English Therapy

I’ve been teaching English as a Second Language for about 15 years now.  It’s a natural choice for people living abroad looking to work.  We always have our mother tongue as a fallback, and since I was teaching before our move to France it wasn’t a big leap.  I was teaching Spanish in Houston before picking up the ESL gauntlet here in France and running with it!   After an intensive year of French classes I felt ready to integrate into the work force, teaching my own language.  It is different than teaching a foreign language that isn’t your mother tongue.   Your own language is rooted deeply in your life experience, learning, growing up and culture… in who you are.  You share all of that when you teach your own language.

I sit across the table from people for hours every week, trying to assess their progress, their comprehension and give them a sense of encouragement. After all, we’re in the same boat, me with French and them with English.  It’s actually much more important than I would have thought to have a good grasp of French in order to communicate with my students, and I’m so grateful to all the hours of French class I have had and to all those teachers who shared their language and culture with me.

You learn so much about people in a language course. Conversation warm-up topics are all about getting to know someone and encouraging them to speak.  Sometimes the questions can have deep answers or light ones, depending on the person sitting across the table.  One of my favorite starters is “Name three things that make you happy”.  Now, the responses are vast and their level of English can be perceived rather quickly.  You also get to know things about who they are.  After hours with a student, you know their favorite weather, seasons, colors, food, holidays and … why.  When it’s time for the conditional tense, you get close to their hopes, dreams and regrets.  (By the way, 99% of people when asked what they would do if they won the lottery say….TRAVEL).  I’ve asked “if there’s one one thing you would change about yourself, what would it be?” I’ve actually had someone say, “nothing”.  That’s some pretty good self-esteem, and unfortunately doesn’t help me as a teacher to have them work on grammar structure!  I help them along when they mutter that they think they can’t answer the question in English,  “Tell me in French and I’ll tell you”.   I grab my little white board and write out what they’re trying to say and make them repeat it back to me, working on their accent at the same time.  Sometimes they don’t understand my accent in French and I don’t understand their accent in English and we laugh and laugh.  It’s a real human experience.  I just try to make sure it’s not a humiliating one for them.  To be a good teacher, your students have to perceive you as someone that is helping them.

During the holidays, I asked my students conversation questions like “What was your favorite Christmas tradition as a child” or “What was the best Christmas you ever had?”  I had one of my students tell me a beautiful story from her childhood and afterwards she was smiling from ear to ear and so happy to have remembered that time and to have expressed it in English.  This sort of exchange is so rewarding for me and for them, and makes me so happy to be doing this job.  One of my students once said that sometimes it’s like sitting across from a therapist.  I agree, English therapy.

Paris is Paris

It’s winter and the tourist off-season here in the Dordogne.  I was feeling the need for some museum and city time in Paris. When the hard work of gardening and running the gites winds down, I think of a good dose of culture and city life.  It’s a work in progress, the maintaining of an education and improving it! History, Art, Architecture, the benefits of grand museums and cities with ancient histories.  When I go to Paris and spend some time I really appreciate fully the immense history of my adopted country.  Not that living in the land of pre-historic caves and 1001 castles isn’t’ a reminder, but Paris is Paris. It’s the grandeur of French history, an empire, art, architecture, writers and artists from all mediums of artistic expression on display. You stroll by the achievements of brilliant humans and really feel the sense of it all.  I feel a sort of pride and appreciation to hold a French passport.

So, off to Paris for a weekend in November.  Spectacular weather awaited us and gorgeous scenery.  Yellow leaves against blue sky.

Forté, our beautiful, graying German shepherd went along.  He went to Parc Monceau.  The walk to the park was punctuated by the gasps and smiles and stares of kids and adults talking about our big dog.  Big dogs like him are not that common on the Paris streets.

Then, off to the Louvre, sans Forté.  The older I get, I seem to need a refresher of my art history studies to keep things in order and sharp in my mind.  After our trip to Greece, I felt a need to see Nike, the Victory of Samothrace,standing at the top of those beautiful steps. 

I’ve probably been to the Louvre 10 times and of course that’s not enough.  There’s always something new to see and there’s always a section closed.  This day was no different.  I’d have to put away my desire to see some Georges de la Tour or Rembrandt.  Richelieu wing was closed for the day.  The discovery on this trip to the Louvre was with a turn to the left when we got to Nike.  Left to the Apollo Gallery and some Baroque splendor, on to the large galleries with modern painted ceilings nestled in among the gilded moldings. 

First a Braque ceiling then a Cy Twombly ceiling.  Some new discoveries always await you at the Louvre.  I can imagine being an older Parisian and having the membership to the Louvre and going there when it’s open late on Friday night.  Maybe it’s really quiet and you can just sit amongst your “friends” there.

Leaving the Louvre through the main courtyard and walking out to the Seine, we started a walk along the river.  Recently, the road that runs along the Seine there has been closed to traffic and you can go for a long walk with all the Parisians.  It was a beautiful evening to be out.  Having sore feet from all the walking, it was time to stop off at a café for some refreshment and I was curious about this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau.  So, found a cozy café, unbelievably cozy in fact.  Le Café Livres is a café with solid bookshelves for walls and comfy leather club chairs you could sink into and hang-out and just rest with your drink in hand.  Perfect ending to a day in Paris.


Sunday Brunch was the next thing on the agenda.  It’s become quite a thing in Paris.  Loads of cafés and restaurants do brunch.  I follow a lot of Parisian bloggers on Instagram and really wanted to go to one of those places where people eat cool food and post photos of their fantastic coffee at Sunday brunch.  The kind of photos that make you think that is really some place you need to go.

Went to Fragments in the Marais.  Fantastic cinnamon bun, avocado toast with poached egg.  All just like the photos on Instagram.   Curiosity satisfied.

Sunday afternoon was at the Fondation Vuitton.  This amazing museum of Frank Ghery’s architectural mind is made for hosting exhibits.  This one was a MoMA exhibit.  The museum is a perfect exhibition space, at least for me.  You start on the ground floor and move up via escalators to each level.  It’s modern and light and bright and has terraces at the top for a breath of fresh air and fun viewing of Paris through the steel and glass structure.  It’s in the Bois de Boulogne, about a 10 minute walk from the Metro: Les Sablons.  Definitely worth a visit, for the building alone.

As the day wound down, the Paris visit wound down and the comfort of leaf-strewn country paths called me back to the Dordogne.  But the leaf-strewn cobblestones of Paris were so worth it.




Celebrating the Holidays

As Thanksgiving approaches, I begin preparing for it by ordering Libby’s pumpkin on-line.  Yes, it’s the best and fortunately for me, My American Market in Paris has a great website and delivers to those of us living out in the country.  Since I didn’t go to America this year and pack some cans in my suitcase, I’ve got to order the necessary things on-line.  I also threw in some good peanut butter while I was at it!

When we first lived here, way back when, I thought I’d be all crafty and make my own pumpkin for the pie.  I bought a pumpkin and cut it up, raking all the seeds out, steamed it, peeled it and mashed it up to make my own form of canned pumpkin.  I was sort of proud like after a Martha Stewart recipe has been achieved.  The only problem is that it just doesn’t taste the same.  At all.  It has a pumpkin taste but not the same texture. And I love pumpkin pie, for me it sort of makes Thanksgiving, well Thanksgiving.  That and the turkey of course.  At this time of year turkey, a whole turkey, is quite expensive.  I went to the butcher to order a turkey for my first French Thanksgiving.  When I went to pick it up and he told me 65€ I sort of stared at him. I paid for it and thought how weird that is.  Because about a week after Thanksgiving, turkeys will start appearing in the supermarket for Christmas.  The French often eat turkey at Christmas.  So, that’s just crazy to pay twice as much.  But, that’s just the way it is.  The French think that Thanksgiving is American Christmas.  I guess because of the turkey correlation?  I usually do a whole lesson on Thanksgiving with my ESL students.  I tell the whole story of the first Thanksgiving and have colored flashcards to go along with it.  I should say that I actually colored flashcard to make a story board!  It’s the holiday where I feel the most American and like to share it.

Christmas is really coming along here in France, when we were first here I had trouble finding good tree lights.  Now, they’ve got all sorts to choose from.  They don’t have boxes of Christmas cards, though.  Which is another big expense.  I can find some on-line from England through amazon.co.uk that are a relatively decent price, but it’s not the same.  I really like going to Target or some equivalent and buying big boxes of beautiful Christmas cards.  They sell them individually or in small packets here.  The French don’t really send out Christmas cards, they send out Happy New Year cards with wishes for a healthy and happy new year.  They don’t have box sets of these, either.  They usually send these to all their friends and family in January.  My friend Sylvie in Chamonix was so surprised to get my Christmas card on December 12.  She said, Kah-ren, you’re so early!

One aspect of French Christmas that I love is the amount of chocolate that they have on offer.  Just tons and tons of chocolate.  When you walk into the supermarket it’s like a whole village of chocolate boxes.  It’s a common gift and I think that’s great.  No worries about giving someone something they won’t like or use or wear.  Just an elegant, large box of deliciousness. Chocolate is definitely an area without borders or cultural barriers!

Being Ill in France

When you move to a foreign country, there are so many new things to absorb and understand that it can be overwhelming.  But, somewhere amongst the vocabulary for the weather and how to order at a restaurant, there’s the vocabulary for health that’s pretty darn important to learn.  You probably don’t think about it as a top priority when you’re trying to figure out schools systems and how to talk to the electric company on the phone.  All it takes is getting ill to put that drama front and center.  How do I talk about how I feel when I don’t feel good?  And it could be serious.

I came to France when I was 33 and already had my children, so I didn’t have to learn maternity type language, but I have had to deal with life-threatening health problems with visiting family and even death.

The basics, like cold and flu, can be easy.  Also, stomach stuff isn’t too difficult.  In French they call getting a stomach virus the “gastro”.  It sort of explains itself.  There are some terms that are not so obvious.  For instance, there is the term, “crise de foie” – a liver crisis?  That’s when you’ve eaten a heavy meal usually accompanied by a lot of alcohol and the next day you lament this by telling your friends you’re having a “crise de foie”.  They’ll usually give you a list of remedies.  It’s just that the first time someone tells you this and you literally translate this in your head, there’s that 10 second foreign language pause where you think, oh wow a liver crisis!

There is a lot of slang language for medical words too.  Like the “toubib”, which is a slang word for doctor – it comes from the Arab word for a witch doctor and has come to mean the doctor in everyday language.  It still sort of cracks me up when a friend says they went to the toubib.  All of it is part of the fun of learning a foreign language, especially the slang which usually can be traced back to influences from other cultures and languages.  A big health problem lately here in France is the “burnout”, said with a beautiful French accent!  I’m sure that I could make a list, but won’t bore you.

More serious health issues like heart attack, “crise cardiac” or more often “infarctus” are good ones to know. Especially when a neighbor or someone has just suddenly passed away.  Another biggie is stroke, or an “AVC” pronounced “ah, veh, say”.  The first time I heard this I really couldn’t work it out.  Except for the death part, which I can always clue into.  I get the two confused sometimes, but it’s enough to know they are both pretty serious.

Most doctors here in France speak enough English to get by.  But, then there is YOU, you have to be able to describe your condition.  That’s the big challenge.

France has a great health care system.  It works a bit like Medicare in the US.  We all pay into the system from our income and the national health care pays for most of your care.  You can take a gap insurance for the part not covered.  It’s called a “mutuelle”.  A doctor visit costs 25€.  You’re reimbursed about 15€ by the national insurance, called “sécu” for short and then your “mutuelle” reimburses the rest.  It works like this with all your appointments and hospital stays.  If it’s something super serious like cancer or a long hospitalization, they cover all of it.

So that’s the long and short of it.  If you move to a foreign country count on a learning curve for your health vocabulary and take the time to learn the language!


La Montgolfière-Hot Air Balloons

A very popular activity in the Dordogne is the hot air balloon ride over the Dordogne Valley.  Hot air balloon in French is “montgolfière”, so named after the pioneering Montgolfier brothers who were one of the first to achieve flight.  The first flight was in 1783 and the first one with “passengers” shortly thereafter.  The first passengers being a duck, a rooster and a sheep.  Louis XVI and his court were the audience.  There are other examples in French of inventions that have been named after their inventors or their promoters, Guillotine, Poubelle, Léotard and Ampère to name a few.

The hot air balloon rides in our area are quite popular.  There are many companies that have flights twice a day, early morning and the evening.  We took one a few years back and it truly is an exciting adventure, a bit scary but in a fun way.  Flying over the gardens of Marqueyssac gave me a different perspective of the garden’s design, seeing the layout of the river, farmlands, villages and chateaux from a bird’s eye view was incredibly beautiful.

For everyone who lives here, the hot air balloons that fly over almost every morning and evening in the tourist season are our entertainment.  One never knows where they will pass or land and it’s exciting when they get close to one’s house or property.  It’s a beautiful addition to the sky, points of color in the distance that grow larger as they sometimes get really close.  The pilot can only go up and down so their trajectory is not planned.  They follow the air currents.

Here at Le Petit-Manoir, we have a lot of fun with the guests in the gîtes when the balloons fly close to the property, everyone grabbing their cameras and running to get the best shot.  Sometimes they fly so close we can hear the passengers talking in the basket!



Just another example of one the fun activities available when you come on vacation here.  It’s another way to see the beauty of our valley and feel close to nature, drifting above.

How Le Petit-Manoir came about

After a few years in the Alps, we were ready for country living.  The Dordogne was always in the back of our minds as a place that really impressed us.  We had first visited the Dordogne in 2001, after 9/11.  We had booked a tour of Egypt and with all the scare after 9/11, decided to tour France instead.  So, we headed south at the school holiday called Toussaint.  We were living in Paris at the time, took the new TGV to Marseilles and rented a car.  After Nice, Monaco, Marseilles and the Languedoc-Roussillon, we visited the Dordogne.  Absolutely loved it.  Never forgot it.  In 2006, when we were considering other regions of France for our next move, we kept coming back to the Dordogne idea.  We visited again, picked our favorite part and started looking at houses.  This property was the 17th property that we looked at.  We rolled into the courtyard in front of this classic French house, I got out of the car and looked up and said, oh yeah, I could live here.

We toured the house and property, which included a beautiful old barn and outbuildings plus woodland and park, 3 hectares or 7 acres of land.

A huge project unfolded before us and Voila!  We bought it and started a whole new life.  The day we drove from Chamonix to sign the contract with the “notaire” we did have a sort of brief moment of reality check, a sort of moment of truth.  But somewhere it was lodged in our brain that this was a good place and a good decision, even though we knew not one soul here.

There was a lot to be done in the house, it was livable but greatly out-dated.  The barn, of course, was the brainchild of my husband, to convert into holiday rentals.   Rural cottages in French are called “gîtes”.

The house is a traditional “maison de maître” in French architectural terms.  It’s a stone house, with stucco on the outside and a slate roof.  The barn is a beautiful stone building with a terracotta tile roof.  The park and woodlands around the house would be part of our project for the property.  When we bought the house there was not a proper park in front, it was just a big field, with bumpy terrain that had to be flattened out before we could plant trees and form an idea.  But, first things first, we started on the house itself.  Complete interior renovation.  Kitchen gutted.  I cooked outside in a summer kitchen a few steps from the house.

We had a super kitchen designer and liked him so much that we had him work on the kitchens for the gites as well.  The summer of 2006 was good for our house, it was pretty much finished up by September with a bit left that was finished up by December.  The living room is a grand “double séjour”, with a beam covered ceiling and a massive stone fireplace and mantle.

Then, in January 2007, the barn renovation started.  That was a pretty big project.  Here are some photos from that adventure.  We divided it into 3 different gites.  They had to put in steel girders and pour a slab.  Then, there was the business of punching windows and then framing each window with masonry of local stone.

The summer of 2007 was dedicated to building the pool and landscaping the front garden (field).  We had to create a park for the property.  We planted 32 trees, created a rose bed circle and made all the driveways and paths for the gites.

Once the gites were fitted with floors, kitchen, and walls, there were trips to antique markets to begin furnishing them.  By the end of 2007 we were ready to go.  We needed to think of a name for our business.  It seemed that a lot of the locals referred to our house as “le petit-manoir”, the little manor house.  It felt like a great name for the property and the business and we went with it. The first season, 2008, started to fill up with reservations.  We opened on March 31, 2008 and it’s been a continuing project ever since.  There are always new ideas of things to add to the property…or take away.  Add a fountain.  Take out a hedge.  Add a statue.  Take out an overgrown tree.  Plant flowers, bulbs, hedges, and trees.  Every year.  It’s a constant project, our work of art.  One that is a pleasure to share with our friends and all the guests that we have had the last 10 years of vacation rentals.

Le Tour de France in the Dordogne

The Tour de France is an institution.  Legendary.  The toughest sport out there.  Every year it weaves its way around France and we are privy to the beauty and patrimony of France.  This year was special here in the Dordogne because there was a stage that passed right through our part of the Perigord.  It passed right through Vitrac Port, near us.

The stage went through the most beautiful part of the Dordogne.  It passed 39 castles and by Lascaux, too.  The commentators did a great job promoting our region and telling the history of everything from the chateaux to foie gras to the prehistoric caves.  I rushed to tell my mom and sister to watch it, though it was pretty early in the morning in Texas!

The months leading up to the TDF coming through our part of the Dordogne were busy for all those municipalities concerned.

They had hours of meetings and planning for the villages to prepare for the crowds to descend.  They also had to place banners and organize the closures of roads and businesses.  There are hours of preparation for about 3 minutes of action!  People come from all over the world to watch the race.  Because there are so many passionate fans that come to the roadside to wait on the cyclists to pass by, they have a caravan that passes before, which everybody goes out to see.  There are fun vans and cars sponsored by different kinds of businesses, like sausages, madeleines, sunscreen and hotels…and they throw tons of free stuff at the crowd.  People love to go down to get the freebies, kids AND adults.  I heard stories of old people beating out kids for their free madeleines and sausages and inflatable pillows.  I also heard of people getting hit in the head with sunscreen that was thrown from the parade of cars in the caravan for free.

It’s a real carnival atmosphere.  Many people scope out their place in the morning and wait 3 hours or more for the passing cyclists, so the caravan is fun entertainment for the waiting crowds.

Everyone says afterwards that the ambiance is joyful and positive and fun.This weekend the Tour de France will finish in Paris, on the Champs-Elysée, with the champions on the podium and crowds of people watching them ride through the streets of Paris.



I would like to thank George Plakiotis and Julie Hill for the photos on this post.

Art and the Pech Merle Cave


After living in the Dordogne for 11 years, we finally made it to the prehistoric cave of Pech Merle, Grotte du Pech Merle (grotte = cave in French).  Located in the department of Lot, the department next door, it’s about an hour-and-a-half drive to the cave from our place here at Le Petit-Manoir.

I have been awed by many caves in the area, like in Domme with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, and ones like Font-de-Gaume with its cave drawings and paintings.  What makes Pech Merle special is that is has it all, geological beauty and cave paintings, and it’s not a reproduction.  Large galleries with ceilings as high as 11 meters are filled with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites and the walls are adorned with Cro-Magnon man’s artistic talent.  It is magnificent and just became my favorite cave visit.  Having studied art history in college, but not any courses on pre-historic art, I have found myself using the same analytical techniques from those studies to study pre-historic art ever since my first visit to Font-de-Gaume in 2001.    It’s moving to realize that 29,000 years ago we were able to tackle pesky artistic challenges like perspective or use calligraphic lines to produce a feeling of depth and movement.  There is an intelligent use of the cave’s surface to represent parts of the animals they drew.  Here in Pech Merle, there are two magnificent horses where the cave wall was used to make the head of the lead horse.

There are also examples of the surface of the cave being used to make legs, bellies and tails and this use makes the art truly 3-D.  This is true of all the cave paintings and drawings that I have seen in other caves.  Here in Pech Merle they are equally impressive.  Some things we saw here that I haven’t seen in other caves are outlines of the artists’ hands, footprints of a young Cro-Magnon man and a beautifully rendered profile of a woman, probably some sort of fertility goddess.  What a rich treasure of humanity that we can still visit! Though, I don’t know for how long.  Like many of the pre-historic caves, the number of visitors has been reduced to protect this patrimony of humankind.

We are Cro-Magnon man and it is a moving experience to come into contact with our ancestors through their art.  We know very little about their rituals or what led them to express themselves in these caves of Southwest France.  What is sure is that they were prolific artists, driven to create even if they had to crawl deep into the sides of hills, and that there are probably many more Lascauxs and Font-de-Gaumes and Pech Merles out there, waiting to be found.


Air Conditioning and the French

Last week in France we had a “canicule” or heat wave.  So designated by the fact when you have at least 3 days where temperatures do not go below 20 degrees Celsius (about 68 F) at night.  Well, first of all being from Texas, that definition pretty much applies to about 5 months straight of our year – May to October is a “canicule”.  Putting that aside, it is pretty hot. Especially since there are not a lot of places equipped with Air Conditioning, called “la clime”, except major supermarkets and shops.  Even offices, hospitals and schools aren’t always equipped with A/C.  And if they do have it, well, let me explain.  The French have a fear of “getting sick” or a “sore throat” from Air Conditioning.  I once overheard an elderly woman at the hardware store talking about the Air Conditioning IN HER CAR and how she didn’t run it because it could make you sick.    Well, then I noticed the kids said that school doesn’t have it.  Wow!   Granted it isn’t for very long here, even in the Southwest of France.  We probably only have about 3 weeks total of really hot a/c-worthy weather.  They are so zen about it.  They just sit there in the office, calmly working while the A/C (if they have it) is barely on so they don’t get sick. They also are ecologically minded.  A/C isn’t that great for the environment.  Fair enough.

The shops that use A/C also do a strange thing. They often are running the A/C with the shop doors open. Which, of course, defeats the purpose.  I asked them about it and they say that they fear people won’t come into the shop if the doors are closed.  But, what about winter?  They close them then.  Oh well, it’s an uphill battle in my quest to bring the French into the culture of La Clime.  It’s just not part of their culture.

Last week the heat wave was a bit early, précoce.  We normally don’t have heat like this until mid-July or August.  So, we’ve got our A/C on and are staying cool.  Our guests in the gites are using the pool a lot and luckily they have A/C for this unusual early high heat.  We’ll see what this summer 2017 is going to bring.  This coming week the temperatures will drop and all question of having Air Conditioning will be forgotten.

Voting in French

We’re heading to the polls again here in France.  This weekend is the vote for our parliamentary representatives, the “legislatives” in French.  I’ve been voting in France since 2012 and there was a bit of vocabulary to learn that went along with voting in my country of adoption.  In France, the Presidential election is followed by the legislature a month later.  The first interesting thing I learned was that here in France we vote for one elected position at a time.  Not 30 different elected positions on the ballot like we have in Texas (judges, sheriffs, president, congressman, all in one go).  It’s just for the President or the Mayor and his team, or your “député”, parliamentary representative. You’re just voting for one thing at a time.  Already that is a big difference.  The incumbent president or député is called “sortant”.  This means leaving.  It sort of confused me at first because I thought…well, he may win and not leave, you know.  But, now it seems perfectly normal to talk about the president “sortant” or député sortant.

The voting process is different from my American experience.  When you go to vote, you enter the voting station like a school or the city hall and there is a table full of flyers.  There is a stack of flyers for each candidate.  I was confused as what to do.  There isn’t a ballot?  No, you take one of each candidate and an envelope, you go into the booth with the curtain and put ONE of those flyers in the envelope.  The rest you either stuff into your pockets or there is a little trash can.  I sort of just pick up 2 or 3, it’s not like I really care if they see who I’m voting for.  But, it’s the principle.  When you leave the booth, you show your “carte électorale” and your i.d., I mean it’s a privilege of citizenship to vote.

Then you put the envelope in the box, an official says “a voté” and then you sign next to your name on the voter registration book.  That’s it.  It’s pretty fast (especially when you live in a small town!) and there can’t be too many errors with this sort of system.  A vote is invalid if, for example, you put two candidates into the envelope or nothing in the envelope.  Putting nothing in the envelope counts as a “vote blanc” that means you didn’t like anybody on offer.  This was a substantial part of the last presidential election.  One third of the French electorate either didn’t vote or voted “blanc”.

So, that about sums it up.  This Sunday we’ll be going to the polls for our “député” and if there is not a clear majority for our district, there will be a “second tour”, or run-off election in a week.  One really positive aspect to the campaign is that every candidate gets equal time on television for their commercial, and you’re not bombarded with ads and billboards.  On election night, they are not allowed to announce the results until 8 p.m., so no guessing journalists on TV announcing exit polling.

That’s about it…heading to the polls on Sunday!