Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dream A Little Dream

When is a dream just a dream and when is it more than that? Is it better to be realistic and perhaps a bit too cautious or should you dream big and just go for it. Do you dive directly into the deep end of the pool or wade in one toe at a time? Is it an all or nothing proposition?

I'm talking about life here and more specifically the future. In the choose your own adventure novel of life how do you know whether you are making the right decision or wandering down a path that is less certain? If you only live once what do you have to lose? Everything? Nothing? Something in between?

So on the cusp of a new year I'm dreaming. I'm dreaming big but am realizing that anything is possible. Its exciting; its scary; and its not completely out of the realm of possibility....which makes it all the scarier. But, I'm not going to stop dreaming. The question is, which end of the pool do I enter from?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

And Another One Goes Down In The Books

Another Christmas season is behind us and frankly, I'm tired. I love Christmas and all the festivities leading up to the big day but pulling it all off is a lot of work. There are cookie boxes to be made, a house to be decorated, dishes to be done, meals to be planned, shopped for and created. And then there are the gifts. Although we eschew the over commercialized nature of Christmas and instead purchase a few small gifts for Sidney on Santa's behalf, they still need to be wrapped and placed in stockings and under the tree. As is the case with most school children Sidney is in the midst of his winter break and because Glenn is attached to a NATO command that openly recognizes not a lot happens over the holidays, his entire office is closed as well. So they are both on vacation and home all day. Amidst all of the holiday preparations they've been playing, reading, watching movies and generally relaxing. Without playing chauffeur I too have had more time on my hands but the groceries still need to be bought, meals cooked and laundry done. And the list goes on.......

And once again it all came together this holiday season with Sidney declaring Santa making this "the best Christmas ever". I love how Santa gets all of the credit while his elves do all the work but in the end it doesn't matter because experiencing Christmas through Sidney's five year old eyes makes it all worth it. But this doesn't negate the fact that I am still tired. Very tired.

We're now in the midst of what has become a family holiday tradition of taking a trip over the holidays. Whether it be exploring Slovenia, Bavaria, Italy or now England, we've decided that creating a family memory is much more important than opening mass produced presents that will soon be forgotten. I truly love our family getaways and like the festivities leading up to Christmas, all of the work ahead of time is worth what we get out of them. Pictures will be taken and memories made and all too soon we will be back to the reality of our home and the never ending chores that go along with it. Mountains of vacation laundry will need to be overcome, more dishes to deal with, the refrigerator restocked, decorations will need to be carefully packed away and the tree, which is so much fun to put up and decorate will need to be dismantled and stowed until next year. And as I go about doing all of this I will once again dream about a holiday season filled with fun, festivities and relaxation.  Perhaps next year will be the year that meals are magically cooked and served, the house decorates itself and clothes don't get dirtied. (I can dream at least, right?). It will be something to look forward too and in will once again be here before we know it. Just think, there are only 333 days until Thanksgiving and the official kickoff of holiday season 2015!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas! To celebrate here are some of my favorite holiday pictures from the season

The library at Leeds Castle

A nutcracker in Leuven

French chocolates

Build your own nativity

Angels & snowmen 

The houses of Strasbourg

A stall dedicated to cookie cutters in Aachen

The markets of Aachen

Aachen at night

Treats, treats and more treats

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Comes To Mons

It may not be the biggest or fanciest Christmas market around but because it is right in our backyard ----a.k.a. just a couple of blocks from our house--- in many respects it is the best one. Yes, even little old Mons has their own market, complete with lit tree, a skating rink and miniature toboggan run for the kids and chalets attesting to Belgian's love of beer and aperitifs.There is even a smattering of food and craft vendors.

Mons Christmas Market

Hotel de Ville

and from another perspective

The centerpiece of it all

Monday, December 22, 2014

Strasbourg: The Oldest Christmas Market In Europe

Away from the hustle and bustle of the holiday
festivities the city is still beautiful
My favorite part of the past few weeks has been making the rounds of the European Christmas markets. Whether large or small, local or international, these markets are a European tradition and are sure to instill the spirit of the holidays in everyone who visits them. And my favorite adventure to date took me to Strasbourg, France and the oldest Christmas market in Europe.

Located on the Ill River along the German border in eastern France, Strasbourg's location is reflected in everything from its architecture to its food. It is truly a diverse city that feels a lot like Germany while being located in France. The historic city center is essentially an island surrounded by the flowing canal like river making me think of Brugge. In 1988 the entire city center was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site marking the first time an entire city center received such an honor. Strasbourg is capital of the Alsace region, the official seat of the European Union Parliament and home to the Grand Mosque, the largest place of Islamic worship in France. There is also a grand cathedral, broad squares and winding cobblestone streets and alleys where you can get pleasantly lost for hours at a time. And if shopping is your thing you are in luck because here you can find everything from upscale designer boutiques selling "Paris" fashions to gourmet shops filled with local wines, foie gras, cheeses and chocolates. (You will never go hungry here).

Welcome to the markets
And then there is the Christmas Market. Or more correctly the markets because there are eleven of them spread across the historic city center. Strasbourg bills itself as the "Capital of Christmas"for good reason. The markets date back to 1570 when the first Christmas market in Europe took place here. In 1605 the tradition of decorating fir trees was introduced to the advent festivities. The tradition continues with a giant tree being erected in Place Kleber each winter. The city center also boasts several hundred kilometers of Christmas lights and decorations which turns the entire city into a Christmas wonderland.

Today,with over 300 individual stalls spread out over eleven markets, the Christmas market of Strasbourg is collectively one of the largest in Europe. The stalls are divided into themed markets which include a Village of Sharing (a market filled with NGO vendors such as UNICEF) and a Children's Village where the smallest visitors are treated like royalty. There are markets dedicated to selling the speciality items of Alsace (lots of hand crafted wooden items, foie gras and wine sold here). And each year a different country is invited to set up a market dedicated to highlighting their country's products. This year's guest country was Belgium where chocolates and pomme frites were on display. And the food. Whether it be spicy gluwein (of both the red and white varieties), baguettes slathered with cheeses and meat or cookies and baked goodies of every shape, size and flavor are there for the eating and enjoying.

Roasting chestnuts

Sweet treats of the chocolate variety

Build your own nativity 

Traditional Alsace houses

So if you want to get into the holiday spirit, are looking for something special for yourself or someone else or simply want to experience a traditional European Christmas, visit the Christmas markets of Strasbourg. I went this year and plan on returning again.

If you go:

Place Broglie
67000 Strasbourg, France
+33 (0)3 88 52 28 28
From 28 November to 31 December 2014 (check dates for future years)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cook vs Turkey.....

Mr. Butterball before

......and the cook won? Yes.

There are many ways to cook a turkey. Do you start with a fresh or frozen bird? Some people swear by submerging them in vats of hot oil and frying them while other people skewer them before placing them on the grill. Still others opt for the oven roasted method but that begs the question of to brine or not brine. Do you season and baste the bird by squeezing herbs and oils between the skin and meat or cook it au natural. And what about the dressing; is it cooked inside of the bird or out? Everyone has their own idea of what is correct. A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to the idea of cooking the bird in its frozen state. She swore that it  came out juicier this way and saved you the hassle of trying to figure out how to safely defrost it first. I was intrigued but skeptical and each time I went to cook a turkey I contemplated this method then (turkied out) and fell back on the method that I was most comfortable with--roasting an unbrined yet heavily seasoned bird in the oven with its cavity filled with sliced apples and citrus. After all, what would happen if it didn't cook properly and I had a table full of guests expecting turkey.

But then I found myself in Belgium with a single small refrigerator. My only options for a turkey were the frozen ones from the grocery store and with my small refrigerator I simply didn't have a place where I could safely thaw the bird. So I took the plunge, crossed my fingers and stuck my fully frozen bird in the oven six hours before my guests were set to arrive. And I waited (while eliciting reassuring emails from my friend). And I waited because my bird was slightly larger than the bird described in the "recipe" I was following.

But sure enough, shortly before my full fledged panic began to kick in the bird started to thaw and turn brown. By the time I had to wrestle the still partially frozen neck and organs out of the cavity it was actually beginning to smell like a turkey. The afore mentioned removal process, however, was not pretty. Picture two people, one set of oven mitts, tongs and an oven hot roasting pan perched over a small sink. It was hot, messy and slightly work that had me longing to be able to put the turkey in the oven and forget about it. But a cook has to do what a cook has to do, right? And because I am a glutton for punishment, I took this opportunity to fill the now empty cavity with homemade dressing.. Again this wasn't an easy task since I was dealing with a bird that was simultaneously frozen and burning to the touch. Ouch.

A few hours later, however, when I removed the fully cooked turkey from the oven I thought I had success. Due to the afore mentioned wrestling match the fully cooked bird wasn't as pretty as I had hoped but we carved it before it went on the table so no one was the wiser. The result? The meat was cooked, the bird was juicy and our guests raved about its taste. Given my current circumstances I'd use this cooking method again. But give me a larger kitchen with a larger refrigerator, I'd go back to my usual method.

In the end, however, I got my belated Thanksgiving dinner so now it is time to tackle Christmas. There will not be turkey on the menu this time around.

Mr. Butterball, the cooked version

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Burning The Midnight Oil

Don't get me wrong; I love the holiday season. But while it can be an incredibly festive and joyous time of year, in order to make all of that happen requires a lot of work. Houses don't get magically decorated and gifts don't buy, wrap (and in our case) ship themselves. Those lovely boxes of cookies that get delivered to the office? Yes, they take time to bake and before I can even turn on the oven I need to tackle the chore of shopping for ingredients. You get the idea.....

Growing up one of my most prevalent holiday memories was that of my own mother coming home from work then staying up into the wee hours of the morning toiling away with holiday preparations. The copious amount of cookies, wrapped gifts and the year all three of us kids received hand knit stockings are images that are burned into my memory. And somewhere buried amongst those memories are those of my mom not being completely happy about all that was required. But each year, thanks entirely to her efforts, it all came together and as an adult I still cherish those Christmas memories. As I was in the midst of my own baking-shopping-wrapping frenzy recently I stopped and realized that in this respect I have now become my mother. (Gasp).

As a family we aren't big gift givers. Glenn and I no longer exchange gifts opting to take a family trip instead. "Santa" visits Sidney leaving a few carefully selected gifts but that is it. As far as extended family goes, some years we give gifts and other years we don't. Living in Albania with limited outgoing mail service we fell out of the habit of sending packages home. This year, with ready access to the U.S. postal system and the wonderful Christmas markets of western Europe, we made the decision that we would send small Christmas packages home. But with Christmas a little over a week away we have yet to purchase any of those gifts. We've been looking at all of the Christmas markets but have yet to find anything that strikes our fancy. After all, we like to give gifts that have special meaning rather than giving for the sake of giving. What does one give to people who are world travelers and have everything they could need? My fallback items of locally made treats really don't fare well when sent through the mail. And now as I make regular pilgrimages to the post office to see if Sidney's big gift has arrived I see long queues of people waiting to send off their own carefully wrapped packages. To date I've only acquired the boxes and customs forms needed to mail of those afore mentioned, hoped for gifts. And Christmas cards accompanying a newsy family letter? Those went by the wayside years ago when keeping track of the addresses of our ever moving friends became too much work. Besides, between Facebook and this blog I figure people are getting their fill of what we are up to.

So closer to home I'm focusing on the here and now. We put up our tree and decorated the house the weekend after Thanksgiving. It looks lovely if not a bit sparse since our rooms with their soaring ceilings are just so much more cavernous than we are used to. I figure this year we will pick up additional items at the Christmas markets and be all set for a fully decorated abode next year. Having just hosted our belated Thanksgiving dinner for friends this past weekend I'm now giving thought to our own Christmas dinner but as we will be taking off for our next adventure on Boxing Day am unsure what I should make. After trudging to several grocery stores, the local market and making a foray into the Belgian version of a Michael's craft store (my worst nightmare in any country or language) for boxes, I'm ready to put together cookie boxes for Glenn's co-workers. And despite my single, European sized oven and minuscule kitchen with its single sliver of counter space, I was on a baking streak yesterday whipping out batch after batch of cookies. That was, until I ran out of both butter and sugar and it being a Monday and the day of the national strikes in Belgium, and I was unable to get to a store to replenish my supply. But I'll get there today (or tomorrow) and continue baking tonight (or tomorrow) and those coveted boxes of goodies will be delivered this week before the office shuts down for the remainder of the year. Then I can tackle the gift buying and wrapping.......

So I'm warning family back in the states not to hold their breath waiting for a package from us. It may or may not arrive and if it does it will be a New Years gift rather than a Christmas one. The cookies will get done and Sidney's presents will be wrapped and delivered by Santa because...well....they have to. Somehow it really does come together every year and this one won't be any different. And for a brief moment on Christmas Day I will sit back, relax, eat a cookie or two and remind myself that I really do love this time of year. Honestly, I do. Because after all, what would Christmas be without the flurry of activity, the last minute trips to the store and the late night struggles with tape that sticks to everything but what it should. I really wouldn't have it any other way. Honestly.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Guests In A Foreign Land

Today is another day of national strikes here in Belgium and more than ever I reminded that while I live here, I am not from here. Rather, I am a guest in a foreign land and because of that it is not my place to call into question, criticize or be disrespectful of the way Belgians live their lives. Facebook has once again been abuzz over the past few days about the strikes, what is open or closed, how inconvenient it all is and even how unfair it is to us foreigners since it isn't our problem. Statements like these make me shudder and frankly, I find them embarrassing. Because like I said, we are merely guests here and as guests, we need to respect our hosts whether we agree with them or not. And this attitude serves me (and other guests) well not only today but on every day that we call Belgium (or any other city or country) our temporary home.

For me the best thing about living abroad is experiencing living abroad. This includes the good and bad, familiar (if it exists) and the foreign. I mean, as Americans (or insert whatever nationality is applicable here), what is the purpose of moving overseas if we try to recreate a little American community for ourselves in our new home. All too often I hear people complaining about how bad things are where they are living yet the "bad" is more like different than what they are used to. This criticism is hardly fair since the American way isn't necessarily the "right" way of doing things. (Hardly). I know that some people move under duress with no real desire to experience a foreign community. They may come because of their job, their spouse's job or other circumstances that they feel they have no control over. This may or may not be the reality but it is their reality and regardless of one's circumstances, that does not excuse them from being respectful of and observing the customs of their new, albeit temporary, homes.

Perhaps I'm just feeling a bit peevish today but I am tired of hearing people complain about our host country. There is a strange sense of self righteousness amongst some people who feel as though they deserve special treatment because.....well...I'm not sure. Some feel as though they should be exempt from following the rules and laws of the country, that they shouldn't be temporarily inconvenienced by events (such as today's strikes) or even have to deal with circumstances they are unfamiliar with. There are complaints that houses are too old or small, the roads too narrow and parking is difficult. I hear that everything from food to electricity to fuel is too expensive here.

Maybe all of this true or maybe it isn't. What we need to remember is that we are living here temporarily while this is a permanent home to people who are from here. While unemployment rates in Belgium are soaring, we are here because someone in our family has a job. Many of us are lucky enough to be able to buy food and fuel on a tax free basis while Belgians must pay even more than we do. So rather than expecting the locals to adjust to my expectations, I feel as though I should adjust to theirs. It is the least I can do. I shouldn't expect them to speak English because that is my language, rather I should (and am) attempting to learn theirs. My not being able to find a favorite food item in the grocery store doesn't mean the store is inadequate, rather I need to seek out a local equivalent (if it exists), tap into my other resources to find it or do without. If shop hours aren't convenient for me or the customer service isn't at the same levels of what I am accustomed to, that is my problem and not a deficiency with the country. If I think the roads are too narrow maybe I need to be driving a smaller car.  But just think; if so many people have all of these complaints about living here, imagine what the locals think of us.

Like I said, perhaps I am feeling a bit peevish today. But if others can freely complain about what they don't like about living overseas, then I can talk about what I think is wrong with their behavior. Call it my own small counter protest on a day of national protest.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Dickens Christmas

If you are a fan of Charles Dickens and don't mind braving a crowd (a very big crowd), then the Dickens Christmas Festival in Rochester, England is the place you want to be in early December. For one weekend each year the tiny town of Rochester is transformed into a Dickens era village complete with carolers, lights, parades, a Christmas market and of course, Dickens characters. And that is just where we were, along with the afore mentioned crowds, last weekend.

The first thing that struck me about Rochester is that it is quaint. Very quaint. Even without the roaming Dickens characters the center of town feels as though it is trapped in time. But add in the characters, the carolers on just about every street corner and the Christmas lights and the only way to describe the town is enchanting. Because the festival is only held over the course of two days, it is jam packed with activities and there really is something for everyone. There are concerts for young and old, character reenactments and two daily parades, one of which is by candlelight. If shopping is your thing you can
Pipers a piping
browse both the shops and the Christmas market as well as the craft fair. And let us not forget the food (and drink) which is readily offered by all of the restaurants in town. I must say that the hot mulled wine I tried was some of the best I've ever had.

And because, for us, no trip to a foreign city would be complete without visiting the local cathedral or castle, we visited both. This was a fun castle to explore and although it was set amidst all of the hustle and bustle, it provided us with the rare opportunity to escape much of the crowds. We were able to wind and clamber our way through a maze of passageways to the top and were rewarded with sweeping views of the cathedral, river and festival below. Not only was the cathedral beautiful to look at but once inside we were treated to a rehearsal of their choir singing seasonal music. There is something about the acoustics of a church that makes live music all the more moving and powerful.

Our day in Rochester was just what I needed to get me into the holiday spirit. I loved the lights, music and festive atmosphere and am now ready for more. So bring on Christmas. It is less than two weeks away and I am ready.

Rochester Cathedral as seen from the Castle of Rochester

If you go:

Dickens Christmas Festival
Rochester Town Centre
Check for 2015 dates

Telephone: 01634 338131

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmas At Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle on a frosty morning
Nothing gets me into the holiday spirit more than seeing a house that is beautifully decorated for the season. And if it is a house that I didn't have to decorate myself, it is all the better. And while we're at it, why not make it a really big house, or even a castle? So to give myself a jumpstart on the holidays that is exactly what I did last weekend when I visited Leeds Castle in Maidstone, England.

Located in Kent, southern England, Leeds Castle bills itself as "the loveliest castle in the world" and while I haven't visited every castle around the globe, the grounds at Leeds are perhaps the most beautiful ones I've ever seen. It was crisp but sunny on the morning of my visit and the grounds were encased in a thick layer of frost which only added to the magical feel. Sidney, having never experienced real snow, was mesmerized by both the sight and feel of the white grounds. And even without foliage on the trees, the grassy expanses, ponds -- complete with the castle's iconic black swans-- and pathways were unbelievably beautiful. The grounds are expansive and include numerous gardens, a vineyard, aviary, maze, grotto and 9-hole golf course. You could hours, perhaps even days, wandering the grounds and not see everything.

Frosty grounds

And of course there is the castle. Set in the middle of a moat in the center, the first castle was built during Norman times during the reign of William the Conqueror's son Henry I. In 1278 it became the residence of Queen Eleanor of Castile and remained in royal hands for 300 years. The castle continued to be passed down from one generation to the next with changes, additions and renovations taking place. Although the castle is currently owned by a private foundation whose mission is to preserve the castle and grounds, the last private owner was actually an Anglo-American woman named Lady Olive Baillie. Lady Baillie purchased the castle in 1926 and essentially modernized it to what it is today while preserving its rich heritage.

Each year during the holiday season the castle is decked out with Christmas decorations with a Christmas market being held on the grounds. This year's theme is "A Gingerbread Christmas" and we could see and smell the theme throughout the castle. Each of the castle's grand rooms was decorated with tasteful yet spectacular decorations reflecting the room's specific color schemes. A towering tree, decorated with ornaments, many made of gingerbread, served as each room's focal point. And then there was the giant replica of the castle made entirely gingerbread. Here no detail was too small as even the most ornate tapestry was painstakingly portrayed in gingerbread and icing. It was truly an impressive sight to behold.
The gingerbread castle...

...and a very detailed bed chamber

Between the spicy scent of the gingerbread and the woodsy pine smell from all of the trees, you just knew that you were in the midst of a Christmas wonderland. I'm not sure what part of the castle was our favorite. Sidney loved the scavenger hunt that was especially designed with children in mind. While all of the rooms were impressive I think I was most partial to the library where books lined the shelves from floor to ceiling and if you looked carefully, you could see miniature gingerbread men peering down at you.

The library tree
I loved every minute I spent at Leeds Castle and want to go back again in the spring. And the summer. And the fall. Because I am sure that each season brings its own beauty and I would love to experience it all.

The black swans of Leeds Castle

If you go:

Leeds Castle, Maidstone, Kent ME17 1 PL
+44 (0) 1622 765400
19 pounds, adults
11 pounds, children ages 4-15
Grounds open daily at 10.00, castle at 10.30

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Visit From St. Nicholas

An American 5 year old's version
of St. Nicholas
One of my favorite aspects of living overseas is learning about local traditions. As Americans it is all too easy to assume that just because we celebrate a holiday in a certain way everyone else does as well. But that is not the case and this is what I love about being in Europe. And what is even better is that Sidney is learning about different holiday celebrations in his Belgian school then gets to share, and many times introduce, the traditions to us. I think it is wonderful that he is learning that there are different ways of celebrating holidays and other important days with no way being better than the other. Hence was the case last week when St. Nicholas visited his school.

Saint Nicholas is the forefather of the American Santa Claus who fills stockings on the 25th of December and thus his story is similar yet different than the American version. His name is derived from his Dutch name of "Sinterklaas". There are other similarities as well. Both dress in red but Sinterklaas dons a bishops robe and mitre. Santa has his posse of elves while Sinterklaas has helpers who are called "Pere Fouettard". Rather than wearing tights and smocks their clothes pay homage to their Moorish roots. In a dark twist that would probably be deemed unacceptable to Americans, the Pere Fouttard are said to put the children who have been bad in their sacks and take them back to Spain where they live during the rest of the year. (No frosty North Pole temperatures for Sinterklaas and his helpers).

St. Nicholas' actual birthday falls on the 6th of December and is aptly called Saint Nicholas Day. Here in the Benelux, on the evening of the 5th children leave their empty shoes (or in the Netherlands, their clogs) in front of the fireplace with the hopes that upon waking in the morning they will find them filled with treats. Hay and carrots are often left for the reindeer. As is the case with the American Santa, good children awaken to find their shoes filled with goodies while bad children receive nothing. Here, the story is the same as it is in America. And the festive atmosphere that surrounds the lead up to his arrival? That too is the same.

A few weeks ago Sidney's teacher put out the call for empty plastic water bottles for an upcoming project. When I queried Sidney about it he smugly told me that I needed to wait to see what they were making. Each day he came home with small progress reports and all I could surmise was that a lot of cutting and gluing was involved. Sidney said it was hard but fun. Early last week Sidney informed me that St. Nicolas was coming on Friday and that his madame had informed him that the entire class needed to be good if they were to receive a gift. He was excited and when I inadvertently referred to him as Santa Claus I was quickly corrected. And sure enough, this past Friday he visited the school and Sidney came home with not only his gift (a wonderful age appropriate wooden puzzle) and his own small St. Nicholas which Sidney had been laboring over for the past few weeks. He proudly showed me how he had cut then glued each piece. And St. Nicholas is now sitting in his place of honor under our American Christmas tree awaiting the arrival of his cousin Santa Claus later this month.

Christmas itself is still an important holiday here in Europe and it has many of the same over-commercialized aspects that we do in the United States. But despite this widely recognized and celebrated day, Europeans continue to hold onto their St. Nicholas Day celebrations. I love this and hope it is a tradition that is never lost.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Dare To Dissent

All it takes is one person casting their vote in the opposite direction to upset the apple cart. That is what happens when someone dares to take a stand against the group think mentality that seems to encompass community after community. Is it culture that creates group think or is it simply what happens when large numbers of supposedly like minded people come together? But what happens when someone disagrees with everyone else? All too often it seems as though they become outcasts simply for daring to voice their opinion; the same option that others have done but with a different voice. And why is this so wrong?

Group think is a strange phenomenon but I've seen it happen again and again regardless of what community I find myself in. Whether it be an opinion on the local schools, hospitals or the best place to buy vegetables, if anyone dares to express an opinion that goes against the status quo a backlash ensues. This happens quite frequently on social media. First someone (innocently) poses a question. Responses are quick to flow in with one person after another singing the accolades or decrying the quality of the place or item in question. And interestingly enough the replies tend to follow a similar flow...until they don't. Someone expresses an opinion that is counter to those of everyone else. Perhaps they had a negative experience or simply didn't like something but why should their opinion be any less valued than everyone else's? It shouldn't be yet it seems to be. Conversation treads can suddenly take a turn away from the original question at hand and focus on the person who rocked the boat.

Sometimes I feel like I could be the person to rock that boat here. The doctor that everyone gushes about being the best and having a great bedside manner? Well, I was less than impressed. The same goes for the "helpful" customer service that people receive at the grocery store. While not bad per se, I think the people working there are simply doing their job rather than going above and beyond. The best communities and neighborhoods to live in? Well the one that everyone says is horrible and has the most crime is the one I live in and we both love it and feel completely safe. The right option when it comes to schools? Many would disagree, but I'm completely satisfied with the choice we made. After all, each and every one of these opinions are personal and should be respected. None are right and none are wrong; they simply are individual opinions which should remain just that. Yet group think always manages to creep into the mix. Why is that?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Carved From Ice

Its beginning to feel a lot like Christmas here in Belgium. The weather has turned cold (by Belgian standards at least), the days are darker and festive holiday lights are beginning to shine. Its the season for festivals and Christmas markets and this past weekend we kicked it all off by heading to Bruge and attending the annual Ice Sculpture Festival.

The library

The ice sculpture festival has become an annual event in Bruge with each year featuring a different theme. This year's theme was The Land of the Hobs with each sculpture invoking images of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. From the minute we walked in and caught our breaths in the icy cold (yes, it was that cold) we felt as though we were walking through an enchanted land filled with dwarfs and elves, giant spiders and dragons, and chapels, thrones and even a miniature library. No detail was left untouched and even for the non-Hobbit fans amongst us (namely me), it was an enchanting experience. It was pretty amazing to walk amongst the carved scenes where the longer you looked at a scene the more you saw. Just as it did when we visited the sand sculptures in Oostende earlier this year, I was reminded that carving, regardless of the medium, is a true form of art. And while most of the exhibit was (rightfully) hands off, the end brought an indoor castle and slide made completely of ice. Kids of all ages grabbed burlap sacks before climbing up the ice steps to the top of the caste then sliding down the twisty ice slide. And when we had had our fill of sliding and exploring the ice tunnels we could warm up at the ice bar which served hot cocoa, gluwein and other shots of other beverages that were intended to help take the chill off.

And down we go!

We made a day of it by taking the train, exploring the ice festival and then heading into Bruge to visit
their small Christmas market afterwards. Despite attending the festival in the middle of a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the crowds were sparse and there was no wait to get in. Few people made it ideal for actually looking at the sculptures and although it wasn't a concern for my group, it would have been quite easy to navigate with a baby buggy or wheel chair. But be forewarned, it is cold inside with the temperatures hovering around 23 degrees (F) / -6 degrees (C). So dress warmly (and warm yourself up with some gluwein).

It was the perfect way to kick off the holiday season. Cheers!

If you go:

Station Square, Bruge (immediately in front of the train station)
+32 050 20 04 65
Open daily from 10.00-18.00 from 21 November through 4 January
Adults 15 Euro, Seniors 13 Euro, Children between 3 - 11 11 Euro
Discounted tickets available online and at Belgian rail stations

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Food Issues

I subscribe to too many magazines for my own good. Most months I scan the pages seeking out a new recipe or a potential travel destination and that is about it. Rarely do I read a full article but a recent piece in Cooking Light magazine caught my eye and had me reading the article in its entirety (twice). The author, Ann Taylor Pitman, is the magazine's Executive Food Editor and the mother of now 8 year old twin boys who were born prematurely at 29 weeks. While the picture of her fragile twins is what first caught my eye and gave me flashbacks to my own tiny baby, it was her discussion of food and nourishment that had me reading each page. Here was a lover of food, someone who incorporated this love into both her personal and professional lives, who was struggling to feed her children and give them the nourishment they needed. Her words rang so many bells with me and reading Pitman's words I was once again reminded of the close link between nutrition and one's health and the struggles that often ensue when the two meet.

I consider myself lucky when it comes to food and eating. Because I love just about all food and am always willing to try new things, eating a balanced diet seems to come naturally to me. I rarely diet, never eliminate any one food or food group from my diet but rather eat all of the things I like in moderation. I prefer unprocessed foods to their pre-packaged counterparts and as I grow older, my sweet tooth has been subsiding. I practiced this type of eating both before and during (as well as after) my pregnancy. In my mind it was a give in that I would breast feed rather than relying on formula, baby food would be homemade and my son would have the same love and curiosity about food that I do. A mother can dream, right?

But life rarely turns out as planned. The idea of breastfeeding flew out the window with Sidney's early birth and while my plentiful supply made bottle fed breast milk a viable option, his doctors wanted it to be fortified with formula. I should have known then that I would be spending the next several years trying to pack as many calories as possible into my son. Reflux made feedings both unpleasant and take twice as long as they should have been and he was slow to take to solid foods. But once Sidney discovered the pleasures of solid food he simply couldn't get enough. I worked overtime making purees of organic fruits, vegetables and meats and he loved them all. Friends introduced him to venison sausages when he wasn't quite a year and a half and he loved them. While the same friends bemoaned their three year old daughter's desire to only eat a handful of plain pasta at each meal I relished the fact that my son finally had an appetite. He was still small but he could eat so my mind raced ahead to the wonderful family meals we would be able to enjoy together.

Unfortunately, as with all things children, Sidney's love of new foods came to a halt as quickly as it had taken off. Fast forward a year and he was the one requesting plain pasta at every meal. Hotdogs, one of the few foods that I all but refuse to eat, were acceptable on occasion if they were first drowned in ketchup. Chicken, beef and lamb were no-gos as was any creature that comes from the water. I spent countless hours trying to entice my son with new foods only to be met with such resistance that I felt perpetually defeated. I worried about his nutrition and the fact that he was still the smallest kid around. But honestly, I was the most horrified by the fact that my son essentially hated the one thing that I loved so much. Food. I mean, how is that even possible? Refusing to give up I became adept at hiding the nutrition in those foods he would eat. Pizza was usually acceptable so homemade pies, loaded with vegetable enriched sauce and red peppers (yes, for some reason he loves raw red peppers) became a weekly menu item. A trip to Italy introduced Sidney to Bolognese sauce so I would make vats of that, again loaded with lean meat and tons of vegetables. And the experiments continued with mixed but often unsatisfactory results.

I know kids go through phases and can often be picky but as a parent I struggle with finding the balance between making sure he is eating a balanced diet and not wanting to force things on him that the truly doesn't like. Although it is getting better, all too often the dinner table becomes an unpleasant experience and the last thing I want to do is to instill a dislike of food and mealtime on him. In my mind food is something that should be enjoyed and celebrated. But even as a food loving person I can't quite figure out how to make this work. Cooking only foods on his "acceptable" list is simply unacceptable to me as is making two separate dinners each night.

So how do I find a balance? Sidney provides input into our weekly dinner menus so there are at least two dinners each week that he has selected. Yes, it often involves pizza or pasta but I add a few vegetables into the mix and we end up with a well balanced meal that goes down without tears. I take full advantage of his wandering into the kitchen, sniffing and stating that something smells good. I'm quick to show him what is cooking and talk about the various ingredients that I know he likes. I know Sidney doesn't like his foods mixed together but when I deconstruct the stew before putting it on his plate he will (usually) eat it all. We also have the "five bite rule" where he must eat at least five bites of each item on his plate. I also recognize that there are some things he simply doesn't like. Leafy green salads are currently on that list so when those are the vegetable du jour Sidney gets a plate of cut up raw carrots and red peppers. I'm picking my battles. I still worry about his being so small and wish he would eat a greater variety of food. I'm encouraged that he is trying new things; peer pressure from school has had him requesting both avocados and mushrooms recently. He didn't like them but he did tell me that at least he tried them. And that is progress. Maybe I'll make a foodie out of him yet. I can hope.......

Monday, December 1, 2014

Winter Chic

Winter always poses clothing challenges for me. I strive to look like this:

But more often than not, I look like this:

I'd like to blame my problem on spending the past three winters in country where cold weather gear was only occasionally required. Sure you needed to throw on a heavier coat every once in a while but the rest of the time a lighter jacket or even a sweater would suffice. I really think my blood thinned and now that I am living in a colder (not cold by many standards but colder to me) and very damp environment I find myself struggling to be comfortable, warm and dare I say, fashionably age appropriate. But honestly, my problems with winter clothing started years ago.

I grew up in New England which is the land of LL Bean fleece, wool sweaters and layers. Lots of layers. I don't remember a time when going outside in the winter didn't require layer upon layer of increasingly bulky clothing. Childhood memories include feeling like a stuffed sausage in my winter coat and the dreaded winter where my teacher (for her ease rather than our comfort) made us keep our snow pants on all day. Between the overheated sweaty feeling and the rustle of nylon I would just count the minutes until the warm weather returned. As an adult I initially shunned any winter clothing that was too bulky, cumbersome or left me with that sausage-like feeling. The more fashion forward clothing I saw did nothing to keep away the winter chill. Unfortunately, I found myself being cold a lot.

And now I am an adult who is once again living in a cold weather climate. I've been experimenting with various combinations of fleece, wool and down jackets jet I always feel too bundled up and bulky for my taste. I look at the other moms during school drop off and they all see at ease and comfortable with their attire. Whereas I look frumpy, the women from the Scandinavian and Baltic countries look stylish wearing their fleece (it probably helps that they are all tall and thin to begin with). Those hailing from warmer weather Mediterranean countries are layered and wrapped to the hilt yet they don't have that sausage look that I do whenever I don half as many clothes. So what is their secret? I wish I knew.

I've spent copious hours scanning the internet and perusing local stores in search of the perfect warm yet appropriate clothing for the season but I'm about to give up. So if you see a swaddled wooly mammoth looking person walking down the street you will probably find me underneath the bundle of fleece and down. I might not be comfortable but at least I am warm. How many days is it until spring arrives?