So as I mentioned in previous posts, toward the end of our sabbatical year, back in the early summer of 2011, Melinda and I began dreaming of the idea of returning to France, and specifically to Nantes, for the better part of a month each summer. We worked out the details at PSCS to make this happen and in 2012 we returned with Chloe and Ella, as summarized in my previous post.
In 2013, Melinda and I returned to Nantes without the girls. At age 20 and 16, they kinda liked the idea of having time by themselves in our Seattle house.
While not having the girls with us provided a lot more flexibility, I’d hate to suggest that we didn’t miss them. To be honest, some nine years later, I don’t really remember missing them. I do remember posting on the blog little tests for them, cryptic photos of places in Nantes that I invited them to identify. So clearly, I was thinking about them…
The point that really felt different without the girls is when Melinda and I spent extended time in Paris, just the two of us. That was, indeed, a glorious time.
To gain easy access to all the posts from our 2013 trip, use the France 2013 tag or, even easier, click here.
In my last post, I talked about how Melinda, Chloe, Ella, and I spent 13 months in France beginning in July of 2010. These 13 months got dubbed the “French Sabbatical” as Melinda and I were granted paid time off from our jobs during that time.
Not surprisingly, while we there we grew quite fond of living in France, especially living in the city of Nantes. I’m not quite sure how to describe this, but living as we did in Nantes, as well as traveling to various destinations in France and once to Italy, felt completely ours. It was different than anything done by other members of our family and carved out a super-special context in our lives that the four of us will forever share.
Melinda and I would go on regular walks while the girls were at school and it was on one of these walks that we talked about taking a month off from work each summer to return to Nantes. We starting seeing this as a focal point for the next phase in our lives, one that would ultimately settle with us living in Nantes and Seattle for maybe 6 months each year. At first, though, because of work and other responsibilities, this would need to be a single month in the summer when school wasn’t in session.
So in 2012 we put the plan into action. Our good friends in Nantes, the Boudeaus (who were responsible for us choosing Nantes in the first place) and the Bertails (who lived around the corner from us during the sabbatical and had become among our closest friends), were only too pleased to help us. And it was Christine Bertail who found a place for the four of us to live for the month of July, 2012. A colleague of hers and his family would be in Spain that month so it worked out for us to rent his house.
As I had done during the sabbatical year, I decided I would post to my blog on a daily basis while we were there. Truth be told, I had kept doing this once we had returned to Seattle in August, 2011. All of these posts can be found here by using the “Monthly Archive” pull-down menu below and selecting one of the months. Still, the idea of returning to France in 2012 and not posting daily seemed sacrilegious in some way.
So here was are in 2022, nearly ten years after our “Return to Nantes.” It’s hard to believe that much time has flown by. Because of the pandemic and other reasons, it’s been five years since we’ve been back but we do have plans to go this summer! And, yes, we did return in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. I’ll be focusing on each of those trips in future “From the Archives” posts.
One of the highlights of my life, of Melinda’s and my marriage, and in our role as parents of Chloe & Ella was the 13 months we spent in France from July 2010 through July 2011. We were granted a sabbatical from our jobs at Puget Sound Community School (PSCS), both as a tribute to the work we had done to get the school going and keep it running since its humble beginnings in 1994 AND to provide the school community an opportunity to know it could exist without its founders being present (ie: the infamous “Pie Truck Scenario” – perhaps I’ll explain that in a future post).
The concept of the sabbatical being a real thing began while Melinda and I were on spring break in 2008. The concept of living in France with our children began as a pipe dream we’d tell each other before we even had children. That this could become a reality is a tribute to a lot of people, most significantly the PSCS board and staff at the time. I can vividly recall the months leading up to our departure like they were last month, not twelve years ago.
Officially, the sabbatical began with the school’s 2010-11 fiscal year, meaning on July 1, 2010. But we didn’t leave for France until July 4th so we had a few days in Seattle on our own. Because we were renting our house(note, this link takes you a site we created in 2012 to promote the idea of swapping houses with someone for a month that summer) to another family for the year and they moved in on July 1, we were staying at a friend’s. The day of the 1st, Chloe was out with some friends on one of her many goodbye tours and Melinda & Ella were doing some last-minute shopping. I was alone in an unfamiliar house with my laptop for company.
I had recently been reading how a person had documented his life for a full year by posting a daily photograph and some quick comments on a website. The idea appealed to me so that afternoon, alone in the house, I investigated how to do something like it. I knew a tiny bit about WordPress since one of the PSCS teaching staff members had taught the rest of us how to use it to post our class offerings to the students. On a whim, I created a WordPress blog, calling it “frenchsabbatical.”
I had promised myself and told others that I wasn’t going to over-commit myself to projects while on sabbatical. I wanted some practice of living more spontaneously, freed from the daily requirements of being a school director. Indeed, Melinda and I would have parenting obligations but beyond that, I wanted a sense of freedom. That the PSCS board had agreed to supply Melinda and me with a monthly stipend helped tremendously with this.
Little did I know that the whim of starting my “frenchsabbatical” blog would propel not just me but many others on a daily adventure, one I never regretted for a minute. Beginning on the 1st of July from the home of our friends, I posted every day until our return (truth be told, I kept posting every day after that for another year or so, all of which you can find here). Conversations emerged, first just among Melinda, Chloe, Ella & me – “You could put that on the blog.” And, “Don’t you dare write about that.” To, “I get to approve any photos you use of me.”
As the months went by, our French friends got in the act. My dear friend Laurent made sure I had a way to post when his family took ours to their cabin in the French Alps that didn’t have an Internet connection. I also learned that part of his morning ritual while we were there was to read what I posted the night before.
Around the corner from our house in Nantes we met the Bertail family, people who have become among our closest friends in the world. There are so many stories to tell about them, from Christine, the mom, twice stopping by to introduce herself to us only find Chloe and Ella at home, to how they helped me celebrate my 48th birthday in style.
Then, of course, there were our friends and family members back in Seattle who used the blog to keep in touch with us. As a writer, I often would picture a member of our family as the audience to what I was writing. Michele, my mother-in-law, my brothers, or one of our nieces were common “targets.” Certainly, my mother was always in mind (she’d regularly send me edits – catching my typos with her usual flair).
To this day, I pay WordPress a fee each year to keep ads from the site and to maintain its unique domain name, meaning you can find it in its entirety at https://frenchsabbatical.com. Two years ago as a holiday present, one of the best I’ve ever received, Chloe & Ella had the blog posts made into a two-volume hardback book set that will forever hold a place of prominence in Melinda’s and my home.
Last week, in order to have all of my personal blog posts in one spot, I copied the content to this site, my ongoing personal blog. So if you’re interested in seeing what we were doing on a given day, you can do so right here. In fact, in the footer you’ll see a pull-down menu on the left for a monthly archive. Choose a month from the sabbatical year, July 2010 – July 2011, and enjoy some reading.
(Not too long ago, my mother, age 88, signed up to take a memoir class at her retirement community. I think she liked the idea of getting some of her memories written down so family members could enjoy them. That said, she’s been hesitant to share them so I’ve been working on her. After she shared this first one with me, I suggested it would be great for it to be more readily available and asked if I could post it here. I think it’s a great piece of writing and really comes to additional life with the photos added. If you want to encourage her, offer some positive feedback in the comments section. –Andy)
Days at the Cottage
by Carib Smallman
My paternal grandparents, Gommy and Poppy, owned a cottage on Barlow Lake in Michigan. Their home was about 25 miles away in Grand Rapids where my father finished high school before attending the University of Michigan.
Every summer of my first decade was spent with them; partly in town, but mostly at the lake. The cottage was built long before I was born. Poppy parked the car at the top of the stairs leading to the cottage. The outhouse is the first thing encountered as you walk down toward the cottage. My parents and I were living in a house in Washington D.C. Using an outhouse was a new experience. Poppy had built a very low seat just my size.
Farther down the hill sat the cottage. The door opened into a small kitchen including a kerosene stove. Water was obtained by pumping it into a large sink. If you needed hot water it was heated on the stove. The kitchen merged into a dining area where a large table sat with benches on either side. The large area beyond the table was the living area with the two bedrooms walled off on one side. The walls of the bedrooms were very thin; not at all like our house. A chamber pot hid under the bed in each room. There were no lights in the outhouse.
Windows made up the entire front of the room facing the lake. A wind-up phonograph built into a wooden cabinet sat between the windows and bedroom wall. I had permission to play ‘my’ records. I learned how to wind up the phonograph. Poppy pasted pictures on my records before I could read, making each easy to identify. I was very proud that I could accomplish this myself.
A tall tree towered over the corner of the cottage. Since the cottage was built into the hillside, looking out the front window we were seeing half way up the tree trunk. Poppy had fastened a small birdhouse facing the windows. Each year a wren family settled into it. I usually arrived about the time the eggs hatched so Gommy and I watched carefully as the mama and papa birds came and went with food for their babies. One of the most exciting days each summer was when the babies were pushed out of the nest. Most often there were 3 babies. I would run after them as the parents encouraged them to fly. I loved watching them.
A half basement with a storage area had been built under the front half of the cottage. Poppy had rigged up a way to bring water from the lake so we could shower. It was cold but it was better than trying to bathe in the lake!
In front of the cottage Poppy had built two docks reaching into the lake. Under the longer dock he spread gravel several feet to the side and all the way to the end. That made it easy to walk into the lake to swim. There was a short ladder at the end of the dock where the water was deeper to make it easier to enter the water.
The second dock was for the fishing boat. There was a ‘wire box’ beside the dock where fish that had been caught were held alive until they could be cleaned. It was very mucky below that dock. We often saw what we called ‘mudpuppies’ wiggling around down there. I hoped they would stay there and not be around where I was swimming. Fortunately they preferred the muck.
Between two trees on a flat area near the docks Poppy had attached a swing for me. Nearby he had installed a double-seated swing for grown-ups.
When I was 8, Poppy bought me a boat. It was a duck-hunting boat with kapok all around the outside so it could not tip over. The oars were just my size. The boat must have been 6 to 8 feet long and 4 to 5 feet wide. The main seat, with the oarlocks, was in the middle. There was a short seat in the front where one small person could sit. I was allowed to row as far as the next two cottages as long and Gommy and Poppy could see me. I liked to row there where there was a batch of water lilies that I could pick. When my Mommy and Daddy were at the cottage, Daddy had a motor he put on my boat. He would take me for a ride. What fun – a really fast ride and with my Daddy!
A YMCA camp was located at the far end of the lake. We often watched the boys out in long canoes practicing their unison rowing. When we visited Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene Burkholder we could hear the boys singing across the lake.
Uncle Allen and Aunt Irene (good friends of my grandparents, not related)) also had a cottage on the lake. Theirs was a BIG cottage with a bunkhouse. The bunkhouse was located over the garage, a separate building from the cottage. Three bunk beds sat around the edge of the room, one on each wall. A regular bathroom was on the other wall. In the middle of this large room was a ping pong table. Occasionally I stayed overnight and that is where I slept, usually with one of the Burkholder daughters and her kids. The adults slept in the cottage.
Aunt Irene had a wonderful garden with many gladioli; my favorite flower! She often picked some for us to take back to our cottage. The adults were always busy, talking and cooking, but they made time to play with me; often card games, especially ‘Touring’, a travel game. (I still have it.) Occasionally I would swim off of their dock but the water was much deeper there. It scared me a bit.
Poppy would take me walking through the woodsy places where there were no cottages. He taught me about the trees and we saw many ‘critters’. The owls fascinated me. If we spied one I would walk around and around the tree. It looked like the owl was screwing its head off watching me. I never could catch it turning its head back around. Poppy said our eyes can’t see that fast.
I found many frogs, toads and turtles in our wanderings. Gommy and Poppy allowed me to keep a few toads and a turtle by the front door of the cottage. I built an area surrounded by stones to keep the ‘critters’ in. I would have water and crumbs available for them. If we were leaving I would free them.
Often Poppy would get up really early and go fishing. He caught lots of bluegills and a few bigger fish – a bass occasionally and a rare trout. Then he came back, cleaned them and Gommy fixed them for breakfast. Yummy!
I have wonderful memories of the cottage for my early life until it all came to an abrupt end.
Back in the day, as administrators/co-founders of PSCS, Melinda and I tried to do something special when spring break rolled around each year.
This included a couple of trips to Mexico, memorable trips to La Jolla and Palm Springs, staying with family outside of San Francisco, and a trip to Portland. In fact, it was in Mexico in 2008 that we first conceived of what became our family’s 2010-11 sabbatical to France, and it was during spring break in San Francisco in 2010 that we got our French visas.
In 2014, to save money for a future trip, we stayed home, a staycation! For fun, we chose a different restaurant in Seattle each day and experienced that restaurant’s happy hour. For fun, I recorded each day’s outing as a way to make it even more special, much as I’ve recorded each day we’ve spent in France since the year of the sabbatical.
To read the happy hour posts in order, start here. Then click on the next post in the lower right. Or click on each one in order below:
Heartman was a character I first created when Melinda and I began dating in 1990. Heartman was my alter ego, the superhero part of myself that would go on with his day while my real self, “a small man,” missed Melinda.
When Chloe was a kindergartner in 1998/99, I brought Heartman back. Each morning I quickly drew on a sticky note a comic involving Heartman and put it in Chloe’s sack lunch. Each image had something to do with what I had recently done, often with Chloe, and with Heartman waving to her and saying, “Hi, Chloe!” Some of these images made it home each night and I stashed them away.
Some time ago, I found a sandwich bag filled with the drawings and created a scrapbook of them. Then, in the summer of 2013, while seeing a Keith Haring art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, I was inspired to scan these drawings and present them online as a way to preserve and share them.
I posted them in order of their creation, one at a time, with a little commentary tossed in for good measure. To start with the first, go here. Note, the drawings got better as I went along so for a really good one, check out this one, noting the chocolate pudding spilled on it.
(This completes the three part remembrance of Vacation Guy from the archives. The original of Part III is from March 11, 2012. In terms of a Vacation Guy update today, 10 years after the posting below, he happily lives with Ella in her Seattle apartment. –Andy)
I’ll finish my Vacation Guy trilogy with today’s post, including a photo I just took of the esteemed stuffed toy, taken nearly 15 years after he entered Ella’s life. As you can tell, he has been fully loved by her, so much so that in true Velveteen Rabbit terms, he is undoubtedly real (and has been for years).
Ella would gently rub his face while falling off to sleep each night, the loving he received there being obvious. Several years ago, my mother sewed on “gloves,” replacing the originals that had been worn through. I remember how nervous Ella was when Vacation Guy went in for glove surgery, and how excited she was when he emerged looking so good.
A similar experience was had each time Vacation Guy went for a bath (the washing machine). That form of bath was a little too hard on him so next he got the Woolite treatment in the sink. Ultimately, though, the concern of hurting him was too great and the baths ceased.
Vacation Guy no longer sleeps with Ella but is kept on her nightstand, right next to her bed.
(Here’s today’s post from the archives about Ella’s most important toy, Vacation Guy. Yesterday, I posted Part I and tomorrow I’ll post Part III. The original of Part II is from March 10, 2012. –Andy)
So I gave Ella this advice when she was little, thinking she might be dumb like I was when I got to be 12 or 13. You see, I had an important soft toy when I was little. In fact, I had several of them. Bunny, Pooh Bear, Kanga, Eeyore and others. And when I got to be a certain age, 12 or 13, when these important toys had all been packed away into a box and put in the garage, I thought I was too big for them. Truth be told, I was kind of embarrassed by them.
I’m sad to say, I gave them away.
So the I gave advice I gave Ella was … “When you think you’ve outgrown Vacation Guy, when you get to the point that you think you really don’t need him anymore, when you go crazy ’cause you’re a teenager … Just give Vacation Guy to me for safe keeping.”
“When you come to your senses, I’ll give him back to you.”
That’s what I told Ella.
Today’s Prompt:What’s something *crazy* you did as a teen?
(I’m digging into the archival history of the 10+ years of postings I’ve made here and found three consecutive stories about Vacation Guy, Ella’s most important childhood toy. I’m reposting them over the next three days, starting with today. The original is from March 9, 2012. –Andy)
In Ella’s hands here is Vacation Guy, so named because she got him in 1997 while we were on a vacation. The four of us were in Sun River, Oregon and we found a little toy store in town. There on the shelves was the cute, soft, cuddly doll, perfect for 8 month old Ella. It became THE soft toy, the one that stayed with her wherever she went, including to bed in her arms each night. I believe in psychology they call such a thing the “transitional object.”
Over the years, Vacation Guy’s family grew. I found his “female” (pink) compatriot on, of all things, eBay and “won” her for Ella. This doll became Vacation Girl. Then there was Vacation Kid and Vacation Joey. Each of these had their own song, part of Ella’s bedtime ritual.
Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow when I tell about some sound advice I gave to Ella about Vacation Guy.
Today’s Prompt:Share a story about your most important soft toy, pillow or blanket.