Saturday, March 21, 2015

La Fete du Chocolat

Its chocolate weekend here in Mons. This year its still cool but the rain is holding off but because this is Belgium, the weather really doesn't matter. What does is that Mons is once again celebrating one of the things that Belgium is famous for. Chocolate. And who doesn't love chocolate? We certainly do so this is where we will be this weekend. 

So in honor of the weekend, here's a repost from last year:

One of the great things about our new neighborhood is its proximity to the city's pedestrian zone and the Grand Place. While everyone who doesn't live in the neighborhood must drive and struggle to find parking, we have the luxury of walking two blocks then being in the center of the action. And this past weekend the action revolved around the chocolate festival. Somehow it is completely appropriate that the first festival we attended here in Belgium was Le Fete du Chocolat or the Chocolate Festival. And it was even more appropriate that it was raining. After all two of the first things I think of when I hear "Belgium" is chocolate and rain. But because it was Belgian chocolate it was good. Really good. So good that it was nothing a few (or more) raindrops could ruin. And we weren't the only ones who felt this way.

On an overcast and sometimes rainy Saturday afternoon the pedestrian zone was lined with booths and stalls touting Belgian chocolate in all forms. As we approached the street the air was filled with the distinctive aroma of chocolate. From bite sized gourmet truffles and chocolate filled waffles to chocolate bunnies (after all, Easter is rapidly approaching), fudge, and ice cream, it was all for the eating and buying. Some chocolatiers paired their chocolates with champagne while another sold chocolate infused coffees and teas. There were pastry shops selling both chocolate items as well as local fruit filled specialities which were welcome reprieves from the chocolate. (Yes, there really can be too much of a good thing). As an added incentive to lure people in, most vendors provided free samples.

Chocolate cookies

Chocolate samples anyone?

We had wandered about halfway through the festival when the sky opened up and it began to pour. My first inclination was to run for cover but in looking around I noticed that no one else was dashing towards the nearest vestibule. Instead, people were lifting their hoods or raising their umbrellas and continuing on their way. So we joined the locals and did the same. Sidney loved splashing in the puddles and the rain did little to detract from the festivities. Sure we got wet but it was just a part of the experience. (Prior to our arriving in Belgium Glenn had boldly declared that we wouldn't let the rain stop us from venturing out so we didn't). But as is the case most days the rain was short lived. By the time we headed home the rain had stopped and before we reached our doorstep the sky was bright blue and the sun was shining. We were almost tempted to turn around and go back. But instead we brewed ourselves some of our new mocha coffee and drank it with chocolate macaroons. Life in Belgium is turning out to be pretty darn sweet.

If you go:
La Fete du Chocolate a Mons
Grand Place & la Rue Pietonne
Mons, Belgium 7000

March 21 & 22, 2015 from 10.00-18.00
Admission is free

Friday, March 20, 2015

Beauty In A Box

February's box

I am totally not a beauty product junkie. During my teen years I experimented with the latest fads but by hair was simply too heavy for the feathered big bang look of the 1980s and brightly colored eye shadowed always left me looking like I had two black eyes. I quickly decided that it was all too much effort for such disappointing results. As an adult, even before I became a mother I could never be bothered with high maintenance, time consuming routines. And after motherhood? I have even less time to deal with a  laborious routine. Easy was and is key and for more years that I want to admit, this tactic has worked. Until it didn't any more.

And that is because Belgium, combined with the inevitable aging process, has been brutal to my skin and hair. Hard water, raw air that is damp yet skin drying and cold temperatures are doing a number on me. So much so that for the first time in my life I've found myself trolling beauty counters, online stores and even home based beauty consultants in the desperate need for beauty products that will do the trick. It has all been so hit or miss--with more misses than hits--and as anyone who purchases beauty products knows, expensive if you aren't sure you want to commit to a new product. Everything claims to be the best, cure the biggest problems the fastest and leave you looking and feeling beautiful. Umm....that is simply not the case. So what is a girl to do?

Much to my surprise I have taken a step that I never imagined I would take and signed up for a monthly Birch Box subscription. I filled out a questionnaire and for a nominal cost each month without fail a box of beauty product samples shows up in my mailbox. In my questionnaire I identified skin and hair as being my primary concerns (or at least the ones I wanted to address) so to date all of my samples have been products focusing on these areas. The marketing around this idea is all rather ingenious since I've found myself following through and buying full sized versions of the products I like. Yes it has sucked me in but that is OK because finally I feel as though my dry skin and hair are becoming a thing of the past.

March's box

Each month a pretty little box arrives in the mail filled with little things that are just for me to enjoy. Some items are a hit and others are misses. I'm still a novice since sometimes items arrive that I'm simply unsure how to use. This past month's box included a small bottle that looked like nail polish and had an applicator like nail polish but didn't smell like nail polish. Besides, I know that I can't receive nail polish through the mail. I was stumped and had to look on line to see what I had actually received. It turned out to be a liquid face highlighter. I tried it but quickly relegated it to the "miss" category. You do win some and you loose some.

But for a mere $10.00 a month I'm expanding my horizons. And you can too. They even have boxes for men. Simply click here to see what it is all about.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Online Personas

I've written about this before but it is still so relevant. When will we learn? Or is that we simply don't we care?

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?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Botanical Garden At The Wilhelma Zoo

This time of year is tough weather wise. Days are more apt to be gray and dreary than they are sun filled, trees are still barren and a few select flowers may have begun to tentatively pop up from the ground. Come March I find myself in desperate need of a pick-me-up and this past weekend I found just that in Stuttgart, Germany (of all places). I spent the day at the Wilhelma Zoo and Botanical Garden and experienced the boost of spring I so desperately needed.

Prickly garden
Now the zoo was nice, much nicer in fact than many zoos I have visited, but it was the arboretums and greenhouses that really make this zoo so special. Located on the outskirts of Stuttgart, and like many European zoos and botanical gardens, and sharing a similar history with Berlin's zoo, this zoo's grounds were originally designed as a private royal retreat for Swabian King Wilhelm I. The buildings and grounds were designed with a Moorish style, which was popular with royal families during the mid 19th Century. The grounds encompass 70 acres, contains original gardens and structures as well as new ones and has numerous glass houses which hold the lush greenhouses and tropical gardens. It is the only zoo and botanical garden in Germany and welcomes over 2.1 million visitors each year.

Visiting in March, the grounds were well manicured but lacked the vivid colors and lush foliage that summer blooms would bring. But all was not lost. By stepping inside one of the many indoor tropical glass houses, I was greeted with the warmth, humidity and lush colors that I was looking for. While I don't have a green thumb--a black thumb is more like it--I've always been a fan of greenhouses of all kinds. Whether it is the greenhouses with budding seedlings found at your local garden shop or elaborate arboretums at botanical gardens, there is something about the earthy smell and steamy humidity that just relaxes my body and my soul. And the steamy and lush glass houses at this botanical garden were no exception.

Strolling through the azaleas

Bloom ready to burst open
We wandered from one glass house to another taking in the greenery and flowers. There was the glass house which while still warm was more arid. This one was home to amazing prickly cacti and hearty aloe plants. More tropical environments contained soaring palm trees and plants more reminiscent of the tropics rather than Germany. There were tiny ponds, moss covered expanses and even a citrus grove complete with lemons and oranges. An entire house filled with blooming azalea bushes reminded me of our old azalea filled neighborhood back in Norfolk. I had forgotten how much the bright pinks and reds filled me with cheer, Then there was the Amazon house, located in the lower "new" glass house. Here we found not only giant snakes and a crocodile but the birds and plants that go along with the environment.

Yes, the color is real

All of this was a wee bit of welcome paradise that was just what I needed to drive away the late winter blues. And judging but the manicured grounds and carefully pruned trees outside of the glass houses, I can only imagine how beautiful the entire grounds must be in the midst of summer. I dare say that they warrant a return trip to Stuttgart.

Lush foliage and steamy temperatures provides a brief respite from the
raw weather outside

If you go:
Wilhelma Zoo & Botanical Garden
Wilhelmaplatz 13
70376 Stuttgart, Germany
+49 711 54020
16 Euro for adults, 8 Euro children, ages 6 and under are free
Open daily from 08:15; closing times vary throughout the year

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Contrast In Cultures: The Military Cemeteries Of Luxembourg

Probably the most well known soldier
buried at the cemetery. The only thing that
sets his gravestone apart from everyone else's
is its location.
Cemeteries are probably not the first place most people plan to visit while on vacation. After all, walking amongst gravestones is hardly an uplifting experience. But it is the very solemness of these final resting places than makes them emotionally moving places to visit. And this is especially so when the cemetery in question is one of the many American military cemeteries that are located around the globe. It doesn't matter how many military cemeteries I visit; whether it be the final resting place for the thousands of young men who lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy, France during World War II, the earlier generation of Americans whose final resting place is in Flanders Field or America's own Arlington National Cemetery, where veterans of every American war lie in their final resting place across the river from the nation's capitol; the emotions that are invoked are the same. The white marble cross--and occasional Stars of David-- headstones are etched with the names, home state, rank and date of death. For an organization where rank matters, death serves as the great equalizer with the fallen systematically buried in perfect military precision regardless of the stars and stripes on their uniforms with officers lying next to the enlisted, Christians next to Jews, young men barely out of boot camp next to veterans of several wars. It is impossible to visit a military cemetery and not feel humbled. These are truly solemn grounds.

Luxembourg American Cemetery
Given all of this, it made perfect sense for us to visit the Luxembourg American Cemetery located just outside of Luxembourg City during our recent visit to this little Grand Duchy. The cemetery is the final resting place of General George S. Patton Jr. and 5,075 other soldiers, most of whom lost their lives during the infamous Battle of the Bulge during the final days of World War II. The cemetery is set on 17 acres of meticulously manicured grass--which even in the middle of the winter appeared green. It was established in December of 1944 and dedicated in 1960 as a tribute to all who had lost their lives. The cemetery includes a chapel, fountains and memorial pylons depicting troop movements through the region and the names of 371 men who were lost in action during the battles. With the American flags flying proudly over the grounds it is a fitting tribute to the men who fought and gave their lives in the name of freedom. But as I soon realized, not all military cemeteries are created the same.

The gravestone of four German soldiers killed during
the Battle of the Bulge
Located just a mere couple of kilometers down the road from the American cemetery lies the Sandweiler German War Cemetery. Here 10,931 German servicemen lie in double or even triple graves with a single squat, dark head stone marking the names of up to six soldiers buried beneath. Over half of these graves were dug and the bodies buried by the neighboring American War Graves Service who was simultaneously establishing the Luxembourg American Cemetery. After the war, an agreement was reached between the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Federal Republic of Germany to move German soldiers who were buried in 150 smaller cemeteries throughout the country and to reinter them into a single burial ground. In 1955, ten years after the conclusion of war, the dedication ceremony was attended by over 2,000 relatives of the dead. The site also contains a memorial plaque listing the names of each buried and missing soldier.

Inside looking out at the entrance to the Sandweiler German
War Cemetery
The contrast between these two cemeteries couldn't be more different. Whereas the entrance to the American cemetery is open and airy, the German cemetery lies across a small moat and at the end of a narrow and heavily shaded path. Even without knowing the history I would have had the sense of walking towards defeat as I approached the entrance. After walking through the narrow doorway of a low stone building housing a tiny chapel visitors step into a sea of squat dark crosses sitting amongst unkempt grass. The mood is definitely solemn in a way that is completely different than the humbling yet airy environment of the neighboring American cemetery. I was immediately struck by the fact that the face of each grave marker bore the
A portion of the commemorative list of
Germany's dead
names of two or three soldiers and to my further surprise the back of each stone revealed an additional two or three names. This compact space contains twice as many graves as the American cemetery yet sits on a plot of land half of the size.

The stark differences in these two burial grounds made me think long and hard about how a country, especially a defeated one, mourns and honors their dead. Both are solemn places of remembrance and reflection and are worth visiting when you find yourself passing through Luxembourg. Don't visit one without stopping at the other because each experience only deepens the meaning of what the other one.

If you go:

Luxembourg American Cemetery
50 Val du Scheid
Luxembourg (Hamm)
+352 43 17 27
Open daily from 09.00-17.00 every day except for Christmas and New Years Day
Free Admission

Sandweiler German War Cemetery
Rue d'Itzig
Sandweiler, Luxembourg
+352 35 50 07
Free Admission