Welcome to France

This picture sums up what it felt like travelling through France with three children.  We were pretty much in a perpetual state of breaking some unspoken rule.  Or spoken, as the case may be.  The funny thing is that Laura and I could not figure out for the life of us what exactly was being prohibited here.  Holding hands with kids?  Kids in general?

We went to France to celebrate my Grandmother's 90th birthday.  We drove to Baltimore on a Saturday to attend her birthday party that night at my Uncle Bill's house.  We dined on crab imperial and baby lamb chops and a giant birthday cake made by my Aunt Rachel that actually had ninety candles on it.  The cake was carried out, all aflame, and the guests began to give tributes.  One man rambled on and on and on until we all thought the smoke detectors would go off before the candles could be blown out.  Little Eric stuck close by my side the whole night, as did Marley,  but Brigham worked the room.  We kept hearing from people about how charming and entertaining they found him.  Lucky us, we get to live with him all the time:).

We caught the 4 o'clock flight to Paris the next day.  The kids did amazingly well on the plane.  The only snag was that they wouldn't let (big) Eric on the plane because he (as usual) wasn't wearing shoes.  It seems that you must be wearing shoes when you board the plane, but you're free to take them off during flight.  (Uh...okay...)  We actually had to have a baggage person dig our bag out from the bowels of the plane so that he could get his flip flops out.  The plane was just about ready to take off and there was a lot of grumbling and evil eyeing directed our way.

We landed in Paris at about 2 A.M. our time and my inner monster- the one that hides inside me and comes out when I don't get enough sleep or food- started to grumble as we navigated the Paris Metro in order to catch a train to the small town of Corbigny.  My brother accurately described this leg of the trip as a death march.  I think his exact words were, "It wouldn't be a vacation with Mama if it didn't include a death march."  My mother possesses the uncanny ability to not eat.  Ever.  Thus we did not stop for food until we reached our departure port late in the afternoon.  Let me just drive that home:  Red-eye to Paris...three children...two metros...two trains...two taxis....no food.  

In Corbigny we settled into what would be our home for the next eight days: a houseboat, that we were to drive up the Nivernais canal to the city of Joigny.  The nice French man from the boat company paced around muttering unintelligible instructions and occasionally doing little pantomimes while Laura and I looked at each other with a mixture of fear and hilarity, and Jeff, who was to be our captain, scrambled to write everything down.  Fortunately, we did comprehend the most important lesson: how to flush the toilets.  It was surprisingly involved...
There was a lot of switch flipping and pumping, so that everyone on the boat was aware when anyone flushed a toilet and would say something like: "Uh oh, Grandmom's dropping bombs again...".

The canal was beautiful.  Along the way we passed through locks, where we had to hop off the boat, tie it up and help the lock keeper open and close the gates to raise or lower the water level.  This is what we saw as we puttered along:

And here is a video of a lock filling up:

It was sort of incredible- the lock keepers lived in these beautiful little cottages with flowers and maybe an apple tree in front, and firewood stacked up against the side of the house.  They would let you through and then drive down to the next one or two locks to open those for you, at which point the next lock keeper down the canal would take over.  I admired the French for staunchly clinging to quaint tradition over efficiency and modernization.  We picked fruit from apple, pear and walnut trees and stopped in all the tiny towns along the way, like this one:

My favorite memory from the boat was on the second morning, when Eric and I snuck off for a 5 mile run that took us through two medieval towns and up a hill to a 12th century church that looked out over the Yonne valley.  I also liked falling asleep at night to the gentle rocking of the boat.  And of course spending time with my wonderful family.  

That concludes installment one of our trip to France...more to come!

*Left to right, top to bottom: Eric, my mom's husband Jeff (the fearless captain), my brother Adam, me, Marley, my Mom, little Eric, my Grandmother (the birthday girl), my cousin Laura, and Brigham.

**Post-edit: I just now realized the irony of writing about how hard it is to live on a student budget and then following it with a post about our two-week trip to France.  I'm thankful for a generous Mom who loves to travel with her family!

Mile 18

Last week I came to the conclusion that if graduate school were a marathon, we would be at mile 18 about now. Year 7 of 9. And that's not counting the two years of undergrad we still had left to do after we got married. Mile 18 is not a good place to be, and here's why: the exhilaration and newness of the race has long since worn off and the soreness and fatigue have settled in, gotten comfortable and decided to stay. You long ago abandoned your dreams of a PR and have downgraded to the more humble goal of just finishing the race. And yet. You still have so far to go! The finish line is still miles and miles away!

This time next year we'll be busy dreaming and planning and jetting off to cities up and down the west coast (oh yes!) to woo and be wooed by prospective universities. But right now that all seems so far away and I'm flat out tired of being in school. I do realize, of course, that there are lots of people in the world who are much worse off than we are, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that supporting a family of five on a graduate student stipend meant for one has been a challenge. Seriously- my food budget is lower than what we would get if we were on food stamps.  Yeah, I don't often keep to my food budget- I'm just saying.

Yesterday we decided we needed to hit an aid station and have a little pep-talk. Sometimes (well, most of the time), during these discussions, I try to appeal to Eric's inner economist by using terms like "investment", "utility" and "consumption smoothing". That's the idea that if you think you're probably going to be earning more in the future, it's cool to borrow a little now to "smooth" out your standard of living.  I really like to consumption smooth. But I also know that the money we borrow now will accrue lots of interest by the time we're able to pay it all back. So we're recommitting ourselves to following a budget and living within our means.  We've kept a budget in the past, but it's always been punctuated by little bursts of spending- budget fatigue, you might call it. No more.  We're in the home stretch and even though we can't quite see the finish line yet, this is our chance to really prove to ourselves what we're capable of.

So, I made a list of my temptations to overspend:

1. groceries
2. eating out

You may notice the absence of clothing. I'm really good at not buying new clothes.  Also, toys for my children. I'm never, ever tempted to buy them stuff that I know I will soon be begging them to pick up and put away. Home decor- this has been a little bit of a challenge in the past, but there isn't a whole lot left to do in our house, so I think I can resist that one.  My problem is is really with food. I really like the way I feel when I eat healthy food and lots of fruits and vegetables. And I like to feel good about feeding my family those things. I also don't love to cook. I don't hate it, but when the weekend rolls around or the fridge is empty, I can be easily persuaded to eat out. Even at inexpensive restaurants, that adds up very fast.

So, the other day I was talking with my friend Becky, who I can only describe by saying that she is a true Home Economist. She relishes creating efficient systems for keeping her house clean and her family well-fed. I got kind of jaded about using systems, because they never seem to work out the way you hope they will and then you feel like you've failed. But I noticed that Becky looks at a system as an evolving entity and enjoys experimenting and tweaking things until they work well for her family. Huh! So that's my new goal for fall: GET SYSTEMS. TWEAK SYTEMS AS NEEDED. WHEN SYSTEM DOESN'T WORK, VIEW AS FAILURE OF SYSTEM AND NOT ME. DON'T GIVE UP!!

Since food is my biggest budget-undoer, I'm starting with a cooking system. I've got breakfast and lunch down, but I really need to work on dinner. I have a good number of recipes that we like, are easy to make, not too expensive, etc., but I don't have a unified system for organizing them. They kind of live all over my kitchen, on the internet, and in magazines that I may or may not have thrown out. I feel like if I had a notebook with categories that our family likes, like pasta, rice, salad, soup, eggs, etc., then I wouldn't feel like I never have any ideas for what to make. Like last night we had oatmeal pancakes which were easy, cheap, healthy and yummy, but in the past I would have forgotten all about them when it came time to plan next week's meals and maybe never made them again. So that will be my first system- a recipe system.

Do you have a system that works really well for you family? Please tell me about it- I need all the help I can get!

*That picture was taken like 7 years ago in Forest Park in Portland.  We went running with some of Eric's high school friends and he had them take a picture of us running past- it was really awkward!


Marley's big day

I've been holding off posting because I wanted to write about things in chronological order, which means first I have to post about our trip to France, but I'm still waiting on the pictures from my cousin (Ahem!), so I'm going to go ahead before all these other thoughts get tired of hanging out in my head and decide to leave.  First up: Marley's birthday...

We spent 9 1/2 hours on an airplane together, which was lovely, but not exactly a one year old's dream birthday, so we had a take-two the day after we got home.

Can you tell how utterly exhausted she is in this picture?  I've decided that although we had a wonderful time in France, the physical deprivations of travel are just too much for me right now.  I need sleep, decent food and exercise and I need for my children to have those things. We're on travel hiatus, so if you want to see us, you have to come here!  

Marley took the brunt of it, I'm afraid.  14 days of nothing but bread and chocolate to eat and 6 hours of sleep a night with maybe a one-hour nap here and there really took it's toll on her.  We've been home for a week now and she is still sleeping a solid 13 hours at night and taking 3 1/2 hour naps everyday to make up for it.  

I've been thinking a lot of "this time last year" thoughts as her birthday approached.   Our family is different after one year of Marley-ness.  Busier, messier, sleepier, gentler, slower, pinker, funnier and, of course, bigger.  I got in the car the other day after Eric had been driving it with the kids and I had to smile.  We just moved Marley to her forward-facing seat, and the rear-view mirror was tilted down, so that I could tell he had been sneaking peeks at her while he was driving- something I've been doing too.  I love those moments when you feel like two peas in a parenting pod.  

I told him that when Marley started crawling a few months ago it was like my nose hopping off my face and turning to look at me from across the room.  I was so used to always having her in my arms that it felt strange and different to see her at a distance.  She still likes to be held and will rest her head on my shoulder and twirl my hair in her one hand- oh I love that.  Her hair is getting darker and thicker and already I'm circling, ready to pounce with the bows and barrettes, if she'll only have pity on me and leave them in for more than two seconds.

She's a climber- I'm sure she'll outgrow the crib soon, unlike little Eric, who stayed in his crib until he was 3 1/2.  One day his friend Tucker was over and unwittingly demonstrated for him how to climb out of it.  I thought for sure the crib days were through, but you know what he did?  After that, if there was something he wanted, he would climb out, get it and climb right back in!  Marley is cut from a different cloth, and I can already tell that she will be hard to contain, in every way.  Yesterday, at her one-year-old check-up, she had to get her finger pricked.  The part that evoked a sustained, 90 second, ear-splitting scream was not the prick but the fact that the nurse would not let go of her finger.  

Bella-girl, you are beautiful and bright and strong.  I promise to always try to be your rock but not your cage.  Already I can see our differences, but I hope that we can use them to teach each other.  You have already taught me so much in one short year.  Happy birthday sweet baby.