27 November 2007

Gobble

I just thought we weren't going to do Thanksgiving this year. We would give thanks, and talk about how God provides for us and read those books Louise gave us, but Matthew was traveling on the actual day, and, well, I've never been in charge of a holiday meal before. Not until Thanksgiving morning, when an American asked me, "When are you celebrating -- today or Saturday?" did I realize, Heeeeeeey . . . We could do it. Can I not cook? Do I not, in fact, enjoy the cooking? Also, do we or do we not love to eat?

So we surprised Matthew when he got home Saturday around noon and had everything going for it. I had heard turkeys were hard to come by here, but our grocery store had fresh ones to appease the American expats. We had sweet potatoes (or, as the kids viewed them, orange stuff messing up the underside of the marshmallows), cranberry sauce, stuffing, green beans, and Grandma Edy's apple pie.


Also, as Soren displays, we had rolls.

22 November 2007

Perspective drawing

Today we have been in Belgium for two months and five days. It's been a lot of getting settled: getting bank accounts, insurance, cars, internet, phone, TV; learning how to shop, eat, communicate; visiting churches and schools and doctors; trying to figure out how to keep old friends and make new ones; waiting for our belongings and now unpacking them. It's felt like a lot.

I learned yesterday that the pilgrims were actually in transit for almost as long as we've been on the ground here. My new British friend loaned us a Scholastic book, The Pilgrims' First Thanksgiving, by Ann McGovern. ("You really should borrow it," Louise said when she asked what we were doing today. "It's your heritage, right?") The pilgrims were on the Mayflower for two months and three days. Children had little room to run on the ship and had few toys. They had left their belongings behind, for good. Food was limited and eventually went bad. The children slept on the floor of the ship and wore the same clothes every day. Many got sick.

So.

I am thankful that we have a home. That we have heat. That we have food, clean clothing, and our health.

I am thankful that we have the privilege of having a bank account, insurance, cars, internet, phone, and TV. I am thankful that the food here is delicious and that so many people speak English. I am thankful that we have visited two or three churches we could imagine ourselves attending regularly, that there are so many options for schooling here for Lily. That Matthew will see a neurosurgeon next week at a hospital that people from around Europe travel to. I am thankful that we have met so many warm, kind people, and that so many of you back home have been keeping in touch with us. I am thankful that we have belongings, that we are able to keep, and that made it here soundly.

The book ends: "They gave thanks for good friends, new homes, and plenty of food. They gave thanks for the new life they had begun in Plymouth." Swap Belgium for Plymouth, and that is my thanksgiving prayer this year.

19 November 2007

Slip sliding away

Matthew has a herniated disc (a.k.a. slipped disc), an "important" one, as his Flemish doctor puts it. He has a neurosurgery consultation next Thursday the 29th, and if you are wont to, please pray. He's in a lot of pain, and the kids miss rassling with Daddy. Also, the lawn needs mowing. Oh, I kid!

Celebration

I didn't feel like I could host a birthday party for Lily this year without our shipment. And you know, we had a really nice time just the four of us on the evening of Lily's birthday. But when I emailed a couple moms we've had play dates with to tell them we were getting our shipment, and oh, by the way, Lily is 3 today!, one of them wrote back quickly, saying, "Let's have a little party over here for her Monday!" followed by another message, "And if you want me to take the kids when the shipment arrives, just call."

There were brownies, pizza, balloons and streamers, presents, and a sign reading, "Happy 3rd Birthday, Lily! We are so glad you are our friend," on which the kids traced their hands. One woman brought Lily bags of her daughter's dress-up clothes that she's outgrown. I hadn't met her before that day.

I have found as a mother that nothing warms my heart more than someone being kind to my children. I appreciate it when you are nice to me, but if you are nice to my kids, I will gladly write a letter of recommendation for you to the educational institution or employer of your choice.

So my heart was full. Although we moved here "for" Matthew's job, I trusted there were reasons for all four of us to be here. We're not just tagalongs, Lily, Soren, and I; we are in Belgium for individual purposes, too. One purpose, it seems, is to teach me about community and hospitality -- how it's good to depend on others. I know this in theory but now we are being put to the test. I'm getting better -- when another new friend offered to loan us their train set before we received our shipment, I did no hemming or hawing: "Thank you! YES!"

Can you see the images in the posts below?

Tell me, please. I seem to be having some problems, or maybe it's Blogger.

17 November 2007

I send you a virtual care package, instead

In an email I received regarding a special one-day discount on UPS shipping prices:

"Normal shipping costs for a package of up to 5 kg is 217€."

Two hundred seventeen euros?!?

That's really too bad. Otherwise we'd be sending all of you for Christmas:


I wonder: If the items are indeed private, why proclaim their presence so brazenly?

Uncontainable

Tuesday was "Container Day," as our shipment arrived.


Woo!


Woohoo!


WOO HOO HOO HOO!

14 November 2007

Pony up

On Saturday we gave Lily one more gift, a pony ride at a nearby stable. Our town has a lot of stables and riding, and this school is on the way to the grocery store. We always look to see whether the horses and ponies are out when we pass.

We really didn't know what we were in for (which summarizes much of what we do these days), but this wasn't just a ride, it was a lesson. Her instructor, Claire, is a 71-year-old French woman who used to compete in equestrian and owns the school. She works with the littlest ones until they're comfortable on horseback, and then they work with her daughter in groups. She had us call her Mommy Pony.

We set Lily on Pom-Pom ("pome-pome"), and Mommy Pony started tugging her ponytails down to make room for her helmet. Bad start; Lily cried quietly, "I want to go in the car," but turned it around pretty quickly.


Mommy Pony taught her to hold the reins properly, how to pull on one side to make Pom-Pom turn, and how to slap her legs against Pom-Pom's side to make him go.


She was a tough lady but a good cheerleader, too: "Bravo, Lily!" when Lily followed her direction. Lily warmed to her eventually, sharing, "I smell some poop."

"It doesn't matter," Mommy Pony reassured her.


Soren was content to stomp around in the mud and watch all the action. There was a group lesson with bigger girls and bigger horses going on, too.


Does she look like a big girl or what?!

3

We had our first expat birthday last week as Lily turned THREE! Here's the birthday girl waking up.


We celebrated Friday night, just the four of us. I was concerned that this might feel a little lonely; we've never celebrated a birthday just with our little nuclear family. But I am happy to say it was a really fun evening. It helped that grandparents and friends had sent gifts or cards along so it felt like lots of people were celebrating with her in spirit.


I felt bad that I couldn't bake a cake for Lily. Until I saw the cake we ordered. A cake decorated like this will never exit my kitchen.


Plus, it was yummy. White cake, with creamy (and not sugary) frosting, and slices of pineapple between the layers. Here's where Soren got sick of watching his sister open presents and decide to sneak back over for seconds:


Lily got a lot of fun new toys. One gift, however, has been a bit of a disappointment. It is one of those gifts that looks cute but doesn't hold up great to little kids' playing: Lots of tiny pieces for Lily to lose or Soren to choke on, and paint that chips off as it is dropped repeatedly on the tile. One of those gifts that you think someone who isn't so tuned into little kids would buy.

That someone was me. All of YOUR gifts, however, are great.

10 November 2007

One of those up-sides I was telling you about

Matthew had a meeting in Milan last Monday, and suggested that the kids and I come, too. "OK!" we said. We broke up the trip (about a nine-hour drive) on the way there, staying Friday night in Luxembourg City, or what Lily referred to as: "Burg . . . Burger . . . That burger place . . . Burger King!"


Luxembourg City was beautiful -- Matthew had never been, either. Saturday we drove through France and Switzerland and arrived in Milan around dinner time. Switzerland was so very lovely. I kept thinking of Heidi. It's possible "The Hills Are Alive" was sung. We marveled at the cows and sheep grazing on steep hillsides. It was basically driving in a beautiful valley the entire time, spotting churches and castles way up on the hillsides, and wondering if perhaps we should take up dairy farming.


Sunday it was go time. Take in as much of Milan as we can in one day. We headed out pretty early, and decided to cut through Giardina Pubblica to get to our first stop.

Waylaid! "Look at that park!" Lily cried.


So we played for a bit. The kids were starting to think they're royalty at this point, because from the moment we exited our hotel room, Italians of all ages have been waving at them, stooping to them, even caressing their cheeks, pronouncing, "Che bella!"


Principessa Lily and Principe Soren were stuck in the strollers much of the day so we were glad to let them run free for a bit.

Castello Sforzesco

Once we left the park, we headed to Castello Sforzesco.




One church, two church . . .

Second site, Sant'Ambrogio:


Here's when angels from the realms of glory appeared.


Wowza.


After Sant'Ambrogio, we tried to see da Vinci's The Last Supper. Except that we got to the church where it's located, Santa Maria delle Grazie, too early. When we returned and walked through, enjoying it kind of, except that really, we were just looking for The Last Supper -- blah blah blah other church artwork and architecture, bloo bloo bloobedy bloo, bring out the big guns! -- we learned that it's actually in an attached museum, tickets to which were sold out until the end of the month.

I haven't read it, I haven't seen it, and now I'm mad at it: I blame you, Dan Brown, and The DaVinci Code.

Fear and trembling in Milano

First, La Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a shopping area right by il Duomo:


Now. If we had come to Milan and only seen il Duomo, it would have been enough for me. It is the third largest church in the world, and it is simply awesome.


We took the elevator up to walk on the terraces. As per our custom, we were kind of late -- the last people allowed up for the day, to be precise -- so the guards kept hurrying us along. We could not leave our double stroller at the bottom, so we carried it up with us (diaper bag too), while gripping two children and Baby Jane Squash.

No question: totally worth it. I was both silently cursing in fear and blissing out on the views of the spires and the city beyond. It was a white-knuckle, sweaty experience of joy.


Here's us, on top of this huge church! The mom-claw was in full effect.


Just to clarify -- in this photo -- we are ON THE ROOF OF IL DUOMO, a few flights of stairs above where the elevator stops. We did not know what we were getting into; we just walked into the church, saw a sign saying something about the terrazzos ending in half an hour, and hustled in the direction of the arrows.

Solo mio

There are no photos from this day, because Matthew had to work, and although I can and did use his camera, I did so in a poor and distracted fashion while ensuring the kids weren't besmirching antiquities.

So, Matthew had to work. I had to work, too, let me tell you. Solo sightseeing with two under the age of three -- not exactly leisure. But it was a fun day. First we went to the Abbey of Chiaraville. It is four miles southeast of the city, so I drove.

Did you read that? I DROVE! In Italy! It was a little scary, but OK. If I had been less scared, I would have taken a photo of the sign I saw along the way for Agata Cristie Investigazione and also, applied for a job with them.

I parked basically right in front of the church. This can't be right, I thought, but did it anyway, because there were a couple other cars there. Once we left and I saw a large parking lot for about 100 cars down the street from the gates, it was confirmed. I had parked where only an ambulance for a monk should.

We got out, poked around a bit, looked in the chapel and wondered how we were supposed to get into the rest of the abbey. No luck. Our guide book had a list of "star features" throughout the abbey, but I couldn't figure how to get to them. Oh well.

In the afternoon we walked via the Giardini Pubblica again so played at the park, and ate a panini too.

Then we headed to La Scala. We had to climb stairs to get into the theater, so we left the double stroller by the ticket office; I had some trepidation about entering a national treasure without my children in restraints, but they did great. We got to look out from the boxes onto the theater -- stunning in red and gold. On stage a man tuned the piano, and two workers raised huge yellow floral arrangements onto the outside of the boxes via cables. Lily enjoyed running in and out of various boxes. "Should we go in another box?" she'd ask the moment we left one.

Then we walked through the theatre museum, which featured an exhibit on Maria Callas. About twenty-five costumes she had worn were displayed -- beautiful gowns, most of them heavy with velvet, fur, jewels. "Look at that huge dress!" Lily kept saying. The kids even sat still long enough for me to watch about 10 minutes of a video about her career.

Back to the hotel for a bath, then another bath after Soren, well, besmirched the first one, and then reunited with Matthew for dinner.

Lake Maggiore

We drove home via the lakes of northern Italy. Although most of the photos from this area were taken by Matthew as he drove with one hand, reached across me with his camera with the other, and snapped randomly (despite at one point observing, "Wow, there's really no room for error here," as in, on the road), I believe the photos below were all taken when the car was at a complete stop.


Now, it is time for me to confess. I did this far less than I normally do because the views were just so amazing, but in the car, even on scenic and beautiful drives that are new to me, I like to read.


In fact, one of my most favorite things about drives is being confined, restrained, inhibited from physical movement, so there is nothing "lazy" about reading.


Matthew, well, first of all, he's almost always driving, so can't read, but doesn't want to read. Doesn't even want to listen to an audio book. He enjoys taking in the view in quiet. He's so peaceful like that. I admire this in him. But you know how it is when the ones you love possess character traits you admire and also happen to lack.


I began to suspect he was inventing sights. Along the lake here he said once, "I just saw the bluest hydrangea I've ever seen -- really, so blue, it almost looked fake!" He is a cunning fellow. He knows I'm a sucker for hydrangea.


It works out well, actually. I get to read a bit, but my attention is called to anything particularly remarkable in our environs. He's my scenery screener.

Noticeable weight gain seems inevitable at this point

We ate well en route and in Milan. Along the highway there are these huge rest stops with large cafeterias with really good food -- sandwiches and the like, but then fancy looking warm entrees like lamb.

Breakfast in Milan -- pastries, yogurt, and fruit salad (macedonia de frutta); espresso for Matthew.


And hot chocolate, or liquid pudding, for me.


Oh yes, Baby Jane Squash was there. She's really so patient while we eat.


We tasted amazing gelato at a place called Chocolat. I tried two flavors: Caffe B (?) and chocolate with orange.


Other food highlights: pizza, gnocchi with pesto, rigatoni in a red sauce with bacon, tiramisu, and focaccia with whole green olives pressed into the crust (the kids went nuts on this) (I did too).

08 November 2007

Then sings my soul

Matthew headed off to his MRI early today, allotting twice as much time as Mappy (our Mapquest) recommended, and arrived 25 minutes late anyhow due to crazy Brussels traffic. We have been waiting for six weeks for this appointment, to figure out what's causing his crazy sciatic pain. Matthew's not a complainer (we balance each other that way) but he has been in a lot of pain, on prescription meds, hobbling some, grimacing much. He had an x-ray last month, but there has been such a long wait for the MRI because Belgium is "under-MRIed," as his doctor (Dr. Docx!) put it.

But the receptionist turned him away because of his tardiness, telling him he'd have to wait another week. Matthew was fuming when he called me as he walked back to his car, and caught me just as I was putting the kids' shoes on to head out the door. I was angry too, and pretty much bossed him to go back into that office and not leave until he got an !!MRI!!. To call Dr. Docx for help, to say he wouldn't leave until he got one, whatever. Perhaps I could go, with the kids, and sit in the waiting room driving them mad with the noise of joyful American children until they relent.

I headed to my Bible study, giving God a piece of my mind as I drove. Remembered along the way that there is a reason for this, that somehow God is using this season of Matthew's pain for a purpose. Went to study, talked about Noah, Abraham, and other people commended for their faith; sensed my lack.

Matthew arrived home moments after we did. Yes, he got the MRI, and by the way, our stuff is coming next Tuesday!

Hooray! Hooray!

13 November, two months and one day after the moving truck left our home in St. Louis Park, we will be reunited with our belongings. Absence has made the heart grow fonder, believe me.

Matthew worked at home while the kids napped this afternoon so I could do some birthday shopping for Lily. I went to an amazing toy store in Brussels -- it was huge, full of creative, colorful toys and games, lots of cloth and wood, and very little about which one would worry about a lead recall.

So: Matthew got his MRI. Our stuff is coming. And I got to get out of the house, by myself. Yippee-yoo! And thank you, God.

07 November 2007

Whine tasting

First, let me say: There are some big upsides to the expat experience. Like, really big. We went to Milan this weekend! Isn't that cool? I'll be posting a cheery tale about our adventures there soon. This is not that tale.

I really, really, want our stuff. I don't want to want our stuff so bad, I want to be sort of transcending Things, and spiritually more mature than that, but I'm not. I just want our stuff. I'm tired of sleeping on two twin mattresses shoved together to make a queen-size, sitting on uncomfortable chairs to eat meals, not being able to make any food item that involves more cookware than a stainless-steel pot or a shallow ceramic casserole, seeing the kids get bored with the same toys they've been playing with for a month and a half, having only one bath towel per person so that laundry has to be strategically planned (wash loads are a much lengthier endeavor here), and generally not feeling very "at home" because I'm surrounded by things other than ours.

Yesterday Matthew phoned the Belgian moving company in charge of our shipment to inquire about our container, which we believe landed in Antwerp on 22 October, i.e., two and a half weeks ago. Antwerp is in Belgium, mind you, a country that is about the size of Maryland. So Matthew asks for Katrien, the woman in charge of our shipment, and is told, "Katrien no longer works here." Oh. Maybe that's why our delivery hasn't been on the fast track. Matthew introduces himself to the woman who has answered Katrien's phone, and she says, "Oh, you're the ones whose shipment has some problem with it, I think." Huh! OK. The reassurance we had hoped for, not happening.

Matthew then phones the woman handling our shipment from the U.S. side, who contacts this Katrien-replacement in Belgium, and reports to us that the shipping company has refused to release our container (and let's be clear here, if "container" is conjuring up images of Tupperware and such -- this is basically a moving truck without the truck, full of all of our household belongings, our furniture, dishes, clothing, toys, books, photos, pictures, everything we have that did not come on the plane with us (8 suitcases + carry-ons, so not nothing) or in our air shipment) until it can cross-reference our bill of lading, which only it can do, because it generated the bill of lading. Oh, I see. ?!

Matthew was reassured by the fact that the U.S. coordinator was angry about the situation, but I'm crankier than he is, and not so easily assuaged. She called back later, after sending a terse email to all involved, to report that our container would be released today. It then (I use the term "then" as if this is a neatly transpiring sequence of events) will go to customs and then to us, by early next week, we think. But we are a foolish, hopeful people.

This is one of the downsides of the expat experience. I am somewhat hesitant to share it. It wouldn't be unreasonable for your reaction to be: "You whiny brat, you're in Europe! A place many people want to vacation! Living in a comfortable home and with food on your table, and you have cute kids, too. And a nice husband who isn't nearly as cranky as you. Count your blessings, missy." Oh, I know, you big meanie. I feel materialistic and privileged and foolish to be so fed up with this, but it's what's going on.

The Editor strikes again

Before we left for the weekend, I fiddled with the settings on this blog and unwittingly made it so that comments had to be approved by me before they'd appear.

This seems an appropriate time to share that when we moved from Florida to Minnesota, my first grade class made a book for me saying goodbye and wishing me luck. Each student had decorated a page, and the book was looped together with yarn tied in a bow.

I spent the first part of that car drive correcting their spelling mistakes with a marker.

Then I spent the next part re-making the mistakes, after my parents realized what I was doing and induced some self-reflection.

Anyhow, I changed the setting back, you all were approved, ALL of you! You always will be! I accept you, just as you are! If I could, I would sing to you what Lily and I like to sing to each other these days: "I love you just the way you are."

Except for you, Brazilian spammer. Your comments, I will continue to delete.

01 November 2007

This is the way he rolls


Eco-Boy and his new toy.

Once Matthew saw this at a nearby gardening store, he had to have it. He was so excited that he wanted to buy it when we were waiting for a wire transfer, so only had 200 euros here. I drew the line. No, we cannot spend half our available funds on a lawnmower.

"Good on you!" as they would say on Celebrity Master Chef. Less expensive than a gas mower, and of course more environmentally friendly.

But who are we kidding? I know he just loves the way it looks.

My secret shame

So, we're enjoying TV. We watched "Celebrity Master Chef" the other night. They are British celebrities, though, so we weren't exactly starstruck. "Who is that?" we kept asking each other.

There's one show, though, that is a point of contention in our home. This show brings me great pleasure, but it is a pleasure riddled with shame. When I hear Matthew's footsteps approach while I am watching this program, I cringe.

Murder, She Wrote. Is that so wrong? How can I resist Jessica Fletcher's widowly charm and wholesome crimesolving skills, or her quaint town of Cabot Cove?