Military families living overseas are often caught in an odd abyss. In strictest terms we aren't really expats since we know we are only guests in our host countries for a limited time. Because of our military status we are often exempt from many of the requirements residents of our host country, in our case Belgium, must abide by. (In our case, our biggest perk is taxes. Europe's Value Added Tax (VAT) can add hundreds if not thousands of dollars/ Euros to the cost of everyday goods and services; for the most part we are exempted from paying them. This is a huge benefit). And because we are stationed overseas at a military installation, we have access to many of the services that we are accustomed to having at home; an on base health care center, commissaries, libraries, and schools are all services that are provided to us to help make our lives a little bit easier. And as is the case with the schools, there is the understanding that because we are only in our locations on a temporary basis, our children will eventually return to the United States, attend American schools and need to keep up with the stateside based peers. This means that the schools and therefore the base provides our children with the same curriculum and extra curricular opportunities that they would have if they were still living in America. Sometimes it feels as though we have the best of both worlds....until we don't. That's when you realize the dangers of getting too comfortable in your surroundings and what you know and not taking the time to explore your host community.
With such easy access to military sponsored services and activities, it is too easy to come to rely upon them. Such is my recent experience in attempting to enroll Sidney in a summer camp. Its never too early to start planning for summer activities for children and in doing so in late March I felt as though I was already running late. After all, in the U.S. summer camp enrollment begins early in the new year. Regardless of the late date I went ahead and went to the "Child, Youth, & School Office" on base to see about finding a summer camp for Sidney. It turns out that I wasn't too late, rather at 4 1/2 years old, my son is simply too young for the single camp that is offered. Disappointed but determined I asked about stand alone activities; t-ball, soccer, swimming, arts & crafts....I was looking for any activity to keep my active boy engaged over the long summer weeks. Nada. Zip. Nil. The response was the same. None of these activities are offered during the summer for the pre-school aged set. When I asked why, after all there are a ton of younger children here, I was told that most people leave for the summer so there simply isn't a demand for them. Really? I mean really? If we were in the U.S. every community recreation program would have an entire menu of activities for this age group. Soccer fields would be filled with tiny players honing their skills, swimming pools would be filled with budding Olympians, and kids would be coming home every evening exhausted from a full day of activities. (I'll be honest, it is times like this when I wonder if we are making the right decision for our son; I worry that Sidney is missing out on activities and events other kids his age are readily experiencing). But no activities for the younger set; that is just plain disappointing. So what is a mom to do?
Readers of a certain age are sure to remember Julie McCoy, the perpetually perky activities director on The Love Boat. She spent each cruise ensuring that guests had a menu of activities to choose from and that all of their needs were met. There are times when I feel like this is my role and right now is one of them. Without any comprehensive options for a summer full of fun and educational opportunities for Sidney I'm putting together my own version of a Belgian summer camp. We have several long weekend trips planned and will be spending most of July back on the East Coast. We've bought passes to the local zoo that has been rated the best in BENELUX and I'm investigating the availability of both horseback riding and swimming lessons in the Mons community. Summer is festival season in Europe so we'll seek out one or two to attend. And with this being a big anniversary year for key world war battles, reenactments are sure to abound. If that isn't enough, Belgium has hundreds of miles of bicycle trails just waiting to be ridden. And there are so many chateaus, parks, playgrounds, and battlefields right in our backyard to explore. We won't be bored by any means (I'll just be a bit tired). Come June we'll be setting sail and are sure to have a good time.