Monday, June 30, 2014

The Prettiest Little Town In Belgium

Its been called the prettiest town in Belgium and having visited, I fully agree. If you've only seen one picture of a Belgian town, chances are the picture was taken here since over 2 million tourists visit each year. The town has miles of canals, and narrow cobble stoned streets meandering past well preserved medieval brick buildings. And yes, since it is so beautiful, there are tourists, lots of tourists. So what Belgian town am I talking about? The answer is Brugge.

Located in the northwestern area of Flemish Belgium, Brugge is a picture perfect postcard city of just over 100,000 residents whose center is a UNESCO world heritage site. Fortifications were first built around the town during the first century BC in an attempt to fend off pirates. Its strategic location and waterways made it an important trading port during the 12 through 15th centuries when the textile trade flourished. This was followed by an economic decline but the 17th century saw the revival of the lace industry and today Brugge is known for their famous handmade lace. During the 19th century tourism became a focal point for the town's economic revival with this trend continuing today.

The architecture:
Traditional "step" roof lines

A peak through an ache at one of the many steeples
dominating the Brugge skyline

My favorite house; the building itself is quaint and perched
right on a canal but I love this little patio garden.

There must be a lot of fireplaces in this house

Like just about every town or city in the BENELUX region, Brugge is just under two hours away from Mons making it a perfect day trip. That is just what we did last week on a perfectly sunny yet cool first day of summer. From the moment we stepped off of the train and into the large park surrounding the city center I knew we were in for a treat. Living in the middle of a city with few trees, I was immediately struck by the amount of green space in Brugge. From the trees and flowers to the green way surrounding the canals, this stone and brick town felt lush. And the stone and brick buildings lining the narrow cobble stoned streets of the city center were just so beautiful. Brugge is known for their steep "stepped" roof lines and it seemed as though just about every building had this architectural detail. Even the commercial areas of the town, filled with both unique boutiques and international chains had a quaint feeling about them. Businesses catering to tourists stood side by side with restaurants and shops where the locals buy their provisions. Despite its touristy reputation, Brugge felt like a real town where locals and tourists exist side by side.

But for me, Brugge is all about their waterways. Today the canals remain a focal point of the town resulting in Brugge being referred to as "the Venice of the north". They meander for kilometers through the town with low slung stone bridges spanning the waterways and connecting all parts of the city center. Because we had been told it was a Brugge "must do" we joined the masses and took a surprisingly inexpensive (7 Euro a person which is a steal by European standards) tour of the canals. Seeing the town from the water provided us with a whole different perspective. While the streets were crowded with tourists and despite the number of boats on the canal, the water was strangely relaxing, making us feel as though we weren't one of the thousands who had descended on Brugge for the day. I loved the houses whose walled backyards abutted the canals. I dreamily envisioned what it would be like to be able to sip after dinner drinks from my own canal side perch. (Hey, a girl can dream!). Passing under the bridges spanning the waterways was an experience as well. I knew they all had enough clearance for our boat to pass underneath but there were several where we could reach up and touch the underside of the bridges.  Now that is low.

After our boat tour we retraced our route on the roads, passing over the bridges we had just gone under, standing on the canal banks to see where we had been, and exploring tree filled plaza. Lunch was eaten in one such square in the shadow of the Belgian stepped rooftops where we ate traditional local foods, drank Belgian beer and watched families peddle by on their bicycles. Despite the crowds it was all wonderfully serene.

Canal views:

There wasn't a lot of head room when traveling under
the bridges

Boats were zipping up and down the canals  providing us
tourists the best views of the town

So pretty
The entire family fell in love with Brugge. In fact no sooner had we left than Sidney started talking about wanting to go back. He's also been pointing out the roof lines in our neighborhood that "have stairs just like in Brugge." We know we will be going back so be forewarned, if you visit us in Belgium we will be taking you to Brugge.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


With our long anticipated trip back to the United States rapidly approaching, I've been thinking a lot about America. I've been contemplating the things I've missed the most, the aspects of American society I can still do without. Given my limited amount of time, I've been trying to decide what are the must-dos on my East Coast bucket list. And much to my surprise, my contemplations are much more complex than I had originally thought they would be.

As sad as it might sound, the more I think about it there really isn't a whole lot that I really miss about the United States. (There, I said it). Yes there are friends that I miss but our nomadic lifestyle --and that of so many of our friends--- has made living in close proximity to friends and family virtually impossible. I haven't been able to see my family as much as I would like but thanks to Skype and my parents' willingness to travel we have kept in touch on a somewhat regular basis. As silly as it sounds I really miss good Mexican food but as a result of not being able to find it in Europe, my own Mexican cooking skills have been improving. I find myself longing for fresh Maine air, which ironically I haven't really experienced in over twenty years, but summer in Belgium is turning out to be remarkably similar to summer in Maine so my longings aren't really that bad. So I guess this list is pretty simple. But then there is the list of what I don't miss.........

It has been so long since I've really spent time in the U.S. so my first hand knowledge feels a bit dated. But simply put, I don't miss the image of America that I keep seeing and hearing about in newspapers and on television. Through my snippets of news I keep hearing about increasingly polarized politics in Washington, the separation of church and state being eroded in a way that makes me very uncomfortable (my own words and not something I've heard anyone actually say), what feels like weekly mass shootings and other horrible tragedies and a general environment where instant gratification and the idea that bigger is better regardless of the consequences reigns supreme. I know I must be missing some of the big, good news stories, but all in all what I am hearing makes me feel sad and disappointed in my own country.

Perhaps it is because I have such distance from home that I feel this way. Or maybe it is because of this very distance that I do. It is hard to not compare what I am hearing on the news to what I am seeing on a daily basis here in Belgium. Big bad Washington has always been a point of contention amongst Americans but by the sounds of it, politics has gotten so unbelievably ugly that the only thing happening in DC is mudslinging from both sides of the aisle. The ongoing stalemate and inability to pass any legislation is especially embarrassing as we as a country talk about the importance of being a democracy and the art of compromise. Are we really setting the example that others should follow? While President Obama bemoans the fact that out of 185 countries in the world, the United States is one of just three (Oman and Paupa New Guinea being the other two) that does not provide paid family leave for the birth of a child. How can we consider ourselves to be a great world power yet fail so miserably when it comes to taking care of and providing for our own people? And then there is the gun control debate. As the recent slaying of police officers in Las Vegas demonstrates, the ability to legally carry a concealed weapon in no means protects the community. Yet we refuse to regulate guns while banning that oh-so dangerous European import of Kinder Eggs out of fear of children choking on the small toys. If we as a country are so concerned about our children's safety why has it become so easy to receive waivers to not vaccinate children against deadly diseases? And then there are the global warming deniers and......well the list just goes on and on. All of these are issues that my European friends have questioned me about. And my explanations? I just find myself shaking my head in discouragement.

I know I sound a bit bitter and yes, disenchanted by my homeland. And I hate that feeling, I really do.
I'm hopeful that my trip back to the U.S. will reinvigorate me and renew my belief that America really is a great country. I'm hoping to see a perspective that I have been missing and feel renewed hope that as a country we are on the right track. And I will see that, right? I hope..........

Friday, June 27, 2014

We Have Survived

Bundled up for the first day of school
Today is Sidney's last day of pre-school for the year. Although he started in February and only spent five months under the strict tutelage of Madame Isabelle, his Belgian, French speaking teacher, he has learned so much. In many ways he started as a shy little boy and has emerged as a much more confident  and worldly boy. But although short, it hasn't been an easy road.

For the first few weeks Sidney alternatively liked and hated school. At the end of the day he would say he had fun but then refuse to get out of bed the next morning. He would literally glue himself to his booster seat once we reached the school parking lot, requiring me to pry him out of the car and bring him kicking and screaming into his classroom. He said he didn't know what was going on since everything was conducted in French. Disliking the lunch that was provided by the school and refusing to even try it, he would be ravenous at the end of the day yet have no idea what was even offered on the menu. He would tell me he was good during the day but my appearance in the classroom at pick up time would immediately illicit a laundry list from his classmates reporting of everything Sidney (supposedly) did wrong during the day. On various days Sidney would come home with scribbles on the top of his head, paint on his arms and face and torn knees on his jeans with no real explanation as to how they all got there. Madame Isabelle initially said he was adjusting then she told us that he really needed to get better about listening. I began to wonder if our son would be kicked out of pre-school. (He wouldn't be the first one).

But gradually something changed. Sidney started listening to Madame and stopped hitting or kicking back at children who supposedly did this to him. He started talking about playing with his friends and began telling us how to say various things in French. Much to all of our surprise he started at least tasting everything on his lunch plate and has reported that some of the soup is even good. Pasta dishes remain his favorite but he will now sample the meats that are drenched in Dijon sauce and he really looks forward to the days when they serve fish. His artwork is still quite creative but he can write his name and readily recognizes many words in both English and French.

Somewhere along the line Sidney stopped crying at the notion of having to go to school in the morning and now gets himself up and dressed most mornings without any prompting or supervision. We arrived during the blustery and cold winter months making dressing in layers a no brainer. School is ending with days that are filled with cool mornings and warm afternoons (which reminds me more of later September rather than late June) thus prompting debates of what is appropriate attire for the day. Most days we end up in a compromise. He is now disappointed when it is Friday and he can't go to school for a whole two days. The refrain of "why is my school closed Mamma" has become a regular Saturday morning occurrence. And as of 15.15 today, Sidney will be on summer break; what will the boy (and his Mamma) do? We have variety of activities planned for the coming weeks including an extended stay in the United States and two weeks of summer camp (which Sidney is only willing to attend because "it is like school but with more fun activities and everyone will speak English). Sidney is concerned that other kids will be at his school while he isn't but I've assured him that no one will be there. And I've promised him that when we return from America he will be able to back to his school. It will be the same school with some of the same kids but a new Madame. Sidney wanted to know if she would speak English or French and my reassurance that she would speak French seemed to comfort him. Yes, things have changed in the past few months. My little boy has grown up and loves school. A mother really can't ask for more than that.

And Sid on a recent school morning wearing a
compromise outfit

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Soup Kitchen For Bees

We received the coolest surprise on our doorstep earlier this week. Actually, every stoop in the neighborhood had one. It was a simple soup can with a marigold planted inside. The label was bilingual with French on one side and English on the other. Across the top of the label was the headline "Soup Kitchen For Bees" with a subheading stating "Please take care of me and help bees!". The instructions were quite simple so that even the person with the biggest black thumb (a.k.a.) me could follow them; water and sun and no pesticides. Not only was this the coolest thing I've seen in a long time but I was intrigued so I naturally checked out the website that was listed on the bottom of the can and this was what I found:

Mic Le Pirate is a self proclaimed entertainer, artist and citizen of the earth who lives right here in Mons. Honestly, I had never heard of him prior to receiving this plant on our doorstep and struggled to learn more about him via his online profile.  His website is a bit obscure (at least the English translation is) and I'm probably too much of a traditionalist to fully appreciate his art.  What I do know is that I love the effort and energy that was put into the early morning plant delivery. The idea is so simple yet the message is so nice. I am just chalking it up to yet another cool thing about about our neighborhood. And I'm going to do my best to keep my little marigold alive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Summer!

In anticipation of the sunny days ahead, today is two pictures for the price of one!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Secret Tunnels Of Dover

Last week I blogged about our explorations of Dover Castle. What I didn't talk about at the time was the vast network of tunnels that exist in the cliff walls under the castle grounds. These tunnels, along with their neighboring underground hospital, played a vital role in World War II and are just as impressive, in not more so, than the expansive grounds above them.

The tunnels themselves were not new during World War II; smaller ones had first been dug during the Middle Ages as a means of communication between soldiers as part of the fortress's defense system. They were expanded during the Napoleonic, with the narrow hallways serving as barracks for up to 2, 000 British soldiers (and to date, were the only tunnels that ever served as barracks). The tunnels were once again expanded during World War II during which time they served as a hospital, an air raid shelter and the nerve center for the evacuation of both British and French soldiers from across the English Channel during the Battle of Dunkirk. Code named "Operation Dynamo", under the direction of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, a total of 338,000 British and French soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, France and carried across the Channel to England. As the war continued, the tunnels became a telephone operations center whose needs grew so much that the tunnels were further expanded. During the Cold War the tunnels were the planned regional seat of government for 300 military and government leaders should a nuclear attack occur. NATO even carried out secret exercises on the site in the days before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fortunately, they were never needed for this purpose. Today, the total length of the tunnels and rooms, some of which are inaccessible, are up to 150 feet below the surface and are just over three miles long length.  And after years of being closed up and forgotten, they are open to the public.

The overall exhibit was quite impressive. We entered the tunnels on their land side before emerging an hour later on the other side with a sweeping view of the English Channel. But I'm getting ahead of myself. One of my favorite things about touring foreign (from an American's perspective) historical site is learning about history from a different perspective. And this tour did not disappoint. First our tour guide led us down a long narrow set of stairs deep into the cliff walls and through a series of scenario rooms depicting the various phases of the war. Sitting on a bench in a chilly and dimly lit room, we heard Winston Churchill's announcement that Britain had entered the War. We were later "evacuated" down the tunnel into another chamber where we viewed maps and charts depicting the routes of the fighting armies. We were allowed to peek into rooms that served as offices, living quarters and the telephone operations center. The tour concluded with a self guided tour of other period documents and memorabilia. It amazed me to think that this virtual city unknowingly existed right under cliffs.

A view from the tunnel; it is easy to understand why these tunnels were
so strategically important

If you go:

Castle Hill
Dover, Kent UK
Tel: 0870 333 1181
Hours: 10.00-18.00

Tunnel tours are included in the price of castle admission and take place every 20 minutes. Wait times may be lengthy during peak times.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Getting To Know La Doudou

Belgians love festivals and the annual festival to end all festivals just concluded a week long run here in Mons.  The Ducasse de Mons, more commonly known as Le Doudou, it is recognized as a Masterpiece of Oral and Tangible Heritage of Humanity. Its history dates back to the Middle Ages and today mixes its origins with a modern day week long party where thousands of people flood the streets of Mons. There are processionals and ceremonies, concerts of classical, military and contemporary music, food and drinks and the spectacle of Saint George taking on the dragon.

The La Ducasse in Mons found its origins in 1349 when the city found itself suffering from the plague. Officials decided to simultaneously parade the shrine of Waltrude from Mons and the shrine of her husband Vincent Madelgarus from Soignes to a meeting place in the village of Casteau. It is said that a miracle happened with their meeting and the plague was eradicated from the area. In 1380 Saint George entered the festival with a reenactment of his slaying of the dragon.  Today these traditions are carried on annually on Trinity Sunday through the reenactment of the processions and the battle between Saint George, representing good and the dragon, representing evil. There is ceremony and costumes with the maneuvering of the shrine up and down Mons' cobblestone streets. And of course the highlight of the festivities is the reenactment of Saint George's battle with the dragon. Good luck is said to come to those who are able to grab the hairs from the whipping tail of the dragon and hundreds of people always take that challenge. From what I have seen, most of the people making a grab for the tail are young men (probably influenced by a beer or two). There is even a smaller and calmer reenactment of the battle with the dragon is held the following Sunday for where children are the participants.

Friends had told us about the festival months before it actually took place. Living in the center of the city we realized that we would have a front seat view of the festivities and thought the festival would be fun. But then American neighbors who have been living in Mons for some time warned us about the perils of living so close to the center of the action. Streets would be blocked off, the noise would be unbearable at times and we had to be prepared to not be able to get our car in and out of our parking area on several occasions since our garage is not only on the parade route but directly across the street from the church where many of the celebrations take place. So we were both warned and prepared.

The dragon
In the days leading up to the first night of celebrations no parking signs started popping up on every street in our neighborhood. Security personnel at SHAPE issued warnings about how to stay safe during the festivities. City maintenance workers took to the street whitewashing over graffiti and power washing the cobblestones. Restaurants and cafes opened their doors and pulled kegs of beer onto the streets. An early Friday afternoon walk through the Grand Place revealed that the party had already begun with music blaring young people drinking and dancing in the midday sun. We wisely decided to not partake in the evening's festivities but perhaps view the Sunday morning parade. All weekend the streets were filled with the sounds of yelling, music and general revelry. Four in the morning was particularly noisy since this was the hour when the bars briefly closed and drunk patrons were pushed out onto the streets. Shortly after the street sweepers would follow in their wake and then the power washers would come by again. And then it would start all over again.

I've seen pictures of the crowds and festivities and am glad we stayed away from most of the events. Perhaps twenty years ago we would have put ourselves in the middle of the festivities. Being older and wiser now, with a small child, we picked our events carefully. We watched the grand finale fireworks from our bedroom windows. They were indeed one of the most spectacular lighting shows I have seen and I was able to enjoy them, without the crowds, while wearing my pajamas. This past Sunday we joined the albeit smaller crowds on the Grand Place for the children's version of St. George and the Dragon. It was still crowded but from his perch on Glenn's shoulder's, Sidney was able to see most of the spectacle. We watched it live on the large screen that was suspended over the plaza.

La Doudou takes place every year so we have two more opportunities to partake in the festivities if we want. Will we? I'm not sure. At the moment the neighborhood still holds the lingering smell of stale beer and urine and I'm not sure I want to put myself and my family in the center of that. On the other hand, it is a well known and spectacular event whose history runs deep. (And as a history nut, I love that aspect of La Doudou). Perhaps our best bet is befriending someone who owns one of those apartments that is truly on the plaza (maybe we should have rented one of those). Or we could brave the crowds on the ground. We have a year to figure it all out.

The "smaller" crowd that we were a part of

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Greek Summer Night

Today is the first day of summer. The days are long and here in Belgium the weather is (mostly) warm and (mostly) sunny. The school year is winding down and the festival season is gearing up. It seems as though someone is celebrating something every week with some weeks having multiple celebrations. The festivities are not limited to the Belgian community; right on SHAPE the big "festival tent" has gone up with each of the NATO countries taking their turn in hosting cultural events. And last week, to kick off the official start of summer, it was the Greek community's turn.

I've mentioned before that I love all things Italian but Greece and Greek culture comes in a close second for me so I was excited at the prospect of attending a Greek cultural event right here in Belgium. Our house back in Norfolk, Virginia was less than a mile away from a Greek Orthodox Church that annually hosted one of the largest Greek festivals on the East Coast. Each year we would sit on the church lawn with friends and eat spanikopita, gyro and salads, drink too much red wine and listen to traditional music. The event was something we looked forward to each year. Last year in Albania we celebrated Greek National Day with the Greek Embassy at a concert and dance performance that highlighted the best of the traditional Greek arts scene. As a family we made two separate trips to Greece, first to the Ionian Islands surrounding Corfu and then to the monasteries of Meteora. Along the way we heard traditional music, took in the spectacular sights and dined on delicious Greek food. Much of it wasn't fancy but it was all delicious and left me wanting more. I returned from each trip and immediately took to the kitchen to try to replicate what I had eaten.

So yes, I was excited at the prospect of experiencing more of Greece and this celebration did not disappoint. It was truly a festive occasion as we joined Glenn's co-workers at a long table under the tent. Musicians performed a live performance in front of a large screen where images from across Greece were displayed. Sidney immediately recognized a few of the scenes from our own travels before being distracted by some of his classmates. And the food. Oh my goodness was it good. In fact, it was some of the best Greek food I have ever eaten. Even Sidney gobbled it down . It was so good that Glenn made a second trip through the long food line to secure us additional food. We probably ate too much but it was so nice to eat great food, listen to nice music (at a very respectable volume) and spend time with friends. In between bites of food Sidney danced along to the music and played with his classmates. This was such a family friendly event and this was evidenced by the number of families of all nationalities who were eating, dancing and celebrating. It was the perfect way to kick off the summer.

I am thankful that we are living in such a multi-cultural community. In recent weeks we've celebrated with the French, Spanish, Polish and now Greeks. I can't wait to see what the rest of this long (and hopefully sunny) summer holds in store for us.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Awash In A Sea Of Belgian Black, Yellow & Red

Maybe I'm missing the patriotic gene (and I don't think so) but I've never felt compelled to wrap myself in the American flag. I've also never felt the need to wear the flag as an accessory (which according to Congressional law is actually a violation of flag etiquette) nor have I draped the flag over my car and driven down the streets. Call me boring but the closest I've come has been to hang an American flag in front of our house(s) in America. But apparently I am in the minority here.

When we were in Albania I thought the locals were a bit crazy in their love for everything red and black and Albanian flag related. And during their centennial celebration for independence, it felt as though every inch of the country was draped in the ubiquitous red and black double headed eagle flags. It was simply over the top. Prior to that time it had never even dawned on me that someone would shrink wrap their car or a high rise building (or the Parliament building for that matter) in their national flag but apparently not doing so in Albania was the exception rather than the rule. And I quickly lost count of the number of cars speeding down the streets streaming large flags in their wake and the number of young men hanging out the windows and sunroofs waving the said flags. You needed to see pictures of it all to believe it and I honestly thought I'd never see anything like it again. But then we moved to Belgium and the race for the World Cup kicked off.......

I was aware of the hype leading up to the Belgian Red Devil's initial game against Algeria. What I hadn't expected was the crazed antics of the fans. The game was broadcast on large screens in a public square here in Mons but for a variety of reasons we didn't plan on attending. We did have the game playing on the television at home and watched it in bits and spurts as we went about our normal evening routine. But even without watching we knew the minute the game was over with Belgium coming out as the victors. The sound of horns and screaming immediately filled the air and within minutes of the game's finale our narrow one-way street was filled with speeding cars draped in Belgian flags careening by. I had unknowingly chosen this exact moment to go for a post-dinner walk through the neighborhood and was quickly swept up into the wave of crowds that were moving through the streets and screaming with excitement. Black, yellow and red was everywhere from leis and wigs to flags, face and body paint,  banners, clothing (including a rather tiny bikini worn by a big bellied man). And it wasn't just the "young" people who were partaking in the celebrations; everyone from babies to the elderly was in on the action. And because this is Belgium I imagine that most of these actions were fueled by a wee bit of beer. As relative newcomers to the country the celebrations were both amazing and a bit scary.

The celebrations lasted well into the night. The next  morning Sidney informed me that, the night before, he had stood at his bedroom window and watched "cars and Belgian flags and people hanging out of cars drive by over and over". (He also informed me that people weren't wearing their seat belts and their Mommas would be angry that they were hanging out of the windows because it is dangerous). And sadly enough, he wasn't kidding. I was practically side swiped on the sidewalk in front of our house when a young woman draped in a Belgian flag flung herself out the window as the car sped by. The parade of Belgian pride lasted into the wee hours of the morning. But this was just Belgium's first game in the lead up to the actual World Cup finale. At a minimum they have at least two more games to play but because of their win the other night, it is probably more. I'm not sure I even want to contemplate what future wins will mean in terms of celebrations.

So I suppose that given the time and my environment, my only option is to.........

 minus the black, yellow and red flags of course.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

When In Rome (Tirana Or Mons........)

Its a phrase I've heard expressed by fellow Americans over and over again; why can't life in other countries be more like life in America. I heard it while living in Albania, I'm hearing it now that we are in Belgium and I've even heard it from Americans traveling in other countries. There is comfort in the predictable and the known and it seems as though many people, and Americans in particular, want this level of comfort regardless of where they are in the world. But for me, it begs the question of why are we overseas if what we really want is our American lives. If we are tourists in foreign cities why would we want to eat the same meal that we can get at our local Hard Rock Cafe or McDonald's at home?

It is a little more complex for those of us who are actually living overseas. For some of us, the move may have been a family decision that was discussed and agreed upon by everyone involved.  But for others, the move to a new country may have been a work driven decision where everyone in the family isn't on board. We may not like change, the unexpected, or "foreign" ways of doing things. Regardless of the circumstances, however, I honestly don't think we as Americans should have any expectation of the locals changing their ways and the way they live to accommodate us. After all, would we do the same for foreign visitors in our country?

Having lived overseas for three years in two separate and very different countries, I completely understand the frustrations of longing for the comforts and familiarity of home. There are days that I would love to be able to go to the grocery store and immediately recognize the labels on the products lining the shelves. And convenience stores? How wonderful would it be to be able to pop into a store to pick up a single item late at night.  A one stop store similar to a CVS where you can fill prescriptions and buy a bottle of shampoo at the same time. Nope, not an option here either (although it is wonderful to go to a pharmacy without a prescription and walk out with the medicine you need). But alas, these really aren't options for me in Belgium and I don't expect Belgians to build these stores simply to appease my desire for American conveniences.

I personally love food and am open to trying new foods whenever the opportunity arises. I realize that many people don't share this philosophy and that is fine. But just because a food is foreign to you doesn't give you license to insult it and the people who enjoy it. Just because it isn't eaten in America doesn't mean it is bad or inedible. Believe it or not, there are people who don't relish the idea of eating bacon, barbecue ribs or a Big Mac. The legal age for drinking alcohol is lower in Europe than it is in the United States but does that mean that Europe needs to change their laws to accommodate what Americans are accustomed to and comfortable with? I think not. As Americans we may be accustomed to a certain level of customer service in stores, a rapid response from the police when a crime occurs, and a give and take relationship with our children's teachers. But as Americans abroad we need to adjust our ways and expectations to what is the local norm. After all, nothing perpetuates the ugly American personae than expecting everyone else to change their ways to make us comfortable.

So when in Rome, Tirana, Mons or whichever foreign city I find myself in, I continually remind myself that I am merely a guest in the country. I may find some practices odd or simply different than what I am used to, but I will do my best to assimilate to and learn from the local culture. I certainly won't insult it because their way of doing something is new to me. When I return home I may savor (maybe) the conveniences and comforts that are unique to America. But in the meantime I'm going to try to live like a local, however different that may be from what I am used to.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: A June Night On The 50th Parallel

We haven't quite reached the summer solstice yet, but this is what 22.00 A.K.A. 10 PM looks like in Belgium:

Bedroom view

Late night tee ball game view

I think I need black out curtains!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Castle On The Cliffs: Dover

Dover Castle as seen from the White Cliffs of Dover

We visited our share of castles while we were in Albania but none were as impressive or intact as our first British castle. Dover Castle, perched on the cliffs about the English Channel, has played a pivotal role in British history since the 12th Century. Over the years it has fended off invasions, withstood the storms of time and served as the residence of kings. Part of the castle was burned by William the Conqueror the rebuilt before he took occupation of it. During Henry II's reign the castle took on the look we see today and although Louis VIII of France was able to breach the outer walls during his invasion, his army was unable to actually capture the castle. During the Napoleonic Wars the castle was further fortified with the town of Dover becoming a garrison town for the British troops.  But today, despite all of the attacks from both man and nature, the castle remains largely intact and solid as the day(s) it was built.

The castle grounds are expansive including guard houses, a stand alone Anglo-Saxon church (this is in addition to the royal chapel inside of the castle itself) and a Roman era lighthouse. Tunnels from both the Medieval and more modern times helped serve as a vital defense system for the castle grounds. A long walk down a steep and winding staircase brought us to the ancient Medieval where we peered out through the barred windows, saw how the sentries remotely opened the gates for visitors, and were able to explore the subterranean maze of tunnels and caverns. (And even the views from some of the smallest peep holes were impressive).

A climb up through the 83 foot high Great Tower immerses visitors in the world and realm of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. We just couldn't hold Sidney back as he ran from one cavernous stone room to another discovering the nooks and niches as children have probably been doing for generations. He was less than impressed with the stark school room but was fascinated by the loo room (naturally) and didn't want to climb down from his perch on the royal throne. From the roof of the tower we were afforded a view of not only the grounds and the English Channel but the shores of France as well. The sweeping views gave me an idea of how easy it would have been for castle guards to see the invading armies long before they arrived.

Other areas of the castle grounds provided further insight into British history. The Roman era lighthouse provided evidence of occupation of the area long before the castle was built. A tour of World War II era tunnels taught me about a battle I had previously known little about. The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment Museum provided us with an overview of the history of the British military (and caused Sidney, upon seeing photographs and a replication of World War I trenches, to excitedly proclaim that "I have been there").

Castle grounds as seen from the Great Tower

If you go:

Castle Hill
Dover, Kent UK
Tel: 0870 333 1181
Hours: 10.00-18.00

Monday, June 16, 2014

Football Fever

Football fever has struck here in Belgium and our house has not exempt. By football I am referring to European football, a.k.a. soccer in the United States. Maybe it is because the United States has the National Football League, that padded, helmeted, testosterone driven sport that is as American as apple pie, that what the rest of the world considers football has never really caught on there. (There are teams but by the national team coach's own admission, they aren't very good). But here in Europe, and the rest of the world for that matter, football is big business year around. And during the World Cup, it is all that everyone here is talking about.

From an early age kids in Europe learn to play football. Back in Albania Sidney was just learning to walk but he was in the street kicking a football around with the neighborhood kids. Every community had pick up games for players of all ages and just about any semi-open surface could be jury-rigged into a football field. I have yet to visit a European city or town that didn't have at least one football stadium. (And even in Albania, where reliable electricity wasn't a guarantee, these stadiums not only had lights but giant generators ready to fuel them if need be). Games draw mobs of often unruly spectators all rooting for their hometown team and for those who can't secure tickets restaurants, cafes, and pubs will set up screens to appease their fans. We've even joined friends and been a part of the crowd cheering on the game. It seems as though everyone is either playing or watching the sport. In fact, according to FIFA, the international organization that regulates football, there are 265 million football players around the world making it the single largest sport across the globe. Yes indeed, football is big business.

Whereas the National Football League has an annual Super Bowl, the World Cup, the granddaddy of football, occurs once every four years. 2014 is a World Cup year and as such, this summer Brazil is hosting the games. As with all high profile, extraordinarily expensive events, much controversy surrounds the event. Proponents await anxiously for the games to begin and vie for over priced tickets while opponents cite everything from corruption and the waste of money to human rights violations are reasons a country should not host the games. But love it or hate it, for me there is something wonderful about seeing teams from across the globe descending in a single location and playing a game that they love. Perhaps football is the great equalizer.

Living in an international community in Belgium I am feeling and seeing the sense of excitement on a daily basis. In the weeks and yes, even months leading up to the World Cup, people were talking about the big game. I honestly have no idea whether Belgium's team stands a chance at winning but regardless of this, Belgian football pride has been prominently displayed. The local grocery stores have been running promotions supporting the Belgian Red Devils and media coverage was extensive when the team boarded their plane to fly to Brazil. Flags and banners are prominently displayed in cafes and restaurants and in the past few weeks these flags have been hanging from the windows of private residences. Cars are even sporting black, yellow and red side mirror wraps in honor of the Belgian team. (Maybe I am missing out on the latest trend but I had never seen such a thing until they started appearing a few weeks ago). I've even seen otherwise fashionably dressed women wearing plastic black, yellow and red leis around their necks. Apparently everyone is getting in on the games.

But because we are in a community surrounded by people from so many other countries, the Belgian team isn't the only one people are rooting for. Each country represented here is hosting their own events when their teams are playing and inviting others to join them. Facebook pages are filled with commentary about good and bad plays and calls. Even those countries without representation in our community (Ivory Coast or Uruguay anyone?) have fans. I must admit, it is all kind of exciting. While we haven't been staying up into the wee hours to watch the games (well I haven't been anyway), we have been catching as many as we can. Each morning Sidney is asking when he can watch football (if we slip up and call it soccer he is quick to correct us with his newly found Belgian-French accent). While he waits for a game to begin he kicks his own football around in the yard then reenacts the kicks, slides, and trips of the players while the game is on. Who needs instant replay when this kid is around? Do we have a favorite team? Not really. I have a tendency to root for the underdog but I guess it all depends upon who is actually playing at the moment. And the fact is that it really doesn't matter. Because at the end of the day it is the excitement of the game that is so contagious.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

These Times, They Are A Changing

The other night while channel surfing I saw something that I never dreamed I would see. There, right on the American Forces Network, a.k.a. AFN, the military's satellite answer to watching American television, I saw a promotion for their recognition of June as LGBT pride month. Now AFN regularly recognizes special interest groups during "their" months; women's history, black history, African-American, military children and Pacific Islanders. I know I'm missing some groups but you get the idea. But I do believe this is the first AFN has openly recognized the LGBT community. For me, it is a long awaited and very welcome first that shows that even the most stalwart of institutions can slowly change their ways.

It was just less than three years ago that the Department of Defense's Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT)17- year - old policy prohibiting military personnel from discriminating against closeted gay and lesbian military members was overturned. The act prohibited commanders and coworkers from asking military members about their sexual orientation. In turn it also prohibited bisexual or homosexual military members from disclosing their sexual orientation or speaking about their same sex relationships while serving in the United States military. Those that did speak openly about their sexual orientation were to be discharged from service. Needless to say, during its existence, the policy was controversial for many reasons. To me, it felt like a sad compromise between the gay community and people who are uncomfortable with those who are different from themselves. This same policy that allowed LGBT service members to continue serve their country as long as they didn't discuss their personal lives, forced them to essentially live as second class citizens who were not afforded the same rights and privileges as their heterosexual counterparts. But the end of DADT theoretically lifted this black cloud.

But fortunately the days of DADT are behind us and the military is trying to adjust. Within our small circle of active duty military friends the end of DADT has been mostly welcomed with relief and open arms. From what I've seen and heard others haven't been so open and welcoming. Some members of the LGBT community are coming out while others are choosing to remain closeted. At least the option is now theirs to make and their decisions will no longer negatively impact their careers. For its part, the Department of Defense has now mandated that educational and sensitivity workshops on LGBT issues are a part of ongoing training. And, institutions like AFN are talking about it through their recognition of the LGBT community is a part of the larger military community.

A vast variety of programming is planned for the month. I rarely watch television so it is unlikely that I will catch any of their special programming but the very fact that this network, whose news favors FOX over NPR, is recognizing this segment of our society, is exciting. This recognition has been a long time in coming. I don't believe for a minute that discrimination and bias towards the LGBT community will suddenly disappear but this is an important first step. As long as the baby steps keep coming, the movement will be in the right direction.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Cathedral
Following what has become a tradition during our family travels, no trip would be complete without a visit to the local cathedral. So while we were in Kent, the historic World Heritage UNESCO designated Canterbury Cathedral was an obvious choice. And this grand building was every bit as impressive as I had anticipated. 

The Cathedral as seen
from another angel
The Romanesque and Gothic structure was undergoing exterior renovations during our visit but the scaffolding did nothing to detract from her impressive facade. First the cathedral is old. Very old. It was first built in 597 then completely rebuilt between 1070 and 1077 then expanded upon over the course of the next century. It was originally home to the Catholic Church before becoming the home to the Church of England. While Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket was murdered in the Cathedral in 1170 after excommunicating and angering other bishops for breaching Canterbury's privilege of coronation. His death made Becket a martyr and resulted in the Cathedral becoming a place of pilgrimage, thus ensuring the Cathedral's expansion and ongoing prosperity. A shrine honoring Becket was constructed in Trinity Chapel and pilgrims visited under the auspices that the tomb was a site of healing. (The waves of pilgrims was portrayed in Chaucer's famous novel Canterbury Tales).

The magnitude of the Cathedral felt from the minute we stepped into the church. Despite the crowds (or pilgrims?), with its soaring ceilings and stone pillars the church had a serene and calming feel. Whereas I have found so many Roman Catholic churches to be ornate with gilded gold, ceiling frescoes, and rich stained glass covering every surface, Canterbury Cathedral felt stark in comparison. And this starkness was what made the church's interior feel so calming and welcoming. The crypt below the Cathedral is the oldest existing part of the church and proved to be the largest crypt I have ever visited. Although it had low ceilings is was cavernous and felt like it went on forever. And because we were visiting the Cathedral during the noon hour we had the opportunity to hear a choir singing in an informal recital. Their voices echoed through the building in a way that is only possible in a church. Sidney was so entranced by the performance that we sat and listened until the performance was over.

But there is so much more to a visit to the Cathedral than the cathedral itself. Unlike so many of the cathedrals we have visited, this one is set amongst lush grounds on the edge of the town. A walk through the manicured gardens was just as impressive as the interior of the church. By this point in the day the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining providing the perfect opportunity for a garden walk. We walked through the manicured grounds looking at the flowers, explored stone niches and peered through iron gates at cats lazing in the warm sunshine. Although the only thing that stood between us and the hustle and bustle of Canterbury's busy streets was a stone wall, if felt like we were miles away. It was peaceful and the perfect capstone for our latest cathedral visit.

One of the many gardens surrounding the Cathedral

A peak through the wall

If you go:

Cathedral House
11 The Precincts
Canterbury, Kent UK
+44 1227 762862

Open: 09.00-17.00

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Let Them Eat Cake: A Visit To Versailles

The sweeping view of the estate from the chateau. It takes
approximately one hour to walk from point the picture
was taken to the horizon.
We've been on the go a lot recently with our most recent trip being a long weekend in Versailles, France. Glenn and I visited Paris last year but knowing we were about to head to Belgium for three years, we spent our time enjoying all that the city had to offer. We knew we would have the chance to visit this famous chateau at a later date and so this past weekend that is just what we did. And as I discovered, Versailles encompasses so much more than the gilded chateau itself. There are acre upon acre (67 square kilometers in all) of manicured gardens, fountains, ponds and walking paths as well as several smaller chateaus.  All of it was beautiful and over the course of two days we saw most, but not all of it.

Sweeping garden views from a
palace window
From 1682 until the Revolution Versailles was the seat of French political power with the village and town being built up around the magnificent chateau. Gilded with gold both inside and out, it is a sight to behold. It is considered to be the best example of French art in the 17th century. The original palace was built by Louis XIII then later enlarged by his son Louis XIV who then moved the government into the palace in 1682. Before the royal family left Versailles after the onset of the French Revolution, the palace was further expanded. We joined the crowded and strolled through the expansive rooms that were open for public viewing. It is hard to describe how over the top each room was. Each room was cavernous with high ceilings and large windows providing sweeping views of the surrounding estate. From velvet trimmed canopy beds, gold gilded walls and intricately etched crystal chandeliers it was all simultaneously sumptuous and simply too much. (Especially when viewed in light of the political and economic circumstances of France during the time that the palace was built and expanded upon). I almost felt relieved when we left the actual chambers and walked through the cool marble hallways that ran the length of the building. Their simplicity was most welcome.

The grounds surrounding the palace was lush, green and a wonderful place to wander. Although it wasn't intentional on our part, we visited the gardens during their fountain musical show. Baroque music filled the air as we moved along shaded boulevards lined with marble statues from one garden to
Garden statues
the next, watching the water dance to the music. Some fountains were basic fountains while others were gilded in gold and some, like Apollo's Bath, just left me shaking my head and asking "why".

I thought the gardens were my favorite part of the estate then we discovered Marie-Antoinette's estate, a smaller enclave and retreat set on the outer edges of the larger Versailles estate. Abutting the Grand Trianon, the recreational residence for Louis XIV and his family (a located less than a half hour walk away from the grand palace), this English hamlet was given to Marie-Antoinette by Louis XVI in 1774. Marie-Antoinette was the only queen to leave her personal mark on Versailles with this English hamlet designed by French architect Richard Mique in 1787.

Stepping onto the grounds really felt like I was walking through an English village. The grounds are said to be perfectly preserved with the rail fences, thatched roof cottages, rose filled gardens and fish filled pond eliciting Britain. Only the nearby vineyards made me remember that we were actually in France and not England. The estate also includes a small farm and vegetable gardens. It truly felt like we were in another world and not a quick walk from the over the top opulence of the main palace. Spending time here was my favorite part of the weekend.

Versailles is one of those places I read about in school and only hoped that I would be able to visit. I feel lucky that I had the opportunity to visit and see the riches for myself. So if you get a chance to go, do it. Two days is ideal to take it all in and if you can, stroll the gardens during the fountain musical show. You won't be disappointed.

If you go:

Chateau du Versailles
Place d'Armes 78000 Versailles
Open daily, hours vary

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Eating In Maine: A Book Review w/ A Touch Of Homesickness

Right about now I am feeling pretty homesick for Maine. Maybe it is the fact that it has been two years since I made a brief summer visit to the town where I grew up. Perhaps it is because we have another, much longer Maine trip looming on the horizon. Or perhaps it is the decidedly non- summer weather we have been experiencing here in Belgium that makes me crave a warm Maine summer day--the type that is cool and crisp in the morning and evening with just the right amount of heat in the middle of the day. Actually, I think it is the combination of all of the above. Add in the recent arrival of my long awaited Eating In Maine book by Maine food bloggers Jillian and Malcolm Bedell and I just can't wait to "go home." But that trip is still weeks away so in the meantime I've been fulfilling my Maine cravings with their book and enjoying every minute of it.

Now this isn't your ordinary cookbook; part travel guide and part restaurant reviews with 115 recipes (hence the cookbook part) and lots of personal commentary, it is everything I would expect from these two great bloggers. The unknowing might be surprised to learn that Maine has a burgeoning foodie scene but it does. I remember spending a considerable amount of time in Portland a few years ago and being surprised myself at the number of great, innovative restaurants that were available. (Hot Suppa was my go to lunch option during the month Sidney was in the hospital there). And the options aren't just limited to Portland. The Bedells capture these places in their book but also focus on the small, out of your way or casual (this picnic table) eateries that are Maine institutions.

In many respects reading this book (OK, drooling over the photographs) was a type of homecoming for me. Malcolm grew up in the same area as I did only a decade later. But his references to the Maine dining institutions brought all of the memories back for me. Pies at Moody's Diner (do you only get to choose one type?) and hot dogs cooked in peanut oil from Wasses Hot Dogs, (Glenn thought he had died and gone to heaven when I introduced him to this hot dog stand and to this day it is the first place we stop when we hit the Mid Coast area) are an important part of my childhood memories. And then you have Dysart's, the truck stop in Bangor, Maine where nothing tasted better than a hot open faced turkey sandwich after spending a week backpacking in Baxter State Park. These places aren't fancy and would probably be looked down upon by more sophisticated appetites but they are a part of my Maine experience. And then there are the recipes for whoopie pies and dishes that include Moxie. It really doesn't get more Maine than this.

This book not only leaves my feeling hungry but it has me wanting to both cook and eat out at the restaurants they recommend. I don't particularly care for lobster (I know, call me a bad Mainer) but the pictures, recipes and restaurant reviews have me craving a fresh lobster roll.  As for my other meals, I'm still undecided but the options really are limitless. In fact, in this day and age of e-readers, I'm going to allot some of my precious luggage weight to bringing this book to Maine with me. It may be too soon to start packing for the trip but I can certainly start planning my Maine meals and begin cooking my way through their recipes.

Friday, June 6, 2014

On The White Cliffs Of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover
I remember hearing about the White Cliffs of Dover for years and wondered if their chalky color was as real in person as it was in the pictures I had seen. And thanks to a recent visit I can now firmly state that they are.

Soaring 350 feet above the English Channel and located about 21 miles from the northern coast of France, these chalky white cliffs are an impressive sight. The distance is so short that on a clear day, much like the one we visited, you can clearly France from the top of the cliffs. During the 1940 Battle of Britain, reporters are said to have watched the aerial maneuvers of the British and German pilots from the top of them. The cliffs themselves are composed of chalk, flint and quartz but because of their materials, are actually quite soft. This results in their eroding just under half an inch a year. Now this may not sound like a lot but over time it adds up. And sometimes, as was the case as recently as 2001 and again in 2012, large chunks of the cliffs have given way and collapsed into the sea. (Hence the reason visitors are advised to stay away from the edges of the cliffs).

Another perspective
Today, visiting the cliffs is a breathtaking experience. The day we visited defied our weather expectations as we experienced nothing but clear blue skies and lots of bright sunshine. Much of the area surrounding the cliffs is protected by the National Trust whose members may access the site for free. For the rest of us, we paid a nominal fee to park our car but were then free to rambled across the grassy cliff tops for free. (Seriously, this is one of the best value historic sites I've ever visited). There is a visitor center on site as well as the ubiquitous gift shop and cafe but the best part of the visit is just getting out and exploring. A series of well worn paths crisscrosses the length of the cliffs. Trails are both well marked and unmarked providing the opportunity to take the "high"route well away from the cliff edge or the "lower" route which follows the dips and rises of the earth as it hugs the edges of the cliff. Or you can take the in between route which offers you a bit of both. Along the way there are plenty of benches where you can sit and rest and informational placards detailing the rich history of the area. Part of the route takes you alongside a sheep pasture and fields filled with wildflowers. If these sights weren't enough to take in, from the highest point on the cliffs we could simultaneously look west and see the Dover Castle, look south and see the shores of France and east to see the South Foreland Lighthouse which was built in 1843. It was all pretty spectacular. And because we were visiting in the middle of the week we had much of the place to ourselves.

After leisurely stroll up and down the hills we treated ourselves to a traditional cream tea at a cute little tea house that shared space with the lighthouse. Sidney checked out the old cannons that were on the lighthouse grounds while I simply enjoyed the view and the smell of the sea air. I have come to realize that not all sea air is created equal; the warm sultry smells of the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas only vaguely resemble the crisp Atlantic smells I grew up with. For me, the air in Dover was reminiscent of my childhood. The walk back to the car was slower; we took the "lower" route which had considerably more dips and hills, including a rather steep set of stairs that scaled a hill. But the climb was worth it. Actually the entire visit was worth it and although it was the first stop on our getaway to Kent it was by far my favorite. I dare say I would return in a heartbeat.

Worn paths crisscrossing the top of the cliffs
If you go:

The White Cliffs of Dover & South Foreland Lighthouse
Upper Road
Dover, Kent
Telephone: 01304 202756