From the category archives:

France

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By Gabrielle. Photos by Ben Blair.

As I mentioned, last week, Ben Blair and the 4 oldest kids — Ralph (18), Maude (17), Olive (15) & Oscar (11) — took a pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel. Those of us left behind — Betty (10), June (6) and me — missed them like crazy and distracted ourselves with Paris.

Happily for anyone who is curious, as we drove to the South of France yesterday, I interviewed Ben Blair and the 4 oldest kids about their pilgrimage experience, and I’ve typed it all up, ready to share.

First, let’s talk about some basics. Once you know the path, anyone can make a pilgrimage, but it’s common to go with a group. We heard about this particular group from Charles. He’s Ralph’s dear friend and he lived with us in Oakland a couple of years ago. Charles did this pilgrimage with his scout group, and this time around, Charles’ father Eric, came on the hike and helped us make arrangements ahead of time.

This pilgrimage was led by Bertrand, owner of a bar called The Secret Knight, and author of a book called The Mystery of Mont St Michel. Bertrand has gone on the pilgrimage over 50 times! In addition to Bertrand, there were other experienced pilgrims in attendance — about ten of them.

The pilgrimage is free, though it’s customary to offer a donation (approximately 20 euros per day). You bring a rack backpack with clothes, a towel, sleeping bag, tent, hat, etc. But y0u don’t need to pack food. You can bring snacks (of course), but you purchase meals at stops along the way. Which is great because the pilgrimage is long, and you want to pack light.

The total distance is about 75 miles. That’s a lot of walking!

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In this group, there were about 50 people. Ages ranged from 9 to 75 with a fairly even distribution along that age range. Pretty much everyone had heard about it from word of mouth. Some people were hiking with a group or a friend, but many came as individuals and didn’t know anyone else at all. Here are some basic profiles of people in the group:

- A woman who earns her living by singing folk songs to kids.

- A group of Scouts from Lyon (scout is pronounced “scoot” in French, which is surely the most charming thing ever). A mix of girls and boys, age 14 to 17. There are lots of different types of scouts in France. Different form the American version, this organization of scouts doesn’t do merit badges, just adventures. None of these scouts had ever seen Mont St Michel before.

- An older group of couples who had self organized and already done a pilgrimage circle in the middle of France. Now were trying this one.

- A French woman who had lived and worked all over the world, including 4 years in Hells Kitchen (Manhattan), plus South America and Antartica.

- A man who had lived in the same town for 30 years, but had lost his job and found his family in these pilgrimages.

- A Belgian man who feels like he’s done with Belgium and wants to join the Swiss army next. His wife lives in Istanbul with his daughter.

- A man who had a Tarot progression on his staff. (I know almost nothing about Tarot and had to look this up.) Speaking of which, most people brought a staff or walking poles. Some staffs had been found on previous pilgrimages.

- My kids learned that sometimes pilgrims won’t eat during the whole pilgrimage, but only drink water. And sometimes pilgrims do the whole trail in silence. In this group, no one was doing either completely. But there was one woman who didn’t talk during the hikes, only during the breaks.

- Most people in the group were spiritual but not religious. (I note that because this particular pilgrimage is tied to Catholicism.)

- Ben Blair and the kids were the first Americans that Bertrand had ever led.

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Day 1 – Wednesday

The group met at Bertrand’s cafe/bar near Domfront early in the morning. Everyone was pretty much strangers. The leaders went over the schedule and introduced the experienced pilgrims so people would know who to ask for help.

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Over the course of the day, they hiked 19 kilometers. They went through Domfront and stopped at the Roman church there — one of the oldest churches in Normandy.

When they needed water, they would stop at a home along the way and the owner would refill everyone’s canteens. They walked on dirt roads and paved roads, passing crosses and churches, and lots of stone country houses.

The path that day featured beautiful vistas of hedged fields, Norman cows, and the dreamy countryside.

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While in Domfront, hikers bought lunch supplies at a small grocery store, then hiked about 20 minutes up a hill. In a clearing in a forested area, people stopped for an hour and a half for lunch and naps. Ben and the kids laughed to see that every single group had Camembert cheese and baguette as part of their meal.

After the lunch break, there was more hiking with breaks as needed. People were chatting and getting to know each other. Chatting was almost entirely in French, though sometimes people would speak to our kids in English if they wanted to practice. Something funny: At every break, a good portion of the hikers would smoke — which was an incongruous scene to American eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an American backpacker smoking. Hah!

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At the end of the day, the pilgrims ended at Lonlay Abbey. Once at the Abbey, people sought out dinner — there was a cafe nearby. Ben says the group was feeling really connected and accomplished. They had finished their first day! People were sharing food, playing frisbee behind the abbey, playing songs on the guitar, and chatting. That evening, a woman who was among the group of older couples, tried weed for the first time at the urging of her travel companions. Something for the group to laugh about. : ) Late that night, the hikers played Scout games.

The Abbey was totally open, no locked doors anywhere, making it easy to explore. Some people slept in tents outside, others slept in the Abbey on sleeping pads, with sleeping bags. Ralph and Maude slept in the Abbey attic underneath a Joan of Arc statue. There were closets full of old books.

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Day 2 – Thursday

They left the Abbey in the morning and ended up walking 30 kilometers that day. They said it was by far the most scenic day and had the steepest climbs.

They hiked through Fosse d’Arthur — where it’s believed the legend of King Arthur came to be, and that Merlin the Enchanter (enchanter = friendly wizard in French) is trapped in the rocks nearby. Arthur and Guinevere are rumored to be buried along the trail.

There was a stream/pool at Fosse d’Arthur where people swam.

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From the top of a hill near Fosse d’Arthur there was an amazing view, and a cross that looks like it was cut out of a granite mountain.

Again, there was an hour and a half stop for lunch. The hour and a half would start when the last person in the group arrived. So the first hikers would end up getting a longer break. Our kids figured this out, and stayed near the front of the group as they hiked so they could take advantage of the longest breaks.

The group finished the day in Mortain (a town that was captured and recaptured 5 times during WWII). The hike that day ended at the top of a high lookout hill with stunning views of the whole countryside. A loooong way off you could just see the tiny Mont St. Michel.

People slept in tents or under the stars that night. It ended up raining a bit, so in the middle of the night those under the stars had to pitch tents. Some people slept near a waterfall.

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Day 3 – Friday

The 3rd day was the hardest in Ralph’s opinion. He said it was unforgiving because it was like one straight line on a dirt road. No ups and downs. The lack of variation made it seem like no progress was being made. Plus they were tired from the day before.

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They did another 30 kilometers that day. Sometimes, they would see bikers going by, but no motorized vehicles on the road were allowed.

Sometimes the group would be mostly hiking together, other times people would be spread out far along the trail.

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Again, there was an hour and a half break for lunch.

By now members of the group, who had been strangers before, were becoming good friends — though there were so many people that Ben says he was still having first conversations with some of them on the 3rd day. He said, the conversations were long — you would talk for 2 hours or so as you hiked, and you’d really get to know people. What other environments do you just talk with a stranger for several hours?

He also said there was no sense of being in a hurry, no sense of pick up the pace or let’s get going. It was just a simple, steady hike.

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They stopped in towns along the way to buy food. A sample meal: always baguette, always camembert, then porc rillette with cornichons. Breakfast was pain au lait or a croissant or pain au chocolat. Good bread is very important to the French, and it was not unusual to see hikers with baguettes attached to their backpacks.

That night, the group slept in a field next to country house — someone in the group had a connection to the homeowner. Someone in the group had brought house made beer which was passed around, and one woman was celebrating a birthday, so everyone sang Happy Birthday.

There was a big campfire that night. People told jokes around the fire, and as some went off to bed, the remaining people talked philosophy as the embers died down. People were pretty tired by now, but there was still one big challenging day ahead.

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Day 4 – Saturday

This was the day they would reach Mont. St. Michel. They left earlier than usual at 6:00 in the morning (the usual start time was 9:00 AM). They had to go early to beat the tide — remember, Mont. St. Michel is an island, and they were going to approach it by water.

This day was more hilly, but not as dynamic as the 2nd day.

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They hiked through fields with sheep and cows. There was one moment when they were walking along and this horse ran out and stared hard at them. They said it was like a guard horse, there to ensure hikers were worthy to reach Mont St Michel. : )

You couldn’t see the island the whole time (it’s that tiny little bump on the horizon in the photo above), but you’d turn around a bend and it would appear and give you courage to keep going.

Eventually you could see Mont St Michel the whole time, but they said it was so small, it felt like you weren’t getting any closer.

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Just as they were getting discouraged, they reached the water around Mont St Michel. It was about 2:00 PM.

At that point, everyone took off their shoes. They were told shoes are forbidden in those waters. They swam and cooled off, and then the group met a guide who would take them all the way in. The waters around the island are known for quicksand, so the guide would test a path first, then the hikers would follow.

It took about 2 hours once they met the guide, with a couple of breaks built in so that everyone in the group would arrive at the same time.

They arrived at the backside of the island, then made their way around to the front, where they put on their shoes and the celebrating started! Everyone was hugging and cheering. 75 miles done! They said it felt like these former strangers were now bonded for life.

Tradition is that pilgrims sleep over at the Abbey on Mont St. Michel the night they arrive, but since the attack in Nice, that wasn’t an option. So instead of heading home Sunday morning, Ben and the kids explored the island a bit (they’ve been there many times and didn’t need to explore much) and then Eric’s wife picked everyone up. They stopped for dinner at a small country brasserie in Domfront, then, they were dropped off at their car and drove home — about an hour from where we are staying.

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A few other notes:

Ben and the kids said it was the most French thing they’ve ever done, that they LOVED the food, and that now they want to do other pilgrimages. In fact, Ben and Eric are talking about doing the St Jaques du Compostable. A 3 month pilgrimage from France to Spain. The kids also mentioned it didn’t feel competitive at all. The whole group was in this together.

Ben Blair said he thinks it’s the best way to experience Normandy. If you’d like to try it, Bertrand’s tours go twice per month.

Okay. That was a long report. Now I’m curious: Does a trek like this sound appealing to you at all? Walking a path that others have walked for thousands of years? And if you went, would you want to bring a buddy, or would you be fine joining the group on your own? Any thoughts on doing a pilgrimage in silence?

 P.S. — Now that they’ve done the complete pilgrimage there are a few shots of our Olive Us video — Pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel, that they wish they could add, but mostly they feel like they got it right.

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Photos and text by Gabrielle.

Happy Monday! I have adventures to tell you about! Our pilgrims arrived home late on Saturday night, and Betty, June and I arrived home from Paris just 30 minutes before they did. I thought I’d tell you a little bit about our Paris trip today, and then give you a report on the Mont St. Michel pilgrimage later this week. But first, oh my goodness, I was feeling so down last week that I didn’t think I could manage a trip — even a little trip — for me and the youngest two. Deciding on a train, deciding on a hotel room, deciding what to pack. All those sorts of things feel impossible when I’m depressed.

But by Wednesday evening I felt a spark of motivation and used that spark to get us packed up and ready to go. And I’m so glad I did! Because I think this trip was really good for Betty and June. I mean, it was good for me too, but I think it turned out to be a life-long-memory trip for the girls. For sure it was for Betty. In fact, I think if I had understood what she was going to get out of it before we left, I would have been even more motivated to make it happen.

We woke up on Thursday morning, made a few last preparations (like taking out the trash and emptying the dishwasher), then headed to the train station at 9:00. We were in Paris by noon and took a taxi to the hotel which was in the Latin Quarter. I had never stayed there before and it was fun to get to know a new neighborhood. We were right next to the Sorbonne, which I had never seen before! But the reason I picked the hotel was because the description said it was a 5 minute walk to the Luxembourg Gardens, and I figured that even if I wasn’t feeling up for going out much, we could enjoy the Gardens all day long if needed. (Luckily, me going out didn’t end up being an issue.)

Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we dropped off our bags, picked up a picnic lunch and headed straight to the park. It was a gorgeous day and not the weekend yet, so not too busy. We ate lunch, sailed a boat on the pond, and spent a good while on the playground. Then we picked up an ice cream cone, and went back to the hotel because I had two phone appointments I needed to keep. The hotel break was good. June ended up napping and was refreshed for our night out.

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After the calls, we took an uber straight to the Eiffel Tower. After oohing and aahing, we decided to start with the carousel across the street. Then we ate dinner at a nearby café. Then we strolled along the Champ de Mars — the park that sits next to the Tower. Some kind of construction or replanting is happening on the Champ de Mars and huge sections were blocked off, so it was tricky (but not impossible) to find a good spot.

Then we walked over to the Trocadero to watch the Tower light up and sparkle. We ate a nutella-banana crepe while we waited. At 10:00 PM, the sparkling started and it was worth the wait. It really is magical! We lingered until the sparkling stopped, then picked up a taxi and headed to the hotel.

It was a good first day and everyone went to bed happy. But the next day was even better. It turned out to be a pretty much perfect Paris day with kids. I didn’t understand this until we were actually there, but Betty had a solid wishlist of everything she wanted to do in Paris. It was all pretty touristy stuff, but that was fine with me. Betty told me everything she wanted to do, and that’s how we planned the second day. She gets full credit. I did a good job of documenting the day so you get a photo tour along with my words.

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First we ate breakfast at Angelina — famed hot cocoa, croissants to dip in the cocoa, gorgeous fruit salad, fresh squeezed orange juice. Turns out there was an Angelina at the Luxembourg Gardens, walkable from our hotel. So that was awesome.

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Then we took an uber to the Arc de Triomphe. We didn’t have pre-tickets for anything so we had to stay in line, but it went really fast. We climbed to the top and took in the views. We spotted landmarks and took lots of photos. I love the Arc de Triomphe and could stare at it for hours, but I hadn’t climbed it since I was pregnant with Ralph. As you can imagine, I was experiencing all sorts of nostalgia on this visit.

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We climbed down — stopping to look at the military uniform exhibit — and walked through the underground tunnel that delivers you right on to the Champs Élysées. We took our time strolling down the famous street, looking at window displays, and stopping at Ladurée (which June had zero interest in). It was a hot day, and we picked up popsicles as we walked.

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Eventually we made our way to the Egyptian Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde. Which is also where the giant Ferris Wheel is. We took a ride — there were no lines. Totally unexpected and such a nice surprise!

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After the ferris wheel ride we continued our walk in the same direction, straight into the Tuileries Gardens. We picked up ice cream cones to cool ourselves down and spent some time on the green grass enjoying the gardens.

The Tuileries take you directly to the Louvre which was our next destination. Again, I was worried about the line, because I hadn’t bought tickets ahead of time, but I didn’t need to worry. It went really fast. We were inside the pyramid in about 10 minutes and I bought my ticket (kids are free) at a machine which only took another minute or two.

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Betty wanted to see the Venus de Milo first, and then the Mona Lisa. So we visited both of those and then explored more of the Denon Gallery which is where the Mona Lisa lives. By then we were well overdue for lunch, so we stopped at the Louvre cafeteria. It’s nothing fancy, but was just what we needed. Jambon beurre sandwiches and pasta. The meal reenergized us and we decided to do some more exploring. We sought out the French painters in at the top of the Sully wing.

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After the Louvre, we were feeling pretty beat. We had done a lot of walking already, so we took an hour-long boat tour on the Seine. The river breeze was cool and we could rest our feet.

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The boat tour ended at the Eiffel Tower. Betty wanted to be sure to see it sparkle again, and we basically repeated our previous evening. We started with another ride on the carousel, then picked up crepes for dinner and ate them on the Champ de Mars.

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With cheers when the Tower sparkled at 10:00!

Then it was a taxi ride back to the hotel and a quick rinse off before tucking the girls into bed. It really was such a lovely day. If you have one day in Paris with your kids, I can wholeheartedly recommend copying the exact same itinerary. If you’re unfamiliar with Paris, you may not know this, but it’s essentially a straight line from the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre, and that’s basically what we did. : )

As I said, the day couldn’t have gone more smoothly. And by the end of it, the only thing we hadn’t done on Betty’s list is go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. So when we woke the next day (our last day) that was the number one thing on our list. We checked out of the hotel and left our bags, then picked up breakfast from a nearby bakery and ate it in a courtyard at the Sorbonne.

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Then we took an uber to the Eiffel Tower. There was lots of standing in lines, but it was doable. First there was a security line to enter the Eiffel Tower main area (this is new — I’ve never see this security gate before), it went quickly. Then there was a line to buy tickets. We were buying the climb the stairs tickets (versus the elevator tickets). Assuming you’re in the good health, I recommend the stairs option. It’s much more interactive.

We climbed the stairs, stopped for lots of photos, explored level one, then continued on the stairs to level two. We explored level two, then stood in line for tickets that take you to the top. After the ticket line, we stood in line for the actual elevators to the top (taking the stairs beyond level two is not allowed). Those were the longest lines of the entire trip. Everything else went really quickly. We made it to the top, enjoyed the views, took a peek at Mr. Eiffel’s apartment, felt accomplished that we’d done everything Betty had hoped, then headed down. We took an elevator to level two, and then stairs the rest of the way. The whole thing — even with all the lines — took about 3 hours total.

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We were planning to take an evening train back to Argentan, and after we finished at the Eiffel Tower, we had a few hours left. Betty wanted to go back to Angelina, this time for lunch, and they both wanted to see more of Luxembourg Gardens. I thought that sounded perfect, because our bags were nearby at the hotel. So we went to Angelina for a late lunch and explored more of the park. Then I made one request. Could we walk around the Latin Quarter with our last hour? The girls were up for it, so we picked up ice cream cones and took a walk. We ended up walking through the tiny streets, peeking in at all the bookstores, then crossing the Seine and saying hello to the Notre Dame Cathedral. A lovely end to our visit.

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After that, it was a walk back to the hotel for our bags and an uber to Montparnasse Station. As I mentioned at the beginning, we got back to our house just 30 minutes before the rest of the family arrived from their pilgrimmage, so it ended up being a very festive night, with everyone sharing stories and feeling happy to be reunited.

Betty is number five, and that means she rarely gets to function as the oldest kid. But on this trip, she was practically in charge and she loved it. She was good at it, too. She used her French. She was brave. She had great ideas. She made her opinions known. All things that are sometimes hard to do when you have so many older siblings. Also, she is absolutely in LOVE with the Eiffel Tower. She couldn’t get enough of it. Part of her would have been fine to just hang out nearby it the whole time. Hah! It was only a short trip, but it couldn’t have been better. I’m so glad we made it happen.

P.S. — I meant to post as usual during our trip, but just couldn’t seem to manage it. In order to make the trip happen, something had to give. Except for posting to Instagram late a night, when we had wifi at the hotel, I completely stayed off line. It was a good little break.

P.P.S. — This was the first time I’d been to Paris since uber came to be and it was a game changer. Taxis in Paris have consistently been a hassle to me — always hard to find, sometimes rude or unwilling to stop, and sometimes they won’t take payment by card. But uber was amazing. There was always an uber driver close to us, so we never had long waits. And even though my French is weak, we didn’t have to communicate much at all, because the whole thing is done via the app. It ended up taking away a big stress for me, and I felt far more adventurous knowing transportation wouldn’t be a problem. Just a little tip for anyone traveling to Paris soon.

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A Few Things

July 15, 2016

Caen Castle France

Photo and text by Gabrielle.

Very late last night I posted the photo above on Instagram. I wanted to wish France a Happy Bastille Day before I went to bed. I love seeing the proud flags flying over William the Conquerer’s fortress in Caen. (You probably recognize the French flag. The other one is red with two yellow lions. It was William the Conquerer’s flag, and now I believe it’s considered the Normandy region’s flag.)

A few minutes after posting the image, Ralph told me about the breaking news in Nice. A big white truck ran over people as it rushed into a celebratory crowd, then the driver started shooting. 84 people killed. Bastille Day fireworks had just wrapped up.

Is this how it’s going to be? On Fridays, we’ll wake up in mourning, then distract ourselves with links? I’m feeling despondent today and I need to stop writing before I bring us all down. I think I’m going to stay away from the news as much as possible this weekend. Maybe we’ll go to the beach. I don’t know. I’m really sad. I’m sure you are too. The sadness keeps adding up, the cumulation of some hard emotional weeks.

Before I go, here are a few things I’ve been wanting to share.

- I’ve had 6 babies, 2 with epidurals. What’s your take on this? (NYT)

- Pardoning all marijuana convictions — I feel like we need to do something similar in the U.S.

- “Sociopathy is more prevalent than schizophrenia or anorexia.”

- The difference between competence and confidence, and why so many incompetent men become leaders.

- Slow runners live longer.

- Bro-talk on Wall Street. Ugh.

- 10 insights from remarkable parents.

- No one is unreasonable.

- Everything we eat is a scam. Sometimes food is so hard.

- This is cool. Meet the first artificial animal.

- Don’t hit on girls who are paid to be nice to you.

- Still thinking about this one. What an hour of emotion makes clear.

Please take care of yourselves this weekend. Let’s try to put some kindness and goodness out in the world. I’ll meet you back here on Monday. I miss you already.

kisses,
Gabrielle

P.S. — We had a trip planned to the South of France this week. 3 nights in Marseille and 4 nights in Nice. We’ve never been to the south of France and we were looking forward to exploring. We ended up having to reschedule the trip at the last minute because of transportation issues. Would we have been there watching the fireworks?

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Best of French Posts

July 6, 2016

By Gabrielle.

Since we arrived here for the summer, my inbox has seen a surge of questions about my earlier content on France. Where’s that post on your French pharmacy picks? Didn’t you do a write-up on affordable French souvenirs? What was that book on French parenting we discussed? So I thought it might be helpful to include a brief guide to some of the most popular posts from our years living in France.

On French Schools:

- This was our first report.

- Our second report.

- This post talks about the legendary and formidable French school supply lists.

- Another school update plus an update on how the language immersion was coming along.

- If you’d like more, I wrote 10 posts on French schooling total.

On French households:

- This post includes my observations about laundry and ironing and got a big response.

- This is about shutters in France, which I had no idea were a big deal until I got here.

- This is about how trash is collected in the countryside.

On French Parenting:

- Is Maman Mean or Magnificent?

- More on French parenting.

- French kids eat everything.

Honfleur, France | Design Mom

On Exploring France:

- Our first visit to Mont St. Michel. Happily, we ended up visiting many, many times because it was a popular request from our house guests. We even made a video about a pilgrimmage to Mont St. Michel.

- Our first visit to the Eiffel Tower. This is another spot we visited frequently. Here’s a related post I wrote about climbing to the top with the kids.

- Canoeing in the Dordogne.

- Attending the French Open.

- How to Visit the Loire Valley in a Day.

- Other spots we frequented were Honfleur & Deauville — a fishing village and famous umbrellaed beach.

- If you’d like there are lots more French Tourism posts.

Five Affordable Souvenirs to Bring Home from your Trip to France.

On French Souvenirs:

- Five Fabulous French Souvenirs under $5. This one was a mega-hit.

- And here are five more awesome souvenirs..

- I did a series of 3 posts on French pharmacy picks. I started with Gwyneth Paltrow’s recommendations and then tried some of my own picks too.

On French Food:

- Our first post about how we shop and eat in France — written shortly after we moved here.

- All about French dairy products, particularly the lovely containers. This summer, the first thing we put in our fridge was these same yogurts!

- A little bit about the French tradition of Gouter, or afternoon snack.

- What it was like buying eggs from our neighbor. We made a video about this too.

- Our love letter to the French Bakery.

- And this is the last post I wrote about French food — a follow up to our first food post, shared as we were headed home.

I hope you find this list of links helpful. My question for you: Is there anything in particular you’d like to me cover while I’m here this summer? Let me know!

P.S. — Here’s one more sweet post on homesickness.

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Normandy!

June 23, 2016

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Photo and text by Gabrielle.

We’re here! We made it! We are renting a lovely, light-filled home in the lower-region of Normandy — about 2 hours west of Paris. We arrived here yesterday afternoon, unpacked, filled the fridge and cupboards with all of our favorites, napped (darn jetlag!), took a long walk through the countryside in the evening, and stayed up way too late. It doesn’t get dark here until after 10:00 PM, so it didn’t feel that late, but it was.

Today, we drove by our cottage (but didn’t go in because we still need to pick up the keys), and we took the kids to school pickup so they could connect with old friends.

This is just a mini-update to say hello. I’m still processing everything so I can share it with you, but oh my goodness, I didn’t realize how much being here would feel like coming home.

P.S. — During the night, there was a big lighting storm that took out the wifi. Not sure when it will be back on, so I’ll be working at cafés and libraries until it does. Life in the countryside! And I don’t mind one bit.

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Flying to France

June 20, 2016

By Gabrielle.

Waving hello from the Oakland Airport! Our bags are checked. We’ve gone through security. Water bottles are filled. Snacks are at hand. We have about 30 minutes till our flight boards. Then it’s on to Paris, France!

But before we get to France, we have a longish layover in Stockholm, Sweden. Ben Blair and I spent a lovely week in Sweden two summers ago, but our kids have never been, so we’re hoping to take a little adventure while we’re there. Then, we have a short flight to Paris. Our flight arrives around 8:30 in the evening; we’ll rent a car and head straight to a hotel for the night (with a possible fieldtrip to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle). Then, the next morning, we’ll drive to Normandy — it’s about a 3 hour drive to our destination.

That’s a lot of different stops and transitions in a short time — I’ve tried to forewarn the kids that they are very likely going to feel crabby and impatient before we actually get to our destination. But it’s worth it: Two whole months of our family being together. Heaven!

We’re all super excited. Lots of reminiscing and anticipation going on — we’ve been going through our old travel photos and watching some of the Olive Us videos we filmed in France (like Betty in Paris).

Crossing our fingers for smooth travel! Feel free to follow along on Instagram.

P.S. — I did my first Facebook Live video cast just before we left the house today. I gave a little tour of our master bedroom and bath — it’s going to be transformed while we are away! So if you want a peek at the “before” you can check it out.

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Report from France

October 20, 2014

By Gabrielle. Images from Olive’s Instagram. Video by Ralph.

As promised, here is a little report about Olive and Ralph and their experience in France this semester.

Olive has been in France since September 1st. She’s young (she turned 13 the week before she moved), and we knew this might not work for her, so we were prepared to fly her back home if she wasn’t thriving. But so far, she seems to LOVE it. She’s staying with our dear friend, Caroline, and Olive says she’s amazed how fast dinner clean up goes with fewer people in the house. Hah! I love that she’s getting to see how another house is run. It’s important to me that my kids understand there are lots of right ways to do most things.

She really seems to be developing a sense of independence — helped by the fact that she lives in town and isn’t waiting on a car and parent to get her around. During her first week, she needed to change her money from dollars to euros, and instead of waiting for a grownup, she decided to take care of the task herself. She walked herself to the bank and inquired about the exchange. The bankers sent her to the post office and she was able to take care of it there. No big deal. And just to remind you, this is all taking place in French.

Speaking of French, she said she’s doing well with the language and can speak mostly accent free. She’s enrolled in the same school she attended when we lived there and it’s been wonderful for her to instantly know people and be in a familiar place.

Keep reading for more of the report!

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Eiffel Tower View2

By Gabrielle. Photos taken April 2012 — Ralph and Olive on the Eiffel Tower.

Oh my goodness. Ben and I arrived home from Sweden yesterday afternoon, just in time for a remarkable week for our family. We have two birthdays this week — Olive and Ralph. We have the first day of school (it’s today!). And we’ll be traveling to Utah as a family this coming Friday to celebrate my mom’s 70th birthday.

But more impactful than any of that: two of our kids will be exchange students this fall, and they are flying off this week! I find myself crying elephant tears while I type this because the reality of them leaving feels so big. I can honestly say, I’m over the top happy that they’ll get this experience, and at the same time my heart tightens and I catch my breath trying to imagine the house without them.

Keep reading, more good stuff ahead.

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Two Kitchen Tools

May 22, 2014

Electric Kettle & Mini Masher

Images and text by Gabrielle.

In March I wrote about the food habits we had picked up from our time in France, and since that post, I remembered two things in our kitchen that we wouldn’t own if we hadn’t moved to France. So I wanted to share them with you. Neither is particularly French, but we started using these tools because they happened to be in the kitchen of La Cressonnière, and we loved them so much, they were two of our first purchases when we moved back to the U.S.!

The best looking electric tea kettle.

The first is an electric kettle. Apparently, these are common as can be — like more standard than a toaster — in every Western country but the U.S.. And they’re definitely sold here, but I had never seen one used by an American friend, and I had never used one myself, until we lived in France.

They are so handy! The water heats to boiling super fast. It’s great for making hot drinks, for making ramen (or cup noodles, as my kids call them), or anytime you need a small amount of boiling water fast (like when we made dye for Easter eggs). Sometimes it surprises me how often we use it.

There are tons of options available. We use this ceramic one — I chose it for its looks (I thought it would be pretty sitting on the counter) but it works great too. : )

Mini Masher - the very best tool for making guacamole and egg salad

I don’t know the official name for the second tool. We call it a mini-masher, and it took me several searches to track one down. This is the one we have, and I found two others, here and here. Dang I love this tool! I use it for two things specifically: to mash avocados for guacamole, and to mash boiled eggs for egg salad.

If you don’t eat either of those things, I would not recommend this tool to you. But if you do eat guacamole and egg salad, this tool will make you about 75% more willing to make them, because it does the job so well, so quickly and so easily — even if the avocado isn’t perfectly ripe!

Of course, this made me wonder: do you use/adore any kitchen tools that you think are probably uncommon? Where did you discover them? What do you use them for? Also, have you used either of the tools I featured? I’d love to hear!

P.S. — Travel season is here! If you’re headed to France, here are Five Fabulous Souvenirs Under $5. And here are 5 more!

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Criticism

May 5, 2014

Hugging Olive

By Gabrielle. Image snapped by Ben Blair.

How sensitive are you to criticism? I suppose no one loves to receive criticism, but it does seem like some people can handle it better than others. I know I feel my body brace when I’m about to hear or read something about myself that’s critical. And I think the weaker my relationship is with someone, the easier it is for me to hear criticism from them — meaning, a comment from an anonymous stranger on the internet is easier for me to handle than if Ben Blair decided to criticize me.

I was thinking about this as I flew home from Atlanta yesterday. While I was there, Laurie Smithwick was my roommate, and we stayed up late talking, talking, talking (the best part of these types of get togethers!). She told me about a couple, friends of her parents, who are both writers. The wife knew she was super sensitive to criticism of her writing, even construction criticism from her husband — a fellow writer who very much wanted her to succeed.

But she discovered a trick. She found that if her husband prefaced any suggestions or edits or critiques with, “I’m no expert, but…”, that she could receive the words more easily. Of course, as a writer himself, he is an expert, but using the phrase “I’m no expert” really seemed to help.

I thought it was a genius tactic! Simple and worth a try. When I’m feeling especially sensitive, or can see that one of my kids is, I hope I’ll remember to use it (or request it of the person critiquing me).

I’ve also heard sensitivity issues can align with personality test profiles (like Meyers-Briggs). I’ve been tested before, but I never seem to remember the results. Hah!

How about you? Do you know your personality classification? Do you consider yourself sensitive? Do have particularly sensitive children? Would this trick work for anyone in your life? I’d love to hear!

P.S. — Yesterday, Olive embarked on a 2-week trip to France with a group from her school. Very exciting! It happened last minute. Another student dropped out on Thursday, and since Olive’s passport was ready to go, they offered the spot to her. Amazing! I was in Atlanta when this happened, so Ben Blair took care of all the errands and getting her prepped. He’s a champ.

I arrived at the SFO airport on Sunday morning from Atlanta, then Ben and Olive met me there and we got to hang out for a couple of hours before her school group checked in. We had a leisurely breakfast, and I trimmed Olive’s bangs in the airport bathroom. : ) The photo at top is me hugging her goodbye. We miss her like crazy already.

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Olive Us: Saying Goodbye

April 24, 2014

By Gabrielle.

Fair warning: this episode might make you cry.

I’ve watched it a dozen times at least and I cry every time. It’s all about saying goodbye to a place you love. We’ve all had to do it. We leave our childhood home. We move across town or across the country (or across the world). We leave summer camp. The perfect internship ends. We move on. It’s a feeling universally experienced.

Olive Us Saying Goodbye

This episode marks the last Olive Us video we’re sharing from our time in France. After this, we’ll start sharing the videos we’ve made here in Oakland (they’re good! I think you’ll like them a lot). So publishing this post feels like I’m marking the end of an era.

Some trivia numbers for those keeping track: So far, we’ve made 44 Olive Us episodes. Three of those we haven’t published publicly yet. Of those 44 episodes, 33 were filmed in France! That’s a lot of France. I feel so lucky we have such beautiful captures of our memories there. Insanely lucky.

I hope you enjoy the video. Perhaps it will have you feeling sentimental about a place you loved and left. If yes, I’d love to hear your stories! What place comes to mind when you watch the video?

P.S. — Would you like to know more about Olive Us? Here you go:

- Olive Us has a really charming Instagram stream. You should totally subscribe!
- Find the official Olive Us website here, and subscribe to the Olive Us Newsletter here.

- Find all the posts I’ve written about Olive Us — including every episode — here.
- We’ve made 44 episodes so far and collaborated with ulive on 20 of them! You can find the Olive Us page on ulive here.

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Text and images by Gabrielle.

It’s such a lovely Spring day here in Oakland that I think this Olive Us episode, featuring a Picnic at the Eiffel Tower, fits right in!

IMG_5141

As you can imagine, shooting this episode was such a treat. Any excuse to hang out on the Champ de Mars (the huge park next to the Eiffel Tower) is a good one. The food was delicious, the croquet was fun, the kids looked adorable in bright, fresh colors, the sun was out — such a good day!

I hope it brings some sunshine to your own day — and maybe gives you the travel bug as well. : )

P.S. — Would you like to know more about Olive Us? Here you go:

- Olive Us has a really charming Instagram stream. You should totally subscribe!
- Find the official Olive Us website here, and subscribe to the Olive Us Newsletter here.

- Find all the posts I’ve written about Olive Us — including every episode — here.
- We’ve made 44 episodes so far and collaborated with ulive on 20 of them! You can find the Olive Us page on ulive here.

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French Food Habits

March 31, 2014

berries

Image and text by Gabrielle.

We’ve been in Oakland for 8 months now, and it’s been interesting to see if any of the food habits we picked up in France would stick with us.

When we were in France, I can’t say that we ever completely adopted the French way of eating, but we got close! Partly, because living in such a rural area, we didn’t have much choice.

If you’re curious about French food habits, the two books I read that I found most helpful were Bringing Up Bébé and French Kids Eat Everything. As I spoke to French friends and neighbors about what I’d learned in the books, some people agreed completely with certain parts, but thought others were false stereotypes. So I wouldn’t consider the books as flawless, but I think they give a helpful description.

Click here for a ton of my personal observations on French eating habits.

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Neighborhood Eggs

March 25, 2014

local eggs

Image and text by Gabrielle.

Here I am, waving hello from a plane to New York. Hello there!

It’s a short trip. I’ll fly back to California on Thursday — but I have a packed schedule full of meetings, errands and events. I always love a visit to New York!

One funny thing is that snow is expected in the city this week. Funny to me because we’ve been in shorts for the past couple of weeks in Oakland. So yesterday I was hunting down gloves and hats in the back of my closet as I packed, and getting advice on whether or not there would be enough snow to need my winter boots.

But the thing I want to tell you most is that we found a neighbor who keeps chickens and we asked her if we could buy a dozen each week! This has me grinning like it’s the biggest news ever!!

I realize I’m unreasonably happy about it. It’s not like there aren’t eggs in every single grocery store in the entire country. It’s just that we Loved-with-a-capital-L eating eggs from our neighbor in France — we even made an Olive Us episode about it! The chickens roamed free on the little farm and we could see them from our window. The yolks were huge and orange instead of yellow, and the eggs were so delicious! We ate at least a dozen each week — boiled, scrambled, or poached.

We assumed we’d get re-adusted to the standard U.S. eggs when we moved back, because we weren’t picky about them at all in years past, but it turns out we haven’t re-adjusted. In fact, we’ve pretty much stopped eating eggs altogether except in baking. And we’ve missed them. So I’m hoping these local eggs will expand our menu once again.

We just got them yesterday and I haven’t even eaten one yet, but they’ll keep till I get home. I’m crossing my fingers they are as delicious as they are beautiful! It’s a little hard to tell in the photo, but the pale ones are a wonderful shade of green/blue/grey. The only thing left to decide is whether we’ll keep them in fridge or on the counter. : )

Tell me friends, have you ever had a similar experience? Maybe had a particular bread, or cheese, or fruit, or ice cream that was so good that you were spoiled for all other versions after that? Or maybe you buy eggs from your neighbor too? I’d love to hear!

P.S. — I feel like such a food snob about these eggs! I shake my head at myself when I think about it.

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Image and text by Gabrielle.

Oh my! This episode of Olive Us, called How to Visit a French Market, makes me homesick for France like crazy. The market in our town took place at the base of the local cathedral, which made for a magnificent backdrop while we picked out our vegetables. But the coolest thing, is that the market had been taking place in that same spot, by that same cathedrals for centuries. Literally centuries!

Catherdral + Market in Argentan France

In fact, early on in our stay we stopped at a vide grenier (a town yard sale) and found this very old lithograph showing our very same cathedral with a market scene happening. Isn’t that the coolest? It’s one of my favorite souvenirs from our time in France. You can see more closeups of the print here and here. (Bonus: is was 2 euros.)

Related to shopping at the market, for months I’ve been working on a separate post about French food — what we missed, what habits we’ve continued since we got back — that sort of thing. I don’t know why it’s taking me so long to finish it up. I suppose it’s partly because I keep getting emotional when I work on it. : ) Anyway, shopping at the market featured in this video is definitely one of the things I miss. We went dozens and dozens of times and it never lost its charm.

I hope you enjoy the video! And I’d love to know: Do you have access to a good local market where you live? There are great ones here in Oakland and we love when we make time to go. And if you’ve been to France, did you get the chance to visit an outdoor market?

P.S. — Would you like to know more about Olive Us? Here you go:

- Olive Us has a really charming Instagram stream. You should totally subscribe!
- Find the official Olive Us website here, and subscribe to the Olive Us Newsletter here.

- Find all the posts I’ve written about Olive Us — including every episode — here.
- We’ve made 44 episodes so far and collaborated with ulive on 20 of them! You can find the Olive Us page on ulive here.

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By Gabrielle. Images by Ben Blair.

Oh man. This episode is an epic one. Here’s a little back story. When people visit the region of Normandy (which is where we lived in France, and where our little cottage is), the number one thing they want to see is Mont St. Michel. And while we were there, we visited this legendary island at least a dozen times.

Every time we approached, there was this moment where we all of a sudden notice the castle-looking structure off in the distance — across fields of sheep — and our breath catches. And then, as we get closer and closer, there is this feeling of wonder.

We loved visiting Mont St. Michel, wandering it’s tiny street and stairways, walking along the beach and exploring the boulders that surround the whole island, sitting quietly in the Abbey garden at the very top, taking in the views on the approach, and the views from high up on the mount. It’s a special place.

montstmichel

So we weren’t too surprised when we learned it was one of the key pilgrimage sites for Christians. Makes sense! When we found out our local friend (and knowledgeable historian), Mark, had made the week long pilgrimage several times — going by foot from our town of Argentan to Mont St. Michel, and staying in gites (which are homes in the countryside that rent out a room for the night) along the way, we were intrigued! The idea of making a pilgrimage, a walking one, with a slow approach, was so appealing to both me and Ben Blair, and we talked about it a lot, and I wrote a post about it here.

Pilgrimage to Mont St. MIchel  |  Olive Us Pilgrimage to Mont St. MIchel  |  Olive Us

So getting to film this episode was simply a treasure. Mark acted as our guide, finding the prettiest routes and giving history lessons as we went. As you’ll notice in the episode, we learned that King Arthur legends have a place in Normandy as well as England, and that some people believe Arthur is buried along the pilgrimage trail — visiting his possible burial site was such an experience!

I feel like there’s so much I could share about this video, but for now, I just hope you watch it and enjoy it.

And if you’ve ever visited Mont St. Michel, I’d love to hear about it. I’d also love to know if anyone out there has made a religious pilgrimage before. Pilgrimages aren’t really a part of my religious upbringing, but they hold such an appeal for me. I hope to make one some day!

Click here for more images from the shoot!

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Olive Us: Painting in Honfleur

December 18, 2013

By Gabrielle.

Oh. This episode is one of my favorites! About an hour north of our little town in France, you’ll find the village of Honfleur. It’s a small fishing town that is such a delight to visit! (I wrote about it here .)

We spent many lovely afternoons in Honfleur. It’s near the beaches of Deauville, and we loved taking our visitors who had already seen all the “big” sights in France and were looking for something less known.

Honfleur, France | Design Mom

One thing we learned about Honfleur is that it’s considered the birthplace of Impressionism. Monet and Boudin painted here and it became a meeting place for their contemporaries. Fantastic, right? And if you visit, it’s easy to see why — the light in the little town is extraordinary. (Laurie White helped us with the research — her Great Artist program is terrific!)

So we thought it would be fun to make an episode about painting “en plein air“, and share what it’s like to visit Honfleur for the day. I hope you enjoy it!

Tell me friends, do you bring paints or a sketchbook with you when you travel? Have you ever tried painting en plein air? I’d love to hear.

P.S. — Would you like to know more about Olive Us? Here you go:

- Find the official Olive Us website here, and subscribe to the Olive Us Newsletter here.
- Find all the posts I’ve written about Olive Us here.
- We’ve made 44 episodes so far and collaborated with ulive on 20 of them! You can find the Olive Us page on ulive here.

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Peace Day Installation

September 27, 2013

Peace Day Normandy Installation

By Gabrielle. Images from MSN.

Several readers sent me the link to reports of this impactful Peace Day installation on the Normandy D-Day Beaches. You may have seen it already, as I know it’s making the rounds on Facebook. But I wanted to post it here too, because it’s so good, and because I feel so connected to those beaches. And mostly, I love that someone thought of this and made it happen.

The installation featured 9,000 silhouettes of fallen soldiers, made with simple stencils and rakes. And the overall effect is devastating. Maybe even more so, knowing that at the end of the day, the silhouettes washed away with the tide.

I would have loved to see it in person, but I’m grateful for the excellent photos.

Have you ever had the chance to visit the D-Day beaches? Such a beautiful and solemn place.

Peace Day D-Day Installation

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Le Menil Scelleur

By Gabrielle.

Here it is! This is the final post in the 5-part mini-series about our time in France. I’ve been meaning to share it for two weeks now. (These last two weeks! They’ve been full and good, and overwhelming too.) But even though this post has been delayed, today is actually a fitting day to share this finale report about our time in France. Because one month ago today, we said our teary goodbyes and flew from Paris to San Francisco. One month ago!

When I am able to sit still for a moment here and there, I get terribly homesick.

(But don’t feel too bad for me. Tomorrow, I’ll share photos of the house here in Oakland. It’s awesome!)

During our last six months in France, I tried to share lots of posts about small details of French life, and we took two big trips — both North. Here’s the full report:

We marked two years in France. And a gardener power-cleaned the cobblestones at La Cressonnière.

We talked about working with a time difference. And we discussed homeopathie in France.

We shared Stacking Wood, which was filmed right at the farmhouse. It’s another one of our most popular Olive Us episodes. We also took you on a visit to a French cider farm. And talked about the famed local French lace.

Keep reading for our final French adventures!

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By Gabrielle.

This is number 4 out of five posts in this mini-series about our time in France (here are posts one, two and three). It covers the months of August 2012 through January 2013, and includes trips to London, Ethiopia, Switzerland, Paris and Venice.

These months were not so long ago and the memories are still really fresh! It was wonderful to relive our adventures as I wandered through my archives.

I think I’ll get right to it.

Before we were done with jet lag from our month in the U.S., we jumped in the car for a road trip to the London Olympics. An amazing trip!

Shortly after our trip, my Grandma Rudi passed away. : (

We started looking at French cottages. And then we got more serious about the search.

We spent some of our August afternoons at the beach. And we expanded the Design Mom team.

I went to New York for the first Alt Summit NYC. Full report here.

A few hours after I arrived home from New York, we once again jumped in the car for a spontaneous road trip — this time to Switzerland! Mini report here. Full report here (plus 6 tips for last minute road trips). And don’t forget Swiss stacked wood!

Keep reading. More adventures ahead!

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