Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's Easy Being Green

Earth Day was first recognized on this day in 1970 due in large part to the efforts of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin who was becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of legislation regulating environmental issues. Hence, this gave birth to the environmental movement when on the very first Earth Day 20 million people gathered on American streets and in communities to protest the way industry was degrading the earth. The movement has only been growing since and has become a global initiative with countries around the globe joining in the environmental effort. Schools and community groups often organize events and hold week long celebrations and educational campaigns in order to increase awareness about the environment.  Global examples include China, a country so renowned for its air pollution that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing issues daily air quality alerts. On Earth Day 2012, 100,000 people rode bicycles instead of driving in an effort to save fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Or Afghanistan, where in 2011 28 million trees were planted by the Earth Day Network. In Panama, 100 endangered species of orchids were planted and maintained in order to prevent their extinction. The list of projects and initiatives goes on and on.

Earth Day might only come once a year but you can easily practice green initiatives every day of the year. Here are some simple things you and your family can do to help our environment.

  • Practice recycling in your own home. In many European countries it is mandatory. Refuse and recyclables must be placed specially bags but bags that hold recyclables cost mere pennies compared to the cost of the general refuse bags. In our house Sidney takes a leading roll in sorting what item goes into each recycling bin and is quick to point out when one of his parents accidentally places the wrong item in our blue recycling bin. 
  • You can bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. Here in Belgium the major grocery chains don't even provide you with any plastic bags at the checkout. Instead, you are expected to bring your own bags or  buy reusable large totes from the store. 
  • And speaking of the store, when running errands, combine your trips or better yet, walk or bicycle to your destination. You will not only save on gas and reduce carbon dioxide emissions but the exercise is good for you too. 
  • Go plant a tree. One city we lived in used to give away free trees to residents each Earth Day. Glenn and I took advantage of this offer one year picking up three small (OK very small) red maple saplings that we planted in our front yard. 
  • You can eat local. By supporting local farmers you are not only helping the local economy you are eating fresher foods because they haven't been shipped half way around the world to your dinner table. This also reduces energy costs, lowers carbon dioxide emissions, and the food generally tastes better.
  • Participate in, or better yet, organize a community clean up. Clean your streets, neighborhood park or waterway. When we lived in Albania our family participated in a beach clean up that removed tons of waste and debris from a nearby shoreline. Our efforts only put a small, temporary dent into the beach but as with most efforts, they start small before picking up momentum.
The earth and the environment effect all of us regardless of where we live, our socio-economic status, our political affiliations, or our religious beliefs. Because of this we owe it to ourselves, our families, communities, and our world to do our part to keep it green and make it a better place for all of us to call home. So this Earth Day please do your part to improve your own little corner of the world. Whatever you decide to do, no effort is too small.  Happy Earth Day!

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Bucket List

Life is short. And as you grow older, time just flies by faster and faster; it really does. I remember hearing this when I was growing up during a time in my life when it felt like time dragged. But somewhere along the line, perhaps after I had completed my angst filled teenage years, the rate at which time moved started picking up until suddenly it was really flying by. Somehow my twenties flew by, as did my thirties and I now find myself wondering how I will ever be able to accomplish everything I want to do and see everything I want to see.......for me travel is a top priority and with such a big wide world filled with amazing places, how does one even go about prioritizing where they want to go?

Before we moved to Albania more than one person told us to create a bucket list of everything we wanted to see and do during our two years overseas. We were warned to do it right away rather than waiting until we were in our twilight months in order to be sure we didn't run out of time. This was the best piece of advice I've ever been given and is the single thing I advise anyone who asks about how to make the most of their time in any one location. While it may feel as though you will be in a location for ever, you won't. And if you don't make a list and plan, so many wonderful opportunities will simply float away.

After consulting a map of Europe and a long range calendar, Glenn and I dutifully made our list within the first few months we were in Albania. The list was extensive, including both sites within the country and throughout Europe. Some places were those we had never heard of or had never dreamed visiting of while others were places we had always been curious about but never thought we'd have the chance to visit. We took our list one step further and plotted out when we would like to visit--next month, next year, or even in two years--these dates were all penciled in onto our multi page chart. Two years felt like a long time but once we started consulting a calendar we realized our time would be gone before we knew it. When we extended our tour by six months we added a few more places to visit. Pop up work related travel had us rearranging our schedules. When we found out that we would be staying in Europe for a second, three year tour we adjusted our list yet again, removing countries that would be in close proximity to where we would be living and adding those that we would probably never have the chance to visit again. While we never got to every place we had hoped--Sicily and Morocco kept getting bumped-- we traveled to places that we had never dreamed of. Who knew that Bulgaria and Romania were such beautiful places or that the coast of Montenegro could give the Italian and Croatian Rivieras a run for their money in terms of sheer beauty? In the end we managed to visit twenty-three countries over the course of thirty-one months with several countries seeing repeat visits. Now that is pretty impressive if I must say so myself.

So following our own advice, the other night Glenn and I sat down once again to plan out our travel bucket list for the next three years. And of course putting the list together was another fun opportunity to dream. Our new list includes local day trips, long weekend excursions and three much larger, multi-country excursions involving trains, planes, automobiles and boats. Some of the list is quite predictable while other cities and countries are a bit more obscure. I'm sure places will get added as time goes along while others will get bumped because we will simply run out of time. And because we've been on the go since we arrived in Belgium, we are already ticking spots off of the list. Yes, Sicily (fall 2014) and Morocco (April 2015) are back on the list and this time we will really get there. We've added some Baltic countries to our itinerary and old favorites such as Italy that are places that just worth visiting over and over. The list is ambitious but we ask ourselves when we will ever have the opportunity again to explore so much of the world that is literally in our backyard. Our answer is probably never so we are taking full advantage of the opportunity of the here and now. Besides, half of the fun of a bucket list is dreaming about the possibilities and right now ours is just overflowing.

So what is on your bucket list?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Luggage, Camera & A Child In Tow

Summer is rapidly approaching and with that comes our long awaited vacation. We're still working on the details but it looks like this year we'll be spending a month back in the United States visiting family and friends, introducing Sidney to our old East Coast haunts and simply relaxing. Yes, relaxing. Because vacations are supposed to be stress free breaks from the every day. But as any parent knows the responsibilities of parenthood are with you whether you are at home, in a hotel, or on the road meaning vacations really aren't time off from work.

Sidney is a seasoned traveler, having racked up thousands of miles through train, plane, boat, and automobile travel since he was a newborn.  I know that we are extremely lucky since, with the exception of one (horribly) memorable transatlantic flight that I'd rather forget, he travels well. Buckle him into his seat on our selected mode of transportation and we are good to go. But the ease of travel doesn't just happen; it takes work. So how do I keep stress to a minimum when vacationing with a four year old? By involving the entire family in the planning process and by being realistic about all of our expectations. It isn't always easy but with a little bit of planning vacations really can be stress free and enjoyable for the entire family. So in anticipation of the upcoming travel season, here are some of my tried and true hints for having a stress free family vacation.

  • Involve the entire family in the preparations:  
When I hear about harried moms doing all of the packing for their entire family I just shudder. My husband is a grown man who knows how to dress himself so he can pack his own suitcase. I mean, when we are at home he picks out his own clothes each morning so why should being on vacation be any different? I pack my own clothes, Glenn packs his, and Sidney now packs his own little red suitcase (with adult supervision of course). This allows Sidney to be an active part of the planning process. He also chooses which clothing, toys, and entertainment he wants to bring. And he carries all of his own entertainment in his red backpack. Involving Sidney at this level means he is excited about the process of getting to our destination. And as any parent knows, a happy child on the airplane makes for more relaxed parents. Its a win-win!

  • Set realistic expectations:
It is easy to visit a new city and want to see everything. After all, when most of us are on vacation we have a limited amount of time and want to cram the most into our stay. Pre-child my idea of a vacation was cramming in as much sight seeing in any given location as possible. This also meant returning home exhausted and needing a vacation from my vacation. Now I take a different approach to trips. We pick a few key sites, museums, memorials, etc. we want to see in each city we travel to. We include a balance of indoor activities and more active pursuits and schedule in lots of down time whether it be back in the hotel room or lounging at a sidewalk cafe. Many of Europe's great cities have fantastic main squares and wide pedestrian zones that are sites unto themselves. They also have plenty of safe spaces for little legs to burn off energy. I've lost track of the number of hours we've spent simply roaming through one city after another. We may miss out on some famous sites (and sometimes we make new unexpected discoveries) but we are able to fully enjoy those that we do visit without being rushed.  (Besides, if we don't see everything we will just have to plan a return visit). 


  • Take a one day (or more) stay-cation at home before returning to work:
It may mean having one less day to spend at your vacation destination, but having a day to relax, unpack, and settle into your everyday routine improves the vacation experience. Returning home means suitcases needing to be unpacked, mountains of laundry needing to be washed, and a refrigerator to be restocked. If you return home late on a Sunday night and have to head off to work and school early the next morning, there simply isn't enough time to get re acclimated to home life. We now return home at least a day early meaning we have a full day to settle back into our routines. This means I can start off the new week with less stress and only fond memories of vacation.

So with summer just around the corner start making your plans now. Then each of you pack your own bags, grab your cameras and hit the road to see as little or as much as you feel like. Happy travels!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus & Other Commericialized Childhood Propaganda

Call me a cynic but I just can't embrace the Easter Bunny. Or Santa Claus either for that matter. While both Easter and Christmas are rooted in Christian traditions somewhere along the line the original intent of these religious holidays got hijacked by mass consumerism making their focus gift giving. It isn't that I don't love celebrations and festivities; rather I have a hard time getting into the spirit of an event whose main focus seems to be buying and giving unnecessary items. And since most of these celebrations were originally centered around a Christian religion that I do not practice I feel even more removed from the celebrations. But I have a very aware little boy who sees his friends celebrating these annual events and naturally he wants to be a part of the fun. So what is a parent to do?

With Christian Easter being celebrated this weekend I've been struggling with just how we should recognize the holiday in our non-religious household. In past years we've simply ignored it and treated it as any other Sunday. (Well, under the auspices of my old job I was required to organize a community wide party around Easter which I did but the celebrations never crossed our doorstep). But this year Sidney is so aware of the Easter Bunny and has been talking about chocolate eggs and other sugary treats. He gravitates towards the pastel colored displays in the stores and asks when the bunny will bring goodies to him. He spies the chocolate crosses that are just as prevalent as the eggs, chicks, and bunnies but doesn't distinguish between them; to my four year old they are all just chocolate. And he loves chocolate.

So how do we not make our little boy feel like his is missing out on something that everyone else is experiencing. Without a deep religious faith it feels hypocritical to be celebrating Easter. (And I still don't see the connection between the resurrection of Christ and an adult sized rabbit). We want Sidney to decide for himself what he believes and I don't want commercialized costume characters to influence this. After much deliberation our answer is to hold our own small egg hunt in the backyard. We'll fill eggs with small treats and toys and let Sidney burn off some energy trying to find them. Rather than putting the focus on a Christian event (sorry son but you won't be finding any chocolate crosses in those eggs) we'll call it a celebration of spring. Hopefully the predicted rain will hold off and perhaps the sun might even shine for a bit in Belgium. I know that eventually we will have to explain the real meaning behind the holiday to Sidney but for this year I think we will be getting a pass on that conversation.

And in closing, this pretty much sums up how I really feel:

Friday, April 18, 2014

People Watching

Airports are the ultimate melting pot; where else do people from every continent and segment of society converge into a single location at the same time? I've said this before and was reminded of this during a recent lengthy stay in the Istanbul (Turkey) Airport. As a meeting point for flights heading north, south, east and west this airport is nothing short of huge with 45 million travelers passing through its concourses in 2012 alone. Perched on the cusp of Europe and Asia, flights connecting to all parts of the world pass through this busy airport that, in many respects, is a city unto itself. Because of all of this, the airport is also great places to observe people and the world sound us and that is just what I found myself doing.

With a single glance you can see traditional and modern, old and new, high end luxury and discount materialism co-mingling in a way that can only happen in an airport. First there are the people. Women shrouded in burkas and hijabs walk alongside those sporting skinny jeans and Lycra tank tops. Men in three piece business suits stand alongside those with low slung athletic pants and logo tee shirts. Business travelers with blackberries latched to their ears share the concourse with frazzled looking families and novice travelers who appear to be out of their element. Is it possible that all of these people are boarding the same flight? And then there are all of the other trappings. Louis Vuitton luggage shares conveyor belt space with plastic wrapped cardboard boxes. If shopping is your thing you can pick up a one dollar magnet or a thousand dollar (or more) handbag. Or you can spend your money on overpriced bottled water or surprisingly tasty gourmet food.

As any regular flyer knows, layovers are not necessarily fun but they are a part of the deal. So do what I do and make the best of it. Eat, drink, and be merry while you watch the world pass you by. After all, people watching makes for great entertainment and best of all, it is free.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ah... Ah... Choo.....

Spring has definitely sprung here in Belgium. Flowers and trees are blooming all around me and with the brightly colored foliage comes all of the pollen. And at least for me, pollen triggers allergies. The sneezing, congestion, and watery eyes of my allergies are like the perpetual cold that just won't quit. And frankly, since it has been going on for months now, it stinks.

I know many people suffer from allergies much worse than mine so I am grateful for the fact that my allergies are seasonal rather than year around. In the concrete jungle that was our neighborhood in Albania, trees and grass were few and far between. I bemoaned the lack of green at the time but  in hindsight I realize that the dearth of foliage kept my allergies at bay. (Now if I had dust or mold allergies I would have been singing a totally different tune). But Belgium is lush. Very lush. I love all of the green grass, trees, and flowers that are around me but I am now suffering because of their beauty.

Despite the most potent of allergy medicines I've been taking the symptoms just won't go away. I didn't realize just how much I was suffering until I spent time in Istanbul last week. The flight was miserable and I thought my head was going to explode but within a few hours of landing I could magically breathe again and the sinus pressure that had been plaguing me for over a month had disappeared. Who knew that I would have to travel to a sprawling city with a population of close to 14 million people to be able to breathe freely again. But apparently the lack of green space and the maze of car filled streets agreed with me.

But I am now back in my green world. When my eyes stop hurting long enough to see I am enjoying the lushness of a Belgian spring. The flowers Sidney picks for me grace the table but I only sniff them when he insists. He wants to plant a flower garden and I'm trying to figure out how to do it while keeping my allergies at bay. I'm popping my allergy medicines again and wondering when the pollen will subside. Soon I hope. But despite all of my suffering it could be worse. I have friends back in the U.S. who are dealing with late spring snows. Given the choice I'll take my sneezing any day!