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 :)