Sunday, November 30, 2008

I'm thankful for Thanksgiving...and that it only happens once a year

Here are some photos of our quaint, picture-perfect Thanksgiving celebration in Lyon--complete with Tom Turkeys hand-crafted by the girls.

Pictures can be so deceiving.

Despite the very best of intentions, this Thanksgiving it felt like anything that could go wrong did. Up until about an hour before the feast, it seemed like we were doing pretty well. The house was clean, the table was set, the hors d'oeuvres were ready, the cheesecake was made, the sweet potato casserole was assembled, the potatoes were peeled... What could go wrong?

It started with a phone call. One of the couples (half of our guest list) was sick and wouldn't be able to come after all. Fortunately we found some other friends who were very happy to come and eat our food, but it was still a bit disappointing. There was no time to mope, however--I was off to the market to pick up the poultry. (Since we have a very small oven with no temperature control, we'd decided to replace the traditional turkey with rotisserie chicken in order to make life easier for ourselves.) The problem? There was NO MORE POULTRY! Even though I'd checked the day before to make sure that the meat counter was well stocked, all of the chickens were gone. You can limp by on Thanksgiving without the green beans, rolls, or even the mashed potatoes if you have to. But Thansksgiving without the bird? What were we to do...

In a panic, I ran home and asked Jason to lace up his running shoes and sprint to the big supermarket by the mall near our house. Meanwhile, I threw the sweet potatoes in the oven and lit all of the stove burners for mashed potatoes, stuffing, and gravy. Since we don't have a microwave or even a crockpot, everything had to be done at the last minute so the food would be hot.

Unfortunately, while I went into high gear for cooking, the girls started getting antsy and impatient for attention. As soon as I got a movie started for them, the doorbell started buzzing with guests. Normally this wouldn't have been much of a problem. You see, Jason and I have a pretty good system worked out. While one of us is in the kitchen, the other one takes care of everything else. (We burn a lot less food this way...) Well, with Jason on an emergency search for the missing bird, I was in a panic trying to simultaneously play hostess, Mommy, and chef.

At last, Jason made it back and I was able to focus on the food. However, when I went to light one more burner so I could saute some onions, it wouldn't start. Incredibly, we were ALL OUT OF BUTANE! Our last tank lasted us two months. This one hadn't even made it three weeks. I was horrified. A peek into the oven showed that the sweet potatoes were merely lukewarm and I hadn't finished boiling the water for the Stove Top.

And so, Jason threw on his coat again to walk to the closest gas station to get another tank. Meanwhile, I awkwardly tried to make small talk in French, all the while fretting about the mashed potatoes that were getting cold.

By the time Jason got back and the rest of the food was finished, the potatoes were cold, as were the gravy and chicken. While overall we enjoyed the food and particularly the company, I felt twinges of disappointment and regret because I had tried so hard to prepare far ahead of time so that I could avoid such disasters. Every time I entertain, I feel like I am the bird that's running around like mad trying to avoid the chopping block.

Fortunately, Jason's AMAZING cheesecake saved the evening. He manages to pull off a stellar performance no matter what the continent or how different the ingredients. By the time dessert was over, we were all content in our post-Thanksgiving stupor. It took a lot of effort to throw off the lethargy, but we managed to wake up enough to play a few fun rounds of Pit.

And so, all in all, I suppose that our celebration wasn't SUCH a disaster after all. Still, I'm definitely grateful that Thanksgiving won't be here for another twelve months...

The Escape

A couple of weeks ago I looked at our chimney and saw legs coming out. Was Santa early?

Nope, our little Talia was practicing her Houdini escape. :)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Question #3: Cultivating Gratitude

Thanksgiving is different for our family this year because we are far from friends and family. I admit that it's been a little bit harder for me to feel the Thanksgiving spirit since France doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving, and I have to work. While our situation has been greatly enhanced by the arrival of some decorations (thanks Mom and Dad) and an amazing food package with stuffing, pumpkin filling, and cranberries (thanks Ben and Christy), I'm still having a hard time getting "in the mood"--as Brooklyn would say.

And so, I'm curious to find out:

What special Thanksgiving traditions do you have that help you cultivate a spirit of gratitude this time of year?

How do you keep thankfulness at the center of your holiday, particularly with the stress of preparing a big meal? I'd love to hear your input.

Clean Up

This morning I walked into the girls' room and discovered that Talia had gotten into the hair supplies. She was busily chucking ribbons, bows, clips, and rubberbands everywhere. When she saw me, she kept right on throwing, but started to sing the "Clean Up" song. Her coy smile said everything: I'm making a mess, and now Mommy has to clean it up.

I admit I was tempted to change the lyrics from "Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share" to "Clean up, clean up, or I'll thump your derrière." :)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Beware the Drivers with Brains!

While I don't consider myself to be brilliant by any means, I've always been blessed with what you might call "school smarts." Good test scores and grades came fairly easily growing up. Jason is far smarter than I am, as evidenced by his astounding ability to solve a rubix cube. As for the students that I teach at ENS-LSH, they top us both. Having been selected out of a pool of 3000 for 140 spots, these kids are so smart that they actually get paid more to attend school than I get paid to teach them...

Yet what do we all have in common? Our driving record! There seems to be an inverse correlation between book smarts and common sense on the road. I confess that I flunked my driver's test the first time around when I failed to yield and nearly got clipped. My brilliant husband Jason likewise failed his exam when he stopped at a red light, looked both ways to make sure that the intersection was clear, and drove right through.

I felt pretty embarrassed about our driving history until I was talking to one of my students and found out that she was tired from her driving lessons. It turns out that she's already failed her driving exam four times! She has one more chance to pass before she strikes out completely. And this from a girl who I would have imagined had never failed an exam before in her life... I might have thought the situation to be an anomolous until another student came to me yesterday and explained that the reason she had missed class was because she was taking her driving exam...which she failed.

Maybe the government should increase the subsidy they give these kids to cover driver's ed...

* If anyone's feeling nervous about getting behind the wheel this holiday, you can rest assured knowing that our mini-van is safe with my father in Nebraska. (Oh wait, I kinda think he's smart too.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Little Lady Brooklyn

Here our little lady Brooklyn gives us a tour of the dinosaur at the park. :)

Friday, November 21, 2008

So Sour

So this home video, filmed by Jason while I was teaching an evening class, shows what the family really does when Mom is away. Before I get too critical about the gnawing of knives and food on the floor, I would like to praise my dear hubby for making a balanced dinner (complete with carrot sticks), getting the kids to wear bibs, and above all, having a great sense of humor, even when life is a bit SOUUUUUR.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Better than Papa K Cakes

When it comes to the Wheeler Family, breakfast is undoubtedly the favorite meal of the day. In fact, we love breakfast foods so much that we justify eating them anytime. Waffles, pancakes, crepes, oatmeal, breakfast burritos, omelettes--they are our staples, no matter what country we find ourselves in. And yet, there is one signature breakfast dish that tops them all--Papa K Cakes.

At different points in time, Papa K Cakes have gone by many different names. Officially, I think they may be called German pancakes or "Puff-oven Pancakes." Jason's Mom, however called them "Pop-up Pancakes" since they pop up so nicely when you bake them. All of the kids, however, misunderstood them to be "Popeye pancakes." The name evolved with the next generation when Brooklyn dubbed them "Papa K cakes" in honor of her Grandpa--Papa Kay. (Like the breakfast treat, he is also warm, squishy, and occasionally full of hot-air.)

Anytime we ask the girls, particularly Brooklyn, what she would like to eat, she invariably says that she wants Papa K Cakes--no matter what time of day it is. This morning was an extra special morning because she and her Daddy made Papa K cakes together--with whipped cream. (Speaking of which, we can't actually get our cream to whip here in France, but I guess that's another story.)

You see, Brooklyn and Jason were enjoying a very relaxed morning together baking since we thought there was no school this morning, as Brooklyn came home with a note on Tuesday telling all about the teacher's strike that would be taking place today. (Such "grèves" (strikes) really are quite common in France.) Well, just as they were putting the Papa K cakes in the oven, Jason looked out the window and noticed hordes of school kids parading towards the building after all.

By this time, it was 8:28 am. School here in France officially starts at 8:30, but you have until 8:40 to get your children in the door. If you arrive even a minute later, it's too late: the doors will be closed and locked.

Assuming that it was already too late, I told Brooklyn that she could just stay home with us and eat Papa K cakes. Much to my surprise, she said that no, she wanted to go to school instead. And so, she got dressed in record time, scarfed down a banana and some cereal, and made it to school before the doors closed.

Three weeks ago it took forty-five minutes to get Brooklyn dressed for school amidst heart-wrenching tears and sobbing. We are delighted that she is loving school again, and she is apparently just as thrilled.

Who ever would have thought that there could be anything better than Papa K cakes?

**As a final side note, Brooklyn asked about her Papa K cakes as soon as school was out and rushed home to eat the two pieces we had saved for her.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Question #2: Language Learning Strategies

In coming to France, one of my primary goals has been, voila, to learn French! (Very original, I know...) Having lived abroad in the past, I knew that learning a new language would be hard--it always is. However, I'm discovering that this time around it's a bit more difficult because I'm not living with a host family. While I love sharing this experience with my own family, from a language learning standpoint, it's more challenging because I'm not really immersed in the language. Our family forms a little micro-cosm where despite our good intentions to parle le français chez nous, we usually slip into English. While I'm grateful that my work gets me out of the house, I don't use much French as an English teacher. In other words, I suffer from a serious lack of linguistic input. While my reading ability in French is adequate, thanks to high school Latin and lots of cognates, my speaking and listening skills are still pretty abysmal.

And thus, I am searching for advice:
What interesting recommendations do you have for learning a second language?
Does anybody know of good French language learning websites, podcasts, etc.? Any suggestions for how to overcome the fear of striking up conversation at the playground? Or worse yet, the sheer terror at the thought of having someone talk to me? For all you linguists out there, the floor is open...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Darling Deux

Happy 2nd Birthday, Talia!

While people often refer to the "terrible two-s", I'd like to think of our little Tally Wally as a darling, dazzling, and dynamic deux year-old (albeit occasionally destructive). In honor of her special day, I thought I'd turn back time and post a couple pictures of our cutie in her birthday suit.

More recently, here are a few photos of our Lyonnaise celebration today. For Talia's party, we invited some friends over for a great spaghetti lunch. Here's Talia sneaking a few bites of the yummy salad Daddy made.

Mom made the birthday cake--from scratch this time, since ready-made cake mixes are not available. It turned out to be somewhat interesting in shape. Fortunately, the great big lump in the middle made a great hill for the train to climb.

Here's Brooklyn helping to open presents. Big sisters are very good at being so helpful.

And, since it's been a long time since we've posted any video footage, here's a short clip of the big day. As you can see, Talia was a bit more interested in her new stroller than the baby doll to go inside. Listen closely for Jason's final commentary--it may be time to start potty-training. :)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Puppy Love

Even though the rain has kept us inside today, it's been a pleasant day with the girls playing nicely together. Everybody talks about how much easier it is when your kids are close in age because then they can entertain each other. For our family, it's taken a long time for this to actually happen.

Something tells me, however, that Brooklyn may view Talia as more of a pet than a sister. Early this morning I caught her leading Talia around the house by the neck, using one of our curtain ties as a leash! Needless to say, we immediately put an end to that game, even though Talia thought it was hilarious. Not many of us giggle hysterically as we're being choked and strangled, but hey, she's special. :)

Later that evening, I heard Talia laughing again. I looked over and saw Brooklyn holding bits of cookies high over Talia's head. She would order her sister to jump, and if Talia did, she would reward her with a treat.

While Aunt Callie and Uncle Adam may refer to their adorable pug Zoe as their baby, it's probably time to explain to Brooklyn that while "baby" Talia is cute too, she isn't a puppy. :)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Question 1: The Blog Make-over

In the not-so-distant past, I accepted the self-imposed challenge to create "Thirty Posts in Thirty Days." While I may not have made the deadline, I still finished the race, and learned quite a bit from the adventure. First of all, I learned that in thirty days you really can develop a habit (or perhaps an addiction...) The challenge is over, yet here I am, blogging again. I also learned that blogging helps put a positive spin on life when bad things happen. After all, the roughest moments provide the juiciest material to write about. Finally, I learned that thirty is a really big number. (Boy, does that make me feel old!) The next time you think that a month isn't enough time to get something done, think again! A lot can happen over thirty days if you really put your mind to it.

So now that my blogging binge is over, I thought I'd turn some of the responsibility over to you, the readership, by posting thirty questions. After all, while I might have plenty to say, I have even more to learn.

So my first question is....

How do you make your blogs look so pretty?

Superficial as it may sound, I'm ready for a blog makeover. I confess that I've been doing some blog-stalking lately, and I've seen many really fun and awesome designs. Any suggestions on good places to go for templates, etc.? Any recommendations as to what the new design should look like? I'm open to any sort of input whatsoever. If you have any fabulous suggestions for a new blog name, let me know as well, since the name might get revamped in the makeover process too.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Tongue in Cheek

The Setting: Sunday night family dinner.

Brooklyn (Breaking out into tears): I bit my tongue! Mommy, you have to kiss it.
Sticks out tongue--which happens to be covered in spaghetti bits.
Mom: I'm not kissing that.
Stunned silence.
Brooklyn (Panicked): But what are we gonna do? If you don't, it won't get better!!

I love how the problem is a collective one. I guess she understands that if she's not happy, Mommy's probably not happy either.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Halloween in Friedberg

It's not every Halloween that you get to haunt an ancient castle with turrets, but this year we were fortunate! We celebrated the occasion with our close friend Tanja in her home town of Friedberg, Germany. I was impressed as Friedberg pulled out all the stops for the frightening festivities. Fortunately, our little clown and fairy princess kept the spirits light.

Playing Heidegger in Heidelberg

Just now I was looking through a few photos taken over the past couple of weeks. Well, a few may be a bit of an understatement. Unfortunately, the world of digital cameras has certainly destroyed my sense of discretion in terms of taking pictures.

We had the most wonderful opportunity this last week to go visit Tanja Badenheuer, a good friend and old roommate of Kara's, in Friedberg, Germany, where she is currently working as a German teacher. Tanja was a most gracious host and let us all camp out in her front room for several nights, while playing a fantastic tour guide of her small but lovely city during the day.

On Halloween, Tanja had to work a fairly full day, so Kara, the girls, and I drove down to Heidelberg to see the apparently well-known Schloss Heidelberg, an old castle picturesquely perched on the slopes overlooking the town of similar fame and name. The castle was absolutely fantastic, having been built in many phases over many generations, and likewise having been destroyed in a seemingly equivalent number of phases (and probably generations, though I'm afraid I wasn't paying quite close enough attention to the tour guide to say for sure).

In any case, as I was looking over the myriad of photos I had taken, I was struck first by the soaring majesty and power of the castle as shown in the large-scale wooden model depicting the fortress as it had been a little over 200 years ago. Massive masonry towers stood at each corner, and huge abutments defied any who might plan to attack. Medieval turrets, battlements, and crenelation were intermixed with fanciful residence halls executed in renaissance and baroque splendor. It truly must have been a splendid sight when in its full glory.

My photo journey quickly jumped two centuries as I went from pictures of the model to pictures I had taken of the actual castle. The once mighty towers had been blown apart by the French army during the thirty-years war, leaving parts of the castle appearing almost as if a section plane had been placed there by a behemoth architect, exposing wall thickness, floor levels, structural systems, et. al. Unmaintained roofs had disintegrated under years of storms and rain. Only facades remained of once-existent palaces, their windows opening to nothing but sky no matter which way you look through them. (Interestingly enough, the 280 000 - liter wine barrel in the cellar was still intact.)

The juxtaposition of the recreated model of the castle and of its actual current state sharply impressed my mind. I believe architects often like to think they are leaving a lasting mark on the world by giving physical presence to the creations of their mind. Yet no matter how thick we build the walls, from the moment the final touch is placed in any construction (and even before), all the forces of nature are working together to break it apart, to weather it away, to bring it down. Seeing masonry walls greater than 6 meters thick that had simply been split in half has a somewhat sublime and sobering effect on an aspiring builder. And as I looked over these images of ruin with thoughts of Piranesi rambling through my mind, I came to the very distinct conclusion that nothing, absolutely nothing, that we build can truly last forever. I could spend all the days of my life trying to build some monument to my existence, some proof that I lived in this world, that I was a part of this world, that I even attempted to contribute to this world, only to have it all reduced to rubble in a century, in a decade, or in a day. In America, we try so desperately to keep Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater from falling into the water, while in Greece, Manolis Korres works tirelessly to piece back together the vestiges of the Parthenon. Be it less then 100 years old, or more then 2000 years old, the battle we wage is the same, and the eventual outcome equally as grim and as certain.

Does that mean we shouldn't build? Of course not. But perhaps it might also cause us to pause and consider how we invest our time in this life. In addition to building the physical, albeit ephemeral, structures of marble and stone, we must build the intangible, yet potentially eternal, relationships that give meaning to life.

In essence, I believe that the average you or me can have a more lasting impact on the world by loving a friend, by being true to a spouse, or by teaching a child, than Isadore or Anthemius had, even were they to have built a thousand Hagia Sophias.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Post #30: "Binky" in the Pocket

This morning Brooklyn had a request before going to school:

Mommy, can you write binky on a piece of paper in French and put it in my pocket so that I can tell my teachers what I want?

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I just gave her a giant hug instead.

Despite Brooklyn's enthusiastic start, school has been a bit hard at times, as would be expected given the language barrier. School for the little ones here in France is long--from 8:30 to 4:30 with a lunch break in between. When we first put Brooklyn in school, we talked with the director about enrolling her for a half day instead. The director said that while nobody could force us to bring Brooklyn back after lunch, it would be best if she came for the entire time. And thus, we obediently followed her advice.

Even so, I felt sick inside when I picked Brooklyn up the first day and overheard two parents greeting each other with "Bon soir"--Good evening. Granted, "evening" begins earlier here, but I still felt something was amiss in picking up my three year-old with the day already gone.

Well, a full-day was too much for Brooklyn. The transition to French, school, and an obligatory naptime without a binky was positively traumatic. And thus, as parents, Jason and I learned to trust our instincts and do what we feel is best for our child instead of what others tell us is best. Brooklyn is now going to school for half-days and adapting well, even if she still craves a binky occasionally.

Happily, school is helping to accomplish what we'd really dreamed of for our little girl--Brooklyn has a friend. :)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Post #29: Waffles and Warmth

Continuing upon last post's theme, "The Appearance of Love," love assumes many guises. Sometimes love looks like pants covered in white powder from warm sugar waffles.

Real friendship, on the other hand, occasionally looks like a new Mom who travels all the way from Paris to Lyon to spend the day with us while attending a conference in France. We spent a wonderful afternoon together walking along the river and through the park.

While this smiley four-month old may seem big in his twelve-month clothes, it will take a lot of growing to match his parents' gargantuan amitié .

Post #28: The Appearance of Love

Love has many different appearances. Today, love looked like a woman in sneakers boarding the bus while pushing a stroller with a baby. Not just any stroller, of course, but a baby doll stroller stuffed with a really ugly, big doll. You know, the scary kind of doll with the eyelids that open and shut, but where one eye is always open and the other half-closed--terrifying.

Unfortunately, as you probably guessed, I was the woman on the bus. Several weeks ago Talia fell in love with this stroller at a second-hand store far from our home. Loving mother that I am, I went back to purchase it for her birthday (the ugly doll was included). The trip on the way out was peaceful and enjoyable, but I blushed the whole way back as I endured the sideways glances and hushed remarks about a grown woman toting a baby doll and carriage.

Maybe this is the real reason why love is not vain…

Post #27: Potty Talk

I think the public restrooms along the French Interstate are aspiring for architectural awards. Seriously, France has some of the most impressive, high-tech toilets that I've ever seen. Each flush triggers a major wash-down of the whole joint, making the place feel sterile enough for surgery. Just don't forget your spare change to pay for each use! Of course, most of the older, un-renovated WCs are free, meaning that you can squat over your hole without charge... :)

Post #26: Ronchamp

For every student of architecture, it is necessary at some point in one's life to make a pilgrimage to Ronchamp in order to see Le Corbusier's chapel, Notre Dame du Haut. Before coming to France, Jason both read and heard about this masterpiece in design. From those who had actually been there, he most often heard about how it was in the middle of nowhere.

Well, Ronchamp may be in the middle of nowhere for most, but if you just happen to be traveling from Lyon, France to visit friends in Frankfurt, Germany, it is right on the way! We spent a few hours at Ronchamp on our way up to Frankfurt and had a marvelous time. While I was a little skeptical about the detour at first, the chapel really was spectacular. Situated in the hilltops overlooking fertile valleys below, the church helps one sense the connection between God and nature. It's certainly massive, yet somehow not overbearing. The concrete forms, while solid and heavy, are still elegant and graceful. Yet it's the lighting inside of the chapel that's most impressive. Since photos aren't allowed, I guess you'll have to go there to see it. All I can say is that it's worth the pilgrimage. :)

Post #25: Before and After

Brooklyn before:

Treatment: A trip to the park on the Rhone River

Brooklyn After: