My Family’s Decline into Valentine …

val 2 valentine 1

“Did you put your cards in your backpack?”
“Yes, mama!”
“Okay, then you’re ready to go! Have fun!!!”

Today is the last school day before St-Valentine’s day. Our fifth Valentine in the USA. By now we know this is a BIG deal in American elementary schools.

The first year I was rather clueless.
Luckily there had been Ruth, a kind American mom I’d met during a writer’s workshop. Ruth had lived in Europe for a while, where she had discovered that Europeans consider St-Valentine’s day to be a holiday celebrated by lovers – and only by them.
That’s the way we Europeans sometimes tend to be. When we have something others haven’t, we do on occasions tend to rub it in. No ‘Let’s-make-this-a-party-for-all!’-empathy to be discovered where I come from. Ours is much more a kind of a ‘You-don’t-have-a-lover?-Well-too-bad-for-you!’-attitude.

Having heard about many of my gaffes against American customs, Ruth had taken the time to send me an email, detailing St-Valentine’s celebrations in my adoptive country.
“Valentine has become a children’s holiday in the USA,” she explained. “And so as not to exclude anyone from the festivities, children are asked to write Valentine cards for all their classmates. Those cards will be exchanged during a Valentine celebration. And,” she had added, “since it’s an American children’s celebration, expect your children to come home on a sugar high, their backpacks loaded with enough candy to carry them through the year.”

Sweet Ruth. I was so grateful for her advise. At least this would be one event we’d celebrate the right way. Or so I thought.

I immediately drove to the pharmacy, annex mini-supermarket with a huge holiday cards collection, where I sent off my 11-year-old daughter in search of Valentine cards while I looked for some household essentials.
“Got them!” Eloise stated some fifteen minutes later. “Look at this one,” She flipped open a card, sending electronic giggling and ‘happy valentine’-screams through the ‘personal care’-isle.
“Don’t you love it?” she asked when the green and pink alien-looking creatures had stopped screaming. I could imagine pre-teens having fun with that card, but the $5.99 price tag somewhat put me off, however. Okay, there were only 14 children in her class, but still … Valentine promised to be an expensive celebration at this rate.

I dropped a tube of shower gel in my basket and walked with Eloise to the cards rack, helping her to locate some cheaper cards. At last we settled on two packages containing ten nondescript ‘notecards’ with envelopes. They didn’t boast any corky Valentine texts or red hearts, but at $6.99 per package they looked perfect to me.
Once home, my daughter immediately set to work, thinking hard to come up with a kind and personalized message for each of her class mates.
On D-day, Eloise left for school all excited about what her class mates would think about her cards and wondering what she would get in return.

That afternoon, when she came home after school, she was running, clearly on a sugar high, as predicted by Ruth.
“Valentine is the best!” she declared.
Really? Had this event at last opened the doors to some much-needed peer kindness for my daughter? Eloise had been struggling since September to make friends. Maybe her kind cards had opened their eyes at last and had made them discover that she was in fact a very sweet girl?
“So your friends were happy with your cards?” I inquired.
“Oh no!” Eloise replied, “I mean, I don’t know. They didn’t even look at them. I guess they’ll read them tonight … maybe…,” she seemed to ponder that, then added, “In fact I don’t think they will read them at all. You know mama, my cards kind of sucked.”
They did? Did those other kids buy those expensive cards then? And why was Eloise so happy if her cards ‘sucked’?
“Oh, so did you get nice cards from your friends?” I asked.
“Yessss!!” my daughter exclaimed, opening her back pack and retrieving a white paper bag on which she had drawn hearts and glued small foam shapes. Not bothering about her decorations, she tore it apart and shook out its contents.
“Look!” she said.
Out fell tiny cards, not larger than a clothes’ price tag, each showing a design of football or basketball players, glittery hearts or pop artists. Being so little, there was absolutely no room for some nice personalized message on them. Barely legible names had been scribbled on the lines labeled ‘to’ and ‘from’. ‘Nice’ was definitely not the word that came to my mind upon seeing those sorry excuses for cards. My card expectations in ‘Hallmark-country’ had clearly been too high.
What made the cards ‘nice’ in my daughter’s view however, were of course not the football players or pop artists. It was what was taped to the cards. For each card came with some pink or red candy.
Eloise greedily tore off all the candy, not even pausing to decipher the name of the child who had offered it to her.
“Too bad there are not more children in my class,” she concluded, looking at the small red-and-pink pile, while she stuffed a Twizzler in her mouth.
I had to agreed with her. Her class mates would probably think her cards ‘sucked’ …

A few years later, in a knee-jerk-reflex to be creative, I decided my son’s first grade Valentine cards would be home-made. The project turned out to be largely mine; given my son’s lack of motivation for crafting. Instead of candy, I opted for a healthy – and pedagogically correct – alternative, taping a pencil to each card. Thibaut couldn’t care less about the whole thing and was – just like his sister had been – only interested in the candy that came with his classmates’ cards.

Given my son’s lack of involvement the year before and my own limited enthusiasm for crafting, second grade Valentine saw me buying a cheap box of tiny Star Wars cards. Thibaut hurried to write his name on all cards, then disappeared as I taped pencils to them, which made the flimsy cards look ridiculously small.

Then came this year …
At the supermarket last week, I told Thibaut to check if he could find some nice Valentine cards. He came back with a ‘32-pack for $1.99’ of tiny ‘Skylanders’ cards.
“I didn’t know you were into ‘Skylanders’?” I asked.
“I’m not, but all the other cards are really too childish.”
“Do you want to go to another store to find something cooler?”
“No mama, I don’t care. Nobody looks at the cards anyway. Now, we need to find good candy. Not too large so we can easily tape it on the cards, but not too small, because then I’ll be the uncool kid who hands out tiny pieces of candy.”
“What about pencils?” I tried.
My son stared at me. “Not again, Mama! Nobody likes pencils. And besides, the class party planners usually give us some.”
Oh … okay.

Tonight, Thibaut’s friends might frown at the ‘Skylanders’ design for just a second. They will not notice his scribbling, hardly legible because of my son’s haste to get the card-writing out of the way. But they will probably be happy with the M&M-like, red-pink-and-white sugarcoated chocolates taped to the card.
“This is the best treat, mama!” Thibaut had declared upon purchase. “Chocolate and Belgians go together and everybody knows it!”
After giving in to the American Valentine routine, I wonder though how Belgian we can still claim to be?

I herewith declare our American Valentine integration to be complete!

Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on :


On the road to ‘Les Mirandes’

mirandes house mirandes table


“Where did you book a room?” Jürgen asked a few hours ago, while we sat on the deck  
overlooking his yard in Belgium. I was nursing an espresso that would help me
stay alert for our nighttime drive into France.
“We didn’t book one yet,” Hubbie replied, “We want to be flexible and stop when we’re tired. It’s not as if we need anything fancy. Just two double beds and a clean shower will do.”
“Oh, okay…,” Jürgen said, “I guess that could work.”
His slight hesitation should have warned us. In a previous life, Jürgen had worked in the  European hotel business after all … .

Four hours later, at 12.30 AM, we feel satisfied, having left a relatively uncluttered Parisian périphérique behind us. The effects of my espresso slowly wearing out, I am ready to break for the night.

Hubbie flips on his I-phone. Some ten minutes later, after first realizing that France has not yet embraced our last-minute-hotel-booking-app, then realizing that the big hotel chains in France don’t seem to take last-minute online reservations, he dials the number for a hotel some thirty minutes away.
 “Oui, we are a family of four,” he says in his best, friendly French. “Ah bon? No rooms for four? Oui, two rooms for two, alors. Ca va. Et c’est combien au total? … 200 Euro?” he glances over at me.
“No way!” I mouth. We only want to crash for a few hours. A simple, clean room is all we need. $280 is vastly overrated. Besides, what happened to last-minute discounts at this hour of the night?
“Okay, merci Monsieur,” Hubbie says, “I will first check a few other options.”

He decides to call a cheaper hotel chain, but hangs up after a while.
“Maybe they don’t staff the desk after midnight?” he wonders out loud.
He tries another hotel, only to get informed that no rooms are available. His next phone call goes unanswered again.

“Okay, maybe we should go for the 200 Euro deal after all,” I say after forty minutes.
“Well, we’ve passed that hotel,” Hubbie says, “It would be stupid to retrace our steps now, wouldn’t it?” I guess it would.
“I’ll just book another room, further down the road,” he offers.
I nod, feeling tired now. My body yearns so much for the touch of crispy, white hotel sheets that I would swear my nostrils are picking up their faint vinegar scent.

Another thirty minutes pass. Oh, what I would give for the sight of a grubby American highway motel sign! Now I understand why Jürgen was surprised we hadn’t booked a room yet. Having lived five years in America, we’ve come to expect around-the-clock customer service. Of course, that’s not the way things work in Europe! How could we have forgotten so fast?

“Maybe we should just sleep in the car?” I offer.
My 6’6” Hubbie’s eyes scan the interior of our modest Renault Megane, then rest on me in slight disbelief.
Okay, maybe not.
We briefly debate about driving on to our final destination, but decide against it. True, our friends would welcome us at their newly opened ‘Chambres d’hôtes’ once they awake. But skipping a night so soon after having just recovered from our jet lag doesn’t appeal to either of us.  

There’s movement in the back of the car.
“Eloise is pushing me,” 8-year-old Thibaut whines.
“Well, you’re taking up all the space!” 15-year-old Eloise retorts.
I sigh, my eyes fixed on the road ahead of me. Hubbie sighs too, his fingers glued to his touch screen. Driving four more hours is definitely not an option. We need a bed and we need it soon!

“Bonsoir,” Hubbie says yet again, still using his best French, but sounding far less enthusiastic, “Vous avez une chambre pour quatre pour cette nuit?” Silence. Then, suddenly sounding upbeat, he says, “Ah oui? Super, we will arrive in thirty minutes.”
Yes! That’s not too bad. If check-out is at 11.00 AM, that gives us plenty of sleep.

“Oh…,” hubbie says, after punching the address into the GPS, “it’s actually going to be
more like an hour drive. Want to stop at a rest area so I can take over the wheel?”
“No, I’m fine,” I reply, feeling energized again at the prospect of a welcoming bed, “I can handle one more hour.”

At last, at 2.45 AM, the GPS instructs us to leave the highway.
“Yes!” I exclaim, “We made it! I’m sooo looking forward to a good night’s rest!”
I slow down at the toll area and select the lane that reads ‘Cartes’. Hubbie hands me the toll ticket and his Visa card.
‘Paiement refusé,’ the display on the toll machine reads. I look at my husband, who promptly hands me an American Express card, which I slide into the slot.
“Paiement refusé.’ Again… Hubbie grabs my purse and fishes out my wallet. He hands me my Visa card, which I slide into the slot. Marking its disagreement with American cards, the machine now aggressively spits out my credit card AND our ticket. I catch both before they hit the pavement. I insert the ticket again, and then try to pay with my Belgian card, which gets rejected as well.
What? Does this chauvinist machine only accept French cards?

I back out of the ‘cartes’ line and drive into the unmarked line, glad that we stopped to pick up cash before leaving Belgium. A big sticker on the machine informs me that it will gladly accept our 5, 10 and 20 Euro bills. Too bad we only have 50 Euro bills … !
I ask Eloise, who’s blinking her eyes against the bright overhead light, to search her wallet. Unfortunately, she can only produce dollar bills.

Noticing a ‘cartes’ slot, I try to insert our credit cards yet again, hoping this machine will be less patriotic and welcome foreign cards. No such luck. The aggravated machine forcefully spits out card after card. Just when the machine decides to also eject our ticket, a sudden gust of wind materializes out of nowhere. Our precious ticket rides the gust, floating up above us, before landing softly … beneath our car.
“Oh SHIT!” I exclaim, backing up, getting out of the car, picking up the ticket, getting in the car and then driving up again.
“Okay,” I declare, ”Time to wake up the toll machine people! Somebody must be able to open the highway gates for us.”

I reach for the ‘help’ button, expecting to hear a soft, helpful voice.
Instead, as soon as my finger hits the button, loud electronic music blasts out of the tiny holes in the machine. Really loud, really electronic music.
My jaw drops as I turn to face my husband. What kind of customer service is this? We’re exhausted, paying – or trying to pay – highway customers in desperate need for some help and all we get is loud, lousy music?
Oh, how I long for the kind toll booth operators in the US, who always politely wave me through with a smile; whatever the time of day or night!
Here we are, stuck on the French ‘autoroute’, just minutes from our four-guest bedroom with crispy white sheets! My body aches at the thought of it.

“Okay, we’ll just park here and sleep in the car,” I announce to my fellow travelers as I back up the car and park on the shoulder of the highway.
The three of them stare at me in disbelief.
“In that case, we’d better drive on,” Hubbie decides, “Let’s switch seats. I’ll do the driving.” Obediently, I get out of the car, ready to move to the passenger side.
Suddenly the awful music stops.

“Allô?” a female voice reaches us out of the darkness. I sprint to the machine.
“Allô? Allô?” I yell hysterically when I get there. No reply. I grab the sturdy machine and try to shake it. It doesn’t bulge. “Allô? Allô?” I yell again into the silent night. No reply. The voice has disappeared!
I look at my husband, who pulled up in the car.
“Press the button again,” he says.
I do as I am told and promptly get treated to the loud, electronic racket again.
This time I stay next to the car, however, glued to the toll machine, while bravely undergoing five more minutes of auditory torture. At last the voice materializes again.

“Allô?” it says.
“Oui, allô!” I yell into the white holes of the machine, “Look, your machine doesn’t accept any of our credit cards. We’d love to pay cash, but we only have 50 Euro bills and the note says —”
“Madame,” the voice tries to interrupt me. But I am beyond getting interrupted. The owner of the voice will listen to what I have to say, weather it wants to or not!
“ — but you see, we don’t have 20 Euro or 10 Euro or 5 Euro bills,” I continue.
“Madame,” the voice repeats.
I stop my rant. “Oui?”
“You can just use a 50 Euro bill.”
“You can just use a 50 Euro bill,” the voice repeats.
What? Now you tell me? After we’ve been sitting here for 30 minutes?
“Then why doesn’t your machine state that it accepts 50 Euro bills?” I ask, bewildered.
“Well,” a hint of a smile seems to line the voice, “That’s just because no bills can be returned. So if you insert 50 Euros, you’ll get a lot of change in 2 Euro coins. Most people don’t like that.”
Who cares? At this point I wouldn’t even mind getting 500 Euro in change.
I thank the voice as calmly and politely as I can, then insert a 50 Euro bill. Loads of 2 Euro coins clatter into the metal change receptacle. As I try to catch them with both hands, out of the corner of my eye I see the gates open onto the promise of a relaxing night. I grab as many coins as I can and hand them to Hubbie, then grab more.
Eureka! This feels like winning the jackpot. A very, very hard to handle jackpot. But, oh, how happy I feel to have won it!

The next day, nicely rested after a seven-hour-sleep in a bed with crispy white sheets, we set off for our last stretch to ‘Les Mirandes’.

Upon our arrival, our hosts welcome us with a fresh glass of champagne. From the deck of the old manor, we enjoy the enchanting view of the valley of Montmoreau-Saint-Cybard. It instantly makes us forget last night’s hassle.

The ensuing week we recharge our batteries in the luxury of a cosy bed, covered in refined, soft sheets wafting subtle perfumes of fresh air and the big outdoors. We discover the meadows and the vineyard surrounding the centuries-old precious manor. We visit tiny towns harboring small medieval churches and larger cities named after renowned wines (or is it the other way around?). We lounge around the pool, every so often taking a refreshing dive into the water. We savor luscious dinners at the ‘table d’hôte’. And we catch up with our friends who prove to be perfect hosts. In short, we spend one week in heaven!  

As we leave, fully rested and our suitcases packed with lovely memories, we promise we’ll be back to ‘Les Mirandes’.
I just make a mental note to book our midway hotel room well in advance and to stock up on Euro coins before hitting the French Autoroute! When traveling in France, better be prepared!

Les Mirandes’ website :

Helene Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on Amazon :