26 February 2009

Help?

This blog is becoming a bit domestic and I don't want it to lose its overseas experience theme. Can you help me? Are there things about Belgium, our life here, being an expat, etc., that you would like me to write about? Otherwise I'll just keep posting photos of my children with marginally humorous captions.

24 February 2009

Carnaval

There's no school this week as Belgium celebrates Carnaval. Last week Lily's school had a party to get into the spirit. Mardi Gras for the preschool set? Well, sort of. No beads or alcohol, just costumes (see below) and confetti.



(Note threatening pajama-ed sword wielder behind ballerina.)



When Soren saw Daddy taking a photo of Lily's feet, he wanted to get in on the action and struck a pose.

23 February 2009

Cyclocross, Part I: A Guest Column

Ed.: I am pleased to bring you Matthew's much-anticipated (by me, at least -- did you also hope this might come to pass?) debut as guest columnist!

Allow me to indulge for a couple posts about an aspect of Belgian culture that I have found very exciting. Cycling. And to be more specific, cyclocross—a bizarre combination of running and all-terrain cycling using a road-like frame that is sometimes ridden, sometimes shouldered. Developed in northern Europe in the middle of the 20th century, cyclocross started as a way for roadies to mix up their training during the awful winter weather and eventually became its own discipline. Belgium dominates the sport.

In December 2007 (yes, 15 months ago ... I’m a little slow documenting life), Lily and I went to our first race, the Vlaamse Druivenveldrit, held in our neighboring village of Overijse. But this was no ordinary weekend warrior equivalent of a local fun run. It was the real deal, with top professional riders from all over Europe and a few Americans thrown in for good measure (someone’s gotta bring up the rear). The Belgian, Dutch and world champions were all there.

Organizers of cyclocross events cordon off a large area—usually parkland consisting of grassy fields, cobbled lanes, wooded single-track trails, sand pits, and the occasional stream—and then charge spectators around 10 euros to get up close and personal with their heroes. You also get access to all the bier en friten one could hope for. They are as much a part of the sport as lycra and mud. If, as a fan, you return home without soggy, dirty shoes and pantlegs, I suspect a Belgian would argue you hadn’t seen a real race. Such is the relationship between rain, mud and cyclocross.

It was a cold day out there, but my #1 little race fan was a gamer throughout it all. We ran all over the course.



After a few passes of the colorful mass, Lily got used to the sudden gust of wind and noise and started to look forward to when they’d pass again.

She liked to look for “purple man,” as she referred to #19 in third position here.



I was more interested in Sven Nys, the top-ranked Belgian rider and former world champ, shown here in the all blue kit.



And when there was a lull in the racing, there was still time for some good old kid fun throwing ice chunks on the frozen lake.

22 February 2009

Freedom of expression

I wrote about the French words Lily brought home earlier in the year.



These were colored by other kids in Lily's class and sent home for her to learn. I've been meaning to post these photos of a few of our favorites. We had them hanging by the kitchen table for a while to help all of us learn.



I enjoy this depiction of a boy's swimsuit. A Speedo-style suit is required for boys at the pool her class goes to and is definitely typical in Belgium.

But this was the best. Do I need to tell you it was a boy that drew this gruesome image with freaky eyes and blood streaming out of his mouth and down his pants leg?



Matthew referred to this one as "the casual victim," given his jaunty hands-in-pockets stance despite the violence he's undergone.

21 February 2009

National pride

I wonder what impact the Belgian school experience will have on Lily long term: How much will her time in school here affect her feelings about school, and what she expects of her teacher? Will she remember French? Will being not in the majority give her empathy for outsiders when she is back on her home turf (as I hope)?

I don't suppose we'll never fully know, but we're certainly seeing artwork we never would have if we lived in the U.S. From the fall:


It reads, "la guerre 14-18" and "l'armistice le 11 novembre." Lily drew a Belgian flag, a happy person, and what I thought was an airplane but she explained was a church.

Of course, that was a school project. But recently at home, Lily drew this picture of me:


That's probably as Belgian as I'll get, sporting the colors of the flag.

Lily described us as Belgian the other day. I gave her a funny face and said, "What are we? We live in Belgium, but what are we?"

"'Erican," she said, as in (Am)erican. I guess she was coining a new term, since she certainly knows the word "American" -- we use it a lot more over here than we did back home. So, 'Erican, and not to be confused with its unfortunate connotations of "arrogant" and "Aryan."

18 February 2009

Inked

Tattoos as an incentive in toilet training have far surpassed what M&Ms, "toe-tiny sharshmellows" (mini marshmallows), and even matchbox cars could do.



I didn't calculate the consequences of this before embarking. I counted this morning, and my little punk had twenty tattoos on his body.

17 February 2009

TOO COOL

Our friend Jamie (who visited with his wife and son last spring) was in Holland for work last week and took the train to see us for one night.



It was so nice to visit with him. An added bonus is that he brought us gifts of maple syrup and conversation hearts for the kids, which have, indeed, prompted many conversations. The kids want to know what each heart I give them says. So I pick through for age appropriate ones, passing over "TOO HOT" and "I WANT U." We can have those conversations later.

Lily wondered about why there was a "4" in "GOOD 4 ME," so we got to talk about homonyms. Candy as teaching tool. Hmm. Suddenly I want to be a teacher.

16 February 2009

Birthday boy

Soren is now twice as old as he was when we moved here. My big boy is three years old today!



He was so sweet blowing out his candles: "Now, the orange one," he'd say, as he went through and blew them out one by one or in pairs.

We celebrated last night with three other families that each have a two-year-old daughter that Soren plays with (and older siblings that both he and Lily have fun with, too). Four families with three kids each -- two kids may be the mainstay in the U.S., but for American expats in Brussels, three kids seems to be the norm. Even our Belgian pediatrician has observed that.



I made the cake, but Matthew stepped in as Decorator Extraordinaire -- of both the cake and the room.



Case in point for why the phrase "a woman's touch" (as in, "All the home needs is a woman's touch") is absurd. Compare also my gift wrapping with Matthew's.

Soren brought cupcakes and apple juice to school this morning, and we'll eat leftover sloppy joes tonight and open some more gifts.

I have to laugh when I think back to the days right after Soren was born, when I wondered whether I would be able to love a boy as much as a girl. I thank God that I got the gift of seeing how very much I could love a son. What a joy he is!

15 February 2009

Enter the Dragon

Matthew and I enjoy watching Dragons' Den.

First, gotta love the BBC for using the apostrophe (correctly). Wouldn't an American show just toss it in and call it Dragons Den?

On this show, five wealthy businesspeople (a.k.a. The Dragons) hear proposals from people who need an investment in their company. The Dragons invest (or, more often, don't) money in exchange for an equity share. It's the Dragons' own money, so they ask tough questions and don't suffer fools. They also negotiate, sometimes investing a portion along with another Dragon, or offering the entire amount but in exchange for a larger piece of the business.

My favorite recent unsuccessful idea was a piece of jewelry that identifies the wearer as single -- a triangular symbol worn on a necklace, brooch, or key ring, The entrepreneurs pitched it as the unmarried alternative to the wedding ring. This assumes one views the wedding ring primarily as an "I'm not available" signal to people in bars, which is slightly depressing. The Dragons were having none of it, comparing it to putting a sign on your forehead which reads, "I'm up for it." I agreed: it's tacky. Second, really, is there a market for this? I would be interested to meet the first man they could sell that key ring to.

So, they are tough critics. Here is a sampling of their comments:

"This is not a business."
"You are going to fall on your face."
"This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of."
"I'm actually interested in your product, but I wouldn't invest in you."
"I want to be your mentor."

That last line is one of the very few expressions of high praise I've heard from any of them.

I'd like to think my newfound dragon sensibility came into play the other day with horrendous (American) customer service. I finally said, "If you can't tell me you're going to give me the discount right now, I'm going to get off the phone and take my business elsewhere, because this is ridiculous."

Oh yeah. You heard me!

Well, I didn't get the discount, but I did take my business elsewhere. DRAGON STYLE!

12 February 2009

Rrrrrr

My French lessons ended in December, and I am missing the more focused time learning the language. I really want to keep up with it and become more proficient. My studying was so erratic that I didn't progress as much as I would have liked. I was a pretty mediocre student. Blech. My teacher did praise my pronunciation, though. Yippee! I'm using the wrong words and only the present tense, true, but I sound OK. Yippee!

My French "r," though, is seriously lacking. I told my teacher that when I say "au revoir" at school I feel like "une idiota" (if I don't know the word in French, my fallback position is to put a French article onto a Spanish word -- questionable but hard to resist). She acknowledged that "au revoir" is hard to say; it's easier for beginners to learn the "r" by practicing it after an "ah" sound, she explained. I tried it a few times for her, then, and she squinted and shook her head. Not good. She encouraged me to say instead, "A demain!" ("See you tomorrow!"). That works, except Fridays, but then I can rely on "Bon weekend!" Isn't there a novel written without the letter "e"? Perhaps I will be a francophone non-"r" user.

"R"s have been a challenge before -- not until January of my senior year of college could I roll my "r"s. How painful would it have been for the foreign languages department to have granted me a major without that skill, I wonder. My Spanish professor spent a lot of time with me on it, clearly frustrated that I wasn't getting it; she told me she wished she could just grab my tongue and make me do it. I imagine that would have violated some faculty code of conduct, so it's probably better for everyone that I got there on my own.

And it comes to mind now that when I was little I had a friend named Laura, or as my mom tells me I called her, "Wauwah."

I have not passed down my "r" deficiency, however. When Lily first told me about a girl in her class named Marie, I wasn't even sure what name she was saying. She was doing the French "r," coming from the back of the throat. Her accent outshines Matthew's and mine, for sure.

Oh, youth!

09 February 2009

Schoolboy

This young man has gotten serious short shrift in photo ops on the blog lately, not for lack of Handsome Pants-ness.



Soren goes to school too now, just one morning a week, at the same maternelle that Lily attends. We went for a visit in early December, thinking we wouldn't start him for a few months, but they invited him to stay that morning. Matthew and I looked at each other bewildered, but left the choice to Soren, and he wanted to stay. The multi-level parking garage toy in his classroom played a role in that decision. It was a bit anticlimactic for a First Day of School since we didn't expect it would be happening, but Matthew took this picture of him there last week.

He has a very kind teacher -- she seems more like an "American pre-school teacher" because she's gentle and sweet. His classroom is a huge, light-filled fun zone. Lily and he are so cute when they reunite at noon, whether both at school or when he comes with me to get her the other days -- big hugs.

Bringing la collation continues to be an interesting experience. Soren was assigned "cakes" last week, so I made a healthy-ish oatmeal cake. When I brought it, a teacher smiled and said, "Oh, un gateau!" Oh yeah, I thought. That's the word for cake. So, what are "cakes" to Belgians?

He gets to bring another gateau next week, less healthy and more birthday-licious, for his anniversaire!

06 February 2009

Not available for individual sale

Matthew's aunt and uncle in Minnesota gave the kids some sweet gifts, one of which was a craft kit for Lily. Aunt Debbie wanted Lily to share a photo once she had completed it.

So, this one's for you, Debbie:



This image brings me great joy. Lily loves crafts, so she loved doing this. She even invited me to decorate one, although at the end she deemed my effort a bit understated and added accessories and paint.

Soren was napping while we decorated, but immediately de-bobbled two of the woodland creatures upon encountering them in the kitchen. That's how he operates some these days: swiftly, and with intent to harm.

05 February 2009

The end, part II

Months ago, a couple people asked for an update on our nude neighbor. Without further ado, and to satiate the masses, a few observations:

His house is almost finished. Last fall he was mostly doing interior work. Ahem. But really, he was. Also, there were other workers, who wore clothes, who did a lot of the plaster work on the outside. In fact sometimes we would see him, naked, working alongside a fully clothed construction worker. What is going on in that (clothed) man's head?, I would wonder.

There was a party late last year in the house. From what we could see through the curtain-free windows, everyone was clothed.

While driving home a couple times recently, as I have approached our house from the back, so that I am facing his house, a sudden movement from his picture window has grabbed my attention. It was him, ducking. Perhaps he has become modest. Perhaps he has turned over a new (fig) leaf.

Yesterday as I turned onto our street, there he was, outside. He was wearing a bright colored windbreaker and very short running shorts. I looked at my dashboard: 0 degrees Celsius. I guess that's as bundled up as he gets.

04 February 2009

Are you ready for some (prerecorded) football?!

We didn't miss out on Super Bowl Sunday -- oh no! Well, *Sunday*, yes. Saturday night Matthew and the kids (I was sick) went to our friends' "pre-Super Bowl party," proof that it really is just a chance to get together. Then Monday night Matthew watched the game we had recorded that day -- I knew the outcome but he had strategically kept himself in the dark. I sat with him for a few minutes, just in time to see the 100-yard interception TD* before the half, and then a second athletic marvel, the Boss sliding into the camera during the halftime show.

*("Interception TD"? I doubt that's the correct term but I'll leave my attempt up there instead of googling it and putting on a facade of football knowledge. Just using the abbreviation "TD" makes me feel like a poser.)

02 February 2009

I'll stop writing about jet lag after this post

Our family survived the stomach flu this weekend (only non-infant females were stricken), so jet lag is a small, feeble opponent in our rear view mirror at this point. But it took our family about a week and a half to get back to normal sleeping coming back to Belgium. It didn't take as long for anyone when we arrived in St. Louis, and a big part of what made it easier was being at Grambie and Pops's house. A haiku:

Tip to ease jet lag:
Find kind grandparents. Put kids
In their room at night.

01 February 2009