30 June 2010

Belgian politics

Here is an informative article from Time about the prospect of Belgium dividing into two.

23 June 2010

In honor of the dearly departed

A phenomenon of the ex-pat experience is receiving hand-me-down pantry items from people about to move away. Many times now I've had the privilege of sorting through a large cardboard box of food that the family just couldn't eat up in time. I usually get some useful things like a can of diced tomatoes or a package of flour, but every time I go away with an item that I pick up in a fit of "Why not!," unsure how or when I will use it. I cleaned out my cupboards a couple weeks ago but could not bring myself to say goodbye to the four food items below. They remind me of my friends! And I hate to waste things.

From left to right:

Matzo Ball Mix: I love matzo ball soup, but I have only eaten it at a deli. Even though Erin told me it's easy, I feel ethnically incompetent to make this. My cultural heritage doesn't stop me from making stir fry or spaghetti sauce, though, so this is a lame excuse.

Creme de Menthe: I would have to make a grasshopper pie every couple weeks or so to use this up. Judging by how much is gone, I take it Krystin also only used it for baking. I could make grasshopper cocktails, I suppose! I could step away, in my pearls and heels, from the Jell-o mold I'm making for dinner, and greet Matthew with one at the door. Then I could ignore my kids with a wave of a cigarette, like the stay-at-home moms in the sixties! (Right, Mad Men?)

Daddy Hinkel's Meat Marinade: Mr. Hinkel, I don't know you well enough to call you Daddy. But Janet loves you, I think. You smell like A-1. I suppose we can give you a shot sometime.

Country Time Pink Lemonade: After I selected this, thinking it'd be a fun summer treat, Nicci mentioned one of her children's reluctance to drink anything other than water anymore, thanks to several cavities. Until this anecdote recedes in my memory, this mix is a toxin taking up space in my pantry.

As for the can of expired sweetened, condensed milk, opening that up was quite a surprise, but I can't remember which of you gave that to me, so I don't hold it against you.

21 June 2010

Summer is here! Summer is SO ____!

How would you fill in the blank? Fun? Free? Busy? Playful? Active? Joyful?

We recently got a copy of our town's "Youth Gazette."

It has information about scouting camps and other fun stuff for the kids, and on the back page, this:

There will be a summer festival, to make a sexy summertime for the kids! Further evidence suggesting that "sexy" has a less literal meaning outside of America -- I wrote about our encounter with the phrase "sexy freedom" in Syria here.

18 June 2010

Little house

We finished the Little House books last month. I can't type that sentence without tearing up. These books would have been precious to me wherever we read them, but now they are part of the memories of living in Belgium with these three little children of ours.

The wildness of the weather was astounding -- the blizzards, the grasshoppers, the tornados, the wind. I loved seeing Lily and Soren's reaction to Laura getting her first ride behind Almanzo's horses: Lily dropping her mouth open in disbelief, crying, "What?!"; Soren saying, "I wonder what Nellie Oleson is going to think about that!" (For the uninitiated, Nellie, who was so mean to Laura, had been angling for Almanzo's affection, or at least the adventure of a ride behind his prized team.) I loved reading about Laura's relationship with Mary, how Laura "saw for" Mary once she was blind, describing in detail what Mary couldn't perceive -- honing Laura's writerly instincts, probably! I mourned when Mary went off to college and Laura got married. These changes were wonderful, but they took them from each other.

I didn't know until The First Four Years that Laura and Almanzo had a son who died in infancy. Reading that after he was born Laura mostly missed their daughter Rose brought me back to my room at Methodist Hospital. I looked at an unfamiliar, splotchy boy and thought that he seemed alright, but I missed my Lily. Today that is only a funny memory of the beginnings of knowing our sweet Soren, but Laura didn't get to know her boy. He seemed to remain just a visitor to her. Her son is never named, in the book at least.

Of course, with all the work of a farm, they didn't really have time to be sentimental. But I do! And I am sentimental, more than average, it seems, and especially lately I am aware of the fleetingness of time. I cannot really believe I have a five-and-a-half year-old Lily. I can't believe the days of holding her on the white rocker in the bright yellow room, just she and I, reading Pat the Bunny, are totally gone. I can't believe we've lived in Belgium for three years, and when we came we had a two-year-old and one-year-old. I can't believe 2010 is half over. I know this is what we all say to each other, all the time -- how quickly time goes! -- but I am stunned by this these days.

So the section of the books that rolls around my mind most often is from the first one, when Laura is a very little girl in the big woods of Wisconsin. Pa sings while Laura is falling asleep, "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and the days of auld lang syne?" She asks what "auld lang syne" means, and he explains that they are the days of a long time ago. Laura watches her Ma and Pa sitting in the firelight. These are the last lines of the book, the most sentimental, I think, in the entire series: "She thought to herself, 'This is now.' She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago."

Here is my proof, in case I ever doubt that I knew how special that time was, a long time ago, when we lived in Belgium, and Lily was five, and Soren was four, and Clara was almost two. I did know. I knew! It was very good. It was once in a lifetime.

17 June 2010

Product placement

Clara likes eating whole apples now. This is her second of the day.

She also likes running wildly, faster than she can control, hence her lip wound.

About a year ago, I learned that there are chocolate chips in the stores here. I'm not sure if they were always there and I just didn't know how to look for them, or if they were a new product, but this means that I can live in Belgium forever!

Do they have these in America? Eek! I don't even like peanut M&Ms. And although I hope to learn a bit watching this month, I'm not a big soccer/football fan, either. I am a sucker for Belgian novelty food items on end caps in the grocery store. (See also cookie tin featuring a Magritte painting.)

14 June 2010

Down for the count

I think I have part three about traveling with kids brewing, but for now, at the risk of jinxing my interest in this show by writing in a hyperbolic fashion about it (I don't think I've watched Dragons' Den since this post), last winter I discovered the best game show ever: Countdown.

It's sort of like Scrabble. Two contestants have thirty seconds, during which a jaunty tune plays, to make the longest word possible out of nine letters. Each contestant takes a turn asking a woman (whose role, at first glance, a viewer might assume is on par with Vanna's) for the vowels and consonants the pair will work with: "Let's start with a consonant, Rachel . . . and another one . . . and another . . . And a vowel . . . " et cet. If a Q or a J comes up, the contestant more often than not says, "A better one, please, Rachel." Har har. Rachel announces the letters as she places them up, and she startles me every time she says "zed."

When a contestant has his (I'll use "he," because nine out of ten contestants are men) first turn, he always greets Rachel. "Good afternoon, Rachel," he says.

Susie Dent, the word maven (lexicographer), and a visiting British celebrity sit in "Dictionary Corner," searching through dictionaries to make the longest word while the contestants work, and report their findings after the contestants share theirs.

There also is a numbers portion, in which the players ask for six numbers, and then must work with those to get as close as they can to a certain target number. Most of the time they ask for "five small and one large, please, Rachel" (small being one through ten, large being 25, 50, 75, or 100). Then a three-digit number comes up and they add, subtract, divide, or multiply some or all of the numbers to reach it. I'll give you an easy example: 25-6-7-9-8-4, target: 163. It seems that six smalls is the most difficult.

Rachel, who sets up the numbers and letters, is gorgeous -- blonde and leggy -- and generally wears tight dresses with almost absurdly short skirts. But she is not just there for her looks: she smokes everybody on the numbers round. She works the numbers at the same time the contestants do, with a clipboard. Then if the contestants haven't been able to reach the target number (they get some points if they're close), she shows them how it's done, almost without fail. She's a force. She's pretty quick with the letters, too; after setting up "MRT," she said, "I pity the fool," and when it got to "MRTOES," cracked a joke about a shoe shop.

When I first watched the show, they were in their tournament of champions (it had a stranger name I can't recall), and the grand finale winner received the OED and a trophy. That's an expensive set of books, but still -- nothing compared to Jeopardy! winnings, right? But these contestants don't seem to be in it for the prize.

If a contestant offers up a marginal word, Susie looks it up. This usually happens when a contestant hopes that an unquestionable verb will take a certain prefix or suffix -- an "-r" or "un-" or "-est" or "-s." But recently I saw a show with a contestant who really pulled them out of nowhere: Seading. Skoot. Pitane. Moled. Embrolic. Ornates. Troiled. Embrolic sounds semi-plausible, but skoot? It was so bad, and Susie had to inquire, "I'm sorry, how are you spelling that?" so many times, that I started to wonder whether it was a practical joke on her.

09 June 2010

Traveling with kids, part 2


Most of these ideas are from other people, like you, who should comment if you have more tips! I love getting new tips!

Especially for air travel, I try to talk it up. We adults know things could go very badly, but for the kids, it is exciting! It's a special adventure and privilege that involves important responsibilities.

Nevertheless, my motto for air travel with children is: Worst parenting practices are fair game. All's fair in love and war and international flights with toddlers. For our family, the two primary expressions of this are nutritionally bereft snacks and limitless screen time. (So, by "worst," I mean most indulgent, not, say, most emotionally neglectful.)

I usually bring dried fruit and something fairly harmless like pretzels, but then also some fun candy that they haven't had before. I read the tip (on The Happiness Project, I think), of bringing a dual-purpose treat -- tasty and also entertaining, e.g., Fun Dip or candy necklaces.

I bring a thermometer and a (less than 3-oz.) bottle of a children's pain med, because you never know, a child might start sprouting a tooth. A lot can happen in the twelve-hour travel experience.

We bring an extra outfit (two shirts, even) for each child. If there's space, I carry an extra T-shirt for myself, in case a child has any incidents "on" me. Or, in case I have an incident, messy fool that I am. I dress Clara in pajamas at bedtime on the plane (or bring her in them, depending on what time we leave), hoping it may help her get in the sleep zone.

But I have low expectations of sleep on the plane. I brace myself for no sleep for anyone and delight when anyone does. Flying to the U.S. in February, Clara slept for a half hour, then squirmed and fussed the rest of the time while Matthew, mostly, walked her. She dozed off again as the wheels were touching down in Minneapolis. Back to Belgium is easier because we leave at seven or eight at night from MSP, so the kids are ready for bed. But either way, I expect no sleep for myself.

Here's a tip I learned from my friend Moyra. She's from New York so she doesn't suffer from Minnesota Nice; she's one of the most genuinely kind people I know, but also more naturally assertive when need be. So: When traveling with a child under the age of two who doesn't have a seat purchased, hope and plan for an extra seat. Check in on-line however early you can and try to pick seats next to an empty one, get to the airport early, be kind to the check-in agent and gate attendant, explain the situation, and see if you can wrangle yourselves another seat. It is in their best interest to make the international traveling toddler happy (and not bothering the rest of the passengers). Ask the person who checks you in; if she says no, ask the gate attendant, et seq. Be persistent. In the hopes of that happening, bring the car seat to the gate with you (and just gate check it if it doesn't work).

We buckle the kids into their car seats, so they understand that it's like in the car, and we don't move around. (Last flight over, with our older two aged five and four years, was the first time we didn't do that, I think, because it was the first flight when they were both using booster seats, I guess?)

Here's a tip another friend gave me if you're very nervous about the prospect of bringing your child on the plane: Bring a box of chocolates onto the flight, give them to an attendant and say something like, "I know that children make your job more difficult, and I just want to thank you in advance for your hard work!" in the hopes of having more gracious attention. I haven't done this because we've had fine experiences. One bad one, though, and I'll be hitting up Leonidas.

The flights we have taken over here have had in-seat screens with lots of movie choices, and we've not put any limits -- they can watch as much as they want. On our flight to move here, Soren, aged nineteen months, sat slumped in his seat, with huge headphones askew on his blonde head, eyelashes fanning down in exhaustion, unwilling to stop watching Cars. If we were on a flight without in-seat screens (I look online at which type of plane we'll be on beforehand), I'd bring Matthew's laptop (and if we had access to a library with English-language DVDs, I would check out some new ones).

I say we put no limits on their entertainment consumption, but that's not quite right. They may only watch age-appropriate movies. Last flight, Matthew pressed "Select" on the wrong menu option as he was getting Soren set up and then started doing his own thing. I glanced over after a minute to see, on Soren's screen, a sex scene at the opening of an R-rated movie. Thankfully, all the action was hidden from view under covers. (This is not what I meant in the previous post about thinking it's good for the kids to not do "kid" things all the time.)

03 June 2010

Traveling with kids, part 1

Sometimes we have fun,

sometimes it gets a little boring,

and there's usually a moment or two where we're all just miserable,

but it's been a marker of our lives for the past three years: traveling as a family!

Before Ruby et al. visited us over Christmas, I bombarded Evan and Shayla with tips about traveling from Austin to Brussels. (Auntie note: Now Ruby has more et al. -- a brother named Jesse born yesterday!) They asked, at first, for ideas to ease the plane ride with a toddler, but I kept thinking of other things and emailing them. I have gotten this question before so I thought I'd write some things down, and ask for your tips, too, so I can have some new tricks up my sleeve.

First, CAR:

(By Lily, when Matthew asked her draw something she knows he likes.)

Matthew and I don't intend to spend a long car ride entertaining the kids. That's why they have siblings! Partly. Of course we sing all together sometimes, or play Guess Which Animal I'm Talking About, or have parental intercession into out-of-control bickering. But mostly we expect them to have fun together, in part because Matthew and I are so excited to get to have time to talk. Some days at home it seems that most of our communication is via to-do-ish/scheduling e-mails. We don't talk the whole time, though, because I like to read. Until I feel carsick, then I stop and we talk.

To encourage them to have fun I bring fun things for them. They each bring a backpack of toys. I let them choose and then try to exert some influence over entirely car un-friendly items like a huge white stuffed rabbit wearing a ballerina outfit. Doodle Pros are a car staple for us. I try to bring a surprise or two to pull out as we go. I set aside random hand-me-down toys we get for trips. (Books that might mysteriously disappear after the trip, like the ones I wrote about here.) If I don't have any on hand I spend $5-10 at Carrefour/Target on something new that would be time-consuming and fun. A friend swears by floss for a toddler, although I haven't done that. Sticker books, especially those that have reusable stickers, are a favorite.

For their listening pleasure we bring kids' music and audio books, but we listen to our own music too. I guess in general I think it's good for the kids and Matthew and me if life is not (totally) dominated by "kid" things (and if we have higher expectations for them in terms of eating, and music listening, and dinner table conversation, etc.). Nowadays I say this a lot: "It's part of being in a family!" (Note the exclamation point conveying enthusiasm and positivity! Sometimes, when I'm explaining for the nth time why I would like help unloading the dishwasher, it is accompanied by gritted teeth and a sigh.)

To be continued . . .