Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Yesterday after my morning Wii session, I wrote a long-ish blog post, cleaned the house , did several loads of laundry, made lunch, taught English down at the school, and went to the post office. By the time I got home at about 3pm, I was ready for a little break...maybe, say, sitting down with a novel and a cup of coffee? Just for half and hour or so?

It was not, of course, to be.

JP was in full project mode. He'd been writing all morning and wanted to "do" something. He decided that he would start painting the ceiling over the central staircase of our house. I got out the huge can of white paint I'd bought, but refused to participate any further. I merely suggested that he remove the spiderwebs before he started painting (which he did) and that he cover every surface below with tarps (which he did not).

Leaving him to his fate, I went down to the kitchen and heated up some coffee in my special "Mom" mug and made my way up to the attic, where JP and I have our bedroom and office. I sat down at the computer to have a quick look at my emails before settling down with my book.

I saw that a good pal in the USA was online and decided to try to "chat" with her. First time ever! What fun! Even better than reading my book!

We started typing inane, funny comments, as is the way of chat. But after only a few minutes, I heard a crash and a thump and a heart-wrenching cry of surprise, pain, misery and disbelief. I ran over and leaned over the railing. There was JP down on the second floor landing, clutching the ladder and looking down at the huge can of paint laying, dented and empty on the stairs below. A torrent of white paint poured down the stairs onto the landing below and on into the bathroom.

It was a Niagara Falls of paint right in our own home.

My first thought, to my credit, was intense relief that JP himself was not laying there on the stairs.

My next and less laudible thought was : I'm so glad that it wasn't me that made that god-awful mess!

I abandoned my chat and my coffee and went to help. I brought up a bucket of water and some rags. JP prompted dumped the water onto the huge lake of paint on the lower landing, sending a cascade down the NEXT flight of stairs, which until then had been clean.

Woe was us.

But at least it was water-based paint, right?

"If this was oil-based paint, we'd have had to move." I informed JP as we scrubbed at the mess. "You realize that don't you?"

He started at the top and I worked up from the bottom. The rags weren't getting the paint out of the cracks in the cement, so we started using scrub brushes. As it dried and sunk in further, we had to switch to steel wool.

We scrubbed for two solid hours.

The stairs ended up reasonably clean. They were originally covered in repulsive brown vinyl. JP just recently ripped it all off and exposed a layer of ancient, thick, hard yellow glue. He spent several afternoons stripping all that off and then scrubbing the cement with a special cleaning solvent. The idea was to get the stairs perfectly clean so that we could cover them with special paint for cement floors. We needed an impeccable base, as the stairs are a high-traffic area right in the center of our home. So, we're really hoping that the traces of white ceiling paint won't affect the layer of brick red floor paint we want to apply.

If I was I quick thinker, I SO would have taken a photo of the mess to post with this!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Exercise. How I hate it.
And I think people that love it are very, very odd and probably need pychological help.

On the other hand, I do try to do it regularly. If I don't, I feel all kind of stiff and elderly. But it's not something I've ever done because I think it's fun. Fun is reading a book, writing in my blog, visiting a friend, playing a board game with the kids, planting a garden, making bread, etc. Frankly, I even like cleaning house better than exercising. Sadly, housecleaning, as strenuous as it may be , deosn't seem to count as "exercise". But at least you have a clean, nice-smelling house to show for it afterwards. For most people, the hour or so of moderate exercise they do each day to keep their heart healthy doesn't result an amazing physique (or a great smell, for that matter).
It boils down to this: exercise sucks, but you have to do it.

Back when we first arrived in Ouaga, I mainly did step aerobics at home. Then I eventually switched to the Rec Center gym, with it's treadmills, weight machines and television showing US TV programs. I also usually walked once a week for an hour with a group of friends over on the ISO school grounds.
Then we moved to France. For the first few months, I had no time to work out. I was too busy fixing up the house and getting everything set up in our new life here. We'd go on occasional walks, and when it began snowing, we did some cross-country skiing, but I wasn't working out regularly. And I felt it.

Then my parents sent us a Wii for Christmas.
I cannot convey the coolness of Wii. The kids love the games, of course, but I love Wii Fit. It's certainly not the most intense workout ever, but at least it's varied and gets you to try new things. (Boxing, for example- Boxing is great! Who would have thought that I'd ever say that?) I'd say that Wii Fit is certainly a great form of exercise for beginners and/or people who don't like to exercise or are easily bored.

In case you have no clue what Wii is, here's a short description: A wireless gaming system that uses handheld remotes that are keyed to a sensor bar that you put on top of your tv screen. Then when you play, for example, a tennis game on the Wii, you actually swing your arm (while holding the remote) just like you would if you were really playing tennis. The game evaluates your move and makes you "hit" the ball. It's all very realistic and quite impressive.

The Wii Fit game also includes a "balance board"- a very low step with pressure sensors. It keeps track of your center of balance and evaluates your performance in activities like skiing, snowboarding or step aerobics. There's also hula hoops (a surprisingly good workout) , yoga and even running. There's also an assortment of fun balance games.

But what am I best at?
It will probably not come as a surprise to learn that I excel at sitting absolutely rock-steady still, not burning a single calorie.

Be jealous. Be very jealous.
How did I discover my amazing gift? Well, I've never been a "yoga person, but Wii Fit inspired me to give it a try. I slowly worked my way through most of the basic poses over the period of a few weeks. As I progressed, I "unlocked" new poses. One of them was called "Lotus Focus". There was a little picture of someone sitting cross-legged on the balance board, looking at a candle. I was at the end of my workout and thought it looked relaxing, so I thought I'd give it a try. I got into position on the board and pressed "A". The screen showed a wooden floor in a dim room. The only light came from an animated candle in the center. I watched a moth flutter around the flame. About 30 seconds passed. Then there was an echoing sound of footsteps approaching. Guess the session is over I thought, and let myself shift a tiny bit. That's when a cross-sounding male voice shouted really loudly and surprised me so much I fell right off the board backwards.
What had the guy said? Sounded like he insulted me in Japanese... At any rate, it was pretty disconcerting.
Then the Wii told me I had done 28 seconds and that my performance was very unsatisfactory.
What? I'm not good at sitting?
That just didn't seem right. I must have missed something. .. I gave it another try. I sat down again, watched the moths. One of them caught on fire. Sick! But I didn't flinch. Then I again heard the footsteps. I figured the crabby Japanese guy was coming back to yell at me again, but I just sat there. Then the footsteps... faded away!
Finally, I realised that the candle was burning down. I may be a bit slow, but the truth was finally dawning: if you don't move a muscle, the yelling guy leaves you alone!
And you are just supposed to sit there until the candle burns down.

So , the pretend candle burned and burned and burned. I breathed slowly and steadily in what I hoped was a zen-ny, yoga-ish kind of way.

I began to wonder what kind of time frame was involved here. Seconds? Minutes? I needed to get finished and go write in my blog!
Three minutes passed... then the game ended and told me I had done a brilliant job. I had "beaten" the game by staying completely still for 180 seconds.

Later on, a quick search on the internet reassured me that I'm certainly not the only person that didn't quite "get" this game at first. And even more amazingly, I found out that that some people actually CHEAT at this game by putting a heavy box on the balance board! It's such a shame that some people must resort to pathetic strategems because they do not have my amazing talent for sitting completely still for very long periods of time. Sad, really.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seldom does anyone have a good thing to say about war. But get this: thanks to WWI , I’m going to Paris next month.

It’s a bit complicated, but stay with me here: The First World War pretty much decimated the population of France. Before the war, there were over 39 million people living here. Afterwards, there were 1,700, 000 fewer.
In response, the government instituted many pro-natalist policies. One of these was the « Carte Famille Nombreuse » . (The Big Family Card. Very descriptive, if not creative. ). It was a card issued by the national rail service giving families with three or more children a discount on train fares.
This was a huge deal back in 1921. It allowed working class families in an increasingly urbanized and industrial environment to get out of the cities and enjoy fresh country air.

And here’s the thing: the card is still a pretty big deal, over eighty years later. When our cher President Sarkozy started scheming recently to do away with this beloved institution, he was quickly confronted with so much opposition that he was forced to back down. While it’s true that fewer and fewer people are having big families, the French are nothing if not « solidaire » . They know that once the government gets started eliminating public benefits, it won’t stop…and meantime the bigwigs keep their huge salaries and benefits such as beautiful government-owned apartments in the heart of Paris.
So, the government was forced to keep the card, but that’s not to say they made it easy to get one…

When we arrived back in France this summer, one of the first things I did was try to apply for our cards. On the official website, I learned that you could get application forms at your village mayor’s office. So, I went down to see the secretary there. R. is a nice lady and I know her pretty well. She’s very kind and always willing to help if she can. But she had NO clue what I was talking about. Nobody in the village had ever applied for a CFN and she had no idea how to get the forms. I didn’t want to pester her, so I decided to go to Plan B: The website had also said that you could get applications at any railway station.
So, the next day I drove to one and asked for a CFN application The woman at the ticket counter looked at me like I was mad. « We don’t deal with that kind of thing » she said disdainfully, as though I’d asked her to participate in some unspeakable rite. « Check the website. You can order them online. I think. »
That wasn’t very reassuring, but I figured I’d give it a go.

You may not believe this, but I swear it is the truth: I tried many, many times over a period of several days to order the applications online. It NEVER worked. The site somehow always managed to NOT function.
Is it a government plot? I wondered.
Or maybe I’m an idiot and just doing it wrong? That's always a possibility.

So, I eventually went back to the kindly secretary at the village town hall and told her my sad story. She shook her head sympathetically and turned towards her computer. She called up the railway service website and tried to get the applications.
It didn’t work. Of course.

« Maybe you should write them a letter. » she suggested.
« I ‘m afraid they’d just throw it in the trash and claim they never got it. » I said sadly.
« I suppose you‘re right » she agreed.
« But maybe if you were to write them a request …» I said, an idea slowly taking form « and we sent it registered mail, I bet they’d HAVE to send me the applications. Wouldn’t they? »
She agreed to help me out and sent the letter the next day.

The forms came four weeks later. We quickly filled them in, gathered all the documents and photos needed and sent it all off.
Then we waited. And we waited.
Then we waited some more.
Finally, about five weeks later, our cards arrived.
Much rejoicing ensued.

Three children is considered a « large family » and each member is entitled to 30% off train fares. Any more children than that is considered a « very large family » and gets more off. With our four children, for example, we get 40% reduction. And it’s this discount that makes it realistic for me to take our four kids on the train next month and go visit Paris.

Once there, expenses will still be reasonable. Our CFN cards also get a special rate on Metro and bus fares. Even museum entrance fees are reduced for CFN holders. And as for lodging, which can be so costly, we’ll stay at the house of friends and do most of our own cooking. Most meals while we’re out and about will be picnics packed at home.

A week in Paris for five can be done on a low budget…as long as the government lets us keep our nifty cards.
So, don’t be mean, Sarko. I want my kids (and other not incredibly wealthy kids) to wander around the Louvre and go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Yesterday I woke up to a blizzard.
It snowed all morning, quit for a bit and then snowed again all night. It was nasty, windy and snowy.
I thought it was supposed to be spring now! I'm SO ready for daffodils and green grass.

I was pretty cross and confused until I remembered this little saying that they have here in the Haute Savoie about the month of March:
"In like a lion, out like an enraged polar bear."

Ok, I just made that up.
But they NEED a saying like that so that people don't get crazy, unrealistic ideas about lambs...

Monday, March 23, 2009

I interrupted my blogging for a few days for the best of reasons: a visit from an old friend. I hasten to add that E. is not and does not look old- she's gorgeous. It's our friendship that is longstanding.

When I arrived at Everett Junior High on a fall day in 1977, I didn't count on finding many friends. I was very tall (a head above any boy in the class), glasses-wearing and extremely bookish. In short, I was a geek. Little did I know that I would quickly find an ally- a tall, frizzy-haired girl even smarter than me.

She's the one who figured out the secret to the answers to the multiple choice quiz in English class. Being a true pal, she caught my attention during the test and mouthed "Opera" at me, pointing down at the paper. Sure enough, my first few correct answers spelled out T O S C A. So, after answering all the questions I was sure of, I was easily able to fill in all the others. Aida and Die Fledermause, I believe, were the other keys.
When E. handed in her quiz, she couldn't resist a quiet remark to the teacher "So, you like opera, huh?" Wicked girl. His face fell, poor man. He'd thought he was so clever...
From E. I learned to revel in my geekhood.

Our many adventures are too numerous to recount in a single blog post. I could write a book, srsly.

E. moved away three years later. We wrote for a while, but then lost touch until the magic of the internet got us back together again about five years ago. She ended up coming to visit me in Burkina and we had a great time.

This time around, she arrived in Paris from her home in NYC, looking for a job. After attending to that small task, she left Paris on Friday and came to visit us here in the Haute Savoie.

On Saturday, I took E. and my girls all in to Geneva for a day in the big city. It was E's first time in Switzerland, so she was keen to go, despite the fact that her Parisian pals had warned her that Geneva is "very boring and full of Swiss people". We ended up wandering the streets of the old Town- the ancient walled heat of the city. We took in a couple of museums- which was good, as otherwise we would have frozen to death. It was a freezing cold and windy day.

I tried to take pictures, but somehow nothing went right. I had them all posed in front the the imposing St. Peter's cathedral and kept pushing the button, but my phone refused to make that "click" sound that means it actually took a photo. I stood there fussing with the thing, cursing and grumbling as the wind whipped at us mercilessly. It seemed to be stuck in "movie" mode and I couldn't figure out how to make it take photos. I'd click a few buttons, try to take a photo, fail, curse and then try again. This went on for a while.

Instead of photos, I ended up with a series of avant-garde short films. That's what I tried to tell Ellen and the kids, anyway. "I meant to film the sidewalk and the front of my coat. That shot of my button is masterful and full of meaning. Don't you agree? "

E. just shook her head pityingly as Valentine gently pried the phone out of my hands. She pressed a button and handed it back to me. It was back in camera mode, just in time to get a few pictures of. ... our visit to the Geneva branch of Starbucks. Very exciting.

On Sunday, we went for a walk in the mountains. The camera worked fine.

Today I took E. to the train station at noon. She has another job interview there before heading back to NYC on Tuesday. I am SO hoping that she gets offered a great job. It would be great to see her more often than once every five years!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

JP is getting ready for another work-related trip. I’ll have to go down to the train station this afternoon to buy his tickets…and maybe I’ll buy a few others as well!

There is a big school holiday coming up in April and I’ve decided to take the children to PARIS! I’ve been promising them we’d go and now seems to be the time. We have friends there that have a lovely house in the 19th. Sadly, we won’t see much of our pals, as they’ll be taking off for their own holiday AWAY from the daily grind in the big city. But us country mice will love being in the center of things.

We plan to leave on April 10 and spend about one week. The girls are counting on at least two days at the Louvre and I am happy to accommodate. I LOVE that place.
And of course the Eiffel Tower is a must, as Alexa is the only one who’s ever been. We’ll also probably take the RER train over to Disneyland for a day. That's to keep Severin happy.

We visited EuroDisney once before, but that was seven years ago , so it hardly counts. The twins were only four and don’t remember any of it. Can you believe how adorable they were!? I actually got a bit teary as I looked back through all the pictures. I can hardly fathom the fact that the girls are already 11 years old! I guess I've been having too much fun...isn't that what makes time fly?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Despite the fact that we have a satellite dish, we don’t watch very much television. Most days, it doesn’t go on at all.
There are, in fact, only two programs we watch with any regularity:
One is the popular French singing completion Nouvelle Star. It’s so bad that it makes American Idol ( of which it is an imitation) look like a high-quality program of refined taste and exceptional educational merit. I’m not sure why I watch it. I’d be tempted to say «It’s because I love music », but that’s precisely why I SHOULDN’T watch it.
Well, perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.

The other program that we often watch is Un Dîner Presque Parfait . It’s a great show to watch as a family and it’s really interesting. It’s actually a cooking contest that takes place over the course of one week. Each Monday, they present a group of five contestants living in the same town. Then every night one of them must give a dinner party for the group. You are expected not only to cook really well, but also to decorate the table elegantly and provide some kind of activity or entertainment for your guests. At the end of each meal, the four guests secretly grade the host on three points: cooking, décor and ambiance. On Friday night, the last meal is served and graded and then the averages are revealed. The top scorer wins 1000 euros, which is really just symbolic. It’s an awful lot of work and expense for the chance to win a pretty small amount of cash. But this is France and people take their food VERY seriously. It’s not for the blé, its for the honor and the gloire!!

Even a small, cow-intensive village like ours is filled with hard-core gastronomes. Take Saturday night: JP and I were invited to a dinner that some friends threw together at the last minute. We saw Martine on Friday afternoon and she said « Come for dinner! Maybe tomorrow? We’ll do it at our house, or maybe Lionel’s place. I’ll call you. »
She called and so it was that on Saturday night at about 8pm, we showed up at Lionel and Andrée's beautiful old farmhouse high on the hillside that overlooks the main part of the village. (One day I am going to BEG them to let me photograph their house and post it on my blog. It’s SO amazing and they did it all themselves!)
Our friends Lionel and Michel were already busy in the kitchen, looking very fetching in that »capable guy in an apron » kind of way.
Then another couple from the village arrived and the guest list was complete.
First of all, we were served an impressive homemade aperitif that our hostess had made from red wine and hawthorn flower buds. It was really lovely.
Then we sat down to this:

I’m sorry the light is so poor. I took these with my cell phone and I didn’t dare turn on more lights. I think poor JP was embarrassed enough.
« We ‘re just tourists » he told everyone. But when I go into my « This is SO going into my blog » mode, there’s no stopping me.

The dinner was very simple, elegant and good. It was:
Batavia salad with cherry tomatoes and herbs
New potatos with herbed yogurt sauce
Fromage frais with herbs
Round zucchini stuffed with pork.
For dessert there were apple slices sautéed in olive oil, served warm with whipped cream.

Though conversation touched many topics: politics, philosophy, language, travel, etc, much of it revolved around food.
Three of the men present had just gotten back from a road trip to Perigord to track down local wines, foie gras, magret de canard and other gourmet specialties. A six hour drive just to go hunting down food. These guys are all about the cuisine.

Before the end of the night, I was sure to warn them all that I’m not a very good cook and that they shouldn’t expect much when they come for dinner at my house. I figure that if they start out with low expectations, they won’t be disappointed…

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Prison Break: The Degu Edition

Pilot Episode

Written by: Burkinamom
Directed by: The Gods of Irony



Mallory: (Enters carrying a small square of glass.) Leon ate his cage! Look! (Holds up the cage door)

(Beth drops the dishcloth she is holding. A cat pounces on it and commences chewing on it. She doesn't notice.)

Beth: Where IS he!!!?? Is he OUT?!!!

Mallory: No. He's still in his cage. He looks kind of...surprised. I don't think he really thought he was ever going to get it open.

Beth: He's just sitting there?

Mallory: Yeah. (She puts the glass cage door down on the table) I blocked off the hole with a book, but I don't think he's that interested in escaping. Chewing on the cage was just....a hobby.

Beth: Yeah...well, I wish he'd take up knitting. It would be a lot cheaper than buying a new cage.



Valentine: (Looking at Beth as she butters her toast) So, what's on your schedule today?

Beth: (Her mouth full of toast, she does a mime impression of a degu chewing through his cage, the degu escaping, the cage door falling off and then someone driving to a shop to see about getting a new cage.)

Valentine: You are going to eat corn on the cob...pretend to be a dog...open a book ...drive somewhere and...HIT someone?!?

To be fair, I was only planning to hit someone if they wouldn't give me a really good discount on a new cage. I mean, I bought the EXACT cage they recommended at the pet shop and the creature chewed completely through it in less than three months.

Luckily, the people at MaxiPet saw reason and made me a good deal on a cage completely in wire. And Leon seems to like it better. There's more room for him to scamper about.

As to why he didn't rush out of his cage the minute the door fell off, we will probably never know the truth. It happened in the night and he easily could have skittered on out of there and into a nice hidey-hole. After all that effort on his part, I thought there was, you know, a plan. It's like if the captured soldiers in The Great Escape spent all those months digging that tunnel, broke through to the outside and then said "You know, this prison camp is actually pretty darn nice, once you think about it. A guy doesn't want to be hasty. Let's sleep on it."

Maybe Leon was afraid his Chilean accent would give him away and he'd be immediately recaptured while taking the train?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Last weekend, JP and I went off on our own - not a single child in tow - just the two of us! We went cross country skiing and then ate at a restaurant. We haven't been alone in a restaurant for a very, very long time. I'm talking years, here.
We have basically subscribed to the "Why have kids if you don't want to be around them?" school of child-rearing, which I think is a good, good thing. But an occasional break is nice, especially now that the "babies" are 11 years old and eldest will be able to drive in three months...
It was a gorgeous day and the skiing was great. Not that I'm very good at it. I prefer the flat bits and even the least incline makes me edgy. (I am SO not ever going to go downhill skiing. It's a shame, but I just don't have it in me any more.)

Afterwards, we drove up the valley looking for a likely restaurant. We found this one, which was SO unbearably charming that I had to take pictures.

As the sign above indicates
1. We've had a LOT of snow this year
2. The restaurant specialises in Savoyard dishes. There are many permutations, but all Haute Savoie cooking boils (ha!) down to this:
a. cheese and potatoes
b. cheese and potatoes with lardons (thick chunks of bacon)
c. cheese and bread
As we had only skied for an hour and not all day, we didn't feel we required a gargantuan caloric load-up, so despite the gorgeousness of the place, as can be further attested to here:

we moved on down the valley, closer to home.
We drove past a little café by the side of the road that we had seen a thousand times. We'd always thought it was out of business, as there never seemed to be any signs of activity. But today, instead of being blocked by parked cars, the front door was actually accesible. And besides tables, chairs and parasols, there was even a life-sized plastic chef de cuisine holding up a chalkboard menu! Who could resist that?
We walked in and and were met by many promising signs that this would be a good place to eat and hang out.
1. We were immediately greeted by a very chubby and cheerful man that was, of course, the owner of the place. It immediately was clear that he and his wife run the place completely on their own.
2. There were lots of clients, all locals. Not a tourist in sight.
3. There was an old gentleman there eating his lunch, feeding his little white dog with scraps under the table. Any time you see locals in a café with their dogs, you know it's a good place to be. That's the sign that it's THE place to be- everyone's home away from home.
It wasn't fancy, by any means. In fact, it was the epitome of a small café/bar/restaurant in a tiny village. The tables were linoleum with paper place mats. The decor consisted of posters for a local accordeonist, a hefty gentleman with an impressive walrus-type mustache and a beret. You could buy his cds at the bar for 11 Euros each.
In fact, it was the French version of small-town diner in the middle of the United States about 50 years ago.
There had been two specials of the day, but the owner/cook told us that he was out of mussels and only had steak left. I was disappointed, not being a big meat fan. So, he very kindly had a look in the kitchen and decided that there were actually enough mussels left for a "small portion", which turned out to be fine for me.
There was a pâté en croute as a starter. Then the main dishes, simple and served with a big basket of tasty fries to share. And dessert was a smashing coconut raspberry torte. It was all very simple and amazingly good.
After we were served, the owner came back out of the kitchen and sat down at a table to hold court. He told stories and jokes and kept quite a good ambiance going. He even offered us free glasses of his homemade plum eau de vie (fruit brandy). It was very strong and the glasses were too full. I could only manage one sip, so JP had to drink his and then most of mine. It wouldn't have been good manners to leave any.
It reminded me a bit of that time in Peru when my professor had to eat my plate of goat entrails as well as his own plateful, because I couldn't manage it and we couldn't insult our hosts...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Today's post is just a mix of random items.
1. In response to many requests to actually have a look at JP's ill-famed Wehrmacht Cupboard, here it is:

It actually doesn't look so bad in this photo, but I assure you that it really isn't a very nice color. And despite what JP claims, stencilling a few flowers on it is NOT going to help.

2. I took this picture from just outside our back door, standing in the snow in my socks. I used my cellphone, so it's not very good at all, but I had to share it. The little black dots in the middle are the tail-end of a herd (pack?) of wild boars that walked through our yard. There were ten in all and they were quite big. It seems like the deep snow and long winter have brought them down quite low on the mountain in search of food.

3. Yesterday I made a recipe that required fresh lemons. As a result, I ended up with a big pile of lemon rinds on my countertop. It seemed like a shame to just throw them all on the compost pile, so I looked on the internet to see what I could do with the rinds of 8 lemons. It turns out that you can sprinkle salt on them and use them to polish copper. And I just so happened to be the owner of a copper kettle desperately in need of cleaning. I thought about taking a "before" picture, but I was too ashamed. It was SO embarrassingly ugly despite repeated attempts at a clean-up using a store-bought cleaner. But the lemons and salt did the job nicely.

4. This is what I made with the lemons. All you need is yogurt, condensed milk and lemons. SO easy and very, very good. Everyone in the family loved it.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Fellow blogger Oreneta just passed on one of those virtual awards to me. I know some people hate them, but not me. Perhaps I am pathetically starved for validation? Be that as it may, I’ve got the Premio Dardos Award and am darn pleased about it.

I have received it because I am, "one of the most cultural/literary people I know in the blog world.", according to the talented and kind-hearted Oreneta.

Premio Dardos means "prize darts.” This award acknowledges the values that every blogger shows in his or her effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values every day.

Step 1: Respond and rework — answer the questions on your own blog, replace one question that you dislike with a question of your own invention, add one more question of your own.
Step 2: Tag other bloggers to do the same.

Here are the questions:
What are you wearing right now? A light blue boat-necked t-shirt with ¾ length sleeves, black yoga pants, light blue fluffy socks and black slippers. Rather pulled-together, actually. Usually, I look like a homeless person. A homeless person with really bad fashion instincts, even.

What part of your house never gets cleaned? The cellar. We all fear the cellar. Giant mutant mountain spiders roam the cellar. When I go down to do the laundry, I feel like Indiana Jones.

Do you nap a lot? Usually the answer to that would be: I NEVER nap. But oddly, for the last two days I have had a nap after lunch. It’s almost spring- I’m not supposed to start hibernating now, am I?

Who is the last person you hugged? Tya

What websites do you visit when you go online? Facebook, I Can Has Cheezburger, Free Rice, and my favorite blogs, which can all be seen in the list in the right sidebar.

What was the last item you bought? I bought groceries on Sunday morning and the full list would be terribly long, but some of the items were: plain yoghurt, lemons and sweetened condensed milk. I’m going to try out a recipe that Oreneta posted for an easy Catalan Lemon Mousse.

.What’s the last book you read? A Feast for Crows by George R. Martin. It's book four in a HUGE epic fantasy cycle called A Song of Ice and Fire. Not for folks with short attention spans.

If you could go to the Oscars, who would you want to sit next to? I’d prefer to sit next to someone that had mild food poisoning or some other non-fatal, but inconvenient illness that would require them to leave at the beginning of the ceremony. Then I could use helping this person as an excuse to leave. In other words, I SO do not ever want to go to the Oscars. Ever.

Has a celebrity’s hair cut ever influenced your own hairstyle? My first response was Bozo the Clown, but that’s not an intentional influence and I suspect that the question is asking if you actually asked the hairstylist to make it look that way. If that's the case , I’d have to say the only time that happened was back in 1976. I was 11 years old and aspired to a Dorothy Hamill wedge. The perky and fashionable cut worked great for a couple of years, until a hormonal surge at age 13 made my hair go mad curly.

What is one skill you wish you had, but don’t: I really wish I could play the piano really well.

What was the last movie you watched? At an actual movie theater? Twilight, which I liked. I’m not a hater. At home on the flat screen? "La Môme" (La Vie en Rose in English), which I enjoyed, though it wasn‘t a great film. The non-linear storytelling gave me temporal whiplash.

What is the luckiest thing that ever happened to you? Being born curious - a thing which led to everything else good in my life.

If you had a whole day to yourself; no work, commitments or interruptions what would you do? Read a book and write in my blog

Is there a major goal you have that you haven’t yet achieved? Yes, there is.

Where did you meet your spouse/partner/bf/cat? I met my husband in Chicago. I met my cats in Burkina Faso. Both stories are very interesting.

What is something that those in blogland might not know about you? While I was at university, I worked as a waitress at a restaurant called« The Country Kitchen » . It was just off the highway, so we got lots of truckers and travelers. I won’t say « tourists », because not many people come to Nebraska on purpose.
Just passing though…

What Countries have you visited as an adult? The USA, Canada, Burkina Faso and France. Those are the obvious ones. As for the rest: England, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, the Bahamas, Mali, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. I have been in airports in Holland, Niger, and Germany, but that’s not really a visit… So, actually, my list is shorter than people might think. I know that Rocky thought I’d have a great list, but hers is way longer than mine!

What do you do to relieve stress? Drink endless cups of decaf coffee.

What is your first clear memory from your childhood? Watching Star Trek on the TV with my mom. I was only three or four years old. And so my serious crush on Mr. Spock began…

As this is supposed to be a cultural award, what is the most recent piece of painting or sculpture that really impressed you? I adore Pre-Raphaelite art. Right now, the wallpaper on my computer desktop is The Rose Bower by Edward Burne-Jones. I just put it up yesterday and I'm really enjoying it.

What is the last piece of music that you heard and what did you think of it? Max the Cat by The Chenille Sisters. I get a kick out of the funny lyrics and great vocal harmonies. Plus, Max is a hero cat that saves the little lost girls! What’s not to love?

Who will I tag to receive the honor after me?
I'll choose Reb at Uh Oh Spaghettios, as she is a bookworm like myself. And her posts about bilingual childrearing are so interesting.
Another fine bookish blogger is found over at Pardon My French.
And who blogs better about her ethical and personal values than Leena ? She's beautiful and a truly good person.

Thanks again, Rocky.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The clever (but cancelled after two seasons. Ain't that always the way?) TV series "Dead Like Me" featured a character called Dolores Herbig. Dolores' life outside of work consisted of keeping up her internet presence on her site: Getting Things Done with Dolores. She turns on the webcam and people enjoy watching her do things like alphabetizing her spice rack, organizing her socks according to color and changing her shelf paper in the kitchen.
I think that the writers intend that most of the audience feel hip and cool and far above this unglamorous middle-aged woman that likes to keep busy around the house.
I think Dolores ROCKS!

But maybe that's because I'm a middle-aged woman that likes to keep busy around the house and then post about it on her blog? Just an idea...

Anyway, today on "Getting Things Done with Beth" we are facing the Cupboard of Doom. (Don't be scared. There's a happy ending)

This cupboard is built into one corner of our dining room. When we bought the house, it was painted iron gray and the shelves were lined with old contact paper. We painted the outside to match the new wallpaper we put up and called it good. That was back in 1994.
Last fall, when I re-plastered the room, I (coward that I am) ignored the closet. I just had no idea what to do with it.
But two days ago, I gathered all my courage and peeled off the contact paper. Underneath, I found SIX layers of wallpaper and thick, black mildew. Getting all that paper off required lots of scrubbing, scraping and grimacing. I was mildly worried about toxic spores and premature death due to same.
Here's the bottom layer:
I managed to scrub off most of the mildew with a bleach solution. Then I treated it with a special product for problem walls.
Then I put on a coat of nice white paint and added cheerful checked shelf paper. It's not put on very well, as I was quite rushed at the end. We had just realised that the furnace was no longer working and I wanted to get done quickly. But still, it's a vast improvement.
And here is the interior of the cupboard, fulfilling its role as a mildew-free pantry.
The exterior? That's not really my problem. JP took over that project a while back. He has spent hours on it, carefully sanding and painting. He even had the paint custom-mixed.
The resulting color has earned the cupboard a new name: The Wehrmacht Closet. That's what we call it. Srsly. It's a depressing brownish-green color that gives the impression that besides storing organic pasta and olive oil, it just might hold spare parts for panzers.
But at least it's mildew-free, right?

Friday, March 06, 2009

The heating fuel was delivered today at noon!! I am SO pleased, you can't imagine. It's still snowing here, so a day and a half is a loooong time to go without central heat and hot water.

It took me a while to get the heater going agin. I spent quite a long time down in the freezing cellar working on it. It was a bit ....frustrating, would be the polite word, I guess.
It went like this:
1. Turn on power
2. Push button to start burner
3. Purge the fuel line
4. Burner shuts down almost immediately
5. Curse and rail at your unjust and dismal fate
6. Wait two minutes and repeat steps 1 through 5 about 20 times.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

If I had a space for titles on my posts, I'd call this one "I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried".

Back when we moved to France in July, there was no hot water in the house. The heater wasn't working, even though the fuel gauge said that we had nearly 1000 litres in the tank. But I suspected that the gauge was broken, as it and the tank are both very, very old - ancient artifacts that belong in a museum and not my cellar. So, I went ahead and ordered a fuel delivery.

But it turned out that the gage wasn't broken. Mr. Fuel Delivery Guy told me that he could barely stuff in 3000 litres, rather than the 4000 I had ordered.
Hence, gauge not broken.
In fact, the problem was simply that the burner needed to be cleaned.

Fast forward to last night: I had been crazy busy all day, tackling another one of my epic projects. I was just finishing up when JP came up to me and said that he thought the heat was off. I hadn't noticed it getting cooler in the house, as I had been so active. But he was right.
And then Alexa called down from the bathroom that her shower was COLD!

No good could come from any of this.

JP said "I think we're out of fuel."

I said "Nonsense. the guage says we have over 1000 litres left. I just checked."

"I think it's broken" he countered.

"What are you? The Psychic Friends Network? It's NOT broken. The Fuel Guy just told me in July that the thing is FINE." and I charged off to the cellar in a huff.

I checked the gauge. Yes, it read well over 1000.

Then I checked the furnace. The distress light on the burner was on. I tried to restart it. No go.

I went back upstairs, where JP said "Out of fuel, huh?"

But I wasn't having any of it.

"No we're NOT. Call the repairman."

The repairman arrived about an hour later. He fussed around a bit in the cellar and then came up to inform us that...we were out of fuel.

Yep. JP was right. My husband apparently has a psychic link with our fuel tank. Who knew?

The next step was to call for a delivery. But nobody would come out in the night, so we'd have to wait until morning. We put a space heater in the twins' room and filled hot water bottles for everyone. Sleeping under down quilts, we'd all be fine.

Just as we fell asleep, the last thing I heard JP say was "At least it's not cold.."

Of course, we woke up to a HUGE snowstorm and the house was freezing. JP got the fireplace going early in the morning. A bit later I got the woodstove fired up, as well.
Just as I got it going, the fuel delivery guys called. They couldn't come quickly because of the storm - maybe TOMORROW morning...

I kind of feel like I'm living in an episode of Frontier House. I've had to keep the fires going all day and boil gallons of water for washing. All I need are a few cows to milk...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

My last post outlined the huge, monumental and gigantic challenge we faced last month: how would we turn a hideous, moldy and all-around ugly room into a nice space for two little girls?
And we wanted it done as quickly as possible. We were tired of the mess and very short on space. CtRH was sleeping in the living room and the twins were sleeping on the floor in their older sister’s room. Sardines in a can seemed to have it good in comparison.

When we discovered all the nastiness hiding under the wallpaper, our plans for the room changed. The walls would have to be cleaned and treated. Two of the walls would have to be completely re-plastered and the front wall, we decided, would need to be repaired and then insulated.
Of course, I had none of this material on hand and this meant endless trips to the DIY store.. I’d drive to the store, buy huge amounts of stuff, drive home, find out that what I got wasn’t the right thing . Or that we now needed something else. Or that I’d forgotten something. Then I’d drive back to the store and repeat the whole process. In the snow. It was ALWAYS snowing.

We ended up putting cork panels on the wall to insulate it. The glue was really hard to work with and a can of it that was supposed to cover 8 square meters barely covered four. And need I add that the stuff was really expensive and I was extremely unhappy to have to go back and buy more?

CtRH repaired and replastered the two other walls that were in bad shape. He plastered and I got the job of sanding. It was tedious and time consuming, but if I wanted the apple green paint we planned to put on to look sharp, I needed to do a good job.
So, there I was studiously sanding away on a wall on Thursday evening, wondering if there was any hope of the room being done by Saturday night., when Alexa came in, looking a tad…flustered.
« Mommy? A man from the electric company is here. He says he’s going to turn off the electricity! »
I ran downstairs, still holding the sandpaper and covered in plaster dust. I looked like the ghost of a keen do-it-yourselfer. I found a little man from the EDF standing in the doorway. Behind him, I could see that night was falling, as was tons of snow.
CtRH was there, too, gesturing at Mr. EDF with his trowel, saying heatedly « You can’t cut of the power! We’re WORKING here! »
Mr. EDF was not having any of it.
My mind was teeming with questions: Why would they cut off our power? Where is the lantern? How many flashlights do we have? and Am I cursed?
Actually, it turned out NOT to be as dire as all that. The whole thing was a mix-up caused by the people that rented our house while we were gone. They had some unresolved issues with the EDF and then dropped off the face of the map. So, Mr. EDF did NOT immediately shut us down. But we did have some paperwork to take care of, which would have to be done at the EDF offices and …well, it all ended up being more complicated than you want to know. Suffice it to say that JP, instead of helping out in the house on Friday, had to spend it driving around in a blizzard.

CtRH and I WORKED. He was putting in 10 hour days, as was I . And that’s 10 hours JUST in the room. That’s not counting the meals, laundry, cleaning, snow shoveling and everything else I had to do. Little wonder my blogging was meager and measly that week.
But, somehow, it all got done. The wallpaper went up, walls and woodwork got painted. CtRH completely removed the old, rotten window sill and but in a new one made of oak. New plugs were installed and trim around the ceiling added. In short, by Saturday night, everything we wanted to get done was finished. I think the room turned out pretty smashing.
This is Alexa's dressing area.
Here you can see mallory's bed and corkboard. We didn't want the girls to mess up the paint and paper, but they LOVE posters, so we put up big corkboards over each bed. They definitely reflect the girls' personalities. Mallory's has mostly pictures of goats, sheep, horses, etc. Alexa's features pop stars.

I'm just SO happy it's over!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A day has passed and so has the danger of my blog going « all cake, all the time ». I think.

At any rate, it’s more than time that I get around to telling you what, exactly, went wrong when we renovated the twin’s bedroom and how it all turned out . (Don’t worry- it has a happy ending.)

When Cristian the Romanian Handyman showed up last month, he immediately started in on the downstairs hallway, as seen in this blogpost. With a bit of help from me and my girls, the wallpaper went up, woodwork got painted and everything was looking nice.

But Cristian, ever the perfectionist, had decided that the telephone wires stuck to the outside edge of the doorframe were just NOT working for the décor. So, he started fussing around with them, finally encasing them in a plastic housing. He wanted it to look nice. And he was so intent on his work as he fixed the final little plastic box to the wall, that he slammed his head into the big iron radiator that hangs in the hall, so I’m told. I wasn’t there at the time. I was in the kitchen making lunch . All I heard was a dull thump, followed by a short, emphatic phrase that I now believe must have been a potent curse in Romanian.
This was followed by a tentative « Umm…Beth? »
I went into the hall to find him standing there with blood running down into his right eye from a gash in his forehead . Kind of alarming for everyone involved.
I ran for the compresses and disinfectant while he clamped a paper towel over the wound as he repeated things like: « It’s nothing » and « No problem ».
It’s true that the cut was quite small in length, but it seemed quite deep. Luckily, I’m not squeamish. Life in Africa cured me of any trace of that. I was the first aid specialist, not only for my kids, but for all the people that worked for us and the women and children at the paper project. So, I’ve seen my share of gore, despite not actually having a degree in nursing.

I was all for taking CtRH to the doctor for a stitch to close it up. And If he was one of my kids, my husband or my African staff, I would have just bundled him into the car. But he had his own ideas on the matter.
« It’s nothing. »
« You’re going to have a scar. » I warned him.
But he didn’t care. No immediate plans to enter a Romanian handyman beauty pageant, I guess. So I put a butterfly bandage on it to close it up and hoped for the best.
He had a headache for the rest of the day (duh) and things went slowly. No surprise there.

But the next day he felt fine and the wound looked good, so he got to work upstairs in the twins’ room, stripping off the old wallpaper. I left him to it and headed off to the superrmarché. JP would be back the next day and the four kids were home all day because of the school holiday. That meant three meals a day for seven people for the rest of the week. A grocery run was definitely in order.

I got home a couple of hours later, only to find CtRH and the twins scraping away at the walls with energy, but looking decidedly dejected.
« It’s not coming OFF ! » the girls lamented.
CtRH had to concur.
« This paper is very old and strange. Kind of like cardboard. And the glue… »
Just my luck to have ancient mutant wallpaper in my home.
What we needed was a wallpaper remover. - one of those machines that steams it all off with blasts of smelly vapour. And we needed it fast if we were to have any hope of getting the room done by the weekend. And I wanted it done by the weekend, wanted it bad. I was already completely fed up with living in the mess that was building up.

So, I jumped back in the car and headed to my favorite/least favorite (depends on the day) DIY store. I found out that I could rent one of these magic machines for just 10 euros a day…if they had one in stock.
Which they didn’t.
Of course.
After the woman at the counter informed me that I should have reserved it ahead of time (Thank you, Captain Obvious.) she actually did helpfully mention that there was another place to find such machines.
So, I found out exactly where that place was and drove over. At Kiloutou (strange name, but it’s funny in French and says « Who rents everything » if you say it out loud) they did indeed have a steamer for me…at twice the price. But I was in no position to be picky. I grabbed the thing and got out of there.
Once I got home, the wallpaper came off pretty quickly. But what we found there was no cause for celebration.
There was mildew:

And there were cracks with the mildew. Grand Canyon-quality cracks:

And there was crumbing plaster falling out in chunks that made blue cheese look like an appropriate building material:

In short, this was NOT just going to be a matter of slapping on an undercoat and a bit of cheerful wallpaper.

To be continued...

Sunday, March 01, 2009

If this keeps up, I might have to change the name of my blog to "Cake of the Day".

Yes, it was a two-cake weekend for me. On Saturday, I did a white tiger cake for the twins and then on Sunday morning I whipped up a basketball cake for the birthday party of a family friend in Geneva.

I have to say that I'm SO grateful that Livia is a basketball player. Basketballs are so EASY to draw. Just imagine if she were an opera singer or a cockatiel enthusiast. I was a bit tired from yesterday's big party and really wasn't up to doing a very fancy cake so soon after the white tiger challenge. But a basketball was just fine.

Now I'm on cake hiatus until JP's birthday in April...