Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cold December

When we were preparing to move here, we were told that it doesn't snow much in Belgium.  That at most there were a couple of snow falls of an inch or two.

That has not been the case.  We have had multiple inches of snow and no melting in between.  The average December temperature is in the 40s.   Lately it has been in the low 30s, which by winter standards isn't really all that cold.

The thing is (in case you haven't caught all the references to rain) we get a good amount of precipitation.   So when the temperature is 30 and not 40, the rain becomes snow.

In the snow there is limited clearing of the streets and non existent clearing of the sidewalks (where they exist).  There is a whole lot of driving on snow and ice and through slush.

We live on  a hill.  Our neighbors live on a hill.  No one is using their driveway.  We can access our house via a back road.  Most of our neighbors can not so they just park their cars at the bottom of their driveways.

At the airports, you may have read, there are issues.  The issue isn't so much the snow or getting it cleared. The issue is that the airports have run out of de-icing stuff.  They didn't expect to need so much.  They have run out.  Truck traffic has been affected by all this cold and well there is a strike in France at some factory that makes the de-icing stuff.

Glad we aren't flying anywhere any time soon.  In the meantime, we'll exercise our winter driving skills and keep pulling on our boots when we head out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Kyra wanted a nod

 

While writing my blog about how Allen spent Christmas day, Kyra asked if I would be writing about her as well.

My first thought was no, as she played he Sims3 expansion pack game for hours.  Not interesting blog material - My child mindlessly played on the computer.

But then I remembered the other gift she used for hours.  She has wanted a "snow hat" for a while now.  The hat must be knitted, have ear flaps and ties.  She wanted a pom pom on top.  I couldn't find one like that, but I did find one with a long braid/tassel.  As she has worn it every waking hour since unwrapping it, I would say she likes it.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Surprise

 Not surprisingly, Allen asked for computer games for Christmas.  The one he really wanted was Call of Duty.  He has anticipated receiving this game and playing it for a few months now.

One of his other Christmas wish list items was a soldering iron.  He has begun to experiment with battery electronics and speakers and wires.  One of his grandpas buys and sells similar things at flea markets, so we knew Papa would come through.

I anticipated that if he didn't have anything to solder right away, he would be frustrated so I went on e-bay and bought him a $6 solar cell.  I had no idea what he would do with it, but that was for him to figure out.


So our festival of unwrapping comes to an end and we turn to our gifts - putting them away, powering and registering them (Kyle's kindle) and playing with them.

What I expected - Allen would disappear to his room to play his game only to reluctantly appear again at dinner.

What happened - Allen got out his soldering iron, the solar cell, his Ipod, and the charging/sync cord. He connected the proper wires (the black and red ones) to the properly charged spots on the solar cell.  The cell isn't quite powerful enough to charge the Ipod but it does (in sunlight) keep the battery from running down as fast.

Then Allen went out in the snow to play with the dog.  And yes, then he did go and play and yes he did come to dinner and then he returned to his game.  He is a teenager.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Luke 2

Merry (almost) Christmas!

Tonight if we can get to church (yes this is in question) I have the honor of reading Luke 2:4-20.  I'm excited about it and will be disappointed if I miss it.

When I worked at church, Christmas Eve was a mixed blessing.  It was wonderful to spend hours celebrating Christ's birth, to greet friends with a Merry Christmas and to sing and sing and sing.  I did truly feel like I got to worship on that evening.  On the other hand, it represented significant time away from family at a significant time of year (I never served a church that had fewer than three services).  It meant I was tired on Christmas day.

This year there's only one service.  I'm not in charge.  I haven't had to work.  I simply need to show up and read.  But the reading is significant, it is the Christmas story.  Sure we all know it, even those who don't go to church know the gist of it.  Linus recites this passage in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  But if it has been awhile since you paid attention to the words, take a moment, slow down and read.  And then, do what Mary did treasure these things and ponder them in your heart.

One more thing - tonight when you see your pastor - say thank you, let them know you appreciate this gift they are sharing with you this evening.

Merry Christmas everyone!



4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
   and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shortest Day

It is just before 4pm and the sun is already beginning to set on this day.

This was to be the last day of school for Allen and Kyra before their two week winter break, but due to all our recent snow, winter break began last Friday.

Yesterday the kids stayed inside and plugged in.  Today they channeled their energies in a much more productive manner.  Without much prodding, both children cleaned their rooms to the point where they actually look good.  Kyra is doing laundry.

And now, they are outside playing with the dog in the snow.  They built this igloo/dog house and are continuing to refine it.  Kyra also made a mini snowman.

As for me, I know my role - I've got the hot chocolate on the stove ready to be served in mugs adorned with a mini candy cane.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Legos, Cars and Engines

 It started with Lego car sets.  Allen wanted to build a Ferrari and then another one and then another one.  Lego sells kits to build these cars.

Then Allen decided to use his random Legos to build his own car, complete with car doors that opened and closed.

Now he has moved on to bigger and better things.  He's built moving pistons.  He is powering them with a motor and experimenting with gears.  He has created a clutch and can move from first to second gear.

The version pictured has only one motor but he has moved on to two now.  He has added gears to see how many revolutions he can get and when he hits the point of diminishing returns.

Allen loves explaining all this and as I am not at all mechanically inclined, I understand only a small fraction.

What I do understand is that he is good at this and he likes it.  That is enough for me.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fourth Sunday in Advent

 Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent.  Other than Easter, Advent is my favorite season in the liturgical calendar.  I love this time of preparation for and anticipation of the birth of Christ.  I love Advent hymns (not so much O Come O Come Emmanuel but People Look East and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus).

I like taking the time to wait and anticipate to savor rather than rushing headlong into the crazy and joyful celebration of Christmas.  I'm glad when Christmas comes but I really do enjoy this time of expectation.

This year I have a new found appreciation for the advent wreath.  As our daily light decreases and our world stays darker later each morning I love the symbolism of the wreath's increasing light.  Today all four candles are lit.  At the brink of darkness this wreath burns at its brightest proclaiming the coming birth of the Light.

What you see pictured here is a treasured Advent wreath.  It's a paper plate, toilet paper tubes, some fun foam cut outs, a bit of glitter and yellow tissue paper.  Allen made it when he was five.  I love it because we can leave it "burning" 24/7 and because, well, Allen made it.  What's not to love about that?

As we head toward the darkest day of the year (and it will be dark here in Belgium) may you too experience the warmth and light of this Advent season.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Tree

The Sunday before I got really sick we got our Christmas tree up.

We had hoped for a real tree but they are sold in very few places and did not go on sale until about mid-December.

So we caved and bought an artificial tree at the PXtra. This one we can use when we return to the US.  It is pre-lit and runs on US voltage.  That means that here we have to plug it into a transformer.

When we packed up our Christmas stuff last year, we all picked out 10-20 ornaments we really wanted to have here in Belgium.  We enjoyed seeing these old friends but also missed the ornaments we won't see for a few years.

Allen picked out his guitar ornaments and trucks and tractors.  Kyra made sure she brought her Nutcracker themed ornaments.   Kyle's choices were Williamsburg and White House ornaments.  I picked out churches and the hand-made ornaments the kids have made.  The angel at the top of the tree was made by Kyra when she was 4.

Kyra was especially pleased to have our Christmas decorations out and on display.  It now feels more "christmasy" to her.  It's not quite as "christmasy" as it would be if we were in Virginia but it is enough of home to make us feel warm and get us in the Christmas spirit.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Healthcare

I'm back (at least I hope I am).  Being sick, solo parenting, Kyra finishing the December run of her play and Allen getting sick have all thrown my life and schedule out of whack.

As I have recently had much experience with doctors and healthcare I'll start with that topic and work my way back into daily life and Belgian experiences.

Our main healthcare resource is the SHAPE medical clinic.  This clinic serves all SHAPE families (except probably the Belgians).  For the Americans it is part of the US military health care facilities around the world.  Appointments, lab work, x-rays and prescription medications and over the counter medications are all paid for with tax dollars.  So thank you for paying your taxes, we certainly appreciate the healthcare.

The SHAPE clinic handles much of the routine stuff a general practice/urgent care center could handle.  The kids got their school physicals there, Allen gets his asthma meds there and I've been treated for a UTI and whatever I'm still battling there.

In September I started experiencing shortness of breath issues (which I now believe were caused by bathroom cleaners but this is undetermined).  I saw a couple of doctors there (one Italian, one American) who gave me asthma meds but also realized they needed a bit more information.

There is no pulmonologist at SHAPE clinic, thus they had to refer me out on the local economy.  There are staff at the clinic who make the calls to set up the appointments.  They work with doctors who speak at least some English.

In Belgium the specialists work at the hospital.  Thus when I went for my appointment I went to the hospital.  (Now I know how to get there)  There is a check-in system involving numbered tickets - like a meat counter at the grocery store.

After checking in I was directed to a different waiting area than the ticket waiting area.  There my doctor came to get me.  I met with the doctor as well as a technician who administered a breathing test.  Even though I am still coughing, these tests indicated all is well.

I left without paying for anything.  I am not clear if SHAPE clinic will be billed or if I will receive a bill later or if there won't be any bill.  I'll let you know what happens (if it is notable).

Anyways next step is back to the referring doctor at SHAPE to see what follow-up if any is necessary.  As all is well, I'm not sure there is any necessary next step.  I think the answer to the issue is for me to stop cleaning the bathroom.

So there you go - SHAPE and Belgian healthcare.  So far no out of pocket expenses and what I would call a good standard of care (and I'm pretty picky).

Friday, December 10, 2010

I'm Back (sort of)

It has been a rough few days.  I've been miserably sick and am finally feeling sort of functional.

I haven't been blogging for two reasons -
1.  I haven't been up to much computer time
2.  When most of one's day has been sent sleeping or zoned out there isn't anything to write about

I am behind on a few topics so when I'm up to it, I'll show you some photos of our Christmas tree (fake not real) and tell you about why you do not want to get a flat tire(s) in Belgium.

Kyra finishes her December run of Bye Bye Birdie this weekend after this we expect a tad more sanity in our family schedule.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Orange Juice is Closer

I'm sick, therefore I'm whiny.  Nothing serious just a runny nose, awful cough and a fever that has me shivering one moment and burning the next.  The doctor says it is viral which means I get to just let it do its thing.

There are things one likes to have close at hand while letting a virus do battle with one's immune system, like orange juice, extra soft tissues, ginger ale, tea, chicken soup and just the right medications.  In our house, we have tea.  In Burke, I probably could have mustered the energy it took to run to the Giant or CVS less than five minutes away.  There is no way I can make the trek to Chievres in my current condition.  I'm sure Belgian stores have some of the things I need but the closest one is about a 10 minute drive and then my brain would have to work in French.  My brain is pretty fuzzy today.

So instead I'll stay home and write a whiny blog, take a nap, drink some tea and hope that my immune system will soon be victorious.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Opening Night

 Last night was opening night of the SHAPE Players' production of Bye Bye Birdie. 


Kyra was cast as a "sad faced girl."  She and another "sad faced girl" Renee were in the number Put on a Happy Face.  

Their characters were sad because Conrad Birdie (a teenaged heart throb) was going off to war.

In the number, Conrad's manager, Albert encourages them to cheer up and put on a happy face.

He makes funny faces at them and acts goofy and eventually gets them to smile and dance with him.

The number was cute and all three did a great job with the acting and the dancing.

Kyra is currently quite sick so she's had to push herself to put energy into her performance and she has three more to go this weekend.

She'll make it but after Sunday's matinee I expect she'll go to bed and stay there until Monday morning.

I'll let you know how the weekend goes....

Friday, December 3, 2010

Il Neige

Or in other words (English ones) it is snowing.

It began snowing here on Tuesday and has done so off and on through this morning.   Temperatures have not risen above freezing and the snow accumulation is a few inches.

My native born Virginian children expected school to be cancelled or delayed.  Kyra even wore her pajamas inside out and backward Wednesday evening (a Virginia tradition to bring on a snow day).  This did not work.  They have had school every day this week and it has started on time.

I wouldn't say this is because Belgians are great about taking care of the roads.  They don't.   The reaction to snow is a bit like the reaction to rain - you ignore it and just get on with your day.

At our house we have made one accommodation.  We are now using the back driveway instead of the front one.  Our driveway is very steep and in current conditions we can not drive the car up the drive.  Fortunately our driveway runs from the front of the property to the back of the property where it connects with a tractor road.  This portion is much flatter and as the mud on the back road is now all frozen it is easier to drive upon rather than in.

Overall, I would have to say I prefer the snow to the rain.  Walking the dog is easier on snow and frozen ground and upon returning home there is no need to wipe all the mud from his paws and underside.  The snow doesn't make me as wet as I run errands and the sight of snow is far prettier than gobs of mud everywhere.

I'll probably welcome the sight of mud and warmer temperatures after a long dark winter, but for now I am content to say "Il neige."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Christmas Caves

 On Sunday, before we went to Snow World, we stopped in Valkenburg in the Netherlands for their Christmas Caves.  Almost every town in Europe (at least in our area) has a Christmas market.  These are primarily located in the town squares.

In Valkenburg, the market is located in caves below the downtown.  The caves are decorated for Christmas with trees, lights, Santas, and manger scenes.  This was Flat Stanley 2's first time out, as you can see he is not as photogenic as Stanley 1.

Given the enclosed nature of the market, there is controlled access to the market.  Even so, we found it to be crowded and that we were constantly struggling to make our way through the caves.

On the plus side, it was far warmer than an outside market and there wasn't any wind.

I enjoyed the unique atmosphere of the Christmas Cave.  I was disappointed that the merchandise for sale was not very special. I had hoped to see hand-crafted goods, but the majority of the goods were things you could buy in a store.

Kyra found some of those bracelets that are popular among school kids these days.  Apparently the animal shapes are numerous and easy to find, but she found fruit shaped bracelets which she called "rare."  She was willing to pay a euro for the purchase.

Allen spent more - 10 euro.  He found a non-sport watch that he wanted.  It was a pretty good deal, as the seller removed the extra links so it fit him and threw in an extra watch battery.  Allen was pleased with his purchase.

I told the kids that we couldn't leave the caves until I took a photo of them.  Can you tell which kid was the least thrilled by the experience?


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Snow World

 This weekend was kind of busy for us.  Saturday we filled with errands, chores and just generally getting stuff done.

That left our Sunday wide open for a trip to the Netherlands or if you prefer French - Pays Bas.  Part of the country dips down between Belgium and Germany.  You can see it if you click here.   It is about a two hour drive from our house.

Our first stop were the Christmas Caves.  They will be another blog (perhaps tomorrow).

Then we ventured on to Snow World.  The men's group of the church sent an email out to organize this trip.  Not many came but we were glad we did.

Snow World is an indoor ski place.  There were a couple gentle slopes, an intermediate run, a snowboarding area and an "advanced run."  If you love skiing mountains, do not come here.  If you want to ski without wind and in a setting that is now overwhelming, Snow World is great.

Kyra had never skied before.  Now she has.  The bunny slope was perfect for her and it had a conveyor belt to move beginner skiers to the top which meant that she did not have to try to learn to use a rope tow or t-bar.

This is Allen (in the middle of the photo)
Kyle had been once before (14 years ago or more) and could not manage to stay vertical or make it up to the top of the bunny hill.  Now he has done so.

Not surprisingly, Allen is a natural skier.  He just loved having the opportunity to go fast.

I spent most of my time on the bunny hill with Kyle and Kyra (no lessons were available) but also worked in a couple of runs on the intermediate run.

I was pleased to discover that even though I haven't really skied in over 20 years (with the exception of one run down an intermediate slope 14 years ago), it all came back pretty quickly.

All in all not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Soignies

Our house is located in Thieusies which is in the "county" of Soignies.  Soignies has a custom of holding a welcome reception for its new residents every six months.

The reception was held at the cultural arts center.  There were over a hundred people in attendance.  We got to shake hands with the mayor and the council members.  The mayor made a short speech welcoming all the new residents and then a short film about the area was shown.  Following the film, the SHAPE jazz band offered a concert and following that was a ceremonial toast.

This reception marked the first time that SHAPE families were invited.  This was not because Soignies didn't wish to welcome SHAPE families, rather they did not have a way of tracking us down.  They worked with SHAPE to make that possible.  In addition, they provided an English translator who translated the mayor's remarks.  

All in all it was a pleasant evening and while we could not stay for the whole reception, it was nice to be included in such a hospitable tradition.  


Saturday, November 27, 2010

In Pursuit of a Christmas Tree

As a family we have a tradition of putting up and decorating our fake Christmas tree over the course of Thanksgiving weekend.

When we were preparing to move I made the unilateral decision not to move our tree.  The main reason being I did not want to have to store such a huge item for 11 months of the year in a home that was certain to have limited storage space.

So now we are in need of a Christmas tree.  Belgians have not adopted the whole Christmas tree tradition.  I understand they are sold here, but not until closer to Christmas.

We are already on the look out for trees though.  Kyra spotted some yesterday as she was leaving school.  The Germans are having their Christmas market on SHAPE today.  We went over to check it out in hopes that the Germans might be selling them as part of their market.  They are not.  They were using the trees for decoration.

Plan B is to stop by at the time the market is closing and see if they will give us one and/or sell us one cheaply.  If not we'll keep trying.

Traditions are important particularly when we find ourselves far away from so much that is familiar and comfortable.  The decorations, ornaments and traditions connect us with family, memories and each other.

If you get a lead on a tree, let us know..

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Turkey (breast) is In

Just in case you think I've been exaggerating about the size of my oven, I thought I'd share a photo of my Thanksgiving meal preparation.

The hunk of meat is a 7.25 pound turkey breast.  It is in a 10x13 roasting pan.  I had to lower the shelf to the very bottom in order to get it to fit in with the thermometer.

My plan is to get the casseroles ready to go in when the turkey comes out.  I'm using my flattest casserole dishes in hopes that I can get two in the oven at the same time.

Despite a great longing for my Virginia kitchen and general whininess, I am truly thankful for wonderful family and friends, their health and mine, the blessing of all my basic necessities being met, and all the wants, desires and luxuries I take for granted on a daily basis.  

When all is said and done, today my family and I will gather around a table in a house that is heated and dry, we will eat to excess and not have to worry about tomorrow.  There are too many places in the world where that is not true.  For these blessings and many others I am thankful.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Thanksgiving Like No Other

I know Thanksgiving is an American holiday.  I am aware that not everyone celebrates it and that here in Belgium it would look different.

The commissary has been very helpful.  They have stocked turkey, stuffing mixes, cranberries, canned pumpkin, frozen mince meat pie, french fried onions, oyster crackers, cream of mushroom soup and more.  All the basic ingredients of American's typical Thanksgiving meals have been available.

But the day is going to feel "off."  The kids have school.  In a nod to the Americans, the school will close two hours early tomorrow.  I have French class.  Kyra has practice for the musical she is in.  I'll be spending a good amount of tomorrow driving back and forth.  Somewhere in there I need to figure out how cooking a big meal in a small kitchen works.

We'll have Thanksgiving.  We'll eat familiar foods. We will be and are thankful.  We'll stuff ourselves, roll to bed and then get up early for work and school on Friday.

It will be Thanksgiving.  It just won't be quite the same.

I hope you all have a lovely day filled with friends, family and much for which to be grateful.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Alternate Route

Just when I thought I was doing well...

I know how to drive all the places our family goes on a regular basis.  I have learned how to navigate around SHAPE, even when they close roads (for no obvious reason).    I do not know however, any alternate routes when off SHAPE.

This was painfully clear this morning when a truck fire stopped traffic on the main road between our house and SHAPE.  Traffic could only move one way at a time.  What is usually a 10 minute trip became a 30 minute trip and I got to experience it both ways!

Most of the route was bordered by fields but there were side roads in parts.  These would have been helpful, had I known where they would take me.  I do know there is a back road way to reach our house, but knowing it exists and knowing how to navigate it are two different things.

I miss the handy ADC maps I had back home.  When stuck in traffic I could get it out, study side streets and plot a course.  Here, I just got to sit (twice!).

I've learned basic navigation, I'm getting used to the culture, I'm studying French, now I need to learn alternate routes, either that or I need a tractor so I can just drive through the fields.

Monday, November 22, 2010

No Last Minute Christmas

Three weeks ago signs went up in our post office here on SHAPE.  On it were several dates, dates in November!  It listed drop dead shipping deadlines for posting packages to the United States.   So if one wanted to get one's packages to the United States by Christmas, these were the shipping deadlines.  My initial reaction (keep in mind I am an advanced planner) was "yikes!"

I usually am ready for Christmas by Thanksgiving.  This year with moving and keeping up with the kids I'm not sure I'm going to make that deadline.

Many gifts have been purchased, many have been thought about. But I am not ready.  All the local Christmas markets, held in town squares across Europe don't even open until next weekend.  Maybe I'll be shopping for next year's gifts - really advanced planning.

The postage deadline doesn't just mean sending gifts out, it also means I've got to get things ordered in hopes that they arrive here in time.  Allen and Kyra keep revising and re-prioritizing their lists so I've got to make an educated guess as to where they will have landed by Christmas time.

I'm also working on Christmas cards.  Family photo - check.  Cards in hand - check.  Chasing down everyone's new addresses - in process.  We weren't the only ones moving this year.

After I get all the packages and cards taken care of I then need to turn to the task of keeping family traditions up in a new place.  Belgians don't have a long standing tradition of Christmas trees, so finding a tree might take some work.  Hopefully the commissary or PX will help me out.  I'll let you know.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Flat Stanley Left Us

on the bus to Pisa
 We returned from our vacation almost two weeks ago, and I still miss him.  Flat Stanley had been with us since Kyra's second grade year.  He went to Afghanistan with Kyle.  He traveled with Kyra's Grandma and Grandpa Reeves.  He has been to several states, England, Canada, Mexico,  Luxembourg, Afghanistan, the Netherlands, Panama, France, Belgium, Germany and Italy.

He got to Pisa, Italy and decided to stay.  As much as I miss him, I can't blame him.  The weather there was lovely -the air temperate, the sky blue, the sun was shining.

Maybe he was just tired of traveling and wanted to settle down.  Perhaps he was tired on being folded and slotted into a backpack only to be squashed by our water bottles.  Whatever his reasons he joined us on our excursion to Pisa but did not travel back with us.  I hope the other tourists are kind to him.  

Kyra and I have resolved that another Stanley is in order.  I have already found similar looking template.  He will look as much as possible like our original Flat Stanley but it won't quite be the same.  Our thoughts are that a Flat Stanley 2 is better than no Flat Stanley.  Flat Stanley 2 will have our email address and mailing label on him.

In your travels if you see a Flat Stanley with "Kyra" written in second grade cursive on the back - he's ours and he's welcome home anytime.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Trevi Fountain

Our first stop in Rome was Trevi Fountain.  The fountain is lovely.  It is big.  People throw coins in.

Tradition says if you throw a coin in, you are guaranteed to return to Rome.  I'll have to take my chances.

Why didn't I throw a coin in?

A number of reasons -

3.  It was really crowded - the square is small and people are everywhere!

2.  Kyra wanted a gelato

1.  The bathroom opportunity preceding this one was at a rest stop with a line 40 women deep and only 15 minutes before the bus would leave again.  A bathroom was available and there was no line.

So no coin for me.  I'd like to return to Rome, but we'll have to see.  In the meantime, I'll point out that there is a Trevi fountain not far from you at EPCOT.  If you throw a coin in there, I don't know what that means - do you get to go to Rome? or just back to Walt Disney World?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Opportunity

As a mom, I have been very attuned to what Allen and Kyra are missing back in the United States.  On the one hand there's all kinds of stuff we gladly leave behind - the traumatic years of being a girl in junior high,  extensive drug and alcohol abuse (it's here just not on as large a scale), American self-indulgence, Northern Virginia traffic, etc.  And on the other, I cringe at what we have lost in being away from a Fairfax County education, its level of excellence and diversity of classes.  I miss opportunities for Allen and Kyra -  big and small.

And in the midst of these "woe is me/ woe is my family" pity parties in breaks a reminder of how fortunate we are, how what we have here might never happen had we not picked up our lives and settled in rainy, foggy Belgium.

Such a moment happened last night.  Last night was the fall sports banquet.  It was a potluck in the school cafeteria.  I can sense you are jealous already.  But wait there is more - six teams, their coaches and parents were present and we got to sit and listen and clap for six teams (with their middle school, jv, and varsity divisions) passing out participation certificates, awards and gifts.  All this in an echo-y cafeteria with a not so great sound system.  I hope you are getting the picture.

As awful as the evening was, there was one shining moment that made it worth sitting through all over again.  Allen not only received a varsity letter for cross-country but also a certificate for athlete acadmic achievement.  Would Allen eventually letter at Lake Braddock? Probably, but not until his senior year and certainly not as a freshman.  In a smaller school, with more individual attention and less fierce athletic competition, Allen has really stepped up both academically and athletically.

Had we stayed in the US, Allen would not know the joy of being on this cross country team (which is a great group of kids, their camaraderie is evident), competing in some notable places and reaching a level of achievement he (and his parents) can be proud of.  

Even in the midst of the damp and clouds every now and again, a bit of light shines through

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The "Restaurant"

One of the better preserved/restored buildings in the city of Pompeii is the brothel.  This makes it a "must see" when touring this archaeological site. It also makes it a bit difficult to provide a family friendly guided tour appropriate for all ages.

The adults in our group quite enjoyed listening to our guide tell us about this site while in the presence of several elementary aged students.

Our guide started by pointing out that Pompeii was a port city.  As such, many sailors visited it on a regular basis.  When in port, the sailors were "hungry" and often were in search of a good "restaurant."

When they arrived at the "restaurant" they could choose their level of service.  If they didn't have a lot of money or time to spend they could choose to remain on the first floor for "fast food."  If they wanted to linger over a "gourmet meal" they could head up to the second floor where there was better "service" and the "food" was more expensive.


As he led us into the building (only the first floor was available for viewing), he pointed out the menus above each door.   The patron could look at the menu options and then choose the room that matched what they wanted.  The frescos were in incredibly good condition considering how old they are.  Some were more graphic than others.  I thought this one to be fairly tame.

Anyways, our guide went on to explain that the patrons of the "restaurant" didn't get to choose their "servers" they only got to choose their menu item.

He then explained about the rooms.  Each room had a "table."  He said that people were often surprised that the "tables" were made of stone and not wood.   Our guide asked us to consider how busy the "restaurant" probably was and how quickly wood would wear out or be damaged.

Later in the tour, our guide showed us markings in the street that helped the sailors find the "restaurant."  These markings were as old as the city and worn by much foot traffic.  Kyra looked at the marking and saw an arrow.  The rest of us looked and saw something more phallic in nature.

So if you are ever in need of giving a family friendly tour, just remember the "restaurant."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Vesuvius

The photo isn't all that picturesque.  The industrial port of Naples isn't gorgeous.  But in the background you can see Vesuvius.  Up until the eruption of 79 AD, this was one mountain peak not two.  With your imagination draw an inverted V between the two peaks and you'll have a rough idea of the mountain the Romans saw.

On our first excursion day we had the choice of going into Naples, driving along the Amalfi coast, visiting Capri and other such activities.  The "strenuous" excursion was a climb of Vesuvius followed by a visit to Pompeii. With two active children and bodies that aren't letting us down (yet) we opted to climb Vesuvius.

The day was cool so the climbing was pleasant.  The bus took us over halfway up, our feet took us the rest of the way.  Our guide told us of the two eruptions - 79 and 1944.  He described the changes to the volcano and how it affected the cities below. We peered into the crater and looked out over the population below.

If/when Vesuvius (which is still considered active) erupts again, many people will need to move quickly to safety lest they become the newest Pompeii.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I Miss the Sun

We returned to Belgium six days ago.  Not only has it rained everyday, not just part of the day - it has rained all day.

Just to give you an idea of how accustomed to the cloudy rainy weather we have become - while we were on the cruise, we noticed the sun.  We were thrilled that we noticed it every day.  

It was sunny in Rome.  No wandering through rain slicked streets.  No quick photographs with worries the camera would be damaged. 

It was so sunny in Pisa that we were competing with shadows to get decent photos when we were on the ground.  From of the top of the leaning tower, it lit the cathedral and baptistry beautifully. 

In France (and other ports), the kids enjoyed just being out on deck.  The 24-7 access to miniature golf was also a big attraction.  Allen also ran around the track and Kyra liked inline skating. 

The sun also added to the lovely scenery of southern France.  Our excursions didn't take us anywhere famous or notable.  We just visited small villages and enjoyed being out while the sun was shining. 

We are already anticipating our next travel opportunity, not for the history or culture, but for the chance to once again spend time in the sun.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Ice Skating on the Ocean

 Yes there was an ice rink on the cruise ship.

It was about a quarter of the size of a competition rink.

Our first cruise day was "at sea."  That afternoon we attended the ice show.  Given the size of the rink, I was impressed with what the skaters were able to do in terms of jumps and lifts.  We managed to get second row seats so we saw it all up close.  Neat experience.

After dinner the rink was opened up for the teens to skate.  Allen isn't a huge fan of ice skating (he prefers inline skates and ramps) but he is good at it.  He wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to say he ice skated in the middle of the ocean - or more accurately the Mediterranean Sea.

Kyra enjoys ice skating and looked forward to strapping on skates.  As there weren't many teens on the cruise, they only had to share the space with about four other kids.

The rink was open a few more evenings, but it coincided with our dinner time.  This meant I never got a chance to ice skate on the ocean.  Maybe next time....

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day



Depending on where you are today, you are observing Veterans Day, Remembrance Day and/or Armistice Day - or you are just sleeping in.

November 11th - marking the end of major hostilities of World War I - is a big deal in Europe.  As the war was fought on local soil this makes sense.

One can not travel in Europe without noticing these memorials everywhere.  Every town (even the teeny tiny ones) has a monument that looks similar to this one.

They are small obelisks honoring the town's soldiers who fought and died in World War I.  Often there is an additional plaque noting that the memorial also honors the World War II dead as well.  (It is there in the photo - it's the long rectangle between the stone facade with writing and the base with the dates of WWI)

Kyle will be spending the day with some British people we know from church tracing some battle lines and visiting cemeteries where soldiers are buried.  I'll be playing chauffeur to Kyra's dance engagements and Allen, well, he's sleeping in.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

European Championships

 The Department of Defense schools held their European Championships for Cross Country in Heidelburg Germany on Saturday, October 30th.  All schools could send their team, but only their top six runners.

The course was through a local wooded park and it wound up hill and down.  It was laid out in such a way that with a short walk spectators could view the race at several different points.

It was interesting to watch the race progress and see how the runners went from a pack to individuals.

There were 172 runners in the boys' race.  Allen finished 103rd.  Not bad for a freshman in his first year of running.

Now Allen starts his winter training in anticipation of the track season...

sprinting for the finish

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Our European Vacation

Disclaimer - It is my intent to share information, my thoughts and in general let you know about my life here in Belgium.  I wish to share not brag.

Over the next few days, I'll be blogging about our recent family vacation.  In many ways it was similar to vacations we have taken in the US, except this time what is close to us is Europe.  So - if this is coming off as bragging, I kindly request that you don't read this blog for a few days.  In case you think life is glamorous here, I'll remind you I do not have a garbage disposal, the toilet lid falls down on me every time I sit, it is cloudy most days and because my washing machine is small, I'll be doing laundry continuously for three days to recover from this vacation.

And now on with the show..

All Saints' Day is observed in most of Europe as a holiday.  In the kids' case, as a week break from school.  So with a week off of school, our choice was to travel.

Allen's cross country season finished with the European championships held in Heidelburg Germany on Saturday, October 30th.  He traveled there on the team bus and Kyle, Kyra and I followed in the car Friday evening.

Allen competed Saturday afternoon (separate blog).  We then started our drive to Barcelona which was our cruise port.

We did a week long Mediterranean cruise which stopped in Naples, Rome (sort of), Pisa (sort of) and two small towns in France.

The picture is of our cruise ship taken through a window of a fortification in southern France.

We docked again on Sunday morning and then drove for over 13 hours to get home in time for the kids to return to school on Monday.

We had a great time and made some wonderful memories.  The most remarkable things weren't so much what we saw but what we did together.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Directions

Last Friday I was driving Kyra home from dance when the car next to me rolled down the window and the driver asked me for directions.  I gave him directions and we both continued on our way.

Not a very remarkable occurrence, but it made my day for the following reasons -

1.  the request for directions was made in French

2.  I didn't have to ask him to repeat the question

3.  I knew where he wanted to go and the direction to send him in

4.  I replied in French

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Club Beyond

Allen and Kyra have been enjoying the student ministries of Club Beyond these past few months.  In some ways, Club Beyond is similar to many other fine student ministries offered in the US.  The kids are invited to come play some games and hear a biblically themed talk.  Later in the week they have an opportunity to gather for small group Bible study.

These gatherings involve food and silliness - a great draw for teens.  They also involve Jesus, Bible and time for prayer - also a draw for the teens of Club Beyond.

So the difference - well, we are in Europe.  Most of the Club Beyond kids are American, but not exclusively so.  There's an international flavor to the gatherings.  The ski trip to a ski resort within a day's drive, well it's in Austria.  The mission trip that will be in Romania.  Same ministry different setting.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

SHAPE Library

It is interesting to note what amenities are provided for military and foreign service overseas.  We get a PX, a commissary, a gym, school, bowling alley and a library.

I did not have high hopes for the library and those hopes have been met.  I will admit Fairfax County will spoil one for almost any other library system.  SHAPE library is multi-lingual.  The English language section is shared by both the Americans and the British so it is larger than the other sections.  There is a decent selection of best-selling authors.  So I have access to Steele, Archer, Cussler, etc.  It is an opportunity to read authors I have long ignored, to try some new things.

Earlier this year, I wanted to have Kyra read Diary of Anne Frank.  Given that we are next to the Netherlands I thought for sure the library would have it - wrong.

The upside is I have found some new authors I enjoy - Sarah Addison Bell and Carol Cassella.  I have also encountered some duds - Dixie Cash.

So while the library isn't great, it isn't all bad and has plenty of books I haven't read.  I am grateful though, I have a Kindle.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Food Network

Kyra was a fan of Food Network before we moved to Belgium.  Now with limited cable and access to English language shows she is even a bigger fan.

I have to admit Food Network is easy to watch (particularly with the more limited commercials).  We don't have to keep track of any continuing story lines (this is important as we have no way of recording shows here.  If we miss it, we miss it).  It doesn't take much brain power to understand what is happening and all the hosts are happy and perky.

Barefoot Contessa is on quite a bit.  Kyra really likes the show, but I far prefer Iron Chef America.  As much as Allen complains about having to watch shows that he doesn't pick (one TV here), he likes Iron Chef too.

So while the shows haven't changed the way we cook or eat, at least they keep us entertained in a light, don't have to think way.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mail

I feel like I am back in college when it comes to getting mail.

The Americans have a separate post office on the SHAPE campus.  It is a room filled with those little mail boxes with combination locks.  Unlike my college mail box, these don't have windows, so I never know whether or not something waits for me behind the little door or not.

The rate at which mail is delivered varies by a good deal.  Sometimes it takes 3-4 weeks for a package or letter to reach the states and vice versa.  Other times, it takes less than a week.  Sometimes we get magazines in a timely manner, at other times we receive three issues of Newsweek or the Economist at once.

It is nice to open the door and find something waiting for us (other than bills).  The best find is a yellow card.  Yellow cards mean packages!

For packages we have to go to a window, give them our yellow card and our ID.  The package room is an interesting study on the shopping habits of Americans at SHAPE.  At this time Amazon boxes and Zappos seem to dominate.

It is a wonderful thing to have internet shopping and a US mailing address.  There are so many things that are not available to us any other way - soy nut butter, dance shoes, guitar strings, and more.  Not every country offers this service to their people serving overseas.  I think Canadians have to use international mail to ship and receive.  So yes, it it an extra errand but it's worth it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bye Bye Birdie

Because Kyra does not have enough to do in her after school hours, she auditioned for the community theater production of Bye Bye Birdie.  In her audition, the directors noticed that she can dance (surprise!).

She was cast as a "sad faced girl."  This means she dances in the "Put on a Happy Face" number.  Over the past few weeks she has had the opportunity to work with a professional choreographer from California.  This has been a neat experience for her and is a bit of a change from the norm of having dance classes with her choreographers.  She is also dancing with a non-dancer so she is learning that what she takes for granted is much more difficult for others.

She has about a month of rehearsal left before performances start.  Then there is a break and in February the show will be performed again as part of a competition.  The SHAPE theater is truly an award winning theater.  Their most recent production took top honors in several categories at a European competition and will be progressing on to New York.

I'm sure I will have more to say about Bye Bye Birdie as the production gets closer, so watch this space.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Know your Flemmish

Belgium is a multi-lingual country.  In various parts one will encounter French, Flemish, Dutch and/German.  When one changes sections, the signs change.  What makes this particularly interesting is the change in directional signs.

In the French parts signs direct us to Paris, Bruxelles, Mons, Soignes, and Namur.  I'm guessing you can quickly figure out that Bruxelles is Brussels.  Now try this...

Upon exiting the Brussels airport, you can go to the train station and find trains that will take you to Parjis, Bergen, Zinnik, and Namur.  You got Parjis right?  Namur as well.  What about Bergen and Zinnik?

Bergen = Mons
Zinnik = Soignes

Not as easy.  When I am heading home from Brussels, I have to start by following the signs to Bergen and then switch over to following the signs to Mons.

Why such a change in name?  Actually the name stays the same, it's just that the translation is so different.  Mons means mound/hill in French.  Bergen means the same but in Flemmish.  It would be as if we called Detroit - Of the Strait or San Antonio - St. Anthony.  Just think about all the languages represented in our place names within the US - French, Spanish, several Native American languages, English, Dutch.  We could easily have a crazy system of road signs, I guess I should be grateful, I only have to work in two languages.

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Saints Day

Today is All Saints Day, also known as Solemnity of All Saints or Hallowmas.  It is a holy day on the Roman Catholic Church calendar but many Protestants observe this holy day too.  On this day we remember the saints who have gone on before us, particularly those who have died within the past year.  We give thanks for their witness for the ways in which their lives glorified God, for their faith lived out in our midst.

Who are you thankful for this day?  Whose faith has had an impact on yours?  And if you aren't sure about God and Christianity - I'll simply ask, who do you miss?  Whose love made a difference in your life?

Now to get a bit less reverent -
In searching for a link for All Saints, I came across an interesting little nugget.  I knew that in the RC (Roman Catholic) calendar that All Saints was a day of Holy Obligation (meaning church attendance on this day is considered a must).  I did not know that if you live in the United States it is not a holy obligation if All Saints falls on a Saturday or Monday (you're off the hook this year).  Also if you live in Hawaii it isn't a holy obligation no matter what day it falls on.  Are Mondays, Saturdays and Hawaii somehow special?  How does living in the US versus living in Europe or South American make a religious observance optional when for others it is obligatory?


In Europe the kids get a week off of school for what is called the All Saints vacation.  I'm guessing the Catholics will be observing mass today (it is a day of holy obligation here).  I'm also guessing that most people will ignore this holy day completely.

Honestly I struggle with this.  Here in Europe there a many churches that sit empty or exist mainly as tourist attractions while society as a whole marks the dates on the Christian calendar - All Saints, Christmas, Easter, Lent (the kids get what is called a Pre-Lenten break).  From my point of view these are all mostly empty observances.  I think I'd prefer that the church calendar be ignored all together rather than be used as a calendar for school breaks.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween

When the kids were younger and we had au pairs living with us, we made an effort to share American culture with our au pairs.

There are a number of holidays that both Americans and Europeans observe - Christmas, Easter, independence days, New Year's, etc.  Yes we had different cultural spins but these holidays were familiar to our au pairs.

Halloween has no European cultural equivalent.  The pumpkins, the costumes and the candy are uniquely ours.

Even though we are far from home, we are not far from Halloween.  The commissary sells pumpkins and Halloween candy.  The PX has Halloween costumes and decorations.  Club Beyond (the youth ministry here) had a pumpkin carving evening.  Americans are kind of spread out throughout the Mons region, so trick or treating is not quite possible - but the kids can dress up and enjoy trunk or treat.

Here and there I've noticed shades of Halloween among the Belgians.  There are some Halloween type decorations for sale in the local supermarket and I've seen some small nods to it in the neighborhood.  I'm not talking about lovely fall decor - pumpkins, hay and mums.  I'm talking jack-o-lantern pre-printed/factory made stuff.

If one must adopt American stuff, I think, they should take the best part.  Factory made decor not being what I consider the best part.

The best part is trick or treating - costumes and chocolate.  And here that would be costumes and Belgian chocolate.....

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Beltway in Mons

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Driving in Mons has taken a bit of getting used to.  My first few weeks driving around the city were quite stressful.  Definitely a white knuckle experience.

Now with routes that are familiar to me, I whip around the city with a bit more ease.  

One of Kyra's dance studios is located south of the city.  Traveling to the studio it is fastest to take the express way - the A7/E19/E42.  Headed home it is faster to just take the Mons' Beltway - the R50.

I tried to find a good map of it, but this was the best I can do.  Only a small portion of the R50 is obscured from your view.  Those of you who have experienced Washington DC's beltway know how much fun it can be at any time of the day, but particularly at rush hour.  

I travel the Mons beltway in rush hour.  My drive takes me around half of it.  This portion of my drive takes me under two minutes.  To circle the Mons beltway takes between three and five minutes, during rush hour, still no more than 10 minutes.

When it comes to traffic and driving, I'm definitely getting spoiled here.  Places we go are further away, but I certainly don't have to work my way through as much traffic as back home.   I'm sure I'll pine for the Mons beltway when I've returned to the US.  

Friday, October 29, 2010

Wall to Wall Carpet

How I miss it let me count the ways...

1.  I miss the warmth and cushiness of it underfoot, especially now that it is cold outside.

2.  I miss its sound dampening qualities - we can hear everything from anywhere in the house

3.  I most especially miss the way it disguises dog hair.  We never realized how much Dobby shed until we moved here.  There are constantly tumbleweeds of dog hair rolling across the floor no matter how much we vacuum.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mud

Farmland + rain + tractors riding through fields and then pulling out onto roads = mud, and lots of it.

In our walking routine, Dobby and I have our habits.  If the weather has been reasonably dry, we will walk the unpaved roads between fields behind our house.  If it has been raining, we avoid the puddles and mud and stick to the paved streets.

These days though, it does not matter, there is dirt and mud everywhere.  Farm equipment moves from field to road and road to field throughout the area and throughout the day.  Anything - people, animals, cars - that moves on the roads gets dirty.  Both Dobby and I have to wipe all the mud off of our feet and legs when we return from our walk now. 

The other day as I was driving into Mons, I noticed a van with the word "sale" written in the grime.  At first I thought, "it's for sale" then I realized nope "it's dirty."  The French word for dirty is "sale" and I guess the practice of writing in a car's grime transcends nationality.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Back and Forth

This is my life today.  Back to the bank to exchange more euros.   Then to SHAPE for quick stops at the library and post office.  Yet another meeting at the school regarding Kyra's classes.  I made a long run to Chievres for weekly food.

Upon walking into the house with arms full of groceries, thinking I had a couple of hours, Allen greeted me with "Can you take me to SHAPE at 1?"  He wanted to hang out with friends before his running practice.  So yes, I ran him back to SHAPE.

Back home to attend to other chores before I again go to SHAPE to take Kyra to her theater rehearsal followed by dance class.

I think I will have entered and exited SHAPE every two hours today.  By the end of today the gate guards should be waving me through instead of checking my ID.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You know it is cold outside when...

I have always lived in the suburbs.  Cows are those animals you pass by while driving on the highway between cities.

Now that I live in farm land and have cows for my neighbors, I am learning another rhythm of life.  I know when my bovine neighbors are fed, their movement from pasture to pasture and when it is going to rain (cows lay down when it is going to rain, according to one of Kyra's teachers).  In Belgium this is pretty much every day and all the time.

Now the cows also help me gauge temperature.  About a week or so ago, I noticed four foot piles of hay and dirt "burning" close to the barns.  I'm slow on the uptake, but I've got it now.  You know it is cold outside when you can see the steam rising off the manure piles.

Monday, October 25, 2010

If it isn't one thing, it's another...

For those of you who are wondering - still no Belgian IDs.  Our ID cards that get us admitted to the SHAPE campus have an expiration date of November 1st.  They are temporary IDs until we get our Belgian IDs and then we get issued a SHAPE ID good for the length of our stay.

As our Belgian IDs have yet to materialize, the Belgian police gave us a SHAPE ID extension until December 1st.  So today I went and updated our SHAPE IDs which meant getting new cards issued.  This was fairly painless and didn't require too much waiting.  I was feeling really good about getting something done today, until...

I was paying for my groceries and my debit card was not working.  So now I have gained myself a trip to the bank tomorrow to get that card sorted out.  C'est la vie.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Announcements

I hate announcements in church.  The whole point of going to church on Sunday is to worship God.  There is little to nothing in the church news feed (aka announcements) that is worshipful.  No one has had their heart warmed or their affections stirred for Jesus because of announcements.  (If you have, please tell me I am wrong).

To varying degrees churches do make an attempt to tame this beast.  This ranges from letting them run amok - a free for all, anyone talks for any length of time to a tightly tamed only one person talks and makes no more than three.

Given how much I hate them, I find it amusing (and imagine that you will too) that I am now the designated announcement person at the SHAPE chapel.  It is Alan Marshall's fault.  He coached me into how to make announcements with enthusiasm and in an expedient manner.  He also taught me to never ask for volunteers in desperation or for warm bodies and to get it all done in three minutes or less.

This training all came in handy when there was a shortage of chaplain leadership two weeks in a row.  The first week, I was asked to announce a huge multi month ministry, the following week, they handed me the welcome, announcements, offering and prayer with ten minutes notice.

I guess all the coaching stuck.  I now get to serve God by making announcements....

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Away Meets

I'm dragging a bit this morning.   Allen's bus for his away meet left at 3:45 in the a.m.  Within the DOD league there are only two schools relatively close to us - both are in Brussels and are about an hour's drive away.  All the other schools are spread throughout Europe.

Throughout the course of the cross country season the team has travelled to England, other places in Belgium and to Germany.  They have competed against teams from England, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.  That's a lot of passport traveling for a lot of kids.  Often it has meant overnight trips departing mid-day on Friday.  Yes, Allen has had to miss half days of school, much to his dismay.

As pleased as I have been that Allen has enjoyed cross country, I am also pleased that the season is ending.  We'll have a bit of a break before track starts in the spring and the whole crazy travel schedule begins again.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Our House

I realized I have not yet posted a photo of our house.
Here it is -

When Kyle was looking for a house, curb appeal was very important to him.  Not sure the house looks very special.  Other houses on the street certainly look more charming, but ours doesn't look awful.

From the street it is hard to see our house, as it is surrounded by hedges.

We have a family room, eating area, kitchen, laundry room, pantry, four bedrooms, loft area and two and a half bathrooms.

As I look at it, this photo gives you a false impression of our home.  It appears as if the skies are blue with small fluffy clouds.  This is a rare occasion.  More often than not it is gray and cloudy.  Usually it is also rainy.  

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Kyra Speaks Dance French

Kyra does not speak French.  She can however dance in French.

Ever since she started dancing, she has been learning to dance in French.  All ballet terms are French, it doesn't matter whether you are being taught by an American, a Russian or a Belgian.  The steps, the movements have French names.

So yes, I am a mean mom for tossing Kyra into dance classes taught in French, but I'm not that mean.  And I'd like to note Kyra is doing very well.  Sure she misses some of the corrective notes but she gets the gist of things.

I was especially pleased when she climbed in the car a couple of weeks ago and said, "Mommy, I think I have it but I don't know whether it goes gauche - doite - gaughe or doite- gauche - doite."  For you non French speakers - left right left or right left right.  She now does her eight counts in French and distinguishing left from right in French.  She has passed that all important milestone in learning another language - she has stopped translating and just starting thinking in the new language.

Yes she still doesn't know every word that has been said but gauche is gauche and doite is doite.  And she dances to the rhythm of un, deux, trois, quartre, cinq, six, sept, huit....

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Whiny Blog about Power Outage

Context -
I am not unaccustomed to living/staying for an extended period in places where municipal services are shut down for hours or days at a time.  When I was in Leningrad there wasn't any hot water for 48 hours (I have no idea - don't ask).  Since we have arrived in Belgium there has been one afternoon when our whole neighborhood didn't have electricity.

That said, when the power went out yesterday afternoon, I initially didn't think much of it.  I chalked it up to a scheduled outage that I was unaware of.  A bit of an inconvenience but we could do without power for a few hours, besides I was the only one home and would soon be leaving (or so I thought).

My car was in the garage.  No problem - pull the release and manually lift up the door.  The release was easy enough to find and pull.  Manually lifting the door was another issue.  There wasn't any handle on the interior of the garage.  OK, I'll just go outside.  There wasn't any handle on the exterior.  My finger tips are not that strong and I wasn't willing to crush them by reaching under the door.

I really needed to get out.  I had a meeting at the school with the guidance counselor.  I had been waiting five days for the meeting.  No electricity = no car = no meeting.  OK, I could reschedule, not ideal but could be done.

Next I needed to be out to go pick up Kyra from school and drop off dinner for Allen.  Power should be back on in time.  As the time drew closer but without power, I started trying to get ahold of Kyle, who always has his work cell phone with him.  Guess who wasn't answering.

Overall a very frustrating afternoon.  Insert more blah, blah, whine, whine here. Turns out it wasn't a scheduled outage.  The house circuit breaker flipped (not sure why, I was alone at home using far less power than when four of us are home).  How to turn everything back on was not immediately intuitive, Kyle got everything restored in time for me to miss all my meetings/pick-ups.

For the future, I now know how to turn the power back on and I have learned to leave my car out if I think we are likely to lose power.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

People Speak French to Me

For the most part I live in English-speaking culture.  My family speaks English.  All my web/email interactions are in English.  The dominant language of SHAPE is English.  In touristy areas, shopkeepers speak English.  Church is in English.  Chievres isn't only English-speaking, it is completely American.

The first few times a stranger addressed me in French,  I was startled and it took a few moments for my brain to catch up and respond appropriately.  Now I'm a bit faster on the uptake.  Not only that, but I do enjoy hearing and speaking French.  Conversationally, I'm still quite slow, but every day interactions with strangers are getting a bit better.

I like greeting people with a "bonjour!" as I walk the dog and wishing store keepers a "bonne journee" (good day).

I can ask for a pork roast at the butcher's counter and respond when someone wants the extra chair at the dance studio.  I'm not a great French speaker, but I'm decent.  People quickly realize French is not my first language.  They also are generally pleased I am making the effort.

I like the mental exercise of thinking and speaking in French and I expect if I keep at it, it will continue to improve until I once again move back to the US and forget everything I've learned.

Until then- Bonne Journee!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Potluck

Today we attended our first church potluck here at SHAPE.  They have one monthly, but this is one that finally fit our schedule.

While church potlucks all have their own individual flair, I do have to say that this one fit the general potluck mode.  There was plenty of food.  Desserts were in abundance followed closely by casseroles.  There were a couple of those quirky dishes that people weren't so sure about - in this case, grapes in some white dressing and a rice stir fry with olives.  All the food on my plate was very good if not good for me.

Usually the SHAPE Protestant Chapel has themes for their monthly potlucks and the hospitality ladies match the decor with place mats, printed napkins and center pieces.  This month's theme was "Totally Random."  The bonus of this theme is that all those odds and end place mats, napkins and centerpieces could be used.  Tables had floral place mats, Christmas napkins, fall leaves and Italian flags.  The effect was colorful if not coordinated.

Three of us ate well.  Limited by his allergies, Allen stuck to the apple crisp he knew I made.  Now he is supplementing it with a lunch at home.  Next time we'll have to pack more lunch for him.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

PTA Fall Bazaar

This weekend the kids' school is having their Fall Bazaar.  As entry is free and the location convenient, Kyra and I went to check it out.

Vendors were local professional crafters, antique sellers, home crafters and food sellers.  The products were of uneven quality but some items were really quite charming and interesting.  There was wine, chocolate and cheese.  There were the ubiquitous Belgian waffles for sale - by Americans.  One stall had antique mantle clocks.  Several tables displayed jewelry - mostly hand made.  Christmas ornaments were also a popular theme.

I'd show you photos of things I bought, but all are Christmas gifts and my gift recipients all read this blog.  I don't want to spoil the surprise.

 My favorite item was a handmade manger scene from Poland.  It is soft sculpture with the figures standing about 7 inches tall.  Jesus can rest in his manger or in Mary's arms.  The kings are all well detailed with gold braiding and lovely fabrics.  The animals are soft and fuzzy.  The donkey is particularly charming.  By the time I purchased Christmas gifts, I did not have enough cash to purchase this.

The bazaar is still going on tomorrow.  Kyle reads this blog and Kyra is also aware of my love for this item.  Hint, hint, hint.....

Friday, October 15, 2010

Grocery Shopping - Local Economy - Traditional

First a disclaimer - I have not yet entered a traditional local grocery store, so what appears below is gleaned knowledge with little first-hand observation.

Houses in Belgium are small.  Kitchens in Belgium are small.  Refrigerators in small kitchens in small houses are small.  As cold storage is limited, it is difficult to store more than a couple of day's worth of meals for a family.  This means that food shopping must be done more than once a week.

For people who live in small towns, this may best be accomplished by visiting the local food markets.  Most towns have a grocery store which is about the size of a small convenience store.  Here one can buy dairy products, produce, and a limited amount of canned goods, meats, wines and the all important chocolate.  Usually close by to the grocery store is a bakery - for the essential daily bread and also a local butcher.

If one does not live in the small town, shopping at such locations is not terribly convenient.  These stores are typically located along a stretch of buildings that are hundreds of years old.  The store building does not stand alone.  It is one store front sandwiched between housing and/or other store fronts.  It also doesn't sit that far off the street. Typically the distance from the store front to the front of the building across the street consists of - wide side walk, two lane road, wide side walk.  If you are able to follow my description and visualize - you will quickly realize that there is no place to park one's car while one shops.  Well, actually there is - on the sidewalk.  The local market is two car lengths long.

And one more impediment to any kind of food shopping on the local economy - the stores are closed on Sunday and Monday and all the other days they close at 6 pm.  Honestly, I'm not sure how working people ever buy anything.

Traditional local market shopping seems romantic and it would probably be lovely to have a neighborly relationship with one's grocer, butcher and baker.  If I lived in town, I might even pursue it, as I have the time to do so.  But for now, I'm sticking to the commissary and Champion market.   Some day if one of the two parking spots is open, I may stop in and have a look around.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Food Shopping Local Economy - Supermarkets

When it comes to grocery shopping on the Belgian economy, there are a few options.  In the Mons area there are a few "supermarkets" - the chains are Carrefour (think French wal-mart), Colyrut and Champion.

These markets are about the size of a Trader Joe's.  They have a bakery, cheese counter and a meat counter in addition to the standard produce section, canned goods, wine section, cleaning supplies, paper goods, etc.

Shopping in these places is fairly similar to what you would find in the US.  Grab cart or basket, load up with what you want to purchase, put stuff on conveyor belt, stand in line and pay.  There are a few slight differences.

If you want to use a shopping cart, you must have correct change.  The shopping carts are all chained together.  To release a cart, one must have a 50 euro cent coin.  Not 50 cents in assorted change, but the actual 50 cent piece.  When you are done shopping and link the cart back with its friends, out pops your 50 cent coin.

You are your own bagger.  Most people bring their own shopping bags, but there are bags available for purchase.

In general there is a greater emphasis on fresh food versus prepared food, though prepared foods are available. Potatoes are plentiful and cheap.  Pork and beef are also plentiful and reasonably priced.  Chicken is quite expensive.  Leeks seem to be a popular food item as well.  Outside of the fresh food a good amount of floor space is given over to wine and chocolate.

We were pleased to discover that there is a soy brand that is well stocked in local markets.  Alpro Soya makes several flavors of yogurts and puddings in addition to boxed soy milk and soy margarine.  This helps us add some variety to Allen's diet, as this type of soy product is not available at the commissary.

In general, I enjoy shopping at these local markets, it is good for practicing my French skills and I can buy goodies - tiramisu, chocolate mousse, fresh bread, brie, etc that I can't get at the commissary.

Tomorrow- traditional food shopping

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Commissary

Food shopping seemed to be of interest to those who have responded to my invitation for suggestions.  I'll address this over a few blog posts.

As I will be visiting the commissary today, I think I'll start there.

The closest (and I believe only) commissary in Belgium is located in Chievres.  Depending on farm equipment traffic I can travel one way in 30-50 minutes.  This does not make the commissary the most convenient shopping location.  For most foods though it is the cheapest.

The commissary for the most part looks like your typical American grocery store and it carries the most popular brands and types of food preferred by Americans.  It has a bakery, produce department, and meat counter.  The meat is from the US and all of it has been frozen.

The two major differences between the commissary and a US grocery store are the frozen foods section and the lack of sales/promotions.

At the commissary there are no sales or promotional items.  One is not bombarded with advertising or displays to buy a particular product.  Overall the prices are lower than what I would pay in Northern Virginia.  Not by a huge margin, but lower.  The prices between what I'd pay in a Belgian market and what I pay at the commissary are a bit more remarkable.  Chicken for instance is twice as expensive out on the local economy.

Frozen foods comprise four full aisles of the grocery store.  There is quite a bit of meat, frozen pizzas, frozen prepared meals, frozen vegetables and fruits.  There are two main consumers of these products.  The first group - single soldiers who really have no need to cook and the second group - Americans who live in Brussels or Paris and come long distances to shop at Chievres.  They need food that will keep for long periods of time.

So as much as I dread my weekly trips to Chievres, I am grateful we live as close to the commissary as we do.  Our food budget is much less because the commissary is close by and we can buy a number of familiar and favorite foods that would otherwise be unavailable to us.

Tomorrow - the Belgian market where I shop