I don't have the heart to rewrite it, so here are the highlights.
Second hike in the Val Veny turned out more difficult than we thought it would be, with far too much uphill, and very tired and whiny children, and I had to scramble on all fours with the baby on my back, so we quit after two hours (probably just before the good part) and went back to the rifugio where we had parked the car, and we had cappucino and ice cream.
Drove back down scary mountain road to Courmayeur, where we saw flags and banners and stopped to check it out.
Turns out they were awaiting the third place runner at the finish in an insane endurance trail race called the Tor des Géants. (330 km, 24,000 m vertical gain). We sent the kids to get ice cream and looked around.
After having scavenged a few scraps of vocabulary from the race brochure we grabbed from a table I managed to ask an Italian grandmother who was cooing at my baby, "One athlete has finished?" Un atleto ha finito?
She told me "Due," and the young woman sitting on her other side leaned over and added "Due matte," using a noun I did not previously know but which from the context I correctly guessed meant "crazies."
The grandmother showed me on the brochure map where the third place runner was, and I asked "È luntana?" which is the wrong gender but otherwise means "Is it far?" and she told me that they were one or two hours away and that the first and second place runners had come in about 9:40 that morning. I think that is what she said anyway.
I also, later, got a chance to practice telling people "I need a bathroom for the little guy."
We shopped at the grocery store in Courmayeur before coming back through the Mont Blanc tunnel. On the table for dinner I put sliced tomatoes, three fat balls of fresh mozzarella, oil and vinegar, seedy baguettes, a tube of paste labeled tonno e ketchup, boiled potatoes, more tuna canned in caponata sauce, some fruit that seemed to be a cross between a nectarine and a plum, proscuitto, and a cheap local white wine.
After dinner Mark and I polished off the wine and reworked our calendar of events to make sure we didn't overtax the smaller children. We won't do everything exactly how we planned, but we think we have made better plans now. Flexibility!
And a little bit of down time when we need it.
Tuesday we wanted a nice relaxing day after the boys' and Mark's glacier outing and my grocery store expedition. So we slept in, and had a leisurely breakfast in the apartment. Then Mark went out to buy picnic items while the kids and I pulled together daypacks.
The 4yo carried two water bottles in his little purple daypack. The 8yo carried all the food ("This is a good job," I told her, "because it will be be heavy early in the morning but it will be light after lunch"). I carried the baby. The 14yo and Mark carried rain gear, diaper supplies, and fleeces for everyone in bulky but not especially heavy packs. The 10yo went packless as the emergency backup pack carrier -- the unspoken idea being that if the 4yo melted down, the 10yo could carry a pack and Mark could carry the 4yo.
We started out walking through the town towards the Brévent gondola lift.
The street went steeply uphill past many houses and apartment buildings, and ended at the bottom of the gondola lift. We have a sort of unlimited pass, which we bought on the first day at the counter, from a woman who warned me vigorously about the foolishness of taking babies up in the gondola.
("Mais ce n'est pas interdit?" I asked. No, she told me, it wasn't forbidden per se, it was only for my information, but the rapid pressure change was very bad for the eardrums, and she once knew a child who was six years old and they went up in the gondola and their eardrums ruptured and they couldn't hear for a very long time. Possibly ever.)
Anyway, we climbed up the steps to the gondola, where we were stopped by an attendant who wanted to tell me how dangerous it was to take the baby up in the gondola.
"Mais ce n'est pas interdit?" I asked. No, he told me, it wasn't forbidden, but the pressure changes are not good for a baby's ears and I should give him something to drink.
Yes yes, I told him as he walked away, I will nurse the baby. Except I think I got the word wrong and I actually said that I would lick the baby. Let's hope that he didn't hear me. I do speak fairly fluently, in the sense that I can, you know, talk at a normal rate, but in all that flowing I make a lot of mistakes.
So anyway, we herded everyone into the gondola and while we were in there I got the baby off my back and onto the breast. He struggled and complained, because it was hot in the gondola, but he did nurse a little, and his ears seemed to give him no trouble. I gave the 4yo a life saver to suck on. The others had to make do with periodic swallowing.
After watching them for a while and finishing lunch we went to hike around on the mountain. Mark put the four year old on a short rope for safety. He said it was easier than holding his hand.
We walked around and enjoyed the view. In one place we found a tiny little microclimate where we seemed to have been dropped into Northern Minnesota, except the bushes were myrtilles, bilberries (whortleberries), instead of blueberries, and the conifers were not the same conifers.
After that we were quite tired, so we went back down into town and rested several hours before heading out for dinner. We went away from the town center to a little restaurant with red-and-white checked tables, and got the last one that seated six.
I split the fondue savoyard with the 10yo and Mark, and we wondered if we'd made a mistake when a giant fuel burner was plunked onto our table inches away from the baby, who had no high chair and sat on our laps. I recommended the salade de chèvre chaud to my 14yo, who also ordered tagliatelle carbonara. The 4yo and 8yo each had the three-course menu enfant: assiette de saucisson (kind of a salad with several slices of salami), steak haché (think hamburger steak) with frites, and ice cream, all for €10.
The food was good. The fondue was nothing but torn baguettes speared on little forks and spun in the bubbling cheese sauce, excellent with the white wine I chose, and my 10yo who isn't much into meat was pleased: "Mom," he said, "this tastes like your beer cheese sauce!" The 14yo was ecstatic about his dinner. The younger ones ate the salami and the fries. The baby sat on my lap and gnawed on chunks of baguette, about which he was very happy.
We finished the meal with a slice of tarte aux myrtilles. My slice that is -- everyone said, "I'm too full for dessert!" so I was the only one who ordered it, and then as soon as it arrived everyone changed their minds and wanted several bites. I can hardly blame them.
The people at the next table complimented us on our children's behavior, saying that my daughter had une jolie mine and cooing at the baby. So: we won the game. Very satisfying.
On Monday, Mark and the big boys suited up in a mixture of gear that happened not to have been packed in the lost suitcase, gear borrowed from me and the 8yo, and gear they rented in town. They headed across the footbridge to the train station to meet the guide.
The guide's name is Jeff (further complicating things: I am certain that "Jeff" must be the male version of "Jennifer" because there are so many Jeffs in our life, all between 35-45 years old, that I am constantly having to ask which Jeff Mark is talking about. Jeff your brother-in-law? Jeff my friend's husband? Well. This is Jeff the Guide.) Mark has had the bizarre luck to travel on business near here several times, and so he has been climbing in Chamonix several times, and so for the last few years we have been joking that he has a guide in Chamonix on retainer, therefore he is not allowed to complain about anything because obviously he is doing pretty well.
Anyway, off they went to meet the guide so they could go do glacier travel and ice climbing on the Mer de Glace, which is the second longest glacier in Europe or something like that.
I stayed in the apartment with the three smaller kids and let them sleep while I wrote a blog post, then we ventured out. Mark had suggested that I take them on the train to the next town, but that seemed intimidating to me -- who knows what I would find there and how easy it would be to walk around with a baby and a small boy and a medium-sized girl? I thought to myself, "What's happened to me?" remembering that twenty years ago I was studying in Lyon and I took several train trips all by myself to towns and cities I had never been before, and I never worried that I'd have trouble navigating or figuring out what to do when I got there. When did I get so timid?
Anyway -- so instead I planned two in-town outings.
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Today was the boys' day to play and we have two whole weeks, so I expected to have to deal with a number of practical matters. I needed to buy food and diapers and coffee filters. I expected to have to do laundry at some point, and tidy the apartment. Of course I would have to feed the children. Mark had given the 4yo and the 8yo each some money to buy things; the elder had €20 and the younger had €4 with the promise of more if he spent it instead of losing it. ("My allowance," he said proudly, and was sure he had the better deal since his money was in the form of two shiny and interesting-looking €2 coins, not boring paper bills.)
I buckled the baby on my back. I made each child carry a backpack, and I put the diapering supplies in the 8yo's pack. Out we went.
We walked around town, planning to go to the grocery store last of all so that we could then carry the groceries home. We looked into souvenir shops. One was selling little plastic centimeter rulers with children's names and name-days printed on them -- here in France the trend of alternative spellings has not taken off, so it still makes sense to have popular names pre-printed on things. My 4yo's name was represented (not the others -- my daughter has a double name and she could have put two of the rulers together to make it, at least the French form, I suppose) so we bought one for him. He was pleased with that. There were many stuffed-toy marmots (sort of the town mascot) and plush St. Bernards with the little barrel around their necks. There were many cowbells, hand painted with alpine flowers and hanging from leather straps, some authentically cowbell-sized and others tiny. There were leather goods (my daughter admired a tiny heart-shaped wallet FIFTY-FIVE EUROS HOLY COW) and postcards and coffee table books full of mountain photography. Bedroom slippers and baby shoes that looked like ski boots. Wrapped chocolates with mountain scenes printed on each wrapper.
The children got hungry and so we stopped in a Salon de Thé that sold pastries.
The 4yo took his time choosing three little macarons. Despite the name, these are not "macaroons" -- they are a sandwich cookie, roughly Oreo-sized, with an intensely flavored and sweet paste between two colorful meringue wafers. Stores that have them invariably display a rainbow's worth of colored macarons, and the children are drawn to them. Eventually the 4yo picked raspberry tart (white with pink sprinkles and red paste), myrtille (which I don't think is exactly a blueberry, but close enough -- it was a deep blue), and salted caramel (toasty brown).
The 8yo, having heard me tell of such things, chose a petit pain au chocolat, which is a rectangular croissant with a stripe of dark chocolate running through its center.
"Et moi, je n'ai pas faim," I said to the young woman who was running the tea shop. As for me, I don't have hunger. "Merci de votre patience," I added, because the children had taken quite a long time in choosing their snacks.
"Mama," said the 4yo urgently, "How do you say 'I do not speak French?'" This is my child who talks to everybody about everything.
"Je. Ne. Parle. Pas. Français," I told him, right in front of the shopkeeper.
He looked her in the eye. "Je ne parle pas français," he repeated.
"You can talk to me English," she told him, "If you talk it slow-ly."
So he told her his name, and then all about how we were going to the grocery store after we had a long walk and how his daddy and big brothers were going out on the glacier and how he was four years old and by the way, was she the owner of this shop or did she just work there?
She looked back at me nervously. I grinned and told her that he does that to everybody.
Outside we took a seat and the children eagerly opened up their little packages.
"It's bitter," said my daughter in surprise about the chocolate bread, "but it's good."
The 4yo ate just the raspberry macaron, which he refused to let us taste, and carefully wrapped the others up for later.
We wandered around -- I had to consult the map once or twice. I stopped once to nurse the baby on a bench, and watched interestedly to see if passersby would notice and if so how they would react. I got a few sideways glances, but I actually think people were wondering about my older children; throughout the morning, three separate people asked me if they were on their way to school.
I found this a bit surprising, since it was (I thought) obvious that we weren't from around here and the children were speaking English to me. But maybe there are expat Brits living in town with families? Or maybe two children wearing backpacks just send a "schoolchildren" signal that overcomes the other cues.
One, a shopkeeper, she wasn't really looking for an answer, she went immediately around me to coo at the baby.
The second was a pedestrian going the same direction as me, who had already cooed at the baby and asked me if he wasn't too cold, before asking about the older ones, so I told her: "Oh non, nous sommes touristes ici." And then I added, "Nous faisons l'instruction en famille," to see what would happen.
She said, "Oh, c'est merveilleux!" and I think she meant it, I don't think that was French for "Homeschooling? That must be so nice for you." I agreed and said that I enjoyed it very much. "Bonne journée," she said, "bye, bébé," and went on her way.
The third was the grocery store cashier, while we waited for a manager to sort out my misbehaving credit card, and to her I just said, "oh no, for them school is in the United States." "Oh, you are on vacation, how lovely," she said, "and you have three children? How brave of you!"
"Actually," I said, remembering not to say actuellement which means currently, "I have five. The other two are on the Mer de Glace with their father."
Her eyes got very very big.
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Navigating the Super U, which I couldn't help thinking of as a "western-style" grocery store in that it had all the things you could buy in a grocery store at home in one place, was tricky with two excited children and also a baby on my back. The tank of live lobsters! The chocolate display! It seemed as if we bumped into every other shopper at least three times.
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Back at the apartment I fed the children grilled cheese sandwiches made with individually wrapped slices of processed cheese, which were pure white, very soft and fragile, and tasted faintly of Camembert. The 8yo erinkled her nose at it and got a yogurt instead. The 4yo said, "At first I didn't like it, then I took very small bites and I liked it."
So I ate the children's sandwich leavings, and did not mind. Also we had some lovely greengage plums, which are hard to find in the Midwest but everywhere here, and which I remembered fondly from twenty years ago in Geneva.
The 4yo wanted to eat his leftover macarons, but they had crushed and mingled together in the backpack into a blueberry-salted-caramel paste.
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I started cooking dinner, chicken soup, using the French equivalent of grocery store rotisserie chicken, and Alsatian egg noodles:
Then we went out again to buy a few items I had forgotten (diapers; wine). We stopped to look in the windows of a toy store:
And we bought candy from a store called "L'univers du bonbon." I translated the name for the children, and when we got inside and the 4yo saw the massive bin of pick-and-mix candies for €3,80 per 100 g, he said in awe, "This really is a world of candy."
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When the boys and Mark came back to the scent of chicken noodle soup, rich with thyme and carrots, and a fresh baguette and a salad (from a bag!), Mark sniffed the air and said, "It smells like love in here."
"Is this wine okay?" I asked, showing him the vin de savoie.
"It's the exact right kind of wine," he said, "it's right here in front of me."
We sat down to dinner, said grace, and shared stories of our day.
+ + +
Later in the evening, when I ran out the door by myself to the laverie with a bag of laundry, I heard the clanking of the train pulling into the station, and imagined myself hopping on the train as it pulled out of town, without a plan, except to get off somewhere interesting and to get back on and come back whenever that seemed like a good idea. And it seemed easy and simple -- certainly I could do that. In truth I have not become more timid. The difference is that toting the children along with me leaves me less room for error.
And -- this part is really crucial -- with the smaller children, with three of them, it's so much more difficult to just stop and think for a minute if I need it. When I plunge forward without a plan and I figure things out as I go along, sometimes I have to pause, sit down, maybe grab a cup of coffee, look at the map (literally or figuratively) and get my bearings. Preferably alone. I might mentally rehearse the next conversation I have to have (is there a place here I can get change? What type of store around here would sell me such and such an item? How much are the sandwiches? Where can I find a bookstore? What time is the last train going west?) I might have to psych myself up for any sort of interaction, actually, even one in my own language. And then I can get up and go on. But with the children I cannot retreat into my own head even for a few minutes. I can't stop and get my bearings. Have you ever tried to sit down and look at a map and look at the street signs and figure out where you are and how to get where you are going, while nursing a baby, and while one child tugs and says "Mom! Look at me!" and the other says "Moooooooooommmm when are we going to gooooooooo?" Not that easy.
That is the part that I know from experience is intimidating. If I could hop on that train all by myself, I could let it take me absolutely anywhere.
But tomorrow with the kids, maybe I can be as brave as everyone keeps telling me I must be.
View from our bedroom window towards the centre-ville
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The first thing we did on our first full day in Cham was go to mass, since it was Sunday. There is a lot of variation in, shall we say, pomp, in masses; I was charmed, because this little tourist-town parish seemed exactly matched to our own. It was completely full. There were maybe eight young male altar servers, and my 14yo said he could easily have served that mass and known exactly what to do. We felt very at home in the liturgy, and of course everything is the same, even in a different language; you know what is being said when. The children had their Magnifikids, but I don't think they looked at them much. There were two priests, a young fellow who was the main celebrant, and an older one who gave the homily.
Perhaps because he is used to an international audience, he spoke very slowly and clearly, and the homily was carefully structured as if given from an outline according to the rule of three. I had no trouble following him at all. (Mark had taken the baby to the vestibule, which had been retrofitted with glazing to turn it into a sort of cry room, so I didn't have too much to distract me). The Gospel being Matthew 18:15-20 ("If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault...") the theme of the homily was "fraternal correction" -- that correction is not fraternal and cannot be received peacefully unless it is given out of real love for the brother and for Christ, with discussion of three examples: between spouses, parents correcting children, and between nations.
After that, most of the day was the business of feeding and clothing ourselves. For lunch we ate some pasta in our teeny kitchen -- rotini with sinoke tomato sauce and some fresh ravioli with asparagus filling, which I boiled and then sautéed in butter with minced ham. The big boys and Mark planned to go out on the glacier with a guide the next morning, but much of the boys' gear had been in the lost suitcase. Air France gave us an allowance so they went out to replace items. Then after they returned, having found some kind of clearance store that stocked most of what they needed, I went out with a couple of nylon shopping bags in search of food for dinner.
It being Sunday, the big stores were all closed, but I found a little grocery that was open, sort of a convenience store. I needed to keep it simple: I had in mind to try to buy chicken, noodles, carrots, and onions for a soup, and also to buy bacon, tomatoes, and onions for pasta sauce. I found almost all of that: two cold, packaged, roasted chicken leg quarters which I thought would make a broth, a fresh chicken breast, carrots and onions; packaged bacon cut into lardons; a local pasta shape called crozets, little squares about 7mm on a side; cream. Also milk and bread, frozen haricots verts, and some grated parmesan. I came home and with the help of my Haute-Savoie cookbook I made crozets with lardons and cream and onions.
And then we all went out for ice cream.
Enjoyed the chilly night air and the sight of the sunset on the mountains. (Having iOS photostream syncing trouble -- will try to add that later...)
Walked around the town, completely deserted at 8 pm on a Sunday except for a few people lingering in a few restaurants. Picked out a pizza place and a raclette place to eat at later.
This morning I am heading out with the youngest three while Mark and the big boys practice glacier travel. They are ready, so I'd better go...
This is just going to be a quick recap, because it covers about 24 total hours of travel.
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Friday morning, as we were getting up having breakfast and cleaning so the house would be ready for us to leave, the baby threw up all over me. He was tested and found slightly feverish. He fell asleep on my lap.
This did not ease my nervousness. After some discussion, we elected not to change plans, except that we weren't going to feed him anything but breastmilk, and Mark and I quickly redistributed things in the bags to make room in the carryons for extra clothes, some receiving blankets, and paper towels. Also we took extra ibuprofen. On we go.
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Cab to the airport. My heart was absolutely pounding. I just had so much to keep track of, between children and bags. Mark carried the stack of seven passports and the tickets for the baby.
Once at the ticketing counter we rediscovered that the airlines seem not able to handle the "traveling with a lap infant" scenario. Every time it happens, it is as if no one has ever heard of this strange and obscure process. Much rapid, loudly clicking typing on the keyboard. Many additional agents called over to peer at the screen. Eventually the correct combination of boarding passes was issued for everyone except Mark, who only got his boarding pass for the first leg from Minneapolis to Boston. This enabled Delta to pass the buck to Air France.
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In Boston we got briefly lost because of a sign with directions that would have been correct had the sign been located elsewhere in the terminal, and then were alarmed to discover we had to go through security again to get to the international terminal, which Mark could not do without his boarding pass. So back to the ticketing counter we went, hungry and unable to pass through to where the restaurants were. We watched Mark waiting in line with several other families, all of whom were also, strangely, attempting to travel with their babies on their lap and being thwarted. Eventually the appropriate passes were issued and we struggled through security to wait there. We grabbed dinner in the food court at 9:15.
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Stepping onto Air France was instantly relaxing, though. The flight attendants greeted us in French and explained to me how to attach the "ceinture-bébé" to my own seatbelt so I could buckle the baby. The children were ecstatic about each of them having their own video screen with a choice of games and movies . Mark took the window seat and tried to sleep, since he has to do all the driving. I held the squirming baby. Everyone else was well pacified by the seatback screens. They brought dinner. Most of us skipped it, having just eaten. The 4yo wanted cake, so he got a dinner. The 14yo had a pasta with tuna sauce and said it was awesome. I managed to sleep a little, but not much. I don't think the 8yo slept at all. She was enraptured by her display. I decided not to complain.
In the morning they gave us a muffin and plain yogurt. I love plain yogurt. It was really good yogurt.
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At Charles de Gaulle we established camp in a commuter lounge, waiting for our flight to Turin. I shuttled children to and from the snack shop so they could buy drinks and candy. I suggested sandwiches but everyone just wanted candy. The 8yo was exhausted and dehydrated; you could see her wilting over the chairs. We made her drink lemonade, which she said was perfect, sour and not sweet.
I ate a cappacolla and emmental sandwich in the sort of a wedge-shaped plastic container that one buys gas station sandwiches in.
The flight was delayed due to an Italian ATC strike. We very nearly missed our flight because they put the announcement on a different board than the one we were watching; our names were up on yet another board with a "See the desk immediately" notice for who knows how long. But we made it on. That flight was only an hour, and with no seatback screens, the children slept.
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In Turin we recovered all our bags ... except the one with the 14yo and 10yo boys' clothes and alpine gear. Even if the bag is located and sent to us, this presents a bit of a problem because we had already hired a guide to take them out with Mark on the glacier for Monday. So Mark was fairly stressed out. By the time we finished at the baggage counter, and with the flight delay and then the rental car, we had barely any time to shop for groceries before the store closed. My new European SIM card claimed not to have a cellular data subscription (a problem that got fixed the next morning), and we had no map, and Mark's cell phone was nearly out of power, so finding our way to the Aosta grocery store in time was difficult. Happily, my 10yo had purchased a rechargeable power pack thing so that his iPod would never run out, and we quickly appropriated it to juice Mark's phone. As time ran out, I navigated, with Mark asking urgently "Left or right?" while I went "uh... it's a roundabout... let's see... you need to come out of it going almost but not quite left..." or "uh... neither... there are four straight aheads, you need to take the middle one on the right..."
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I will just skip to the important part. We got enough groceries for dinner, breakfast, and lunch, and we're still married.
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No, it's better than that. Mark's trip through the grocery store, I missed, because I was outside in the car nursing the baby. He took the 14yo and they ran through in twenty minutes, which I sort of imagine was like one of those game shows where people rush through supermarkets trying to spend as much as they can before the buzzer rings. We arrived back at our little apartment with wine and cured meats and cheese and a loaf of sourdough bread and Nutella and Wasa crackers and butter and jam and eggs and a brick of milk and three boxes of cereal (the 14yo reported that he was able to get directions to these by asking "Dov'è cornflakes?" , a feat of which he was quite proud).
We ate and drank and fell exhausted into bed. And in the morning there was this:
Mass this morning. More later.
Our family trip to France and Italy looms on the horizon, and the children are by turns excited and nervous.
Our 8yo daughter woke us in the middle of the night, sobbing with fear. "I'm so worried that I'll get lost from you and I won't be able to speak the language," she told us. "I'm looking forward to seeing new things and trying new foods, but I can't stop thinking about the airplane crashing or falling off the mountain or getting lost and not being able to find you."
"We will make a plan each day," I said into the darkness from my spot in the bed. "We'll give you a card to carry that has our names and phone numbers."
"And will it say, 'Please help me,' in French?" she asked. "Because I didn't learn as much French as I was supposed to. I wish I had now. I hardly know anything," she said ruefully.
"It's all right," I said. "We didn't expect you to learn enough to really get by. Just enough to try it a little, and to be polite."
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Our 4yo wanted to light a candle and say a prayer before Mass on Sunday, so I gave him a quarter to put in the box for the votive. He knelt down in the Divine Mercy chapel and prayed, "Please God and Saint Leo, let the barbarians not come to Rome while we are there. Amen."
Previously he has asked us if there is a king of France and if he will be the boss of us while we are in France, and whether anyone will throw him out of a window if he does not know how to speak the local language politely.
I get where the king thing comes from, but I confess that when it comes to linguistic defenestration, I'm stumped. Mark thinks it's because this particular 4yo is intensely interested in being part of society; he walks right up to people, introduces himself, compliments them on their earrings (no, really; that's what he switched to after Mark explained to him that it wasn't nice just to tell people "You're pretty"), asks questions, chats about the weather. Without a common language, maybe he feels completely at sea. I'll have to do a lot of coaching.
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I spent my summer practicing French and learning Italian; I thought I might be up to the challenge. My oldest son did the most work, cramming Italian with Duolingo.com .
We filled a composition book with ideas, notes, words and phrases to use, tips we got from other travelers. We got a new set of luggage. Mark brought home cash in euros from his last business trip. Passports were prepared.
I froze several meals for the week we get back. We arranged for someone to watch the house, and for a friend to come open it up the day we return, turn on the heat if necessary, put milk in the fridge. I set up the first week of schoolwork so it would be ready as soon as we return.
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I feel in-between now: literally, in between excavating the freezer and cleaning out the fridge, but also in between living at home and being on vacation. The suitcases are packed in the front hall; the kitchen is a shambles. For tea snack I'll make strawberry sauce out of some ancient, freezer-burned berries I found at the bottom of the freezer, and we'll have vanilla ice cream sundaes with the last of the opened cartons. I don't know what we're eating for dinner tonight or tomorrow.
A few days ago I went shopping, carefully. Thinking of the chaotic first few days of returning from any long trip, I bought frozen pizzas. It didn't occur to me until I was tossing them into my chest freezer that the cheap frozen Pepperoni Deluxe might possibly look a bit unappetizing, even to the four-year-old two days after grabbing lunch just off the Campo dei Fiori.
I hope so. Keep 'em hungry for more.
My personal parenting/discipline ideal has always been to avoid punishing kids.
I get the impression from other people that the idea alarms them, because it sounds a lot like "avoiding discipline;" perhaps it calls to mind the stories of parents who insist their offspring can do no wrong. You know, the kind who sue the school when their child is suspended for cheating on a test or something like that.
That's not my point. By punishment, I mean those arbitrary unpleasantnesses inflicted in return for misbehavior: the spanking, the grounding, the confiscation. Mrk and I aren't what you'd call permissive parents. We try to be authoritative, if not authoritarian. We use the term "obedience" with the kids and are clear about what it means and why it's important. But (this is our ideal, mind you, not always the way we manage to make it work) we try not to get to the point where we need a "punishment" in the first place.
We try to let them experience the consequences of their actions, insofar as it isn't dangerous.
On the occasion when something truly egregious happens -- such as when one of my kids came to me and admitted that a long string of perfect scores on math assignments had been faked -- consequences are meted out rather than merely allowed to happen; but we really try to have it make sense. In the case of the spurious perfect scores, since I had no way to know whether the child understood the material, the child was assigned double math lessons for as many days as the lessons had been faked, each day doing the regularly scheduled lesson and at the same time re-doing one of the lessons from before. That plus a long conversation about honesty. And dangerous misuse of a tool around here is very likely to result in revocation of privileges to use said tool until competency and proper respect for risk is demonstrated; that's just common sense, not a punishment.
It was difficult for us to figure out when our first was very young, but we hit our stride eventually, and he grew out of the normal frustrations of toddlerhood into an earnest child and now a delightful teenager, and that has given us a lot of confidence as we continue to bring him up, him and the four that have followed. It's true that I yell more than I wish I did, and lose my temper. It's an ideal I fail to measure up to. But I still strive for that "no-punishment" ideal.
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I notice, however, that this isn't language I tend to hear from my fellow Catholic parents much. Indeed, at more than one parish I've seethed while listening to a priest (including in the homily at my daughter's baptism) cheerfully recommend vigorously and frequently spanking small children.
I think this is an American Catholic phenomenon, borne of being caught between a decadent permissive culture and an army of evangelical Protestants -- in many ways, serious American Catholics are constantly playing "keeping up with the Bob Joneses," and so, for better or for worse, we have been inculturated with what I personally see as a break-the-child's-sinful-will, thou-shalt-honor-us-because-of-the-ten-commandments sort of attitude toward child discipline.
The exceptions are the super-crunchy attachment parenting Catholics. Am I one of those? Sort of; as a young parent, AP wasn't good enough for me and if you were foolish enough to ask me about it I would talk your ear off about how I was into "CC" parenting, which stands for "continuum concept," which, well, some other time....
I did have plenty of role models for the way that I felt was right for me to parent my kids, but I lacked Catholic ones. And that's why I was so excited when I first learned about the educational philosophy of St. John Bosco. AKA "Don" Bosco (1815-1888) because that's what you call a diocesan priest in Italy. Here's Wikipedia on him, for some background:
At that time the city of Turin had a population of 117,000 inhabitants. It reflected the effects of industrialization and urbanization: numerous poor families lived in the slums of the city, having come from the countryside in search of a better life. In visiting the prisons Don Bosco was disturbed to see so many boys from 12 to 18 years of age. He was determined to find a means to prevent them ending up here. Because of population growth and migration to the city, Bosco found the traditional methods of parish ministry inefficient. He decided it was necessary to try another form of apostolate, and he began to meet the boys where they worked and gathered in shops, offices, market places. They were pavers, stone-cutters, masons, plasterers who came from far away places, he recalled in his brief Memoirs.
The Oratorio was not simply a charitable institution, and its activities were not limited to Sundays. For Don Bosco it became his permanent occupation. He looked for jobs for the unemployed. Some of the boys did not have sleeping quarters and slept under bridges or in bleak public dormitories. Twice he tried to provide lodgings in his house. The first time they stole the blankets; the second they emptied the hay-loft. He did not give up. In May 1847, he gave shelter to a young boy from Valesia, in one of the three rooms he was renting in the slums of Valdocco, where he was living with his mother. He and "Mamma Margherita" began taking in orphans. The boys sheltered by Don Bosco numbered 36 in 1852, 115 in 1854, 470 in 1860 and 600 in 1861, 800 being the maximum some time later....
In 1859, Bosco selected the experienced priest Vittorio Alasonatti, 15 seminarians and one high school boy and formed them into the "Society of St. Francis de Sales." This was the nucleus of the Salesians, the religious order that would carry on his work....In 1871, he founded a group of religious sisters to do for girls what the Salesians were doing for boys. They were called the "Daughters of Mary Help of Christians." In 1874, he founded yet another group, the "Salesian Cooperators." These were mostly lay people who would work for young people like the Daughters and the Salesians, but would not join a religious order.
Bosco's capability to attract numerous boys and adult helpers was connected to his "Preventive System of Education."
Don Bosco explained his "preventive system" in an essay, "The Preventive System in the Education of the Young," which can be found here. It begins by contrasting his "preventive" system with the "repressive" system. The "repressive" system, he says, has its place "in the army and in general among adults and the judicious, who ought of themselves to know and remember what the law and its regulations demand."
The repressive system consists in making the law known to the subjects and afterwards watching to discover the transgressors of these laws, and inflicting, when necessary, the punishment deserved.According to this system, the words and looks of the superior must always be severe and even threatening, and he must avoid all familiarity with his dependents.
In order to give weight to his authority the Rector must rarely be found among his subjects and as a rule only when it is a question of punishing or threatening.
But Don Bosco's system is different:
[The preventive system] consists in making the laws and regulations of an institute known, and then watching carefully so that the pupils may at all times be under the vigilant eye of the rector or the assistants, who like loving fathers can converse with them, take the lead in every movement and in a kindly way give advice and correction; in other words, this system places the pupils in the impossibility of committing faults.
This system is based entirely on reason and religion, and above all on kindness; therefore it excludes all violent punishment, and tries to do without even the slightest chastisement.
"Excludes all violent punishment, and tries to do without even the slightest chastisement" being what I was going for all along, I was so glad to find this.
The basic idea is that children are closely supervised at all times by leaders who care for them, model good behavior, encourage reception of the sacraments, participate in their games, and converse with them frequently about behavior norms in a way that "appeals to [their] reason" and "generally enlists [their] accord." Close supervision and "forewarning" means that there is little chance for a child to commit a fault. Don Bosco believes that young people misbehave, initially at least, because of inattention, not malice:
The primary reason for this system is the thoughtlessness of the young, who in one moment forget the rules of discipline and the penalties for their infringement. Consequently, a child often becomes culpable and deserving of punishment, which he had not even thought about, and which he had quite forgotten when heedlessly committing the fault which he would certainly have avoided, had a friendly voice warned him.
To apply this system Don Bosco lists several principles of education and discipline.
1. Close supervision by the people entrusted with the children. "[The Rector] must always be with his pupils whenever they are not engaged in some occupation, unless they are already being properly supervised by others."
2. Moral teachers who actively lead the pupils to and in each new place or activity. "Teachers, craftmasters, and assistants must be of acknowledged morality... As far as possible the assistants ought to precede the boys to the place where they assemble; they should remain with them until others come to take their place, and never leave the pupils unoccupied."
3. Allow rowdiness and physical activity. "Let the boys have full liberty to jump, run, and make as much noise as they please. Gymnastics, music, theatricals, and outings are most efficacious means of obtaining discipline and of benefiting spiritual and bodily health. Let care be taken however that the games... are not reprehensible. 'Do anything you like,' the great friend of youth, St. Philip [Neri] used to say, 'as long as you do not sin.'"
4. Encourage and promote, don't force, the sacraments. "Frequent confession and communion and daily mass are the pillars which must support the edifice of education, from which we propose to banish the use of threats and the cane. Never force the boys to frequent the sacraments, but encourage them to do so, and give them every opportunity.... [L]et the beauty, grandeur, and holiness of the Catholic religion be dwelt on..."
"Avoid as a plague the opinion that the first communion should be deferred to a late age... When a child can distinguish between Bread and bread, and shows sufficient knowledge, give no further thought to his age... St. Philip Neri counseled weekly and even more frequent communion."
5. Exclude bad materials and trouble-making people. "[P]revent bad books, bad companions, or persons who indulge in improper conversations from entering the college. A good door keeper is a treasure for a house of education."
6. Brief daily reflections -- a sort of community examen. "Every evening after night prayers before the boys go to rest, the Rector or someone in his stead shall address them briefly, giving them advice or counsel concerning what is to be done or... avoided. Let him try to draw some moral reflection from events that have happened during the day... but his words should never take more than two or three minutes."
7. Love before fear. "An educator should seek to win the love of his pupils if he wishes to inspire fear in them. When he succeeds in doing this, the withholding of some token of kindness is a punishment which stimulates emulation, gives courage, and never degrades.... With the young, punishment is whatever is meant as a punishment.... in the case of some boys a reproachful look is more effective than a slap in the face would be."
8. Do not shame children. "Except in very rare cases, corrections and punishments should never be given publicly, but always privately and in the absence of companions."
9. Employ patient reason and religion. "[T]he greatest prudence and patience should be used to bring the pupil to see his fauly, with the aid of reason and religion."
10. No corporal punishment. "To strike a boy in any way, to make him kneel in a painful position, to pull his ears, and other similar punishments, must be absolutely avoided, because the law forbids them, and because they greatly irritate the boys and degrade the educator."
11. Clear communication of expectations. "The Rector shall make sure that the disciplinary measures, including rules and punishments, are known to the pupils, so that no one can make the excuse that he did not know what was commanded or forbidden."
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I think these principles of Salesian education and discipline are sound ones that speak for themselves, principles that seek to form and transform human nature rather than to fight against it, and principles that respect and elevate the dignity of both child and educator. When I discovered Don Bosco I felt I'd finally found someone who was truly on my side.
If only I'd known about him when I was having to make post-baptism chitchat with Father Spare-the-Rod!
I know I said in my last, introductory post to Salesian spirituality that I was going to look first at Don Bosco's "Preventive Method," what with the school year starting up now and all.
But I changed my mind, because I happened to be looking at a short work of St. Francis de Sales, the Spiritual Directory. It's sort of a rule of life for the religious he supervised -- only instead of specifying so mant hours of work, so many of sleep, so many of prayer, etc., he specifies little acts of devotion and intention to be performed throughout the day, connected to rising, worship, work, meals, bedtime -- the whole cycle of an ordinary day. They are, so to speak, spiritual exercises, not for a novena or a retreat but for every day.
"It is true that the Directory proposes many exercises," Francis writes,
Yet it is good and fitting to keep one's interior orderly and busy in the beginning. When, however, after a period of time, persons have put into practice somewhat this multiplicity of interior actions, have become formed and habituated to them and spiritually agile in their use, then the practices should coalesce into a single exercise of greater simplicity, either into a love of complacency, or a love of benevolence, or a love of confidence, or of union and reunion of the heart to the will of God. This multiplicity thus becomes unity.
I like this idea of patiently developing little habits that "coalesce" over time into character.
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The ordinary thing for me to do would be to start where Francis starts, at the beginning of the day, with "Article #1: Rising."
But I was struck instead by Article #2, "Meditation." Or rather, preparation for meditation.
Francis devotes only a short paragraph to instruction on meditation, "the serious practice of [which] is one of the most important of the religious life." Mainly he suggests going to other sources, including his own other works. But he devotes several paragraphs of this article to the preparation.
To form themselves for meditation they will prefer to all other means the exercise of the preparation of the day....By this means they will endeavor to be disposed to carry out their activities competently and commendably.
Invocation. They will invoke the help of God, saying,
"Lord, if you do not care for my soul, it is useless that another should do so." (Ps 127:1)
They will ask him to make them worthy to spend the day with him without offending him. For this purpose, the words of the psalm may be helpful,
"Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Your good spirit will guide me by the hand on level ground, and your divine majesty by its inexpressible love and boundless charity will give me true life."
Foresight. This is simply a preview or conjecture of all that could happen during the course of the day. Thus, with the grace of Our Lord, they will wisely and prudently anticipate occasions which could take them by surprise.
Plan of Action. They will carefully plan and seek out the best means to avoid any faults. They will also arrange, in an orderly fashion, what, in their opinion, is proper for them to do.
Resolution. They will make a firm resolution to obey the will of God, especially during the present day. To this end, they will use the words of the royal prophet David, "My soul, will you not cheerfully obey the holy will of God, seeing that your salvation comes from his?"
Surely this God of infinite majesty and admittedly worthy of every honor and service can only be neglected by us through lack of courage. Let us, therefore, be consoled and strengthened by this beautiful verse of the psalmist:
"Let evil man do their worst against me. The Lord, the king, can overcome them all. Let the world complain about me to its heart's content. This means little to me because he who holds sway over all the angelic spirits is my protector." (Ps. 99:1)
Recommendation. They will entrust themselves and all their concerns into the hands of God's eternal goodness and ask him to consider them as always so commended. Leaving to him the complete care of what they are and what he wants them to be, they will say with all their heart:
"I have asked you one thing, O Jesus, my Lord, and I shall ask you again and again, namely that I may faithfully carry out your loving will all the day of my poor and pitiable life." (Ps 27:4; 40:9)
"I commend to you, O gracious Lord, my soul, my life, my heart, my memory, my understanding and my will. Grant that in and with all these, I may serve you, love you, please and honor you forever." (Ps. 31:6, Lk 23:46)
Okay. Do you see what he did there?
St. Francis has just unified the concepts of "the morning offering" and "the to-do list."
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Before meditation, in fact as part of the preparation for meditation, St. Francis prescribes thinking about all the things that you expect to encounter during the day, anticipate difficulties, carefully plan (with an eye towards avoiding faults -- I tend to skip that step when making to-do lists), then "arrange in an orderly fashion what ... is proper... to do."
Did you catch those last two words?
You finish up your orderly-arranged to-do list with two more steps I commonly skip: resolving to obey the will of God, and entrusting yourself, with all your "concerns" (including, we are to assume, all the items on your aforementioned to-do list), into God's hands.
It turns out that you don't have to try hard to push back the items that are rushing at you and demanding your attention while you are trying to make your morning offering.
It turns out that you don't have to guiltily say to yourself, "I'll do my morning offering as soon as I write my to-do list."
It turns out that you've been a bit silly, trying to add "Say Morning Offering" to the top of the to-do list.
St. Francis suggests that the to-do list can itself be the morning offering. He sanctifies it: embedding it in an exercise of invoking God's help, planning tasks with an eye to avoiding faults, resolving to do God's will, and ultimately entrusting the outcome to God's providence.
And this is a perfect example of why St. Francis draws me. I am used to being made to feel, oh, I don't know, insufficiently go-with-the-flowish, insufficiently trusting of God; that my desire for order and efficiency is somehow a marker of a lack of love. That I should want to run to God in prayer more than I should want to make an Action Plan, and that my itchiness until All The Things are safely written down, that itchiness which so interferes with making prayer my first act of the day, is a sign of weakness and a thorn in the flesh.
What's this? Rather than putting holiness on my to-do list, I can make my to-do list holy. This is a spiritual exercise I can roll up my sleeves and tackle, true multitasking: setting out my daily plans, right there, on the altar of offering.
Shifting gears a little bit to write about what I've been thinking as a spiritual anchor for my upcoming school year, which we'll be starting late.
Ever since I first got deeply into the Western classic Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales, I've been reading bits here and there about the Salesian tradition of spirituality. I've read bits about Benedictine and Dominican spirituality, thinking at first that these would appeal to me because of their intellectual foundation; but it's really the Salesian material that has spoken to my center.
This path to devotion doesn't seem very common in my circles, and I think that's odd. The dominant spiritual trends at my own parish appear to be those of St. Louis de Montfort, St. Josemaria Escriva, and (maybe most widespread) Carmelite; there's a Carmelite weekly study group, for instance.
I know that Carmelite spirituality promises a certain retreat from the world, of staying aloof from it in order to remain focused on the eternal. St. Thérèse, the little Carmelite flower, brings it back down to earth in her "little" way of scrubbing floors and serving others with great love, while the mind remains turned away from worldly concerns. I understand that the interior castle is far more expansive than our homes and workplaces, and that for those who are up to their elbows in the frustrations of daily life, Carmel offers a place of refreshment.
But Salesian spirituality seems to me tailor-made for ordinary moms, working mothers, anyone who is very, very busy with worldly concerns, wealthy as we are by global standards; and in a particular way, those who are daily enmeshed in the work of educating young people:
I've explored quite a bit about St. Francis and Elisabeth Leseur here on the blog, although I haven't come close to exhausting the material I have. In upcoming posts I hope to share thoughts on Don Bosco's "Preventive System," reflections on Jane Frances, and some of St. Francis's rules of life for the Visitation sisters he helped found. Planning to tie all this together into some recommendations for worldly, well-off, working women -- the group that St. Francis seems (to me) to speak to the most.
Come along and we'll see what we can see.