It’s always the things you don’t expect…

Yesterday’s heavy snow had disturbed me. I’d needed the help of my neighbour to get both up and down the mountain, and the snow was still falling as I went to bed last night. Would we actually make it to the airport tomorrow? Would we be snowbound for our departure?

But this morning, the day dawned clear. The snowplough had cleared the road and, while there was still a bit of snow in patches, it was going to be a manageable drive down the mountain. Doubly so because I’d arranged to drive down right behind my neighbour, secure in the car tracks of his heavy Volvo. It would have been the perfect end to our stay. But I wasn’t actually going to the airport.

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A few days ago, Delphine had arrived at school and promptly thrown up. We’d battled the snow back home and she’d spent the day with a mounting fever. We passed the night badly. Delphine had squirmed beside me in my bed as we waited for the panadol to kick in. It wasn’t looking any better in the morning. Yesterday, as the snow fell more heavily, I took her to the doctor.

“We’re booked on a flight to Australia tomorrow night,” I explained after I’d given the doctor a run down of her symptoms. Do you think we’ll be able to make it?”

“With the medication I’m prescribing, we usually say they can go back to school in 48 hours. So if you start it now, you should probably be able to catch the flight.”

So with script in hand, we slugged through the driving snow, heavy even in the valley, to the pharmacy. As I paid for the multiple bottles, I noticed how much the snow was accumulating even down here in the valley. I knew I’d need help to navigate the top of the mountain road. So I called the man who’s become my knight in shining armour – my neighbour. He came to my aid immediately, and bringing his girlfriend with him to drive my car back up the mountain behind his. The snow continued to fall, but Delphine had started to show some signs of improvement. So I prayed that the forecast for the following day was correct – snow being replaced by clouds – and felt like we were back on the homeward track.

It was 9:30pm. One last check of the email before turning in for an early night ahead of our big day. Email from British Airways (BA):

“Your flight has been cancelled.”

Thus began hours of painful communication.

I tried to call the customer service number for Europe provided in the email. Wrong number. I tried the UK number. Skype wouldn’t ring it. I tried calling the number from my phone. It ran out of credit. I used Skype to call Qantas, with whom we were flying from Heathrow to Sydney. “You need to talk to BA.” I tried to recharge my phone’s credit online. The system froze. I battled through the French language automated over-the-phone recharging system. Success. I finally got through to BA. One and a half hours later and we finally had replacement flights. It was 1.30am. For the last hour of flight negotiations I’d had the still feverish Delphine in my arms who’d been awoken by the sound of my exasperated voice.

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I finally lay down in my bed, exhausted. We wouldn’t be leaving for two more days. I’d written a list of all the cancelation, postponements and extensions I’d need to get onto the following day. I was too wiped out to think any further.

I had just four short hours of sleep before I was up and getting the children ready for school this morning. I looked out with chagrin at the clear day dawning. Just outside my front door, I saw my knight with his shining spade. He was completing his usual morning service of digging a path from our door, up the stairs to the car.

I poked my head out the door: “I’ve got some news…” I explained the whole sorry story. He reassured me that we could stay another day and asked whether I still wanted to follow along behind him to descend into the valley that morning. I nodded and half an hour later was waiting out on the road, engine running, ready for him to take the lead. He tapped on my window.

“I’ve forgotten my jacket,” he said, “I’ll just duck back and get it.”

Five minutes later he appeared again at my window. A big box of French chocolates in his hands. “I thought you might need this.”

My heart turned over. How do people become this kind? I felt so battle wearied from the last few days. This tender offering took away some of the sting.

The heartening helpfulness continued when we arrived at school.

“Oh Nancy,” said Delphine’s teacher, “that’s awful.” “Let me take Delphine all day tomorrow as well and I’ll organise for Silas to go to afterschool care too.”

“Don’t bother booking a hotel,” said another “I can put you up at my house.”

The grinding fatigue was still there as I drove off to get started on my long list of phone calls, but my heart felt a little lighter.

This is not what I’d meticulously planned. But the gaps between the itinerary and reality have left room for the best of human compassion to shine through. I still wish we were going to be on that flight tonight. But I know that when I look back on my time in Alsace, it will be these memories of being helped in my moments of vulnerability that will make my memories of this time so golden.

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Taking my two brussel sprouts to Belgium

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I’m writing this blog with a mug of Australian roasted coffee and a Mary’s Belgian chocolate by my side. We’ve just arrived back “home” in Geishouse and I’ve been trying to make sense of the last few days. Oddly enough, this pick-me-up combination seems to have hit the spot – in both ways.

Through school connections, we’ve made friends with two Belgian-based families: one we’d met at the French school in Canberra where Silas first went and the second through the Steiner school where he now goes. As luck would have it, both families just happened to be in Brussels at the same moment in time. The French-school family had just returned from their Canberra posting and were re-installing themselves in Brussels and the Steiner school family were on a brief visit home to check-in with grand-parents. We caught the Steiner school family just the day before they left. What were the odds?

The journey into Belgium had been illuminating. As we crossed what I supposed to be the border – hard to tell these days when there are no customs crossings – we were greeted by tall metal sentinels.

“Look!” said Delphine “Wind blowers!”

Although it’s kind of the reverse, I got her meaning – wind turbines. Huge, up close and serious.

What was also serious was the speed that drivers were now going at. They whizzed passed me in the fast lane at well above the speed limit. When I momentarily dared to venture, through necessity, into the inside lane to allow a car to merge, I was immediately flashed at by angry headlights. “Well, I’m not in Alsace anymore,” I thought with chagrin.

But our Belgian dad and daughter met us warmly at the large museum complex known as the Musée de cinquantenaire. I never succeeded in correctly pronouncing this but I did succeed in eventually tracking them down at the right museum in this grand building that houses several.

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As we sat eating our lunch in the café, I was bemused to notice the difference context makes. Whereas in Australia our children spoke with each other in English, here, at the dining table it was a purely French experience. I smiled to see Silas launching into the conversation in French, not at all intimidated to be talking to someone’s father in another language, just keen to be part of the interaction. It was also a pleasure to see this family in their own home environment – subtly more assured and at ease as they relaxed a little more deeply into their chairs.

We parted with les bises and a “à la semaine prochaine!” Odd to think that when we do indeed see each other next week, it will be in the dry heat of a Canberra school playground.

But it was snow on the ground that met us at the home of our second family. They’re in the process of settling back into their Belgian lives after a four year posting in Canberra. Exchanging the big blue sky of Australia for the clouds and rain of a Belgian winter had been tough. But Belgium has other benefits for families: a strong health service and one of the best education systems in Europe. We had a brief glimpse of this as we tagged along for the school pick-up and heard about the children’s school-day: the hot lunch had been pretty good, it was fun to start learning Dutch (one of the three official languages of Belgium alongside French and German) but the paved-over playground was a bit of a disappointment after the wide ovals of Aussie schools.

It was a delight to watch our combined five children playing together in the rare snowfall in the garden. It gave time for the parents to discuss world affairs. We’d both just traversed from one side of it to the other, and there were so many contrasts to make. Immigration: Australians are very concerned, but in a borderless Europe the numbers here are of an order of magnitude greater. Environment: Europe is trying to come up with ways to measure the emissions of all the products we consume, in Australia we’ve signed up to the lowest possible emissions target. Politics: all leaders are struggling with the challenge of staying in touch with everyday people’s concerns while they put in place measures to address complicated problems that are difficult to explain.

After dinner that night, as we sat sipping the last of the excellent French Burgundy, deep in conversation, it was hard to know just where I was. I could hear our happy troop of multi-nationality children playing upstairs. Yesterday I’d been in France, today I’d travelled through Luxembourg to arrive into Belgium. Tonight I was dining with good friends in the centre of Brussels, chatting about her day at work in the European Union.

As my dad says, these days our bodies can travel faster than our brains can catch up. I could definitely feel the lag. But I was also so glad I’d made the 5.5 hour driving effort to see these friends on their home turf. I’ve experienced them in a subtly different way. All of them, more masters of their own domain. Or perhaps it was me. This time, meeting them, I was the one dislocated from my normal surroundings. But either way, our friendship now seems more balanced. And when we video-call them to keep in touch from the other end of the earth, I’ll be able to see them in their more rounded reality despite the flat-screen.

Nancy goes to Nancy

I’ve been itching to write this blog title. You can see why. How often do you come across a town that has the same name as you? But even though this town of around 100 000 people is just two hours north-east of our Alsace home, I’ve never had a reason to go. That is, until we received an invitation to visit friends in Belgium. Pulling out my map, I was thrilled to discover that Nancy is en route. So, I decided to break the 5 hour car journey in this town that is famed for its elegant architecture.

We arrived on a snowy, low-light afternoon. I’d been following road signs announcing my name for the past hour of the drive and I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole seeing buses, trams and shops adorned with my signature as we pulled into our city centre hotel. Checking in, the receptionist welcomed me to “my town” – he’d clearly noted the connection between my prénom and my location.

Once we’d deposited our luggage in our room, I deployed the pram and out we went. I didn’t really have a plan. I hadn’t thought much further beyond coming to my namesake town. But the difference with Alsace was striking. In place of clusters of timber-beamed homey houses, we strolled through geometrically governed roads lined with cream-coloured apartments and exquisitely constructed churches. I noticed with a smile the number of references to quinoa on café blackboards. A word I’d not seen in my three months in Alsace. There was also a large number of “bio” (organic) stores and fancy looking tea purveyors. This was clearly a town where le mode reigned.

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We finally found ourselves at the UNESCO heritage listed Place Stanislas – the great achievement of the father-in-law of Louis XV King of France. All golden gates and sharp corners. It was an impressive town square – but for Silas, it was sufficient space to test out his paper aeroplane. I could feel the building need for more child-friendly activity.

Note fountain in background.

Note fountain in background.

This is where the plane landed.

This is where the plane landed.

I made a bee-line for the park I’d seen mentioned in the guidebook – La Pépinière. I was hoping for a playground but the Parisian-style perfection of its layout wasn’t encouraging.

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Then we spied it, a collection of wooden structures. About child size. Yes! A playground. Thank you Rotary: those wonderful community-minded business-people who fund such facilities. The local chapter had donated this fantastical playground 20 years ago. I sent up a little note of thanks to my aunt and uncle who have been involved in their local Sydney chapter for decades. The playground was the highlight of our day.

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With my children in tow, I’ve had to accept that elegance is generally a mode of life that is out of my reach. For mutual happiness, we have to find common ground. And playgrounds are often it. So while I was only able to view from afar the refinement of Nancy, I could get up close and personal with this wooden wonderland of carved play equipment.

I’d like to think I’ll be elegant Nancy in a couple of years, but for now, I willing to accept I’m more the homey colourful cottages of Alsace.

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My run-in with the Swiss Gendarme

Last weekend we went on a road trip to visit my cousin and her family who live near Geneva. It’s a little over a 3 hour drive from here “Just the same as from Canberra to Sydney,” I reassured myself.

But the journey did not begin well. After picking up Silas from school, I went to tap the address into the GPS: “aucune adresse trouvée” replied Henriette. Hmmm, I tried several different approaches. Nothing. She refused to recognise the street name. The best we could do was the suburb. So, conscious of the passing time and the plan to arrive for dinner, I decided to get going in the hope that the closer we came to our destination, the more accurate Henriette would become.

Delphine slept at the beginning but at about 1 hour in, the screaming began. I don’t need to go into the causes. Suffice to say it was with frayed nerves that we rolled into the rest station for a toilet stop and another go at finding my cousin’s address in the GPS. Again, nothing. So I tried to call my cousin. The phone system didn’t recognise the number. I tried to text. My darn phone would only send as an iMessage and I didn’t have wi-fi. We trooped into the rest station in the hunt for a public phone. Nothing. The wi-fi promised by the rest stop came up on my phone as “internet not available.” At least the toilets were open.

With rising desperation, I approached the kind-looking lady behind the boulangerie counter. “Is there a public phone around here?” I asked in French “No. Not any more,” she replied. I explained my dilemma. She looked at my two little children and the worn expression on my face. “You can use ours,” she offered. I accepted with deep gratitude, the call went through and I wrote down a bunch of hand-written directions.

Feeling on slightly firmer ground, we marched back to the car and were just buckling on our belts when they appeared. Two blue-uniformed Swiss gendarmes.

“Bonjour. Where are you from?”

Somewhat surprised and a little nervous I explained my complicated origins: from Australia but living in France for a couple of months and now in Switzerland for the weekend to visit my cousin in Geneva.

“Do you realise you have been using the Swiss autoroutes?”

Flash of memory: two and a half years ago, transiting through Switzerland to France, we had had to buy a yearly pass to be able to travel the Swiss autoroutes.

I felt a tide of emotion rise up and over me. I didn’t even try to stop the tear that welled in my eye and started to run down my face.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I stammered “I like to be a law-abiding person, and I’ve just realised what I’ve done.”

I had completely forgotten that in Switzerland you have to buy an annual autoroute pass before travelling on the country’s freeways. Even if just for a couple of days.

“In France you pay as you go.” I explained. “But of course I know that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.”

“And now, I’m sorry for being so emotional” I was starting to lose it a bit by now “But this has been such a tough trip: my daughter’s been screaming for half an hour, we can’t find my cousin’s address in this stupid GPS and my mobile just won’t work here.”

His facial expression started to soften as he watched this woman – probably almost twice his age – fall apart in front of him.

“OK. I can see it was an honest mistake. So I won’t charge you the 200 Swiss franc fine. But you do need to buy a pass just inside the rest stop here. We’ll go help you do that and then we’ll see what we can do about that GPS.”

Back in we went: me, my two children and our Swiss gendarme guard. Under their watchful, but kindly eye, I duly bought my autoroute pass. We returned to the car, where he affixed it in the centre of the windscreen and then sat down in the passenger seat to poke around at the GPS with me. His partner started trying to find the address on her phone. No luck there either. It’s when I spied the street name finally pop up on his phone that I saw the problem. There was a preposition “du” in the version we had but not in the google map street name. Once I tapped in the name without this errant “du,” Henriette became compliant.

It had taken one Australian and two Swiss Gendarmes to solve the problem. They sent us off with a friendly wave and good wishes for a pleasant stay in Switzerland.

From an encounter that had begun with official displeasure at presumed free-riding, we had ended as a convivial band of problem solvers with the joint mission of getting this waylaid family of Australians back on route.

Contrition on my part: comprehension and compassion on theirs. If only all tangles could be resolved so satisfyingly.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.

The fullness of four

Robert arrived on Christmas eve into an airport bubbling with the joy of families and lovers reuniting. The emotion was too much for Delphine who, at the sight of her much-awaited dada, collapsed prostrate on the floor. With the writhing weight of a three-year old between us and a seven-year old skipping excitedly at his side, there wasn’t much room for husband and wife to tenderly reunite. I envied the lovers; eyes just for each other as they moved together for a welcoming embrace.

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But who could feel melancholy for long in the company of two such jubilant children, and a father thrilled to be in their midst. I herded the joyous trio to the car, installed Robert in the front passenger seat with a welcome bretzel to nibble and navigated our way out through the milling holiday traffic of the airport carpark and onto the highway.

Finally cruising freely, I could begin to notice the changes around me. Our Peugeot, always compact, had never seemed small before. But now it felt filled to its four corners with human life. Then, as we entered our little Alsacian chalet home, I felts its dimensions shifting around me to accommodate this much-awaited visitor. The ceiling in the living-dining seemed a little lower, the seldom-used coffee table and couches was now a playspace for dad and kids, my bedroom – formerly a solitary and minimally furnished space – became a room for two: a spread of other clothes on the bed, and a book and glass of water on the far bedside table.

Later that evening, sitting in church for the Christmas eve carol service, we were specially welcomed by the Pasteur as “la famille Waites” – her warm words then repeated to the congregation in English by an American parishioner who welcomed “the Waites’ from Australia.” I felt like the Royal Family. Another difference. In all the previous Sundays, I had been the Australian woman sitting at the back keeping her eye on her two young children playing in the corner. Now we were a family of four filling a pew.

At dinner on Christmas night, we lit the four candles in our Advent couronne for the last time. This year the fourth candle had had a double significance: the usual one of marking the last Sunday in Advent meaning that Christmas is imminent, and also, this year, the fourth Sunday candle-lighting moment had meant “dada arrives tomorrow!” So on this Christmas night, here was another difference: as I looked up from my plate of bûche de Noël Christmas cake, I no longer saw a vacant fourth chair opposite, but my husband’s face.

Just one person more, but we’ve gone from the lightness of three to the fullness of four. We no longer feel like a parent and two young children cast adrift from accustomed shores and on a sometimes precarious adventure. Instead, I feel the familiar moorings that hold our family in safe harbours.

So this is a time of restoration, a chance to replenish energy, before we say farewell to our fellow traveller in just a few days time. I will make the most of this chance to share the load of parenting. I will savour the moments where I can step back and watch my children from the middle distance, knowing that their dad has got them covered at close proximity. I will perhaps even appear in a photo. But more than all this, I will relish the rare opportunity to ponder, with an immediacy previously denied, the wonder of our experiences here with my fellow traveller for life.

Chateaux on plateaux

As we drive around on our explorations, they watch over us like sentinels – ancient castle ruins high in the hills.

They are many in number and diverse in their degree of decay. I knew nothing of their existence before arriving here. And so, yet again, I’ve been surprised by another delight of Alsace – it’s home to the largest number of mediaeval castle forts in France.

They started being built from around the 12th century. The weakening grip of the Holy Roman Empire left a power vacuum in the region and local lords were keen to protect themselves from the disorder. They built great chateaux forts to be their home and safe hold, both for their family and their followers. In time, some became the central administration for the region, which is why some towns here are still centred around their chateaux today.

Silas loves castles. So he’s been thrilled at their regular appearance on the skyline. He’s enchanted by stories of knights jousting, sharp-eyed archers perched atop ramparts and the possibility of dragons lurking in the dungeon. So he was begging to visit one soon after we arrived.

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The first castle we visited was Chateau du Hohlandsbourg. It’s been fairly recently restored from an overgrown sleeping beauty state to a pristine semi-ruin.

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The view from the ramparts was astounding: to the west, the Vosges mountain range rippled all the way to the horizon and to the east lay the city of Colmar below. We could hear its church bells pealing at 11am to announce the 100thanniversary of the end of WW1. It felt fitting to be in this place, once a site of ancient combat but today a peaceful place of gentle pleasure, on this day of remembrance.

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Our second chateau was closer to home and lesser in remains. But its story made up for the lack of apparent castle. L’oeil de la sorcière – the eye of the witch. This castle had been deliberately rendered a ruin, and by King Louis XIV no less, who had ordered it to be destroyed in 1673. The walking notes from the tourist office in Thann hadn’t explained just why Louis had felt so inclined, so I was left to ponder with Silas and Delphine what could have possibly made the King so angry. What ever might have been the cause, the result is, a-hem, eye-catching. The explosion caused one of the towers to break apart and fall on its side, becoming a great ring of stone jutting out from the side of the hill. As we approached it in the late autumn afternoon sunlight, it was eerie in its beauty.

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Castle number three came after a visit to Kaysersburg Christmas market last week. At the last minute, we had decided to continue by foot through the village and up the walking path to its hill-top castle. I was feeling tired. I’d skipped our usual lunchtime rest and refresh at home, and had instead picked up the children from school and headed straight out on the one-hour drive to Kaysersburg. I hadn’t expected to do a bushwalk and so had said yes to Delphine when she’d asked to go in the stroller for our wander around the town. But here I was, half-way up a mountain path, folded stroller on one shoulder, camera slung on the other and marching up the stairs in my heeled boots. My eye was caught by two laminated plaques attached to a rock by the side of the path. I stopped to read:

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“Out of breath or not… You are in !

The effort engaged – important or not in your eyes – nobody would have done it in your stead, and nobody else other than you will reap the benefits…”

The message from French philosopher, doctor, musician, and native of this village, Albert Schweitzer continued on for several paragraphs. It spoke straight to my heart. To that part of me that had decided to embark on this three-month long Alsace adventure.

Something settled inside me. I resolutely straightened the pram strap on my shoulder, reached out my hand to help Delphine up the rocky stair and followed my castle-loving son to the summit.

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