30 April 2009

Not getting used to it

One of the first pages in Lily's schoolwork binder is a coloring sheet from September. A crying mom dabs her eyes and waves at her child, who strides away with a smile. It features a poem about the start of school -- here is my rough translation:

Great, it's the first day of school
Don't cry Mom
It's OK, I'm big

But not big enough
To go
Without hugging you

Besides you know
I will return
As soon as I can

"Allez bisous" [I think this is a goodbye saying]
And hold out [not sure here -- hold out arms? or hold out as in wait?]
It's the first day of school

Get used to it!

Almost eight months later, we haven't quite gotten used to it. There certainly have been some positives -- Lily made some friends (Belgian, Korean, Swedish), loved the bi-monthly swimming classes, and outclassed her parents in French. But she often did not want to go to school, and she looked forward to weekends more than I'd like my four-year-old to. As for Soren, he has never wanted to go (see previous post about his "rude teacher"); it's discouraging that his most frequently used French word is "Arret!" (Stop!) -- although admittedly his "r" really shines in that word; and I'm certain his one-morning-a-week schedule would have been challenged in the fall, once he was out of the entry class. For that matter, Lily's mornings-only attendance might well have been too. And French language acquisition seems more of a novelty than anything else at this point, given that we'll be here for only one more year. If we want the kids to be bilingual (and we do), we're going to have to be intentional about pursuing that in the U.S., regardless of what we do here.

So, yesterday I e-mailed the director, letting her know that Soren and Lily would not be attending for the rest of the year (school isn't out until July 1 here). E-mail, so I could express myself more clearly and have hopes of understanding her reply. I asked if the kids could have their last day Monday, and said we would bring treats for their classes, pick up things, and say goodbye. We have mixed feelings. There's not one clear perfect answer, like there is in the dreamy B&W world of my imagination. But I think Matthew and I both feel a weight off our shoulders.

We haven't told the kids yet and want to be mindful of how we present it. Tricky. Right now we're leaning toward, "You've been expelled."

29 April 2009


On Pops and Grambie's last day here, we visited the Royal Military Museum in Brussels and focused our attention solely on the hangar.

Let's go to the couch here for some thoughts from Matthew, reading behind me (on the couch), on what was special about this experience. Folks, the man had a lot to say. And I quote.

"It was a nice rainy day activity; it was free; they have quite a collection of various national aircraft and military paraphernalia; it gave the kids a rare hands-on experience in Belgium; it was probably particularly neat for Pops since he has his private pilot's license [Ed.: and seemed to know the name and provenance of every plane in the building]."

As I've been writing this we've had the chance to make various Top Gun references, like, having one's breath taken away, and "I feel the need . . . " [etc.], and Matthew even shared a piercing analysis of Kenny Loggins's songwriting on "Danger Zone": "I mean, what are you thinking when you're writing that? What are you actually talking about in life?"

28 April 2009

Amsterdam, part IV

We visited the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. What struck me most on the tour was the video of Anne's father, years later (he was the only family member to survive). He did not read Anne's diary until after her death, and he felt that only then did he really understand how she felt during their hiding. His last line in the short video was something like, "I conclude that no parent ever really knows his own child." What a sad thought. I wonder if he would have felt the same way had he been able to know her beyond the intense privacy of the teenage years. It's hard to really grasp the horror of this history in some ways -- it's so big -- seeing a father's sorrow made it more tangible and real somehow.

Lily asked many questions about why Anne had to hide. We tried to answer in an age-appropriate manner (a posture I find trickier each day with the Big Questions from this girl) and reassure her that in America we don't have to worry about that happening (or in Belgium, I suppose). I was thankful to be reminded that freedom is a privilege -- on Easter Sunday, even. It brought to mind one of the teas Matthew and I attended when we visited Syria our senior year of college. A university student told Matthew that he admired the "sexy freedom" we enjoy in America. Matthew graciously said, "Thank you," unsure of the gist of the compliment. Maybe the student meant sexual freedom, but it seemed more like he was using sexy as a strongly positive adjective, in which case, I can't say I disagree.

After the museum, we took a canal cruise.

What a beautiful city! I loved Amsterdam more than I imagined I would.

We did at one point see a prostitute in a window, and the scent of Mary Jo Wanna wafted by several times, but otherwise I just about forgot about my college-age impression of Amsterdam.

The kids' favorite part? Chasing pigeons.

27 April 2009

Hint hint

The two websites Lily and Soren inadvertently clicked onto today while doing Starfall (their first foray into the World WIDE WEB!, a great learning-to-read website):

An article about declining childbirth rates in Europe (which I had bookmarked because I meant to blog about it months ago) called "No Babies,"


an article about saving for your children's college education.

23 April 2009


Lily's classmates are on their four-day trip this week, so Lily is home with me. Spring break was the last two weeks, so she has been out of school for quite a while now. We're having fun -- the weather has been beautiful, the kids are playing in the sandbox and biking in the yard, and we're taking walks in the evening. Matthew's in town but at a training session that is keeping him quite late at the office all week so I'm Full On and thankful that we're enjoying good weather and the kids are playing together nicely.

The last day before break, I noticed a couple large sheets of paper listing children's names taped outside Lily's classroom. Mme. J. saw me looking at them and said, "It's for the class trip -- it's not for you."

"D'accord. Merci." I said, smiled, and continued helping Lily with her jacket and backpack.

Mme. J. went on, explaining that the poster had to do with an activity they will be doing on their trip. I didn't fully grasp what it was, but her facial expression and tone conveyed that it was a really, really, fun thing, and, it was our loss that Lily wasn't going to do it.

Then she said again, "But. It's not for you."

"OK. D'accord," I said, and tried to make it obvious that I was not, at all, looking at those papers anymore, ever. Gotcha. Not. For. US!

But Mme. J. underlined the point. "It's not for you, Lily," she said, with a sort of matter-of-fact, "that's the way it goes" tone and face.

Thus I conclude that the reason I gave for Lily not attending the class trip was not deemed satisfactory.

We're going tit for tat in the awkward hallway conversation arena, though. There are three teachers that work in Soren's classroom, and one of them he has deemed "my rude teacher," and even happily points her out in the hall as such. "There's my RUDE teacher!" he announces, smiling.

22 April 2009

Amsterdam, part III: Museums

We went to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum one day.

Two museums in one day?


With some playing


The kids seemed to enjoy at least parts of the museum visits -- the model ship and still life with fruits and bugs at the Rijksmuseum, and at the Van Gogh Lily had an activity sheet (and now she pronounces his name properly in a cute accent) that kept her entertained and on the hunt for certain paintings, and both the kids had headsets for one exhibit, which Soren really loved. I love those too.

Like mother,

like son.

But the kids' favorite part of the museum: the elevator.

Really, that's what Lily said when we asked her.

21 April 2009

Tiger, crib model, niece to the stars


"I made her into a tiger," Soren explained.

Grambie made Clara a lovely bumper and crib skirt. During their visit, Clara started pulling herself up to standing when she wakes up. She places her hand casually on the side of the crib and smiles broadly. One gets the sense that she's modeling the new bedding.

Also, Clara is waving. She was waving at Gammy, Auntie, and Grandpa Al on Skype recently, and also, at Jim on The Office, which we get from iTunes so is on our computer like Skype . . . hence her confusion and probable conclusion that he is related to us. I can't wait to introduce her to Uncle Jim!

20 April 2009

Amsterdam, part II: Keukenhof strikes back

On our way to Amsterdam, we went to Keukenhof again, which is about forty minutes southwest of the city.

We saw beautiful flowers again, and ate the delicious ham sandwiches they sell from carts, which, in a gross oversight, I didn't mention last year.

Too bad Matthew's at work

while I'm posting this;

maybe he would like to select the images

because I am not the photo expert that he is

[Matthew now cringing that I called him a photo expert]

but I do know when I see something pretty.

There were some new things there, like Grambie and Pops;

a Flower Fairy exhibit

(no face painting for Soren; just a sticker, thanks);

and Clara!

who got to experience Keukenhof ex utero.

Life as a family of five continues smooth as ever. We are a well-oiled machine. We've got it down. Please see family photo below,

and also this photo, taken just before Soren slipped into the water and had to sport a manpri look the rest of the day.

19 April 2009

Amsterdam, part I: Farm stay

We stayed on a farm outside of Amsterdam over Easter weekend with Grambie and Pops. Matthew had found this place online, and when we arrived he was sort of disappointed with it. It wasn't the nicest place we've stayed, I'd agree, but the kids wouldn't. For them it was a joyous wonderland of farm creatures large and small. They loved it!

There were sheep . . .

(we could hear lambs baa-ing into the night -- so sweet!)

and chickens . . .

(notice strange awesome gold/red/blue unidentified fowl to the right of Soren)

and cows . . .

and dogs . . .

even a three-week-old puppy!

Both the kids loved seeing the animals, but it was a special thrill for Lily. We wondered about Jan, our host, whether he had anyone who helped him, because he was the only proprietor we ever saw and he seemed busy and a bit flustered at breakfast, for example. Then to imagine all the farmwork on top of it . . . well, if he's looking for a hired hand, I believe I know a little miss who is ready to sign on.

18 April 2009


Pops and Grambie (Matthew's parents) left this morning after spending two full, fun weeks with us. Pops showed Lily how to use his camera, and she loved taking photographs. These are all hers below:

 . . . which give you a sense of their visit -- good connecting time, lots of beautiful spring weather, and occasional silliness.

*I love this word (for an artist's childhood works). It has such a pleasing sound, or at least, I think so. Since learning it in college I've been able to use it maybe two times. Make that THREE!

07 April 2009

Bathing beauties (but I'm biased)

Ms. Petite is working on some rolls.

Quarterback sneak. (Again with the uninformed football talk. I'm trusting Leah will correct me.)

Post-bath warming up, plus sad acting by Soren. He was not sad before this moment. He can turn it on like nothing.

Post-bath silliness. See, Soren wasn't so sad.

03 April 2009

Schmustomer schmervice

"It's not possible" has become a catchphrase in our house. This is the Belgian customer service line. Customer service here really pales in comparison to the U.S. People aren't outlandishly rude or anything -- there's just a real sense that employees won't be put out by customers. Some examples:
  • I enter a window coverings store. I am the only customer. Two women are working. I look around for a bit. They are working on a project. I get closer. For a few minutes I linger near them with a hopeful expression that they cannot see because they do not look up. I wonder if they know I need help. "Excuse me?" I say. "One moment, please," a woman says, gesturing to her project, as if I am rude to be interrupting her. She completes whatever totally non-customer service related project she was working on and then helps me. Outlandishly rude? No, but just strikes me as odd  Why do I end up feeling like I am asking them a favor to help me give them my money? 
  • I am at the pediatrician's and she is prescribing a diaper cream that the pharmacy will need to prepare. It's 4:45. The doctor tells me to hurry to the pharmacy. "Oh, do they close at five?" I ask. "No, six, but they have to prepare it, and they don't like to do that in the last hour." She advises me to plead and look desperate (have I mentioned I love our pediatrician? I must write about our experiences there soon). Sure enough, I arrive close to five, and the pharmacist tells me I cannot pick it up until the next morning, even though I am the only person in the pharmacy, and there are four workers who do not look like they are working frantically filling prescriptions. I plead and look desperate and he concedes, but warns me to get there by 5:50 because they close at 6.
  • I feel like my grocery shopping hinders their restocking efforts. The amount of aisle space devoted to restocking seems absurd. My cart and I are a merely an obstacle in their primary operation, stocking shelves. Moving those items into people's carts -- less important.
  • At a festival in town last fall, there were bouncy playhouses up for the kids. A little before whatever hour they announced the bouncing would end, the air was cut off and they started deflating, with children inside still.
  • If they take returns, there is a very short time limit, and we have been surprised a few times (slow learners) at having to take store credit for unopened, timely returns.
There are exceptions -- the kind women at the bakery in town, the sweet pharmacy workers who fuss over Clara -- but this is the norm. So, "it's not possible," said sort of formally and clipped.

I had enough at the post office the other day. It closes at 12:30 for an hour. We dashed there on the way home from school, I raced to unbuckle the kids, we ran up the sidewalk, and we arrived at 12:28 -- cutting it close, yes, but in a Fair World it would have been open. Why do I hang on to hope in a hopeless environment? Of course the doors were locked. I had a Rain Man moment. "12:28! 12:28. 12:28. 12:28! 12:28," I announced as we walked back to the car, and as we watched the post office employees exiting for their lunch break at the same moment. 

Should postal employees have a lunch break? Why, certainly. Is an hour reasonable? I think so. But I hold this truth to be self-evident: If the sign on your door says the service extends until 12:30, that door should be unlocked until 12:30. If employees actually set foot exiting the premises at 12:30, then, why not have the sign read 12:25? 

As we walked back to the car, Lily asked, "Why are they having a church service in there?"

I was confused.

"You said they were having a church service," she continued.

Aha! "No, I said there's no customer service," I explained, and then I explained what customer service is.

So when we went to the post office this week, closer to noon, and walked right in, Lily announced, "Customer service!" cheerfully.

02 April 2009

Enjoying old friends, seeing old buildings, getting older

Matthew's friend David stayed with us last weekend. Well, he's our friend, but Matthew and he have known each other nearly 2/3 of their lives. I've seen the prom photos with regrettable tuxes. (Not that I am one to talk, see, e.g., temporary rose tattoo.) They played in a band together. They backpacked through Europe together. They were in each other's weddings (better tuxes).

And now they get to know each other as dads. Isn't that sweet?

We took David to Leuven ("loo-vin") -- our first real exploration of this town where Matthew had back surgery. Before this day, all we knew was the hospital, and the depth of our capacity to make dorky jokes from the town's name (Leuven it up, Leuven an elevator, Leuven on the edge, etc.).

We visited Sint Pieterskirk, which was lovely but featured a lot of gory martyr paintings which I tried to keep the kids from investigating too closely. Visions of beheadings dancing in their heads! Lily was too smart for her own good, sensing I was hurrying her along and looking over her shoulder curiously. Perhaps I should have alluded to a large spider to distract them.

Then we visited the Stadhuis (statehouse) -- beautiful from the outside, also, it seemed, beautiful inside, but we didn't see much. We skipped out of our tour midway because our napless children were just done. Also, the tour was in Dutch, with a condensed version in French at the end of each spiel, and oops, no English, we discovered after we began. Good French practice, though.

We ate lunch at Le Pain Quotidien, which we love. It's a Belgian chain of cafes; they even have some locations on the coasts in the U.S. Perhaps it will come to Minnesota when we do. When we left the restaurant we strolled down the street for a matter of minutes before stopping to have a coffee and dessert at an outdoor cafe.

Matthew and David went out into the city together one night, even. For two men who used to play music in bars all the time -- the complaining about the smoke showed their age a bit.

Speaking of which, it's Matthew's birthday today! Lily's already begun her birthday party accessorizing.