Thursday, December 30, 2010

Les Deux Alps

Tuesday we boarded and skied, but the weather was dreary and we bit off more than we could chew slope-wise speaking. We went all of the way to the top, which meant 2 hours of non-stop skiing to get back down to civilization. It was fun but exhausting! On Wednesday, we chose better runs and the sun was shining! It was my very favorite ski day. EVER.

Here are David and I, ready to tackle a challenging but do-able slope:

And here are the boys and I at the same spot. The photo does not capture the beauty of the mountains, it was absolutely breath-taking! And yes, Graham is making a "gopher" face. He can be silly, that way.

A view from the lift:

We only budgeted for two ski days this week. We will spend the rest of our week at the Gite working puzzles, playing games, and sight-seeing in the area.

We will be blessed with two more days in the same ski area next week, when we (all four) attend a GEM-Kids conference at Camp des Cimes. David and I are chaperoning/cooking/leading worship and the boys are participating as missionary kids...and helping to lead worship as well.

I am off to buy groceries for the rest of the week, delighted that I am not sore or hobbling, because we really skied hard the past two days!

Monday, December 27, 2010


I cannot believe that I am going to post this because my father (the safety engineer) is going to think that his daughter learned nothing from his training. Sorry, Dad! We really blew it this time, and by God's grace, I am living to write about it. And yes, we learned our lesson.

David made it clear to us that he did not want to be driving in the dark on the narrow twisty turny roads up into the alps in questionable weather; thus, he mandated that we would begin our 6 hour trek at 9 a.m. Given all resources (GPS, google maps, and our experience in traveling the bulk of this route in the past) our estimated time of arrival, with stops for lunch, etc, would be 4 p.m.--an hour before sunset. We packed early in the morning and left our apartment right on schedule.

Les Vacances in France are revered and highly celebrated. We knew that. What we did not know is that the number of vehicles on the road the day after Christmas would cause slowing and intermittent stopping along the auto route. As we saw the clock tick towards 4 p.m., we realized that we were not going to get to our Gite before dark. In retrospect, that is the moment that I should have called the Gite owner, explained our delay, and asked her to hold our space, but not expect us until the following morning. And then I should have called a hotel down in the valley or made some other plans for the night. This morning we all agreed that THAT is what we should have done. Hind sight. 20/20.

Instead, I called the Gite owner, told her that we would be arriving late, and we forged on ahead. At the foot of the mountain at 7 p.m., we stopped for some groceries, called the Gite owner again, and estimated an arrival time of 8 p.m. She inquired about our journey, asked if perhaps we had had car trouble, and I explained that it was simply vacation traffic that had slowed us down.

Then, at 7 p.m., in the pitch black of night, with no street lights, we began our ascent up the mountain. We had not eaten since lunch, we were exhausted from our journey thus far, and we had no business attempting such a feat. In our defense, at that point we did not yet know exactly what we would face ahead.

About halfway up the mountain, we discovered the roads were covered with frozen snow and ice. The best pavement was found dead center of the two-lane road, so we drove in the middle and prayed we would not meet any on-coming traffic. The road was literally carved out of the side of the mountain, and we were not sure if was better or worse that we could not see the cliffs to which we clung. When we passed a car that appeared stuck, we began to wonder if we should turn back. The problem was, the icy road was so narrow that there was not enough room to turn the car around. So we trudged ahead in first gear.

At this point Chandler was praying silently with his eyes tightly shut, and Graham and I had been forbidden to speak. It seems my gasping and his doomsday proclamations were not helping our fearless (okay TOTALLY FREAKED OUT) driver. As we rounded yet another hairpin turn, our GPS noted that we were 1.4 km from our destination. Feeling hopeful, David slowed down to let a truck pass, and first gear couldn't hold on. The car died.

The motor easily roared back to life, but the tires were unable to produce any forward motion. Putting the car in reverse, David slowly backed (BACKED!) the car 250 feet around the turn to a flatter area where we could get some traction. Did I mention the ICE? How about the CLIFFS? And the total LACK of light? (I know, Dad. I am really sorry!)

Once again in first gear, we made a run. Once again we hit ice and killed the car. Once again we backed down. David decided to make one more attempt up, and then, if that didn't work, he would figure out how to turn around and go back down the mountain. We prayed. We prayed like we have never prayed before. And slowly, slowly we made it past the slick spot and up to our Gite. Alive.

David is the safest driver I know, but even he agrees that we should NEVER have started up that mountain in the dark in winter. And we will never do it again. But I will say that it was one car trip this family will not forget.

I took this photo as we drove back down this morning, just to give you an idea of the road we were on last night.

This is the little village of Besse.

And here is a picture in our Gite.

Tomorrow, we will ski.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day

The sun is shining, and our day has been filled with joy! We started by opening our stockings while savoring David's homemade cinnamon rolls. Since both sets of parents were quite generous, our tiny trees were graced with a bounty of gifts. We feel completely blessed.

Even Jack got a toy, and he was rather taken with it.

As for gifts from David and I, there were none. We took a family vote, and decided that this year adventure would trump toys. Instead of blowing our Christmas budget on "Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh," we booked a Gite (cottage) in the Alps! Our family Christmas present is a ski trip, and we leave bright and early tomorrow morning for a week in the French Alps. As I speak David is taking inventory on gloves and goggles. Stay tuned for photos from the slopes, our Christmas has just BEGUN to be celebrated!

For now, I have chicken to roast and a tarte aux pommes to bake--our first Christmas dinner in France. Love to all, and hopes that your Christmas is filled with the joy that comes from knowing that the SAVIOR has been born. He is our hope.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

No Letter Yet

I usually write a Christmas Letter, but I haven't gotten around to it yet this year. Since I would be e-mailing the letter, I suppose its not too late. I just don't know what to write. I guess in writing a blog, I feel as though I've already said all there is to say about our year. On the other hand, I love the nice neat "wrap-up" that a Christmas letter brings to a year.

If I were to write one (and I still might) I think it would begin something like this:

Just over 2000 years ago, eternity was swaddled and placed in a manger. The baby Jesus was in the very place that God wanted Him to be, and yet, He was so very far from his heavenly home. I have come to think of Christmas as a time when families come together, but on the first Christmas, families were more scattered than gathered. Mary and Joseph were traveling, the shepherds were working, and I think the angles were doing a little of both. We, too, are sure that we are in the very place that God wants us to be, and yet, we are so very far from home.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Evening with New Friends

Last night we spent the evening with new friends, and we were so profoundly blessed. But let me back up....

Back in September David and I joined a community choir. While we love to sing, our reason for joining had much more to do with the COMMUNITY part of the deal than the CHOIR part. Being new in town, we were looking for a place to practice our French and make some friends.

On our very first night, a fellow tenor asked David what he did for a living. David replied, "I am a pastor and a pilot." He said "pastor" because missionary would have been WAY too hard to explain. The man looked directly at David and said, "Being a pilot, that is very interesting. Being a pastor, not so much." And that was our first conversation with Bernard.

We continue to go to choir, and little by little, our ability to converse has grown. We still stumble over our sentences, but we comprehend most of what is said--which makes us a pair of really good listeners. We ask a few painfully produced questions, and then we let people talk.

But until this past weekend, we have not had anything more than passing conversations with anyone in our choir. We exchange pleasantries, comment on the weather, share what we did last weekend...that kind of thing. This is partly because the majority of our time at choir practice is spent practicing. And, of course, because getting to know people just takes time.

So on Wednesday, when we received an e-mail from Bernard and his wife inviting us to their home for dinner on Saturday night, we were delighted. This was the first time that David and I have been invited into the home of a French family; but, it is the reason we came to France...because we LOVE French people. Because God LOVES French people. And we have loved them for a long time from a distance, but finally, finally, we got the chance to begin to love them up close and personally.

And loving them is not very hard at all, because they are absolutely wonderful people. When we arrived at their home, we were pleased to see that one other couple from the choir had also been invited. We were greeted at the door in the way that friends in France greet each other--with bises--or light kisses on each cheek. Women greet each other this way and men and women greet each other this way. Men, unless father and son or some other VERY close relation, greet each other with a hand shake. I LOVE the "bis," and could think of no greater start to the evening than getting to kiss four new friends. David is still getting used to the "bis," but his sense of propriety urges him on, and he graciously doles out the "bises" when social etiquette demands them, as was the case last night.

Next we were ushered into the living room, where the cork was popped on a bottle of champagne. Six delicate glasses were sparkling with bubbles when Bernard lifted his glass to toast new friends. Next our gracious hostess brought piping hot appetizers from the oven--puffed pastries with various fillings--and offered them around. And then the conversation began in the most normal way imaginable, "What do you do?"

David explained that he was a pilot and told about the opportunities that he has to fly once he gets a handle on the French language. The question continued around the circle: I explained what I had done as grant writer for the Red Cross, we learned that both men were Information Technology Engineers, that one woman was a nuclear scientist, and that our hostess was a house wife (also an amazing cook and an accomplished artist...but those things came out later in the evening). And then Bernard came back to David and asked, "But didn't you say that you were also a pastor?" Ah, so he hadn't forgotten. "Well," David explained, "we do also plan to work with local protestant churches, helping them to plant other churches. So yes, I have two jobs to do in France." And then that was the end of that conversation.

We moved to the dinner table, where our first course of bread and salad was served. The salad consisted of endive, some kind of cheese, some pear, some walnuts, and a wonderfully light but flavorful dressing. The conversation turned to food and stayed there for much of the meal. American fast food was berated, but all expressed love for Americans in general. They even said that French spoken with an "American accent" is "charming." Who knew?

After the salad, the main course was served. I ate (and LOVED) something that I have never had before, but hope to have again: Fois Gras! It was served warm with a side of warm pear slices, and everything was rich with butter. A white wine was now opened, and small glasses were poured--it was a perfect compliment. I took full advantage of the French practice of mopping one's plate with a crust of bread, so as to get every drop of flavor!

Next came the cheese course. Six varieties of cheese were served: soft, hard, mild, strong, every texture and potency was available. A red wine was served with the cheese. Lest you be concerned about the alcohol consumption, let me assure you that quantities were small. The wine is served to compliment the meal and to enhance flavors. Though all six adults were served, neither the white wine nor the red wine bottle was emptied.

It was during the cheese course that Bernard declared to me, "You are not a true American!"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

He explained that Americans do not like all of the French cheeses, but he noticed that I was clearly enjoying each one. Ohhh, and I did. I was, however, exercising a little restraint, because I knew that a true French dinner takes marathon-like endurance, and we were not yet at the finish line. Dessert was still coming.

Chocolat mousse and a tarte au sucre. MMMmmmmm.

Finally, we moved back to the living room for tea and coffee, where the conversation moved from "places we have been" to "places we must go" to "holiday plans." As it dawned on our hosts that we only plan to live in this area for our year of language school, they seemed truly disappointed. They began to discuss ways for David and I to continue singing in their choir even after we move to another town. They even offered us a room in their home for the night of rehearsals if we would drive down, and I don't think they were kidding.

After gathering coats and another full round of bises, we walked though the snow back to our car. It was 1 a.m. Much to our surprise, we had spent five hours getting acquainted with new friends. It was a "Tangible Kingdom" kind of evening, and we are truly, truly thankful.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Good News, Bad News

Good News: 2 more days of school and then we will officially be on our Christmas break!

Bad News: This week we have finals. We have already taken exams in grammar, written expression, written comprehension, and oral comprehension. We have the oral expression exam tomorrow. In college we called this "dead" week, and "dead" is a pretty accurate description of how I feel just about now.

Good News: One of the tests has already been graded... the grammar test...and I got 96/100!

Bad News: I can diagram/conjugate/analyze French sentences much better than I can speak them.

Good News: Tis the season of peppermint bark!

Bad News: I cannot find a single Candy Cane ANYWHERE! How in the world am I supposed to make peppermint bark without candy canes?

Good News: I have baked Christmas cookies, ginger snaps, and snickerdoodles to satisfy our holiday hankerings.

Bad News: There is no substitute for peppermint bark.

Good News: I regularly receive e-mails in French. This is good news because it means that we are actually beginning to have a LIFE here. And so far, none of the French e-mails have been junk mail.

Bad News: Sometimes I don't fully understand the e-mails that I receive in French.

Good News: Last weekend, between warm-ups, rehearsals, and our actual concerts, David and I had some time to get better acquainted with the other choristers. We have been really hoping to make friends with our fellow "Villains."

Bad News: We were so stinking tired from the concerts and prepping for our final exams that we missed choir practice on Monday night. (Aside: Seriously, who rehearses the day AFTER two back to back concerts, anyways? Les Villains de Massy, that's who. They are singing maniacs!)

Good News: Today I received an e-mail (in French) from a couple who sings in our choir. They have invited us to their house for dinner on Saturday night. Truly, it was one of my happiest moments thus far in France.

Good News: We can go!

Bad News: I did not start my Christmas shopping until today. Nor have I started a Christmas letter. Nor do we have a Christmas Tree.

Good News: I finished my Christmas shopping today.

Bad News: Still no letter and no tree.

Good News: We are generally optimistic about our first Christmas abroad.

Bad News: We had a family "melt-down" on Monday, during which I said a lot of ugly things. I was sure that Christmas was ruined.

Good News: We were all over it by Monday night. Grace is a very good thing.

Bad News: We are still a bit lonely.

Good News: We are having a Christmas Party for our class on Friday. Many of them are a bit lonely too. Hoping to bless, encourage, and love on those who are far from ALL family. At least we have each other--some of our classmates are single women who will not be going home for Christmas.

Bad News: We won't have a Christmas tree for the party. Well truthfully, I have three small fake ones up, but I mean we won't have a REAL Christmas tree.

Good News: We won't have a Christmas tree for the party. Which means there may actually be enough room for all the people that we have invited. Truly, we do not have a place to put a Christmas tree. BUT, next time I am apartment hunting in France, a place for a Christmas tree will be on my list of non-negotiables.

Bad News: Graham is sick AGAIN.

Good News: The rest of us seem to be avoiding the bug this time.

Bad News: We seem to be allergic to every laundry detergent that we have tried in France. I miss TIDE.

Good News: We have not run out of options for laundry detergent yet. Bought a new kind today. Here's hoping.

Bad News: It is getting late, and seeing as I have a test tomorrow, I best get to bed.

Good News: I have been sleeping soundly ALL week, except for last night, when I had a dream that Chandler was being deported.

So, what's your news?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Les Villains de Massy

The community choir that David and I sing with is called "Les Villains de Massy" and the word "villain" means the same thing in French that it means in English. We do not know how the Villains got their name but we suspect that it has to do with their rehearsal schedule, which is rigorous to say the least. Anyways, we had our Christmas concerts this weekend, and I thought we would share a couple of songs that we sang. It was the first time that one of our children took a video while we performed. Talk about your role reversals! I think Chandler did a pretty darn good job too. Perhaps we'll hand the camera over more often.

Our concerts were in very old churches and they were open to the community. We had one on Saturday night and another on Sunday afternoon, and both were absolutely packed out. Though David and I did not know a soul, we suspect that the crowd was full of our choir members' friends and families.

One of these songs, Tantum Ergo, is in Latin. I love it, but I have no idea what the words mean and I am pretty sure that I now speak Latin with a French accent. The other song, Blanche Neige, in in French. I do not think it is really a Christmas song, though it does mention angels. The title means "white snow" but snow is not mentioned at all in the song, nor is the color white. The words were written by a soldier in World War I while he was in the trenches.

Have a listen, if you like. If you receive my posts via e-mail, you will have to click here to get to my blog, and then press "play" on the videos.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Parent-Teacher Conference

This week we had our first parent teacher conferences in France. Our kids are absolutely amazing...which we already knew. But it is nice to know that their awesomeness is acknowledged cross-culturally.

First, a little background. We have learned that the "norm" in French schools is to correct anything short of perfection, while seldom (or never) affirming anything well done. It is essentially impossible to receive 100% on anything--it may even be illegal to award a student a perfect score. Everything in France is graded out of 20 possible points, and it is quite normal for the majority of a class to receive between 7 and 14 points out of 20 on a test. We were even warned about this trend in our language school, as such scores can be the norm for our classes as well. The reason is that approximately 3 or 4 questions on every test are about information that has NEVER been covered in class and another 3 or 4 questions are about rare and/or random information that may have been referred to casually ONCE in class.

On one of the first math tests that Graham took he earned 10/20, which happened to be the second highest grade in the class. A fact that the teacher then used to shame all of the other students, saying something like, "This young man, who hardly knows any French, has done better than most of you on this test!" Graham would have liked to have vanished.

So you can imagine how impressed we were when Chandler came home with a math test a few weeks ago on which he had earned a score of 19/20. As we looked closer, we noticed that he actually got all of the problems correct. The teacher deducted a point because he neglected to place some parentheses in a section of his work. I realize that in math sometimes the parentheses are essential, but in this instance, that was not the case. Also, even though Chandler earned the highest grade in the class, the only comment that the teacher wrote on the page was a criticism of his handwriting.

Are you beginning to understand what we are dealing with? School has been a tremendous challenge, and I am impressed with the courage, integrity, and perseverance that our boys demonstrate each and everyday. As for their schedules, they spend about 8 hours a week in a class that teaches French as a second language, and the rest of their day integrated into the regular classes. They have math, science, art, music, and p.e. In French. All day.

Since Graham and Chan are in the special "French as a Second Language Class," instead of receiving report cards, we were invited to a parent-teacher conference to hear how our boys were doing in their classes. The conference was in French, of course, but between the two of us, David and I think that we understood everything. The teacher who met with us is the one who teaches their French class.

Basically, the first thing that she told us what that she is required to have these conferences with the parents of her students, but she really does not have anything to say to us. (Translation: there is nothing she needs to correct, chide, or reprimand in our boys; therefore, since the French do not ever speak positively about students, she had nothing to say.) She continued by saying that as of January, she wanted Chandler out of her class. (Translation: Chandler's French has progressed to the point that he no longer needs her class.) Next she told us that in order to ensure that Graham is prepared for the Lycée, she would like to keep him in her class for a few hours each week. (Translation: see the next paragraph, or two, or three. This is going to take a lot of explaining....)

Graham is in troisième, or third grade. In the French system, sixth grade is the same as sixth grade in the U.S., but from there they count DOWN instead of up. Okay, stick with me here, I promise I have a point. The equivalent of Junior High in France is called "Collège" and it goes from sixième (U.S. sixth grade) to troisieme (U.S. ninth grade). The troisième grade is VERY important, because after troisième, a student is either sent to trade school OR to "Lycée", which is the university preparatory track. At the Lycée, students complete deuxième, première, and terminale--which is the U.S. equivalent of sophomore, junior, and senior years. Anyways, during triosième (Graham's current grade level), students must demonstrate a certain aptitude level in either Math or French in order to be selected to go to Lycée.


So. Graham has been worried that he was going to be sent to trade school next year because 1.) He has NO grades in French because he is not in the mainline track for French yet and 2.) His Math grades don't seem all that great to him--even though by French standards they are pretty darn good! One of the challenges in math is that in France students sometimes must write out justifications for their answers (in French, of course) and so even when the boys understand the math and can work the problems, it is very difficult for them to explain how they arrived at the answer.

Okay, now back to the conference. The teacher said that she wanted to keep Graham in her class for a few hours each week so that he is prepared for Lycée. At this point I asked, "Is Graham already selected for Lycée? Because he has been very concerned that he was going to be sent to trade school, based on his grades." She smiled at me, and said, "Tell Graham not to worry. His math teacher and I will get to make the decision, and we both have already agreed that Graham is definitely going to Lycée. But he will need stronger French to survive next year, and that is why I want to keep him in my class a little while longer. Chandler has all of next year to build his French skills to prepare for Lycée, but Graham needs to be ready by the end of this year."

After that, the teacher went on to say that both boys have positive attitudes and that they are serious students. Finally, she asked how long David and I had been studying French, and when we told her that we had just began in September, she complimented us on our progress.

All in all, we left feeling like we have the two most amazing children on the face of the earth. Yes, of course we had to read between the lines. But in France, when a teacher tells you that she has nothing to say to you, I promise you, that is the BEST thing that she could possibly say.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It's beginning

to look

a lot



everywhere I go!

Sunday, December 5, 2010


David is a BIG lover of traditions. If we do something twice, it is suddenly a "tradition" and we must do that very thing annually for the rest of our lives. Therefore, in our 18 Christmases together, we have accumulated a considerable number of traditions.

My kids always get chocolate advent calendars, we always have fondue on Christmas eve, David always makes cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, and no Christmas presents are ever put under our tree until AFTER the children have gone to bed on Christmas eve--a tradition born out of the unfortunate exploits of a curious pet in our early years.

My favorite tradition is actually one that I read about in a Family Fun magazine and adopted back when both of our boys were babies. The idea resonated with me because I found myself struggling with the consumerism that had seemed to take over Christmas. I love presents as much as the next person, but I didn't want them to become the overwhelming focus of our season.

The idea that I found in Family Fun was simple. The author suggested that each family member receive three gifts, based on the thee gifts of the magi. The gift that represents GOLD should be something the person really wants, an item of great personal value. The gift that represents MYRRH should be something that the person needs, like new snow boots, a tool, or a cooking utensil. The gift that represents FRANKINCENSE should be something that the family can enjoy together, such as a new board game or a favorite movie on DVD.

For the past 10 or 11 years we have embraced this tradition. Each member of our family gets three gifts. Period. And we all like it that way. We think very carefully about each item that we purchase. Nothing is bought in thoughtless haste.

And what about Santa? We love the Santa tradition--as a piece of Christmas--not as the main event. When our boys were very young we told them about the real St. Nick and the fun of giving gifts anonymously. We "play" Santa in our home...but only in the filling of stockings. Santa brings small goodies: hand warmers, chapstick, gum, and other such treats. And our kids have always known that it was a game. A wonderfully fun game that was started by a man who wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus by blessing children.

And so this has been our tradition for gift-giving. Three gifts and a filled stocking--enough to honor the tradition of exchanging gifts without distracting us from the real meaning of Christmas.

And now that we are in France, I am sure we will add some new traditions to our routine. A special pastry perhaps? A new collection of carols? I can hardly wait to find out what we will do.

What is your favorite family tradition?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Encore: Christmas Caroling en Français

I think the video is working now. Scroll down or click here to view it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Christmas Caroling en Français

Today I went Christmas caroling at a local retirement home with a small group of students and faculty members from our language school. It was the perfect way to kick off the Christmas season.

As we caroled the classics, many of the residents sang along. Some conducted from their seats. One threw up.

After we sang one of the instructors from our school gave a lovely Gospel message. I realized it was the first time that I heard and understood the Gospel in French, and it brought tears of joy to my eyes.

Here is a video clip of one of our songs--which David made since his sore throat kept him from singing with us. The tune will be very familiar to you, but the words, bien sûr, are in French. If you receive my blog via e-mail, you will need to click here if you wish to view the video.