Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jolly ol' St. Nicholas...

I have to admit that when we started planning our holidays I was pretty disappointed that we were not going to be heading back to the States for Christmas. I have very fond memories of Christmases in Texas and no matter where we have lived, I have always been a little homesick regardless of the city we were living in at the time. However, as the kids started getting older, it was much easier to think more creatively with regards to where to spend the holidays. Not only did you not have to pack an entire nursery of clothes, diapers, strollers, car seats, etc. for a trip to Grandma's house, but you didn't have to think up a creative answer to that inevitable question: How will Santa find us?

As Thanksgiving came to an end, I started looking forward to the next holiday - just like my kids. Being in Europe, I knew that there were so many new customs to learn, and I really wanted to identify new traditions for our family so that we could truly embrace the culture of our new home. I honestly wasn't too surprised when shortly before Thanksgiving all of the Christmas decorations popped up in the malls. While there are the few holdout retailers, Christmas shopping season seems to get earlier each year. What I hadn't considered are the variations in holidays. While we have grown up waiting anxiously for Christmas Eve for the arrival of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas begins visiting children in the Grand Duchy in late November to see if they have been good or bad, and the kids need only wait until December 6th (St. Nicholas Day) to find out the verdict.

So, with St. Nicholas Day quickly approaching, it is no wonder that the stores were decked out in holiday cheer so early in our sense of the season. The grocery stores quickly filled up on the traditional cookies, candies and breads: Speculoos cookies that originated from Holland, truffles and St. Nicholas-shaped chocolate figures (I'm sure Belgium had an influence there), and Stollen from Germany (what many Americans would consider a lighter form of fruitcake). You can also find the yule log cakes commonly found in France. So, I had to ask myself - How do they celebrate St. Nicholas Day in Luxembourg? And, how does this differ from our traditional Christmas celebration in the U.S.?

Klees'chen spotted at a Lux wine tasting.
Well, I spent one Sunday evening researching this holiday. Luxembourg has the unique prospective of having a holiday season that blends all of the best traditions of its' neighboring countries, but still retains a little unique spin. In Luxembourg, St. Nicholas (or Klees'chen, as he is known here) begins visiting children around the middle of November. He can be seen at the malls, just like the American version where you can have your picture taken with him while reciting your dream list of gifts. However, he can also show up at wine festivals or business locations. I can only assume his review of human behavior also extends to adults in this case. He is generally accompanied by his sidekick Houseker; otherwise known as Black Peter. In case, like me, you have never heard of Black Peter, let me give you a little background. The story goes that Black Peter was an evil butcher who wanted to boil some young children and make them into nice, juicy sausages. Yes, you read that right. Klees'chen is believed to have saved the children from their wurst fate through a bit of divine intervention. As a result of his failed attempt, Black Peter was dealt the final fate of following Klees'chen from town to town, carrying switches so that he can deal with those children who have managed their way onto the Naughty List. During the days leading up to St. Nicholas' Day, children put their shoes next to the fireplace or radiator in hopes that Klees'chen will leave a treat or two on his way through town. Basically, they are hoping for a sign that perhaps they have managed to avoid that daunting list.

On the night before St. Nicholas' Day, Luxembourg children put out a plate (sometimes with carrots for Klees'chen's donkey), in hopes that he will bring them yet some more treats. In the past, that meant oranges, nuts and maybe that pair of socks they were longing for. Now days the grocery stores are chock full of every candy and cookie vendor's version of a St. Nicholas-shaped goody. As for the socks - well, they have likely been replaced by any number of toy options.

I won't go into all of the various versions of St. Nicholas Day that are celebrated in this part of Europe. If you are interested in reading up on the customs, gives a great description of the holiday as it is celebrated by various countries. Personally, I find the Netherlands to be the most interesting version. Furthermore, if you want to read a more humorous viewpoint of the Dutch holiday, the article written by David Sedaris is quite amusing.

Well, December 6th has come and gone. Klees'chen did manage to find us here in Luxembourg and left the boys a very chocolatey welcome to their new home. Now, the countdown has begun for the arrival of the next fat, jolly man's visit on the 24th. Thankfully this one is only accompanied by 9 tiny reindeer - one with a glowing red nose. Try explaining that story to young children when you no longer have a fireplace :)


Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving in Lux...

Southern Fried Turkey
Thanksgiving in Lux is, unfortunately, just another day. Really, it isn't surprising in the least given it is distinctly an American holiday. However, when you have spent over 40 years of your life celebrating this day - watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, eating a ridiculous amount of turkey and trimmings, and spending the rest of the afternoon in a tryptophan coma while watching the Dallas Cowboys game - it can really feel disorienting when suddenly it's just another day on the calendar. The existence of Facebook doesn't seem to help matters. When everyone is busy posting about their trip to Grandma's house, cheering on their favorite football team, or just venting about how full of turkey and pie they are, it can really spark some serious homesickness.

In all honesty, Thanksgiving has never really been my favorite holiday. I appreciate the concept of taking time to be thankful for all of our blessings and spending time with family, but the stress of planning a big dinner and then quickly moving into Black Friday shopping mode has always been a little un-nerving for me. My favorite Thanksgiving celebrations have always been those where we have either traveled to other places (i.e., some other family member was responsible for the cooking!) or we have spent the day with close friends and the cooking responsibilities were shared. See a theme here? As a kid, the holiday was simply a prelude to Christmas when we were finally able to dig out the decorations and start writing that letter to Santa. I also have very fond memories of my mom cooking some incredible desserts and my dad anxiously awaiting the Cowboys kickoff, so the holiday does inspire some very strong memories. So, it is no surprise to me that this week seems to have been a tough one for me. For the first time in these five months abroad, I was finally... homesick.

So, how did we spend turkey day? Well, it really was just another day, with one exception - Joe had the day off.  Sort of. Since he works for an American company located in Luxembourg, it can be a little confusing. Do you recognize the American holidays, knowing your counterparts in the States are not in the office? Or, do you recognize the Luxembourgish holidays which are the days the kids have off from the International School? Well, for the most part, the American holidays are recognized, but in reality, everyone still seems to work at least part of the day, whether they pop into the office for a few hours or work from home. Joe chose to work from home, which allowed him to walk the boys to school and take me out to lunch - a very nice diversion from our normal routine. Dinner was a bit of a non-event, mostly because our plans are to celebrate the holiday on Saturday evening when we can get together with some of our other American friends here in Lux and indulge in a bit of a Southern version of the holiday - fried turkey, cornbread stuffing, and probably some college football in lieu of the NFL games. We did have the chance to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade (during dinner) and I made it through to halftime of the Cowboys game (Joe woke me up at about 2 a.m. to let me know they won - good news given they hadn't been playing their best when I headed upstairs.) The boys had their normal school schedules, but my oldest greatly enjoyed the opportunity to chat with his friends back in Virginia via Xbox since the time zone doesn't present as much of a challenge when the friends back in the States have the day off from school!

As for Black Friday, well, it just doesn't really exist here either. My inbox was telling me otherwise by the flurry of emails I was receiving from every imaginable retailer, but the hype just doesn't carry across the pond. Instead of the dash to the mall to check out the deals, my day was spent going to Trier with my French class to check out the shopping and Christmas market there in Germany. (It is a well vocalized opinion that everything in Germany is cheaper than anything here in Lux, so we were compelled enough to see if that is indeed the case. I didn't see a huge difference with most things, but there is a much larger selection of stores that are not designer.) I can honestly say, Christmas is not the commercial spectacle here that it is in the States. It is still festive and busy, but definitely more subdued. It is an interesting change of pace. Also, with Luxembourg being such an international community, you see a blend of cultures and customs that you just don't see or recognize as vividly in the U.S.. I can only guess that the reason for this is that here you see how folks from various European countries celebrate Christmas, while in the U.S. the focus is on making sure no religious background or winter celebration is overlooked. Therefore, the view is broader, so American children learn about the different holidays - Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa. In the predominately Catholic country of Luxembourg, the focus is on Advent and St. Nicholas Day (celebrated this year on December 6th). I am sure all three winter holidays are celebrated here given the diverse population, but it just isn't reinforced by commercialism.

So, tomorrow will be our Thanksgiving celebration, fried turkey and all. It will be shared with close friends, though our thoughts will be with our families. By the way, the first thing I did on Thursday morning was to book our Carnival week vacation in February - a one week trip to San Antonio. Yes, the homesickness had definitely kicked in!

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - the Reality of Culture Shock

I am not a stranger to moving. After almost 20 years of marriage, at least 10 of which I was married to a consultant, I have moved, on average, about every 3-5 years. We spent 8 years in Virginia, but only 1-3 years everywhere else. So, I know what it is like moving to a new city - finding a house, looking for a job, researching schools, and, of course, developing friendships. Some places were easier, while others seemed impossible. Strangely, but not surprisingly, moving back to Texas a year ago was the hardest move I have ever experienced. Even though I was born and raised there, I had been away from the Lone Star State for 8 years. In a Texan's eyes, I was a foreigner. I had been away too long and my kids had not grown up in the neighborhood; therefore, the cliques had been developed in their grades years earlier and so had the ones among their parents. The few friends I had were those I had had back in high school - friends who had moved to the Dallas area and whom I had reconnected with over the last few years. Needless to say, I spent the year in what felt like a strange form of limbo. I was finally "home," but I didn't feel welcomed. Today, I learned that this is actually referred to as "reverse culture shock" - when returning to your "home" can actually be more difficult and traumatic than the move away. Now, in hindsight, I completely understand the concept!

Last week I started volunteering at the American Women's Club working the front desk. I have learned through my past moves that there is no better way of adjusting to a new city than forcing yourself out of your house and getting involved, whether it is work, volunteering, taking a class, or joining a gym.  You want to meet people? You have to put yourself out there where you can meet them! My first day of volunteering was especially quiet, but this morning was actually quite busy. The club was providing a seminar for members - "Thriving in a New Culture." The speaker was actually a neighbor of mine whom I had met just a few weeks after we moved into our house. She had been kind enough to invite me over for coffee after having met me at the neighborhood patisserie. I had not signed up for the seminar, primarily because I knew I would be there, but I figured I would just listen in and that maybe there might be a few interesting tidbits of wisdom shared among the group. So, here are some of those interesting tidbits:

  • About 10 or 12 women attended the seminar, several of whom have lived in Luxembourg for several years. Apparently culture shock can linger for awhile, or even resurface as we encounter new phases of our lives - having children, leaving a job, or getting a divorce. 
  • Only 3 or 4 of us were from the U.S. The women were from various countries, primarily Europe, but all of us were dealing with the same transition issues of language barriers and not understanding local customs and etiquette.
  • Ex-pat wives (otherwise referred to as "trailing spouses") from the U.S. have the most difficult time assimilating in OTHER English speaking countries. The highest success rate is actually Americans who relocate to Singapore. Why? Because they set their expectations accordingly. It is easy to assume that moving to another English speaking country would be significantly easier than  one that isn't, but that falsely assumes that customs and beliefs are similar. To illustrate the mis-nomar, the speaker referred to an American client she had in England who came to her prior to his move to Australia. Apparently he had moved to England a few years ago with his wife, who left him 6 months later because she could not handle the culture shock she was suffering. He wanted to avoid a repeat of the experience with his new English girlfriend upon their move to Australia.
  • Culture shock can be greater when there are kids or pets involved in the move. I know this is not a surprise where the kids are concerned. I can honestly attest to the fact that the success of any move largely hinges upon how well the kids adjust. Nothing pulls on the heartstrings more than when your child is struggling with the change. The pet's adjustment, however, was actually a surprise for me. One of the women attending said her biggest struggle was that she could not go anywhere in Luxembourg without bringing her German Shepard mix. Apparently they had lived in a house before and the dog was not accustomed to living in an apartment/flat.  Whenever they went out, he would bark incessantly and disturb their neighbors. So, she was finding herself spending many hours hiking in the woods behind their building - just she and her dog. Quite a contrast for a woman who had just quit her career to follow her spouse to a new country.
  • The major challenge the women cited regarding their move to Luxembourg - the language barrier. The only reason this is surprising, given that the main languages in Luxembourg are Luxembourgish, French and German, is that we all were told that "everyone in Luxembourg speaks English". We all agreed, most city workers and professionals do, but the common lay person doesn't. So, when you are the "trailing spouse" responsible for buying groceries, mailing packages, scheduling doctor appointments, taking in the dry cleaning, or servicing the car, you are most likely going to encounter employees who will not speak English. This is not so say that they don't know English (though that may be the case), but rather, they are not comfortable communicating in English. It is not much different than living here with only 2 or 3 years of high school French - it only gets you so far. A Luxembourger with only a few years of English feels the same way.
  • The most cited opportunity about moving to Luxembourg was the language and multi-cultural environment. Yes, language was both the most discussed challenge and opportunity.  Everyone seemed to agree that over the long haul, the opportunity to meet people from such a diverse mix of cultures and to learn a variety of languages was what ultimately led them to accepting the challenge to move here.
  • Even in Europe - despite the long lunches, holidays, and vacations - work/life balance remains a challenge for Americans. In fact, in some cases, it can actually be worse. Personally, this has been the hardest adjustment for me. My husband has always worked hard and has worked late when necessary, but his new job is much more demanding and the difference in time zones between here and his people back in the States requires that he work much longer hours than he used to. So, I have had to adapt to the change in routine.  Family dinners are generally weekend events and daily communication may often be a quick text or email.
  • That strange, unsettling feeling you get standing in your home alone during the day is actually loneliness. I know this sounds strange, but I don't generally think of myself as lonely. But, it has also taken me several years to recognize that there have definitely been periods in my past when we have moved that I was overwhelmed with how alone I actually felt. The worst period of time was a few years after we moved to Richmond. Both my husband and I were working long hours, to the point that we were arguing over who would take the boys to daycare in the morning or pick them up in the afternoon. So, when my oldest son entered third grade, we had to make a choice. Did we continue struggling as parents in order to maintain a two-career household, or did one of us have to become a full-time parent? Since my husband was the so-called breadwinner, that meant, of course, me. I was raised to be independent and self-sufficient. I had earned my master's degree just years before and had only recently received a job promotion.  But the reality was - I hated my job. I was miserable and that misery was following me home. It wasn't a hard decision to make, but it was the most difficult decision to live with. I had gone from being a motivated, hard-working financial manager who enjoyed managing young people and collaborating with co-workers on a daily basis, to a stay-at-home mom that had no idea how to spend the many hours she faced each day while the kids were in school. Suddenly, loneliness settled in and I was overwhelmed. It took a good two years to regain my footing in my new role and I credit most of it with my honest hatred of day-time TV :) I couldn't stand being at home during the day, so I found every excuse possible to get out. This eventually led to a very busy volunteer schedule.
  • Finally, truth be told - the working spouse does not understand what the trailing spouse is experiencing. They are very well dealing with their own adjustment issues - new job, new boss, new office etiquette - but they are not out in the expat trenches, trying to buy gas or understand the children's new grading system. And, if they are husbands (as most are), they do not want to hear about your trials and failures at the grocery store after a long day at work. Worse, if you do share your frustrations, they will quickly move into "fix-it" mode and rattle off a list of actions that you should use when faced with the problem in the future. Well, reality is, we don't want the answers. What we want is honest, heart-felt sympathy. We know we aren't going to learn French or Luxembourgish in the next few days (or weeks), so we will still have to face that waiter or cashier the next time we venture out of the home. What we really want to know is that we are not alone in this venture and that the feelings of frustration and uselessness are not uncommon or petty. Reality is, the smallest of things - a scratch on the car, a miffed neighbor, or a misunderstood lunch order can suddenly feel like a major tragedy and send us into unexpected tears or cursing fits. We just want to know that it is normal and that we aren't the only ones who are dealing with it.
Well, even though this is my seventh move since my honeymoon, I can honestly say that so far the experience has been very positive. My kids are happy with their new school, I am keeping very busy with my volunteer work and my boys, and my husband loves his new career. I attribute this optimistic outlook to setting my expectations accordingly. I knew this move would be a challenge, but I also new it would be an incredible opportunity for our family. As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder, I will continue to long for those Texas winters when you just never know what the winds may bring. In the meantime, I just look forward and prepare myself for the next challenge tomorrow will bring - even if it may just be a trip to the grocery store. At least I know, I'm not alone.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Trials and Tribulations of Cheap Travel

I know I have mentioned it before, but the biggest selling point in moving to Lux was the fact that by living in Central Europe, our opportunities to travel would be numerous - especially compared to living in Dallas. Growing up in Texas, you quickly learn that it can easily take 8-10 hours of driving just to leave the state. (Just visiting another major city from Corpus Christi would take 3-4 hours.) So, after years of moving around the U.S. and learning the benefits of living in smaller states (you could travel to 5 or 6 different states from Richmond, VA in less than half a day), I knew that a small country in the center of Europe held many more possibilities! Up to this point our trips to Europe had been the once-every-five-years-or-so event, generally meant to celebrate an anniversary.

To add to this logistical opportunity is the fact that the kids have several week and two week holidays spread throughout the year. Although their summer vacation is only two months long, this shortened season allows for breaks in the fall (one week), winter (two weeks), carnival (one week) and spring (two weeks). Though many folks take these opportunities to travel back to their native countries, others take the time to explore. For larger families, the expense of travel can hinder these aspirations. Between airfare, hotel costs and miscellaneous expenses such as food and gifts, the cost of a simple one week trip can be quite costly. However, if you plan your trip carefully and take advantage of a few key budget opportunities, a quick trip within Europe can be somewhat comparable to a trip to the beach or mountains in the U.S.

Ryanair is the Southwest Airlines of Europe - minus the peanuts (or pretzels, or whatever it is they serve these days.) They certainly lure you in with dazzling ads for 50 or 75 Euro flights, but as always, consumer beware.  You absolutely HAVE to read the details. If you get the chance, just check out the website. It is actually quite humorous. Every imaginable circumstance a traveller can experience on a simple EU flight can lead to quite a lot of un-anticipated fees. These include fees for printing out your boarding passes (a must), mis-spelling or mis-entering the traveler's name as it appears on his/her passport, number of bags checked-in, weight of the bags checked-in, using a credit card to book your flight (is there really any other option?) The list goes on.

I learned about Ryanair through a friend of ours here in Lux. They have two small children and have used Ryanair quite a bit. They had just booked a trip to Madrid for a long weekend for a ridiculously low fare. So, I had to check it out for myself. I knew our fall break was coming up and we had no definitive plans, so I figured it would be a great opportunity to attack that travel bucket list of mine. Top on the list - Spain. Okay, I couldn't very well do the copycat thing and do Madrid (not that my friends would have cared the least). But honestly, I have always wanted to go to Barcelona. I had heard some fantastic things about the architecture and had seen a few pictures online, but hadn't really researched it much since most of our past vacations had fallen in August.  August is NOT the time of year for a trip to Spain. It is crazy hot and most Europeans take their vacations during this time, so many shops are closed for the month and the crowds are huge. But, fall break falls in November, so that opened up the opportunity.  I did flip through the various flight options available during our holiday week (Italy, Germany, England, etc.), and sure enough - Barcelona was one of the most reasonable destinations and the one that promised the best chance for decent weather. So, for 75 euros per person, we booked our trip for four to Barcelona.

So, that left accommodations to book. Well, the same friends had also been to Barcelona about a year ago and had stayed at an apartment that they highly recommended. With two older boys who are now too big to share beds with us in a small hotel room, we are now at the point of either two rooms in a hotel, or looking for that ideal VRBO (vacation rental by owner). We have done both, and honestly, you do have many more cost savings opportunities with the VRBO options, not to mention you have the chance of customizing your needs a bit. This apartment was centrally located to all of the great sites in Barcelona (blocks away from the Sagrada Familia church and a short metro trip away from La Rambla) and had 3 bedrooms and 3 baths. For brothers that consistently argue over shared space, the place sounded perfect! Plus, it had a kitchen for cooking meals in and laundry facilities that would allow us to minimize what we packed. So, a few more clicks and another deposit, and our apartment was booked.

Finally, Barcelona is primarily a walking city, so the need to rent a car is pretty minimal. There are tour buses that provide a great overview of the city so that you can determine where you want to spend the rest of your vacation time. Also, there are some great tour companies that can take you on day trips that the trains or buses don't reach (Costa Brava, Girona, Wine Country, Montserrat). We opted to hold off on renting a car for this trip, though we did eventually book a day trip.

As we got closer to our departure date, my husband began his normal preparations of printing out boarding passes and reading that fine print we were so often reminded of. Sure enough, the luggage limitations and potential fees for Ryanair are quite notorious. There are numerous websites that will advise you as to what potential fees you must try to avoid. However, luggage fees are the highest and most stringent ones I have ever seen. When booking our flight, I had purchased the ability to bring two checked-in bags that could weigh up to 15 kg. Each traveler is limited to one 10kg. carry on, but Ryanair posts the EXACT dimensions they allow and you are not allowed any additional packages. Therefore, if you are used to traveling with a purse and a laptop and/or camera (like me), you better make sure they all fit in ONE bag.

After packing our family of four, we quickly determined that there was no way (despite the fact that we could do laundry in the apartment) we would manage with just 2 checked in bags - especially if we planned to bring back more than what we came there with (i.e., souvenirs). So, in order to avoid the absurdly high fees imposed at the airport, we went online and added a third bag that could weigh up to 20 kilos (both ways, this added an additional 50 euros to the 100 or so euros I had already paid for the first two bags). Other tricks we used included using duffle bags (which weigh practically nothing) and minimizing the pairs of shoes we packed. I know that seems silly, but women do generally pack several pairs (at least this one does), so that did prove to be a test! (BTW, sneakers weigh the least, but I happen to be partial to Dansko clogs, which unfortunately weighed the most.) Finally, I packed my purse, used my laptop bag as my carry on and made sure that my camera, laptop, wallet and passports could fit. Whew!

So, was the effort worth it? Well, let's just say that we did witness a traveler on the way back from Barcelona who did not read the luggage requirements quite so earnestly. Stopped at the gate, she was forced to put her bag in one of those metal dimension testers that are so rarely used by most airlines. Though her bag fit, she was forced to rearrange her belongings when the airline employee threatened her with the large luggage fee when her bag got stuck.  It took her 5 minutes to free it from the metal cage in which it had been imprisoned! With some effort on our part, we managed to bring back quite a few souvenirs (including some fragile ceramic pieces strategically packed amongst our clothes) without exceeding the weight limits and no damage! Woot!

So, was our trip the ultimate cost savings vacation? Simply said - no. Although we did a great job on the luggage, we weren't so great at researching our destination. Our biggest surprise? The 200 euro round trip cab fair between Girona (our destination airport) and our apartment in Barcelona. C'est la vie! Our trip was wonderful, the weather was perfect, and don't get me started on the food. That's for another blog post :)

Fruits de Mer - Our journey to Belgium

Moules Frites!
Yes, apparently it is that time of year! Having grown up near the water, a month with an "r" in it meant it was time for oysters on the half shell.  Here in Europe, however, it means it is time for mussels! Throw in some traditional Belgian frites, and I am in heaven!

After a couple of weekends of hanging in Luxembourg for the weekend, I determined it was time to get back in routine and venture out of the ville.  Given that we are avid seafood lovers (well, the husband and I are - we are working on the kids) and have been land-locked for the last few months, we decided to venture further west into Belgium. Since Joe travels quite a bit, we had some Marriott Miles to put to use. Perusing the company website, I found a great Marriott in Ghent, a small town west of Brussels, often referred to as "Little Bruges". So, I booked the hotel, cleared our family calendar, washed some laundry, and we were off!

Since our previous trips to Belgium did not extend past a few miles into the country (with most of those trips being to the Ikea just past the Lux border), it seemed we couldn't possibly venture into Belgium without experiencing Brussels. Besides, we had received a great recommendation on a restaurant there - with promises of great moules frites! Being the travel planner of the family, my goal for the weekend was to experience as much seafood possible - lunch in Brussels, dinner in Ghent, Sunday brunch overlooking the North Sea and (if time permitted) dinner in Bruges. Well, 3 out of 4 wasn't too bad :)

Our first stop was in Brussels. A short hour and a half drive from Lux, Brussels is a bustling city full of history and... traffic. Not just car traffic, but an abundance of pedestrian traffic as well. We began our quick visit with lunch at Marie Joseph, a fantastic restaurant in the St. Catherine area of the city - an area known for their seafood. I suspected that our meal would be fantastic as soon as we were served the best house-made potato chips! These awesome salty slivers of heaven were just a prelude to even better frites and some fantastic mussels (see the title pic above).  The portions were generous, the frites bottomless, and even my anti-moules son had a great platter of fish and chips. Our lunch would not have been complete without some unbelievable Belgian Chocolate Mousse! Needless to say, our trip was off to a great start!

Mannequin Pis
Next on the agenda was a quick site-seeing trip though the city, with the smaller goal of finding some great Belgian chocolate. This goal was easy enough since we received a few great recommendations from our hospitable waiter at MJ's. We headed off to the city center (Grand Place) to explore. The buildings were beautiful and the people watching entertaining. There was a small demonstration (yes, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations had spread to Europe that weekend), but otherwise the city was bustling with the typical fall tourists enjoying a beautiful, sunny day in the city. Our quick venture through the city would not have been complete without searching out the Mannequin Pis. If you are not familiar with this common symbol of Belgium, it is basically a small statue of a boy peeing.  Thus, the name. What makes this petite (61 cm) bronze statue a significant focal point of the city is its folklore and its wardrobe. Yes, this lucky little boy has quite the enviable closet (housed in a museum off the Grand Place) with costumes from around the world. The day we saw him, he pretty much resembled a small child in a private school uniform (or perhaps an ad for The Gap.) At that, I will leave you to Google the details on his history and such, but if you have ever seen the Mona Lisa in Paris, you are likely to feel the same feeling of surprise (and a slight let down) when you realize just how small this notorious symbol really is!

The quaint town of Ghent.
Following our quick tour of Brussels, we headed off to Ghent for the evening. The Marriott hotel is located right off the canal and is housed in an older building with a very modern interior. We spent the evening searching for dinner.  Our misfortune was that we had scheduled our short trip during the city's international film festival. Though the city boasts a ton of restaurants (many of which are highly rated and some of which are even Michelin rated), every restaurant we ventured to was completely booked. Finally, around 9:00 p.m. we did find a large restaurant that was able to squeeze us in to a back room. The plus - we did enjoy some local favorites, including a simple chicken soup (Waterzooi) and some tasty ribs; the minus - the crowd was so large our dinner took at least 2 hours, with most of it being the wait for our food.  We did spend a little time the next morning walking around the small town. Most of the tourist shops were open so I was able to squeeze in a little bit of shopping, but we chalked up our experience in Ghent as a "to be continued" since the town seemed wonderful. We just didn't have enough time to really experience or enjoy it.

With just an afternoon left to our journey, we gave the boys the choice of either venturing to Bruges, or heading to the coast. My oldest son happens to be a bit pre-occupied with water (must have inherited our beach genes having grown up off the Gulf Coast of Texas), so his vote, hands down, was to head to the coast. Since we had broken our moules frite quest with the prior night's dinner, this seemed a logical solution that would allow us to get back to our seafood quest! We were not disappointed. Though everyone seemed to have the same idea of spending a cloudless Sunday on the coast, traffic in Oostende was busy and parking took some time. Thankfully, after some dutiful searching, we found a great little restaurant near the pier - B'oot Huis (or, the Boathouse). The restaurant was very quaint and simply decorated in nautical whites and blues. My husband and youngest son stayed loyal and ordered the moules frites. I ventured to the more traditional grilled fish option, while my oldest once again ordered the fish and chips. Only my oldest was a tad disappointed when his fish and chips was not like the previous days' generous helping of crispy fried cod, but was instead some rather amusing starfish and fish shaped fish nuggets. Well, at least the frites were good! My husband and youngest swear the mussels were even better there (perhaps it was the cream they were so lavishly swimming in), and the grilled fish and veggies were wonderful. Even the view was enjoyable, with a suitable ending of chocolate mousse and creme brulee. Okay, so the creme brulee wasn't the best (I definitely should have opted for the chocolate mousse), but the overall experience was great.

Our trip ended with a long four hour drive back to Lux. The time seemed to pass quickly enough as we spent the time enjoying the rolling, foggy hills and finding shortcuts through Belgium in an attempt to avoid the outrageous traffic headed towards Brussels. So, we will keep Bruges and Antwerp for another visit, and will hopefully make it back to Ghent, but for now we will continue enjoying the upcoming "r" months by continuing our quest to find that perfect moules frites!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Day Trip to Han-sur-Lesse, Belgium

Exit of the Han-sur-Lesse caves
One of the true benefits of having middle school children (and living close to their respective school) is that you no longer require nannies, babysitters, daycare, or any other form of after school care. Having been a working mom in the past, and having several friends here in Lux who have had to tackle that inevitable need associated with having younger children, I cannot express to you how liberating it is! This sense of freedom doubles if you are fortunate enough to find a home close enough to the school that the independent middle-schoolers can venture down the street on their own each morning and each afternoon. Alas, I am finally free of that well known, much hated cue - the carpool line! I am also no longer at the mercy of rush hour traffic, road or renovation construction, or hidden speed zones. My day can begin with the gentle wake up call (yell up the stairs), a quick wardrobe review (me informing my oldest that 11 degrees Celsius means it is no longer shorts weather) and a kiss goodbye before ushering the boys out the door.  This may or may not be done in PJ's. Although I no longer have to deal with the morning carpool, I do face most mornings with a Coca Light, a yogurt, and the often busy drive to drop the husband off at work - the joys of being a one-car household. But the benefit of this effort is having the remaining time between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to determine what I want to accomplish that day.  Some days it is enough to muddle my way through a grocery store, while other days may be filled with French lessons, painting the house, or the endless list of errands. However, once in awhile you just have to determine that you deserve a break from the mundane, take charge of your day, and play hooky!

Last week, I did just that. One of the great little interest groups within the American Women's Club of Luxembourg is the Day Trip Group. Being new, I'm not quite sure how long this group has been around, but the general idea is to take full advantage of our central location in Europe. The trips can be one day, a weekend, or even a few days, but they are organized so that participants can choose what works for their schedule. Being the independent daytime mom, I jumped at the chance of taking advantage of my new-found freedom and signed up for the first trip this year - a day trip to Han-sur-Lesse, Belgium about an hour or so from Luxembourg. Our group was comprised of five women (including myself), ranging in backgrounds from grandmother, empty nester, mother of tweens, and recently married and no kids. All of us had one thing in common - a strong desire to explore and travel. Most of the women on the trip had traveled more extensively than I have, which made the trip that much more fun since I could learn about all of the other wonderful places they had been and the places they enjoyed the most.

As for our trip to Han-sur-Lesse, the trip there was a quick hour-and-a-half trip across the border into Belgium. The town itself is small and quaint, with a main road that crosses the Lesse river - the source that runs under the surrounding hills and created the caves. Our itinerary included a trip through the animal preserve, lunch and a trip through the limestone caves. The animal preserve was built in an effort to protect the land surrounding the caves and is now home to 18 species of wild animals that had once been prominent in Northern Europe, but whose numbers have dropped over the years. The safari cars wind their way through the park, up and down the hills of the reserve, providing wonderful views of the surrounding valleys. Most of the animals were easily visible from the tram, including wild horses, deer, owls, wolves, etc. The more amusing stop on the trip - the bears, who eagerly await the stopping tram and will stand on their hind legs in exchange for a tossed piece of baguette from the driver.

Lunch was a simple affair at Chez Billy.  Billy is a nice old gentlemen who spoke a little English and provided some wonderful pumpkin soup, Croque Monsieurs, and hot chocolate. Following lunch, we ventured over to the cue for the grottoes. A short tram drives visitors to the entrance of the caves. From there, you venture on foot, up and down some 400 stairs through some chilly (about 13 degrees Celsius), damp, but fascinating limestone caves. It is very obvious that great care has been given to maintaining the condition of the caves, and the presentation and guide (a wonderful man who provided information in 4 or 5 different languages) were terrific. The stalactites/stalagmites were really quite fascinating and very well lit. Towards the end of the tour, visitors are asked to sit in an arena-type area with metal benches where a very nice light/music show is done, highlighting the immense space of the caverns. The caves were first discovered in 1815 and has become one of Belgium's top tourist attractions, earning 3 Michelin stars. A true reflection of the small town atmosphere of this quaint village - one of the ladies on our trip left her umbrella at Chez Billy's. Billy sent a text to our tour guide letting us know he was holding it for us :)

Despite the dreary, drizzly weather, the trip was very enjoyable. The caves were great, but as always, the company was even better. Though we all come from various backgrounds (US, South Africa, England), we all have our experiences in Luxembourg as a bonding factor. I have only been here a short time, but I have found myself gravitating to the American Women's Club activities, drawn mostly by my ongoing curiosity as to why others are here and how they are or have managed their transition to this little country. Thankfully, this group of women seem to be making the most of their stay here (all of them are here on a short term basis), and had relatively positive opinions - a very important factor for those of us who are here on a more permanent basis and who make an active effort to avoid those with, shall we say, "glass half empty" mentalities. Life is too short to dwell on the short comings of your current life chapter. I have fully embraced this new adventure and have learned that I enjoy it that much more when I can find others to share it with me! Next day trip adventure - Verdun, France.  Can't wait :)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Something Old, Something New...

J and B with their friends on their first day of school.
With the start of a new school year, comes the start of the year's school activities. Among these are the "Welcome Back" parent meetings and PTA or PTO events. I was at such an event yesterday - about 20 or so moms, sitting at a cafe, having coffee and socializing. Conversation among expat wives follows a similar routine, regardless of the setting:  How long have you lived here?  How do you like living in Luxembourg? How are your kids adjusting? Where does your husband work? and (finally) How long will you be staying? The answers to these questions are pretty interesting since families move here from all over the place. You do learn that there are quite a few families who come for 2-5 year periods of time, many of whom have moved with Amazon, Caterpillar or Goodyear. There are also quite a few folks who moved here with the expectation of being here only a few years, and now find themselves 20 year plus veterans. Having moved here for an indefinite period of time, the veterans intrigue me the most.  Obviously they love the country or they would not have committed themselves to living here for such a long period of time. Also, they prove to be a wealth of knowledge when it comes to understanding the idiosyncrasies of this country.

One topic of conversation that came up, not too surprisingly, was the difference in what the kids were studying and experiencing compared to what they had in their previous schools. What has really impressed me so far is the amazing change in perspective that my boys have already adopted. Unlike any place we have lived in the States, the boys' school environment is, in every sense of the term, a global one. If you ask them where the kids are from who are in their classes, as I have, you get the typical "Come on, Mom" look and the generic answer "everywhere." I have boys, so they are never verbose in their communication, so after a series of further questions you do learn that indeed the kids do come from everywhere. For once in their short lives, they are not the minority in the sense that they are Hispanic. They are in the minority because they are American. It is truly a refreshing perspective to see that the kids at the International School here do not identify themselves by race, religion, or other social difference. In fact, they don't really seem to identify themselves by their country much either. If I ask my son where a particular person is from, he rarely knows the answer. I usually get the response, "I don't know.  Somewhere in Europe." Ask the same questions in Dallas and the child is likely to identify him/herself by which part of Dallas they live in (Frisco, Plano, etc.).

To understand this at another level, all you have to do is consider their classes. Last year my son's 7th grade history class was Texas History - no different than when I was in 7th grade years ago. I was thrilled when we were living in Richmond because our kids learned so much about American history at such young ages, simply because American history pretty much started in Virginia. Their lower school field trips were to Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Washington D.C.. As a result, this step back to learning about a much smaller footprint of the world was a bit odd. It seems even stranger when suddenly you are not only surrounded by 200 years of history, but rather, centuries of history. Here, they are surrounded by history and their courses reflect this viewpoint by not only teaching them about European history, but rather the world both then and now. My 8th grader will learn about Africa and Asia (both history and current events), while my 6th grader will learn world religions - what a great balance!

Main Street - Disneyland Paris
This past weekend was an interesting mix of new and old. Friday was a teacher work day at the school, so one of the PTO parents arranged a trip to Disneyland Paris for anyone interested in keeping their kiddos entertained for the day. Joe and I have never ventured to Disneyland on our previous trips to Paris, primarily because we had been warned that if you have been to the Magic Kingdom in Florida or Disneyland in California, that Disneyland Paris will fall short against your expectations. Well, I figured that for the cost of the three of us to go via bus (Joe was still in India on business), it was worth checking things out.  Besides, the kids loved the idea of being able to venture down to France for the day to go to a Disney park. In a nutshell, if you set your expectations accordingly, the park will not disappoint.  The park is pristine, the rides and attractions familiar, and in general is reflective of it's American counterparts (minus the French speaking staff and billboards). The two significant differences I noted were 1) the presence of cigarettes (yes, folks can actually smoke in the park and did), and 2) the absence of electric scooters.  I couldn't help but remember that on our last trip to the Magic Kingdom in Florida, I felt you could barely maneuver your way through the park due to the preponderance of these scooters and the ever-present baby strollers.  I had plenty of opportunities to people watch, so I couldn't help but notice that despite the pizza, pasta, pastries and gelato that are so prevalent in Europe, folks are in much better physical shape than the average American. I also couldn't help thinking that Disneyland Paris would have been a great first Disney experience for my kids when they were younger since the park isn't nearly as crowded, is not as overwhelming (much fewer rides), and is generally smaller and more manageable for little folks. In any case, the kids and I enjoyed the park, and it is very doable as a day trip since there are a fraction of the rides that you will find at the American parks. Frankly, we were finished at around 5:00 that afternoon. We had ridden all of the rides the kids were interested in and had pretty much covered the entire park. We stayed until 7:00 only because our bus driver was not allowed to drive until he had reached his minimum 9 hour respite from the morning drive down. The highlight of the trip back? Joe picking us up from the Park and Ride - very nice after missing him for two weeks.

Luxembourg Casements
Since Joe had spent the last two weeks in India, the idea of day tripping on Sunday was not very appealing to him. The funny thing is, when you live somewhere where there are tourist attractions, you rarely go to them since you figure "I can always go there!" Same thing happened to us when we lived in L.A. - we never did go to Disneyland when we lived there - only we we didn't.  Since we've moved here, we have spent most weekends traveling to cities in neighboring countries or cities in Luxembourg that are at least 30 minutes away from Luxembourg city. Luxembourg is really an interesting little town with its hills and valleys, the old buildings intermixed with the new. I am always intrigued by some new observation I have made while making my way from place to place - a roadside shrine of the Virgin Mary, a tucked-away cemetery, etc. One such site we have driven by several times is the city's Casements. The Casements are a series of tunnels dating back to the 15th century when Luxembourg was under Spanish rule.  They were added to over time and later used as bomb shelters during the world wars. For a small entrance fee, you can wander through this labyrinth and enjoy some amazing views of the city from very interesting perspectives. A fair warning - should you venture up or down any of the narrow spiral staircases leading to the tunnels on the various levels, the experience can be a bit claustrophobic and you have to listen carefully for folks coming from the other direction since they are pretty much "one way." Also, the stairs are so narrow that the only way to manage them is to place each foot parallel on the stair.  Even then your feet are not likely to fit very well, so hang on tightly to the railings! Also, the temperature changes as you move down through the tunnels, so a light jacket is a great idea, especially on overcast days. The experience was interesting and of course, the boys loved it. Well, maybe not as much as the gelato that followed!

Our favorite gelateria in the city center.
Sunday was pretty warm, so the lines at our favorite 1 euro gelato place were longer than usual, but worth the wait. The temperatures are expected to change this week and the leaves are already changing color and falling. The days will inevitably get shorter and our trips to the gelato place will transition to trips to the chocolate place in the city center that serves a terrific variety of hot chocolates. I am looking forward to the seasonal changes, but am still a bit jarred by the fact that I now live further north than I have ever lived before. This southern girl is adjusting just fine, but I still miss those long Texas summer days.  Well, sometimes :)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bon Appetit!

Here is a little interesting fact about this tiny country we live in.  Luxembourg has more 4 star Michelin restaurants per capita than any other country in the world. These restaurants tend to have a wonderful blend of French and German cuisine, inspired by extremely talented chefs who have come from long lines of culinary artists.  Joe and I had the pleasure of going to one of these restaurants during our "sell" week back in May, and the restaurant did not disappoint.  It was beautifully French, the wine was delish, and the service was impeccable.

Typical German-style lunch - farmer's market in Metz
Well, here is the reality check. Outside of the anniversary dinner or other special occasion that may warrant such a fancy, schmancy night, few folks partake in such dinners.  Not to mention the fact that if you have children, those dinners become few and far between. Lux definitely has an amazing selection of incredible, high esteemed restaurants. It also has an incredible selection of Italian pizzerias and French cafes. I always get the question, "what is the food like there?" Well, the answer obviously varies depending on if you are talking 4-star restaurants, or what you can expect to buy and cook on a daily basis. Regardless, when you live in a different country, you have to anticipate that there will be culinary challenges.

In a nutshell, anyone wanting to pursue a low-carb diet here in the Grand Duchy will find themselves in a culinary dilemma.  Yes, it is possible to do it. But when you are surrounded by a patisserie and/or boulangerie on every corner, and constantly confronted with an endless supply of French or Italian restaurants, those low carb intentions tend to find themselves diminishing into a puddle of submission to those ever-present pain ou chocolats and hand-tossed pizzas! Funny enough, our host for that "sell" weekend swore he lost 15 lbs. his first few months here in Luxembourg, simply because the food here does not contain nearly the amount of preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, or other chemical ingredients we all struggle to pronounce when we read those lists of ingredients on US product labels.  (Note: Our host mentions this fact as he is downing a pain au chocolat and espresso. He failed to mention until later that he runs on a regular basis - an activity that cannot be accomplished here without encountering a series of major calorie burning hills!)

On a personal note, I am not that SAHM (stay-at-home-mom) that pours over the latest Southern Living magazine looking for that great new recipe to try out on the family for Sunday night dinner.  I am also not that SAHM that finds cooking relaxing.  Unfortunately, I am the more common version of the SAHM who finds cooking a necessary nuisance that somehow must be crammed somewhere between swim practice, tennis practice, homework, golf lessons, piano lessons, and the eventual arrival of the husband, home from a very long day at work. This either means that I have either worked magic to pull together the basic, necessary ingredients that can allow me to throw together some quick pasta or chicken dish that 1) the kids don't "feel like" and 2) the husband will reheat in the microwave at 9:00 p.m., OR, I am desperately trying to figure out the closest non fast-food restaurant that will somehow meet the demands of three very different palates. Needless to say, I rarely reach 100% satisfaction from the family.  My best odds are when the husband is out of town and the kids are happy with the box of Mac and Cheese or a bowl of cereal.

I can't say things have changed dramatically with this move.  I have made a conscientious effort to minimize the number of kids' activities in the afternoons (a huge accomplishment from the crazy schedule we maintained in Dallas), and, because of that lack of preservatives I mentioned, I find myself at the grocery store about every other day. However, I still am always in a quandary as to what to do for dinner. Add to that the struggle to find ingredients I am familiar with (bread crumbs, sticks of butter instead of large cubes of butter, tortillas, etc.) and the significantly fewer fast food options, I find myself staring into the refrigerator, trying to will together something resembling a balanced meal. I know once I feel more settled in, I will find the time to scrutinize recipes/ingredients, I will read the manuals to my appliances from cover to cover, and I will get a better handle on the metric system so that I am not completely dependent on my conversion app on my iPhone. In the meantime, here are some interesting things I have learned about the food here:

1)  Bread and cheese do constitute a meal.  Whether it be fondue, Croque Monsieur, or cheese rocklette and a French baguette, Europeans love their carbs.

2)  You can find at least three Italian restaurants within any 1 mile radius, that includes our house.  Few deliver, but most provide "emporter" - carry out.

3)  No, the menus at McDonald's and Pizza Hut are NOT like the ones in the US. I don't recall tuna ever being a topping option for pizza, let alone fried eggs or brie and honey.

4)  Bio = organic.  Here, that means you better eat the produce in a couple of days, or you will be making another trip to the grocery store or farmer's market.

5)  There is no such thing as a "quick" meal in Europe. If you intend to eat out, you better anticipate a two hour meal, or at least master the phrase "L'addition, s'il vous plait."  (May I please get the bill?)

6)  Learn to love yogurt! The variety here is fantastic, and most stores have two aisles worth of choices including French, Greek, parfait, soy, low-fat, non-fat, drinkable, etc.  Don't get me started on the cheese...

7)  If you find yourself missing a particular American product that just cannot be found in the stores (e.g., Captain Crunch cereal, Aunt Jemima syrup, marshmallows, fruit rollups, TollHouse chocolate chips, Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing, Fritos, Cheetos, Cheese Its, Goldfish, Pepperidge Farm cookies, Jello, etc.), a membership at the American Women's Club of Luxembourg is a MUST! The selection changes a bit seasonally, and you can always make requests.  Also, I understand they sell turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner, though I have heard the challenge is whether or not your oven is big enough for the turkey.

8)  Del Haize, a small local grocery store chain, sells some great take-and-bake options, including some great vegetarian meatballs.  Just don't be surprised that the vegetarian section happens to be located right next to the refrigerated meat section that contains rabbit and kangaroo meat.

9)  Regardless of where you go, going out for dinner is going to cost almost twice what you paid in the U.S. Example: There is a Chi Chi's Tex Mex restaurant in the city center (conveniently located near the Pizza Hut and across from the McDonald's). Nachos and margaritas cost about what you might expect in the States, but burritos are about the equivalent of $20 an entree, and the fajitas are closer to $30. If you want a reasonably priced meal, stick to Italian.

10)  Pretty much everything is closed on Sundays.  So, if you are a procrastinating cook like myself, you will quickly learn that Del Haize is open until 1:00 p.m. on Sunday mornings, and many gas stations have a pretty decent selection of pastries and frozen pizza :)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Through the eyes of an optimist...

Although our transition to living overseas has been amazingly seamless, I still find myself driving down the street or walking the kids to school and thinking, "I can't believe I actually live here!" It really can be a bit surreal.  Moving the family from the flat plains of Texas to a tiny, hilly country in the middle of Europe can be a bit disorienting at times. Throw in the fact that most folks are trilingual (and we, of course, are not), the experience really strikes home when you walk through the city center and hear the cacophony of multiple languages being spoken at once.  The only brief escape we may have is walking into the International School or the American Women's Club - places that you find yourself drawn to if only to hear English for a brief period of time.  Well, to be honest, I am drawn by the fact that I can relax and not feel my stress level rise at the thought of trying to string a few French words together in hopes that whomever I am trying to converse with will get the gist of what I'm trying to say :)

So, now that we are a couple of months settled here, I can easily reflect on our move and determine that the most important thing a person can pack when he/she has made the decision to venture into the world of being an expat is not a converter kit, or a Rosetta Stone language kit, or suitcases of American must-haves (i.e., peanut butter, Bisquick, or (my must-have) boxes of Wheat Thins). The most important things you must have to fully embrace this new lifestyle is a sense of humor and an optimistic attitude.

I have not always been an optimist.  In fact, most folks would not exactly describe me as a "glass-half-full" kind of person in general. I am a finance major, so I have worked for years in the world of budgeting and forecasting. My job was to NOT be the optimist. Instead, I had to be the "realist".  This viewpoint is a must in the business world, especially when you work with numbers and with folks who generally hate working within their confines.  As a result, this line of thinking leaks into your personal life, so you are always looking at situations you encounter with the knee-jerk reaction of: 1) performing a general risk analysis of the situation (what are the strengths, weaknesses, risks and opportunities involved?), 2) estimating the cost/benefit ratio of such situation, or 3) trying to guess how the person(s) involved have "padded" their story and thus influenced the outcome of the situation. Face it. When you work in budgeting and forecasting, we all know that folks are thinking the most positive scenario possible, assume there are no risks, and are always asking for almost twice the amount of money or resources necessary to accomplish the goal. Your job as a financial manager is to tear these ideals apart and drive down to the core of reality, which ALWAYS make you... the bad guy.

Well, I am now five years separated from my more formal days in the financial world.  It has taken me this long to adopt a new way of approaching situations, especially ones that involve the family.  When Joe was presented with this expat opportunity, I know HIS first knee-jerk reaction was, "Hell, no!  Why on Earth would I move my family overseas?  Too much change.  Too much risk involved."  I know this, because those, in fact, were his exact words - (or, at least something along those lines.)  In fact, I was the one that told him to slow down and reconsider the situation. The kids had already been through a recent move, so they had already experienced being "the new kids". We had a small window in which we could actually consider such an opportunity (the kids will hit high school next year). And, we had always wanted an opportunity to travel more. All this, coming from the generally more risk-averse member of the household.

So, on our arrival here in Luxembourg, I made the determination that I would leave my more pessimistic ways on the other side of the pond and adopt an optimistic approach to life. In fact, even my Facebook profile now depicts "optimist" pictures I have downloaded from the "Life is Good" folks - a constant reminder to myself not to take life too seriously. So, how has this been working for me? Well, here are just a few examples...

1)  Situation:  Going to the store for groceries, only to find out that none of the cashiers speak English and the credit card machines decline every credit card I have.  And - I don't have the necessary euros to pay in cash. Somehow, through various hand gestures, the customer service manager and I agree I can have 10 minutes to rush home and obtain the necessary euros to pay for the much needed groceries.
   Optimistic Viewpoint: I still got my groceries, and developed a new appreciation for my European debit card (the one that has a microchip inside and is accepted at all stores, without a signature).

2)  Situation:  Husband forgot to mention that the consignment store we ordered some furniture from would be collecting the delivery fee upon delivery, and only accepts cash.  Needless to say, I didn't have the cash on hand.
   Optimistic Viewpoint:  Delivery guy spoke English and said I could deliver the payment to the store before they closed that evening.  No problem.

3)  Situation:  I go to the consignment store, credit card in hand, assuming that they would accept the card for the delivery fee since I was now paying at the store.  Not the case - they only accept cash for delivery fees.  I run to the ATM and get the euros, only to return to an employee that does not speak English. I look up the phrase "I need to pay for my delivery fees" on my iPhone translator app. and show the resulting French phrase to the employee.  He looks at me puzzled, but finally understands when I show him the 60 euros.
   Optimistic Viewpoint:  The boys got a great giggle at dinner when, wondering why the employee was so confused with my translation, I looked up the direct translation of the version of the verb "deliver" that my iPhone had provided me. The confusion?  I had told the employee that I needed to pay 60 euros for my childbirth.

4)  Situation:  We moved into a rental home with all bright white walls, something I am determined to remedy by painting every possible room some shade of color.  I start painting the main living area, only to run out of paint before completing the room.  No problem.  I find a new 2.5 liter tub of paint in the same color at the hardware store, grab it, and proceed to the cashier. The handle breaks, 2.5 liter tub crashes to the floor, leaving a heap of thick, yellow paint spreading quickly across the main aisle of the store. The employee who comes to clean, of course, does not speak a lick of English. I help the poor guy out by helping him shovel the paint back into the tub with the use of cardboard paper and paper towels.
   Optimistic Perspective: The guy was surprised I actually helped him and quickly located a new tub of paint for me (honestly, I was surprised he trusted me with it!).  AND, at least the darned thing didn't break while I was on the escalator!

5)  Situation: Youngest son spends half of the weekend throwing up and misses school on Monday.
Optimistic Perspective:  At least he missed Monday and not Friday when we are scheduled to go on a school trip to Disneyland Paris.

6)  Situation:  Husband's new job requires him to travel more often, resulting in a two week trip to India.
   Optimistic Perspective:  Two weeks of having the bed to myself, complete control of the Slingbox (i.e., American TV), and no complaints if dinner is a choice of cereal or frozen pizza.

7)  Situation:  Due to the 6+ hour time difference between here and the US, I couldn't watch the Cowboys v. Redskins football game.
   Optimistic Perspective:  The Cowboys won, and I didn't have to sit on pins and needles and endure watching a painful, injury-inflicted game.

8)  Situation:  Oldest son is assigned a buddy at his new school, but they don't quite "click".
   Optimistic Perspective:  He discovers one of his classmates is from San Diego - instant bond.

9)  Situation:  In an effort to get to meet other parents at the school, I volunteer to be a room mom.  Due to the lack of parent volunteers (a problem that appears to be an international one), I end up being room mom for both boys.
   Optimistic Perspective:  Priceless opportunity to gain more information on how school is going for them, beyond the cursory "good" I otherwise receive at the end of each day.

10)  Situation: The treasurer at the American Women's Club of Luxembourg finds out I have a finance background and quickly starts recruiting me to be their next treasurer.
Optimistic Perspective:  I will know exactly when they have hit the military base in Germany for American groceries. I went in to the club today to help the treasurer out while she is on vacation and discovered they had finally added Wheat Thins to their inventory! Great news for my MIL who has been sending care packages of Wheat Thins to me :)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Vin Mosel

Ever since my first visit to the Sonoma Valley, I have always wanted to live in the wine country. I was smitten at first sight by the rolling hills, sun-drenched valleys, and (of course) the wine! Life seems to move a little slower and is enjoyed just a little more when you can take the time to relax, have a picnic, and learn a little about what all those lovely little grapes can produce.

Bernkastel-Kues, Germany
When it came to moving to Luxembourg, one of the selling points for this venture was hearing about the Moselle (or Mosel) Valley. Any restaurant, grocery store or gas station you venture into here in Lux will have an amazing selection of wine and beer. I'm not much of a beer drinker, so the appeal of German and Belgian beer alludes me. BUT, I love having a glass of wine with dinner. Or just to chill out after a stressful day. Okay, I enjoy a glass of wine just about anytime, so the impressive selection caught my eye. Being such a tiny country, and so close to France, I was surprised by the number of vintners.

Moselle wines are primarily white and are produced in three countries: Luxembourg, Germany and France.  The region comprises the areas of the countries that run along the Moselle River. During the fall, you can count on there being a wine festival somewhere in these parts any given weekend to November. The festivals are generally three day events beginning with some kind of opening ritual Friday evening, a crowning of the wine queen and her court, a parade, fireworks, and (of course) the wine tastings.  The first wine festival we ventured to was in Greiveldange on the Luxembourg side of the river.  We travelled there with friends, so we had four children in tow with their scooters at hand. It was a lovely afternoon of wine tasting, eating, wine tasting, eating some more, and a little shopping and site seeing along the way.  I honestly believe that we indulged in some of the best waffles I have had!

Buildings and Oompa band -
The following weekend we ventured off again, this time to the German side of the river.  Bernkastel-Kues hosts the largest German wine festival.  Although the wine festival was larger and was somewhat a cross between a wine tasting event and a street fair, the appeal was the quaint town that hosted it.  Nestled in the rolling hills of Germany, Bernkastel-Kues has a city center with cobble stoned streets, crooked Tudor buildings, and the liveliest crowd we had seen!  Turn a corner and you were likely to see an Oompa band in full swing, or pass by vine-walled storefronts selling grapevines, gift baskets, and any other imaginable wine paraphernalia.  We left the town with a 10 lb. apple strudel that would be our breakfast for the next 4-5 days :)

Finally, last weekend, a friend of ours took us to a wine coop near Remish in Luxembourg.  It was a bit dreary of an afternoon, but the view coming over the hills and down into the valley where Remish hugs the river was breathtaking. It was definitely worth the drive in the rain to be able to bring back a couple of cases of wine and a couple of bottles of yummy ice wine.  If you haven't tried ice wine before, I highly recommend it.  The grapes are harvested during the first frost, generally late at night, in order to capture the highest sugar content levels. The result is a sugary, syrupy, carmel-like wine that is divine!

Wine alter at the church in Greiveldange
There are many blogs and websites that provide a ton of information on the Moselle wines, so I will let them provide the details should you be interested in them.  However, I will share one last interesting fact of the area.  Luxembourg does not produce a lot of wine, especially compared to our neighbors, so the majority of it is consumed here.  What little that isn't is exported to Belgium, Germany and France, leaving about 1% or so for others.  Suffice it to say, we have spent some lovely weekends touring the area.  Being wine novices and new to the area, we still have quite a lot to learn about the various wines and vintners.  Tough job, but I think we are willing (and eager) to do so! 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I will be honest.  I have never been much of a carnival fan.  Every year, growing up in Corpus Christi, Buccaneer Days were the highlight of spring for our small beach town. Folks would head down to the bayfront and enjoy the carnival rides, parades, art exhibits and dance festivals.  Personally, I have vague memories of nauseating rides and marching in several of those parades in the Texas heat. So, when I heard that Luxembourg hosts one of the world's oldest fairs each August, I was a bit apprehensive. I knew the kids would have a blast, and being in such a small city in such a small country, I knew this would probably be as close as we would get to a Six Flags. I was also told that to really experience Luxembourg, you HAD to experience the Schueberfouer.

For a week or so we watched the trailers make their way into town. They would arrive in caravans throughout the day (according to my husband, who has a window view of the main street leading into Luxembourg from Belgium).  The carnies would work late at night, so that by morning, folks could see the transformation of the area of town just outside of the city center called the Glacis. Our commute between the apartment and the house would have us driving down one of the main streets leading towards the fair, so you could mark their progress based on how the construction was going on the large ferris wheel at the center of the fair grounds. It often felt like we were driving down the street of a movie studio with the ferris wheel peeking out between the office buildings along the way.

As for the history of this event, the fair was founded over 670 years ago by John the Blind, King of Bohemia and Count of Luxembourg. The fair always begins around St. Bartholomew's day (August 24th) and runs for 20 days. In keeping with its long history and farm origins, the carnival opens with a small parade, led by the city mayor and five sheep. Over the course of time, the fair has grown from a small country fair to a large city carnival, complete with roller coasters, midway, and food. LOTS of food.

Our family ventured out to the carnival with a couple of other families on the first weekend it opened. Our kids ranged from 2 years to 13 years, so I was thrilled to see the diversity of rides and attractions. There was everything from the Crazy Mouse ride and bumper cars, to the "barf machines." You know the ones. The rides that flip folks upside-down and in all directions, or sling them up and down on bungee cords. This ride would not just spin and swing its captive riders hundreds of feet in the air, but would actually make complete rotations, sending folks upside down and screaming. Thankfully, our kids are young, so the roller coaster, ferris wheel and fun house were the choice rides of the day.

I can't mention the fair without mentioning the food. I expected the typical cotton candy, popcorn, fried food choices, but what I loved the most were the cultural influences. There were traditional German sausages and Gromperekichelcher (my favorite - a deep fried potato, onion and parsley pancake), French mussels et frites and crepes, Belgian waffles, and Luxembourg wines and beer. Each of the stands was a brightly colored display of sugar with charming vendors dressed in their themed carnival garb. The kids loved the large cone of funnel cake sticks (think small churros if you are from Texas), served with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce. However, I think the husbands preferred the German beer stands (although they did their fair share of wolfing down the churros!)

Though we haven't made it back in the evenings, I have been told the clientele changes to a more adult crowd at night. The fair provides plenty of pub-like options with the various beer and wine booths scattered throughout the grounds, not to mention rides that provide a gorgeous evening view of the city. Besides, what could possibly be better than a 360 degree view of the city from the dizzying heights of a ferris wheel :) 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Relocation, relocation, relocation...

I know... it's been awhile since I have posted, but this last week has been insane as we have spent it moving into our permanent residence here in Lux and have been without Internet access. I can honestly say, I am thrilled to be back in a house.  Rhe apartment was nice, but I am finally free from the washer/dryer from hell, and the dog and kids seem to dig their new space.  Our movers arrived last Tuesday with our container - about 7 guys, of which two spoke "some" English.  Thankfully, between their "some" English and our "un peu" French, we managed to get through two days of unloading and unpacking with a fair amount of success.  Okay, to be honest, out of the five moves Joe and I have made, this was actually the most seamless one with the least amount of damage.

This move-in experience was a bit different than our previous ones, as we expected it would be.  We had our walk through with our Luxembourish homeowners last Monday evening.  Customary to renting homes here, we walked through each room of the house while the owners pointed out everything notated on their inventory list.  Being a 1930's home, the list was basically a laundry list of skeleton keys, shelves, bathroom accessories (towel rack or knobs), and a few light fixtures.  They would point out any prior damage as well, but overall, the exchange was pleasant, though more formal than I anticipated.  The owner's wife was very well dressed and proper compared to my sloppy gym clothes that I had spent the day in.  I had been dealing with packing the apartment and cleaning things up for the next corporate employee, and had not had time to change.  After signing yet a few more papers, Joe and I had the unexpected surprise of receiving our keys.  Our lease wasn't starting until the next day, so given insurance red tape, we hadn't anticipated receiving them that evening.

As part of our walk through and contract terms, our owners explained the remaining contract work that would be worked on for the next few days.  The owners were in the process of painting the basement (code in Luxembourg) and replacing our antiquated garage door with one that comes with an opener.  Having a garage will be lovely as I am already tired of dealing with parking on the street, something I am learning to get used to being that this is the first time I have ever really lived "in the city".  We are one of the few single detached homes on our street with most of the buildings containing 3-6 flats. So, folks living in the flats tend to park right in front of our house.  Also, we have some sort of crab apple type tree growing in front of our house that has been dropping fruit like crazy, attracting the swarms of bees that seem to be hovering around these parts.  Worse than flies in Texas or mosquitoes in Virginia, you meet these pesky insects any day you venture to an outdoor cafe.  However, in our case, we seem to have a hive of them hovering over the fruit dropping into the street - not fun when you are trying to get out of your car.  So, the ability to park in a garage will be a terrific luxury after two months of racing through the rain and dodging the bees.

Tuesday came with deliveries from Ikea and Conforama (an electronics/furniture store here in Lux).  Apparently, when we set up the delivery order with Ikea, Joe assured them that we were on the first (or zero) floor, thinking that they were asking if we were in a flat.  So, when I told them that the wardrobe pieces (all 5 flatbed carts full) were going to the second floor, the mover kindly pointed to the paperwork that designated 0 floor and began loading all of our large wardrobe boxes into our entry way.  Thankfully, Conforama didn't have the same delivery policy.  When I told them that our large appliances were to go to the second floor, they sighed, but complied with my request.  It was bad enough moving all of the boxes from Ikea (the movers were arriving the next day with our container), but there was no way Joe and I were hefting large appliances up the stairs.

Wednesday began early as the movers arrived with our container, fresh from customs.  We arrived at the house to see a large truck towing our container, a smaller truck (presumably for supplies) and what appeared to be a ladder truck with an extension ladder and conveyor belt right behind the container.  We soon learned that all of our house contents would be conveyed up the ladder into the window of our master bedroom.  Only items going into the basement or first floor would be carried through the front door.  Also, our rugs were the first items unpacked from the truck, so they laid them in place so that they would protect the hardwoods (as opposed to the cardboard boxes or runners used in the US).  None of the guys wore belts or used upright dollies to lug the boxes in, just brute force and the occasional use of a platform on wheels to move the bigger furniture items.  Pretty impressive given most European men are smaller in stature than their American colleagues.  Of the seven or eight guys there, one was the driver who spent the whole day "watching" the others and smoking his way through a few packs of cigarettes.  One of the other older men appeared to have the cushier job of telling everyone else what to do.  He was obviously the crew leader since the others followed his orders, but his primary task was check marking off our items on the inventory list and loading small boxes on the conveyor belt while the others did the heavy lifting. It was one of the warmest days we have had since moving here, so the back of the truck had to be hitting the upper 90's given the direct sun.  The other guys would rattle off some occasional snarky remarks in French to the guy, mostly because they had little to do until the platform was full and ready to be transported upstairs.  Good thing we were told that no flammable items, etc. would be packed on the US end since we easily had a few hundred cigarette  butts we swept up after they left.  It was quite amazing watching the whole thing. Joe and I would take turns being either downstairs identifying the boxes and telling them which floor to transport it to, or in the master bedroom directing the boxes to the appropriate room.  The following day, a few of the same guys arrived to unpack our boxes and haul away the mass of cardboard and paper.  They didn't make their way through all of the boxes, but at least they managed to get most of the glass unpacked and planted on a flat surface somewhere in the house.

Now, a week later, we finally have comfy beds to sleep in, a fully functioning kitchen and a laundry room :)  Joe and I have spent the last few days working on our Ikea wardrobes (yes, days; these suckers take quite a bit of time to assemble!), but I can finally start unpacking the clothes boxes tomorrow.  I still have at least 3 other Ikea products to build, but overall, we are working our way through the chaos.  The find of the day?  The wine bottle opener :)