Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thirty Posts In Thirty Days

Back on the 1st of November I said I was up for the challenge and this time around I am proud to say that I made it. Yes I did. For the first time in three years I met the NaBloPoMo challenge and actually blogged every single day in November. And while making it here has been rewarding and I have a sense of accomplishment, I am mentally exhausted. Yes exhausted.

Most days I love blogging. Sitting in front of the computer for a few minutes and jotting down whatever comes to mind is relaxing. It is an aerobic workout for my mind. Until it isn't that is. There were a few mornings this month when just the thought of having to write something was painful. Like going to the gym on those mornings when you'd rather just stay in bed. While you know it will be good for you and that you will feel better when you are done, it is simply the last thing you want to do. It would have been easier to not power up the laptop and instead focus on the bazillion other things that over fill my days. But even on those mornings I powered through and accomplished what I set out to do. (After all, if I skipped a day I'd have to wait an entire eleven months before I could get a "re-do").

So yes I did it. And now that I've met my goal I'm going to turn off the computer and focus on what the rest of the day has in store for me. At the moment that includes decorating the house for Christmas........maybe I should just write some more instead!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The House That Ronald Built

Today, as we wrap up Sidney's birthday week with a fun filled day of train rides, holiday festivities and friends, I want to pay homage to what, prior to his early birth, had been a little known organization to me. I first learned about the Ronald McDonald House of Portland, Maine during the early hours after Sidney's birth when we found ourselves facing the prospect of an extended hospital stay while hundreds of miles from our own home in Norfolk, Virginia. With no where to stay a hospital social worker introduced us to the RMH and all it offered to parents in their times of need.

Ronald McDonald Houses are the charitable arms of the ubiquitous golden arches chain. They provide shelter, support, and basic needs for families with sick or hospitalized children. They are typically located within the vicinity of children's hospitals (Portland's is a mere one block walk away from the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center). For a donation of $10.00 a day, and even then only if you can afford the fee, families (parents, grandparents, and children) can stay in a private room in a home like setting. The house isn't fancy but it is a home away from home. Staffed around the clock by a bevy of paid staff and volunteers alike, as temporary residents we had ready access to laundry facilities, the Internet, home coked meals, and most importantly, a warm bed to come back to each evening. Volunteers from every walk of life--churches, girl scout troops, high school honor societies, retiree associations, and ordinary citizens provided home cooked meals each evening. Amid the daily craziness that had become my life, eating was the last thing on my mind but the volunteers made sure each and every one of us ate. If we didn't want to stay for dinner they packed to-go boxes for us to take back to the hospital. It was impossible to say "no" to the kind volunteers ensured we had one less thing to worry about.

So as I settled into my room at the RMH, the men in my family--namely my husband, brother, and step-father-- took it as an open invitation to eat as many meals as possible at their local McDonald Restaurants. I've never been a fan of their food; call me un-American but I find it bland, unappetizing, and it is usually served (greasy and horror of all horrors) to cold.  On the rare occasion I was tempted the long snaking line for the drive through was the additional deterrent I needed. Because of this it was ironic that I actually found myself waiting in the drive through line early one morning two weeks after Sidney was born. I had been given the go-ahead for Sidney to begin wearing clothes (prior to this he was only swaddled in blankets in his isolette) so I wanted to get him his own outfits to wear so I was making a quick run to Target. I hadn't eaten yet so the golden arches called to me as I drove past. As I pulled up to the drive-through window the Ronald McDonald House collection box attached to the window caught my attention.  Just the sight of it took on a whole new meaning to me and I found myself adding a very generous donation to its coffers.

During my one month at the RMH I met a variety of people I would never have met had the circumstances surrounding Sidney's birth been different. While many of us were parents to premature babies others had children with chronic illnesses; children who were undergoing cancer treatments or awaiting organ transplants; regardless of the illness, the thought of a sick child is heartbreaking and we were all facing our children's illnesses together. All of us had children who were patients at the hospital and together we were a motley group.  In our own strange way we became our own support group. With a shared crisis between us, we bonded in a way that anyone who has not had a pre-mature or baby could ever understand.  I was rather a novelty amongst the group; I was after all "the one from Virginia" (no matter how many times I invoked my own Maine birth, I was still from away), I quickly became the best versed in NICU terminology, and despite the physical distance, I had the best support network of family and friends.

Ever the student, I took copious notes when talking with Sidney's doctors then spent hours on the Internet researching the terminology and what it really meant. I remember one snowy evening over dinner when I talked to a young dad, who himself had developmental delays. He shakily expressed his frustration with his inability to understand what the doctors were telling him about his daughter's condition. I think I was able to provide some clarity but it was in that moment that I realized I had more  in common with this young stranger than I did with my close knit group of suburban friends back in Norfolk. With Glenn back in Virginia working (and likely eating McDonald's), my mom visited several times a week, taking me out for Indian or Mexican food. The fact that my mom drove over an hour each way to see me on a regular basis took many by surprise. Several families staying at the house lived within fifteen miles of the hospital but due to their financial circumstances were unable to commute to and from the hospital on a daily basis. Weekends at the house were often chaotic since families who couldn't visit during the week would come to stay with their loved ones. I also received regular care packages from friends and family members; when my in-laws sent me an Edible Creations fruit bouquet, I had children and adults alike swarming around me since they had never seen anything like it before. As I shared the copious amount of fresh fruit with my housemates, several remarked that they had never had fresh pineapple before.

Some people stayed at RMH for a few nights while others stayed on for months.  here wasn't any limit on how long a family could reside there; if your child was in the hospital you were welcome to stay as long as needed. I spent a total of twenty-seven nights at RMH and was considered a short-timer. A few families came and went during my tenure and fortunately for everyone who checked out while I was there, they did so because their babies were going home. (I know this is not always the case). Collectively we were quick to welcome and provide support for new arrivals and we celebrated together when families packed up and went home. We also celebrated each other's milestones and shared in the agony of setbacks. When one baby girl was downgraded to critical and her tearful mother sat vigil at her bedside the rest of us felt her pain. I was giddy with excitement when I learned that Sidney had been cleared to be transferred to a Virginia hospital on the same day Glenn was due to arrive in Maine to celebrate Christmas with us. All of us RMH families celebrated this milestone and upon Glenn's arrival in Portland he received numerous congratulations from complete strangers who, although they didn't know him, knew and shared our story. It is hard to put into words but the support I received during my stay is what helped me power through that scary time in my life.

Ronald McDonald Houses are truly special places. It's been a busy five (gulp) years since my stay at the RMH but they are never far from my thoughts. I've made cash donations to the house in Portland and while in the States placed food donations in collection boxes at grocery stores.  I've designated the Ronald McDonald House of Portland as my charity of choice with Amazon Smile. Yes, I've even patronized a McDonald Restaurant or two and dropped a donation in their collection box.  I've vowed that when we return to the U.S., or to any country that has Ronald McDonald Houses, I will volunteer my time and efforts to support whichever house is local. I would be honored to be one of those volunteers who provides home cooked dinners and other treats to weary residents. I remember how much their support meant to me in my time of need and I want to play if forward to others. This is a season of giving.  If any of you have the opportunity to do the same I urge you to do it.  I can personally attest to how much your volunteer efforts would be appreciated

Friday, November 28, 2014

Belgium On Strike

Most days I feel as though I am thoroughly acclimated to my new Belgian home but just when I sink into that comfort zone something happens that makes me pause and wonder about the way things are done in this country. This happened this past week with the first in our area of what will be a series of strikes organized by the Belgian labor unions. The strikes have been ongoing for several weeks in various pars of Belgium arrived in Mons on Monday. In Belgium, as is the case with much of Europe, it is legal to stage large scale protests and not only is it legal, it is the democratic right of citizens to be able to freely participate in these protests. And unlike my very limited experience with protests in America, Belgian protests are extremely organized, well planned out and publicized. And as I saw, they do have a sweeping effect in bringing life as we know it to a temporary standstill.

So what are the Belgians striking against? From what I can surmise with my shaking understanding of French and the limited amount of detailed English press coverage of the events, Belgians are protesting their new government's proposed austerity measures. In general terms, the new center-right government is planning to increase the pension age from 65 to 67, freeze wages and implement cuts to public services. They argue that such austerity measures are necessary in order to keep the budget deficit in line with European Union requirements and that businesses need more tax breaks if they are to compete in a global market place. An increased retirement age, stagnant wages and social service cuts may not that sound alarming to many Americans (where such conditions and debates are commonplace) but for Belgians, who pay some of the highest taxes in Europe, just the mere threat of such actions is enough for them to take to the streets. Labor unions carry a lot of influence in the Belgian political system with 53% of all public service sector and private sector employees being labor union members. They argue that any austerity measures would hurt Belgium's already fragile welfare state.

The labor unions announced their intentions to strike weeks ago and laid out a detailed schedule of which days the strikes would take place in different regions across Belgium with the culmination of the strikes occurring on the 15th of December with a countrywide strike. The recent strike in Brussels drew over 100,000 people and turned violent with paving stones being thrown, cars being overturned and lit on fire and 60 people being injured. Hearing this, it made me wonder what we might be in store for in Mons.

In the days leading up to the strike we began to hear that all public transportation would be suspended on the day of the strike so if we relied on the bus or train we should make alternative arrangements. The American school on base canceled classes for the day while Sidney's Belgian school sent home a notice saying that while they would be open services and staffing would be extremely limited. His teacher cautioned me that she might not be able to make it in to school. As the day of the strike drew closer people began to talk about road closures and blockades and the advice was that if we didn't need to be out we should stay home. Belgian schools off of the base would be closed, hospitals would be staffed for emergencies only, stores and businesses would be closed and public services (i.e. trash pickup) would be suspended. PSAs were issued reminding us that Belgians have the right to protest, that we were not to confront them and if we did, we would be the ones who would be held liable for our actions. Parents of Sidney's classmates all stated that they were keeping their children home that day. Because I had my own French class to attend that day I made the decision that we would both go to school but would leave early to allow for the potential delays.

The day of the strike Facebook lit up in the early morning hours with notices about which roads were already blocked by protesters. (This was a learning curve for me since I learned that in Belgium, protesters have the right to stand in the street and peacefully stop all traffic. Police would often be present but as bystanders on guard only in case violence broke out).  By 06.30 it sounded as though all of my routes to the base were already blocked to vehicle traffic. An hour later I made the decision that we would just stay home for the day since it sounded all but impossible to get anywhere as even the ramps to the interstate had been blocked.

Reports of road blocks continued to be posted on Facebook and social media being what it is, it wasn't long before someone posed the question of whether it was even legal to block the roads. This initiated a flurry of responses, mostly educated and informative responses but also the snide, indignant and down right rude comments. People were upset that their schedules were negatively impacted, people couldn't get to work, school or back home without having to take a myriad of detours. They wanted to know why women and children were being stopped and why they should be inconvenienced when they weren't even Belgians.

My take on all of this, and a thought that I was happy to see echoed on numerous Facebook comments, we are guests in Belgium and need to learn to live with the way they do things. It isn't our place to judge, join them in protest or complain about the inconveniences their protests temporarily place on our lives. Protesting is a right that is supported by the Belgian government and it is the way that Belgians can bring attention to the issues and concerns that impact their lives the most. When you think about it, it is all very democratic. And the advanced notices about protest dates, locations and impacted businesses? In my mind that is just an added bonus that makes it easier for me to plan my day.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Very Thankful Un-Thanksgiving

Thanksgivings come in all shapes and sizes. Growing up they leaned towards the larger size with family, friends and friends of friends who needed a place to eat being invited to the table (or tables). I carried this tradition into my married life and when we were still stateside, Glenn and I would make the trek from Virginia to New York or Maine to join my family for the big meal. After a particularly trying trip by air we took to driving and the time in the car was always worth it. Sidney even made his appearance in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. That was the year we had two Thanksgiving dinners and so much to be thankful for.

Living overseas, Thanksgiving is a very different experience indeed. First, it is business as usual for everyone but the Americans. In Albania we always recreated our tradition by inviting friends to join us for dinner. Last year we enjoyed more than one celebration, one year dinner was quite small and then there was the year that the dinner was so large it involved three tables and ended with my lying on the kitchen floor muttering the phrase "never again". Needless to say, each year has been different but the meaning behind the day is the same. It is a time to pause and give thanks for all that we have.

And because we are still overseas, today's Thanksgiving is taking on yet another look. It is business as usual in Belgium with Sidney having school (although an early dismissal for which I can only assume is a gesture to the many Americans who attend the Belgian school) and Glenn having to work. But it isn't just any work for Glenn as this week he is away attending a NATO sponsored training. I honestly love the fact that we are in an international environment where life doesn't come to a standstill simply because there are a lot of Americans in their midst. Hence, a full day of training on American Thanksgiving. But at the same time his absence, and that of my other family, is making me feel a bit out of sorts. Do I cook a big dinner or not? For me the traditional dinner is just as much a part of the day as sharing it with family and friends. Depending upon his mood Sidney may or may not partake in turkey and all of the fixings. But Thanksgiving without the turkey? I just can't do it so I'm roasting up a tiny bird, mashing up some potatoes and making a few other of my favorite items. If Sidney eats them, great. If not, that leaves all the more leftovers for me (and the only thing better than dinner is leftovers the next day).

It will be a quiet day for sure and could easily pass as just another Thursday for us. But all is not lost as we will be holding our full Thanksgiving dinner in a few weeks. Then I will cook all of my favorite dishes and we'll invite our international friends to join us in the most traditional of American holidays. I can't wait. And simply being able to do so is a reminder of what Thanksgiving is all about. It is about being thankful and I am very, very thankful for having our health, being able to experience everything Europe has to offer, and most of all, being able to share it all with those people we care about. And the turkey? I'll get my turkey. There isn't any doubt about that.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Five! He's Five? Already?

This week I will become the mother of a five year old boy. How did this happen? It seems like just yesterday my teeny tiny preemie entered our lives. All 2 pounds  and 12 ounces of him came screaming into the world and he hasn't stopped talking, moving or exploring the world since then. Its been a wild ride so far with never a dull moment and the excitement just keeps on coming.

I remember the day we brought Sidney home from the hospital. Despite being 11 weeks old at the time, he was still a tiny peanut. After weeks upon weeks of assisting in his care in the NICU he was finally all ours. As I stared at him lying in his crib I was overwhelmed by love and fear. I loved this little boy with every inch of my being but I was scared since I didn't know anything about babies. Until Sidney was born I had never changed a diaper, I couldn't decipher whether his cries meant he was hungry, needed a dry diaper or he just wanted attention. And most of all, he was a boy. I knew nothing about raising a boy!

But what a whirlwind raising this boy has been. Sidney's moved three times, living in three different countries and is currently learning his third language. In the past five years he's visited more countries and acquired more frequent flyer miles than most people do in a lifetime. He has friends from every just about every European country, can recognize most of their native tongues and can identify most of the flags of the NATO countries. He is the first to welcome the new kid in his class (which in a military community means there is always a new kid in the class), is quick to give his mom hugs when he senses I am sad and has a stubborn streak that rivals my own. On the playground he is just as apt to be playing Star Wars as he is to be pretending he is a butterfly or a ninja. He loves books, playing football (a.k.a. soccer), never encountered a body of water that wasn't perfect for stone throwing and has never met a stick that wasn't worthy of being picked up and saved. And as of late, is obsessed with toy soldiers. I blame it on our trip to Normandy but since then he talks non-stop (in both French and English) about soldiers, specific World War II battles, and when prodded can even recite facts about General Patton.

And it was this love of all things army (not Navy of course because we are a Navy family but perhaps this is his own form of rebellion), that I found myself covered in green and brown buttercream frosting this past weekend. For a variety of reasons we had never thrown Sidney a birthday party and from the moment we arrived in Belgium last winter he has been planning his 5th birthday party. It was to be at the bowling alley on base (because every base has a bowling alley and having a party there is a right of passage for every military brat), with pizza and cake and all of his friends. A few months ago camouflage was added to the requirements. That meant camouflage invitations and goodie bags as well as cups, napkins and plates. Even the candles were camouflage. And instead of creating a light and airy cake I found myself frosting cupcakes and a cake with dark green and brown frosting and adding toy soldiers to the decorations for good measure. And much to my delight Sidney loved it all. He loved his multi-national classmates who attended the party (by my count seven countries were represented), the bowling, the pizza and cake and yes, all of the toy soldiers he received. As he declared to one classmate, this was the best birthday ever. And that is all that matters.

I still have no idea how to raise a boy but we're learning together. Like I said, there is never a dull moment.

Happy birthday little soldier! Whether you join the Army or the Navy, become a linguist, a doctor or a street performer, your mom will always love you.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Talking Turkey Again

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of all time. Some years our celebrations are big, other times they are small, some are more memorable than others (hello baby!) but all are wonderful. So in honor of today here's a repeat post of a memorable "Thanksgiving" in Albania. Happy holidays!

I love Thanksgiving.  From the food and festivities to the friends and family who sit around our dinner table, this day is my single favorite one of the entire year.  Growing up in my family it was the "it" holiday, far surpassing Christmas as a day to enjoy.  As if the day wasn't already special enough, Sidney was born on Thanksgiving Day 2009 adding a whole new meaning to the term "being thankful".  For our first Thanksgiving in Albania we went all out with food and friends. It hindsight it was a bit much so last year we "downsized" to a more reasonable yet still festive gathering.  And because Thanksgiving and its accompanying turkey, fixings, and pies are the quintessential American meal, we've often replicated the typical Thanksgiving feast for representational dinners over the past two years.  This means I've roasted a lot of turkeys during my time in Albania. So because of turkey fatigue, this year I vowed to go very simple and cook a single turkey for a small gathering of our closest friends for Thanksgiving.  That was my plan and I was sticking to it............until things changed.
Last winter I had the opportunity to be profiled in (Albanian) Living magazine, the equivalent of Martha Stewart Living, where I shared our American Christmas traditions.  When the magazine approached me this year to talk about Thanksgiving, I immediately jumped since the offer was just too good to refuse.  This is my favorite holiday after all!  The wheels in my head began to work overtime right away.  But that is when things got interesting since the first matter of business was to procure the centerpiece of any Thanksgiving feast, the turkey.  Having vowed to not over-do it with turkey this year, our usual stash of Butterballs imported from Kosovo via Germany and the United States was depleted.  Turkeys are popular in Albania at New Year but difficult to find during the remaining months of the year.  However, a couple of phone calls later and I found a friend who knew someone who knew the meat buyer at a local grocery chain who would in turn be able to special order a fresh turkey for me and import it from Italy.  (It may sound confusing but the whole process was just so Albanian).  The only question I was asked was "how big" to which I responded "as big as you can get".  The old adage of being careful for what one wishes for certainly applies here since the following week a 30 pound turkey arrived on my doorsteps. Yes, 30 pounds.  Let's just say that birdie was so big that I questioned whether or not it would even fit inside my American-sized oven.  Fortunately it did.  Just barely, but it did.  I stuck it in the freezer and continued with my planning.

After series of phone calls and reschedulings, list making activities and shopping trips we were good to go.  I hauled out all of my Thanksgiving decorations and dishes.  To make it authentic, we invited close friends to join us for a mock holiday dinner that would capture the essence and spirit of the American Thanksgiving tradition.  I picked a menu.  And then revised it a time or two.  Because the beast of a bird was now frozen, we set about defrosting it in the refrigerator days before the big meal.  Much to my surprise I was able to find most of the ingredients I needed in a single store.  Three days before the dinner I started cooking and now I was a bit anxious about how my food would look.  I rarely worry about taste but when the meal is being photographed appearance is what it is all about.  Pie crust, always the bane of my cooking existence, and I fought a battle and this time I won.  The plan was to have the photographer arrive a few hours before dinner to start take pictures of the preparations and to stage the food.  When our guests arrived we would sit at the table and have mock toasts and pretend to eat.  After the photographer departed we would finally be allowed to dig into our food.  All of the logistics worried me and I was particularly concerned about the food growing cold while the pictures were taken.  Glenn assured me that everything would work out yet still I worried.

The day of the dinner came and in typical fashion, things just fell into place.  Thanks to Glenn, the monster bird was stuffed and in the oven at the correct time.  Because it was so big it took longer to roast than I had anticipated but that was actually all right.  Since I didn't need to have all of the food ready to serve at the same time I didn't have the usual pressure of getting my timing just so.  I was actually relaxed in the kitchen (which in itself made me a bit nervous!).  We staged the food and took pictures in a leisurely fashion. I explained the American Thanksgiving tradition and used Google to pull up pictures of traditional Thanksgiving symbols looked like.  By the time our guests arrived we were ready to move onto the toasts.  We briefed them on the plan then we sat down and gave toasts.  Sidney, always a wild card in any planned activity, was a ham, cooperated and smiled nicely for the camera.  Glenn donned my apron and carved the monster bird.  All went well.  When the crew from the magazine packed up and left I reheated a few dishes, Glenn poured more wine and we ate.  Despite the messy kitchen, at the end of the night I felt that the evening was a success.

So I have one Thanksgiving down and (somehow) another one is still to come. I'll be blogging about my actual recipes in my food blog during the month of November so stay tuned.  By the time the magazine article is published we'll still be finishing up the leftovers of this turkey and I'll be planning another Thanksgiving dinner.  I'll be hunting for another (smaller) turkey and searching out my other key ingredients.  And I said I was only hosting one dinner this year?  I foolishly believed it but Glenn knew better!  Maybe next year it will be true.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Good manners never go out of fashion. Or so I thought. But now I'm really beginning to wonder. I was always taught that when you received an invitation and the host asks you to let them know whether or not you will be coming, you should do it. The concept seems easy enough but for whatever reason it seems like fewer and fewer people are answering that request. Or maybe it is just the people I know.

I first encountered the problem with people not responding when we were living in Albania. In both my paid position and in my own home, whenever I issued invitations to events people were slow to respond (if they even bothered to respond at all). I know it was unrealistic on my part to expect them to respond within 48 hours of receiving the invite (the way I had been taught) but some response at all would have been appreciated. I never really cared whether people were going to attend but as the event planner and the hostess I needed to know how many guests to expect. A sit down dinner at my house; do I plan for seating for twelve or for eight? A children's party at the embassy; if I don't know how many kids to expect how can I make sure that every child receives a goodie bag? I became a master at squeezing extra place settings in at the table or removing them if necessary. After one disastrous reception where I cooked for the number who said they were coming (plus a little wiggle room) and then ran out of both food and drink when the entire guest list showed up, I learned to always make extra food. Sometimes it all got eaten but more often than not we had leftovers for the week.

I never quite understood why people didn't respond. When I asked people (yes, it came down to that), the responses were mixed. People weren't sure whether they could make it while others said of course they would be there. (I guess I'm supposed to be a mind reader). Other would say that they didn't want to commit on the chance another offer came up (yes, I was told that), committing took the spontaneity out of the event (for the guest I am assuming), or they didn't know what the letters R.S.V.P. meant (yes, I heard that one too). And then there was the time my inquiry as to whether or not someone would be attending an event was met with the accusation that I was old fashioned and stuffy for even inquiring about such a thing in the first place.

Fast forward to our being in Belgium with an entirely new international community with the two official languages on the base being English and French. Yesterday we threw Sidney his long awaited birthday party. One month out I reserved the space, providing them with a tentative number of guests. Two weeks ago Sidney hand delivered invitations to all of his classmates. Not wanting to be a glutton for punishment I didn't give an R.S.V.P. deadline but I did ask that people let me know their intentions via email. A few replies immediately came in then silence. Sidney would come home telling me that so-and-so was attending (have a message relayed from one five year old to another hardly seems like a reliable means of communicating). Other days parents would catch me in the hallway and let me know their child would be coming. One parent even sent a handwritten note to the teacher who passed along them message to me. Two days before the party only one child had declined the invitation, sixteen had accepted but that left another ten up in the air. (Yes, Sidney has a freakishly large class). I went back to the event space giving them a tentative number and they must have been used to the non-commitment of people since they said they would work with me on however many people showed up. Having heard horror stories about everyone showing up at parties here without, I went home and baked enough cake and cupcakes to feed the entire class and their parents in case everyone showed up. The same with the goodie bags.

So how did it work out? The day of the party I received three last minute cancellations due to the nasty bug that has been making its way through the school. One child showed up without an R.S.V.P. but her father apologetically told me that he could read my handwriting on the invitation. Everyone else who said they were coming, came. We had just enough pizza, too many goodie bags (which can be disassembled and recycled for another event) and more than enough cupcakes so Glenn will once again be providing treats for his co-workers.

But this experience now has me thinking. Am I misinterpreting what R.S.V.P. actually means? Does it now mean regrets only? Respond if you feel like it? Of course I'll attend? Or do people simply chose to respond to those invitations they deem important and ignore the others. What is a hostess to do? I don't know what anyone else does but my solution is to be prepared by making extra food and to be ready for the unexpected. What other options do I really have?

Saturday, November 22, 2014


I'm getting that itch again. Whereas we were always on the go and traveling when we were living in Albania, life in Belgium is a bit more staid. While we are enjoying our time here much more than our Balkan experience, we are traveling a lot less. And I miss it. I have that travel itch and it is only getting worse. But without a big trip on the horizon I'm reliving some of my favorite trips from the past few years. And here's a (re)post about last fall's trip to Tuscany. I loved every moment of it and can't wait to go back. (Soon I hope). But in the meantime, this is all I have.

We spent the past weekend exploring the hill towns of Tuscany.  While it was a first trip for Glenn and Sidney, it was an encore one for me and I was excited to introduce my boys to a part of Italy that I absolutely adore.  I first visited Tuscany in 2008 with my mom when we spent twelve glorious days eating, drinking, and exploring our way from Lucca to Siena and everywhere in between.  The trip was so memorable that I have been talking and thinking about this beautiful place ever since and I had been dying to go back.  Despite my desire, a small part of me feared returning since there was the chance that Tuscany wouldn't live up to my memories.  Fortunately I was wrong.  Dead wrong in fact.  As we retraced my footsteps every place was just as wonderful, if not more so, than I remembered it being. 

Two things struck me immediately.  The first thing I noticed was that Tuscany was filled with more American tourists than I remembered.  Whether we were in line waiting to pick up our rental car, on the train to Lucca, or sitting at a local wine festival in Greve, Americans were everywhere.  I almost think we saw more Americans than we did Italians.  Or at least it felt that way since our dining companions at even the most tucked away restaurants were fellow Americans. The other thing I noticed was the sheer beauty of Tuscany; it was more spectacular than I remembered.  In many ways the scenery, filled with rolling hills, vineyards, and stone buildings, was so idyllic it felt like a cliche.  If you've ever seen a calendar of Tuscan scenes and wondered whether they are real or not, trust me--they are. 

We packed a lot into our long weekend.  Of course it wouldn't be a trip to Pisa without standing in the shadow of the City's famous Leaning Tower.  But as it usually the case, the best parts of the country are those outside of the urban areas.  We took the train to the walled city of Lucca and despite the rain, spent several hours walking along the broad wall and meandering through the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys that are quintessential Italy.  With our little rental car (Sidney said it was like his Cozy Coupe), we set out across the Tuscan hills to Siena where I finally climbed to the top of the Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo.  My fear of heights prevented me from doing it the first time I visited but this time I was determined to accompany Sidney and Glenn to the top.  The famous Palio di Siena horse race takes place in the square twice a year but during our visit it was pleasantly tranquil (except for the other American tourists) providing Sidney with ample room to chase pigeons.  We visited the famous wine town of Montepulciano where we of course sampled the local beverage.  In Greve in Chianti we happened upon a local wine and food festival and joined the locals (and American tourists) in drinking wine and eating massive plates of fresh grilled meats and beans.  Just outside of Greve we walked through the narrow alleys of Montefioralle and dreamed about what it would be like to have a retirement home in this hilltop village.  In between all of this we took in miles upon miles of rolling hills covered with vineyards, olive groves, and cypress lined lanes leading to hilltop villas.  Avoiding the highways we drove along both paved and dirt roads stopping to take pictures and just enjoy the views along the way.  The whole experience was just so relaxing.

And of course we ate.  While Sidney had his fill of pizza with the occasional pasta thrown in for variety, Glenn and I were able to eat fresh pastas and other specialities to our hearts desire.  Autumn is truffle season in Tuscany so this delicacy was on the menu as was Glenn's all time favorite dessert, tirimisu.  Sidney is now a fan as well and most nights ended with my two boys spoon-fighting over the last remnants on the dessert plate.  Tuscany is probably best known for her wine and of course it didn't disappoint.  In Albania I am loathe to order the house wine in a restaurant but in Tuscany, that is all we drank and it was good.  Really good.  Unfortunately because we were flying home we were limited in what we could buy but we enjoyed what we could.  (We will just have to go back to drink some more).

I loved Tuscany the first time but love it all the more now.  Seeing it through Sidney's eyes, complete with water fountains, "pretty" fields, and yes pigeons, gave me a whole new appreciation for the region.  I will never get tired of the scenery, the food, or the gentle feel of Tuscany.  Once again, I can't wait to go back. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Online Personas

The internet, and and social media forums like Facebook are a pretty amazing thing. Where else can you research the most inane questions, reconnect with old friends and meet new ones all without leaving the comfort of your own home? There is a whole virtual world out there to be discovered. But unlike in real life where what you see is more often than not, what you get, in a virtual world it is possible to create new personas. A shy person can become outgoing online and vice versa without anyone being the wiser. Recently I've been wondering how often people do this and whether their actions are intentional or unintentional. So is the way you act online the same way you behave in real life? Yes, no, maybe, sometimes???

Lets take Facebook for example. I have my share of friends and know all but a handful in real life. I know some better than others and have found in most cases that their real life personalities are the same as their virtual ones. Those that complain, whine and have a lot of drama in their real lives tend to have the same when online. And my more mild mannered and even keeled ones? Their virtual lives tend to look the same; its all pretty predictable.

But what I really wonder about is those people that I've never met. Take Facebook groups as an example. Because I'm selective about the groups I join I tend to belong ones that are interest or demographic based; shared hobbies, alumnae of the same schools, members of the same military communities, etc. These groups can have a handful or several thousand members. Fellow members aren't my friends per se but because we belong to the same groups I feel like I know many of them. If they are regular posters their faces and stories become familiar and I feel like I've met them. In just about every group I am a member of there are people who are active and always chiming in. Their responses to questions are often rapid fire and immediate making me wonder if they do nothing other than stalk Facebook at all hours of the day. Sometimes they add useful information to the conversation but many times I feel as though they don't. While these groups can provide a wealth of information and needed opinions, if a question about an opening time has been posed then answered is it really necessary for ten other people to chime in with the same information? Then there are the people who come across as experts on every subject matter; regardless of the question they always have a definitive answer and have no qualms about arguing with anyone who dares to disagree or present an differing opinion. Personally I am quite private when it comes to posting in these groups. I think twice before sharing a tale of woe and only jump into the conversations if I have something new and meaningful to contribute. (But when thinking about it, this is the way I am in real life as well). But not everyone feels the same way. I know more about people's marital and in-law problems, dislike of their jobs and bosses and disputes with their neighbors than I want or need to. Really.

The longer I am a part of these groups the more I get to "know" these people. Some people I immediately like, others I find funny or I grow to be annoyed by. A few I find myself disliking but the majority of them I am indifferent to. But every once in a while I actually meet and get to know these people in real life. This tends to happen most often with the military spouse groups that I belong to. And you know what? The ones I liked online I find myself liking in person. If you don't have a filter in your virtual life it is doubtful that you have one in real life either. The ones whose comments I avoid reading and generally disliked when on Facebook are the same ones I feel the urge to run from when I see them in person. Annoying online is annoying in person; funny behind the keyboard usually means funny in person. And the similarities just go on. So is the internet "real life" or just a mirror image of it?

And all of this makes me feel like my online persona pretty much mirrors the real life me. But then again, I'm pretty biased so who am I to judge?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Saxon City Of Dresden

Frauen Kirche at night
Our recent road trip through Germany included a stop in the city of Dresden and our visit proved to be one of the most interesting cities we have visited in a long time. I wasn't sure what to expect from this city as we had scheduled a stop here because it was along our route to our next destination. I had failed to really do any research before we arrived so my only knowledge of the place was what I remembered from my high school history classes. But for us, Dresden turned out to be a hidden gem and we left wishing we could have spent more time there. Needless to say, we will be returning.

Located in the Saxony region of eastern Germany near the border with the Czech Republic, Dresden has long been a cultural, educational and political center for Germany. Dresden was first settled in the 12the century, became the seat of the Saxony region in 1485 and quickly became a gathering place for painters, musicians and architects from all over Europe. This confluence of artistic talent influenced the skyline for which Dresden in famous. The 1800s saw an increase in the military presence in the area with over 20,000 military personnel serving in the garrison there at the beginning of World War I.  This combination of art, culture and yes, military brought about the circumstances by which I knew about Dresden; the bombing of the city by the Allied forces.

For three days in February 1945, in a two-fold attack, the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces dropped 2,431 tons of explosive bombs and close to 1,476 tons of incendiaries on the city of Dresden. While the bombs damaged and destroyed buildings, the incendiaries ignited what was left, essentially burning the largely wooden city, therefore reducing the amount of shelters available for retreating German soldiers and refugees. Years later the number of reported deaths was 25,000 but at the time Nazi propaganda had the number in the 200,000 to 500,000 range. Because the target was not a military installation, women and children accounted for the majority of the causalities. The legitimacy of the bombardment was immediately questioned by war observers. The majority of the city center was destroyed and the heavily inhabited center of the city was all but wiped out while the industrial zones and military installations on the outskirts of the city escaped the bombings relatively untouched. At the time the Allies described the bombings as a legitimate attack on military and industrial targets. Although he was involved in the planning, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took measures to distance himself from the attack.

The Furstenzug depicting Saxon sovereigns
In the years after World War II the city of Dresden recovered but scars of the war remained. Located in Soviet controlled East Germany, (where current Russian president Vladimir Putin was stationed between 1985 and 1990 as a KGB officer), it once again became an industrial powerhouse and investments were made in improving the infrastructure of the city.  Some historical structures were rebuilt while others were remade in a more "socialist modern" style. Unfortunately, many of the bombed out churches, palaces and cultural buildings were all but razed by the Communists.

Walking around Dresden today you see evidence of the past as well as hope for the future. Many of the city's grand buildings bear the pock marks of bullets and wear the soot and grime of age with pride. Rather then fill them in or erase evidence of the destruction, they are a part of the Dresden landscape.  A walk along the promenade above the Elbe River shows off the city at its best. To me, Dresden feels worn but proud with a sense of hope. Across the broad flood plain of the Elbe sits the more modern and reconstructed part of the city. Closer to the historic city center the grand buildings that house the city's museums, educational and cultural centers. Some buildings show their age while others appear to be in mint condition. Newly constructed hotels fight for space with the restaurants, cafes and trinket shops that are ubiquitous with every tourist center.

Dresden skyline
And the rebirth of the city continues today. The reconstruction of the Frauen Kirche, which anchors one end of the grand Neumarket Square, was only completed in 2005 due in a large part to private donations. On the outside, it is easy to see which parts of the church exterior are original and which parts are reconstructed. On the inside of the church the walls and ceilings the pastel colors resemble beautifully gilded Easter eggs. But the pattern of new stone blocks abutting old is not unique to the cathedral; it can be seen on most of the buildings in central Dresden. The area around Newmarket Square is gradually being rebuilt with many of the buildings being reconstructed as they were originally built. A walk across the square is like walking through time; you start out in a completely rebuilt area that exudes the charm and character of times long past before wandering into the newer "socialist modern" area. The contrast is quite striking but then again so is the entire city of Dresden.

I liked Dresden. A lot. I wish we had more time to explore her secrets but now that we have gotten a taste of what she has to offer we want to return.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Oh The Places We Go

When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up? Me, from the time I was in elementary school right through high school I dreamed of being a famous writer. I have no idea what inspired this idea in my child's mind but I had this fantasy of sitting with my trusty electric typewriter (yes, this was back in the days when owning a personal computer was pretty much reserved for only the biggest techies) and typing out a great novel. At times I'd be living in Paris or Italy--places I had only dreamed about at the time--the location varied but my dream didn't. I spent the summer between my high school graduation and heading off to college typing away on my portable word processor (I had upgraded by then) writing what was going to be my debut novel. I finished it but come September I packed it away in a box and headed off to college.

Once in college I was overwhelmed by my class and career options and despite the plethora of writing classes that were offered, I never actually took one. My pages of my "novel" grew dusty and yellowed over the next four years as I switched majors, pondered my future and somehow graduated with a history major, no job and a vague plan to attend law school in the "future". I still thought about writing, dabbled with keeping a journal for awhile but focused my energies on a series of jobs that would keep a roof over my head. When I went back to graduate school I toyed with getting a masters in fine arts with a focus on creative writing but opted instead for the much more logical and marketable masters in public policy. And as they say, the rest is history.

I've come a long way since I had those young school fantasies. I never made it to law school but instead have found meaningful work in other venues. I've married, had a child and moved. A lot.  I've travelled the world and seen places that I only read about in books. I've visited countries that didn't even exist when I was in school and lived in one that most Americans never contemplated visiting let alone living in. I've discovered that I have a knack for cooking and can whip up a decent meal with limited ingredients and less than ideal conditions. The enjoyment I find in dabbling with watercolors and photography are recent discoveries but ones that I will definitely explore further. And through all of this I am still writing. Its not a novel (yet) but I have stories to tell and ideas to share and thanks to the Internet (yet another thing I never imagined when I was a child) I am able to easily do so to as many or as few people as choose to read what I produce. None of these are things I even contemplated as being possibilities way back when.

And now, I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up. Will I finally write that long dreamed about novel? Or perhaps open my own bed and breakfast on the ocean where we grow our own food and everything from the furniture to the snacks are homemade? The possibilities of what the holds are truly limitless. So only time will tell what happens next.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Moose Milk: The Back Story

Before arriving at SHAPE I had never heard of moose milk. Actually, I take that back because in the midst of my research about our new post I came across frequent references to the milk on the SHAPE Facebook pages. It was always associated with the Canadians and from what I could gather, it was a special drink that they made and the drink had a very loyal following with SHAPE-ians. As we arrived here and worked on settling in, I quickly forgot about the moose milk. But then this past fall and then again this past weekend I was reminded of this mysterious drink and learned what all of the fuss is about.

Moose milk seems to have its roots in the Canadian military with each branch of service having their own version and their own story of how the drink came to be. A Google search reveals just as many versions as there are drinkers with everyone proclaiming their version to be the authentic one. Some say the drink was created because it "can please the ladies because it is sweet while being potent enough for the heartier thirsts". The back story, at least according to the Canadians who make moose milk here in Belgium is as follows:

"It was a great many years ago when a Canadian lumberjack named Jean-Guy Rubber Boot ventured out into a December blizzard to fetch a giant Christmas tree for his village square. After trekking deep into the dense bush, he finally came upon the perfect tree. Jean-Guy picked up his heavy axe and began the laborious task of bringing down the giant pine. After many chopping blows it began to fall, but instead of falling away from the woodsman, it came crashing down on top of him, pinning Jean-Guy to the cold crusty snow. Poor Jean-Guy lay under the giant pine tree for the entire bone chilling night and as dawn broke, he was near unconsciousness.

Just in time a mighty moose stumbled upon our wounded her and recognizing his sorry plight, proceeded to butt the heavy pine off Jean-Guy's body. She then nursed him back to consciousness with the potent nectar that was her milk. Jean-Guy staggered quickly to his feet, shouldered the tall pine tree and exuberantly returned to his village where he spoke of his adventure and received a hero's welcome.

And so from that day forward where ever CAnadians happen to be, they celebrate the exploits of their homegrown hero, Jean-Guy Rubber Boot, with their assembled friends by sharing the sweet nectar of moose milk."

Or so the story goes..............

So what is moose milk? Of course there are different versions. The one without eggs is similar to an eggless eggnog. Or a very cream version of a white Russian. It has ice cream and milk. For potency it includes rum, vodka and coffee liqueur (because just one of them isn't enough). And there is a touch of spice to top it all off. So whenever the opportunity arises, the Canadians stationed here in Belgium haul out their giant stuffed moose and make gallon upon gallon of this tasty drink. If you are quick about it you can buy it by the cup, liter or even in a five gallon jug. It is tasty, quite addictive and yes, even more potent. If you aren't lucky to have Canadians in your neighborhood who make the drink, mix up your own. You can find the Royal Canadian Air Force's version here or a civilian (and easier) recipe here. They are all good so try whichever one turns you on. Or try both and compare. But you probably don't want to do both at the same time. Remember, moose milk is potent!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Market Season

I'm a sucker for Christmas. There is just something about this time of year that makes it so special.  I love the decorations (tasteful of course), the music, foods, smells and generally everything the holiday season brings. First there is the food; for someone who loves to cook, this season is a bonanza. From sweet and spicy baked goods to homemade candies and don't forget the eggnog and gluhwein, it is all good. Really good. Then there are the decorations. While I am of the mindset that less is more I am a huge fan of fresh greenery and twinkling white lights. (I find the colored ones really distasteful but to each their own). When we lived in Norfolk we decorated the house both inside and out. Each December, the culmination of the holiday season for us was hosting a huge holiday open house for friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and essentially anybody who wanted to stop by. It was simply so much fun.

When we moved to Albania we tried to take our holiday traditions with us. It was hard. Live Christmas trees were impossible to come by when we first arrived so we substituted a very pretty pre-lit artificial tree instead. While beautiful, it didn't exude that piney smell that I associate with the holiday. And wreaths? Unless they were white or bright blue plastic, they were just as non-existant. We still decorated our house but the decorations, due to the awkward layout of our house, were limited to our representational spaces which we only used when we had official guests. We strung twinkling white icicle lights along out balconies but somehow their festive lights seemed just wrong on the evenings that the rest of the neighborhood was in the midst of a blackout. We still hosted a big party with my favorite foods, or the closest substitutions I could find but it wasn't quite the same. Our guests included a few friends but mostly official work contacts who attended out of obligation rather than the love of the holiday season. I did however, get to share my love of the holiday and our family traditions with a local Albanian lifestyle magazine one year. We took to traveling over the holiday instead and over three years visited friends in Italy, the Christmas markets of what should have been a snowy Bavaria (the temperatures were in the 60s and what little snow there was turned to puddles) and ate Indian food on Christmas day in Slovenia. These trips started a new family tradition for us and as much fun as they were, to me it felt like a little bit of Christmas was missing.

So needless to say I am super excited for our first Christmas in western Europe. Europeans know how to do the holiday right. They have the food, the traditions, the lights and so much more. Although we are still a couple of weeks away from the time I start my own decorating (the weekend after Thanksgiving and never a moment sooner), the city of Mons began hanging their lights this past week. They aren't lit yet but I am already giddy with excitement about the prospect of these lights right on our own street. But the single European holiday tradition I am looking forward to the most is their Christmas markets. Europeans don't shop at Walmart, the dollar store or (shudder) the Christmas Tree Shops for their decorations and gifts. No sireee. They go to their local Christmas markets and between the end of November and Christmas Eve, it seems like every town has one. Big, small or somewhere in between, the premise is the same. Plazas, squares and just about any available outdoor space are converted into festive marketplaces. There is food, drink and vendors selling locally made crafts, decorations and gifts. Many times there are live nativity scenes as well as live entertainment as well. We've visited several markets during earlier travels but this year we're going to make it to many more.

Germany is the gold standard when it comes to Christmas markets and we are planning at least one trip over the border this season. We've already planned a family trip to England to experience a Dickens themed market and I'm heading to Strasbourg, France to visit one of the oldest markets in Europe. There are also markets closer to home in the Netherlands and right here in Belgium so our options are really endless. Even Mons has a market that I am sure we will visit since it will literally be in our backyard. And our NATO community is hosting their share of markets bringing a piece of their home countries right here to Mons. Yesterday we attended ones sponsored by both Norway and Canada and Great Britain and Italy have ones planned as well.

I love the fact that there really isn't a shortage of holiday spirit in the community right now. The hard part is deciding which ones to attend. Can we do them all? Not this year but we have three Christmases in Belgium to give it our best shot. Ready, set, go!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Our Belgian Beer Road: The Beer Of Brasserie St Feuillien

Beer and Belgium are pretty synonymous. After all when I first found out that we were moving to Belgium it was one of the first things I thought of (after NATO and before chocolate). I wasn't a huge fan of beef before we moved here but I must say that this national drink is growing on me. Since we've been here we've been enjoying discovering all of the beer that Belgium has to offer. Part of the fun for us is trying new (to us) varieties. I am apt to regularly bring home a few different bottles of beer from the grocery store with the hope of finding something new that we like. No beer has been bad, quite a few have been really good and some are so good they have us seeking out the brewery themselves. Our recent discovering of St Feuillien beer was one of those beers and much to our delight, thanks to Google, we discovered that the brewery is literally right down the road from us. So of course we had to go visit and that is just what we did on a recent Saturday afternoon.

The history of the brewery dates back to the 7th century when an Irish monk traveled to what was then called the Continent to preach the gospel. In 655 he was martyred and beheaded in what is now the town of Le Roeulx. Hid disciples later built a chapel on the site with the chapel eventually becoming the Abbey of St-Feuillien du Roeulx in 1125. Monks have  brewed beer for centuries and thus the tradition of a St Feuillien brewery was born. Today Brasserie St Feuillien is located on the same site of the former abbey and has been owned by the same family for four generations. The beers of St Feuillien are recognized for their quality and continue to win international awards at competitions across the globe.

The brewery itself recently moved their operations out of their original building and into a newly constructed adjacent one so that they could keep up with the demand for the product. (They remain on the same site however so they can continue to have ready access to the spring that has always served as their water source). During our tour we were able to visit both the new and old facilities. In the original building we climbed up three stories to view the gravity operated brewing and distilling tanks. We were able to sample some of the grains and the hops that are used in the brewing process. Our group was large but the bi-lingual guide talked all of us through the brewing process, explaining every step in their
Taste testing the grain (which was declared to be "yummy"
brewing process as well as answering questions about the history of the brewery. Home brewing is a relatively new concept in Belgium (with so many wonderful beers readily available throughout the country there really isn't a need to brew it yourself), but there were home brewers amongst the group so a lot of questions were asked. From our third floor perch we could look down into the old brewing tanks before working our way down the stairs and out to the new brewery.
A few kegs awaiting consumption

Whereas the original building had antique charm, the new facility was nothing if not modern with giant steel tanks and an automated bottling system that immediately made me think of the assembly lines seen on Laverne & Shirley. The new brewery is designed to do everything on a much larger scale. Here everything is concrete and stainless steel but the process for brewing and the quality of the beer remain the same. Only the quantity that is produced has changed. This was evidenced by the soaring stacks of kegs that filled much of the floor area.

Of course the best part of the tour was the sampling that came at the end of the tour. (There was orange juice available for the younger or non-beer drinking crowd). The final stop on the tour was the pub where we were able to try all of the beers that were currently available. And by sample I'm talking about full sized glasses of beer, which of course was served in the proper glasses. (Belgians are religious about serving their beer in the correct glass. And each beer does have its own glass). Like I said earlier, we had tried several types of St Feuillien beer before but during our visit we were able to also try ones that were new to us. We already knew we liked the bruin but Glenn really enjoyed both their Saison and Grand Cru. My favorites were on opposite ends of the spectrum; since we've been in Belgium I've discovered fruit beers and I really liked the mixed berry Grisette which was light and refreshing rather than sweet. And because it is the season, the spicy and heavy Christmas inspired Cuvee de Noel. Before we left we bought a few bottles of our favorites to take home with us along with a glass (because even at home Belgian beer must be consumed out of the proper glass).

Sampling a beer or two
And for you American based fans of Belgian beer, St. Feuillien is distributed in the United States and is set to expand its footprint even further. On the day of our visit one of the owners was on an exploratory trip to Boston and Chicago in the hopes of expanding their market. So look for St. Feuillien on shelves near you. If you find it, try it. It has become one of my favorite beers.

If you go:

Brasserie St- Feuillien
Rue d'Houdeng 20
7070 Le Roeulx Belgium
+32 498 86 41 82

Individual tours on Saturdays at 14.00
Group tour can be arranged at other times
6 Euros for adults, 3 Euros for children over 6 includes tour and generous samples

Friday, November 14, 2014

Une Crise d'Identite

And so it has happened again. I was sitting is French class this past week struggling to comprehend the lesson. We were discussing numbers, specifically those between seventy and one hundred which, for some reason only understandable to the French, means there is a difference in the way these numbers are said in French-French and Belgian-French. Its enough to make my head spin. So I was essentially doing math, in French, on a morning with less than a cup of coffee flowing through my system. My brain hurt before it was done and I let out an audible sigh of relief when we moved onto the next lesson. Until I realized that the lesson in question was one of professions. As in, how do I ask someone what their profession is and how would I answer that question myself. Yuck; I almost wished we could return to the numbers lesson because I knew what was coming next.

Sure enough, the question of "what is your profession" was posed to the class. I was the second one to respond. As I listened to my classmate tell the instructor that she was a kindergarten teacher, I thought about what my response should be. I've had many "professions" in the past with the titles of supervisor, program manager and planner being in the forefront. But this question wasn't one of what I used to do rather since it was posed in the present tense it meant what do I do now. Student of French, blogger, experimental cook, aspiring painter? But these aren't professions for me, rather they are the hobbies I dabble in when I have the time. So how do I spend my time? When it was my turn to explain my profession to the class I said I was the family chauffeur, cook and organizer. My response was met with a blank look from my instructor who then said oh, I was a "femme au foyer". I nodded and felt a little better when the next student said she was also a femme au foyer. But the following students all stated that their professions were actual careers; pharmacist assistants, teachers, professors and the list goes on.  I simply sat in my chair and thought about the question and my answer.

I've joked that this is what I am and I've even blogged about it. But it is one thing to talk about it rather anonymously and another to say it out loud to a roomful of people. I stewed about this for the rest of the day. While I was having coffee with a fellow "femme au foyer" after class we dissected the issue. Later while taking Sidney to lunch with a few of his classmates the topic weighed heavily on my mind. While picking up last minute birthday gift for a weekend party, sitting patiently waiting for our delayed appointment with the pediatrician and shopping for ingredients for dinner I continued to think about it. As I kicked the soccer ball around with Sidney in the dusk while we waited for his father to get out of work I told myself I was content with my title of femme au foyer. But the truth is, not matter how much I try, I'm simply not.

I totally appreciate the fact that I have the flexibility to take Sidney to last minute play dates, to cook complex dinners in the middle of the week if I choose to or to sit for hours in the doctor's office without having to worry about being late getting to work. And when my son wants to play soccer after school? Not only can I take him to his practices but I can join him in impromptu ones when the opportunity strikes. The freedom is wonderful and I know I am lucky. But it just isn't enough. Sure I fill my spare hours with leisure activities and hobbies I had only hoped to have the time for when I was working full time but to be honest, I miss the grind and routine of working in an office. I miss the responsibility and the accolades that came with successes. Somehow putting a tedious project to bed ahead of the deadline just sounds like more of an accomplishment than baking dozens of cupcakes for the class party, finding the long lost toy or completing a to-do list that had me on the go all day long.

These are my issues with which I continue to struggle. Most days I am content with the situation but that might just be because I am too busy to think about or question them. But every so often that nagging question gets posed and it starts me thinking all over again. It doesn't matter what language it is asked in; my response remains the same. I need to learn to wear the title of "femme au foyer" proudly. I'm trying, really I am.