Saturday, May 30, 2009
Monday, May 25, 2009
Our resourceful (but not too bright) ancestors continued to tinker with the rototiller concept for a few millennia, but it was no use. Finally, they gave up on their crazy dreams of agriculture and went back to hunting and gathering for another 2,995,000 years. Everybody got sick of mammoth was super hungry for bread, popcorn and baby carrots... but what can you do?
Fortunately, the Neolithic eventually arrived and they decided to give growing plants another try. But they had learned their lesson and used oxen and/or slaves to pull plows, just as nature intended.
Unreliable sources, such as Wikipedia, will try and tell you that the first rototiller machines were invented at the beginning of the 20th century, but this is clearly wrong, because this weekend I used one of the Stone Age models to try to make myself a 4 by 6 meter vegetable garden. The hours it took were some of the most unpleasant I have ever experienced, and that includes the hours I spent giving birth to a 9lb baby at home with no pain relief.
I spent early spring busily canvassing every friend I had in the Valley. I'd begin with the deceptively casual question: "Are you putting in a vegetable garden this year?" Anyone who answered in the affirmative would then get asked if they used a rototiller and if so, could I please borrow it for a day?
It turned out that nearly every single person that I asked borrowed a machine from a neighbor. And it always turned out to be a neighbor I didn't know. And I wasn't yet quite desperate enough to knock on the door of strangers and ask if they'd help me out with my garden dilemma
If I could find just a plow plus some oxen and/or slaves...
But then it came time to actually get the soil turned over. The thing pulled and bucked mercilessly. It was impossible to steer and the whole machine had a tendency to collapse backwards over the rear axle. This would make the handle descend to about knee level, which made things really interesting.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Next, I washed, dried, folded and put away a load of laundry.
I also planted a windowbox full of geraniums.
When I went back inside, I noticed a suspicious puddle in the living room. Yes, it was the return of the Leaking Sewage from Hell!!
I ran for a bucket, bleach and other supplies and got it cleaned up. Then, of course, I had to inspect the garage and see if there was any leaking in there...
Finally, I cleaned out the litter box, vacuumed the whole ground floor of the house and washed the floors.
As I wrung out the mop, I thought..Gee! I'm tired! I'd better have a cup of coffee and sit down a minute. Then I looked at the clock.
It was 8:45 am.
Dear God. I'd only been awake since 6am and I'd already done what seemed like a full day of work.
I heated up some organic fair-trade arabica in the microwave and sat down with a copy of New Scientist. I figured I'd sit down for 10 minutes before heading out for the days errands. I needed to go to the bank, the post office and the pharmacy.
JP came into the kitchen.
"The stairs are dirty" he announced.
I took out a small gun that I keep handy and killed him.
It was very sad, but I had no choice.
Ok. I didn't actually shoot him.
I simply explained that I'd been very busy with lots of other tasks and hadn't had time to clean all three floors of our house on this particular morning.
In fact, I explained this so well that he immediately apologised profusely.
Monday, May 18, 2009
I spent today helping out at a regional folk dancing festival that was held for the older primary school students.
I didn't dance or sing...I was the photographer for our group
The children practised for months to get ready for this. They learned 10 different dances from Brittany( Bretagne) , as well as several songs.
The twins loved it all and practised hard. They were SO ready to perform! It was all very cute and lots of fun.
(The band was great, too. It was made up of four elementary school teachers that perform in the region on the weekends. They were really good!)
Sunday, May 17, 2009
As I don't often go to nice restaurants, you may be wondering what the big occasion was... It was Sev's Profession of Faith ceremony. It took place this morning.
As you can see, his robe is very short. They didn't have one long enough for him .
Friday, May 15, 2009
Thursday, May 14, 2009
When I'd answer in the affirmative, I'd generally hear something like "That's great! I didn't know white people had normal families!"
There would be laughter and I'd agree that, in general, white couples have just one or two kids and twins aren't as common.
In fact, I had a lot of fun conversations start that way, back in Africa.
Here in France, my family also draws attention, but for being larger than the norm. People look, and they sometimes ask "Are they all yours?", but they don't ever say "Wow! How normal!"
Even the French government considers three children to be a "large family" and anything over that is officially a "very large family".
This is all build-up to the fact that I went out yesterday 'disguised' as the mother of a very, very large family. And let me tell you, if you imagine that four kids get some attention around here, you should see how people act when they think you have six.
I had rushed off at noon (after a long morning of painting) to pick up the my older kids at their school. They'd ended up asking pals along, so I suddenly had a total of six kids in the car. Rather than try to magically whip up a lunch at home for them, I took them to a mall to eat at Macdonalds. We only do this a few times a year (we big families keep to a budget, you know!), so it was a special treat for everyone. Especially for Val's friend, who had no clue what to order. He stood in front of the menu completely hypnotised. It was only his second visit EVER to a fast food place because his parents detest MickeyD's with a particularly sneering and intense French kind of hatred .
As I fetched (with lots of help, of course) the three trays full of meals, the cashier asked The Question: "Ils sont tous a vous?"
I said "Oui" just to watch her eyes bug out further.
Afterwards, I had some errands, so we wandered the mall: me, eleven year old twins and four more kids, ages 12, 13, 14 and 15. (You can see them all in the photo. Yes, I am such a geek that I made them pose for a picture in the mall parking garage. It's for the blog!)
They were all good, but a bit...loud and giggly.
People looked, of course. And what looks they were- mostly a blend of "Get them OUT of here" and "Gee. Ever heard of BIRTH CONTROL, lady?"
The security guards seemed particularly interested, not in a nice way. And at one point, when the the four older ones got a couple of aisles ahead of me and the twins, I rushed us along to catch up with them.
"What's wrong, mom?" Mal asked.
"I don't want the older kids to get in trouble," I said
"Shopping while teenaged", I sighed
Mal looked at me, kind of puzzled, and I nearly said It's similar to 'driving while black', but I figured she didn't need any more confusion in her life.
"People often think teenagers steal stuff and I don't want any ... misunderstandings." I explained as we turned a corner and found the older kids inspecting the toys and laughing like...a bunch of crazy teenagers.
A security guard came round from the other end just then. He was quite obviously keeping them under surveillance, just in case one of them tried to stuff a Playmobil Pony Ranch down his pants and walk off with it. I gave the guy my best worst glare (which my kids call "The Eyes of Doom") and herded the kids towards the school supplies. We didn't see what we needed, so I asked the woman stocking the aisle for help.
While she didn't have the drawing paper we needed, she did have a question for me : "Are they all yours?"
After the cashier asked me that same question, I'd had about enough and was ready to go home.
"Are they all yours?" seems to be inevitable and international. It's often kindly meant, but can be wearing. There are even websites where parents of large families have collected the many possible (and often funny) answers to this question. So, I guess I'm not the only one to get a tad burned-out on the Q and A.
It was fun, though.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Sunday, May 10, 2009
We'll send the twins there for one year and see how it goes.
My post on this subject garnered about half a dozen comments and even more emails. One of them contained this bone-chilling phrase...
"Now that there are People Who Decide Things salivating over the baccalaureate system as a potential educational system here in the US..."
This was from a blogging teacher in the USA, so she knows of what she speaks. And what she speaks of would SO never work, I can only hope the Powers That Be give up the idea, pronto.
The Bac system in France is a bit complicated and I don't want to describe it in detail here- otherwise this post will puff up to Godzilla-on-steroids-sized porportions. If you want to know more about how it works, visit our friends at Wiki and spend a moment. But in short, it's a huge test that you take at the end of lycée (high school) that qualifies you for further education. It's NOT multiple choice. It's essays and oral exams and it's very, very demanding. A score of 10 out of 20 is the minimal passing grade. Perfect scores are almost unheard of.
But here's the thing: The Bac is a French institution that works in tandem with the totality of the French educational system. They start training the kids for this from the moment they enter school at age three.
I'm not saying they "teach to the test". That's certainly not the case. I'm saying that the educational system is not warm and fuzzy. Everybody is NOT a winner. The teachers do not think it is their job to "build self-esteem" in their students merely because the latter are present in the classroom and breathing oxygen. Self-esteem is (quite properly, I think) seen as something that stems naturally from real accomplishments and mastery.
What a concept!
Sadly, this is NOT the case in the US system, where students tend to have sky-high self-esteem (from being praised constantly for even the most trivial things) and comparatively few real skills.
Maybe you think I'm being a little harsh?
"6% of Korean 8th graders surveyed expressed confidence in their math skills, compared with 39% of US 8th graders. But Korean students far outscore American students in math tests."
"The world’s most confident eighth graders are found in the Middle East, Africa, and the United States (ranked ninth)...... however, these countries are not particularly high scoring on the TIMSS math exam"
"...even the least confident student in Singapore outscores the most confident American student"
"It is only natural that adults want children to be happy. Indeed, many of the most popular education reforms of today, once all of the rhetorical flourishes are stripped away, place children’s happiness on equal footing with their learning. The pursuit of knowledge
may be important, but only if it simultaneously raises student contentment and self-esteem"
Friday, May 08, 2009
The delights, as it turns out, are few and far between. In fact, the principal's swell version of a pep-talk actually gave me second thoughts about sending the girls.
She was a trim and efficient-looking woman of about 60, well-dressed in that very French way: very accessorized (you MUST have a scarf or ELSE), very expensive-looking and also very uncomfortable-looking. She seemed like a nice person and very smart...but her interest was definitely not in "selling" us the school. Or even making us feel vaguely reassured.
In fact, as she went on, I grew more and more convinced someone was probably paying her cash for every parent that backed out and sent their child to a private school instead.
The first thing she said was something like this: "We are a large establishment in terms of students. For next year, there are 414 children registered. But as the building was constructed to hold a maximum of 300, that means we are very, very crowded. In short, space is tight."
The other talking points were:
There aren't enough restrooms, but there's no room to add any more.
They'd like to have lockers for the children, but there's no room.
The cafeteria is nice, but only seats 150 people. And unfortunately it has to serve over 600 children every lunchtime, as it is also used by the primary school.
The new gymnasium is nice, but it is severely under-insulated. In the winter, the interior is often barely above freezing and cannot be used.
The teachers are well-meaning, but often beat the children with rake handles and lock them in the basement, which, incidentally, contains rats.
Ok. Maybe I made up that last one.
But you get the idea, right?
In short, it was all a huge contrast to the day I had two weeks ago, when I went to go visit the high school (lycée) that Eldest Daughter will be attending next year. The teacher that gave us the tour had nothing but nice things to say and lovely things to show us. No ice-box gyms or overflowing bathrooms.
As a matter of fact, they have a gorgeous gym with three rock-climbing walls, a wonderful new indoor pool and all renovated classrooms. And the study-hall is a converted chapel with lovely stained glass windows.
Of course, it's a private Catholic school and they want students. And I wouldn't mind sending the twins, but that would mean getting them on a bus at 6:45 for a long ride to school, instead of hopping on a bus at 8am and being at school five minutes later. And the same for the trip home. If they go to the village school, they'll be home at 5 pm, rather than 6.
Another plus of the village school is that the girls could start German right away. At the private school, they can't start another language for three more years.
So, it's still not at all clear what we should do....
Thursday, May 07, 2009
The kids get four extra days off this month.
They are as follows:
May 1 - Labor Day. The tradition is to buy lillies of the valley that day. It supposedly has something to do with some king or another.... maybe he had ambitions to be a florist? Have to Google that one...
May 8 -VE Day (the end of WWII in Europe)
May 21/22- The 21st is Ascension Day and most people get the Friday off, as well. It's what the French call "making the bridge". I call it "four days in which to get the kids to help me finish cleaning out the garage", which is, admittedly, somewhat less catchy.
On top of this, the kids will be out of school on June 1st, as well, as it's the Monday after Pentecost.
Only Labor Day is actually an official holiday. All the others are through agreements by school boards, employers, etc.
NB: I started to write out short explanations of Ascension Day and Pentecost, but thought the better of it. The people that need to know this stuff, already know it.
Those who don't would think it all sounds like an especially bizarre set of fairy tales...
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
He is now 13 years old and just a tad short of six feet tall. So, maybe that would be no longer... appropriate, but something had to be done. The older boys here in France tend to wear their hair long, but Severin's was completely out of control. He 'd peer out from under the long fringe, looking like a particularly large, affable sheepdog.
JP and I had tried to convince him to go to the hairdresser, to no avail. Thinking that maybe he was afraid of our local salon making him look like a provincial loser, I even offered to take him to a hairdresser in Paris when we were there.
But yesterday, JP came back from his week in Ouaga. At dinner he carefully studied Severin, who was concentrating on his plate of stir-fry. Unfortunately, when he's deep into his food (as teenaged boys often are) he tends to hunch over his plate, as though he's afraid it's going to be snatched away at any second. The curtain of hair hung down, obscuring the vegetables and chicken. From behind the barrier, crunching sounds were audible.
"That hair's pretty long, Severin" JP remarked mildly. "Why don't you let your mom cut it?"
"OK." he mumbled from behind the curtain, and then resumed crunching.
We've been trying to take him for a haircut for six months and all of a sudden he says 'OK'?
To a haircut from his MOM?
"Are you sure you don't want me to make an appointment for you up in the village?" I asked, just to make sure I hadn't just had a massive auditory hallucination.
But no. He really trusted me to cut his hair.
After he washed the dinner dishes, he went up, wet his hair and came back to the kitchen, looking completely unconcerned.
Me? I was concerned.
Sure, I trim the girls' hair all the time. But cutting guy hair? Guy hair is hard!
How was I going to do this?
He sat down in the kitchen chair. I opened a drawer and took out my trusty secret hair-cutting weapon: scotch tape. When I trim the long hair of my daughters, it works a treat: you simply stick it on at the level you want and cut just above it. You get a straight line and all the snipped bits of hair stick to the tape.
The only problem was his older sister.
"Tape?!" Valentine barked. "You are so NOT using the tape on him!"
Apparently, she was there to protect her brother's interests, even if he himself had nothing to say on the subject.
"But it makes it so much easier." I whined.
"You are NOT cutting his hair straight across!" she informed me
"But..." I protested.
"You are layering and tapering and you'd better get to work," she commanded.
I sighed, put down the tape and picked up the scissors, mentally reviewing everything I knew about haircuts.
Besides "use tape" there wasn't much.
But then , what's the worst that could happen? I mean, if it looked really horrible, he'd HAVE to go get it professionally done, right?
So, I twisted up the top sections with a pink Hello Kitty clip borrowed from the twins and got to work.
I did my best, trying to seem capable and confident, even if I was neither.
And guess what?
I actually manged to give him a completely new, shorter, layered haircut. It has shape and style and does not (Valentine assures me) announce to the world : My mom cuts my hair.
As Severin looked in the mirror, seeming pretty pleased, JP passed by and pronounced it "Much better".
"Just don't tell anyone your mom did it" advised Valentine. "They'd make fun of you at school"
"That's right" I agreed. "It's our secret. Only we'll know the truth ...and everyone who reads my blog, of course"
Friday, May 01, 2009
Well, some of the garage.
But our garage is so big and so messy that cleaning even just the front half is quite an accomplishment. But I had to do it. Just yesterday, I wrote on Facebook that cleaning out the garage is my "least favorite household chore". So, to prove to myself that I'm not a shirker and all-around lazy whiner, I made myself get out there and have a go at it.
But you don't really want to hear all about my garage. Trust me. So, send your words of thanks to fellower blogger TeacherMommy, who has tagged me for a new meme.
While some may consider them a plague, I rather enjoy them. It's fun to read other people's answers and concoct my own. There seem to be three main styles of answering:
First of all, you have the bloogers from the Short and Sincere school. Their answers are succinct, factual and...maybe a teensy bit dull.
Then you have the Economically Witty people. The ones that can come up with a very funny twist in just a few well-chosen words. This is the hardest to achieve. I have occasionally aspired to it, but fallen short.
And finally, there are the Out of Control Ramblers. They's my peeps. We are the ones who tend to use each question as an excuse for a good two or three paragraphs of exposition.
Great! Here we go:
1. What are your current obsessions? I just discovered Project Runway and am watching it on dvd. It's fabulously addictive, so I watch episode after episode after episode... It's out of control.
I'm also out in the yard an awful lot, doing the gardening thing. I don't know if I'm really 'obsessed' with, say, weeding the flower beds, but I seem to be doing a lot of it and no one is making me...so I must really like it.
2. Which item from your wardrobe do you wear the most often? Our lovely old house is cold inside all year long, from the height of summer to the depths of winter, even with the heat turned all the way up. I deal with this by wearing my favoite bright green fleece jacket. It is, quite possibly, the ugliest jacket in the entire world. But at least it allows me to get on with my day and not torment others with constant cries of "It's so COLD in here!" as some people do. "Some people" would be my beloved spouse, who stalks through the house looking fetching in black track pants and a black t-shirt, as though he's sauntering through the streets of Cannes on a sunny day.
3. What's for dinner? Dumplings and potatos in sour cream sauce, a dish that I can make in my sleep and blindfolded with both hands tied behind my back. It's a dish from my childhood, learned at the side of my Grandma Lillie and my mom, who probably had to learn to make it before my dad was allowed to marry her. My paternal great-grandparents were all Volga Germans that immigrated to Nebraska. So, in my family the ethnic foods were things like glace (the aforementioned dumpling dish), grebble (doughnut-type pastries) and runzas ( meat and cabbage in a bread pocket). The latter is such an institution in my home state that there is actually a Runza fast-food chain...and it's really good! Not as good as my Grandma Lillie makes, of course...
4. Last thing you bought? That would be three huge tubs of sour cream (creme fraiche, actually)purchased up in the village mini-mart in a frantic just-before-closing-time shopping trip. At 6:48 last night, I realized that the next day would be a holiday and all shops would be closed then. And I had to have creme fraiche for the next day's dinner (see #4)
5. What are you listening to? Right this moment I am listening to the twins bicker over their elaborate Playmobil scenario. As far as I can tell, Alexa seems to be hindering the expansion of Mallory's farm with her "big butt", which is right where the new goat pen is supposed to go.
6. If you were a god / goddess what would you be? I'd be the deity of books. Yes! Beth the Book Goddess...that works. NOT the goddess of literature, mind you. Too fancy-schmancy for me. Bring me your recipe books, airport novels, French-English dictionaries...whatever, and I'll bless them with showers of sparkly fairy dust for you. But you must bring me tribute. ..Yes! Much tribute! Cash would be good, but Crispy Creme doughnuts will also be accepted in lieu.
7. Favourite holiday spots? Paris, where else? I'd never want to live there (unless I suddenly became very, very wealthy and could afford a house there), but I love getting off the train, dropping off my bags at a friends' house in a lovely guest room and going off to enjoy the museums, monuments, movies and other things, some of which don't even start with the letter 'm'.
8. Reading right now? The Terror by Dan Simmons. It's a 936 page novel based on the real-life, doomed Franklin Expedition that set out to find the Northwest Passage. I am a fan (is it weird to say that?) of early polar exploration expeditions, so this caught my eye. It's long, but I'm finding it riveting...
9. Four words to describe you? blondish, bookish, brainy-ish and bloggish
10. Guilty pleasure? NA. If it makes me feel guilty, I don't get any pleasure out of it. On the other hand, there are some things that I like that I'm a bit ashamed of. But I don't feel guilty about them. Take LOL Cats. I love them. Srsly. I check the site nearly every day and always have a good laugh. But it's awfully embarrassing to admit that I'm crazy about pictures of spelling-impaired kitties. So, I mostly don't talk about it. Shhhhh....
11. Who or what makes you laugh? See #10. But mainly my family. Special faves are: Sev singing me Wierd Al Yankovic songs, Alexa doing her crazy African dances, Mallory talking in her Stitch voice, and Valentine snarking on whatever target comes within range . Good fun.
12. Favourite spring thing to do? This is my first real spring after nine years in Africa and I am finding it very beguiling. I tend to go out and wander in the yard, sniffing the hyacinths, admiring the bright, fluffy grass, inspecting the apple blossoms.... it's so beautiful and clean and amazing. Go spring!
13. Planning to travel next? No definite plans. But we do have an the use of a friend's house up in Brittany for the first two weeks in July. I'm thinking about it....And in the second half of July, our friend's Paris house is empty and available to us. Then in August, I can go to Germany and visit my cousin Mike....
No. No definite plans, but lots of possibilities.
14. Best thing you ate or drank lately? Lotus Speculoos spread!! It's Heaven in a Freaking Jar, people! Think spreadable cookie dough.
15. Last time you were tipsy? It's been so long that I can't even remember. Or does that mean that I'm drinking so much that my memory is going? I just don't KNOW!
16. Favourite ever film? Just one? Pretty tough. Today, I'll say Meet Me in St Louis, but The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz are equally adored.
17. Biggest life lesson you've learned from your kids? In Disney films, there is often a heartwarming lesson along the cloying lines of "Home is where the heart is" . It's unoriginal and trite because it's true, but I didn't know that until I had children and moved from Switzerland to France to Africa and then back to France. My kids like people outside their family, but don't need them. No matter where they are, they tend to stick together, circle the wagons and get with the cocooning. If they are with each other, they have everything they need (even the occasional stress-relieving bicker-fest).
I only had one brother, so I never knew the power of the pack. It's amazing.
18. Song you can't get out of your head? "Elle a des yeux revolver" Ignore the cheesy video (It's from 1985. What can you say?) Just close your eyes and listen.
19. Book that you absolutely love and want to encourage everyone else to read, too? Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.
Now to pass it on: first off, I'll tag Tya, who REALLY needs to write in her blog. (Do you hear me young lady?)? I'll also tag Reb , Joy and Pardon My French , as well.
I'll leave it at that. Some of my blog pals hate these things, some don't have the time and some have private blogs, so I can't tag them.
(Rules of the meme: Respond and rework. Answer questions on your own blog. Replace one question. Add one question. Tag 8 people. )