Spring and Les Villes et Villages Fleuris

Spring is here. When I lived in San Diego, the arrival of spring meant days were now 72 degrees instead of 68; time to put away the scarfs and boots and break out the flip flops. Here in Colorado, spring means green blades of grass breaking through, blossoming trees, tulips, and then this:

IMG_20160417_084712

That’s my backyard two days ago. We got 17 inches of snow. We went sledding, built a snowman, had a snowball fight…. Spring along the Front Range means your what-to-wear dilemmas look like this:

IMG_20160415_073739

I’m done with the snow. I stored my snowboard mid-March, got a pedicure, and started wearing sandals. Visions of flowers and beaches and hot sun toasting my bare legs are dancing through my head.

Alas. I’ll fill my thoughts, instead, with Les Villes et Villages Fleuris de France.

This was a new discovery for me last summer. As we drove into a village in Bretagne, my husband pointed to a bright yellow sign and exclaimed, “Ah, un village fleuri !” and he went from mildly cranky/exasperated Frenchman-driving-car into happy, relaxed, joie de vivre Frenchman mode.

VILLES-FLEURIES

The Concours des villes et villages fleuris is an annual contest in France where communes are evaluated for their aesthetic beauty. When the label began in 1959, it focused mainly on the beauty of the green spaces and floral displays, but now communes are judged in three categories: “la qualité de l’accueil” (the quality of the welcome and ambiance to visitors and residents), “le respect de l’environnement” (looking at the respect shown to natural resources and preservation of green spaces, as well as events that celebrate nature), and “la preservation du lien social” (how do the green spaces and gardens promote social interaction and utilization of those spaces within the commune). In all, it is an attempt to look at the overall quality of life impact on those who live in and visit the commune.

No limits exist on the number of communes that can be awarded, so it isn’t a true competition. The label earned can be anywhere from 1 to 4 flowers, or the prestigious gold flower, given annually to 9 communes. According to Wikipedia, as of 2015, approximately 12,000 French cities, towns, and villages have received the award. Four flower status has been awarded to 226 of those.

To learn more, here is the link to the French site.

http://www.villes-et-villages-fleuris.com/accueil_1.html

And here are some of my favorite flower pictures from France:

Paris, je t’aime

Last summer, we bravely traveled with our 4-year-old and 3-year-old to Iceland and then France. Drumroll … it was fantastic. They proved to be amazing little travelers: movies and a steady stream of snacks, toys, and duct tape (okay, kidding on the last one) kept them, and us, happy on the plane, jet lag didn’t last long, and they met different beds, foods, and activities with enthusiasm for the most part!

Hundreds of articles with tips on how to travel with kids exist and are easy to find. We mostly follow the basics and it works great. The nice thing about visiting a place that you’ve visited before, like Paris for us, is that we didn’t have a huge list of things we had to do or see. We hit the streets with no agenda, really, other than to make sure our kids had a positive experience. We cut the list of what we would normally try to see in half, or more, plugged in a fair amount of downtime, and when the kids were interested in something, we stopped and let them check it out without rushing them. Too much.

Yet we still managed to show them many of the major must-see-on-your-first-visit-to-Paris sites.

Here’s one of my favorite pics:

DSC03227

Captioned: Whoa.

Here’s us at Notre Dame (which is one of those names that I struggle to pronounce in both French and American English… growing up hearing about the Noder Dame – long a – fighting Irish has left a lasting imprint on my brain)

DSC03246

HERE IS PARIS, BEFORE KIDS:

Us at Chez Lyon; not the Parisian cuisine one salivates for, but a fun tradition we started on our first visit to Paris together (make sure to appreciate my hubby’s sideburns):

600 and of course, moules et frites at Chez Lyon in Paris

PARIS, NOW:

When asked about their favorite parts of Paris, the kids site these posts and the metro:

DSC03374

What you can’t hear are the whoops of pure joy.

My husband went to high school here. Seriously.

DSC03391

DSC03390

Rose gardens at the Parc de Bagatelle:

DSC03404

These two were doing everything they could to attract the attention of the female peacock between the two of them. Like a good French girl, she feigned indifference and sauntered away.

DSC03422

DSC03425

We only spent a couple days in Paris… as much as I love Paris, with kids it isn’t the easiest place to be. Especially with Colorado kids, accustomed to large open spaces for free-ranging it, and especially for my two kids, who have two volumes: loud and louder. We spent most of our time in our beloved Bretagne …. more photos to come!

New Digs

It was never my intention to so thoroughly neglect my blog. It just happened: one week, then one month, then months…. I have felt guilty and the need/desire to blog has always been on my mind, but the longer I neglected it, the easier it was to not come back to it.

One of my excuses: We bought a house and did a huge remodel. Yep, we are sinking roots in Louisville, CO! Just outside Boulder, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a place with mild(ish) seasons, gorgeous hiking trails and camping places, fantastic schools, and lots of great friends, new and old.

No way I could resist this:

IMG_7692

Or this:

IMG_7579 IMG_7578 IMG_7577

Louisville is a slice of classic small town Americana charm with a dash of liberal “republic of Boulder” and a good layer of whatever-you-want frosting. Music? Art? Sports? Beer? Parades with dogs and cute kids? A fire station that gives your kids a tour if you pop in to say hi? Summer Street Faires that draw names like the Gin Blossoms and Los Lobos? Free horse and carriage rides around downtown? Fine Dining? Fantastic burger? It’s all right here, in my adopted home town.

I hope to never move again – this is it for me. No more packing, no more boxes, no more house shopping, done. I told my husband: we aren’t leaving here until we’re too old to get up the stairs. His response: “Then we’ll just get one of those electric carts to slide us up and down. We never have to leave!” We love, love, love our new house, and Louisville, and my husband is working for Google and, well, Google is GOOGLE. Best company to work for, hands down.

This, of course, was before we realized that Trump becoming president of the USA wasn’t an impossible joke, but a frighteningly real prospect. That could be such a disaster that a move to the EU would be a real consideration. Seriously, ‘Merica, WTF?

As for the remodel, I became an HGTV junkie and my daughter kept begging to come to the house when they were “breaking stuff” so she could see it. As it goes with remodels, things are never as easy as they initially seem they will be, but long story short: we are in and our house looks fabulous. We even have a guest room, a true guest room, for the first time ever! The theme (a room with a theme!) is, of course, Paris. Here’s a photo:

Paris room

My husband and I have a running joke about how in every American movie with even one scene in Paris, the Parisian apartment or hotel room always, always, always has a view of the Eiffel Tower. We watch for it and see who can be the first to call it out: VOILA, TOUR EIFFEL ! HA HA HA! So here it is: Our room with a view!

One of the pillows has this lovely Audrey Hepburn quote from Sabrina (where, ironically, she has a view not the Tour Eiffel but of Montmarte): “Paris is always a good idea.”

Agreed, Audrey, agreed.

New home, new desk, new year, new plans… more to come. I won’t promise to be fast with my next post, but I will say this: when I’m not writing about A French American Life, I’m living it, and that’s the point of it all anyway, right?

 

 

Solidarité

Like so many, I am deeply saddened by the events in Paris. I could delve into my thoughts on the politics of the situations we as a changed, evolving world face today, the ideology of how to improve things, my own pessimism regarding our ability to ever bring peace to this kind of fight, or the grief that those who have lost must feel so acutely. Thankfully, none of our loved ones were hurt. To talk of my own grief for a country I love seems self-centered at a time when so many are so personally affected.

So instead, I’ll talk about why I love France. It’s in part the obvious: the beauty – both natural and man made, that exists throughout the country. The fabulous food. But it goes much beyond this. While listening to NPR today, I heard a guest comment that we (Americans) have certain things we admire about other countries. We admire the Germans for the machines they make – their cars. The Swiss for their watches. But when it comes to the French, we love the way they live. We idealize it, bien sûr. We also poke fun at it (another strike? Geez!). Yet it is the French way of life, the joie de vivre, the bon appetit, the je ne sais quoi that we so admire and wish to emulate. For the French celebrate life. Art. Family. Food. History. French culture is a celebration the things that make being human great. The essence of humanity.

So I continue to celebrate France. France, Paris, Je t’aime pour toujours.

 

Le Père Noël does what?

Like many Americans, I grew up with Santa Claus. As December progressed, the floor under our tree would fill with presents from and to all family members – parents, grandparents, kids, cousins, aunts, uncles. Then, on Christmas morning, we would wake early – usually at 5:00, unable to sleep, checking the clocks every minute, watching the minutes slowly tick by until the clock finally hit 7:00, when we were allowed to wake everyone in the house and get the day started. Christmas morning, our stockings would be stuffed and there would be new toys from Santa, waiting for us by the tree. We spent the morning opening gifts, from Santa and from each other.

Best year ever: Santa brought my brother the Millennium Falcon and a few Star Wars figurines. He brought me an enormous Strawberry Shortcake dollhouse. We were both in heaven. My parents remember that being the year that they were up most of the night putting those things together (I seem to recall some loud banging noises accompanied by the occasional muttered curse), and that there were a few hundred decal stickers between the two big gifts. But they remember it all with a smile and are happy to hear us reminisce about that year.

Our kids enjoying a warm fire and the Christmas tree

Our kids enjoying a warm fire and the Christmas tree

On one of my first Christmases with my husband, we shopped together for our niece and nephew, his brother’s kids who live in France. It was so exciting for me, because at the time they were the only children in our family. But when my husband slapped the tags on the gifts, inscribed with “de la part du Pére Noël,” he had a huge smile on his face and I got squinty-eyed.

“But, those are from us. Not Santa.”

“Yeah, but, I thought…” He looked confused.

It turns out that in my husband’s family, like many French families, all presents under the tree magically appear on Christmas morning. And they are all from Santa.

I reasoned that we so rarely see our niece and nephew and I wanted them to know the gifts were from us. I wanted them to know we were thinking of them. He reasoned that this is the way it’s done, chez lui.

I felt so weird about it. For one, I believe that receiving gifts from people other than Santa gives children a valuable lesson in being grateful and thanking those people. That learning to give gifts as a child is a valuable lesson as well. I also felt that we were stepping on my in-laws toes. After all, isn’t it the right of the parents to play Santa? I’ve looked forward to that since long before I had kids. I don’t want anyone else coming in and taking over Santa’s role in our home, and I didn’t want to do that to anyone else. My mom once pointed out that she believed the way the tree was filled with presents from and to everyone, not just Santa, made the transition into realizing that Santa wasn’t quite so real (part of me will always hold onto that magic) easier for us as kids.

For my husband, the magic of Christmas was, in part, the overnight filling of the tree. And the fun for adults is playing Santa to everyone.

A minor clash in the grand scheme of things, really. Today, we send the gifts from us, not Santa. The gifts that come from France are from the kids’ Aunt and Uncle, and from their Mimi and Papy – so perhaps traditions in France are changing? Many French people I know still label everything “from Santa.” I’m grateful that our family does not. Because, even though our kids don’t get much time with the French side of their family, they know that they are being thought of. As the kiddos rip through the paper wrapping, I make sure to grab it and say, “This is from….” So they know.

We’ve embraced many of each other’s Christmas traditions and are forging our way into creating traditions unique to our family. We continue to play with the menus for Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Maybe we will forever. For years my parents, who live in southern Arizona, hosted a Christmas Eve mexican dinner with tamales, chimichangas, and margaritas for family and close friends. I miss those, but it’s time for us to start hosting. For my husband and me, a house full of loved ones, good food, twinkling lights on the tree, and lots of hugs make for a great day. Presents fill the space under our tree and tonight, Santa will come with a few more for everyone. Beyond that, we’re still winging it.

Merry Christmas and Joyeux Noël to all!

 

Beer and the Great American Beer Festival

My husband likes to joke that they kicked him out of France because he knows nothing about wine. This is not entirely true – he knows more about wine than the average male, but perhaps not the average French male. He enjoys a glass of wine and can comment intelligently on the parfum and the subtleties of the flavors.

Truthfully, though, he’s a beer guy. He loves beer. Especially IPAs – which makes sense because San Diego, where he developed his taste for beer, has made a name for itself in the world of brew in large part through IPAs. Me – I can’t stand them. Just thinking about hops results in bitter beer face for me. But give me a good Belgian Trippel and I’m in heaven.

My Frenchie hubby loves the freedom that beer is allowed. Wine making in France follows strict rules: for example, fields cannot be irrigated – they must rely on the weather, the wines that have a “good” reputation tend to come from a single grape, and the land the grape comes from is often more important than the grape itself – it’s all about the “terroir.”

But with beer, if someone feels like throwing in banana or coriander, it’s fair game. Beer is a place where creativity is admired, sought after.

We got lucky this year – we got to go to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. For those who don’t know, GABF is an annual, three day event that draws over 50,000 people from around the world to sample the thousands of beers offered. When tickets go on sale online, they are gone in about 30 minutes. It all started with Charlie Papazian, nuclear engineer, teacher, founder of the Brewers’ Association, writer of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, and overall awesome guy. With an equally awesome family who we’re lucky to be friends with.

Both San Diego and Colorado are meccas for beer, which works out well for us, as beer fans. I tasted the best beer I’ve ever had at GABF, and it was in the amateur section where home brewers pair with a brewery to develop their own home brew. This one was a Trippel, aged in a barrel that had hosted port wine and bourbon. Heaven.

So – here’s a few photos:

The line around the back of the convention center to get in

The line around the back of the convention center to get in

DSC02290

So psyched to have tickets!

The crush to get in

The crush at the entrance

Going up the stairs ... so exciting...

Going up the stairs … so exciting…

We're in!

We’re in!

DSC02296

Cheers!

DSC02297

Random…

Next year we need pretzel necklaces, like this guy!

Next year we need pretzel necklaces, like this guy!

 

What American Parents Do Well

Is anyone besides me beyond annoyed by the whole “Americans suck as parents” trend? From Pamela Drukerman’s Bringing Up Bébé to Tiger Mom to British nannys reading us the riot act, we seem to have the whole world judging our parenting style as completely ineffective. Worse, we’re labeling ourselves as inept: we’re sure that somehow, some way, everyone else knows something we don’t, whether it be some variation of the “kids/parents these days/in my day” rant (which has gone on for generations) or the “French/Chinese/Tribal Africans/name any country do it so much better” trend.

It’s clear to anyone who actually lives in the U.S. that there is no one-size-fits-all parenting strategy here. Peruse the shelves of books on parenting in any bookstore and it’s apparent that we can’t agree on much of anything when it comes to how to best raise a child in this country. Beginning with how best to bring the child into the world: you’d think the way a child exits the mother’s womb is the single most important aspect of being a parent, the way some people rail on about it. The fact that we even have shelves of books on how to parent speaks volumes for our combined interest, opinions, and insecurities. Still, I think there are some approaches that while not completely universal (is anything?) are still identifiable as “American.”

Here’s where I think Americans are getting it right:

1. We’re affectionate and loving with our kids. We hug our kids, kiss them, rub their backs, let them drape themselves on us. We give them piggy back rides. We tickle them. We let them pretend they are tickling us. We often tell our kids we love them, we compliment them, we encourage them.

2. We pass on optimism, positive outlooks, and a you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to attitude. Americans: we’re a pretty sunny bunch. We smile freely. We’re chatty even if we don’t know you. And we tend to see the world as a place full of wonderful possibilities, especially if you work hard. We pass that attitude on to our kids.

3. We encourage sports and physical activity. We love our sports. We like to watch them, we like to play them, we like to talk about them. And while there’s no denying we have an issue with obesity in this country, we also have millions of citizens who make sports, staying in shape, and playing a part of their daily lives, for all their lives. This starts early: soccer programs for 2-year-olds leads to league sports for elementary aged kids, and sports associated with schools usually starting in junior high. Our kids learn valuable lessons about physical fitness, healthy lifestyles, and teamwork from the start.

4. We know school is important, but that it shouldn’t rule our kids’ every waking moment. We let them experience balance in life by giving them opportunities to pursue other interests: musical, athletic, social; we believe happiness in life comes not only from accomplishing, but also from relationships, balance, and exploration of the world. Still, we get involved in our kid’s education, too. We volunteer in the schools. We keep tabs on school board and curriculum decisions. We have relationships with our children’s teachers. We, like many other cultures, keep close tabs on how our kids are doing in school and what they are up to outside of school. Involvement in extracurriculars is often portrayed as a frantic attempt to make sure our child is good at everything. But for many of us, it’s an attempt to help our child find the things they love to do, and then keep doing them.

5. We get emotional. Our kids see a spectrum of human emotions in us. We don’t tend to hold our kids at arms’ length, or try to be something other than ourselves, our very human selves, around them. We keep it real. Our kids see that we aren’t perfect. Our kids see us say we’re sorry. Yes, we’re still in charge, but we don’t pretend we’re infallible.

6. We put our kids through college. One of my biggest gripes about my country is that higher education is ridiculously expensive, and therefore not accessible for far too many people. Faced with this reality, we try to rent or buy homes in the best school districts to give our kids the best chance at getting a good education and therefore being accepted into universities. Parents who are able start college savings accounts for their children early, sometimes when the kids are still in the womb. I’ve met parents who have extended their working years, took on extra hours or even a weekend job to ensure their kids have a college education. It’s no picnic for the parents in this country, but we want our kids to have a bright future, and we’re willing to sacrifice to make sure they have opportunities that some of us did not.

7. We appreciate our kids as individuals and we support their dreams. We try to get to know our kids and understand them as people, not as beings we can force into a mold of our choosing. We try to respect them as individuals, and we want to help them find the right path in life – the one that is best for them, not for us.

We cheer them on at their swim meets and soccer games. When they tell us they want to be a rock star, we hand them a plastic microphone and let them turn our garage into their studio. Sure, there’s the out-of-control soccer parent here and there whose kid is the most talented player in history and everyone around needs to recognize this as fact, or the cheerleader parent who enthusiastically applauds every scribble on paper and every awkward cartwheel, but these are exceptions rather than rules.

8. We play with our kids. We have a plethora of Mommy and Me Classes. Sometimes this is criticized as one more way we go overboard, but, for many of us, it’s an opportunity to have fun with our kids and to meet other parents. We dance like fools because it makes our little ones giggle. We play with them on the playground because we cherish that time with them. We watch cartoons because it’s fun to see them through our kids’ eyes. We “vroom vroom” toy cars around the room, honk when we pass through tunnels, and play Memory and Candy Land because we want to have fun relationships with our sons and daughters. Sure, there are “helicopter parents” who go overboard, but most of us genuinely enjoy our kids’ company and want to enjoy it while they still think we’re cool enough to hang out with.

9. We volunteer. We encourage empathy and kindness toward others. Growing up, my family and I helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity for people without the means to buy their own home. We made meals for the homeless. We played Santa Claus for low income families with children – gathering, buying, and wrapping gifts, as well as preparing a full Christmas dinner. The tradition of helping others happens in families, through churches, through schools. A local high school football team volunteers in community projects each year, doing things like helping flood victims or working at a local Children’s Home. Through involving our kids in volunteer work, we hope to help our kids learn to be kind to others and to help to make this world a better place.

10. Our kids are participating members of the family. Kids help with household duties and chores. They get to talk, share their ideas, their feelings, express their frustrations. We’re in it together, after all, and kids learn to contribute, to talk, to compromise, to bargain, coerce…. yeah, I’m not saying we’re perfect. But we view our kids as individuals that deserve a level of respect while we still attempt to teach them values, morals, and how to be good people. We take them places with us. Out to eat. On vacations. On adventures around the world. On errands. Camping. It makes it harder on us, sure. But for us, family means we’re a unit that does stuff together.

 

We are all products of our cultures, our socioeconomic circumstances, our own upbringings. Further – what works great in one situation may not be applicable under different circumstances. My own view is surely biased by my own experiences, the people I know, the areas of the country I’ve lived in. If there’s anything close to a universal in parenting, I’d say it’s that the vast majority of parents worldwide love their kids and want what’s best for them. As I said before in my Open Letter To Moms post, we could all take our foot off the judgement pedal and chill out a little, learn from each other, and focus on loving and enjoying this world’s next generation.

Parenting, as a verb, is new to our lexicon. We’re killing ourselves with anguish over it. We’re making it so complicated. Too often we approach it as a problem to be dealt with. Parents in the U.S. are too often stressed and unhappy. Mostly, we’re doing it to ourselves. Let’s stop the “we suck” train. Let’s recognize that while no one has it all figured out, we’re not train wrecks, either. We’re doing a lot of things just fine.

Addendum: This blog post was inspired by a question posed by Olga at European Mama on American parenting. She’s written a great post in support of American parents, and you can find it here.