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!