)  To be honest, injury is my greatest concern.  I remember how I was hobbling in the run up to the Cancale-Saint Malo Half-Marathon in June and I do not want a repeat performance (the shin pain went away after the first 5-7 minutes but getting through them was no fun).  I’ve added a new series of stretching and strength exercises to my training program to try and prevent anything from going wrong physically.  I’ve also started reminding myself how I’ve improved since I started running again after having Elise and being bedridden for 4.5 months.  When I started running I was winded after 300 meters and finishing a 5K was my goal.  I managed the 5K that spring and finished the season with a 14K.  This year, I managed the half and I’ve been getting stronger ever since.  I’ve also learned to accept being passed by the geriatric set (no offense intended) and not compare myself to the amazing survivors and mothers of five plus children who run marathons in their sleep.  I’m not the fastest person out there and I never will be.  If, no “when,” I can take my slow and steady self all the way from Cancale to the Mont Saint Michel, I will be thrilled.  I’ll have finished the race but more importantly, I’ll have stuck out the training schedule, the days when I don’t feel like running and enjoyed myself most of the way there! Oh, and gotten to eat everything and anything I want!** 

PS Bree, if you’re reading this, you are more than welcome to be crazy along with me!

**I don’t know how people manage to lose weight by running. Last year, by the time I was doing the long runs for the half, I was hungry all the time and eating an extra meal a day! 

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Toy Soldier Stamps and 2013 Price Increases

Toy Soldier Stamps, France 2012

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.  (No scratch that…it’s beginning to feel a lot like Téléthon time again but that’s a post for another day!)  How do you know Christmas is coming?  Besides the decorations, lights and displays going up everywhere, you can add all the toy catalogues in my mailbox.  You can still find toy soldiers for sale in them–both of my nephews and several of Laura’s friends are all in the toy knights in shining armor/castle stage!  Neither of my brothers were into toy soldiers as a kid, but Anthony still has his collection.  These stamps just seem fun to me–nostalgia meets a man’s stamp.  The Toy Soldier stamps were released on 2 July 2012 but somehow only showed up on display at our local post office recently.  Each of the six stamps is devoted to a different era of French military history from the Roman conquest of Gaul (see Vercingétorix, top right) to WWI.  The background features the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, one of my favorite Parisian landmarks.  In addition to Napoleon’s tomb, the Invalides is home to the Musée de l’armée des Invalides and its very nice collection of toy soldiers.  Finally, the block is bordered with a mix of cavalry and infantry toy soldiers.

In other news, stamp prices will be increasing here in France on January 1st! Yay!  The average stamp price is set to go up by 2.8%.  The 20g letter priority rate will be going from 0.60€ to 0.63€, while the “green” rate will go from 0.57€ to 0.58€.  If you can afford to stock up on forever stamp booklets, now is your chance!  According to La Poste, stamp prices have remained stable for 18 months.  I suppose this is their justification for the latest price hike.  I wish I could remember when the cost of mailing postcards/letters to the EU and World last increased as that, at least, feels much more recent.  I have 2011 World stamps for 0.87€ (current price: 0.89€) and the 2011 Europa stamp was issued at 0.75€ (current: 0.77€).  I would like to know how much letters to the EU and Rest-of-the-World will cost but I haven’t been able to track that down yet.  Unfortunately for me, December means both Elise’s birthday and Christmas, ie no spare change!  Why do I have such an expensive hobby?

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Remembrance Day

World War One ended on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour years ago today.  At the same moment the US celebrates Veteran’s Day, France honors its First World War dead and all those who have died for France.  While the cameras all focus on Paris and President Hollande, I think the simple ceremonies taking place in villages all over the country are just as moving.  The proof, if you will, that people still remember and honor their dead wherever the fell and wherever they came from.  This morning at 11 o’clock, we joined with others in one such commemoration.  We were not the only family present, ours were not the only children standing outside the church and while the majority of the veterans were older, the small crowd was mixed in age and gender.  Three short speeches, one minute of silence for all those who died for their country–a simple ceremony in honor of those men and women who have fought for France over the years from the World Wars to today’s combat in Afghanistan.  As new generations give their lives for freedom, the refrain continues–never forget.

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