Friday, October 30, 2009

The party preparations are in full swing. Today, we cleaned house, made lots of the food and got some of the games ready. I even managed to make a reasonably cute pumpkin-shaped cake. I'll post a pic tomorrow.
It's past 8pm now and I haven't had a moment to myself all day. What I've really wanted to do all day is relax a bit with a cup of tea and a book. That fantasy is about to become a reality in about five minutes, I think. But I just had to post this:

I was in the kitchen chatting with Valentine just before dinner. We were making mashed grasshoppers. (That's guacamole with a small sign stuck in it saying "Mashed Grasshoppers". We're getting the food ready for the Halloween party, remember?)
Suddenly, Valentine whispered "Hush mom! Listen!"
I heard light footsteps coming down the stairs and two sweet little voices singing:

Now he's dropped down to the floor
Heading for the bedroom door
Maybe he's as scared as me
Where's he gone now, I can't see

It turns out that my twin daughters know all four verses of Boris the Spider and can sing it really well.
Too cute, srsly.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween is nearly here, but in France, it's not that evident. Very few shops sell any holiday items and there's certainly no mention in the media.
And that's just fine.
I am perfectly happy for Halloween to be an American specialty and I'm very glad that I have this fun cultural tradition to share with my kids.
We've been planning a party this week-not a huge one, but plenty big.
We got our jack-o-lanterns carved yesterday:

On Sunday, we made a simple, but reasonably cute, Halloween "tree" with painted branches:

The kids made all the little treat bags and had fun decorating each one differently:
I've also been downloading stuff off the internet. One site had some really nifty retro Halloween artwork that I just loved- for example:
I've also downloaded plenty of Halloween music for the party. I tried some of it out on the kids today in the car. They had never heard 'The Monster Mash' before and I told them it was a song you HAVE to know if you are a US citizen.
It's the law.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Some people claim that Marie Antoinette once said " Let them eat cake".
In fact, what she said was "Let them see cake" The doomed queen hoped that viewing attractively decorated confectionary treats would soothe the violently rebellious spirits of the thousands of unhappy peasants milling around the palace.
It didn't work.
But I'll show you my cakes anyway.
Throughout my stay in Ouagadougou, I honed my cake-making skills. It was often quite challenging, as few good materials were available locally. The powdered sugar, for example, was dry, lumpy stuff from Lebanon that had to be pounded through a sieve before I could use it. Butter was available only sporadically, so I had to stock up, despite limited fridge space and power outages that could spoil everything.
But I persevered.
This next cake is one of the first character cakes I attempted. I probably should have made Pikachu larger, but I was just grateful that he turned out recognisable. Nothing's worse than making a character cake and having it misidentified by your eating public.
A remark like "So... that's...Big Bird?" would have killed me. (Yes, I do invest emotionally in my cakes. Thank you for asking.)

(The colors on the above cake were actually ok, btw. It's just a bad photo.)

Now, here's Santa. He's a bit square, but cute enough...

Here's another character cake from a cartoon. The film "Spirit" was a favorite of Valentine's at the time, so I made this:
This next one is also my own design. By the time I made it, I'd already done quite a few horse cakes. So, when one of the twins asked for a horse, I talked her into a seahorse- which she loved.
(I I love the expression on his little face.)

This is probably the most difficult character cake that I ever made. SpongeBob may be a big yellow rectangle, but he's a complicated big yellow rectangle. I'm pretty proud of him, as these cakes can go very, very wrong.

That's it for today. The kids are on school holiday now and I'm very busy keeping them busy. we're planning a big Hallowen party, so there's plenty to do. I'll try to post some pictures tomorrow so that you can see what we've been up to...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Back in Ouagadougou, one thing JP and I spent hours discussing was our house back in France. The main topic was how to enlarge the living space. He was all for knocking out some interior walls. I was more a proponent of adding rooms in the loft of the huge garage.

It was all fun to daydream about, at any rate...

But as the time for the move back to France drew nearer and our family grew older, we began to realise that at least a few of our idle daydreams would have to become a reality if all six of us were to fit comfortably in our moderately-sized, old-fashioned home in the Alps.

The first big project would be to take off the existing sad little hovel serving as a back entry hall:

...and replace it with a good-sized room that could serve as a giant cloakroom and staging area. Something like this:

It would have closets to store all the coats and shoes. Plus, the space would make getting ready to go out in the winter SO much less painful. Having four big kids in the kitchen, struggling in and out of their ski gear is very claustrophobia-inducing, as well as messy.

But getting from the first photo to the second one is not proving to be easy. Right away when I arrived back in France in July of 2008, I began trying to contact people about getting work done on the house. Wheels began to turn, but with glacial slowness.

It's now October 2009- 15 months from the day I started trying to get this project going and it's only this week that the real action finally started up.

On Tuesday, a team of men arrived, tore down the old shack (which is SO not missed) and began digging the foundation.

Looks like fun, eh?
They also worked at the front, preparing to pour new stairs to access the main door of the house:

So, there's plenty of action around here lately and not just outside the house. There have been people constantly in and out of the house. On Wednesday, when my second group of English students left, I was sure to follow them out the door and say loudly "Good English lesson! See you next week for another English lesson!". I was afraid that the guys working outside were starting to suspect that I have a home meth lab and am dealing from my living room.

Or maybe not. Do they even have meth labs in the French Alps?

I digress...

That day there were over twenty people in and out of the house (students, friends, family). I don't know why, but I'd thought that my life would contract when I moved to France. It's far from the case (and I think that's awfully nice). However, the fact that my home seems to be a central traffic point is becoming an issue, as our entrances and exits become increasingly blocked by the work. This morning, for example, the back door was sealed with plastic sheets from the outside and the path from the front door was completely blocked by the backhoe. Mallory was afraid of missing her bus and crawled out a window on the north side of the house.

When I got home this morning (I had to take JP to Geneva), the guys were pouring cement in the pouring rain. I had to squeeze between some drippy shrubs and scramble up a muddy incline to get to a door. But when the cement is all poured, they've promised to build us a little bridge across the wet cement. And that's very good, as I really don't want to be crawling in and out the window all weekend...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Big news! Taciturn Tuesday is going all cake, all the time!

Ok...maybe not all the time- but at least for the next three Tuesdays, I'll be sharing my past Adventures in Cake Decorating with you.

One day in Burkina Faso, I was seized by a sudden urge to make fancy cakes. My first effort was a 3-D train for Severin's third birthday. Mercifully, there is no surviving picture of it.
With that failure under my belt, I was ready to move on (and up, so I hoped). I borrowed a cake pan from a crafty US expat neighbor and managed to make this for Alexa's birthday:
(I made Mallory a Teletubby cake that year. No good pic, sorry.)

Tya's best friend needed a cake soon after. I felt brave and drew this pony for her- no fancy pan or any instructions. Just me and the icing.
This next one is one from 2001. The kids at the party thought it was a bit alarming. It's definitely one of the scarier cakes ever made in Burkina, I'm thinking. It's not an original design, though- I got the idea out of a cake decorating magazine. It was baked in a teddy-bear cake pan. Looking back, I maybe just should have made a teddy bear...

When Valentine was deep into her Harry Potter phase, I made her this Hedwig cake. It's my own design and I think it turned out pretty spiffy.
After a while, I had enough experience that I felt ready to venture into more complicated projects. I made a character cake, without using a custom pan or accessories. I grabbed the video box, took a long look at Buzz Lightyear and started drawing in icing.
Next Tuesday, stop by to see SpongeBob, Pikachu and many more cartoon characters, entirely made out of sugar. Maybe that doesn't sound too exciting, but it's better than the alternative.
Remember, you can only choose one.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In the "comments" section of my previous post, I was repeatedly congratulated for my restraint in not offering the erring English teacher a hearty punch in the face.

That would have been a very unlikely outcome. Even if he'd gone beyond telling me that "Americans sound dreadful" and ventured into "your momma wears army boots" territory, I wouldn't have offered him physical violence.
I'm from the "stern glare and sharp retort" school of martial arts.

And any stray temptation to resort to administering a good old American knuckle sandwich would certainly have been crushed by the possibility of getting six months in prison. That's the new penalty under French law for assaulting a teacher.
I know about this because our houseguest this weekend is a recently retired collége (junior high) teacher and he keeps up with the latest news. Apparently, France has crazy nutjob parents (or 'parents fous de noix de travail' which makes absolutely NO sense in French, btw), just like the USA and a few French teachers have been punched out in the playground. No wonder people are so freaked out about "Americanisation"...

Monday, October 12, 2009

We were about halfway through our little talk today when the twins’ English teacher suddenly pronounced «Americans sound dreadful!»

I burst out laughing, even though I knew he hadn’t meant to be funny. I had to. My choices at that point were: «laugh uproariously» or «slap him silly» and if I ended up in prison on assault charges, I wouldn’t be able to write in my blog, right?

It’s pretty amazing that I kept so cool. When I’d walked into the classroom, one of the first things I’d said was «I’m an American» and now he was telling me that I (and my girls!) sounded «dreadful»?

What on earth was the man thinking?

All I could do was laugh at him. And he looked totally surprised. Completely shocked.
I ventured a mild «Perhaps you sometimes find the accent a bit harsh to your ears?»

«No, I mean it sounds really dreadful.» he insisted.
It was really getting old.

The conversation had started out reasonably well. When I arrived, I’d immediately started speaking English, though he kept answering in French. but after a while, he finally switched to English. He spoke it reasonably well-not like a native speaker, but quite correctly- with a very British accent. I'd expected worse.

I introduced myself and explained that our family speaks English at home- I didn’t begin with any of my own concerns about the class. Instead, I asked how he thought the girls were doing. He complained that Mallory often ignores the lesson at hand and skips ahead in the textbook. He also said she didn’t talk much in class.

I pointed out that spending a week learning how to say «Hello. My name is Mallory» was probably pretty dull for a child who reads huge novels in English. I also mentioned that she probably didn’t feel a need to «practice» her English, as she already speaks it perfectly.

I asked about the accent issue and he said it wasn’t one.
«They‘re perfect . The girls sound just like the language tapes we use.»

It was a bit of a WTF moment for me. I began to wonder if the twins were using a British accent when they spoke at school. But I didn’t think so. Not really.

And then he came up with his «Americans sound dreadful» remark.

None of it added up. He didn’t seem like a horrible person. Astoundingly dim, perhaps, but not horrible. Why would he sit there and tell me to my face that I sound dreadful?
And why did he think the twins sounded fine?

First, I pointed out that, with 300 million people using it, an American accent is not only acceptable, it is by far the most common.
He answered ( for the third time!!) «But it’s dreadful!»
I’d really had enough.
«You’re sitting there and telling me that I sound dreadful?» I accompanied this with what my kids call my «Eyes of Doom». (If the "Eyes of Doom" came equipped with a deadly brain-melting ray, I SO would have used it on him.)

«No! of course not!» he looked quite shocked. «You speak perfectly normally, as do your daughters. Until now, I’d actually thought they were British…»

Normally? Normally?!

«An American accent IS normal. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! And don’t you hear mine? Can’t you tell the difference between the way you are speaking and the way I am? The differences in pronunciation? Can‘t you hear it?»

No, he couldn’t.

Here’s the deal- besides being a dope, the guy apparently has NO ear for language. He literally couldn’t hear the difference between my slightly internationalized, but still recognizable Midwestern English from Nebraska and his own very British English. It hardly seems possible that a language teacher could be so clueless, but there you go.

As he was such a dope, there was no use in being subtle. I finally said «The reason I came here was to make sure you didn’t think that the twins had a «dreadful», incorrect accent and hold it against them. But as you can’t hear it, I guess it’s not an issue…»

We talked some more, but it seemed kind of hopeless. The whole exchange was so nonsensical.

The only good that came of it was that I was able to make it clear that the girls know more English than he does and that it’s not surprising that the lessons often can’t hold their interest. And now he knows that he’d better be on his toes, or I’ll come back for another nice chat.

And here’s a question for you: Is the average American accent really any worse-sounding than a Liverpool or Birmingham accent?

I don’t think so.

Not that it matters to me, as I am apparently now speaking the Queen’s English…

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Here's what's going on in my life right now (in no particular order)

1. My cold/flu has gotten worse. The constant, wracking cough is quite the deal, let me tell you.

2. I now have 7 (count 'em: SEVEN) English students now and may even be getting an 8th one this month. I've had to add a second class on Wednesday mornings. Furthermore, the father of one of my students might be up for private lessons, as well. I haven't advertised or anything- it's just been word of mouth- and I'm astounded at how well it's going!

3. The meeting with the anti-AmE English teacher at the twins' school has been set! I'll be seeing him at 11:45 this coming Monday. It will be my unenviable task to point out to him that there are over 250 MILLION people living in the USA and that, contrary to his belief, they are not all speaking English wrong.
Good luck to me.

4. For the last few weeks I have been reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to my girls at bedtime. They are 11 and 16 years old, but still like to cuddle up on my bed and be read to. It's the best time of the whole day... Tonight we're starting "By the Shores of Silver Lake". Great stuff, written in solid American English.

5. We have a houseguest arriving tomorrow for the weekend. C. is an old friend of JP's. He's from a little town in the Vosges mountains that is famous for linens- sheets, towels, tablecloths, dishcloths, etc. I guess he couldn't take the excitement anymore and decided to come for a nice rest ches nous. Our village is very soothing, containing no shops of any kind - it features a church, a tiny school and many, many, many cows.
He'll stay until Monday. C. is a nice guy and low-maintenence, which is good.

That's it for now. I really need to get some sleep and try to shake this cold. It's completely ruining my enjoyment of the gorgeous fall weather we've been having...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Ah- the myriad joys of sending perfectly bilingual kids to a public school in France. Here's just one of them:

Yesterday evening, I asked the twins how school had gone.

"You had English today, right?"

"Yeah. It was ok, I guess" Alexa aswered with a sigh.

My 'mom radar', though damaged by my recent ill-health, is still operational, so I asked her what the trouble was.

"He told me how to pronounce the word "drawing", she announced, rather disgusted.

The entire sentence was said with a solid, made-in-the-USA accent, except for the word "drawing", which she pronounced with a drawling "a" that made her sound like Queen Elizabeth being poked in the rear with a sharp stick.

And that was the last straw.

I asked her to get out her "carnet de liason" and wrote a note to the school- an urgent request for a meeting with the English teacher.

This incident is just the latest in a series. The teacher INSISTS on correcting my girls' vocabulary and accent, refusing to accept AmE (American English) as a legitimate form of the language.

It isn't just a matter of pronouncing a few vowels differently. While AmE and BrE are mutually intelligible, there are many differences in verb morphology, the use of tenses, vocabulary and a host of other areas.

Even the use of definite articles is a bit different. In BrE, for example, certain institutions take NO definite article.

So, for example, if one of the twins would inform the teacher that "My mom is mad and she's going to put you in the hospital, buddy", the French English teacher would correct her and explain that the right way to say that sentence is " My mum is angry and she is going to put you in hospital, mate".

In short, it seems that I need to go to the school and politely explain that about 250 million or so people live in the USA and speak English just fine, thanks.
Should be fun...

Saturday, October 03, 2009

I'm still feeling under the weather and not like writing much.
Luckily, I have plenty of pictures to share.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked home in the rain. It wasn't miserable at all. in fact, I thought it was rather nice and was inspired to take a few photos. Here's a shot that highlights some local characteristics. For example, there's a couple of billboards on the side of the barn -a common way to pick up a few euros. And under the billboards, you can see the wood stacked up for the winter. People are serious about their wood around here.

This is why our little corner of France is called "The Green Valley":

When I pass by this house, I always peek in and say "bonjour" to their "goat". It's really well-done, isn't it? I just might get inspired to make my own trompe l'oeil one of these days...
When I get to this curve in the road, I know I'm almost home. (The front edge of our house is just visible at the center of the photo)
So, as you can see, we really are out in the country. We have a few neighbors, but they're pretty scattered. But despite the sometimes sparse socialization, we keep busy.

I particularly enjoy cooking and am constantly experimenting with new recipes. Here's a raspberry chocolate tiramisu that I recently concocted with some berries from our garden.
Our garden is almost all over and done now. There are about seven cabbages left, a few beets and a single pumpkin that I'm fattening up for Halloween.
Our sole apple tree is also ready to harvest. They're just plain old red apples, but they taste amazing when you get them right off the tree. We're eating the prettiest ones out of hand and making applesauce out of all the rest
Finally- today I woke up and got to work on a special project- a birthday cake for my eldest daughter's best friend. As he's also the drummer in their rock band, I decided that he should have a drum kit cake. I'm pretty sure it's the only drum-themed cake in the Haute Savoie -possibly in all of France...