Monday, March 31, 2014

Just Say Fromage

Cheese might not be the first thing you think of when considering Belgian gastronomy.  Chocolate and pastries, yes. Beer and mussels, definitely. But cheese? Belgium is adjacent to France, a country renowned for their variety of tasty cheeses so maybe. At least that is what I used to think. But now I know for sure.

Now my mindset has changed to a definite as I am enamoured with the variety of artisan cheeses available in Belgian shops and markets. Actually, there are approximately 300 different distinct varieties of artisan cheeses produced in Belgium with each town or village having at least one speciality store selling their local products.  Cow's milk is by far the most common cheese base with brine washes, including those made local beers and ales, making the cheeses unique. Most of Belgium's cheeses are consumed domestically which may account for the reason that so much of the world is unaware of the country's great cheeses. But it makes me a bit sad to think about what those who don't visit Belgium are missing.

So where does one even begin when searching out great Belgian cheeses? The local markets held weekly in most towns is a great place to start. Smaller markets are guaranteed to have at least one cheese vendor while larger ones like the one in Mons have several to choose from. Most will let you sample their goods before making a selection which I always find to be helpful since the options are simply overwhelming. But then again, I have yet to find a cheese that I don't like. Some I might not love but every one I have tasted to date has been more than palatable with most making me want to go back for more. But my favorite cheeses to date have been those from Les Fromages de Thoricourt. This small farm is a favorite with SHAPE families and after visiting I now can understand why. Operated by the Oostendorp family, the farm's raw milk cheeses are made with organic milk from their own cows. The tiny shop is located right on the family's farm but their cheese is also sold at local bazaars and festivals. But visiting the cheese shop itself is a part of the cheese experience. Visitors are invited to sample all of the cheeses before buying them. (Additionally the shop sells fresh eggs, a small selection of salami--made with cheese- which are excellent, local beers and wines, chocolates, jams, and other local delicacies). With the exception of the soft, spreadable cheeses the cheese are Gouda based. On my first visit the proprietress quickly informed me that because it is made with raw milk, this Gouda is not like the kind you buy in the store, and she was right. The texture was firmer than what I was familiar with and the taste was more complex. I could have eaten wedges of these cheese but why stop there? The herb infused cheeses-both Greek and Italian inspired- were delicious as was the cumin scented cheese. I haven't tried the nettle one but the Gouda whose rind was brushed with Belgian Ale was pretty darn tasty. There are so many varieties to try that I'll be going back again for more. Who knew that a simple Gouda could be so good? And this is just from one farm. With an entire country of cheese to try I know the next few years will be wonderful.

For someone who spent the past three years in the cheese abyss that is called Albania, I'm loving my Belgian cheese adventures. Cheese and French bread have become one of my favorite on the go lunches and the options really are endless. In fact, I'm thinking it is time to eat some more now.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Playground Politics

Who knew being a pre-schooler could be so complicated? If Sidney is to be believed, each school day is filled with the dramatics of new friendships being made and just as quickly broken, toys being shared and hoarded with equality. Dragons, zombies, and Star Wars Jedi frequently join in the games with a "chicken man" (I have no idea what this even is) making rarer appearances. This is the most common narrative I hear each afternoon during the car ride home from school. I also get to hear about who was good or really bad on any particular day, which child had an unfortunate accident in their pants, and who ate what for snack--smiley face cookies are the latest culinary trend amongst the four-year-old set. And Sidney isn't alone in sharing these tales. Amidst the hustle and bustle of collecting book bags and coats, Sidney's classmates are quick to tell me what Sidney did or didn't do during the day. According to them, often confirmed by his teacher, and by Sidney's own later admission, Sidney is quick to delegate who is a good guy or a bad guy on the playground, he has a tendency to covet other's toys, and does not like to eat his soup at lunch. A few weeks ago Sidney went through a scratching and poking phase, again confirmed by all three of my above mentioned sources and is a mischievous kid but overall he is adjusting pretty well to school. As a parent I should be happy but I have a little nagging voice that keeps whispering in my ear............

Between a four year old's tales, a teacher who speaks minimal English, and adjusting to the cultural norms of a Belgian school environment where some behaviors appear to be more permissible than in American schools, I'm not always sure what is going on during the day. A few non-American parents have muttered to me that the classroom is out of control and by the teacher's own admission there are several "trouble makers" in the class. (Other than the incident with the poking and scratching I have been assured that Sidney is not causing the problems. Knowing my son, however, I am still a bit skeptical....). And I can see that there are problems. Out of the twenty children, thirteen are boys. I can't even imagine having that many four year olds in one classroom............. Since day one Sidney has been coming home and reciting to me the trouble a couple of children cause each day. I've seen them in action with my own eyes so I don't completely doubt his narratives. But these are the same children whom he claims to be friends with so I just don't know what is going on. When Sidney complains about the things they say or do we encourage him to play with other children. If they bother him at lunch we encourage him to sit with other kids; if they break his crayons we tell him to color with other children. The list of options go on but who knows if he follows through since on any particular day he may or may not be friends with them. I have quickly correlated their absences from school with Sidney having better, more well behaved days.

But over the course of this past week things seem to be getting worse. Sidney informed me that he spilled one particularly precocious girl's soup on her at lunch because she was bothering him. (Ironically enough, the ringleader of all of them seems to be this girl). I asked him why he was even sitting next to her and he said because she told him to sit there. On Wednesday of this week a little boy kicked Sidney in the nose while they were on the playground. Sidney never said anything to me about it and I only learned of the incident when the teacher asked me if he was alright the next morning. When I questioned Sidney about it he said that the troublesome girl had told the boy to do it. And then yesterday I arrived at school to find Sidney in tears because the said girl had punched him in the chest. (Sidney later claimed he had taken her toy but two wrongs do not make a right). He has a bruise this morning that attests to the punch. The teacher is aware of all of this and is pulling parents in for conversations after school. (We were the recipients of such conversations during the scratching and poking period). She tells me that Sidney is generally well behaved but that there are just problem children in the class. In one breath Sidney tells me that he isn't friends with these children any more and will stay away from them but in the next breath he says they are his friends. I just don't know what to think.

To top it all off Sidney was invited to this child's birthday party next weekend. The entire class was invited but I am torn as to whether or not I want my son to attend. At first Sidney said he didn't want to go but then he did. And then he didn't but now he is unsure. I need to R.S.V.P. soon. Glenn says attending would be a good opportunity to see these children, and their parents in action. I wonder whether this child even wants Sidney there. After all, the entire class was included in the invitation but I know all too well from experience, that many times invitations are only issued as a courtesy and it just so uncomfortable when invitees don't understand that. (We don't want to be those people). But then again we are talking about four and five year olds so does it even matter? But it probably does. After all, their playground politics seem to give real world issues a run for their money.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Beauty Around Us

A long, narrow, and very straight road
through the Belgian countryside

I'm a city girl at heart; honestly, too much country kind of freaks me out. I thrive when surrounded by the hustle and bustle of urban life while the peaceful serenity of the country is often just too quiet. Stars are beautiful to look at but I need street lights to feel safe. Rational or not, I don't fear the boogie man in the bushes but a feral animal jumping out from behind the trees is enough to give me nightmares. All the more reason we are living in the heart of a city (a small one, but a city none the less) and enjoying it so much. But this being a rather rural part of Belgium, we only have to drive for a few minutes to find ourselves surrounded by rolling green fields, farms, and country life. And some days I rather enjoy getting out and having my dose of rural. Today was one of them.

The calendar says spring and the weather has been inching closer and closer to it with longer days, (We finally switch over to Central European Summer Time this weekend), more sunshine, and warmer temperatures. Today was the quintessential spring day with a crispness to the air that was offset by the warm sun. And it was an awesome day to be outside and out of the city proper. While running errands I did what I find myself doing so often since arriving in Belgium. With time to spare and a new community to explore I turned off my GPS and just drove. While I had a vague sense of the direction I was moving in I slowing drove down country lanes, through hidden hamlets, and along miles and miles of country roads. They were all paved albeit some were covered with cobblestones. With the windows down and the sunroof open I explored the countryside surrounding Mons passing only farmers preparing their fields for the planting season, a lot of grazing cows and a lone rider on horseback.

And as I drove, I realized just how beautiful the world around me was. I've driven around this area often but always on the main highway heading from one destination to another. I know where the speed zones and congestion points are along the way but I never realized what was down all of those narrow side roads. At one point I stopped the car in the middle of the road (after all no one else was around me) and got out to just take in my surroundings. Breathing deeply I took in the fresh (and fertile) air. Standing there miles from anything I realized just how lucky I am to be living here in this corner of the globe. I have the best of both worlds; my urban house with quick and easy access to country when I want it.

But I am now back home, ensconced in my row house listening to car doors slam and the clatter of feet on the sidewalk outside of my window. These are the sounds that are now both familiar and comforting to me. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate the serenity of the country. I do and I enjoy experiencing brief periods of it. And knowing it is so close for those times when I want it is even better. This certainly isn't too shabby of a lifestyle we are living.

Nothing but Belgian countryside for as far as the eye can see

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Pow-Pow Conundrum

I'm not pro-guns; I'm not anti-guns. I believe in the individual right to own guns but I also believe in responsible gun ownership. To me, that means understanding how to safely use and store your weapon and always doing so. It means never pointing a weapon at someone or something unless you are prepared to use it and deal with the consequences. In my early years I grew up in a house with guns and my father taught me to shoot a rifle at an young age. Looking back on it I didn't like it but I also didn't not like it. I guess I was just indifferent to it all. I had a grandfather who was an avid gun toting NRA member. But he was always responsible about his weapons. In my twenties I dated a man who undoubtedly fell into the category of being an irresponsible gun owner. He thought nothing of leaving it around, joked about shooting things, and generally instilled in me a fear, whether rational or not, of guns. More recently I've taken a gun safety course and learned how to safely handle and shoot a variety of weapons. Again, like my earliest experience with guns, I neither enjoyed it nor disliked it. But it did instill in me a deeper understanding of and respect for the importance of using guns safely. Every time I hear of a gun related tragedy it shakes me to my core and causes me to reexamine my own views about weapons. But this isn't a post about the pros and cons of gun ownership; this is a post about how I feel about guns, whether real or pretend in my own home.

I do not want guns in my house. It is just something that I am not comfortable with. The same holds true for toy guns, after all why would it be all right to point a play gun at someone when doing so with the real thing could prove to be lethal? With one minor exception I thought we had kept toy weapons away from Sidney. (The exception being in Albania, the afternoon we returned home from work to find Sidney playing cops and robbers in the street with the neighborhood kids. His pointing the toy gun at us as we backed into the driveway freaked me out. After that we reiterated to the nanny that we did not condone Sidney's playing with toy guns and I thought that was the end of it). But Sidney being Sidney, and Sidney being a precocious little boy, he wants to play with all things boy, including "pow-pows" as he calls guns.

Whenever the subject of guns came up I would skillfully (or so I thought) change the subject. Requests to play "pow-pow" with Sidney would be turned into playing with matchboxes or cooking up a mean in his play kitchen. Or we would read books or play trains. But then he turned his train tracks into toy guns and wanted to play "pow-pow". Over time these deflections are being more difficult to pull off. Since moving to Belgium and living in close proximity to two military bases where some personnel visibly carry guns, Sidney's interest in the weapons has only increased. I could blame it on school and hanging around other kids but I think that environment is only partially to blame. We are after all in the military so it is natural that guns would be around and people here aren't necessarily adverse to their presence. When Sidney asks why the guards carry pow-pows I let him know it is to keep people safe. He accepts the answer but then says he wants to own one so he can keep us safe.  Gun free zones are clearly marked and Sidney quickly hones in on the signs saying no guns allowed. He asks why they can't be carried into these buildings. I struggle with how to help a four year old understand that sometimes guns are good and sometimes they are bad. This explanation just seems to simplistic for a complex subject but I also don't want to instill a sense of fear in him. But somehow, regardless of what I say or don't say the subject always returns to Sidney wanting his own gun. Toy or not, despite all of his begging, I just won't want one in our home.

But then Sidney went to the store with Glenn and returned with a tiny Star Wars themed Lego set. Those tiny little men, both "good guys and bad guys" had their own "pow-pows".  Sidney was beyond ecstatic with his new toys while I was less than thrilled. By themselves, those tiny little guns being toted around my two inch figures are harmless enough. (Their biggest threat is my stepping on them since the living room rug camouflages them perfectly). As I watch Sidney engaging his new toys in shoot outs with the good guys always winning I wonder if they are so bad after all. I question how can I use these miniature toy guns as a teaching opportunity about good and bad and their respective consequence. After all they are just toys and tiny ones at that. But what happens when my little Jedi in the making comes home with the next toy gun that is even bigger or more realistic? I guess I will just deal with that issue when it arises but in the meantime I'm thinking about it and what I will say.....

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Kiss Is Just A Kiss

The chocolate version
One? Two? Three? Perhaps none? Right? Left? Right then left? Left then right then back to left? Which scenario is correct? I think one of the most difficult customs for Americans living overseas, particularly in Europe, to adjust to is the practice of kissing friends and even acquaintances when greeting them. (In most cases) I'm not talking about lip to lip engagements but rather air kisses on one's cheek or cheeks.

When we were attending attache school before our first overseas move we spent quite a bit of time talking about kissing as a cultural form of greeting for both women and men alike. Because it simply isn't the cultural norm for most Americans, especially those in uniform, we actually spent time practicing our kissing greetings. I think this came easier for the women in our group as the majority of the men looked physically uncomfortable with the entire exercise. But again, I believe that this discomfort is a product of machismo American culture where a firm handshake and perhaps a slap on the back is more of the norm, since Europeans, both in and out of uniform, seem to be so much more comfortable with the notion.

A single kiss
And just because you are comfortable kiss cheek to cheek kiss greetings doesn't mean you will always get it right. I actually find the whole practice rather sophisticated yet I found myself in more than one uncomfortable head knocking situation where we couldn't coordinate whether it was right then left or left then right. (This proved to be most problematic when standing in receiving lines where I encountered a variety of guests from different cultures and backgrounds). In southeastern Europe, including the Balkans, if felt as though cheek kissing was common practice amongst everyone, young and old, male to male, male to female, and female to female. Whether meeting in one's home or a public place, cheek kissing was a regular sight. It was rare to be walking down the street in Tirana, especially in front of a cafe, and not get caught up in a human traffic jam because everyone was stopping and cheek kissing one another in greeting. And the number of kisses, one, two, or three varied as well. Two became my standard practice going from right to left but after a few mishaps I learned to always be ready for whatever direction and number was thrown my way. Now if I was being greeted by someone from another part of Europe, all bets were off since until I got to know someone better, I never knew what or how many would come my way. Over time I learned that both Romanian and Polish men greeted women with three kisses to the cheek followed by one on the top of the right hand. Who knew?

Now here in Belgium the rules are different from the southern part of the Continent. Whereas triple kisses are exchanged in the Flemish region, here in Wallonia the standard appears to be a single cheek kiss amongst friends. Again, I learned the hard way after being the perpetrator of a double cheek kiss which took the recipient by surprise (and this was after she had initiated the greeting). Apparently it is also less common here for men to kiss men. At least that is what I've been told and in thinking about it I have yet to see it actually happen. Instead hearty handshakes followed by a brisk slap on the back seem to be more of the norm between both young and old men.

So when is a kiss just a kiss? And how many is the correct number? And to whom? I guess it depends upon where you are and where you are coming from.

And a totally different type of KISS

Monday, March 24, 2014

Chocolate In The Rain

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

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

Chocolate cookies

Chocolate samples anyone?

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

Saturday, March 22, 2014

What's Up With Wallonia?

The Wallonian flag
Earlier this month I blogged about Belgium; today I'm focusing a little closer to home and writing about Wallonia, the predominantly French speaking region in southern Belgium that includes our new home of Mons. One of three official federal regions in Belgium with an area of just over 6,500 square miles, Wallonia shares borders with France, Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands and of course Flanders. Wallonia encompasses 55% of Belgium's landmass yet is home to just one third of Belgium's residents. The area is landlocked but home to numerous canals that connect the region with the sea. It has rolling hills and farmland, quaint villages and historic city centers. Wallonia is a region that loves its meat with game and beef gracing traditional dinner plates. And of course there is the beer; the famous Abbey and Trappist beers are brewed right here in the Wallonia region.

Industry has been the area's economic lifeline for centuries. During the Middle Ages iron was already being manufactured in the provinces of Liege, Charleroi, and Namur and their mines continued to play an important role right up to the industrial revolution.  By the 19th century, the area was the first fully industrialized region in continental Europe with coal and iron making Wallonia the most prosperous part of Belgium until the middle of the 20th century. Following the end of World War II, aging infrastructure and antiquated factories hastened the region's economic downward slide. Today, the region continues to lag behind their northern counterpart with perpetually higher rates of unemployment and a lower GDP than neighboring Flanders.

Where is Wallonia? Here it is.
But despite its rather depressing economic situation, Wallonia has a lot to offer.  Carnival is the event of the season in this part of Belgium but there are enough festivals and celebrations to fill your calendar all year long. If you like architecture, tiny Wallonia has fourteen UNESCO World Heritage sites within her borders. If you are a military buff you can visit military cemeteries and famous battlefields from both of the world wars. Later this year the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the final World War II battle on Belgian soil, will be commemorated in the provinces of Liege, Namur, and Luxembourg. Next year will be the bicentennial of the famous battle of Waterloo. I love history and can't wait to visits these sites and walk in the footsteps of these important parts of history. And lets not forget the a fore mentioned food. Wallonian cuisine is heavily influenced by neighboring France but fresh and local are what is really important. It seems as though every village, town and city has their weekly markets where fresh produce, arsenal meats and cheeses are sold. Famous Belgian waffles, tarts, and other baked treats are readily available at markets and bakeries making it incredibly easy to fulfill, or even develop, a sweet tooth.

I am so excited that Wallonia has so much to offer and I can't wait to get out and discover it all. But we're starting now with a weekend full of festivals and local events to attend. I'll be sure to post more about those experiences soon.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Hoarding No More

I developed an ugly habit while we were in Albania. Hoarding. Yes, hoarding; the compulsion to accumulate as much of an item as possible because I feared not having any. For me, food and other household consumables were my compulsion, or more specifically a well stocked pantry filled with everything and anything I could even need to cook a meal. By my own admission, the pantry was well stocked and shocked more than a few people who witnessed it. "Why do you need so much stuff?" was the most common question I was repeatedly asked by visitors. I found it hard to explain the why. But in my defense, despite what others said, I came by this habit honestly.

So why did I hoard? Simply put because there were so many items that I just could not buy in Albania. Or if I could buy them locally their quality was substandard compared to what I was used to. But I knew this before we even arrived in the country. That didn't mean I feared our starving while there; rather if we were going to continue to cook and eat the way we enjoyed, I was going to have to find many of my ingredients elsewhere. (If items met certain size and consistency parameters I could buy them online then wait weeks for them desired item to arrive through our mail system). And that is what I did. I spent the weeks before our departure scouring the aisles of the local grocery stores buying every item I thought I would need over the next two years. Sugars, flours and speciality baking items were purchased by the case. The same held true for favored sauces and must have condiments. Anything that derived from either Asian or Mexican cuisine was shipped in as well. But the items went beyond food stuffs. Ziploc bags and trash bags --items that either couldn't be found or whose poor quality essentially rendered them useless-- were like gold and rationed out slowly over the course of our time there. One tube of toothpaste wasn't enough; two dozen might cut it. The same went for saline solution for my contacts, shampoos, conditioners, preferred soaps, and the list just goes on. Fortunately our Albanian house had a huge pantry which, much to our housekeeper's horror, we immediately filled with case upon case of imported products. Standing back and looking at our impressive stash of items I felt comforted knowing that we wouldn't run out of an item. Ironically enough, the most of the stash lasted us through our entire tour with my only having to give away a few illogically purchased items.....a case of A-1 Steak Sauce anyone? I'm really not sure what I was thinking when I made that purchase!

But oh how times have changed. Here in Belgium I now have ready access to just about any ingredient I could ever need. If I can't find it on the local shelves I can order it online and it will arrive in my mailbox in approximately one week. And for old time's sake as I finish unpacking I am finding stashes of items that I had long forgotten about--six bottles of a favorite shampoo felt like Christmas. But more importantly I now have what I consider to be the world's smallest pantry. With only a few shelves I simply no longer have the room to buy multiples of everything. But then again, there isn't the need to buy in bulk. Whereas I never ran out of anything in Albania on occasion, here I am finding myself out of an item here making me rue the fact I didn't buy a second container.  Although it is surfacing with less frequency, on trips to the grocery store I do still find myself loading my cart with multiples of the same items before pausing then removing all but one of them. Its taking me a while to break this habit but out of sheer necessity I am. And do you know what....if feels good.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Say It In French

"Say it in French Mamma; please say it in French." With increasingly frequency, this is Sidney's request to me. On one hand I love it; his French immersion school is obviously paying off since he is absorbing his new language like a sponge. On the other hand, it is making me realize just how shaky my high school French really is. At the moment our French language skills are probably equal but it is only a matter of weeks before Sidney's will surpass me.

I don't actually remember how Sidney learned Albanian. At nineteen months old he was just developing his English language skills with us when he started spending his days with his Albanian speaking nanny. It seemed that each day upon returning home he was speaking a new Albanian word or two. Gradually the individual words became sentences and suddenly he was listening and speaking his second language more fluently than his native tongue. But with only the rarest of exceptions, I was forced to listen to Sidney speaking Albanian surreptitiously since he flat out refused to speak anything but English in the presences of his parents. (Or as he said, English is for Mamma and Daddy, Albanian is for Nene). But with French, it is fortunately turning out to be an entirely different experience.

It would appear that Sidney is embracing French in a way that despite his fluency, he never did with Albanian. Sidney's class is run completely in French. At first he would come home telling me that he didn't understand what was being said but after just a couple of weeks Sidney informed me that he now knew what was being said and asked of him in class. When they listened to French music in class Sidney told me that it was pretty and that he would like me to buy French music to listen to at home. When we are out in public he will ask me what language the people around us are speaking. Sometimes it is French or even English, or one of the other numerous languages that are spoken in our community. More often than not, when he now hears French he will excitedly tell me that that is the language being spoken. I've even heard him talking and muttering to himself in French. Like I said, the boy is a sponge.

And "saying it in French" has become a daily ritual at home as well. Over breakfast each morning, Sidney peppers me with requests to say things in French. Sometimes his requests are pretty basic and I can easily provide him with the translation he is looking for. Other times I am out of my league and find myself relying on Google Translate. Sidney loves it when I whip out my iPhone, tap in his request, and we listen to the translation. Often we listen two or three times with his mouthing the sound along with the phone. I know he is ready to move on when he issues a new language request. At first I thought he was just throwing out random words. Now I realize that he is asking about words or subjects that his class discussed the previous day. Earlier this week we learned the translations for "circle" and "square". This came after an exercise in tracing then drawing these shapes. Today we talked about transportation- "bus", "truck" and "car" were the words of the day. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

And then there was the morning last week when Sidney quickly and fluidly counted from one to ten in French. When I asked him how he knew the words he proudly informed me that Madam (his teacher) had taught him and he wanted to learn more numbers to impress her. Yes, my little boy is well on his way to becoming tri-lingual and I love it. It also means that I need to hone up on my own French skills but I'm game.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An Experiment In Urban Living

Mons proper
We're approaching the one month mark of living in our new house. I had blogged about the house hunting process but never followed up with the house that we actually chose. Our options couldn't have been more different, from rural to suburban and urban, modern to historic and somewhere in between, we looked at them all. And in the end, we chose a historic row house in the center of Mons. Yes, we decided to give urban living a try.

From the earliest days of our relationship Glenn and I had talked about buying an old row house in Washington D.C. and through do-it-ourselves renovations, turning it into our dream home. Living in a somewhat suburban neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia the idea of historic urban living excited us. (They always say that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence). The idea of being able to walk to everything and relying on public transportation for those things that weren't pedestrian accessible had a lure for us. Of course this was before we had a child so schools weren't an issue. But life in the Navy is unpredictable with Uncle Sam deciding the course for us and our D.C. renovation never materialized. Fast forward several years and we are parents who have experienced three moves in four years--two of them being overseas. Life never ends up the way we think it will. Or does it?

Upon arriving in Belgium we realized that for the first time in our recent moves, we would be able to choose the house we wanted to live in. The prospect was both exciting and scary. We looked at suburban homes and rural village houses but in the end decided to take the plunge and try out urban living. After all, from the onset we knew the house would only be a temporary stepping stone and in all likelihood, would be our only opportunity to live in an urban environment for the foreseeable future. (Yes, as much as I shudder at the thought, a cookie cutter house in a pristine subdivision in the northern Virginia suburbs is likely to be our next address). But for the next three years we are urban dwellers experiencing all of the conveniences and inconveniences that go along with it.

One of our three over sized bedrooms

So how is it going? First the pros: Our house is in an awesome location one block off of the main pedestrian street in Mons and two blocks from the Grand Place. Twice a week we can walk to local markets selling everything from fruits and vegetables to fish, meats, cheese, and flowers. The local bakery, which is literally at the bottom of our hill, sells freshly baked croissants and French bread for mere pennies. The train station and bus stop are two blocks in the other direction meaning commuting is a breeze. And then there is the house itself. It was built in the 18th century but under went a major renovation five years ago meaning we have modern utilities with traditional charm. With its high ceilings, wooden floors and large windows, it feels so much larger than it actually is. The kitchen, while small, is well laid out and for the first time in his life, Sidney has an actual backyard complete with grass and an area to play. Keeping with the character of so many European homes, the house has zero closets but we do have a large attic and basement which while creepy, provide us with plenty of storage. In these respects we feel as though we lucked out.

City Hall is right around the corner
But of course there is a downside. While we are fortunate to have secured garage parking, it is located a block away up a narrow cobblestoned street. On the surface this doesn't sound bad but when it is raining (yes, it rains a bit here in Belgium) or I am coming home from the grocery store, not being able to park at the house is inconvenient. Our street is a narrow one way road but there is on street parking on one side (and it is even free for residents) but securing a spot is often a hit or miss proposition. Yes, Sidney does finally have a yard meaning he is no longer relegated to playing in the street. Our backyard is walled in making it a safe place for Sidney to play unsupervised but it is small. In choosing any one of the rural houses he would have had acres of green grass to play in; here he has a small patch. And then there is the front of the house. We literally have two steps and then we are on the
narrow sidewalk and the street. Sitting in the living room I can hear the clatter of footsteps on the cobblestone sidewalk. Often if a large vehicle is parked on the opposite side of the street our sidewalk becomes a part of the road and we could reach out the window and touch the passing vehicle if we desired. There is certainly no playing in the front of the house going on here. But the hardest thing by far for me to adjust to is sharing walls and having neighbors in such close proximity. Sandwiched between two other row houses we have neighbors on both sides of us. Neither is exceptionally noisy but we do hear them on occasion. Music, the sound of the vacuum cleaner, and an occasional item falling to the floor are all clearly audible to us. So if we can hear them, they can hear us. I find myself cringing when Sidney throws an early morning tantrum or is exceptionally loud in the evening. They haven't said anything to us but sometimes I fear that our noise is disturbing them. In all of our thinking about urban living, this is something we never even considered.

So how is our urban living experiment going? One month in I dare say that the pros outweigh the cons though. I love being able to walk out our door and be steps away from a cafe on the square. Falling asleep to the sound of the cathedral bells tolling is enchanting (and reminds me a bit of being back at Mount Holyoke). Our house is filled with charm and I have visions of being able to fill my small yard with flowers bought at the local Sunday flower market. Sure trudging up the hill to the car each morning is less than ideal but we are in good company since we join our neighbors in the daily procession of kids, book bags, and coffee mugs. I've become an expert at efficiently and expeditiously off loading my groceries while live parking on our usually quiet street. We've all learned to look both ways before stepping out the front door and to make sure we have everything we need before we leave since returning is a production. And in a short period of time I've come to not even hear the ambient noise of the city around us. So are we urban converts? Only time will tell but if we continue to enjoy it as much as we are, the Virginia suburbs might never become our reality. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

It's Just Hair

Forget packing, house hunting, then unpacking and settling. As any woman--any many men--will tell you, the hardest part of moving is finding a new hairdresser. Where does one even begin looking when it appears that there is a beauty salon on every corner? Recommendations from friends and even strangers might point you in the right direction but all too often finding the right stylist for you is a process of trial and error. And when it comes to one of your most prominent features, living with an error can be quite painful (and yes, I am speaking from experience here). On a daily basis I'm pretty low maintenance so finding a stylist who won't give me a cut that requires a bevy of styling products and tools is often an ordeal. Finding someone who can give me the right "natural" color is even more difficult. And unlike so many other experiences, it just doesn't get easier the more you do it.

I found my hairdresser in Norfolk because of Glenn. Well, actually following the recommendation of a friend of his, he gave me a gift certificate to a local spa and salon so by default, I ended up going there during all of our years in Norfolk. Don't get me wrong; I loved the spa and received more than my share of relaxing treatments there. It seemed to make sense that I would also get my hair done there. The first time I made an appointment I was randomly assigned a stylist who I ended up liking. However, when she abruptly left shortly after, I found myself back at square one. I soon found myself going to a different stylist at the same salon who while nice, just didn't have the cutting or coloring skills I was looking for. In fact, I was going through my redhead phase and during our first appointment together she informed me that she really didn't like working with red hair or red hair dyes. I should have fled immediately but instead I stuck it out for two more years. Why? Her skills weren't horrible, just not on par with the other stylists at the salon so I never walked out with a horrible haircut, just ones that I didn't love. A part of me stayed wanting to give her yet another chance but I also knew that we would be moving soon and I just didn't have the energy to find someone new for only a cut or two. But mostly I stayed because I am loyal. I didn't realize that at the time but two hairdressers later, I finally admitted this about myself.

We were in Washington for such a short period of time that I got my hair cut at one of those walk-in places in the mall and colored my own hair with Miss Clairol. Neither situation was ideal but I knew it was just a short term arrangement and it was so much cheaper than the alternative. Once in Albania I put off finding a new hairdresser for as long as possible until a home dying accident drove me to a local hairdresser. This recommendation came from colleagues at the Embassy, she was conveniently located, and the ultimate claim to fame of the stylist was that she "trained in London and spoke perfect English." This turned out to be true and my subsequent haircuts and colors were good and incredibly affordable by western standards. A going to a local beauty parlor gave me my fill of Albanian culture as women and children of all ages wandered in and out at liberty, eschewing appointments, and many times payments. Being a one woman operation her hours and availability were less than ideal but I made them work the best I could. Or at least I did for our first two years in Tirana until her lack of availability simply became too much to bear. It was at this point, however, that I realized just how loyal I was. I liked her and felt bad that I was even thinking of going elsewhere (and maybe or maybe not finding someone who could give me as decent of a cut and color). But with my roots threatening to take over the rest of my head and her not returning phone calls and never being open when I stopped by, feeling guilty I jumped ship for a new stylist. This one also spoke fluent English and apologized for being "more expensive" (we are talking just a few dollars here) but blamed her location inside a western branded business hotel. And do you know what? I walked out of there with the best cut and color I have ever had. It would have been a Eureka moment if it weren't for the fact that we were moving in six months and you guessed it, I would have to start my quest all over again.

This past week I steeled myself (and my roots) and headed out for my first Belgian hair experience. Having trolled the local Facebook page and received recommendations from several people, including a woman in the line at the grocery store who had great hair, I headed to a local salon where the stylists allegedly spoke English. Twice a week the salon offered half price cuts and colors but unfortunately operated on a walk-in basis only. Armed with a fully charged Kindle I patiently waited close to two hours to be seen. Their three stylists were busy, moving non-stop the entire time I was there. The salon was clean and modern so I was hopeful that my wait would be worth it.  When it was my turn the stylist did speak English and after scrutinizing my roots mixed together hair dye that she thought would blend with what was already on my head. While I waited for my color to process I sat under a heat lamp and sipped coffee. This experience was turning out to be completely different from both of my Albanian experiences since this salon actually the heat lamps I was accustomed to; in Albania I simply sat in a chair and waited for the color to do its thing all on its own. But the differences only continued. Not only did the shampoo chair recline but it massaged my back while my hair was rinsed with plenty of hot water. I can't remember the last time I my dye filled air was fully rinsed with temperature appropriate water. Norfolk maybe? The cut proved to be just as rewarding as the stylist snipped away offering suggestions about how short I should go. I felt as though I sat in that chair a long time but she was meticulous, snipping away the smallest stray hairs until she declared "voila" and I was released from my black cape.

Up until this point my eyes had been mostly closed so when I opened them I saw a slightly new, slightly blonder version of myself staring back at me in the mirror. And I think I liked what I saw. Actually, I now know I liked it and I will probably be returning. Maybe finding a hairdresser does get easier with time!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mere Au Foyer??

Earlier this week I blogged about our family's new routine. What I didn't write about is how I actually spend those precious hours between school drop off and pick up. I've been thinking about this a lot over the past couple of days and am not sure how I feel about what I came up with......

Perhaps I eat bon-bons all day? Growing up in a community where it felt as though my mother was one of the only ones who worked outside of the home, I longed for her to be a stay at home mom and eat bon-bons all day. In my oh so naive child's way of thinking, that is what I thought mothers did all day while their kids were in school. As I got older, I realized that rarely is that the case.

So what do I do in my six hours (which really isn't as much time as it sounds)? Unfortunately, I'm not as productive as I like to think I am. I check my email to see what transpired while I was asleep and I try to carve out a small amount of time each morning to blog because writing is very important to me. Sometimes it happens while other times it doesn't. While I'm at it I might read another writer's blog or two and before I log off I check out Facebook, Pinterest, and other Internet vices. But I set strict computer limits for myself since it would be all too easy to get sucked into the world wide web while the day passes me by. We are still settling in so each day I make an attempt to sort through a box or two. Sometimes I find that misplaced item I was searching for and other times I find myself wondering why we had bothered to pack this stuff in the first place. And as is the case whenever we are settling into a new house, I find myself needing to make one to many trips to the local hardware store to get picture hooks, mops, transformers, or any of a million other things. (Because I am unfamiliar with Belgian retail stores, just finding the right store and getting there can be a day long project unto itself!). Now that we are home each evening I need to actually cook each evening and with a microscopic pantry and European sized refrigerator I'm finding myself at the grocery store on an almost daily basis. In the wake of my time in Albania I am fascinated by the variety of items I can find in the store; this leads to spending too long roaming the aisles and browsing the shelves. But much to my delight it appears that I can find everything I could ever want and then some on a single shopping trip. And of course there is the dreaded cleaning of the house. On the best of days I am not a stellar housekeeper but after three years of having the luxury of a housekeeper the responsibility is now back on me and I must say that I'm not enjoying it. With the amount of dust that accumulates in this house, keeping it clean could be a full time job. I am almost relieved when my six hours of "freedom" are up and I must return to school to brave the carpooling masses.

In re-reading what I just wrote my routine sounds so boring and perhaps, at the moment it is. But things are looking up. I realize that I am lucky to be living in a place where there is so much to see and do so my goal over the coming months is to establish a more exciting, intellectually stimulating routine. Having moved here during the off season we arrived after so many of the military organized classes--language, art, dance, exercise, etc. had already started their spring sessions. And there are other programs and events whose hours just don't work within my drop off and pick up parameters. But that doesn't mean all is lost. While I wasn't able to take advantage of many of these classes right away when the next sessions start up I will be right there. Plus I have the whole of Mons, Belgium, and Europe at my doorstep. There are museums to explore, historic sites to visit, and the local culture to get to know. I just need to get out and see it all.

But for better or worse, like it or not, this is my new routine at the moment. After years of fighting it, looking down upon, and eschewing the title, in reality I am now a stay at home mom. Some people fully embrace the position but I'm honestly not sure if I do (or can). Does this position fulfill me? Not entirely. (I am however, digging my low maintenance and comfortable style). Do I long for more intellectual stimulation? Absolutely (although trying to decipher French labels does make my head hurt on many days). Will I be able to keep this up for three years? Only time will tell. But I have a plan and like any good planner I will implement it. But as I am in Belgium, after all, perhaps I should use this opportunity to eat a bon-bon or two. At the moment, it is either that or clean the house!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Something To Talk About

I've said it before and I'll say it again, parenting is difficult. Imagine how much easier it would all be if babies came with instruction manuals. But unfortunately they don't and all of the self-help books, parenting blogs, and "expert" advise doesn't always provide us with the answers. Usually we have to figure out what makes our children tick all on our own. And because kids are always changing, so is what they think, say, and do. As such, as parents we must change and adapt right along with them.

But much to my surprise (amazement? joy? satisfaction?) I recently unlocked one of the great mysteries about Sidney's current state of being. For Sidney, this move has been more difficult than I ever imaged it would be and he has been acting out in an aggressive manner than is unlike the little boy I know and love. He's also been loud-crying, shouting, and general whining- but most recently he has flat out been refusing to talk. That is, until I ask the right questions and provide the right prompts. Once I do, my little chatterbox starts talking, I listen and respond, and we are able to work our way through his frustrations and unhappiness.

When we first left Albania we made it a point of not talking about what we had left behind. I'm not sure if this was a conscious or subconscious decision on both of our parts but when Sidney would bring up Tirana we would quickly change the subject. In hindsight, I realize that this was a huge mistake. Now, we talk about it regularly and in doing so, Sidney is talking about both his old home and new one. I start the Albania-Belgium conversations as I call them when I see that Sidney is becoming sad, aggressive, or generally non-responsive. (This tends to happen when he is tired so this is a conversation that repeats itself most evenings). I ask the question opening question of "do you miss Tirana?". Tears immediately ensue followed by "yes" being said through blubbering sobs. With Sidney unable to really speak I ask yes or no questions starting out by asking if he misses his nanny. I always get a positive response but I quickly let him know that it is perfectly normal to miss people and things you have left behind and that there are things I also miss about our old home. I also counter his sadness by pointing out that here in Belgium, he attends school rather than staying home with his nanny. And Sidney loves school so the tears ease up a bit and he tells me that yes, he likes going to school and having lots of friends. Score one for Belgium while acknowledging his Albanian past! We go on and talk about the cool playgrounds and other children's amenities that are everywhere and slowly Sidney begins to shed his shell of unhappiness.

Then we talk about our house. I asked Sidney what he liked about the house in Tirana and he tells me that he liked his two rooms (one was a small bedroom and the other was a small play room). I counter by asking if he likes his one big room here and he now says he does. (At first he didn't because he said it was too big and too empty which it was before we had any furniture). And the furniture...shortly after moving into the house we bought Sidney his first bunk bed. But this isn't just any bunk bed; it is a bunk bed with stairs, or as Sidney says "an upstairs bed for Sidney and a downstairs bed for daddy with stairs." He loves his bed and admits that it is better than his two single beds he had in Tirana. By this point we move onto talking about the yard. Just the fact we have any grass is a big deal since in Tirana our yard consisted of a two foot patch of grass with fruit trees growing in it and lots of sharp edged tile. In Belgium, not only do we have a grassy yard but since it is completely walled in Sidney can come and go and play outside as he wishes. He can now freely play T ball or soccer in his own yard rather than in the hallway, or heaven forbid, the street. And I do think Sidney really does like this house. This past weekend while we were out and about Sidney asked to go home to his new house because he liked his new house. Score again!

By this point the tears have usually dried up, the sadness has dissipated, and Sidney has moved on to new thoughts. When it comes right down to it, it isn't Tirana itself that Sidney really misses but rather the way he was able to live there. He loved spending time with his nanny, a caring woman who waited on him hand and foot and never expected him to do anything from himself. (Remember the pasha incident?). He's told me as much himself. Life with just mom and dad is drastically different and I think that is what he is actually having the hardest time adjusting to. We have expectations of rules, responsibility, and growing independence that he just doesn't want to accept at all times. But we talk about this too. Sometimes those conversations go better than others but they are getting easier and less frequent so I count that as progress.

Once again, I'm realizing that talking about it is so much better than keeping it all inside. That is my most recent parenting discovery, it is my new mantra and we're going to keep talking all about it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Getting Our Groove On

They say it takes time to settle into a new routine and getting there isn't always easy. In fact, sometimes it is just plain hard. But, I dare say, (knock on wood) that I do believe we have found our new Belgian routine. After a minor hiccup last week where Sidney's school was closed (and if there is one thing my little boy loves is his routine) we are now back in the saddle and getting our groove on. And that feels good.

So what does our routine look like? Much like that of any busy family regardless of what country or continent they are living on. Work, school, and running a household now fill every waking moment of our lives. In many respects it is the type of routine I had always envisioned myself in, albeit just not playing the role that is designated as mine. Oh well, if there is one thing I've learned it is that I must roll with the punches. Mornings are a flurry of well honed and perfectly timed (most days) activities. Showers, getting dressed, and coffee are all orchestrated like a well honed dance. Whereas I once was donning suits and heels and perfecting my makeup, yoga pants and (gulp) fleece, the ubiquitous uniform of car pooling moms everywhere, have become my go to morning wear. While not fashionable, this type of outfit does considerably streamline my morning routine. Once the caffeine is flowing through my system it is time to wake Sidney which ironically enough, on school days is a relatively painless process. Next comes breakfast then herding everyone out the door making sure we have snacks, bags, and the other sundry necessities to get through the day. More often than not, our complete morning routine involves swinging back around the block to retrieve a forgotten item.

Fortunately we are a short, ten minute or so commute away from both Glenn's office and Sidney's school. After dropping Glenn off I join the other yoga/fleece clad masses in maneuvering the one way street that is the school zone. This is never easy and due to limited parking, wandering pets, children, and too many vehicles, takes longer than our actual commute. But once Sidney is safely ensconced in his classroom, the day is all mine---at least for the next six hours until I get to come back and do the school zone dance all over again.

So what do I do with myself and all of my "free time"? To be honest, I'm not really sure. But some how the time bookended between 0845 and 1515 flies by giving my day its own sort of structure. (Except for Wednesdays when school ends at the early hour of 1200 thus creating a different, "short day" routine). Because once the after school hour hits full fledge parenting mode sets in again. Afternoon snacks, playing games, and trying to channel the endless energy that only a four year old can have is now the focus of my afternoons. Throw in making dinner, cleaning up, then bedtime (which fortunately falls into Glenn's usual domain), and our day ends with all of us falling into bed exhausted. And with that our day is complete.....until we get to do it all over again. They say time flies when you are having fun--or at least when you are busy. Yes we are busy but more importantly for a family that loves a schedule, we now seem to have found ours.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

In Celebration of International Women's Day (A Repost)

Even Google is getting in on the action

Today, in honor of International Women's Day, I'm re-posting a version of my tribute from past years. I'm just settling in here in Belgium and have yet to tie into the local international women's group. As such I'm unsure to what extent International Women's Day is recognized and celebrated here in Belgium. I haven't seen anything advertised and in venturing out this morning I didn't see any of the hoopla I'd seen in Albania. That doesn't mean it isn't celebrated here however. 

But here is my tribute from previous years.................

International Women's Day receives scant attention in the United States, but here in Europe it is a big deal. And in the Balkans it is a very big deal.  Albania, like the rest of Europe goes all out in it recognition of all women- mothers, sisters, and daughters alike.  While getting my hair returned to its "natural" color this morning, there was a steady stream of women coming into the salon for washes and blow outs.  The restaurants were packed with well dressed women celebrating with their "sisters".  It seems as though everyone is out celebrating the wonders of women  but it makes you wonder how far the "holiday" has moved from its original intentions.  If today's celebratory events in Russia are any example, it makes me think that there are much more meaningful and long term ways that the contributions of women can be celebrated, or at least recognized. The history and commemorations may remain the same but this year I really find myself pondering why women's contributions are recognized on a single day when we toil the other 364 days of the year as well.  Shouldn't every day be a day to honor and respect all women, and all people for that matter?  But I digress...........

The origins of such an upbeat holiday surprisingly memorializes one of the saddest events in the women's equality movement.  International Women's Day actually commemorates a 1908 fire in a New York textile factory.  Female workers had decided to strike due to unfair wages and terrible working conditions.  After several days of strikes, the factory owner barricaded the exits and set fire to the factory, killing all 129 works trapped inside.  This terrible atrocity led to the formation of the first women's labor union in the United States, and paved the way towards gender equality in the workplace.

International Women's Day is celebrated annually on March 8th.  In different regions, the focus of the festivities ranges from general celebration of respect, appreciation, and love towards women, to a celebration of women's economic, political, and social  achievements.  In many regions the day has become an occasion for men to express their love for women in a way somewhat similar to a combination of Mother's Day and Valentine's Day.  In other regions, however, the original political and human rights themed designated by the United Nations runs strong, and political and social awareness of the struggles of women worldwide are brought out and examined in a hopeful manner.
Festa e nenes dhe e gruas, or festival of mothers and women as Women's Day is called in Albania, is celebrated with gifts of beautiful mimosa flower bundles.  The mimosa was chosen as the international symbol of the celebration in 1946, to mark the first Women's Day after the end of World War II.  It was chosen for its bright color, sweet fragrance, and full bloom during the often cold early-March weather.  It's viewed as a symbol of rebirth and renewal, underscoring its relevance after the war time.  This time of year the mimosas are in full bloom and the bright yellow flowers are hawked by the fistful by children standing along the sides of the road.

On this important day you can send mimosa flowers or bake a mimosa flower cake  for the special women in your life.  Or you can simply say "thank you" to the women who have touched you in a special way.  So on that note, I say thank you to the women who have helped make me who I am today.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Getting To Know Belgium: A Primer

So where is this tiny European country I now call home? And what is Belgium known for? I had these questions and many more when Glenn first told me that moving to Belgium was a possibility. Like any good student I immediately set out to learn more about where we would be spending the next three years and at first glance, I really liked what I saw. In fact, much of what I found was downright exciting. And then we arrived here and I realized that I had just scratched the surface of this great western European country perched on the edge of the North Sea.

Sandwiched between the Netherlands, France, Germany, and  even tinier Luxembourg, Belgium is a convenient jumping off point for exploring much of western Europe. If this isn't enough to keep you busy, a quick ferry or Chunnel ride across the English Channel will put all of Great Britain at your doorstep. But there is so much packed into this country of just over 30,500 square kilometers and a population of just under 10,424,000 that you don't have to leave to have a good time. Belgium is filled with chateaus, green space, historic centers, and yes, chocolate and beer. The capital of Brussels is perhaps best known for being the home of NATO making it an important player in global politics but this strategically located country has been a player on the world scene for much longer. Wars have been fought on what is now Belgian soil since the Middle Ages, the country was the site of the famous 1815 Battle of Waterloo and it was occupied by Germany during both World Wars. Today the struggle for national identity continues with an ongoing debate over a division of the country along Flemish and French lines.

Now here are a few more fact about Belgium:

  • Belgium is officially a tri-language country with residents of the northern (Flanders) region speaking a dialect of Dutch, those in the southern (Wallonia) region speaking French and a tiny population along the border with Germany speaking German. 
  • According to the World Health Organization and the CIA Fact Book, Belgians spend 51.84% less money on health care than their American counterparts while having a lower chance of dying in infancy (28.66%) and a longer life expectancy (1.13 years).  
  • On average, Belgians make 21.12% less money a year ($36,600 compared to $46,400) but also work fewer hours (1469 versus 1797) than Americans.
  • Gay marriage has been legal here since 2003 and euthanasia since 2002.
  • Voting is compulsory as is education up to the age of 18.
  • The Belgian road system is the only man made structure visible from the moon at night due to lights along the entire motorway network.
  • Over 800 kinds of beer are brewed in Belgium and the average Belgian consumes 150 liters of this local beverage a year.
  • Belgium produces 220,000 tons of chocolate a year which is equivalent to 22 kilograms of chocolate for every Belgian.
  • Belgium is home to 20 UNESCO World Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage sites.

We've only just arrived and there is so much of this country for us to explore and get to know. I can only hope we can see it all over the next three years.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

And This Is Why I Blog......

Why do I blog? Depending upon the day the answer may vary but the one response that always holds true is that I blog because of my fellow blogging community. And yes as bloggers are well aware, we are a community. Regular readers of this blog know my posts cover every topic under the sun. From trips we take and the struggles of life as a military family to current event commentary and parenting and life struggles, I think I've written about them all. Posts may be silly or serious or fall somewhere in between. Sometimes my posts will elicit lots of comments while other times they don't. And that is OK because receiving feedback isn't the driving force behind why I write. But every once in a while a topic will resonate with a person or two (or three, four, or five.....) and comments will flow in. And when they do, especially  for my more personal postings, these virtual comments and in many cases, support, means the world to me.

Earlier this week I blogged about a particularly difficult parenting struggle we are facing in our house. At first I hesitated to publish my post out of fear of criticism of my parenting skills. After all, the topic was just so personal. But then I remembered that a big part of blogging is putting yourself out there so that is what I did. And sure enough, within minutes of publishing my post comments started flowing into my in box like a virtual hug. I quickly discovered that so many other parents, both friends and complete strangers, had shared similar parenting struggles and survived. Their stories and experiences could have been my own; actually I felt as though many were my own. Receiving all of this feedback was like sitting around a table with my girlfriends. I no longer felt alone in my struggles and actually felt like what I was going through was normal. (And in this crazy filled world, who doesn't want to feel normal?).

Because we have been picking up and moving every few years it has been hard for me to put down real roots so those table top chats with girlfriends are all too few and far between. But as I am realizing with increasing frequency, my blogging community is filling this much needed niche for me. Just as I am moved by so many of the writings by my fellow bloggers I'm learning that my posts also move others. Sometimes I comment on what others have written while other times I simply take silent comfort in knowing that others share my thoughts and struggles. But when I do comment I often engage in a conversation with bloggers I have never met only to realize that we have a lot in common. Some of these fellow writers have become my virtual friends. Other commenters are people I know in "real life" and considered to be casual acquaintances but thanks to modern technology I have gotten to know better and now I consider them to be friends. And friends, regardless of whether you know them in person or only online, provide support to one another.

And this is why I blog. So to anyone who reads my blog, thank you. Your friendship and support mean the world to me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On A Learning Curve

Parenting is hard. Very hard. Parenting my four year old is very very hard. Much harder than I had ever anticipated. Just when I think I have figured out my son's behavior, he goes and changes what he says or does and how he reacts to a situation. You could say he is keeping us on our toes but man are our toes getting tired.

I knew this move would be difficult for Sidney. While this is his third move in his short life, it is the first one where he has lasting memories of the life he left behind. Prior to our move he had talked excitedly about it "being just the three of us everyday" but apparently this novelty has worn off. Six weeks after we left Albania he still asks where Tirana is, when we will go back, proclaims he doesn't want to stay in Belgium all day, and most heartbreaking of all, cries that he lost something. Upon inquiry he states that it is his nene (nanny) that he lost and can't find her. We've done everything we can to comfort and reassure him and some days I feel as though it is enough. But others, I'm not so sure. Fortunately, these verbal proclamations are becoming less frequent but his sorrow is manifesting in other ways that I can neither anticipate nor address.

The crying fits that marked our first few weeks have morphed into loud outbursts of anger or even worse tantrums involving hitting followed by a refusal to speak. I (thought) I had finally figured out how to deal with the crying through lots of hugging and reassuring that it was perfectly natural to be sad and miss our old home. By also pointing out the positives of our new one--and the things he can do here that he couldn't back in Albania-- Sidney is able to focus on the things he likes about Belgium and thus his moments of sadness seem to dissipate as quickly as they appear. (One of my biggest fears about this move however, fortunately failed to materialized. The prospect of Sidney's starting school had given me great angst but after a rather rough first week, Sidney is loving school. Or so he says when he comes home each day. Unfortunately for us, his entire school is on vacation this week and after one day of not going to school he is already asking when he can go back. When we tell him he can return next week he sadly tells me he wants to go back now. I know, most parents can only hope for a child who actually wants to be in school. But for a child who loves routine, a break in his new routine is throwing his already fragile world further askew).

But these recent angry outbursts of his? I have no idea how to handle them. It takes every inch of my being to not react in a negative way. Reminding Sidney that he shouldn't hit is hard to do when he is in the middle of a tantrum and getting too close puts me in the direct line of fire of his flailing fists. When he refuses to speak to me I have no idea how much of what I am saying is getting through or what he is even thinking. Fortunately these angry fits are much shorter and rarer in duration than his crying fits were. And they are always followed by his being remorseful and talking about the things he likes to do here in Belgium. Or, as was the case yesterday afternoon, a request to sit on my lap and "read" his French book on his Leap Pad. I can only hope that this angry phase is short lived............

Yes, being a parent is very hard but being a four year old who has been uprooted from the only life he remembers is equally difficult. At least as a parent I have the maturity and intellectual understanding and an incredibly supportive partner to help me through all of this. A four year old has......his parents. And as his parent, all I can do is be there for whatever phase or curve ball he throws our way. He'll get through this, as will we. And maybe, just maybe, this is all practice for the teenage years. By then we will be pros at this game.