Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Leuven Connection

The library at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Leuven, Belgium, located just outside of Brussels has a long and stored history centered around academia. As early as 1425, when the "old university" was established, there has always been a university located within its confines. The history of the university is like that of so much of the rest of Europe; occupation and independence drove the names, missions and very language in which academics were taught. Is French the official language or is it Dutch (actually Flemish in this part of Belgium). These debates caused the splitting and creation of separate institutions yet none of these arguments were as horrific as the damage that fell upon the university's main library during World War I. And it was this damage that created a connection between my dear alma mater, Mount Holyoke College (as well as other American universities and colleges) and what is now the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven. 

For most brick and mortar schools, their libraries serve as the centerpiece of their campuses. They are often the keepers of history, the archives of their schools, their communities and even their countries. They are the places where students and professors gather, where thoughts are pondered, where papers are researched and written and where so much learning takes place. (I imagine that I spent more hours in the library at Mount Holyoke than I did any other place on campus). By all accounts, they are sacred buildings. And this is what makes what happened to the library at Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven during World War I so horrific.

During August 1914, the town of Leuven was occupied by German soldiers who in revenge agains the residents eventually looted, burned and destroyed the entire town. The library, along with other public buildings and churches, was looted of many treasures then burned by German soldiers. Over 300,000
The Mount Holyoke pillar
books were burned as well as irreplaceable manuscripts, and 1,000 incunabula, or pamphlets, which dated to before 1501. This pillaging of the town was cited as an example of German atrocities and war crimes by allied forces. In the aftermath of the war the library was rebuilt bigger and grander than ever. The Americans took the lead in rebuilding the library and the Flemish-Rennaissance style building was designed by American architect Whitney Warren. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans were required to donate 13 million Marks worth of books as part of their reparation. When it was completed the library was viewed as a very public statement of the allied victory over Germany. There was global outrage over the library's destruction and donations of books poured in from all over the world. Mount Holyoke was just one of the many institutions who contributed to the library's rebirth. Unfortunately, because disaster can strike in the same place twice, the library was once again burned in 1940 in a fire that was believed to have been started because of an exchange of gunfire between the German and Allied armies. Once again the library was rebuilt to Warren's specifications and the 900,000 books and manuscripts that were lost were replaced through another global outpouring of support. By 1968 the library's collection topped 4 million books. 

A fellow Mount Holyoke alumnae first told me about the connection between our alma mater and the university in Leuven. Since Leuven is a quick train ride away from me I decided that I needed to go see the library and the "Mount Holyoke pillar" for myself. Today the library anchors the broad Ladeuzeplein Square. From a distance the library looks like many of the impressive buildings that fill European cities but as you approach it you can see that this building is indeed different. The names of many American colleges, universities and prep schools are etched into the stones of the exterior of the library. The large columns that create the covered entryway of the library hold the names of others. Mount Holyoke College is one of those represented. Each of these academic institutions aided and supported the rebuilding of the library following its destruction. In return, they have their name on a small piece of granite a world away from their own libraries. 

Since its founding in 1837 my alma mater has been an institution whose efforts and alumnae span the globe. I've long known about the missionaries and pioneers who graduated from Mount Holyoke and set off to share their skills around the globe. I've also known about the College's own efforts to make education globally accessible to all. I didn't know about their efforts in post War Belgium. I now do and once again feel proud to call myself an alumnae. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Squish Two

As a mother I know I put my own health concerns last. Often I will ignore the pain or the ache that doesn't feel just right when it is my own body. I make sure Sidney attends his well child check-ups on schedule, has all of his vaccines at the appropriate times; essentially I do everything I can to make sure he is healthy. Glenn is a harder nut to crack. The man is adverse to doctors and medicine and feels that "drinking a glass of water" is the cure for all that ails us. But because he is active duty military and is required to endure a flight physical once a year, I feel better knowing that a doctor will check him out on an annual basis. As for myself, I have noticed my own share of increased aches, pains, and things that just don't feel right in recent years and have been making a concerted effort to visit the doctor when something feels wrong with my body. But it is equally as important to not wait until something is obviously wrong before going to the doctor. As we all know, preventive health care is the key to staying healthy. And as a woman of a certain age, part of that preventive health care includes regular mammograms.

No one says they are fun. As anyone who has stood in a cold room and had their naked breast manipulated and squished between an even colder press can tell you, mammograms can be down right uncomfortable. But not enduring those brief moments of discomfort can bring about even longer lasting, and often preventable pain and suffering. According to the Centers for Disease Control, breast cancer is the second most common cancer amongst women in the United States with 211,731women being diagnosed and close to 41,000 women dying from the cancer in 2009 alone. This translates into roughly one in eight American women receiving a breast cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives. (Take a look around the room and see exactly what one in eight looks like). Family history is a strong indicator of being more susceptible to being diagnosed with breast cancer but 85% of breast cancer diagnoses occur in women without a family history of the disease. But the statistics are not all grim.  The earlier cancer is detected the greater the survival rates. There are approximately 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States alone. The easiest way to detect early breast cancer is through a mammogram. And thanks to increased breast cancer awareness campaigns and increased access to affordable health care, just over 61% of American women have had a mammogram. We still have a long way to go but each procedure is a step, or squish, in the right direction.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month so if you are a woman, now is as good of a time as any to have your exam. Exams are covered by most health insurance plans and many communities sponsor free breast exam clinics during this month in order to make preventive health care more accessible to everyone. I've had my exam for the year and I will continue to do self exams every month until my next mammogram.  I challenge all of my woman friends to do the same.  And for my male friends, please encourage the women in your life to do it as well. Its a squish that could save a very important life.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Finding Contentment

I spent part of this past weekend with a group of wonderful Mount Holyoke College alumnae. Our ages span the generations and our current homes are located in all parts of Europe but collectively we are smart, funny, intellectually curious and well travelled. We are all well spoken, opinionated and strive to be the best at whatever we do. As is the case whenever I spend time with fellow alumnae, I return from a gathering feeling intellectually stimulated and emotionally rejuvenated. And as is also always the case, a part of me feels slightly out of sorts and unsettled, simultaneously being proud of what I have accomplished yet wondering whether I could have or should be doing more with my life.

But this feeling and questioning isn't new as I've always second guessed my life choices and decisions and sometimes, but not always, regretted those that I've made or wished for spontaneous "re-dos". (Wouldn't life be wonderful if our 40 something year old voices could guide our 20 something year old minds in their decision making process?). There is something about being around such accomplished and (at least outwardly) confident women that causes me to step back, pause and reevaluate. And that is just what I've been doing this past week.

Its been years since I've had what I would consider a career. I gave up a full time job--one I didn't love but that was at least in my career field since the pickings were slim in our area-- shortly before Sidney was born and have only worked sporadically since then. In the past five years we've moved three times, including two over seas moves, I became competent in a new language and am refreshing my skills in another and for two and a half years I did work in a job that filled my time yet left me feeling inadequate in many ways. Now I am my all accounts a stay-at-home mom. I used to wonder what it was that these mothers did all day and I know that days are busier than I ever imagined they could be. And my hat goes off to stay-at-home moms, but it is the hardest, and least intellectually fulfilling, job I have ever had. I spend too much time driving around and sitting in traffic, have learned all of the popular songs with the five year old set and can now add soccer mom / playground referee / cheer leader in chief to my resume. Yes, my days are busy running from one place to another yet my routine leaves me feeling lacking and needing more. In an attempt to fill that need I'm taking both French and painting classes, spend hours at the gym and volunteering for a variety of activities. But this past weekend, as I explained what it was I did all day to inquiring minds, I realized how inadequate it all sounded. Of course my audience was career driven women who owned their own businesses or were racing up the promotion ladder at their international corporations while juggling multi-faceted family lives. In comparison my day just sounded so simple. The very idea that I would be the one following my spouse rather than having him follow me seemed confusing to some.

But despite our current differences, we all shared a common alma mater and conversation naturally turned to our college days. When posed with the question of what I wish I had done differently in college, I paused. What would I have done differently? I loved my American history major and can play a mean game of Jeopardy but well into my senior year I realized how unspecific and not really marketably it was. The year I graduated I was one of thousands of liberal arts majors hustling for a job. In hindsight would I have selected a different major? I don't know. Do I wish I had gone to law school after working for a couple of years the way I wrote in my graduation announcement that was sent to my home town newspaper? Not really. Should I have pursued a more mobile career path? Probably, but then again my twenty year old self never imagined that I'd be living the life I am today. Do I regret jumping off of the career track to move to Virginia when I met my now husband? Absolutely not. Sure I wish there had been real job opportunities for me there but I can say with confidence that I knew what I was getting into when I said "yes". And being a mother? Despite the moments when I simply want to pull out my hair, it is the most rewarding (and scary) endeavor I have ever taken on.

So am I content? Mostly......Time with Mount Holyoke alumnae does make me question where I am, what I am doing and how things could have been different. But it also makes me appreciate where I am and what I have. All of the decisions I have made to date bring me to the place I am today. For a brief moment I missed being the one who had the job, the fancy title and the professional responsibility but then I reconsidered. After all, I don't miss being attached to a Blackberry, having to put on suits every day and having to endure the stress of missing deadlines that are out of my control. The only organization I will ever be CEO of is Household Brown and despite Glenn's musings, we won't be able to live off of the earnings from my blogging in our post-military life.  I am not by any stretch of the imagination an uber wife, mother, housekeeper and cook but I can happily hold my own on all of those fronts. I have an amazing and diverse network of friends that span the globe. Because of the decisions that have been made I have the opportunity to pursue interests that I would never have the time to do if I was working outside of the home. And I must admit, it is kind of nice.

This is the path I have chosen and I embrace it. This coming year is going to be one of college reunions and get togethers so naturally there will be more reflection and occasional self doubt on my part. But life is short and there is absolutely no time for regrets. Questions and reconsiderations, yes, but regrets? Absolutely not.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October: National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Each year during this time, advocates, supporters, and survivors take to the streets and airwaves in an effort to bring awareness to this growing epidemic that strikes all too close to home. We live in a society where it is hard enough for women to come forward and admit that they are being hurt by their spouses and partners so it is just that much more difficult for men to do so.  While statistics show that most victims of domestic violence are women (three out of every four) that means men are victims too. Statistics regarding male violence are even harder to come by than those for women and they vary more as well.  But they are real and any number is one too many.  Regardless of how the numbers pan out, it is undeniable then men are also hurt by violence inside of the home and when one person is hurt, everyone is affected by it.

In college I was part of a campus wide effort that raised awareness about the effects of domestic violence.  Being that we had an all female student body, our focus was primarily on violence perpetrated against women by men but also female on female violence.  Domestic violence against men was never a topic we discussed or acknowledged.  After college I volunteered at a local shelter and was part of a hot line that answered calls from victims of domestic abuse.  I only received a few calls during my time (wo)manning the hot line but I did receive one call from a man.   Despite all of my training I remember my naive shock that a man was on the other end of the line (and not in the taunting or harassing way that angry men occasionally called the unlisted number).  This man simply needed someone to listen as he questioned whether the verbal and occasional physical assaults inflicted upon him by his wife were abuse.  In the end he answered his questions for himself but I remember my heart breaking as I listened to him talk, cry, and question.  (Emotions know no gender).  I still remember this call close to 20 years later and often wonder what became of him and his wife.   I never knew his name so I'll never know but I still wonder.  And unfortunately, he was definitely not an anomaly since men are victims of domestic violence as well.

Domestic violence can take many forms; it may be physical, verbal, or emotional and is often a combination of all three.  It is estimated that 835,000 men in the United States are physically assaulted by their intimate partners each year.  While physical abuse is apt to leave scars and outward telltale signs, verbal and emotional abuse can be even more damaging.  Insults, undue criticisms, and name calling may not leave physical wounds but their scars are present just the same.   While physical abuse is easier to identify--after all a physical strike is a physical strike-- emotional and verbal abuse is more difficult to identify. When is nagging or henpecking something more?  How does one identify where the line lies?  Like its physical sibling, emotional abuse wears people down and does lasting damage.  None of this is healthy behavior and all of it is detrimental to individuals, families, and communities.

Regardless of the gender of the perpetrator or subject of abuse, any violence inside of the home effects everyone who lives there.  Young or old, male or female, being subjected to or simply witnessing violence is detrimental to the household unit.  It all must stop now.  As such, I'm writing this blog entry to do my little part to raise awareness about this terrifying topic.  And you too, can do your part. If you suspect someone is a victim, reach out to them and offer your support.  If you can, attend a local awareness event in your community or volunteer your time and resources to an organization that supports survivors of domestic violence.  Every bit really does help.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Lion's Mound & The Battle Of Waterloo

Lion's Mound: whether visiting or just
driving past, it is a distinctive sight to see
War has come a long way in the past two hundred years and nothing exemplifies this more than a visit to the Lion's Mound in Waterloo, Belgium. The site of Napoleon's last stand, the Lion's Mound and the adjacent panorama museum introduce visitors to one of the great wars of the world that helped shape the course of modern European history.

It was here, in the middle of Belgian farmland that 300,000 soldiers representing six nations met in battle on the 18th of June 1815. Under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington, the British Army and their new shrapnel cannonballs met Napoleon's soldiers. The battle proved to be bloody all around with both sides amassing a total of 75,000 casualties and losses.

Today, looking at the still pristine farmland that surrounds the Mound, it is hard to fathom the violence and death that occurred here. Visitors can climb the 226 steps up to the top of the hill to view the battlefields. The mound took three years to build and was completed in 1826. The lion itself is 40 meters high and was erected in the supposed spot where the Prince of Orange (who later became the King of the Netherlands) was injured during the battle. The lion, designed by royal architect Charles Van der Straeten under the order of William I, is symbolic of the allies victories and his paw sits on a globe "announcing the peace that Europe was won in the plains of Waterloo". On the day we visited it was clear and from the summit we could watch farmers harvesting their crops and treasure hunters plying the same fields with metal detectors in hope of finding a war relic. Even with the highway traffic in the distance, it was so incredibly serene and peaceful that it was hard to imagine the battle that had been fought down below.

I enjoyed the views from the top of the Lion's Mound but for me, viewing the 360 degree panoramic fresco of the battle is what brought the battle to life and drove home the harsh realities of war. Unlike today, where modern technology has made much of war impersonal, soldiers fighting in 1815 came face to face with their enemies. In fact, that was really the only way to fight. Upon entering the panoramic room visitors are greeted by the sounds of war; rifles, cannon blasts and the neighing of horses make the battle seem real. Standing above the panorama and looking down, you can see the detailed images of soldiers from all armies engaged in hand to hand combat. There are images of injured soldiers lying beside their fallen horses while their comrades fight over their dying corpses. Perhaps the most eerie and unnerving part of the scene are those battalions who are standing in the distance watching the fighting and waiting their turn to enter into the fray. What must it have been like to watch hundreds of your peers being slaughtered knowing that your turn was next? The scene is extremely powerful and morbid, but then again, so is war.

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The site is currently being updated in anticipation of the celebrations. We plan on visiting again next year and if you are in the BENELUX area during 2015, you too should visit to experience a small, but pivotal part of history.

Just a small section of the 360 degree panoramic painting depicting the Battle of Waterloo

If you go:

Route du Lion 315
1420 Braine-l-Alleud (Waterloo)

Open: 09.30-18.30 1st of April - 30th of September
          10:00- 17:00 1st of October - 31st of March

Adults: 7.50 Euro to visit the Lion's Mound and Panorama, children 7 and over 4.50 Euro

+32 (0)2 385 19 12

There is a cafe adjacent to the visitor's center which has an impressive selection of Belgian beers and so-so food.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Belgian Warm Fuzzies

Education is a worldwide phenomenon yet the philosophy and approach to teaching, educating and disciplining children is as varied as the countries spanning the globe. Everyone thinks their approach, or the approach they are accustomed to, is the right one and anyone who doesn't abide by it is simply put, harming their children. But that obviously isn't the case since educational systems around the globe are putting out smart, educated and well adjusted students who haven't been permanently scarred by their experiences in school. Where you sit depends upon where you stand and when two cultures and philosophies collide, it isn't always pretty or comfortable.

We are in our second year of Sidney attending a Belgian school. We had done our homework prior to enrolling him and knew that the Belgian approach to education, even at the pre-school level, was different than American norms but we were accepting of that. (After all, we are visitors in their country so why should we expect them to follow American educational norms?). In fact, we even embraced the strict yet loving approach to teaching. Students are excepted to arrive at school ready to learn, formal education is supposed to enhance rather than serve as a substitute for learning at home and parents are expected to support teachers rather than be confrontational with them. Respect is expected all around between students and teachers, teachers and students, parents and teachers and teachers and parents. Sidney's Belgian school doesn't put out pleas for parent volunteers yet when our services are needed, we are notified as such. Rather than coddling students Belgians believe in the "band aid" approach of jumping right into a problem rather than letting students dwell on what might come next. Teacher's voices are occasionally raised, in a way that would never happen in American schools without dire consequences. The American in me does bristle at this on occasion. Communication isn't necessarily open and forthcoming but in our case much of that may be attributed to our lack of a solid understanding of the French language. Belgian madams certainly don't coddle their students (there aren't any special snowflakes in the classrooms) yet they are loving and obviously care for their students. This is evidenced by the warm greetings and farewells on the parts of both students and their madame each morning. So entering our second year of school I thought I had adjusted to the quirky--i.e. non-American--way of doing things. In fact I really liked it. Perhaps it is simply our situation but this school year is off to a much better start than last year. Sidney readily jumps out of bed each morning and looks forward to going to school. What more could a parent ask for?

But then things changed. Over the past couple of weeks Sidney has mentioned that one boy in his class is occasionally mean to him. When we asked what this meant he would explain that he liked to grab him by the neck and tug and poke at him. Naturally suspicious we asked Sidney what he was doing to antagonize this boy since any problems Sidney had during the last school year stemmed from him annoying other children. He defended himself and said was just sitting there. This conversation has been ongoing until earlier this week when Sidney calmly informed us that he no longer loved school and he wasn't going back. Further probing revealed that this boy was still up to his old tricks. This surprised me since the school had never mentioned any problems to me. Sidney wanted me to talk to his madame but only by telephone. Eventually he reluctantly agreed to go to school and let me talk to her in person. And this is what I did.

When I approached his madame she immediately knew what I was talking about (which made me feel better) and assured me that it was an ongoing problem with many kids and that they were working on it. She then marched the offending child over to me, introduced me as Sidney's mother and told him that I was angry that he was hurting my son. She told him that if he did it again she would then call his father. I was slightly taken aback but not really surprised, by this confrontational approach. She then told him to apologize to me which he refused to do other than giving me a cocky grin. Next Sidney was pulled into the mix and this boy was yet again told to not touch Sidney and Sidney was reminded to tell madame if he did. I jumped in and reminded Sidney that he was not to touch or do anything to this boy (since I'm still not one hundred percent convinced that my son is a completely innocent party in all of this). The two boys were then told to shake hands and while Sidney stuck out his hand to obey the other boy only did so under the madame's guidance. Only time will tell if this intervention will work.

But this story is just an antidote to some of the differences between the American, and in this case Belgian, approaches to education, learning and school discipline. I'm not sure I completely agree with the approach but who I am to complain or question? This is neither an American, American licensed nor American funded school. If I really don't like what is happening I am free to pull my son from the school at any time. I have no expectation of them changing their ways to appease me, or any other parent for that matter--that is not the Belgian way. (Besides, it seems as though at this school which is attended by students from all NATO countries, only the Americans regularly take issue with what goes on). Although there are uncomfortable moments, and honestly, in what school wouldn't there be, I think the entire Belgian school experience is really good for Sidney. So good, in fact, that we are seriously considering enrolling him in the Belgian elementary school next year instead of the expected American elementary school. Their curriculum is light years ahead of that at the American school and the French immersion alone is a valuable life long lesson. Is it a warm and fuzzy environment? Not really but then again, we don't live in a warm and fuzzy world.