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!