31 January 2008

West Virginia, mountain mama

Last Saturday Matthew and I attended his office New Year's party in Antwerp, forty-five minutes away. Not "holiday party," but New Year's party. They seem to be really into that day here. When Matthew returned to the office after the holidays, he was greeted with hearty "Best wishes!" instead of what I think of as the typical American, "How was your Christmas?"
There were about five hundred people at the Hilton for the event. During the cocktail hour, beverage choices were champagne and orange juice. (Maybe "cocktail hour" isn't then the best term.) I don't usually drink OJ at 7 p.m., but perhaps that's considered a nicer nonalcoholic alternative than soda?

We were seated a little after 8 p.m. Our entrees were served around 10:30, and we didn't get dessert until 11:20. These crazy Europeans! I told our Dutch tablemate, when our second course was served, "In America, we would be done eating now." That's how I like to start all my sentences with EU-natives: "Well, in America . . ." I balanced it by telling him how much I like the butter here. 

Our first course was a "four flavors pie," layers of shrimp, foie gras, potato, and one other layer I forget -- once I realized it was cold I knew it was sort of sketchy for the babe so didn't try it. Instead, I stuck with butter (on rolls). Next we had a lobster bisque. Our entree was pork topped with small pieces of ham and tongue in madeira sauce, nutmeg-seasoned spinach, Belgian endive (witloof), and mashed potatoes. It was delicious -- far superior to the typical American hotel meal I've tasted. They served white wine with the first two courses and red with the entree, and it was very free-flowing. I had only a sip or two, but still I don't know how many times I had to put my hand over my nearly full glass and politely decline more.

And then, the fourth course. Epic music started playing and the dividing walls behind us were quickly moved away to reveal, lo and behold, another entire section of the room with a huge buffet of desserts. Smoke billowed over the tablecloths, huge sparklers twinkled from the edge of the tables, and ten of the wait staff stood at attention. Once our awe subsided, there was enthusiastic (and perhaps alcohol-enhanced) applause. Yea! Dessert! So many options -- pies and tarts and puddings and crepes and mousses.

We left without doing any dancing because we thought we should relieve the babysitter, but we did witness an enthusiastic sing-along to a tune the DJ played. People were waving their napkins in the air and chanting "Champs Élysées!" Matthew whispered, "Maybe it's their 'YMCA'?" But somehow it seemed patriotic. Even though that street is in Paris. I may have misinterpreted the whole thing, and Matthew probably was right. Nonetheless I felt it was my civic duty to sing along with the next song the DJ played: "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

28 January 2008

El taco feo and the incredible edible egg

The other night we had tacos. [Fair warning: This is not the most exciting post.] I haven't purposely bought a "taco dinner kit" or a taco seasoning packet since it dawned on me years ago that I could season the meat on my own, rather than paying Ortega's premium on flour mixed with a smidge of spices I have in my own cupboard (and thereby feel satisfied that I have somehow Beaten the System!). But the last time I picked up what I thought was a box of taco shells (I can season meat, but no, I'm not crushing corn to make my own shells), I inadvertently grabbed a "kit." Fine, it saves a little time. It was Old El Paso, just like we have back home. But NOT! It was purchased at the British store here, where we also can get bagels, pretzels, dried cranberries, and refrigerated skim milk, if we drive an hour round-trip. So, it was manufactured for a British consumer -- a British consumer who apparently prefers yucky tacos. It was a sweeter, almost curry-like seasoning. We like Indian food, but on tacos: totally incongruous. The dishes were washed, counters were wiped, garbage was out, leftovers went with Matthew to work (he's not so picky), and for days I, no, we! not just the pregnant lady with her keen sense of smell!, were still detecting the scent of this cloying seasoning in our home.

Now let me counter this by mentioning a few of the basics that simply taste better here: eggs, chicken, and butter. The yolks are yellower, the chicken tastes more chicken-y (?), and the butter is creamier -- all simply more flavorful. In the past week we've had hard-boiled eggs, fried eggs, and I'm scrambling some tonight. The kids have the cholesterol of an overweight sixty-year-old, but man, we're enjoying it. 

24 January 2008

Mamma mia

Thank you for the comments and emails of congratulations. I am so glad to have shared the photo of my womb to the world via the magic of the Internets so I can finally tell you about one of the biggest cultural differences I have experienced so far: prenatal life!
  • First, it's been so good to hear every American woman with whom I've talked about this rave about having a baby in Belgium -- including ones who had delivered in the U.S., too. They feel the care was better here.
  • Doctors who deliver babies are referred to as gynecologists, not obstetricians.
  • For those of you that know me well, this will come as no surprise: At one point I had on my calendar five appointments with five different gynecologists who deliver at four different hospitals. I thought a Flemish hospital would be preferable as more English is spoken there, but as it turns out I will deliver at a Francophone hospital in the city. The first two gynecologists I saw were a bit unkempt, which was kind of disconcerting for me, especially in this culture (and this is really a subject I need to write about) where the women look very nice all the time -- in dress and grooming. So, the doctors needed to pluck their eyebrows, or take a shower, or what have you, but mostly, they were really not warm, and I did not feel comfortable with them.
  • The third doctor I saw, who now is My Doctor that I adore, is quite sophisticated in appearance, which is so very, very important for the health of the baby growing inside me. Furthermore, she spent one hour with me at my first appointment. Unheard of for U.S. OBs to spend that amount of time with a patient. We sat in her very nice office while she took my medical history at her desk (I get a nice eyebrow raise when I share Lily's large and in charge birth weight), and then went to the examination room attached. 
  • The hospitals are not as aesthetically pleasing -- no hotel vibe. Clean, and fine, just not pretty.
  • Typical post-birth hospital stay is four to five days. Two days is the norm in the U.S., and I was out about 24 hours after Soren was born, by choice.
  • They are big into ultrasounds here. The doctor performs a very brief one at nearly every appointment to check the heartbeat. They don't seem to use dopplers, the machines that allow you to listen to the heartbeat externally -- what I'm used to from the U.S. Then an ultrasound specialist performs an in-depth one in each trimester.
  • The person who performed the ultrasound is a doctor, not a ultrasound technician. She is one of five female gynecologists in the practice I'm seeing, and she only does ultrasounds. She is one of the best in the country, my regular doctor said, and she said she could have found the gender at this 12+ week ultrasound. But we're holding out.
  • It seems that if you are interested in using a midwife, you basically have to have a home birth. As far as I can tell, they use the term midwife to refer to OB nurses -- there will be a midwife in the delivery room helping my gynecologist, for example -- but then also to refer to women who help mothers deliver at home. We used a midwife with Soren, and I would have done that again had we been in the States.
  • Beginning around 30 weeks, I will meet with a physiotherapist who will help me with exercises, stretches, and massage me a bit. She will be present at birth as well. Sounds like a doula.
  • I have gone to all my appointments sans kids, save for one, when I just had to have bloodwork done. Once I rolled the kids into the room only large enough to accommodate a reclining chair and a small stool, and the woman who spoke no English (I share the responsibility as I was the woman who spoke no French) explained what was happening and prepped five (5!) vials, I looked at my children, two feet away, with nowhere to look but at the blood pulsing out of my arm. This seems like an experience from which nightmares are made. I normally get pretty sicked out in blood-drawing/needles moments (it's hard to relax when nearly every technician that looks for a vein furrows his or her eyebrows, and remarks that it's difficult), but this time, I was Miss Sunshine. "It doesn't hurt! It's OK! Kind of funny, isn't it? You don't have to watch! What's on the walls?"
  • The elevators in the hospital do not accommodate a double stroller -- the double stroller that I can get in and out of just about any door I've come across. Hmm. I'm wondering how they manage wheelchairs? On a somewhat related note, leaving the hospital with the kids after my bloodwork, I didn't have them strapped in and hit a curb too hard and deposited both of them, simultaneously, on the sidewalk on their hands and knees. Why yes, I'm ready for a third! Why do you ask?

18 January 2008


On this date,
Or early, or late,
We'll celebrate!

Despite the rascally pranks,
Some biting, hair yanks,
Our hearts overspill with thanks

For our daughter and our son.
Before them, had life begun?
We're in love. We're undone!

And more joy is due --
Times three, not times two.
It might be a zoo.

Can it really be?
Yes, yes! Oui, oui!
For our family, another bébé!

17 January 2008


We visited Bruges with Matthew's parents a couple days after Christmas -- drove there in the morning and walked around all day.

Bruges is called the Venice of the North because it is a city amidst a canal. It's one of the top tourist destinations in Belgium, and it was beautiful. (I feel like a dweeb when I do "travelogue" type writing -- Fodors or Frommers explain it better, and put stars by all the sights and stuff. But I would be remiss if I didn't report the basics.)

Being in Belgium it of course has some chocolate shops -- Don bought some here that was delightful.

The Christmas market was still going on -- we had waffles from one of the stands.

And I am so pleased to report, having a grandfather taking photos means: Matthew's relationship with his children is documented pictorally, see, e.g., below.

15 January 2008

'Tisn't the season (anymore)

I know, Christmas is SO last year, but I want to tell you about our celebration. Unfortunately, most of these pictures were taken by Matthew's dad -- no, fortunately! because they're nice -- but the grandparents aren't in many of them. They'll be featured prominently in shots of the rest of our Belgian Christmas adventure (to be added soon).

Soren got a pomegranate in his stocking. Score!

Lily received some more dress-up clothes, including "up and down shoes" (her request).

We had the typical Christmas experience: a tree . . .

. . . stockings by the fireplace . . .

. . . Baby Jesus bread . . . .

OK. That was new, the bread in the shape of a swaddled baby, with a naked pink baby candy on top. It was dotted with tiny pieces of dark chocolate. At the risk of redundancy as I describe food here: YUM!

14 January 2008

At your service

Several handymen have come to our house since September, to look at the oven, check the electricity, touch up paint, etc. In Minnesota, I didn't like being home alone when these men (always men for us) stopped by, as Matthew usually understands whatever issue it is better, it's hard to interact with the guy and keep an eye on the kids, and I feel a sort of (possibly irrational) womanly discomfort with the whole thing.

Here, that discomfort is amplified because the majority of the workers who have visited do not speak English, and once we report an issue, we're on call -- who knows when someone might stop by to take care of it. No warning, just a few days later, a man is knocking at the door sometime between 8 and 5. I've turned away at least one because it was not a good time, but otherwise I feel like I need to let him in to the midst of our lunch or whatever is going on so he can do his job. I'm drawing some boundaries, though. Last week the electrician called, asked me some difficult to decipher questions, then said, "Five minutes?" I was about to walk out the door. "No," I said. "Call my husband." This is an area of household management I'm anxious to delegate.

When a man dropped by (unexpectedly, of course), to see why our oven door does not shut properly, to my surprise he began removing the oven with a screwdriver. "Wait," I said. "Let me call my husband." I have zero confidence in my independent decisionmaking ability about these things. "He's taking the oven out," I whispered to Matthew, then handed the phone to the handyman. He agreed he'd wait until we spoke with the landlord before removing major appliances.

This morning a painter came. It's been several weeks since the moving company sent someone to repair the marks on the wall from moving in furniture. A painter came one day, spackled quickly, left, and said he would be back soon, maybe even tomorrow. Weeks passed . . . Matthew phoned . . . Another painter came last week, but didn't have the proper paint, so said he would be back Friday or Monday. More specific than we usually get, but I forgot about it until I heard the knock on the door at 8:30 this morning. I called Matthew: "Someone is knocking on the door. I'm in my robe, Soren's in a diaper only, and Lily's in her pajamas. I'm not answering it!" I was prepared to ignore Matthew's plea to just let him in so it was taken care of. I was in my robe! Modesty and annoyance prevailed. But the painter persisted. Ten minutes of knocking, easily. FINE! I said to myself, after I got dressed. I opened the door and said, "Hello. We didn't know you were coming!" Not my most pleasant greeting, but it didn't matter, as from what I could gather, he said (in French), "I don't understand."

Communication continued to be a challenge. At one point he gestured at the partially painted wall, explaining something as he pointed up high. I think he was telling me we'd compare the colors once it dried. But it could have been, "Up there, I don't care about," or, "If you like, I could scale this wall with my bare hands."

Then he asked me whether he could use the bathroom. He said something that sounded like "oo-SAY," which I realize now must be French for "use," but at the time sounded like, "U.S.A.?" so I was happy to confirm, "Yes, we're American." (Why he just paused painting and came into the other room to inquire about my nationality -- this I didn't ponder at the time.) He chose the more straightforward route. "Pee-pee?" he asked, but really didn't give me a chance to respond before he resorted to a gesture. It was an evocative charade of a man urinating. I am even more anxious to begin French lessons now, a self-defense measure against witnessing something like that again.

10 January 2008

Liège Christmas market

The Sunday before Christmas we headed about an hour east of Brussels to Liège, one of the many cities in Belgium (and Europe) that hold Christmas markets during December. Vendors sold crafts and food from wooden stalls -- sausage man is shown below. Some of it was pretty kitsch, like candles in the shape of woodland creatures and the like, but Don and Deb found some beautiful glass ornaments, and there was a lot of yummy food.

We had frites, hot chocolate, mulled wine with amaretto, some yummy rolls . . .

But my food highlight was this stand:

I had the best bratwurst ever here, spicy, slathered with mustard and covered in sauerkraut on a crusty bun. Also, I witnessed my adventurous father-in-law order an outlandish hot dog type creation: two foot-long-ish sausages in a bun, covered with a seasoned scrambled egg/vegetable mixture (in the foreground of the photo above).

Then the kids and I rode on the Santa train. Toot toot!

We settled on this although Lily was intrigued by both the ferris wheel and the artificial snow sledding hill. Imagine a slide not quite as high as the big green-and-yellow one at the Minnesota State Fair, but covered in ice, and populated with teenagers, and you can understand why we opted for the slightly lower thrill rating of the train.

09 January 2008

At loggerheads

Although at least one reader enjoyed the image of our entire family stronked on Christmas (appreciating your slightly perverse holiday spirit, Roger), a helpful comment was left explaining that "stronk" means log. When I babelfish "stronk," I get "stronk." Babelfish can never admit it doesn't know the answer (is Babelfish running for office?); it just gives me back what I gave it.

But I think we may all be right. Here was our Kerststronken:

Clearly, a log. But also, a bit stronked.

It was the "Zwartewoud" variety. Zwarte woud = "dark wood" = Black Forest = chocolate and cherries. Mmmm. We gave the kids their pieces earlier than the rest of us tried it. They were munching happily along until they hit the cherries and their cherubic faces began to contort. Deprived of any cherry flavor, the cherries were little nuggets of pure liqueur. After trying one, I ate around them too. But it was a beautiful and delicious dessert, and now the kids can say they were with their parents and grandparents the first time they got drunk.

08 January 2008

Not just a river in Egypt

We had visitors, and now they're gone. Well, they've been gone for over a week now. I'm slowly coming to terms with it; I think I'm going through an abbreviated, gentler five stages of grief. It's sad to have visitors leave. Especially when the visitors are grandparents who give the kids lots of attention, clean up after dinner, and are both game for day trips and enjoy lolling around the house.

We had a lot of fun over Christmas, and there are lots of photos to post, but for now: We miss you, Grambie and Pops!