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 :)