July 9: Chateau Overload

Dan’s friend Jim arrived just as we were going to bed, wild-eyed and tossed about by the storm. He was exhausted and the airline had lost his bicycle, then he’d had to drive five hours to our place, and this morning he had to drive five hours back to see if they’d gotten his bicycle sorted out. This morning the airline called and told him they had his bike, so he took off like a shot and headed back east to Geneva.

We ate breakfast, debated about the weather, and then I ended up hanging our clothes out on the line in spite of the clouds. I felt like it was going to clear up, and as we were driving out of the village, it began to rain again. But later in the day it cleared up perfectly and ended up being another hot gorgeous day. The rain, overnight, was torrential, and this morning I felt much better about the geraniums in pots and the petunias, etc. This afternoon when we returned from our travels our clothes were nice and dry.

Our first stop was Clos Luce, a stone and brick mansion that Francois I had made available to Leonardo da Vinci during the last three years of his life.

Da Vinci came over the alps on a mule at the age of 67 with the Mona Lisa and two other paintings, and set up residence in Amboise, within view of the main chateau where Francois held court. Rumor has it there was a secret tunnel between the two estates – we saw the beginning of it. There are so many caves around – who knows?

We ate lunch at Clos Luce – Benny had saussices avec frites and Sadie had frites, Dan and I had nice paninis and I had a glass of local wine. After toodling around in the gardens for a while playing with the giant models of da Vinci’s contraptions, we went back to the car and drove to Chateau Chambord. More on Clos Luce in another post.

Chambord is the biggest chateau on the Loire and we were pretty amazed by it, in spite of the feeling it couldn't live up to the hype.

The much-discussed double-helix staircase was indeed awesome, and the sheer enormity of the place, as well as the massively ornamented roof, has to make you stand back and say, whoa. This dude has a lot of money. Which is, of course, what it’s meant to make you say:

I particularly liked the little chambers outside the royal bedrooms where there were mini-kitchens, because the kitchens were so far away from the bedrooms that you had to reheat the food right before you served it. We also saw some portraits of Three Musketeers characters, Louis XIII and Anne of Austria:

I also found it endearingly imperfect – there were lots of passageways that were closed off, and if you peeked down those passageways, you say pretty much utter ruin and mess. They had also opened some of the museum of the original roof pieces – very much destroyed by weather wear on soft limestone, and a workshop where stone was being restored and dupliated. The kids had the audio tour in English, which they seemed to enjoy – more on that in another post.

We were so tired and cooked after Chambord that we poured back into the car with a two liter of cold water and headed back down the Loire river toward Amboise, passing the chateaux at Blois and Chaumont – for another time. We have chateaued ourselves sufficiently for this week. We stopped at the market, got cheese, bread, fruit, and Coca-Cola Light (which is nothing like diet Coke!) and LOCAL WINE (which is awesome) and headed home.

For dinner I made tortellini with Provencal sauce, goat cheese with herbs and olive oil smeared on pieces of a baguette, fresh wild strawberries, green salad, and for Benny some ham. Sadie actually ate a LOT and asked if they had food like this in Norfolk. As if I’d been hiding it from her all these long weary years! I had to say that sadly no, we don’t. We can’t buy a carton of strawberries that taste like they grew in the meadow, and we can’t buy deli ham that good, and we can’t buy goat cheese in that abundance, with that freshness, and that bread--- well, let’s not discuss the bread. Then she wanted to know if they would have it in the mountains – and I said, of course! You are in France!

Tonight we are all packed to head for the Alps. Dan and Jim are planning to meet south of Geneva and ride tomorrow’s stage of the Tour de France, while Benny and Sadie and I hang out in one of the villages by the feeding station, try to post our postcards, and eat bread and cheese, waiting for the Tour to roll through so we can scream for Lance and Levi. The kids are wearing their USA flag t-shirts and they’re ready for action. Sounds like a fun day!


Chantemerle / Fourchette / Amboise: Our Gite for Week 1

The beautiful cottage of Chantemerle is tucked away on a sunny hilltop in one of the loveliest spots in the Loire Valley. At the end of a steep driveway through the woods, the road opens up onto several homes, but the gate straight ahead is Chantemerle. As you drive up past a mini-vineyard and several rustic outbuildings, you can see the vine-covered cottage, and immediately feel like you're in a fairy tale.

Around the left side of the house is a flagstone patio, with a riot of flowers and plants in containers and beds. Here we saw our first lavender plants growing in France, and the kids liked watering the flowers with the giant can by the spigot.

On the other side is an enormous old tree, making a shady spot for outdoor play, reading, or watching the neighboring sheep in their pasture.

Inside the fairy tale feeling continues, with exposed beams and quirky little details throughout.

There's Dan standing beside the barn on his way out for a bike ride to Tours.

Here's a shot of the house and patio:

The house, while quaint, is also huge. There were two master suites -- one upstairs and one downstairs. Both had modern plumbing including a Japanese rain shower and other really lovely fixtures. The third and fourth bedrooms had two small beds each, and there was also a loft area upstairs with more beds. We could have cheerfully slept ten people in the house, without ever crossing paths really -- the layout was very spread out.

The kitchen was large with a big table for eating, and there was a games room with a pool table too. Appliances were functional, although it took us some effort to figure out the French instructions on the washing machine and dish washer, and the stove pilot was troublesome. We ended up being able to light it by dropping a match down a hole, as our hosts instructed us, but there was a fair amount of crawling around in front of it and burning our fingertips with a lighter before this revelation came home to us. This was our first week in France, and I will say that interpreting the writing on appliances did get easier over our month's journey. However, if you're a French company manufacturing a washing machine, maybe you could choose four completely different colors to indicate the positions on the dial, instead of four strikingly similar variations of pumpkin.

The children loved playing in the yard. There were lots of different areas, divided by trees, different plantings, and the driveway and buildings. There were badminton rackets and other outside toys available, and also just lots of room to run around and play.

We appreciated the detailed orientation folder left by the owners, with recommendations for local shops and places to eat. We used both the Intermarche (closed at 7:30) and the MarchePlus in Amboise (open until 9:30) and while we were not finely tuned into different bread and cheese varieties at this point, we found plenty to eat.

At the bottom of the hill, the village of Fourchette is small and quiet, and something we didn't realize at first was that it continues on the other side of the main road. We found, there, a pharmacie that was actually open when we needed it. The ones in Amboise seemed perpetually closed. The area between Fourchette and Amboise, including the nearby Poce-sur-Cisse (the Cisse is a small river, and "sur" means "on", so this means the town is on the river) is very pretty, with wheat fields waving. Hey, if it's good enough for Mick Jagger, it must be pretty good, right?

We recommend Chantemerle for anyone wanting to explore the Touraine region and the Loire valley, whether on a bicycle or by car. The house is big, comfortable, and beautiful. The area is full of interesting things to see and do, and the owners are very friendly and accommodating. A great gite!

July 8: The inevitable Proust in the inevitable garden

A very intense thunderstorm is going on tonight in le Touraine. Rain by the tablespoonful and booming thunder that shakes the house.

Today we woke up wondering about the arrival of Dan’s friend Jim, who is coming to stay with us and ride the roads with Dan on their bicycles. It’s midnight now and he still hasn’t arrived. Communication is difficult with American cell phones – but they did exchange email today, so we hope he’s still en route and not getting washed into the Loire.

Dan spent this morning trying to sort out the internet. It’s really not safe, professionally speaking, for him to be away from email and access to his servers, so it’s pretty urgent that he get it figured out. What we really need is a guy at the Orange store who speaks great English. The biggest city around is Tours and the guy that was working when Dan went in there the other day was not up to the linguistic challenge. Dan intended to buy us the 450MB package but it cut us off after 20MB, so communications broke down at some point, but it’s difficult to figure out what exactly we bought and why exactly it’s not working.

Today’s chateau is Chenonceaux, and there we had our first experience with a kind of crowded tourist situation. As we learned yesterday at E.Leclerc, there are forty million types of deodorant available to people here in France, but after today I suspect that not all of them are being properly utilized. The children had a good time at the chateau, primarily occupied with the labyrinth:

..and the fish of varying sizes in the moats and the river:

They also liked the fact that the chateau is built over the river itself:

...and seemed to really relish the butchering area of the kitchen. I liked the narrative of this chateau – originally gifted to a favorite mistress and then reclaimed by the wife (Catherine de Medicis) when the king was dead. I also loved the attached 16th century farm:

More on Chateau de Chenonceau in another post.

I made eggs, sausage, ham, and bread and cheese for dinner. Dan and I found these things you can get that are little bite sized cheeses with herbs and stuff shoved into them. If you put one on a piece of fresh bread, fold the bread over it, and eat it that way, it’s pretty much the best thing ever. Even Sadie ate some ham and eggs, although she will not eat the cheese. At all. She just firmly mistrusts it. Benny will try anything once, but does not disguise his displeasure if it’s something he doesn’t like. He really loves the brioche – as Dan pointed out, it’s basically a donut – what’s not to like? We also ate some nectarines, which are just wonderful. I haven’t worked up the nerve to order from a menu since the gizzard incident. A good thing about being here for a month is that we can kind of ease ourselves into the food situation. At least, that’s good for the kids and me – I think Dan would eat whatever, as long as it didn’t have wings and any sort of beak.

After dinner Dan went on a bike ride, and I opened another mini-bottle of local wine. I sat out on the terrace drinking it and reading my Proust (I finished Dumas, fantastic white-knuckle ending, bravo!) while Sadie watered the plants. Benny came out with his violin and gave me some very lovely Dancla by which to drink and read. As the contents of the bottle transferred themselves into my stomach, I found myself appreciating that violin music more and more, and by the end of the second glass I had up-ended a watering can on Sadie’s head, as she shrieked and giggled.

It all came to an abrupt end, however, as huge drops of rain began to fall without warning through the sunshine. We ran indoors, and Benny finished his practice by learning the rest of the bowings and fingerings of the largo movement of the Handel. The children bathed, drew in their scrapbooks, wrote out some postcards, and went to bed. And Dan and I shuffled around, wondering if Jim was going to arrive, or whatever had happened to him. Now it’s quite late, Dan is almost asleep over his book, and I’m going to pack it in too. Jim, if you’re coming, we’ll leave the light on for you.


The various castles we saw

This is the chateau de chambord, the biggest castle in our vacation, We had audio guides with the English language, so we were good. It has a corkscrew of a grand staircase, so Sadie would go on one side of the staircase, and I would go on the other, and then we would go up, and never meet!

This is the chateau d'amboise, the first castle on our vacation. It didn't have an audio guide, but it was great over all! The chateau d'amboise is also the only castle on the side of an elevated terrain, A.K.A. a hill. I also like the view! The river gives the paranoiac view of the town a lot of beauty.

This is not so much a castle, it's more of a dungeon, or donjon, as they say in France. There was this cage, that was to fit a man and a half, but dad manage to touch his head to the top! NO that doesn't mean he's a giant, it means that we modern humans are more evolved than those from the past.

Something funny
the gargoyle and his lunch

The notre dame cathedral had a lot of gargoyles in all these weird positions, and one was eating a chicken!

July 7: I would only hang laundry in France

I accidentally broke the internet with all my mad picture-uploading. It’s going to be a long, slow grind to getting it fixed – I can tell from the incredibly complicated and specific vocabulary in the error messages. Woops! This morning Dan took a bike ride somewhere (this is becoming habitual with him) and when he got back and the internet was broken (even under the tree) he had a long stern talk with the computer and then we gave up and went off to Loches. Loches is a city with a chateau that was a hunting lodge for several French kings, and a medieval walled city that promised us a dungeon with actual torture rooms and also tall towers that the children could climb and turn my blood cold. It did not disappoint! More on Loches in another post, but here are some pictures:

Here's Benny sitting on the turlet in one of the fancier dungeon cells:

A prisoner carved beautiful sculptures into his room to pass the time:

Dan and Sadie in the iron cage. It was supposed to be tall enough for a man plus one foot, but I guess Dan exceeds the norm for medieval height:

The insides of this keep from Roman times have been lost, but the external structure remains -- you can see where the doors/windows/fireplaces and floors used to be, going up:

Of course we had to go straight to the top and stand on it, taking my breath away. Roman walls were very thick:

After we had seen what we could see at Loches and spent probably five hours pondering its stony depths and heights, we pointed our Peugeot back toward Amboise. Of course we needed groceries – you really do need groceries every day because the bread and cheese is just so awesome that you eat all of it. Especially if you are a child who is unimpressed with any other French food. We decided to try a new shiny store, E. Leclerc. E. Leclerc is a set of stores within a store – it’s a bookstore, a post office a hair salon, and the biggest grocery store ever, with an entire aisle devoted to a multiplicity of yogurts. I am not even kidding. Dan went in with me, and he began to understand exactly what I was talking about when I said that the dairy section went on for hectares.

Having rounded up sufficient food that I felt I could turn into something the children might recognize and eat, we went to the check-out, where we determined that A) we had again left the shopping bags in the car and B) we had not weighed our produce and put the weight sticker on it like we were supposed to and C) we were standing in a line for pregnant people. Oh, it all got sorted out. It always does. It’s becoming less horrifying to stand there on the other side of a cash register from a young person who is either angry or impatient, and try to say “Je ne comprend pas” until they say it in a way that you understand.

One thing I purchased in E. Leclerc was a little wine. They have these cute little 350 mL bottles which look just right for one exhausted English-speaking mother of two. I bought two different ones, both from vineyards right down the street here, and when I got home I opened the red. I splashed a bit of it over the beef I was searing, and drank the rest – it was fantastic. The stress of this trip is surprisingly enormous. There is a huge language barrier and maybe it’s just because we’re so very rural here but it can feel very solitary. I miss my friends and Ahno, and there’s this strange feeling like… we and only we are responsible for these children. At home, it takes a village, and we have a really great village. Here we have a literal village, and none of them can even explain how to take out the trash, let alone do any nurturing on these two kids we brought along. I love being in France but I appreciate our situation at home a lot. And not just because I can understand the instructions on the washing machine.

Speaking of taking the garbage out… our landlord had left instructions that we were to take the garbage can down to the end of the driveway on Wednesday, but didn’t specify if the truck would come around on Wednesday morning, or evening, or Thursday morning, etc. Dan went down to the village to try and get some info, and ran into confused responses. It’s funny how the simplest things can be so difficult and uncertain. Speaking of garbage, the cans for garbage are universally much smaller here, from the bathroom garbage can the size of a kleenex box to the kitchen garbage about the size of our bathroom garbage at home, to the bin that you put everything in out on the street – it’s about half the size of the home one.

Speaking of washing machines, last night I did some laundry in this machine in the kitchen. Here’s a thought for French washing machine manufacturers: in marking the difference between four different cycles, maybe you could use four different colors – there are so many to choose from – instead of four incredibly similar shades of pumpkin. Dan and I puzzled over the dials and knobs, buttons and switches, for quite some time before finally turning something from Arret to 40 degrees, and the thing came on. It’s really a puzzle how to get the clothes in and out, what the cycle should be, etc. There is a whole row of buttons on it that we never deciphered. I think American washing machines must be designed for the mentally weak, and I appreciate that.

This morning before going to Loches, I put the washing out on the line to dry, and all the bright sunny day it cooked out there. When we got home I took it down, and it was dry and not even that crispy. I will try to go to bed earlier tonight but I’m at such a good point in The Three Musketeers that it’s hard to put it down. Good old Dumas, he’s a comic book writer from another century.


July 6: In which Benny saw what he called "Another cathedral"

This morning we had food in the house, and we ate it enthusiastically. Bread, cheese, ham, fantastic nectarines, and excellent coffee. We loaded ourselves into the Peugeot with cameras, French phrasebooks, snacks, and good intentions and set off for a place that Dan had spotted on his way to Tours on his bicycle. He described it this way: "If you had kids in bathing suits and you took them there, those kids would be very happy." Dan's objectives for the day included getting us a broadband USB thinger to stick into the side of the computer, getting an iPod cable so we can listen to French lessons via podcast while in the car.

As I'm typing this, I'm listening to the children in the kitchen. They're drawing in their scrapbooks for the day, and discussing how they're going to live in France when they're grown up. Sadie told me this for the first time yesterday. She said, "When I grow up, I'm going to live in France. I'm going to look around and say, 'This is a good house,' and I'm going to live in it." I think they're having a swell time, in spite of the lack of TV and internet and their familiar toys.

Anyway, we headed down the D952 from Amboise toward Tours, driving along the Loire river. Along the right side of the road, we saw lots of little villages that were partially dug into the cliffs on the river side. A lot of these caves are used for housing wine, and many little shops were offering degustation and wine for sale. The villages were *beautiful* -- I am convinced that they compete with each other to see who can hang the most flowers, fill the most window boxes, etc. Everything seems to be blooming. Every direction you look, it's like a postcard.

The place of happy children that Dan had spotted was called "Lulu Parc" and as soon as we saw it, we knew it was going to be awesome. Lulu Parc is described in another post, but if you don't have time to read that, let me just say that Lulu Parc is heaven on earth for children -- water slides, trampolines, playground equipment, bumper boats, jumping castles, ball pits, pony rides, all for seven euros per child. We stayed for four hours, and those may be the best four hours of the children's lives thus far. While we were at Lulu Parc, Dan went on to Tours and took care of getting us the broadband thinger. Which he got.

We went back to Tours to see the cathedral and vieux Tours (old Tours). It was so cool! The first street we drove down, I said to Dan, "Wow, this looks just like the French Quarter in New Orleans!" And Dan said, "Yes, this is Old Orleans." Okay, it's not exactly Orleans but it's right down the road. We found a parking place, gasped appropriately at the cathedral, and then spent a long time trying to get back to the road we wanted to take us back to Amboise. Everything is one way, about five feet wide, and full of traffic. Meanwhile there are window boxes dangling from the second storey everywhere, and people eating out on the sidewalk. The cathedral and chauteau are in the middle of town, and all the new stuff has grown up around it. Once you get out to the more modern area, the streets are wider and easier, but all of the interesting stuff is in the old area. So it takes some fortitude, but fortunately Dan is full of fortitude. He's practically oozing it. You have to be careful not to get any on you.

Back at home, I made pasta and beef, with salad and bread for dinner. Carbing Dan up is no problem here -- the bread is so awesome you can eat it without accompaniment. The children practiced their violins and took baths, and now they're done drawing in their scrapbooks, and I'm going to put them to bed. After I get that accomplished, I'm going to try and post some of these blog posts with our shiny new broadband. Unfortunately for us, you can only get broadband access in one part of the yard. The walls are so thick here, nothing can get in -- not even the beautiful, wonderful internet that we so crave. So, I'll be out under the oak tree in the dark, risking being eaten by a wild boar so I can bring you this news. Bon nuit!


July 5: "Whatever it is, I hope it's not gizzards."

Bonjour! We were all exhausted this morning -- after being up almost the whole night with the wakeful children, I woke up at 6:00 as if I'd been shot out of a gun. Dan woke a few minutes later, went for his ride, and at 10am I began to attempt to wake the children up. Sadie was not cooperative. At all. Threatened to "gut me and leave the pieces outside the city gates" or something. There was precious little in the house in the way of food, since everything in the universe was closed seemingly all day Sunday, and so we licked a few crumbs off the counter and when Dan was back, showered, and ready, we went out into the world.

Our plan was to eat lunch in Amboise, then roll on to a chateau to the east, Chambord. However, as we were strolling around Amboise, we saw a flier for a bicycle race - TODAY - right in Amboise! Both Dan and I urgently want him to be in an amateur bike race in France. I'm curious to see how he stacks up against the Europeans and I also want the photo opportunity. Very very badly. We asked around a few bike shops in the tourist area, but they were just rental places with very sketchy English. One guy offered to Google it for us. They also apparently rented wine bottles, or else they were encouraging people to cycle Europe with a bottle in one hand. For the record, I strongly recommend biking sober, given the width of the streets and the fiery aggression of the motorists.

We decided we were too famished to search further, and stopped at a brasserie right beside the city's chateau. I ordered *randomly* off the menu and ended up with a salad covered in gizzards (yes, gizzards) and lamb chops. I bravely marched through the meal, eating some of everything, including most of the gizzards, but I will not be ordering gizzards again. Ever. Until the end of time. Dan also tried the gizzards, for the record. We are trying to set a good example for the children. The children ate from the children's menu. Sadie ordered sausage and frites, and Benny ordered steak hauche and fries, and what arrived looked a lot like a hot dog and hamburger, sans buns. Fine, they ate it. No problem. They were very relieved they didn't get any gizzards. Anyone who didn't eat gizzards today should now breathe a sigh of relief.

After we were all full of gizzards, and firmly regretting that situation, we began driving around Amboise and the surrounding area, madly searching for information on the bike race -- could Dan ride in it with his international racing license? When did it start? Where should he go? Would he get his ass handed to him? These and other questions were burning in our minds as we hurtled up and down one way streets, careened through roundabouts, and shouted at the GPS lady, who kept saying "recalculating."

The other thing that was burning was Benny's eyeball. Before we left for France, we noticed a bit of redness in the corner of his eye, but since it was neither hurting nor itching, we decided to let it go. Well, somewhere in the air over Europe it turned into a rather nasty case of conjunctivitis (known in France as pihnk ehye). Since we arrived in the country, we had been searching for a pharmacie that was open. To no avail. They are all closed, all the time. So after driving around unsuccessfully seeking an open bike store, a bicycle club with someone to answer questions, or any information regarding the bike store at all, we gave it up and went to a pharmacie that Dan had found earlier on his bike, and got the eye drops! His eye was instantly improved.

More improvement was achieved with a round of ice cream cones, and then we went to Chateau Amboise, and explored the castle we had been gazing at for two days. More on that in another post. After the chateau, we bought some postcards and some drinks and stepped into a sports bar to watch the finish of the Tour de France.

Outside, there were men setting up the bike race so we approached them for info. No, Dan needed a FFC card (Federation Francais Cyclisme or something) to race. After the Tour was over and Chavanal had crossed the line, we buzzed back to the van, went to Intermarche for supplies (and matches! more on that in another post!) and headed home to eat pizza, bathe, journal, read Dumas, and sleep.

Things Benny said to me today: "At some point, Mom, you're going to have to stop hiding behind a rock and get out into the wilds." This was said as he was leaning far over the parapet of the Tour Minimes in Chateau Ambeau.


July 4: "Deux adults et deux enfants."

The house has no television and no internet. In a conversation with the owner last night (when he told us how to light the pilot) he said, "When the Romans built the house, they put it in a terrible spot for TV reception and mobile phone coverage." Thanks Romans! I realize this exact structure wasn't built by Julius Caesar or anything, but it's cool to know that this very spot had a house on it in Gallo-Roman times. We need to find out about the history of the house.

I woke up at 10am local, and everyone was still asleep. I took a walk outside -- a beautiful bright sunny day and the place feels sharp and alive. The buildings here have holes and gaps, some patched in obvious ways, some left crumbling. Cracks and irregularities are everywhere -- makes you feel differently about that leaking skylight at home, seriously. However, when the walls are over a foot thick, these things matter less. In a house this old, it's not a big deal if the doorway is not symmetrical or the floor is tilted. It locks, and there's not a lot of water coming in, so c'est normal.

Dan took a ride to Tours this morning, returned home blowing like a buffalo from the long driveway at 14% grade. He did enjoy 99% of the ride though.
I have had a headache since we got here. I don't know if it's the lack of sleep or what, but maybe I'm allergic to France. I hope the antidote is more France.
After a lunch of eggs and fruit (and chocolate mousse for Sadie, toast for Benny) we drove Northeast on D31 and N10 to Chartres. This was a much more scenic drive than the A10, with roadside distractions to entertain us. We spent most of the way up to Chartres trying to work out the meanings of all the road signs. Making progress. Still stymied by the yellow diamond and we have no Google/Wikipedia to help us.
Chartres was beautiful, the cathedral was insanely huge and impressive. We heard the organ concert, went up the tower, saw a bit of the Sunday evening mass. Outside we ate ice cream and got locked in the parking garage.

On the way back, we stopped in Chateaudun. For various reasons I had decide to see this Chateau from the outside only, so we parked near the cite centre and went walking. Chateaudun was in the process of packing up a three day medieval festival, so there were lots of pirates and wenches and stuff lurking about, and some interesting decor.

Since we were desperate for news of the Tour de France, Dan had to check his work email, and I wanted to get a message out to Ahno and make sure my posts were coming through, we went to McDonald's for the WIFI and some authentic French food. Driving home, we couldn't believe it was 10:10 pm and still light out. Don't know what geographical anomaly makes that possible.

The children are still awake at 1:00am -- can't seem to settle their little internal clocks and Sadie keeps switching rooms. Restless and smelling the vague hint of something burning here on the Loire.


Our arrival.

Ladies & gentlemen, Madames & monseurs, we are in FRANCE!

I know we hadn't bloged yet but we haven't had wi-fi until now. Now our first house was a little cottage that looked like a storybook village house. It was small but we managed it. Right now we are in Paris and tomorrow, we are going to climb the Eiffel Tower!!! DA-DAAAAAAAA!!!

but that's well behind us. DA-DAAAAaa.. At la maison primer, ("the first house" for all of those that don't know what la maison primer means.) we saw castles, cathedrals, and dungeons. To all you listeners from the U.S.A., how's it going?

July 3: "You are in France!"

Salut! I've just put coffee on -- the coffee was called Degustation de Grand Mere, which in my rogue translation means: "the disgust of grandmother," which made it awesome in the store.

July 3 began in the air over Ireland, as we "woke up" in our airplane seats, crusty and sore. The children were actually sleepping -- Sadie, next to me, had contorted herself into a thousand positions during the night and had finally arrived at a comfortable Chihuahua donut. Benny hardly slept -- every time I looked over at him and Dan he was blearily trying to watch the awesome interactive touch-screen television that British Airways had provided him with.
We touched down in Heathrow and spilled out into its glittering splendour -- Sadie said, "Wow, this airport has turned into a mall!" After waiting next to a Benefit counter for 30 minutes to find out what gate would take us to Charles de Gaulle in Paris, Benny finally collapsed on the floor.

Once at the gate (A11) we ate some muffins, drank some coffee, and the children played with their magic pen notebooks from Ms. Barbara. There was a delay in the flight.

Dan and I seemed to manage our stress ping-pong style: when he got stressed I was calm, and when I got stressed he would make a joke. It was very stressful, but the children were patient and eventually we made it onto the plane to Paris. There are a lot of things to keep track of, flying with kids and a bike. Kind of like life -- if you're on your own then having problems is a grand adventure, but if you have kids, the problems become very serious. We didn't want any problems involving phrases like "Where did I put my purse?" or "Have you seen the boarding passes?"
Benny and Sadie both had window seats on this flight to Paris, and we had the two seats next to Sadie. Here's what I learned about traveling with two kids and a long-legged man: You always get the dreaded middle seat! No exceptions. Benny was sitting next to an elderly couple -- he kept them entertained. He seemed to be on an endless loop, Rainman-style, about how we were not from France, but rather from the USA, etc. etc. repeat ad infinitum. They were tolerant. France was under clouds when we arrived.

Charles de Gaulle was very different from Heathrow, in the way that your crazy uncle Edgar's auxiliary garage is different from the Taj Mahal. The whole thing seemed vaguely under construction, leaking, half-wrecked, and dirty. Customs was a breeze, almost unbelievably easy -- after a minor panic when Dan's bike was apparently left in London, we were standing in the terminal, free to go. We discovered later that they did go through our suitcases very meticulously, especially Dan's bike equipment. You know what they say about cyclists and illegal substances.
While waiting to find out about his bike, Dan talked to a guy from Australia who had cmoe to see the Tour de France -- the airline had lost his bike and he'd missed the prologue in Rotterdam, to which he had a press pass, because they'd finally found it and he'd come to pick it up. That guy was very upset with British Airways but we had a flawless experience with them, start to finish. The food on the plane was particularly excellent, we had vegetable lasagna, tabouleh, mango cheesecake -- it was very posh.
The kids, by the time we had all our luggage, were fried beyond the realm of what I had ever seen. While we searched for the appropriate phone to use for summoning our Peugeot, they meandered in circles, ran into things, and drifted away from us repeatedly, all while carrying their little travel bags and violins.
On the shuttle to the Peugeot lot, Benny struck up a conversation with a French woman and her little boy. When she spoke English to him, he said to me in a loud whisper, "MOM. YOU WERE RIGHT. FRENCH PEOPLE DO SPEAK ENGLISH." She was very nice to him, and from her I learned to say, "Merci pour parlez-vous avec mon fils" which is a phrase I will probably use many times.

Before I had a chance to mess up our first directions (from the lot to the gas station) the children were deeply asleep. With the bike box fitting perfectly in the back, all our luggage accounter for, and the kids finally able to rest, I must admit we felt a little triumphant. We even successfully managed to fuel the car. And buy diet Coke. Speaking of which -- diet Coke in France is Coca-Cola Light. It tastes like regular Coke, not like diet Coke at all. Dan may not survive the month. We drank it bravely, but missed that diet Coke burn.
After sleepily navigating what turned out to be all the way around Paris on the Blvd Peripherique, we found the A10 and headed southwest toward Amboise. Dan did an admirable job driving, considering we were practically dead, and only enraged a few motorists. He did get flipped off once -- we snickered over the first French person who hated us -- a woman in a small Renault -- pardon nous!
Along the freeway there were beautifully illustrated signs for the towns along the Loire that we planned to visit. Also many rest stops. We figutred out Aire is a rest area and Sortie is an exit. We also saw a vast army of giant wind turbines marching across the landscape -- an interesting juxtaposition with the stone, slate-roofed cottages and the old mechanical windmills alongside.
When we were off the freeway, we found ourselves on a two-lane country highway, tree-lined and rolling over hills, the kind you see on Tour de France coverage regularly. Making almost no sense of the road signs, but following the pink line on our GPS, we found the village of Fourchette, where Dan picked up our key to the house from a person called "The Keyholder." Very Ultima Underworld, n'est pas? We made our winding way up through the tiny village, up the hill to chemin de Chamberle, and to our house: Chambemerle.

Coming through the gates of the garden, I was immediately enchanted with the house -- its stone and slate covered with vines, with a beautiful, colorful garden and yard, old trees and outbuildings. We let ourselves in, unloaded our bags, let the children explore and choose rooms. Benny chose what must have been the hay loft -- you have to climb into it, but it's modernized with its own bathroom (including bidet). Sadie picked a sweet pink room downstairs with two beds. There are three full bathrooms in all, and four bedrooms in the house, with other rooms and connecting areas -- the house is actually pretty huge. I think originally it must have been a combination house and barn.

After determining the type of filter required by the coffee maker, we got back in the car and headed out into the wilds of France for provisions. The house's owner had left a binder with instructions and recommendations for the area. Trying to find the Internarche, we stumbled on a local bike race. We pulled over to watch a bit but couldn't make any sense of what was going on. It seemed to be a down-and-back type course with a roundabout at one end, but the riders were sprinting and coasting with apparent randomness, and we were lost, and too shy to ask any bystanders to explain.
It's hard approaching people to try out your crappy French because you feel presumptuous and awkward, and you're always lacking that vocabulary word you really need.
We found the Intermarche which was closed by seven minutes, and then the MarchePlus in downtown Amboise on the river, which was open. Finding a parking spot led us through many twists and turns in this old city, down terrifyingly steep and narrow alleys and lots of one way streets -- and some two way streets that should have been one way. I get sick thinking about driving this car in this country, but I'm going to have to. Yikes.
After acquiring groceries, we came back home to try and cook. The pilot light on the tiny stove was out, and we had to make do with the top burners, lit manually. I made pasta with ground beef and bolognaise sauce -- my approximation of spaghetti which Benny ate but Sadie rejected in favor of bread and butter. We also ate a baguette and brie, and drank loads of water. After dinner we all collapsed.
I worry about cooking here for Dan -- getting him the right combination of protein and carbs and stuff. I want him to take charge a bit more, and make sure his nutrition is on track, with all those big climbs coming up.