vendredi 19 juillet 2013

mai, juin, juillet - travel and visitors en plus

As our year nears its finish, we've been fitting in as much as we can which means I've fallen behind.
Let's catch up.
May was a month of travel and time away.
Geneva managed to get sick again the week before we went to Scotland - her profs didn't hesitate to let me know about time missed - however, recovered in time to go on vacation.
We flew to Glasgow via Gatwick on May 7 to meet my Dad and his wife for our UK adventure.
Elena woke up in the Cathedral House hotel on her 10th birthday with a worry that her birthday celebrations might be overshadowed by travel and usual rituals forgotten. But no, her birthday chair complete with balloons and gifts on top was waiting in our room. Only a small bit of concern that pounds sterling was more the theme.
Two days of Glasgow inclement weather - it had been sunny and 30 degrees on the evening we landed - still allowed us to see all the sights and experience the truly warm and friendly Glaswegian folk. The on/off bus became our mode of transport and showed us a city we didn't know much about but were glad to meet.
On to Kirriemuir. We took our rental cars east and north to spend three nights near the origins of my Dad's mother's family, the Gordons. The Stone Cottage was lovely though an interesting mix of feminine touch (Portmerion crockery abound) and male stamp (horns, stags and the like) and our only complaint was that we had to get Bob the owner to turn on the heat for us as it decided to be quite chilly in the evenings.
One day spent walking into Glen Tairie where the Gordons were shepherds and the next, driving north to the north coast to visit Elgin as Barb's father was born in the distillery house at Glen Moray when his father was distillery manager. A drive with quite a view as we went coast way en route and inland back through the Cairngorms on the return. Locals in Elgin were surprised that we would be driving up and back just in one day. Marco found a taste for 30 year old whisky (just not a stomach for the cost).
Next onto Edinburgh to drop the cars and become walking tourists again with the wonderful advantage of a local tour guide flown in specially from Toronto - thanks, Treva!!!
Our holiday flat was lovely and positioned very well in New Town on North Castle Street which meant the 5 minute walk uphill gave full panorama views of the Castle on the cliff.
Again, Scotland weather dogged us as we had most seasons several times in one day. Here we began our brush with Harry Potter as we had our afternoon tea stop at the Elephant House Café.
Treva gave us a full walking tour up along the Royal Mile - which is the best stairs up? - and then a lovely dinner. Which Treva and I then made a small detour to meet Vari at the prosecco-on-tap Missoni hotel - bella!
Again, on/off tour bus gave us full views of the up and down beauty of this grand old city. Highlight for the girls was definitely the Camera Obsura museum with lots of optical illusions and fun interactive bits - thanks for the reco, Vari and Treva - along with time in a real backyard on a trampoline playing with English speaking kids - yay Archie, Angus and Poppy - and we definitely had equal fun visiting Vari and Ben in their lovely home. Much thanks, Edinburgh crew for showing us a good time.
Next stop, back to Gatwick . Easy Jet was its usual self and with a 2 hour delay, we missed taking our London reservations so Denise kindly agreed to meet us for dinner at the North Terminal (yikes). Following a confused stop at the lounge, we proceeded to have a really decent dinner at the Sofitel - surprising us all. What a treat!
The following morning had us on the train to Watford to pick up our Harry Potter adventures again - this time, at the epicenter. Harry Potter Studio Tour it was and really quite a place. Dad and Barb were good troopers considering they'd never seen/read any of the stories. In addition to it being a pilgrimage to the place where the movie magic happened - so much to see - it truly is a testament to the amazing amount of work that goes into major films of this scale. Quite awe inspiring.
Having filled our boots, we again boarded the train just one stop north as we took advantage of being so close to have another good visit with Ingrid, Carl and Louis - this time, finally making it to Berkhamsted to see their digs. Another lovely welcoming home and English friend to play with.
Thanks Gardiners!
Next leg of this tour had us into rental cars again - this time, less easy to acquire so lesson learned to make sure your rental place is right at the airport, not at a local hotel which you have to get yourself to - and off driving to the Kent coast. Our fisherman's huts on the beach awaited us in Whitstable. They fully delivered on the fun - so glad we did it as they sat right on the beach, with the sounds of the boats' riggings outside clinking through our open windows to the salty air.
Following one of the most memorable meals we could all remember at the Sportsman in Seasalter on Friday night (if you're ever in the area - I agree with Food and Wine mag that this place is worth a pilgrimage to), the next day gave us morning time to wander the quaint seaside resort town and then all into the cars to descend on Carol's birthday plus wedding anniversary party in the country hall in Graveney. It was very special to be part of the travelling family crew to celebrate with Carol and Roger and see Carol's "this is your life in England" moment with many friends from different parts of her time joining together. Again, girls had an absolute blast as there was a huge grass field - mind you, just mowed and no raking so cut grass, more like hay in piles, sat everywhere - as well as 7 or 8 other kids of varying older ages to hang out with. Rounders became the fun and they ran around all afternoon/evening. Good stuff.
Following morning left just time for breakfast before we were back to the rental cars to catch our afternoon Gatwick return to Toulouse, with Dad and Barb joining for more visiting in France. Again, the rental car bit dogged us and we literally had to run to catch our flight as they were calling our names. All's well that ends well.
I jinxed myself in the UK as I kept reassuring Dad and Barb that though the weather was not stunning for our UK bit, south of France would redeem and we'd see temps in the mid 20s. Not to be. We came back to unseasonably cool and rainy so by the end of their 8 days, I think we decided we'd had only one day of our whole time together which hadn't rained. Bollocks. Making the best of it, we toured them around the sites of Toulouse. I got to ride the Toulouse tour train for the first time... it's the quickest, no-stopping, watch your hands type little train ride you'll be on! We had a failed attempt one day to get the train to Carcassone - again, experiencing all the joys of France means the one train you want to take and have just purchased tickets not 15 minutes before, is cancelled for no clear reason we could be told. Thank goodness for friends with cars and we rescheduled and had a do-over day the next day. Rental car was planned for the weekend so we wouldn't be stopped for one day drive to the Pyrenees thermal spa pool and breathtaking views. Nor were we thwarted for our drive to the Mediterranean beach for a sunny and hot dimanche - finally!
Dad and Barb took advantage on their final day to make a day trip to Paris to see the sights. And then our wonderful extended visit came to a close. We were so lucky to have them join us and treat us for much of this great trip. Many thanks and many memories.
Rain saw them on the way out and I spent the week catching up as the following weekend, I was in a rental car again, this time bound for Barcelona to meet Cyndi and Denise for our girls weekend.
What a fantastic time together! We discovered a fabulous rooftop patio which we frequented, had stunning Barcelona walks, a spectacular nighttime tour of La Pedrada/Casa Mila and generally shared some priceless time together. All in hot early June sunshine. Really wonderful.
Monday directed Cyndi and I back to Toulouse, though not in a clear and straight departure from Barcelona (I'm a bit cursed driving in this city!). Thank goodness the sunshine also followed which gave us a great week to see Toulouse and surrounds - more Carcassone, more Pyrenees and one visit we could have never planned but was a stunner.
Elena's girlfriend/my friend invited Elena to stay the night in her grandmother's "house" near Bordeaux. As El was reticent to go on her own, I boldly asked if Cyndi and I could join as I knew it had a few bedrooms to spare. Little did we know, it's a Chateau (yes, a capital C for sure) in the centre of La Reole and was originally commissioned by Richard the Lionhearted - not even kidding you. It has it's own sign in centre of the village, directing you to Quat'Sos - seriously, look it up. It's mind blowing and it's where we spent a night. Cyndi and I giggled the whole time in disbelief. The following morning, while the girls ran around on the grounds playing, we had a guided tour from Helene's 93 year old grandmother who still lives in the chateau during summer months. It was quite a special time.
Finishing out the week in Toulouse, we were back on the road to Barcelona - a girls trip again but this time with Cyndi and my girls. Pouring rain just before the border curtailed our thoughts of stopping to investigate Collioure and we pressed on through the Pyrenees. Onto the Spanish side and the skies opened to beautiful blue and sunshine. Ahhh. So we sped on to Barcelona for more time on the rooftop terrace, more wandering Barrio Gothica and shopping and more Ciudad Comdal tapas - best we've had. Again, driving in Barcelona was to plot against me as both our phones cut out on finding us a map to Cyndi's airport hotel. I won't spend time reliving the frustrating drive to the airport hotels nor the scary and unfortunate moments when my purse was stolen with us in the car at our hotel after midnight. Needless to say, the girls and I were ready to just get home after all of it the next day - beach time thoughts abandoned - and after some tearful pleas with the hotel we stayed, we had 40 euros cash to get us through the tolls on our drive home. Have never been more done with a rental car and ready to park.
Luckily I didn't have much time to stew about my losses as the next day, Marco began feeling really awful and by the following morning, we were at the doctor's office to confirm our suspicions that it was an appendicitis attack. Kudos to the French healthcare system as we moved from 11 a.m. doctor's appointment to midday bloodwork, 2 p.m. ultrasound, 5 p.m. appointment with the surgeon and then admitted to hospital by 6:30 with plans for surgery the next day. By noon, Marco was in and by 3 p.m., he was waking up in recovery. All of our French friends were teasing us that we just wanted to experience all that France has to offer - chalk it up. Thank goodness all worked out well and our travel emergency insurance kicked in nicely.
The following week, I resumed my plight to replace passports, visas, driver's license, cards and the like while Marco took his much required week of rest at home. The girls continued on with school, with the end in sight and none to soon for either of them. I got to experience the craziness and frustration of the French government at the local Prefecture office while after a 2/12 hour wait, I have an appointment to retrieve my French visa/carte de sejour - it's for September 4. Yes, it doesn't seem to matter to locals that I will be gone by this point. So I'm currently hanging out in France without proper paperwork, but I'm ok if I carry around my police report (written in Catalan) - that'll cover it. Sigh.
The girls ended school on the last week of June - Geneva finished on Wednesday and Elena on Friday, sort of. In reality, Elena could have gone to school til the following Wednesday afternoon however, as her teacher kept asking her students who would be there the next week, I caught that there would be nothing of importance she would miss. The girls were well and truly done with their year, report cards delivered and their anticipation of neighbour visits palpable.
We hosted a Canada Day evening which included 4 Brazilians, 4 French, 1 Greek, 1 Indian and 4 Americans (though two have Canadian citizenship as well). BBQ courtesy of the Brazilians transport made it feel almost like what we would do at home and again, the girls were out in decorating force. Since we couldn't have real fireworks, they make paper ones to hang around the apartment. Much fun had by all and lots of good eats. Did beef and lamb burgers, chicken breasts, watermelon feta salad, quinoa salad and faked up a pretty good version of strawberry shortcake for dessert.
Then the waiting began for the Thursday evening arrival of the Holders... would the day ever come?!
Come it did and we were all just thrilled to rejoin our neighbourly time together. Along with it, hot summer weather. It's on!
We headed off for a weekend in the country, renting a house at a gite just south of Minerve near where we stayed last summer/at Christmas. It was fun to be back in the Languedoc and at the one year anniversary of our trip there last summer to start our French adventure.
Gite house and location were beautiful, pool was stunning, views spectacular - all good (even the gite maître dame who was a bit uptight with us). We had a top notch dinner in Minerve at a 2 star Michelin restaurant at regular formule prices. Steve and Marlene got to catch up with the Tour de France on its stage towards the Pyrenees. Girls swam and played and loved hanging together again. Our Irish/Spanish friends from St-Jean came over to join for dinner. We trekked on for a great day at another Mediterranean beach - Plage Lido at Sete - to meet Alex, Kristin, Torey and Harlan (yes, it took some doing to find each other but we made it happen!) and then a yummy seafood meal overlooking the canals in the vieux port of Sete.
As our last morning in the gite pool arrived, we definitely could have stayed on - though were propelled out as we needed to get back to Toulouse to add to the neighbour fun. The Belots were arriving on the train from Paris and our partial Walter Street camping trip meets France had one full day to pull off.
That evening, we all enjoyed the A/C of the Belot hotel room and champagne + aperitifs to start the time all together. Tapas was the plan in Place St George for dinner then a wander to gelato in Place Capital - to keep with the Holders' continuity and start prepping the Belots.
Three car caravan left the following morning to Carcassone - yes, kind feel like I could be a tour guide now but it was worth it to all visit together - then on to the beach at Gruissan. Just lovely being all together, loose bumpers and all. We sadly had to say goodbye to Steve, Marlene, Alexa and Caitlin as they made their way back to Toulouse and the train to Paris for their final journey leg.
Sara, Dave, Connor, Erik and the Mariotti girls decided to head into Narbonne to check the place out and after a lovely walk about - did you know the Cathedral which stands so imposingly on the skyline as you drive past is neither finished nor in use?! - we stayed on for a delicious dinner on a terrace. What a day!!
Next day, the decision was the subterranean lake near Foix - good choice as it was a picturesque drive in a different direction (southerly on the route towards Andorra), a fun boat ride on the longest navigatible underwater river in Europe they'll have you know - and another lovely wander about in a city I'd not seen enough of. Back to Toulouse to the "meat" restaurant I wanted to share with the Belots as I thought they'd appreciate. Oh, right, it also has potatoes cooked in duck fat. Wow! If you're grimacing, don't knock it til you've tried it. La Braisiere again delivered - all happy diners.
Our final shared day was another scorcher here so we decided it was outdoor pool time in the biggest one we know - failed attempt to get to the market meant we just stopped for Pizza Lopez and then got ourselves to the cool waters. Lovely afternoon and dinner made in the A/C of the Belots' hotel room was heavenly. Again, we were sorry to have to say goodbye. It was only tempered by the fact that we'd be on a plane the next day to Ajaccio and we knew the Belots still had their Italian adventure to unfold.
Right, on to more travels - next stop, Corsica. With Marco's brother, wife and kids already arrived, we agreed to meet for a weekend in Ajaccio. What a beautiful place! Hoping some time we can find ourselves back there. Lisa booked a perfectly located hotel right in vieux port, next to the daily open air market, a great boulangerie and a quick walk to everywhere good.
Timing was great as we'd just gotten settled into the hotel when Chuck, Lisa, Amina and Marcello arrived and cousins were happy to reconnect.
We wandered the town plus took in the Beaux Art gallery before a tasty meal at Da Mama - first chosen just for the name however recommendations also supported.
Next day, beach time. Found the bus to take us along the beaches north - seems you don't really pay for the bus if you're a tourist as twice, the bus driver just waved us on - merci, Corse!
Rode right to the end to see the islands of Il Saunginieres and then looped back to chose Plage Dolce Vita. Lovely, minus the jellyfish hordes which the current had decided to wash towards all the beaches - just that day, all the locals told us. As it was, the kids loved passing the time in between careful swimming by scooping out les meduses in nets and it gave Marco and Chuck something constructive to do - all told, not bad.
Our evening choice of pizza was booked solid so we chanced another spot and benefitted from the live band down the street in their Johnny Cash, Stray Cats, Buddy Holly repertoire. Some street dancing with kids might have ensued - sadly, I did not have the prowess or moves of our 4 year old nephew. Marcello was feeling the groove.
A final day at the beach together on Fete Nationale and we got the full deal as the local beach along the fortress wall was also the main promenade where the parade was taking place. Great day - no jellyfish in site. Chuck and Lisa prolonged their afternoon so we could have the promised pizza together and then some "rose" gelato (shaped like a flower by the paddle, not the flavor) - thanks Aunt Dot for treating!
We walked them off to the train then headed back to the beach for a bit more time. Then fireworks at nightfall in the port facing our hotel that night - kinda made up for missing Canada Day fireworks.
Again the next morning - our last - Elena and I couldn't resist the pull so we got down to the beach for a morning swim. Just us and the seniors out for their exercise. Weather again stunning.
So we're back to Toulouse and the highlight of this week - definitely for the girls - is booking our flight back to Toronto. We're doing a return bit - coming back for a month and then a return week in late September to Toulouse join Marco in celebrating his graduation. Then we will all fly back together and put a close on this glorious, challenging, event-filled year.
As Geneva's birthday approaches tomorrow, we're heading to the beach tonight. Guess I've got one more blog post in me to finish off our final summer adventures.
Hope you're well and not too fatigued to get through this all.
A la prochaine,

jeudi 25 avril 2013

weeks 32-35 - springtime in France

Weeks of springtime, flowers and nice weather are upon us which is making days pleasant - it stays light well into the evening which is nice.
We are now into summer plans and thoughts - both friends visiting (yayy!), what will we do for the summer and what will our plans be for this fall. First bit is sorted, next two not so much.
Marco has progressed into the weeks of his internship and is making strides in meeting with people to lay out his project research. He has also made inquiries about potential further opportunity beyond his stage at Airbus - salaries definitely not at parity with Canada so this might be a deciding factor about our upcoming plans.
The girls continue to do well in school though are clearly starting to count down to year's end and with serious intent that our plans take us back to Canada. They had counted on the year and no more.
I've had bits of time with the ladies I've met through French conversation class - good to hear other perspectives on moving to Toulouse with your spouse and less of a plan for yourself.
I was very lucky to spend a weekend on my own, the first weekend of April, in Paris to watch Denise run the marathon and catch up with Florence for dinner, Darryl for champagne and visit the Musee d'Orsay on my own time.
Following this, the girls are now on holidays for two weeks - this week and next - which we are keeping low key as we leave for Scotland then England on May 7. On this note, the girls are thrilled as they are basically off from school now for a month, minus the two days they will go back just before we depart. We'll meet my dad and his wife to visit Scotland, my aunt's birthday in Kent and then they will join us here in Toulouse to visit France for a week. Adventure is close at hand.
Meantime, we've done some more local touring with French friends - this past weekend seeing a subterranean lake in a grotte near Foix plus visiting a wolf park to see - wait for it - Canadian wolves. Tres amusant.
I also just had a Monday day trip to Lyon to meet Patrick for lunch - how lovely - nous avons manger bien - as well as wandered the city together.
Wishing you warm spring weather to stay.
a la prochaine,

mercredi 3 avril 2013

weeks 26-31 - catching up

Yes, I've been off the blogging for a bit - as several of you have now commented, I'm taking that as consideration/compliment that sometimes people are reading and I'm not just sending to the wind.
Also, really haven't had groundbreaking updates to share so somewhat less inspired to sit and type about my day to day walks to school, market shopping, cooking.
Have been finding the winter more challenging in that the reality of not working is real, the day to day schedule a bit small in scope, the sense that my progression in French is stalling a bit and our overall social network/time is quite limited.
It is what it is and it's where we're/I'm at. Plus lots of cloudy days and rain/sometimes snow is less helpful. Again, it is what it is.
As we're moving back in to more places to visit and things to be engaged with, this too shall pass.
That said, the girls and I did enjoy a week in Provence while Marco spent his last two weeks of his course at Ecole de l'Air (French airforce school on the army base in Salon de Provence), though the weather wasn't spectacular and the landscape was still brown as it was too early for spring/flowers/colour/lavender.
What was cool to see was the aerobatics team who was on the base practising for an upcoming competition so each morning, we were treated to some low flying air spectacles. Marco even got to see the fighter jets with their tri-coloured smoke climbing move one day.
It was interesting as Marco's brother and sister-in-law gave Geneva a novel for Christmas that followed a 15 yr old Montreal kid on an adventure through Roman ruins/history around Aix-en-Provence as his dad, a famous photographer, was in Provence to shoot a coffee table book. We did refer back to this in reflection on what we visited.
Highlights of the first week of March in Provence:
- Sat lovely sunny aft 3 hr drive - Salon-de-Provence not such a draw but ok
- Sun lovely sunny day in vieux port of Marseille with Marco - glad for that visit and the view from the Notre Dame on the hill looking down on the port
- Mon sunny but breezy cooler for Roman ruins in Arles, Nimes and Pont du Gard (bridge- stunning sun setting view of this old massive Roman aqueduct bridge
- Tues cool, windy and bits of rain for Aix-en-Provence cathedral visit - craziest church I've visited yet with 5 different centuries/styles represented - and walk about. Disappointed as we wanted to do Roman thermal baths but just for adults
- Wed cool, windy and more rain for market day in St Remy-en-Provence and Avignon: didn't realize how big Avignon is and yes, we sang at the bridge
- Thurs cool, windy but sun eventually for Mediterranean beach side town of Les Sainte Maries sur la mer, wilds of Camargue and salt flats
- Fri sun found us and we found a protected little beach just on the west side of Marseille where we hung out for a picnic afternoon. What we didn't find was the theatre in the next town over where we'd intended to see Hotel Transylvania - oh well
- Sat departure - sun again and the sad part of leaving Marco for another week there as we returned was tempered by heading to Limoux to visit their long-running carnival (both longest in history and longest in duration as runs each weekend from Jan to mid-Mar) to meet up with our Irish/Spanish friends. Was World Day at the carnival that weekend so crowded into the square in centreville to see performers from Brazil, Cameroon, Spain, Turkey - lots of good fun and energy. We ended up spending the night at our friends' in their village house in St-Jean-de-Minervois as we didn't get enough visit time
- so Sun was a hanging out day in the area we stayed last summer/over Christmas. Nice to be back and really good catch up time with friends
Marco finished his course work - bravo - and did well on his first segment. We spent his first week back sorting our tax stuff to get it ready for our accountant (exciting!) and last week, Marco attended a composites course back at ENAC which he'd wanted to do for a while.
We had more visitors arrive the weekend before Easter - yay! - Andrea who I worked with at J3 and her friends Maggie and Mark stayed with us from Sunday til Wednesday and we all enjoyed the new faces and additional company. I rolled out my "Sandi Mariotti walking tour of Toulouse" as well as drove to Carcassone for an afternoon. Then the gang headed on to Barcelona where we joined this past weekend to celebrate Marco's birthday/Paques.
It was fun being back to sunny Barcelona - big city energy is good in doses. What's not fun, we've decided, is driving in Barcelona. We made it well into the city in daylight however, being Easter weekend, the apartment we'd rented (in a different neighbourhood - just off of Las Ramblas) was proving very challenging to drive to as Las Ramblas was closed to traffic due to a Good Friday procession to the Cathedral and was the only route to get to the apartment/closest parking lot. We parked and I walked down to sort out/get keys when I got stuck in the crowd as the procession moved across the street - would have been enjoyable if we weren't trying to get checked in to our apartment.
We decided not to fight it and left the car parked in the lot where it was, trucking our gear down for a good 15 minute hike. The Cava and Rioja tasted superb following, along with the market picnic of cheese, olives and bread which Andrea and Co. had secured for our arrival.
This visit focused more on local walking around Las Ramblas/Barrio Gothica/El Born, markets and eating at recommended spots, along with a mountain top amusement park visit as Marco's choice for his birthday activity. Stellar views from the roller coaster down on the city and the sea (as I'm told - I was happy to hold bags + jackets ;)
Girls continue to do well in school - whether they adore it or not - and Geneva has created a design for the school logo in the annual competition which has been selected as one of 2 from her grade level to be considered in the final design competition among the 4 grade levels. Bravo!
We look forward to upcoming spring vacation time with friends, then my Dad in Scotland and more family in England and then neighbours starting summer vacations with us. We will also look forward to where the world takes us in the coming months.
Hope the world is treating you well - cheers to spring.
a la prochaine,

mercredi 27 février 2013

week 25 - social scene

In the run up to holidays, we've had some fun outings which have been a nice addition.
Tuesday night we were invited to Helene, Christophe and girls' house for paella and Elena got to have a sleep over with Estelle. Really nice time hanging out in a house, conversing in French (though more taxing in the evening) and spending family time together. As Christophe had spent 3 years working on the base in Salon de Provence, he was a willing resource to list all the places we should see for our upcoming week (Marco has 2, just not to tour).
Wednesday night was a surprise outing as Marco texted us in the afternoon to invite us to join his school chums in their after school soccer game. As the weather was so nice that day, the outdoors beckoned so we joined. The girls and I definitely couldn't keep up with a bunch of serious twenty-somethings but Marco held his own and they were kind to let us stand in.
Thursday was a make good for the previous week - we invited Thomas, our Thursday evening tutor charge and Elena's classmate, and his mom Laurence for lemon chicken tagine. Again, lovely to have a social evening to visit together. Funny part was that we both picked up special desserts to share - mine were cupcakes from the local shop (very North American) and hers were stunning treats from Maison Pillon, Toulouse's version of Laduree or Fauchon. Nous avons manger bien.
Friday arrived with much excitement - both the last day of school before vacation and the arrival in the evening of Denise for her weekend visit. The sun shone brightly and we made it through the day however there was an unmistakable drop in temperature so when I arrived at the Metro stop to await Dee's navette, it was damn cold.
Saturday morning kept up Dee's running schedule in preparation for her Paris marathon run so I joined on a bike (oh, you know there's no running for me). Brisk in both temperature and pace, we did well and gave the canal a good run for our money.
In the afternoon, we picked up the rental car to head north one hour (or longer, after the first wrong turn leaving the train station, I made several more before we finally got sorted and enroute) to visit Cahors, the home of Malbec and other grand sites. The weather continued to work against us with bits of blowing snow and sharp winds - I know, no sympathy for the minutes of winter but really, it's not supposed to be like this here in the south of France and we'd just lived through a week of sunny double digits.
We parked, marked out the route straight to the famous 14th century bridge and sited a patisserie to reinforce us on our walk. All for naught - it was seriously windy cold. Bridge viewed quickly and photos snapped in haste for proof, we hightailed it back to the old centre of town for a warm up. Decision over hot chocolate was to cut our losses and head back to Toulouse for dinner - which was a solid move and a lovely local spot.
The following morning was made to stay inside - snow on the roofs and blowing snow became the deterrant to venture out again for "the big run" - sorry, Dee! We bided our time inside until a version of sun tried to peek through the clouds. We took this as our time to move out and head to the market to stock up for stew. With a cerf (deer) bourgnion on the simmer, we were out to find an exhibit of a local Toulousian photographer, Germaine Chamel, from the 30s on and ahead of her time.
Again the path was not direct - we zigged when we should have zagged - and this is why God created iphones. Back on track, we found the exhibition hall - along with many other Toulousians who also did not want to miss the last day of the exhibit.
Very glad we persevered as her photographs were numerous, varied and beautiful - from rugby matches to gypsys from fashion models to politicians and holidays with her family. Lighting was so amazing and she had such an eye - well worth our efforts to get there and fight the crowds.
Rounding up, a yummy if not quickly put together dinner capped our weekend and it was back to the navette stop to get Dee off to the airport (if only Easyjet could have been as efficient!).
So on to holidays and last night, we had what was arguably one of the most fun of our time here yet. We hosted "Canadian Night" at our apartment for Marco's school chums.
As we couldn't possibly cover the gammet of what Canada means in a culinary sense, we chose things we remember as being clearly from our childhood. So I trotted out lasagna for Marco's family - one with pork and one with fried eggplant to cover a veggie option, if needed - and cabbage rolls from mine. Dessert topped with nanaimo bars and banana bread. The girls did fantastic decorations with snowflakes, maple leaves and moose heads posted on the walls. They also attempted to freeze some maple syrup drops to have treats for all - didn't work so they just passed around shots of sirop d'erable as a digestif.
The gang of almost 20 was such a fun group - all younger but really amicable and they've all developed a fun sense of togetherness over their six months. It was a bit bitter sweet too as this is their last week at the school in Toulouse. Next week, it's off to Salon de Provence for two weeks to finish the coursework and then stages (interships) start so some classmates will leave Toulouse.
Highlight for me, other than everyone having a lovely time here together, was when Marco's friend pulled out his accordian - yes, you heard that right (and he's in his early 30s) and started playing. SO FUN! I held back from leaping up to polka - Marco did not - he and his "mec" Arnault were on the dancefloor to entertain. It was a good moment.
We'll finish out the week in Toulouse and then on Saturday, we're off to Salon de Provence for the week - Marco in courses during the day and the girls and I will find our own Provence adventures.
A la prochaine,

lundi 18 février 2013

week 24 - vacation count down

Feeling this might be an abbreviated one as not a big week of events last week. Geneva has been sick with cough/cold/on+off fever since last Sunday so missed school last week. Was the week to miss as she hardly had classes - a bunch cancelled through the week due to professors' absences (they don't have subsitutes here - if a teacher is sick or out, you just don't have the class), Wednesday typical half-day and Thursday was off as the students one year younger were visiting the college in anticipation of their arrival there in September so the 6ieme (G's level class) grade was excused for the day as her profs were all busy. Elena was in and out of sick, better by week's end. (yes, we did hit the Dr's office by Friday morning - nothing to be done but rest, cough syrup and rest).
Did make pancakes and all the trimmings for Martedi Grosso.
I managed to make it to aquabike again on Wednesday which was a good effort. Also have started hopping on the on/off Velo Toulouse bikes most days now that I have the Express Pass sorted.
Royally overcooked a batch of marmalade - in France, they're called orange amere (from Seville) - so now I have three pots of orange molasses.
With Elena's class at half capacity on Thursday - the older kids all practising how to be in college for the day - our walk about the streets was called at last minute (no surprise) so I kept the CM1s busy with a double page spread activity from the one Chickadee magazine we brought with us. Was much fun so will see if I can hunt one down for this week's class.
We had yummy red  + pink dinner on Thursday night - baguette with tarama (taramoussalata), fav pasta in ragu sauce, red velvet cupcakes and pink Cremant de Loire (girls had pink lemonade).
The weekend weather was spectacular - with the sun coming back into full view and double digit temps. I worked to haul the gang outside for as much of it as we could, which meant one outing to the Jardins des Plantes and one long wander along the Garonne river.
We had an invitation to join our Irish/Spanish friends to see a "kissing festival" in a small town north of Avignon in Provence however with G still down, we had to pass and keep local.
I did finally visit the Sunday market at Basilique St Serin - actually, wasn't missing much - lots of cheap tees, jeans, makeup, shoes, second hand books, linens, whatever cheap - really, someone wants to pay money... even just a small bit... for this crap?! Clearly yes as the market surrounded the whole church and was busy.
Highlights - Sat night Sticky Toffee Pudding and Sun night Polenta Orange Cake.
And as the title states, girls and I will be ready for a change of pace starting Friday - two weeks holidays approaching.
More on that next time.
A la prochaine,

lundi 11 février 2013

week 23 - formalities and more skiing

With the weather continuing in its clouds and rain, the girls and I are starting to count down to vacance d'hiver for some (hopefully) sunny time in Provence in early March.
The winter viruses are circulating and many coughs, colds, fevers and aches are around. The girls have each had bouts of sore throats and slight fevers and bits of days off from school to recoup.
Last week, there was some reprieve as they had the full day of Wednesday off for Journee Pedagogique (PA day). I had bold plans but the weather didn't cooperate and the girls needed just to chill so we had a relaxing morning and then went to find a movie at the local cinema.
What was intended to be Le Cinq Legends (Rise of the Guardians) ended up settling on Gambit - appropriate (luckily for me) and reasonably entertaining - and in English with French subtitles.
We had a quick dinner so that I could attend a reception at la Salle des Illustres - a beautiful room, not quite of Sistine Chapel proportions but in similar style, at the Capitole. The newcomers association I've joined, along with the Maire (Mayor's office) hosted and the Maire himself was there to speak - with less engaging English interpretation - as well as the President of the Association. Felt like a very long Air Canada flight with two speeches delivered in parts of French then English, touting the good things happening in Toulouse as well as the value of the newcomers association.
Then a glass of sparkling (cider, I'm certain) and a quick chat with my new friends group and my reason for putting on some fancies was complete.
The following night, we had Geneva's big night to accept her prize. Not being certain what to expect, we all hurried home to get out to the 18h (6 p.m.) meeting at the office.
Admittedly, it was an odd bit as we arrived at the office of the insurance agency who sponsored the contest and doors were locked - as it was 6. The young man who had contacted us to organize was awaiting inside and buzzed us in. He then greeted us and said he would call le Directeur for the presentation. So we stood making small talk in the reception area. Le Directeur arrived along with a woman (not sure her role but she was nice) and another guy who would be photographer. Formal greetings and introductions all around and then we stood looking at each other.
You all know how well I do with silence so I started chatting up about being Canadian, having been in Toulouse for 6 months, Marco's program, about the lovely the city and surrounding area, and such. Then we got into a chat about what we'd seen and visited - I starting listing our travels - and there was a quick exchange between le Directeur and the woman, and she excused herself.
We chatted on a bit more and she popped back in with a lovely large photo book on the Grand Sites of the Midi Pyrenees in French, English and Spanish to offer us. What a treat!
So with small talk almost used up, le Directeur became formal again to do the officially hand shake and presentation of the Wii. Then there were pictures in front of the big decorated Cow they have sitting in their office and the confirmation that Geneva's picture would be in their newsletter along with the copy of her picture hanging in the office window, along with the other finalists.
As we were now all looking at each other again, I suggested we didn't want to take up more time of their evening (we seem to have covered all the bases) so we were all given our leavings and we were off. Nice people, just a bit awkward. Now, what to do with the Wii.
Friday morning brought my second visit to French conversation group which was again enjoyable and we all smiled at the round about conversations and topics we could cover in the hour and a half. The afternoon was again cold, grey and rainy so I installed myself at my girlfriend's, as she is around the corner from the school, and she built us a fire so we could chat.
Saturday plans were again bound for skiing and this time, we opted for Pyrenees still in France. Up and early to the rental at the train station, we were on the road in good time. Driving was clear and comfortable to Ax les Thermes just until we came within 5 km of the town and then the conga line inching along began. Next was the hunt for a parking spot as clearly everyone in the environs had decided today was a day to ski. We learned after at the rental place that all the rain we saw that week in Toulouse translated into heaps of snow in the mountains so they were all prepared for the hoards.
We're learning each outing about how best these skiing plans might be completed. Thinking for next time, I might investigate taking the train as this is a potential option.
The skiing was fantastic and the loads of snow made for lovely runs. We again met Marco's Brazilian friend (first timer) and his Chilean buddy who was quite practised.
It took two gondola rides - one from the town up to the ski resort then another up to the runs - to get us to the starting point. We made 4 runs total from top (almost) to bottom and by the last, the wind at the top was getting very strong + cold. We felt we'd really made the best of the afternoon and called it. On seeing the line to get back down on the gondola, we paused for a wee tipple at the resort.
The icing on the cake was a stop at the thermal baths which also abound in the Pyrenees and we'd parked in the lot right beside so all was set - except we'd spent too much time up top and only had an hour for taking the water. No matter, all felt fine.
Until we went to get out of the parking lot and our mistake in forgetting to bring the chains for the car tires became a more pressing problem. As booking driver, I was behind the wheel as our little Ford Fiesta slide and spun - one time gently sliding into the parked car beside us - YIKES - and no damage done, big WHEW!! However, the serious task of getting us out was at hand. Marco's calm guidance and several other locals' help to push us out of the lot to less icy roads was the trick - not without the locals' admonations for not bringing chains ("stupid Americans" was certainly what they were thinking).
The relaxation of the water was fully drained with a bit of white knuckled driving in hard snow for the first 30 km out. Thank goodness the roads were only snowy, not icy and the snow switched to rain in time to have to drive up hills and around round abouts to get us home. Again, Marco coached supportively and I kept it together.
Again as before - skiing in the Pyrenees - fantastic! Driving to/from skiing in the Pyreness - less so.
Sunday brought mild warmth and sunshine in the morning which buoyed me to get the gang moving again to take advantage of our rental car.
As our Irish/Spanish friends mentioned Carnival in Limoux as an option, I was game for the 1 hour drive to somewhere we haven't yet seen. And Carnival is definitely celebrated here.
We set off later than planned in the early afternoon, after trying to reach our friends with no luck. This should have been a tip off. No matter, the website said celebrations from 11h to 16h30 (11 to 4) so we were game for a Sunday drive.
We arriving in Limoux to find the central square covered in spent confetti and hardly a soul about, except for the final boisterous cheers from the last celebratory song at the local brasserie.
We wandered a bit and as it didn't seem as any dregs of the party remained, we laughed at ourselves and moved on.
What this did allow us time to do was to drive to - wait for it - Montreal! We'd seen the signs on the highway to the south several times and as we were only 16 kms away, we had to give it a go.
It is much its descriptor - a pretty, old village on the top of a hill with a lovely old church in the centre and gorgeous views down around to the valleys (though getting more blustery and cold that late afternoon so we hopped out only for quick pics).The old guys playing boules in the square beside the church completed the vignette.
On to the next stop which I'd spotted in the vicinity - Fanjeau. I'd read somewhere something about it having some significance so we drove on. Another lovely hilltop town, equally as aged in beauty. And arrived to find it's the hometown of St Domenic, the order of the girls' school. Again, a few quick photos as we hopped out of the car and back again. A final stop at the old abbey of his namesake in the valley below and we were back on our way from our Sunday drive in the country.
Wishing you best for Carnival, Martedi Grosso (Pancake Tuesday), Valentine's, trailing Lunar New Year's celebrations and any other events you're looking forward to.
A la prochaine,

mardi 5 février 2013

week 22 - new tech toys, new friends, new month, news

Following our fun ski weekend in Andorra, we settled back in for a lovely weather week of double digits and some sunshine, which was a welcome change from the clouds and rain.  That said, I am ok to not have to contend with snow - it makes a difference, for sure. Working not to sound like I'm complaining. Felt a bit like an early week of spring.
The girls had an early in the week surprise of their new ipad minis arriving early - unfortunately for them, some earlier unwelcomed behaviour meant they had to wait until Friday to open them. There was drama however, better behaviour has held so hopefully the message has been received.
My treat of the week was booking a weekend trip to Paris in early April to cheer on Denise in her marathon - we decided a weekend didn't afford the whole family much time to see the city, especially as Marco will be just starting his internship that week - so we'll do more family time in Paris before our year is up.
Easyjet flight booked - that's easy  - next on to finding a hotel close to the others who'd already booked and not too expensive - not so easy. Very luckily for me, Scout (Treva) is always up for the challenge and the best service I've found yet to find great deals meeting exactly the search criteria with all personal considerations covered. A compliment for sure to find out later that others might be switching to my hotel too. Now looking forward to a bit of time in Paris in April.
Wednesday morning I agreed to try a spin class in a pool with my French girlfriend - Aquagym - and it's just as it sounds. Glad I tried and will look to make it a more regular occurance.
Thursday I was back to class with Elena's room - we spent 1/2 hour talking again abouth phrases you need to know when going on vacation and the kids had most fun pretending to order meals at a restaurant - and a conversation tutoring walk in the park with El's classmate Thomas and the girls.
Friday heralded the arrival of a new month with a new opportunity.
I'd spent research time through the week trying to find a more formal French class I could attend without breaking the bank as though I get to the market to chat as well as the occassional visit with a friend, my serious work on French conversation has been lagging a bit at the start of the year with less time interacting. Funny how the world provides what you need - I found a newcomers to Toulouse association, set up in an office right at my local Marche des Carmes - which does just this... helps those new to Toulouse to find opportunities to connect. They have a French conversation class on Friday mornings and even intro Italian classes on Monday mornings. Along with lots of regular meeting times, outings and social activities.
I walked on with purpose on Friday morning and found a welcoming spot - two Americans, a Brit and a German, all who've come to Toulouse for their own reasons and are looking to profit from their opportunity. Barbara, the elderly Parisian woman who led was sweet if not a bit school marm-ish but very warm hearted. Patrick, the joking gang leader who regularly runs the class popped in to puckishly cause some disturbance and mostly find out who would join lunch after. A lovely time and what I was looking for - another social outlet which will still afford me time to work on my French. Yayy!! Now, if only a bit of work would be as easy to sort! Still need to get on that bit.
The weekend weather was less agreeable so we kept local and wandered the Fete des Violettes (always a festival in Toulouse) which celebrates the chosen flower of the city. As you'd expect, flower displays and lots of goods - food and otherwise - made with violets and/or their essence/scent.
The girls and I also took advantage of the once per monthly Sunday free entrance to the Musee des Augustins to refresh ourselves with art, sculptures and relics.
As our time continues in France, we are in equal parts thankful for new opportunities and also missing friends and connections and comforts of home. Marco and I still worry for the girls' lack of social connection out of school time - and for ourselves as well.
As we see, you get what you get and it's up to each of us to make the best of what we've got.
And the news? We finally had confirmed that Geneva has in fact won the art contest she'd entered - though you know this as I've yelled it from the rooftops ;) We're invited to a Thursday evening meeting/presentation for the formalities. Still very proud.
A la prochaine,