Friday, February 28, 2014

A Book Review: French Kids Eat Everything

After reading an earlier post about Sidney's food experiences at his new pre-school, a friend recommended that I read Karen Le Billon's book French Kids Eat Everything (the subtitle includes the explanation "how our family moved to France, cured picky eating, banned snacking, and discovered 10 simple rules for raising happy, healthy kids"). Although we are living in Belgium, she thought I would be able to relate to the food struggles Le Billon's family faced when they moved from British Columbia, Canada (North America) to western Europe. I had remembered hearing about the book when it was first published a couple of years ago but never read it since I was blessed at the time with a child who ate absolutely everything. Fast forward two years and now the topic of children's culinary habits is especially timely so I decided to give the book a go. And am I glad I did since, as a mother of an increasingly picky and food adverse per-schooler, it struck so many cords with me.

Le Billon is a self-professed picky eater with a French husband and two young daughters who uproots her family from urban Vancouver to spend a year in the rural French village where her husband grew up. While she spoke French her children didn't and the family's complete immersion into French village life is the focus of the book. But it is food and the family's relationship with food that is really the central theme throughout the book. Le Billon quickly discovered that everything about food, from the purchasing and harvesting of it, to its preparation and consumption is completely different in a French village than it is in urban North America. Much like I discovered upon enrolling Sidney in school, Le Billon quickly found that school lunches in France are not your standard American cafeteria fare. The lunches, like most French meals, are social experiences, or as the principal of the school told her, learning experiences for the young children. To many Americans the meals appear to be too sophisticated, complex, and unappetizing for young palates. Or at least they did to Le Billon. Despite her protests, and much to the chagrin of her husband and in-laws, Le Billon attempted to convince the school that her children needed to snack, required choices in what they ate for lunch, and essentially could not comply with the school's food rules. Her argument was a non-starter with everyone around her and her girls, while initially reluctant to adjust to their new environment, soon flourished in their food focused community.

But for me, this book is about so much more than a single family's experience with culture shock; I found it to be both eye opening and reaffirming that food can and does play a pivotal role in every aspect of our lives regardless of how or where we live and what we choose to eat. But let me just say that I know food and dietary beliefs are extremely personal  issues where people will always disagree about what are the right and wrong things to eat. I know that yet too often find myself going down the slippery slope of being judgmental about what others eat and feed their children. I'm trying to be better about this but like all habits, this one is hard to break. And I am by no means in perfect on this front. In fact, I wish my family and I ate healthier, more balanced meals ourselves.

I've always loved food--preparing it, eating it, reading and learning about it--and have tried to bring my love for it into our home. Always one to make as many of our meals as possible from scratch, when Sidney was born I had the best of intentions to make all of his baby food myself, limit processed ingredients, and generally avoid convenience foods. I did make much of his baby food myself but did succumb on occasion to buying the pre-made jarred mush. One whiff and I was reminded why I wanted to be making my own. By the time he moved onto solid foods, much to my delight, Sidney was eating everything with gusto. I remember being especially proud when  at age 18 months he ate not one, but two homemade venison sausages. Our friend who had made them was equally impressed since at the time, his three year old daughter only ate small quantities of plain pasta. I naively thought my son had inherited my love of food and envisioned years of peaceful meal times and creative dinners in our future. Fast forward a year and a half and it was my turn to have the only plain pasta eating child. Dinner times became battlefields and what had once been the highlight of my day became a time I dreaded. In an effort to diversify Sidney's diet, or at least eat anything since the kid is so darn skinny, I went down the rabbit hole I had vowed to avoid, and started serving processed foods, convenience items, and ordering off of the incredibly unhealthy kid's menu in restaurants. And I soon found out, once you start down this path, it is really difficult to go back.

That is what Le Billon learned and that is what I am now facing on a daily basis. Whereas French children are introduced to a variety of foods from an early age, American children tend to have blander and less varied diets. Changing these acquired tastes of opinionated pre-schoolers who are used to eating what they want when they want it, is a painful process. For my son and many other children like him, foods deemed the wrong color or shape, new, or simply different are dismissed in favor of the good old standby of plain pasta. (I'll admit, one of the reasons I love traveling in Italy is that pasta is on ever menu making mealtimes a pain free events). Most evenings I make flavorful homemade dinners and find myself facing either the struggle of forcing Sidney to eat it amid loud complaints, his going hungry, or capitulating and feeding him more plain pasta. I look on with envy when I see other children digging in to their dinners without complaints and silently wish the same for our family.

But Sidney's school lunches are giving me hope. All of the children sit down together for a meal that is eaten off of real dishes with real silverware. They sit patiently at the table and don't leave until the appointed meal time is over. Napkins are used to wipe up the inevitable spills (although Sidney comes home surprisingly clean). As was the case for Le Billon's children, new vegetables are introduced in the form of a soup at the beginning of each meal. Since Sidney doesn't eat a lot of vegetables at home, if he is drinking them at school, I'm not going to complain. Yes, I may be taking the easy way out by having someone else force new foods upon him, but from what I am hearing, Sidney is trying and many times, enjoying these new foods. I'm not sure whether it is the peer pressure of eating what his classmates eat or the desire to please his teachers, but if Sidney is trying new foods, I don't really care how he does it. When he tells me he likes something I am quick to replicate it for our own dinners. Sometimes he'll eat it and other times he won't but I feel as though this is progress. But it would appear that the French method of feeding children just might work.

I hung on to every one of Le Billon's words describing her children's experiences with food since they resonated with me in an all too true fashion. I may have disagreed with her initial self-rightous attitude towards the French school having to cater to her children's food desires but I secretly found myself agreeing with her reasoning behind her arguments. But I also saw the other side of the argument and that one gives me hope for my own son and my own family. It made me think about the differences between typical American attitudes towards food and those of our current home in Belgium and yes, our former home in Albania. They are as varied as the countries themselves and I can see how my own food attitudes have been influenced by all of these environments. This isn't good nor is it bad; it is just the way it is. But, as Le Billon's experience attests to, part of living in a new culture is experiencing that culture and food is an incredible and necessary way to do so. With that in mind, I hope to make the most of our time here in Belgium.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Recycling: The Belgian Way

Earlier this year I blogged about "recycling" in Albania; now I am writing about recycling in Belgium and let me just say, it is a whole different beast here in western Europe. Like so many other things in Belgium, trash disposal, which includes recycling, is highly organized and regulated. As a newcomer to the country, learning the Belgian way of dealing with trash is both time consuming and heartening since at the end of the day, it makes this a better place for all of us to live.

I knew trash disposal was serious business when upon signing our lease, we were promptly handed six pages of charts, schedules, and rules outlining how we were to get rid of our household waste. After being informed that we would receive a "trash tax" bill in the mail and that we must pay it promptly, our housing counselor told us that we were lucky since as residents of the center city of Mons, we would receive twice weekly trash pick up instead of the customary one. (In a house without a garbage disposal or composting options, this is proving to be especially important). But he also warned us that in order to have our trash picked up, we had to place it on the curb before a designated time in special bags. Yes, no Hefty trash bags here. And using those plastic bags from the grocery store? I think not; most grocery stores do not even have any disposable bags at all. Rather, as I discovered, you have the choice of purchasing reasonably priced, reusable bags, even less expensive plastic bags (that are again clearly reusable), or hauling everything out of the store in your arms.  So for disposing of our trash we are required to purchase rolls of biodegradable bags at the local grocery store. These blue or grayish bags are produced by Hygea, the local trash company and while not necessarily expensive, it is in our best interest to cram as much as possible into each bag. After all, each bag is money and since our neighbors have clearly managed to contain their trash to one bag per pick up, I am determined that we can too.

In the United States we were avid recyclers and instinctively knew how to sort our plastics, metals, glass, and papers in order to abide by the local regulations. The city provided us with huge wheeled bins and curbside pickup so there really wasn't any excuse for not recycling. In Albania what recycling was available was very loosey-goosey with my being told upon inquiry to just dump it all together and it would get sorted and separated later. Really??? I quickly discovered that the most efficient recycling program was that of the Roma dumpster divers. After all of this, in Belgium I'm finding the sorting system to be less than intuitive and am struggling through a learning curve. Here plastic beverage containers are recyclable and go in the blue bag while plastic yogurt containers are considered trash for the grayish bags. Aluminium, aerosol cans and jar covers are blue bag materials while other metals, Styrofoams, and plastic wrappings are trash. As are food scraps, old, toys, and clothing. Actually, when you come to think about it, a lot of things are considered trash which is why the grayish bags cost ten times as much as the blue ones.   But all of these items, along with sorted, broken down, and tied papers and cardboard will be picked up outside of our stoop twice a week. Bottles and glass are a completely different category unto themselves. These must be sorted by color- clear and everything else- and placed in the bunker-like domed recycling bins at any of the numerous community recycling centers. I've already located our local recycling center and plan on taking my bottles over there soon.

Recycling in Belgium takes work. I have the recycling cheat sheet taped to the refrigerator for easy reference. We're constantly reminding Sidney that not every trash can is actually a trash can and only certain items can be placed in each one. (Evenings find me sorting through both of our bins performing a quality control inspection). But all it takes is a quick look around any Belgian community to see the benefits of recycling. The lack of disposable grocery bags means very few wayward and windblown pieces of plastic laying along the roadsides. Sidewalk trash cans are readily available along every city street and they are emptied on a regular basis. Sure it is taking me some time to figure out what goes where but teaching Sidney the reasons for doing so are proving to be an important lesson.  I for one enjoy driving or walking down the street and not seeing trash and am glad to be a part of it. Now if I can just remember to always bring my bags into the store with me.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Making A House A Home

A house is just a house but how do you turn it into a home? You would think that since I've already done this too many times I would know how by now. But in reality, it seems as though the more we move, the more complicated it all seems to be. Selecting the right Belgian house for us was both exciting and overwhelming; after all, our last two houses has been chosen for us leaving us to make do with what we were given. I didn't love either house but knew our time in each of them was limited and as such, never put in that extra effort that is needed to turn a house into a home. They were functional and not much else. This time is different. While we know we will only be here for three years, this time around we got to choose our house and I am determined to make this one a real home. So where do I begin?

A new house is like a blank slate--you can do anything or nothing with it. It sounds exciting until you are faced with the reality. As anyone who has moved knows, when you move into a new house you must start over with restocking your kitchen and pantry. Kitchen basics like oil, milk, and flour just aren't there. Neither are cleaning supplies, brooms, and laundry detergents. I am literally starting over from scratch. We first moved into our new house last week with just our suitcases and some inadequate loaner furniture. That was it. The tall ceilings and tiled and wooden floors that had seemed charming when we first looked at the house were cold and echo producing in the stark and cold darkness of our first night. Having sat empty for several weeks, it took a long time for the rooms to warm up once we turned on the heat. Without an active Internet connection or even a radio the only noises we heard were the sounds on the streets and the unfamiliar house noises that come with every building, making me call into question what was normal and what wasn't. At that point, the house was anything but homey leaving me to wonder whether we had made the right decision. (At least when someone else assigns you a house you don't have these moments of self doubt). The house seemed cold, unwelcoming, and honestly, a mistake.

Although this is our second European tour, we had been provided with everything we needed at our previous post--furniture, linens, rugs, even a microwave, vacuum cleaner, and coffee maker. It meant that upon moving into the house we were immediately set up and good to go. Not this time around. We essentially had nothing. I even forgot to pack bedding so we spent the first night sleeping on new sheets and a borrowed duvet. Again, starting at square one can be exciting but it is also exhausting as we have spent our all of our weekends to date traipsing from one store to another, one country to another (because we are in centrally located Belgium, trips to Germany and France are easy day trips), setting up house. Shopping quickly looses its appeal when finding the right item becomes a necessity. Since we first moved overseas when Sidney was still sleeping in a crib, we never invested in bedroom furniture for him; now we find ourselves having to buy that as well. Without a single closet space in the house, we are becoming frequent shoppers at Ikea as we buy every type of storage apparatus imaginable. As an American I didn't realize how much stuff I hid behind closed doors until I didn't have any.

We are still waiting for the arrival of our living room and bedroom furniture from a long term storage facility back in the United States, but yesterday all of our personal goods arrived from Tirana. We're slowly unpacking each box and finding homes for all of our worldly goods, which I'm already realizing is going to necessitate more trips to Ikea for additional storage bins. (We have half of the square footage here than we did in our last house so fitting everything in is going to be tight with many items being stored in the surprisingly ample attic). In the meantime piles of books, baking sheets, and wardrobe boxes are lining the walls of every room.

But even in the midst of all of this clutter, this house is already beginning to feel like a home. Our cherished rugs, purchased during our travels, are muting the echoes of the house while making it feel like our home. In fact, upon returning home from school yesterday, Sidney's first exclamation was "our Albanian rug". The kitchen and pantry may be small but with my pots on the shelves and spices lining the kitchen counter the room is slowing beginning to feel like my kitchen. Eating dinner last night off of our dishes with our own silverware made even the simplest pasta dish taste so much better. (Paper plates and plastic ware do not a dinner make!). We don't have pictures hung on the walls yet but I'm visualizing where our artwork and many photographs will go once we find a drill. With the arrival of Sidney's toys his room already looks like the cluttered playroom in our old house.

It will be slow going for sure but give me a few weeks and this house will soon be our home. I am sure of that.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Of Course Not!

Everything about this move has been more difficult than it needs to be. Perhaps (Actually, yes, I know we were) we were spoiled by the “we will take care of everything for you” mentality of the Embassy community but trying to get what should be the simplest of tasks completed here in Belgium has been anything but easy. Hence the reason I am parked in a cafĂ© with free Wi-Fi at the moment and will be for the foreseeable future whenever I want Internet access……….

The first thing we did once we had signed the lease on our new house was to march over to the local telecommunication office to set up installation of our telephone, cable, and Internet service. Despite their office only being open one day a week and with limited hours at that, I was able to walk right in and schedule an appointment for a technician to come out and get us connected. Much to my surprise the first available appointment was in one week, which was the day after we were to move into our house. After hear horror stories about lengthy waits and repeated appointments I felt as though we had finally lucked out.

Throughout the week I received periodic text messages reminding me of my designated appointment (within a five hour window of course) and I even received a text message the morning of alerting me to the fact that the technician was currently en route to my house. Score! Or so I thought. He promptly arrived, speaking not a word of English but set about wandering through our empty rooms looking for the necessary outlets. I stayed nearby not really knowing what I should do. When I heard him muttering under his breath in French I knew things didn’t look good. Then he was on the phone, again speaking in French. I was able to make out the basic gist of what was being said. Apparently there were problems and “Madame” didn’t speak any French.

Soon he pushed his phone towards me and I saw a message in English asking where the electrical wires came into the house. Ummm….I didn’t have a clue. We just moved in yesterday and even if we had been here for some time, I’m not the handiest of people so I still probably wouldn’t know. I shrugged but lead him to the creepy cellar and even creepier attic to take a look but we came up empty. Soon he was back on the phone again and I then found myself reading another message saying that I needed to have an electrician come out to resolve the wiring issues. Err……just what we didn’t need to deal with. Once that was taken care of I could call them again to schedule another appointment.

So we’re back to square one. Our property manager is scheduling an electrician but I have no idea when he will actually come out. Once that is done I have no idea how long it will be before the Internet company comes back out. One week? Two? Probably more.  And what’s to say that we will have success when they do come back? I had heard about these problems and been warned about them. And now we are experiencing them.  In the meantime we’re frugally relying on our pre-paid SIM cards (we have a permanent carrier lined up but we need Internet access to establish the account), which because this is Europe, doesn’t come with unlimited data plans. Welcome to Belgium!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Customer (Dis)Service

                              "Dear Zosia- Thank you for shopping with Macy's. Your order has
                              been cancelled. Please click here to shop."

Ummmm.......hello? What exactly does this mean? This is the email I received in response to a recent online order I placed with Macy's. In a single sentence they managed to thank me for shopping, informed me that they cancelled the said order but invited me to shop with them again. How would I do this and more so, why would I want to?

Unfortunately, I wasn't all that surprised when I received this message since I have received similar ones from other United States based retailers in the past. This is a pesky, all too frequent problem for those of us who live overseas but choose (or want) to shop from American retailers. Many, but not all, large retailers refuse to ship items to US based mailing addresses when the originating IPO is foreign. (Ironically, many of these same retailers will ship directly to a foreign country but if I was to go this route I would spend more on shipping and taxes than the cost of the original purchase). When I called the "toll free" number to rectify the situation (Actually, I made Glenn do it since I was so frustrated by the whole ordeal) I was told that these are simply security precautions and I can always call them directly to place an order. This is a nice option and all but these "free" numbers are by no means free when dialed from overseas.

Yes, I could purchase a devise that would give me a default US based IPO but why should I have to? I have money and want to spend it yet these companies make it so difficult to do so. I know this is totally a first world problem but it irritates me none the less. The potential customers who are the most effected by these policies are the military and other Americans who are living and working overseas. Because of this, I am doubly bothered by the fact that many of these same companies profess to being "military friendly". It sounds like a good tag line but if they truly were, wouldn't they make it easier for military families to shop?

I am by no mans solely blaming Macy's for this policy. Two years ago I had a similar problem with the website and there are yet other companies I refuse to do business with because of their cumbersome policies. I actually engaged in a back and forth conversation over their policy and while they refused to budge, they did offer me a generous gift certificate to use for future shopping on their site. While that could be viewed as a nice gesture, it was useless to me since I still couldn't shop online from my overseas address. And since there are many online businesses that are willing and able to do business with those of us living overseas, it can be done.

Over the past few years I've learned which retailers are easy to shop from and which ones make it an ordeal. For the most part I've learned to avoid those that won't allow me to online shop from the comfort of my own home, those that won't ship to APO addresses or charges extra to do so. But every once in a while I find myself in the conundrum of really wanting an item that is sold by a particular retailer. As was the recent case with Macy's I was shopping for replacement dishware and found dishes I liked, on sale for buy one set get one set free, at Macy's. So I placed my order and hoped for the best. And my order got rejected. I debated just looking elsewhere but I had looked elsewhere and hadn't seen anything I liked as much. And these dishes were on sale. Reluctantly we went ahead and placed an order via the telephone and my new Fiestaware in on its way. I'd like to say I won't shop from Macy's again but I won't say never. I will say that I will think twice about doing it and in the meantime hope that they, and other businesses with similar policies, rethink what it really means to be military friendly.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A License To Drive

Can you identify all of these
road signs?
As part of settling into Belgium we are required to apply for a Belgian drivers license. Prior to arriving here, we had been warned that not only were the Belgian roads horrible but their drivers were even worse. I guess it is all relative since coming from Albania I immediately found the roads to be very good and the drivers to be quite civilized. Even the big tractors driving down the highways seemed to be following the rules of the road. I did notice that there were a lot of signs along the roadsides--most of which I recognized but a few that I didn't. But, acclimating to a new country, I wasn't sure whether there were truly a lot more road signs than in other countries or just a lot more than in Albania. It turns out it was a little bit of both.

While nothing is as easy here as it should be the process was more cumbersome than difficult. First, we had to schedule an appointment to take the class where we would learn everything we needed to know cruise the Belgian roads. When filling out my application I was asked if I had European driving experience. This question caused me to pause because, well I do, but I don't. Or do I? When I explained that I had been driving in Albania for over two years (yes, Albania is a part of Europe), he looked at me in a horrified way and hissed that Albanian driving did not count as the requisite experience. (I later learned that if you had true European driving experience, you would only have to take the class and not the test in order to receive your Belgian license). It looked like I would be taking both all at the early hour of eight in the morning. I was then handed a thick driving manual and a handout with pictures of a hundred plus roadsigns. I was told to only skim the book but to memorize the signs because knowing all of the signs would be very important.

Bright and early on my appointed day I sat in a cold classroom with a handful of other recent arrivals listening. The instructor immediately launched into a Power Point presentation covering you guessed it, the road signs. (Actually, he prefaced his entire lecture with the warning that we must follow the rules of the road and not drive like Belgians.  Maybe Belgium is more like Albania than I want to admit?). For over two hours we went around the class identifying road signs and what we were to do when we encountered them. What I heard was essentially common sense but it made me realize just how rusty my western driving skills have gotten over the past couple of years. Repeatedly I found myself nodding in agreement with the instructor yet realizing that such rules just wouldn't work in Albania. Police in the road? In Belgium you stop your vehicle and obey their instructions. In Albania? You go blazing by them not making eye contact. Stopping for red lights, not turning left from the right lane, or stopping for an approaching train rather than trying to outrun it. These rules are common sense here but not where I am most recently coming from.

There are two Belgian (or actually European) rules that have been taking me the longest to grow accustomed to. First, there is the sign with a little red rimmed white triangle with an "x" in the middle. When we see these signs, whether we are on a main road or a country lane, we need to yield to the right, meaning that whatever traffic is approaching from the right actually has the right of way. Sometimes this makes sense but as I have already encountered during my drives through the area, yielding to the right is counter intuitive. However, we were sternly warned that if we get hit broadside by a car that we were supposed to yield for, we are without a doubt at fault. Secondly, on many sections of secondary roads, the traffic alternates on the more narrow sections with cars yielding to oncoming traffic. This alternating of lanes seems to be a built in speed control mechanism. Signs with red and black arrows indicate who has the priority and as I quickly learned, drivers-Belgians and foreigners alike- take this rule seriously. All drivers seem to be exceptionally civilized about obeying who has the right of way; disregarding the signs could result in a nasty head on collision.

Three hours later I took my 100 question exam where we were allowed to miss a total of ten questions. Half of the test was multiple choice questions and the other half was identifying those pesky road signs. We had to know the difference between a wild animal crossing sign and one for farm animals; the specific rules and lane restrictions for bicycles, motorcycles, and mopeds; when we can park totally on the verge, partially on the verge, and only on the street. The list of signs just goes on. And low and behold, this girl who spent the past two and a half years driving in Albania where anything and everything goes, aced the test. Yes I did. So I am now licensed to drive in Belgium with my SHAPE license. However, I must wait until the arrival of my Belgian protocol card (in six, seven, eight weeks maybe) before I can go to the Commune of Mons and apply for my Belgian drivers license. It sounds easy enough but I now know better than that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What's In Your Wallet?

Recently when my bulging wallet popped open yet again, I decided it was time to do a little purging. After all, there just couldn't be any way that I needed everything I was carrying around in there. Or could there? I wasn't naive enough to believe I was carrying large amounts of cash, so exactly what was filling the many pockets? As I soon discovered, just about everything but the kitchen sink!

First, let's start with the "American" component of my wallet. Not only do I have my Virginia license but I also must carry a small laminated extension because my actual license expired last year. Add in my US military and NATO identification cards, bank, credit, emergency checks, and frequent flyer cards and my wallet is already pretty full. But then there is the money. Because we are in close proximity to an American military base where the dollar rules I have those bills and the ubiquitous amount of change that goes along with it. (Although interesting enough American bases overseas do not use pennies since they weigh too much). But on a daily basis we deal in Euro so I have those bills and coins in a separate portion of my wallet. As anyone who has mistakenly handed over the wrong currency to a dour store clerk knows, it is important to keep your money separate.

That's it, right? Wrong. Digging into the deeper recesses of my red leather abyss I found a random assortment of other currencies- Hungarian Fornit, Swedish and Norwegian Krone, a single Turkish Lira, Albanian Leke, and an unidentifiable bill with Cyrillic writing on it (Bulgarian perhaps?). Really? If I can't identify it or don't have plans to visit the country soon why am I toting all of this "worthless" money around? Needless to say all of that was quickly removed making my wallet simultaneously significantly lighter and thinner. Discarding my DC Metro Smart card, a few expired gift cards to stores that no longer exist, and two unidentified keys lightened the loader even further. But I also found items that were keepers; Sidney's first picture with Santa and my missing health insurance card are now in locations where they are easily accessible.

The amount of "stuff"-both necessary and not- I had accumulated truly amazes me. I may have downsized but I still feel as though I am carrying too much. And I'll soon be adding a new Belgian identity card and Belgian driver's license to this mix as well as Belgian bank and credit cards so its a good thing I cleaned out my wallet when I did. What I really need, however, is the ideal wallet that can neatly organize all of the above. If you find it, please let me know.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Belgian (Pre-School) Lunch

Typical of most children, my son gives me mono-syllable answers when it comes to what he did at school each day. When I ask specific questions I may or may not get responses and when he does choose to answer, many times I'm not quite sure what he is talking about. And because the school is a French immersion one, where his teacher speaks a limited amount of English, I am left grappling to figure out what actually goes on during the day. Granted, important notices, such as the chicken pox alert that came out on his second day there, are translated into (poor) English but the majority of the information is only in French. I may have taken a few years of French way back when in high school but most of the language has now faded to a distant memory meaning I find myself relying on Google Translate to decipher a lot of what goes on during Sidney's day.

Lunch is a prime example of this. We were presented with a monthly lunch menu on Sidney's first day but much to my chagrin it was written solely in French. At a quick glance I could see that each meal was balanced with fruits, vegetables, starches, and meats but that was about it. Sidney was very little help simply stating, upon persistent inquiry, that he didn't eat because he didn't like what was set before him. When I would ask him what it was, with the exception of pasta, he simply says he doesn't know. I have repeatedly encouraged him to at least try a bite of everything because he might discover something he likes. I didn't think my suggestion sunk in but I hoped it had none the less.

But last Friday, during his daily after school drilling about lunch Sidney had a different response. He said that he had eaten lunch because he liked it. But he couldn't tell me what it was because "it was too difficult to explain". I was intrigued. Intrigued enough to go to the computer and plug his lunch menu into Google Translate. And let me tell you, my son isn't eating the typical cafeteria lunches I had as a child. (Some of the more memorable, and not in a good way, meals included a platter of baked beans served with a petrified cube of yellow cheese and the ubiquitous "tuna-pea-wiggle", essentially a bad tuna casserole served over saltine crackers).

So what did Sidney eat for lunch on Friday? He started off with a watercress soup and continued with a chicken sausage served alongside a dish of zucchini au gratin. These international pre-schoolers are eating well. Out of curiosity I went on to translate the remainder of the lunch calendar and each meal was more impressive than the last. Every lunch started with a soup; cream of carrot, tomato & basil, and celery and watercress seemed to be favorites. Entrees ranged from fish fillets with mustard sauce and lasagna Bolognese to pork fillets with a mushroom sauce and macaroni and Swiss cheese with ham.  No boxed orange stuff served here. A few items didn't translate but the "flight of wild mushrooms" sounded really interesting. And of course no meal would be complete without dessert. Where are the jello cups, canned mixed fruit, and chocolate pudding?  In their place are fresh fruits (kiwis have become Sidney's new favorite) and mocha creme, vanilla and caramel flan, or crepes with sugar. For four year olds? I love it!

Despite my best attempts at broadening Sidney's culinary horizons--I make versions of many of these dishes at home--he steadfastly refuses to try anything that is new, different, or anything that is not plain pasta. I am hopeful that his being repeatedly presented with these meals, combined with mid day hunger pains, will finally induce him to try new dishes. If the school keeps serving these meals the other children must be eating and enjoying the food so maybe my little American-Albanian boy will grow to like them too. Honestly, as a food loving home cook I am in awe at these menus. American schools could take a pointer or two from their European counterparts.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Curiosity Of Curling

Like millions of other people around the world, I've been tuning in to the Sochi Olympics with great interest. I'm not what anyone would consider an athletic person I've always loved watching this international athletic event and (in my younger years) fantasized about what it would be like to actually compete in such a grand venue. Figure skating and skiing-both Nordic and alpine- have always been my winter favorites but during the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 I stumbled upon the sport of curling and was simultaneously fascinated and hooked. Maybe it was my sleep deprived state-- Sidney had only been home from the hospital for a few days when the Olympics started--but there was something intriguing about this sport I had only heard of but had never seen.

So what is this sport of curling that I am referencing? As I learned in my quest to understand this sport, this ancient sport dates back to medieval Scotland where actual rocks and sticks were pushed across frozen ponds. Talk about humble origins! The sport has evolved but remains true to its roots with the rocks now being called stones which are more uniform and polished than their predecessors. Similar to shuffleboard, two teams slide their stones across an ice rink toward concentric circles with the goal of outscoring each other. Sweepers accompany the stones using brooms to guide the stones along their intended trajectory. The game is simultaneously simple and complex giving it the moniker of "chess on ice". Today, curling is the popular in Canada and Nordic countries but Scotland is still home to the international governing body of the sport, the World Curling Federation.

Perhaps it is because I was now aware of this sport that I seem to be seeing and hearing about it everywhere. The winter of 2011 found us living in Washington D.C. where Glenn's cousins had their very own ice skating rink set up in their backyard. One evening they invited us over to join them for a game of curling. Yes, that is right; a live curling match. There weren't any outlandish costumes and the sweepers were actually kitchen brooms but the stones were real. Even at the tender age of one Sidney got into the action and slid across the ice alongside the stones. Upon mentioning my interest in curling to my mother she informed me that there was a local curling club in her community. Who knew?

Leading up to the games sportscasters were anticipating not only the competition but the uniforms each team would be wearing. Either curling is coming into its own or I was completely oblivious before but just the mere fact that mainstream, American sportscasters were talking about the sport makes me think others are interested in curling as well. Rumors abounded about the outlandish uniforms that would be sported by the Norwegian national team. Talk about national pride! Other uniforms were much more sedate but that didn't detract from the playing. Living in a hotel with only AFN television I was unsure of how much Olympic coverage I would be able to watch. I considered getting to watch any curling would be a complete bonus. We weren't able to watch the opening ceremonies (my other Olympic favorite) but much to my delight, we have been able to watch a lot of curling. I still don't understand all of it but there is something about this sport that has once again sucked me in. It is just that cool.

So if you've never watched curling, try to tune in and catch a match or two. There is still time during this Olympic season. Better yet, find out if there are any curling leagues in your local community. You can then watch them in person or perhaps take to the ice and try it our for yourself.

Sidney as a "curling stone"- January 2011

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Avash, Avash

Avash, avash. It was a phrase we both heard and used regularly in Albania. Loosely translated it means "slowly" or "little by little". As in "Sidney, slow down." Or "in good time, don't rush things". I used to joke that it was simply a way of explaining Albanian time; meaning things would happen when they happened and they shouldn't and couldn't be rushed. As someone who tends to operate on full-speed-ahead mode, it took me awhile to learn to accept the inevitable; i.e. things would happen when they happened and not a moment sooner. They could not or would not be rushed. But eventually I like to think I did accept this way of doing business. Or at least I thought I did because upon moving to Belgium, I've discovered a whole new meaning to "avash, avash" and I can't say I'm crazy about it.

We had been warned that things can take awhile in Belgium; phone and Internet service can take weeks to be set up while the simple act of registering your car and receiving your Belgian license plates can take even longer. But, we had also been told that since we had transferred here during the off season, things would move along faster than usual. We spent most of our first business day in Belgium taking numbers and standing in line waiting to get things accomplished. But in reality, by the end of the day we had yet to accomplish anything. Instead we had shuffled from one office to another only to find out that we had the wrong paperwork, were missing necessary information, or that desks were simply empty with their occupants no where to be found. On our second day we accomplished a bit more but learned two important pieces of information; first, Belgian lunch hours were not to be interfered with. At one office we were sternly told that the lunch break began promptly at 13.00 but if we showed up five minutes before then we would be sent away. Second, none of the above tasks we had been trying to accomplish could be completed until we had a permanent address (i.e. we had a signed lease and house to move into). If only someone had told us this from the get go but apparently passing along that information wasn't in anyone's job description. Needless to say, our first couple of days were truly frustrating and it was during this time that I recalled the "avash, avash" phrase. So I changed my mindset. On our third day I only set one goal for myself and low and behold, I achieved it. Never mind that it had really taken three days to do so but it finally happened. Perhaps we were making progress? And the next day? After viewing four prospective houses on our house hunt in one day I felt as though we were on a roll. But then my Belgian reality came crashing back and our progress slowed considerably.

This past week, our second full one in Belgium, has been more of the same. It has been two steps forward and one step back. We finally have our hands on the correct paperwork and an office isn't open for another two days. We arrive at a scheduled appointment only to find a walk in client already there monopolizing the only clerk's time. For the third time we were told that no one really knows where our household goods shipped three weeks ago from Albania are but they will "get back to us when they know something". Obtaining a simple signature on a document becomes anything but. Despite having an appointment (which I'm beginning to realize is simply a term that makes Americans feel good), it took days to receive it.

Remember, we are transferring here during the slow season. So I can only imagine how slowly things must move during the busy summer transfer season when most of Europe is "on holiday". I guess I should just appreciate the relative speed by which we have accomplished things so far. And if no one else is in a hurry or worried about deadlines, then I'm (going to try) not to worry either.

Avash, avash.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Book Review---Global Mom: A Memoir

I've always loved to read and have harbored a secret desire that someday I will publish my own book. In my mind it will most likely be a memoir, a narrative of my adventures. At the moment it is still a pipe dream but that doesn't stop me from thinking about it. And to keep my dreams alive I've been reading a lot of memoirs recently. Some have been better than others and one of the best ones I read recently was Global Mom: A Memoir by Melissa Dalton-Bradford. I liked it so much that I had a hard time putting it down, staying up too late in order to continue reading. (It has been a long time since a book grabbed my attention and touched me like that).

The author, a singer by profession, is a mother, wife, world traveler, and American ex-patriot. She has a deep faith but neither wears it on her sleeve nor forces it upon her readers. Her story appealed to me not only because I could relate to so many aspects of her story but because she was incredibly honest about her experiences. It is easy to romanticize living overseas when you are sitting in your familiar American neighborhood surrounded by people like yourself. From a distance it often appears that life is filled with all ups and the living is easy. Heck, numerous blogs and other forms of social media make it seem as though everyone experiences 24-7 happiness and if you don't, then there is something wrong with you. Bradford debunks this myth and as someone who has lived overseas, alternatively--and sometimes simultaneously-- loving it and hating it, I found it refreshing to hear that someone else has struggled with the constant moving, adjusting, and the general lack of roots.

With each page I found myself nodding along in agreement with Bradford's experiences. I attribute it, in part, to the fact that I read this book as I was myself transitioning between one European culture and into another. Varying expectations for children struck a particular cord with me. Mastering the norm of a Norwegian playground only to find that French expectations were the polar opposite felt all too familiar. Reconfiguring furniture to fit in each new home is an experience that all of those who have moved a time or two can relate to. Ditto the household goods showing up in less than perfect condition. The struggle of trying to maintain a career and an identity with regular and unanticipated moves is another theme that makes this story feel real.  Daily tasks of buying groceries, finding a parking spot in your own neighborhood, and communicating with your child's teacher aren't as easy as they might be "back home" yet they add to the richness of ex-pat life. And Bradford talks about the ups and downs of all of these. But Bradford's book isn't a downer; quite the opposite. She presents each new challenge with humor and a sense of being real that I think most of us can relate to. I found myself laughing with her, commiserating, and when tragedy strikes her family, crying along side her. By the time I reached the last page I felt as though I not only knew Bradford but saw so much of my own story in hers.

So, if you are looking for a new book or want to discover a new author, I encourage you to check out Global Mom: A Memoir. You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Don't Be A Lemon

These billboards reminding drivers to be courteous while driving are all over the Belgian roadways:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Joy Of A Simplified Life

Whenever we move I realize just how much stuff we have. Granted I weed out and purge items both before packing and while unpacking yet our household items just seem to multiply on their own. By the time our next move comes around I feel as though I am back to square one. Will I ever learn?

But after each move we spend a few (or more) blissful weeks leading an uncluttered life. This is the time it takes for our unaccompanied baggage to catch up with us and it is during this time that I realize how little we really need to get by. I remember the feeling when we moved to Tirana. Prior to arriving there I was in a panic about how we would survive with only the items we could fit in our suitcase. How would I cook without my own knives or favorite cookware? How many times would I have to do laundry in order to keep us in clean clothes? How would we keep Sidney entertained? But you know what? We survived a very long six weeks just fine. Yes I did a lot of laundry and longed for a sharp knife but we wore clean clothes and ate just fine. When our unaccompanied baggage arrived (the day before our household goods, by the way) I felt overwhelmed by all of our "stuff". There was just so much of it, I had no idea where to store it, and in reality, we didn't need most of it. But I unpacked, put everything away and slipped back into our cluttered way of life. And now we are doing it all over again.

We've been living in a family suite in a hotel for over a week now. It is cramped and I am going stir crazy and am ready to leave but we are getting along just fine. Sure we are wearing and re-wearing the same clothes but I have a laundry room right down the hallway and daily maid service. The kitchen leaves everything to be desired but we've still been eating fairly well given the circumstances. Because our space is just so small, out of necessity we are forced to be neater than we ever have been. And it is actually kind of nice.

But that odd sense of serenity came to a crashing halt last week with the arrival of our unaccompanied baggage. We only used half of our weight allotment but looking at those five big boxes squeezed into our tiny hotel room just about gave me a panic attack. It was impossible to move around with the boxes in the room. Where were we going to put all of these things and did we even need them? As we set about opening them I realized that we really did not have the space of any of these items. The clothes? Our one closet and set of drawers were already filled with clothing. Without counter space there really wasn't any place to even put my salt and pepper grinders let alone space for my mixing bowls. My pans were too big for the burners and without an oven my baking sheets were obsolete.

One by one we opened the boxes and wondered what we had been thinking. We did pull out a few items--Sidney's books and a few toys, Glenn's uniforms, and my beloved knife set and soup pot. Everything else got put back into the boxes and pushed down the hallway to our storage cage. I actually felt a sense of relief when the boxes were out of sight. I managed to tuck away the few items we had taken out and gave Sidney a stern warning that all of his things needed to be kept neat and not underfoot. Momentarily, I felt better. But I realized that I had once again delayed the inevitable. We still had all of our "stuff" with more on the way. Once we move into a house the rest of our household goods that we had packed out from Albania would arrive. And later, all of our furniture, which has been sitting in storage in Virginia since 2011, will show up. And all of these items will need a home. Unpacking everything will become a brief, full time job. I will once again feel overwhelmed by all of our stuff, rue its existence, and wonder where it will all go. But then we will settle in and life will go on until we do it all over again.

But in the meantime, perhaps we will have a few more weeks (or more) of uncluttered freedom. I can't wait.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sidney Goes To School

Last week my little boy started school for the first time. I'll be honest; up until the moment when we dropped him off I wasn't sure how it was going to go. But in the end, Sidney was a rock star! At a little over four years old I know he is late by today's standards for starting pre-school but prior to arriving here in Belgium, I felt as though our options were limited. Yes there were pre-schools in Albania where other Americans sent their children but I felt as though the costs and benefits just weren't worth it. So we held off knowing that we would soon be heading to Belgium with the plan to enroll him in the Belgian operated French immersion pre-school, or kindergarten, at S.H.A.P.E. And that is just what we did.

Sidney was apprehensive about starting school. In all of our conversations leading up to his starting he expressed excitement at the idea of having new friends, trying new activities, and even learning French. We talked about how his school would be next door to daddy's job and Sidney's new job would be to go to school each day. He would nod with understanding but then he would turn around and say he wanted to move back to Albania and stay home with me all day. We gently told him that neither were possible options and he would nod sadly but soon we would start the whole conversation cycle over again. Needless to say, I wasn't sure how things were going to go.

The day we visited the school to enroll Sidney he went willingly and even enjoyed playing with a few new toys. The highlight of the trip was drinking out of the tot sized water fountain but once we left the campus Sidney informed us that he wasn't going to school the next morning. But the next morning he was awake before us and readily picked out his clothes for the day. He even helped pack up his new backpack and eagerly walked to the car. During the ride to school he was silent but as we pulled into the parking lot he again reaffirmed his decision that he would not be going to school. When we told him that he had to go I expected tears but at that moment, none were shed. Instead he silently held our hands as we walked to his classroom at met Madame Isabelle, his Chanel wearing, French speaking teacher. Looking between Madame Isabelle and us, Sidney asked if we were staying with him. When I told him no, but assured him that we would be back to pick him up, his big blue eyes welled with tears. Assuring us that Sidney would be OK and shooing us out of the classroom, Madame Isabelle scooped Sidney up and Glenn and I slunk out of the school to the sound of Sidney's plentiful wails for "Mamma."

Wednesday are a half day at the Belgian kindergarten so when Glenn and I returned a few hours later relieved that we hadn't received a phone call requesting us to pick Sidney up early. Because we found ourselves a few minutes early, we sat in the parking lot and watched Sidney's class play on the playground. There was our little red coated son playing alongside his classmates then clasping hands with one boy and walking back into the school alongside his class. It was at that moment that we both exhaled in a collective sigh of relief that things were working out. Madame Isabelle's only comment to us was that Sidney had lots of energy. Smelling like Madame Isabelle's perfume, Sidney's comment was that he "cried for a long time for Mamma" but upon further questioning he started talking about playing with Legos and jumping on the playground. When we asked if he liked school he said yes but then proceeded to inform us that he wasn't going back. These statements were repeated throughout the evening but overall we thought the day went well.

Thursday morning Sidney once again informed us that he wasn't going to school but quickly got dressed, ate breakfast and got in the car. At the school he repeated that he wasn't going but dutifully walked to his classroom. Once he was greeted by Madame Isabelle he quickly spotted a new toy and busied himself with discovering its ins and outs and ignored us. Yes, our little boy dismissed us by turning his back to us so we left, both relieved that we had escaped another round of tears and a bit hurt at being dismissed. Pick up that afternoon was much like the day before but since Sidney had been there all day we got an earful of even more activities. Sidney assured us that he had fun and liked school but once again informed us that he didn't want to go back. Friday was more of the same only at drop off he quickly gave me a kiss, Glenn a hug then ran to the waiting arms of Madame Isabelle. He even responded to her French greetings and didn't notice when we left the room.

So yes, I do believe my little boy is liking school. In the evenings, smelling of perfume, he is talking eagerly about what he did and saw during the day. He is talking about playing, sharing, and making friends; it makes a Mamma's heart swell to hear his happy chatter. He says he likes Madame Isabelle. I can only hope that his love of school continues. And someday, when he brings home a girl reeking of Chanel I'll know that these early school days were quite memorable.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

House Hunters International: The Mons, Belgium Edition

This past week my life has truly felt like a version of House Hunters International. Upon receiving orders to Belgium we knew we would be responsible for finding our own housing. This was a complete turn around from our arrival in Albania where we were presented with a fully furnished house equipped to American standards. Honestly, the prospect of choosing our own home was exciting and we spent many evenings talking about what we wanted in a house. When we first arrived in Belgium we weren't overly concerned with finding a house since we tentatively had one lined up. Sure, it wouldn't be ready for us to move into for three months but it sounded good on the internet and after all, it was just going to be temporarily ours. But as is par the course, things rarely end up going the way they are planned. We had been in our temporary home (a.k.a. a hotel room) for less than 12 hours when we received our first inquiry as to whether or not we had started our house hunt. We were dismissive at first but since everyone else around us seemed concerned about the status of our house hunt we began to wonder whether we should be too. Caving to peer pressure, we spent our first weekend in Belgium driving around looking at the houses that others had told us about. We quickly learned that Belgian's preferred building medium is brick and the variety of housing out there--from apartments, duplexes and row houses to single family villas, mansions, and country cottages--were overwhelming. Perhaps we had reason to be concerned?

When we finally stopped into the housing office early the next week for our official "housing briefing", we discovered what all of the fuss was about. There are rules; lots of rules for where we could search for houses, how we could go about choosing which house we preferred and the time frame in which we had to complete it all. We were required to physically visit at least two houses during our first ten days then five during the following ten and so forth. Immediately we realized that our back up house that would be ready for occupancy in May wasn't looking like a very promising option. Then we were presented with the infamous board of available housing. These were all homes that had been inspected and approved by the housing office. While we were free to search elsewhere, selecting a house that hadn't been inspected would still require an inspection and could drag out the search process. At first glance, the pickings on the board were slim (and ugly). And the photographs that accompanied the descriptions? Unlike American homes that are staged and carefully photographed by realtors, the pictures of these homes all looked like they were taken with a child's camera without a flash. I honestly didn't want to look at any of the available houses. But all of the alternatives we found on the internet were quickly rejected by the housing counselor for a variety of reasons so it looked like our new home would come from the board.

After much deliberation and a Google maps search, we narrowed down which houses we wanted to look at and our name was placed on a list. At this point a housing counselor would schedule viewing appointments for us. Once on the list we had seven days to view and make a decision on a house. But just because we wanted to rent a house didn't immediately mean it was ours. This list ranked us against other people who were also searching for houses. We were free to look at our preferred houses but could not actually sign a lease unless we were ranked as number one. Sometimes you might luck out and be at the top of the list while other times you were at the bottom, only moving up as others turned  the house down. We were allowed to reject houses based on health and safety issues but a bad location, too small rooms, or simply not liking the place were not acceptable reasons. The whole process felt like a lottery where our fate was in everyone else's hands.

A few days ago we set out on our house hunting marathon and visited four houses in a single day. We quickly realized that not only was each house in a different town, each was completely different from the others. We viewed a suburban house with a gopher filled yard and horses as backyard neighborhors. Another house was smack in the center of Mons and would give us a truly urban living experience. A third house was in a remote village but filled with character and had a large yard filled with fruit and nut trees. A fourth house was modern and open but it felt incredibly sterile. The one thing that all of the houses had in common was that they were definitely not American in style. Small bedrooms, some too small to fit a full sized bed, half sized refrigerators without freezers, no closets, and one and a half bathrooms were the norm. Much to our surprise we found that we actually liked all of the houses we visited. (We were actually hoping that we wouldn't like at least one or two so making a decision would be easier). Were any of them our dream homes? Absolutely not but for three years, we decided we could make any of them work.

Decisions, is what we narrowed down our options to:

The suburban house at the end of the cul de sac. It is in a
family oriented neighborhood and close to work and school
with a large backyard but small bedrooms.
The modern but slightly dated house with a crazy
amount of storage, a big back yard and a real master suite
with a large bedroom but the other bedrooms are tiny.
The big and rambling village house with tons of traditional
character, five bedrooms, and a large living space located
within walking distance to shops, restaurants, and a train
station but a bit of a distance from work and school.

The backyard view of a restored row house right
in the center of Mons. It has an updated kitchen,
plenty of storage in the cellar and attic and
huge, I mean huge, rooms. Reserved parking is
a block away but just about everything is within
walking distance.

So which house did we finally choose? Stay tuned to find out.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Dorothy, We're Not In Kansas Any More

Or in our case the Mediterranean, specifically Albania-the land where anything and everything goes. We are in Belgium, attached to an international military command where rules and regulations are enforced. In many respects returning to a military community is like coming home for us but it isn't until you find yourself back in such an environment that you realize just how loosey-goosey things were where you came from. (And this isn't bad, I rather like it. But because it is different, it is simply an adjustment).

And the differences between the way things were and the way things currently are, are everywhere--at least to us. To begin with, lets talk weather. The Mediterranean climate which we had grown accustomed to was hot, sunny, and dusty in the summer and temperate, damp, and muddy in the winter. Here in Belgium the weather is essentially the same all year around- cool, cloudy, and rainy. But all of the rain serves a purpose. Even in February, Belgium appears green and lush. Acre upon acre of rolling green fields give way to even more greenery. No brown or arid fields here; everything looks fresh and healthy. And speaking of fields, this region of Belgium is flat without the steep mountains that cover much of Albania. When we are out driving around Sidney has been looking out the window and asking where all the mountains are. My response has been south of us........

But the biggest differences between our old world and new one are cultural.  First there are the families and children. Children are everywhere but rather than being treated like little kings and queens, they are expected to be seen and not heard. In some respects this attitude has been stressful for me; Sidney's occasional public temper tantrums which were met with sympathetic smiles and nods of understanding in Albania are greeted with sneers of disdain here. I have yet to see a child in public throwing a fit and even Sidney has noticed and commented on this. As he says, the babies (what he calls any child) are quiet. I'm using his observations as a lesson on how he should behalf and I dare say he is catching on. On more than one occasion when he would have otherwise protested loudly, he has quickly commented that he wants to be quiet like the other children. This is definitely not a bad thing.

And the differences go on. Smoking bans are actually enforced meaning restaurants, shops, and other public spaces are free of the plumes of smoke that I have sadly grown accustomed to breathing. Because of this, going out is actually a pleasant experience. Restaurant menus are varied rather than the same handful of items we are accustomed to seeing. That said, Sidney's standbys of pasta or pizza aren't always readily available. Sometimes this is a challenge but it is forcing a set in his ways little boy to expand his horizons. Whereas days in the Med started late and ended even later, here the schedules start and stop earlier than we have grown accustomed to. Finding a sit down restaurant that actually served food before seven in the evening was a challenge in Albania. In our little corner of Belgium, meal time begins earlier. But we're actually finding this to be a good thing. Eating dinner earlier may mean less down time between work and dinner but it translates into earlier bedtimes and yes, more sleep; sleep which is desperately needed by our entire family. Whereas in Albania we were just getting going by the time nine o'clock rolled around, since we've arrived in Belgium, we have all been fast asleep by this early witching hour. And these differences are just the tip of the iceberg.

But I believe that change and differences are good. It may not always be comfortable but in the end we are better because of them. And if there is one thing I've learned in the course of all my travels it is that what makes each country or region unique is what makes that place special. Just imagine how boring the world be if things were the same regardless of where we were on the globe. So we may not be in our Kansas anymore anymore but that doesn't make it better or worse than where we are now. It is just different and like I said, different is a good thing.