Friday, October 31, 2014

Diverse Skeletons

Last week I took Sidney to the base library's Halloween party. There the kids listened to stories, ate and did craft activities while dressed in their costumes. It was a simple activity but you would never have known it by the excitement the kids expressed for everything that was happening. When it came time for the craft activity Sidney chose the one that involved constructing a skeleton out of Q-tips. He happily taped the white swabs onto black construction paper and when he was finished, sat back to admire his masterpiece. After looking critically at his then at the ones made by the other children, he immediately asked why all of the skeletons looked so different. I explained that just as every person looked different on the outside their skeletons looked different on the inside. He nodded and seemed to accept my answer but his question got me thinking.

It made me realize that we live in a pretty diverse world. Since Sidney was a baby we have lived in foreign environments surrounded by people who both look similar to and different than us, hailing from countries spanning the globe and speaking languages that we understand, at least recognize or can't even place on a map. Because of all this, Sidney has essentially been immersed in natural diversity since his earliest memories and therefore takes this diversity in stride. When describing a classmate or friend from the playground to me he has never once used skin color as a descriptor. He'll talk about the child's clothing, what they were doing or even the language they speak but never has color come into play. And when I look at this playmates while I see a Crayola box of diversity amongst them, he simply sees his peers. They are the kid who has the good snacks, the one who always causes trouble and the boy who doesn't like to play Star Wars. That's it. (And if I describe someone using skin color he simply looks at me strangely). The flags of all of the NATO countries fly near the entrance to the base. A favorite game of Sidney's is to identify as many of the flags as he can. He takes it one step further when identifying a flag and tells me which of his classmates is from that particular country and what languages they speak. And speaking of languages, rather than being turned off by hearing a language he doesn't recognize, Sidney either gets excited and names the language when he hears one he knows or asks what language is being spoken when he can't place it himself. Hearing English does excite him beyond belief and he is quick to identify the differences between American and British English. (We're still working on the distinction between the English dialects of other countries).

I love the fact that at this point in his life Sidney is essentially blind to skin color. He accepts his peers based on what they can and cannot do rather than what they look like. (Perhaps all children do this to some extent). My only wish is that I could harness this openness forever. How much easier would life be if skin color, physical characteristics or language wasn't one of the first things we adults use to identify people with. Obviously none of these traits matter to kids so why do they matter so much to adults?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Mother-In-Law Conundrum

Mother-in-laws. They are the butt of so many jokes and entire movies have been made around the mother-in-law / daughter-in-law relationship. Advice columns regularly post letters from both sides of the table; distraught daughter-in-laws who can't abide by their overbearing mother-in-laws and mother-in-laws who feel as though their daughter-in-laws are the devil's spawn, aren't good enough for their sons or are simply raising their grandchildren the wrong way. Many times these uneasy relationships start long before the wedding begging the question of whether any mother thinks a woman is good enough for her son. One really shouldn't stereotype the mother-in-law relationship since there are so many positive and healthy relationships between mothers and their son's spouses, but for some reason they do. Some mother-in-laws are wonderful, others benign while some are toxic at best and down right horrible at worst. It really runs the gamut.

I am a daughter-in-law. My relationship with my mother-in-law can at best be described as frosty. She has many qualities that make me uncomfortable or on some days down right angry but I will readily give her credit for raising an incredibly caring and sensitive son. At the same time I'm sure her list of my deficiencies as a daughter-in-law is equally extensive. But I was raised to respect my elders and for the first few years of knowing her I bit my tongue entirely when she confronted me with things that frankly I thought were none of her business. Had I been younger or even older at the time I would have likely confronted her comments directly and established boundaries that I was comfortable with from day one. But at the time, and because my relationship with her son was still in the fledgling stages, I said nothing. In hindsight this was a mistake because this only perpetuated my resentment of her since at heart, I am someone who speaks my mind. I finally started speaking my mind when I became a mother myself. To put it mildly, it didn't go well and my honestly continues to place a strain on our relationship. Some days I wonder if our relationship is one I can salvage but I have come to the sad conclusion that because we are both stubborn it is impossible for either one of us to budge or change our ways. Geographic distance makes it a bit easier to deal with this friction and because I love her son deeply I usually do my best to maintain peace when we are together. It isn't easy and sometimes it isn't possible and it pains me to put my husband in a situation where he would need to choose between the two of us. 

But I am also a mother of a son. Although he is barely out of diapers I often find myself thinking about his future and what it might hold. I envision his having a wife, children and a fulfilling life. I would like to think that I will embrace a future wife as she will me but I need to be honest. Will I ever think anyone is good enough for my little boy? How will I feel when I am not the number one female in his life? Will I be able to accept the fact that his focus --as it should--will turn to his new nuclear family rather than me? When I think of my own mother-in-law and our issues, I pause to wonder how I would feel if any future daughter-in-law feels the same way about me. First, it saddens me. Would I honestly be able to step back, even if it meant not being an active part of his life, in order for his relationship with his wife to be stronger? I try to be open minded and view our situation with detached indifference but it is really hard since the issue is so personal. I am just too close to it.

And this is a conversation I've had with several friends who are all mothers of boys. We all think we will be different from our own mother-in-laws. We say we will welcome our daughter-in-laws with open arms and respect their boundaries. We say that we will not critique their parenting skills nor will we comment on how they treat our sons or raise their families. At the moment we promise we won't lay on guilt trips over forgotten birthdays or holidays spent elsewhere since we will recognize that their focus is now on their immediate families. Now we say we will wait for invitations rather than force ourselves on our sons and their families. We promise to step back and go on with our lives if our sons choose to support and side with their spouses over us, the women who gave birth to them.

But will we? I hope so, but only time will tell.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Mulberry Harbor Of Arromanche

The Mulberry Harbor in Arromanche, also known as Gold Beach

We've all heard about the Allied forces landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Perhaps we've seen pictures or watched movies depicting what happened on that fateful date. Or if we're really lucky, we've visited the landing beaches themselves. My family and I had the opportunity to do so this past summer and it was a truly moving and unforgettable experience. As I stood on the flat and sweeping stretches of sand where so much blood had been shed I was struck by this very geography. With dramatic tides and long stretches of sand the beaches were more impressive than any picture could ever depict. I wondered about the soldiers, sailors and their equipment who stormed these beaches. What I hadn't thought about, or even known existed, were the intricately built harbors that had been built by the British to ease the beach landings. These structures were called "Mulberry Harbors".  While the actual origin of the concept for the Mulberry Harbors is disputed what is agreed upon is that these concrete and steel structures were engineering marvels that for six months, enabled the necessary men and equipment to be efficiently brought ashore and therefore power the Allied sweep across German occupied Europe.

Gold Beach and the Mulberry remnants today

The harbors were loosely based upon the World War I German strategy of using sunken ships as jetties. In the months leading up to the D-Day invasion British engineers experimented with various designs for the proposed harbors. The design was to include a series of caissons, or water containing structures, which would create  breakwaters, piers and interconnected roadways which would be used to move equipment from ships to the nearby shore. Not only would they have to hold up to the heavy weight of the tanks and other artillery that would cross their spans, they also had to withstand the heavy sea swells that were common along the Normandy coast. The caissons would be built in England then transported across the English Channel before being reassembled on the Normandy Beaches. It was an ambitious and forward thinking plan but three days after the Allied forces landed in Normandy, two sets of Mulberry Harbors were indeed constructed.

The first, located off of the American landing spot on Omaha Beach, was quickly destroyed by a fierce Atlantic storm. The second one, constructed of 600,000 tons of concrete spread over 33 jetties and spanning a total of ten miles of floating roadways, off the coast of Arromanche, or Gold Beach, withstood the storm. Over the next eight months more than 2.5 million troops, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies rolled ashore along this series of jetties and roadways.

Remnants of the "harbor" today
Today all that remains of this Mulberry Harbor is a series of sea worn concrete bunkers. At low tide they sit like old cast offs on top of the sand while at high tide they are all but invisible. When the tide is low you can walk amongst them, peering inside their hollow hulks and look at their pock marked exteriors. The day we visited was cool yet sunny and a surprisingly large number of brave soles were wading then swimming amongst them as the tide rolled in. If I hadn't seen pictures of what they had looked like, it would have been hard to imagine how they were used. A visit to the nearby Arromanches Cinema Circulaire and the D-Day Museum give you a better sense of the role these novel structures played in the war effort. At the D-Day Museum you can even see a film that provides a complete history of the Mulberry Harbors. Both are well worth the visit and provide a unique insight into an important part of history that many people (Americans at least) never learned about in history class.
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

D-Day Museum
Place du 6 Juin
14117 Arromanches
(33) 02 31 22 34 31
Open daily
7.90 Euro for adults, 5.80 for children and students
Reduced rates for military members

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Story Of Corrie Ten Boom

The story of Anne Frank is perhaps the best known and well documented personal narrative of the horrors inflicted upon Jewish families during the Holocaust. But unfortunately, these conditions were a reality for tens of thousands of Jewish families throughout Europe. During the first part of the 1940s, as millions of Jews were being rounded up by the Gestapo and marched away to concentration camps, other families were putting themselves at risk by hiding the persecuted within their homes. Whether they did it out of principle, religious conviction or moral obligation, their brave actions saved the lives of thousands of innocent people who would have otherwise perished in Germany's death chambers. One such family who risked everything, and made the ultimate sacrifice for their actions, was the Ten Boom family of Haarlem, The Netherlands.

The Ten Booms were a devout Christian family who earned their living at their clock and watch shop while actively pursuing and contributing to social causes in Haarlem in the century leading up to World War II. Even before the War their house served as a refuge of sorts for anyone who was in need of assistance. As the Gestapo began rounding up Jews, the Ten Booms provided them, along with students who refused to cooperate with the enemy and members of the Dutch underground resistance movement, temporary shelter until they could be smuggled out of Haarlem to safer areas. They knew their actions were placing them in danger but standing by their convictions, they continued to provide a place of refuge to those in need until they were betrayed and taken to the Ravensbruck concentration camp in northern Germany. Corrie survived her ordeal but her 84 year old father and sisters did not. In the thirty-two years following her release from the prison Corrie travelled to sixty-four countries spreading the word of her Christian faith. Her family home above the clock shop was turned into a museum that continues to serve as an open house for visitors who wish to come and learn more about her family's beliefs and brave actions.

Today no visit to Haarlem would be complete without visiting the Corrie Ten Boom House. It is easy to miss since it is tucked away on along a narrow street. A jewelry and clock shop sits on the first floor the same way it did when the ten Boom family resided here. The building is actually two houses that have been cobbled together into one with a ship's mast serving as an anchor. You would never know this by looking at it from the outside, thus making it the perfect place for hidden nooks, hallways and rooms. On the day of my visit the English speaking guide led us up a narrow set of stairs and into what had been the family's front parlor. Sitting amongst the original piano and walls lined with family portraits, she relayed the story of the Ten Booms to us. Their story is so moving and made more so as I was able to gaze at portraits of the actual house residents while she spoke. Later in tour we were lead up more narrow stairs and into the hiding room, a space built behind Corrie's bedroom where people took refuge when the Gestapo came calling. I was able to climb through the wall and into the narrow hiding space that sheltered people for hours on end. I can only imagine how dark and stifling it must have been but the alternative was simply unthinkable. I've walked and stood in a lot of history since we moved to Europe but standing in the very place where lives were saved was truly a moving experience and one that shouldn't be missed.

If you go:

Corrie Ten Boom House
Barteljorisstraat 19, 2011 RA Haarlem
The Netherlands
 0031 (0) 23 5310 823

Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00 to 15.30
Closed on Dutch holidays
Tours are free but donations are gladly accepted

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Littlest Butterfly

Raising boys; its enough to make my hairs turn gray. Sidney has always had an independent streak which is simultaneously wonderful and frustrating. Whether it is picking out his own colorful outfits or the games he plays on the playground, he marches to his own drum and doesn't openly care what others have to say about it. This makes him less susceptible to giving in to peer pressure (which is a good thing) but this same behavior is also increasingly drawing negative attention to himself (and this is a bad thing). So here is the issue I am pondering as of late: how do I encourage independence, creativity and non-conformity while not exposing my son to undue ridicule, potentially being picked on or generally setting him on a coarse for a harder path through childhood?

Sidney is small for his age (its honestly in his genes) which in itself is going to make for a long and sometimes turbulent course through childhood. But why is this? It is all so unfair that boys are expected to be bigger and stronger yet it is acceptable, if not desirable, for girls to be smaller and more fragile in stature. So much of this is dependent upon genetics so is it that as a society we look look down upon smaller people (especially males) who really have no control over their height? Even at the ripe old age of five I see the games that go on in school and the taunts that are made because of size. Until recently Sidney has never let his small size stop him; he's scrappy and fast and is the first to jump into the game and try something. But in recent months Sidney has been asking why he is so small and when he will grow bigger. I encourage healthy eating and tell him that he will grow but he wants to know when. As in a date and time when he will be the size of his peers. I just don't have an answer for this inquiry.

Through a series of recent unpleasant events I've learned that Sidney is being picked on by one of his  larger classmates and thus his desire to be bigger and taller. This simply breaks my heart. This same boy--a fellow American--taunts Sidney by calling him names, teasing him until he is on the brink of tears and on more than one occasion has even pushed, poked and choked him in class. Sidney feels that if he was bigger he wouldn't be the object of this boy's attacks. I'm not sure this is entirely the case since physical size is only part of it. Mindset and personality are the other. As rough and tough as he can be, he is also incredibly sensitive at times. And he is still a little boy. One who will play with girls as long as other boys aren't around ("because they will make fun of him"). Sidney is a little boy who doesn't like loud noises and is afraid of the dark. He wants to be liked and have friends and his feelings can sometimes be easily hurt. But somehow, for some reason, being small, sensitive and with a strong streak of individuality has made Sidney the object of this other boy's torment.

The physical assaults are horrifying but it is the words that are the most upsetting, and leave the longest lasting scars, of all. As far as I know, the physical assaults are no longer happening and things have calmed down in class but the words and taunts are continuing. (Of course I am only hearing one side of this story so I am a tiny bit skeptical). Words can be easier to hide and in the vast space that is the lunchroom and even worse, the playground, a large, loosely supervised area filled with children playing and proving themselves the way growing children do, words are often the weapon of choice. He's asked me what certain words mean. Words that I don't want to repeat let alone put in writing. Sidney has heard them someplace and he tells me that these are words that this other boy calls him. I in turn find myself at a loss for appropriate words. I can tell him that these are words we don't repeat, that they aren't nice. I can tell Sidney not to use them in reference to others because he knows how it feels to be called them. Teachers can't see and hear everything and kids will be kids. But how much is too much? And most importantly, how do I instill confidence in my son while protecting him and realistically, not making him the target of increased negative attention.

But most of all I am angry. Yes, I am angry at this boy, and by default his parents, since he has to be hearing and learning about these things someplace. But most of all, I am angry and disappointed in our culture that sets stereotypes and stifles individuality. And I hate the fact that I actually found myself suggesting to Sidney that he not say, do or wear things that might make him a further target of ridicule. Am I no better than our culture by suggesting that my son needs to conform to these pervasive stereotypes? As a mother I want to protect him from harm but I also want to encourage creativity and freedom of speech. But like I said, I want to protect him....

So for the past few weeks Sidney's class has been studying butterflies. They've talked about the phases of a butterfly's life and have even watched their own cocoons turn into butterflies. Sidney has been mesmerized by this lesson and has taken to running, flapping his arms and chanting that he is a butterfly. Yes, my little camouflage clad boy is proclaiming independence by identifying as a butterfly. He does this at home, on the playground and the soccer field. He's also the same boy who continues to spend hours playing soldier, racing matchbox cars and trains like there is no tomorrow and then goes to sleep sucking his thumb and clutching his favorite baby blanket. He is only five, but......

What is a mother to do? His teacher can serve as a buffer in the classroom and I can at home but neither protects him from the realities of the larger world. If it isn't this bully it will be the next one. Sidney is small yet tough, creative and caring, sensitive and stubborn. Part of the beauty of our society is that we all have differing views, opinions, and expectations. We don't all have to be friends but we really should respect each other. This is something I can teach my son. I can also help him put a Teflon coating on his butterfly wings then trust him to fly.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Names & Faces

You know you have settled into a community when you begin to readily recognize people. Its a comforting feeling; no longer is everyone you see a stranger, rather you are all a part of the same community. But simply recognizing someone doesn't mean you know them. Even after you begin to greet them when you see them, do you really know them if you don't know their name?

Right now we are living in a diverse but relatively small community. Where ever I go I immediately recognize the people I see and I can categorize them into where I know them from. There is the staff at the post office, the clerks at the store and even the gate guards who check my ID each time I drive by. There are the people who hit the gym each morning at the same time I do; the moms who shop on base immediately after dropping their kids off at school and the people who stop by the cafe for coffee each afternoon before picking their children up. And of course there are the parents, mostly moms again, who I recognize from Sidney's school and soccer team. I can recognize most of them by the class their child attends and if they are one of Sidney's class or teammates I know them as that child's mom. With this group I am known as "Sidney's mom". (All this makes me wonder whether we all follow the same schedule!). But do I know their names? For the most part no.....It is all strangely anonymous but not really.

I'd been pondering this not knowing any one's name issue for awhile. First, I'm horrible when it comes to remembering names so even if I've heard it once I'm likely to forget it. Second, after talking to someone on a daily basis (fellow moms for example) it feels awkward to months later, as, someone what their name is. Sometimes Glenn and I will serve as each other's foil with one of us introducing ourselves to someone the other knows yet doesn't know their name. But inevitably we all quickly return to being known quasi-anonymous as so-and-so's parent.

But last week something changed. Like I said, I pass the same people each day as I go about my routine. I was at the post office and walked passed a fellow American mom who I see just about every morning and afternoon. We both smiled at each other but then as I passed her she stopped and introduced herself telling me that she saw me everywhere but didn't know my name. Here I was feeling the very same thing but she took the step to change all of that. We made our introductions then went along our way (with my repeating her name to myself several times so that I wouldn't forget it). Since that interaction I've seen her just about every day and we now greet each other not only with a smile but an acknowledgement using our names. As simple as it is, it feels so much nicer.

And her initiative has now spurred one of my own. At a minimum of once a week (I do need to remember all of the names after all), I am going to make it my mission to actually introduce myself by name to someone I see regularly and inquire about their own as well. I've already done it twice and I am now able to refer to people by their names rather than as the mom of Sidney's classmate ______. I wish I had started doing this sooner since my already small community is suddenly feeling cozier and more friendly than it was before. I love it. Now I can't promise that I am going to remember every one's name but I'm going to give it my best shot.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Leuven Connection

The library at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Leuven, Belgium, located just outside of Brussels has a long and stored history centered around academia. As early as 1425, when the "old university" was established, there has always been a university located within its confines. The history of the university is like that of so much of the rest of Europe; occupation and independence drove the names, missions and very language in which academics were taught. Is French the official language or is it Dutch (actually Flemish in this part of Belgium). These debates caused the splitting and creation of separate institutions yet none of these arguments were as horrific as the damage that fell upon the university's main library during World War I. And it was this damage that created a connection between my dear alma mater, Mount Holyoke College (as well as other American universities and colleges) and what is now the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven. 

For most brick and mortar schools, their libraries serve as the centerpiece of their campuses. They are often the keepers of history, the archives of their schools, their communities and even their countries. They are the places where students and professors gather, where thoughts are pondered, where papers are researched and written and where so much learning takes place. (I imagine that I spent more hours in the library at Mount Holyoke than I did any other place on campus). By all accounts, they are sacred buildings. And this is what makes what happened to the library at Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven during World War I so horrific.

During August 1914, the town of Leuven was occupied by German soldiers who in revenge agains the residents eventually looted, burned and destroyed the entire town. The library, along with other public buildings and churches, was looted of many treasures then burned by German soldiers. Over 300,000
The Mount Holyoke pillar
books were burned as well as irreplaceable manuscripts, and 1,000 incunabula, or pamphlets, which dated to before 1501. This pillaging of the town was cited as an example of German atrocities and war crimes by allied forces. In the aftermath of the war the library was rebuilt bigger and grander than ever. The Americans took the lead in rebuilding the library and the Flemish-Rennaissance style building was designed by American architect Whitney Warren. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans were required to donate 13 million Marks worth of books as part of their reparation. When it was completed the library was viewed as a very public statement of the allied victory over Germany. There was global outrage over the library's destruction and donations of books poured in from all over the world. Mount Holyoke was just one of the many institutions who contributed to the library's rebirth. Unfortunately, because disaster can strike in the same place twice, the library was once again burned in 1940 in a fire that was believed to have been started because of an exchange of gunfire between the German and Allied armies. Once again the library was rebuilt to Warren's specifications and the 900,000 books and manuscripts that were lost were replaced through another global outpouring of support. By 1968 the library's collection topped 4 million books. 

A fellow Mount Holyoke alumnae first told me about the connection between our alma mater and the university in Leuven. Since Leuven is a quick train ride away from me I decided that I needed to go see the library and the "Mount Holyoke pillar" for myself. Today the library anchors the broad Ladeuzeplein Square. From a distance the library looks like many of the impressive buildings that fill European cities but as you approach it you can see that this building is indeed different. The names of many American colleges, universities and prep schools are etched into the stones of the exterior of the library. The large columns that create the covered entryway of the library hold the names of others. Mount Holyoke College is one of those represented. Each of these academic institutions aided and supported the rebuilding of the library following its destruction. In return, they have their name on a small piece of granite a world away from their own libraries. 

Since its founding in 1837 my alma mater has been an institution whose efforts and alumnae span the globe. I've long known about the missionaries and pioneers who graduated from Mount Holyoke and set off to share their skills around the globe. I've also known about the College's own efforts to make education globally accessible to all. I didn't know about their efforts in post War Belgium. I now do and once again feel proud to call myself an alumnae. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Squish Two

As a mother I know I put my own health concerns last. Often I will ignore the pain or the ache that doesn't feel just right when it is my own body. I make sure Sidney attends his well child check-ups on schedule, has all of his vaccines at the appropriate times; essentially I do everything I can to make sure he is healthy. Glenn is a harder nut to crack. The man is adverse to doctors and medicine and feels that "drinking a glass of water" is the cure for all that ails us. But because he is active duty military and is required to endure a flight physical once a year, I feel better knowing that a doctor will check him out on an annual basis. As for myself, I have noticed my own share of increased aches, pains, and things that just don't feel right in recent years and have been making a concerted effort to visit the doctor when something feels wrong with my body. But it is equally as important to not wait until something is obviously wrong before going to the doctor. As we all know, preventive health care is the key to staying healthy. And as a woman of a certain age, part of that preventive health care includes regular mammograms.

No one says they are fun. As anyone who has stood in a cold room and had their naked breast manipulated and squished between an even colder press can tell you, mammograms can be down right uncomfortable. But not enduring those brief moments of discomfort can bring about even longer lasting, and often preventable pain and suffering. According to the Centers for Disease Control, breast cancer is the second most common cancer amongst women in the United States with 211,731women being diagnosed and close to 41,000 women dying from the cancer in 2009 alone. This translates into roughly one in eight American women receiving a breast cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives. (Take a look around the room and see exactly what one in eight looks like). Family history is a strong indicator of being more susceptible to being diagnosed with breast cancer but 85% of breast cancer diagnoses occur in women without a family history of the disease. But the statistics are not all grim.  The earlier cancer is detected the greater the survival rates. There are approximately 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States alone. The easiest way to detect early breast cancer is through a mammogram. And thanks to increased breast cancer awareness campaigns and increased access to affordable health care, just over 61% of American women have had a mammogram. We still have a long way to go but each procedure is a step, or squish, in the right direction.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month so if you are a woman, now is as good of a time as any to have your exam. Exams are covered by most health insurance plans and many communities sponsor free breast exam clinics during this month in order to make preventive health care more accessible to everyone. I've had my exam for the year and I will continue to do self exams every month until my next mammogram.  I challenge all of my woman friends to do the same.  And for my male friends, please encourage the women in your life to do it as well. Its a squish that could save a very important life.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Finding Contentment

I spent part of this past weekend with a group of wonderful Mount Holyoke College alumnae. Our ages span the generations and our current homes are located in all parts of Europe but collectively we are smart, funny, intellectually curious and well travelled. We are all well spoken, opinionated and strive to be the best at whatever we do. As is the case whenever I spend time with fellow alumnae, I return from a gathering feeling intellectually stimulated and emotionally rejuvenated. And as is also always the case, a part of me feels slightly out of sorts and unsettled, simultaneously being proud of what I have accomplished yet wondering whether I could have or should be doing more with my life.

But this feeling and questioning isn't new as I've always second guessed my life choices and decisions and sometimes, but not always, regretted those that I've made or wished for spontaneous "re-dos". (Wouldn't life be wonderful if our 40 something year old voices could guide our 20 something year old minds in their decision making process?). There is something about being around such accomplished and (at least outwardly) confident women that causes me to step back, pause and reevaluate. And that is just what I've been doing this past week.

Its been years since I've had what I would consider a career. I gave up a full time job--one I didn't love but that was at least in my career field since the pickings were slim in our area-- shortly before Sidney was born and have only worked sporadically since then. In the past five years we've moved three times, including two over seas moves, I became competent in a new language and am refreshing my skills in another and for two and a half years I did work in a job that filled my time yet left me feeling inadequate in many ways. Now I am my all accounts a stay-at-home mom. I used to wonder what it was that these mothers did all day and I know that days are busier than I ever imagined they could be. And my hat goes off to stay-at-home moms, but it is the hardest, and least intellectually fulfilling, job I have ever had. I spend too much time driving around and sitting in traffic, have learned all of the popular songs with the five year old set and can now add soccer mom / playground referee / cheer leader in chief to my resume. Yes, my days are busy running from one place to another yet my routine leaves me feeling lacking and needing more. In an attempt to fill that need I'm taking both French and painting classes, spend hours at the gym and volunteering for a variety of activities. But this past weekend, as I explained what it was I did all day to inquiring minds, I realized how inadequate it all sounded. Of course my audience was career driven women who owned their own businesses or were racing up the promotion ladder at their international corporations while juggling multi-faceted family lives. In comparison my day just sounded so simple. The very idea that I would be the one following my spouse rather than having him follow me seemed confusing to some.

But despite our current differences, we all shared a common alma mater and conversation naturally turned to our college days. When posed with the question of what I wish I had done differently in college, I paused. What would I have done differently? I loved my American history major and can play a mean game of Jeopardy but well into my senior year I realized how unspecific and not really marketably it was. The year I graduated I was one of thousands of liberal arts majors hustling for a job. In hindsight would I have selected a different major? I don't know. Do I wish I had gone to law school after working for a couple of years the way I wrote in my graduation announcement that was sent to my home town newspaper? Not really. Should I have pursued a more mobile career path? Probably, but then again my twenty year old self never imagined that I'd be living the life I am today. Do I regret jumping off of the career track to move to Virginia when I met my now husband? Absolutely not. Sure I wish there had been real job opportunities for me there but I can say with confidence that I knew what I was getting into when I said "yes". And being a mother? Despite the moments when I simply want to pull out my hair, it is the most rewarding (and scary) endeavor I have ever taken on.

So am I content? Mostly......Time with Mount Holyoke alumnae does make me question where I am, what I am doing and how things could have been different. But it also makes me appreciate where I am and what I have. All of the decisions I have made to date bring me to the place I am today. For a brief moment I missed being the one who had the job, the fancy title and the professional responsibility but then I reconsidered. After all, I don't miss being attached to a Blackberry, having to put on suits every day and having to endure the stress of missing deadlines that are out of my control. The only organization I will ever be CEO of is Household Brown and despite Glenn's musings, we won't be able to live off of the earnings from my blogging in our post-military life.  I am not by any stretch of the imagination an uber wife, mother, housekeeper and cook but I can happily hold my own on all of those fronts. I have an amazing and diverse network of friends that span the globe. Because of the decisions that have been made I have the opportunity to pursue interests that I would never have the time to do if I was working outside of the home. And I must admit, it is kind of nice.

This is the path I have chosen and I embrace it. This coming year is going to be one of college reunions and get togethers so naturally there will be more reflection and occasional self doubt on my part. But life is short and there is absolutely no time for regrets. Questions and reconsiderations, yes, but regrets? Absolutely not.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October: National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Each year during this time, advocates, supporters, and survivors take to the streets and airwaves in an effort to bring awareness to this growing epidemic that strikes all too close to home. We live in a society where it is hard enough for women to come forward and admit that they are being hurt by their spouses and partners so it is just that much more difficult for men to do so.  While statistics show that most victims of domestic violence are women (three out of every four) that means men are victims too. Statistics regarding male violence are even harder to come by than those for women and they vary more as well.  But they are real and any number is one too many.  Regardless of how the numbers pan out, it is undeniable then men are also hurt by violence inside of the home and when one person is hurt, everyone is affected by it.

In college I was part of a campus wide effort that raised awareness about the effects of domestic violence.  Being that we had an all female student body, our focus was primarily on violence perpetrated against women by men but also female on female violence.  Domestic violence against men was never a topic we discussed or acknowledged.  After college I volunteered at a local shelter and was part of a hot line that answered calls from victims of domestic abuse.  I only received a few calls during my time (wo)manning the hot line but I did receive one call from a man.   Despite all of my training I remember my naive shock that a man was on the other end of the line (and not in the taunting or harassing way that angry men occasionally called the unlisted number).  This man simply needed someone to listen as he questioned whether the verbal and occasional physical assaults inflicted upon him by his wife were abuse.  In the end he answered his questions for himself but I remember my heart breaking as I listened to him talk, cry, and question.  (Emotions know no gender).  I still remember this call close to 20 years later and often wonder what became of him and his wife.   I never knew his name so I'll never know but I still wonder.  And unfortunately, he was definitely not an anomaly since men are victims of domestic violence as well.

Domestic violence can take many forms; it may be physical, verbal, or emotional and is often a combination of all three.  It is estimated that 835,000 men in the United States are physically assaulted by their intimate partners each year.  While physical abuse is apt to leave scars and outward telltale signs, verbal and emotional abuse can be even more damaging.  Insults, undue criticisms, and name calling may not leave physical wounds but their scars are present just the same.   While physical abuse is easier to identify--after all a physical strike is a physical strike-- emotional and verbal abuse is more difficult to identify. When is nagging or henpecking something more?  How does one identify where the line lies?  Like its physical sibling, emotional abuse wears people down and does lasting damage.  None of this is healthy behavior and all of it is detrimental to individuals, families, and communities.

Regardless of the gender of the perpetrator or subject of abuse, any violence inside of the home effects everyone who lives there.  Young or old, male or female, being subjected to or simply witnessing violence is detrimental to the household unit.  It all must stop now.  As such, I'm writing this blog entry to do my little part to raise awareness about this terrifying topic.  And you too, can do your part. If you suspect someone is a victim, reach out to them and offer your support.  If you can, attend a local awareness event in your community or volunteer your time and resources to an organization that supports survivors of domestic violence.  Every bit really does help.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Lion's Mound & The Battle Of Waterloo

Lion's Mound: whether visiting or just
driving past, it is a distinctive sight to see
War has come a long way in the past two hundred years and nothing exemplifies this more than a visit to the Lion's Mound in Waterloo, Belgium. The site of Napoleon's last stand, the Lion's Mound and the adjacent panorama museum introduce visitors to one of the great wars of the world that helped shape the course of modern European history.

It was here, in the middle of Belgian farmland that 300,000 soldiers representing six nations met in battle on the 18th of June 1815. Under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington, the British Army and their new shrapnel cannonballs met Napoleon's soldiers. The battle proved to be bloody all around with both sides amassing a total of 75,000 casualties and losses.

Today, looking at the still pristine farmland that surrounds the Mound, it is hard to fathom the violence and death that occurred here. Visitors can climb the 226 steps up to the top of the hill to view the battlefields. The mound took three years to build and was completed in 1826. The lion itself is 40 meters high and was erected in the supposed spot where the Prince of Orange (who later became the King of the Netherlands) was injured during the battle. The lion, designed by royal architect Charles Van der Straeten under the order of William I, is symbolic of the allies victories and his paw sits on a globe "announcing the peace that Europe was won in the plains of Waterloo". On the day we visited it was clear and from the summit we could watch farmers harvesting their crops and treasure hunters plying the same fields with metal detectors in hope of finding a war relic. Even with the highway traffic in the distance, it was so incredibly serene and peaceful that it was hard to imagine the battle that had been fought down below.

I enjoyed the views from the top of the Lion's Mound but for me, viewing the 360 degree panoramic fresco of the battle is what brought the battle to life and drove home the harsh realities of war. Unlike today, where modern technology has made much of war impersonal, soldiers fighting in 1815 came face to face with their enemies. In fact, that was really the only way to fight. Upon entering the panoramic room visitors are greeted by the sounds of war; rifles, cannon blasts and the neighing of horses make the battle seem real. Standing above the panorama and looking down, you can see the detailed images of soldiers from all armies engaged in hand to hand combat. There are images of injured soldiers lying beside their fallen horses while their comrades fight over their dying corpses. Perhaps the most eerie and unnerving part of the scene are those battalions who are standing in the distance watching the fighting and waiting their turn to enter into the fray. What must it have been like to watch hundreds of your peers being slaughtered knowing that your turn was next? The scene is extremely powerful and morbid, but then again, so is war.

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The site is currently being updated in anticipation of the celebrations. We plan on visiting again next year and if you are in the BENELUX area during 2015, you too should visit to experience a small, but pivotal part of history.

Just a small section of the 360 degree panoramic painting depicting the Battle of Waterloo

If you go:

Route du Lion 315
1420 Braine-l-Alleud (Waterloo)

Open: 09.30-18.30 1st of April - 30th of September
          10:00- 17:00 1st of October - 31st of March

Adults: 7.50 Euro to visit the Lion's Mound and Panorama, children 7 and over 4.50 Euro

+32 (0)2 385 19 12

There is a cafe adjacent to the visitor's center which has an impressive selection of Belgian beers and so-so food.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Belgian Warm Fuzzies

Education is a worldwide phenomenon yet the philosophy and approach to teaching, educating and disciplining children is as varied as the countries spanning the globe. Everyone thinks their approach, or the approach they are accustomed to, is the right one and anyone who doesn't abide by it is simply put, harming their children. But that obviously isn't the case since educational systems around the globe are putting out smart, educated and well adjusted students who haven't been permanently scarred by their experiences in school. Where you sit depends upon where you stand and when two cultures and philosophies collide, it isn't always pretty or comfortable.

We are in our second year of Sidney attending a Belgian school. We had done our homework prior to enrolling him and knew that the Belgian approach to education, even at the pre-school level, was different than American norms but we were accepting of that. (After all, we are visitors in their country so why should we expect them to follow American educational norms?). In fact, we even embraced the strict yet loving approach to teaching. Students are excepted to arrive at school ready to learn, formal education is supposed to enhance rather than serve as a substitute for learning at home and parents are expected to support teachers rather than be confrontational with them. Respect is expected all around between students and teachers, teachers and students, parents and teachers and teachers and parents. Sidney's Belgian school doesn't put out pleas for parent volunteers yet when our services are needed, we are notified as such. Rather than coddling students Belgians believe in the "band aid" approach of jumping right into a problem rather than letting students dwell on what might come next. Teacher's voices are occasionally raised, in a way that would never happen in American schools without dire consequences. The American in me does bristle at this on occasion. Communication isn't necessarily open and forthcoming but in our case much of that may be attributed to our lack of a solid understanding of the French language. Belgian madams certainly don't coddle their students (there aren't any special snowflakes in the classrooms) yet they are loving and obviously care for their students. This is evidenced by the warm greetings and farewells on the parts of both students and their madame each morning. So entering our second year of school I thought I had adjusted to the quirky--i.e. non-American--way of doing things. In fact I really liked it. Perhaps it is simply our situation but this school year is off to a much better start than last year. Sidney readily jumps out of bed each morning and looks forward to going to school. What more could a parent ask for?

But then things changed. Over the past couple of weeks Sidney has mentioned that one boy in his class is occasionally mean to him. When we asked what this meant he would explain that he liked to grab him by the neck and tug and poke at him. Naturally suspicious we asked Sidney what he was doing to antagonize this boy since any problems Sidney had during the last school year stemmed from him annoying other children. He defended himself and said was just sitting there. This conversation has been ongoing until earlier this week when Sidney calmly informed us that he no longer loved school and he wasn't going back. Further probing revealed that this boy was still up to his old tricks. This surprised me since the school had never mentioned any problems to me. Sidney wanted me to talk to his madame but only by telephone. Eventually he reluctantly agreed to go to school and let me talk to her in person. And this is what I did.

When I approached his madame she immediately knew what I was talking about (which made me feel better) and assured me that it was an ongoing problem with many kids and that they were working on it. She then marched the offending child over to me, introduced me as Sidney's mother and told him that I was angry that he was hurting my son. She told him that if he did it again she would then call his father. I was slightly taken aback but not really surprised, by this confrontational approach. She then told him to apologize to me which he refused to do other than giving me a cocky grin. Next Sidney was pulled into the mix and this boy was yet again told to not touch Sidney and Sidney was reminded to tell madame if he did. I jumped in and reminded Sidney that he was not to touch or do anything to this boy (since I'm still not one hundred percent convinced that my son is a completely innocent party in all of this). The two boys were then told to shake hands and while Sidney stuck out his hand to obey the other boy only did so under the madame's guidance. Only time will tell if this intervention will work.

But this story is just an antidote to some of the differences between the American, and in this case Belgian, approaches to education, learning and school discipline. I'm not sure I completely agree with the approach but who I am to complain or question? This is neither an American, American licensed nor American funded school. If I really don't like what is happening I am free to pull my son from the school at any time. I have no expectation of them changing their ways to appease me, or any other parent for that matter--that is not the Belgian way. (Besides, it seems as though at this school which is attended by students from all NATO countries, only the Americans regularly take issue with what goes on). Although there are uncomfortable moments, and honestly, in what school wouldn't there be, I think the entire Belgian school experience is really good for Sidney. So good, in fact, that we are seriously considering enrolling him in the Belgian elementary school next year instead of the expected American elementary school. Their curriculum is light years ahead of that at the American school and the French immersion alone is a valuable life long lesson. Is it a warm and fuzzy environment? Not really but then again, we don't live in a warm and fuzzy world.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

In The Valley Of The Seven Chateaux: Chateau De Vianden

The chateau, high on a hill overlooking
the town of Vianden
Here's part two of my Luxembourg / Valley of the Seven Chateaux adventure: the Chateau de Vianden in the picturesque town of Vianden. Located on the German border (you can literally look at Germany from the chateau), this chateau is the best known of all of the chateaus in the Valley of the Seven Chateaux. Even people who have never visited are probably familiar with it as Patrick Swayze's George and the Dragon and portions of The Three Musketeers was filmed here.

Dominating the skyline of Vianden, the chateau is perched on a hill 310 meters above the town. Portions of the castle dates back to the 10th Century but due to a series of expansions that took place between the 11th and 17th Centuries, the castle combines elements of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. As each occupant sought to leave his mark on this grand castle, the footprint enlarged and the style took on the trend of the day. It should all result in a mishmash of style but it actually makes the castle quite grand.

The changing of possession of the castle didn't always come about peacefully or easily. The castle was abandoned in the 16th Century before being reclaimed then confiscated by various branches of the Luxembourg's royal families. In 1820 King William I sold the castle to a local alderman who pillaged the castle, selling off ornate doors, paneling, tiles and other trimmings, thus hastening the castle's ruin. Restorations began at the end of the 19th Century only to be disrupted by World War I. During World War II's Battle of Vianden the castle was defended by anti-Nazi resistance members and survived intact. Restoration resumed in the 1960s only to be hampered by questions of ownership. In 1977 ownership was passed onto the State at which time the castle was gradually returned to its current restored state.

Another view of the chateau

Because I visited with a group, we were fortunate to have an English speaking guide who enthusiastically lead us through the entire castle and brought her long and storied history to life. We started at the bottom and worked our way up to the top before wielding our way back down to the very bottom and the chateau's hidden wine cellar. After years of neglect (which seems to be the story of so many of Europe's grand castles), the grand rooms had been painstakingly restored. Many were furnished with period, but not original, pieces of furniture, giving us a glimpse of what life had been like for those living in the castle. I am continually amazed at the ornate yet exceptionally small beds that filled the sleeping chambers. From the rooftop we could take in views of the valley below us and from the covered atria, the space where ladies could take in the fresh air without being in the sun, we were able to look across the river to Germany. We toured both levels of the in-house chapel; the ornately decorated yet stark one where royalty worshipped and the underground cavern that opened to the chapel above where the servants could hear the services above. One of the final stops on our tour was the small genealogy room where the royal lineage of Luxembourg was traced on the wall. We saw the family tree, complete with its direct lines and jags as well as portraits and photographs of each generation of the ruling family of Luxembourg. And of course, no castle would be complete without a company of knight's armor and corresponding weaponry. (Seeing the small stature of the knights made the afore mentioned small beds almost make sense).

Peak through the windows in Luxembourg......and you see Germany

How can you not love a chateau with its own wine cellar?

If you go, take the chair lift to the top then walk down. On the way up you'll be rewarded with sweeping views of both the chateau and the surrounding town and river valley. From the top of the chair lift there is a short walk down a wooded path to the chateau. This path is not handicapped accessible and should probably not be attempted if it is raining or the ground is wet.

A view from the chair lift

If you go:

Chateau de Vianden
Vianden Luxembourg
Open daily from 10.00 to 18.00 (high season) and 10.00 to 16.00 (low season)
6 Euro for adults, 2 Euro for children ages 6-12, reduced rates for students and seniors
There is an on-site cafe serving drinks and light refreshments

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Can you rewrite history? Apparently in Colorado they are going to give it their best shot. In Golden, Colorado the school board is taking issue with the College Board's revision of the United States History Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum. Conservatives in this Denver suburb claim that the new curriculum paints America's history is a darker and more negative light than before and therefore doesn't highlight America's "exceptionalism". According to one school board member, a new subcommittee is being set up to assure that history courses taught in this solidly middle class suburb "present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage and promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system".  She further noted that "materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder or social strife". (The complete Washington Post article can be found here). Um...because America was founded on the principles of love and peace, right?

But Colorado isn't the only state that is looking at the way our country's history is being taught. Texas is already on record for opposing the teaching of the new AP curriculum in their schools and South Carolina and Tennessee are contemplating following suit. Opponents of the new curriculum claim it teaches a revisionist history of our country and one mother, a college history major herself, opposes the curriculum on the grounds that it was reviewed and approved by college history professors who "by and large, are on the left". The recurring theme that opponents keep returning to is the fact that students are not being taught about their "exceptionalism". Their message seems to be that if students aren't taught that they and their country are great, then they aren't learning the important parts of their history. I have so many thoughts on this.... Perhaps students should be able to infer this for themselves rather than being told. And greatness is all in a perspective; what made one act seem great was undoubtedly at the expense of someone or something else. Does it benefit someone from a Native American heritage to sit in a class and be told that his people were "bad" while the white settlers were "good". And then there is the phrase of "exceptionalism" itself. That seems to be the catch phrase that is applied to a whole generation of children yet if everyone is branded as exceptional, what does that really mean?

On the other side of the argument are many students and educators who will be affected by the changes. They are taking to the streets and protesting the school board's actions---thus creating the civil unrest the board so wants to stifle. And then there is the American Historical Association who endorses the new curriculum for the very challenging students and teaching them a broader perspective of our history. James Grossman, chief executive of the association says it best with teaching history is a choice "between a more comfortable national history and a more unsettling one. There's always pressure to use history to unite a people, to create a comfortable sense of yourselves." We all do it.  Really, it is so much nicer to be in our comfort zone and feel good about ourselves, our personal stories and our history. But it this reality?

I was an American history major in college. I attended an elite, undoubtedly liberal, East Coast college where I shared classroom space with women from all socio-economic and political backgrounds, haling from every state in the country as well as countries spanning the globe. My classes were taught but highly educated professors who taught us the good and bad, the pretty and yes, the ugly of our country's history. We were challenged to always think about what we were reading and hearing from varying perspectives and to never accept anything as fact without questioning it.

And do you know what I learned? I learned that history is rarely pretty; sure it can be glossed over but in doing so, the important lessons of our past are lost. And in losing our past we are forgetting the important lessons that shaped our country into what it is today. Twenty years later I still clearly remember something my favorite history professor said. On the cusp of our graduation he told us that those who forget or ignore their history are doomed to repeat it. Think about that. Is that the direction we want our proud country to move towards?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Blame Is The Name Of The Game

Blame. All too often people would rather pass it along rather than taking ownership if it is theirs. So who is at fault when someone messes up? What about when an organization is on the line for dropping the ball? Is the the big boss, the worker bee or middle management who is at fault? Who decides and how do they decide? What about when the problem is with a government agency? Do the rights civil servants take precedent over those of political appointees? Or vice versa.

 I am pondering all of this in the wake of the most recent government scandal. This time it is the Secret Service that has come under fire and intense scrutiny; just a few months ago it was the Veteran's Administration, and before that it was the Department of State. In these overly publicized instances a series of high profile mistakes (?), instances of poor judgement (?) cover ups and issues of mismanagement (?) have raised both political and public ire at institutions that are supposed to maintain security serve and protect the people. So why does this happen and more importantly, what is to be done about it? Surely yet another congressional inquiry is not going to solve the problem..... Sadly, it seems as though very public mistakes have become the norm in our society. It begs the question of whether there have always been mistakes that were easier to hide in a less connected world or if suddenly the officials we trust to run our government just aren't doing their jobs as well as their predecessors did.

In the above cited incidents, rabid members of Congress were awakened out of their slumber and held hearing where they ultimately held the politically appointed heads of these agencies responsible for the actions of the people below them. I am all for responsibility and accountability going all the way up to the top of the chain of command but it isn't always as clear cut as it should be. Politically appointed agency and department leaders inherit institutions with deep cultures and ways of doing things. That isn't to say that they shouldn't change things, in fact they are usually appointed to do just that. But can they really? I mean, just as it takes time to create a culture it takes time to change one. And if the infrastructure to make those changes isn't there, can they even do it at all? If employees are protected by workers unions how easy is it to really dismiss, or even reprimand, an employee who isn't doing their job correctly? Can you fire people at all levels of the chain of command for a mistake? (I personally don't see why not but I can only imagine the gasps of horror that would hoover over Washington if that was to actually happen).

Poor morale and budget restraints have been cited as problems that created the conditions that lead to the above cited instances of poor performance. But these are government agencies who rely upon the Federal government for their funding. Even the most outstanding leader would have a hard time efficiently running an organization if they aren't provided with adequate resources. If not enough money is allocated for personnel, how are department directors supposed to hire people to perform the tasks? Is moral poor because employees are over worked? Are good employees demoralized by having to work alongside inept co-workers for the same pay and benefits? Is an agency willing to use their resources to take on a employee union fighting for the rights of their members (regardless of how good or not good their performances are)? And at the end of the day all of the agencies, and their employees for that matter, are pawns in a political game. Perhaps politics is to blame so does that mean that it is really the fault of Congress?

But at the end of the day, to whom do we assign the blame? Maybe a special congressional investigative panel-- who would investigate Congress itself--will be able to find out!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

And Then It Just Clicked

People say it takes a good six to nine months to settle in and acclimate when you move to a new country. It doesn't matter how many times you've done it before; with each move comes the need to reestablish routines, find your way around, make new friends and generally figure out how to do things in this foreign place you call your new home. Experts call this the cross-cultural adjustment cycle. Having gone through it more than once I call it the roller coaster of hell. There are ups, downs and more ups (hopefully) before you level out and find your comfort zone.

The first phase of the cycle is the honeymoon period where the newness of everything is exciting; you may not understand how to go about daily life but since it is new, it is all an adventure. But soon the newness turns into cultural shock and adjustment as you struggle to figure out how to manage and live your life in your new environment. While acclimating even the most basic of tasks become chores and frankly, it is just plain exhausting. This phase is often accompanied by mental and physical isolation from the world that you know. (This is repeatedly my roller coaster of hell phase). But once you reach the other side, things are so much better. Here you find acceptance and integration into your new environment. The pieces begin to fall into place and your new world starts to make sense. It is the blissful place to be before the final stages of the cycle---return anxiety and reintegration to the place you call home--make their appearance. Fortunately for me, these final stages of my Belgian life are still several years away. Because right now I am focusing on my acceptance and integration phase of Belgian life, which is a place that I only reached within the past couple of weeks.

Frankly this past spring, and even a part of the summer, were a struggle. Between finding and moving into a house, receiving our household items from both Albania and long term storage in the United States and figuring out what we needed to buy to make our house a home, these past months were just frustrating and tiring. Add in the adjustment of a new school, new job and new routine and I feel like we had more downs than ups. We got a brief reprieve by spending a good chunk of the summer back in the U.S. but returning to Belgium and a new school year involved readjusting to our "real" life all over again.

But gradually things just fell into place. The daily and weekly schedule of school, work and activities started to make sense and feel comfortable. The new school year has brought about a new class for Sidney with a nicer teacher, better behaved classmates and more opportunities. Activities for the entire family have us getting out and enjoying our hobbies both as a family and individually. The quirkiness of Belgium that I spent months trying to figure out is suddenly making sense to me because I am simply accepting it for what it is: the Belgian way of doing things.

All of this dawned on me the other day as I was stuck in traffic. (Americans complain about the traffic in Belgium but after living in major metropolitan areas along the East Coast, even on the worst of days the traffic here is nothing). As I sat there taking in the long line of cars, cargo trailers and tractors vying for the same narrow lane, I suddenly felt at home. It helped that I knew which turn to make to avoid the worst of the traffic but it was more than that. I realized that our family routine is now smooth and when hiccups do occur, we take them in stride. We all have places to go each day and enjoy our time spent there. My French is still very shaky at best but I am comfortable enough to talk and ask my way around most situations. We're continuing to make more friends and now having been here since the beginning of the year, can offer assistance and advice to people who have only recently arrived. I've found my groove as has Glenn and Sidney. Belgium is suddenly feeling like home. And that is the most wonderful feeling of all.