Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Chenonceau--The Feminine Chateau

Back to the Loire Valley we go today, to our third, and in my opinion, the most beautiful chateau of the bunch. Chateau de Chenonceau was built for queens. It majestically straddles the River Cher and was a favorite of Henry II's beloved mistress, Diane de Poitiers. She lived there until he died and his wife, Catherine de Medicis kicked her out. There's a historical novel in there, for sure. The fireplace and coffered ceiling in Diane's bedroom bear the entwined initials of her lover and his wife, H for Henry and C for Catherine. When combined, however, these two letters form a perfect D, for Diane. Very clever, that one.

Chenonceau is beautifully maintained and filled with feminine touches like fresh flowers in every room. There are bedchambers in the style of each of the queens and mistresses who lived there. One for Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henry II, one for Catherine de Medicis, queen, another for Gabrielle d'Estrees, mistress of Henry IV and one for the mournful Queen Louise who walked its halls shedding silver tears after the assassination of her husband, Henry III.

{Catherine de Medicis bed chamber, notice the double C's}

{Chenonceau, Louise de Lorraines' room, silver tears}
I had to show you this even though it is a bit dark. This was in Louise's bed chamber. The walls and bedding are black and the spermatozoa are, in fact, tears.

The kitchens on the lower floor were my favorite part of the chateau. Large ovens, servants' dining hall and all the tools of the cook's trade, like a butchering station, were still there.

{Chenonceau, kitchens}

{Chenonceau, servants dining hall}
 I loved the cabbage arrangement. So pretty. Can you spot the waffle irons on the wall?

{Chenonceau, butcher block}
Chickens and steak didn't come in plastic wrapped parts back then.

The small, yet elegant chapel was bombed during the Second World War and the stained glass was shattered. Thankfully, it was restored to its former beauty after the war.

The long gallery that runs across the river was said to be an escape route for the French Resistance and Jews during that time as well.  The entrance side of the hall led from Nazi occupied France and the other to the so called Free Zone of Vichy France.

{Chenonceau, gallery over the Cher}
In the First World War, it was used as a hospital for injured soldiers.This meant something to Ma Fille who is enthralled with Downton Abbey and its WW1 season at the moment.

Some of the flowers that P-Daddy could not stop snapping and focusing in on.

This kind of floor always makes me want to take my shoe off so I can feel it. They're just so shiny! Of course I didn't. That would have been embarrassing. But you know what I mean, don't you?

Another successful day of chateau ogling for the Larsons. Up next, Cheverny and Beauregard.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving, Again

It feels like only a couple of months ago I was celebrating Thanksgiving with my Mom here from Texas and Sara and Gregory from Provence. Why are things speeding up so? Is this a sign of age? You just have to look at the photos below for proof of that.
{Thanksgiving 2002, overdoing it on the pinwheels}
This year the big kids don't want me to send in any pumpkin cupcakes or bread or popovers like I've done all the years before. They're getting older too.

{Thanksgiving 2002, P-Daddy at the table}

Last year I was invited to the Middlest's classroom to speak to the children about my favorite holiday. It was one of the best Thanksgiving moments of my life and reminded me so much why I prefer the uniquely American holiday to any other.

It's about sharing and giving and being thankful for all that we have. And we do have so much, don't we? I am thankful, this year as always, for all of you and for my family. I miss you at home so much on this day, you'll never know.

{Thanksgiving 2002, Carving the Turkey}

Here's the post from last Thanksgiving's day with the Middlest and his French friends.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. The clock tells me that ya'll in Texas are sitting at the dinner table right about now and I hope you are going around saying what you're thankful for in turn.

Here in France there is no Thanksgiving. It is a uniquely American holiday, and for that I am proud. I told my young cousin about the no-Thanksgiving-in-France thing the other day via Skype and she said in her adorable East Texas accent, 'Aw, that's sad.'. And it kinda is.

As an American, Thanksgiving abroad can be one of the saddest days of the year. Everyone just goes about their business; work, school, shopping. No one wonders why I'm stockpiling dried cranberries to rehydrate into some semblance of cranberry relish (thanks Mom) or why I've got a crazed  look in my eye as I search the meat counter for a whole turkey, one that hasn't been reduced to far flung parts.

Today I am thankful. And I'll tell you why.

I made pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese frosting to take to the Big Kids' classes. The Middlest's teacher asked me to come prepared to say a few words about our holiday and Ma Fille's teacher asked her to do the same. I was nervous. So what I did was write it out in English and then translate the whole thing in the cheat's way. I also found a cute piece of clip art featuring a big empty turkey ready to filled up with all the things we're thankful for and so I printed that out for each student.

This afternoon after lunch, armed with my cupcakes, translated story of Thanksgiving and cute turkey, I stood before the Middlest's class. I read one sentence in English and he read the corresponding sentence in French. We did  this back and forth with his teacher explaining in detail, using the map and bringing the immigrant thing home by saying how we're like Pilgrims for moving from home to here. She made it come alive and spent an incredible amount of time on our holiday. I couldn't have been more thankful.

At one point, the Middlest switched from reading the French sentences to reading the English ones. His fellow students never hear him speak English, much less read it aloud standing in front of the class. He read aloud, strong and proud, 'Modern day Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of every November.' My heart swelled. We have been worried about his English reading, afraid it was suffering from the focus at such a tender time on the French, but no. He read difficult sentences with no stalls, stutters or problems. I think the little girl who has been in love with him from the beginning just about fell out of her chair, poor thing. He's a bilingual super boy!

 The class worked hard thinking of their reasons to be thankful, most leaning towards extra-curricular activities like playing football and riding horses. One little girl's turkey filled thankful sentence stood out though. She was thankful to live in France and attend French schools and to have new books and supplies. The Middlest was thankful for his family.

I told his teacher that her allowing me to spend the afternoon with them, explaining and sharing the meaning of Thanksgiving had made my day. I told her how thankful I was for her--for the time she'd taken and the gift she'd given my son in highlighting his culture.

So cream cheese frosting is lost on French kids. Who cares?
I am thankful for it all. For this life, my children, the opportunity to live in France and all of our immeasurable blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving. Wherever you are.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Chateaux Blois and Chambord

Our first chateau was naturally the Chateau du Blois. Our apartment was there and so we spent our first day close to home base, visiting the Chateau and the magic museum there.

{our chateau, apartment on the right side}

Chateau du Blois is famous for housing the most kings of any other chateau in the region. Seven to be exact. Seven kings and 10 queens called it home, at least for a time. It was interesting for its mix of architectural styles. In the courtyard you can see Gothic, Neo-Classical and Renaissance on each facing exterior.

{spiral staircase at Blois}
This was one of the fun lessons for the kids. We stood around pointing and looking, picking out the differences between eras. Hundreds of years lined up next to each other, a hodge-podge of royal displays of wealth and power over time.

The spiral staircase at one side of the courtyard was built during the Renaissance by Francois I, the Renaissance king, patron to Leonardo da Vinci who lived on the move and for the hunt and was basically the coolest guy of all time to rule France.

{His Royal Highness, Francois I}

His grand masterpiece, The Big Daddy, aka Chambord took an entire day for us to visit. 

{The Big Daddy}
We arrived when the doors opened at 9 am and didn't leave until the doors had closed with the big kids and me still inside them, at 5. It is just that big and cool and worthy of the time. I'd booked the big kids into a children's group tour guided by a Renaissance monk and it didn't start until 3:15.

{Chambord, river view}

It has been suggested that the double helix staircase at the center of the chateau was designed by Leonardo himself, but its true provenance remains controversial.

{double helix staircase}
You can walk up either side of its two staircases and not see the person on the opposite side. Imagine the intrigue and chateau games that took place winding around around, catching stolen glimpses of your ingenue. Oh, but it was romantic! And beautiful. The monk during the children's tour suggested it was mostly for traffic control when the Middlest raised his hand to say he thought it was built that way because it was so pretty. I prefer my son's romantic notions myself.

{Coucou, mon amour!}
The chateau was built as a hunting lodge for Francois I and as a show of his great power and wealth as the King of France. It took ages to build and in truth, he only ever spent a total of seven weeks there. True excess. 

{Chambord in the morning}
He wanted Henry VIII and Charles V to quake in their Renaissance boots at the sight of his country's je ne sais quoi. It certainly worked on our little American family. I was duly impressed and loved the outer hallways, barren and stark with their uncovered stone walls, the huge fireplaces with fires crackling, capable of warming only a few feet around them in such a vast space.

{Larsons at Chambord}

We spent the morning looking around on our own; me and P-Daddy with our audio 'geedes' in English, the kids with their kid versions, also in English, and their fun word hunt books for a dose of French. After a break for a picnic lunch at one of the tables by the parking lot we headed back in for more.


The rooftop terrace with its spires and turrets masking chimney caps was a lesson in extravagance, beauty for beauty's sake, when you just have so much that you can make the roof of your chateau look like Constantinople.

What do you think?


Some pretty impressive chimney stacks, huh?

The children's guided tour was all in French and not suitable for the Littlest so after a family hot chocolate on the grounds, he and P-Daddy headed off to kill the time by checking out the chateau grounds. I'll admit I was worried, questioning my decision to book such a late tour. Ma Fille, the Middlest, and I headed back inside to the chapel where we met the monk who was stuck in the 16th century and believed anyone with a Spanish sounding name, was a potential spy sent by Francois' nemesis, Charles V of Spain.

{Padre Tour Guide, Francois I bedchamber}
The tour ran over. We were still inside when they locked the doors. And miraculously, the Littlest was not at all cranky, had been fantastic on his long walk around the grounds and had even collected a bouquet of fallen copper and blood colored maple leaves which he proudly presented to me as a gift. If you asked the kids, I think they'd say it was their favorite day. They were completely wrapped up in the history of it all. After that, they were fully on board and kept pushing to see as many chateaux as we could. It was cool.

{Goodbye Chambord...until next time}
More to come. Five more, to be exact.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Normandy Beaches & The American Cemetery

{Omaha Beach, Normandy, France}
I thought it appropriate to share our two days at Omaha Beach in Normandy in honor of Veteran's Day this weekend. We added a few days to our Loire Valley vacation to head all the way up to the landing beaches of D-Day and to visit the American Cemetery there.

{Omaha Beach, Normandy, France}

Every American who died in France during World War II had the right to be buried there. The cemetery land is considered American soil, given to us by the French government as a thank you and a eternal tribute and resting place for the 9,387 American soldiers who died in France during the length of the war. It is a beautiful place, perfectly kept and laid out with huge pine trees and the beach tumbling and crashing below the cliffs.

{American Cemetery, Normandy, France}

{American Cemetery Normandy, France}

{Reflecting Pool and Chapel}
The museum there is a rich testament to those who lost their lives and to the incredible plans and war strategy that led to the liberation of France.

{American Museum, My Family and Two Flags}
A film featuring some of the soldiers buried there, their letters and stories told in their own words and through family members who lost them in the ultimate sacrifice brings the personal stories to life. One of the women, a sister I think, said the most touching thing, something like, 'we could have buried him at home, back here in the United States, but in the end we felt he earned his place there in France'.

{these markers help to locate individual graves}
That feeling pervades the museum and cemetery and the respect and honor given the 9,387 who are buried there is palpable. As you walk through a granite hallway from the museum to the grounds, a voice reads every name of every soldier who is buried there, in continuum. A lone rifle with a helmet hanging from it stands in a glass case.

There are cases filled with the packs of food and kit provided to the troops. Also, a silk parachute and flight boots, a medical kit of bandages, sutures, and a vial of morphine, maps and hand grenades, and talismans, all under glass, there for us to see.

{Littlest, in awe}
Walking around the cemetery grounds we looked at the names, ranks, places of birth and dates of death etched into the white crosses and Stars of David. There are 9,238 crosses and 149 Stars of David. Ma Fille was struck by one who died on Christmas Day, 1944. The war was all but over, he'd almost made it, but that wasn't what made her sad about that particular day. Her childhood innocence only considered the day, Christmas, and how it is for presents and family and love and not for dying.

{Monument at American Cemetery}
It was moving beyond what I can describe here.

{Cemetery Beach}

We also visited the German bunker at Pointe du Hoc, placed between the two American landing points of Utah and Omaha beach. The craters from Allied pre-landing bombings sit empty and caved in. There was a group of French high school students there on a field trip and they ran around, taking notes in their cahiers, screaming into the wind and giggling, learning how their history and ours intersected in such a world-altering way.

{plaque at Pointe du Hoc}
{German bunker, French students filling in their notebooks}

{bomb craters}
{the beach below and cliffs that American troops scaled while under fire}
On our way there in the car we listened to this podcast by Bill Moyers, imagining the life-threatening danger and unimaginable courage that took place along the roads we were driving. It happened to feature Texans, by some strange coincidence, and we all listened, tears pricking our eyes, the Middlest saying, 'Do they mean it was right there by that tree or bush or dirt road?!' History came alive. 

We are protected by so much. We have so much.
Thank you to all of you who put your personal lives and liberty at risk for the rest of us. We owe you all a never-ending debt of gratitude and respect for the sacrifices you and your families have made and continue to make.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chateaux Meatballs

We've just spent a wonderful week and some in the Loire Valley. In case you're wondering why my kids haven't been in school for the past two! weeks, well, it's the yearly All Saints or Toussaint holiday, of course. The school days are long and the year lasts into July, and here's why. We get three staggered two-week breaks during the school year. If you're a mother of three you'd better hope you've got some fun stuff planned. And that your husband doesn't leave on business for the better part of the second week. (hint, hint) I'm not bitter. Really, I'm not.

{rooftop of Chateau Chambord, Chambord, France aka the big one}
We visited seven, count 'em, seven chateaux and the kids were great...actually much better than we could have ever hoped. The French excel at creating interest in art and history and making it accessible to children. Every chateau had something for kids, either a child-friendly audio guide (pronounced geede for just so much holiday fun) and usually a book of games, kind of like a treasure hunt for the kids to fill out as they toured the castle before turning in the 'mystery word' at the gift shop for a prize at the end of the visit. These prizes were thinks like posters and magnets, sometimes a pencil.

{lessons in architecture, Chateau Blois}
We would get them settled with their history hunting paraphernalia and then shuffle around taking in the history and splendor of double helix staircases, mismatched roof turrets, fresh flowers, upholstered walls, painted ceiling rafters and so many salamanders. We'd finish off every morning with a pique-nique lunch of ham and omelet sandwiches at the thoughtfully provided picnic tables on the grounds of whatever day's chateau. 

{Bridge over the Loire in Blois, France}
P-Daddy did some real good research beforehand and found us an apartment in a chateau in Blois. It was on the ground floor of a real live chateau (albeit dating from the early 19th century) and the living room used to be the original dining room. The marble floors and wainscoted ceilings and walls were still there in all their glory. It was the perfect spot from which to see the bulk of the chateaux and the owner was perfectly lovely, perfectly coiffed and perfectly refined.

{marble floors of our apartment, Blois, France}
The kitchen was fully equipped and I was able to make some pretty tasty dinners from the few bits I picked up at the grocery store on our first night in. You know how it is when you're away, especially with children, and you need to cook from a half-stocked kitchen. I have gotten good at keeping travel basics like olive oil, salt and pepper and flavor enhancing fresh stock gels. Our first night there we were exhausted from the traveling, recovering from the first coughs of the season and chilled from the cold. I figured only a soup of clear broth, meaty meatballs and greens would do and so set about making my version of Italian meatball soup.

We dipped the chewy baguette from the bakery just around the corner into the shimmering clear broth and grated on curls of Parmesan cheese. The meatballs were beef and the escarole and leeks gave it the hearty depth it needed. We slurped it until we were warm and toasty and then fell into strange beds while the radiators emitted their snug heat.

Chateaux Meatballs

500g ground beef or pork
2 leeks, white parts only diced
1/2 cup Parmesan cheeseone slice of white bread, no crust
one egg

1 carrot
1 bunch escarole or fresh spinach
6 cups very good chicken stock, homemade if you can

one more egg, beaten and added at the end for extra richness

Make your meatballs by mixing the leeks, finely chopped, 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan, crumbled up white bread slice and the egg beaten together. Make them small, about the diameter of a quarter or euro piece and set aside. You should get around 35.

Chop the carrot into fine dice and soften in olive oil in a big stock pot.
Add 6 cups of chicken stock when the carrot is soft and bring to a boil.
Drop your meatballs into the boiling broth and bring back to the boil. Then, lower the heat to a simmer for about 8 to 10 minutes.

Rough chop the escarole or spinach and add to the soup. Continue to cook until wilted but not for an age.
When you're ready to serve, stir the soup and while it is still swirling add in the beaten egg, continuing to stir afterwards until the egg is trailing along in the broth, cooked.

Grate in some more Parmesan now or grate it at the table and serve rich and golden in warmed bowls, the perfect balm for a travel weary crew.

{F for Francois I, ceiling tile of Chambord}

More chateaux to come and with more pictures than you can shake a stick at.