Friday, November 28, 2014

Belgium On Strike

Most days I feel as though I am thoroughly acclimated to my new Belgian home but just when I sink into that comfort zone something happens that makes me pause and wonder about the way things are done in this country. This happened this past week with the first in our area of what will be a series of strikes organized by the Belgian labor unions. The strikes have been ongoing for several weeks in various pars of Belgium arrived in Mons on Monday. In Belgium, as is the case with much of Europe, it is legal to stage large scale protests and not only is it legal, it is the democratic right of citizens to be able to freely participate in these protests. And unlike my very limited experience with protests in America, Belgian protests are extremely organized, well planned out and publicized. And as I saw, they do have a sweeping effect in bringing life as we know it to a temporary standstill.

So what are the Belgians striking against? From what I can surmise with my shaking understanding of French and the limited amount of detailed English press coverage of the events, Belgians are protesting their new government's proposed austerity measures. In general terms, the new center-right government is planning to increase the pension age from 65 to 67, freeze wages and implement cuts to public services. They argue that such austerity measures are necessary in order to keep the budget deficit in line with European Union requirements and that businesses need more tax breaks if they are to compete in a global market place. An increased retirement age, stagnant wages and social service cuts may not that sound alarming to many Americans (where such conditions and debates are commonplace) but for Belgians, who pay some of the highest taxes in Europe, just the mere threat of such actions is enough for them to take to the streets. Labor unions carry a lot of influence in the Belgian political system with 53% of all public service sector and private sector employees being labor union members. They argue that any austerity measures would hurt Belgium's already fragile welfare state.

The labor unions announced their intentions to strike weeks ago and laid out a detailed schedule of which days the strikes would take place in different regions across Belgium with the culmination of the strikes occurring on the 15th of December with a countrywide strike. The recent strike in Brussels drew over 100,000 people and turned violent with paving stones being thrown, cars being overturned and lit on fire and 60 people being injured. Hearing this, it made me wonder what we might be in store for in Mons.

In the days leading up to the strike we began to hear that all public transportation would be suspended on the day of the strike so if we relied on the bus or train we should make alternative arrangements. The American school on base canceled classes for the day while Sidney's Belgian school sent home a notice saying that while they would be open services and staffing would be extremely limited. His teacher cautioned me that she might not be able to make it in to school. As the day of the strike drew closer people began to talk about road closures and blockades and the advice was that if we didn't need to be out we should stay home. Belgian schools off of the base would be closed, hospitals would be staffed for emergencies only, stores and businesses would be closed and public services (i.e. trash pickup) would be suspended. PSAs were issued reminding us that Belgians have the right to protest, that we were not to confront them and if we did, we would be the ones who would be held liable for our actions. Parents of Sidney's classmates all stated that they were keeping their children home that day. Because I had my own French class to attend that day I made the decision that we would both go to school but would leave early to allow for the potential delays.

The day of the strike Facebook lit up in the early morning hours with notices about which roads were already blocked by protesters. (This was a learning curve for me since I learned that in Belgium, protesters have the right to stand in the street and peacefully stop all traffic. Police would often be present but as bystanders on guard only in case violence broke out).  By 06.30 it sounded as though all of my routes to the base were already blocked to vehicle traffic. An hour later I made the decision that we would just stay home for the day since it sounded all but impossible to get anywhere as even the ramps to the interstate had been blocked.

Reports of road blocks continued to be posted on Facebook and social media being what it is, it wasn't long before someone posed the question of whether it was even legal to block the roads. This initiated a flurry of responses, mostly educated and informative responses but also the snide, indignant and down right rude comments. People were upset that their schedules were negatively impacted, people couldn't get to work, school or back home without having to take a myriad of detours. They wanted to know why women and children were being stopped and why they should be inconvenienced when they weren't even Belgians.

My take on all of this, and a thought that I was happy to see echoed on numerous Facebook comments, we are guests in Belgium and need to learn to live with the way they do things. It isn't our place to judge, join them in protest or complain about the inconveniences their protests temporarily place on our lives. Protesting is a right that is supported by the Belgian government and it is the way that Belgians can bring attention to the issues and concerns that impact their lives the most. When you think about it, it is all very democratic. And the advanced notices about protest dates, locations and impacted businesses? In my mind that is just an added bonus that makes it easier for me to plan my day.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Very Thankful Un-Thanksgiving

Thanksgivings come in all shapes and sizes. Growing up they leaned towards the larger size with family, friends and friends of friends who needed a place to eat being invited to the table (or tables). I carried this tradition into my married life and when we were still stateside, Glenn and I would make the trek from Virginia to New York or Maine to join my family for the big meal. After a particularly trying trip by air we took to driving and the time in the car was always worth it. Sidney even made his appearance in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. That was the year we had two Thanksgiving dinners and so much to be thankful for.

Living overseas, Thanksgiving is a very different experience indeed. First, it is business as usual for everyone but the Americans. In Albania we always recreated our tradition by inviting friends to join us for dinner. Last year we enjoyed more than one celebration, one year dinner was quite small and then there was the year that the dinner was so large it involved three tables and ended with my lying on the kitchen floor muttering the phrase "never again". Needless to say, each year has been different but the meaning behind the day is the same. It is a time to pause and give thanks for all that we have.

And because we are still overseas, today's Thanksgiving is taking on yet another look. It is business as usual in Belgium with Sidney having school (although an early dismissal for which I can only assume is a gesture to the many Americans who attend the Belgian school) and Glenn having to work. But it isn't just any work for Glenn as this week he is away attending a NATO sponsored training. I honestly love the fact that we are in an international environment where life doesn't come to a standstill simply because there are a lot of Americans in their midst. Hence, a full day of training on American Thanksgiving. But at the same time his absence, and that of my other family, is making me feel a bit out of sorts. Do I cook a big dinner or not? For me the traditional dinner is just as much a part of the day as sharing it with family and friends. Depending upon his mood Sidney may or may not partake in turkey and all of the fixings. But Thanksgiving without the turkey? I just can't do it so I'm roasting up a tiny bird, mashing up some potatoes and making a few other of my favorite items. If Sidney eats them, great. If not, that leaves all the more leftovers for me (and the only thing better than dinner is leftovers the next day).

It will be a quiet day for sure and could easily pass as just another Thursday for us. But all is not lost as we will be holding our full Thanksgiving dinner in a few weeks. Then I will cook all of my favorite dishes and we'll invite our international friends to join us in the most traditional of American holidays. I can't wait. And simply being able to do so is a reminder of what Thanksgiving is all about. It is about being thankful and I am very, very thankful for having our health, being able to experience everything Europe has to offer, and most of all, being able to share it all with those people we care about. And the turkey? I'll get my turkey. There isn't any doubt about that.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Five! He's Five? Already?

This week I will become the mother of a five year old boy. How did this happen? It seems like just yesterday my teeny tiny preemie entered our lives. All 2 pounds  and 12 ounces of him came screaming into the world and he hasn't stopped talking, moving or exploring the world since then. Its been a wild ride so far with never a dull moment and the excitement just keeps on coming.

I remember the day we brought Sidney home from the hospital. Despite being 11 weeks old at the time, he was still a tiny peanut. After weeks upon weeks of assisting in his care in the NICU he was finally all ours. As I stared at him lying in his crib I was overwhelmed by love and fear. I loved this little boy with every inch of my being but I was scared since I didn't know anything about babies. Until Sidney was born I had never changed a diaper, I couldn't decipher whether his cries meant he was hungry, needed a dry diaper or he just wanted attention. And most of all, he was a boy. I knew nothing about raising a boy!

But what a whirlwind raising this boy has been. Sidney's moved three times, living in three different countries and is currently learning his third language. In the past five years he's visited more countries and acquired more frequent flyer miles than most people do in a lifetime. He has friends from every just about every European country, can recognize most of their native tongues and can identify most of the flags of the NATO countries. He is the first to welcome the new kid in his class (which in a military community means there is always a new kid in the class), is quick to give his mom hugs when he senses I am sad and has a stubborn streak that rivals my own. On the playground he is just as apt to be playing Star Wars as he is to be pretending he is a butterfly or a ninja. He loves books, playing football (a.k.a. soccer), never encountered a body of water that wasn't perfect for stone throwing and has never met a stick that wasn't worthy of being picked up and saved. And as of late, is obsessed with toy soldiers. I blame it on our trip to Normandy but since then he talks non-stop (in both French and English) about soldiers, specific World War II battles, and when prodded can even recite facts about General Patton.

And it was this love of all things army (not Navy of course because we are a Navy family but perhaps this is his own form of rebellion), that I found myself covered in green and brown buttercream frosting this past weekend. For a variety of reasons we had never thrown Sidney a birthday party and from the moment we arrived in Belgium last winter he has been planning his 5th birthday party. It was to be at the bowling alley on base (because every base has a bowling alley and having a party there is a right of passage for every military brat), with pizza and cake and all of his friends. A few months ago camouflage was added to the requirements. That meant camouflage invitations and goodie bags as well as cups, napkins and plates. Even the candles were camouflage. And instead of creating a light and airy cake I found myself frosting cupcakes and a cake with dark green and brown frosting and adding toy soldiers to the decorations for good measure. And much to my delight Sidney loved it all. He loved his multi-national classmates who attended the party (by my count seven countries were represented), the bowling, the pizza and cake and yes, all of the toy soldiers he received. As he declared to one classmate, this was the best birthday ever. And that is all that matters.

I still have no idea how to raise a boy but we're learning together. Like I said, there is never a dull moment.

Happy birthday little soldier! Whether you join the Army or the Navy, become a linguist, a doctor or a street performer, your mom will always love you.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Talking Turkey Again


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of all time. Some years our celebrations are big, other times they are small, some are more memorable than others (hello baby!) but all are wonderful. So in honor of today here's a repeat post of a memorable "Thanksgiving" in Albania. Happy holidays!




I love Thanksgiving.  From the food and festivities to the friends and family who sit around our dinner table, this day is my single favorite one of the entire year.  Growing up in my family it was the "it" holiday, far surpassing Christmas as a day to enjoy.  As if the day wasn't already special enough, Sidney was born on Thanksgiving Day 2009 adding a whole new meaning to the term "being thankful".  For our first Thanksgiving in Albania we went all out with food and friends. It hindsight it was a bit much so last year we "downsized" to a more reasonable yet still festive gathering.  And because Thanksgiving and its accompanying turkey, fixings, and pies are the quintessential American meal, we've often replicated the typical Thanksgiving feast for representational dinners over the past two years.  This means I've roasted a lot of turkeys during my time in Albania. So because of turkey fatigue, this year I vowed to go very simple and cook a single turkey for a small gathering of our closest friends for Thanksgiving.  That was my plan and I was sticking to it............until things changed.
Last winter I had the opportunity to be profiled in (Albanian) Living magazine, the equivalent of Martha Stewart Living, where I shared our American Christmas traditions.  When the magazine approached me this year to talk about Thanksgiving, I immediately jumped since the offer was just too good to refuse.  This is my favorite holiday after all!  The wheels in my head began to work overtime right away.  But that is when things got interesting since the first matter of business was to procure the centerpiece of any Thanksgiving feast, the turkey.  Having vowed to not over-do it with turkey this year, our usual stash of Butterballs imported from Kosovo via Germany and the United States was depleted.  Turkeys are popular in Albania at New Year but difficult to find during the remaining months of the year.  However, a couple of phone calls later and I found a friend who knew someone who knew the meat buyer at a local grocery chain who would in turn be able to special order a fresh turkey for me and import it from Italy.  (It may sound confusing but the whole process was just so Albanian).  The only question I was asked was "how big" to which I responded "as big as you can get".  The old adage of being careful for what one wishes for certainly applies here since the following week a 30 pound turkey arrived on my doorsteps. Yes, 30 pounds.  Let's just say that birdie was so big that I questioned whether or not it would even fit inside my American-sized oven.  Fortunately it did.  Just barely, but it did.  I stuck it in the freezer and continued with my planning.

After series of phone calls and reschedulings, list making activities and shopping trips we were good to go.  I hauled out all of my Thanksgiving decorations and dishes.  To make it authentic, we invited close friends to join us for a mock holiday dinner that would capture the essence and spirit of the American Thanksgiving tradition.  I picked a menu.  And then revised it a time or two.  Because the beast of a bird was now frozen, we set about defrosting it in the refrigerator days before the big meal.  Much to my surprise I was able to find most of the ingredients I needed in a single store.  Three days before the dinner I started cooking and now I was a bit anxious about how my food would look.  I rarely worry about taste but when the meal is being photographed appearance is what it is all about.  Pie crust, always the bane of my cooking existence, and I fought a battle and this time I won.  The plan was to have the photographer arrive a few hours before dinner to start take pictures of the preparations and to stage the food.  When our guests arrived we would sit at the table and have mock toasts and pretend to eat.  After the photographer departed we would finally be allowed to dig into our food.  All of the logistics worried me and I was particularly concerned about the food growing cold while the pictures were taken.  Glenn assured me that everything would work out yet still I worried.

The day of the dinner came and in typical fashion, things just fell into place.  Thanks to Glenn, the monster bird was stuffed and in the oven at the correct time.  Because it was so big it took longer to roast than I had anticipated but that was actually all right.  Since I didn't need to have all of the food ready to serve at the same time I didn't have the usual pressure of getting my timing just so.  I was actually relaxed in the kitchen (which in itself made me a bit nervous!).  We staged the food and took pictures in a leisurely fashion. I explained the American Thanksgiving tradition and used Google to pull up pictures of traditional Thanksgiving symbols looked like.  By the time our guests arrived we were ready to move onto the toasts.  We briefed them on the plan then we sat down and gave toasts.  Sidney, always a wild card in any planned activity, was a ham, cooperated and smiled nicely for the camera.  Glenn donned my apron and carved the monster bird.  All went well.  When the crew from the magazine packed up and left I reheated a few dishes, Glenn poured more wine and we ate.  Despite the messy kitchen, at the end of the night I felt that the evening was a success.

So I have one Thanksgiving down and (somehow) another one is still to come. I'll be blogging about my actual recipes in my food blog during the month of November so stay tuned.  By the time the magazine article is published we'll still be finishing up the leftovers of this turkey and I'll be planning another Thanksgiving dinner.  I'll be hunting for another (smaller) turkey and searching out my other key ingredients.  And I said I was only hosting one dinner this year?  I foolishly believed it but Glenn knew better!  Maybe next year it will be true.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

R.S.V.P.

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 R.S.V.P.ing, 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

Wanderlust...

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.