31 August 2009

Car talk

The van that Matthew drives is in the shop (someone backed into me in a parking lot this summer), and he has a VW Golf for a loaner. It's a fun little car to drive. And, all three carseats can fit across the back. Whodathunk. The ergonomics of fastening the kids into their seatbelts is not ideal -- I have to lean way over, sort of squishing them, and reach back blindly to snap it into place. It takes me a bit of struggling, so both Lily and Soren have about thirty seconds in which to pull off my glasses, whisper sweet nothings into my ear, slowly stick out his or her tongue to taste my cheek -- I never know! Three carseats in one row is kind of cool, I think, and that's how the kids sit in the car I usually drive, my dear little Renault Scénic. Here's a photo of one that isn't mine but looks like it. Mine is black or dark grey or faded black that looks dark grey because it's seven years old -- not sure. I love it. I'm more fond of used cars than new. I've only had one new car, a Passat wagon back in Minnesota. I liked that car a lot, but I never felt chummy toward it as I do toward used cars.

There are more nice cars on the road here than in the U.S. Please don't ask me to define "nice car" or give you numbers to back this up. I just notice lots of higher end cars, and no real clunkers. Many people have company cars here -- the tax structure is such that companies are highly incentivized (yeah, I used that as a verb, but only to be funny) to give that as part of compensation. There's not a lot of color range. When we were back in the U.S. over Christmas I was struck by the wild colors (blue! red!) and junkers on the road.

I asked Matthew to take a photo of this parking lot we passed on a walk in the spring -- it gives you a sense. Black, grey, and silver, rule the day, and there's a lot of Audi, BMW, Volvo, Mercedes. Matthew would like to add that he also sees a Maserati often enough, which is a "pretty special car." (Sorry for all the technical jargon! Once you get us talking about cars, oh man.) Do you know that song with the line, "My Maserati does 185 . . ."? So does Matthew. He's singing it right now.

Once I saw a Hummer on the road here. It looked very out of place. The rare times we see a pickup, it gives me a blip of a warm nostalgic feeling, as anything American I encounter here does (Huey Lewis, John Philip Sousa).

There's a Smart car dealership really close to our home, with a big glass cylinder full of stacked little autos. We'll try to get a photo of it.

28 August 2009


Last month the kids and I were in front of the house, pulling weeds. There are a lot of hedges and bushes around, and although the landlords have a gardener come once a year to trim and shape the hedges (they are more manicured than is typical in Minnesota, and many are squared off), we are responsible for the yard work otherwise. The problem is, we've been woefully irresponsible about it. We have not had our proudest lawn care moments in this yard. And that's saying something -- in the flurry of moving here, I left a bunch of tomato plants to rot at our home in Minnesota. Shameful.

Anyhow, I was out front, weeding, the kids were "helping," and Clara was watching from the stroller. A police officer/community beautification controller? passed on a motorcycle, then backed up, said, "Mevrouw?" (may-frow = "ma'am"), and then said something to me that was very hard to make out not only because I don't know Dutch, but also because he wore a high-tech motorcycle helmet that covered the entire lower half of his face. He looked overdressed for his patrolling of our little town.

He was pointing at the (many) weeds in the gravel in front of the property. I've never really known if this was part of our property, the four feet of gravel all along the front property line of our house. Neighbors park on it frequently, so I guess I figured it was public. Turns out, I was wrong! I never did make out what he was saying, but his gesture was pretty clear. He pointed down at the weeds, poke, poke, poking his finger toward them. "You're telling me to pull those weeds?" I asked, and yes, he nodded, he was.

I wanted to poke poke poke my finger at him too but just turned away. If it's our responsibility, it's our responsibility, and we should do it. So why does this irk me no end? Several reasons, I guess -- not wanting to be told I'm doing something wrong; not wanting the job of picking weeds out of gravel; feeling the wind taken out of my sails (my sails full, I guess, of the sweet breeze of accomplishing picking a few weeds with all three kids in tow); reticence to adapt to cultural norms that I find quaint in others but inconvenient for me (e.g., sweeping the sidewalk or raking the gravel in front of one's home).

Two years into our experience here, I still find that small irritations I experience get blown up into Irritation with the Country. It's a reflex, but it's unfair. So really, Belgium, I am not irritated with you. I am irritated with you, Masked Motorcycle Man, just you, one person. And not for telling me I'm not doing something I'm supposed to be doing, but for telling me rudely, and for not taking your helmet off so I could hear you properly.

Maybe I'll explain that to him, when he comes back because I haven't picked the weeds yet.

27 August 2009

More classic schmustomer schmervice

I've mentioned before how some Belgian shopowners or workers seem to be irritated when you want to give them your money. Last week I had to get a photo taken for a passport. I went to a photo store, said, "Passport photo, alstublieft (please)?" and the employee promptly told me to sit, took my picture, and started printing photos. As she was doing that, I noticed a small posting explaining the price differences for U.S. and European passports and asked, "This will work for a U.S. passport?" She gave me an annoyed look and said, "You have to tell me that." I had to sit down again, this time with my hair behind my ears and no smile (which makes me look less American, actually, the not smiling). I guess I should have specified, but I didn't know there were country-by-country differences. If she needed more information to know what to give me, shouldn't she have clarified? And regardless -- even if I were totally in the wrong -- why so rude?

Maybe I'm nitpicking with that example, but yesterday was a classic. I entered a copy store, and asked, in Flemish, whether the man who walked over to me spoke English. "Yeah," he said, in an annoyed up-speak. I don't want to be the Rude American who just blasts out with English, assuming the other person knows it, because (maybe this is obvious) I want to respect the fact that English isn't the language here, and also, not everyone does speak it -- but sometimes the responder seems insulted that I would even ask.

So, I asked for what I needed (forty color copies, cut), and he started gesturing around, shaking his head. His eyes were wide and his hands were upturned. He looked helpless. "It's difficult . . . ," he said. I saw one other person in the store, fixing a copier. "Especially with three children," he added. My children, he meant, who apparently would be running around like gremlins tearing paper while he's printing my project, or hindering his work some other way. He gestured to a stack of maybe two hundred papers on his desk, and says, "I have a lot of work . . ." I asked whether it would be hours, or days? And he pulled out our old favorite, "It's not possible" -- it's not possible for him to say, but it's best for me to just leave my file with him and he'll try. The whole time his demeanor was shouting: "Leave, Woman, and take those small humans far, far away from me." I'll just go elsewhere, I said, smiling, and thanked him for his help.

I noticed a cheery customer service sign on the way out about my problems being his problem. No, no. I don't think we have the same problem, Mister.


And then back out, quickly.

26 August 2009


At the grocery store this afternoon, my irritation that there are no seat belts in the shopping carts was renewed as I stopped multiple times to save Clara from certain head trauma. Driving home, I was thinking about how Belgium just isn't as into safety as the U.S. is -- I see kids not in car seats, or even seatbelts, way more often here -- and what do I find in my in-box but further proof that they are less safety-conscious here: A chance to jump off a Brussels landmark. Riskiness, it's fun sometimes. (Thanks, Anne.)

25 August 2009


Belgium's damp climate makes for an ideal habitat for certain critters. After dinner tonight we took a walk/bike/stroll around the neighborhood. We do this a certain way: Matthew walks or jogs right next to Lily, who is getting steady on two wheels but still likes to know Daddy's hand is right there. She brushes aside my offers to assist, and I can hardly blame her. I'd pick Matthew, too. I push Clara in the stroller next to Soren, who is very confident with his training wheels. He has a nice horn in the shape of a dinosaur that he slows down to sound occasionally. The three of us are usually trailing behind, but we were really slow this evening, because Soren and I were on Slug Patrol.

We saw easily two dozen slugs, most in the three-to-four inch long range. It seemed like an evening migration was underway, as several were starting to cross the street into the forest. They are thick, furry looking blobs. We saw two fat ones resting on the milky stems of a weed. Another one had acquired a downy bird's feather, to be cozy, Soren told me. We enjoyed the flora as well as the fauna; Soren stopped to pick me a daisyline (dandelion).

It's getting to be the time of year when we see wide spans of spider webs gracing hedges everywhere. We marveled at these last fall, and I tried to take some photos on a walk, but couldn't get the focus right. There are some very large spiders here. Belgium is toughening me up. As I dealt with one earlier this week, I realized that I'm no longer really startled by a spider unless it casts a shadow on our cupboards, as this one did.

24 August 2009

The long goodbye

Since February, we have said goodbye to five families we have spent time with here. Of those five families, only one of them expected to be leaving when they did. The others learned suddenly, whether because an employer made the call, or the husband accepted a new job that sprung up, or, in one case, a major health issue made living near family paramount.

Things change so quickly. In late June we attended a going-away party originally planned to send off two families. Shortly before the event, the hosts learned that they too were leaving, so a third name was thrown on the cake. And a friend who joked with me at that same party about being left behind, threatening to knock on my door all the time in the coming year, has since returned to the U.S.

When we first arrived, people would ask us how long we expected to be here, and I would say "Two or three years." (And within a couple months, Matthew was piping in with, "Most likely three," so then I knew it was probably three.) Often enough, that person would laugh knowingly and say that's what they said too, "and now here we are, eight years later . . . " That irked me (as being told one doesn't really know what one is talking about is wont to do), but it's true -- the length of stays here are often other than what was expected.

It makes for a strange dynamic of friendship. One family that we met the fall we arrived thought they were leaving the very next summer, but through the course of the schoolyear decided that they would stay one more year. When they told us they would be here longer, I said, "Oh, good, now we can commit to you." We all laughed -- Ha ha ha! -- and the husband teased me about that when we said goodbye to them this summer. But I wasn't really joking. I don't want to get to know someone and find out that I like them, only to have a few months knowing them and then have to say goodbye and miss them.

Self-protection, I guess. And sort of silly, too, given that all of our relationships here are short-lived -- not the friendships, hopefully, but the living in proximity and having a shared experience. For how long must our stays overlap for it to be "worth it"? Can I get a cost/benefit metric to apply here, please? I know it's absurd. And something good comes from the awareness of its being fleeting. Knowing that I only have a year left with people makes me more intentional about spending time with them.

I just googled "friendships for a season" because I thought I remembered some painful poem or something about this. I remembered right. Proof of its cheesiness: I found it on a menopause website. I'll spare you that, but I must use this line from the most cheesy of Joni Mitchell songs (I love Joni but this song is just made to be sung at summer camp when you're in junior high and a girl), "And the seasons, they go round and round": I introduced myself to a woman at the park this summer because I overheard her talking to her kids in a southern U.S. accent. (I would have spoken to her if she had any American accent; she just happened to be Texan.) When I learned she is a new arrival and expects to be here for three to five years, I thought, Well, OK. I can be a source of information for you, but you probably want to find other people to really befriend, because I'm leaving next summer.

But: kids. They're so innocent! And resolute in their willingness to form bonds with people from whom they will be separated. Lily had a lot of fun playing with the eldest daughter of this family, and we were invited to their house for the kids to play another day. I subverted my urge to protect us all from foreseeable pain in relationships, and I accepted.

22 August 2009

Belgium is alive with the sound of music

A little something to make you smile: an "impromptu" choreographed version of Do Re Mi in the Antwerp train station. That I don't witness all that much smiling in public in Belgium makes this all the more delightful. (Thanks, CK!)

21 August 2009

Be aggressive! Got to be aggressive!

I find it surprising and funny that the sports teams at the International School of Brussels, which is comprised almost entirely of non-Belgians, are called the "Raiders."

19 August 2009

Gender studies

I took these photos on the same day earlier in the summer. Both kids are heavily into dressing up these days.

18 August 2009

O Canada!

Victory is mine! I came across reasonably priced pure maple syrup, imported from Canada, at a little sandwich shop this summer. I think this was 5 or 6 euros. Otherwise it's hard to find and incredibly expensive (17 euros), so we have asked people to bring it for us when they've visited. We love pancakes.

It was the only bottle on the shelf, next to an assortment of gourmet condiments. It seemed quite random. I was glad to see it, but I'm not sure I ever will again.

I am more than halfway done with my goal of twenty posts (five per week) in August. Dear Blog, You are so demanding. Love, Your Author.

17 August 2009

Insights on Belgian culture from three European women: 1. The Frenchwoman

Sylvie* has lived in Belgium for almost two years. She is a French woman working for an American company here. She's in her late twenties or early thirties and single. I met her, a friend of a friend, at a party earlier this summer, and I asked about her Belgian experiences and impressions.

She thinks Belgians are closed off, that most people are friends with the same people they've known since kindergarten, so you can't break into their circle. She would like to move back to the U.S. (she's lived there before), but definitely does not want to stay in Belgium long-term.

Flemish people are warmer to her once they realize she's French and not Wallonian (French-speaking Belgian). She has had conversations with Flemish people in which they have refused to speak French, acting as though they cannot (she does not speak Flemish/Dutch), but once they recognize her accent as French (as in, from France), they are willing to speak it. Wallonians, though, are cool to her when they realize she is French.

Sometimes she says she's Canadian to dodge the whole thing.

This goes back to the country's complicated language history. Here is a language map of Belgium. Brussels, while technically bilingual, is heavily French (around 80%) at least in part due to the international community there. We live southeast of the city, in Flanders but just five minutes' drive from Wallonia.

(Flemish people speak a dialect of Dutch. Sometimes they refer to the language as Flemish, but as far as we can tell, that term more often refers to the culture and people, and they call the language Dutch.)

Sylvie told me there was a time when Flemish Belgians were required to learn French but Wallonian Belgians did not have to learn Dutch. My impression is that learning both is an option, if not a requirement, at public schools in both regions today. At the (French-speaking) school Lily attended, pre-school aged students could take optional Dutch lessons, and my friend's six-year-old son started required Dutch classes in his French primary school.

There's concern among the Flemish about losing their culture. Here's a story from three years ago about a town that banned any language other than Dutch to be spoken inside its school. This is particularly noteworthy given that the town is just nine miles outside of (heavily French speaking) Brussels.

Complicating this is the fact that Flanders is economically superior to Wallonia, with less unemployment, more industry, and just basically more money.

Here's how I handle the language dilemma. If I'm in a French commune or Brussels, I speak French as much as I can. In Flemish towns, I greet and count to five in Dutch, say please and thank you and goodbye -- not all in a row, I have to pace myself! -- and otherwise resort to English. Even though I can speak much more French than Flemish, and they almost surely speak French, I've concluded that it may be more offensive to speak French to a Flemish person than to be a stupid American who lives overseas and doesn't learn the language, so I opt for the latter identity.

*I want to tell you her real (beautiful) name but have changed it to protect the innocent.

14 August 2009


Look at these young fools. They have no idea what they're doing, really.

I'm so glad they did it anyhow.

It is my great honor and joy to step into the unknown, every day, holding hands with this man.

Yip, yip, yippee! It's our tenth anniversary.

13 August 2009

Italy, part X: Siena P.S.

One American family caught my attention in the Duomo. It appeared to be two forties-ish sisters traveling with their husbands and grade-school aged children. I overheard one of the mothers explain the confessional booths in brief to her daughter, ending with a snappy, "It's a religion of guilt."

"Totally," the other mother added.

I'm not Catholic. I've never confessed to a priest sitting behind a mesh screen. But I'll admit -- confess! -- I value the discipline of confession to someone, or Someone. So, I'm biased. I'm a believer.

And sure, it's a religion of guilt, when done wrong. (Isn't any religion?)

But, in this structure, walking in through this?

And looking up at this?

Is your heart made of stone/marble, woman?

Italy, part IX: Pienza, Lucca

After Pisa, we went to Lucca. We didn't take many pictures, but what a lovely town. You can see on the left below the wide wall that surrounds the city. You can bike atop it (we didn't). There are some beautiful leather shops and cute boutiques through this town.

Earlier in the week we went to Pienza.

Our lovely lunch here included two of our favorite food items of the week: wine and pecorino cheese (at this place we had it at three stages of ripeness).

This reminds me, another dish we enjoyed a couple times this week, although not in Pienza, was panzanella salad. Recipes I've seen for this always feature cubed toasted bread, but these consisted of bread crumbs (with tomato, cucumber, onion, etc.) and were molded into shape.

Across the piazza from this building was the Palazza Piccolomini, which we toured. Pope Pius II was born there.

The kids did a lot of jumping in this town. They leapt from one ledge on which a group of older Italian men sat. The men looked at them with concern, and back to us, and said concerned-sounding Italian things to us, but we let them jump anyway.

12 August 2009

Italy, part VIII: Four things Soren loves

1. Stinky cheese.

2. Bubbly water.

3. Knowing that Matthew and I love that he loves #1 and #2. When he encounters them, he reminds us. “I LOVE bubbly water.” “I LOVE stinky cheese.” Every time, and usually multiple times throughout the meal.

(Soren loves stinky soft cheeses, like camembert, but not blue cheeses.)

4. Three-wheeled trucks (photo courtesy of Lily).

11 August 2009

Italy, part VII: Italian Riviera

We spent a day on the Italian Riviera.

The kids had a blast.

Lily was pretty unafraid in the water -- proud that she did a backward somersault as she got hit by the waves. Daddy's girl.

Early in the day, Matthew expressed concern to me about Clara eating sand.

At first, I thought it was no big deal.

Before too long it did seem a little unusual.

Quick! Distract her with water!

Last year some people thought it looked like Matthew had a tribal armband tattoo. Here, maybe, an eagle on his left shoulder?

Just as last year in Mallorca, I marveled at the bikinis. This day I saw a handful of one-pieces, one other tankini besides mine, but otherwise, all the women, young and old, fat and thin, stretched-out and sleek, wore bikinis. I love this about European women. "It's holiday! We wear bikinis!"

Please note Italian middle-aged man posture of hands on hips.

We arrived at the beach shortly after 9 a.m. and it was already towel-to-towel crowded. We had no idea! Playing in the ocean was such a treat but with keeping our eyes on our stuff, watching three kids around big waves, and pondering how sand affects an infant's digestion, one day was sufficient.

07 August 2009

Italy, part VI: Pisa

Pisa hadn't been a must-see for us, but it was on our way as we left Tuscany and headed north. On the hot Saturday we drove through the town, we struggled to find parking, saw the rows and rows of vendors hawking trinkets, and considered just getting back on the highway -- we had seen the Tower from the road, most of it at least. But the kids were pretty excited about "the Leaning Over Tower of Pisa" (Soren's phrasing), so we did it.

When we were in Florence, we saw lots of tourists, but the sights are spread out around the city so it never seemed crowded (except in museum lines). Pisa's sightseeing is focused around one square. It was downright overrun.

Matthew wondered if his eyes were tricking him, but I looked it up, and indeed, all the buidings on the square (called the Field of Miracles) lean, but none as severely as the tower.

What better place to let the kids pick out a souvenir than Tourism Central? Lily eyed a fan that sent me into high nostalgia mode. (I now am humming the jingle for Nostalgie, an oldies station in Brussels: "Noooh . . . stahllll . . . HEEEE!") My dad brought me one from Spain when I was her age. I loved that fan. Even after it broke, I kept it in my nightstand wistfully. Perhaps the fan-repair fairy would visit one night? Lily's has a different design on the fabric (the tower, of course), but the cream plastic frame decorated with golden filigree is identical to mine. I admired her fan so intensely and reminisced about mine enough that Lily finally told me I could get one, too. But I didn't, and I didn't buy any of these, either:

Soren did select a keychain of The Leaning Over Tower of Pisa.

Maybe it was funny when the first guy posed like he was holding up the tower, but the thirty-seventh(ish) person who did it while we were there didn't seem so clever.

That doesn't mean I don't wish I had had the kids pose for that photo, though. If they had done it, it would have been incredibly clever, and cute, and hilarious.

06 August 2009

Italy, part V: Florence

We spent one day in Florence. We went to three museums -- one per child. This was ambitious. We planned ahead. Back home I had shown the kids a book of Uffizi art that my grandma gave me (fifteen years ago!) and gave them the assignment of finding Botticcelli's The Birth of Venus and Primavera. They know the story of David and Goliath, and we showed them a picture of Michelangelo's sculpture so they could find that too. We purchased tickets on-line so that we would not have to wait in line, which was worth the money as the lines were long. And we had low expectations about how much we would see and didn't wander aimlessly through any museum. We knew what we wanted to see, headed for it, and made a prompt exit for gelato. (Our day in Florence was our only two-gelato day.)

First we visited the San Marco Museum, home to works by Fra Angelico. A room on the ground floor displayed several of his paintings, but the highlight was the first floor. Many of the monks' cells, small rooms in a U-shape (Matthew called it a "rudimentary dormitory") feature a fresco by Fra Angelico (also a monk, hence the "Fra"). It was just so unexpected -- the tiny, sparse rooms with amazing paintings adorning their walls (frescoes are painted directly on walls). My two favorite paintings were The Annunciation, which stood at the top of the staircase, and featured angel's wings glimmering with gold flecks, and another depiction of the annunciation he painted in one of the cells. In my class we studied this genre of painting (genre?) -- when an angel visits Mary to tell her she's going to have a baby, and he's going to be Jesus -- and learned about the different postures painters gave her: surprise, fear, humility. Fra Angelico's Marys look quietly humble and trusting.

In the Accademia, they put the big draw right up front. We had barely entered, turned the corner, and there, at the end of the long room, was David, all by himself in a rotunda. Not hard for the kids to find! It was breathtaking -- really -- I inhaled sharply when we walked into the room. This was unexpected. I've seen this image hundreds of times, I suppose, and usually in a har-har way. (After we returned, I saw him even on one of my bookmarked sites, lovelylisting.com.) It was just magnificent! I knew he was larger than life, but he was much bigger than I imagined. He's about two and a half times life size -- over fourteen feet.

I am sort of embarrassed to admit this, but I don't feel like before this day I really paused to consider that this was not formed, but revealed -- that Michelangelo did not take a lump of clay and form David, but tick-tick-ticked marble away. I knew that, but I didn't really think about what that meant and what a feat it really is.

We looked at David for a long time, and then walked back through Michelangelo's Prisoners. I think they are called this because they are unfinished, so they look like they're trying to break free from the marble. Then we headed for the exit.

A church tour seemed too much to ask the kids amid three museums, so we viewed the Duomo from the outside only, and delighted in its green and white marble. It seems so daring, this colorful marble the Italians put on their churches.

At the Uffizi, we just did as much as we could, but it was the end of the day, and we were all tired. My plan of seek-the-painting was fine but didn't take up that much time. We were ready to go home.

05 August 2009

Sprouting into her second year

We started Clara's birthday with some pancakes, "birthday pancakes," because there is a candle on them.

Sometimes a gal feels shy on her birthday.

Here Clara is the only one noticing the melting candle dangling precipitously close to the table.

After breakfast we opened some gifts with lots of help from Lily and Soren.

It was a first birthday -- the wrapping paper and bows were the biggest hit.

Even when she puts on a birthday dress we don't let her crawl up the stairs. We're strict like that.

Why, it's a birthday party for Ms. Clara Irene Jacobs!

There were fajitas!

All the attention as the cake was brought out and we sang to her made her a bit uncomfortable.

Plus, there were the annoying accoutrements.

Hmm, "cake," you say? With "frosting"? I guess I can try it.

Ooh! More birthday presents!

And here is Clara's friend Rachel. She is five months younger than Clara. They have fun together, except when Clara touches her, or at this point, even reaches to touch her, because Clara has been a bit grabby.

Clara has become a baby monster, crawling quickly and lunging for, then grabbing or kiss-biting children younger (not necessarily smaller) than she is. We attended a birthday party two days before Clara's birthday where we only knew the host family, and I had to segue from meeting one woman to apologizing when Clara bit her son on his forehead.

At the same party, however, Clara took her first steps! And has taken some most days since then. She's a rip-roarer, this jelly bean, all seventeen and a half pounds of her. Ah, Wilda-ness!