Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Irony Of It All

(I'm a week late but hey, I was too busy reading my banned book to write about them!).

Last week was Banned Book Week in the United States. Yes, there is a week dedicated to highlighting and promoting literature that has been banned for expressing views, using language or containing subject matter that some people find objectionable. While I think it is important to bring attention to this issue, for me, the real problem is that books are being banned. I mean really? Isn't it ironic that in a country whose very foundation is based on liberty and free speech, that as communities we ban books. How is that even possible? Granted, books that get placed on this ill fated list are still available in some bookstores and libraries but they are not accessible to everyone because some self appointed entity decided that they disagreed with what was written on the pages before them. Books tend to get banned locally by over zealous school boards and city councils who take it upon themselves to become their community's morality police. And what message does the banning of a book really send? To me, it seems to imply that if you don't like or agree with something you can simply make it go away. Now that is pretty darn scary.......

But what is the real purpose of banning a book? Is it to stifle discussion and knowledge about a particular subject because you don't like or agree with it? Is it to limit exposure to ideas that are different or conflict with those of your own? Is it an attempt to erase history because what happened is no longer considered to be politically correct thoughts or actions? Rather than making it difficult for an entire community to access this material wouldn't it be better if you simply chose not to read the books you personally find offensive?  And if you don't want your children reading it then that is an issue between you and them. It isn't right to impose your values on others. Don't allow them to read the books you find so offensive, or better yet, read them together and discuss the material. Banning a book isn't going to prevent your child (or yourself for that matter) from hearing certain language or learning about certain subjects.

Growing up, one of my favorite books was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Spear. I received it in a Scholastic Book order and devoured it in one long weekend of reading. As a young girl I simply loved the story yet when this same book was spotted on the library shelves of my school by an "all knowing" parent who thought she knew what was best for all children, it quickly disappeared. (This also created a run on the book as I passed my copy from one friend to another). Did this mother really think young girls would turn to witchcraft because they read this book? That thought never crossed my mind when I read the book the first, second and third times. And it certainly didn't this past weekend when I reread this classic book from my childhood.

But maybe I just like controversial books since so many of my favorites have found themselves on banned book lists. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have long been offensive books in the eyes of some people. Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Beloved have become list regulars because of language and references to sex, violence and religion. And Dori Hillestad Butler's My Mom's Having A Baby and the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey, books clearly written for children have been banned because of subject matter and supposed offensive language. The lists, complied in the land of the free and free speech just literally go on and on. Isn't it ironic?

Books aren't dangers but narrow minds are.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Still Knitting For A Cause (An Updated Repeat)

I don't consider myself to be a crafty person; my one attempt at scrap booking resulted in a sticky mess that would have embarrassed a pre-schooler.  After years of trying and failing, I've come to terms with the fact that my one crafty outlet is knitting (and yes, this was before the resurgence of knitting as a hipster cool hobby).  I grew up watching my mom knit but first lesson came in first grade when my Brownie troop was making acrylic potholders.  This was in the late 1970s so acrylic, and garishly colored acrylic at that, was all the rage. I'm not sure who thought acrylic was an appropriate fiber to place on a hot object but my little troop toiled away in the school cafeteria learning this ancient craft.  I gradually moved onto scarves which after all, are potholders on steroids.  I continued to knit off and on over the years and with time the sophistication of my projects, both in style and materials, increased.  During college I spent two summers working in a now defunct yarn shop where I became even more proficient in complex designs.  I also spent a ridiculously large portion of my salary on yarn since I learned early on that half of the fun of knitting is buying and collecting yarn for my "stash.   While living in D.C. I discovered the oh so cool Fiber Space yarn shop in Old Town Alexandria where I spent money we didn't have on yarn for future projects.  A few years ago I learned about Ralvery, an on-line database that allows me to keep track of my projects, yarns, and supplies with the click of a mouse.  For a database junkie like myself, this discovery seemed too good to be true.

Two years ago, with my closets crammed full of sweaters I came to the realization that by knitting socks, I could complete projects quickly and that as a project, a pair of socks was a lot more portable than a full sized adult sweater. I personally don't wear socks but my friends and family did so away I went with my knitting until even they were running from my hand knit creations.  In a attempt to find an appreciative audience for my socks, I stumbled across Socks for Soldiers.  This not-for-profit organization that is run out of a single woman's home in Ohio sends hand made regulation socks (and other essential items) to American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan- or any other location where American troops are deployed.  At last I had found an outlet for my hobby, and vast yarn stash, while supporting a cause (the soldiers, not the war) that is personal.

Like so many organizations these days, Socks for Soldiers is run completely online.  I've never met any of the other knitters and my only contact with them is through occasional updates on their online forum.  By posted comments and email signature lines, I suspect that I am a good two to three decades younger than most of the other knitters, I am one of the few people whose military connections are though an officer rather than enlisted personnel (this is abundantly clear through written comments and asides) and my politics and (lack of) religious views would cause their yarn to jump into knots.  Regardless of these factors, we are all happily supporting a cause that we believe in.  Just like the military, the rules for knitting socks are strict; colors, patterns, and sizes must be uniform and the regulation olive drab knee high socks are tedious to knit.  We are allowed to knit leisure socks which can be brightly colored and fun and this is where I focus most of my energy.  Its fun, it empties my stash (which allows me to replenish) and it supports  those in need.

I knit occasionally while in Albania; the heat and my schedule just wasn't conducive to fondling wool for extensive periods of time. But not that I am in Belgium, things have changed and so has my production rate of socks. The weather is usually cool and with my family's schedules I find myself spending a lot of time hurrying up then waiting. Sometimes I'm waiting for a few minutes but other times I'm sitting for a lot longer. And knitting, especially small portable projects, is the perfect way for me to pass the time. I've lost track of the number of sock projects I've completed over the past few months but it certainly is a lot. I do know that I'm making regular excursions to the post office to ship my completed projects back to the States where they are then repackaged and mailed back overseas. 

So as a war that isn't a war but continues to place our troops in harms way appears to be gearing up once again, I will continue to do my little part to support our troops. I have no idea who the recipients of my socks are but I am sure they are appreciative of the thought and energy that went into making them. (I did meet a solider at the post office at the base in Kosovo once, who upon noticing my customs forms with the Socks for Soldiers mailing address, commented that he had once been the recipient of socks while he was deployed and that he still wore them). And I thought that was pretty darn cool.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Importance Of Education

I believe that education is the single most important thing that a person can acquire. Formal or informal, it is something that once you have it, no one, no matter what the circumstances, can take your education away from you. There are many types of education and the form itself is less important than what you get out of it. Whether it be formal education involving books and school room learning or experiential learning by getting out and doing, it is all important and valuable. It can open doors to employment and even more education; it teaches you about yourself, other people and the world around you.

Now I love physically being in a classroom and learning. I proudly possess multiple diplomas and while it might appear that I don't "use" these degrees on a daily basis earning them taught me the rewards of hard work, dedication and commitment. The process of earning these degrees showed me how to look critically at the world around me which in turn has only enhanced my out of the classroom learning. Whether I am traveling or simply running my daily errands I observe and question what I see around me. What I learned in the classroom has taught me to be a lifelong student when I am outside of the school room as well.

Education and learning is so important to me. Fortunately this love of learning is something thing that has been passed onto Sidney, who even at his young age, loves learning about new things and more importantly, going to school each day. In fact, on weekends and extended school breaks he tells us that he misses being at school and wants to go back. He also wants to verify that the other kids aren't at school without him. I know at this young age that going to school is as much about the learning of and doing new things as it is about the socialization aspect of his day. (But then again socialization is learning). Both inside the classroom and out, he observes and absorbs everything he sees and hears, asking follow up questions when he doesn't understand and never accepting anything at face value. (Sure this is annoying at times but I absolutely love the fact that he always wants to know more). During daily reading time he listens and reads along with the stories but then asks a series of why or how questions about what he has heard. Whether we are visiting a museum or driving to school, he asks questions about what he sees only to repeat what he has learned later in the day. I can only hope that Sidney's love of learning continues as he grows older.

So why am I writing about the importance of education today? I blame it a bit on the cool fall weather and the start of a new school year. But it is also something I've been thinking about a lot lately. At the moment I am back in the classroom taking both French lessons and intermediate watercolor classes and am enjoying being a student again without all of the pressures of trying to earn a good grade. I may not be studying tomes of literature and having intellectual discussions but my mind is reeling as I conjugate French verbs and try to figure out how to get my brush strokes just right. This renewed learning has me feeling alive again and that has reminded me about the importance of education. It is also reminding me to "look outside of the box" at the different types of life long learning that takes place on a daily basis. Every day can serve as a lesson of some sort. This is a message that I am teaching my young son and one that I need to remember and apply to myself as well.

Life is one big lesson so embrace it. I am.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


My little boy is experiencing his first real crush and from a mother's perspective it is both cute and mildly disturbing. I discovered this quite by accident but once I did all of the pieces about his new behavior became quite clear. He's loved school for some time now but this year he comes bouncing out of bed each morning eager to get to school. Last year getting him dressed each morning was a struggle with my wanting to dress him in Gap and his preferring to look like a a mixture of Eminem and southern redneck. This year he has adopted a habit (which I love) of letting me pick out his well coordinated outfits each morning. On the mornings he does pick out his own clothes he has taken to asking me if his shirt matches his pants then contemplating which shoes he should wear instead of defaulting to his dreaded Spider Man sneakers that light up. Then there is the insistence that he look in the car mirror each morning to make sure he doesn't have any stray smears of food on his face. Add in his new insistence that we park in a certain parking lot each morning during school drop off and I should have suspected that something was up but in hindsight all of these are cues that I had completely missed.

Call me clueless but I first suspected something was up when he would eagerly run up to a cute little blond girl each morning and excitedly chatter away with her as we walked up the hill. He would also talk excitedly to her mother, starting each sentence with the phrase "excuse me" before narrating a story or detail about what he had done since he last saw them. Both mother and daughter always give Sidney their full attention which he loves. Over the course of the past week I noticed that would be craning his neck on our walk up the hill from the parking lot to the school then jumping with joy when he spotted the little girl and her mom. Daily recaps always include details about what he did with this girl during the day along (they drew an American flag together) but also have the qualifier that sometimes boys and girls don't play together at school. Last Thursday after school he sadly told me that the little girl hadn't been there but on Friday he practically ran into traffic in excitement when he spotted them. They were walking ahead of us but returned his affection by turning around and smiling several times before making her mother stop so we could catch up with them. And then there was last weekend's Oktoberfest celebration. He spotted them across the tent and jumped out of his seat wanting to go say hello to them. (And this was after he had flat out refused to go greet other classmates of his). Glenn brought him over and watched as our son said hello to the object of his affection.

Watching this from a mother's standpoint is strange. First, my little boy is just shy of five so I had assumed I have years before I would have to witness his flirtatious behavior. Five! (That just seems so young but Glenn has informed me that he kissed his first girl around this age). This is my little boy who still sleeps with and carries around his "baba" (blanket) when he is at home. But he is the same boy who is proudly declaring that he is a big boy and can do things for himself now. And apparently liking a girl (or gurl as he says) is one of those things. I'm simultaneously proud and a bit unnerved. I'm also a bit scared and sad. This is partially because I am just not ready for this but also because we are all military families and I happen to know she will be moving soon. I don't want to have to witness my son's heartbreak when the object of his affection leaves the country for another destination. Or when she breaks his heart by rejecting his little boy's advances. But maybe she won't, or he won't. I don't know.....what I do know is that I am just not ready for this. But then again, will I ever be?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Embracing The Change

Its amazing what a difference a few months makes. Back in May I blogged about all of the construction and one way traffic in my Mons neighborhood. At the time I was still settling in to our new neighborhood, new house and new country and only knew of a limited number of streets that allowed me to move from one place to another. Since then some things have remained the same and others have changed and I'm embracing it all.

What is the same? The road construction. A few roads have reopened but they have been countered by even more closing. It seems that as soon as I figure out how to maneuver through the neighborhood another key road closes and I'm back at square one. Now however, rather than approaching it as a deterrent, I'm using it as an opportunity to explore. After all, it really is not possible to get completely lost here. Confused and driving in circles, yes. Lost, no. And whether on foot or by car I'm discovering even more of the quaint streets, hidden alleys and surprising architecture that Mons has to offer.

And of course, the main road that connects our house to our garage remains closed. I had naively returned from our summer in the States expecting it too be reopened to vehicle traffic. Of course it wasn't and it doesn't appear like it is going to reopen any time soon. (Maybe before we leave in 2017?).  So over the past few months not only have I developed some pretty strong bicep muscles but I've gotten really good and figuring out how much I can buy at the grocery store and carry home in a single trip. Which is a good thing because things are getting even more interesting; hence the what has changed.

As of Monday morning, the street in front of our house is completely closed to traffic meaning that for the next couple of months there is no way to drive through our neighborhood. In typical Belgian form we were notified of this closure the morning it occurred. But this time, instead of thinking about how we might be inconvenienced by this change, I shrugged it off indifferently. After all we've gotten really good and carrying things up and down the hill. And besides, with the road closed the steady stream of cars--from parents dropping off and picking their children up at the music school across the street from our house; from drivers seeking shortcuts, and those lost soles who aren't quite sure how to get out of the one-way maze that is Mons--has all but ceased. No longer are cargo vans squeezing between the parked cars and our living room windows giving a whole new meaning to the term "reach out and touch someone".

So at the moment I'm enjoying the forced walk on the car free streets. When I do think that it might be nice to have the convenience of being able to pull up to my front door I quickly realize that having that luxury is such an American ideal. Here in Belgium, as is the case in so much of Europe, people of all ages, from the youngest toddlers to the frailest elderly, make their way up and down the streets going about their business. A lack of parking, convenient or not, rarely deters a European from going where they want. Its actually quite liberating to not worry about where you can park your car; you find a place or better yet, rely upon public transportation.

I'm sure the traffic on my street as well as the neighboring ones will return. But at the moment I'm going to enjoy my little traffic free world.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Blog Anonymous

My blog has been a bit quieter recently as I struggle with an internal debate. And I suspect this debate is one that many bloggers have had at one time or another. My dilemma is around  how much is too much to write? How much honesty is too much? Is it better to keep my opinions to myself lest I offend someone? But in doing any of the above doesn't it negate the very reason to blog? Yes, no, maybe.....

First I have been asking myself the question of why I blog. My answer is, it depends. I started blogging when we first moved overseas as a way of keeping family and friends abreast of what was going on in our lives. But over the past three plus years the nature and intent of my blog has been changing. Some days I blog to share my experiences with the world--we have had some amazing travel experiences and I write about many of them. Other times I blog to share my opinion about what I see around me and on occasion, to ask for a reality check about whether others may be feeling the same way. Sometimes I write to let off steam over person frustrations or to share my struggles with the hope of hearing that I am not completely alone. I am careful to not use my blog as a forum to jump all over an individual or a group or to intentionally make anyone feel bad. When I discuss negative experiences or personal frustrations I try to mask individual identities lest I come across as being accusatory. But sometimes it inadvertently happens and feelings do get hurt.

But this brings me back to the very nature of a blog. I fully understand that when I blog I am putting my thoughts, ideas, and feelings (essentially anything they chose to write about) out there for the entire world to see. Does the entire world read it? Unlikely. But do some people see what is written? Absolutely. And while my blog may not have a huge following, by reader comments, personal emails and blog statistics, I do know that what I write reaches a fair number of people. The majority of the people who read my blog are complete strangers to me while others are fellow members of the blogging community that I know only virtually. Some of the people who read my blog are personal friends while others are family. But increasingly, more people I personally know are reading what I write and here lies my deepest dilemma.

When I blog I am comforted by the perceived anonymity of it all; I can vent about bad days, bad experiences and bad behaving family members and no one is the wiser. Unless they read it. Over the years I've had a few people try to initiate me in online arguments when they take issue with something I've written. Initially these comments will cause me to pause and revisit and re-think about what I've written but more often than not, I stand by my original words. It is so much easier to dismiss the grumblings of strangers than it is when I know the complainants personally. On more than one occasion the person who takes issue with what I've written isn't even the subject of my blog entry. Or they might be and they start a campaign to convince me that I am wrong. But it is my blog---so can I be wrong on this page when what I've written is clearly my opinion. Isn't that what freedom of speech is all about?

So this brings me back to the blog silence as of late. My mind has been reeling with lots of feelings and issues that I've just been itching to put into words here. I've even gone as far as writing them out but when I go to hit the publish button I pause. I wonder if my being honest and open is worth the potential heartache that might ensue if the "wrong" person reads what I've written. Do I simply need to grow a thicker skin and publish what I want or should I simply stifle my words on my own blog in the name of harmony and peace?

But there is another option out there that I have been exploring; it is the world of anonymous blogging. There are entire blogs out there where writers contribute their pieces to be published anonymously. I love these sites for their brutal honesty about so many of the issues we all struggle with. It is on these pages that I feel as though I have peers who are honest about their struggles with friends, family and life in general. Its refreshing. And I feel as though many of my unpublished posts would find the perfect home on these sites. Perhaps it is here that I need to start devoting some of my writing energy. Is it ideal? I think not. But for the sake of "world peace" it might be the best option.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

All About Apples

Nothing says autumn more than apples. When fresh local apples start popping up in the markets I know that fall is really here. When we were in Normandy last month apples and apple products were everywhere. Although I had a hard time accepting the fact that apples were ready--I mean, after all it was still August and to me, August is still summer---I thoroughly enjoyed the apple products I sampled. In most restaurants hard apple cider was more readily available than beer and I found myself enjoying its fresh, crisp taste. Normandy cider is less sweet than American versions and is very easy to drink. Mussels Normandie, with the shellfish being steamed in apple cider, was also popular and very tasty. And of course there is Calvados, that distinctive apple brandy that the Normandy region of France is known for. Our weekend in Normandy got me thinking about apples and wondering when they would be ready in Belgium. The answer, is now.

 Growing up we always had apple trees in our backyard so there was never any need to go apple picking at an orchard. Later in college we would pile into cars and go apple picking at a near by orchard. Never mind that we all lived in a dormitory and had no need for copious amounts of fruit. It was more about the tradition of picking apples in the cool New England air each fall. When we lived in Albania we may have been able to pick pomegranates, lemons and Mandarin oranges in our yard but no apples. When asked, Sidney would tell me that apples came from the store. So I loved the fact that this past weekend we were able to take Sidney to the source and introduce him to the fall tradition of picking apples.

Apples that even Sidney could reach

And boy was he excited. Following rough directions and the memory of what we thought was the location we found on Google maps (a large apple orchard is actually quite easy to spot when looking at the area from a bird's eye view), we made our way to the rural village of Henripont. Set along a canal, the village itself was quaint and once we entered the village proper all we had to do was follow the red, hand painted apple signs in order to reach our destination. In typical Belgian form it began to mist when we arrived but that didn't deter us. (The orchard actually has a supply of rubber galoshes that apple pickers can borrow if they like). And unlike the apple orchards of my childhood, these trees were were small with the fruit being low to the ground meaning that even the smallest of apple harvesters could actively participate in the process.

Look Mom! We have apples
Using Google translate and very broken French to communicate we were given the lay of the land, handed a wagon and off we went to pick our own apples. There were several varieties of apples to choose from with all of the trees being heavily laden with fruit. Sidney did most of the picking, carefully selecting the fruit then placing it in our bag on the wagon. Prior to arriving we had cautioned ourselves that we wouldn't pick too many apples and we stayed true to the promise. Sidney wanted to pick more but we told him we would come back again. If you don't feel like picking your own fruit you can buy it pre-picked. They also sell pears, plums and squashes as well as apples for cider or sauce. And their freshly made apple cider? Be sure to buy a bottle or two. We'd go back again just for the cider.

So now that I have apples what are we going to do with all of them? We're eating them of course and I'm doing a lot of cooking. If you have apples on hand why not try apple speculoos bars, apple spice carrot muffins, apple cinnamon scones or apple skillet cake? Or if you want to go savory try apple Dijon pork saute or an apple and cheddar bread pudding. As you can see, we like apples in our house.

Apples for as far as the eye could see

If you go:

Culture Fruitiere du Point du Jour
7090 Henripont (Braine-Le-Comte), Belgium
067 55 22 64
Open every day except Thursdays in September and October, weekends in November
Bring your own bags or boxes as the orchard does not provide them
Prices for pick your own apples start at 1 Euro / kilogram; 1.50 Euro / kilogram for pre-picked

Follow the apple signs or because GPS coordinates may be the most helpful:

Lat    50 36' 10" N
Long 004 11' 03" E

Monday, September 15, 2014

Because.....You're Just Supposed To Know....

.......The longer we are in Belgium the more I'm realizing that this is the way it is here. Forget clear signage, instructions or directions (in any language) directing you on how to find an item, how to complete a task or where you can locate a site. These guides seem to simply not exist with any consistency in our little part of Belgium. Rather, you are just suppose to know how to do it. Some days this lack of clarity is frustrating while on others I simply shrug and embrace it for what it is--Belgian life.

Perhaps I am still too accustomed to the American way of labeling--even over labeling-- everything. In America signs inform you of an impending turn miles before it actually appears; here in Belgium the sign, if it even exists will simply tell you to turn now. If you are in the wrong lane or unprepared, well, that is your fault. Or signs might lead you through several intersections before disappearing all together at others leaving you to wonder where you should turn next. Exact addresses are equally vague. Yes in urban areas there are street numbers, if you can see them, but more often than not billboards will simply tell you to take a certain road in one direction (in our case either towards Paris or Brussels if we are on the main highway) then to turn onto a specific road. After that you are on your own so you had better be on the lookout for your destination since it may be a few yards or a few miles down the road. When out driving through the country street numbers seem to disappear and you must rely on a sense of what is right or in my case all too often, wrong. And if we are lucky enough to have an actual street name and number, more often than not our newly updated GPS doesn't even recognize it. We've taken to studying Google maps before leaving home then looking for familiar sights along the way. Sometimes it works; but then again other times it doesn't. Of course, once we figure out where we are going it is very simple making me feel foolish that I was confused in the first place.

But my problems aren't limited to the roads. Take stores for example. I've always carried my own grocery bags with me so it was never a problem, but here in Belgium you must either bring your own or purchase reusable ones at the cash register. There isn't a sign telling you this; rather if you are so unfortunate as to end up at the register without your own bags and don't want to spend the money on buying them, you are forced to dump everything back in your cart and push it out to your car. So if no one prepared you beforehand, you could be in for a rather messy or heavy surprise. But beyond the bag issue, in most larger stores in general I have found there to be a definite lack of signage. Even knowing how to say something in French doesn't really help me much. I've learned that the key to survival is forgetting my American logic of where something should be and taking the time to learn the layout of each particular store. In the mega sports store, don't expect shoes to be in a single section. Rather soccer cleats for athletes of all ages are in the soccer section, running shoes in the running section and bicycle footwear in the bicycle section. There is a certain kind of logic to it all but I have yet to figure out where  everyday, non-specialized sport, sneakers are located. And when I asked? My question was met with a stare, shrug and sputter of "non".

Even on SHAPE, an international military base that I (somewhat naively) assumed was organized with military precision, I find myself running into confusing situations where I am "just supposed to know" what to do. Who knew that the directions for submitting a claim for a VAT (tax) refund, which are clearly laid out on the base's main website, applied to everyone except the Americans? They certainly don't tell you this on the site. We apparently have another set of rules, forms to fill out and procedures to follow. They aren't hard but how are you supposed to know what to do? Wait, that's right. You are just supposed to know...........

Friday, September 12, 2014

Say Yes To The Cheese

Cheese anyone?
There is certainly no shortage of good cheese in Europe. Whether it be made from cow, sheep or goat milk it seems as though each region of Europe specializes in their own variety of cheese. Now I've always loved cheese and have been having a great time exploring the different varieties I encounter during my travels.  I'm particularly fond of sheep and goats milk cheeses (which taste so different than the ones I'm used to in the United States) as well as the numerous raw milk varieties that are readily available in the markets. So because of this love of cheese, when I had the opportunity to visit the Alkmaar Cheese Market in the Netherlands I jumped at the chance.

This cheese market located in northern Netherlands traces its roots back to 1593. However, as early as 1365, Alkmaar had a set of cheese scales that were used in the weighing and selling of cheese. Every cheese producing region has their "secrets" that make their cheese the best. In Alkmaar, the secret to the Beemster cooperative cheese that is sold at the market is their polder, or system of dykes and windmills that create fertile and nutrient rich grass from which their cows graze. (The design of the polder was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1999). Here's a fun fact: according to Beemster, one cow requires 50 kilograms of grass and 125 liters of water in order to produce the 30 liters of milk that in turn make 3 kilograms of cheese. That means it takes a lot of cows, grass, water and milk in order to make the cheese that is sold at the weekly cheese market.

Today the cheese market operates from early April through early September on the Waagplein, the same central square where it has been taking place for centuries. While the ceremony plays to visitors (the Dutch production is translated into English, French and German), the rituals themselves are as old as the cheese market and are a spectacle to behold. Only members of the cheese guild can trade at the market. The Cheese Father, who is the head of the four forwarding cheese companies that trade at the market, leads the ceremony and ensures that the rituals are followed.

Prior to the arrival of the crowds, the cheese begins to arrive by truck and yes, even boat. Then the cheese setters or kaaszetters get to work, offloading the cheese onto the square. With the ringing of the bell at 10.00 sharp, the market opens with a flurry of activity as cheese testers and traders dressed in plush robes examine the quality of the cheese on both the inside and outside. The texture and appearance of the cheese, the number of holes and their distribution on the inside all contribute to the overall quality of the cheese and influence the price the cheese will garner. Haggling ensues until a price per kilogram is agreed upon. Spectators will know when a deal has been reached since they will see the clapping of hands which seals the deal. The cheese is then carried off in wooden wagons to the Waag where it is weighed. Finally, white dressed cheese carriers tote the sold cheese on wooden barrows to the waiting trucks. The sight of these men is impressive as is their feat; eight wheels of Gouda cheese, each weighing 13.5 kilograms, are loaded on the 25 kilogram barrow and balanced between their two sets of shoulders. Being a cheese carrier certainly isn't for the weak.

Cheese heading to market

Sharply at 10.00 the market opens

The cheese market in action

So grab your camera, wear comfortable shoes and go early to get a good spot. Everything in Alkmaar is cheese related and you will be able to buy cheese at just about every shop and mobile vendor. For the best deal, however, buy one of the grab bags of cheese that are sold by the cheese girls are the market. You are never sure what you are going to get but for 10 Euros I received four good sized chunks of cheese as well as a linen tea towel.

If you go:
Alkmaar, The Netherlands
Fridays from early April through early September from 10.00-12.30

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Always Remember

I remember exactly where I was on that fateful day when America, and democracy itself, came under attack. Do you remember? I remember what the sun and air felt like on that September morning and I remember the horror of watching it all play out on the television screens before me. I remember the frantic moments of accounting for where family and friends were and worrying about their fate. I remember the fear of what was to come and knowing that things will never be the same again.

But for me, the single thing that is the most important thing about that day is that we never forget. Never forget those events that changed the way my generation and those to come think about and live our lives. Let us always remember the thousands of people from around the globe who lost their lives that day and continue to do so today because of September 11th. Let us always remember. Because when we don't remember we are destined to repeat history.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tanks In Town

When we lived in Virginia I always wondered about the Civil War reenactors who would flood old battlefields each year. Because we were south of the Mason-Dixon line there seemed to be more Confederates than Yankees but the later were still present. I wondered whether the (mostly) men who played war were history buffs reenacting the stories of their forefathers or simply liked to get dressed up and play war. At the time I naively thought this was some weird American phenonenum. But then I moved to Belgium, the heart of battles in both world wars and realized that Americans have nothing on their European counterparts when it comes to war reenactments.

This past weekend was the annual Tanks In Town event here in Mons. Tanks In Town commemorates the liberation of Mons by American forces during World War II and this reenactment is the ultimate in big boys and their even bigger toys. For three days tanks, jeeps, amphibious vehicles and every other form of World War II artillery descend on the Mons region for one big party celebrating the region's liberation from Nazi control. There are reenactments, camps and parades throughout the region. A huge flea market selling everything from period uniforms and weapons to cheap Chinese produced knock offs runs the length of several city blocks. And the culmination of the events is a Sunday evening procession of all of the military vehicles into the Grand Place in Mons.

Amphibious vehicle making its way back on shore
Tanks In Town was one of the events we have been hearing about since we arrived here so we made it a point of taking in the festivities. On Saturday we joined the crowds in watching the launch of amphibious vehicles in the canal. It was pretty amazing to see these lumbering vehicles make their way from shore into the water and back. After their initial splash into the water I had to wonder how they could stay afloat. After the amphibious demonstration we made our way to the large encampment that served not only as a stationary exhibitors for visitors to tour but the actually sleeping place for many of the weekend's reenactors. An expansive wooden area had been converted into a World War II era camp for the weekend. Scattered amongst the trees were tank, tents, jeeps and other machinery. Soldiers lounged around campfires, healed the wounded in makeshift hospitals and answered questions from inquisitive guests. And of course there were the tanks; they tore around a muddy track splattering dirt and debris on those who stood to close. Up until this point I had never been this close to a moving tank and was surprised at how their sound echoed through the woods and make the ground shake long after they passed. These certainly weren't vehicles that were used in stealthy maneuvers. Other tanks were stationary with visitors being invite to sit on and explore their formidable features. Then there were the reenactors themselves. Men, women and children, young and old alike were dressed in period costumes. Many visitors had even gotten into the spirit of things by dressing in their own period costumes. And of course because this is Belgium the camp included some no-so-period beer and frites (French fry) trucks.

Sidney and the tanks roaring into town

But my favorite part of the event was the next day. This is when these tanks came rumbling into Mons' cobblestone covered Grand Place, replicating the actions taken by American troops 70 years ago. A bus full of the veterans who helped liberate Mons were present as special guests. We were lucky to snag a front row seat at a cafe and with our bottle of wine (and orange Fanta for the little one) we watched the spectacle that is Tank in Town. We heard the tanks long before we saw them. First came the procession of jeeps, troop carriers and ambulances filled with waving soldiers and their pretty young women. Then came the motorcycles driven by grizzly goggle clad men with their coats flapping behind them and the amphibious vehicles. Finally there were the tanks. They rumbled up the narrow streets and into the square. Because of our great location Sidney was swept over the barrier by a soldier and placed atop a tank for a few minutes.

I know this was a reenactment but it was impossible not to get caught up in the cheering and spirit of the moment. People in the crowd hung out of windows high above the square waving flags and cheering on the liberating troops. Once the tanks filled the square the barriers were lifted and the crowds joined the troops and tanks. The SHAPE band played big band music while people danced, drank and had their pictures taken. The atmosphere was truly festive. I can only imagine what it must have been like to actually be here in Mons during the liberation. But since I wasn't there I'm lucky that I got to experience this reenactment. It is events like this that make living here in Belgium so special.

Grand Place filled with tanks, troops and people

The lone U.S. Navy representative

Hi fiving soldier

Monday, September 8, 2014

Reclining Rights

There's been a lot of news about poor airplane behavior lately. Within the past two weeks alone there have been at least three highly publicized incidents of fights between passengers over the right to recline one's seat. One passenger wants to recline their seat, the passenger behind them doesn't like the idea and an argument ensues. Sometimes they simply can't because the seat is blocked by a rather ingenious (?) hideous (?) completely self serving knee saving device; other times the seat does recline but verbal or even physical assaults result. So who is in the right and who is in the wrong? I guess it depends upon where you are sitting (literally).

I'll be the first to agree that the customer service standards of American airlines leave a lot to be desired. There really isn't any comparison between a European or Asian flagged carrier and an American one. The ticket prices might be higher on the former flights but you get what you pay for; free checked luggage, complementary food and drinks and larger seats while the American airlines are increasingly nickel and diming their passengers by charging for everything. I do find it ironic that a country with one of the the largest obesity problems has airlines that are increasingly pinching their customers into smaller seats. Is this a hint......

I should preface all of this by stating that although I am a frequent traveler, I am fortunate that I don't have long legs so leg room is never really an issue for me. That said, I am still not a fan of the person in front of my reclining their seat into what I consider to be my space. But, and this is a big but, if their seat reclines I believe they should have the right to recline it. They paid for it so they can do what they like with it. The same goes for arm rests; if I want mine down I don't think it should be raised simply because the person next to me needs more space. If you know you need more space, pay for it.

The airline industry is a for-profit business. If they choose to have narrow seats, seats that don't recline, or charge for each bag you carry onto the plane, those are business decisions. As customers we can choose to accept their terms or not. The last time I checked no one has ever been forced to get on an airplane; rather they choose to because it is convenient, they feel as though they have to get from point A to point B or they want to go someplace as cheaply as they can. As a paying customer if I don't like what the airline is offering I will choose another one. You get what you pay for so if I want a larger seat with more room I will pay for an upgrade. If I chose to buy the cheapest ticket possible I will carry on my size and weight restricted bag, sit in my narrow seat and make the best of the flight. After all, the flight won't last forever. Maybe going the way of Sprint Airlines, who has disabled the reclining mechanism in all of their seats, is the way to go. Their flights are still full and no planes are being diverted over arguments over the seats.

But at the end of the day it comes down to common courtesy. Follow the rules set out by the airline. If something is forbidden on the flight (I'm talking about those knee saving devices) then don't think you are so special that the ban doesn't apply to you. Treat others as you want them to treat you. Even on long haul flights, I personally choose not to recline my seat so I can be considerate of the person behind me. (The one time I did recline was on an Alitalia flight from Boston to Rome. I was holding my son, who had just fallen asleep on my shoulder. The minute I reclined my seat the man behind me slammed my seat back so hard that it jolted my baby awake. He proceeded to cry for the remaining flight which I considered to be enough sweet justice to the man seated behind us). If the flight is diverted because of unruly passengers, don't get angry at the airline because you think their seats are too small; blame the passengers. If you don't like it, don't fly. No one is forcing you to board that plane.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Life Lessons

As parents, we walk a fine line between sheltering our children from life's harsh realities and exposing them to the great big world out there while not adversely scarring them for life. While I don't believe in hiding or sugar coating reality, I struggle with knowing how much information to present in an age appropriate way. And as soon as I think I've figured it out, Sidney gets older, matures and is capable of understanding things at a whole new level. Regardless of his age or stage, we have five basic household tenets or rules that help guide us along. They are gentle reminders to all of us as to how we should be acting towards one another and the larger world around us. Sidney has embraced these rules and is quick to point out which ones he abides by and which ones he struggles with. He also does the same for the actions he sees around himself.  The rules are quite simple; beyond listening to your parents and respecting others one of the five is keeping the promises you make to both yourself and others. Simply put, if you make a promise, keep it. The rule applies to Sidney as well as us, and in his four year old way of thinking, other people as well. When he makes a promise he must keep it and when we make a promise we must do the same. Sounds easy, right? Well, maybe not.

We're always careful to not make promises we aren't sure we can keep. For things that aren't certainties, we caveat the proposed idea or event with a promise that we will do the best we can to make it happen. Sidney doesn't always hear that part and unfortunately we've had a few hiccups along the way that have left him crushed and disappointed. But for those things that we feel are a sure thing, we openly make the promise and tell him they will happen. And that is exactly what we did when we signed him up to play on a soccer league for 4 and 5 year olds.

Sidney loves soccer, or football as he often calls it. During the World Cup he proudly wore his Belgian soccer jersey while watching the games and spends hours in the backyard kicking his yellow and black soccer ball into the goal. After school Glenn, and occasionally I, will join him for kicking, dribbling and goal scoring. But as much fun as he has doing this, he keeps asking to play with other kids. If we were back in the United States, extra curricular activities for kids of his age would be plentiful. As we discovered this past spring, they are all but non-existent here in Belgium. So when I learned of a developmental soccer league specifically for kids his age, I signed him up and he was beyond excited. The league is run by the base youth services program and coached by volunteers but I was assured the league would start and the end of August. (I was even asked if I wanted to volunteer as a coach since having knowledge of the game is apparently not a prerequisite, but that is a story for another day). Having no reason to doubt what I was told---since this is a Department of Defense run organization, I excitedly told Sidney about his impending opportunity.  Now I signed him up back in June so all summer long getting to play soccer on a team was all he has been talking about. When we were back in the U.S. we went out and bought him his own soccer cleats (neon yellow just like the Belgian team) and he's been practicing putting them on and kicking the ball around in anticipation of joining his team. And in between his playing he told everyone he met that he was joining a soccer team. Yes, he was that excited.

When we hadn't heard anything from the organizers two weeks ago, we reached out to them only to be told we would hear from the coach the following week. When that didn't happen we called back and this time were given not only the name of the coach but the time, date and meeting location of the first practice. Having sent an email to the coach and hearing nothing, I got Sidney suited up for his first practice and headed to the designated spot. And boy was he excited and his excitement was contagious. That was until I saw the empty field with no coach and no players in sight. The other fields were filled with kids and coaches and while Sidney looked sadly on I did my best to figure out what was happening. Finally, after talking to the person who was in "charge" we left having been assured that we were in the right spot at the right time but something must have gone wrong and the coach would be there for the next practice. Sidney was crushed and my heart ached for him as he asked me why he couldn't play. He wanted to know why his coach hadn't kept her promise to be there because according to his rules, you always have to keep your promises. Hugging him closely I told him that I didn't know where she was but that I would look into it. That was a promise I could keep.

The next couple of days resulted in a flurry of (mostly) unanswered phone calls and emails but an assurance that we should indeed be at the field during the next designated practice time. And we were, fully dressed and excited, but this time I approached it with the caveat that I hoped the coach and team would be there. Sidney said he hoped so too and gripped my hand tightly as we once again approached the empty field. A last minute email and phone call revealed that there wasn't practice that day either but that the coach would "be in touch soon". As Sidney once again watched other kids kicking the ball around under the enthusiastic tutelage of their coach he simply said he wanted to go home. I could tell that he was dejected and promised him that his dad and I would play soccer with  him in the backyard when we got home. He smiled weakly and said he didn't want to play. Even the enticement of an ice cream treat did nothing to lift his spirits. Instead he reiterated that people who make promises need to keep them. Not doing so is just bad.

At that moment I was simultaneously heartbroken and proud of my little boy. Heartbroken since the one simple promise I had been making to him all summer wasn't becoming a reality. Not only that, his enthusiasm for playing the game seemed to be dwindling. Proud because of the maturity he was showing in a difficult situation. Instead of crying or whining he was simply accepting the reality as he saw it. As we walked back to the car he talked yet again of promises and their importance. I love Sidney's new found maturity yet it pains me that he had to reach it through such disappointing circumstances. I am disappointed that another parent would let down children in such a way and frustrated that an organization that runs youth activities was less than organized. (My disappointment is slightly tempered by the fact that at least this parent stepped forward to volunteer which is more than Glenn and I did). I wonder whether she has ever had to explain such disappointment to her own child. I now have and although I'm sure I will have to again, it is not an experience I care to repeat. Life's lessons are rarely easy and this one was just plain horrible.

So what next? We've been once again told that yes there will be practice next week. Despite any assurances we receive we'll be cautiously back on the soccer field next week. Hopefully this hiccup is behind us and the team and coach will be there ready to play. If not, unfortunately we have this routine down. If his long promised practice doesn't materialize I'm sure he will handle it with both sadness and his new found maturity. I will still ache for him; both for his sadness and his sudden understanding that not everyone keeps their promises...... And maybe, just maybe, I will take an online tutorial on coaching soccer and volunteer to coach myself during the next go around. That would be a promise I would be able to keep.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Its Complicated

Recently I was standing in a line making small talk with a fellow American tourist when I was asked where I was from. For me, and other military families, this is such a loaded question that I didn't even know where to begin with my answer. Is it where I live at the moment (Belgium)? But then some people think I'm Belgian. America? Is a generic "America" good enough or do people want more specifics? Is it where I grew up (Maine), where I first lived as an adult (Massachusetts) or where we first lived as a family (Virginia)? At one point Sidney was so confused that when posed with the "where are you from" question at the playground, he answered Albania. I quickly jumped in and corrected him but this led to his asking me where he was from since, up to that point, his only memories were of living in Albania. And the question is all the more confusing when we are together as a family. Glenn grew up in Maryland and went to college in New York before joining the Navy and spending time on both Coasts. And the tender age of 4 1/2 Sidney was born in one state, lived in two others (I'm cheating a bit and counting Washington D.C. as a state since we did live there for over one year) and has now lived in two European countries. So what is home anyway?

So how did I answer my fellow tourist? I took a deep breath and told him I lived in Belgium. He looked at me knowingly and asked if I was military. When I nodded in agreement he quickly added that he was retired from the Navy and listed several of the places he had once called home (including Virginia and Belgium). Here was someone who understood how loaded the question really is. It was like finding an unlikely soulmate in a sea of foreigners. But finding that type of understanding outside of our military community is rare.

Some days I look longingly at friends who are settled. From my perspective their living in a house they have owned for years, their children attending the same school with the same children for each grade and their ability to lay down permanent roots looks so comforting. They don't face the regular uncertainty of where they will end up next, whether the schools and the job will be acceptable and more importantly, what their new house and neighborhood will be like. On the flip side, I've had civilian friends comment about how exciting and even glamourous my life must be. From the inside, living this life certainly doesn't feel that way. Yes, with mobility comes opportunities and we take full advantage of them as they arise. But that doesn't negate the desire to not have to always be on the move. I'd love to not be continually packing and unpacking boxes, trying to make new friends and finding my way around a new community. Someday, someday.....

So where are we from? For the time being we live in the moment and home is where ever the Navy sends us. And at at the moment, that happens to be Belgium.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Le Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey

I loved our recent trip to Normandy, France and was moved beyond belief by the memorials and tributes to the historic events that happened here seventy years ago. But there is more to Normandy than World War II memorials and after two days of visiting cemeteries and battlefields, I was more than ready for a change of pace. So searching for something different, we set off to Normandy's the northwest corner to visit Mont-Saint-Michel and the famous Abbey.

Looking up
Mont-Saint-Michel is one of France's most recognizable landmarks and is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is visited by over 3 million people each year. It is a sight I've seen hundreds of times in travel magazines and websites but nothing could quite prepare me for the experience of seeing the Abbey looming on the horizon for the first time. One minute we were winding our way along narrow roads through apple orchards, cow filled fields and tiny villages. We came around one bend and saw a spire in the distance. As we drew closer we realized that rather than being the steeple of a village church, it was the spire on top of Mont-Saint Michel Abbey that we were seeing. We were still several kilometers from the island when the full Abbey and her environs came into view. Perched on a rocky outcrop between the tidal plains and the sea was our destination. And it was truly breathtaking. 

Cemetery within the grounds
The island itself is quite small; located approximately half a mile from the mainland, it encompasses 247 acres and as of 2009, had a permanent population of 44 residents. A fortification since ancient times due to its strategic location, a church was first built on the site in 709. At the request of the Duke of Normandy, a community of Benedictines settled here in 966, building the first pre-Romanesque church. During the 11th and 12th centuries the abbey was expanded and by the 14th century a perimeter wall was constructed around the entire area to help protect the Abbey from invading armies. During the French Revolution the Abbey served as a prison before being restored in the 19th century. The Abbey's close proximity to shore made it easily accessible for the millions of pilgrims who have flocked to here from its earliest days.

 A window with a view
The Abbey's position at the top of Mont-Saint-Michel is said to best exemplify the way a feudal society was structured--God on top, followed by the abbey and monastery then the great halls, shops and housing with the fishing village and farmer's housing located outside of the walls. Today shops and housing have been replaced by restaurants and trinket peddlers with the fishing village completely obliterated but all of Mont-Saint-Michel remains an impressive sight none the less.

Go prepared to walk; once you reach the island itself, there are hundreds of steps to climb. Upon entering the walls you are greeted by restaurants and shops catering to the tourists. My advise is to skip those and escape up one of the narrow winding staircases. Going to the right will take you up onto the town's walls; left takes you deeper into the heart of the Mont. Here you can follow narrow (as in only accessible to one person at a time) walkways as you make your way up, up, and farther up towards the Abbey itself. When you make it to the large veranda of the Abbey you are rewarded with panoramic views of both land and the sea. From here you can not only see the village below but also watch the tides as they race in at break neck speeds flooding the plain below. From the top the touristy commercialism that you first encountered feels miles away. But when you are ready you can slowly wind you way back down the hill and all of its steps. If you are so inclined you can even dine at one of the restaurants and shop for your souvenirs before hopping the bus or walking back to your car. I prefer walking since the views along the way are pretty spectacular.

Rooftop views towards land

and looking the other way towards the sea

If you go:

Centre des Monuments Nationaux
Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel
50116 Le Mont-Saint Michel, France
02 33 89 80 00

Free to walk through the Mont; admission to the Abbey is 9 Euro / adult, reduced rates for seniors, children and groups.

No cars are allowed on the island. Paid parking is available 2.5 kilometers away with free shuttle service until late at night. It is also possible to walk along a new pedestrian walkway. Any visit for Mont-Saint-Michel requires a lot of walking and a lot of stairs; this is not a handicapped accessible site.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Liberating Belgium- Cendron

Sign post marking the point where Allied troops entered
Belgium in 1944
For all of you World War II buffs out there (and by living in Belgium I'm quickly becoming one myself), today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Cendron, Belgium. On this day in 1944 American troops crossed the border from France and entered Belgium for the first time.

In 1940 the Nazis established a headquarters in nearby (4 kilometers) Forge-Phillipe and thus began the long four year occupation by Hitler's forces. Entire villages were evacuated with the Germans building bunkers on the rolling farmland. Villagers were displaced, farms pillaged and life as Belgians knew it changed forever. So when the American troops came rolling over the border at 09.30 on the morning of  September 2nd, they were welcomed with great fanfare and open arms.

Today the village is little more than a handful of buildings and a monument commemorating their liberation that was dedicated in 1973. However, each year, in the days leading up to the anniversary of the liberation, local residents come out and celebrate. There are reenactments, period music and a grand march following in the footsteps of the liberating soldiers. Young and old, locals and the relatives of American liberators descend upon this tiny hamlet and celebrate.

We had heard about the celebrations this past weekend and decided to check them out since Sidney is all about seeing "the military" these days. Directions were spotty but we had been assured that we couldn't miss it so we found ourselves following small wooden signs as we wound down one narrow lane after another. And then suddenly we were there. American flags flew alongside Belgian ones and the pastures had been turned into makeshift parking lots. A small encampment of canvas tents had been erected in another field. Soldiers dressed in period costumes roamed the muddy streets and the sounds of Doris Day and the Andrew Sisters filled the air. We had arrived too late for the march but spent time checking out the jeeps and the memorial. We walked across the border into France and back again. We chatted with a Belgian soldier who, upon learning we were Americans, told us a bit about the day's events and about the other Americans who were also visiting.

The celebration had a local feel to it; it was missing the big bands and flashy details that I have come to expect at such events. But it all seemed so real. The people celebrating were mostly locals or those who had deep connections to the town. They were celebrating for themselves rather than putting on a show for the outside world. Even decades after the fact, their appreciation for the liberators (in this case Americans) felt genuine. For me, it felt special to be there.

And commemorations like this are happening all over Belgium, and Europe, this year. We are definitely going to make an effort to seek out and visit more celebrations like this. For us, they are once in a life time opportunities.

A liberator's jeep

"The first American troops entered Belgium at this point on
the 2nd of September 1944 at 09.30"

Memorial paying tribute to the Allied forces who
"beat down the monstrous Nazis"