Family Easter Tradition in France -A Table in Normandy

Though, Gérald and I, as empty nesters, will dine tête a tête this Sunday, our hearts are filled with memories of holidays past  when our children were younger and we were surrounded by family. As with every celebration in France, Easter begins and ends à table.

Normandy is appreciated the most at mealtime when land and sea are perfectly marinated. Mamie cooks the traditional Easter favorite, leg of lamb.  At the head of the table, Papie carves the tender meat fresh from a newborn romping on the rolling green hillside only days before. But back up, each course is an event worth savoring.

toasting champagne

toasting champagne

First a toast of champagne and a light amuse bouche aperitif. Next act is naturally an egg based, a soufflé as light as cotton candy, followed by a platter of seafood: shrimp, crab legs, clams, oysters, bullot, something for everyone’s palate.

The main lamb course is always served with flageolet, a mini lima bean, that reminds me of the word flatulence and of course, bean jokes inevitably enter the conversation, sending the children into gales of laughter. Mamie always has a special dish for every family member, so a garden of vegetables -beans, broccoli, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes – also grows out of the linen tablecloth.

The children eat with the adults where they risk being reprimanded to sit up straight. However, I never notice table manners; my fork and knife are usually in the wrong hands. Softhearted Mamie excuses the grandkids early and they scamper upstairs to read Lucky Luke or Astérix comic books until called for dessert.

Each course is accompanied by wine, a light white Burgundy for the seafood starters and then a heavier Bordeaux for the meat and cheese. Every big meal is followed by a green salad and cheese platter with triangles of creamy local cheeses like Camembert and Pont L’Evêque.

family feast

family feast

Dessert always includes seasonal fruits, which in the spring means luscious strawberries. Like little elves, the children reappear to gobble up berries dipped in fresh cream. The kids magically disappear again when they smell the coffee brewing. Papie ceremoniously opens the antique Normand hutch and pulls out his bottle of Calvados offering, “a little taste.”  True Normands swear that the fiery apple brandy aids the digestion. During weddings and christenings, the “trou Normand,” a shot served on sorbet in the middle of the feast, is customary.

Throughout each course a lively repartee of sarcasm, word play and arguments ensue that to a soft-spoken Norwegian American sounds like verbal abuse, but is only part of the French art de vivre and their love of language and debate.

Just when you think your belly will burst, Mamie rings a bell and the children race downstairs, for in France, bells, not bunnies, deliver eggs. As a token of mourning for crucified Christ, church bells remain silent from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. On Easter, when the chimes ring again, children rush outside to see the bells fly home to Rome, after dropping chocolate Easter eggs from the sky.

boy with Easter basket

boy with Easter basket

finding eggs on the balcony

finding eggs on the balcony

The children crowd onto the wrought iron balcony to find eggs tucked behind the potted geraniums and tulips. While they devour the chocolate figurines, the adults, too, savor a delicacy from the local chocolatier. Everyone moans of stomachaches and swears they will never eat again, but a few hours later after a stroll by the sea, we are à table again discussing the favorite French topic, food.

More vacation time ? A no-no in Switzerland

Spring arrived, so is too early to start thinking about vacation? Not if you live in Europe. The 4 weeks of paid holiday is one of the greatest perks about working abroad. Most European countries have statutory minimum of 25-30 days plus national holidays. Some countries, like France, even guarantee four weeks, plus an additional two weeks after the age of fifty. In every country in Europe, workers get 20 days and in some, like France and Finland, 30 days. Austria has the most vacation days with a statutory minimum 25 days, plus 13 days off for public holidays.

http://www.cnbc.com/id/33431347/Which_Country_Gets_the_Most_Vacation_Days?slide=5

By law minimum number of vacation days in Switzerland is 20, but the alpine state also has 9 public holidays. Recently, the industrious Swiss voted down a bill to guarantee six weeks of vacation, because of the fear of losing their jobs and also because most people thought that it was not needed.

In these tough economic times, the travel budget is often the first luxury to go.

Unfortunately with dollar at all time low and Swiss franc stable, for Americans, a trip to Switzerland is anything but low budget. The Euro is also lower though, which could make other EU countries travel destination appealing.

Even if you aren’t allowed time off and can’t afford a trip abroad, don’t despair. Join me on a free ride, a virtual tour to a couple of my old European neighborhood stomping grounds. Next stop Normandy!

Are American shortchanged when it comes to time off? What’s your opinion?

Green A Go Go On St. Patrick’s Day March 17, 2012

Shamrocks, leprechauns, fairies, oh my! Gaelic dances, Scottish bagpipes, Irish top hats, knees up,  Guinness guzzling, tall tales about beer drinking,  bar brawling, fiery redheaded, hot tempered, story-tale spinners Irish abound.

Irish pubs around the world, including the 2472 in Continental Europe, will be packed tonight, but the celebration may be even bigger in the  New World!   http://www.st-patricks-day.com/

Like so many Americans, I can trace back  a wee bit of Irish in me Scottish blood and loyally wore green to school on March 17th. 36.9 million Americans reported Irish ancestry, which is 8 times more than the population of Ireland. And another 3.5 million claim Scotch-Irish blood like myself . An estimated 50-100,000 came in the 1600s and another million arrived in 1700s continuing throughout the Potato Famine years.

Bars will spill over into the street with people dressed in green; extremists will eat only green food and hold green dinner parties. Beer, water, and even the Chicago River at Michigan and Wacker flows green on St. Paddy’s. http://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2012/03/15/saint-patricks-day-2012-in-chicago

Parades and celebrations proliferate across major cities in the US, especially in places with a large Irish American population like Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. But what are we celebrating?

Uillean or Irish Elbow Bagpipes

Uillean or Irish Elbow Bagpipes

 

St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, who introduced Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century, symbolizes the Irish worldwide, but holds particular significance for Americans. The Irish were the largest contingency, after the Germans, to immigrate. As the first big group of poor refugees to arrive  in the USA, they suffered from the brunt of American resentment.

The predominately working class people settled in cities forming the backbone of communities particularly serving in law enforcement in the Northeast. Though in the past Irish were often negatively stereotyped as drunken, reckless, kick-up-a-row, rabble rousers, they rose to leadership positions. A bit of their so called rebellious spirit helped lead to the making of America. Eight Irishmen signed the declaration of Independence and Presidents from Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama claim Irish ancestry.

Today Irish Americans are no longer the underdogs; they have earned the right to be educated in elite universities and to become CEOs, and civic leaders based on their talents. They paved the way for the waves of immigrants who followed in their footsteps from Europe and other place.

So enjoy St. Paddy’s Day Shamrocks, leprechauns, anything green rites of spring and lively, good of ol’Irish mischievousness.  And if life is a struggle and you are not feeling so frivolous right now,  remember  my favorite Gaelic saying:

Dá fhaid é an lá tiocfaidh an tráthnóna

No matter how long the day, the evening will come.
This too shall pass.

Wherever you are whatever your poison, I raise my fine emerald wine, to your green Guinness or  lime Kool Aid.  To the Irish!

Sláinte –to your health!

101st Anniversary- International Women’s Day-« Connecting Girls Inspiring Futures »

March 8 marks the 101st international women’s day! Bear with me guys, you may be weary about hearing about women`s rights, but when you’ve been the low ” man ” on the totem pole of life for so long you never forget. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world women are still denied equality in education, careers, income and medical care, but in my homeland, we have come a long, long way. So thanks guys for your support. This is not a rant about men, but rather a chest bump for women.

From childhood to motherhood to middle age from the Midwest to the East Coast to Europe, throughout physical relocations and emotional upheavals, each stage of my life has been shaped by women, who helped me make the transition.

I am especially grateful to the grandmothers I admired; even moreso to the mother who gave me life, then offered me to the world. To my sisters who taught me to give and take, forgive and forget, talk and listen, twist and shout !

To my college basketball coach, who dared me to become all that I could be.

I am thankful for female friendships spanning different generations, time zones and continents. From childhood, high school and college pals, part of the past that shaped me and  connect me to my roots, to my French hosts and German teammates, who adopted me into their homes and hearts when I first moved abroad. To my international friends from Africa, Australia, Scandinavia –England, Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland and Other Lands I could never place on a map, who shared their stories and an understanding of their culture.                         .

To my noisy friends, quiet friends,
old friends,new friends,
black, white, brown friends.
To my tall friends, short friends,
big friends, small friends,
to my athletic friends, to my intellectual friends
to my coaching friends, my teaching friends, my writing friends.
To my blogging buddies, to my cyber pals.
To my girlfriends here, there and everywhere.

No matter where I settled, women of all sizes, shapes, and colors have befriended me.  They helped me feel a sense of belonging not only to the farm community of Sterling, to the Illinois State college town of Normal-Bloomington, to romantic Paris, to Middle Ages Marburg, to international  Geneva, but to something greater.

Merci mille fois to the women who shaped me, so that one day, I  could become a role model to my nieces and the young girls I have taught and coached.

Special thanks to my daughter, my link to the future, who achieved her goal of becoming a doctor, a dream made possible in part, because of the courageous steps women took in the past to help pave the way.

So on International Women’s Day 2012, I  raise my glass to the ladies ‘round the globe in my ya ya sisterhood!

Sending Bon Courage from Switzerland for People Living in Pain

A recent study by the Institute of Medicine estimated that at a cost of $635 billion, 116 million American adults suffer from chronic pain, which is greater than the total of those afflicted with heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined.

I am one of them.

And that’s only in the USA, but pain is indiscriminate. It crosses national boundaries, economic borders and ethnic lines.

Pain is a strange bedfellow. When you are in pain, you can’t focus on anything else, but once it subsides, it is difficult to perceive exactly what it felt like.

Whether you suffer from ankle sprain, knee strain, back pain, brain drain,
Bladder, blood, bone, breast or one of the hundreds of cancer,
Headache, stomach ache, toothache, earache, or any body part ache
Arthritis, bursitis, colitis, encephalomyelitis
Polymyalgia, fibromyalgia, neuralgia or any of the algias
Multiple sclerosis, dermatomyositis, sarcoïdosis
Or one of the umpteen syndromes,
Whatever the name, no matter the ailment,
Pain becomes your partner.

Winter accentuates the pain; every cells aches.  The cold damp seeps into my bones. Viruses proliferate, bacteria run wild, and influenzas rampage.  I want to pull a blanket over my head and hibernate until spring.

Yet I roll out of bed every morning. I move. One. Step. Forward.

Chronic pain may subside temporarily, but it comes back to haunt you. Over time it wears down resistance, breaks spirit, zaps energy, steals joy, robs the soul.

Pain makes you set your jaw; your eyes grow falsely bright with anxiety. How long will it last? How can I endure the next hour of work? What can I do to minimize the intensity?

Pain interrupts the best-laid plans and interferes with long held dreams. Pain rules.

What do fighters do when they can’t fight back?

Take a time out. Return to your corner. Close the shutters. Stop of the noise. Rest up.

Give into the burning, stabbing, searing spasms. « Time out » is especially difficult for old athletes, trained to suck it up and get on with it. But as my body screams, I shut out society. I retreat to a dark, quiet room and let the douleur wash over me, surround me, embalm me. And I look to others for inspiration.

Like my eighty-year-old dad, who after his fourth surgery last year, willed himself to sit straight and raise dumb bells to strengthen shoulder muscles. He lifted the same two-pound weights my grandfather hoisted when his legs grew too shaky to stand from Parkinson disease. Or my brothers-in-law who battled back from heart operations without missing a beat.

I look to my daughter, an intern longing for a day off, yet working 13-hour shifts 24/7, because like all doctors, she knows that chronically ill children never get  a holiday.

Though my body may be broken and my spirit weary, I get by- With a Little Help From My Friends

From the cozy comfort of my bed, I strum my guitar, sing off tune, read a book, write a letter, say a prayer; I know firsthand.

That, which does not kill me, makes me stronger. – Nietzsche

And I am as tough as they come.

Hop Skip Jump Happy Leap Year Into Spring

We celebrate President’s day, Valentine’s day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Mother and Father’s Day, but where is good ol’ Hallmark when it comes to commemorating Leap Year. Where is the fuss over February 29th, which should be special, as it only rolls around every four years?

I was born on February 28, but my sister arrived in the wee hours of March 1, 1960 during a Leap Year.  My mom said that other mothers in the hospital, who gave birth on the 29th, begged doctors to change the date. Apparently in Scotland, it is unlucky to be born Leap Year Day. Since we are part Scottish, my sister and I could have been in for inauspicious times.

sisters, sisters...

Born 3 years, 13 hours, 34 minutes apart-sisters celebrate birthdays together

 

However there is more likely a link with my Norwegian ancestry, like some stat showing the Nordic women give birth more often in late February. I am no mathematician, but statisticians will love this little known fact. A Norwegian family from Andenes holds the official record of number of children born on February 29. Karin Henriksen’s daughter, Heidi was born the same year as my sister, and her sons Olav and Leif-Martin followed in 1964 and 1968 respectively.  Calculate those odds!

According to legend, February 29th is also the one day of year when women can propose to men but hey, in the 21st century, any day is good for a liberated gal with gumption to propose.

Many famous people were born on Leap Year. In 1692, the English poet John Byron, inventor of a system of shorthand, was born. Jimmy Dorsey, legendary saxophonist, conductor, songwriter, composer and bandleader, was born in 1904. In 1916 Dinah Shore, actress, singer, talk show host was born.

Astrologers swear that those born under sign of Pisces Feb. 20th  – Mar. 20th have unusual talents and personalities. That fits, I am quirky as they come.

On a more serious note, February 29, 2012, twenty-five European countries coordinated by EURORDIS will mark the fifth international Rare Disease Day. Under the slogan “Rare but strong together” patient organizations from more than 40 countries worldwide unite to heighten public awareness. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBVug-GVLg0

I attempted to figure out the mind-boggling logistics of calculating Leap Year, which has to do with 60th day in Gregorian calendar. We have one extra day this year, 366 instead of 365, which is great if you are old and retired but not so cool if your are employed because February 29th falls on a Wednesday, which means an extra day of work. Can you deduct an extra day of work from taxes?

Leap year allows our Gregorian calendar to remain in alignment with the Earth’s revolution. It takes a little longer than a year to travel around the Sun, 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 6 seconds, or about 365.242199 days. It becomes even more complicated when I tried to figure out how Chinese, Jewish, Iranian, Islamic, Baha’i, Hindu and Ethiopian Calendars calculate Leap Year.

So let’s stop right there and leap into March, which brings us one day closer to spring! Oh yeah, and happy birthday little sister