29 July 2008

Math whiz

Yesterday the kids and I went to the grocery store. (Doesn't that sentence just suck you in? Other things we've done this week: played with clay! and stickers! and games! ate outside! all the normal life things we thought we might not be doing because of a little hiccup in our daily routines that is expected and hoped for really . . . ANY moment now!)

But I have wanted to tell you something about grocery shopping here anyhow, and now's as good a time as any.

If you want, you may self-scan your groceries as you go. You scan your client loyalty card by the entrance, one of the fifty or so scanners on the wall lights up, says something to Mme You about enjoying your trip, and then you scan (if there's a synonym for "scan," I wish I knew it, as the redundancy is about to get painful) every item as you put it in your cart -- actually, as you put it in the reusable bag or plastic tote box you bring from home every time. When you are done shopping, you enter the self-scanning checkout lane, hand your scanner to the clerk, and she scans it into the register. Then one of two things happens. Either she tells you your total and you pay and leave with glee, never having had to remove your groceries from the cart, or, the register makes a special beep, she says, "Control," you grimace apologetically to those in line behind you as if it's somehow your fault, you empty all your groceries out, she rescans them all, and then she tells you the difference in totals, if any.

My French teacher explained to me that "une controlle" happens about one out of every four trips, but not precisely every fourth. In other words, you might get scanned your first time, then your seventh time, then your ninth time -- in every set of four trips, there's one control. I bet there are some mathematical terms I should know to describe that better.

I was getting a bit self-satisfied, smug, perhaps, in my scanning accuracy. I've mostly been right on, and the times I've been off it's been less than one euro. I haven't been "controlled" in so long that I was starting to suspect they had made a special note on my account, an asterisk referring to my trustworthiness, and were checking me less frequently.

So imagine my dismay when yesterday I was controlled, and I was five euros off (in my favor). Oof. "Je suis ROUGE!" as my French teacher remarked once. I was embarrassed. My cashier and the clerk at the service counter behind me exchanged words in Flemish, and I imagined I was being removed from the group of self-scanning eligible shoppers for being so negligent. But I was just being sent to the service counter to learn what I had missed. I only grasped this because a kind woman behind me in line translated.

And now you see why it's so easy for me to fork out the money for fresh flowers these days -- because I am apparently attempting to pay myself back other ways.

I had an addition problem at the grocery store, but on the way home I made up for it. We are in hydrangea land, and I love it. There is a wider range of colors to the hydrangeas here than back home, and they are everywhere. My driving suffered, but the kids and I counted sixty-two hydrangea bushes in the four kilometers home from the grocery store.

It inspired me to write a poem, a poem of hopeful longing, inspired in part by "Red sky in morning, Sailor take warning."

"See fifty blooms or more,
Baby will be born by morn."

Stupid poem.

28 July 2008

Baby's breath

One of the things I really like about living here is that we have fresh flowers in the home most of the time.

"Fresh flowers," you're thinking. "I believe we have those in the U.S. of A. too."

Yes, I suppose we could have had them more often back home, too, but they are less expensive, relatively, here, so they don't seem as indulgent. These are from the grocery store and cost €5.99. I think that's quite a deal for this many lily blooms.


These are really putting me in baby mode because we received a couple bouquets of lilies after our sweet daughter was born. They smell like newborn life to me!

So many more have opened since I took that photo over the weekend that I had to document them again today.


If you look really closely, you may see one extra-special Lily in there.

26 July 2008

Oscar the Grouch, make way for COOKIE MONSTER!

Thursday Lily and I made the chocolate chip cookie recipe so highly touted in the New York Times earlier this month. I had wanted to try it, but was deterred by its calling for a mixture of bread and cake flours -- I haven't had great success here getting anything other than all-purpose flour. Then via this crafty/foodie blog I read I saw a link to this blog I'd never read, whose author made some modifications (including using only all-purpose flour), and still deemed them the best she'd ever made or ever eaten, period.

I love to bake, and my favorite baked good is the cookie. I have worked on getting a chocolate chip cookie recipe that I like, and the one I have is good -- mounded and chewy and not overbearingly chocolate-y. But the last time I made them I thought, there is more to the world of chocolate-chip-cookie-dom than this.

Here are my thoughts on this recipe (as I go way beyond the supposed subject of my blog):
  • It calls for letting the dough rest for at least twenty-four hours. Wow, that is hard to do. I ended up making two cookies for Matthew and me to enjoy the same day, but otherwise abided.
  • I have been adamant that hand mixing is key to my chocolate chippers, but this recipe calls for using a stand mixer to cream the butter and sugars really well, and then barely mixing in the dry ingredients. Aha! I learned from the Barefoot Contessa recently that too much mixing of flour brings out the gluten (? or something like that) -- what you want when you're making bread, but not cookies. 
  • It calls for high quality (at least 60% cacao) bittersweet chocolate, and discs rather than chips or chunks. I didn't have discs but did have Ghirardelli's 60% cacao chips, which are flatter and bigger than normal chips. I love dark chocolate so was surprised that this tasted too bitter to me. I think I would use semi-sweet next time.
  • It calls for a lot of chocolate -- 1 1/4 pounds. I followed this even though my tried-and-true cookies use less chocolate than a typical recipe (e.g., Tollhouse) calls for. They were too chocolatey to me, but that may be in part because I used cut-up bar chocolate for almost half the chocolate and probably didn't cut it into small enough pieces.
  • It makes 3 1/2 ounce, i.e., HUGE cookies. The recipe describes these as "generous golf balls" -- I'd say it's generous to say the recipe author has ever played golf, as these are notably larger than golf balls. The resulting cookie is about six inches across. The benefit of this is, as the article mentions, that there's enough room to get a variety of textures -- crisp, then chewy, then soft.
  • You sprinkle coarse sea salt on top. This was nice -- cut the chocolate a bit. 

Here's what they looked like before baking:


I didn't get a good photo of the finished product so you will just have to imagine them flattened and golden brown. They were quite good -- much more like something you'd buy from a bakery case than the ones I normally bake. I think I will try the recipe again with modifications to the type and amount of chocolate, and possibly the size, so I don't have to use a pizza cutter to serve some to my children.

Anti-grouch

To counter my Señorita Negativa post from yesterday, let me tell you a wonderful thing about having a baby here. A woman from church who I barely know offered to organize meals for us. It's an awesome thing to get a meal delivered post-baby. It is extra-special to get a meal from a woman who you do not see weekly, whose kids do not play with your kids, and to whom you did not bring a meal six months ago when she had her baby -- gifts of food from people you don't know seem especially generous and serving. We had Lily shortly after we started going to our church back home, and women were introducing themselves as they dropped off meals, "Hi, I'm so-and-so, here's a meal." I am so thankful for this.

Beyond the fact that emotions like self-pity intensify when I'm overtired, another reason I possibly should not write on the blog after midnight is unintentional humor, like referring to myself as being "tickled (privately)" in my last post. Honestly. I'll try to keep it clean here.

25 July 2008

Grouch

I met my "substitute" gynecologist today -- mine is on vacation starting this weekend, so, unless I deliver in the next twenty-four hours, Dr. New (as I'll call her) will be welcoming Sprout into the world. She is quite nice, but I really liked my gyn and felt comfortable with her, so I am a bit bummed. "Now you know my head," Dr. New told me as we were wrapping up, and she could have meant, "Now you know what I'm thinking," but I think she meant, "Now you know my face," as in, we won't be meeting for the first time when I'm on the verge of delivering.

She also asked if I knew any French ("un peu"), and said, "Well, if the nurse says, 'Poussée!' you will know what to do." I suppose so.

Afterward I went to the hospital for fetal heartrate monitoring, due to a quite cautious decision from both the doctors that Sprout's comfort in utero should be checked every two to three days until he or she is born. I do not want to flout this recommendation, but when I'm feeling movement and have had no complications all pregnancy, it seems unnecessary. Getting to and from the hospital takes about an hour; I have to be there for an hour; and we had hired a part-time nanny who was supposed to be with us in the mornings as of last Monday for three weeks, but whose lack of reliability prompted us to let her go -- so, this is a hassle.

The nurse who helped me was quite kind and spoke excellent English, which reassured me about my stay at the hospital. I was so tickled (privately) that this English-speaking L&D nurse wasn't familiar with the phrase "due date." "Due?" she asked. "I don't know that." She told me to put some oil around my belly button to protect the skin, and I thought, Oh lady, that ship has sailed.

I have been thinking it doesn't really matter which doctor is there because they only arrive to catch the baby, basically -- I really like my kine and she will be there during my labor. But Dr. New told me today that the kine is gone as of Monday or Tuesday, and the backup kine that I met is gone through early August. There is a backup backup kine that I haven't even met, but, apparently, she's great.

We have friends who have kindly agreed to take the kids in the middle of the night or whenever -- and backups -- but it all feels so much more unknown and sketchy somehow. These friends don't seem sketchy -- the process of getting the kids there, etc., does.

If I haven't groused enough, now I will just sound like a hyper-privileged brat; I know this is nothing to complain about in the grand scheme of health care, that I am being abundantly cared for, etc. etc. But. I do not comprehend how the private insurance for expats provided by the multi-gazillion dollar company Matthew works for does not cover a private room for maternity. It's one thing to have a double room when you're recovering from back surgery (Matthew did, and lucky duck, never got a roommate), but it's another when it will be actually a quadruple room, two moms + two newborns. How will anyone sleep? I am supposed to be there for four days, and the maternity ward is full right now (a Belgian baby boom) so I don't think I'll luck out as Matthew did.

So, to summarize this Ms. Crabby Crabby Grouch Pants post, I sort of wish I were back home where I know how it works and the kids could stay with family and be five minutes from the hospital and not worry about not understanding the nurses. The end.

23 July 2008

Cheez

So we're in the land of delicious cheese -- and here's what I've been eating, mostly, the past month.


My dear brother- and sister-in-law (known around this house more as Ruby's parents these days) are to blame -- they sent us back from the States with supplies for Tex-Mex food, including cans of Ro-Tel tomatoes and chilies and this, which, combined, makes a heavenly batch of queso.

I can't partake in soft stinky Euro cheese while pregnant so this has filled a void.

A void that is shrinking, it seems . . . I don't have much room for food anymore. Sprout, you are excused from your current place of residence and invited to join the family.

20 July 2008

Tour de force

The kids got bikes last week!


For their first bike outing, Saturday morning we went to Chateau de La Hulpe, a great park of paths around a beautiful old castle just 5K from our house.


Lily is so competent on this bike -- she seems old and athletic and independent and practically ready for college. She wants to practice bike riding in the garage or on the patio when we're home. She was riding "up out of the saddle" on the patio today, and Matthew was ready to sign her up for the 2024 racing season.


Soren hasn't gotten the hang of the pedals yet so let his legs dangle and was pushed by Matthew. He had some fun pushing the bike himself, too.


The fact that he's not actually biking yet does not lessen his love for his new wheels. The night Matthew purchased them, tears were shed at bedtime when we had to say good night to the bikes. Soren kissed both the wheels and the seat and said, "Night night, Bike."

Maybe he can't ride yet -- but he can trick!


Cycling is taking a lot of our attention these days, as most evenings we're also watching the Tour de France (or, as I like to call it due to its out-of-order logo, "Le de Tour France"), while we play Scrabble and wonder when Sprout will spring forth (one week from due date in this picture).

18 July 2008

We're not firing on all cylinders

This is what Matthew saw when he went to get his travel mug the other morning:


Three leftover chicken breasts from dinner the night before, packed neatly into Rubbermaid, and then placed . . . right back in the Rubbermaid drawer.

I bet you think the pregnant lady did this. Wrong! Matthew found the chicken right where he placed it after dinner the night before. We were all eating breakfast when he made this somewhat alarming (there was an outburst) discovery. Deep belly laughs ensued from these parts but no labor was induced. Sprout remains in utero, despite Lily's frequent inquiries and prayers to the contrary ("Please bring the baby soon!"). Soren joined in tonight as we were snuggling on Lily's bed, staring at my bellybutton and entreating, "Out? Uh-huh, OUT?" Due date is a week from tomorrow.

Maybe that drawer could benefit from my nesting energy . . .

I too have had a "huh?" moment recently, as a Concerned Reader from Minnesota has informed me that Smurfs was, in fact, ninety minutes long. Color me confused (blue).

15 July 2008

Smurfy!

It is the 50th Anniversary of Smurfs!

They first appeared in a Belgian comic, which explains why at the grocery store this summer, I receive a quantity of Smurf sticker packets that corresponds to how much money I spend.


One of my earliest memories involves the Smurfs. I was maybe five years old, and my mom and I were in my parents' bedroom in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I was standing near their bed, and she was sitting at the vanity getting ready. She was explaining to me that an episode of the Smurfs was not an hour and a half long, as I thought, but half an hour long. I was so, so sad. The episodes hadn't been shortened -- they had always been thirty and not ninety minutes, and I had just been confused -- but somehow a Smurfs episode no longer seemed like the extra-special cartoon experience it had before. It is my earliest recollection of feeling deeply disappointed.

So you should see the elaborate scrapbook I am creating from all these stickers in order to process that suppressed grief! No, no, I'm drawing a line with the nesting projects at "marginally necessary organizing."

13 July 2008

Bon weekend

Yesterday we went swimming at the great pool ten minutes from us. What a fun place -- huge lap pool, little half meter pool for preschoolers, an even shallower one for babies, and a "35 meter lange wildwaterbaan," which Matthew and I both tried out. I bumped my head during one of the underwater portions of this, felt that Matthew had not accurately assessed whether it was a good choice for a pregnant woman, and wondered for the half hour following if I were going into labor, but I cannot wait to go back when I am no longer the constant custodian of another body.

The same day we were splashing around in the pool, back in Minneapolis the Lifetime triathlon was occurring. Training for last year's renewed my long repressed BIG LOVE for swimming. This local pool's lanes are quite busy at times -- swimmers don't just share a lane with one other person, as I reluctantly became comfortable with back home, but do more coordinated circle swimming with three others or more -- it makes me nervous. I would really love to be able to swim regularly this fall, so we shall see if we can make it work.  

With heads wet from swimming, we went into the city and shopped at an awe-inspiring Irish butcher. Beef tenderloin filets for the adults (a dream come true for me) and sausage for the kids last night; breakfast sausage this morning; chicken on the grill tonight; and hot Italian sausage for a pasta dish I've been wanting to make. We are having a meat-travaganza!  A carnivore carnival! A note on the last item: My regular grocery store only carries boneless skinless breasts (I should always issue this caveat: "as far as I've been able to tell"), so I was glad to find bone-in, skin-on ones.

We did some work too. My dear friend and Minnesota neighbor Shannon laughed at my recent organizing projects -- "You haven't even lived there long enough to have to reorganize your bathroom!" The woman has a point. Nonetheless, the nesting continues. Today involved organizing nightstands, clearing out clothing, making granola, washing more baby linens, and sponge painting (just on paper, not walls -- the kids did get to have some fun). 

Swimming, beef eating, organizing -- what more can a gal ask for? I have a funny husband to boot. In response to some bathroom antics of the children, Matthew burst forth with his best parental reprimand ever: "Why are you dousing the monkey?" It's a phrase I hope to integrate into daily life. 

11 July 2008

We will not go hungry

When Lily and Soren were born, we were the grateful recipients of an abundance of meals prepared and delivered by friends. I have made some quite sweet friends here, but I simply have not acquired the plethora of contacts I would need in order to go meal prep free for weeks as I believe I did the other times. 

So, this week I have been cooking, and now in my freezer are:
  • one gallon of Italian tomato sauce,
  • two pans of eggplant parmesan (a dish I became quite fond of when Jenny Ed brought it to us after Soren was born),
  • three quarts of beef vegetable soup (thanks to Brooke for this easy, kid-friendly recipe),
  • one pan of pancetta and spinach fusili,
  • two meals of picadillo (funkier sloppy joe-ish filling), and
  • three quarts of three bean chili.
And in my refrigerator is half a black-bottom coconut cream pie (thanks to Matthew's coworkers, who brought over sweetened coconut). But we're not saving that until after the baby comes; I just am telling you, I really mean business in the kitchen right now. I also made chocolate cherry cookies this week, but those, and for this I like to blame the baby growing inside me, are gone. I made a huge batch of granola that is long gone, too. (Soren calls this "'nola," which we think would make a great brand name. Can't you just picture it in bold bubble letters streaking across a cereal box? 'Nola!) 

This is a good time to show you my refrigerator. It is so cute! It matches the cupboards! It is awfully small.


That thing at the top there, that's about the size of a hotel room safe? You know, just enough space for your wallet and rings? That's my freezer!


So we are glad that we took the previous tenants up on their offer to sell the additional fridge/freezer they kept in the garage. Otherwise, I could keep a couple bags of frozen fruits and veggies, but really nothing else. Not even a frozen pizza.

This late pregnancy adrenaline kick is blessing the family in the food department but hindering my sleep, which I should be attempting to get now. Bon weekend, mes amis!

08 July 2008

Ex-patriot expatriates?

Last weekend we did no Independence Day celebrating, and instead celebrated Vlaanderen Feest! (Flanders festival).


We received information about this in the mail a few weeks ago; being the woman of foresight that I am, I stuck the flyer in my planner for that day and thought we'd go if we could. Foresight, I thought, until I noticed the morning of that those interested in partaking in the "Breugeliaanse" barbecue had to reserve tickets a week in advance. Making reservations for a picnic: How un-American.

Once we got there, and it was raining, and there was what I must assume was a disappointingly low turnout, we started thinking our chances of getting in on the meal (and thereby learning the meaning of Breugeliaanse) were pretty decent. Matthew asked an official looking woman whether we might be able to buy tickets for the picnic. "It's completely full," she said. "Sorry."

Yeah, she'll be sorry. She'll be sorry when she's throwing away all that food, ruing the moment she turned down the twenty euros she could have made from our family.

We staved off our hunger just fine and had a lot of fun at the little "festabull," as Lily called it. First, we rode in a carriage driven by two big Belgian horses.



We enjoyed seeing the period costumes. What period? Days of yore, I believe. (I must confess that joke is from a Friends episode. I am so of-the-moment with the pop culture! Who shot J.R.?) Lily thought this was dress-up time and wondered where she could get in on the action. Guess which dress was her favorite?


The kids enjoyed the bouncing despite the slickness.


They had an area set up with great old-fashioned wooden carnival games, a duck pond, and a fortune teller. Past our bedtimes there was a choral concert and even a DJ and dancing! In our little town. This tickles me. We could hear the music from our house that night.


I am chuckling looking at the kids' faces in these photos. They really were having fun, I swear.

06 July 2008

New to you

We have purchased used or been given as hand-me-downs lots of household items since living here. Expats whose stays are ending sell off items they don't want to lug back to the States -- EU electronics (unusable back home), potted plants, and IKEA furniture are the mainstays of a sale list I frequent. 
 
We have bought a used TV (our U.S. one wouldn't work here), floor fan, food processor, coffee maker, dresser, fertilizer spreader, and dryer.
 
And we have been given a Pottery Barn crib and changing table, complete with mattress, changing table pad, and crib bedding set (how generous is that?!); bags of toys and books and children's clothing; and, below, a wagon from neighbors we've barely met but who are moving to Paris with children who have outgrown it. What fun. Not only has Matthew used it for lugging lawn debris, but the children have found more than one use for it.

It is for riding in


and exercising on. 


03 July 2008

02 July 2008

The little red hen

We had more visitors last week!


Chris and Rebecca arrived two days after we returned from Minnesota. They were busy with other traveling before and in the middle of their time here, so they were pretty laidback when with us. This worked out well for our family, since June just about knocked the wind out of us. What I want from July is a deep inhale. And for Sprout to stay snug as a bug until the due date. No rush, miss or mister! You're not missing anything. Actually, you are missing a lot, the Whole Wide World, etc., but it should still be here come the end of the month.

I am in nesting mode. Over the weekend I organized several cupboards and closets. I washed and folded baby clothes. Onesies -- wow. I should count how many we have. This is our first summer baby so I suppose we won't be snapping onesies under long outfits every day. And there's a chance, of course, that this baby won't be the projectile spitter-upper that our dear son was, so multiple daily outfit changes (for child and, occasionally, mother) won't be necessary. Nonetheless, if security were measured in onesies, we would be very, very safe. 

I even started packing my hospital bag, which is not as small a chore here as it was back home. Edith Cavell (my hospital) expects me to arrive with many more items than I had to bring to Abbott or Methodist, including linens for the baby and me -- crib sheets, towels and washcloths for our stay, and "One large absorbent towel" for the delivery room. Umm . . . yuck.

Then I did some food shopping. A common occurrence, of course, but yesterday, I hit the Japanese & Korean store, the natural foods store, and the discount grocer, spending approximately three times the amount of money that I normally do. I guess I am stocking up. Rice, sugar, wasabi paste, shaving cream, seven grain cereal, frozen edamame, sun-dried tomatoes, raw coconut . . .  I even found canned black beans for the first time in Belgium -- woohoo! Nuclear warfare, oil crisis, arrival of baby -- whatever hits, we'll be ready.

01 July 2008

Impolite Politie: A One-Act

Mid-June, outside Brussels, Belgium.

It's 7:05 p.m. There is a knock on our door. It is a police officer.

"Do you know who I am?" he asks. The uniform and "Politie" badge are strong clues, and I am no dummy.

"The police?" I say, and he reminds me that he is the officer who visited us in the fall to ensure we truly are residing here. No, I do not remember him from eight months ago, but I keep that to myself.

This is a checkup on that earlier visit-- to see that we do in fact live in our house in Belgium and aren't faking it to benefit from . . . the tax rate? The incomprehensible postal system? Alright, alright, subsidized health care, but we don't get that -- the fun part of being here for us is the actual living here part, not the logistics part, but, anyhow.

Matthew is giving the kids a bath, we've just finished dinner, there is stuff strewn about the hallway. Mr. Politie looks at the mess, raises his eyebrows, looks at me pointedly, and says, "Children . . ."

"We just got back from a trip," I explain. [I don't know why I said this. By "just," I meant, two days ago. I guess I felt I had to provide an excuse other than "We weren't expecting anyone."]

"So it was not a burglary?" he inquires.

Choose your own adventure. Do I:

a. Apologize profusely for not keeping my home neat as a pin all the time in case a visitor drops in, feel chastened that I have not scheduled time for a quick house pick-up during the post-dinner and pre-bedtime window (a.k.a. crazymaker time in our house), and offer him tea and cookies as restitution;

b. Spin around, kick him in the chest, and holler, "You will not break my spirit, Belgian government minion!"; or

c. Grin tightly and tell him I will go get my husband, mouth obscenities to myself as I climb the stairs, and through gritted teeth "ask" Matthew to take care of this. [I am recognizing a recurring theme in our expat experience: Because we're here "for Matthew's job," and as if I weren't equally involved in and didn't in fact embrace the decision to move here, anything unpleasant about the cultural experience that could be borne by him I heartily heave onto him as if it is somehow more his to deal with. Hmm. Topics for my future reflection and reading probably should include: selfishness and the notion of sharing life with another person.]

For discussion: Isn't the "lived-in look" proof enough that we do in fact live here? And also, should you be burglarized, if what our house looked like this evening is a good representation of the result, have no fear. It should only take three minutes of straightening to take care of the couple of bags, shoes, and mail on the floor that your burglar, in quite moderate fashion, I'd say, flung about.

Packages FYI

Package delivery to our home is unpredictable -- Will we have to pay VAT? Will they leave it at the door if we're not home, or leave a note in our mailbox, or just try to re-deliver? Will we have to go to Vilvoorde or just to the post office in town to pick it up? -- so if you are so kind as to send us a package, please send it to Matthew's Belgian office. All letters, cards, books (i.e., paper) can be mailed with just U.S. postage to Matthew's Minnesota office, and they pouch it over to us.