Thursday, July 31, 2014

The More Things Change.....

the more they stay the same. Or so it seems.

It all begs the question of whether you can go home again. Maybe in a physical sense you can but do you ever find things the way you left them? Physically they may (or may not) be but if you are looking at them through a different, more experienced lens, are they really the same? Are they as you remembered them or do they look older, larger or smaller, or just different?

The past couple of weeks have been a blur of activity for us as we have been traveling up the East Coast visiting family, friends, and places we haven't seen in several years, if not longer. Its been exciting and exhausting, enjoyable and disappointing all at the same time. Because just as people change, things change... meaning I'm not viewing these places I once called home in the same way I did before. It is like attending a class reunion where everyone is vaguely familiar but not quite the same as you remembered them. This isn't a good or bad thing; but rather I'm finding the whole experience to be mildly unnerving.

As we've moved from one old haunt to the next it has felt as we are slogging along in slow motion, viewing the world as outsiders looking in. Things have changed yet remained the same. The traffic in the DC metro area? It is as horrible, if not worse, than we remember it and served as a constant reminder about what we don't like about the area. The cookie cutter suburbs filled with the same oversized house after same oversized house on the identically landscaped lots struck me as disturbingly conformist. At the same time I found the vibrancy and seeming rebirth of parts of the area to be exciting. Construction that had been halted amid the economic bust the last time we were in the area was once again moving forward while other projects had been completed. We visited on the cusp of the long anticipated opening of the new silver line of the Metro. As we've seen in cities around the world, a committment to expanded public transportation is always a positive move for a community and seeing the years of talks, construction and disruption come to fruition made me stop and think that maybe the area is more progressive than I had been thinking.

Driving through our old home town of Norfolk we felt as though the city was frozen in time. Most of the restaurants and shops were exactly as I remembered them. There the same construction projects that had been unfinished four years ago still remained idle. I swear, even the pot holes and road construction signs looked as though they hadn't been touched since the last time I saw them. Our old house, the labor of love where we had invested hundreds of hours of manual labor to remodel looked exactly as it did the day we moved out. In a way it was haunting to sit at the end of our old driveway and look at the house and life that used to be ours. Did I miss it? No. But it felt funny just the same. Yes there were noticeable differences though both good and bad. First the good: the city now has its own light rail system and we saw the shiny train cars making their way through the city streets. The bad? the cars, however, appeared to be devoid of passengers at all hours of the day. And those beautiful old neighborhoods along the water that I used to dream of living in? They were still there but now for sale signs dotted too many yards to count. Their prices were so low (I looked) that we could easily afford to buy one now but is it the time to buy or to get out?

The list of things that are different but the same in places all along our journey goes on. But have these places really stayed the same yet changed or have I? Am I not seeing things the same way I used to? I guess at this point I'm simply feeling unnerved. The places that used to feel like home to me no longer do. And it all begs the question of where can I now call home?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sharks, Reptiles & Fish....A Whole Lot Of Fish

I've always loved aquariums. The minute I step inside I become a big kid who is fascinated by everything around me. I've visited aquariums of all sizes, from those that are barely more than a few fish tanks to ones of epic size. My favorite by far is the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. So when we found ourselves passing through Maryland recently I made spending a day at the aquarium at top priority since I couldn't wait to introduce Sidney to this wonderful watery world.

It had been years since I last visited the aquarium and a lot had changed. It was bigger and better than I remembered with new exhibitions including a steamy rain forest. But my old favorites were there as well; who doesn't love the multi-floor tanks where you can walk both up, over and down taking in the schools of swimming fish of all sizes. And the shark tank filled with those dangerously beautiful animals? Sidney was simultaneously entranced and scared by what he saw. As an adult I appreciated the educational aspect of so many of the displays. Aquarium educators stood by many of the tanks, waiting to explain their contents to visitors. Written narratives explained others and I loved the connection that was made between what we were seeing, how we live and how it all effects the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

But as is the case with so many things, pictures simply say it better than words. So here are a few of my favorite pictures that give you a sense of how wonderful this aquarium really is.

If you go:

National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor
Baltimore, Maryland
Open 09.00-18.00 most days but hours vary
Tickets- $34.95 for adults, $21.95 for children over age 3, $29.95 for senior citizens

Paid parking at nearby Lockwood Place Garage
124 Market Place

Monday, July 28, 2014

Connecting Two Shores: The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel

NASA image of the bridge and tunnel connecting the two shores

Road trips. It seems as though our family spends a lot of time in our car traveling from one location to another. In recent years we've driven throughout the well maintained highways and back roads of Scandinavia and we've explored the narrow and winding roads of Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia and everywhere in between. With both of us growing up along the east coast of the United States, we are all too familiar with the Route 95 corridor that snakes its way from Maine to Florida. I'd like to say that it is a pretty drive but it really isn't. Mile upon mile of multi-lane asphalt peppered with strip malls, industrial complexes and only occasional peeks of nature gets old fast. Add in the traffic that inevitably clogs the road regardless of when you travel and the trip is less than pleasant. Whenever the chance arises to actually bi-pass any of it, we take full advantage of the opportunity. And our favorite bi-pass is by far the rural stretch that is the Eastern Shore of Virginia and the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) peninsula.

While much of the coastline of the Eastern Shore is nothing but nature preserves and small fishing villages, the interior route is almost as dismal as the 95 corridor. Here rural poverty is real and in your face; abandoned farms, dilapidated yet inhabited trailers and businesses doing triple duty as auto garages, bait shops and tourist traps with the occasional fast food joint are all you pass for miles. Here you can buy your tobacco, fireworks and Virginia hams at a single stop. And if you are passing through at the right time you can even throw in a church service or two. I can never decide if this area of Virginia, close to the beltway as the crow flies but miles away in culture, is trapped in time or simply forgotten by the rest of the world. Perhaps it is a bit of both. But the realities of the Eastern Shore aren't what this post is really about. Rather, it is about the highlight of the trip which is the drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Those views more than make up for what is to come.

The series of high rise bridges, gracefully winding causeways and two tunnels that spans the 23 miles across the Chesapeake Bay between Virginia Beach and Cape Charles is what connects this remote part of Virginia with the rest of the state. Built on a series of artificial islands, it was completed as a two lane route in 1964. In the 1990s portions of the route were expanded to four lanes and today it remains one of only ten such bridge and tunnel systems in the world. To engineering fanatics, this roadway system is a modern marvel but to lay travelers like myself it is simply beautiful.

Whether you drive across the bridge at sunrise, sunset or in the middle of the day, the views are breathtaking. For drivers with time to spare, there is a small restaurant and pull off area midway across the Bay where you can stop to take in the views. And while the road itself may seem busy the waterways below are even more so. Cargo ships filled with containers, commercial fishing vessels and small dories and even kayaks are always moving about in the water. And the sight of a Navy vessel and even an aircraft carrier, making its way up the bay towards the base in Norfolk is not an uncommon sight.

It really is a pretty view and I've known many people who simply drive across the bridge and back just to see what they might see. Personally I've never done that but I can understand why one might. So last week as we made our way north from Hampton Roads we joined the long train of travelers and made our way across the Bay. We stopped at the pull off area and took pictures through the early morning summer haze. I looked back onto the sandy shores of Virginia Beach that were dotted with condos and then northward towards the winding expanses of the causeway that seemed to dip and disappear right into the water. Heading north feels like you are driving off into another time and place. And in a sense you are. But since getting to your destination is half of the fun we enjoyed our small piece of serene beauty while we could. After all, there are very few places in the world where you can do this.

Sunset view of the bridge that
leads right into the water

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mermaids On Parade

Mermaid on the rise
Norfolk, Virginia is a city of juxtapositions. Her grand old homes situated along crepe myrtle lined streets are reminiscent of the genteel old south while neighborhoods filled with scruffy tract housing are a reminder of her less than polished post World War II days when the Navy was the strongest, but least welcomed, influence in town. Newly built condo high rises and pre-fab cookie cutter houses are like the fourth face lift to a city that is past its prime but refuses to give up. Norfolk is home to the largest naval base in the world as well as PETA headquarters yet has the Pat Robinson religious empire in its Virginia Beach backyard. Religion is worn on one's sleeve and politics here are conservative. Being a local is valued while being an outsider is viewed with suspicion. Being a graduate of their failing public schools and attending a local university carries more weight than an Ivy League education. No government decision is made without an extensive series of debates with costs, morals with hints of race relations being a part of every equation. There is a desire to become a world class city but the a fore mentioned traits seem to really be holding the place back. Its a place that wants to be really nice but doesn't want to pay for it. This critique may seem harsh but I feel as though I can say it with some authority; as someone who definitely wasn't a local, I spent several years living in Norfolk and working for the city and after being away for awhile, my recent return visit reconfirmed all of these thoughts for me.

So given this backdrop, it has always amazed me that Norfolk embarked upon a forward thinking  branding and marketing campaign that revolved around public art. Mind you, this is the same community where city council members would unilaterally declare some pieces of work as art and others not worthy of the designation simply because they didn't like it or didn't get it. And this is the same city where a painting in a private gallery window had to be removed after a public outcry because a female breast was shown partially bare. (Opponents claimed that such an image would traumatize our children, cause them to ask questions and cause impure thoughts all around--I kid you not). Given all of this the fact that the city embarked upon a branding campaign where mermaids (yes, partially clothed creatures that are half fish and half woman) became the city symbol is particularly noteworthy. But I think it is probably one of the best things the city ever did and I absolutely love it.

The mermaid campaign first appeared fifteen years ago as the city struggled to revitalize itself yet again. Local civic leaders, influenced by Chicago's popular Cows on Parade, suggested that such an effort could help sell Norfolk to tourists, residents and businesses alike. The mermaids paid tribute to Norfolk's long relationship with the sea. One hundred and thirty mermaid forms were cast and artists were commissioned to create these life sized statues which were placed in various locations around the city. Business and community groups were able to "adopt" a mermaid whose design reflected their particular interests. Although the sizes and shapes were uniform their decorations were anything but. From American flags to glitzy gold sequins, from the realistic to the abstract and everything in between, the designs were varied. I personally loved the black and white cow one that for awhile found a home at the end of our street.

The Pagoda's mermaid
Even today, fifteen years after they first landed, the mermaids still reign supreme; their likeness is woven into the terminal walkways at the airport, plastered on flags and banners at all of the main intersections and discretely graces all of the neighborhood signs. And the mermaids themselves, they are everywhere. During my recent visit I spent quite a bit of time walking through some of the city's neighborhoods and spotting the mermaids. I found them in neighborhood parks and private yards, gracing the entrances to businesses and government buildings and traffic islands. These works of art are found in areas of the city-- affluent and lower income residential neighborhoods alike, in front of government buildings and commercial centers. This graceful symbol of the sea seems to be the single thing that unites this city of contrasts and I think that is pretty darn cool. And the funny thing is that I thought I knew the locations of so many of the mermaids. I do but then I would take another look and see one that was completely new to me. Because they really are everywhere.

So if you ever find yourself in Norfolk, be on the lookout for the mermaids. They are everywhere and are perhaps the best thing that happened to this city in a long time.

The education mermaid at TCC

Mermaid in a neighborhood park

Mermaid at the federal court house

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Boy & A Boat

Sitting in his dad's old chair
Being all boy my son is obsessed with everything involving transportation. From planes and trains to trucks, buses and boats he loves them all. He already owned an extensive collection of toy airplanes before the Pixar movie Planes was released and was over the top with excitement the first time he saw the movie. While he loved the airplanes he was amazed at airplanes landing on boats (or in this case an aircraft carrier). He just thought it was so cool and his fascination lead to his being gifted with his own miniature aircraft carrier. And, more importantly, this gave Glenn the perfect opportunity to explain that landing airplanes on aircraft carriers is what he used to do before Sidney was born. This lead to Sidney wanting to learn everything he could about aircraft carriers. We checked out library book on the topic and watched documentaries on television but this only added to his obsession with them. But living first in Albania then in Belgium, we never had the opportunity to show Sidney one in person. Until we visited our old Norfolk stomping grounds that is.

As luck would have it, a good friend made a series of phone calls and the next thing we knew a personal tour of an aircraft carrier had been arranged. And it wasn't just any aircraft carrier; it was the last carrier that Glenn had served on. Now I've been aboard carriers on several occasions so they are no longer a novelty to me but I knew Sidney was going to be thrilled when he found out what we had planned. We managed to keep him in the dark until the last minute so he was beyond excited when we told him that not only was he going to see the carrier but he was going to be able to go aboard. His pace quickened as we walked up the brow and into the expansive hanger bay. If you've never seen one they are cavernous affairs. Void of aircraft we felt dwarfed by its size. With Sidney standing by his side and listening intently, Glenn explained the ins and outs of the hanger bay. Then we moved up into the tower, climbing up one ladder after another. I had been a bit worried that Sidney might be hesitant to do all of this climbing on steep ladders but he scrambled up them like a pro only pausing to ask questions about what he saw.

Checking out the view from the tower
Sidney loved exploring the Pri Fly (a.k.a. the tower) where he plopped himself down into his father's old chair and took his turn using the binoculars to check out the water below us. (And true to form, he was also impressed by the large bottle of ketchup sitting by the coffee maker!). By this point in our tour Sidney had a broad grin stuck on his face and kept saying how "amazing" it all was. Down on the flight deck Glenn explained how the catapults worked and Sidney was quick to say that his aircraft carrier also had them. As we walked the length of the flight deck Sidney checked out the various lines and stopped to look at each light that was imbedded on the surface. While the F-18 was impressive Sidney said that he had seen bigger airplanes before and it wasn't the Concorde (a reference to our earlier visit to the Air and Space Museum in Washington).

I was momentarily forgotten as I followed along behind the two of them but that is OK. I loved watching my two boys, my husband and his little mini-me exploring the carrier. Glenn was excited to be sharing such an important part of his life with Sidney and Sidney was eating up every one of Glenn's words. After the tour Sidney said he couldn't wait to go back to Belgium to tell all of his friends about being on an aircraft carrier. And hours after leaving, Sidney was still grinning broadly and as he said "thinking about the aircraft carrier". It really doesn't get much better than that.
Exploring the flight deck

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Airplanes, Spaceships & Other Flying Wonders

In the Boeing hanger at the Udvar-Hazy Center

I love the Smithsonian museums. Located in the heart of Washington D.C. they play tribute to the best of all aspects of American history and society. Whether it be a visit to the National Museum of American History to see the First Lady's gowns, the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaurs or the American Indian Museum to learn about America's first residents, each museum is impeccably organized. (And is the case with all of the Smithsonian Museums, entrance is free). And because I love the museums, no visit to Washington D.C. is ever complete without paying a visit to at least one of them. So because we had an airplane loving little boy with us, on our most recent visit we spent a day at the Air & Space Museum. I had been to this museum as a teenager but during my first visit as an adult Glenn gave me a guided tour, taking the time to explain everything we were seeing better than any docent could. It was a memorable visit and I knew Sidney would love it as well. And he did.

Sidney excitedly darted from one display to another exclaiming at how big each airplane was. From the very first airplanes that more closely resembled bicycles to modern day aircraft we saw it all. Sidney immediately identified the military aircraft from both World Wars and more modern times and even went as far as spotting the planes that had been flown by the German army. (Perhaps we have visited one too many World War II battlefields....). We toured a model of an aircraft carrier where Sidney took his turn at steering the ship, looking out of the tower, and exploring the ready room. Afterwards he even rode in a simulator where he flew as though he was the Red Baron. He loved it. So much so that following the advise of several people we spoke with, we went to yet another air and space museum the next day.

A very small airplane

The Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia is adjacent to the Dulles airport and is the most recent addition to the Smithsonian air and space family. It was a first visit for all of us and even I, the least enthusiastic airplane fan in the family, was looking forward to it. Set in two large hangers on the edge of a runway, the museum is indeed impressive. Visitors can take an elevator up to the mock control tower where you can see the planes landing and taking off at the nearby airport while listening to the communications between the pilots and air traffic controllers. I always forget how busy the airport is the number of aircraft flying by reminded me that it really is a busy transportation hub.

Back down on the ground floor we saw airplanes. And more airplanes as well as helicopters and other flying apparatuses dating back to the start of human flight. Visitors can circumnavigate the largest hanger on a catwalk which puts you both at eye level and above the numerous planes that are suspended from the ceiling. There were big planes and small planes, military aircraft and commercial jets. A Concorde jet anchored one section of the bay and visitors were able to walk directly under the plane's nose. Standing underneath it, you realize just how large (and fast) this jet was. The Udvar-Hazy Center is also home to the Enola Gay. But not all of the aircraft are large; we saw planes so small I would never even think about stepping foot inside of them. And as was the case with the museum in D.C., so many of the displays were interactive. There was even a Cessna where visitors of all sizes could sit in the cockpit and go through the motions of flying the aircraft.

But for me, the most impressive exhibit was the aircraft that filled the second hanger bay. NASA's retired Discovery Space Shuttle is the most recent tenant in the museum. From its first flight in 1984 to its final flight in 2011 the Discovery flew 149 million miles over the course of 39 missions including carrying the second American woman into space (Judith Resnik), being piloted by the first female captain (Eileen Collins), being the first shuttle to land at the International Space Station, and launching the Hubble Space telescope. And now the shuttle is spending her retirement in Virginia.

So if you are in the greater Washington D.C. area, make it a point to visit the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Better yet, visit both of them. You won't be disappointed.

As Sidney said, its a plane from the movie Planes!
The Discovery, the centerpiece of the
Udvar-Hazy Center
If you go:

Washington DC location:
Independence Avenue at 6th Avenue SW
Open 10.00-17.30, extended hours on some days
Admission is free

Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, VA
Open 10.00-18.30
Admission is free but parking is $15.00 per vehicle

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Stress Factor

Stress.  As in "I am so stressed". The phrase has become so commonplace in conversations that I sometimes wonder whether it has lost its true meaning. Or whether it has become such a catch phrase that people don't stop and think about what it really means. But recently two separate articles discussing the causes of stress caught my eye and now I find myself thinking at of course we are stressed as a country and a society. I mean, given all that is going on around us, how can we not be?

First, a The Washington Post article cited a Robert Wood Johnson Foundations study that found politicians to be the number one factor in causing stress in our daily lives. Eighty-six percent of surveyed Americans indicated that they had experienced stress in the past month with 26 % saying those stress levels had been extreme. While major health issues were the largest contributor of longer term high levels of stress, issues surrounding everyday life were attributed to smaller daily stressors. Americans said that "hearing about what the government or politicians are doing"increased their stress levels more than dealing with long commutes, juggling the work-life balance and dealing with family dynamics. Hence the negative influence of our elected officials. And with the ongoing stalemate punctuated by vicious verbal attacks and other juvenile behavior in Washington, it really is no wonder. What we are watching looks like bad reality television. But when these issues-- the economy, immigration reform, religious freedoms, access to health care and global warming-- directly impact individual lives yet are treated like pawns in an ugly game, it is all too real. So it is no surprise that as a society we are so stressed. I know I am, are you?

And speaking about hearing and watching the politics play out on televisions, a NPR piece discussed the same study, focusing on the impact watching, reading or listening to the news has on our stress levels. Open a newspaper or turn on the news and it is filled with bad news. Foiled terrorist attacks, domestic disputes turned deadly and the recent horrific spate of parents leaving their young children in hot cars fill the airwaves and these are just the domestic news articles. And when an event is particularly horrifying, the media provides continual coverage of the event. If there is nothing new to report they replay the footage or bring in "experts" who not only speculate on the event at hand but link it to past atrocities. One only as to think about the events surrounding the September 11th terrorist attacks or the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building to realize how true this year. Years after the event these images are still burned into my mind. But despite, or perhaps because, of the scale of these tragedies, people are watching. The above cited study found that "people who exposed themselves to six or more hours of media daily reported more acute stress symptoms than did people who were directly exposed" to the actual events. So we no longer need to actually experience the event in person in order to suffer the effects of its aftermath. Are we on the verge of becoming a country where everyone suffers from PTSD?

So who is to blame for all of this and what should we do? Do we elect new representatives with the hope that they can actually work together to solve our never ending list of problems? Do we turn everything off and simply unplug from current events? Do we run to our doctors requesting drugs to dull the side effects of our society? Sign up for yoga classes or live on media free communes that are cut off from the world? I have no idea what the solution is but something has to give. And soon....

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Size Of Your Footprint

After three years away, we're back in the U.S. of A. for a month. And the first thing I've noticed has been how big everything is. From the highways and the cars that speed down them to hotels and hotel rooms and even the people themselves, everything is simply so much bigger than it is in Europe. One could argue that it is because there is so much more space in America. But it all makes me wonder; is bigger really better? And more important, is it really necessary?

In our jet lagged haze, when we went to up our mid sized car at the airport, the saleswoman up-sized us to a much larger vehicle. (In my defense I had taken Sidney to the restroom and missed this transaction). When I saw the vehicle, I was immediately taken aback at how big it was. It was huge compared to the majority of cars we see on Europe's roads and would have a hard time driving down many of the narrow streets that we have grown accustomed to. It would never have fit into our parking garage back in Belgium. Yet sadly we aren't nearly the largest car on the Interstate being dwarfed not only by tractor trailers (that we are used to because in Europe they are the same size) but by even larger family sized mini vans and SUVs that could easily haul small armies. Back in Belgium, the only people driving vehicles this large are other Americans (and there are usually large scratches running the length of these vehicles since their size just isn't conducive to European roadways). European family cars are more practical sedans or compact station wagons that seem to work just fine. One could argue that the cost of fuel is a driving factor. With the cost of one gallon of unleaded gas hovering around $3.70 in the Washington D.C. area, the cost is three times as much in Belgium so it would make sense that Belgians drive smaller cars. But what about Americans in Belgium, and other parts of Europe? Are we simply willing to shell out a lot of money for fuel in exchange for driving that big car? I've heard people say that they must have all of the space so they are comfortable and have enough space to be in the car without touching one another. Maybe because I only have one child I don't get it but I remember road trips as a child where we were all squished into a vehicle and we did just fine. I guess times have simply changed.

But it isn't just American cars, it is everything. Houses are huge, filling sprawling suburbs with McMansions that could house entire extended families but are intended so a couple and their children. Not only does every household member require their own sleeping quarters but they must also have their own recreational space as well. Hotel rooms here are so much larger than their foreign counterparts with the bathrooms alone being the size of many hotel rooms. Do we really require that much space when we travel? And don't even get me started on the portions of food that are served in restaurants. From super-sized drinks and fries in fast food restaurants to overflowing platters in more formal dining establishments, the amount of food being served is simply overwhelming (and likely contributes to the size of Americans). Grocery stores are sprawling filled with what I now find to be overwhelming choices. Is a choice of thirty different soaps really required? Or a freezer case that spans several aisles? I guess if you are all about convenience foods you do need that much space. But pre-packaged foods produce more consumer waste. In European communities where you pay more for each bag of non-recyclable trash you put on the curb, it is practically a badge of honor to put as little as possible in front of your house on trash day. American houses are easy to spot because of their mounds of trash sitting on the curb.

Yes, everything is feeling just so big to me and I'm finding myself wanting less space, smaller meals and a more compact environment.

But is America and the American lifestyle simply bigger because it can be? Maybe it can be at the moment but is this over the top excess sustainable over the long haul? And again I ask whether it is even necessary?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The 'Woe Is Me' Race

Does it ever seem as though no matter what tale of woe you hear someone is quick to talk about how their situation was so much worse? As in "you think you have it bad but when I was a kid I had to walk to the snow.....uphill both ways." OK, I jest (sort of) but this is a quote I heard a lot growing up whenever one of us kids would complain about how bad or unfair we perceived something to be. For kids, it may often feel as though you had it worse, your life was tougher than everyone else's, your parents were meaner and you never got what you wanted. But to carry this attitude into adulthood? Unfortunately people do it and rarely, if ever, is it pretty. And when social media is involved, the problem seems to manifest itself all the more.

Sadly, I've seen this woe is me, my situation is worse than yours, too many times in the military community. This is especially sad since rather then supporting each other, we turn against one another, second guessing decisions and calling into question whose situation is worse. I recently read a blog piece that was written by a Army reservist's wife who was bemoaning an impending ten month separation from her husband. She unwittingly called the separation a deployment because those were the terms that she and her family thought about the separation in. But her husband wasn't being sent overseas, rather he was attending a military college program on the other side of the country (in the U.S.) and her family had made the decision not to be uprooted and move with him. So instead of fellow military spouses rallying around her to support the separation the claws came out in full force attacking her choice of words, questioning the decision to remain behind and essentially telling her that her situation was nothing compared to what other military spouses had gone through.

Choices such as voluntary separations are very personal and, I doubt, ever made lightly. Yes the circumstances between deciding to be apart versus being told you will be apart are very different but at the end of the day the results are the same: you are separated from your loved one. I am absolutely not discounting the stress and anxiety that comes from having a loved one deployed in a war zone but who are we, as individuals or a community, to judge someone else's decisions? If they want to call a situation by a certain name, let them instead of attacking them because what they said or are going through is different than our own experience. It is as if we in junior high or are we strong adults who hold our families together for months on end and support each other?

But along the same lines, whenever someone takes a moment to whine or commiserate, the same people attacking the above blogger are probably the ones who will be quick to tell you that their deployment experience was worse than theirs. Whether it be longer, during more "important" months, they experienced more house and car problems (which inevitably happens regardless of how long a military member is away) everything about their situation is worse. But in their civilian lives they are probably the same people who have the worst neighbors, their angelic children are probably in classes filled with misbehaving children, their daily commute is more trying and so forth. Maybe there is an award out there for having the worst situation that I am simply unaware of. Why else would people feel the need to try to one-up each other when it comes to bad or difficult situations?

Perhaps it is time that we all put on our big girl panties and support one another. A little understanding and compassion, i.e. "I'm sorry you are going through this" followed by an offer of a helping hand or positive advice would be a lot more productive than put downs and turning the situation into a competition about whose situation is worse. Think about it; its just the right thing to do.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Commercials, Oh My!

Talk about culture shock! After three years of watching no network American television I feel as though I am in shock with the commercials. We aren't big television watchers to begin with but our dose of American pop culture has been limited to the sanitized AFN network and their plethora of PSAs about how to be a good neighbor, co-worker and representative of our country. And now, after all this time of not seeing commercials, I feel overwhelmed by the mass marketing, in your face nature of America's advertising gurus. At the risk of sounding like an old cranky pants, when did commercials get so loud? A comfortable sound level will suddenly turn to ear deafening blasts when a show switches to commercials. Really? Are people more apt to buy something if the advertiser yells at you? (More likely, they want to ensure you hear their message while you run to the kitchen or bathroom).

It seems as though everything is for sale. From buy one -- get one free deals to limited time only discounts on all of your must have new and improved items, if you have the cash (or the plastic) the world is yours for the taking. Cars and discounted furniture are being peddled by slick salesmen while cartoon characters are selling everything from cereals and chips to toys and auto insurance. I've never been a fan of talking animals as advertising tools but after not seeing them for so long they just seem plain silly to me. And the back to school and end of summer sales? It is only mid-July so can't we please enjoy what is left of our summer before we are rushed into what comes next. At least I haven't seen any Halloween or Christmas ads yet but then again, I am probably a couple weeks too early.

I guess I never realized just how annoying commercials are.....until now. Do people really watch them and do these marketing strategies really sell more stuff? I'm realizing that maybe the AFN infomercials aren't so bad after all.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mamma, They Speak English Here

We've only been back in the States for a few days but Sidney is marveling at all of the English that is being spoken around him. It has made me realize that, other than a long weekend in England, he has no memories of being in a completely English speaking environment. (Yes, I know I am generalizing here since hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken in the United States but please bear with me on this one). His earliest memories are of our living in Albania. He spent more time with his non-English speaking nanny, playing on local Albanian playgrounds or with the neighborhood kids than he did with our American peers. As a result, by the time we left his Albania was fluent but he would excitedly point out when anyone around us was speaking English. It was almost as if it was the foreign language.

Here in Belgium Sidney attends a Belgian school where French immersion is the language of choice. Because the student body is as diverse as NATO itself, some kids already speak French but most speak their mother tongue and for most, that language isn't English. Even at the ripe age of four he has become adept at hearing a language and immediately identifying its national identity. And of course he is soaking up French faster than he did Albanian and loves to educate us on the proper way to say a variety of things in French. (And naturally it is always with the perfect accent). But despite his ear for languages, he is quick to inquire whether people will be speaking English in any particular situation and always seems pleased when we tell him they will.

So here we are back in America where English is the predominant language. He's told me some of it sounds funny (we're talking southern accents here so I can only imagine what he is going to say once we venture north into New England) but it is English none the less. "Mamma, they are speaking English" has become the refrain I've been hearing over and over again. And I must admit, it is kind of nice to not really have to think about what is being said to me. From dealing with store and hotel clerks to being able to effortlessly read street signs, this English thing is kind of nice. But at the same time it almost sounds foreign to me. In a good way, of course.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Leaving On A Jet Plane

All my (our) bags are packed
I'm (we're) ready to go.........

And at last, we're off. After just over three years we're are mere hours away from setting foot on American soil again as a family. I didn't anticipate being this excited about it but now that we're on our way out the door, I am. As frustrated as I find myself at times about my country and her politics, it is still my home. And I am going home.

Actually, I'm not really sure where home is any more but we're hitting all of the spots we have lived in recent years. From Virginia to Maine with several stops in between we're going to spend time there over the next few weeks. Since we'll be on the move a lot I'm not sure how relaxing this vacation will be. But that is OK since we're going to be seeing old friends, family and places that hold special memories for us. We'll eat, drink and be merry all the way up Interstate 95.

But because we will be on vacation and despite being on the go, we're going to slow down our pace. As much as possible we're going to disconnect from electronics and reconnect with each other. So my blogging is going to slow down and be replaced with just experiencing the world around me. I need this break and really can't wait. And with that,

                                                                 All my bags are packed
                                                                 I'm ready to go.............

Friday, July 11, 2014

Carved From Sand: The Oostende Sand Sculpture Festival

Everybody's favorite little monster
I've lived near my share of beaches yet had never been to a sand castle festival before. I'm really not what I would consider a beach going person, usually visiting only one a year with friends,  so I chalk up my not attending one to the crowds, sun and heat that I associate with a summer time beach. But I'm living in Belgium now where country's beachfront property is limited to just a few kilometers along the North Sea (65 to be exact) and the sun and heat are fleeting summer visitors. So moderate temperatures and my son's love of Disney movies inspired us to visit the sand sculpture festival in Oostende, Belgium last weekend. And as it turned out, on a cool, windy and damp Saturday afternoon in July it was the perfect place to be.

Oostende is a Belgian beach resort sitting on the shores of the North Sea. We visited in early July when the seas were under yellow flag warnings, the lifeguards were bundled up in multiple layers and only a few brave soles were actually swimming in the rough water. (Belgium is not the place to visit if you want a beach vacation where you can actually go into the water).  But we weren't at the beach for the beach itself; we were there to check out the 8,000 square meters of Disney inspired sand sculptures that Belgian friends had told us was something we didn't want to miss.

From the moment we stepped into the fenced area protecting the sculptures from the brisk wind we knew we were in the land of Disney. The ubiquitous happy music that fills the air at all Disney parks was floating through the air. And the Disney movies, old and new, that we all love? They had been brought to life in the form of giant sand figures. We had kept Sidney in the dark about where we were going so he was immediately in awe as we stepped onto the beach and he came face to face with Mickey Mouse. Then he recognized the characters from Up...and Ratatouille..and Cars...and Mary Poppins. Around the corner we found the Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Snow White. For those of us old enough to remember there was Indiana Jones, Mark Twain, and the Swiss Family Robinson. Sidney scooted from one sculpture to another checking them all out and marveling at the over sized characters that he has only seen on the screen. (We're saving the required trip to Disney Paris for when he is a bit bigger). He was also enamored in watching the sand artists at work and promptly declared that he needed his own pail and sand to create his own castle.

And the intricate details? As an adult I was amazed at the level of details. No detail was too small for the artists who hail from around the world and descend on the beach each summer to turn 6,000 tons of sand into 3-D reproductions between 2 and 12 meters high. From the bark on trees to the hairs on the Lion King's mane the level of detail was impressive. Each shingle on the Disney castle was chiseled to perfection. Because of recent rains some of the works of art had been damaged so we were able to watch artists as they patched their work back together. With great care, sand and a bit of water they made repairs that blended in perfectly with the original works of art. And yes, these really are works of art. I'm not sure if I had a favorite as I liked them all. The boys in my family? Naturally they loved the Star Wars sculpture.

Finding Nemo
Winnie the Pooh and friends

The iconic castle


Peter Pan

The King of the Lions

and of course Star Wars........

The festival has been held annually since 1997 with over 5,000 sand sculptures being viewed by millions of visitors. And now we can include ourselves in those numbers. The sculptures will be on display until the end of August so there is still time to visit. Or if you can't make it this year (or you just want to see more as we do), you can visit next year. There really is something about Disney that brings out the child in all of us.

If you go:

Disneyland Paris Sand Magic
Strand Oostende
28 June - 31 August 2014 (check for future dates)
12 Euro for adults 8 Euro for children age 4 and over
Group discounts and handicap/stroller accessible

Thursday, July 10, 2014

City Mouse vs Country Mouse

I grew up in the country. While there were much more rural places in the area we were miles from schools, stores, restaurants, public transportation and other things I associated with urban living. Heck, our street didn't even have sidewalks and cable television wasn't an option. (The street still doesn't have sidewalks but now has cable). Honestly I hated it and wanted to get out to an urban environment as soon as I could. Ironically I ended up leaving and going to college in a suburban environment. But the community's close proximity to urban areas made the experience very tolerable for me. Every chance I got I was out and about in nearby cities where I thrived on the hustle and bustle that came with them. I moved to a city after college where the sounds of traffic, sirens and people became a the soundtrack of my life. I never realized how accustomed I grew to the noise until I would visit my mother's house where I found the silence deafening. Combined with the lack of street lights I could never feel completely comfortable there.

Fast forward a few years and I'm living on the suburban edge of a city where at the time we had the best of both worlds. There were lawns and sidewalks and close neighbors yet we were minutes away from the urban amenities I love. While friends were driving upwards of an hour to get to work my commute was less than ten minutes meaning I could actually come home for lunch if I wanted. Restaurants, theaters and other attractions were minutes away yet when we wanted it, our little neighborhood felt like a refuge from it all. It was pretty darn nice but then we moved.

First to a sprawling yet under developed city where I actually felt more isolated than I did growing up in my rural community. Our token patch of grass had a tree planted in it and the rest of our walled yard had been covered with multi-level tiles leaving things slippery when it rained and dusty when it didn't. Streetlights and sidewalks were non-existent yet cows and chickens were plentiful. And even if the desire arose, there was absolutely no place to walk to. We might as well have been in the country. But by the country's standards our living was urban but in my mind it was anything but. Now we truly live in a city center in a row how with a postage sized back yard and limited parking. Despite being two short blocks away from the historic city center our street is mostly quiet and when I sit in the backyard I can look up at the stars. And I love nothing more than listening to the toll of the cathedral's bells on Sunday mornings. (If I crane my neck and look out the window I can see the steeple as well). Within minutes of walking down the cobblestone streets we can be at both the bus and train stations, shopping at the local market or sitting in a restaurant or cafe. Talk about convenient.

But do you know what? Many days I actually find myself wishing for more green space. It would be nice to have an actual yard where Sidney could run, play and maybe even have a trampoline. Sometimes I even think it would be nice to have a garden. (Granted I've never actually planted one but it seems like it would be nice). When I'm hauling bags of groceries down the street I think about what a luxury a driveway would be. Or even reserved parking in front of my house. It would be nice to open our front windows without reaching out and touching the passing traffic (seriously). And not sharing walls with our neighbors? That would be heaven since with a rambunctious little boy I worry about noise. Maybe this true urban living isn't all it is cracked up to be.....

So country mouse or city mouse? Or neither. Maybe I'm really  a suburbanite at heart? Somehow this label feels just so wrong......

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Fish Out Of Water

Recently I've been feeling a bit like a fish out of water. I feel like I'm in limbo and don't really have a community to call my own. Maybe its because we recently moved (if you can call five months ago recent) and I have yet to find my niche. But as I look around me I find myself wondering just what my new "community" will be. Atypical of most military postings, there isn't a spouse group associated with Glenn's command. Add in the fact that I'm not working and Sidney attends a school without a PTA or other parent's group where I could easily meet my peers, and I'm actually finding it quite difficult to meet like minded people. Because from where I'm sitting, I really don't see a whole lot of people like me. That's not to say that I need to be surrounded by people like myself; rather I want to find at least a few people with whom I share similar interests and values.

I've had civilian friends tell me that by being a part of a military community I must be surrounded by people like myself. In a superficial sense this is true; we are all families who get uprooted every few years, understand than most the true costs of your country being at "war", and therefore can offer support to one another. This is most often the case. But just as our country is diverse, so is our military. Ethnically, spiritually, politically and yes, socio-economically we have variety. Add in the fact we are in an international military environment and the current level of diversity surrounding me so that much greater. Amidst all of this I'm finding myself feeling quite alone.

The American footprint here in Mons is much smaller than I expected and from what I've experienced, it is nothing like the close group of friends we've had at other duty stations. I feel as though the American community here is younger, more openly Christian and a lot more conservative than I am comfortable with. Now I'm not begrudging anyone their individual freedom to be open about these qualities but to be honest, they just aren't qualities I am comfortable with. I keep telling myself that there have to be fellow Americans here whose beliefs are more closely aligned to mine but I have yet to find them. I'm looking though.

And then there is the international community whom I do feel more comfortable around. Despite my inability to speak French in a meaningful way I find the greatest pleasure in interacting with them. Whether it be fellow parents at Sidney's school or Belgians in the community, this is where I am more comfortable. But I have yet to make a strong connection with anyone. But again, I'm looking.

And if I keep looking I'm eventually going to find what I'm looking for. Right? So, friend wanted. Must be socially and culturally open minded, enjoy good food and even better wine, have a spirit for adventure and love to explore. Parents of young children optional but a bonus. Any takers?

Monday, July 7, 2014


As a society have we become too reliant on social media? Have we lost our ability to communicate on a personal basis in favor of hiding behind a screen? I'll be the first to admit that I am a Facebook junkie and probably spend too much time scrolling through the likes of Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. I can't even remember the last time I picked up an actual telephone to call someone yet I feel connected with my friends all around the world. In fact, it is because of social media that so many of these friendships have been kept alive and vibrant despite the distances between us. As for my handful of friends who haven't jumped on the Facebook bandwagon? I know it is wrong but I still keep in touch, but much more sporadically, than I do with my Facebook friends. And through Facebook I have found online communities that offer support and advice for just about any situation that may arise. If I have a question about the opening hours of a business, what is going on in the community or the daily specials at a restaurant I am more apt to check out their Facebook page than I am to pick up a phone and call. It is faster, more convenient and can be done on my own schedule and on my own terms. So yes it is nice but at the same time I can't help but wonder if we have simply gone too far.

Here in our SHAPE community just about every group and organization has their own Facebook page. There are the official ones that are managed by actual departments and offices--the general SHAPE page, the library, and MWR all provide a wealth of timely information and are quick to rebut any rumors that may be circulating. And then there are the what feels like hundreds of unofficial pages. There are pages for pet owners and frequent travelers, numerous pages to help people buy and sell items, and then general pages where questions are asked and answered. As with all situations involving social media, these pages need to be approached with a grain of salt since for every piece of good information there seems to be twice as many negative or false stories being circulated. But I'm not criticizing any of these pages; after all this is where I get the majority of my information about what is happening in my own community. But it makes me wonder, what about all of those people who are not on Facebook?

Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, there really is a contingent of people who shun social media and do not maintain online accounts. My husband is one of those people. While he does have a Facebook account, it has been so long since he logged in that he no longer remembers his password. In all honesty, his account now serves the sole purpose of keeping his far flung friends updated on his whereabouts and even then, this only comes from my tagging him in photos. But that seems to work for him. But it also means that if it wasn't for my telling him, he would be unaware of all of the vast array of activities and events taking place right around him. Even though he works right on base and is theoretically in the center of all of the activities, he is essentially unaware of many of the events that are taking place. Some larger events are announced via official notices yet much takes place outside of the official channels and seems to be announced solely on Facebook. Bake sales, ball fundraisers and family social events all sponsored by the Navy element here (and we are a Navy family) only seem to be announced via Facebook. Other activities will be announced on Facebook days if not weeks before an official notice may or may not be issued. Maybe it is just me, but this seems a bit odd.

And it begs the question of whether everyone needs to be plugged into social media. Can a workplace require it? Or can they strongly discourage it or even flat out forbid it (I know there are some places that do). And what about work places that advise their employees to use discretion? Can this guidance also extend to family members? Whether we like it or not, social media has become a global trend. By Facebook's own statistics, there are 1, 250 million active accounts worldwide. The United States, United Kingdom and Indonesia top out the list of countries with the most users (with Walmart being one of the most popular pages in the United States but that is a story for another blog post). But what does it mean if you are one of those people who hasn't logged on and clicked the "like" button. Are you simply destined to be left behind or left out? And is this necessarily a bad thing? Some days I'm not so sure..........

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fireworks & All That American Jazz

A towering cone of cotton candy: the
verdict? Sweet. And sticky
Last night was a first for us; on what was our fourth Independence Day spent overseas, we attended our first "real" 4th of July celebration. And by real I mean all of the food, games, festivities and of course fireworks that I remember from the Independence Days of my childhood. The celebration wasn't huge but it gave us the little piece of home that we didn't quite realize we were missing. And, most importantly and my absolute favorite part of the night, was introducing Sidney to his first All-American celebration. And that was pretty amazing.

Even when we were in the United States, we weren't carnival or fair people but last night's small dose of Americana was pretty darn nice. A portion of the base had been transformed into a fair grounds with super sized tents, music, food vendors and rides. With the exception of a few intermittent showers (which is impressive by Belgium standards) the evening was dry. While DJs played their music, pimply teenagers were on the prowl, toddlers ran around underfoot and crowds milled around the tents drinking American beers and eating all of the foods I associate with fairs. My pulled pork sandwich followed by funnel cake was one of the best things I had eaten in a long time. I contributed this to the fact that I have eaten neither of these items in years if not decades. Sidney's first foray into cotton candy was a sweet and sticky adventure but then again what child doesn't have memories of eating mounds of spun sugar.

Sidney watched the carnival rides with fascination immediately declaring that he wanted to ride on the biggest and scariest ride of them all. We talked him out of it and instead he happily rode the bumper cars with Glenn. I remember riding the bumper cars with my own father at the same age and little seems to have changed. Each bump was met with a peal of laughter and a request for more. Then there was the fun house and the giant slides that Sidney slide down over and over again. He contemplated a tilt-a-whirl which he studied for a long time. Sidney initially wanted to take a ride but after watching it spin for several turns decided to wait "until he is six". But because we are on a military base in Belgium the entertainment went beyond the traditional carnival rides. Period actors dressed was World War II attire stood along side jeeps and weaponry of the time. Kids tried on the helmets and tested the guns as parents snapped pictures. (I'll be honest, I never dreamed I'd be watching my son hop amongst the artillery at a carnival). But he loved it.

Because this was the Fourth, the highlight of the evening was the fireworks that concluded the evening. Now we saw a lot of fireworks while we were in Albania; they regularly lit the sky in bits and spurts throughout the year with New Years bringing about the biggest bang of them all. While their scale was impressive they were noisy, chaotic and tinged with a bit of danger. They lacked the artistic design of well orchestrated shows and most often left me feeling agitated. Sidney was equally impressed and scared by the Albanian fireworks. But last night? That was an entirely different story. As he laid on the grass on the edge of the baseball field looking up at the sky, he provided us with an ongoing commentary about their color, size and shape. His descriptions were punctuated with giggles of laughter and such adjectives as amazing, wonderful and magnificent.

Watching him watch the fireworks filled me with motherly happiness since my little boy was finally experiencing one of the joys from my own childhood. Sometimes I worry about the simple things he is missing out on because of our living overseas. He may have visited most of Europe's capitols but he's never experienced a real American Fourth of July. Until last night that is. And as we drove home close to midnight (after all it stays light really late here in Belgium) he continued to chatter excitedly about his evening. As he said, he had so much fun. I'm sure that many of his memories of his overseas childhood will only be fleeting in later years. I'm hopeful that last night is one of the ones he remembers.


Observing one of the rides. After
studying it Sidney informed us that when
he is six he will be big enough to ride it.