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?)

07 November 2008

UK extravaganza, part VI: Isle of Seil, Scotland


We spent three nights in a cottage on the Isle of Seil, off the west coast of Scotland. It is near the town of Oban, pictured above. It was beautiful in a haunting way -- haunting in a beautiful way? -- beautiful, yet haunting -- kind of spookily desolate but also lovely.

We hiked through the cottage owner's sheep pastures one morning. From here we could see Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the U.K. The owner told Matthew that on a clear day you could see Ireland in the opposite direction.


Lily "The Purple Terror" Jacobs did some sheep herding.


Clara had so much carseat/Bjorn/sling time that you can't blame her for protesting occasionally.


The kids and Matthew had some fun throwing and skipping rocks.


Matthew sacrificed his windbreaker for Clara -- she's in the Bjorn under this.


Check out Muscles McGee!


The man behind the lens emerges.

06 November 2008

UK extravaganza, part V: More Lake District

Not only did the Lake District have beautiful countryside and quaint towns, it was a literature geekfest for two English majors.

Here are Lily and Soren hunting for Peter Rabbit in the garden outside Hill Top, Beatrix Potter's home.


The tour guide inside Potter's home loaned Lily and Soren a copy of one of her little books (I'm forgetting which story) to find items from her home in the drawings. The guide showed us the pages where we could see the grandfather clock and hearth from the room where we were standing.

Then we visited the Wordsworth Museum and Dove Cottage, his home (below).


Matthew wrote his thesis at Coe on Wordsworth (and Keats) so this was especially delightful for him. I wrangled the children through the museum so that he could actually take in some exhibits.

The Wordsworth site had a special gallery for kids where they could paint, color a Lake District scene, make clothespin dolls, etc. Its walls were covered with artwork geared toward helping children understand Wordsworth's poetry. It was fantastic! What a treat to have a place at a historical site where we are not shushing or corralling the kids, but just letting them have fun.


When we told the guides at Dove Cottage that we were driving to Scotland after leaving the site, they were astonished. This was a drive that was calculated to take about five hours -- pretty unremarkable, I'd say. We've noticed, however, that Europeans don't seem to be the road-trippers that we Americans are. We probably would have put those tour guides into a dead faint had we shared the total mileage of our trip.

05 November 2008

UK extravaganza, part IV: Lake District


The Lake District of England was the highlight of the trip, Matthew and I agreed. The countryside was just beautiful and the towns were so cute I could have hugged them.


A rainbow, Lake District? A rainbow!?! Now you're just showing off. We already love you!


A highlight for the kids was when we let them get sopping wet stomping in puddles in a pasture. They rode back to our hotel pants- and boots-less. Soren still talks about the small scratch he got this day, from the "poopy sheep water."


Yes, the Lake District Tourism Board could surely recruit two new faces for their ad campaign. Spokesperson roles are doubtful unless they're able to can the poopy sheep water talk.

04 November 2008

UK extravaganza, part III: The Cotswolds


Day Two we drove to the Cotswolds via Surrey, where the company Matthew works for has an office. When our move to Brussels was pending, this area was also considered for our relocation. I think we would have had to be landed gentry to live there, though; it is a very affluent area. Also, it has a Starbucks! Now, the Brussels airport recently got one (or so I hear from friends) but we haven't had any since June. We weren't big coffee-to-go people back home (especially given that I don't drink coffee) but it seems like an extra splendiferous treat now that we can't have it. (Right, now we can, at the airport, but bear with me.) I find that almost anything American is somehow homey and vaguely comforting. So I stop the car radio scanning function when I hear U.S. music, including songs that weren't in heavy rotation in my life previously, including "I'm So Excited" by the Pointer Sisters and some lesser known Huey Lewis ditty. A country station once, even!

So, after enjoying hot beverages in Cobham, and driving through Oxford, we spent the night in Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds. That afternoon we wandered through the town. I experienced the great joy of browsing in a bookstore (which I don't do here, although there are some English bookstores), bought this book for Matthew, which we both read and enjoyed (and which has a much cooler cover in the U.K. than in the U.S., I just noticed), and also bought some whole-wheat flour, which I can't believe Belgium doesn't sell but I haven't found in either the regular or natural foods groceries.


Needless to say, feeling more freedom as a consumer was a tangential perk of this trip for me. I just went to check with Matthew about more information, not shopping related, that I could share about the area, and I give you this: The honey colored stone is typical of the Cotswolds, and the wealth of the area originates from its history of wool production.


That night we headed to a pub Matthew's parents had visited when they were here. We had a lovely dinner at The Hollow Bottom, and it planted the seed for me to have Queen in my head the rest of the trip: "Fat bottomed girls, you make the rockin' world go round."

On a somewhat related note, Matthew and I had some delicious chocolate dessert in our room after the kids were asleep.

03 November 2008

UK extravaganza, part II: Leeds Castle, Kent, England

When we popped out on the other side of the English Channel, we were soon in Kent. Leeds Castle was quite close to our B&B for the night. We arrived just at closing time, but Matthew pleaded and gestured to his small children in a convincing enough manner to get them to let us onto the grounds.

It was beautiful!






This plant is called a Giant Rhubard, a name I encouraged the kids would be a great nickname for their father.