Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Giving Thanks

It's been almost a week and a half since we celebrated Thanksgiving here in Lux. It is somewhat of a strange holiday to celebrate here given that it is solely an American holiday and not a recognized event in Europe. Our kids still go to school like any normal day, which can seem quite disorienting when you have friends across the pond talking up the travel, the food, the football, etc., leaving you celebrating somewhat vicariously through the web or on Facebook. The parade is taped or watched in the evening, same with football, and the meal is generally postponed until the weekend.

This year we chose to celebrate Thanksgiving while most were charging the stores in search of Black Friday deals. With the boys in school, I could spend the day timing the meal and preparing the house for our guests. We invited several of Joe's work colleagues - the ones who are single with no kids - and  a couple of friends from Australia/New Zealand that we have had the pleasure of getting to know these last few months. The evening was lovely and everyone indulged in a true Southern meal - deep fried Cajun turkey, cornbread stuffing, cranberry relish, sweet potato casserole, etc. Although cooking is really not "my thing," I do enjoy cooking for friends and having the opportunity to bring folks together who might not otherwise have had an option to celebrate. Holidays, I have learned, can often be a somewhat lonely time of year when you are separated from your family, so friends are a wonderful alternative to closing that gap. You are quickly reminded that they become your family away from home in so many ways.

Now that the flurry of cooking is done and we are marching are way towards Christmas, I finally have the time and inclination to sit back and really consider what all I am truly thankful for. Actually, I have been tossing around these thoughts for awhile now (inspired by several of my friends who posted their "thankful thoughts" by day on Facebook throughout November), but I haven't quite had the motivation to just sit down and write. However, catching a nasty cold has slowed me down a bit today, so, despite the sneezing and coughing, I can be thankful that my body is letting me know to give life a rest. So, here goes my list.

I am truly grateful for:

  • My friends. Near and far, new and old, they are my lifeline to sanity and keep me grounded to what is really important in life. So many of my friends have had a tough time this year, whether it was a scary medical diagnosis, a death in the family, or natural disaster. They have weathered the storms and have shown such dignity and strength that I can't help but be in awe of their perseverance. They truly inspire me.
  • My family. While my friends help ground me, my family gives me the stability and strength to spread my wings and try things I might not otherwise try and travel to places I might not otherwise venture to. They provide me with a place where, no matter what, I can depend on their unconditional support and love.
  • My health. Okay - I'll be honest here - I will always wish to be thinner, taller, younger, etc. (don't we all?) And though I know I can always improve my diet, my exercise, and my stress levels, I will always strive to live life to the fullest and make memories along the way. As I reach the age where friends are being diagnosed with life threatening illnesses or losing friends and relatives to old age or chronic health problems, I become more aware of the need to prioritize myself so that I can continue to enjoy life and be the best mom/wife/friend I can be. I really can't complain if the saddest day of my year was last week when I had to finally break down and order reading glasses. I know - break out the violins. Somehow, I have always linked this to getting old and for some odd reason it struck me like a rude slap in the face. Perhaps I will get over it when the glasses come in and I can finally read a damn restaurant menu in "romantic lighting." *sigh*
  • God. I know this is always a tricky topic. I am not an overly religious person on the surface, and I am not an avid church goer. I am, however, moved beyond words when God makes his presence known to me with life's littlest details. He has definitely carried me through the worst moments of my life, and I firmly believe that He holds my hand on a daily basis when life just seems to throw me curve balls, one after another. While my friends and family give me strength, God gives me direction and guidance. 
I could probably go on, but this short little list sums things up pretty well for me. I truly feel blessed that I have so much to be thankful for. In many ways, this move to a new country, a new culture, a new life, has enabled me to see everything in such a new perspective. I often get the question "What is the biggest difference between living in the US and living in Europe?" My answer usually is - life moves slower here. I often felt like I was on a treadmill in the States - constantly rushed and pressured to reach "super mom" status by over-committing and over-working. I still feel that way at times here (old habits die hard), but you do learn to appreciate what you have and worry less about what you don't. Tonight, I am reminded to take life a little slower - watch a Christmas movie with the boys, fix some homemade soup, enjoy a cup of tea, and be thankful for those friends who know how to cheer you up when you are out of sorts or down with a cold... even if they have to let you know via Facebook :)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Proud to be an American...

Okay, it has been WAY too long since I have written a post. I really have no decent excuse except that life has been WAY too busy. Thankfully, life is beginning to slow down a bit and our badly needed fall break last week has re-energized me. What better time to get back to writing than sitting in front of the TV and watching CNN as the votes begin to trickle in back in the States. After being in Lux for a year, I feel like I have assimilated pretty well to the more laid-back life in Europe. Despite living in a country where English is not one of the official languages, it is exceedingly easy to spend the majority of your time among other Americans or other English speaking residents. Thanks to the Internet, keeping up with what is going on back in the US is just a simple click away.

Last week the kids and I travelled to Budapest, Hungary. The weather was not the best. Honestly, it really wasn't particularly great anywhere in Europe. It rained most of the time, but thankfully it didn't dampen our moods or our experience. The city itself was lovely and definitely merits another trip during the summer, or at least a time when hopefully my husband will be able to join us. We spent our days doing the typical tourist thing, taking long walks to see the sites, catching the "Hop On, Hop Off" bus to get the lay of the land, and enjoying the beautiful Danube River and the comfort-food Hungary is known for. Having done a little research ahead of our trip, I wanted to make sure the boys learned a bit about the history of this wonderfully historical city, including its very complicated and harrowing past. This country not only suffered from the horrifying rule of the Nazis and the loss of 600,000 Jewish lives, they continued to suffer for decades under they heavy hand of communism and the fear their leaders instilled in them. There was so much to see in Budapest, but the most moving highlights of the trip were our visits to the Synagogue and to the House of Terror. Both gave us a small glimpse of what life was like for folks who were stripped of their rights and their freedom. Such a humbling experience.
Beautiful Budapest - the Danube River

We kept very busy during the days, but we spent our nights leading up to Halloween re-watching the Harry Potter movies and pulling up Slingbox on our laptops to see how the Northeast was doing as Hurricane Sandy came ashore. It really was mesmerizing to see how quickly a relatively low-grade storm could wreck havoc on such a large section of the country in so short a time. My heart immediately went out to friends of mine here in Luxembourg who were anxious to hear word from their family and friends back in the States and learn what the status was of their cities and homes.

It's hard to remember what life was like pre-Internet or iPhone. I do remember being in LA when the Northridge earthquake hit. Joe and I had only been married for a few months and had gone to sleep just hours before the earthquake hit. Our little apartment in Studio City was usually well lit from the lights shining through the blinds from the Ventura Highway. When the earthquake hit, all of the lights in LA went out. I remember Joe and I literally hanging on to the sides of the bed, trying to keep from being flung onto the floor. We had had a few tremors for weeks leading up to the quake, but this one was unbelievably loud and harsh, throwing everything side to side. Once the quake ended, we bolted out of bed. In my case, I rolled over right on to our dresser which had fallen over. We scrambled to find clothes and shoes as the first after shock came. Not being from California, we had no idea what to do. As Texans, our first instinct was to find a closet or safe room, which, by the way, is only for tornadoes. For earthquakes, you get OUT of the building as quickly as possible. However, our instincts drove us to the kitchen to where the pantry was located. We were quickly stopped by the refrigerator that had managed to pull away from the wall and block the entry. We quickly moved the fridge, only to change our minds about the pantry when we discovered that all of our glass plates and cups had fallen out of the cupboards and were lying in shards all over the floor. I guess it was a good thing since this seemed to jolt us into realizing it would be best to get out of the apartment where it would likely be safer. We did make our way out to the parking lot and began making our quick phone calls to family back in Texas before they began to worry. It was only 5 or 6 in the morning back there, but we did let our parents know that we were okay. They had not heard about the earthquake yet, but thankfully we were able to get through. Only minutes later the phones lines were overloaded and no one could get a call in or out of LA, and all of the morning shows were showing early footage of the damage the quake had caused. We had no idea what was going on in LA since we had no access to a working TV, and smart phones were obviously not an option back then. We knew the quake had been large, but what little information we were able to get was from a battery-powered radio. However, even the radio stations seemed to be struggling to get information. From what I could tell last week, New Yorkers seemed to have a similar experience since even cell phone service was disrupted for many folks. It really is disorienting in this day and age when you have no connection to the "outside world". Needless to say, I am very thankful that I can keep tract of what is going on in the US from so far away.

Just before we left for our trip, I finished reading a book written by one of our older members at the Women's Club. A native Luxembourger, she was a young teenager when WWII disrupted her childhood. I met her last year when she came to one of our monthly meetings and mentioned that she had copies of her book with her if anyone was interested in purchasing one. They sold out before I had the chance to get one, but she did come to our first meeting this year. US Ambassador Mandell came to speak to our group and she had come to hear him speak. She happened to bring some of her books and I was quick to buy one this time. I easily read her book within a couple of days and was really touched by her story of living through the Nazi occupation in Luxembourg. The most moving part of her book was her recount of Liberation Day, when the American soldiers came marching into her small village near the Luxembourg-Germany border. Her stories of how excited the people of her little village were to see those tall, young soldiers chasing the Nazis across the border back into Germany gave me such a personal perspective of how Europeans and Luxembourgers from that generation viewed our country and our military.

You can travel to just about any small town in Luxembourg, France, or Belgium and it is not unusual to run across an tank or monument remembering and honoring the soldiers of the Allied Forces who risked their lives to save Europe from Hitler's army. They may have seen American soldiers as being loud and brash, but they also saw the loyalty and pride those men had in their country and their determination to fight for the right for freedom. I find it fascinating that Europeans in general are very interested in what happens in the US. I have been asked many times this week about the election - whether I planned to vote, what Americans were thinking about the candidates, and if local Americans planned to celebrate once the winner is announced. I actually found the last question quite funny since politics can easily divide many Americans. So, the thought of a "celebration" party here in Luxembourg would most definitely have to run along party lines. Whatever the outcome, I am thankful that even here in this teeny tiny country, far away from my Texan roots, I can exercise my right to vote and have my voice heard. Hopefully folks back home feel the same way today as they head out to the polls and struggle to stay patient in those long lines. My vote means that much more to me today after having learned yet one more perspective of  how hard our ancestors fought for that right, not only for Americans, but for many folks around the world. After all, we live in a global world now and our influence is often just a click away.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Back to School...

I feel like these past few weeks have just been a whirlwind of activity!  I finally feel like I have the opportunity to just sit down, and breathe! The boys have actually been back to school for about 2 1/2 weeks now, but the days have flown by. The local students will start back to school this week and Luxembourg will finally feel back to normal again. It is really amazing how quiet life gets here in August when so many of the Europeans are on vacation. Luxembourg is still filled with tourists, but life in general seems to slow down to a snail's pace!

J is off on his 9th grade camping trip. It is a bit jarring that these overnight trips fall so early in the school year, but at least this allows the kids to reconnect and kick off the new school year with a little fun. The kids will be camping in Northern Luxembourg - 2 days in a tent and 2 days in a youth hostel. The teams of students will do lots of outdoor activities and are responsible for carrying their own necessities and food. I have heard such a wide variety of opinions from moms with 10th graders this year on how the trip went for their kiddos last year. Honestly, I have to admit, I can't help but be a tiny bit nervous. The stories are quite funny now that time has passed, but I am sure those parents weren't laughing a year ago, especially those of the kiddos who got lost on a 30 km hike! I took some of their advice and made sure he had a compass and good socks - apparently blisters were the largest complaint - as well as some warm clothes and sleeping bag since the nights are already getting quite chilly. Hopefully has has a great time and will share some stories with me when he returns. I know I will be lucky if I get more than the trip was "fine," but I can always hope!

Volunteer work has kicked off with a vengeance. I am on the board for both the American Women's Club and the PTO at school, so I have been busy with planning meetings and rounding up room parents. I know some folks think I am crazy to do so much, but I honestly enjoy having a busy calendar and places to be. I often miss work, not because I long to do finance again, but because I loved the challenge and the opportunity to talk to other adults on a regular basis. Therefore, since my transition to the stay-at-home mom role, I have thrown myself into volunteer work. I have had a great time meeting folks who have just moved here to Luxembourg. It is quite funny to feel like an "expert" now, even though inside I know that I am still quite new to this whole ex-pat thing. I am still dealing with new experiences and challenges a year later, but at least I can now see how far I have come just listening to folks going through what I did a year ago. This year's personal challenges include re-newing passports (I started working on the boys this morning), getting an international drivers license (yep, I am a little late doing that, but c'est la vie...), getting further with my French, and figuring out our travel plans for the next year. Somewhere in there I need to get back to the gym, but at least I feel like we are eating healthier these days!

The wine festivals have also started - or, I should say, are in full swing now. Joe and I have been to a couple of them in the last two weeks with friends of ours. This weekend's was near Wolferdange and included several small towns. We spent most of our time in one small village, walking from winery to winery for tastings. It is really quite surreal to walk into someone's backyard and be welcomed like old relatives! We spent most of the evening in one cave, trying no less than 8 varieties. Needless to say, we have quite a bit of wine from there heading our way in a few short weeks. You only hope you like the wine as much then as you did when you were tasting it after several hours at a wine festival! We also spent time at the winery of the reining wine queen. It was adorable to see her parents wearing t-shirts with her picture on them and the mom wearing a tiara! I just love this time of year!

Well, time to head off for errands before the rest of my day escapes me. I am still in the routine of buying groceries about every other day since otherwise so much food goes to waste. Since J is out for the week, I can actually cook whatever I like since the others are not quite so picky. I still don't care for cooking, but at least when I do I like to know everyone is going to eat! Such is the life of a mom with teenagers...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

There's no place like home...

Unlike many expats, we sold our house, packed up all of our belongings and made the full-fledged moved to Europe. This may not sound unusual, but when the average expat goes abroad for maybe 3-5 years, most do not sever their connection to their home country. Many friends of ours have either their home back in the US/home country, or perhaps a vacation home that they just weren't quite ready or willing (or able, given the economy) to let go. In our case, when we head back to the States, a visit requires lodging with family or friends. This summer we headed to the West Coast - San Diego - to visit my in-laws. Yes, I do get along very well with my in-laws and, yes, it is a wonderful place to visit and hang out for awhile. However, staying with family or friends isn't the same as being in your own space, so there still lingers that edgy feeling that you are a vistor. It's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it does tend to make you feel a little "disengaged." Home slowly starts meaning where your family is, which for us is now Luxembourg.

Our visit to the US started later than most folks. It seemed that as soon as that final school bell rang, folks were on their way "home." I have friends from several countries now, and that word means something different for everyone - a lake home in the Southeast, a vacation home back in Scandinavia, a condo in the South, or perhaps a parents' home somewhere/anywhere. In any case, the definition varies person to person, but everyone was nonetheless anxious to get back! Since Joe could not take much time off this summer, we decided that just the kids and I would head back for a few weeks or so, and that we would take a family vacation somewhere in Europe once we got back. Furthermore, since we had been away from Virginia for a couple of years, my oldest son was eager to visit his friends who would also be starting high school this year. As a birthday present for my son, I agreed to tack on a quick trip to the end of our CA stay. In all honesty, the moms of these friends are close friends of mine as well, so I couldn't resist the opportunity to catch up with them as well. I wanted to make sure we would be able to celebrate Joe's birthday with him, so I scheduled our trip for the day after his big day. We celebrated with a wonderful lobster dinner (his favorite) and quickly packed for the long trip - 2 hours by car to Brussels, 8 hour flight to D.C., 4 hour layover, and a 5 hour flight to the West Coast. Our day started at 5:00 a.m. and ended in San Diego at 8:00 p.m. that same night. We were exhausted, but happy to be "home."

La Jolla, CA
My in-laws have a small house in what is absolutely the best location I can imagine - a two block walk from Pacific Beach, about 4-5 blocks south of La Jolla. By waiting until mid-July for our visit, I was hopeful that we would have a better chance of favorable weather since San Diego can often be cool and cloudy during the summer months. We lucked out. San Diego had been cloudy with days of marine layer... until the day we arrived. It seems we usually bring Lux rain with us, but finally we were greeted with sunny skies. The IL's have a small rental house in the back where Joe and I generally stay, while the kids stay in the front house in the guest room. We kept the same arrangements, which was wonderful for me. I had a place to escape to in the evenings to catch the Olympic highlights and regroup/plan for the next day.

We spent the time as most tourists do - lots of trips to the beach, SeaWorld, Balboa Park, etc. Each day was busy and the kids were loving it. My only frustration - the huge time difference from Luxembourg. Trying to catch a few minutes on the phone with Joe was a constant challenge since catching him before bedtime meant calling some time before 2:00 p.m., often when were heading to the beach or a show at SeaWorld. We missed him a ton, which always reminded me, at least, that we weren't really home. We also spent a lot of time making the multiple, necessary trips to Target, Kohl's, Nordstrom's, CVS, etc. for school clothes, OTC meds, and other random items that are difficult to find or are expensive here in Europe. Not to mention our frequent eating-out ventures in order to feed our long-denied fast food addiction - visits to Chick-fil-a, In-N-Out Burger, Rubio's, Kono's, and (my favorite) Panera. No, it was not the time to worry about diets - that is for when the kids head back to school. But, after a couple of days of the fast food/burger thing, Panera became my preferred choice - as was my morning jaunt to Starbuck's with the oldest son.

Balboa Park
Soon enough we were boarding our flight east to Richmond. It really is amazing to see how much two years can change adolescent boys! All of them, including my own, now tower over me. Okay - maybe a couple of them are "towering" while the others more or less "teeter," but being that I am only 5'4", it doesn't take much). The sound of changing voices could also be quite interesting. The moms were absolutely wonderful hostesses, planning swim parties and outings so that the boys could chat, hang and do whatever it is boys this age do - including the not-surprising choice of video game time. Although Richmond hadn't changed much since our move a couple of years ago, enough time has elapsed that the city no longer has the feeling of "home." I do get homesick once in awhile when I think of how many years we spent in Richmond and how both of our boys essentially grew up there, but those memories are now embedded in the hundreds of pictures that I vow to get off my computer's hard drive some day.

After a long weekend in Richmond, we headed back to Lux. Another long travel day - 2 hour drive to D.C., 2 hour wait for the plane, 8 hour flight back to Brussels, and 2 hour drive to Lux. At least going east you are flying through the night, but since by this point I had no idea what time zone we were in, I spent the majority of the time catching up on the in-flight movies. The next two days were a flurry of sleep deprivation and packing for our week trip to Italy.

Suffice it to say, it has finally settled in that home is Luxembourg and that our trips back to the US will be "vacation" rather than the expat version of "going home." I guess it comes with the territory when you make the decision to move here for an "indefinite" period of time. We will head back again at Christmas time - this time to Colorado where my brother-in-law and his girlfriend will host. As for next summer, we may head south to Texas, or the kids may head to camp. Either way, home will be Lux and we will still spend the bulk of our time here as a family. Someday I hope that we can maybe have a spot to call "home" back in the US, but by the time we settle in here and start looking beyond our rented home in Lux, our spot may be somewhere else here in Europe. We spent a week in Tuscany (next blog post) that is truly one family's "love of the heart." I hope someday to find the same, wherever that may be!

Alsace Lorraine - The "Route de Vin" of France

Route de Vin, Alsace
Before the boys and I headed back to the States for a few weeks, we decided to celebrate Joe's birthday by taking an extended weekend trip. His birthday was the day before we were scheduled to leave, so we took the trip the prior weekend so that we could spend some quality time together as a family before putting several thousand miles between us!

Alsace, France is the northeast region of the country that is bordered by Germany. The terrain is mostly rolling green hills dotted with quaint little medieval-dated villages surrounded by vineyards, with the occasional castle lingering on a distant hill. Most folks visit the region on their way to Strasbourg, which holds one of the most popular Christmas markets each winter. I booked a cute, boutique hotel in Strasbourg called Cour Du Corbeau. It is currently listed as the #1 hotel by reviews for the area on Being the Tripadvisor junkie that I am, I found a great deal  - a room that would hold all 4 of us, including our golden retriever. Despite a slight error on my part on the booking (though the room I booked states that it will hold up to 4 adults - in our case, 2 adults and 2 teenaged boys - I was careful to mention the dog, but failed to make note of the kids :-/ ), the check-in process was terrific. The staff was genuinely friendly and very accommodating, settling us in the top floor family suite overlooking their courtyard. The rooms had obviously been recently remodeled and the bathroom was one of the largest I have seen here in Europe. Our only inconvenience was the fact that we had to walk a couple of blocks to the nearest park to walk Shelby, but otherwise, we couldn't have asked for more.

We spent the first night checking out the city of Strasbourg. The city is situated on the Ill River, which flows into the Rhine along the German border. Its Gothic Cathedral, with its famous astronomical clock, can be seen from the distant highway that runs north/south through the region. The church was never completed to the original design - the south tower was never built. As such, the church's asymmetrical design has become the landmark for the city. During our visit, the summer light show was going on. In the evening, you could visit the exterior of the cathedral and watch the facade come to life in an array of colors, while themed music played in the plaza.

Colmar, France
The next couple of days of our trip we spent traveling down to Colmar, the southern most point of the Route de Vin, and making our way back north towards Strasbourg. Colmar is a romantic village full of half-timbered houses and winding, cobblestone streets lined with regional cafes and shops. The city boasts its famous born engineer, Frederic Bartholdi, best known for his design of the Statue of Liberty. In fact, there is a smaller version of the Lady of Liberty just on the border of the city as you come into Colmar from the main highway. We enjoyed walking through the streets, having lunch at your typical French cafe, and checking out the parks and churches - our standard day trip in Europe.

After Colmar, we made our way through the winding Route de Vin, dotted with many more quaint medieval towns, each with its own character and personality. Standard to all were the prevailing stork-themed souvenir shops. Several of the towns sport tall towers dotted with stork nests - for some, the nests perch precariously on the roofs of the city church. In one such village, Kaysersberg, the local nest was occupied with 2-3 storks during our visit. You could also see them hanging out in the fields throughout the Alsace area. Though it was so tempting to stop and visit each town, only a few could be visited on a day trip. Kaysersberg made our list since it also boasted its local glass artisans and their wares. Each of our boys went home with a glass-blown animal (snail and turtle) filled with beautiful threads and drops of colors. Joe and I also managed to leave with a case of local wine, so no complaints on our part! The weather held out, though the clouds were always threatening rain. We did miss out on visiting the area castle (Haut-Koenigsbourg), but, as we always say, we left something for our next visit! The day we visited the Route de Vin also happened to be Bastille Day, known as National Day to the French. We capped the day with a terrific show of fireworks held at the park just a few blocks from our hotel. The show was fantastic and not lacking much from those of Luxembourg's National Day!

Most expensive car - the Bugatti VEYRON at $2.5 million!
Our final day in Alsace the weather finally gave in to rain. Luckily, we had saved the museums for our final jaunt. We headed back south to Mulhouse to the Cite de l'Automobile and Cite du Train museums. Both were quite excellent and the boys had a great time checking out the showrooms and learning a little about the history of transportation, from the European perspective. I know this may seem a bit strange, but having grown up in the US, I always assumed that Henry Ford developed the first automobile; however, that is far from the truth. Though he may have been the one credited for mass production, the early history of the automobile is deeply entrenched in Europe. Just check out Wikipedia and you will see that Karl Benz is actually credited for being the first to produce automobiles in 1888 in Germany and in France by Emile Roger. The Cite de l'Automobile is a highlight to these early achievements. The museum is essentially the personal collection of cars from the Schlumpf brothers. The brothers made their fortune in the textile industry. In 1957, the brothers bought the HKD textile factory, a former wool mill in Mulhouse. Fritz Schlumpf began secretly purchasing a large number of classic cars (over 200) and in 1966 began work on the museum in the purchased wool mill in order to showcase his impressive collection of Bugattis, Mercedes and Rolls Royces. You can read more about the history of the museum on their website,, but needless to say, the collection is quite impressive! Many of the cars date from the late 1800's and early 1900's, but include models throughout the decades. The train museum is also worth a visit if you have a train enthusiast in your family. The museum boasts locomotives, freight cars and passenger cars throughout the history of rail transportation, including the Paris Metro system and the more recent TGV lines. Both museums were easily seen in one day, which rounded out our visit to the area with museums that actually engaged our sons beyond the cursory nod at a relic painting or statue :)

We returned to Luxembourg on a Monday, celebrated Joe's birthday on a Tuesday, and then boarded the plane heading west to the States on Wednesday. Needless to say, I am playing a little catch-up on my posts, but wanted to make sure I posted a little something on this wonderful area of France. Though I may not be too keen on the local cuisine (lots of pork, sausages and potatoes - typical German fare), I love the area. One that note, I also have to admit that our favorite meal was from a Thai restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. Needles to say, Strasbourg will definitely be on my list of places to visit for Christmas!

Monday, July 2, 2012

National Day & the 4th of July

Prince Henri's Flag
Last week was absolutely crazy with it being the last week of school for ISL. Even though it was an easy week for the kids (turning in books, end-of-year parties, etc.), it was a busy week for room parents. I am room parent for both of the boys, so between buying teacher gifts and helping out with the celebrations, I was definitely having one of those "feeling over-committed" weeks. That being said, things seemed to go quite smoothly, except... I got slightly behind on blogging. And I can't write a blog about Luxembourg without blogging about National Day, so I will link it in with the 4th of July!

Last year we moved to Luxembourg about 2 or 3 weeks after National Day. We had heard that it was a huge celebration, but we really had no idea just how big it is. For Luxembourgers, National Day is like the 4th of July to Americans, the main difference being that it recognizes the Duke's birthday, rather than the country's birthday. Beyond that, it has the same type of atmosphere as most July 4th celebrations - food, parades, and fantastic fireworks.

We happened to be hosting my nephew last week. G just graduated high school and was in Europe participating in some regattas in Britain and Germany (yes, he sails) and came through Lux for a quick visit before heading back to the States. It was absolutely terrific having him here, especially given that the boys were able to show him the sites and G was able to impart a little of his teenaged "wisdom" (meaning, he was a great influence on the boys!) Little did G know that he could not have come to Lux at a better time! In general, Lux can be a bit sleepy depending on the weather and time of year. Things do generally get a bit busier during the summer, but G had the opportunity to see it at its finest! The city was definitely ready for a great celebration. Friday marked National Day Eve when most of the events occur. There is the changing of the guard at the palace, a torchlit parade through the Centre (led, of course, by Duke Henri and his family who have privileged, elevated seats in front of the town hall), and probably one of the largest fireworks displays I have ever seen.

Our family headed down to the Centre shortly after I picked up Joe from the airport; he had been back in the States for the week. We met up with some friends and coworkers, setting up camp in the Place Guilliame where the parade begins. The parade participants are primarily from local organizations and schools, many of whom march with lit torches through the Centre. Again, not a tradition I can imagine ever being embraced in the States, if only for the liability concerns! Following the parade, folks make their way over to the Petruse bridge where equipment is set up for the fireworks display. Since National Day Eve also happened to be Summer Solstice, the sun did not fully set until after 10:00 p.m.. Therefore, the fireworks display was not scheduled to start until 11:45 p.m..

The fireworks show was unlike anything we have seen before. We've been to quite a few fireworks shows, including the Taste of Chicago and 4th of July in New York, but neither were 20-25 minutes of what most of us consider "the finale" level of fireworks. Even Disney's or Seaworld's shows could not compare. The show was set to music piped throughout the Centre. The amazing aspect of the display was that the explosives were literally right above our heads. In a few cases we were dodging the paper cases released from the explosives that were falling from many feet up in the air. Even sparks were showering down on us - it really was amazing! I honestly don't think our level of proximity to the launch area would ever have been allowed in the U.S.. But, we did have an unobstructed view and the kids had a blast!

After the show we decided to take a quick walk through the Centre, just to see what happens afterwards. We assumed that the city would party late into the night, but we never anticipated the level of the crowds when we started our walk. By the time we reached the palace and started making our way around the Centre the crowds resembled large mosh pits. Somehow, G and I got separated from the rest as the crowd seemed to have a mind of its own. Rather than fight it, we let ourselves be guided through the city by the mob of inebriated partiers. I stuck with G like glue so that I was not left behind in the mob. Thankfully, we were able to manage our way through, though it did take some time to figure out where everyone else had ended up.

Ambassador Mandell
Anyway, the day was terrific and we did make it back to the house around 2:00 a.m.. Sunday was a much calmer event for us with mini-golf in the Petruse and lunch in the Place de Armes. There was a military parade in the morning that we missed (we chose to sleep in!) and lots of kiddo activities down in the Petruse, but most of the activities are meant for the toddler set. G left the following day, but he assured us that he had had an awesome time. It seems he has been talking a lot to the family about his stay here - at least, from what I have heard from my brother.

As for the 4th of July, The American's Women's Club and several other American-based organizations hosted a picnic just outside of Luxembourg Ville in Contern. The restaurant, Conter Stuff, is actually a really interesting building (think old, converted country farm house and barn) that has a terrific patio and yard, perfect for chatting with friends over some Budweiser (yes, it was purchased just for the occasion, though I opted for Lux Pinot Gris!), chili, burgers, hot dogs and brownies. The younger kids enjoyed the free bouncy castle and face painting, while the adults enjoyed the music and the chance to win some cool prizes that were raffled off throughout the afternoon. We even had the honor of receiving a visit from the American Ambassador for Luxembourg, Robert A. Mandell, who gave a short welcome speech and even provided a painting he had recently done as one of the raffle prizes. The weather even held out despite the morning down pour of rain hours before.

Though there won't be any fireworks for our July 4th this year, National Day helped to make up for the bit of homesickness we will likely experience on Wednesday. Thankfully, we have Joe's brother and his girlfriend heading this way this weekend. They are enjoying Paris for the week, but we will have them for a long weekend before they venture off to Munich. I will keep my fingers crossed that Luxembourg weather will behave and that we will have the chance for a few more family members see everything Luxembourg has to offer. It will likely be a bit calmer this weekend, but I am sure a walk through the Petruse, some 1 euro gelato in the center and (we hope!) a lovely summer day in the Centre will be perfect! But, if fireworks are what you are looking for, here is just a snippet from National Day Eve! Enjoy!


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Moving on up...

Tonight our 8th grader had his official "moving up" ceremony into high school. This event is not foreign to me, since many schools in the US have adopted this ceremonial event as kids move on to the next school. Our sons both went through their lower school graduations after 4th grade in Virginia - my youngest even had a second one in Texas since 5th grade was still a part of elementary school. I find the events unbearably moving - this, coming from one who cries at most dramatic movies and even some commercials that can tug at the heart strings. Tonight was no exception.

The week (well, let's be honest, the year) has been building up to this occasion. I don't think there is a parent alive who doesn't get a little anxious as their child progresses and matures to that inevitable stage of being a true teenager - the rise into high school. You worry about wether they are ready for the course load, if they have the friends and emotional support to navigate through the social aspects that come with that age, and whether you have instilled in them enough common sense that when they are faced with those inevitable decisions (drinking, driving, sex, etc.) that they are ready to make the right decisions. Now, I do believe that these decisions may vary form kid to kid and from family to family, based on the values parents instill in their child. That being said, you hope they make the right decisions anyway, even if, when it comes to YOUR child, those answers may vary greatly from what you may have thought yourself as a teen in your day and age!

The ceremony this evening was charming, and simple. It began with the students entering the auditorium to, what else? Guns & Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine." I am actually a fan of this group and even attended a concert or two of theirs, but never imagined that this song could bring me to tears years later! The song was followed by a series of speeches from both student representatives and staff, discussing the class of 2012's great accomplishments, the bright future ahead of them, and, of course, their advice on how to navigate their way through their high school careers. Awards were given to the top students in each class discipline, the honor choir sung Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," and the students and staff welcomed the graduates to their new status of being the "lowest on the totem pole" all over again. The certificates were passed out by each homeroom teacher and the students had their moment in the spotlight, crossing the stage for their well earned certificates. The whole presentation was standard to what I have experienced in the States, but I still found myself with a lump in my throat throughout the presentation. When the presentation turned to a slide show of pictures throughout the graduates' middle school years at ISL, I was fighting back the tears. J is my oldest, so I experience each of these events with him first. It makes it no less special when B's turn comes around, but there is just something about the first that brings home the fact that it won't be much longer before these guys are leaving the nest for good and starting their lives as independent adults, ready to face the world on their own.

I know we have done our absolute best to instill our faith and values into our sons. Each day I remind myself that there is nothing more important than my job as a mother. I recognize I am not the best and that I often miss the mark on the standards I set for myself. I never feel I spend enough time, enough energy, or enough focus on their day-to-day activities, though I am sure they would say they feel quite the opposite. I am genuinely interested in how they feel, how they interact with their teachers and their friends, and what truly moves them, whether it is something they learned in a class, or something they learned from a friend. It is the entire spectrum, made up of each of these little pieces that will form the adults they will soon become, and I want nothing more than to know that I was a part of that experience for them. I am sure most adults likely underestimate the influence they have on their children. I can speak from my own experience that I am largely an image of those influences that I received from my parents, even if some happen to be in direct contrast of what their own beliefs happened to be. It is through my observations and experiences that I had with them that helped me to develop my view of the world, so I can only assume it is the same for our children.

What do I want for my children as they embark on these new journeys? I want them to know that they will always be our brightest lights, our shining stars, and our greatest hope. They are our future and they are and will always be one aspect of how we define our personal success in the world. They will always be the loves our our lives and we want nothing but the best for them. We pray that they will find what motivates them and brings them joy, and for them to love the work and careers they eventually embark upon. I believe that life is the journey, not the destination. If we  remain focused on the path, but take time to see the beauty around us - the gifts God has bestowed upon us - then it can only be assumed that the destination will reflect the decisions and the choices we have made along the way. If all we see are the cautions and barriers in our path, we will never see the forks or opportunities that life reveals to us each and every day. Today, it was just a simple ceremony in an auditorium, in a small country of Europe. But some day tomorrow, those opportunities, those decisions our young generation has in front of them will later define the adults they will become and the kind of world we live in. I can't wait to see what they come up with!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Father's Day in Verdun

Douaumont Ossuary - French Cemetery
This past weekend we celebrated Father's Day. Father's Day in Luxembourg actually occurs in October, but since we celebrated Mother's Day in May, we kept with our American holiday timetable. It was Joe's "day," so I let him decide where he wanted to day trip to since we were anxious to get out of the city and the weather was actually cooperating! Joe had not been to Verdun, France yet and had heard so much about the place from a work colleague of his, so that is where he chose to go.

If you aren't a history buff and have never heard of the place, Verdun was a very significant sight during WWI. The Battle of Verdun was one of the bloodiest battles of the war, especially for the French. To put it in perspective, about 1.7 million French military personnel died during WWI - 542,000 of which died during this battle. The Germans lost 435,000 of their 2,477,000 WWI casualties there as well, so they didn't fair much better than the French. The whole strategy of the battle, from the German perspective, was to kill as many French soldiers as possible with the intent of breaking the French morale and forcing them to retreat. In fact, over 26,000,000 bombs (or 6 bombs per millisecond) were dropped in the Verdun vicinity during the battle. However, the French reserve and pride held out much longer than the Germans ever anticipated, thus leading to the longest battle of the war.

As far as day trips go, I have to admit that our boys are not big fans of visiting war sites or cemeteries. Not a big surprise for 12/13 year olds, but now that we live in Europe even my husband, who admittedly is not a history buff, is quite determined to impress upon the kids the importance of understanding what our brave soldiers (both past and present) sacrifice for our freedom. Luxembourg is so centrally located to many of the biggest battles in world history that you can drive to many of the battle sites within an hour. So, as somber of a day trip as Verdun was, we really felt the need to show the kids just how important these historical sites are.

Verdun, France
The trip by car only took about an hour, though we did chose to take a more "scenic" route through Belgium to avoid the weekend traffic between Lux and Metz, France. There are several tourist sites in and around Verdun, but the most significant one is the Douaumont Ossuary. This site includes the largest French WWI cemetery, many of the nearby trenches used during the battle, an Israeli memorial, and last, but by far not least, the actual Douaumont building. There is a 5 euro adult, 3 euro child entrance fee which includes a 20 minute film about the battle (available in several languages) and entrance into the cloister and tower of the building. The cloister contains the epitaphs of many of the soldiers who fought and died in the battle. Large signs hanging from the ceiling show current and past pictures of individual survivors from the battle, with a smaller sign near the exit that provides (in French) a short narrative of their role in the war. Most notable about the building is the fact that the bones of over 130,000 unidentified soldiers are entombed below the building. There are several windows outside of the building where you can peep in and see the skeletal remains. One of my sons was not too keen on peering in, while the other seemed a bit intrigued by the site. It really is quite moving when you think of the thousands of family members who never saw or knew just what really happened to their loved ones as they marched off to war. As word got out about the battle, most of those soldiers near the Verdun battle lines knew that they would have to serve their time in the battle, and knew that their chances of survival were very slim.

We did take time to take a short hike along the foot path that guides your way near the old battle trenches. There are pictures in the Douaumont that show what the desolate landscape looked like after the initial assault and it can only best be described as apocalyptic. All of the trees and grass were destroyed leaving stumps of burning wood and bomb-pocked earth behind. Descriptions of the battlefield spoke of endless amounts of mud and treacherous weather throughout those long 300 days and nights, not to mention the hellish sight of the dead and the smell of decaying bodies the soldiers were forced to deal with. The trees and grass have of course grown back in the last 90+ years, but the craters from the bombs are still very noticeable as you drive through the area and hike along the path. Many of the holes and trenches are filled in with water and most of the trenches are covered with twigs and tree branches. Signs are posted along the way with clear warnings to stay away and out of the trenches and on the marked paths since not all weapons of war were removed from the area. Some of the bunkers remain and landmark signs indicate where you are standing relative to where various points of the battle took place. It is difficult to imagine what the landscape looked like during the war, given that the area is now filled with tall grass, wildflowers and the constant hum of bees.

Verdun's bombed terrain
Though it may seem a bit on the morbid side to spend Father's Day among the war dead, it was a day spent honoring the fathers of history who gave up so much during such a tumultuous time of our world's past. Driving through the vast farmland and fields of Northern France you can't pass through a small village without seeing a statue or some memorial that pays homage to the soldiers of the great wars or the allies who came to their defense. Although many of us cannot imagine a world at war, the memorials remind us of how senseless war can be, and how easily a country's peaceful existence can suddenly change over issues that to many of us seem incomprehensible. There will always be war and there will always be disagreement and hostility among nations, but we should always take a brief moment to step back and consider what our forefathers undertook for our freedom and never underestimate the power of democracy and unity. Without their unyielding determination to defend the freedom and rights of their countries, the Allies would never have been able to develop the resistance and war efforts that ultimately won both wars. Had that determination ever yielded, our world map would look nothing like it does today.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Raising American Teenagers in Lux

I have gone back and forth on whether or not to blog about this topic since I know everyone has a different view on raising kids, let alone the differences that exist from one kid to the next. Obviously, no two kids are the same, so teenager experiences vary greatly, as do parental opinions. However, having been here for almost a year now, there are definitely some noticeable differences between how American families tend to raise their kids and how kids mature here in Europe.

I was actually faced with this difference the first month or so we were here in Luxembourg. I have lived in some of the largest cities in the U.S. (L.A., Chicago, Dallas, Houston), so needless to say, I have become quite accustomed to security alarms, pepper spray, holding your keys between your fingers on the way to your car in a dark parking lot (you get the picture). I was used to the endless stream of news stories on violence, rape, etc. that came with living in a large, metropolitan area. I didn't let the kids walk to school. They were not allowed to ride their bike or walk around the neighborhood after dark, and I always insisted on knowing exactly where they were and who they were with. Luxembourg, however, happens to be one of the safest countries in the world. That being said, old habits are hard to break, and I am still not one to relax much when it comes to safety. It is true that stories of rape or murder are really few and far between here (I think I have seen maybe one of each in the last year). Most crime is petty theft, but I have heard enough stories about house and car break-ins that I do double lock my door and bring the car into the garage each night, just to err on the safe side. As for the kids, though, it is common, if not expected, that once they reach a certain age, riding the city bus (which also acts as the school bus system here) is a common method of transportation, with or without parents. So, when one of my boys calls to tell me they are heading to the center with their friends for a few hours, I still catch myself wondering if I am being too "lax" with their boundaries. I would never in a million years have allowed them to do anything similar in Dallas, so what really makes living here so different? We have had to put some guidelines in place, but I am slowly getting accustomed to that weekly phone call saying one of the boys will be heading to the center/movies/friend's house - and, "can I have some money?"

Interestingly, I have found that, in talking with friends and acquaintances here, many Europeans find Americans quite strict with their parenting and often too restraining when it comes to rules and boundaries. My boys were very quick to tell us how cursing is not the taboo here that it is in the U.S. Just go to a school sports game or linger near the playground and you are sure to hear some rather interesting exchanges laced with every imaginable curse word - often in several languages. Even a simple trip to the supermarket can bring this difference to mind when the piped-in pop music is void of censorship. Dress codes are also rather relaxed (short skirts, low-hanging jeans, piercings), and a walk past a Luxembourg high school will show that smoking is still a popular habit among the local teens. I remember watching a t.v. show one night a few weeks after we moved here. A French talk show host was interviewing Cee Low Green, right after his on-show, unedited performance of his song "F*** You". Although the questions were in French, the subtitles and Cee Low's answers were in English, so I was able to understand the line of questioning the host was having with the music celebrity. One of the first questions was what Cee Low thought of the fact that US radio and TV stations either censored his song or required him to change the lyrics to "Forget You" in order to air the performance. His answer was something along the lines of Europe being more "relaxed and laid back" than the U.S. and that he was obviously pleased that his art was not censored here. It also appeared that the host was rather amused by how "prudish" Americans seemed to be about such things.

In some ways, living in such a small country in Europe forces you, as a parent, to ease up on restrictions you would never have compromised on back home. For example, school sporting events are generally international trips for the kids. As a result, in order to keep costs down, kids often travel the night before to the city/school hosting the event and stay at the homes of local athletes from the hosting school. Now honestly, I would really have struggled letting my sons travel to another city let alone a different state at 12, 13 years of age. I would never considered letting them stay at the house of a complete stranger either. Here, it is not only the norm, but the expected. Guests bring the host family small gifts (chocolate, cookies, or flowers), and the hosting family provides the guest with dinner, breakfast and a place to sleep. The kids seem to enjoy the experience, and the parents are happy to not have to incur hotel expenses for every sporting event. Field trips are much the same - often to different countries. Sometimes it is just for the day, but often they are overnight trips lasting 1-5 days. Right now, ISL 5th graders are in Switzerland for a week of camp in preparation for their move to middle school next year. I think my oldest went on a team building field trip to a local "Outbound" camp for the day when he was in 5th grade. Senior beach week in Virginia was often to the Outer Banks or Hilton Head. Here, they head south to Crete. Go figure.

So, what do we have to look forward to as high school approaches? Well, for starters, the drinking age here in Luxembourg is 16, while the driving age is 18. So, unlike the U.S., alcohol is allowed at some school-related functions, such as prom and senior graduation events. The difference, however, is that alcohol is not the taboo that it is in the States. Wine is commonplace and alcohol in general does not seem to be as widely abused. It's not to say that "kids won't be kids" as they learn their limits, but drinking just doesn't seem to have the same stigma here. Even rock concerts are rather tame compared to those I went to at a similar age. As for driving, given that the legal drinking age is lower, I find the higher driving age to be a blessing. I have several memories of classmates being involved in serious car accidents racing out for lunch and trying to get back to class in time for the bell, let alone accidents following parties where alcohol was served. Drunk driving is rarely a headline in Luxembourg news, which I have to attribute to more responsible drinking and strict penalties for intoxicated driving.

As a parent, I am just entering these teenager years. I am both excited and reluctant to begin this phase, since it seems to come with exasperated sighs, eye rolls, and general embarrassment to your child if you are anywhere near them when they are in proximity of their friends. I, of course, now have a whole new level of respect for what my own parents went through. If only these years came with an instruction manual - in this case, one in multiple languages and cultures would be helpful.

Well, at least I am not alone in the adventure. I found this little gem on YouTube - enjoy!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Random Excursions

Chateau Larochette
I am slowly getting accustomed to the longer days that accompany Spring here in Luxembourg. Not having lived this far north before, the idea of the sun coming up around 5 a.m. and setting close to 10 p.m. takes some getting used to. With the longer days come the spring sports of tennis, baseball and golf, which has greatly increased our weekly travel. Golf practice for my youngest takes place at a golf course about 45 minutes north of Lux ville at Christnach Golf Club. This lovely little course is only minutes from Larochette and what is referred to as the "Little Switzerland" region of Luxembourg. Joe and I had ventured to Echternach on our first visit to the country about a year ago, but since he wasn't feeling very well that day, our trip was cut short and our trip back to the city was highway focused. The route to the golf course is actually quite lovely. If you venture off the highways, you can almost always be guaranteed a tranquil landscape, one that usually includes cows or sheep grazing in rolling, green fields. The trip to the golf course is actually a contrast to the normal countryside I am used to. Instead of the rolling fields, you wind your way through dense forest, often hugging a road carved into rugged, rocky hills and rushing streams. Since the course is a distance away, and the lesson only an hour long, I usually find myself either enjoying a cappuccino at the course cafe, or venturing off on some of the roads in an attempt to discover something new in my short window of opportunity. On one such evening I decided to venture into Larochette, thinking that at least maybe I could find an outdoor cafe and a change of scenery. I had heard that there was a castle in the area, but wasn't quite sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the castle rests high above the small village, providing an almost surreal backdrop to the town. Not being able to resist the lure of the chateau, I parked at the bottom of the hill and ventured my way up what must have been a hundred rugged, muddy stairs to see what there was to see. Murphy's Law - once I reached the top of the stairs I discovered the visitor parking lot nestled behind the castle. I knew the castle was pretty much just ruins, but was not aware of the 3 euros entrance fee. Having just given my son my last bit of change for a drink at the course after his lesson, I was a euro short. C'est la vie. It just meant that I had a new destination to put on our list for weekend excursions!

Dusseldorf, Germany
Tennis and baseball have led to opportunities for us to see more of Germany since most baseball games are held at the air bases in Bitburg or Spangdalhem, and the tennis tournaments have been in Dusseldorf and Hamburg. With all of the rain we have been having in this part of Europe, the grass is strikingly green across Germany and the fields have been full of bright yellow flowers that provide a gorgeous contrast across the gently rolling hills and forests. A few weeks ago, my son had a tournament in Dusseldorf, just north of Cologne and about 3 and a half hours from Luxembourg. Since my husband had to work that weekend, I ventured on my own to watch the matches and to stay the night and check out the city a bit. Although I could only see so much in my few hours there, I was pleasantly surprised at how quaint the city was, despite having had so many of its original structures destroyed during WWII. The city is nestled against the Rhine river and has an interesting contrast between its older section of the city and the more modern, artistic area near the harbor. Although the parks along the river are quite tranquil, the center of the city is alive with traditional German beer houses and an amazing selection of international restaurants and contemporary shopping areas.  The main shopping district was somewhat remeniscint of Savannah, GA with its tall, weeping trees, parks and fountains.

Maastricht, Holland
The only downside of the trip, and the area around Cologne in general, is the amount of road construction that is currently underway around the city. My trip took an extra hour given the amount of traffic making its way around all of the detoured roads. Therefore, rather than suffering through the same traffic on the way back, I choose to take a more "scenic" route and travelled slightly north and dropped down through Holland and into Belgium on the way back home. I had heard that the small town of Maastricht was worth a day trip, so I decided to venture through and determine whether it would be worth a family trip in the future. The town did not disappoint. Known as the home of the European Union and birthplace of the euro, Maastricht has a quaint city square Vrijthof, which was hosting a fair at the time of my visit, with rides and typical fair booths. Near the square, you can find Sint-Janskerk, a sandstone Gothic church with its distinctive red tower. The church was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and is worth a quick look inside. Just down the block from the church is Sint-Servaas Basiliek, the Romanesque church of Saint Servatius. There is a small entrance fee, maybe 3 euros, which allows you to see the churches treasures and get a feel for the rich history of the area. I spent about two hours walking through the shopping district and through the Market Square. The city definitely has a quaint vibe to it, but is full of high end shopping and overflowing street cafes. I definitely put it on my "return to with the family" list.

Now that school is starting to wind down, I am eagerly making a list of all of the little places nearby that I am anxious to check out with the kids. Though we will be heading back to the States for a few weeks, there are still plenty of weekends available for excursions. I don't think I could ever get tired of discovering these new little gems. If only work and school didn't get in the way :)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Rainy Days and Sundays...

Despite my effort at trying to be an optimist, I have to admit that these last couple of weeks I have been in a bit of a "funk." You know, those moods where even though things are generally okay, you still feel like something is weighing on you. Having grown up in sunny Texas, and having spent a few years in Chicago where winter lasts forever, I know that the weather has a huge influence on my mood. So, even though the forecast has been pretty much like this for the last 3-4 weeks, we have had a few days where the sun has been out, the skies will turn blue, there may even be the occasional rainbow, but it is quickly replaced by the dark, emerging clouds that just seem to be hovering over Europe. Couple this with the fact that the husband has been in India on business this last week and I just find a funk.

In all honesty, I usually get this funk right after the Christmas holidays. January is generally my hibernate month, which suits me just fine given the weather. Regardless of where I was living at the time, January always seems to be gray. Surprisingly, this year actually wasn't so bad. It may have been brutally cold, but I guess I had our trip to Texas to look forward to and things seemed to be moving along at a normal clip following the holiday craziness. I guess this year my funk was delayed a bit. April/May are usually two of my more favorite months. Spring finally comes, the flowers bloom, the birds start chirping, blah, blah, blah. But this week, despite the festivities of May Day (a holiday here in Europe and a great time for the school to through a fun family festival), the weekends have brought on the blues. The song may say "Rainy Days and Mondays," but for me it is definitely Sundays that do it to me. The obvious reason is that there isn't much to do on Sundays what with the stores being closed. After a long week at school and busy Saturdays with sports and errands, Sundays are quite anti-climatic. The boys dive into their computers or video games, or spend the day catching up on missed TV from the week. That all is fine, but for me, I am anxious to get out of the house and explore. These last couple of weeks it just hasn't been much of an option, mostly because anything we would like to go see, we would rather see with Dad in tow. Also, the rain. It just isn't much of a motivator!

Last Sunday was actually quite nice for a few hours, so I leashed up the dog and took her for a walk through the Petrusse Valley, a walk we have been meaning to do since we moved into the house but just hadn't gotten around to doing. B actually wanted to join me on his bike, and I felt awful for telling him it was a "walk only" option, but I just didn't want to deal with a kid on a bike (going down steep walking paths) AND a golden retrieve on a leash. I needed to relax, not stress even more! So, Shelby and I headed out, with apparently most every other Luxembourger needing a break from the cabin fever. The paths were packed and everyone was out trying to grab what little vitamin D they could capture between rain storms. It really was a lovely walk, though I am not sure Shelby thought the same. It was a long walk for her and her first experience walking through the Grund and the City Center. The City Center is also quite busy this week since the Octave festival is taking place in Place Guillame. You could smell the cotton candy from blocks away. In any case, it was a nice break, but I quickly found myself back in front of the TV, catching up on movies and sneaking back down into my funk. *sigh*

The other factor for this sluggish mood also happens to be the upcoming celebration of Mother's Day. As a mother, I really do love the holiday and feel so blessed to be on the receiving end of such a thoughtful event, but having lost my own mom 14 years ago, it always seems to have its bittersweet edges. Now that my boys are becoming teenagers, I often yearn for her advice. Having two older brothers close in age, I imagine she could have given me quite an earful. However, I will never have the opportunity to learn from her experience, to hear her advice or see her sympathetic nod when I tell her how I just can't understand why the boys do some of the things they do. In all honestly, I probably brought her more questions or frustration, so I guess I should heave a sigh of relief that I didn't have a girl. Instead, I do wish I had the kind of mother-daughter relationship we had. She was always the one I could go to, lean on, and cry with when the world just didn't seem to be fair.

I lost my father last year after years of declining health. Though we never were really that close, I grew up with that never-ending desire to please him - to be "Daddy's little girl." January and February of last year was excruciating, driving all over Texas for hospital visits, doctor appointments, and finally, last days spent at hospice just wanting his pain to be over. He passed away on his birthday (April 3rd) at the age of 83. This year we were with my in-laws in Paris on April 3rd and I lit a candle in his memory at Notre Dame. Although my parents were not raised as Catholics, my dad's parents were. My grandfather would often travel to Mexico City to the cathedral and light a candle for family members traveling abroad or who had recently passed. My father carried this tradition on, so I wanted to honor that tradition as well.

I can't begin to imagine what my parents would think today if they knew we had moved to Luxembourg, such a teeny, tiny country in the middle of Europe. They always knew I wanted to travel, and my father never could understand why I was so adamant to take French over Spanish. What I am sure he saw as rebellion (he really wanted us to learn Spanish but had never taught us), ended up working for me in the long run, I suppose. I like to think they are up in heaven somewhere discussing my "independent" streak and are, in some small way, proud that all three of their children took the risks and opportunities they had in life that they perhaps felt they could never take during theirs. In a world that seems to get smaller and smaller every passing generation, I feel that the biggest gift Joe and I can bestow on our boys is the international perspective and experience that this opportunity has given us. I know that it will be years before they see the value in it themselves, but I firmly believe that they will become better, more sympathetic adults as a result of learning that this universe is not just the small little world in which they exist, but is comprised of so much more. A world full of people with the same aspirations, same dreams, and same desire to pass along so much more than what they had when they were growing up, in a place with endless possibilities. I know their lives will have many "rainy days and Sundays" - I just want to give them the tools and the knowledge to get them through those "funks" and know that without rainy days, we wouldn't have rainbows.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Final Paris Destination - Versailles

Versailles is undoubtedly the most popular day trip tourists take from Paris. It is understandable as to why once you make the 30 minute or so train trip - there just isn't any castle or palace (I would even venture to say, even Buckingham palace) that quite compares to Louis XIV's "country home." I have been to both, and though Buckingham Palace is quite impressive and is a currently occupied residence, Louis XIV had a flair for the ostentatious. The palace itself is impressive, but you don't truly appreciate the place until you have seen the gardens.

Since it was our last full day in Paris, my in-laws decided that they wanted to see Versailles before we made our way back to Luxembourg. We had originally planned to go on Sunday as their first sight-seeing trip of the vacation, but we changed our minds thinking that 1) they may not be up for the amount of walking required to see it, and 2) it pretty much requires the whole day, so we would run the risk of having to rule out one of the other "must dos" on the list. Well, having covered most of the "must dos" on Monday, we were left with a free day to make the venture. Luckily for us, the RER train that leads to Versailles has a stop right near Notre Dame, so the walk to the station was only a 10 minute walk from the apartment. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was not ideal. Storms had ventured into Paris the night before and promised to stay for the remainder of our trip. We did have to bundle up a bit more as the temperatures had also dropped a bit.

The train ride was quick and we were soon within the gates of the palace, awaiting our turn to make our way through security and to the ticket office. The lines at Versailles can be very similar to those at the Louvre, so the Museum pass is very handy to have. When we bought our passes earlier in the week, it was before we had changed our plans. Therefore, by the time we got around to going to Versailles, our passes had expired. Thankfully, the lines were shorter than usual that day, so our wait was rather manageable.

There isn't much to really say about the palace itself, perhaps because I have seen it several times now. The place is chock full of elaborate paintings, sculpture, and opulent rooms, most having some kind of theme or purpose for its time. Louis XIV greatly enjoyed entertaining, not to mention he knew how to do so for political reasons. He carefully masterminded his "humble abode" to ensure that his followers would be so socially hypnotized by the privilege to be in the king's company that they were willing to do anything it took to stay in Louis' good graces, including supporting whatever political advancements he wished to pursue. Therefore, it is no surprise that there would be rooms dedicated to peace making, war planning, billiards, or even the furnished dining room where chairs were strategically placed for invited guests to watch the king and queen eat. Not to join them for the meal, mind you. Just to watch them. It really is amazing what folks would do back then; but, then again, I doubt most folks these days are much different with a number of celebrities.

It is unfortunate that what Louis XIV created was passed down to other Louises that were not as politically savvy as their ancestor. The helpful audio tour that accompanies your ticket is wonderful in summarizing the amazing history of the place, including the fall of Versailles under Louis XVI's rule. Some of the art is worthy of the Louvre (and in some cases, copies actually reside in the Louvre), and the Hall of Mirrors is a true sign of wealth and vanity given how precious mirrors were regarded back in the day. But again, the gardens take the palace to a whole different level. Unlike the Louvre, whose Tuilleries are quite lovely and have a rather similar feel, the gardens at Versailles are vast and impressive. You could spend hours visiting each walled garden and never fully see or appreciate the place. If you are fortunate enough to visit on a weekend during the high season, you have the added treat of seeing the various fountains in action, many of which are set to music similar to those at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Our visit last July with the kids was fantastic and we did manage to hit the palace on a Sunday. This trip, however, was on the early side, so most of the gardens had not been planted for the high season just yet. We did enjoy walking through some of the gardens and catching a quick lunch at one of the outdoor garden restaurants. Again, not the best of weather for eating outside, but the hot chocolate and burgers hit the spot.

We ventured our way back to the train station and back to Paris. That night and the next morning would be a rush of laundry and packing in preparation for the train trip on to Luxembourg. The trip had been a great success and the weather had cooperated brilliantly. I knew in my heart that after experiencing Paris, Lux would seem rather quiet and subdued. However, my ILs will be able to look back on their trip to Paris and have fond memories of their experience of the City of Lights. Who could ask for more?

Springtime in Paris - Montmartre

After the longest day of our vacation (L'Orangerie, Louvre, river cruise, and the Eiffel Tower), we decided to take it easy the next day. The boys (including the husband and FIL) actually spent the morning venturing to the Champs-Elysee and up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. MIL and I had had enough and spent a rather quiet morning at the apartment and took a short walk to the Latin Quarter for coffee. We had had our fill with stairs and were honestly trying to minimize the amount of walking. So, the only real plan we had scheduled for that day was dinner at a highly rated Sicilian restaurant in Montmartre, otherwise known as the Artists' district of Paris. It is where Dali, Picasso, van Gogh and many other artists through out history had their studios at one time. It bleeds art through and through.

Joe and I hadn't been to Montmartre since our 10th anniversary 9 years ago. It's probably the furthest tourist spot of the city and I had distinct memories of climbing numerous steps to get to the Sacre Coeur. I really hadn't planned to take the ILs there, but after talking to some friends in Lux I discovered that there is actually a small tram that you can take to avoid those ominous steps. Plus, my TripAdvisor research said that there was this great Sicilian restaurant called Tentazioni that promised traditional fare in a quaint, family run establishment. I couldn't resist - it was rated #3! I emailed with the proprietor's son and got the reservation.

So, a couple of hours before our reservation time we headed off to the train. After spending the day on the Champs-Elysee, Montmartre can be a bit jarring. Let's just say, you won't find Louis Vuitton or Chanel in this neighborhood. Again, my ILs are not snobs and they don't frequent the kind of establishments you will find on the Champs-Elysee, but Montmartre is more reminiscent of any touristy area in a big city (think Navy Pier in Chicago or Las Ramblas in Barcelona). It's not exactly seedy, but you do take extra care to hold on to your purse or wallet. We exited the train to a bustling city street loaded with souvenir shops and street performers. I know my FIL was not impressed. Nor was my MIL when she saw the sloped street that you had to ascend to get half way up to where the Sacre Coeur sits. We did manage to find the tram and made our way to the top. We stopped to watch this guy who obviously had quite a talent for balancing a soccer ball while doing some tightrope-like stunts that were really quite impressive. The boys were intrigued, but the ILs chalked him up as an elaborate panhandler and were ready to move on. We did take a quick tour of the church; however, for some reason we had a knack for picking times to visit churches when a service was in session. This time was no exception. I thought the singing nuns were lovely, but my oldest son was quick to say he was "creeped out," so we left. We decided to follow Rick Steve's walking tour of the area which quickly led us to the artists' square. More "panhandlers" (including Mr. Bean and some rather odd dancers), but at least there were some impressive artists displaying their art and doing portraits. I don't think it raised my FIL's opinion of the place much, but it was a chance to see a different part of Paris.

Finally, we headed off to find the restaurant. Admittedly, I am not the best with maps or directions. I did take the time to mark my Rick Steve's book with what I thought was the general location of the street according to Googlemaps. However, my mistake was misspelling the name of the street. After several trips through the winding streets of Montmartre, we managed to find a nice valet who was kind enough to use his phone (and Googlemaps) to find the restaurant. We managed to be only 10 minutes late, but the meal was totally worth the effort. Francesco, the guy I had made the email reservation with, happened to be our waiter that night. The restaurant has only 4 tables, so reservations were definitely a must. I did get the sense from the reviews that it was a restaurant mostly frequented by locals, which was what I was looking for. The icing on the cake was the lovely family who owned and ran the place. Papa was the cook behind the counter, Mama was cashier, and the sons were waiting the tables. Francesco took the time to translate the menu for us and the handmade pasta was to die for. (I can't tell you how much I was regretting my Lent choices that night. My gnocchi was lovely, but my husband's truffle ravioli looked sinful.) In any case, the ILs enjoyed dinner and we were rewarded with a picture with Francesco in front of the restaurant and free glasses of Limoncello. :)

We did take a different route back to the train which allowed a quick look at the famous Moulin Rouge. No need to visit the place as we learned during our honeymoon. It is by far the biggest tourist trap in the city, so a view from the outside suffices. Overall, I think the visit to the neighborhood was worth the random excursions in search of the restaurant, though next time... I'll check my spelling.