mercredi 27 février 2013

week 25 - social scene

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

lundi 18 février 2013

week 24 - vacation count down

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

lundi 11 février 2013

week 23 - formalities and more skiing

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

mardi 5 février 2013

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

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