30 September 2009

Terrain and climate

Stuck on a stoplight near the kids' school is an "I [heart] Belgium" sticker. Could I display that sticker? I have spent an inordinate amount of space on this blog devoted to analyzing some of the less-than-ideal personal interactions we've had in this country. It's mostly in the spirit of cultural curiosity -- I've had plenty of bad customer service in the U.S., but what I've experienced here has been unpleasant in such a different way that it intrigues me. I realize that sometimes my cultural curiosity flips into mild irritation, though, so in the spirit of cultural appreciation, I would like to tell you that I do, indeed, heart Belgium in some ways. I love the land, and I kind of even like the weather.

Yes, even the weather. When we first moved, people would say, "Aah, the winter will be hard for you." Oh hohohoho, no, no no, we are from Minnesota. I would explain where Minnesota is, that we get a lot of snow and it's much colder, and that our winters are very long. The main complaint about the Belgian winter is how gray it is. It is. It's very gray. I anticipated it bothering me, but it doesn't. I loved our Tuscan vacation, but was content to return to Belgium where the sun isn't so insistent all the time. I can't believe I actually thought that, that the sun was "insistent." I can see that our children are getting accustomed to the weather, too. On a cloudy day recently, with a bit of sun shining in through the kitchen window, Soren complained about it burning his back. He's going through a hyperbole stage, but still, I think he's becoming a smidge Belgian.

I prefer the winters mostly because they're not nearly as cold. It's more damp, because we're not far from the sea, but it's not as cold. People complained about the weather here last January and February, but we had just spent time in Minnesota and had been nearly snowed in at my grandparents' farm in North Dakota, so from the time we landed in Belgium, it felt like spring to me.

The toughest part is that winter days are even shorter here than in Minnesota. Here's the expected sunrise/sunset for Brussels in December. The sun will set around 4:30 p.m. and rise around 8:40 a.m. The Minnesota chart is here. Oh, interesting! The sun sets around the same time, but it rises an hour earlier in Minnesota. That goes along with what my mother-in-law Debbie observed when they visited our first Christmas here, that it's so dark in the morning that you feel like you're waking extra early to catch a plane or something.

So, I like the weather OK, certainly more than most ex-pats, but I downright love the countryside around where we live. Now, if we had been childless, I would have wanted to live in Brussels proper. On our trip over here to find a place, we visited two tall, skinny homes in the city -- five levels with a couple rooms on each floor. We loved them, but they didn't seem practical with young kids. How many gates would we have had to buy for all those flights of slick wooden stairs?

I would like to experience urban European dwelling, but I love the little commune we ended up in. It has its own identity, its own church and square and little sense about it, but within not even a five minute drive, we're in the city limits of Brussels. When we were getting our dental checkups in Minnesota, the hygenist asked me where we live. Outside of Brussels, I explained, and then she asked, "So, a
suburb?" Well, no, not really. We're so close to the city, but we hear sheep and goats maaa-ing, there is a pasture three houses down from us with two horses, a big Belgian horse lives three minutes the other direction, and grapes are grown in greenhouses behind homes nearby. But it's not really rural, either -- certainly not in the same way my grandparents' farm is rural, with the closest neighbors hundreds of yards away. The houses are close together, for the most part. I don't know of a corollary in the midwest, really, so it was hard to explain. Plus, she was flossing my teeth at the same time, which made it even more difficult.

But the best part of where we live has to be the Forêt de Soignes. If you look on this map you see all the green area on the southeast side of the city. (Brussels itself has nineteen communes -- one of them being called Brussels, which confuses it a bit -- that's the very heart of the city -- but, e.g. Woluwe-Saint-Pierre is in the city. Oh, here's a map that shows that.) We walk into the forest right at the end of our street. It's just beautiful. We see horses trotting, dogs walking, mountain bikers, hikers. We've spent many hours exploring it, and I think it'll be the place we all miss the most. I whole-heartedly heart the forest.

28 September 2009

Please Mr. Postman

A very common mailbox around these parts:

24 September 2009


Last weekend was Druivenfeest. We live in Belgium's druivenstreek ("grape region"). [The word "druiven" reminds me of the old VW tagline, fahrvergnügen. Can you believe that's twenty years old? I just learned that here while searching for the spelling.] Every September our town hosts a three-day celebration. It was a beautiful day Saturday and we spent a few hours enjoying the festivities. We walked from our house with the kids in a wagon and Clara in the jogging stroller. What fun we had!

Grapes are grown here for eating, not wine. They are huge, beautiful, and uniformly round. Their flavor is less tart and sweeter. We bought a box from a man who grows them quite close to us.

We had my favorite treat, smoutebollen (called oliebollen in Holland). These could make a Minnesotan forget all about the fried wonders of the State Fair. They are hot, yeasty, powdered-sugared balls of deep-fried dough. They are way better than mini donuts.

The woman in the white tank top is making our smoutebollen. She scoops dough out of the large metal container she's resting her left hand on, then drops the dough into the oil to her right. I love how they wrap them up, in the white paper cones.

In each of those buns there are two foot-long hot dogs.

Another favorite treat came from this pannekoeken stand. I like mine with brown sugar. Matthew had a chocolate banana one. The kids had waffles.

Matthew and Soren had some wholesome father-son fun on the bumper cars,

except for the strip club design and the song thumping over the loudspeakers with the repeated lyric, "Get a move on, a******!" I wish you could hear Matthew sing it.

We let Soren go on the R-rated bumper cars, but none of us rode this one, "Sex Dance."

It's hard to see, but the little diamonds between the American looking number one at the top say "Sex" and "Dance." (It also said that in huge letters at the bottom of the ride, but we don't have a photo of that.) This ride, like the bumper cars, features airbrushed "art" of "women." I'd like to do a little reading about why carnivals and arcades seem to be misogyny training camps for antisocial pubescent males.

Here's our innocent little Sprout with her new namesake bib, pained at her early exposure to vulgar lyrics and offensive depictions of women.

The good buddies rode a roller coaster together. The neighboring ride played a song that featured profanity heavily. Why? Why on the kids' end of the carnival?

Safety around these rides is marginal. The kids could have just walked into the path of the roller coaster, no problem. There were no rails or ropes, and no lines for the ride. Whoever has paid for a ride just jumps on when the train stops.

Any town resident can get a few feet of curbside to sell items during the festival. I liked these tins, especially the big red one in the upper right. The Dutch version of "bon appetit" is "smakelijk" (I really like the sounds in Dutch; this term connotes lip smacking) and this tin was a coffee brand name riff on smakelijk.

Clara likes to do what her big sister and brother do.

but sometimes she's too little.

She watched them have fun,

and had some toddler-sized fun herself.

We took a free ride on the swings. Wow, that was the longest swing ride I've had. The last couple orbits I was not feeling too hot. I didn't know until looking at the photos that Lily wasn't, either.

After all this fun, we were pretty well druivened out.

We did return Monday evening to see the bike race and eat some more fair food.

Before I leave you, let me share one more awesome brand name: Big Booby hot dogs,

and show you how Clara greets people these days. She walks toward them, pointing and smiling. Look out, Wink Martindale!

Hey you! Come on down to the Druivenfeest!

See you next time, folks! Have your pets spayed or neutered.

21 September 2009


We bought a used play house from some neighbors last weekend.

Lily and Soren helped clean it while Clara napped.

When she saw it, she was very pleased.

She likes to open and close the gate, door, and windows,

and enter and exit,

and take in the view from her front porch.

Where the only thing going on is learning

The title of my post is the motto on a north Minneapolis school's marquee. Why so defensive, I'd wonder as I passed. I imagine a principal approaching a group of students who appear to be up to no good. "What's going on here?" he demands. The students are startled. They reply nervously, "Nothing! I swear. The only thing going on here is learning!"

The only thing going on lately on my blog is learning -- posts about school, that is -- but I think I'm fresh out after this one.

Last year, Lily had a subscription to French books through her maternelle, and her friend (you know, the lazy cheater) took the last ones home for her after she stopped attending. Considering our opting out of the three-night trip her class did, I had to laugh when we read one, "La provision de bisous de Zou" ("Zou's Supply of Kisses").

Zou is a cute zebra preschooler going on an overnight with his classmates. He is a little nervous, but his parents fill a small tin with pieces of paper that they have kissed. (Mom's side of the papers seem preferable because they have lipstick evidence of the kiss.) When Zou misses home the first night, he pulls out a kiss paper, holds it to his cheek, and feels better. When a bébé near him starts really wailing, Zou calms him down by giving him a paper kiss. Others see this, and soon enough Zou is consoling the entire class by sharing his paper kisses. The next day the other kids shower him with gifts of food in thanks, and Zou is having too much fun to think about home or his depleted supply of kisses.

This reminded me of my time as a very homesick grade schooler at German camp. My mom did just the thing a parent should do in this situation: She wrote letters detailing how boring life at home was. I remember reading about them selecting a new dishwasher, and could I even imagine how bored my poor sister was on that errand? They all knew I was doing a lot more fun and exciting things at camp!

My mom successfully conveyed one huge yaaaaawn! to home life in these letters, but I still spent a lot of time at camp crying. They went shopping for a dishwasher? Sounds homey, and comfortable. I'd like to have seen Zou try to console me with one of his flimsy paper kisses.

I do remain curious about the seeming push to get children independent early in Belgium (western Europe?). When Lily was at a Belgian school, it irritated me, but now that we're out of that culture and I have some distance, I just look at it with wonder. And I can't figure it out.

At first I thought, it's not about the higher percentage of dual income families here than in the U.S., is it? Because with both parents working, I suppose it's in everyone's interest to have kids form strong attachments with their friends and teachers at creches or schools, and taking a trip together surely cultivates that. But I rejected this theory based on my gut, that I just don't see a trip like this being embraced by any segment of American parents. And then I found this statistic, which (if it's accurate -- this is the first time I've seen this site) shows Belgium has only a slightly higher percentage of working mothers than America. I just can't see this happening in the U.S. -- four-year-olds going on three-night overnights with school. I don't see any American mom I know, working or not, liking this idea. Are you out there, American mom who likes this idea? Please comment.

And I don't think it's about Belgians not being as close to family as Americans are -- Belgians typically settle close to where they were raised, near extended family, and I see a lot of grandparents out and about with their grandchildren.

Is this about American parents being overprotective? Or, to spin it the other way, Belgian parents being underprotective? Enough with the pejoratives! I'll temper myself: Perhaps Americans are more protective of their children than Belgians are. Aha! This fits with my shopping cart seatbelt observation. Do Americans want their kids to depend on them longer, and Belgians desire them to be more independent? Do Belgians view parenthood less sentimentally and more practically than Americans do? And, to all of these: WHY? How will I ever get to the bottom of this when I just throw theories out there willy-nilly, google random statistic sites, and the only Belgian friend I had just moved with her children to America?

17 September 2009

Dear Diary

There's more back story about our school decisions that I want to document. I know I don't need to convince anyone that we made the right choice, but this is my only journal about our time here -- I'm not keeping more private writing in, say, a red leatherette diary with a flimsy golden key. (In my red leatherette diary with a flimsy golden key, you would find the names of boys I had crushes on in grade school. You would find them, but you wouldn't be able to read them! Ha! I wrote them tricky style, scribbling the letters of their names one on top of each other -- a letter stack, you might say.)

Nope, no private Belgian diaries for me. This blog, with its impossible to remember name, is it. So, three reasons I'm glad the kids' current school situation is what it is:

1. In June, I was invited to attend an informal homeschooling cooperative. I'm not sure keeping pre-K kids out of school is "homeschooling," but I was glad to be included in a group like this. The time was structured so that the kids played together for a while and then sat and did their own work at a large kitchen table. Our family had both the youngest, Clara, and the youngest oldest (in other words, every other family had an eldest child older than Lily). Lily and Soren both enjoy doing preschool workbooks at home, but they didn't want to sit and work while surrounded by all these potential playmates. I didn't even try to get Soren to sit with pencil in hand because he was so excited about a large car park toy, and I couldn't spend much time helping Lily focus, either, because Clara was racing toward stairs and discovering puzzle pieces and such. So even though the other moms were welcoming and kind, it was discouraging. It was the only opportunity I knew about for our older two to interact with peers regularly, and it didn't work very well for us.

2. My friend Marie, whose son was in Lily's maternelle class, is Belgian but has lived in America and elsewhere in Europe. Her son and Lily were fast friends as they were both learning French for the first time, and Marie was warm and helpful to me. One day this spring, her son came running out of school at the end of the day, crying. Marie learned that the class had been doing an assignment that he hadn't understood, so he had waited to see how the others did it before he started. It was clear to her that it was a language issue. She talked to Mme. J. (who had been Lily's teacher, too) about it, and Mme. J. said, in front of the boy, that he was "cheating" and "lazy." Those are harsh words for any student to hear, but for a five-year-old? Good grief.

3. Last year, a man broke into a Belgian nursery school and stabbed several students and staff. The same thing could have happened in America, a friend said. Yes, of course. But two incidents closer to home raised concern about security in the local (i.e., government-run) schools. (All the international schools we've visited have had stricter security and a lower student-to-teacher ratio so that ensuring all the students were accounted for wasn't nearly as concerning.)

A friend of mine went to her five-year-old son's French-speaking school to pick him up in the middle of the day. She walked right into the school; the doors were open. She passed through the halls and saw no teachers. She poked her head into her son's classroom and didn't see him (or a teacher). Finally she went outside, saw him on the playground with a couple other kids, and walked off with him, never seeing an adult the entire time. She went home, livid, but kept her cool enough to call the principal and ask to speak to her son. When the principal told her he couldn't find him, she explained what had happened. Instead of apologies, there were excuses, and accusations that she had simply been mistaken and overlooked the teacher in the classroom. (As it turns out, all the teachers had been taking a coffee break at the same time.)

And the four-year-old son of another friend got off the premises of his (again, French) maternelle and walked along a busy street to the neighboring primary school where his older brother attended, because he missed him.

Neither of these children attended the school Lily and Soren did. But they didn't attend the same school as each other, either -- I couldn't chalk it up to one school's lackadaisical security.

Writing negatively about the Belgian schools once we've chosen against them makes me feel like a high school girl who keeps telling her friends that her new boyfriend is so much nicer and cuter than her ex. Her friends might get tired of it, but -- You guys!! It's TRUE!

15 September 2009

If this is wrong then I don't want to be right

Four months ago I posted about ending Lily and Soren's time at the local Francophone school and stated that they wouldn't go to school again in Belgium. I even used all caps.

Why? Why the all caps? I should have learned by now, especially as a parent, to stop making definitive, "I'll never!"/"Oh, I always . . ." statements: "Oh, when I am a mom, I'll never [fill in the blank with the imperfect parenting move I just witnessed]." I remember, pre-motherhood, rolling my eyes at the recommendation to parents, "You must be consistent." How blisteringly obvious. But now! Now, I know it is exhausting to be consistent. Sometimes I just want to pretend I didn't observe some nasty little bit of behavior so I do not have to engage in a five (ten? fifteen?) minute discipline moment.

Motherhood is, I hope, training me in the art of being wrong gracefully. I'm still mulish at times (check with Matthew if an example doesn't jump to your own mind), but I have been wrong so often as a mother that I think I just may be learning to do it better.

So, I was wrong! We were wrong. Not wrong to pull them out of the school they were in -- more on that later this week, actually -- but wrong to think that no school was the best option for them right now.

Therefore, in late July we enrolled them in an international Montessori school. We'd really admired this method when we visited some schools shortly after we moved here, and since we knew we weren't going to try a Belgian school again, this was our clear first choice. We visited one school, the kids didn't want to leave, Matthew said, "I wish I could go to school there!", and we signed them up.

Two weeks ago yesterday they started, and we are thrilled.

Here they are before we headed to their welcome day. After a morning session for all the parents and children, Lily and Soren had a "settling in" time, just them with their two teachers, to get familiar with the Montessori classroom. (They're in the same classroom; Montessoris have a Children's House for the ages of three to six.) At the end of this time, the teacher who had been working with Lily praised her to me, and I felt this little dislodging in my chest. We heard nothing like that, about either of them, all of last year. I am so thankful that Lily and Soren have kind, attentive teachers who will nurture them and introduce them to school life. I'm downright gleeful about it all. I'd use all caps, but that would be foolish.

Their French learning is continuing: one teacher speaks to the students in French all the time, one in English. There are about eighteen students with these two teachers (last year Lily was in a class of twenty-two with one teacher). It's a very international crowd. Once again, we are the only Americans in the class, but this time the families are from all over Europe, and all but maybe one speaks English.

The kids are loving it. No tears, no "I don't want to go to school tomorrow," no anticipation for the weekend typical of an adult with a boring 9-to-5 job. Lily could not fall asleep after the first day. "I am too excited for school tomorrow," she explained. When I picked them up (at noon -- only half days) later in the week, Soren came running out, all sweaty from playing in the garden, shouting, "I love school! A lot a lot a lot a lot!"

Here they are ready for their first normal day, bringing their piece of fruit for a snack as they do every day.

Two years into our time here (two years on Thursday!) I feel like I am finally laying down the torch I've been carrying for "the American pre-school experience." I've done the research. It does not exist in Belgium. So, we're making it work here. So far, so good.

14 September 2009


She won! Hooray Belgium! Hooray moms! Hooray comebacks!!

11 September 2009

Spel on!

Two of the four women in the semi-finals at the U.S. Open are Belgians! (See?) I love a comeback, so I am cheering for Kim Clijsters.

I was hoping the Dutch word for tennis was quirky enough to use in my title, but it is "tennis." Humph. "Spel" is Dutch for "game," a connotation that makes me feel as though my success in spelling bees means I was sporty, rather than nerdy, in grade school. A girl can dream.

10 September 2009

I am the walrus

A few months after we arrived I posted about our takeaway experiences. It's time for an update. In that post I sung the praises of Jose and Chicken Man, and we haven't had either for over a year now.

Now we have one and only one favorite: Krishna. It is (can you guess?) an Indian restaurant in a neighboring town, and we get it a lot. I've taken notes on the menu to remember what we liked and didn't. Matthew teases me for my redundant notetaking: one entree has a faded "x" through it, an "x" in the margin next to it, and the note "creamy" followed by a downward arrow. (I prefer the tomato based dishes -- strongly, as you can see.) My favorite dish is chicken bhuna masala, which rhymes with hakuna matata (and tuna ciabatta).

Matthew is usually the fetcher, and he has had some nice conversations with the owners. When we first arrived in Belgium, our attempts at takeaway were stymied by strangely gelatinous chicken. The owner of Krishna, without disparaging his competition, has shared with Matthew that he buys fresh chicken locally, but that a lot of takeaway places buy frozen chicken from Thailand to save money. Aha! He prides himself on the fact that a lot of Brits prefer his Indian food to the other guy in town, since, as he said, they know Indian food. We don't care who the other guy in town is. We love Krishna, and when they closed for a few weeks in August (as does nearly every independent store in Belgium), we missed them. They opened up again yesterday, and I hope to be bhuna masala-ed by the end of the weekend.

All I need is a miracle

I have 64 (?!) draft posts saved here, some of them over a year old. A lot of them are one word titles only, just a snippet of an idea that I wanted to flesh out someday. I'm not sure they all really merit a full post (or any post, even), and they're sort of random, but some are things I don't want to forget. So maybe I'll just have a bunch of four-sentence posts for a while. Or, maybe I'll add a five-sentence introductory paragraph about my backlog of short posts to each of those posts, and then each post will seem more substantial.

Last summer (fifteen months ago) when we were traveling, we passed a gate at the Brussels airport and did a double take. "It's like a nursing home convention," Matthew said. There were something like twenty elderly people in wheelchairs at one gate. Then I noticed the screen indicating the destination: Lourdes, famous for its pilgrimages for healings.

09 September 2009

Airplanes are the grooviest!

I've been meaning to share this story for months. And I've been trying to figure out a reason to post this image for even longer than that. I now realize they share a common theme, and I join them.

Dearly beloved, I present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Airplane Things!

1. Last December, as we stood in the passport check line in Atlanta, minutes after returning to U.S. soil, I was struck by a difference between Belgians and Americans. Two American male solo travelers cut in front of our family of five, immune to my stares of outrage. But then a mother smiled at our kids warmly and asked us their ages. Both these interactions felt foreign to me. I've concluded that there is a wider spectrum of public/stranger behavior in the U.S. than in Belgium. In Belgium strangers seem generally disinterested, but rarely rude. They're less likely to steal your place in line, but they won't engage with your children very often, either. They seem both more polite and more private than Americans.

2. Look at this motley crew! These two images are from a page spread in The Airplane Book, A Golden Shape Book, from Matthew's childhood.

I love this book, first for its enchanting colors and mod clothing, but also for its quaint depiction of airplane travel. The gate attendant above asks, "Would you like to sit by the window?" And can you read the sign on his podium? "Please show ticket before entering." Are they boarding an airplane or entering a movie theater?

08 September 2009

Waffle House

Two posts on pancakes might as well be followed by one on waffles. There are two types of waffles in Belgium: Brussels waffles and Liège waffles (Liège is a town in the east).

Brussels waffles are the more familiar to Americans: two connected squares on a small, rectangular plastic tray served with a tiny fork. They are golden, airy, and crisp. They are served with your choice of toppings: powdered sugar, whipped cream, fruit, and ice cream are typical options.

Liège waffles are denser, darker, less uniform in shape, and have small cubes of sugar in the dough. The little morsels melt when they are cooked, and the dough itself is sweeter. The end result is doughy and chewy. These are usually served just in a napkin and eaten with no utensil.

The latter are way better, in my opinion.

07 September 2009

A pinch of this, a dash of that

On the topic of pancakes, the last time I made them I was aware of how the ingredients differ from what I was used to in the U.S.:
  • The baking powder is sold in a small box of five individual packets that contain maybe three tablespoons each. I wonder for what recipe that is the proper amount.
  • The sugar is sold in the candy section. Truth in advertising.
  • Baking soda is sold in the pharmacie. It probably is in America too; I know it is used for soaking, etc. But there seems to be this word of wisdom to Americans to buy it from the pharmacy that just keeps being passed around, even though I haven't had a problem getting it from the groceries.
  • The eggs often have chicken feces and feathers on them. All the ones we buy are brown -- Lily saw a very light colored one recently and said, "A WHITE egg? That's unusual!"
  • The butter comes in a 250 g rectangle, about half a pound. It looks like two sticks of butter side by side, and squished a bit so it's fatter and shorter. I have a new butter dish to accommodate the Belgian butter.
  • The all-purpose flour is fine, and I can find buckwheat flour here, but I can't find whole wheat flour. The wheaty flour they have has flecks of grains in it. A friend recently bought some for me at the American grocery store (military families and those who work for NATO have access to this).
  • The lightest milk we can buy at Belgian groceries is demi-écrémé, part-skimmed, which is about 1.5% fat content. (I love its Dutch name, half volle: half whole.) The British store about half an hour away sells skim milk, but I only go there a couple of times a year. Fat-free dairy products are just not something I've encountered here. So basically, I can go ahead and use those healthy Cooking Light recipes, but if they have milk, buttermilk, or yogurt in them, they don't end up being very light.

03 September 2009

Cakes on the griddle

I took the kids to a cafe earlier in the week. I felt very Belgian, having a snack at a cafe at four in the afternoon. We ordered two hot chocolates, one chocolate milk, and three plates of pannekoeken. The cocoa and milk came first, on a eight-inch silver metal tray. Tall, footed glasses with small handles near the base held our cocoa. Soren's chocolate milk came in a cute little glass bottle with a straw. Also on the tray were two packets of sugar cubes (the cocoa isn't as sweet as typical American hot chocolate -- I added two cubes to Lily's), and two individually wrapped speculoos cookies. Our server brought us a ramekin of dark brown sugar and a small bowl of jam. The pannekoeken came one order at a time, hot off the grill. Each large plate held two plain pannekoeken, folded in half.

Oh! These aren't like the puffy creations from the Pannekoeken chain in the U.S. On the menu, which is in Dutch and French, the heading is "Pannekoeken/Crepes." So they're very flat, but maybe not quite as thin, or as eggy, as French street crepes. Delicious, but I haven't really met a pancake I didn't like. Eating at a cafe in Amsterdam this spring, Matthew and his parents ordered delicious sounding fresh salads and sandwiches, but I couldn't resist the Dutch pancakes. These were maybe three inches in diameter and quite puffy, fat little saucers sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Sitting there with the kids, drinking our chocolate, in this old, old cafe with the kind server who spoke to me in English even though I ordered in Dutch -- I am going to miss moments like this.