we’ll always have paris, unless dad screws it up

A Night at the OperaTravel’s a humbler. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, that you know which train leaves from which platform, which color gas pump dispenses diesel, and which cheek to lead with when doling out the compulsory French air kisses, well, that’s when some random grandma in the post office slaps you in the grill for playing Post Office. Sorry, ma’am – thought I knew you.

Of course, I’m speaking metaphorically here, though lord knows I’ve regularly made an ass of myself with the whole air kissing thing. You really are supposed to lead with different cheeks depending on where you are in the country, though it’s important to remember that they are always face cheeks (and no, I haven’t made that particular mistake yet, though I sense the reader’s lack of confidence here).

Fontenayyyyy....hohhhhhh....hayyyyyI’m never sure how well I need to know someone before I throw down with les bisous (French for the aforementioned air-kissies; apparently passing acquaintances work if you haven’t seen them for a couple weeks), how much lip contact you make on ye olde cheek (zip, zilch, nada), and how loud a smack you’re supposed to make when getting smoochy with the atmosphere (apparently not the Miss Piggy-esque lip fart I’ve been known to blast into unsuspecting ears). Throw in my lack of confidence on the question of cheek contact and you’ll understand why most social situations find me quavering under the buffet table, rocking back and forth while hugging my knees. Continue reading

the jazz advantage

When we pulled up stakes in California and lit out for the territory for a year in France, we had some tough decisions to make about what found its way into the suitcases and what did not. Once you get past the bare necessities – clothes, toothbrushes, and ukuleles – that’s when the hard decisions start.

This Has Nothing To Do With This Post

One more thing not in our suitcases — hot air balloons.

For example, despite a crafty late-game, end-around maneuver from Kinsey, pets were pretty much off the list. And, to be fair, from the sounds of it, our cats didn’t much appreciate being zipped into that rolling suitcase, anyway.

For my part, refried beans had barely made it onto my list before they were summarily dispatched…another early casualty of Kristanne’s controversial – some might even say draconian – “One Heaton, One Suitcase, Zero Dissent” policy. As we enter Month Eight here in the Burrito Wasteland of France (not its official name), with its green bean “salsas” and “sour cream” that looks and tastes suspiciously like yogurt, I do believe ole Chairman Mom-Tse Kristanne may be rethinking that particular Great Leap Forward. Fortunately for us, the impending (not to mention long-awaited) arrival of Grandparents Rosalie & Calvin and their clanking suitcases full of Rosarita’s finest should be cause both for celebrations here in Grenoble and a whole lot of puzzled Customs Agents in Paris.

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french: not as easy as I think

One of the biggest benefits of being an iffy French speaker in a French-speaking country is that when reading or hearing French, you can usually persuade yourself to place your full faith in whatever translation best suits your particular needs at any given moment. You’ve got the English speaker’s appreciation of cognates, a few dimly recalled Latin roots in your back pocket, and possibly the benefit of being highly self-suggestible (viz. that whole La Grande Dangereuse episode from a few weeks back).

Hey, I Like Rivers!

Hey, I Like Rivers!

This willingness to believe what needs to be believed can be both an advantage and a liability.  Take, for example, that sign at right with the scary red circle and the daunting “SAUF RIVERAINS!” slogan and imagine it at the entrance to a charming little alley with a delightful little pastry shop at the other end. Perhaps they’re passing out free samples of all manner of buttery baked goodness, or perhaps it’s Free Red Wine For Americans day, it doesn’t really matter. The point is they have it, you want it, and you can’t get to it because of that pesky little sign.

Now, a French speaker knows that “Sauf Riverains” means “Except Residents” and that only people who live there can drive down there and eat the implied free croissants and drink the theoretical free red wine. I, however, know that “sauf” means “except” and after that things get really hazy really fast. However, with the Magic of Misplaced Confidence, I can easily convince myself that “Sauf Riverains” almost certainly means “Except People Who Like Rivers” or “Except People Who Have Been To  A River When It’s Been Raining,” or even “Except You, Sid…Come on Down!” These are all in play.

I try to learn French, I really do, but frankly, it’s more difficult than I anticipated. Not only do they have words for everything, but most of those words appear to be pronounced in exactly the same way with meanings that can only be divined by context.

Cute Kids Eating Ski Food Don't Have to Be Mentioned in the Text to Get on the Page

Cute Kids Eating Ski Food Don’t Have to Be Mentioned in the Text to Get on the Page

Perhaps French people have furtive little hand signals designed to throw off non-native, would-be French speakers that they use to tell one another what they’re on about. For example, an elderly chap walking into the local boulangerie might throw a little old-school hand-jive as he enters to indicate that when he says “Je voudrais deux chaussons,” he means he’d like the chaussons one might eat for breakfast and not the ones he might wear to keep his feet warm around the house (or even the hunting trip he’s going on next week, the word for which also sounds quite similar to my calcified ears). Or perhaps a normal person would clue into the fact that someone in a bakery is likely not asking for a pair of slippers or the best way to field dress a wild boar and probably just wants a nice jammy pastry. Perhaps.

I think I had it in my head that with the proper tilt of my theoretical beret and perhaps a bit of Gallic flair in my carriage, well, it’d be a simple matter of just adding a suitably cinematic French accent to some implausible high-school Spanish and I’d more or less be kicking it Flaubert-style. Those rosy expectations have proven to be, shall we say, overly optimistic, often comically so. Also, did you know that most French people don’t use the term “kicking it Flaubert style,” either in English or in French? It’s true.

Not Actually a Member of the Worker's Party

Left-Handed Batter, Not Actually a Worker’s Party Member

So far, I have told a matronly innkeeper that I loved her (to be fair she had just brought us a really tasty rhubarb crisp), complimented a young woman realtor on her high availability, and, memorably, spent an entire baseball game yelling “Communist! Communist!” (“Gauchiste!”) at small children whose only transgression was to bat left-handed (“Gaucher,” alas). Figuring that last one out really went a long way towards explaining some of the looks from fellow parents in the stands. Apparently, when the French say “potato,” I say “Bolshevik.”

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rolling with the chateauxmies in france

not actually chronologically appropriate

Winter took breaks in the fall, too, back when this picture was taken. That’s the Chartreuse in the background.

Winter took a short break for a few days last week, giving us a chance to dust off our bicycles and hit the dusty rue. Kinsey has been crazy for biking recently, putting it right up there in her Personal Pantheon of Pleasant Pastimes with swimming and playing Hack-A-Mom defense on the basketball court, much like she just did in that picture over there – dig Mom’s pained wince.

Grenoble, despite being surrounded by vertiginous Alpen wonder much like that shown in the background of the photo above, actually claims to be the flattest major city in Europe, a title I didn’t realize anyone was actually vying for until just recently. Couple this with the staggering abundance of dedicated bike paths and it’s by far the easiest place to get around on bicycle I’ve ever visited. That’s right, Amsterdam and Copenhagen – step off.

Even with so much valley floor to explore, there are the few odd hills places where you could put a ball down and it would actually roll. Kinsey and I were entering hour two of our Sunday pedal when Quinn and Kristanne joined us after wrapping up an epic homework session. Together, the four of us climbed one such incline where we’d never been before. There, hanging out at the top of the “hill” were those two cool cats you see below, styling and profiling in their Ferrari and their Jeep, rocking a look so ice cold that you just knew there was a whole chateau full of similar rides back home, each one kicking it on the same 1:8 scale, boasting full foot power, and miles of plastic chassis that just won’t quit.

Ferrari Rolling

this one’s mine…you gotta get your own down at king jouet, bro

The best part about these guys was their stone confidence. They were just parked in the middle of the bike path, not moving for no one. Sure, they’re both at least 5 years past the target demographic for these cars, but that’s not stopping them, not one bit. With the right pair of sunglasses and the right pose, they positively owned what they were doing.

got any over-stretched analogies you can pull from all of this?

i'm pretty sure this is how we got into vietnam, too

i’m pretty sure this is the look that made the US want to go into vietnam, too…

It worked, too. They actually didn’t seem ridiculous. They even kinda made me want to get a car like this and hang out on bike paths with my buddies, too. This is sort of the apotheosis of French cool, where you can take something inherently ridiculous, something that works on no logical level, and then, by virtue of your own irresistible and undeniable savoir faire, sell that vision to the world. Hence, for example, the life arc of Napoleon and, the, uh, enduring popularity of Gérard Depardieu.

see ya next time!

We’re hanging in le G this weekend, hammering out a full slate of kids sports and skiing. See ya next time on the Odyssey, when I’ll potentially address Kristanne’s purchase of a Celine Dion album. It’s still too early for me to talk about it. Bon week-end à toutes et tous!

getting plus beaux in lyon

Big Square, Big FunWelcome back to the Odyssey, where the weather’s unseasonably warm, the kids are wrapping up their second week of winter vacation, and the loaner cat is his usual mixture of crusty and cranky (“crustanky”?).

The kids have been on vacation since back when I could still tolerate hearing “Gangnam Style” without screwing up my eyes, clamping my hands onto my ears, and running screaming from the room while making obnoxious “la la la la la” sounds. Oddly enough, the kids’ tolerance shows no such signs of waning, and mechanized Korean rapping is still popping up at ever-more-regular intervals in what I’ll malapropically declare to be our ever-more-smaller apartment. Who knew that Kristanne could rap in Korean?

The Light That Is ShellfishOne of the nice things about the kids being on vacation is that the weekends have been mercifully free from the usual overwhelming crush of French athletics. Between Kinsey’s basketball, Quinn’s baseball and fencing, and my deepening jorkyball addiction, Saturdays and Sunday can fill rapidly. But, in usual French “All Together Now” fashion, when the kids are on vacation, everyone’s on vacation, including sports teams, French language class instructors, and the precisely dressed old people in our neighborhood who seem to do nothing but walk their dogs 12 times a day with jauntily deployed baguettes under their arms. Apparently, they’re on the payroll, too.

happiness is a plate of shellfish

happiness is a plate of shellfish

So, with the blank canvas of an open weekend spreading itself before us, the Heaton Family Painters set out for the fair city of Lyon to craft their masterpiece (Kristanne), leave their graffiti spray (the kids), or dribble their nonsensical Rorschachian ink blots (yours truly). The main thing was to get out there in the world and paint. And, yes, tortured metaphors are indeed a hobby. Trust me, you’ll be looking back at this paragraph fondly in about 2,000 words when I eventually switch to Korean rapping.


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les vacances d’hiver sont arrivé!

le collet d'allevardLiving in a foreign country, it can take some time to discern the patterns and rhythms governing everyday life. When are the banks open? When do the grocery stores close? What time does the baker gently chide me for my careless pronunciation, lack of vocabulary, and diminished sense of fashion?

The answer to that last question is “every time I order a baguette”, though my prickly boulangere has eased up some on the couture tips since I started casually draping the new scarf Kristanne got me for Valentine’s day before essaying my daily visit. For the other schedule questions, France eases difficulties by using the same one for the entire country. Everyone starts school on the same day. They all take the same two weeks for fall break and the same days for Christmas break. It’s a little bit like living on the world’s largest college campus, right down to the abundance of righteous political causes, emphasis on constant intellectual and physical activity, and the incredible proliferation of bicycles. There’s a charming “all together now” aspect to this, actually. You feel like you’re part of something larger…like a big team with cool accents and nifty scarves.

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