Sunday, November 23, 2014


Good manners never go out of fashion. Or so I thought. But now I'm really beginning to wonder. I was always taught that when you received an invitation and the host asks you to let them know whether or not you will be coming, you should do it. The concept seems easy enough but for whatever reason it seems like fewer and fewer people are answering that request. Or maybe it is just the people I know.

I first encountered the problem with people not responding when we were living in Albania. In both my paid position and in my own home, whenever I issued invitations to events people were slow to respond (if they even bothered to respond at all). I know it was unrealistic on my part to expect them to respond within 48 hours of receiving the invite (the way I had been taught) but some response at all would have been appreciated. I never really cared whether people were going to attend but as the event planner and the hostess I needed to know how many guests to expect. A sit down dinner at my house; do I plan for seating for twelve or for eight? A children's party at the embassy; if I don't know how many kids to expect how can I make sure that every child receives a goodie bag? I became a master at squeezing extra place settings in at the table or removing them if necessary. After one disastrous reception where I cooked for the number who said they were coming (plus a little wiggle room) and then ran out of both food and drink when the entire guest list showed up, I learned to always make extra food. Sometimes it all got eaten but more often than not we had leftovers for the week.

I never quite understood why people didn't respond. When I asked people (yes, it came down to that), the responses were mixed. People weren't sure whether they could make it while others said of course they would be there. (I guess I'm supposed to be a mind reader). Other would say that they didn't want to commit on the chance another offer came up (yes, I was told that), committing took the spontaneity out of the event (for the guest I am assuming), or they didn't know what the letters R.S.V.P. meant (yes, I heard that one too). And then there was the time my inquiry as to whether or not someone would be attending an event was met with the accusation that I was old fashioned and stuffy for even inquiring about such a thing in the first place.

Fast forward to our being in Belgium with an entirely new international community with the two official languages on the base being English and French. Yesterday we threw Sidney his long awaited birthday party. One month out I reserved the space, providing them with a tentative number of guests. Two weeks ago Sidney hand delivered invitations to all of his classmates. Not wanting to be a glutton for punishment I didn't give an R.S.V.P. deadline but I did ask that people let me know their intentions via email. A few replies immediately came in then silence. Sidney would come home telling me that so-and-so was attending (have a message relayed from one five year old to another hardly seems like a reliable means of communicating). Other days parents would catch me in the hallway and let me know their child would be coming. One parent even sent a handwritten note to the teacher who passed along them message to me. Two days before the party only one child had declined the invitation, sixteen had accepted but that left another ten up in the air. (Yes, Sidney has a freakishly large class). I went back to the event space giving them a tentative number and they must have been used to the non-commitment of people since they said they would work with me on however many people showed up. Having heard horror stories about everyone showing up at parties here without, I went home and baked enough cake and cupcakes to feed the entire class and their parents in case everyone showed up. The same with the goodie bags.

So how did it work out? The day of the party I received three last minute cancellations due to the nasty bug that has been making its way through the school. One child showed up without an R.S.V.P. but her father apologetically told me that he could read my handwriting on the invitation. Everyone else who said they were coming, came. We had just enough pizza, too many goodie bags (which can be disassembled and recycled for another event) and more than enough cupcakes so Glenn will once again be providing treats for his co-workers.

But this experience now has me thinking. Am I misinterpreting what R.S.V.P. actually means? Does it now mean regrets only? Respond if you feel like it? Of course I'll attend? Or do people simply chose to respond to those invitations they deem important and ignore the others. What is a hostess to do? I don't know what anyone else does but my solution is to be prepared by making extra food and to be ready for the unexpected. What other options do I really have?

Saturday, November 22, 2014


I'm getting that itch again. Whereas we were always on the go and traveling when we were living in Albania, life in Belgium is a bit more staid. While we are enjoying our time here much more than our Balkan experience, we are traveling a lot less. And I miss it. I have that travel itch and it is only getting worse. But without a big trip on the horizon I'm reliving some of my favorite trips from the past few years. And here's a (re)post about last fall's trip to Tuscany. I loved every moment of it and can't wait to go back. (Soon I hope). But in the meantime, this is all I have.

We spent the past weekend exploring the hill towns of Tuscany.  While it was a first trip for Glenn and Sidney, it was an encore one for me and I was excited to introduce my boys to a part of Italy that I absolutely adore.  I first visited Tuscany in 2008 with my mom when we spent twelve glorious days eating, drinking, and exploring our way from Lucca to Siena and everywhere in between.  The trip was so memorable that I have been talking and thinking about this beautiful place ever since and I had been dying to go back.  Despite my desire, a small part of me feared returning since there was the chance that Tuscany wouldn't live up to my memories.  Fortunately I was wrong.  Dead wrong in fact.  As we retraced my footsteps every place was just as wonderful, if not more so, than I remembered it being. 

Two things struck me immediately.  The first thing I noticed was that Tuscany was filled with more American tourists than I remembered.  Whether we were in line waiting to pick up our rental car, on the train to Lucca, or sitting at a local wine festival in Greve, Americans were everywhere.  I almost think we saw more Americans than we did Italians.  Or at least it felt that way since our dining companions at even the most tucked away restaurants were fellow Americans. The other thing I noticed was the sheer beauty of Tuscany; it was more spectacular than I remembered.  In many ways the scenery, filled with rolling hills, vineyards, and stone buildings, was so idyllic it felt like a cliche.  If you've ever seen a calendar of Tuscan scenes and wondered whether they are real or not, trust me--they are. 

We packed a lot into our long weekend.  Of course it wouldn't be a trip to Pisa without standing in the shadow of the City's famous Leaning Tower.  But as it usually the case, the best parts of the country are those outside of the urban areas.  We took the train to the walled city of Lucca and despite the rain, spent several hours walking along the broad wall and meandering through the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys that are quintessential Italy.  With our little rental car (Sidney said it was like his Cozy Coupe), we set out across the Tuscan hills to Siena where I finally climbed to the top of the Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo.  My fear of heights prevented me from doing it the first time I visited but this time I was determined to accompany Sidney and Glenn to the top.  The famous Palio di Siena horse race takes place in the square twice a year but during our visit it was pleasantly tranquil (except for the other American tourists) providing Sidney with ample room to chase pigeons.  We visited the famous wine town of Montepulciano where we of course sampled the local beverage.  In Greve in Chianti we happened upon a local wine and food festival and joined the locals (and American tourists) in drinking wine and eating massive plates of fresh grilled meats and beans.  Just outside of Greve we walked through the narrow alleys of Montefioralle and dreamed about what it would be like to have a retirement home in this hilltop village.  In between all of this we took in miles upon miles of rolling hills covered with vineyards, olive groves, and cypress lined lanes leading to hilltop villas.  Avoiding the highways we drove along both paved and dirt roads stopping to take pictures and just enjoy the views along the way.  The whole experience was just so relaxing.

And of course we ate.  While Sidney had his fill of pizza with the occasional pasta thrown in for variety, Glenn and I were able to eat fresh pastas and other specialities to our hearts desire.  Autumn is truffle season in Tuscany so this delicacy was on the menu as was Glenn's all time favorite dessert, tirimisu.  Sidney is now a fan as well and most nights ended with my two boys spoon-fighting over the last remnants on the dessert plate.  Tuscany is probably best known for her wine and of course it didn't disappoint.  In Albania I am loathe to order the house wine in a restaurant but in Tuscany, that is all we drank and it was good.  Really good.  Unfortunately because we were flying home we were limited in what we could buy but we enjoyed what we could.  (We will just have to go back to drink some more).

I loved Tuscany the first time but love it all the more now.  Seeing it through Sidney's eyes, complete with water fountains, "pretty" fields, and yes pigeons, gave me a whole new appreciation for the region.  I will never get tired of the scenery, the food, or the gentle feel of Tuscany.  Once again, I can't wait to go back. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Online Personas

The internet, and and social media forums like Facebook are a pretty amazing thing. Where else can you research the most inane questions, reconnect with old friends and meet new ones all without leaving the comfort of your own home? There is a whole virtual world out there to be discovered. But unlike in real life where what you see is more often than not, what you get, in a virtual world it is possible to create new personas. A shy person can become outgoing online and vice versa without anyone being the wiser. Recently I've been wondering how often people do this and whether their actions are intentional or unintentional. So is the way you act online the same way you behave in real life? Yes, no, maybe, sometimes???

Lets take Facebook for example. I have my share of friends and know all but a handful in real life. I know some better than others and have found in most cases that their real life personalities are the same as their virtual ones. Those that complain, whine and have a lot of drama in their real lives tend to have the same when online. And my more mild mannered and even keeled ones? Their virtual lives tend to look the same; its all pretty predictable.

But what I really wonder about is those people that I've never met. Take Facebook groups as an example. Because I'm selective about the groups I join I tend to belong ones that are interest or demographic based; shared hobbies, alumnae of the same schools, members of the same military communities, etc. These groups can have a handful or several thousand members. Fellow members aren't my friends per se but because we belong to the same groups I feel like I know many of them. If they are regular posters their faces and stories become familiar and I feel like I've met them. In just about every group I am a member of there are people who are active and always chiming in. Their responses to questions are often rapid fire and immediate making me wonder if they do nothing other than stalk Facebook at all hours of the day. Sometimes they add useful information to the conversation but many times I feel as though they don't. While these groups can provide a wealth of information and needed opinions, if a question about an opening time has been posed then answered is it really necessary for ten other people to chime in with the same information? Then there are the people who come across as experts on every subject matter; regardless of the question they always have a definitive answer and have no qualms about arguing with anyone who dares to disagree or present an differing opinion. Personally I am quite private when it comes to posting in these groups. I think twice before sharing a tale of woe and only jump into the conversations if I have something new and meaningful to contribute. (But when thinking about it, this is the way I am in real life as well). But not everyone feels the same way. I know more about people's marital and in-law problems, dislike of their jobs and bosses and disputes with their neighbors than I want or need to. Really.

The longer I am a part of these groups the more I get to "know" these people. Some people I immediately like, others I find funny or I grow to be annoyed by. A few I find myself disliking but the majority of them I am indifferent to. But every once in a while I actually meet and get to know these people in real life. This tends to happen most often with the military spouse groups that I belong to. And you know what? The ones I liked online I find myself liking in person. If you don't have a filter in your virtual life it is doubtful that you have one in real life either. The ones whose comments I avoid reading and generally disliked when on Facebook are the same ones I feel the urge to run from when I see them in person. Annoying online is annoying in person; funny behind the keyboard usually means funny in person. And the similarities just go on. So is the internet "real life" or just a mirror image of it?

And all of this makes me feel like my online persona pretty much mirrors the real life me. But then again, I'm pretty biased so who am I to judge?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Saxon City Of Dresden

Frauen Kirche at night
Our recent road trip through Germany included a stop in the city of Dresden and our visit proved to be one of the most interesting cities we have visited in a long time. I wasn't sure what to expect from this city as we had scheduled a stop here because it was along our route to our next destination. I had failed to really do any research before we arrived so my only knowledge of the place was what I remembered from my high school history classes. But for us, Dresden turned out to be a hidden gem and we left wishing we could have spent more time there. Needless to say, we will be returning.

Located in the Saxony region of eastern Germany near the border with the Czech Republic, Dresden has long been a cultural, educational and political center for Germany. Dresden was first settled in the 12the century, became the seat of the Saxony region in 1485 and quickly became a gathering place for painters, musicians and architects from all over Europe. This confluence of artistic talent influenced the skyline for which Dresden in famous. The 1800s saw an increase in the military presence in the area with over 20,000 military personnel serving in the garrison there at the beginning of World War I.  This combination of art, culture and yes, military brought about the circumstances by which I knew about Dresden; the bombing of the city by the Allied forces.

For three days in February 1945, in a two-fold attack, the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces dropped 2,431 tons of explosive bombs and close to 1,476 tons of incendiaries on the city of Dresden. While the bombs damaged and destroyed buildings, the incendiaries ignited what was left, essentially burning the largely wooden city, therefore reducing the amount of shelters available for retreating German soldiers and refugees. Years later the number of reported deaths was 25,000 but at the time Nazi propaganda had the number in the 200,000 to 500,000 range. Because the target was not a military installation, women and children accounted for the majority of the causalities. The legitimacy of the bombardment was immediately questioned by war observers. The majority of the city center was destroyed and the heavily inhabited center of the city was all but wiped out while the industrial zones and military installations on the outskirts of the city escaped the bombings relatively untouched. At the time the Allies described the bombings as a legitimate attack on military and industrial targets. Although he was involved in the planning, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took measures to distance himself from the attack.

The Furstenzug depicting Saxon sovereigns
In the years after World War II the city of Dresden recovered but scars of the war remained. Located in Soviet controlled East Germany, (where current Russian president Vladimir Putin was stationed between 1985 and 1990 as a KGB officer), it once again became an industrial powerhouse and investments were made in improving the infrastructure of the city.  Some historical structures were rebuilt while others were remade in a more "socialist modern" style. Unfortunately, many of the bombed out churches, palaces and cultural buildings were all but razed by the Communists.

Walking around Dresden today you see evidence of the past as well as hope for the future. Many of the city's grand buildings bear the pock marks of bullets and wear the soot and grime of age with pride. Rather then fill them in or erase evidence of the destruction, they are a part of the Dresden landscape.  A walk along the promenade above the Elbe River shows off the city at its best. To me, Dresden feels worn but proud with a sense of hope. Across the broad flood plain of the Elbe sits the more modern and reconstructed part of the city. Closer to the historic city center the grand buildings that house the city's museums, educational and cultural centers. Some buildings show their age while others appear to be in mint condition. Newly constructed hotels fight for space with the restaurants, cafes and trinket shops that are ubiquitous with every tourist center.

Dresden skyline
And the rebirth of the city continues today. The reconstruction of the Frauen Kirche, which anchors one end of the grand Neumarket Square, was only completed in 2005 due in a large part to private donations. On the outside, it is easy to see which parts of the church exterior are original and which parts are reconstructed. On the inside of the church the walls and ceilings the pastel colors resemble beautifully gilded Easter eggs. But the pattern of new stone blocks abutting old is not unique to the cathedral; it can be seen on most of the buildings in central Dresden. The area around Newmarket Square is gradually being rebuilt with many of the buildings being reconstructed as they were originally built. A walk across the square is like walking through time; you start out in a completely rebuilt area that exudes the charm and character of times long past before wandering into the newer "socialist modern" area. The contrast is quite striking but then again so is the entire city of Dresden.

I liked Dresden. A lot. I wish we had more time to explore her secrets but now that we have gotten a taste of what she has to offer we want to return.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Oh The Places We Go

When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up? Me, from the time I was in elementary school right through high school I dreamed of being a famous writer. I have no idea what inspired this idea in my child's mind but I had this fantasy of sitting with my trusty electric typewriter (yes, this was back in the days when owning a personal computer was pretty much reserved for only the biggest techies) and typing out a great novel. At times I'd be living in Paris or Italy--places I had only dreamed about at the time--the location varied but my dream didn't. I spent the summer between my high school graduation and heading off to college typing away on my portable word processor (I had upgraded by then) writing what was going to be my debut novel. I finished it but come September I packed it away in a box and headed off to college.

Once in college I was overwhelmed by my class and career options and despite the plethora of writing classes that were offered, I never actually took one. My pages of my "novel" grew dusty and yellowed over the next four years as I switched majors, pondered my future and somehow graduated with a history major, no job and a vague plan to attend law school in the "future". I still thought about writing, dabbled with keeping a journal for awhile but focused my energies on a series of jobs that would keep a roof over my head. When I went back to graduate school I toyed with getting a masters in fine arts with a focus on creative writing but opted instead for the much more logical and marketable masters in public policy. And as they say, the rest is history.

I've come a long way since I had those young school fantasies. I never made it to law school but instead have found meaningful work in other venues. I've married, had a child and moved. A lot.  I've travelled the world and seen places that I only read about in books. I've visited countries that didn't even exist when I was in school and lived in one that most Americans never contemplated visiting let alone living in. I've discovered that I have a knack for cooking and can whip up a decent meal with limited ingredients and less than ideal conditions. The enjoyment I find in dabbling with watercolors and photography are recent discoveries but ones that I will definitely explore further. And through all of this I am still writing. Its not a novel (yet) but I have stories to tell and ideas to share and thanks to the Internet (yet another thing I never imagined when I was a child) I am able to easily do so to as many or as few people as choose to read what I produce. None of these are things I even contemplated as being possibilities way back when.

And now, I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up. Will I finally write that long dreamed about novel? Or perhaps open my own bed and breakfast on the ocean where we grow our own food and everything from the furniture to the snacks are homemade? The possibilities of what the holds are truly limitless. So only time will tell what happens next.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Moose Milk: The Back Story

Before arriving at SHAPE I had never heard of moose milk. Actually, I take that back because in the midst of my research about our new post I came across frequent references to the milk on the SHAPE Facebook pages. It was always associated with the Canadians and from what I could gather, it was a special drink that they made and the drink had a very loyal following with SHAPE-ians. As we arrived here and worked on settling in, I quickly forgot about the moose milk. But then this past fall and then again this past weekend I was reminded of this mysterious drink and learned what all of the fuss is about.

Moose milk seems to have its roots in the Canadian military with each branch of service having their own version and their own story of how the drink came to be. A Google search reveals just as many versions as there are drinkers with everyone proclaiming their version to be the authentic one. Some say the drink was created because it "can please the ladies because it is sweet while being potent enough for the heartier thirsts". The back story, at least according to the Canadians who make moose milk here in Belgium is as follows:

"It was a great many years ago when a Canadian lumberjack named Jean-Guy Rubber Boot ventured out into a December blizzard to fetch a giant Christmas tree for his village square. After trekking deep into the dense bush, he finally came upon the perfect tree. Jean-Guy picked up his heavy axe and began the laborious task of bringing down the giant pine. After many chopping blows it began to fall, but instead of falling away from the woodsman, it came crashing down on top of him, pinning Jean-Guy to the cold crusty snow. Poor Jean-Guy lay under the giant pine tree for the entire bone chilling night and as dawn broke, he was near unconsciousness.

Just in time a mighty moose stumbled upon our wounded her and recognizing his sorry plight, proceeded to butt the heavy pine off Jean-Guy's body. She then nursed him back to consciousness with the potent nectar that was her milk. Jean-Guy staggered quickly to his feet, shouldered the tall pine tree and exuberantly returned to his village where he spoke of his adventure and received a hero's welcome.

And so from that day forward where ever CAnadians happen to be, they celebrate the exploits of their homegrown hero, Jean-Guy Rubber Boot, with their assembled friends by sharing the sweet nectar of moose milk."

Or so the story goes..............

So what is moose milk? Of course there are different versions. The one without eggs is similar to an eggless eggnog. Or a very cream version of a white Russian. It has ice cream and milk. For potency it includes rum, vodka and coffee liqueur (because just one of them isn't enough). And there is a touch of spice to top it all off. So whenever the opportunity arises, the Canadians stationed here in Belgium haul out their giant stuffed moose and make gallon upon gallon of this tasty drink. If you are quick about it you can buy it by the cup, liter or even in a five gallon jug. It is tasty, quite addictive and yes, even more potent. If you aren't lucky to have Canadians in your neighborhood who make the drink, mix up your own. You can find the Royal Canadian Air Force's version here or a civilian (and easier) recipe here. They are all good so try whichever one turns you on. Or try both and compare. But you probably don't want to do both at the same time. Remember, moose milk is potent!