18 December 2009

Fine alone but better together

Bonnasola, Italy, is a coastal town whose name was inspired by wives with husbands at sea -- they were "buona da sola," fine by themselves. (Cooking Light, that treasure trove, is to thank for that tidbit.) Matthew left Monday morning for the U.S. Yes -- aux Etats Unis, all week! Last week, he was in the U.K. Every now and then when he's gone, there will be a tough, long day, when bedtime can't come soon enough, and I find myself singing Sting: "Bring on the night! Bring ON the night." But mostly, I suppose I am buona da sola. I miss Matthew terribly -- the time difference and his busyness have made connecting on the phone challenging, so I feel out of touch with him, and I hate that -- but the kids and I have been busy, too, and have had a lot of fun. Our week, in a nutshell:

Monday we started our gingerbread house. We bought it already baked as a fundraiser through church, so got to jump right to assembly. I frosted the walls together, and then we had to wait fifteen minutes before we could decorate. During those fifteen minutes, behavior was such that the privilege of decorating the gingerbread house was lost. (The week went up from here.)

Tuesday we made chocolate crinkles, my favorite childhood Christmas cookie. It's been a cold week, but the kids inexplicably wore their aprons with no shirts underneath while they rolled the little powdered sugar balls.

Wednesday the kids brought the cookies as part of their "festive lunch" (the school's term -- so sweet) before break. That afternoon we revisited the gingerbread house with success.

That evening we went to the craft evening their school hosted, with stations set all around for making Christmas crafts. Clara had taken a late nap, so was full of energy and, as always, very curious and loathe to miss out on a thing. As I'd get one of the older two situated at a station, Clara would bolt for another, climbing up on a little chair and grabbing for whatever was on the table -- glitter, glue, scissors. We did manage to come home with some cute handmade items to brighten the house.

Thursday morning a friend with older kids still in school watched mine for a few hours so I could do some Christmas shopping -- woohoo! Then, it snowed! So the kids played outside a lot.

Friday the kids played outside a lot again. They also "played Santa" -- put random items from their rooms into stockings, and then presented them to me, upon which I feigned surprise. We built with Legos for nearly two hours while Clara napped. Dang, they are fun. Legos, I mean --but the kids, too.

Buona da sola this week, but always better together with Matthew -- we can't wait for his arrival in the morning.

17 December 2009

There is no Clark Griswold in Belgium/Santa as cat burglar

After getting our Christmas tree one evening last weekend, we drove around looking at Christmas lights. Belgians are not really into outdoor holiday decoration -- we'd see one white-light reindeer every now and then, or a strand of lights in a tree, but they were few and far between, and to Matthew and me, a little pathetic. But Lily and Soren were thrilled, shouting with excitement when we approached another set of lights. Their little minds are going to be blown when they see Christmas decor, American-style.

The most common item of decor we see here is Santa climbing the outside of a house.

I see in the ad it's called "Kerstman." St. Nicholas is dressed fairly Pope-like, comes in early December, and puts candy in shoes -- so I guess they call the American Santa Claus "Christmas man"?

15 December 2009

Zwarte Piet rides again!

The day Lily and I went to the ballet, Matthew and the other two kids went to his office's annual Sinterklaas event.

You may recall that when last faced with not-jolly old St. Nick and his partner, Lily was the focused stoic, Soren was in a high panic, and Clara was calm and oblivious.

The roles have changed, and I am so pleased that after fifteen months of digital video camera ownership, we are finally able to upload video to the blog to show you.

13 December 2009

Ballerina girl

Last weekend, Lily and I went to The Nutcracker (Casse Noisette). I have been to a couple modern dance productions but I think this is my first full ballet experience. For Lily, too.

This most fancy dress Lily is wearing is a hand-me-down from my cousin, Sophie. When I pulled it out of the closet to see whether it fit the night before, Clara wanted to be included so badly. She saw a summer dress of hers hanging there, and tugged at her top and squealed at the dress until I put it on over her pajamas and let her run around the hallway, fancy-style, for a few minutes.

After Lily and I took our seats in the theater, an announcer came on, speaking French and Dutch. I heard him name a choreographer and say something about Belgium and an entr'acte -- I wondered if it meant there would be an opening act of some kind but wasn't certain. When the curtain rose, and we saw several dancers seated around a large dinner table, though, I thought it might be The Nutcracker. I'd never seen it before, but I knew generally that it was set at Christmas, about toys coming to life, a girl named Clara . . . Maybe this was Christmas dinner? But, it's all white -- I was imagining warm holiday ambiance. And, is that woman supposed to be Clara, and if so, why is she having a liaison with a waiter? I was perplexed, and vaguely disappointed, but once the dancers were wearing pink plastic minidresses and scooting themselves around the stage on office chairs while an African man did tribal dances in the center, I felt confident the main production hadn't begun.

When this piece ended after forty-five minutes, the woman next to me, clearly frustrated, asked whether we saw the real thing next. She explained that the announcer had said it was an exhibition of the future of Belgian dance. If she had known, they would have come an hour later, she said. She was with her daughter too, so I understood how she felt. With no disrespect to Belgian dance, I was concerned about Lily's attention span just for the main show, and tacking 50% more dance viewing on top of that seemed a bit much.

And I must say, if the males in the production do hope to be the future of Belgian ballet, they may need to hit the weight room for confidence, if nothing else. I saw one young man visibly cringe as his partner approached him to be lifted. I cringed too. I really didn't want to see her drop.

This prologue did have the effect of making the Moscow City Ballet troupe appear all the more talented, and the colorful backdrop all the more evocative. It really was amazing. One of the little toys jumped so high, so quickly, it was as if he were on a trampoline. And, oh! The spinning! by the Nutcracker and Clara. I think of ballet being about gracefulness, but this afternoon I was really struck with the athleticism of it.

As for my dear five-year-old's attention span throughout nearly three hours of dance, I believe the ice cream bar and bag of chips that we had at the intermissions helped, but one hour less would have been preferable.

Life with three young children is loud and busy much of the time. This morning while Matthew cleaned up after breakfast, I sat at the kitchen table with Soren on one side and Lily on the other, while they both worked on math books with stickers. Clara was on the other side of Soren, drawing with colored pencils. I handed her a new pencil when she squealed for one, helped Soren peel the stickers from sheets, and checked Lily's addition. I love moments like that, surrounded by three busy and content kids, helping them and seeing their minds at work. (Not doing dishes certainly enhanced the moment, too.) It was fun, and full. But last Sunday, I had over four hours with just my Lily, and that was a real gift. Sweet, too, that when we left the theater, and I asked whether she wanted to stop to get a bite of food, just the two of us, she declined, saying she wanted to get home to see Daddy and Soren. (Dear Clara, We missed you, too. The Clara on stage couldn't hold a candle to your fanciness.)

That title may seem generic, but please note I refer to the Lionel Richie hit from the first or second cassette tape I ever purchased (the other being Madonna, True Blue). If you haven't seen a harp string light with colors when plucked, you may want to watch that video. Unfortunately for you (and me, I suppose), most of my pop culture references are trapped in the eighties, and not cool.

09 December 2009

Mamma mia

What's that I hear?

I think it's the sound of my old posts echoing around the forgotten valley of this blog. It's been a while since I wrote anything.

I've been busy, though: my mom was here! I was busy protecting her from the inches (oops, centimeters) of rain that fell during her stay. Eesh. It was the one of the worst weeks of weather I can remember having here. She arrived Monday, and we hardly had a respite until the following Monday.

We had a fun Thanksgiving feast on the Sunday she was here with some Canadian friends. They hadn't had sweet potatoes with marshmallows until we introduced them to this culinary marvel. I felt like a food ambassador! But if I am a food ambassador, I need diplomatic immunity for my pies. [That is a really dorky joke but I cannot bring myself to delete it.] They were horrible. Wait -- they were beautiful: lovely golden crusts, a heap of apples, precious lattice on the cherry-raspberry . . . (that was another disappointment, though -- I only had half the cherries we needed so we substituted raspberries for the rest. I love the sourness of cherries, so the raspberries were too sweet for me.) They looked good, but you know -- it's what's inside that counts. Inside my pies were watery fillings and raw bottom crusts. Blech. I have figured out how to work with most baked goods in my smaller oven here (basically, shorter cooking times) but not pies. So, we all gave thanks that my friend had brought a beautiful, perfect, pumpkin pie.

Soren helped in the kitchen some. "I LOVE baking with you, Mom," he tells me whenever he puts on his apron and pulls over the stool. He tends to hyperbole; for example, recently he loved some butterscotch pudding, but the whipped cream on top was "horrible." I didn't like whipped cream as a child, either, but, "horrible"? (As I was rereading this before posting, I noticed that I use the term "horrible" to describe the pies, so, I am sure I am responsible for Soren's tendencies in this area.)

I continued another Thanksgiving tradition I've started in Belgium, other than bad pies: telling our guests we would go around and all share something we're thankful for, and then, amid the hubbub of lots of food and people, forgetting about it until they are walking out the front door. "Talk about it in the car on the way home!" Ahh, the memories I'm creating with these traditions!

One day we took the metro into the city to check out the Christmas Market at Place Ste. Catherine.

When Matthew and I visited Brussels in July 2007 to find a house, we stayed in a hotel right here.

This is not the hotel we stayed at, and I'm glad, because this man scares me. "Magic Jack will perform miracles to please you," the sign reads. Please just stay behind the front desk, Magic Jack, and perform miracles on your own time.

We strolled around, ate hot dogs or boudins (big sausages), frites, and gaufres (waffles).

We also saw the Ice Monster. Ooh, an Ice Monster! You can pay a few euros for the thrill of walking through the bowels of the Ice Monster. Or you can just walk near him, and peer down his throat, as we did. He was like a bounce house that you couldn't bounce in, and "ice" seems to appear in his name just to conjure up winter -- there was nothing icy about him.

The market had two beautiful quirky old carousels, with feathered ostriches, oversized crickets, and men in early 20th century flying costumes.

But it was gated off for the day.

We celebrated Mom's birthday early.

So, I forgot on the actual day, but I'll share something I'm thankful for now. Skype's OK, but e-mail and phone, which are Matthew's and my main connection points with friends and family back home, really do not work for the kids. We were so glad they got to have time playing, tickling, swimming, and snuggling with their Gammie. I'm thankful for our family's willingness to haul over here to see us.

Oh, and, in a fitting postscript to her first visit, Mom saw our naked neighbor fully naked again. She was the first one to observe him in the buck, walking right out his front door, when she visited the first spring we were here. At the time, I wondered whether she had been mistaken -- we had seen him shirtless in running shorts, and perhaps she had overlooked that snippet of fabric. But we soon established that she hadn't.

The remodeling on the exterior of the house is finished, and he's been working inside for months now. Mom saw him one night, near a large front window in his house, standing with one foot on the window sill and one foot on the ladder. A work lamp illuminated the scene, and yep, he was totally nude.

19 November 2009

Hole hearted baking

I've giggled a few times at the blurb introducing the recipe for a basic yellow cake in my Gourmet cookbook. It begins, "One month, when we ran a story by the food historian Laura Shapiro about the pernicious effects of boxed cake mixes on the American home baker, we decided to provide an object lesson on the virtues of baking from scratch." I love this sentence so much. First, "pernicious" -- such a strong word. I looked it up to confirm just how powerful it is; m-w.com defines it as "highly injurious or destructive: deadly." Deadly! Well, I agree, I suppose; the existence of box mixes convinces people that baking a cake from scratch is much trickier and time-consuming than it actually is, so that mixes are -- OK, fine, Gourmet -- killing potential scratch bakers. I also love that it conjures an image of the American home baker as an endangered species threatened by Betty and Duncan. Dramatic, but, again, I agree there's been damage. As a pancake fanatic, I probably feel even more strongly about Bisquick's (if I were a Gourmet editor I'd insert the word "nefarious" here) power over the would-be pancake maker. Finally, I love Gourmet's generosity and public service mindedness in providing an "object lesson" on the "virtues" of scratch baking. Please welcome, Rev. Gourmet of the Fundamentalist Church of Baking!

I agree with the Reverend on core tenets, but find her elitist and unwelcoming. I much prefer scratch baking myself (but let me be clear: I eat any baked good served to me, whether from scratch, a mix, or a store, with gusto), and I think not missing a lot of boxes and mixes eased our transition to living here somewhat, because I haven't had to modify my cooking much.

Of course the advantage of those cake mixes is that they're designed not to fail. Even when the instructions are followed imprecisely, they turn out OK. Unlike, say, this:

That was my first attempt at a treat for Lily to take to school on her birthday. A crust formed on the cake; its doneness was difficult to determine; I couldn't send a raw cake to school; I had a hard time testing it; suddenly, it looked like that.

Thanks to a very kind kitchen assistant who cleaned as I started anew, Lily ended up taking a plate of some pretty cute butterfly cookies, rather than a heart-shaped cake with a hole in its center, to share with her classmates. But ever since I've had this song in my head: yeah, this one.

A friend sent me a link to Cake Wrecks this week (thanks, Megan!), and I wanted to share my own, less funny, wreck. (This site is hilarious -- my favorites so far: Advice to the new couple, and Curious George.)

16 November 2009

Amiens, amen

We drove to Amiens, France, for the day over fall break, to see the cathedral there. It is the tallest Gothic church and the largest church in France. There's a lot of photos and drawings of the cathedral on a Columbia University website -- thanks, Anne, for sending that link months ago.

I studied this in the art history class I took. If I had taken the course before senior year, it wouldn't have been the only one. "Renaissance and Baroque Art," the syllabus read, but we never made it into Baroque.

My professor, David Goodwin passed away last year, or I would send him a note of thanks.

That four months of study has enriched our travels so much. I don't recall many facts, but I know what we should see.

I remember the names, and so we go and stand in awe of them.

Thank you, Professor Goodwin!

12 November 2009

Let's bowl, let's bowl, let's rock and roll

Looking for ideas for outings the other day, I came across this site, which, if you are in a bad mood, you should navigate to immediately. I prescribe Bowlmaster to cure your ills and have you laughing in no time! Having the sound on is key. The best part is that the narration begins again every time you click on a new page.

11 November 2009

A visit!

Grandpa Al and Grandma Julie (my dad and step-mom) came to visit last month. Hooray! Visitors!

We went to Antwerp, which we hadn't really explored before, and which has a very cool train station.

Our nicer camera broke shortly before their visit so we haven't been taking as many photos, so most of the documentation of their time here is by my dad and therefore, unfortunately, of us, not them.

My dad took all the photos in this post except for the first two, one of which was taken by Matthew, the other by me. You can tell who took which not only because the other person is in the photograph, but also based on the quality of the composition, e.g., Soren was also posing in the train station shot, but was cut off by poor framing.

When we were in Antwerp we went to the aquarium.

Another afternoon we strolled around Chateau de la Hulpe (grounds of a mansion just ten minutes from our house with ponds and lots of trails).

Grandma and Grandpa gave the kids some early Christmas presents, including a 'cooter:

and a dolly.

I wish we had video of Clara squealing in delight and trying to tear the doll away from Matthew as he unfastened the twisties holding it in the package. The girl loves dolls, and Lily has been quite kind to share Larry, Baby Jane Squash, and Willis (formerly known as Squash Two)* with her, but now Clara has her very own. I can't wait to hear what names she gives her dolls!

[*Actual names Lily has given her dolls. In recent times Lily has chosen more typical names, like Gracie and Hannah. But around ages two and three, she was more outré with them, which continues to bring us much delight. Since Clara has been hauling Larry around, I wondered aloud whether I should stop referring to her (yes, her) as Larry and let Clara rename the doll, but Matthew was adamant about maintaining the name Larry.]

They saw Lily in action. Rawr!

Her team is the White Lions. The first day of practice they grouped up and had to pick a team name based on their jersey color. Our little brainstormer apparently suggested this name. Maybe because of what we're always listening to at home -- this song, and of course, this one too.

Dad and Julie even watched the kids and Matthew and I had an overnight in the city. WOOHOO! We were giddy with freedom. (We tried to get a nice picture of just the two of us, but we are so dweeby in all of them that they are not fit for the World Wide Interweb. We look slap happy, as we do in every photo that's just us, and I gain five pounds in my face with aggressive smiling. Instead, here's a shot my dad got.)

Normally I touch my husband when I hug him, but I'm air hugging here because there's pizza dough on my hands.

Clara regaled us with her piano stylings (see one of Lily's dolls in hand)

and continued to give us stern face.

We are so thankful for our parents' willingness to get over here to see us. I've had ex-pat friends talk about the guilt trips they've received from their parents about living far away, and we have never had a hint of that from any of ours. I think they'd prefer us to be closer, but they have been so supportive and excited for this opportunity for us. What a gift that is.

One last thing -- Grandma and Grandma did stories at bedtime, and one night my dad was reading a book about trucks to Soren. Under a photo of a tractor, it reads, "How do you think you get into this tractor?" and my dad said, "The steps!" and Soren corrected him, "In English we call those stairs." I wonder what language he thought Grandpa Al was speaking?

09 November 2009

Birthday girl

Five days old

Five years old

Sentiment is running high at our house today -- five seems old. It's a quarter of the way to twenty.

Slow down, sweet miss!

04 November 2009

Fall Vacation: The Roses and Thorns Edition

(Alternate titles include The Joy and Pain Edition and The Fire and Rain Edition, but I choose roses and thorns in memory of residence life weekly check-ins.) We're halfway through fall break -- the kids have been off school since last Friday. Here are some highlights:

Halloween fun
Roses: Dressing up for a party at new friends' house on the 30th; Lily thinking going to IKEA, playing in Smaland (kids' play area), and eating meatballs and ice cream cones on the 31st is a "Halloween treat"; also:

Thorns: Not getting to trick or treat at all the kids' grandparents' homes and have them marvel at the hilarious cuteness on display, in other words, not being around family members who are nearly as biased as we are in their delight in our children.

Roses: Feeling capable to take all three kids in water safely by myself; Soren gaining confidence; mighty Clara donning water wings, walking unsteadily but fearlessly in water up to her chin, scrambling up a four-foot tall plastic slide in the kiddie pool and getting a faceful of water as she whooshed down, every time -- what is she, three years old?!; Lily doing backflips and bellyflops and generally throwing herself around like a flying squirrel in the water.

Thorn: Two of the four of us urinating on the floor in the changing area afterwards.

Seeing UP
Roses: Experiencing an outing with just the big kids (Matthew stayed home with Clara); lots of firsts: Lily and Soren's first movie theater experience, our first Belgian theater experience (assigned seating! I like it!), seeing a movie with Dutch subtitles for the first time, and all three of us wearing 3D glasses for the first time; letting the kids get little cones of bulk candy, warning them to not eat too much, and then observing their sweet cautiousness and utter lack of over-indulging, so that movie theater treats are lasting us all week and probably into the next.

Thorns: It being scarier than I expected; wishing I had noticed it was not G, but "rated PG for some peril and action." It was far too perilous for both the kids, as one scrambled into my lap and then burst into tears close to the denouement. I put my faith in Pixar and promised, "It's all going to be OK, in just a minute or two! Hang on!"

Organizing paperwork
Rose: Its being (almost) organized; successfully assembling an IKEA file cabinet.

Thorn: Having to look at the IKEA file cabinet's semi-ugliness; driving way too far for a real high(low)light schmustomer schmervice experience at an office "superstore" (this was no Office Max) in the hopes of buying a different one, but ending up purchasing only overpriced hanging folders and a first-generation quality mousepad, and almost killing Soren with boredom.

Kids saying the darnedest things
Rose: One child, after I explain why a sippy cup is called a sippy cup (I am a ridiculous overexplainer to the kids -- I always catch myself in the middle, wondering, e.g., why am I explaining the difference between a sip and a gulp and the etiquette involved?) asking, "Mom, how do you know about everything? . . . Almost everything?"

Thorn: Another child saying, "I love Daddy more than you. Really!" in a chipper, matter-of-fact voice in response to my comment, "I'm so glad I get to have some time with just you!" Oh my word. I cheated -- this one isn't actually a thorn. It makes me belly laugh. Life with kids is so stinking funny.

28 October 2009


Lily is playing soccer on Saturday mornings this fall.

She's number twelve.

She has a good attitude,

she's learning how to be on a team,

and she's so sweet in her jersey.

19 October 2009

Tres bien!

That was the other night while I was making dinner. I know this into-everything business is a normal stage kids go through, but it feels more challenging than it did with the older two, somehow. Things I've lately been wishing we didn't have in our home: drawers, cupboards, garbage cans, bookshelves, books.

Do you see that she's staring me down? Soren used to give us this, too -- "stern face," we called it.

Lately I have been disappointed at how little French I have to show (say) for myself after two years here, and feeling frankly embarrassed at the idea of ending our time here having only achieved this level. I started thinking about signing up for a class, wondering how consistent I'd be able to be, given Matthew's work schedule. Then last week we learned that we have twice as many hours of language learning covered in our ex-pat package as we thought we did, which means we can do private lessons. Woohoo! And the best part is, my cherie teacher Pascale, who I loved so much -- really, a great teacher, and so kind -- is available to come to our house to teach us. And now Matthew and I will be taking lessons together. Yippee! But, have you ever played a game with us? Sometimes we're annoyingly competitive with each other. This could be good for my progress, actually. Check back here for exploits in our attempts to be the teacher's pet!

I'm going to be a better student this time, and not just because I want to be the valedictorian. I'm hoping next time the hair stylist tells me my cut is "plus jeune" (younger) I won't hear "plusion" and think she's using some French hairstyle term or discussing a volumizing product ("Plusion, by L'Oreal," maybe?).

Language acquisition is hard, though. My German friend recently told me about a delicious cheese she had tried, that was great to have with other nipples. I was totally going to let it go; I had an attack of maturity and simply nodded and kept a straight face -- I get it, nibbles -- but her husband busted her, so we all had a good laugh. Apparently this had come up before, and she had offered nipples to some guests, much to his surprise.

16 October 2009

Photo essay: Versailles

Versailles was huge -- I had no idea how vast the grounds were. There are many groves with their own fountain and distinct landscape design. We saw the Grande Eaux Musicale -- during the high tourist season, they run the fountains with classical music piped through speakers for an hour in the morning and afternoon. I know that Louis XIV lived there, and Marie Antoinette had a separate estate on the grounds, but I can't tell you anything more about Versailles without reading online about it, so I'll just stop there. Our experience is that sightseeing with children sometimes necessitates simply shuffling along without really listening to one's audio guide or reading the information explaining a painting.

So, if a picture is worth a thousand words, here's a 23,000-word essay on Versailles. [Ed. note: By Matthew! I assume you know that by now. All these photos are by Matthew.]