Saturday, June 29, 2013

The making of a pianist - vacation in France - XI

June 24, 2013.  Monday

The kids slept in the car on the way back from our climbing trip last night and went to school as scheduled this morning.  After school, Zhuzhu did some extra work for her tiger mother: she went to practice her piano, although she was clearly needing sleep.

Speaking of piano, here is a chance to go deeper on the topic.  

Have you guys read the famous tiger mother book yet?  No, I have not either, but I've been living a life as a tiger mother of 2 cubs myself in the past 6.5 years.  So it should not be too difficult for me to write a book of my own.  Here is how a pianist is made in my practice.

The story starts in the summer of 2010 when Zhuzhu was nearly 3.5 year old, a random email from a piano teacher Ms. Hua to our Chinese community implanted an idea to my head.  Somehow the fact that all of the other piano teachers that I had contacted rejected to accept students under age 5 did not stop my dreaming of making a pianist out of our premature and music-loving daughter.  Ms. Hua was recruiting new students and I was trying to expose Zhuzhu to piano as early as possible.  Plus, the piano teacher lived only few streets away from our house so we went to meet Ms. Hua at her studio.

"Don't you think it's too early for Zhuzhu to start piano?  Does she even want to do that?"  The Daddy warned me before we headed out.  "What?  Have you ever met a single Chinese who made into a good college without being able to play piano like a pro?!"  I protested.  "No, but I am sure there are plenty.  And by the way, our kids are not Chinese."  He tried to put a new ID on our kids.  Good try, baby, but they were!  I left home and he knew better not to intervene with a tiger nurturing her cubs.

There we were, the 4 of us in the living room/studio: Zhuzhu was sitting in front of a piano with Ms. Hua and Niuniu and I were sitting behind them to be Zhuzhu's moral support.  Ms. Hua patiently taught her how to count her fingers by putting both hands against each other and asked her to round up her hands as if she was holding an apple when she pressed the keys... The girl was sitting there but doing nothing.  She refused to imitate nor would she bother to make a proper eye contact with the teacher.

In the following few lessons, Zhuzhu remained to be unresponsive to Ms. Hua.  The poor teacher tried to bribe her with little stickers, cakes, candies, and even small toys, but nothing had changed.  Our girl often asked to leave as soon as we walked in the studio.

One time we were late for our lesson yet Zhuzhu chose that particular moment to cry out loud, so loud that I had to turn my head to the back seat to examine under what type of horrible distress she was.  The next second, our car rolled ahead right into a Jaguar parked beside the curb, resulting a big dent on its front door.  Damn, why could not you choose a cheaper one to kiss?!  I blamed my Toyota Rav4.  Thankfully the Jaguar owner was nowhere to be found so I had decided first to rescue our remaining piano lesson time and then to come back to deal with the Jaguar owner - this reminds me that I did not need to pay $250 deduction.  But I did try by calling Geico and was told that cars do kissing each others on occasions and not to worry about it.  "Seriously?" I asked, "It was my Rav4 rolling into the Jaguar.  Why am I not responsible for the deduction?"  I am known to be dumb.  He gave me few reasons but I could not grasp any of what he told me on the phone so I concluded that either the Geico representative was as dumb as I or the Jaguar owner was super sympathetic and generous who paid the deduction for a sleep-deprived mother!

Well, that small accident made us to revisit our decision of making a pianist out of a 3 year old!  

The Daddy said, "Some kids just don't' like to play piano."
Zhuzhu said, "Mommy, I'll play piano again later when I am older."
The tiger mother said, "Promise?!" to Zhuzhu, and then
Zhuzhu said, "I promise!"

When Zhuzhu walked away, the Daddy said to me, "Good luck on forcing your childhood dreams upon your kids."

Fabrice had been either blind or deaf to our little Zhuzhu's hidden talents.  The girl could sing all the songs in Mulan in both Chinese and English when she was not even 2 and could hardly express herself with words yet!  She also was able to manipulate computer to dig out youtube videos at that age to learn those songs!  Plus, both her parents love music, how far can an apple fall from the tree?

Anyway, I had not given up so 2 years later in the summer of 2012, Zhuzhu became quite anxious about having no special plans for the summer, which somehow reminded me her promise.  I determined to find her a good piano teacher.  Coincidently, Zhuzhu's Chinese dance teacher organized a big year-end party at that time, which provided a great opportunity for me to ask around.  Waring the most charming mask, I actively engaged myself with everyone at the party.  Then I met a mother of 2 children who happened to work closely with a colleague of mine so we chatted like old friends.  "So have you started your kids with piano lessons yet?"  When the first opportunity arrived, I asked.  Her youngest was 2 years older than Zhuzhu and tips from her might be quite relevant.  "Yes."  She answered positively.  Oh, great, we were getting somewhere.  "Do your kids like their piano teacher?"  I continued to lead the conversation.  She looked at me and smiled, but did not answer immediately.  "Oh, isn't s/he any good?"  I did not let her go off the topic so fast.  Come on, give me some help here.  "My daughter likes Ms. Alice but not my son."  She answered me.  "Oh, why is that?"  I needed to evaluate where the problems lied.  "Ms. Alice is very passionate and serious about her job, but my son does not like to practice at home."  She explained and then added, "The piano teacher does not praise her students AT ALL if she does not think the kids deserve it."  This last sentence really helped me to make my decision.

Then I made her promise me to send me Ms. Alice's contact information before she left the party.  I am that pushy!

After the party, I started to prepare Zhuzhu for the new teacher.  Have I told you that our girl needs to be prepared for every single task as little as a birthday party and as big as piano lessons?

"Zhuzhu, remember 2 years ago you promised me that you would pick up piano lessons later when you  were a bit older?"  I asked Zhuzhu soon after the summer party.
"Yes."  The girl does have superb memory.
"Don't' you think it's about time to do that now?  You are going to big kids' school after the summer.  Your friends Kailyn and Marie have already started their piano lessons few months ago." I am good at using her peers.
"I just found a great piano teacher for you at your Dance Party last Saturday.  Ms. Alice is a great piano soloist.  Do you know what that means?"
"That means she often plays piano on a big stage.  Isn't that cool to have a stage performer to be your piano teacher?"  I made this up to take the advantage of the fact that Zhuzhu just had her ballet recital not long ago on a big stage and fell in love with the spot light.
I waited, patiently, and then I heard this,
"But Mama, I only promised to go back to Ms. Hua.  I don't want take lessons from another piano teacher.  I don't like to have a new teacher!"  True, kiddo, but Ms. Hua could not even make you talk to her, let alone teach you anything about piano!  I did not say this, instead, I said,
"You have not even met her yet, how would you know.  Why don't you go to meet her and then decide?"

That's my girl.  She fell right in the trap!  The first attempt was a success and I left the topic there until I confirmed our audition date and time in the middle of the summer.

Ms. Alice only teaches in the late afternoon so we arrived at 5 pm on a Friday, a time of the day and the week that Zhuzhu would be tired and cranky for our audition/interview.  The teacher dressed casually, in another words, she was not in a "beautiful" dress to attract Zhuzhu who seemed only like girls in princess dresses.  So the same story had happened: Zhuzhu did not answer a single question that Ms. Alice asked with words, body language, or eye sights.  Ms. Alice then interviewed us parents.  While we were answering her questions, Zhuzhu and Niuniu acted like 2 little monkeys moving about, touching every thing reachable, jumping up and down, giggling loudly, turning the little chairs upside down... When we got them to be quiet by providing our attentions, Niuniu, instead of Zhuzhu, played a few notes for Ms. Alice.

How embarrassing, I told Ms. Alice that Zhuzhu was mature and ready for piano lessons.  Now can you imagine how we get things started?

Here is the moment to test who is a real tiger Mom!

"Mommy was very disappointed in you, Zhuzhu."  I guilted her on the way home.
"Could you tell me a single reason why you behaved so badly in Ms. Alice's studio."
"Do you want to start your lessons this summer?"
"You don't have to learn to play piano if you really don't want to.  But I want to tell you that soon you will find that you are the only one who doesn't know how to play piano among all your friends."  I love to use peer pressure.
"There is one more thing I wanted to make it clear to you here and now: piano is not something that you can learn quickly.  It takes a life time to master.  The earlier you start, the easier you feel.  If you don't start now, when you turn to a teenager or even older, you will never be able to play as well as your friends who start early."
"Ms. Alice is a great teacher and she can only take 2 new students this summer (I did not make this up).  There are many students waiting to get in her classes.  If you won't take the opportunity this time, you may never have it later on."

Although I had been monologuing, I knew the girl heard every word.  I also knew that she needed her time to process what she heard.

Soon the Daddy was calling us for dinner.  So I let her off the hook but kept my straight face during the entire dinner time.  Little kids are smart creatures and cannot afford losing their parents' love.  That is why they look so cute, cuddly, and inresistable!

Immediately after the dinner, Zhuzhu announced, "I'll go to piano lesson next week."

Having been a parent for 5 whole years, I still needed to be reminded the obvious fact that our little girl would only be agreeable when her little tummy is full!  

"I knew that you would come around!"  I asked her to send herself to me and she knew that's the signal for her tiger Mommy to show her some love.  Tightly caging her in my arms and chest, I told her, "As soon as you can play a few songs, you will be in love with the piano.  I am hoping that you will soon to be able to teach your little brother."

I ended my monologs with a positive and loving tone.

Then I informed Ms. Alice about Zhuzhu's decision.  As predicted, the decision couldn't be made by Zhuzhu alone.  The piano teacher only agreed to give Zhuzhu a test lesson before her formally accepting her.

Our first lesson was scheduled on the following Tuesday from 4:45 to 5:15 pm.  This time, I carefully prepared Zhuzhu.  I brought her freshly cut apples and fruit juice.  From Zhuzhu's daycare to Ms. Alice's studio was a 5 min walk, I took the time to go over rules and consequences for each of her potential behavior.  I emphasized once more that she did not have to play piano well for the first time, but she had to give it a try.

She understood what "give it a try" meant because that was what we would say whenever we presented her food that she might not like.  She knew if she tried it and disliked it, we would not force her for another bite.  Although a "give piano a try" would have been "give it many tries until you are fed up by it". 

When we arrived, Zhuzhu walked in the studio and sat down in front of the piano obediently.  Ms. Alice sprayed her hands with sensitizer and then taught her how to properly sit and where her feet should be rested so that she would be stable.  That alone, took more than 5 min!  Then she went on to teach her to breath and relax as if it was a "Yoga" class.  That took another 5 min.  Then it's time to take a look at the instrument.  Ms. Alice pointed at the keys and told Zhuzhu the total number of the keys and their arrangement.  Following that, it was Zhuzhu's turn to find all the black "2s" and "3s" with 2 and 3 fingers, respectively.  Then Zhuzhu was introduced to 2 notes, "A dog house (D) in between 2 black keys and a cat house (C) left to D.  Lastly, it's time to play pepperoni pizza.  Zhuzhu made an eye contact with me and smiled as soon as she heard the words of pepperoni pizza.  I knew that Ms. Alice had her at that moment.  Zhuzhu likes familiarity and she has learned "pepperoni pizza" from her best friend Marie recently.  She showed her eagerness to show Ms. Alice what she "knew" but the experienced teacher did not let her.  Instead, Ms. Alice took the opportunity to ask her to clap hands repeating after her.  Zhuzhu imitated her teacher flawlessly without the need of being shown twice!  She got all those rhythms of the 5 twinkle variations in the Suzuki book I!  I am pretty sure it was at then that the teacher knew that she was getting a perfect student.  Zhuzhu was impressive even to me.  She earned her chance to finally touch the piano now.  Ms. Alice showed Zhuzhu how to get the hand position first: open the right hand, stretch out all her five little fingers, turned her hand a bit so her pinky would point to the air and the thumb would touch the middle C, then stroke the key in the first rhythm that she clapped a moment ago.  Zhuzhu happily played as instructed until she finished all the rest of the 7 notes in one shot.

The whole process of Zhuzhu's first lesson surprised both Ms. Alice and me.  The teacher walked us out of the studio and said, "Mia is a totally different person today.  Let's get her started this summer."

She got in, yay!  

On the way back, I told Zhuzhu, "You made my day!", which followed by a shower of kisses.  I love to touch her smooth cheeks and to tickle her soft necks with my lips.  She waited until my craziness bursted out and said, "You know, Mommy, pepperoni pizza has the same tune as twinkle twinkle little star"!

Told you, apples don't fall too far from the tree.  In fact, that was an underestimate.  An accurate description about her should be that her sense of tunes is sharper than both Fabrice's and mine.

So was our Zhuzhu on her rocket way to becoming a pianist?  

Not so fast.  

After few lessons, Zhuzhu had shown her reluctance to go piano lessons, again!

It would be a lie if I was surprised.  But the reason that she gave me somewhat surprised me.  The girl did not play to make ME or herself happy but to please her teacher and then she expected the teacher to please her back by... her stickers!

As simple as that!

"Ms. Didi (ballet teacher) gives me stickers and Ms. Xiaolin (Chinese dance teacher) gives me stickers.  I don't like Ms. Alice, she does not give me anything, even though I play well!"  She complained.  "Marie gets stickers and toys after her piano lessons."  She was not ready to stop.  "Listen Zhuzhu, you have gotten Ms. Alice's smiles and praises.  These are much better than stickers."  I even reminded her that she never kept her interests on any stickers more than 10 min anyways.  "But I like stickers."  She insisted.  I was ready to suggest Ms. Alice to do that specially for her.  Yet at the next lesson, I forgot to bring Zhuzhu's piano books and the lesson following that, Zhuzhu did not get any praise from her teacher due to lack of significant progress.  So the opportunity for me to bring up the topic did not appear.

In one of the following lessons, Ms. Alice asked Zhuzhu to strike the keys hard but the girl kept playing gently.  The shyness in Zhuzhu's personality made this weak stoke clearer.  Ms. Alice turned to me and asked, "Do you have access to a real piano for her to practice?"  I was embarrassed for lacking of confidence in Zhuzhu's love for piano and for showing Ms. Alice as a uncommitted parent.

Told you this teacher is good in all levels.

In responding to Ms. Alice recommendation/pressure, Fabrice and I immediately invested a real and brand new piano.  By then I knew her enough to keep my mouth shut about the stickers that Zhuzhu wanted so badly.  It would definitely not be of her tool to motivate her students!

So the "I hate piano and I don't like Ms. Alice!" continued for few more weeks.  At that point, our honeymoon was clearly over and Ms. Alice showed her strict style, which scared Zhuzhu a bit.  When Zhuzhu cried prior to her next lesson, I made an appointment with Marie's piano teacher.  My logic was  simple: I did not want 花钱买罪受 (Huā qián mǎi zuì shòu, spending to be punished)!

It was then that Fabrice reinvented his "Golden Star" rewarding system.  He sticked a piece of blank paper on the fridge and said to Zhuzhu, "Now if you get praise(s) from Ms. Alice, you will get a big star.  If you practice at home for more than 10 min any day, you also earn a star.  If you earn a total 7 stars, you can buy a small toy."

The Daddy stood up for Ms. Alice, what a surprise!  He was the one warned me not to have my hopes up for this piano teacher at begin with.  He told me that he had never believed that Zhuzhu would even touch the piano with an ounce of passion or seriousness, but she had demonstrated her persistent attendance and this level of commitment has made "significant" progresses already.  True, she moved on from "pepperoni pizza", "quick slow/roll quick", "run bonny, run bonny", to ... and finally to a whole "twinkle"!

Few lessons following the Daddy's rewarding system, Zhuzhu went to her lesson happily and played pieces of her homework almost perfectly to Ms. Alice.  I did not expect that because she never did her daily practice, not even every other day practice.  Her "homework" was usually done 15 min prior to her lesson.  It's a mystery to me how little girl's mind works.  Just at the moment that I was ready to quit Ms. Alice, Zhuzhu fell in love with her.  When I revealed this cheating behavior of her to Ms. Alice, her initial response was surprised and then she had figured out why she could do that, "Well, the pieces in Fabor's book I are all quite short so she succeeded so far.  But from Book II and beyond, there will be no way she can still cheat."  How disappointing, I thought I had a talented daughter!

Needless to say, Zhuzhu's performance was highly praised by Ms. Alice so our appointment with Marie's sticker-giving teacher never occurred.  In the mean time, Zhuzhu has never earned her 7 stars either.  The piece of paper with few stars on it mysteriously disappeared - we were all too busy and forgetful to keep track a piece of paper.  That also tells you how "often" and "hard" she got her praises and "practiced" at home! 

Clearly, she does not need another toy to motivate herself.  But she continued to ask for stickers.  And my answer to this request has also been consistent, "You are a big girl now and your school teachers do not give students stickers either but they do praise you and give you various rewards if you do well.  Ms. Alice treats you as a big girl, you see."  

Half of a summer and a fall semester later, Zhuzhu progressed to learn how to coordinate left and right hands.  Ms. Alice showed her how to slowly put both hands together to try to play Cuckoo right before the winter break, "It is extremely hard.  Most of my students take months to master.  The good news is that they all eventually get it.  Give it a try during the winter break and see how it goes."  The teacher challenged and encouraged Zhuzhu and the latter was motivated.

During the winter break, Zhuzhu taught herself to the entire Cuckoo.  When her Spring class began, she made Ms. Alice cry!

Following that, it has become easier and easier for me to take her to lessons.  She is now a great piano player among her peers, which has led to a "superior" grade from her first piano competition this Winter and the third place at this semester's recital early this Summer.  Objectively speaking though, Zhuzhu does not play piano as well as majority of the other Ms. Alice's students.  She got the 3rd place because the judge has taken into the consideration of the length of time for each student to reach a certain level.

On the way home after the piano recital, Zhuzhu said, "I knew I would get a prize."  Her confidence sent a chill to my spine.  What if she did not win anything?  Again, I failed to make her understand the truth at this point.  Remember I also did not tell her that she had not passed the "standard test" to label herself as a "genius".  Zhuzhu still says that she hates piano often and still asks me to sign her "off" piano lessons.  But she never means it.

How do I know, you say?  Because she does not play piano for me, for Ms. Alice, or anyone else anymore, she plays for herself now.  She enjoys playing piano and she likes to put on a "piano show" for her audience, at witch she and her friend(s) or her brother take turns to play a piece of music.  I invented the game because I was inspired by my cousin who made her first daughter a pianist and second a violinist.  These 2 music lovers always put on a duet concert for us every time when we visited them!

Since you have read so far, I am revealing you here and now a top secret of Chinese tiger mother: we don't make little tigers, they are already tigers when they are born.

If Zhuzhu were a tone deaf, no matter how many nights that I played the piano, she wouldn't respond to the musics that she heard with accuracy.  Right, I forget to mention that I had put my rusty fingers on a piano almost every night after the kids go to bed, didn't I?  Ever heard a quote from Kathleen Casey Theisen "Most kids hear what you say, some kids do what you say but all kids so what you do."  Well, now you have.  I'd learned it from a newsletter from the kids' daycare teacher.

I played piano almost every single night for a period of time with the intention to motivate Zhuzhu.  I played so much and so often that made Fabrice to shut the bedroom door in order to sleep and Niuniu to change his bedtime request from "Mommy, can you read me the frog book" to "Mommy, can you come to my bed for 5 min after your piano?"

Zhuzhu may never grow into a professional pianist, but I bet she will develop a stable love for piano and music, just like my niece who is 19 year old now.  She started to learn piano at 4.  She came to live with us for 6 weeks 2 summers ago.  From the second week on, she had shown signs of a drug addict!  Later I found that she was suffered because we did not have a piano at home!  Luckily we found few pianos on campus on which she could put her hands.  She even chose her University to attend based on the very fact that her school has a piano in every classroom!

On what basis that I think that Zhuzhu will turn into my niece?  Zhuzhu, although only has learned piano a year ago, she had also showed signs of missing her piano after 1 short week of her separating with it.

A few weekends back, when she saw the pianos at Rousset's house in Lyon, she immediately put her hands on one of them.  Too bad that we had to cut her show short because we were in a rush to catch our early train.

Last Friday, I was in panic also because I realized that we had not done any piano "homework" and pushed Fabrice to find a piano.  So the man thought about asking whether the city music school could rent a studio to our Zhuzhu and the answer was even better: Zhuzhu's school has a piano and she can play for free.  After school on that day, the Daddy and I took Zhuzhu to visit the campus and she was thrilled to be able to play again!  

"Look, how happy you are now!"  I told her when we finished the practice.  She was embarrassed to be caught happy.  Although it is unclear whether she was happy because she finally was done with part of her homework or because her crave for piano was satisfied.

Either or both makes me happy too.

There you have the story of the making of a pianist.  Stay tuned to see how things will turn out!  A word of warning, if you want to know how to make a real pianist like this, you must first learn Chinese/Cantonese.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A week blotter - vacation in France - X

June 15-16, 2013. Saturday-Sunday

Right, I had started to write about today's activities, but in the afternoon, we drove 50 km to Chalon-sur-Saône and directly arrived the hair salon where Ta Ta (Aunt/Tante) Camille works.  So for the first time in her life, Zhuzhu had sat on a high chair to have some one wash her hair behind, trim her hair in front of a big mirror, then put few fake diamonds on her hair, and finally made some Z patterns on the top of her hair.  Niuniu had similar treatment, but he only had his first hair salon haircut.

The rest of the night and day next, we stayed with Ta Ta, Ton Ton (uncle) Neville, and cousin Stephan.  Not much to report other than the fact it was Sunday and the father's day in France.  The Daddy and Camille went to get some gift for their Daddy yet he managed to forget to bring home to present to his beloved father!

June 17, 2013 Monday

Fabrice got up early and left for Paris to deliver his second last talk.  Good luck Daddy!  Zhuzhu said at breakfast, "It's not fair, why Daddy always goes on business trips but not you, Mommy."  "Someone has to work to make money for us."  I answered.  "Why don't you make money for us then."  She continued to try.  The girl has higher affinity to the Daddy and I can do nothing about it.  It's only a day trip, kiddo, suck it up.  I wanted to say that to her, but trying to be as sweet as possible, I said, "Because here is France and Mommy does not speak French."  She finally shut up, finished her breakfast, and went to school.

It gets very hot now so Emma got the kids 2 new plastic swimming pools and pumped up in the back yard.  The kids jumped between the smaller one to the big one, they had a blast!  Papi also got his huge pool out of the basement and we are preparing for a real summer now!

June 18, 2013.   Tuesday

Well, the huge pool is ready so the kids jumped in, then the smaller ones retired, as you can see it was dried out on the back of the photo - this is how wasteful the French can be, 2 new pools were used for exactly 1 day and the purchaser has even no job.  Emma is still living on social security.  This kills me, really.  If I could speak French, I am sure she will lose all her sisterly love for me.  We adults sit in the shade to avoid sunburns. I know, it's good to be cool there too!

June 19, 2013.  Wednesday

No school today. We are baby sitting.  So I started a new rule: Wednesdays are for Chinese lessons.  She started her Chinese school at 4 but only started to really pick up pronunciation (Pingying) and writing when she was 5 going on 6.  A summer is too long for the 6-old brain to remember what she has learned, I told her.  As much as she wants to act like a little 6-yr-old, Zhuzhu does believe her Mom tigers her for her own good.  So she listened and learned 4 new Chinese characters until her cousins arrived around 11 am.  Immediately they turned wild and jumped in the huge pool naked until 12:30, when a family reunion lunch started.  We were having rabbit meat, which I is special enough for a family gathering!  I did not know that until today because we had this dish each and every previous trip home!

June 20, 2013.  Thursday

A weekend activity planning day.  So many things to do and so little time...

June 21, 2013.  Friday

A music night in town - I'll be back to update the video for you guys.  We went downtown at 6:10 and people already started to show up.  After crossing the bridge over the canal of the city above our parking lot, we met the first band, the musicians were just about to get things going!  Perfect timing, I cheered.  The kids were drawn to the band thus we followed the band walking through the city, along with a larger and larger group of audience, arrived the city hall, which reminded that Fabrice then it was indeed the main band for which he came.  The artists went on the stage in front of the city hall and played another 90 min.  The Daddy was dancing along, holding one kid at a time.  I've never seen the man gets so crazy without few bottles of beer!  He made me hard to believe that he is writing a research grant that will be due at the end of the month!  It seems that his grant gives more pressure to me than to him!  We did not stay for the second band which played on the stage that night though, because our old bones needed a place to sit down.  So we went to a bar where it had a smaller band playing on a smaller stage outside.  The Daddy and Mommy had some beer and the kids had orange juice.  Even in France, we don't let them drink beer in public, no worries.  The good thing here in France though, the bar owner does not get rid of underaged kids if they are accompanied by the responsible parents, you see.  But it's getting cold as soon as the sun went down - right, the sun only went down at around 10 pm.  "Why it was never this bright outside like this before?"  by before I meant during our previous trips to France, I asked the Daddy.  "Oh today is the first day of the summer and the longest day of the year."  He said.  "Summer?"  The man must have lost his mind.  It was too cold for me to finish my beer!

June 22, 2013.  Saturday

We are getting very excited because the Roussets are joining us for another climbing trip!  In preparation of this trip, Fabrice and I went shopping and after that, we took the grandparents and the kids' cousins and Emma to celebrate the Celtic Festival at Mont-Saint-Vincent.  We had dinner at a outdoor theater on the top of a mountain.  The food was catered in by a big trunk to support the concert so it was amazingly tasty and cheep!  Zhuzhu and Niuniu for the first time in their life had few sips of coke-cola offered by their 8 year old cousin Tavin!  The Daddy and I trust our kids have good judgement because their eyes were emitting devious joys while drinking the obesity-induing drug - we had caught them in an iPhone photo but I have only the permission to show it on the Facebook.  This is also why you see only faceless people in my blogs - Anyway, back to the concert, we enjoyed 2 bands, Connor pass and Stone creek from 5:30 - 9:45 pm, the night ended with a huge fire on the top of the mountain. 

June 23, 2013.  Sunday

Got up and left home early and off we go to the cliffs!  A short 25 min drive led us to a hidden gold climbing area Culles-les-Roches where Fabrice knows just about every route by heart.  The talented Daddy made a harness out of few small ropes for the kids to have some fun before the Roussets joining us at midnight.  They need to drive 1.5 hours to meet us here from Lyon and arrived right at noon.  

A short picnic lunch later, we started our serious climbing.  Fabrice seems to find his muscle memory back and he and Rousset belayed each other few times in between teaching our kids.  Zhuzhu and Niuniu did a bit better in climbing up - at least then went to the middle of the cliff this time.  They are still unable to descend without the adults, though.  The youngest in the group, Honore, Rousset's 2 year old daughter, made an huge impression by first asking to climb and second by unwilling to take harness off, and finally by climbing all the way to the top of the mountain, which even Zhuzhu and Niuniu could not make it without crying - yes, we did push a little so they did climb to the top eventually, for just once in a 12-hour climbing day!  The mother had to strip the harness off her tiny body to allow Zhuzhu and Niuniu to have their turns and then she protested by skipping her nap!

We adults also have a much better time than last time.  Fabrice and Rousset did not join us women and children for the due picnic dinner on the rocky tables, because they prefer to take the time to make few more routes without the kids pulling their legs.  The kids did not really eat all that much as no one likes "leftovers" - they just like the concept of picnic!  They were running around and doing the silly things as all the kids do.  Finally, I also joined them for a last fun climb on a more difficult cliff, which I had to cheat to reach the top - do you know what I mean by cheating?  I fell on the rope to put all my weight on the belayer.   

The climbing day started 9 am and ended 9 pm.  Devoted climbers, aren't are?!

Here is how you tell that you enjoyed climbing: your finger tips are hurt and your arms are sore, and you don't want to run next day or two!      

Saturday, June 22, 2013

French food or Chinese food - Vacation in France - IX

Holy cow, I am 10 days behind!  There is no way I can really keep my diary as a daily activities record!  So, here is the glance for the last week day activities.

June 10, 2013.  Monday

We all had only about 5 hours sleep.  A cup of coffee later, Rousset took us to train station and we hopped in without breakfast.  The kids were amazingly resilient, they didn't make any fuss and went to school happily after lunch.  A mini vacation cost them missing half day school in the morning, although we got in town at 8:15 am.

June 11, 2013.  Tuesday

Another school day for the kids.  I sent to le Marche in the morning with the grandma and got myself a pair of shoes, a zipper for Niuniu's sideman jacket and few other items for lunch.  Then I spent the rest of the day to sew the zipper BY HAND - that's the biggest accomplishment today and while sewing, which seemed to be a perfect thing to do while other people sitting around chatting in a language that I cannot grasp.  After lunch, the Grandma prepared 3 big bouquets of flowers for Zhuzhu, Niuniu, and Leone to bring to their school teachers for no reason.  The flowers are home-grown and beautiful.  I was a bit of a surprised but apparently it's normal that little kids bring flowers to teachers randomly without any specific reasons.  Ha, this never happened to me when I was teaching!

June 12, 2013.  Wednesday

School is off, Fabrice and I had our morning run and then we took the kids to have a lunch that lasted until dinner time at Emma's house.  The menu is shown in the following photos.  Our brother-in-law chef who has become a manager in a great restaurant a while ago does not take his job lightly - the items in the following photo are served in a single meal.  Starting from 12 pm, we had our aperitif drinks, which was accompanied by salmon and tuna based snacks, and a pink wine for adults and grenadine or organ juice for kids.  At about 1 pm, salad was presented, it is the regular amount of food that I would eat at work for lunch - look at the thickness of the dried pork and the size of the foie gras, you will have to eat 3 oz of baguette with them, right?  And that appetizer plate goes well with the white wine shown in the tiny photo insert.  So, should we stop here now?  I had no room for any additional food.  But no, the main entree was not even served yet.  After a short break, a new set of plates were presented.  We tomato pork wrapped with turkey breast as a main dish, which was served with 2 pieces baked cheese-potato and baked creamy vegetable.  The main entree goes along with 3 kinds of red wine.  The 2006 one was our gift to the chef/manager.  I surprised myself by finishing all the meat on the plate and then I announced that I won't touch anything else, regardless.  Well, I did not touch the cheese yet could not resist the dessert plater?  No, I guessed it.  Not only had one cup of each, freshly cut fruit mix, home-made cream brûlée with a cherry on the top, and samoule au lait with a raspberry on the top.  Thank god the cups are not gigantic.  After that, I fell in asleep in a big sofa in the living room.  But guess what I saw when I woke up from my nap about 1 hour later?  The kids were happily digging in the large container which was full of freshly fried beignes!

My god, this meal alone requires me to run 10 laps of the lake in town!!! - I have only done only 6 so far for the whole duration of our vacationing!

We concluded a day of food fest with a swimming pool fun in the olympic sized pool.

June 13, 2013.  Thursday

A school day.

June 14, 2013.  Friday.

I went for a run of 50 min in the morning and 1000 meter swimming in the afternoon.  Yay to me!

After the school, the Grandma took the kids to do some shopping without the parents.  Zhuzhu insists that she needs a bikini as her new swimming suit just as what cousin Leone has.  I explained to her that a bikini is not for swimming.  But Grandma could not say no to her precious granddaughter.  The Daddy explains to his tiger wife that the Grandma sees Zhuzhu only once a year at the best, so it would be wise for her to keep the mouth shut.  Guess what happened when a tiger listened to a rat?  Zhuzhu came back home with a white dress and 2 tight-pants, and 8 little colorful bracelets in addition to a set of hello kitty bikini.  And Niuniu who meant to go shopping only for accompanying his sister to enjoy the fun got a pair of spiderman swimming shorts that were tighter than a pair of underwear and a set of sporty clothes!  The daddy did not have any objections.  I am totally shocked by how wasteful the French can be, the boy has 3 sets of swimming trunks and the 3 new sets of soccer uniforms that he received when he arrived France!  On the top of everything, all the clothes they got are either for age of 3 or 5, which is one size smaller than their ages.  In France, all the clothes are already made smaller than what the Americans do in the U.S..  These new ones would only be useful for exactly one time use!

"Here in France,"  the Daddy said, "we swim with real swimming gears and we wear clothes that fit."
Well, we are in France, we do what the French do.

June 15, 2013.  Saturday

In the morning, we went to the Marche in Town for a handbag.  I don't use handbags in my regular researcher life, therefore, there is no point to spend big bucks for a known brand named ones.  Somehow it always seems much more practical to have a handbag when I am in France so that I can carry camera, wallet, cell phone, folded shopping bags, and my glasses, of course.  I have been using my mother-in-law's handbag since I got here this time and fell in love with it.  Her bag has 3 major compartments with 3 top zippers and 2 smaller compartments with smaller zippers and finally 2 additional divided compartments for cell phone and wallet.  It was perfect for my "organizational need" and easy to reach.  So I decided to "chercher" myself one just like hers, because I have never seen people carry such well-designed hand bags in the U.S..  For only 30 euros, I got a fashionable and well-designed handbag.  Great deal!
Speaking of Le Marche, you know about the Farmers' Markets in the U.S., well, in France, they call it Marche, where you buy things from real people.  We love to go Marche in France mainly for local food, but sometimes we can get good stuff, such as the handbag, shoes, and cloths.  Our town has Marche on Tuesday and Saturday mornings only.  But in China, we have it everyday and we go Marche at least twice a day for super fresh vegetable and meats.  

On the top of sharing their love for shopping at le Marche,
the French even live a life as we Chinese do.  They go to local bakers in the early morning to "checher" fresh baguettes or/and croissants for breakfast, then go supermarket or the local Marche to "chercher" fresh vegetables and even more fresh baguettes for lunch and dinner.  Often later in the day, they again go get fresh baguettes, processed meats as appetizers.  Similarly, we Chinese eat our breakfast on the streets for freshly made Baozi, Mantou, Doujian, and Youtiao.  Chinese of my generation don't care too much about lunch, so we often eat quick and simply, either the leftover from the night before or a bowl of rice noodle soup on street restaurants.  Dinner is the most important meal and a regular family of 4 usually will prepare little banquet of 4 dishes and 1 soup (四菜一汤/Sìcàiyītāng).  Look at what I have to give up in all these years in order to living in "the land of free"!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Rock climbing, anyone? - Vacation in France - VIII

June 9, 2013. Sunday  

Planning out daily activities has always been the priority during our previous vacations in France.  This time however, we are quite relaxed because we have 6 weeks in hand, although Fabrice has many meetings to attend, they are all in Paris, so he has been trying to squeeze his business trips within a school day to ensure our family time on weekends and we have been enjoying so far our spontaneous trips such as this one to the Provence, which came from a random phone call from Rousset.   

Since the weather man did not give us too much encouraging news, the two decision makers, Fabrice and Rousset, have not had any concrete outdoor activities planed out yet other than our 2 families should meet at a fun place, in this case, the South of France.  Of course, meeting Rousset's family during our French trips has always been in our "must do list", although most of the times it's the Fabrices hoping in a TGV train from Montceau to Lyon, where Fabrice has few other friends to visit in the same time such as his ex-girlfriend - the man spent his last few years in University of Lyon before he left France for the U.S..  From time to time though, Rousset would take the opportunity to drive his family out of Lyon to meet us somewhere that is worth of our while to visit, such as here and there.

On Sunday morning, we seemed to have a lot of free time by ourselves so we took our time for a big breakfast that Joseph fetched - there is a new bakery in town, he said, as if he needed an excuse to pay that special visit.  During that time, the sun slowly came out, so the 2 French men decided it could be a good day for rock climbing after all.    

Yes, we did take our climbing gears that we had not touched ever since Zhuzhu was implanted in my belly.  It's about time for us to refresh our  rock climbing skills on these beautiful and natural climbing walls at the mountains close to Saint Victoria.  Kids started the trip enthusiastically, particularly Niuniu, they were singing and laughing all the way on the 30 min car ride there.  We even did not have too much trouble to have them gone through the 20 min hike to the cliffs.  However, when we arrived our designated easy cliffs, they hesitated, they climbed up and down the big rocks at the bottom of the cliffs, and occasionally looked up high to watch all of the others to get up and down the cliff.  After we all had our turns, we told the kids it's their turn to put on the harness.  Niuniu happily accepted the challenge, but Zhuzhu declared that she would have nothing to with cliffs whatsoever this time.  Niuniu once his feet touched the rocks on the cliff, he discovered it's not as easy as it seemed and then refused to climb even one step more.  The Daddy had to put him on a spot higher than where he was to allow him at least to learn how to get down by standing on the rock perpendicularly to the cliffs, which made him scream.  Then the belayer Rousset pulled his rope to make sure that he understood that he would not possibly fall off the cliff, yet that did not change the situation, he would not move one inch more for us.  So, we had to let him get off the harness.  Somehow the struggle of his brother got rid of Zhuzhu's fear so she volunteered to go after him, but she was only better than him by 1 more step on the cliff.  Again, the same story repeated once more.  The Daddy bravely climbed up to the middle of the cliff without any ropes and then pull Zhuzhu up so that she could at least experience a bit of climbing on real cliffs.  The girl later admitted to us that she was fearful because she was not any good at climbing on the fake wall at her school.  "Have you already learned to climb at school?"  I was surprised.  "Yes, we have 3 small climbing walls in the old Gym at our school, but I am not any good at climbing, you know."  She admitted.  "That's okay, I know that you are very good at monkey bars."  I am quite proud of our sporty daughter yet in the mean time, I truly wished that she was not as fearful as she has showed today.  

On a sharp contrary, Celesse and Lacie, two older daughters of Rousset, had good time on these cliffs.  They conquered one cliff after another, climing all the way to the top of the rope and went down, quite skillfully.  Our big adults also conquered few of these easy ones and then we headed back home.  It was the first time that Rousset and Fabrice climbed together.  Rousset knows that Fabrice used to be a climbing teacher, of course.  Being a typical French, Rousset could not help but to ridicule his buddy who lost his fitness and climbing techniques, "I thought I was coming with an expert!"  "I have felt what I have been eating."  Fabrice blamed on his weight.  He could not defend himself because he indeed has forgotten some of the skills.  "I need to revisit my climbing books now."  He said on the way back.

The trip was short and sweet.  The only downside was we had to hike a long way to get to those cliffs.  

"We will do more climbing on the cliffs in Montceau."  Fabrice said to me on the way back.  As a retired climbing teacher, he also made a comment about our cliff choices, "The height of the cliffs was way too impressive and intimating to motivate little kids of Zhuzhu and Niuniu's age."  He did not want to hurt Rousset's feelings, so he said this to me while Rousset was busy on taking care of Zhuzhu to hike back down the mountains.  It's quite hard to accommodate our need, because our kids are at different levels.  An easy cliff for Celesse and Lucie would be an impossible cliff for Zhuzhu and Niuniu, especially it was the first time for our kids to experience real rock climbing.

Technically speaking, the cliffs of our choice were appropriate, it was only the height of these cliffs scared our little ones, which reminded me the first time when I was taken to climb in Dijon by Fabrice and his friend Pierre.  Having lived in Gongcheng (恭城) from ages 8 to 15 and Guilin (桂林) from ages 16 to 20, I walked, hiked, and climbed on limestone rocks uncountable times without any protection.  Now these French men put a harness around my waist that was linked to Fabrice, my belayer, I was fearless.  Mimicking the French men, I first stood straight at the bottom of a vertical cliff, inserting my fingers of the right hand inside a perfect crack and then step up on the tip of my right foot in another small eye on the rock, and then quickly I pulled my body up and there, I made my first important step!  Then I inserted my left foot tip into another small crack and finding another place for my left hand, I pulled my body up again.  Slowly and steadily, I kept climbing and walking on the rocky wall like a spider woman.  When I reached the middle of the cliff, I could not locate any place to stabilize my body so I had to move horizontally, which required me to switch weight supporting foot from one to another at the same spot.  That also means I had to use one hand, possibly few fingers, to hang on the rock and let me both foot fly in the air for a brief second.  So I made my first little jump on a vertical cliff, this bravery movement shocked Fabrice and Pierre.  They have brought many beginners to learn how to climb on this particular cliff so they knew I had to overcome that particular spot to reach the top.  Once I progressed over that point, they knew their job was done.  Swiftly I made it all the way to the top and they cheered me at the bottom of the cliff.

"Rock climbing is just a piece of cake!" I thought to myself and was very proud.  Then I forgot to listen to my instructors at the bottom of the cliff.  And I started to "walk" on the top of the mountain - I mean I went a bit too far on the flat top, which resulted the following embarrassing experience.

"Stop, stop, don't climb beyond the anchor (handhold) of the rope!"  Pierre warned me seeing me continued to climb up after reaching the top.  I looked back down and found myself very far from the bottom of mountain.  "It was a small cliff, how the hell it had grown so high?"  I was puzzled, the distance from top of the mountain to the bottom of the cliff was so incredibly impressive and far, I felt that my life now was on a string of the belaying rope.  Oh, by the way, where was my belayer?  They had disappeared.

"Are you down there, Fabrice, are you holding me?"  I shouted in a big panic.

"Yes, but you should not have gone that far.  Come back down now."  Both Fabrice and Pierre answered me back.  But I could not see any of them, nor could I feel the rope was pulled by my belayer.

Have you climbed all the way to the top of a mountain before?  Let me tell you, if you are beginner, more or less you are like me, wear a harness that linked to device on a belayer with a nylon rope on your harness.  The rope is kept tight (taut) by the belayer who takes in the slake in the rope as you move up.  It is in this way that you and the belayer communicate: you are secured by the rope and the belayer and you know that you cannot fall very far if you happen to slip your feet or fingers off the cliff.  Generally speaking though, if you reach the end of the top anchor where the top rope running through and then start walking on the top of the cliff, the protective rope on your would become lose, as you switch from a vertical cliff to a flat area.  Now, you can stay at the top forever.

Why?  Because it is close to impossible for a first timer to reposition his/her body from a safe flat place to a dangerous vertical cliff to be able to get down with the help of the belayer.  It is 100 times harder than climbing up vertically!

That, my friends, I did not know, if was my first time climbing on vertical rocks!

So there I was, stuck on the top of the mountain, feeling no longer secured by the belayer but still having to get back down.  Fabrice and Pierre were no where to be found - I went from the cliff just enough to prevent me to see them at the bottom although I could hear them giving me instructions.  I was unable to understand what they meant by "sitting on the rope!"  "You are okay, you are safe, just try to position your body parallel to the rocks.  Then push your legs so that you can stand on the rocks and slide down."  They did not give up on me, but I did.

I did not move an inch!  I could not move an inch.  I was frozen on the top of the cliff.

Then Pierre had to link himself to the other end of the rope and climbing up without a belayer like he did when he was setting up the top rope protection earlier to put me on the correct position.  He asked me to imitate what he was doing.  What he did was impossible for me to learn.  He crouched down to make a squat as if he would to make a dump in the air on the top of a cliff.  Then he pushed his legs straight against the cliff and started to jump down a step.  I watched the man in shock and heard this, "Trust Fabrice, he won't let you fall.  Just put your body weight on the rope."  "But the rope felt so floppy and lose, how could I put my weight on it?"  I questioned him and myself.  Then he tried to show me how safe I was by moving about his body against the rocks without holding on the rope with his hands.  But for the life of me, I could not make him understand at that point that I was not worried about falling all the way down to kill myself, I was worried about the floppy rope would send my body splashing against the hard rocks.  It will hurt, you see.

In the end, I understood it would be unethical to stay at the top taking up everyone else's joy.  So I must gather every ounce of my courage to get back on the rope to get down.  I grabbed the rope tightly and slowly I was trying to put my body in a sitting position, as instructed.  Fabrice was patiently and carefully belaying me.  He did not take in the rope as much as he did when I was ascending, because that would have pulled me off the cliff.  He did not give me too much slack either, because that would make me feel unsafe.  At the moment that my butt was showing on the cliff again from a hidden position, both Pierre and Fabrice stopped talking.  I almost could feel that he stopped breathing!  As soon as I put my body weight on the rope and straightened my legs, they cheered.  I finally found the safe feeling again.  Fabrice belayed me to fly and jump down the cliff.

I felt like a pro again!

Now where I was on our current climbing?

Oh, right, after climbing trip, we went to have some simple lunch at a bakery where pizza was also served.  It was 4 pm.  Then we drove back to Joseph and Josee's house.  Adalie and her parents were just pulling in the gate of the house.  They went to Marseille for this parade.

The kids again got lost themselves in the backyard as soon as they were out of the car.  We ended our visit to Joseph and Josee's house with another swimming pool fun at almost 7 pm.

We kept ourselves so busy for the outdoor activities this weekend, I even did not have a chance to visit the inside of the main resident area.  The only thing that I know about their house is that they had 3 toilet rooms, one is larger than another, in a row at the main floor.  I found that out because Zhuzhu wanted to pee in the middle of her pool fun in a hurry and I was led to them, yet each of them was occupied by someone...

Well, if you really want to know what the house looks like, you will need to wait for few more years when we will visit them next time, if there will be a next time.  Sorry about that.  

The kids were hunting for wild straw berries in the front yard of the house after the pool, so we know it's time to feed them - Zhuzhu and Niuniu have lived in a very regular and predictable life back home in the U.S., their stomach clock is quite functional.  BTW, most of the French restaurants don't open on Sundays, can you believe that?  So, we had decided to go to a cafeteria in a big shopping mall in Aix-En-Provence, yet when we got there, the shopping mall was also closed.

Then we consulted our iPhone and was told there was a fast-food restaurant close by so we drove towards that one...then we discovered Lotre Restaurant with lights on just beside.  We immediately pull in and checked the menu outside a front yard Garden.  The kids flew in the garden, they intended to harvest their straw berries!  We started our meal with Pata negra and baguettes, do you know what this is?  Google it you will find how tasty it should be.  The Ibrian pigs who contributed these meat were raised by strictly the Provence's acorns!  For main course, Rousset and Adalie, our 2 drivers, ordered this massive veal leg - the photo was taken after they worked on it 10 min later!  Fabrice ordered a fish called Loup and I preferred my order though, its EntrecÔte or pork chop from the same Ibrian pigs!  Again, French food has to be tasted in France, I am not even joking here!  The kids had fish steak and vegetable skewers, steak, and French fries from fresh potato.  Even the 2 yr old Honoree had her own order.  What a luxury!  Fabrice generously offered our dinner, thanks honey, your euros were well-spent!

On the car ride back home, the kids had their DVD player with 2 displays on so they had nothing to complain about, except Niuniu once again screamed before we arrived Lyon at 1 am!  The boy just simply does not like car rides.  "I cannot sleep in the car seat!"  he complained later.

So there you have it, a fun fun fun day!

Monday, June 17, 2013

A life long mystery - vacation in France - VII

June 8, 2013, Sat.  

At 8:30 am, we all got up and greeted Adalie and her mother Josee in the kitchen.  They were getting the table ready for breakfast.  Josee looks amazingly elegant in a burgundy cashmere dressing gown covering her toes.  Soon after that, the father of Adalie Joseph showed up.  He looks like someone has lived a comfortable life.  Both of them recently retired from a successful career as physicists: Joseph was a high-ranked director of a nuclear research institute and Josee was a professor at University of Marseille.  They joined us only for a cup of coffee since they had their breakfast earlier.

Soon the rest of the Rousset gang got up and our breakfast table expanded from 7 to 11 people.  Before we adults could come up a workable plan for the day, the kids already jumped in the heated pool at the backyard.  Well, they made our decision easy and had a blast climbing and falling off that big inflatable whale or Daddy's back.

After the pool, it's playing in the forest at deeper back yard.  Our host's property occupies half of a hill.  Taking advantage of the trees within, Rousset has built a full set of forts with 3 swing bridges with ropes and woods.  Kids need to first jump on suspended plank, crawl under the ropes to reach Burma rope bridge, then a suspension bridge, and finally to arrive their favorite zip line.  Need I say more about how much fun the kids has?

Following the adventures in the backyard rope funs, we hiked on the remaining part of the property, which extends to a wild area behind.  I was feeling like hiking in a state park, except there was no trial to follow, so we created our own paths.  Adalie's parents have many pine trees and bushes cut to reduce the risk of fires around the house.  Our little hiker were not too happy about the needles on those bushes because they gave them scratches all over their little legs, but they would not care so much if they saw beautiful flowers, even Niuniu picked many wild colorful ones for his Mommy.  The scents of wild lavender, thyme, and many other unknown named bushes really made it all worth our while!

A fun day did not end here, of course.  The locals took us to a Chinese restaurant in Aix-En-Provence.  I usually don't like Chinese food served at buffet tables, because I am from South of China where majority of the dishes are lightly cooked by hot steams or boiling water in order to keep the original taste of the raw material.  This type of food must be served as soon as it gets cooked and any delay would lead to a "leftover" taste that makes me to wish to go home for instant noodles.  This is exactly why at Chinese buffet tables you can only find mostly heavily sauced, overly cooked, and worst of all, deeply fried Northern Chinese food of the worst kind!  However, this one, my friends, is worth your life to check it out, because it's not pure Chinese, nor Vietnamese as claimed by their website.  It's truly a great fusion of Asian and French cuisine.  I personally enjoyed French appetizers and the dessert.  Take a look at my plate, do you even recognize those round dark red balls on the right side of the plate?  No?  They are called Yángméi (杨梅) meaning Yang berries.  They, are delicious and I had not even seen them for over 20 years!

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Le Thoronet Abbey, which is an hour drive away.  Based on the idea that castles are where Princesses live, Zhuzhu was quite excited.  Zhuzhu has been looking forward to meet princesses in real life. "In England, we can find real princesses, you know, Ma Ma."  She said.  "But this is France, dumbo, you won't find them here."  Finally after thousand rounds of running circles on the top of the castle, she forgot about the purpose of her visit.  We left the castle and had our picnic snack at the exit and drove back to Adalie's parents.

It's hard to get ourselves organized when it's indeed a weekend evening during our vacation time.  BTW, do you know it never gets dark here in France in summer evenings?  We really have a hard time to track times so that the kids can get in bed on time for their schools the next day when it is always bright outside.  Anyway, by the time we arrived home, it must have been 9 pm or even later.  The dinner was ready to serve.  We had two blended healthy soups, cream of zucchini and mint radish, as appetizers, duck breast steak as entree, which went perfectly with the Alexe Corton Cru 2009 that we brought, then cheeses of the local and the Burgundy (our gifts, one of them was Époisses), and finally Joses's signature chocolate mousse and fresh garden fruits for dessert.

Something about French food in France: the taste is much more impressive then the name of the dish that the "French" restaurants in the U.S. just cannot replicate to give a authentic taste - it's the food industry in the U.S. has messed up the taste buds of those who cannot afford locally grown food.     

Even though it must have been 11 pm or later and we should really put the kids to bed in order to enjoy the next day, we could not call it a day so fast.  Because right before we were done with stuffing ourselves with the deliciously sweet and juicy locally grown strawberries, Joseph brought his family heirloom to the table to show us.  It was an ancient cane that was given to him by his father who was given the cane by a Chinese officer, I was told.  The cane has a head made of ivory and a body made of bamboo.  There is a soldier carved on the ivory head and 6 Chinese characters and 3 carp fish carved on the body.  Joseph has been trying to understand what's the story behind the cane and why the Chinese officer gave the cane to his father.  He would like to see whether I, a well-educated researcher, could solve his life long puzzle.

Having been pre-conditioned that those letters were Chinese, I imagined that it would only take a minute to decode the ancient Chinese characters on the cane.  So happily I accepted the challenge.

Boy, a mistake was made.

I spent next 30 min. to examine the "Chinese" ancient cane.  "We Chinese love carp, not because they are delicious, because they symbolize strength and courage.  According to our Chinese legend, when 鲤鱼跳龙门 (Carp leaping over Dragon Gate), they can become powerful dragons.  The dragon gate is located at the narrowest spot of the yellow river and the dream there is the fastest and strongest."  I explained to Joseph confidently.  "What's led to the legend is that carps love swim against the stream."  Ignoring the science behind the fact that some fish migrate to reproduce, I continued, "In addition, carps represent family happiness as they like to jump out of the water to show their happiness.  Based on the carving art on the cane, I believe the cane wishes its owner a happy family." I did not stop my guesses.

My version of the story would have been intriguing although conventional if I could just based on what's been carved on the cane.  However, when I was asked to decode the characters, nothing I saw matched what I said: firstly, the 6 words were not exactly Chinese as some of them lack of few strokes; and secondly, even they were the Chinese that I could make out, the meaning of them would not match the story of the carving art.  I failed to see any links between the arts and the words.

A samurai
6 characters of Kanji, 1 signature seal stamp
3 carps or Koi
In the end, I made up multiple possibilities for each of the 6 characters.  I wrote them down on a paper.  In the mean time, I kept saying, "This does not make any sense, sorry, I really don't understand what these letters mean."  When it became clear that I could not come up with any satisfactory answers, Joseph showed me an email from a Japanese professor who has given another version of the story to him earlier.  Although I disagreed to the Japanese professor's explanations, he helped me to realize the cane is not from a Chinese officer, it must have been a Japanese one since the cane looks a lot like this one and those letters are Kanji.  Damn Japanese, when they adopted our Chinese characters, they did not even try to be faithful!  Do you know Kanji?  I call it Japanese-Chinese, but wikipedia calls it adopted logographic Chinese Characters.

Do you want to give it a try, my friends?