Monday, February 8, 2016

A mother's intuition

I've never been a big fan of "due dates" when it comes to pregnancy.  So when I became pregnant last year and people would ask me when I was due early on, I would simply say "near the end of the year". However, once fall rolled around I would respond to that same question by saying "around Christmas and New Years". Then right around the end of November, I began simply responding "Christmas". I'd find myself saying this over and over again.  And then it hit me - this baby will be born  on Christmas.

I wasn't crazy about the idea of delivering on Christmas.  Having two small children already, I kept telling myself, "As long as I can spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with the family, the baby was welcome to come at any other time". One night I confessed to Jean my worries about delivering on the 25th.  His response?  "It's not up to us to decide. I'd rather have a baby who is healthy comes when they are ready, not when its convenient for us." And that did it.  The perfect response. I accepted the fact that I had no control in the matter.

Still with the feeling that the baby would make his/her arrival on Christmas, I told myself I needed to be prepared. All the kid's presents were wrapped and stored at my mother in laws a couple weeks before Christmas. Stocking goodies were all ready to go as well.  This relieved me from the stress of going into labor on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day and having to explain that Santa forgot their presents. Even if Christmas wasn't spent with us, at least Santa would find the kids elsewhere.

The other planning I had to consider was Christmas dinner.  Here in France, Christmas Eve dinner is when you pull out all the stops. It's one of those meals that literally has you at the table for 4-5 hours and people go to great lengths to make the meal the most special one of the year. I felt like at 9 months pregnant, I had a good reason to not make a magnificent meal but I had to have something planned nonetheless.  My plan was to purchase all of the items for the meal that were frozen.  That way I could wait until as late as possible on the 24th to start my preparations.  Don't get me wrong...this would still be an impressive meal - turkey stuffed with figs, apples and chestnuts along with a vegetable medley and mashed potatoes.  Dessert, a typical "bĂ»che", was also frozen.  I was totally prepared.

Christmas table just minutes before leaving for the hospital
Then Christmas Eve rolls around.  The turkey (still frozen) needed 3 hours to cook.  I told myself if didn't go into labor by 4pm, the turkey was in the oven and Christmas Eve dinner was on! So in the turkey goes.  My plan worked perfectly ! Or almost.  At 5:30pm my water breaks and contractions start simultaneously. It's a bit surreal.  This is really happening! I have a vivid memory of walking down the stairs to tell Jean and seeing the twinkling of the lights on the Christmas tree and the table all set for Christmas dinner with Bing Crosby's "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" playing in the background. It couldn't get any more Christmas than that!  That perfectly planned frozen turkey comes out of the oven exactly 1/2 way through its cooking time.  Our good friends are called to come and pick up the kids.  My heart sunk as they drove away knowing that we wouldn't spend Christmas Eve together. But I quickly turn my attention to the fact that our new baby is on his/her way and that I needed focus my attention to bringing a new life into the world.
This is what your hospital room looks
like when you deliver on Christmas day in France

For those of you who know me well, the birth experience is something that I find incredibly empowering.  The birth of Mathias was as calm and serene as I could have imagined. Born at 1:27am on December 25th, he was the only baby born in the clinic that day (despite it being a full moon!). The kids spent a fantastic Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with good friends and Santa did indeed find them after all. And now when people ask me when Mathias was born, I hear that familiar ring when I reply simply, "Christmas". A mother's intuition I guess. And every time I say that, I think how Mathias was the perfect gift that arrived right on time. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ciao Italia !

Grandapa DeMarinis
There are obviously many upsides of living in Europe.  One huge one is being able to travel to some really cool places that are right around the corner. A family reunion back in July got me thinking about how close I am to relatives that we still have in the south of Italy. My mom's parents both moved to the States from Italy as young children in the 1920's - my maternal grandmother coming from a town near Rome and my grandfather from the south of Italy near the city of Bari. After talking to some relatives at the family reunion, I learned that many of them were still in contact with my grandfather's family in Bari, with at least a handful of them who had ventured over on several occasions.
Grandpa and Grandma DeMarinis's wedding picture

Well, it turns out that there's a direct flight to Bari from a German city right across the border from us with roundtrip tickets costing less than 60 euros a person! Knowing that baby number three was on its way, I thought this would be the perfect  "girls trip" for Audrey and me. So tickets were purchased and and took a crash course in basic Italian.

We arrived late one evening so we spent the night at a place in Bari before heading out the the town of Capurso (about 20 minutes from Bari) to meet with our family the next morning. And then the eating began! We were greeted with fantastic coffee and baked goods in quantities big enough to feed us for days! We toured around the neighborhood for a while taking in the still vibrant fishing culture and relishing the warm early November weather.

We finally end up at the doorstep of our family in Capurso.  Let the Italian challenge commence! There were some challenging moments but using a mix of Spanish, newly learned Italian and lots of hand gestures, we finally started to get to know each other.  Any having a blond, blue eyed 5 year old with a fantastic smile also helped to break the ice.  For the next 3 days, we traveled around the area taking in the beautiful scenery of the Puglia region.  

Audrey found an incredible appreciation for churches, asking to visit each one we passed (which was a lot, trust me!). Oh, and the gelato helped her transition a bit as well. Each night we'd return to our family's house and be treated like kings at the table...although despite our best efforts we just couldn't eat enough apparently.  That cliche about the Italian grandmothers insisting that you aren't eating enough - not so cliche.

But perhaps my favorite day was our last one.  It was a Sunday and we decided to just take a walk around the town of Capurso where my grandfather spent the first 10 years of his life. We attended a morning mass and listened to the church bells ring are regular intervals. We passed by the large town squares and saw the kids playing soccer and families enjoying the sunshine.  Audrey and I meandered down streets and I had to wonder if the ones we took were the same ones that my grandfather walked down a century ago.  It was a trip worth repeating and given its proximity I'd say we'll be back very soon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Here a stork, there a stork...

The stork is an iconic emblem of the Alsatian region.  Walk into any tourist shop in the area and you can't avoid seeing those cute little devils in a myriad of forms. Even better, its easy to spot them in the wild as well.  There are a couple nesting couples in the village where we live and several more in a well known park in downtown Strasbourg. There are also some picturesque villages just to our south that are home to many stork couples who have incorporated their nests into the charm of the towns where they reside. Storks have been said to bring good luck, fidelity and fertility!

Interestingly enough, they were on the brink of extinction in Alsace some 30 years ago.  In the late 70's it was estimated that there were just 5 nesting couples (down from 150 couples some 15 years prior). The reason?  The storks in Alsace migrate to Africa in the winter and many were not surviving the journey back.  So some organizations stepped into action to try to repopulate the stork population in Alsace.  By raising storks in captivity for at least 3 years, their natural migratory instincts were curtailed and the birds repopulated.  Today, it is estimated that close to 300 nesting couples make Alsace their home.

So why the random post on storks?  It seems that one will be making a delivery at our place just in time for the holidays ; ) So in addition to the massive feat of remodeling a 300 year old house, a new baby is providing us another exciting adventure in Alsace!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Building (quite literally) our life in France

The beginning of September in France is known as the "rentree" - literally the re-entry.  Given that the French take full advantage of long summer vacations, right around this time there is a return to normalcy - everyone makes there way back after an extended break, school starts back up life sort of gets back to normal. This rentree is a big one for us.  Both Audrey and Thomas will be in school and we've got a big project planned. We recently purchased the old family house (located in the same village where we have been living) which has been in Jean's family for centuries (yes, I said centuries!) So  when I say old, I mean OLD - the house was built back in 1720 so its just shy of 300 years (though is doesn't look a day over 200). The picture to the right shows the date of construction engraved on one of the beams.

It is a half timbered house which is common in the Alsace region where we reside.  Perhaps one of the coolest things I have learned about these houses is that they were able to be disassemble and rebuilt in a different location. The beams were labeled (see photo below from our new place) to then be able to be reassembled in that same order.

This is NOT an actual picture of our place but just an example
of the framing of a traditional Alsatian house
We took possession of the house at the end of August and since there were renters occupying it previously, the kids and I never really got to see the house up close.  So, with the renters out and the house officially ours, we planned a picnic in the backyard to give the kids a first glimpse of the house we hope to live in for a very long time.  It didn't take them long to appreciate the large garden and space to run around.

There's a good 6-8 months of major renovation ahead of us but its a huge step to truly making Alsace our home. While its a bit overwhelming at times, I am excited to have to step out of my comfort zone and work on planning and designing the house (in French of course!).  Since Jean is working all day, that leaves me as the one to make the round of the stores and pick out the new kitchen, bathrooms, etc. Needless to say, my construction/decorating vocabulary has increased exponentially in the last couple weeks.

Oh, and here's a bonus photo of the house.  Taken in 1911, its a family member (I'd have to confer with my mother-in-law to get an exact identity) who decided to build a plane in the front yard.  Not sure of the whole story but its a pretty cool to have some old pictures of our future abode!


Lots more updates to come on the progress of the house to come!

Monday, April 13, 2015

A taste of the islands

Yes, I know - it's been a while.  I guess in a way that's good in that life here is becoming busy.  It's seeming less like living abroad and more like, well - living. I've slowly started picking up work and the kids are getting big.  Audrey has now officially spent more time in the living in France as she has in the states.  Both of them have demonstrated excellent language skills with them both being fully bilingual although Thomas has a tendency to make more grammatical mistakes (Mama, look at the truck blue!) Cute, nonetheless. He also likes to rummage through my desk in search of scotch. Before you call the French authorities on me, he's just looking for tape (called scotch in french - though this requires a bit of explaining when anglophones are visiting...)

It seems like a lifetime ago but we had the awesome opportunity to spend Christmas and New Years on Reunion Island.  Yes, that is a real place.  It's a small French owned island off the coast of Madagascar.  Jean's two sisters both live there and the younger of the two got married at the end of December offering us the perfect opportunity to escape the dismal Strasbourg winter and trade it in for some year-round island sunshine. It was a loooong trip (an 11.5 hours flight from Paris) but the kids were total troopers.  It was quite perhaps the most fantastic vacation we have ever taken.  The perfect mix of family and tourism, beach and mountains and just the right amount of relaxation. As the trip was ending, I remember looking back and thinking that this was really a once in a lifetime vacation and that these moments will not be relived - Christmas in 80 degree weather, fireworks beachside at midnight on new years eve and both kiddos getting to spend their January birthdays at the pool with their cousins. Although I guess that's what makes these moments so special - knowing that they are not likely to come around again.  As Thomas would say, "Mama, it was a vacation fantastic!"

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Boo! (note the French accent)

It's now been a little over 2 years since we've made the big move. It is seeming more like home everyday but I have still noticed we haven't totally assimilated into village life and I feel like an outsider in many ways. Then I think, what better way to get to know more people in the town than to take advantage of what sets me apart here. So with Halloween right around the corner, I decide this is the time to introduce the French to a real American Halloween!  It's not that Halloween isn't celebrated here...just nothing to the close to the festivities in the States.  I decide to throw a kids Halloween party and invite all the girls from Audrey's class. I invite all 17 thinking surely a good proportion of them won't be able to make it, right?  In fact, we end up only 2 regrets so it's now a party for 15! Okay...not a problem, we can handle this.

Luckily we end up with a sunny, 60 degree day and we are able to have most of the festivities outside.  One by one, the girls start to arrive. First, two sisters both dressed as witches. Super cute, no?  Then a third witch, then a fourth followed by a fifth.  At first I though it was just a strange coincidence. As witch after witch arrived, I realized that apparently in France you dress as a witch at Halloween. That is THE costume. In fact, by the time all he girls have arrived we have a total of 14 witches (Audrey stood out just a bit as Tinkerbell).   I must admit that there was a bit of variability in the witch costumes though - some were "cat" witches (with a cute nose and whiskers) and others as "princess" witches and a couple with a Harry Potter take on the witch. But hey, at least I didn't have a house full of Elsas ; )

I tried to keep the party kid-friendly as I was a bit worried about making it too scary and have kids run into their parents arms at the end crying that the lady with the funny accent tried to get them to eat witch's eyeballs and monster brains. So we stick with Halloween crafts, broom races (appropriate since we pretty much only witches at the party) and a Frankenstein pinata. We eat some harmless spiderweb cupcakes and come back inside the house as its starting to get dark. Overall, the party seems like a hit. Parents come pick up their respective witches and we put our feet up, content with a job well done.

It's funny, the next day at school parents greeted me.  Of course in France (especially in small towns) you always say "bonjour' as you pass someone but this "bonjour" seemed a little different. It wasn't just a pleasantry, it was a real acknowledgement.  This was a big step for our assimilation into the village and I am happy that I decided to take this risk.  Instead of letting my differences separate me from the rest, why not use it as a way to help me meet others. Who knows, the Sprauer Halloween party may become an annual event around here.  But watch out girls, next time monster brains and witches eyes WILL be on the menu! I mean scaring the crap out of a houseful of 5-year old girls is one of the joys of parenthood, no?

Monday, August 18, 2014


It's August in France and that means one thing - VACATION!  With an average of 5 weeks of vacation per year, vacationing is serious business.  People don't really ask IF you are going on vacation but rather for how many weeks. As an American, this abundance of vacation is pretty new. But that's not to say I won't take advantage of it. I love hearing stories of my hubby's road trips around Europe with his family when he was younger. So I am trying to make some similar memories for our own kiddos.

Most recently, we headed to Salzburg, Austria for a 4 day weekend.  The kids are real troopers when in comes to car travel which came in handy when a 5 hour drive turned into a 8 hour one because of traffic on the German highways. We have really started to master the art of highway travel with preschoolers - looking for trucks in every color or naming the models of the cars as we pass them (neither of which work well though in stopped traffic though!). I think we are also really getting the hang of vacationing with kids without going insane.  I am no expert but I will happily share my findings.

Could this picture scream "bored at museum" any louder?

So we started dividing the day into morning and afternoon chunks, designating one for adult activities and the other one for something of interest to the kids.  That way we aren't dragging cranky kids around museums for hours on end nor are we stuck all day at kiddy amusement parks.  It seems to strike a nice balance for both parties. Since the kids are still small, naps are a natural dividing point in the day. Although its tempting to skip them and get the most out of the place you are visiting, we have learned to respect the naps at any cost. While in Salzburg, we headed back to the apartment each afternoon to let the kids sleep a proper nap.  At the same time, we realized that this gave Jean and I the fantastic opportunity to sit and relax (yes, relax while on vacation with kids!). Truthfully, this break in the middle of the day allowed everyone to recharge.  It's hard to slow down on vacation but we've realized that we just can't pack in what we could before we had kids.

Sadly, three of the four days that we were in Salzburg it rained. While a bit frustrating at the time, the kids adored jumping in the puddles and hiding under umbrellas. We made the best of it - stopping for mid-afternoons snacks and coffee or ducking into churches we might have walked past otherwise. Its funny how the kids couldn't have cared less what the weather was like...they were just enjoying being out and about (and perhaps content that warm "apfelstrudel" break).  Note to self - their view of a great vacation is much different from ours.  Perhaps we could learn a lesson or two...

Thomas in Wiener Schnitzel heaven

All in all, we worked out the kinks and had an awesome family trip in the land of Mozart. I'm not sure if the kids will retain any memories of the trip but for me it'll stand out as the one that helped us find the balance needed to travel with kids as well as learning to appreciate your company as much as (or even more than!) the new surroundings.