29 December 2009


Christmas may have come and gone, but unlike Ol' Saint Nick here, we aren't going to let that get us down!!!

We are thoroughly enjoying our time here in the Provence/Cote D'Azur area.  The brilliant light, dazzling sea, pebbly beaches, lavender scented valleys, rambling vineyards, and charming villages are irresistible.  

About 15 minutes east of Toulon, Hyeres has a lot to offer.  Besides being one of the main training areas for the French navy and the flower growing capital of France, it also has a fabulous market.  The market winds its way through Hyere's old medieval center.  

Markets are an absolutely central part of the social life for many people living in villages all over France. Like usual, locals and visitors were out to buy fresh produce, browse for clothing, and catch up with friends.  

One interesting tidbit we've picked up on our numerous visits to French markets is the way they sell squash.  The most common form of winter squash here is the one pictured above.  It has the same coloring as a butternut, but is usually much bigger and has a distinctively different taste.  Instead of buying the whole vegetable, tough old French ladies hack them apart and you take home whatever sized slice you need. 

After our stroll through the market, we wandered the streets a bit to see what Hyeres was all about.  What we found was a place that combines rustic charm, light-hearted humor, and sophisticated elegance.   

The windows of the shops and restaurants are all painted for the holidays.  It seemed like there was a competition for who could come up with the funniest, catchiest, or most creative design -- no traditional Santa in his sleigh here!

This area also seems to be cute-shutter capital of France.  Azur blue, brilliant turquoise, periwinkle, cornflower -- the brighter the better.   

We made our way up to the highest peak in town and were treated to a stunning panorama of the town and a brilliant view of the Mediterranean Sea.  In the distance are a few islands that undoubtedly hold new wonders of their own -- we'll have to save that for another day!

27 December 2009

We Wish You a Merry Christmas!

Though we are having a hard time believing that Christmas actually happened, the 25th of December has come and gone and we did enjoy our share of yuletide merrymaking!

Erika's cousin Sarah and her husband Phil recently relocated to Toulon, a large city in the Provence/Cote D'Azur region. They generously opened up their home to us so we could have some family fun for Christmas.

They're home was a jolly place to spend the holiday. Sarah and Phil have two children -- Lily (4 years old) and little Zachary (14 months). Phil's parents are also here for a visit, so we had a full house!

Never a quiet moment....

Especially when the whole English speaking neighborhood stopped by for a Christmas-Eve party! Three couples and seven kids came over for drinks, appetizers, and treats. We were all treated to a sing-a-long Christmas concert, led by the older kids.

The party was also a fabulous time for ogling at all the adorable babies dressed up for the big event. Here are twins, Camille and Celeste and Sarah's son Zach. Zach was quite the ladies man that night.

So cute, right!?

Zach was proudly sporting a gift from Grandma: a white cotton button-up and a tweed blazer. The clip on tie made its debut the next day. He also discovered how fun it is to race around the house with Lily's stroller. He had the crowd enthralled the entire night!

There were so many kids around, the adults volunteered to let us keep some. Naturally, we picked out the cutest!

We've been accused by a friend of being "clucky" which apparently is an adjective used to describe women who go "awwwwwwww!!!!!" at the sight of babies or women who are feeling broody. Maybe she had a point....

Grandma's girl and Mama's boy.

Though the party started at 4, by the end of the evening we all felt like it was 2am (except for Lily who doesn't really get the whole "tired" thing). Turns out making sure 9 kids stay out of trouble for a few hours is exhausting. Huh, who knew?

What seemed like a very few hours later, Christmas morning arrived!!!! We awoke to Lily's excited chant, "DADDY! TIME TO GET UP!!! DADDY! TIME TO GET UP!!! DADDY TIME TO GET UP!!!!"

There is nothing quite like sharing this morning with little kids. Even at 7a.m., the excitement was contagious.

After a marathon present session -- highlights including an outdoors playhouse, an indoors school house, a rocking-moose, a play-dough kitchen set, and a tool bench -- we were treated to a chocolate chip pancake breakfast, courtesy of Phil.

After breakfast, we honored the established Christmas tradition of breaking in all the new toys. Sarah read on her kindle, Hannah finally figured out which direction is north thanks to the compass function on her iphone, and Lily made green beans and hamburgers out of play-dough.

Zach, in between laps around the house with the stroller, also managed to take a peak at play-dough action. Being too small must be very frustrating when you're so curious.

All dressed up for the big dinner.

The biggest Christmas treat was this first sight of the beach. Our first days in Toulon
were rainy and grey, so when the sky cleared up on Christmas, (A Real Christmas Miracle?!)
we were thrilled to explore the Mediterranean coast.

Nothing in the world can compare to the feeling of walking on a beautiful shore. There is just something so incredibly soothing about the rhythm of the waves, the slight give of the sand underfoot, the rays of sunshine, and the reflection of light off the water.

The French here in Provence seem to share our passion for the sun, sand, and the good life.
The coast is always packed with people, young and old, out relaxing, exercising,
and generally enjoying their time together.

Wouldn't you feel the same way if these were the views you were treated to every day?
This must be a key part of the reason why Mediterranean people live so long.

To all of our family and friends all over the world,
we hope you had a Joyeux Noel and Bonne Annee 2010

26 December 2009

16 Years Later and A Little Munchkin

After leaving picturesque Annecy, Chris and I traveled a little farther north to a relatively small city called Thonon-les-Bains. It is situated right off of Lake Geneva, in the Savoy region, with a little over 30,000 inhabitants. We stepped off the train into more cold and snow and were greeted by a very, very special person...

I have to put this picture first and foremost because after not seeing seeing one another for SIXTEEN years(when Chris was just 6 years old)...Chris and his former au pair, Sylvie, were reunited!!! It was a truly wonderful and joyful reunion to witness in every way- recounting memories of long ago, comparing old photos to new ones, and getting to know Sylvie's husband and 4 1/2 year old daughter Elina(pronounced El-een-ah).


We went to visit Château d'Allignes, a gorgeous place where Sylvie and her family frequent on Sundays to hike, picnic, and see the stunning views.

Little Elina badly needed new boots and constantly had freezing toes...lucky her got to be carried...I miss those days!!

Snowy peaks in the distance.

View of Lake Geneva from the Chateau grounds. In the summer the lake is flooded with tourists, vacationers, and boaters but this time of year people flock to the surrounding mountains to ski.

This path leading up from the Château was lined with holly bushes, the tiny red berries standing out against the stark white snow.

Evian happened to be a very close drive from their house, so we took a little visit to see if the infamous water was really THAT good right from the source...it was pretty spectacular. There were 3 different places throughout the town with fountains where people line up with bags of water bottles to fill with fresh Evian water.

Each holiday season Evian commissions an artist to decorate the town. This year, the artist collected piles and piles of driftwood from the lake and formed them into faces, animals and unidentifiable creatures and lit them with an eerie orange glow. OoooOOOooOOOOO

Many of the creatures had big enough hollow insides to accommodate kids climbing in and out.
These creatures were pretty daunting and seem like recreations of a child's nightmare...I guess French children are just extra brave...

Carousels have been huge in France ever since the first carousel was built for the Universal Exposition of 1889 in Paris. The Exposition was a World's Fair held on the 100th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution, and is also the reason the monumental Eiffel Tour was built. This particular carousel was great because it was free for little Elina to ride for as loooong as she pleased...well...only because the pour daddy's got to push it around in circles themselves. HA!

And of course, like everywhere else we've been, we could not stay away from the local market. The only difference at this market is that it was FREAKING COLD and people were still out spending their Euros. Incredible.

Tough market-goers.

Elina was a little unsure about the cheese guy...

Wrapped in their warmest winter garb...

Back at the house, a snowball fight ensued. They recently moved to a small area on the edge of Thonon and built the whole house themselves. The house is mostly finished- with new oven arriving only days before us. Their big, snow-covered yard was perfect for making tons of bonhommes de neige(snowmen).

You can't catch me!

Oh yea, wanna bet?!
Elina wanted so badly to "faire l'été", or make summer, which to her meant making snowmen out of all the snow in the yard so that it would disappear and feel more like summertime. She is in an only child and absolutely loved having Chris and I there for a while so we could play games and make snowmen together.

I cannot emphasize enough just how wonderful the three days were that we were lucky enough to spend with Sylvie's family. We will hopefully be able to go back in the summer some year to go paragliding with Eric and swimming at their special place on Lake Geneva. While I did not want to see Chris go, this was a perfect end to his 12 days in France avec moi!!

25 December 2009

Walk like an Egyptian!

Some of you may have noticed a little change in the blog over the past couple of weeks. The dynamic duo split up for a brief time (thank God we're finally reunited!!!!). I thought I'd fill everyone in on what I've been up to...

Ever since I was a kid, I've always dreamed of going Egypt. A lucky combination of impulse, dear friends in Cairo, sense of adventure, and cheap airfare thanks to Orbitz (I'm willing to be a spokesperson if they are looking!) allowed me to live out my childhood dream and fly to Egypt for a whirlwind week.

Here is the lovely, funny, brilliant, sassy Farah who hosted me in her home in Cairo for the week. She is the ultimate tour guide and made sure to show me as much in one week as humanly possible. We saw all the tourist spots and so much more. She showed me a whole spectrum of places that tourists never go: from the graveyard-turned-slum called the "city of the dead" to the swanky restaurant where the chicest of Cairo residents go to see and be seen.

Even though I was only there for a short period of time, I feel like I got a true glimpse into this vibrant, exotic, constantly-changing country. Egypt is a placed deeply marked by its layered and fascinating history. But, it is also a country entrenched in modern geopolitics, religion, and culture. She helped me see how much more the place has to offer than pyramids and pharaohs (though those are incredible, too!).

One of my first impressions of Cairo was how colorful it was. Tapestries, carpets, colored glass lanterns, apartment buildings, cars...everything was so vivid and bright...a striking contrast to the constant presence of blowing dust and sand.

Personalities on the street reflected this brightness as well. For the most part, I found the people friendly, interested (sometimes far TOO interested), generous, and open.

Some of these streets seemed like they were right out of Aladdin! The streamers here are left up from Ramadan celebrations. From what Farah and her family told me, during the month of Ramadan, Cairo is transformed into a kaleidoscope of light and color with these streamers decking out the streets and colored glass lanterns hanging all over the place.

After spending two and a half months in a predominantly Christian country where every city is built around a glorious cathedral and each village has its little chapel, the mosques of Cairo were a beautiful and fascinating change. The elegant domes and sky-reaching minarets dominate the cityscape while the call to prayer is a constant reminder to the faithful.

Though the vast majority of Egyptians are Muslim, there was still a little Christmas cheer to be found. I really liked the contrast of this very American looking Christmas tree tucked into a very Oriental-looking cove. These guys selling Santa gear were also all over the place selling eerie looking masks.

One of the things I loved most about Egypt was the architecture and design. Like the scene on the street, traditional Egyptian interiors are colorful and every little corner has interesting design elements. This was in an old merchants home we toured -- it was a haven of tranquil and artistic touches. Arches, stripes, and nature-inspired designs are the dominant features.

On my first night in Cairo, Farah took me to a folk music and dance concert. It was held in an incredibly well preserved medieval caravansary which is a covered market place bazaar. The rhythmic drumming, energetic horn melodies, and dizzying dancing were a wonderful introduction to Egypt. I was completely entranced.

Apparently, this kind of dancing is part of a tradition related to Sufi-ism. The man in the green spins around for an extended period of time (in his case, an entire hour). The spinning is supposed to put him in an elevated state of mind, closer to God.

And finally, no trip to Egypt is complete without a visit to the pyramids. You know how sometimes you can build something up in your mind, imagining how great it is all your life, and then when you finally see it, there is a bit of a let down? This was definitely NOT one of those times. Whatever expectations I had, they were completely surpassed by the pyramids. The sheer size and grandeur were breathtaking.

Surrounding the three great pyramids are several smaller pyramids and temples. The walls of the temples are covered with hieroglyphics. I desperately needed my hieroglyphic-reading kit I got for my 7th birthday so I could decode this secret message but sadly I didn't think to bring it with me to France. Too bad! From my elementary knowledge of ancient Egyptian, I think this says something along the lines of "King Tut is the bomb."

Because the pyramids are a hot-spot for tourists, there are lots of guys wandering around trying to offer various services to visitors. We were approached by about one thousand different men trying to offer us tours, camel rides, horse back rides, and fake VIP tours of the pyramids. Our practice was to just look away and say "shukron" meaning "thanks, but no thanks."

Unfortunately, a few people didn't really get the message and were in a fierce competition for our business. The argument devolved into a full blown fight. I was the only one who seemed to find this strange, they're apparently incredibly common. In the end, I didn't end up getting on either of their camels...but eventually, I did get on one!!!

Back in France now, it's hard to believe all that actually happened. It was a trip I will never forget -- Farah and her family showed me an incredible amount of humor, warmth, and generosity. Now, I just have to figure out a way to go back!