Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Boat Tour of Paris

Luxembourg gardens
Last week I had the opportunity to do a quick tour of some classic Paris monuments - we spent a very brief hour at the Louvre, then had a picnic lunch in the Luxembourg gardens.  

Palais du Luxembourg
 We did a quick walk past the Sorbonne on our way to the docks to catch the boat for a river tour of Paris.

la Sorbonne

Notre Dame
I had told myself I wasn't going to take any pictures this day, that I was simply going to be present and enjoy my experience, but I just couldn't help myself! So, here's a few highlights from the boat ride.
le tour Eiffel from the boat

Le tour Eiffel at the end of the ride, from inside the boat
It was a lovely boat ride and a great view of the city. Next time maybe I'll stay inside and listen to the guide so that I actually know what I'm seeing, but for now, I'll just enjoy the views!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

I was scheduled to work today, but after a few very brief tasks this morning, it seems that there is nothing else required of me today, and so I find myself with an unexpected day off.... on Christmas Eve!

Christmas Cathedral
The past four weeks my schedule has been fairly non-stop, unpredictable and a bit chaotic, and I have frequently lamented the lack of "down time". Ironically, I now find myself with a free day, and I don't know what to do with my time.  My mind and body have adjusted to survival mode so well that it is going to take me a while to unwind, breathe deeply, and make friends with myself once again - to remember that I am a quiet, simple-pleasures kind of girl.

A bit of holly for the holiday

Just an awesome window I happened upon
I wonder, apart from the spiritual aspects of the holiday, how do I celebrate Christmas when I have none of the usual things or people to celebrate with? Don't worry, I won't be alone for Christmas, and I'm not sad,  just taking some time to reflect on what makes Christmas for me.....  I've been listening to Christmas music for a few weeks now (thanks Rob for the awesome folksy Christmas playlists). I've put up Christmas decorations all around the château, baked Christmas cupcakes, experienced the Christmas market on the Champs Elysees, had a wonderful Christmas lunch with my coworkers, and yet it still doesn't feel like Christmas.  You see, my list of things have all been done for other people, not things I've chosen to do (other than the Christmas music), but things that have been required of me. This doesn't make them bad - in fact - I've enjoyed all of it, but it hasn't filled my Christmas tank.  But that's about to change! This afternoon I am planning to spend some time in the kitchen (by myself) making some Christmas cookies, and then I am going to spend the evening with a new friend and her family. There will be a gift exchange, good food and drinks, and plenty of laughter, which will make for a delightful evening. Tomorrow I am looking forward to some more alone time in the kitchen baking a pie, and being with some more new friends.  I'm reminded once again, it's the simple things for me - baking and friends, being still, breathing deeply (laughter is always good for this), and being present in the moment.

Christmas market

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Walk Down the Champs Elysees

My first walk down the Champs Elysees was cold and wet, and yet still quite magical. On the metro there are often street musicians who hop into a car and entertain everyone.  If you notice, there's a large speaker, typically with an iPod attached.... so even when they stop playing and walk around to collect money, the music still plays!
Live entertainment on the metro

My first time to see the Arc

I've always been intrigued by this monument

The Champs Elysees

I LOVE Christmas lights!

Stacks and stacks and stacks of chocolate

A distant glimpse of the tour de Eiffel through the fog

The end of a delightful evening

It was a wonderful night to explore the Christmas market while sipping vin chaud (hot spiced wine) and taking in all of the lights, sounds and smells of the city.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ice Skating... It Does a Body Good!

You know that feeling you get when you do something that you used to do as a kid, something that is a simple pleasure and brings you joy, simply because it connects you with a positive memory? Well, I got to go ice skating today, and it was glorious!

Thankfully it was beautiful weather today - clear blue skies, and the sun was out ALL day! (side note: I really think I am solar-powered, as my soul is so much happier when the sun shines). My coworker and I were assigned to take a group of 30 students to this tiny outdoor holiday skating rink (which is now in the place of the beautiful old carousel in the center of town). Initially, I thought I would just take pictures, as it looked much too crowded and chaotic for me, but once I got everyone situated, I just couldn't resist the lure of the ice... it was calling my name.  So I strapped on a pair of skates and took to the ice.  It was exhilarating and freeing!

I have been ice skating since I was about 8 years old. We had a large pond in front of our house that would freeze over every winter. One year my parents bought me a pair of skates for Christmas, and I immediately took to the ice.  My brother and I would shovel the snow to clear the pond, and then I would spend hours out there, until my hands and feet were completely frozen.

When we moved away from Montana, the skating stopped for several years, but it reentered my life when I moved to Seattle just out of high school. I was at the local skating rink every chance I got, which was at least three times a week.  I kept this up for a few years, and then life happened and my priorities changed.  I haven't been on the ice regularly since then, but it seems that at critical points on my life journey I have returned to the ice, and each time that is where I find freedom and contentment.  My feet grow wings, my body feels light, and my heart soars.

And so today, on this tiny rink, crowded with people, I breathed deeply and let my feet glide and my heart soar. Laughter bubbled up inside and I couldn't contain the grin the burst across my face. My thoughts were overflowing with thankfulness - I was ice skating outside in FRANCE! To wrap up a perfectly delightful afternoon, I stopped at the crêpe stand and had a hot, fresh chocolate crêpe for the walk home.

When I got home I realized that I did not take a single picture today, but hopefully I'll get to go back and I'll try to capture the essence of the experience to share with you.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Time of Reflection

Time is such an interesting thing - we never have enough of it, we're always too busy, too much to do with too little time, rushing from one thing to the next, never being fully present where we are. And yet, at other times it can't go fast enough, as we wait with eager anticipation for a vacation, or a visit from a dear friend, a weekend away from the office, or a complete change of scenery!  Even in our anticipation we are not fully attentive to the present moment, as we are instead simply getting by until the excitement begins.

So what happens when we are forced to stop, to be fully present where we are, at this exact moment, not looking backwards or forwards, but simply being? I read recently that it's necessary to pause on our journey in order to let our souls catch up. I think that during this sort of pause, we create space to breathe, to feel, to know and to be known, to simply be present to ourselves which then allows us to be present and attentive to the Spirit, which then equips us to be present and attentive to others.

My first month in France has been full of opportunities for me to stop, to let go of my own agenda, and to simply be present in the moment. But I have fought against it. I didn't want to let go, it feels so scary and vulnerable. I didn't want to surrender to my present circumstances, I wanted to fight for control. This negative energy eventually culminated, and graciously, was released through tears. I've heard it said that tears are the safety-valve of the soul, and that was definitely my experience this week.  Once I finally surrendered to the emotions and let the tears flow, I was then able to simply be present. My perspective was cleared, and I was able to see the selfish agenda I had been trying to fulfill, to have things my way. To have this adventure on my terms, rather than experiencing it as it actually is.

My decision to come to France was a result of a long process of choosing to surrender and to let go of the perceived control I had on my life. I came into this journey with grandiose ideas that I could simply leave behind some of my old habits and start fresh. But what happens when we face difficulties is that our old habits come out in full force, our egos fight hard to stay in control. But I want a better life, a life of freedom and joy. I want to thrive, not just survive. And so, little by little, by the power of the Spirit, I am loosening my grip, breathing deeply, and experiencing each moment as it comes. And oh, what fun it can be!


Monday, December 1, 2014

Playing in the Kitchen

Last week was Thanksgiving in the States, but the French don't celebrate this holiday, so it was just a normal work week. However, I was still able to have some fun and play in the kitchen on Thursday.

Here's how to separate an egg

Some of our students got to spend the afternoon in the kitchen with our chef, learning about chocolate - the difference between dark and white chocolate, how to melt it, and then what you can add to it to make it look and taste differently (think: butter, sugar, and eggs). And, I got to be the photographer for this activity!

The students made food sculptures using cake, fruit, marshmallows, and melted chocolate..... they were very artistic and creative.  The chef then showed them how to crack and separate eggs, and then how to whisk the egg yolks with sugar and the egg whites with salt. It was fun to watch them learn, and I got to have a turn too.

Aren't our hats just adorable?!

Our end result was a delicious chocolate mousse, which was served for dessert at lunch the next day. I'm making friends with the chef, and hoping to get more opportunities to be in the kitchen. He is very talented, and has made some very beautiful and delicious things. I've also realized that my passion for food is helping me learn French..... at least French vocabulary for various ingredients and kitchen utensils!

Mixing up the chocolate mousse
 I thoroughly enjoyed the day, and counted it as my own little personal celebration of Thanksgiving!

Le Tour Eiffel (The Eiffel Tower)

Blue sky!
I made my second trip to Paris on Saturday with several new friends from school, and our goal was to take the stairs up the Eiffel Tower. The crowds were thick, as this was Black Friday weekend.... while the French don't celebrate Thanksgiving, they DO celebrate Black Friday!

The view from underneath the tower, as we were waiting in line

After waiting in line for nearly an hour, we finally began our ascent.

The views along the way were spectacular, and they continued to change as we went higher. We stopped at the first floor to enjoy the view from all angles.
View from the stairs
A rest at the first floor

From the bottom, I was wondering if the climb would be like The Incline down in Colorado Springs, but it was much easier than that. There are many different numbers out there for how many stairs are in the Eiffel Tower, but it seems to be somewhere between 650-700 steps up to the second floor, which is as high as they'll let you go on foot.  If you want to go all the way to the top, you have to wait in yet another line, and buy another ticket to take the elevator.  We decided the 2nd floor was good enough for us - check out these views:

We made it to the second floor in time to play on the glass-floored deck (it was surprisingly nerve-wracking to step out onto the glass), and then to watch the sunset. 
The sky seemed to be especially beautiful - the sunset was a fluorescent red, but sadly my camera wasn't quite able to capture the fiery brilliance. So, I just enjoyed the moment as the sun set below the horizon.
Look at the hot air balloon!

My first glimpse of the Arc de Triomphe

Once the sun set, it got cold very quickly up there. So, we waited just long enough for the lights to come on, and then headed down. I ran down most of the way, similar to coming down a mountain, it was easier on the knees to go quickly.
The view from the second floor deck

Breathtaking beauty
Another fun trip to Paris, with many great memories!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Field Trips

It's been a very full week for me. We have a small group of five students from Singapore here for two weeks and they have requested special field trips every afternoon.  My co-worker and I are taking turns going with them on their trips, depending on the activity and their needs. Earlier this week, I got to go with them to see the ruins of an old castle, and then to an Abbey that has been converted into a luxury hotel. Both were beautiful in very different ways.

The Château de la Madeleine

The school hires both a chauffer and a guide for these trips, so my only responsibility is to take pictures to capture the outing to post on the school's Facebook page.  The first outing was rather challenging for me personally..... The driver and the guide both only speak French, and the group from Singapore; although they do speak English, they are here as part of their French studies in school, so they are only speaking French. I knew that it would be difficult to learn a new language, but I didn't realize how isolating it would be at times. To not be able to communicate thoughts or feelings is bad enough (but expected), but to even be able to engage in very simple small talk is very frustrating! Everyone was very kind, but I felt a bit like an imposter. However, despite the communication challenges, I was able to capture some of the beauty in the surroundings.

The Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay

It was really hard to pick just a few pictures for this post so, if you want, you can check out my Facebook page for a full album of each of these places.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pie is Always a Good Idea!

I found out that one of my French teachers is also a pastry chef, so I asked her if she would be willing to bake with me sometime, to which she readily offered her time and her kitchen! Friday was our day to bake, and she asked me what I would need to bake an American pie - I wanted to make a fruit pie, so started suggesting fruit that might be in season here, only to find out that France imports nearly all of their produce, other than raspberries, which aren't in season right now, which makes it all super expensive.  This time of year I like to make a pear/cranberry/pecan pie, but when I suggested this she laughed at me. Evidently, you simply can't get cranberries here, and pecans are super expensive.  So... I rattled around in my brain to think what might go with pears, but we settled on a plain pear pie (much to my disappointment). However, as we were checking out at the store, I found a small container of dried tart cherries on the Christmas display and grabbed those.

We arrived at her cute flat, and her kitchen made mine in Denver look big! The only "counter" space was the top of the clothes washer (which was about 2'x2')  and it was next to the stove. Regardless, it was a delightful afternoon of converting Cups and Tablespoons to Grams, and Fahrenheit to Celsius, and learning more French vocabulary (Pear is la poire, and Cinnamon is la cannelle).

While we waited for the pie to bake, she helped me with my French as we shared some of our stories. It was exactly what I needed - baking, French lessons, and a new friend!

Pear Cherry Pie baked in a cake pan, because that's what we had!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Random Celebrations & The Forest

Today was the celebration of Les Beaujolais Nouveau 2014. What in the world is that?! If I understand correctly, it's the celebration of the first wine produced in 2014 from the Beaujolais region; and the third Thursday of November is the national "reveal" party for the wine. The first batch of wine is not supposed to be very good, but it's become a tradition to celebrate, and so we did. Our chef prepared a wonderful raclette lunch (think fondue with individual pots-yay!)  He served the raclette cheese with a variety of items: baked potatoes, eggs (which you cooked in your little raclette dish), grilled onions and mushrooms, various meats and of course baguettes, accompanied by the Beaujolais wine - which to my unrefined taste was quite good!

After lunch I finally got to go for a walk in the Rambouillet Forest, which is a large National Forest that surrounds most of the city. It is one of the things that appealed to me about moving here, and it is great! It's very flat, but wooded, and there's a little pond with some camp sites and several yurts (but they've been dismantled for the winter).

My first glimpse of the forest

The pond is a man-made reservoir which was created to collect water to supply the fountains in Versailles

I'm eager to learn about the trees and plants here - anybody know what those super tall trees in the background are?

The damn
Leaving the forest for today