Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Aspire For Mediocrity

Is mediocrity the new norm? There are many days (and it feels like they occur with increasing frequency) when it certainly feels that way. I repeatedly hear in the media that America is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to our students excelling in the math and sciences; the skills of our workforce aren't keeping pace with the skills that are actually needed to be competitive, and for the first time in modern history, the quality of life for my generation is not going to surpass that of my parent's generation. My initial reaction is to protest that this simply isn't true but then I look around and find myself agreeing. I look around and see so many people simply going through the motions of doing their jobs yet not really trying to do them well. Meeting the baseline of expectations and getting the job done seems to be an adequate performance level. Its a sad state of affairs. So when did good enough become, well.......good enough?

Its almost ironic that in a society where so many people are drive their kids to be the best-- the best soccer player on the field, score the highest on their SATs and the one to gain admission to the most prestigious college, mediocrity in adulthood is suddenly acceptable. Is the good enough mentality actually a rebellion against the helicopter parents of one's childhood? But then again I'm not sure this is entirely a generational trend since mediocre behavior seems to transcend generations in the workplace. I often hear people brag about longevity in a position but rarely do they boast of doing their job well. (And as I know all too well, just because you have been a chair warmer in an office for decades doesn't mean you do your job well). Take customer service for example. Call me naive but my understanding of a customer service position is that the person serving in that role is supposed to actually help customers. If you don't like people, find another job. If you are in the position actually offer assistance or at a minimum answer any questions the said customer may have. Don't act put out when approached by a potential customer or irritated because they are causing you to have to work. Its your job, so do it. (Somehow it is these same people who provide horrible customer service who in turn get bent out of shape when they themselves are on the receiving end of poor quality service). But what about people who simply come to work and do what is required of them? I suppose this is better than not doing one's job but is it deserving of special recognition or a promotion? Many people seem to think so. When I was a supervisor I regularly heard from my employees who thought they were deserving of recognition awards for simply doing their job. Or on their annual evaluations they would state that they regularly came to work on time and were therefore exceptional employees. Really? I mean, when did meeting one's baseline requirements become exceptional behavior? But it is not just individuals that act this way. When companies, institutions, and even governments condone and reward this ho-hum behavior, they are only perpetuating the cycle of mediocrity.

So here's to being a mediocre society. We can either accept it or are we can to do something about it. The choice is ours.........

Saturday, April 26, 2014

You Are Not Alone: National Infertility Awareness Week

Today we are wrapping up the 25th anniversary of National Infertility Awareness Week. A lot has changed in the past 25 years with advances in science, technology, and social awareness making it possible for millions of people to become parents. And each year brings about new medical advancements. Procedures that weren't possible just a few years ago are now common place. But as is the case with all things medical, these infertility comes with a steep price tag both physically and emotionally. Weeks like this help increase education and raise general awareness on the issue that eases some, but not all, of the emotional pain associated with this disease. (Knowing you are not alone is an amazing feeling). And, thanks to raised awareness, health insurance plans are increasingly covering the costs of infertility treatments, thus easing the financial burden associated with prolonged testing and treatments.

As many of my friends know, this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart and incredibly personal. I suffer from infertility as do too many of my friends. But thanks to advancing medical technology, I am now a mother. My journey wasn't easy; it was long, painful, expensive and lonely, but these costs were worth it because in the end I was rewarded with a baby. Not everyone is so fortunate. So in honor of this week, I'm reposting my story. I've shared it before but because education is so important, I'm sharing it again:

According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 6.1 million women in the United States between the age of 15 and 44 have difficulty conceiving and staying pregnant on their own. I am one of those women.  Today, thanks to my amazing doctor at the Beach Center for Infertility, I am fortunate to have an active, healthy 4 1/2 year old. Because this week recognizes the struggle that the 6.1 million of us endure, I am sharing my own deeply personal story.

Before Sidney was born,  I spent several years unsure as to whether I would ever become a mother. Like many women my age, I spent my 20s trying not to become pregnant but once I was in my 30s and married, the time seemed right. Or so my mind thought but my body did not agree. While so many of my friends and neighbors had their first, second, and even third children, Glenn and I weren't so fortunate. We were hopeful and tried to remain positive but as each month was met with another crushing disappointment our hope began to fade.

At this time we were living in Norfolk, VA which ironically enough, happened to be a hotbed for cutting edge reproductive medicine. (I didn't realize that in vitro fertilization was pioneered at Norfolk's own Jones Institute). After a series of miscarriages, my doctor referred me to a reproductive endocrinologist. Dr. Flood was warm, welcoming, and supportive and together Glenn and I set about a course of action to overcome the "unexplained" infertility obstacle that stood between us and our much wanted baby. Over the next 18 months I underwent two surgical procedures, had more blood work drawn and spent more time in doctor's waiting rooms than any person should ever have to endure. I overcame my fear of needles and became an expert at self injecting hormones several times a day. I also became an emotionally charged wreck. Probably much to Glenn's relief, he spent a good portion of this time period out at sea and wasn't home to suffer the emotional mood swings that became a daily part of my life. Just a few months into this process my body began to feel like a pin cushion that had been invaded by an alien yet there still wasn't any baby.

Everyone deals with infertility in their own way. Some people talk about their experiences openly while others endure the pain privately. To a great extent, I chose the later. Our families and a few close friends were generally aware of what we were going through but for the most part, we didn't talk about it. Unless you have experienced the infertility roller coaster, you truly can't understand what it is like. It is also a deeply personal subject that more tactful people are often uncomfortable discussing.

During this dark period the comments I did hear ran the gamete form positive to negative and just plain strange. More supportive friends assured us that we would become parents while a particularly callous former friend informed me that God obviously didn't think we would be suitable parents so he was preventing it from happening. Upon hearing this, I was actually speechless for one of the few times in my life. In what I hope was meant to be a supportive comment, my in-laws even told me that they would be able to accept any child we might adopt as a real grandchild. In social situations with people we only casually knew the inevitable question was when were we going to having children. After a time I started bracing myself for these inquiries by having a slew of ready to respond quips in mind. During this time I was an overly hormonal woman so many of these comments did not sit too well with me.

Instead of reacting to this array of comments, I withdrew into myself. I sent generous gifts to baby showers but couldn't bring myself to attend. I spent hours scouring the Internet searching to possible answers. I convinced myself that if we just kept trying it would work. I continued to change my diet, exercised more, lost weight, and spent numerous sessions in acupuncture all in hopes of making my treatments work. I was convinced that the third time would be the charm but as the third assisted try turned into the fourth, fifth, and even sixth attempt my body continued to fail me. Through daily emails and the occasional long distance phone call, Glenn and I discussed how much longer we should try. After all, this whole experience was taking a physical, emotional, and financial toll on both of us.

As I waited for Glenn's return from deployment, I covertly began to explore the option of adoption. We were open to the idea but decided to give our current routine one more go before moving on. Good things can come to those who wait because upon Glenn's return, we started a final round of injections, blood work, and anxiety riddled waiting. This time luck was on our side and IVF worked its magic. We were pregnant. It is impossible to describe the sense of elation I felt that hot June day as I sat in my car in the parking garage talking to Jessica from Dr. Flood's office. (This was the only place I was guaranteed some small amount of privacy and I had been steeling myself for making what turned out to be the most pivotal phone call of my life).

All 2 pounds 12 ounces of my miracle baby then

All of this brings me to where I am today. My heart continues to ache for those women whose desires to become mothers go unfulfilled.  I have felt both your physical and emotional pain. I know I am one of the lucky ones. Because of this experience, I will never take anything for granted again. In a perfect world we would all be able to readily have the babies we want when we want them. In lieu of this perfect world I wish for understanding, compassion, and continued medical advances in the field of women's health and reproductive medicine. In the meantime time I hug Sidney tightly each night and silently thank everyone who helped make his existence possible.

And my goofy little boy today

Friday, April 25, 2014

It's All Relative

Where you sit depends upon where you stand. What one person loves the next person despises. Some people would do anything to have one opportunity while others couldn't be paid enough to endure the same experience. Do you ever read an online review and wonder why the same product, hotel, or restaurant can receive both rave reviews and abysmal pans? It is what makes us as humans unique. There is really something for everyone out there. And it helps explain why what turns one person on turns off the next.

A recent conversation with another American here in Mons made me realize how true this all is. She was asking me how we were liking Belgium so far and when I told her that we were really enjoying being here, she expressed surprised since so many Americans have a hard time adjusting to life in Belgium and generally, the Belgian way of doing things. Now, I'm not saying things have been all smooth going since we arrived, but I assured her that compared to where we had been, life here was pretty darn nice. Prior to arriving here we had been warned that living in Belgium was simply a different experience- the roads aren't great, people can be persnickety, customer service leaves a lot to be desired, and the pace of life is simply slower than what Americans are accustomed to. I can see how many Americans might feel this way, particularly those who are transferring directly from neighboring Germany, but for us, after spending several years in Albania, none of these things bother me in the least.

Take the roads; here the roads are narrow and have their share of potholes but even the narrowest of dirt or cobblestone roads are better maintained than most portions of the main highways in Albania. And there are fully functional streetlights along every road. They might not be as bright or even strategically placed as they are in the United States but just having lights is in complete contrast to Albanian roadways. And Belgian drivers? They are aggressive but law abiding when it comes to stopping, staying in one's own lane, and parking. And in Albania........not so much. No, you won't hear me complaining about any of those things here. But many Americans do complain about the roads. And the drivers. And any of a myriad of other quality of life issues. Then again, I complained about many of these very same things in Albania while others there had no such concerns about the very same issues.

And then again I wonder how much I will complain about these same things once we are back in the United States. Will the conformity and rules of American suburbs drive me crazy or will I welcome their order? Will I relish the strip malls and shopping centers after years of shopping in often inaccessible neighborhood markets? Will I speed down the wide open highways with abandon or miss the narrow winding Belgian roads? These are the very same things that I loved when we were living in the United States. The one thing I know is I will approach it all through a different perspective than before. A perspective which will likely be different than those around me. I might love it or hate it but at the end of the day it will all be relative.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Rediscovering The Library

In today's fast paced, electronically driven world a sticks and bricks library might seem a bit passe. I mean, does anyone use libraries any more? Paper encyclopedias are all but obsolete and when I want to read a book I download one instantly onto my Kindle. Because of this is has been years since I stepped foot in one. But thanks to my son and his love of books I recently found myself exploring our local base library and was instantly reminded of everything I had been missing.

As a teenager I was a latch key kid whose house was literally in the middle of no where. Rather than sit at home after school I would walk to the local library to wait until my mother finished work and could give me a ride home. The library was cool in the summer (it was one of the few places around that actually had air conditioning) and warm in the winter and at times it felt as though I was a regular fixture. It was small but had subscriptions to all of the magazines we didn't get a home so I could easily spend hours pouring over the pages of Seventeen (hey, I was a teenager after all), Savvy, and yes, Cosmopolitan. Of course I did my homework as well and as this was back in the day before the Internet, relied heavily upon their encyclopedias and microfische archives for my research papers.

Skip forward a few years and I found myself at a college whose library was rated one of the most beautiful college libraries in the country. Ever the studious person I spent hours in this library as well, eschewing the periodicals but studying, researching, and hanging out with friends. I literally spent entire weekends in the library (including one long cold overnight!). The library was filled with hidden nooks, lots of study spaces, and most importantly, comfy chairs and during crush times at the end of the semester you had to get there when they opened in order to stake your claim on a seat for the day. During my tenure the library was expanded and modernized with the Dewey decimal giving way for a computerized card catalog. And speaking of computers, at the time, the library was the only place on campus with Internet access and our own peculiar email system called Pine. I researched my thesis on the ancient microfische system in the the bowels of the library and spent hours producing handwritten letters to family and friends. (Again, this was before everyone had an email account). Needless to say, the library was an integral part of my college years but by the time I returned to graduate school a few years later library archives and encyclopedias were on line and in my mind, libraries were obsolete. That was until recently.

Looking for activities to entertain Sidney I discovered that the base library hosted a weekly story hour for kids his age. Wanting both socialization and educational opportunities I figured this would be a good activity for him. We went to one and he loved it but what we discovered was so much more. The library has a fantastic children's section with two separate rooms for both toddlers and older children. The shelves are lined with books and the chairs and tables are all proportioned for their small patrons. After our first visit Sidney left with an armful of new books and we've been returning weekly for more. When Sidney asked questions about the human body (his latest obsession) we found the answers we were looking for in brightly illustrated, age appropriate reading material. In anticipation of their spring concert, Sidney's pre-school class has been learning the words to the Mary Poppins (in French of course). When he wanted to watch the movie in English, we found just what we were looking for at the library. In my search for Mary Poppins I discovered that not only does the library have an entire section of new release and classic movies in DVD format but they also have game cartridges for the Wii, PlayStation, and other game consoles. I just might never have to buy another movie or game again. But the library has things for adults too. In addition to books in all the languages of the NATO countries, I can borrow and download books for my Kindle. How cool is that? I am so happy with my recent discovery and I suspect that our entire family will become regulars at our local library.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's Easy Being Green

Earth Day was first recognized on this day in 1970 due in large part to the efforts of Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin who was becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of legislation regulating environmental issues. Hence, this gave birth to the environmental movement when on the very first Earth Day 20 million people gathered on American streets and in communities to protest the way industry was degrading the earth. The movement has only been growing since and has become a global initiative with countries around the globe joining in the environmental effort. Schools and community groups often organize events and hold week long celebrations and educational campaigns in order to increase awareness about the environment.  Global examples include China, a country so renowned for its air pollution that the U.S. Embassy in Beijing issues daily air quality alerts. On Earth Day 2012, 100,000 people rode bicycles instead of driving in an effort to save fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Or Afghanistan, where in 2011 28 million trees were planted by the Earth Day Network. In Panama, 100 endangered species of orchids were planted and maintained in order to prevent their extinction. The list of projects and initiatives goes on and on.

Earth Day might only come once a year but you can easily practice green initiatives every day of the year. Here are some simple things you and your family can do to help our environment.

  • Practice recycling in your own home. In many European countries it is mandatory. Refuse and recyclables must be placed specially bags but bags that hold recyclables cost mere pennies compared to the cost of the general refuse bags. In our house Sidney takes a leading roll in sorting what item goes into each recycling bin and is quick to point out when one of his parents accidentally places the wrong item in our blue recycling bin. 
  • You can bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. Here in Belgium the major grocery chains don't even provide you with any plastic bags at the checkout. Instead, you are expected to bring your own bags or  buy reusable large totes from the store. 
  • And speaking of the store, when running errands, combine your trips or better yet, walk or bicycle to your destination. You will not only save on gas and reduce carbon dioxide emissions but the exercise is good for you too. 
  • Go plant a tree. One city we lived in used to give away free trees to residents each Earth Day. Glenn and I took advantage of this offer one year picking up three small (OK very small) red maple saplings that we planted in our front yard. 
  • You can eat local. By supporting local farmers you are not only helping the local economy you are eating fresher foods because they haven't been shipped half way around the world to your dinner table. This also reduces energy costs, lowers carbon dioxide emissions, and the food generally tastes better.
  • Participate in, or better yet, organize a community clean up. Clean your streets, neighborhood park or waterway. When we lived in Albania our family participated in a beach clean up that removed tons of waste and debris from a nearby shoreline. Our efforts only put a small, temporary dent into the beach but as with most efforts, they start small before picking up momentum.
The earth and the environment effect all of us regardless of where we live, our socio-economic status, our political affiliations, or our religious beliefs. Because of this we owe it to ourselves, our families, communities, and our world to do our part to keep it green and make it a better place for all of us to call home. So this Earth Day please do your part to improve your own little corner of the world. Whatever you decide to do, no effort is too small.  Happy Earth Day!

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Bucket List

Life is short. And as you grow older, time just flies by faster and faster; it really does. I remember hearing this when I was growing up during a time in my life when it felt like time dragged. But somewhere along the line, perhaps after I had completed my angst filled teenage years, the rate at which time moved started picking up until suddenly it was really flying by. Somehow my twenties flew by, as did my thirties and I now find myself wondering how I will ever be able to accomplish everything I want to do and see everything I want to see.......for me travel is a top priority and with such a big wide world filled with amazing places, how does one even go about prioritizing where they want to go?

Before we moved to Albania more than one person told us to create a bucket list of everything we wanted to see and do during our two years overseas. We were warned to do it right away rather than waiting until we were in our twilight months in order to be sure we didn't run out of time. This was the best piece of advice I've ever been given and is the single thing I advise anyone who asks about how to make the most of their time in any one location. While it may feel as though you will be in a location for ever, you won't. And if you don't make a list and plan, so many wonderful opportunities will simply float away.

After consulting a map of Europe and a long range calendar, Glenn and I dutifully made our list within the first few months we were in Albania. The list was extensive, including both sites within the country and throughout Europe. Some places were those we had never heard of or had never dreamed visiting of while others were places we had always been curious about but never thought we'd have the chance to visit. We took our list one step further and plotted out when we would like to visit--next month, next year, or even in two years--these dates were all penciled in onto our multi page chart. Two years felt like a long time but once we started consulting a calendar we realized our time would be gone before we knew it. When we extended our tour by six months we added a few more places to visit. Pop up work related travel had us rearranging our schedules. When we found out that we would be staying in Europe for a second, three year tour we adjusted our list yet again, removing countries that would be in close proximity to where we would be living and adding those that we would probably never have the chance to visit again. While we never got to every place we had hoped--Sicily and Morocco kept getting bumped-- we traveled to places that we had never dreamed of. Who knew that Bulgaria and Romania were such beautiful places or that the coast of Montenegro could give the Italian and Croatian Rivieras a run for their money in terms of sheer beauty? In the end we managed to visit twenty-three countries over the course of thirty-one months with several countries seeing repeat visits. Now that is pretty impressive if I must say so myself.

So following our own advice, the other night Glenn and I sat down once again to plan out our travel bucket list for the next three years. And of course putting the list together was another fun opportunity to dream. Our new list includes local day trips, long weekend excursions and three much larger, multi-country excursions involving trains, planes, automobiles and boats. Some of the list is quite predictable while other cities and countries are a bit more obscure. I'm sure places will get added as time goes along while others will get bumped because we will simply run out of time. And because we've been on the go since we arrived in Belgium, we are already ticking spots off of the list. Yes, Sicily (fall 2014) and Morocco (April 2015) are back on the list and this time we will really get there. We've added some Baltic countries to our itinerary and old favorites such as Italy that are places that just worth visiting over and over. The list is ambitious but we ask ourselves when we will ever have the opportunity again to explore so much of the world that is literally in our backyard. Our answer is probably never so we are taking full advantage of the opportunity of the here and now. Besides, half of the fun of a bucket list is dreaming about the possibilities and right now ours is just overflowing.

So what is on your bucket list?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Luggage, Camera & A Child In Tow

Summer is rapidly approaching and with that comes our long awaited vacation. We're still working on the details but it looks like this year we'll be spending a month back in the United States visiting family and friends, introducing Sidney to our old East Coast haunts and simply relaxing. Yes, relaxing. Because vacations are supposed to be stress free breaks from the every day. But as any parent knows the responsibilities of parenthood are with you whether you are at home, in a hotel, or on the road meaning vacations really aren't time off from work.

Sidney is a seasoned traveler, having racked up thousands of miles through train, plane, boat, and automobile travel since he was a newborn.  I know that we are extremely lucky since, with the exception of one (horribly) memorable transatlantic flight that I'd rather forget, he travels well. Buckle him into his seat on our selected mode of transportation and we are good to go. But the ease of travel doesn't just happen; it takes work. So how do I keep stress to a minimum when vacationing with a four year old? By involving the entire family in the planning process and by being realistic about all of our expectations. It isn't always easy but with a little bit of planning vacations really can be stress free and enjoyable for the entire family. So in anticipation of the upcoming travel season, here are some of my tried and true hints for having a stress free family vacation.

  • Involve the entire family in the preparations:  
When I hear about harried moms doing all of the packing for their entire family I just shudder. My husband is a grown man who knows how to dress himself so he can pack his own suitcase. I mean, when we are at home he picks out his own clothes each morning so why should being on vacation be any different? I pack my own clothes, Glenn packs his, and Sidney now packs his own little red suitcase (with adult supervision of course). This allows Sidney to be an active part of the planning process. He also chooses which clothing, toys, and entertainment he wants to bring. And he carries all of his own entertainment in his red backpack. Involving Sidney at this level means he is excited about the process of getting to our destination. And as any parent knows, a happy child on the airplane makes for more relaxed parents. Its a win-win!

  • Set realistic expectations:
It is easy to visit a new city and want to see everything. After all, when most of us are on vacation we have a limited amount of time and want to cram the most into our stay. Pre-child my idea of a vacation was cramming in as much sight seeing in any given location as possible. This also meant returning home exhausted and needing a vacation from my vacation. Now I take a different approach to trips. We pick a few key sites, museums, memorials, etc. we want to see in each city we travel to. We include a balance of indoor activities and more active pursuits and schedule in lots of down time whether it be back in the hotel room or lounging at a sidewalk cafe. Many of Europe's great cities have fantastic main squares and wide pedestrian zones that are sites unto themselves. They also have plenty of safe spaces for little legs to burn off energy. I've lost track of the number of hours we've spent simply roaming through one city after another. We may miss out on some famous sites (and sometimes we make new unexpected discoveries) but we are able to fully enjoy those that we do visit without being rushed.  (Besides, if we don't see everything we will just have to plan a return visit). 


  • Take a one day (or more) stay-cation at home before returning to work:
It may mean having one less day to spend at your vacation destination, but having a day to relax, unpack, and settle into your everyday routine improves the vacation experience. Returning home means suitcases needing to be unpacked, mountains of laundry needing to be washed, and a refrigerator to be restocked. If you return home late on a Sunday night and have to head off to work and school early the next morning, there simply isn't enough time to get re acclimated to home life. We now return home at least a day early meaning we have a full day to settle back into our routines. This means I can start off the new week with less stress and only fond memories of vacation.

So with summer just around the corner start making your plans now. Then each of you pack your own bags, grab your cameras and hit the road to see as little or as much as you feel like. Happy travels!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus & Other Commericialized Childhood Propaganda

Call me a cynic but I just can't embrace the Easter Bunny. Or Santa Claus either for that matter. While both Easter and Christmas are rooted in Christian traditions somewhere along the line the original intent of these religious holidays got hijacked by mass consumerism making their focus gift giving. It isn't that I don't love celebrations and festivities; rather I have a hard time getting into the spirit of an event whose main focus seems to be buying and giving unnecessary items. And since most of these celebrations were originally centered around a Christian religion that I do not practice I feel even more removed from the celebrations. But I have a very aware little boy who sees his friends celebrating these annual events and naturally he wants to be a part of the fun. So what is a parent to do?

With Christian Easter being celebrated this weekend I've been struggling with just how we should recognize the holiday in our non-religious household. In past years we've simply ignored it and treated it as any other Sunday. (Well, under the auspices of my old job I was required to organize a community wide party around Easter which I did but the celebrations never crossed our doorstep). But this year Sidney is so aware of the Easter Bunny and has been talking about chocolate eggs and other sugary treats. He gravitates towards the pastel colored displays in the stores and asks when the bunny will bring goodies to him. He spies the chocolate crosses that are just as prevalent as the eggs, chicks, and bunnies but doesn't distinguish between them; to my four year old they are all just chocolate. And he loves chocolate.

So how do we not make our little boy feel like his is missing out on something that everyone else is experiencing. Without a deep religious faith it feels hypocritical to be celebrating Easter. (And I still don't see the connection between the resurrection of Christ and an adult sized rabbit). We want Sidney to decide for himself what he believes and I don't want commercialized costume characters to influence this. After much deliberation our answer is to hold our own small egg hunt in the backyard. We'll fill eggs with small treats and toys and let Sidney burn off some energy trying to find them. Rather than putting the focus on a Christian event (sorry son but you won't be finding any chocolate crosses in those eggs) we'll call it a celebration of spring. Hopefully the predicted rain will hold off and perhaps the sun might even shine for a bit in Belgium. I know that eventually we will have to explain the real meaning behind the holiday to Sidney but for this year I think we will be getting a pass on that conversation.

And in closing, this pretty much sums up how I really feel:

Friday, April 18, 2014

People Watching

Airports are the ultimate melting pot; where else do people from every continent and segment of society converge into a single location at the same time? I've said this before and was reminded of this during a recent lengthy stay in the Istanbul (Turkey) Airport. As a meeting point for flights heading north, south, east and west this airport is nothing short of huge with 45 million travelers passing through its concourses in 2012 alone. Perched on the cusp of Europe and Asia, flights connecting to all parts of the world pass through this busy airport that, in many respects, is a city unto itself. Because of all of this, the airport is also great places to observe people and the world sound us and that is just what I found myself doing.

With a single glance you can see traditional and modern, old and new, high end luxury and discount materialism co-mingling in a way that can only happen in an airport. First there are the people. Women shrouded in burkas and hijabs walk alongside those sporting skinny jeans and Lycra tank tops. Men in three piece business suits stand alongside those with low slung athletic pants and logo tee shirts. Business travelers with blackberries latched to their ears share the concourse with frazzled looking families and novice travelers who appear to be out of their element. Is it possible that all of these people are boarding the same flight? And then there are all of the other trappings. Louis Vuitton luggage shares conveyor belt space with plastic wrapped cardboard boxes. If shopping is your thing you can pick up a one dollar magnet or a thousand dollar (or more) handbag. Or you can spend your money on overpriced bottled water or surprisingly tasty gourmet food.

As any regular flyer knows, layovers are not necessarily fun but they are a part of the deal. So do what I do and make the best of it. Eat, drink, and be merry while you watch the world pass you by. After all, people watching makes for great entertainment and best of all, it is free.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ah... Ah... Choo.....

Spring has definitely sprung here in Belgium. Flowers and trees are blooming all around me and with the brightly colored foliage comes all of the pollen. And at least for me, pollen triggers allergies. The sneezing, congestion, and watery eyes of my allergies are like the perpetual cold that just won't quit. And frankly, since it has been going on for months now, it stinks.

I know many people suffer from allergies much worse than mine so I am grateful for the fact that my allergies are seasonal rather than year around. In the concrete jungle that was our neighborhood in Albania, trees and grass were few and far between. I bemoaned the lack of green at the time but  in hindsight I realize that the dearth of foliage kept my allergies at bay. (Now if I had dust or mold allergies I would have been singing a totally different tune). But Belgium is lush. Very lush. I love all of the green grass, trees, and flowers that are around me but I am now suffering because of their beauty.

Despite the most potent of allergy medicines I've been taking the symptoms just won't go away. I didn't realize just how much I was suffering until I spent time in Istanbul last week. The flight was miserable and I thought my head was going to explode but within a few hours of landing I could magically breathe again and the sinus pressure that had been plaguing me for over a month had disappeared. Who knew that I would have to travel to a sprawling city with a population of close to 14 million people to be able to breathe freely again. But apparently the lack of green space and the maze of car filled streets agreed with me.

But I am now back in my green world. When my eyes stop hurting long enough to see I am enjoying the lushness of a Belgian spring. The flowers Sidney picks for me grace the table but I only sniff them when he insists. He wants to plant a flower garden and I'm trying to figure out how to do it while keeping my allergies at bay. I'm popping my allergy medicines again and wondering when the pollen will subside. Soon I hope. But despite all of my suffering it could be worse. I have friends back in the U.S. who are dealing with late spring snows. Given the choice I'll take my sneezing any day!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What Lies Beneath

Looking down a length of marble columns
Architecturally, Istanbul is an amazing city. This is the place that East meets West, old meets new, and religions intertwine producing an amazing skyline. Modern skyscrapers cast shadows over ancient hamams, historic buildings have simultaneously been painstakingly preserved and allowed to fall to ruin, and buildings have been re-purposed into uses I'm sure their builders never even dreamed about. Yes, the city is amazing above ground but by far, my favorite Istanbul site is one that lies below the surface. The Yerebatan or Basilica Cistern, is an amazing architectural feat that Glenn and I literally stumbled upon during our first trip to Istanbul and I knew I wanted to introduce Sidney to this subterranean water wonderland during our return trip.

The cistern itself is one of hundred that lie beneath the city dates to the 6th Century (another really cool  but now dry cistern has been re-purposed into the Sarnic Restaurant, which is well worth visiting while in Istanbul). Records claim that 7,000 slaves were used to construct the cistern under the site of   what was originally a large public square. At over 100,000 square feet the cistern can hold 2,800,000 cubic feet of water which was piped into the cistern from a water distribution system twelve miles away. The cistern provided filtered water for the Topkapi Palace and the Great Palace of Constantinople from the mid 1400s up until modern times. Three hundred and thirty six marble columns set in twelve rows of twenty eight support the cistern's ceiling. Of particular interest are the columns whose bases are carved with the images of Medusa.

Even if you have never visited the cistern it may still look familiar to you thanks to the 1963 James Bond film From Russia With Love, 2009's The International or in Dan Brown's Inferno. But if possible, seeing it in person is a must, and as I said earlier, my favorite place in Istanbul.

Visitors enter the cistern through a modest brick building then wind their way down a narrow set of fifty-two stone steps before entering the dimly lit chamber. Although much of the cistern has been rebuilt or restored--most recently in the mid 1980s when silt was removed and wooden walkways replaced the boats that had moved visitors through the cistern-- its construction is testimony to the amazing engineering skills that date back to the Byzantine Empire. To think that all of this was created by hand (yes, the hands of slaves but by hand none the less) is truly awe inspiring. The cistern chamber itself is cool and damp with the audible sound of dripping water echoing through the space. I've visited on two occasions and both times, despite the crowds, noise levels are minimal with people whispering. Once your eyes adjust to the dim lighting you can wandering the length of the cistern along wooden planked walkways. Today the water is shallow and filled with an array of well fed fish. Somehow the fish only add to the serene and almost eerie feeling that permeates the area. The Medusa heads are located in the far corner of the cistern making trekking all the way to the end well worth the effort. They are just that cool.

But then again whole cistern is cool. So if you find yourself in Istanbul, go visit the cistern. You will be able to briefly escape the heat and discover a piece of what is going on under your feet. I promise that you won't be disappointed.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Give Me Light

A room with a view...of a concrete wall
I love light. Whether it be the long hours of daylight that fill the summer months or simply a brightly lit room, give me light and I immediately feel better. Take away that light and I am simply sad. Our old house in Albania had a lot of small windows which should have let in plenty of light yet I felt as though I spent two and a half years living in the dark because I fought, and lost, a never ending battle with my housekeeper about keeping the shutters open. I would open them and she would immediately close them saying the sun faded rugs, open shutters let in the heat, or the neighbors could look at us if the shutters weren't tightly closed. After a while I gave up and just resorted to buying light bulbs with stronger wattage and spending time outside on the balconies (where yes, the neighbors could see me). Perhaps that is why I was immediately taken with our current house in Belgium. The large windows opening onto both our back yard and the front street are what sold me on the house. Granted, we might not get a lot of sunny days in Belgium but when we do the house is as bright as can be. And even on cloudy days, natural daylight still means the house is still filled with light.

We've been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit over the past few years and I'm discovering that one of my travel pet peeves are rooms without adequate lighting. Granted, rooms with views would be preferable and with a couple of minor exceptions we have had natural light flowing into our rooms. But the exceptions, where light was at a premium, were especially bad. Up until recently, our worst room was one at the Marriott in Waikiki, Hawaii where our room over looked the parking deck. If I sat in a chair and peered up and out the window I could see a glimmer of sunlight. Or I could wait for a car to turn on their headlights and then our room would be flooded with bright light. I thought that was bad but on our recent trip to Istanbul, I found out that what we had in Waikiki was heaven. In Istanbul our room had a great window but it opened onto the concrete wall of the adjacent building. Yup, no natural light at all. (Which is a shame because other than the lack of light, the hotel was quite nice). And that brings me to my next point........

Why oh why can't hotels have adequate lighting? More often than not even the nicest of hotels have too few lights with low wattage light bulbs. A room with a single overhead light really doesn't cut it. I understand the concept of mood lighting but when I can't even see my face in the mirror it just might be too dark in the room. If the room has a desk or workstation I would except there to at least be a brighter light there but I have found that to rarely be the case. Now if you add in a lack of natural light-such as was the case in our Istanbul hotel- and I feel like I'm staying in a cave. Blue tinted lights do little to actually brighten the room. If the bedside lamps were equipped with brighter light bulbs I could really appreciate the colorful cut glass details (and see the pages of my book). Is my eyesight really getting that bad?

Now before booking hotels I usually do my research on a variety travel websites checking out room reviews. (However, the two hotel rooms mentioned above were selected for us courtesy of the military). In all of my research I can't remember a single instance where any reviewer has commented on a room's lighting. Am I the only one who is bothered by this? I need to start writing my own reviews so others can be warned. But perhaps the solution is that I need to start traveling with my own light bulbs!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Nuts": Walking With A Band Of Brothers At The Bastogne War Museum

To those of us who aren’t World War II history experts, the Battle of Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge are probably best known to us because of the 2001 movie Band of Brothers. This December 1944 siege between the American army’s 101st Airborne Division and the German Nazi controlled forces for the control of the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium was a key battle preventing the German invasion of the important port of Antwerp to the north. The seven- day siege was cold, long, and bloody with the 101st Airborne division suffering close to one thousand casualties and nearly twice as many wounded with just over five hundred soldiers missing before it was all over. But the battle changed the course of history and proved to be a pivotal turning point in the War. And for anyone who wants to learn more about this important chapter of our history, a visit to the recently reopened Bastogne War Museum in Bastogne, Belgium is well worth the visit.

We recently visited this museum on a cool and damp weekend day. As is the case whenever I visit a historic site, I found myself wondering about those people who have lived, fought, and walked on the ground before me. Maybe it was the heavy fog that cloaked the fields and woods surrounding the museum and the neighboring Le Mardassan Bastogne while we were there but I felt as though the ghosts of soldiers truly inhabited the museum. Because they do.

The museum itself, still smelling of fresh concrete, proved to be everything I had hope it would be. I had initially been a bit apprehensive about visiting a war museum with our four-year old son but those fears were quickly put to rest when I saw the well laid out and interactive displays. Even the most gruesome of sights was tastefully done, eliciting curiosity and questions rather than fear. Throughout the museum visitors stepped back in time and experienced the days surrounding the siege from four different perspectives, that of both American and a Nazi soldiers as well as that of a young Belgian boy and a Belgian schoolteacher. At each display we heard their voices sharing with us what it had been like to live with the fear and unknown of not knowing whether family members were alive or dead, what was about to happen, and whether they themselves would survive the ordeal. At three points we entered interactive theaters where we sat in the middle of a scenario as it played out; the first provided a historical overview and perspective on the battles leading up to the siege of Bastogne, the second found us sitting on fallen logs in the middle of a battlefield, and finally we were hiding in a cellar during the siege itself. It was a powerful experience and made an impression on all of us. And my four year old? He thought these experiences were cool and sat quietly through all three scenes with his only sounds being appropriately places oohs and ahs.
I love history and this museum was one of the best I have visited in a long time. It was educational and thought provoking and provided me with an up close and personal glimpse of an important part of our history. Bastogne was also the first war museum we have visited since we arrived here in Belgium but I know it won't be our last. In fact, I can't wait to get out and walk and see more of our world's history.