Castles of the imagination… and the French Champagne region!

If there’s been one dominant theme for the kids during our stay in France, it has been castles. With a 700 year old fortified tower outside the bedroom window, this was probably inevitable.

Back in October I was the parent helper on Conrad’s monthly class trip to the local library (particularly memorable because his teacher decided that I should perform ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ in English for the enthusiastic six year olds…!). Anyway, Conrad picked out a big book about medieval castles, and the full-on obsession began.

That afternoon Conrad set about building a ‘castle’ with the living room furniture. He summoned us excitedly to see the final result, proudly declaring: “I built it EXACTLY like the one on the front of the book!”


It’s exactly the same…

I took this photo for comparison…if you use a hearty dose of imagination you can see the drawbridge and a couple of ‘towers’. (The Lego is all over the floor because the tub was essential for the design.)

Next we made a small castle from a cardboard box and a Starbucks cup Michael brought back from Paris (we’re thrifty- we reuse those paper coffee cups…;>) At first it was populated with paper knights stuck to lollipop sticks, and then with Playmobil knights the children got as freebies with the “Quick Burger” version of the Happy Meal.

Obviously the kids needed a second castle to launch attacks at the first, so Michael got involved and built one from food tins and boxes.

Since then we’ve visited a string of fantastic real castles in the Champagne region.


Château de La Ferté-Milon

  1. Ferté-Milon. The castle was begun in the late 14th century, but came to an abrupt halt fifteen years later when the owner, the King’s brother, was assassinated on the orders of his cousin (seems like a lot of this kind of stuff went on…) Much of what was left was destroyed during the French religious wars, and now all that remains is the façade. The main arch was built to a massive, awe-inspiring scale. From the castle’s position on a hill, there’s a magnificent view down to the Ourcq canal, with a large slow-turning waterwheel and an unassuming iron bridge built by Gustave Eiffel, about twenty years before he set to work on the Eiffel Tower. (There’s a great-looking bistro beside the castle ruins, but we didn’t go there because we have four little kids…sigh…)


  1. Fere-en-Tardenois. We drove the 40 minutes to this castle on a last minute whim. There are no gates, and you can simply wander over to look across a deep, paved moat to the ruined towers on the central mound.                                   castles5castles6
    A superb “gallery bridge” of five high arches was added in the 16th century, and we strolled over it feeling that extra sense of adventure you get exploring a near-deserted place. The castle’s last owner donated the ruins to the local authorities when he died just 20 years ago. So far the site is largely undeveloped, but the adjacent stables have been turned into a luxury hotel. (We vowed that some years from now we’d return for a romantic stay…of course we’d probably end up just missing these crazy days with the kids…)

On the medieval Provins ramparts

  1. Provins: A medieval walled town, famous enough as a trading center in the Middle Ages that it had its own currency, the ‘Provins penny’, recognized throughout Europe. Caesar’s Tower is kind of like a castle, but the real draw for us was the “Legends of the Knights” show out by the town ramparts. It was cheesy, and fantastic. Horseback stunts, sinister wolf knights, and a love interest for the crusader-poet knight, Count Thibaud IV of Champagne. The kids loved it.

The ‘bad guy’ knights had the best costumes


Small knights fighting at Saint-Jean’s gate

Horseback stunts, sinister wolf knights, and a love interest for the crusader-poet knight, Count Thibaud IV of Champagne. The kids loved it.


Courtyard of Château de Pierrefonds

  1. Pierrefonds: A castle was first built here in the 14th century, but was destroyed inside a couple of centuries. In the 19th century it was completely rebuilt as an idealized medieval castle, which makes it a sort of awesome fake. The first sight of the fairytale towers through the autumn leaves was magical. There’s an imposing drawbridge, and a courtyard lined with intricate stone carvings. castles7.jpgInside the rooms were mostly bare, but that didn’t matter because next we went to….


  1. Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte: It’s hard to imagine a more exquisite French chateau. The original manor was bought in the 17th century by a young parliamentarian, who hired an architect, a painter and a landscape gardener to create one of the most beautiful homes in France. The poor man was promptly arrested on orders of the envious king, and sentenced to life imprisonment.



The chateau grounds, through a brief pause in the rain

Vaux-le-Vicomte changed hands several times, and was bought 140 years ago by a wealthy businessman who’d made his fortune refining sugar. He restored the chateau and grounds to their full glory, and his ancestors now run it as a tourist attraction. Every room was filled with beautiful furniture, catalogued on excellent display boards, and we’d timed our visit for the first weekend of the famous Christmas decorations.


Chocolate-covered gingerbread men…? Smelled amazing.


Christmas scenes amid tapestries and ceiling frescos

The rooms were filled with magical scenes and trees decked with ornaments. The theme appeared to be candy in all its forms. In fact the whole chateau smelled faintly of sugar. It was enchanting.

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Sugar-frosted Christmas trees in the coach-houses

I have no idea whether the childrens’ love for castles will last beyond the impending end to our France stay, but I’m definitely hoping that it will!

Favorite French words: De-country-ing, Russian mountains, and finding ‘Peters’ in the yard

One of the fun parts of learning a foreign language is discovering its idiosyncrasies, or even just the words that sound amusing.

I’ll bet that English has all kinds of curious words that we use without thinking about it. (How about bubble, cacophany, cheesy, wishy-washy, butterfly, ladybug/ladybird…?)

Still, when speaking another language, you notice the unusual words a little more.

Here are a few of my favorite French words:

  1. Vachement (adverb) – really…in a colloquial form, e.g. “it’s really hot today”. But vache means cow, so at least for a non-native speaker it feels like you’re saying “cow-ly”. Plus it has a pleasing, emphatic sound.


  1. Depayser (verb) – to leave your comfort zone/break your habits. It literally translates as to “de-country” (pays = country). I like the fact that it’s generally used in a positive sense, and perhaps because it has resonated whilst moving our family to France for the autumn! Generally I like de-countryifying, and often I learn something along the way.

Dépaysement…it helps when you are somewhere beautiful!

  1. Enchanté! – delighted/pleased to meet you. You are introduced to someone new, and you respond by saying “Enchanté!” It’s charming.


  1. Pierre (noun) – Means rock/stone, as well as being the French version of ‘Peter’. This is fun because the name Peter derives from the word ‘rock’… In the New Testament St Peter was given his name by Jesus: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”.

I’m not sure how the French language kept this word association, while the English did not… Jesus was speaking in Aramaic, but Peter/Pierre comes from the Greek word for rock, ‘petros’…I read somewhere that the Normans brought the name to England (but apparently not the word for ‘rock’).

In any case, I enjoy the fact that when the kids find some interesting stones (which they often do), in French they’d be telling me: “Hey we found some really cool Peters!”


Our two smallest children finding ‘Peters’ out in the gite courtyard

  1. Montagnes Russes – rollercoaster. The French call rollercoasters “Russian mountains”. I spotted this word in one of the children’s books we got from the village library this week, and was completely confused. Now after a little background reading, I know that the first rollercoasters were inspired by ice-sled runs in the mountains outside St Petersburg, Russia. Around the late 1700s or early 1800s, someone had the idea of replicating the concept using carriages on wheels and a track. One of the first ever rollercoasters was built in Paris in 1812, and it was called ‘The Russian Mountains of Belleville’. The name presumably stuck!


  1. Nombrilisme – narcissism/self-centeredness. Literally “belly-button-ism” (nombril means belly button). Kind of like navel-gazing, but more extreme…


  1. Oui – yes. A lot of time, for emphasis we say “Yes! Yes!”, or “oui, oui!” which of course the children find very entertaining. Potty humor is always a winner in our house…


  1. Guili-guili – tickle. A word that fits its meaning very well. It’s really enjoyable to tickle the children while saying ‘guili guili!’

Waiting for a ‘guili-guili’ attack in the bedroom den!

  1. Pamplemousse grapefruit. I have no idea how this word came about (the English version is little strange…it looks nothing like a grape?!), but I’ve thought it was a lovely word ever since school French lessons.


  1. Soixante-dix / Quatre-vingt/ Quatre-vingt-dix – seventy(70)/eighty(80)/ninety(90). I love counting in French! It’s delightfully zany.

This is how it works….you get past sixty, sixty one, so far, so predictable….carry on up to sixty nine…and instead of simply coming up with a word for “seventy”, the French say “sixty-ten”. Then “sixty-eleven”, sixty-twelve” and so on. That feels strange enough, but after reaching “sixty-nineteen”(79), they move on to “four-twenty”(80). Really, French people? You couldn’t just let “80” have its own word?? You have to turn it into a maths lesson? And then at 90, they do it again! Quatre-vingt-dix….four-twenty-ten(90), four-twenty-eleven(91), four-twenty-twelve(92)… It’s kind of a relief to reach 100, which is simply cent.

These are most of my favorite French words. I’d love to hear any words that you particularly enjoy – in French or any other language!


P.S. Featured photo is our local ‘castle of the week’, at Fère-en-Tardenois. We’ve been enjoying visiting ruined castles, plus every post needs a picture – and it looks suitably French to me 😉 




At Belleau Wood on All Soul’s Day

Yesterday afternoon we marked All Soul’s Day by taking the children to the Aisne-Marne American cemetery of the First World War, set at the foot of Belleau Wood.

(Catholic aside: On All Soul’s Day, we remember and pray for the souls of the dead to reach heaven. So visiting a cemetery seems an appropriate way to mark the day, particularly this war cemetery that represents such great, selfless sacrifice.

Although it’s not the point of All Soul’s Day, it also seems a good time to reflect on the fact that death will come to all of us. St Therese of Lisieux said: “The world’s thy ship and not thy home”. As I tell the children when they complain about going to mass: “Hey, life is actually about a lot more than the present moment, so whatever you decide that you believe, you’d better think about these serious questions at some point…” )


The Aisne-Marne American cemetery is set amidst farm fields, with a tall white chapel flanked on both sides by rows and rows of white crosses, interspersed with Stars of David. It was a grey day, and so calm that the two American flags were barely lifted by the breeze.


Beneath the grave markers lie 2,289 American soldiers. Most of the stones are engraved with the man’s name and home state, but 250 of them state simply: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God”.

(Conrad was disappointed that the graves had not been decorated with flowers: every French village cemetery we passed today was abundantly covered with flowers to mark All Soul’s Day…see the bottom of this post for a photograph).

Inside the chapel are the names of 1,060 more soldiers who are still missing. How horrendous and bloody must the fighting have been, that the remains of so many people were never found?


Chapel at Aisle-Marne American Cemetery

The Battle of Belleau Wood was fought through the month of June 2018, and victory for the Allies halted the German advance towards Paris. It consisted of repeated ferocious attacks and counter-attacks, with countless demonstrations of incredible courage.

The US Marine Corps suffered more casualties than in its entire history up to that point, and Belleau Wood became part of its proud lore of bravery and tenacity. A Marine First Sergeant is said to have rallied his men before a charge, shouting: “Come on you sons of b******! Do you want to live forever?” One German private reportedly wrote: “We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.”


View from above the chapel

We said a family prayer in front of the altar, and then walked up the slope behind the chapel into the woods, a peaceful canvas of autumnal yellows and oranges. Back in 1918 the trees were left splintered and uprooted: now, the carnage of almost 100 years ago was hard to imagine.


In Belleau Wood

We carried on to the Marine Memorial, set farther back in the woods. After the battle, the French officially renamed Belleau Wood the “Bois de la Brigade de Marine”, the Wood of the Marine Brigade.


The Marine Memorial

Visiting the nearby German cemetery was a striking experience in a different way.

It’s an unobtrusive, rectangular plot beside the road, a grim contrast to the proud, serene American counterpart. A simple metal cross stands at its center, and a short pillar states matter-of-factly that 8,625 fallen German soldiers rest here. There are no inscriptions invoking grateful remembrance. The stones are dull grey, and every cross is inscribed with four names, typically two on the front and two on the back. More than 4,000 of the soldiers were placed in a common grave, and most of them were not identified.


German Cemetery at Belleau

It was utterly somber, unfairly so, and terribly sad.

Standing there, I saw that at the base of one of the grey crosses someone had left a small wreath and a sheet of paper, laminated to protect it from the weather. The page included a photograph of one of the German soldiers, a man who’d died at Belleau in 1918, aged 32 years.


In the German cemetery

It had been left by his great-grandchild, and the words he’d written were brief but deeply touching:

“You were so young and have so pointlessly died. You left your wife Magdalena (31), your son Paul (7 years) and your daughter Martha (4 years). However, you live on in your descendant. It would have been an honor to get to know you, my great-grandfather. Unfortunately, I also wasn’t able to get to know your son, my grandfather. He did not survive the Second World War.

“Your woman lost her dear man and also her beloved son during the wars. I have experienced them through her, an affectionate, gentle woman. Still today your carpenter’s tools are used by your great-great-grandchildren. A great-great-grandchild carries your name Matthew. Even 100 years after your death you are in our memory. Your death should be a reminder to all people.”

The carnage of the First World War feels very distant now, almost impersonal, but the slaughter was truly unbelievable. Sixty five million soldiers were mobilized to fight, and 8.5 million lost their lives, many of those cut down by deadly artillery fire.

Perhaps this visit to the war cemetery felt especially poignant because of a family connection to the First World War.

Before my English grandparents were married, my grandmother had been engaged to a young man named Jack who was killed in the fighting in France in 1916 (just under a year before America entered the war).

My grandmother had previously considered entering a convent: separately, her future fiancé had begun taking Holy Orders. After war broke out this young man volunteered to join the army. Along with his men he was sent to Maidenhead, west of London, where he fell in love with my grandmother after they met at the local church. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a little under 100 miles to the north of where we’re staying in France. (At the Somme, Britain lost more than 57,000 men in a single day).

My grandmother kept his letter, and my parents found it a few years ago amongst her belongings. Now it is with the Maidenhead historical society, and a copy is with a distant relative of Jack’s in the USA. It’s still one of the most beautiful, moving letters I’ve read, and I’m ending by including the text below:

“To be forwarded only in event of my decease:

June 28, 1916

My dearest,

I am going into action tonight. The 10th leads the assault. God grant that it may be successful and will be the beginning of the end. It will be my privilege to have died in the cause. My quartermaster sergeant has undertaken to send you this letter.

Do not grieve my dearest. Though I die, my love will not. And GOD being reconciled to me for JESUS’ sake. I shall wait for you in that Great Beyond – on the yon side as they say in Lincolnshire. Meet me in the Communion of Saints in our Blessed Lord. If the departed are permitted to visit the places they loved on earth, I shall be with you at the altar at All Saints and St Paul, and with you in your sweet home.

We both sought to serve our Master in the single life, but God led us together and we proposed to serve Him in the equal sincerity and holiness of purpose in married life. Now we are sundered. We must not reason why. Perhaps it was that we should learn what love is before we enter into that Greater Love to come. I have learned and I thank God for having experienced. God never allows the faithful children what is not to their souls’ welfare, and He does all in love and goodness.

You will never forget me, I know. As to what you will do in the future, make no sudden and stern resolve. Pray for Divine guidance and be sure that JESUS will lead you to do his will. Your happiness will always be my wish, and if I am permitted to intercede with the Saints, I will remember you continually before the throne.

Love the Church of your land. She has been hardly used and has many blemishes. Pray that they may be removed. Of the Churches in Christendom, She, nevertheless is most true to the Catholic faith, and hers is the mission to heal the sores and rebuild the walls of the City of God.

Give my love to your Mother and Father, and also to dear Babs. We shall all meet again, thanks be to God!

And so Farewell: Goodbye and God bless you always.

For ever and ever

Your most loving



French village cemetery on All Soul’s Day

Catholic Mass in France, and a special pilgrimage under the oak trees

For All Saint’s Day, I wanted to write about going to mass in France.

Back home we try to take our family of four small children to mass every week, and in France we have been doing the same.

The first mass we attended marked the “Rentree”, which is the return to school and work after the long summer holiday. After the priest’s homily, everyone was given a small candle to hold.

I didn’t take a candle at first, because I thought I’d better make sure that the children didn’t set fire to themselves. When the priest noticed that I was empty-handed, he shook his head firmly and fetched me one himself.

We all lined up to have our candles lit, and thankfully I found a spot against the pillar beside our pew where we could put the children’s candles. They looked beautiful, with the warm, yellow flames flickering against the rough, centuries-old stone.


Watching a candle is definitely a good distraction for wiggly, chatty children. (My assumption before coming to France was right: the French kids were very well behaved).

Overall our children did well keeping still, particularly since they couldn’t understand any of the words of the service.

Perhaps it helped that the order of the mass was reassuringly familiar.

To me, this is one of the most appealing and lovely aspects of Catholicism: it is a universal faith, and the mass is exactly the same everywhere in the world, albeit spoken in different languages.

Certainly the church, built in the 16th century, was beautiful: there are rich blue-toned stained glass windows behind the altar, and the ceiling is a formed from a series of pointed Gothic arches, cast into sharp relief by high spotlights. The wooden pulpit is intricately carved, rising all the way to the ceiling and topped with an angel holding a trumpet. At one side of the altar is a beautiful carved stone tableau of the Passion of Christ, and there’s a spectacular gold-edged memorial to more than one hundred men of the parish killed in the First World War – especially poignant when many of the horrific battles were fought in this area.

The church is dedicated to St Medard, a French saint. Medard was a popular sixth century bishop, said to have sheltered from the rain as a child under the wings of an eagle. His feast day is June 8th, and there’s a well-known saying that if it rains on that day, it will rain for 40 days more: “Quand il pleut à la Saint-Médard, il pleut quarante jours plus tard…”

There were a few other families in the congregation, but it was mostly older people. Church attendance has declined in France, and parishes have effectively been consolidated. The church of St Medard is about fifteen minutes from us: there’s another wonderful church in our own village, but there’s been only one service there every month, and the doors are almost always locked.

Since that first service, we’ve been to many more masses. When the children have been noisy, the French people around us have turned and given us encouraging smiles, which is so much appreciated!


Lighting prayer candles in Reims cathedral


The most memorable mass we’ve attended was held to mark a fascinating local legend. In the early 17th century, a group of villagers reported that they had discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary in an oak tree close to our rented gîte, in the same woods where we’ve built our stick forts with the children.

The statue was placed in a small oratory. For many years, believers would come from the surrounding countryside to say prayers. As far as I can gather, the original statue was lost during the upheaval of the French revolution, but in 1866 a chapel was built with the name “Our Lady of the Oaks,  Notre Dame du Chêne.


Notre Dame du Chêne

This chapel is across the field from our back gate, inside the grounds of a private home called the Manor of the Four Winds, “Manoir des Quatre Vents”.

(Just an aside, but this seems like a great name for a manor house…it seems most likely the four winds refer to the points of the compass, but it makes me think of the fierce, seasonal winds in Afghanistan and Iran that have their own evocative names, like the fierce summer “wind of 120 days”, the “shamal”, and the “black wind”…)

Once a year there is a pilgrim’s procession through the woods to a small shrine beside the oak tree where the statue is believed to have been found.


Setting out from the Manoir des Quatre Vents

We met at the gate to the manor and walked with a couple of dozen of the villagers along a footpath under the trees. A man led the way with an banner embroidered with pictures of Mary and an oak tree. Everyone sang a version of Ave Maria, with words that described the story of the statue (fortunately we all had hymn-sheets).

Michael dropped back with Gaston, who as usual had a lot to say about trains. The rest of us followed along, and stopped in front of the shrine to say prayers.


On the way back through the woods, Roman helped lead the procession. He was very proud, as you can imagine!


Afterwards there was a Saturday night mass at the chapel on the estate. The interior is relatively sombre in decoration, but there’s a beautiful stained glass window at one end and it seemed fitting that the pews were built from oak.

Did the villagers actually find a statue in a tree 400 years ago? Perhaps, but in any case it’s a beautiful story, and we really enjoyed joining in with the local tradition!

Wishing you a blessed and peaceful All Saint’s Day!


A Visit to a Goat Farm (and a few thoughts on the French approach to food)

The greater Paris region, the Ile de France, has a lovely annual event where farms open their gates to the public for a weekend. It’s called the “Balade du Goût” (Tasting Ride/Drive), and there’s a website with a map and details of all participating farms. It’s a great idea, bringing people closer to the farmers, and helping them promote their products.

We went to see a small goat farm about fifteen minutes away from here. In fact, we’d met the owners a couple of times at church, a sweet couple with a little daughter and another baby on the way.

It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day. The farm was down a country lane, set in one of the superb fully-enclosed old farm courtyards that are typical in this area.

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Passing through huge wooden gates set in the wall, we found ourselves in a large open space, part cobbled and part gravel. In one corner was their home, a beautiful house covered with bright red leaves. Bounding the other sides of the courtyard were old stone barns, built from irregular cream-colored stones, half-covered with an old white stucco, with terracotta-tiled roofs. There was a pretty well, and a small tree with bright red berries and its leaves starting to turn shades of brown and orange.

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At first the kids were surprised that the goats smelled so strongly, but we all got used to it quickly. They had a great time fetching handfuls of straw and feeding them to the goats.


Soon afterwards it was milking time. The goats ran into the stalls which were prepped with a grain treat, after which they were hooked up to the milking machines. (Mysteriously, behind them in the pen of goats still waiting to be milked, there was a single billy goat. He was having a pretty wild time – we decided it was easier to move the children on quickly past that scene!)

The farm had a covered table set up for visitors to taste the goat products. The fresh milk was mild and nutty-flavored. Some of the cheeses were ‘riper’ than others, but all were excellent (at least to the grown-ups in our family). They were also serving warm samples of a delicious home-made courgette-goat cheese soup.

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Meanwhile the children had started coloring in goat pictures (except for Gaston, who as usual had decided to sit on the ground).


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All in all, it was a fantastic afternoon. A couple of dozen people passed through while we were there. Some looked as though they’d travelled from Paris (certainly the father dressed in a pinstripe shirt and a waistcoat).

Judging from the food labelling in the big grocery stores, the French like to buy food that has been locally produced. Perhaps it’s a reflection of what appears to be the typical attitude towards eating in France: it’s more of a cultural event, rather than something utilitarian. Of course that’s the stereotype, but it seems to be largely true.

As an aside, I’m still finding the French approach to food interesting…Michael says he has yet to see anyone snacking on the train, the subway or in the street in Paris or Reims, in almost two months. People just don’t eat much while ‘on the go’, or even drink coffee.

That counts for kids as well. We quickly learned that once the children leave preschool for elementary school, they stop having a morning snack. (It took a little while for Conrad to adjust, but he’s definitely ready for lunch).

After school, French children eat “gouter” – an afternoon snack of biscuits, cake or fruit – and they have sit down dinner with the whole family closer to 7pm.

One evening we were invited to dinner by a local family in the village, and they served the children an appetizer of beet and parsley salad, sliced cucumber with a dip, and three different pâtés: rabbit, goose and mushroom. All of our kids looked stunned, although Conrad and Victoria tried a little of everything. Meanwhile our friends’ four children ate heartily….

At the best of times our children are very fussy, but some time ago I decided to stop agonizing over this challenge of parenthood (there’s plenty more to worry about!). So we keep offering everything, and shrugging when they don’t want it. I’m just hopeful that as they get older they’ll start emulating their parents and eating almost everything.

Anyway, back to the Balade du Goût…we finished our farm visit by tasting delicious fresh apple juice, and scooping Gaston up off the ground (again).

We took home one of the fluffy, mild crottin goat cheeses, and we had it for dinner with beets, walnuts, and a little olive oil and velours of balsamic vinegar. Excellent!

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Fantastic old barn!

Eight hours in a French Emergency Room

Roman fell badly on his arm a little over a week ago (the kids were wrestling, again). He cried on and off that night, but he was pretty jolly the next day so we went ahead with a trip to Paris on the Sunday (some great parenting there…)

By that night Roman was still dangling the hurt arm like a scarecrow, so on Monday we decided that I’d take him to the Emergency Room/ urgences / A&E.

We got to the hospital at 12.30pm, and finally saw a doctor after six hours. Almost eight hours later, we left the hospital to head home.

It was not an impressive showing of the French healthcare system.

The waiting room was crammed with people (at least for trauma, there was no separate area for kids). At first all the seats were taken, so we sat on the floor. It was dusty, and I kicked away some lumps of mud that people had walked in. We kept wriggling back against the wall as ambulance crews rolled moaning patients past us on stretchers, since the pedestrian door doubled up as the ambulance unloading bay.

We found seats shortly afterwards and read some of our library books, but as Gaston got more tired he started throwing himself on the floor and yelling. Thankfully he fell asleep on me for about an hour.  After the first four hours, I got out the Amazon Fire tablet for Roman to play games.

It was past normal dinnertime, but the hospital shop was a short walk away. I didn’t dare leave in case we were called. Fortunately a very kind French lady lady who’d been waiting with her husband since 8am that morning (she told me that he needed a specialist doctor) fetched us some bags of chips. She refused to take any money from me.

No one else seemed particularly surprised at waiting for so long – or at the dirtiness of the waiting room. When I took the kids to the bathroom, I saw that someone had thrown a blood-soaked bandage in the open-topped garbage can. (It was still there three hours later, half-covered by the paper towels).

I asked a father waiting with his daughter (suspected broken arm), whether the timing was normal. He shrugged: “When more serious cases arrive, they are seen first.”

The lady next to us said it was an “old hospital”, which didn’t really explain the apparent doctor shortage or the grime. “It’s best to always call an ambulance”, she added. “Anyone that comes in by ambulance is seen straight away.”

The doctor was very pleasant, although he seemed tired. Roman had his arm x-rayed, and we waited again for some time, now in a strange room that had half a cocktail sausage on the floor, and a tiny bathroom with no sink.

The verdict: Roman has a growth plate fracture at his elbow. The doctor wrote the diagnosis down for me: “Decollation Epiphysaire Salter 1”, which I had to look up on the internet back at home.

I asked for the bill at the reception desk: the total out-of-pocket cost for the visit – doctor consultation, the x-ray and the cast/bandaging – was 75 Euros ($88).


The final bill

The downside: a very long wait and a nasty waiting room. The upside: it was dramatically cheaper than the US.

Was our experience typical for France? I don’t know.

The French healthcare system has a good reputation. Back in 2000, the World Health Organization rated France’s healthcare as the best in the world (it was the only time they made a ranking, which was based on life expectancy, access, out-of-pocket cost, satisfaction, and so on).

France has universal healthcare, mostly paid for by a public healthcare insurance scheme. Most of the direct costs to the consumer (about 70% of bills) are covered by the state through social security contributions taken from workers’ salaries (about 6/7%).

The majority of people pay for “top-up” private insurance to make up the difference (apparently 10 Euros/month covers most medical costs, and about 100 Euros/month buys a high end plan). Long term illness is fully covered by the state.

The French government fixes the fees for most services – for example, 23 Euros for a doctor appointment, 25 Euros for a specialist. (At some point a compulsory fee of 2 Euros was introduced for an ambulance journey, in order to encourage responsible use…)

Everyone has the option of going private, for doctor or hospital visits, but the charges are higher.

I’m presenting our experience here not as some comprehensive critique or commentary (of course, it’s based on one hospital), but because it strikes me as interesting.

(I’d add that we’ve seen the local GP here twice, and both times he refused to charge us the 23 Euros fee…adding that to the sweet lady who fetched us food at the hospital, we have been the beneficiaries of some lovely kindness).


Roman, happy again (with grass-stained knees)

Anyway, Roman has been excited about his plaster ‘power-arm’. He doesn’t seem to be suffering too badly, at least so far. It took all of one day for him to start wrestling and beating his brothers with his one good arm.



…some one-armed soccer in the local park after school


..and a little one-armed climbing on castle ruins 

Déjà vu – 20 years already?! (A Husband’s guest blog from France ;) )

Hectic week here…one kid got an elbow growth plate fracture (more about that soon!), and another with a half-day soccer tournament….so I’ve enlisted my wonderful husband Michael to write a guest blog with an update on teaching at the French university….

In 1997, I started my junior year of college at Washington State University by heading off for a year on exchange at a business school in the French Alps. Twenty years later I’m back in France, guest lecturing at a university with campuses in Paris and Reims.

The university is called Sciences Po (Institut d’études politiques de Paris).  It’s a very interesting school that was set up in the 1870s in the aftermath of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War to better train the country’s future political and diplomatic leaders.  As such, it tends to produce many of France’s leading political and business leaders.  (i.e. seven of the eight last French presidents were alums or staff, including new president Emmanuel Macron).


Notre Dame de Paris

I’m teaching two courses on foreign affairs.  My class is titled: “Counterinsurgency in Theory and Practice:  Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I really enjoy teaching and have had some wonderful experiences doing it!  In the past, I spent a post-college year (’99) teaching at the College of Economics at Catholic University of Mozambique to some of the least privileged students in the world, many of them former war refugees. At Harvard (’01) I got to teach some of the most privileged students in the world when I was a Teaching Fellow in Economics for Prof Jeff Sachs.  With the State Department in Iraq during the Iraq Surge (’07-08), the US Military began asking me to lecture at the Counterinsurgency Leaders Course and since then I’ve been honored to occasionally lecture to deploying military officers about integrating economic and political operations, and the geo-politics of the Middle East.

This course is kind of a combination of all three of those experiences.  The students are great and really talented.  They self-selected into the class so they are already highly interested in foreign policy.  They are very international in make-up, and a large portion of them are students on exchange from Columbia University in New York.  Almost all of them are interested in careers in diplomacy, development or the military, so I also get to have some very entertaining post-class lunches with groups of students who want to talk about career advice.


Saint-Germain-des-Prés…the parish church near the Sciences Po campus in Paris

Early on in the course, we’ve looked at COIN theory by reviewing insurgencies from ancient Rome in Judea, to post-colonial Algeria and Vietnam. We are now reviewing the successes and mistakes of US strategy in post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m particularly enjoying putting together case studies of the Baghdad Security Plan and our efforts to reduce Iranian-backed militia influence in Iraq’s fuel sector, which formed part of the Surge that I participated in.

As you might imagine, I’m having a lot of “déjà vu”, remembering both my own university studies in France, and my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prof Sachs used to preach the paradigm of “see one, do one, teach one” in seeking to master a subject matter, and I think that there is little doubt that the person who is learning the most from the course is me, lol.

Having this opportunity to take a deeper dive and think about the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and then attempt to analyze/summarize what happened to a group of students interested to learn has been been a real privilege.  (Sometimes I find myself waking up at night, or day-dreaming on the train, recalling some random fragment or an anecdote from Baghdad that I hadn’t thought about for years).

In fact, right before I got into politics a very kind columnist at the Boston Globe suggested I write a book on Iraq and I’m hopeful that this course may provide a spring board to actually getting around to doing so.

In a sense, I feel an obligation to do so.  I was very fortunate to work with such a great group of Americans in Iraq at a special time during the Surge, and my job back then – both helping think through long term strategy options as a member of the Office of Joint Strategic Planning & Assessment (JSPA), and my role in the inter-agency, inter-government effort to coordinate non-kinetic counterinsurgency operations through a weekly Iraqi Cabinet meeting I helped run – provided a privileged vantage point for thinking about success, mistakes and lessons learned.

It’s also great getting Eleanor’s help with preparing the Afghan portion of the class.  She knows a lot more about the country than I do, having lived and worked in Afghanistan for two years (plus she speaks a fair bit of Dari). Our work together finalizing the weekly lectures also feels like “déjà vu” to when we were working on the Helmand counternarcotics strategy with our Afghan team (most of the good ideas from her, most of the attempted humor from me).

French gite

Gite beside the 14th century tower

It’s been wonderful having the entire family here.  Rather than live in Paris, we decided to try to find some place small that would be better for the kids.  We hit the jackpot and are staying in a very small farm village about an hour from Paris. The small house we are renting even came with its own 14th century castle tower.  Right near the old castle is a canal network built during Napoleon’s rule, and the tow-path provides a great track for running and wandering through the nearby forests and farms.


The canal


…more of the canal!

Our three oldest (6,5,3) are all enrolled in the local schools and are doing well.


The youngest (2) is having a great time as well.  Being a parent of young schoolchildren in France is a lot like being one in the States, and we’ve had a similar schedule of youth soccer (football), library trips and parent/teacher meetings.


Gaston and a new friend



It’s fun to watch the kids pick up a bit of French, and we’ve already made some good friends with local parents.  My favorite time of day is school drop off, when I walk the kids across town with all the other parents.  I like to think that we blend in, but Ele always points out that I’m the only one wearing a baseball cap, chewing gum, and pushing a giant American-style “Double-Bob” running stroller (which does not fit on the sidewalks).


Walk home from school


French countryside

Our small village is located very close to many of the major battlefields of World War One.  When I go for walks or runs through the picturesque neighboring farm fields, it’s a bit surreal to imagine all the carnage, and the courage, of the soldiers fighting horrific trench warfare.  I’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit the nearby WW1 museum, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

Through technology I’m keeping up with happenings on the political scene every day, and I’m secretly hoping that our part-time legislature gets called back to vote in a “special session” this fall – so I can make a couple of WSU Coug and EWU Eag football games.

That’s sort of the last piece of déjà vu.  Back in 1997, the year I left for France, the Cougs had their best football season ever and went to the Rose Bowl.  This year, we’re off to a 6-0 start, and my brothers are wasting no chance to suggest that I may be the Cougs “reverse good luck charm”, and that the team’s chances of winning are better the farther that I’m away.

All in all just very grateful to be having such a fun experience in France, and especially to do so with the whole family.


A bientôt,


Living the (Somewhat) Simpler Life!

As I’d mentioned in my first post, our gite here is only about one quarter of the size of our house back in the USA.

Now, I love our spacious home in Washington state, but I’ve certainly seen some upsides to downsizing. Not to the extent that we’re suddenly going to sell up and move to a ‘tiny house’, but those people embracing minimalism have some good points.

Here are a few observations from the last weeks:

  1. Mess. This little house gets untidy more quickly. But not much more, since the children leave chaos in their wake wherever we are. The benefit of a small house is that it’s way faster to clean up again!


  1. Losing stuff. For example, at home we’re always losing kids’ shoes. We generally have a couple of pairs for each of them (luckily we get hand-me-downs from friends). Here, we have lost no shoes at all! None! (I accept that our usual mislaying of shoes may largely be down to disorganization).


  1. Coziness. Yep, small is cozy! The children play a bit more closely, because they are forced together. This is mostly positive, but not always. Particularly in the first couple of weeks there was a lot of scuffling. (One night after especially harrowing bedtime wars, I binge-watched ‘Super Nanny’ on TV until midnight…it was surprisingly helpful, and had the added bonus of being good for everyday French practice! Plus I now know that French children can be as naughty as ours ;> )


  1. Getting dressed. It’s very easy to pick out clothes, because we don’t have many with us to choose from. Some might consider this a negative, but it has benefits. Michael is definitely a big fan of his limited wardrobe. (No surprise there!) We have so many clothes at home, and most are just taking up space…this is pretty typical, as far as I can tell. (On the other hand, I’m washing clothes all the time, and I really, really miss having a tumble dryer. Why have these inventions not taken off in Europe? Energy considerations? The wear? Something else? We have clothes hung up to dry every single day…)


  1. A feeling of lightness. This is harder to articulate or explain, but just being surrounded by less “stuff” is a good feeling. (Perhaps this is one reason why going camping is so enjoyable). Not enough that I’ll be throwing out my hoards of special treasures once we get home….the childhood books/diaries, letters, cards, photos etc…or even emptying out the kids’ drawers full of “important things” like scribbles, pebbles, bits of geodes, all the random plastic junk….but nonetheless….


As for having fewer toys, it has definitely been refreshing.

It’s not as though we have nothing with us. Each of the kids brought a small bag with a few toys (Conrad has a few Hot Wheels cars, Victoria has her little dog collection, Roman brought Batman, Gaston has his teeny DollarTree Paw Patrol dogs, and we have a bag of plastic army men, also from DollarTree). We have paper, pens and crayons. Plus my parents visited from England and brought a box of my childhood Lego. Not the modern, fancier Lego, but it’s great. We all love Lego.

Still, that’s way less than our usual glut of toys. Certainly it’s fun to have lots of toys, but it really doesn’t add much to playtime. Here, we’ve been more creative. We’ve played outside a LOT. Victoria has colored obsessively. We’ve made houses from rocks and boxes.

Here are a few photos from the past weeks…

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It rains a lot here, so we’ve had some great puddle jumping sessions!


And puddle sitting.


Roman: “I found a really big worm and I washed it clean in a puddle!”

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Roman, or Wolverine?

Another day…this one got out of hand.

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Fun - mud3









Northern France has some serious mud!

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The country lane to the woods

We have a patch of woods just a short walk from the house, out of the back gate and down a narrow lane past the field with two horses.
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We built a stick fort, with help from my visiting parents, which makes a great superhero/ninja base.


In the woods there’s also a short loop trail up and down earth mounds – built for mountain bikes, but great for running around.

We’ve found some interesting fungi, and lots of woodlice/roly poly bugs.

Fun - dirt castle1

The soil is very sandy, and all the kids like to sit and make dirt castles which they decorate with twigs and acorns.


One evening the kids made ninja headbands…from baby wipes. This was about the time of day that Michael got home from teaching in Paris, so they ambushed him outside the back gate. (Note: ninjas do not smile).

Another popular game is “good dog, bad dog, and dog catcher”, which involves a lot of crawling and barking (unfortunately this has resulted in holes in the knees of two sets of Romans’ trousers, and one of Victoria’s….so we have even fewer clothes now!)


Victoria’s doggie house. So easily customized! She spends a lot of time rearranging the animals in different configurations. We’re supposed to be making Conrad a police station, but haven’t quite got there yet.

Fun - army men

Army battle. Actually not much of a battle. Most of the time is spent just getting the soldiers into their places. In theory it’s World War I (many battlefields in this area), but Victoria likes to involve her dragon.

Fun - trains1 (1)Fun - trains2 (1)

This is Gaston’s all-time favorite activity: watching trains coming and going at the station. We have an excellent view from the upstairs back window. When they pull away he shouts: “Bye Train! I wubble! (i.e. I love you!) See you tomorrow!” He particularly likes some snack or treat while he’s watching, but best of all is when Daddy comes home on the train and comes across the parking lot.

Making cakes…we recently discovered that France has an equivalent of the simple chocolate brownie mix, but for fondant gateau. Great discovery.

Definitely some special memories. I’m really hopeful that when we get back home to the USA, we can have a toy overhaul (but I’m not guaranteeing anything!)

Chicken nuggets in Reims

With little kids in tow, excursions don’t always turn out as you’d imagined.

Last Wednesday I drove the four children to Reims, planning to meet Michael after he’d finished teaching at the university campus in the city.

Reims is famous for its 13th century cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece. For 600 years it was the site of France’s coronations, with the French kings being anointed with oil from a “Holy Ampoule” which stories told had been delivered by a white dove at the baptism of the first King of the Franks, Clovis I, by Saint Remi in 496AD.

The city is also at the heart of France’s Champagne region, home to the tasting rooms of many of the world’s most prestigious champagne houses: Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Pommery.

I pictured us strolling down a beautiful street together, perhaps enjoying a coffee and some French pastries while the children smiled and laughed melodiously, and then going together to see the spectacular Reims cathedral.

Instead, we had chicken nuggets at McDonalds.

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Cold, leftover chicken nugget, recovered later that evening from backpack after water bottle had leaked.

This is how it happened…

I’d fed the children sandwiches before we left home, but they weren’t hungry at that precise moment. Two fell asleep during the one-hour car ride, which for some reason meant they had to cry for much of the twenty-minute march from the parking space to the cathedral area.

“I can’t wait to see Reims cathedral!” I declared enthusiastically over the sobbing. “This is one of the most famous, amazing cathedrals in France!”

“In the world, actually,” Michael added helpfully.

The kids were less impressed. Two were still crying, and the other two were whining that their feet hurt. (My feet were also sore, since I’d foolishly worn my stylish boots instead of running shoes – because this was a really special day when I was going to Reims cathedral with my darling husband…)

Well, I was pretty sure that they were hungry, (plus three needed a bathroom), so when we saw the golden arches and they shouted “MCDONALDS!”, it seemed like a sensible option. (Little French cafes with ‘prix fixe” menus are great, until you multiply it by six, and throw in two fussy eaters and everyone in a rush. We only had a couple of hours in Reims, because Conrad had soccer/football practice at 5pm).

It took a while to order because this McDonalds forced you to enter your own order via a touchscreen kiosk. I couldn’t find the bulk size chicken nuggets, and then I accidentally cancelled the whole order.

“I’ll get them started,” Michael offered. “You run over and look at the cathedral.”

At first I protested, because I really did want to see Reims cathedral with the whole family. Seeing how little time was left, I ran the few minutes down the street.

The cathedral façade was magnificent: an enormous rose window, framed by two towers more than 250 feet high. Inside the cathedral, I stood and stared, awestruck. The scale was astonishing: the roof of the central nave soared 125 feet high, supported on massive stone pillars topped with carved leaves. The stained glass windows were a rich, intricate mass of color. Hundreds of beautiful statues decorated the walls.

It felt like a place designed to inspire awe and wonder, to urge reflection on life’s greatest questions: humanity, the divine, the soul. I could have sat there serenely for a long time, while the light filtered through the colored glass. Instead I had about three minutes, so I walked quickly to the end of the 500 foot nave, glanced at the Impressionist windows, and rushed back outside.


Reims Cathedral (photo with thanks to Wikipedia…I didn’t even manage to open my camera case)

Back at McDonalds, the kids were really happy. “MUM!” they shouted (because why speak at normal volume?). “THE BARBEQUE SAUCE IS ALMOST EXACTLY THE SAME AS THE ONE BACK HOME!!!”

With that, we went back to the car. I was a little incredulous. It must have been one of the lamest tourist visits to Reims ever undertaken.

This isn’t really a complaint. We’re spending three months in a beautiful French village. We can go back to Reims soon – hopefully with more time, and maybe some peanut butter & jam sandwiches. Technically, I did get to see Reims cathedral! (And, the local supermarket does sell champagne).

It’s simply a fact that doing anything at all with kids in tow is a bit of a circus. No matter where you are, much of every day is taken up with getting them dressed, making food, cleaning up after the food is eaten (or not eaten), washing kids, washing kids’ clothes…  It’s busy, messy and definitely less romantic.

All the same, I’m betting now that if we come back to Reims Cathedral in the future when the children are grown up, just the two of us, it’ll be that day at McDonalds that we remember with full hearts.

So, what happened when we put our non-French speaking kids in the local school?

In our small village square just before nine a.m. on weekday mornings there’s a rattling, rumbling noise: the sound of dozens of children’s wheelie backpacks rolling over paving stones. For almost two weeks now, Conrad has been there with the rest of the children, pulling his own, already much-loved ninja-themed cartable on his way to the Ecole Elementaire.


Conrad at the Ecole Elementaire

In fact, three of our children are now off to school each morning. France has state-funded pre-schools, and both Roman (just turned 5) and Victoria (3) are enrolled in the Ecole Maternelle.


Roman and Victoria at Ecole Maternelle

It was surprisingly straightforward to get them all registered. I had to fill out forms at the village Mairie, provide a letter from our landlady confirming that we’re staying in the village, and make copies of the children’s passports and birth certificates.

(Normally instead of birth certificates we’d have provided the French livret de famille. It’s a small booklet that French couples are given when they get married, or at the birth of a first child if they’re unmarried, and which serves as a register for future births, separation or death. Interestingly, the books were introduced in 1877 shortly after the socialist anarchists of the Paris Commune burned down public buildings in Paris, destroying the civil registers).

The Mairie sent on the documents to the schools the same morning, and everyone was ready to go!

All three children have done an amazing job of adjusting to school – especially bearing in mind that they understand barely a word that’s spoken in the classrooms.

That first morning we still had no car here, and just as I’d loaded everyone into the double stroller to walk the ten minutes to school the skies opened. Even before we’d crossed the courtyard, the two seated children were soaked down to their underwear and the two others were very, very wet. We quickly changed all their clothes, and our kind landlady drove us to the town square. By then we were so late that I took the younger children to the nursery school, and our landlady walked Conrad to his school gate. Yep, on Conrad’s first day at a French school I handed him over to a near-stranger and rushed off in the other direction.

Pre-school/ Nursery school

Victoria is in the morning-only petits/moyens class of 27 children. They all take slippers to wear in school, and they change their shoes by the coat-hooks and stash them in little bags printed with their name and photograph.

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Shoe bag….

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…and Victoria’s unicorn slippers!

It’s similar to our early preschool in the USA, with some exposure to the alphabet as well as colors, shapes, art, learning songs, and so on. The pre-school has a little garden at the back, where the children grow vegetables in the spring. At the end of Victoria’s first day I asked what they’d done. They’d painted owls, and one of the little boys hadn’t wanted to share the toy farm animals. (Based on my past experience of trying to find out what has happened at preschool, this was quite a detailed response!)

Since then Victoria has made a friend in class. “They play together, and I see them talking”, her teacher told me yesterday. “Different languages, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem!”

Roman is in the grandes class of 29 children. Back when we were filling out forms at the Mairie Roman really, really wanted to know the French words for “Will you be my friend?” He asked the same question outside school on his first day. Sweet Roman.

Roman’s teacher is a little formidable: when one of the boys was crying at drop-off, she pointed a stern finger and said “we do NOT cry in this class”. The boy abruptly stopped. At first, Roman wasn’t sure that he likes his teacher, but now he says he does like her a bit. (Apparently she has been helping him with his coat zip).

IMG_2617 (1)His class is practicing printing letters, but interestingly the children are also exposed to cursive styles of letters right from the start. Not only that, but it’s the very flowery French-style cursive.

They’re also working on simple math, lots of art, stories and songs. For him it’s a full day of preschool (on the same schedule as Conrad’s school): 9am-12pm, home for lunch, and the afternoon from 2-4/4.30pm (there’s a slightly later finish time for two days of the week – I have no idea why). Wednesday is a half day for everyone. In the past there was no school on Wednesdays in France, and here this only changed recently.

Elementary School

Conrad’s school is next to the village church. He’s in a class with 28 other children, all five and six years old.

There are three children with special learning needs in his class, and a couple of the other parents have since told me that there was some reticence about adding a non-French speaking child to the mix. Of course, they hadn’t met super-diligent student Conrad! (He is often ‘spirited’ at home, but it’s a different story at school).

Conrad’s biggest frustration on the first day was that two of his classmates didn’t understand the rules of soccer, and that the playground goal wasn’t properly marked.

He’s been learning a few new French words every day. Within a week he’d switched to writing numbers in the French style: “1” more like a “7”, and a curly “9”.

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Practicing circles

I’ve enjoyed seeing how his class practices penmanship with cut-out copies of famous artwork. He’s been learning about syllables, and they’re working on phonics. It’s been a little confusing explaining that “ch” is pronounced “sh” for French words, or that the French “i” is more typically an “ee” sound, but he seems perfectly able to grasp that the rules are slightly different.

The class has memorized a French poem, which is more challenging! But we’ve tried with the first lines anyway. (Plus I like the fact that the subject is about using your ‘quiet voice’ so as not to disturb other people).

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Every child starts the week with ten “points” on bits of paper, which they keep inside their desk in one of the circular, wooden Camembert cheese boxes. They can lose or win points based on behavior, and if they have ten at the end of the week they can choose a reward card. Now Conrad has two dinosaur cards, which are much treasured. (Apparently, naughty children also have to sit with their hands on their heads).

In the playground Conrad plays tag/”it” and soccer with the other kids. For a while he couldn’t understand why two of the girls kept following him around repeatedly saying “hi”, but we figured out that they’d been asked by the teacher to take care of him. Now all the kids like to come and say “hello” to practice their English. He’s made a friend called ‘Thibault’. One girl still likes to follow Conrad and try to tickle him.

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Afternoon school pick-up..

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… jokes can transcend language!






One funny moment at the end of Conrad’s first day… We’d stayed behind for a few minutes to look around his classroom and get the list of school supplies, and at the gate his teacher presented her cheek for a kiss. Conrad looked totally shocked. I had to explain that the French often use kisses in greeting.

All in all, it’s going really well. I’m optimistic that the children will learn some helpful academics.  For sure, they’ll end up being aware that there are many other people in the world who speak different languages and have different traditions, and that you can still make a connection even if you can’t understand each other’s words.