Friday, August 31, 2012

Arches National Park

Happy blue moon! (And if you don’t catch this one, don’t worry, the next is July 31, 2015!)


A friend’s wedding brought me out west to Utah, and a little extra planning got me to Arches National Park. Luckily I had been able to borrow a tent, backpack and some other miscellaneous camping supplies from my brother, and having driven the rental from Salt Lake City I now had about 30 hours to explore the 76,000 acre National Park. Located just outside of Moab, it ranges in elevation from 4,085 feet at the visitor center to 5,653 feet at Elephant Butte and has over 2,000 natural arches within its borders.

A colorful Devils Garden
300 million years ago there was a sea covering the region, which slowly evaporated leaving behind a salt bed. Over the years more sandstone and shale were deposited, and together these conditions cause the formation of the arches, spires, fins and monoliths in the Park. Evidence of humans dates back 10,000 years: the Fremont People and Ancient Pueblo People lived in the area until 700 years ago, followed by the Ute and Paiute tribes until 1855 when the first European-Americans settled, the Mormon Elk Mountain Mission and later ranchers, farmers and prospectors. Declared a National Monument in 1929 it was redesignated a National Park in 1971.

After a stop at the visitor center for some additional information I headed back out to the closest BLM campground on the Colorado River. I had neglected to reserve a campsite within the Park when I initially started planning, and so when I went to book one of the 50 sites in the Devils Garden Campground I found I was too late. Being the only campground in the park it fills up quickly, but I can vouch that the other options seem just as good. I saved $19 by staying at the Goose Island Campground, which was only $10 and about 10 minutes from the visitor center. I arrived late in the day, and about half of the 20 sites were still available, and there are 10-15 other campgrounds in the immediate vicinity. As I took a spot in the first one I visited I can’t vouch for the others, but the Goose Island site was clean, scenic (right on the Colorado River) and easily accessible.

A distant view of Fiery Furnace and a sea of low clouds
Back in the Park I headed north. There are several dirt roads leading in and out of the Park, but the paved road takes you in as far as the Devils Garden with side roads to the Windows arches and Delicate arch. According to the rangers,  without stops driving the entire paved section will take two hours, but I found that two days was ideal for quick stops at the scenic viewpoints and all the major hikes. Of course, that is if you are willing to hike 10 miles a day.

The 3 Gossips on the left and Courthouse on the right
I stopped at Park Avenue but did not take the trail, next I checked out the Courthouse area (which is at the other end of the Park Avenue trail but accessible from the road). The Three Gossips look like penguins if you ask me, but the Courthouse is appropriately named, as is the Organ. Past the Petrified Dunes and the Balanced Rock I ended up in the Windows Section for the last hours of daylight. There is a cluster of arches in this area, the Double Arch, Turret Arch and Windows being the largest, although I found the views of the Parade of Elephants to be just as interesting. As the sun disappeared behind the clouds I made one last stop, then hightailed it out of the Park in order to attempt to put up the tent with the very last light.

Double Arch had an elephant or two hiding in the rocks as well
Luckily for me, the tent my brother loaned me was not too different from the tent that’s currently making its way across the Atlantic and so it was up without too great of difficulty, however this was when it started to rain. Only receiving 10 inches of rain a year on average, 0.4 of them fell that first night. Another half inch or so must have fallen the next evening, and this leads me to wonder about my luck at being in the desert for 1/10th of the total annual rainfall! It was a long night. I don’t remember when the last time I camped in a tent was (I believe it may have been on a trip to Isle Royale over four years ago), and I will admit I was jumpy. All those little critters scampering around looking for snacks woke me up about three times more than Mikus ever wakes me up!

These potholes in the Fiery Furnace area are home to Fairy Shrimp
The next morning I was up before first dawn and packed and ready when the sun rose. About 40 minutes later I was already at the very far end of the park, at the Devils Garden Trailhead where only about five other vehicles had arrived before me. Pack on my shoulders I headed along the improved trail to the first three arches, Tunnel, Pine and Landscape, which form a 1.6 mile round trip.

Pine Arch, possibly named due to the bark-like texture of the walls
The Landscape arch is the longest of those in the park and possibly in the world, at 290 feet long. Because slabs just keep falling from the thinnest section, the Park Service has closed the area immediately surrounding the arch, which I think wise as erosion due to humans and the elements has caused over 40 arches to collapse in the last 40 years.

Looks far more impressive in person!
From this point it is possible to continue along a primitive trail loop, to see five more large arches. For a combined distance of 7.2 miles this is the longest of maintained trails in the park, and takes hikers over slickrock and along narrow ledges to the famous Double O Arch with several other arches along the way. I hiked a modified version of this trail (and so missed the Dark Angel) but had the Fin Canyon to myself other than a few hares.

I interrupted a breakfast of prickly pear cactus
After a stop for Skyline Arch I skipped the Broken Arch 2 mile loop in exchange for a hike in the Wolfe Ranch area. Named after the Wolfe family that farmsteaded there, it is where the Salt Wash and famous Delicate Arch of the Utah license plate are located. As midday was approaching and I didn’t fancy the strenuous 3 mile hike, I opted for the shorter trail which took me up a ridge to a viewpoint separated from the arch by a steep canyon. A beautiful view, but in hindsight I should have hiked the other trail that takes one right to the base of the arch. The Arches website and other travel sites recommend saving the Delicate Arch trail for a sunset hike, and I believe this would be a fantastic experience, although one I will have to save for a later date.

Delicate Arch is on the left, for reference as to size look closely to see people all around the base
I took a short break in Moab for lunch and a stop at the post office, but then headed back into the park for the Fiery Furnace hike. Reservations must be made ahead and a fee of $10 paid for this guided tour, but it turned out to be the favorite part of my visit. Partly due to the blue skies which gave me a much better background to take photos than the overcast skies of the previous day, partly to the afternoon sun setting the red rocks ablaze, but mostly because of the unbelievable rock formations that provide a maze of towering pillars, arches, potholes and narrow passageways for our enjoyment. Ranger Mike was a perfect guide, teaching us about this unique place while simultaneously challenging us physically with a route filled with obstacles, all the while ensuring every last member of the group (from the seven year old girls to the not-so-outdoorsy adult to the experienced hiker) had a memorable and enjoyable experience. 

The moon rose while we were in the Firey Furnace
We emerged from the labyrinth with perfect timing as a storm was fast approaching across the desert, and the first drops of rain fell as I was still in the Park. The main deluge hit just north, but I was rewarded for my diligent driving with a spectacular double rainbow and fantastic cloud formations. Worth every penny of the $10 entrance fee into the Park and the six hours I spent driving, this is one of my favorite National Parks yet. I'm interested to also visit Canyonlands National Park, which is just next door, as well as Dead Horse Point State Park, although Utah also has the famous Bryce Canyon NP, Zion NP and Glen Canyon...


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Utah wedding

We had hardly been in the US for a month before time came to pack our suitcases again – this time for Chicago, where my parents live. My mother had been to visit us in Clermont-Ferrand when Mikus was born, but my father and grandmother had yet to meet him and due to some other travel plans this was the ideal time for me and the boys to spend a month with the family we had missed so much while living in France.

We settled in and let the boys pick up a routine, and then came the other travel plans I spoke of, a trip to Utah for a wedding. My parents, brother and sister Z were instrumental in making this trip a success, it was hard enough logistically figuring everything out much less emotionally. Still, somehow I found myself alone on a plane headed west, for the first time in two years not only sans children but a thousand miles away from them.

I met my husband in the airport where we rented a car and headed south. For him, a bachelor party awaited. I had decided soon after receiving the wedding invitation that I wasn’t going to lounge around and wait for the boys to be finished with whatever it was they were going to be doing, that I was going to have my own fun. So I continued southeast, to Arches National Park. I spent the next 30 hours hiking, camping, taking photographs and missing my two boys. More on the Park in a later post.

Dirty, tired and hungry I retraced my steps northwest to the town I had dropped Roberts off in. He had already departed with the groom-to-be and a majority of the bachelor party crew for Park City, central to the wedding festivities, but I stopped to visit one of the casualties in the hospital. (It isn’t a bachelor party without someone ending up in the hospital?) An ATV accident landed one friend in the hospital with a punctured lung, two collapsed lungs and a cracked rib, while another escaped with cuts and road rash; both were extremely lucky considering the circumstances.

It was after midnight when I finally rejoined the others in Park City where the rehearsal dinner had ended and I was by far the dirtiest and smelliest person in the hotel. Two showers later I was snoring away for my first uninterrupted night of sleep in three years. 1,300 miles away my parents were busy spoiling the two little interruptions silly…

The final couple of days passed just as quickly as the first two. Park City is the home to the Sundance Film Festival, and nearby ski resorts were major locations for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Further claims to fame include filming parts of “Dumb and Dumber” in the city, and being the original home to the Mrs. Fields Cookies chain. We got to check out Main Street for a quick brunch and ice cream the first day, and breakfast the second. A beautiful little tourist town, there was a Sunday market, plenty of dining options and miles of mountain biking, skiing and hiking trails within a very short drive.

But we were there for a wedding, and so on Saturday we headed to Salt Lake City. The sealing ceremony was to take place in the Salt Lake Temple in Temple Square. As we are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we did not participate in the ceremony, but instead awaited the newlyweds in the beautiful temple grounds.

For those of us unable to see the marriage ceremony the couple had an exchange of rings in a ranch not far from Park City. In the soft afternoon light with a creek gurgling just next to us, we watched our friends say their vows and exchange rings.

Very simply, a beautiful ceremony and reception – the happiness of both bride and groom evident in every facial expression, word and movement. I am so very glad that they found one another, and I wish them happiness in their coming journey together. (Happiness, and children!) Because despite a missed flight and an extra three hours wait I was extremely delighted to see my two boys again, and reminded what a blessing it is to be not only a wife, but also a mother. Thanks to N & K for sharing their special day with us, it was a joy. And thanks to my family for caring for Lauris and Mikus and giving me a long-anticipated break, the extra sleep has recharged me for at least a day or two!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Packing for a move to temporary housing

It seems that I should be a professional by now at moving, as I’ve gone through the process enough times by now. Yet no matter how accustomed I believe myself to be to the transition process and all the little details that go with it, there are always a few things I forget, something that surprises me or that sense of déjà vu when I realize the exact same thing happened on the previous move.

We learned to pack for a few months on our previous two moves. The shipment with our belongings would have been delivered a month later, but as we were still in temporary housing and didn’t want to have to move all our belongings an additional time, we requested for the shipment to be stored until we found a more permanent home. In France Lauris managed to outgrow almost every single article of clothing I had packed during those six months we waited on our apartment, and I had to buy a winter coat as I somehow ended up in Clermont-Ferrand with nothing warmer than a fleece during the winter months. Before that, when we moved to South Carolina the first time, we made quite a few purchases for the temporary apartment as we searched for a house and awaited our belongings. So before the move I sent Roberts ahead with a few extra suitcases that then awaited us here, and although we might end up not using some of the things packed within them, we have had very little that we miss from the container that is currently somewhere on the Atlantic.

Here is a list of things to remember when making your big move!

For the kids:

Clothes a few sizes larger and for different seasons. Children’s clothes are expensive, as are shoes and coats. We learned the hard way on our last move, and this time we are prepared for autumn and for Mikus outgrowing his 9-12 month clothes at 7 months.

Toys: We packed Lauris’s backpack and the diaper bag with a few toys for the plane ride, but one of the suitcases we sent ahead of time was packed with toys, including a blow up play area for Mikus so I would have a place to put him down while he is learning to sit, and a doorway swing so that I can get things done. Soon he will have outgrown both, but we’ve gotten plenty of use out of both and they took up relatively little space. And for Lauris, having a multitude of cars, trains, puzzles and books has been wonderful, as it’s hot outside, so we’ve spent too much time in this apartment.

Extra sippy cups, plastic plates and utensils: Bringing these things has given Lauris a sense of continuity during the transition, and they really don’t take up that much space or weigh that much in your luggage. The apartment here had nothing suitable for a toddler or baby other than a travel bed for Mikus, so the dishes are used every day.

For the kitchen: (and these are some things that I wish I had brought on the previous three moves!

Kitchen knives: The temporary apartments we have stayed in have been furnished, and although it’s great that we don’t have to lug sheets, towels and plates in our carry-on luggage, some things just aren’t functional. Currently I’m using two Swiss army knives to cut everything from fruit and vegetables to meat and potatoes.

Measuring cup and spoons: They don’t take up a lot of space, and especially if you are switching countries (and therefore going from metric to feet) you might want them for your favorite recipes. Plus, the cup can always find a different use if the temporary apartment has one, for example it can be a sugar cup, or a vase, or even a bath toy for les petites.

Wooden spoon and a good spatula: If you’re planning on taking advantage of being in transition to frequently eat out, I wouldn’t worry as much about the kitchen stuff. However, with all the things to do during the day I would rather eat a nice dinner at home, and so we are cooking up some typical American comfort food in the evenings as a “welcome back to the US” (where you can buy things like mac and cheese, hot dogs, peanut butter and waffles!!!). I’m finding the pots here completely adequate, but the plastic spoons and spatulas have already failed. I remember the same thing happening in Clermont-Ferrand when we moved there, and I wish I had thought to pack a few more things for the kitchen, just to make life in transition a little bit easier.

Improvisation is key! No cookie rack, no problem! (Rack from oven)

For us:

An external hard drive: On our previous moves we’ve taken only laptops in our baggage, with a few jump drives that have files we think we’ll need on them. This time we took our external hard drive as well, and the access to all those documents that you didn’t think you would need has been great. The old spreadsheet that has those addresses I was looking for, the photographs from a few years back that I wanted for a blog post, and best of all, it serves as one more back-up in case something happens to the actual hard drive on the way across the ocean. This is the model we have that has served us well: 

All those electronics accessories: We’ve gotten somewhat used to carting around all our charging cords and memory sticks when we travel, but there are a few things definitely to be remembered to pack in your luggage, such as rechargeable batteries and charger, SD card reader, voltage adapters if you’re traveling overseas. I have a European voltage plug and an American plug for my iPad, and luckily I located the American plug and packed that, along with the correct camera battery charger.

Off-season items of clothing: Although I tried to think in layers when packing my suitcase, I was ill-prepared for a winter in France on a previous move. This time we sent ahead winter coats, hats and gloves, just in case. Although I really, really hope we’ve found our permanent lodging by wintertime!

Maps, language dictionaries, paperwork: Depending on where you are relocating, remember to take any books or maps that will help you with the local terrain. Whether simply a road map or maybe you are moving overseas and you need help with translation, the best resources are those that are available and easy to use. And second copies of all paperwork come in handy when things have been lost in the mail, lost in translation or simply lost. We traveled with medical records, birth certificates and translations of birth certificates in addition to our passports, driver’s license and other official paperwork. I also made sure to pack things like my American checkbook, store loyalty cards and some American money.

Fresh flowers make me happy! Notice the blender vase...

I asked my husband what/if anything I should add to the list. To sum up his response (and I believe he’s currently reading a WWII memoir): the immediate concerns during D-Day (after survival) were 1) to set up communications, 2) transportation inland and the 3) strategy/destination. Should I be concerned he was comparing our move to a wartime invasion?

Sooooo…. (and hubby, please correct me if I’ve translated this wrong!)

Communication: Keep your mobile handy. We had a charged trac-phone waiting for us, as our French cellphones don’t work in the US. A trac-phone is a great alternative to immediately signing a cellphone plan, as it is a small initial investment and you can buy additional minutes as needed.

Transportation: Have arrangements made to ensure you are mobile, a rental or borrowed car and a map if needed. If you do have a smart phone and access to mapping software and yellow pages, great, if not be prepared for possible snags with back-up plans.

Strategy/destination: Lay your groundwork previous to travel. Establish contacts that can help with anything from making a few phone calls for you or restaurant recommendations, to inviting you over for dinner or watching the children while you search for houses with a realtor. Transition can be unpleasant, but it doesn’t have to be. With proper preparations and planning it’s easy to make your temporary lodgings a home until you find a more permanent one.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


My friend Barbara passed on some sunshine from her blog, Footprints in the Sand, to mine. As I’ve had my share of these fun, pass-it-on virtual hugs, I debated letting this one go, but I’ve changed my mind. I participate in a “Post of the Month Club” at Life on Planet Baby, and some of Jane’s recent posts have really resonated with me. More specifically, this post asks what/if anything has changed in blogging in recent years, as commercialism seems to be taking over the average blog. I’ve not been blogging for very long, but I do remember the big boost I got when I received my very first blog-award (I was called stylish!) So, if you're still reading...

Here's my little contribution of sunshine to blogland!

Accepting the Sunshine award requires that I answer these ten questions...

Favourite color? The blue eyes of my two little boys.
Favorite Animal? Most recently, a hedgehog. Not that we have one at home, or even that I’ve seen one recently. But I had to pick one, and the hedgehog beat out the owl and the polar bear this time!
Favorite Number? Three. The current ratio of males to females in this household.
Favorite Drink? A nice cold riesling. But something I can enjoy more often now that the closest Starbucks is just minutes (as opposed to hours) away, a decaf-mocha-frappuchino-no-whip. I believe it's simply because I could not have them in France that I want them now.
Facebook or Twitter? Facebook, although I wish I could stay away.
Your Passion? Not sure. This one seems to be an ever-evolving number of things. Hiking, reading and camping might have been replaced by mommy-ing and blogging. But traveling remains at the top of the list.
Giving or getting presents? Neither. Or both. One or the other.
Favorite Day? I have three: the day I got married, the day Lauris was born and the day Mikus was born. Corny? Yes. True? Also yes.
Favorite Flowers? Poppies. Sunflowers. Gladiolas. Roses. Maijpulkstenīši. Lavendar. Daisies.

I’ve decided I’m not very good at this 10 questions thing; I’d rather choose my own questions. So maybe the more important part of this post is the following list of 10 blogs I want to pass on some “sunshine” to? Maybe you want to take a look at some of them, maybe you have time to visit them all and say hi, but here is my attempt to spread a little sunshine:

The blog I mentioned earlier, Life on Planet Baby: Jane, thanks for all your recent posts, I wish you luck in your newest endeavours and I can’t wait for the next post of the month club!

And Here We Are... Ariana, I love your pictures, I love your chickens, and I hope you’ll accept this sunshine as a little token of my thanks for all your kind words and comments!

Coal Valley View: A Farmlet, 4 Kidlets and a Whippet: Mel, I’ve only been following for a very short while, but I sat down and read your back-posts for hours! An amazing trip, an amazing family, I look forward to reading more...

Diary of A Hobart Housewife: Romy – a mere au foyer! In Tasmania! One day I will travel to your part of the world, in the meantime I wish to read all about it.

Gina, (from The Baynhams), here’s some sunshine in honor of your seven years blogging! (And how is your meat tenderizer working?)

The Salad Days: Great Scott, it’s been five weeks since your cliffhanger of a post! Will some sunshine bring you back out? (And since I wrote this, she's baaaack! But with a plethora of news! Congratulations, and good luck!!!)

Still Life With Crockpot: Another regular writer for the Post of the Month Club, Jennie and I have been blogging for almost the same amount of time. Some rays of sunlight your way Jennie, for the sunshine you recently brought to your friend in Ohio.

Snaps and Blabs: On a journey around the world! Noticed in a recent post you were in search of the sun, well here’s some in return for taking me with on the next leg of your travels.

Mama Mzungu: Kim, I’m passing you on some sunshine in hopes that you can spread it around in your part of Kenya. I appreciate your honesty, keep it coming!

And last, but definitely not least, Grammy Goodwill! Grammy, you always have a kind word and comment for me, I hope these rays brighten your day as you so often brighten mine. Enjoy your retirement from blogland, and feel free to stop back in once in a while and say hi!

Monday, August 20, 2012


The day before we were scheduled to fly out of Clermont-Ferrand we headed two hours southwest to meet up with the Tour de France. Since waiting for the cyclists and watching the race would only require a few hours, we decided to incorporate a trip to Rocamadour in our itinerary. The village has attracted visitors because of the unique setting in a gorge of a tributary of the Dordogne river, but also is well known for its historical monuments and sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Rocamadour and the Dordogne river

The view of the village is most spectacular, and so we stopped in L’Hospitalet to eat lunch while enjoying the panorama of Rocamadour and the valley below. The restaurant had prime real estate with a direct view of the cliffside village, and as we ate on the terrace I could photograph away at will while enjoying in comfort the company and food. We could pick out some of the more famous buildings, for example the church of Notre Dame containing a wooden Black Madonna reputed to have been carved by Saint Amadour, the founder of the ancient sanctuary. The terrace next to the church (Plateau of St Michel) was intended as a place for the pilgrims to gather as that is where a fragment of a broken sword is stuck in the wall. Legend has it the piece is from the sword of Durendal, once wielded by the legend Roland during the reign of Charlemagne. Not visible to us of course was the subterranean church of St. Amadour which contains relics of the saint. Most obvious is a château on the very crest of the cliff, built in the Middle Ages and intended as a defense of the sanctuaries.

Our lunch table with Rocamador in the background

L’Hospitalet  has several viewing areas with parking nearby to provide ample opportunity for viewing Rocamadour from different angles and vantage points. We dallied there too long and became pressed for time, so instead of descending into the valley we turned around and headed back to the highway where I hoped to find a good viewing spot to watch the Tour de France go by. We were glad to arrive in Cressensac when we did as otherwise we would have missed the sponsor trucks (which along with the crowd and atmosphere were half the fun!), but we did regret not seeing Rocamadour up close when we had the chance. Friends who have visited said the sights were worth the climb (stairs connect the château all the way to the valley below), and maybe someday we’ll have the opportunity to explore the buildings built into the 400 foot-tall cliffs. However our visit to the area served a reminder that you can’t always do everything!

It was a long day of driving, with 2.5 hours to reach Rocamadour, 30 minutes to find an intersection with the Tour de France, and then 2 hours return trip to Clermont-Ferrand. As we believed this to be our final day in France we thought it well worth the trip, but I would encourage visitors to make this into a weekend trip, exploring the region further and staying at one of the many gîtes in the area. By the time we arrived back in Clermont the adrenaline from the Tour de France atmosphere had all but dissipated, but the excitement at having witnessed something so essentially French lingered. Weeks later we watched Bradley Wiggins win the gold in the 2012 London Olympic Men’s Individual Time Trial cycling event, and were instantly transported back to that country road. Hundreds of people lining the roads, waiting patiently to witness that sudden whiz of cyclists, bicycles and support vehicles, en route to Tour de France glory. Then in a flash it’s over, and the quiet country road is still once again.

Stage 18, in Cressensac: the stage winner Mark Cavendish is visible in the white team Sky jersey

Friday, August 17, 2012

Health, and Expat Quotes

Looking back at our time in France, I feel my biggest accomplishment was giving birth to Mikus. Although we repeatedly joked that as long as I knew the French word for “push” everything would be fine, I was nervous and a little scared during my entire pregnancy. In addition to overcoming the language barrier I was also faced with a bigger challenge: I desired to birth naturally after the Cesarean I had with Lauris.

I have written before that the two pregnancies couldn’t have been more different, not just in end result but the whole nine months. In fact, the only similarity might be that both babies were boys! A long story short: I was able to successfully VBAC, overcome the language barrier, and have the birth I had long hoped for in addition to birthing a healthy 10.5 lb baby. Much of this is due to wonderful advice and support I received from my husband, and friends in Clermont-Ferrand, French-speaking and other expatriates both. Where I relied heavily on pregnancy books during my first pregnancy, it was mostly talking with other women about their experiences in France that guided me during my second.

4 months pregnant and feeling great!

The gratitude I feel towards every single one of those supportive friends that kept my hopes high and disposition healthy is immense, and I wish I could help them through their pregnancies in return. However, being here in the US while they are in France and elsewhere (and of course not all my friends are pregnant!), I will have to find other ways to express my thanks. I’ve decided that a good start may be sharing the advice and kind words that were bestowed on me during my pregnancy, and one of the mediums I have found is an expatriate online resource, Expat-Quotes.

This website has many different categories, designed to help expatriates connect as well as find assistance in everything from obtaining visas to finding a veterinarian, and would have been a valuable resource should we still be in France. It is in the “Health” section that I have found a niche; I invite you to read my article, “Prenatal Care in France” and leave a comment if you find it interesting or valuable. Of course, for my non-pregnant readers, thanks for supporting my writing and I value any feedback.

I wish everyone a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


There was a span of a few days between the movers leaving our apartment with the last box and the day our flight was scheduled to leave for the United States. As much as I plotted and planned, I found it impossible to manage all the loose ends that needed tying up AND fit in a trip to Provence… Eight hours in the car proved to be too much to cross off one last thing from my wish-to-see-while-in-France list: the Provence lavender in bloom.

Instead we tried to cram as much time as possible into those days with good friends and good food, and of course we did manage the other crazy long drive to catch the Tour de France as it wound its way through the countryside just outside of Brive-la-Gaillarde. It was a hard week as I was sad to leave my friends and new life, but also because I felt I had missed this opportunity. I just can’t imagine that we will be back in France in the near future and when we do make the trip, I don’t know if blooming flowers would take priority or that the season would be correct. I finally become resigned to the fact that it wasn’t in the cards for us this year.

We said our farewells. The mom & baby club organized a farewell lunch for Marine and me, and after saying my goodbyes to the moms I saw most of them again at a girl’s night out later that week. I said my goodbyes again, only to be invited over to dinner almost every single night that last week by our dearest friends, resulting in more goodbyes. It was on our way to Vertaizon for a barbecue with Marine and several other families that my disappointment over not seeing the lavender was completely forgotten. We crested the hills to the east of Clermont only to see a patchwork of sunflower fields, fully in bloom and yellow heads turned in perfect  harmony.

Roberts was patient and helped the boys keep calm while I exclaimed over every field, taking several detours to find the best vantage points to snap a picture or two (or a hundred!). Similarly to how rapeseed is processed into canola oil, sunflowers produce sunflower seed oil in France, which differs from the typical sunflower field in the southern US which is planted as a dove-field. With a backdrop of rolling hills and the sun low in the sky behind us, the sea of blooms held me in thrall until I remembered that we had a dinner date. And so we drove on to spend an evening with friends, saying our goodbyes over a plate of barbecue while the kids splashed in the pool and the sun slowly set over the sunflower fields.

Those last nights in France truly were amazing. Although we ended up saying goodbye too many times, we had ample opportunity to find closure and reconciliation. France: “d’accord, you wish to see lavender? Non, il n’est pas possible! The lavender, it is in Provence, and you Americans, you are not. I give you something else to look at. Regardez, tournesols!

Monday, August 13, 2012

London 2012

The London Olympics had me utterly captivated, and each evening found us watching NBC until much too late. Since we’re in temporary arrangements as we search for a house, it was very difficult to work out the live streaming via internet, and so some matches/races I followed by watching facebook status updates. But it was nice to catch a few highlights on primetime, such as the Latvians beating the US in men’s beach volleyball on their way to a bronze medal. I believe Pļaviņš and Šmēdiņš became national heroes overnight in Latvia, even if the audible confusion of Americans was somewhat disheartening. Are there really that many people who think Latvia is a made-up country, or don’t know where Latvia is? Some twitter updates had me in stitches, all basically wondering the same thing, how this tiny country with only 2 million inhabitants beat the superpowers.

Source: here

During previous Olympics I remember being very disappointed with the coverage. Latvia is alphabetically located in a group of tiny nations: Kazakhstan, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libyan AJ and Liechtenstein. During the opening ceremonies this seems to be the perfect time to cut to commercial break, and so we rarely saw the Latvian athletes walking into the Olympic stadium. This year the opening ceremonies were taped, and they did quick recaps upon returning from commercials meaning Latvia got its five seconds – a proud moment for all of us Latvian-Americans in the US.

Source: here

Even prouder moments were the medals. Pļaviņš and Šmēdiņš went on to lose to Brazil, but in the end went three rounds with Netherland to earn the bronze medal. And in cycling Māris Štrombergs from Valmiera is the ONLY gold medalist in BMX… (the sport debuted in the Beijing 2008 Olympics, but he’s got two gold medals!) Two other Latvians made the team, Rihards Viede and Edžus Treimanis, but they got caught up in a crash in the semifinals and will have to wait another four years for their next shot. Kind of interesting that Latvians are excelling in these extreme sports, don’t you think?

Source: here

I hope that one day I have the opportunity to go to the Games. As emotional as watching the Latvian National Anthem played and the flag raised during the gold medal ceremony on YouTube was, I believe my heart would just burst to be there in person. And I don’t discriminate, I’m just as proud of each and every athlete representing the USA, and my eyes tear up watching almost any athlete up on the podium receive the greatest athletic honor in the world. For a few weeks the economic crisis, the wars being fought in the Middle East, all the usual gut-wrenching drama that unfolds in the daily news was replaced by hope, pride and the belief that dreams do come true. Only two years until the 2014 Sochi Games!

My two gold medalists on the podium

Friday, August 10, 2012

Paros, part II

Our time in Greece was the calm before the storm. We had thought to spend our August vacation there, but this was before we knew that Roberts wouldn’t have such a vacation, as we were headed back to the US. Upon finding out, we attempted to cram those three weeks into one, and despite the busy days overflowing with sightseeing, beaches, white and blue, we managed to rest and restore before the whirlwind of packing and final preparations started.

white and blue, white and blue

If planning a visit to Greece, I wholeheartedly recommend a similar approach to ours as it was a perfect combination of historic, beach and island life. Fly into Athens and stay a few days, visit the Acropolis and sample the nightlife. But then board a ferry headed for an island, Santorini or Mykonos if you wish to join the thousands of others with the same idea, or Paros and Antiparos if you wish a more exclusive experience. Book a quiet room in Parikia and spend your days on one of the many beaches, dining on fresh seafood, shopping in the stores of local artisians and joining the locals in the evenings for a drink in one of the many ocean-side restaurants. The Argonauta hotel is ideal, whether you are visiting for a few nights and wish a hotel room in the very center of town, or a few weeks and need an apartment with a kitchen. A wonderful value, the service was impeccable, the rooms clean and comfortable, and the restaurant serving fresh local food. Our experience there was perfect, although we left the island one or two days to take a ferry to another island, we returned each night to our little home away from home. Discovering that each island has its individual character, feel, architecture and history only added to the experience, and I would suggest adding these side trips to your itinerary. But most of all, forget the everyday and switch to “island time” – you will remember your days in the Greek islands forever.

One of the many shops luring you with open doors and charming displays

Our last day on Paros was spent sampling everything the island had to offer. We caught the early morning light to take a few more photographs and visit the remains of the Parikia castle. Built with the temple pieces from the site, the columns and even inscriptions were easily identifiable in the walls. I took the same route the next morning as well, weaving through the streets until I reached the bay, again sneaking out before the heat to snap those last pictures.

The original recycling, with Paros marble

Then up into the hills in the center of the island with Evdoxia, to visit her relative’s ceramics studio YRIA. The china lining the shelves, waiting to be painted. The tiles yet to be put into the kiln, the coffee cups sitting in a row, maybe you can imagine the scene through the eyes of both two year olds? Luckily we escaped with only minor damage, and a bag full of goodies to bring with us to the US.

Another day at the office

Then lunch, once more the freshest seafood with a cool white wine to combat the heat of the day. Followed by our last trip to the beach, this time a wide stretch of sand on the bluest bay. Hiding from the sun under beach umbrellas we took repeated trips out into the blue to cool down, and the afternoon passed unnoticed.

Had to sneak this in here... do you think he'll notice?

We all headed to Naoussa (Νάουσα) that last evening. Another port on the north end of Paros, it is well known for the nightlife and dining options. As the sun set we strolled the streets, people watching and sightseeing, later eating a meal of seafood pasta that I will have to search long and hard to match. One by one the children fell asleep, in strollers and carriers. The adults eventually tired as well and so we left the nightclubs to the single crowd and returned to Parikia to rest before our early morning departure by ferry to the Athens airport.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


A short vacation from our vacation – I’ll post one more about Greece and then leave the islands to daydreams and photo albums, but right now, a jump to present time.

We are in Greenville, SC. After a much too short two years in France my husband was offered an excellent opportunity here, and so it came about that we’ve returned to the United States. If it seems sudden, it is because it was. We fully expected to spend three to five years in Clermont-Ferrand; it seems like only yesterday we finally found an apartment, made friends, started calling France home.

The last thing unpacked in our CF apartment - the big orange couch

These past weeks have been full of unexpected twinges for me. I am calling these momentary rushes of feeling twinges because I’m not willing to call them regrets or misgiving, and I’m unsure what else to call them. Most of them seem brought on by our departure from France. Lauris asks for Ba-Ba (his name for Beatrice), Maël or Stephan daily, and begs to go to the choo-choo park (the childrens’ playground in Jardin Lecoq). <Twinge> We have met some new friends, but admittedly these things take time. And in the meantime, that ache returns when I realize that fluent French for the boys will be much harder to achieve, that instead of speaking three languages Lauris is really only speaking one (Latvian). Or that all my best friends in Clermont are currently taking their three week August vacations.

Saying our goodbyes to Beatrice and Emma

The Olympics have brought with them some twinge-worthy moments also. A few days ago the UK had their most “golden” day in over a century… and all I wanted was to take my friend Emma out to lunch to celebrate. As I write this I hope she is not too homesick for missing all these big events and instead relaxing and enjoying the sun, beach and babysitting on her vacation in the Cote d’Azur. <Twinge> And although that is linked to our departure from France, some of the Olympic twinges are far more deep-seated, brought on by things like playing basketball for the Lions back in Chicago. Only a high school career, yes, but watching the women represent their countries I wonder where my 6 feet 3 inches would have gotten me with more work (not deluding myself, more work than I could have managed while maintaining any acceptable academic level). To stay in shape for basketball I swam off-season, and my backstroke was enough to win the city-wide 200m in Chicago my senior year, so a new flood of feelings along with the swimming highlights each evening. Which leads me to realize that at least I’ve done some swimming in the past ten years, I haven’t touched a basketball court in ages. <Twinge>

The boys' room, all packed up

The hot weather isn’t helping either. There was a time when although not completely immune (once a Yankee, always a Yankee) I was acclimated and didn’t have to hide inside from the heat. Droughts and high temperatures meant only increased danger of wildfire, and I was too busy putting in firelines and traveling the US on firefighting assignments to complain. The pang comes when the evening news comes on and I hear of more homes lost, of more acres burned. A month ago there was a wildfire at the Latvian Center Gaŗezers, possibly caused by 4th of July fireworks, and luckily caught in time so no structures were burned, however I felt myself longing for those days of working summers in Michigan with a <twinge> that I could have been there for the one and only fire season in the history of Gaŗezers. That I could don my fire boots and do something, instead of just watch the nightly news.

These recollections are nothing new, I believe they are a normal part of the transition period. And it just happens I have a lot of transitions going on right now; from France to US, from expatriate femme au foyer to SAHM. From carefree and responsible only for myself, to mother of two. From firefighter and forestry technician to parks & recreation (and by that I mean going to parks & recreating there…). I could go on, but I’ve said it all before, and I’m sure the twinges aren’t done yet. So instead, I’m wondering what pangs my current life will bring in the future. Twinges at how quickly the boys have grown? Will there be a day when I will yearn for my days of blogging? Maybe a niggle when I see South Carolina mentioned on the news? A yearning to change more diapers?

Can't forget the cats!

The <twinge> has helped me to resolve one issue; I’ve decided to keep Femme au Foyer. It will no longer be a diary of our time in France, but it will continue to be a journal of our travels and adventures. The last two weeks spent in Greenville have reopened my eyes as to how beautiful a city it is, and I want to share. There might possibly be some mommy blogging, and most definitely some more posts in and on Latvia/being Latvian. I foresee often touching on our time in France as this expatriation has had a profound effect on my life, just as I predict the posts might be fewer and farther between. But whatever Femme au Foyer evolves into, I hope you elect to follow along for the next chapter.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Antiparos, Greece

We returned to Paros from our day cruise to Santorini tired, but hungry, and so along with Evdoxia, Marina and Stephan we headed out for souvlaki. The gyros just added evidence to my theory that the favorite of all the food I have sampled while living in Europe is Greek food. I could have eaten a dozen, as it stands I believe I had two and also polished off what Lauris could not eat! Souvlaki could be termed fast food, but the pork served was probably healthier than any fast food you’ll find in the US, and the combination of meat, pita and tzatziki beats a burger in my book. Anyone have a tzatziki recipe they are willing to share with me?

The following morning Lauris got a haircut, because the poor guy was overheating in this weather with his long locks. As the last real haircut had been kind of disastrous, I was very happy to let a professional handle the job. Lauris wasn’t quite as calm as with his first haircut, but while sitting in my lap things went pretty smoothly and now he has a great hot-weather do!

A rare picture of Lauris after haircut without his hat on

La coupe de cheveux finished, we once again headed for a destination off-island, but this time Evdoxia and Stephan were coming with. There is a ferry to Antiparos from Parikia, but as the island is located less than a mile from Paros at closest point we headed south to Pounta, where the ferry is more of a hop across a channel instead of a longer ride like our ferry rides until now. The car ferry docked in Antiparos and we were off, headed to the biggest tourist destination on the island, σπήλαιο Αντπάρον. The Cave of Antiparos is in the southeast part of the island at the top of Ai Yiannis Hill. Residents have known about the cave for a long time, but the interior wasn’t documented until 1673 when the French ambassador of Constantinople paid a visit. A large stalagmite at the entrance is 45 million years old and supposedly the oldest in Europe, and there are 411 steps leading to the bottom of the cave. The number 411 is from a little informational brochure, we didn’t count as we were all too busy hauling the three kids up and down… But please do not misunderstand; the cave was worth the climb especially as the temperature within was about 60° F compared to the 100° temperatures outside. There was also a most beautiful little church at the entrance, this one dedicated to Saint John (Agios Ioannis Spiliotis).

With Evdoxia, Stephan and Mikus in the cave of Antiparos

Then, my favorite time of day, time to eat! We chose a restaurant on the sea in Agio Georgios, with a view across a channel to the Despotiko. As Evdoxia explained it, the more ferries one has to take to reach an island/beach, the less tourists and more exclusive. Antiparos is already two ferries removed; Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Pierce Brosnan have vacation homes there and other celebrities such as Brangelina and Prince Albert supposedly visit on a regular basis, but the Despotiko beaches are considered even more select, as the island is uninhabited and three ferries removed. Our meal was fantastic; freshly caught red snapper and other fish, delicious yet light on a hot summer day.

Another fish on the menu was this catch, dried in the sun along with the octopus... maybe next time?

It wouldn’t be a visit to Antiparos without a trip to the beach, and so we left the car on a dusty side road and walked along a well-worn path to the ocean. A narrow strip of beach with shade trees provided a perfect spot for us, and we splashed around in the surf, hunted for pumice in the sand and enjoyed the cool water and hot sun.

We drove back to the Antiparos port and took a walk to enjoy the bougainvillea covered white houses with the traditional blue shutters and doors. Roberts ate another gyros pita and we took a tour of the 1440 castle. To protect the inhabitants from pirates, many islands have similar complexes, this one with over twenty two-story houses, three churches and aqueduct.

The churches were added in later centuries

As the sun fell lower in the sky we returned to the car to catch the return ferry to Paros, and before too long we were back in Parikia eating another delicious meal of seafood. The days were passing much too quickly for my liking, but we had another full day in Paros to enjoy the Greek islands.

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