Keeping Things Constructive

Somewhere back in my days as an exchange student with AFS (American Field Service), I recall someone giving a presentation on the phases of cultural adaptation.  It was roughly broken down into 1) the honeymoon 2) the rejection 3) the recovery.

I have lived & travelled enough in France over the last 30 years, that the basics of the stages  don’t necessarily occur as they would for someone tackling a new culture for the first time around. Not to mention, I’m married to a guy from said culture, so I get what it means to be a frog, speak like a frog & act like a frog.

Next Monday will mark the end of our 5th month here & the beginning of month number 6. Yikes, that seems crazy even to me & I’m the one living this wild ride with 4 small passengers. So I must confess, as I head into month #6, that I am feeling a part of phase 2 – the rejection. One website breaks “rejection” down into a bunch of subcategories – one being . . . “You may idealize your life back home, while being highly critical of life in your new community.”

For the sake of staying constructive, I shall not go critical. I shall however, give you  6 “observations” about things I have NOT done in the last 5 months – in no particular order, of course.

img_20160121_144704712.jpg1- I have NOT pushed a remote control garage door opener. Instead, I park on the street, in front of my house, then dash through the rain yelling for 4 small humans to follow & then fumble with this very modern looking key to get my home door unlocked.

 

2- I have NOT had a grocery store clerk bag my groceries.  Instead, as the precious queen of food retail SITS on the stool behind her checkstand, I quickly pack everything I have purchased into my stylish reusable shopping bags while making sure my 4 small people don’t stray too far (there may sometimes be yelling involved in that as well).

img_20160121_145131355.jpg3- I have NOT had a pedicure.  I believe I had one just prior to leaving.  At this point it’s kind of like marking notches in a tree to track your time in the wilderness.  I look at my big toes, and how much polish is left and can just about guestimate how long we have been here.

 

img_20160121_144828057.jpg4 – I have NOT pushed a button on my keychain to open the back doors to my glorious mini van.  Yes, I did infact just call my minivan glorious.  Instead, I walk to the driver’s side of my fiat Panda, unlock the only door with a keyhole, and then yell to my 4 offspring to run as fast as they can through the rain and get in the car. OK, there’s yelling involved here, but it’s mostly instructional yelling unless they get distracted by puddles or pile it in the front yard because the mud is slippery.  Then it’s scolding yelling.

img_20160121_145014308_hdr.jpg5 – I have NOT had a bare neck in 5 months.  Nope, not once.  Instead, I entwine myself in a scarf (cotton scarves, knit scarves, wool scarves, I’m not picky) every morning telling myself that if my neck is warm, then the rest of me will be warm.  Let’s repeat that to convince ourselves, “If my neck is warm, then the rest of me will be warm.”  One more time . . .

6 – I have NOT peed in a bathroom.  Instead, I take care of business in a WC.  A water closet.  No sink, no tub, no shower, just a crummy little room with nothing but a toilet.

So there you have it.  Like I said, I am NOT idealizing my life back home, nor am I being critical of things here.  Nope, not at all,  I’m just making observations about  6 little things I have not had, nor done, in the past 5 months.  Because were I being critical, I probably would have told you that sometimes at night, once I leave the scarf and get into jammies, and then get snuggled into bed, with my space heater roaring next to me, I feel the need to pee.  It’s so cold in this house that the thought of leaving the covers and heading for the WC is more than I can handle.  The bidet, on the other hand, is right next to my bedroom door.  I seriously consider peeing in the bidet, but then I remember that I can’t since I’m using it as a laundry hamper.  Oops, guess I forgot to mention that I have NOT used a laundry hamper.  Go ahead and make that observation #7 and we can call it a day.

 

 

 

Closed for Business

So the holidays are now behind us and the husband has safely returned to the states.  Our Christmas and New Years consisted of a week stay in Paris (in a lovely AirBnB apartment with NO oven – don’t get me started), the 1st ever French Christmas with family, and lots of traipsing around the city followed by an additional week back here in Trégastel with visitors from Lille, a New Year’s Eve scavenger hunt, New Year’s Eve cocktails at a friend’s house, and everyone over the age of 4 awake at midnight to welcome in 2016.  If you want to see what this all looked like, you can click here for a little photo essay.

As for this blog post, I need to jump into much more important things . . . like the absolute absence of capitalist motivation in this little town I now call home.  For starters, I should state that I don’t believe myself to be overly capitalistic.  I mean most of us Americans (whether we realize it and admit it or not) are capitalistic by nature of the country we live in, but I’m saying I don’t think I’m overboard about it. What I do believe in is good business practice and good customer service.

Since arriving four months ago, I have adjusted to your strange business hours, dear merchants of Tregastel.  I have accepted that my preferred boulangerie is closed on Thursday and I need to buy my bread elsewhere.  I have scratched my head before the biscuiterie that is open 2 afternoons a week.  On more than one occasion I have driven to a neighboring town to check it out, planned on lunching there, and found that there’s not an open restuarant for miles  because we are “hors de saison”.  I have fed my children soup from a carton on Sunday because it slipped my mind that our only grocery store is closed on this holy day in a lay society {wink to the laïcité}. Like I said, I have adjusted.  I have accepted the quirky way that you people are taking time to live your lives and not just earn your next buck. I get it and in many ways I support it.

img_20160107_125053.jpgBut I don’t get closing your  business MULTIPLE TIMES A YEAR, when, as it is, you make the majority of your annual income in the months of May – September.  Given that you’re really “working” only 5 months out of the year, is it too much to ask that you remain consistently open through the other months? Apparently it is, since this was the sign that greeted us this past week when we went for our usual Tuesday morning coffee.  No coffee for us. None. Nada. Niet. As it is, the place runs on 2 employees – the guy who sells the newspapers, cigarettes and lottery tickets and the gal who makes the coffee and serves the wine.  With people constantly bemoaning the unemployment rate here, is it that hard to train another newspaper, cigarette, and lottery ticket seller and another coffee seller and wine pourer?  Maybe then they could alternate their personal vacations leaving one experienced veteran and one newbie to man the ship, thus avoiding the total closure of the business.  I guess it is too hard and so they simply close up shop until January 18th (yes, next Tuesday will also see us COFFEE-LESS) and leave us this very professional hand-written note stuck to the door.  I will give them a half a point for customer service though.  They had the courtesy to include in their note alternate locations for procuring cigarettes and lottery tickets.  How thoughtful!

But the cafe isn’t really even what has me a little stirred up of late.  It’s the laundromat. Yes, upon arriving, I found it entertaining to hang my laundry out to dry.  I chose to turn necessity (I don’t have a dryer here) into an adventure and lovingly clothespinned little girls’ shirts and skirts and pants to the line in the backyard.  Laundry flapping in the wind in an oceanside town – quaint and old-world, right?

OK, well that was 4 months ago.  It is now winter.  I live in a house with no dryer.  I have 4 small humans that go through clothes at an alarming rate (and that is with the French protocol of determining of something is dirty  or not in place).  It rains here pretty much every single day.  Even when it is not raining, the AVERAGE humidity index is 98% (confession – – – I never knew there could be a 98% humidity index).  There’s probably a mathematical calculation to be done somewhere in there that scientifically proves I can’t possibly launder and dry things quickly enough to keep 4 humans consistently clothed – – – probably need to factor in the one suitcase per kid detail as well as the messy eating habits of a certain 4 year old. The picture isn’t so quaint anymore, is it?

So you can imagine how overjoyed I was to learn that there’s a laundromat less than 3 minutes from our home. {insert singing of angels with hallelujahs only a mother can relate to}.  Round about late October, the laundromat and I became best buddies.  Wash at home, dry at the mat. Simple.

No, I have not lost my mind, this does relate to the lack of capitalist motivation.  Here’s how.  A week prior to Christmas, I arrived at the laundromat to find it locked.  Just locked.  No note scribbled by hand (which I’m now actually used to), just locked.  I waited a few days, gawking intently every time I drove by, waiting for the status quo to resume.  Nothing.  I left for Paris with children in tow.  Returned from Paris with children and husband in tow. This is when the note appeared. This note:  (translation = The Laundromat is now closed)img_20160107_125115.jpg Really?  That’s it?  No explanation?  No indication of when it will reopen? I sent husband on a mission to find out more.  Here’s what he found out – there were electrical issues . . .  given the time of year it is they are having a hard time getting someone out to repair it . . . no clue when it will reopen. It has now been closed for 21 days!

So just like that, you have have left me high and (un)dry, cherished laundromat. Your owner can’t get someone to come out and repair what is wrong and so the handwritten note on the door it is.  Our French protocol for determining if clothing is clean or dirty is about to get a whole lot tougher around here.

I had a passing thought that I could start a consulting business here helping small businesses be more customer oriented and consistent in their business practices.  Then I remembered where I am. I decided that a business handwriting signs  for merchants to hang in their doors when they sporadically close would probably do better!

 

Giving Thanks with a Twist

This year, the fourth Thursday of November was a time of celebration unlike any other. At first glance, there were all of the usual trappings, but with a little closer look, things were a tad different. In no particular order, I give you the 8 reasons why this Thanksgiving created memories that will be cherished for many years to come.
1. It’s all about the table. When visiting Paris back in October, img_20151126_112613529_hdr.jpgmy sister-in-law, on behalf of my mother-in-law, gifted me with a beautiful table cloth. It was most likely a wedding gift given originally to my father-in-law’s mother. That’s a lot of “in-law” speak, but are you with me? It was old, really old, like 4 imagegenerations old. And it was hand embroidered to boot with the initials of my father-in-law’s mom and dad at the time of their marriage. It’s not every day that you receive such a special gift, and then get to don your Thanksgiving table with it.

2. imageIt’s all about the table. I know, I just said that, but really, it’s all about the table.  Having my kiddos participate in creating our Thanksgiving space is always fun. This year it was especially meaningful. They created these cute little napkin rings that adorned the table – pilgrims, Indians, and turkeys.

3. Last comment about the table, I promise. I was recently telling my girls about a little anecdote I read. The woman recounting the tidbit stated that the older she got, the more she appreciated a few close friends. She ended by saying she would rather have 4 quarters than 100 pennies any day. I loved this img_20151126_085722.jpganalogy and so did my girls when I told them about it. A week or two before Thanksgiving, we received a care package in the mail from a very dear friend. The same friend who had thoughtfully sent us a Halloween care package.  In it, was a kit to make a Thanksgiving wreath. When oldest daughter and I opened the care package, she immediately announced, “K sure is a quarter, isn’t she?” Yes, K is a quarter indeed, and as I made the wreath (not an easy task, I might add, and one that took a heck of a lot more time than I had anticipated), I was able to think about our 20+ years of friendship. Thankful for that friendship and thankful to have had her “present” at our table.

4. Of course it’s about the people too. I find that it’s easy to be thankful for what you have and what you’re familiar with. The old comfy shoe concept, imageright. But this year, I couldn’t help thinking about giving thanks for what you never could have imagined. Last year at this time who would have imagined we’d be HERE? Doing THIS? As we had new friends join us in the discovery of this American tradition, I was so thankful for them.  These new friends and neighbors who welcomed us, helped us, included us, and just generally expressed love for us. Turning my eyes to new friends, also reminded me to try and always be thankful for what is yet to come, the undiscovered, the untapped, the new, and the unknown.

5. image Comfy  shoes aren’t bad either.  But did you know that when you take them off and don’t wear them for an extended period of time that they are even better? So yeah, it was special to have this guy here with us for Thanksgiving. The man behind my madness, my crazy ideas, and my wacko dreams. Our Thanskgiving table wouldn’t be the same without him. Three months apart can really up the thankful ante.

6. It really does take a village. I know, that’s totally and completely out of imagecontext. But I was struck this past Thanksgiving by just how delightful it can be to live in a small town. Never in a million years would I have imagined myself enjoying it so much. After all, I’m the one who hit the road from the small town I grew up in at the age of 17 and literally never looked back. But there’s something very endearing about the small town deal here, and the butcher who jumps through hoops to get you a turkey for your special day and even offers to let you borrow his roasting pan!

7. As long as we’re on the topic of food. Just one word of advice, don’t ever ever take fresh cranberries for granted. Just saying, a certain someone arrived with a suitcase bearing fresh cranberries (I know probably a customs violation), jiffy cornbread mix, creamed corn, and Libby’s pumpkin. Some things just can’t be found in this country and some habits can’t be replaced.

8. The crème fraiche. It’s no secret that I love to cook. It’s really my numberimage one hobby. But pumpkin pie and I have never been close friends. Don’t get me wrong, I love to consume it, but I have never felt that I did it justice in creating it. Well this year changed all of that, and the secret is crème fraiche. I created a pumpkin pie like I have never created before. In coming years, crème fraiche will have a reserved spot on the top of my Thanksgiving shopping list.

So that about sums it up – the table, the people & the food . . . With a whole lot of heart sprinkled in and around each and every memory made during this Thanksgiving in Trégastel.

 

 

 

 

 

Citizens of the World

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My Birthday Candle Holder

I could tell you all about the wonderful birthday that I had as I turned 47 on the 14th of November.  I could tell you how special  it was to have my brother-in-law here with us for the weekend.  I could tell you about the beauty of biking around the Ile de Brehat where no cars are allowed.  I could tell you about the amazing candle holder my 6 year made for me in her pottery class.  I could tell you about the note received from my 22 year old step daughter which brought more than a few tears to my eyes . . . or about the card hand written by my 12 year old – amazing gifts of words and affirmation that blessed me immensely.

But that all doesn’t seem very significant in light of what transpired just 4 hours away from our little village on the night of November 13th. Like on the day of 9/11 fourteen years ago, I sat glued to the television. I watched images transmitted live from Paris and tried to wrap my head around what had happened and was happening.  But unlike on 9/11, there was an eeriness that settled over me that was difficult to describe.  I wasn’t in my home.  I didn’t have my usual conventions of security.  I felt exposed.  I felt in it and yet apart all at the same time.  My country of birth was safe (at least for the time being), while my country of residence was under attack.

I’ll leave all the political analysis to those truly knowledgeable and versed in that arena.  I don’t have a political or religious agenda here. So what could I possibly have to say about these events?

Well, when we embarked upon this time out in Tregastel, one of my dreams was to have my children embrace another part of the world.  To leave behind their little corner of California comfort and privilege, and experience something bigger, more profound than themselves, their routine, their belongings, and their activities. My wish was for them to know that they are citizens of this world and as such they can have an impact on it, shape it, take responsibility for it, and possibly, even change it through everyday interactions with people and their engagement in life.

Following Friday’s attacks, conversations ensued with my kiddos about what had happened.  We dug in, on their level, to what this was all about.  We talked about what these things could mean. Where they could lead.  There was no panic.  There was no sensationalism.  We talked about different contributing factors. We prayed for the friends and families of those whose lives ended so tragically . We prayed for world leaders.  We prayed for the terrorists. Yes, that’s correct, we prayed for Paris and then we prayed for the terrorists.

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Half Mast

On Monday morning they headed off to school.  At noon, they all gathered with their classmates for one minute of silence to honor those who lost their lives at the Bataclan, at the Stade de France, and in the cafes of Paris.  They stood with their friends and honored people they didn’t know, in a country that is not their home. They could have easily skirted around this awkward moment clinging to their national identity as a way to not feel the import of this moment – not my people, not my country, not my problem.  But they didn’t.

Somehow, in that moment, and through these horrific events that no one would have ever wished to happen, they understood in an even more profound way what it means to be citizens of the world.  They weren’t just members of a certain water polo club, students at a particular school, participants in a certain art class, or volunteers at a certain church.  They were a part of humanity – a humanity against which a great affront and crime had been committed. A humanity in which lives had been lost and to whom honor, respect, and silence were the least they could offer.

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12 Days with 4 Girls – A photogrid essay

Day 1 –  Trains, trains, and more trains.  A total fiasco when we realized that rather than all being in the same sleeping car, as I had repeatedly been reassured by the SNCF agent, we had 2 couchettes and 3 seats . . .  not to mention there were 3 train cars between them! Insta-Panic followed by the resolution of 4 bunks for the 11 hour overnight trip. (Yes, your math is correct and we were one bunk short – – – I had the honor of sharing my bunk with a certain 4 year old).wpid-photogrid_1446540799964.jpg

You are right again, Day 2 is missing.  Did I mention I spent an entire night in a train with a 4 year old in ONE bunk? It’s called recovery.

Day 3 – Cannes, beach play, and a birthday.

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Day 4 – Nice. Promenade des Anglais, Promenade du Paillon (aka La Coulée Verte) and a rousing game of “Tomate, Tomate, Ketchup”, Socca, Pissaladière and a great ice cream stop.

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Day 5 – The first wave of departures.  Some families you are born into.  Other families you fall into as a foreign exchange student. And then there you are – 30 years later – blessed to know them and to call them family. After the goodbyes subsided, we set out for Antibes where we enjoyed a nice seaside “friture” and a hike along the coast.

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Day 6 – Another Stroll through Cannes.  Custom lunch recommendations sent direct from Irvine via Facebook.wpid-photogrid_1446542218104.jpg

Day 7 – Back on the train, direction Paris. A quick visit from Uncle Christophe and Laurence before they head off to Prague and we tackle the city.

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Day 8 – A heartwarming visit to see Bonne Maman. Joy, tears, smiles, and just a tender heart appreciating this grandmother and what she is and has been to her family.  Then a zip from the retirement home straight to the Musée d’Orsay for a quick dose of impressionism, followed by an afternoon “snack” at Angelina’s.

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Day 9 – Chateau de Versailles with the best Aunt and Cousin ever.

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Day 10 – Enough history and culture . . . we need CHOCOLATE!  And chocolate we got at a full afternoon of the Salon du Chocolat. A perfect ending to a perfect day with dinner at Véronique and Gilles’ house.

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Day 11 – Lunch with Papa Yves and Nicole followed by a visit to Notre Dame.

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Day 12 – An early morning wake up and back on the train.  This time destination Lannion as our Toussaint vacation comes to an end. Finally home for Halloween night, complete with face tattoos and a decorated door as four little people hope for trick or treaters.

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Now let’s get these girls back to school so that I can recover from my vacation!

The H – – – new & improved language blunders by the next generation!

letter-hLet’s start things off with a little lesson in linguistics.  The letter H is always silent in French.
This basically means that it is not pronounced, but rather the vowel sound which follows the H is the sound which is heard. Beyond this basic rule,  there are two types of H’s – the mute h (h muet)  and the aspirated h (h aspiré).  The type of H a word contains will determine whether or not you should make a liason between the word (usually an article) that precedes the word or not.

In English, we have pretty much the opposite linguistic phenomenon.  Our H’s are pronounced – we send a big gust of air  through a wide open mouth to produce a nice, full “ha” sound.

A standing classic tale in our family is one of the Papa during his first few months in the United States.  An avid tennis player, he often took to the courts to not only stay fit, but to meet people and expand friendships.  After a few weeks of playing with a variety of partners, he became really irritated.  It seemed that every time there was a tough shot and he gave it his all to get it, but failed, his opponent would declare “Good Hustle”. Him, not being accustomed to pronouncing, and thus not hearing, this little sound we call “H” would hear . . .  did you guess it?  Yes – he heard “Good, Asshole!”  After letting his frustration mount game after game, he finally asked why the other player had to call him an *sshole just for giving it his best shot.  You can imagine there was laughter galore and the H misunderstanding was cleared up.

Well, as of yesterday, the Papa has lost the family award for Best Linguistic Blunder and it has been passed on to the next generation – specifically to eldest daughter who is in 7th grade.  Of course the H was again the culprit, but this time in the opposite sense.

happinessAt the close of her Latin class, one of her friends asked her (insert appropriate French accent and no pronunciation of the letter H when reading English word), “Qu’est ce que ca veut dire HAPPINESS?”  Essentially, the friend had asked what the meaning of the word HAPPINESS was.  Was my intro linguistic lesson sufficient?  Do you see where eldest daughter may have ended up in understanding this question? Hint:  She blushed profusely and hesitated while trying to decide how to answer such an awkward question. Remember, she’s a newly initiated middle schooler. Yes, since the H was not pronounced by French friend, eldest daughter heard “What does it mean a penis?

Reluctantly she responded with “The private area between a boy’s legs”.  Not expecting this response, French friend raised her eyebrows and replied, “Like in the song by Pharrell – Because I’m happy ~ Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth ~Because I’m happy ~ Clap along if you know what happiness is to you?”  Go ahead, feel free to sing that line through substituting “a penis” for each occurrence of “happiness”.  Are you feeling French friend’s confusion?

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Photo courtesy of Aunt Véronique. Taken during a rousing round of croquet

Yes, there was an eruption of giggles, and just like that the prize of Best Linguistic Fail was passed on from father to daughter. Sometimes our wins go down in history, and sometimes it’s our fails.  We learn from both – especially when they leave us in stitches and produce a great story to be told around the dinner table.  I’m pretty sure the H Mistake won’t be happening again any time soon for this girl!

The Notebook (and it’s not by Nicholas Sparks)!

I definitely have not earned my stripes in the public school arena, but I do remember a bit from when my two step kids were there.  Among other things, etched in my brain is the overwhelming amount of papers that seemed to ooze from every opening possible in their grimy little backpacks. Papers asking for money. Papers asking for permission.  Papers listing lunch menus.  Papers for ordering books.  You name it, and there was a paper for it.  Not to mention the actual homework papers that had to get completed and somehow make their way back to school. Then there was the physical state of the paper by the time it would actually make it home to me.  Often I couldn’t fathom that the paper had really just been walked from College Park, across Walnut,  and to our home.  It appeared as though it had taken a world tour through jungle, desert, and swamp.

Half the time, the papers that needed to make it out of the backpack and actually be brought to my attention didn’t, and the papers I really didn’t give a hoot about got bandied about in front of my face as soon as the kids arrived home.  I recall it being a battle to keep up and stay organized.  Mom vs. “The Papers”.  I rarely won the battle.

wpid-img_20150922_175304260.jpgWell the French are not messing around with this kind of paper drivel.  They have the system nailed and it comes in the form of a little note book known as the Cahier de Liason, or the Connection Notebook.  Every single detail that needs to be communicated to the parents gets GLUED into this handy dandy notebook.  There’s no, “I had it and then a unicorn flew by and the flapping of its wings blew it out of my hand.”  If it’s important, then it is permanently affixed to the notebook.  Genius, right?  What’s even more genius, is that they really aren’t dorking around with the irresponsiblewpid-img_20150922_175323645_hdr.jpg parent types.  Yes, we’re talking accountability.  You see, every message glued into said Cahier de Liason requires a parental signature confirming that you saw, processed, and somehow plan to retain the information. Again, genius, I say.  I signed saying that my kid would have boots on and a packed lunch for Thursday’s fieldtrip?  Guess I can’t now fudge it and say I never saw the paper and blame it on the kid for not bringing the paper home.

For the older girls, the notebook gets a fancier name – Cahier de Correspondence.  It also becomes of bearer of consequences.  If a middle school student has less than stellar behavior in class, it just gets marked in the notebook.  Forgot to, or chose not to, do your homework?  No problem, we’ll make sure your parents know about it by jotting it down in “the” notebook.

How awesome is it that the system doesn’t change either?  No more of this Mrs. X has colored beads hanging from the black board and if you get a purple bead you’ll have to take a note home to your parents, but then the following year Mr. Y has a system where you change your card from green to yellow to red depending on how you behave and then a slip of paper goes home with a happy face, stoic face, or sad face circled.  Here, the system is the system.  It’s the notebook system.  The kids have grown up with it and it hasn’t changed, isn’t changing, and probably is not going to change, so there’s no trying to beat the system by confusing the heck out of the parents.

Now I’m usually one for innovation and change, but I find that in dealing with kids and their organization and discipline that this system is quite wonderful.  Why?  Simply because everyone is on the same page (really, no pun intended, notebook-page, ok.)  So while there are some “systems” here that really leave me scratching my head and guessing, this one gets my whole hearted two thumbs up.  Now let’s just hope I don’t sign on the line and then leave my kid hanging out to dry at school without any boots for her fieldtrip!wpid-img_20151008_151702753.jpg