Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Living History in Northern California

Today, someone from the Bernal Heights Parents Group asked if anyone knew of a "Living Museum" in the vicinity of the Bay Area. She is reading The Little House series to her 4 year old and would like to show her "an iron bellows, someone making wagon wheels, someone working on a loom, etc." I looked at the calendar and thought, "OMG, most state historic parks have their "historic days" celebrations around springtime. Time to get crackin'!" So here it is.

Where can you find crowds of costumed docents playing the banjo, dancing Russian polka or baking bread wearing funny bonnets in open air ovens? Let's go back in time.

My first choice in the Bay Area is first and foremost Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont. It's an 1870s historic farm in all senses of the term. There you go see a blacksmith at work in the forge, card freshly sheared wool with a docent who then spins it into yarn, listen to late Victorian live music or visit the "gingerbread Victorian" Patterson House. Check here for their special events, including the funky Scottish festival called Tartan Days. On regular days, you can partake in regular farm activities such as checking for eggs at the chicken coop or bringing hay to the livestock. Moving back in time.

Columbia State Historic Park is a real gold mine for Gold Rush fans. The town's 1850s business district has been entirely preserved with shops, two - working - hotels and restaurants. Since the park includes two hotels, the latter are very active in organizing theme nights such as the Gold Rush Fandango and Casino Night. Families are not forgotten with events ranging from History Mysteries Summer 2009 (investigate an 1850s crime) to Back to School 1861 (ring a bell, climb the old staircase to the upper floor or experience the 1860s class in session), or Lamp Light Tours of Columbia (early December only).

Nearby places that also feature living history days are the Empire Mine State Historic Park (whose garden and upscale Snow White-type Bourne cottage are well worth the drive), the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (where it all began - the California Gold Rush that is) or Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park (a preserved gem of a one-street hamlet in the sierras).

For a bigger scale production, drive to Sacramento during Labor Day Weekend and enjoy Sacramento's Gold Rush Days, four days of Wild West re-enactment on dirt covered streets. Last year we thoroughly enjoyed the old-fashioned games, the dancing, the street battles and the precious old school with its quaint desks and black board. Moving back further in time.

How about .... early 1800s? San Juan Bautista State Historic Park is the largest of the California Missions, features the only Spanish plaza left in California and is where Hitchcock shot the dramatic scene when Madeleine falls from the tower in Vertigo. This weekend on May 2-3, San Juan Bautista will feature a California Indian Market & Peace Pow Wow to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. If you can't make it this weekend, each first Saturday of the month, the park offers Living History Days with docents dressed as miners, Civil War soldiers or stagecoach drivers. For a full-on family experience, check out the Early Days at San Juan Bautista on June 20, 2009. There will be a lotta' costumed docents walking by. Can we go back any further in time? Yes we can!

Fort Ross State Historic Park between Jenner and Sea Ranch is an 1812 Russian-American settlement. A favorite for school visits and camping overnights, Fort Ross is the southernmost Russian colonization outpost in North America and features a real fort. Inside you will find a beautiful (reconstructed) Orthodox chapel, an 1836 house, the army barracks, and blockhouses. This Saturday, May 2nd, 2009, Fort Ross will host its Spring Celebration also known as Krasnaya Gorka. If you can drive the 2.30 hours from the Bay Area, you will be rewarded with circle dances, games, baking and songs. If you can't make it on Saturday, July 25, 2009 (also a Saturday) will see the fort's Cultural Heritage Day celebration, a rememberance of Russian America as it was between 1812 and 1841.

For a radical move back in time, hit the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon on the first Sunday of each month for their Jurassic Day with live dinosaurs roaming the grounds and giant carnivorous plants rides on wheels. Just kidding! Don't contact the NPS for this.

Now, if you know of other living history days, feel free to share them by commenting below.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bring Your Kids to Work Day

"So, what do you think I do at the office?" I asked my five-year-old after I took her to the Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day event at my office. "Hmmm, you do colorings all day?" Sure. How did she know? That's just the essence of legal work.

"How would you describe the office?" I asked the three-year-old. "Oh, it's just like home. There's plenty of doors and even a kitchen!" she replied. Okay. The idea behind this event is to make it "a successful day that strengthens the connection between education and work and relationships between parents and their children." Well, I guess it works better for older children than younger ones. Ha!

Mine are now convinced I spend my office days coloring drawings, playing on PBSKids online and eating cheese pizza for lunch. That said, they were very excited to see my work surroundings and they've been talking about it for days at school with their friends, which officially signs up my workplace on the cool list.

Was it a success? I think so - only not quite the idea behind the 1993 event. For them, it was a fun play date with new friends in a conference turned into an art studio. The event gathered 15 kids or so from 14 months through age 10.

The morning started off with a light breakfast and an office tour (which we missed). We joined the (younger) group when they were decorating carton photo frames with glitter glue, stickers and markers. They were filled later with a photo of the children with their parent. While the kids were doing art, some were being filmed and interviewed. Some even got hold of small video cams to interview adults around the office.

My girls stayed more low tech. After they were done spreading glitter glue all over their outfits and way beyond, they went on a office scavenger hunt. This was a really neat idea.

They had to gather in a blue bag: a blue pen, an office business card, a quarter, a rubber band, a piece of candy, a binder clip, an interoffice enveloppe, and Post-It's. The office supplies part was easy, it's mostly in one spot. For the business card, they just asked my boss. But the piece of candy? Everybody by the reception desk! That's where the candy stash is at. The children each pocketed a peanut butter cup or gum and completed the scavenger hunt, receiving as a reward a laser pointer pen.

Pizza was next on the agenda, after Wii bowling or Wii tennis playing for older children.

At the office's Toronto office, they were supposed to build a web page. Don't know if they succeeded, but that was pretty ambitious. What did your office do?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bang Krachao: Biking through Bangkok's Green Lungs

Bang Krachao peninsula, known as Bangkok's green lungs, is a welcome breathing escape from Bangkok only a 10-minute boat ride from the bustling Klong Toey dock area. Think 11,810 rai of protected mangroves and orchards in Samut Prakan province just across the river.

How come the area is so pristine and undeveloped? Totally out of the way, Bang Krachao is tedious to access by car (count an hour's drive) and infrastructures are minimal. Very few roads, no tourist office, no detailed maps. Most people go there on organized bike tours but going solo is what we did.

Although the peninsula counts the 200-rai Si Nakhon Keun Kan park locally known as Suan Klang Central park, the area's most interesting parts consist of privately planted coconut tree orchards accessible only by foot, bicycle or motorcycle. Between (i) a man-made groomed landscaped garden with fountains, pedal boats and paved paths and (ii) a maze of elevated pathways going through a thick tropical forest, I go for the latter.

After I found more details on how to get there in the newly published Bangkok Guide for Kids by Kids in the "Biking" section, I organized the trip. The day before, we called a number to reserve bikes but we didn't find the same people on the other side so we improvised. Fortunately, we had our Thai friend Sim with us because it's non-English speaking land.

At Klong Toey Pier 7 next to Wat Klong Toey Noi, we boarded a long tail boat whose benches advertised ABC Amazing Bangkok Cyclist (B100 return trip). On the other side, there was a "Bike for rent" sign at the pier and we rented five bikes (B100 each) for adults. We had my two girls with us but since there were no child bike seats, two thick towels were strapped onto back racks for them to sit on and that was just fine.

Khun Piak, the rental guy, started the bike business a year ago. During the week he's a docker but at weekends, he rents bikes. He asked us where we wanted to go and we returned the question. Since we didn't know the area and there were no maps, that was an odd question. Thank God Khun Piak volunteered to guide us and led the way.

At first, he planned to take us to the floating market and started on the main road but then I asked if he could take us to the green areas. Sure he could. He veered left and asked how comfortable we felt following him. The only way to explore the forest is to bike on narrow pathways roughly 2 to 3 meters off the ground. No side protections, no railings, possibly human or motorcycle crossings. Any fall would end up in the mangrove.

I consulted with my group. While we were hesitant, we decided to give it a go and boy, were we rewarded. It was simply gorgeous. At first, we rode our bikes very cautiously. I was right behind Khun Piak and expected to hear a loud wet thump any time behind me. One of us had not ridden a bike for 20 years! Lo and behold, we held our ground.

Focusing on staying on track, we entered the mangrove. Coconut trees planted on terraced islands alternated with milky canals. Lush ferns loomed over us with areca nut trees, mango trees and banana trees. It was as green as green can be and we loved every minute of it.

Ideally we need to come back on foot to enjoy the landscape more peacefully. The "staying in the middle of the path" part was a bit stressful.

After many turns and unmarked intersections (don't go there without a guide), we reached the Bang Nam Phueng floating market. Had we not seen the back roads, this would have been the highlight of our expedition.

Bang Nam Phueng Talad (Honey Market) is a lovely low-key weekend and holiday market where traditional Thai confections and foods elbow natural herbs, plant-based cosmetics and fresh produce. I brought back mulberry green tea, dried roselle hibiscus flowers, safflower tea, dried nuts and blue flowers that can be used as tea too, as well as a jar of honey with a chunk of beehive in it and roasted coconut flakes.

Citronella and ginger liquid soaps were enticing but I already had too much weight in my suitcase. I also got sticky rice with mung beans and bananas steamed in banana leaves to satisfy a hunger craving, as well as a fresh coconut to drink. I was impressed by how neat and clean the market was. Judging by the looks we got, I'd say not too many foreigners venture out here.

Along the canal, wooden boats can be rented for B20 and some food vendors arrive by boat to set up small restaurants on the boardwalk. By the temple, a man sat behind five plastic basins with different fishes and turles. "If you release a fish in the water, it will take away your sins," explained Sim. For the fun of it, we scooped out four fishes and my girls kneeled by the klong to release them in the canal.

It was time to head out and Khun Piak took us back a different way, snaking through the Si Nakhon Keun Kan park back to the pier. As I said, I'm not a huge fan of man-groomed nature when there are alternatives around but it's a nice place for a family outing and I can see a Sunday picnic on the grassy lawns by the lake. Rental boats include pedal boats as well as kayaks. A few minutes later, our trip ended by the pier. It's right next to the park.

We were delighted by this green escape minutes from Bangkok's urban concrete inferno. Who would have known.... Let's hope Bang Prachao resists the real estate pressure. We saw quite a few new houses being built.

If you go there, do your part and be respectful of nature. It would be a shame to lose such a beautiful outing to capitalistic greed. Bangkok does not have that many green spaces to spare. This one should be protected and preserved.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Songkran 2009 in Bangkok

The anticipation leading up to Songkran is much like Halloween's. There's something scary outside your door and you've got to gear up and fend for yourself.

Songkran - the traditional Thai New Year - is a celebration of renewal, getting together and merit-making but it is popular for reasons not quite so lofty: getting doused on the streets. Just how much you get doused depends on your carelessness - or street fighting spirit.

Songkran is a water game for kids during the day and grown-up wet tee-shirt type partying at night (or during the day on Khao Sarn Road). Weeks before the three-day holiday, Thai markets are lined up with all sorts of water squirting devices, from the basic Mickey Mouse water tank backpack with hose and squirting gun to big bright bazookas. Brazen Songkran enthusiasts wait on the streets with a gardening hose or fill an inflatable swimming pool and buckets. Anybody who walks or drives in front of them gets the royal treatment: gallons of water and a talcum-based paste all over the body, preferably on the face.

Early in the morning of the first day, we got ready for our Songkran outing. Swimming goggles and sunglasses to avoid nasty eye squirting - check - waterproof shoes - check - easy drying clothes - check - no valuables - check too. As we got out on our soi, the news reported tanks in downtown Bangkok and clashes between police and protesters. Where we stay, the soi was unusually quiet. We almost thought we wouldn't be able to test our water devices.

Fortunately, walking around the neighborhood, we quickly found a few Songkran revelers, mostly kids, dying to get us all wet and plaster our face and body with the whitish talcum paste. My girls didn't like the talcum paste that much but water squirting was all right. We returned home after an hour, happy and wet.

The first two days, Songkran was very subdued because of the political crisis. It's not until after the red shirts left the capital that festivities really began full swing. Silom Road got closed off to car traffic as well as a few other tourist-dense areas.

The governor of Bangkok declared two extra days of Songkran holiday and people made up for the at-home days. At night, we crossed many pick-up trucks loaded with 20 people and more, drums, guitars and loudspeakers, everybody wet and merry singing their hearts out. When Songkran and booze don't mix too much, it's really a fun and uniquely Thai celebration.

The ultimate Songkran gadget this year? A squirting gun hiding behind a mini umbrella: squirt and stay dry! Well, sort of. I was able to photograph this one at Lumpini Park during our evening stroll but it was all over town. In case you're wondering, no you can't avoid the cutesy manga character with its stupid smile. Umbrella squirting guns don't come in Juicy Couture designs with pink shades. Songkran is about fun - not style. Watch this Songkran song to get in the spirit.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Siam Niramit: Broadway in Bangkok

Went to see Siam Niramit in Bangkok tonight. It's my third time. Second for my girls. Great and grand, as planned. Although I've seen it before, I still get a thrill from the majestic scenes and the guy diving in the stage-long canal. The sets and costumes designers did a beautiful job at illustrating Thailand's culture and traditions.

A sign o' the times though: the show was not even half full. A third maybe? Tough to keep filling up a 2,000 seats theater built for transient tourists when red shirts and other colored shirts are driving tourism away. That plus the crisis and you start wondering: how long can the creators of DreamWorld (if they are still in the deal) keep paying the 150 stage performers + technical crew to maintain Siam Niramit as a top notch 80-minute musical? It ain't gonna be easy.

I remember having seen two elephants on stage before. Now there's only one. Sigh. Where did Dumbo go? The sparkly paper butterflies showered from the ceiling at the end have been replaced with cheaper color paper clips. Too bad Siam Niramit can't keep up its promises four years into running. It was supposed to be a "cultural attraction that will add a classy touch of glamour to Thailand as a more desired travel destination." It's still worth the 1,500 Baths per seat and (by the way) small kids can sit on their parents' lap so you can save on family outings. But unless the producers tweak the show on a regular basis to fidelize a local client basis too, tourism has proven too unsteady an income source to save the show. It's time to rethink the act. Siam Niramit needs to live on - not just for the tourists.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sarika Keo: Country Life in Cambodia

Curious to know how and where things grew next to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, I went with my girls and my dad to the rural village of Kadai Kanda, subdistrict of Sarika Keo on the Mekong River.

April is in full dry season and the fields we visited are usually under water in November. We were lucky to be there when field ploughing is in full swing and rice barely sprouts over flooded paddy fields. As we arrived by boat to Sarika Keo, the river was milky brown and murky. We promptly jumped on the shore and got to a little shack with a blacksmith forge overlooking the "pier". The guy makes axes all day long with a makeshift oven and a hammer. My dad bought him an axe head last year but still hasn't made the handle so it hasn't seen much use.

We proceeded on the main street that runs parallel to the river. The village's landmarks were right there: the school next to the wat (temple) and a buzzing street market on both sides of the dirt road. We saw small mussel-type shells drying in the sun on bamboo mats, chickens with their feet tied lying in the dirt next to their plucked unlucky friends, fishes being scaled with hard grates. I ordered a sugar cane juice for my girls as they've never tasted one before. Through a press the sugar cane went and the juice was squeezed out, while half a dozen wasps were zipping and zapping above the sugary leftovers.

"This is yummy!" I heard, to my satisfaction - and then "This is too sweet!" Sigh. Two blocks down the road, we made a right to go inland and get to the fields alongside a small river. The banks were pretty high and the water low, and the bottom was fish net to fish net all the way.

In the village, we had already passed several banana trees with banana hands hanging down - banana flower cut, the Khmers love eating them- dozens of mango trees and coconut trees ready for harvest. On the way, I was peeking into the houses over the bamboo fences when I saw something I hadn't seen in a long time: cooking on wood-fired clay ovens in an open air kitchen. I asked to take a picture.

The woman was preparing lunch. In one pot, a soup was bubbling with chopped green stalks, two silver fishes whole and mushrooms. The other pot was chock full of steamed rice. I explained to my girls that this house did not have electricity and that lunch was cooked over a wood fire. They looked on but they probably didn't get the "no electricity" part.

It's very outlandish for them. A few houses down, a huge rattan mat was covered with rice grains drying in the sun, the husks still on. On we walked, til we came across a bare field with two oxens ploughing the soil.

We left the road to lollop in their direction, the uneven terrain peppered with cut plants, lumps of muddy soil and low brushes. The farmer was preparing his land to plant corn.

Right behind were other farmers engaged in the same activity as well as paddy fields and irrigation ponds. As I looked at the cityscape, I admired the beauty of the Khmer countryside with sugar palm trees fanning their wide green leaves and mango trees ladden with ripening green fruit. Of course if you come here during the rainy season, you'll have to watch out as these fields are ridden with snakes of all kinds. Fortunately the only wildlife we encountered were big dark butterflies with hairy bodies looking like humming birds hybrids and big red lizards.

Back on the road, I kept analyzing the flora around us to know what was edible and what was not. I saw some vines with yellow round sorts of wild passionfruit (passiflora foetida) and remembered eating them in New Caledonia in my childhood. I confirmed with our Khmer guides and popped one open. Its sweet fleshy seeds were just as I remembered. Apparently, birds love those too.

Every here and there, orchards of banana trees alternated with fields of mango trees. Clearly, they are the main staples of local agriculture.

Curiously, papaya trees have fallen out of grace after last year's abundent harvest literally flooded the market and prices dropped. After this bitter episode, farmers chopped down many papaya trees and we actually had to look for them which is strange in a country where papayas have always been part of edible gardens.

We could have walked on and on and seen countless fields. There was nobody but us on the dirt road and the sun was shining pretty bad. My girls started whining because it was "hot and dirty" and they wanted to go home. What about the poetry of fields my sweets?! Nope. All they wanted was to get back. We turned around and got on our way.

Our Khmer-Thai guide asked me a question. My spoken Thai is not nearly good enough and I thought I understood oh-so-perfectly so I said yes. When in doubt, I always say yes. He got on the phone. Ten minutes later, we heard the racing sound of motorbikes coming our way. "Oh," I thought, "What are they doing here and why are they looking at us?" Ahem.

I had actually agreed to get back to the pier on moto taxis. There goes the confidence in my Thai verbal skills! My misunderstanding was in fact not such a bad idea because walking back would have taken at least 40 minutes and the little girls were getting tired and whimpy. I loaded them with my dad on the back of a bike and off they left at super slow speed on the pot-holed road.

I hopped on another one and soon enough, we re-entered the streets of the village. We zoomed by beauty salons, tailor shops in private houses with big hands of bananas lying by the entrance door, and bicycles. At last on the boat, we compared the color of our feet. I was by far the dirtiest, having walked quite a bit in the fields to get good shots of plants.

If anything, my girls learned where bananas come from. That's already something. If on top of it they remember field ploughing or cooking on a clay stove, I'm happy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Kanchanaburi: The Bridge on The River Kwai and Erawan National Park

Only three hours west of Bangkok, the city of Kanchaburi is a gateway to no less than five national parks and numerous waterfalls set in surrounding mountains.

However the city draws its reputation overseas from much darker episodes with the Death Railway, the War Cemetery and the bridge over the River Kwai. The Japanese camps of World War II led 16,000 prisoners of war and 100,000 Asian workers to cruel deaths under the scorching sun of Kanchanaburi province to build a railway between Thailand and Burma so that the Japanese could invade Burma and defeat the British Allied Forces.

Today a thriving backpacker scene visits the riverside sites, eagerly crossing the black iron bridge, stepping on each other's toes and reluctantly giving right of way to others. And for a good reason.

I was amazed at the total lack of safety despite the bridge's popularity. Walking across the bridge means mainly making your way on of two parallel wooden posts separated by a steel-plated walkway in the middle. Both sides are blatantly open, hiding nothing of the river some forty feet below and crossing is not recommended to people suffering from vertigo or small children. I knew nothing of the "small children" part and led my girls with my father, holding hands tight and avoiding to look below.

Once on the other side, we stepped down the bridge to feed bananas to an elephant below. "Look maman, a train!" said my oldest one pointing towards the bridge. I was floored. On the tracks we were walking on just ten minutes before chugged a tourist train on its way for a short ride. That was not expected. Since we were supposed to picnic by the Erawan waterfalls 65 km north and it was already past 11 am, we hurried back the same way and got in the car.

On the way, we drove past the Xen Hideaway Resort whose entrance looked swanky with manicured lawns, but our fate was to swim in cool waters that day. Erawan National Park hosts limestone cliffs and caves as well as the seven-tier Erawan waterfall, one of two famous waterfalls in the region - the other one being Sai Yok Noi.

By then, lunch time was definitely on and we feasted on sticky rice and barbecued chicken, pomelo and baby bananas, right by the first level of the waterfall. All around us, large and small groups mingled and splashed around in the water. Of course, my girls wanted to join the fun too. Alas for them, I had hiking on my mind! We changed in swim suits and started walking up the trail to see the other levels of the waterfall.

Through a series of bridges we got to the level 2 with wider views and shorter falls, and as at level 1, clouds of butterflies fluttering in the trees. It was gorgeous. The higher we climbed, the less people crossed our way. My girls suffered from the heat, desperately wanted to wade in the water, and got thirsty. Each step up was more difficult for them but fortunately we kept on.

Fortunately because at level 3, we had the pleasant surprise to see groups of young men teasing each other about sliding down big curvy rocks. It was hilarious to see chicks in wet tee-shirts giggling around the boys but not taking part in the sliding revelry. One of the boys, in particular, had to be literally pushed down his perch where he steadily sat. Three seconds and a splash later, all the audience erupted in cheers and claps. That episode brought a smile to our girls and somewhat motivated them to keep going until level 4 and even level 5.

There, unfortunately, it was the end of their hiking endeavors and we dropped our bags by a banyan tree. The water was oddly cool, much cooler than what I expected. It was also weird to sink in the clay bottom. To be perfectly frank, my girls freaked out. First, they're used to sandy bottoms. Second, the water was clear and schools of small and not so small fish tickled (or rather sucked on) my feet. The fish part got my girls in tears. They were afraid that I was going to get eaten alive. Ah, little children's vivid imagination!

Obviously I survived the bath and took along my whiny offspring to cool off as they were as red as lobsters. Getting out of the water, they were startled to have to walk back to our bags on big fallen leaves. They never walk on leaves! Real urbanites. For me, it was a very pleasant feeling.

As the afternoon made its way, we decided to get back to the car. It was a compensation national holiday for Chakri Day, the day that celebrates Thailand's reigning dynasty. Holidays can mean a lot of traffic in Bangkok.

Down by Level 1, we were amazed by the white butterflies that swarmed in the air. "It looks like it's snowing," said my oldest one. She was right. In some places, the butterfly concentration was so dense that there were solid white spots on the ground. No wonder butterfly watching is becoming a popular activity in Thailand. It was a gorgeous day trip from Bangkok.

Next time, I'll spend the night on the river on floating jungle rafts, as many people do.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

L'Heurloger: Repairing Old Clocks in Paris

Thinking about replacing a clock mechanism with batteries? Think twice: no batteries, no electricity, just elbow grease to keep track of time. The ultimate green machine. Old clocks are not only remainders of days gone by but fit to keep on ticking for many years to come.

Some people can't stand the tic toc of a clock. Some can't live without. My brother Jean Latham, otherwise known as L'Heurloger, used to sleep with 17 clocks chiming, ringing, tick-tocking in his bedroom, some on the hour, others on the half hour, a few on the quarters. That's how passionate he is about clocks. He simply loves fine craftsmanship.

Clock repairers are akin to an endangered species in the digital age and it's a shame really. Clocks are such beautiful and fascinating mechanics. Clocks used to be the heart and soul of a home, the only noise at night and the morning wind up drill. However, few clocks are in working condition because they are complex mechanisms. That's what clock repairers are for.

So how do you become a clock repairer, an horloger? It helps if, as a teenager, you're gung ho on mechanics, be they motos, tv sets or clocks. Jean took apart every single thing my parents had. It drove them nuts. Then Jean put things back together with his fairy hands and tada! They were as good as new.

That's how he discovered his calling for old clocks. Tirelessly, he spent hours weighing the pros and cons of a wheel here or a wheel there. He started making missing parts with his own hands.

Finally, he entered a clock repairer workshop as an apprentice. His apprenticeship lasted 15 years, first in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, second in Le Marais. Jean now runs the only clock repair shop in Puteaux and one of few in the Hauts de Seine, Paris western suburbs. Puteaux's local magazine ran an article on him in their April 2008 issue.

Located at the back of an alley in Puteaux, Jean is always up for a technical challenge or the simple refreshing of a clock or a mechanical watch. If you ask him, he'll gladly share his love for "swinging pendulums, springs and wheels".

He always shows me something interesting when I visit. He once showed me a gilded leaning woman clock. The woman sat on the round display underneath which a monster's head opened its mouth to let out a chain. The chain twisted and turned with the mechanism, creating the illusion of gilded water falling in a wrinkled metal pool below. I'd never seen anything like it before.

From automats to bracket clocks, from music boxes to room barometers, from grand-father clocks to carriage clocks, he's seen his fair share of clocks.

My two little girls love to ask him the how and why of clocks. "Jeannot," they ask him, "Will you show us how this works?" Obliging, he'll open the back of a wooden cuckoo clock, turn a few wheels, tap the spring, check the escapement and pull on the weights. "See," he says, "This is the pipe that activates the 'cuc-koo' sound and this is the round spring with a hammer for the gong sound. Listen."

He turns the hands of the display and a few seconds later, "gong - cuc-koo, gong-cuc-koo". Right on.

Paris: Parc and Chateau de Bagatelle

On September 20, 1777 late in the afternoon, Marie-Antoinette - then 22 years old- and the Comte d'Artois - younger brother of Louis XVI - threw a crazy bet.

Marie-Antoinette wagered that the Comte d'Artois would never be able to build a castle in three months. The location? A piece of land in the Bois de Boulogne owned by the Comte d'Artois and notoriously known as a spot of libertinism or life's guilty pleasures called Bagatelle (which means a trifle or a decorative little nothing). All night long, Jean-Francois Belanger the architect stayed up. At dawn, he had completed the entire plans of the future castle.

During two months, 800 workers labored tirelessly, day and night and on November 26, 64 days later, the Chateau de Bagatelle was inaugurated. Built in an English-Chinese style popular as a counter trend to the rigidity of 18th century French gardens, the Parc and Chateau de Bagatelle made it through the French Revolution, the Commune de Paris and are open to the public nowadays as a unique landscaped garden.

Bagatelle is famous for its rose collection as it houses 9,500 rose bushes representing 1,500 rose varieties. Each year, a New Rose Festival is held in June.

Whenever I stop in Paris, I like to go to Bagatelle. Getting out is always part of my "anti jetlag" plan. To each season its different flower beds or atmosphere. I was lucky to visit this year right when daffodils, hyacinths and tulips brighten up the green lawns of Bagatelle.

It's a great place for a family stroll. Although children have to stear clear of the flower beds, they always marvel at the peacocks parading in the park and calling each other.

They also love the many alleyways and the intricate rock formations gracing the park. From fake islands with secret cave chambers to the phenomenal multi-tiered waterfall and pond, Bagatelle is worth its weight in rococo rock tunnels and bridges.

Under a bridge I pointed to my 5 year-old to a bush where I once saw a hedgehog as a little girl. My daughter wondered if the hedgehog would still be there which led me to remind her - once again - of my antique age. Hedgehogs don't live that long!

After we failed to find a tunnel under the waterfall (although I was convinced there was one), we ran back towards the entrance for tea time.

Yes the best part of the visit usually comes towards the end as we like to stop at the Restaurant de Bagatelle which serves afternoon tea and drinks on the terrace. It's a lovely spot that gets crowded during nice summer days but the trees whispering around and peacocks calling make it a great place to listen to the absence of cars in a city park. If you plan to go there at night, you'll be pleased to learn that plans are in the works to make the currently pricey eatery into a budget-conscious bistro and a fancy restaurant.

Alas for us we got there past 5pm and pastries disappear magically after 5pm. My girls settled for a creamy and dense hot chocolate. See that grin? It's the happy hot chocolated child.

Last mention for music lovers. The Orangerie de Bagatelle (where oranges and lemons trees overwinter to prevent freezing) hosts a marvellous Chopin and classical music festival each summer.