Friday, August 29, 2014

Food Fights

Food; we all need it to live. But do you eat to live or live to eat? In my family, depending upon the day, we are a bit of both. I love good food and since I am the cook in the family won't hesitate to spend hours in the kitchen perfecting the perfect dish or full blown meal. I actually find all of the tinkering and experimenting to be relaxing but when the cooking is done, I like to sit down, relax and enjoy my meal. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen. Rather food is alternatively inhaled with gusto or pushed around on plates; often before I've even had my first frustrating but part of my food reality. So this leads to my desire to eat to live with simple and easy dishes gracing our table.

So how do I please everyone's culinary desires? Many times it comes down to the issue of how many dinners can I make on a single night. Do I make three separate meals, as I've done a few times recently, two or a single modified one where we all must either eat what is in front of us or go without dinner? My inclination is to go with the later but as a food lover, the thought of all of us being unsatisfied at the end of the meal is downright discouraging. Three balanced meals is simply too much work so our dinners tend to fall somewhere along the lines of option number two. I try to find foods that we will all enjoy but sometimes it is just so hard. I love fish and seafood, just about every vegetable I've ever encountered and am always game for trying something new. The boys in my family....not so much.

Our family food battles used to be confined to our home. Last year I sent Sidney to school where four days a week he was served a varied and nutritious Belgian lunch. (I still provided a nutritious snack). He didn't always like what was put on this plate but under the pressure of his Madame he was at least trying new foods. And much to our delight there were foods he never would have tried at home that he actually ended up liking at school. But gradually I began to hear complaints. Other kids got to bring their own lunches. According to Sidney, they got to eat chips and cookies and drink soda for lunch and he wanted to do the same. On occasion Sidney would bring a home baked cookie as a snack but he wanted plastic wrapped Hostess treats instead. After all, that is what all of the other (American) kids got to eat.

All summer long Sidney has been nagging me to be able to bring his own lunch to school this year. At camp this summer he brought his own lunch and he wanted to do the same for school. At camp however, every child brought healthy homemade lunches that made mine look like the unhealthy ones (yes, it was that type of camp and I loved it). As other parents are well aware, packing a daily lunch is a pain in the butt even when you don't have a fussy child. With a fussy one it is even worse. But Sidney wants to be like the other kids.....

So we've worked out a deal. Each week we will discuss the school lunch menu and Sidney can choose two days to eat school lunch and two days where he can bring his own. He's already informed me that he wants to eat school lunch whenever they serve fish, pasta or couscous. (Love this and it definitely tempers the rest of our food battles). As for the two days when I pack his lunch, I won't be delivering hot meals the way some of the Italian moms do. Rather, Sidney will carry it to school in his lunch box. The meals will be healthy and balanced but include items he likes and will eat.  This summer Sidney discovered sandwiches so there will be plenty of those. He loves pizza so some weeks my homemade version may be included in his lunch box. Fresh fruit and vegetables will always be present and an occasional sweet treat might be there as well. Of course, the sweets will be home baked by me and won't come with shelf lives that will outlast the school year.

That is our food compromise. Do I anticipate more food battles? Absolutely. I know that some days the lunch box will return home untouched but others it will be empty. Dinners will remain an occasional battleground but I'll take the struggles as long as they accompany successes. New dishes will be on the menu on a regular basis and who knows, we might discover more foods that we all enjoy. After all, you have to eat to live but living to eat makes the experience all the better.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Many parents may disagree with me but personally, I love this time of year. Yes, I am one of those parents who gets excited about the start of school. I was talking to a fellow mom the other day who was bemoaning the start of the school year and the fact her children would be gone from the house for so many hours each day. I smiled and nodded and thought (perhaps a bit guiltily) that I was actually looking forward to it. Of course, it probably helps that my son has been beyond excited at the prospect of starting school again. For weeks he's been getting up each morning and asking if today was the day he would get to go to school. And finally, today was. (Actually, yesterday was his first day of school but in true Belgian form, Wednesdays are half days with a noon dismissal so it didn't really count). So with his backpack filled with his required school supplies off he happily went this morning for the first day of school and I don't know who was more excited, Sidney or his mom.

Actually I've always loved this time of year. Sure I was one of those students, like my son, who loved school. School was always the one place I felt free to be myself. I loved the learning, the socializing and the routine. But I also love everything about the fall season-- the cooler weather, the need to wear sweaters instead of skimpy summer clothing and growing up in New England, the changing leaves. January 1st may mark the beginning of a new year on the calendar, but for me, the first day of school is the start of my new year. I felt this way growing up and still feel that way now. Before Sidney started school I always felt a bit lost each fall since I didn't have an "event" to mark the beginning of my new year. But now I do.

We had a wonderful, fun filled summer where we were always on the go but now we're all ready to return to a routine. For us that means school and work, swim lessons and soccer team and lots of driving on my part to get get everyone where they need to be. It means shorter days and earlier bedtimes with weekends becoming the focus of our family time. But personally, it also means that despite the crazy schedule I am back to having time to myself. With school out my only "me" time was before Sidney woke in the morning or after he went to bed in the evening (and my child is an earlier riser as well as a night owl). The hours in between were filled with entertaining a little boy filled with thousands of questions with endless energy. It was fun but honestly, I am tired from our busy summer and am looking forward to having a few minutes to myself.

So how am I spending my first full day alone? I'm getting a long needed hair cut and then taking myself to In the days to come I'll get into my own routine of going to the gym, resuming French lessons and writing more. Call me crazy but I'm looking forward to being able to leisurely grocery shop all by myself then returning home and experimenting with new recipes. There are so many parts of the city I have yet to discover and I look forward to checking out the museums and historical sites that to date I have only passed by. And because it isn't all fun and games, now that we actually have all of our furniture, I will be able to finally unpack the last of the boxes that are sitting in our cellar. Yes, I love this time of year but I dare say my family does as well.

All set for the first day

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

Or even more when you are looking at the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux, France. This historic tapestry, which dates to the 1070s, depicts the story of William the Conqueror's invasion of England and the subsequent Battle of Hastings. The tapestry was an attempt to commemorate history and allow even the most uneducated and illiterate people of the time to see and understand their history. French legend had the tapestry being created by William's wife Queen Matilda and her ladies in waiting but scholars now think it was actually commissioned by William's half-brother Bishop Odo and stitched in England of vegetable dyed wool yarn on top of linen. There are a total of 50 panels starting with Edward the Confessor sending William to Normandy and ending with English troops fleeing the Battle of Hastings. In between the stitches tell the story of  battles and invasions, heroics and death and even a sighting of Halley's Comet, which in the Middle Ages was viewed as being a bad omen. Are the historical depictions accurate? Maybe or maybe not; but then again what version of history is completely accurate? But in my opinion, that really isn't the point. Rather the tapestry is a work of art that shows one version of a historical period that shaped the world.

A visit to the tapestry is a must see when visiting Normandy. All 230 feet of the tapestry is on display for visitors to see. Individual headphones guide visitors through the length of the cloth describing each numbered panel. (There is even a children's version of the narration which Sidney loved). There are so many levels from which one can look at the tapestry. First, there is the simple fact that this intricately hand stitched cloth is a piece of art. The work is beautiful and the details are so fine. It amazes me to think that every stitch on this cloth was sewn by hand. Second, it tells the story of a rich history that influenced and shaped western Europe. Even without narration or knowing the story of William the Conqueror one can learn about the past because the details are that rich. In many respects the narration, while wonderful and detailed, actually detracted from the viewing of the story. My advice would be to view the tapestry twice; first without the narration so you can focus on the details and let your imagination do all of the work and then a second time accompanied by the words. But, the words really are optional since pictures really are worth a thousand words!

Unfortunately photographs were not allowed so the only pictures I have are those I've found on the Internet. So, if you want to see more images of the tapestry click here. Or go visit the tapestry yourself. And while you are there check out more of the town of Bayeux including their grand cathedral where the tapestry was rediscovered hanging in the 18th Century.

If you go:

Bayeux Museum
13 bis rue de Nesmond
F14400 Bayeux France
33 02 31 51 25 50
Open daily 09.00-18.30
Adults 9 Euro, reduced rates for seniors, children and groups

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Other Landing: Pointe du Hoc

The very point of Pointe du Hoc
As an American, in school I learned about the World War II Battle for Normandy. We heard about the American, British, and Canadian forces storming Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold and Juno Beaches and the heroism of those who parachuted in from above, collectively pushing the Germans back and eventually liberating Normandy. What I never heard about, and honestly didn't even know happened until recently, was the landing of U.S. Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, a craggy cliff face sandwiched between Omaha and Utah Beaches. The Ranger's pivotal contribution was critical in the Allie's success in Operation Overlord and how their story fits into the larger battle is well laid out at the Pointe du Hoc Memorial.

In the years and months leading up to the D-Day invasion, German forces had built a strong defense system along the French coast. Called the Atlantic Wall, this well armed defensive barrier composed of batteries and bunkers on land and underwater mines provided protection to German controlled lands and were thought to be impossible to breach.  But as history shows, that wasn't the case.

On 6 June 1944, under German fire, members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder, scaled the 100 foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and disabled the German positions above. During the early morning hours the U.S. Naval bombardment that left those lasting craters began. In less than two hours of intense fighting, during which two landing craft and their crews were lost, American Rangers were able to reach the top of the cliffs, capture the strategic location and destroy numerous German artillery. The battle continued but the success of initial attack helped pave the way for future successes. Of the initial attacking force of 225 men however, only 90 were still able to bear arms when this portion of the battle was over on 8 June. The personal stories of those who were killed are shared in the Sacrifice Gallery that lines the exit of the memorial site.

View in the direction of Omaha Beach
Today the Memorial is operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission and visiting it is a completely hands on experience. Visitors can tour the visitors center and view an introductory film before heading out and walking over the crater pocked battlefield. Along the way you walk through the Ceremonial Circle where plaques from the French government honor the Ranger's exploits. And you pass craters; huge indentations in the earth that are a visible reminder of the bombs that were dropped on this point of land. Even seventy years later the earth is scarred. Some are enclosed by barbed wire but others are covered with rocks, crumbling dirt and worn grass. Signs warn of the dangers of climbing into them but don't explicitly forbid it. As a result visitors are able to walk down into and out of the craters. My little war-playing boy was not the only child running through them and wondering at their size. And it is their very size that makes you understand the extent and power of the bombs that were dropped. Concrete bunkers of varying sizes sit alongside the craters. Two meters of solid concrete formed the outer walls of the ten-person and twenty-person bunkers where German soldiers sought shelter and sat watch over the sea below. Three ammunition bunkers, numerous casemates, hospital and observation bunkers also fill the pock marked field. Some of the concrete structures are in near perfect condition while others have been ravaged by bombs and time. Visitors are welcomed to explore the ins and outs of these bunkers. You can walk through the rooms that were crew quarters, check out the casemates and even peer out the observation bunker and see the same view of the surrounding water and land that the occupying Germans did seventy years ago.

The granite dagger that is the Pointe du Hoc Ranger memorial sits atop another bunker at the every end of the point. It was erected by the French government then later landed over to the U.S. government in 1979 as a sign of friendship between the two nations. From this point it is possible to look up and down the coast in both directions and see the landing beaches. From this perch it is easy to see why capturing this point of land was so crucial to the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Bunkers and craters for as far as the eye can see

Exploring a crater

If you go:

Pointe du Hoc Ranger Memorial
Pointe du Hoc, France
33 02 31 51 62 00
Open daily

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Battle of Mons

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Mons. This relatively unknown but important battle marked the onset of clashes between the British and German forces during World War I. At the time Belgium was neutral but geographically stood between the German and British troops. And although Britain had officially declared war on Germany on 4 August, it was here in Mons on 23 August that the two armies met as the British attempted to fend off the advancing Germans over possession of the Mons-Conde Canal. (The first British casualty of the War had actually occurred two days earlier when a British reconnaissance team encountered a German unit and Private John Parr was killed).

The British were ultimately forced to retreat from this battle but eventually went on to be on the winning side of that war. A century later Belgians remember the course of events that changed history. They also love a good celebration and as such, commemorations recognizing this centennial anniversary have been taking place for the past few weeks throughout the Mons area. The first event was a commemoration ceremony recognizing Britain's declaration of war on Germany. It was held at  St Symphorien, the British military cemetery here in Mons on 4 August.  Wills and Kate (a.k.a. Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge) along with Prince Harry attended as did throngs of Belgian officials. Other events have included parades, wreath laying ceremonies, concerts and even a double decker bus tour of all of the World War I sites here in Mons. There have been nightly light show depicting the Angels of Mons who are have said to safely escorted the retreating British troops back to France.

Speeches and wreath laying events are a big part of the ceremonial aspect of the commemorations but my favorite part has been the reenactments. Or as Sidney says, all of the military people (and their horses and bicycles too). For the past few days the Belfry Park here in Mons has been turned into a period British encampment complete with soldiers and their artillery, horses and bicycles, and a mess and a hospital tent. Earlier this morning we ventured out to explore the encampment which is literally around the corner from us. It was great fun to walk amongst the tents and piles of equipment talking to the soldiers and watching as they went about their daily camp activities. Two man tents constructed of two snapped together raincoats provided shelter, if not comfort, from the elements. The pile of backpacks ladened down with the afore mentioned raincoats, a blanket, a canteen and a few other meager personal items reminded us of the simple conditions under which soldiers lived in the field. The mess (a.k.a. kitchen) made me grateful for the food we do have now; the tins of canned meat and vegetables neither looked nor smelled appetizing yet soldiers were hungrily spooning up the mixture from their metal bowls. And the hospital tent with its rudimentary medical equipment certainly didn't look all that comforting.

But this camp is a reenactment of the realities of the time. The times weren't pretty--it was war after all-- and by history coming alive through these scenes we are reminded of all of this. It should make us grateful for what we have and for the sacrifices that those before us made so we can enjoy the freedoms we have. And it did just that. This may have been our first World War I reenactment we've visited but I'm sure it won't be our last.

World War I encampment

Soldier on horseback in Grand Place Mons

Friday, August 22, 2014

Autumn Cometh Early?

When you move as often as we go, it is often difficult to determine what is "normal" on the weather front. When you move from one continent to another or one climate zone to another (from the Mediterranean to a country bordering the North Sea for example) it is even more difficult. I had been warned that Belgian weather wouldn't be what I was used to; the hot and sunny days of Albania would be a thing of the distant past while cool and cloudy with lots of rain would be my present and future. But how do you really know what to expect? Well, I've learned to expect the unexpected.

I tend to judge weather by the clothing I wear; the warmer the weather the fewer and lighter the layers. It was on Sidney's final day of school at the end of June that it really dawned on me what Belgian weather was like. Why? Because I was wearing the exact same outfit, complete with number of layers and a jacket, that I wore on his first day of school back in February. I kid you not. If we had been back in Albania or even the United States I would have been slathered in sunscreen and wearing a light dress. Instead I was wearing jeans, a long sleeve sweater and a raincoat. I found myself wondering whether summer would ever make an appearance.

But she did. On July 3rd to be exact. We were hosting a cookout at our house and it was hot. Up until that moment I hadn't wished for air conditioning, but on that steamy afternoon I was ruing the fact that Belgian houses didn't have any cooling units. But not to worry; July 4th broke to the cool and cloudy weather I had grown accustomed to. That week we wore two sweaters and windbreakers while visiting a North Sea beach. So much for my Belgian summer......

In anticipation for our trip back the the US I broke out my summer clothes and packed my suitcase with  the light and airy summer clothes I hadn't seen since last fall in Albania. And I needed them; southern Virginia in July is hot and steamy. Everyone there said it wasn't as hot as usual (whatever that means; my body had long since forgotten) but to me it was hot. Unbearably hot at first but then I adjusted and welcomed the heat. I enjoyed being able to once again wear those long forgotten clothes. But then I flew back to Belgium.

It was cool when we returned with the weather feeling decidedly fall like. Cool crisp mornings with warm but not hot days. I thought it was a fluke but one fallish day turned into two then three and four. I was once again wearing cozy sweaters and fleece and thinking about making stews and baking with pumpkins. These are definitely fall trends for me and I found myself checking the calendar to make sure I wasn't missing a month. Yes indeed it still the middle of August but here in Belgium Mother Nature is saying otherwise.

I've talked to other people here in Belgium and they have only confirmed what I am now suspecting; summer is over and we are settling in for a long drawn out fall. As we prepare for school to start once again it actually feels like those new back to school clothes can be worn without over heating. The days are getting significantly shorter; the 23.00 sunsets of July are now 20.45 August sunsets. But I'm not going to complain. I'm a New England girl at heart and love my autumns. They are one of the things I missed the most while we were living in the Mediterranean. Sure the days are shorter but I'm a fan of sweaters and cozy clothing. We have a new fire pit that will make these cool dark evenings enjoyable. I love the hearty foods of autumn and look forward to cranking up my oven again. Perhaps this year we will be able to go apple picking, find a pumpkin patch and carve jack-o-lanterns for the first time in years. Yes, I love fall and I'm looking forward to enjoying it for the first time in years. And if it comes a month (or two, three or even four) earlier than I have grown accustomed to, so be it. That just means there is more time to have fun. And I intend to!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Plages du Debarquement de Normandie

Normandy American Cemetery
Humbling. Simply humbling. That is the only way I can describe a visit to the landing beaches on the coast of Normandy, France.  I've watched Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan numerous times yet neither film fully prepared me for the experience of walking over these battlefields. June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, was a day that went down in history and during the long summer of 1944 this stretch of coastline was the scene of some of the most strategically planned yet bloody fighting our country has ever known. Today, seventy years after the fact, these same beaches, villages and fields are both eerily quiet yet filled  by tourists taking the same trek we did. Bunkers and craters mark the battlefields where bombs were once dropped, monuments paying tribute to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who made the ultimate sacrifice sit adjacent to corn fields and grazing cattle  and tastefully organized museums recount all aspects of the battles. American, British and Canadian flags fly alongside French ones in every village and signs and banners thanking the rest of the world for their freedom are as common as stop signs. The entire area pays tribute to their past and reminds us all of the horrors that can ensure should we forget where we have come from.

One could spend weeks if not months visiting and exploring the battlefields, monuments and museums of Normandy. In fact, there are so many historically significant sites in the area that our GPS looked like a field of black dots connected by a few roads. Because this was our first visit and since it was impossible to take it all in over the course of a long weekend, we chose to spend time at a few of the more famous ones along the Normandy coast. I know we missed so many worthy sites (we must go back) but those that we did see moved me in a way that few other places ever have. Nice, enjoyable and fun are not the appropriate words to describe our weekend; moving, humbling and thoughtful are.

Perhaps the best known (to Americans at least) sites are Omaha and Utah Beaches. Today they are flat sandy expanses that mask the horrors that took place seventy years ago. Here the tides ebb and flow quickly, exposing and covering the sands and reminders of the past. We saw a few brave souls swimming in the surf and many more curious waders dipping their toes into the sacred waters. (True to form, we limited ourselves to throwing a few rocks into the water from a craggy perch). There are many places you could start your visit but the Cinema Circulaire in Arromanches provides a moving and comprehensive overview of the landings and battles that took place on the shores below. Set on a hill overlooking the village of Arromanches-les-Baines, and using archival footage displayed on nine high definition screens, the cinema introduces visitors to the story of the landings by Americans at Omaha and Utah Beaches, as well as the Canadian and British landings at Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches and the entire 100 day Battle of Normandy. Both the Musee Memorial Omaha Beach and the Utah Beach Museum house relics, photographs and memorabilia that bring this period alive. Films take you back to 1944 and watching them makes you feel as though you are on the battlefields. Most of all, these museums take the war from a page in history that most of us only learned about in school and personalize it through powerful narratives that bring the battles to life.

But not all of the battle is shown from an Allied perspective. The Batterie allemande de Longues sur Mer has you walking along the remnants of the Atlantic Wall, Germany's defense barrier that protected their troops from attacking armies. Perched atop the cliffs overlooking Omaha and Gold Beaches the bunkers of Longues sur Mer provided German's with a bird's eye view of what was happening on the beachfronts below. Today concrete bunkers in various states of decline, some with their artillery still intact, dot the hills. Visitors are free to climb into and on top of the bunkers and see the same view that the Germans did seventy years ago. We visited on a crystal clear day and the serene views only made the reality of what had occurred here all the more numbing.

A German artillery bunker
And the German perspective of the beach landings

Normandy American Cemetery sitting above Omaha Beach
And last but not least, was our visit to the Normandy American Cemetery. I've visited several military cemeteries in the past, including the hallowed Arlington, but Normandy is in a class by itself. The visitors center provides visitors with a personal introduction to several of the soldiers buried on the cemetery grounds. It is these personal stories, who they were, how they lived, the families the left behind, and how they died that makes the tragedy that much more real. Then there was the cemetery. Set above the very beach where so many of those buried here lost their lives, these 172.5 acres are the final resting places for 9,387 American heros. Included in this number are 45 sets of brothers and four civilians. Marble Latin crosses and Stars of David are laid out in symmetric rows, without regard to date of death, home state or rank, for as far as the eye can see. And despite the throngs of visitors and the Congressional delegation on a fact finding mission (members of the Appropriations Committee) the cemetery had a tranquil feel. A silence hung over the area and we could wander amongst the headstones undisturbed by others. In fact, for much of our walk the only sounds were those of birds chirping and the sea crashing below us. It felt like a fitting final resting place for those whose final moments had been filled with such terror and trauma.


...... and now
Tribute at Omaha Beach
The Navy Memorial at Utah Beach
Like I said, our entire visit was a humbling experience. Today it is so easy for people to complain about what they don't have in life or how difficult they perceive things to be for them. But I challenge them to take a moment to reflect on what they do have and question if their circumstances are really that bad. For just a moment, they should put themselves in the place of the French families who lived under the Nazi occupation. Or perhaps put themselves in the shoes of the young soldiers who stormed one of the beaches or dropped from the air on D-Day. Then think about their own lives. I know I did and I walked away feeling grateful for those who fought these battles. Its humbling; simply humbling.

If you go:

Arromanches Cinema Circulaire 
Arromanches, France
(33) 02 31 06 06 45
Open daily
5 Euro for adults, 4 Euro for children and seniors

Musee Memorial Omaha Beach 
14710 Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer
Normandy, France
(33) 02 31 21 97 44
Open daily
9 Euro for adults, reduced admission for children, seniors and active duty military members

Musee du Debarquement Utah Beach
50480 Sainte du Mont, France
(33) 02 33 71 53 35
Open daily
8 Euro adults, reduced admission for children and seniors

Batterie allemande de Longues sur Mer
Port en Bessin, Bayeax, France
(33) 02 31 21 46 87
Open daily
Free admission; charge for guided tours

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
14710 Colleville-sur-Mer, France
(33) 02 31 51 62 00
Open daily
Free admission

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Table For One

Dining alone. Have you ever done it? I'm not talking about drinking your latte while you read a book at Starbucks, grabbing a quick bite to eat at a casual dining establishment or eating at the restaurant bar. I'm talking about perhaps making a reservation for a table for one then sitting down at a properly set table, ordering off the menu then leisurely eating your meal without turning to your iPhone or e-reader for companionship. Scary isn't it? Yes and no.

I used to be terrified of eating alone. The coffee shop with a book in hand was OK but anything beyond that was too much for me to handle. When I traveled for work I would resort to room service or perhaps eating at the hotel bar--not a table in the bar area mind you but the actual bar. Anything else felt like too much of a spectacle. I mean what if people looked at me and wondered what was wrong with me for not having a dining companion?

But then this got old. Whether traveling or in my home community I wanted to eat good food and didn't always having dining companions to join me. So I took the plunge and partook in my first solo dinner in public. I was traveling for work and room service didn't excite me. The hotel bar only served pub food and besides, I had read about a great restaurant in the city that I really wanted to try. I didn't know anyone and rather than skip what turned out to be a great meal, I went to the restaurant by myself. I had planned on eating at the bar but when the hostess lead me to a two-top table in the dining room, I followed her. At first I was a bit uncomfortable about sitting by myself but as I looked around I noticed that there were several other solo diners in the room. Some were reading but others were simply sitting and eating. If they could do it, so could I. And I did and found myself enjoying the food and the freedom of not having to carry on a conversation. It wasn't so hard after all. Then I started eating alone when I was at home. If I wanted to try a place and no one else was interested in joining me, I went by myself. As funny as this may sound, being able to eat out by myself was a completely liberating experience.

I'm a frequent follower of Tom Sietsema's weekly food chat in the Washington Post where the subject of dining solo is a hot topic. Callers often complain about the service, or lack there of, they receive when they are eating alone in restaurants. Many share their experiences of being regulated to poorly located tables, pushed into the bar even though they have a table reservation or shoddy service from waitstaff. Often they feel undervalued as single diners with women experiencing this inequity more than men. Have I experienced this myself? Sadly I have. I've been seated in back corners or even worse, near the entrance to the restrooms. When I look around many dining rooms that is where the smaller tables are located. Perhaps these table placements help restaurants best maximize their table space. But other times I've been seated front and center in the middle of the dining room. Sometimes the service has been great and other times it has been abysmal but I'm not sure it is a reflection of my dining status or the restaurant itself. I tip according to the service I receive and if I don't enjoy the experience I am unlikely to go back. I have found that some places are more receptive to solo, and woman, diners that others. In Albania eating out by myself was met with confusion by waitstaff while here in Belgium I see many women doing it. This is particularly true for lunch when I've seen entire restaurants filled with solo female diners. In America, depending on location, I have found it to be a mixed bag. Ironically, I have found that the higher end the restaurant, the better the experience. Perhaps their waitstaff is just better schooled in service......

Now I find myself enjoying my solo meals and don't let my being alone stop me from eating where I please. When eating by myself I can choose the restaurant of my liking based solely on my own food preferences and cravings. I can eat as slowly or as quickly as I like and the only food I have to worry about cutting up is my own. Depending upon the establishment I may pull out my e-reader but increasingly I find myself not reading anything and using the opportunity to be absorbed in my own thoughts. Or I will people watch which in the right place can be more interesting than the best dinner companions. Yes, dining alone may feel intimidating at first but go ahead and give it a chance. You just might find that you enjoy it as much as I do.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Made For You And Me: A Book Review

So what happens when you are an avid reader who accidentally leaves your e-reader at home when you set off for a month long trip? First you bemoan your forgetfulness and think you can forgo reading for the month then in literary desperation, grab the first book you see on the shelf by the checkout line.Yes, this happened to me and the book I grabbed, Made For You And Me by Caitlen Shetterly turned out to be one of the best books I've read in a long time. From the first page this book touched me and as I turned the pages I found myself laughing, crying, relating to the words on the page.

For Shetterly, like so many people of my generation, the horrific events surround September 11th forced her to step back and reassess her life. In the aftermath of it all she left New York City and returned to her home state of Maine to write, act and have that simpler way of life that so many people crave. From the outside it often feels unattainable yet it is the way many Mainers live. She settled into a life she loved but then fell in love and with her husband had a California dream. Unlike like many people who only fantasize about following their dreams, they took the jump only to realize that dreams often fall short of what you hope they will be. With an economy in a downward spiral careers as freelancers is a tough route to take and for the Slatterlys it proved to be difficult. After a year of downs, ups and more downs they headed back to Maine to yet another unknown. And this memoir, which started out as an audio blog for NPR, traces the journey from east to west and back again.

As I read the book I felt myself feeling so many emotions; I was envious of Shetterly for following her dream not only once but twice. Each time she followed her passion through the thick and thin. I only wish I had the same level of daring to do the same. I laughed along with her as she discovered the quirkiness of America. Encountering an (in)famous Chick-Fil-a sandwich for the first time? This Mainer has been there and done that, wondering who a single pickle slice constitutes as dressing up a chicken patty. Living in questionable apartments in strange neighborhoods; done that too as have many people I know. Despite our education and work experience many of us have been faced with tough times during an even tougher economy. While never facing the exact circumstances as Shetterly I've asked myself whether a particular job is worth taking just because it is a job. And the relationship between adult children and their parents; who hasn't been there as well? I could go on.....

But for me this book is a great read because it is real. It isn't sugar coated nor is it a pity party; rather it is a story of my generation, one that many of us can and do relate to. I'll be honest, the older I get the more I find myself thinking about and wanting these same things (sans the acting part) that Shetterly does. Perhaps my recent trip to Maine only reaffirmed these feelings for me but in my mind a good book should make you pause and think and this book did just that. (Of course, any time I go on vacation I find myself thinking about and reflecting upon the choices I have made in life so perhaps my reading this book while on vacation is timely). Don't wait until you are on vacation or desperate for reading material to pick up this book. It is worth seeking out now.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Kitchen Dreams

I love food. It seems as though I spend a lot of time thinking about preparing meals and then eating them. And because I love to cook I spend even more time thinking about how and where I can prepare that food. When I am in my small European style galley kitchen I dream of what my ideal kitchen would look like. So when I was visiting Midcoast Maine and stumbled upon an advertisement for a kitchen tour featuring some of the best chefs in the area, I just knew I had to go. And I'm so glad I did because it provided me with an opportunity to sample some tasty food and see some beautiful houses and their kitchens. What more could a food lover ask for?

A annual fundraiser for Merryspring Nature Center, the event was organized in the same fashion as a garden tour; in this case the kitchens of nine houses were made available for visitors to tour. The locations and architecture were diverse as were the foods offered by the chefs at each location. The houses ranged from modern new construction and classic New England capes to the historic renovation of an 1802 Federalist home and everything in between. A couple of the kitchens were quite spacious while the rest were compact but well laid out proving that when it comes to kitchens, size doesn't always matter. Kitchens with a view were inspiring; I can't help but think that looking at the islands in the bay would make washing dishes much more pleasant. Stainless steel appliances are still popular but soapstone counter tops and solid cherry butcher blocks seem to have replaced granite as the current fad and after seeing several renditions, I must say I am now a fan. I was less fond of the white cabinetry that graced many of the kitchens; give me natural colored wood any day.

And of course there was the food. At each kitchen we were invited to sample tasty tidbits from local chefs. It had been awhile since I spent time in the area but judging by the creative array of offerings, the Midcoast dining scene has changed a lot in the past twenty or so years. It is black trumpet mushroom season in Maine with several dishes featuring this foraged food. I've been developing a taste for wild mushrooms and and amongst other dishes, loved the flat bread pizza and crostini featuring these wild mushrooms. And because this is Maine, seafood featured prominently in several of the dishes. All I can say is yum!

So did I see my dream home? Not really. But if nothing else I ended the day filled with lots of ideas about what I do and don't want in my future dream house. Did I eat some good food? Absolutely and I'm a bit disappointed that I won't have the opportunity to try out several of these restaurants. But I am planning on trying to recreate a few of the signature dishes in my tiny Belgian kitchen. If I close my eyes while I'm eating I just might be able to pretend that I'm back in one of those Maine kitchens enjoying the view.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Beacons Of Light

Owls Head Lighthouse
Lighthouses are as synonymous with Maine as lobsters. They are a direct linkage to the state's long history and connection with the sea. And with close to 1500 miles of craggy coastline (this figure includes all tidal areas including the numerous inlets and coves and all of the off shore islands), lighthouses have often been the only thing that has protected sailors from the dangerous rocky cliffs and shoals lining Maine's coast. And there really is something majestic about these iconic, often white towers perched atop cliffs or along rocky shores.

Today there are 57 active lighthouses protecting sailors along Maine's coast. At one time they were all manned by hearty lighthouse keepers who kept the beacons glowing year around. Growing up I remember reading stories about children of earlier times living in isolated lighthouses along the coast where their fathers were the light keepers and thinking about what an adventure it must have been.  Light keeping was often a family affair with the entire family sharing in the responsibilities of keeping the lights on. (In my mind it was like the Maine version of Little House on the Prairie). Today, however, all of the lighthouses are automated with former living quarters either being boarded up or turned into museums.  It is virtually impossible to travel up the coast or out to the islands without encountering a lighthouse or two. Fortunately for lighthouse enthusiasts many of Maine's lighthouses are accessible to the public and exploring them is a great way to spend a summer day. And that is just what I did recently when I set out to explore four of the lighthouses in Midcoast Maine.

Sitting at the mouth of Camden Harbor, Curtis Island Lighthouse is only accessible by boat. Originally built in 1835 by the directive of Andrew Jackson and rebuilt in 1896, this lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The island was originally called Negro Island after a local cook who resided there but later renamed in honor of longtime Camden resident Cyrus H.K. Curtis, publisher of The Saturday Evening Post. It was automated in 1972 but still serves as a welcoming beacon to  those who approach Camden from the sea. Because the lighthouse is not easily visible from land for years the only way I saw the lighthouse was through the aerial photographs that grace postcards and calendar pages. It was only when I was a teenager that I finally saw the lighthouse "in person" from the water. I've since discovered that there is a path leading to the shore on the outskirts of Camden from which the lighthouse is clearly visible. (And that is where I was able to take my own picture).

Curtis Island Lighthouse
The nearby Saint George Peninsula is home to two lighthouses that are easily accessible to visitors. Located in the Owls Head State Park, the current Owls Head Lighthouse was built in 1826, has never been rebuilt and automated in 1989, making it one of the last lighthouses to loose its light keeper. It is said to have gotten its name because people could see a giant bird face on the nearby rocks. There are numerous stories about rescues affiliated with the lighthouse including one where a couple who had been buried under a sheet of ice were saved by the lighthouse keeper in 1850. One lighthouse keeper's wife told a story about it being so cold that the entire bay between Owls Head and Vinalhaven Island froze over with horses and carriages being able to drive the 11 1/2 miles. Now that is cold!

Even people who have never been to Maine are probably familiar with the Marshall Point Lighthouse located just down the peninsula from Owls Head. The lighthouse, built in 1832, was featured in Tom Hanks' movie Forest Gump and stands at the narrow and rocky mouth of Port Clyde Harbor. Rather than being attached to the keeper's house, this lighthouse sits at the end of a wooden walkway, providing better visibility to passing ships. This is fortunate, since the light keeper's house burned after being struck by lightning in 1895. It was soon rebuilt and today the structure is home to a small museum.

Last but not least on my lighthouse tour is the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse. The 7/8 of a mile long granite breakwater was constructed between 1881 and 1899 in an effort to help shelter the harbor from incoming storms. A total of 700,000 tons of granite was used to build the breakwater. While the breakwater did provide shelter for the harbor, it initially proved to be a hazard to passing ships since it jutted out into the water without a beacon at the end. To this end a temporary beacon was placed at the end of the jetty with a lighthouse being constructed in 1902. Today visitors can walk, or hop along the large flat rocks, to the end of the jetty. I have fond memories of making this walk numerous times while I was growing up and during my most recent visit retraced my steps to the end. The reward of making it? Sitting in the shade of the lighthouse and watching the sailboats, ferries and lobster boats pass by.

Run Forest, run: Marshall Point Lighthouse
These are just a few of  Maine's storied lighthouses as there are 53 other lighthouses dotting the coast ready to be explored. So the next time you find yourself along the coast of Maine, take the time to get to know one or two of the lighthouses. Or check out the Maine Lighthouse Museum in nearby Rockland. And if you want to learn more about these or any of the other Maine lighthouses, Jeremy D'Entremont has researched and written an extensive history of these lighthouses, including notable rescues and the stories of some of the lighthouse keepers and their families that captures how important this lighthouse was to the area.

Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Back To Reality

Vacation is over but it was wonderful while it lasted. In fact, our American vacation feels like a lifetime ago.  It was just over a month ago that we set off for a fun filled four weeks of reuniting with old friends, visiting our old haunts and for the first time in many years, truly relaxing while on vacation. It was a month filled with dreams of our future and the reality despite being away for so long, very little has changed in our home country. I feared that my growing cynicism about where the country is headed would get the best of me but it didn't. I avoided conversations about politics, didn't watch or listen to any news and for a brief respite, generally ignored the outside world. Sidney may have said it first but I also relished in the fact that just about everyone spoke English. I didn't realize just how much easier life is when I fully understand the language being spoken around me.

But vacation was also a time filled with delight for me as I watched Sidney gain memories and experiences that he can only have in America. Sending him to a day camp for two weeks was one of the best decisions we ever made. In just a short time he blossomed as I have never seen him do before. First, his English is better than ever and as I watch his sun kissed body run around in our backyard I realize that he is no longer a little boy. As evidenced by his desire to show off his things and talk to strangers (especially cute waitresses), his shyness is all but gone. I swear he is taller, bigger (maybe it is all that ice cream he ate) and stronger than he was when we first arrived back in the States. He has gained a level of maturity and confidence that makes this mother proud (and a bit scared). I'd say this is the best souvenir we could have brought back to Belgium with us.

But reality is upon us. Reality means that in one week the school year starts again and along with it come a whole semester of extra curricular activities for Sidney. I'll be back to playing chauffeur each morning and afternoon and try to find my niche in between. Reality means I'm once again immersed in a French speaking environment where nothing is easy and I must always be on my A-game if I am to understand what is happening around me. Reality is being back in our quirky house with its intermittent hot water, sporadic power surges and ongoing dealings with a surly Belgian plumber and assorted repairmen. Reality means juggling a plethora of transformers and adapters before plugging my electronics into the wall and crossing my fingers while hoping I can find a parking space near our house. But reality means we are once again together as a family. Reality is back to driving my beloved Volvo through quaint streets instead of our behemoth, American sized rental vehicle on multi-laned interstates. Reality is also the wonderful opportunities that come with living in a foreign country. There are still so many places to explore, local festivals to attend and road trips to be embarked upon. The reality is that life and our reality is pretty darn good. And for that I am thankful.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Long Journey Home

After a month away, today Sidney and I are returning home to Belgium. I say home because, despite our month revisiting all of the places we have lived as a family, Belgium has become the place we currently call home.

During our month long journey up the East Coast then back down, we kept asking ourselves the question of "could we see ourselves living here?". And this is a pertinent question for us since with retirement looming, in a short two and a half years when we leave Belgium, we will be returning to the United States and for the first time, moving to a location of our own choosing. Never having the option to fully choose for ourselves, this is an exciting yet slightly scary proposition. 

So over the past month as we moved from one East Coast location to another we looked long and hard at what life would be like should we choose to settle there. The question of schools, job opportunities, cultural amenities, cost of living and overall quality of life were always in the forefront of our minds. Some locations we immediately dismissed as not being options. At one time we had made those locations work for us but in our current situation we just couldn't envision ourselves settling down there for the long term. Other locations possibilities and two became definite contenders. For both locations I even went so far as checking out the local real estate listings to see just what our money could buy us. Geographically and socially the two places couldn't be more different but we could see ourselves being happy and taking advantage of the opportunities they provided. Could we call either place home and raise our family there? Most likely. At the moment we don't have to decide but we do have a lot to think about.

So where is home? It is where ever we make it. Where is that? At the moment it is Belgium and it is good to be back. In the future? Who knows; only time will tell.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Maine Way Of Life

When you think of Maine you think of lobster, right? After all, more lobsters are harvested in Maine than any other state in the country and her lobsters are famous worldwide (I am amazed at the number of these crustaceans I have seen gracing restaurant menus across the world) and are perhaps the most sought after dinner option for the thousands of tourists to flock to Maine each summer. But draped in plastic bibs how many people actually take the time to think about all of the work that went into moving their lobster from the sea to their table? Do they wonder about this back breaking Maine tradition that is older than the state itself?

Despite growing up in Maine and knowing families who made their livelihood by pulling lobsters from the water, I had never really given Maine's lobstering industry a lot of thought. But on a recent sunny afternoon I found myself sitting by the water watching two lobstermen hauling in their catches and began to think about how physically demanding the work really was. And then I thought about the tourists eating their "lazy man lobsters" (lobster meat that had been pulled from the shell before arriving at their table) and realized that so many of them just have no idea.

Traditional wooden lobster crates. Today
most have been replaced by more sea worthy
mental ones.
The relationship between Maine and lobsters dates back to the days before white settlers descended upon the area. Lobsters were so plentiful that Native Americans used them as fertilizer for their crops. By the time white settlers arrived lobsters were still being pulled by hand from tidal pools and were considered to be food of the peasants and served to prisoners and indentured servants. Imagine, a lobster dinner being considered a punishment rather than a treat. But gradually lobster became more of a luxury item and by the 1850s a formalized lobster industry developed in Maine with pounds--essentially floating tanks that hold the harvested lobsters--appearing in many harbors. These pounds allowed the industry to keep up with the ever growing demand for fresh lobster.

Today lobsters remain a highly regulated, major economic engine for Maine. Getting started as a lobsterman doesn't come cheap; it costs approximately $200,000 to fully equip a lobster boat with each trap and buoy costing around $80.00. Lobstermen are limited to the number of traps they can have in the water at any one time--800 and the area in which each lobsterman can drop traps is regulated as well. Feuds and even deaths have been known to occur over fishing territory. The number of licenses issued is regulated in order to prevent over fishing and in 2008 a total of 6,427 highly coveted licenses were issued. There are approximately 3 million traps hauling 123 million pounds of lobster a year from Maine's waters. In order to further prevent over harvesting, keepers must be of a certain size and cannot be females with eggs attached. When you take all of these regulations into consideration it is no wonder that the cost of your boiled lobster is high. After all, a lot of time and money goes into simply bringing it to your plate.  If you want more lobster facts, they can be found here.

As I watched the two lobstermen hauling their catches, I couldn't help but wonder whether fishing is all the luck of the draw. Both lobstermen were essentially pulling traps in the same location. The first lobsterman, hauling traps from what appeared to be a glorified dingy outfitted with a motor, seemed to be coming up empty with trap after trap. I watched him haul a good ten or so traps and never once did I see him remove a lobster from them. The second boat on the other hand, appeared to be having much more success. Painted a bright red and with a crew of two, each trap seemed to be yielding several lobsters. Some were thrown back, probably for size, but more were making it into the catch basket than not. Was this lobsterman simply having a lucky day? But what about when your income is based solely on what you pull out of the traps? Even without pulling a single lobster you are spending money on fuel and the upkeep of your boat. Add in the value of your time and not bringing home any lobster can be a costly day. On the flip side a large catch can equate into a successful pay day. And regardless of how large your catch is, the work is manual labor and simply back breaking. Even with the assistance of a winch repeatedly hauling the traps out of the water then throwing them back in day in and day out is hard. Really hard. But someone has to do it and in many cases lobstering is a tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next. For some Mainers working in the lobster industry is the only thing their family knows and it is simply a way of life. Hopefully it is one that will continue for generations to come since the demand for these crustaceans doesn't appear to be easing up.

An iconic Maine harbor sight

Its a keeper. Pulling traps and measuring the lobsters for size.

Finally, for full disclosure, despite my Maine upbringing I've never really cared for lobster. But because it had been a long time since I had eaten any I gave it another go last week. And you know what? I still
don't like it. Call me weird but whether steamed, broiled or made into a salad I find lobster meat to be too rich and not all that flavorful. I'll stick to other ways of supporting the fishing industry and leave the lobster for those who really love it.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


The giant globe
Vacations are wonderful times to rediscover old places but they are also opportunities to discover new ones. And for me, my most recent discovery is Eartha at the DeLorme map store in Yarmouth, Maine. Having grown up in Maine I am familiar with DeLorme maps and their massive atlases which assisted us with the ins and outs of traveling long before GPS became an everyday technology. The battered and much used pale blue book of Maine maps was a mainstay in my mother's car and I remember spending hours leafing through its pages checking out places I had visited and ones I had never visited. (Those large blocks of Maine wilderness named in terms of township numbers rather than place names always intrigued me and I wondered whether they were real......They are....). In later years I remember a large storefront opening up on the Freeport-Yarmouth border. I was always in a rush heading to one location or another when I passed so I never stopped in but I wondered about the large globe that graced their multi-floor windows. And finally on my most recent drive by we stopped in and I was able to check out what this larger than life globe was all about.

Named Eartha, the globe was completed in 1998 and was awarded the still standing Guinness Book of World Records title of "the world's largest rotating and revolving globe" the following year. Weighing in at 5,600 pounds and with a surface area of 41 feet in diameter its scale is the equivalent of 1 inch to 16 miles on earth. It represents one of the largest computer mapping databases in the world and is comprised of 140 gigabytes of information. Trust me when I say that it is big. As if the size wasn't enough to be impressive, it rotates at a rate of 1 rotation every 18 minutes meaning you can sit on the viewing benches and watch the world slowly turn right before your eyes.

And the details on the globe include everything.  It includes shaded relief and colored bathymetry (for the ocean depth data) as well as information on road networks and urban areas around the world. We visited during the daylight hours but at night the globe is illuminated meaning drivers on the nearby Interstate 95 are treated to an almost other worldly view of their world as they pass on by. Now that's pretty cool. Best of all, stopping in to see the globe in person will cost you nothing. It is free and while there you can also visit the really cool gift shop and use their clean restrooms. Now how's that for a quick pit stop?

A little perspective; the globe viewed from three
stories high
If you go:
DeLorme Map Store
2 DeLorme Drive
Yarmouth, ME 04096

Hours vary but they are open most days

Friday, August 8, 2014

Stopping To Smell The Roses

Vacation is winding to a close. Its been a wonderful but all too short month back in the United States. A month sounds like a long time and it is...but it really isn't. This is the longest vacation I've even taken and in the days leading up to our arriving here, I thought the time would drag. But instead it has flown by way too fast. But unlike past vacations where we've been constantly on the go, this one has been different. It has been relaxing and void of that pressure to see more and do more during our limited time.

We started out with a flurry of activity but spent the later half of our time unpacked and hunkered down in one place. There really is something to be said about not being on the go all of the time. Our days have been long and lazy with some days consisting of doing absolutely nothing. Other days have involved window shopping and leisurely lunches and new restaurants. It has been fun introducing Glenn and Sidney to so many of my old haunts. Some places look exactly as I remember them while others are completely unfamiliar to me. We've dreamed about how the other half live while checking out the yachts in the harbors and browsed real estate listings thinking about the possibilities. While these are all pipe dreams there is something both fun and exciting about plotting out the what ifs. What if we woke up to these views everyday? What if we jumped out of the rat race and into a quieter way of life? What if.......

As anyone who has spent time in Maine knows, there is just something about this place that makes it easy to forget about reality. I've loved every minute of this visit.

This pictures says it all:

I've done it.....and enjoyed every minute of it.