Saturday, May 31, 2014

Passion & Excellence

Some people just seem to be great at whatever they do. Whether it be academics, athletics, the arts, or one of a myriad of other things, it looks as though they effortlessly succeed in whatever they set out to accomplish. (At least that is how it appears from the outside). In high school they were the kid who was the star athlete, in more than one sport none the less, she was everybody's friend, they were the one who earned straight A's in honors classes, or was president of every club around. Or even worse, they were all of the above. They were the kids who had a bevy of acceptance letters to Ivy League universities and graduated with multiple job offers. I'm sure you know the type I am talking about. For the record, as much as I tried, I was not that person.

I have always been good at what I set out to achieve but never the best. In school I got good grades but I worked hard to achieve what always ended up being a second place finish. Despite my best efforts I was a lousy athlete and after a few difficult and discouraging attempts I learned to focus my efforts elsewhere. I gained admission to a good college and worked hard to do well while there but despite my efforts could never achieve the highest honors. Unlike some people who have had a burning desire for a certain profession since they were young, I was all over the map and unsure of what I actually wanted to do "when I grew up". (I still don't know). As a result I graduated with a liberal arts degree, having taken classes in just about every subject matter but being an expert in none of them. This qualified me a mean game of Jeopardy???? Even my graduate degree, which I worked hard for and enjoyed earning, lacked the focus of my graduating peers. Perhaps I am really a generalist at heart since I went on, through hard work, to be moderately successful in each job but those jobs were all over the place.  Whenever I looked for a new job I always found one but they never felt exactly right or what I was looking for. But then again, I'm not sure I even knew what I was looking for. If you ask me what my profession was/is I'm really not sure what to tell you. While others have risen through the ranks and had succinct titles, at various times I've professed to be a writer, researcher, program manager, supervisor, planner, and freelancer.....I've carried all of those titles but what do they really mean?

Personally I have a lot of hobbies that I dabble in but none are what I consider to be a true passion or something that I excel at. I enjoy writing and blog regularly but am nowhere near  what I would consider to be a professional blogger, which is jet another "career" I have contemplated from time to time. (There are people who actually make money doing this but my writing lacks a targeted subject that can draw in a critical mass--and honestly I would have it no other way since my blogging is like me--all over the place). I love to cook but, while it is good it isn't necessarily all that original and certainly isn't going to win a master chef award. Recently I've been exploring the fine arts with photography and water colors. I love these creative activities but simply lack that innate artistic talent that comes naturally to people who consider themselves to be true artists. And if you find yourself stressing over your attempts and working too hard to achieve something that is supposed to be a stress free hobby, is it really worth the effort? And speaking of being stress free, while I enjoy the stretching of yoga, in class my mind simply wanders and I rarely leave feeling relaxed. Really, I am all over the place.

Recently I've been finding myself wondering what I would do if I could do it all over again. Can you request a "do over" for life as an adult? A time to reset and do those things that they have always wanted to do. I know some people who have done just that and succeeded. I think I am too much of a conformist and afraid of the risks to take that jump. And honestly, I don't know what I would do or where I would even begin. As I look around I see people who by outwardly appearances seem successful in their endeavors and have a real passion for some aspect of their life. Me? I feel like I work hard to achieve what I have but don't stand out in any way.

Do I have a passion? Something that comes so naturally to me? I love a lot of things and like even more but can't find a single thing to focus on. Perhaps that is why I was a liberal arts major and learned a little about a lot of things. I am a great conversationalist at cocktail parties since chances are I know at least a little bit about whatever subject comes up. Hey wait, maybe I need to be a professional attendee on the cocktail party circuit? But seriously.... I would love to have a single activity that I am passionate about but somehow I feel that working too hard to find the activity actually defeats the purpose. At the moment  I can only dream about finding an activity that comes easy to me and I enjoy participating in. I'm looking and I will keep looking. In the meantime, invite me to your party; I promise to keep the conversation flowing.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Explaining War..........And Death

There are some questions that parents inevitably know they will be asked by their children at some point. Whether it be where babies come from, why some people are mean, or what happens when you die, they are all difficult questions to answer. And the explanations are even more difficult when you yourself aren't sure what you believe and whatever your answers are, they must be age appropriate for their audience. Our recent Memorial Day visit to World War I battlefields and cemeteries raised one of these very questions for us and it has me thinking.

Sidney has recently become enamored with the fact that his father is in the military. He talks a lot about uniforms, ceremonies, and the other more glamorous pomp and circumstance events that go along with the career. He even understands guns and the fact soldiers use them to, in his words, "fight the bad guys". He talks about bombs (I have no idea where he learned about this) and how they are bad. And now a part of his morning routine before dropping Glenn off at work has become telling Glenn not to throw bombs at the good guys. (Although he is now telling Glenn not to thrown computers at them since I've repeatedly told Sidney that his father does not thrown bombs at anyone at work). This is an all too innocent four year old's understanding of soldiers and war and for the moment I am actually quite happy with leaving it at that.

We don't believe in sheltering our son from reality or the truth; rather we want him to understand, in an age appropriate way, the good and the bad of history and the world around us. And, most importantly, we want him to hear these things from us rather than hearing it from others. As such, we don't hesitate about visiting Europe's numerous battlefields and war memorials. When we visited Bastogne Sidney asked questions about soldiers getting hurt. We told him that doctors made them better when they were injured and at the moment he accepted this explanation. In the weeks following our visit he would talk about tanks and bad guys getting hurt but doctors fixing them. But then this past weekend we visited Ypres and several military cemeteries and the questions have started anew.

As we walked through the muddy trenches of Sanctuary Wood, we explained to Sidney how soldiers, in this case Canadian, had hidden in the trenches and used them as a protective cover from the German forces. (Unfortunately) Because of his playground games he understands that soldiers often shoot at the enemy from hiding so he seemed to understand the purpose of the trenches. It was a simple explanation and we tried to focus on what the trenches were like at the moment rather than the brutal reality of what occurred in them. But after our visit to two military cemeteries, with row upon row of marble grave markers, the question of death arose. Actually, in a somewhat preemptive move, we brought it up.

We have been lucky in the fact that, to Sidney's knowledge, we have lost neither family, friends nor even pets to death. But in his playground games Sidney has talked about shooting and killing the bad guys and has even come home from school on one occasion in tears because a rather mean classmate (a "bad guy") told him that his parents were dead and not coming back. So we think it is important for Sidney to not only understand that being dead isn't something one should joke about but that people do die. And that when we visit cemeteries and tell him that he must be quiet and respectful, that each of those white headstones marks a dead soldier whose memory we are honoring. But where to begin?

We started by talking about the trenches and how the soldiers in them were fighting off the bad guys so the rest of us could live our lives and have the freedoms we enjoy. We tried to put it into terms he understood, that the soldiers fought so people like Sidney could have choices in life, could go to school and could even have the friends he does. He seemed to get that and quickly nodded in agreement. But then we went on to say that sometime the good guys got hurt. At this point Sidney interjected and stated with conviction that when they got hurt the doctors would come, take them to the hospital and fix them up. We partially agreed but carefully said that sometimes the doctors just couldn't fix what was broken. Taking a deep breath I continued that when they couldn't be fixed they died and were buried in the cemetery much like the we visited. Sidney nodded, much slower this time, and asked what happened then. We explained that they were buried in the ground under the white stones and that their parents, children and friends could come and visit them. With wide eyes Sidney nodded again then went off to play. It may have been the end of the conversation for the moment but I know it isn't the last of it.

So did we just open a big Pandora's box? I know my little boy will mull over what we told him and will come back with more questions but now I am not sure we are ready for them. How do we explain death to a four year old in a non-scary way? I honestly don't know if I believe in an after life, do not have the strong religious convictions that so many people take comfort in and as such I refuse to tell my son stories I myself am not sure of. The last thing I want to do is scare him yet I don't want him to hear the wrong information at school and become even more scared.

So parents, and anyone else who has struggled with this, please help me out. How did you explain death and dying to your children? It takes a village to raise a child and right now, I need mine.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Into The Melting Pot

What does your typical American look like? This is a question my international friends often ask me. A few tell me that I am what they think of when they think of an American. (Hmmmm.....I'm not exactly sure how to take this). Ask an international group to describe a typical American (as I have done) and the responses I heard included being loud, driving big vehicles and living in large houses, and generally having too many things. These characteristics may be true for many Americans, including a lot that I know, but it certainly doesn't describe everyone or even close to everyone. So what exactly is a typical American anyway?

If you don't live in America, have never visited, and don't know a lot of Americans (or even if you do), your vision of America probably comes from television and the movies. So that may mean the sleek red carpet images of Hollywood, the sun kissed indulgence of Miami and the designer hustle and bustle of New York City. But are these locations representative of what it means to be American? Surely American lives aren't all glamour, high speed car chases, and high flouting careless living. Believe it or not, there are people who do think what they see on the big screen is real and therefore American movies really do represent American lives. (These are probably the same people who think that being an attorney is just like being on Law & Order). And then you have the other end of the spectrum. How about the so called reality shows featuring the likes of Honey Boo Boo, the mega-sized family in Nineteen and Counting or the miniature beauty queens of Toddlers & Tiaras; are these representative of America? So are American lives really reflected in our pop culture?

Compared to many countries, America is geographically huge. With an area of just over 9 million square kilometers, it is just slightly smaller than the entire European continent. And just as the countries of Europe are diverse, so are the states and regions of the United States, and therefore her people. There is the so called "Bible Belt" of the country where religion reigns supreme and conservative values come before all others. On both coasts the politics tend to be more liberal and religion plays a lesser role in daily lives. And then you have Texas; a state where everything is simply bigger.  From a culinary perspective everything in the south is battered and fried while in Chicago they love their deep dish pizza. With long Rs and fast speech accents in Boston and New York (two very distinct dialects by the way) leave you wondering whether the speakers have marbles in their mouths while southern drawls make you want to pull the words out of their mouths. The characteristics describing Americans just goes on. But wait....these are all stereotypes but do they describe typical Americans?

Maybe. In reality, all of the above and so much more is typical of America because simply put, there isn't a typical American. This country, founded on the principals of being a melting pot of of freedom, is simply diverse in the way we look, sound and act. Politics, religion, or cuisine may vary by region but even within those regions there are always people who don't fit the "typical" mold for the area. Put someone from each of the fifty states in a single room and you will have fifty different "typical" Americans.

And that is the beauty of being American. We are all different and can express these differences through varying political and religious ideals, different personal values, and even the foods we eat. So perhaps the typical American is actually atypical.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day On Flanders Field

For too many Americans Memorial Day is simply an extra day off from work. Ironically enough, schools and work are open here today but that doesn’t make the day any less significant for us. But because we wouldn’t be able to attend any Memorial Day celebrations today, we recognized the day yesterday through exploring the World War I battlefields of Ypres and then attending a ceremony at the Flanders Field American Cemetery in Waregem, Belgium. It was an emotional, moving, and historic way to spend such an important day. I’ll admit that while I am pretty well versed in World War II history, I don’t know nearly as much about World War I as I should. So this was a driving force in our heading to the battlefields from the Great War.

We started off by visiting the Canadian Hill 62 Sanctuary Wood memorial. On a cool Sunday morning we practically had the site to ourselves. Both the memorial and the nearby Sanctuary Wood Cemetery were eerily quiet as though they were reflecting the solemn nature of what had taken place here just one short century ago. Yes, it is so easy to forget that all of this carnage took place such a short time ago. In 1916 Canadian forces recaptured and held the area from the German forces. Because the hill is on higher ground, the Canadian occupation denied the German army a view of the nearby town of Ypres. At the nearby Sanctuary Wood Museum we tromped through the muddy twists and turns of some of the few remaining World War I trenches in Belgium. I never realized quite how many twists and turns they had until I stood above them looking down. Sidney and Glenn explored the dark and muddy tunnel and I simply marveled at the fact that we were literally standing on a battlefield where not so long ago war was fought and lives were lost in the name of freedom. It was a very moving experience. The museum also has a large collection of photographs, weapons and other war memorabilia which contributed to making the war feel “real” to me.

Remnants of the War: trenches

Commonwealth (Canadian)
Sanctuary Wood
Just down the hill from the memorial lies the Commonwealth Sanctuary Wood Cemetery that is the final resting place for 636 Canadian soldiers. This cemetery is just one of many that dot the Belgian countryside. In fact, we spotted several others during yesterday’s drive. With their white marble stones and immaculately manicured green lawns, they are a distinctive sight that makes the number of young lives lost a reality.

But for me, the highlight of the day was attending the Memorial Day Ceremony at the Flanders Field American Cemetery.  With 368 graves the cemetery is small by most standards but it is the only American World War I cemetery located in Belgium. Like its nearby Canadian cemetery and the other military cemeteries across the continent and the world, this final resting place is well cared for and even when filled with people, felt tranquil and serene. (There really is something about cemeteries that makes speaking in more than a whisper simply feel wrong).

I have attended the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery but this one felt different for so many reasons. Hosted by the American Overseas Memorial Day Association of Belgium, this event was much smaller than the one back in Virginia yet for me it felt more poignant. The ceremony itself was short on speeches and long on ceremony. Perhaps it is because the ceremony has been held annually since 1923 or that the audience was comprised of just as many (if not more) Belgians as Americans. Attendees also included the family members of several soldiers buried in the cemetery as well as veterans of World War II. It was attended by a representative of the King of Belgium, SACEUR and the Charge d’Affaires from the U.S. Embassy in Brussels. American Boy Scouts passed out programs and served as ushers while the military honor guard served as the color bearers.  Dignitaries laid a number of wreaths in honor of the fallen. The sound of the Belgian school children singing the American anthem and waving both American and Belgian flags, just as they have every year since 1923, brought tears to my eyes.

Sitting on a grassy embankment and taking all of this in made me feel proud. Proud, thoughtful and reflective. We did our best to explain what was going to happen ahead of time but the significance of the ceremony was most likely lost on Sidney. None the less sat by our sides and someday he will understand what he was a part of. Since 2014 is the centennial year for the onset of World War I it felt especially important to be here and literally being a part of history.
Flanders Field American Cemetery
These commemorations take place across Belgium each Memorial Day weekend. This is the first one we have had the opportunity to attend but I can say with certainty that we will be attending more in future years. So if you are in Belgium over Memorial Day weekend, you too can attend one of these ceremonies. More information on this and future ceremonies can be found here.  You can also visit the cemetery and other World War I battle sites during the rest of the year. A visit is sure to be memorable. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

One Way...The Wrong Way

Mons is not that large of a city. With an area of just over 56 square miles and a population of 93,000 it is actually quite small. Mons proper is compact; I can easily walk from one side of the city to the other in a short time. Like many urban centers, this one is enclosed by a ring road that circles the city. Unlike most ring roads however, this one only moves in a one way, clockwise direction. In theory this ring of traffic makes it easy to circumnavigate the city and with strategically placed exit ramps it is easy to reach the most popular or important places within the city. And this is good, since the inner core of the city has limited parking and is a maze of narrow, one way cobblestoned streets whose layout makes no sense to me.

We live inside the ring road in the city center on a narrow one way street. Our secured garage and parking space is a block away on another one way cobblestoned street. We are fortunate that the exit off of the ring road is just a few short blocks from our house meaning under normal circumstances we can easily hop off the ring and to our house and / or our garage. It sounds simple enough, right? Of course not.

In anticipation of Mons being designated as a European Capital of Culture in 2015, the city is undergoing a renaissance of sorts with buildings being renovated, historical sites are being refurbished and many of the city's inner roads are being resurfaced with fresh cobblestones or pavers. Even the city's train station is being rebuilt from the ground up. It is actually all quite exciting and I can't wait to see how it all turns out. But in the meantime, we are essentially living in a construction zone of one way streets. And with one way streets you can only way. I think you know where I am going with this.

Several of the streets in our neighborhood have been closed since we moved into our house. (We should have taken it as a sign when our GPS failed us on our first attempt to visit the house). While their closures continues to confuse our GPS we've learned to navigate our way around the blockages and know how to get in and out of our neighborhood somewhat efficiently. Many of the closed streets actually run parallel but not adjacent to each other making it easy to go in one direction but virtually impossible to move in the other direction. But somehow we're muddling through and keep telling ourselves that there is a light at the end of the tunnel; just imagine how easy it will be to get around once all of the streets reopen. But then the city did something unthinkable, it closed a key (to us) one way street in our neighborhood.

The route between our house and our garage is up a narrow hill. The walk is a block away and unless I am hauling bagfuls of groceries, it isn't that bad. Actually, I will often live park in front of the house to off load my bags then drive right up the hill to park. But this is the road they closed meaning my short drive no longer exists. The closure came out of nowhere on a Thursday afternoon. One of the old brick mansions is being renovated and because buildings in the neighborhood lack setbacks, the only place to set the construction dumpster is in the middle of the street. Hence the closure. At first we thought it would only closed for a day or even a few days at most. After all, it is a city street. No such luck. As it stands now the road will be closed at least until the end of June. Yes June. That means a good six to seven weeks of no easy vehicle access from our house to our car. On the off chance we are able to find a parking space in front of our house we would have to drive a round about route to get out of the neighborhood. Or if we can't find a parking space, which is more often than not the case, we need to drive around for a good twenty minutes or so to get back to our garage (which is only one block away).

With this closure I've discovered that if I am to obey the flow of traffic the only way out of our neighborhood is along a round about route that takes us directly through the center of the city. In the morning it could easily add twenty minutes or so onto our commute. Unless it is Friday. That is the day of the largest market in Mons and the market takes place directly on the route I need to drive to get out of the neighborhood. In other words, the entire stretch of road is closed from the early morning hours well into the afternoon. I found this out the hard way when I was trying to navigate my way out of the neighborhood to pick Sidney up from school. Between the road blocks and traffic it took me over an hour to go the short eight kilometers I was trying to travel. It's a good thing I left early so I was only a few minutes late!

I keep telling myself that there has to be other ways to get in and out of the neighborhood but after my neighborhood walks and hours spent scrutinizing Google Maps I'm thinking there really isn't. So in many ways we are simply trapped. But all is not lost; I'm building up my biceps by lugging groceries from the garage and I'm putting many miles under my feet as I canvas the neighborhood in search of that elusive one way street that moves in the right direction. And if all else fails, I can just wait until the end of June for the street to re-open. Life will really be easy then.

Ah, these are the joys of city living. Despite it all, however, I'm not sure I would trade it for anything.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Hello Summer

Just as it does every year, summer has snuck up on me again. Sure, summer may not officially begin until the 21st of June but for most Americans, this weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. Each year, I spend the winter and spring longing for summer and then all of a sudden it is here. But this year, it feels like it really did pop up out of no where. Perhaps it is because Sidney's Belgian school and Glenn's NATO command are both open on Monday meaning there won't be a long weekend for us. Sheltered from the mass consumerism that surrounds all American holidays, I haven't been hearing commercials and receiving flyers for must have holiday weekend sales. And the weather? Well, we are in Belgium so the weather is anything but summery. Accustomed to the hot Balkan springs I've been downright cold here. We did have a tease of warmer and sunnier weather earlier this week but we have now returned to the cool and cloudy forecasts that I think of as Belgian weather. Nothing about the temperatures are making me think about beaches, picnics, and flip flops.

But, despite it all, sun or no sun, summer is here. So how are we going to make the best of it? We have a full summer of activities planned. We'll get our dose of heat and humidity during our visit back to the East Coast; we'll explore more history during long weekend trips throughout Western Europe, and we'll explore the best of what Belgium has to offer. And like true Belgians, we'll be ready to go rain or shine, heat or no heat. After all you can't let a little weather stop you.

But first up is a weekend cookout for new friends. With hamburgers, barbecue chicken, and all of the traditional sides, what is more American? And while the weather says the sun will shine we'll be ready with umbrellas just in case. (Because we are in Belgium after all.....).

So here's to a long, safe, and fun filled summer.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Celebrating Poland

I'm half Polish but it wasn't until this past year that I really began to embrace my heritage.  My desire to get to know and better understand my lineage came about during the lead up to a wonderful week I spent in Poland. The trip was everything I had hoped it would be but rather than leaving me satisfied, it left me craving more. I wanted to see more of the beautiful country, enjoy more of the country's cuisine, and learn more about her history. But alas, life has a way of keeping me busy and I haven't had a chance to return and explore more of the motherland. Yet, that is. I know I will return at some point but in the meantime, I'm taking advantage of the next best thing.

One of the wonderful things about our current posting in Belgium is the diverse international community that we are now a part of. With twenty-eight NATO countries and a handful of other partners being represented in our little community, there is always a cultural event taking place. We attend the ones we can and make note of the others for planning next year's activities. And much to my delight, the most recent cultural event we attended was the celebration of Poland's constitution.

Poland's constitution was adopted on May 3, 1791 making it it oldest democratic constitution in Europe and only second in the world to the United States. But just because Poland had a constitution didn't mean it was smooth going for the country. If anything, over the course of the next two centuries her politics proved to be anything but easy. The country and her people endured uprisings, occupations, the reign of Nazi terror, and decades of Communism rule before the revolution of 1989 finally brought about democracy. But through it all Poles persevered. It is no wonder that the country takes such pride in their heritage and that pride was on display last night.

Although Polish Constitution Day is actually on the 3rd of May, on SHAPE it was celebrated last night. And to celebrate, we attended an impressive concert and cultural performance by the Representative Artistic Ensemble of the Polish Army that incorporated music, dancing, and a history lesson with contemporary Polish music. Singers and dancers moved us along the path of Poland's history from the adoption of the constitution through the turbulent years of World War Two. Although I didn't understand most of the words (they were in Polish after all), the meaning and emotions were clear. Because Sidney often has ants in his pants and can't sit still, this was the first sit down concert we brought him to. Sure he wiggled around a bit but he also tapped his fingers and toes to the beat of the music and oohed and ahed at the brightly colored costumes. As he said, the pretty lady was wearing a red dress and the singers (a.k.a. soldiers) had swords.  What more does a four year old boy need?

And his Mamma? More than ever, she just wants a return visit to Poland. Soon......

One of the many dances

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Speak To Me

Graduation season is upon us and with it comes the long string of commencement speeches. Speakers are often high profile; politicians, actors or activists; all bringing with them inspiring messages encouraging graduates to go out and take on the world. Although I have no memory of what was actually said, I remember my college speaker being the late Ann Richards,  the former Texas governor who lost her reelection bid to George W. Bush. I'm sure her words were powerful but in all honesty, after the ceremony was over I doubt I gave them another thought.

Speakers are selected in a variety of ways; perhaps through a democratic process by the student body, faculty, or administration but most often based upon their individual achievements and success in their chosen field. As leaders in their fields in the past they may have made controversial statements or issued directives or have political leanings that some people don't necessarily agree with. But strong and inspiring leaders are just that; they are leaders who make hard decisions that move us forward, for better or for worse, as they deem best. If the intent of a commencement address is to inspire and urge young adults to take risks and be strong leaders, you want such strong and outspoken people giving the speech. Or so you would think......

The most popular commencement speakers are often in high demand, requiring them to be selected months, if not years in advance of the actual graduate date. But in the past few weeks I've been hearing about speakers bowing out due to student protests or invitations to speak being rescinded at the last minute by colleges and universities because the student body no longer wants to support or hear the message. First there was a rescinded invitation from Brandeis University for human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree after she made anti-Islamic statements. Then there was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's withdrawal from speaking at Rutgers University's graduation after faculty and students protested her role in implementing George Bush's foreign policy. And perhaps most surprisingly (to me) of all was the withdrawal of International Monetary Fund (IMF) Chief Christine Lagarde from speaking at the Smith College commencement after students criticized IMF policies for furthering "imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide." But the controversy around commencement speakers isn't new. Last year invitations were rescinded for speaking out against gay rights (Ben Carson, Johns Hopkins University) and for supporting them (John Corvino, Providence College). And again, the policies of the Bush administration caused another speaker (Robert Zoellick, Swarthmore College) to not speak.

By protesting Rice's appearance Rutgers students are missing out on an opportunity to hear a powerful female leader share her words of wisdom. The same holds true for Lagarde and every other speaker whose engagement was cancelled. These protests only represent a single point of view. One needs to ask why the speaker was invited in the first place. Surely there are members of the student body who agree with some or all of the controversial policies. Where is their right to hear what these speakers were going to say? But more importantly, in focusing on the politics and policies Rice, Lagarde and other implemented or supported rather than the knowledge, experience, and insight these speakers would have shared, graduates are missing out on one of life's biggest lessons: whether we like it or not, we are living and working in a diverse environment. And that means hearing viewpoints we might not necessarily agree with and thinking about how these different views have shaped the world we live in. Colleges and universities are often considered to be bubbles from the outside world. But the rest of the world isn't as sheltered and neatly packaged. So on the eve of entering that big bad world, what message is being sent by sheltering these young adults from hearing a viewpoint they might disagree with? If nothing else, that varying opinion could fire up a new generation to take on the world.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Our Belgian Beer Road: Beer & Cheese With The Monks

Two flights of Chimay
When I think of traditional Belgian foods beer is definitely the first item that comes to mind with cheese coming in a close second. While touring Belgium you would be hard pressed to visit any town, market or restaurant and not find local versions of both items on the shelves and menus. Some is made on a small scale and meant for local consumption, with the flavors influenced by local grains, grasses and milk. Others are made on a larger scale with the intent of being sold both around Belgium and exported throughout Europe and even the world. After all, there is a reason that Belgian beers and cheeses are so famous. In fact, I drank my first Belgian beer at a friend's house back in the United States. The Chimay was dark, smooth and one of the best beers I had ever drank (and this is coming from someone who doesn't consider themselves to be a "beer person"). But I soon forgot about it and was only reminded about Chimay when I spotted the squat bottles in the shelves of my local grocery store here in Belgium. I bought a couple of bottles to bring home and we were reminded of how much we liked it. And when the store ran a promotion pairing their beer with their aged cheese I knew we had to visit their brewery. So on a recent weekend we did.

The Chimay Brewery has been producing beer inside of the Notre Dame de Scourmont Abbey in southern Belgium since 1862 and is one of just ten worldwide that produces Trappist beers. There are strict rules dictating how a beer can be classified as "Trappist". Trappists beers are all brewed by monks or under their close supervision. While the beer is bottled outside of the monastery walls at a rate of up to 40,000 bottles an hour, the water for the beers comes from a inside of the monastery. A Trappist brewery can not be the main operation of the abbey and all proceeds from the sales of beers (and other abbey produced items) must be used for the financial support of the monastery or charities in the surrounding community. (I like to think of the Trappists as being the original not-for-profit organization). And the brewery indirectly supports the cheese production as well; leftover mash from the brewing process is recycled into livestock feed for the cows that produce the milk for the cheese. Without a doubt, Chimay products earn money; recent sales figures are in the range of $50 million per year. Now that's a lot of beer (and cheese)!

On the day of our visit we had lunch in their cafe where were able to sample Chimay's three widely distributed ales as well as a special "in-house" beer that is brewed for internal consumption only. When paired with fresh bread and the four cheeses also made by the monks, lunch was served. It was hard to decide which beers and cheese were our favorites. All were good but we liked some more than others We really couldn't decide. So our solution was to purchase more beer and cheese to take home. At home we are still undecided. But then again, why choose when we have easy access to all of them?

Plan your own visit:

You can dine in the brasserie, tour Espace Chimay, shop in the boutique and even stay overnight in their small in. The monastery is a short walk away and the grounds are open to the public during daylight hours.

Address: Rue de Poteaupre 5, B-6464 Bourlers, Belgium
Phone: +32 (0)60/21.14.33
Hours of Operation: varies by season

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Une Journee Portes Ouvertes De L'Ecole

My little chimney sweep peeking out to
make sure his parents were there
As parents of an up and coming student, this past week Glenn and I participated in what will be the first of many for us: the annual spring performance. I remember my own parents attending my performances and I'm realizing that regardless of the decade, the country, or the student's age, some things just never change. And now that I have been on both sides of the performance stage I have a whole new appreciation for everything it entails.

I'm not sure whether it is just the way Belgian schools communicate with their parents or my lacking of clear understanding of the French language (most likely it is a combination of both), but this whole spring performance remained somewhat of a mystery right up until the moment it went live. (And other parents, regardless of their mother tongue felt the same way). Back in March Sidney began talking about practicing for his show but never elaborated on what that actually meant. Early last month a notice was sent home in both French and English announcing a school wide open house that would be held over the course of two weeks and asking permission for our children to participate. With no times or further details forthcoming we granted permission. It was around this point when Sidney found the original Julie Andrews version of Mary Poppins at the library and asked to bring it home. As he danced along to the music in our living room he said that he was practicing for his school show. Ah-ha, I finally put two and two together to realize that his class would be staging a performance of Mary Poppins. I still didn't know when it would be and beyond his dance moves Sidney couldn't tell me what his role would be but at least I began to understand what was going on.

Two weeks ago on a Wednesday I received a notice from the school that I was required to provide Sidney with a costume of a black hat, black pants, and black shirt no later than Friday. Sidney did not own a single black item and Thursday was a Belgian holiday where unlike in the United States, everything is closed for business. Still not sure what his role was we scurried off to the mall after school and secured the required items which were (thankfully) met with Madam's approving nod. I still had no idea when Sidney would be performing and wondered how an open house could go on for weeks. Surely they wouldn't have little four-year-olds performing every day. Would they?

It turns out the answer was no. Two weeks ago we were told that Sidney's class, des Cerises, would be performing at 13:45 sharp on Thursday and that parents were to gather in the small gymnasium ahead of time. Under a strict warning from Sidney that we were not to embarrass him, Glenn and I crammed into the stuffy room with the other parents at our designated time. There were very few chairs so most of us stood. The room grew hot as we waited for the performance to begin. It gave me an opportunity to check out my fellow parents, many of whom I recognized from morning drop off. Attire included everything from a spandex biking outfit and short shorts to jeans and tons of camouflage and flight suits. (This is a military environment after all). We were a motley crew ready to watch our little international actors perform. There were cameras, iPhones, iPads and even a few full fledged video cameras poised and ready to go when the small students, under the watchful eyes of a cadre of Madams entered the room and tentatively acted out their scenes. The kids just looked so small as they stepped out in front of the parental paparazzi. No tears were shed although a few kids looked as though they wanted to bolt. Others, including our little chimney sweeper of a son, were hams as they fearlessly jumped and danced their way around the room. The lyrics were all in French but this didn't deter Sidney as he moved right along to the music. Seeing my little boy out there smeared in paint and acting so sure of himself was one of those moments that my mother had warned me about. I felt such enormous pride that it just made my heart melt.

After the show Sidney showed off his artwork which was decorating the hallway. As I've mentioned before we are not an artistic family so it was wonderful to see his colorful drawings and scratched out name that were on par with his classmates. (Now if only I could get him to do something other than scribble with a black marker at home since I now know he can do it). Sidney was bursting with excitement and pride as he showed Glenn and I what he had been doing at school. Then the entire class hustled back into their room where they stripped down to their underwear and back into the street clothes while the Madams looked on and parents milled about. (Yes, we are in Europe and no one was batting an eye as all of this went on). Then there were kisses for the Madams, backpacks were collected and the kids were dismissed early.

So we survived our first Belgian open house. I'm not sure I would call this whole experience an open house by American standards but at the core was a ritual that we will be repeating for years to come. With short notice I assembled a costume (I wonder if my mom remembers the reindeer incident of Christmas 1979?) and watched my little boy have his acting debut. I'm sure each school performance will become more sophisticated but I'm mighty proud of my little four year old dancing his heart out to a French Mary Poppins. So here's to the years of performances that are to come.

Surprise! Here's to the little actors and their
 amazing (and patient) Belgian teachers 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Missing Miss Elvana

I know this is totally a first world problem and a middle class, first world problem at that. But please forgive me for a moment when I say that the number one thing I miss about our time in Albania is our wonderful housekeeper. There I said it and I think her every time I pick up a broom or a scrub brush.

I am not a happy housekeeper and I have never pretended to be. I clean when I need to and make sure the house is always as clean as can be when we have company. On a daily basis when it is just us however, I struggle. I make the bed most mornings because there is something really nice about slipping between smooth sheets in the evening. But wrestling a fitted sheet onto an oversized mattress? The task usually involves some acrobatics and a few not too pretty words. While I love cooking and have no problem cleaning up after myself in the kitchen, giving the counters and floor a thorough mopping is definitely not the highlight of my day. Laundry and all it entails, especially the folding of what seems like a hundred white tube socks in both adult and kid sizes is simply tedious and time consuming. I do like things to be clean so I can generally abide by scrubbing a toilet but tackling the hard water stains in the shower are enough to drive me batty. And vacuuming? Just the sound of the vacuum cleaner is enough to make me run for the hills. Everyone has things they are both good at, they enjoy, or they find relaxing but no matter how I think about it or try it, the domesticity involved in cleaning the house is just not my thing.

One of the advantages of being an American living overseas in a developing country is the ready availability of quality and affordable household help. So when we moved to Albania and hired a full time housekeeper to keep our cavernous house in order I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Initially I was resistant to the idea; after all I thought it was a luxury we didn't need, since I could do it myself (if I really wanted to). But I soon changed my tune. Miss Elvana, our amazing housekeeper, was the best thing that happened to me in Albania. She knew just what to do to make sure the house was always immaculate. Despite his best efforts, Sidney's toys were never out of place and Glenn's shirts were ironed to perfect crispness. After I got over my initial reluctance of having her do our laundry, I grew to love returning home to piles of freshly laundered clothing just waiting to be put away. There is nothing like walking in the door at the end of the day and being greeted by the smell of a spotless and totally cleaned house. (It just isn't the same when you yourself smell like the said cleaning product). Not having to fold laundry or mop down the six dust covered wrap around balconies was really nice. Hosting a dinner party where all I have to do is focus on the cooking was a once in a life time experience (or a two and a half year blip of heaven). I knew I had it good and now I am constantly being reminded just how good it was.

Because now I have my new reality. Household help in Belgium is no where near as affordable as it was in Albania. Besides, now that I am no longer working, Sidney is out of the house most of the day, and we don't formally entertain on a regular basis, it would be really hard to justify the expense of having someone clean up after us. So I clean. Sort of. In my own way. Because of reduced electricity rates late at night and on weekends, Saturdays and Sundays are a marathon of laundry. We have wood, tile and ceramic floors with carpets on top and no matter what the surface they all seem to collect copious amounts of dirt despite our being a shoeless house. And our textured walls that look so beautiful from a distance? Up close I realize just how good those textures are at trapping dust. I don't know if it is the rain or something else but Belgium seems to have a lot of spiders. And these said spiders like to take up residence in the high corners of our ceilings. Every day. And sometimes multiple times in a single day. I kid you not. And the water. Not only is it so hard that it stains every indoor surface it touches, but it also stains and streaks the outsides of our large windows. Maybe it is simply because I am not proficient in this task, but cleaning this house could really be a full time job.

So I tackle it piece by piece. It is no where near as immaculate as it would be under Miss Elvana's thorough hands but for the most part it is good enough. I try my best and that is all I can do. So today, my self appointed scrubbing of the bathroom day, I am thinking longingly about the days when our bathrooms sparkled. I don't think I truly appreciated just how good I had it. But it is what it is. Today, as I scrub I'll be grateful for only having one and a half bathrooms instead five and appreciate the fact that Glenn now wears uniforms on a daily basis, therefore reducing our laundry load. Now if only I we could get rid of all of those white tube socks........

Thursday, May 15, 2014

In Search Of Community

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. You think you know what you want or what to expect but rarely do things turn out the way you imagined that they would. Sometimes they are better, other times worse, but more often than not they just turn out to be different. Not good or bad, just different.   But for us, with each new twist and turn in the road of life comes deeper insight into what we really want in life. What we thought was an ideal turns out to be less so while what we thought we didn't want we really ended up enjoying. All of these experiences build upon one another and help shape our future. But just when we think the future should be getting clearer it actually becomes more fuzzy. For all of the reasons I listed above.

As of late Glenn and I have been talking a lot about our future. First we were talking about our summer travel plans and our intent to spend a few days back in our old stomping grounds of southern Virginia. This inevitably raised the question of whether or not we would drive by our old house and neighborhood and how we would feel about what we saw. This segued into our talking about what we really liked and now miss about the Norfolk neighborhood. But the root of the conversations largely stem from the elephant in the room of where do we go next--as in after Belgium. We left Norfolk and headed to Albania via a short stint in Washington D.C. thinking Glenn would most likely retire out of that position. Instead we found ourselves (in a very good way) in Belgium for the next three years. But after that? Is the world our oyster? And if it is, what do we want and where do we want to go?

Some details are pretty clear. Although w don't know where it will be physically located, we think we've mentally designed our dream house. Over the past few years we've lived in houses that have been good, bad, and somewhere in between. We've figured out what is important to us in terms of space and design and where we would be willing to compromise. Some features that we had thought were really important we have since learned are no longer on the top of our must have list. A large kitchen is nice but layout is much more important. Green space is a must but too much of it simply results in a lot of yard work and we aren't gardening people. But what is really important is location and a sense of community. Ironically we had that when we lived in Norfolk yet at the time I didn't realize quite how special it really was. Our neighborhood had a true sense of community that we have been longing for ever since we left to go out and experience the world. In our old neighborhood we were surrounded by friends and neighbors; it was a place where we supported each other during difficult times and celebrated during the happy days. I always knew that if we ever needed something, anything, our neighbors would be there to help us out in a heartbeat. It was truly a special place yet we left, hoping to see and experience the larger world. Since then we've experienced communities where we heard but never saw our neighbors, where kids played amongst the speeding cars in the street yet everyone else stayed behind their tall walls, and now a cute neighborhood where we neither see nor hear any of our neighbors. These are all communities yet for us they lack that sense of community we are missing and longing for. I'm feeling as though the question of urban, suburban or rural isn't what is most relevant. What is important is the physical sense of community of the neighborhood.

Then there is the physical location- as in state and or country- of where we will land next and perhaps even settle for good. We are all over the map on this one. Playing the choose your own adventure game we concoct every scenario imaginable. No place is really entirely off of the table although so places are more desirable than others. But what we really want is that sense of community. Without being immersed in it, how do you know if a real sense of community exists? You can change a house (we've done that), but if the ideal house isn't in a great community is the house really that great? I'd argue no. So what do we want? Ironically, so much of what we think we now want we actually had back in Norfolk. We don't necessarily want this southern city per se but rather we want what it represented. Was our Belvedere neighborhood where it was at? Can you go back? Does life come full circle? Only time will tell........

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An American Diet

Belgian "fast food" : the rotisserie chicken truck
that makes regular appearances at all of the
local markets
I love food and one of the things I love about Belgium is the variety of interesting foods that are available to me. Belgians love their food; eating is an experience and this is reflected in the quality of the food around us. The importance of food is taught to children from birth and this is reflected in everything from school lunches to leisurely family meals. The local grocery stores and community markets are overflowing with food from all over the world. And as an American military family living in Belgium we have even more options when it comes to buying food since we also have access to the military commissary. Perhaps it is because I most recently lived in a country with limited food options (under no conceivable imagination were we food deprived, rather variety and our choices were simply limited) so some days when I think about it my choices simply overwhelm me. I know I am lucky in this respect.

When we first arrived here I was excited at the prospect of being able to shop at the commissary again. After all, the products were the familiar ones from home and familiarity breeds comfort. Or so I thought. But after shopping in European grocery stores and open air markets for a few years, even those offering less than stellar varieties of items, I found myself being underwhelmed by what I found. Produce, much of it having been imported to the United States before making its way to Belgium, looked old, lackluster, and unappetizing. And the "American" food that I thought I had been longing for? They weren't there. Instead the commissary shelves were filled with brightly colored American branded convenience foods that did little to whet my appetite. If I wanted anything from Old El Paso, Nabisco or any flavor so sports drink imaginable I would have been in luck. But I didn't. I was disappointed to say the least but quickly realized that the familiar products I had been longing for were actually the ones that I bought off of the shelves at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and the like and not your mainstream American grocery store. But then I took a step back and really started to explore the local stores (or "shopping on the economy" in military speak) and loved what I found.

Yes, with my rudimentary knowledge of French shopping in the local Carrefour or the village markets takes longer and has resulted, on more than one occasion, with my coming home with the wrong item, but what I do bring home just tastes so much better. Items that are supposed to be fresh are just that. Meats aren't pre-frozen, thawed and shrink wrapped in plastic, vegetables were harvested from the fields that morning. And when it comes to canned or boxed items the grocery store is filled with international foods and speciality items that one can only find in places like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's in the United States. With the assistance of Google Translate I realize that the canned items are free of so many of the preservatives and added sugars that are pervasive in many American brands. Here, these items are common place and because they aren't considered to be gourmet, they are relatively inexpensive. In a single aisle in my local Carrefour I can find imported items from Greece, Turkey, Poland and Africa plus Germany, Italy, Great Britain and France. And if I can't find it in the store I am sure to be able to locate it in one of the stalls at the outdoor market. When I think about it, I don't think I've ever not been able to find what I was looking for. Shopping, and eating, here is a true foodie's dream. And shopping at the commissary? Frankly I am a bit embarrassed by how poorly Americans seem to eat (since the food on the shelf is obviously being purchased I can only assume that it is being eaten) and no longer shop there on a regular basis. And the small section of "American" food at Carrefour? I avoid that too......

So all of this makes me wonder: do Americans really eat that poorly? I think many do but I'm not really sure why. Real foods often cost more that processed, prepackaged ones so economics does play a role in diets. In many inner city urban environments, fresh fruits and vegetables are harder to find making canned items that have long shelf lives more attractive. But what about the more affluent suburbs where grocery stores and fresh produce are readily available? Are Americans so busy that they can't take the time to cook a balanced and healthy dinner? Are consuming the food colorings, artificial flavors and preservatives that accompany so many pre-packaged foods worth the convenience of just opening a can and heating it in the microwave? Is there simply not a demand for high quality "real" foods? I find that a bit hard to believe but I'm not sure what else can explain it. In Europe, these real foods seem to be more the norm. Europe is after all, the birthplace of the Slow Food Movement. That isn't to say that Europeans don't eat processed foods; they do. They also eat their share of convenience foods but many times this convenience food is real food that is ready to eat. A stroll through the Sunday market in Mons reveals just this. Complete, ready cooked meats, pastas, and other dinners sit alongside their fresh and raw counterparts giving patrons the choice of how they want to buy their food. And if the packed market is any indication (it is always crowded whenever we visit), Belgians demand this quality. And I find myself demanding this quality as well.

Seasonal produce being sold at an open air market
All is not lost, or at least that is what I need to believe. People around the globe, the United States included, do care about food and the meals their families eat. It really is all a mindset and a reflection of what we are used to as a society. Change, whether positive or negative, doesn't happen over night so changing the way we eat and think about food is an ongoing work in progress. But where do we stand today? I think a recent article in the United Kingdom's Daily Mail says it best. The article made me pause and think and I hope it will do the same for you.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Let's Go To The Zoo

Feeding the monkeys is a favorite zoo
The best zoo I have ever visited is right in our Belgian back yard.  We were told about the zoo by several people the minute we arrived in  Belgium with everyone telling us how wonderful it was. There was so much hype around the zoo that I found myself wondering if it was really as good as everyone was saying. I found out that it is and others agree since it was named the most beautiful park and best zoo in Belgium in 2014 and the best theme park in 2013. In a country filled with parks these recognitions are definitely something to brag about.

Actually, to call Pairi Daiza a zoo isn't accurate since it is a zoo and so much more. It is a botanical garden and international cultural showcase. And best of all it is located fifteen minutes from our house making both day long and last minute visits easy. In fact, since it reopened for the season early last month Pairi Daiza it has become our favorite place to visit. We've bought season passes and have started stopping by for the afternoon or just a an hour or so. There is so much to see and despite our repeated visits, we have yet to experience the entire zoo. It is that big and that amazing.

Today Pairi Daiza is a 140 acre zoo and botanical garden that is home to 4,000 animals- from zebras and panda bears to kangaroos, monkeys and hundreds of birds, they all live here. There is even a small aquarium, complete with seals and penguins. But the zoo grounds, located in the midst of rolling farmland, is actually on the grounds of the old Cistercian Cambron Abbey. The old abbey tower remains as the centerpiece of the park, looming over the lush grounds and serving as a geographic landmark since it is easy to get lost amongst the maze of pathways, ponds, and animals. But to get a bird's eye view of the entire grounds, a rope walk spanning high over much of the park is the way to go. My fearless little boy loves it--especially making the narrow wooden and rope walkway bounce uncontrollably--and it is now the first, and sometimes last, place we visit upon arriving.

The old abbey tower

The first thing I noticed about Pairi Daiza is that the animals have so much space to wander around and in some cases are free to share space with their human visitors. Regal peacocks stroll the ground and while visiting "the land down under" we found only a low guardrail separating ourselves from the kangaroos. Lush vegetation lined pathways connect each world garden with the next. In one moment you may be in an immortal Chinese city complete with giant pandas and the next you have wandered into an African stilt village or a Balinese temple surrounded by elephants. Monkeys swing overhead and if you visit during feeding time the monkeys will come right up and eat out of your hands. (This has become a favorite activity for our family). Wandering around one of the many lagoons you encounter birds-giant pelicans, bright pink flamingos, ducks of all kinds, herons, and eagles wandering around the paths, swimming in the water, or soaring overhead. There are also several large caged aviaries where visitors share space with smaller, more colorful birds. I'm not a fan of the avian world but even I find it really cool to be so up close and personal with these colorful feathered creatures.

One of the smallest residents enjoying a
rare sunny moment

African stilt village

And because this is Europe Pairi Daiza has two other features that are rarely found in American zoos. First there are giant playgrounds, both outside and in (in consideration to the often inclement Belgian weather) where kids can run, jump, and climb to their heart's content and burn off energy. The second feature that I love is the food. Yes, you will find your typical park food of grilled hotdogs and hamburgers here but you will also find sushi, Italian and Chinese foods, traditional Belgian fare, and African delicacies. And because this is Belgium all of the food can all be washed down with the zoo's own brewed beer. Have you ever wanted to participate in a traditional tea ceremony? You can do it here. (You can also get a fish pedicure if that is your thing).

There really is something for everyone here and I know we've only just begun to explore and experience everything Pairi Daiza has to offer. In fact, rain or shine its going to be a great place to spend our summer days.

Bright koi frolicking near the immortal city

You never know what you will find hiding
amongst the trees

Bright birds