It’s hard to believe that we are well into October and even harder to believe that we have finally made it to the boys’ first 2-week break from school. French schools dismiss every 6-8 weeks for 2 weeks, the first break known as Toussaints (All Saint’s) and falls during the 2 week period that falls over All Saint’s Day. The schools across France are divided into zones in order to stagger vacation time and therefore, travel, and so with Clermont-Ferrand being situated in Zone A, we are first to dismiss.
The boys were definitely ready for a break! The new schedule with busy weeks and long days takes a toll for sure and it’s funny how once you are anticipating a vacation, you are wondering how you could make it without one!
We had made plans to travel to Vienna, Austria for the second week of break- Chuck had booked flights and Air B&B and we were so excited to explore another new country!
As Ex-pats living in France, you are required to carry a visa, so we had to travel to Atlanta before moving back in May to obtain our temporary visas. This allowed us to live in France for the first 3 months, but sometime in this first 3 months, we were required to apply for a longer-term visa, known as a Cartes de Sejour, which allows us to live in France long-term. Unfortunately, if your visa expires and you have not yet obtained your Cartes de Sejour, you are advised not to leave the country, because you will not be permitted to return into France once it is noted that your initial visa has expired. Chuck appropriately submitted our application in early August and we were told there would be a 1-2 months maximum time processing period. Our friends and fellow ex-pats, the Buntins, had been told by the relocation company we all use that there would be no problem with booking travel out of France for October break.
Weeks and weeks went by and as break approached, we became increasingly nervous about the fact that we had not yet received our CDS. Chuck had checked in frequently with the relo company/firm processing our visas and was told that they had no specific information in terms of when we would receive them. Two weeks ago (the week prior to break starting) Chuck went to the Prefecture here in CF (similar to a town hall; they have all of our documents) and was told that due to fact that the person handling our “file” was out on extended sick-leave, there had been a delay and that they would not be ready for us to have in time for our flights to Vienna (last Thursday). So, we cancelled our lodging and had to eat the cost of our non-refundable flights to Vienna.
We grumbled for a day or two and then we remembered that if you have 2 weeks off from school and you are stuck in a country, France is not a bad place to be! After all, there are many regions and hundreds of cities we had not visited yet! We were thankful first and foremost for the time off for the boys, a break from our crazy weekly routine!
The first week of vacation, the boys and I took rest to a whole new level. Most days we were in PJs until at least noon when we would maybe venture out to a new restaurant for lunch that we don’t often get a chance to visit during the week. All activities and sports are cancelled during vacations also, so we literally had nowhere we had to be. And since we typically don’t allow iPads during the week, vacation weeks are different. There was a LOT of movie watching and iPad screen time! It was such a treat!
The second week, we made plans to travel to an area of France that we’d not been to- the southeast- we had heard great things about Annecy, an alpine town perched on Lake Annecy that sits at the base of the Alps and is 25 miles from the Swiss border. It is a little under 4 hours driving time but since we would be leaving Friday evening (after Chuck leaves work) and travel through Lyon, we decided to spend the night there and finish out the 1.5 hr drive Saturday morning. This ended up being a good plan because we sat in traffic for an hour coming into Lyon!
We stayed at a great little suite hotel called StaySuites and it was on the side of downtown and far from the old town but it was quiet and convenient to get back on the highway without too much trouble. The boys each had their own bed which was wonderful- 5 person suite accommodations seem to be extremely rare here in Europe!!! We walked to grab pizza…Owen had his heart set on Domino’s or Pizza Hut but we were able to convince him that a fresh hot handmade pizza with real mozzarella from this cute little pizza shop (Pizza Pouce) was a better plan. And they had Ben and Jerry’s! In the end I think he agreed:-)
We headed out Saturday morning (but not before finding Starbucks) and had an easy 1.5 hour drive to Annecy. Once we got into the town of Annecy, we hit another traffic jam that was followed by an hour of driving around to find parking- every single lot and space were full! We even found one lot open and as we literally pulled up to it, the sign switched to full!
We hopped out and ran into the train station so the boys could use the bathroom and Wells was thrilled to find a photo booth where he could get some ID photos made for some of his papers and notebooks he has been working on at his desk in his bedroom.
In usual fashion, we ventured out to find lunch right at the mid-afternoon time where all restaurants are done serving lunch, so we hit Paul’s (like a Panera) and then Wells and I walked through the open air antique market to explore while the boys and Chuck went to check in to our Air B&B. This market is held the first Saturday of every month so we lucked out! It is always fascinating to me to see what people sell, especially because it varies so much from town to town!
The Swiss influence here in Annecy was immediately felt. There were all kinds of cowbells ranging in size from tiny to huge, big huge beer steins, even these glacier- climbing shoes!
We walked around and explored this super charming little town. Annecy is often referred to as the “Venice of the Alps” because there are all kinds of canals that wind through the city with the most amazingly clear blue water. Lake Annecy is known to have the cleanest water in Europe and is filled by melting ice from up in the Alps.
There were big beautiful swans floating down these quaint little canals and with the Alps easily visible in the distance, it was just gorgeous.
We spent most of Saturday walking around exploring the old town of Annecy. There were so many things to see! Thank goodness we brought our warmest coats because with the cold + wind off the lake, it was freezing! It definitely reminded us of winter.
Our apartment was a true gem. It was situated in the old town near many shops and historic sites but was beautiful, spacious and had a modern-feel to it. Chuck and I had the whole upstairs as a suite and one whole wall of the apartment was a 2 story glass windows with a beautiful view of the street below….
On Saturday night, we found a pub near our apartment to grab dinner and it felt kind of strange to sit in this restaurant decked out in Halloween decor, we had to walk thru some cobwebs to get to our table… still not sure I understand the whole Halloween thing here in France. You definitely see black and orange and witches, pumpkins and other Halloween decor in store windows, a little in restaurants also, but from what I’ve been told, they don’t actually trick or treat. Which is why I still can’t figure out who buys all the costumes you see for sale in various stores….. there are not enough Americans (at least in Clermont) to buy all those costumes! Regardless, the whole Halloween season here in France is just different.
On a side note, speaking of Halloween, we wondered how the kids would do with being in France at Halloween and missing one of their favorite nights of the year back home. One of the ex-pat families were kind enough to host a huge Halloween costume party for everyone in mid-October and so the kids got to dress up and paint/carve pumpkins and it was lots of fun! We missed trick or treating but it definitely filled a void!
Back to Annecy…
On Sunday, we wanted to do a few things that would give us the true “Annecy” feel. One of the best ways we have found to explore the unique foods, art, antiques, etc in cities we have visited is to head to the market. As I’ve posted about previously, most cities have an outdoor market on certain days of the week, some just on Saturday. Lucky for us, Annecy’s big market is on Sunday mornings, so off we went! Since the large majority of the restaurants in Annecy close on Sundays, we decided to stock up on some things to make dinner that night. Along with lots of fresh produce, we also picked out some fresh pasta, pesto, and bread. I have honestly never seen a bigger loaf of bread than the one this baker was slicing bread from. I’m also not sure we have ever paid 5 euros ($6!!!) for bread! But, as there seemed to be one “size” being sold, that’s what we went with.
From a culinary standpoint, one of the things this Haute-Savoie region of France is known for is its cheese, particularly Raclette or Reblochon, which are often served in melted form, as either fondue (along with a blend of several other cheeses) or raclette. With fondue, a pot full of cheese is brought out, placed on a heating element at the table and served with a platter of various things such as boiled potatoes, ham/cured meat, cornichons and cubes of bread for dipping. Raclette is a little different. In its traditional form, half of a cheese round is put on a stand which faces a heating element and drips onto the plate below, allowing you to tilt the stand down if you want more cheese, or back if you’ve had enough 🙂 Both are usually priced per person on the menu but always to serve a minimum of 2 people, meaning it would be trés expensive and only make sense if there were 2 people sharing. Restaurants everywhere were serving this yummy goodness and I wanted in. Though I still remember Chuck literally fasting through our cheese fondue meal in Switzerland 20 yrs ago only to stop at McDonald’s immediately after, I prepped him for our plan ahead of time and convinced him to try it. What a fun surprise!
Because it was so cold out, all of the restaurants on the river were full inside, but there were open tables outside and so we opted to bundle up and tough it out. Thank goodness for the warm blankets they put out on the chairs for crazy people like us.
The restaurant that we chose served raclette in more modern form- a table top grill with several small pans on both sides in which to put the cheese slices. The waiter brought it out to us to plug in and heat up while we waited.
The our food came, he literally placed an entire huge plate of sliced cheese in front of me along with a few others. It looked like a huge feast! We had also wanted to try some of the regional wine and so, based on a recommendation from our server, we ordered a Savoie white and it was perfect! Though the cheese was kinda smelly (along with most of the cheese here in France) it tasted so good. We weren’t able to get the kids to try it (they really haven’t gotten on board with the cheese here yet)- but they had lots of fun playing with the raclette grill and surprisingly, Chuck enjoyed it!
After lunch, we decided to visit Chateau d’Annecy, a big castle which was easily a 10 minute walk uphill from where we were staying and I kept stopping as we walked up the road to turn around and take pictures. The view was incredible!
It was a cold, cloudy, misty afternoon that really added to the medieval feel of this big old castle. The boys had fun running around in the giant courtyard before we headed in to explore.
The chateau has a few different sections, some newer than others, the oldest part being the Tour de la Reine (the Queen’s tower), built in the 12th century, with the first document found documenting the chateau found in 1219. I couldn’t get over the size of the rooms, especially this huge one that I pictured as a dining room, but read it was actually used for several things, even a barracks for soldiers at one point. It was hard to imagine a table long enough to take up space in this giant room and the fireplace itself was massive!
We even read that the walls in this section were 13 feet thick in order to ensure safety during enemy attacks long ago. We walked up a few flights of stairs and were able to look out for a beautiful view of Annecy.
One thing in the tower that totally captured the boys’ interest was the “toilet” which really was not a toilet at all, but just a hole in the ground. Somehow, anything having to do with this topic just never gets old for them and always brings tons of laughter. 🙂
Some of the newer sections of the castle were built 6 centuries ago and after being abandoned for a few hundred years, it was bought and restored by the city of Annecy to become a museum which houses all types of art- medieval, lots of alpine art and also some very interesting modern art as well (a video screen of a girl dancing with a giant glass cube over her head…?).
After grabbing a few pictures from behind the castle overlooking the lake, we headed back down so that Wells could get the gaufre (waffle) with Nutella that he’d been dreaming about all day long. He had passed up some amazing looking cappuccino muffins from a coffee shop near our apartment that morning in hopes of a waffle only to find out that waffles in Annecy are only served in the afternoons, more as a snack rather than breakfast like we eat them back home. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to eat this entire huge thing, but he had no problems.
We headed back to an art studio at the base of the hill that had some beautiful, reasonably priced art with all types of different images of Annecy, the lakes, mountains, etc. and after commiserating, we were all able to agree on one in particular of Lac Annecy and the alps behind it, with lots of grey and a few bright orange pops of color. The rest of the night we spent in, cooking and staying warm; it was FREEZING!
Monday was my most favorite day of all that we have spent in the 4.5 months we have lived in France.
Because it was (slightly warmer) and sunny we thought it might be the best day to take a boat tour of the Lake. We had bought tickets for 11:30, but (as is common in France), it wasn’t exactly clear when the correct time was to board the boat, so when we walked up and there was a boat waiting full of people, we walked on to grab a seat. To our surprise, as soon as our tickets were punched and we walked on, the boat pulled away and off we went! We laughed realizing that we must’ve gotten the last few seats on the 11:00 boat. Ha!
The ride was quite cold and windy, but worth all of the amazing views we were able to see of the mountains and the lake itself, which is crystal clear. We easily took 50+ pictures, but I am including a few of our favorites…
After we got back to land, we ate lunch and headed home to change into warmer clothes before heading off to a nearby ropes course 20 minutes outside of Annecy, up in the mountains.
It’s amazing how 20 minutes in the car full of windy roads full of switchbacks can make you feel pretty yuck, but luckily it was only 20 minutes and we were all (except Chuck) thrilled to hop out of the car when we arrived. We weren’t exactly sure which course Wells would be tall enough to do, but since he was too short for the Junior course, he and I headed off to the “children’s” course.
Lucky for us, the instructors spoke wonderful English (which I guess is pretty important when you are briefing people on safety) and so we geared up and off we went! The children’s course had 4 different runs, each successively higher and more difficult. Since Wells had never done anything like this (nor had I!) I wasn’t sure how he would do, but with the excitement and adrenaline of it all, before I knew it, we were up high and he was way out in front of me, stepping from one lone wood plank to another, with only a rope on one side or even up above to grab onto!
He hesitated a little here and there, especially on one in particular where you had to step from one to another step that each seemed to be pretty far apart. I was even freaked out! This was the “children’s course” right?
The first 2 courses each ended with a zipline that didn’t seem to faze Wells. Both times he asked me to “just push” him off the ledge, but when we got to the 3rd one, which was much higher and longer, he kinda lost it and started crying and yelling at the same time, as if he was having such an inner battle! I’ve never seen this side of him! But, after a minute or two of encouragement and another push:) he was off and down he went. It was getting cold and darker and my little man was done- we opted out of the 4th and final run.
The other guys did great! Owen, (who we all believe was a monkey in another life) was especially in his element- climbing, swinging, etc. I think we were each adequately challenged while having a great time.
While waiting on Chuck and the other boys to finish, Wells and I left the ropes course area and headed over to sit up on this big grassy clearing overlooking Annecy and the lake that served as a takeoff strip for hang gliding. Wells loved running around and gathering sticks to put together to form a “W” on the side of the hill.
After watching Chuck and the boys take their final zipline run over the parking lot, they finished up and joined us. As they came up and joined us, even the boys were speechless.
Just standing there and taking in this spectacular view was truly humbling to say the least. I have these moments where I can’t help but wonder if I deserve this experience, this time, this season. How did we ever get so lucky?? I wanted more than anything to be able to imprint this image into my brain along with the memories of this day so that we could relive them over and over again. I tried to capture the view with my camera, but with the sun setting quickly, light diminishing, and my mediocre photography skills, even my fancy Iphone6S+ camera was not able to provide much help.
After heading back into Annecy, we picked up dinner from the cool burger place we had seen advertising the best fries in Annecy and walked back to the apartment. We grabbed a drink and sat outside to freeze our tails off while we waitedon our food. The boys each had a cola made locally and they were gone in no time!The burgers and chicken fingers (coated in cornflakes!) were much enjoyed, the fries too! Everyone hit the rack, sad to say goodbye to Annecy, but excited to explore Grenoble the next day before heading home to Clermont.
Tuesday morning was Halloween. Though we were on vacation in this beautiful place, it felt strange to wake up and not have costumes and trick or treating to look forward to. We grabbed breakfast, hopped in the car and had plans to stop on our way out of Annecy at a nearby gorge 15 minutes outside of town that we had both heard and read as something not to miss. On the drive there, Owen was feeling pretty sad about the Halloween thing and we spent time talking about how this may not feel like the traditional Halloween, but that it would still be one he would remember! He perked up a little but was definitely kinda down. When we got to Gorge de Fier and parked, we noticed that the parking lot was empty other than another car that had pulled up at the same time. We all got out and were slowly making our way down to the entrance to the gorge. I wondered where all the other cars were? Assuming it opened around 9 or even 10, maybe it was just quiet on a Tuesday. When we got to the gate to enter the bridge that walks thru the actual gorge, it was locked and the whole area was deserted..
It turns out closed for season October 15:( We were so bummed! But, as it was a sunny and cool morning, we were still able to see some nice views so instead of heading back to the car, we hiked up 1 km to a nearby castle that we could see from down below.
Unfortunately, it was also closed, but we were able to get pretty close to it. It was really strange how deserted the whole area was. After about an hour, we hiked back and when we got to the car, Chuck noticed that Wells’ booster seat was dumped on the floor inside and the seats had been lifted up. We ran around to the back of the car and discovered that everything in the back was completely gone- all of our suitcases, bags, Chuck’s work bag with his work computer containing all his work files, etc, his work phone, Wells’s and Owen’s stuffed animals and blankets, the boys’ bags with their electronics/headphones and toys. We noticed the smaller of the 2 driver’s side windows had been smashed.
It truly felt like so surreal. Did this really happen? We were all speechless and then, the next minute, it started to hit each of us, the things that were in those bags-important things like Chuck’s passport which was in his work bag, inconvenient things to miss- clothes, shoes, makeup, toiletries, brushes, etc. the monetarily valuable things- iPads, iPods, etc etc, but Owen immediately realized that his most beloved stuffed monkey, “Ah Ah” that has slept by his side every night of his 9 1/2 years had been stuffed in his backpack along with his favorite blanket, which was now gone. He fell apart. It was one of the saddest moments I’ve felt for poor O, who is one snuggly guy and has always loved all things soft and stuffed! Wells, our little packrat, had brought all of his little trinkets, writing notebooks, pens, momentos he has collected during our time in France and Italy, even his travel journal where he has written about our different trips so far. Ugh! My heart was broken for these guys! And yet, it was the most helpless feeling ever. There was nothing we could do! Here we were, in this abandoned area outside of a town in a country where we barely spoke the language and had no idea who to call or where to go. Our “police, theft, crime, insurance” French vocab was definitely lacking….
Chuck went into action mode and first called his assistant at Michelin to shut down his computer access and notify their IS security team. He called insurance to start a claim and was advised to go to the police to file a report. After finding it on the GPS, we arrived at the address, but after walking around a bit and even shown where to go by a local, when we arrived, it was permanently closed. What now?
By this time, it was lunch, there were no restaurants nearby and, as even our bag of snacks had been stolen, we decided to hit the nearby Casino grocery store to replenish our stolen snacks. Chuck and I were in such shock we were kinda wandering around the grocery store like zombies… so as you do when your parents aren’t paying attention, the boys filled our cart full of candy, cookies, chips, you name it. It was Halloween after all!?! They even came across some random masks in the grocery store which gave them a good laugh.
We grabbed our bunch of unhealthy snacks and went and sat in the park. Very unfortunately, on the way there, Wells stepped in a giant pile of dog poop and the bottom of one shoe was completely covered. As if this day could not get any worse! We did our best to remove it but as we sat in the police station lobby later while Chuck filed a police report, the stench was overwhelming- poor buddy- none of us could stand to sit near him. Since we now had nothing but the clothes on our backs, we would have to cancel our plans to Grenoble and head home to Clermont, but the idea of riding 4 hours home in the car with said- odor was now nearing impossible and so on our way out of town we stopped at the mall and bought him a new pair of shoes.
After an hour long traffic jam due to a blocked road leaving Annecy and traveling a km in the wrong direction, we were off. Luckily, we had found some duct tape buried down in the driver’s side door (camo of course!) and miraculously, there was just enough to tape up our broken window and enjoy a less windy and cold drive home.
Later that night, about an hour out of Clermont at a rest stop, Chuck checked his email and noticed a strange and cryptic email written in very poor English (not unusual) and said that our bags may have been found and to call a certain number to get more information. The sender claimed to be from a police station we didn’t recognize, nor were we able to locate on google map. So weird. Chuck was a little suspicious about who may have sent this message, as he had not given his email address to the Annecy police.
The next day was a national holiday and so all police stations were obviously closed, but, after remembering that our email addresses were written on ID tags inside of our suitcases, Chuck responded to the email and asked for more information, which he quickly received a response to and it was also added that his passport had been found as well. Still a little skeptic, the next day he received an email from the US Embassies in both France and Switzerland that his passport had been located and was at the police station signed in the email. At that point, we decided he would need to drive back to Annecy that next day to get the passport, and whatever was left of our bags. He had tried to find out more information about this, but details were not clear which of our bags were found vs. still missing and what things were or were not inside.
That Friday, Chuck left at 5am and the kids were on pins and needles waiting for Chuck to arrive to Annecy and send us a confirmatory photo of what had been found.
This was the first photo:
Ah Ah was found!!! Owen was literally floating through the rest of the day and when Chuck called to say he was parking outside, the boys ran out of the apartment and down the stairs, out the door to our car to see what had been found…
After emptying out all the bags of clothes, etc and sorting them into the correct pile, we had to inventory each item against the list we had made the first 2 days when things were still fresh in our mind of what each bag contained…
What a mess!
In the end, aside from all of our electronics, headphones, chargers, a backpack, a fleece vest, my jewelry and a bottle of wine, every other single thing, all of our clothes, (everything!) was back in our possession and for that we were beyond grateful. What are the chances that any of it would have been found? Does that ever even happen? The list of things that needed to be replaced was now much shorter than we originally thought and, though this process will likely require a lot of time, patience, and help from our American friends both here (traveling to US and back) and family back home, willing to pack and carry heavy electronic items, etc to us, we are truly so lucky.
This week, Chuck was contacted by an individual in Morocco that purchased his stolen phone. He was asking Chuck to de-link his cloud account to the phone since he was now the proud owner of the phone and didn’t want Chuck’s data on there. At first Chuck was hesitant- I mean, this guy had HIS phone after all? Why should he have to do that? He finally agreed to do it, but it took a few days to figure out how to go about doing so. The guy wouldn’t let it go. In some sort of strange form of retaliation, he ended up going into my Yahoo account and changing my password so that I was unable to access my account. He emailed Chuck to let him know and obviously, Chuck ended up figuring things out and the guy gave us the new password so that I could go back in and access my account. So thoughtful of him. Hoping this is the end of this crazy saga.
It’s been a crazy few weeks! So though we had a different vision for what our October school break was going to look like (having our visas! traveling to Vienna! no- Annecy! Grenoble! no- home to Clermont!) we are continuously reminded that we really have no control at all over what’s around the corner for us. The sooner we learn to sit back and enjoy this crazy adventure, the better!