From the category archives:

French Tourism


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!


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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!



By Gabrielle.

Here is the 3rd report (of five) in my Adventures in France mini-series (here’s number one and two). This covers February through July of 2012. The thing that stands out to me about this report is the Olive Us series. We started that project fairly casually during this time period, and had no idea what a life-changer it would become for us.

I hope you enjoy the report!

We celebrated Chandeleur (the French crepe-eating holiday that was replaced by Groundhog Day in the U.S.). Experienced a rare Normandy snow day. Survived a frozen-pipes-record-breaking-cold-spell.

We talked more about French parenting. We learned about La Petite Souris (a little mouse that comes to French children instead of the toothfairy). And we talked about how French kids eat everything.

I introduced Love the Place You Live and shared images of a chapel turned art space and gathering space.

We visited a lesser known WWII site called Mount Ormel. This is very close to where we lived and was the location of the last battle before the Allies marched down the Champs Élysées, freeing Paris.

More adventures ahead!


The First Six Months

July 15, 2013


Images and text by Gabrielle.

I know. I know. I need to stop talking about moving. But I can’t help it! It’s taking up every square inch of my brain at the moment. Over the last few weeks, I’ve occasionally felt a pang of regret at some small thing we haven’t done during our time in France. And finally, I had to stop and remind myself that we absolutely jumped in with both feet and have taken advantage of every possible opportunity. No regrets!

I thought it would be fun to write up a mini-series of posts covering some of the adventures we’ve had since we moved here. It’s been a nice round 2 1/2 years, I’m going to break it into 5 posts covering 6 months each. I hope you enjoy the mini-series. And thanks for indulging my trip down memory lane!

la cressonniere hallway

We flew to France on February 1st, 2011. And started to get to know the house, La Cressonnière — we introduced the tree house, we shared the halfbath (I still find it so charming!), we shared Olive’s bedroom, too. But it actually turned out to be Ralph’s room, when he suddenly outgrew the bed in his first room! We talked about the floors, and showed off the gorgeous kitchen. We also learned more about the artists that worked in the studio here at La Cressonnière.

french ceramic yogurt container

We started to explore our community — we learned to shop for food in France, and discovered our first French licorice. We gave our initial French school report, we met our neighbors, and started discovering French clothing stores for kids. Oh. And we discovered the yogurt aisle!

chateau carrouges

We found a castle very near our home. We started exploring brocantes. We were amazed at the countryside covered in wild daffodils.

Winged Victory eiffel tower picnic

And we started exploring further from home as well. We spent our first touristy weekend in Paris as a family — day number one & day number two.

Keep reading for more adventures from our first 6 months in France.


Visit to Chartres03

Images and text by Gabrielle (and some images by Ben Blair, too).

We’re in our last 5 weeks of living here, and though we have no big trips on our schedule (until the big trip home), we’ve been considering a couple of Saturday day-trips to local destinations. No matter how much we’ve seen, it seems like there is always another intriguing place to explore! For example, we haven’t been to the white elephant rock of Etratat yet, and we’ve heard Bagnoles de l’Orne is definitely worth a visit.

Visit to Chartres16

Anyway, we started talking about our favorite spots that are within a couple of hours of our town, and it reminded me that I never shared our photos from our field trip to Chartres — the world-famous cathedral that’s about an hour away from Paris.

Visit to Chartres12 Visit to Chartres13

Visit to Chartres14

So I thought today would be a perfect day for a little report.

Click through for more photos and details about our visit.


Happy Memorial Day

May 27, 2013

American Military Cemetery in Normandy, France

Image and text by Gabrielle.

This is the 3rd Memorial Day we’ve spent in France. Last year, it aligned with a French holiday, so we had Monday off. But this year, the kids are in school, the stores are open, and it’s business as usual today. How about you, are you enjoying a 3-day weekend? Were you able to do anything meaningful to commemorate the holiday?

I’m reposting this image from last year because it’s one of my favorites. I snapped it during Memorial Day weekend at the American Military Cemetery here in Normandy. For the holiday, the caretakers placed an American and French flag at every single one of the 10,000+ graves.

The cemetery is always a humbling place to visit, but seeing those carefully placed flags waving in the ocean breeze just about did me in.

Happy Memorial Day to you and yours. Wishing you happy gatherings with friends and family! And a perfectly grilled burger. : )


Honfleur & Deauville

May 2, 2013

Honfleur, France | Design Mom

Photos and text by Gabrielle.

This post is about Honfleur and Deauville. Two neighboring towns here in Normandy that we never tire of visiting. We’ve been to both many times, but the photos in this post are from a visit last May. Spring in Normandy is very wet, and often cold, so when the sun comes out, you can bet we take advantage of it.

Honfleur, France | Design Mom

These first images show Honfleur. It’s a small fishing port that is big on charm. And the light here is so remarkable that it won’t surprise you to hear this little town is considered the birthplace of impressionism. In fact, it’s not unusual at all to see painters with easels set up near the water, capturing the boats and flags and sails on their canvases.

Honfleur, France | Design Mom Honfleur and Deauville14

We’ve been told there are particular things to do in Honfleur — churches to visit and towers to climb — but we’ve never done any of them. Instead, we like to walk through the narrow side streets, window shopping, and stopping for ice cream. We might ride the port-side carousel or watch the boats come in. And then we’ll eat a late lunch or early dinner at one of the touristy restaurants that line the wharf — there are a dozen to pick from.

Keep reading — the umbrellas of Deauville are ahead!


Château Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France | Design Mom

The Loire Valley is the region along the Loire River, a little south and west of Paris. It’s famed for its numerous castles that tower above the river. And lucky for us, driving to the region only takes about an hour and a half from our house.

Château Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France

So last year, on the last Sunday of May we hopped in the car after church and made a day trip of it. Our goal was to see two castles and to get a general sense for the region. We knew one day wasn’t really enough time, but figured a day trip would almost be like a scouting mission for a longer trip. The first castle we stopped at was Chateau Chenenceau.

Château Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France | Design Mom Château Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France | Design Mom

Some castles are more kid-friendly than others, and this one is probably the most family-friendly that we’ve visited — lots of options for roaming and free-ranging, and the weekend we were there, it wasn’t too busy at all.

Château Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France Château Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France Château Chenonceau, Loire Valley, France | Design Mom

There are gardens to explore, bridges and moats, a grand checker-board hall with views of the river, and on the way out we explored the garden maze and had a little picnic. Also. We took a TON of photos. So please forgive me if this feels like a photo dump. : ) Hopefully it will be helpful for anyone out there who’s considering a visit to the Loire.

Read more and see tons of photos from our daytrip — click here.


By Gabrielle. Instagram shot by Ben Blair.

Oh my goodness you guys. This one is for all the Paris lovers and dreamers out there. I can not wait for you to see this episode! It feels magical to me. I could just watch it forever. I love seeing such a magnificent place through a child’s eyes.

When we move back to the U.S., I’m positive we’ll watch this movie every time we get homesick for France. (Try it on vimeo if it’s not playing for you here.)

You can find out a little backstory about this episode here, and for those who are curious, Betty’s pom pom hat and over-the-knee socks are from Tea Collection. Please tell me you love the video as much as I do!

P.S. — Huge thanks to Tiger in a Jar for the gorgeous footage, to Merrilee Liddiard for the beautiful title illustration, and to our friend Caroline for helping out the entire time!


french pharmacy picks

By Gabrielle.

I’ve been working my way through the French Pharmacy list that Gwyneth Paltrow made. You can find report #1 here and report #2 here. I’ve got four more products to tell you about today. Three are from the Goop list, and one is a recommendation from my friend, Caroline (it’s my favorite!).

First up, Caudalie Premières Vendages. Gwyneth describes this as an excellent basic daily moisturizer and I fully agree. Though I actually don’t use it daily, because I like to use a moisturizer with spf. But I’ve found this little tube perfect for travel! It’s just the right size and comes in flexible packaging that won’t shatter. I love applying a layer as a flight lands. It has a fresh, clean scent and leaves my skin with a not-too-shiny glow.

Click here for 3 more picks.


Not long after we moved here, when we’d driven around a bit, we noticed signs that said Haras du [fill in the blank], all over the place. When we inquired about them, we were told they indicated horse breeding farms, and that the horse-breeding capital for all of France was right here in the town of Argentan. It’s called Haras du Pin. (You can pronounce is Huh-rah-do-pan.)

I can’t wait to tell you about our visit, but first, I need to apologize. I intended to write about William the Conquerer’s Castle in Caen for this post, because we spent Saturday in Caen running errands. But I didn’t get any photos! Not one. So I’m sharing our visit to Haras du Pin instead. It happened one year ago this very month. So the good news is: at least the photos look seasonal. : )

Click here to learn about Haras du Pin, and add your own link!


A Few Things

August 17, 2012

Hello, Friends! Are you ready for the weekend? We have plans to do some school shopping on Saturday, and Sunday is our wedding anniversary. Hooray! We still haven’t decided how to celebrate, but I’m not worried because you really can’t go wrong hanging out with Ben Blair. Everything is better when he’s around!

While we brainstorm some anniversary date night ideas, here are a few things I hope you’ll enjoy:

- Hey! It’s time for another round of Love the Place You Live. Do something cool and local this weekend and then let’s all link up on Monday. It’s fun, I promise!

- Missing the Olympics? Check out this neat artwork.

- A man, a pink tutu, and the fight against cancer = The Tutu Project. Awesome. (Thanks, Karey.)

- This year, I vow to plant an indoor herb garden.

- First Day of School sign.

- Shared bedroom for 2 girls + a boy. [Update: if the link to the blog post isn't working, you can also go to Stephmodo's main url and scroll down.]

- Maniacal movie laughs. (PrincessBride is my favorite.)

- I’m giving away a year’s supply of products from the Orla Kiely + Method Collection on Facebook. Go see!

And here are 3 (super speedy) slideshows I posted on Babble:

- Stylish shelf displays. (Have you noticed, shelves are on my mind these days?)

- Smart solutions for organizing your bathroom.

- 23 No-Sew projects you’ll love.

Have a fabulous weekend and soak up those August rays! Fall will be here oh so soon. I’ll meet you back here on Monday. I miss you already.


P.S. — It rains a lot here, so we try to take advantage of the sunny days. One of our favorite sunny day places is Deauville beach — and the colorful umbrellas!


Hooray! Here’s episode 5 of Olive Us. In this one, viewers will get a little cultural lesson — and maybe even learn a few French words — while Olive, Betty and Ralph demonstrate how to properly visit a French Bakery. A tiny warning: you may want to watch on a full stomach. : )

Bon appetit!


Shopping basket from Kayce Hughes.
Betty’s blouse, dress, and cardigan from Olive Juice Kids.
Olive’s skirt and sweater from Olive Juice Kids.
Ralph’s outfit from his closet. (Yes. He totally wears scarves.)


For this month’s Love the Place You Live column, we visited a Vide Grenier — which is basically a community wide rummage sale. But this one was in a tiny village called Avoines that neighbors our own tiny village, and though we didn’t know many people there, it felt much like an event in our own neighborhood. We had a great time and came home with a few silly trinkets.

My favorite purchase was a handful of ceramic feves, the little tokens that are baked into King Cake. I bought several of both the white and colorful versions. Only 10 centimes each! I though they would make a fun souvenir. Or be little good-luck tokens to keep in your pocket on special days — like a big test day.

The vide grenier was centered around the town’s Mairie office. Even the tiniest villages have their own Mayor here in France, though this village is so tiny it doesn’t have a store or school or bakery or post office. Outside the Mairie, there were tables and benches set up for picniking, and there was a booth selling hot sandwiches and frites. So yummy!

Treasures ahead… Click here to see more pics and add your link!


Last month, before we flew to Rome, we stayed in Paris for couple of days. While we were there, we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower with the kids for the first time! I thought I’d share a few helpful tips for any of you with an Eiffel Tower climb in your future. (I hope it’s lots of you!)

Click here to read all 4 kid-friendly tips!


Happy Memorial Day!

May 28, 2012

I snapped this photo on Saturday at the American Military Cemetery here in Normandy. We have visited the cemetery lots of times, but this weekend it was extra-special. An American flag and a French flag were placed on every single one of the 10,000+ graves. Visits to this sacred place are always emotional, but seeing all those flags waving in the ocean breeze brought on the waterworks.

I hope your Memorial Day weekend has been wonderful. Wishing you happy gatherings with friends and family! And hotdogs hot off the grill.



For this Love the Place You Live column, I’m writing about Domain de la Galotière. It’s an apple and pear juice farm about 25 minutes from our house. This region of France produces wonderful apples, pears and all the related products like juice, cider, and a strong drink called calvados. Fun fact: this is the only region of France that doesn’t produce wine. No grapes here, it’s all about apples in Normandy.

The farm couldn’t have been more charming. Every building was made from half timber construction and the whole place was picturesque — down to the friendly dog. The inside of the shop was filled with jams and bottles and baskets and everything you might expect of a country farm. We ended up buying 6 bottles of apple juice and 6 of pear. Confession: we bought the juice on Saturday and we’re down to 1 bottle of apple and 3 bottles of pear today. It’s really good!

Click here to see more images and add your link.

Related Posts with Thumbnails