30 September 2008

Well she was an American girl, raised on promises

My friend Katie came to visit. I've known her a looong time. Here's an election season tale for you. When she ran for student government in junior high, I helped her make signs. One sign, on red posterboard, we decorated with flames and the words, "You can stand her up at the gates of hell, but she won't back down" (thank you, Tom Petty). I'm not sure what intense political battles we foresaw her undertaking at Hopkins West, but, regardless, her unbreakable spirit was not allowed to be celebrated in this fashion, as the administration made us take it down.

Can't you just see the rebellious spirits in our eyes?

For dinner I made stoofvlees, a traditional Belgian stew. I was directed to this particular recipe by a Belgian coworker of Matthew's. Pros: It was pretty tasty, and I got to use my new Le Creuset dutch oven. Con: I planned this meal on a grey, chilly Belgian day, but the day Katie and Tim were here, it was really hot -- not exactly stew weather.

Katie came with her fiance, Tim. Tim's presence was not documented well. This is the only shot we have of Tim and Clara.

Oh excuse me, that's not Clara and Tim, that is Clara and the gift Tim and Katie brought for Clara. Tim's smile isn't fake like that, nor are his hands and feet designed to be chewed.

28 September 2008

Reunited and it feels so good

As "le chef du famille" (or so some of the school forms refer to me as, and please don't mention this to Matthew -- for all I know, he thinks he's le chef), I attended the "réunion des parents" (parent meeting, but you probably got that) last week at Lily's school. "Réunion" when there's been no "union"? Oui!

One hour in the large recreation room with "l'equipe" (entire school team) was followed by one hour in the classroom with Mme. J. Understanding what was being communicated during the large meeting was challenging, but I sat next to an English-speaking Austrian woman whose daughter is not in Lily's class, but who I have met because she also picks her daughter up at "midi" (noon). (Lily is the only student in her class who leaves before lunchtime; the other children stay until 3:30). My Austrian acquaintance is just learning French as well, but her Swiss husband speaks French, and English, and probably seven other languages as well -- I tell you, these Europeans and their multilingualism! He asked whether I spoke anything else, and I said I was learning French and turned away, feeling sheepish. Then I turned back hopefully with, "I did study Spanish!," and he chuckled and said, "Not much help here."

Oh! You . . . northern Europeans with your countries the size of small northeastern states so that knowing more than one language is necessary to function two hours from your home!

So, a member of l'equipe would talk for six, seven minutes, I would grasp the broad gist of what they were saying, and then my new friend would tilt his head to me and summarize in five seconds: "They don't want parents to park in front of the gates." "Children also can take Dutch in the afternoons if you choose." (Can you believe that? Lily could take another language. Wouldn't her poor little head just explode?)

The time with Mme. J. in the classroom was quite helpful because I got a much better sense of what Lily is doing. (Thanks to the Swedish mother who also speaks French and English. They're just show-offs, these EU nationals.) When I pick Lily up, nearly every day she tells me she "did markers" and "had snack." Hmm, sounds incredibly non-educational. Markers? Yeah, we have some of those here at home. Snacks, too. Plus, several days she has come home with a little half-sheet of paper with a picture and a French word underneath it, and one time the name of another boy in the class was on it. What is with this? Does the teacher not even track who did what?

So I was having some nagging "Is this worth it?" sort of feelings, and this evening was very reassuring for me. They are learning about the different sounds that letter combinations make. They have talked about the food pyramid, and what food falls into what category. (I was amused to see that "eau" is a category in the Belgian (? EU?) food pyramid -- a lonely little category.) They talk about the calendar and the weather every morning in their circle time. And I saw the rhyme on the wall which includes the line Lily spouted off to me the other day: "C'est la joie pour les enfants."

Um, what? I had her repeat it a couple times, and it was pretty clear: "It is the joy for the children." Lily also counted to ten in French one day, out of the blue.

As for the drawings not done by Lily sent home with her: In the classroom I saw a little box labeled "mots ["words"] pour Lily, _____, ______" (the two other non-French speakers in the class). During free time, the kids can choose to color a vocabulary sheet with a French word for Lily or these other two to take home to learn. How lovely!

We also talked about the overnight in October at the school for all the kids, without parents. Oh, does that sound strange to you innocent Americans with your cute little church or community part-time preschool options? Well, what do you say, then, to the three-night camping trip in April, an hour away, with all the deuxiemme and troisiemme maternelle students (three-to six-year-olds) and their teachers?

Alright, so there are still some things I am not wild about (although I should note that these overnights are optional). And, I am definitely still struggling with whether this (Lily going to school, Lily going to a Belgian school, Lily going to a French-speaking Belgian school) is the best option for her, or for us . . . But! I am encouraged to see that her time there isn't spent only eating and coloring. And we are so pleased that she is speaking some French already. So, for now, we're sticking it out.

27 September 2008

Busy bees

My in-laws are gone, and as it turns out, when I make a meal, the dishes don't just automatically return to the cabinets, cleaned. Drat.

Don and Debbie were here for two weeks, and Don, aka "White Lightning," is quite a whirlwind on kitchen clean-up. They both are extraordinarily helpful. "What can I do?" was a question I heard multiple times. Sure, my oven was clean, but we found things! Like, these things, which we always seem to need help with:

Oh, they are lovable little things.

Debbie helped me sort through clothes and organize dresser drawers. I even got to go for a run or a swim a few afternoons.

Lily and Soren loved having Grambie and Pops here to play with.

Talented seamstress Grambie made both a quilt which Soren can play with trucks on,

and a darling quilt for Clara. Oh, and a doll quilt that matches Clara's, for Lily!

Clara tried hers on for size. Perfect fit.

We've shown fun expeditions with visitors before. About as far as Don and Deb got to go this time was the forest at the end of the street.

(I like this photo because it shows not only Grambie and Soren having some special time together, but also a horse clip-clopping down our street.)

We did take them to Chateau de la Hulpe -- and look! It's Matthew! You know a visitor is here when Matthew appears in photos.

We also ventured to the Musical Instrument Museum in the city, which was quite interesting.

Don took all these photos -- and the pics of Clara and Julie and Dennis that I posted last week -- so his presence isn't documented as well, but here's one Matthew captured of him and a possibly-needing-to-burp Clara.

Do you notice that all my postings about visitors post-8/1/08 focus on the help we received, rather than any fun hosting we have provided? Fair warning to all who may venture here.

We did have some fun. We learned some tips from Barefoot Contessa and also laughed at Ina's overly indulgent serving sizes. (Dear Ina, Just because something is lighter than an alternative, e.g., an angel food cake rather than a cheesecake, doesn't mean it's "good for you.") We had a couple dinners just the four of us after the kids had gone to bed, and we played a game or two. But overall, I would say their "vacation" to see us is probably best represented by the mother in this children's book.

This is from a Golden Book called Cars and Trucks, original copyright 1951.

The text below the image reads, "This family is taking a quiet country vacation. Their car trailer is like a cozy little house." This is one of the books from Matthew's childhood that we received from his parents last summer. At the time, Debbie pointed out the hilarity of the image of "mom on vacation," scrubbing a pot inside her "cozy little house" of a trailer, while Dad reclines outside with a book and a pipe. If you look closely, you will see that Dad is smiling, but not Mom.

So too my dear in-laws spent their vacation working hard. To our benefit. We loved having them here, and we are thankful.

24 September 2008

Safety first

I got rear-ended driving Lily to school a couple weeks ago. Matthew and I both thought a car accident was inevitable living here. I'm surprised it took almost a year.

The European accident form (required in every vehicle) in our van was in Flemish, the driver who hit me spoke only French, and I was unable to bridge the gap with my limited French and my even more limited Flemish. It was the Tower of Babel. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and here's what the van driver drew on our accident form:

I talked to the van driver for a bit on the side of the road (and he talked to me, and little comprehension occurred), and then I woke up and realized how dangerous it was to be standing on this narrow road, feeling the wind from buses whizzing by.

I hate driving here. On the highway, fine. Off the highway, I live in a constant state of clenched steering wheel and tight shoulders. There's only room for one car to pass on so many roads, so: do I have the right of way, or them, and oh, in a few meters, now, switch, the other person has the right of way. And the roads that are in theory two-way are so tight that I cringe as a car approaches, never sure that I will still have a side view mirror after we meet.

I digress. Once my fear instinct kicked in and I went to sit in the van, I called Matthew, who helped us walk through the accident form by referring to the English copy he had: "OK, number 9A. He has got to sign there, on the fourth line down."

I also phoned the politie. Well, first, I phoned the fire department, but then I phoned the police. One digit difference. The operator did not speak English. He asked if we needed an ambulance sent, and I said "No, the people are good" in French. He chuckled. Or perhaps he scoffed. I'd like to think it was the former.

The politie who arrived were very helpful and filled out the rest of the form for us. They didn't even point out our lack of safety vests. All drivers are supposed to carry a bright orange and yellow safety vest (for sale at retailers) in their car, that they are to wear if they need to be outside their car because of an accident. Maybe that's only required on the highway, though. Regardless, I sort of laughed at this beforehand -- I sometimes pass a car with a safety vest draped over the passenger seat -- it seemed a bit heavyhanded to mandate it, I guess.

But good grief, I would have donned a safety jumpsuit if I had had one. Everyone should have one of these, everywhere. I am running for president, and my platform is: Universal Safety Vests!

Not to give away my Christmas gift ideas.

23 September 2008

An open letter

Dear World,

Remember me?

I am now seven weeks old. This photo, however, was taken when I was a mere six weeks old.


Clara Irene (aka Jelly Jelly Bean)

P.S. I laughed yesterday. I have a very well developed sense of humor.

Cleaning and canning

My mother-in-law Debbie's cousin Julie and her friend Dennis were in Belgium this month, visiting Dennis's brother, who lives about fifteen minutes away from us. That's a little hard to follow. Let me break it down for you. My husband's mother's cousin's friend's half-brother lives near us!

Before Don and Debbie were here and the cousin reunion occurred, Julie, who I had met just twice before this, offered to come over to help me one day. I happily accepted.

Dennis and she came over, stayed home with Soren while I brought Lily to and from school, and . . . (drum roll) . . . cleaned my oven! How do you like that? I hadn't met Dennis before that day, and he cleaned our oven. When was the last time you cleaned someone else's oven (assuming you're not a housecleaner by trade)? And for that matter, when was the last time you cleaned your own oven? You really should get to that.

They also folded laundry, played with the kids, swept the floor . . . precious gifts to a mother of young ones. What a lovely visit from sweet extended family.

On the topic of sweetness: Julie brought us some black raspberry jelly she made. It is quite delicious and almost gone now. We've all enjoyed it, but none as exuberantly as Soren has.

21 September 2008

Eau yeah!

Last week Lily's maternelle (French-speaking pre-school) class took its first trip to la piscine. The entire class (22 children total, 19 that day) busses over to a local swimming pool for a swimming lesson every other week. First bus experience + first swimming lesson experience + French language + new school . . .  how can I feel OK about Lily doing this? 

Why, by going along the first day! Yes, I am That Mom! Not the mom that volunteers when chaperones are requested -- the mom who asks if she can come along even though no interest in parent accompaniment has been mentioned. That Mom! School administrators shake their heads at her, other parents roll their eyes at her -- and now, I am she. 

Matthew and I both felt wary about the idea of Lily doing this, and in fact, the warier (?) parent was comfortably ensconced in his office that day, so the slightly less wary parent (because she loves swimming and thinks this sounds pretty cool despite its strangeness) had to become: That Mom!

I drove to school and waited in the parking lot until I saw the little charter bus pull into the parking lot. (Soren and Clara were home with Matthew's mom -- his parents were here for the past two weeks, hooray!) I watched as Lily's class walked down to the bus, two by two, singing a little French song. Her teacher, Mme. J., counted heads (something I saw her do several times that day) as they all trouped onto the bus. When Lily saw me, she cocked her head, smiled kookily, and waved. Once all the children were buckled, I sat up front by Mme. J., and we talked in English and French for the ten minute ride to the pool. I learned she has been teaching this age of children, at this school, for twenty years. She seemed glad to have an extra pair of hands to help and didn't seem bothered by my requesting to accompany at all.

At the pool, the class marched into a large dressing room, and these three- to five-year-olds proceeded to undress themselves and don their swimming gear. Not just swimsuits ("maillots") -- they also had to wrangle their little noggins into swim caps ("bonnets"). Lily's cap is what I consider safety pink. She requested purple, and when I went to the sports store, there was a royal blue (reasonably close to purple), but also an alarmingly bright pink. I made my purchase based on which color I thought would be easier to see if there were any sort of water emergency. (Yes, I am also That Mom!)

The kids were surprisingly competent at getting themselves ready for the pool. Mme. J. and I helped those who needed it, and some of the older kids helped younger ones -- it was not nearly as chaotic as I would have imagined. Parents were told to dress their children in easy outfits, with no snaps, buttons, etc., and most of them had complied. I did, however, help one girl who was wearing an undershirt, a t-shirt, a long-sleeved dress with buttons along the entire length of the front, tights, and boots with buckles. I thought about pinning a note to the back of her dress: "BAD CLOTHING CHOICE," but, I didn't have a notepad on me.

Mme. J. went to change into her maillot as well, and then she led the kids out to the pool. I was sent to the hallway to watch from the windows. I saw the kids come out of the dressing room, all in a line with their hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them. They marched over to a square pool where their swimming teacher, Monsieur B., waited for them. All the kids seated next to each other just about filled up one edge of the pool. Therefore, pool size estimate: 19 preschoolers' breadth squared.

I could see only one half of the small pool from my vantage point, and when they started their lesson, Lily was in the half of the pool that I couldn't see. My wariness increased. I noticed a few other non-swimmers wearing clothes in the pool area, so I returned to the locker room, placed my shoes and jacket in a locker, rolled up my jeans, and walked barefoot out onto the pool deck. I was stopped and told, in French, that I could not be there, because I was dressed. A young woman wearing a T-shirt and shorts told me this. I felt an urge to point out the absurdity of this, but my French isn't good enough, and also, I'm certain one feisty protective American mother will not change the Belgian view of pool area safety. I presume jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt are considered a greater drowning risk than shorts and a short-sleeved t-shirt.

So I watched the rest of the lesson, or what I could see of it, from back in the hallway behind the glass. Monsieur B. had them sit along one edge of the pool, then all jump in and motor to the other side in whatever fashion they chose -- walking, hopping, swimming. And, repeat. Lily smiled broadly as she hopped through the water. At one point, Monsieur B. placed his hand on Lily's head and told her something. How can she know what he wants her to do?, I wondered, but once again she jumped in and hopped across the pool cheerily.

I also saw her splashing one of her classmates as she sat on the edge of the pool -- looking at him, smiling, and flicking a bit of water at him. Then, when his reaction was not dramatic enough, trying some drops on the top of his head.

When the lesson finished, the kids marched, hands on shoulders, back to the locker room, and I returned to the dressing room to help again. As they changed, a couple boys sang what I suspected was a French taunt a la "I see London, I see France," because Mme. J. redirected them into a different, presumably more appropriate, tune that the whole class then sang together. When I started fixing a shirt that was on backward, Mme. J stopped me, and said that "then the parents will know." As we boarded the bus to return, I noticed one boy had his zipper-fly pants on backwards. That might pose a problem, but, I suppose the lesson will be learned. Poor kid will be wearing a muumuu next swimming day.

17 September 2008


One year ago today we arrived in Brussels and our expat experience began.

And I am pleased to inform you that Belgium just missed the bronze in expat rankings.

I feel content living here. There are cultural differences I don't think I'll ever get over (mostly those related to children, which I want to write more about), and that would make it hard for me to think about living here permanently. But Belgium is just a fine place for us to live for a few years.

And I definitely think that it's a good place -- a relatively quite easy place -- to be an expat. In the fall, starting the day after we arrived, I took a "getting accustomed to Belgium" class, attended I think exclusively by "trailing spouses" (read: wives) of work transferrees. The class gave me a lot of helpful tips to navigate life here in the early days. I scrunched my nose, however, at the general vibe of some presenters who seemed to view the experience here as something to be "gotten through." (And these were women who were far enough along in their experience here to have volunteered to speak to newbies.) One speaker made a comparison to the displacement felt by people after Hurricane Katrina, and I about left the room. Give me a break. We are all privileged women who chose to live here, or who at least chose to remain married to men who took a job that would require them to work here.

To cut these ladies some slack, I will say that I suspect it's a lot different to live overseas with children than without. It's harder to partake in some of the cultural experience (e.g., nightlife), and there are additional cultural differences to navigate, like how the society views and educates children. And for those expats with older children, there is the whole "helping another person adjust too" thing. (In our case, the kids' Minnesota pediatrician told me that at their age, "Your home is their culture," so that culture shock isn't as much of an issue.) So it seems to me that it's possible that for parents, a greater percentage of the expat experience is dealing with the logistics, the hard stuff, rather than the cool stuff.

On the other hand, children are a natural way to forge friendships with people who have kids around the same age. And the obvious benefit for parent expats is that you bring your family with you! This definitely eased the sense of loss of our transition for me. Matthew, Lily, Soren, and now little Clara Irene the jelly bean, are my "home" -- I felt more homesick last July on our week-long familiarization trip here without the kids than I ever have since we've moved.

So, one year. Hooray! Thank you for caring about our experience here.

Oh, and also, it seems I now "know my audience," as they say. Most comments ever on that last post. I don't know that I can follow that up adequately and keep the customer satisfied.

12 September 2008

Bucking the system

Last fall I mentioned our neighbor, who worked on his house in only shorts and a tank top through the winter.

The weather warmed, and there were some changes.

Yep. He's been working on his house over the summer entirely naked.

It's a funny thing -- had someone told me before this, "You'll have a neighbor who will be outside without clothes nearly all the time," I think I would have thought, "Wow, that sounds horrible. Creepy!" But, somehow we find it quirky rather than disturbing. The fact that he wears eyeglasses on a neck chain has something to do with it. They add a scholarly touch. Perhaps his lack of shoes, too, convinces me this is a philosophical choice rather than exhibitionism. For whatever reason, we're giving this guy the benefit of the doubt. That banging could be him hammering about the love -- between -- my brothers and my sisters -- all over this laaaaaaaaaaaand!

We sort of cringe when we hear the saw going, though.

04 September 2008

Maternelle, day one

Lily started school this week at a local Belgian maternelle. It is a French immersion experience for her, and we are going to give it a try and see how it goes.

On Monday she dressed herself, including doing her own hair with multiple hair clips we had given her the night before, before she came into our room with a big smile and bright wide eyes. All four of us escorted her that first day. She was a bit timid meeting her teacher (so was I as I tried out my limited French with her) but shed no tears. When I picked her up she said she had had fun. I asked her how she felt hearing all that French, and she said, "I felt brave."

"I am so proud of you!" I said.

She replied matter-of-factly, "I told you I was excited."

She's continued to be a little timid on drop-off but seems to have had a great time when I pick her up. Soren and I are getting some good one-on-one time together -- something I am realizing we have had very little of, he and I.

Daddy gave Lily flowers to celebrate her first day.

You'll notice she's wearing a different dress in this photo than she wore to school in the morning. She likes to do a few wardrobe changes throughout the day, generally.