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!