27 March 2009

Play mo

Playmobil toy sets are very popular here. They have so many little movable pieces, which makes them great fun and really keeps the kids entertained. Lily and Soren have been enjoying playing with a knights' castle and dinosaurs.

That is a pteradon flying around the knights' castle (below). Just so you know, potential marauders.

On our drive last weekend the kids were poring over a Playmobil catalog. It kept them entertained, but obviously, allowing one's children to study toy advertising has its downside. Now Soren says, "Me wish me have the REACHING dinosaur [brontosaurus], and the red dinosaur. Me sad."

The maternal sympathy he receives upon expression of this sorrow is quite limited.

Our other novice consumer recently said, "I love Disney."


"Because I love magical things," Lily explained.

Brand identity registered, Disney marketing team. I'd tip my hat to you if I weren't so busy shaking my fist at you.

Death Takes a Holiday

Oh dear. I devoured Agatha Christie books as a teenager. Looks like it's time to plan our next U.K. adventure!

26 March 2009

Ardennes, part V: Eating, aging

It wouldn't be a complete travel recounting for me if I didn't talk about what we ate.

First, a little background: Many (most?) restaurants in Belgium are open at lunch and at dinner, but do not have service all day. Six o'clock seems to be on the early side for dinner service, with seven being more common.

[I have a deep-seated reluctance to make statements like this -- any statement about how life in Belgium or Europe is -- because they're based just on my experience. I don't really know! I haven't been to that many Belgian restaurants! There are people out there who really know this stuff, and I am not one of them. I attribute this wariness at least in part to my experience on law review, in which every assertion needed a footnote citation supporting it.]

On Saturday, with kids tired from hiking and exploring, six o'clock was pushing it as a dinner start time for us. Thus we were limited to brasserie/cafe style eating. A typical Belgian cafe menu includes hot beverages, wine, beer and sodas; omelets; croque monsieur (toasted ham and cheese sandwiches) and its many variations -- madame (with egg), hawaienne (with pineapple), etc.; tartines (cold sandwiches -- just meat or cheese on bread); spaghetti bolognaise and maybe another pasta dish or two; salads (usually including the dearly loved by both of us, chevre chaud, warm goat cheese circles); waffles, crepes and ice cream. This is, in general, an easy, tasty, predictable dining experience for us.

But our dinner that night was the most bizarre and unpleasant dining experience I've had over here. Now, we had a bad meal -- the kids' ravioli must have come from a can; my omelet was half raw; and Matthew's meal would have been unappetizing to me even if prepared well (he ordered a chicken curry crepe, and I cannot get behind the idea of savory crepes). But what was truly memorable about the experience was the setting. The moment we entered I wanted to turn and walk out, but felt like we couldn't because we were the only customers and were warmly greeted by three employees/owners? by the door. The cafe was jam-packed with strange decor. An aquarium behind the kids provided them much entertainment, but query, future restauranteurs, whether providing one's diners the opportunity to observe a catfish's digestion is wise in terms of appetite-inducement. A real stuffed fox sat directly to my right. On top of the aquarium rested a plastic baby doll outfitted in Rambo-type gear, complete with what looked like tiny bells on an ammunition belt. Next to him was a plush Rastafarian. Next to him were 47 or so other ugly trinkets. The walls were covered, every surface was covered, and it was all just fascinatingly ugly.

Soren provided some non-marine related entertainment for us. The Stiles' sent him a great CD with songs about the fruit of the Spirit [sometimes I get a bit link-happy, but eek, I just found this cute coloring page] that we listened to on our drive, and as we were leaving, in delightful irony, Soren was yelling, "Self control! Self control!"

It was a bad dinner, but so memorably bad and strange, it has a place in my fond memories of the weekend. And Sunday made up for it with lots of good food. We had sushi for lunch. Lily loved it! Raw tuna, even. Soren, not so much.

Then we stopped for tea. Just a little snack . . .

Hot chocolate and a crepe for me, a milkshake and a crepe shared by the kids, and Matthew, who probably is the least sweet tooth of all of us, had tea and then surprised me by choosing the dessert array in the forefront of the photo above.

I was sort of embarrassed at our smorgasbord until the young woman seated at the table next to us was served a dessert sampler plate that I at first thought was the dessert tray waiters bring to show you all the options . . . and a milkshake.

Then we got home and ate the dessert we bought (before our "tea" occurred and we were pretty well dessert-ed out) in a bakery in this small town we passed through. The bakery was huge, with bread, desserts, chocolates, frozen concoctions, sandwiches, and probably twelve people milling about. We stopped late in the day at another bakery to buy bread for the week. I marvel at these elaborate, beautiful bakeries in small towns, with cool logos on their bags, and hip light fixtures . . . it is a mystery to me, a wonderful mystery.

This was my birthday cake -- this was my birthday weekend, in fact, planned by sweet Matthew.

Note the "macarones" along the outside -- so darling!

Lily knows how to celebrate. Before we ate the cake, she donned a bracelet, necklace, and barrette to look special for me. And as I walked out of her room that night after tucking her in, she said wistfully, "There should've been balloons . . ."

But I wouldn't have changed a thing.

25 March 2009

Tag! I'm it. And I cheat.

I've been tagged! By Nicci. It's my first time. I feel special.

The rules:

1. Take a picture of yourself right now. No primping or preparing. Just snap a picture.
2. Load it onto your blog.
3. Tag three people to play.

Here goes. Hi!

OK FINE! I can't lie. I didn't take that one "right now" when I first read it. The real "right now" happened yesterday. I had been up late celebrating my birthday (with Nicci, among others). My hair was just wrong. So I took a picture . . . with the "light tunnel" effect in Photo Booth.

"I'm Walkin' on Sunshine" comes to mind. And the baby in the sky from Teletubbies.

I tag:
1. Evan and/or Shayla
2. Moyra
3. Sara.

And I hope I can finish my Ardennes write-up this week. I can't keep up on the blogging. I have dozens of partially written drafts saved and lots of ideas I want to take time to write about but can't seem to. I attribute this phenomenon to the cute people in the previous post.

22 March 2009

Happy Mothering Sunday

We discovered at church this morning that today is Mothering Sunday in the U.K. (We attend an Anglican church and the congregation is mostly British.)

In honor of the day, please allow me to share some photos of the three people whom it is my great joy and honor to mother.

19 March 2009

Ardennes, part IV: Dinant & Namur

We stopped in two towns along the way back from the Ardennes on Sunday. First, Dinant, which Matthew described as a model railroad town, with its beautiful architecture and valley setting. See the citadel on the hill?

From our visit to the musical instrument museum in Brussels last fall with Matthew's parents, I know the saxophone was invented in Belgium, by Monsieur Sax. And I am going to now state as fact, without confirming via the World Wide Web, that Dinant is where it sprung to life. There were saxophone statues, saxophone-shaped cookies in bakery windows, and saxophone decorations strung over the streets.

So next time you are listening to John Coltrane, or Kenny G, or "Easy Lover" by Phil Collins, and enjoying the smooth stylings of that second-rate of woodwinds (throw your hands in the air, if you were a clarinet player!), thank M. Sax and Dinant.

If I don't come back from Europe, perhaps it's because we bought this bakery in my quest to convince Belgians that the cookie is the One True Baked Good. Cute storefront, lovely typeface on the sign, and it already has our name on it!

Next we stopped in Namur and visited the citadel there. High on a hill, it was a huge area to explore and provided great stretches of running and walls for peering and many opportunities for me to grit my teeth and shout, "STOP!" as my children ventured near (admittedly fenced) edges.

Here's Soren being a "soldierman, YEAH, soldierman!!"

Oh dear, can you blame me for being a smidge overprotective?

18 March 2009

Ardennes, part III: Abbaye d'Orval

We drove another hour south, quite near France, to the abbey in Orval. This is one of only seven trappist breweries in the world. The beer and cheese production areas are not open to the public, but we toured the ruins of the old abbey, dating from the tenth century.

To preserve the sanctity of the space for the monks and retreatants, they don't allow visitors into the working abbey, built around the 1930s. We peered over the gates, though; it's beautiful (the two photos below are from the new area). And looking at the abbey's website for the first time while I wrote this post has started me dreaming about possibly doing a retreat at a monastery while we are living here.

Lily walked through the ticketing area cheerfully proclaiming, "Let's see those monks!", a zoo visitor-like sentiment that pretty well confirms the abbey's segregation of visitors and spurred a discussion about who, again, monks are, and how we would like to be respectful of them.

As we exited, we drove by the back of the abbey and saw the stacks of crates for the beer. We love the orange crates . . .

. . . and love the logo, derived from a tale of a princess named Mathilde who lost her wedding ring in a spring and prayed for its return, whereupon a trout brought it to her.

"Truly this is a valley of gold!" she cried. Valley of gold = val d'or = Orval and does not = Golden Valley but of course brought that town to this Minnesotan's mind.

17 March 2009

9/17/07 - 3/17/09

We arrived in Brussels one and a half years ago today. We are at the halfway mark of our Belgian experience -- nothing's set in stone, but three years is what we anticipate. A little less, probably, since we want to return in time for Lily to begin kindergarten in September.

Shortly after we moved, I told a friend (an American friend who has lived here for seven years) that it would be a two to three year stay, and she remarked that she hoped for my sake that it was three. If it were only two years, she said, we would just be starting to feel settled and then have to begin making plans to return. I think she's right. I am quite glad that we are not headed back this summer. We're settled, we're enjoying exploring, we have friends we enjoy spending time with, and there is so much more we want to see in Europe. I am thankful that the process of returning home won't be as involved, but I know it will be another period of non-settledness and busyness.

This reminds me: It was two months from when we arrived in Belgium until we received our sea shipment from the U.S. That day, November 17, 2007, was also the day we found out that Matthew had a herniated disc and would likely need surgery, and the day we found out that a little Brussels sprout was on her way. All before 9 a.m., I believe.

Ardennes, part II: Basilique St. Hubert

One of my favorite parts of exploring Europe has been the churches and abbeys.

You can just barely see some netting at the top of the photo below -- they were doing work on the ceiling. It looked like a giant cobweb, and I made the mistake of observing, "Looks like a huge spider has been in here!" Myriad questions about the scary spider ensued. "Oooh. POOKY!" Soren kept saying ("pooky" = "spooky"). Of course this is coming from the boy who deems the teddy bears on his bike "POOKY!"

The pink and gray striation on the pillars was beautiful.

I like these photos because I look like a tour guide, teaching the kids all about the architecture and symbolism. If there were audio on these shots, though, you'd mostly hear me reassuring them that no, really, I promise, there is no huge spider in this lovely church.

16 March 2009

Ardennes weekend, part I: The great outdoors

We spent the weekend in the Ardennes, the heavily forested region of southern Belgium.

It was the site of much WWII fighting. Scenes from Band of Brothers came to mind.

Our children wielded sticks as we explored, but otherwise it was a peaceful weekend. We had blue skies and crisp weather and enjoyed being on the cusp of spring.

Even cold and pink eye suffering Clara seemed content viewing more of Belgium from the sling.

She's patient with her siblings' attempts to hold her, too.

We have lots of photos to share this week!

11 March 2009

Questions from the audience, part 1: Clothes horse

A couple weeks ago I asked you for suggestions for what I should write about. My friend Anne (we bonded over antitrust the summer after our first year of law school) asked about clothes -- "belgian v. american--do you shop locally for the kids and yourself? do you feel like you need/want to blend in with the locals?"

I don't know that I feel that I need to blend in, but I would rather not totally stand out. That means I don't wear tennies or pants more casual than jeans (sweats) out and about. I also don't wear shorts in the summer except when I am in labor.

I was just discussing this the other night with some American friends. One said, "I feel like I could go out looking like anything and no one would care." I was so surprised -- "I feel exactly the opposite!" I said, and another friend agreed. What gives? The first woman is southern, and the friend who agreed with Minnesotan me lived in San Francisco and Colorado before coming to Belgium. We realized that she and I were thinking about clothes. Our southern friend was thinking about hair and makeup, which maybe isn't notable here. It does seem that the average Belgian woman wears better made and dressier clothes than the average American.

I feel like the clothes here are either gorgeous, tailored, unique, and extremely expensive, or cheap (as in, poorly made), yet still too expensive for me. I have walked by and admired the boutique right in our little Flemish town, but I have never even entered, because the clothes in the window are so expensive. It would be fun to buy some lovely, different clothes while we are living here, but I don't know if I can bring myself to lay out the cash for it. Midrange, quality but not expensive (Gap-ish) -- I don't know where that is. They do have H&M which maybe fits the bill.

So as for shopping locally for clothes -- I am sort of embarrassed, but, I barely do it at all. A couple months after we got here Lily needed shoes, so I bought some that were on the less expensive side -- they were about $50 USD. What?? It's painful. Since then I have taken advantage of visits from family. Matthew's parents come next month, and I ordered some things from Lands' End for the kids that they are so kind as to bring for us. It's so much easier.

Remember how I earned big bucks by having a baby? And got a gift certificate for thirty euros? Well, even when I had a gift certificate in hand, I could not bring myself to buy anything from the darling children's boutique in town. Twenty-two euros for a cute baby t-shirt? It's going to get stained! And be worn for two months, maybe. I can't do it!!

Before I moved here, I thought of Europeans wearing more colorful clothing than Americans. In fact, there is a very specific image in my mind of a pair of rusty orange corduroys as a European fashion statement. In other areas of Europe, maybe. (Germany?) In Belgium, it's black, black, black, with a touch of charcoal. Very neutral, and definitely dark, clothing. Even the kids wear a lot more browns and greys than in the U.S.

Matthew and I have our (purchased in the U.S.) European shoes like Birkenstocks and Danskos but I don't really see them here -- more tailored looking heels or flats, not the comfort earth shoe look, seem typical.

I have heard someone hypothesize that Europeans have fewer clothes but they are higher quality. I like that philosophy. Matthew and I laugh until we cry at some GREAT DEALS! we got on clothing earlier in our marriage. The most frequently cited item is a light grey, sateen-ish, flared leg pair of pants . . . for him! What? That they shrank after the first washing so weren't *quite* long enough only added to their allure. But! They were only $10 from Banana Republic! WHAT A DEAL!

09 March 2009

School, again.

Today as I dropped Lily off, Mme. J. gave me the permission slip for their four-day class trip in April (which we first learned about at the parent meeting in September) and asked whether Lily would be going. In my discomfort I didn't even think to use French and just said, "I don't think so," while staring at the form. She told me more about it and asked me to return the slip when I picked Lily up at noon.

I could either check a box for "yes," or use six lines to clarify after the "no" box. Opting out requires a bit of explanation, I see. I used only two lines to write, "Nous pensons que Lily n'est pas prête à passer trois nuits à partir de ses parents." ("We think that Lily is not ready to spend three nights away from her parents.")

When I picked Lily up, I handed the form to Mme. J. and said, "No, sorry," to her inquiring expression. She looked disappointed. I wonder what is going through her head.

Lily broached the topic herself as soon as we were in the car. "Mme. J. told us that we have to spend four days and three nights with her not at home!" She sounded concerned.

"How do you feel about that?" I asked.

"I don't want to be away from you guys!"

I explained that Daddy and I had talked and we decided that she was too young to spend that many nights away from family. She was relieved.

When I brought Soren to his classroom (Mondays are his one day at school), I asked Mme. A., how he has been doing. "Soren, ça va bien?" She rat-a-tatted back something I mostly missed, but I took it from her facial expression and tone, and the words "mieux et mieux," that he is doing OK but not great, but it gets better and better.

I was hoping by this point in the school year we'd be joyful local French school enthusiasts, not still wondering whether it's the right choice. And my, I don't like feeling like an Odd Parent, only bringing Soren one day a week, not allowing Lily on the field trip . . . I want to be OK with going against the flow, but it feels tiring and discouraging.

I appreciate very much the suggestions left for things to write about and intend to dive into that this week.

01 March 2009

99 luftballoons

Yesterday we had great fun at a balloon parade in Brussels. Apparently this was the first parade of this sort (a la the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade) ever in Europe.

We took the train into the city. This was Clara's first "real" train ride (not seated in a car inside a train going under the sea).

Hey! Look! It's us, reflected in the windows of a train next to us!

Matthew pointed out, "There are probably people in there who you can't see watching you," as he pretended not to be with us.

We met up with friends for lunch and walked to a spot on the parade route. Not only was it fun to be with friends, but they had the foresight to bring snacks. Our kids strategically placed themselves closer to them once they figured that out.

It was a beautiful blue day, pleasant weather, and so fun to be in the city.

Organizers were distributing normal balloons before the parade started; I think our kids would have been content if that had been the extent of it, but we were all wowed by the huge ones.

Imagine our surprise when the first band that passed played "The Stars and Stripes Forever." I got excited. Matthew was embarrassed yet again. I'm hoping I didn't actually say out loud, or that my friends and husband didn't hear me if I did, but I at least thought, "OH YEAH -- America knows how to do marches." ?? As in, In YOUR FACE, Belgians! ?? We've got spirit, HOW 'BOUT YOU?!

What?? I am surprised and embarrassed by this strange, possessive national pride I experience at times.

Another band played "Hey Baby," and the crowd sang along: "Heeeeey, heeey baby. I wanna know-uh-oh-oh-uh-oh-oh if you'll be my girl." It was hard to see the bands really well, but I think it's safe to say they had a much looser idea of formation than an American university marching band does.

The parade was part of a celebration of comics (which are huge here). There were some familiar American characters, like the Cat in the Hat, Beetle Bailey, Clifford, Dr. Seuss fish:

Then there were the classic Belgian comics.

Tin Tin:

The Smurfs/Stroumpfs:

But best of all, Manneken Pis, maybe the most famous landmark in Brussels, made an appearance:

They turned him around for full effect:

This put a distinctly European touch on the event. Sure, balloon parades started in America, and yes, America, good with the march music, but, would Americans make a giant balloon of a boy urinating? Who's got spirit NOW?