Entries in House Swap (14)


Loire Dire, Part I

Our house in Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt

Last summer, we were once again able to do a house exchange. Our son James was serving a mission for our church in France, and once he had finished his two years of service, we wanted to pick him up in person and have a family vacation before my VCFA exchange residency in Bath, England. On previous exchanges, we'd stayed just outside Paris, in a posh London suburb, and in southern Burgundy. This time, I had my eye on the spectacular Loire Valley

Patrick and I had done a Loire Valley road trip 24 years before, back when I was pregnant with our oldest child, so I had a few things in mind for us to do during our three weeks. We were lucky enough to exchange with a family who lives just outside Blois in Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt, which was perfect for a few reasons. First, it was just two hours from Paris, so we could easily fly in and out of Charles de Gaulle airport, and picking up our son from the mission home when the day came would be relatively simple. Second, the many amazing châteaux right around Blois made exploring a cinch. 

Once again, we struck the house swap lottery, as you can see from the photo above. Here's another view:

It's so funny, when we first started doing house exchanges, I didn't care that much about what the house was like, as long as it had room for all of us and a decent kitchen. But we have been spoiled each and every time with amazing houses--so now when I'm on HomeLink, I pay a little more attention to the architecture.

Our hosts generously insisted on driving up to Roissy and picking us up at the airport. It is rare for European families to have cars big enough for our family, but this time, we were doubly fortunate and didn't have to rent a car. However, fitting all of us plus our luggage in the car proved to be quite the Tetris challenge. But every time our youngest daughter's bony bottom dug into my numb thighs in the back seat, I reminded myself how much money were were saving by not hiring a car service. And soon enough, we arrived at the house. The property--it must have been at least an acre--was surrounded by a high wall, and had a swimming pool, a huge terrace, lovely plantings, and decades-old redwoods and sycamore trees. Paradise. 

Our hosts had prepared lunch for us, which we ate after they gave us a tour of the house. They then left us; they were staying in Blois overnight before leaving the next day for Los Angeles to stay at our house. We got unpacked. The first day in Europe, it's always a challenge to stay up until the local bedtime, but if you can, jet lag is much easier to handle. So that afternoon, we drove into Blois and walked around the castle and surrounding historic district. 

Across the plaza from the château was a museum of magic. Every hour on the hour, golden dragon puppets came out of the windows and bobbed their heads around while the church bells tolled. 

After a nice walk, it was finally time to go home for dinner and then get to bed. We ate on the terrace nearly every meal, only crowding around the kitchen table on rainy days. 

The next day, which was Friday, we went grocery shopping at a nearby Auchan supermarché. Longtime readers know how much I love foreign supermarkets, and this one was no exception. We got fabulous cheeses, gorgeous produce, and other staples to last us for a few days.

In the afternoon, we had visitors. Tess had gone on a youth exchange (which we'd also arranged through HomeLink) the summer before with a girl her age who lives in Versailles. Tess stayed three weeks with their family, and then she and Léonie flew to Los Angeles and Léonie stayed with us for three weeks. Tess and Léonie had stayed in close touch, and we'd hoped that Léonie and her parents would be able to come down and visit us--which they did. Marie and Olivier were just as lovely as their daughter, and we had a fun weekend with them. 

Saturday was a quiet day. In the morning, we went to the extensive outdoor markets in Blois, then spent the afternoon visiting, swimming, cooking, and eating. (What could be better?)

Sunday after church (at a sweet branch in Blois), we went to Cheverny with our guests. It's about a 15-minute drive from our home base, and it's the castle used as a model for Marlinspike Hall in the Tintin books. The same family has lived on the estate for 600 years. They had a whole outbuilding set up as a permanent Tintin exhibit (which was terrific) as well as a neighboring building that serves as kennels for over 100 French hunting dogs. The cháteau, gorgeous inside and out, the extensive gardens, Tintin, and the hounds all made this one of our kids' favorite days. 

After our fun day, we said goodbye to our guests. It was a perfect weekend except for how HOT it was. Our 200-year-old house wasn't air conditioned, which made sleeping a bit of a challenge, even with every window wide open. There was a silver lining, though. That night, a nightingale woke me up, and I lay in bed looking out at the stars and listening to glorious birdsong for a long time. Even now, the memory chokes me up. 

The heat wave continued into the next day (and beyond). We went to Amboise, knowing that the car's air conditioner and the thick stone walls of Amboise's château would help us cope with the weather. Amboise sits high on a hill overlooking the Loire River; the views from the ramparts were spectacular.

We had a picnic by the river. Many of you will remember that our vacation meal routine is simple: yogurt and a croissant (or other viennoiserie) for breakfast; ham, cheese, and salted Normandy butter on fresh baguettes for lunch; and a home-cooked dinner like sautéed chicken or pasta and vegetables and salad, with dessert being either a little store-bought pot-de-crème or an ice cream bar. We bought the bread and croissants fresh every morning at a fabulous nearby bakery. When the food is as good as it is in France, the routine never gets old. 

Next, we visited Le Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci lived for a time (and died). The walk from downtown Amboise isn't bad, and we saw many houses that were built right out of the limestone caves that line the way. Da Vinci's house wasn't as impressive as I'd remembered, but the shady park surrounding it had fun recreations of some of the Renaissance man's designs, in which the kids could run around and play. 

The late afternoon walk back downtown was especially hot, and everyone was tired, so we treated ourselves to some excellent gelato at Amorino, right across the street from the château. Spirits restored, we made the 40-minute drive back to the house. And that was the end of Day 5! Stay tuned for further adventures. 


Life in Burgundy--The Rest of the Trip

The thing about France is that it gets under my skin and stays. We've been home for well over a month, and I think about going back. Every. Single. Day. Could we retire there? Could we serve back-to-back senior missions there? Could Patrick's employer suddenly decide that opening a movie studio in France is imperative, and ask us to move there so he could head it up? 

I'm sure it's odd to get homesick for a place I've never lived, but there it is. So I've put off summarizing the rest of our trip, probably because I knew it would exacerbate my Francesickness. But it's time. And I'll do all the rest in one fell post.

Day Eleven--after our whirlwind weekend of family fun in Switzerland, we needed a quiet day of recovery. The kids played with Praline, our host family's rabbit. Tess and Hope rode the neighbor's horses. We shopped at the grocery store and did laundry and read and ate and dozed. One of the true luxuries of such a long vacation is the downtime. Bliss.

On Day Twelve, James enjoyed one of his graduation presents: a trip to Paris all by himself via the TGV. He explored all his favorite museums, ate lunch in the Latin Quarter, ambled along the Seine, and generally had a fabulous time.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were ready for another day of exploration. James isn't a big cheese lover, so we saved our tour of a local cheese factory for this very day. We drove up to Gevrey-Chambertin, through the "Gold Coast" wine country, getting to the Gaugry fromager in time for a light picnic lunch. After that, we took a self-guided tour through a family operation that makes some of our favorite cheeses, among them the fabulously stinky Époisses.

After the fascinating tour, we had a private cheese tasting in the little restaurant-café attached to the factory. The hostess arranged five cheeses on plates for us, from mild to strong, and we savored each one slowly and carefully. Afterward, we chose our two favorites and bought some to take home. 

Then we drove to Autun--one of my new favorite spots in all of France. We visited an ancient Roman amphitheater; the locals were gearing up for a big son et lumière, which made for some interesting scenery. Next stop, the local cathedral, was another Romanesque wonder, especially the tympanum. As we drove from amphitheater to cathedral, we'd seen signs for the "Roman pyramid," so of course we had to go see what that was.

Local oddity, indeed. It's built over a Roman necropolis, and over the centuries, treasure hunters have dug into its sides. But it's largely intact--and the view from the hill on which it stands is stunning. The Autun valley, resplendent in the late afternoon sunlight--it's a sight I won't soon forget.

On our way back to the car, we saw signs for a nearby waterfall. We figured that we had some extra time until we had to pick up James from the TGV station in Mâcon, so we took a leisurely streamside walk up to the cascade and back. We decided it wasn't very impressive--and maybe there's more to it at times other than July--but it was still a delightful ramble. 

We picked up James and heard about all his adventures over another wonderful dinner. Notably, I made my mother-in-law's carrot soup, and it was a triumph, by all accounts. 

Day Thirteen was another local day--but that doesn't mean it wasn't adventure-filled. Five minutes from our house stands the Château de Pierreclos. One of the many great things about it was how interactive it was. They had a weapon room with replicas of medieval weapons and armor, and the kids (and the parents) had a blast trying stuff on and swinging stuff around. 

On the way home, we toured the grounds of the château right next door to our house, eating wild plums and skirting the wheat fields. 

That evening was Patrick's and my Date Night. Before we'd left on our trip, I'd read that a local orchestra and choir would be performing an all-French program--including the Fauré Requiem, one of our favorite pieces of choral music--at Cluny Abbey, so we bought tickets. We thought the concert was going to be in the jaw-dropping farinier, but it ended up being held in the abbey's cloister. This was at first disappointing--but then the music was sublime, and we forgot our complaints. 

But beforehand, we visited the village of Paray-le-Monial, which boasts yet another sublime Romanesque basilica. I wanted to see the church because it was modeled on the much larger abbey church at Cluny, which was mostly destroyed centuries ago.

(Doesn't Patrick take brilliant photos? This one looks like a postcard to me.) Paray is the most visited historical site in Burgundy, and we found out why once we got there. In the 17th century, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque founded the modern devotion of the Sacred Heart in Paray after several dramatic visions she had of Christ and His atoning love. Today, Paray actively welcomes pilgrims and hosts retreats and other devotionals year round. A little church down the street from the basilica is dedicated to Marguerite-Marie's visions; we walked down to see it, but stayed outside when we found that it was packed to the gills for a daily mass. 

We explored the basilica and the cloisters and a building full of dioramas depicting Marguerite-Marie's visions, then made our way through a spectacular thunderstorm eastward to Cluny. We had a picnic of scrumptious pâté, cheese, bread, fruit, and French lemonade on the (mercifully dry) abbey grounds. Then, just after sundown, we filed into the cloister and took our seats. 

This was another unforgettable evening. Gorgeous music very well played in the haunting acoustics of an ancient monument, while a flock of starlings wheeled exultingly in the twilight sky in hypnotizing murmurations--perfection. I was moved to tears several times, especially when the choir did a surprise extra piece--Lauridsen's "Dirait-on." I get misty just reliving the memory; it was a Date Night for the record books.

We repeated our "recovery day" on Day Fourteen. Our kind, delightful neighbor, Paul, brought his horses over and gave the big girls and the little kids riding lessons. Paul speaks very little English, and our kids speak even less French, but somehow, everyone understood one another. We took a walk. We read. We ate more great food. Not exciting to retell, but oh, so satisfying to experience. 

Day Fifteen was another rainy day, such a balm to our California-droughted souls. We visited the medieval stronghold of Berzé, which was about fifteen minutes from our house. The château fort is truly ancient; parts of it date to before the tenth century. It was abandoned for a couple of centuries after the Wars of Religion, but in the early 19th century, a descendant of one of the original owners bought it and began restoring it. Since then, it has passed down through the same family and is today inhabited by them. 

The gardens in the basse-cour are extraordinary, and the food they supply supports the bulk of the family's needs. We went into the tiny chapel that is recorded as having existed in AD 991. "Five hundred years before Columbus," as Patrick kept marveling. As we left the château, we visited the 17th century chapel outside the gates that's still used for worship by the family and neighbors. Chickens and Charollais cattle grazed placidly nearby, and we ate some wild blackberries that grew along the road. 

We drove a little ways through the rain to visit the nearby monks' chapel. We'd heard the frescoes were extraordinary, and they did not disappoint. We watched a video of a modern fresco artist demonstrating the centuries-old technique, then went and sat in the tiny chapel and gaped at the ceiling. Photos were unfortunately not allowed. Amazing. 

That evening, cousin Valérie and her son Nolan arrived for a visit. After dinner, Patrick and Valérie and I took a long walk to a nearby quarry. People began quarrying limestone there in the third century AD. We talked and admired the gorgeous scenery and went to bed afterward pleasantly tired. 

On Day Sixteen, we went to church in Lyon. This was another terrific ward--warm, welcoming, interesting, kind. Amazingly, we saw people we knew. As Sacrament Meeting progressed, I realized that two rows in front of us sat a man I'd known as a missionary in the MTC in 1989--but hadn't seen since. I introduced myself after the service. He remembered me well, and then informed me that I knew his wife. He brought her over, and it turned out she was my RA when I lived at BYU's French House in 1987! I had no idea they'd married, but it made sense, since they grew up in the same stake. They're happy and have several children--just like us.

After church, we recognized other people--a French family that had visited our ward in Pasadena two years before. I had translated for the teenage daughters during the Young Women's meeting--and then they'd met our friend Sunshine and invited her to come stay with them in France for a month. Which she did. 

We chatted and took photos of our two families together, and then we ate our picnic lunch on the lawn outside the church.

Next, we drove into Vieux Lyon and visited the cathedral there. It houses a treasury, which was great fun for us all. Then we took a funicular train up an enormous hill so that we could visit the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, "the fanciest church I've ever seen," as Daniel said. Ornamentation everywhere. Gorgeous, gilded, gigantic mosaics. Bright colors and soaring ceilings. And the stunning views outside--we loved it all.

To get back down the enormous hill, we strolled down the hairpin turns of the Rosary Walk. Every few feet, a brass rose embedded in the asphalt reminds the faithful to say a Hail Mary, and after ten of those, a larger, numbered brass medallion indicated the need for an Our Father. I loved the invitation to meditation, as well as the lush hydrangeas and roses that bordered the walk. 

At the end of the Rosary Walk, steep staircases lead back down through narrow alleyways to the plaza in front of the cathedral. Shaky-thighed at the bottom, we headed back to our car.

Our tradition for every day trip was to have a packet of Lu's Prince cookies as a snack on the drive home. This was something we'd invented on our trip to Paris years before, and it bore repeating. We often added some Haribo gummies, especially on long drives. These in no way spoiled our appetites for dinner.

Monday morning (Day Seventeen), we bid goodbye to our dear Swiss cousins. This was another rainy day, so we decided to drive about forty minutes south--back near Lyon--and visit the Château de Fléchères. I'd read that it was lovely, but I had no idea how much we'd adore this place.

First of all: rain. It makes every secluded country site more romantic. Second: this was the most "Pemberley" of any place we'd visited. Third: as nearly always on this trip, we were among the very few who were visiting, and having a gorgeous château all to oneself makes it exponentially more magical. 

Our tour guide was terrific; he was the same man who'd complimented my French at Cormatin days earlier, so he was already on my good side. But he was a fount of knowledge and obviously very passionate about the history of the site. We loved the building, with the original furnishings and the Italian murals and the textiles from Lyon, the silk capital of Europe; we loved the gardens, which were a hybrid of the sculpted, formal French style and the loose, lush English style. I was ready to move in.

By the time we got back to the car, though, certain people were getting hangry. We decided that the best course of action would be to go to the French McDonald's that was not too far away. Some of our children had never been to a McDonald's ever, so they were curious. 

The food at "MacDo," as the French call it, was definitely better than its American counterpart--but for me, after eating the simple but delicious and utterly fresh French food we'd prepared ourselves--it was unimpressive. It did the job, though, so we went with it. 

Once we got home, Patrick and I went to the lavanderie in Mâcon. Most French people have washing machines, but hang their clothes out to dry. This works brilliantly, even when one brings the racks inside on rainy days--unless one has brought only three or four outfits to France, as we had done. The rain wasn't letting up, so we went industrial. While the laundry was going, we shopped at the local Carrefour, which we found decidedly inferior to the Super U (but still better than most American groceries). We got some fancier-than-usual items, since we'd be eating our last home-cooked meal that night. 

Day Eighteen was the day of cleaning and getting ready to go. Everyone chipped in, so it didn't take long to get the bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchen, and living room into shape, and then get mostly packed up. We'd made reservations to eat that night at a very well-reviewed farm/inn/restaurant called the Auberge de Mâlo. On the way there lay the restored and (we found) somewhat Disney-ish village of Brancion, so of course we had to visit. 

People actually live in Brancion, but they have very enterprisingly turned it into a tourist destination. Just inside the ancient gates stands a well-appointed gift shop, and your ticket to tour the château fort's ruins includes the option of borrowing of medieval costumes. Daniel and Anne indulged, but the rest of us forebore. 

The ruins were enchanting, especially in the misty grey weather, and the views from the top of the donjon were spectacular. Brancion already sits on a hill, and the donjon was quite tall. But it was the empty windows that won my heart.

We had some extra time until our dinner reservation, so took the scenic route to Étrigny. Daniel had been begging us to sing a hymn together in nearly every church we visited, but I was shy of making a scene in front of other visitors, so I demurred. I promised him that we'd sing if we found an empty church--and in Ozenay, we found one. 

It was nearly dark, but we gathered in the nave of the beautiful old building and sang "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee" in parts--literally a capella. I must say that we always sound good when we sing together, but in the flattering acoustics of an ancient stone chapel, singing words written by Bernard of Clairvaux, we were at our very best--except we missed Christian even more sorely than we already had. 

Daniel, having achieved his innermost desire, was happy; all of us had full hearts. We drove to the inn and had a glorious and abundant and very long and properly French multi-course meal. Savory, plump duck. The freshest green salad dressed with savory chicken livers and a sumptuous vinaigrette. Sumptuous charcuterie. Loads of braised chicken. Roasted potatoes and sautéed wild mushrooms. Fabulous cheeses of all shapes, tastes, and textures. And fruit tarts--apple, plum, apricot, and rhubarb.

Absolutely everything had been grown on the farm--except the mushrooms, which were gathered nearby. We ate and talked and ate and laughed and ate some more. Anne fell asleep on my lap. Our family, almost always well-behaved, looked even better in contrast to a loud, large group of Scandinavians with several rowdy,overtired children. A couple of people, clearly locals, made quite a show of leaving in Gallic contempt when one of the kids had a meltdown of some kind. I must confess that I felt more than a bit smug as my children's excellent manners continued throughout the evening. 

Full and happy, we drove home. It was late, and we had to get up early, but we couldn't resist one last episode of Buffy before bed. 

Day Nineteen, we stripped the beds and piled all the linens in the laundry room. I always feel bad on the last day of our exchanges. We generate so much laundry! But we'd arranged this beforehand, and our host family assured us that they'd simply go to the lavanderie and take care of the issue when they got back. We left the bunny with a thank you note and a bottle of wine for Paul, who would take care of things for the interim days. And we bade goodbye to our marvelous mini-château, piled into our trusty rental car, and drove to the airport in Geneva. 

The flights home were uneventful, and it made sense to get all the customs nonsense out of the way between flights in Montreal. Our car service was waiting for us in Los Angeles, and I was relieved that we had thusly splurged, because I had a hard time staying awake on the drive home. 

Our house was pristine upon our arrival, and we quickly got to bed. The next day, we picked up Moneypenny from her devoted sitter, and that was that. Another successful, life-changing house exchange!


Life in Burgundy--Days Five through Ten

Here's my summary of Days One through Four.

Our exchange family had left us a brochure listing about twenty châteaux in Southern Burgundy, and as we looked at the map, we realized that they were all within an hour's drive of our house. It was hard to choose which one to visit first, but we finally decided to visit Cormatin on Day Five, which is fifteen minutes north of Cluny Abbey (much more on that later).

We had a few minutes to explore the immaculately kept formal gardens (and the moat!) before our guided tour started. The hedge maze was intricate enough that Hope had a hard time finding her way out once the bell rang for our tour. Our tour guide was a young intern with a very entertaining speaking style; the little kids followed along with a binder that contained an English transcription. The 17th-century structure is in very good condition, and the chambers of the Marquis and Marquise--decorated with gold leaf and lapis lazuli--are stunning.

After our tour, we had some ice cream in the former orangery and made our way home.

Before our trip, we'd realized that the Tour de France would be passing close by Prissé on what would be Day Six of our visit, so Patrick and I made plans for him to take the three older kids to the village of Fleurie so that they could see the cyclists race by. We knew it would be a long, hot wait, so I decided to stay home with the younger two. Patrick and the teens got an excellent spot on the village thoroughfare and settled in to wait. 

First, the sponsor caravan came by and threw free stuff to the crowd. Patrick and the kids came home with snacks, drinks, frisbees, and other little toys in a little backpack they'd also scored. A couple of hours later, the cyclists came through--and Vincenzio Nibali, the guy with the famous yellow jersey that day, was the one who ended up winning the race. Viva Italia! 

In the meantime, I filmed Daniel and Anne giving a tour of our mini-château. It's sixteen minutes long, and it's hilarious (to us, anyway). You'll have to head over to Facebook to see it, since I can't seem to upload it here.

We also played ping pong in the cave and had a picnic under a mulberry tree on the lawn. Bliss.

Since Day Six was pretty mellow, we were up for adventure again on Day Seven. First, we visited the abbey of Cluny, most of which was destroyed right after the French Revolution. (This was unusual; most of France's gorgeous architecture was preserved as part of the national patrimony despite the antagonism toward religion at the time.) What remains is impressive, and amazing virtual reality technology shows visitors what the massive churches must have been like in their heyday. Here's James walking through what was once the ambulatory of one of the churches; you can see remains of the pillars to his right:

Everyone loved everything about Cluny, and Patrick and I were excited, because we'd bought tickets to a concert to be held there the following week. We splurged on lunch at a restaurant, which was leisurely and delicious. Then, because it was so hot, we made for the Caves at Azé in the afternoon. The idea of a fresh, cool tour through a 50-degree grotto running alongside a subterreanean river sounded heavenly--and it was. 

Once again, our guide was fantastic--completely immersed in his source material. Prehistoric man lived in the caves, and many skeletons of bears, lions, and other creatures have been excavated from within. The geology, the history--it was all fascinating--and I was once again bursting with pride over my children. Patrick and I translated some of what our guide told us, but mostly, they patiently gleaned what they could from the fast-paced flood of French that washed over them--and then asked questions when it was appropriate. 

Every evening was wonderful--a home-cooked dinner; a twilight walk; some Buffy accompanied by chocolate--the routine was extremely satisfying. 

The next day, Day Eight, was Saturday, and we went to Switzerland to see Patrick's family for the weekend. We met his cousin, Valérie, at her cute apartment, and then headed to downtown Lausanne to do some exploring. As lovely as Geneva is, I far prefer Lausanne, and would be quite content to live there. Perched on the edge of Lake Geneva, with the stately Alps rising above the other side, Lausanne is small enough to be comfy, but sophisticated enough to remind you that you're very happily in Europe. 

We visited the cathedral (including the awesome crypt, which we hadn't seen before), bought chocolate (of course), and found an issue of Vogue Italia for Hope. A friend of ours who is a model was featured in an extensive spread, so we bought it as a souvenir.

In the evening, we all went to the village of Servion, where Patrick's second cousin, Dany, lives with his family. I cannot convey to you how wonderful this evening was. Dany and Yolande are kind and hilarious and generous people. They made a traditional raclette dinner for us with all the scrumptious trimmings, and we ate and talked and laughed in the gorgeous Vaudois twilight for hours. Here's a photo of James and me, with the view from Dany's terrace in the background. Heaven.

Speaking of heaven, the next day (Day Nine), we went to church in Renens with Valérie, her awesome son, Nolan, and Patrick's Aunt Sylvia. What a fabulous ward, with dynamic youth, excellent lessons, and a comforting yet energizing Spirit. After a yummy lunch at Valérie's and a nice visit with Sylvia, we drove to Montreux (yes, we all sang the "Smoke on the Water" riff--several times) so that we could visit the Château de Chillon. I've been there before twice, but it doesn't get old. 

We explored the whole thing from dungeon (which boasts Lord Byron's graffiti) to tower. 

It was rainy, but the Alps rose majestically through the mist, and I could have looked out over the platinum water forever. 

The rain persisted the next day (Day Ten), but we were undaunted. First, we went to visit the Cailler chocolate factory near the village of Gruyères. (I was dying to take the kids to the castle at Gruyères as well, but I didn't want them to burn out on castles too early--plus, with the poor weather, it wouldn't have been at its best. Next time.)

The factory was packed, but we bought tickets for the tour and then lounged around watching the big spenders (those who paid 75 euros) make hand-molded chocolates in the glassed-in lab. (Again: next time, we'll fork out for the atelier du chocolat).

The tour was delightfully heavy on history and atmosphere, but I had hoped for more technique/technology. But at the end, we did get to see chocolates being made--and then, for the grand finale, the tasting room. In which we could stay as long as we liked and eat as much chocolate as we wanted. Shades of Wonka. Cailler makes our very favorite chocolate, Frigor, and let's just say that the Perkins family got its money's worth. Délicieux!

Nicely stuffed, we made our way back to Lausanne to visit the fantastic Olympic Museum. This was definitely the kids' favorite visit: loads of interactive displays, memorabilia, and videos of Olympic highlights--it's easy to spend fascinating hours there. I highly recommend it. 

By this time in our trip, Patrick had driven the autoroute to and from France twice, and while the autoroute is efficient, it's not necessarily the most scenic way to go. Patrick, as driver, wanted adventure, so we planned an alternate route back to Prissé. It was pouring rain a lot of the way--through Vallorbe, Pontarlier, and then skirting Lons-le-Saunier back down to Mâcon--and it took us about four hours (instead of two).

Now, I love a good road trip with Patrick at the wheel, but this was the one time our kids mutinied a bit, so we decided to stop for a splurge dinner in Tournus. Hope got adventurous and ordered a pizza with escargots--but I ended up eating most of them along with my hanger steak. Ah, the sacrifices I make for my children. But everyone was happy, and we got back to our lovely mini-château in time for an episode of Buffy

To be continued! Stay tuned for more châteaux, churches, cheese, and chocolat!


Life in Burgundy--Days One through Four

Good grief, this poor blog. I've never gone this long without updating it. Where did the time go?

Well, longtime readers of mine will know about my writing energy unit (WEU) concept. As a woman with six awesome kids and a foster daughter; a fabulous husband; a darling dog; and a demanding, five-day-per-week teaching gig during the school year, I find myself with only a very limited amount of time/WEUs to write every day. And those WEUs have been spent on fiction lately, to the detriment of this blog.

Since my last post, I've finished a middle grade contemporary fantasy (it's now being considered by an agent or two). I've written a romance novella that was included in this anthology that came out yesterday! And then there was that short story that will come out very soon as part of this anthology

I have another commissioned work of longish-form fiction that needs to be drafted by the end of the summer, but that's on hold at the moment. Why? Because I'm on vacation with the family in fabulous France. Southern Burgundy, to be specific--and we're having the time of our lives. 

The photo at the top of the post is what we see from our bedroom window. The view is even more fantastic than the house in which we're staying. Every time I walk into the room, the view captivates me, and as the light changes throughout the day, I notice new things to love. I'd have a hard time getting sick of that scenery, I can tell you.

We're doing another house exchange through HomeLink. Our first exchange was with a family from Neauphle-le-Château in 2009, and we spent a grand three weeks showing our kids around Paris and its environs. The year after, we exchanged with a family in Twickenham, England, and had a similarly memorable time.

But the next year, it was time for Christian to go to college--and the summer after that, we moved to California, and so on. Finally, this year, we felt ready to do another exchange. Our first choice was Italy, but nothing worked out there. For a while, it looked like Bath might be a possibility--but then, that fell through as well.

Then we got an exchange offer from a family in Burgundy, and things fell into place. We realized that from here, we could visit Patrick's extended family in Lausanne, Switzerland (we're headed there this weekend), and that we'd also get to see a gorgeous part of France that is less frequented by tourists. 

The one sad thing about our exchange is that Christian, our oldest, couldn't come with us. He's between his junior and senior years of college, and he scored a jaw-droppingly cool internship with Senator Reid in Washington, D.C. for the summer. He's having a great time, and it's the kind of opportunity that's life-changing--but I wish we could clone him, because we miss him very much.

The good/bad part of exchanging houses--at least, if you're a bit obsessive, like I am--is that it involves a considerable amount of deep cleaning beforehand. (Yes, it's a ton of work getting the place ready for the exchange family--but the flip side is that you come home to a house that's pretty darn clean. Thus my ambivalence.)

But clean we did, and pack (very lightly) we did--one large suitcase and three carry-on suitcases for the seven of us--and we were off. Day Zero: We flew via Air Canada (highly recommended: organized, drama-free, and prompt) through Montreal to Geneva. One of the few downsides to living in California is that it takes fourteen hours (including layovers) to get to Europe instead of just six or seven. But we survived. 

Day One: We barely fit all our luggage into our rented minivan (thus the need to pack very lightly) and headed west into France. We got to Prissé at about noon, a couple of hours ahead of my pessimistic schedule. Geneva's baggage handling and car rental systems were true to the legendary Swiss stereotype of efficiency! We met our exchange family's neighbor, who handed over the key to the place that would be our home for the next three weeks. 

We knew a little bit about the house before we arrived--that the oldest part of it was built in the 17th century, and that it has sixteen bedrooms and extensive grounds--but it wasn't until we arrived that we realized we'd really won the house exchange lottery. I'll do a separate post with photos of all the rooms and as much of the history as I've gleaned; it's pretty amazing. 

We had a delightful time exploring corridor after corridor on all four floors, both attics, and the extensive cave (basement), and then the kids each chose a bedroom and unpacked. Anne and Daniel decided to bunk together in a darling room in the north tower, and I don't blame them; all the hallways can be a tiny bit spooky, and it took us a while to orient ourselves. 

Patrick and I made a trip to the Super U, the local supermarché, to stock up on food and supplies for the next day (Sunday) as well as the day after (Bastille Day). We had a simple dinner of amazingly fresh and exquisite local food and called it a day. 

We didn't get much sleep the first night, but we did our best. Day Two: We'd planned to go to church, but ended up sleeping right through it and not really minding. We're on vacation, and we refuse to push ourselves.

We went into Mâcon in the afternoon and explored a bit in the light rain (which we all welcomed, having come from drought-stricken Los Angeles). That evening, we watched the World Cup Finals, and it was cool enough (with the big windows open) to have a comfy fire. 

Day Three: Since Monday was Bastille Day, a national holiday, we knew all the tourist sites would be closed--so we went to Switzerland! I've spent time in Lausanne, but had never been to Geneva before, so it was an adventure for all of us. We saw the iconic Jet d'Eau (and plenty of swans, geese, and ducks) on Lake Geneva and ate our lunch on Rousseau Island.

Then we walked up to the Cathedral of St. Pierre, then through charming streets and parks to the Reformation Wall, and back to a supermarket to stock up on chocolate. It may not sound like a lot, but it was quite a bit of walking, and we were still jet lagged. Why push it? We've got days and days left to our stay. 

Another evening in our lovely house; another wonderful dinner. I'll probably have to do a separate post about the food: the cheeses, the milk, the bread, the desserts. Delicious! After we cleaned up the kitchen, Patrick, James, and Hope went on a sunset bike ride; it's light out until about 9:30 this time of year, and we all want to make the most of the amazing countryside that surrounds us. 

Late evening routine: Patrick and I, remembering how we watched a couple of exciting seasons of Lost with our big boys on our London trip, wanted to find something similarly engaging to watch with James, Hope, and Tess in the evenings after putting the littles to bed. We decided on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so far, it's been a hit. 

Day Four: Yesterday, we visited Brou Monastery in Bourg-en-Bresse. I'm going to run out of words that express extreme beauty very quickly. 

This gem of Flamboyant Gothic architecture was a joy to explore. The church itself was amazing, as was the unique, three-cloistered monastery. One of the best parts was having it all nearly to ourselves; there were only a few other visitors. I was very tempted to gather the kids in one of the small, side chapels so that we could sing something in harmony literally a capella, but I forebore, not wanting to cause a scene. Or have people leave money at our feet. Because they would, of course. :)

We ate our picnic lunch in the shade of a quince tree in the middle of the monastery's formal (but unfortunately somewhat overgrown) vegetable garden. Most of us were tempted to do some weed-pulling; the local volunteers must all be on vacation. 

Then we drove back through Mâcon and followed the signs to Solutré. It's one of two roches in the area, and archaeologists theorize that it was once a prehistoric hunting site. Early man would apparently drive herds of wild game off the cliff, then collect the bodies at the bottom. Today, Solutré rises above picturesque villages and hectare upon hectare of grape vines. Apparently, this area produces some of the finest wine grapes in the world. 

It was a strenuous but gorgeous walk to the top. Anne had hurt her foot earlier in the day, so had a bit of a challenge, but she made it both up and back. Once back at our car, we rewarded ourselves with Prince cookies and headed back to the house.

Patrick and I had thought about taking the kids to Lyon today, but this morning, we decided against it. We need to do some grocery shopping, and Patrick has a bit of work to do. We'll do something local and low-key this afternoon instead; there are literally a score of ancient châteaux within a few minutes' drive of the house. Stay tuned for more updates!


U.K. Invasion, Final Part

Part One is here.

Part Two is here.

Part Three is here.

Part Four is here.

Day 13, Saturday, was a mellow day. A friend of Patrick's had given him four tickets to the Arsenal-Blackpool soccer game that day, and he was keen to go and experience the madness that is British football. I would love to have gone, but decided that Tess, James, and Hope should be Patrick's companions. They set off for Emirates Stadium for a grand adventure.

Meanwhile, Christian and I took Daniel and Anne to the playground around the corner from the house. It was great: a sturdy, high fence, great toys, and a setting right on the bank of the Thames. Anne and Daniel played to their heart's content, and then we walked home. I got all the laundry done and fixed dinner. The soccer fans came home and reported on the rout of Blackpool by Arsenal. I had asked for a cool Arsenal jersey, but P said that nothing on sale looked like something I'd actually wear. No worries.

Sunday we went back to the Hyde Park ward. After Sacrament Meeting, we chatted with some friends--there are tons of Americans, specifically NYC ex-pats, in that ward--then left to go to the Tate. It was a long walk from the Hyde Park, but I love to walk, and it was a beautiful day. Most of the family shares my fondness for long rambles, but Daniel would much rather not, in most cases. About halfway there, he said to me through gritted teeth, "This is the worst day of my life.  You are ruining my day." I laughed hard, which incensed him. He rallied after we stopped at a park for our traditional sandwiches and cookies. And he loved the Tate.

How could he not? 500 years of British (and some international) art. I tried hard not to let anyone see me crying as we walked around the Pre-Raphaelite room. Those paintings speak to my heart, and I loved seeing them again. I got myself together as we walked through ensuing rooms.

I love how my children respond to art, from Anne's pointing out of every last dog (you'd be surprised how many dogs there are in famous paintings), to Christian's deep appreciation of works depicting historical scenes. Everyone had things they adored and wanted to show to others.

In the great hall, there was an installation of two works by Fiona Banner, basically two full-size WWII aircraft changed and manipulated in different ways. Daniel was out of his mind (as were the bigger boys). And yes, the Tate had a great children's trail. We hit the gift shop for postcards, and P bought me a lovely big book on the Pre-Raphaelites. Then we got sodas in the basement cafe and headed for home.

Have I told you about my collection of art postcards? Seventeen and a half years ago, when I was pregnant with Christian, and Patrick and I went to France for the first time together, I bought postcards of the art I saw and cherished. When I got home, I put them all in a photo album, and it became a quiet book of sorts for my kids. At following museum visits, whether in London, NYC, Rome, or Springville, I'd add to the collection. It's now quite large, and the kids love looking through all the beautiful, quirky, and interesting work in the book.

Monday, Day 15. Last year in Paris, P took the Big Three into the city for some grown-up-type fun for a day. This year, it was my turn. P stayed in Twickenham with Tess, Daniel and Anne, and I headed for London with my big kids.

Our first stop was the Persephone bookstore in Bloomsbury. Persephone publishes forgotten works that deserve a second life, mostly 20th-century, mostly by women. I've ordered from them online, but had never been to the shop before. Bliss. I picked out three of their dove-gray-bound books to add to my collection: The Children Who Lived in a Barn, by Eleanor Graham; The Shuttle, by Frances Hodgson Burnett; and The Fortnight in September, by R.C. Sherriff. Delightful.

Persephone is just blocks from The British Museum, and I'd never been there before, so that's where we went next. The Rosetta Stone is a marvel. The rest of that wing was packed with tourists from around the globe, and the collection is very similar to that of the Egyptian Wing at NYC's Met. So we went upstairs to the third floor, where there was a special exhibit of 500 years of clocks. Christian has loved clocks since he was tiny, so this was a huge hit. All the clocks were fantastic. On the way to and from that exhibit, we walked through rooms with artifacts from Roman and Saxon hoards: treasure and weapons of all kinds, gloriously displayed. Hope and I could have stayed there forever, but we had other places to see.

We got a taxi and went for lunch at Byron Burgers. FABULOUS. As good as Shake Shack, and that's saying a lot. We had a great time stuffing ourselves, and it was a nice switch from our usual ham and cheese sandwiches.

We waddled out of Byron and into Covent Garden. Magical: shops with perfumes and hats and painted Venetian masks and Victorian puppet theaters; musicians of excellent caliber busking for enthusiastic crowds; lovely sights and sounds and smells everywhere. Hope was in seventh heaven, and the boys liked it, too.

We wended our way over to a really great part of London--the little side streets north of Trafalgar Square--Cecil Court, New Row, and St Martin's Lane. Here there are lots of great little shops with quirky owners and tons of atmosphere. We went to a Victorian-style sweet shop, with shelves and shelves of large glass jars filled with toffees, fizzies, and other lovely things. The kids had a great time picking out things to go in their 100-gram bags. The elderflower fizzies were my favorite, and toffee is like crack for me.

We browsed through Waterstones, where I bought even more books. We went in shops that had embroidered owls and mugs with dogs on them and and funky canes and Edwardian ashtrays. Then we went to two stores that specialize in antique engravings. I bought a couple of great gifts and a lovely engraving of Blenheim Palace for us. Both shops had eccentric owners, very entertaining to chat with.

Another store specialized in antique medals and stamps. Here, James finally found his souvenir. We told the kids they could each have one souvenir and one T-shirt on the trip. The art postcards and our tradition of buying a Christmas ornament on every trip had already been taken care of. Anne and Tess and Daniel had all gotten their souvenirs way back at Windsor, Hope had gotten a cool Beatles tote bag in Liverpool, and Christian had gotten a John Lennon-style black cap at a coffee shop near Abbey Road. Only James remained.

The very coolest medals were far too expensive, but he did finally find a bronze WWI Belgian Cross of Honor that we could afford. He wanted to come home and pin it to his Scout shirt, but I told him we'd find a nice display case for it instead. He was happy.

Weary from our prowling, we got drinks at Trafalgar Square and sat by the fountains, where a homeless Turkish man with kind eyes hit on me in a very polite way. Christian muttered as we walked away, "We can't take you anywhere." But he was kidding around, and I laughed hard.

I took the kids back to Waterloo Station and put them on the train for Twickenham. Carmen had freed up her evening to see Patrick and me, so the plan was for the big kids to go home and babysit and for Patrick to come into London and meet Carmen and me at a restaurant. This meant I had two whole hours to myself! Lovely.

I walked from Waterloo over to the Tate Modern and went through the Surrealist wing. Good stuff, but very crowded. I left after not very long and sat on a padded bench by the Thames and read and ate toffee. I had fantastic views of St Paul's across the river, and the late afternoon light was once again golden and dreamlike.

We had a terrific dinner with Carmen at a restaurant called Livebait.  I recommend. I had oysters (delish), Dover sole (exquisite), and sticky toffee pudding (not the best, but quite good). I adore sticky toffee pudding, but hadn't yet had any on this trip. Mission accomplished.

Day 16: Our last full day in England. I wanted to finish with a bang and do something that everyone would love. I felt like we'd seen everything in London that the little kids could handle, so I opted for Arundel Castle, which is an easy 90-minute train ride down to the South Downs in West Sussex. What magnificent country, and the weather was fantastic--easily our best day, weather-wise.

Arundel Castle is still the home of the Duke of Norfolk, so visits are run differently than those at Windsor or Hampton Court. We got our tickets and children's trails (this was the first time we had to pay for the trails) and noticed a sign that read "Philip's Zoo. Guinea Pigs, rabbits, goats, pigs, and Shetland ponies. 50p per person or 1.50 for a family of four." I was intrigued and mentally filed that info away for later; I knew that would be a great break for Daniel and Anne, at the very least.

We ate our sandwiches on a lovely lawn next to a huge magnolia tree that was in bloom. Then we went to the FitzAlan Chapel. The tombs, the carvings, the windows. So. Glorious. I have FitzAlan ancestors, so this was moving on several levels for me.

Next, we went to the gardens. At the entrance to the kitchen garden, a pretty woman about our age saw Patrick with Anne, and asked whether our children would like to go to the petting zoo. Business was slow, apparently, and she was recruiting visitors. We happily agreed. At the entrance, a tan teenager with a mop of sun-blond hair introduced himself as Philip and showed the kids all the animals. Everyone was enchanted. Patrick asked Philip about himself and the origins of the zoo. He answered that he lived at the castle and that he took care of the zoo whenever he wasn't at boarding school (he was 14). Recognition began to dawn for me.

The pretty woman, who was Philip's mother, was warm and lovely and asked us lots of questions. She was thrilled that we had so many children; she had five herself, Philip being the youngest. We also met Isabel, her second youngest. We eventually said goodbye, and as we walked away, Patrick muttered to me, "Do you think they're the caretakers?"

"No," I answered. "Did you hear her ultra-posh accent? I think that was the Duchess."

"It can't be," Patrick replied. But I was convinced.

And my suspicions were confirmed once we went inside the castle. After touring the medieval motte-and-bailey and the 17th-century "Civil War" sections, we got to see the part of the castle the current Duke of Norfolk and his family use today--the sitting rooms, the gigantic ballroom, and the bedrooms. On one table, I saw a photo of the pretty woman we had met at the zoo, much younger, with a handsome man. On another, I found a photo of Philip, Isabel, and what must be their older siblings.

(And when we got home? Google confirmed it for me. Philip is none other than Lord Philip Fitzalan-Howard, and his mother is Georgina Fitzalan-Howard, Duchess of Norfolk. The family has been devoutly Catholic for centuries, and one Duke, Philip Howard, was even sainted due to his martyrdom during the Reformation. Hence the five children and Georgina's unusual delight at our large family.  A brush with nobility--what a thrill for us!)

The formal gardens and kitchen gardens were spectacular. The lived-in portion of the castle was grand, but also very comfortable and lived-in-looking. Even without our exciting meeting, Arundel Castle now rivals Hampton Court as my favorite spot in England. A complete lack of crowds, so much to see, and the gorgeous backdrop of the South Downs: Arundel for the win!

We toured the rose garden and the nearby cathedral, then took the train back to Twickenham. We packed up, did a little tidying, and crashed after one last episode of Lost, Season 2. (We had gotten through most of the season in the evenings with the big boys.)

Then it was up bright and early the next morning to head for Heathrow. As nightmarish as our flight to London was? That's how easy and peaceful our return was. Minimal lines; no hassles with our many bags; a more than decent breakfast at an airport restaurant; and a remarkably calm, docile Anne for the 7.5-hour flight. I even watched two movies while she slept on my lap.

Our driver was there to fetch us after we went through Customs; there was no traffic on the way home. We got home at about 3:30 p.m. to a spanking clean house. I supervised the unpacking, and we got 95% done with it by the time we crashed early that evening.  Another wonderful family adventure-turned-memory!