24 December 2008

Bonnes fêtes de fin d'année!

Or, "Happy end-of-the-year festivities!" to you.



See you in 2009!

23 December 2008

Snack hijinks

Lily was assigned raw vegetables with "sauce" for la collation a few weeks ago. I asked my French teacher what kind of sauce Belgians eat with vegetables, and she said mayonnaise and cocktail sauce. To be certain, and because that sounded gross, I confirmed this with two women working in the deli at the grocery store. They gave me the same answer. Ew. Cocktail sauce here is half mayonnaise -- it looks like thousand island dressing.

I am torn in these situations: Do I just send what the kids are used to, but is not what we would eat, or is this an opportunity to share a more American flavor with them? I toed the line and sent three bowls: mayonnaise, cocktail sauce, and sour cream ranch dip.

Perhaps you can guess which bowl came home nearly full. Even Lily liked the "orange" sauce best. Oh no. Of all the influences Belgium could have on one's palate.

We continued to bombard Belgian children with American food items when Lily brought spritz cookies for the Christmas party:



I was labeling these as almond flavored in case of allergies, and then decided that I better go ahead and be clear that they were, in fact, cookies, because of their tricky green hue. So, here are our biscuits au arome de amande.

Snow

Clara's first experience with snow, November 22, 2008.



Lily on a snow trek with Daddy around that same time while the little two napped.



We have had more snow so far this year than we did all of last winter. And the largest snowflakes I have ever seen fell a couple weeks ago. I was hanging out with a couple other moms and our kids, and we were watching it casually, and then gathering the kids to look, and then boosting the kids to press their noses on the window, and then our host was fetching a videocamera to document it. It looked like mouthfuls of cotton candy.

Our love affair continues

Speculoos BREAD!

18 December 2008

May the Zwarte be with you

Two friends (Katie this year and Anne last year) reminded me of David Sedaris's story Six to Eight Black Men, which features Zwarte Piet. I first read that in a book of his a couple years ago but it escaped my mind when I actually came face to face with the phenomenon.

If you're not getting enough Zwarte Piet from this blog, and you enjoy a touch of the outlandish in your humor, I recommend this to you.

16 December 2008

Apotheek adventures

I appreciate that the Belgian doctors we have seen, and the pharmacists, often recommend homeopathic remedies first. I went to the on-call apotheek a couple Sundays ago. I like the word "apotheek" ("ap-oh-tayk" or close to that), which is Dutch for pharmacy (French = the less charming "pharmacie") -- maybe because it sends me back to eighth grade and the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. I remember watching the Zeffirelli film in English class. Romeo's naked behind! How shocking!

(This memory provides a bit of foreshadowing, another word I bet I learned in eighth grade English.)

You have to look in the local paper or online to find which pharmacy in your area is open on a Sunday or at night. On Sunday during the day they have normal (for Belgium) business hours, and you can buy over-the-counter medicine (truly OTC because all medicines are kept behind the counter there). At night, however, the pharmacist is on-call and will only open up shop if you have a prescription to be filled (I learned this when I called late one night last fall hoping to get cough medicine for Lily and woke up a pharmacist).

So I went to an apotheek to get some saline rinse because Clara had a rough night experiencing great astonishment at the existence of such a thing as nasal congestion. I got a mist bottle for Clara and, since that can't be shared (as you can see I wrote her name on it to help me remember), individual doses for the big kids (the box on the left and little tubes in front). Sinus irrigation for all!



The other item in this photo is a box of eucalyptus suppositories, a homeopathic cold remedy for children. Also, a way to make diaper changes more aromatically pleasant. You can't really see on the box, but there is a outline of a child innocently playing with blocks, surely unaware that he's about to get a tablet of medicine up his hiney.

This time I had to buy a different brand, and, wow:



Four reasons to love this packaging:
1. It addresses any lingering doubts about how this medication is to be administered.
2. It depicts the task falling to the mom -- see the manicured nails. In our home we are equal opportunity suppository inserters.
3. It has a cheery brand name: Kalip'tus Kids. Sounds like Saturday morning cartoon programming or an after-school kids' club.
4. The best part, however, has to be that it depicts incorrect insertion -- she's got it backwards.

Two days in a row of artistic(?) Belgian depictions of the human body is probably two days too many. I'll try to class this joint up soon.

15 December 2008

Only 9 shopping days left!

Are you looking for a special Christmas gift for a father in your life? Let me share two ideas that are sure to please any discriminating gentleman.

1. A new nickname.



I did no rearranging to achieve this charming pet name. It was just there for the enjoying after I drew tiles.

Nicknames are fun. Giant Rhubarb (and its variation for Clara, "Little Rhubard") gets used a lot in our home.

2. Belgian chocolate.



That they make chocolate in this form is interesting enough. But, to advertise it as "A nice present for your father or friend"? Yes, buy this for your dad, and then, arrange a nice therapy session for yourself.

My sister took that photo when we were in Bruges last spring, and I didn't post it out of reasons of taste. Since then we posted a photo we took of our nudist neighbor, so . . .

11 December 2008

Yikes

Scary stuff.

124 euros

That's how much Clara Irene is worth, according to our town. We received that upon notification of her birth.

I'll consider this my salary for 2008.

08 December 2008

A friendly tip

Say you get a call from a telemarketer, and you want to end it quickly, but you don't want to be rude. May I suggest you use our Sure-Fire Call Drop Technique: Speak the telemarketer's language poorly, then hand the phone to your spouse, and have him or her speak the telemarketer's language poorly. Out of sheer frustration, the telemarketer should eventually just hang up.

Oh yes, our limited French has transformed the hanged-up-upon into the hang-upper!

06 December 2008

Bonne fête de Saint Nicholas!

On December 6, Belgians celebrate Saint Nicholas. He came to Lily's school this week. A donkey did, too, and all the kids got to ride it. Lily has informed me that Santa Claus speaks French, and she also told me: "That guy -- not Santa Claus, but that other guy -- the one with the feather in his cap -- he gave us candy."

Yes, she described Zwarte Piet, or, as he's called in French, Le Père Fouettard*, as "the one with the feather in his cap." I love that that is his distinctive characteristic to her.

Her school organizes a sale of "cougnous," bread in the shape of Baby Jesus, which we had last year for the first time. While Clara and I were still sleeping, Matthew took some photos of the kids with it this morning.



*This translates to "whipping father," since the character supposedly whips the children who have not behaved well. If you didn't see the interesting comment left by our friend Paul about Zwarte Piet, you should -- it's here.

04 December 2008

A bit of a dry spell

After I put up the last post, I thought the title sounded familiar, so I looked back. As you can see below, this year's Thanksgiving post was titled "Gobble gobble." Last year's? "Gobble." Can you even imagine what I might have in store for 2009?

Gobble gobble

The upside of being thousands of miles away from family is that we're all in the same boat -- all our friends here are far away from family too. So everybody really needs each other. And I would be pleased to base my expat friendships on this codependency/desperate-grasping-for-relationships vibe, but, we have actually made real friends, in the traditional sense of the word, here. Very cool. So, we had 33 people at our house on Saturday for a Thanksgiving potluck.

And with borrowed tables and some rearranging we got them all into our dining room to eat.



I roasted one turkey in the oven, and Matthew grilled two, thanks to instructions from my stepdad Bill, the Original Grillmaster.



I made two of my Grandma Edy's apple pies and two cherry pies with beautiful jarred cherries that claimed to be pitted on the label, but that almost broke my teeth when I tried a piece the next day. Ouch. Our guests were so kind not to mention that if they had the same experience.

They also were so kind as to bring copious amounts of delicious side dishes, and folding chairs, and many bottles of wine.




Our kitchen lighting makes food look unappealing in photos, but it was delicious, I promise.

One guest got some good group photos that I hope to get my hands on and post later, but for now, a couple random shots to give you a sense:




The paper goods store here carries huge rolls of paper in dozens of colors for table covering. I hate to use disposable things but didn't want to invest in four matching huge tablecloths, so we spent about five euros for this covering. (Maybe they have this in the U.S. too and I just didn't know about it? In which case this is less noteworthy.) You can kind of see the brown paper in this picture (underneath the runner) -- it has a little pattern, pretty cute.



Kung Fu Lily (cute apron thanks to Grambie)



These aren't the best pics of our other two but in the interest of equity, here's Clara getting loved on by the lovely Janet,



and Handsome Pants enjoying the goods.



Eighteen children aged eleven and under were there. They mostly played in Lily's and Soren's rooms when they weren't eating. Parents took turns going up to ensure true destruction was not going on. One told me upon his return, "Your children's rooms will never look the same." But! Some sneaky good-hearted elf of a parent (or maybe a couple) straightened up their rooms, so that when we went to put them to bed after everyone left, the rooms were neat.

I had told everyone to be ready to share something they were thankful for -- but with a full, noisy house, and parents getting kids fed and then grabbing a plates for themselves, it just didn't happen. So, now is my chance, a week late, to say: I am thankful for good friends in a faraway place to make life cozy and comfortable and fun.

25 November 2008

Dear Abby

Matthew and I finished watching John Adams last weekend. I am a sucker for founding fathers stuff, but it really is a great film.

In one episode, Abigail Adams joins her husband in France after a lengthy separation, and Thomas Jefferson asks her opinion on the country.

"I have been in France for such a short time it would be unfair to pass sentence or form judgment," she replies.

Tommy J. is onto her. " . . . Which implies that you've already done both," he responds.

But she remains demure: "Well, if I had, Mr. Jefferson, I would only offer them after my further experience had shown my wisdom or the error of my ways."

Touché. I think it's safe to say Mrs. Adams would not have had a blog.

23 November 2008

Big muscles

May I present to you: Clara Irene (a.k.a. Jelly Bean, Jelly Jelly Bean, Bean, Beanie, Beanie Weanie, Beaner Weaner, Beaner the Wean), three and a half months old.


Sisters!


Look how our Brussels sprout grows!

20 November 2008

Speculoos spectacle

Speculoos are thin, crispy, spice cookies, kind of like gingersnaps but not so gingery. They are tasty, especially with your preferred dunking beverage.

This fall, however, we have discovered speculoos spread. Oh my. It is similar in consistency and color to peanut butter, but it tastes like gingerbread. Move over, Nutella. We've found something better to turn bread into dessert.


Alongside the spread are speculoos cookies dipped in chocolate featuring our old pal, Zwarte Piet.

18 November 2008

A holly jolly Christmas

Matthew's company held a holiday event at the zoo last weekend. This seems early to us, but Sinterklaas comes on December 6 in Belgium. It was a chilly drizzly day, so there weren't that many people. It was our first time to any zoo in almost a year and a half, and the kids are much more interested now. I recall bringing Lily when I was very pregnant with Soren -- she was about 14 months, and her favorite part was running the ramps at the Minnesota Zoo Tropics Trail. This time they were into the animals.


Our favorite was the giraffes. There were ramps leading out into the giraffe's habitat so that you could be closer to their heads -- a very cool design that enhanced the giraffe viewing experience immensely.

The area with the African animals bufuddled me a bit. First, Matthew and I were so excited to see hippo heads in a little river. We couldn't remember ever seeing hippos before at a zoo. Then we got closer and saw that there were no bodies attached to them. They were just fake plexiglass hippo heads. Speakers hidden in the surrounding vegetation played hippo sounds.

Then there were all these signs about "Don't get out of your jeep!", and fake huge fossils lying around. On our way home, Lily asked me about that, and I said, "I think they are trying to make it seem like the time when dinosaurs were around," and Matthew just about drove off the road he was laughing so hard. "WHAT?" Well, I didn't know; it seemed like Jurassic Park. "It's supposed to seem like an African safari!" he said. That does make a lot more sense.

After our zoo tour we headed in for the sweets buffet. Crepes, ice cream, cake after cake after cake, chocolate mousse, fruit and then some cheese and bread. It seems funny to me that they have this huge spread of dessert items at 3 p.m. Is this somehow Belgian? How would this go down at a similar American event? I'm not complaining. Yum.

After gorging on sweets, it was time for the "meet and greet" with Sinterklaas. ("Meet and greet" was their term. I imagined business card exchanges.) Yes, it's that time of year again! Time to experience bizarre Belgian Christmas traditions. Of course American Christmas is its own special beast, but it's a beast we know and love. A German coworker of Matthew's was telling us about the strangeness (for him) of driving down streets with over-the-top lights displays in America. It's all relative.

But REALLY. I cannot get over Zwarte Piet. I cannot find this acceptable as a Christmas figure -- as an anytime figure. It is just too, too weird.

The kids waited in line and went in and met Sinterklaas, a.k.a. the Pope, and Zwarte Piet, a black figure with jester clothing, and by black, I mean truly BLACK paint on the face. It is an eery look for a young white woman, who was the Zwarte Piet standing next to Sinterklaas, although there were two or three other Zwarte Piets distributing gifts and candy.

How did our children enjoy meeting these jolly fellows? Let me share with you, via a series of photos.


Stage One.
Lily knows the drill. I stand here, and then I get a gift and candy. Stay focused.
Soren: What the %$#*? Get me away from these freaks!
Clara: Hello! I'm fine wherever. Hi!
[Please note Zwarte Piet's eerily frozen smile.]


Stage Two.
Soren has fled. Lily is hoping she gets the goods soon. Clara is content.


Stage Three.
Matthew holds Soren while snapping a photo to document his presence. Lily's starting to feel awkward and wants to get the gifts and go. Clara's cool; whatever.


Stage Four.
Matthew has Soren, and I take another picture. Sinterklaas shoots me a death stare because we are taking too long. Matthew told me after the fact that at this point Sinterklaas said, "Can you take her?" (re: Clara) to me. Hence the death stare as I, not hearing this, continued to document. (Is it just me or is Zwarte Piet letting a bit of irritation show through her frozen smile?)


Stage Five.
Gifts in hand, Soren, still upset, manages a fervent, "Thaaaanks!" to Zwarte Piet.

Ah well. These three uncomfortable minutes with unlovable Christmas figures were a small part of an otherwise very enjoyable animal-watching, treat-eating afternoon. And three minutes I bet even Soren would do again to get the fun toy and sack of candy they each scored.

16 November 2008

4


Lily turned four! And unlike last year when we celebrated just the four of us (shortly before we learned it was no longer going to be "just the four of us"), we had a party -- a royal tea party, if you will.


I realized somewhat belatedly that putting "regal attire welcome" on the invitations meant we should outfit Soren in something appropriate as well. We are heavy on the princess attire and short on prince wear. And anyhow, he wanted to be a King. We made do with a large piece of red felt (which serves as our Christmas tree skirt and isn't so fancy for that either) secured with a chip clip and one of the crown party hats.


I asked Matthew to be in charge of drawing the horse for "pin the tail on the steed." Matthew takes tasks seriously, hence the drawing above, and I must include another shot of this horse so you can see one of its tails:


The man made them out of raffia, for pete's sake!

I wish we had gotten all the kids lined up for a picture when the party started, because most of the boys in attendance dispensed with their costumes fairly quickly. Two of her buddies were knights in aluminum foil shields and helmets -- awesome.


Sometimes a princess needs to step away from all the pageantry and just curl up with a good book.


We planned for two games, but one (or one-half) was enough. Some of the kids did not want to have their eyes covered, so only about half of them even pinned the tail, and our sock matching game just didn't captivate them.

Matching socks? Come on! What's not to love?


It was a sweet afternoon. We had a remarkable bunch of kind, polite preschooler guests. Their parents did OK too. I delighted in seeing Lily's astonished joy at realizing that the gifts her friends brought were all for HER! She received several lovely new playthings. Soren greeted one guest with a jab from a sword pilfered from another guest's costume, but otherwise no knightly exploits ensued. Clara rested contentedly with other parents for much of the festivities and fell asleep in the crook of Matthew's arm at one point.

Here's the entire royal court on the couch after the party.


(Lily's getting a big kick out of the fact that Clara's wearing a crown, too.)

For her actual birthday the next morning, we celebrated with pancakes that were decorated with candles spelling her name on them, thanks to Grambie and Pops!

12 November 2008

Knowing me, knowing you

Wanna go?


Best tribute band name ever!

11 November 2008

UK extravaganza, part VIII: Gingification and other good things

Do you know why we're so happy?


That sign, if you can't decipher it, reads "A Warm Welcome to Walkers, Children, and Dogs. Wheelchair Access." We ate a lot of yummy food in welcoming environments in our time in the U.K. It was refreshing and relaxing.

At the pub below, two women -- one at the table next to ours, the other at the bar -- offered to hold Clara while we ate. They even jokingly fought over the opportunity. We didn't take them up on it -- freely flowing alcohol and hazards such as a large fireplace and a large dog made me reluctant to pass our baby off -- but, how kind!


And isn't it wonderful that there are B&Bs, even, that welcome families with three children under the age of four? Bless their hearts! One proprietor told us, "Oh, kids are fine. It's the people who get drunk and then try to be quiet as they stumble up the stairs that are a problem."


At dinner one night Soren did remind me of a guy at last call who's had a few too many. We had been sitting next to a family with two young sons, and they were silly, and our kids were silly, and it was comfortable to be next to another. Soren couldn't bring himself to leave. Jackets were on but he kept doing a silly dance, running around in a last ditch effort to amuse them. Alright buddy, time to go home and sleep it off.

We ate "full English breakfasts" several mornings. This included tea, juice, a sausage, an egg, bacon (what I'd call "Canadian bacon"), toast, baked beans, broiled tomato, and sauteed mushrooms. We also had several lovely treats -- apple pie, milkshakes, a Bath bun, Chorley cake -- but there was a clear sweets highlight for us:


I saw a pamphlet describing this as the best gingerbread in the world and had to try it. It is sold out of a very small store with one counter -- only two customers can fit in at a time, so a small line curved outside when we were there. It was delicious! The gingerbread is the consistency of a chewy cookie, with a crumb top and a chewy center. It is very gingery, with a strong citrus flavor (lemon peel maybe?). It was so noteworthy that I made Matthew pose with it. Doesn't he look simply stunned by all the spicy goodness?


We returned from the trip a week and a half ago, and it seems so far away already. It was really a sweet time. Matthew does such a good job planning our itinerary and selecting nice places for us to stay. It was a whirlwind, but we got to see so much! I can't believe how well the kids did with all the car time -- we did listen to a lot of ever-cheerful kids' music (and I bit my tongue from clarifying bizarre theological teachings in some of these songs -- no, you don't have to be "inright outright upright downright happy all the time," that's not what it means to have faith.)

Back in Minnesota I think I tended to be, on the spectrum of "how game are you as a mom to do fun, but hassle-laden, outings with your children," on the low end. In general, I think I'd rather do small things that are fairly certain to be enjoyable than big things that may turn out wretched.

But now we're living in Europe, and we want to see all that we can. So we become numb to the hassle, or just duck and run through it. I still can't believe one day last fall while Matthew worked I solo double-strollered it through Milan and looked out of an opera box at La Scala with my two-year-old and one-year-old. Who is this woman?

It helps to have intrepid, eager, young travelers. When we headed out on our first day of this trip, Lily announced, "Yea! I'm so excited to see the parts of the new world God gave us!" Alright little miss, here we go!

09 November 2008

UK extravaganza, part VII: Glencoe Valley, Scotland


We drove an hour and a half from our cottage on the Isle of Seil to the Highlands.


We did a couple of hikes that day. I use the term "hike" loosely -- we set foot onto two trails. Hiking with a three-year-old, two-year-old, and two-month-old is a different sort of outdoor adventure.

Here was our first stop. It got cut short because the wind was a bit much for the kids (Clara was crying the entire time), and I think also someone needed a toilet.


We stayed on the trail longer at our second stop, but we still didn't cover all that much ground. There were stones to be thrown into a creek, and pebbles to be used as currency in a puddle that served as some sort of cash register, from what I gathered as I watched:


Sometimes Matthew and I just have to let go of our desire to See Everything We Possibly Can in Europe While We Are Living Here, and let the kids play. And really, the kids' stone throwing and pebble trading isn't somehow inferior, as an outdoor experience, to the longer hike Matthew and I would do if we were childless. There's not a Best Way to enjoy nature that this somehow falls short of. (Perhaps that is obvious to you, but, as a Myers-Briggs "J", when I let go of black/white, right/wrong, dichotomy thinking, it feels like a revelation.) [Edited to add that link on the 10th, in case you're not familiar with Myers-Briggs, in which case you should also take the assessment and report your results to me so I can categorize you accurately, because, I like things in order.]

And look -- even when we're in the car, we can pull to the side of the road, and see a lovely sight like this.


(Do you see the deer?)