Friday, December 30, 2011

December is gone

Time flies when you're having fun and December is almost over, so before they shut down the Christmas markets we got to visit the one at Trocadero, by the Eiffel tower, and went back to the one on Champs Elysees, where the kids got to use the trampolines.

We tried to go ice skating at the rink at the Hotel de Ville, but after waiting in line for more than half an hour under the rain we decided to call it quits and instead found a warm place to have lunch. Being outdoors this time of year is easier if there's wine at hand, as demonstrated in the previous picture.

We went up to Montmartre with my niece Laura and visited the Dalí museum and had an early dinner at Le Consulat, one of the famous rendezvous places for artists 100 years ago that is now way overpriced and frequented only by foreigners.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Santa was here!

Santa was able to find us in our little hiding place here in Paris and delivered presents to les enfants. The kids had a great time opening their presents and then enjoyed playing with their new toys. Daniela asked me to say that she got the biggest present, the big box on the left of the tree. 

In the afternoon we enjoyed the company of the Rossi family, one of the few friends who stayed in Paris during the Christmas break.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Report cards

A few days ago the kids' first trimester report cards arrived in the mail. We had already received an informal progress report before the Fall break last October, which indicated that everyone had gotten off to a good start and was making progress (except that apparently Nicolás was not singing enthusiastically in French class, although he was in English class, go figure), but we had no idea what to expect regarding grades.

Having heard horror stories about the French grading system, we were happily surprised to see that all three did great—which to me is an indication that children don't always take after their parents, or at least their dad.

Our kids' school uses a letter grade scale established by the European Commission that is gaining popularity among some French primary schools and is similar to the one used in the United States.

When we decided to come to Paris people would tell us what a great experience it would be for the kids. Half jokingly, we'd say, "The kids? We're doing this for us!" But since we had to bring the kids along, we figured it would be nice if they learned some French, so we didn't consider putting them in an English-speaking school. We also ruled out French public schools because we didn't want to traumatize them at such a young age.

Through friends we heard about Ecole Active Bilingue (EAB)-Monceau, a small private French school that's under contract with the French government, which means it's run privately but is sort of a public school because they follow the national curriculum and the government pays for their teachers (which makes the school very affordable). EAB offers an adaptation program for international students that helps them adapt to the French language and school system. After their first year, students in the adaptation track move into the regular French classes without having to repeat the year.

Most classes are in French, and from the very first day the teachers spoke to them only in French. For a while Nicolás, when asked how he liked the school, said it was boring because all they did was sit all day and not understand anything (he also questioned the "Active" in their name). Evidently this is a great way to learn a language and the results can be seen already. It's amazing how effortlessly they're just absorbing the language and now they understand quite a bit  and are speaking some. But what impresses us the most is the beautiful French accent they are acquiring, which I think is half the battle when learning French. Not surprisingly, they are now pedantically correcting us when we mispronunciate. One of them, who shall remain nameless because he probably would not like this to be known publicly, sometimes likes to speak French à la Americaine (as in, par-lay voo frahn-say?) and got in trouble for this because his teacher thought he was making fun of a kid in his class who apparently speaks French that way. Or maybe he was making fun and got what he deserved.

The only problem I've seen with the adaptation program is that because English is the main language for most kids, apart from practicing French à la Americaine they don't have many opportunities to use the language outside the classroom.

A couple of their classes are in English, for which they have an English teacher, Mme. Pinchon, who's actually Irish. English, of course, and History. They're learning French history, way back since the Lascaux caves, famous for their Paleolithic paintings, and one day one of them mentioned in a matter-of-fact way that Charlemagne was a great promoter of education; and that he was the son of King Pepin the Short. They're currently learning about the Battle of Hastings during the Norman conquest of England. How can they remember all that yet not remember to pick up their clothes every day?

The teachers have been great. They are not the warm and fuzzy kind they were used to in the U.S., but they are also not the stereotypical French teacher. Their philosophy seems to be that these kids did not choose to move to France, so before they are thrown into the French system they are entitled to an adaptation period. So, for example, because they know kids are putting forth their best effort every day, they leave only a bit of homework, which is fine with us. Helicopter-parenting has not arrived in France, so there is very little parent involvement within the school, which is also fine with us.

The school day goes from 9 to 4, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. There's no school on Wednesdays. It seems to be a French thing. Instead, the school offers a French language and culture workshop and on most Wednesdays they go on sightseeing and cultural trips. They've been on the Bateaux Mouches, to the Cite des Enfants at La Villete, the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, the Kapla Center, the Opera Garnier, the Grand Palais, the Braille Museum. Other times they stay inside and do arts and crafts, such as their own street sign. Just before the Christmas break they invited us over for coffee and croissants at their very own "Café Monceau."

They get an hour for lunch (and play time) and one short recess in the morning and another in the afternoon. They have lunch at the cantine (cafeteria), which is quite different from the cafeteria in their US school, where pretty much all they got was pizza, chicken nuggets, and other finger food. We decided to give it a try at least during the first trimester, and since it hasn’t been totally horrible for them we've called the experiment a success (though they might argue with us on that: the other day we heard Daniela say she doesn't like the cantine because they serve parent food, not kid food).

All of them made good friends quickly, which is probably the key to their quick adaptation to the new school and environment and is likely why they've put up with this whole adventure. Since the school is right next to Parc Monceau, just about every day several families head over to the park. We look forward to more of those instant playdates once the temperature warms up a bit.

Having our kids in a French school has added an extra dimension to our stay that we would not have had otherwise. In a way the school is our main connection to French life, it's what differentiates us from regular tourists. Dianny and I have also met a lot of parents and made good friends through the school, many of them American, even a couple of Colombians. Most are people who've been transferred by the organization they work for (for example Google, Accenture, Unesco, OECD), others who've moved their work to Paris, and also a couple of families who like us moved here just because they wanted to or to expose their kids to a new culture and language. Most are here for at least two years. But regardless of the circumstances that got us here, we all have one thing in common, that of being so grateful for the opportunity of being in this fabulous city and for the wonderful school experience our kids are enjoying.

I recently read an article on the New York Times about an American family's difficulties and struggles with their new Russian school after they moved to Moscow in 2007. It made me realize how lucky we've been during this whole adventure and how easy the transition was for everyone. 
(URL of the article:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hotel Wagram

Four friends of my niece Laura from the University of Poitiers arrived in Paris yesterday to catch a train to Germany very early this morning. As typical college kids do, they had no place to stay and thought they would just wander around Paris or hang around in an Internet cafe all night. This is what they told us when they stopped by to say Hi to my niece, who was also in Paris yesterday but was leaving a few hours later to visit a friend in Montpellier.

It was a pretty cold winter day in Paris and even though we did not know these kids, we took pity of them and invited them to dinner and to spend the night at our apartment until it was time to catch their early train. We're not sure how much sleep they got last night but by the smiles on their faces it's obvious that each one was happy to at least have a warm, dry, and comfortable 1/4 of a sofa bed.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Château de Vaux le Vicomte

Sunday we visited Château de Vaux le Vicomte, a beautiful palace completed in 1661 for Nicolas Fouquet, the superintendent of finances under Louis XIV, on his estate of Vaux le Vicomte, about an hour from Paris. It’s a beautiful French chateau surrounded by a moat and vast, symmetrical gardens with basins and fountains in the back.

It's privately owned by the de Vogüé family and is open to the public. Every year they decorate it nicely for Christmas and even provide period costumes for the kids to wear during the visit. (We should have known better about letting Nicolás wear that hat; he got head lice from it.) We visited the salon, the library, the dining room, Fouquet's bedroom, a bath room, and the kitchen down below.

The story of this palace and its owner is funny because of a famous fête that took place in 1661 for the king. Fouquet's intentions were to flatter Louis XIV, but unfortunately for him his plan backfired. The king found the mansion and the celebration way too luxurious and extravagant and such display of wealth too audacious and insolent, generating perhaps jealousy and definitely suspicion of misappropriation of public funds, which caused Fouquet to fall out of favor with the king.

This scene is mentioned in Alistair Horne's Seven Ages of Paris: "At various points in the evening, Louis came close to losing his temper—whispering to his mother, 'Madame, shall we make these people disgorge?' Anne [of Austria] had to restrain him from arresting Fouquet on the spot, prudently calming Louis, 'No, not in his house, not at an entertainment he is giving for you.'" Shortly thereafter Fouquet was arrested (by D'Artagnan himself, captain of the Musketeers of the Guard) and sent to jail until his death.

Ironically, to build the chateau and gardens Fouquet had brought together the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter-decorator Charles Le Brun, and the garden landscape designer André Le Nôtre, who were then put to work by Louis XIV on the sumptuous Palace of Versailles, future residence of the kings of France.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Saint Séverin and Saint Julien le Pauvre

I'd read about a couple of very old churches on the Left Bank, Saint Séverin and Saint Julien le Pauvre, so we headed over on a cold but sunny December morning. We started at Place du Châtelet, a place that's very dear to us because it's right where we stayed in the summer of 2010 when we came to Paris for the first time with the kids.

Place du Châtelet is a square built under Napoleon III. The square is named after the Grand Châtelet, an ancient fortress (destroyed under Napoleon I) that was located there and guarded the northern end of the Pont au Change. In the center there's a beautiful fountain decorated with sphinxes and a tall column that was erected to celebrate Napoleon I's victories. At the top of the column is a gilded figure of the goddess Victory holding a laurel wreath in each hand.

Next to this square is Tour Saint Jacques, which is all that remains of the 16th century Church of Saint Jacques de la Boucherie, which, like many churches in Paris, was desecrated and looted during the French Revolution (this one was completely destroyed). The ancient church and its tower welcomed pilgrims headed to the major pilgrimage destination of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Crossing the Seine at this point always offers a great view of the Conciergerie, a former royal palace initially known as Palais de la Cité, the seat of the medieval kings of France, and much later a prison during the bloody Reign of Terror (where many were held before going to the guillotine, including the infamous Marie Antoinette).

The square tower on the left is the Tour de l'Horloge, or Clock Tower, which received the first public clock in Paris in 1370. In the center, the twin round towers used to command the entrance to the royal palace. The tower on the right, the Bonbec ("good beak") Tower, obtained its name from the "robust" way of interrogation that was practiced there, in which victims were encouraged to "sing." The Concierge, or keeper of the royal palace, gave the place its eventual name.

Just a bit downriver is the north span of the Pont Neuf, and further west the dome of the Invalides and the Eiffel Tower appear in the background.

Saint Séverin is located on the crowded Rue Saint Séverin, so crowded that there's no room to take a good picture. It's one of the oldest churches that remains standing on the Left Bank, built and rebuilt in stages since the 6th century on the site of an old oratory built over the tomb of Saint Severin, a hermit who spent much of his life praying and meditating, and who influenced many Parisians to become his disciples and live a life of piety and humility, among them Clodoaldthe Merovingian prince son of Clodomir and grandson of Clovis I, King of the Frankswho renounced all claims to the throne and lived as a studious hermit, and eventually became Saint Cloud.

The church was destroyed in the 11th century by the Vikings, and in the 13th century the bell tower and the first three bays of the nave were rebuilt and the rest in the second half of the 15th century. One of its bells, cast in 1421, is today the oldest in Paris. Saint Séverin is also known for its unique palm tree-shaped pillar in the ambulatory and its crazy gargoyles.

Just down the street is Saint Julien le Pauvre, one of the city's oldest religious buildings. It was built in stages from the 12th to the 19th centuries, and in 1889 was granted to the Eastern Catholic Melkite community. Not sure what those orange palm trees across the street were about, but they sure looked awkward in the middle of December.

Saint Julien le Pauvre does not look like your typical Paris church and is quite a contrast with its imposing neighbor just across the Seine, Notre Dame de Paris, which next year celebrates its 850th anniversary and will get a new set of bells.

Saint Julien shares a city block with the Square René Viviani, home of the oldest tree in Paris, a locust tree planted in 1601.

Just off Square René Viviani is Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookstore George Whitman, an American, opened in 1951 as Le Mistral. Whitman later changed his store's name to Shakespeare and Company in tribute to the original Shakespeare and Company, another English-language bookstore opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919. Many writers and artists of the "Lost Generation," such as Hemingway, Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, spent a lot of time there; James Joyce used it as his office. Beach initially published Joyce's book Ulysses in 1922, which was banned in the US and in the UK. 

The original store closed in 1940, during the German occupation. The new store still operates as a bookstore and a reading library, and is frequented by Anglo tourists (and will be even more, since it was featured in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris).

Many of our walks end up in neighborhood restaurants, of which there a million in Paris. This is one of the things I love about this city, that you don't have to think about where to eat because no matter where you are you'll find a nice café, bistrot, or brasserie. And despite being an expensive city, you can have a low-budget lunch if you go with an item on the menu of the day. After our walk we had lunch at Peres & Filles, a quaint restaurant on Rue de Seine we had read about on someone else's blog, which we loved and look forward to going back to.

And on the way to our metro station we stopped for a picture at Le Procope, the famous cafe and brasserie founded in 1686 and called the oldest restaurant of Paris. It was the meeting place of the intellectual establishment throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, like Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac, and Victor Hugo, as well as the U.S. founding fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.