Usually, travel to France for me revolves to some extent around mealtime: the planning of the meal, the anticipation of the meal, purchasing food for the meal or choosing the restaurant, and of course, enjoying the meal. A little obsessed, perhaps. I’ll admit it. But, traveling with a packed schedule and staying in hotels, as well as traveling with a group that consisted largely of teenagers whose gourmet tastes ran towards the latest iced beverage offering by Starbucks, meant that for the most part we really did not eat well. Oh, how I hope that the adults in our group who have never been to France before do not judge French food by the odd assortment of brasseries that we dined in! (Dear friends, please go back and try Cafe Constant, please?) And to make matters even worse, my recent very necessary tightening of the gluten restrictions meant that patisseries and boulangeries were out of the question as well!
What??? France without a single good restaurant and no pain au chocolat? France without a kitchen? Quelle horreur.
But there was still wine and cheese. Thank God for wine and cheese. And olives, and red currants, and all of the other beautifully fresh offerings on hand at that most divine destination of food lovers in France: the open air market.
Now, it’s not quite the same, going to a market when you’re staying in a hotel, not a house, meaning that you have no kitchen to bring things back to, and no refrigerator to store the ridiculous amount of cheese that you’ve just purchased. But, looking is free, and (almost) as enjoyable. And I did get that darling sun hat and hot pink blouse, which by fabulous luck was a perfect fit even without trying it on…
Paris. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m enamored with this place. This hasn’t always been the case; we rarely stay here when we travel to France- we’re always on our way to someplace else in country, and I confess that I am a little crazy about the rural parts of France. The fresh, cool air, the green fields filled with cream-colored cows, the vineyards and their grand crus… I’m describing my beloved Burgundy now. But Paris is special, and this last trip reminded me of just how unique this city is in the world.
While in London, it was easy to focus on the educational part of our trip. Travel in the name of education and all that. Yes, a tour of the colleges of Cambridge, a tour of the British Museum- fabulous. Christian Heritage! Love it. Please, teach me more history. But it’s not so easy to maintain that serious educational outlook when I hit the border of a place I love so viscerally. When my brain switches into French speaking mode, I feel like part of me has come home. Which is strange, I know. I’m not French. I’m from Texas, for goodness sake.
So I’m going to have to try to reign myself in so I can describe our educational trip from a more objective point of view. And we did learn a lot. Oh yes, the tour of the city by bus was wonderful. I highly recommend it. I also recommend the tour by boat; I got some amazing photos of the Ile de la Cite, in particular Notre Dame. It is so clear from the water that the Ile de la Cite is in fact an island.
But that same day, I got the chance to go off by myself on the pretext of needing to find a pharmacy for some headache medicine for my daughter, and that walk alone was one of those moments that make your breath catch in your throat. Strolling those leafy streets, so residential and yet so close to the Eiffel Tower, was a treat of the best kind for me. You walk along, and then suddenly a side street opens up a view of the most iconic image of Paris that there is: La Tour Eiffel, in all its glory. Sycamore trees, les platanes, shade these streets that are lined with cafes, bistros, brasseries, and yes, people’s homes. And here I am, digressing into the sensual feel that the city has for me…
Okay, I can’t do it. I can’t separate the feel of the city from what I am supposed to have learned about it.
So instead, here’s a list of images of Paris:
An omelette, a galette, and a bottle of sparkling water in an underground wine cellar turned restaurant near our hotel in Bercy Village… A carafe of wine as well, of course.
Accordion players in the Metro, so quintessentially French, playing Edith Piaf just in case they aren’t already Gallic enough to make me cry.
Montmartre- even though it’s crowded and dirty and touristy, I love it anyway. I love Sacre Coeur, perched on its hill. A glass of wine and a dish of pistachio ice cream in a café in Montmartre with my daughter while the rest of the group shopped.
Versailles, with its over the top, crazy gorgeous gilding and painting on every possible surface… Fountains, gardens, glass, mirrors, extravagance. Extraordinary.
The Louvre. What is there to even say about the Louvre? Except that it’s overwhelming and astonishingly beautiful, with its strange, modern pyramid juxtaposed against 17th century palaces and filled to the brim with art of every kind (except modern. And those crazy Impressionists).
Market day, on Saturday, where we shopped for ripe red currants and cherries and bargained for linens and scored inexpensive yet stylish lace tops and sun hats (10 euros each, thank you very much), drooled over cheese that cannot be taken home, and then took a lunch break where we had the most amazing glass of Beaume de Venise. If I close my eyes I can still taste it. Who really cares about the rest of the meal when there is Beaume de Venise?
The Latin Quarter, early on a Sunday morning after seeing the exterior of Notre Dame and its sculptures for what they truly mean… Quiet, pensive, the feeling of the serious spiritual learning that is its history not so far away.
A waiter, kissing my hand as our group departed after a good meal and a delicious bottle of wine, near the Tuileries and the Champs Elysees. I don’t know why he kissed my hand, but who needs a reason for such things when you’re in Paris?
Breakfast in our hotel, of all places. I’m always happy to start my day out with a slice or two of Comte. And a café au lait.
An early morning, insomniac walk through the Paris streets, just me and the folks cleaning the streets. Most Parisians do not wake early. But the city was sparkling and fresh, and I’m glad I got to experience it this way.
Paris, with friends, and Paris through the eyes of young people. And all the joy that comes along with those things.
I think that, at last, I’ve forgiven you. I feel that we’ve made up, or at least a one-sided making up has occurred. I realize you are completely indifferent to me, but I don’t care. It’s been far too long that I’ve been annoyed with you, and I’m so happy to have reconciled. Because even though I claim to be indifferent to your charms, it’s not true: I am just as in love with you now as I was when we first met.
Why have I been so angry for so long? I felt that you had let yourself go a little. Gotten a little out of control, a little untidy and unkempt. And while these things may be true as well, there is so much more to you that I haven’t been able to see in my headlong rush to be clear of your city limits in recent years on trips to France. This time, though, I didn’t just drive your perepherique on my way to rural France. This time, I took a train straight into your center, and experienced your beauty the way it should be experienced: On foot. Silly me, what was I thinking, judging you by your airport and your (horrific) traffic?
I should know better than that.
The things I dislike about you are still true. You are not well-organized or efficiently run. Your metros caused a near meltdown in my teenaged daughter when her ticket refused to work. She took it as a personal affront, which I understand. I’ve taken many things about you as a personal insult as well. Many parts are crowded, and your metros take the idea of filth to new heights. Come on, now, would it hurt to do a little sweeping up?
But your beautifully planned out streets, thank you, Baron Haussmann, are like nothing else in the entire world. I see that now. Your boulevards, especially when the sun is shining like it was this last week, are like no place else on earth. I see that now, too. The history that has happened on your soil, the art, music, and poetry that has been inspired, it all makes me feel full to overflowing.
Maybe it was seeing you with new eyes. Maybe it was being with a group of young people and feeling their energy, or perhaps it was having a guide to walk me through your extraordinary spaces and tell me about the things that can’t be seen at all.
Whatever the reason is, I think that a serious love affair has been rekindled. And I can’t wait to get back to you again.
Travel in the name of education. What a brilliant idea.
Recently I got the opportunity to do exactly that with my 13 year old daughter. We took, together, a trip to London and Paris along with a group of high schoolers and a handful of parents from the school that she attends one day a week. It’s not the way we usually travel; it was way more organized, much more planned out, and consisted of a busy, packed-full schedule that goes against our typical café-sitting, hanging out, people watching style. But it was an incredible trip in spite of, or perhaps because of, all that. It’s good to depart from your usual way of operating, I believe.
The trip started out with my daughter and I barely getting on a flight to London, each forced to travel sitting bolt upright in a middle seat between, ahem, larger people on a packed plane, but also each just happy to be on the flight because we know it’s a privilege and blessing to be able to travel the way that we do. We arrived a few hours earlier than the rest of the group because we needed to take the flight that we were most likely to get on, but that allowed us time to get in the British groove by sitting with a couple of pots of hot tea while we waited. The wait was a bit nerve-racking, having never met most of the people that we had to find, hoping that we’d recognize at least somebody! Or our guide! We’re seasoned travelers, and I had the name and address of our hotel so that if necessary we could find our way, but really I just wanted to be able to drift along with a group with somebody telling me the way to go. And that- the drifting along with somebody telling me where to be and how to get there, was one of the best parts of this trip we took. Often, an arrival in Europe means me herding two kids through to the rental car counter and a harrowing drive out of Paris. This time, I got to follow somebody else to a train station, where they put a ticket into my hand and pointed me in the right direction. Insert a sigh of relief here…
And then- not a moment to waste- the learning through experience began in earnest! The very first night in London, we found ourselves enjoying Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, followed by dinner in a French bistro near our hotel. Let me say that again: Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral. What an experience. I’ve always loved to visit the churches of Europe, and considered it a treat to accidentally catch a Vespers service or get a glimpse of monastic life (Vezelay and Abbbaye de Senanque are a couple of my favorites). But it seemed different to have planned to be here, and having front row seats did contribute to my enjoyment.
The next morning, we hit the ground running by attending a Sunday morning church service (did I mention that this tour was run by a group called the Christian Heritage Tours?). Afterwards, we toured the Tower of London, and then my daughter and I indulged our café sitting, people watching obsession in a nearby square; for the record, London is good for some spectacular people watching. We also managed to take the obligatory photos of her in front of London Bridge, and after a brief yet torturous visit to Speakers’ Corner, squeezed in a ride on the London Eye… I’m not sure I got as much out of that as my husband would have, but I couldn’t let the opportunity for fabulous views of the city of London pass me by!
I could keep going on about the sights we saw, but really, that wasn’t what made this trip special. What was unique about this trip was the people that we were with and the people that we were able to meet. Well, that and getting the chance to see Phantom of the Opera with my girl, but even that was made more special by whom we were with. I continue to be impressed by the quality of people I meet through my children’s school, and this group was no exception. I think that we’ve made some lifelong friends, and that makes me happy. I’ve been needing more friends in Atlanta; we’ve been here over 6 years now, and the list is not long. Or at least, it wasn’t long. That has now changed. I’ve also got new friends on a global scale, which is something I love to be able to claim. Our guide to the British museum, for example, is someone I hope to run into again, not just because he was so charming, but because I intend to find a way to get the Pilot on one of these tours. He’d love it. And our guide who met us at the airport and accompanied us throughout the week? I know I’ll meet her again! And I can’t wait! She is the sort of person who takes joy from every little thing in life, and what fun it is to be around someone with such a rosy outlook.
A day trip to Cambridge was one of those times where one of the people that we met colored the entire trip. Our guide for a walking tour of Cambridge was like a living, breathing encyclopedia of the history of the place, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing his perspective on that charming city. I wish I hadn’t been so chilled that I couldn’t push thoughts of a warm, cozy place to sit out of my mind enough to fully concentrate, but lucky for me, that warm, cozy place to sit materialized in the form of Cambridge’s most popular English pub, where our little group packed into booths for a bite of lunch. A hot lunch and a few hard ciders later, and our retired teacher turned tour guide became our private lecturer on the history of England. Does it get any better than that, really? Not in my book.
Of course, I haven’t even gotten to our time in France. I’ll save that for another day. France is too dear to my heart to lump in with any other place, and writing about things is the way that I am able to savor them once again, to turn the events and moments that stand out over in my mind and examine them.
However, suffice it to say that this educational trip was even more of an education, in so many ways, than I could have anticipated. I hope that my child got as much out of it as I did, though even as I write that I know that there is no way that she could have, not yet. She will understand the importance of what she’s done and seen as she gets older- so many things are lost on the young!
For now, the one who is really benefitting, the one who is truly getting a world-class education from all this traveling, is me.
As my one faithful reader (thanks, Mom) may have noticed, I’m doing a little revamping of my blog. Polishing it up a bit, changing the format, adding some more pictures- not a lot, but I hope just enough to add a little spice. That’s kind of what I’m doing in my life as well: a little rethinking, a little polishing, a little reframing. It’s summertime, after all, so since we’re taking a break from homeschooling, I have extra time for myself. Sometimes, it’s necessary to do a little housekeeping in order to keep everything from feeling a little, well, stale.
Or maybe that’s just me. I admit it: I get a little bored sometimes. While most people really don’t like change, I rather thrive on it (Mostly. Nothing too drastic like a move to Utah. I draw the line there). But the fact is that life changes around us whether we like it or not, so we can either embrace it or not. So it is with everything, even educating my children. When I set out on the journey of homeschooling my kids, I confess that my ideas about it were much more limited than they are now. A dear friend told me early on that the worst mistake I could make was to try to make it look like public school, and she was so, so right. But even knowing that, when public school is all you have ever known, it can be hard not to compare yourself and your progress to the very thing you have left behind. I’m trying to stop that. To quit comparing my teaching style or my kids’ learning styles, or even our day to day schedules and routines… and accept that we’re doing pretty well, thank you very much.
But even that’s not the real struggle for me. The real struggle for me has been more about who I am in all this. What is a homeschooling mom? What am I becoming? Am I giving up part of who I am? Do I have to wear no makeup and long denim skirts and let my armpit hair grow? That’s what my friend in California is doing, after all…
When I first took on homeschooling and was telling some of my old friends about my intentions, I was quick to tell them that I was NOT going to be one of those. Silly, I know. But looking back I can definitely see that I was afraid I’d have to give up some part of me in order to teach my children. I feared giving up the part of me that likes getting her nails done and having good hair and makeup. And yes, even fashion, which I have to confess that I love (though mall shopping or shopping in crowded places is still completely out of the question. Don’t even ask). Sadly, though, I have given that person up, to some extent, for the last several years. So I’m trying to rethink that.
Why does homeschooling so often seem to be about my own education more than that of my children?
I’m also rethinking the title I came up with three years ago for this journal that I’m keeping. I’m learning, each year more and more, that while I may be able to use the events of my life as a story, it’s certainly not a tidy story line or one that I can predict. I can’t point to its beginning or to its ending. For goodness’ sake, I can’t even say where I’m going to be from one week to the next sometimes. There is no “once upon a time,” “happily ever after,” or “the end” going on in my world. And I may not be done with my title selecting yet, either. Delicious ambiguity. I like it, for now. It seems to define life, or at least my life, quite well. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, or where I’m going to be or even, perhaps, who I’m going to be.
Now, here’s the etymology behind my title change. Ambi: Latin meaning “around, about, or both.” Ambiguity: “the quality of uncertainty in meaning.” Delicious: From Latin deliciae, meaning “very pleasing; delightful.”
But in this case, it really just means me trying to delight in and enjoy the fact that I don’t have a clue what life’s going to throw my direction next. With homeschooling or anything else.
I often feel like so much of my life has happened by accident, by chance. I talk to many people who’ve planned for everything, while for me, it just hasn’t been like that. I mean, these people know they are going to homeschool before their children are even born! Before they’re even MARRIED! I didn’t even get to LIVE with my husband for a while after I married him (thank you, US military)! Maybe I’m just feeling a “grass is greener” sort of thing- in other words, I only think that others have things figured out while I feel like I’m wandering through life like Mr. Magoo… Lucky them if they do- my life sure hasn’t allowed me to get so comfortable, that’s for sure. We seem to be constantly living by surprise! As in, surprise! You are going back to New Mexico with your infant daughter, even though you just moved to the Gulf Coast (thank you again, US military)!
But here’s what I mean. I never set out to join the military. I stumbled into it when I wasn’t hired by my first choice in career directions. Of course, then I met the Pilot, which was obviously meant to be. I only have to look at my amazing little family to know that. Also, I never set out to homeschool. In fact, I’d say it never actually even crossed my mind until my daughter was in the first grade. And even then it took a mighty shove to get us to make the leap, which we didn’t even do till 4 years later when my son was struggling. Okay, yes, I see it. This was obviously meant to be as well- I wouldn’t have it any other way.
We set out last year, thinking we were meant to relocate to the West, and yet it was so, so wrong for us and here we are now, in a community back in the Atlanta area that we absolutely love. We couldn’t have planned it better if we’d tried. And we did try, and yet, it seems that this was meant to be as well, this thing so opposite of what we thought was going to happen.
So here’s the latest example of our living by surprise: My daughter and I have stumbled into a last minute trip to London and Paris. How in the world does that happen, you ask? Well, the school the kids attend one day a week had a trip for the high schoolers planned that had a few cancellations and they needed someone to take the spots who isn’t affected by last-minute airfare (we excel at last minute airfare, thanks to the Pilot). And so, my girl and I are off this Friday to London for about a week, followed by a few days in Paris. I still haven’t quite wrapped my brain around this fact. Of course, since we only decided to go a few days ago, I suppose being in a bit of shock is to be expected.
And do you know what the best part of this particular surprise is? The things we are going to be visiting and seeing in England all tie in with the history that she and I have been working on this entire past semester. I wrote last month about how incredibly our trip to Alcatraz had worked out for us, having just read a book about Alcatraz and all. Well, I think that this one is going to work out even better. Talk about an educational experience- read history, then go see the history.
I couldn’t have planned this one better if I’d tried, either.
Now, it’s not that we’re not planners, or that we don’t at least attempt to plan. We do, we genuinely do. Or at least I do. I don’t think the Pilot is upset by our wanderings at all. For me, however, there is a certain level of stress that comes with things being up in the air so often, which leads me to my envy of others whose lives seems so calm and ordered, so well-thought out. Our jaunt out west, for example, led to a roaring case of shingles for me, on my face, no less. Obviously the stress of it all does indeed get to me sometimes.
Of course, there’s the chance that I am only imagining that others lives are tidier than mine. Or perhaps the lesson here is one in trust. Truly, I couldn’t have planned so many things that have happened to me in my life better than they have worked out. And for all that disorderly, chaotic, messy, delightful, stressful fun, I am truly grateful.
As Robert Burns put it, the best laid schemes of mice and men do often go awry. But here’s where I don’t entirely agree with Mr. Burns: It doesn’t always lead to grief and pain.
Being married to an airline pilot has its perks. In fact, I kind of think that the Pilot has the Best Job Ever, and I should know, since after all he’s spent 17-plus years in the military as well. Why is it the best job ever, other than the fact that it means he no longer has to spend months on end in places like Afghanistan or Iraq?
Because sometimes he gets trips to terrific places and his family can tag along.
So recently, tag along is exactly what we did, on a trip to San Francisco, California. We didn’t fly out with him- we went out a little earlier so that we could meet up with family and have dinner with them, which we did, at an Italian cafe in North Beach, not far from our hotel. (Okay, well, we didn’t actually eat there- we ate Chipotle before we got there. That’s one of the bummers of being gluten free… most Italian food is effectively ruled out, but the glass of wine I had was delicious!) And do you know what the best part of the evening was, besides seeing family? That we walked everywhere we went. At night. And were (mostly) safe because everybody else was out there walking too. I love Atlanta, you know, but a walking city it is not.
But San Francisco is very much a walking city, and I’d bet you we probably put in about 10 miles in our two days out there. I could certainly live that way! And one of the things we did while ambling about the city was to go on a tour of Alcatraz. Now, touring Alcatraz is not something you do on a whim. We had to order tickets about a month in advance- apparently, everyone wants to tour the place, making it a very popular tourist destination. Which typically makes me not want to do something. But, this is an exception- one of those things you really have to do if you’re visiting San Francisco- kind of like going up the Eiffel Tower if you’re in Paris. Yes, everybody’s doing it, but that’s because it really is that cool. And so, into the very long line we shuffled, and onto the boat that takes you out to the island. In my opinion, anything that gets you out onto the water is worth doing- I love being on the ocean even for short rides in the harbor (I have been known, back when we were spending lots of time up at Whidbey Island courtesy of the US Navy, to ride the ferry boats just for fun). And this one is a very short ride out to the island that houses the famous prison. In no time at all, you are stepping out onto where some of history’s most notorious criminals were housed in the early part of the 20th century. That the ride is short is in itself significant: these criminals really were being kept very, very close to the city, teeming with normal life, all happening right there almost in front of them. But they were also worlds away. You could see how strong and swift the current was, and feel the chill of the cold, cold waters of the Pacific. They are pretty sure that nobody who tried to escape ever actually made it.
The prison itself is a fascinating place to walk through. You are given a headset to guide you, and you get to learn about the cells where the different individuals were held, where they ate their meals, and everything about their strictly controlled lives. You learn about who tried to escape, who was held there, and yes, that does mean Al Capone. And the best part of the tour for us was the fact that we just read a book together called “Al Capone Does My Shirts” by Gennifer Choldenko. Things don’t always come together that smoothly for me- it sounds good in theory to read about a place and then go visit it, right? Actually making it happen, however, is more complicated than that. But we pulled it off this time, and as we walked around the island, we were imagining Moose and his sister Natalie and where they might have lived and what they felt like, living there on the island with all those convicts, taking the ferry across to the city in order to go to school or whatever else they needed to do. Having just read their story brought the island to life for us.