29 June 2009

Quality of life

I have been thinking about the term "quality of life" since I wrote the last post, because of course in general the quality of life here in Belgium or at home in the U.S. is so high compared to much of the world. It is a luxury to be able to compare and contrast the differences between these two cultures -- it is a luxury to be able to live in these two cultures. We're experiencing a cultural immersion, which by its nature comes with some stress, but we're not on a "hardship assignment," a term Matthew's company uses to differentiate expatriates who live somewhere more challenging for Americans (a subset of non-Western countries). My observations about differences here are mostly small amusements from a first world country citizen living in another first world country.

But I read a blog written by a Minnesota woman whose family lives in Haiti. I don't know her, and I'm not sure how I found this blog, but I have read it for years. They work with organizations trying to improve the quality of life of people in Haiti. They work with pregnant mothers who are HIV+, malnourished infants, people who don't have basic medical care. Their family is a blend of biological and adoptive Haitian children, college age to toddlers. She has a great sense of humor and a tender heart. She is frank about their life and their struggles, about what they see there, how it hits her heart, and how it is changing the way she thinks about suffering and pain and God in the world. She also writes about her kids' shenanigans. I'm usually in tears reading either way.

She's running the Twin Cities Marathon this fall to raise money for medical care for kids in Haiti. We've been talking about this with the kids, and they are very curious. Soren wants to send money to "the boy on the compooter -- compeeter? Compooter. Compeeter? [me: "Computer?"] . . . who needs money." He also wonders, "What is money?," and figures "it will take a long long long time to get money to him." Lily's full of questions, too. "Why don't they have money? Why don't they have food?"

These are good questions, and I am glad to have these discussions. We tell them that God wants us to share what we have with others. That's a start. But I'm wondering how we help our kids (and ourselves) really understand what this means, and how we live in a first world country in a way that honors that.

24 June 2009

Reader questions, part III: Quality of life

Remember how I asked for questions from readers? I barely do either. Let's do this.

Anne also asked (that Anne, she's curious): do you feel there is a better quality of life in Belgium/Europe? less time at work, more time for family, or is that a myth?

I have put off answering this question because I just don't feel like I know. I don't have the sense that Belgians work fewer hours than Americans. They work later days, going in and leaving later. And they protect vacation time pretty seriously; most Belgians take three weeks off in August for a family holiday. The stores being closed on Sundays is great, I think. We see lots of people riding horses and biking that day. And according to Forbes, Belgians rank their happiness among the highest in the world.

Within the first week of our arrival, Matthew experienced a commute home of nearly two hours. Traffic is bad here, and it varies a lot, but that was the longest it has ever been. We didn't know that then, though, and wondered whether we might need to move to another commune. At the time I met a woman who lives near us and whose husband commutes to where Matthew does. She told me that her husband left work at a late enough hour that he missed the evening rush, so it wasn't an issue for them. That was discouraging -- if Matthew worked that late, he wouldn't see the kids in the evening. She said, casually, "Well, that's how it is in Europe; kids don't see their dads."

I don't know whether she meant European families, or American ex-pat families, or whether she even knew what she was talking about. But the people I know well enough to have a sense of their family life are other ex-pats, and a defining characteristic of an ex-pat family is a spouse (almost always a husband -- I haven't actually met an ex-pat family who traveled for the wife's job) who works a lot, and often travels a lot. I mean, some of these families -- ay! I don't know how the wives/mothers do it. Even when Dad is in town, he's working late, and the norm is for the kids not to eat dinner with him. Less dad time takes away from quality of life in my book. I have resisted this, and we eat as a family more often than not, but the kids eat without Matthew here way more than they did in Minnesota.

We've gotten lots of hand-me-downs of kids' toys and books from other ex-pats. People move a lot, and they want to get rid of stuff. In a recent bundle was "When Dad's at Sea," a book about a daughter coping with the absence of her father, a U.S. Navy pilot who ships out for six months at a time. (This is from the neighbor who confused Soren's name -- maybe she's married to a "seaman.") The book seems like a great resource for families coping with that situation, but I don't think I'll be reading this to the kids. No need to worry them about something they don't need to worry about. I teared up just skimming through it. I am thankful that Matthew's never gone long enough to merit making a chain of paper strips to tear off for each day. He has a busy travel schedule this month -- Paris, Stockholm, Geneva, Amsterdam, and England, just in June. But this is not the norm, and his work schedule keeps him from us far less than the typical ex-pat's does.

So, keep those questions coming! I should have them all answered by the time we repatriate.

22 June 2009

Tongeren or bust

I wish I were posting today about our date in Antwerp Saturday night, perhaps giving excruciating details of a wonderful meal as before. But our second attempt to use the babysitting co-op was foiled by the stomach bug (as, you might recall, was our first). Soren had it a week ago Sunday, then Lily had it six days later. That's entirely too long between bouts. We thought we were safe. The bad guy looked dead, but came back to life with a vengeance. Aiiieee!

On a related note, I am here to inform you that a child safety gate does nothing to stop the descent of vomit. Matthew installed one Friday and uninstalled it on Saturday for a thorough cleaning.

So, we didn't get to go out to dinner, just the two of us. But we did go to Tongeren yesterday with the whole family.

Some of us were thrilled just to be getting out of the house.

Wow, there is a lot of stuff there, and good deals, too. Antique wooden wardrobes cheaper than you could get at IKEA. And lots of random little lovely items that made me want to start collecting old house letters er, numbers, or drinking aperitif to have a reason to buy the pretty little jewel-colored glasses.

We came home with just one purchase, a big galvanized tub (herb garden? copious cool beverages on ice?). But we will go back for more.

We were happy to celebrate Matthew yesterday. Soren had told him the day before, when I was out of the room, "I'm so excited to give you the shirt and shorts we bought you. It's a surprise!" At first Matthew pretended not to hear, but Soren was not going to be ignored.

In honor of Father's Day, let me show you my children's father in action. Here he is slowly, painfully, patiently, walking with Soren as he eats his ice cream cone, a napkin at the ready. I have never seen a child move slower through a treat than Soren with ice cream. He had barely made a dent in his one little scoop at this point, and the rest of us were done.

And oh, no, look! The certain distraction of a motorcycle.

The kids have been sick when Matthew has been home on the weekend. He cleans up the mess -- no discussion, no paper-scissors-rock, he just does it. That's a good father, and a good husband. We're lucky ducks to have him.


18 June 2009

Sunday sickies, swimmers, seniors

I was hoping I'd be posting photos from Tongeren this week. Tongeren is Belgium's oldest town, and home to an antique market that is supposed to be the best (huge, taking over the entire town, with good deals) in the Benelux region (I love this term: Belgium + Netherlands + Luxembourg). Our friend had offered (as part of a babysitting co-op she organized) to take our kids from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday so Matthew and I could drive the hour there and peruse it, just the two of us. Nice, huh? But poor Soren woke up before five, throwing up. And then a couple hours later Clara woke up with a fever. Then, Lily walked out of her bedroom with a gaping leg wound! No, no; thankfully our oldest was well. Ooh, it was a bummer, but dear Matthew took on sick duty, so Lily and I were able to go swimming. Time with just my Lily was precious.

The kids and I have been reading Little House on the Prairie over the past couple weeks, and in one chapter, the Ingalls family falls terribly ill with what they call "fever 'n' ague," but actually was malaria. When I told Lily that Clara had a fever, she asked, matter-of-fact, "What about ague?"

Soren had quite a morning, but by noon he was on the upswing. We laid low in the afternoon. While Clara napped upstairs and Lily and Soren watched some shows, Matthew and I plopped down on the couch to play Scrabble. In the middle of our game, with no words exchanged between us, we both set our letter trays down, laid back on our respective couch ends, and slept, to the soothing sounds of Handy Manny.

The day had started early, but still -- falling asleep while playing a sedate board game + napping with no forewarning? I think we may have qualified for early admission in AARP.

17 June 2009

Mmm, onion pie!

It is a beautiful day in Brussels, Belgium -- sunny blue skies, in the 20s (70s F). We played at the park and had a picnic this morning with some friends. Lovely. The day continued pleasingly as we stopped on the way home from the park to pick up our first "Collect & Go" groceries from Colruyt. I ordered them online yesterday and picked them up today. I have food, and we have not had to undertake a Grocery Trip in order to acquire it. A small, delightful victory.

After Soren was born, we ordered delivery groceries a few times, but in Minnesota, the stores or delivery services that offered this were higher end. So beyond paying a (not insignificant) fee, you paid more for groceries. I just couldn't justify doing it more than a handful of times. But Colruyt is a less expensive grocery store. And the fee is half or less of what I remember from Minnesota. And we have one more kid. This is really going to ease our weeks.

I have yet to master the online ordering process, though. It's in French or Dutch, and I completed it piecemeal, jumping on and off the computer in the midst of feeding the kids lunch yesterday, not wanting to miss the (uncertain, to me) deadline.


I am currently in possession of six kilos of red onions, or approximately 72 onions (rather than the six I wanted). I knew there were likely to be some snafus associated with this first order. I was surprised to get a call this morning asking whether I really wanted 2 packs of 6 tomatoes (yes). How thoughtful of them to check on that, I thought, and cautious. But now I marvel at the unexpectedness of 12 tomatoes in the face of a year's supply of red onions. Nevertheless, they were my mistakes, and I accept full responsibility. I received an email receipt after I placed an order; I should have checked it more carefully. So yes, my mistakes, the onions, the twelve mixed bell peppers (I wanted two, red), the sliced cold cut chicken (rather than chicken breasts), and the brown sugar candy (instead of brown sugar).

Regardless, I remain enthusiastic about Collect & Go, and look forward to hearing your red onion recipes. Fajitas, maybe. Chutney? Jam? Oh, what delight for young children, a pantry full of onions.

13 June 2009


I wrote about the issue of whether to call a place by its "insider" name in one of my Germany posts. This morning at a large "garage" sale (or brocante, the French term) held at one of the international schools, we bought a few puzzles and books. The one I am most excited about is Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, and he says it worlds better in the opening piece. It is about the ghetto-fication of genre fiction, how sci fi, mystery, etc., books are separated and relegated to less desirable real estate in bookstores than the "literary fiction," and, in libraries, acquire ridiculous stickers featuring, in the case of mystery novels, magnifying glasses. He writes that "genre" is "one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious."

10 June 2009

Memorial Day

Two weekends ago (the Saturday before Memorial Day), we attended a Memorial Day service held at the American cemetery in the Ardennes.

The hour-long service featured speeches in English and French from American and Belgian dignitaries, wreath-laying by Belgian and American armed forces, a Jewish funeral prayer, and the American national anthem sung by Belgian schoolchildren.

It started with a flyover from a U.S. Air Force Base in Germany -- the Missing Man formation.

It was all very moving, but watching veterans walk among the graves was especially so.

After the service we walked around the gorgeous grounds for a bit and made another attempt at a family photo.

Matthew's grandfather, Grandpa Ben, was a WWII veteran. He died one year ago today. We thought of him on our visit to the memorial and know how pleased he would have been to hear about the service.

09 June 2009

Running down a dream

The socks don't lie. It was race day. Actually, race days, both Saturday and Sunday of the weekend before last.

On Saturday, our church put on a children's race to raise money for Retrak.

Here's the field (Lily's and Soren's age group). We're on the far right.

Here's the course. They started on the far right (outside of the photo  you can see them partway up the lake on the right) [edited 6/10, after I used my eyes], ran counterclockwise around the little lake, and finished where Matthew was standing when he took the photo. It was about three times as long as I expected; I thought it would be a 100-yard dash sort of thing. It seemed nice that all the little runners got to have a longer race experience.

Matthew was at the end with the camera, and I was at the start with the video camera. (One day I will put some videos on the blog.) Most of the kids had a parent running alongside them, but not ours. We were too busy documenting the moment to participate in it. Modern parenthood!

Actually, I didn't realize parents were going, too, until they took off. A kind race coordinator grabbed Soren's hand when he needed some encouragement. Please note hand across belly, holding down race number that was ineffectively pinned by me.

Lily and Soren started together, but Lily "found another gear" (Matthew's term) pretty quickly, and bolted past him before they even turned the first corner. Here she is finishing, in the blue shirt (and given what I wrote just a couple weeks ago, I don't think I even need to tell you that she passed that girl). Oh, it was such fun to watch them.

Clara spectated,

and afterward, she raced, too. Against the clock.

File this away for next year: Four safety pins, not two.

Yes, as you can see, Soren's main competitor was the wind.

Sunday there was another race, featuring a few more runners (something like 27,000): the Brussels 20K. The Thursday before, our friend Joe told Matthew that a few people from his company's team had backed out, so they had extra race numbers for the taking.

"I think I'm going to do it," Matthew told me that morning. Great, I said at first. Sounds fun. Once he had headed off to work and I had a moment, though, I was not so enthusiastic. He's a smidge competitive, and I didn't want him to injure himself (given the back surgery from last spring). "I'll just treat it like a training run," he assured me. He didn't want to hurt his back and would ease up if anything felt off, he promised. Alright. I returned to full enthusiasm.

How did it go? Oh, gentle readers. The man has skills. Mad, mad, bucketfuls of running skills. His time was 1:28. His back felt fine, and it was a great encouragement to him. Hooray 20k!

The kids and I took the metro into the city with my friend Amanda and her kids to watch the race. We have taken the train in before, and we've been on subways in other cities, but this was the first time we've taken the metro in Brussels.

I only got one photo of Matthew. Unfortunately, his eyes are closed, but look! Here's our friend Joe. Not only did he give Matthew a race number and drive him to the race (with his wife who also ran -- go spouse team!), but he traveled to the U.S. last week and brought us back sweetened flaked coconut and a few other longed for pantry items. Thanks, Joe!

Here we are in Parc Cinquantenaire after Matthew finished. (Click here for a cool image of the park -- the race started and finished under the Arc de Triomphe, not to be confused with "the" Arc de Triomphe in Paris.)

Clara tasted her first frites, and approved.

Amanda got a photo of Matthew during the race. He's coming over to give the kids high fives. His eyes are closed here too. Oops. But doesn't he look happy? I'm so glad he got to race.

Matthew laughed when he saw this, saying it looks like he doesn't know what direction the race is. Well, when you're running with your eyes closed, these things happen.

03 June 2009

Extreme makeover, preschool edition





(He didn't get his hair cut today, just tried out a different expression.)

They've grown quite a bit since this haircut post from sixteen months ago!

(Wardrobe in photo one courtesy of my mom, who I'm pretty sure made that for me twenty-some years ago.)

02 June 2009


It's election season in Belgium. We received this in the mail last week.

I take it we're not his target audience, as our presence technically makes Europe a little less European.

Or maybe we are his target audience, and this is a warning.