Thursday, September 30, 2010

SHAPE Community Life

In any given week there are numerous activities taking place in the SHAPE community.  There are sports, a movie, a theater production being performed or prepared for, trips, and many kinds of classes.  People get together for book groups, church, to craft, to raise money or the favorite hobby of Europeans - drinking beer.

In addition to the numerous office and administrative buildings on SHAPE, there is a library, a couple of gyms, the schools, a language center, a chapel, bowling lanes, a theater and an arts and crafts center.

If one wanted to ignore the Belgian community all around us, it would be fairly easy to just shut it out and live on the SHAPE compound.  This would be especially easy for those who live on base.

While it might be comfortable to not have to contend with living in a foreign culture, it is limiting.  The community is not so large and there is a fish bowl quality to it.  Imagine if the people you worked with were the exact same people you saw at the grocery store, at the gym where you work out, were the parents of your kids' friends, were the people you saw at the library, the post office and at church.  All the time - they would know what you eat, your work out routine, what you are reading and how many packages you received this week...

Living off the SHAPE compound provides a nice balance.  We can enjoy the benefits of a small community and choose activities of interest to us.  We also can explore the broader community, learn to live in another culture and get away every now and again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bring Your Own Bag

The green movement encourages us to reuse shopping bags - to not keep consuming more and more and more plastic bags.
Back home, I was working on this. We certainly reused or recycled all our Giant, Safeway and Washington Post bags.  I bought a couple re-usable Giant bags and more than half the time remembered to take them into the store with me.
In Belgium, I always remember.  If I don't I have to figure out how to juggle all my items in my hands and arms until I can get to the car.  This applies to any store in which one purchases anything - grocery, hardware, clothing, office supply, etc.  (Souvenir shops will usually provide bags, they are used to Americans.)
At the grocery store one can buy a re-useable bag, but they aren't that great and if you buy new ones every time, the cost adds up quickly.
I own five Giant bags, one is a cooler bag.  I use them constantly.  I even bring them to the US Commissary (the one store that does give away bags).
I'm in the habit of remembering my bags and using them.  Maybe I'll even keep the habit when I return to the US....

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I'm having a bit of writer's block regarding what topic to cover.  I offered Kyra the opportunity to guest blog, so here she is.....
              I go to SHAPE American High School. I am in 7th grade. I know that is middle school but they still call it a high school. School starts at 8:50 and ends at 3:30. Here is my schedule.( there is 5minutes between every class)
8:30- we can walk through the halls to our lockers and to class early
8:45- warning bell only 5 minutes to get to your first class
8:50-9:35 English
9:40-10:25 Art
10:30-11:20 French
11:25-12:10 P.E
12:15-1:00 World Geography
1:05-1:50 LUNCH!!!!
1:55- 2:40 Science
2:45-3:30 Math
         In english I have a very boring teacher who gets off topic easily. We only have homework once every two weeks ish. Art is okay right now we are drawing shoes. The next semester instead of Art, I will have drama. French is just a little bit of French. Next quarter I go to German then Study Skills then Spanish. P.E is normal P.E except one quarter you have health. For me that quarter is the 3rd one. In world geography we are learning 4th grade stuff like the hemispheres and continents and oceans. I love lunch but it is really late in the day. Science is really boring I usually just start my homework in class because she doesn't care. I take 9th grade math with mostly 8th graders. We get sooooooooo much homework! On the board she puts problems 1-5 on the board. Only 5 problems doesn't seem like much though. But in the text book it says problem 1, 1a, 1b , 1c, 1d, 1e, and 1f. 5x 6 30 questions. That is a lot! Well sometime soon I will guest blog again.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Anne Frank House

When I mentioned to other SHAPians (yes that it the term for people associated with the base) that I was going to Amsterdam and Anne Frank's house, the most common reaction was - that is the only way you are going to get in!  This crowd of people is lined up to get into Anne Frank's house.  It wraps around the corner and extends for quite some way.

As we were part of a group tour, we didn't have to wait in this line and we had a bit of an orientation before joining the shuffling line through the house.

I had always wondered how one kept an entire house hidden from view.  Now I know.  Here is what one sees from the street.
I've cut off a bit of the roof and the ever present hook for raising and lowering things but that is it.  This is the warehouse frontage.

There is an entire house with two additional stories behind it.  From the street, from across the street, from around the block, it doesn't matter where you stand, you can not see the house behind it.

This is best seen by looking at a cut away picture of the warehouse and annex.

Those hiding in the annex occupied the attic and top two floors of the house.

In some ways the space seemed large - I think of hiding as being in a small space, smaller than a single room.  In other ways the space was very small.  The room Anne shared with Pfeffer (Dussell) could have barely held two beds.

As we shuffled through the rooms we could see the pencil marks Otto Frank made measuring the height of the children and Anne's pictures of movie stars.  The windows were covered with blackout curtains.  We got a sense of the space and the atmosphere.  What none of us knew and hopefully will never know is the sense of fear that the occupants of the annex lived with day in and day out.

Anne's diary has been translated into many languages and read by millions and in many places in our world people are free from this kind of oppression and persecution.  But there are still some places where people are in hiding because of their race or religion.  There is still work to be done...

Sunday, September 26, 2010


On Saturday, Kyra, Flat Stanley (of course!) and I traveled to Amsterdam.   We left SHAPE at 7am in the morning and arrived downtown shortly after 11am.

Planning out our touring plan was a bit of a challenge.  Museums close at 6pm.   Our tour of the Anne Frank house was scheduled for 3:30 right smack in the middle of the day.  The attractions of the city are spread out so one can't easily get from one place to the next.  I had little interest in visiting the red light district and certainly wasn't going to with a 12 year old.  Kyra wasn't interested in art museums.

Our compromise turned out to be touring the city via canal boat that we could get on and off throughout the day.

The canal boat took us past this windmill.  I took a photo because, well isn't it required to take pictures of windmills when in the Netherlands?

From the canal boat we saw many of the canal houses.  We learned about the hooks at the top of the homes.  When one has narrow staircases, the only way to get furniture in or out is through the windows.  The hook was and is used to hoist large items.  You may or may not be able to tell from the photo that the facades of the homes lean out a bit.  This is intentional.  We also saw homes that obviously leaned sideways, this was not intentional.

As we walked around the city we learned about bikes.  They are everywhere.  They are parked and locked all over and the citizens do ride them everywhere.  The most important thing a tourist can learn is - don't walk in the bike path!  Kyra and I quickly learned to be more cautious when crossing a bike path than when crossing the street.

As you can probably tell from the lighting in the photos, the weather was constantly changing throughout the day.  It was cloudy, rainy, sunny, windy, and hailing at various intervals.  Flat Stanley posed by a canal in the brief amount of sunlight we enjoyed.

You can see the canal, bikes and some houseboats in this photo.  The steeple in the background houses the church bells that Anne Frank could hear in the annex.

Tomorrow I'll share more about Anne Frank's house and our memorable visit there.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


A big thank you for all the kind birthday wishes that arrived via the US mail and Facebook.  I love how the internet makes me feel that much closer to friends and family.

My 42nd birthday passed relatively quietly.  Kyle was in England on business and the kids were at school.  After school I got to drive Kyra to and from dance and pick up Allen from his cross-country practice.  What else do moms do?

I did get the chance to make myself some celebratory cupcakes.  I theory they are black forest cupcakes, but I couldn't find the frozen cherries the recipe called for, so I substituted raspberries.  They still taste good.

It is against "the rules" to ship candles overseas so no birthday candles for me.  I'll have to see if the PX sells them so I can have them in time for Kyle's birthday.

Thank you again for thinking of me - I hope you had a wonderful day too.

Friday, September 24, 2010


The opportunity to travel was one of the reasons Kyle and I were excited about coming to Belgium.  Within a couple of hours we can be in several different countries, just like many of you in the US can be in several different states within a couple of hours.

What makes travel even easier for us is that SHAPE has a couple of organizations that do all the organizing for you.  There is SHAPE Trips and Tours which runs trips on Saturdays and longer ones during school vacations and there is SHAPE Travel Group which runs week day trips.

Trips and Tours offers Saturday day trips  to England, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Luxembourg.  Typically these trips leave early in the morning and involve a bus ride of 2-4 hours, some structured tour time and some free time to do as one wishes.  During school breaks they organize longer trips - for the Christmas break they are offering a trip to Egypt and during spring break they are offering a trip to a resort near Barcelona.

SHAPE Travel Group is more of a wives' group.  Yes men are allowed but it is typically the women who are free to travel in the middle of the week.  When I went to Versailles I went with this group.  Their upcoming trips are to a spa in Belgium and for shopping in England and in Germany.

It is easy to travel when someone else does most of the work - picking the place, the activity and arranging transportation and driving.  We just pay the money and get on the bus.

While we dreamed of frequent travel, we aren't getting out as much as we'd like for the same reasons many of you don't bop around your neighboring states - you and your kids are busy.  Even so, we are trying to push ourselves to find the time and make the effort - after all Flat Stanley is begging to have his picture taken in front of more landmarks.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


As with most other things, garbage service is different here than it is in the US.

At home, we had a trash service.  They provided us with a garbage can and a recycling can.  Both cans were quite large.  Once a week they came and picked up our recycling.  Twice a week they picked up our trash.  On a quarterly basis they billed us a flat rate for this service.

In Belgium, there is a schedule for recycling.  Once every other week, there is a pick up service for our paper, plastic and metal.  The plastic and metal can be co-mingled.  Paper is separate.  There is no curb side service for glass.  Glass must be taken to some large collection bins in our community.  They are separated by clear, green and other.  As far as I know (and Kyle may correct me on this) we don't pay for recycling pick-ups.

Garbage pick-up is once a week.  We don't get a can and we don't get a bill.  Instead we buy the special garbage bags of our municipality.  They definitely cost more than Hefty bags and we don't get to choose the type we prefer - no flex, no special tie, etc.  The cost of the service is built into the bag.  As they are expensive, we don't waste them.  We are careful not to put recycling into them and we really fill the bags.

I was worried that as American consumers and wasters we would far out pace our neighbors in how many bags appeared at the end of our driveway.  Most of my neighbors have two bags and so do we.  Some of my neighbors only have one bag per week - I don't think we'll ever achieve that goal unless we are on vacation.

It is an interesting approach to waste management - pay by the amount.  It makes us think about what we are throwing away and consider if there is another way to dispose of the item.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Empire Market at Waterloo

Every couple of weeks, the Belgian tourism office sends out an email with information about events taking place in and around the region.

A few weeks ago the email mentioned an Empire Market at Waterloo.  I clicked on the website link and saw photos of costumed re-enactors and some merchants selling period stuff.  It looked like a smaller version of a Renaissance festival only different time period.

As it wasn't far away (30 minute drive) I thought it was worth checking out.  Neither kid was interested (big surprise) so Kyle and I didn't take them.

The main landmark of Waterloo is this lion - the site is called "But (pronounced "boo" in French) de Lion" which all Americans call "Lion's But."  This huge hill and its lion statue were built by the nations that defeated Napoleon in this location.

At its foot was the Empire Market, which was as pictured.  There were re-enactors and tents and merchants.  What I couldn't tell from the website but could determine from being there was that the four photos on the website were the sum total of the market.  There were about six guys dressed as soldiers, four tents, a couple of wagons and four market stalls.

That was it.  Kyle and I were really glad we hadn't made the kids come.

So we spent about five minutes at the market, climbed to the top of Le But de Lion, looked over the fields of Waterloo, visited the panorama and then went home.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Spiders and Slugs

Future house guests, consider yourselves forewarned.  Spiders do try to make their home in our house and our spiders are not small.  For reference, I wear a size 6 women's shoe - my shoes are not boats.  This spider is big.  I wish I could say this is an anomaly, but about once a week, we find one of these guys.

I'm not a fan of these spiders, they creep me out.  If Kyle is home, I make him dispose of them.  As he had already left this morning, the job fell to me.  I do like nature, but not in my house.  I'm not the kind of person who captures and releases.  This guy is history.

On the other hand, I see lots of slugs on my walk and they don't bother me at all.  This guy is on the larger side of what I normally see, but his size isn't overly shocking.  As it is nice and damp here most of the time, the slugs are quite healthy and ubiquitous.  These guys stay outside like they are supposed to.  I spot several of them on my daily walks.  They leave me alone and so I leave them alone.

I like that arrangement.  If the spiders would do the same, I'd be happy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cross Country Meet

allen is the most obscured runner in this photo
Saturday was Allen's first cross country meet.  As the meet was significantly far away, I did not attend.

Significantly far = kids boarded bus at school at 1pm checked into hotel in England around 9pm.  Kyle attended as the male chaperone so he was there for Allen and to take photos.

This past spring (before breaking his arm) Allen decided to take up running.  One night he said, I'm going to go running.  As it was dark, I made him stay in the neighborhood - he put on some shoes and for three hours circled the neighborhood.

For the months when his activity was restricted due to his arm, he was anxious to get back to running.  So when we got to Belgium (and the months of restriction elapsed) Kyle and I encouraged him to give cross country a try.  He has been running daily with his team and training.

According to Allen his best skill is consistency of pace.  Running around the track his laps time the same.  He doesn't slow down he doesn't speed up.  His coaches like this and encourage this consistency.

 On Saturday, Allen got his first taste of American high school competition - in England. The course was in a local park close to Alconbury air force base.  It was a 5k course.

Kyle says there were about 40 boys running.  At about the 1k mark Allen was in the last quarter of the pack and by the 2k mark Allen was towards the middle.

In the end Allen was the fifth to finish of the boys on his team.  He finished 16th with a time of 22:13.  Allen says he was neither tired nor winded so next meet he's going to go for a faster pace to see if he can improve his time.

I look forward to seeing him run soon when he'll be a bit closer to home.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dance Studio and Bar

Kyra takes dance lessons at two different studios.  The Dance Center is a more established studio.  The attire expected of the students is more traditional and the classes are run with an emphasis on structure.  It is also traditional in the accommodations made for parents - small lobby furnished with old furniture at a ratio of 1 seat per 3 people.

Attitude Dance Studio is newer and less traditional.  It looks like they have set up shop in what used to be a restaurant or bar or dance club.  The waiting area is a large room with several small tables and chairs like one might see in a bar.

On Monday evening I really enjoyed this space - I could sit and read in the quiet.  It never got crowded with parents dropping off and picking up.  The space was more than adequate for the traffic of all the adults and dancers.

On Friday, I was looking forward to this comfortable space again.  I brought my French homework and a book to read.  It was a bit shocking to discover that on Friday's the Attitude Dance Studio is hang-out.  The bar I had noticed on Monday was in full swing and serving beverages -  bottles of water, bottles of Coca-Cola, bottles of beer.

Teenagers filled the space as they watched friends in the hip hop classes or arrived early for their own classes.  Adults filled the space as they drank beer and waited for their kids.  At one point the bar got so loud, the hip hop instructor came in and asked everyone to be more quiet.

It was an interesting business model - dance studio and bar.  As long as parents are waiting for their dancers, might as well make money off of them as well.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Living in a culture that is not one's own requires a good amount of mental energy.  First one has to discipline one's self to not assume that everyone does things the same way (and not to assume that one's culture does things the "best" or "right" way) and then one must be disciplined to be open to other ways, thoughts, and habits.

As Americans we are well indulged in our way of doing things.  We can travel fairly far and still find ourselves in our own culture.  From the east coast to the west coast (and into Canada) we encounter the same language, same TV shows, same stores, same restaurants and for the most part similar styles of dress. Each region may have a particular flare/personality but if you don't like it, you just head for the Gap or McDonald's.

In Belgium, we can find bits and pieces of American culture and those touchstones are helpful.  We get some American TV, in the Chievres commissary and PX we can find American products, and on base the primary language is English.

Some people can and do limit themselves to speaking English the entire time they live here and socializing only with Americans and only shopping at Chievres.

It is hard work to push beyond one's culture.  Mentally I am always converting things.  Like road signs - they are all in French (except when they are in Flemish).  For many weeks I traveled down a road that displayed a caution sign.  I knew I was to be aware of something, but didn't know what.  The sign said "ornieres"  As a family we had a running debate about these dangerous ornieres.  Was it farm equipment?  an animal?  Eventually, I looked it up - ruts.

Telling time is a process of conversion.  Europeans use military time.  On Monday's Kyra's dance class begins at 1800, on Wednesdays at 1900, on Fridays at 1700 and on Saturdays 1430.  The clocks in our home are set for military time.  Whenever it is 15 something, I always have to pause and figure things out.  Perhaps in another few months I'll just know or maybe not.

My oven is Celsius - my recipes are Fahrenheit as are all the heating instructions on products bought at the commissary.  I have a Celsius/Fahrenheit conversion website on my Bookmarks bar.

To figure out the day's weather is a two step process.  First I find a weather website then I go to the conversion website.  I do know 6 (today's low) is cold but I don't know how cold (43) and I know that 15 (today's high) will feel better (59) but how warm can I expect to get?

These are simple everyday things - cooking, telling time, driving down the road.  We do them without thinking - unless even these things are foreign.

In learning a language there is a stage that sometimes comes after much time and persistence - the stage when one begins to think in the other language without translating out of or into English first.  I hope that stage comes for me when I am not constantly converting language, culture, time or numbers.  It will probably happen right before we move back to the U.S.

Friday, September 17, 2010


In the land of boxes, we have come across a few things that did not survive the move - this screw on Kyra's loft bed that is supposed to be straight, a lamp and two metal frames that hold organizing drawers.  These frames are from IKEA and they are called Antonius.  

The packers assumed that these could sit at the bottom of a crate and withstand loads of furniture and boxes being placed on top of them.  Their assumption was faulty.

As these frames (with drawers and a top) are used as Allen's dresser, we needed to do something.  Fortunately there are many IKEAs in Belgium and one of them is within an hour's drive.

So this morning, I programmed the address into the GPS and off I went.

With the exception of the signs being in Flemish and French, this IKEA looks like the IKEA back home.   First one winds one's way through the showroom and then through the marketplace and finally to the self-service shelves.  A Billy bookcase is called a Billy bookcase, Effectiv office furniture is Effectiv office furniture and so on.

When one lives day in and day out in the unfamiliar, it is refreshing to come upon something familiar.  I didn't have to wonder how this store worked, where to find things, if I would find what I was looking for, how to pay for it, etc.  I knew precisely how to navigate the store, use the self-service aisles and check-out.  In a while when I assemble my purchases I know that I won't need to navigate instructions in a foreign language - I'll just follow the pictures.

As I continue to unpack and try to figure out where to put stuff, I imagine there will be another trip to IKEA in my future - so that I can buy stuff that is useful and so I can get a small taste of the familiar again.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dollars, Euros, Pounds

In the US, we carry the same stuff in our wallets, pockets, purses, billfolds, etc. - there are dollar bills of varying denominations, quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies.  Occasionally a Canadian quarter or penny will find their way into the mix, but those are easily left for a tip or inserted into a vending machine.

Here in Belgium, my wallet has both US cash and Euros. I also carry a US credit card and a Belgian debit card.  Euros are odd and I'm still learning to manage them.  The euro notes get bigger as the amount gets bigger.  Five euro notes are the size of Monopoly money.  One hundred euro notes are much bigger than our dollar and are hard to stuff into a US wallet.  There are only coins for 1 euro and 2 euros which means that my purse gets heavy.  In addition to the penny we all know and love, there is a 2 cent coin - same color as a penny and only slightly bigger.

I have to not only remember what store takes what kind of money but also have a general idea of the current exchange rate (right now it takes about $1.32 to buy a euro).

At SHAPE, all the stores do business in euros.  The post office takes only dollars. The American high school is dollar-based as well.  The travel office takes only euros and only in cash.

At the US air force base, the P-Xtra, the PX and the Commissary are all dollars.  I can pay with my US credit card at these places.

When we travel to England (hopefully before the end of the year) our dollars and euros are useless, for that we will need British pounds.

From where we live in Belgium we can be in a handful of other countries in a single day's drive.  I can only imagine how much more complex this situation would have been before the change to the euro - how many wallets can one possibly carry?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Our television viewing choices are much more limited here in Belgium, particularly since we wish to hear English and not French, Dutch or Flemish.

We receive AFN (Armed Forces Network) and Skynet which is British.  AFN will be a separate post at some point in the future.  Skynet brings us British cable with a few lesser American cable channels, like Food Network.

All of us are growing in our appreciation for BBC.  Allen was already a fan, as BBC is the home of one of his favorite shows - Top Gear.

One of the things I appreciate about BBC is that their shows consistently cast real people.  In America to be on TV, one must be very thin or very fat and in both cases one must have a pleasant face, decently styled hair and straight teeth.  There are no such requirements on BBC.   Regular looking people are actors in comedy series, regular people host shows, average people are cast on reality series, etc.  The only people who are thin are the spokes model hostesses of which there are very few - the British version of Deal or No  Deal doesn't use models to open briefcases, they use the studio audience members.

It is refreshing to see average people on TV instead of idealized versions of what a person should look like - maybe because what counts on BBC is who the person is rather than what they look like.  One could hope.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

French Class

The last time I studied french in a classroom setting I was 20.   My french language skills are rusty to say the least.

A week ago I went to the SHAPE language center for an assessment.  How much french did I know?  Could I speak coherently?  At what level?  I was placed in intermediate +.

This morning was my first class.  My instructor is Belgian and my classmates are primarily the middle-aged wives of SHAPE employees and one sole male Canadian teenager who looked miserable.  There are eight of us in all - three Americans, the Canadian, a German, a Pole, a Brit and the Portuguese wife of an American.  It is a small class, so it is impossible to hide and avoid speaking.

I'm finding that bits and pieces are coming back to me, words and phrases of varying usefulness are finding their way back to my consciousness.   However, with greater frequency I am groping for a word or verb conjugation that I used to know, but know no longer.

I do hope that I will be able to converse with French speakers without sounding like an idiot and without babbling as I struggle for the words I want.  I'll be working at it twice a week, so hopefully I'll see results.

Wish me bonne chance! (good luck)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Unfinished thoughts on Marie Antoinette's Hamlet and Guatemala

This morning I thought I would write about Marie Antoinette's Hamlet (Hameau in French).  This morning I also continued my reading of Shaun Groves' blog about his trip to Guatemala.   Oddly enough, I can connect the two.

The hameau is very lovely as you can see from the photos.  It is a fairly large village that has several buildings - lighthouse, mill, houses, dairy, and farm related structures.  All of it was built for the queen.  She enjoyed it with her children and courtiers, but it exists because she wanted it.  Keep in mind this entire village sits on the grounds of Versailles along with two other smaller palaces.

The display of wealth is extreme, especially compared to our homes.  As I wandered the hameau I kept thinking to myself, all this for one person...

And then as I read Shaun Groves blog this morning about the poverty of Guatemala, I had to take another look around my home.  The overflowing boxes and all my stuff that I can not find a place for - I'm sure the poor of Guatemala would look at my house and my stuff in the way I looked at the hameau and say to themselves, all this for one person....

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Versailles and Japanese Anime Art

A few disclaimers before we begin -

1.  I like art

2.  I visit art museums - on purpose and sometimes I drag my kids along

3.  I do enjoy some modern art - quirky, colorful, interesting stuff

Got it?  OK, let's go....

When one visits Versailles,  this is what one expects - crystal chandeliers, classical paintings, and alot of gold.  For most people this is a once in a lifetime visit to the palace of French royalty.

One does not go to Versailles to see Japanese anime art.

As I entered the state apartments, the king and queen's bedrooms and the hall of mirrors, that is precisely what I saw.  If the sculpture was on the smaller size and the room fairly large, one could avoid the clash of classical and modern.  In some cases though, the piece was large and the room small (for Versailles standards - no room is truly small) and the anime was unavoidable.  In a couple of cases it was impossible to view artwork original to the palace because it was obstructed by a large anime sculpture.

For a while I did my best to ignore the anime art (as it was not what I came to see) and photographed rooms and views of Versailles.  Upon arriving in the war room, I gave up. Not because the sculpture was large, but because it was so incongruous.  To give you an idea of scale, this chick is life sized.

The first photo was taken in the hall of mirrors.  This one was taken in the hall of mirrors as well.   It was sitting at one end of the hall.  For a more complete look at all the art being exhibited, you can click here.

If this had been an exhibit at an art museum, I would have probably gone and taken the kids.  The sculptures were interesting.  They were colorful and cute.  Some pieces looked like anime cartoon characters, some were mushrooms and some were abstract but all were interesting to look at.

This was not what I went to Versailles to see.  I'm pleased that in most cases I could ignore it.  The woman who organized our bus trip said that last time she was at Versailles, the hall of mirrors was filled with an art installation of shiny silver mylar balloons.  They could not be ignored.

I suppose this is a way of exposing people to many kinds of art. I guess if it must be done, I'd rather it be limited to one or two rooms instead, particularly for the majority of tourists who will see Versailles only once.

Perhaps you have other thoughts and opinions, I'm still sorting out how I feel about this and wondering what will be there when I visit with Allen and Kyra....

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Boxes, Boxes Everywhere

I have a few more things to share about Versailles and I'm still noodling through thoughts on vivification but as the long awaited day arrived yesterday, I thought today needed to be about boxes.

Yesterday we received what was packed up 2 and a half months ago.  Last night we slept in our own beds.  We are sitting on our own chairs and wearing clothes we haven't seen in months.  I really wanted to find my slippers (it is cold here!) but they are still hidden.

Kyle and I worked continuously yesterday and we have made some good progress but boxes still dominate the house.  I'm pretty sure I can get the china cabinet taken care of today.  The problem remains with what to do with all my kitchen stuff that doesn't fit in the kitchen.  I shipped my baking stone but it doesn't fit in the oven.  I shipped the toaster, Kyle bought one here.

The kids get to do their own rooms.  As their rooms are bigger here than the rooms they had back in Virginia, they are not struggling with space issues.  Here's what it looks like when Allen unpacks.   This isn't his room, this is what he has done to the office area when looking for a particular item he wanted for himself.

These four are empty!
I keep hoping I am more than half way done, but then I turn around and there are more boxes.  I remind myself I wanted this, so I really can't complain.

My goal is to have all the boxes unpacked and the stuff put away within the week.  I've got a busy week ahead but I don't like chaos, so we'll see if I make it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Flat Stanley visits Versailles

Yesterday, Flat Stanley toured Versailles.  He had to get up early and take a four hour bus ride (part of it through morning rush hour traffic in Paris).

Upon arriving he was struck by how big Versailles is compared to the other palaces, chateaux and castles he has seen.  It is huge.  There were many tour buses and tons of people.

The first thing Stanley did was tour the main rooms of Versailles.  He saw the king's and queen's apartments and some of the other public rooms.  This was the craziest part of the day - there were many large tour groups.  Some of these groups came from cultures that do not think it rude to push and shove.  Stanley was glad he could retreat to the safety of a tote bag.

He got his picture taken in the hall of mirrors, but it is kind of hard to see.

After leaving the main rooms of Versailles, the crowds thinned out a bit and it was easier to move around.  Stanley went downstairs and toured the apartments of the Dauphin and Dauphine.  These were very elegant but no where near as opulent as the upstairs rooms.

Next it was out into the gardens which were lovely.  It was pleasant to walk along the manicured bushes, pretty flowers, fountains and sculptures.

It was a small hike to get to the Trianons and Marie Antoinette's hamlet, but it was worth it.  Stanley could understand why the royals liked having these retreats.

Marie Antoinette's hamlet was very charming.  It was a small farming village with small lakes and streams running through it. Part of it was a working farm.  Stanley saw cows, goats, a horse, and several chickens.  He saw a vineyard, vegetable gardens and herb gardens.  There was even a pumpkin patch.

Flat Stanley enjoyed the winding paths of the hamlet, they were a change of pace from the straight paths of the formal gardens.  When he was as far from the main palace as he could be it was time to head back.

Luckily for Stanley, the weather was clear for most of the day but that last half hour it poured!  He was grateful for the shelter of a Helly Hansen rain jacket. He was also grateful for a long nap on the bus ride home.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Saturday was difficult and fraught with mixed emotions.  On the one hand, she loves to dance and wants to dance on the other hand, she doesn't speak the language, she doesn't know anyone and this class may be too much for her.

Dance studios have unique cultures of written and unwritten rules.  There are dress codes - what leotard styles and colors that are allowed and not allowed.  Expectations about hair - bun or bun optional, how neat must it be.  Must one wait to enter the classroom?  May one speak to the teacher before one is spoken to?  There are hierarchies of place - who stands at which barre, who stands in front and in back. Little of this is communicated directly, most of it is to be absorbed and absorbed quickly.

Imagine yourself at twelve years old.  You only speak English.  You know no one.  It is the first day of class - new classmates, new studio, new class, new pointe shoes, new teacher, and the language is French.  On top of that, no one has really helped your mom figure out the proper class placement for you.  Mom has guessed that you should probably be with the high school students, but this guess could be very wrong.  This means you are the youngest in the class, by as little as two years and as many as six.  If things are wrong, you have only limited ways of understanding and expressing the problem.  The only things you have to rely on are your dance training, determination and a kind Belgian girl who can speak some English.  Mom tells you the class lasts one hour.  It actually lasts two.

This is the situation Kyra walked into on Saturday.  I don't know if I could have done it.  She did it.  If she did not love dance so much.  If she did not have any aspirations of returning to dance upon our return to Virginia, I doubt she would have attempted it.  On and off over the summer she has debated with herself if she would.  This was a high hurdle and one she was not anxious to attempt.

Attempt she did and succeed she did.  Mom's guess about placement was correct - highest level ballet class offered by the studio.  Mom is proud.  Kyra is brave.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Allen and Kyra's Extracurricular Activities

Being products of their Northern Virginia up-bringing Allen and Kyra can not simply attend school, return home, do homework, eat dinner and spend quality family time with their parents.  This would be too slow of a pace not enough variety or social interaction.  Just living overseas in another culture and not speaking the language is not enough of an adventure.

We've been here now about six weeks and they have already begun to find their social groups and their extracurricular activities.

Both kids are involved in the chapel youth group which is called Club Beyond.  Club Beyond meets on Tuesday afternoons for Fellowship and some study.  They also meet on Wednesday for small group and Bible study time.  As it is associated with an ecumenical military chapel, this group is non-denominational by which I mean Baptist and conservative.  This will mean we'll be having some conversations about what Mom and Dad believe and how we live out our faith.  I can't complain too much, as Club Beyond is a quality ministry and is fruitful in nurturing faith in the kids.

Allen is running cross-country.  Actually at this point he is training to run cross-country, meets don't start for a few weeks yet.  When the meets do start, he'll be running internationally, as his school will be competing against other Department of Defense schools in Europe.  Traveling across Fairfax County (if he makes the Lake Braddock team) for a meet will be nothing compared to some of the overnight trips he'll be on this year.

Kyra is dancing - what else would she do?  I've found two studios for her.  One is Dance Center and the other is called Attitude.  It looks like she'll be in six classes spread over 4 days of the week.  This will be a decrease over last year's nine classes spread over 5 days of the week.

Add that to homework, spending time with friends and travel and they have a pretty full schedule.  And what extracurricular activity do Kyle and I have?  Driving them to and fro.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

French Class

SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) appropriately enough has a language center.  SHAPE employees and their families speak English, French, German, Flemish, Romanian, Greek, Spanish and many other languages.  The primary language is English as Americans dominate and we don't speak other languages.  In this part of Belgium, the primary language is French.  For this reason the language center offers primarily English and French classes, but other languages are available as well.

This week is test week at the language center.  Next week classes start.

Today was my placement test.  I began studying French when I was in 7th grade (the grade Kyra is in now).  I took the French AP test when I was in high school.  I minored in French in college.  I have studied French.  However, it has been a long time since I studied and used my French.  I find bits and pieces are coming back to me.  I can make my general intent understood.

I'm pretty sure I sound like an idiot as well.   When I was registering Kyra for dance classes, I am confident that my subject verb agreement was off, as well as my verb tenses.  I think I sounded something like this.  "My daughter, she to dance.  She dance much.  She good.  She to dance with girls of more age.  She nine classes one year.  I make registration for she.  I pay?"

My placement test was a ten minute conversation in French with two of the teachers.  Where do I live, where did I move from.  When did I arrive.  Do I have children, how old, etc.  Once again my verb tenses were where I struggled.

The language center has 4 levels of instruction - beginner, elementary, intermediate and advanced.  Some of these have a further distinction of pre- or + or upper.  I have been placed in intermediate +.  We'll see how it goes, I start next Tuesday.

Monday, September 6, 2010

House Cleaning

I love house cleaning.  I like clean shiny surfaces.  I like that picked up look - everything put away and in its place.  I love the order of a clean and picked up house.

I hate to do it.  I don't like being up close with the chemicals.  I don't like the work of scrubbing and wiping.  I hate that so soon after all that work, it is undone.

Today is a good day.  Today is the day our cleaning lady starts.

Finding one has not been easy.  In Belgium there are cleaning services but they work on a complicated voucher system.  In order to purchase this service there is a bunch of paperwork.  To enter into this maze of paperwork one must have a Belgian ID.  I've done two steps of the Belgian ID process.  I started it 5 weeks ago.  I don't have a Belgian ID.

I have been checking bulletin boards around SHAPE to see if a non-Belgian is offering a non-voucher, non- Belgian ID cleaning service.  I have found someone.  She will come today.

When you have someone clean your house, you have to pick up and put away.  Already this makes the house look better than it does on non-cleaning days.

I realize I am not working here in Belgium.  I do have the time to clean.   But did I mention I hate it?  I will point out in my defense, we don't go out to eat.   I figure the money we save from that more than covers house cleaning expenses.

This morning I have a picked up house.  This afternoon I have will have picked up and clean house.  I'll enjoy it for as long as it lasts...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Flat Stanley

When Kyra was in second grade, Flat Stanley came into our lives. Flat Stanley has become a popular teaching tool amongst elementary school teachers.  Stanley's story is read, the kids create a Stanley and then mail him off to relatives.  Children map out where Stanley has been and report on his adventures.

If you don't know Stanley's story, the short version is that one night when he was sleeping a bulletin board fell on him and flattened him.  This was an unfortunate event but had some advantages, one of which was cheap travel - just postage stamps.

Kyra's Flat Stanley first traveled to visit her Grandma and Grandpa Reeves in Arkansas.  Flat Stanley rode a horse while there.  He also played golf and ate pancakes.

Since then Flat Stanley has traveled to Panama, Mexico, Afghanistan and London.  As he is flat he is very easy to pack and whip out for a quick photo.  He can be accessorized like a paper doll.  You see in this photo he is wearing his camouflage pants - he got those when he went to Afghanistan.

He has not yet been on any outings in Belgium but we did remember to take him to Luxembourg.  The first photo is of Kyra and Stanley in the Bock casemates.

Here is another one of Stanley in front of a pretty house in Luxembourg.

Hopefully we'll remember to bring Stanley along on other European adventures and you can read about his travels here.  We don't have too many relatives still of elementary school age, but Stanley would welcome any visitors of the flat or three-dimensional variety.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Vianden Castle

As I was searching for an internet link to more information on Vianden Castle, I learned something.  I've been spelling it wrong.  I've been leaving out the first "n."  The town is Vianden and the castle is called Vianden.

Vianden castle was constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries.  Over the centuries it was neglected and poor construction gave way to gravity.  It was given to the state of Luxembourg in 1977 and reconstruction efforts were begun.  So what you see on the tour (or in photos) is new built on old.

For the price of admission, one gets to walk around the castle - there aren't any tours.  We have learned to invest a few more euros and buy a guide book in English as most of the placards are in German and French  with a smattering of English here and there.

Most of the rooms were large and unfurnished.  This allowed us to appreciate the construction style and just imagine how many people it would take to fill such a room.

The colorful photo is of the upper chapel.  There was a small altar and statue of the chapel's patron saint - I forgot who the patron saint is and my guidebook is hiding.  The middle of the chapel was open to the lower chapel below.  The lower chapel was very plain - no furniture and no finishing just the cut rock.

As we moved from the historically older parts of the castle to the newer parts, rooms became more finished and we began to see furnishings as well.

This is a family dining room with period tapestries and wood furnishings.

My favorite room was a large open room with trefoil shaped windows.  It was open to the outside, kind of like a very large porch.  The fresh air of the morning was lovely and the whole effect of light and the views from each window was wonderful.  I turned my camera this way and that, zoomed and unzoomed but really couldn't take a photo that I thought really captured the room.

This was my best attempt and I don't think it is very good.  Hopefully it hints at the size and scope of the room and the views out the windows.

I'd love to go for a return visit and just sit in one of these windows and read for a while.

Friday, September 3, 2010


Viaden castle sits high on a steep hillside.  There are a few options for how to get to the castle.
1.  Drive up and park in a nearby parking lot
2.  Walk up a steep and winding road
3.  Take the chair-lift and then walk through the wooded hillside to the castle.

You can see from the photos which option we selected.  That is Kyle and Kyra at the bottom of the photo to the right.

The chair-lift was a pleasant way to enjoy the morning and views of Viaden and the castle.

The chair-lift took us to the hill top next to the castle.  This meant that we enjoyed a short hike down and back up to the castle hill top.

Along the way Allen complained that his legs and feet hurt from his cross-country training.  However, he was the one who ignored the gently sloping path in favor of the steeper paths that were more direct.

After our castle tour (tomorrow's blog will be the castle) we climbed back down and up to the chair-lift and rode it back down into the valley.  Overall I'd say it was far more enjoyable than driving or walking the entire distance.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Town of Viaden

The town of Viaden is in northern Luxembourg and lies in a river valley.  My words and photos will not due this town justice.  It is charming and quaint and pretty and delightful.

The main street is made of bricks and winds gently down the hillside and crosses the river.  Almost every window is adorned with a planter overflowing with flowers.   Just walking down the street was enjoyable.

There were many restaurants, brasseries and tea rooms which made choosing a place for dinner difficult.  We eventually settled on a little place called La Tourelle.  Unlike the other eating establishments on the main street it did not have a cafe in front.  It did however have a terrace in back.  The terrace didn't have a view of anything special but it as it was off the main street it was very quiet and peaceful.  

They were ready to serve many nationalities of tourists as their menu was in at least six different languages.  In addition to their main menu, there were a few new dishes, but that menu was only in French.  I'm glad I looked at it because I found this wonderful "tartine."  It had potatoes, cream, onions, gruyere cheese and prosciutto.  Very, very good.  Very, very unhealthy.

As we were all tired after our day in the city, we went to bed early to rest up for our castle adventure on Sunday.   Here are just a couple of photos of what the castle looks like from the town below.  

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

American World War II Cemetery in Luxembourg

Before leaving the capital city area we stopped at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial .  Here lie 5,076 American soldiers, most of whom died in the Battle of the Bulge.  The grounds of this cemetery were beautiful and well-kept.  The graves are laid out in a gently curving pattern in a quiet and reverent setting.

Part of the memorial included displays of the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.  This enabled Kyle to show Allen and Kyra the movement of armies in Europe, including areas where we have been.

General George Patton is buried in this cemetery.  His grave is set apart from the others but his grave stone is no bigger nor more grand than a private's grave marker.

Towards the entrance of the cemetery is a small but tall stone chapel.   On its side is an inscription which reads:


Neither Allen nor Kyra has studied World War II in school yet, but they are already learning about what happened as they walk the ground were battles have been fought.  By the time they study it, either here or in the US, they will have a better feel for the places involved and the sacrifices made.