Thursday, August 21, 2008

Camping - Recycling Liquid Propane Canisters

We're going camping. First Tuolumne Meadows with our friends Martin and Christine, then somewhere in the Eastern Sierras or north of Lake Tahoe. Ten days of car camping with the family. As usual, I'll face the same problem question ten days in a row: how do I recycle properly? Car camping is bound to generate heaps of technically recyclable trash: food cans, milk cartons, cereal boxes, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, wine bottles, beer bottles or cans and the list goes on. It used to be that campgrounds were poorly equipped but now, most campgrounds offer reycling programs that accomodate cardboard, cans, glass or plastic. Isn't that neat? No neeed to lug your left-over recycling in the car on your way back home.

However the one tricky thing Iv'e been wondering about is the liquid propane canisters. That's what we use for our two-burner stove and liquid propane is a relatively clean fuel to use. However the small green canisters cannot be refilled and they are considered a hazardous waste if not entirely empty. So I read the recycling instructions on the canister: "To discard, contact local refuse hauler or recycle center. Never put in fire or incinerator. Do not puncture." Now what?.

I called SF Environment to find out more and right now the only recycling facility that will take them back in San Francisco is the Hazardous Waste Disposal facility next to Candlestick Park.

However, as suggested by SF Environment, technically it's possible to recycle empty canisters in your blue bin if you sure they are empty. After all, the canisters are heavy steel so they should be able to be recycled like all the other metals. But there have been problems with some recycling centers refusing propane cans. To avoid your eco-conscience spoiling your camping trip, either you eat cold or you take a hike towards your local hazardous waste disposal facility.

Too bad hardware stores don't take back what they sell...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book: Toby Alone

Tobie Lolness is finally out in US bookstores under the title Toby Alone. Yeepee! Since I read this wonderful tale of nature and man-hunt last summer, I couldn't wait for it to be translated into English so I could share it with my friends. Think about it: what if your world was narrowed down to a branch and you grew up on that branch and you couldn't see the big picture which is the tree? "Tobie Lolness was one and a half millimeter high which was not tall at his age" is the first sentence of the book.

Although the book is primarily meant for tweens, it addresses universal themes (justice, environment, love) that everybody can relate with and I simply adored the story. Before I turned the second page over I was hooked and shortly after, I ordered the second book online from France so I'd be able to follow the story without interruption. I was not disappointed and after I read the last words, I would have wanted that imaginary world to exist forever.

I talked about the book to the librarians at the San Francisco Public Library and they told me they knew nothing about it. I wrote to Gallimard (the French publishing house) and found out it was going to be translated into English. Then I waited patiently. Walker Books finally released it in the US in April 2008. Has anyone even noticed? This book so deserves to be read.

I like that Timothee de Fombelle the author, has named the heroin for his little girl Elisha. I like that you can read the story on a literal level as an heroic epic story and at a deeper level as a fable on urban sprawl and eco-disasters. I like that both girls and boys will be able to identify with the two main characters of the story. I like the nitty-gritty details about tree pests and worms and diseases. I like how the book opened my eyes on the life cycle of trees and altruism in the world.

If 10% of children's books were written with such passion and research, I'd hand over the world to the next generation with my eyes closed. Bravo Mr. de Fombelle and thank you for this magical tale!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Novato & China Camp State Park

When fog hits you at home, it's nice to be inside. When fog hits you at home every single day of the summer, you start feeling a slight sense of injustice. When you can't tell rain from fog in the morning, it's time to go out and .. cross the bridge!

Which is what we did on Saturday, ditching our plans to attend the Golden Gate Renaisssance Faire, assuming it was as foggy in the Golden Gate Park as we were in the upper Peninsula. So we drove past the Golden Gate Bridge, beyond the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael - Frank Lloyd Wright's futuristic blue spacestation used as backdrop for the movie Gattaca - and exited in Novato.

There I parked at Dollhouses, Trains & More, a one-of-a-kind store where I hoped Santa Claus could find a muse in the dollhouse department. What a place!

I didn't quite expect to find two full "streets" of miniature Victorians wall to wall, with prices matching the quality of detail and facade gingerbread.

From nursery pink 2-BR units to McMansions, nouveau riche log cabins to fancy lighthouses, the dollhouses were incredible and much nicer than what I expected.

I even found one I liked and the staff was very cooperative in moving it to the register without my girls noticing. By the time I'd shopped for all the furniture, I had second thoughts.

What if it was too small for two children? How could I wire it with lights? That, dear shopper, is mostly done before wall paper and floorings are glued on. Sigh.

Back to the drawing board. It dawned on me that I needed to come back ... without my girls.

After two hours in the store including thirty minutes switching all the buttons of the Halloween village (on all year, as is the Christmas village), they were starting to run around wildly. I put things back into place and I made a mental note for later: wires first, wall paper second, heaven last.

However we didn't quite return to the fog right away. To make the most out of our trip across the bridge, we met our friends Heather and Jason with their children Lily and Gus at the beach of China Camp State Park.

I love China Camp. This park is right on the bay, always sunny and never crowded. On Sundays, you can stop at the Marin Farmers' Market before (at the Marin Civic Center), pack a roasted chicken, heirloom cherry tomatoes and pluots, and come enjoy the view at the historic Chinese fishermen's village.

Two years ago we organized our one year old's birthday party at China Camp and it was a big success. It was mid-June. San Francisco was fogged in, China Camp was not. What to say?

Last weekend, the girls forgot all about fancy dollhouses and got down to basics on the beach: running and collecting shells. Why do I always forget about free play?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Burlingame is Small Town America

On an evening out to Burlingame for the ice-cream social of the Burlingame Mothers' Club with my friend Sue, I was given a taste of why Burlingame is increasingly popular with San Francisco real-estate-refugees.

It's got all the charms of a small town yet it's only minutes away from The City. With fog-less summers, tree-lined streets and mom & pop stores, what else could one desire? Since Sue got delayed at work, I started my wanderings by going into the first store that caught my eye on Burlingame avenue by El Camino Real, the incredible Plaza de Paws.

This is the ultimate store to spoil rotten any canine or feline specimen. And I mean rotten. Spa care products, bakery, clothes, miniature sofas, fancy collars and more. The pet strollers placed at the convenience of customers for their happy pet shopping surprised my girls as much as me. I wasn't aware that dogs needed strollers too. I'm still unsure why four legs aren't made for walking. That said, I'm sure my canine-lover mother would absolutely love that place. Anyhoo.

We kept walking down Burlingame Avenue and Baby Couture got our visit too, but my girls are now a bit too old for baby and toddler apparel, however fancy or exclusive. I had a hard time tearing them away from the play table, but the promise of a bookstore next door convinced them to abandon the Plan Toys mini garage.

I met Sue as I was perusing the Books, Inc. children's book section, finding inspiration for my November book review on bedtime stories. They have a great selection of children's books and a good choice of discounted discontinued picture books. I bought one called Mumbo Jumbo by Michael Roberts, a stunningly illustrated Halloween creepy ABC.

We then headed to Washington Park where supposedly we'd meet other Burlingame moms and eat ice cream. We never found the ice cream people (probably had the info wrong) but the three children had a blast running around the playground near the recreation center. Without ice creams, our tummies grew restless and dinner was soon on our mind. But where?

The Steelhead Brewery was stuffy and dark inside and outdoor seating was all taken. Il Fornaio looked too fancy for our rowdy troops.

made the cut because it was clean and roomy. Also the children each got a set of Wikki Stix, bendable sticky sticks to make shapes of all sorts, and that kept them all quiet.

After dinner and 'cuz the children really ate well, they finally got the much awaited ice cream. For that, Sue made us hike to an old-fashioned ice cream parlor that propelled my girls to Willy Wonka heaven.

Powell's Sweet Shoppe
is a crazy place, crazy for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that is. As Sue said "they play Willy Wonka night and day."

Indeed as we stepped inside, I heard the last lines of The Candyman Can song. At the back of the shop there's a mini theatre with three red velvet theatre seats in front of a TV screen that plays the movie in a loop. Needless to say, the screen is surrounded by Willy Wonka paraphernalia and candy bars. What else?!

Our three children rushed there and stayed glued in their seats until we left, licking their ice-cream absent-mindedly as Charlie Bucket roamed the streets of the candy town.

As for me, I stared bewildered at the modern-day looks of Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt, Augustus Gloop, Mike Tee Vee and Charlie Bucket. It's so sad when children characters on screen grow up. You should never have to suffer that with your childhood memories.

Night was underway as we left the candy shop, the children's eyes full of Pez candy dispensers and Jelly Belly beans.

Back in San Francisco - Hate Long Flights

Why did my five-year old decide to pinch my three-year-old at the seventh hour, right after junior had finally fallen asleep after fighting it (and me) for so long? Dunno. However, the result largely cancelled the zzzz factor and minutes later, I was getting stares from 360 degrees. Cat fights and growls all claws out on two narrow back seats.

"They're tired," I sorta apologized with a half grin. The truth was, I wanted to push the mute button, fold them super quickly and box them until the landing, at which time I'd do the rabbit magic trick in front of their amazed father at the airport and tada! he'd take over. Sigh. As if 11-hour flights weren't long enough...

So I separated the fighting cats, sat in the middle and sighed because we wouldn't have a meal tray diversion for another two hours. Not that junior meals are THAT exciting on Air France, but they include a funky straw, foam games, plenty of individually wrapped knick-knacks and almost edible food (pass the chewy chicken please). See what I mean on the picture? There's plenty of color and plastic, isn't that kid heaven?

Alas, I still had two fighting cats by my sides. The DVD player had died two hours ago. Ran out of batteries and left my oldest one barking for more Peter Pan to no avail. Books weren't really an option, concentration was nearing underseat level. Coloring could have been a good idea had the seats not already swallowed a dozen of my crayons and the gap between seat base and back threatened to swallow more.

OK, we could have played tag. Too bad though, the last row of the cabin doesn't get much reclining space behind, whereas the guys in front of you are literally sleeping on your lap. So because of slight space issue, tag was a no-no.

Ice creams at the back of the plane? Now, that sounded like a life-savior. "They've been gone for at least three hours," we heard from the air attendant. Sorry girls, another time. Please don't fight on the way back. There, sit nicely.

Turbulences? Oops, gotta buckle that seat. Please, will you buckle that seat? God damn it, buckle that seat or I'll do it my way! Fine, come on my lap! My neighbor felt for me, I could tell by the pity look in his eyes. Went to go pee-pee? For the fifth time in an hour? Nope, you'll have to wait. I mean it, you'll have to wait. See the sign above? We can't get up in the middle of turbulences. What, in your underwear? Get up now, we'll go. We'll all go, bring on the sister. Zen, stay zen.

Fortunately, at the end of the trip we landed. Then I gave them away to the next stranger at the airport. OK, not quite. I waited until I that stranger looked like my husband.

So when people ask me how I survive long flights with two little girls, I just lie: "It's a breeze, they do great." That's why all my friends think I'm that professional of solo overseas flights with devil-turned-angel children.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Madeleines and Antique Dolls at La Ferte Saint-Aubin

The Château de la Ferté Saint-Aubin is one of the first Loire Valley castles when coming from Paris.

Though not as flamboyant as Chambord, not as magical as Chenonceau, not as historical as Amboise, La Ferte Saint-Aubin is nevertheless worth the trip if only for its period kitchens and antique dolls displays. They are simply astounding!

I first found out about the castle in a cookbook that had been offered to my parents-in-law, La Cuisine des Chateaux de La Loire. This cookbook highlighted a few typical recipes from a dozen or so castles, one of them being La Ferté Saint-Aubin.

The opening double spread showed the picture of a woman in period costume piping miniature madeleines in front of the hearth underneath copper pans. I had to check it out.

As my in-laws have a country house soth of Orleans, it was easy for us to plan a last-minute visit to the castle after I browsed through the book.

As it turns out, the castle offers free madeleine making demonstrations all summer long and we were treated to a short cooking session followed by a tasting.

They were so yummy that my girls went for seconds and more!

After an extensive tour of the kitchens, we climbed up two flights of stairs to visit the castle.

Unlike any of the other Loire castles where formal visits and tour guides are the norm, this one allows visitors to freely wander and sit wherever they please.

The concept might be surprising but the current owner seems to focus more on the historical displays and gardens, as well as the restauration of the castle and chapel since he acquired the lot in 1987. Clearly, this castle is a work in progress.

As a result, the shabby furnishings and peeling wall paintings may be offputting to the newbie, but that's what you get for being allowed to play snooker or sit down in the grand hall of a Renaissance period castle. There.

Fortunately if you only step outside, there's way more to see and fun to be had.

Indeed, the Orangerie of the castle displays 2500 square feet of antique dolls, vintage teddie bears, music boxes and miniature furniture, candy for the eye of children of all ages.

The vintage toys are staged in careful and beautiful compositions in glass cases, some of them downright hilarious (a teddy bear hospital shows the "X-ray" of a teddy bear with a key shape in the tummy), some festive (gorgeous red-and-white Nordic presentation of a doll Christmas), some nostalgic of old times (like the teddy bear school and a red-headed doll with glasses as teacher), and some dreamlike (like a winter scene with felt icicles adorning a big case where dolls in velvet coats take a ride in a sparly-snowed wooden carriage).

My little girls could have called it a day and stayed there all afternoon wandering from scene to scene.

Alas for them, I had plans to take them to the park to a place called "The Enchanted Island", a village of themed miniature houses for children.

That quickly became their favorite as they ran from the child-scale grocery and chocolate shop to the sports cafe where they served us tea, to the school house where they taught us how to read, to the restaurant where we ate pasta, to the puppet theater where they performed a Guignol play and a bit further, the medieval fort. What a blast!

Again, we had a hard time tearing them away from the spot, but the day was drawing to an end and dinner was to be prepared.

So we quickly visited the horse stables and left the castle.

As soon as we drove out of the parking lot, my five-year-old turned to me and said: "Maman, when can we come back?"

Saturday, August 2, 2008

La Villette

The Parc de La Villette in north-eastern Paris is a welcome oasis of open piazzas, hilly gardens, futurist buildings, and green lawns by the Canal de l'Ourcq, one of the last "boatable" canals of the city.

For the young set, the highlights of La Villette are the age-specific playgrounds and the Cite des Enfants (or City of Children). Located on the ground floor of the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie, the Cite des Enfants is a children's museum focused on scientific hands-on experiments.

It is so popular that to take my two girls there, my friend Judith had to reserve a two-hour visit on a given day by internet.

As we were sitted in the waiting room, we heard the announcement by loudspeaker: if you are between 3 to 7 years old, follow the orange line, if you are between 5 to 12 years old, follow the other line.

All the kids rose at once and we proceeded towards the exhibits.

My 3-year-old loved the "Goldilocks" room about size where she could "try" five different sizes of chairs, five different sizes of coats, and five different sizes of tricyle. The oversized and micro-small versions of each item delighted her.

My five-year-old preferred more muscular activities in the "building room" and the "garage room" where she lost track of time building fake brick walls or buckling herself to "drive" a four-seater wooden car.

As we progressed in the exhibits, we neared the end of our two-hour slot so we took them to the "water, fire and air" room. What a splurge!

Water cannons, river running in the ground, buckets to fill and more had my girls squeal with delight. Sadly all good things have an end.

After the loudspeakers announced that we had to vacate the premises to make room for the next batch of happy children, we headed to the playground where my girls and dozens of kids happily bounced on white log-shaped trampolines.

The Garden of Dunes and Garden of Winds, two of eight theme gardens in the park, allow plenty of opportunities for kids to shake their sillies out.

On our way out, we decided to pay a visit to the polka dots exhibit of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama at the Grande Halle de La Villette.

This was a must-see for my girls as the giant plastic spheres acted like magnets on them after they saw them through the big windows of the exhibition hall.

Hey, the color pink, polka dots and round open bubbles that can be seen like houses?

One of the open bubbles had pink spheres lit from the inside and was mirrored all around. What a blast!

My two little girls ran around, switching "houses" and inviting people in until at last I had to tear them from their polka dot world.